Arcade/MAME Project, Pt IV


  • by Gitabushi

Previous installments here: Start (Pt 1), Update I (Part II), Part III

I ended up buying a few pre-made cards that included a crapton of roms off of eBay.

The first one had 18,000 games installed. You aren’t supposed to buy these, because while some games are abandonware or otherwise public domain, a bunch of them aren’t.  They are bootlegged, hacked, copied, or otherwise not legal copies.

Retropie insists you do not purchase pre-imaged cards.  The software is available for download for free.  There is no reason to buy a pre-imaged card.  Unless you want the games that are, at best, a gray area to own.

So I don’t recommend doing it.

My goal was to just to have something to play, while waiting for my own downloaded free RetroPie image to get tweaked up, and then I’d transfer the roms, or just use the roms I already have.

Except nothing worked.

I couldn’t extract the roms from the purchased card. I couldn’t keep the WiFi hooked up. I could connect a bluetooth keyboard, but a conflict with a pre-installed PS3 bluetooth controller messed up the stack so the keyboard was unusable.  Learning to configure the controller was a pain. Configuring a second controller inevitably resulted in glitches making the 2nd controller useless. When an emulator didn’t work and I tried a second suggested emulator, the system prevented me from changing it back or trying another.  I couldn’t seem to add Mame4All as an alternative emulator option. Even adding the roms to my self-imaged card didn’t work.

And only about 1/3 of the games i wanted to play worked.

So I went back to eBay and put in a lowball offer on a card that promised *curated* games. But the offer was so low, I figured it would get rejected and so put in another lowball offer on another.

Then they both got accepted.

The first card was 18k games on a 128gb card. The 2nd was 14k on a 32gb card, and the 3rd (hasn’t arrived yet) is 22k on a 64gb card.

The 2nd card arrived yesterday. And it has a RecalBox program rather than RetroPie. I didn’t immediately realize there was much of a difference, because the appearances were similar. I had a little difficulty getting the controller configuration menu opened and navigated…the controller had a default button configuration, and once I figured that out, it configured easily and I was able to intuitively add favorites, tweak the system (reducing the default overclocking), and try out some games. Every game I tried, worked.

This morning, I looked into what the difference is between RetroPie and RecalBox.

The question “What’s better?” isn’t really answerable, because the answer is “it depends on your skill level and what you want.”  But if you just want to know the difference, the expert in the video says that RetroPie gives you more control over all the details, but RecalBox is easier to set up and use for newbies.

That certainly was my experience.

The 3rd card arrives on Friday.  It is a RetroPie image, but it claims that all the games are curated (checked to be sure they work), so we’ll see if it is as frustrating.

But at this point, I’d recommend downloading RecalBox (also free) to set up your retro arcade player on a Raspberry Pi.  And then acquiring games by whatever method you feel is appropriate.
Next up: I finally figured out what I want out of/from/in a controller.  The standard setup isn’t it.

MAME/Arcade Project, Update 1

  • by Gitabushi

Okay, I’ve found where you can get the Pi Zero for $5. You have to go direct to dealers:

Raspberry Pi Zero

It seems like the best place for a power supply is still Amazon, at $8 for one with an on/off switch:

You want the on/off switch, or else you can only reset by yanking the power cord out of the socket, and that’s very bad for computers.

The power supplies from the dealers are either more expensive than $8, or lack the on/off aspect, or both.

Also, note that you need the hdmi adapter and you have to solder a header on to use a pHat, but it looks like for an Arcade system, you don’t have to worry about that.


Still, you start adding in all the necessary extras, and the zero might not be worth its reduced cost.  I’ll find out or figure it out and get back to you.

MAME/Arcade Project

  • by Gitabushi

I’ve learned so much over the last 4 days, it’s hard to know where to begin.

And that’s why it can be so difficult to get started.  There are so many people who have tutorials and advice and input into how to build your own home arcade/retro emulator system, that it can be difficult to know what to retain of what you want.

I’m going to try to sum it all up, and make this a one-stop shop for if you want to develop a home Arcade or Retro home gaming system.

Basically, deciding to develop a home arcade/retro gaming system is pretty much a series of binary choices (or near binary):

  • Do you want to buy something virtually ready to go out of the box, or build your own?
  • Do you want to build an arcade cabinet, or build a controller box that you can plug into any TV?
  • Do you want the original game controller configuration, or are you willing to adapt to a standard set of controls?
  • Do you want to just play Arcade games, or do you want retro games like NES, SNES, GameBoy and Sega?  Or both?

I basically want to play a few set games:

Joust (1 joystick, 1 button per player, 2 player)
Karate Champ (2 joysticks per player, 2 player)
Dig Dug (1 joystick, 1 button per player, 1 player (because if you have 2 players, they play in a series, not simultaneously…although the game had 2 buttons with simultaneous function, I guess for Left and Right handed players)
Gauntlet (1 joystick, 2 buttons per player, 4 player)
Street Fighter 2 (1 joystick, 6 buttons per player, 2 player)

There are things you could do to accomodate all that.  You could make a 4 player control panel, with a joystick and 6 buttons for each player, and then if you loaded a game that needed less, just disable input of the unneeded buttons and joysticks.  That would mean that Karate Champ would be played by using the joysticks of 2 players and ignoring all the buttons.

It’s doable, even the use of the joysticks of two different players for Karate Champ, because it shouldn’t really matter if they are widespread.  It depends on how much of the arcade nostalgia experience you want to have.

That’s kind of the first non-binary question: how important is it to you to have the full arcade experience?  It leads to the first sorta-binary question:

Do you want an arcade cabinet, or just to play the games?

Because if you just want to play the games, like Joust, you can get an emulator that will work on your computer, and use your keyboard buttons…and even assign the keyboard buttons as you wish for convenience, so two can play using the same keyboard.

You can even set up Karate Champ to use keyboard keys, because the joysticks really are just a way to input “up/down/right/left” signals. Easy to do with keys.

When you do a game emulator the roms accept keyboard inputs to control what you do in the game.  So when you buy all your joysticks and buttons and trackballs and spinners, the first thing you do is attack all those inputs into a circuit board, which then outputs all the signals to the computer. Which is either your PC, a Raspberry Pi, or some proprietary circuit board/processor in the retro machine you bought.  Right now, most of the retro machines on use Raspberry Pi or Orange Pi.

So, really, the sky’s the limit when it comes to inputs.

If you want to play Joust, Street Fighter, Centipede, Gauntlet, and Tempest, you can build 5 different machines, each with their own Raspberry Pi or PC “brains”, and each with a separate set of controls.

Or you could build one arcade cabinet with different control panels that you could swap out (and there is enough space in the cabinet you could make a carpet-lined storage spot for each board). In this case, there is one screen and one brain. Each control module would have its input controls (joysticks, buttons, spinner, etc.) and the input circuit board.  It’s output would be a USB that you would plug into the “brain” (probably a Raspberry Pi).  You’d save the cost of the multiple screens, multiple sound systems, and multiple cabinets.  This might be the cheapest choice to get a complete set of accurate control panels for ALL the games.  And you could start with one control module that can play a set number of games, and then add as you get bored or want to invest more money.  Even the 2-joystick system for Karate Champ is shared with Robotron and SmashTV (among others).  Add a single button, and you can ignore a joystick and play Joust and Dig Dug and Donkey Kong…and anything in the Pac Man series, even without the button.

Something like this:


Plans for this can be purchased for $20.  I’d want to do something slightly different, because I’d want to drop in the control modules…the 4-player gauntlet would be about 4 feet tall, and would have to go into the back part.  The Karate Champ and Joust control modules could go in the front, probably.  It would make the wife happier to have all the modules have a dedicated, hidden storage location.

Or you could build individual boxes, each with its own brain, and the output would be an HDMI cable that you plug into the TV.  This is the most flexible.  You could bring a box over to your friend’s house to play.  You could bring a smaller one on vacation. Something like this:   Obviously, that one wouldn’t work for Joust or Missile Command.  And it wouldn’t work for Gauntlet unless you made 4 of them…which, since the Raspberry Pi has 4 USB inputs, would probably actually work.

A Raspberry Pi itself (if you want to really build your own from scratch) costs around $35.  But don’t let that fool you.  You also need a power supply.You’ll probably need some heat sinks (to prevent overheating…there are some programs that will stress the system, more on this later). You might want a power-off switch.  Depending on your application, you might want a case.

This is the cheapest I’ve found, might be enough for an arcade system, but you’ll still need to add an on/off switch.

This includes the on/off switch, but also includes a case you won’t need if your Pi will stay in the arcade cabinet, or inside your controller module:

You could get a Raspberry Pi 4, which has additional capabilities, but now we are up to over $60, which adds a bunch of costs if you want to put a Pi into each controller box (for the non-cabinet solution):

But, to be honest, all you *really* need is a Raspberry Pi Zero.  Remember that the goal is achieve the computing power for 30 year old arcades and home consoles.  That’s not difficult, and the Zero meets or exceeds it. The only problem you’re going to have trying to use a Raspberry Pi Zero for emulation is if you try to do 32-bit games, which is the N64, PS1, and Sega Saturn era. Basically, if you can give up on 3D games and just stick to 2D, the Raspberry Pi Zero is enough.

Supposedly, you can get a Zero for just $5.  Amazon doesn’t have that, tho, because you need a bunch of stuff to make it work, and they helpfully sell it all to you in a kit. Here’s one, the cheapest I have found so far for one that includes a power supply, at $26:

So, basically, if you decide to use multiple brains for each set of games, you are adding about $25 if you use the Zero.  Maybe you less if you find a non-WiFi equipped version somewhere else, and buy your power supplies and other peripherals in bundles?  Dunno.

What I’ve decided to do is buy enough equipment to set up a controller module with its own brain, and see how I like it before I decide to build an arcade cabinet or not.

What I’ll do is buy one Raspberry Pi Zero, 4 joysticks, and 8 buttons.  Then I will take a cardboard box and install the controls in the box. I’ll reinforce it somewhat, and then play the games on it.  That gives me the chance to adjust the locations of the controls to see what kind of spacing works best, without having put that much work into it.  It will allow me to easily adjust the controller-to-USB-board arrangements, to see how easy it would be to modularize the inputs…so could I have a module of 6 buttons that I can swap out with a joystick or with 2 buttons, so that I can switch between Gauntlet, Street Fighter, Joust, and Karate Champ configurations?  Or will it work to just have one big board with 4 joysticks and 6 buttons for each joystick, and just disable the inputs that aren’t needed for each game (using two different players’ joysticks and no buttons at all for Joust)?

After a few weeks of experience, I’ll be able to tell if I just miss standing in front of an arcade, or if having to use widespread joysticks annoys me for Joust or if the 4 unused Street Fighter buttons annoy me for Gauntlet, or 5 unused buttons annoy me for Dig Dug.

I think this is where I’m leaning, however: one big board that has all those options.  Hopefully the unused buttons or stations won’t annoy me. Because that will really provide the maximum number of games without having to change anything.  And if I enjoy it playing it on a regular TV, that just saves me the hassle of trying to build something like this:


Here’s a good link for everything that goes into making a controller panel:

How to make a Raspberry Pi arcade (with NO programming)

Now that I’ve made my decision, and hopefully helped you get closer to making your decision, future installments will detail my actual buying and building process, including which controllers I’ve chosen, and why.


Hustling…and Zombies

I know, I know – I kind of dropped off the face of the earth. Posts have been sparse here for a while now, but I haven’t even been writing over at SFF Central.

Truth be told, my wife and I started up a business a couple months ago and that’s where the majority of my time has been going when I’m not at my full-time gig or rearing the bushi kid. No, we’re not exactly growing and selling premium pickles. I’m not willing to say much more about it right now, though. The super tolerant crowd is always ready to destroy your life for your wrong opinions and I’m not overeager to expose my family to that.

have scraped together a few moments here and there – on lunch breaks and stolen chunks of sleep time – to play Plants vs Zombies: Heroes. I’m sure the superhero bubble is poised to burst at any time now, but I love me a good collectible card game. PvZ Heroes has a lot going for it – it’s got enough variety of cards and strategy to make things interesting and frequently different, but it’s simple enough to learn and play quickly. Matches are usually only a few minutes long and so far it doesn’t feel unfair in the same way that these kinds of games too easily can.

Of course it’s taken certain elements from Hearthstone – you get an allowance of spend-it-or-lose-it sun or brains (aka mana) at an increasing rate each turn. But there are enough differences from Hearth to make it its own unique thing. You manage lanes, you get periodic super powers unique to each hero, and zombies and plants have different turn dynamics.

Oh and there’s also PvP. I love that wood tier is actually a real starting placement here and not just a put-down.

I’ve also been crawling through Jack Vance’s The Last Castle in small increments. I can sometimes find 15-20 minutes before heading to work in the morning, but if the baby wakes up early then all bets are off.

At any rate, I’m still alive.



Retro Arcade Gaming

  • by Gitabushi

This weekend, I took my kid back to college in Huntsville, Alabama.  While there, we stumbled across the Rocket City Arcade, where they offer a host of classic arcade games that you can play all day for just $10.

It had been a long day of driving, and so we only played for about an hour. But it felt like even that hour was well worth the money spent.

One precondition was they had to have Joust, and they did.


It took me a little time to get the game skills back, but by the fourth game, I got 64k points and set the high score for the game. I’m really not sure why no one plays it, because 64k points wasn’t that tough to get.  I think in my heyday I must have broken 100k points, because 64k points included making it past just one survival wave and one egg wave, and I think i can remember making it to at least 3 egg waves previously.

The thing I love about Joust is there are no patterns to learn at all. No way to memorize a method or route that lets you beat the AI, or even puts you in a good position, like you can with games like Pac Man or Super Mario Brothers.  Your flapping works against gravity based on your rate of taps, and it is impossible to hold a perfectly rock-steady altitude.  Left and right are possible, but it often takes some finesse to zero out your lateral motion.

There are some places where you can hang out that make it more likely to kill the bad guys, but holding position there is tough, and if you camp there, they’ll get you.

Great game. Highly recommended.  Probably my favorite game of all time, although Karate Champ is also very good.

The arcade also had a great old Star Wars game, where you shot tie fighters before making a trench run. As the game got tougher and faster, with more defending fire directed at you, the trick was to use your blasters to hit the defending fire and stay alive; shooting the enemy was only a secondary goal.

I got to try Donkey Kong, and made it to the 3rd level pretty easily. Got to do a few driving games, which are always fun.  One game I loved, but only saw once, was a stunt driving game.  You did jumps, loops, etc., and the game had some feedback that helped you feel you were actually driving the car doing the stunts. I’d pay good money for an original game in good condition to have the chance to play that and get good at it, but that is apparently not my fate.  It might have been Atari’s “Hard Drivin'”, now that I’ve taken a moment to search.  I thought I remembered green vector graphics, rather than the CRT graphics of “Hard Drivin'”…but the description of showing a replay of your crash sounds familiar, and the gameplay sure seems familiar, too.  Memory is a funny thing.

But that wasn’t one of the games they had.  They did have, however, The Simpsons, and Crystal Castles (boring) and the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Several shooting games, but those weren’t as fun.  I usually died in seconds, and only got anywhere by hitting “continue”.  My kid and I had some bonding/fun on one of those for about 10 minutes.

They had a modern update to Rampage, which sucked. Different versions of Street Fighter, which was always best in the original Street Fighter 2 edition, before all the special moves just got stupidly complex and powerful. They had some Galaga types. They had Commando, and I died too quickly to want to try to get back any of that game’s muscle memory skills.

All in all, it was a fun trip down memory lane for me, and a chance for my kid to understand what gaming used to be like.

Doing a quick search, I’m seeing that several places combine retro games with bars. I didn’t look deeply enough to see if you still have to pay for the games. If you pay bar/pub prices for drinks, plus a quarter per game, it doesn’t seem worth it to me.  There’s one in the DC area; I might try it.

But playing the game has convinced me that I will probably will purchase an Arcade1UP Rampage machine, as it includes Joust and Gauntlet. Rampage is okay. Gauntlet is actually kind of fun.  I’ve played a pretty good Gauntlet emulation with my kid on the PS2, and the ability to just hit “continue”, with the loss of limitation of needing to drop a quarter in, makes the game much less fun.  “Red Warrior Needs Food, Badly” is a sentence that sends chills down your spine if you have already given the machine your last quarter.

The system also has Defender, which is perhaps the most masochistic game Williams ever invented.  But that is a game that might be enhanced by eliminating the necessity of quarters: it might actually now be feasible to practice to the point of actually getting good at it.

What classic arcade game was your favorite? Which do you miss? If you missed out on the era, which do you wish you’d gotten to try?

Game mechanics: elemental and environmental interactions

I never got that far into Divine Divinity: Original Sin, but the thing that really impressed me and kept me playing as long as I did was its combat. More specifically, the level of interaction between spells, elemental effects, and the environment was fresh and engaging.

Electricity doing stupid damage to characters or enemies with the misfortune of standing in water has been done many times in video games, but Divinity: OS took it much further.

For example, setting a poison gas cloud or a pool of poison or oil on fire would go BOOM. Sometimes, like if you chucked fire at a vent continuously spewing gas, this would yield some glitchy and/or funny results.

Electrifying wet characters or surfaces could produce a stun effect. Characters moving over ice had a chance to stumble and fall prone.

All these interactions provided a great range of tactical possibilities and made combat quite exciting.

Likewise, Has-Been Heroes implements a number of elemental combinations.


Water spells can soak enemies and cause puddles to form. Electricity arcs between targets and deals double damage to anything that’s soaked.

Poisoned enemies, when set ablaze, take a burst of damage (which expends the poison). Puddles exposed to poison become poison puddles. Poison puddles exposed to fire have a chance to turn into lava.

Soaked enemies, when frozen, stay frozen longer. Soaked enemies exposed to wind become frozen.

I’m sure I’ve left some combinations out, but you get the idea.

I was just thinking – I don’t remember any kind of elemental synergies or interactions in D&D (3.5, at least), aside from maybe using magical fire to light up some oil or something of that nature. Maybe they wouldn’t work or would be difficult to balance. Still, they could add for some cool gameplay.

All I know is I’ve really enjoyed the elemental mechanics employed by these two video games and am hoping more games get similarly creative in the future.



Switch: Has-Been Heroes


My PlayStation 4 lies fallow, and my gaming PC gathers dust. But this was foreseen and expected. Someday I will lay down my plow and once again take up the sword. For now, though, this whole rearing a little person thing doesn’t allow me much room.

I do sometimes get to play a bit at night or in the small hours of the morning – times reserved for sleep or frivolity. For the first several weeks of my son’s life, I vacillated between my 3DS and my Switch (which I resisted for quite some time, but has grown on me). Nowadays the Switch is my go-to. When you need to be able to run to the kitchen for your spouse or pop a pacifier in your infant’s mouth with all due haste, the ability to pause your gaming on the fly is a necessity. The ability to play the same game in bed or in a lounging position on any couch or other mostly flat surface is also highly desirable.

I’ve been playing Has-Been Heroes. There are other games on my radar, but right now I’ve got to stretch what I’ve got, and it isn’t really that much of a challenge (putting aside my compulsion to hoard and stockpile both books and games to consume “eventually”).


This game starts off simple. “Oh, you just move these guys between lanes and cast spells when they’re off cooldown. This may get old fast.” Then you begin to discover the way the different elements interact. Water + fire creates steam, which slows enemies. Wet enemies buffeted with wind spells will freeze. And this is just scratching the surface.

Then you start to unlock new characters, items, spells, map nodes, enemies. And there are tons of these unlockables.

Suffice it to say this game’s got a lot of potential mileage, if you’ve got the stomach for it. I can’t accurately approximate the importance of luck vs skill, but both are necessary to complete runs as the game progresses. Sometimes you just get shit spells or can’t find enough battles to fill your coffers. Other times may be described as “serendipitous.” The worst is when you squeeze a treasure goblin or two and are sitting on 1,000 gold right before dying to some bullshit. Ah, what could have been!

I often need to put the Switch down for a while at the end of a run owing to my “this is bullshit!” reflex, but before long I crave another potato chip and I’ve started it up again.

If you are curious what this game is about, here’s some low-context nonsense:

Fucking guy. Can’t even say he got lucky – that combination of spells looks absolutely mediocre to me. Maybe I just need to git more gud.

And yeah, that’s a luchador.



Culdcept and more Dune sciency stuff

Life flows onward. Care for the larva takes precedence.

I recently picked up a cheap 3DS game that looked interesting. It’s called Culdcept Revolt. Apparently the Culdcept series has been around for a while, though I’d never heard of it.


Gameplay-wise, it’s something of an ill-begotten spawn. Think Monopoly meets Yugioh meets Magic: The Gathering. In effect it sometimes feels like Mario Party – skill and strategy matter, but the result of a 30-minute match can ultimately depend upon the favor or curse of the Random Number God. But I guess Magic was always subject to that. “Whoops, you drew 10 lands in a row? Learn to shuffle better, scrub.”

But it’s got card collecting and deck building, so it scratches an itch. Don’t get me started on the writing, though. It’s seriously bad.

Ah well, at least it’s turn-based. When you need to be able to respond to the wail of your progeny at a moment’s notice, turns are required. Or at least pausing. Maybe both.

Meanwhile Dune continues to stimulate as I read in bits and squeaks. Back in college, I took a class in sociology and our professor had us read Dune. Herbert is more often recognized for the ecological hardness of his seminal work, but there’s a lot of soft science going on, too. Man, that was a cool class.


I’m told Herbert really knew ecology. I think it shows. But honestly, I’m not the kind of guy who’s incredibly difficult to convince with this stuff. Throw in the names of some scientific processes, maybe a plausibly-named theory…hey man, sounds sciency to me. “Hard” and “soft” scifi are relative terms, I guess.

Also, is “chromoplastic” a thing? Maybe…? A related element that’s impressed me is the range of invention Herbert utilizes here. He may not have coined all or even most of these gizmos and scifi doodads, but he seems to have picked some good ones that either never reached wide-scale use or else hit critical mass after he threw them in the mix.


This kind of thing is important, you know? Sure, you can have a good story with blasters and laser swords and plasteel armor and space marines. But that’s all been done. A lot. Don’t underestimate the power of novelty.

Oh, look – “cone of silence.” This thing was popularized by the old 60’s Get Smart TV show, of course, but it was apparently kicking around for at least a decade before that. Herbert himself used the term in a 1955 short story, so Wiki tells meDune was published in 1965, as a reference point.


I love this stuff, but dang I’ll be glad when I can muster up the wherewithal to dive into something new. Witch World looms.




Simplification and Nostalgia/Materialism

  • by Gitabushi

So we had a pipe burst in the basement. Nothing was lost, but they have to replace the floor and repair/repaint the walls.

Moving all my books from the bookcase, I was struck again by how many guitar books/resources I’ve rarely and/or never even opened. If I just went through and played through a new song in the AC/DC book each day, then back through, and again, by the end of the month, I’d have so many new guitar tricks, songs to play, etc.

…but for what?

Same thing with all my fingerstyle books and magazines. I was actually a decent fingerstylist at one point. But then I got into electrics, and it consumed all my time.

I should sell the drums. I should just stick to guitar. It’s not like I’m actually going to join a band.

But I know if I sell them, I’m *really* going to regret it.

Also on the shelves were all my books. I’ve converted over to e-books. It is so much easier to take stuff with me on my kindle. I don’t have to worry about books falling apart on me as I read them, either. So I think I’m going to dump a bunch of books soon.

Just watch: there’ll be a civilization apocalypse right after I get rid of all my books, and I wont’t be able to get power to keep my Kindle charged.

Anyway, also on the shelves were my Avalon Hill games.

I bought a buttload of them back in the early 00s, part of nostalgia for my youth. I planned to teach my son. 15 years later, he’s out of the house and we’ve only played a handful. Hey, at least we played that handful. About 10 of them are solitaire games…I’ve never played one of them. The rest are solitaire-possible. I have the entire Advanced Squad Leader series. If I played every day, it would probably still take me 5 years to play through all of the scenarios, since I have to work.

And to be honest, computer games like Jagged Alliance really do seem to fill that need for turn-based strategy against a smart opponent.

So I’m thinking about selling them all.

But here’s the deal: I’m 6 to 10 years from retirement.  One of my plans was in retirement I’d have time to play all these games.  But the plan is also to be active enough to still enjoy life. When I think about it, I don’t want to spend my retirement indoors, hunched over a gaming table by myself.  Not to mention, we’re planning on spending 4-6 months every year out traveling in an RV.

Can’t take Avalon Hill strategy board games out in an RV. Can’t take an electric drumset out in an RV. Heck, even taking an electric guitar is problematic…although I might be able to do it with the iPad and the BIAS app suite. The current plan is to take only the acoustic guitar along and work through fingerstyle stuff.

I guess I’m at the age where I’m fighting twin urges for simplification and nostalgia.

Any thoughts?

Make yourself useful, mage!

Yesterday Cirsova shared some thoughts on Twitter about a recent post over at Walker’s Retreat (which was in turn a reaction to a post at Dyvers blog).

This led to an interesting thread, if you’re of the sort who delights in this kind of raw nerdom.



A frequent criticism of D&D 3.5e, which is probably a middling version of the game in many senses (and yet like ice cream, each person has a favorite flavor), is that it’s too easy to get bogged down in rules and mechanics. Still, I think it gives a judicious and experienced DM the tools for a rather rich and dynamic game. A handyman may have a 50-piece ratchet/socket set in his toolbox; doesn’t mean he’s got to use it!

I must confess, I’ve never played a magic user. The only game I ever played in as a player gave me a taste of the charisma rogue, which I very much enjoyed.

The comparisons I can draw here are limited. A magic user may be standing in the doorway with his hands in his, uh, robe pockets as his party desperately fights off the goblin raiding party until he’s saved their bacon by expending a precious lightning bolt spell on the ogre boss that’s just rolled up on the exhausted heroes. As a silver-tongued rogue type, at least you’ve still got backstab, and hopefully enough HP and dexterity to help out on the front line for a round or two without getting insta-killed. You may not be a power-hitter, but you can at least do something useful most turns, whether it be culling a damaged bogie or firing off an arrow or two. Hey, at least I got you a flanking bonus!!

Anyway, when we consult our handy actuarial table of action types, we see that a magic user can…actually not really do much at all! My references above to aiding another or intimidating were actually useless advice in this context as they require melee range!

Unfortunately, without magical items or scrolls or maybe potions of some sort, a magic user’s not really got any recourse. Especially if he’s trying to sincerely roleplay his character.

What is one to do?

One branch of the conversation, which kind of circles back to Dyvers’ original post:


And I think that really may be the best solution – sprinkle in some magical goodies for your magic users to hold on to. But it’s up to the DM to anticipate and implement. If you return to some D&D’s source material, namely Dying Earth, you’ve got all manner of magical items for magic users to play around with between casting spells. Remember that in Vance’s stories, most wizards could only memorize a handful of incantations. While spells certainly accounted for an important portion of their overall power, perhaps equally important were the relics and magical artifacts that they were able to accumulate.

These gadgets can range in power, from extremely powerful to amusingly benign – think of Cugel’s “tube of blue concentrate,” which due to its mysterious nature elicited some degree of fear despite maybe just being a can of blue spray paint. These kinds of curios can be a real boon for a DM who doesn’t want to wantonly dish out wands of magic missile or other damage-dealing items, as they provide players with a great chance to get creative and do some quality roleplaying.


It’s also a thought for you fantasy writers. Instead of going with a vanilla wizard character who chants spells and draws runes, why not a codger with a bag full of doodads and magical junk?