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The Iron Y

Yeah, that’s my lame attempt at self-deprecation.

Note to self: the next time you write a blog post stating that a writer writes every day, don’t follow it up with a year of not writing.


I had a couple of projects offered last summer which I passed on simply because I was at a mental point where writer’s burnout seemed a valid option, so I’ve done (very) little writing this past year and concentrated more on hanging out with my wife and kids, shuttling the latter to and from various activities, helping out more at the elementary school my daughter attends (for which I wound up being awarded Patron of the Year honors which had been completely unexpected), playing video games with the kids, and watching too much TV (still). Basically, what I’ve been doing the last few years without the headache of forcing myself to sit at the keyboard every day either writing or attempting voice-over.

What I’ve discovered is that I still want to write, but the need to do so is less aggravating. Either I write or I don’t write. I spend a lot of time writing in my head, but when I sit at the keyboard, I wind up staring at a blinking cursor, decide to hop on the ‘net for inspiration, and two hours later I’ve surfed a dozen sites, given myself a headache doing so, managed not to write anything, and it’s time to pick the kids up from school. And wasn’t the whole point to do this without the throbbing skull? What I’d really like is a means to just think about writing and have the words magically appear on screen. That way I could write in my sleep.

Which would likely get me in trouble, so scratch that idea.

Now, when I say I haven’t been writing, I’m not being completely truthful. I still carry around my notebook and keep track of ideas as they float between my ears. I have notes for a couple of novels and half a dozen short stories, ideas for possible blog posts, and scribbles here and there on a setting or two that came to mind during the past year.

The kids and I were watching The Musketeers on BBCAmerica¹ and I found myself admiring the overuse of leather in the costumes, the dusty settings, the brawling sword fights, and the crack of musket fire. A few weeks after the season ended I saw Quigley Down Under (which I still think is one of the best Westerns ever produced), and I thought Musketeers + Old West + Pirates (since everything is better with pirates), so I began jotting ideas for what I’m currently calling the Crossbones & Cattle Barons, or Swashbuckling Old West, setting.

I know I want a continent ripe for plunder, discovered sometime shortly after a protracted war between various political factions across the remainder of the world. The continent has arable land, wide open spaces, mountains filled with jewels and precious metals, and it includes creatures not encountered in other countries along with a native population that fiercely guards its homeland. Tentatively, I’d be running this with the Honor & Intrigue system² because a few members in my gaming group (including me) are interested in seeing that system being used. Not that a system should have any real bearing on the setting itself and it probably wouldn’t anyway, but I do have a tendency to make system mechanic notes as I’m brainstorming.

I’d wavered awhile on including non-humans in the setting but decided since one of the major resources found in this New World would be Dragon Stones, the fossilized remnants of long-dead dragons, that having non-humans was a small step (and allows use of those elf, dwarf, orc, and goblin swashbuckler figures from Reaper). So, yeah, the standard fantasy races are there but with minor tweaks. Many of the standard fantasy monsters will be included as well but I’m working on reasons for them to exist and not drop them in just “because they’re in the monster manual.”

I know one of the towns at the edge of settled lands in this New World is Farkeep, a mining colony, at which is stationed a regiment of King’s Musketeers to guard against monsters and those natives I’d mentioned earlier . . . halflings (or gnomes). I haven’t come up with a better name for them yet, but I wanted a race that is small and would refer to the long-dead dragons as creators or deities. Yeah, I could go the 3rd edition D&D route and have them be kobolds, but I still recall images of the dog-headed creatures from the 1st edition Monster Manual. That may all change.

One of the areas near Farkeep is a ranch called The Iron Y, run by a retired alchemist named Yeager. He has a problem with those halflings (or gnomes or kobolds) and might wind up hiring a group of adventurers to exterminate the varmints. And, of course, the alchemist will wear a shooting iron slung low on his hip and chew up the scenery, claiming he had been born on the wrong continent . . . or maybe not.

I’ll keep plugging away at the setting, jotting notes as they come to mind, and I’ll try to post ideas here once every few weeks. We’ll see how things go.

1. The first season of which we thoroughly enjoyed. The second season was less enjoyable for the kids because it was a bit darker (and methinks the third season will be even more so) and they found Rochefort less amusing as a villain than Cardinal Richelieu. And I thought Peter Capaldi was excellent in that role.
2. Which you might recall my mentioning previously as being a variant of the Barbarians of Lemuria system.


Hey, You Got Your CCG in my RPG! (part 1)*

So let me see a show of hands. How many of you have decks of collectible card games (CCGs) lying about the house? Just one? Two or three? Half a dozen or more?

Off the top of my head I can think of 7th Sea, Sailor Moon, Dark Age, Doom Trooper, Card Captors, Legend of the Five Rings, Dark Eden, and Legend of the Burning Sands filling various sized boxes back in my game room (and I know I have at least half a dozen others). Some of those are only one or two decks while others are nearly complete collections . . . and they spend most of their time just taking up space.

Yeah, I know, I could just get rid of them, but A) they’re good games and B) I always find it difficult getting rid of something that can be used for something else or that I’d like to play again at some point down the road.

Thus bringing me to an idea I had awhile back using CCGs as a Drama Deck (or Plot Cards or Power -Ups or some other player and/or GM aid) for a roleplaying game. There are a few discussions banging around and other forums about hybrids or systems designed with card decks involved. There are a few RPG-CCG hybrids that have surfaced over the years—Dragon Storm, SAGA Dragonlance and SAGA Marvel, Untold, and Dark Legacy—but I’m more interested in using all those card games gathering dust and somehow jiggering them into whatever RPG my group happens to be playing at the time.2

This all ties in with a project I’ve jumped into recently . . . Gamer Lifestyle Bootcamp, an online course designed to get the participants up-and-running with at least one published RPG product by the end of the month. While I know people who have, I’ve never jumped through the writer-publisher hoops myself. Any writing I’ve done has been turned over to someone else who did layout and so on. So I figured I’d bite a d20, cross my fingers, and take the plunge.

More on that and the inclusion of CCGs into RPGs next time.


*Forgive any lack of coherence, I’m still recovering from the week away as a parent counselor for my son’s class at a YMCA camp. It was a fun but thoroughly exhausting week.

2OK, so I don’t have a regular group currently. Maybe I’ll need to go back to my old group, RPG books under one arm, beggar’s cup in one hand, wearing a sandwich board reading: Have Dice will Game. Now, that being said, Sundered Epoch does have a short article on using Magic the Gathering cards to build encounters in a fantasy campaign.










Barbarians of Lemuria Variants

The Barbarians of Lemuria system* by Simon Washbourne is easily converted to other genres. What follows are a few of the published variants.

Barbarians of Lemuria Legendary (the advanced rules) uses a Lemuria of Washbourne’s devising since he was unable to acquire the rights to Lin Carter’s version of Lemuria (used with the free version of BoL).

Barbarians of the Aftermath is a post-apocalyptic setting which provides additional Careers, rules for “build-your-own” apocalypse, vehicle rules, and so on.

Dogs of W*A*R is Washbourne’s rules for the Big Muscles, Big Guns books and movies of the 70s and 80s ala A-Team, Mack Bolan, and others.

Legends of Steel (BoL version) is another setting using these rules.

Dicey Tales (a PDF magazine) has rules for Pulp-styled settings.

Honor + Intrigue is a swashbuckling set of rules combining BoL with a bit of 7th Sea and a dash of the action breakdown of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition. This system tends to stretch the basic BoL system enough that it’s almost a different game, but I am still interested in running a campaign using it.

Barbarians of Heavy Metal is a Kickstarter using the BoL (and Barbarians of the Aftermath) rules tweaked to represent the Rocktagon: the Eight Great Schools of Rock as the characters wander the desolate wastes seeking fame and fortune. I’m interested in seeing what the author has come up with for this game.

Those are the settings I have come across. If you’ve come across others, let me know.


*Often referred to as the BoX system.

Fast and Loose Role-play*

For the past year (or so) I’ve been on the hunt for a game system that has a minimum of rules to remember and is easily run. I’ve looked at various titles and discarded each until I came across Barbarians of Lemuria** by Simon Washbourne, author of SUPERS! and other game systems. The link provided takes you to the basic (free) game.

I’m not going to review the game system here. If you’d like to read a review (or two), you can find some here and here at and here at Knights of the Black Banner. What I will give you is a quick overview of the system.

Barbarians of Lemuria (henceforth BoL) is designed around the mechanic of roll 2d6, add the relevant Attribute, add Combat Ability (if fighting) or Career (if not fighting), plus any other modifiers the GM calls for, and try to meet or beat a target number of 9. It doesn’t really get much more complicated than that.

Characters have Attributes of Strength, Agility, Mind, and Appeal; and Combat Abilities of Brawl, Melee, Ranged, and Defense, each having a range of -1 to 5 (or a maximum of 3 for a beginning character). Unlike practically every game system to hit the market since the mid-80s, BoL doesn’t have lists of skills that characters have to pay points into and improve. Instead, they have Careers, and a character’s Rank in a Career determines how capable he is in it, ranging from 0 for someone who either hasn’t been pursuing the Career for very long (or merely has a natural ability in it) to Rank 5, meaning he is a master and hardly ever fails “skill checks” in that Career. A few sample Careers are Barbarian, Magician, Noble, Slave, Thief, and so on.

The game also doesn’t include long equipment lists with accompanying costs. In fact, Washbourne notes in the chapter on equipment that characters can have whatever gear would be necessary for adventuring, and there are no rules for encumbrance. However, he does also add:

If you want backpacks full of . . . adventuring gear, a weapon for every occasion, three spare suits of armour and a pack animal to carry it all around on then play another game. If all you want is a breechclout and a sturdy blade, play on!

At this point I’ve only played and/or run one-shots with the system (and its variants), so I do not know how well the system would run for a long-term campaign.*** What I do know is the game plays pretty fast, and encounter building avoids most of the hassle I’ve run into with other systems.****

This is definitely a system I will spend more time playing.


*I dropped from my weekly gaming group two months or so back. Doesn’t mean I’ve given up thinking about games—or writing about them—just playing them for the time being . . . although I did start running my kids through the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Game, another system that I find interesting so far.

**Not to be confused with Lemurian barbarians, which I’d expect to be rather nasty tempered and not much fun to play with.

***Though I do have plans to run a Hyborian Age (Conan) campaign at some point.

****The basic rules don’t spend much time with NPCs, so the GM is forced to make things up on the fly, which really isn’t difficult with this system anyway but someone new to the whole roleplaying thing might have problems. Barbarians of Lemuria Legendary (the advanced rules, available here or here, not free) provides more assistance with “winging it.”

Revving the GM Slump

Phil Vecchione over at Gnome Stew posted awhile back that he had found himself in the dreaded S-word recently, the GM Slump.

Now, this doesn’t refer to a new hybrid vehicle designed by General Motors.* No, this is a state of mind where you, as the Game Master of your chosen group, want to run a game yet find nothing that just grabs you and compels you to run it, or as indicated in his article,

I want to run a game…I really want to run a game, but the combination of what I am running, how I am running it, and my group is producing something like soda that is about to go flat. There is some fleeting taste of something good, but I know that it’s off. If I know it’s off, my players have to know it as well.

I can commiserate with him for I, too, have felt the wheels of the GM Slump grind right over my downcast body and have been locked in this particular funk for over a year now. Some might say I am in the grip of burnout toward gaming (as many of my gaming friends from high school and college found themselves shortly after graduation and facing “the real world”), but I have gone through phases where I didn’t want to game. Didn’t want to run a game. Didn’t want to participate in roleplaying games.

That’s not the case here.

I have wanted to run games this past year and have run sessions using the SUPERS! rules, 4e D&D Gamma World, Gunslingers & Gamblers, ICONS, yet none of those have captured my attention enough to make a campaign of it or even an episodic series of encounters.** I started a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign a few weeks ago, using the second edition rules. We’ve had one session which went well, but I’d picked up a copy of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, and my mental wheels have been churning on a Hyborian campaign (but unsure what rules system to use), to which my players have shouted, “Read more Warhammer stuff!” because they like the setting and I’ve had success with both the setting and the rules system previously.***

The last campaign I ran was set in the Planescape of D&D cosmology using a heavily modified version of the 3.5 D&D rules. It was planned as a 30+ level campaign wherein the characters started their careers as slaves to a mid-level demon lord, broke free, found their way to the city of Sigil, and over the course of the first 10 to 15 levels discovered they weren’t just a bunch of escaped slaves but had once been deities. The latter half of the campaign was their recovering their lost powers, finding who had entrapped them, and (ultimately) tipping the scales in the eons long war between Law/Chaos and Good/Evil and destroying and rebuilding the cosmos.

The party had just made it to 20th level and regained the lowest levels of their godhood when one of the players in the group dropped dead. Literally. He was fine one weekend though complaining of a head cold. Three days later he passed out at the pharmacy while standing in line for a prescription. He never woke up.

Needless to say, that particular campaign slammed to a halt.

No one in the group felt like doing much of anything gaming-wise. I stopped running things for awhile. After a spell of playing only board games when we met each weekend, two of the other members of the group took over GMing duties and ran things for awhile (on alternating weekends). Now one of those players has found himself in a GM Slump as well. He has numerous ideas that he wants to run, but his personal life has hit a series of potholes and shaken him rather badly. Since he stopped running things, another player has stepped in to run another game.

Hopefully, I’ll pull myself out of this mode of thinking and get back into running a game regularly again.


*Though I do wonder what a GM Slump might look like. Some variant of the Cube or something akin to the Tango T600 maybe?

**Though we did find that SUPERS! fits the bill for a quick-to-play, rule light superhero game system, and I did begin tinkering with rules for converting Gunslingers & Gamblers for use with the Star Wars setting (which I am still working on, albeit slowly).

***A ten-plus year campaign set in first edition world of Warhammer using GURPS (which my group dubbed SPRUGHammer because it was an ass-backward merging of the two) was the longest running; however, I’d met most of my current group when I ran SPRUGHammer II, which ran for at least five years, and a later campaign, using the second edition Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay rules ran for about two years with rotating GMs. Since I was primary GM on that short-lived campaign, it stopped when I began the 7 Vials campaign noted above.

Old is New Again: First Playtest of D&DNext

Cue theme music.

Flash images of squat-bodied, muscle-bound figures dressed in semi-medieval armor, swinging hammers and axes; tall, slender, pointy-eared figures clad in swirling robes and cloaks wielding staves and daggers; child-like figures in dark clothing sneaking around behind the others, occasionally letting fly a stone from a sling; and in the midst of it all, a balding, dumpy human dressed in chainmail crying out, “For the love of Pelor, be healed!” Around these images are those of goblins and ogres and sundry monsters intent on destroying our heroes.

Voice-over: “The Caverns of Chaos. The edge of a vast frontier. These are the adventures of a group of heroes destined to—”

Oh, to hell with it.

The first (and maybe last, but hopefully not) playtest of D&DNext for my group went over about as well as the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation did for a large number of fans of the Original Series. They all looked at the rules and reacted with the same vituperation as if their favorite childhood show had been run through the old Hollywood slice-n-dice and regurgitated as something that, while supposedly in the same setting as the original, isn’t the same.

However, in this case, D&DNext looks all too much like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D).

Not that that’s a bad thing, but the general thinking in the group was “If we wanted to play AD&D, we’d play AD&D.” And in our case, we’re not interested in playing AD&D.

That aside, how does it play?

As this was a Wizards of the Coast generated playtest, we used pre-generated characters. Pick one and go. Things got off to a bad start when everyone was looking at character sheets and saying things like, “Where’s our powers?” “What happened to healing surges?” “How do we heal?” and so on.* Characters are divvied and we begin.

Well, everything pretty much revolves around the character’s attributes. Need to climb a cliff? Make a Strength check.  Need to pick a pocket? Make a Dexterity check opposed by the target’s Wisdom check. There are no skills per se. A character’s Background and/or Theme might provide a bonus to a small handful of skill checks (Persuasion, Stealth, Survival, and such). But those who disliked Third (and Fourth) Edition D&D with its list of skills will be pleased at their removal. Making a check against the attribute works and is fairly straightforward: describe what you want to do and the Game Master (GM) determines what attribute is used and if you even have to roll the dice. In other words, if your Strength 18 fighter wants to climb a trellis, he can do so without your picking up the dice since that’s such an insignificant task. The Strength 8 wizard though might need to make a check with a Difficulty of 11 (or so) because that’s not something he’d be doing every day. **

And checks are made with the now-standard roll a d20 and add/subtract any modifiers and compare the result to a Difficulty Class (DC) assigned by the GM. Granted, this mechanic has been around only since 3rd edition, but a couple of comments were made along the lines of “Why didn’t they go ahead and bring back THAC0?”***

Gone are Fortitude, Reflex, and Will defenses, which will likely make even more “old school” grognards happy. The only “attribute” other than those listed above is Armor Class, which is based on Dexterity modifier (or half that if wearing medium weight armor such as ?) and a bonus provided by armor. This is the target number to equal or exceed with an attack roll.

The classes provided are a dwarf fighter, Halfling rogue, elf wizard, human cleric of Pelinor, and dwarven priest of Moradin. The former cleric is the traditional healer, having access to healing potions and more healing spells, while the latter is garbed in heavy armor and fills more of a holy defender-type role in the party. He has one healing spell but also has the ability to interpose his shield if a nearby ally is attacked thus warding off the blow. In fact, each of the classes has one or two little gimmicks which make [what does it make?]: the Pelinor priest has the healer package which allows him to create potions, antitoxins and such during short rests; the dwarf priest has the shielding ability (which we forgot to use in our test), the fighter has an ability which allows him to deal damage equal to his strength modifier on a miss, and so on. So the classes themselves are interesting the way they are presented.

As for starting hit points, while characters aren’t as fragile as they were in AD&D neither are they as hardy as they were in 4th edition. Each begins with a hit points equal to the average of a given hit die (d4 for wizard, d10 for fighter, back to the 3rd edition and earlier days) and their constitution score, so these scores fell in the 16-20 hp range. And each character has hit dice equal to their level (so one at first level) which are used for healing purposes.

Get hit in combat? Forget healing surges as those are gone as well. Healing comes from potion, cure light wounds spell (which is determined by a die roll), or healer’s kit which allows that hit die to be—you guessed it—rolled to regain lost wounds. Roll a 1? Too bad for you. This is one mechanic we thought could have stayed out as more than half of the group wound up rolling 1s to heal characters during a short rest between fights.

And Vancian magic has returned. Gone are the days of 4e at-will, encounter, and daily spells. True, the at-wills are kept, so the wizard can cast magic missile all day long and the priest has access to detect magic without spending a spell slot (plus a few other minor spells), but anything else is a daily and starting characters have a whopping two spells in their utility belt. Spend them wisely or be forced to wait for twenty-four hours to regian those spells. As it stood, the dwarven cleric wound up spending both uses of his one healing spell after the first battle and was stuck for the remainder of the day without. Isn’t the one combat workday just wonderful?

One neat thing added is the advantage/disadvantage mechanic. If your rogue takes the time to hide from the bad guys, she can then sneak up on them and attack from advantage which means roll two d20 and take the higher result. If a bunch of kobolds overwhelm a party of adventurers, the kobolds have advantage and each one of the them rolls 2d20 to attack, taking the better result. On the flip side, if your fighter is covering his eyes while trying to fight the medusa, he is effectively blind and at disadvantage. Roll 2d20 and take the lower result as his attack. This mechanic was intriguing. Nothing new, however, as the Avenger in 4e D&D rolls 2d20 and takes the better result, but it’s an interesting use beyond that particular class.****

Other things include no longer needing a feat in order to move, attack, then move again. Movement can be broken during your character’s turn. On that note, a character has a move action and can perform one other action during the turn: attack, use a skill such as hide, cast a spell, dodge, move again, and so on. No more attacking out of turn. If you decide to ready an attack and follow through, you have used your action for the turn. The current rules do not make use of opportunity attacks or multi-attacks (though there is indication that higher level characters will be able to perform more actions during a turn).

After a grueling three hours’ playtime (and only hitting three encounters which seems to be typical for my group) we threw in the towel, rather, I did. The others were complaining about the lack of mechanics for setting up flanking and various other “kewl” things that could be done in 3rd and 4th editions and having to fall back on, “I roll; I hit,”***** and various other things about the system as is . . . despite the fact that the very first thing I told them was, “This is not a complete system. This just gives the skeletal basics of the combat and task resolution mechanics for the game.” And that was all I tested. Some folks on the Wizards of the Coast forums have said they’d run complete campaigns, using just the rules in the playtest. A short campaign, perhaps as the characters provided have information up to third level only. Anything beyond that and you’re making things up.******


*My group has been playing 4th edition D&D for quite awhile and we’ve come to like it. However, when we first began years ago, we hated it as much as this current iteration. I recall the GM of that game piling his gear together and walking out on us.

**Not that this approach is all that new. Most games have for years been giving advice on not rolling the dice unless necessary yet this seems to be the first time some people have come across it, and it might be the first time in print for a Dungeons and Dragons project though on that account, I could be wrong.

***To Hit Armor Class 0, which is this rather arcane mathematical formula used in AD&D and 2nd edition which many mathophiles seem to adore. At one time I could tell you the formula and could likely find it with a quick Internet search, but I really don’t want to.

****We had a discussion after the test about the efficacy of the 2d20 mechanic vs. a flat +2/-2 bonus to the die roll as each time we’d rolled, the spread wound up being only a few points (say, rolling a 12 and a 15 on the dice) which is about the same. Bartoneus  over at Critical-hits has an interesting article on the statistics of just that comparison.

*****In all the years I’ve played, seldom have I run across a group that does the “theatre of the mind” business, leaving everything to the description by the GM and players combined. We’ve always been more miniature-on-a-battlemat oriented. However,  Greywulf’s Lair details a few playtests he’s had using the theatre of the mind approach as well as the battlemat approach  both if which are fun reads and show that for some groups, this version of the rules works.

******Or filling-in-the-gaps as Vanir at Critical-Hits pointed out in a recent column.

Of Cards and Paper Dice: Still Working the Conversion of Gunslingers and Gamblers for Star Wars

I’ve been working, however slowly, on the mechanical side of the Star Wars spin for Gunslingers and Gamblers, the mechanics in this case being the dice.

I’d somewhat figured out what I wanted to do with the numbers and types of die involved and set about looking for suitable mock-ups. I found paper dice templates from  which didn’t look too difficult to put together.


I downloaded the templates, dropped them into Word so that I could print a pair of dice per page, then cut them out. So far so good. Putting them together didn’t work out, no matter what I tried. Folds didn’t fold right. Glue wouldn’t stick, and I couldn’t find the roll of double-stick tape I have hiding around here. No, I didn’t print to card stock but figured with the trouble I was having so far, that wouldn’t help things much.

So on to another plan for dice. Unfortunately most of my solid d10s and d12s are dark, so marking on them won’t work. The local game store has blanks which I’ll pick up this week. Maybe by this time next week I’ll have marked and tested the dice rolling and be able to figure that into the conversion process.

While researching this project (looking up the rules for sabacc) I came across a couple of places that had printable decks: keyofsolomon (the link pulls up a PDF, not a site) and GhostofMan’s page , clicking the Visual Aids link and scrolling to the bottom of the page for the latter. The keyofsolomon deck is fairly sparse though the more printer friendly of the two while I believe the latter has much better visual appeal.

I printed the deck from GhostofMan’s page on label paper at a local print shop and cut them out, planning to apply to cheap poker cards I’d picked up at the local dollar store. Silly me. I should have printed a test copy to compare to the cards I had. Once printed, the sabacc cards wind up being just ever-so-slightly larger than standard poker cards. Since then I’ve been looking around for a deck of jumbo-sized cards with no luck. Good thing I’m not actually playing cards. I’d have gone broke by now.

I’d considered mounting them to cardstock or poster board, but the former is too flimsy while the latter doesn’t shuffle well. This I know from experience. I’ve picked up a couple sets of alphabet and number flash cards, but those are quite a bit larger than the sabacc card faces. I’ll either use those or just trim the prints so they’ll fit the cards I do have. We’ll see what works.

Anyone know where I can get actual jumbo-sized poker cards, and not just standard-sized cards with jumbo printing? Cheap? I don’t want to spend eight dollars for a deck of cards I’ll be putting stickers on.

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