What’s VFF Publishing, you ask? Why, it’s my publishing imprint! Yes, I write and publish novels. This blog is about gaming, but I see no reason not to redirect you to the Visions of Fantasy & the Future site (or Facebook, if you prefer) if you’re curious about what I write. I write fantasy and sci-fi. You can buy my novels at Amazon and other fine sellers of literature.
After resting and recovering, our heroes decided to descend into the second level. They chose to take the obvious, open route, rather than the secret stairway. One of the first rooms they encountered featured another gaping green devil maw, this time set into the floor. An area of magical darkness obscured what lay beyond, but Rayla’s imp saw past it into what appeared to be a tomb filled with hieroglyphs. After a brief discussion, they decided to let Herrick take advantage of his slippers of spider climb and have him investigate the tomb.
It did not go well.
The hieroglyphs were each inscribed on a floor tile. The floor tiles were pressure plates. Obviously, they were part of an elaborate puzzle to unlock the sarcophogus they suspected belonged to I’jin. After sealing one of the tombs exits and being nearly devoured by swarms of ravenous locusts, Herrick was saved only by Rayla fireballing the tomb. They retrieved their masticated, now-hairless, singed friend and took time to heal his wound before deciding to explore more of the second level before trying to solve the puzzle of I’jin’s tomb.
Later, they discovered an odd-circular section of hallway, that allowed them to walk up, as though they were on the inside of a vertical torus. About midway, the hallway contained an invisible portal that led to copies of the Tomb of Nine Gods that appeared to exist in different points in time. They explored a bit and returned to the tomb entrance only to find a desert or frozen snowscape outside, instead of the jungle they expected. Deciding that solving this mystery distracted from their ultimate goal, our heroes resume their explorations of the tomb, setting off a trap remotely which sealed a nearby room and flooded it with wine. After draining the room, they were not able to determine any purpose to the trap and paused to discuss where to go next….
Only two more games before Gen Con! I’ll be on Author’s Avenue again, at table Q. I won’t have any new books this year, though. My wife’s cancer put everything on the back burner, so even though I had a finished first-draft, there just wasn’t enough time after her treatment to get Summer of Crows edited, revised, proofread, and produced prior to the convention. I will DEFINITELY have it for GameHole Con in November, though, and I’m hoping to have another Zack Jackson novel finished in time for Gen Con 2020 (that would be number five: Zack Jackson & The Ruins of Athos for those of you keeping track).
After a short rest, the explorers decided to finish searching the first level before taking one of the sets of stairs down. They found two more trap and puzzle-laden rooms containing artifacts bound to trickster spirits. Wongo pushed Obo’laka out of Herrick and Moa possessed Rayla by the time they’d completed their explorations. The possessing spirits were proving themselves to be more of a nuisance than a hindrance, however, and the group theorized that they may have to acquire the associated artifacts of all nine of them by the time they found the cause of the Death Curse.
They returned to the fountain room and experimented a bit more with the magic waters, discovering that not only could it alter the drinker’s gender, but it could both strengthen and weaken one, as well as render them unable to speak. Fortunately, Sobek’s ability to communicate effectively returned after a while and they resumed their delve.
They completed their exploration of the first level, leaving no nook unexplored, no cranny unpeaked in, before proceeding to the second level…
So, I left out a lot of room-by-room stuff. I can think of few things more boring than recapping each and every room of a 6-level dungeon, so I’m only going to do a greatest hits version. The only thing of significance I omitted was a magical mug Sobek acquired that featured a frowny face when empty and a happy face when full. This provided at least five solid minutes of amusement and he has now chosen to use it to aid in his emotiveness, since lizardfolk don’t have the most expressive faces. And yes, he got Inspiration for adopting the mug as part of his character’s expression because it was just that funny.
Our intrepid explorers took a moment to regard the gaping devil mouth at the end of the overgrown, obviously trapped corridor before them. While they contemplated their actions, the first puzzle door behind them began to close. Sobek tossed the Immovable Rod to Herrick who sprinted to lock the door in place. The heavy stone door ground to a stop. The inner door began to close. Unwilling to abandon their exploration of the tomb, they quickly chose to grab the Immovable Rod and allow themselves to be trapped within.
Once they were in, they took quick stock of their surroundings and Herrick examined the gaping devil’s mouth. No light or darkvision penetrated the darkness within the mouth, yet a simple stick entered with no resistance. They left the mystery behind, choose to NOT jump in or otherwise stick body parts in the hole. They took note of a floor grate that revealed a flowing river below, but chose to leave it undisturbed as well.
A crystal window at the end of the corridor revealed a tomb-like chamber to them, though they saw no immediate means of ingress. They continued to explore the tomb rather than try to break through the crystal window. They found a route that appeared to double back around and lead toward the tomb with the crystal window.
Along the way, they found a room with an oddly magnetic statue that drew all metal to it, destroying Herrick’s rapier before Sobek pinned a cloak over the offending part of the statue. While the magnetism still drew metal to it, with a barrier in between it and the objects, it could do no more damage.
One challenge followed another and a skeleton with a key-shaped head marched into the room. It moved to attack, but was quickly destroyed by Sobek, who wasted no time using teeth and claws to dismantle the bony thing. They kept its head, however, thinking anything key-shaped in a dungeon full of traps and puzzles must be useful. Soon after, they found the room with the crystal window, and though they were beset by multiple mask-wearing wights, they defeated the undead and found a ring within the sarcophagus. Herrick slipped it on to his finger and a spirit passed into him. The Trickster God, Obo’Laka, possessed the dwarf and began to make a nuisance of herself, though Herrick still maintained control of his faculties. Remember a clue they’d found before entering the tomb, they took the masks from the wights and continued their explorations.
South of the tomb, they found a path down, though explosive gas quickly dissauded them from following that route. They determined it probably only led to the underground river they saw through a floor grate in the first hallway and returned to the tomb, then the statue room.
North of the magnetic statue, they found a magic fountain. Despite Obo’Laka’s warnings, Rayla and Baersora drank from the fountain. Its magic altered both of their bodies into males. Drinking again, they reverted back to their original female bodies*. They decided to take a moment to rest before pressing onward…
Not a bad first night in the Tomb of Nine Gods. I though using the statue’s magnetism to pin a cloak over the destructive element was a pretty clever way of dealing with that particular challenge. Anyone who thought the Tomb of Nine Gods was going to be a simple re-tread of the Tomb of Horrors should know better now, since the original adventure didn’t have nearly as many combat encounters (and usually killed people in the first corridor… though having a Passive Perception upwards of 21+ makes most traps really obvious even if the characters aren’t actively searching for them).
* As unlikely as it seems, I rolled the exact same result on the random table FOUR time in a row. I’m really souring on the tetrahedron-shaped d4s…
A new player joins us (Sobek’s player’s wife), bringing a tabaxi warlock to the party. We’re very happy scheduling finally allowed her to join our game and hopefully things will continue to work out in that regard. Obviously, if you’re just joining us, you’re going to read spoilers for Tomb of Annihilation.
After defeating the froghemoth, our intrepid explorers entered the Shrine of Kubazan. Between Herrick’s slippers of spider climbing and Sobek’s lizard-like agility, they had no trouble navigating the retracting planks and avoiding the spiked pit that covered much of the interior. In the pit, they found a stiff, crusty humanoid shape, perhaps a former explorer now covered in some sort of resin. Curiosity overcame them and they began chipping away, revealing a the furred form of a tabaxi. Awakening from some sort of stasis, the tabaxi introduced herself as Rayla. Unsure of how long she’d been trapped in the shrine, a location which did not feature in her last memories, she joined up with the group.
(After the DM gently reminded them about the puzzle cube they’d gotten too distracted by the new player to retrieve), they performed an Indiana Jones- swaparoo on the cube and left the shrine to continue their explorations of Omu. Several weeks passed*, during which they cleverly avoided vegepygmy mischief and tracked down most of the remaining puzzle cubes in the ruins of the city, defeating their guardians and solving the puzzles keeping them safe. The final cube they learned to be in the possession of one of the city’s yuan-ti, a wizard named Ras Nsi. The explorers tracked him to an amphitheater in the northwest portion of the city.
The mid-day sun shone down on the ruined amphitheater looming over the surrounding buildings. Vines clung to its steps, and animal statues lined its stands. The muddy ground outside was stripped clean of vegetation. They arrived just in time to see a huge bipedal creature with stubby arms roar and swing its thick, muscular tail around, smashing through a dozen skeletons. A bandaged man with the lower half of a great snake, presumably their quarry, Ras Nsi, slashed at the beast with a flaming sword, narrowly missing before the feathered reptile snatched him up in his jaws. With the sickening crunch of bone the King of Feathers bitten the yuan-ti half. Ras Nsi’s bottom half flopped to the ground with a spray of blood as his upper half, including his pouches and gear, disappeared into the great beast’s toothy maw.
If Ras Nsi indeed had the last puzzle cube, as they suspected, it was literally in the belly of the beast now. Heeding one of the bits of graffiti they saw when they first arrived in Omu (“All hail the King of Feathers”), Baersora prostrated herself and gave praise to the still-hungry dinosaur. The King of Feathers saw more morsels of food presenting themselves to him and charged.
Weeks of challenge in the ruins hardened the explorers, and despite being bloodied, they made short work of the King of Feathers**. Once he fell, Sobek dove right into to carving him up to find Ras Nsi’s remains and they recovered the final puzzle cube, as well as his gear. Rightfully, they distributed the yuan-ti’s possessions amongst themselves, cleaned themselves up, and sought out the location they believed contained the entrance to the Tomb of Nine Gods.
Two obvious entrances presented themselves. Without going into the minutia of exploring, experimenting, and such, they found the third, true entrance, solved the puzzle door for which they’d collected the nine puzzle cubes and entered the Tomb of Nine Gods***…
Starting next session, the fast-forwarding will cease and the group will begin exploring the final dungeon of Tomb of Annihilation in earnest. How far will they get before the Tomb of Nine Gods claims its first victim? Will any of them survive to see the lower levels? Time will tell. It’ll be interesting if they TPK because then the only real TPKs I’ve GMed since those early days of D&D 3.0 will have occurred in official WotC pre-written campaigns. Unlike some GMs (and apparently many GMs who came up through the editions having played since AD&D or earlier), I don’t see any particular appeal in TPKs or think it’s a thing to necessarily brag about. Granted, the title of the adventure is Tomb of ANNIHILATION; maybe WotC writes their adventures for a different demographic of player (and perhaps they’re really written for larger than 4-5 player groups, though that is indicated no where in the material). Obviously, the most important thing is to have fun, but sometimes I feel like WotC’s D&D 5E hardback adventures have trouble getting out of their own way to allow groups to easily have fun. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve found a lot of the prep work for running these to actually be MORE work than writing my own material, and that was NOT the case with AD&D adventures.
I’m just sorry it took so long for me to realize that the style of prep and GMing that WotC writes these epic adventures for does not fit with my style particularly well. I found Tales from the Yawning Portal to be pretty good because you don’t have to absorb a 256-page book in order to properly set everything up and really know WTF you’re doing (that’s a HUGE amount of content for someone with a job who’s trying to write novels on top of that with all the other responsibilities of modern life). I’m going to give Ghosts of Saltmarsh a chance because I’ve heard it’s structured more like Yawning Portal, but with the adventures a little more interconnected. Hopefully, when running the first adventure, GMs won’t have to remember some esoteric bit of trivia in the final adventure in order to properly set things up (I’m not saying that there is a specific instance of this in ToA, but there are certainly things late in the adventure it’s useful to be familiar with (and remember) when you’re in the earlier parts).
I also found a really egregious editing error that not only stuck out to me, but to everyone in my group because the wrong word was used–“extruded” instead of “protruded”–when describing carvings on a wall. I know editing is challenging and no product is perfect, but you’d think someone would read the boxed text aloud during play testing to catch things like this. I cannot be the only one who noticed it. I normally don’t nitpick like this but dang, sometimes, you just get frustrated when people assume independent publishers churn out unedited crap (despite having receipts to the contrary in my case) and you get things like this from “professional” companies with on-staff editors. Damn, Wizard of the Coast frustrates me sometimes (don’t get me started on their PDF policies).
* I fast-forwarded past most of Omu and all of the Fane of the Night Serpent not because I didn’t like the content, but because after nearly 9 months of hiatus, I really want to move on to a new game, but the group generally wants to see their quest to the end. Understanding our typical pace, I know that exploring Omu and getting involved with the Fane of the Night Serpent would likely take the rest of the calendar year at least, to say nothing of the Tomb of the Nine Gods. Fast forwarding to the final dungeon, as it were, is a good compromise we agreed upon.
** This group hits HARD in round 1 of combat if they have initiative. 95 points of damage before the King of Feathers got to attack (it doesn’t help that I’m notoriously unlucky with initiative rolls for adversaries). The monstrosity fell in round 2, making me VERY glad I didn’t spend a lot of time and money to find/paint a miniature to look as awesome as the King of Feathers is described; I used the t-rex from Reaper Bones IV, assembled, but unpainted. For a mere two rounds of combat, that’s good enough, IMO. They were suitably awed/horrified by its special attack of summon swarms of wasps, presented as a sort of breath weapon. Logic be damned, how awesome is a feathered t-rex that shoots wasps (the assholes of bee-like insects) from its mouth?
*** I could spend paragraphs upon paragraphs on the tomb entrance, which is a clear homage to the triple entrance of the AD&D classic Tomb of Horrors. This way, I don’t spoil the solution to the puzzle cube door puzzle, but I will say that they found the solution to be not as impossibly interpretive as the one WAY back with the dude carrying the crocodile, but still required a little stretch of logic that wasn’t as clear as the designers might have thought. I mean, when you have to choose something to oppose “Truthful and Kind” do you automatically go to “Violent and Deranged” or “Selfish and Cruel?” When the clue reads “The enemies oppose,” well, like I said, it requires some stretching of logic. Who knows, maybe if we’d played through Omu and Fane of the Night Serpent the slow way, some of these things would have been more obvious, but based on what I now about puzzles in pre-written adventures, I doubt it. In my experience, puzzles in RPGs are great if a GM writes them for their group, but can be mind-bendingly frustrating if they’re written by someone thousands of miles away with zero connection to the group playing the adventure.
After a long, long hiatus*, we’re back at it! The group voted to resume our D&D 5E Tomb of Annihilation game, picking up where we left off. However, since I want to get it done and over with, I came up with a plan to fast-forward through a bunch of stuff and get to the end game. Plus, the way I’ve done it lets us ease back into the game after 8 months of not playing (not so much a problem for half the group who were able to play in other games during the hiatus, but the other half needed a refresher and I have not run a game in all that time, either).
Our heroes arrived at Omu, at long last. After taking in the sight of the city below them and the billowing clouds of steam rising from the river into which a flow of lava poured, they made their way down to the streets. As they investigated the gatehouse, Baersora made note of graffiti on the walls, written in Common, unlike most of the rest of the writings they found in the jungle. Finding nothing else of note in the gatehouse, they proceeded into the city.
As dusk approached, they found themselves at a shrine. A sunken pool of water stood between them and the shrine, crossed by broken rope bridges. Shards of a toppled monolith formed stepping stones across the water, leading to a statue of a stone frog. Taking stock of the area, they saw they could walk around the pond and enter the shrine, but instead developed an alternate plan once Sobek saw what appeared to be an eye stalk protruding from the surface of the water.
Baersora cast Mage Hand and used it to flick the eyestalk**. With a roar and spray of muck, a froghemoth heaved it’s bulbous bulk from the water and attacked. While it did grapple and swallow Nali, she managed to cut her way out of its gullet and they defeated it. Sobek dug through the remains, certain that such a huge, swallowing beast had devoured something valuable at some point. His funktastic voyage proved fruitful when he found a solid metal rod featuring a single button. When he pressed the button, the rod became fixed in place and immovable. After healing Nali and cleaning up, they prepared to enter the shrine…
So, as I expected, this ended up being an abbreviated session. We had 8 months of catch-up B.S. to do since we had not all gathered together at the same time since our last game session. My wife’s stamina should improve over the next couple of weeks, but I expect we’ll have abbreviated sessions through May, possible June. We will also have a new player joining us next session, the wife of Sobek’s player. It works out well that they’re entering a section of the adventure that allows characters to drop in very easily.
* My post on January 9 summarized why this game went on hiatus. With my wife’s follow-up PET scan completed, it is confirmed that her cancer is in full remission. Sadly, less then a month after that post, we had to euthanize little Bendu (he was 9 months old) because he developed Feline Infectious Peritonitis (for which there is no treatment). It was, not to mince words, fucking heartbreaking.
When my wife’s mid-treatment PET scan came back clear and she first got word that she was in remission in March, she wanted another cat. So, we adopted a beautiful grey girl we called Ilia (after the Star Trek: The Motion Picture character played by Persis Khambatta). Ilia was one of several shorn woman (including Furiosa and Ellen Ripley in Alien 3… and I’m sure she’ll chime in with others I’ve forgotten) my wife used to convince herself losing all her hair was not the worst thing in the world (and certainly better than being dead).
** Poking the bear, as it were, was NOT the strategy I was expecting.
Today, I’m going to have a look at one of the most famous espionage role-playing games ever made: Top Secret. While there have been others on the market (James Bond and Spycraft, for example), Top Secret is arguably the most famous, and the one for which I’ve seen the most nostalgia (though James Bond comes close).
What many players may not be aware of is that there have been three versions of Top Secret. The first one, published by TSR in 1980, was written and developed by Merle Rasmussen. The second version, Top Secret S/I, was developed by Douglas Niles and used a radically different system. The third version, developed by the new TSR’s staff in collaboration with Merle Rasmussen came out this past year and is known as Top Secret: New World Order.
While these three games share a genre, the systems are very different from one another and they each reflect what players of their eras think of when they think “spies.”
The original Top Secret seeks to emulate a more-or-less grounded-in-reality Cold War-era play style. To a modern player, reading the rules is a walk back through time, as it explains how to use a d20 that’s labeled 0-9 twice (which predate when I started playing in 1982). It basically uses a percentile system and character abilities are rated from 1-100, though due to modifiers applied at character creation, no starting PC will have a score of less than 26 in any given attribute. Secondary Traits are calculated using relatively simple algebra ((X+Y)/Z), and players roll for height, age, and glasses, though character handedness is determined by the player’s own handedness.
The game includes lots and lots of charts. A LOT of charts. Many many charts. The amount of charts isn’t really uncommon for complex games of that era, though they tend to make games like Top Secret and Cyborg Commando appear more complicated than they actually are (and the number of charts in both of those games makes AD&D look simple by comparison).
There are even charts for the types of missions and suggested experience point and rewards for those missions (which is actually pretty useful). Top Secret takes its role as an espionage RPG seriously and includes a listing of real world espionage organizations and a glossary of the lingo, which aging gamers nostalgic for this game may need magnifiers to read.
Top Secret rewards player savvy and genre literacy. I played it a couple of times as a kid when my only exposure to the spy genre was a couple of Sean Connery and Roger Moore James Bond films. I’m sure we played it wrong. I played it again with Merle Rasmussen at Gary Con several years ago. It still holds up, probably due to the timeless nature of the percentile-based play system.
Fast forward to the end of the decade. Roger Moore’s James Bond films had practically descended to self-parody, and while the Cold War still endured, technology had made huge leaps. Enter Top Secret S/I. While I have my suspicious why the system was so radically altered (it probably had something to do with paying royalties to Merle Rasmussen if they built upon his system without a certain percentage of changes), the game seems more willing to experiment with the system (though I’m not expert of the history of role-playing game system developments).
Top Secret S/I eschews the straight percentile roles for attributes, instead using d60 +10 (a d6 & d10 + 10), adds Advantages and Disadvantages and Lucky/Bad Breaks. The system sped combat up by utilizing only one roll to determine whether or not an attack was successful, damage dealt, and hit location. Players were able to modify the hit location depending on how skilled they were with the weapon they were using. Anecdotes available on the Internet suggest that this system could create strange, nonsensical results, but when I played it in the late ‘80s, I don’t recall that actually happened in practice.
Top Secret S/I was not nearly as chart happy as the original game and felt more like a high-stakes superspy game featuring supercar chases in exotic locations like Monaco (in fact, TSR release a Monaco-based boxed set: High Stakes Gambles). The PCs worked for a fictional (as far as a we know) agency called The Orion Foundation, and agents could use technology that existed just off in the near future. If Top Secret emulated films like Dr. No, From Russia with Love, The Spy Who Came in from The Cold, then Top Secret S/I would be more suited to Live and Let Die, Moonraker, Super Agent Super Dragon, and the modern Mission Impossible films. You could, of course, dial down the action quotient for a more classic espionage feel in Top Secret S/I, but dialing up the system of the original Top Secret to support a high-octane super agent genre might require more work. Like its predecessor, it has an extensive glossary of genre terms and was well-supported by TSR at the time.
Finally, in 2018, a new TSR, collaborating with Merle Rasmussen, released Top Secret: New World Order. Using modern RPG design philosophies, the system (Lucky 13) was updated to resemble a cross between that used in Savage Worlds, and a dice pool system. Players assemble their pool of dice by taking the die assigned to their attribute, relevant skill, and relevant asset to beat 13. The Target Number is adjusted based on a marker moving along the Tension Track. PCs also have access to between one and six fortune points each session (generated and kept secret by the Administrator so they never know exactly when their luck will run out) which can adjust the outcome.
In Top Secret: New World Order, PCs work for ICON, another fictional (as far as we know) espionage organization. The game acknowledges that the genre works well with a single agent, and supports 1 Player/1 GM game play, in addition to larger groups.
Top Secret: NWO does well to emulate both classic espionage scenarios and more high-octane adventures (think the Daniel Craig James Bond films). My experience playing this game is limited to play-test session at Gary Con, where I saw the game develop over the course of several years. The system is my favorite of the three, though players nostalgic for old-school espionage game play will likely prefer the original Top Secret. I prefer RPGs with modern layouts (yay for the numbered list summarizing character creation!) and modern mechanics. Top Secret: New World Order has the advantage of being currently available and published by a company working towards supporting it. If you want an older version of the game, you’ll be forced to the second-hand market and some materials are rare and pricey.
Today, I’m looking at Goodman Games’s Metamorphosis Alpha Collector’s Edition reprint. This book collects a scan of the original printing of the first edition of TSR’s first sci-fi RPG (indeed, THE first sci-fi RPG) along with supporting magazine articles, essays and interviews, and an all-new adventure written by the creator of MA, James M. Ward. Through the Kickstarter, consumers could also receive all manner of supplements and adventures, but for the purposes of this post, I’m just looking at the core game book itself.
The game takes place on a generation ship, the starship Warden, centuries after a cataclysm rendered the original mission moot. The ship now continues on its way, cruising/drifting aimlessly, while factions within the ship, from humans, to mutants, to robots, androids, and other odd creatures, all struggle for survival, many of whom having forgotten long ago that the environs in which they live are a ship, rather than the known universe.
Metamorphosis Alpha was the first of Goodman Games’s nostalgia-driven reprints of classic TSR gaming material. Whether or not its success (and subsequent success of the Epsilon City expansion for this 40+ year-old game) was the catalyst for Into the Borderlands and The Isle of Dread is a question you’ll have to ask someone who works for Goodman Games. It seems logical to me.
The book is essentially a coffee table book containing a cleaned-up scan of the original Metamorphosis Alpha game. I believe it’s reproduced at 100% size, even still, the text is quite small. The included essays and interviews shed some light on the game’s history and the magazine articles flesh out MA in ways that expansions would have, had any ever been printed. Back in those days, Dragon magazine was considered official expansion material for TSR’s games, anyway.
Younger readers (i.e. people who weren’t gaming in the late ‘70s-early ‘80s) may be taken aback by the inclusion of rules for Physical and Mental Defects (the game’s terminology, not mine). They make sense in context and once you read it, you know what the author was going for. These days, different terminology would be used, perhaps Advantages and Disadvantages. Just be aware that games this old are a product of their time and people weren’t as “woke” as they are now.
In addition to the magazine articles, we also get official errata and supplemental material, much of which is written by James M. Ward himself, like the new creatures and NPCs, intended to be the “monster manual” of MA that was never published during the game’s heyday. Michael Curtis contributes a section of modern advice for running an MA game. Clearly, they’re aware that these early RPGs suffered from editors’ and companies’ learning curves as far as organization went. It took me three passes to find the single sentence buried in a paragraph that described how to generate ability scores. Nowhere that I could find offered a breakdown of the character creation process. It’s definitely a substantial barrier to entry for these games, though. Granted, someone buying this book from Goodman Games is probably not a neophyte player looking to get started with role-playing games.
As far as the Metamorphosis Alpha gameplay goes, I don’t think I’ve ever actually played the game as written. When I played in an MA game at Gary Con with James M. Ward, I got the sense he was playing very fast and loose with the rules. That’s not uncommon for games at conventions, especially if the GM is providing an “experience” more than a demonstration of a particular game. That’s fine. Based on that, playing MA is like Land of the Lost, only you find out you’re on a spaceship instead of some forgotten prehistoric valley. I suppose, in that sense, it’s not dissimilar from the Star Trek episode “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” (which is explicitly called out as an inspiration for MA).
Having said that, I think the premise for the game is solid. A GM certainly wouldn’t have to stick with primitives vs. robots/mutants. A few forgotten supply caches later and your stone tool-wielding PCs could have lasers and grenades (whether or not they know how to use them safely is a different matter entirely). MA’s premise reminded me of another game, West End Games’s Paranoia. In that, PCs live in a domed city, Alpha Complex) with no solid information of what lies beyond, being so ignorant they can’t even identify trees and common animals (and if they can, such knowledge marks them as a traitor, because how else would they have information so far above what their security clearance has access to?). I used this in the last Paranoia adventure I ran at Gary Con. In it, the PCs discover what is essentially a giant spaceship buried underneath the city. The intelligent roaches working on the ship provide the PCs with a choice: help them launch the ship and escape Alpha Complex or sabotage the ship, destroying it and a substantial portion of the city with it. If they launch the ship, it is revealed that it is, indeed, the Warden. The idea was, I would hang up my Paranoia GM’s hat for a bit and move on to running MA. That was two years ago and life has conspired to keep me from returning to that convention and adding another connection to the loosely-connected series of Paranoia adventures I’d been running for almost seven years.
MA influenced several other TSR products of the day. Gamma World (the first edition, anyway) is basically “MA on a planet,” and S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, an AD&D adventure from the early ‘80s, featured a crashed spaceship in a fantasy world that greatly resembled a scaled-down Warden. TSR clearly had no compunctions about mixing genres. The early days of roleplaying games was a gonzo, anything-goes experience at times and the game was not nearly as “pure” as some players blinded by nostalgia would have you believe. The only wrong way to play is the way in which you and your friends are not having fun.
If you want a more in-depth look at this product, there is currently a “Where-I-Read” thread on RPG.net covering this product.
X1: The Isle of Dread… not quite as iconic as B2: The Keep on the Borderlands, but most players who started playing with B/X or BECMI are familiar with it. Like The Keep on the Borderlands, it was included in the Expert set boxes and was intended to show DMs how to run wilderness adventures.
As a sandbox, it doesn’t have much of a plot, per se. It’s an environment. Oh, there are hooks to get the PCs there, and most PCs, especially back in the days when treasure gave you XP, didn’t need much of a reason beyond “There’s treasure over there!” to go adventuring. Rory Barbarosa’s letter speaking of a great black pearl was all most groups needed to explore the Isle of Dread.
Goodman Games has re-printed this classic wilderness adventure in a hardbound tome containing three versions of the adventure: the first printing, the fourth printing, and a 5E update.
The differences between the 1st and 4th printings are less subtle than those in The Keep on the Borderlands. Mostly, some encounters have been replaced to make them more sensible. When I read that, the first thing I did was flip to the most infamous encounter to my home group: the flooded temple on Taboo Island. In it, several members fell prey to albino mako sharks. Saltwater fish, in a flooded temple on top of a mile-high plateau several hundred miles from the coast. That encounter has been changed (I had no idea there were multiple versions I ran it; I don’t think I have a first printing, but my copy is from the first three printings before the encounters were updated). Losing two characters to WTF sharks?? so demoralized the party, they retreated back to a village where one of the surviving PCs retired completely and it more-or-less rang the death knell for that campaign.
The meat of the module is unchanged between the three copies. There are still several unique tribes of creatures on the isle, from the arachnid Aranea, to the monkey-raccoon Phanatons, to the Lovecraftian Kopru, and more. Whether or not these tribes are friendly, hostile, or indifferent is up to the PCs’ approach and the DM (except the Kopru, those dudes are evil… but don’t let that stop you from joining the cult of an Elder God and taking over the world). There are dinosaurs, random encounters of the “OH CRAP, RUN!” variety (which kills many PCs because running is anathema to many players), environmental hazards, and mysteries.
Goodman’s 5E update preserves all of these, and provides more guidelines for use of the random encounters. For many groups back in the day (especially us young, self-taught groups), a random encounter was synonymous with random combat. So, if that die roll indicated a Wild Black Dragon appeared, then you were fighting a black dragon, even if you were woefully under leveled. If the DM was nice, they might let you run away. A lot of DMs weren’t nice (hence the reputation of Old School play for being adversarial Player vs. DM).
One thing I should point out, and this holds true for Into the Borderlands, too, is that while the original versions of these adventures printed in these books are cleaned up scans of the original (nicely cleaned up, in fact–that’s a lot of work), the 5E updates have good-sized print and are easy to read. My aging eyes really appreciate that.
Next month, at Gary Con, it’s expected Goodman Games will announce the next volume in their Original Adventures Reincarnated line. I’m having trouble thinking of any more BECMI adventures that are as iconic as B1, B2, and X1, but I look forward to the announcement (even though I won’t be there myself to hear it). Personally, I would LOVE to see an update of the AD&D adventures EX1: Dungeonland and EX2: The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror (actually, I would LOVE LOVE LOVE to work on that, because adore the Alice in Wonderland stories and wrote several papers on them in school, and I LOVE those adventures; I’ve worked one or both of them into campaigns I’ve run for just about every group of my adult life; and yes, that’s a hint if anyone from Goodman Games reads this :p).
I have one more Goodman Game’s reprint to showcase here: Metamorphosis Alpha. I’ll be reading that next, then… who knows? Something fun, something classic, something cool.
Recently, Goodman Games released a hard bound reprint/update of B1: In Search of the Unknown & B2: The Keep on the Borderlands called Into the Borderlands. It includes 2 different versions of the original publications, plus 5E updates of these adventures.
B2 was my first D&D experience back in 1982. The GM used it as the basis for the first 3E campaign I ever played in in 2001. I ran it for my first 4E campaign in 2008. I was really unfamiliar with B1, though. I’d heard about In Search of the Unknown, of course. I’d heard it was just an empty dungeon that DMs needed stock themselves and to pre-teen and teenage me, I didn’t see the point.
So, Into the Borderlands contains a reproduction of the original publication of B1, an updated reprint version, and a stocked 5E update of it. Naturally, you can strip out the 5E encounters to use your own (more in a minute on that). The original B1, indeed, is an unstocked dungeon, but don’t mistake that for just a map with empty rooms. Each room has a description rich with the history of what WAS. Why it’s there, what it was for when built. It gives you a good background to use when deciding how to stock the location. Are bandits looting it now? A team of historians? A tribe of bugbears? Are they just random looters, or related to the original builders?
So, B1 is much more robust than I ever thought it was. It includes suggestions on how to stock the rooms, as well. Goodman also includes 3 stocked versions by their designers before the 5E update. It also mentions that the designers intend the word “dungeon” to refer to ANY of the myriad unground complexes ripe for exploration and not just trap/monster-filled lairs of illogical coincidences or literal dungeons used as jails under castles. It makes me wonder if Monte Cook had this in mind when he expressly called the complex of lairs, caves, and ruins under Ptolus “The Dungeon?”
I’m sure almost everyone who’s been playing since the ’70s/early ’80s has their own memories of Keep on the Borderlands. Either the mad hermit in the wilderness, or the ogres that served as a serious wake-up call for unsuspecting adventurers. The Keep on the Borderlands is a beloved classic adventure. For many people (myself included), it is an integral part of our earliest D&D experiences.
One interesting thing I noticed in B1 is that the original 1979 map & text uses Roman numerals for the rooms, in excess of 40 described locations. The 1981 update keeps the Roman numerals on the map, but uses standard Arabic numbers in the text. That’s not confusing at all. Fortunately, the 5E update uses Arabic numbers on both the map AND the text. The 5E update also fleshes out a few locations mentioned on the map that were not covered in the 1979 or 1981 versions.
Included in this hefty tome are also three version of B2: The Keep on the Borderlands. Two of the earliest printings (including the one I have several copies of from my Basic sets), and a 5E update. B2 doesn’t seem to have changed all that much between printings, except for that minotaur illustration. The print run of B2 determined which minotaur you saw. If B2 was your first adventure, your first minotaur was either the Erol Otus minotaur chowing down on a chicken/turkey/??? leg or the Willingham armored minotaur. The armored minotaur was my first. Every copy of B2 I have features this guy, except now, for the first version of B2 included in Into the Borderlands.
Back when I first started playing D&D, B2 was the 1st adventure I ever played. We didn’t know what we were doing, so my fighter went through it cave by cave wiping out everything single-handedly. I had several notebook pages of loot. I don’t have any specific memories of running B2 from back in the day. I used it as the basis of my first D&D 4E campaign. It taught me that rooms FULL of monsters are A) hard to use on battlemaps and B) make for REALLY long 4E combats.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have just swapped out the monsters with their 4E counterparts, but 4E was such a shift in playstyle from what I was used to, I had no idea. The adventure itself, though, the Keep, the Caves of Chaos, the sandbox nature of it, but not TOO sandboxy, it holds up.
Into the Borderlands includes two old versions of B2 and a 5E update. Without scouring the text line by line, the only change that stands out to me between the old versions is the aforementioned Minotaur art (and the color of the cover). The 5E update of B2 has much the same content, though the encounters have been adjusted to account for close to a 1/2 dozen edition changes (depending on how you count). The ogre is still there, & the Minotaur, both of whom could be a nasty surprise. Back in the day, the monsters in the Caves of Chaos were there to be killed (and have their stuff taken). I’m sure there were group who weren’t unabashed murderhobos, but I didn’t know those groups. More RP is encouraged these days between the PCs and the “monsters.” There’s no reason everyone in the Caves of Chaos have to be devotees of the cult, no matter which edition you play.
Using the Caves as a competing non-human settlement with the Keep could make a pretty rich campaign. Another change I noticed was the Mad Hermit is now a Druid instead of a Thief, which makes more sense (the druids were an unknown class when B2 was initially published). Together with B1, B2 as republished by Goodman Games is more a mini-campaign setting than merely two classic adventures. Of course, they were all along, but it’s nice to be reminded of it. Maybe in the future, I’ll run a game set there.
My Tomb of Annihilation game didn’t fade away; we missed a couple of sessions due to illness running around the group. Then, my wife’s sinus infection didn’t get better (my wife plays Baersora). The fevers didn’t subside.
They drew blood. They did MRIs, more blood, CAT scans, more blood, a bone survey, more blood (over 50 vials in all). For four months, a fever of 102°F+ every day. Just before Christmas, we got the dreaded diagnosis: diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (non-Hodgkins). It was confirmed by a biopsy and a PET scan that lit up her lymph nodes like a Christmas tree.
She got her infusion port implanted (she’s a cyborg now!) and on Dec. 21st my wife endured her first chemotherapy. Merry Christmas. They were still waiting on the results of a FISH test to determine whether or not she had a double-hit or triple-hit lymphoma which would change her one-day every three weeks chemotherapy (using the R-CHOP regimen) to a five-day in-patient every three weeks (EPOCH). Yesterday, the result of that test came back: NEGATIVE.
So, with a MASSIVE load off our shoulders, we prepare for her second out-patient chemotherapy in two days. Due to a variety of factors, the game is on hiatus until she’s past this (or she tells me she feels well enough to continue, which, I suspect, won’t happen until after her chemotherapy is finished.
In the meantime, I’ve been reading Goodman Games’s Into the Borderlands and posting my thoughts about it on Twitter. Once I’ve finished that, I’ll compile them into a blog post for this site and then move on to The Isle of Dread.
Look for my Into the Borderlands post this weekend or early next week.
- RT @ENnies: New #ENnies Blog Post: Sit With Your Favorite Creators at the 2019 ENnies as a Dream Date!!!! - bit.ly/2ScKm50 14 hours ago
- Adulthood is eating the chili you froze 4 mo. ago so you A) don't have to cook, B) don't have to throw it out and C… twitter.com/i/web/status/1… 16 hours ago
- RT @FluffSocial: Parrot playing peekaboo with a cat https://t.co/r2fDS3TlSu 1 day ago
- RT @TorraineWalker: History repeats. https://t.co/OkFfc7M6TE 2 days ago
- RT @chasinglux: Are you a black woman in games? * Broadcaster / Content Creator * Competitive Player / E-sports Player * Writer / Journali… 2 days ago
- June 2019
- May 2019
- April 2019
- February 2019
- January 2019
- September 2018
- August 2018
- July 2018
- June 2018
- May 2018
- April 2018
- March 2018
- February 2018
- January 2018
- December 2017
- November 2017
- October 2017
- September 2017
- August 2017
- July 2017
- June 2017
- May 2017
- April 2017
- March 2017
- February 2017
- January 2017
- December 2016
- November 2016
- August 2016
- July 2016
- June 2016
- May 2016
- April 2016
- March 2016
- February 2016
- January 2016
- November 2015
- October 2015
- September 2015
- August 2015
- July 2015
- June 2015
- May 2015
- April 2015
- March 2015
- February 2015
- January 2015
- December 2014
- November 2014
- October 2014
- September 2014
- July 2014
- June 2014
- May 2014
- April 2014
- March 2014
- February 2014
- January 2014
- December 2013
- October 2013
- September 2013
- August 2013
- July 2013
- June 2013
- May 2013
- April 2013
- March 2013
- February 2013
- January 2013
- December 2012
- November 2012
- October 2012
- September 2012
- August 2012
- July 2012
- May 2012
- April 2012
- March 2012
- February 2012
- January 2012
- December 2011