Saturday, September 28, 2013

Roll20: The Beast of the Broch

Well, as promised, via the online usefulness of Roll20 last weekend I GMed a game of my own creation, an old school Basic D&D game called The Beast of the Broch, with three other guys and only an equator separating one of us from the others.

The result? An experience actually not too different from my past games - we over-ran on time (by about two hours!), there was a last-minute stand off/scramble to escape on the PCs' part (which ran smoother than in previous games due to this one being simpler and having some 'emergency exits' built in), and I want to do it again soon! Ultimately we used a minimum of Roll20's features - an online dice roller (though we turned off the graphic interface), a map builder with separate levels for players and the GM (fun to make, but I spent nearly a week creating these due to me being a little too particular), and the text-box chat function which, when Skype fell over on occasion, was a perfectly fine compromise.

So, all in all a fun game with some joking around, some 'character moments' or opportunities for genius/heroism/novel alignment play for the PCs (something I work at to foster in my games as it makes them more satisfying all round), and a bit of mystery. There' some discussion of the mechanics behind the game story after the jump below, but in short Roll2 provided most of the short cuts I needed (apart from the monster stats, roll tables and the like - a handy GM shield close by did the job though) and removed some of the messier game mechanics while still providing the visual clues and dramatic dice rolls. I'll stick with Roll20, I reckon, and see if I can't unlock some of its other features to ease play a little more.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Visit: Phasmatodea!

I'm taking a brief but highly worthwhile moment here to promote the blog of my very good friend Al Hughes (one half of the power duo behind The Crate Outdoors blog), which launched just last night.

Phasmatodea will look at some similar subjects of this very blog, and Al explains:

"Politely known as ‘genre’, I’ll mostly, (but not exclusively), be sharing science fiction, horror, fantasy and adventure films, TV, books and other media which have fired my imagination throughout my life."
And as one who fortunate enough to enjoy frequent conversation with Mr Hughes over these topics and many more, I don't think I could possibly oversell this blog. It's been a while coming, as they say, but the results are admirable. It's early days, of course, but he's already outstripping my post rate, and before long I hope to synch the odd entry with Al, as Jetsam has on occasion with The Truth Behind.

Phasmatodea begins here - enjoy!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Legends of RPG Art: Dave Trampier

Depending on where your loyaties lie in ranking the early artists of the Dungeons and Dragons rulebooks, the work of Dave 'DAT' Trampier will probably at the least lie in the top two. I've expressed my admiration for the phantasmagoria of Erol Otus' work already, but it's fair to say that if at my age you found Otus' work a little goofy (as I did back then), then the more realist and studied work of Trampier would probably suit you well enough. Working primarily with pen and ink and employing heavy light and shade contrast - frequently in a pseudo-woodcut style, Trampier's illustrative work for the Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual afforded all three volumes some real gravitas, particularly when set against the work of his fellow illustrators. Which isn't to say Trampier couldn't deliver with the fantastic monsters - in fact, classical and traditional beasts seemed to be a forte of his; here's the arch-demon Baalzebul, for instance, while his tiger-in-a-smoking-jacket Rakshasa, sinuous Medusa and ragged, wild Wight have become notable versions of those creatures, despite clear or not-so-clear descriptions preceding his work. In fact, like Russ Nicholson's Githyanki and Otus' Drow, it looks as though Trampier's Wight has in fact become the definitive version of this creature.

Of course, an artist as talented as Trampier could also be relied upon to bring life to the more mundane monster as well. here's one of my favourites of his from the Monster Manual, a creatively laid out illustration accompanying the entry for the Giant Wasp:

Note also the traditional garb of the unfortunate warrior - horned helmet aside, this smacks of early D&D aesthetic to me; recalling historical war gear for its heroes rather than Hollywood avant garde. Somehow making the appearance of the human in the piece more rooted in human history (or at least conventional Fantasy of the time) makes the wasp appear more natural as well - and yet, for its size, all the more threatening with it.

Elsewhere, Trampier's work is celebrated as much for its tendency towards vignette as its simple illustration. Mention the captions 'Lost in the Briars', 'Honour Amongst Thieves' and of course 'Emrikol the Chaotic' to a well-seasoned player and they might understandably go all misty-eyed at the instant mental picture each summons; Trampier's skill in composition and execution of often dynamic scenes were simply that effective. This does bring an interesting element out in Trampier's work, however, as down the years eagle-eyed admirers of his work have discovered some real-world bases for his D&D portfolio, such as the street Emrikol races down in his orgy of destruction being the real-world Street of Knights in Rhodes, or his Cloud Giant portrait borrowing heavily from a 19th century etching from H J Ford. It's likely a testament to Trampier's following that such discoveries haven't been framed as attacks on the artist's creativity, but offer instead a knowing wink to the man's obvious talent and broad influences.

Perhaps the most-celebrated of all Dave Trampier's work is, fittingly, the cover for the original AD&D Player's handbook, an enticing scene of dungeon-based plunder that, to my eyes at least, look like they might yet invite more trouble than those giant gemstones are worth...

Legend has it that Trampier himself appears in cameo as one of the adventurers in this piece - possibly the chap in brown, centre left. The picture is another or Trampier's most famous vignettes and has been much reproduced, imitated and treated to homage by fans and admirers alike - Wizards of the Coast even used a reworking of Trampier's cover when relaunching the D&D line a couple of years ago.

Outside of the three manuals Trampier produced work for TSR's other RPG lines, including Gamma World and TSR's own RPG magazine Dragon, for which the artist employed his equally-accomplished cartoon techniques for his long-running and much-missed back page serial Wormy, which really brings me to the final chapter in the story of Dave Trampier as a fantasy artist. In short, for reasons best known to the man himself, Trampier abruptly and seemingly without explanation severed his connection to TSR, the gaming world (in which he was also a developer) and illustration entirely, apparently resurfacing reluctantly some years later in a newspaper feature about cab drivers in Carbondale, Illinois, and shortly after this time it became more widely acknowledged that the man wanted no part in his former career or legacy (more can be read here.)

The man has probably inspired more artists than he may imagine (myself included), and yet  the circumstances of his disappearance and lifestyle change should be respected and rightly left to the man himself. Dave Trampier's work in cartoon and illustration form is rightly revered among older fans for its unique style, consistency and undeniable imagination. Here's to you, Tramp...

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Roll20: Just Like Starting Over

Last weekend I embarked on a test run of Roll20, a kickstarter project that developed into a free online RPG tool. It’s pretty cool, even in the limited capacity I used it; incorporating map creation, real-time chat and audio links, tokens and dice randomisers, plus the ability to pass messages on to players, ‘hand out’ notes and accessories for play, and take care of a lot of pretty routine but necessary stuff that you’d otherwise need space for in a usual game. Best of all, it woks without borders, so our test run was played on either side of the Equator, with player Paul sitting comfortably in his study in the UK on the morning of the very same day the other three of us were playing a relative eleven hours later. My teenage DM self would have had his mind blown by this.
Not that Roll20 is as sophisticated as World of Warcraft or any other multi-user online games; it’s not that kind of product. Instead it’s a tool with optional add-ons if you sign on for bigger deals. Did I mention it’s free otherwise? In the end we ditched the video link and used Skype to see if we could reduce the bandwidth cost (which this seemed to do), and to be honest, we didn’t lose much that way. Our game was a good old entry-level basic D&D scenario of my own devising The Beast of the Broch, with about six PCs and a couple of NPCs, setting the party on a short quest to a ruined broch to uncover the sinister presence lurking within its rounded walls. As it happened, and as it was a test play, the party barely got down the road, didn’t make it to the broch and only achieved one encounter before real-world events forced a sudden close of play. But weirdly, that’s how my first D&D experience was as well. It was 1984, I was in my third form year with a school mate (a boarder) on an overnight stay at our place, and together we with three other friends and my brother had a go at our first game TSR’s B5 adventure Horror on the Hill. Like the Broch gaming our party was a broad range of character types and alignments, and due to fumbling our way through the rules and regulations of play, we didn’t venture too far before Friday night curfew brought the crunch of parental car tyres on our gravel driveway and with it the end of the game. Our party, the Old Guard of Guido’s Fort, had collected some treasure and magic items, encountered some hobgoblins, wolves and ogres, and finally retreated after one of its main fighters (Argorn) fell prey to a giant centipede, becoming too sick to go any further. Twenty-nine years later it was an angry, invisible Redcap that threatened to decimate our party (that and our play making a little too much noise). If the party had actually made it to the broch they’d have certainly been slaughtered!
Still, as a playtest it was a success, and there’s room for streamlining yet. In fact, it seems the ideal tool to use for concluding the longest game I’ve ever run, Dwarven epic Bargigazl. With luck, this will happen very soon. In the mean-time, a return trip to the Broch awaits...