Fantasy Inspirations of My Youth

This is a good "why are you like this" challenge:

If I'd been called on to run a D&D campaign at age 10 or 12,
these are the images and plots I would have drawn on to
provide the inspiration for my game. […] What were your earliest
childhood fantasy inspirations? What did your fantasy world
look like back then?
DIY and Dragons

I think these are roughly in order of age of discovery, publication date's often very different. I was… the word schools liked was "precocious", which just means I was years and years ahead of the curriculum designed for morons and they had no idea how to educate me, any more than an ape could educate a mere Human. The Tarzan problem. So I read and watched whatever I liked, and grew up weird. Giving me D&D and then Gamma World was just giving a junkie an endless needle.

  • Godzilla (1954): This is what dragons are like. Any kind of giant, dinosaur, or kaiju is a catastrophe you run from, not a "monster" you fight from horseback, those are just wyverns. I saw basically every monster movie and some sentai on KSTW-11, which only had budget for old movies and reruns.

  • Star Wars (1977), Splinter of the Mind's Eye, by Alan Dean Foster (1978), Empire Strikes Back (1980): High-tech but just fantasy activity; as I learned later, Star Wars is The Hidden Fortress with spaceships, many scenes are shot-for-shot remakes.

    I'm trying to think what I learned from this, and I think it's that every alignment can be cool. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Leia are Chaos, and they're cool, tho if Leia wins she'll establish a tyrannical monarchy again which is no good. Han Solo is Neutral, and he's cooler than cool, and shoots first. Darth Vader is Order, choking out all dissension, and he's THE COOLEST. Luke and Grand Moff Tarkin suck, but you can't have everyone be cool or nobody is.

    Figure out your antagonists' motives, take their affectations and crank them up to 11, and you have an EPIC hero or villain. Pity they never made any more Star Wars movies, I might've liked to see Revenge of the Jedi. I will take no email or comments to the contrary.

  • Bullfinch's Mythology: While now it's "oh that old thing", Bullfinch did a fantastic job of covering Greek/Roman (more Greek, but with Roman names; Roman syncretism mapped names to their gods but their practices were different), Norse, and Arthurian mythos, including a lot of the poetry and literature that referenced them in the 2000 years since. Academic mythology books are too concerned with period beliefs and not how those ideas are used in later works, so they're less gameable. The art in Bullfinch's is also fantastic.

  • Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter of Mars, Tarzan of the Apes, Pellucidar: You know why everyone in fantasy worlds speaks Common? Because the Barsoomians have a common language by way of telepathy; Carter's telepathy's a little stronger than usual, so he can project it, but they all have it. The ruined cities, falling civilization, a hero trying to bring back glories, toppling false religions, it had it all. Tarzan's ruined cities and ancient civilizations hidden in the jungle were awesome, literally set much of my campaign style. Pellucidar was so weird and dream-like, I barely understood it, but a plausible way for dinosaurs, Humans, and evil Mahars to coexist was amazing, too. It's not a coincidence Eric J. Holmes, editor of Dungeons & Dragons Basic set, wrote a Pellucidar novel.

  • National Geographic: I had access to a big stack of old NatGeo from '40s to '70s. In particular, I devoured anything about Ancient Rome, Egypt, Greece, Mayans, & Aztecs. NatGeo of the time was astoundingly West-oriented and racist; I would've loved to know more about China, Japan, Korea, & India, but they were barely touched on. Africa was only ever presented as wilderness or savages, zero mention of modern cities. I have an eternal love of giant detailed maps from this time.

  • ElfQuest (1978): Very pretty, cutesy comics about cuddly little Wood Elves and their Wolf pets… Ha ha no, I lie, they're vicious, backstabbing, eternally horny/drunk little bastards, the Trolls (more like Dwarfs) are venal scumbags, Preservers (Fairies) are insane pests, High Elves are supernatural psychopath villains, and Humans are the dumbest, meanest animals on 2 legs. Here's how to throw all your dumb Tolkien racist shit out and have murderous Keebler Elves.

  • Michael Moorcock: The silver Elric books and bronze Count Brass books, I grabbed as soon as each new one came out, devoured them. Elric's world is full of weird mystical secrets you can grab hold of, bargain with, steal, and use. Horrible monsters and demons are summoned up by fool wizards for lust or revenge, and spread Chaos in the world. Hooray, Chaos! We see in the decayed post-apocalypse of Count Brass that Order is just as poisonous, and can't be recovered from. I didn't encounter Moorcock's weirder stuff like Jerry Cornelius until much later, presumably the local hillbilly bookstores didn't order them.

  • Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950): Literally my model of the megadungeon. The structure seems to go on forever, up and down, buried into the Earth. Strange structures poke out everywhere, mapping beyond the known halls is impossible. The inhabitants are mad. There's little/no magic or monsters in the books, but they feel like there's magic & monsters everywhere. Don't read past the 2nd book, I didn't as a yout' and much later I didn't like Titus Alone.

  • Katherine Kurtz, Deryni Rising (1970): Low fantasy proto-England with swordfights, witchcraft & ritual magic, treachery. The ongoing fetishization of monarchy and religion, and an "actual miracle", finally soured me on the series, but the early books made it clear these are Human (or Deryni) fabrications. The consistent, low-powered but useful "magic" (or psionics, or mutant powers) are a good way to model magic in games. The Deryni are High Elves who don't suck.

  • Gamma World (1978): The game that defined how I see role-playing games. Harsh, brutal, shockingly beautiful at times, erratic, full of impossible, anachronistic references. It's fun, it's not reality. Unspeakably deadly in most places, but two medieval dipshits having at each other with swords will take half an hour to whittle their HP down to nothing, and then the survivor will take months to heal; so you learn to cheat, to use poisons, artifacts, traps, tame monsters as pets, risk getting more mutations, so you can survive.

  • Robert Asprin & Lynn Abbey, Thieves World (1978): Absolutely should never have been given to an impressionable young Mark. Cruelty, treachery, black magic, and of course thievery in a corrupt hellhole end-of-the-Empire city called Sanctuary. Pretty much all my fantasy cities are a bit of Sanctuary.

    A very similar influence I encountered later was Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser. But I didn't read those until late '80s.

  • Thundarr the Barbarian (1980): The most formative thing possible. Every frame of even the opening title is inspirational. Jack Kirby designed this, and it shows. A mix of Gamma World, magic, Burroughs-type ruins, superhuman heroes.

    "In the year 1994, from outer space comes a runaway planet,
    hurtling between the Earth and the Moon, unleashing cosmic
    destruction! Man's civilization is cast in ruins! 2000 years
    later, Earth is reborn, a strange new world rises from the
    old, a world of savagery, super-science, and sorcery! But one
    man bursts his bonds to fight for justice! With his companions
    Ookla the Mok, and Princess Ariel, he pits his strength, his
    courage, and his fabulous Sun Sword against the forces of evil!"

  • Clash of the Titans (1981): Ray Harryhausen's masterpiece. The monsters are amazing, the gods are meddling jerks but not the center of attention, more amazing monsters, the dumb-ass hero and chick yada yada another amazing monster! The myths I'd read so much about were filmed. Pity that Perseus & Andromeda are so much more wooden than the monsters. The gods do indeed play games with the lives of mortals.

  • Heavy Metal (1981): I'd seen maybe one issue of the magazine at this time, it was definitely not sold to minors. But somehow I got into the movie, and when it came out on tape I got it and rewatched endlessly. The Lock-Nar itself is irrelevant, the framing story is silly. But "Den of Neverwhere", "Taarna", and to some extent "Captain Stern" and "So Beautiful So Dangerous" ("wanna do some nyborg?") are all peak young Mark. "Harry Canyon" (ha) is great but I don't really do urban SF. I've never found any real use for "B-17".

  • Neil Hancock, Greyfax Grimwald (1982): What looks like a cute talking-animals and Dwarf book becomes something much deeper, as it turns into a sort of Buddhist Journey to the West-ish fantasy adventure. Collides fairy-world with real-world and actually made me think about what these worlds are. Not as gonzo as everything else here, probably the only thing with any philosophical merit.

  • Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (1982): Surreal, dream-like, horrifying imagery, a true Mythic Underworld dungeon, a crazy Warlock, a nigh-invincible Dragon. And then there's the game system, which was a perfect little marvel of design, Skill, Stamina, Luck, 2d6, that's all you need (for fighter/rogues in a dungeon crawl), one of the biggest influences on how I make my own games.

  • The Day After (1983): … 14 years later, there's a scene in The Fifth Element where Leeloo types "WAR" into the encyclopedia, and just breaks down screaming & crying on seeing what Humans do to each other. That was me.

    "WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU ALL?!" I asked, and keep asking, and they had no answers. And this is, like, an unreasonably optimistic scenario of nuclear war, because anyone gets to live long enough to wrap their dead family in plastic bags and worry about cancer, or looters eating fallout-poisoned food. So, growing up I had zero expectation that I'd live to see 2000, let alone another score of years after. Maybe we didn't, and this is a final dream.

If I'd known about Ralph Baksi's Wizards, it would fit right in, but I didn't see that until mid-to-late '80s.

I was already reading H. Beam Piper's books by '82, but I definitely didn't read Space Viking or Empire until late '80s, which are the ones that fit my ethos.

Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith (discovered thru X2 Castle Amber) were late '80s for sure. I know precisely that I read "At the Mountains of Madness" in 1986.

Raaka'tu, Zork, Ultima, Wizardry, and more computer games certainly influenced how I do videogames, but they didn't teach me much world-building.

The D&D and GW games I ran early on were very formulaic retreads of B1 In Search of the Unknown, B4 Lost City, or GW1 Legion of Gold modules. Later I learned to make more creative worlds, but they're still much the same framework & generated world madness.

I've probably never run a game which wasn't: A) Post-apocalypse, often centuries, millennia later; or B) Just pre-apocalypse, and there's nothing you can do about it but your actions are probably futile. Vast military horrors lurking on the edge of your vision.

I've rarely run anything with legitimate authorities above town headman who aren't dead, completely corrupted, or too distant to care. Instead the adventurers, usually venal thieves and bastards, are the only force strong enough to fight the worse guy "villains". I suppose some Call of Cthulhu, but I usually outfit the group for an expedition into weird lands, or they're trapped in some Old One or Fungi from Yuggoth laboratory or whatever. I had a "king" and court in a Dungeons & Zombies game, but the entire power structure was like 20 knights including our new recruit PCs, and the necromancers and alien gods raising millions of ravenous dead, and the chittering spidery goblins in the dark, had other ideas.

Usually my games start out looking like medieval, ancient, stone age, or sorta spacey fantasy, and you rapidly learn the world was once very different from that. You get into other lands, or old bases full of artifacts from the time before. You go into space, sometimes, and find the colony worlds have their own problems. But you still keep looting tombs/bases and building power, because you live in the world you've been left, not the peaceful one you want.

3d6 Six Times in Order

I was looking at my Gamma World 1E and GW1 Legion of Gold reprints from drivethrurpg — the first RPG I ever ran, and my one true love system, tho my old copy was destroyed by flooding decades ago — and discovered that even in 1978, the rot had set in, tho I ignored it then and now.

I speak, of course, of "more generous" systems for generating stats.

Character personae are created at the beginning of the campaign, endowed with certain basic attributes through the roll of dice. First, each player must choose to play either Pure Strain Human, humanoid, or mutated animal-type characters (the advantages and disadvantages of each of these three categories will be explained momentarily). Having selected the type of character he wishes to play, the player then rolls three six-sided dice to determine the relative strengths of each of his character's six basic attributes: mental strength, intelligence, dexterity, charisma, constitution, and physical strength. As a general rule, a roll of 3-8 for a given attribute indicates a weak trait, 9-12 is average, and 13-18 is above average. The relative strengths of certain attributes can (and most likely will) change during the course of the campaign, due to mutation, acquired experience, or some other method devised by the referee.

It is desirable that few, if any, of a player character's basic attributes be below average. Player characters represent an elite with the desire, the initiative, and the ability to venture outside the boundaries of the village, town, or tribal lands. They are the pioneers, explorers, and tamers of the vast wilderness. It is they who will eventually bring order to the chaos of GAMMA WORLD and an end to the Black Years. To increase the player's chances of rolling up an exceptional character, the referee will find it advisable to use the following method: for each basic attribute, the player rolls four dice (4d6) but totals only the highest three. If, for example, the player rolled 4, 3, 5, 1 on the four dice, he would add together 4+3+5=12 and leave out the 1. If he rolled 4, 3, 2, 2 he would add 4+3+2=9 and leave out the second 2. While it is still possible to roll very low numbers (3, 2, 2, 1), the player's chances of rolling an average to above average character are greatly increased.
—Gamma World (1978), James M. Ward and Gary Jaquet

But just 2 years earlier in Metamorphosis Alpha, no such mercies are given:

A human player will roll 3 six-sided dice several times for the abilities he or she has at the start of the game. Each player has the following abilities: radiation resistance, mental resistance, dexterity, constitution, strength, and leadership potential.
—Metamorphosis Alpha (1976), James M. Ward

So I strongly suspect the 4d6 keep 3 paragraph was added by Jaquet to fit with Gary Gygax's AD&D stat inflation. The shift from every other part of GW being "grubby scavengers trying not to die" to this Manifest Destiny "heroes of the Black Years!" bullshit is also stinky. We love chaos! We hate order! Down with civilization! You don't play Gamma World to be a farmer and accountant, you do it to be a weird mutant viking beaver with a laser pistol and a STOP sign shield!

Original Dungeons & Dragons ("little brown books") and Holmes' D&D Basic Set ("blue book") are strict 3d6-in-order, with the possibility of moving points 2:1 to a class's prime stat, which often resulted in lopsided but more specialized characters. Moldvay's B/X ("red book") is 3d6-in-order.

AD&D has the following four increasingly ludicrous methods:

Method I:
All scores are recorded and arranged in the order the player desires. 4d6 are rolled, and the lowest die (or one of the lower) is discarded.
Method II:
All scores are recorded and arranged as in Method I. 3d6 are rolled 12 times and the highest 6 scores are retained.
Method III:
Scores rolled are according to each ability category, in order, STRENGTH, INTELLIGENCE, WISDOM, DEXTERITY, CONSTITUTION, CHARISMA. 3d6 are rolled 6 times for each ability, and the highest score in each category is retained for that category.
Method IV:
3d6 are rolled sufficient times to generate the 6 ability scores, in order, for 12 characters, The player then selects the single set of scores which he or she finds most desirable and these scores are noted on the character record sheet.

I'm tempted to write a little simulation script to see just how insane those stats are; it should basically be impossible to have anything under a 13 out of 18 with Methods II and III. I almost don't hate Method IV, I've allowed that with just 1-3 alternates instead of 12. Method I is what D&D 5E uses.

Tunnels & Trolls also from 1975, was 3d6 six times in order, though later editions added "triples add and roll over" (TARO) for superheroic characters, and non-Humans multiply various stats by anything from 0.25 to 2.0; but since T&T characters increase their stats as they level, that was just a head start, not unbalance.

The appeal of those early games was a normal, maybe a little better than average schlub, working their way up by way of good stats, player intelligence & skill, luck, hard work grinding out experience, cowardice, and ruthless treachery, until they were slightly less likely to explode in a blood geyser at the first papercut. If you made it to 3rd level, you were good, and extremely attached to your character. If you made it to 9th, you quit because you had won, and it was time to start over with one of your henchmen.

If you can just get another guy from the vending machine with high stats, who cares if you die? You'll come right back. Not that you can actually die in 5E, it's basically Toon with swords.

There is an argument that old-school games didn't give high bonuses to stats, which is true… but we did make a lot of stat rolls, long before such things were official. The Perrin Conventions (see Dexterity Roll) and RuneQuest formalized what a lot of us had always done: Roll stat x 5% on percentile, or d20 or 3d6 roll under. The guy who taught me used 3d6 for average, 2d6 easy, 4d6 hard, roll under your stat; I don't recall if all 6's were always a failure, but that's how I used it.

Oh, you know I've posted about this, but not the specific mechanics, a couple years ago on my Mark Rolls Dice blog

What I'm Watching: The Big Bad

This has been 6 groups trying to do a D&D 5E "tournament adventure", and then scored for mission success.

The Dungeon Master is Paul Siegel of Paul's Game Blog and the adversary is played by Dan Collins of Delta's D&D and OED Games.

Good Stuff:

  • The Adversary. Having a co-DM play the "Big Bad" is an interesting setup I've seen done a few times in real games, it leaves the Referee free to run the game fairly instead of also running every monster in the world, though of course the adversary's game time is usually limited. And Dan does a great job of chewing scenery (and slimy larvae from his lovin' cup). He doesn't have a lot of troops to control, and I think he's much too passive and defensive with them, but given what he has, he does about as well as you can hope for.

  • The Players. Many of the players put some real character into their pregens, and made good role-playing and tactical choices. They seem like fun groups to game with.

  • Scoring. The rankings are about equal to how much I enjoyed each group's attempt. The Luke Gygax group came in second, I think? And they were my favorite, but otherwise, sure. The last group was so dull, unprepared, and incompetent, and their low score was well-deserved. There's an upcoming episode explaining the scoring, which I'm curious to see.

  • Videoconferencing & Editing. Surprisingly few technical difficulties, mostly switched to the players when they were talking, miniatures when they're being moved. You'd think in 2020 that wouldn't be an issue, but so many of these things are nothing but technical failure.

Bad Stuff:

  • D&D 5E. Not a fan. Just a bloated, thousands-of-pages, over-complicated mess of a game. Somewhere under all that shit, there must be a pony, so many people keep digging. You can see it clearest in this show, when old-school players are confronted with the giant pile of abilities and modifiers they get from all over the place, the spells have weird conditional effects and you're constantly reminding each other of which ones apply. The two-hour game time here would be 15-30 minutes in an old-school system.

    This is especially weird because both these guys are old-school D&D bloggers, Dan's OED rules are pretty good, entirely reasonable interpretations of OD&D. Paul runs a weird hybrid of B/X, D20, and Warhammer FRP for his Ten Dead Rats game; I don't know why he's not just using Zweihänder or some edition of WHFRP, they're much better than his hybrid, but it works. But all of those are much simpler than 5E, and more engaging with the players. They don't have a laundry list of powers to activate, players instead must role-play actions the Referee agrees are reasonable. That's a better test than "oh I picked the Druid so I can turn into an alligator here!"

  • Miniatures. For a visual show, a giant model set and miniatures being moved around is useful, sure. The cavern and altar tower look great. But it's a single room that must've cost hundreds of dollars, and painting minis takes forever, and it limits you in what you can bring out to what figures you have. In any realistic budget, you'd maybe have a styrofoam riser "and this is the stone tower!" Which is why I prefer "theatre of the mind", where you just describe the scenario, everyone closes their eyes and pretends. Or for tactical situations like this, a "battle mat" of butcher paper with drawn lines and chits or cardboard standees to represent the combatants.

    Matt Finch did a series of his Swords & Wizardry rules Swords of Jordoba campaign, and they were fantastic game sessions—how old-school D&D is/should be actually played—frequently interrupted by setting up little mazes of miniatures and a tiny POV webcam. He also did a 5E Heroes of Jordoba campaign which went ludicrously off the rails, about evenly split because Zach's a very unserious player, because 5E's a terrible game, and because the end was running that stupid dinosaur swamp adventure.

  • Easy Mode Dungeon. The entire scenario, played out six times, is a single room, with about 10 opponents, 8 of whom are just identical cultists that Dan calls "Primus", "Secondus", etc. The final party managed to nearly TPK themselves in the river, but otherwise every group has skipped across the river, run up the stairs or side of the tower, killed the boss, game over. Nobody failed, which means it was balanced far too easy; admittedly it's hard to kill 5E player characters. There's no exploration, it's just a toy set on camera.

    The old tournament modules like Gary Gygax's S1 Tomb of Horrors, S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, Lawrence Schick's S2 White Plume Mountain, the A series (various authors) collected as A1-4 Scourge of the Slave Lords, Frank Mentzer's R1-4 tournaments collected as I12 Egg of the Phoenix, and Tracy Hickman & Laura Hickman's B7 Rahasia, are all tough, long, complex dungeon crawls. There's fights, including hard boss fights at the end, but they're more about mapping, puzzles, traps, role-playing, often interacting with the NPCs, making use of found magic.

    White Plume Mountain is maybe the best/fairest tournament of those, and has only two major rooms with the artifacts, each on par complexity wise with the Big Bad's cave, but there's 27 rooms total, and clearing & looting several of them greatly increases your chance of succeeding at the artifact rooms.

    Now, at conventions we did tournament modules in 3-6 hours, or sometimes there'd be two blocks of 3-4 hours. That's a lot more than the 2 hours which is stretching Youtube audience tolerance. But there's some balance in between 1 room and 100 rooms where a short tourney's not just a single fight scene.

If they have another season, I may wait until the end and only watch the high-scoring team, or at least put the rest on 2x playback speed.


What I'm Playing: Genshin Impact

Kind of a mashup of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Sword Art Online, Avatar: The Last Airbender (not the papyrus-font one), Guild Wars, etc. Not especially original, but well-implemented, very very pretty, and there's a lot of writing, all of it competent. I don't generally think 3D games make sense on the iPhone; AnotherEden was perfect because it worked in the limitations of the medium, but the 3D looks good; it does burn battery and heat the phone up considerably.

Account setup has two options, by email or username, but the email verification code never arrived, so I just did username; I'm "Kamimark" as usual, so if you're in and want a friend…

Starts with a gigantic 4GB download. This took a while.

The cutscene is bizarre, but then you choose your character's gender, you get no choice in appearance or abilities (you are a wind swordsman).

OK, once in the world, you get a fat cherub sidekick (who vanishes and rarely bugs you, but does provide some useful information…)

They soon give you a second character, Amber the stripper fire archer/knight. "Wish" is the gachapon system, you get enough tokens and a reduced cost on your first 10-pull. I got 8 weapons, only two of which were useful to me, and 2 characters, Noelle (light) and Razor (dark), who I haven't really used yet.

Movement is open-world, with a virtual joystick and dragging on the main screen; I find I often hit the attack buttons, which do not fold away when you're in a peaceful area just looking around, so I freak out and attack the air or through harmless NPCs sometimes, but they're unharmed by it.

You can climb almost any surface, with a rapidly-shrinking stamina bar, and soon after reaching the city you get glider wings so you can coast down from any tower. I'm just having fun now exploring rooftops. For instance, the Knights of Favonius guildhall? The roof has several goodies and a teleporter!

The wilderness map is huge, and even the town is fairly large. Spend some time there, because once you start the main quest, everyone hides and you can't shop or chat for a while.

There's a fairly extensive cooking, weapon crafting, and alchemy system, based on finding all the little sparkly nodes in the wild, and then playing a minigame to practice the recipe. Food hasn't actually been that useful to me yet, I don't get hurt much, but later I expect to be constantly hitting inventory and stuffing my face, like Skyrim.

Combat as the main character's pretty good, but it doesn't have an actual gap-closer, so you have to dash forward to the enemy, try to line up, then mash attack and spells; there's a cheap elemental attack, and a big AOE ultimate/limit break. I've been smashing up goblin camps and taking their chests. I'll usually open with Amber sniping all their explosive barrels and killing a few, then when they get close I switch back to Kamimark and murder everyone. Since you can only have one character up at a time, the others aren't follower NPCs, it's really pointless to level more than one or two except for specific elemental tasks.

The first dungeon is small but has a few nice tricks, requires switching between your main character and Amber.

I've since just been running around the first part of the world. By reaching the statue of the gods pins, you reveal a new map section.

There's a ton (40+) of lore books in the knights guild hall library, and I've read a couple of them and there's obviously been a lot of work put into these; so lore and backstory matters here.

Of course this is a "first hit is free" gachapon game, because that's what works on the shitty app stores. That said, the daily reward tier looks OK, like a $5/month sub, so I may do that if I'm still playing by next weekend:

This really is more of a desktop MMO, but the UI is very mobile-focused like the Sword Art Online games. I wish they'd bothered to make a Mac client, even as just a raw iOS port. I've never bothered to replace my PS3 with a PS4, and I'm waiting for PS5 price to drop and/or killer game I need, so I can't play on console, which might also be better.

FUDGE of Holding

I like Steffan O'Sullivan's FUDGE a lot. I've run a lot of pickup games in it for almost 30 years now, and some campaigns. Some people see the very loose rules and "pick whatever you want" as a toolkit that needs work, but it's perfectly valid to run as-is, you don't need to specialize the rules for a setting (other than picking some combat & magic options). That page describes FUDGE as "precursor of FATE", but that's kind of insulting, FATE is FUDGE with all the fun and flexibility stripped out.

But the thing is, FUDGE is free, and I much prefer the 1993 version - PDF archive, 73 pages with the 2d6 table instead of 4dF ("FUDGE dice" marked +1, 0, -1). This version has simpler & clearer core rules, and enough options in the back.

The Skill Resolution Table
Rolled:  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  | 6, 7, 8 |  9  | 10  | 11  | 12
Levels:  | -4  | -3  | -2  | -1  |   +0    | +1  | +2  | +3  | +4

The 1995 version, 107 pages, is much more exhaustive, and kind of exhausting, with all the options mixed in with the core rules, and it takes away many of the weirder dice/trait ladder options. But if you're picking up "one book", this is a good option, and there's Grey Ghost print copies still floating around.

Both of these are free, and one of the best RPGs made, at least for casual games. I don't think the campaign play in it holds up, you really can't develop attributes and skills much before you become superheroes, perils of a very coarse (few steps) and swingy (vast range of results!) task system.

I haven't seen the 10th Anniversary edition (2003? 2005?), but 320 pages?! Looks from reviews like it has hundreds of pages of setting stuff and special case combat & magic rules that you would normally develop yourself. Still, maybe that's worth the minimum price.


These all look terrible. I'm very sorry, they must be someone's hard work, but whew, no. I especially do not want to run zombies eating disabled people post-medieval-apocalypse. What is even wrong with you?

The Level Up titles are 50% better:

  • THE DERYNI ADVENTURE GAME: Excellent sourcebook for one of my favorite fantasy book series, though the FUDGE adaptation of the powers is… workmanlike. Not ideal for play or simulation of the books, but it's functional. You may just be better off with rereading a few of the novels and Deryni Magic, which is Kurtz's own summary/theory book of their magic. Using the standard 1993 FUDGE Magic rules works fine for Deryni with a few adjustments.
  • TERRA INCOGNITA: Sounds from the blurb and the little bit on their site, like "Victorian adventures", and I'm not exactly a fan of colonialist, bigoted English wankers. They aren't "discovering" anything, they're conquering & robbing people who are already there.
  • NOW PLAYING: TV shows as a setting? I've done that as a short joke game long ago, but it's not a useful setting.
  • THE UNEXPLAINED: Cryptid/supernatural investigation sourcebook. This might be useful, there's really not a lot of good ones; GUMSHOE is all railroaded plots, Conspiracy X is out of print, Delta Green is all guns-guns-guns-cthulhu-guns, Palladium will never finish their Beyond the Supernatural reboot.

The best supplement for FUDGE isn't included: A Magical Medley, which has some more complex magic systems; the African Spirit Magic and Ars Magica Grammarye systems are especially useful. Maybe that's in the 10th Anniversary, but it's probably easier to get that book by itself, a print copy of 1995, and have a fully functional game.

The free rules are better than the cheap bundle. The Level Up bundle might be worth getting for two of the sourcebooks, and you get a 10th Anniversary e-doorstop as a bonus. But you can get a print book for not much more, maybe that's the better plan.

Portal Bandits RPG

I saw there was a one-page RPG jam, but hadn't thought of any theme or tricks to do with it. Then in the shower, I realized I could adapt the source of my PortalWorlds 7DRL videogame to one page really easily. I went with more of a Norse mythology theme, rather than the inspiration movie's "God" and "Satan" (whatever those are supposed to be, some crank carpenter cult thing).

In one page there isn't much room to expand on setting and discuss design, but two main principles: You are small and weak, and not even very clever; a Human adult is a scary monster. Magic items are the great leveller, in fact there's no advancement except getting Loot. Gold is really only a score, and it can bribe Humans and other monsters.

For a sample Realm, I just rolled Ancient Egypt, Zombies, Evil King. So now you might have to fight a bunch of undead, but more likely you'd sneak around vast temples and pyramids, let the zombies in, rob the Pharaoh without getting mummified, and run for the portal out. Next Realm is Modern America, with Assassins, and a Good King. So here you find a sympathetic President (mid-'90s?), being hunted by assassins. You still need to loot the White House for Kennedy's Gold Dildo or whatever, but you can't do that unless you stop the killers. Nobody thinks a bunch of little Dwarfs are any good at anything or a threat.

Written & layout in Pages, which works great for little things like this.

Only solo-tested a quick combat, but it works. Let me know if you get a chance to play, I will when I can.

Wizards Address the Orc Problem

Nice to see this directly addressed. Obviously I still prefer my solution which was just to replace Orcs with a more sympathetic species, but WotC is a business with tight margins so they'll just do the minimum necessary to not be running a minstrel show.

I've never really used "Drow" except in the GDQ modules (Giants went great, never got a party to finish Drow, let alone Queen of the Demonweb Pits), I preferred the Sidhe from Celtic myth making all "Elves" pretty, alien, and sociopathic (interesting point, there's a subworld of Queen, "Caer Sidi", which inspired me to get into Elves-as-Sidhe!), and later the Gazetteer Shadow Elves created underground Elves with a grudge, but they're not Drow. Having the black-skinned, white-haired Elves be "evil" and relentlessly, cartoonishly cruel torturers, poisoners, perverts, and backstabbers wasn't one of TSR's better takes. And then R.A. Salvatore, the third-worst writer in the world (I've read two of his books, part-way, and they're so bad it's impossible to finish them), made his Mary Sue character Drizzle-doo-wah-Diddy who's the One Good Drow, which became TSR canon. I'd flush the entire archetype, I don't think it's fixable.

The Vistani thing is also pretty hard to fix. They're stereotype "Gypsies". You can pull elements out to make carny folk, maybe, but if you have a tribe of thieves and soothsayers in a caravan it's obvious what you're doing. There's also Romani-based caricatures in Greyhawk, and who knows where else, it was a very popular trope with the '80s-'90s TSR writers, because "a Gypsy tells you your fortune" is a super easy plot hook, if you're unaware/unconcerned about your racism.

Changing ability score modifiers is weird. Now, there's no modifiers in Original D&D, everyone has the same 3d6 scores down the line, and fairly simple species special abilities and some harsh class limits. AD&D 1st Ed added the racist & sexist race vs stat & class tables, and each following edition dug in further. Hm, looking at my AD&D PDF (bought back when Paizo had the rights), I could swear in the original print back in '79 there was a Human column up front there, that's been redacted, where Human females got 3/17 Strength and probably Constitution & Charisma (being used more for leadership in AD&D, and women leaders were Not A Thing to those guys). Was this changed in a later printing? And the Half-Orcs got seriously shafted here.

Note this is the AD&D 1st ed text on Half-Orcs. "Orcs are fecund", "player characters which are of the half-orc race are within the superior 10%". What the fuck, Gary?

I don't really have any use for D&D 5th Ed, it's a cartoony game with 10-100x as many rules as it needs, and they've dug themselves into this hole by pushing out old content which was noted as being problematic 20 years ago, but at least WotC's a little self-aware of the things they're publishing now.

The Thing About Orcs

So, there's this piece on Orcs and racism:

And they have a long blog post about Tolkien's racist origins of Orcs & "Eastern Men":

"The Orcs are definitely stated to be corruptions of the 'human' form seen in Elves and Men. They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types."
—J.R.R.Tolkien, Letter #210

Which I agree is pretty horrible, I greatly dislike Tolkien the man, and his post-Hobbit work. The post is kind of a waste of time to read beyond that, I eyerolled 180° at the quoting-white-men-about-racism tone, and denial of other people of colors' different experiences (Jason Momoa in particular). Maybe that's just how James talks, all the goddamned time. Someone should set up a medical research fund. Anyway, I'm only in this to read about the Orcs, shit that happens on Earth is not my problem.

My old solution to the Orc problem was to make Orcs tolerated and playable if they lived in civilization, but so culturally different in their nomadic tribes, that you still had something like the classic Human/Orc war trope. That can be problematic when compared to how the US, etc. treated Native Americans and other indigenous populations, but it cut down on the genocides/"we kill all the Orc babies"; players treated Orcs like a hostile tribe of Humans, warred against them until they stopped being annoying, and made peace.

But then why not just use Humans? That's James Raggi's solution, which technically works, but it's not interesting unless you throw an enormous book of "What do the Saxons believe and why are they so awful?" at the players which you don't want to write, and which they won't read. In history it was pretty easy to tell what culture someone was by their artifacts, dress, and speech; but none of those are easily visible in Theatre of the Mind role-playing.

So in everything I've run or written in the last few years, I solved the problem by replacing Orcs with Beastfolk, humanoids with bestial features chosen off a table of local mammals. They behave almost exactly like my previous use of Orcs, and yet because they're not all green-skinned pig-men, and might even be cute & fuzzy, especially the young ones, suddenly reaction is completely different. It either arouses or annoys furries, neither of which is my intention, but that's a small price to pay for how radically it changes the conversation.

I don't usually want "half-breeds", because that directly leads to racial theory bullshit, but in a magical world full of Owlbears it's certainly possible for species to be crossed, and Edgy McEdgertons always want to be a half-breed Goblin/Dark Elf with a tragic backstory or some such, so unless you want to waste half an hour arguing before the game, just say yes and move on.

Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying "System Reference Document"

4 months or more since announcement; for old Chaosium that would have been super fast, for "Moon Design sans Greg Stafford now doing business as the walking corpse of Chaosium" we don't know, they haven't shipped anything on a schedule before.

So, it's 23 pages, with 2 pages of license and an artless cover page. And no interior art except two colors of the conformance logo, which must be plastered on your book. The license isn't too different from the D20 SRD, except the massive list of "prohibited content".

The book is moderately useful mechanically, it's a quickstart version of BRP. They've eliminated characteristic/skill bonuses, and very few skills use characteristic bases. One of the nicer features of most D100 variants is either a skill category bonus from characteristics (say +1% to all Manipulation skills per CHA over 12), or direct characteristic base (Influence starts at CHAx2); in BRP SRD, Persuade starts at 15% whether you're a hideous slime beast or George Clooney.

There's a bunch of professions ranging from Cowboy to Warrior, with no theme or note about culture and era, none of which have magic. Equipment is mentioned, but there's no shopping lists for any period; very generic lists of weapons and armor ("Sword, Broad", "Pistol", "Pistol, Laser", etc; I thought I was terse!) are later given with no costs, and the armor uses the same craptastic fixed-defense mechanic as later-era Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest, rather than the die rolls that made Stormbringer, etc. combat dangerous.

BRP-SRD still has 4 almost totally disconnected task systems: Characteristic rolls, which are score x 5%, pass/fail; Skill Rolls with Critical, Special, Success, Fail, Fumble levels of success (Critical/Special used to be Impale/Critical? Or the other way around?); Skill vs Skill where levels of success are compared; and Resistance Rolls on a big table where characteristics are compared to get a % roll, which boils down to (Attack-Defense+10)x5%, pass/fail. Modern D100 games have simplified that down to just skill rolls and four levels of success, with specific resistance/characteristic test skills.

The classic skill-roll experience system is here, but it barely addresses over-100 skills, and has the classic "golf bag of weapons" flaw: No limit on how many skills can be improved, so everyone is encouraged to try every skill until they succeed once, then never do it again that session. Legend's Improvement Points mechanic somewhat fixes that, and certainly has much more serious over-100 skill rules, as well as paid training, time training, and improving characteristics. This is barely, minimally adequate to play a few sessions in, a campaign will be severely hamstrung.

Combat is minimalistic, with 2 pages of spot rules, heavily whitespace-padded. You don't technically need many rules to run D100 combat, you can make your own spot rules for most things. But there's no off-hand or dual-wield weapon use, for instance, and I like to fight Florentine or with a cloak in any medieval game. Everyone will have their own set of needs and the much longer section from most D100 games standardizes them.

There is no magic system at all, and they've forbidden use of any of the standard BRP systems of the last 45 years. OK, making a new magic system isn't that hard, but if you want it to be like Stormbringer, or Mythic Earth, or Magic World/Big Green Book BRP, you can't. You can't just pick this SRD up and have a usable game for any genre except mundane reality.

There's one animal stat block, and they've forbidden use of essentially any monster ever written because they forbid use of:

All trademarks, registered trademarks, proper names (characters, deities, place names, etc.), plots, story elements, locations, characters, artwork, or trade dress from any of the following: any releases from the product lines of Call of Cthulhu, Dragon Lords of Melniboné, ElfQuest, Elric!, Hawkmoon, HeroQuest, Hero Wars, King Arthur Pendragon, Magic World, Nephilim, Prince Valiant, Ringworld, RuneQuest, 7th Sea, Stormbringer, Superworld, Thieves’ World, Worlds of Wonder, and any related sublines; the world and mythology of Glorantha; all works related to the Cthulhu Mythos, including those that are otherwise public domain; and all works related to Le Morte d’Arthur.

Well, that leaves… subtract nothin' from nothin', uh, nothin'. You could publish a game of normal people, possibly medieval peasants to 19th C, who never encounter any monsters except a Bear. They can't go insane, because that's owned by Call of Cthulhu. They can't fight demons or elementals, because those are owned by Stormbringer. They can't be knights errant because that steps on Pendragon and Prince Valiant. I'm not actually sure "Humans" are allowed by this license. Possibly change them to Care Bears Koala Friends to be safe from "DBA Chaosium"'s vampiric lawyers.

★☆☆☆☆ Too little, a decade too late. Not worth the cover price of "free".

OpenCthulhu (see my comments ), Legend, OpenQuest, Mythras, Delta Green, and other D100-systems are much more open, and provide much more material to start working from.