Beyond Battle Magic: Non-Combat Spells

One of the things that first got me excited about my first Dungeons & Dragons character—my “magic-user” to use the old fogey term—was not simple combat magic.  Sure, Magic Missiles were pretty darn cool, and you could generally take down an orc or two with them, but some of those early utility spells were pretty great.  I remember reading those early spell descriptions out of the 1st ed. Players Handbook and thinking about creative ways they could be used.  Remember Detect Magic and Knock?  Levitation?  How about Wizard’s Eye, the spell that allows you to see around corners or down the hall?  Sleep was almost more powerful in its way than those early damage spells – you could possibly put a whole group of monsters to bed, and subsequently, death.  Tenser’s Floating Disk for carrying your stuff?  Spider Climb, which allowed you to skitter up walls temporarily, and Tongues, which allowed you to speak another language.

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Richard Garriott and Story in Computer Games

With Richard Garriott and Portalarium announcing yesterday The Shroud of the Avatar Kickstarter, we have the man who many credit with the invention of the MMORPG (Ultima Online) returning to the scene.  While this in and of itself brings quite a bit of skepticism as well as excitement, there’s reason to believe that Garriott can bring back to the industry a much-needed shot in the arm.    Leave aside the whole Tabula Rasa vs. Garriott’s trip to space vs. NCSoft controversy for a moment.  This is the guy who literally brought MMO genre to the masses.  Yeah, he’s been quiet for a while, and yeah, that last project didn’t work out (under a company who since has become known for torpedoing game projects – Tabula Rasa, City of Heroes,  Auto Assault, NetDevil, Dungeon Runners, Dragonica), but Richard Garriott “gets it” when it comes to storytelling in computer games.  Here’s why:

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Retro Reviews: Glorantha, Introduction to the Hero Wars

Glorantha, Introduction to the Hero Wars is one of the first supplements to be written for Hero Wars line by Issaries, Inc.  It’s the 253-page crash course for Greg Stafford’s fascinating and complex game world – one that has existed since 1978 in various incarnations, but most famously through Chaosium’s (and later Avalon Hill’s) RuneQuest.  In that respect, Glorantha, Introduction to the Hero Wars has a lot to live up to, and the fact that it is the core world for the Hero Wars line adds more pressure to deliver the goods.  For those new to Glorantha, the Issaries supplement is the only in-print, all-inclusive guidebook to the key game world for Hero Wars.  For RuneQuest alumni, the closest out-of-print comparison is the 8th boxed set by Chaosium and Avalon Hill for RuneQuest 3rd edition: Glorantha: Genertela, Crucible of the Hero Wars.

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Promoting Social Play in MMORPGs

The biggest selling point for the MMORPGs is the “massively multiplayer” part of the acronym.  At the time that many small Dungeons & Dragons groups were gathering 3-8 players around the dining room table, folks at Essex University in the UK were creating the first text-based “MUDs” or multi-user dungeons that could have as many users all playing in a shared virtual world.

While on the surface it would seem that there is a lot in common between these two scenarios, they are actually quite different – the former has a small group of players sitting face-to-face and working through a roleplaying scenario using the standard rules of conduct of any public social interaction.  Sure, they may be playing in character, but because the person is sitting directly across the table, all the power of verbal and non-verbal communication is at the group’s disposal, making for an infinitely complex and memorable session.  In an MUD, the number of players was greatly increased, but there comes with that a great deal more anonymity, and none of the non-verbal methods of communication one can have in-person.  Communication was by text only.  It’s the difference between a small town where you know all the neighbors and a big city where thousands of strangers walk by without ever speaking to each other.  Ironically, while it became much easier to gather large groups of gamers in a MUD, it’s was still very difficult to produce the quality of interaction you’d get in a small tabletop roleplaying session.

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Retro Reviews: Escape From Innsmouth

Escape From InnsmouthOccasionally, I will be posting old reviews I did for The Gamer (print only) magazine back in the 1990s, and consolidating them here.  You can also find these reviews on rpg.net.

Another in the line of Lovecraft Country supplements, Escape From Innsmouth details the decaying seacoast town infamous for its ‘fishy’ inhabitants.  The cover–a young man hiding behind a wall as the shadows of strange, webbed things pass by in the night–is excellent, and joins the fine art Chaosium is doing for the Call of Cthulhu game these days.  The interior pencils are nearly as good, and the layout in general is sharp.  At 157 pages, the treatment of the town is an exhaustive one, although not altogether satisfying.

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The Neverwinter Nights Experiment: Player-Created Content

One of the more interesting experiments in computer gaming was Bioware’s Aurora toolset for the single-player RPG, Neverwinter Nights.  With the toolkit, players could create their own adventures within the game and make them available to other players in the online community.  The tools proved surprisingly popular, and many modules sprung up.  And even though Bioware no longer supports the toolset, the community continues to develop adventures using them, even to this day.

The experiment harks back, once again, to tabletop roleplaying, where players were always encouraged to create their own adventure scenarios.  Sure, many commercial modules were available, and these were always available to groups who didn’t have time to write up their own stories.  But creating your own adventure, running it for your friends, was at the heart of roleplaying—nothing was more satisfying.

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Retro Reviews: GURPS Operation Endgame

Occasionally, I will be posting old reviews I did for The Gamer (print only) magazine back in the 1990s, and consolidating them here.  You can also find these reviews on rpg.net.

The USSR is dead. Long live the USSR!” That’s the principal theme of this tough, globe-spanning GURPS Espionage campaign, which starts in Copenhagen and proceeds to Moscow, the streets of Beijing, and on to the steppes of Kazakhstan. The 12-page supplement contains four fully developed scenarios that can be run separately or in conjunction with one another. The book winds up with an overview of conflicts around the world and gives ideas for incorporating the events into an ongoing campaign. Given the current situation in Russia, Operation Endgame is a timely look at the dangerous instability of a country suffering the fallout of the Cold War.

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