Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Vornheim: The Complete City Kit, First Review

Author and artist Zak Sabbath must be the love child of Bill Sienckiewicz, David Macauley, Paolo Soleri, Dr. Seuss, and Richard Scarry. All six of those artists create layouts so complex and unexpected, so far outside the box that after flipping to a new page of art or diagrams the reader's first reaction is often to stare at it wondering "What the Hell am I looking at?" (and where's Goldbug?) After which the light bulb comes on, we are enlightened, and our concept of the world expands.

The covers of Vornheim: The Complete City Kit are random generators. The inside of the dust jacket is an intricately drawn map of the city that looks like an etching. Palaces and cathedrals look like a bizarre, titanic cyborg hands. The wilderness map looks like a quilty patchwork of expressionistically drawn city blocks. A house map is keyed with illustrations of each room's contents. Page 18 has possibly my favorite small dungeon map ever, in simplified, stylized 3D, again with illustrations of the contents. Cross-sections, silhouettes, tables, a diagram for randomly generating NPC relationships capable of generating stories, a flowchart for searching a library, and simply impossible, gravity-defying, fantasy construction of towers, bridges, arches, and flying buttresses stacked into off-balance, phantasmagorically teetering architectural piles . . . and that's before we consider the pages and pages of surprising encounters and provocative tables.

And all in a small, dense, sixty-four page hard-cover book.

Zak, James, Darren, Mandy, Maria, and the playtesters have crafted a great sandbox and improv-generation aid for DMs who want to run city adventures - and for the many DMs who don't want to yet but will if they immerse themselves in the spirit of this book.

Vornheim colors far outside the lines of recent mainstream gaming, which uses crisp art and text to lead the DM and players by the nose through scripted rules and adventures. Instead, Vornheim is Byzantine, brilliant, and exhilarating, a return to the original do-it-yourself, hobbyist tradition of stimulating the DM's imagination until he or she bubbles over with ideas and an urge to run games that express them, games that in turn excite and stimulate the players to take the game in unexpected directions, fresher than any pre-planned script can be. Vornheim is a big gift to gaming in a little package.

Vornheim is a valuable addition to the small but growing group of recent gaming releases that proves the reality and worth of the old school renaissance. Surely gaming awards are coming its way over the course of the next year. Congratulations to Zak, James, and the rest of the team. Well done!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Holmes Roots

David C. Sutherland III's dungeon from the blue book.
Since July last year I've been working with a couple people on a little project that requires us to comb carefully through the text of Doctor John Eric Holmes's Dungeons and Dragons blue book from 1977, a work that launched many of us into our D&D hobby and still excites our imagination.

In the process, we're discovering where various rules and concepts in the Holmes blue book come from - which ideas go back to Chainmail or to the original Dungeons and Dragons set, and which were innovations by the good doctor himself. For those of us interested in the details of our game, how it came to exist, and how it was originally played by the first-generation gamers, I'm going to be posting a series that traces these individual game mechanics and concepts.

For the rest of you, alas, this will not be your cup of tea, but boy howdy is it mine.

I hope that late this year, about the time this series concludes, I'll have something more interesting to say about the underlying project that's motivating this exploration, but for now let's just treat that as one of the many mysteries to be found deep in the dungeon toward the end of our journey. For now, let's focus on the journey itself, on the analysis of the blue book.

Essential Grognards: Philotomy Jurament

Philotomy's OD&D Musings                                 

For many D&D grognards, Philotomy Jurament's website Philotomy's OD&D Musings remains a philosophical and conceptual reference that helps to define the way we think about old-school-renaissance role playing. He writes clearly and concisely about how and why he was drawn back from the more recent versions of D&D to the older ones, and more importantly about what the specific gaming experience is that these older versions capture for him. Many of us do not much write about these topics mainly because he has already captured the way we feel about it.

Contrary to the way I just described it (that is, contrary to the net effect it has upon us) his website is structured like a toolkit rather than a philosophical narrative. His site is not a blog but a simple, static website with a four-item menu across the top and a index of just thirty-six main posts. It has not been updated during the several years I've been returning to it, but remains a potent force in the community perhaps because of rather than despite its stasis.

It is not the production of new entries but the thinking within the existing ones that keeps his site fresh. Although he writes with authority about the rules, he eschews false objectivity in favor of a personal approach, always writing about gaming nondogmatically, always in terms of how he and his players like to game and what he has discovered in the rules. For those of us immersed in the details of the game over the decades, the results are insightful.

I will now fail my test of originality by agreeing with most of his fans that my favorite post is his antidote to Gygaxian naturalism, The Dungeon as Mythic Underworld, a short, evocative essay that helped me break through the straightjacket that was suffocating the life out of my games.

FrDave's Series on Holmes and Cook

Over at the blog Blood of Prokopius, FrDave has since April been running a series of posts that explore, compare, and contrast the Holmes and Cook editions of Dungeons & Dragons. He often discovers subtleties of the rules or setting missed by other writers and uses his explorations to propose explanations, extensions, and alternatives. His post from Thursday compares how Holmes and Cook describe dragons.

FrDave's been pondering role-playing games in his posts since December 2008 and has run several series of posts during that time, including Planar Cosmology of D&D, posts from his Lost Colonies campaign, World Building, OD&D Magic Champions Style, Thoughts on Sci-Fi RPGs, Meditations on various RPG topics, Druids as Monsters, and Saintly Saturdays. Of these, Saintly Saturdays is the most unusual, a series about saints celebrated by the Orthodox Christian church and related RPG topics. Yesterday's post was about the origin of the hymn Axion Estin, and about revitalizing the cleric class by emphasizing faith as a key component of the class.