I pretty much single-handidly owe my current level of interest in RPG's to Zak Smith.
I first became aware of the visual artist / adult performer / RPG impresario back in April of last year after I wrote a blog series about my formative experiences playing Dungeons & Dragons. I called the series "I Hit It With My Axe" because that's exactly what my buddy Mark said every time our DM Joe asked: "Okay, Mark, it's your turn. What do you want to do?"
One day, when I wanted to quickly locate my first post, I 'Googled' "I Hit It With My Axe" and this quizzical vid popped up instead:
To be brutally honest, I had no idea what the fuck it was. The version of D&D they were playing obviously wasn't Fourth Edition. Indeed, it seemed to be a Frankensteinian patchwork of Basic D&D and AD&D with a large dollop of 3.5 thrown in for good measure. I was also wondering why the show's camerawork was so shaky and murky and also humored the possibility that the show had been edited with a Slap-Chop.
But back then the concept of watching adults (especially interesting and intelligent adults) playing Dungeons & Dragons in a streaming video was a pretty novel concept. By Episode Five the show had found its stride. Zak's creativity as a DM was obvious. Mandy was obviously a gifted tactician. Satine was clearly a wily veteran of the game. Connie played with a deft mixture of passion and avarice. Laboring under an albatross-like weight of horrendous luck, Frankie was constantly trying to Jedi Mind Trick Zak into exempting her from Sneak rolls. And although Kimberly Kane was clearly the "Mark" of Zak's group, she also had the ability to come up with some truly inspired schemes.
In Episode Sixteen, PC death struck the group after a gross tactical error. By this time, I was completely and totally hooked. "I Hit It With My Axe" was turning out to be more compulsive viewing to me then anything on prime time T.V. The campaign's admirable and sandboxian qualities held me completely rapt and, like many fans of the show, I was crushed to see that there were no new shows beyond Episode 36. To this day, I still hope to see Satine and Connie deal with the Temple of Tittivilla, Bobbi and Kimberly escape from the gnolls and Mandy mount a rescue attempt with a metric shit-ton of female mercs in tow.
I Hit It With My Axe invariably led me to Zak's blog "D&D With Pornstars". After systematically devouring every single entry I was left with two conclusions:
- Zak's brain is clearly operating on a different tier then most human beings. Being creative is one thing but being wildly fucking innovative is another story. In other words, when most people describe themselves as three-dimensional thinkers, you officially have my permission to laugh in their faces.
- The concept that you're somehow playing an RPG "wrong" just because you're not using its current iteration is downright laughable.
Even though the OSR movement can arguably be traced back to Ryan Dancey at the vanguard of the Open Gaming Licence, I Hit It With My Axe and D&D With Pornstars provided my first exposure to this philosophy. Via his blog, I began to follow Zak on Google + and after he shared an RPG Circle with me I quickly saw that this fledgling social media site had a full-blooded gaming community that was alive and kicking. It didn't take me long to see that these folks were very passionate about certain incarnations of their favorite game, to the point that they were willing to engage in some pretty robust dialogue (I.E.: argue with equally willful people until they flirted with carpel tunnel syndrome).
All of a sudden the efforts of OSR retro clone designers like Matt Finch, Chris Gonnerman, Stuart Marshall and Daniel Proctor as well as the creatively unfettered bloggage of Jeff Rients and Mike Moscrip became known to me. For someone who had very nearly given up on the beloved hobby of my yoots, this was my first invitation to step back into a smaller yet more familiar and comfortable world. So armed, I decided to galvanize a pool of local peeps into a formal RPG gaming circle, which I really intend to exploit in the coming year.
Google + had even more surprises in store. After model, actress, illustrator, and hardcore D&D nut Satine Phoenix drew Zak's attention to the free, multi-person video chat on Google +, they started playing games online. As Zak recants more efficiently in his original blog post:
"...the gentleman known in gaming circles as Calithena had this idea and he told me and Jeff (Rients):
'Why not use these hangout games like the old games at the very beginning of the RPG hobby, when players carried their characters from game to game, wherever they could find a Dungeon Master?'
So we got together and talked about it and I came up with a stupid acronym and FLAILSNAILS was born."
Although he continues to insist that F.L.A.I.L.S.N.A.I.L.S. is an acronym for Free Location And Inclusion Laws Supporting New And Interesting Leisure Situations, we all know that this just a way for Zak to pimp out his all-time favorite D&D monster.
Regardless of such underhanded motivations, the idea quickly took root and pretty soon entire online campaigns were springing up everywhere. Zak was running games as well and after rabidly absorbing Vornheim: The Complete City Kit I became bound and determined to have one of my brittle little Level One characters horribly mangled by him in a Hangout game.
Unfortunately, damnable and persistent reality had other ideas. Since Zak's based in Los Angeles and I'm in Nova Scotia there's the obvious issue of a four-hour time differential. If he starts a game at 9 PM his time, that's 1 AM here and quite often these games can sometimes run for three or four hours. Now, originally I was set to play Wolverine amongst a motley crew of seemingly random supers taking on MODOK in Zak's gleefully unpredictable S.H.I.E.L.D. High-Priority FASERIP series but wires got crossed and it never happened. In fact, things didn't align for me until December 12'th, 2012.
By the time this happened, Zak had produced yet another new idea. This time out he'd preside over a mano-a-mano, sci-fi style Murdermaze Deathmatch, kinda like The Running Man but with less Maria Conchita Alonso. The original post details can be peeped right hur.
Although I missed the first match on the 11'th (which saw Joe Dimech's sneaky Elf triumph in the six-person battle royale) I was quickly confirmed for the follow-up rumble on the 12'th.
Now that I was in, I started getting kinda nervous. This would be my very first Google + game and I was pretty sure that every person I'd be battling against had a helluva lot more Hangout experience then me. The one encouraging thing was that Zak's scenario had only been run once before, ensuring that no one player would be totally familiar with the geography of the Maze.
Coming up with a character that adhered to Zak's instructions became my immediate task. Since I wasn't limited to traditional fantasy races, I wanted to go with something classically sci-fi. I've always had an irrational fetish for humanoid reptilian aliens so at first I envisioned Bossk from The Empire Strikes Back or Cayman from Battle Beyond the Stars. But I didn't want the character to be too competent so I went completely Olde Skool and picked the Gorn from the classic Star Trek episode "Arena".
So after rolling a few dice and scratching out some details on a piece of loose-leaf piece paper I eventually sent this off to Zak for his review:
I cobbled together something that vaguely resembles a character. Let me know if I need to change anything:
Name: Klysssk Class: Gorn Warrior
STR 15 INT 6 WIS 13 DEX 9 CON 17 REG 13 (Regenerate...roll a REG check to heal CON modifier after a Hit Point loss)
HP: Rolled 7 + 3 = 10 AC: 9 (?)
Attack Bonus (+1 for class): Melee +3 Ranged +0
Objects: Gorn Combat Knife: d4+3
Net Gauntlet: (fires 6 rounds, Range 15-65 feet) Otherwise operates like a net in 3.5
Other chrome: Poor Manual Dexterity: -6 to Open Locks...etc
Infrared Vision: 20' range
Let me know if this is alright.
After giving it the once over he wrote back:
- Knife does d6.
- Net Gun has 3 shots and will cause the foe to lose one turn on a successful hit and then roll to escape on subsequent rounds.
- AC 10 like everyone else
- Regeneration will heal d4 hp but not crits
- Infravision will work on a successful racial check
Just prior to 11 pm I heard my computer chime out an invite. I hopped on, and after solving a niggling feedback issue, Zak immediately plunged us into the Murdermaze.
Mercifully, the other guys were doing a live commentary of the action during the match, which was great for posterity. I was way too busy trying to stay alive.
So, without further ado, here's a play-by-play report of the action:
- Joe's sneaky Elf, who I'll just call Hidey McBlastalot, quickly found a Smoke Bomb. After adding this to his starting equipment (an Armored Vest and Lasergun), I couldn't help but think that my own chosen load-out was pretty crap in comparison. After this, Joe passed by a Couch sitting on the hallway and probably wondered if he could use the cushions to asphyxiate his rivals with the smell of ass.
- My unanswered prayers were quickly answered after I ventured into the first room and found a Teleportation Globe, which would allow me to switch places with anyone in the Maze. Instantly my brain began to percolate some new strategies.
- As it turns out, it was a damned good thing that I found that Globe! Almost immediately I barged into a room where Zach Marx Weber's Murderhobo was running around with his innocuous-sounding Spool Of Monofilament Wire. His initial attack on me proved ineffectual as did my attempt to snare him with my Net Gun.
- As this battle raged on, Isaac Murphy's Philosophical Zombie got into a scrap with Logan Smith's Purple Ooze / Gelatinous Dude. The Ooze quickly got the upper hand and started filling his opponent's undead mush with a surfeit of arm-goo.
- Meanwhile, Tim Razler's Otterman found a laptop which, as far as I can tell, he only used to bookmark www.freehototterbitches.com.
- In the next round, Zach Marx Weber managed to snag my arm in the Wire forcing me to drop my precious Net Gun. Just as I was about to go out like a chump, I remembered the Teleportation Globe and switched places with Joe's Elf! As per Joe's testimony: "Just passed the Couch (and) skipped the redecoration. Then another guy (Yours Truly!) who found the Globe teleported me into his place and he into mine, and now I am being grappled by Zach, so I just shot him in his Hobo face."
- In another part of the complex, Logan's Purple Ooze Dude had very nearly rendered Isaac's Zombie completely unconscious (?). Just before he was about to put the kibosh on him, my Gorn approached the battle with all the stealth of a charging bull moose. Logan offered a truce but being stubbornly reptilian I hissed back "I'M IN THE SSSSSS-ZONE" and kept attacking him. Referee Zak said that this was exactly what the Gorn was hissing to Kirk over and over again during their battle in "Arena".
- After "treating" us all to an incredibly surreal otter impersonation, Zak continued to adjudicate Zach Marx Weber's life and death struggle against Joe's Elf. Now completely entangled in the Monofilament Wire, Joe is soon reduced to zero Hit Points.
- Once again, my crap die rolling caused me to loose the Initiative and Logan started using his blobby forearm as an offensive choking hazard. Isaac's Zombie came to his senses long enough to heave an Existentialism Grenade, which depressed the shit out of our immediate surroundings and caused everyone to flee.
- Cursed with "the aim of a stormtrooper", Joe failed to blast the Monofilament Wire not once, but twice! As per Zak's customized rule set, now that Joe was at zero Hit Points, any subsequent damage would be considered a "Critical Hit". Sure enough, on the next round, the constricting Wire managed to Resident Evil one of his eyeballs! Just before Joe got turned into stewing beef, Tim threw a Plasma Grenade into the room, stunning both combatants, springing Joe from his bonds and destroying my late, lamented Net Gun.
- Joe tried to do some impromptu laser eye surgery on Zach, evoking shades of Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalbán in the process. I was both amazed and just a tad frightened when Joe and Zak suddenly tag-teamed Khan's entire rant right off the top of their heads: "He tasks me. He tasks me and I shall have him! I'll chase him 'round the moons of Nibia and 'round the Antares Maelstrom and 'round Perdition's flames before I give him up!"
- Zak promptly followed this up with an original quote which I'll inevitably use on my own players in the future: "Your character knows what you know. If you know nothing then it's not my fault."
- No sooner had the Wrath of Khan quote left his lips, Joe snuck off, found an appropriate hidey-hole and started to lick his wounds. He then sat there skulking, waiting for the chance to snipe someone in the ballz as they passed by. Zach also crawled off and found a flash bomb in the next room.
- Wisely, Tim kept hitting and running. After chucking his Plasma Grenade he made an expeditious retreat but then promptly triggered a Proximity Mine which someone had glued onto a door earlier in the match. Just like that he was reduced to zero Hit Points and became a ripe target for Critical Strikes!
- My Gorn continued to fellate Logan's Ooze-pendage. In an effort to sever the connection I tried to pick him up and shot put him away from me, but I couldn't lift him or chuck him very far. Mercifully my racial Healing Factor kept off-setting the corrosive damage an we appeared to be at a stalemate for the time being.
- Meanwhile, Murderhobo Zach Marx Weber opened the door and just so happened to witness this bizarre scene, which probably made the average Tool video look like an episode of Wonderpets. Both Logan and I saw him setting up a trap for us and this time I was the one to propose a truce. Thinking that we'd have a difficult time offing one another, we formed a hasty detente and then went right after Zach. Unfortunately, Logan doesn't notice the Murderhobo's hastily-assembled trip-wire and sliced off his own leg!
- Isaac's poor, mouth-raped zombie tried to crawl away but he was promptly jumped by Tim "Smells Like Burnt Fur" Otterman. Unbeknownst to both of them, Joe's reconstituted Elf was nearby, waiting for one of them to murdify the other so he could reward the victor with a laser massage to the spine.
- Zach tried to make a fighting withdrawal and I instantly fell into mindless pursuit. During this, perhaps the most lethargic foot chase in gaming history, Zach picked up a microwave (as Murderhobos are want to do), and drifted it at my head as I came around the corner. Mercifully it missed me by a scale and I promptly started stalking him down another corridor. Unfortunately this gave Zach an opportunity to jury-rig a quick Monofilament Wire trap. Refusing to metagame, I charged around the blind turn, failed my Spot check and then stumbled right into Zach's metallic snare.
- Seeing that Zach and I were intent on killing each other to death, Logan wisely stood back, popped some popcorn and watched the tilt from afar.
- Zombie Isaac tried to dive at Tim Otterman's neck with a bite but ended up face-planting himself into the floor. Tim's flak vest protected him against a subsequent pistol whipping and the Otter brought things full-circle by munching the Zombie's eye right from out of his skull. As adorably as possible, of course.
- I finally managed to knife my way out of the Monofiliment Wire. Just as I got free, Logan decided to huck a Thermal Detonator down the corridor. It landed at Zach's feet and without further ado, the illustrious Murderhobo was blown to unwashed, foul-smelling bits. "Never trust an ooze!" Zach lamented.
- Just as the scrap was reaching a fever pitch, Joe's clearly bored Elf broke cover, calmly waded into the scrap and popped a cap right in Otterman's eye. "An Eye For An Eye," game master Zak mused.
- Isaac followed this up by bludgeoning Monsieur Otterman to death with his "Gyrojet", whatever the fuck that thing was. Without missing a beat, Joe promptly took a bead on the Zombie but missed his over-ripe melon at point blank range!
- After taking four four points of damage from the Frag Grenade my Gorn soldier shambled out of the corridor, doing his best Wolverine impersonation and regenerating along the way. Speak of the devil, after lobbing the Thermal Detonator Logan clearly had the foresight to leave the scene of the crime.
- In a simultaneous assault, the Zombie blew off Joe the Elf's one good arm and Joe immediately returned the favor. For the record, both combatants were now mostly 'armless. BA-dum *TSSSH*.
- Meanwhile, Zach Marx Weber brought in the game's first re-enforcement: a Mini-Beholder flanked by a pair of Guardian Weasels. Isaac pretty much spoke for all of us when he typed: "Man, I wish I'd thought of that."
- Zombie Isaac managed to grab the Otter's discarded Pistol but he was still trying to cope with the loss of his primary arm. Given -7 to hit, the mutilated ghoul completely telegraphed the shot. Knowing that he was outgunned, Joe threw down a Smoke Bomb effectively obscuring everything in the room and then beat a hasty retreat...
- ...right through the very same door that my Gorn was about to open! We stood there and blinked at each other for a second before I grabbed Joe by the throat with my free hand. The Elf responded by blasting me in the chest at point blank range, breaking the death-grip on his neck.
- Tim re-entered the game, this time re-incarnated as a Squid Cowboy. Or a Robot Cowboy. Or a Robot Squid Cowboy; I never did figure that one out.
- It didn't take very long before the two newcomers bumped into each other. The petite Eye Tyrant failed to Charm the Mechanoid Cephalopod Cowpoke, but his twin Weasels dealt out some pretty hefty damage. Savaged by the two critters, Tim decided to slide down the nearby elevator shaft. Zach's All-Seeing Floaty Eyeball blasted Tim's Calamari Android Cowboy at the bottom of the shaft with an uninspired but rather effective Magic Missile. Although no "Darkness" was harmed during the attack, the Magic Missile totally annihilated Tim's Healing Potion.
- After I was given a second opportunity to cut Joe, I decided not to leave anything to chance. I hurled myself bodily at the Elf, cleanly impaling him and instantly dethroning the current champ!
- Apparently pissed that he'd just lost his Family Heirloom Healing Potion, Squidward Tim fired up at Beholder Zach from the bottom of the elevator shaft and managed to ventilate one of his "air bladders". *snort*
- At that exact same moment, Isaac's decrepit Zombie shambled into the room. Although he manged to pistol-whip Zach's listing Beholder, Weasels invariably ripped his flesh and Isaac's Zombie died. For the second time, presumably, since he had to die once before in order to come back as a Zombie in the first place. Sorry.
- Isaac quickly composed a new avatar: Spider-Man's non-union, Mexican equivalent, El Sorprendente Hombre Araña. Brilliant!
- The Beholder barely had time to pick up the Zombie's discarded gun in his mouth before South-of-the-Border-Spidey showed up and webbed the creature's gob shut, preventing him from issuing any Weasel-related commands. Ol' Telaraña-Cabeza followed this up with a punch to the Eye Tyrant's dome, breaking one of his eye-stalks.
- My Gorn faced off against Logan's Ooze for the last time. So it was in The Beginning, now it is in The End.
- Given the Mini-Beholder's puny Dexterity and Strength of 6, he had a terrible time trying to tear himself free of the spider-webs.
- Going into the final battle, my Gorn still had a few Hit Points left thanks to Regeneration and Logan's Blob was on the verge of taking Critical Hits. The Ooze got the jump on me and shot me dead to rights. With that, Zak declared that I could no longer Regenerate, which quickly evened the odds!
- Zach's Tooth Balloon finally managed to escape from the webbing and ordered his two Weasely bodyguards to attacks his opponent. Mexican Spidey reacted by sticking to the ceiling, away from their tiny claws and teeth. From this vantage point he had absolutely no problem webbing the Weasels to the floor!
- In an absolutely brilliant move, Logan cast a Grease spell on the steps as I was closing in on him. That instantly put my Gorn warrior flat on his scaly face. Naturally, I failed in my first attempt to stand up and Logan decided to pile on by delivering a Critical Hit which fucked up my right leg.
- The Sphere of Many Eyes attempted to masticate our wily hero, but it was a clean miss. Señor Spidey responded by punching out the Beholder's second air bladder like Doc Pulpo (Google it). The once-proud creature was reduced to the ultimate indignity: lolling around on the floor like a half-inflated beach ball. Sad.
- Meanwhile, my luck went from bad to worse. After failing to stand up on my second attempt, Mechana-Squid Cowpoke Tim appeared at the opposite end of the very same corridor where Logan and I were fighting. At first he wanted to target the duplicitous Ooze but Logan was clearly in cover at the top of the steps. So Tim settled on roasting an eyeball right outta my skull. It ain't lookin' good, folks.
- Knowing that it was now virtually impossible to stand up, I flipped over onto my back, luged down to the bottom of the steps and attempted to punch Tim square in his Squiddy knutz. Even though I missed on the swing, it was worth it just to hear DM Zak heave a sign and say "Okay, roll to hit Tim in the nards".
- Since Tim's Invertebrate Replicant Gunslinger was a second string character, Zak ruled that Tim would have to kill both me and Logan at the same time in order to win! In order to clip both of us with a bullet, he tried a ricochet trick shot but the punishing -10 penalty completely sunk his chances.
- Isaac's Luchador Spidey tucked the now-helpless Beholder (who was by now patronizingly singing the Spider-Man theme song) under his arm and web-swung right into the main fracas! He impulsively webbed Tim's...Whatever The Hell He Was just seconds after he scored a Critical Hit on my other leg! He also snagged the Ooze, leaving the entire corridor looking like an arachnid bukkake session.
- The Ooze fired off his last shot in an attempt to perforate me, but the extreme enwebification resulted in a miss.
- Tired of being tucked under Spidey's arm like a personnel file, the Beholder tried to gum his host right in the flank. With a paltry roll of "4" the "attack" was considered an unmitigated miss.
- Spidey then attempted to fling the duplicitous Beholder at Tim's...Dude, but that attack roll was whiffed as well. As you might well imagine, it was getting really difficult to read our die results by then because we were all laughing so hard.
- Now completely out of ammo, the Ooze "petulantly" (as per Zak's description) threw his gun at my Gorn's face but missed. Shit was gettin' real, yo.
- Disarmed, crippled, blinded and robbed of my to ability Regenerate, I knew then that I had only one last chance to win. In typical Gorn-style slow-motion I snatched Tim's gun out of his hand, slowly turned around, took a bead at the Ooze standing at the top of the steps, squeezed off a shot...and then rolled a fucking "4". A cool plan completely undone by a shite roll! Damn!!!
- El Tarantella spiked the Beholder, crawled across the ceiling and webbed my Gorn into place. His goal: to get his webby mitts on the Ooze!
- Looking to polish me off, the Ooze tried to pick his way carefully down the Greased steps but slipped, caromed down the stairs and, according to Zak, "spread out at the bottom like pancake batter."
- Zach Marx Weber plaintively asked DM Zak if he could bite both Logan and I at the same time. All of us cracked up when he was told in no uncertain terms that "your jaw isn't wide enough". That's what she said.
- I got another point-blank opportunity to blast Logan with Tim's pistol but this time I rolled a gorramed "3". FUUUUUUUUUCK!!!
- As per Isaac's final update: "ZOPHAR (he had a name?) THE OOZE BREAKS FREE AND PUNCHES THE GORN ONE LAST TIME, FINALLY FELLING HIM AND BECOMING THE CHAMPION!!!!"
Next day I posted the following status update on Google +:
"Thanks to , , , , , and referee extraordinaire my very first G+ RPG Hangout game was rife with brutality, surreal set-pieces and slapstick humor."
Indeed. It's encouraging to know that I can still have a truly memorable gaming experience, even after twenty-five solid years in the hobby. That Murdermaze Match represents exactly why I love RPG's and the basic ones in particular. As players that night, we certainly weren't min-maxing weapon yields, justifying how a certain race can be used as a PC or pondering the range of our missile weapons. We were just trying to push our thumbs into each other's orbital sockets. I.E. good, clean, unadulterated fun.
As if this format wasn't cool enough, two days later Zak came up with "Warlords of Vornheim", a "king of the hill" type match in which one team attempts to defend a structure from an attacking team. Apparently this also went over like gangbusters and although I had a chance to join in, this time of year is just a bit too busy for me.
Hopefully when I get home after Christmas, life will eventually return to normal and I'll be able to venture into the "arena" once again. Or maybe - *gasp!* - I'll run something over Google + myself!
So, thanks again, Zak. Your videos, blog posts, books and Hangout Games have done wonders for my re-discovery of this consistently surprising hobby. I can't wait to kick-start my own Old School Renaissance, just to see where it leads me...