Search This Blog

Sunday, February 28, 2010


There is a term among gamers for when a given thing or rule is unacceptable within the general parameters of the rule. It first became common with Magic: The Gathering, for a card that unbalanced the game to the point where you either had to house-rule its use, or issue more cards to deal with it.

That term is "broken."

One of the first cards I ever saw that was considered "broken" was Mana Drain, a blue interrupt that allowed you to not only counterspell any card, but enabled you to use the mana your opponent used to cast it... to fuel a NEW spell you could then use AGAINST him.

In particular, I remember a quote from one of the developers discussing this card: "The entire R&D team would have to be hit by a bus before we'd reprint Mana Drain."

I understand the card's back in print now, as a rare. Or was. Because Mana Drains are back in use, with new art. Plainly, someone decided sales were more important than game balance. Then again, considering how many new sets come out per year for that game, perhaps game balance is just something they don't give a shit about any more.

I have found myself pondering that lately, since someone brought to my atttention the time I vetoed a spell in use. The spell, Benign Transposition, a first level spell, allows the caster to switch the position of two allies.


I'm an old-school player. Back in first edition, it was made clear there was a REASON wizards had four sided hit dice: it was because they never got outdoors or got any exercise. They spent all their time studying, writing, pondering, reasoning, and memorizing. Magic was hard, and it took some serious skull sweat to wrap your head around.

This is why first level spells were little things like Tenser's Floating Disk, or Magic Missile, or Sleep. Simple things. And it was all a first level spellcaster could do to force ONE of the things into his brain. It took time, and practice, and experience, before a wizard could manage more complex matters. Hell, the text for illusion spells made this quite clear: if you can't visualize it effectively, you can't create a convincing illusion.

This is why Teleport is a fifth level spell -- more complex and far-reaching than even the ever-handy Fireball, or Lightning Bolt. After all, you're literally folding the fabric of space and time, here, and ghod help your victim if the wizard drops a decimal point while he's in between locations. The results of teleport screwups were inevitably ghastly (at least in editions prior to 3.5). This was NOT easy stuff... which is why a wizard has to be ninth level or higher in D&D 3.5 in order to even consider it....

...and even in 3.5, an extremely player-friendly environment compared to previous editions, it's possible to get hurt a little if you screw it up. Admittedly, taking 1d10 points of damage is pretty minor compared to "reappear phased inside solid object, instant death," but, hey, times change.

...which brings us back to Benign Transposition. A first level spell permitting the teleportation of two people, without error, without allowing for attacks of opportunity, just poof. So simple an apprentice could do it.

So... apparently, teleporting a person to a place that contains nothing is a FIFTH level spell, but SWAPPING two people the same distance is a FIRST level spell? And the second spell allows it to be done without error? Automatically? WTF? I'm sorry, that's just not sufficient. Perhaps it should be WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK??!?

Man, I can think of a million things that could go wrong with swapping two people in midteleport...
Teleport successful, but the players are wearing each others' hats.

Teleport successful, but the players are dressed in each others' clothes and gear.

Teleport successful, but the players have switched minds. Players must now exchange character sheets until they can figure out some way to undo this.

Teleport unsuccessful, players switch HEADS, system shock roll for survival.

Teleport wildly unsuccessful, both players arrive at one of the destinations, fused together into an abomination. System shock roll for survival; players' creature type is now "abomination."

Teleport somewhat successful, both players are now fused with their body lice on the genetic level; roll on the mutations table (insect parts) once per day for the next three weeks...

...but some dipshit game designer out there thinks this is a first level spell.

Regrettably, I missed this spell when I allowed the Spell Compendium to be used in my game. And it surfaced at the worst possible moment: when the players thought they'd found a clever way to save the day.

And I said "Fuck, no." And naturally, they called "foul." After all, it was in an official WotC supplement, wasn't it? And I'd said they could use the supplement. Naturally, I was just being a dick and running them down with the plot wagon...

After some thought, it occurred to me that I could see how they could arrive at that conclusion. After all, it would have completely derailed the finale I had in mind, at least as far as saving the "damsel in distress," so to speak...

It made me wonder how I could have fixed the situation. Let them pull it off? Thus legitimizing a thoroughly "broken" first level spell? Or put my foot down, and have them think I was just being an asshole?

Where's the win, here?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Where It All Began

It would have begun in 1977, I believe.

I was twelve that year, going on thirteen, and very, very impressionable. I grew up in a Texas cow town out in the middle of nowhere, and the main thing this taught me was that I don’t ever again want to live in a cow town in the middle of nowhere.

As a family, we’d take a trip out of town every other month or so. I lived for these trips. I read a lot, then as now, and I was so starved for new reading material, whenever we set foot in a B. Dalton’s or Waldenbooks, it felt to me like I’d entered the Library of Alexandria.

On the months we didn’t leave town, I haunted the paperback racks and magazine shelves in the local convenience stores and drugstores, hoping something interesting would turn up. Every single week, I did this.

It was sometime in 1977, I believe – the year Star Wars came out, the year I discovered H.P. Lovecraft, the year I turned thirteen, the year I had my first job and my first independent spending money…

… that I stumbled across a new magazine on the racks. It was a collegiate sort of thing, published by Rolling Stone, trying to spin off a sister periodical. I don’t remember what it was called, because it didn’t last very long, but I bought the first issue.

It had this article about something called “Dungeons and Dragons.”

This was one reason I’d bought the magazine; I knew it was some sort of new game, and I’d been hearing mysterious mentions of it in other magazines I read. It was apparently pretty new, and different… and kind of subversive, somehow. Some people didn’t seem to approve of it.

It apparently had something to do with knights, wizards, and Lord Of The Rings. And it was apparently quite unlike Monopoly, Risk, Stratego, or any other game anyone had ever heard of…. No board was used. No cards, no nothing, although dice, table, paper, pencils, and sometimes miniature figures were mentioned. Apparently… the setting for this game… was largely in the mind.

I devoured the article. I examined the pictures. I read it again, and again. Plainly, this game must be pretty major, because we had college students playing it. A LOT of college students. And they got into the game pretty heavy. I barely remember what the article said, any more. The bits of it I can remember seem like the article was as much reporting on the phenomenon as making fun of the geeks who played it… but I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that this game was certainly where it seemed to be happening, and I wanted in.

The next trip out of town we took, I hunted. I don’t remember where I first found the boxed Basic Set – it might have been B.Dalton’s, or Waldenbooks, or perhaps Spencer Gifts… but I grabbed it with alacrity. Ten bucks, as I recall. So little money, such a major thing. I read the basic rules, figured the game out despite the awful editing, and was put off by the fact that the game required “polyhedral dice” but did not actually include any (the old Basic edition came with “randomizer chits,” little laminated numbered tokens you were supposed to cut out and pick out of Dixie cups whenever you needed to generate a random number.)

But it opened up a whole new world. A game where you could literally recreate yourself, be Robin Hood, Richard the Lion-Hearted, Merlin the Magician, Legolas the elf…

The following year, I remember taking another trip to the mall in Laredo with my saved pay from my job at the newspaper. All at once, I bought the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual, three rather expensive hardback books (the PH and MM were $12 each, and the DMG was all of $15), as well as something I’d wanted for a long time – my very own home video game system, the Atari 2600 Home Gaming Console, complete with free Combat cartridge with 26 games!

Truly, a time of miracles. I was a game geek in the making. I just didn’t know it yet. I remember buying those three books more sharply than I remember buying my first car.

Not long after that, on a trip to Fort Worth, I finally found a store that sold polyhedral dice. I also managed to get a copy of Dragon #47, the first one I’d ever seen… and it was a mindblower. An entire magazine, complete with ads, all devoted to The Hobby That Can Eat Your Life.

Not long after that, they released the Deities and Demigods book, the old one, the one that had the Cthulhu Mythos and Elric in it. I was blown away to see my old friends from H.P. Lovecraft’s books in there. The D&DG inspired me to go out and hunt for Moorcock’s Elric books, as well as the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories that were also referenced therein.

Weirdly enough, I corrupted a mob of players in church. I commandeered a church youth group meeting, did a presentation, handed out pregenerated characters, and dared a group of kids to try it. They did. A couple were unimpressed… but the others were downright interested. Soon enough, we had a weekly session organized and rolling.

Meanwhile, I read Dragon magazine, and subscribed. There was no internet back then; this was the closest thing I had, my one continuous monthly connection to a world out there that wasn’t stranded in a dry Texas cow town out in the middle of nowhere, a world of geeks and magic, where anything was possible…

I began mail-ordering miniatures from The Dungeon, the retail outlet for D&D’s mother company, TSR. The catalogs were wretched; mimeographed or Xeroxed, most weren’t illustrated, and I bought more than a few miniatures and items sight unseen, based on a misspelled description. The packages began to arrive, to my parents’ bewilderment. I began to learn to paint miniatures.

It was in 1980 that I about lost my mind wondering exactly what an orc looked like. I knew what an orc was; Tolkien had described them, kind of, in the Lord Of The Rings books as goblinlike, degraded monsters, shaped from tortured elves by the evil of Morgoth. But what did they LOOK like? The Monster Manual showed them as pig men; this struck me as more comical than frightening, and certainly not what Tolkien had in mind. What did orcs look like?

I bought some minis claiming to be orcs, and painted them. They were so badly sculpted and molded that even when they were done, you still couldn’t really tell what they looked like.

Ralph Bakshi released his animated Lord Of The Rings, a film which I hoped would answer the question. It didn’t. His orcs were basically actors in rags painted shadowy black with glowing eyes and large, walrussy fangs added in postanimation. Of course, his Balrog had butterfly wings, too, so I didn’t take it too seriously…

I left home in '82 and left the dry, red, rural distance of deep south Texas behind forever. I will never be a city boy, but I was never meant to be rural, either. And I took my place as a citizen of The World... and as a member of geekdom, as well. I made monthly trips to Dragon's Lair in Austin, back when it was on Guadalupe street, and trips to The Dungeon in San Antonio, back when there was such a thing, out on Walzem across from the mall. I was there when they opened Alien Worlds in San Antonio, as well.

And in time, I grew up.

When I had to start making a living, gaming fell by the wayside for a bit. Didn't have the time I had had when I lived in the dorms. Women, wine, and other things took a bit of a priority.

But sometimes, I found time. I never gave it up entirely. Enough so that I can say I've played about every major system out there, and many of the minor ones as well.

It's been a life, and it's been a good one. And it ain't over yet.