Tuesday, December 7, 2021

YEAR OF THE RAT: Results and Updates

A few housekeeping notes: folks may have noticed the pricing for my books (in the sidebars) has changed. That's because I finally got around to updating the prices with the current shipping rates. My apologies for needing to jack up the rates...I would have waited till the New Year to implement the changes, but I was running out of money to even do a new print run of my B/X Companion, let alone put together the scratch for another book (which I'm hoping to do in the near future). Canada and international costs are the real killers here.

If you're one of the dozen or so people who already purchased the new book, rest assured you got a deal (at the old rate): your books have already shipped as of yesterday morning. PDF costs (on DriveThru) will, of course, remain the same. 

A great, heartfelt THANK YOU, by the way, to ALL my customers (print and electronic). It is immensely gratifying to know people actually support the work...I only hope that the books, in turn, have provided a commensurate measure of enjoyment to their purchasers.

NOW: Year of the Rat.

I noted back in my original announcement of this contest that it was (largely) inspired by Prince's "No Artpunk Contest" (the first volume of which has now become available at DTRPG). Prince spent the month of September reviewing each individual submission for his contest, praising and critiquing and entertaining his readers.

I'm not going to do that (just don't have the time).

However, I will SUMMARIZE how things went down. Seven people (including myself) submitted a total of eight rat-themed adventures for the contest, almost every one of which being received by the November 30th deadline (the single exception being my own). The entries were:

Into the Sewer by Andrew Newport
Vats of Rats by Vance Atkins
Court of the Rat King by Chance Dudinack
Kobold Caves of the Golden God by Jeff S.
Clearing the Warrens by Vance Atkins
Silos of the Mad Rat by Ben Gibson
The First Rat Bank by Nicolas Posner

All the submissions were scored for Originality (have I seen this idea before), Creativity (innovative use of system and design), and Usability (how easy could the adventure be run at the table). Scores were then totaled to determine rankings. Yeah, yeah...it's all subjective, but since it's my contest, I get to be the judge.

As per the contest rules, prizes were to be awarded to the Top Two adventures...and based on points alone, I had a tie for second place! Since the scoring was subjective anyway, I turned to a secondary "tie-breaker" to determine who would join the #1 entry in receiving a shiny new book: treasure placement. I hope to write an entire post on "treasure" (hopefully this week) but suffice is to say that proper treasure allocation is a pretty darn important consideration in modular adventure design...and one that (for many reasons) seems to get overlooked too often by (present day) designers.

This IS D&D, after all.

SO...one of the tied entries had placement of roughly 89.7% of (what I'd call) "expected" treasure, based on encounters, PC level, and PC number. The other had 8.5%...far, far too low. 

Just...mm. No.

Thus it is, I'm proud to announce the Top Winners for my Out of the Sewer adventure design contest are: Nicolas Posner and Vance Atkins (the latter for Clearing the Warrens). Yay! Kudos to both!

Honorable Mentions go to the places 3, 4, and 5: Ben Gibson, Jeff S. and Chance. Their adventures...along with the winners...will all be going into the compilation book, Year of the Rat. I will let folks know when it is available...as stated, all proceeds from sales will be going to charity.

Gauche as it may be, I might throw my own adventure in the book, just to have an AD&D entry in the mix (all the others were written for OSE, B/X or S&W). We'll see. If not, I'll just make it available on the blog. 

[hmm...might do that anyway]

All right...that's it for now. Once again I'm out of time...super busy this week, not even counting things like decorations, tree-trimming, and Christmas shopping (none of which I've yet done or scheduled to date...and I've got a couple of kids who are expecting holiday cheer!). More later, people.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Pix of the New Book

Kelvin Green asked me if I could send his some photos of the new book to post on his blog (though I'm not particularly sure this is his plan...at the moment he seems very into pie). Anyway, since he DID do all the art for Comes Chaos, I figured the least I could do is mail him a print copy; however, international postage being a bit wonky at the moment, it might take a while to get to him.

SO, I sent him some photos, and I figured I might as well post them here as well...just in case folks are considering the book as a stocking stuffer this holiday season. Here you go:

Softcover, 64 pages


Some really good art pieces from K.G.


It's a B/X setting supplement, so
includes rules for designing/running the setting.


A few adjustments to the standard B/X
rules to incorporate the vagaries of the Chaos gods.

For folks like me, who grew up wishing they could find a way to make GW's Realms of Chaos books in their D&D campaign...well, this adapts many of those books various ideas (as well as stuff from other games/works of fiction). Works well for a Moorcock style "Chaos takeover" or medieval-style Mutant Chronicles. It is NOT designed for Advanced D&D (most of it was written while living in Paraguay, back when I was still "all B/X, all the time") but most of it is pretty adaptable. And it should work perfectly well with OSE...although the chapters are written in the same layout format as B/X.

People might be wondering why and how they might ever find a use for a book like this. "I'm not planning on blowing up my campaign world, a la Moorcock's Elric saga...and I definitely don't want my PCs running around as mutant champions of evil!" There are still many ways to use the book. It has new monsters, magic items, and spells that you can throw into your campaign world. It has alternate B/X rules (and an alternate B/X class or two) that you might find useful. It can be used to create small pocket areas of "bad juju" for PCs to heroically explore and combat. It has ideas for how to unify various "kitchen sink" themes found in D&D (like all the weird, Chaotic humanoids and the "funhouse" dungeons in which they live).

Anyway, it's a neat little book. And I just happen to have a big ol' pile of them on hand.
; )

By the way: just while I'm on the subject of hocking my wares, my B/X Companion is once again sold out. A new print run HAS been ordered, so I'll be able to send out copies in the next week or so, but if you don't want to wait there ARE retailers (like Wayne's Books) that have it in stock. You should NOT need to buy copies from eBay for hundreds of dollars (those keep popping up for some reason; not sure why). If your money is burning that big a hole in your pocket, email me directly...I'll take your $300 and send you my kid's copy (he'd happily split the money with me and wait for a copy from the new print run). 

[okay, no, don't send me hundreds of dollars for a book that costs less than $30. My POINT is, please don't be a sucker]

Finally, one last thing I want to note before I sign off and start prepping for Football Sunday (I'm going to the Seahawks game today, which will be really depressing given the way they're playing this season...): while Comes Chaos is the work of myself and Kelvin Green (illustrator), the impetus for creating it AS A PROJECT is largely due to James V. West who, back in the days of G+, issued a challenge to folks to design a 64 page "setting book" for B/X. When I took up his gauntlet...many years ago...I do not think I envisioned actually publishing a printed book. I'm not sure who else might have participated or completed their projects (if any of my readers do, I'd be interested in being informed) but...well, I did. Finally. 

Now, onto the next project. Cheers!

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Happy Christmas To Me!

Ha! The print run of the new book, COMES CHAOS, came through early...today, in fact. 

[well, not actually "early;" just earlier than anticipated (getting the right paper stock from suppliers has been, like everything during the pandemic, a bit complicated)]

Still: there it is. Spent a couple hours driving to and from Tacoma, picking up five crates of books. And they turned out really nice...far better than I expected or hoped. The whole time I was driving there I had this vision of me having to tell the folks, 'nope, that's not going to work for me,' and having to deal with all that fallout, but all my fears were groundless. Turned out quite nifty, despite being softcover.

SO...folks will notice there's a new button on the blog for ordering a print copy. Same price as the other books (it has a couple more pages than TCBXA, but I don't anticipate the weight being being more than negligible for shipping). Come and get it, people.
; )

In other news: I've had the chance to go over all the submissions received for my YEAR OF THE RAT contest. Despite the suggestion that it was too short a turnaround time, six folks got seven adventures to me BEFORE the deadline of midnight, 11/30. My own offering wasn't finished before 12:10am on 12/1 (as I noted in my last post) so, well, boo me. In my defense, I will note that I'm the only one to do an AD&D adventure, and I had to calculate the XP value of the three new monsters I included in the appendix (that's what I was doing at 11:57pm) which is, you know, ridiculous but I'm a bit of a stickler. I also cooked a six-dish meal for the family dinner (not counting the dessert) so...well, whatever. 

*AHEM* As I was saying, I've gone over all the submissions, and I have the two winners (not yet notified) as well as the short-list of entries that will be going in the compilation book. I'll blog about all that tomorrow.

Okay, that's it. Dinner tonight was a fantastic beef stew with a vegetable medley side and a really nice "Swiss peasant" loaf (now with 60% more peasant!). My glass of cab is sitting downstairs waiting for me, and I'm feeling pretty "holly-jolly." Later, gators.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Out of the Sewer (LAST DAY!)

Just a reminder that today is the last official day of my "Out of the Sewer" adventure contest. Get me your submission by midnight, Pacific Time, if you want to be considered for one of the "glittering prizes."

I'm working on my own entry for the contest today...just wanted to make sure the contest was "doable." It's been tough (I'm a  busy guy and November's a busy month), but I think I'll make it. I hope. If I find it impossible to complete myself (knowing that I'm pretty anal retentive and a procrastinator to boot), then I might consider extending the deadline. Might. But right now I'm not considering anything except the writing I have to do to finish my own adventure. 

Anyway. That's all I have time to blog at the moment. Just wanted to remind folks.
: ) 

Good luck to all the contestants!

***EDIT: All right, I just finished the final touches on my own adventure and it is AFTER midnight...specifically it is 12:10am on December 1st. As such, I will accept ANY submissions received today (12/1) as official contest entries...though I might ding you a point for tardiness (my own adventure is ineligible for prizes, duh). ***

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Play-Testing The Insanity

So...we finally, FINALLY had a chance to restart the AD&D campaign Monday night.

Sad to admit, but it's been close to six months...just insane the amount of time that's slid by since our last delve. Oh, we've played Dungeons & Dragons since then...I've run games for my kids and their friends (Blizzard Pass as a one-off just a couple weeks back); AD&D even. But we needed to get back to actual play in our (my) game world, not just development.

When last we'd left off, the team had used a staff of summoning to conjure a pack of shriekers, whose shrill screaming upon finding themselves in the afternoon sun managed to drive away the lizard folk they'd been fighting. They then continued their scouring of ancient paths, looking for the sunken city hidden somewhere in the swamp. 

And they found it...or at least the remains of the last surface plaza, complete with a single standing building, a temple of ancient design, its dome cracked from long centuries of neglect, it's massive doors scratched and scarred and bereft of the gold leaf that once covered their frames. 

Enter the temple they did, and choosing NOT to despoil the statue of the goddess they found therein (though tempted by the rod of blue crystal held tightly in its hands) they found a long stairway descending down-down-down into the bowels of the earth. Down to the temple crypts, where they hoped (and expected) to find some sort of treasure, ripe for the plucking. 

Father Barod ("Beanpole") led the way with his hooded lantern. 

Here's the "box text" from DL1 for the Hall of Ancestors:
Dim light shines up through the floor. A vast hall stretches to the east. The ceiling, heavily reinforced, stands solidly above, but below, the floor has fallen away in several places. Hot mists, carrying the odor of decay, rise through the holes in the floor.
Beanpole, the party's 3rd level cleric decided to go check out the gaping hole that cut across the floor of the chamber. 'I'm going to go peek over the edge and see what's down there.' Will Big Jim (the trusted retainer they've had since Bendan Fazier) go with you? 'Yeah, he's staying by my side.'

I did a double-take as I looked at my notes for the chamber:
  • There is a 65% chance that any weight greater than 50# within 5’ of a hole will cause the floor beneath it to collapse. The fall to the cavern floor below is 700'.
What? I checked the original text in DL1. Here's what it says:
Any dwarf can tell that the floor is unsafe. The holes open to a 700' drop straight into the lower ruins of the city. Anyone who weighs more than 500 gpw [gold piece weight] and comes within 5' of a hole's edge runs a 65% chance that the floor below him will collapse.

Even if a hero makes it to the edge of a hole, all he sees is a foul mist gathered below.
That's all the text says. And for the most part, my restocking/rewriting of DL1 was focused far more on monster and treasure selection than on environmental hazards. Strange, perhaps that such a deadly trap isn't better telegraphed...especially for a DragonLance adventure (where the "heroes" are expected to succeed). But then it IS telegraphed because "any dwarf can tell that the floor is unsafe" and anyone playing DL1 should have Flint Fireforge (4th level dwarf fighter) as a prominent member of the party. Unfortunately, there are no dwarves in my players' party.

This is a good example of why play-testing is so important. Looking at the encounter area on paper, it doesn't seem terrible (probably one of the reasons I didn't bother adjusting it). Standard chance of springing a trap in OD&D or B/X is 2-in-6 (33% chance)...with something as "obvious" as this hazard, is a double chance (4-in-6, 66%) so unfair? Especially considering that a cautious party might use a 10' pole to probe the floor, or rope up together, or use the lightest party member for exploration?

But even so, some sort of Get Out of Jail Free card could be provided besides "have a dwarf in the party." I wrote before about including "Flinty" as a findable NPC in the adventure, and he IS there, albeit in the lower cavern levels. A better idea might be to have the dwarf stashed in the swamp outside the temple. This gives the PCs a potential benny for taking the non-psychotic approach to dealing with NPCs (find a helpful set of eyes for subterranean hazards); players eager to deal out death to everything on two-legs will thus be justly penalized for their lack of imagination.

Ah, well. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that.

Beanpole weighs scarcely more than 50# soaking wet, but he is dressed in plate and carries 20ish pounds or so of extra gear. I informed the player that the floor creaked mightily as he stretched out his lantern over the edge of the hole and asked him to roll the percentile dice; unfortunately, he rolled a 34. The floor collapsed with a groan taking the cleric with it.

I rolled for Big Jim...though, topping 300# of gear and muscle, this probably should have been automatic. As the Fates were obviously on the same wavelength as myself, the dice came up low and Jim followed his employer into the drop.

The nice thing about having Google at your fingertips: you can quickly find out how long it actually takes to fall 700'. 6.59 seconds it turns out, equivalent to a bit more than one segment. Diego scanned through his spell list for something that might save him...unfortunately, nothing. We did allow him the opportunity to pray for divine intervention on the way down (see page 112 of the DMG), but the gods were apparently satisfied at the doom he'd chosen for himself. 

Sonia, my daughter's character, was quick with a spell of her own; she sent a message to her brother: "you're going to die." Diego was not amused, but Sofia laughed mightily.  Until they discovered that all the torches, oil, etc. had been carried by Beanpole and Big Jim and now the party was left in the subterranean hall without a light source. 

*sigh* Hindsight. 

ANYway...I'll skip the rest of the evening's escapades except to say that no one else died and they DID escape the temple crypt and have now discovered a new PC (Frederick, a gnomish illusionist/thief) that was skulking in the swamp, hiding from lizard men and otyughs. It feels good to get back to playing D&D, and I am immensely hopeful we'll get to play more in the next couple/few days. I'm not sure the players want to continue exploring the Sunken City (their resources are quickly dwindling and they've yet to find anything resembling treasure...well, except for that blue crystal staff embedded in the statue of the goddess). If they don't decide to continue, they will have to deal with matter of 3,000 gold owed to Duke Van-Uz (the Duke could employ two 5th level assassins for 900 g.p. and would still be less out of pocket than the 1,500 he originally gave to bankroll the party). But they might be better served finding a smaller dungeon, closer to civilization. And I'm currently working on a ratty little thing that might do the trick.
; )

However, that'll (probably) have to wait till after Thanksgiving. Lots to do the next couple days.

More later. Hope everyone has a happy holiday! Best wishes to you all!

Friday, November 19, 2021

Different Strokes

The other day, I was looking for video reviews of old adventure modules (something to listen to while doing housework) and stumbled across an old Goodman Games video in which four of their prominent designers, listed their Top 10 D&D modules (TSR era) of all time. 

As such videos go it was...eh. Par for the usual (as in, no mind-blowing opinions/info got dropped). And, yet, I was fascinated enough to go back and re-watch the thing and make up a spread sheet charting everyone's individual list. Because what was interesting was just how surprisingly crappy their favorite picks were and their justifications for including specific adventures.

That's "crappy" in my opinion...but my opinion is one of an adventure designer. And these guys are adventure designers...like long-time ones with more book credits under their belts than I will ever have. That is what caused me to sit up and take notice. You know, if three out of four designers list Sinister Secret of Salt Marsh as one of their Top Ten faves, then, hey, maybe there's something to take a look at there. On the other hand, when they blather on about Ravenloft being one of the greatest of all time with regard to design, it makes me question their abilities at all.

So I rewatched the thing and dived deeper. Some of the dudes had picks I agreed with. Some (clearly) did not. But what I came to realize, as I watched this video was that their lists were largely based on something more than "design." They were influenced by nostalgia, reputation, size/scope and...more than anything else...fond memories they've had of times actually running/playing these particular adventures. The guy who picked Ravenloft as his number one claims to have run it 5 or 6 times (even taking the same players through it more than once). The guy who listed the Desert of Desolation series as his favorite has run the entire thing more than once and had a blast doing so. 

The fact that they have fond memories of playing/running Ghost Tower of Inverness or Palace of the Silver Princess or whatever...because that's what they had the opportunity to play/run as a youth...should not be a knock against their opinions, any more than it should be a knock against MY lofty opinions of Forbidden City or Tomb of Horrors or whatever. The fact is, it's tough for MOST of us to be critical against the things we hold in esteem due to rose-colored glasses of the past.

And as my son likes to point out: different folks have different tastes. 

[of course he only points that out when it excuses his enjoyment of a song like Pitbull's "Fireball," which I am absolutely convinced is THE WORST SONG I'VE EVER HEARD. I don't know that it's the worst song ever written (that "honor" may go to some other Pitbull song), but it is hands down the absolute most awful piece of trash masquerading as "song-writing" that has ever tortured my ears. Worse than "Party in the USA." Worse than "I'm Too Sexy For My Shirt." Worse than "You Remind Me Of My Jeep." Worse than Crazy Town's "Butterfly." I would almost...almost...be willing to put it second to that stupid "Good Is The New Bad" song I had the misfortune to hear on Disney radio the other day (that one even makes Diego cringe), but then I hear Pitbull's opening "lyrics" and want to punch my face through a wall of glass. 

Yet everyone else in my family dig that stupid-stupid song. Even my wife (who claims to not like Pitbull). There's no accounting for tastes. I consider "The Hotel California" one of the best songs of all time, and some people hate the Eagles. But I would rather listed to Ice-T singing "Evil Dick" (from his Body Count days) than Fireball. F**k that garbage. I won't say I hope Pitbull dies a gruesome death...but if he were to spontaneously combust some day and all his gazillions of dollars be donated to some worthy charity, well, I can't deny I'd be more than content]

*ahem*

Now, as I wrote in my last post, all RPGs provide rules for participants to explore an imaginary environment, but they are distinguished from each other by HOW they execute this exploration. And it is in the execution of these "HOWs" that we can best judge them.

And, yes, because of the limitlessness of the (RPG) medium, it is possible to contort mechanics into doing all sorts of things that the design doesn't support. Back in the day, we transported a couple of our high level AD&D characters to the Marvel Superhero version of earth, converting all their stats and abilities to standard FASERIP scores. That was some bunch crazy (and I don't recommend it)...but for us, it worked and we had half-elf weather goddesses and psionic-slinging bards brushing up against mutants, cyborgs, and aliens...for a while anyway.

BUT, as I wrote about recently, different RPG groups have different priorities of play, similar to what Ron Edwards once termed "creative agendas," a term from the (now more-or-less obsolete) GNS theory postulated on the Forge. Dungeons & Dragons (the old pre-1983 version about which I'm concerned) pushed a particular priority of play and conceptually executed it rather well:
  • the premise contained a joint objective (everyone wants treasure)
  • deadly challenges force engagement (pay attention or die)
  • asymmetry forced players to cooperate (different classes bring different skills to the table)
  • simple mechanics increase accessibility (roll dice, look at chart)
  • kitchen sink setting provides many possibilities for exploration (the length and breadth of pulp fantasy fiction)
For those who wonder why it is that D&D has remained "king" of the market for so long, one really only has to look at the excellent way in which the game executes its objectives. It's not that people LOVE "pseudo-medieval fantasy" ...some people want to retch at the idea of "high fantasy." It's the fashion in which the system functions and interacts that makes it the master of the RPG realm. 

The ONLY game that really comes close is Shadowrun. It has a joint purpose (players need to complete missions...for money). It has high pressure (i.e. deadly) stakes. It has SOME asymmetry...magic and cybertechnology don't mix well, and both are (generally) useful for completing missions. Plus the priority system of chargen ensures PC types have different strengths. But its setting...being both near future and far more defined...is far less mysterious (less avenues of exploration). And EVERYone has the ability to use firearms (the great equalizer) making many teams feel a bit "same-y." Also, the premise (PCs being beholden to missions given by Mr. Johnson) makes the game the equivalent of "quest-giver-at-the-tavern" Every Single Time...a rinse-n-repeat that gets old with no endgame in sight.

Unlike Dungeons & Dragons.

And that's the BEST of other RPGs...most fall down in even more ways. Asymmetry is the usual one; while most of the challenging RPGs do well forcing cooperation between PCs (safety in numbers!) none have quite the distinction...nor emphasis...between different PC types, even in games that have "classes" (including Marvel's "power types," Rifts' "O.C.C.s," Vampire's "clans," etc.). It's not like the VtM group is saying, "man, we really need a nosferatu to round out our coterie!" 

Here's the thing, though: that ain't a priority of play for MANY players of RPGs. Being challenged is a priority of play supported (and enhanced) by the design of Dungeons & Dragons, but some people aren't looking for that. Some people just want to explore a particular genre/setting

Westerns, outer space, superheroes, Lovecraftian exploration, Cold War spies, post-apocalypse, secret vampire society, zombie survival, steampunk time travelers, whatever...there are RPGs written to provide rules for just about any "imaginary environment" one might want to experience. You read it in a fiction novel, you saw it in a movie, you had a weird dream...wherever the strange inspiration came from you think it would be "cool" to live in that particular setting for a while. And that kind of play appeals to some folks: a shared daydream, if you will. 

Most RPGs fall into the category of facilitating this style of play. Most. 

D&D isn't about genre/setting satisfaction: there are better games that explore "pseudo-medieval" (Chivalry & Sorcery, Pendragon, Ars Magica, etc.)...better games, even, that explore struggles between law and chaos (Stormbringer, Warhammer) in a "realistic" fashion. D&D, as originally written, is wholly unconcerned with realism and almost unconcerned with genre emulation...save for the tropes of adventure fiction. 

The idea of genre emulation or setting exploration has a vast appeal. It's super cool! I get drawn into it myself! My shelves are filled with RPGs for settings/genres that are wicked-awesome. Zombie cowboys (Deadlands), pulp adventure (Hollow Earth Expedition), time traveling zeppelins (Airship Pirates), etc. In my experience all these games tend to be extremely short-lived, no matter how heavy-handed the GM (and it generally takes a heavy-handed GM to get the game even beyond the chargen stage). None have any long-term duration. And yet some people desire nothing more from their RPG than the type of exploration afforded by these genre-specific RPGs, happily jumping from one to another. One day ElfQuest; the next day Star Trek.

Different strokes for different folks.

There are other priorities of play found in those who regularly play RPGs...two more really. I don't really want to discuss either one of them, however, as I have nothing positive to say about them (different tastes, fine); likewise, of the two "unmentionables," one is only designed for incidentally. But neither is conducive to long-term play except in the most toxic and/or insular fashion. And these days, I am all about the long-term play. 

What I am now wondering...and what I have sometimes wondered in the past: is it possible to design an RPG that functions conceptually as well or better than D&D. AND...a "flip-side" thought...is it possible to write a genre/setting-specific RPG that generates the same type of "perpetual game experience" that D&D does. 

Considering it right now, I actually think the latter has already been done, at least in one genre. Heavily developed Traveller or games like Ashen Stars or Bulldogs...RPGs in which the PCs represent the crew of a single ship provide a reason for players to cooperate and "adventure" together, unfettered from the needs of being challenged in a D&D-type fashion...so long as the table is cool with that type of play. Lots of "imaginary environment" to explore in space; shared/joint concern (maintaining the ship); need for cooperation among the PCs...although the asymmetry isn't quite there. And with good reason: if each PC is responsible for one aspect of "ship survival" (engineer, pilot, etc.) and any PC gets killed, the entire ship goes down. The perils of operating in a hostile environment (same would hold true in submarine-type RPG).

Genre exploration is most usually executed with scripted stories...and while that's functional for that priority of play, it cuts out the beating heart of D&D, destroying what makes D&D great. And, yet, that is what many MANY individuals equate with fun, authentic D&D play...so much so that some DMs simply cannot run a game of Dungeons & Dragons without some sort of storyline/plot. Sad (to me), because the game as written takes care of player motivation, leaving nothing for the DM but to construct a world that is sound...an imaginary environment worthy of exploration. 

Why must you force story down the players' throats? What are you trying to prove? What has destroyed your trust in your players?

Different tastes. 

All right, that's enough for today. I want to take the dog for a walk before I pick up the kids from school. Next week they have the week off, so posting will (probably) be light. Have a happy one, folks!

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Not A Board Game

Staring out at my dining and living room areas, I see a lot of board games that have been played in the last week or so: Axis & Allies, Life, Clue, Cranium, Monopoly, Chess. This is a bit unusual for the fam, but we've had a lack of external obligations and a heaping pile of rain...plus, I've just wanted the kids to do something besides fire up some sort of portable screen device. I'm a curmudgeon that way. 

Board games are not Dungeons & Dragons. I've seen a lot of "board game" posts and discussions around the blogs the last couple-three days...various angles, no one particular thread or thought...and I thought I might take a moment to belabor the point for a moment. Just because. 

Because I think it's important. 

Because, these days we often draw a line between "tabletop games" and "computer games" and while D&D is often (or potentially) played at/on a table, it's not the same thing as a tabletop game. Role-playing games of the "table-top" variety are NOT the same thing as common board or parlor games. 

I think we forget that. We talk about "un-plugging" from our phones or Switches or consoles (or whatever) to play an analog game and we lump RPGs in the same category as backgammon. They aren't the same...they're not even close. Sure, B/X was purchased in a box. So, too, are fancy cigars. 

Not. The. Same. Thing.

Consequently (and this is my point...as much as I ever have one), it's hardly any use judging RPGs by the same standards as other games. Yes, they have rules. Yes, they are played for enjoyment. The same could be said of a musical instrument. A saxophone is not the same as Chinese Checkers. Neither is an RPG.

RPGs need to be examined by their own standard. How well do they do the "RPG thing?" It's the only standard by which it makes sense to examine and analyze them. 

[*sigh* I don't know why I bother writing this since I'm sure it will either elicit cries of "duh" or deliberate and hard-headed denial. I suppose I just want to record my thoughts of the moment]

People choose to play RPGs for a variety of reasons. People choose to play golf or baseball for a variety of reasons. Pleasure, challenge, camaraderie, stimulation (mental, emotional, whatever), escapism. The "whys" of play is less concerning, less interesting to me at this moment than the hows and whats: What is an RPG? How does its design facilitate play? 

And of the hundreds or so RPGs I have owned, read, and/or played over the years, there is one RPG that stands head-and-shoulders over the entirety of the others with the way in which its HOW delivers on the promise of its WHAT. 

RPGs provide rules for participants to explore an imaginary environment. There's the WHAT.

That's "all" they do (yeah, it's a bit of a large "all"). But it's certainly different from what a board or computer game provides, namely a fixed structure of finite possibility. There may be exploration that takes place in a computer/board game, but it is always...ALWAYS...a limited potentiality.

RPGs are not structurally limited. Their environs...the imaginary realm in which games are played...are limitless. The rules provide procedure and (some) structure, but the potential for infinite possibility exists in every single RPG, even a game as constrained by procedure as, say, My Life With Master or Dogs in the Vineyard

The game of chess has a finite number of possible moves or combinations of play, just as does Tic-Tac Toe. Unlike the latter, those possible combinations number so many as to be...for practical purposes...uncountable. But given enough time (or enough computer memory) one could map out every possible sequence of plays given a board with a limited number of spaces and a limited number of pieces. 

That's not possible with an RPG.

SO...now that I've defined the "what," we can look at the "how" and for the vast majority of RPGs, we can observe that designers tend to include some sort of conflict or "drama" to help drive the game or (at least) instill action in the game's participants.

Recognize that such conflict isn't necessary to the play of most RPGs (depending on how structurally tight their rules/procedures are). What if I said my fighter wanted to give up the mercenary work and start a farm? What if I decided I wanted to find a local village woman to woo and start a family with? What if the only "role-playing" interaction I wanted was with my neighboring villagers, discussing their issues and petty soap operas?

If the Dungeon Master and other players are on board with this type of game, nothing precludes the campaign from following this road. Maybe the magic-user wishes to start a school for the village children. Maybe the cleric wants to help the local pastor put a new roof on the church. Maybe the party thief decides he's done with his life of crime and decides to be the town sheriff, using his abilities to do "detective work," while being pleasant and sociable and atoning for his past pickpocketing and housebreaking. 

Certainly, the rules provided in the PHB and DMG support (and encourage) a different style of play from this, but nothing prevents the group from going this route. Nothing stops the Dungeon Master from having an alien spaceship land in the village green one day, either...perhaps with friendly extraterrestrials that wish the village to board their ship and travel to a distant star to build a new colony or help terraform a planet that's atmosphere is conducive to humans (but not the e.b.s). 

Endless possibilities with RPGs. Because the only (stated) objectives of play are "have fun" and "don't die" ...and the latter objective is secondary due to players' capability of creating replacement characters as necessary.

All that being said, the design of an RPG (the "HOW") is what provides the basis of comparison between different RPGs effectiveness of delivering an RPG experience. And in reviewing various RPGs and their designs, I cannot find a design more satisfying than that of Dungeons & Dragons. The premise of the game and the asymmetry of available player options combine to create a unique cooperative experience with modulated levels of adrenaline/stress/satisfaction that is a function of both GM creativity and players' own comfort level with regard to risk-reward.

It is (to me) unfortunate that later iterations of the D&D game have sought to limit and depress these elements.

But most RPGs aren't nearly so pointed or well-designed (at least in concept...all editions of D&D fall down at times in execution of the concept). And, yes, I write that knowing full well that the soundness of D&D's design is due as much to "happy accident" as to any real design chops. Regardless, of the RPGs that I've had the pleasure of playing over the years, there is really only one that comes to delivering, conceptually, as well as (and in as like fashion as) Dungeons & Dragons does. And I'm kind of surprised by the answer:

Shadowrun.

All the more surprising, because A) I didn't come to that conclusion before just now (when, while coming to this point of my writing, I stopped to review a mental list of all the RPGs I've owned, read, and played over the years), and B) I've been doing some....mmm..."stuff" with Cry Dark Future the last couple days.

[more on that later]

Okay, enough blathering. I've said my piece. Hopefully I'll have a thing or two to say on campaigns and treasure in the next few days. Hasta pronto.