Tuesday, October 6, 2015


How many games does one need?

Being down in Paraguay has given me a lot of time to think, a lot of time to read, a lot of time to scheme up designs for games. The one thing it hasn't given me is a lot of time to play...and I have often suspected that the lack of actual real gameplay can lead to a lack of perspective when it comes to design.

And yet, many games are produced, that are so obviously "labors of love" by their authors...games that have been played and designed to their particular tastes...that exhibit such extreme differences in favored rules/systems that one has to wonder if writing a game for anyone but yourself (and your current gaming circle) is even a productive exercise. Maybe it ain't.

I look at the feedback I've received from 4E gamers and I see a couple different things that take me aback. One is that their interests...the things they LIKE and ENJOY about the game are so different from my own, that they see features where I see flaws. The other thing I see is that it appears every one of them has deviated gameplay in some way from the way the game is written, modifying it "to taste." Again, this just reinforces the notion I have.

From an economic standpoint (i.e. writing games for money) this would seem to point to two financially feasible solutions: you can write a game with a really neat setting/theme (that people can run with and plug into their own favorite system), or you can write a really neat system (that people can screw around with to their hearts desire). Anything other than these two options might as well be offered for free, at least if you're talking system (supplements, support, and adventures for existing games with popular support still sell, of course) because anything else really, truly is destined to be a "heartbreaker." Which is still fine, by the way...as long as you plan on playing the game yourself.

So here I sit, pulling out various designs I've been working on, and wondering if they are indeed "enough" to make it worth the effort of finishing them. Hell, are any of them interesting enough that I'D want to play them over something else on the market? That's the real question. And what I find is:

1) An interesting concept that I'm not interested in playing.
2) An interesting setting that I don't really want to explore.
3) An interesting way of doing magic that doesn't inspire me to play a spell-caster.
4) An interesting system that looks kind of a pain in the ass to use.

Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

Just what am I doing?! Really. I mean, I have an idea of what I want to see, what I want to play, but it's so dumb I can't even bring myself to writing it down. It's nostalgia play...play that captures the feeling, the energy, the ambience of my youth. Something that appeals to a certain generation of player...a generation that didn't cut its teeth on Mentzer's Basic or Zeb's AD&D or WotC's D20. Hell, a generation for whom even B/X was naught but a stepping stone.

When I was a kid (I know this is a ridiculous subject, by the way) I played AD&D. Oh, I started with B/X...heck, I started with the Dungeon! board game...but while B/X taught us the basics of the game our style of play was informed by AD&D. We were using a copy of the original Monster Manual (with its demons and devils and brain-ripping mind flayers) almost from the get go. We were using the Dungeon Masters Guide with its extensive magic items and astral encounters and wandering harlots and gambling dens and its random demons and its cursed artifacts almost immediately following our acquisition of the Expert set. Our games were dark and smoky affairs in wood paneled basements or played on heavy antique furniture. If we were Monty Haul in our treasure acquisition it was only fitting as we were fighting Demogorgon and characters were getting their limbs rotted off. Twisted fairy tales with talking animals and permanent curses mixed ruined cities and marching armies and troll-infested forests. Our entire world was "the Borderlands;" our characters were born of tragedies and died tragically and individuals both good and powerful were hard to find, being sequestered in secret hermitages like Elrond's Last Homely House.

No one got eaten by bears in those days...though dungeons rank with slimes and puddings and rot grub were likely to claim a few appendages on any given delve. Same with traps designed to sever grasping hands or and clumsy feet. Wishes were plentiful by modern standards, but always in short supply as they were used to recover characters that had been woefully "de-protagonized." Characters were captured, robbed, stripped, beaten, imprisoned, and tortured. Bullywugs were evil bastards. Halflings were comic relief. Humanoids like orcs and kobolds and goblins were almost never encountered, except in the distance among the marching hordes of an evil general. We never saw a paladin in these campaigns. Ever. Rangers were generally ridiculed by their fellow adventurers. Clerics were frontline fighters. Wizards had strange appearances, like eyebrows that grew long enough to braid, or red hair that danced like fire. Barbarians didn't "rage" any more than anyone else.

Half-elves. I miss half-elves.

"Ringmail" was a jacket with metal rings sewn on, "studded leather" was a jacket with metal studs, and "splint mail" was something only worn by githyanki (who were never encountered by the way, because planar travel was dangerous and avoided like the plague); "bulky armor" was, in general, left on the shelf. Fighters wore fanciful helmets with horns or wings. Everyone was dirty. Player characters had strongholds, but they didn't do much "ruling." I imagine they did a lot of brooding in the dark...like King Haggard or that pirate king in Game of Thrones. Finding a winged mount was a high priority because walking took a long time and the roads were universally terrible.

A lot of drinking in taverns. A lot of bar fights.

I miss beating someone senseless with a morning star. I miss bargaining with dragons. I miss subterranean causeways spanning rivers of lava. I miss characters being hopelessly lost in ancient, steaming jungles unknown by civilized people. I miss the danger of snowy avalanches. I miss desperate plans to save companions being held by soulless creatures of evil. I miss cacodaemon. I miss magic resistance.

Okay, maybe not magic resistance.

I miss the D&D I knew once upon a time. Maybe I just miss the friends with whom I played. Back then there were no "builds," no min-maxing effectiveness. Players played the characters they wanted because they wanted to try something. No one played magic-users "for the power;" the one guy who routinely played magic-users just liked being "magical" and doing "magical things" (like casting continual light inside a skull and using it for a lamp). Fighters didn't have "feats;" they had swords and armor and a bunch of hit points, and they were plenty effective. Dwarves and elves and whatnot were limited by their class options and were thus seldom seen...a human-centric universe that nonetheless possessed myth and magic. No one played half-orcs because they were ugly and despicable.

All right, I realize I'm starting to rave like a madman. Or a dude suffering through a severe fit of nostalgia. Sometimes I feel like I've got to spew my random thoughts before I can organize them into a coherent whole. We'll see if that's the case this time...it might not be. Maybe a 50-50 chance.

However, right now I've got a car to decorate (don't ask...it's a Paraguayan thing). More later.


  1. someone's suffering from game-deprivation...

    forget organizing your thoughts! play a game already! :)

  2. Man, I want to play that game, too! Note to self - Chanbara needs more lava rivers and such.

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  4. fuckn ROLL20. tons of games going all the time. Including 4E.

  5. Yes Demogorgon the original plague engine!
    It all started for me when I sat at the door of my best friend's older brother's room as he and his friends were pounded by mighty Demogorgon.
    And then I got Moldvay for Christmas and it was down the rabbit hole.

  6. So why don't you just make that game? You could easily go through this post and make notes of what should and shouldn't be in there: ditch planar travel, paladins and half-orcs (hell, probably orcs too); make rules for alcohol and flying mounts, etc. Ask yourself what other games are missing for that playstyle or what they do have that doesn't mesh with it

    With the RPG market being the way it is, and you being a very small fish in that pond, you've got to make what you love and hope others like it too (which isn't to say you shouldn't consider your audience during the design process. That leads to over-complication and system bloat). Hell, even though we aren't in total agreement on what we want out of our games (I'd love to see characters eaten by bears, and while I'm not a powergamer, I do like incentivizing choices), I'd still be interested in checking it out based on what you've written here. It sounds like fun!

  7. I love those games too. So very, very much.

  8. I feel this, bruh.
    Seriously, though.

  9. Oh man, yeah! I am picking up what you're laying down, man! In the words of Liz Lemon, "I want to go to that place." Those were the days, when men were men and gnomes were monster bait! Everything you described is, just...YES! Just the bare bones adventure of it all, man! No need for fancy character sheets. Just a notebook with lined paper that you could fill full of legendary deeds! Dammit, now I want to PLAY! Get me to a table, STAT!

  10. I know that started as a lament, but your 'raving madman' bit is practically compelling me to play 'proper' D&D - and I've just posted an 'I'm not playing enough, what do I do now' kinda post that suggested I'd settled on a 'space game'!

  11. I agree with you. If there's a good reason not to write a new RPG system, then don't do it. Adventures, campaign settings, and cool random tables are going to be more usable (and sell better) than core rules... unless the game rules!

    The game you describe sounds awesome. Find a way to give people that experience (especially non-gamers) and you'll have found your Holy Grail.