Thursday, September 16, 2021

The "Drift"

[a necessary interlude]

From the comments on Tuesday's post:

GusL wrote:
In general I agree that 5E, Critical Roll and all the other contemporary forms of design and play feel new. I've tried to understand them, and frankly I don't get it. I'd like someone who does to tell me what it's about, but I haven't seen anyway really explain the joys of that playstyle...
and Jojodogboy wrote:
...modern players has moved away from rpgs as game to rpg as event. 

Resource management was part of the original design, as logistical planning was taken from other games at the time. That means encumbrance and bookkeeping. Same thing with xp. It is a way to keep "score". This is also a game element requiring bookkeeping. A third game element was the concept of player selected difficulty, meaning that players set levels of risk by going "deeper". Higher risk, but more reward. Finally, as an example, wandering monsters were a game element added to create a time and resource pressure on the party. 

Each example small piece above were hand waived or ignored over the years, for a variety of reasons.As each of these pieces (and others, such as asymmetrical class progression and sandbox play) were removed, D&D moved away from being a game and more towards becoming an experience.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of this is really "new." 

From The Forge: Provisional Glossary (Ron Edwards, 2004):

Changing from one Creative Agenda to another, or from the lack of shared Creative Agenda to a specific one, during play, typically through changing the System. In observational terms, often marked by openly deciding to ignore or alter the use of a given rule

Creative Agenda
The aesthetic priorities and any matters of imaginative interest regarding role-playing.
Emphasis added by yours truly. Please note, that I'm not using the old (since deemed obsolete) terms described as GNS (Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist). Instead, think of "creative agenda" as an individual or group's "priority of play."

Edwards's 2003 essay A Hard Look at Dungeons & Dragons is also a helpful starting point. However, the most important thing to take away from that article (for purposes of this blog post) is:
Prior to AD&D2, the available texts were reflective, not prescriptive, of actual play. Their content was filtered through authors' priorities which were very diverse.
[evidence to support this statement, especially the first sentence, can be found in a multitude of interviews with the original developers of the game that are available on the internet (especially from Ernie Gygax and Mike Carr, DMG editior). A common theme is "we were writing up the rules as they were played." Evidence of the different priorities can be seen in the recounting of different styles of play between such individuals as Gygax, Arneson, Ed Greenwood, Bill Willingham, etc.]

Edwards (along with others) was attempting to formulate some grand theories of RPG design; something that (at the moment) I have exceedingly little interest in doing. But to do so, he had to take a look at Dungeons & Dragons, how it developed over time (if only in passing), and how later RPGs were derived from it and the early hobbyists. This he did all the way up to the D20 (3rd/3.5 edition) days. For my purposes, digging out the pertinent D&D stuff is a damn chore, made harder by the lack of importance he attached to the game other than as an interesting point in the evolution of role-playing...but the digging can yield some results.

And here's the thing one finds: the development (whether for the good or the bad) of the D&D game is a damn repeating cycle. Wargames provided a systemization of war; Braunstein injected story-centered elements into the system. D&D provided a systemization of those individual stories; mid-80s D&D added "meaning" (story again) to the campaigns that D&D developed. 3E and 4E tried to add back (or re-emphasize) system/mechanics for D&D; 5E added backgrounds and story-oriented mechanics (like insight, advantage/disadvantage, etc.) back to those mechanics. 

Every time D&D gets around to nailing down how it wants to be a game, someone's imagination gets fired up and says, "gosh, it's too bad the rules get in the way of us doing this..."

Reading that quote from Jojodogboy, I was struck by how much this was directly reflected my own experience in the 1980s. We did play with all the rules, but we gradually found ways to sidestep (or ignore) rules that "detracted" from the (non-bookkeeping) play at the table. Encumbrance getting you down? Make sure you have enchanted armor and portable holes. Don't want to count rations? The party finds a new magic item: a bag of food, that makes sure you're always provisioned. Need to stop worrying about training costs and general leveling? Just introduce new characters already leveled to an appropriate number for the current scenario (like pre-gens, except they then become permanent PCs or NPCs)...especially ones with (*shudder*) backstories that linked them into the ongoing campaign.

All of which is to say: we (my group) started drifting play to something other than resource management, challenge driven Dungeons & Dragons. Something far more interested in character interaction, and far less concerned with dungeon exploration...even though we weren't playing Dragonlance or 2E or anything (this was circa '86 and '87). What do high level characters do? They plot...often against each other, when other actors (patrons, nemeses) aren't present in the campaign.

But this type of play isn't expressly present in the AD&D (yes, Jeffro, it can be inferred from hints found in the DMG, but it's far from explicit). And it's not even close to being supported by the rules (Quick! What's the dowry for a French baroness? How much arable land do you need to grow enough grain for your standing army without starving the peasantry? What's the cost to build a working mill and how many assistants does the miller need? Can they be goblins? At what point does a patriarch achieve "saint" status? Etc.). Played over a long enough period of time, events arise that are far outside the scope of the instructional text...and often these things take hold of our imaginations with far more "grip" than the study of pole arm differences.

And when the "bean counting" of the actual rules get in the way of these "more interesting things," well, what do you suppose happens to them? They drop away, of course...shunted to the side. So it goes. And folks start asking "why can't my wizard use a sword?" And perhaps you invent a mechanic for it (martial weapon proficiency feat, anyone?). Or perhaps you don't. Perhaps you don't care that a beer run may be beneath the dignity of 8th level characters. Maybe you just think a beer run (with necromancers) sounds like a fun side trek. D&D is the "anything game," right? And you can certainly drift it however you like. Folks have been doing so decades before the current edition of D&D was published.

So what's the difference? Here's the difference: while "drifting" of play has existed since the primordial days of D&D (in part because of the way the original, incomplete rules spread in incomplete fashion), the decision whether or not to drift play (and how play drifted) was confined to individual playgroups. A new group, going to the store and picking up a rule set would start with an instructional text (mentored by veteran players...or not) and then go their merry way. In isolation.

Now we have the internet. 

NOW we have "social media platforms." Now we have streaming videos. Now we have talking heads discussing their drifted play theories developed (perhaps) as a personal style/preference and promoting it as the true or correct method of play. And we have players learning how to play from these sources because:

A) a laissez-faire attitude from the flagship publishers (hey, play what you like...just pay us), 
B) an instructional text that is not written for accessibility (too large, too padded, for a fan base that...let's face the reality of our times...aren't super into reading instructions).
C) a system of rules that...since at least 1989...has been largely facing issues of incoherence. That's another "Forge-y" term (apologies) which, in this context, I'll define as "outlining a priority of play without providing a system of rules that support that priority."

FOR EXAMPLE: stating D&D is about creating and telling stories without providing you with tools (rules, game mechanics) that allow players to address premise, create and control plot arcs, or that are overburdened with simulation minutia (how many coins does a backpack hold? how much damage does a long sword do? opposed to deciding whether a fight - and the outcome of the fight - furthers the story being told at this particular moment). 

Incoherence in design ends up leading to drifting a system into "something else" (see the definition of "Drift" above: not just disregarding rules that are "inconvenient" but also ignoring or "fudging" dice results that don't support the preferred outcome...whether that be "fun" or "telling a good story" or both!). And while an individual table wishing to drift their game (as mine did, BITD) is FINE (if a bit silly...there are other games DESIGNED to do these things), holding up drifted play as "proper play" (and promoting it as such) is problematic, in a number of ways:
  • It confounds as confuses newbies (not a way to grow the hobby)
  • It fractures and polarizes the gaming community.
  • It stymies actual innovation (there ARE other games to play).
  • It promotes an attitude of rule-breaking (this has carry over to other arenas).
  • It disregards what the system does well.
And, for me, that last point is what I hope to address in my next post: getting back to what actual D&D is, and some of the elements of the game that we should be championing.

[one last point: the rise of the internet and the ease with which individuals can now publish their own gaming material...specifically adventures and also a major issue, when the publications are based on poor understanding and/or drifted play. These modules and supplements provide part of the text by which players and DMs learn the game...following the examples of others!...and if these are written in incoherent fashion, it can lead to even more frustration and misunderstanding]

More later. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Dispel Myth(s)

Just picking up where I left off...

Yesterday I asked a not-so-rhetorical question "have people forgotten how to play D&D?" The pat answer is "Of course not, people all over the world are still playing D&D and enjoying the heck out of it!" The evidence is fairly clear: tons of book sales, tons of convention goers (when pandemics aren't getting in the way), tons of presence on social media platforms, blogs, web forums, etc. The game is again being sold in toy stores and there's all sorts of attached merch and related D&D product.

Clearly the game is enjoying a popularity unseen since the 1980s. Doesn't that indicate people are playing the game? Isn't that popularity coming from the enjoyment folks feel playing the game?

Perhaps. But I'm inclined to think rather differently. 

Regardless (the marketing of D&D is probably a subject for its own post) today I'm writing about folks who are actually playing the game, and specifically to folks who gravitate in the group referred to as "the Old School" or "the OSR" (for short). The OSR is just another marketing term, another badge of identity politics. I know my published works (including blog posts) ties me to the OSR label, too, but I honestly don't identify much with it. I am a gamer...a middle-aged gamer (I'll be 48 this year). I've been playing RPGs with dice since 1981...that's coming up on 40 years. My love affair...with RPGs started with B/X but it has run the gamut over many, MANY different games though the years.

I'm just a geezer that likes escapist fantasy games. 

And D&D is the one I know best. Not only because it's the one I've played the longest, but because over the last dozen years I've spent a LOT of time and energy "deep diving" the game, researching its workings, its history, its development. Because I love it, and because I find it fascinating, and because it has had such a dramatic impact on our culture...not just "gamer culture" or "geek culture" but world culture. For me, Dungeons & Dragons has much the same way that a theologian feels about the Bible or a historian feels about classic treatise written by ancient Greek and Latin scholars. It's worth my study.

SO...the OSR. A movement, a market, and (originally) an umbrella term for folks who like to play an older version of D&D. Not an older style, mind you...simply an older version. 

[because "style" is largely a matter of taste...different styles of play have been around since the early days of the about or listen to interviews with various TSR luminaries to see what I'm talking about]

As the OSR has moved from an identifier of game preference to an industry, there has been a loss of knowledge about the fundamentals of how to play the game.

And part of the reason for this is this strange and nutty adaption of (and adherence to) a set of stylistic assumptions/guidelines used to define "old school" play. Things like "rulings over rules," "heroic not superheroic," "unbalanced combat," "emphasis on player agency," "high lethality," etc.  These ideas have been taken to heart, cherished, and championed by members of the OSR pretty much since 2008 when Matt Finch published his Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.

I combed Ye Old Blog this morning, but found no mention of the Quick Primer and nothing about Finch, except for an off-hand remark that I'm not a big Swords & Wizardry fan. That doesn't mean I'm unaware of Finch's work: I've both S&W and the Primer downloaded on the hard drive and have read them before. But, especially with regard to the Primer, I think a little context is needed for BOTH of these works.

Finch wrote S&W in 2008 because the OD&D rules were out-of-print at that time. He used Wizards of the Coast's OGL to release the rules so that folks could have and play the game (the original books have since been made available in PDF format). 

The Quick Primer was released alongside S&W in part to explain to "modern" (post-2000 players) the differences between new versions of the game and ORIGINAL (OD&D, 0e, White Box, etc.) Dungeons & edition of the game that was primordial and not yet fully formedIn this context, as an overview for modern players coming to OD&D needing a radical perspective change, it works fine as a "quick primer" (hence the name). But treating it as a treatise on the subject of "old school play," or as gospel truth, or even as being applicable to other old editions of Dungeons & Dragons (B/X, Holmes, AD&D, etc.) is a catastrophic, erroneous leap to make...let alone foundation on which to build a gaming paradigm.

Let's examine some of the accepted ideas  of "old school" D&D gaming that have sprung from this false understanding and see if we can't destroy their fallacies.

Simple or Few Rules: while older edition versions of D&D do not have nearly the "bloat" found in later editions, calling them "rules light" is hardly appropriate. Setting aside BASIC games (Holmes, B/X, BECMI) which were specifically written as beginning instruction manuals for new players you will find that both OD&D and AD&D did nothing BUT add rules to the game over time: OD&D added five supplements in addition to additional instruction presented in The Strategic Review magazine, nearly all of which were eventually incorporated, and AD&D added manual after manual all the way up to the 2nd edition, which would take the same tack. Even Mentzer's BECMI had an ever-expanding list of instructional texts (not just the Companion-Master-Immortal sets, but the new rules provided in Gazetteers, some of which...non-weapon skills...would later be incorporated into the Rules Cyclopedia). The fact that some people prefer simpler rule sets (like B/X as a standalone game) is NOT endemic of "old school play."

Rulings not Rules: perhaps the worst phrase ever coined in the Old School lexicon. Gygax's instructions to create one's own rules for situations not covered in the textual rules is probably the most misunderstood part of old texts. His admonition "why let us do more of your imagining for you?" was a proscriptive against folks writing to TSR for rules arbitration (in effect, he was saying "Figure it out yourself!"). But just because the rules can't cover EVERYTHING doesn't mean they don't cover SOMEthings...and for many things (like combat) there were existing rules...and more were being added all the time (see above). Finch's statement in this regard was regarding the incompleteness of the OD&D system.

Heroic not Superheroic: another oft-quoted "gem" about how old school PCs are aspiring to be Batman, not Superman. Rubbish. Superheroes are super because they have inherent supernatural powers, and there are PLENTY on display in the D&D game: magic-users, clerics, druids, illusionists, paladins, rangers, monks, and bards all have "super powers" not found in ordinary folks. So do characters with psionics. And if you don't think a high level fighter's ability to cut a swath through 10 or 15 or 20 mooks in a single round isn't "superheroic" (see the rules in both Chainmail and AD&D) than I guess we have very different ideas of the human possibility spectrum. Old school PCs of the mid-high level range are hopping through other dimensions, fighting dragons and demon princes, running kingdoms and commanding armies...this is not "Batman level" stuff. Old school characters are larger than life, much as their inspirations (Conan, etc.) were.

"Forget Game Balance:" and this is why we end up seeing so many published adventures that pit low level PCs against godlike super-beings. Just because encounters aren't "engineered" to allow PCs to win (see 4E, 5E, and 3E's Challenge Rating system) does NOT mean that combats or challenges are "unbalanced." If I throw a dragon in the first chamber of my dungeon meant for 1st and 2nd level characters, that's not "old school;" it's being a crap Dungeon Master! The D&D played using old edition rules is very much about risk assessment and threat management, and about players having the choice of how to approach perils to life and limb. But part of the art of DM'ing is in designing challenges that are difficult without being impossible. And rewards should certainly be commensurate with the challenges being presented, in order to tempt PCs into untenable/difficult situations.

High Lethality: this one, I suppose, is a bit in the mind of the beholder. If you're the type that sees ANY player character death as being "highly lethal" (because you're used to an edition of D&D with "death saves" and "healing surges" and whatnot), then sure...old edition D&D is "highly lethal." But if your definition of "high lethality" equates to "Total Party Kill" (or near-TPK) than, no...old edition D&D does NOT necessarily have a high degree of lethality. Death in D&D is a fail state for the players; it generally indicates 'you screwed up.' It is a possible penalty of poor (or unlucky) play. However, it is easily mitigated by the ample number of ways to bring PCs back from the dead, and by the relative ease with which new characters can be created and advanced. I have found AD&D to be especially forgiving with regard to PC death (due to higher hit points per die, more clerical healing at low levels, and the use of negative hit points as a "buffer")...but even with B/X the game need not be "highly lethal." DMs must still balance encounters based on party's experience and ability.

Emphasis on Player Agency: um...what? If you mean players aren't laboring under a DM practicing illusionism than I don't think that's something very specific to "old school" play. But regarding PCs having a "choice" in what they do in-game (again, not something specific to old editions of D&D!) there are plenty of ways that player agency is restricted and curtailed in old edition D&D: see charm spells, hold spells, paralysis, petrifaction, and (yes) death. Plenty of ways exist to take a player out of play for short (or long durations). If you're talking about an "open sandbox world" unfettered and unconstrained, I'd counter with a plethora of published old edition adventures featuring "trapped" player characters, including Castle Amber, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, Ravenloft, Dungeon of the Slave Lords, the Desert of Desolation series, the premise for Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, etc. 

Referee Impartiality: um...again, is this indicative of "old school" play? I think not. However, while I am a strong proponent of not fudging the dice...ever (and you should be, too!) I have to say that I love my players and I want them to succeed at overcoming challenges (yes, even though I cackle with glee when their characters die). Why? Because for me (as a DM), allowing players to succeed allows their character to advance which in turn allows me to open up new content and newer more cunning challenges and situations. It's a win-win for everyone. Likewise, it's really tough to run a long-term viable campaign if you let ONLY dice dictate what monsters and treasures are encountered by your a DM you must be willing to set the ship's course; the fun is in seeing how the PCs navigate the waters. And reading Gygax's text in the 1E DMG, I think he was pretty much of a similar mind.

Aaaaand...that's about it. Any other long-standing precious beliefs about ostensibly "old school" game play that I need to stomp all over? If you think of some let me know. Otherwise, please feel free to grump about how wrong I am in bashing OSR-approval-stamped credentials of "real D&D play."

Next Post: I hope to start writing a series about actual "fundamentals" of game play (at least for older editions; sorry, can suck it). Need to fill this newly created void with some constructive stuff. Stay tuned!
: )

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Fundamental D&D

Oh, boy. Where to start?

Recently there have been a lot of "self-assessment" posts popping up around the blog-o-sphere: folks celebrating their 5th or 10th or 20th year blogging (and where they've been and how things have changed) and often including assessments of the "OSR," specifically where the "movement" is, how it's evolved, and reflections/opinions on its development.

I don't write much about the OSR...since 2013 I've got less than a dozen posts with that label (and before that, most of my OSR posts were reviews of "stuff" being produced by folks identifying as part of the OSR community), so it's been interesting to observe what folks are talking about. Especially as there's been more than a little discussion about how the OSR has fractured into multiple groups or "factions."

For me, I see it less as any kind of schism(s) and more just bog standard Balkanization...we (that is, the "D&D gaming community") never really were a "unity" of any sort. The only thing we really shared was a particular piece of geography of the tabletop gaming world...the piece that is most interested in Dungeons & Dragons and its specific pseudo-genre of fantasy adventure gaming.  But we've always had different politics, design aesthetics, play styles, and objectives of play. We've always had  different comfort levels with regard to both game complexity and subject matter (and individuals have seen these comfort levels fluctuate over time!) and some are simply incompatible with each other. Before there was a Black Hack RPG there were people cutting swaths of rules out of their game, and that style of play has always been antithetical and unsatisfying to some of the others. The same "always" line can be drawn between those of a more artistic bent versus the more staid designers.

We're just (re-)asserting our independence as individuals. No one likes to be pigeon-holed.

Recently, deadtreenoshelter coined the term "D&D fundamentalists" for the camp opposite the so-called "art-punks," a term I find exceptionally amusing, especially as I've been lumped into it. With regard to religion, fundamentalism is the strict adherence to the literal interpretation of scripture...a concept which could certainly be applied to any advocate of "By The Book" or "Rules As Written" D&D.  But I've generally been one to question rules...or, at least, experiment with order to gain insight and understanding into the game. If I have fundamental tendencies (I'm definitely not a fundamentalist), it's only because I've already tried the road of the heretic...and found it lacking in one regard or another.

What's a far stranger thing to me, though, is this strange way that the D&D game seems to be developing, as evidenced by the product being produced, both within the DIY crowd (the group that commonly refers to themselves as "OSR") and those followers of the flagship brand, AKA "5E." I'll be honest: until recently, I wasn't paying much attention to either of these groups...probably due to my being a rather busy adult human being as well as a narcissistic naval-gazer. But there seems to be something very different going on right now, and I've seen more than a couple people commenting on it, most recently in the comments of this adventure review over at tenfootpole:

Bryce wrote:
Yeah, I understand this is a different play style. I don't understand the appeal but I acknowledge that it is the dominant play style today, and has been for quite some time.
While GusL wrote:
It seems to me that the 5E zeitgeist goes a bit beyond plot or location based. Ravenloft is clearly better than Curse of Strahd but 5E has changed even since that came out. When I look at contemporary 5E stuff it reads like something entirely new.
GusL has done a lot of respectable adventure analysis and (in my opinion) is a bit of a "5E apologist" (that is to say he really tries to give 5E a fair shake as much as he can, despite having the crustier sensibilities of a true grognard). As such, I am inclined to trust his impressions in this matter...he does, after all, read far more 5E material than myself.

However, it's NOT just the 5E stuff...there's been some paradigm shifts for the indie/DIY stuff as well (while I pay little attention to Ennies, it's impossible to disregard them as a measuring stick of what is popular and "trendy" at any particular moment; the last couple years "OSR" offerings are illustrative). While it's easy to be dismissive of "artpunk" offerings as more style than substance, I think there's plenty to be gleaned from the effect and impact such works have on indie publishing industry...such as it is...AND the possible reasons for its rise to popularity.

Have people forgotten how to play Dungeons & Dragons

That's not meant to be rhetorical! However, the better question might be: Is the D&D community still playing D&D, i.e. something recognizable as the D&D game? 

I feel like I've asked similar questions in the past (though I was probably being facetious). Look, regardless of what version of D&D happens to be a person's favorite, there have been some "givens" to what goes on at the table (virtual or otherwise). Off the top of my head, I might say the usual elements include:
  • A group of players working together (a party of adventurers)...
  • To overcome perilous challenges...
  • Created and controlled by a referee (the Dungeon Master)...
  • Using a specific set of game rules (mechanics, system).
There are, of course, other "usual elements:" inhuman monsters, magical items, dungeons, treasure, etc. But the presence of these tropes vary from table to table (some DMs prefer human antagonists, some prefer less magic, some make little use of dungeons, and some care little for treasure). But those four bullet points are pretty specific to "fantasy adventure games" of D&D's persuasion.

And yet these main elements seem to be shifting. There is little peril or challenge. Players are charged with creating their own drama and conflict. Rules are habitually ignored, thrown out, or subjugated to the whims of individuals at the table. 

It feels a bit like D&D is less a game to be played and more a...a...hmm. Well, I don't really know what you'd call it. 'Something to do,' I suppose. Instead of reading a book or watching TV. It's still a form of play...but it's less and less of a game. Certainly not the same game it once was.

And the funny thing is that for many (most?) folks, I don't think this is a purposeful shift in paradigm. It's a plethora of things adding up, along with a lack of understanding about the game, and how the game functions. Or, at least, how the game functioned once upon a time.

And I think that some of the "knowledge" being put out there these days...especially some of the knowledge being put out as to "what Old School play is" misdirected or grossly wrong or non-helpful. God bless these people with their new "Old School Primer" but I read through the document and it's just a huge steaming pile of nonsense. 

I suppose (*sigh* cranky) that I am more than a little fatigued by individuals who started playing D&D in the last 20 years telling me how and what "old school" D&D is...or even just what ANY kind of D&D is. But you try to correct someone's ignorance and they just tell you to fuck off because, you know, it's just an opinion and you're telling them how their particular brand of fun is bad-wrong-dumb. Please let us NOT be preached to.

Or taught. Or educated. Or enlightened.

Two days ago was my (insane) brother's birthday. It seems only fitting that the same day I stumbled across this (insane) post claiming that 5E is this wonderful version of D&D that has only recently been villainized after originally being lauded as a return to "old school" gaming, and that we all have such short memories. 

Obviously, he hasn't read my posts on the subject of 5E from 2013-2015. 

But much of what "Dwiz" is listing in his post regarding trends in Old School design aren't inaccurate...they are EXCEPTIONALLY accurate. They're just, mostly, bad or misunderstood trends that have been as detrimental to the development of the DIY ("OSR") scene as they have been to 5E ("New D&D").  

This is something I want to write about in the next few my time permits. Hope that's okay with folks.
; )

Monday, September 13, 2021

Sports Stuff

I know I said I was going to write about D&D stuff, and I am, but there's just so much to write about that I'm not sure where I want to start...and I don't want to just barf a bunch of randomness all over a single blog post.

So to buy myself some time (to formulate my thoughts) and to get a little bit of a handle on the blogging, I'm going to write about some sporty stuff (mostly personal and/or Seattle-based). It will be fairly short, I think. Or not. Maybe.

First: the Mariners. I am not watching Mariners baseball right now, even though they're only 2 or 3 games out of a wild card spot and playing some fairly clutch ball (well, they were until they dropped 2 of 3 to a historically bad Diamondbacks team). I'm keeping track, but I just don't have time to sit down for three hours a game with very real probability of having my heart broken by a team that has disappointed for twenty years. Twenty years! You'd think they would have lucked into a playoff game in that have to really try to be that poor/mediocre. I have been wearing my M's cap (to cover my bald head) because they are still over .500. But I have been in "show me" mode for the last few years, and that hasn't changed. Yes, I am a literal "fair weather fan:" I enjoy going to the park when the weather is sunny and beautiful (and when there isn't a pandemic). But I am not going to live and die by the ball club who's given so little as far as results are concerned. Not when there's so much else to watch.

[and, yes, I am all-but-convinced that the new ballpark was built on top of some ancient Salish burial ground and the team is cursed. Cursed! I say!]

What other things? Well how about the NFL? Hey, folks: there are D&D nerds...and there are football nerds. I, of course, am both. Fantasy football is just as nerdy and ridiculous as any tabletop gaming...(as my sporty buddies will freely admit)'s just been better monetized. The last few years, I haven't played it, but this year I decided it was time to introduce my FAMILY to fantasy football. So we started a four-team league for just us: wife, kids, and me. They (the rest of my family) have never played fantasy football, so we've spent the last few days (I just started it up Thursday afternoon...on a whim) totally geeking out with drafts and trades and waiver wire pick-ups and roster moves. My 7-year old daughter has soccer practice tonight, but she's on the edge of her seat to see if Lamar Jackson (her QB) can get her 50+ points to pull out a win (good luck with that).

The Seahawks looked great, by the way. But then, their defense played against a woefully depleted Colts offense. And Chris Carson will be lucky to last the whole season with his running style (91 yards on the ground, 72 yards after contact!). Besides, they still need to win the west and ALL the NFC West teams looked good (49ers, Rams, and Cards dominated every game). Fortunately, we weren't bitten by many injuries. Cautiously optimistic for the season.

The Seattle Kraken drop the puck September 26th. NHL hockey, y'all. Still need to research what the hell "icing" is. It's been a few years since I last attended a T-birds game (like, since, the 20th century) and it was mostly about chanting for the fights.

And then there's soccer...glorious soccer.

The USMNT finally got a win in World Cup qualifiers, only after Berhalter deigned to replace the high profile European stars with MLS stand-outs. Funny how players who play IN their own country seem to have more fire, energy, and passion when it comes to playing FOR their country. Whatever. *sigh* 

[I will not rant I will not rant I will not rant I will not...]

Sounders got another win. That's great. Over projected-Most-Awesome-Minnesota-super-star team (again). Even better. And did it without the guys who've been playing on their international squads. Helped to have our #1 goalie back (finally) from his injury. Steph looked great. Should be a nice run-up to the season's finish. 

And then, of course, there were my own kids' games: the team I coached (boy's school team) was thoroughly overmatched and dominated on Saturday. The final score was 6-1, only because the other team stopped trying to score on us in the second half. The coach (me) turned out to be the guy with the most "rust;" I did not put my players in a position to succeed. And to be fair, half our "5th grade team" is made up of fourth graders (7 out of 16) and most of the team doesn't even know A) positions or B) their teammates' names. "You're going in for Lucas!" "Who's that?" "The guy playing midfield!" "What's a midfielder?" Ai-yi-yi. It was a rough outing; Diego ripped off his jersey in disgust at the end. 

We have a LOT of work to do this coming week.  

[D then proceeded to get beat 3-0 his premier game, though that was more bad luck (and some poor play from normally reliable players) than any kind of "domination"]

Finally, my daughter Sofia played her first club soccer game on Sunday, and I got to be amazed at just how much she's grown in skill over the last few weeks. Wow. They only had 6 players show up for a 7v7 game, and decided to play a man (*ahem* lady) down rather than forfeit against a team that brought 12. My daughter is one of two 7-year olds on a team that ranges up to age 9, and she tracked the entire field with, quite frankly, astonishing effort, energy, and determination. I completely underestimated the reserves of strength she has within her. They lost 4-0, but their goalie saved about 20, and Sofia's track back ability from a forward position (she often beat her own defenders) aided a lot of those saves.

I don't mention my daughter as much as my boy on this blog, for a couple reasons. One is the blog's main subject matter (gaming) which my son is far more invested in than my daughter. The second is so much of our (family's) time has been taken by my son's activities (he's older, so he does more). But while both my children have great depths to them, Sofia has (I think) far deeper, more mysterious depths. Her imagination, creativity, inventiveness, and humor are profound, and different from Diego's intellectual precision. Both children take after both their parents but Diego takes all the "surface stuff:" the fiery emotions, the competitiveness, the sharp mind and grasp of concepts. Sofia has all the hidden stuff: the fears, the darkness, the inner resolve, the secretiveness, the independence. Diego cares so much about his identity in the world and how others view him. Sofia cares about what she cares about...those things that matter to her, the rest of the world be damned!

[Hmm, I suppose they pretty much match their astrological signs...or I am viewing them through my "astrologer's lens" which is something I haven't done in a while. Interesting]

But, okay, that's enough of that...I am straying far afield from my topic of sports. It's just a lot on the mind these days: each of my kids play on two teams. One has practice five days per week (with games on the weekend); the other has practice three days per week (with games on the weekend). Even without the distraction of...well,'s a lot to continually process and coordinate, mentally and physically. 

My dog is snoring on the couch next to me. Tough morning, huh, Chewb?

All right, things to do. Next post will be about gaming. I'll try to start writing it this afternoon.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Back To The Field

For the first time since 2019, my kids' school is playing Fall sports...specifically soccer...and once again I will be coaching my son's team. Monday evening was our first practice.

It was glorious.

[more on that...perhaps...later]

However, complications have already arisen. Our practice field has been yanked. We are currently negotiating with other schools (and Seattle Parks) for a change of venue. Kids have schedule conflicts. Parents have concerns. Our Athletic Directors are new this year. The first game is this Saturday. And to top it all off, my team is double the size that it was two years ago.

So, I'm juggling a bit this week. Lots of emails, zoom meetings, phone calls to make and stuff to coordinate. And what with the OTHER busy-ness going on (first full week of school, other soccer teams for both kids, meal planning, etc.) I'm a bit slammed at the moment.

Normal blogging will (hopefully) begin again in a few days...perhaps after Saturday. I have stuffs to write about...and not just Blood Bowl! D&D stuffs!

Though, of course, there will be Blood Bowl: the semifinals have started. First semifinal match: Amazons (The Kick-Butt Ladies) versus the Orks (Bubblegum Dynamite). 

More later.

[hey! And don't people have football to watch this weekend anyway? Beats screaming at the USMNT for not being able to beat Canada on our home soil. Jeez, Louise]

Monday, September 6, 2021

Politics In Gaming

"Everything is political." Haven't I heard that quote somewhere before?

Folks who have read my blog over the years are used to me occasionally (or more than occasionally) shooting my mouth off about my personal politics. Y'all are actually fortunate: what I pen here is generally curbed and toned down from my actual thoughts on various "issues." I am a seething ball of hatred, disgust, and frustration with regard to all sorts of things (duh), which may be why I tend towards the cranky end of the personality spectrum despite the actual hopefulness and optimism that my personal beliefs give me.

[no, I'm not talking about my Catholicism giving me the thought of heaven-after-death, etc. I'm talking about my belief that humanity is basically good. Despite all the fucked up shit we do. And that God/The Universe is basically wonderful. Despite all the fucked up shit that happens]

*sigh* Trusting "The Plan" is tough, I suppose.

Anyway, I'm not writing today's post to talk about MY politics. Instead, I'm writing to talk about, well, my reaction to politics or (rather) political talk.

I'll start with this: I've been reading a handful of blogs lately that have very interesting, possibly useful, things to say about Dungeons & Dragons. Really, fascinating stuff. And if I were to consider my own delves into D&D to be at all "professional," I suppose these people would be on the level of "professional colleagues" for me (not that we are on the same tier...I'll not presume to measure myself against other designers...just that we're in the same field of study/design). 

But as I've dug a bit deeper into these authors personally, I've found I dislike (not strong enough, but let's not start harsh) many of their professed political opinions...not only as they apply to "real world" stuff, but as they apply to gaming (and other aspects of "geek culture" but let's just stick to gaming). 

For me, what ends up emerging is many conflicting feelings. 

Do I want to promote these people (by writing about them)? I've always been of the opinion that there's no such thing as "bad publicity," and folks may have noticed that over the years there are a couple individuals in our community that I simply don't write or talk about. I don't link to them, I ignore their blogs, I (generally) write as if they don't exist. Railing against folks doesn't make them disappear; it simply adds fuel to the fire (and fans the flame). It also has the potential to drive the curious to their site, increasing their following and/or breeding more divisiveness (leading to more talking about them, in turn promoting them MORE). There are some things made by some people that just aren't great for the hobby.

In my opinion.

[and no, Venger, I'm not talking about you, ol' hoss]

But some of these folks have concepts and ideas that are worth discussing on my blog, and I always want to credit folks when they're responsible for a particular topic or thought exercise. How to do this without promoting something? How to separate the work from the author? This has caused me difficulties in the past, but to be honest, it's a far less tricky subject when you're dealing with a dead author, instead of one who is alive and well and continuing to make art. Especially in our more enlightened (dare I say "woke?") 21st century. I can somewhat excuse the racism of Lovecraft, for example, considering his culture of the least enough to enjoy his works for what they are (imaginative though somewhat formulaic). Far harder to excuse failings in a contemporary author.

However, to be clear: it is not racism that leads me to NOT want to promote individuals (that was just Lovecraft's (main) issue).

Do I support these people financially? Do I buy their product(s)? I know I've written before about not buying WotC product as a form of protest ("voting with one's wallet") but that's more about the product being BAD and trying insanely to prod the industry giant into doing things better/different (a Quixotic-idiot quest if ever there was one). What about a product that was actually good or useful? You find out that a particular author has "terrible politics" (whatever that means to you) but their book is exactly the thing you're looking for? Do you put money in their pocket?

It should be understood by now that few (if any) independent publishers in this hobby are making the kind of money you can "live" on. I sincerely doubt I could, even if I didn't have a family, mortgage, car payment, etc., not even if I tripled my output (which could only happen if I didn't have a family, etc.). Certainly not in Seattle. But don't underestimate what that money means to an independent publisher. Receiving currency...even in pitifully small incredibly uplifting to an artist-creator, especially the amateur/semi-pro. It says your work has VALUE. That people will PAY REAL MONEY for stuff you made. Money that could have been spent on something else (beer, rent, whatever) was instead given to YOUR WORK in that you may have undervalued yourself for a myriad of reasons. For many folks, receiving any cash for our product simply incentivizes us to create more.

Do I want to incentivize individuals whose politics...or behavior...make me cringe?

Spoiler Alert: today, this morning, I did just that.

And, I believe this was a real first for me. There are plenty of products floating around the OSR that get high praise that I haven't touched, and not just for reasons of politics. To be blunt: most are things I have little or no use for me. Old School Essentials, for example: I've perused its beautiful hardcover pages in the shop, but I've never bothered to purchase it (despite the complimentary reviews I've received on it) because I already have B/X, and know how to run a game using my old, floppy saddle-stitched books. Has nothing to do with Norman's politics (I don't know anything about Norman's politics); it has everything to do with OSE being a clone of B/X, and B/X being a game I already possess. Same holds true for OSRIC and a number of other similar products. Likewise with adventure modules: I have plenty, and can quite happily write my own, too, so it's exceedingly rare that I'll buy an adventure...usually only because it fills some sort of niche vacancy in my collection.

[there are, of course, exceptions]

But when I have purchased OSR products, it's generally been without knowledge of the publisher's political stance (most publishers don't wear their beliefs on their sleeves). Today, I purchased (what appears to be) a well-researched reference book (in hardcover!) from an individual who holds some political views I find...distasteful.

And I wonder how much of my nonchalance about it (I really didn't hesitate at all with my purchase) had to do with a conversation I had last night with my old buddy, Steve-O. Please allow me to explain: Steve is one of my best friends in the world, and (because of our busy family lives) we don't get the chance to talk nearly as much as we once did. Maybe half a dozen times in the last year and a half, and mostly lightweight stuff about football (specifically the Seahawks).

Last night I was running errands and we ended up in a long phone conversation that veered straight into politics because I mentioned the fam was watching a 9/11 documentary while I was out. Steve, like myself, is a Democrat, with liberal, progressive values on most prior decades, we've had many an entertaining conversation about politics and the state of chaos that is our country.

Yesterday's conversation was neither entertaining, nor enjoyable. My friend has gone down a rabbit hole so far to the left that he's ended up coming around to the same conspiracy theories and nonsense one finds on the Far Right. The polarization of nation's politics has led from spirited or passionate debate to life-and-death, unreasoning, unrelenting extremes of position. It's disheartening. Even trying to talk him back to my own "moderate" position (and frankly, I'm fairly far left-of-center), caused him to shut down: unwilling to converse, respecting me too much to argue, but so dug-in that no negotiation was possible. For my Libra-buddy, who has gleefully argued both sides of every argument the last 35 years I've known him...the personality change was both profound and disconcerting.

And I realize this type of attitude is something I've fed with my own rhetoric. I'm like most folks I suppose: I consider my own opinions/beliefs to be "correct" (due to "reasons") and folks who don't think like me are either ignorant, assholes, or idiots. This is not an unusual way of thinking...but I have (as I wrote at the beginning of this post) a propensity for shooting my mouth off about my thoughts. Which, while perhaps "charming" to some, probably has the overall impact of further polarizing folks in BOTH directions.

And that sucks. Because it's stupid and destructive. And even doing it ONLY here (on the blog) and ONLY relating it to gaming...well, it still bleeds into non-gaming life. Everything IS political these days, and you see it in the culture wars being fought between disparate factions of the hobby.

It sucks. And I'm tired of it. Fatigued.

I never bought into the idea that all gamers (or all D&D gamers...or all Old School D&D gamers) should be some sort of united group based on their hobby or nerdy-ness or outsider status or something. I've never felt a need to support and promote EVERYone in this hobby of ours. And I still believe that it's okay to critique and criticize and say, "I don't like this product," or even "This product is garbage."

But I think I may be done with getting hung up on someone's political stance, even the truly stupid ones. At least, I'm going to try not to let politics...or behavior outside of gaming...overly influence my opinion of someone's work or product.  

I can't not be political, but I can try to be more broadminded. And I can try to be less polarizing in my interactions and writing in an already too-polarized world.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have Blood Bowl to play. Happy Labor Day, folks.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

I've Got Your "Critical Role" Right Here

Back around July 26th I started writing a post called "Time Warp." My family had taken another road trip, this time to visit Fort Casey State Park: a massive concrete gun emplacement on Whidbey Island, built (and decommissioned) before the start of the Great War with the objective of protecting the Sound from invasion by sea. It's a pretty impressive monument and window in the past, but an even thicker dose of "history" was served up to us when we stopped at the Scuttlebutt Brewery (in Everett, WA) for dinner. Celebrating their 25th anniversary, the menu, food, and the staff, looked straight out of the early 90's.

Whether by design or not (insert mandatory joke about Everett's local culture), our waiter...who could not have been older than 25 himself...looked like he'd stepped straight out of Lynnwood circa 1991. Black t-shirt with the sleeves cut off (to display the tats), black shorts (didn't check to see if he was wearing Converse high-tops), incredible mullet, mustache, baseball cap, and earrings. Oh my...he was rocking it. The hostess wearing a rolled-up sleeve flannel over rock t-shirt was vintage grunge as well. The service and grub was excellent (I love a good patty melt) and the dude got a huge tip, as well as praise on his retro-style from both the wife and myself.

[it should be noted that my wife has only lived in Seattle since 1997, so this look was already out by then, but there were still remnants of this even in the late '90s...especially amongst the company I kept]

It is said that "the past is a foreign country" and that "you can't go home again," much as we try to do so...I mean that's part of what the OSR was all about right? But sometimes, sometimes you can get glimpses into it. Today, I got a great glimpse, which is why I've bothered to excavate and re-write this post:

Matrox Lusch is a Bay Area based gamer that's a bit older than myself, and has been playing D&D (in various forms) since 1978. His blog (which I'd never heard of before today) is a deep well of his personal gaming experience. In 1990 he was gifted with a VHS camera to celebrate the birth of his first child, and he immediately began using it to record his long-running (1989-2005) AD&D campaign. He has since posted clips of this to YouTube, each being edited and cut to about 5 minutes to focus on the gaming.

In addition to being genuinely amusing, this is great historical stuff. I've run into plenty of youngsters the last five or so years that have "learned" more about how to play D&D from watching Critical Role (and similar) videos, then from reading (or playing!) the game. Such players could benefit greatly from the window into the past provided by these videos of Matrox's "Blipping Campaign." Sloppy, raunchy, and uncouth affairs featuring a bunch of 20-something white dudes drinking beer and rolling dice, not a laptop to be seen (all paper notes and character sheets), a "soundtrack" of background metal music, and ZERO play-acting...this is/was Dungeons & Dragons for a Very Long Time. 

[for people just interested in viewing an apartment circa this era, I strongly recommend episode 1.8 "The Downfall of Aeriath." My hiatus from D&D was in full swing by 1990, but my buddies' apartments...and our gaming sessions...looked a LOT like this (though being Seattle beer-snobs even then, our fridges were full of bottles, not cans). And our games of Rifts or Vampire looked pretty much like this, except there were always at least a couple ladies present]

[can I just say I kind of love the guy smoking a cigarette IN THE HOUSE and the passed out "thief" on the couch. Ah...brings back memories...]

However, besides general nostalgia the thing I mostly want folks to take away from these videos is the ENJOYMENT these cats are having. Ridiculous or not, too serious or not, too 'white male' or not, these guys played this campaign for a decade and a half. That is a LONG ASS TIME. And they played it with (more or less) 1st edition AD&D. Not 2nd, not 3rd, not 4th, not 5th. A simple system, without "feats" or "at will powers" or "death saves." Perhaps including Drow PCs (I'd be surprised if they weren't using Unearthed Arcana in 1990), but probably not "Tieflings" or "Dragonborn" or whatever. 

Can people imagine? And by "people" I mean folks who only got into the hobby in the last ten or fifteen years. How could they possibly keep the game fresh and on-going for so many years? Without new options and special specials and whatnot? How could they find such a clunky old rule system from 1978 with its segments and group initiative to be "fun?" With a DM who's prep doesn't seem to have included theater and voice-acting classes? With broken pencils and beer-stained, lined paper instead of tablets and cell phones?

This, I'm sure, is a big "duh" to many of my readers who are middle-aged geezers like me (whether physically or at heart). But folks, please: spread the word. There ARE other examples of how to play D&D that don't lead to one succumbing to the so-called "Mercer Effect." Actual video evidence exists that one can run a long-term campaign, even up into high levels, without the need for character backstories or ascending armor class. Maybe that will be amazing to some folks who haven't had the chance to game this way or who, perhaps, have a hard time believing that the game can work without a long list of skills based on the roll of a D20.

I don't find it all that amazing. I'm running AD&D these days. 

'Course, I don't run my game quite so haphazard as I did in my youth (and to be clear, in the 80s the games were just as ramshackle as the 90s, except we were hopped up on sodapop and hormones, rather than beer and weed). I've grown and learned and can spend a lot more time thinking critically about design and setting and approach the game with a more mature demeanor. But the principle remains the same: the game works, the game is fun, the game can hold one's interest and attention for years.

Sometimes it feels like we've forgotten those things. Or, rather, it feels like we don't give them enough attention.

All right, that's it for now. Cheers.