Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Color of Money

Let's hit pause for a moment.

Consider (if you'll indulge me) a hypothetical universe, very similar to our own, in which the best way to play the Dungeons & Dragons game is something like the way its originators stated waaaay back in the days of yore, before it became the cornerstone of an industry and gaming empire. Back before there were published game settings and adventure paths but (instead) an idea that each individual Dungeon Master would create his or her own world ("campaign setting") and develop his or her own additional rules (to cover things that were not already covered in the limited instructions provided).

Imagine, as best you can, a reality in which the popularity of the game was driven by two, major components: firstly, it's ability to be customized to the imaginations and whims of the players (especially the referee, or "dungeon master") and, secondly, by the experience that was provided to the participants in actual play (especially those we commonly refer to as "players").

NOW...still holding this idea in your head...consider if the founding D&D's creators had stopped developing the game, only updating it by issuing a cleaned up, well edited, technically written set of instructions/rules that...in essence...simply polished the original, amateurish product found in those saddle-stitched pamphlets, those Little Brown Books cobbled together by hand using artwork cribbed from the pages of Marvel comics. Something perhaps available in both hard and soft cover, perhaps in a box (as most table games are sold)...maybe including dice and other play aids, though probably NOT any sort of multi-volume set adding hundreds of additional pages.

Allowing that the popularity of the game might (in this imaginary world I propose) send up a hue and cry for more material, perhaps the publishers might create some type of periodical...a newsletter or magazine...that provides additional (non-official) options for use in one's home game, or that contributes advice and instruction on the two things driving the interest in playing the game, i.e. methods on how to create one's own campaign settings and on how to provide a more powerful game experience. And, sure, perhaps also the odd example "adventure."

Hell, the company might even publish the occasional "modular" adventure to be dropped into one's home campaign setting.

Ccertainly one might expect other fan-related communities, periodicals, and (later, with the internet) blogs and forums to pop up over time discussing the game and sharing tips, ideas, and material, but these would be tolerated by the publishers as helping to promote the game and keep it living and breathing.

Because the main point and industry of the designers and publishers of the Dungeons & Dragons game would be (in this imaginary universe I posit) to simply be the keepers and publishers of the game. To make it available to the public, perhaps in different languages, just as (for example) Parker Brothers was responsible for publishing and selling the game of Monopoly from the 1930s until the company was acquired by Hasbro in '91 (thus conferring actual responsibility to the latter company).

Just consider this possible, parallel universe. Roll it around in your brain a bit.

Do you think (in this imaginary universe I describe) that the Dungeons & Dragons game would have faded into obscurity after ten or twenty years? Do you think it would continue to sell, forty years today (2018), forty years after its initial publication? Do you think it could continue to hold the attention of people for decades the way other tabletop games...like Monopoly or Scrabble or Sorry...have managed to do? Enough that parents would introduce it to their children, teach them the rules, buy new copies when old copies need replacement?

More than half a century in the same format.
Consider that until Hasbro acquired Monopoly in 1991 the board game was only published in two formats (standard and "deluxe"). While I couldn't find sales totals for Monopoly prior to its Hasbro acquisition, it was selling at least a million copies per year following World War II (according to Wikipedia anyway). Would a simple business model (like the imaginary one I propose) have allowed Dungeons & Dragons to sell even a tenth as many copies as "the world's most popular board game?"

Would that have been enough money to comfortably sustain the game's publishers?

Perhaps not. Perhaps the profit margin necessary to maintain and publish the game would have, over time, necessitated a diversification of product, the need to publish different editions, similar to the way Hasbro continues to create different varieties of the Monopoly game. Perhaps. But then, Monopoly (to my mind) is a much more static game than Dungeons & Dragons. While I prefer its classic version (duh...I'm old), I can see how folks might like to "tart it up."

Of course, some might say that Dungeons & Dragons lacks the universal appeal of a game like Monopoly. I'm not sure I agree. Thematically? Are more people really interested in playing ruthless real estate tycoons than heroic fantasy adventurers? The former smacks too much of our harsh reality, while the latter provides a pleasant diversion and escape.

No, it is the experiential gameplay of Monopoly (handling money...wisely or unwisely, wheeling and dealing, and cursing the whims of fate in the forms of dice rolls and card draws) that makes it appealing to people, and it is readily accessible: easy to learn, easy to set-up, easy to play. Dungeons & Dragons over the decades has rarely ever approached the type of accessibility found in Monopoly, being either too obscure in its presentation (the earliest editions) or two large in scope and page count (most of the later editions). For the most part, D&D over the years has relied on mentorship for the teaching of its rules rather than "out-of-the-box" instruction. And the support for such mentorship has been weak to nonexistent.

Which is too bad, for a number of reasons.

BUT (stopping our hypothetic imagining for now) that is, unfortunately, the actual reality. My little dreamscape isn't true history...and even considering such "alternative history" may seem a wasted effort. Unless, you're feeling hopeless and looking for some way out of our current state of affairs.

[I know Alexis is actually made of pretty strong stuff, but it was his post that prompted my train of thought here, even if he has since backed up from the ledge]

I don't think that the actual game, nor its potential, has been lost quite yet. In fact, if there's any good that's come out of the amorphous OSR and it's backward-looking nostalgia (and, yes, I think there's a LOT of good that has come out of it), the greatest of its offerings may have been the re-kindled interest in the "home game" that has come about because of it.

And there's more I want to say on this subject, really. I want to talk about the present reality (so much as I can) and talk about possible roads to the future. And about finding a way back to something ...some track that we wandered off a long time ago.

But that's will have to wait for the future. Right now, I've got a hot game of Axis and Allies with my boy that I simply must get back to. More later.
; )


Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Need For Escape

Happy F'ing New Year.

Man, there's a lot of stuff I could (and would like to) write about. Most of it has fuck-all to do with gaming, however, and much of it is probably "too political" (and too partisan to boot)...things that many of my readers find tedious in the extreme. And I do have a few (fifty or so) gaming topics in mind for the New Year, though precious few are specific to Dungeons & Dragons, let alone B/X.

[though rest assured, I am compiling a list...for YOU, gentle readers, all for you]

In fact, my original plan for the day was to sit on down at the local cafe and bang out a couple-four posts to schedule over the coming week. This didn't happen as I ended up spending much of my morning dealing with the police and my delinquent brother and his asshole-ness. Which...trust me, I know...I could go on and on about and elicit all sorts of sympathy for, but fuck, there's not much one can do with sympathy, besides appreciate it and get on with the effort required for dealing with life's realities.

Thanks anyway. Everyone has problems, and my personal ones are pretty small compared to a lot of folks out there, even those of my fellow Americans.

So, instead I'm at the bar attached to a local game store, blogging like this. I bought a beer and a bowl of chili and a game (the newly re-issued Adventures of Baron Munchausen...a beautiful book with new rules for Sinbad the Sailor-type storytelling) and I'm calming my nerves and getting ready to be a fucking parent again with my two darling children who deserve so much more than their uncle's bullshit and the future inheritance we, as a fucked up society, are leaving them.

Games, especially role-playing games like D&D, are a fantastic cure for the various ills that plague us. Don't get me wrong: I use lots of escapist means to deal with my mental stress and suffering. But alcohol (one of my favorites) has a lot of downsides to it, and video games contain few of a tabletop RPG's virtues (like requiring literacy, engaging your imagination, and forcing you to interact with fellow human beings). Thank God for games...I can only wonder at what I might have done with myself over the years if I hadn't had them for an escape outlet.

That's it. That's all I've got for the moment. Seriously, no one wants the sordid details. But I'll try to get back to posting here in the next few days. I do have other things to write about, after all.


Friday, December 29, 2017

Classy

One area in which AD&D (and 2E and 3E and 4E and 5E) exceeds B/X is the number of different classes it offers players from the outset, ensuring a large variety of possible character types, and thus distinct variations in players' party composition.

Which is a good thing, because that makes for interesting play.

Now I can quibble over how good, or useful, or redundant, or necessary each available character type is (and I have in the past), but I've come to the conclusion that this doesn't change the end result: a little extra variation is a good thing to encourage long term interest and engagement, and the seven B/X classes might not provide sufficient options.

Hell, I probably already knew this (deep down somewhere in my subconscious)...am I not the guy who published The Complete B/X Adventurer, containing some 17 new character classes for B/X? Certainly, I allowed these new classes to appear at my B/X gaming table (and they did), spicing up the rather staid parade of fighter, fighter, dwarf, fighter, elf, etc. For all the benefits inherent in the streamlined B/X design, it remains a BASIC game, one that needs tooling for long-term engagement. That's no joke.

My longest running campaign, in which I was involved both as a player and as a DM, lasted from circa 1982 to 1988...close to seven years. That may not seem like all that long...and it isn't, compared to some long running campaigns spanning decades. But it represented a significant number of hours, considering how much available time we had to play as children. Homework was light in those days (or easily ignored), and what extracurricular activities we had...soccer practice, piano lessons, Scouts, whatever...only took a couple hours a week. At school, after school, weekends, vacations, we were planning or playing our game.

During that time we had six to eight regular players, with a couple other visitors showing up for the odd game or two. Among the seven I'd consider to be real contributors to the campaign...who actively participated and around whom our various adventures resolved...we had a total of 29 original characters whose names and specs I can readily recall. Remembering that we started with B/X, only gradually converting to AD&D as we acquired books (and grandfathering in old B/X characters when necessary), I can tell you that:
  • Not counting henchmen (of which there were few), only ONE race-class combo was repeated (there was a human fighter, created during our B/X days, and a second created a few years later. Interestingly, both were played by female players, despite AD&D strength limitations based on sex).
  • Of those 29 characters, 21 were race-class combos found in the first edition Players Handbook.
  • Of the eight characters that were not "standard" PHB characters, six were made using rules found in  the Unearthed Arcana (three were Drow, one was a human barbarian, and the other two incorporated the thief-acrobat subclass in their design).
  • The remaining two characters were created using rules found in Dragon magazine or 3rd party sources.
  • None of the characters were gnomes or (if I remember correctly) half-orcs.
  • None of the characters were druids, paladins, monks, or cavaliers.
Race-Class combos for years, y'all.
That's a lot of mileage out of a single book. The total number of race-class combinations found in the first edition PHB are 34, not counting dual-class, multi-class, or bard characters. As we tended towards "optimal" configurations (no half-orc clerics or elven fighters, for example) it's unsurprising we only used a portion of the possible character types available.

But we did create a large number of characters...and there were NPC druids and monks, etc. who found their way into the campaign, representing their individual character types. The sheer number of possibilities permitted by the AD&D system provided plenty of grist for the imagination mill, allowing us to churn out a thriving campaign world of class/race-based factions, colorful characters, and adventures equivalent to any cheap-ass, knock-off fantasy novel.

Which isn't said to be harsh, by the way. We weren't authors trying to create "great literature;" we were kids playing an adventure game. The play of the thing, and our engagement with it, was la cosa mas importante...the most important thing (sorry, still in Mexico). Having that variety...occasionally supplemented by a Dragon mag, or the UA, or whatever...allowed us to remain engaged, and play the hell out of the game, for many years. Our game group fell apart for reasons of social dynamic, not any lack of interest or inspiration. We weren't failed by the system...certainly not the way (I believe) later editions failed their players...we were failed by issues that arose outside the game.

[folks who continue to play and enjoy later editions of D&D...2nd to 5th...are welcome to disagree with that last sentiment. And, yes, I guess the jury IS still out on 5E (people are playing it and loving it, from what I gather). But from my own experience, 2nd and 3E both failed to retain the interest and engagement of myself and those I played it with (due to their system design "features") and it appears evident that 4E failed a majority of players on a pretty large scale]

Anyway, as I consider the system requirements of my own redesigned campaign world, I find myself remembering things that worked well in the past, and this particular aspect of the AD&D game was one of those things. Wholesale availability of class and race combinations isn't desirable (I've seen the madness of that in my 3E days), but I'm a lot less opposed to the idea than I was a few years ago.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

It Starts With Religion

Hope everyone had a "merry, merry" and all that jazz. My holiday (which continues this week in Mexico) has been pretty good, what with the food, family, and fun. Heck, I even got to watch the Seahawks game Sunday, an exceptional gift, in and of itself (as well as a bit of a Christmas miracle, all things considered).

But has been tough to get any blogging done (duh) with the festivities. Not to say this was my intention (it wasn't), but I have had some things I wanted to write about. I've been trying to finish up a post on The Temple of Elemental Evil for about four days, and just haven't quite put the capper on it. Still, that's just one of several things floating around my brain.

When considering the creation of a fantasy campaign...or, more accurately, it's "milieu" (to use the Gygaxian term)...one has to consider how things tie together, setting and system, in order to ensure a type of consistency that will last long term. Not necessarily because "everything needs to make sense;" sensibility, is actually a little bit down on the list of necessaries for a good, fun game. But because it helps establish boundaries and paradigms within which one can create.

[does it sounds like I'm gearing up for some sort of painfully amorphous, "thought exercise" blog post? Yeah, I guess it does. But I'll try to keep it short]

Ancestor was raped by a dragon.
For example, what is the overall fecundity of fantasy species in your game world? Is it some sort of Xanthian cauldron of crazy that allows for half-dwarves and goblin-troll hybrids? Some fantasy allows for vampires to have biological progeny (the "daughter of Dracula" kind of thing); others take a far more staid approach to the subject. Decisions like this (and the relative sentience of species and levels of variance and ability) not only inform how the game world looks, but important system considerations like what are playable races, and whether or not non-human characters are allowed to choose between different classes.

Similarly, there are issues of tone to consider. Here, I'm not talking about dictating player behavior...over the years, I've come to the conclusion it's damn near impossible to influence something that will be (largely) determined by the particular group dynamic of the players you're saddled with. But one has to decide the "background noise" of the world. Is everyone living in fear of some unconquerable horde that periodically ravages the civilized lands? Do the rulers of the realm more resemble the High King of Gondor or the scheming nobles of Game of Thrones? Is magic an inherited birthright, a supernatural art, or some form of lost, "higher science?" All these things contribute to the flavor of the campaign setting, informing what type of scenarios and situations might be encountered by players...and also places limits on what becomes necessary for rules.

For me, however, I've come to the conclusion that my first cosmological priority is, and has to be, the form and shape of religion in the game world.

Not, necessarily, the God or gods of universe, or the "creation story" of my little fantasy setting. These things are generally "higher mysteries" that players may or may not discover...and that are possibly subject to change (with new "discoveries" or revelations that occur in play). And anyway, I already know how this particular universe was created: I made it. Probably the players will know that, too.

But religion...how people relate to their belief systems (and the effect those belief systems have on the people) is a major, serious, foundational bit of world building for a fantasy campaign, especially one based (however loosely) on the Dungeons & Dragons system. Not only with regard to the clerical class and its related subclasses, but also alignment, magic, the ordering of the natural and supernatural, the organization of societies, the conflicts inherent in the world, the value of treasure...just a crap-ton of different aspects of the game, its systems, and the fantasy environment in which the players will adventure.

Anyhoo. Maybe I'm wrong, but for my game, that's what I'm starting with. Apologies, but at the moment, I don't have time to elaborate.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

"Travelling"

Apologies, folks. I'm a total jackass.

By which I mean to say, I had originally planned on writing a rather long and insightful (or, at least, entertaining) post, but I simply don't have the time. I am winging off to Mexico tomorrow to spend the Christmas holiday with the in-laws, and I thought my travel time was to begin in the afternoon/evening. Turns out: no. My plane leaves at 9am, which means I have precious little time to get everything packed (and the house in order), before catching a little sleep and getting the kids up, a couple hours earlier than they're used to. I'm doing this on my own, of course, as my wife is currently in Paraguay; we're meeting in the middle.

[my children, while under the age of seven, are veteran travelers and real troopers when it comes to this kind of thing. Unfortunately, they are fuck-all worthless when it comes to packing and organizing or even (with regard to my youngest) dressing themselves or cleaning their own nether regions]

SO...as I am pressed for time, I will simply give you the skinny in bullet point form:
  • I will be out of the country till New Year's so anyone ordering books are S.O.L. until January, when I will fulfill any and all orders in my inbox.
  • Likewise, I will be (mostly) unavailable to answer the various emails and comments I sometimes receives.
  • I am very hopeful that you ALL have a HAPPY and SAFE holiday season. I know that's not always possible, through no fault of your own (observe Monday's tragic Amtrak derailment in my own neck of the woods), but I'll send up a prayer that everyone makes it through to 2018.
  • I've been doing a lot of reading and research on the old Traveller game this last week. And not just ANY edition of Traveller but, specifically, the original 1977, first edition of the game...which happens to be (oddly enough) different in many respects from all the later editions, even the 1981 "re-print" (the only one available in PDF at the moment, as far as I've found). I found an incredibly interesting resource over at the Tales to Astound blog, and have spent at least a dozen hours or so reading through his entire string of "classic Traveller" posts. Very enlightening stuff, especially the relationship of the game (both its themes and gameplay) to the original version of Dungeons & Dragons. Fascinating, and definitely recommended reading for the Traveller enthusiast. Hopefully I'll have a chance to revisit the topic in a future post.
Aaaaand...that's about all I have time for. I'll try to get out a post or two while I'm in Mexico, but if I don't, know that I'm wishing you all a "merry, merry" one...whatever it is that makes you merry this time of year.
: )

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Admitting Defeat

The other day I blogged about picking up a few 2nd edition AD&D books (used) in a moment of birthday self-indulgence. One of these books was the adventure Return to the Keep on the Borderlands. Return is one of those "silver (25th) anniversary" adventures put out by TSR shortly after TSR's acquisition by Wizards of the Coast; it is, of course, based on the old B2 adventure Keep on the Borderlands of which I've spilled plenty of internet ink. As I've only played 2nd edition on a couple occasions (even after it was published, my friends and I continued to use 1E), these were never a priority of acquisition, although I have owned Return to White Plume Mountain since it was first published...a lovely little adventure that greatly expands the original, creates several interesting challenges, encourages faction play, and has a nice little moral quandary and multiple ending "solution."

Nice art, but I prefer Roslov.
Return to the Keep on the Borderlands isn't quite as expansive, appearing to adhere much closer to its original source material (though I'm still in the process of giving it a really thorough read). It is also, much like the original B2, designed to be used with beginning players and characters, offering all sorts of tricks, tips, and advice to the new Dungeon Master which, as I recently mentioned is sadly lacking in the 2nd edition DMG.

Of special interest is the following note on page 3:
Dividing Treasure & Experience
The original D&D and 1st edition AD&D games gave experience points for treasure gained and monsters slain; 2nd edition AD&D shifts the emphasis to story awards and specifies that it's only necessary to defeat the foe, not necessarily kill them (sometimes it's better to take prisoners). For purposes of this adventure, the Dungeon Master is strongly encouraged to use the optional rule that grants experience for treasure (at the rate of 1 XP per 1 gp value); this sends the message to the players that there are a multitude of right approaches to take (combat, stealth, negotiation), not a single preferred method of play.
[a slight quibble, but per the 1981 Basic D&D set, "Experience points are also given for monsters killed or overcome by magic, fighting, or wits." Outright slaying is not required]

Emphasis added by Yours Truly.

While (as might be imagined) a crotchety old grognard like myself is inclined to cackle a bit upon reading this (oh, you finally figured out your 2E XP system was silly and counterproductive), I mainly find myself wondering why this reasoning wasn't carried over and implemented in later editions. After all, the author of Return to the Keep is John D. Rateliff, a WotC employee for years, and co-editor for both the 3rd edition PHB and DMG.  After all-but-outright conceding that an XP-for-treasure reward system is a road that opens D&D to something other than straight combat, WotC defaulted the other way, making the game about fighting monsters ever since.

Fuck, dudes.

I took the time to review my old 3E books this afternoon, just to see if there was some "optional rule" about calculating XP based on treasure I'd missed or failed to remember. Nope. Just challenge ratings and "story awards." I wonder what the reasoning was, what was discussed in the brainstorming sessions and design meetings when they decided this would be the way to go. Were they already considering the plethora of other-genre D20 games that would be published based on their proprietary OGL? I know that the OGL itself was developed as a tool to rope in and destroy D&D's competition in the marketplace.

Hmm. Maybe something to look into.

Friday, December 8, 2017

On Victimhood

Kyle Mecklem recently blogged his thoughts on how and why D&D has become a "boring" game in recent years. While I think his analysis is a little off (you can read my comments on his post), it still raises a subject I find worth discussing.

[not beating up on Kyle, here...I'm just riffing off his subject matter]

Sure, I can get on board with the idea that the latest editions of D&D don't hold the same appeal for me that the older versions of the game do, but that doesn't mean they're boring to everyone. Clearly there are folks enjoying 5th edition in some capacity, and who are more than willing to put their cash in Hasbro's cash register. Perhaps I am simply out-of-touch with what "the kids" want these days...certainly that's true with regard to pop music and reality television.

And even if though I can come around (rather easily, I admit) to an idea that the game is objectively "less fun/exciting" than it was "back in the day," I'm rather hesitant to consider it has anything to do with the reasons Kyle lists: low effort players, hand waving away of minutia, and the lack of "true challenge." I can see how these things might appear to be causes of this "boring-ness problem" -- they are all features of classic "old school" play, and Kyle's premise seems to imply old school play being more desirable than the current systems -- but I'd argue against them. After all:

- There are plenty of RPGs that require extensive, pre-play character development that offer nothing like classic D&D play. Furthermore, if players are approaching the game with a "video game mentality" (as Kyle suggests), I would lay the fault at the feet of a game designed with video game sensibilities, not the players' response.

- Too much minutia can be off-putting and distracting from the escapism of the game being played. Some people want to count arrows and torches; some people find this breaks their immersive experience. Different players have different thresholds for the amount of minutia they can handle; I for one did not enjoy the "challenge" of worrying about my caloric intake when I played in a certain on-line campaign.

- Games that are too deadly in nature promote caution in players, leading to slower play, which I consider to be fairly boring. On the other hand, what Kyle describes as a "slow grind" is very inherent of some styles of Old School play, and the wahoo "lich council assault" he describes sounds much more video gamey in nature. I suppose I'd just say these are matters of style and personal taste over something inherent in the game itself (neither in its current nor past incarnations).

Here's the thing: what Kyle is expressing is a lack of satisfaction with the D&D game experience these days, and I can agree with that. I mean, I have sampled 5th edition and found it dead boring (and 3rd edition, which I played for a couple-three years, was at least as much, if not more so). Mostly though (mostly), I would chalk this up more to the manner in which the game has been presented...the main marketing thrust of the game since the advent of the 21st century seems to have been to make the perspective DM reliant on company-created game resources, rather than promoting one's own ability to create and run the game independently. This may be an excellent business model (evidenced by the company remaining in business) or it may not be (I haven't purchased any of their D&D stuff in 15 years). Regardless, I don't subscribe to this presentation of D&D, and I would actively discourage anyone else from doing so, were they to ask my opinion.

['course, I'm not playing much at all these days, though I am gearing up for the future, so take my opinion for what it's worth]

Alexis Smolensk, bless his ever-present-desire-to-help-us-be-better-DMs, has written a couple good posts about encouraging player agency over victimhood.  "Victimhood," a term I'd use interchangeably with "de-protagonization," may be the usual state players find themselves in when playing a published adventure path, but it's been the default starting point for adventures since the Hickman/Weiss era of the mid-1980s. See examples such as Dragonlance ("Your village has been burned and you've been captured by the Dragon Army"), the Desert of Desolation series ("You've offended the local lord and you are being forced to do this quest in the desert"), and, of course, Ravenloft ("You're trapped by this mysterious fog in some Transylvania-equivalent; go break the curse!").  And reading and running (and aping) published adventures is one of the main ways young DMs learn their craft.

[I'd argue that earlier adventures (Against the Giants, the Slavers Series, early Basic modules) offer a bit more player agency: here's some adventure site, do you want to take it on or not?]

Unfortunately (in addition to de-protagonizing players), relying on this kind of heavy-handed story-forcing doesn't do a DM any favors, either. Not only are they subject to extensive cliches (how can it not be, when fantasy adventure gaming is built upon and chock full of cliches?) but requiring a DM to follow a dramatic plot...whether a published one or a story of her own design...ties the DM's hands, limiting the DM's ability to improvise and adapt to the needs/wants of players or even (on occasion) the results of the dice rolled.

Yes, such constrained play can certainly feel trite and/or boring.

In my opinion, the main lacking in the most recent editions (perhaps ALL editions) of D&D is the clear, concise instruction needed by perspective DMs for building and running adventures and campaigns. Without that instruction...well, you get what you've got.

And that's all I've got to say on the matter right now.

***EDIT: I wrote this post before reading this, published today. It's a little harsh, but not terrible advice to the perspective DM. More of this kind of thing would be helpful, I think.***