Thursday, August 30, 2018

Gobocalypse Now: Playing D&D after 35 years

 SE corner of the Sunken Lands   
For the first time in over three decades I played a session of D&D. Not only did I play with my eleven year old nephew and his friend and my wife, I also played with Densel E., the man who introduced me to the game, as well as another friend from my old gaming days.

I stopped playing D&D around 1983 in favor of other games; first DragonQuest, then Rolemaster, and finally the Hero System. First, a group of us had decided we wanted a system where armor made you harder to hurt but easier to hit. Secondly, we wanted one that awarded experience for cleverness and roleplaying and not just killing things.

As it probably did for lots of viewers, Stranger Things introduced one of my nephews, Jac, to the idea of roleplaying. At the same time he was watching the show I was learning about Dungeon Crawl Classics from Goodman Games. Reading about the game and listening to the hosts of the Appendix N Book Club and Sanctum Secorum podcasts talk about it really made me want to roleplay again. At some point it became clear I was going to have to run a game for Jac. Since he and a friend were coming to stay for a week at my house this summer a date was picked and I started relearning how to run a game.

Somewhere between the decision to play and last week, the guy who taught me D&D and I had renewed our friendship after many years. When I told him about reffing a game, he suggested D&D 3.5. I read the rules and it seemed good enough.

We spent a night making up characters and explaining the basic of roleplaying to the two kids. My nephew made up an elf cleric and his friend an elf paladin. Hallie decided to play a half-orc barbarian and the two old timers a human wizard and a human rogue. The following day we played.

The adventure I created in the preceding weeks was this: With more than a tip of the hat to Apocalypse Now, I planned to send the players off down a river into unexplored hostile country. Unbeknownst to anyone but me, goblins to the south of a frontier settlement had been riled up. A human soldier exposed to strange, chaotic magic had become their leader/shaman. He had infected them with some of the same magic and they had taken to raiding the village and its outlying farms. In turn the village put out a call for soldiers to come protect the town. In other words, standard frpg stuff.

The adventure wasn't planned as anything spectacular, just a nice basic intro to get new players a feel for roleplaying. I expected the players to hunt for some clues, journey down the river in search of the goblin base, and get into some fights. All that happened, just none of it in the way I had planned.

3.5 goblin - not bad...
Immediately upon arriving in the town, the group started throwing a monkey wrench in my plans. No in a bad or annoying way, but in a way that meant I had to switch things up on the fly. I haven't had to do that in ages so I was a little rusty. The longer we played, though, the more it came back.

My plan was that the players would stick around town and the first night goblins would attack. Instead of just waiting, the players decided to find tracking dogs to follow the goblins. It hadn't even occurred to me that idea would even arise, but I sure didn't want them getting dogs. So, I decided a farmer had some good tracking dogs but that when they to get them a frenzied goblin attack would be in full swing.

..but DAT's will always be
THE goblin for me
Later on I got to mess with them when they had to go overland in search of the goblin lair instead of taking boats. If they'd fought the goblins at night they would have been able to take their canoes. This meant instead of meeting more goblins on the river, they instead faced off against several waves of very low level myconids (something I'd never used ever before in D&D). While the goblin fight had proved tough for a first-level party, the myconids had left two players almost dead. After that I got to pull off the big reveal of the goblin lair. I'll save that for the next time I get to ref this campaign.

The best thing that happened was the banter back and forth during the session. I haven't been part of that in 25 years. For the two old-timers and myself who've been friends for forty years it was natural, but it took a little longer for my wife and the boys to get into it. Densel kept prompting people to talk as their characters, not themselves. Soon enough, everyone was speaking in accents, haggling with tradesmen, and roaring in battle. It was everything I hoped it would be. A lot of fun was had and my nephew and his friend are clamoring for another go as soon as possible.

As to 3.5, eh, it's alright. I think it makes things a little too complicated for rand new players, requiring them to think on skills and feats before they have an understanding of how the game's systems work. As an experienced player who prefers skill-based games I deem it ok. The feats are a nice idea and really let you tailor your character, but I think they get too specific and add another bunch of things to be remembered.

While I'll keep on with the 3.5 with my nephew, but what I'm really hoping to do is run a DCC game with some of the old timers. It's got a nicely lunatic pulp feel and looks like it affords the ref and players a looser style of play. I'm also a bigger fan of S&S and pulp in my gaming than high fantasy. I'm thinking it could be a real blast.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Patreon

Four times a year, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly publishes the single best collection of swords & sorcery. Adrian Simmons (and David Farney and William Ledbetter and James Frederick William Rowe and Barbara Barrett) have been doing amazing work for years, and they've done it for free.

Now, again from Keith West, I learn that HFQ is launching a Patreon. You can go HERE and kick them a couple of bucks an issue to help keep it going and keep it getting better (what, you haven't noticed all the great art for the past year or so? Well, go back and look). 

I may not sound as serious as I should, so let me reiterate: Heroic Fantasy Quarterly is the best publisher of new swords & sorcery around. It also publishes heroic fantasy poetry. No one else does that. 

If you want some proof of how good they are you can check out my reviews at Black Gate. If you really want to know how good it is, go read it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Mail Bag: More Stuff!

I added a few more things to the virtual cart and spent the money. Maybe I'll even read them. Actually, I know the minute the Willocks book arrives I'll be dropping everything else. After The Religion and The Twelve Children of Paris my expectations are pretty high.

Memo from Turner by Tim Willocks

I've only read the two books above by Willocks, but they are among the very best historical fiction I've read. They are also two of the toughest, bloodiest, and most reader-abusing books I've ever read. You can read my reviews at Black Gate here and here

I have a general knowledge of the Napoleonic Wars, by which I mean I can rattle off the major campaigns and battles in order. Beyond that I have only a rudimentary understanding of exactly how Napoleon and his marshals were able to take on empire after empire and remain triumphant for nearly a decade.

There are several campaigns I especially interested in; the defeat of Prussia in 1806, the Danube campaign in 1809, and the allied invasion of eastern Germany in 1813. When I looked for books specifically on these campaigns there either weren't any or they were insanely expensive. Then I came across the works of Francis Petre. 

An civil servant in India, upon retirement he turned to writing. He wrote several assorted history works, but of interest here are the five he wrote on the Napoleonic Wars. In addition to the three campaigns describe above, he wrote about the French invasion of Poland in 1807 and the desperate defense of eastern France in 1814. Written in the early 20th century, these were among the first books in English on the subjects and are still read today. At $2.51 per ebook if I like this one I'll just buy 'em all.

Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg

I've read this before and was getting an itch to read it again. When I looked it up on Amazon I found out it was only $1.99. So I bought it.

If you haven't read it, or seen the decent but inferior film of it, Angel Heart, I don't want to give too much away. Set in 1959, a New York private eye gets hired to find a missing crooner last seen in Tunisia during the war. It's good, crazy, brutal stuff. That's the original cover. I used it because it's much better than the lousy ebook one.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Some Rambling Thoughts on Failure and the Mail Bag

Bossoli's Battle of Solferino
I haven't done one of these in a long time. I've been rereading - Glen Cook's Black Company and James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux books - so I haven't picked up any new fiction until today. Later on I'll show you what was in the mail bag.

On the other hand, a recent question from a friend about the unification of Germany sparked a flutter of a memory. Oh, yeah, my utterly failed Long Nineteenth Century project from a couple of years ago. You know, the one where I replaced the banner with Carlo Bossoli's awe-inspiring painting of the Battle of Solferino and claimed I was going to read a great big stack of history books. The thing I failed at almost completely. I only managed to review two books - Alistair Horne's Price of Glory about Verdun and Trevor Royle's The Great Crimean War - and make a few ancillary posts before getting distracted by others things.

3rd Bastion in Sevastopol
I really was distracted. I was getting bored with swords & sorcery (really, it can happen). In search of something to write about for Black Gate, my eyes fell on epic fantasy. It was fun, but the bigger books stole any extra time had for reading non-fiction. I mean it stole time if I wanted to keep writing for Black Gate AND spend hundreds of hours playing Civilization.

So I bailed. After all the hullabaloo I made about it I just ditched the Long Nineteenth Century like a hot potato - a dirty, smelly, hot potato. Later I did the same thing with the Western project. In the end I just signed off on blog projects, changed the name to Stuff I Like and started posting whatever caught my fancy. The thing is, I'm lazy, too lazy by half. It's really my greatest fault and I don't see myself overcoming it any time soon. I really do wish I'd succeed at the 19th century stuff. Heck, I've got something going on at my Staten Island blog I was really hoping I'd get a move on this summer, but you can guess how well that went.

I'm not proud of my laziness, but I really don't see overcoming it. Maybe if anything other than my reputation as a slacker depended on me accomplishing any of these things I would change. I'm am starting to discipline myself a little bit, so I'll see how that goes. Until some future better moment, though, I'll just keeping on keeping on the way I'v been going.

Now, I'm not saying I'm going to attempt anything like that. I am saying I'm going to finally finish Geoffrey Wawro's The Prusso-Austrian War and review my notes on Harold C. Wylly's Campaign of Magenta and Solferino. I'm really interested in fall of Austria and the rise of Prussia as the leaders of the German-speaking world.

Cavalry at Konnigratz
Between the clobbering by the French and Sardinians in 1859 and then the Prussians in 1866, Austria was knocked out of the running for control of the Germans. The Prussians, victorious in Denmark in 1864, against Austria in 1866, and finally against Germany's long-time nemesis, France, in 1870, became the natural leaders of the Germans. In 1871, under Prussian direction, save for Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, and Austria, the assorted German nations were finally united. How this heady moment of Teutonic triumph led to the cauldron of the First World War and then the Second is a story for another day.

Mail Bag

On my birthday, I always order a stack of stuff, mostly from Amazon. This year is no different.

I'm a huge Tim Powers fan, and he, along with Glen Cook, is one of only a few writers I still get in hardcover. Even though I'm like two books behind on his catalogue, there's a new one out and I'll get it on Friday.

Then there are the history books I bought (all ebooks). I envision having a significant library dedicated to the military insanity that shaped the last few centuries, particularly in the West. I think I'm pretty well along, but there's always more to go. Our history of slaughtering one another is lengthy.

I know a little about the English Civil War, mostly from a book, whose title escapes me, on the period's radical factions. This is the first full history of the whole period and I hope to actually read it soonish. 

Other than a vague idea of who the Duke of Marlborough was and that the Battle of Malplaquet was a important, I know little about the war. I vaguely recall it involved Louis XIV finagling to get his grandson on the Spanish throne, but beyond that, I've got nothing. These seems to be a solid treatment of the whole war and not just the British part as many other books do.

I've got a little cash left to spend but I'm going to sit on it for a bit. Ideally, I'd love to find a history of Russian imperialism in the Caucasus, but I haven't come across one yet. If you know of one, please, let me know. Imperial Russia appears to have been one of the most thoroughly militarized societies to have ever existed. There appear to have been wars going on constantly from mid-16th century straight up until the Revolution. Of course the Soviet Union had its own imperial period, but again, that's a story for another time.

A good one volume survey of the Latin American wars of independence would be a score too. If you know about one of those, drop me a line.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge

Thanks to the always in-the-know Keith West of Adventure Fantastic, I was hipped to The Barbarian Book Club's Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge. Always on the lookout for something to write about here (plus I think it's a great idea for folks to read pre-Tolkien fantasy), I'm all in. Here's the challenge:

Pre-Tolkien Short Story Challenge 
  • Identify 3 Fantasy stories written before Lord of the Rings was published. 
  • Review all three on your blog, focusing on pre-Tolkien differences of similarities, and making sure you let us know where we can find them for ourselves. 
  • Share the challenge.
What'll I read? I don't know yet, but it'll definitely be stories I haven't read before.