Saturday, June 25, 2011

Grimtooth's Legacy

Some supplements are simply like candy to GMs. And The Grimtooth's Traps legacy rise to that level and far, far beyond. I can still recall buying my first one, back in like 1983. It was the first and some might say most glorious: What I can't recall is when I started using them in my dungeons. I know I _did_ use them, much to my player's chagrin. I just can't recall the initial mayhem. But what I have to give Grimtooth true credit for is for introducing me to a whole new world of GMing mastery. For Grimtooth inspired me with the idea that I was more than simply a GM, I was a Dungeon Engineer. I suppose "adventure engineer" might be more appropriate, because the action wasn't always below the surface. But my role was the same either way. I was responsible for putting things together in such a masterfully horrendous way that players would have _no_ idea what they were walking into.

Because see, by '84 all my fellow players had pored over not just the PHB, but also the GMs Guide and heaven forbid the Monster Manual. We all had Dragon magazine subscriptions and half the time they were ahead of me on the gaming learning curve. So when I ran across Grimtooth I knew I had found something that was just for me. As long as nobody else found out about it. I needed tricks of the trade, inside knowledge, secret lore and maniacal inspiration. Enter Grimtooth, appearing like a demon summoned by my earnest inner DM pleadings. Once I had it it was mine, all mine and I horded it like Bilbo horded the ring. And pity the fool I caught rifling through my backpack of gaming supplies to discover what might lie hidden there. That was why, by myself in Austin Comics and Fantasy Books one day, I quickly picked up number two like another grail had been created, just for me:

I never did manage to get ahold of all of the series, but I'm slowly building my collection. Truth is I've never used all of the beautiful nasties in one or two, but I'm going to ... some day. There's simply too many players to kill and just not enough time. But the mastermind behind Grimtooth, Catalyst Systems has allowed all these marvelous supps to go out of print. As of January this year the word is they are trying to get them re-released. But most are still available in used form via Amazon, Ebay, Alibris and others. So if you are anything like me, keep looking, they'll appear. Sometimes in a puff od sulfourous smoke laced with the hint of brimstone, but they'll show up. They always do.

The subsequent six all had titles that in True Robert Asprin style were as punny as the second. Another fact I loved at the time and still appreciate today:

Grimtooth's Traps Fore:

Grimtooth's Traps Ate:Grimtooth's Traps Lite:

Grimtooth's Traps Bazaar: Grimtooth's Dungeon of Doom:

But truthfully, Grimtooth's legacy wasn't just the 8 volumes that it spawned; nor that it gave GMs a plethora of useful PC torture devices, or even the fact that now _every_ adventure could be turned into another Tomb of Horrors. (I can hear the violent shudder of fear running through PCS everywhere). No, Grimtooth's legacy was much more important than that. Grimtooth's true legacy was PC body-count pure and simple. His success was measured not by books sold, but by the number of rotting corpses and scattered bones that littered so many of our lovingly engineered Dungeons of Death ... Ya gotta love that.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Can Any Game be Old School?

Okay, so I go that out of my system (cf my last post). Well, somewhat at least. I mean what we really love to do is game, right? And as GMs we have to be willing to play the game our players are willing to play. After all, it's easier for us, one person (even if we are the GM and always right), to change than to try and get 4 to 11 others (especially if they are pantywaste min-maxers) to change. I mean we can just get outvoted. And in the heated discussion of what we are actually going to play we lose all game time and end up playing, well ... nothing, if we aren't careful.

I suppose that is why I gave in yesterday and agreed to play Pathfinder instead of trying to playtest Dungeon Crawl Classics or sticking with OSRIC which got outvoted by the Pathfinder devotees. And, heck, no skin off my nose. I was hacking a d20 dungeon anyway so it could easily go either way. I gave in and everybody is happy, right? Well, everybody but me. But at least I get to game, right?

Right ... ahem.

I mean let's face it I _have_ to act with a little integrity. Otherwise my credentials as a DM are poop and I become Monty Haul DM # 32,146 (or whatever number they are up to now). I do have certain well, beliefs, about what players should have to face if they want an authentic gaming experience. What, you may ask, do I mean by an "authentic gaming experience"? Well, glad you asked. Allow me step up on that soapbox there and share the light, my gaming brothers and sisters:

Authentic Gaming Experiences

Any way you cut it, players in a fantasy gaming world are seeking to be heroes. No matter how amped up on the power gradient the PC gen rules are, when the players walk their PCs out into the big bad world of danger, it is just that: dangerous! PCs should face a challenge, and be in fear for their mortal lives. I don't care how bad-ass they think their Conan clone is, they should at some point be in fear for their mortal lives, well vicariously anyway. But you get the point. Our JOB as GM is to challenge players. Some have accused me of being a killer GM. Others have accused me of just being sadistic, and out to get the PCs in my campaigns, even at times to get the players! Nothing could really be further from the truth. My desire is to actually help them. But consider me more of an unsympathetic drill sergeant not an antisocial psychopath.

My job is to throw the toughest crap at you that you can handle. And yes, you may make a stupid mistake and die. And yes, the dice may go against you and you may die. And yes, you may lose a limb, come out with half your constitution points intact, lower by a level or two, and barely clinging to the last shreds of your sanity. But that is the risk when we don our swords, pick up our spell books, slip on our holy symbols and head into dungeons inhabited by beasties and baddies that want nothing other than out hearts on a plate and our heads on a stick.

See, if I simply set up a field of kobolds that are willing to stand there like stalks of dry corn for you to come wack down then you should have been a farmer not an adventurer. Chests of gold, gems and jewels don't just lie waiting for you at the end of the corridor either. What monster of any kind of intelligence is going to leave his ill gotten gains just lying there for you to come and pick up free for the taking? You should have become a tax collector if that's what you are looking for. 'Course an RPG of farmers and tax collectors probably wouldn't be too exciting would it?Why? Because we want to play heroes! Real honest to gosh heroes!

Well, I got news for ya Cinderella man, heroes are heroes because they have faced overwhelming danger at risk of life and limb and come back to tell about it. Heroes are heroes for a reason. And that reason aint because you can fart fireballs out your wazoo and sneeze lightning. It's because regardless of your abilities, you face almost impossible odds and life shattering danger and came back home to share the tale over a cold one.

And I got some more news for ya. The tales of heroes are alot prettier than the actual actions themselves. Ask any grunt who's spent a night in a foxhole fighting off an invasion. You do whatever you need to in order to survive with your integrity more or less in tact. It's muddy, bloody, gruesome work and you'll even piss yourself at times, but you'll come out alive having beaten back the horde and you'll be hailed as a hero by one and all.

Heroic work isn't for the faint of heart. And it aint for pantywaste losers. Not long ago in a 1e campaign we had going there was a true gamer that played a halfling fighter. The hobbit's name was Seth and he made it as far as a wee folk can go as a fighter and braved much danger in his time. But you see, Seth ran away as much as he fought. When things looked bad he wasn't too proud to turn tail and run; live to fight another day as the wise ones say. While PCs died in hordes around him, Seth trudged on through the ranks of heroedom to earn a place of honor among PCs of fame and fortune. A hero I say? Yes, indeed. Even though he ran as often as fought. Because Seth listened to his intuition and it was almost always right. When your in over your heads boys it's time to show 'em your arses.

Sure if it would have been a Paladin he might not have had that option. Hero-hood is different for Paladins, has to be. That's the trade off for the Paladin powers bequeathed you. But Seth played his part well in a gritty and tough, old school campaign. Sure we still laugh about Seth running away in true Monty Pythonesque glory at times; but Seth is retired and living in relative luxury in his hobbit-hole; while the bones of many of his more foolhardy comrades are gnawed to dust but dungeon rats. And it's not like Seth didn't warn them . He almost always yelled "RUN!" as he was speedily taking his own advice. It's just that so few actaully listened to him.

And that, my friends is alot more true to life than some video-game induced assembly line of carefully balanced monster foes spit out by a digital brain for your slaughtering pleasure. No, you don't get a reboot, you don't magically appear back at home base with your power in tact. You don't have 5 lives waiting to be used up and then a play again button to push. You have one PC life if you're lucky, maybe a few more if you can wrangle a rather difficult resurrection process. But the point is this is for real boys and girls, as real as we can make it.

And let's face it, Monsters want you D-E-A-D. And likely on their supper plate with a nice cold side salad of your intestines. Most are at least as intelligent as you and some even moreso. They are going to use all their evil wit, dastardly guile and chaotic wiles to outsmart, beat, kill and eat you. To play them otherwise would be to give you an unrealistic challenge--far too easy and in the end unbelievable. They are going to litter their dungeon with traps only they know how to get past; they are going to poison the spikes in their pit with the vilest stuff they can get their hands on; they'll lob flaming oil at you; ambush you when you least expect it; rally their numbers and attempt to overwhelm you; magically shut off the lights and slit your throats in your sleep; and hide their treasure so well you'll never, ever, ever find it; and if you do you'll be sorry.

If you can get past a foe like that, you truly do deserve to be called a hero. And that my friends is exactly how I roll. But the question then is ... can I do that and not play a game inherently designed for it? Can Pathfinder offer me the media by which I can play a real, true hard core fantasy campaign? The reason I question is that I'm still getting comfortable with the PF rules. And every time I turn around a new PC power booster has been added to amp their survivor jets. Competing with that old school style is a bit hard.

Luckily my brother is leading the way. And by that I mean my actual real world brother. My brother lives states away from me, but we talk probably five times a week. Mostly about gaming stuff. And he thinks like I do on most accounts and has been finagled into running a 4e campaign, much to his chagrin. We've had numerous conversations about how to run 4e old school. For, you see, 4e has some built in problems when trying to construct PC humility and general campaign grittiness. But his last report to me were that things were going quite well. A couple of his players were a bit peeved at the unexpectedly difficult change; but they survived, even if they did have to really work at it this time. He's using Goodman Games' GM's Gems and Grimtooth's Wurst to throw some unsuspecting challenges their way in marvelously non-4e style. And he's got his PCs looking behind their backs, burning their backpacks, and howling in horror half the time. In the middle of the fury his PCs have no idea if they are going to make it out alive. And when they do, you can bet your last copper they know they have achieved something. And for those of you who say such play isn't fun: his players laughed and hollered and hooted the whole time keeping the rest of the house awake long after bed time they were having such a good time.

And what all this has done is make me really think about things. I mean if I _have_ to play Pathfinder, I should at least play it the way it should be played. They way any fantasy game should be played--full of mystery, wonder and amazingly thrilling danger. Even children's fairy tales contain all of that. Otherwise they would be dull, dead and long forgotten. Now, it's not as easy in a game like Pathfinder or 4e to play old school. I mean Hackmaster and Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG and Lamentations of the Flame Princess are designed with that in mind. Pathfinder and 4e aren't necessarily. So it may take some creative work on our parts to make it happen. But I'm beginning to think it may be possible to do so.

So the next time a new batch of players says to me "Let's play Pathfinder!!" I respond not with moans and violent retching, but with a hearty "You bet!" and grin behind my GM screen like the proverbial Cheshire Cat who is about to eat six PC canaries.

Mwuah Ha Haa HAAAA!!!!!!!

Ah hell, (the ninth level preferably), I give up.

What a bunch of freakin' pantywastes!! ... 'Course I actually didn't call them that -- out loud. I did tell one of them to shut up, though. Can't say I'm particularly proud of that, but the actual GMing hadn't even started yet. So I was "out of character" as it were. ... He did shut up by the way.

What's all this about you say? It's about lame ass players who can't see past their own pathetically narrow definitions of what fantasy gaming is supposed to be about. And what, in their minds is it supposed to be about? Their own wet fantasies of absolute power and invincibility. Give me a fargin' break.

Try and encourage any effort at actually roleplaying or creating backstory, context, richness or making things even remotely believable and they fall apart and reject it. They don't just reject it, they whine and complain and generally make themselves so annoyingly useless that they might as well have walked away from the table. Hell it would probably be better if they actually did.

Wow. You are by now saying to yourself. He's really on one.What on earth could have brought this on? And even more curiously you are no doubt wondering what I _did_ about it. Did I grab my dice bag and go home?

No. I'm too much of a gamer to do that. I ... well ... I gave in. I gave in and played Pathfinder.

Yep. Horror of horrors. Played Pathfinder. Yep. Kill me now.

Really? That's it you say? That's all. Hell (you are now cursing too--I've been known to be a bad influence) Pathfinder's not that bad. It's a pretty good game.

I know.

Don't you just hate that? The damn thing plays so well and is so player pleasing that it makes me, well sick. To even create a decent challenge and make things even approximately swords and sorcerly I gotta hack it old school style. What a pain.

So what really happened? Okay, okay I'll tell you in a little more detail. I don;t know that I can go into it all--it makes me want to pewk.

First I wanted then to at least _try_ Hackmaster 4e. I mean it's similar to OSRIC and they know OSRIC and about half of them are OSRIC fans. NOT 1e fams mind you, they hate it when I use the actual 1e books. They want to play strict OSRIC. And in case you didn't know by now, which all of you do, OSRIC is _not_ 1e. And the two _aint_ compatible. I've talked about that before, so I won't go into it now. At any rate they don't even get through creating HM PCs before they start whining. This is too hard, it takes too long, I don't like quirks and flaws, why am I from the lower class, we do I have to keep my stats in order, only 3d6! Waah, waah, waaah. Bunch of gaming babies.

Oh forgive me for making you guys actually play a system that has some character background built into the PC gen rules. No, sorry, this aint PC in a can. And the loudest whiner was the one who plays nothing but elf fighters who double specialize in bastard sword and all seem to have 18/00 strength. Carbon copy fargin icehole bastage. He's the one who got told to shut up.

So this week I think maybe we can try and playtest Dungeon Crawl Classics. We aint even gonna go into that. Suffice it to say we played candy coated PF.

I think I'm gonna be sick. No, wait, I already have been several times today.

I'm gonna go soak my brain in KODT. I'll post more tomorrow and maybe be able to sort this out.