Archive for Roleplaying games

Dark Dungeons


Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds by Joseph P. Laycock

Long, long ago, back in the ancient junior-high days, I played Dungeons & Dragons. This was back in the old boxed set era — what I still think of as the glory days of D&D — and I’ll freely admit it was a weird game. Most game sessions involved exploring underground dungeons populated by nothing by seemingly random collections of monsters living in squalor but surrounded by treasure. Wizards weren’t allowed to wear armor or carry weapons more significant than a dagger, and their spells disappeared from their minds as soon as they were cast — unless they’d memorized the same spell more than once. And there was some sort of armadillo that had somehow evolved the ability to cause metal to rust.

But the weirdest thing of all was how many people believed that playing a game of pretend could cause you to worship the devil.

I was lucky, because while my parents surely thought D&D was weird, they never believed it was evil, and they never told me I wasn’t allowed to play. But there were lots of people who bought into that ridiculous story. But why did people believe it? Why did people push it? What were they getting out of pushing something so utterly deranged?

That’s what this book is about — why was there a huge moral panic about D&D (and roleplaying games in general), why were people so eager to believe that bookish teenagers were devil worshipers, who were the people helping to fan the flames, and what benefits did they gain from inventing conspiracy theories that made no rational sense?

Laycock’s book is exhaustively detailed, detailing the history of the game and the panic from the beginning, setting down the names of a vast number of conspiracy theorists, and analyzing not just the motives of the theorists, but the many ways they were actually very similar to the teenagers they were targeting.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Let’s start out with this, though — this isn’t an easy, two-nights-to-finish pop-psych skimmer. This is a pretty serious academic work. There are hefty chunks of the book devoted to professorial discussions of play, religion, and the imagination. Those may sound easy and fun, but when you’re analyzing the research into these academic areas, they can be a bit of a slog to get through. There are pages of this book you may have to force yourself to get through, particularly if you’re not well-versed in these academic areas.

This may sound like a bad thing, but it ain’t really. You learn stuff going through these sections, and learning this stuff helps you appreciate Laycock’s analysis later in the book. This is the nature of academic works, and it don’t make it bad just ’cause it ain’t easy.

What are some of the things we learn in Laycock’s analysis? One of the key discussions is about play and imagination — particularly when it’s healthy and when it’s unhealthy, and what happens when people can’t tell the difference between their imaginations and reality. I don’t think it’ll come as a great surprise to anyone who’s followed this phenomenon before, but there are some serious similarities between D&D players and the conspiracy theorists who persecuted them. D&D players played at being brave heroes battling against monstrous horrors to save the innocent. And the conspiracy theorists like Patricia Pulling, William Dear, and Jack Chick also played at being brave heroes battling against monstrous horrors to save the innocent. Now which ones do you think knew they were playing a game, and which ones do you think had mistaken their game for reality?

Even then, there are some items in here that still surprised me. I never really imagined there were people who were actually opposed to anyone using their imagination — because imagining things means thinking of things that God didn’t create. And this distrust of the imagination actually extends back centuries — some Greek philosophers didn’t trust fiction or the arts at all, and even Thomas Jefferson hated novels because he thought books should only convey things that were true, not falsities and fictions.

There’s so much more I could go through — because there’s a lot of excellent stuff to learn in this book. If you’re an old-school gamer with a taste for the hobby’s history, if you’ve got an interest in moral panics, if you love learning new things about how humans use and abuse play and religion, you’ll probably really enjoy this book. Go pick it up.

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God Plays Dice


The Bones: Us and our Dice, edited by Will Hindmarch

Do you remember your first set of polyhedral dice? Mine came in the old mid-1980s Dungeons & Dragons boxed set. They were a ridiculous baby-blue color and were almost ludicrously ugly. I couldn’t keep them with the boxed set, so I put them in a plastic baggie and stored them in a dresser drawer for a few decades.

A couple years ago, I decided to dig my original dice out — it turned out that I’d actually lost two of the six dice at some point. The fact that I’d managed to lose two of my original polyhedrals sent me on a dice-collecting binge for about a month. I still can’t bring myself to keep my original dice with my newer ones — I still hold out a vague hope that I’ll find the two lost ones someday, and I’ll be able to return the originals to my dice bag in triumph.

Please keep in mind, this is all coming from a guy who never gets a chance to play any roleplaying games. But I’m still obsessed with my dice.

And that’s what this book is about: dice. The history of dice, and our relationship with dice.

We start off with a few history lessons from Kenneth Hite and Irving Finkel (and a cartoon history from “Dork Tower” cartoonist John Kovalic), all about the very first dice — known as astrogaloi, the anklebones of a sheep, which had four sides that could be labeled and thrown, either as gambling implements, toys, or prophetic devices. There are other essays about randomness in games — and about randomness in computer games — as well as an interview with the inventor of the magnificent Dice-o-Matic.

After that come a number of essays, remembrances, funny stories, and entertaining ruminations on dice, games, and the ways they impact our lives. We get work from Wil Wheaton, Matt Forbeck, Jesse Scoble, Paul Tevis, Jeff Tidball, Monica Valentinelli, Ray Fawkes, Keith Baker, and many, many more.

Verdict: Thumbs up. I’m really a bit amazed how much fun this book was.

The historical articles at the beginning, outlining the development of dice and gaming from ancient times to today, were genuinely eye-opening, and the analysis by gaming guru Greg Costikyan on randomness-vs.-skill in games was similarly fascinating. The interview with the guy who invented a Lego machine designed to roll over a million dice every day, just to keep players in play-by-email games satisfied that their digital rolls were actually random, was both informative and funny — there’s little statistical difference between computer-generated random numbers and the rolls of six-sided dice, but gamers are more accepting of the randomness of dice.

The shorter essays filling the rest of the book are great, too. Some of them are fun because they’re slightly alien to me — see, a lot of them discuss the rituals gamers use to keep their dice lucky, or to punish them for not being lucky. Praising dice for good rolls, scolding them for bad ones, destroying them for consistent bad rolls. I’m very big on accepting the randomness of the dice rolls — unless the dice are designed to give crooked rolls, which few polyhedral dice are, some rolls will be good, some rolls will be bad, a lot of them will be fairly middling. But it’s interesting to read about all the dice rituals out there.

A lot of the other essays are great, too. We read about a wedding themed around dice, a story about actress Daryl Hannah, a tribute to six-sided dice, a tale about a set of homemade metal dice, and essays on dice and divination, dice as weapons, lost (and found) dice, the scarcity of modern polyhedral dice in third-world nations, and much, much more.

If you love games, if you love roleplaying, and if you find yourself sometimes obsessing over new dice, old dice, and the long-vanished 12-sider from your first RPG, you should go pick this one up.

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Holiday Gift Bag: Sentinels of the Multiverse

Still more time for some great holiday gift recommendations! Today, we’re heading over to the gaming side of the store so we can look at Sentinels of the Multiverse!


This is a cooperative card game by Greater Than Games, where a team of superheroes battles a supervillain, usually in a wildly chaotic setting. Each player has their own small deck of cards controlling a single superhero, while the villain and the setting itself also have their own decks, but no one plays them — their cards are automatically flipped during each turn. The villain usually has a ton of hit points — way more than any of the heroes — so you’ve got to whittle them down while preserving your heroes and trying to prevent the bad guys from getting to their own victory points.

You’re not playing generic heroes either — you get comic-style art on every card and usually some little bit of flavor text that helps create a real personality for the character. And each of them have their own special roles they bring to the fight. You’ve got the Superman-esque Legacy, who specializes in absorbing damage. You’ve got the battlesuit-wearing Bunker, who lays down the firepower. You’ve got the Wraith, a jill-of-all-trades vigilante who can damage enemies and support allies. You’ve got the technokinetic Unity, who creates robot minions. And you’ve got a heck of a lot more than that, too.


Now, they’re not in every version of the game. The main game features 10 heroes, four villains, and four different environments, ranging from the big city to a Mars base to a dinosaur-filled jungle. There are several other expansion sets — Rook City, Infernal Relics, Shattered Timelines, and Vengeance — all with new heroes, villains, and environments to play in. You can set up a pretty vast variety of super-battles with every combination of good guys vs. bad guys.

Verdict: Thumbs up. There are a slowly growing number of superhero board and card games out there, but this is the one that originally led the pack, and nothing yet has managed to top it.

It’s really great how varied every game can be. Sometimes you’re dealing with a villain who can drop untold mini-minions on you, sometimes with a straight-up brute, sometimes with someone with a special victory condition that means you have to avoid attacking them directly.

The variety of abilities that your heroes get are also very impressive — some healers, some gadgeteers, some bricks, some blasters. And even when one hero gets knocked out, they’re still able to contribute. They may not be able to play cards and powers, but even defeated, the heroes have special abilities that provide small benefits to their allies. It lets everyone contribute, even if only in small ways, so they’re not sitting around bored watching their friends play.

It’s also very cool how strong the comic-book flavor comes across in this game. A lot of it is the art, the quotes, and the flavor text on the cards. These aren’t just cards, with attacks and debuffs and heals — they’re heroes with great one-liners, victories and defeats, and even their own (fictional) comic series. The game publisher has even created a few promotional comics starring the characters — and it would be pretty keen if there was a regular series about the heroes, too.

About the roughest thing about the game is that it can get a bit predictable after a while. Sometimes, you’ll recognize certain attacks by the villains, and everyone playing will immediately know what to do to counter the danger. Once this happens a few times too many, a lot of the suspense starts to leave the game. I’ve found that it sometimes helps to assign the heroes randomly, so everyone sometimes has to deal with a powerset they’re not accustomed to. Of course, this can sometimes stick you with a bunch of healers instead of damage-dealers, which is also a bit less than ideal.

Long story short: It’s a really fun game for anyone who loves superheroes. And you can buy the game for a friend — and then you can play it, too! A true win-win situation! Go pick it up!

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The Slow End of GURPS


So a few months back, the folks at Steve Jackson Games started posting a few short essays from their creators and designers celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Fourth Edition of GURPS, their long-running RPG rules designed to be used with virtually any genre of roleplaying. They had essays from folks like Sean Punch, Phil Masters, Kenneth Hite, Bill Stoddard, Steven Marsh, and more. I won’t link all of them, but you can find a listing of all ten of them right over here.

I thought the whole thing was just a little depressing, partly because there were so dang few contributors to the series — they couldn’t even get Steve Jackson, the designer of GURPS and founder of the company, to write up an essay — and partly because the glory days of GURPS are so far in the past.

I didn’t really discover GURPS until after I got out of college and learned they’d put out a sourcebook for George R.R. Martin’s shared-world Wild Cards series, which was, at the time, my favorite book series. As it turned out, the local B. Dalton store didn’t have GURPS Wild Cards, but they did have GURPS Horror, so I picked that up and soon started buying as many of their sourcebooks as I could. In my first post-college job, I’d get home in the evenings, bored out of my skull, and create new GURPS characters — filled up multiple legal pads, just because I loved the detail of their character-design system. I never got to play it — I’ve never lived anywhere where anyone else was interested in the game — but holy zamboni, did I love making new GURPS characters and reading GURPS books.

Around 2004, they announced they were creating the Fourth Edition of the game, I picked up the Basic Set eagerly — and found that I really didn’t enjoy it. I felt like the new version was a lot more complicated — the 3rd-edition GURPS Vehicles supplement had allowed for insane levels of micro-detail, giving RPG gearheads tons of numbers they could crunch all day. And the Fourth Edition rules moved some of that number-crunching detail into character generation, where I’d always enjoyed the more plug-and-play aspects of the 3rd-edition rules. In addition, most of the new rulebooks were hardcovers and a lot more expensive, and I got more and more indifferent to the game as time went by.

But more depressing than one guy losing interest in a roleplaying game has been the decline in GURPS’ status as one of the powerhouse RPG systems and the steep drop in the number of GURPS books published. I’d expected the Fourth Edition books to start out with the core sourcebooks — the Basic Set, Fantasy, Magic, Space — and ramp up to include more far-ranging and esoteric titles. But the Fourth Edition books never got much beyond the core books. A few more unusual sourcebooks were produced, but most of those were only available as digital PDFs. Still, there were a lot of 3rd-edition sourcebooks that I thought were surely going to be republished in Fourth Edition — Cyberpunk, Illuminati, Steampunk, Warehouse 23 — that remain orphaned in 3rd. Sure, you could use the info in the old sourcebooks to play in Fourth Edition, but it still felt like GURPS’s legendary genre diversity had fallen by the wayside.

There were a couple different reasons for the reduction in GURPS titles — first, traditional RPGs had crashed and crashed hard. Magic: The Gathering had more gamers focusing on collectible card games, D&D’s Open Gaming License had tons of companies building new games that operated under D&D’s rules, and computer games, including MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, were a massive and growing entertainment industry that traditional pen-and-paper roleplaying games just couldn’t compete against.

And within Steve Jackson Games, Munchkin happened. Munchkin was and remains massively popular. And SJG isn’t a gigantic company — it’s a moderately popular and successful publisher, and as long as Munchkin was making money hand over fist, it just made good sense to put more of the company’s resources into publicizing Munchkin and creating new Munchkin sets. That meant that attention and support for GURPS and most other games had to drop.

The company is still publishing GURPS books digitally, but last year, they released only one GURPS book in hardcover — GURPS Zombies. As far as I can tell, they haven’t released any books in print in 2014. I’m sure they can keep releasing mini-rulebooks on PDF from now ’til doomsday, but no print products at all in over a year? That’s not a sign of a healthy system. That’s a sign of a dead RPG.

It’s not just a problem for Steve Jackson Games. I think it’s a symptom of a weak market for nearly all pen-and-paper RPGs. I know, we (and I’m including myself in this) talk a lot about the resurgence of interest in roleplaying games. They get talked about a lot in the mass media — it’s not at all uncommon to read an article in a major newspaper or magazine that focuses on people playing RPGs. But what worries me is that most of those articles focus on Dungeons & Dragons, maybe Pathfinder — and that most of them focus on RPG fans returning to games after years away from the hobby. The other games we hear folks talk about are things like Paranoia or Chill or another game that’s getting a Kickstarter designed to appeal to fans of the old game. In other words, the gaming resurgence we keep talking about is more about nostalgia, and I worry that people will end up abandoning the hobby again once they hit on something else to feel nostalgic about.

Still, I do wish that SJG had chosen to commemorate the 10th year anniversary by announcing some neat new print products. As it was, it seemed less like a celebration and more like a eulogy.

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Critical Hit


Near as I can figure, Sunday was the 40th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons.

The articles I’ve seen about the anniversary focus either on the game’s history or the plans for the upcoming new edition of D&D, usually with a side order of “OMG, look at the nerds!” But this is what we’ve come to expect from the mainstream media when it comes to coverage of anything out of the mainstream, right?

I’m not in the best position to talk much about D&D. I haven’t played a D&D game since junior high, and I haven’t played any sort of roleplaying game since college. I know a few folks at work who play Pathfinder, which was based on D&D 3.5 — but I’ve never been very tempted to join in, because it’s been a long, long time since I had any serious interest in playing a fantasy RPG. Modern day games, horror, superhero, lots of other genres are appealing, but I can’t get very interested in playing a wizard or fighter or cleric.

But at the same time, I’ve also maintained serious interest in D&D, even while not playing it. I’ve got sourcebooks from almost every edition of Dungeons & Dragons, including the much-maligned fourth edition, which I think is mostly pretty good. Why do I keep picking them up when I know I’m probably never going to play them? I suspect it’s nostalgia more than anything else. Rust monsters, displacer beasts, beholders, owlbears, and green slimes — you just never get tired of some things.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about D&D a lot over the past week or so. I’ve seen a lot of articles that mentioned the fiction that influenced Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson — Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Lovecraft, and many others — but I’ve seen fewer that talked about how Dungeons & Dragons has influenced the world.

Gaming is the most obvious segment of the world that’s been changed by D&D. There’s no way the modern hobby game market would exist without Dungeons & Dragons — Gygax and Arneson invented and popularized the concept of the roleplaying game, paving the way for everything from Earthdawn, Runequest, and Pathfinder to Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, Champions, GURPS, and Vampire: The Masquerade. And you can extend that influence over almost all modern tabletop games — the popularity of D&D revitalized wargaming, inspired card games like Magic: The Gathering and Munchkin, and can claim at least partial influence over most geek-friendly board games out there.

And we’re not talking just tabletop games either. D&D’s game mechanics are used in one form or another in hundreds of video games. Pretty much every fantasy-themed video game, including World of Warcraft, Everquest, and Skyrim, has to claim D&D as a direct influence. And you just couldn’t have the cacodemon from DOOM without the beholder from D&D.

The game’s influence on general pop culture has been fairly strong, especially in recent years, as the nerd stigma has started to reduce — enough geeks have gone into show business that they can now talk openly about how much they loved the game, and even include it in TV shows, movies, songs, and books. And heck, look at that list of celebs who play D&D — it doesn’t even include Dame Judi Dench, who learned the game from Vin Diesel!

Influence on science, academics, journalism, politics, and most other “real world” topics? Probably incidental — but lots of smart kids learned math, storytelling, acting, and social skills by sitting around a table, rolling dice, and fighting imaginary wererats, mindflayers, and Acererak the Demi-Lich. Won’t be long before we have a president who started out as a paladin.

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Dice Dice, Baby


Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It by David M. Ewalt

It’s a nice time to be a fan of pen-and-paper roleplaying games.

Granted, there aren’t quite as many games out there as I’d prefer. Too many great games are basically out-of-print, sustained only by online PDF sales. I can find more RPGs at the local used bookstore than I can at any other store selling games. There are a lot of my favorite games that I haven’t bought any new material for in years — either they aren’t selling, they aren’t producing anything particularly good, or they’re selling stuff on the down-low. The comic shops I go to sell some games, but not as many as the great game stores of the past used to. They have D&D and Pathfinder and Munchkin and board games — but no GURPS, no Call of Cthulhu, no Mutants and Masterminds, none of the greats. Heck, you gotta go a far piece just to find a store specializing in roleplaying games.

But it’s still a good time to be a gamer, because RPGs are having a minor renaissance, thanks to a combination of gamer nostalgia and more people realizing it’s fun to get together and play games.

So here’s David Ewalt (billed on the cover as a Level 15 cleric) and this cool book he wrote, essentially a bit of pop-sociology, examining the history of Dungeons & Dragons, and the culture of D&D players. Most of this information is not new — many hardcore gamers have known and memorized the history of how Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson created D&D, but it is very nice to have the story recorded in a nice mass-marketed book designed to appeal to gamers and non-gamers alike.

So we start in the ’70s wargaming scene, with Gygax and Arneson both adding interesting elements that moved gaming away from mass combats to a focus on individual characters — something that either freaked the grognards out or completely thrilled them. Gygax and Arneson had conflicting philosophies and styles that nevertheless merged neatly — if only temporarily — to create roleplaying’s greatest success. And for many years, times were very, very good — but good times never last forever, even if D&D might.

Scattered throughout the historical narrative are short profiles of regular gamers — some of them friends of the author, some of them just people he met while researching the book. We also visit a unique LARPing weekend event, watch the initial stages of the development of the new edition of D&D, get a short pilgrimage around the holy sites of the game’s creation, and much more.

Verdict: Thumbs up. There is so very much here that I never knew. Not just how Gygax and Arneson created the game, but how it was funded, how it was often not funded, how TSR came about, all the lawsuits that flew all around during the early years, how GenCon slowly grew.

And the whole thing never gets dry or boring or weighted down by historical facts. There’s tons of humor, winking nods to gamers’ obsessions and to the minutiae of D&D’s rules. We get to meet a ton of interesting people, watch them create their characters, play their games, and tell their stories, both in-game and in real life.

It has a few failings. Some of the darker periods of the game’s history, particularly the reign of RPG-hating Lorraine Williams at TSR, are given short shrift. And almost the entire focus of the book is on Dungeons & Dragons. Very few other RPGs are even mentioned. Magic: The Gathering is discussed a little, mostly because Wizards of the Coast ended up buying D&D.

For the most part, that’s okay — it’s a book about Dungeons & Dragons, not about every other RPG out there. But there were some points where other RPGs should’ve been mentioned — when the discussion is about how much people liked D&D version 3.5 and how many disliked version 4, it might be worth mentioning that Pathfinder was basically created as a way for gamers to keep playing 3.5, and that it ended up dethroning D&D as the most popular RPG as a result.

Still, those are mere quibbles. On the whole, it’s an outstanding book, well worth reading for anyone who grew up playing D&D and wishes they could return to the hobby. Go pick it up, read it, pass it along to your friends and family, if you think you can trust ’em to give it back. Hopefully, you’ll be able to expand your gaming group to a few more people.

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Holiday Gift Bag: Munchkin Axe Cop

The holidays will be here before you know it, and we’ve still got more gift recommendations to dig through! Can we finish all this stuff before Christmas? Today, let’s take a look at Munchkin Axe Cop!

If you pay any attention to gaming, you probably have heard of Munchkin, a humorous card game put out by Steve Jackson Games. The basic concept focuses on munchkins — power-mad, cheating, power-gamers who play roleplaying games to WIN instead of playing to have fun. The first game spotlighted the fantasy genre, but the company has come out with plenty of other expansions, with emphasis on science fiction, martial arts, pirates, zombies, goth vampire roleplayers, Westerns, Cthulhu, and of course, even superheroes.

The basic gameplay is the same over all the games: players “kick down a door” by flipping over one of the Door cards, which usually reveal some sort of ridiculous pun-based monster that you have to fight. If you can beat it (by matching your level, plus your bonuses and equipment, against the monster’s level), then you get to draw a Treasure card (which usually has ridiculous pun-based treasure, armor, and weapons) and you go up a level. Of course, your opponents can interfere in the battle, either by helping you fight, or by helping the monster. The first player to level 10 wins and gets to cruelly taunt the losers.

Well, the newest expansion is Munchkin Axe Cop, based on the utterly mad webcomic by Ethan and Malachai Nicolle. All the artwork is by Ethan, the 30-year-old big brother, while the game design is by game industry legend Steve Jackson. And of course, the insane concepts and characters — the cop who keeps turning into different things when blood spills on him, the man wearing the baby costume, the dinosaur with chaingun arms, the baby with a unicorn horn, the nonconformist bunny, the duck who shoots exploding eggs out of his butt, the super-cop carrying a fireman’s axe — are by seven-year-old Malachai.

So how does this play out once you get the cards out of the box? Well, I can tell you you’ll have the most fun if you’re playing with people who are already familiar with Axe Cop. If you pull this game out after Christmas dinner to play with your family, your grandmother, Uncle Ned, and Cousin Merle will probably be pretty confused about the game where one of the villains is made of candy, a flute is considered a dangerous weapon, and Abraham Lincoln is an Explosion God. Better stick with Monopoly with folks who are unfamiliar with either Munchkin or Axe Cop.

But for people who are pretty clued in about the goofy cutthroat fun of Munchkin and the delirious lunacy of Axe Cop? Those folks are gonna love it, and they’ll probably love it as a Christmas gift. It’ll run you about $25, but that’s a lot of cards and a lot of fun.

Munchkin Axe Cop from Steve Jackson Games. Go pick it up.

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Boston Herald, Don't Be Hatin'…

Wow, I’m actually fairly amazed that anyone is willing to try something like this: The Boston Herald has decided that Amy Bishop, the University of Alabama professor who shot several colleagues recently, did it all because of Dungeons and Dragons.

Accused campus killer Amy Bishop was a devotee of Dungeons & Dragons – just like Michael “Mucko” McDermott, the lone gunman behind the devastating workplace killings at Edgewater Technology in Wakefield in 2000.

Bishop, now a University of Alabama professor, and her husband James Anderson met and fell in love in a Dungeons & Dragons club while biology students at Northeastern University in the early 1980s, and were heavily into the fantasy role-playing board game, a source told the Herald.

“They even acted this crap out,” the source said.

OMG, did you hear that Amy Bishop breathed air and ate food?! JUST LIKE JEFFREY DAHMER! Someone ban food and breathing, quick! Ohh, won’t someone think of the children?!

Seriously, I thought this kind of “blame D&D for everything” style of reporting went out-of-style back when the old Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons group died off. I know it’s been completely discredited since then.

And the tone of the article is just so precious, isn’t it? Midway between fearful terror and bewildered rage. You can almost imagine the reporter screaming “NERRRRDS!!!” while she was writing the article.

I was lucky enough that, back when I played D&D, my parents just thought of it as another hobby. I never had to deal with anyone who freaked out that I was going to turn into a Satanist or serial killer. How ’bout you? Did the old media witchhunts about D&D ever affect your ability to play D&D and other RPGs?

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Roll for Initiative!

Maxo at Great Caesar’s Post had a really interesting article yesterday about the perceived rivalries between comics fans and pen-and-paper RPG fans. I fluctuate between thinking Maxo’s right and thinking he’s wrong — while there does seem to be a general rivalry between the two groups, it’s also pretty clear that there’s a lot of bleedover from fans of comics to fans of RPGs.

It all got me thinking about superhero games, too. I’ve only been able to play in one superhero RPG — when I was in college, some friends cracked open a copy of the classic Marvel Super Heroes game, they helped me roll up a character, and we played through a short scenario. When you roll up a random character, you’ll get stuck with some pretty crazy stuff — mine had very high strength, a nearly nonexistent IQ, and an absolutely incredible sense of smell. So I called him Mr. Nosey. (What? It’s a perfectly good superhero name.) I teamed up with SonicAttack (Battle cry: “You can’t stop… SONICATTACK! DAMAGE!”), and we took on Sterno-Man (a former bum who got his fire powers from drinking Sterno) and a fairly ineffectual refugee from a blaxploitation flick called Captain Alphonso Power.

Other than that, I’ve never actually been able to play in a superhero game, despite buying a metric ton of superhero RPG books. I could never get the hang of Champions, which is far and away the most popular superhero game. I always loved the insane detail in the character design process in Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS games, so I liked their GURPS Supers books, even if they were generally low-powered superheroes. I used to fill up stacks of legal pads with GURPS Supers characters, just to fill time after work. But as far as I can tell, I’ve always been the lone GURPShead in every town I’ve ever lived in.

I’ve recently started picking up the Mutants and Masterminds game from Green Ronin Publishing. Again, I haven’t played any games with it, but the books are jam-packed with good stuff, like a cross between the Justice League, the Avengers, and the Fantastic Four. You get the feeling that they got their inspiration from Grant Morrison’s modern “JLA,” but they also love to throw in cool bits from the Silver Age, like secret cities on the moon, atomic dinosaurs, and evil gorilla geniuses. I think it may be the best superhero RPG system ever, but I don’t know if they’ll ever grab the golden ring away from the Champions RPG.

And I’ve also enjoyed reading the Truth & Justice RPG from Atomic Sock Monkey Games. It’s a much more rules-light system — you get to skip a lot of the time-consuming elements of character creation in favor of just writing down who you are and what you can do (with the gamemaster’s approval, of course). There’s a lot of emphasis on improvisation, both by players and gamemasters, and the rules contain several pages of some of the crazy/cool themes and elements of comics — I suspect that’s just to remind players of some of the wicked-kewl stuff you can do with a superhero game.

So howzabout you? Have you ever gotten to play any superhero RPGs? Which ones are your favorites?

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Dungeon Crawling


Today, the Duffster wrote about Dungeons and Dragons and how it seems to make some folks a bit crazy.

Parents and church leaders are so determined to protect their kids from phantom Satanists they can’t see the real benefits of gaming. In an age when our culture is encouraging kids to be bad at math, hopeless at science and functionally illiterate, D&D inspires literacy, imagination, logical thinking and familiarity with basic math.

Most critics reject D&D for religious reasons, but I’ve known parents who didn’t approve of Star Wars or Star Trek games, either – as if the very act of using your imagination is offensive to God.

How many writers have we lost because of this? How many artists? How many poets? How many scientists and teachers have we lost because acts of imagination were dismissed as frivilous or wrong?

I had lots of fun playing D&D back when I was in junior high. It’s fantastic escapism when you’re at that age when your hormones are freaking out and when you’re too shrimpy to keep the jocks from shoving you around the hallways and you’re too awkward to keep from stammering and sweating every time you talk to a pretty girl. It was great to have an activity where you could, at least for a few hours, be the hero who saves the princess and dismembers the orcs.

Heck, it’s not even like you have to be in junior high to enjoy it. D&D is wonderful escapism no matter what age you are. Ain’t nothing wrong with escapism. It’s why we read comics, watch TV and movies, play video games, read books. Everyone needs some fantasy in their lives sometimes.

For some reason, roleplaying games like D&D really set some people off. I remember back in the 1980s hearing from people who’d claim that D&D was a sure way to turn a kid into a Satanist, that it taught you how to contact demons, that its casual violence would transform seemingly normal people into cackling serial killers. Funnily enough, they said the same thing about rock and roll (including Bon Jovi, the Eagles, and Madonna), video games (including the cartoonish fantasy “Dragon’s Lair” game), and jewelry (for some reason, while girls could wear earrings safely, guys who wore them were dooooomed). Wow, the ’80s were weird.

I think that particular form of lunacy has mostly faded away by now. I think ya gotta credit the “Satanic Panic” of the late 1980s for that. That was when fears about hidden Satanists really hit peak levels — people got arrested on incredibly vague rumors that they were devil worshipers sacrificing hundreds, even thousands of people in bizarre rituals that somehow escaped anyone’s notice. People who expressed public doubts about all this were accused of being Satanic conspiritors. People were even convicted and put in prison, despite the complete lack of evidence, of bodies, of motives, of anything.

Eventually, attorneys started winning appeals based on the bizarre testimony at trials, on the clearly unfair prosecutions, on the fact that there was no physical or circumstantial evidence of any mass murders or sexual assaults. The people who still insisted that a global Satanic conspiracy was sacrificing people were revealed as delusional. Sanity returned, for the most part.

Of course, there’s still a tendency on some folks’ part to accuse anything popular of being EEEEVIL. I remember a few years ago when a bunch of local Lubbock churches bought a full-page ad in the Avalanche-Journal to accuse the Harry Potter books of turning young readers into Satanists capable of performing real magic. You don’t hear much of that anymore, partly because most people are now familiar with the story and know that it’s an innocent fantasy, partly because Harry Potter kept getting more and more popular and yet there wasn’t an accompanying rise in Satanic toddlers paralyzing people with magic wands…

…and partly because, honestly, most of those howling church groups didn’t really believe that Harry Potter — or for that matter, D&D, rock and roll, or goth fashion — were actually evil.

Most evil in the world can be narrowed down to greedy people, violent people, bigotry, liars. It’s hard to oppose evil like that. It could cause greedy bankers to stop donating to your church, it could cause bigots to claim that you’re too soft on those kinds of people, and not even the best sermon in the world can stop some violent drunk from venting his frustrations on his wife and kids. As important as it is to help people through the rough spots in life, to teach them how to make good moral and ethical decisions, to provide a supportive and enriching community for others, there are people who get frustrated that it’s so hard to do anything about the root causes of evil.

But if only Capital-E Evil, Old Scratch himself, the damned demons of Dis, if only Satan could be tied directly to something small, weak, and easy to target and smash, wouldn’t that be great? Wouldn’t indulging that fantasy make you feel like you were striking a meaningful blow against God’s greatest enemy, like you really knew how to make things go your way, like you were as powerful as you always wished you could be as a kid?

I guess everyone needs a little roleplaying, escapism, and fantasy in their lives sometimes.

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