Wednesday, August 30, 2017

This Game Could Be Your Life

Expedition: The Roleplaying Card Game

I sat down this week to try a new card/ app based RPG, Expedition.

Challenge level: myself, who first played D&D in '77 and who still occasionally uses the AD&D DMG for reference, and four players likewise decidedly of the old school, were now going to play an app based game. My crew was willing to try it, but I could tell they were skeptical.

Are we just be too old for a phone game? Could we ever be On Fleek? And am I using On Fleek right? Is On Fleek even still a thing? 

Turns out Expedition is fast and fun, and we got the basics down in our first attempt.

We downloaded the app, learned enough to get started, and played our first adventure through to its conclusion in less than an hour. It wasn't very much like the traditional role-playing experiences I have had playing table-top games, BUT it did feel a lot like the first time I had tried out new RPGs without someone there to teach us how to play - that session when everyone is a little tentative because you don't know the system well enough to be bold yet.

We organized cards, shuffled, and picked characters. I drew a Pack Rat, and I started calling him Hotdog after the "bag of tricks" guy from childhood favorite Kill and Kill Again. The Pack Rat let me draw cards from multiple decks - Magic, Melee, and Ranged. I pictured my Pack Rat as having a big bag of weapons, magical doo-dads, and conventional gear that I had hoarded over time.

You take turns reading the narration, passing the phone to the next player between read-aloud bits and decisions (germaphobes bring your alcohol wipes!). We had some basic decisions to make, and we even got into character a bit while discussing what our first move should be. That part felt extremely familiar to an old RPG guy.

We decided to go stop some fey types from raising hell at the market. A stern talking to failed, and we realized that our only option was violence. Thank Crom.

The app is ingenious. When combat starts, you hit the button on the app and the countdown begins. You turn over the cards in your hand, choose one action, and then play it and every player must put their finger on the phone screen to stop the timer.

The cards tell you what you need to roll to successfully perform your action. Its good that they preserved the d20 roll for combat - that much feels familiar.

The timer ratchets up the tension and forces you to move things along, making it at least in one way a little closer to a real combat simulation than most games. When the guy playing your warrior can take five minutes if to decide what his next move should be, it's like time on the battlefield has politely stood still for him. Not so in Expedition.

(I just got the title! The app literally expedites game play! File under slow but I get there).

Fail to beat the timer and face additional damage . . . or worse . . .

Combat has options. I spent a round healing a wounded companion. Then at one point I drew a Desperate Shot card - and if I rolled a 1 my character would die. I made it, but wow! Sudden death, no save. Somewhere, Gary Gygax is giving a thumbs up.

Ultimately, we had a fight, we took damage, we won, we found treasure. We stoped two fey creatures from making a public nuisance at the market. Total time: one hour from unboxing to high-fives, including learning the basic rules. How's that for fast game play?

Monster Cards: Read 'Em And Weep

We played one game and my group of old-timers were all clearly into it, talking about how the app may or may not work and what you could do with the format. It is both randomizer and narrative platform, and however strange that is to see written down on the page it works.

In Conclusion 

I stand by the title of this review: Expedition could be your life.

If your group has a chronic lack of a willing GM, Expedition could be the cure. Likewise if you need to curb a group tendency for devolved stories and don't have any patience for "off the rails" gaming, this might help a group with focus issues stay on track and finish something up.

Even better - the code is open source and relatively easy. You can log on, create and upload your own content as Community Quests that other player's using the app can share, and even put out a tip jar so folks can show some appreciation for your home-brew work. That's a game with a heck of a lot of room to grow, and I salute the designers for having this much foresight out of the gate.

I can totally see one learning to create really good content for a game like this and being consumed by it. Bigger dungeons, more dialogue, puzzles, clues, subtlety . . . there are designers out there who are going to take this to places that even designer Todd Medema has not yet foreseen. This is a platform.

Expedition is NOT a standard RPG, and not a substitute for playing one. I love table top, and I would never put the games I love aside for a game like this - fun as it was, its not what I do for five hours on a Wednesday night, or in a convention slot.

But as an alternative game? For those nights when somebody can't make it and you won't/ can't go on without them? Expedition is perfect for that kind of action.

One major advantage Expedition has is solo play. If you have that gaming jones and but can't get together with a group, this just might scratch your itch.

The game has expansions - extra cards and downloadable content. What Expedition really is is a new format, a blend of cards and dice and computer app that gives players another gaming option, and one that that won't be perfect for every player on every night, but that can be a lot of fun for the right group in the right mood.

I could see pulling this out and getting a quick quest in while you wait for folks to arrive, or as an after game when player's are still buzzing but the GM has shouted himself hoarse. I can see playing this at a high-top bar table (where everyone can reach the phone, natch), for a quick convention pick up game.


Out Of Game

PS - I hadn't seen Kill and Kill Again since I was a kid, and after the game I wondered if it was available for streaming.

It is, and if you have fond memories of this movie from childhood but have not seen it since, perhaps leave it be and just remember it fondly.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

 It is my sworn duty as a writer to write the truth as I see it, in fiction or non-fiction. It is my duty to open myself up to the depths and share everything I have here.

Last night my wife asked me if it was worth it to write, or knit, or perform any creative endeavor.

“Everything has been done,” she said. “What is the point?”

We were a bit in our cups and I tried to articulate the following:

When you express yourself through any artistic endeavor – writing, painting, designing knit patterns like the misses is trying to talk herself into – what you are (hopefully) doing is taking extent things and ideas, running them through your personal filters, and put them together in new ways that no one has ever seen before.

The universe forgives so, so much, but I expect it is unrelenting on folks who have art inside them but refuse to let it out. That’s an unforgivable transgression.

See, the only thing that makes sense, the only logical purpose of man in a universe that acts as a complete system is that we are the universe’s attempt to understand itself. And art is the language we use to do it. 

Art is one of the languages. Scientific inquiry is certainly a part of that as well, as is mathematics and medicine. But art is the keynote. Art takes the most complicated and arduous subjects and parses them down, elegantly, into a well turned sentence. Or image. Or song.

Art is how we communicate with one another, and art is how we communicate with the Universe.

Lets say you have a half-assed novel inside of you. Say its derivative, say its based on a book you read that you thought would be better if you just tweaked it a bit and changed the ending. Say its that bad but it burns inside you. You want to do it but you are afraid it will suck. Or you don’t see the point because its 90% identical to the source material, and  you don’t see the point.

I say write that motherfucker. Put it out into the universe, make it a part of the collective unconsciousness. Better still, do it and then put it up  on some online site somewhere and let folks read it for free. Take it higher, get it published and let strangers find it.

Let them hate it. Let them rip it to shreds and call you an idiot for ever putting two words together.
Your work will possibly inspire someone, whose work will possibly inspire someone, and they might just create something great.

You owe it to the Universe to sing  your song. Its your job, and as a current resident of New England, I can’t put it much more seriously than that. Its your job, do your job.

The entire universe of work – cultivating food, enforcing order, building shelters, healing the sick, and taking care of the dead – is a life support system for Art.

And it all matters – cat videos, dirty limericks, skull tattoos, RPG dungeons, prop comedy, urban legends, soap operas, and skipping rhymes. It all expresses the human experience, and it all influences the human experience. Every artistic endeavor is at once the thing itself, and a criticism of the thing itself, and a window into the Universe, and a missive to the Universe about itself.

In that way, every bit of art is a Love Letter.

Universe I love you. Universe, I can’t stop thinking about you. Universe, this is how you make me feel. You make me so happy and angry and terrified and confused and bored and horny and delighted. You make me feel so important, you make me feel so insignificant.

The individual point of view is Context. Imagine yourself to be a beacon of human experience. The Universe can map you and all the other beacons around you, and by doing so it sees a picture of Itself. Whether or not it realizes that it is doing so, or if it even has a consciousness that could possibly allow it to recognize patterns, is completely immaterial.

Art equals perception plus experience plus technique plus medium plus drive.

And magic. Addendum: possibly plus magic.

Magic is a convenient term, but what it really is is the sum total of everything we don’t understand. Through art we make amazing leaps in logic and perception. Its similar to how one man can throw a ball to another who catches it – neither of them do the math that would describe the force, direction, arc, parabola and so forth to describe the throw. One simply throws, one catches, and the mind puts our experience into play to make it happen. 

Appreciating art is instinctive. You don’t have to explain music to a child, she hears the music and claps her hands. All art is like that.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

GenCon 2014:

Hey True Believers!

What can I say about GenCon? Its my Superbowl, my pole star, my New Year's Eve. I see most of my friends one time a year in Indiana, run for the majority of the gaming groups I will play with, get most of my work.

Also I get hot wings with the Blue Grass Brawlers. Its a tradition, and I hate to miss it. 

I had a brilliant time.  I considered writing up a play by play, but decided that it would be kind of dull. I ran a lot of games, did the Goodman Games seminar, worked the Fat Dragon Booth, and caught up with lots of folks. So I will distill my post to the following

The Book

I needed a copy of the new Maximum Xcrawl book for my Wednesday games, so I met Joseph out in front of his hotel way early. He let me actually unbox the first book.

And snapped a pic. 

Cue Unchained Melody 

What can I say? I had waited so long to actually have a copy in my hand that when it happened I kind of blanked. I can say this . . . it sure felt good.

Tournament 2014: BostonCrawl

 Goodman Games, Xcrawl, and Emperor Ronald I are proud to announce the winners of this years Xcrawl: Boston Crawl 2014 tournament!

1st Place Grand Winners: Dead or Millionaires! Huge congratulations on excellent teamwork, crowd pumping, and beating down monsters.

People's Choice Award: Death Clap, who only finished one room, but were plucky, courageous, and brilliant roleplayers.

The Award for Excellence Under Haywire Conditions: The Blood Wranglers, who had to deal with escaped monsters backstage, off-the-grid hazards, and GenCon RPG HQ itself!

Tournament MVP: Laura "Betty Badonkadonk Bukowski" Tank, AKA Boom-Boom, for outstanding achievements in mayhem and bare-handed brutality.

Order of the Empire 1st Class: Guest DJ Cameron Hays, for stepping up in a pinch and performing with fearlessness and inspiration.

Thanks you to all participants! This was a brilliant tournament and it was an honor to play with each and every one of you.

Here are the tournament winners and their scores:

Dead or Millionaires! 60.14
Surgical Strike - 54.7
Midnight Riders - 32.8
Team Ramrod - 28
Pork on a Spork - 24.4
The Not Dead Yets - 24.33
The Replacements - 23.6
Death Clap - 16.6
The Blood Wranglers - ??? 

I feel like these numbers need some clarification. 

Dead or Millionaires! tremendous score can be attributed to the fact that they completed four rooms (most teams just hit three), and earned all possible bonus points in the fourth rooms. They were organized and efficient, and they made sure they worked the crowd. But most of all they earned and spent Mojo points - great use of Bring the Noise and its related feats kept their Mojo pool full, and they were not at all shy about spending them.

Considering the fact that they only reached three rooms, Surgical Strike put up an amazing score, mostly due to the fact that they earned all possible bonus points, and did a brilliant job of both pumping up the crowd and spending Mojo.

Death Clap and The Blood Wranglers are a special case. GenCon RPG HQ screwed up and told a lot of folks that I had only sold two of my six tickets, so I had seven people show up with generics . . . along with the five who had signed up for the game. I hated the idea of turning anyone who had showed up to play Xcrawl so I started scrambling for a solution. Lucky for me, Cameron Hays was among the  crowd who came to play. He volunteered to take half the players and run for them. So Cameron took my hand written notes and ran the Boston Crawl, and I ran an improv Xcrawl game for the Blood Wranglers.

And I want to once more thank Cameron Hays for stepping up like a boss and running what sounded like an amazingly fun game, and also thank the Death Clap and Blood Wranglers for being ultra good sports and great gamers. Every one of y'all are always welcome at my table.

And I apologize for all of this tournaments shortcomings. Which brings me to . . .

WHAT I LEARNED from the 2014 Tournament

I made mistakes with this tournament. Going forward, I won't run tournament games at Scotties (too distracting - its hard to focus when hot wings and shots keep showing up at the table), I won't include pick-up games (much harder to get organized and fairly adjudicate), and I'll come up with a time limit for how late you can be to a tournament game - several teams suffered through late players, or my having to wander down to RPG HQ to find substitutes.

I am already working on next year's Xcrawl tournament, and I promise that it will be better organized. Consider every score from this year to have an astrix behind it.

I deserve 1d8+3 at least


It was a great convention. Always great to hang with the Goodman Crew, always great to hang with the Fat Dragon Crew, and to see all my wonderful once-a-year friends that I only ever see at GenCon.

See you next year!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Jay Little on Xcrawl

Hey Gang,

I asked Jay Little, amazingly prolific game designer and author of 2007's Xcrawl: Phoenix Crawl, to write a little bit about how he and Xcrawl found each other. Like the blazing talent he is he got something back to me almost overnight. 

Sean Nokes, Jay Little, and a Man Called Adrian, GenCon 2006

Take it away Jay!
I first met Brendan LaSalle at GenCon nearly a decade ago, when I was writing Dungeons & Dragons adventures for Goodman Games. Brendan introduced me to this cool new idea he had for a pay-per-view dungeon crawling game. His eyes really lit up as he told me about Xcrawl, and I could tell he invested a lot of energy to the setting.

It was a no brainer for me. Quasi-fantasy with a technological twist. A new sort of Colosseum for Xcrawl’s new wave of gladiator. It had a sort of Running Man, Death Race, or Hunger Games vibe. I picked up the Xcrawl core book and some adventures, and dove in. The more I read, the more I enjoyed the setting.

For several years during the D&D 3rd Edition heydays, Goodman Games ran an annual Dungeon Crawl Classics tournament, treating players to an old school Dungeons & Dragons styled experience. The tournament was always wildly successful, attracting dozens of players each year. Each team was scored based on certain goals, how far into the adventure they got, and were penalized for things like character deaths. I loved writing for those tournaments, but what and how to score wasn’t always apparent.

For Xcrawl, though, the tournament format was a perfect fit. In 2007 I wrote the PhoenixCrawl tournament module, the first Xcrawl tournament Goodman Games ran at GenCon. It was one of the most satisfying adventures I’ve ever worked on. Instead of worrying about how one encounter transitioned into the next, or why these creatures would be found in this cave, or finding ways to incentivize the players to be more proactive with their characters — I could just focus on making cool individual encounters.

Each room was its own unique opportunity for a challenging, interesting, novel encounter. Each its own independent unit connected by commercial breaks, sponsorships, replays and the sorts of things that really created a sense of this massive dungeon crawling enterprise with which these characters were now involved. 

And the NPCs could be as unique and varied as you wanted. Crazy sports celebrities, shifty event promoters, player agents, corporate sponsors, or aging athletes trying to end their careers with a bang.

Tournament wise, the Xcrawl setting was great. There was so much freedom in creating goals, defining scoring opportunities, and ensuring players across multiple teams were encountering the same challenges. 

Plus, the idea of scoring and being judged for your performance was already built into the setting. And the players loved it.

I ran a bunch of tables of PhoenixCrawl at GenCon that year, and it was great just how those teams got into the spirit of things. Players developed catch phrases or signature moves for their athlete characters, pimped their corporate sponsors, showed off to the crowd — and because of the nature of Xcrawl, an extreme competitive sporting event, they took more risks and really played to win.

It’s an exciting way to roleplay. The great thing about Xcrawl is that it combines several real world experiences — sports, competition, sponsorship, corporate greed — with familiar fantasy trappings — spells, monsters, magic items, loot. This combination makes it really accessible to both novice and veteran role-players, and also makes GMing a real blast. I'm really excited for the new edition, and can't wait to see what lies waiting for players now.

Monday, July 21, 2014

100% Brendan

100% Brendan

Joseph Goodman nailed it one day when we were on the phone. I had asked him if I could refer Dungeon Crawl Classics and Xcrawl as “sister games,” going by the fact that they were both a part of the Goodman Games stable. Among other things they shared real point-of-view, I said. In other words, they weren’t generic fantasy campaigns that acted as a blank canvas for the GM – they were written with a story framework in mind.

He agreed. “Dungeon Crawl Classics is 100% Joseph, and Xcrawl is 100% Brendan.”
Guilty as charged. Xcrawl grew out of my home campaign, and it was a game that I really tailored to my playing style.

The one aspect of Xcrawl that really streamlines a fantasy gaming session is the professional adventurer factor. I love that in Xcrawl, characters have a built-in motivation for why they do what they do. Why do a bunch of folks go to the dungeon and risk life and limb for treasure and glory? Its their job!

And in my mind, rather than take away this adds to the role playing possibilities. When you create your character, you still have a full range of possible choices, and more of them make sense. In standard fantasy, characters decide to become adventurers for a lot of fairly lofty, or traumatic reasons – they want revenge on the creatures that killed their families, they want to redeem themselves in the eyes of the village elders who cast them out, they want to bring honor to their deity, they are on a quest for this that or the other . . .

All worthy motivations. But In Xcrawl you can have one of those . . . or you could just really need the money to help pay for your kid’s private school. Or you might be willing to do absolutely anything to become famous and show your high school guidance councilor that he was wrong about you. Or you might be a pro athlete who blew his knee out too badly to continue playing football, but you can get by as long as you only ever run to charge an enemy. The adventurer as real person factor is high in Xcrawl, and that appeals to me deeply.

Ever read Elmore Leonard? Brilliant crime fiction writer. He is the author of one of my favorite quotes about writing: “My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: when you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”  Hear, hear.

In my mind, Xcrawl lets me skip lots of the parts of the FRPG experience that I always just wanted to fast forward over in my home games. Things like identifying magic items, or figuring out how to get inconvenient treasure back to town. That kind of thing is so important to a standard fantasy adventure, and it forces your players to be creative and manage their resources carefully, but the actual time spent doing it? Way better spent on danger, in my opinion.

Xcrawl Traditions

Trigger Warning: Deep Geekery, Alcohol, Facial Tattoos, Bruce Campbell.  

I have been running Xcrawl for more than ten years now, and there are a few traditions that have manifested themselves over time. Sharing!

What Actor?

“Pick which actor is playing your character in the movie they make of your Xcrawl adventure”. If we have gamed at a convention you have more than likely heard me say a version of that sentence.

I have always done this in convention games, and it’s a fun shortcut to roleplaying and a great visual tool. I’ve been doing it for years, and it’s a good fast way to get convention players into a character quickly. It’s always fun and its quick.

Also, I truly believe Xcrawl would make a great movie, and having payers pick actors for their characters becomes pure imagination fodder for those long trips home from Indianapolis, or Butler PA, or Las Vegas. I have played various versions of the Xcrawl movie in my head umpteenth times, and I always wind up using actors my con player’s have come up with.

The actor thing grew out of my very early White Wolf experience.  In my game, I started giving out Freebie Points to players who brought in a write-up of their character’s background, or a picture. I actually have a binder among my gaming treasures with page after page of pics of all the characters and NPCs from my old game. In the beginning people would cut pictures of models from fashion magazines – you would be amazed at how many perfect vampires they feature in the Italian edition of Vogue. Eventually, my buddy Paul declared that his vampire was the actual Hong Kong action star Sammo Hung. Having actually seen one of my character’s visualizations in a fight definitely changed the movie that went on in my head while we played.   

Some Xcrawl Actor Trivia                            

Most Frequent Xcrawl Actor? Samuel L. Jackson by a mile. His only even sort of close runner up is Bruce Campbell. 

Actor Most Killed In Xcrawl: Scanning through my notes right now, I am fairly sure it’s Christian Bale (three deaths minimum). There might be one more, or it might be Christian Slater. Or Christina Applegate. I really need to work on my penmanship.

Actors I Can Not Believe Have Never Come Up In One of My Con Games: The Rock, Ice Cube, Sigourney Weaver, Bruce Lee, Carrie-Ann Moss, Val Kilmer, Eliza Dushku, Russell Crowe, Summer Glau, or Lee Marvin.

Actors I would cast in My version of the Xcrawl movie, given an unlimited budget and a time machine: See above.

My favorites: Someone at GenCon played a gnome bard they called Summer Night, a disco singer played by Donna Summer. That just made me happy.

My buddy Tom Tullis played his character as the Dungeon Bastard one year. That was super fun.

And In a game I didn’t actually play in: my friend Jason played the crocodile hunter as a ranger. “Crike!”

Easter Egg: Somewhere in one entry in this production diary is the name of a celebrity actor (Hint: I am terrible at giving hints). If we game at a con and you tell me that actor is playing your character in the crawl they make of the movie I throw you a Power Up.

No Show = Radical Character Change

One of my favorite Xcrawl traditions is utterly changing someone’s character in when they don’t show up.

Take my buddy’s Jeremy’s half-orc barbarian.  One night he can’t make it to the table, but my friend Dave is in town for the weekend and wants to play. Dave plays the barbarian, and does a great job raging and charging and screaming about he would kill a hundred goblins to honor his sponsors, as Exofah intended. But they finish a level while he is there, and one of the prizes they took home was a certificate for 5K GP worth of free tattoo work from someplace local. We had had a few beers and the game was getting goofy, and in the middle of this Dave declares that between dungeon levels he takes the gift certificate and goes and gets all of that work done on himself, featuring a scary full face Orcish tribal tat. Then he has the cleric hit him with a cure spell, so it instantly heals and looks good on camera. Give it up for Jeremy, who laughed off his characters radically altered look.

And again: During my playtest for the Emperor’s Cup my buddy Dan (whose frequent absences garnered him the nickname “No Show”), missed a night. He had been playing the amazing Cherry Bomb, a female human two-weapon fighter. Cherry Bomb was a total badass, just a tornado of blades with and massive full around attack, partially based on using her short sword of speed in her off hand. Anyway, one night Dan couldn’t show up, so we were team running Cherry Bomb. Duane Waldrop was in that game, and his wife, Micki, dropped by the house for a while. I told her to run Cherry Bomb for a round so we could put her in the playtest credits. She obliged, and in that one round she rolled a 1 and lost that fancy short sword of speed to the devourer, which ate it right up. Dan is a good sport in general, and he took the news in stride, but when our next fight came up and he saw how it affected his damage potential, he winced a bit.

Micki Fun Fact: I eventually married Micki’s cousin, a fellow gamer and geek who just might be the nation’s leading authority on Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan fic.

No-Show Dan missed another session of that playtest, and our buddy Terry stopped in and played his character. It was the beginning of level two, and right after the start-of-play buzzer, Terry addressed the group as Cherry Bomb: “I just want you all to know that I have decided not to hide it any longer: my trainer Mindy and I have embraced the love that dare not speak its name.” A guest player had outed an Xcrawl character in the level two green room of the Emperor’s Cup.

When we told Dan, he laughed about it but said that the rest of the team had to go with Cherry when she went to tell her parents.

This happens again and again. On nights when a player couldn’t make a game I have seen people call up their beef jerky sponsor and told them they were going vegan, characters intentionally wrecking prize cars, giving all their treasure and prizes away to charity, declaring their love for the DJ . . . I could go on and on.
If anything like this ever happens in your game I would LOVE to hear about it. Also, this should just be for fun – don’t actually ruin someone’s character or keep them from having a good time.  


Xcrawl is all about the music, and always has been.

When I first started running Xcrawl, I would load my 5 CD changer and put it on random. Wow, that sentence sounds so old fashioned in 2014 it should come with a high wheeler and a derby hat.

Back then my go to 5 CD mix choice was:

Onyx, Bacdafucup
Fat Man and Team Fat, 7/11
the Judgment Night soundtrack
Red Hot Chili Peppers, Uplift Mojo Party Plan
EPMD, Strictly Business 

The Fat Man and Team Fat is a group that does video game music that a buddy of mine at my old job turned me on to. They have this one amazing song, Mister Death that became the official song of the original Memphis Crawl.

When I really started getting into running Xcrawl, I picked up a couple of the Jock Jams compellations to use for background music. Those are fun . . . for a while.  Listening to Tag Team do Whoomp! (There it Is) more than about twice in a single calendar year is enough to make you want to throw your stereo out the window. 
I will say that the Jock Jams records defiantly put you in the sports mindset.

I’m into all sorts of music personally – I love hip-hop and rock, soul and R&B, punk, hardcore, and country. I am an unrepentant disco fan. I love funk, and sincerely wish there were more funk bands. I went through a huge metal period in my teens, and I still really love all those bands.

Xcrawl has whatever soundtrack you want it to have, and whatever music you choose for the background I hope it becomes as big a part of your game as it did in mine.

This Is Where I Say

Thank you.

I have so many people I want to thank but I will start with my parents, who always accepted and unconditionally supported their crazy kids. What can I say? I have said it before, I will say it again: every World’s Greatest Mom and Dad mug belongs to y’all, take them freely.

My wife, who has unconditionally accepted me since the day we met, and fell in love with me over dice and a GM screen.

My sister, Xcrawl’s biggest non-gamer fan, whose enthusiastic support makes me feel like I live in a world without boundaries.

Brett and Alyson Brooks, who believed in Xcrawl from the beginning, who made Xcrawl so so much better than its original conception, and who gave me my start in this business.

Joseph Goodman, who gave Xcrawl a wonderful home at Goodman Games, and who continues to be a professional and personal inspiration, and has saved me from literal homelessness one more than one occasion.

Duane Waldrop, my evil other half and constant source of inspiration, and the most grounding, anti-bullshit friend a gent could ever ask for. Duane and Micki raised me as a hobby, and I hope they like I how I turned out.

(True story, Duane was my manager at this warehouse in Athens. I asked Duane for a day off at one point to help me hit a deadline for one of the Xcrawl dungeon manuscripts. He said that he needed me that day, so instead of letting me bang out he wrote a couple of rooms for me to help me get caught up. Your boss ever do that?)

All the artists, writers, editors, and developers who have worked on Xcrawl over the years, and who helped give the game its feel and flavor, and who made the world of Xcrawl come to life in a way I never could alone.

My tiny legion of playtesters, who tuned up every idea I gave them until it stopped spewing black smoke.

The folks at my day job who have let me take off scads of time this year to do conventions, and really to all my understanding bosses over the years. I’m thinking of Susan Powell, Kat from Tiffany’s Tea Room, and again Duane Waldrop.

The fans most of all  – everyone who supported the kickstater, everyone who wanted to but couldn’t, the people who have been with me since day one, and the new folks just signing up.

Thank you, thank you, thank you all!
Thanks for reading. Thanks for gaming. See you at the convention!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Xcrawl Diary IV: Coney Island + Las Vegas

Coney Island

Soon after I started considering myself a writer, I started developing a strange reluctance to work with other writers. I knew that this was a bit irrational, but that is how I used to feel. Over the years I tried collaborating with other folks despite this: on poetry, short stories, a novel, and one memorably awful failed essay attempt (that guy and I just sat in silence for a few hours, drinking coffee. Finally I said, “Well, I’m out of here.” We haven’t spoken in decades).

Then came Duane Waldrop, and the Coney Island crawl. Duane and I have been friends slash gaming buddies since early childhood – he is actually the cousin of Jason Jenkins, who I mentioned earlier, and we met when I was about 14. He and I had one thing in common that we instantly bonded over – at the time Duane was the only other FRPG player I knew who also listened to hip-hop. It sounds trivial, but at the time we were like aliens visitors to a planet that mostly rocked out to movie soundtracks and Weird Al.

When I moved to Athens, Duane let me couch surf for a few months while I tried to find a job and a place. We talked gaming a lot, especially Xcrawl. Duane was in the first 20 people to ever play Xcrawl with me, and his very first character was a standout – in the green room he declared that he had signed up to play one night when he was drunk, and now he was terrified and afraid for his survival. Every room he would run over and hover by the NoGo door, shooting arrows . . . it gave me a very different perspective. Duane instantly got what I was doing  – the world of Xcrawl was a very dark and scary place.

After I moved out of Duane’s place, we put a local gaming group together and started playing weekly. About a year into the life of that gaming group, Duane says he has an idea for an Xcrawl dungeon he wants to spring on us. And its going to take place in Coney Island.

Hurry, hurry, step right up!

That game rocked. Any time I get to actually play Xcrawl I get excited and go all out. And you needed to go all out for this dungeon – DJ Faces was a tough customer. It was a great game.

(For the historic record, I played Busker, a streetwise bard who was the spiritual forefather to the Jammer class. I did the bard thing – hung back and buffed and de-buffed, and talked a lot of shit. I remember that he had a +2 tongue stud of charisma).

Between sessions Duane and I talked about pitching the idea to Goodman. The Coney Island crawl needed to see print. Goodman liked the idea, and Duane and I were off and running.
I just called Duane to talk about the experience of working on the adventure together. We got all excited about it again.

We rarely sat in the same room and worked. Mostly, we would design a map together, come up with a rough idea of what we wanted in each room, and divided the rooms up, so he might work on 8 – 15 with me knocking out 1 – 7. Duane says he is still amazed at how well the rooms meshed together, even though we wrote separately.

And we laughed. We would have meetings or phone calls where we would discuss what we wanted to do, and we would just laugh at all the horrible stuff we had in store for the crawlers. Coney Island is certainly a survivable dungeon – our  second playtest team had zero casualties. But it isn’t screwing around either. You have to be smart, brave, and lucky to get through that dungeon with your party intact.

Anyway, that project completely changed my prospective on working with another writer. I think I had some kind of irrational fear of being hemmed in by someone elses ideas, and quite frankly nothing could have been further from the case. Talking to Duane about it last night got me very excited about future collaborations.

As Duane said: “Fun times, great times . . . I would gladly do it again.”

In the call I just had with Duane we started talking about the next adventure we want to do together. Watch yourselves, Xworld!

Las Vegas

I didn’t so much write the Las Vegas crawl as watched it evolve. It started off as an improv. I had a group of folks play in a session at Origins – this would have been 2002 I believe. Later on Brett put a sign-up sheet for an after game at the Pandahead booth, and that night the more-or-less exact same group showed up to play again. I couldn’t run them through the exact same adventure - I had to do something.

So while they got themselves settled I made a quick map, and picked out a few monsters out of the 3.0  . . er, Unstermay Annualmay. The first room has the players actually ejected into a room that looks like a gymnasium sized craps table in a capsule shaped like a huge six sided die . . . because I had just picked up an oversized six-sider, and it made for a good quick and dirty prop.

That night was fun, and the next day over breakfast I jotted some notes down on the bits that I liked best.
The Vegas Crawl wound up being my go-to after game adventure for a year. I just ran it off of basic notes except for the treasure – it’s harder for me to make up decent, Goldilocks-just-right treasure on the spot than encounters, so I made up a master list of all the gold, prizes, and magic items inside, and whenever I played it I would just work my way round the list depending on the party makeup.

A year later I actually sat down one weekend and mapped the entire dungeon out.

Fun Fact: Joseph Goodman and I discussed the cover, and he encouraged me to try sending Jeremy Mohler a description of the cover art. Give him as much detail as you can, he said.
I went too far. I sent Jeremy an idea for my dream cover – I think it was about 2K words, with details like horse facial expressions and hobgoblin hair style. Jeremy, who is a truly good sport as well as being an amazingly talented fantasy artist, did a fantastic job with my notes, and opted out of giving me a truly well deserved punch in the face  when I saw him at the next Con.

The Vegas Crawl is ultra special to me for several reasons. Chief amongst them is that that dungeon wound up being the first adventure I played with lots of groups who became long term friends and allies, including the hysterical Short Bus Gamers (that’s the Fat Dragon Games crew, led by my homeboy Tom Tullis),  and the brilliant Surgical Strike (you might remember them as winning every Xcrawl tournament, ever).
Also – and this speaks to my personal design geek aesthetic – Vegas really says everything I want to say about Xcrawl. It’s over the top, it’s absurd; it makes me giggle every time I leaf through it. It has the just right mix of classic Greco-Roman influences and modern media culture. Also, it’s meaner than a 5 AM wake up nut punch.

Favorite Vegas Story: This is how I met the Fat Dragon gang.

I had a scheduled session of Xcrawl, and only one guy showed up. This happens a lot at conventions and I never get mad: those folks might have won some tournament and gone on to the second level, or met interesting new friends they wanted to spend time with, or could have a touch of food poisoning from those delightful convention center tube steaks. No biggie.

I went down to RPG HQ, and there was a group of folks there complaining that their GM had not shown up. And there were five of them. And they were familiar with d20.

Destiny! I took the whole bunch of them, having no idea of what I was getting myself into. This was the Fat Dragon crew, and meeting them changed my life. 

That was the single funniest convention game I have ever had the pleasure of running. They were awful; gleefully, proudly, hilariously awful. They celebrated bad die rolls, and that night they had a whole lot to celebrate. Quick example: area 1-4 is a trap – if the door opens before the trap is disarmed it drops a velociraptor into the room. Their rogue detects the trap, then sets up for the disarm. The rest of the gang states that they are going to go back a ways in case something bad happens. Good call. Without even looking at the map I tell them to just position their miniatures wherever they want to be while the rogue does his thing.

Aaaaaand it’s a natural 1. Fumbleaya! The rogue flubs it.

The dinosaur wins initiative. I check the board and see that the rest of the team is all huddled in the far corner, just as far away as you can be from their poor rogue. They have to run up to help their buddy out, giving my dinosaur two combat rounds of quality alone time with poor Mr. Rogue.

(For the record: 2 talons +13, 2 foreclaws +7, bite +7. Ah yeah.)

We instantly bonded, and I am proud to call myself a member of the Fat Dragon crew to this day.

Xcrawl Diary III: Hiatus/ Mister Goodman


Xcrawl hibernated for a few years. What happened? The same thing that happened to all those “D20 boom” publishers: the D&D 3E craze was slowing, and Pandahead, like many publishers, moved on to focus on other projects. Panahead had a few books left on the burner when we had to stop production.  Another player’s book, this one chock with character options like prestige classes, equipment, and new specialties, the Antarctic Crawl, which was going to be a doozy of a “real world” adventure.  And a dream project, an Xcrawl monster collection. I have a ton of notes on both of them and I truly hope to someday see them all in print.

Freed up from constantly playtesting Xcrawl, I branched out into other games. I ran a lot of Deadlands and Call of C’thuhlu. I worked on my own rules system, and played a bit with that. I I moved from Marietta, GA, to Athens, GA, and after a few dry months I hooked up with a new gaming group. I met a gal. And I wrote a couple of the old 3rd Edition Dungeon Crawl Classics adventures, which were a whole lot of fun to work on. One of them was my first and so far only ever epic level adventure, Belly of the Great Beast which was tremendous fun. Grueling game – when you play epic there are so many factors to consider and evaluate that the simplest encounter takes an hour.

I was still making the convention scene whenever I could. I missed one year of GenCon during this period, and was utterly miserable for it. I got a call on GenCon Saturday from Steve, a guy I play with every year. He was in the dealer’s room and he wanted to know what time we were going to get together and play. And my heart played the chord of sadness.

I missed Xcrawl. Not working on it left a hole in my life.

Mister Goodman

Back when I moved back to Marietta, Georgia, I got myself a job at the game store in the mall. For legal reasons, I will call this place the KameGeeper.

Other than the fact that it paid less than I had made in high school when I was frying chicken at KFC, it was a good gig. The inventory was mixed between board games, card games, fancy chess sets, and about two shelves of RPGs. The staff, on the other hand, were all hard core RPG people, and we talked gaming incessantly – like, people were getting written up kind of incessantly. Looking back, I remember thinking that the old Geeper had a surprisingly good selection and variety of RPGs on the shelves, and I had my first exposure to a lot of systems there (including GURPS, which I played for the first time at an in store game on the clock. On the clock Liz Lemon! 

As my buddy Frank would say, good tymes!

We got a new game one day, Broncosaurus Rex, published by Goodman Games. I give it the thumb through, then I actually read the first couple of pages between ringing up sales and trying to talk people into trying Rook.

(NB – You should still try Rook. It’s hard to get me to play anything that isn’t an RPG but Rook is a hip card game).

Broncosaurus Rex, for the non initiates, is a brilliant game where you get to fight the American Civil War in space with dinosaurs.

Just typing the above sentence fills me with such joy that I have to go and kiss my wife. Talk amongst yourselves for like five minutes.

Back. She’s making some kind of curry out of our trusty green Bittman book. My kitchen smells heavenly.

Okay, I was talking about the Civil War in Space with Dinosaurs.
Civil War in Space with Dinosaurs. That should be the name of a cocktail involving moonshine and crème de cacaio. Or a Phish album.

I remember saying to my old work buddy (no idea what his real name was anymore but his friends called him Panda) something to the effect of see here, this guy is into the same stuff I am. Why does all fantasy have to be medieval? And for that matter, why does all fantasy have to be based in the British tradition? Lords and ladies, knights fighting dragons, elves and trolls and giants? Why can’t we change it up?
Broncosaurus Rex and Xcrawl have something very cool in common (although written like that I notice for the first time another thing – one ends in an X, one begins with one #takealookatthisscully), which is that they are both fantasy stories based in the American tradition, rather than the British. There is a good reason most fantasy games are steeped in English history and tradition, and for legal considerations I will call that reason The Fnord of the Schlings, but that makes it all the more cool for me to see someone consciously put that aside – lovingly put it aside, mind you, with all respect – and try something different.

Our two games have something else in common as well – both take an absurd situation and deal with it very seriously, while at the same time having fun with it. That speaks to similar sensibilities, and reading those couple of pages that day at the KameGeeper I was nodding my head and thinking, yeah this guy is hip. 

Months and months later when the Xcrawl core book was nearly out and we were going from state to state doing game demos, I noticed a booth with a bunch of Goodman Games covers pinned to the curtain behind the table. I thought, wow I’m going to go meet the Goodman Games reps and tell them that their game ruled.

I wound up meeting Goodman Games himself. Joseph Goodman was my age, super approachable, and into talking about his game. I told him about Xcrawl. He liked the idea, and actually looked away for a moment and said something like “Yeah, that’s a great idea. I wish I had thought of that.”

We started seeing each other at conventions. Turned out he lived in Atlanta, about an hour from where I was staying in Georgia. We were both very busy, but we managed to game a couple of times. Joseph came and helped me test out my Regulator’s game, a kind of cosmic genra mash-up I was playing around with for a while. 

When his Dungeon Crawl Classics line took off, he let me work on it. I sent him a pitch for a plant based dungeon, and he gave it the thumbs up. That became Dungeon Crawl Classics #10: The Sunless Garden.

Fun Fact: My first the first time I ran the Sunless Garden was the worst playtest game I have ever ran. I let the crew roll up their own characters, and the geniuses decided that everyone would take at least two levels of monk. Sounds like a good idea until you think about all of the spellcasters being a minimum of -2 levels versus the challenge rating of the adventure, which was full of nasty stuff including a high level treant druid. Then at one point, a player got bored and just ran up and knocked on a door he found in the dungeon – that would be the door to the bugbear caverns with 24 hour guards on it. I will say this – the crew’s deaths were valiant, and chock to the brim with kung fu.

A while later, I asked Goodman if I could write an epic level adventure. Greenlit, I made up a game where the player’s would have to head out to space to rescue literacy itself. That game, DCC#33: Belly Of The Great Beast, was the only time I ever had to ask for a significant extention on a deadline. Those statblocks were like to kill a man. Luckily, I had Aeryn “Blackdirge” Rudel backing me up on that one – best stat guy in the business.

And right about the time I turned Great Beast in, Joseph and I started talking about Xcrawl.

Somewhere in my house is a notebook with a rant I wrote about my professional life that I wrote sometime during the hiatus. I touched on my personal goals, health goals, writing goals. The handwriting gets worse and worse as it goes on – it was that kind of evening. But the very last line, scrawled large, is this sentence: I AM NOT THROUGH WITH XCRAWL!”

Damn skippy.

Long Story Short

Goodman Games licensed Xcrawl. 

The first Goodman Games adventure was Necromerica. When we first decided to do it (and Joseph jump in and correct me here if I am remembering this wrong), Goodman Games needed something fairly quickly, and so I went with the dungeon I had run on and off for two years at various conventions, and home games. True story – I started writing Necromerica in the back of a car on its way back to Georgia after a convention, either GenCon or Origins, I can’t remember. My very first thought was, what if Harly Quinn, as played by a Tank Girl era Lori Petti, ran a dungeon crawl event?

Necromerica is probably the most playtested adventure I ever wrote – I ran it three times for various groups of friends, followed by a year of con games and pickups. It is so important to me for many reasons. It’s the beginning of my relationship with Goodman Games, and with artists Brad McDevitt and Jermey Mohler, both of whose work feature prominently in Maximum Xcrawl. And the dungeon so much fun for me to GM – DJ Creature Feature is this funny yet hideous yet bizarre character that I have so much fun writing for. I think the encounters are crazy, and well layered . . . nothing seems all too terrible, until you hit the last room on a level and realize just how much of your resources you had to spend just to survive up to that point.

Next up: a tour through the Goodman Xcrawl adventures.