Arcane Game Lore

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Halfling Barbarians Need To Be Banned

Flail_snail-5eThis public service announcement has been brought to you by the letters W, T, F and the number nine!

So you may be asking yourself, what’s wrong with a halfling barbarian? And if you are, it’s probably because you are playing one and have the character depth of a garden slug all the while thinking you’re playing a Flail Snail. Seriously, your character is not cool. We laugh cause your character concept is so painful it’s the only way we can still enjoy the game without murdering your character while s/he sleeps. Sure your character take take enough damage to put an Elder God down while you crack jokes about drinking beer, but fun-loving halflings changing to murderous rage monsters (while still having a penchant to crack jokes) are about as interesting as said garden slugs.

You are not some plucky hero from a Tolkien novel that summons the rage of his entire tribe at the drop of a hat. Seriously, you just yelling rage and making exaggerated fake weapon swinging motions does not convince us that your character is anything more that a cheap grab at a humorous dichotomy because your concept of humor revolves around getting drunk and making farting noises. Yes, we understand that halflings are small and weak, and the idea of them being this combat monster can be humorous, but if you’re only raging after the game master has asked for initiative then you’re really only using the character to gain the a munchkin benefits in combat. Try raging in town once and murdering an entire tavern and see how well that goes over, or try not raging in combat because you don’t want to be viewed as a halfling who can’t control his anger, now that would be funny.

Honestly, Barbarians are not stupid people that just drink beer, grab wenches, and rage in combat. They are clever, considerate, and have their own way of life. Pairing that with stereotypcal halfling can work, but only if you role-play the fact that there is more to your character than insatiable curiosity that allows you to investigate whatever you want without checking with the rest of the party, because whatever havoc you stir up, you can just rage to survive the encounter. And if you take the Bear totem, we know it is just so the Game Master cannot craft an encounter with the purpose of putting your character check. Let us not go into psionics as that is an entirely different rage rant.


Let’s talk about that half damage rule for a second. It is a personal belief that you should never have a rule in the system that says ‘take half of this’, or ‘double that’. Players will almost always find a way to abuse that rule and turn that number into an insane total, creating characters that run at Mach 2 and completely break the game. In the case of barbarians, they already get the highest Hit Point of all the classes, adding the ability to shrug off half the damage, just makes it so the Game Master has have a difficult time creating an encounter that doesn’t one-shot the other party members. Adding the one totem that allows them to ignore any damage type that would come out of your average encounter, just seems like you want to make sure your character survives any encounter shy of bringing an actual god, like Tiamat, into the game.

If you do decide to play this unlikely hero, for the sake of your companions, put some more thought into this than bi-polar child with a napoleon complex that has the statistical mechanics to back up being a jerk.

Final note; this post is made in jest to poke fun at a couple of characters in our games that are nearly identical in execution. It has become somewhat of a joke to suggest playing a halfling barbarian. As long as your group is having fun, then whatever you play is acceptable. I would never tell a player not to play something if that is what they find fun to play. Someone who loves halflings and decides to roll with a barbarian character concept is completely acceptable especially if they believe in the afterlife of Barhalla.

A GM’s New Year’s Resolution List

Another year of gaming has passed. I always try to start the new year on a positive note and this year I won’t break tradition. I’ve seen some people bemoan those who set resolutions or make goals, calling them a waste of time, or unrealistic, but the paladin in me will not give into such defeatist attitude, especially this early into the new year. Since I have made the goal of posting on my first Friday, hopefully, I will make some regular contributions to Interwebs of Lolth (oh my, that’s an interesting idea). But for those of you who know me, and even those that don’t, I present to you my New Year’s Resolutions of Gaming:

  • Blog more – I have been terrible about blogging and every year I say I’m going to blog more. Perhaps this year will be the year that I am able to keep up with that. To that end I am setting myself a goal of 24 blog posts, which is incredibly low, but at least its something to try and keep track of.
  • Try a new game system – It is always good to try something new. I have found myself falling victim of sticking to things I’m used to. This year I want to play a new system for at least 10 sessions.
  • Play more board games – I have a friend who hosts a board game night every Friday and I almost never go. I am going to try an play 12 new board games this year.
  • Read Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler – As I get older, I find that I value my own opinion more over others. This book is suppose to help with constructive conversation.
  • Run a game for my kids – My kids have been clamoring for me to run a game. I think it is about time to start a campaign.
  • Go play at a convention – I love the concept of a convention, but never seem to go. Perhaps taking my boys to a convention will happen this year.
  • Pull out a RPG I haven’t played in a while and play it – My gaming collection has dwindled over the years, but I still have a few gems to play.
  • Buy something from a local game store – As I have become more comfortable with purchasing from the web, I like to keep this one in order to support the local gaming community.
  • Produce some on-line gaming content – While I have a lot of opinions on gaming, I don’t normally finding myself putting these opinions down for others to use. I am hoping to actually produce stuff that people can download.

Review – Recently re-released PDF’s of Star Frontiers’s Knight Hawks supplement

Cover of the Knight Hawks supplementWizards of the Coast continues to release more material for their old Star Frontiers game.  A few weeks ago they released the Knight Hawks supplement ($4.99) which I purchased and downloaded and will review here.  I should have done this sooner but got a bit caught up in the holidays.  Since then they have also released the core rules (labeled Alpha Dawn) in both PDF ($9.99) and print on demand form ($19.99 softcover & $29.99 hardcover).  I’ve not purchased or downloaded those but will post my thoughts in a separate post later.  On to the review!

What’s Included

Your $4.99 gets you PDF’s of everything that was included in the original box back in the day that retailed for $12 when I purchased mine back in 1984.  This includes:

  • The 16-page Tactical Operations Manual describing the board game rules for ship combat (filename: Star_Frontiers_Knight_Hawks-Basic_Rules.pdf)
  • The 64-page Campaign Book describing ship construction, new skill and equipment, and background material for the setting along with a strategic game that can be played with the enclosed map and the boardgame rules. (filename: Star_Frontiers_Knight_Hawks-Expanision_rules.pdf)
  • SFKH0:The Warriors of White Light – this 16-page modules outlines a series of small adventures that utilize the new skills and ships in the Knight Hawks rules.  (filename:Star_Frontiers_Knight_Hawks-Mission_brief.pdf). As an aside, we are currently running a series of articles in the Frontier Explorer (that started in issue 22) which add more encounters and material for this adventure.
  • A PDF of the counter sheet included in the boxed set.
  • Scans of all the maps, both the cover of the module (inside and out) and the big poster map.

Overall, it’s a great deal for $4.99 if you didn’t already have them.

Let’s Start With The Maps

I was quite interested to see what they did with these after reviewing SF2: Starspawn of Volturnus.  This turned out to be a mixed bag and somewhat disappointing.  The counters and the maps come in a zip file called that expands out to a subdirectory containing a bunch of files and two more directories.

Unfortunately, all the maps are chopped up into little pieces.  The two page maps that were the inside and outside cover of the module, containing the Frontier Deployment Map for the strategic game (outside cover) and deck plans for two freighters (inside cover) are each split into two non-overlapping (but cut properly so that they can be combined) images.  The big poster maps are cut a little differently but still divided into lots of smaller pieces.

The big hex map for the tactical game is cut up into eight pieces that do not overlap horizontally but the vertical bits do.  The station map on the back and the maps of the assault scout deck plans are chopped up into 15 different overlapping maps (I have not tried to assemble them all into a single map to see exactly how they overlap).

Also the color quality is only okay.  By themselves they look fine but compared to the original maps, the colors are a bit saturated and don’t match the original colors as well as they could.  (Originally I had written that the color was very bad but in preparing some of the images for this post, I realized that the problem was at least partially due to my image viewer doing something weird based on the embedded color profiles.  Opening the images in GIMP the colors were a lot closer to what they should be.)

I have to admit I was disappointed when I saw the maps.  There doesn’t seem to be any reason why they couldn’t have put them together into single cohesive maps or gotten the colors correct.  However, there is some redemption.

  • For the maps that are the cover to the module, the module PDF actually has them as complete single page maps and the colors in the PDF are much closer to the original printed materials.  You should definitely just extract those from the PDF and use them if possible.  Obviously these were done by two different scanners.
  • The hex map isn’t a big deal.  It’s pretty easy to get hex maps although finding a black one might be hard.  And if you’re using a virtual table top, you can usually just have it make a hex map to use.
  • The station and assault scout deck plans would be the biggest disappointment except that I’ve already recreated all of those maps and you can grab them on-line.  The assault scout deck plans are on the Frontier Explorer website (green version, blue version) as I published them years ago in issue 5 of the fan magazine.  The station map can be found, along with the city map from the core rules, on the map page in the wiki on my Star Frontiers Network site.
Thumbnail of remastered station map

This is a thumbnail of my recreated station map. Click on it for the full sized version.

Next Up, The Counters

The scan of the counters in the printables zip file are okay.  They are straight and everything is there.  They suffer from the same color problem as the maps (something was just not calibrated properly in that scanner) and don’t match the originals.  Also the image is a jpg so there is a bit of the noise that comes with JPG compression.  The file as presented appears to be scanned at 300dpi.  I don’t know if it was done intentionally (probably) or was just part of the process, but it does appeared to be de-screened removing the small dots from the printing process which would definitely be visible at that scan resolution.  I know, because I scanned my unpunched sheet of counters years ago (2009).  Here is a comparison of the file from the download (left) and my scan (right).

Comparison of the counters from the download and my scanned copy.

Comparison of the counters from the download (left) and my scanned copy at the same resolution (right).

You can see that the colors are somewhat different (mine matches the original printed colors better and is not de-screened.  If you want a copy of my scans (as PNG files with no JPG loss), you can grab them at various resolutions (100dpi – 1.3MB, 200dpi – 5.4Mb, 300dpi – 16MB, 400dpi – 23MB, & 600dpi – 46MB).

If you want to actually use these counters on printed versions of the maps, I recommend printing them on card stock and then cutting them out.  If you want something with a little more heft like the original counters, print them on paper, and then glue them to a heavier cardboard before cutting.

Now To The Books

I actually don’t have much to add here over what I described in my earlier review of the module and character sheets.  I’ve only scanned through the PDFs and haven’t actually tried to use them for any significant time.  I’ll hit the high points again here.

The text is still fuzzy.  It would have been nice for a crisper scan.  The text is OCR’d but there is a problem with the two column format.  If you just want to copy a paragraph, you can just copy it.  If you want more than one, it tends to jump back and forth between the two columns and gets thing out of order, a paragraph at a time.  I can’t speak to the quality of the OCR overall but the little I’ve looked at seems to be okay as far as spelling goes.  Tables get mangled, however.

Each of the books have an index in the PDF file which is very nice.

The scans of the black and white interior art is good.  It suffers from the same fuzzy line problem as the text but still looks good.  The grayscales are well reproduced from the originals although if anything, they are a little darker.

I just noticed this as I was thumbing through the Campaign book while writing but there are even some cross links in the document between the rules sections.  When a part of the rules calls out another section of the book the text is actually linked to that other section.  That is a nice touch.

One thing that is weird is the page ordering in the PDFs.  In all of them they have the front cover then the back cover as the first two pages.  I personally think that’s a bit strange but see it a lot in digital books so okay.  What happens next depends on the file.  In the Tactical Operations Manual, the content of the book is next and then the last two pages in the PDF are the inside of the front and back cover respectively.  In the Campaign book PDF, the inside covers are pages 3 & 4 and then the main body of the book follows.  Not sure why they are different.  For the module, the front and back covers are the Frontier Deployment Map and the inside of the covers are the freighter deck plan and those are first in the PDF followed by the pages of the book.


Overall it’s a great product.  Just like with the module, I like the older scans better for reading as the text is crisper but overall, the quality of these PDFs are excellent.  The biggest disappointment is the maps and counter images.  I was disappointed that colors didn’t match the original printed versions a little better and that the maps were broken up and not stitched together into single maps.  Luckily, I had already recreated the important ones.

I’m excited to see WotC releasing these and hope it breathes new life into the game.  Granted I have a bit of a personal bias since I’ve been carrying the flame for Star Frontiers on-line for many years now and run a fanzine for the game but it’s been fun to watch all the comments on Twitter about the releases and see names popping up that I’ve never seen talk about the game before.  And who knows, maybe we’ll even get a new edition finally after all these years.

Since I personally own at least one physical copy of all the original material (the only thing I don’t have a duplicate of is the referee’s screen and the SFKH4: The War Machine module) as well as PDFs, I probably won’t be buying any more of the PDFs on DriveThruRPG.  Although if people would really like me to do a review of other items as they are made available, they are more then welcome to gift me a copy to write about.

Have you downloaded these materials? What were your impressions?  Feel free to let me know in the comments below.

WotC releasing Star Frontiers PDFs on DriveThruRPG

Last week WotC released a few scans of original Star Frontiers materials on DriveThruRPG.  They released the characters sheets for free and the first two modules, SF1: Volturnus, Planet of Mystery, and SF2: Starspawn of Volturnus for $4.99 each.  Since these modules have been available on-line at for years, I thought it would be useful to compare the newly released scans to the old ones.  I originally posted these up as a series of posts on Twitter but thought it would be useful to reproduce them here.

To make the comparison, I purchased the SF2 module as I knew that it had a 2-page map (inside the module cover) that was cut in half in the old scans.  I also compared the character sheets.  I don’t need any of these scans as I still have my copies of the modules I bought as a kid in the 80′s but it is interesting to compare them for those that are looking to get copies today.

Oh, and I should say I’m comparing these new PDFs to the scans of the originals, not the remastered versions available on

With that introduction, here are my thoughts on the scans:

  1. The newer scans are not as crisp on the text. They look just a tad fuzzy when comparing them side by side. You can see JPG compression noise around the font in the new ones, not so much around the old ones.
  2. The new scans have the advantage of being OCR’ed. The old ones are just images. The OCR isn’t great, I noticed several mistakes in the little bits of text I copied out, but it’s pretty good and better than nothing. And they didn’t OCR the text on the back cover.
  3. For the character sheets, the old scan has the advantage that the shading goes to the very edge of the page, just like in the printed version. The new one has a white border all the way around. It doesn’t seem to be just a slightly shrunk version, it seems to be trimmed.
  4. For the module, I’m looking at SF2: Starspawn of Volturnus, specifically because it had a two page map on the inside of the module cover. That was split in the old scans. The good news is than in the new version, it’s a single map.
  5. Cover art is cleaner on the new scans with better colors. You could definitely tell the old ones were scanned from someone’s personal copy.
  6. The new scans put the front and back covers first, then the content, and finally put the map from the inside of the module cover last. The old ones had the covers (and insides) in the order they appear but had the 4 pull out pages (15-18) at the end before the back cover.
  7. The new scans are a little straighter on the page. Some of the pages in the original scans are slightly canted. That may at least partially be a function of age. I know Acrobat straightens pages when it scans them these days, the older software may not have.
  8. The margins are a bit more regular in the new scans. Sometimes the pages in the old one are a bit off center. Also, the boxes around the boxed text are thicker in the new one but that’s probably related to the font being thicker and fuzzier too.
  9. The new scans preserve the grayscales of the interior art better but the lines are crisper in the old one.
  10. The files sizes are smaller for the older ones. But that only ammounts to about 2.5MB for the module. It’s 7.2MB for the character sheets but the new scan has all 36 pages while the old one only has 20 (It doesn’t repeat the character sheet as many times).
So that’s it for the comparison. Overall, the new one has a lot of advantages (OCR, uncut map, and better art reproduction). However, for just reading the text, the old scans win hands down. The fuzziness of the new ones are just hard on my eyes.
While only the three products have been released so far, DriveThruRPG has said that more on on the way but have not given a timeline.
As a personal opinion, based on the timing of this release, I suspect this is partially due to the fact that Evil Hat Productions has applied for a trademark on the name Star Frontiers.  We’ll just have to see how it plays out.

The Caves of Chaos – A 5E review




I am currently inducting two new recruits in the world of role-playing. They are twelve and ten years old and they are my sons. When they started expressing interested in playing a role-playing game, I had to decide what I wanted to run them through. Playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) was the easy choice. It is not my favorite setting, but it was the first Role-Playing Game (RPG) I played, and it is simple enough for younger players to grasp. I have a large selection of old D&D modules and choosing a module to run them through was a little more difficult. I was tempted to run them through the current content of D&D 5th Edition, but ultimately decided to run them through the most mass produced adventure for D&D.

The Keep on the Borderlands

The Keep on the Borderlands was originally printed in 1979 and included in the D&D basic set and exemplifies your standard dungeon crawl. I vaguely remember going through the adventure as a kid, but aside from the phrase ‘BREE-YARK’, it was rather unremarkable. We just went through and slaughtered everything and counted loot. The keep that the adventure is named after is equally bland and even a merchant and wife you save in the caves are nameless. The adventure also doesn’t explain why all of these goblinoids are living together in these caves, but I think it is understood that it is some sort of loose alliance. The entire adventure is generic enough to drop into any campaign with little work. The keep was eventually added to the world of Mystara and a sequel ‘Return to Keep on the Borderlands’ that was retconned into the world of Greyhawk.

The adventure itself was easily incorporated in our 5th edition game, which the boys decided would be Forgotten Realms. This was easy for me cause I have a cornucopia of Forgotten Reams products from 2nd edition. I ended up placing the keep on the edge of Cormyr near Thunderway. The group was hired by the local War Wizard to investigate rumors goblinoids marshaling in the mountain area. The adventurers didn’t really need a reason, so they were off slaying goblins, kobolds, a Minotaur, etc. If you overlook the fact that, at any point, the goblinoids can marshal, overrun, and kill the players, you find that the game play is relatively smooth. I used the justification that the other goblinoids actually wanted to see each other killed, so they would not come to the aid of another. The monsters are so well known, I found all of them in the 5th edition Monster Manual. This allowed me to do very little work to stat the creatures. None of the encounters were overpowering to the players although there were some close calls where they learned that running is sometimes the better part of valor. The one thing that was not to my liking, was the experience gained from the adventure. The group of 5 players made 4th level by the end of the adventure and I was hoping for no more that 3rd level, preferably 2nd. This is partially my fault for not being terribly familiar with the experience levels or the creatures, but I still found it to be an acceptable outcome.

Other than that, I found that the adventure was very easily adapted into 5th edition, and my boys have one of the early D&D modules under their belt. They already have adventures seeds for the The Forge of Fury and The Fighter’s Challenge and they have to decide what they want to do next.

Additional Information.
The Keep on the Borderlands
Return to the Keep on the Borderlands

Random Bits

It’s a new year and it’s time to get back to blogging once more.  I thought I’d start things out with a few bits and pieces of news and information.

Cover image from issue 19 of the Frontier Explorer.  A crashed air car with two humans and an Yazirian standing in front of it.First, issue 19 of the Frontier Explorer was released last week.  You can grab a copy at DriveThruRPG or on the magazine’s website.  2017 marks the 35th anniversary of the release of Star Frontiers and this issue takes you back to where most of our adventures began, Volturnus, Planet of Mystery.

Next, I’ve finally relaunched my personal website which you can find at  I’ll be blogging there was well.  Gaming related posts will still appear here and I’ll link to them from my personal blog but over there you’ll find posts of a more general nature or on non-gaming topics.  One thing I’ll be posting is story bits.  I got a set of Rory’s Story Cubes for Christmas and have been using them to generate writing prompts to exercise my story telling muscles.  Some of the stories may end up here but they’ll mostly be confined to the other blog.

If you followed along on the Kickstarter that I did for the starship dice tower that I posted about back in November, the Kickstarter didn’t fund but my wife surprised me with a 3D printer for Christmas and I can now make the dice towers available for even less that the original Kickstarter price.  If you’d be interested in one, jump over to my New Frontier Games website and order one.

Finally, I’ve embarked on recreating the station map from the Knight Hawks expansion from Star Frontiers.  I recreated the Port Loren map back in 2015 and am now going to tackle this one.  More notes on that to follow in the coming days as I work on it but here’s a quick sample that I did to get started.

Small portion of the larger map showing some residental and conference rooms

That’s it for now.

Modular Initiative – Steal this Mechanic

For some time, I’ve been meaning to write an article on initiative. Initiative is one of my pet peeves in most games. It’s not because they’re doing it wrong, it’s because they’re doing it inefficiently. If you’re one for uber realism and you need a complex rule-set to simulate combat, that’s fine and I hope you can glean something from this article. For others, this rule is an abstract, you can justify the results anyway you want, and I encourage to do that from a role-playing stance. If your character happens to go slow one round, say that he stumbles on a loose flagstone before attacking. If he goes fast, say that he notices his opponents eyes narrow and launches into action before his opponent can act. Try to keep as much action in your descriptions as you can.

Allow me to start with the first premise of this rule. It has nothing to do with the core mechanic in any game. It is modular, it is meant to be tacked on to any system and not affect the game play. One of the things I think make games time consuming is trying to fit a mechanic to other parts of the game. I am a firm believer in continuity, in fact connectedness is my third highest trait. I like things to relate to other things. Unfortunately combat is was of those horrendous beasts that eat up so much time, we try to make shortcuts to make up for it.

Let’s take the d20 system, d20 is horrible for initiative. For the dynamic system you have a random smattering of numbers between 0-30 that you have to determine when someone goes. First, the GM used to count down from 30, but this wastes so much time calling out numbers that they redesigned it to were you would arrange the players/monsters based on what they rolled . But this took so much time at the beginning of each round that it was again modified to only rolling once for combat and you go in the same order every round. To me, this is so far removed from the dynamic initiative that you may as well just assign initiative numbers to each player and just launch straight into combat.

So what this initiative rule set is designed to do, is to present a quick, dynamic initiative that changes from round to round. It is simple

1) Each player rolls d6 for initiative.

That’s it, no modifiers, no calculations, just a quick die roll. Highest goes first. Look familiar? It should, it’s from 1st edition D&D. Gygax stated that all things balance out so there is no need to add modifiers. I know there are some players that will want their pluses from high Dexterity, but honestly, is it justified to their character? Is his intelligence high enough to capitalize on a good dexterity in combat? Is their wisdom high enough to ensure that they can bravely act in the presence of danger? Is their constitution or strength high enough to maintain those tensed muscles round after round to act accordingly. There are a hundred different reasons why you could act fast in combat, and limiting it to a single attribute is not well adapted in my opinion. (Don’t worry, we’ll have advantages to take advantage of those high stats later on).

2) GM rolls a d6 for opponents.

The great part about this, is that the GM can roll multiple d6 for multiple opponents. You can roll a single d6 for all opponents, but if you’re playing a large number, that can lead the bad guys going for a long time before another player goes again and we want it to be dynamic. Don’t worry about which NPC get which number. Just assign the die to the closest NPC it landed to.

3a) Order of actions – The count down.

The character with the highest initiative goes first and proceeds to the next highest until the last characters have gone. Ties go to the player, if two players go, you can let them decide who goes first (as long as they do it quickly). If all else fails just roll die and assign someone. Calculating who should go first based on who has higher stats is a huge waste of time, in my opinion.

3b)Order of Actions – The count up.

I came up with this after a few play-tests. I like the concept better, but have had mixed results. Basically, the person with the lowest initiative goes first and anyone with a higher initiative can interrupt. You can only interrupt if your die is higher than the other persons die. Meaning if you interrupt with a ’6′, no one can interrupt you. The bad portion of this is when you get chain interrupts, which can range from awesome, to comical, to annoying, but you just have to roll with it.

4) Multiple actions

Often a character will have multiple actions in a round cause he is a combat monster. This is fine, he rolls a d6 for each action he is entitled to. There’s a catch, he can only go once per phase, so if he rolls two 3′s, he lost one of his actions. Some players won’t like this, but I find it adds an additional level of randomness to the fight, the more actions you get the less likely you will be able to capitalize on all of them.

5) Advantages.

You can come up with a list of advantages that allows a player to pick up abilities to capitalize on this style of initiative. For example, ‘Quick Reflexes’ – your character is able to modify his initiative die by his Dexterity bonus, to a maximum of 6. (See, told ya). Another could be ‘Combat Prodigy’ – Your character gets a +1 to a single initiative die, allowing him to have up to a 7 on initiative (interrupt anyone). The list of advantages would have to be tailored to your game, but because the system is modular, it shouldn’t be two daunting.

In closing, I would like to say I developed this system for Shadowrun, where I did some analysis on how long it took people to roll initiative. Yes, I am that guy at the table that actually used a stop watch during the initiative phase during an entire session. We played using miniatures, so the play-test went very well. The main complaint I got was from the people who would loose actions based on the mechanic as the game does not make you loose an action. After some thought, I came up with a rule that you can do two actions in a single phase if you can cinematically describe your action. i.e. stabbing with two swords at once.

As always, your travels will vary, take what you like and leave the rest for the next person. May your battles be fierce and fast.

3D Modeling – Retro Sci-Fi Spaceship Dice Tower

So it all started when I walked by the 3D printer at work.  The object being printed was square castle tower designed to be a dice tower.  And that got me thinking.  ”I wonder if there are any science fiction themed dice towers shaped like spaceships?”  So when I got back to my office, I opened up Google and started looking.  The answer: Nope.  There were a few sci-fi themed dice towers but for the most part they were just variations on the simple block tower with sci-fi art on them.  I wanted something a little flashier.

Now I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve never used a dice tower in a game and don’t really feel the need for it but I can understand the appeal.  So I figured It was time to sit down and start modeling.

Basic Design

Vector drawing of the ship that shows teh rounded shape of the engines and the squat bulging body of the ship.

The initial outline for the shape of the engines and body of the ship.

Square castle towers work well because they are uniform in size from top to bottom, it’s easy to get the dice in the top and straightforward to get them to come out the bottom.  A spaceship dice tower was going to be a bit trickier.  Most ships taper to points at the top and the bottom, restricting the entry and exit areas for the dice.  It also needed to have room in the middle to allow the dice to tumble around inside.  I also wanted to go for simple as I was going to be 3D printing this and overly complicated shapes are harder to print.

So I settled on a simple design inspired by the now “retro” ships of the mid 20th century pulp science fiction stories and illustrations.  I started by sketching out a simple body design in Inkscape.  The goal was to have a somewhat short and squat ship that flared out large in the middle to allow the dice to tumble through.  The main goal here was to get a basic shape for the body of the ship as that was the most important part.  Additionally I wanted to get the engines roughly proportioned to the body size.  The details of the fins connecting them could come later.

Initial 3D Model

The next step was to build the initial 3D model.  This began by exporting the cross section of the body and the engines from Inkscape in a format my CAD program could read.  Once that was done, I was able to import the 2D cross sections and rotate them into a solid to form the body and the engines.  I then created some simple wedges to be the fins to connect the engines to the body of the ship. This gave me the basic body of the ship.

The outline of the ship rendered into a 3D model

Basic ship model

Model of the volume to be cut out of the center of the ship.  It follows the shape of the ship with wedges cut out where the tumblers will be insdie the body.

The shape that would be cut out of the interior to allow the dice to pass through.

The next step was to hollow out the middle, add obstructions for the dice to tumble against, and an entrance and exit for the dice.  I started with the basic ship body and scaled it down 5%.  The plan was to subtract this off from the interior of the model to form the central hollow space.  From this I cut out three wedges to be the obstructions the dice tumbled against.  When this shape was cut from the main model, it would leave material in the area of the wedges.  This shape was then subtracted from body. to hollow out the center.

For exits, I simply created three openings in the back of the ship between the fins for the dice to come out of.  I realized that the flat bottom of the ship wouldn’t quite work and so I added a cone to provide a slope for the dice to slide off of.

Next, I carved an elliptical opening out of the top of the ship, just above the first wedge as an opening to add the dice.  I realized that this was a little hard to feed the dice into so I added a bulge on the side of the ship that, when cut away by the opening, provided a bit of a platform to drop the dice on to and get them into the tower.

A side by side view of the initial model along with a cut away showing the interior.

The initial prototype ship. The image on the left is the outer shape. The image on the right shows a cut away of the interior.

Finally, I needed a dice tray.  I thought it would be cool if the ship was poised over it’s landing pad so I created a circular landing pad for the ship to rest on.  Originally I had thought about having the ship just rest on the walls of the pad but in the end decided to have the base of the engines in the wall.

This gave me a first design and I printed a small 3″ prototype with scaled d6s to test it all out.

The printed initial prototype with scale dice.

Printed first prototype with scale d6s

First Test and Iterations

All things considered, the prototype worked better than I expected.  The dice mostly tumbled through and came out into the dice tray without too many issues.  However, there were a few problems.

First, the dice would occasionally get stuck right at the exit.  It turned out the pitch of the cone I placed in the back of the ship was a little too steep and the dice were just barely clearing the opening.

Second, ship was too low to it’s landing pad and when the dice tumbled out and went under the ship it was really hard to read the values.

So for the second iteration, I made a few structural changes and added in the cosmetic details that I wanted.

On the structural side, I lowered the pitch of the cone at the back of the ship, nudged the height of the exit apertures up by a millimeter, and raised the height of the base of the ship by about a centimeter to give more clearance and visibility under the ship. I also tweaked the interior wedges to allow more space inside the ship and accommodate larger dice.

Cosmetically I added a number of features.  First, I created an aerodynamic cross-section for the fins and extruded that shape into a 3D object to use in place of the block fins I had used in the first prototype.  Next, I added some rings around the engines to them a little more style and added portholes down the sides of the ships to allow you to see the dice tumbling through.  Then I added a second bulge on the “bottom” of the ship opposite the one I had added to act as a dice tray.  Finally I added “landing rings” and cross-hairs to the dice tray as sort of a target for the ship to land on.

With this version of the model ready, I printed a second 3″ prototype along with a set of polyhedral dice scaled to be 22mm for the d20.

Model file and printed prototype.

Near final model and second small prototype. The image on the left is the model and the image on the right is the 3″ tall prototype.

Second Test and Iterations

This version of the prototype almost worked.  All the dice went through without an issue except for the d20.  The exit apertures still weren’t big enough and the die would get stuck just before coming out.  The solution was to lower the pitch of the cone in the back of the ship and raise the size of the opening just a bit more.

Additionally, I wasn’t happy with printing the ship and the landing pad together.  There is support material need to allow the base of the ship and the fins to print properly and it wasn’t coming off the landing platform cleaning.  I didn’t want marring the final version and so I decided that the landing pad and ship would need to be printed separately.

A full scale model of just the exit apertures of the ship

Full scale exit aperture test with ruler for scale

Since everything else was working fine and looked good, to test these change I decided not to print a full prototype at a small scale but rather to print a full-sized prototype of just the pieces in question.  For the exit aperture this meant just printing out the back of the ship up to the point where the top of the aperture was printed.  That way I could pass actual dice through it and make measurement to determine the exact tolerances in the final dice tower.  For printing the two pieces separately, I printed a portion of the engine and the bit of the tray that it was supposed to slip into to make sure the fit was loose enough for the engine to go into but not too loose.  This was necessary as 3D printing results in pieces being a little big bigger than specified (by just a fraction of a millimeter) and I wanted to make sure my tolerances were okay.

Final Prototype

After printing the full scale parts, I was happy with the way things were working.  The final step was to print a full-sized complete prototype to test out.  I started by printing out the ship, which took about 12 hours.

The prototype about half way done printing.  There is support material under the fins and body and it is printed up to just above where the fins attach to the body of the ship

The full sized prototype printing on an Ultimaker 2+ Extended printer.

Next I printed out the landing pad/dice tray which took another 3 hours.  At this point I noticed a problem.  Somewhere along the way I had accidentally scaled the ship down by about 8% from it’s full size.  I had thought it looked a little small (the openings weren’t quite the same as the partial prototype) but it wasn’t until the dice tray was done that I realized exactly what had happened.  I still don’t know how it happened, just what did happen.  Rather than reprint the larger, more expensive ship, I reprinted the dice tray scaled to match the ship.  Luckily, I had built enough tolerances into the design at this point that my prototype works just fine.


The painted dice tower is silver with metallic blue trim.  The dice tray is black with red trim in the landing rings and crosshairs.

The final painted dice tower along with actual dice for scale.

While I like the texture that 3D printing gives the parts, I wanted to test out my Dremel that I got for my birthday and see about sanding down the body of the ship to make it smoother.  At a first pass I used my Dremel to sand down all the surfaces on the body of the ship.  I then went over that with a finer grit piece of sand paper.  I decided to leave the fins and engines alone for the contrast.

After sanding the ship I applied a coat of silver spray paint to the entire surface.  At that point you could still see areas where it was a little rough.  I sanded the entire body once more until it felt smooth to the touch and then applied another coat of paint.  There were still some areas where it looked like it wasn’t smooth but felt smooth to the touch.  I probably could have gone one more round of sanding and painting to get an optically smooth surface but I liked it the way it was.  Finally I added some color by and painting the bulges, the rings around the engines and the edges of the portholes.

The dice tray was painted black with red in the landing rings and cross hairs.

Final Testing and Model Tweaks

In using the final dice tower I discovered that by raising the ship up in the first iteration, the walls of the dice tray were not quite tall enough and the dice would occasionally bounce out of the tray, especially if there were already a few dice in the tray that they could bounce off of.  Additionally, I felt that the opening in the top of the ship was a little small and so made it slightly bigger to make putting the dice in the tower a bit easier.  These are minor tweaks and I haven’t printed out a model of these changes but they should not cause any problems.

The CAD model of the dice tower with the

Offset style model

Traditional dice towers typically have the dice spill out into a tray in front of the tower, not directly under it.  I liked the tray under the tower stylistically as the landing pad but realized that it might be more practical to have the tray on the side.  To that end I made an alternate model with only one exit aperture and a ramp instead of a cone at the base and tweaked the dice tray to have slots to fit two engines instead of three.  In this model the dice tumble out into the tray that is now offset from the ship which makes viewing the values on the dice a bit easier.

Would you like one of your own?

I was sharing the progress of this project on Google+ as it was going along and several people expressed interest in having one of these towers.  They are quite unique and I’m quite happy about how it all turned out in the end.  In looking at the cost of printing them at work (the cheapest 3D printer I have access to), I realized that I could print them much cheaper myself if I had my own printer.  Given the interest in the project and the opportunity to save people some money, I’ve decided to do a Kickstarter for the dice tower.  You can find the full details in the Kickstarter Project page.

In addition to the full scale version which stands 8.6″ tall, the Kickstarter includes the option for a “super-sized” version that is a full 12″ tall.  The cost for the towers through the Kickstarter are $40 and $60 respectively including shipping in the US.  If the Kickstarter doesn’t fund, I’ll still make them available but the cost will be at least $50 and $80 respectively due to the higher cost of printing them at work.  So if you would like one of these cool dice towers, consider supporting the Kickstarter (which runs through mid Decmember 2016).  And if you have a 3D printer there is a support option for just getting the files to print your own in the Kickstarter as well.

Last Thoughts

This was a lot of fun to make the prototypes, test them, and tweak them to the final design.  I have some other ideas for alternate variations that I might pursue as part of the Kickstarter or afterward that might get another post later.  My kids have had a lot of fun just playing with the ship itself.  My 5 year old like to take it and fly it around the house.  I can’t wait to try it out at an actual game.

If you have any comments, thoughts, or suggestions, feel free to let me know below.

An Epic Monster Battle

I was listening to the Saving the Game podcast, episode 94 on epic monsters and the hosts put out a call for epic monster battles so I thought I’d write one up from the campaign I played in in high school.

The “monster” in question would probably be best classified as a form of lich.  It was of a race known in the game world simply as the Ancients.  The Ancients had been the dominant species on the planet some one to two million years previous and had been supplanted by a race known as the Swamp Giants who had been in turn supplanted by the current dominant race, the Glish some quarter of a million years ago.  All three of these races were reptilian.  Humans made up a very small fraction of the world population and were “aliens” having come from somewhere else.  (There is a huge history I’m glossing over.  When I started playing the GM had been running adventures and writing stories for over 20 years in this world).

In any case, before I joined the group, the party had woken up this Ancient Lich lord while exploring some ruins a few days north of the town they called home.  It the distant past, the Ancient (I don’t know that he ever had a name that we knew) had been the ruler of his people and a powerful wizard/sorcerer.  After the party woke him, he was trying to rebuild a power base in the current era and we would occasionally run afoul of his efforts and spoil his plans.  He would occasionally come after us as we were the only ones that knew his was awake and he was trying to destroy the evidence.

It all culminated in a battle in the ruins of Old Hottam Bridge, which was the center of his kingdom in ages past and where the party had found his tomb and woken him.  He had established an expansive magic gathering device and was funneling magical power from the nodes and lay lines in the ruins to a central location where he was casting a spell attempting to bring his city from the past into the present.

Obviously this would not be good for the countryside and we went in to put an end to it once and for all.  As we worked our way into the heart of the ruins, the scenery would flicker between the present and the past and we had to battle monsters from the ruins agitated by the changes as well as horrors from the planet’s past.

As we explored the ruins, we came across a massive gold wire, probably about an inch in diameter that pulsed with magical energy.  At first we didn’t understand what it was but eventually realized it was the conduit providing the magical power to the Ancient wizard and feeding his spell.

We eventually found the Ancient in a plaza surrounded by minions and in the final phases of his ritual spell to bring his city forward in time to the present.  The scenery was flickering constantly at this point and the Ancient city becoming more and more real.  Out of time and options, we attacked, attempting to break through the barrier of minions and magic surrounding him.  As the battle began someone wondered if it would be possible to stop the spell by disrupting the magical flow and a few of us (my wizard and a few of my retainers) split of from the main assault and doubled back to where we had found the golden wire.  As our group at the time had 8-12 players (I don’t remember the exact numbers) and around 16 party members, 3-4 splitting off was not a big dent in the fire power.

Examining the wire we realized that anyone touching it would be fried to a crisp almost instantly due to the power surging through it.  So we came up with an alternate plan.  On of the characters had a Bladesharp 6 spell (we were playing a modified version of RuneQuest 3rd ed).  And I had a spell that allowed me to animate metal.  So one of the players donated his scimitar, the other player enchanted it, and using my animation spell we used the sword to slice through the gold wire with us standing as far away as the spell’s range would allow and behind cover.

The results were spectacular (although disastrous for the scimitar).  The blade sliced through the wire (the enchantment made it possible) and released a torrent of magical energy in a huge light and energy show.  At the other end, the disruption in energy flow caused the spell to collapse and temporarily stunned the Ancient wizard.  The surroundings reverted to the present day ruins and the party was able to overcome and finally defeat the wizard once and for all, destroying the magics that kept him linked to life.

In the aftermath, as the group was sorting through the wizard’s treasures, I asked if I could have the wire.  Bemused by all the other things found, everyone readily agreed and I began to gather it all up.  In the end, it amounted to nearly half a million gold coins in value so I made out like a bandit.  Needless to say, I bought the other character a very nice new sword.



My Introduction to RPGs

I mentioned in a previous post that I was going to write up how I originally got involved in RPGs.  This is going to be that post so if you’re not interested in biographical information on about me, you can probably just skip this one.

Image of the Basic Rules Red BoxAs many of us that started gaming back in the early days of the hobby, I was first introduced to RPGs via Dungeons and Dragons.  In my case it was the Red Box Basic Set (I’m not old enough for an earlier edition :) ).  And like many, I played my first games at school, sixth grade to be exact.  However, in my case, it wasn’t at lunch or hanging out with friends after school was out.  It was actually in class and part of the curriculum (well, sort of).

The year was 1983.  I was living in Fort Rucker, Alabama where my dad was an air traffic control instructor for the US Army.  Being one of the “smart kids” I was enrolled in the school’s Gifted and Talented program.  Practically, this mean that one day a week (I think it was Wednesdays), those of us in the GT program would go with a different teacher to a separate classroom and work on various different or advanced curriculum topics.  I remember having a beehive in the classroom (it opened up outside and we got to eat the honey at the end of the year), dissecting an octopus, and a number of other things 5th and 6th graders don’t typically do in an average classroom.

My 6th grade year, one of the other students introduced this role-playing game to the teacher and made a pitch for running those of us in the class on an adventure.  Apparently he made a good case because the teacher agreed.  Over the course of the next few weeks, an hour or two of each class was spent with our desks in a circle, a character sheet in front of each person, and dice being passed back and forth to make rolls.

I honestly don’t remember anything about what adventure we went on, if the other student made it up or ran a pre-published module.  I do know it wasn’t B2 Keep on the Borderlands that came with the boxed set because when I got my copy, I did not recognize the adventure we played.  There were only about 6-8 students in the class so the group size wasn’t too big and I don’t remember if the teacher played or if she just watched.  I do remember having a lot of fun and thinking that it was something I could really get into.

My 12th birthday came just shortly after we finished playing at school.  I had a birthday party and the guy that ran the game at school gave me a copy of the red box as a birthday present.  I devoured the rules and then rolled up characters with two of my younger siblings (I’m the oldest in the family) who would have been 8 and 6 at the time and we started adventuring.

Of course this was right at the height of the so called “Satanic Panic” in the RPG world and my parents were a little skeptical.  They didn’t have a problem with the concept of role-playing games per se, but with all the hoopla surrounding D&D at the time, they were a little leery of it.  So it wasn’t a “Thou shalt not play role-playing games!”  It was more like “Maybe you should play something else.”  So we made a deal (offered by my parents):  stop playing D&D and give them the rule books (I could keep the dice) and they would buy me a different game.

Original Star Frontiers boxed set coverWell, I’ve always been more partial to science fiction than fantasy anyway and I had been eyeing this sci-fi game at the Post Exchange (PX) on base.  For those unfamiliar with military bases, that’s the on-base department store.  And yes, they carried RPGs on base.  It was called Star Frontiers and was made by the same company that made D&D.  So I handed over by Basic Set and my parents bought me Star Frontiers.  And if you’ve been paying attention, I’ve never really looked back.

I’ve played a few other games over the years although I never really ever went back to D&D.  Beyond the game at school and the ones I ran with my brothers, the only other time I ever played was a few sessions of 2e in grad school in the late nineties.  I own and have read the 2e Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide but have never ran them.

That’s how I got started in the hobby.  How about you?  Feel free to share your story or comment on mine below.