Archive for the ‘Game Design’ Category

City of the Gods Revisited   Leave a comment

M. Scott Verne stopped by TrollCon last week, and played a game of Tunnels and Trolls with me.  In his honor, I winged something using a deck of Magic ™ cards and his latest project–the City of the Gods Map Pack.  When we were done, he gave me one, and asked if I’d review it.  Since this is a very handsome gaming accessory, I, of course, agreed to do so, and here comes the review.

If you don’t know about The City of the Gods by M. Scott Verne and Wynn Mercer you should take a moment and check it out.  They have a website for their book at, and the book is available on  I also reviewed the book in an earlier blog–you can see that here:  The map pack is not available at Amazon yet.

Although the book is epic fantasy, this map pack is planned as a gaming supplement.  It’s a generic product that could be used with any gaming system.  If you are the kind of Game Master who is chronically short on time and/or imagination, these generic products can be a real boon.  They provide settings and npcs that can be adapted into almost any campaign.  I should mention here that City of the Gods Map Pack is a Catalyst product from Flying Buffalo Inc.  ( As such, it is the latest in a series of products that included City books and Traps books, and you can learn more about them on the Flying Buffalo web site.

This module contains several different pieces.  First, there is a very handsome map of the city itself, printed on medium grade cardboard in full color.  Here’s a look at it:

How many quarters are there in a city? I'm counting at least 18.

The color is absolutely gorgeous, and you’ll be amazed at how much detail can be crammed into an 8.5 X 17 inch map.  The main attractions of the city are the major temples.  I mean, what are gods without their temples?  It’s almost like Where’s Waldo?  How many different famous buildings can you identify in this map.  The Great Pyramid of Gizeh dominates the lower left quadrant, but can you find the Parthenon, the Colisseum, the Taj Mahal or the Forbidden City?  Can you distinguish the different cultures and mythologies represented here?  For those of us with an interest in world mythology and history, the map alone is like a referesher course in the history of the world.

(As a side note, Mr. Verne pointed out that I have had an influence on the city.  If you look in the Egyptian quarter you will find the Sphynx of Nebthu, which was never mentioned in the novel FORGOTTEN.  It appears now because I mentioned the sphynx as the temple headquarters for Sekhmet the Cat Goddess in a short story that I wrote for an upcoming City of the Gods anthology.  Mapmaker and artist extraordinaire Steven Crompton liked the idea, and crowded it into his metropolitan design. Heh!  Of course I like the map–a little piece of me is in there.)

The biggest part of the module is a 20 page guidebook to the map.  If you look carefully at the map, you can find little blue circles with numbers in them.  Each numbered location, all 105 of them, is described and explained briefly in the guidebook.  Study them all, and you will really know your way around the city of the gods.  The guidebook also has a section that lists and describes the 18 character cards–all done in full color–that come as part of the package.  Each character is meant to be used as an adventure hook for a G.M. wanting to set a game in this environment,   The cards give the reader some idea of the appearance and powers of the different non-player characters that might be encountered in the city, and where one would be likely to find them.

The back cover of the book shows the extended map for the realm of the gods.

Eighteen character cards, each with a full color portrait, a listing of abilities, a probable location, and a deity allegiance are included in a separate little packet.  They would be ideal for showing players in a rpg just who they are dealing with.  Most of the characters are gods and goddesses, but there are a few that are just mortals or heroes.  Oddly enough, D’Molay, the protagonist of the City of the Gods, is not included as somene that you might meet.

trading cards of the gods

There is also an 8 page pamphlet in black and white with short excerpts from the first novel.  There is a 2-sided CotB bookmark featuring D’Molay and Aavi.  And there is a full-length comic book created by Steven Cormpton and Debra Kerr–Pantheon number 2.  The Pantheon comic features some of the same characters as City of the Gods, but in earlier incarnations–so to speak.

The whole map pack is very handsomely printed and a delight to the eyes and mind.  It is designed to appeal to gamers, and to lead them back to the novel, and to the sequels that are planned for that novel.  With a suggested price of about $20, this is a high quality gaming product.

I have only one criticism.  For someone who has already read and enjoyed the novel, there is really nothing new here.  The art is recycled, and the prose in the booklets and on the cards simply summarizes and condenses what we learned about the city in the book.  (That’s not strictly true–there are some places on the map that were either never mentioned, or mentioned only briefly, in FORGOTTEN, and that info should be new–but it’s obviously background material that the authors created for the main project, and it will probably be featured in the sequels.)  One of the first rules of film making is “Reuse your footage.” and that appears to be a rule of the City of the Gods project as well.  It is very fine footage, and well worth re-using, but it isn’t really new.

In a normal review I’d say this is a very fine product, perhaps four stars out of five, and recommend you purchase it, but this is Atroll’s Entertainment.  I make comments and critical remarks here without any recommendations.   The map pack amused and delighted me, and I was able to use it for a Tunnels and Trolls session–I’m glad to have it.  You might like it, too.


Dragons and Goblins and Trolls   1 comment

Creating fantasy games, reading fantasy novels and comics, and thinking and writing about such things are all things that I also do for fun.  Here are some slightly chaotic thoughs inspired both by Tunnels and Trolls and also by the card game known as Magic the Gathering.

Muscular Tunnels and Trolls goblins deal with a tentacled horror that lives in their lake. This picture was painted by and used here with the permission of Simon Lee Tranter. You can see more of his work, and possibly engage his services at

Dragons and Goblins and Trolls!

Oh, my!

Dragons and Goblins and Trolls!

Oh, my!



I think that I’m likely to die.

Oh my!

With a tip of the Trollish sombrero to A. A. Milne and Winnie the Pooh . . .

Yesterday I was talking a little bit about my latest Magic ™ deck–modified from the Dragons and Knights set.  Today it won some games against my son’s decks–lost some too.  I felt it did well, and the modifications were successful.  I still need to try it out against a variety of other decks.  Here’s a picture of my favorite dragon in the deck.

Voracious Dragon gets its power by devouring goblins.  I wonder where the card designers over at WotC got that idea.  To the best of my knowledge I have never read any fantasy story that used the idea of dragons eating goblins.  The great archetype for all fantasy role-playing games was Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Tolkien used both goblins and dragons in his book about THE HOBBIT, but they didn’t eat each other.  In fact, they were widely separated geographically.  The Hobbit started out as bedtime stories of John’s son Christopher, and featured trolls first, goblins, second, and Smaug the Dragon for the grand finale.   When Tolkien got serious about his fantasy, the goblins disappeared, and the main bad guys became Orcs.  Tolkien invented the Orc.

I’ve read a ton of fantasy–probably hundreds of different novels and stories.  I’ve never read about dragons eating any goblins.  If dragon’s eat anything, it’s usually domesticated animals, or the occasional human army foolishly trying to slay them.  But the very imaginative card designers at WotC came up with the planar world of Jund–a place where the two most common Kindreds are–you guessed it–Goblins and Dragons.  Dragons have to eat something, so why not have them chow down on the most common other critter in the landscape–namely, Goblins.  It makes perfect sense.

Dragons don’t seem to spend much time eating Trolls in fantasy literature either.  As far as I know, I’m the first person to even postulate the idea of a massive war between Dragons and Trolls.  I set it at the very dawn of Trollworld history.  Even then, Dragons wouldn’t eat my Trolls.  My Trolls are made of living rock–they would break the teeth of even the mightiest dragons.  Granted, the Dragons could melt my living rocks down into slag, but T & T trolls certainly aren’t good to eat.

Dragons and Goblins both feature prominently among the cards available for playing Magic.  There are dozens of varieties of both.  On the other hand, Trolls are few and far between, and not very interesting.  The only power the Magic designers have given Trolls is regeneration.  They all regenerate.  Kinda boring, really.  And there is something called Troll Shroud–the immunity to spells and effects cast by the opponents.  It’s a nice power.  I’d like to see it used more often, and more creatively.

Magic Trolls all seem to have been inspired by Dungeons and Dragons.  They are all what I call Meat Trolls–that is they are made of flesh just like you and me.  They may be big and mean and regenerate like crazy, but there aren’t any Trolls that I have found in Magic the Gathering that are actually made of living stone.  I protest!  Tunnels and Trolls is being unfairly slighted by the world’s greatest collectible dueling card game.  (grin)

Well, Dragons don’t eat Trolls, and Goblins don’t eat Trolls, but guess what . . .?  Trolls are more than happy to eat both Goblins and Dragons given the opportunity.  They especially like the crunchy calcium bones.

Dragons and Goblins and TROLLS!

This rock troll in a stone boat was drawn by David Ullery and is used by his permission and that of Trollhalla Press.


The Stylish Blogger Award

A couple of days ago i was given the Stylish Blogger Award by two of my blogging friends who both run excellent blogs.  It looks like this:

This award is making the rounds.

While I appreciate the honor that my friends offered me with this award, it comes with conditions.  I’m supposed to link back to those who gave me the award, and I’m supposed to tell you all seven true things about myself.   However, I’m kind of grumpy and contrary today–I’m not accepting any conditions.  I don’t want to list seven true things about myself?  Pontius Pilate once asked Jesus “What is Truth?” and I repeat the question.  Nobody knows the real me.  I don’t even know myself.  I’m not going to do it.  I guess that means I’m not a Stylish Blogger.  To Hell with it!  I never aspired to that title.

To some extent WordPress controls what I can do in these blogs.  They limit me by the tools they provide.  I accept those limits in order to put my messages on the internet for anyone to read/see.  If I were more savvy about the tech, I could do more than I do with the WordPress tools–I really don’t know much–I can put up words and pictures.  Sometimes I can’t even get that simple format to come out the way I want it.  I’m a pretty lazy guy.  My motto is K.I.S.S.  Keep it simple, Stupid.  I’m Stupid.  I like things simple.

So, WordPress can limit my blogging form because the site is making the whole blog possible.  I don’t see why I should accept any other limits on what I choose to enter.  I’m only accepting my own self-imposed limits on what I share.  Just because some yahoo thinks up an award and it starts going around on the internet doesn’t mean I have to follow his rules for what I write.  I reject it.  I write what I want to write–tell you what I want to tell you.  You read what you want to read, and think what you want to think.  That’s our bargain as blogger and reader.

If you want to know more about the Stylish Blogger Award, and perhaps find the many stylish blogs that have accepted it, then Google it.  I’m opting out.

(The civilized and courteous thing to do with the Stylish Blogger Award, other than complying with its restrictions, would have been to simply ignore it.  Well, I choose to express myself on how I feel.  I’m neither civilized nor courteous today.  I am Atroll.)


Everybody Wants to be a Game Designer   1 comment

And . . . everybody can be.  Game Design isn’t Rocket Science.

Some games automatically turn their players into game designers.  Role-playing games are pretty good at this.   Once you have gone adventuring in someone else’s dreams and ideas, you inevitably want to be the person in controll.  Thus you will make up your own scenarios, and your own rules variations–that is, you will if you have any creativity at all.  A good role-playing game for testing your wings as a budding game/scenario designer is Tunnels and Trolls.

If y ou do not change the rules at least a little, you are not really playing Tunnels and Trolls.

But there’s one game that really makes game desiners of us all.  It’s a card game–you’ve probably heard of it.  It’s called Magic ™.  It was designed originally by Richard Garfield, a math professor in his secret identity, and it was published by a small company called Wizards of the Coast.  WotC became a big company after its card game became the most popular game in the country and perhaps the world.
Saturday I took my son off to Walmart to buy some blue jeans.  On the way out he spotted the Magic display, and, being gamers, we of couse had to check it out.  The best thing there was the Knights vs. Dragons duel decks–two complete decks in one package with the classic fantasy theme of Knights and Dragons–natural enemies.  He talked me into buying it.  He took the Knights; I took the Dragons.

What a pretty, pretty knight!

We played three game using the decks just as they came out of the box.  The Knights won two of them by crushing margins.  I barely squuezed out a victory with the dragons in game two of the set.  While we were delighted with the rare cards and mythic rare cards that came with the set, neither of us were very happy with the original decks.  So we modified them.
I felt that the Dragon deck needed fewer goblins, more kill spells, and a knockout punch.  It also needed some way to get the big guns out faster.  I added swamps, poison goblins, and kill spells like Go for the Throat and Terminate.   The deck as released by WotC was weak.  Too much land, too little actual magic, everything on the theme of flame.  Themes are great, but they don’t often win games or tournaments.  What wins are killer combinations.

Big, nasty, powerful--just like Dads are supposed to be in our real world.

What I did, in essence, was design my own winning scenario in Magic.  I’m thinking of beating those pesky knights, but I want it to beat everything.  Everybody does that with Magic.  The game invites you to use your own creativity.  It sells you the parts–cards with various strengths and weaknesses and abilities, and then you have to put them together to make a playable deck.  This is a real test of your game-designing ability (and cash).  How good is the deck you make?  Does it win or lose?
Regular card games like Poker or Bridge don’t make game designers out of the players.  The decks are the same for everyone, and so are the rules.  Creative, imaginative play will help you succeed in playing those games.  But you don’t design anything.  You don’t really create.
Collectible card games like Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon, Naruto and others turn their players into game designers.  To make a deck you have to think about such things as Game Balance and Pace.  You want a fast deck to knock out your opponents before they can get going.  The Dragons had the greater power in the original sets, but the Knights were faster and deadlier.  To beat those Knights, I had to change the way Dragons fight.  Have I succeeded?  I don’t know yet, but I’m eagerly looking forward to a rematch.
Once you start thinking in terms of Game Design, it’s hard to stop.  Everywhere you look you will see pieces that can be turned into games and contests. 
After that comes the really hard part of the Game Designing life–convincing others to play Your game instead of Their game.  Somehow, your game has to be more fun than their game if you want to make any converts.  Good luck with that! 

We Game Designers all want to be dragons--powerful, influential, and known far and wide. But, we mostly wind up as goblins, and goblins are dragon food.


Scenes from Japanese roleplaying   Leave a comment

The cover scene might be from Tunnels and Trolls. Note the elf woman in the background. We see her again in the T & T section.

Way back in 1991 Hobby Japan published an anthology of popular tabletop roleplaying games.  Five games were included: Rune Quest (Avalon Hill Dark Ages Europe version), Mega Traveler, Tunnels and Trolls, Call of Cthulhu, and Wizardry. All of those games originated in the United States, but Wizardry started as a Dungeons and Dragons clone of a computer game.  When it went to Japan, it became so populsr (ca. 1988) that they made an original tabletop rpg out of it.

I can only read a single kanji character so the contents of this book are wasted on me, but I sure do like the art that accompanies it in the manga/anime style of Japan.  The purpose of this blog is just to show off a bit of it, and to encourage even non-Japanese readers to get their copies of Japanese rpgs whenever they can.  In my humble opinion, this is pretty cool stuff.

I also like the insight that the art gives into the way the Japanese see roleplaying.  What a blast it would be to game with them!

Presented below for your enjoyment: pictures from Japanese rpgs.

Rune Quest


Questing for runes, Japanese style.

Mega Traveler


Aliens! Why does it always have to be aliens? (from Indiana Jones in space)

Tunnels and Trolls


Could this be my favorite Death Goddess? Note the ears! Lerotra’hh is both half -elf and half-uruk. See the evil smile and the chaotic hair. This woman is Trouble!

Call of Cthulhu


Is Call of Cthulhu the Weird Sex rpg in Japan? Sure looks like it.

WordPress has gone strange on me. Going to have to stop and publish right here. To be continued . . .

Magic the Gathering–the Building of Decks   3 comments

I think they could have had a flashier, more colorful look for the back of the cards.

One game I really enjoy playing is Magic the Gathering.  The game was invented by Professor Richard Garfield and first released on an unsuspecting world in 1993.  I was at Origins that year when It was released.  The Wizards of the Coast booth was getting a lot of attention, and I walked over to see what the big attraction was.  It was Magic!  They were selling cards just as fast as they could take the money.  Peter Adkison saw me and called out to me, “Hey, Ken, you oughta get in on this. It’s going to be great.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“A new game called magic.  You buy a deck of cards and then you compete with other players and try to win their cards away from them.”

“How much does it cost?”

“Only Six dollars for a deck or $2.99 for a pack of cards.”

“How many cards in a deck?”


“Ten cents a card!  That’s outrageous!  I’ll pass.”

“Okay, Your loss.”  He went back to selling cards to other rabid fans who couldn’t wait to throw their money at them.”

“This is a fad,” I said to myself.  “It will never replace roleplaying.  Nah, it will never really catch on.”

That may not be exactly how it went.  It was a long time ago, and I didn’t pay attention or write it down at the time, but it was pretty close to that.   I could have been in at the very beginning of Magic’s rise to most popular card game in the world, and I stepped aside.  (This seems to happen quite a lot in my life.  I have chances to connect with Greatness, often before it becomes Great, and I step aside.  Does that ever happen to you?)

I didn’t get into Magic as a player until a year later when all my friends in Phoenix started playing the game.  Once I started playing and found out how much fun it was, I was as hooked as everyone else on the game.  Well, I wasn’t totally hooked.  I never became a dealer of Magic cards.

Eighteen years later Magic is still going strong.  I’m still playing.  I have a few thousand cards around the house and am still buying new ones from time to time.  I was in a Magic tournament a few weeks ago–came in 17th out of 30–not because I’m that good, but because some players, when they see they can’t win, just drop out.  I play mostly with my son.  James St. Andre is 19 going on 20, and Magic has become the center of his existence.  He has a friend named Harley who is also deeply involved.  Hanging with these teens gives me an opportunity to play a game I love, and meet new people, and stay current.  Through most of my career as a librarian I have managed to stay current with what’s happening with young people, teens, twenties, etc.  I do it by being interested in what they are interested in.  I may look old on the outside, but I’m a teenager at heart.

Still, if Magic were a static, unchanging game, I would have probably set it aside long ago.  When I was  younger, I loved to play chess.  I still can’t pass a fancy chess set without stopping to admire it.  I own sets with unique themes–one is made all of transparent glass, another is  conquistadors and Mayans.  You get the idea.  Themed chess sets still appeal to me.  I still love the game of chess, but I hardly ever play it.  I go years at a time witout playing it.  Been there, done that.

Dogs vs. Cats in medieval garb. How cool is that! I love this kind of thing, but I don't play chess any more. The pieces are cute, but the game hasn't changed a bit to account for it.

Magic remains new, and what keeps it new is the ability of players like myself to make their own individual decks.  You buy or acquire the cards, but you can put them together any way you want.  I’m a Game Designer.  That’s my number one joy in life–creating new games.  I can make a game any time, any place, out of anything.  Each time I take an idea and make a new deck from that idea, it is just like making a  new game, and I will have the opportunity to test how good that game is against other Magic players.

There are rules for constructing decks.  For example, a full deck is supposed to have at least 60 cards in it.  The decks require land to power the cards and their effects–lands of specific colors and types.  Decks should be about 30 to 40% land, 30% creatures, 30% spells.  These rules are more like guidelines, but you get the idea.

The best Magic players in the world build their decks to emphasize one or two killer effects.  If they can get a certain combination of cards, they win.  Often the cards required for these killer effects are rare, expensive, and hard to obtain.  I retain a vestige of both sanity and humility–I will never be able to match and compete with such players.  I play the game for fun, not for a living.

Then there are players who don’t have a clue.  They are new to the game, and they let other people build their decks for them.  Or they just buy starter decks and slowly modify them.  I can beat those players most of the time.  I’m always happy to see such a nooby–it means I’m going to win. (insert evil chuckle here).

And there are a lot of players in the middle.  We have a pretty good idea of what we’re doing.  We play for the fun of the game, and for the fun of seeing our decks beat their decks. 

Magic lends itself to Theme players.  It does this by having lots of fantasy creatures of the same type that can be grouped together to gain a thematic effect.  Goblins, for example.  Goblins are generally low-powered creatures with tricky effects.  Goblin grenade unites a spell with a suicide bomber to do 5 damage.  That’s a pretty good blast.

Take this present to that guy over there!

Magic continually reinvents itself by offering new cards and powers to the players.  It seems that each new set incorporates some gimmick to make their cards more powerful and dangerous than everything that has gone before.  That doesn’t always work, but Wizards of the Coast always try.

Another thing that keeps Magic going is the issuance of new Rare cards with every set.  There are Rares and Mythic Rares now–you get a rare with each pack of cards that you buy.  Mythic Rares are a lot harder to get.  Here are some of the Rares and Mythic Rares tht I own.  Each one is important to a theme deck built around it.

Valakut is the Master Volcano of all Volcanoes. What if Volcanoes were alive and malevolent?

Valakut is the key card in a red burn deck meant to simply blast the other player out of existence by playing mountains.  Rig the game so that you draw mutltiple cards each turn, and can play more than one land, and the deck becomes very dangerous.

This Planeswalker turns mountains into creatures that do direct damage. At  least you can then fight them as if they were creatures.  Imagine killing a mountain!

Koth of the Hammer is a Planeswalker who turns mountains into creatures.  He can win a game all by himself, but he’s second banana to Valakut in the red deck they share.

This is a silly card with a power that costs too much to use.

Sometimes I wonder what the Magic Card designers were thinking. When one point of energy can do up to 3 or 4 direct damage in a red deck, why have a card that has to be played, then has to guess a card at random and get it right and pay 3 energy to do 2 damage to the opponent?  Not only is the cost way too much for the effect, but you wind up telling your opponent what is in your hand.  This card should be rare mostly because anyone who buys it will tear it up in disgust.  I keep it for the art.

The Eldrazi are a recent gimmick for Magic the Gathering.  They are a race of horrible creatures that attack your world–alien invaders of the worst sort.  The largest of them are world-destroying giants.  The smallest are insignificant gnats. And there are many sizes in between.  You can build a multi-colored deck to bring in Eldrazi. 

The horrible monsters from another plane of existence is a concept that keeps coming up at Wizards of the Coast.  Off the top of my head I can think of 3 other groups of cards that fall into this category: The Phyrexians, the Slivers, and the Kavu.  Kavu cards are pretty old, and they seem to have faded from the Magic scene.  Slivers are so horribly effective that WotC seems to have discontinued them for now.  Phyrexians and Eldrazi are still going strong.

I have an awesome Sliver deck that includes this pretty card. The deck is too evil to play, and all right thinking players band together to destroy slivers whenever they appear.

I could go on and on.  The point I really wanted to make is how much fun it is to create your own decks using Magic cards.  It is also fun to make Shadowfist decks, or Legend of Five Rings decks, or Yu-Gi-Oh, or Naruto, or whatever your brand of collectible card-playing might be.  The other games don’t offer as much variety as Magic but the challenge of making a world-beating deck always exists.

Friends, bring your decks to the Sci-Fic or Gaming conventions that you attend, and I’ll be happy to take you on.  Consider yourself challenged!