Friday, September 29, 2023

Why Pathfinder Sucks

HAHAHA. Sorry...sometimes I amuse myself.

This post comes c/o reader "Mach," who emailed me the following:
I was reading your blog about the various editions and I found a bit where you said you didn't think pathfinder was suitable for the type of long term campaign play you had in mind. Could you expound on that please? Reason I ask is because I'm a little worried and mainly curious, I've run a fair bit of pathfinder and I'm worried there might be something I'm missing or a cliff somewhere at higher levels or some such. Or maybe it causes players to drift away to other games, or some such more subtle issue.
I sent Mach a response (as I tend to do when folks write me questions like that). Mach, for his part, appreciated my answers and suggested I incorporate it into a blog post "so that I'm not the only one that will benefit from it." 

I have (good) friends who
LOVE Pathfinder...FYI
Since it's Friday, and yesterday's reflections were (perhaps) less-than-useful to (many) readers, I offer the following elaboration on previous statements (of mine) that Pathfinder is (maybe) not the best system for long-term campaign play. From my email to Mach:
My thoughts on the unsuitability of Pathfinder to long-term play is based on A) my experience with the D20 (3rd edition) D&D system on which PF was based, and B) my thoughts on just what entails "long-term play." 

That being said, I will readily admit that I have no experience playing Pathfinder, and I haven't even read the latest edition of PF, nor do I have any idea of the changes to the system with the new version. Perhaps, PF2 is more suitable to (what I consider) long-term play and I am simply ignorant of the fact. 

The issue I have with D20 (which colors my perception of PF) is that, over the course of playing, the inherent complexity of the game scales in a way that makes the thing untenable. D&D is a game that begins simply...even the third edition...and adds complexity as the game progresses (i.e. as characters gain levels and access more content). More information needs to be mastered by the players of course, but far more information by the DMs. But the mechanical complexity of D20 is such that, over the course of play: 
  1. it becomes extremely cumbersome for the DM, such that they quit or end the campaign (I've seen this personally on two occasions), AND/OR 
  2. the DM begins discarding "excess" rules, or ignoring rules that make running the campaign "burdensome." But D20 is a mechanically complex game, fine-tuned to an extreme degree, and easily thrown out of whack when rules are bypassed. 
Sure, there are probably some DMs may have a higher capacity for the minutia of running a D20 campaign at mid- to high-levels (I've seen DMs throw up their hands as early as level 7; I've seen DMs try running adventures for 15th level PCs (pre-gens) that gave up after a single encounter). But are the rules conducive to long-term play? Do they facilitate it? 

In comparison, AD&D (1E) is a robust system that provides depth without the added complexity/fiddly-ness. Monsters operate on a different scale than players. PCs, for the most part, "plateau" after reaching "name" level: their abilities increase but not in the same exponential capacity. There is less information to juggle; more attention can be paid (by the DM) to the campaign world, as opposed to making sure encounters are properly balanced and the various mechanical t's are crossed and i's dotted. In this way, 1E is more conducive to long-term comparison to 3E/PF. 

3E (again, the basis for Pathfinder) had a LOT of material written for it...including high level material (the Epic Level Handbook and whatnot). In THEORY the game will function at high levels... 

[why do I continue to bring up "high level" play? Because over time...i.e. over the "long-term"...characters progress, gain x.p. and become high level. High level play is a part of long-term play] THEORY the game functions at high levels. It has the rules, the mechanics, the support to make the game function. The practicality, however, makes it (in my opinion) cumbersome. Because long-term play is MORE than just having the content to fulfill the needs of a 12th or 14th level party. 

To run a long-term campaign, you need to build a world: a world of sufficient depth to provide meaning to the (imaginary) lives of the PCs. They need to be able to do more than simply plumb the next dungeon or go on the next quest...such adventures will, in time, inevitably PALE, if they have neither meaning nor relevance to the game world. 

And so you need to build a world. But in a system where one must have level 12 citizens and level 3 artisans and level 9 nobles and monsters with six stats, skills, and that type of system, the burden of creating a deep world is IMMENSELY cumbersome. 

Whereas, in a simpler system (say AD&D) I can say "90% of the people in this town are 0-level and possess d6 hit points." I can stat out the duke or burgormeister or tavern owner or stable boy with the roll of a D6. Rather than having to worry about the excessive mechanics, the minutia, I can focus on their personal goals, their relationships with other NPCs, the various things they might have to offer the PCs, etc. 

I don't have to worry about how feats and skills interact with the environment when there are no feats and skills. See? 

And then...what? Start over again at 1st level? What's the endgame here? 

"Long-term play" is not about reaching an endpoint. It's not about getting to a particular level...though (as I said) played long enough, characters will reach high levels. It's about having a perpetual game, a dynamic world, that players get to dip their toes into and experience...and live in for a time. The game aspects (the systems, the mechanics) are part of it...part of the game, part of the fun...but they are not the End All Be All. The WORLD you are building...and the legends the players create within the world...are the thing that's important. And that takes a fine balance: a system (or "rules") that have depth and complexity but not so much that it's overwhelming...just enough to model what needs to be modeled, to model those bits of reality that require rules. 

So that the game can last. So that YOU (the DM) can fully engage your imagination and yet still run the game in a practical, functional fashion. 

You can do "long term play" with ANY edition of Dungeons & Dragons (I think)...but some editions make it easier to do. And some make it harder.
There...something for Friday afternoon musings.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Distinctions of Age

I'm finally starting to get it.

That's going to make little sense to anyone. "Get what exactly? D&D?" No...that I figured out a while ago. I'm talking about other things. Aging. Youth. Wisdom. Generation gaps. Political divides. Perspective. Knowledge. What it means, what it's worth, how it's acquired. The burdens of maturity. The challenge of distributing or disseminating information to others. For others. For their benefit.

Apologies. I'm not trying to be obscure with what I'm writing about, or what I want to say about the subject of these things that I'm (finally, after decades) starting to really, truly grok. But this isn't a post about those things. It is a post about me...about my relationship to this newfound understanding. About my widening awareness.

Oh, and least anyone wonder: this isn't about me knowing death or contemplating mortality (my own or others). No. And if it comes off as melancholic at all, please know it is a very wistful kind of melancholy, not my usual soul-drowning dark melancholy (the kind that I  have been a slave to many times throughout my life).

Fact is, I'm feeling pretty good at the moment. Coming off of Covid (yeah, the 'Rona finally caught me...evaded it nearly five years, though). I'm off the booze and caffeine again. Head's clear. Moderating the exercise and diet.  I feel like I'm coming into the "fullness of my strength." No, I am not "strong" at every aspect one can master in life: but I am very aware of my own capabilities, of what I can and can't do. And of the things that I am good at...well, I'm pretty darn good at them. I know my own limits and my own capabilities and...with regard to both...I can still accomplish what I want and need to accomplish. For the most part, I'm just fine-tuning at this point.

I am a rock. One still in need of polishing, but solid enough.

But what I'd perhaps aspire to be is a sun. Something giving off light and warmth...a force for life. A force for good. A fixed point, a gravitational force...though no different from the trillions of other lights in the sky, not O So Special or anything like that. Solid enough, strong enough. But shining. A beacon of sorts. 

Yes. I suppose that is the aspiration.

And so...onto my relationship with knowledge and a "deeper, wider perspective." As I wrote: I'm starting to get it. And it's...tough. It's tough because you have this incredibly useful well of understanding that you're starting to tap into...and, it's not the kind of thing that you can share. Because the people you'd like to give it to aren't capable of drinking it. It needs to be lived to be requires the experiences that come with living 50+ years. The perspective that comes. Not just from experiences...lots of young people have lots of huge, tremendous, terrible "character-building" experiences. No, it's a combination of experiences AND years lived.  It has to include the passage of time. Because then you start living cycles. And then you start understanding how the younger folks think...because you've been there. You've been a teen. And a kid in your 20s. And in your 30s. And in your 40s. You've been through those stages of life, AND you have the experiences under your belt, AND you can see how those experiences interact with each "stage of life" at those moments in time.

It's a heady feeling. And a frustrating one. And yet not a frustrating one (they'll get to where you are...eventually)...because you've learned patience along the way.

At least, I've learned patience. I wonder if, perhaps, some middle-aged folks my age haven't. That's possible. I wouldn't call myself a patient person by nature (I'd say my natural tendency is to be impatient...with myself as much or more than anyone else). But I've done work on this over the years. Meditation and prayer aren't really my cup of tea (which is fine; I know it works for some). But I've found ways to exercise my mental discipline...fasting, for example...that have helped build up the "muscle" of patience.

All of which, I realize, is largely esoteric and unhelpful. "Why bother making this a blog post, JB?" Well, first off, I wanted to post toYe Old Blog this morning. Second off, it helps mark my head space at the moment. And third off...wellll...

There's always the chance that someone might find this...vaguely...hopeful. Some young reader, whose feeling like, damn I just can't get it together, or the world is so confusing or I just can't get how/why shit is the way it is, and what do I need to DO about it...what do I need to DO to make it so that I feel a little less miserable or confused or disheartened about this particular place and moment in time?

To which I'd say: you don't need to DO anything. Or (rather): just continue "doing" what you do. If you don't like what you do, then do something else and/or find a way to do something you DO enjoy doing. And WHILE you're doing....whatever it CHOOSE to be doing, try ALSO to (simultaneously) add a little more kindness, a little more compassion, a little more patience for people. Not just other people. ALL people...that includes yourself. 

Do that. Just that. Not a lot...just that. 

Understanding will come. Perspective will come. Wisdom will come.

All, right. That's enough. Much thanks to all of you for your indulgence.
: )

Monday, September 18, 2023

Maps And Distance

Driving home from Montana this weekend...a return trip I was making for the third time in the year 2023...I was again struck with wonder by the majestic landscape that stretches along Interstate 90, from the Gem State of Idaho to the Cascade Mountain range. Just incredible vistas of rolling hills and rocky cliffs, forests and mountains, the Gorge, the mighty Columbia, and miles and miles of nothing between the small towns and communities.

Per my Google Maps, the total distance between Missoula and my home in Seattle is approximately 484 miles, in a (more-or-less) straight line, along a well-maintained highway. About 24 days of hiking, if one considers a 20 mile per day march of the typical D&D party. That's a long, long distance.

I use the Pacific Northwest as the setting for AD&D campaign these days. While I've probably mentioned (many times) that I'm rather terrible at drawing maps...especially wilderness or "outdoor" maps...what I probably have not mentioned is that since switching over to actual (real world) geography, I don't even bother trying to do "hex maps." Never was much good at them anyway, and thanks to Ye Old Google Earth, I can chart distances just fine with the laptop and an internet connection. And with those distances (and being able to zoom in on the terrain) I can calculate travel times, resource depletion, wandering encounter rolls, etc.

Who needs hexes?

But here's the thing...the real thing: I know "hex crawling" is a thing: so many internet videos and blog posts discussing it, talking about best practices, extolling the virtues of using hexes to have "true" "sandbox" (i.e. open world) play. People love their hex crawling wilderness adventures...people want those hexes for the play it facilitates. Huge, multi-hundred page supplements/adventures have been published adding "interesting encounters" to each hexagonal shape on the hex map. What a fun, what a useful resource to have at one's fingertips, right?

Thing is: those hexes are too big. Too big to have "one interesting thing" in each one. I don't even care what scale you're using...six mile or twenty or 24 (B/X suggests 6 mile for small scale maps and 24 mile hexes for large). Folks need an idea of just how much space fits into an area this size.

We're all relatively familiar with the Keep on the Borderlands, right? Has a wilderness map in it, remember? One of the complaints I've read about B2 over the years is the tiny size of the outdoor area: 5200 yards by 4000 yards (that's about 3 miles by 2.25 miles). Even following the meandering road, the titular Keep is roughly two-and-a-half miles away from the Caves of Chaos...that's right next door! Heck you could fit multiple B2 wilderness pages inside a single 6-mile hex; there's too much crammed into that tiny, tiny space to be "reasonable" is the protest.

Okay, here's a screen shot from Google Earth of a portion of King County, Washington, including much of Seattle. The gold box on the screen is roughly the same size as the wilderness map in module B2. The northern border lines up with the northern city limits of Seattle proper (at 145th street); the southern border lines up with North 85th Street, two blocks from my home in the Greenwood neighborhood of north Seattle.  You could fit something like 9-10 "B2s" within the city limits of Seattle.

Now, I'll give you a close up of the area:

I'm sorry I can't provide more detail, but this area is huge: absolutely enormous. Hills and buildings (not to mention forested parks) block line of sight more than a few blocks in any direction. The area contains multiple schools, libraries, churches, a large hospital campus, movie theater, numerous "big box" stores, supermarkets, parking lots, large cemeteries, the largest shopping mall in north Seattle ( the Seattle Kraken Ice Complex), several lakes, and numerous parks, motels, businesses, strip malls, and TWO 18 hole golf courses. Two major arterials (Highway 99 and Interstate 5) divide the area into three vertical strips, each one with distinctly different character. And it's mostly residential: thousands of people live in this area, in houses with yards, duplexes, condos, and apartment buildings (in addition to at least half a dozen retirement/assisted living complexes), as well as homeless tent encampments and RVs parked under bridges and overpasses.

I am intimately familiar with this region of Seattle...I've spent most of my daily life within it and, perhaps, an additional mile radius for the bulk of the last 26 years. And even so there are giant swaths of the area that I don't know, have never visited, and have no clue about. I walk my neighborhood a lot, but I don't usually go more than 15 blocks in any particular direction without a car. And many areas are simply inaccessible by foot. 

It would be easy to drop SEVERAL dragon dens in an area this size...assuming enough food to sustain such alpha predators. Which shouldn't be too tough: the 1910 census showed Seattle to have more than 237 thousand people living within the city limits, and that was long before modern refrigeration technology. The entire population of B2, humanoid monsters included, amounts to only a few hundred...and it's not like the area around the Keep is portrayed as some sterile, desert region.

I will reiterate: this is an area three miles long from north to south. The Isle of Dread (module X1) is 144 miles long across its north-south axis. That's the same, straight-line distance as from Seattle to Portland, Oregon. That's a ridiculously huge amount of wilderness. Only an idiot would attempt to walk through the forests and mountains between those two cities (I-5 actually takes a longer, more circuitous route bending towards the coast). And yet a party of six to eight adventurers are going to try exploring the interior of a dinosaur-infested island with thick jungle and active volcanoes? Really?

Driving back along I-90 Sunday morning, I couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to try traversing such a distance without the aid of the beautiful highway I was zipping along on at 80ish miles per hour. Insanity, I concluded. Miles and miles of wilderness...probably extremely hostile wilderness, especially in the heart of summer and the dead of winter. We don't account for SEASONS in our overland exploration...mountain passes are simply impossible with heavy snow (and spring rains cause avalanches and rock falls). But long before reaching the mountains, all but the most prepared (or fortunate) groups trying to cross the state would probably perish from starvation in the dry landscape.  Lewis & Clark certainly never tried it...they crossed into Oregon from Idaho and travelled down the Columbia River to the coast.


We should not underestimate the distance of distance. I'm sure that sounds silly, but when you're talking about a lost temple, a ruined fortress, or a monster lair (the usual "dungeon" sites)...such places can hide very easily within a landscape. Ye Old Internet tells me most medieval cities took up less than one square mile in area..,though I'd guess that's just the walled perimeter and that the surrounding farms extended much farther. But so long as your local dungeon isn't spewing forth hostile predators looking for townfolk prey on a regular basis, there's no reason such a place couldn't be relatively close to the PCs' "home" community.  

Just my thoughts of the last few days; thanks for reading.
; )

Tuesday, September 12, 2023


Mmm. SO...I've been even busier than usual. Yes, the school year has started for my kids. Yes, we are in the thick of the soccer season (four teams, one of which I'm coaching). Yes, we're also trying to have a last few family outings with friends and such as the summer winds to a close.

But in addition, I'm sill dealing with the barrage of death issues from the last few months. My brother and I have been working daily to clean out my mom's house. It's a fair-sized house with 45 years of accumulated "stuff:" both treasure and trash (we took 2300# of junk to the dump over the course of last week, and that was just the garage). This week my family will be on the road from Wednesday (tomorrow) till Sunday, going to Montana for my grandmother's funeral and graveside service. Just a lot to do. 

*sigh*  Oh, yeah. And my dog's not doing great.

So, what could cause me to sit down and post to Ye Old Gaming blog, when I have so many other things occupying my mind? Like how to get my homeless, alcoholic brother to fix his shit and get to Montana for the funeral of our clan matriarch? Like filing an appeal for my mother's termination of medical insurance March 31st when she died April 22nd? What could get me so riled up that I must blog?

Well, actually, I did have some interesting (to me, anyway) observations about spatial distance and maps in D&D that I kind of wanted to jot down before I forgot about them. But even those have gone out the window...for the nonce.

No...over on a particular D&D discord I frequent, someone posted an excerpt from the latest WotC adventure offering for 5E: a reboot of Lost Mine of Phandelver with a few modifications and several added levels of content. The excerpt is with regard to (I presume) some of the additional material which has a magical curse-life effect transforming the PCs into monsters, should the bad guys succeed at their nefarious plans. The text then adds the following instructional (boxed) sidebar:


Before you use the character transformation rules presented in this section, check with each player to determine if they are open to their character experiencing physically transformative effects. A player will not miss game benefits if they choose not to use these rules for their character.

What. The. Hell. Are you F'ing kidding me?

Now, before I get worked up into a lather, allow me to add the disclaimer that this blurb came from an internet source, and so perhaps (hopefully) it is completely manufactured. Maybe I've been hoodwinked here, in other words, by a person who just likes to stir up hornets' nests. It was not posted for my sole benefit, but the folks on that particular discord tend to be a caustic and reactionary bunch that like poking bears. So maybe I'm a dupe. The book isn't even available for order as of yet...although it is possible to get "early access" to the digital version.

BUT...assuming this IS accurate:

Just what the F are we playing here?

Consent?! "Consent" for the DM to inflict a curse on the player characters? "Consent" for the DM to apply a fail state in the case of failure? To an imaginary character? A fucking piece of paper?! Are you shitting me?!

Do you need to obtain "consent" in 5E to KILL a player character?! To poison it? To apply level drain? To give the monsters a surprise round?!  "That's not fair!"  NO...FUCK YOU. 

We are still playing DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, right? Right?! There's still a Dungeon Master, right? You players understand what you're signing up for when you sit down to play the game, right? Have you not played games before? 

No, you do not get to "give consent." Not at my table. That's not how D&D works. The Dungeon Master is the Dungeon Master; the Dungeon Master does not need to ask for consent before applying a deserved failure state to your character. Your character is not you. I am not forcing YOU, player, to transform into ANYthing. I am not shooting YOU full of arrows or dropping YOU in a spiked pit or a vat of acid. It is not YOU getting your limb chewed off by a displacer beast. 

Grow the fuck up. Or don't play the game.

I understand that there is a lot of f'd up crap floating around the internet these days, with regard to EVERYthing, not just D&D. I read this article the other day that had issue with the "fantasy racism" of the original Phandelver, stating:
Lost Mines, unfortunately, falls into a trap that D&D has only just begun to deal with, which is the deep-seated issues of fantasy racism present in the genre. Tribes of evil, scheming savages surviving by raiding and banditry like the Cragmaw goblins and the Many-Arrows orc tribe as presented echo malicious stereotypes of all kinds throughout history.
Which is incredibly stupid on so many levels...but it's just an internet opinion. Everyone's got opinions...the blog post you're reading right now is another. And I don't have a problem with people having opinions, or stating their perspective, regardless of how wrong-headed or obtuse might be. Opinions can (usually) be safely disregarded unless they're coming from someone with whom we have a practical relationship (for example: a player at my gaming table).

But not an opinion. This blurb comes from instructional text found in an official product of the flagship company responsible for the manufacture and distribution of this thing called "Dungeons & Dragons."  And it's not presented as some optional rule, but as a procedural element of play: "PLAYER CONSENT IS REQUIRED." Explicit, emphasized text. 

And that's not Dungeons & Dragons. That is...something else.

There are lots of RPGs on the market that aren't D&D. LOTS. Many provide players with a greater degree of authority and control over the narrative structure that makes up (the bulk of) game play from what one finds in the game of D&D. They make for a different play experience, fun in its own way for those who choose to play those games. 

D&D doesn't work like this...not even 5E. I've read the 5E DMG; no where in the book does it tell the DM to obtain the consent of the players before applying some sort of effect or "status" to their characters. The DM is still in charge of running the game, not the players. Traditionally, the standard way for players to express their disapproval of the way a game is run is to WALK AWAY. For the most part, it's a pretty efficient method of ensuring you don't get stuck with a DM you dislike; I've walked away from several DMs over the years. 

[EDIT: for the record, the word "consent" appears exactly zero times in the 5E DMG]

So, anyway... This is really bad. Unlike some of my fellow geezers, it doesn't bother me that people want to debate the morality of killing orcs or that officially elves are, well, even weirder then they were. Heck, it doesn't even annoy me that people prefer different editions of D&D than myself...that's fine, you play yours, I'll play mine, and we'll both houserule the thing as it befits our table. 

But this kind of precedent is bad. Undermining the authority of the DM is bad. Prioritizing a CHARACTER over play or system or rules is bad. It is setting foot on a path that leads eventually to dissolution of the dissolution of the game as a game.  

This was not well-thought out by the designers. 

And while I'm sure a lot of my readers will say, Oh JB, you're so silly! Who cares? What impact will it even have? Consider that this is found (if my source is correct) in the new reboot of Phandelver.  Not a sequel to Phandelver, but a rewrite of the original...the original adventure included with the D&D Starter Set. That is: the box set being used to teach NEW people how to play D&D.  

This new attitude...this new PARADIGM of how D&D is to be what will inform the next generation of D&D players. And the generation that follows. And the generation that follows. And the company has done an incredible job of NOT "walking back" the various design mistakes they've made over the years, simply streamlining them and modifying them in a fashion that retains the "flavor" of all that's gone before while making it work with whatever new cobbled system is being presented to the public.  So consider that if they (WotC) take this tack, then this is the way we can expect the game to develop, going forward.

Required consent? Really? To transform your character into a monster? What about to transform your character into a corpse? Or a pile of hot ash? 

What was my job again? Dungeon Master? Or dancing monkey?

No. When you sit at my table, YOU are GIVING CONSENT to abide by MY authority as the Dungeon Master. Period. You don't want to give consent to me? Fine...take a hike. I have other people who want to play. 

No...I will not go quietly into the night. I can imagine the Powers That Be happening across my blog post on some random web surfing and saying "Bah. Who cares what this imbecile has to say? We don't want his old way of thinking anyway...he'll either come around or he'll die out like all those other geezers are dying...Gygax, Arneson, etc." Yep, they're right...I will die, eventually. The last eight months has shown me just how quickly the life-spark can go out in people's eyes. I am very well acquainted with mortality these days.

But I'm 49 (50 next month). Living right, I can probably get another 35ish years out of this old body...years that will still find me playing the same brand of D&D that I love. You think I'm going to roll over and play 5E or 6E or "One D&D" or any of that nonsense? No. I've got back-ups of my core books, new prints that should be good through the end of my life...hell, I'm still using books that were printed in the 1970s and they've held up just fine. These new ones should hold up for my kids even after I'm gone.

Does WotC think their brand of D&D is going to outlive me? Heck, by my reckoning 5E hasn't even outshined AD&D's original run of 12 years. We'll compare where they are 20 years from now...hopefully, I'll be passing on my passion to my grandchildren. Regardless, I will continue to play in the way the game was originally intended to be played. 

"Consent is Required?" Not at my table, pal. Kiss off.

[apologies for the cursing in this a little worked up there]

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Editions & Expectations

The point of this series is to provide an easy-to-follow blueprint for the prospective Dungeon Master to run a game of Dungeons & Dragons that will satisfy them in the long-term. Because D&D is a game that, honestly, requires very little financial investment (meaning you can play it on very meager means) AND can be played even after age and disability limits you from most other activities, long-term is the best way to think about and approach the game. 

But we'll get to that. First we need to temper expectations.

If you are interested in being a DM because you are hoping to be the next Tolkien or something, man you are barking up the wrong tree. If you want to direct film (or plays) or write for television...go do that. If you want to write a gigantic fantasy novel series like Sam Donaldson or George Martin or (God help you) Robert Jordan...then go do that.  Write your books. Write your screenplays. Film them...whatever it takes to scratch your artistic itch...DO IT. Draw your magnum opus comic book with Frazetta-like characters or Aspirin-like situations or WHATEVER. Go do that! Hopefully, you'll make some money on it, but REGARDLESS, you will find satisfaction pursuing your creative endeavor of choice.

D&D doesn't look like that. Oh, I know...there are folks on the internet that play D&D that seem to be creating some sort of entertaining "story." That's fine...that's another form of scripted entertainment, created to entertain the subscribers. That is NOT what D&D play is, nor what it looks like in practice, nor (I daresay) what makes it an incredibly enjoyable pastime.

D&D, in its best form, is a fantasy adventure game, allowing players to experience fantasy adventure. But what does that really mean

It means that it is a game. A game that creates high emotion in its players...fear, joy, excitement, exhilaration, despair, anger, sadness, triumph, etc...emotions that are EXPERIENCED in play, much like a competitive sport or game of high stakes poker. That's what it's like to PLAY the game...that is the "fun" of the game...for the players.

For the Dungeon Master, the satisfaction comes from creating a world and running a game that creates these emotions in players. 

But if you expect players to "perform" in the manner of a trained actor or "behave" in a manner that "befits the story;" no, in most cases that's NOT what you're going to get at the table, even with trained actors for participants. That's just not what the game is built to do...not in ANY edition of the game. You might have a group of very creative individuals sitting at the game table with you...screenwriters and novelists with a modicum (or more) of acting talent, and your game will still fall far, far short of the satisfaction of writing your own novel (in which you can control the content and dialogue) or directing your own show (same).

Trying to administrate these things is missing the point of play. And, over time, you will end up very, VERY disappointed if this is your expectation of play.

In running the game of D&D, the DM presents a world, with various things for players to do. And by "do" I mean Choices that players can make about Actions their characters take in hopes of having an Impact on the imaginary (DM created) World. THAT, my dear friends is the game of Dungeons & Dragons. That is the essence of what the Dungeon Master least, as far as the players are concerned. What happens behind the scenes (and mostly away from the table) is the world building done by the DM to create the dynamic campaign with which the players interact. 

Done right, this creates a campaign the players want to return to and engage with on a regular is the well-run campaign that creates the drive in players to play.  Which, in turn, provides feedback to the DM that is used for additional dynamic world construction, giving the DM (as Bath wrote) "full reign to his creative genius."

It is this interplay between players and DM, facilitated and moderated by the rules, that govern and express the play of the Dungeons & Dragons game.

So what rule set to use?

Despite all the internet "ink" spilled on the subject, the edition/version of D&D used is of secondary importance (at best) to the play of the game as just described. Every DM will, with time, make adjustments to the ruleset to better suit their needs in play, and EVERY edition requires additional work by the DM to ensure that long-term, satisfying campaign play is achieved.

The various Basic editions (Moldvay, Mentzer, Holmes) provide an adequate introduction to the rules, and are the most accessible way to learn the game system. Coupled with addition of an "Expert" set (Cook/Marsh, Mentzer) they provide instructions for the basic procedures of the D&D game: character creation, combat, advancement, exploration, etc. They are all well written for their purpose and excellent in obtaining their objective: even players as young as nine and ten can grasp the basic systems and processes of the game after a reading of (one of) these Basic books.

The Advanced game (Gygax) in its first iteration provides a more robust system for play that anticipates and addresses many of the issues that might hamper long-term campaign play. This includes a more robust selection of player choices (no less than 35 combinations of race and class, more spells and equipment, and some inherent/integrated world building considerations), expanded rosters of monsters and treasure, and a variety of options and decent advice sections for the Dungeon Master. Gygax's AD&D (sometimes called 1E or "first edition") codifies many of the "best practices" developed over years of actual play and experimentation. The core volumes of play include the Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide, and various Monster Manuals. Later volumes in the 1E series provide additional rules and ideas, but most are fairly superfluous to running the game.

The original D&D game (Gygax & Arneson) provides the basis for both the 1E and Basic editions of the game and for the historic-minded or unapologetic game tinkers, it provides the foundational bones on which the game was built. "OD&D" (as it is sometimes called) along with its supplementary volumes can provide a better understanding of the game's evolution and rules development, but to make the game function requires many choices and additions from the DM/referee. While this holds a great appeal for DMs who enjoy performing their own customization, it is a distraction from the actual creative imperative of the DM (world building and campaign creation). Also, many DMs find that the additions and modification they end up using are already anticipated by the AD&D (1E) version of the game.

The 2nd Edition (Cook) version of AD&D is similar to 1E in most ways, simply streamlining and restructuring many of the disjointed and scattered rules of the system. However, 2E's restructuring of the advancement system (the method in which players earn "experience points" or x.p.) is problematic in that it A) removes an easily understood, objective measure of success, and B) removes an incentive for cooperative and creative play. This has consequences in both the short-term AND long-term campaign play, but can be rectified by reinstating the "gold for x.p." standard (and several published adventure modules for 2E strongly advocate taking this specific action).

Both the 3rd Edition of D&D (sometimes called D20 and currently published as the Pathfinder game system) and the 4th Edition of D&D have multiple issues that make them rather unsuitable for long-term campaign play of the type I aim to describe in this blueprint; they represent their own, very different...and divergent...types of game play. They fall outside the purview of this series. 

The 5th edition is the current and most widely played version of D&D at this moment in time. Its publishing longevity surpasses any edition except 1E and 2E. It has had no less than three introductory box sets published for it, helping to make the rule system accessible for the new player, and is well-supported on-line by both the publishing company (WotC/Hasbro) and a large community. It is largely streamlined and simplified compared to prior "Advanced" editions (1E through 4E) yet enjoys robust player options far surpassing "Basic" editions of the game. And because of its variant rulebooks options, 5E provides a wide-spectrum of ways for the game to be played: it is customizable (like OD&D) and provides the DM with vast means of rewarding players (via fiat or "story awards"). It models a very different game play experience from earlier editions of the experience based on expectations set by standards of video game design...which may have a broader appeal to a younger demographic of participant. Unfortunately, as such it also falls outside the purview of this series; while it's certainly possible the 5E mechanics could be adjusted to make it conducive to satisfying, long-term campaign play, the effort and analysis in doing so is more than I care to perform, given that there are already alternative systems available that provide a more-than-adequate head start on the task at hand.

Aficionados of Dungeons & Dragons generally have a favorite edition, based on the point at which they entered the hobby and/or the point at which they "mastered" game play. Preferences of style and design vary from player to player and (as stated above) almost all Dungeon Masters, with time, will modify the rules somewhat to meet their own preferences of play. As such, I think it's important not to become too distracted from the subject at hand by quibbling over which edition of the game is "better." Each edition can be made to work, and even amongst the older (pre-2000) versions, each will give a slightly different experience or "flavor" of play. 

In the end, we are unconcerned about flavor. We are concerned about long-term play. Choose a rule system and stick with it. As this blueprint continues, adjustments to system will be inevitable. 

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Learning From The Oldest School

Tony Bath was a British wargamer who founded the Society of Ancients and (in certain circles) is celebrated for his long-running "Hyboria" campaign, based mainly on the setting Robert Howard created for his Conan stories. While Bath died in 2000 (at the age of 74), his writings have been collected and are still published by The History of Wargaming Project (edited by John Curry) under the title Tony Bath's Ancient Wargaming.

Good read.
Bath's writing, especially his 1973 work, Setting Up A Wargames Campaign, is remarkable because despite it being written about wargaming for wargamers, much of it (especially the thought process and philosophy) is directly applicable to Dungeons & Dragons and the burgeoning Dungeon Master seeking to build their own RPG campaign. Conclusions that I've only reached after decades of playing and pondering and reading the blogs/writings of folks much smarter than me, were carefully outlined by Tony Bath years before I ever laid eyes on the Moldvay Basic box.

Of course, it is no secret that D&D was created by wargaming enthusiasts. But when I write that Bath's book is directly applicable to the D&D game, I'm not talking about his rules for conducting tabletop battles, historical or otherwise. While such battles can be a part of one's D&D campaign (see the Gygax novels I mentioned in my last post as examples), the rules of D&D are far more concerned with the small scale actions of individual heroes (i.e. the player characters) then the movements and actions of troops. Instead, it is Bath's procedures and philosophy of creating and running campaigns and world building where one finds golden instruction.

It is only the vocabulary used that needs to be [slightly] altered.
"Almost all new [D&D players] start their careers by fighting a succession of single, unconnected [adventures]; this is inevitable since it takes time to get the feel of the hobby, to learn the rules, etc. But if a new recruit is really going to take up [D&D play], then before very long he begins to feel that something is lacking; that these individual [adventures], though well enough in their way, need some connecting link to make them more satisfying and to give an objective other than just trying to [kill monsters, delve for treasure]. In other words, the desire to [play] campaigns rather than ["adventures"].

"What makes campaigning so rewarding? Why, if you have fairly limited time available for the hobby, should you use time that could be spent in fighting on the table-top in [dealing with the minutia of encumbrance, rations, resource management, etc.]? The answer is that no real-life general could limit himself to the purely tactical problems of the battlefield, and a campaign is the way in which the [D&D player] general widens his horizon. 

"The player who merely participates as a [player character] finds the opportunity to practice strategy as well as tactics. He may find himself having to solve problems of supply and finance, and, if the campaign is a complicated one, matters of diplomacy, etc. as well. He must learn one of the hardest lessons for [of D&D play]: when to cut his losses and abandon [an adventure], instead of fighting to the bitter end.

"The [player] who [acts as a DM] to run a campaign gains even more, for he can give full reign to his creative genius, both as regards the rules he uses and the countries and characters he creates. A radio interviewer once asked me whether the desire to run a mythical continent of my own was a sign of power mania; I replied that this was possibly true to some extent, since most of us like playing God to some degree, but more important was the freedom it gave to a bent for organizing things.

"As your campaign develops, you will find yourself adding fresh angles to it which, while quite unnecessary from a purely practical viewpoint, can add much fun and interest to the proceedings.

"It is however true of campaigning, as of so many other things, that the amount of enjoyment to be obtained from it is pro rata to the amount of effort that is put into it. This will vary from person to person and group to group according to ow much time and interest people have to spare, but the main ingredient necessary is enthusiasm for the project and a sense of responsibility toward the other players. 
"...if you are running a large or complicated campaign it is necessary to pick your players wisely."
[excerpted, with adjustment, from the introduction]

None of which is very new info to longtime readers of geezer blogs like this I said, the remarkable bit is just how much of it is applicable to D&D and how old this material is. 

Following the introduction, Bath gets down to the nitty-gritty of building one's campaign from the ground up...assuming you are creating a fictional setting like Bath's own Hyborea campaign. And, of course you are: you are a Dungeon Master for a D&D game that is going to have magic and monsters and whatnot even if it is set in (a fantasy version of) our real world.  Bath discusses the drawing of maps, the outlining of political borders, the importance of rivers and roads and natural features, the seeding of population centers, and the impact and use of weather. He discusses setting up factions and characters (and their personalities), determining resources and economics of nation-states, and how all these things drive the campaign, creating dynamic environments and providing ideas for situations and scenarios. 

It is all good advice and most of it is readily adaptable to one's D&D game.

What I am lauding here is practical application of Bath's procedures to world-building. This is not about crafting histories and backstories and "plots" or "story arcs." These things are unnecessary to creating and running a campaign that is vibrant and engaging for the players.

What IS necessary is a world with things to do. A world with a degree of verisimilitude, where there are consequences (good, bad, and indifferent) to the actions of the players. A world that gives the players the chance to make an impact based on their own actions. 

Of his own campaign world, Hyboria, Bath writes the following:
"Like all good things, Hyboria had small beginnings. In the early days I had no experience of campaigns and only the vaguest ideas on rules of map movement; things like finances, supply, etc. had not yet reared their ugly heads with all their attendant complications. So we...usually just decided to have a war between two countries and set up one or possibly two battles which decided the result of the war. That was back in the dim and distant past -- in fact the first two or three battles were actually fought on the floor with 54mm solid figures -- a process I definitely don't recommend.

" The long history of Hyboria (which is all recorded in very considerable detail) began with the first Brythunian war when the ambitious King Mamedides of Hyperborea invaded its southern neighbor. This resulted in the Battle of Warrior's Pass, fought under the most extraordinary rules, and the repulse of the invasion. I commanded the Brythunians on this occasion; I then changed and led a second Hyperborean invasion, which was more successful..."
Please take note: the history of Bath's campaign world (which he chronicled in SoA's bi-monthly newletter Slingshot) BEGAN with these first battles. His world was created by adapting various real world cultures (ancient Greek and Roman and Persian, medieval European and Viking, American Indian, etc.) to a fictional map drawn from Howard's tales, and then assigning it characteristics: here is a wealthy country. Here is an ambitious ruler. Here is a mountain pass. How do these things intersect with each other to create an interesting, playable scenario?  

Do we care what has gone before (play began)?  No! What matters is the play of the game. The world-building sets the stage for the play. We may, after play begins, chronicle the history of how play legends arose from our gaming table...if it so amuses us (as, generally, it does). But as players of a game (whether Dungeons & Dragons or a wargame), it matters not a whit to us WHY, for example, a PC became a magic-user instead of a druid or monk. We do not care about backstory or motivation; we are not actors researching a role for a play, nor authors plotting a trilogy of novels. What we care about is the situation at hand and how the game will play out.

Dungeons & Dragons was created by wargamers, and its no wonder: in Bath's writing he constantly name-drops fantasy authors like Tolkien, Leiber, Srague de Camp, etc. (authors found in Gygax's "Appendix N") as being widely read by members of his Society of Ancients and being inspirational reading for wargaming campaigns...even though SoA itself decided very early on NOT to include anything "fantastical" in their rules and games. The idea of "fantasy adventure" fires the passions and imaginations of LOTS of people, not just wargamers. But wargamers, by trade, seek to create rules and model adventure in a fashion that allows its experience in a safe, comfortable environment. Around the gaming table, in other words. 

D&D, and other fantasy adventure games, simply "drill down" to a more specific, smaller level than large scale warfare.  And by doing that, they make the experience of play even more intense and personal to the people involved. Which might account for why the FAG hobby has more devotees than wargaming in the present, even if there is a lot of confusion on the best way to run/play the game.

More blueprint posts to follow.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Inspirational And Educational Reading

"Inspirations for all of the fantasy work I have done stems directly from the love my father showed when I was a tad, for he spent many hours telling me stories he made up as he went along, tales of cloaked old men who could grant wishes, of magic rings and enchanted swords, or wicked sorcerers and dauntless swordsmen. Then too, countless hundreds of comic books went down, and the long-gone EC ones certainly had their effect. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror movies were a big influence. In fact, all of us tend to get ample helpings of fantasy when we are very young, from fairy tales such as those written by the Brothers Grimm and Andrew Long. This often leads to reading books of mythology, paging through bestiaries, and consultation of compilations of the myths of various lands and peoples. Upon such a base I built my interest in fantasy, being an avid reader of all science fiction and fantasy literature since 1950. The following authors were of particular inspiration to me. In some cases I cite specific works, in others I simply recommend all their fantasy writing to you. From such sources, as well as just about any other imaginative writing or screenplay you will be able to pluck kernels from which grow the fruits of exciting campaigns. Good reading!"
[Inspirational Reading list follows, then:]
"The most immediate influences upon AD&D were probably de Camp & Pratt, REH, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, HPL, and A. Merritt; but all of the above authors, as well as many not listed certainly helped to shape the form of the game. For this reason, and for the hours of reading enjoyment, I heartily recommend the works of these fine authors to you."
Gary Gygax's much lauded "Appendix N" shows up on page 224 of the first edition DMG...a list of fantasy books and authors that EGG held up as particularly inspirational and influential to his writing of the Dungeons & Dragons game. 

Yet, despite being enjoyable reading, none of these books will provide much of a map or outline of how to run the game of D&D or even describe (much) of what a D&D game should look like. Oh, there similar themes, scenes, and events that might be found in any particular game session. But while "Appendix N" may give one a good feel for the fantasy that shaped the imaginations of Gygax, Arneson, etc. they are not instructional when it comes to teaching the game of Dungeons & Dragons. Trying to run your game so that it looks like a Howard or Leiber story will, at best, result in some kind of pastiche or homage to those authors. 

And while creating such pastiche can be good fun, it stagnates readily enough, much as any type of "railroad gaming" becomes (sooner or later) stale and unsatisfactory. In this case, the railroad is one of genre, rather than story...though, of course, hewing too closely to any fictional inspiration can result in the DM using force to that end as well. "Don't let the rules (or dice rolls) get in the way of telling a good story" is an aphorism sadly parroted throughout RPG circles...even those styling themselves as "Old School" gamers.

Despite the long list of monsters and magic and concepts (like "alignment") that were taken from these much the same way that mythology and books of historic medieval armaments were purloined for the game...Dungeons & Dragons, as a game, neither models nor even attempts to model these stories. And attempting to run one's game so that it looks like a Howard or Leiber or (God forbid!) Lovecraft story is a fool's errand and a disservice to the game itself. 

Dungeon Masters are not authors; at least, not when we are operating in our role as Dungeon Master. 

The job of an author is to tell a story. Short stories provide a problem or scenario for the protagonist to struggle against; long stories (novels) show how a protagonist develops and changes over time given the events of the book. Both of these apply to the Dungeons & Dragons game (our player characters struggle in the immediate term against the challenges set by the DM and over time they grow and change), but in D&D this is done without a directed course. There s no premise being addressed, no theme being explored, no climax that needs to be met. A game of D&D is NOT a story, not in the way the books in Appendix N are. 

It is, rather, the "story of our lives," which is to say the process of living and existing...even though the lives being lived are completely and wholly of our imagination. This may sound ridiculous, but D&D is an experiential (fantasy) adventure game and, in the end "living" an imaginary life is what the game play...for players...boils down to. 

In this regard, I believe that Tolkien's book The Hobbit may be the closest of the Appendix N books to describing a D&D campaign. Yes, it has all the trappings: monsters, treasure, spells, "dungeons" (the goblin caves, the elf king's halls, the Lonely Mountain), swords and wizards and "demi-humans." But the novel is far more than just its recognizable "fantasy" tropes: Here is a world setting, carefully crafted by its maker. Here are events and challenges faced by a group of protagonists, cooperating for mutual success. Here are choices being offered that may lead to peril and/or the possibility of reward, and always with additional, character-driven consequences...consequences which, in turn, shape the on-going campaign and the narrative ("story") of that campaign.

And here, also, are the logistical issues of adventure...those aspects that change the game from a simple fairy tale adventure story, to an immersive experience with verisimilitude. Issues of food and shelter, baggage trains, overland travel, and inclement weather. Relationships with powerful individuals that need to be groomed and/or carefully managed (not just Beorn, but the goblin king, the elf king, the Master of Lake Town, etc.). These aspects of "life" cannot be ignored if one seeks to play D&D over the long-term...the manner of play in which it reaches its highest level.

Conan's episodic adventures, enjoyable as they are, are adolescent at best, in comparison.

In this regard, The Hobbit is highly reminiscent of H. Rider Haggard's classic adventure novel, King Solomon's Mines. Despite its 19th century timeline and lack of "classic fantasy" tropes, Haggard's book has plenty of D&D-style adventure in its pages: exploration and privation, treasure seeking and combat, ancient, subterranean labyrinths (complete with traps), and interpersonal relationships with NPCs both helpful and hostile. Despite its anachronistic setting and the shortness of its scope (the book details only one "adventure" per se...though an admittedly massive one), there is a lot for the DM to learn about crafting a scenario worthy of the long-term D&D campaign.

Haggard's book also demonstrates how much raw power and adventure can be generated just using the history, cultures, mythology and geography of our own world. Rather than invent from whole cloth, or create pastiche of favorite fantasy books and films, most Dungeon Masters will find it more productive to seek out the same sources of inspiration and educational reading that informed the settings and scenarios of their favorite fantasy authors (like those in Appendix N): namely, the non-fiction books concerning our real world. Most, if not all, of the strange and weird cultures and situations described from Bracket and Moorecock, Howard and Leiber, are simple re-skinnings and/or re-imaginings of our own world's past (and, in some cases, its present). Many are the neophyte DM who disregards or downplays the "banality" of our mundane "real world" in favor of "true fantasy," failing to understand that the fantasy authors they best love and admire were drawing directly from real world sources. Before the last century or two, our world  had thousands of years of untamed wilderness, mighty cultures (rising and falling), supernatural beliefs, perilous journeys, and adventurous folk of all languages and skin tones looking to find "fortune and glory." That many of us equate "adventure stories" with European/Western colonialism is a sad commentary on the lack of depth in our literary inventory: we read of crusader knights and gold-hungry Spaniards and completely neglect the fact that there are humans in every corner of the globe and history who have sought to rise above their station through adventurous means. 

"Fortune-hunting adventurer" has NEVER been the exclusive purview of white dudes.

However, let us not digress too far from the subject at hand: creating an easy-to-follow blueprint for running Dungeons & Dragons. The DMG is, of course, a great sourcebook and place to start...kind of like the Bible is a nice book to read if you want to be a Christian. But, just as Christianity (any form) needs a bit more to find a lasting and satisfying spiritual life, you're going to need more than just your copy of Gygax's opus.

As of today, the BEST books I've read that describe a typical "Gygaxian campaign" of the AD&D variety are those written by Gygax himself, specifically Saga of Old City and Artifact of Evil. These are...admittedly...terrible books, but they are EXCELLENT descriptions of what a 1E campaign would look like, especially the latter book (Artifact). They aptly demonstrate the weird, kitchen-sink fantasy of Gygax, show how alignment works, displays the emphasis of mass combat (while still maintaining small-scale, personal action), and pays no nevermind to the various anachronisms of speech and culture that crop up during a game session. D&D play is not about method acting or historical reenactment; it is a game designed to be experienced by the players. Reading these books, while perhaps painful to the more erudite amongst us, does show what your average, competent 1E campaign looks like if you play with all the bells & whistles of the original seven volumes (DMG, PHB, MM, MM2, FF, DDG, UA). 

That doesn't make it a great campaign...but it does make it a great example. And probably the best example in print (apologies to Dave Arneson and his First Fantasy Campaign book).

Now, in my next post, I'll discuss the foundational text for creating your own campaign; not the DMG or anything in its "Appendix N," but a pertinent book written with a similar, parallel objective in mind: Tony Bath's Ancient Wargaming.