Friday, September 6, 2013

Wanting Better Fantasy

I started writing a big ol’, rambling post yesterday but forget all that noise. I’ve got something else on my mind.

People who have picked up Five Ancient Kingdoms and read its contents (or, God forbid, played the game) will have certainly noticed its departure from “traditional” D&D in many facets. No, I’m not talking about the inclusion of skills or “non-weapon proficiencies;” that kind of filler is something I can do without in my games.

No, here are some of the rule differences:
  • No dice other than D6s (no D20, D4, D8, D10, etc.)
  • Rule Zero (already discussed)
  • HPs limited to player characters
  • HPs rolled every game session (no carry-over)
  • Hit Dice repurposed as all-encompassing multi-use combat stats
  • Combat based (roughly) on Chainmail
  • Magic inspired (roughly) by Chainmail and non-Vancian
  • Unlimited magic for magicians
  • Treasure tables removed (treasure types for monsters remain)
  • Magic item creation combined into a single table-system
  • Different saving throws (and based on 2D6 roll)
  • XP earned for treasure/monsters scaled by level (less XP received as PCs advance)
  • Additional XP bonuses for “experiences” that don’t scale
  • Motivations that have (light!) mechanical impact
  • Romance rules
  • Warfare rules based on scaled up combat (simplified Chainmail in other words)

Those are the major rule departures; there are many more minor differences (like coinage, encumbrance, and movement rules). I’m also probably leaving out other major differences, but it’s not the point of this post to enumerate every deviance of design.

Now in case anyone’s wondering, most of these differences were created due to:

A) Repurposing to patch problems and inconsistencies
B) Removal of patches of the original designers for things not broken, and/or
C) Setting specific changes (especially regarding spells, equipment, monsters, costs, etc.)

I understand that for many people, the particular edition of D&D they’re currently playing (with or without additional house rules) is perfectly fine and dandy…it’s been working for ten or 20 or 30 or 40(!) years and they’re not interested in changing that now or anytime soon. The reasons I wrote 5AK was not an attempt to usurp the existing editions’ (nor clones’) place in the hearts and minds of role-players. Nope. My original motivation (as I’ve probably noted elsewhere on this blog) included a combination of 1) throwing my particular heartbreaker hat into the ring (i.e. my own ego), and 2) showing that such a thing could be done (and I mean, showing myself as well as others, BTW). AND I was truly irritated by the whole D&D Next thing and decided it would be a more constructive exercise to quit my bitching and just do my own version of D&D…D&D Mine, I called it.

[literally…that’s how the files are labeled on my computer]

But somewhere along the line, my original motivation morphed into something a bit different, due in no small part to the pride I’ve taken in this creation. It IS a complete game, after all…something I plan on supporting via a web site (currently under construction) and soliciting contributions for. There are FIVE ancient kingdoms after all…each could certainly use its own supplement book!

Five Ancient Kingdoms was written to be a standalone game; a cheap, packaged product (including dice) that people could pick up and use as an alternative to their standard fantasy fare. And for folks not interested in the specific setting of 5AK, I wanted the game to have a rule set that could be readily adapted to anyone’s normal D&D campaign, should they choose to roll with my deconstructed-reconstructed rules (hell, some of ‘em can simply be “dropped in” with no sweat expenditure necessary). But even more than that, my morphing motivation said: I want this to be a game for NEW PLAYERS...for people who haven’t played D&D or who don’t have preconceived notions about these things we call “table-top role-playing games.” THAT’s my main goal: distributing this game to non-players in an enticing package that says, “check this out; it’s interesting, fun, and easy to play.” That is the motivation that started percolating after I had looked upon this thing I wrought. In fact, at this point this might be the thing that matters most to me.

And dammit, that’s not what I’ve got!

You see, this is why it’s so ridiculous to try switching gears mid-stream (or even after the fact). I did not set out to create a game that was user-friendly to newbies; that wasn’t my intention, that wasn’t my initial motivation. My intention was to thumb my nose at WotC/Hasbro, and that’s what I did. I made a game that is exceptionally playable and much more affordable then the inevitable multi-volume 5th edition that Hasbro will eventually be rolling out. Easy to use? Check. Nice handling with small books. Check. Tastefully illustrated. Triple-check (all thanks to the Arabian Nights Entertainment being dumped into the public domain). If a person can get past the lack of skills, slick color plates, and the title “D&D” on the cover, I daresay a person would select my books over 5E…assuming, that is, that they’re looking to get into something new.

But would it appeal to a new player? I don’t think so. It operates under too many assumptions; it apes too many tropes of D&D (even its look is based on OD&D). It’s designed for players who are already familiar with D&D…hell, the target audience are the people who read this blog. Sure, other folks might pick it up and check it out…people who see it on the shelf of a game shop or hear about it on the internet or who are drawn to a fantasy adventure game with Middle Eastern flavor. But that’s not hitting the market that my shifting motivations want to target.

Kids. I want to target kids.

And not just kids. People who enjoy fantasy and fairy tales and fiction based on something other than D&D-derived fiction. And by “D&D-derived,” I am not simply referring to officially licensed books based on Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms and whatnot. I’m talking about stuff like Game of Thrones. I’m talking about The Ranger’s Apprentice (and similar) that stocks the shelf and the grocery store check-out counter.

I want Russian folklore. I want The Last Unicorn. I want The Hobbit (not The Lord of the Rings). I want Vainamoinen. I want a backwards-aging, half-demon Merlin. I want Robin McKinley. I want Halloween. Is that too much to ask?

And here’s the thing: the beauty of Dungeons & Dragons is that, despite the silliness of its premise (characters go into unexplored adventure site…over-and-over-and-over again) is two-fold. First, the adventure site (i.e. “the dungeon”) is still an excellent game convention, for all the reasons Arneson outlined in various published commentaries. Second, the concept of intrepid adventurers plunging into darkness is based off a literary stable of fantasy literature (often of the “swords & sorcery” or “weird fiction” variety) which is itself based off the older mythology and folklore I’m craving.

Which means (if you kind of reverse engineer my weird-ass logic) that there must be a way to build a fantasy-based D&D-style heartbreaker that doesn't cannibalize itself. That works under different assumptions than those that it has established for itself...over-and-over-and-over again.

Maybe that doesn't make sense. Let me try putting it a different way

I'm aware of the Beyond the Wall RPG. I don't own it. I haven't read it. I've read about it. And I've looked at the downloadable character sheet. It looks just like a B/X D&D character sheet. Regardless of how it gets there (with neat, Lloyd Alexander-like character generation) it appears to be the same game. It's just D&D. And I want something more.

I've got some ideas for getting there, but I've got to do some more thinking. I keep coming back to Holmes...Holmes Basic is about the scale of the thing I want. I've read and reread and reviewed Blue Holmes and Mazes & Perils and Holmes itself and I like all of it, but I don't think they do what I want. But they're my inspiration at the moment.

That and Faust. More on this in a bit.

What exactly am I saying here? Am I going to be dumping 5AK anytime soon? No, I said, I'm still damn proud of it and will continue to sell it for the foreseeable future (in print form that is...electronically, it's already available forever). But, stupid as the idea is (and I feel stupid just typing this) I'm considering writing another fantasy heartbreaker. As if one wasn't enough of a waste. I'm considering writing one with a completely different target audience...and different objective...firmly in mind.



  1. just got it in pdf format :) have to read/play it :)

    and b/x companion too (just for collecting it)

  2. For what it's worth, this sounds terribly interesting.

    1. [@ Rach:

      You might also want to check out the Barking Alien blog.]

  3. Marketing and presentation aside (it's true that the OD&D aesthetic probably won't be appealing to the masses any time soon), I actually think 5AK is one of the better intro games currently available (the other ones on my list are the Pathfinder Beginner Box, which is a nicely slimmed down version of the PF rules with excellent graphic design, and LotFP, though that is somewhat limited by the "explicit lyrics" aspect).

    The Dragon Age tabletop RPG is pretty tight in design too (though it has a slight case of numerical inflation). It has the advantage of being tied to a well known property also, but has a somewhat lackluster presentation.

    Curious to see what the Faust angle is. I have a weakness for magic systems based on demonology.

  4. @ Fabio:

    Right on! Thanks for the business; I hope you enjoy the game. Please let me know!

    @ Rachel:

    Thanks for that. I have to say I was EXTREMELY hung over all of yesterday...which put me in a bit of a grump mood.

    @ Brendan:

    Ditto my comment to Rachel. Just got"interesting" advice on marketing today, which I might post later.

    As for Faust: yeah, me too. I've had an unhealthy interest in the good doctor age 9 or 10, and was stumbling through Goethe (in English, of course) by age 16 or so. Like I said, more on that later.

  5. Sign me up!

    That is to say, the more different from traditional the better, if not to play at least to think about.

    One reason my D&D (or my D&D-But-Not as we often call it) is like it is, is because I've played other games with completely different takes on completely different subjects. This caused me to take a long, hard look at D&D and rethink it almost from the ground up.

    Now I could easily have my D&D-But-Not be completely unlike D&D in any way, shape or form, but if I do, well, I would probably alienate some players, I wouldn't see their eyes light up when they think they know what's up and then figure out they don't and, of course, I'd have to change the name and end up with But-Not the RPG as a game title. Bleh.

    Bottom line is I can modify D&D, play Ars Magica, create a game like my current project 'The StoryTeller' or anything in between because I've tried it, experimented with it, more than one or two ways.

    Some (oh heck, many) of my ideas won't garner a huge crowd of followers. They will bring in two or three devoted fans who really like them and that makes it worth it.

  6. what age do you have in mind when you say "a game for kids"?

  7. I'm considering writing another fantasy heartbreaker. As if one wasn't enough of a waste. I'm considering writing one with a completely different target audience...and different objective...firmly in mind.

    1. I am generally of the opinion that creation is never waste. It might not be optimal but it's not a waster.

    2. Your last sentence proves its direct predecessor false. If you have a different audience and different objectives than the prior iteration then the fact that the final object, a game, takes the same form is irrelevant. Are you going to tell me I should give up Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May by Waterhouse because he also painted it a year earlier? He also gave us three Lady of Shallot paintings.

    As long as you have new things to say going over the same ground isn't inherently a waste.