The Biblyon Broadsheet

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons
Biblyon, Highland
Wednesday, September 1, 1993
Jerry Stratton, Ed.
The Cellphone Problem in horror roleplaying—Wednesday, August 30th, 2023
Horror car problems: The car won’t start horror movie scene.; horror; automobiles; cars; cellphone problem

I’m guessing she punched the gas just before turning the key.

In a recent Grognardia retrospective, James Maliszewski wrote about his dissatisfaction with Cthulhu Now: it failed to update the game for the modern era. Its ideas were “often poorly implemented and verge on railroads at times.”

James was especially disappointed because Lovecraft wrote for what was then his modern era. If he was writing now, he’d write for the current modern era. So the idea of a modern Cthulhu mythos role-playing game appealed to him. Cthulhu Now, however, didn’t recognize the problems of moving older fiction to modern times.

Although James didn’t name it specifically, what he was writing about is the “cellphone problem”. It doesn’t have to involve actual cellphones. It’s just that they’re the most obvious of the issues. The cellphone problem is that modern technology makes a lot of old fiction unusable in the modern era. It’s difficult to isolate someone who owns a cellphone. You can brick the cellphone signal, but this only highlights that something out there is bricking the cellphone signal. And even with that, the cellphone contains a very high quality camera, a reasonably high quality tape recorder, and a very useful GPS device.

Some now even contain satellite for emergency use, which don’t rely on access to a cell tower. A GM who regularly bricks such devices is railroading, pure and simple. They are limiting the players’ options artificially so that the player characters can only go where the railroad—the GM—wants them to go.

This is, I suspect, one of the main reasons Sandy Peterson chose to set Call of Cthulhu in the twenties. While it’s true that, as James lamented, Lovecraft set his stories in his then-present, it’s just as true that that is when he set them. Had he lived into the twenty-first century his new stories would have had to change so much that they would no longer resemble his old ones. The increase in destructive power available to humans, the increase in knowledge about the past and about the universe, the increase in forensic technology, and the increase in documentary ability both at the personal and government levels all make his twenties-era stories practically impossible—or make his elder horrors ridiculously weak.

In Defense of the One-Minute Round—Wednesday, July 26th, 2023
In defense of the one-minute round: “In Defense of the One Minute Round” social media image.; Dungeons & Dragons; Dungeons and Dragons; rounds; turns

Tomorrow is Gary Gygax’s birthday. One of the more controversial choices he made for AD&D is the one-minute round. Very few games have such a long round; when I wrote Gods & Monsters, I shortened the round to a mere ten seconds, and even that’s considered a long duration for combat rounds today.

D&D 5E has a six-second round, and the more I play 5E the more I see the benefits of the one-minute round for game play. The most recent example: during our last game, as I write this, I was playing a monk, with shadow step and acrobatics; we were being attacked by a dragon, in a forest, while on a raised platform, and had very little in the way of ranged weapons. I was attacking the dragon using darts, not a very effective attack mode.

Hoping to get closer to the dragon where a monk can be more effective, I looked around for shadow that the dragon might occasionally fly into; I looked around for vines or branches it might occasionally fly near. All while attacking and defending from a breath-wielding dragon.

It occurred to me later that that’s not reasonably possible in six seconds. This is one of the things Daredevils gets right: Daredevils also uses six-second rounds, and dedicates an entire action type to “Observe”. You can defend yourself while observing, but the most you can do for attack is ready a weapon (makes sense: presumably what you observe caused you to want to prepare a weapon against it) or hip fire a firearm, a weapon far easier to use than the bows and darts of D&D.

And all the talking our group does? Some of it literally takes more than six seconds per participant. A six-second round leaves very little room for role-playing both mighty deeds and inspiring one-liners. It leaves very little room for the intricate maneuvering that AD&D and OD&D inspired1.

It leaves very little room for the players to devise new tactics in the course of a battle. A six-second round is not a group-oriented round. It’s a very egocentric round. You’ve barely got time to handle what’s happening around you, let alone what’s happening around your comrades. Coming up with new ideas, role-playing new goals, those don’t realistically fit into a six-second round at all.

Quick-and-dirty old-school island script—Wednesday, July 5th, 2023
Haunted Island Adventure Guide’s Handbook cover: The Haunted Island image for the cover of the Adventure Guide’s Handbook.; Persistence of Vision; povray; Gods & Monsters; Hawaii; islands

Islands are great locations for adventures, especially weird ones or constrained ones, which is why I chose an island for the cover of The Adventure Guide’s Handbook.

As I wrote in the first installment, this island generator (Zip file, 6.9 KB) is far from an example of well-written, organized code. It’s as messy as the old-school tables from Island Book 1 it encapsulates. The data is not separate from the code, and the code is filled with special cases.

If this had been a serious effort, I would have flowcharted the tables, organized them into kind of table, and probably made a series of table classes and subclasses for the different kinds of information in the tables—whether they call for die rolls to determine number, or whether the call for rolling on a further table, for example.

For something like this, that’s a recipe for never getting the script done. So I went along table by table and created code for what each table needed. If it was similar to the code that a previous table had needed, I modified that code, perhaps adding a new, optional, function parameter.

I could almost certainly have used the file-based table script I wrote about in my Programming for Gamers series. It would have been cleaner and smoother. But part of what drew me to these three pages of tables were all of the rough edges. I had to sand some of them off just because it’s a computer program—decisions have to be made—but I wanted to keep as many of the dangerous bits as I could.

Most of the tables are simply a list of 20 items, to be generated using a d20. Those are simple. The list of items is a Python list, and item = random.choice(list) pulls an item randomly from the list.

Some of the 20-item lists also have options within the list. For those, I made the simple 20-item list a slightly less simple 20-item list of lists. The top table, the list of twenty types of islands, includes, in some entries, a range of numbers and/or a list of island features types.

Kolchak: The Big Creep (a Daredevils adventure)—Wednesday, May 31st, 2023
Pavlita Generator in Space: Illustration of a Pavlita Generator from UFO Update 11, Summer 1980.; Pavlita generator

This weekend is the 2023 North Texas RPG Convention. For last year’s con, I ran the second of my Kolchak adventures. I’d initially planned on running The Powers of Dr. Remoux from Daredevils Adventures 1: Deadly Coins. Daredevils Adventures 1 is the first adventure supplement to Fantasy Game Unlimited’s Daredevils.

I started making so many changes, however, that I ended up writing up my own adventure using it as inspiration. The initial changes were simple enough. I set it at a college that had appeared in the series, Illinois State Technical College. And, of course, I updated it for 1976. College life changed a lot over those fifty years.

But the real changes began when I happened to run across an article on the Pavlita Generator in an old UFO magazine. Not only was it approximately the right time period for my adventure, but it was exactly the right way to update the adventure’s weird science from the twenties to the seventies.

U.S. intelligence officials are studying the development in Czechoslovakia of “psychotronic generators,” small devices “capable of drawing biological energy from humans and storing it for future use.”

This is exactly what Jones’s Dr. Remoux was doing, but for the UFO age and the cold war rather than the dawn of modern physics. I was further able to expand on the Cold War aspect using some real Defense documents:

Island Book 1 and old-school tables—Wednesday, April 26th, 2023
Sheryl England’s Sinbad vs. Conan: Back cover illustration by Sheryl England for the Judges Guild Island Book 1.; Judges Guild; Inspirational fantasy art; Sheryl England

Sheryl England’s cover art is also a draw.

I managed to acquire a copy of Judges Guild’s Islands Book 1 a few weeks ago. Like most Judges Guild books, it is very interesting and very strange, and very much a product of the old school enthusiasm that permeated its era. It was published in 1978, which is still pretty early. As late as 1976, Judges Guild was still selling books from the trunk of Bill Owen’s Mustang.

It’s titled “Island Book 1”, but I can find no evidence of an “Island Book 2”. It’s a lot like their three Treasure Maps books, two Castle Book books, and Temple Book1. It’s a collection of island maps, with no keys. Some features are marked, but for the most part you’re expected to either draw your own features and keys directly on the maps, or photocopy them and draw on the copy.

You could, presumably, also use some of the included tables to generate items to correspond to the features marked on some of the maps.

They’re all filled with hexes, numbered for your amusement, part of the Judges Guild “Campaign Hexagon System”.

The cover artwork is by Sheryl England, great evocations of island-hopping adventure. The back cover is basically Sinbad vs. Conan, a great choice for sailing fantasy.

But the real draw for me is the utterly gonzo three pages of island generation tables. As soon as I saw them, I knew I wanted to make a script to generate islands.

The tables are interwoven; some results seem to indicate further rolls on other tables. This is conjecture, however: how the tables interweave is never mentioned. There are no instructions for using them. Not only are there no instructions for how to use subtables, there are barely instructions for how to use individual tables.

For example, the main table, for type of island, has a numeric range after some of the islands, such as 1-3 or 2-12. They have to be die rolls, because they correspond to the most common ranges for die rolls. But die rolls for what? For the number of islands in the chain, or for number of features that follow?

Every such entry has a list of features, such as volcanoes, mountains, hills, traps, what kinds of provisions can be scrounged on the island, and so on. I’m assuming that they are possible features, and that an entry such as “Sandy Isle (1-6) MHCT” means that this is a sandy island (that much I’m pretty sure about) that contains d6 features; those features include mountains, hills, creatures, and traps.

Other interpretations are easily imagined.

A Kolchak Christmas at North Texas 2023—Tuesday, February 28th, 2023
Carl Kolchak: Kolchak, holding a microphone and his signature portable tape recorder in Las Vegas.; Kolchak: The Night Stalker; Darren McGavin

They say the only perfect murder is the random murder. It’s the Christmas season in Chicago, and police are certainly stymied by the seemingly random killings the press has dubbed “The Christmas Murders”. Will Kolchak and his loose band of night stalkers solve the mystery? Choose a pregen from many of the guest stars who appeared on the Kolchak: The Night Stalker television series.

I’ll be cracking open Daredevils again for The North Texas RPG Con in 2023. This year’s adventure is “The Wrong Goodbye” and takes place over Christmas of 1976. It’s currently scheduled for Saturday morning at nine.

Here’s the TV Guide version:

Carl Kolchak and guest stars investigate Chicago’s 1976 Christmas murders.

All the old favorite guest stars and regulars will be available. Kolchak himself, of course, and if you’ve ever felt like letting loose a barrage of abuse at an abusive reporter who can’t understand why nobody believes him, Tony Vincenzo is also available.

A lot of the fun with a game like this is roleplaying the television roles: Vincenzo, or Pepe Torres, or Paula Griffin, or Kolchak himself. The Kolchak television series is often rerun by oldies television stations. In my area it’s currently running on MeTV. It looks like you can also stream it free on NBC. The two movies, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler are harder to find.

Here are the current pregens:

  • Ryder Bond (Firefall)
  • Jack Burton (Primal Scream)
  • Emily Cowles (Regular cast)
  • Leslie Dwyer (Mr. R.I.N.G.)
  • Janis Eisen (The Energy Eater)
  • Jim Elkhorn (The Energy Eater)
  • Paula Griffin (The Werewolf)
  • Maria Hargrove (Firefall)
  • Carl Kolchak (Series lead)
  • Ali Lakshmi (Horror in the Heights)
  • Monique Marmelstein (Sporadic cast)
  • Lila Morton (Chopper)
  • Charles Rolling Thunder (Bad Medicine)
  • C. Evan Spate (Demon in Lace)
  • Agnes Temple (Bad Medicine)
  • Pepe Torres (Legacy of Terror)
  • Ron Updyke (Regular cast)
  • Tony Vincenzo (Regular cast)
  • Bess Winestock (They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be…)
  • Rosalind Winters (Demon in Lace)
Three OGLs walk into a bar: The Return of Gruumsh—Wednesday, January 25th, 2023
TSR and rights: Larry Smith: I think only when TSR is forced to defend its real and legitimate rights it won’t have time to defend the ones it made up.; TSR; gaming copyright

This quote comes from 1996 or earlier. The TSR/WotC/Hasbro war on gamers is not a new one.

Hasbro’s messing with the OGL has been in the gaming news now for several weeks. I’ve generally stayed out of it. This is not a fun way to celebrate the 49th anniversary of D&D (observed).1

I hope we find a better way to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary next year.

I long ago decided that the OGL was pointless for most of the things people use it for, and certainly for anything that I would use it for. The OGL adds severe restrictions on what you can do with otherwise free content; it gave nothing in return. Its sole purpose seems to have been to dump everything that you can do legally, without permission, under the umbrella of “product identity”.

“Product identity” is not a term in copyright law; it is a made-up term meant to sound like “intellectual property”. If you agree to use the OGL, “product identity” restricts you in ways that don’t normally exist under copyright or other intellectual property laws. The OGL seems designed solely to deny game writers what they would have the legal right to do if they ignored the OGL.

One of the first series I wrote on this blog was on gaming copyright and what makes a good open license for an RPG. The OGL failed on almost every point.2 So I never used it, even for my own D&D-like game which came out about the same time as the OGL—and was a lot more like D&D when I first published it (see below).

Rob Conley recently called for stripping OGL language from your gaming materials:

I would urge everyone involved in D&D design or content creation to strip out all OGL language and ensure your rules/content is open source and fair use or whatever the appropriate terms are for gaming.

How fast did early D&Ders advance their characters?—Monday, January 23rd, 2023

“There are a few semi-secondary sources that give estimates for advancement rates—and it’s rather remarkable how widely they differ. This is even though they all date from a time post-OD&D-Supplement-I, when in they’re all using basically the same monster XP chart and treasure tables.”

Basic D&D

When I wrote Experience and Advancement in Role-Playing Games, I focused on the mechanical elements of character advancement. That says nothing about the player perspective of how characters advance.

In his latest blog post, Delta collects three statements—two from actual rulebooks—about how quickly Gygax, Holmes, and Moldvay each expected players to see their characters go up in level. Advancement from first to second level, for example, varies between 2-½ adventures (Moldvay) to 9 adventures (Holmes). That’s a pretty big difference.

These differences will reflect more than just a difference in each writer’s vision of how quickly players should see their characters advance. They’re going to reflect different visions about all sorts of aspects of early gaming culture: how often players gamed, how long each session took, even what the definition of an adventure was vs. what a session was!

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