Friday, August 7, 2020

Elegant Design

I don't write a lot of posts about "the biz" of publishing books, but this is a little strange...there seems to be a slight resurgence in interest in my books.

The B/X Companion for sure: just checked the PDF sales report on DriveThruRPG, and it's on pace to have its best year since 2013. Just to put that in perspective: my Companion was only made available as a PDF in 2012, and the total sales for the first two years exceeds all sales combined from 2014-2019.  

[which is still peanuts, of course (total sales over the life of the product is a bit north of 1000), but considering my lack of business skills and marketing savvy...not to mention the niche market to which my product belongs...I'll take pride in my home-baked slice of the pie]

If I had to guess about a reason for the recent sales spike, I'd probably give credit to the expanding popularity of the recent Old School Essentials (B/X) retro-clone. Back in "The Time Before Covid" I had a chance to take a look at Ye Local Gamestore and it was a pretty nice set of books. Didn't purchase it myself (money's a little tight for picking up products I already own in their original form), but I've heard plenty of praise for the thing, both in-person (from actual people) and on-line (from virtual people). 

ANYway, that's the only reason I can think of...I don't see any reviews or internet mentions of the Companion more recently than 2012 or so. Regardless, my thanks to all the people doing the purchasing...considering the many pirate PDFs of my book floating around the internet these days, I appreciate the money some folks are actually willing to put in my pocket.

Now the stranger part: while OSE offers some explanation for my B/X Companion, I don't know what could account for the renewed interest in Five Ancient Kingdoms, which is also on pace to have its best sales since 2013 (the first year it was published). 

Are people actually playing 5AK?

Allow me to be a skosh amazed at the idea. I mean, I'm not playing the game at the moment, though maybe I should be. I spent much of yesterday reading through the PDFs (for the first time in years) and, man, there is some good stuff in there. Elegant design, if I do say so myself (and I do).  Yeah, yeah...patting myself on the back again. But I like how I solved a lot of particular design issues I had with D&D, adding interesting nuance while still keeping the system streamlined and abstract.

Why did I abandon this line of gaming? 

Now THAT is a good question. I definitely remember feeling a bit pingeon-holed by the setting...even thought the books themselves offer ways to modify the system for other settings. But mostly, I think, that I felt the game lacked appeal...I could never get more than 2 or 3 players together that were willing to give it a go, back during the play-testing stage. Compare that with the offer of most any edition of D&D and you get half a dozen hands (or more) go up in the air, crying to join the table.

*sigh* I'm such a slave to what is trendy.

But no, it's more than that, I think. I worked hard on the probabilities and dice outcomes for 5AK, and they work well, but they're not as intuitive to grasp as a more granular, incremental system based on a D20 or percentile dice. Or perhaps it's just me...I am too used to these simpler granular systems, having been steeped in them for decades. Rolling 2d6 and tossing out "zeroes" just seems too "weird" from my perspective. I need some sort of damn chart/matrix to reference or I feel naked out there!

*sigh again*

As I continue to work on my own world and tinker the rules to better match the parameters of my design needs I read through these books...the three volumes of 5AK...and I keep coming across things that make me wonder "is there a way to add this to D&D?" A way to somehow incorporate these ideas into the standard D&D design without upsetting the entire apple cart? Sadly, I'm not sure there is. Systems in 5AK are built to inter-lock with each other. D&D is a hodge-podge of mechanics created on a "need" or "cool idea" basis (and often as patches when "cool ideas" ended up creating other "needs"). Functional as D&D is, fun as D&D is, its very nature precludes the addition of elegant mechanics.

Doesn't it?

Mentzer's BECMI tried to file off a lot of the "rough edges" and the game suffered for it (in my opinion). Same with 3rd edition...and 3.5 and 4th and 5th. The more well-oiled the machine becomes, the less room there is for imagination. 5AK works because it is, in the main, small scale and firmly based in its fairy tale genre. But D&D's heritage is founded in a wilder and woolier period of imaginings. 

What was it I was listening to the other day? Oh, yeah: Mother Love Bone. Andrew Wood is one of the greatest singer/songwriters that...unless you're really deep into musical've probably never heard or heard of. Unless you're, like, my age (mid-late 40s) and grew up in Seattle and liked rock music instead of pop and rap. Because Wood died right on the verge of becoming famous, and his bandmates ended up becoming Pearl Jam instead. And Vedder's a great singer and frontman, don't get me wrong, but Wood was a special talent. His music mixed the sacred with the profane, at time profound at times adolescent, all combined with sincerity and humor and beautiful singing ability, emphasizing love in all its expressions (for God, for children, for sex, for the world). I found my old CD in a mislabeled box and ended up listening to it 3 or 4 times through, just feeling...sad.

Because even if I played their CD for, say, my children or some 20-something year olds, there's just such a depth of meaning that would be lost on kids from a different generation. They just wouldn't grasp references because there's so much that doesn't exist anymore in this day and age of internet saturation and multi-hundred TV channels and social media bubbles. It's like: once upon a time the world was a smaller place, but so much more specific...and now its not. Once upon a time, every kid watched Bugs Bunny or Scoobie-Doo because you were a kid and you watched cartoons and there was only a couple channels and a couple times a week that you could watch them. Once upon a time there was only a handful of news outlets and rather than market themselves to a particular "fan base" they tried to report as quickly and accurately as possible. Once upon a time everyone knew the same songs because radio stations that catered to a particular taste only rotated the same handful of bands. We had shared understandings, shared touchstones.

We have so few of those these days, except for world-shattering events. Good things? Or fun things? Or nice things? Those are all over the board. You might know something about it if you're In The Group that cares about a particular thing (role-playing games, for example)...otherwise, it's outside your bubble, outside your sphere of interest. And you chance of having a shared knowledge with someone outside that thing is...slim. I can bitch about Trump or Covid with the other soccer parents while watching our kids practice or I can talk about soccer and soccer kids. Anything else? Chaff in the wind.

D&D...the D&D that I play and that I prefer...belongs to that older time. It wasn't created to be elegant or universal or easily consumed. It gained ascendance by being pretty much the only (or main) game in town at a time when the world was a much smaller place, when choices were more limited, and when people...players...had more shared understandings. Me writing 5AK was an attempt at...hell, I don't really know (or remember) exactly what I was attempting. But with regard to mechanics, I tried to make it as "elegant" as possible, while maintaining some sort of soul and imagination. I just don't know if imagination can exist alongside "elegant" certainly seems more readily found in the inelegant systems of the wilder, woolier past. 

Ugh. This post has gone completely off the rails. Probably need to reset (and maybe eat some breakfast).  Later, gators.


  1. Obvious piece of advice: Send out some danged review copies. I don't see 5AK reviewed at all on youtube, and there are only a couple of vids on the Companion, both by relatively small channels. There are a slew of OSR reviewers out there, with some of the biggest being Questing Beast and Captcorajus. Both have done the OSE set already, so Companion would be an obvious follow up for them, and 5AK would be a new thing for the whole site AFAIK, which is always meat for reviewers.

    I'd add a few points about the old-days-versus-today diatribe but it would wind up longer than your post, so here's the short version: I'm listening to Mother Love Bone even as I type this. Never would have heard of them without seeing your post, and that would never have happened if the modern day wasn't what it is. I'll take the content overload of the internet over Happy Days reruns any day of the week. :)

    1. @ Dick:

      Point taken...on both counts.

      Enjoy those Mother Love Bone boys...they're like Malt-O-Meal for you, they're GOOD for you, they're like soup, they're like Nothing Bad.
      : )

    2. Loving them. Glad for the rec. Look foward to seeing some video reviews of your stuff. 5AK (look, it's got an abbreviation, it must be cool!) looks particularly interesting. I quite like that dice mechanic, I think.

    3. The problem is, I don't really have the inventory to be mailing out review copies.

      Well, that and...mmm, how to say this...I don't always agree with the views being expressed by some of these video folks. Not just differences of opinion, mind you ("this adventure is great" vs. "it's terrible," etc.) but deeper understandings of gaming design and nuance.


      *sigh* I'm not saying that right. But then, maybe my own feelings on the matter are cloudy. I'll think about it, Dick.

  2. Tangential to your musings on music - I never cared for Pearl Jam. Weird Al may have chosen Nirvana for his "can't understand the lyrics"-themed parody, but personally I can make out what Kurt Cobain is saying WAY better than Vedder's marble-mouth singing.

    1. Having been a vocalist myself, I tend to judge singers on a number of different categories. Lyrically, Vedder ranks a little higher (for me) than Cobain, whose writing mostly made sense only to himself (and who generally disparaged people reading too much into it). Vedder made better use of his instrument (i.e. voice) than Kurt, but Kurt got the most out of what he had to work with. I prefer Eddie a little more as a SINGER based on lyric-writing and the unusualness of translating his smooth baritone to the rock genre.

      [songwriting overall is another story]

      However, neither even make my Top 5 for vocalists from this region: Chris Cornell, Anne Wilson, Geoff Tate (of Queensryche), Layne Staley, and Andrew Wood all rank higher on my list, and I'd probably put Carrie Akre above both of them, too: she certainly had a better voice, enough to make up for the often opaqueness of her lyrics (at least during her Hammerbox days).

    2. I can agree that the sound of his voice is in relatively unique in the genre, and interesting in its own way. It just annoys me that he's singing in my native language, at a normal pace, and at a normal volume (not death metal screams or mumble rap or anything) - but I still can barely understand a thing unless I'm watching a music video with subtitles or looking at a lyric sheet.

  3. I only skimmed the post, tbh, but...
    *I'm* feeling renewed interest within myself in some OSR stuff, and I don't know why either. I'm certainly not a big consumer of it. Partially, probably, it's a response to a desire to get back into writing and a deep exhaustion of (re)learning 5e (which I did at one point but it seems to have left me). Partially it's just...what it is.

    I don't know if you have kids, but they have shared experiences that we're not privy to. I think in many ways it's just a function of age, and always has been. It's interesting to watch concepts/ideas/interests flow from me to her and out to her friends (and probably vice-versa); apparently I've got a reputation among her friends as the most fun and weird dad (I live some distance from her, so I actually don't interact with most of her friends except when I walk past and they're videochatting). But I make her watch older movies and listen to oddball songs that eventually filter out to her social group.

    The news issue, as you're probably aware, has a lot to do with the removal, in the 90's(?), of restrictions on ownership of media outlets in a single market that allowed a lot of integration to occur, and removed content restrictions from newscasts. I'm not a fan, overall.

    1. @ Nathan:

      I DO have children, and I have tried (probably to their detriment) to expose them to the things that helped make up my collective experience.

      Unfortunately, I often feel like I have absolutely failed in getting them to go out and explore their own interests. They only rarely do anything that surprises me or brings new knowledge back to me, often seeming like just "mini" versions of myself, simply waiting to grow up and be exactly like their Old Man. My daughter is less this than her brother, but not enough for my taste. It is unfortunate that their peers are all...well, quite boring in a lot of ways. But it may just be their young age and the prevalence of video games (MineCraft, Roblox) in their lives.

      Also (I suppose) there's a lot of fantastical stuff aimed at children these days: things like The Descendants, or Harry Potter, or Artemis Fowl or whatever. When I was a kid, if I wanted fantasy stuff (which I did) I was more often than not searching the ADULT book shelves, which ended up stretching my reading level. That's not the case these days.

      *sigh* All that probably sounds harsh. I shouldn't disparage the current crop of children these days...they are exceptionally supportive and kind and loving to each other, which is better than the cliques and bullying that occurred when I was a kid. And I'm sure that this is due in large part to our changed world. I survived my childhood and adolescence and am stronger for it. I don't worry about my children's survival, just about the strength they'll develop.

      [probably why I am always being so hard on them!]

      ; )

      RE The OSR:

      Sorry, but I need to write a whole post on this subject. Maybe Monday.

  4. 5AK is most certainly elegant.

    Which features do you think would be difficult to port over to (B/X) D&D?

    1. Many of the combat adjustments and individual modifiers (such as from Advantages) are written for a 2d6-based system...and not just 2d6 but a system that treats 1s as 0s! The combat system itself pits skill versus skill with armor acting as both a modifier and damage adjustment at once...that's tricky to do in D&D. Some of the magic/spell stuff. The "pushing" system. Some other stuff.

      It's a nice little game, but it probably works best on its own.

    2. I would probably try to calculate the statistical impact of these features and figure out a mechanism that largely has the same impact on the d20.

      I'm not entirely convinced it is desirable, though; d20 games can have their own elegance (see The Black Hack or Into the Odd). The end result is often "less D&D", though.

    3. It's really tough to do this when 2d6 yields a bell curve and d20 has a linear progression.

    4. Well, in 5AK you roll 2d6+HD (fighters) vs 6+HD. Assuming equal HD, a roll of 6+ (66.67%) is a success. That's roughly an 8+ on d20.

      A difference of +1 increases it to 77.77% (so +2 on d20). +2 makes it 86.1 (another +2 on d20). +3, +4, and +5 only add roughly 5% (+1 on d20) each.

      A difference of -1 drops it to 52.77% (close to -3 on d20), -2 to 41.66% (a further -2 on d20), and -3 to 27.77% (close to another -3 on d20).

      Pushed rolls in similar situations (equal opponents hitting each other) grant an 80.55% chance of success (so 5+ on d20, or +3 compared to "unpushed" rolls).

      A consolidated table would look something like the following:

      (again, +/-1 are relative compared to the opposition's bonuses to the standard target number of 6; d20 target numbers are preserved as fractions for purposes of transparency)

      -3 rolls 27.77% 14.45+ on d20
      -2 rolls 41.66% 11.67+ on d20
      -1 rolls 52.77% 9.45+ on d20
      normal rolls 66.66% 6.67+ on d20
      +1 rolls 77.77% 4.45+ on d20
      +2 rolls 86.1% 2.78+ on d20
      +3 rolls 91.66% 1.67+ on d20

      -3 pushed 37.03% 12.6+ on d20
      -2 pushed 53.7% 9.26+ on d20
      -1 pushed 69.44% 6.11+ on d20
      pushed 80.55% 3.89+ on d20
      +1 pushed 89.35% 2.13+ on d20
      +2 pushed 94.91% 1.02+ on d20
      +3 pushed 98.15% 0.37+ on d20

      Of course, a similarly elegant design for the d20 cannot preserve the exact percentages, but it certainly can be approximated.

    5. Damn it, I rushed it: the d20 rolls need to be 1 higher (so 15.45 in the first row, 12.67 in the second, and so on).

    6. Don’t stress it, man.
      : )