Thursday, 23 April 2009

The Monsters and Manuals Interview [#2 - Brian Murphy]

An occasional series of interviews with other RPG bloggers.

Brian Murphy is a wolf-breeder and turkey-shoot-stall owner from the town of Dead Weasel in Minnesota. As well as his many other pursuits, he is a reknowned expert on tobacco pipes and the author of the nonfiction bestseller Spitoons of the Wild West: 1854-68. His favourite food is marzipan and he once killed a man just to watch him die. His dream is to be the first man to travel from pole to pole via zeppelin, and he is the current butter-eating world record holder.

1 - Let's begin at the beginning. Can you remember your first gaming session? What happened, and why did it suck you into the hobby?

My first gaming session was December of '81 (I think). I was DM, after having read Moldvay's Basic thanks to leaving the light on in the hall outside my bedroom the night before. It was just bright enough to read by even with the light in my room out. My mother, brother, and father rolled characters, but my dad was the only one who really played. The guy has a PhD in Chem E, so I got right into the whole lateral thinking deal. When I described the black veins in the rocks of the Caves of Chaos, he asked what they were. I had no idea, so I asked him what they could be. He floated some suggestions, and the one I latched on to was coal. He then proceeded to powder the coal and use to, in effect, create a bomb to blast in the doors of the goblin warren.

My father decided he never wanted to play D&D again, because the game was too violent for his tastes. He did, though, do some free-form gaming with me on airplane trips later, mostly sci-fi stuff. I can only claim that first session as a moderate success, but even then I got a hint of the game's potential. And honestly, at the time I was crazy for anything with knights and dragons and all that in it. I'd already devoured C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, and from there launched into The Hobbit, King Arthur, and Robin Hood. If the game had utterly sucked, I still probably would have played the living daylights out if it.

2 - Tell us about your first ever character.

Ho boy! I don’t remember his name, but I do remember he was a ranger. Yes, I started with Moldvay/Cook, but I didn’t get to actually play until I had AD&D. In his very first adventure, he barely survived the Palace of the Silver Princess, and I was quite annoyed when the awakened princess wanted the loot we’d gathered. And I remember thinking there was something fishy about the story she told us. I was probably twelve or thirteen at the time, so this guy didn’t have much personality. He did have a very cool magical repeating crossbow (we were ignorant of the Chinese design at the time) which fired bolts like a machine gun, and poisoned them on the way out. I just told the DM how many seconds I kept the trigger down for and he rolled dice behind the screen to tell me how many died.

The game skirted Monty Haul but never quite devolved into it. There were always challenges, but again, primarily of the lateral sort. Even after he had a castle/spaceship, my ranger was struggling to keep thieves out, convince his people they really needed to pay at least some taxes, and rid the sewers of annoying giant rats and zombies.

The moment I remember best was when he ended up finally facing down Loki, a character who had been a bit of a thorn in his side. Loki proved immune to poisoned crossbow bolts, but my ranger did have a girdle of giant strength at that point. So while grappling with the trickster god, my ranger ripped Loki’s arm off and proceeded to beat him to death with it. I seem to remember the attitude of the rest of the pantheon being something like, “Well, it was Loki, so I guess we won’t make too big a deal about it. But don’t get cocky!” ;)

3 - Have you been playing regularly ever since, or have their been long gaps in your gaming?

HUUUUUUUGE gaps. From about 5th grade to 8th I only got to play maybe once every few months. Mostly, I kept gaming alive by reading Dragon, mapping out dungeons nobody every explored, and daydreaming.

4 - What do you think attracts you to the hobby? Why this and not, say, cross-stitch or ice hockey?

Not much ice in south Texas and last time I checked out cross-stitch, there was a noticeable lack of scantily clad beauties and rubies the size of a man’s skull. ;)

Seriously, RPGs are a sort of crossroad for lots of interests of mine: reading, writing, puzzles, history, anthropology, fashion, science, nature, sex, mythology, sociology, architecture, travel, exploration, fantasy, sci-fi, and art. For the price of snacks, I can hit on all of those in a single four-hour session while wallowing in my joy of daydreaming, and I get to share it with other people, too. I really can’t imagine a better hobby.

And deep inside me there’s still a nine-year-old boy who’s just gaga over knights and dragons and Robin Hood.

5 - Is there anything about the hobby you strongly dislike?

Not really. There are some things I’d like to change. I’d like to play more, and get paid for doing so. But there’s nothing I strongly dislike about it.

6 - How would you introduce a newcomer to rpgs? Have you ever done so?

A few times, yes. The last time was with a girlfriend in college. I sold it to her as an Infocom game, but with a real person at the other end who wouldn't keep spitting back “You don’t see that here.” She created a whip-wielding magic-user for 2e who was heavily influenced by Indiana Jones, and I gave her an adventure that was all traps and puzzles. We had a blast, and last I heard she hadn't books and still had some interest in RPGs.

I think the old ways are best here. It *is* like a story or your favorite action movie, but you’re the main character, and you get to make the choices. How would you escape the cyclops, or sneak into Dr. Evil’s hidden undersea base? Does your character fall in love with the mysterious stranger with the jade green eyes or the childhood friend who has stuck by you through thick and thin? What would you do with your share of Smaug’s hoard? Answering those questions is fun. So is playing through the consequences.

7 - Do you hide the fact that you game, or do you live an "I am who I am" geek dream?

I couldn’t hide it if I wanted to. My new boss introduces me to everyone we meet as, “He was my DM in college!” ;D

8 - What would your 'desert island game' be? (That is, if you were marooned on a desert island with four other rpg players and you only had one set of rulebooks, which books would you choose?)

Define “set”. ;) If you’re going to hold my feet to the fire, I’d probably go with Moldvay/Cook, but I’ve always mixed it up. In my currently Labyrinth Lord game, I'm using a lot of Moldvay/Cook, the BECMI Creature Catalogue, 1e DMG and monster books (MM, MM2, and FF), yak folk from 3e, and my vast collection of Dragon magazines, as well as my growing collection of Fight On! issues. And that’s not counting all the resources on the web, like your page or Taichara’s Hamsterish Hoard, about which not enough good things can be said.

9 - Have you ever toyed with the idea of writing rpg material for money? Ever tried to get anything published? Ever self-published?

Thought about it and done it! I got my first rejection slip from Wolfgang Baur when he was at Dragon Magazine. It was for an article on designing adventures based around political intrigue. A lot of the ideas I talked about in that article are now are common practice in some games, things like relationship charts and paths of knowledge, but at the time I thought I was coming up with them for the first time. Mr. Baur was right to reject it; I was fresh out of college and wrote it like a college paper: dry and wordy. The friend I mentioned who made the Indiana Jones-esque magic-user later helped me whip that article into shape and it got published in KoDT. To date, that’s been the extent of my getting paid for RPG writing.

I was really excited about the OGL, but could never get into 3e. Without playing it, I really didn’t feel qualified to write anything, so I never did anything with it. I regret that a bit, but I don’t regret at all sticking with the 1e/2e mash-up I played.

10 - What would be your ideal soundtrack to a session of your favourite gamee? Pick three songs.

- 1: “The Road To La Coruna” from the Seville Suite by Bill Whelan

- 2: ”Riddle of Steel/Riders of Doom” from the “Conan the Barbarian” soundtrack by Basil Poledouris

- 3: “Sea of Miracles” from the “Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight” soundtrack by Yoko Kanno

11. So your favourite game seems to be Moldvay/Cook (or mixed up Moldvay/Cook). Can I ask why? Is it just nostalgia, as your first game? It seems that most people tend towards citing their first game as their favourite, though of course there are exceptions.

Nostalgia is part of it. Just looking at that Jeff Dee, Erol Otis, and Bill Willingham art puts me in the mood to game. But I probably wouldn't have given the game a second look but for the old school renaissance. Like most, I couldn't see past the parts I was hung up on: race-as-class, hit points, the fact that an axe and a sword are almost identical in mechanical terms. The bloggers of the renaissance, especially Jeff Rients, James Maliszewski, and most especially Robert Fisher and Philotomy, got me to really see the potential for the old versions.

Now, that said, I think you can talk about old school DMs ranging across a spectrum. At one end are the purists who love the game just as it is. These are the folks who will argue for the beautiful simplicity of race-as-class and one die for all weapons types. At the other end of this spectrum are the tinkerers. They look at all that simplicity and see it as an invitation to treat D&D as a fantasy RPG construction set. I fall firmly on that latter end of the spectrum. When Mr. Maliszewski was talking about a swords-and-sorcery D&D project, which led him to start his Grognardia blog, one of his mantras was take what old D&D gives you, and then turn it up to 11. He was the first one I'd read who suggested that memorizing a spell should have side effects, which led to my list of secondary-powers and “leakage” effects for the magic-user spells. And it was in that same spirit that I started to think that if I was going to use descending AC and the combat tables, there was no reason for the numbers to march in order, 18, 17, 16, etc. all the way down. That was the inspiration for my rogue's funky to-hit tables. Wanting to play more with henchmen and loyalty was the inspiration for my gnome class. I've just about got a hierodule class written based on some tinkerings with the morale system, though that one has a few major issues that still have me stumped.

I love this ability to tinker and make the game your own. Based on some stuff from your blog and David Larkin's writing about Pendragon and other high fantasy themes, my LL game was originally going to be set in Cerilia of the Birthright setting. But I kept finding myself drawn to the artwork of Frazetta and Elmore, the mythology of ancient Mesopotamia and Babylon, and the sword-and-sorcery literature of Howard and Leiber and Wagner. As much as I've been enjoying Erikson's Malazan novels, finding a copy of Christopher Silke's Tooth and Claw set my brain on fire. I devoured it over a weekend and after that my course was set. The cool thing about D&D is how easy it was to change gears. With a system like True20, which I'd been tinkering with previously, that sort of change would have required a lot of work, but with D&D I just fiddled with the equipment lists and deities and I was most of the way there.

12. Ripping off Loki's arm and beating him to death with it! I've never heard that one before. How much damage did one blow of Loki's severed arm do? Are your games that wacky these days?

I think the arm did only 1-2 points of damage, but it counted as magical for the purposes of harming a god, and with my girdle of giant strength I was probably doing +6 to +8 on every hit. And 1e gods had like 100 or so hit points before they have their arms ripped off. ;)

As for being wacky, I dunno, honestly. Talking about the way I DM is difficult sometimes because to me it's like saying the sky is blue. A lot of my style started with that first game, with my dad powdering coal and turning it into a bomb and stuff like that. I don't think it's wacky, because to me that's what playing D&D is supposed to be like. So when Oddysey's Rukmini led the tarantella into the bed of amber lotus, I was more than happy to roll with it. It was a cool idea. Was it wacky? I didn't think so. I thought it was clever. Are hedonistic elves and dragon-worshiping pirates wacky? What about carnivorous riding-birds and hierodule PCs? They're certainly not any wackier than clockwork modrons or the Lady of Pain. To me, that's just D&D turned up to 11.

13. What prevented you from getting into 3e?

3e was a real heartbreak for me. It promised everything I'd always said I'd wanted in D&D: an end to level-limits and weapon restrictions, a robust skill system, and monsters who were as detailed as the PCs themselves. And I was just buzzing with the thought of the OGL. I was all ready to create a campaign and adventures and turn them into products for sale.

Instead, I found the game horribly unwieldy. There was so much stuff to work with, stat blocks that took up an entire page, characters who were supposed to be heroes but could barely demonstrate competency in skills I'd grown confident in by the age of 16, and that's not even getting into the unintended consequences. 3E was the last nail in the coffin of my trust in professional game design. 2E's Tome of Magic nearly derailed my college game. At that point, I should have seen the writing on the wall, but it was really 3e that finally convinced me there was no set of rules I could play out-of-the-box without some serious tinkering.

So I played some 3e but never ran it as a DM. It turned out everything I'd always wanted was nothing like what I enjoyed running. I'd play in a 3e game today with the right DM, but I don't see myself ever going back to run it. What I want these days are toolkits to make the games I'm excited about playing. That means games like True20, GURPS, and Moldvay/Cook D&D.

Brian would have us believe that he looks like this:


  1. This has nothing to do with this (good) interview, it has to do with your post 2 days ago where you said you wished you knew more about "space".

    Well, here you go, an amazing resource I just found:

  2. So... are Brian Murphy (aka Trollsmyth) and the eponymous writer for "The Cimmerian" the same guy wearing two different hats, or not? Have *you* ever seen them in the same place at the same time?

    Are both instances of Brian Murphy-ism in fact part of the cunning Oirish plan to use clones to gradually dominate the blogosphere (and paint it a refreshing green)?

  3. Zak: That is one of the best websites EVER MADE. Thanks.

    Chris: They would have us believe they are two different people. However, it seems fairly clear to me that since they both have the same name, both live in North America, and are around the same age, this cannot possibly be true. They must in fact be the same person.

    Actually Brian Murphy who writes for the Cimmerian also has a blog called The Silver Key which is well worth reading. Check my blog roll for the link.

  4. Chris and noisms. The Brian Murphy of the Silver Key and I are seperate people... from a 3-dimensional point of view. However, when viewed in our proper 4-dimensional form, it's easy to discern that we are merely appendages of a single, larger being that impinges upon your 3-dimensional world in a number of places. Fear not, for if we are properly placated with offerings of marzipan and decent metal music, all will be well.

    Actually, considering the state of metal today, maybe you should be worried... ;)

  5. Wolf-breeder and murderer, eh? Sounds like a helluva guy.

  6. I'm disturbed at Brian's lack of heavy metal in response to your 'gaming soundtrack' question. Dio is ashamed of you right now, Brian.