Armagideon Time

I may not be feeling this spooky season as strongly this year, but it’s not for a lack of trying. As part of my not-quite-successful attempts to kickstart the chills and thrills, I recently purchased a pair of a seasonally appropriate soundtrack releases on glorious, overpriced vinyl.

Both should be familiar to anyone who has been followed previous Halloween Countdowns, though they’ve been gradually relegated to the backbenches because of cyclical changes in my listening habits and an unwillingness to dip too many times from the same well.

The first of the pair is a recent release which falls into the “what took them so damn long” file — instrumental/choral score to Candyman by Philip Glass. Previously relegated to the ethically shady realm of fileshare networks, it can now be savored with a clear conscience.

The film was a welcome (if overlooked) anomaly in 1992. Its late-cycle slasher trash marketing campaign concealed a very effective adaptation of Clive Barker’s “The Forbidden” which shifted the urban folk horror from the council estates of Thatcherite Britain to the Chicago housing projects of Bush the Elder’s America. It also leaned more heavily into the mythic implications of the story than the source material did, making it a more satisfying experience in many ways.

Warren Zevon once described “Werewolves of London” as a “dumb song for smart people,” and that also applies to Candyman. There’s no shortage of guts and gore and dumb decisions going on in it, but also a sense of striving for something higher than the genre boilerplate it could’ve settled for…and Glass’s score exemplifies that vibe.

What Candyman tried to do for 80s template slasher flicks, Silent Hill attempted to do for “survival horror” videogames. Eschewing the Romero-template zombies and prerendered (i.e. “flat”) backgrounds which Resident Evil established as standards for the genre, Konami went fully polygonal and extremely Lynchean with its interactive tale of diabolism and dreadful secrets in a small tourist town.

To do so, they reworked the Playstation’s hardware limitations into integral parts of the experience. Dismal draw distances were masked by omnipresent fog and darkness which gave amped up the psychological dread and provided greater heft to audio cues and ambiance. Monsters and other life-threatening abominations still abound, but the real terror comes from the overall sense of disorientation in a world which abruptly shifts from creepy to the stuff of raw nightmare.

The soundtrack naturally plays a large role in that, alternating between hauntingly melodic string arrangements and full-on sonic assaults of industrial ambiance. It was compelling enough to convince to to spring for an extortionately priced import soundtrach CD two decades ago, and remained compelling enough for me to pick up a slightly less expensive double-LP domestic reissue it last week.

While both soundtracks met my “essential records” criteria, neither have done much to boost my Halloween spirit so far. Maura has been digging their return to household rotation, though, which is great.

“…and?”

“Sigh, fine, we’ll also sacrifice a goat in the firepit tonight, buy only if you finish your homework first.”

“THANKS, MOM, YOU’RE THE GREATEST!”

Recommended listening:

Creature Double Feature is one of the lowest hanging fruits on the Gen X Bostonian nostalgia tree, familiar to any child of the Seventies who lived within WLVI’s broadcast range and had access to a TV set on Saturday afternoons.

Bring it up in a gathering of local forty-somethings and you’ll get a chorus of “Oh, man! I loved that!” followed by hazy recollections of cinematic scenes where the title escapes the teller but the echoes of childhood terror remain. Its roots run deep enough to ensure that at least one geekwear vendor at any given funnybook convention in the region has a t-shirt for sale with the Creature Double Feature logo, and the heir of a local auto dealership empire sprang for a one-off revival of the show a decade or so back. (Alas, any goodwill this generated was utterly squandered when said scion hopped on board the Trump turnip truck.)

As large as Creature Double Feature looms in my provincial-generational memory, I hardly ever watched the program when it aired. Barring inclement weather or illness or other reason to remain housebound, Saturday afternoons were too precious to be spent parked in front of a TV for four hours. It didn’t help that much of the featured fare was duller than dishwater for a restless preteen — chopped and dubbed kaiju flicks, cheaply made Euro-thrillers, and sensationally titled B&W domestic jobbers whose sensationalist titles attempted to compensate for the amount of screen time in which a bunch of doughy white dudes smoked and chatted endlessly in office sets.

To get my attention, the opening part of the bill either had to be especially unusual or earned my mom’s seal of approval. My mother was not a huge fan of horror movies, but she did have a small roster of beloved favorites from her own childhood. All had to do with huge-ass abominations of nature. There was The Deadly Mantis, Earth vs. The Spider, and It Came from Beneath the Sea, accompanied by the two-part magnum man-monster opus The Amazing Colossal Man/War of the Colossal Beast.

My mom’s excitement was enough to convince me to stick it through the broadcasts’ sluggish parts until the small snatches of nightmare fuel broke through, leading to many moments of dread where I suspected there was a giant arachnid lurking under my bed and a massive octopus hidden in the shallow stream across from my home.

A more abstract form of terror came from the Colossal Man flicks. They (along with Earth vs. The Spider, Beginning of the End, and Village of the Giants) were the brainchild of director Bert I. Gordon — “Mr. B.I.G.” — who made a surprisingly lengthy film career out of variably convincing process shots and props deployed to suggest HUGENESS AMOK.

The titular Colossal Man was Colonel Glenn Manning, a Korean War hero who attempts to rescue a civilian during a Nevada nuclear test but gets zapped with by the blast instead. The plutonium radiation lays the poor officer’s scalp bare and transforms him into a sixty-foot tall monster with a dubious grip on his sanity. (If this sounds incredibly familiar, let’s just say that Lee and Kirby weren’t above stripping the hulk of the popcult zeitgeist for usable parts.)

Despite the best efforts of his fiance and some military scientists, Manning loses his grip and goes on a leisurely stroll through Las Vegas, ending with a bazooka-assisted dive off the Hoover Dam…

…only to return alive, missing a chunk of his face, and played by a different actor in the sequel. Manning’s previously unmentioned sister links the disappearance of some food delivery trucks in Mexico with her supposedly deceased big brother, and ropes in the military to help locate him. They do, and haul him back to States after dosing him with a truck full of lude-laced bread. From there, things follow a diminishing returns retread of the final reel of the first flick, with a schoolbus of screaming kids standing in for the Strip and some high-tension wires for the big finish.

As far as movie monsters go, the Colossal Man trends toward the silly end of the spectrum. He’s not some phobia-inducing bit of wildlife dialed up to city-wrecking proportions, but a bald sad sack who resembles nothing so much as a giant toddler — right down to his loincloth “diaper” and halting body movements meant to convey his hugeness. for all that goofiness, though, he’s the Bert I. creature who spooks me the most.

Manning’s descent from self-pity into insanity is played to the scenery chewing hilt by Glenn Langan, who manages to put more menace into a pained chuckle than a dozen giant spiders combined could muster. That may be less about the quality of the performance than my own childhood experiences with a father who teetered between man and monster depending on his alcohol intake, which made me acutely sensitive to the moment he passed a threshold where bad shit was going to happen. (And when you’re six years old, five-foot-eleven might as well be sixty feet tell.)

Even on a less personal level, the movies have a few legitimate chills and thrills to offer. The giant syringe which the scientists use in the first movie is ridiculously literal right down to the basketball sized finger holes, but it doesn’t make the moment when Manning turns it into a lethal lawn dart any less grisly. And while the sequel mostly coasts on creative fumes, Manning’s mutilated face makeup occupied a prominent place in my childhood nightmare registry.

They may not be great movies, but they were certainly worth missing an afternoon playing in the sandpits to see.

Recommended listening:

I’ve recently been scanning eBay’s listings for reasonably priced copies of old Sears Wish Books. While there’s a excellent online depository of these holiday catalogs, it has a few unfortunate gaps which happen to align with areas of particular interest for me.

Besides, when it comes to this type of artifact, there’s no substitute for the weighty physicality of the genuine article…providing it wasn’t stored next to a quarter ton of used cat litter in a damp basement for three decades.

So far, I’ve managed to score copies of the 1980 and 1981 editions. Both were at the top of my want list because they spanned a very significant moment in kid-oriented consumer product — the post-Star Wars first flower of the Golden Age of Action figures, the Atari 2600′s shift from an expensive novelty to a must-have fixture for the rumpus room, and Dungeons & Dragons’ brief fad-driven surge into the mainstream.

I’ll probably take a deeper dive into this once the countdown ends, but I will say that I’ve been a little surprised by the shallowness of the inventory offered in these catalogs pages. When I was younger, their toy sections were the be-all, end-all of unbridled childhood greed, but the actual listings only represent a fraction of what was available on the aisles at the time. Entire lines are omitted or pared down to a single representative item, and broader trends compressed into an extremely narrow set of listings.

I’m sure a lot of it came down to supply chain politics, with Sears opting to prioritize favored vendors and in-house products for anything below the “a-list.” So Lego didn’t make the cut in either 1980 or 1981, but the Sears-branded “Brix Blox” got ample space to showcase its shameless knock-off product.

Likewise, the 1981 edition’s action figure section was limited to double-page spread of Star Wars toys followed by another page divided up between the Lone Ranger movie line, Clash of the Titans, and this hapless attempt to straddle two popcult epochs.

Today, Remco’s line of classic monster figures has gained an after-the-fact cult fandom, but the only examples I remember spotting in the wild at the time were a legless Frankenstein and armless Dracula buried at the bottom of some childhood peer’s toychest, biding their time until a hot date with an M-80 or half a can of lighter fluid.

It wasn’t until my college years that I saw the toys in their full off-model glory. For some reason I still haven’t been able to work out, Maura owned most (if not all) of the figures along with the carry case playset. It was just one of several early indicators that the lady was a keeper.

Recommended listening:

My GRAVE-est apologies for GHOST-ing on yesterday’s post, but I was being tormented by a lost set of car keys and supposedly-but-not-actually faxed important paperwork and other real life terrors more fiendish than any salivating hellbeast.

In any case, here’s a cursed artifact from a 1984 Billboard insert covering the rental-driven horror flick boom…

While several purveyors of terror on tape took advantage of the insert’s opportunity for some strategic ad buys, only United Home Video rose above the “spooky pun plus cover” mosaic format by lobbing in its own approximation of a horror host. As far as I’ve been able to tell, the mysterious “Lady Cadaver” only existed for the sake of this specific ad. I suppose you need all the cleavage you can reveal when your top tier offerings are Kingdom of the Spiders, The Toolbox Murders, and the “first made-for-home video movie.” (If only it had been the last as well.)

Honestly, nothing in United’s stated roster chills my spine as effectively as its oh-so-cheapjack-Eighties opening intro does.

Recommended listening:

Some vintage Bay State goth, seen live by a young Queen of Animals who was scared the frontman was going to steal her eyeglasses during his onstage antics.

Me (internally): “Things have been too hectic to update the site more than once or twice a week. Should I even bother attempting the Halloween Countdown this year?”

The Kid (via text): “hey pop check out the new doll me and mom got”

(By the way, the person who crafted the doll must have filled it with some kind of thermic gel which makes its body cold to the touch, even on a 90 degree day. Or I hope that’s the correct explanation, at least.)

I can run, but I can’t hide from my macabre calling.

Recommended listening:

This past weekend, I found myself acquiring the core rulebooks for not one but two new-to-me fantasy roleplaying games.

One was Zweihänder, a game of “grim and perilous adventure” from, well, Grim & Perilous Studios. If that phrase sounds a bit familiar, it’s because the game only nominally qualifies for the “new-to-me” tag. Though the text and hype take pains to specifically state as much, Zweihänder attempts to be — in spirit and mechanics and typography — the true successor to the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay throne. So much so, in fact, that I’m a little surprised they weren’t hit with a C&D from Games Workshop over the cursory job its designers did in filing off the serial numbers.

The massive 600-page-plus tome leaves out matters of setting and canon, but both are easily discernible through all the rules and fluff talk about “the colors of magic” and “corruption” and “slayers” and “war dervishes” and the domains of unnamed yet very familiar gods. Mechanics-wise, Zweihänder attempts to split the difference between (and build upon) the first and second editions of WFRP. It mostly succeeds, and feels truer to the source material than the current official WFRP ruleset (which isn’t a bad game, but suffers from the oversimplifcation and overcomplication of mechanics which were fine as is.)

The Warhammer Fantasy license was my least favorite part of WFRP. The game’s grubby and lethal approach to heroic fantasy was the real draw, along with its flexible approach to character development. The campaign stuff was interesting fluff to be read on the shitter or mined for adventure ideas. As GW shifted its focus from selling games to selling canon, the fluff moved to the foreground and insinuated itself into the system’s mechanics. It wasn’t impossible to untangle these into something a little more ecumenical, but it did take a fair bit of work brainstorming canon-neutral replacements for the excised bits.

Zweihänder has that taken care of right out of the gate, which is something I’d been wanting since the first edition of WFRP dropped. If only it had been released back when I still had the time and players to run the damn thing. And while I appreciate the value for money the massive core rulebook presents, I’m too scared to read it while lazing on the sofa because I might collapse my ribcage.

Where Zweihänder is massive, grimdark, and detail-oriented, the Melsonian Arts Council’s Troika! is a compact, breezy, and flexible slice of RPG goodness. Its campaign setting is also implied rather than codified — but what it’s attempting to imply is left almost entirely to the reader. There are plenty of breadcrumbs in the text to extrapolate from, however — an arbitrarily consistent science-fantasy universe populated by pissed-off owls, golem-like dwarfs, and muck-encrusted clergy whose parishes are stagnant ponds.

It’s heroic fantasy in the “dreamworlds” style, the type of phantasmagorical weirdness which dominated the scene before Tolkien’s long shadow codified the genre’s conventions (by both slavish adherence or surly rejection). Everything is mythic and and odd and — because we live in a post-Pratchett, post-Adams world — dripping with a wry sense of whimsy.

Honestly, I tend to find that style to be more than a little cloying, which is why my grand plan to read through the crate of Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperbacks my grandpa left me came to naught. Too much of it reads like prose Coleridge fanfic crapped out by dilettante antiquarians with too high an opinion of their literati cred. I don’t need “Jabberwocky” extruded into a full-length novel, either with or without white-boy forays into cringe-worthy “Orientalism.”

Troika is fine, though, mainly because it knows when to ease off the throttle. The silly bits don’t overshadow the tantalizing sense of wonder the game seeks to cultivate, and nothing in the core rulebook goes on long enough to overstay its welcome. Troika takes pride in its very simple, d6-based mechanics and expresses confidence that any rule-or-lore gaps can be handled by the players.

If ever a game could be described as “adorable” or “darling” or other terms employed by great aunts, it would be Troika. I’m not sure if it’s a game I’d ever run, yet…

With Zweihander filling my head with thoughts of WFRP again, I got to thinking about that game’s apocalypticism. The end times are upon the Old World, which is being devoured from within and without by the gods of primordial chaos. Their victory is inevitable, at which point the universe will collapse into roiling formlessness.

Which is pretty boring, if you think about it. Not just for the players, but for the chaos gods themselves. Where’s the fun in manipulating a soup of etheroplasmic goo? What if, after a few millennia of being bored shitless, they decide to reform the cosmos — not in an entirely orderly fashion, but with enough structure to provide something to kick back against and keep things interesting?

In my estimation, that fractured multiverse would be the one in which Troika is set. As adolescent edgelord nihilism (hopefully) gives way to a reconciliation with a fairly absurd world, so, too, does “grim and perilous adventure” give way to “not sure I completely understand it but it seems like a hoot.”

Why else would one of Troika’s character careers be a cashieried chaos warrior given leave by their gods to try something other than global annihilation for a change?

This recurring phantasy

September 17th, 2019

The original Phantasy Star for the Sega Master System has occupied a special — if bittersweet — place in my heart for over three decades. It my first for-real console JRPG experienced, purchased a couple of days after my mother’s death. Its punishing grind and non-intuitive narrative flow proved to be an adequate distraction during a really harrowing time.

The franchise has waned since its groundbreaking debut, drifting towards an action-RPG MMO model which bears only a superficial resemblance to the 8-and-16 bit turn-based epics upon which the series built its reputation. The nature of the games have changed, but my interest has remained strong enough to be a system-selling incentive. My archives contain a host of Phantasy Star offerings across multiple console generations from the original SMS cartridge to a Phantasy Star 0 gamecard for the Nintendo DS.

One offering which intrigued me, but never garnered much actually playtime was the PS2 reskin of the first Phantasy Star game, offered as part of the budget line of “Sega Ages” upgraded classics. It dropped at a time when my interest in import gaming was at a low ebb. Even if I had a console capable of playing it, I no longer retained the patience (and muscle memory) to blunder through it the way I’d done with the straight port on the Saturn’s Phantasy Star Collection anthology a half decade prior.

It was relegated to the “maybe someday” file, along with a crate of still-unplayed games picked up in the later days of the PS2′s lifespan. Word of a fan translation project caused my ears to prick up, but the logistics of ripping and patching and finding a means to play the damn thing suggested a shitload of work expended for an equal amount of disappointment…

….until a couple of weeks ago, when I got a fan-curated bundle of the translated game and emulation software up and running on my shiny new laptop.

The game is an odd beast, equal parts old-and-new school with little blending between the two. The visuals have been upgraded from gorgeous-for-the-time 8-bit sprites to the slicker and softer prerendered style associated with Aughts Era flash browser games. It looks great in screencaps, but comes off as weirdly flat and sterile during actual gameplay.

The menus and interfaces have also received a less jarring modern facelift complete with tool tips, anime-style character art, and more intuitive functionality. No more blooping boxes of plain text against a stock environmental backdrop in order to manipulate party inventory.

The game’s signature “3D” dungeons got a more lateral upgrade from minimalist sprite-based corridors to…

…some pretty hideous-looking textured ones which don’t add much besides some unwelcome visual noise. At least the developers added a limited automapping feature by way of a consumable item, alleviating one of the more frustrating aspects of the original game.

The combat system has been brought closer in line to Phantasy Star IV‘s, the trad JRPG swan song of the franchise. Characters are now displayed onscreen during battles, and now have attack animations in place of the original game’s monochrome “slash” shorthand. There’s even as auto-attack option has been added for the thumb-fatigued crowd. Hit point, damages, and experience totals have been brought up from their modest tabletop-inspired totals to something closer in line to Final Fantasy’s big number gameplay. After getting a few levels under their belt, the characters are dishing out pain capable of felling the Master System version’s endgame bosses.

The grind in general is considerably easier in the remake version. After three hours of dicking around, my party managed to hit level 20 without much in the way of dedicated XP farming. Getting cash for big ticket items is also much less of a hassle, where going from zero meseta to a fancy new ceramic sword takes a single loop around the starting continent’s shoreline whacking crab monsters for money.

The less punishing grind and automapping feature removed two reasons I’ve struggled with revisiting the game, but the remake’s narrative tweaks provided the incentive to actually give it go. As an early-gen JRPG, Phantasy Star was a bit lean when it came to the plot. All you needed to know — overthrow the space tyrant who killed your brother — was spelled out in the instruction manual or short snippets of imperfectly localized text which…sorta…maybe…were adequate to directly you towards the next quest objective. It was heady stuff in 1988, but had long been outshone by the next-level soap operatics of the SNES Final Fantasy games. Out of the original quartet of games, only Phantasy Star IV managed to capture a similar vibe.

The Sega Ages remake of the first game dedicates a good deal of energy trying to bring the first Phantasy Star up to that level. Alisia and company are no longer stat-defined ciphers, but distinct personalities who interact with NPC and each other through still image cutscenes and dialogue boxes complete with mood-reflecting portraits. It’s not Mass Effect (or even Final Fantasy VI), but watching them come to “life” after all these years is a wonderful treat.

It’s fan service, pure and simple, and that applies to the remake as a whole. It wasn’t intended to win converts but to pay tribute to the first installment of a beloved franchise. Instead of trying players’ patience with faithful yet anachronistic mechanics, it distills the core components of the original into an appealingly compact package — a budget retro-title as a nostalgia-scented love letter.

And I’ll be damned if it doesn’t succeed at its goal.

The whole world in my hands

September 12th, 2019

For all the predicted sacrifices I’d been told parenting would bring, the only major casualty has been my relationship with the PlayStation 4 in the living room. Prior to move-in day, the console was a near-constant free time companion. We get home from work, feed the animals and ourselves, then Maura would decamp upstairs to watch her shows while I blasted extraterrestrial monsters in glorious HD.

Those days have ended. The only times the system gets booted up now are to stream some family entertainment or for one of the Kid’s Skyrim adventures. It has been over a month since I last logged into Destiny 2and I don’t miss it at all. There have been some periodic phantom pains, but hardly what I expected from going cold turkey off a franchise that had been my timewaster of choice for half a decade. Grind fatigue and Dan Butler’s departure from the game set the stage for the break, but they weren’t the decisive reasons behind it. The truth is that Destiny‘s always-live multiplayer model was impossible to reconcile with a world in which an urgent “HEY, POP! WE NEED YOUR HELP!” is hollered in my direction multiple times an hour. (Late-night “dad gamer” antics weren’t an option, because I tend to nod off before the kid does.)

The experience has led me to reconnected with my trusty ol’ Playstation Portable handheld with its, well, portability and extremely handy “sleep” feature. Did the Kid somehow manage to spill a thousand craft beads into the bathtub drain while I’m middle of a tough Valkyria Chronicles 3 battle? No, worries, I can suspend the game and resume it after clearing the clog with a wet vac and reassuring the Kid that no, I’m not mad but extremely baffled how it happened in the first place.

Shit battery life aside, the PSP is the ideal gaming device for my current circumstances. Besides the handheld’s ability to stop and resume on the fly, most of the offerings in its library were designed to be tackled in reasonably-sized chunks with few long cutscenes or extended sequences. Games like MGS: Peace Walker or Phantasy Star Portable or Persona 3 FES managed to distill all the best parts of their more stationary console counterparts into a satisfying experience for folks who lack an excess of uninterrupted free time.

My rekindled relationship with the PSP also spurred me to explore its potential a bit further than previous go-rounds. Its digital-delivery compatibility with the original Playstation had been one of its selling features back in late Aughts, and still retained a decent roster of PS1 ports purchased through Sony’s online storefront. Most of the beloved big-sellers and cult classics were represented but many of my old favorites hadn’t made the cut — games like the gorgeous sprite-based Tatsunoko Fighters or Tobal 2 or Speed Power Gunbike or a dozen other artifacts from that serendipitous alignment between “discovering a reliable game importer” and “landing my first grown-up job” in the back half of the 1990s.

Realistically, I could spend a lifetime working my way through the shit I’d already picked up via PSN, but the Suikoden games and Misadventures of Tron Bonne only whetted my appetite for the full flashback experience — especially considering the number of old PS1 games packed away in my attic without the means to play them. (Theoretically, my old mod-chipped console should be up there, too, but I’m not going to hold out hope of it working after all these years, even if I still had a VGA monitor to hook it up to.)

I’d heard of folks who’d managed to dump PS1 games onto their PSPs and get them running, so I decided run a few internet searches for further detail. What came up was a somewhat roundabout and frequently confusing method of creating PSP compatible eboot files from the original discs.

Did I succeed in my attempt? Well….

…let’s just say I’m really, really glad I didn’t give in to the temptation to sell my PS1 games collection when I was strapped for cash a while back. And I’m glad the price of 128GB memory cards has dropped over the past decade.

“So what kinds of videogames do you like?” I asked the Kid during one of her weekend stayovers prior to officially moving in with us.

Minecraft. Fortnite. And that game where you’re going to have your head cut off but then a dragon shows up and burns everyone to death.”

“That sounds like Skyrim,” I replied, not really thinking that would be the case.

“YEAH! SKYRIM!”

“I got that for the PS4.”

“CAN I PLAY IT? PLEASE?”

…and that’s how Arianna the High Elf Battle Mage With Cool Scars came to wander the northern wilderness on her trusted horse Linda, seeking out bandits to electrocute and ingredients to use in crafting recipes.

Watching the Kid immerse herself in developing her in-game avatar and exploring its environments set some long dormant wheels a’turning in my skull.

She loves Stranger Things. She loves tabletop games. She loves make-believe and crafting stories. She loves social gatherings. She could stand to use a little help with applied math, vocabulary, and problem-solving skills.

I’d already been thinking of organizing a family game night, so why not make it a family Dungeon and Dragons night?

D&D and me gone our separate ways over three decades ago, but I picked it over Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay because it would be simpler for a novice to grasp and had the whole Stranger Things angle going for it. After some internal debate about whether to go with the “BECMI” era Rules Compendium or the 3rd ed rules, I opted for the 5th edition ruleset based on Lil Bro’s recommendation. They’re simple, flexible, and intuitive, dispensing with much of the clutter (and meta-wankery) yet retaining the game’s core strengths. In short, it was precisely what I was looking for in a fantasy RPG system.

We’re still trying to work out the scheduling and logistics for the approaching school year, so things are still in the planning stages for now. That’s been fine by me because it gives me time to become familiar enough with the rules to explain them to others and scrape together the rough outline for a campaign.

In my younger days, I was a “big picture” type of gamemaster. I’d have sooner eaten my own foot than begin a campaign with anything less than a full continent mapped out, a dozen realms delineated, and a few millennia of history codified in excruciating detail. As enjoyable as that conscientious worldbuilding was, however, only the tiniest fraction of it would turn up with the actual game sessions. It also had the dubious effect of letting the backstory drive events rather than the players’ actions when it came to crafting scenarios.

“I created this fluff, so you’re damn well going to experience it.”

This time around, I’ve opted for a much looser approach. There are no megamaps or chronologies, just a relatively small parcel of turf sprinkled with adventure seeds and suggestive names. More detailed info will be filled in as required by campaign events. 5th edition’s relative gentleness towards low-level characters makes it easy to craft neophyte-friendly scenarios — and blunt the urge to start everyone off at fifth level for the sake of avoiding a Total Party Kill during the first session.

I’ve long been partial to low-level play where even the most minor of magic items is a valued prize and each level gained is a significant event. The charm isn’t in the higher mortality rates, but the sense of accomplishment as your character slowly “comes into their own.” It’s why I’ve played the first third of the Baldur’s Gate games and Skyrim and Diablo III dozens of times, yet have only finished them a couple of times each. Powergaming can be fun, but it also tends to devolve into a joyless grind for incremental optimization.

Give me a single digit-hit point total and cave with a handful of goblins to poke with a crude spear over using the powers of a demigod to thrash the same elder dragon a dozen times in hopes of obtaining a rare drop.

My previous attempt to put this approach into tabletop practice (by way of 2nd edition WFRP) fell apart because of scheduling reasons. (Working out the logistics for a weekly gathering of thirty-somethings is a feat more daunting than anything described in a heroic fantasy novel.) I did hold onto my set of MS Word campaign notes, which migrated across a half dozen computers over the past fifteen years. Most of it was world-building fluff, useful only for as an embarrassing reminder of what I was reading at the time I wrote them, but there were enough bits and pieces of value to form the basis of a new campaign.

After a little tooling around with a free map generator (ain’t technology grand?), I came up with this…

What you see on the map is pretty much what you get in terms of world-building — some evocatively named locales covering a decent spread of environments, sprinkled with various points of interest. There’s a little bit more detail stored in my skull, but it can’t be disclosed in a venue where a couple of the players might encounter it.

The opening hook will be simple and to the point: The characters are held over in the orchard-heavy village of Pomedale because soldiers of the As Yet Unspecified Kingdom Army have blocked road north because of Some Vaguely Understood Event. To keep the characters from spending their days drinking and brawling and making nuisances of themselves, the locals suggest various nearby attractions for adventuring types.

The only tricky part thus far has been working out suitable challenges for what will likely be a three-person party featuring a halfling barbarian, elven druid, and some kind of warlock, but I planning to emphasize exploration and atmosphere over combat, anyhow.

Map aside, it’s going to be a fully analog game. I’ve got nothing against the various RPG-assistance apps out there, but the hands-on aspect of picking out a cool set of dice, having paper character sheets, manually mapping dungeons, and leafing through printed manuals will be a significant part of the game’s mystique for the Kid. If it does manage to gel into a regular, ongoing thing, I might even spring for custom Hero Forge minis for my two geeky ladies.

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