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.***

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Better Wheel

There are a number of different posts that I've been wanting to write lately, but lack of time and distraction has made it a real challenge to do anything besides scribing in my own brain. Because of this, I might be hitting a bunch of semi-random subjects in this post.

I'll start with this:

I've been considering re-writing Dungeons & Dragons for my own purposes. This is stupid on a lot of levels. First off, it's not a very original idea. Second, it's not a profitable use of my time (no one's going to buy such a thing). Third, I've already done this before (see Five Ancient Kingdoms). Fourth, it's just a stupid, stupid idea.

I might still do it, however, because there are some things that really bug me about the game as it exists. Ability score modifiers. A lot of stuff about combat. Lack of specificity with regard to classes. Too much specificity with regard to classes. "Subjective time" in a game. Some spells. A bunch of random things.

Here's a thought that keeps going through my head: should a fight with a band of orcs be run the same as a fight with Demogorgon? How about a fight with an ogre? If the answer to either of these questions is "no," then you may (like me) have a problem with the combat rules, regardless of the edition you're using. I know I do, in part because it's caused me to avoid certain types of play in the past (depending on the edition I'm running)...and I shouldn't have to do that.

More on that (perhaps) later. Next:

I've been re-reading Alexis Smolensk's How to Run, specifically Part 4: Worldbuilding. When I wrote about this section in my review of his book (a few years back), I may have given it shorter shrift than it deserved...and if so, I would chalk that up to being intimidated, overwhelmed, and (frankly) not really understanding everything in that section. Well, I'm a couple years older and wiser and I'm seeing the thing with new eyes. Maybe it's just more extensive reading of Alexis's blog, but I'm comprehending the concepts he's communicating and I'm drinking the Kool-Ade. It's still intimidating, but it's not overwhelming.

The last couple years or so I've been considering what kind of setting I'd prefer to run as a D&D campaign...always assuming I will (eventually) get the chance to run a D&D game at some time in the future (as my children continue to get older, it seems the possibility is more likely). It's been tough nailing down concepts...what I want the setting to look like, what I want the game to look like. Sometimes I want something one way, sometimes another. But up till now, I've never bothered to sit down and actually outline it, actually write it up. I haven't bothered considering the functions and structures I'd need to get the game that I want. Re-reading How to Run, four years later with a lot of water under ye old bridge, I find Alexis has a great roadmap for creating such a thing...if I bother to use it.

Back in September, I wrote a post that I intended to follow with a discussion of strategies for enhancing play and increasing gaming "longevity." Obviously, I never got to that. But the gist would have been (mainly) about attending to the immersive experience...at least, with regard to fantasy adventure games like D&D. Much of that particular discussion could have involved cribbing from strategies outlined in How to Run, manipulating players feelings/stress level both through one's presentation/style (as Dungeon Master), and use of the rules (structure) in play. I've started coming around to the idea that what has made me a successful Dungeon Master in the past (i.e. one that could attract and retain players), has far less to do with any amazing creativity on my part, and much more about how I handle my players at the table...how I run my games.

Which may seem like a no-brainer to folks (duh, JB)...but I'm talking about the extent of the importance. Let me put it this way: Sure, I've always felt I was fairly competent (hell, competent enough to expound on "the Art of Being a DM" here on Ye Old Blog) and that this contributed to my players' enjoyment. After all, I've been at the table with other GMs whose style or ability wasn't to my liking, to the detriment of the game being played. But I figured this accounted for only a small percentage of a game's overall "enjoyment factor;" say, something in the realm of 30-50%.

What I'm starting to believe (now) is that the manner in which we run a game accounts for more like 80-90% of whether or not a game is going to be successful. Assuming everyone's on board with the game being played (system, genre) originality and creativity of design, while important, is only a small part of what makes for a successful gaming experience. We've all killed orcs before, re-skinned or not. Can the DM immerse you in a game world that sucks your breath away, not with its unique design, but with the manner in which it's presented? Pacing and panache; competence and confidence.

While the game remains a game, can the DM make you forget that fact? If he or she can, even for a moment, then you can enjoy a short period of transcendence which makes RPGs like D&D so much more enjoyable than most pastimes.

This is why "world creation" is such an important step for the guy (or gal) running the game. In developing one's world, you have the opportunity to know it intimately...and that allows you to speak with authority to your players. It's why you need to have real investment in your world (and sound the time creating the world you want): so that you, the DM, wants to spend time there. If you can't be excited about your own setting, how can you communicate that to your players?

In the past, I've rarely considered the world past the adventures I've designed...I've tended to run my D&D games as "episodic," dungeon-of-the-week affairs (at least, since my adulthood). I've achieved some success (i.e. created enjoyment) for players because of the way I run my game sessions, but I've had little success running long-term campaigns. I've no established world that makes folks want to come back for more. I've no established setting that makes me want to come back for more. I have no Middle Earth, no Urutsk, no Tekumel, no Greyhawk. I have nothing invested, and there's nothing in which to invest.

Running the game (that 80-90% of determining player enjoyment) includes running a campaign/setting. Long-term play is one of the bennies an RPG lie D&D enjoys over other games...it's one of the "perks" of its design. And I've always known that (duh)...I just haven't paid that fact the attention it needs and deserves.

Anyway. Remaking the wheel. That's what I'm thinking about lately, with regard to D&D. World building and rule writing. Function and structure. I'm beginning to think that it's no coincidence that many original campaign settings, developed by individual creators over decades, have rules that deviate substantially from the published game system (see Alexis, Kyrinn Eis, M.A.R. Barker, Dave Arneson...even Gygax). Maybe I'm wrong; maybe I'm wasting my brain power. But it's a thought that keeps carousing around my skull. Just thought I'd share.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Keeping the Flame Alive

Hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving holiday...well, for the readers who happen to celebrate that one. Other than being sick the last week or so (been passing the holiday colds around Ye Old Family Unit this month), mine was pretty good. Not spectacular perhaps...but does it have to be? Food on one's plate, family in attendance, a minimal amount of bickering. Definitely satisfactory. Everyone should be so fortunate.

Not a lot of time to write at the moment (what else is new), but wanted to say a few words. It was my birthday this month (turned 44 this year, though I daresay I look younger, despite the hairline) and in a fit of self-indulgence I picked up a few things from my favorite game shop. A handful of books, including a full set of 2nd Edition AD&D (PHB, DMG, Monstrous Compendium...plus a couple of the 2.5 "Options" books). I've been thinking of these ones over the last year or so (I have owned them in the past), and when I saw they were available in the "used" section, I decided to splurge. More for research than nostalgia.

[though I have been feeling nostalgic lately...my birthday hit me kind of hard this year. And I had a whole "nostalgia post" teed up on the blog before I decided to have mercy on you all and the pull the plug on the thing. It was even more self-indulgent than usual]

It's been a while since I've read 2E, and while they do have some good stuff going for them (including what must be the best interior artwork of any edition...really, the overall quality of their color plates are excellent), my opinion of this particular edition has dropped even lower since reacquiring the books. I mean, for all the stuff they "clean up" they are fairly terrible at explaining how to play the f'ing game. Remember my series of posts comparing the 1st edition DMG with the 5th? Maybe not...I mean, it was two years ago.

[see here, here, here, here, and here if you're interested]

Well, 2E provides absolutely NO information on how to craft a campaign, or an adventure, or how to run a game. It's PHB provides rules (and spells) while the DMG provides supplemental rules (and magic items). But if you wanted to learn Dungeons & Dragons with only the 2nd Edition books for reference? You'd be shit out of luck. They basically tell you to find an existing group or look for a copy of the basic set (I suppose this would have been Mentzer's red box at the time). Hell, while the term "campaign" is used a couple-four times in the text, it doesn't even appear in the glossary. Like, WTF, dudes?

And yet I have it on good authority from an industry insider that 2nd edition remains one of the most popular versions of the game still selling (when it comes to "obsolete editions") right up there with 1st edition. Not because of the system, mind you, nor even nostalgia, but because of the plethora of settings that TSR published to go with 2E: Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, Spelljammer, Planescape, Birthright, Al-Qadim, Kara-Tur, Ravenloft, etc. Even Dragonlance (first created during the era of 1st edition) had substantial setting material released with 2nd edition. For folks who enjoy these settings and who possess neither the time nor inclination to do straight conversions, 2E is the system of choice.

Mm. Sad.

I've been thinking a lot about 1st edition AD&D lately (I told you, I've been feeling nostalgic), the version I used for most of my "formative gaming years." There's a lot of cool stuff in it, especially the asymmetry of the thing. I find it's lack of balance so charming...kind of like the unfairness of life.

Mm. That's pretty sad, too.

Anyway, I was having breakfast by myself the other day at a local hipster hangout (in the Ballard neighborhood, which is plenty hipster by itself), reading through my newly acquired 2E books. The waitress...an amiable young woman in her (early) 20s asked me, politely, what I was reading. When I explained ("Dungeons & Dragons") she wanted to have a whole conversation about the game and how she wanted to learn how to play, how she had always been interested in the game, but how watching the Netflix show Stranger Things made her even more curious. Wanted to know if the game was accurately depicted in the series (as to how the game was "back in the day").

[I haven't bothered writing anything about Stranger Things on the blog as I figure any reader of mine who has access to the show will have already devoured it. Definitely my favorite Netflix offering, and I'm a fan of a LOT of their original programs]

So I gave her the discussion she was interested in and provided her with a list of games to check out and where to acquire them, including B/X and its various retroclones. I figured it was the least I could do. You know: just "keeping the flame alive." Giving the newbies the insight into the most accessible editions of the game.

Which is important. At least to me. Still. One of these days I'm going to get back into gaming and I'd like to see the ball is still rolling out there.

EDIT: Probably should have written "dice are still rolling," right?
; )

Monday, October 16, 2017

Our Last Best Hope

One thing I'd like to get back to one of these days is the dozen-or-so, half-finished drafts sitting in my blog's memory. I mean some of them are still pertinent. However, for the sake of "just doing something" (baby steps, right?) I'll write about something more current:

The last month or so, I've been dipping my toes back into the Magic: The Gathering world. The reason for this is pretty simple: my son has discovered Magic cards. Back in June, he be can collecting and trading Pokemon cards, and was gifted with a huge stack of the things from an older kid (11? 12 years old?) who'd moved onto MtG. While we played these earlier in the year, what's become a big part of the fun for my first grader is trading cards on the playground (before and after school), and Magic cards became the currency of choice sometime around the 2nd week of September.

I have a fairly substantial collection of MtG cards, most of which were purchased off an old roommate back in 1999 or 2000. We...myself and my housemates of the time, including my spouse (before we were married)...found the cards enjoyable for casual play, especially down at the Baranof, over breakfast, while nursing our tremendous hangovers (ah...wasted youth). But casual play was all we ever did with them. While it was fun to build decks and tweak them with the nickel cards you could pick up at Gary's (back in the day), none of us wanted to invest substantial amounts of money in them. For us, it was just a cool substitute for Rummy or Cribbage...something fun to play while relaxing with a beer (or whatever) in the evening.

While I did end up amassing a couple thousand cards, they got boxed up and (mostly) forgotten sometime around 2000 or 2001...after my wife and I moved out of that house and "grew up;" getting married, buying cars, and houses, etc. But as with many of my gaming products, I kept the cards (still in shoeboxes), figuring some day they'd get brought out again. And now they have.

[just in case anyone's wondering: I am a packrat, but I wouldn't call myself a hoarder. I have been known to part with things, even things of substantial nostalgic or symbolic value (my old electric guitar, for example). And some things...like my 2nd Edition AD&D books...I found exceedingly easy to discard. I don't hang onto EVERYthing, folks!]

However, after a couple-four weeks of deck building and playing and attending one local, MtG competition (at a local shop with a substantially younger crowd), I find myself kind of sour on Magic, again. The cards are still neat and I really dig on the newest series (it's all inspired by South American-flavored pulp: lost world dinosaurs, Aztec-ish vampires and conquistadors, plus various South Seas pirates)...but I don't want to invest in a paper product that disintegrates in water, and certainly not to the extent that I could compete in a competitive environment. And just beating up on my six year old is kind of a dumb exercise in gaming. At least when we play Rummy he can win a hand or two.

But the boy still likes the cards and I picked him up a booster pack for him this weekend, as well as a new RPG for yours truly: Our Last Best Hope, a GM-less story-game by Mark Diaz Truman, inspired by the disaster movies of recent years that focus on world-threatening melodrama. Films like Armageddon, InterstellarThe Core, The Day After Tomorrow, and any of various zombie-apocalypse films that have graced the screen...stories where a small band of heroes must work together and overcome various obstacles to save the human race from extinction.

It's a well-known trope these days, and I'm kind of surprised at how familiar I am with it, considering these types of films bore the shit out of me. I mean, the formula's pretty tired, the drama pretty contrived...and yet these stories remain popular and (probably because there are so many of them) I've seen more than my fair share of them. Heck, some of 'em (like Armageddon) are a lot of fun, even...or especially...when they are at their most ridiculous. Regardless, the game is exceptionally well-crafted, and playing within such a recognizable genre gives players a real chance to ham things and have a great time.

Underrated classic
Hell, you could use it to model a lot of high stakes, crisis-type situations. Something like the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage...which I just re-watched with my kids a couple weeks ago (despite its age, I still find it a great film)...would be perfect for Our Last Best Hope. Even though humanity isn't on the brink of destruction, The Fate of the Free World is!
: )

I won't get into the specifics of the rules here except to say that compared to other "Story-Now" indie-games, it's very concise and focused with excellent practical in-game resources and a lot of new-tech support (including QR codes throughout the book that you can scan with a phone app for video examples of specific rules). But for me, it shows that there ARE real reasons for playing other RPGs, and other systems. You could not use (for example) the D20/Pathfinder system to emulate the large-scale disaster drama with the same kind of laser-focus that Truman brings with Our Last Best Hope.

It really warms my heart. Damn, there are some designers doing good work out there.

Anyway, Diego's not old enough to play (he's still a little young, even for D&D), so it'll probably be a while before I get a chance to try Our Last Best Hope. But it's definitely worth keeping on the shelf for some future, rainy day. Unlike the Magic cards, I doubt it'll take sixteen years for me to find an excuse to play it.
; )

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Soul Searching

I don't pray very often.

I just don't much anymore. Not because I don't believe in the power of prayer, but simply because I've gotten out of the habit of actually petitioning God for anything other than to do God's will. While I go to church more often these days than anytime since I was a child (I try to get my kids there every Sunday), and I do meditate and thank the good Lord for my many blessings and ask for aid to all the folks who need it, etc. there WAS a time when I could...and would...pray at the drop of a hat. For aid in all sorts of things. Things that, objectively, one might consider selfish. To do well on a test. To not get caught doing something I wasn't supposed to do. For the local team to win a big game. Things like that: the normal petitions of a young Catholic who believes in the intercession of the Trinity (and perhaps a saint or three).

I watch my son pray, and I find it amusing. He'll pray that he wins a hand of cards (we play a lot of cards in my house). Or that the Seahawks make a field goal. Or that we make it to [wherever] on time. He closes his eyes and clasps his hands and prays silently, unashamed of who may be watching. I admire him for it...even envy him a bit (I was never so demonstrative, nor...I think...so fervent, except perhaps when praying for God to save us all from nuclear war and Mount St. Helens). He prays with equal fervor for folks affected by hurricanes and earthquakes and mass shootings. He's a good little kid.

Why am I writing about this? I've been thinking about soul searching lately, self-meditation, praying for guidance. The subject keeps coming up for me randomly...like the universe telling me it's something I should be doing. Because lately I feel like I've been ignoring my "inner voice" (what some might consider the whispering of the divine) in favor of simply treading water: going through the daily routine, doing my day drinking, grinding out some semblance of substance in a life where I often feel like some slacker fraud.

I am reminded of an incident from my childhood, where my father gave me the worst tongue-lashing I can remember (and deservedly so), when he discovered I had been...in his words..."pulling the wool over his eyes." Pretending that I was the model student when I was, in fact, really letting shit slide. It was horrifying on many levels, and probably gave me all sorts of negative conditioning that still haunts my psyche to this day. In the moment it was occurring, I really thought he was going to take me out.

I wonder how much of this has been passed on to me and become part of my own "parenting style."

[terrible thought]

I picked up a copy of Michael Thomas's BLUEHOLME Journeymanne Rules today, and had a chance to read through it. I am a big fan of Thomas's original BLUEHOLME (the "Prentice" rules), and wanted to see what his concept of an expanded ruleset would like. I was...well...underwhelmed. The book itself is beautiful (the artwork and layout is fantastic), the scale (less than 120 pages) is about perfect, but the content isn't much more than the original, save that it "goes up to 11" (or 20...level 20...in this case).

And perhaps that's enough...perhaps that was Mr. Thomas's objective in writing it. If I didn't have the Prentice rules (or a copy of Holmes Basic), this would be a "must-have" book for this edition...this style...of Dungeons & Dragons. That's what Holmes is, after all: the world famous D&D game in a slightly different flavor. And while he offers a couple of new innovations (for instance, I like his variant weapon damage that makes sense within the style and scope of the original), on the whole it feels like it could have been more.

But how can I fault him? Really...who am I to pass judgment? He has created a very nice retro-mash of Holmes and the OD&D supplements, packaged it in the most pleasing form (art and layout) of ANY OSR clone yet (honestly, I can't think of a nicer looking OSR clone that I've seen), and provided all the rules he feels necessary for his preferred flavor of D&D. And me? What the hell have I done lately?

The truth is, I've been on an extended hiatus, due less to the busy-ness of my life and far more to straight-up lethargy, inertia, and my various addictions. I'm just saying this to "come clean"...as I sit here at the German pub, drinking beer and ignoring my other obligations. Hell, I just ordered a second half liter as I was writing that last sentence. The fact is, if I didn't have my family to anchor me (and really, it's just my kids) I would probably have no reason to go home at night. Or shower and shave (occasionally). Or clean my house. Or grocery shop. Or anything productive at all.

And being "productive" isn't the same as being "constructive." Productive is simply treading water at this point in my life, and that feels like a damn cop out. About 18 months back, I was writing about how I never learned to "hustle," and worrying about my damn legacy and a bunch of other bullshit. Part of the problem I'm seeing now is that I actually have an idea, an inkling, of what I should be doing with my life...and yet I'm not doing it. It's so easy to rest on one's laurels, to celebrate the small victories instead of seeking out the new challenge, the next mountain to summit.

Fuck. I'm really NOT trying to be poetic here.

It makes me want to (mentally) beat myself up, but I understand and realize that's truly a counterproductive waste of time. If someone came to me with this same, sad sack bullshit I'm writing here, I know what I'd say to him/her. But I've discovered in recent months how useless words can be to changing someone's behavior, let alone their life. Only self-action (i.e. actions taken by oneself) can change the road you're on, not helpful...or compassionate...or shouted...or constructive advice.

Time to put down the fucking beer and get on with it.

I started this post writing about prayer. I can't explain why I find it so difficult to pray (outside of church, when I'm modeling behavior for my children), except that I'm fucking out of practice. God doesn't care if you pray for selfish things, and as long as you understand God's answer to your prayers might well be "no," there's no harm (or foul) in doing so. I think I might benefit from doing some prayer...especially the deep, soul-searching kind. The last couple months I've been doing a little of this during Mass, and I've been receiving some inspiring ideas...ideas that I haven't done much about. Too tired, you know? Or too "busy." Or too lazy. Or something. Whatever it is, the inspiration fades after a couple donuts and a big, Sunday brunch followed by the football game on TV...just your typical, habitual Sunday ritual.

I think I need to start praying on days other than Sunday.

I'm going to leave it at that for now. I want to talk more about BLUEHOLME in a separate post (after I give it a second read and collate some of my more random-ish thoughts), but at the moment I've got some other stuff I have to get to.

Later, gators.

[EDIT: just re-reading this, my writing...and sentences...appear very short and "clipped." I want folks to know that, mentally, there were a lot of loooong pauses in my brain when I was typing this up]

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Games

I'm sure I've written this before, but I'll write it again: much as I love the game of Blood Bowl (and the latest edition might be the best version yet)....much as I love the game, there are a lot of ways in which it fails to mimic the actual game of American football on which it's based. While the various discrepancies could be written off as just a post-apocalyptic fantasy world's imperfect interpretation of the ancient rulebook (so would say the original "fluff" of the game) there are other, non-field aspects, that simply cannot be emulated. The current brouhaha in the NFL, for example, where players are using their public platform to bring attention to the continuing racial injustice in our country that has led to more inappropriate outbursts from our sitting POTUS. While some non-field events and antics can (and are) emulated with the use of random event cards, in the existing fantasy setting the various Blood Bowl teams play for different nations and species, rather than a single country. There can, thus be no single cause or rogue leader against which to rail and bring unity between teams bent on mutual annihilation in the name of sport.

As usual, reality proves itself stranger than fantasy.

Even so, Blood Bowl is a great game, certainly one of my All-Time Faves. Diego and I have had the chance to sit down and play a game or two since the NFL season started. As said, the current release might be the best iteration yet published (previously, I would have given the nod to the 3rd edition), at least in terms of rules. But then, Games Workshop has been publishing and evolving Blood Bowl since 1986...thirty years!...and while the main "overhaul" of the game was the '94 version (when they introduced time limits and turnovers) the last 20 years have simply been tweaks and tinkering based on actual play and feedback in an attempt to make the gameplay experience better. Blood Bowl isn't the flagship game of the GW brand; hell, there have been periods in their history when they weren't even publishing the game. Their business strategy for getting new cash infusions from BB fans is based on newer, shinier releases (better game pieces, cooler models), not some false proclamation that the "older version" is no longer viable as a system. The game is still about 16 fantasy figures taking the field 11 at a time, and I still can (and do) utilize the playing pieces I've owned since I got into the hobby circa 1989 (with the 2nd edition).

The reason I bring all this up is the recent series of thoughtful posts from Alexis over at the Tao. For reference, you can check out:
Noob-Talk
Measuring Yourself as a DM
Those Who Quit the Game

They're all short, but particularly thoughtful (and thought-provoking) posts on Dungeons & Dragons. One thing Alexis has been good at over the years is reminding his readers that D&D, for all the wonderful things it is and all the joy and meaning it may have given us, is still a game. A game that has to be played to have any real value. A game that we can...and perhaps should...strive to become better at.

Last week I received a comment on an ancient blog post in which the reader expressed doubt of my actual experience with the game (and, presumably my authority to blog about it). It's true that I've played D&D since 1982, but those 35 years have been "off and on" and the last five years or so have been mostly "off." If I really consider the actual years I've spent playing and running D&D...not just acting as an "armchair DM," my actual experience probably amounts to only 15-17 years...and maybe not even that. Reading and designing and prepping are all a part of the game (especially for would-be dungeon masters), but most of the practice is only accomplished at the table. Like flight time for a pilot...there's a difference between hours spent in a simulator and hours spent in the air. It is quite possible that there are people out there who only started playing D&D with the 3rd edition (released in 2000) that have more hours "in the chair" or "behind the screen" than I do, despite my decades of involvement in the role-playing hobby.

And that actual, hands-on experience makes a real difference. It does so with any game or sport, and the more challenging and complex the game, the more difference that experience makes. When I play Uno or Rummy 500 with my son, he beats me nearly as often as I beat him. With Cribbage, I generally beat him (even though we don't count muggins and I help him with counting). When we've played Magic cards...recently discovered this month...he's beat me a single time in a dozen plus games (random draw should preclude this from happening). And I've never lost a Blood Bowl game to him. But then, I can only remember losing a handful of Blood Bowl games, ever, to anyone...BB is just my wheelhouse.

And it's not just about winning (after all, D&D isn't about "winning," right?). The boy and I were at the local game shop where we completed a full game of Blood Bowl in a couple-three hours...and during the same time period we watched a pair of adults struggle to even complete a half in the same time period (Blood Bowl, like soccer, is played in two halves)...despite having been set-up at the table before we even sat down. When I've simply acted as referee for two players (I do this sometimes), I've managed to facilitate complete games far quicker. That's just experience that comes from playing.

D&D is a game. A special game, sure, but still a game. A complex game with a strange set of rules, some of which are unwritten, some of which can only be parsed out in play. Especially for the development of a competent DM, real experience is needed at the table...hence, the often heard phrase, "you learn to be a DM by running games."

And yet, imperative though it is, just running games is not enough to hone your craft as a DM. I've run the Hickman module Pharaoh two or three times (boxed text and all), but if that was all I did I wouldn't develop anything except my ability to run that particular module. I think Alexis is right when he states part of the reason people quit the game (assuming that they had an enjoyable experience with it when first played) is that they reach a point where the game's perceived limitations fail to satisfy their expectations of entertainment. "I'm tired of killing things and taking their stuff," or even "I'm tired of pretending to be something I'm not," especially when one can instead escape into the easily accessed television program.

There are several strategies for enhancing and retaining player enjoyment...and I think those strategies are ideas worthy of exploration. But that's going to have to wait for a follow-up post.