Comptoniae #1: Order of the Stick


“Order of the Stick” is a weekly web comic that’s so bursting with instantly recognizable gamer humor that any upstanding roleplaying nerd can’t afford to miss it.

The uniqueness of Order of the Stick (OoTS for insiders) is the sheer amount of gamemaster know-how possessed by the writer, Rich Burlew; and that he uses that knowledge to mercilessly bash the illogic and idiosyncrasies of RPGs. Burlew does this with a dry wit and he manages to pull it off weekly. The comic isn’t just bashing nor is it just tomfoolery. It’s a well-paced, clever parody of the archetypal Dungeons & Dragons setting.
Actually, this comic is not so much a parody of D&D as it is a parody of gamemasters, their plots, and also the players and the characters that they choose to play on a regular basis. The heroes of OoTS are one such band of adventurers, and it quickly becomes clear that they are aware that they live in an arbitrary, partially abstract world. This works so well because the reader is pulled into the “half in-character, half out-of-character” mode that all roleplayers will be familiar with.
The zany adventures take place in a fantasy world of Burlew’s own design. It is a world that is intentionally generic (for example, a group of druids hails from “Wooden Forest”), and is filled with anachronisms (the villainous undead wizard will kill time watching TV on his widescreen crystal ball). This has the effect of making the world recognizable as a typical “lame” GM creation.
The comic is at its funniest when you’re able to follow all its oblique references and little winks, but rest assured: even if you’re not a hardcore D&D gamer, you can appreciate most of it because it is so relevant to any heroic-fantasy roleplaying game.
Depending on what you think of archive binging, Order of the Stick is either a pure delight or a disastrous time sink. The comic is best read from its Issue #1. From there you soon will be tempted to read “just one more.” At the moment there are 747 pages, each comparable to a paper comic page. If that seems like a huge daunting task, let me assure you that you don’t even need to read a lot before you arrive at some pretty interesting and even tense plot arcs!
A short who’s who of the “heroes”:
Roy Greenhilt seems like the stereotypical fighter carrying a huge sword around. Until you realize that Roy has a very high Intelligence score, and add to this that of the group, he is perhaps the most savvy in politics.
Haley Starshine is an athletic, stunning redheaded lady thief with an obsession for gold and riches. She has a “secret quest”she keeps hidden from everyone. I won’t spoiler more than to say that Haley’s quest is *not* about money.
Belkar Bitterleaf is a psychotic hobbit (has to be called “halfling” for copyright reasons). Despite being of a very chaotic evil alignment –and often has sex on the brain- Belkar is arguably better to have on your side as a very effective warrior than he would be running around unsupervised. Oh and he’s also a very practical person. Brutally practical even.
Vaarsuvius is a control freak, highly competent battle mage, and arrogant purple-haired elf of ambiguous gender. His/her life mate and children remain at home in the elven land and are just as androgynous.
Durkon Thundershield is the stern dwarven priest of Thor (don’t ask) with exaggerated Scottish accent and a heart of gold. The law is the law, but is also difficult to follow to the letter in this chaotic group of adventurers…
Elan is the Young bard with a merry, happy-go-lucky personaltiy, a very high Charisma score and a rakish blonde hair. We could call him “impressionable” but if were honest we would have to come out and say that Elan is too stupid to open an iron ration. He absolutely loves romantic and comedic drama, and he’s so driven to find it –and so impractical- that he regularly needs to be rescued by his group mates.
“Order of the Stick” can be read starting from page 1 here;
Or, if you insist on checking out the last installment first, here’s the current issue.


Classic Review #4: Call of Cthulhu

boxed set (Games Workshop edition, UK market)
by Sandy Petersen
1981, 1986 The Chaosium

Many horror stories don't end well for their heroes. Many Call of Cthulhu games also don't end well for their heroes. The heroes die, turn into monstrosities, or most often they just go completely and utterly insane because of what they have seen. In that respect the Call is a successful attempt to turn horror into role playing.

But for many players it also makes the game less attractive. Because an insane hero is much harder to play, if the game master allows you to play an insane hero at all. In the original setup writer Sandy Petersen seems to assume people can't or won't play madmen, so they'll just have to make up a new hero. Of course it does not have to be that way. If players and game master do their best, a party of heroes who are complete nutcases may provide some terrific (pardon the pun) adventures.

If you can live with this rather inherent fault in the game concept, or work around it, Call of Cthulhu is a gem among role playing games. It is set in the roaring 1920's of the H.P. Lovecraft horror stories, and one of these stories is also where the name of the game comes from. Lovecraft wrote stylish, typical prose, full of horror and less with plot, but with an atmosphere that is hard to match. The horrors in his stories probably came straight out of the writer's nightmares, teetering on the brink of insanity as he was himself. Things from outer space, tentacles under the sea, dead which are not dead, terrors that flap their many wings and tails in the night.

Most Lovecraft stories are set in New England, so that is where the game also takes place. And in far off archaeological dig sites in Egypt, the Andes and Antarctica. A source book provides ample ideas and feel for the period between the wars. But in my experience a few good history books are also indispensable. Or maybe I just love to give my players a history lesson or two, too. Later game supplements also provide background for heroes from the United Kingdom, and games set in more recent years.

The rules are based on the innovative and realistic Runequest rules, but slightly simpler and with some different details. Heroes actually have professions, which guide the type of skills they may have. One may learn how to use all sorts of firearms, although it is not often that you will use them in the game. Because it's a game of brain, and less of brawn. Insane brain maybe, but brain nonetheless. Insanity is indeed also a central concept. Or rather: sanity. This is a hit point like value which goes down steadily as the heroes encounter the horrible, incredible truth. A truth which is... monstrous and inhuman, usually. The less sanity you have, the more likely you are to go “gaga”. But also, the more you may know about those unspeakable, unknowable truths.

Call of Chthulhu has quite a few good scenarios to play, and many horror stories adapt easily to a home made game. If you have nightmares like I do, these will also provide lots of inspiration. Did I say too much? The hardest part of game mastering is really to hit the right tone of the era. Because it's a real historic time with historic places it feels as if you can fail your exam. How long does one drive from New York to New Hampshire? How common is a driver's license? Do you need one? Who was the president then? Was there prohibition already? How about phones, newspapers, hair dryers, washing machines, national flights – were there any? It's not fantasy where you can make anything up. Or maybe you can. It just doesn't feel that way to me.

And campaigns do not last much longer than the sanity of most of the heroes. That's where I've seen the game break down in practice. Starting up insane heroes who want to be normal is just not too easy. Cthulhu keeps on calling though, and time and again I still play this game – even if we now tweaked the rules to my own system. Nearly twentyfive years now. That's a feat.

(rules are logical, elegant, flexible and quite realistic. They are in fact better or at least easier than their Runequest equivalent)
(The game is provided with large amounts of background, period source book and adventures. And it's easy to pull out history books and horror stories to adapt to your own games.)
(especially if horror is your genre, the game is easy to play and master, the only thing is that you have to dig that this is a game where the heroes are bound to lose. They either save the world and go insane, or they die.)
(horror set in the real 1920's, in the style of H.P. Lovecraft, human heroes but supernatural horrors as enemies, skill based with professions, percentile based combat and tasks, separate roll for damage, magic hard to learn but accessible to the debilitating and insane)



News #3: Return of the Red Box... or?

I cannot believe my eyes. First, this is the third game shop in Utrecht along the same canal. And game shops are pretty thin in the Netherlands. Second, between all the gothic materials and styrofoam swords a red box stands out. It's the D&D starter set. With the late 1980's cover. And it's new, now, in 2010.

Can it be? Can it be actual old D&D? It says Wizards of the Coast. It says copyright 2010. But is this 4th edition, or is it a remake of the Menzer edition my best friend had? That would be cool... and strange.

The guy next to me isn't sure either. But like me he recognizes the cover. He thinks it's 4th though. His girl asks me if this was the first set I ever owned. I say no, that was at least one edition before. In 1981. She falls silent. I think I shocked her. That may have been before she was born.

So, what is it? It's a simplified version of 4th edition - released about a month ago. It has the same artwork as the 80-ies version on the cover, but it's all new inside. So if you're looking for the old one - you'll have to go to ebay instead. But if you actually like 4th edition, or if you want to entice new potential 8-year olds into the game, this may be worth a look, or even a buy.

Or have a look at the Chatty GM's review first. He threw his son and wife before the goblins to make sure.


Pick #7: Dark Dungeon II, but... different

Now if you thought there was just one and only Dark Dungeon 2, you might be surprised. This very site is run by Dutchmen. Creators of the Pen & Paper game since 1989. The current rules version dating from 2005. Our gaming group had hundreds of players in its heyday, in the 1990's.

But here is another Dark Dungeon II. It's French. Entirely. And if you like Manga, as in Final Fantasy, you may like this too. If you speak French, of course.

Dark Dungeon II is a full fledged, free access, graphic, open source Massive Multiple Online RPG. You can explore the world of Ilbana for days on end, collect jetons (coins) until you drop into torpor, and chat your ears off. In French.

According to the site, new registrees can enter from September 27th 2010. If you speak French.

I wonder if they realize our Dark Dungeon 2nd Ed. exists, too.


Pick #6: Journey Quest

Have you seen Dorkness Rising yet? No? Why not?

The same team that made this hilarious movie about role playing, Dead Gentlemen Productions, is at it again. They have made, or are making a new comical web-series called...

exactly: Journey-Quest.

The blurb says:

“Following a group of dysfunctional adventurers on a quest to discover and destroy the mythical Sword of Fighting, JOURNEYQUEST is a comedic adventure through the fantasy world of Fartherall, where intellectual orcs, incompetent wizards, and holy zombies form the living (and not-so-living) backdrop to an epic story of unrequited love, burning passions, and severely reluctant heroism. And running away. Lots of running away …

It should start airing about... 28 september. That's in a few days. I can't wait.
Have a look at their website in the meantime.


Movies for Gamers #1: Dorkness Rising

This is part of a series of reviews of movies particularly interesting or inspiring for role playing. Because of their setting, style, characters, editing or story. Read the introduction here or here if you are new to this series.

In case you haven't seen The Gamers: Dorkness Rising yet, you've missed out on something. The movie was made by gamers, for gamers, with all the nerdiness of the hobby. And it's huge fun. Even if you haven't ever played in a role playing game, you may roll over the floor laughing while watching. It's extremely recognizeable.

Okay, that's for the superlatives. Now what is this 104 minute movie about? About life, love, friendship and the things that matter obviously. Lodge, a game master, wants to publish his first module and is desperately stuck. Writer's block. And instead of allowing his players and himself to be spontaneous, he tries to railroad them into playing the same adventure again and again. The players in their turn are as obnoxious as they can be, more interested in blowing up innocent peasants to collect experience points. Or more interested in seducing each others characters, than in saving the world. To complicate matters, an ex girlfriend of one of the players joins the group and a relationship seems to develop with Lodge. So here comes the jealousy. Remember that from your gaming group? I do.

The movie switches between the players and the characters all the time, explaining how the game works along the way. So don't be afraid to finally invite that cute girl (or guy) who doesn't play – but whom you have been admiring for long – to watch the film with you. You can never be as nerdy as the players in this movie. So you'll be fine.

The makers, who are professional amateur film makers – yes, that's possible – seem to have financed their film with the help of many hobby stores and game producers. And they put in a lot of unpaid effort themselves. Writer director Matt Vancill even does a little cameo as Lodge's drunken room mate. Some of the actors are actually quite good, certainly lead Nathan Rice, who can do some martial arts and a great wookie impersonation too. The actors sure had a lot of fun filming, and it shows off.

The DVD sports quite a few extra's which are worth buying it for. So don't just go for the ripped Divx, and order it here. Motivate these guys to do it again!


Movies for Gamers: Read First

Starting this week, I'll do a "review" series about movies and TV series that are somehow connected to role playing - I hope I'll do at least ten. Usually these films are just inspirational. Sometimes they're about role playing. Always I liked them.

Films can be a great source for stories, characters, plot twists, settings and ideas. The only thing to do is steal them creatively. Following a story slavishly because it was so great usually presents the players with a lot of frustration. Or your GM, if you insist on playing Batman - just as in the movies.

And if you're running a fantasy campaign, don't be afraid to mix in ideas from science fiction or gangster films. Just make sure you do them over to make them fit the scene. But I didn't have to tell you that, did I?

Featured soon will be Dorkness Rising, and The Brothers Grimm, from which above pictures come


News #2: RIP grandfather of BSG and Traveller

Just learned that Edwin Charles Tubb (1919-2010) died last week. You may not realize - I didn't - but his science fiction published through the 50-80ies has had a profound influence. He wrote the Dumarest saga, 33 parts, about space Traveller Dumarest who tries to find a legendary planet Earth.

Sounds familiar? Then one of his great antagonists in the series, the cyberlike Cyclan - who have a plan - might also sound like... Yes. Cylons like in the later Battlestar Galactica. The writers must have been inspired. And Traveller with two L's like in the role playing game? Yes. There are many more concepts in the Traveller role playing game borrowed or translated from Dumarest.

Once I find the time I should have a look at the novels. They inspired my currently favorite science fiction series, and favorite sci fi RPG. Inspirational writing indeed.

Thank you Edwin.

PS Hieronimus, Schwartzburg, Lito - care to write a review of Dumarest here? You as SciFi buffs surely read his books...

Pick #5: Ancient Books on PDF

In my recent RuneQuest review I had some qualms about a lack of usable background. Background which was not in the boxed game that I had. Background I thought I might never lay hands on. Because it was lost forever in second hand bookshops in Cheshire and suburb garages in Arizona.

Not so. Many games and supplements are now re-released through the internet. In Portable Document Format.

And indeed, a huge RuneQuest first edition background source pack is recently re-released, and for sale for $60. US dollars that is, less than 50 euros at the moment (unless I missed a crash).
You can find the pack here on RPGNow, an online seller of role playing products.

And if RuneQuest is not your cup of tea, you might find a lot of other stuff you like here. They have quite an impressive collection indeed. Just don't overdraw your credit card... too much.

Now let's see if I can collect some sponsor money from these guys.


Classic RPG Review #3: RuneQuest

First Edition Boxed Set, Games Workshop version (UK market)
by Steve Perrin, Ray Turney and friends
1980 The Chaosium

Certainly in the days the game was published, its cover was sure to draw a boy's attention. And a girl's attention too, maybe. The lady on the cover is not only beautiful and fighting a vicious lizard, she is also hardly wearing anything. Yes, she does wear a helmet and some scant armour, but I would not want to go into combat in her clothes. Then again, she is very nice to look at. I see now she even wears make up. Hm.

The rules are boxed, with classy dice of all sorts, a rules booklet, a prerolled monster booklet, a sample adventure and a small booklet called Basic Role Playing. And this last booklet may be the best deal in the package. Aside from that cover of course. Basic Role Playing is a simple role playing system, loosely based on Runequest but without the frills and without the complicating details. It's a well written, clear and enticing introduction to role playing. So it's a shame it is “Not to be sold separately”. It's still one of the best introductions to the game I know. For game masters too.

Runequest itself is a bit more complicated, but it is also well written and easy to understand. And if you should fail to understand anyway there are many examples featuring “Rurik the Restless”. He is the type of young adventurer you are obviously supposed to play. Not always too smart, but very willing to learn. There even is humour in most examples, and some nice black and white artwork.

Runequest is still one of the most realistic games around. That was also its selling point. But there is realism and realism. Among my friends it became known as “the limb chopping game”. You can actually hit a specific arm, leg or head in this game, and without armour a bit of a sword will most certainly severe the extremity from the body. So everyone in this game wears a lot of armour. Not like the lady on the cover.

Tasks in the game are resolved rolling percentile dice. One ten-sided die for the tens, another for the single figures. To succeed, you have to roll lower or equal to your skill percentage. And if you roll very low you may have a critical success. Double 0 is one hundred, and means a fumble or botch up – you break your sword, hit yourself, or stumble and fall. This sometimes unnerving, but very funny innovation is one of Runequest's gifts to many later games. If you used a skill during a game, you may try to increase it by rolling a percentage above your skill. So after a typical session the dice are shaken like it's a regular casino.

There is battle magic too, and as everyone can learn spells, everyone does learn spells. And everyone may eventually become a Rune Lord or Lady. There are no clear classes or professions either, making everyone a generic adventurer. Everyone plays a Rurik or Rurka the Restless, it seems, the only difference being the number of limbs you have left.

There the beautifully crafted Runequest game goes a bit awry. It gets worse once you try to play the provided “Apple Lane” adventure. To me it felt like stepping into a kiddie cartoon, not into an exciting fantasy novel. And then there are non-human races like “ducks”, humanoids with heads of ... ducks. A crafty game master could still make a scary game out of the given ingredients. But in most people's hands, certainly if they are beginners, at best it will become silly.

Yet I have the impression that Glorantha, the original fantasy world which Runequest uses, is a very inspiring and magical place. Greg Stafford, who also wrote the Basic Role Playing booklet, thought the place up for a different goal. Maybe for unwritten novels or just as an exercise in fantasy. But Runequest does not seem to fit in completely, and most of Glorantha remains shrouded in mystery. Maybe the Runequest politically correct, emancipated unisex approach to adventure hid it away.

(rules are innovative, logical, elegant, flexible and sometimes painfully realistic. Low damage is however hardly possible, making the game often too deadly. As an added minus, a fair amount of bookkeeping is involved.)
(Glorantha may be a very inspiring world, but what's left of it in Runequest is alas a bit stale)
(playing the game is fairly easy, keeping it exciting is harder because the backdrop is so unclear)
(ancient world fantasy, in the tradition of Conan or ancient Persia, human centred but with elves, dwarves, dragonnewts, trolls and ducks, skill based with virtually no differing professions, percentile based combat and tasks, separate roll for damage, separate hit locations each with their own armour, magic accessible to all)



Pick #4: Dark DungeonS

If you wonder where our name Dark Dungeon originates... If you wonder if it has anything to do with this "Dark Dungeons" publication by mr. Chick... You may be right.

Chick's followers hid these booklets (and there are many other booklets) in games to warn of the dangers of role playing. According to the comic you may start believing in the occult, do black magick, invite demons and commit suicide if you play these games. Only radical conversion to Christianity and burning your core rules could save your soul. One of our players got hold of one of the booklets, and we were amazed.

Actually, we thought it was kind of comical at the time. So we named our game after the little booklet. We just dropped the "s". Our first edition was lavished with an upside down pentacle and mystical runes on our rule book cover. If you deciphered the runes to understand what it meant... they spelled "You don't know".

But we didn't take the book burning thing, nor the occult implications of mr. Chick very seriously. If you want to slip into darkness, you can do so without role playing fine. Unfortunately you can even find darkness in religion. And if you want to see the light, you can also see that in playing a role playing game. It's a matter of perspective.

I prefer the positive perspective.

Update: The newest edition of the Dark Dungeon role playing game is now called The World Beyond.  Jack Chick, writer of the booklets that have nothing to do with our game has recently passed away at the venerable age of 92. May he rest in peace.


Old Free Download: Dark Dungeon Character Sheets

Update: Dark Dungeon's new edition is named
The World Beyond.

Most players in our group just scribble their character stats on a piece of paper. Or they have a special booklet for each hero they play. Or they constantly lose their character sheets. Or they spill hot coffee on them (to age the sheet artificially I suppose). Or... they have complete filing systems in their briefcases, weighing a ton each.

You don't need to do any of these things. You can just download and print these character sheets. Male or female. Fill them out. And have them with you always.

Update: these files have been offline for a while. You can now download free The World Beyond hero sheets from RPGNow.

Free Download: Island of Samaris

Update: You can no longer download the old free Samaris Island of Adventure supplement, though you might find it floating around on the web. Instead you can buy the full color 300+ page Samaris book, which contains an immensely enhanced, fleshed out version of the city. Or, if you're not sure if it's your cup of tea, you can first try The World Beyond RPG sampler for a ridiculously low price. This booklet contains samples from Samaris too.

The new Samaris Game Companion

And a map from the old one

The old  Dark Dungeon 2nd Ed. Samaris setting was used in our own gaming group for many years, and featured in hundreds of our adventures. The new Samaris is updated for The World Beyond (the commercially available update of Dark Dungeon), and is a full color book with special tools to engage your players (or your game master!), and make your city games easier and more fun. It also features a hundred contacts, a hundred location descriptions, hundreds of illustrations, dozens of creatures, items, adventure ideas, and so on.

And the old Samaris booklet


(Almost) Free Download: Dark Dungeon 2nd Ed.

Update: Dark Dungeon 2nd was the forerunner of The World Beyond.
You can no longer download the DD2 set of rules, but you can buy a sampler of The World Beyond for a ridiculously low price on DriveThru or RPGNow. It's even better in print form. The sampler will allow you to make a basic hero, and will allow you to have a taste of the system.

You can also find the full rulebooks on DriveThru. Try, read and enjoy!

The game this site was launched for.
Fantasy Role Playing Beyond Your Imagination.
From the Dark Netherlands, since 1989, common calendar.

Dark Dungeon 2nd Ed. is one of the most elegant, fast, and yet "realistic" sets of rules you'll find. And it's here, in lite form, free for download.

Featured in the 25 page booklet are:
- how to play
- character creation with eleven sample professions
- innovative spell weaving with ten sample disciplines
- faith and miracles with three sample saints
- advice on game mastering
- a sample adventure

Try, read, and enjoy.


Pick #3: My First Computer

The machine was hardly fit for role playing games, only slightly fit for classic text adventures, and not fit for word processing. It wasn't ready for the internet, and as I bought it only few had dreamed of something like the world wide web. Its keys were rubbery, like dead meat. But I loved my ZX Spectrum, back in the eighties. And I also loved its many arcade style games.

If you miss them too, or want to know what on Earth I'm talking about... have a look at Retrospec. Its coders and artists rewrote a good number of Speccy games for PC. Including Atic Atac, the arcade dungeon crawler of Ultimate Play the Game. Or the even more frantic Dr. Who like Halls of the Things. Or search for a emulator or game at world of spectrum, and find most any game rom you're looking for.

Sixteen colors, hardly any pixels, and a host of old joys!