Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Damn This Technology!


I cannot get blogger to add a poll "gadget" to the blog...it continues to say "correct errors on page" but it doesn't tell me what those errors are. Spelling errors?

I might have to do this the Old Fashioned way. Ugh!
: (

Unexpected Windfall

Readers who have followed my blog for more than a couple years will have noted drop-off in production from the early days when I averaged something like two or three posts per day. It’s not that I’ve lost (much) steam as far as wanting to blog…it’s just that I have new time constraints with the birth of my 1st child (now 18 months old). Add the responsibilities of being a parent to my regular work, writing projects, and normal household duties and you can see how one’s time just has a way of, well, dwindling.

I nearly considered ending the blog (mainly out of frustration), but a couple things kept me from doing so: A) I still have things to say, and B) this is my main/only way of promoting my books (I have even less time/money to go to conventions and stuff).

Oh, yeah...also C) ego.

Anyway, even though it makes me feel guilty (I haven’t been able to promote my new book as much as I’d like or cruise the forums or other blogs or offer exciting and startling insights into recent developments in RPG gaming)…even though I DO feel guilty, I wouldn’t change my circumstances for anything as my boy is the greatest joy of my life and he definitely takes precedence over any other selfish wants I have. Sorry that’s caused a drop-off in my production but…well, there it is.

SO…it turns out I will be having a rather unprecedented windfall of TIME in the very near future: my wife is going to be travelling for business in August (as she has been doing) and this time she’s taking the baby with her! They will be travelling to South America for 10 days or so, and I will be left here with two beagles and an extreme amount of spare time on my hands.

Not to mention a crushing melancholy while I miss my family.

Now they were gone for close to a week last month, but I spent the time fasting and…along with the melancholy…my energy level was pretty low. This time, I’m going to turn off the television, catch up on my sleep and exercise, and intending to spend my every free moment WRITING.

The question is: writing what? And a million dollar question it is.

Here’s the deal: you folks who reading this are my main target audience. It looks like I’m going to have the opportunity to knock out one or two projects that have been on-and-off the burner over the last several months…and I want to know which ones are of greatest interest to y'all. What would YOU folks like to see me finish up?

For the next three weeks I’m going to be running a poll, asking blog readers to tell me what they'd like to see as the focus of my writing. I’m not going to guarantee that I’ll actually work on the project that gets the most requests, but I DO guarantee I will consider mightily those projects that generate the most reader enthusiasm.

[by the way, if you select the “Other” category, you WILL need to specify exactly which project I’ve left out of the mix (add it via a comment on this post)]

Thanks for your time. I’ll do my best not to get his done.

: )

+++EDIT: Hmmm...blogger had an error trying to upload my poll from the computer by my office. I'll post it later from home; sorry about that!+++

Follow-Up to Stages of Exploration

I want folks to know that I have had a chance to read (and appreciate) all the comments on my recent series of posts (actually, it’s just one BIG post that I broke up into four parts). Fact is, it turns out the place I was staying out on Orcas Island had better, faster wireless web access than what I’m used…however, for the good of my marriage I refrained from posting much to the internet while I was on our “mini-vacation.”

Anyway, here’s the follow-up post:

I don’t have a solution to the issue at this point. But having identified what the issue is, I have some ideas, and I’m currently working on them and looking at adapting ‘em to D&D Mine (my personal version of D&D). And no, none of the ideas involve playing a different system or “boosting” the starting levels for B/X D&D characters.

Here’s the deal, folks: I am familiar with other games. Ars Magica, for example, and Pendragon, too. I have read The Song of Ice and Fire RPG and I’ve played Amber Diceless, as well. These don’t work for my purposed for a number of reasons. I suppose I could enumerate them all, but it would seem like a lot of bashing of these particular games and, fun as that might be, that’s counter-productive. And anyway, they’re good games: Stormbringer was a lot of fun (I played the 1st edition extensively) and can certainly be played on a variety of “levels,” but it works best for a very specific setting and method of play…and I’m looking for something a bit more generic, or rather "setting neutral."

And let me put to rest any thought that I’m one of those dudes who only plays D&D or only considers a single system for my “fantasy sword-swinging” RPGs. I know there are folks like that out there, but I’m not one of them. There are a lot, A LOT, of good things going on in the D&D rules…especially with earlier editions. My D&D Mine has a lot of deconstructed D&D concepts in it, but a lot of folks who read it would say, “That doesn’t resemble the D&D I know!”

As for simply starting characters at 3rd level (or higher!) or adding a bunch of bonus HPs to ensure survivability…that’s just a patch, folks. So why are there rules for 1st level characters then? I mean, you might as well just say 1st level has the same ability as a 3rd level character, right? Ugh…just never mind. 1st level is 1st level, and this is not (just) about adjusting/addressing effectiveness.

Look, I have some mechanics in D&D Mine that will allow me to address the issues of effectiveness in context of objective. I would share it here (I might still sometime), except that it only works in light of me converting the whole game to being D6 based (and, no, not in the West End Games’ sense of “D6”). I think (I’m not 100% sure…maybe 70% at this point) that I can make that part work.

What’s more important, and what is the tougher deal, is fixing…or rather “breaking down and recreating from scratch”…the advancement system of D&D. Because reward mechanics influence behavior…and the current method of reward, while excellent for Stage 1 exploration, blows chunks for Stage 2 and Stage 3.

Let me give you some examples of what I mean. We’ll start with adventure module I4: Oasis of the White Palm. This adventure was widely published so many will be familiar with it, but for those who aren’t the scenario goes like this: the player characters are forced into the Desert of Desolation on a search for some brigands (or something). Along the way they end up accidentally releasing a demonic force. By the end of the three module series (I3 through I5) the demon is defeated, the curse on the desert broken (transforming it back into a paradise) and all the PCs hailed as heroes.

I4 is the middle module of the series. Whereas I3 and I5 mainly feature large dungeons, I4 provides a mystery, a damsel in distress, a thriving desert civilization/town (the titular Oasis), intrigue, and several small dungeons. There’s A LOT of different avenues of pursuit by PCs in I4 and it is not out o the realm o possibility for players to ignore the story/plot at hand. I mean, here’s a town where you can settle down and live if you so choose…start up a business, hire yourselves out to locals, change your name and identity if you wanted, etc. You could throw in with the Bad Guys or start your own competing faction in the town (hypothetically)…and even if you succeed at the “main scenario” of I4 there’s nothing that really compels your characters to continue on to module I5 except the base assumption that your characters don’t like the desert and want to get the hell out of there by completing the over-arching quest.

Basically, it’s a great adventure and wide-open to a number of different possible actions; if it was a fantasy novel, one could see how characters might approach it with little or no worry about collecting treasure. However, as a game, Oasis of the White Palm is a flat, 1st edition AD&D adventure…which means characters receive experience points for collecting loot and killing (“defeating”) opponents. Not for exploring the landscape. Not for surviving the desert. Not for making alliances with the various nomad tribes. Not for doing anything interesting in the Oasis (unless that “interesting” thing involves killing and looting). Regardless of anything else going on in the adventure, the MOTIVE for player characters is “to get paid” period. The only creativity encouraged is creative methods of getting gold.

This issue comes back regardless of whether this is a sandbox world or adventure module and (for the latter) regardless of the difficulty level associated with the adventure. Examples of low-level Stage 2 Exploration (B2, N1), or mid-level (X1, I4) or high level (D3 or Q1) all bog down because of the driving goal established in Stage 1 exploration: Find treasure. Kill monsters.

Here’s the formula I’m working with as my basic paradigm:

Reward for Exploration = XP Gained = Level Advanced = Increased Effectiveness in Exploration.

What is wilderness exploration all about? Finding gold and killing monsters? Sure…in the current paradigm of D&D. But what else COULD it be about, if we removed the standard reward.

- Finding a new place, or opening new territory
- Meeting and greeting or scouting or killing a new culture, tribe
- Uncovering mysteries or secret history of an area or region
- Surviving hostile environmental conditions (swamp, desert, arctic, etc.)
- Opening trade routes (by land or sea) and/or escorting traders
- Climbing a mountain, exploring a jungle, sailing a sea
- Surviving “the road”
- Learning the politics of a region, and making friends/allies

At high levels the same types of wilderness objectives apply to more dangerous and stranger “wilderness” environments: for example, the Vault of the Drow (D3) or the Demonweb Pits (Q1). If the goal of the game was NOT “to acquire gold and kill monsters” how much time do you think individual adventurers would spend in such a hostile wilderness without allies or safe havens? How much time might they instead spend, trying to survive and explore or reach their quest/scenario objective instead? And shouldn't they be rewarded for doing so?

I think they should. A character who has "sailed the seven seas" or plumbed the depths of the ocean floor or climbed Mount Insanity or met exotic tribesfolk in the darkest jungles or visited the surface of the moon should show a marked increase in confidence and swagger...regardless of whether or not the character killed anything or found any treasure while there. A character that has explored the wilderness...who has participated and survived adventures...will be mored hardened (fighters), wiser (clerics), more knowledgeable (magic-users), and probably gained in resourcefulness (thieves) compared to the person who hasn't traveled farther than their home village...even should said village be on the edge of a "mega-dungeon."

Please note I am still talking about experience points here: XP as a measurement of success and accomplishment is a great mechanic for a fantasy adventure game. Much more so (in my opinion) than, say, Chaosium's "increase in skill percentage" (which is just a different method of doing the same thing as old D&D, by the way, save that it is more granular, piecemeal, and clunky. It still only addresses Stage 1 development). It is also much more appropriate than, say, White Wolf's "XP gained for showing up/learning something/role-playing award;" the point is to still reward player characters for their appropriate actions (i.e. for facing challenges), not just for showing up and pretending to be a character. Experience points are EARNED in old school games...on risk of painful (character) death.

Anyway, still working out exactly what to reward and how much (in terms of XP), but it's coming along. Now that I'm back in town for the foreseeable future, I plan on doing more play-testing of D&D Mine and will certainly check the revised advancement system. Of course, I'm going to have to re-do the adventure (which, as I said, is set in a damn setting-based mega-dungeon).

[oh, by the way...please note that the above applies in the main part to Stage 2 types of exploration. I have some very different ideas regarding Stage 3 but they're for a different, future post...this one's gone on a bit long...]

: )


Saturday, July 28, 2012

3 Stages of Exploration (Part 4)

[continued from here]

The types, the varieties of exploration offered by the D&D game are wonderful, but their design is terrible and terribly flawed, and this is because of the “organic” way in which those latter stages were “designed.” Basically they weren't…a dungeon delving game was designed, and when players wanted to do something more, extra rules got “tacked on.”

And I’m beginning to think this may be the ONLY way for Dungeons & Dragons to work “as intended,” i.e. to allow the campaign to organically evolve. When I was a kid, we played B/X (which is just OD&D with rule clarifications and better organization), and it worked great for us. The AD&D books were gradually added over time and that worked great, expanding our options. We took the game out of the dungeon, built up high level characters and meandered into Stage 3 play…all “organically” ourselves.

But since that time I’ve tried to start and run D&D campaigns that resembled that earlier “evolutionary” game and failed, failed, failed. You can’t do Stage 2 or Stage 3 in a new campaign without serious DM cream puffery and/or railroading and even doing that ends in a failure more often than not because players AREN’T INVESTED IN THEIR CHARACTERS...and not just because the characters are new and "history-less." It’s hard to get excited and enthused about a 1st level flunky that could get killed by an orc arrow on any unlucky roll, and I (and my adult players) just don’t have the time to devote to working characters “up the ladder” of development to get to these other stages of exploration.

D&D sucks this way. You’re forced to follow the parameters of the Basic stage (start off on the 1st level of a dungeon fighting ducks for chump change) and go through a long “dues paying” period before you can “get to the good stuff.” At least, if you’re playing the game as written. And tinkering with it too much just makes it…well, not D&D.

Case in point…when writing my own D&D (“D&D Mine”), long before I got around to thinking about these ideas (which has only been a couple days folks), I had already figured out the only way to make my game “work” like D&D was to create a setting for the game with a sprawling mega-dungeon built in. At the time, I wasn’t really grokking the WHY, I just knew that the WHAT (or rather the “HOW” as in “how the game is supposed to look and work”), only functioned properly with that. Or I should say, “functioned best.” And I was kind of surprised by that…surprised because I could see I was doing the same thing that had already been done long before me by Arneson (Blackmoor) and Gygax (Greyhawk) as well as plenty of others (for example, Maliszewski’s Dwimmermount).

Creating a city with built-in mega-dungeon and a local history, however, just doesn’t sit right with me. It doesn’t! And the REASON it doesn’t is because I want to play a fantasy adventure game, something that models the literary characters and heroic stories that D&D is supposed to be based on. How many times in Howard’s stories do you find Conan in some subterranean complex or mega-dungeon? Not very many, pal…he’s got more important things to do than crawl around a cobwebby dungeon with a torch. It certainly doesn't occupy the majority of his professional attention.

Recently, I’ve been playing in an on-line B/X game. My character, a cleric, is the closest of the party members to leveling up, but he’s still only 1st level and we’ve been playing since April. Actually, a couple of us (including me) have been playing since before then, as it was a table-top game that got converted to on-line in order to pick up additional players (and make it easier on our schedules).

There’s a large mega-dungeon we’ve been exploring, and a hometown, and a world history. However, at this point I’m choosing to make the mega-dungeon a secondary priority and spend most of my focus on proactively exploring the local politics; specifically, my intention to stir up a hornet’s nest by using treasure found in the ruins to fund a revolution to over-throw the invading Imperials that conquered my homeland a decade or so ago. Right now, my character is decked out in expensive (250gp) plate armor, riding a stout courser, and wielding a shiny dwarfsteel warhammer (when I’m not swinging my two-handed maul). I’ve acquired a normal human henchman from the local underground cult to which I belong and he’s outfitted on a draft horse with chainmail…he’s mainly for show, guarding the horses, and being my step-n-fetch. My character looks the part of a war leader and I’m trying to act the part in order to become the part…a kind of pseudo-medieval Pancho Villa. When last we left off, we were getting ready to jump a band of Imperial mercs encountered on the road, possibly risking being branded as outlaws by the local constabulary, but definitely striking a blow against “our oppressors.”

Did I mention my character’s 1st level? He’ll probably get hit by a lucky arrow shot and killed instantly. That’s what happened to the 1st level illusionist I started the campaign with.

The rules of D&D are not really conducive to this kind of play…and by that I mean, this type of play at 1st level (i.e. right out of the gate). And dammit, it should be. Why not? Personally, I plan on playing this game as if it were conducive until my character gets himself killed. And then…I don’t know, it will depend on the next character I roll up. But I’m not going to stunt my role-playing (head-thumping as the experience might be) just because the rules don’t cooperate.

D&D needs to be redesigned so that all the stages can be addressed at any time at any level. At least, I think it does. YOU may not. Hell, you may be reading this and saying, “I’m just trying to fight goblins and pick up gold, yo.” For how long? Until you get bored and decide you’ll stick it back up on the shelf for another 10-20 years? I guess if that’s your thought, than you’re probably not my target demographic.

There’s already a game-type game that gives you a chance to have tactical encounters in a dungeon (Basic Exploration) and roll dice: it’s called 4th Edition. There’s already a game that tries a hybrid between tactical encounters and rules-supported character development (still Basic exploration): it’s called D20 or Pathfinder. If that’s what you want, you’ve got it already folks. Heck, if you want an even simpler version with the same objective that doesn’t address character much at all, then you can play one of the various iterations of the board game Dungeon! which is plenty fun.

But for me, I don’t want those things. I want a nice, living, breathing game that uses a simple, abstract game system (sorry, Alexis) and yet addresses all three stages properly, allowing multiple forms of game play and exploration from all players, regardless of preference, right out of the gate.

Because you CAN be a low-level courtier, or wilderness scout…you shouldn’t have to wait till you're high level to try that type of game play. If I want to play a 16 year old Joan of Arc leading the French army to victory against the English, then dammit, there should be rules that allow that! What happened to “anything you can imagine?” What happened to fantastic fantasy adventure.

I keep coming back to this quote I recently (re-)read in Ron Edward’s second article on fantasy heartbreakers. I’ll reprint it here so you can see why it’s haunting me:

“I think it’s central to D&D fantasy that a character must start with a very high risk of dying and very little ability to change the world around him or her, and then increase in effectiveness, scope, and ability to sustain damage…the concept seems to be that the player must serve his or her time as a schlub, greatly risking the character’s existence, in order to enjoy the increased array and benefits of the powers, ability, and effectiveness that can only be accumulated through the reward-system. An enormous amount of the draw to play a particular game seems to be based on explicitly laying out what the character might be able to do, later, if he or she lives. I want to distinguish this paradigm very sharply from the baseline “character improves through time” found in most role-playing games. This is something much, much more specific.”
The thing that haunts me about this analysis (which seems accurate to me as well) is this:

Is this the real basis for D&D’s popularity?

This “draw,” this carrot that’s dangled in front of the players…is that what makes them come back for more? Because if it is, then ALL this discussion might very well be a waste of fucking precious time (and I’ve written this up as a 12 page, 7000 word essay). There is great potential within the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game (pre-1989, i.e. “old school” editions)…I know because I’ve observed it, I’ve played it. The same potential doesn’t exist within New D&D…the rules are designed to expand and improve the Stage 1 (basic) exploration and those same rules become extraneous or too complex for later Stage play (even if such was supported in the text of the rules…which it f’ing well is NOT). But there’s little way to GET to this potential style of play, even using “old school” rule sets, because they are accidents of design, not purposeful, and not well supported.

And maybe I’m retarded for even thinking about it. I’m not talking about piddling simulationist play…I’m talking about facing challenge on a variety of levels (i.e. “stages”): discovering the world outside the dungeon and becoming a ‘mover & shaker’ within that world. NOT limiting game-play to the challenge of exploring a Hazard Site. NOT simply figuring out how to defeat a particularly tricky puzzle (whether that “puzzle” is a tactical challenge against a superior opponent or a trick/trap not easily negotiated). Simply exploring a Hazard Site doesn’t allow you the depth of role-playing involved with Stage 2 and Stage 3 exploration when what you explore is Your Imaginary World and Your Characters’ Place In The World.

As I said, I know there are folks who don’t agree with me. Fortunately for you, the game as written is good enough for that Basic Exploration stage of play. Personally, I’d prefer to take the game up to the Expert and Master stages. However, I’m still mulling over exactly how to do that. I'll let you know if/when I figure it out.



; )

Friday, July 27, 2012

3 Stages of Exploration (Part 3)

[continued from here]

Sorry, for the short digression (we’re not talking New D&D after all)…let’s recap some of the ground covered so far:

1) Game play in D&D can be divided into three stages of exploration.
2) Each stage demonstrates a deeper and more immersive role-playing experience.
3) It is these stages of exploration that make the game so intriguing and thought-provoking.
4) The three stages developed organically, not purposefully.
5) Because they were not purposefully designed the latter stages are severely flawed.

Okay, how we doing? Hmm…looks like I forgot I wanted to come back to the three "Stages of Exploration." Let’s talk about them now (and get that out of the way):

[I’m going to try to make this short]

Basic Stage (Stage 1 Exploration): Hazard Site

This is your basic single site, adventure locale, generally referred to as “a dungeon” regardless of the specific setting (a temple, cave complex, tomb, etc.). Whether relatively small (e.g. Tomb of Horrors), extensive (e.g. Hall of the Fire Giant King), or “mega-“ in size, it provides rough physical parameters for PC exploration…that is, it is finite and limited in scope. This doesn’t necessarily mean “unchanging” but in general “clearing” a dungeon means just that…it’s swept clean of hazards.

And it is these hazards – monsters, traps, fiendish puzzles, etc. – that give the “hazard site” its name. It is hazardous to enter into it. The imaginary persona (whether PC or NPC henchman) risks life and limb (and possibly more) by exploring the hazard site. To compensate for this, the DM provides straightforward objectives: rescue these prisoners, fulfill this quest, loot the place for fabulous wealth and treasure, etc.

This is easy-shmeezy to understand: secure the goal, don’t get killed doing it. This is the BASIC stage of exploration (and by exploration I’m talking “exploration of the imaginary game world”). Challenges, rewards, all within limited parameters…it gives players the chance to explore their PCs capabilities (what can my fighter do? How do thief skills work?), and explore basic concepts of the game (hit points, armor class, saving throws, attack rolls, XP, etc.). It is incredibly useful for teaching the basics of the game to the new player…the straightforwardness and limited nature of the exploration provides a nice little “cap” on the “you can do anything you can imagine” preventing the newbie from being overwhelmed.

Expert Stage (Stage 2 Exploration): Imaginary Landscape

Roughly corresponding to the “wilderness exploration” presented in the Expert rule sets (both Moldvay and Mentzer), Stage 2 occurs once players come out of the dungeon with enough loot and wherewithal to choose their own adventure. Now, as said, it’s still possible to have an adventure that takes place “outdoors” that corresponds to the limits of a hazard site…I lost my copy of N2: The Forest Oracle sometime ago, but I seem to recall it being fairly linear and limited, for example.

However, once player characters leave the initial dungeon for the “whole wide imaginary world” things tend to get a bit more dicey. Without a generous (or railroad-y) DM, players are left to find their own adventures, following up rumors and answering want ads, etc. The characters have the potential to go anywhere, not just being confined to the hazard site…if they can afford a ship they can purchase one and sail to the Isle of Dread (or elsewhere). If they can’t afford a ship they can still make plans to stowaway aboard a vessel (perhaps later killing and replacing the captain and crew). The can hire out as caravan guards, or purchase their own horses and gallop off in any direction. They have to deal with food and getting lost and hiring guides and blacksmiths and other specialists. They can research legends, or become traders in mustard seed…whatever fancy takes them. And they can certainly become embroiled in the local political scene, at least indirectly. If the Dragon Highlords are moving this way and burning every town that doesn’t capitulate, they have a choice between organizing a resistance, or hightailing it out of there…or throwing in with the Highlords, offering up the townfolk as slaves.

The difference between Stage 2 and Stage 3 is the players generally don’t have the power to do everything they desire, and are still (at least half the time) reacting to the DMs scenarios. Invaders are coming; what do you want to do? A noble is organizing an exploratory journey by sea; do you want to apply for the job? The town has a lottery for sacrificing virgins to the local dragon; what are you going to do about it? Etc. Player characters are learning a LOT about the openness of choice in a role-playing game during Stage 2 and finding their own voices. They’re also (at this point) pressing the limits of most Old School editions, exploring the boundaries of the game. Weak DMs will have a difficult time with this stage of exploration; railroad-y scenarios (to get a group of PCs back into the next Hazard Site) is a common reaction to the overwhelmed DM in Stage 2 of the game.

The last few years of the old D&D campaign of my youth was spent mostly in Stage 2 exploration.

Master Stage (Stage 3 Exploration): World Shakers

Around the forums and OS blogs, there’s been much talk about the “endgame” scenario(s) of D&D; i.e. the denouement that occurs after a player character (or group of PCs) grow to such a level of wealth and power (i.e. level) that they can easily settle down, build a castle, and collect taxes from the peasants while growing fat and lazy in retirement.

But who wants to do that?

It generally takes a lot of ambition (and a lot of playtime with the same character) to get to a lofty high level…even so high as B/X’s “name level.” When my most recent B/X group finally got all their grooves ironed out and started playing seriously we made good progress and after several months of weekly play we were just starting to hit 5th and 6th level. In my youth, we had many high level characters, but those came from years of play, often with large (i.e. “Monty”) hauls of treasure, and many starting their careers as “mid-level” characters (to catch up to existing PCs in the game)…not to mention marathon game sessions unhindered by jobs and familial obligations.

Chances are if you’re playing a high level character that you’ve worked to advance, you’re not going to want to “go quietly into the night.” You’re DRIVEN to do more: to build that thieves guild or lead that Jihad or forge that kingdom or craft your magical magnum opus. Sure, high level characters like to go on “adventures” too: Tomb of Horrors is just a Hazard Site for high level characters, and what are “other planar adventures” but Stage 2 exploration only available to characters with the means to gate or astral travel?

But honestly, once you’ve spent a bunch of time in Stage 1 and 2 exploration (and amassed a serious amount of XP and treasure in the process) you tend to become a bit jaded to O Just Another Dungeon. Sure you can fight Orcus in his palace (H4: Throne of Bloodstone), but is that the most interesting thing you want to do with your time? Reacting to the scenario the DM gives you?

Certainly there is a degree of reaction in Stage 3, but most Stage 3 exploration is exploration of one’s OWN power, and the effects of one’s own choices on the game world. If you take down Greyhawk with your personal army of gnolls and polar bears, how does that affect the surrounding nations? If you decide to force the infidels to convert to the worship of Odin or be burned at the stake, who will rise up to stop you? What types of shady deals do you need to make to allow your illicit guild (thief or assassin) to flourish and function with impunity in the Empire’s capitol?

I watched the first season of Game of Thrones (and read the book on which it’s based) and I’d certainly call it a “fantasy adventure” but the adventure is not one of exploring a strange landscape or an ancient ruins. The adventure is found in navigating the cutthroat politics of a nation ready to tear itself apart…and that’s a fantastic maelstrom of action to take part in. Assuming the player characters still have the stomach for the game after ten years of nothing but killing monsters of ascending size.

That’s the thing that hit me like a (small) ton of bricks the other day when reading Noism’s post was this: his idea is great but ONLY when one is looking at D&D from the Big Picture Fantasy Adventure World concept. That is to say, it’s only great when you forget the little dungeon-delving game from which the whole thing developed.

See, Noism is talking like an intelligent human crafting a fantasy world. The medieval (or even pseudo-medieval) mindset is not conducive to treasure-seeking adventurers, while other historical periods and cultures are. However, D&D is not founded on any intelligent principle of design: Arneson created a limited scope of adventure to run a particular GAME and then that game evolved into the “World of Fantasy Adventure.” And no the latter doesn’t make a whole helluva’ lot of sense…but then neither does most of the pulp serials that probably served as a basis of inspiration for said world.

For example, I recently read Tarnsman of Gor. I remarked that it would make a fine D&D setting, because it has this Deus Ex Machina in it called the priest-kings that can automatically incinerate at any time (with blue fire!) anything they don’t like. Like people wearing armor better than chainmail or the building of automotive vehicles or the use of gunpowder. Why do people fight with swords when they’re from a more advanced civilization and living among several (specific) examples of high technology? Because the priest-kings incinerate you if you don’t. The world of Gor is a big game, with rules only its masters understand.

While reading it I found myself thinking, you know, this reminds me a bit of the flavor of Blackmoor. Low and behold that when I managed to get my hands on a copy of The First Fantasy Campaign about a week ago, what do I find but Tarns and Tarnsmen and slaves of various types. Yeah, Blackmoor (and Arneson) definitely had some Gorean influence mashed in.

Gor is an artificial, nonsensical, game-type world…just like the world of D&D. Why are there Norwegian monsters side-by-side with Indian spirits (rakshasa) and Greek mythology…not to mention Tolkien humanoids? Because it’s a game and a goddamn hodge-podge, that’s why! If you take it seriously you end up gnashing your teeth or looking utterly ridiculous or both.

And yet, as I said at the beginning of this series, D&D is a whole helluva’ lot more than your “average game.” It provides players with an opportunity to escape into a fantasy world and pretend (for the duration of a session) to be a heroic warrior or wizard or whatever. To experience and to EXPLORE a waaay different way of life from that to which we’re accustomed. To deal with issues and challenges of a different (and often drastic or deadly) nature than the normal ones we find ourselves facing…and, of course, like a weekly sitcom, we can turn it off for the night when the session is done and be none the worse for wear (depending on our snack preference) while having packed in some damn decent entertainment.

This entertainment, this experience, is richer when coupled with deeper and better role-playing and with a layered and textured world. But that means getting rid of the artificial restraints imposed by the game itself, and that’s a tall order.

Noism’s suggested exploring the New World or Africa or Asia…doing the Marco Polo or Hernan Cortez thing…as a reasonable way to build a world looking for adventure. But the type of exploration he’s talking about is Stage 2…and that’s pretty rough for starting adventurers with the rules as written.

Just like life’s pretty rough in a dungeon when you're playing a 1st level druid or assassin, you know?

[to be continued]

Thursday, July 26, 2012

3 Stages of Exploration (Part 2)

[continued from here]

If Arneson and Co. had kept the game as the equivalent of a “board game without a board” – i.e. if they had never taken the party out of the dungeon – this would probably be a non-issue. Of course, your game would simply be an over-complex version of those board games I listed earlier (and in many ways, isn’t that what D&D 4E is?), with simple game-type game-play:

1) Create character
2) Enter dungeon
3) Face challenges
4) Receive rewards
5) Grow in power
6) Return to #2 above

It would still be a powerful tool of the imagination…and continues to be for those Old Schoolers that are loosey-goosey with the rules but who limit themselves to Basic (Stage 1) Exploration. But when so limited you're still not talking about much more than a board-less board game (and if you’re using a “battle mat” you actually DO have a board).

[and, yes, if it seems from this that I’m not quite as impressed/enthusiastic about mega-dungeons and products like DCC and books like the Dungeon Alphabet as other Old School bloggers: yes, you are correct. As far as I’m concerned, these are “neat” (sometimes) but they’re still "playing small," in my opinion]

Arneson and Company, however, did NOT remain in the dungeon, instead taking their adventuring party ‘on the road’ and moving through the full-on wilderness…they started in the playpen and moved to the sandbox, if you will. And by doing this, they took their game to a whole new level of juicy; a level most long-time role-players dig much more than the simple site-based encounter map. “Depth added” is the phrase I think of when you start to meander off-the-reservation (i.e. “out of the dungeon”), and from there it’s only a short-step to move from Stage 2 to Stage 3…all it takes is a little PROactive stance from the players (‘what do YOU want to do to impact the world?’), rather than a REactive stance. And it is in these Expert and Master stages that the game really starts to shine, providing entertainment value not found in most board games (video games, like World of Warcraft or Morrowind or Fable can do Stage 2 to a certain degree, but Stage 3 has only appeared very feebly on the vid screen, and always as a part of a fairly rigid story line, programmed with very little customization possible).

Unfortunately, while the type of exploration changes at these later Stages, the rules of the game (i.e. the designed SYSTEM of D&D) does NOT change. You’re doing the same thing (collecting XP for monster kills and treasure found) that you did during your dungeon delve (Stage 1) phase, because that’s how the game play “works.” And the PROBLEM with this is that while the paradigm works fine for Stage 1 (the game systems and reward mechanics were developed specifically for Stage 1), when Stages 2 and 3 developed ORGANICALLY as a part of game play (as opposed to PURPOSEFULLY as part of game design), the Beloved Founders failed to account for them or do much of anything about ‘em other than tack on some extra rules that, sorry Founders, feel more like afterthoughts than anything else.

[At this point I want to take the time to note this is an area where Frank Mentzer deserves a heap of praise for his attempt at designing mechanics for Stage 3 play in his Companion, Master, and Immortal rule books. He was really the first and last to do so (well, until my own modest B/X Companion) and he deserves kudos for the effort. Sure there are a lot of missteps and his books are mostly Big Monsters, Big Treasures, and Big Spells…but he was attempting to work within the confines of the D&D rules. He ALSO gave us: dominion rules, simplified mass combat, travelling vs. settled class options, demihuman crafts, quests for immortality, siege engines, tourney and holiday rules…all things used and needed for Stage 3 play. To folks who’ve never been involved in Stage 3 exploration, these things might seem pretty superfluous…but that can be chalked up to a failure to adequately explain how to use all this stuff (though I daresay Frank was head-and-shoulders above Gygax and Arneson, not that that’s saying much!).]

If you were playing AD&D or OD&D or B/X “above level 14” and you started getting into Stage 3 exploration (as my friends and I did, after several years of Stage 1 and 2 play), you were left with a serious dilemma: how the hell did you run a game? How did you gauge (i.e. reward) success? Why are we even worried about killing trolls that have been waylaying travelers on the Eastern Road when we can just send a squad of troops armed with oil and flame? It’s not like there isn’t plenty of gold in the stronghold treasury!

The more you bring your characters out of the Basic Stage…what is accurately referred to as the “Basic Game”…of delving dungeons, the more interesting your characters (and their actions) start to become. And the more interesting the characters are, the more interested you are in playing the game (whether as a DM or PC). At least, that was the way it was for MY friends and I. And no, I don’t think we were “playing the game wrong” or “drifted.” We were playing the game as it is naturally designed to evolve…from dungeon, to wilderness, to court.

Look at the spell lists: low level spells include standard “dungeon help” like floating disk and light and find traps. But when you start hitting mid-level (5th) and getting access to spells of 3rd and 4th level you start seeing spells like fly and fireball…spells more properly of use in an outdoor setting (or outright dangerous within a subterranean environment). Sure, you might encounter a wide open cavern where ice storm would be effective, but control weather? Massmorph? Come on!

And later, high level spells like enchant item or cacodaemon aren’t anything you’d use “on the road” in the wilderness…you’d prefer to have a well protected sanctum for such mighty magics. Many high level spells are only designed to be used with a “home base:” here I’m thinking of spells like guards & wards or word of recall or any type of magic that has a long recovery time, like raise dead.

It’s not all about exploring dungeons despite the OSR tag line “we explore dungeons, not characters.” Character classes like the paladin and the druid come about AFTER the first DMs brought their characters out of the dungeon. How are you going to get that war horse down the steps? And all those characters with guilds or level advancement fights (assassins, monks, druids) are all interacting with the politics of the imaginary game world. You want the power of the highest level? You have to be willing to take on the responsibility of the Hierarch or Grandfather or whatever.

D&D thus has multiple stages of exploration. Unfortunately, these stages were not PURPOSEFULLY DESIGNED...and because of their organic evolution from game play they feel (hell, they ARE) POORLY DESIGNED. That’s the goddamn point.

And you know what? This is something many of us are already aware of but just haven’t been able to grok. My rantings about one part of D&D or another tends to come from this particular bit. Why are assassins such a neat idea in theory but so godawful crappy in practice? Because they’re a class best suited for Stage 3 exploration and most often forced to slog through Stage 1 and Stage 2.

Is it any wonder that (starting with 2nd Edition AD&D) the designers starting editing out all the extraneous stuff that didn’t seem to fit with Stage 1 or 2? Stage 1 is the Basic Game, and the Basic Game is easy enough to do, even with a system as complicated as New D&D (i.e. 3rd Edition plus). Stage 2 can be handled as easily as Stage 1…IF the DM takes a heavy hand, and treats the world like one big dungeon. You know what I mean? A dungeon has a bunch of numbered encounter sites laid out on the map. Managing Stage 2 like Stage 1 is just a matter of laying out numbered encounters on a larger map (with each number representing a smaller dungeon or lair…i.e. a Hazard Site).

Of course, when New D&D (and remember, I’m not talking “New School,” I’m talking post-2000 editions) start to do this, they start losing that which makes the game interesting (or which made the game interesting for us early players), namely the fusing of imagination with a simple system to allow us a deeper role-playing experience. To make up for this (and again, I don’t think this was done purposefully so much as with the desire to make the game “more fun” not realizing what had been lost)…to MAKE UP FOR THIS, the designers of New D&D made the character creation and development mechanics more intricate, interesting, and involved. Feats, skills, ability adjustments, multi-classing, racial favored classes, synthesis bonuses, prestige classes, etc. They took out the “imagination added” part and gave you their own imagination…i.e. their own nice and neat and fancy house rules.

[to be continued]

3 Stages of Exploration (Part 1)

[hey folks - I'm heading out to the San Juan Islands tomorrow morning and am expecting my internet access to be slim-to-none until next week. To mak-up for it I've got a loooong (4 or 5 part) post that I am going to try to set-up via blogger to post every day or so while gone. We'll see how this goes...]

Okay, just forget everything I’ve ever written up till now.

At least for the moment while reading this particular piece. Look, anyone who’s been reading this blog for awhile knows my opinions on subjects can seem to be wildly contradictory (D&D is the greatest! D&D has stupid premise! D&D combat is incredibly efficient! D&D combat is clunky as hell! Etc.). It’s not that I’m this fickle imbecile or ADHD dude that just writes “stream-o-consciousness” (usually…when I’m drunk is another story).

HOWEVER, it IS just a blog I’m penning here, and it’s reflective of my opinions and my opinions change. ALSO, I have tendency to write when I get “fired up” about something and sometimes (when my head is cooler) my stance relaxes a bit.

Sometimes, not always. Skill systems are still fucking stupid and a waste of space in 99% of all table-top RPGs, for example.

So for now, just ignore things I’ve written previously as I delve into some not-so-random thoughts that have been percolating. Perhaps these notes will resolve some of the contradictions previously penned here, perhaps not…blogging about D&D (at times) is a bit like wrapping your head around a Zen koan. It’s more of a meditation on concept than an actual study or essay.

Okay? Got it? Good.

Let’s preface this by acknowledging, one more time, that D&D is a game. Designed as a fun pastime. Hopefully enjoyed by the consumer, hopefully lucrative for the publisher. It’s not supposed to be life or death, it’s not supposed to cause you to neglect your job or your marriage or your schooling or your kids. It’s something you do outside of “real life.” Okay, everyone on the same page?

On the other hand, D&D (and many other RPGs, but here I’m writing about D&D in particular) is certainly more than your average game of Scrabble or Monopoly, or even strategy games like chess. Other games can certainly elicit emotion in folks tied to winning and losing (depending on a person’s competitive nature), but Dungeons & Dragons can inspire all sorts of feelings depending on how deep one dives into the imaginary realm…and because of that, much print (ink and digital) has been spent discussing, arguing, and kibitzing about various aspects of the game. It IS a phenomenon, at least with a small segment of the world population, and has been for nearly 40 years. But, yeah, you already knew that, too.

SO (just getting to the point here)…this post is about the experience or concept of D&D as something GREATER THAN a simple game of “enter the dungeon, kill the monster, collect the treasure.” I want to talk about the larger concept of role-playing…or rather of “fantasy adventuring”…than just its elementary game components.

Why? Because. Just bear with me, all right?

Dungeons & Dragons as is (and here I’m looking at the pre-1989 editions, i.e. the Old School editions of D&D)…"Old School” D&D AS IS can be broken up into three distinct phases:

- A low-level dungeon delving stage
- A mid-level wilderness exploration stage
- A high-level “world shaker” stage


This is the concept as initially laid out (somewhat haphazardly) in OD&D, later jumbled up a bit in AD&D, and finally organized in B/X and streamlined in BECMI. First you go into the dungeon, then you come out of the dungeon and explore the wider world, then you carve yourself a niche and engage in the politics of that world (managing a kingdom, going to war, forging alliances, founding religious movements, magical research, etc.).

Each of these three stages represents a different level (forgive the term) in the development of both the adventuring player character AND the dungeon master (who must properly manage the exploratory scenario).

Basic Stage: Exploration of the Hazard Site
Expert Stage: Exploration of the Imaginary Landscape
Master Stage: Exploration of the World Creation

[these are NOT, by the way, terms I’ve thought long and hard about…I may very well revise them later, but the phraseology will do for now]

I’m going to get into the specifics of each of these levels in a moment…with the objective of then having a discussion specifically relevant to their interaction and the future of the game (yeah, wow, right?) but for now let’s set that aside and talk about the design principles at work here.

Or rather, the lack thereof.

Now, it’s perfectly reasonable to think that a game designer could have come along and written a three stage game like D&D by design. “Let’s make something where game play has three distinct types of exploration and presents three distinct challenges for the players, and let’s include rules whereby one stage naturally [or unnaturally…see below] leads to another.” It’s possible a designer could have come along and done this…but that’s not really what happened.

At least from my readings of the books and the forum discussions and the various internet histories out there, the evolution of the D&D game appears to be fairly cut-n-dry:

1) Concept came about as a merging of several factors: interest in pulp fantasy (especially Howard-style ‘sword & sorcery’), medieval wargaming (including the added fantasy of Tolkien which often reads like a war story…which it is), with an idea of playing a game as an individual “character” (rather than a troop of men). The last can be (I think) directly attributable to the Chainmail game system. Chainmail provides rules for medieval wargaming (i.e. moving troops around the table), but then also provides rules for individual “heroic” characters in order to model fantasy novels (Tolkien). For example, it’s all good to say, “My riders of Rohan are charging your troop of White Hand orcs while my elves snipe from the woods”…but how does one model a single Gandalf? Or Aragorn? Or Lord of the Nazgul? You don’t have a platoon of wizards (as you do with Napoleonic riflemen), so you have to create some rudimentary rules for the lone “hero figure.” Which is what Chainmail did. Given that, it’s an easy step to say, “Hey, what if EACH player played a single heroic figure?” Add in the neutral referee providing challenges and you have the basis of the Dungeons & Dragons game…or rather, the basis of Arneson’s Blackmoor.

2) Now that you have the basis of “system/concept” you need to develop the environment and methods of game play; i.e. where the hell are the players doing their thing, and how is the referee developing challenges (and what are those challenges)? Enter Arneson…and Blackmoor…again: Characters are given a suitable task (by S&S genre standards) of seeking out treasure. Characters are placed in a static environment (dungeon), providing both an objective and a limit on what’s possible (they can enter or leave but are otherwise constrained by the adventure). The environment is stocked with challenges (“hazards”) to be overcome. At this point, the game is still simply a game…it is mimicked in many other board games that have been published over the years (Dungeon!, DungeonQuest, Siege of the Citadel, etc.).

3) Players and/or referee gets bored with “delving” and want to explore the world outside the dungeon. Lands are invented; as well as their histories, legends, and politics. Characters begin exploring the countryside, facing new challenges (not just monsters, mind you) and acquiring more treasure…the latter of which is necessary due to the “point system” developed during the “delving stage” to keep score. Increasing effectiveness (i.e. going up in level) requires higher and higher scores (i.e. more XP, which is received mainly from treasure). And what to do with all this treasure, besides (literally) cart in around with your party? Invest it in castles and “improvements” to one’s domain and hirelings to man the castle walls and spell research, etc.

4) At this point some long-standing characters are retired as players want to play other new characters; however, many players (I suspect) have grown somewhat attached to characters that have long withstood the test of time (and the fierce challenges of a wargaming referee). These players have developed personalities for their characters as well as personal histories and (imaginary) reputations and want to continue to “adventure” – though now their adventures consist of land grabs and politicking, making alliances and making war, creating new spells and powerful magics and religions and fighting to hold on to the things they’ve acquired over the course of months (or years) of game play.

Then the whole ball o wax gets written up in a couple-three game booklets (and published) for others to play. Because it’s found to be obsessively good fun.

What I’m describing is (in theory anyway) the theoretical evolution of the game and its levels (or rather) stages of play…an evolution and tiered hierarchy only poorly understood by the game’s creators themselves. After all, they were busy playing (and tweaking game play) at the time while it was being developed. It’s hard to take a step back when you’re in the midst of running a campaign six nights out of seven for a growing number of enthusiasts and see exactly what you’ve wrought, especially when your eyes are filled with dollar signs.

We, of course, have the benefit of both hindsight and distance…should we choose to use ‘em (which we don’t always do, seeing as how we’re busy playing and tweaking the rules ourselves).

Now, the problem with how ass-backwards this is may not be readily apparent to most, but that’s the bulk of what I want to talk about in this post (and possible remedies, if I get to ‘em without boring the crap out of you). First you have to buy into Dungeons & Dragons being “something more than your average game” (remember that part?) and second you have to examine this BIG PICTURE view of the game in light of an RPG being “something more.”

[to be continued]

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Wow O Wow

Sorry to do this to y'all...I have approximately 5 minutes to say something really interesting is cooking in my brain right now based on close to half-a-dozen articles I've read over the last 24 hours. Here are the blog posts of note:

Greyhawk Grognard
The Tao


and ESPECIALLY

Noism's Monsters & Manuals

And then add that my recent re-reading of several articles over at The Forge and I am really, really wishing I didn't have a meeting to go to in the next couple minutes.

But I do. So this will have to wait till later. Sorry about that, folks.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Ichiro's a Yankee

Sorry, I'm not a huge MLB fan or anything but I DO follow it a bit and DAMN. Ugh.

Not that it's too surprising...half of the Yankees starting line-up seems to consist of ex-Mariners. But still, watching him play...and get the final out at Safeco tonight against his ex-team. Ugh.

Nevermind. Sorry I bothered to bring it up.

The Virtues of "New D&D"

My wife just got back from Paraguay. During her many hour flight she had the opportunity to view The Hunger Games as an in-flight movie. She and I have both recently read the book (on the recommendation of a friend) and she remarked how amazing it is when casting choices for characters end up being completely different from the image you picture in your head when simply reading text.

Imagination is a funny thing that way. I do this double-take all the time. Especially when you spend as much time reading blogs as I do, you get funny images of what you think folks look like, especially when they don't have photos of themselves attached to their forum posts. And who knows why exactly we picture the people the way we do. I mean, other than simply associating them with what they write.

For example, I've never met Mike Mearls, and have no idea what his real life appearance is, but I pretty much picture him as kind of Mario Brothers-like figure. A bushy dark mustache, a battered painter cap, a kind of pudgy/dumpy appearance...basically a shmuck. I realize that's not very complimentary, and that it's probably a far cry from what he actually looks like, but I'm just being honest. Whenever I read something Mr. Mearls has wrote...or something someone has written about him...I picture a human version of Luigi. And I can only theorize this is because everything I read about the guy makes me think of him as a putz, and the original Mario Bros. were kind of putzy little icons.

The most recent example of this was Steveman's comment on yesterday's post:
I've been following the 5E playtest, not playing it...I get the distinct feeling that 5E is a stalling tactic and this rerelease is kind of "testing the waters". D&D brand manager Mike Mearls has made it exceptionally clear that he loves classic D&D, and would love nothing more than to put AD&D or the 1991 Rules Cyclopedia back on the shelves in packaging that would sell in today's market.
I don't know if that's true, but if it is that's just stupid shit. It may be time to take another hard look at this game called Dungeons & Dragons.

For reference, you might want to read (or re-read) Ron Edwards's essay "A Hard Look at Dungeons & Dragons." There's quite a bit of good insight in it, even if it's not always strictly accurate (Moldvay wrote his book in 1981 and has sub substantial differences from Mentzer's 1983 version, for example) and even though it wanders into opinion and perception of D&D and its degeneration both as a hobby and subculture. For my two cents, here are the important things to take away from the Edwards article:

1) Up until a certain point in time (Edwards lists that point as 1989 by pinning it on the Advent of 2nd Edition AD&D, but I think it was true even earlier for some by as many as four to six years)...up until that point, D&D texts were reflective, not prescriptive of actual play.

2) Game play evolved in individual groups over time (the "Cargo Cult" phenomenon), and was played in wildly different fashion even when using the same texts as a reference for play.

3) Part of the fun and popularity of the game (at least in the early days of the hobby) can be attributed to each group individually forging Social Contract while working out exactly how they were going to manage to play this game; i.e. figuring out (through actual play and rules tinkering) what exactly role-playing meant to them and how it got done within their particular circle.

Now Edwards was writing prior to the rise of the OSR and certainly had a different agenda from being an Old School (or "old edition D&D") historian, regardless of any statements to the contrary in his essay. Consequently, I feel there's been a lot more ground covered (historically and philosophically) about Dungeons & Dragons subsequent to his essay. But these three points I list are still valid and important ones to remember...and all too often we (OSR folks) forget them when we get all ranty about which edition is our favorite or preferred version of a fantasy adventure game.

My own D&D upbringing was as much a mishmash as anyone's. Starting in 1981 or '82 with the B/X set, we quickly added the Monster Manual and DMG to the mix and played with just those volumes until circa 1984 or so when we discovered the PHB and switched over to playing "AD&D only." However, our AD&D play was mostly informed by the simpler, more stream-lined rules of B/X (so much so that whole swaths of the DMG were "cut" save for random tables)...and round about '86 we added rules from Mentzer's Companion set to our games, specifically domain and mass warfare rules, plus new magic items and high level monsters.

Our game group...which lasted up until 1988 or so...also made use of a variety of Dragon magazine articles and (very rarely) non-TSR publications (like Sechi's The Compleat Adventurer). Our campaign world was half-Greyhawk and half-homebrew and our adventures ran on for so long that we considered adapting the Mentzer Immortal rule set (one character in our campaign was already seeking divinity a la the Deities & Demigods guidelines, and Mentzer's book seemed to provide a way to "continue play" even after achieving godhood). Texts for play (i.e. rule books and magazines) were passed around between players, and those with the most books (and thus with the most rules/references) tended to get the responsibility of being Dungeon Master...though all adventures took place in the same campaign world (and the results of one DM's adventure would impact another).

It was a hot mess in other words...but a helluva' lot of fun for all of us (or most of us, anyway). I think I'm probably the only one from the old game group that still plays D&D (or any role-playing game) anymore, and while the others may still pursue creative pursuits (fiction writing, for example) I think there's a real sense of finality one feels when they realize that the magical moment of their past just cannot be regained, because you've lost too much, learned too much over the years. As with other pastimes, you have to find a different way to play (like playing flag football after your full contact days are over or transitioning to a teacher rather than an active participant)...which isn't a terrible thing, by the way (life is about growth and development and change); but if you can't accept it, you're in for a world of hurt.

But I don't want to digress too much: our games were a hot mess because AD&D (and all it's associated books up until about the time Gygax left) were a hot mess. Players were role-playing in SOME way, shape, or form and they were using the texts to help them, but it was fairly haphazard stuff. Talking with Heron the other day, he reminisced that the D&D games played by girls he knew featured "a lot of druids and unicorns" which were quite different from his own games. My buddy Steve-O told me they really had no idea how to play the game: his DM just had them pick monsters out of the Monster Manual to be their characters and they went a-bashing and a-thrashing for treasure. My own game group (in my youth) tried to adhere as closely to Gygax and AD&D as possible, even using speed factors, helmet rules, weapon vs. armor tables, etc....and we still dumped rules or changed things we didn't like (for example, making clerics memorize their spells at the start of the day like a wizard just seemed dead wrong).

Which is why Mearls attitude (if reported accurately) is so putzy. This is why republishing the original three AD&D volumes (which I still haven't removed from shrink wrap, by the way) is such a win-win-win for WotC:
  • Cash Cow: people who played the original game will purchase it for nostalgia or a collector's item; players who missed it will buy them out of curiosity and/or as a collector's item.
  • Good PR: smooth over some of the hard feelings from the hard core grognards who've been angry since 2000...or even since 1989!
  • No Competition: people without a basic understanding of D&D, or years of social contract creation, or the benefit of older "teachers" will look at these rules and say WTF? How do you play that?
Because that's the problem: it is so crazily organized that few folks with 21st century sensibilities are going to have the patience to make such a thing work. Even though these three are (as I told the cashier at Gary's the other day) the only things you need to really play AD&D...heck, they're all we used for a number of years...that's NOT true. You need to pour your own heart and soul and imagination into it to make it work. You need to be willing to adjust and kitbash and house rule the thing...you have to be able to create social contract within your group, coming to a consensus on how rules will be applied so that everyone can have fun and enjoy the thing. No, you don't need any more texts, but the texts alone do not suffice to teach the game.

And so it is we come to the title of this post: the virtues of "New D&D." Some of you are old enough to remember the introduction of New Coke into the market (circa 1985...I had to look that up), and the backlash that led first to "Coke Classic" (my preferred drink of the late 80s...God, even then I was resistant to change!) and later a simple return to the original brand/formula as the flagship soft drink of the company.

I don't want to get into drawing any parallels between D&D and Coke, except to explain my phraseology: I'm tired of referring to post-2000 D&D as 3rd edition, 3.5, 4E, etc. From now on, I'm going to refer to ALL "new" D&D editions, from 3rd edition forward (including Pathfinder) as "New D&D" because (as with New Coke) these later editions represent a new formula for the company.

Please understand that New D&D and "D&D Classic" (for pre-2000 editions) is NOT the same dividing line as Old School and New School. 2nd edition AD&D is definitely of the New School of role-playing games, for example, especially with its rules supported emphasis on player characters as heroic protagonists as exemplified by the attention to character "bloat" (and I'm not just talking about the infamous Players Options book, but instead the various "kit books" and the change in experience points and advancement), not to mention New School sensibilities when it comes to an emphasis on coherent IP-protected settings. However, despite being "new school" AD&D2E is easily recognizable as the same "classic" D&D rules found in earlier editions...it plays the same, uses the same or similar tables, has the same magic system, etc., etc.

New D&D had wholesale changes from the way D&D was played in the past. The D20 system is a radical departure, as is the "all numbers ascending" philosophy. Skills and feats, monsters that use the same system as player characters (i.e. having skills and feats and ability scores), unified experience point tables, a three-prong saving throw system, unified ability score adjustments, etc...this is a sweeping sea change in design philosophy for the Dungeons & Dragons game line. And I'm going to write something now you might not have previously read on this blog:

The designers' basic idea was a pretty good one.

That is to say that the philosophy that led New D&D's designers to adopt a radically different system for Dungeons & Dragons (rather than reiterating all the prior tropes found in AD&D and 2nd Edition and BECMI/RC, etc.) was both GOOD and ADMIRABLE. Not just the intention...I've written before (and recently, though I can't find the post) that I think the intention of each edition has been to make each new edition BETTER than the edition before. But here I'm talking about their actual strategy: reconstruct the game from the ground up, make it coherent and consistent in both structure and system, provide a complete system of rules that both A) explains how the system is to be played (complete with plenty of good examples), and B) requires no other text or periodical or mentoring to understand gameplay or "make the game go."

These people, ace designers who I have derided in the past for their execution of the rules (because of the effect it has on-play and the way the mechanics turns the game into soul-less number crunching, etc., etc. cue standard rant)...these ace designers had the right idea. They took a hard look at Dungeons & Dragons and decided the game needed a complete over-haul, NOT just a face-lift. And they were right. Just as AD&D2's designers were right that AD&D 1 needed a reorganization for ease of comprehension (even though they neutered the game in the process...cue that standard rant), it was perfectly commendable for New D&D's designers to take the approach they did.

And they did a GOOD JOB, too. They accomplished their design goal. Yes, New D&D IS over-long, over-complicated, mechanically soul-less, clunky, and spits on many of the original parts of what made D&D great (like challenging the player rather than the stat block), but it does provide a game that explains how to play, provides consistent rules, a fairly coherent system, and a lot of nifty, internal consistency without a lot of controversy or argument or house rules needed. You can pick up D&D3 (and presumably D&D4) spend a few days reading it and then sit down and play...without any prior experience being necessary. It even provides plenty of flowery prose explaining individual classes and races raison d'etre for adventuring. All in a "far and balanced" way.

That Mike Mearls (who was Lead Developer for 4th Edition(?) according to his wikipedia article) loves the "classic" edition of the game and would like to see them again on the shelves, presumably as an existing, living line of gaming shows a remarkable lack of understanding of his own brand's history of design. We DO have to adapt to the 21st century; this IS a different world/society/time in which we're living and those who cut their teeth on the early editions aren't getting any younger. The way I see it, bringing back "the old line" really isn't an option...at least not if one wants to grow the hobby (or at least keep it alive and thriving). Truly, I really only see three options for this concept called "D&D:"

1) Build Your Own: the tactic I've decided to take (writing my own version of D&D, i.e. "D&D Mine"). I've already explained (at length) why one might choose this route and you can still play D&D while cutting WotC completely out of the mix. Fire up your word processors, folks.

2) Keep On Keeping On: WotC will continue to mismanage the brand, drawing some fans, alienating others, while people who prefer older editions play those or retroclones or mishmashes of editions. Basically allow the game name to become a caricature while maintaining the "spirit of D&D" in the same Cargo Cult fashion with which it entered the world back in the 1970s.

3) Epiphany & Apotheosis: WotC can tear it all down and rebuild it (again) from the ground-up taking a "new classic" approach to its design parameters. Using 21st century design sensibilities with regard to organization, layout, and explanation (of role-playing, how-to-play, etc.) while reverting to the Old School Art of imagination (leave the skills and computer game sensibilities behind) and player challenge. I know this probably won't happen: too many designers are married to the idea that these mechanical systems are necessary and expected in a table-top RPG these days, even though A) many of them are hand-waived or treated with laissez faire attitude at the game table, and B) the best thing to emphasis in an RPG (in my opinion) are those things that a computer game cannot do...the free-thinking, the imagination, the social negotiation of "what happens" in the fantasy world. Take the New D&D approach but wrap it around the nuggets of gold that once fired the imagination (and enthusiasm) of players from many walks of life.

But that #3 probably ain't going to happen. I know, I know I've said mean things about a guy (Mr. Mearls) who I've never met, don't know, and is probably a perfectly fine and dandy human being (he's a gamer and game designer so that's a big plus anyway) based on hearsay of what he might or might not think. The truth is, I sincerely doubt that Mearls (or anyone currently tied to the WotC company) knows who I am, and if they do I doubly doubt my opinion means anything or makes a difference in any of their choices. As people working for a corporation, their main concern is (and should be) the company's bottom line and marketing strategy...and if that strategy says "involve on-line followers with the play-testing and design of D&D5 because that's our target market (i.e. people who follow WotC on-line forums and articles)" then So Be It. We'll end up with a game that appeals to a small segment of the population (if they can do so in a way that doesn't alienate their fan base for some unfavorable misstep or other).

The POINT of this long-winded post is that, after consideration, much as I prefer "D&D Classic" to "New D&D" (due to my Old Fart sensibilities and history with the game) I don't think it would be a good idea to start republishing the AD&D game (1st or 2nd edition) as a living, breathing game line. I think that there is actually some virtue to NEW designers looking at an old, beloved system and saying, "wow, this just really doesn't WORK" when it comes to creating an actual game you can play out-of-the-box. And the hobby NEEDS that if it's going to be sustained over the long haul.

We need a New D&D approach with Old School sensibilities. Unfortunately, what we seem to be getting instead is an Old School approach (grass roots play-testing) with New School expectations. From where I'm standing, it looks destined to end in more ugliness.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Forgive Me Father, For I Have Sinned...

I said I wouldn't put any more money into the pockets of WotC/Hasbro, and yet today I dropped over a hundred bucks to pick up the shrink-wrapped, leather-bound, re-issuing of the AD&D Players Handbook, Dungeon Master Guide, and Monster Manual...three books I already own in duplicate (variant covers).

And, of course, I don't even play AD&D anymore.

Well, I haven't yet broken the shrink-wrap, and I've decided to give myself a couple days to decide whether or not to return them to the store (for now, I guess you can say I'm removing them from the marketplace). And I was feeling pretty generous...since putting it on sale Thursday I've sold more than 10% of the print run for The Complete B/X Adventurer...sight unseen and with zero reviews. My readers' faith in me is fairly astounding (considering this print run was double the size of any of my previous ones for my B/X Companion). I really, really hope they find it useful to their games, inspiring and fun. That was my goal anyway (oh, yeah...and to make enough money to fund my next book).

So with cash in my pocket, I figured I could afford to pick up the new AD&D books. While I haven't opened my own copies yet, I did have a chance to look through an opened copy of the Monster Manual. The quality of the pages is, well, meh...the equivalent of the 2nd edition Vampire book (kind of shiny without being nice) and everything appears to have been scanned (which is probably the case)...and the fact you can tell it's scanned should inform you on the quality of the scan.

Still the gold leaf and leather is great and if I decide to hang on to 'em they look sturdy and completely useable. My own copies (all of 'em) have water damage and ripped (or removed) pages and pencil marks (and erasures) scattered throughout. The binding on the originals is still quality but the volumes look like they've been well-used (and hard use at that)...which is, of course, the truth.

The marketing department of WotC has let it be known that purchasing these books will support the Gygax Memorial Fund, though I am skeptical about just how much of the profits are going to said fund. 1%? $1 per book? The Gygax family isn't saying (and why should they? ANY extra money for the fund, I'm sure, is welcome...even a pithy amount), and neither is WotC. Which leads me to think that this is mostly a stunt to milk the ca$h cow one more time (like they did with the "fake Basic set box") and inject their own accounts with a little capital provided by the nostalgic.

At least this time buyers will actually be getting the game they grew up playing. If I was a 35-45 year old who had somehow missed the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th editions and wanted to return to the game of my youth (perhaps to play with my own kids or old friends) this would be the set to buy to "get back into the game." And I am still amazed at how much goodness is packed into these slim volumes. Stacked on top of each other, they're still not as thick as the Pathfinder core rules...and Pathfinder's core doesn't even include a monster list. You can play for years with the information in these three books...I know because I did. And with all the old school web sites and forums existing these days, you can probably find good insights for cutting the dross and running the game (helpful considering the organization of info within the AD&D books).

I wonder if WotC understands the possible consequences of their money grab. I mean, 4th edition alienated a large group of fans from the D&D flagship, and while an AD&D release might bring back customers, it's just as likely (in my opinion) to drive them away from playing 4th or 5th edition. I mean, AD&D IS the real deal after all. But perhaps they're cagier than I give 'em credit for. It's not like they're re-publishing the most coherent earlier edition of D&D: 2nd edition or B/X or BECMI are much more thought out and better organized.

On the other hand, maybe it IS all on the "up-and-up;" no other edition is as associated with Gary Gygax as AD&D. His name is the one on the AD&D books, not Arneson's. With the exception of The Keep on the Borderlands, all his adventure modules were penned for the 1st edition AD&D game, as was his World of Greyhawk. If you really wanted to collect some scratch for a Gygax memorial, this would be the (appropriate) edition to use.

*sigh* Obviously I am a jaded cynic that needs to stop worrying about other game companies and focus on my own enterprise. Hell, I just found out this afternoon that I was nominated for an Ennie award (fan favorite publisher: Running Beagle Games). This I was informed of when I was at Gary's Games today (apparently, it had been the subject of some in-store discussion). If they hadn't told me, I wouldn't have even known...are nominees not informed of their nominations? Am I eligible for a cash prize of some sort? And if not, is being nominated recognition enough or does one have to actually win to have any kind of crowing rights?

And who the hell nominated my company anyway when I've published exactly two books (and the second only a couple days ago)?

[I suppose someone might have been counting my one-page micro-games published on the blog over the last couple years...]

Ah, well...the Ennies are a subject for a different blog post (if that...); the subject of this blog post was the confession of my WotC support (by purchasing their books). I haven't even taken them out of the bag since I got 'em, I'm that ashamed. Either I'm a big-ass hypocrite, OR I'm a fawning nostalgic, OR I'm a weak-willed waffler who can't stick to my guns when it comes to my principles.

And it just gets worse when...as I write this...I find myself leaning more and more towards keeping the books.

Hmm...maybe there's some way I can atone for my transgression. Baby D and I went out for a beer tonight with one of my old high school/college buddies (an ex-gamer...no he did not buy a copy of the new book) and our discussion reminded me of much of the dumb-assedness of AD&D. Maybe I need to actually RUN an AD&D game and house-rule the hell out of it...publish a series of posts or PDFs or "corrections & clarifications" in aid of those who would rather run the familiar game of their youth but have hard time reconciling its craziness with their mature, adult minds.

Maybe.

Damn, there are so many things I want to do, or wish I had more time to do. But we all do, right? Just the usual pain associated with growing up.

Thank goodness you can grow up without growing old.
; )

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Complete B/X Adventurer

Now available from Running Beagle Games:


The Complete B/X Adventurer is a gaming supplement for use with your B/X (and B/X compatible retro-clones) fantasy adventure game. It contains new material for use with your B/X game...material designed to inspire and add to your existing fantasy campaign, almost all of it for the player character (PC)...though certainly there is good fodder for any Dragon Masters worthy of the name "DM."

The book is 62 pages, most of which is content: new classes, new spells, new character options, rules for fleshing out beginning characters. Long-time readers of the blog will recognize some of this material...part of what prompted me to write it was input from readers asking me to collect some of this material into a single volume. This I have done (with some tweaks), as well as adding a bunch of other material.

The bulk of the book is new B/X classes, including five new spell-casting classes. Nearly half of the book is devoted to spell lists and and there are more than 110 new spells (not counting reverse spells). To put that in perspective, the original B/X books contained only 106 spells...and each of the new spell-casting classes has a unique method of using magic, not simply being limited to "divine" or "arcane" spell-casting types.

Other than the spell-casters, there are a dozen other classes for a total of 17. Most of these are human adventurer-types; three are demihumans. They represent adventuring archetypes found in fantasy fiction that are not already represented in B/X (nor are they found in the Advanced Edition Companion for Labyrinth Lord published by Goblinoid Games). All have information for including them at Basic, Expert, or even Companion level adventurers, so you can use them "right out of the box." However, if playing classes above 14th level, one will want to invest in a copy of my B/X Companion or a similar fantasy game detailing high level adventures. Indeed, some of the higher level spells available make reference to material found in the B/X Companion; if you don't already own a copy of that book, you can download a PDF (for half price!) from RPGNow.com.

To purchase a copy of The Complete B/X Adventurer, simply click on the PayPal button to the right. The price includes shipping & handling, and now that I'm going to be a legitimate Washington State business, I'll worry about the sales tax for Washington residents. You'll notice the price per book has gone up from (by $1) from the cost of the last book...that's because shipping costs have increased. As before, Canadian buyers get a break on the deal and, yes, you're all very welcome.

Cover art is by Brian DeClercq, just to head off any questions on that score. Interior art is done by a number of local artists, plus Kelvin Green. They all have my very great thanks (and copies of the book).
: )

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Getting It Together

I know that there's been a lot of interest in the new book...there are even a couple people in town who are trying to pick up a copy before they hit the road for Toronto! Unfortunately, I've got a few last things to put into place before I can begin offering it for sale. Keep watching the blog...soon, soon!
: )

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Old Time Religion (part 2)

[continued from here]

Here’s the GENERAL question:

What is the reason for XP being awarded in the way it is?

Here’s the SPECIFIC question (asked as a follow-up to the general question):

What the heck is a cleric doing in a dungeon?

The specific question should be ask-able (and answerable) for any of the character classes, of course, but cleric seems to be the hardest for most folks to wrap their head around.

And it isn’t helped by asking the specific question FIRST. Sure, that’s easier (kind of) to do, but doing so doesn’t resolve the disconnect. Let me give you some examples of what I mean when I say “asking the 2nd question first:”
  • “My cleric is in the dungeon because it is a place of vast (or rumored) EVIL and it is my holy obligation to smite it.” The ‘I’m in the business of hunting evil’ theory.
  • “My cleric is in the dungeon because there are innocent captives that need to be rescued (or a holy relic that needs to be found or an ancient demon that needs to be slain, etc.). The ‘I’m on a quest with a specific objective’ theory.
  • “My cleric is in the dungeon because these are my companions and I’m here to lend my services as a healer and undead specialist.” The ‘I’ve got a bankable skill set’ theory.
But NONE of these answers work in conjunction with the MAIN question. Sure, they provide a reason your cleric character is present, but NOT in terms of the game as written and designed. Because D&D, at least in the "old school," pre-1985 versions does not reward these things:

  • Hunting evil isn’t rewarded.
  • Accomplishing a specific objective isn’t rewarded.
  • Being a “role-player” (i.e. playing a role in the group) isn’t rewarded.
At least, the game doesn’t reward these things in any tangible, rules specified fashion (you can still receive non-XP awards and the “satisfaction of a job well done,” I suppose). Old School D&D rewards TWO things with XP, XP being the measure of a character’s success and effectiveness (more XP = higher level, higher level = more accomplished):

Primary Reward: Treasure Acquisition. 1gp value = 1xp
Secondary Reward: Defeating Opponents. XP varies based on edition, but generally XP is much less than for treasure found.

The characters that gain the most XP (thereby advancing the fastest, thereby showing themselves to be the most successful) will be those that recover the most monetary treasure. Sure, your fighter can kill 400 orcs (at 5xp a pop) to get to 2nd level, but it’s generally easier to fill a couple large sacks with gold…and certainly easier to recover a jeweled tiara worth a couple grand. Old school D&D is about working smarter, not harder.

So knowing this…knowing that the game (the unadulterated game, the Rules As Written game) rewards characters for acquiring treasure…that O So Base and Material reward that seems a superfluous after-thought to the lofty, high-minded ideals of the heroic personal…knowing THIS, and accepting it, THEN we can set about asking the specific question: what the heck is the cleric doing in the dungeon looking for treasure?

Because that’s what he (or she) is doing. Forget anything you think you learned from Mentzer about clerics in his version of the basic (Red) book. That girlie Bargle fried was na├»ve and ridiculous at best…or self-deluding at worst. Clerics of Old School D&D earn XP (and thus advance and become more accomplished, effective, powerful) through the acquisition of CASH-MONEY. And that’s why they’re in the dungeon, same as their buddies.

But WHY are they doing it?

Well, first you have to put yourself in a medieval frame of mind. I think “medieval” is most helpful (even if your clerics are worshipping Asgardians or Olympians Great Old Ones) because the game was written with a particular medieval sensibility. I mean, it was based off the “Chainmail” rules, right? And back during medieval times in Europe and the Near East, religion was kind of a Big Player on the world stage. Western students of history spend a lot of time learning about the impact of the One Universal Holy Church on the civilized world because, well, for the most part it was the main driving force of everything. And after the fall of Rome to the barbarians, it was pretty much the ONLY thing going on that provided any beacon of sanity and civilization (even as it did tremendously terrible things to solidify its own secular power).

To do that…to maintain itself, to build its power, to bring light to the masses, and to preserve its foothold in the world…required money. Lots and lots of money.

Consider that when it comes to your cleric class; regardless of whether you’re running Tolkien-esque high fantasy, or ancient Bronze Age adventures, or Vancian weirdness. If you include the cleric class as one of your adventuring archetypes, it’s easy to see reasons for adventuring:
  • Building temples, shrines, and churches.
  • Building strongholds to defend those churches and their followers.
  • Hiring troops to supplement the faithful.
  • Funding wars to bring the Good News or defend against Infidels.
  • Supporting and maintaining non-adventuring clergy members and institutions (including monasteries and convents).
  • Acting as patrons of divinely inspired artwork (sculpture, painting, architecture, etc….the European Renaissance was kicked off by religious artwork funded by the Church).
  • Precious treasures found can become part of the ritual implements for religious services (or be sold for money to commission creation of the same).
Delving dungeons and slaying sentient creatures for their possessions (looting orcs, etc.) is an expedient method of finding treasure to fund one’s religious goals, and not nearly as distasteful as the historic actions taken by real world religious institutions (one of the objectives of the Crusades appears to have been bringing back treasure and booty from the Holy Land…not just Islamic and Jewish temples but anything that wasn’t nailed down!).

If it feels “un-Christian” for your Lawful cleric to rob a tomb or ancient temple, you’re not thinking with the proper mindset. While the Romans were “all inclusive” when it came to allowing other cultures to retain their own religions as part of their beneficent Empire, those other religions were still second class citizens (and outlawed entirely after the adoption of Christianity). And consider this: today’s widely held idea that “we are all children of the same God, just using different names and practices” is a recent belief and was NOT the historic norm. Another culture’s holy places/shrines/temples were considered fair-game, totally lootable at best, and outright delusional or evil at worse. The Christians burned many a pagan and the Muslims stomped out a lot of other religions in their conquest of the Middle East and North Africa. Sometimes this was done for political reason (less chance of facing an organized rebellion when the spiritual heart of a city-state has been cut out), but often the folks doing the conquest were actual, devout “True Believers” in their faith. And, as said, for most of our history people have believed its “my way or the highway,” with regard to religion (and to some folks that way of thinking is still alive and well as seen in our dehumanization of those who don’t share our own cultural beliefs).

Does this mean your character (lawful cleric or paladin that she is) can’t be a “hero?” No.

Look, being motivated by money (which adventuring PCs are) does NOT mean there’s no room for heroic action. DCC might have the line about your characters being scurrilous rogues, but that doesn’t mean heroic behavior is proscribed. It just means you might have to reconsider what heroic behavior is within the context of the game.

You can perform feats of courage and nobility and self-sacrifice during the course of your adventure…that is the essence of being a hero. Heck, even setting foot into a dungeon (and plumbing its mysterious depths) is a bold and extraordinary action and can be considered heroic. And there’s plenty of room for cleverness and social interaction (rather than turning every encounter into a slaughter-fest) which are traits of many heroes of myth and legend…it’s not all punching someone in the nose and stealing their goodies.

But remember the context. Stealing that jade statue worshipped by the foul denizens of the Underworld is doing a SERVICE to your own theology…and if you can convert it into cash for the building of a synagogue, all the better. Robbing some ancient tomb isn’t sacrilege…only bizarre pagan idol-worshippers bury their wealth along with the dead (their souls are resting with their gods, there’s no need to leave jewels rotting in the earth, and their baubles can be used for the betterment of one’s own Church). In your character’s mind he or she is doing “the right thing” by pulling off a big haul.

D&D is, of course, a game. Most of us wouldn’t stab someone with a sword in real life, but we don’t have a second thought about doing so in the game. Why? Because it fits the CONTEXT (sometimes justice is “rough” in those days that followed the oceans drinking Atlantis…). So, too, with your cleric’s religion. Remember that the cleric character class is not just some church-going dude with a holy-symbol around his neck. You are a divine agent of your faith. Your god speaks through you, granting you the ability to perform miracles. You are a righteous, holy roller…if you dig up an ancient Indian burial ground to put in a mini-mall that will directly fund your local Cathedral you will be REWARDED…in THIS life as well as the next.

[and who’s to say your politically incorrect actions won’t be for the best in the long run? The Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica was both damnable and outrageous. But would the alternative be to allow human sacrifice to continue to this day? Another sticky philosophical question]

Anyhoo, that’s the attitude I choose when I take up the mantle of the cleric class. It’s why I don’t “hang back” and wait for my chance to heal the wounded or turn undead or whatever. No way, man…I am leading the way (and the charge, when it comes to that) in the party’s quest to find treasure. It’s all for the Greater Glory of my character’s god, you see? And my character believes his righteousness will be rewarded… he’ll make his saving throws or his turning checks or his attack rolls…by doing the will of his divine patron. And if he should fall in battle, well, it was probably in his god’s plan and all things serve that higher purpose, right?

Not that there’s a “wrong way” to play a cleric (far be it from me to suggest such a thing, *ahem*) but I personally find the proactive choice to be the right one for me. I mean, I am wearing the heavy armor, right? Most of a cleric's allowable weapons are one handed (allowing the use of a shield). And don’t you need to stand in front of the group to reveal your holy symbol to the undead? How else are they going to see it (and thus fear it?) if you’re hiding behind the dudes with the pole arms? It seems to me that a character “strong in his/her faith” isn’t afraid to lead from the front; providing a holy light in the darkness, as it were (the better to shine off gold and jewels in the dungeon).

Huh… I should probably institute some house rule about how faithless skulkers (i.e. “weak-sauce clerics”) lose some of their spell-casting ability or take a penalty to turning checks. Boy, that would sure piss some people off! But dammit how else are you going to justify the cleric class’s swift rate of advancement and fantastic saving throws?

Oh, right…I suppose some people don’t think about that kind of thing.
; )