Index for 2011 A to Z Challenge

I finished the A to Z Challenge for April, and below is the index.

Z is for Zebullon’s Guide to Frontier Space

My tattered copy of Zebulon's Guide

My tattered copy of Zebulon's Guide

This was written on April 29th and scheduled to be published.

I purchased Zebulon’s Guide to the Frontier Space in 1988, a rules accessory for the Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn game.  Zebulon’s Guide was an overhaul of the Star Frontiers system that made a dramatic turn in both task resolution and skills.  If there would’ve been RPG message boards in those days, I’m fairly certain there would’ve been a rather loud Edition War.

But I didn’t care about the rules changes, I was drawn in by the cover of a space marine with some kind of data-monocle attached to his shiny power assault armor.  Wielding both a pistol and rifle, he was ready for combat.  For the longest time, this gaming book was my most prized possession; I’m fairly certain it is the one role-playing book that I have spent the most time perusing.  I didn’t quite have it memorized, only mostly internalized.  And there were pieces missing.

If you look carefully, in the upper right corner of the cover picture you can see the words “Volume 1.” And where there is a Volume 1 there must be a Volume 2, at least so the logic goes in a gaming-information deprived teenager’s pre-Internet mind.  After all, there was so much that was left unconverted: There was no power assault armor or rules for space ships — the two most glaring omissions.

This hope of discovery was in a time before the Internet. A time before I could spent vast amounts of time both seeking and being bombarded with information concerning a game, game book, or what have you.  Discovering a game, at least for me, was a matter of serendipity.  There weren’t any television ads for the games I played (at least none that I was aware of).  There weren’t any public groups that played the games that I played; Turns out they were all around town, but confined to their own living rooms and dining room tables.  Instead, it was a matter of going to the Sci-Fi / Fantasy section of a book store and seeing what they had to offer.

For years, I kept the candle burning for Zebulon’s Guide Volume 2, until one day it dawned on me that I could use the World Wide Web (that’s what we called it in those days) to find the answer. I went to and searched for Zebulon’s Guide to the Galaxy Volume 2; (I almost typed googled instead of searched).  It turns out, while TSR had initially planned for more volumes, they had opted to abandon the whole line.  It was a strangely sad moment; What I had held dear as a kid wasn’t as important as I had thought, at least according to others.  The market had spoken, and my first role-playing game was put out to pasture.

Y is for YINSH

YINSH by Chris Brum, it is part of the GIPF project; DVONN, which is also a member of the GIPF project.  Like all games in the GIPF project, YINSH is an abstract game.  The rules are relatively simple yet yield a constantly changing playing field.

The goal of the game is to remove three of your rings before your opponent removes three of their rings.  This is done by moving, with some constraints, one of the your rings across the board, and flipping over the tokens that you pass over.  Get five tokens of your color in a row, and you can remove one of your rings.  The process of removing your own rings reduces your available options in play, so it becomes harder to block your opponent.

I have played a handful of games of YINSH with my wife and my son and have always enjoyed my games; It has the feel of Othello, but instead of coping with less and less space, the game feels like it slowly opens up, giving more and more room to breath.

The game itself takes about 20 minutes to play, which means it is perfect as a best 2 out of 3 game.  In fact the GIPF project games each play at 20 or minutes.  The idea being that you start a game of GIPF, and each GIPF project game has a special GIPF piece that you can attempt to play.  In order to play a special piece (i.e. the YINSH piece in the GIPF game), you have to “pause” your game of GIPF, break out another game (i.e. YINSH board), and then win that game.  With victory in hand, you then return to the GIPF game, and play, in this case, the YINSH piece (or DVONN, PÜNCT, TZAAR, ZÈRTZ).

X is for Xizors

Xizors was a Verrick Mind Witch in an Arcana Evolved game run by our friend Geoff.  He was created and played by Matt.  Xizors was one of Matt’s more menacing and powerful characters, but also extremely fragile.  The Verrick was succumbing to promises of power, and was likely going to be a problem for the rest of the group.  Sometimes intra-party conflict is an excellent device, and this growing problem was an excellent case.

Matt and I have been gaming buddies for the past 24 years — even our relationship is old enough to drink. Matt has been a constant presence at my gaming table.  More than anyone I’ve gamed with, Matt pours his soul into his characters.  I truly enjoy playing alongside Matt, and enjoying the interchange. Some of Matt’s characters follow:

  • Grell (sp) – the idiotic half-orc so afraid of fire and magic that he “lead” the group by his abstinence.
  • Captain Navar – An evil cleric, parading as a bard, carefully using only spells on the bard’s spell list until he had to tip his hand to save everyone’s ass; Only to then be killed at a later point by his own man; the man that had witnessed the unholy symbol on the Captain’s palm.
  • Ghennit – a dwarven river pirate, who swore utter vengeance on the damn gnome that sunk his boat.
  • Slade – a mother, disguised as a male bounty hunter for herself, looking for her child.
  • Gryxx – An all-around wicked man who, through vile acts, had become trapped in Ravenloft.
  • Timothy Hizerman – C.S.A. (Certified Space Accountant) –  so consumed with his own rising star aspect and love struck that he purchased a military-grade starship for a rebel woman; Oh and he had the ship named after him. Also, he gladly flaunted his new found Diplomatic Immunity (major systems hack performed by another player) by taking pictures with all the downtrodden.

Which is why, when he creates characters with such problematic names, the group dog piles.  Poor Xizor’s menacing aura and mystique was dulled by one (witty) comment:

Careful not to run with Xizors.

Of course, this is nothing compared to Matt’s 2nd Edition Psionicist named Wend. Wend was a traveling performer, augmenting his performances with psionic powers.  The first encounter with him was when Wend was on stage saying “Come on, try and move me.”

Wend was planning to use his psionic immovability power, but due to bad dice rolls he was easily toppled.  And that is when it went downhill.  As we Wend our way through tunnels…As the ill Wend doth blow…All we are is dust in the Wend

Someday, probably wend I’m older, I’ll drop this joke.  But for now, wendever Matt is playing I’ll make sure he knows I haven’t forgotten.

W is for Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp, designed by Mike Fitzgerald and Richard Borg, is a Rummy-type game.  Each player is trying to collect the bounty on one of seven outlaws, and the reward grows the greater the outlaws infamy.

This is a game that I have been playing with Aidan, my son, for many years.  Both of us enjoy the tension of whether we will capture the outlaw; Either through playing cards to help our cause, or playing cards to hinder the other player’s cause.

The tension in the game is most evident when “Sheriff” cards are played.  When the typical Sheriff card is played, you need to immediately reveal the top card of the deck to see if the Sheriff card takes effect.  Does the gamble pay off?  And if it does, to the victory goes the gloating right!

The game plays rather quickly, typically 2 to 3 hands at 10-15 minutes per hand.  What this means is that Aidan and I can typically enjoy a game in the time it would take to watch a television episode.  With the Sheriff mechanic there is tension, and resulting trash talk.  All told, a great means of bonding with my son.

The game plays best with 3-players, so the times that Savannah has joined us, we’ve seen a more interesting cadence.  Alliances form and dissolve quickly as fortunes ebb and flow.

All told, Wyatt Earp is a great game.  Not to complicated, plenty of tension and luck, but with rewards for strategy and patience.

V is for Versions

I’ve been playing and collecting role-playing games since 1987.  And during that time I’ve been part of:

  1. Two versions of Star Frontiers
  2. Three versions of ShadowRun
  3. Three versions of Rolemaster
  4. Three, four or five versions, depending on how you count them, of Dungeons and Dragons
  5. Two versions of Monte Cook‘s Arcana Unearthed
  6. Three versions of Star Wars

Typically, I have embraced these version changes for a variety of reasons.  The first, and probably the most common reason, is that a new version holds the promise of improvements over the previous version.  After all, if the game companies continue to play their own games a better understanding of the system model should emerge.  And if they listen to their customers, an even better understanding can emerge.

Another reason for embracing these versions is that when a new version is released the previous version is commercially put out to pasture.  Any commercial support and future developments are done on the latest version of the game; No new source books, no new adventures, no “sanctioned tweaking” of the rules.

Inevitably, transitioning versions will always leave some people at the curb. Look at the number of computer users still running Windows XP, 98 or, god forbid, Windows ME.  Transition is hard, especially when, from most people’s perspective, things still work.  A new role-playing version doesn’t invalidate the previous version; The dice will still roll for the older version and the hard-copy books remain intact.

In cases of large change Edition Wars erupt; The hold-outs and the adopters bicker over the merits and failings of the editions.  This has been evident the transition from 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons to 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, where the changes between the rules set were quite noticeable.

The Dungeons and Dragons community fragmented with the introduction of the 4th Edition.  I believe the primary reason is that Wizards of the Coast did not release the game under the Open Gaming License, instead using their much more limiting 4th Edition Game System License.  The result was that all 3rd party publishers had to evaluate whether they wanted to play by these new and very limiting rules?  The market spoke, and the 3rd party support for 4th Edition is almost nil, especially when compared to the vast, and continuing, 3rd party support for 3rd Edition. As a result of the Open Gaming License, the core elements of the 3rd Edition of Dungeons and Dragons is very much alive in the successful Pathfinder RPGBased on interviews with retailers, distributors, and manufactures, it appears that Pathfinder RPG is holding it’s own against 4th Edition.

Dungeons and Dragons is the 800 pound gorilla, and in 3rd Edition, the 800 pound gorilla had a tribe of many smaller gorillas.  Now, the once 800 pound gorilla has shed a few pounds, and must share the forest with a 600 pound gorilla.

Ultimately, I believe the game changers for this whole version mess has been the Internet and the Open Gaming License.  Prior to the Internet, information concerning games was rather difficult to get (especially if you were 15 years old).  Now gamers can get lots of information about changes, as well as vent about version fatigue.  More importantly, they can establish communities around their “favorite system.” These communities, morning the loss of support for their favorite editions, can take on the mantle of support, often times in a limited manner, of the system they hold dear (,,, and Fight On Magazine! just to name a few) .

Couple the Internet with the Open Gaming License, and suddenly a version of the game need not die. A handful or legion, not quite sure, of intrepid souls have, from the Standard Reference Document and Open Gaming License, managed to rebuild much of the 1st Edition and 2nd Edition (list of Retro Clones) of the Dungeons and Dragons rules-set.  They can’t call it Dungeons and Dragons, as that is the proprietary name.  However, there are Fighters, Illusionists, Dwarves, Elves, Armor Class, Hit Points, 1st level Spells, Saving Throws, etc.

U is for Underdark

The Underdark is a staple of the Dungeons and Dragons mythos. The Underdark was introduced in Gary Gygax‘s Descent into the Depths of the Earth adventure.  It is an exotic environment populated with wicked and vile creatures, outcasts, and Cthulhu-mythos nightmares.

As a location, or even a concept, I have only rarely been inspired by the Underdark. It represented the penultimate dungeon crawl, and frankly I’ve always wanted more from my game.

Part of the reason my Night Below campaign collapsed is the shift to the Underdark; At the time, my previous long-term campaign was run completely off the cuff; Little to no prep.  I would respond to the characters actions or introduce wild and crazy plot twists on a moments notice.  I chafed at the the switch to what felt like tighter constraints (i.e. there were lots of tunnels that defined how to get from A to B). The first book of the campaign was of a wide open region, with points of problems.

I also found tremendous inspiration in 3.5E’s Dungeonscape. I bought this book solely for the Factotum class, by far my most favorite 3.5E character class.  However, it’s hard to shell out money for just a character class.  So I dutifully read through the book, and realized that there could be a lot more going on.  And, I was free to turn the volume way up and dispatch with any pretense of believable; After all Beholders and Mind Flayers aren’t all that believable.  In fact this book started altering my mind.

I even went so far as to purchase on eBay Dungeon #70 for Wolfgang Baur‘s Kingdom of Ghouls, an adventure where all the usual denizens of the Underdark are fleeing from something truly hideous.  From my reading, it sounded like the Kingdom of Ghouls adventure was regarded as one of the best written Dungeon adventures.  Wizards of the Coast released Kingdom of Ghouls for 4th edition; It was stated as an homage to Wolfgang’s original work.

But upon reflection, it is easy to see that the Underdark simply represents a different world that doesn’t require a spaceship or teleportation to get to.  The fact that you have to traverse tunnels is really immaterial; After all it’s an imaginary world where rivers can change direction or disappear on a whim.  The imaginary world need never see a drop of rain yet can easily be full of lush vegitation.

The other piece that dawned on me as I studied Math in college was that the Underdark, and it’s smaller cousin the dungeon, are each a network graph. In reality this constraint is very helpful; Only worry about the nodes and edges of interest; The cities and roads if you will.