Games: So, I Started a West-Marches Campaign

So, I started a West-Marches campaign. I call it Terranova. I have to say, so far it’s been quite a bit more work than I anticipated – you know, creating the “treasure map,” some setting background, a private message board and edifying all the little gamist bits:  like forum guidelines and best-practices and (of course) all those house rules I intend to use.

For those who may not know what I’m talking about, here’s Ben Robbin’s original post that started it all:
http://arsludi.lamemage.com/index.php/78/grand-experiments-west-marches/

And here’s Matthew Colville (love this guy) exclaiming the virtues of a West-Marches campaign:

It seems this West-Marches thing has caught on – and why not? It’s an interesting way to fulfill what every DM wants to do (i.e. run a long-standing and popular campaign) but way more importantly, it seem to be tailored perfectly for the “full time adult set” who still wish to game in an ongoing way.

Still wondering what I’m talking about? A West-Marches campaign is a method for DMs to get their players more actively involved in the creation, planning and even RL organizing of game-nights. In theory, it spreads the onus out a little more between players and DMs. On the DM-side, a West-Marches campaign involves some initial set up: establishing the basics of a world (or choosing one out of the box), creating a non-spoiler map of that world with some decent hooks for the players to sink their teeth into, and then setting up a private means to have players chat among themselves online in order to organize forays into the world. And that’s the cool thing about it: the players do the brick and mortar logistical work.

On the player-side, a West Marches campaign looks like this: you sign up, you generate a character, you look at the map and read up on the background and rumours, you introduce yourself and chat with other players (in character), and then (once you have wrangled some PCs together for a mission, or got wrangled into one) you book me to run the expedition. If you return from the expedition alive, you are expected to report back to the forum (it’s part of the Guild Rules).

It creates an interesting vibe. Sort of a mix of play-by-post and MMORPG. Ideally there is a high player-to-DM ratio and enough good hooks to initially spark player interest. Once the ball gets rolling, the theory is that players will create their own hooks and motivators by looking at what others groups are doing, vicariously learning about the world and its many challenges and hidden treasures. The big motivator is character level advancement (read, finding treasure), paying your increasing Guild Dues, and keeping up with the Joneses, so to speak.

So far I have about ten players signed up (and growing) and the first expedition is booked (that’s what I’m calling sessions). I’m using 1E AD&D as my system and I’ve rolled  by-the-book “character upkeep” costs into the aforementioned Guild Dues that every player must pay monthly in order to stay in good standing with the guild and be allowed out of the city of Ironclad to explore the wilderness, Terranova.

Ironclad is a massive city-state on the coast of  Terranova; a continent first “discovered” some 300 years prior. As the settlers tried to expand out into this “new world,” they were met by a harsh wilderness and then (quite suddenly after several decades) pushed back by the mysterious “Hordes of Chaos,” forced to abandon their new baronies and to batten-down in Ironclad. Ironclad itself was built over the ruins of some long-forgotten ancient city that must have been razed centuries before. It is on the shoreline of a bay but also nestled into a great mountain range. The settlers discovered a secret path under the ancient city remains that led to a massive mine in the nearby mountains – thus, Ironclad is still an ongoing economic concern. The 300-year-old city was originally named Fort Tauro when it was a colony under the Great Empire of Turan – but during the all the kerfuffle around the Hordes of Chaos (or “the Fall,” as it’s known in Terranova) the military leaders who were charged to defend the besieged city staged a political coup. Thus, the city was renamed Ironclad (after its distinctive outer walls, which are plated) and declared a free-state. Nevertheless, this “free-state” has very draconian laws, hardly any crime, and strict rules about who may enter and leave the city. The Guild, which is an expensive club to join, grants permission for leave into the wilderness and rights over any treasure hauled back (in return for detailed maps and information about the lands, which are, on paper, owned by the Overlord of the City).

The lands of Terranova are dotted with a the few abandoned colonial settlements that were established before the fall, many ancient and weird sites belonging to several lost civilizations, and a whole lot of wilderness filled with beasties.

Here’s “the treasure map” based on one of the early colonial explorers, Grotch Strongfist (a dwarven general). It’s not the most accurate map, but players will get the picture.

Terranova Forum Version1

 

It will be interesting to see how this experiment plays out.

Posted in games, Terranova Campaign | Tagged , , , , , ,

Music: Loaded, The Velvet Underground

One of the earliest seminal records I claimed ownership of was The Velvet Underground’s, Loaded (1970, Cotillion/Atlantic). I say “claimed ownership of” because my memory of actually purchasing the album is a bit hazy. It might have been a downtown record store bargain bin find (common in 1985) or it might have been one I pilfered from my parent’s existing collection. (A collection I inherited once I also “claimed ownership” of the old Garrard hi-fi receiver and turntable, moving them and all the records into my crowded bedroom.) Loaded came out on Cotillion Records (at least here in Canada) but so did a few other artists in my parent’s collection, including Young-Holt Unlimited – although the album I distinctly remember was, 1969’s Just A Melody, which came out on the Brunswick label… You see, my parents had a penchant for soul and jazz. Still, the inner dust sleeve of Loaded prefigures in my memory well before the The Velvet Underground does, so Mom and Dad must have had other Cotillion releases… Anyway, this inner sleeve, which I wondered at for hours, was basically a catalogue for Cotillion circa 1971; featuring album cover thumbnails for such artists as Lord Sutch (always wondered about him), Quill, Fairport Convention, and Herbie Mann, the aforementioned Velvet Underground, and Young-Holt Unlimited, as well as Woodstock and Woodstock 2 (both soundtracks of the film). The cover of Loaded, in miniature, looked evocative: strangely pink whipped-cream-like steam floating out from a Manhattan subway entrance.

My copy of Loaded by the Velvet Underground

My copy of Loaded by the Velvet Underground

Beyond the Cotillion catalogue, I first really heard of (or read about) the Velvet Underground (henceforth, affectionately the Velvets) in the Dossier section of the April 1985 issue of Heavy Metal magazine. Larry “Ratso” Sloman had done an interview piece with former Velvets member Sterling Morrison. The feature’s title, Sterling Says, was in itself a grammatical homage and easily detected by fans of the band (for obvious reasons that went over my head at the time!). In the mid-80s Sterling Morrison was a hermit of sorts, living in student housing at University of Texas in Austin and finishing his PhD in medieval literature. In the interview, he says:

I don’t know what people liked about us, particularly. I could see people liking some of the heavy-metal portions of what we did. And the sense of rebelliousness in the lyrics. We did what we felt like doing, so maybe people admire that. Some people see us as S&M freaks, but obviously that’s ridiculous. People saw us as a group willing to do what they felt like doing, people who obviously only cared about making the kind of records they felt like making with no attempt to manufacture an image, no attempt to ingratiate themselves with the media, no attempt to ingratiate themselves with the public. Half the stuff we did is probably repellent to a mass audience. So what? Some bands are designed for a mass audience and some aren’t. We weren’t.
(Heavy Metal, April 1985)

The Nat Finkelstein photo of the Velvets (featuring Sterling in the centre) looked really cool – almost proto-gothic – so I was intrigued. The photo was taken from the Velvet’s Factory period, when they were working with Andy Warhol.

The Velvet Underground as pictured in the April 1985 issue of Heavy Metal.

The Velvet Underground as pictured in the April 1985 issue of Heavy Metal.

After reading the story, I quickly dug out Loaded (because it was, quite mysteriously, already there in my bedroom). I took in the strange cover in all its 12-inch, clouds of pink whipped cream, glory. I examined the back cover. It has that really dark studio shot (taken from the control room looking into the studio) showing what looked like, to me, a state-of-the-art of album production environment, and a tiny solitary Doug Yule sitting at the piano with his back to the camera. Despite not getting the symbolism there, I was mesmerized by the photo. The studio is Atlantic Studios, NYC: a legendary room, and the birthplace of hundreds of hits, where Tom Dowd basically invented modern recording by ushering in and standardizing multi-track and stereo techniques in the early 1960s.  The photo probably figured highly in my career choice as an adult (having worked in and owned several recording studios for nearly two decades, myself).

The Back Cover of my copy of The Velvet Underground, Loaded and inner dust sleeve featuring other Cotillion releases.

The Back Cover of my copy of The Velvet Underground, Loaded and inner dust sleeve featuring other Cotillion releases.

little_doug_yule

Detail of VU’s Loaded back cover: Doug Yule sitting at the piano

One of the strangest things about the back cover are the credits. They are quite detailed. Strangely, Doug Yule is listed first, followed by Sterling Morrison and then Lou Reed. This is strange considering Reed was the Velvet’s principle songwriter and Doug was a relative newcomer (being John Cale‘s replacement after his departure in 1968). Moe Tucker is listed last as part of “The Line Up,” but considering she’s not even on the album it’s amazing she’s there at all (more on that later). Some of the drums where actually recorded by Doug’s younger brother, Billy (“Lonesome Cowboy Bill” and  “Oh! Sweet Nuthin'”) while the remaining tracks were handled by Adrian Barber, Tommy Castagnaro, and Doug himself.  Incidentally, Adrian (a Beatles-era, Liverpoolian expat) was also the primary recording engineer. Doug, Lou and Sterling are all given “song composition” credit, among many other things. Only Doug and Lou are credited with lyrics. Almost everyone is credited with multiple instruments (except Moe) but Doug plays the most instruments: organ, piano, bass, drums, lead guitar, acoustic guitar, and vocals.

The album has three producer credits: Geoffrey Haslam, Shel Kagan and the Velvets themselves. There’s also a pretty odd special thanks to Geoffrey:

The Velvet Underground wishes to thank Geoffrey Haslam for his help in putting this album together.

OK. So that’s a lot of info. Even as a kid I got the feeling that this might have been a difficult album to make, or at least the band was really going for broke. Turns out, after reading up on the album many years later, both guesses were right. Loaded was born during a very nebulous period for the Velvets. This is now well-documented Velvets-lore. You can look it up. To sum it up, Loaded was recorded during the tail-end of an 8-week residency at Max’s Kansas City – which was the first gig the band had played in their home territory (the Island of Manhattan) since 1967.  Moe Tucker was absent from both the residency gigs and the recording sessions because she took a maternity leave. Doug Yule’s younger brother, Billy Yule, was hastily recruited to fill in.  It’s been said that Billy was a decent drummer, but he was no Moe Tucker. To make things even stranger, Lou Reed, the founding member of the band and principle songwriter, quit before the residency was up and the album was mastered. (And, much to his chagrin, quite a bit had been chopped out of his songs post-editing, including the entire bridge of Sweet Jane.) Yule sings lead on several songs (“Who Loves the Sun”, “New Age”, “Lonesome Cowboy Bill”, and “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’).

Yule himself has admitted that the previous Velvets album, 1969’s eponymous album, may have been a stronger and the recording process was “more organic” than Loaded, which felt more like a “studio record.” He admits, in retrospect, that they should have waited for Moe and that without Moe the Velvets did not “feel like a band.” Indeed, Loaded is by far the slickest Velvets album in terms of production and performance. Much of the noise, dissonance and edge is gone. I remember reading, somewhere, that Loaded was the only Velvets album not to be deleted (that is, allowed to go out-of-print). Of course, all those early records have since been lavishly re-released.

Because he was a newcomer to the band, put there to replace the very talented-yet-esoteric John Cale, and because he carried the Velvet Underground name after Lou Reed’s departure, (mostly under pressure from the band’s manager, Steve Sesnick) Doug Yule is often viewed as a sort of interloper among a number of the band’s fans. He is poignantly missing from the famous reunion tour of 1993. (where several songs from Loaded were performed) Often sited in this respect are the post-Reed album Squeeze (in which Doug was the only original member), and the gigs without Reed; including the notorious 1971 Alpine, North Conway, New Hampshire Ski Resort residency . For these reasons, many see Loaded is the last true Velvet Underground Album and a death knell for the highly influential and groundbreaking band.

Despite this, Loaded is undoubtedly a classic album. For one, it contains two of the most iconic and influential Lou Reed masterpieces ever put to tape: “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll.” When I first heard those songs, they sounded like nothing else – somehow simultaneously retrograde and modern. They were retrograde in terms of sonic quality. Yes, the mixes are good, but Loaded seemed to lack the same sheen of other records from that era (like the Beatles, Let it Be, for example). Basically, less sonic information in the subs and the ultra highs. In retrospect, I’ve really learned to appreciate those mixes because they’re warm and gritty. They’re informed by Rock n’ Roll in the 1950’s-American-Tradition sense. Like early rock, Reed’s dry, slightly distorted, vocals are pushed to the front of the mix, often to the point of overshadowing the backing track. The drums, although tight, are somewhat buried and flat sounding. Chiming double-tracked rhythm guitars (both acoustic and electric) provide the main propulsive force.  And yet, these songs sound absolutely ahead of their time. There’s none of the 60’s schlock here. These are stark, hard and gritty (they are very NYC), especially Reed’s lyrics and vocal performances. There’s something in the waver of his voice – a mixture of tough and vulnerable, deadpan and dramatic.  At times Reed’s vocals verge on being over-the-top. You can really hear every lip-smack, snicker and chuckle of contempt in Reed’s voice when he sings:

Now, Jack, he is a banker,
And Jane, she is a clerk.
And the both of them are saving up their money…
When they come home from work…
(Sweet Jane, 1970)

Later I would discover that Loaded is the Velvet’s least experimental album – starting with the drums. Moe Tucker is famous for her pulsating and primitive style. She hardly ever played a snare drum on the off-beat, or a hi-hat for that matter. There was no “swing” or “pocket” but rather she stood over her drums (primarily a floor toms and bass drums) and just pounded, using dynamics for dramatic effect. Heroin (from their 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico) is a prime example. From the reviews I’ve read, people often cite Moe’s drumming style as the most riveting aspect of a Velvet’s live performance.  There was something very 60s, IMO, in Tucker’s early drumming and John Cale’s experimental bent. By 1969, Cale was out and their eponymous album, although still filled with the very odd, seemed more focused and pop-oriented as evidenced by their single “What Goes On” which featured some of Moe’s most conventional work (a track that would not have seemed out of place on Loaded).

Head Held High” is another Lou Reed standout. A song about parental advice (or maybe disfigurement), it has a certain grit and toughness to it and shares many of the same tight sonic characteristics as “Sweet Jane” or “Rock and Roll.” The instrumental breakdown when Reed sings “Watch out, Yeah, Do the dog, Oh, watch out,”  just rocks!

Cool it Down,” is Reed at his tongue-in-cheek best. The groove of this songs is just great.  And Lou Reed is both laid back in the verses and heavy in the choruses. The lyrics are subtle but evocative and carries a bit of that sexual edge from earlier albums. You can fill in the blanks:

But me l’m down around the corner
You know I’m lookin’ for Miss Linda Lee
Because she’s got the power to love me by the hour
Gives me double you L-O-V-E…
(Cool it Down, 1970)

However, not all the songs on Loaded managed to rid themselves of that 60s schlock. “Who Loves The Sun” (sung by Yule), despite being more clever than it sounds, is too paisley-flower-power and reminds me too much of the Archies or some other bubblegum group from the era. On Loaded, Yule’s voice is the polar opposite of Reed’s. While Reed is often hard and in-your-face, Yule is vulnerable and wistful and quite reminiscent of Reed’s style on the Velvet’s first-ever 1966 single, “Sunday Morning.”  (With the exception of the campy, pastiche throw-away, “Lonesome Cowboy Bill“). On the previous, eponymous album, Yule sang the very-touching, “Candy Says” and I wasn’t aware of this until I did some research for this review. In fact, for years I thought many of the Yule-sung songs on Loaded were actually Lou Reed being soft a la “Sunday Morning.” So for the most part, Yule’s vocal style works for me. The Yule-sung “New Age,” has a charming “lost bohemian” vibe and actually tells a story: a tale about a tryst between a washed-up film star and a fanboy that ends in post-modern disillusionment:

Can I have your autograph
He said to the fat blonde actress
You know I’ve seen every movie you’ve been in
From Paths of Pain to Jewels of Glory
And when you kissed Robert Mitchum
Gee but I thought you’d never catch him

Over the hill right now
And you’re looking for love…
(New Age, 1970)

Chock-full of throwaways, but also containing some pretty iconic works, Loaded is a mixed bag. It’s no White Light/White Heat – an album I would discover and come to appreciate much later (and a midwife to so much future music). Regardless, over the years I’ve really come to appreciate Loaded‘s no-nonsense and direct production values and streetwise lyrics, which seemed to have aged well compared to other albums of the same vintage. This could be due to the very inspirational role the Velvet Underground continues to play with new generations of rock musicians. (The Strokes immediately come to mind, but they are no longer the new, are they?) The album’s explicit pop sensibilities make it an easy listen and since the lyrical seediness is subtle I can safely play it around my 4-year old.  It’s since become a favourite around the household.

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Fiction: Dale

Now and then I’ll be publishing my own attempts at fiction. These works will be changed and edited from time to time, as I see fit. Works evolve. If a piece of work suddenly disappears it’s because it a) either got published somewhere or b) I deemed it embarrassing.  They are copyright me and all rights are reserved by me…

“Dale”

KD heats up a bot on the kitchen counter with readied glass. It’s her glass so Rachel can’t complain. Rachel calls the glass a tumbler. How pathetic. KD doesn’t know where Dale gets the hash and she doesn’t care. She’s been waiting for this, her post-work-hit, all day. She only does two hits a day. The pre-bus-hit helps with the commute; keeps her from freaking out. The post-work-hit is her reward for another long slog at the shit shop. Dale’s hash is good shit – Pakistani shit – nice and brown – sticks to the paperclip nice and heats up fast. She watches the smoke fill the cup and smiles. This must be what running a warm bath is like for Rachel. Where is that bimbo anyway? KD’s hungry for dinner already.

The TV isn’t on. That means Josh and Dale are each doing their own thing. Josh is on the couch. The couch that Rachel’s parents, when they make a surprise visit, never actually sit on but rather stand close by or lean against. He’s strums his unplugged Jazzmaster, jotting lyrics down on his notepad. Dale is getting his nerd fix at his desk. It’s all graph paper, books, dice and little pewter men. Even more pathetic. Both are happily oblivious to each other. Come to think of it, Rachel’s folks always leave their shoes on too. What a bunch of assholes. Dale’s really been into his gaming crap lately and he’s missed rent twice.

KD takes in her hit. Soon she’ll be all warm and grinning – like she’s wrapped a big brown blanket around herself. She hears the door being unlocked downstairs and then footsteps up the stairs. Little feet in little boots trying too hard to be quiet. It’s Rachel – finally! She comes around the corner, clutching her canvas bag, looking even whiter than usual.

“Why you lookin’ so worried, Rae?”

“Oh, it’s…nothing I guess.”

“C’mon, now.”

“OK fine. It’s those kids. The ones who are always hanging around across the street at the YMCA with their black hoodies and black bandannas. Isn’t that a gang uniform or something?”

KD feels her eyes begin to roll before she can stop it. “You’re always going on about them, they’re just kids, man. They never bother you, do they?”

“Well, no, but – ”

“Just mind your own business and they won’t bother you, so quit worrying about it!”

“Yeah but something happened -”

“What happened?” says Josh who, having abandoned his guitar, is already in the kitchen.

“Just the usual, Rae being a goddamn snoop,” says KD, grinning. “Maybe you spy a little too much from the window, eh Rae?”

“What! No! And I don’t appreciate being called a snoop,” Rachel’s face is all red now. “Anyway, I’ve got to start dinner soon.”

“Sure OK,” says Josh as he digs into his back pocket and unwraps what’s left of his weekly gram – compliments of Dale.

Rachel turns around to face the fridge. “And can’t you two do that somewhere else? You know I can’t stand the smoke.”

“Whatever, I’m done,” says KD.

Josh gives up on his stash and lights a cigarette instead. Apparently, Rachel can handle cigarette smoke. Dale walks in, pulling his earbuds out.

“Hey, guys. What’s for dinner?”

KD stares down at her dirty tumbler. It’s hard to keep a straight face around Dale. Nothing until you pay the goddamn rent, she thinks.

Rachel manages half a smile. “Butternut squash soup. I just came from the market.”

“Sounds nice. How long ‘till it’s done?”

“Oh, forty minutes, at least.”

“Dale,” says KD,  “just what you working on over there in the corner?” KD already knows the answer.

“Oh, you know, the usual. The game for the kids over at Scadding Court. I’ve got this great campaign planned for them, sort of a castle siege-”

“Fucking pathetic nerd shit, man,” KD takes Josh’s cigarette and drops the ashes into an open tuna can before taking a drag.

Dale turns away to face Rachel.

KD mutters something under her breath.

“That’s too late for me, Rae,” says Dale. “I’m starving. I’m sure it’ll be great but I’m going to get some quick MacD’s. Save me some leftovers, will ya?”

“No, Dale. I wouldn’t go -”

“Dale! Today’s rent day,” says KD, almost yelling, smoke twisting around her mouth and nose like one of Dale’s miniature dragons. “You got that?”

“Uh, look I’m a little short again this month, but I’m gonna pay triple next month, I promise.”

“Shit Dale, it was double last month, now triple. What next, quadtripple?”

“That’s quadruple, actually,” corrects Rachel.

“Shut up!” KD turns to Dale, “You smoking all your merch, man?”

Dale reaches over Rachel’s head, rummaging through the cupboards. “No…Well, somewhat. More than usual. Look, triple next month. I promise. No quadtripples!”

“Bullshit!” KD takes another long drag. “Josh, you seen his supply lately or what? Bullshit! You’re smoking it all, aren’t you! I’m sick of covering for you – fat fuck!” KD slams Josh’s cigarette into the tuna can and it topples onto the floor but Dale missed the outburst. He’s already heading back to his desk; his earbuds in; a trail of high-pitched cymbals and guitar follows behind.

Josh offers KD another cigarette. Rachel’s already on her hands and knees, dealing with the mess.

“Fucking Dale,” says KD calmly, flatly, “Dale and his fat ass sitting in that gross shit-stained chair all day, tossing dice, jotting down useless bullshit. Doesn’t leave the house except to play with those dumbass kids. Calls ’em ‘my kids.’ So fucking pathetic. Ever since they gave him that award – I want to rip it off the goddamn wall.”

“He’s bought a lot more of that gaming shit lately. That stuff doesn’t come cheap,” says Josh.

KD looks down at Rachel. “You gonna start dinner or what?”

Rachel works at the stain with a cloth, scrubbing furiously, “Look, I don’t think we should let him out tonight. To get food, I mean. I have a bad feeling.”

“What the hell are you talking about, Rae?”

“Something disquieting happened tonight. With those YMCA kids. Something to do with Dale.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know the really rough looking one with the face tattoo? He…he knows Dale! He asked about him specifically. He was sort of polite but…it was just weird. He knew Dale’s last name! How does he know Dale’s last name? I’ve never seen Dale talk to those kids, not even so much as a nod! Anyway I did my best to avoid further conversation and went inside.”

Josh takes back his cigarette, gazing at his feet. “Maybe they’re just looking to buy. Dale’s a popular guy.” He takes a drag.

“I don’t know, I got a really strange feeling. Those kids…they creep me out.”

KD snatches the cigarette. “Whatever! They ever really bother you? Huh? They’ll cat call anything in a skirt, sure, but don’t take it so serious! Listen, Dale’s coming back. Don’t let on. Not a word, OK? He’ll get all paranoid and shit. Dale’s already annoying enough.”

“But-”

“Not a goddamn word!”

Rachel’s takes the squash out of her bag.  She puts it on the counter and starts to cut, sighing. If it’s really nothing than what harm can come from telling him? She starts pulling other ingredients down from the cupboards. She nearly confuses thyme for rosemary. Can they even tell the difference? Why bother? Dale’s already got his army jacket on. She can hear his keys jangling and his earbuds blaring.

“Keep yer mouth shut, Chef,” says KD, nearly whispering.

Dale heads down the stairs. Rachel turns on the range fans – the whirling sound is somehow a comfort. Soon the the smell of a nice butternut squash soup will mask out that wretched smoke.

“See you guys in a bit,” he says.

Rachel drops an onion and it rolls towards KD’s feet. Bending over to pick it up, she notices KD’s crooked smokey smile.

“Yeah, see ya,” says KD.

“Why wouldn’t you let me warn him?” whispers Rachel.

“About what? Hey, where are you going with that onion?” KD laughs as she kicks it out of Rachel’s reach.

Josh laughs.

Rachel picks up the onion and heads towards the window. KD shoots her a look that simply says, what the fuck.

“I just want to see-”

“C’mon Rae, you’ll do more harm than good like that. C’mon dinner’s not gonna cook itself.”

A black sedan with tinted windows pulls up in the alley next the YMCA. The kid with the face tattoo is bent over. He’s talking to the driver while the other three hang back, looking pensive. It’s dark. Are they looking for, Dale? Dale’s already gone. Probably already at the MacD’s, eating a burger. It all seems OK. Nothing too strange happening. Rachel walks back to the kitchen. Dinner won’t cook itself.

***

The soup smells good. Rachel sets the table for three. Soon they are all seated at the dining room table near the window.

“Bread, anyone?”

A bass drum starts to blare from a car stereo outside. A shout echoes in the street. Rachel can’t make it out. Then there’s more. They all overlapping. Was that Dale’s voice? KD gets up. She smiles and closes the blinds. Rachel is holding a bread plate. It wobbles and the bread tumbles off. KD catches it before it hits the table.

“Sit down, Rae.” KD tears a piece of bread off. “It’s just some stupid drunks. Happens almost every night.”

No one talks. Under the din of music there’s more shouting and then thumping but then a car peels away and it all stops very suddenly. Rachel starts portioning the soup into bowls. Eventually the silence is broken by the sound of sirens and then cop radios. Blue and red lights flicker against the walls through the narrow slits of the blinds and KD and Josh have had two helpings of soup each. Rachel stares down at her uneaten bowl. Was that Dale’s voice? she mouths. She stares, listening. Josh and KD have disappeared – they’ve gone back to KD’s room.  The flickering lights have stopped but the cops are still there, chatting on their radios. No other cars drive by. KD let’s out a series of muffled moans, followed by Josh. What could be a gurney makes contact with the sidewalk. Rachel gets up and starts clearing the table. Someone’s speaking calmly, collectively. Doors slam shut and the ambulance drives off. “No sirens,” she says.

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Games: Weird Find – Simian Conquest by ASP

This RPG review is based on a topic I posted on Dragonsfoot.org some time ago. My thanks to everyone over at Dragonsfoot for their input. 

A while back I was in Panama City Beach, FL on a family vacation and decided to check out the local bookshops – this is something I always do when I’m visiting another town for any lengthy period of time. After checking out the Local Friendly and a few small used bookstores we hit upon The Book Bin – a literary bastion among the big-box stores, cheap fast food restaurants and rundown motels of Panama City.

Therein, mixed among the comic books and an old filing cabinet that hid the pornography, was a literal plethora of gaming material spanning several shelves. I was in nerd heaven! There was so much stuff, I had to concentrate on the weird things. One of my (many) finds that day was a little A4-foldie-pamphlet-style book called Simian Conquest (by Marshall Rose and Norman Knight, Avant-Garde Simulations Perspectives, 1978) – an entire RPG encapsulated in just under 30, 5″x 11″ pages!

The sweet old lady who ran the shop (in business for 45 years, she claimed) looked at the pamphlet’s price ($2.95 in 1978 dollars) and halved it to an even $1.50 (2016 USD).

First Impression: The cover art (which depicts a loincloth-clad man filling a large, leather-clad mutant-ape-man with pistol rounds) is charmingly “amateurish. ” It has that primitive-yet-evocative feel reminiscent of the interior art of the OD&D “Little Brown Books.” The thing just screams old school.

Simian Conquest Front Cover

The subtitle: “Rules for Ape Fantasy Combat and Adventure,” does little to convey what this booklet really is: a direct appropriation of the Planet of the Apes franchise, right down to the ape-species social order of orangutans being the elder statesmen/administrators, chimps being the middle class and gorillas the military/labor class. Of course, humans are below the apes and are regarded as non-sentient (to be treated as chattel and used as subjects in copious, seemingly cruel-for-cruel’s-sake experiments). There are two special classes of humans: mutants and astronauts – but more on that later.

What strikes me most about this game is the brevity of the whole thing. The text claims the game is “designed to be learned in one evening,” and I believe it. This is the best example of clear and succinct writing in RPGs I’ve seen in a while. Of course, it helps that the POTA universe cannot be addressed directly (for obvious copyright/legal reasons) and so the text does not deal with specific characters or situations, but it does a great job of describing the milieu. For example, here is the entire entry under the subheading character type “Apes:”

“Apes are now the rulers of the Earth. There are three separate species of apes, and they work together with amazing cohesion. Apes have the ability to speak, and use it to communicate. Apes live in adobe-brick cities and have developed a city-state government with strong trends towards a theocracy. The Ape religion is based on ape superiority and the evil of man. The Primary law of Ape-kind is that apes do not kill other apes.”

And that’s it. It goes on to distinguish the three “Ape Species” and their roles in ape society and physical characteristics in three short paragraphs. There are four possible character types in the game: ape, human, mutant and astronaut. The mutants are a subterranean race with psionic-like abilities, hidden from the surface world, who worship the atomic bomb (sound familiar?). These psionic-like abilities (called “Mental Abilities”) include: Telepathy, Pain Giving, Sentient Control, Illusion and Telekinesis. The game puts no restrictions on what type of character the players can be, but it assumes that most player groups will be astronauts.  The introduction states:

“Picture this environment. Somewhere from deep in the past, a spaceship carrying astronauts travels through a warp in time, and crash lands on this backwards planet. The astronauts have advance skills, but no advanced machinery to use them. They are experts in combat, but suffer heavily from being outnumbered. Could they restore humans to their rightful(?) place back on Earth? Could they survive?”

The intro goes on to explain how the astronauts don’t know that the planet is indeed Earth…it also states:

“The rules have been made as simple as possible in order to reflect such a backwards time. The combat system is likewise simple to provide fast moving combat scenes.”

“Could you change future history? Could you just survive? Only your skills and luck will be the determiner. GOOD LUCK, you’ll need it.”

The game primarily uses six-sided dice and one twenty-sided die. The six-sided dice are used to determine ability scores (Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity, Endurance). The number of six-sided dice for each ability is determined by character type/species. For example, male gorillas (the strongest) would roll 4d6 for Strength. Male humans roll 3d6. Normal humans only get to roll 1d6 for intelligence (like the chimps and orangutans, the human astronauts get 3d6 Intelligence).

A d20 (plus applicable attribute, range or expertise modifier) is used for combat determination. There is an “effects” chart for each weapon type versus character type. This is reminiscent of many Avalon Hill-style wargames (except those tend to use six sided dice).  For example:

SC_KnifeChart.jpg

So, an attacker with a knife (or spear) needs a 17 or greater (after mods) to kill an astronaut. The ability modifiers are much like Classic D&D: a score of 15-17 Strength will give you +2 with a melee weapon. A score of 24 Strength (a possible for gorillas) will give you +5! Characters are expected to have an expertise “level” of at least 1 in order to use a particular weapon. Each character type starts out with a fixed number (or range) of expertise levels for various weapons (i.e. gorillas start with a level 1 expertise in knives and 1d6 levels of expertise in handguns).

Mental Abilities are handled as such: the defender/victim must make a savings throw (d20, modified by intelligence) . The saves table shows “Mutant Expertise” on the X axis and “Mental Power Type” on the Y axis. According to the chart, a victim-character must roll 20 or greater to resist the Sentient Control of a Expertise level 7 mutant … 14 or greater against a Expertise level 4 mutant, and so on … Pain Giving, for example, causes loss of 1 endurance point per mutant expertise level…

Combat is very abstract. Combat rounds are measured in seconds (approx 15 seconds per round) and in each round there is a movement phase (simultaneous using secret written orders, if necessary), initiative phase (1d6, individual, in order of highest to lowest),  attack roll phase (to determine what happens) and a hit results phase (where a table is consulted to determine what a “Stun” or “Wound H” does, etc.). Results are immediate. Initiative is re-rolled each round.   When a character is wounded, depending on the severity, they may lose up to 5 endurance points and lose their attack that round. Endurance acts as a “hit point system” although a character can be killed outright during a melee with the right roll. There is even a “death’s door, unconscious” rule where a character can drop to -10 endurance before death! Interesting considering this is 1978!

There are also rules for mounted combat and nets. Possible weapons include, knives, spears, clubs, gangi stick and various firearms. Here is an sample combat from the book:

IMG_20160209_095356613.jpg

I believe the character sheet says a lot about a game’s design. So here’s the character sheet (and example character) included in the game:

IMG_20160209_095345356.jpg

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Characters advance by by making kills with their weapons of choice – every five kills gains them one level of expertise (to a max of 7). There is also a rule for natural healing (one endurance point per day of rest).

Under the heading “Campaign” some advice on how to run the game is given. The book advises the “campaign moderator” to design a map of the campaign area (about 5 miles to the hex) although, interestingly, a campaign map is already provided on the inside back cover. The section provides a very exploration-based, “sandbox-style” sequence of play:

“The moderator gives the players a blank hexagonal grid that they can use as a map. He orients them as to what direction is which, and as they traverse the terrain, he will tell them what it is, and they can record it. Much adventure can take place in one day, and it is up to the moderator and players to make the most of it … Each game day, the player indicates to the campaign moderator what his character will do that day, i.e. move, go about his business, etc. The moderator then tells the player what happened and so on.”

The moderator is then instructed to make random encounter determinations (1 on a 1d6 per day) and various movement costs and possible encounter types are given on tables that follow. There are two main encounter tables: Civilized Area and Wilderness Area. Examples of encounters in wilderness areas include things like, 1-6 human warriors, wild horses, gorilla patrol, mutant outpost, chimp expedition, underground labyrinth. Encounter reaction tables (much in the vain of Classic D&D) are also given. This seems like the de rigueur of fantasy RPGs in the 1970’s – no fancy linear plot lines required!

All in all a fascinating look at “how things were done” back in the day! Simian Conquest as a beautiful example of no-frills, bare bones Old School goodness!

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Music-Comic(x): The Mysterious Mr. Stathis

Lou Stathis in his NYC rooftop apartment, summer 1986. Photo by Jeff Schalles. (Wikipedia.org)

Lou Stathis in his NYC rooftop apartment, summer 1986. Photo by Jeff Schalles. (Wikipedia.org)

When I was a child, around 11 years old, the magazine known as Heavy Metal (HM, henceforth) was a cultural force. Some of you might remember the animated film  (rumoured, among my schoolyard buddies, to feature cartoon fellatio). Critics say the film was a half-baked, semi-coherent romp, strategically aimed at regressive men (read, fanboys) and pubescent boys – and they have a very strong point. I believe the film went a long way towards both popularizing and tarnishing the mostly-misunderstood magazine of the same name. It’s now best-remembered for its all-star soundtrack and as much as I love and often wax-nostalgic for that double vinyl record with the iconic Achilleos sleeve, IMHO the film’s music supervisors got it all wrong (with the exception of including Devo and Trust).  The music of HM was not classic rock, hard rock or even heavy metal

I bought my first issue of HM in the summer of 82 (July issue) while on a camping trip with my family. It was right there on the newsstand in the park store, right at knee height.  The cover sported two robots in a passionate embrace. After all, those were the tumultuous, post-sexual-revolution, days of the Reagan-Era. But even by those really low standards, and despite having a woman on the editorial staff (Julie Simmons-Lynch, if I recall correctly), the magazine seemed positively retrograde when it came to issues of social equality. This would play a major force in shaping my adolescent self and perhaps damage it (something I will write about in another piece). It took a lot of deprogramming to heal some of that damage…

0782l

The cover of my first issue of HM, July 1982 (heavymetalfanpage.com)

If the July 82 issue’s cover wasn’t enough to spark a little controversy with my parents, upon opening the mag and finding fully-rendered nude women and (softcore) sex scenes (and Den with his dork hanging out), my mother promptly threw the thing into the campfire. But I was hooked. I was hooked not only for the amazing art and bombastic works of the likes of Jean Giraud (AKA Möbius or Moebius), Philippe Druillet, Richard Corben, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and more…but also by the editorial section titled Dossier – a collection of interviews with pop culture (and cult) icons, book and record reviews and thought pieces – edited (with copious contributions by) one Lou Stathis. This guy should have worked at Creem or Rolling Stone….HM was literally my first exposure to the living counterculture that still (miraculously) existed in the Satan-obsessed Age of Reagan.

Let me give you three excellent examples, all from that very same July 82 issue:

Exhibit A: You may know Michael Gira as the frontman for the seminal no-wave/art-rock project Swans. His piece in the Dossier, entitled Entertainment Through Pain, introduces the reader to three seminal cult bands on the vanguard of artful noise: Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and The Heat.  Gira says of Throbbing Gristle, “this is music you’ll hear as you prowl the sewers looking for food.”

Exhibit B: In 1982 the video arcade phenomenon was in full swing and video games felt like some artifact transported from a promised future. Cartoonist and founder of Punk Magazine, John Holmstrom contributed his take on the very-popular game, Donkey Kong in his short piece entitled, Nintendo’s Donkey Kong: Morality Tale Or Theatre Of The Absurd. Holmstrom compares the video game’s protagonist (the yet-to-be-named Mario) to Don Quixote and concludes, “the game echoes modern existential despair.” He does raise the interesting point: “the fact that video games involve the player more directly and intimately than books, film or tv has not yet been appreciated by any major media critic.”

Exhibit C: Stathis also contributed his regular Nu Vinyl column; this one dedicated to the burgeoning new movement in music he called Electro-Popism. Herein he introduced my eleven-year-old self to such bands as Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, Fad Gadget, Yellow, Japan, Wall of Voodoo, among others; most of whom got lackluster reviews. He declared Soft Cell a “low-rent, up-market Suicide.” (By Suicide, he meant the 70’s minimalist electro-punk band.)

What an education!  But Back to Stathis himself.

From what I can tell, Stathis started out at HM, strictly as a contributor, writing a music column (the rather blandly named Muzick) and despite the magazine’s namesake, Stathis seemed to have a penchant for the new and this primarily meant obscure, ambient, synth-driven sounds as well as post-punk and new wave. I happen to own the January 1980 issue where Stathis’ column first appears and he clearly draws a line in the musical sand by condensing any progress made in music during the 1970’s down to three letters: Eno. In the same article, he claims: “all that was authentic to the seventies can be summed up in about four words: Roxy Music and Sex Pistols.” But for Stathis, Brian Eno set the bar, and drew a direct evolutionary line to bands such as (I quote) “the Cars, Magazine, Gary Numan and Tubeway Army, Wire, Devo, the Residents, Pere Ubu, Talking Heads, (and) XTC.”  The only redeemable artist from the 60’s? He lists: “Beatles, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, the Soft Machine, Iggy and the Stooges, and the Velvet Underground.” Of all the bands listed, I knew the Beatles and Pink Floyd (and I thank Lou for introducing me to all the remaining names).

When it was first thrown at the American newsstands (to see if it stuck), HM was all about the full colour, post-psychedelic visuals of the then-burgeoning European comics scene. While in France, overseeing the launch of the French/Euro version of his widely-popular humour magazine National Lampoon, Leonard Mogul discovered Les Humanoïdes Associés – a loose affiliation and imprint set up by Europe’s comics luminaries – and their amazing and vibrant bedsheet magazine, Métal Hurlant. For the first few years (April 1977 – January 1980), HM was primarily a note-for-note reprint of Hurlant, stripped of any editorial content and with its cramped speech balloons loosely translated into English. Early issues of HM sported the occasional fantasy/sci-fi novel excerpt or short story but very little in the way of actual editorial content. The section misleadingly named Editorial was often less than a few hundred words and rarely touched on anything outside the vacuum of the issue in hand. The letters column had the rather-campy name, Chain Mail.

Early HM was a cult phenomenon. It was considered a ground-level magazine – that is, something that straddled the precarious line between the underground and mainstream. It was a big hit with stoners, loners, and proto-geeks who liked their fantasy “swords and sorcery” and their sci-fi dark and gritty. In January 1980 the original editorial team of Sean Kelly and Valarie Merchant was replaced by one Ted White. The blog, hoodedutilitarian goes into some detail about how Mr. White had a very different, much more literary, vision for HM. It was Mr. White who first brought the mysterious Lou Stathis to the pages of HM and I thank him.

White had known Stathis for some time, well before he took the editorial reigns of HM. For years, White had been editing mainstream sci-fi/fantasy magazines in the 1970s, like Amazing Stories and Fantastic, when he first hired Stathis as a columnist. Naturally, Stathis was one of four regular columnists White hired for HM’s new editorial stance. Stathis on music, Jay Kinney on “comix,” Bhob Stewart on film, and Steve Brown on science fiction literature.

From an obituary piece written for a fanzine called Apparatchik in 1997, White’s recollection of his relationship with Stathis seems almost paternal. He writes:

I saw him [sic] great talent as a writer, which I encouraged editorially. I first published him, as a (brief) columnist, in Fantastic. Then, when I moved to Heavy Metal, I launched his career as a music writer by giving him a rock (or, as he spelled it in those days, “rok”) column. After I left HM, Lou succeeded Brad Balfour as HM’s “magazine section” editor…

That “magazine section” was Dossier. Stathis had been given the reigns to Dossier beginning with the May 82 issue.  Stathis would go on to take Dossier (previously edited by Brad Balfour) to new heights. During his time overseeing the section he wrote a lot of music reviews (some full of classic Stathis vitriol) and did a lot of great interviews.  These interviews ranged from the very obscure (the NYC synth band, Our Daughters Wedding to mind) to culture icons, like David Lynch. (Thankfully, the Lynch interview still lingers on the internet.)

I forgot to mention that Lou Stathis died young. He died in 1997. He had a brain tumour. He was only 45 years old. White’s memorial piece in Apparatchik gives some insight into Stathis’ life and humanity. He was never married but many of his ex-girlfriends came to the funeral. His last girlfriend, “on whose shoulders many of the burdens of his death fell,” writes White, stayed with him to the very end.  According to White’s account, he had many friends. His funeral service was well-attended and partially in Greek. His Manhattan penthouse apartment was modest but also a mecca for late-working HM staff as well as visitors from out of town for many years after HM’s heyday.  Like White, he had become a mentor to many in the writing and publishing business. Again, in his Apparatchik piece, White writes:

I was struck my how any people there felt they owed Lou a great deal — for discovering them, encouraging them, and prompting their best work, as their editor or boss. As someone who had played that role for Lou, it was fascinating to hear how well he’d passed it along to others. And it was odd to hear Lou — 14 years my junior — referred to as some sort of senior eminence by those who were younger yet.

By July 1985, Stathis was no longer on the HM masthead. He moved on to other places. For a while he was senior editor for High Times and for the last few years of his life he worked for DC Comics’ Vertigo Line (working on such titles as Preacher).

By 1985 (and perhaps as early as 1984) HM started to go downhill. It went quarterly, the Dossier section was phased out, it got a little too racy (featured a lot of gratuitous rape) and sort of lost its cool. Even though I was an impressionable teenage boy, the new format didn’t jive with my sensibilities and I stopped buying issues around this time. To top it off, HM lost Stathis.


Above and beyond my own collection of Heavy Metal magazines, I owe many debts to the following blogs and websites for many of the facts I present here:

http://www.efanzines.com/Apparatchik/
http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com
http://theporporbooksblog.blogspot.ca
http://www.heavymetalmagazinefanpage.com

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Psychogeography: A Walk Through Shifty Town

Sometimes I like to take a walk through Shifty Town. Shifty Town is my name for the strip I used to haunt the most in my youth when visiting the city – namely, the Yonge Street Strip, from Queen to Bloor. It seemed rife with the mysteries of life. It was teaming with scrappy “city kids” and strange-but-beautiful people. It seemed like the place to go. Now I go there for entirely different reasons. Mostly to remember. I remember the flashing neon lights, the muscle cars and the heavy rock. I remember the smell of pizza, beer and corn dogs (or was it vomit?) and the strange, almost coded, demeanor of the locals – the true city inhabitants. Of course, it wasn’t really that shiftynot like it was in the 70’s, and not in present-day Queen and Parliament sense – but to a suburban youth in the late 80’s to mid 90’s the strip still held onto its mean streets veneer. When you’re a suburban child, everything outside the protective bubble of your neighbourhood is mythology. Street life, punk rockers, beggars, drug dealers, hustlers, ne’er-do-wells and prostitutes: these were all fantastic creatures, experienced only through TV, movies, hearsay and tall tales; until I was old enough to visit Shifty Town and saw them in the flesh. Now that I’ve lived downtown for over a decade, Shifty Town don’t seem so shifty anymore. Nevertheless, some vestiges of what made the place so interesting back then are still there, if you look hard enough.

The walk really begins at Bay and Edward, north of the Atrium on the Bay mall. Everything south of Edward is just a squeaky clean bore now. Thank god for the BMV bookstore. I can still browse their massive pulp fiction, graphic novel and DVD stock and look through the magazines of my youth (e.g. Omni, Eerie, Savage Sword, Heavy Metal, Starlog, etc.).  Sadly, one of my favourite haunts, the World’s Biggest Bookstore is now a vacant lot of depressing rubble. I remember the pre-Indigo/Chapters takeover days fondly. Even in its twilight years the place had some really odd titles and one of the best occult sections in town.

Speaking of the occult, psychic readers still abound in nooks and crannies, among the kitsch shops and massage parlours of Shifty Town, and I even saw a shop where you can buy a real crystal ball, vetted by a bonafide psychic (!) – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Moving up Yonge, Sam the Record Man (and that iconic marque) is now replaced with  a massive brutalist-pseudo-industrial temple to glass and steel. The place is perpetually aglow harsh and flickering LCD light. I miss Sam’s warm neon and incandescent exterior and the cluttered-yet-nostalgic vibe of its interior (the closest you can come to it today is Sonic Boom, a pale imitation). It’s nice that the Silver Snail lives here now, but the SS was really never the place to find a sweet deal and I’m not into buying new comics anymore (not right now anyway). I like the coffee shop inside the SS, it has a very inclusive vibe, but browsing the aisles tells me that geek culture moved on without me since the 1980’s and will continue to just move on; churning out the same clichés with slight variation, year after year. So much tits and ass on the covers…still…it’s no small wonder gender politics are exploding in this town (and around the world).

It’s hard to remember where Sams once stood: was it that glass and steel frame cube known as the Ryerson Student Learning Centre? Or was it where the fenced-in shanty market now resides? (Soon to be sterilized, I’m sure.)

I morn for Sunrise Records. Their two locations along the strip held out for quite some time. In their dying days they stocked a lot of paraphernalia (of both music and lowbrow culture sort) and home movies (to keep up with the newly-minted HMV, I suppose).  I remember seeing my own album stocked there, right next to Pavement’s Wowee Zowee. Meanwhile, I hear the HMV fights for survival. Many of their Toronto shops have closed in recent years.

My earliest memories of Shifty Town were the massive arcades. Fundland figures highly in my memories, but there were other, less wholesome places, lit only by exterior signage and blinking games. The arcades seemed edgy to me but in retrospect they were just typical noisy teenage hangs (throw in a few older “sketchy types” and punks). You could play games all night and then get a slice of incredibly greasy pizza. You could score drugs. It was really easy at the arcades. It seemed every ten feet I was being propositioned – the word “hash” and a knowing glance. Who knows if any of these “dealers” were actually cops. We never bought from them anyway. Back then, Hash and LSD were easy to score but good pot seemed hard to come by – mind you, my experience may not be universal and I never had to score anyway since my clique had a connection and I wasn’t that interested (and always hard up).

In my youth, cruising was the de rigor in Shifty Town. You borrowed your parent’s car and filled it with your buddies. You drove up and down the strip and you did it slowly. It was a way of experiencing. It was its own language. Nobody cruises Shifty Town anymore…well that’s not true, some still do but only those with the flashy cars and the shitty attitudes and they got it all backwards.

I still use the Zanzibar strip club as my flashing landmark to locate the hidden staircase that leads to the Hairy Tarantula comic shop. The “Hairy T” is a great place. A bit dusty, but a great place to find out-of-print RPGs.

Things start to sanitize considerably once I get to College Park. There are large swaths of clean new development around the mall.  I nearly turn off the main strip, but then vestiges of Shifty Town’s old grit come back once you get north of Grosvenor. Here, some of the old businesses still survive: mostly porno shops, cigar stores, perfume dealers, Canadiana souvenirs, pawn shops, a few old diners, the venerable Metro Sound Music, House of Lords salon, ABC Books, and Eliot’s Books (among many others).  Eliot’s is like a beacon of respectability among baser fare. It’s the classic used bookshop you see in every movie sporting the “eccentric bookseller in big city” trope. Where are the mogwai kept?  It wasn’t very long ago that I was on the top floor, browsing Canadian literature, and I could hear the muffled thumping and muted moaning of a porno booth in the adjacent establishment.  Some of the older places are shuttered and vacant. An old tavern, sporting a dark Spanish-style triple arch exterior, is now a Money Mart. More than a few of these payday loan places have sprung up. 1,000,000 Comix has moved to the west side of Yonge – kudos for staying alive. Is that the old Grey Region location? It’s hard to tell now. I miss the Grey Region. The place was already dusty and unfocused when I discovered it, but I could tell it was once a mecca for all manner of nerd. I bought many classic 1970’s/1980’s TSR modules there (like the G series) for a mere few dollars a piece! I remember seeing “little black book” Traveller there too –  but in the mid-2000’s I wasn’t savvy enough to pick that up. In its final days the shop became more of an internet cafe before closing for good. Somewhere around here, I remember Monster Records, a primo-bookshop and a great repository of low brow culture. I found a cheap copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s, Hell’s Angels there. I miss that place too.

Speaking of which, Shifty Town still has internet cafes. Most of them are hidden away on upper levels. Who needs an internet cafe these days? Tourists? Backpackers? I pass one on ground level. It’s quite spacious but still dark. I didn’t catch the name of the place – think it was an [i]Klick. It advertises its printing services, a fairly legitimate use, but actually houses many men, mostly middle-aged, gaming and surfing anonymously on tower PCs. Behind the front desk is a beautiful woman with short pink-blonde hair in a rather elegant black dress…Hmm, it’s right out of a spy novel, or an episode of Veronica Mars.

A street cleaner walks behind me singing John Lennon’s Imagine at full volume. The dream ain’t over. I duck into ABC Books for a moment. The place is cleaner and more organized than I remember. I need a snack. I chuckle openly as I walk by a cannabis dispensary (one of many) next to a fairly clean pizza joint (the Pizzaiolo chain). There’s a dude with a large black backpack leaning against the wall out front the always-busy 7-Eleven. At first I thought the booming hip hop was coming from the black limo, parked half-over the curb with it’s four-ways on; but no, the noise is coming from inside the backpack. The kids working the 7-Eleven show the calm humility and bottomless patience that only a CS-student-with-a-mc-job can…soon, once they graduate from their engineering program, they’ll be making more money in a quarter than I do in a year.

The long-shuttered building on the corner of St. Mary was once the Toronto Church of Scientology. ‘Nuff said.

Things chill out considerably north of Charles St. New development has taken over.  Only the Brass Rail remains. The street widens like a rich boulevard. A homeless man lies on the curb’s edge, stretched out and relaxed, as if on a couch, gleefully watching the crowd across the street. The number of homeless in Shifty Town seems to have remained the same all these years but looks can be deceiving.

I get up to Bloor. I’m standing on the edge of the once-famous Yorkville Village. The one-time bohemian enclave is now merely a collection of malls, chain-cafes, condos and upscale boutiques.  I turn the corner, heading west on Bloor. I have obviously slipped from the realm of downtown into the more upscale midtown. It’s a fashion connoisseur’s mecca, with upscale shops like Lacoste, Prada, Gucci, etc. The street is wide and clean. Cabs wait outside an expensive hotel. I could be in any city, anywhere in the world – they all have their own sanitized good-consumer’s-boulevard.  Hey, next time you’re window shopping Prada, take a walk down Shifty Town instead.

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Games: Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG

This is my first RPG-related review. So, before I do this, a bit about myself: I’ve been running role playing games since 1982, starting with Holmes’ Basic Dungeons & Dragons and then the Moldvay/Cook editions before “graduating” to Advanced D&D in 1984. In my formative years I lived and breathed D&D (as I’m sure many of you did too) and, frankly, I played too much. I took a short hiatus in my senior high school year and picked up the gauntlet once again in university; running Call of Cthulhu on a bi-weekly basis with the occasional foray back into AD&D. My games in university were well-mixed in terms of gender – cis male being in the minority. (Perhaps making up for the somewhat homogeneous groups of my earlier DMing career.) After university I entered the “working world” and D&D fell to the wayside. I would occasionally run games for my university friends (who still remain so). In the early 2000’s I ran a year-long Second Edition AD&D campaign for my wife and brother. I eschewed the newly-christened Third Edition because, although it was a fine system, it didn’t look or feel like D&D to me.  Eventually, I was given the revised Third Edition (3.5) and it seemed a little more like the D&D I was familiar with, but not entirely and I eventually went back to Good Ol’ First Edition AD&D. I completely ignored Fourth Edition stuff. It was around that time that I discovered Original “White Box” D&D and started researching and collecting (first the PDFs and then actual print copies). It has taken me years to find all of it at affordable prices. Eventually, I went into music full time and had very little time for anything else. Two of my band mates wanted to play, so in 2013 I took AD&D on tour with us…after all those years, I was still in love with the game. In my latest bout of DMing, I’ve run thirty one gaming sessions since Sept 2014 (19 of which are an ongoing campaign, 7 single-session adventures, 1 convention and 4 from a short-lived campaign). If that doesn’t sound like a lot, keep in mind that I’m a Dad, a freelance writer, and a working musician; plus my gaming sessions are notoriously long, usually running five or more hours. In all this, I’m not counting the copious amounts of prep and research time and the sessions I’ve attended as a player. I am an Envoy of Dragonsfoot, a member of the Knights and Knaves Alehouse as well as odd74. I have owned (but not always kept) every iteration of the D&D game. In my collection I have such retro clones as Castles & Crusades (both hardcover and White Box), Swords and Wizardry (Core rules, hardcover), OSRIC (coil bound) and Dungeon World. I am telling you all this so that you may deem me qualified (or not qualified, if such a thing exists) to review my latest purchase: Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (henceforth, DCC). Now, onward…(ps., if you are familiar with DCC you can skip to my final verdict below).

Firstly, DCC has some great prose. Author Joseph Goodman writes like a person who has just binge-read all of Appendix N. (Indeed, he later claims to have done just that before attempting to write DCC.) I wouldn’t go as far as to say it reads just like Gygax but it is definitely Gygax-tinged (with hues of Lieber, Moorcock and Howard) and it was the writing that initially hooked me. Like Gygax, Goodman has a penchant for diction, but he uses his deep vocabulary to make his writing as concise as possible while maintaining a pulp-atmosphere. Here’s a tasty example:

You owe allegiance to no man, aye, but a demon or god may hold sway upon your soul. You are a tight-lipped warlock studying ancient tomes, a witch corrupted by black magic, a demonologist trading soul-slivers for secrets, or an enchanter muttering chants in lost tongues. You are one of many foul mortals clutching at power. Will you succeed? Low-level wizards are indeed very powerful, but high-level wizards fear for their souls.

From the onset it is clear that DCC is written for experienced Judges (that’s DCC-speak for DM). Indeed this refreshing sentiment is explicitly stated several times in the text. DCC is, perhaps, also written for those players and Judges who have grown tired of Vanilla D&D. You know, Vanilla D&D: where predictable fantasy tropes roam predictable fantasy landscapes. Where goblins and orcs are, well, just goblins and orcs. Here in DCC we see a world where every spell has the potential to corrupt the body and soul of its caster, every doorway is a demented visage, plants are simply not to be trusted, every monsters is a one-of-a-kind mutant-variant, or an outsider-alien, or a demon, and every map looks like a stoner-doodle. If DCC is your first fantasy role playing game you might find it difficult to fathom; it’s like skipping alcohol and going straight for LSD. If DCC is your first fantasy role playing game, I envy you.

I should say, for a book that hooked me with its stylish prose the art really takes it to the next level. While both Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry make great strides towards getting back to the feel golden era RPG art (1977 – 1983, IMhO), DCC hits it out of the park. If you are a fan of the visuals in the original AD&D hardcovers, the Moldvay/Cook box sets and even some non-TSR stuff from the 70’s and 80’s, DCC will not disappoint. Much of the art looks very familiar because Goodman has managed to employ many of the very same artists from the golden era: Jeff Dee, Jeff Easley, David (Diesel) Laforce, Russ Nicholson, Jim Roslof and Erol Otus (my personal favourite). Even the contemporary artists do a great job of emulating much of the classic feel of golden era D&D, especially Peter Mullan (his work being very reminiscent of both Erol Otus and Moebius) and Stefan Poag (who does a great impression of D. A. Trampier, among others). It goes beyond paying homage and takes things to a new (sometimes comically-gruesome) level. Case and point, compare DCC’s Lokerimon the Lawful to AD&D’s Emerikol the Chaotic:

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Many pages in the DCC RPG look like the fringes of a metalhead’s high school notebook – and I mean that in the best-possible sense. The full-page illustration on page 59 (a port-city under siege by a massive kraken and an army of Kuo-Toa) literally looks like the planned culmination of my latest AD&D campaign…

Goodman definitely got the aesthetic correct; but what about the system? Straight away Goodman points out the major differences between DCC and both early and modern versions of D&D. Quite refreshingly, he assumes that the reader is knowledgeable in D&D. He spells it out: no feats, no prestige classes, no skill points, no attacks of opportunity, ascending AC, no separation between class and race, there are only three saves types, clerics turn more than just un-dead and much more (as we shall see).   We then move on to character generation and we are introduced to the first major innovation of DCC: the character creation funnel.

Much like OD&D and early-AD&D, characters in DCC do not start off as bona fide heroes. They must work their way up and will likely die trying. This is true in my own campaigns, but this philosophy does not bode well among younger/modern players. But I ask you, where is the challenge in a game that does not carry the sting of death? In a world where players are ever-impatient and accustomed to “balanced” games where hyper-heroic-1st-level characters can’t die, Goodman has come up with great solution: Players begin by playing up to four 0-level characters at once. These “mere peasants and yeomen,” who have no real skill (or class) to speak of, die by the score, but usually at least ONE (perhaps by some stroke of luck) will come out the other side (so to speak) and graduate to the first level. These survivors get to choose a class (i.e. cleric, warrior, wizard or thief) and may adopt the abilities of said class. This is brilliant because it trains modern player’s to accept character mortality (which really isn’t such a bad thing) by giving them what essentially amounts to multiple lives, while at the same time it truncates the otherwise lengthy process of finding “the one that sticks.” This funnel (I would have used the term, grind but that’s me) is dependent on one major DCC design-pillar: randomization.

It is through randomization that DCC achieves its game balance, or at least that’s what DCC claims. Does that really hold water? I don’t know, but I do know one thing: so much damage has been done to D&D in the name of game balance. Old school players know that, despite claims, O/AD&D (even by-the-book) was anything but balanced but that didn’t matter because in the hands of a good DM the system worked just fine. I for one gave up on the idea of mechanical game balance a long time ago – who needs it? Ultimately, it is up the DM (or Judge) to provide balance (or the veneer of balance) – but I digress. What this whole randomization equals game balance edict really achieves is a way to create characters that are not a bunch of MOMAs (min/maxed-overpowered-munchkin-avatars). DCC does this brilliantly (insidiously so) by enforcing such old-school tenets as rolling ability scores using 3d6 in order, by not allowing maximum hit points at 1st (or even zero) level, and my randomizing such things as previous occupation (reminiscent of AD&D’s secondary skills), race, and the contents of a 1st-level wizard’s spellbook. It does this by not separating class and race (a wonderful throwback to Moldvay’s 1981 basic rules) and keeping class selection (offered to humans only) limited to the four original archetypes.

Another DCC innovation is the dice chain. Like most d20 games, DCC uses the roll over the DC (aka, the arbitrarily assigned difficulty class) or roll over AC mechanic. But in addition to the normal plus/minus modifiers the system establishes major advantages and disadvantages through the dice chain, which is a sequence which runs as follows: d3, d4, d5, d6. d7. d8, d10, d12, d14, d16, d20, d24, d30. The norm is to roll a d20, but depending on circumstances a character’s roll may move “up” or “down” the dice chain. For example, a character using a weapon he/she is not trained in will move down to d16 on the dice chain. If they are not trained in their weapon and entangled in a web or net, they’re rolling a d14. A high-level warrior with two actions per round will roll a d20 for the first action and a d16 for the second. Imagine rolling a d14 to hit AC 13 … Oh, but what’s a d14 anyway? Well, Gamescience can sell you all these “funky” Zocchi dice (d30’s are relatively easy to find in stores) or you can easily simulate these dice using the standard platonic array. For example, a d3 is simply a d6 where a roll of 4 = 1, 5 = 2, and 6 = 3.  A d16 can be simulated using a d10 plus two different coloured d6’s (one d6 determines whether to add the other d6 to the d10; odd = add, even = don’t add). Experienced DMs have been doing this sort of thing for years.

The third innovation is not really a new idea except that it supplants one of the six original abilities. I’m talking about the luck stat. The concept of luck or “luck points” that you can burn to help out die rolls is not new (e.g. Top Secret, circa 1980). Many so-called modern games have utilized a similar system (sometimes referred to as plot points or hero points) – the idea of being that the points are limited and (generally) not recoverable under normal circumstances. In DCC, luck replaces the old wisdom stat. So we have six abilities (in this order): strength, agility (read dexterity), stamina (read constitution), personality (read charisma/wisdom/will), intelligence and luck. If a character gains an attribute bonus due to a high luck score, they get to randomly roll on a table to determine specifically what that bonus will apply to. This “lucky roll” bonus (or penalty in the case of bad luck) is an immutable character trait and may apply to anything, really. In game, Warriors, Dwarfs, Elves, Wizards and Clerics can semi-permanently burn luck points to improve die rolls. However, once they have burned some luck it is likely that they may never get it back. Furthermore, there may be situations where characters will have to “test their luck” (by rolling under their luck score on a d20) and being S.O.O.L is a distinct possibility. Hobbits and thieves can regenerate luck points – lucky them.

Speaking of lucky rolls, I like the way DCC handles skills. As a DM who is not accustomed to dealing with long lists of skills and prefers DM fiat as a positive tool (say, ‘yes’ or roll the dice) I find DCC’s skills-lite approach very refreshing. There is no list. A player must make a reasonable argument as to whether his/her character would be trained in a particular skill (based on class, prior occupation and experience).  If the Judge deems that they are trained in a skill they get to roll a d20 against an arbitrary DC; otherwise they roll a d10. I love that there’s a section titled, When Not to Make a Skill Check that pretty much sums up how I’ve always felt about skills:

Skill checks are designed for use when a system of abstract rules is necessary to adjudicate a situation. Only make a skill check when practical descriptions by the players will not suffice.

This is how I’ve been doing skills for years, really.

Even in OD&D I make use of the occasional attribute check/roll especially if the character is under duress: like jumping across a chasm to escape pursuit, or parsing some ancient text while the enemy is breaking down the exit door. The old “roll under your ability score on a d20” was first officially suggested in Moldvay’s Basic (1981) but over the years I’ve tried various things based on circumstances particular to the situation. (These include everything from “roll 6 on a 1d6+attribute bonus to custom matrices.) DCC makes use of the now-standard “roll over the DC on a d20” mechanic (where DC 5 is “child’s play”, and DC 20 is “superhuman”), which is OK but not really my cup of tea. The added element of the dice chain is a cool twist but can be a bit fiddly if you don’t have the special dice or if you’re not used to using a control die. Frankly, the recent “advantage/disadvantage” mechanic in D&D 5E seems like a much more elegant way of skewing probabilities without +/- modifiers. That said, their is something cool and wondrous about acquiring a whole new set of weird dice.

I’ve never been a fan of critical hits (and misses) but I use them because, well, players enjoy it. DCC makes excellent use of the venerable concept. The idea of something cool happening on a natural roll of 20 (or 1) is nothing new and dates back to the 1970’s. Even the “little brown books” hint at the idea (i.e. the rules for the Vorpal Blade in Supplement 1: Greyhawk). By the early 80’s most non-TSR medieval fantasy RPGs used critical hits in some form and a critical hit table for D&D (listing all the various nasty things that can happen, like decapitation) appeared in Dragon Magazine issue #39 (Good Hits and Bad Misses, by Carl Parlagreco). DCC takes this concept to a whole new level with some creative ideas and great prose-style. There are no less than five critical hit tables, organized by level and character type. As characters level up the critical hit results become more and more outrageous. Here’s an example of a low-level (zero level peasant) critical hit result:

Stunning crack to the forehead. Inflict +1d3 damage with this strike, and the foe falls to the bottom of the initiative count next round.

Here’s is an example of a high-level warrior critical hit result:

Strike crushes throat. Foe begins drowning in his own blood and expires in 1d4 rounds.

How cool is that?

Critical hits and fumbles may not be an innovation in itself, but how DCC applies the same concept to magic certainly is. In DCC magic is actually dangerous – outrageously so. This is something that was hinted at in O/AD&D, but never fully explored and certainly not codified. DCC makes use of a spell check roll and the results can vary from catastrophic failure, to mild success, to complete insanity. Because high level characters are more likely to roll higher spell checks, all spells are scaled for level by design. There is no need for “Monster summoning I,” “Monster summoning II,” and so on, there is simply only Monster Summoning. For example, a 4th-level wizard casts Monster Summoning and rolls a 19 (natural 15 + caster level). The result would be a two 1HD creatures or one 2HD creature that remain for one hour. A 10th-level wizard with the same roll would conjure his/her choice of two 2HD creatures or one 4 HD creature that remain twice as long. The most powerful wizards (capable of spell checks of 34 or higher) can summon  up to sixteen 1HD creatures! If this particular example seems banal, let’s take a look at the familiar Charm Person spell. A decent spell check roll will produce the well-known result of charming a single person. A very high-level wizard can do this:

The caster can influence the emotions of large groups of people, including crowds of public spectators or armies of angry warriors. The caster can attempt to charm  up to 100 people at once…Targets of equal to or less than the caster do not receive a save…

So, imagine charming a whole army of orcs, so that they will do your bidding, with one single spell! And (as we shall see later) a character’s spell level is not the only modifier you can add to a spell check roll.  Built into this is a sort of safety valve (in terms of game balance) and that’s critical failures. Like warriors attempting some fantastic killer blow there’s always a 5% chance for any character at any level to roll a natural 1 – critical failure!  And in the case of spells (and their results tables), the chance of a “misfire” is usually a little higher than 5%. A spell misfire, like a critical miss or fumble, means that something bad is going to happen. It’s usually something benign, akin to a pie in the face, but sometimes the results can be catastrophic for the character (or other party members). Every spell lists random misfire results that range in severity. For example, with Charm Person a misfire may result in the caster falling in love with the intended target(s)!

One thing to consider is that the base-chance for spellcheck success is a roll of 12 or better – so, on average, a first-level wizard only has a 35-40% chance of succeeding (assuming a decent intelligence score). That means most of the time a spell will just fizzle out without any effect. This could have unforeseen consequences for a Judge who designs their own adventures.

Besides having spells go off in one’s own face, there are three more elements that make arcane magic very dangerous: corruption, spell burn and patron taint. (Clerical magic has it’s own dangers, checks and balances, but for brevity we’ll concentrate only the wizard class here.)

Corruption is what it sounds like – a permanent physical or mental alteration as a consequence of spell failure. In a single stroke of genius, DCC manages to nicely codify the crazy/deformed/monstrous sorcerer fantasy trope. Upon reaching the highest of levels, there is a very good chance that the average wizard character (having cast many spells and given ample opportunity for critical failure) will no longer resemble a human being. For some, this horrifying transformation will be a big seller for playing the wizard class – I mean, your character literally devolves into some kind of chaotic-bestial-creature of great power, feared by neighbouring village folk, and perhaps the focus of some dark fireside legend told for generations to come. How cool is that?

Spellburn allows a caster to literally offer up their own body, mind or life-essence to some supernatural force in order to gain a spell check advantage. This may be as simple as shedding one’s own blood for a ritual (say, 3 points of stamina) or literally offering up a portion of one’s immortal soul (say, 3 points of intelligence and 3 points of personality). This Faustian concept of the price of power has a long tradition in literature and it’s great to see it codified so elegantly here. Not since Call of Cthulhu has there been a magic system so simultaneously powerful and detrimental to those who dare to dabble in the art. Unlike spending luck, spellburns are typically temporary but it takes time to “heal” one’s abilities back up to normal.

Another concept (tied into spellburn) are patrons of magic.  Again, this notion dates way back: what is Faust without his Mephistopheles, or Dante’s without Virgil’s ghost or the Salem witch without Satan (or Pan)? In DCC a wizard may choose to make a permanent pact with a supernatural outsider being (be it a deity, demon, devil, ghost, alien intelligence, or the minion of such beings) via the ritual spell Patron Bond. Such a pact allows the caster to gain access to powers and spells unique to devotees of that specific patron. Subsequently, the spell Invoke Patron allows a caster to consult (or bargain) with said being(s) in order to gain specific magical advantages. These exchanges are always of a “give and take” nature and, as one would expect, patrons tend to be fickle and self-serving.  By calling on a patron, a sorcerer always risks wrath or scorn (often by way of a critical failure on the spell check), the effect of this is a patron taint. A patron taint is a whole new set of corruptions unique to each patron. Almost always, the effect of a patron taint causes the sorcerer to take some physical or behavioural aspect of their patron; so that they may grow horns or their skin may change colour or texture, or they may grow extra limbs…since only a few of presumably many possible patrons are outlined in the rules, the Judge is encouraged to create their own. I like this line of thinking in an RPG – DCC expects inventive Judges.

Yes, I have glossed over many details here (including clerical magic, the mercurial nature of magic, the types of magic, as well as the general mechanics of the magic system). There’s just a lot of information and ideas to take in, and frankly I think if these concepts spark your interest I implore you to pick up the DCC RPG.  In a word, the DCC magic system is amazing. There is no need for a “sanity stat” when a sorcerer’s sins against nature manifest themselves as grotesque physical traits or mandatory and bizarre ritualistic behaviour. This is the sort of stuff that proponents of the old satanic panic would cite as “evidence” and it’s what sets DCC apart from other, more traditional systems. (To those who still believe in the D&D-devil worship connection, I have only two words: get real.)  Only about 125 spells are actually outlined in detail but the system openly encourages and sets the template for expansion and customization –  which is the very heart of old-school. Even if you don’t want to run a “new” system, it’s worth reading this book for the ideas alone (the hallmark of any good RPG product).

Speaking of ideas, I love DCC’s approach to monsters for therein lies the currency of a good adventure. The game assumes that Judge (and their players) are long-suffering RPG enthusiasts, seeking the wonder and mystery of “the good ol’ days.”  In short, monsters should be unique and mysterious and the DCC rules codify some methods to ensure this:

1) there are no generic or “repeatable” monsters. All monsters (including orcs, kobolds and goblins) should be unique and local variations on a theme. If you have a population of one monster species in an area, a population of the same type in another area should differ significantly. DCC aids the Judge in achieving this with some random charts.

2) a game world (or at least the region in which the PCs spend most of their career) should only contain one of each kind of mythical monster. For example, there should only be one pegasus, one basilisk, one manticore, etc. There is never “a monster” but rather “the monster.” This means that Judges/DMs will inevitably run out of monsters…so be it! The DCC game is about creating new creatures and not relying on the old tropes.

4) never name monsters by type, but rather, describe their appearance and behaviour. If they must be named (because they are special/important) use proper names, like “the horrid Explictica Defilus, demon-god of the forked tongue and all who dwell in the forbidden mire.”

The various iterations of D&D have always hinted at this “show don’t tell” approach to encounters, but in practice many DMs give this advice the brush off. DCC actually mandates it as necessary to the game. Is there a “monster compendium” in the back of the book? Yes. But that compendium (actually called, Cyclopedia of Creatures) is short, detailing some of the most basic monster types and a few interesting creations from the DCC universe. About this Cyclopedia, Goodman writes:

With the caveat that every monster should be unique, judges will still need some basic creatures to use as opponents for the heroes when they play this game. Moreover, classic monsters provide a benchmark by which the judge can guide his own creations.

Another interesting tact DCC employs to make encounters more unique are monster primes and elders. For every creature encountered there is a small chance that it may be one of these two sub-types. Primes are like platonic iterations: near-perfect specimens of any given type of monster, sent to earth from an eternal cosmic struggle between law and chaos. Primes are stronger and more effective than their more mundane counterparts. Likewise, elders are purebred specimens who have survived long and, despite being aged, still retain special qualities that grant them powers above and beyond the average.

Most significantly, regarding monsters, DCC attempts to put the wonder back into the game by breaking a long held RPG tenet that PCs and monsters are subject to the same rules and limitations.  A typical wizard PC might have a hard time casting fireball, but that may not be the case for the crazy Old Wizard who lives in the Dark Wood – he casts fireball to full effect, without flinching, every time. This might sound banal, but it’s a major stance. The Gygaxian notion of player/monster balance through equal adherence to the rules was sub-textually canonized in first edition AD&D. Every monster was given specific statistics in detail so that there was very little question about their abilities and their limits in terms of game mechanics. Gygax a wrote: “ALWAYS GIVE A MONSTER AN EVEN BREAK,” with respect to giving players an edge in order to keep the story moving, that home-spun combat rules should, “cut both ways” with regards to monsters and PCs while he also said “(e)ach and every monster must be played as closely to its stated characteristics as is possible.” (pages 110, 61 and 103 in the DMG, respectively). Although it’s not explicit in the rules, I know many AD&D DMs (found mostly on the Dragonsfoot Forums) who sit down and painstakingly flesh out their spellcasting and “big boss” monsters by-the-book. (Interestingly, this behaviour is less common among OD&D enthusiasts and the Odd74 group.) Conversely, in DCC the Judge is encouraged to give the monsters an edge. Monsters literally don’t “play by the rules,” so that players can never predict (or argue against) what they are truly up against. The leader of an otherwise normal band of orcs might be a stunted specimen (half the size of all the other orcs) with a glowing third eye who can use telekinesis to push heavy objects (and people) with unerring accuracy and cause large boulders to suddenly explode, spreading deadly shrapnel in all directions. The mutant orc might have powers unlike any listed in the rule book. It is not the Judge’s job to “justify” or rationalize such things – that’s the player’s job!

Another aspect of DCC I find enduring is the virtue it places upon a small world. Goodman states and reiterates that the medieval world consisted of small isolated pockets of “civilization” surrounded by vasts untamed wilderness.  The average peasant-serf never travelled more than a dozen miles from where they were born. Information about other neighbouring lands or the wide-world was hard to come by and often distorted or just plain wrong. Only barons, important merchants, and politicos had any business communicating with people in lands beyond their purview. Information travelled at the rate of foot – 3 miles per hour and no more than 24 miles per day (if they didn’t make stops along the way). Given these limitations, there is no need to design a massive fantasy world. Goodman actually recommends a setting of about 100 miles square – perfect for 6-mile hex maps on a standard sheet of hex paper. The age-old technique of “starting small” and slowly working outward, developing facts about the world at large as players explore it, is strongly in place here.

Unlike other OSR rule sets (or retroclones) DCC is not setting-agnostic. There is a world at work herein with named gods and patrons (and demons, outsiders, etc.). The world is named Áereth. Most DCC adventure modules claim to be setting-agnostic or world-generic but like the old TSR AD&D modules, which were clearly set in Greyhawk, many DCC modules are clearly set in Áereth but can be easily shoehorned into any setting that is influenced by (or based on) Appendix N literature.

Final verdict.

One of the things that struck me the most about DCC is how much it reads like my own A/OD&D campaigns. Some of the ideas I really like about DCC are things I’ve been doing (or working out) myself for years. DCC shows some interesting ways to implement these concepts. For this reason it’s proven to be a valuable resource.

For my next campaign, I’ve adapted the Traveller method of character generation in which the player generates number of potential characters and they “dice” their backstories pre-game. PCs typically enlist in a tour of duty (or some such) in a randomly determined occupation or service order to gain experience pre-game. This will inevitably produce a number of “duds” who die before they make it to the table and typically one character (starting above level 1, depending on the number of tours survived) with an interesting history, scars and skillset. This system, in many ways, serves the same purpose as the character funnel in DCC in that it allows a player to become attached to a single character who somehow survived “the grind,” against all odds, just to adopt an archetypal heroic stance (i.e. choose a class). (Incidentally, I also use the very stingy, roll 3d6 in order method of stats generation.) The DCC funnel is a cool idea, but it requires a session or two of actual play. This might be fun for some (and I can see the virtue of teaching young players that PC death is not all-that-bad) but it seems like the sort of experiment that might wear thin after several trials.

For a long time I wanted a truly Faustian magic system where magic is rare, difficult, powerful but also dangerous. I’ve had spells dramatically fail for NPCs, but I have never developed a “fair” way to have the same thing occur for PCs. Yes, AD&D spells like Cacodaemon, Gate, Contact Higher Plane and the various high-level summoning spells are wrought with dangers (if played correctly) but the idea that a spell as mundane as Magic Missile or Light could kill you and your companions is interesting indeed. As I’ve already hinted, I’ll be using the DCC magic system (or something like it) in my forthcoming games. The results tables (for spell effects, corruptions, and taints) can be adopted wholesale and easily hacked by any enterprising Judge/DM to suit their individual tastes.

Other ideas I had floating in my head before DCC came along include both patrons and luck. As mentioned earlier, in my latest O/AD&D games I added a luck stat (not rolled, but derived as the mean of all six regular stats). I allowed players to permanently burn their luck to help out rolls (I called it spending) and I had a system for testing a PC’s luck in dire situations that could have either binary or variable results (depending on the situation at hand). It was an easy mechanic to implement and it didn’t break the game. The idea of luck is not new and has been floating around since at least Tunnels & Trolls in the 70’s (same as the “double damage” on a natural 20 rule). In fact, the more I look at it, DCC seems like Goodman’s personal hack of either OD&D + bits of Greyhawk or “Classic” Moldvay/Cook D&D. The merging of class and race is certainly a throwback to Classic D&D (and some would claim OD&D).

Anyone who’s read Lovecraft or Moorcock knows that magic is granted by (and mixed in with the wants and desires of) outsider beings, be them demons, or Outer Gods or Old Ones. Historically, it was believed that witches and warlocks derived their “power” directly from Satan or some demon. I’ve always been a fan of this concept. (Especially when it comes to clerical magic, of which I make very little distinction from so-called “arcane magic” in my games).  Funny enough, without any prior knowledge of DCC, I also chose “patron” as the term for these outsider beings, so I was quite jazzed to see how another hacker-DM objectified their use. In my games the “damage” caused to magic users (especially clerics) via a patron is primarily mental (physical damage only occurring as a result of direct contact with a patron or its minion).  I’m surprised that DCC does not have a sanity stat (I use the old CoC mean of intellect and wisdom San stat) but then again with all the great patron taint ideas in this book a sanity stat might prove superfluous.

I do love the general look and feel of this rule set and the ideas around magic are great. I’m no fan of the D20-era “make up a DC so that everything can be resolved with a d20” mechanic but the DCC dice chain finds a way to mix up the dice a bit. The combat rules are very simple, maybe too simple – leaving a lot of “blank space” for the Judge/DM to modify the rules (and I would modify them). There’s a lot of table-indexing for the Judge when it comes to critical fumbles, critical hits and spell results, among many other tables, but a good screen and some time with the rules will surely cure that.** Even better,  I believe a good Judge will eventually just make this stuff up using the tables merely as good guidelines.  I’m not a fan of the DCC experience system, where experience is not granted for treasure, but rather only for overcoming (read surviving) encounters and avoiding hazards. I find the metrics not granular enough (it takes 10 xp to gain a level???). I would probably stick to standard AD&D experience methods where experience is primarily granted for loot and good role playing, followed by encounters/hazards survived. There is no real encumbrance system to speak of (which is fine in many people’s books, I’m sure) but I happen to like encumbrance and actually prefer the Classic/OD&D method of only adding up weapons and armour (but assigning a base-amount for all misc. gear) plus any coin found.

Overall, I’m not quite sure if I’m ready to plunge head-first into a straight DCC campaign (if such a thing exists) but given all the similarities between DCC and my very own hack of O/AD&D, I’m sure it will have a place at my table.

Fight on!

 

** Full disclosure: Since writing this review I am 6 sessions into the “new campaign” I mention here, where I am integrating some of DCC’s magic system into AD&D. I’ve since developed some new opinions about the DCC magic system. Look for a forthcoming retrospective (and campaign journal). 

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