Friday, September 15, 2017

Rabbit Holes

(Rabbit Hole viewed from the outside...)
Every now and again, a game judge just needs a little tool to reset the scene...
(Warning: Railroad Crossing)

Saturday, September 9, 2017

What Are Vacuous Grimoire???

(Old art suspiciously representative of L-R Spacin' Jason, J.A.S., Matrox Lusch, Dingul and Sumerled.)
Jack Shear over at Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque, a fine gaming blog and writer who has contributed several excellent gaming books to the hobby, (find them at Lulu) wrote a recent blog post entitled "How to Unsell Me Your Games." A couple of Jack's comments really cut to the quick (guilted me lowering prices a buck or two on DriveThruRPG) in terms of my Vacuous Grimoire project.

"... if you're just copy/pasting an already extant game into a new format with shittier art--get lost,"

and

"When I see Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma on the character sheet for your game, I assume I could approximate your 'retroclone' or 'hack' with a page of house rules applied to the books I've already got."

Given that The Vacuous Grimoires both copy/paste an already extant game into a new format with shittier art and use Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma on the character sheet, what IS the purpose for which I've devoted really hours and hours "crafting" (ha, I'll be generous today) these rulebooks? What do I intend for someone to get from these books that they couldn't get from the originals (other than shittier art)?

Setting aside that the original Knights of the All Mind supplement does contain just "house rules" a gamer could apply to the books she's already got, and that I mostly put together the initial S.R.D. of the All Mind set of booklets because v.3.5 of The World's Most Popular Role-Playing Game was out of print in 2012, what is the gestalt for publishing The Vacuous Grimoires ... and charging folks money for them???

Cerebrally pendant, my ruminations led me in this direction... D&D to me is like being in a Garage Band. (Yes, in addition to eyes bleeding I contribute to ear bleed here, here, here, here, here... ha, ok, please stop.) The sense being not something to read or show or break apart, but the sensation of playing - that's what I want. A maximization of a particular participatory experience.

Part I - Some Personal History


(In the beginning, J. Eric Holmes...)
Really in the beginning there was 1:48 scale military models, backyards, firecrackers, then... Star Wars. By the time I hit 8th grade in 1977 I was seriously pumped for adventure. My oldest compadre, Dr. John (now of the PhD Chemistry and all things advanced mathematique) has a birthday 3 days before X-mas and always gets these "combo" gifts for his birthday and for Christmas. So's anyhow, Dr. John gets this crazy game in a box - booklet, dice, monsters and treasure levels 1-3, dungeon geomorphs, that's it. The good doctor starts a game up for us in January 1978 and... we... go... nuts.

Ok, cannot get enough. We are gaming at least six days a week solid from 1978 to 1980 - seriously like 3 years straight. We get burned by Gary Gygax over not being a timely sequel to Village of Hommlet, but we had Judges Guild... and Arduin... On our scrappy little budgets we obtained enough rules to move on from Holmes' level 3 limit and we start to build our own brand of D&D.

See, Holmes uses a very simple weapon speed system - Daggers get 2 blows per round, longswords 1, and 2-handed swords 1 every 2 rounds. When the Players Handbook came out the summer of '78, we naturally assumed the 'speed factor' of weapons indicated the number of segments within a round it took to wield the particular weapon. Even though there wasn't yet a Dungeon Master's Guide, we had the OD&D supplements I-IV, Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets plus David Hargrave's Arduin Grimoires to fill in extra classes, races, hit/saving throw tables, and other such goodness. (Har, I could never figure out years later where we got bind wounds for 1-4 HP after combat. It's in the Ready Ref Sheets!)

(How we rolled 1978-80 minus our original PBH which resides at my bro's.)
While we had World of Greyhawk and my Krull, regardless, our D&D world at the time primarily revolved around The City-State of the Invincible Overlord and Wilderlands of High Fantasy including Tegal Manor, Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor, Temple of Mitra, Thunderhold, City-State of the World Emperor, plus throwing in the TSR Giants and Drow series, Tomb of Horrors, White Plume Mountain, and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.

(Our Wilderlands of High Fantasy City-State map.)
My gaming group and I were gunning through the most classic adventures of this era. However, we were running a particular set of home-brewed rules that we didn't exactly even think of as home-brew because they all came from published sources.

Hmmm, let's see...
  1. Weapon 'Speed Factor' as melee round segments per attack (residual Holmes);
  2. Hit Allocation Table (when needed, Supplement II - Blackmoor);
  3. Bind wounds 1d4 HP after combat (Ready Ref Sheets);
  4. Social Levels (Ready Ref Sheets);
  5. Urban Encounters (Ready Ref Sheets);
  6. Level 4 and above Attack and Saving Throw Tables (Ready Ref Sheets, we had to extrapolate out for AC 10 = no armor as the tables only went to AC 9);
  7. Phraints, Deodanths, Barbarians, Technos (Arduin);
  8. Height, Weight, Hair, and Eye Color charts (Arduin);
  9. Special Abilities charts for Warriors, Mages, Clerics, Thieves, and Technos (Arduin); and
  10. Critical Hit and Fumble tables (Arduin);
Over the years between 1978 to 1980/81 our core group of maybe 10-12 introduced D&D to probably another dozen or so at least. It was EASY (plus, you know, weed). A character sheet looked like this... (well, not at first)

(one, Grum... 'Demon-Slayer'!)
New folks asked "How do you play?" and the answer was always simple... "Just say what you do."

Around 1981 dang, girls! I met my once and future wifey at the beginning of my junior year of high school and started dating the following spring. Being a sport, she tried the game a couple times, alas though was not enamored with good old D&D. While my attention was, er, distracted, another weird thing happened. Judges Guild lost their D&D license!

We're moseying along in 1983, going to college, working, got a lot going on besides gaming, but still patronizing our Friendly Local Gaming Store (Pleasanton Hobbies in Mission Plaza on Santa Rita Road) when the new City State, Tarantis, is released with a crazy Universal System...

Then our local hobby store goes out of business and D&D is being sold at, like, Sears.


(All is not right in 80's gaming.)
I didn't even hear about all the D&D satanic controversies.

Anyhow, run amuck from 1983-1988 kind of drinking, doing some music stuff, drinking, a little school here and there, drinking, etc. Then in fall 1988 girlfriend-soon-to-be-wifey gets pregnant. It dawns on me that some of my other friends have kind of settled down and are starting families (J.A.S., Sick Rick), so what the heck. Got a real job where I wear suit & tie and started The Blipping Campaign.

Apart from the campaign 'setting' details themselves, what we did was to solidify our methods and rules that we applied to our game. I didn't even know that 2nd Edition was a revision, a few of the guys wanted to use some 2ed spells, whatever, and we were like "Just throw them in under the old rules."

One thing I noticed from this campaign is that we didn't use miniatures. It's not like we didn't have any, we had tons from when our gaming store went under. Some times that worked, sometimes it didn't work.

Plus we drank. A lot. D&D was an event where when it happened you were there for the overnight.

(Don't be the first to pass out at the D&D game, like J.A.S. here.)
Part II - Some Corporate History

Unbeknownst to us in all our cavorting was that D&D had become this kind of popularized behemoth. As far as we knew the game was still our underground, countercultural funbag, but the new T$R was making cartoons, video games, board games, new settings, other games, and losing money.

(Probably the single most dorky exclusively D&D paraphernalia I've ever seen.)
The entire sordid demise of T$R during the 90s I found is most completely detailed in "Spinning in Circles: A History and Analysis of TSR's Copyright Policies" by Jim Vassilakos which may be read here in The Guildsman #7.

The bottom line for my purposes today is that Peter Adkison and Wizards of the Coast purchased T$R and the rights to Dungeons and Dragons. Then Peter does a wonderful, magical, egalitarian and tribal thing - he releases the 3rd edition of Dungeons and Dragons in the year 2000 under an Open Game License complete with a System Reference Document with open source rules and references freely available for anyone to copy and use in their own published works, and he gets this open source thing through even as he is selling Wizards of the Coast to this giant toy company, Hasbro!

Part III - More Personal History

I may have mentioned during games we/I drank... a lot... and I'm not talking risk of overhydration here. Hmmm, Budweiser mostly at first, later vodka, gin, Wild Turkey, more vodka. Jack Daniels (my "healthy" phase), cheap vodka, ugh. 

I hadn't mentioned DunDraCon. DunDraCon is the largest west coast gaming convention, 4 days long over President's Day weekend each year. The convention has been held since 1992 (DunDraCon #16) at the Marriott Hotel in San Ramon, California. Very close to where I live. My 3rd ever gaming convention was "DunDraClone," a September '81 off-date DunDraCon convention at the old Oakland Hyatt Hotel when the regular DunDraCon got bumped for a Pacific Origins Gaming Convention held at the Hyatt in February (my 1st convention, 2nd was Grimcon III in May 1981. I had traded my ticket money for hashish, but Sumerled and J.A.S. came back Saturday to pick me and Dingul up in the Millennium Falcon - like, literally 19 folks sleeping in a hotel room...).


The days and years go by with The Blipping Campaign and by 1997, '98, '99, 2000, '01, '02, '03 our group is just meeting only once a year for DunDraCon. Dark Times, I pretty much show up and black out (even DMing some of these). At the 2004 DunDraCon I basically woke up came-to at around 2:00am in the Open Gaming Room and all our guys had kind of surrounded my passed out self with various book-bags and cases so no one would step on me. Har, and I always though I was an alcoholic of the functional sort.

By popular demand September 25, 2004 I lay off the sauce and spend the next year or so kind of rebuilding my family and my marriage when it occurred to me "Hey, I used to have a whole bunch of friends." It's around fall 2005 by this point and v.3.5 has been out for a bit (since 2003). My then 15-year-old son has some friends that are starting to game, and my son tells them I used to play. So I am looking at this new edition, sort of liking some of the new rules like the to-hit arrangements versus AC and I am telling the younglings about our great old fantasy world, City State of the Invincible Overlord and The Wilderlands of High Fantasy, when I'm Googling this stuff to show them - lo and behold, Judges Guild is BACK and there is a brand new, v.3.5 edition of both the city-state and the Wilderlands. Holey Moley!!!

I go total Blues Brothers, I'm going to put the game back together. I start using bunches of Borders coupons and buying up v.3.5 Player's Handbooks and sending them strategically to certain people...

(Letter to Sick Rick circa October 2005.)
Thus our auld group commences The Wilderlands of High Fantasy campaign in November 2005.

Did you know Wizards of the Coast is essentially a Book Publishing company?

(Books, books, and still more books...these are only 3.5!)
(I even gave away a foot-high stack of 3.5 books at DunDraCon last year...)
Well, the new books kept on coming out - weather, demons, devils, ghosts, monsters, aberrations, settings, book-length adventures, epic level handbooks, and on and on and on... I am so friggin' anal, I had to bring everything with me to every game. We were running about a game every month or two and I had a rolling case, a regular suitcase, plus a large, zippered art portfolio just for all the maps.

So time passes and, I may have mentioned we drank even though I wasn't drinking?

Our fine, backstabby thief, Postman Bob, had a hankering taste for Budweiser. Impervious to beer he was, not so impervious to no beer. Ol' Postal went off the deep end one Christmas and didn't return to work. USPS finally got him into re-hab and Postal was happier than I had seen him in years. Told me "I got it figured out, I can only drink on the weekends."

Following the next Christmas Postal got so bad he couldn't leave his house. Then he ran out of money and could not procure his elixir du Bud. Early summer Postman Bob had a seizure, ended up in a coma for about a month before he came out of it, never quite right mentally though. He soon developed a spinal infection, died about a week or two later in September(?) 2011. I stopped in around 2am after my midnight meeting and was the last person to see Postman Bob alive.

Postman Bob's death hit our gaming group pretty hard.

Bob was the first of us to get an apartment without a spouse along with it, so his was always a good gaming place even in the heat of summer after we got (in real life) kicked off the Devil's Mountain.

Part IV - Knights of the All Mind and Vacuous Grimoires

To make a long story short, after Bob died a number of our group wanted to return to our old AD&D. A like number said they wouldn't play if we reverted back (the comprehensive rules did prevent a lot of rules arguments that were very common back in the day. Everyone took turns as DM so's everyone had an opinion).

I had a brainstorm. We always picked and chose what worked back during our original game. Even though we had been playing v.3.5 straight up I figured we could jettison what we didn't like.

The main issues were Rogues versus Thieves, initiative, and skill points (which almost half our group never even bothered to keep track of).

Matt Finch and Stuart Marshall had done the very first "retro-clones" back in 2006 with Castles and Crusades, and were both very kind to share some thoughts with me when I asked about my supplement in light of their own OSRIC rules.

The first incarnation in 2012 was the Knights of the All Mind supplement plus the S.R.D. of the All Mind v.3.5 core rules. I wanted to go totally retro with digest-sized books, even shipped the first sets in a "white box" version.
But the problem as time went on was that it was too difficult for really everyone to coordinate between the Knights supplement and the SRD booklets.

I was thinking about some stuff Stuart suggested about how they approached OSRIC, "I think the way forward is to do what Matt Finch and I did with OSRIC: substantially rewrite the document using different words.  You can use all the terminology from the OGL but I'm afraid you need to put it together in a different way----e.g. with the tables, turn d100-based tables into, for example, d20-based ones (OSRIC's treasure tables are a good example of how we did this in practice).  Where content is in alphabetical order in the originals, group it by type or theme, and where it's grouped by type or theme in the original, just order it alphabetically."

Thus in 2017 I sat down to translate Knights and the SRD into something unified, but legal. I didn't want to reinvent the wheel, I just wanted to have a set of rules that would accommodate my group's style of play from way back in the day. Ha, my day (hahaha) job is an attorney, I am totally at home with using other people's words (in a legal fashion). It's what I do for a living.

I also wanted to speed gameplay. D6 initiative saved a ton of time, as did race and class abilities rather than everyone having some even miniscule chance to accomplish some specialized skill. Plus I wanted the rules to be portable. I was really tired about carrying tons of hardbacks just because I was the game judge.

The first book out was a player's guide, and then immediately decided to call it The Vacuous Grimoir:

(I was actually working on something about David Hargrave, the title was handy.)
"A book of this sort looks like a normal one on some mildly interesting topic. Any character who opens the work and reads so much as a single word therein must make two DC 15 Will saves. The first is to determine if the reader takes 1 point of permanent Intelligence drain. The second is to find out if the reader takes 2 points of permanent Wisdom drain. To destroy the book, a character must burn it while casting remove curse. If the grimoire is placed with other books, its appearance instantly alters to conform to the look of those other works."

We've run a couple games as a group (The Blipping #2 Campaign) and I used the rules as a basis for my "official" DunDraCon game last February. The thing I like so far is that I can pretty much translate on the fly to 5th Ed., 3rd Ed., and possibly even AD&D. (I bet I could even do 4th. I ran a 4th Ed. campaign back in 2008/2009.) I keep a conversion tome with conversion tables and 5th Ed. basic rules and pretty much let whomever bring whatever character in during the convention.

I followed with a judge's guide and bestiary. They're all working for now. Down and dirty, but rules are only a framework anyway.

Final Thoughts

Ha, which brings me to the shittier art. Nearly all the art used in the Vacuous Grimoires are from pieces I drew mostly in 1981 and 1982, although some later and some earlier pieces. That black and white style is what I adopted for these book's signature.

Only very rarely do I have any art that relates to the game rules. My thought, especially after editing down 7 games from back in the early nineties, mostly what a game judge needs is the ability to describe something. A picture can only carry you so far (scale, right?) and players need to examine one or two at a time. In the context of gameplay, a good description is worth a thousand pictures.

(Notice how I can fit all my rules in a regular satchel!)
Regarding the copy/paste of the S.R.D. rules, I need base rules in there somehow. Like I said, I don't want to re-invent the wheel so long as the players like it. Bill Slavicsek, Jeff Grubb, Rich Redman, Charles Ryan, Eric Cagle, David Noonan, Stan!, Christopher Perkins, Rodney Thompson, Jonathan Tweet, Monte Cook, Skip Williams, Richard Baker, Peter Adkison, Bruce R. Cordell, John Tynes, Andy Collins, and JD Wiker all were paid a lot more money and had a lot more time to develop these rules, and they're all free! Plus, I do spend hours to get the layout correct and spot the minor references to skills.

Now, in volumes 1-3 I did add at least some extras in the works that are also open source, Volume 4, the psionics book, is virtually identical to the SRD. The reason is that I just need psionics for the current adventure I'm working on. I was thinking about reworking a psionic system, but haven't even played with v.3.5 psionics. Ergo it's just your plain v.3.5 psionics.

The main payoff with the psionics book will be Un-living for the City...

(Coming soon ...)