Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Game of the Year (Film)

A few weeks back, I read a review of the film Game of the Year over at Grognardia, and my interest was piqued enough to look and see if it was available on Netflix. So I was quite surprised when the producer of the film emailed me to ask if I’d like a copy of the DVD and be willing to do a review. Right on!

The thing came in the mail a while ago but last night was my first opportunity to watch the thing, which I did…twice. Here are my thoughts:

First, the Quick & Dirty: if you are a gamer, or curious/interested in gamer culture, or are in a relationship with someone who games, you will probably find the film entertaining. If you’re really not into documentary films, even fake ones (like those of Christopher Guest), then you may not like the film’s format as it is of the fake documentary or “mockumentary” style. There are some funny bits, some poignant bits, quite a bit of good acting, and a well-paced script, if a little “light weight.”

Now for the deeper (if more convoluted) review.

Game of the Year is a weird film. Not weird in the Naked Lunch or David Lynch kind of way, but the POINT of the director is an odd one.

Because there IS a point. The filmmaker isn’t just trying to entertain in a documentary style (as is the case with a mockumentary like, say, Best in Show or Spinal Tap)…there’s a bit too much care and affection for the characters and material (in my opinion). And yet it’s not a “real” documentary film: it’s scripted and contrived and for the most part acted by (amazingly) non-gamer folks.

Let’s back up for a moment: the premise of the story is that there’s a reality TV show getting produced regarding table-top role-players, and the winners of the show will get to help run a game company for a year (in the spirit of The Apprentice). The film isn’t about the competition, though…instead it’s about one group of gamers who’ve been playing together for years that want to get on the show…and so they have cahooted themselves with a documentary film project, in hopes it will bolster their chances of being one of the contestant teams (kind of like a semi-pro audition tape or something). The film then chronicles, not their game, but their relationships to the game and to each other.

This isn’t a film about RPGs. It’s about the people who play RPGs…their relationship to the game and to each other and the balance of that with their real lives (though the latter is very down-played in the film for the sake of entertainment and the wink-nod in-jokes to gamers).

I liked the film. It’s a good little film (and I’ll highlight some specific things I liked in a moment), but in a way I’m disappointed…I think there was an opportunity here to “blow the top off” that got missed for the sake of a slightly safer film.

I have to say I didn’t much like the premise. It’s not that the reality show is so farfetched (I have watched a LOT of different reality shows over the years, and they’ll make just about anything for the right niche market. Top Shot? Now those guys are geeks…geeks with guns!). I understand that the filmmaker is using it as a backdrop to “up the stakes” and drive the plot…why else would these guys be filmed right? a way similar to the variety show reunion thing in A Mighty Wind. But it’s weak. It’s so secondary to the REAL drama of the film…the interaction of the cast (which is the fun of fake documentaries anyway)...that it feels forced.

I would have preferred to see just a film about the gaming group, fake or not. Maybe the documentarians were filming it as a “slice of life” of gamer culture (similar to Spinal Tap’s “slice of life of being a touring rock band”). The stakes are already there; they are already as high as they need to be: friendship, social contract, the intimacy of gaming, home life and family, love life issues.

There are strong ties that bind any members of a subculture. And because subcultures are niche rather than mainstream, there are huge amounts of emotion and feeling that get invested in ‘em. I mean, most people want to share what they do with others, and hobbies that require group participation (like role-playing) need people even more. If I get 86’d from my “rock climbing club” I can still go climb a mountain on my own (though that might not be as fun, given my particular temperament). If I get kicked out of a gaming group, well, I suppose I can sit around reading my books. Or blogging. But that’s NOT the same thing as actually playing.

In the course of the film, we see the members of the group have a falling out. The individual members then attempt to cobble together new game groups for the sake of still auditioning for this “reality show,” Game of the Year. Why? I mean that’s not the important part (from a gamer perspective)…the important part is finding A NEW GAME. You’re not a gamer without a gaming group, you’re just a sad little man sitting alone in his garage (like one of the film’s characters, Gary).

You don’t think that’s important? My God, for a person who’s played these games, it’s just about the MOST important thing. People will hang out with all sorts of rejects and crazies…or stay in terrible, unsatisfying game groups…just so that they don’t have to go out and find a new group. Because there’s no guarantee the new group is going to be better, or even equal to the last…as I think the film aptly demonstrates.

The social contract involved in playing these fantasy games, ESPECIALLY as an adult, is a crazy-complex one. For one thing, sharing time in an imaginary world with others is a deep and intimate bonding experience…you start speaking a language and sharing experiences that few outside your own game group will understand. And while this is fine and dandy as a kid (imaginary play is expected and often encouraged with most kids), for adults there is such a stigma attached to the idea…that people need to GROW UP and deal with the REAL WORLD as opposed to playing silly games…and the friendships formed around the gaming table are deeper than anything you’d find in, say, a fantasy football or pick-up basketball league. People will put up with shit they’d never put up with in other areas of their life just to keep the game going.

And while that’s a stake for the characters in Game of the Year there are additional stakes as well. One character becomes separated from his spouse over his gaming hobby. Another character is trying desperately to hide his hobby from his significant other. Two (or three) other characters are vying for the romantic affection of one of their fellow game members. One character hasn’t had a girlfriend in years and his buddy’s are trying to set him up with someone (and he makes a hash out of it).

These “real world issues” – how we relate to our loved ones and potential partners outside of gaming, especially when our gaming has an impact or takes a toll on those relationships – is plenty significant, and the stakes are good and high (and the situations still ripe with comedic potential and pathos) without the whole "reality contest" concept.

However, that’s not the filmmaker’s point in making this film. The point (at least what I seem to get from watching) is to portray gamers in a more true-to-life light, in a way that breaks the stereotypes often portrayed in film and television. Often gamers are portrayed as out-of-touch nerds with screws loose and a near complete inability to function in “normal” settings. Which isn’t usually the case: most of us still have jobs and houses and cars and spouses and lives outside of gaming. Just because we like to imagine we are wizards and warriors a couple nights a week (or month or whatever), doesn’t mean we’re totally retarded, 12 year olds living in the bodies of 30-somethings.

And I think the filmmaker gets that point across. The gamers portrayed…at least when they’re away from the table…aren’t much different or any weirder than other people their own age. This is, of course, a good thing: taking gaming a bit out of the basement, as it were. If that was his main goal (as well as poking fun at gamers where the sterotypes ARE sometimes accurate), then he succeeded.

But I still think he misses an opportunity. It’s as if Chris Grega (the director/creator and a self-professed gamer himself) is a bit self-conscious of his own material. He has to include this whacky reality show idea because he’s buying the hype that something MORE is needed. That people can’t get so worked up over something that’s “just a game,” right?

Just a silly game.

They ARE just games, but people get worked up over smaller things than that ALL THE TIME. Soccer players have been murdered for blowing a play in a big game. Professional sports players have been suspended and fined heavily for stomping on the heads of downed opponents, just in the heat of a game. People go on nationally televised reality shows (even ones without cash prizes involved) and get into fights and altercations over the smallest, pettiest slights…all filmed for the sake of ratings and more sensational programming.

Historically people have dueled to the death over trifles. There’s a reason why 1st degree (premeditated) murder carries a higher penalty than murder performed in the heat of passion: humans get worked up over all sorts of shit. Crazy, ridiculous things of no importance. A waitress brings me the wrong beer or forgets my side order and we get all bent out of shape…while there are other people starving to death and/or dying of malnutrition in our own country. That’s just human nature…we OFTEN miss the big picture for the self-specific gripe right in front of us.

It’s no different with gaming. Gamers can be petty, irrational, ridiculous people…just like anyone. And that’s okay (or at least “acceptable” just like we need to accept any of our other human failings). And it can be entertaining, too, just like watching any train wreck can be! I salute Grega’s portrayal of gamers in a realistic light, but I wish he’d just taken it another step and reveled even more in the passion (and foibles) of what it means to be a member of this niche hobby.

Okay, that’s the bulk of my take on the movie.

Other thoughts: there was actually quite a bit of food for thought (i.e. fodder for blog posts) in this film. I don’t know if it’s just a St. Louis thing (where the movie was filmed and where the filmmaker resides), but the total lack of female gamers (“Wonder Woman” notwithstanding) was a little weird. Other than my current game group or the occasional 2-3 player one-off there’s always been a woman or two at my gaming tables (whether I was running the game or playing). In the DVD commentary, I might have heard Mr. Grega say he’d never had a female player in his experience. Maybe Seattle’s just more co-ed (interesting that my current LARGE game group is all men and most of them are from St. Louis…just saying…).

The gaming itself, as portrayed in the movie, felt very “testosterous” (perhaps helped by the lack of women?)….the scenarios were all of the “let’s fight something and get loot” variety. Miniatures and battle mats were used in most of the scenes, and there was loud complaining when players didn’t get to roll for initiative enough. Combat and killing seemed to be the preeminent attractions, and the characters were portrayed as enjoying wargaming (especially historic wargaming, not GW stuff) as well. Early in the film, one player complains that their current DM isn’t “the storyteller” that their last DM was, but when we see that guy he’s ALL fluff (much to his players’ chagrin). There wasn’t a happy medium portrayed (though again, the film’s point was NOT about documenting game play itself but of examining the people who play the game).

Let’s see, what else? I thought it was only in my games that player characters kill each other and teabag their fallen opponents. Apparently we’re not the only ones.

I thought the acting was pretty darn good (especially considering most of them had no background in gaming prior to making the film). The characters all reminded me of real gamers I’ve met over the years (though the personalities were more that of guys I’d known in my 20s, and the actors look older than that). Most spouses and significant others of gamers I’ve known have been more sympathetic or accepting of their partner’s weird hobby; but I can certainly relate to some of the marital conflict on display (I’ve learned over the years to prioritize MY hobbies a little differently)!

I was amused by some of the set dressing, particularly the DM screens chosen for the different game masters in the film. The main “protagonist” DM has a 1st edition AD&D screen, the mechanics-emphasized table used a 4th edition screen, and the “story teller” used the 2nd edition AD&D screen. I don’t know if this was purposeful or not, but I felt the choices were appropriate.

There were an awful lot of amusing bits that make me chuckle when I reflect on the movie. There were no token stoners in the movie (I think the A.D.D. cousin and the “milf” dude kind of stood in for them), but there was plenty of other craziness on display, all of which I found amusing…seeing as how it wasn’t happening to me. There’s a reason why game groups will stay together for years without a whole lot of member changes: getting that right mix of people together to run a satisfying game can be pretty damn tricky. The social contract of role-playing is not an easy one to put together, and unfortunately all the “DM advice” in the world can’t stand in for going out and putting it together…through trial and error and error and error.

Anyway, I liked the film. My (non-gamer) wife started watching the first chapter and found it amusing as well. She asked if I was going to let my game buddies borrow the DVD and I said I’d probably force them to sit through a screening. I might just take it down to Café Mox and see if they want to show it one night, instead of the usual cartoon/sci-fi fare. Damn, though, I do wish it had closed-caption subtitles!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Assassins - Additional Thoughts

I want to talk some more about the assassin class. Sorry.

I’ve had a chance to play an assassin now in two recent campaigns: Alexis’s on-line AD&D campaign (short-lived, but I got a few posts in) and Randy’s fairly gonzo LL game (using the AEC rules…we’ve been playing for three or four weeks now). Anyway, having gotten the opportunity I have a few thoughts on the class, pertinent because I want to include “assassin” as a subclass of “thief” in my own version of D&D Mine.

“Problematic.” That’s the main word that comes to mind.

Let’s talk about class for just a moment. D&D is the originator of the “class” character in RPGs…a simple choice that provides one’s imaginary avatar with a suite of in-game abilities based on its definition. “Class” has been used in a variety of different “morphs” since the advent of D&D…you can even see an abstract version of it in the form of “clans” or “blood lines” or “OCCs” or “archetypes” or whatever across a myriad of RPGs.

In D&D, class and level are the main determiners of HOW your character “plays” in the game.

Compare the fighter class with the magic-user class as an easy illustration. The fighter gets a bunch of armor and weapons, a ton of hit points, good attack progression, and multiple attacks at high level. She doesn’t get any other skills or spells or special abilities to speak of. The magic-user has nothing BUT spells…no armor, no real weapons, not even very many hit points. A player that runs his wizard like a warrior will probably be killed very quickly; a player who runs her fighter like a wizard (hanging back and not getting into melee) is not going to be very effective in helping a party overcome its goals.

Okay, so different classes have different roles to fill. I know I’ve talked about this before with regard to the B/X classes. For the most part, it holds true for non-B/X classes as well; that is, that a character’s class determines “role” and thus “style of play.”

For me, in designing a class-based game, I’m not interested in what the current brain trust refers to as “niche protection;” for me, that whole idea is a non-starter (D&D is about being challenged and meeting those challenges, not about worrying whether or not someone’s stepping on your toes. Who gives a shit as long as you’re getting your cut of the treasure? Jeez!). No, my interest as a designer is in variation of game play…does a class give you a way to play the game that is different from other classes? Niche protection is a bunch of BS…redundancy is the REAL killer. Or at least the thing that highlights useless padding.

FOR EXAMPLE: a fighter and cavalier in AD&D are very similar characters…except that the cavalier is better. It rolls D12 for hit points and gradually increases all its physical attributes, plus it gets bonuses to attack rolls with a variety of weapons. Yes, the cavalier has a “code of honor” that it has to follow…but if you were already planning on playing a chivalrous fighter (as some folks do) then why wouldn’t you simply play a cavalier?

The cavalier makes the fighter redundant and obsolete in aid of allowing more power-gaming. That’s not very good design (in my opinion). Sure, cavaliers aren’t available to (most) demihumans as a class option, but for the MAIN species (humans) it’s hard to argue against taking it, simply for the sake of in-game effectiveness. Unless you really, REALLY want to be Chaotic Evil or something (I’ve known one player for whom that was the case).

So let’s talk about the “problematic” assassin.

I like the assassin character. With some work, I think that it IS a valid class of adventurer, rather than a redundant one. Playing an assassin is very different from playing a thief (helped by the absolute lack of thief skills until third level), and very different from playing a fighter (despite the good variety of weapons, the character has no armor and few hit points). It provides a good mix of skills in the form of non-magical disguise (infiltration), the ability to learn languages, and the ability to auto-kill targets (with planning and/or achievement of surprise).

The problem is, the class is almost completely unsuited for the dumb-dumb premise of the game.

The basic premise of D&D is a bunch of roguish looters going exploring for treasure, using their skills to overcome the challenges they encounter along the way. Clerics provide good fighting and support, fighters provide excellent front-line fighting, thieves are skill monkeys that can navigate a number of obstacles, and magic-users can specialize in many areas, depending on their spell selection. Depending on what the characters encounter, a specific character acting in a specific role can come to the fore and help the party to succeed and continue.

But that’s not how the assassin rolls.

An assassin works best with specific objectives involving (duh) infiltration and murder. And their specialized ability to “kill” is (in my games anyway) limited to normal, living humanoid types. I don’t allow the “assassination” of dragons or trolls or aboleths or even hill giants (like the assassin’s dagger is going to penetrate the thick flesh of a giant? No way…you need to cut that kind down with an axe and a lot of attrition!). They’re at their best when they know what they’re up against and can formulate a plan. Wandering around a dank dungeon hoping to surprise an orc is pretty much the opposite of what an assassin is all about. And an otyugh? Forgeddaboutit.

But that’s the bulk of D&D adventures, at least at “low levels.” At higher level, characters have earned a reputation and may be tasked with various missions from dominion rulers…or they’ll be rulers of their own dominions and have their own agendas. But at low levels, they’re still just in the “exploration” phase of their career, looking for some adventure and some quick coin that will advance them. And that type of random/reaction style adventure doesn’t give an assassin any way to exercise his methods. He's left hanging out, trying not to get killed for half a dozen levels.

Sure, you could simply allow a player to start playing with a mid-level assassin (mid-level assassins can function as low-level thieves) to give the character a bit more versatility, but then you get the redundancy problem. Why play a weak thief when you can play a strong thief? Or (assuming a good amount of thief skill in your assassin) why play a thief with thief skills when you can play an assassin with thief skills (and include the capabilities of the assassin as well)?You see the problem?

Now, in a game that features role-playing and political intrigue, the abilities of an assassin, even at low levels is pretty good. But in that type of campaign, fighters and clerics and other adventurers become fairly useless…most fighters aren’t going to be getting into dust-ups with the courtiers on a regular basis (not so much that they need to wear plate armor anyway). And how many undead are going to need turning in the urban environment. Not too many, one would hope (unless you're playing some sort of "medieval World War Z" thing).

No, assassins are pretty much useless in a standard low-level campaign with a standard low-level party. The sad truth of the matter is the BEST targets for assassination are their own party members...which is, of course, a self-defeating idea at best (even if you killed all the other PCs, their replacements would surely string you up by your testicles). For this reason, assassination is about as useful in the game as a thief's "pick pocket" ability...which is to say, not very goddamn useful at all.

So why the hell would one even bother making an assassin character class? Well, I can think of a couple reasons: one so-so and one not-very-good. The "so-so" reason would be that the class fits a very specific campaign setting...perhaps one with heavy intrigue or where fighter types were nerfed or there are no thieves or where adventures are not typically of the "go down the hole looking for loot" variety. Perhaps Blackmoor, as originally conceived by Mr. Arneson, was intended to be such a campaign setting...or perhaps it just sounded like a good idea at the time.

The not-very-good reason is this: you had to make the assassin a class, because the assassination ability had to be measured granularly, i.e. in levels.

For instance, it wasn't enough to say "an assassin is a faceless dude hired to kill people." No...because the people normally targeted for assassination are folks of high level PCs. And a high level PC can easily shrug off assassination attempts from non-class individuals. So you give the "assassin" an "auto-kill" attack...but it's not fair to give the thug a straight 75% or 50% or even 25% chance of automatically killing someone. I can hear the thought process:

'Well maybe he'd have an 60% chance to kill a 10th level character, but only a 30% chance of killing a 15th level character.'
'Yeah, but what if he's a grand master assassin or something? Shouldn't the Old Man of the Mountain have a better chance to kill even high level characters?'

And thus is born the idea of giving an assassin levels...which necessitates making a once NPC specialist hireling (see the original Little Brown Books) into an actual character class.

Heron, one of my gaming buddies, wrote me an email a ways back, saying something like "well, you DO know the assassin is a useless character, right?" And I'm starting to come around to his way of thinking. Which is too bad since I really like the idea of a clan/cult of assassins. And unlike my B/X Companion version of the assassin (a simple NPC monster), I'd really like to give players the option of playing an assassin. Not because I want them to play evil characters (my version of D&D Mine has alignments, but "evil" isn't on the menu), but because the character class gives an alternate way of playing the game. And variety is a good thing.

Well, that and I dig my version of the character class.

Ah, more thing that requires further reflection, I guess.

Gaming Survey Coming to a Close

For those who haven't had a chance to complete the gaming survey I put together earlier this month...well, if you want to take part, you've only got a couple days left to complete the thing and get it emailed to me. I've managed to get quite a few responses, despite the craziness of the thing (lots of gripes about the format, submission guidelines, and wording of questions I'm afraid), but, and learn, right? Um...yeah, I think so. I hope so.

Anyway, I'm sure it will take me several moons to correlate all the data (and I've got a bunch of other stuff to do, too), but again a BIG "thank you" to all the folks who took the time to respond. Really...I appreciate it.

: )

[deadline: March 1st - just in case that wasn't clear]

Eclectic Tastes

Personally, I'm not much for reading "what I've been up to" kinds of posts...I advertise as a game blog, and I try to stick on point and, yes, I know I meander (often), but I figure the people who are stopping by here are looking for more than updates on my (non-gaming) life.

It's been busy lately...that's the reason for the lack of posting.

I've been doing a lot of reading lately...reading of books that part of my prep/research for my take on D&D Mine. It's not just that I want to have a base setting for the thing; Dungeons & Dragons itself boast no specific game setting, being a "generic" fantasy role-playing game. And yet that is an f'ing ridiculous claim.
  • If you have magic spells with proper names attached to them, say "Tenser's Floating Disk" or "Mordenkainen's Miraculous Lubrication" (or whatever) then you've got specific setting material.
  • If you have magic items with names and backstories, like "The Hand of Vecna" or the "Mace of St. Cuthbert" then you've got specific history and setting material.
  • If you have monsters with specific histories and backstories...say, the Drow elf species...or monsters that tie into a particular cosmology (like demons or devils or modrons or daemons or whatever), then you are writing specific setting are "monsters created by some mad wizard" like the owlbear or the thoul. The fact of their very existence says something about the particular fantasy world.
  • If you have character options like demihumans, or paladins, or druids you are writing specific setting material. None of these things are "generic fantasy." Not all cultures have mythology about elves and dwarves and hobbits. Not all cultures have rangers or assassins or bards in their heroic folklore. Magic-users and fighters, sure. Holy men (clerics) and miscreants (thieves), sure. Including anything else and you're making decisions specific to the setting.
So don't give me this "generic fantasy" nonsense...there is no "generic" version of D&D. You can houserule the demihumans out of the campaign, and confine yourself to non-Greek/non-alien monsters...but that's still just house-ruling the game.

And besides, it's fun to have that a point.

Where that point is, well, that's a matter of taste that varies from DM to DM and player to player. Not everyone wants to have an absolute gonzo world (though there are those that do...see Rifts). When I started making my game, I had a particular setting in mind as a base, but it was feeling a little lacking in the "D&D-ness"...not that I want or need MY game to feel like "D&D," I just want it to play well and give me some fun "adventuring potential." So, I've decided to open it up a bit.

Which means reading a bunch of different books. Howard's actually a major inspiration, not for his setting material but for the way he went about constructing his fantasy world. I find this to be inspirational and a good starting point for crafting what might be called a "semi-generic" fantasy game.

Then the books; here's what I've got sitting on my table right now:

Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life. Arabian Nights Entertainments (Andrew Lang translation). Piers Anthony's Hasan. The Second Book of Robert E. Howard (non-Conan stories). Jhereg by Steven Brust (an example of fantasy assassins). Elizabeth Boyer's The Wizard and the Warlord (strictly for the undead stuff; no Vikings in my D&D). And finally John Norman'sr Tarnsman of Gor and Outlaw of Gor...just picked those up from a used bookstore yesterday (why? giant bird riders and slavery, duh).

Then I have the D&D material: the stuff that's inspirational to my version of D&D. Dwellers of the Forbidden City. The Desert of Desolation series (I3-I5). Master of the Desert Nomads. BECMI's Dawn of the Emperors Gazeteer (more flying animals). The LBBs, B/X, and Holmes Basic books.

Oh, yeah...also a copy of The Levant Tribunal for Ars Magica. Lots of good stuff on jinn in that.

All this stuff is going into my version of D&D. All of it is helping to inspire the semi-generic fantasy setting. Desert, jungle, and the Middle East are the main parts. A warm weather game, perfect for playing on a cold and rainy night.

More on that later, though. I've got to get to the office!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

***SOLD OUT!!!***

Well, just about.

I've got three orders in the ol' InBox for The B/X Companion and four copies of the book left...and I think I'm going to hang on to that last one for right now.

Thus Endeth the Third Print Run.

It appears there are still some copies left over at Noble Knight Games, and I know Gary's Games still had one copy in stock (for those Seattle locals looking to get one). But otherwise, they're gone and that's the end of that for the foreseeable future.

Yeah, I know...a real bummer. Unfortunately, my printer did not renew their lease on the machine that makes this kind of book possible. That may sound silly (it's just stapled down the middle, right?) but the onward march of technology means there isn't a call for that kind of product. They could subcontract the job to a specialist, but it would cost more, and...well, I'm not sure there's still the same amount of interest there to warrant a fourth printing, and I really don't want to do this thing perfect bound.

So, yeah...I'm sold out. At least until further notice.

However, there are a couple pieces of good news for folks who are interested in the product being churned out over here at Running Beagle Games:

1) The fact that I don't have any print copies (and don't expect to have any anytime soon) means I'll probably start working on a PDF copy of the book. all my spare time, right (notice I haven't even thrown up a blog post since Monday? And stuff has been happening)? Hmm...maybe #1 is kind of a pipe dream.

2) We are closing in on completion of the NEW book, a supplement for the B/X game: The Complete B/X Adventurer. There's been some mention of that here on the blog, like O back around here; welp, the writing's been done for awhile and now the cover is just about complete, AND my surly, work-shirking artists are finally getting their pieces in to me (well, except for Kelvin...he had his stuff complete months ago). In some ways, it's not as ambitious a project as the B/X Companion...a lot of the ideas in TCBXA have been culled directly from the blog. On the other hand, some of it IS a little "thick and meaty" - the spell list for the Witch class, for instance. Now that was just nutty of me.
; )

Mmm...well, more on that in the next week or two for sure. Right now, I need to get to bed. There's stuff I want to blog about (especially my D&D Mine project and some other B/X-stuff), but I am dog tired and it's almost 1am. It has been a rough week, folks, on a LOT of fronts.

Later, Gators.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Falling in Love...

...with OD&D is pretty easy.

At least, if you have already played the other editions and found them (at times) wanting or too bulky, there's just a certain romantic charm to those three Little Brown Books and their utter simplicity.

On the other hand, I can see how having no prior experience with the game could lead one to more than a little bit of frustration...and how different DMs using the same "basic" rule set as the LBBs could create wildly diverging systemsItalic with their own house rules.

Which I find utterly charming and a little horrifying at the same time.
: )

Anyway, as I work on D&D Mine, I find myself drawn more and more to the LBBs as my base, my foundation. It's just hard not to appreciate these little books and how damn "portable" they are. I checked out Swords & Wizardry (again) and it is a fairly impressive compilation...especially with its side bar notes and extra options. The artwork, too, is great (and a step up from that of the original books, I have to admit). Still, at 150 pages, it's more rule book than I want...certainly more than I need, personally. It's a good piece of work, but I'm still going to do my own.

Tomorrow, I'm going to have a good, long chunk of time to write and I'm spending my free time today thinking up my itinerary of writing projects. In fact, the blog will probably be off-line until Wednesday (probably...we'll see). Just so you folks know.

Happy Presidents Day!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

All Right – This Shit IS Hard (Kinda’)

Trying to write one’s own version of Dungeons & Dragons can be both frustrating and enlightening. Frustrating and enlightening for pretty much the exact same reasons.

Ugh. It’s kind of hard to explain but I’ll give it a shot.

What do you do when you have the premier fantasy role-playing game and people are playing the hell out of it using nothing but a few scribbled packets of notes and you want to make it “better?” What do you do when all along the simplicity of the design allowed folks to add all sorts of fun ideas and house rules, and now you’re attempting to lend the thing a degree of coherence? How do you balance the crazy energy of the game IN ACTUAL PLAY with the potential for a more serious exploration of them and subject matter? How do you reconcile those two without destroying the thing’s free-wheeling fun with an over-burdening of rules crunch?

How do you make a game of “serious” or “dark fantasy” and yet delightfully whimsical and enchanting (not just cheesy and satirical) all at the same time?

How do you do both The Hobbit AND The Lord of the Rings?

It’s tricky. It’s mercurial. It’s friggin’ Howardian…one day a Conan story is incredibly dark and mean-spirited (c.f. the Black Circle boys), the next he’s braining someone with a leg of mutton and knocking himself out cold in a drunken slapstick routine.

I suppose you see this juxtaposition of humor and seriousness in some of the better action films (Star Wars and Die Hard come to mind), and there’s a certain amount of that being tapped by the best D&D games. However, it has been my experience that the “serious” part can be difficult to sustain in the face of certain ridiculous aspects…especially the more players there are sitting 'round the table.

Which can be a real buzzkill if you want something more than just a pratfall with blood.

Anyway…to be specific about my own issues, here’s the dichotomy I’M running up against: trying to balance over-the-top fantasy (perhaps milder than the usual D&Dish stuff) versus a coherent, gritty fantasy based in large part on the mythic/historic “real world.”

Ugh. You just can’t have it both ways.

And the more I try to do it, the greater appreciation I have for Mr. Gygax and company...or the mess they made, anyway. I like the paladin class (as presented in Supplement I, minus the horse) and I want to include it, but there is absolutely no real historic (mythic) basis for it. I LIKE my version of the illusionist (who is increasingly morphing into ‘some-type-o-spell-caster-most-definitely-not-an-illusionist’) and think it would be fun to play…but then we’re getting into “lala land” weirdness with the way I'm writing the character. I WANT the world to feel more real, with less humanoids and fewer fantastic monsters in general…but then, what kind of adventures will player characters be getting into? If most monsters don’t collect treasure (because they’re mindless creatures), then what point is there for PCs to fight them? What’s the reward?

On the other hand, how can you be setting specific and generic at the same time? If there’s an assassins guild or a thieves guild or a magic-users guild (or whatever)...well, that says something about the setting of your game, even when you try to make the damn thing generic and “oh-just-apply-the-game-concept-to-any-setting-you-like.” No, you can’t do that…unless you strip the thing down to its barest, basest bones.

And then you’re losing all the cool flavor that’s in your head and that you wanted to include in the first place. Because after all, you ARE trying to create a reference that is going to be USED at your gaming table.

Blackmoor worked with OD&D. Greyhawk worked with OD&D. Putting them together (or lumping them into one volume like AD&D), causes them to fight and antagonize each other. Just what is a paladin versus a ranger versus a monk versus a cleric? In the real world I can reconcile different religious philosophies: there is One God who has many names (some of which may even be multiplicities). The Truths (that we’re all in this together and need to help one another however we can) doesn’t vary from cult to cult or institution to institution…just the prayers and semantics and observed rites and traditions change.

But in D&D, there’s more changing than just ritual and burnt offering: there are sweeping game effects that change. If clerics can’t use edged weapons, how come paladins can? Why don’t monks get spells or the ability to turn undead? If druids are priests of nature, why do they have so many differences from other priesthoods. Etc., etc.

These are FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS of the concept of a game world. They do not rest easily together, and yet none are left out…instead more on simply added over time. And I think the reason why is this:
  • Taking each concept individually, the idea can be fun and intriguing.
  • When designing an updated version of a game with fun and intriguing concepts, where do you draw the line? How do you decide which beloved class ends up on the cutting room floor
FOR EXAMPLE: I can see a campaign world in which both druids (with their strange abilities) and clerics (with their different strange abilities) exist side-by-side. Most likely in an antagonistic relationship to each other (similar to our real world, right? Organized religious figures stamping out the nature-loving pagans?). What I have a much harder time picturing is a world in which these two guys go on happy little adventures together. Not without some mighty heavy-handed forcing (or just throwing up your hands and saying, “hey, the game is OVER-THE-TOP.”) And I don’t want to do that (either one!)!

So yeah, this shit is hard.

Check out this other example: O Spell List How I Hate Thee. I am soooo tired of the D&D spell list, even as I totally dig Vancian (“fire-and-forget”) magic and want to include it in my game. There is just little to me that is as tired as “spell bloat.” Oh, we need to fill out this list…how about protection from evil in a 10 FOOT RADIUS? How about Lower Water AND Part Water both as 5th level spells. Oh, let’s throw magic missile in here so magic-users get an attack spell at 1st level. Oh, but let’s scale it up with level so that a 1st level spell can do more damage than most other spells at high level…and players can take multiples of them, totally out-classing the archer guy with his bow specialty.

And yet, specific spells of D&D are such a recognizable trope that NOT including them, or changing their function or level needed to cast, is totally asking for people to disregard your game and say THAT isn’t D&D, even if you do have spell books and scrolls and all the Vancian rigmarole. “No, sleep spell? What kind of savage are you?”

So yeah, it’s hard. Forget “game balance” as the idea of niche protection or allowing characters to all compete evenly on a relatively level playing field. THAT’s the last thing on my mind! I’m trying to balance concept and consistency and interesting-fun-bang…AND still put out something recognizable as Dungeons & Dragons.

I mean, I really REALLY don’t want elves and dwarves in this f’ing thing…at least not as player characters. Is that a total deal-breaker? Do I need to have an appendix on ‘em?

[actually an appendix for demihumans ain’t a bad idea]

When I was doing the monster list for Land of Ice I spent an awful lot of time thinking about what to include and what not to include. I mean, really, why are some monsters even on the monster list in D&D? Triceratops was a vegetarian…it’s a big scaly cow, folks. What purpose could it have in attacking a party of adventurers? Assuming they can do it serious harm, wouldn’t it just run away? Are rats really likely to attack players carrying fire? What kind of crazy-ass world is this, anyway? Why are so many sentient humanoid species degenerate killers looking to fight humans? What kind of evolution leads to goblins, kobolds, orcs, hobgoblins, bugbears, lizard men, bullywugs, sauhagin, troglodytes, ogres, giants, etc., etc. It just doesn’t make a heaping whole lot o sense.

And yet you can have FUN with ANY AND ALL of these things. There’s no editing of content in D&D (at least not till 2nd Edition); there’s just fantasy diarrhea of the brain. Your character wants to use the awesome chain lightning spell? Then you need to have a mob of monsters to attack. Because while a singular monster is often a coward to be pitied, a group of monsters is a war party.

Just never mind that the high breeding humans with their ability to manufacture plate armor and steel weapons will quickly extinguish ANY such hostile species from the face of the fantasy planet. I mean, just look at all the real world species and cultures humans have suppressed or hunted to extinction with a lot less motivation than that needed to take on the psychotic orc tribe down the street.

I’ve said before that the basic premise of D&D is ridiculous. It is also, however, fun to play...even when folks are using it as a ridiculous farce (for some people that just makes it more fun to play and is the main draw of playing).

Maybe it’s just me; maybe I'm the odd duck when it comes to this thing. Conventional (no pun intended) wisdom would probably say to just go with the mash-up (as everyone else has done before) and allow individual DMs to either A) try to weakly justify the kitchen sink design strategy of the game, or B) discard and house rule down to their preferred stream-lined version.

But if I’m rewriting the game for myself, shouldn’t I be writing what I want?

On the other hand, if I write solely for myself, I might not be able to find any players who want to play what I want.

And anyway, I want to include both paladins and assassins. I’m just having a tricky time figuring out why they would ever associate with each other.

Ah, well…that one is perhaps the LEAST of my worries.
; )

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Goddammit, Gygax!

Oh, don't mind me...probably just in a crummy mood again. You know: the usual complaints. Not enough sleep. Not enough time to write (nor even blog). Too many games, too little time. Not enough money. Etc., etc.

The "not enough writing time" is the real killer. Not having access to my own computer at work means not being able to save anything. All I've been able to do is print the stuff I write, hoping to to transcribe it later (yeah, right...). Ugh.

And then there's Gygax's damn game.

Does anyone think about this stuff? I mean, am I the only one that gets hung up on the discrepancies? Jesus.

[yes, I know I'm not the only one that analyzes the snot out of D&D and I'm certainly not the only one tugging at his thinning hair over the inconsistencies. I'm just waxing rhetorical, folks]

Work progresses on D&D Mine, of course (work has come to a stand-still on my one "hopefully will be published soon" project. Waiting on artwork...again). It's turning out pretty which I mean, I am excited at the prospect of running it. I may even incorporate some Land of Iceisms into it (I'm thinking of the major wound table), though other things (like psi powers and weapon breakage) don't really fit the theme.

On the other hand, it's definitely going to include some very noticeable D&Disms: like variable weapon damage and Vancian magic and classes with different level limits. Hell, I'm even putting Thief Skills back in the game, and you know how much I've raved about doing away with those in the past.

That is to say, in all my B/X games of the last year or so I've allowed thief skills to automatically succeed (rather than requiring percentile rolls) with good results (happy players, happy DM, competent thief characters). Welp, playing in Randy's game recently has got me rethinking the whole thing...I can see upside to the random rolls and the occasional failure, not to mention the sense of accomplishment that comes from going up in level and increasing ability. The important part is making sure player characters don't SUCK...and I think I've figured out a way to do that. Basically, by borrowing a page from 2nd Edition AD&D.


But the downside of cramming "real D&D" into the game is I end up going over this stuff with a fine-tooth mental comb. And sometimes there are snags.

What I'm looking for is this:
  • Does it work within the game context?
  • Is it necessary to the play of the game (the way I want it played)?
  • Is it playable? How much time does it take away from the play of the game due to extra "rules crunch?"
  • Does it make f'ing sense?
I'll give a quick example of what I'm talking about: encumbrance and movement.

All right, that's not really one thing, but two...but in D&D the two are very much linked together. At least if you choose to use the variable at all. In B/X, encumbrance is an optional rule and player characters can all have a standard speed (12"). In the past, my general MO has been to simply assign movement based on gear carried (Chainmail? Okay, you move 6") rather than slow down the game by making players calculate every coin of weight. For the most part, the main reason I wanted to know the speed of characters was in case they needed to outrun some monster or other.

But is knowing exact encumbrance and movement useful and helpful to the game? Well, yeah, actually...a bit. In a game where time matters, especially at low levels (when you're relying on torches for example), it is important to know how fast and far characters can travel before their light burns down. Time, as yet another resource to be managed, is an interesting with all sorts of interesting consequences attached to it. And managing that time feels very much like Dungeons & Dragons. Removing spells like continual light from the game (which I'm considering spells should be permanent without being an actual, physical enchantment, like magic items) makes the game a whole different ball game. One I'm excited to play.

On the other hand, there can be too much of a good thing. When I played (briefly) in Alexis's on-line campaign, I had a blast adding up all the encumbrance of the various gear I carried, not to mention figuring out where everything was strapped on and tied down. It was a good, fun mental exercise, and I enjoyed doing helped me really visualize my character, and consider how he would move/behave. On the other hand, it took me a couple hours to complete the task, and that was using an Excel spreadsheet. That is the last thing I want players doing at the table when making a new character.

Then there's the movement rates themselves. They are soooo slow. And it does NOT slow one down all that much to be wearing a suit of armor (I know, I've done it), nor carrying a bunch of stuff. When I pick up my boy from the nanny and walk a mile to the bus, I've got a baby strapped to my front, a backpack full of books and laptop strapped to my back, a cloth grocery bag carrying my giant coffee thermos and lunch tuppers, and the baby's travel bag with clothes and diapers and empty bottles from his lunch...all of which is incredibly bulky...and my walking speed isn't slowed noticeably at all...and I walk at a considerable clip.

[it's the opening doors and performing delicate tasks that gets tough when over-burdened with the bulky...I'd want to drop a bunch of stuff if I was, say, in a pitched battle in an underground environment]

And yesterday, I was timing myself to see how far I walked a (guesstimated) 90' or 120'. At it just doesn't take very long at all. Even walking carefully, counting paces, pretending I'm studying imaginary architecture or just isn't a very great distance. At least not over a broken sidewalk (which I'd imagine to be fairly close to ancient flagstone). This is why, my Land of Ice supplement sets base movement at 12" (B/X maximum) unless severely over-burdened with treasure and fallen comrades. If I had an unconscious body across my back, then I'd be moving a lot slower.

Over time, carrying weight and bulk will slow your average speed due to fatigue and the need to rest...but that's not how D&D measures movement. They take the perspective of a guy hauling a couch on his back, when in reality a fit human can carry a lot of weight (like metal armor), properly distributed over the body, fairly unhampered...and pretty fast over short distances.

So I went back to OD&D to see what the hell is up. Whenever I run into something that looks "off" for one reason or another, I've taken to checking OD&D (and sometimes Chainmail) to see if I can glean any explanation as to why The Creators did as they did. I found this bit of weirdness:
In the underworld all distances are in feet, so wherever distances are given in inches convert them to tens of feet.

Movement (distances given in Vol. 1) is in segments of approximately ten minutes. Thus it takes ten minutes to move about two moves - 120 feet for a fully armored character. Two moves constitute a turn, except in flight/pursuit situations where the moves/turn will be doubled (and no mapping allowed).
It was that second paragraph that had me puzzled. I had to read it a couple times and then rearrange the sentences so that they made sense:

Two moves constitute a turn... takes ten minutes to move about two moves...
...120' for a fully armored character.

A "fully armored character" appears to be 6" (i.e. 60') from my reading of Volume 1 (it's a little convoluted, but I think it's clear the movement isn't 12").

So if I'm reading this correctly, the original rules had characters moving at about twice the normal speed of any edition that came after...because movement was allotted twice in each turn (or, to put another way, 1 move takes place over 5' minutes or half a turn). This would certainly make the running/pursuit speed closer to AD&D (where running is 5 times normal OD&D, running would be 4 times, i.e. "twice double movement per turn").

Ugh! One semi-mystery solved!

But that's not anything to get too worked up about...I mean, we knew movement and encumbrance and such was kind of mess anyway. Right?

No the thing that makes me exclaim "Goddammit, Gygax!" is the damn thief rules (again). How many times have I been asked by a player if their thief can jump into the shadows in the middle of combat? How many times have they asked me if (hiding) they can sneak up on some creature and backstab it? Only for me to point out, no you can't just "go a-hiding" and no you cannot move once you're hidden: the text in both the AD&D Players Handbook, and B/X (and probably other editions if I bothered to look...I know it's the case in LL also) is explicit in that the thief must remain perfectly still or motionless when hiding in shadows.

And then I look at Gygax's own combat example in the PHB (after the spell section) and what do I find? The thief jumps into the shadows in the first round of combat and maneuvers around a whole pile of orcs in order to backstab the Big Bad wizard in Round 2.

F you, Gygax! Why make my job any harder than it already is?!


All right, all I said, I'm just a bit grumpy this morning. I'm sure I'll be perked up in time for tonight's game.

Monday, February 13, 2012


So, I probably failed to mention that I will be working out of my downtown office for the next four weeks...which means readjusting to my prior posting life (which I seem to recall was fairly nice, given that I could use local free wireless service for my own laptop, rather than relying on the weirdness and availability of the local library).

On the other hand, the reason I'm down here at all is to help out our office, which means I've got a bit higher workload (and thus less-than-normal "free" time) than normal.

Just letting folks know.

Oh, yeah...and I'm starting to coalesce my own version of Dungeons & Dragons (if coalesce is the right, well...). Something I'm having a bit of a tough time with is the whole idea of "theme;" by which I mean, it's hard not to make "one's own version" of D&D "themed to taste" (as in giving it a hard-and-fast concept as opposed to making it generic).

I'm not sure if that's a bad thing...I mean, I LIKE the theme I'm using (no it is not Viking at all, or even Old English/Celtic), but part of why I'm using it is that's about the only way I can include the tropes of D&D (specifically the eclectic monster/treasure lists) along with the classes and house rules I want. And seeing as how the concept is based on "real world history" to a certain degree, how does the whole elf/dwarf/halfling thing fit?

I suppose it doesn't and I suppose that doesn't matter...Alexis's 15th century Europe and Raggi's Weird New World have no problems shoe-horning the "standard" D&D species into a historic setting. But the farther one gets away from Europe, the less European folklore seems to fit. How would YOU put dwarves into the ancient Incan empire? Or aboriginal Australia? Not that I'm doing either of these things, I'm just saying...

Just in case anyone's wondering, I'm starting with OD&D as a base (using some of the "Moldvay-cleaned-up" rule interpretations) and including some of the stuff found in the supplements. I honestly haven't decided if I want to use demihumans at all, and whether or not I want to keep "race as class" or do "race AND class." I shall be stealing from a variety of sources for various things I like, but magic will still be Vancian and I doubt I'll be using condensed levels.

Okay...more on all that later. Gotta' get back to work!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Building a New Dungeons & Dragons (Redux)

Look, folks…

A couple/few days ago I got incensed by something I read and I got a bee in my bonnet and I said, hey, I can come up with Three Pillars that are a lot better things to consider “across areas of design” than the WotC design team’s Combat-Exploration-Roleplay model. But as I said (initially) I’m just a lone voice ranting from the darkest backwater depths of the internet.

WotC doesn’t care who I am or what I have to say: they’re already getting paid.

Folks who’ve canned everything post-1987 or post-1983 or post-whenever your personal favorite edition was issued probably don’t care (much) about what I have to say: they’re already playing their edition of choice (with or without) house rules.

Folks who are Shills for the Man, or Completists, or Fair Shakers, or Eternal Optimists, and who already plan on buying WHATEVER WotC puts out (they bought 4th edition, anyway), almost certainly don’t care what I say: they’ve already voted with their wallets.

SO…who does that leave? Anyone?

Well to those who ARE listening and don’t think I’m patently ridiculous…to you, Slim Few, I say unto thee:

I can build a “new” edition of D&D…and hell, you can, too.

You can. You really, really, REALLY can.

The more I look at it, the simpler it gets. In fact, the more I roll the idea over in my head, the more I like it.

Allow me to indulge myself for the nonce: a while back I wrote this-and-that about “fantasy heartbreakers,” and even came to the conclusion that I wanted to try my hand at writing one…a game that was a total knock-off of D&D, destined for no more than the trashcan ‘cause, you know, fantasy heartbreakers aren’t viable in any sort of commercial or economic way. It was purely a project of vanity.

Then I started getting some delusions of grandeur: “Wow,” thought I, “maybe I could sell this for some scratch! Maybe Barnes & Noble would carry it!”

Then I woke up from my folly. I considered not only that such thinking was the height of silliness, but also that I really didn’t want to “rewrite D&D.” The things that D&D had “missed on” the first time around were things I found, frankly, quite charming…like the lovable quirks and idiosyncrasies of your friends and family. Anything I really couldn’t live with I could f’ing well “house rule” if needed. That what I do already.

In other words I found I wanted to play D&D.

THEN I really started to fall in love with the idea of campaign settings (and something set me off, though I can’t remember what it was), so I decided to write a very specific one for B/X in the form of Land of Ice. I was thinking of snow and Vikings at the time. ANYway…it was while doing Land of Ice that several things happened at once:
  • All the hubbub about 5E started
  • The AD&D reprints were announced
  • I started playing in Alexis’s AD&D game (and was subsequently canned)
  • I started playing in Randy’s Labyrinth Lord game
  • I re-read the OD&D Supplements I-III
And then there was this Three Pillars thing (in which I take a closer look at “what makes D&D tick”).

And ALL of that roiled and boiled together and spilled over into an idea...a minor epiphany...that, hey, you know what? Not only do I like Dungeons & Dragons…the kernel that is its core, the core material of most every edition…not only do I like D&D and have ZERO interest in writing my own “fantasy RPG” to replace it…not ONLY that, BUT this:

I, too, can write a “new” edition of D&D. It’s not all that hard. After all:

Gygax did it.
Holmes did it.
Moldvay did it.
Mentzer did it.
“Zeb” did it.
WotC did it (several times).

And I would say all these “retrocloners” (Proctor and Raggi and the S&W and OSRIC folks, etc.) have done it, too.

NONE of these games that we call “D&D” (or facsimiles thereof) are “exactly like” any other. I doubt that anyone playing D&D anywhere is playing strictly Rules As Written…I certainly don’t and I’ve long been a big (and loud) proponent of RAW.

The fact of the matter is this:

There is no one, true, complete, baseline edition of Dungeons & Dragons. There are the pillars that form the foundation of game play (Challenge, Reward, and Escape is how I label ‘em). There are the stylistic tropes we’ve come to recognize (XP, class, D20 combat, hit points, saves, etc.). And then there are the players at the table who have a loose agreement on “how to play” based on a common understanding and a (hopefully strong) social contract.

The players say:
“You will be our DM…you will interpret the rules. It is your responsibility to challenge us, to reward us, and to provide us with escape.”

The Dungeon Master says:
“I will accept this mantle of responsibility. I understand that my challenge is to challenge the players, my reward is in seeing my vision come to fruition, and my escape is in the creation of that vision. I will endeavor to share this vision as an impartial channel and arbiter.”

And play begins.

It’s too bad we don’t begin the game with some sort of ritual like this: ritual is a powerful thing, and a real bonding process. You can see it in the rites of a Mass or church service, the pledging of allegiance in classrooms, the swearing on a Bible or holy book…even the singing of the National Anthem, coin toss, and post-game handshake at a pro-football game. RITUAL to open and close a game session would be a cool thing in my opinion…but then again, I’m Catholic and dig on ritual.

But that's a post for another time.

Perhaps what every table needs is its own Game Bible, filled with one’s own interpretation of “the original adult fantasy role-playing game.” That is what I’m actually talking about when I say I can build my own “new” edition of D&D. I really don’t think it’s all that hard to do: pick an edition that you like as a BASE and then write out the differences for your game. How tough is that?

Do you really need to keep sucking at the corporate tit to get nutrition for your imagination?

It’s just as Alexis said (or implies anyway): you really don’t. Waiting for a 5th Edition or a 6th or a 7th or a reprint of earlier books is simply staying dependent on someone else…in this case, a soulless corporate entity whose main concern is baseline profitability due to the reality of being a publicly traded company with shareholders.

I mean, that’s the fact of the matter folks. The ugly truth. Unless you’re brand-spanking-new to the game, just pick an edition you like and rewrite it to taste. Anything less is…well, it’s kind of intellectual laziness, and possibly a bit childish.

And don’t think I’m not calling myself out here as well…I’m as lazy as they come when it comes to organization and getting my shit together. It’s a lot easier to criticize than to actually f’ing DO something. Just because I'm a hypocrite doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to tell it like it is and hold it up as an ideal.

It just means I’m not a very good role model.

So by all means, why don’t we just do it? Build our own “D&D Next?” What are we waiting for? What are we afraid of? Don’t we have word processors and printers at our homes, schools, work?

Have you folks not seen Planet Eris (just as an example)?

I’m doing it…I’m f’ing going to do it. There’s really no excuse not to. I’m going to do a small supplement book (like Greyhawk or Blackmoor or, yes, Planet Eris) and it’s going to collect all the rules I use that describe how the game is played at MY table. No thief skills, for example. No weapon restrictions. D6 damage. Allowable classes. All that good stuff. Heck, maybe I’ll do my own illustrations (I can draw a little bit, and I do have a scanner at home). I’ll save it as a .pdf and make it available for my players as a download for their tablets and smartphones. If rules need to be changed (due to breakage discovered at the game table), I’ll update the book. A small “House Rules Bible.”

Call it, “D&D Mine.”

When will I get to this? Who knows…soon, I hope. I really don’t think it will take that long, as I don’t need it to be a masterpiece of prose, just cut-n-dry rules (maybe a random table or two). I know how to play, I just need a reference document.

And I’ll tell you this: building my own D&D will be a damn sight better, more fun, and hella’ cheaper than waiting for WotC’s new version, and then figuring out which modular supplements I need to run a game. I mean, when you think about it, isn’t it kind of ridiculous?

Ballsy of ‘em? Sure. Done with super-good intentions? More than likely (at least on the part of the designers). Done with love and care for the game? Probably…as best they can given the constraints of their corporate overlords.

But I can project into the future and see myself being disappointed by the whole thing. Wanting to like it, saying O What Neat Artwork and Presentation…and still being frustrated by the whole experience of it. Eventually falling back on My Own Way of playing or an older edition or house-ruling the shit out of whatever-it-is, modular or not.

‘Cause that’s what happens with EVERY edition one plays.

So, yeah, I’m going to head ‘em off at the pass. Maybe I’ll work up a generic template for others to use (maybe…that might be a little too ambitious) so that I’m not the only one on this Quixotic journey.

Anyway…that’s just where my head’s at right now. I know some folks would say, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." I've decided to go for the third option instead.
; )

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Third Pillar – Escape

You know, I have a pretty good life. I have a beautiful family that I love very much. I have caring parents and in-laws. I have two (beagle) dogs who, while obnoxious at times, are a lot of fun and no more than what I deserve. I own a nice house. I have a car that runs. My wife and I both have decent jobs, and there’s food on our table every night. I have a large TV to watch large TV shows. I live in a city with professional sports teams that provide hours of entertainment. I have several bookshelves over-flowing with books and games. And if that wasn’t enough, I live in a pretty nice city with a lot of recreational activity, both indoors and out.

My life is fantastic, and I feel truly blessed to live it. And yet sometimes reality just isn’t good enough.

Welcome to Escapism 101.

There’s no getting around it (at least not to my mind): one of the major draws of the Dungeons & Dragons game is the fantasy of playing an imaginary character in an imaginary world where magic and monsters abound. The challenge and reward that are the first two pillars might keep folks coming back for more, but it’s the temptation to play a wizard or sword-wielding elf (or whatever) that sucks people in in the first place.

Now I (personally) use the term “fantasy role-playing” to discuss most RPGs. After all, the word fantasy simply means “the realm of imagination” or “make believe,” and pretending to be a secret agent or rugged cowboy is just as fantasy (for me) as pretending to be Bilbo Baggins.

But for purpose of the Third Pillar, when I use the term fantasy (and to be fair, it would probably be more clear to call the pillar “Fantasy Escape” instead of just “Escape”)…*ahem* When I use the term “fantasy” in reference to the Third Pillar, I’m talking about the literary term “fantasy,” which involves aspects of the supernatural and magic in addition to the imaginary or make-believe.

When it comes to fantasy literature, there are several sub-genres that are espoused, both in terms of theme and setting. Dungeons & Dragons, being originally inspired by fantasy literature, makes a clumsy swipe at the bunch and draws subgenres from both of those:

From the theme subgenre: Sword & Sorcery (example: Robert E. Howard)
From the setting subgenre: High Fantasy (example: J.R.R. Tolkien)

The reason why people have such a hard time deciding which it is, is because it is in fact BOTH…and comparing S&S to HF is comparing apples to oranges, not Braeburns to Granny Smiths.

[we’ll get back to the pillar in a moment; this needs a little set-up]

The high fantasy SETTING subgenre of literary fantasy fiction is defined by being set in an alternative world, one in which magic and the supernatural exists. Themes of high fantasy can include conflicts of epic scope, and generally have a “good vs. evil” thing going on. Protagonists are lone heroes that start young (or immature anyway) and grow into their abilities/confidence over time, sometimes walking the road of the Heroic Saga, and sometimes not.

The sword & sorcery THEME subgenre of literary fantasy fiction is characterized by fast paced action and danger that threatens its heroes on a personal level. The scope of conflict is immediate and immanent to the hero, not some looming Dark Lord. Sword & sorcery heroes tend to be competent wanderers, disinclined to settle down, instead going “where the action is.” Their adventures often include elements of magic and the supernatural (thus distinguishing them from historic adventure fiction and the like).

Got it? So what we have in D&D is a mash-up of THEME and SETTING…you get an alternate world filled with magic and the supernatural (elves and dragons and wizards, etc.). You have good versus evil. And you have heroes growing into their own, becoming important parts of the setting (at least if you choose to play the game into high levels, becoming kings and queens and whatnot). At the same time the scale of conflict is, more often than not, IMMEDIATE to what’s right in front of you. Do you defeat the antagonist? Do you set-off the trap? Do your party members find the gemstone you’ve hidden up your left nostril?

The fact that your characters are “competent wanderers” (at least in the mid-levels) and scurrilous rogues (default characterization for pre-1983 editions) makes characterization of PCs even more S&S-esque. You're Fafhrd, not Elrond, more often than not.

The third pillar upon which D&D is built…and without which, you don’t really have a D&D game…is its ability to allow you to escape into this fantasy mash-up. This escape...escape from our mundane lives, nice (or terrible) as they are…allows us to experience (vicariously, with our imagination) two very distinct things simultaneously:

1) What it means to live and breathe in a high fantasy world.
2) What it means to live the life of a rough-and-tumble, S&S hero.

Now THAT’s a powerful combination.

With only one of those things, you run the risk of losing part of the draw of the game.

For example, take out the high fantasy and leave only the S&S and you run the risk of players becoming incredibly cynical and callous to the game. Take the Stormbringer game for example. The original game was a great piece of sword & sorcery RPG…including the idea that life is short or transitory at best and often ends in messy spillage of organs. Having no “end game,” and very little character growth over time, players were expected to survive as long as possible while “adventuring” until meeting their inevitable gruesome demise (as occurs to all characters in Moorcock’s Elric books). I’ve played Stormbringer many times and enjoyed it, but it never turns into anything “long term.”

Ron Edwards’s supplement Sorcerer & Sword (for use with his Sorcerer game) is explicit in its attempt to emulate the S&S literary genre. It also is a “short-term” (3 or 5 session) game. This has quite a bit to do with Sorcerer’s game play aspects, but the rules eminently emulate the inspirational literature.

Contrast that with a game that leaves out the S&S and focuses only on the High Fantasy. Actually, that’s kind of a trick question as few RPGs will really spurn the individual character in order to pay honor the overarching setting. Perhaps MERPS, Star Wars (I consider it fantasy, even though set in space), or ElfQuest, might be examples. When I’ve played or run these games in the past, players (including moi) were often lost as to “well, what do we do now?” And especially with the licensed games, there’s a feeling of “none of my adventures matter, because it’s really Frodo/Luke/Cutter who’s going out and accomplishing the world changing/saving, breast-beating fantasy that I only wish I could.”

Sure, you can call this silly on my part; chalk it up to me not having enough imagination to revisit, say, Middle Earth and rework The Lord of the Rings' plot for the player characters to take the place of Frodo and company. But why should I bother? I mean, I have Dungeons & Dragons…here’s a system that does what I want it to do with very minimal tweaking. With its Tolkien species and its Vancian magic, not to mention Howardian shrines and tombs begging to be robbed of gold and jewels, D&D caries just about the right mix of heroic and epic for my fantasy escape.

And it’s easily customizable! Look at the archetypes (classes) that are available! Look at all the fantasy worlds available for exploration!

That last is the bit that appeals even to the guy tasked with the responsibility of DM. The participants taking the role of “player characters” get to live their daydream life in the fantasy world, swinging swords, slinging spells, talking smack to ogres, etc. You can fall off the edge of a cliff or get bitten by a giant spider or snake and still miraculously survive (with a lucky die roll or two)…unlike, say, real life. But while PCs get to run their characters, it’s the DM that gets to run the world.

And there are so many to choose from! When I was a kid we used Greyhawk, and as a teen we were exploring the Known World of Mystarra. But besides published ones (personally, I like the ideas behind Dark Sun and, to a lesser extent, Krynn and Shadow Dell) you have the whole range of fantasy literature to draw upon: CA Smith’s Averiogne, Howard’s Hyboria, the fantasy Scandanavia of Elizabeth Boyer, Tolkien, Lewis, Lahnkmer, Xanth, Darkover, Sanctuary. I’ve been reading Dave Chandler’s Ancient Blades trilogy lately (more on that later) and the deeper I get into it, the more I want to build a campaign setting based on HIS world.

But it’s just as easy and entertaining an escape to design and develop your OWN world. Personally, I dig on both my Goblin Wars and Land of Ice settings, but Raggi’s horrific New World and Wetmore's Anomalous Subsurface Dungeon and Jimm Johnson's Planet Eris are weird-cool-fun…and I’d love to do something with just a baseline version of Arneson’s Blackmoor (meaning just “OD&D + Supplement II”).

Escapism and “fantasy” are part of MOST RPGs, it’s true. But D&D’s particular brand of fantasy escapism…giant, high fantasy setting coupled with individual badass heroes…is one of the integral parts of the game. One of the *ahem* foundational pillars of the game. And something that needs to be accounted for when building any “new” edition of D&D. And part of accounting for that is in terms of actual game play.

Now this next bit may evoke some disagreement: I’m willing to live with that. I have said in the past that, despite its name, I don’t feel 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons really is “D&D.” Yes, it has the name. Yes, it has some of the tropes. But compared to the previous 5 to 8 editions (however, you choose to count ‘em), I don’t think the game AS WRITTEN provides the same game play experience. And the controversial part of that opinion is that I haven’t played it, and I haven’t skimmed more than a few pages of the text. But I have seen it played, and I’ve read reviews, and I’ve talked with people who have played it. And from that “hearsay” it would seem that both the challenge and reward pillars of earlier editions are dialed WAY DOWN in the 4th edition.

However, it’s when we come to the literary fantasy roots that make up the third pillar of D&D, that 4E REALLY seems to take a nosedive into something else. Gone is the exploration of a high fantasy setting…instead, we have set piece encounter followed by set piece encounter with little other “action.” Gone is the individual hero to be replaced by superheroes that mechanically are little different in effectiveness from each other, instead having individual color rather than true distinction. Even D20, for all its flaws, felt MORE like the fantasy escape I’ve grown to know over the years than 4th Edition, the latter of which seems (from appearance) to have all the heart-and-soul of a board game or war game (i.e. “not much”).

What I want…what a lot of folks who enjoy D&D, in any edition, want…is to get lost, temporarily, in a fantasy world. One separate and outside the one we live in. One filled with magic and wonder and the supernatural. One in which the individual counts for something, when one individual can make a serious difference…because in this story, your character is the protagonist and your choices and behavior are at the forefront of the saga.

Now, if we accept that “fantasy escape” is the third pillar, how do we incorporate that into the modular design of a new edition? Some possible examples might include:

- Specific setting add-ons that change the play of the game (changing game play, keeping it fresh, giving participants new “dimensions” to explore).
- Rules (or add-on systems) that allow individual behavior to have an impact on the world...things that encourage role-playing (i.e. escape into character), ideally non-class-specific but setting driven: luck points, sworn oaths and vows, one-on-one dueling, rules of attraction (for romance), aging and deterioration (character mortality)…all things that make the game more complicated, but richer in character
- Setting specific magic and supernatural effects
- Different ideas for challenges and rewards (the first two pillars) based on fantasy escape. How many of us in real life get to lead troops on a battlefield? How many of us get to jockey for status within the faerie courts? How many of us have ever had the opportunity to raise a dragon from the time it’s hatched to be a companion, mount, and/or supernatural familiar?

[here endeth the Third Pillar post...I have one more post in this series for tomorrow]

1000+ Words

On the advice of Steven King, I decided I better write 1000 words this morning to fulfill my daily requirement as a would-be writer (hack or not). I put together a 1400 word post this morning regarding a lot of crappy feelings I have right now, but I didn't bother to post it...who needs that kind of attitude on a Friday morning?

I think I'm just tired...didn't get much more than four hours of sleep last night.

The next "Three Pillar" post will go up around noon today, just BTW.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Second Pillar – Reward

The second pillar that is fundamental to the integrity of the D&D game is reward. Participants who participate in game play (whether as a player character or Dungeon Master) can expect to be rewarded for their actions.

Some might say the act of play itself is its own reward, and to a certain degree that is true (we’ll address that in the 3rd Pillar). However, actual compensation for the merits of one’s in-game (imaginary) action has been true through almost every edition of the game and is an identifiable part of the D&D game’s foundation. If characters are not being rewarded for their action, I’m not sure what you’re playing can be called “D&D.”

Similar to what was discussed in the prior post, the rewards to be had are different depending on the role one takes when participating in the game; I’ll discuss each in turn.

For player characters, we can see that one’s reward is one of improved effectiveness, decisively tied (in most editions) to the player’s response and success to challenges issued. A player character that meets and overcomes all challenges will progress quickly in game effectiveness, gaining experience and thus level, increasing attack ability, saving throws, hit points, number of spells, etc. A player character that chooses to face fewer challenges will find his (or her) effectiveness increased at a slower rate, as will player characters that seek many challenges but fails at overcoming those challenges.

This has been the case since the earliest editions of the game, when PCs were considered scurrilous rogues seeking fortunes within dark dungeons. The measure of a character’s “score” was, in the main, directly attributable to the value of treasure brought out of the ground. Recover a great deal of treasure and your character received more points, increasing in level (game effectiveness) and allowing the character to recover MORE treasure…though with a gradually diminishing rate of return.

By the 3rd (D20) Edition of the game, the experience points awarded were solely due to overcoming challenges commensurate with ability; whether or not treasure was recovered was of secondary concern (at best), except with regard to magic items (we’ll get back to those in a moment).

In addition to in-game effectiveness, the reward of game play also includes MORE game play and DIFFERENT game play, as the rewards reaped open up greater avenues of exploration for the player characters. A character that increases in level (and thus effectiveness) is able to delve deeper, darker dungeons and face greater challenges, presumably reaping greater reward. A character that acquires a spell or magic item allowing planar travel can journey to other dimensions, even across game and genre boundaries (see the notes on Gamma World and Boot Hill crossover in the original Dungeon Masters Guide). A character that acquires Name (9th) level and enough gold to build a stronghold fortress can begin exploring the adventures only open to a ruler of men: opening territories for expansion, drafting armies for conquest, making treatise and alliances, and seeing about putting an heir on the throne.

“Reward” is a fundamental pillar of the D&D game. Reward informs play; it explains why it is that player characters take action, why they behave as they do. Reward provides the motivation for character activity; some players may be uninterested in facing a challenge simply for the sake of a challenge (not all of us are “adrenaline junkies,” even in our imaginary worlds!), but for the sake of REWARD they will participate.

The promise of power can be a strong lure for even the most recalcitrant adventurer. Spell-users, especially the unarmored, lightly armed magic-user, will find that the best way to increase his (or her) survivability is take on challenges, to act heroic rather than stay home studying their tomes for it is only through adventuring that the wizard’s spell-casting ability improves.

To some, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense; the RPG Ars Magica, for example, makes the acquisition of magical power a product of staying shut-in for seasons at a time, poring over dusty scrolls and pursuing alchemical study and experimentation. Perfectly sensible and realistic, and Ars Magica is a very cool game (I’ve owned a couple editions). On the other hand, except as a mental exercise, this type of game play (tracking seasons and study points) is DEAD BORING to play. The Dungeons & Dragons game rewards active participation; it rewards PLAYING the game. As an activity of group participation, I prefer my RPG game play to have more player activity and less mental masturbation.

Since we’re on the subject of magic, I will mention that magic items in the D&D game are a stylistic trope that provides an additional “piece” of the reward system. After all, magic items are not simply gifted or sold to PCs (well, not in most editions of the game). Instead they must be found or earned/awarded through game play. They provide a similar bonus as experience points (i.e. they increase character effectiveness and open up other avenues of game play, depending on the effect of the item) and provide “crowing rights” to players: “Hey, I got a portable hole!” “Yeah, well I have a sword of sharpness, so there.”

Crowing (i.e. bragging) is part of the out-of-game reward that players receive; again referring back to the Forge article on the gamist creative agenda, players play the game in part to test their mettle and feel a sense of accomplishment at overcoming challenge. Whether that turns your crank or not, the game of D&D (at least in its pre-2007 editions) rewards players commensurate with the challenges tackled and the results achieved; whether or not you feel like bragging about it is entirely up to you.

For the Dungeon Master, there are rewards to game play as well:
  • The reward of creatively expressing oneself through a rich fantasy environment, not to mention interesting settings and scenarios.
  • The reward of cackling uproariously at your players’ expense when your fiendish challenge completely burns them.
The first item is something many GMs of other role-playing games can attest to as a “reward of play” (not all GMs…in some indie-style “story-games” the setting is too collaborative or too “set in stone” to allow much “world building”). But we’ll discuss some specific differences (with regard to D&D) when we get to the last pillar.

The second item, though, is something a lot fewer RPGs offer.

Because of the natural antagonist role placed on the DM by the Dungeons & Dragons game (i.e. the role of challenging the players), the DM has a chance to exercise his (or her) own personal brand of destruction in acting as an obstacle to the players. This can be in the form of a fiendish monster encounter or diabolical trap; it can be a cleverly mapped labyrinth or a moral quandary of epic consequence.

For an example of that last one, I advise checking out the fairly excellent Return to White Plume Mountain, the only 2nd edition book of any kind that still sits on my shelf. It forces players to make all sorts of ethical choices due to the nature of the adventure (wherein power is promised with a price, and mental possession is on the board for player characters)…and the climax (should the PCs reach it) is the real kicker: kill the baby or don’t kill the baby!

I mean, who would hurt a little baby?
; )

Anyway, as I said in the last post, the challenge of being a DM is in setting up challenges for the players that are neither overwhelming nor “softball.” The PAY-OFF (i.e. the “reward”) for the DM is in seeing those plans come to fruition and (if done correctly) feeling totally at ease with the self-indulgent hosing of the player characters.

Hey, I’m just being honest. A DM needs SOME kicks, after all…it’s not like we exist purely for the players’ entertainment, puffing them up with set pieces that are easy to knock down. We are required to “play fair” with the players (that’s explicit in every edition I've read), but providing we’re not throwing the might of the universe at ‘em, we’re obliged to try to knock the PCs down a peg. That’s OUR fun, and D&D is one of the few games that allow the referee to indulge in that kind of mayhem.

[in other RPGs, game moderators are working to build a world or story…sometimes in collaboration with players, other times “for the benefit of players” (and when the latter is done with respect to “story,” then you’ve got a railroad going on)]

Admittedly, not every DM “cackles” with glee (I was being superfluous there, though in my case it HAS been a literal truth at times), but DMs can take pride is their challenges and “stumping” the players, enjoying the push-and-pull of competition.

In building a new Dungeons & Dragons, care must be taken to build upon the pillar of reward, just as it is with the pillar of challenge…existing editions point to the way in which challenge is integrated with reward to provide a game that is both stimulating and motivating. If building the game in a modular fashion (as is the stated intention of current designers), modules can be developed that address this integral part of the D&D foundation. Some possible examples:
  • Rewards for increased effectiveness at different levels of play (low, mid, high)
  • Rewards coupled with new avenues of exploration (an example of such from the past might be the SpellJammer setting…by finding/building a space-worthy magic item or spell, it opens up “fantasy space” for exploration/exploitation by the party).
  • Additional rewards in terms of level-based minor abilities (similar to D20’s feats)
  • New methods of “keeping score,” new incentives to motivate players, “tournament style” add-ons for real crowing rights, etc.
  • Instruction and information for DMs to better gauge challenges so that they can “crow” on their own; modules that offer different ideas of how to “stick it” to players, giving DMs alternatives to the standard method of counting “wins” (I can think of a few, but listing them will sound more self-indulgent and sadistic than I already do!)
All right, that's enough to chew over for today.

Next pillar up: ESCAPE.