Saturday, May 18, 2013

Apologies to WotC


When I posted yesterday about the new release of Dungeon! I had more than a few unkind words to say about WotC's re-release of the classic board game. I need to retract a few of those words.

First off, regarding construction: I was incorrect earlier when I said the cards of the new game were smaller and flimsier than those of the original. A side-by-side comparison shows they are exactly the same size, and the thickness extremely comparable (it's difficult to tell for sure because of the slick/laminated surface of the new cards...but slickness does not automatically equal "flimsy").

The board of the new game is quite a bit larger, and while the construction doesn't appear to be as durable (to my eyes and touch) as the original, it is quite sturdy and should hold up to plenty of handling. In addition, the SIZE of the board should facilitate play with larger numbers of players, which is a good thing in a game that does well with more than two or three players. The addition of the random tables and objectives/goals to the board itself means that even if you lose the rule sheet, the necessary charts will still be available. This, too, is good game design.

Yesterday's post implied shoddy/cheap construction based on being made in China. This was an unfair comparison, especially considering I have no idea where my 1981 copy was manufactured. Probably in Japan or Hong Kong, though I could find no "made in" stamp anywhere on it. My personal preference for American-made products is just that...a personal preference to support "local" manufacturers whenever possible. But really, who's to say whether it could have been constructed as well here as overseas...in the end, that was just a petty jab.

My main gripe about the new game was the missed opportunity and the needless relabeling of things (like the character figures) for no good reason other than to support WotC's "brand recognition." I prefer an "old school" approach to character design, after all, and like my wizards to be wizened, bearded humans...not eternally youthful members of a pointy-eared elder race. And the "dwarven cleric" is just stupid (I stand by my earlier remarks on that score)...but again, this is mainly a gripe about style of presentation. No, it doesn't make sense to a person familiar with either D&D or (classic) Dungeon! and as a "gateway game" it will only introduce the words "dwarf" and "cleric" into the vocabulary withOUT introducing anything of the character concept. As I said, a wasted opportunity. But I guess they felt the terms "hero" and "superhero" were too cheesy and/or dated. I'm not a master of brand marketing, so what the hell do I know?

Likewise, I can't fault them for adding "variety" and brand IP to the original monster cards...I just think they did so in a lazy manner. And I don't think there's room for much denial that this WAS a lazy design choice. Especially as they did nothing to update the "prizes" (where's the rebranding there, huh?). However, the overall game play of the Dungeon! board game will not suffer for these aesthetic choices...the game play will be almost entirely the same as the original game, which is a good thing considering the quality of the original game.

So there...a few kind words sprinkled on WotC as a bit of an apology. If you own one of the classic versions of Dungeon! (in a more or less complete state), there's really no reason to buy the new version. But if you DON'T own an old copy and want a fun game to play with your kids (or your buddies over beer), the WotC retread is a pretty decent option. However, I'd suggest NOT using the terms like "rogue" or "cleric" or "elven wizard" and grabbing some neutral-looking pawns. Or better yet, some old miniatures that could be used in place of the cardboard cut-outs. It's a little confusing otherwise.

[by the way, there will be more Dungeon! posting in the near future, but I felt it necessary to issue this retraction sooner, rather than later. Thanks]

Friday, May 17, 2013

Cheap-Ass DUNGEON!


[EDIT: I have written a retraction of some of the criticisms found in the following blog post...you might want to read them after reading this. Just FYI]

I don’t know which I loathe more…WotC, or myself for giving them money.

No, actually, I do know.

Yesterday, I picked up a copy of WotC’s re-release of the classic DUNGEON! board game…a classic D&D-light type board game that I have been playing (off-and-on) for over 30 years. A couple days, I posted about doing a retread…which is to say, creating a new set of cards for my existing game. And guess what? I’ve done it…but more on that later.

Made in China


I stopped by Gary’s last night to actually talk about card construction and buying some new pawns (neither assignment successful, by the way) and I asked about the new Dungeon! game, which they carried, and was amazed to find it was less than $20! “What…was it manufactured in China or something?”

Yes…yes it was.

We popped the top and looked at the goods, and it IS pretty cheap construction…but two hours later found me back at the shop buying the game and once again putting money in WotC’s pockets. Why would I do this? Especially when I’d spent a considerable amount of time deconstructing and retreading the game myself? Well, two reasons really:

1)     It WAS dirt cheap, and to buy a complete Dungeon! game (even just to sit on the shelf)…well, it was a cheap price to pay, especially after I’d been willing to bid $30 (plus S&H) on eBay. The fact that I didn’t win the bid meant I felt like I had extra money in the ol’ wallet.
2)     I had pounded a couple beers of a particularly meaty temperament: “Brute Force IPA” brewed at Greenwood’s Naked City Brewery. O I love me some Brute Force.

And I was curious, too. I know that they had changed the “character types” in the game to include their standard D&Dish “rogue,” “cleric,” etc. And I wanted to see what special rules they had come up with. Also, I knew some new monsters had been added (when we “popped the top” I saw one of the monster cards was a “dracolich”…now that’s one I hadn’t added to my own retread!). Basically, I wanted to see what changes/updates they’d made to the game, and see if there was anything I wanted to STEAL…new treasures, new rules, new monsters, whatever.

How na├»ve of me…to think WotC would actually do anything creative worth stealing.

My wife was on a two-day jaunt to our nation’s capital and got home last night in time to take over bath and bed duties with the toddler. As soon as she did, I dashed downstairs to pull open the box and start analyzing the contents.

First I read the instructions: nothing new. Really. The character types have changed to rogue, cleric, fighter, and wizard but mechanics-wise they are exactly the same as the classic Elf, Hero, Superhero, and Wizard. Yes, the rogue’s only “roguish ability” is an ability to find secret doors and (inexplicably) to fight some magical monsters (like ghouls) better than heroes…or “clerics.” No, the clerics have no special abilities, are no better at fighting undead, etc. They’re simply the hero pawn…with a different name.

And a different SPECIES: for some ridiculous reason, WotC insists on giving each class a different D&D-style race…so we have HALFLING rogues, DWARVEN clerics, HUMAN fighters (superheroes), and (confusingly for Old School Dungeon! players) ELVEN wizards (are they elves? Or are they wizards?). No, the fact that the playing pieces have a race means nothing…except perhaps to engender racism as the humans and elves mock the halflings and dwarves for their pathetic fighting ability.

Combat-wise, the game uses the later 1981 edition’s player attack table: i.e. the “nerfed” or “weenie” version where high rolls are good and low rolls are bad. Yes, this is more intuitive from a game-play learning standpoint…but mechanically, it really makes the monstrous opposition weaksauce (hell, “seriously wounded” characters only have to drop half their treasure instead of ALL of it…and the probability of being seriously wounded is reduced as well!). But regardless, prior Dungeon! players will be familiar with version of the table.

So no changes to the rules…well, except that they’re poorly written (there were at least a couple instances where I felt like, “hmm…if I didn’t already know the rules, this part would have left me confused and critical”). However, I don’t have the instructions in front of me to cite at the moment, so you might just want to take that as “in my opinion.”

Next I reviewed all the cards in the game. This may sound like a huge chore, but after spending several hours constructing spreadsheets and deconstructing my 1980/81 editions, it didn’t really take much time at all. I was a little confused at first that there were only 164 cards in the game, when the box clearly states there are 165…for a moment, I thought I might be calling WotC to complain of an incomplete set. But at least one detailed reviewer on-line gave the same card count (164) and the card arrangment (which we’ll get to in a second) leads me to believe it’s the box that has the typo.

The artwork on the cards is very pretty and exhibits the same high standards WotC has used since they first got into the Magic Card business. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fault them for their consistency of visual presentation when it comes to glossy fantasy art (some of their B&W interiors is, of course, another matter). However, the cards themselves are TINY and FLIMSY, even compared to my 30 year old, punch-out cards…they’re small enough you can fit four to a row on an 8.5” wide sheet of paper, which is part of what leads me to the assumption that there’s only 164 cards in the set.

See, the 1980 edition of dungeon had 165 cards…24 spells, 61 monsters, and 80 treasures…which was less than the original 1975 edition but still provided a manageable game. 24 spells gave both wizards the opportunity to carry a full complement (12 each), 80 treasures is enough to fill all 80 rooms, and the 61 monsters included all the TYPES from the original set, just with less “doubling up” (instead, you reshuffle the decks when you run out of monsters). And having 165 cards allowed the manufacturer to present the entire set in three punch-out sheets of 55 cards each (5 columns by 11 rows)…you can see an image here on Board Game Geek.

[actually, their site appears to be down...sorry, no link]

The cards in the new WotC set are not “punch-out” but, rather, machine cut cards…and being short enough to fit into four columns on a standard sheet of paper, I’d suspect that’s how they were manufactured (164 cards is easily divisible by 4). But I could be wrong.

Anyway, aside from the new size and the new artwork, the spells and the treasures are pretty much exactly the same…not surprising considering the original set was play-tested and worked out over decades and the objectives (character goals) and game-play hasn’t changed since (the “new characters” still have the standard goals of 10,000, 20,000, or 30,000 depending on type). That was slightly disappointing (I was hoping for a little more variety than all the silver coffers and jade idols)…and even more so in light of the monster cards, which I actually reviewed FIRST…but my comments on them will be longer winded, so I saved that for now:

What a frigging sham.

I spent several hours the last couple days deconstructing the monster lists, looking at the average attack numbers needed for each piece based on level, carefully adding new monsters at appropriate depths that did not throw the original game’s balance out-of-whack…yet still being distinct and different from the already existing monsters in the game. I would think that a professional game company with a design team and plenty of resources and man-hours could do something similar, right? Nope…instead they took the LAZIEST ROUTE POSSIBLE and just glued new names and faces over the existing card values.

That’s right…there are no new monsters; instead (as with the playing pieces) they are simply WotC’s D&D color “painted on.” For example, in the original game (all versions through 1981) the 3rd level monster Giant Snake has the following stat line:

5, 6, 9, 6, 8, 10

There is no Giant Snake in the 3rd level of the “new” game; instead it’s been replaced with the monster “Lizard Folk” with stat-line:

5, 6, 9, 6, 8, 10

The 4th level Giant Snake has ALSO been replaced in the WotC version…here with the “Owlbear” whose stat-line is:

5, 6, 9, 6, 8, 10

Absolutely no difference between the two at all…except for the picture and name. Where this gets MORE annoying is when you have monsters on the same level that are EXACTLY ALIKE except for the picture: for example, there is no difference stat-wise between the Vampire and the Mind Flayer on the 5th level.  However, the MOST annoying thing is the completely random disregard with which these “new” monsters are assigned with little rhyme or reason.

FOR EXAMPLE, the minotaur is a classic monster in D&D (and mythology…duh). It has always (as far as I’m aware) had six hit dice (sometimes with pips) and been one of the tougher encounters (i.e. a “higher level” monsters). I made sure to add the minotaur myself to my retread, placing it on Level 4 (the same level where one finds mummies and trolls…i.e. HD 5 and HD 6…monsters in the classic game). WotC also includes a minotaur.

It’s a 1st level monster, placed alongside goblins and dire rats. It replaces the “giant lizard” found on Level 1 of the classic game (oh, and by the way? The giant lizard on the 2nd level of the classic game…with the same stat line…is still present on the 2nd level of WotC’s game!).

F’ing ridiculous…another example: the 3rd level mummy (one of the tougher encounters on the 3rd level) has been replaced with a “zombie” (same stat-line as the original mummy). Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never known the zombie to be the equal to a mummy in ANY version of the game, and certainly a zombie should not be a higher class of creature than, say, a minotaur or an ogre. But there it is…sheer laziness. Like they just don’t give a damn…they’re just trying to leech money out of your wallet.

Oh, yeah…and the cleric needs to roll a 10 on 2D6 to defeat the zombie in combat. This is, of course, due to “cleric” and “zombie” originally being “hero” and “mummy” and no one bothering to do any adjustments. Look, you f’ing imbeciles: if you want to “ape” the feeling of D&D in your board game (as evidenced by renaming the classic pieces “rogue” and “cleric” and “fighter” and throwing in mind flayers and “dracoliches”) then do some work to make it actually feel like D&D! Even 1st level clerics turn zombies on a 9+ in old school D&D (and probably have a better chance in 3rd+ editions)!

So, man  O man am I glad I only blew $20 on this thing. There is nothing new here except for some pretty pictures and a handful of actual adjustments (of mixed value, but I’ll get to those in a moment). For the sake of posterity, here are the “picture changes” (the WotC picture will be listed FIRST, followed by the classic Dungeon! monster it takes the place of):

1st level:
Kobold (= hobgoblin)
Minotaur (= giant lizard)

2nd level:
2 Orcs (replace 2 giant spiders)
Gnoll (= evil hero)

3rd level
Lizard Folk (= giant snake)
Evil Cleric (= evil superhero)
Evil Rogue (= evil superhero)
Zombie (= mummy)

4th Level
Duergar (= werewolf)
Owlbear (= giant snake)
2 Drow (replace two evil superheroes)
Hill Giant (= giant)
2 Green Slimes*

5th Level
2 Driders (replace two trolls)
2 Fire Giants* (replace two giants*)
Vampire* (replaces purple worm)
Mind Flayer* (= vampire; replaces purple worm)
2 Gelatinous Cubes (= original edition green slime*)
2 Black Puddings*

6th Level
Purple Worm* (replaces vampire)
Black Dragon (= blue dragon)
Dracolich (= original black pudding*)
Minus one monster*

An * listed above equals an actual adjustment to the original card or card count; i.e. an ACTUAL CHANGE (yay!). There aren’t many and some of these are questionable (or poor) decisions. But I’ll list them (in order of level) for the folks that are interested…I know this post is getting long, but I don’t feel like breaking it up:

*4th level:
Slime Needs Fire
Green slimes have had their stat line changed from the original “Lightning: 6, Fireball: -“ to “Lightning: -, Fireball: 6.” This actually makes more sense and is one of the things that has ALWAYS bugged me about Dungeon!, since fire has always been a classic method of destroying green slime (even before I played D&D, as a kid those D&D ads in comics showed the wizard destroying green slime with “fireball!”). Now, I don’t think my 1981 edition had a typo…I think that this was originally reversed as a game balance issue (there being so many fire susceptible monsters on the 4th and 5th levels where green slime is encountered, including mummies, trolls, black puddings, giants, and werewolves)…the designer had to do something to get people to use a spell other than fireball! This makes more sense from a D&D perspective, less from a design perspective, but in general I like it.


*5th Level:
Fire giants have the same stat-line as “giants” from the classic version (see “hill giant”) except that they are immune to fireball now. This is a nice way of balancing the “fireball” issue (see green slime notes), except, along with other changes, it turns 4th level into a fireball-fest, and 5th level into a lightning-arena. It was nice thinking, but a little short-sighted in this regard.

Two purple worms and one vampire originally appeared on the 5th level; these have now been replaced with two vampires and a mind flayer (i.e. three vampires, since mind flayers have the same stats as a vampire). I believe this is due to wanting to keep the largest monsters on level six…but it again lacks variety. On the other hand, purple worms are most susceptible to lightning and the 5th level was already gearing up to be “lightning land” with the change of giant to “fire giant.”

Gelatinous cubes…leaving aside the issue of whether these monsters deserve to be on the 5th level of a six level dungeon (they don’t) they have exactly the same stat line as the original “green slime” entry, including the vulnerability to lightning. Again, this is NERFING the game board by making it PREDICTABLE. Do the designers not get this? Put the slimes here instead.

Black puddings: in the 1980-81 edition of this game there are a total of three black puddings (one of the tougher monsters). Two are found on the 5th level and one on the 6th. The ones on the 5th level are(mysteriously) MORE difficult than the ones on the 6th, requiring a superhero to roll a 12 to defeat them instead of a 10 (the target needed for the 6th level pudding). In analysis of the original 1975 component list, I find this is actually a typo…ALL black puddings originally listed “10” for the superhero to defeat it. In my own retread, I correct this oversight. WotC does not, instead making the “typo” standard, which in turn makes the average target number for superheroes on the 5th level the same as that on the 6th level (10 as opposed to 9)…which makes it retarded for a superhero to even bother with the 5th level since, A) there’s more treasure per room in the 6th level, B) there’s no magical incentives in the 5th level compared to the magic sword on the 6th, and C) it’s the same average effort to kill anything! This just closes off a huge chunk of what should be regular superhero stomping ground! However, on second pass, I see this is mitigated by the purple worms being traded to the 6th level for vampires (turning the average again back to 9 and 10 respectively for the 5th and 6th levels).

*6th Level
The 1980-81 edition of Dungeon! included two vampires and one purple worm on the 6th level (perhaps echoing the OD&D description of purple worms being found “anywhere” as there were two on the 5th level). In the WotC version, there are ZERO vampires and instead two purple worms. The extra monster is simply left out (this is why the WotC game has only 164 cards and not 165). Again, this seems to be done for balance as much as the D&Dism “biggest monsters on the lowest level.” And in this particular instance it seems to work nice, especially making an equal number of monsters susceptible to lightning and fireball…though I did like the previous variety and wish they’d thrown at least ONE vampire in as a possible “light” monster encounter.

The “dracolich” simply replaces the black pudding normally found on the 6th level…but uses the original (correct) black pudding stat line, i.e. superheroes need a “10” to kill it instead of a “12.”

So, that’s it…very minor actual tweaks to the game (oh, except I forgot to mention that the “cage trap” only causes you to lose one or two turns, as opposed to D6…a nerfing in favor of making players sit less on the sidelines, which isn’t a terrible thing for fast-based board game). Mostly, it’s just a bunch of lazy “slap-a-new-image-on-the-card-and-see-if-anyone-notices” changes…many of which, really, don’t make sense. Why is a drider immune to lightning? Answer: because it was originally a troll. That’s just stupid shit.  The actual changes are fairly sensible: except they reduce variety, and run the risk of typecasting some levels (4th and 5th specifically), plus they make the 5th level easier for wizards and the 6th level harder (not sure if you want that or not…maybe). My own design tried to account for the original averages PLUS add NEW critters, with new variety and new stat lines. It’s not that hard to do…but I guess I’m not terribly surprised at WotC taking the “easy road.”

An orc is a bigger challenge than a minotaur? Are you f’ing kidding me?

By the way…does it seem weird to anyone else that the original game contained no less than five “evil hero” and “superhero” monsters and these have been entirely replaced in the WotC version? There’s not a single evil fighter in the game! WTF?!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Retreading DUNGEON!


Last night I was tired and feeling a little mopey and “blah” about my 5AK game. Maybe that’s not what came across in my post, but that’s what I was feeling.

F that noise.

I mean, listen: everyone involved in a creative endeavor (writing books, writing music, producing a film, whatever) has moments when they say, “what the heck am I doing?!” You really can’t control these feelings (I mean, they ARE feelings after all)…but intellectually you have to know that’s going to happen and just push on through. Because birthing your art is tough (even when your art IS crappy or hack work as is sometimes the case), and it is very easy to get stopped in your tracks by second-thought anxieties and ridiculous worries. If you let those feelings control your actions (as opposed to your mind) you can end up with a lot of projects sitting on shelves gathering dust…possibly depriving others of the enjoyment of your creative ideas.

It’s happened to me more than a few times.

[just by the way, some people will wail at the sky and ask Why O Why were humans created with feelings then, if they’re just going to get in the way at times like this? What purpose do they serve? Well, first off they are incredibly important in other aspects of our lives…such as relating to our fellow human beings…but ALSO they are an important part of the creative process itself. Without an injection of feeling your art runs the risk of “lacking humanity,” i.e. being so cold as to turn folks off or (at least) not “firing them up” in any way that they care to continue to experience your works. Hmm…that’s probably a little too esoteric for this discussion; the POINT is, they’re GOOD THINGS that need to be harnessed, not given free rein]

Anyway, here’s the intellectual truth: 5AK is a vanity project, which is to say it is a product of MY vanity. Some people will dig it and some people will not regardless of its quality (i.e. regardless of whether it’s a masterpiece or a piece of shit). It’s the same with everyone. I can recognize the time, work, and effort that goes into the gorgeous coffee table books WotC passes off as RPGs…but I don’t need another gorgeous coffee table book (I have too many gathering dust in my house as it is, mostly ones having to do with Egypt or swords…that’s just my thang), so I’m not going to buy ‘em. Some people will refuse to buy my books strictly because they are NOT gorgeous coffee table books. And a lot of people won’t get ‘em because…well, because they don’t need them and/or they’re not interested in the subject matter.

I can’t control that kind of thing, anymore than WotC can control my purchase of their merchandise. The price point thing IS an issue, but it’s a doable one. The fact of the matter is this: I have the money to finance my vanity project and finance it I shall. Hustling…um…"marketing it successfully" is on me, and I hope to do much more of it then I did with my last book (*ahem*). I don’t have to worry about “making my money back” because the money I’m fronting isn’t coming out of my family’s savings account (not that we have any money in our savings account…). My main worry is making ENOUGH money to finance the next book…but you know what? I can always release future books as eBooks, or print-on-demand, so even that is a moot worry. Having books on the shelves of my local game shop is simply another mark of my vanity…makes me feel like a real life game company or something.

I need to stop being so vain.
; )

So that’s that…now, back to Dungeon! There’s a part of me that was wondering last night, if my whole interest in D&D (and RPGs in general) is indeed a “nostalgia thing;” some sort of subconscious longing for my childhood. And I don’t just mean “back when I was a kid playing D&D with my buddies;” I’m talking about being a LITTLE kid, playing games with my parents.

The Dungeon! board game (my “gateway drug” to D&D) has been on my mind the last few days, especially considering its similarities to CHAINMAIL (the original “system” used in Arneson’s Blackmoor, which was the basis for the Dungeon! board game), and my own use of the CHAINMAIL system as the basis for 5AK.

I can still remember sitting around the dining room table, rolling plastic green dice with my brother and mother, long before I ever opened my first magenta box of Basic Dungeons & Dragons.

And we played the hell out of Dungeon! back in the day…my brother and I, anyway. So much so that we memorized the rules (including the combat tables, which I can still recite from memory). I’ve hung onto my Dungeon! game…now more than 30 years old…and have managed to keep it mostly together, having played it as recently as last year with some of the guys down at the Baranof (I won, of course, ‘cause I’m, like, awesome).

Well, I should say I managed to keep it together until RECENTLY…the last time I looked at it, the only thing I was only missing three treasure cards and the rule sheets (the latter of which were unnecessary due to the aforementioned memorization). However, I opened the box a couple days ago (I wanted to do some comparisons between the target attack numbers and CHAINMAIL…yes, I am a total nerd) and found a huge swaths of cards missing…like HALF the fifth and sixth level treasure cards! WTF?!

I didn’t realize how emotionally attached to the damn thing I was until I saw that it was now missing enough pieces to make it fairly unplayable. I’m still not sure what happened. My suspicion is that my son got into the box (he likes to open boxes…especially board game boxes…and play with the components), and then the nanny packed it up and put it in the closet where I found it (which is not where I remember putting it). I was fairly upset at the time…I even went so far as to create an eBay account so I could bid on a new (used) copy of the board game.

Sheer ridiculousness and overblown reaction on my part. Now, a few days later, I am much more cooler in the head (I was eventually outbid on eBay, thank goodness…I need that money for printing costs!), and I realize that while Dungeon! may be my favorite parlor game of all time (and may be the subconscious psychological foundation of my gaming hobby…I am a great dungeon designer, IMO, if a fairly terrible hand with the maps), it’s still unsatisfactory in some ways. Not terribly so…it’s replay quality is high (as my decades-long love affair can attest) as is its “fun factor” its inherent competitiveness and its setting (I think the board design is my favorite thing about the game). But even so, I’ve now turned my critical “designer’s eye” on the game and I see some “adjustments” that I’d like to make.

I’m thinking of redesigning Dungeon!

Well, “redesigning” isn’t the right word. “Retreading” would be more accurate. Basically, I’m thinking I’d like to create my own cards for the thing. Yes, I’m sure that missing 20-30+ cards might have something to do with my inspiration…but there it is. And, yes, I realize there are new editions of Dungeon! that already have owl bears (and include new character types, etc.)…but I don’t need a new Dungeon! board game. I have the board. I have the pieces. I have the plastic green dice. And I told you I’ve still got the rules memorized. All I need to play is a complete set of cards…and rather than buy a whole new set (off eBay or not), why not take the opportunity to use my “design sensibilities” to create my own?

That’s what I’m thinking about today. I know it’s not role-playing. I know it doesn’t have to do with anything “important” going on in my gaming world right now. But sometimes the heart wants what the heart wants…that whole “feelings” thing again. And while I wait for my art to come in on CDF, and my dice to get manufactured for 5AK, and my proof-readers to get there edits back to me…well, I think it’s okay for me to take a break and a breather for a moment to “follow my joy.”

Specifics to follow.
: )

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Boring the Hell Out-O-People (More 5AK)


SO...got to the printer yesterday. Figured out how to do everything. Got the call into the Chessex people for the large order of custom dice...should be here in three weeks. The printer figures they'll be able to have books ready in a week or less once I send them the images. The extra pages I needed to add to Book 1 have all been written...I only wish I had enough room for one more illustration I wanted to include. Tim's shrink-wrap machine is fired up and ready to go. The money has been stockpiled for the run.

Jeez, this is one crazy-ass vanity project.

5AK is my (current) version of D&D. It's weird...not weird like Lamentations of the Flame Princess but weird in that people will read it and say, "This isn't D&D...this is something weird." It's not twisted. It's definitely not generic. It can be used to created games that are twisted and/or somewhat "generic high fantasy," but that's not the default, built-in setting of the game.

I have no idea what people will think of it. I have no idea if people will like it.

Well, okay, that's not entirely true. My play-testing over the last few months has garnered me a lot of feedback, pretty much all of which has been positive. In fact, I really haven't heard much negative criticism at all (then again, most of the people I hang out with tend to be on the uber-nice side...it's a Seattle-thang...rather than being the hard-assed critics I probably need hammering me). I guess when I say "I don't know if people will like it," what I'm really trying to say is, "I don't know if it will sell like hot-cakes...and regardless of sales, I don't know if anyone will really be fired up enough to play the damn thing."

*sigh* This is not pointless second-guessing, just by the way. At this point, I've come too far to back down from publishing the thing. However, right now I am at the stage where I am:

A) Considering how many copies to print, and
B) Considering what my price point should be.

These are fairly important considerations for the independent game designer/publisher. The B/X Companion sold out through three (small) print runs. The PDF version (only created long after the last print run was gone) has sold nearly as many electronic copies, though at a considerably reduced price. On the other hand, The Complete B/X Adventurer, has failed to sell out even its first print run as of this date, and while the printing was larger than any single print run of the Companion (about twice as large), it's still only a single printing. And I know a lot of people have complained bitterly about its pricing.

I am not a business man. I did not study business, I've never been mistaken for an entrepreneur of any stripe (good or bad), and my last private sector job was in 1999 (a long, long ass time ago). I'm not self-employed, I'm a civil servant (no, I don't work for the post office...if I did I probably wouldn't have to charge people the shipping and handling that I do). I don't have a business model. Hell, I don't even have a mission statement (though perhaps I should come up with one).

Even so, I'm publishing these things to make money. Not big money; not get rich money. But money...enough to recoup my costs and enough to finance the next book. Much of my profit from the first book went into the second book, and the little "profit" remaining from the 2nd book (have to buy dog food, too!) combined with the PDF sales of the B/X Companion is the "seed money" I'm using to publish 5AK.

I have no idea if it will sell or not.

Which means this could be a one-way trip into business oblivion. There was plenty of "buzz" about the B/X Companion, not to mention a renewed interest in old school B/X gaming (fostered at least in part by my fairly extensive blogging in "the time before toddler"), both of which helped to drive sales. Neither of these things apply to 5AK. Oh, there's some "interest"...but most folks don't seem to be looking for a new way to play the world's "favorite adult fantasy role-playing game." And for a price-point that meets my costs and allows me to finance the next book (hopefully, Cry Dark Future)...well, it may well drive some folks away.

After all, people are saving up their shekels to buy the recent re-release of 2nd Edition AD&D ($50 per book for the three core books). Ah, WotC...milking the ca$h cow one more time.

SO...because this IS a vanity project (a fantasy heart-breaker, remember?), I'm trying to figure out ways to limit the damage. My first thought is I should do a tiny print-run (like 50 copies) to see just how much interest there is. My second thought is to do some sort of "pre-order" thing...but then why not simply use Kick-Starter?

[because I'm deathly afraid of on-line bidding processes and I don't want to give them 5% of the money raised, that's why not]

Like I said, I'm still thinking about it. Right now, I need to get the all the proof-reading edits back AND get them added AND THEN get the order placed with the printer. It's exciting times (so exciting I've dozed off two or three times while blogging this post...really need to get some sleep), and I'm probably just doing the stress-and-anxiety dance, over-thinking the whole thing. Need to get it together, JB!

Maybe I'll start with 100 copies...

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Happy Mother's Day

Basically my busiest weekend of the year. If you think I have time to write, you are crazy!

Hope everyone's having a good one. Later, Gators!
: )

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Ray Harryhausen...

...died today at the age of 92. Certainly, one can say it was the passing of a legend.

While I didn't dedicate my latest book/game to Mr. Harryhausen, he is one of a half dozen individuals whose names I cite as having works that greatly inspired 5AK. And this isn't just an Old School shout-out: Harryhausen's work was much more important to MY early fantasy roots than any of the sword & sorcery authors listed in the appendices of the Dungeons & Dragons books.
Comprehending the B/X medusa.
Hell, Harryhausen's work was more influential on my formative years than Tolkien...when I started playing Basic D&D circa 1981-2 I had yet to read any huge fantasy epics, but I'd certainly seen Clash of the Titans and at least a couple of the Sinbad movies.
 
Being a nine year old, the special effects and dramatic story-telling of the cinema had an enormous impact on my psyche...it helped create visual images in my imagination long before (and far more effectively) than the long-winded novels of words-and-words-and-words I would read as I got older. Harryhausen took fairy tales and myths (which I was familiar with) and gave them iconic images that would never leave me.

And still they haven't. When I cite Harryhausen's work as an influence on 5AK, I am not simply "blowing smoke;" several aspects of his films (though not the Kraken...long story) were directly incorporated into the game system that is 5AK. Which is only right, as it seems obvious to me that the original creators of D&D did the same thing.

For such a scurvy looking tiger, it sure scared me!

I'm not going to say much more right now. Only that he will be missed...though, of course, we've missed him and his cinematic magic a lot over the last few decades. People have attempted to create "historically accurate" depictions of fantasy myths and legends, or simply overwhelm viewers with over-burdened effects pieces; but outside of some Japanimation and perhaps Del Toro's work (he of Pan's Labyrinth) I haven't seen filmmakers really embracing the heart and soul and whimsey of folklore and fantasy in the way Harryhausen did. And that's okay...I mean, we are a constantly evolving species, right? Plus, we can always rent Harryhausen's films when we need our "fix." At least, that's what I usually do.

This one scared my son...a lot!
RIP Ray: you were a great inspiration to myself and to many, many others. Hopefully your work and your legacy will continue to do so for many years to come. Thanks for the good times!

Okay...Not So Bad

All right, all right…I might have been being a little toomuch of a perfectionist.

Spent an hour or so looking over the proofs in the light of day, and they’re really not as bad as my first pass made me think. Yes, my wife dislikes the font I’m using for the cover title, and it’s not as beefy as I’d like, but it’s not terrible. My son thinks I should have used different colors…but he’s two years old, and after careful questioning, what he REALLY wanted was multiple books in a variety of colors (and also, his favorite color is PINK and I failed to make any of the three volumes pink which was a major disappointment for him). And the cover color will probably changed at the printer anyway.

A couple of the images DID turn out looking a little cloudy…but I know that a least a couple of those are my own fault (due to messing with the stupid “picture effects”) and are thus fixable while others seem to be an issue with Kinko’s printer ink (some of the shading on tables and charts has a “fade-in-fade-out” thing going on), which should be correctable with my normal printer. I might also be able to get cleaner illos to replace some of the lower resolution images.

So in actuality, there’s really own one main issue/gripe with the books and that’s the margins (top and bottom) which seem to have somehow expanded through the magic of Kinko’s booklet digitalization process. The actual PDFs (which is what I’ll probably be making available for download, as that’s what people want on their tablets) still look great…quite readable and nicely laid out. It’s only the book version that seems to suck, perhaps due to the need of the printer to have an edge to grip. Or something. See, this is why I hate (or fear) technology…I just don’t know enough about this shit to even say what’s going on.

The margins I’ve got on the book seem to be plenty small and don’t need to be adjusted…it’s more the “booklet creation” process that needs to be adjusted (and my printer can work with me on that. Hell, I suppose I can just cut off the top and bottom edges (which seems to be what TSR did with their booklets “back in the day;” they’re a bit shorter than the normal A5 height of 8.5”.

SO: having noted a few typos that need to be corrected (for example, I see at least one place where I used the old term “necromancer” instead of “sorcerer”), at this point I think I’m about set.

-          Need to put in my order for the custom dice.
-          Need to paste my ISBNs and update my Bowker’s account with the new books
-          Need to make sure all images are tight

All right, all right…I am feeling much more optimistic about this project than I was last night. Some of my enthusiastic giddiness is starting to come back. And that’s a good thing.

: )

Monday, May 6, 2013

Formatting Nightmare

I hate you, Kinko's. 

No, I'm not just saying that. Yes, I realize they are not Kinko's anymore, but FedEx Office (isn't that who Tom Hanks was working for when he ended up marooned on a frigging island with a volley ball and a pair of ice skates? I don't remember)...but it's still the same location, still the same employees, still the same old shit.

And I do mean shit. $30 for books that don't lay flat and for margins bigger than my thumb and image resolution that, quite frankly, isn't up to snuff. Ugh. Ugh, UGH!

Got my "proofs" back (duh) and they're passable enough...I mean enough that I can work with them...but they're nothing I could sell to anyone. They look like garbage. I mean, they look FINE, but they need to look better than that. Which is, of course, why I go to a professional printer for my books, but, well, there it is (I ran into this same issue back when I was first trying to print up my B/X Companion...I guess I just don't learn). They just make me mad...they look, quite frankly, cheap and amateurish, and no, I'm not just being hard on the books for the F of it. I HATE f'ing Kinko's!

They're about on par with Ninja Burger. No, scratch that...more like Kobolds Ate My Baby.

5AK is supposed to be a more serious piece...dammit, it has classic illustrations. And it's supposed to...ugh!! I am so proud of what's IN it, and the form doesn't reflect that pride. Bugs the hell out of me, in fact and, no, I do not think I'm being an uptight perfectionist about this. I wanted to order DICE tomorrow, dammit!

Ugh. Double-frigging-ugh. It's 9:49 (PST) and I still need to do dishes and get the car seat out of the car for the nanny, and I absolutely have to get up on time tomorrow. But dammit, I'm going to work on re-formatting this damn thing tonight...get it tight. Get it looking like the LBBs it's supposed to frigging resemble. And then, only then, shall I take it to my real printer and get them to bend over and put this thing together in a decent fashion with a decent looking cover. Hell, I might just go with basic brown. Why the hell not? It was good enough for Gygax and Arneson after all...and it beats this day-glo card stock I thought would look okay.

Frigging Kinko's...not only do they suck, they make me see my own damn imperfections.

9:55. Still have some beer left. Later.

Deep Thoughts? No, Just Updates.


A couple years back I started writing a blog post that started something like this:

“There are many ways to play Dungeons & Dragons…”

...I then meandered and rambled for about six to eight pages in fairly pretentious fashion before giving the whole thing up as a blog post. Just too big in scope…and one that I’m not feeling up to tackling (even in half-assed fashion) at this point in my “writing career.” Maybe someday.

A recent discussion on another blog made me consider revisiting a part of that post by writing about the role of DMs in fostering expectations of play in players…another thing that most of us DMs (and non-DMs) fail to consider when we sit down at the gaming table. It’s not that we’re necessarily bringing certain assumptions to the table that aren't correct…though that might be part of it…it’s just that we don’t (usually) even think about the impact we’re having outside of “are we providing the players with a good time/entertaining play” (and sometimes we’re not even considering that). No, I’m not talking about “ruining the gaming experience for a newbie for all time by being a dick-weed.” No, I’m talking about fostering a sense of what “fantasy role-playing” is all about that may hamstring or  curtail the player’s natural imaginative/creative juices down the road.

You know? Like the way throwing a rookie quarterback out as the starter can really screw up a potential NFL starter’s career by forcing him to compete when he’s really not ready to do so?

Anyway, that conversation (or blog post) is another high-falutin’ one that I’ve decided I’m really not ready to delve into…maybe later this week, or maybe not. Instead, I’ve decided I’d prefer to give an update on 5AK and its publication. First, though, let me start with this:

I hate f’ing Kinko’s.

Of course, Kinko’s no longer exists (at least not in Washington…maybe they still have a store somewhere in California). Instead, we have FedEx Office which is just as bad except that they’re not open 24 hours like Kinko’s was back in the day.

Remember those “good ol’ days?” Sure they were still gouging clients on paper and ink costs and they had the (notoriously) surly customer service…but at least you could walk into a place at midnight, put in your order, and come back around 3 or 4am after pounding a thermos of coffee and a Grand Slam breakfast at Denny’s.

*Sigh*…I miss that.

Instead, when I get a bee in my bonnet and say, dammit, I need a mock-up proof that I can hold and feel and review and…whatever…INSTEAD, I have to run down to the store by 7pm and I still get this “we’re closing in two hours so you won’t be able to pick this up till Monday…after 4pm.” Motherf***rs! I’m paying $30 for that?!

No…I am not one for delayed gratification. I believe I’ve mentioned this more than once.

SO, yeah…that’s what’s going on. I’ve decided I need to do “a little something” every day on getting 5AK published or else I’ll go batshit-crazy. Today, I’m picking up my proofs and I’m hoping to make some decisions on dice colors. Tomorrow, I am hopeful I’ll be able to make some decisions about the latter and will place the order with Chessex. Wednesday, I’ll be putting together another play-test session which will then be executed on Thursday, with changes being made Friday and Saturday. And then Monday I will be seeing my REAL printer to see “what can you do for me.” Depending on how that goes…well, that will determine what I’m doing next week.

[mmm...note to self: remember to add ISBNs, too]

I’ve had several readers contact me via email to let me know they are available for proof-reading. For the sake of expedience, I may be willing to take some of you up on the offer. You folks know who you are…I’ll be in contact via email.

My terribly optimistic, non-conservative estimate is that I’ll have something to offer for sale by June. 5AK is going to be offered in both print and PDF format…though the printed booklets are going to be so much cooler and include custom dice so why anyone would want to go the electronic way is unclear.

Of course, I’m a primitive Neanderthal so, whatever.

[for readers who really don’t give two hoots about 5AK and are waiting with bated breath for Cry Dark Future…sorry. I know, I know…YOU folks don’t want or need “another D&D” you want your cyber-elf and miniguns and whatnot. Here’s the quick update: I’ve got back all the proof-reading edits, but the book hasn’t been updated yet. The artwork is coming in slowly but surely…I’ve received more than a dozen pieces so far, at least half of which should be “workable.” Still need to complete the formatting, page numbers, correct the table of contents, etc. At the last moment, I’ve decide NOT to add Halflings to the mix because, cool as that might be…well, dude, I’m just not going to do it at this point.CDF will get done…and hopefully soon…but 5AK is almost certainly going to be done first. Again, sorry folks]

Okay, I’m signing off now. Even writing about this stuff makes me all sorts of antsy. I’ve got to work on something different for awhile…maybe my Holmes knock-off.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Holmesian Brevity

[written around 3pm or so]

Wow…just having a tough time focusing today. Might as well do some writing.

I’m pretty darn excited about the new game…so much so, that I’d rather be working on getting the thing published than working at my job-type job. Spent my lunch break calling Chessex and seeing what they could do for me as far as custom dice (not a lot as it turns out, unless I want to pay $2 per die). What I REALLY want to do is head down to my printer and start getting price quotes, but they’re not open on weekends, and I don’t have a day off for eleven more days…and I need to go over the project with them in person. Dammit…I want proofs to try shrink-wrapping with Tim’s wonderful new apparatus, and it’ll be three-four weeks or something till they’re in hand!

UGH…patience is not one of the virtues I’ve got in spades. Sometimes I give the illusion of patience, but for the most part what I’ve got is sloth and stubbornness which makes me seem like a patient person. But I’m not. I am NOT a guy who’s into delayed gratification.

AAAaaaaargh!!!

Depending on the current cost of paper, I think I’ll be able to get this thing down to $21-22 (including dice, but not shipping and handling). PDFs will be $5-$7 (each booklet), depending on how much I’m willing to allow for gouging by PayPal and on-line distributors. Ugh! But I want this thing in stores…I want to see it on a shelf! I want, I want….

*sigh*

Misery.

In other news, I’ve spent other parts of my day downloading (and reading) Holmes retro-clones, not to mention refreshing my brain with Meepo’s Holmes Expansion (I tried, but couldn’t find, Professor Thorkhammer’s Holmes Companion)

[EDIT: the good professor was kind enough to email me a copy of his Expansion rules. Thanks!]

…none of which has been tremendously helpful, I’m sorry to say. I mean, they’re all well done, but…well, Holmes Basic itself is really just fine. I think I like the Blueholme Prentice Rules best just because they ARE so true to Holmes. Of course the author, Michael Thomas, is working on his Compleat BlueHolme Rules, which will probably be 200+ pages or something.

[not that I’m knocking the effort…Thomas is obviously laboring on his own D&D Mine project which I encourage EVERYONE to do at some point. I just get the impression form his BLOG that his opus is going to run a LOT longer than Holmes’s own sparse 48 pages…which pretty much takes the piss out of the thing for me]

48 frigging pages. That’s how many pages badass Holmes needed to create his own edition of D&D. I don’t think I actually noted this till I was doing my deconstruction for my own D&D Mine...previously, I’d just assumed Holmes’s volume was 64 pages like Moldvay. 48! And large parts of that are just reprints of Gygax’s prosy intro from OD&D or illustrations or white space. The guy does a lot with a lot less…I mean, he does manage to include most every B/X monster in his book.

5AK is a LOT longer than Holmes. True, it’s dwindled down to A5-size pages, but (not counting the covers) the number of letter-sized pages it uses is 36 (more even than my B/X Companion, which used the equivalent of 32 in its printing). Pull the covers off Holmes and the whole thing amounts to 24 pages…two-thirds the size of my game. Granted, it’s only a basic introduction to dungeon delving…but still, that’s pretty impressive considering there are still plenty of folks playing Holmes as their edition of choice and loving the hell out of it.

I actually don’t want to do a retro-clone of Holmes. What I want to do is something on the same scale as Holmes…both thematically and (more or less) page count-wise. Something that uses different-sided polyhedral dice (5AK only uses D6s, being based on CHAINMAIL). Something much more over-the-top, and yet gritty in a way 5AK is not.

[by the way…readers do realize I’m just typing my thoughts out loud, right?]

I do NOT want it to turn into a huge project of any kind…in fact, I might just cut-n-paste the monsters and spell descriptions from 5AK into it (maybe. 5AK doesn’t include DRUIDS and I have a sneaking suspicion that this new “thang” project will…more on that later). But I really don’t want to waste too much time on it. I mean, other than the writing/design itself (attempting to streamline the train wreck that is OD&D) the most impressive thing about Holmes is the cover artwork. And that’s pretty much how I’d like to keep my game...uber-simple. Hell, I might even do the interior illustrations myself (now that I found a free scanner in the library), just to insure I don’t take the thing too seriously.

Mmmm…okay, more on this later.