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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The OMG post!

I monitor and post on several miniatures related sites. A regular feature of nearly all of these sites is the "OMG I FOUND!" post.

I hate these posts. I hate them somewhat less when they have pictures, but I hate them nonetheless, because they make my heart burn white hot with envy.

These posts often have "OMG" in the title, or in the post itself. They invariably detail some fantastic find on the part of the poster. "OMG," one will say, "I found a copy of First Edition Space Hulk at a garage sale for five bucks! And it still has all the pieces!"

And I seethe. Why couldn't it have been me?

"OMG!" will cry another. "I was at Goodwill, and I found a second edition boxed Talisman set, with all the plastic minis, and the first two expansion sets included, for ten bucks!"

Hiss, I hiss. May your offspring be born one-eyed mutants.

But I understand why they do what they do and howl like they howl. Game geeks LIVE for finds like this. Awesome stuff from yesteryear that we should have bought while we had the chance... but didn't, for one reason or another. Or worse, we HAD it, but we loaned it out... or sold it... or it just vanished during a move... or something. And now, here it is, a bit scuffed, but no worse than it would have been in my closet, at the Salvation Army for a buck. Who wouldn't crow over a find like this?

Today, it's my turn.

I did not buy Battle Masters when it came out. I was poorer then than now, and since it was available at Wal-Mart, of all places, it never occurred to me that it might perhaps not be there if I waited too long. So I waited too long, I was a responsible adult, I paid my bills, and the chance came and went. Sigh.

Many times since then, I wished I'd been more impulsive and perhaps a week late with the rent. Battle Masters was the mass market version of Warhammer Fantasy Battles, released by Milton Bradley, but with 100-odd miniatures made by our old friends at Games Workshop/Citadel Miniatures, suitable for any number of fantasy skirmish games or RPGs. For twenty bucks! What, I couldn't spare twenty bucks? IDIOT! (whacks self on head repeatedly).

From time to time, I would encounter some of the plastic miniatures. A friend once gave me a handful of orcs he found at a garage sale, and I'm not sure how I came across the ogre, but I got him somewhere.

But I never so much as saw the box again. Except on line, of course. Ebay, Amazon, and other dealers in new and used dreams. They want HOW much? Eeesh. And that doesn't even include SHIPPING?

Until today.

Wife and I went Rumpusing, which is a strange and arcane ritual we undertake periodically when we have a couple bucks and life is dull. It involves eating out at a restaurant we don't normally patronize, and then going and poking our noses into places like used book stores, consignment stores, garage sales, antique stores... anywhere the merch is likely to be varied, eclectic, and unpredictable.

Oh, yeah, and preferably cheap.

Who knows? We've found quite a bit of furniture that way, and sometimes I find toys I can kitbash, or -- glory of glories! -- a gently used game I can restore. Found a milk crate full of Car Wars books and maps and stuff, once, for five bucks!

But today... today was magic.

After a leisurely browse at a really good used book store, we noticed a resale store downtown, one that had to be FAIRLY new -- we'd never seen it before. So we stopped to look. And at this resale store, amidst longboxes of old X-Men and vintage loose Star Wars figures carefully locked in little transparent card boxes for ten bucks each ... sat a copy of Battle Masters.

I snatched it up. It was heavy. Heavy enough? It's been twenty years. How likely is it that all the parts are in there? It was taped shut, so I couldn't check. I looked it over. Box was a LITTLE rough -- it had obviously spent many years on a closet shelf or in the garage. Still, what's a few scuffs on the box? I turned it over. It wasn't priced. I took it to the clerk and asked "How much is this?"

"I don't know," she said. "We just bought that from a walk-in, a couple days ago. Let me go and see if it's entered in inventory, yet." And she did. And she (rrarrgh!) checked it on Ebay as well, to get a clue as to value and price. On the other hand, she also plainly wanted to move the merch, as opposed to stand on the awesome value of the find. She quoted me a price.

I stopped and thought. It wasn't a bad price, but it was way above what I would have liked to have paid. This was a resale store, after all. Then again, it was hella cheaper than any price I'd seen online. "Can I have a look in the box, make sure all the pieces are in there?" I said, ready to stick my nose in the air and take a hike if she said no.

She looked around, found a knife, cut the tape, and opened the box.

The box was full. There didn't seem to be any loose pieces. Everything seemed... to still be on the sprues!!!

I looked closer.
The movement trays were still in the baggie. The DICE were still wrapped. NOTHING was punched off the sprues. The counters were still in the cardboard.

My mind about shorted out on me. The rubber bands around the cards were ancient, and about ready to break. Every card, sticker, token, counter, EVERYTHING, was... untouched. The game had been purchased... but never played.

Becca picked up some bumper stickers, and I agreed the deal was good. We paid, and after more rumpusing, went home, where I unpacked my treasures on the dinner table. Mighod, I'd never realized how MANY miniatures came with this thing! You could put together a whole Warhammer army -- no, TWO armies, Orcs and Empire, out of this box! What, a plastic KEEP comes with it?

I spread things out on the table to get a better look.

And I marveled. Man, there didn't seem to be any END to this game. Well, they did say "more than a hundred miniatures," right there on the box...

I gloated and reveled in my find. Wow. Did I dare pop anything off the sprues? I mean, it's practically MINT... and it's MINE!

But, then, I should have known. The omens were right. The signs were there. Earlier, at the used book store, I'd found a book I didn't even know EXISTED, based on one of the more hilariously twisted movies I've ever seen. And this should have tipped me off, right there.

Any day you run across the novelization of the only movie Sean Connery has ever starred in while wearing a diaper, you HAVE to know that as far as miniatures go, this day is going to be SPECIAL...

Monday, June 21, 2010

"Other Worlds Than These"

This past Saturday was Free RPG day, a day near and dear to my heart. It's a day devoted to spreading the gospel to the unenlightened, and to getting the gamers' butts into the brick and mortar shops to spend some money, to keep those little dens of magical iniquity open and living and breathing and providing a place for game geeks to be among their own kind.

This year, I was delayed by traffic... but got there in time to get the LAST D&D module offered for free. It was a doozy, too... the first new Dark Sun product offered in the 21st century. It included very nice pregenerated character cards, and a two sided map with three locations, in addition to the module... which was a bit short, considering that much of its text was devoted to explaining what the "world of Dark Sun" was. So, for this lesson, I've decided to yap a bit about the various worlds Dungeons and Dragons has had to offer over the years, and what I have thought of them.

The world of Athas, world of the Dark Sun, is a bit of a johnny-come-lately, released in 1991 for the 2nd edition of the game. I looked it over... and did not much care for it. It's a vicious, brutal world, mostly desert. Magic items are far rarer than in most D&D worlds, because there are almost no mages; use of "defiler magic" is what turned the planet into a desert to begin with. You can BE a mage if you want, but be prepared to deal with periodic lynch mobs if anyone finds out. That, and mages tend to be pretty weak at low levels... and the world of Dark Sun is not for the weak. Elves are nomadic thieves, often hostile. Halflings are barbaric, xenophobic cannibals. Dwarves are usually slaves. Oh, and did I mention that metal is extremely rare? Most weapons are made of stone, bone, and wood. A steel sword is worth a fortune; most adventurers never own one. Heavy use of psionics makes up for the lack of magic.

My first thought was, "No metal weapons. No armor better than leather. Almost no magic items. Any group I've ever played with would hate this." Nevertheless, it has its diehard followers, and it's the third game world that Wizards of the Coast has brought back for Fourth Edition... coming this August, that is.

Back to basics. The World of Greyhawk is directly descended from the first RPG campaign world EVER, the realm of Blackmoor (which can be found in the far north of the Flanaess continent, in the world of Greyhawk). Named for the Free City of Greyhawk, a wild, freewheeling city in the central part of the continent, this was the first commercially available campaign setting offered for D&D. For quite a while, it was pretty much the default setting. It was the first world I ever bought, and the old seventies gazeteer boxed set came with an ENORMOUS wall map of the Flanaess continent. I've still got it somewhere, but it's been years since I had the wall space to hang it...

Lankhmar, greatest of all adventuring cities, and home of the City Adventure, and those greatest of adventurer-thieves, the barbarian Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser! The first adventuring duo who really made it irrelevant which one was the hero and which one was the sidekick! When I began playing D&D, I developed a MAJOR taste for sword and sorcery novels, and hunted up Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar novels. They were and are quite good. Apparently, someone at TSR thought so, too, because the Lankhmar setting, licensed from Leiber, soon became available for D&D, first as a setting, and then as a separate GAME, using the D&D rules. Great stuff!

Mystara was an odd little thing that caught me coming out of left field. Back in the day, we began with "Basic D&D," a boxed set that taught you a basic set of rules and carried you up to third level. At this point, you could go on to "the Expert Rules" or just take the plunge and buy the hardback books that at that time were called "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons," a similar but more complex game. What I didn't realize was that there were a LOT of people who just kept plugging along with Basic Dungeons and Dragons... and for these people, we had the world of Mystara, the default setting. Elves, dwarves, pirates, a whole nation of halflings, dwarves, kings, princes, intrigue and adventure, Mystara had it all. It first appeared as a CONTINENT MAP in one of the greatest adventures ever published, The Isle Of Dread, a mega-adventure that came boxed with the later Basic boxed sets (the "red box" series). It had fantastic art and a whole series of books published on its individual nations. Regrettably, I never much got into Mystara... I had too much invested in Advanced D&D, and Mystara didn't make anything for the more complex rulesset.

Dragonlance came out in the mid-eighties, heralded not only by a game world and adventure modules, but a series of novels chronicling the adventures of a group of adventurers whose job it was to marshal the good dragons versus the evil ones, and save the world! The world of Krynn DOMINATED second edition, at least until Forgotten Realms began to pick up speed. It lacked halflings, but had Kender, instead, a race of childlike, cheerful, loveable kleptomaniacs whose job seemed to be to irritate everyone into frothing rage. The world of Ansalon also seemed to have a LOT of dragons, so many that an evil plot could be hatched (pardon the pun) to steal dragon eggs and use foul magic to turn them into Draconians, humanoid dragon minions of evil! That, PLUS the usual dwarves, elves, orcs, goblins, and so on. I never DMed this particular setting, but I played more than a few adventures in it.

Forgotten Realms: the creation of a Canadian child as a setting for fantasy adventures, Ed Greenwood's brainchild would grow to become the 800-pound gorilla of D&D. Notable as the home of Drizz't Do'Urden, tragic Drow hero, and the archmage Elminster, and the place where the freewheeling city of Waterdeep can be found (and the dark and foreboding Underdark realm of Menzoberranzan). If Greyhawk was the hot girl I fell in love with in the back seat of my Pontiac when I was in high school, Forgotten Realms was the woman I fell for after college. It's the only campaign world to be pretty well supported in AD&D, second edition, third, three-point-five, and fourth edition. Me? I was lucky enough to find a second edition boxed set in a half price book store...

Spelljammer came out in '89, a time where I wasn't playing much D&D -- GURPS was my game of choice in that time frame -- but I heard about it in some detail. "If a D&D world built magic starships and made Star Trek, it would be Spelljammer, see?" Admittedly, this strange description did little to make me want to investigate it at the time. Later, when I had time and interest, I read up on it, and was rather charmed by the ideas it had. It introduced Ptolemaic astronomy to D&D as a physical reality -- each star system was in fact enclosed in a crystal sphere, and it was possible to sail the Phlogiston Streams to other worlds. Spelljammer actually linked three existing worlds this way -- Forgotten Realms (Realmspace), Greyhawk (Greyspace) and Dragonlance (Krynnspace), with tools for the DM to add more if he wanted. I never played or DM'd this variation, but I used the hell out of the flying ships...

There is a tale: Back in the eighties, Gary Gygax, creator of D&D and head of TSR, the company that published it, went to California to try and get a D&D movie off the ground. When he came back, the company was in deep trouble financially due to mismanagement by Gygax's partners. Gygax saved the day by firing anyone who didn't actually DO anything, selling off a lot of unnecessaries, and writing a bunch of D&D books that came out bam-bam-bam in the mid eighties. One of them was Oriental Adventures, which introduced Asian character classes (mostly lifted from Japanese and Chinese mythology, with a little lifted from various chopsocky films) and was set in the realm of Kara-Tur and its neighbor, Kozakura. We played the HELL out of this in a side campaign for quite a while; it lasted into second and third edition, and when Wizards of the Coast bought out Five Rings Entertainment, they casually switched out the old TSR settings for the new Five Rings setting and society (which was, in all honesty, considerably richer and crunchier.) We haven't seen a resurgence yet for fourth edition, but I am hopeful -- this was a realm that could be dropped into any existing campaign world by virtue of simply being on the far side of the planet! (and WAS, actually -- first, Kara-Tur, and then, the Five Rings stuff, is officially part of the Forgotten Realms, if you have the Atlas book...)

Another realm that could be dropped into any existing campaign, Al-Qadim is based largely on Middle Eastern mythology and the Thousand And One Nights in particular. Popular in second edition, given current anti-Middle Eastern sentiment in the US, I can't see this one being rereleased any time soon.

One of the last TSR products before the Wizards of the Coast takeover, Birthright was an attempt to introduce a new idea: the concept of Regency. Players began in charge of a fief -- barony or whatever -- and participated not only in ordinary adventuring, but in politics and intrigue as well, and sometimes even war. I never knew anyone who even tried this out; considering the strictures it put in place on PCs, and the limits it put on character races (nonhumans could not participate in local politics, and were somewhat antagonistic towards the humans), you had to WANT to play this one, I guess.

Ravenloft is another example of an idea that "just grew." Starting out as a simple AD&D adventure in 1983, featuring a Dracula-like vampire (with a surprisingly deep backstory, a sense of honor, and even a sense of humor!) it was popular enough to spawn a sequel, and finally, in 1990, a full blown world of its own -- a dark and spooky world, populated by (and in many cases, RULED by) analogs of popular gothic monsters -- Dr. Victor Mordenheim and his creation, Adam, who turned against him, Sir Tristen Hiregaard, who drinks his potion and turns into the evil Malken, and many more. While Ravenloft was a world of its own, allowances were made to drop PCs into it from their usual campaign worlds by way of "the mists of Ravenloft," which could put them back when a given adventure was concluded, allowing DMs to inject a little gothic horror into an otherwise normal D&D campaign as a change of pace. Wickedly popular in second edition, it was licensed to White Wolf for Third Edition and did well enough to sell a slew of books. Word has it that it will be reactivated by WotC for fourth edition... starting with a boardgame, of all things, and followed by D&D materials...

I was never sure what to make of Eberron. A contest was held in 2002 by WotC to establish a new D&D world (presumably, WotC couldn't stand the idea that all the existing ones had been created before they took over D&D.) Eberron won, largely because of the idea of "if it exists in D&D, it exists in Eberron." Yow. My first thought was "that's going to make it mighty crowded." If that wasn't bad enough, they also introduced a new player character race: the Warforged, leftover battle-golems from a generations long war, now long over, these magical robots have sprouted personalities and now seek to find roles and futures for themselves... WotC released a ton of stuff for Eberron in third edition, and for fourth, a campaign guide an adventure, and a player's guide... and then announced there would be no more Eberron stuff. This is, near as I can tell, what happens when you put a card game company in charge of the world's biggest and best RPG.

Kalamar isn't really a WotC product, but it's licensed, legal, has its own hardback, and has its followers. It's actually a KenzerCo product, the outfit best known for the "Knights of the Dinner Table" comic. As to Kalamar, I read through it, and saw absolutely nothing not available in the other worlds listed here. Still, it has its adherents.

So what's left? When WotC took over TSR, many gamers were sure that the settings and creatures of Magic: The Gathering would begin to appear in D&D. After watching both games play, grow, and develop, maybe it's not a bad idea. Ghod knows they've got enough art stockpiled, and the worlds of Magic: The Gathering stretch mighty far and wide...