Lizardmen live in the marshes

“This is a game that is fun. It helps you imagine.”

-Preface to the D&D Basic Rules Set, 1983

I’m following the “blog less while you’re writing stories” rule, so I can stay on target and get this novella finished before Duke Nukem Forever ships.

So, very briefly:

Playing a tiny bit of D&D 4e at PAX made me massively nostalgic for tabletop RPGs, and I’ve spent more time than I probably should since I got home reading through my library of sourcebooks and handbooks. Thanks to Twitter, I found out that you can buy ancient D&D modules as PDFs for next to nothing from Paizo, so I picked up the D&D Basic Rules Set and module B2, The Keep on the Borderlands, and returned to the place my geek journey truly began. It made me so happy to see the Lizardmen again, I tried to convince Nolan that he should get a couple of friends together and let me run B2 for them using the original rules. Sadly, I rolled a one every time.

Reading those original rules reminded me how much simpler RPGs used to be, and I got it in my head that I wanted to find and play something that didn’t require minis for combat, that would put the focus on role playing, puzzle solving, character development, and other non-dungeon crawly stuff. I didn’t recall ever using minis during our GURPS campaigns back in the 80s, so I grabbed my GURPS 4th Edition manuals and went straight to the Combat Lite chapter, where I found exactly what I was looking for. (Tangent: my friend and editor Andrew is the same Andrew who edited GURPS. Goddamn do I love GURPS.)

Without realizing it, I spent several hours reading the rules and thumbing through my various sourcebooks. On the surface, I was just refamiliarizing myself with the system, but it was actually more about a nostalgic trip back to 9th grade, with a side trip to 2038 when I found a stack of AADA Road Atlases and Uncle Albert’s catalogs.

After GURPS, I dug into Mutants & Masterminds, which has the greatest damage system ever, and that’s where I currently sit. Once I’m done with it, I’m going to go through True20, including some quality time in Freeport and Damnation Decade, and when that’s all over, I’ll finally have a chance – one year after I bought it – to wander through Monte Cook’s World of Darkness.

I’m not sure what if anything I’ll end up playing. My free time is very limited, and it’s a DC 25 – at least – to get my friends together for anything. But there’s a great essay at ComicMix called Why Game? that explains why it’s worth trying:

Why do we game? It’s a fair question, actually, and especially now with our preponderance of entertainment options. Why game when I could read a book, watch a movie, play a computer game or video game, surf the Web, play cards, play a board game, etc.? What’s so cool about gaming?

There’s the escapism aspect, of course. Had a rotten day at work? Slaughter some orcs or raid an alien enclave. Feel like you’re not getting enough respect in your life? Play the conquering general or the rescuing hero. But most of our other entertainment provides that as well, at least vicariously—you can sit back and imagine you’re John McLane or King Leonidas or Bruce Wayne, or lose yourself in the adventures of Harry Potter or Sebastian or countless others. And many of those other forms provide more immediate escapism, with far less effort. So there must be something more, something else a roleplaying game offers.

The answer, for me, lies in the definition above. Collaborative interactive storytelling.

I could have written it myself.

Clarifying afterthoughts: I’m not knocking D&D 4e or its combat system. If you like to use minis for gaming, it’s really awesome and very easy to use. In fact, their D&D Minis game is a lot of fun for what it is, and you get the added bonus of learning 4e’s combat system while you play. I’m just saying that, after years of playing mini-o-centric combat in RPGs, I’d forgotten how much I liked to roll it old school, where we’d just sit in a bunch of chairs or on couches and work together to tell a story.

I didn’t realize how much Keep on the Shadowfell is like Keep on the Borderlands until I re-read Keep on the Borderlands this weekend. It’s not even that subtle, but it’s incredibly awesome and makes me like Shadowfell even more than I already did.

69 thoughts on “Lizardmen live in the marshes”

  1. I feel increasingly frustrated with the complexity of RPG’s in general. My brain is not set up for remembering stats or math or anything that most RPG’s require. The other night my husband was making a swordmage for a DnD campaign he’s starting this weekend, and I just couldn’t figure out how all his stats for a MAGE were better than any for my Cleric. It was seriously pissing me off. Then I got totally frustrated and decided in the long run it’d be better to revamp my character. Anyway, my point is that I agree that RPG’s are stupidly complex. My favorite part has always been writing the bios and backstories, creating the characters that get played. I’m no good at the actual game only because of the aforementioned lack of brain capacity for stats, etc. Thank god there’s no more THACO though, that thing killed me.
    Wow. Ramble.

  2. I wish I could get enough people together to play. I miss playing. I only have 2 people I know who will sit down for an adventure with me and trying to get us together is next to impossible. I can’t wait for my son to be old enough to play (he’s only 3 now).

  3. GURPS is awesome. You may also want to see if you can find a copy of Aberrant by White Wolf Games. Superheroes based game that was a lot of fun.

  4. oops, bumped the Post button too soon.
    …after struggling with the AD&D combat system for years. I still have a long shelf of the source books, though I haven’t played it or any other RPG in years. But you’ve inspired me now. Where does one go to find some fellow unreconstructed 40-year-old nerds and get up a game?

  5. I’m in two games at the moment that alternate weekends, so I get D&D EVERY weekend.Is that a geeks dream or what?!?
    I, though, like 4e and the miniatures. I play with some people who are famous for repeating the phrase, “OK, which one was I fighting?” The minis help with the flanking advantages and such – nice to be able to visualize it so no one is confused and we don’t spend valuable playing time arguing over who shot/slashed whom.

  6. I am a TSR/WOC fan but I’ve always thought that the rule sets were a little over the top. I wish there were three levels of rules: basic, standard and advanced. They’d be inter-locking and consistent across the three levels. Standard would expand on the basic set and advanced would follow standard. I guess you could even throw in another level – expert! 😉

  7. I remember when the rules were just articles in Chainmail, and the endless Tolkein-vs-playability fights. Still have a photocopy of the first collective ruleset assembled from those articles.
    I always liked the Lizardmen; they figured predominantly in the first adventure I corralled each new group of players into in my campaign. After that they were on their own to decide where to go.
    For complexity, Rolemaster intensely detailed. For simplicity, I tend to not go any further than AD&D v1.0.
    Been a VERY long time since I played Basic D&D though.
    :: sigh ::
    Thanks for the prod toward a trip down memory lane.

  8. I started off in AD&D and started getting back into gaming with 3.5
    Now with 4E and the fact that I move around the country every three months or so, I don’t see myself being able to find the time to learn the new system or the people to game with.
    Crap, that’s kind of sad. I’m an outcast nerd, is that even possible?

  9. Well, I’m too young to have ever grown up in a time where people played D&D……… but I must say. A Duke Nukem Forever reference to indicate a long period of time??? Like I haven’t seen THAT one before.
    I kid.

  10. I never got into RPGs outside of the kind that required you to enter simple text commands on a computer screen. I have friends from high school (lo those many decades ago) who STILL get together to play D&D every Thursday night. I guess among us geeks, there are even different levels.

  11. I’m currently playing an a (mostly) weekly 4E campaign, and while it certainly hasn’t risen above the stale FRPG templates that I cut my teeth on fifteen years ago, it’s been enjoyable. I like that it takes so much of the “numbers for the sake of numbers” complexity out of character creation and just boils the system down to skill bonuses and a short list of powers.
    I’m much more excited about the series of one-shot Spirit of the Century games I’ll be running with my friend Kev. I have somewhere around 30 people showing up for character creation this Friday, and it promises to be amazing!

  12. Two things:
    1. I’m not knocking D&D 4e’s combat system. If you like to use minis for gaming, it’s really awesome and very easy to use. In fact, their D&D Minis game is a lot of fun for what it is, and you get the added bonus of learning 4e’s combat system while you play.
    2. I didn’t realize how much Keep on the Shadowfell is like Keep on the Borderlands until I re-read Keep on the Borderlands this weekend. It’s not even that subtle, but it’s incredibly awesome and makes me like Shadowfell even more than I already did.

  13. Man I love my gaming group! Varying in age from 22 to 41, it’s a pretty good mix up. Half of us are in community theatre so it is *very* roleplay-style. There are many sessions that go by with no dice rolls at all.
    I’m no big combat fan – it takes too long for what it does, plus I rarely build combat characters – but I do like to kick ass on occasion.
    One of our group is into ‘diceless’ roleplaying. I need to find out what systems he’s talking about.
    Did you see the ‘Beyond D&D’ panel at PAX? Though, to be fair, the system they praised the most did look pretty complex.
    And, yay for GURPS! My first real gaming experience (one that lasted longer than a month & I can actually remember) was GURPS – whichever version existed in ’95.

  14. Gosh, I wish I could pull together enough people to play any edition of D&D let alone D&D basic. I’ve only been part of one or two really great games (not campaigns, just individual gaming sessions) and I miss it.
    Everytime I see “mini” I think of the pewter minis I paint and use as place holders for characters when I play. (As in, it gives me a visual basis for where I am versus the orcs but nothing more. I’ve played without them, too.) I’ve never gotten into the clicky game minis.
    Never did find anyone who wanted to play any form of GURPS with me. And I’ve asked.
    Gaming FTW.

  15. I enjoyed your take on gaming in my co-worker Jeff Tidball’s book that you wrote an intro for.
    Have you been able to play BSG yet?

  16. Never did Mutants and Masterminds myself. Villians and Vigilantes was great for the roleplaying aspect had an awesome campaign where the characters were actually part of the New Mutants. Ill always have a soft spot in my heart(and a large handful of d6) for Champions. As rules heavy as it was we still had a blast.
    I do regret missing out on the GURPS craze. Sounds like it was a blast.
    Was I the only one who played Star Frontiers?

  17. For the record:
    1) Editing the GURPS Basic Set, Fourth Edition, was mostly just a matter of cleaning up a few infelicities of phrasing and the occasional “this page must be two lines shorter” problem. Oh, and resolving every. single. damn. page. reference. Without the index. By the end of the book, I think I had about half the pages memorized.
    2) You’d better finish that story before Duke Nukem Forever ships, because I’ve had it on preorder and I’m dropping EVERYTHING to play it when it comes out. Also, I lie a lot.

  18. Opak–
    I do indeed remember a more than a few Star Frontiers games. I loved the concept but always found the mechanics lacking. Maybe it was just the group I played in, though.

  19. @433: BSG, Serenity, Demon Hunters all run on the Coretex System…a very simple system that lends itself very well to roleplaying.
    I run Serenity games and DH games for our local conventions. We have a great time.
    Simple RPGS are still being developed…they’re just not D&D. Cortex (hence BSG and Serenity RPG) are released by Margert Weis Productions.

  20. Ah such fond memories of OD&D and the red box set. Back when there were only 3 alignments, elf was your class and race, and Blackmoor was the greatest thing ever. Learning how to play, learning all the fluff, all the long weekends spent figuring out the rules with groups of friends.
    The 80’s and earl 90’s where the golden age of gaming, at least for me. Sometimes playing 2 and even 3 times a week. Back when no one bothered you if you wanted to spend the afternoon rolling strangely shaped dice, making notations of ragged pieces of paper and shouting at one another. Those were beautiful, innocent times that I still look back on fondly.
    I really feel that 4e is going to turn out to be a huge mistake and possibly spell the end of WotC. And the sad thing is that I won’t shed a tear if they go under. Far too many things they promised and then never delivered. And for everything they mad better there are 2 or 3 glaring mistakes. I think we are going to see a huge increase in the number of people stuck on old editions of them game. I myself never thought I would be one of those people and it saddens me.

  21. Gurps Autoduel really was made of Win. It was, however, *incredibly* lethal. We wound up playing Car Wars for the Car portion of the campaign and Hero System for the outside of the car type adventures.
    And as for RPG’s, we’ve been playing Deadlands D20 system for the last year and with the exception of minimal play testing and not a lot material for higher level characters (which has posed little problem), it’s loads of fun. Steam Punk Mad Science meets Zombies, Wendigos and gunslingers.
    And hey- we’ve got room for another player if you can do once every two weeks on Sunday. We lost one of our players to Dungeonmaster (shakes fist at Coleman!) and another to Northern Faire. Then again, it *is* Reseda.
    The next campaign is Star Wars, Saga Edition.

  22. If you are interested in playing some collaborative narrative games that don’t require minis or crunchy combat, I highly suggest some of the author-published games out there, such as Dread, Polaris, or The Mountain Witch. These all come with the added bonus of being playable as single or a few sessions, making them a lot easier to fit into busy schedules than traditional long form campaigns.

  23. Of course, I forgot to post how to find those games… has Dread and Polaris in book form and The Mountain Witch as a PDF.

  24. I had a lot of fun with D&D and AD&D until I discovered RuneQuest and Chaoium’s Basic Rolelaying 100% system. Since then it’s been my favorite for it’s clarity and ease use with almost any genre. It’s the basis of Call of Cthulhu which hasn’t need a major rules revise is it 25 year publishing history.
    And there is a new all-in BRP master rulebook.
    If you want something skill based outside or the “class/level” paradigm with coherent rule then I can’t recommend BRP d100 enough.

  25. D&D was my gateway drug, but my fondest memories of elegant, easy to understand rules that made the roleplaying flow were Call of Cthulhu (back when CoC characters had limited lifespans by definition of being CoC characters) & the Storyteller system from White Wolf that Vampire, Werewolf & the other WW games ran on.
    I couldn’t stand the rule bound Rolemaster system. I’m just not enough of a rules lawyer for that.

  26. Have you tried Unisystem? It’s a great streamlined system that I’ve enjoyed playing. My GM changed it up a bit and we play a Star Wars campaign with it. It was created my Eden Studios and they have Army of Darkness, Buffy, and All Flesh Must Be Eaten to name a few. The system doesn’t use miniatures and you use just one D10.

  27. I got it in my head that I wanted to find and play something that didn’t require minis for combat, that would put the focus on role playing, puzzle solving, character development, and other non-dungeon crawly stuff.
    I heartily suggest Dread for your non-dungeony RPG needs. It’s a pure RP system that has such a great character creation process that I’ve started using it as a supplement for my White Wolf games. (Yeah, I know, I sound like a total shill – but I’ve actually met the creators & played the game at Con of the North for some years now, so it’s at least a shill of integrity.) 😉
    Speaking of GURPS, I’m still waiting for the Girl Genius GURPS to come out. *sigh* Come on, Foglios! I want my steampunk action!

  28. I was the only girl that wanted to play and I got left out because “girls don’t get it”. When I finally got to play it was when everyone went off to college. sad face. I’m with ya, Evan. But ya know, the crazy way this here internet thing works, you could be right next door to about 6 people who’d play if they could find you.
    Take my own suggestion? Are you nuts, of course I don’t. But I guess I better before I end up a Kender on a Draconian spit.

  29. I’m blessed to be in a weekly group. We’re playing in a Changeling campaign where I’m a player, and a D&D 3.5 (sorta) that I run. In the D&D game, we’re higher level than we’ve ever played at, which is cool, but we’re really finding some of the cracks in the system. Some encounters that should be, by CR, easy, are flattening the party. Others, they’re just steam-rolling over.
    However, I’ve really enjoyed the Changeling game. We’ll go three of four sessions without rolling initiative once. However, there’s still lots of conflict. It’s just often in a social arena, or a moment of tension where we have to hide. It’s such a different sort of story that gets told and shaped by the system. I don’t know if it’s novelty, but so far it’s been great. Incidentally, the new Changeling: The Lost is so much more awesome than the horrible Changeling: The Dreaming.
    A few other game suggestions: QAGS from Hex Games ( is a fun, rules light system. Witchhunter: The Invisible World is a bit crunchier, but it’s a cool game ( Also, if you have time for a one-shot, try Elfs ( It’s fun, and really light.
    As for finding a game, you’re Wil Wheaton. Go to a hobby shop. Look at the cork board. Call one of the numbers listed, and make someone’s year. For the rest of us, there are a plethora of on-line tools to hook up gamers. In fact, that would make a good conversation for the Geeks group on propeller…

  30. I have fond memories of playing Basic D&D, and I’ve been nostalgic lately for playing it again. I’ve been playing Burning Wheel and loving it. It’s crunchier than I normally like in a game, but all of the crunch is FUN. It’s quickly become one of my favorite games.
    Wil, if you’re looking for no minis, less tactical, more story-oriented, I’ll suggest The Shadow of Yesterday, which is a great indie game (and the owner has released it under a Creative Commons license & published it using only open source software).

  31. Two systems that I found helped to steer away from combat and more into story and role playing were ‘Amber’ Diceless roleplaying and the SAGA Card based system introduced in Dragonlance 5th age

  32. For those who like the collaborative storytelling ascpects of RPGs, but lack the time to learn gobs of rules or spend weeks creating an adventure, there are some really good indiepress RPGs out there.
    I’ve played both Dogs in the Vineyard and Inspectres. They are both very rules lite and basically use dice rolls to determine who is in charge of that particular part of the story. It works sort of like “bad guy NPC shoots gun at good guy PC, roll dice, depending on what is rolled either the GM or the player gets to narrate what happens. Dogs in the Vineyard is a wild west type setting (it’s actually one of the most unique and vivid western settings I’ve come across–more John Wayne meets religious fanatics than Deadlands). Inspectres is essentially Ghostbusters. They’re both fun and easy to learn. A game of Inspectres can take only a couple hours and my wife even liked it.

  33. I stopped my D&D evolution at 2E, and am glad that you can now get a lot of the old material as PDF’s. I shop both Paizo and; is typically more expensive (usually $4.95 vs. Paizo’s $4), but they don’t watermark most everything like Paizo does. (And they had Judge’s Guild “Dark Tower”–Score!!)

  34. The best, best, best gaming experiences I’ve had have been sans minis or only using the minis as a reference. Getting all wound up over how many squares I can move seems to cause storylines to drag and die a slow painful death. gathered around a coffee table rolling the D, laughing with friends as you bust up some creatures and talk to trolls. What more could a girl ask for?

  35. I1 Dwellers Of The Forbidden City!
    i hadn’t played a rpg for years but when 4e was released i wanted to find out what it was all about but realized pretty quickly i wasn’t interested and got pdfs of some of the classics including I1.
    oh, the memories!
    good times.

  36. Memories. I got started in middle school where our DM was our history teacher (he had one of the first D&D shops in CA back in the day). I’ve never met anyone as good a DM as he was. He had fun with the criticals and would pull out these little books to refence. Imagine the disappointment after rolling 2 natural 20’s and finding out you chopped the orc’s nose off and reduced his already pitiful CH to 0. As for a suggestion that may entice Nolan, check out THW.
    Miniature game (with NO set minis and NO set scale) with a RPG feel to it. They have some freebies to check out. I recently purchased their All Things Zombies and 5150 sets.

  37. I, too, am nostalgic for those old tabletop RPGs. I cut my teeth on AD&D, stuck it out until version 2, dabbled with White Wolf, but it was Champions that I really liked. Yeah, needing a math degree to calculate the stats and two hours to resolve 30 seconds of combat time was a little nuts, but our gaming sessions resembled an issue of The Tick; we laughed ourselves silly.
    Sadly, real life gets in the way, and all the guys I gamed with are now hours away. My few attempts to hook up with local gamers has not gone well.
    However, my eight-year-old is a voracious reader and quite imaginative. I might be able to interest her in some RPGing. The thing is, I need something with a goodly amount of source material (don’t have much time), has content appropriate for an eight-year-old, and will not overwhelm her with rules. Any suggestions?

  38. wil — ever played feng shui? it’s incredibly fast and loose role playing where, basically, you’re a character in an action movie. instead of character classes like “fighter” and “wizard”, you’ve got “karate cop” and “techie” and such. it’s basically a gaming system that doesn’t let the game mechanics get in the way of a good story. and your character starts out already badassed, so you don’t have to spend way too long casting magic missile against the darkness while you gain levels.

  39. *shambles into the attic to search for the ol’ Gamma World box*
    Oooo… what’s this? Ah, my old Rolemaster books. Shiny!
    Curse you Wheaton and your damnable RPG nostalgia!

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