Sunday, December 27, 2015

Star Wars 7 Addendum

I hope everyone is having a happy holiday season. As one might surmise from my lack of posting, mine has been pretty merry (which is to say both eventful and fun). The only way I'm getting to write this is that I'm up before everyone else...around 9am, Orizaba time. Having a body clock accustomed to five hours of sleep has its least when I limit my alcohol consumption to four or five beers.

Ah...Mexico. It's been very merry indeed.

Anyway, got to see The Force Awakens (Star Wars 7) for the second time, yesterday, though this time dubbed in Spanish. Normally, we wouldn't have done this, as the adults prefer the subtitled version, and my boy (who got to go) can understand English perfectly. However, his 9 year old cousin cannot read subtitles fast enough to keep up, so this was a concession to both her and him (he wanted to see the film with his prima), so Spanish it was. The dub was good, but the jokes don't work nearly as good in translation, and both my wife and I found Kylo's voice to be scarier/more menacing in English, but otherwise everyone enjoyed themselves...the children especially (and we only had to cover Diego's eyes and ears a couple-three times).

And after watching the film, I have a few additional thoughts I wanted to write down that didn't make it into my last post on the subject. And, yes, some of this is gaming related. However, be warned: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

First off, I would like to see the film again sometime, in English...there was specific snatches of dialogue pertaining to the story that I wanted to hear again, because my wife and I had different interpretations of what was said the first time around. 

[actually, truth be told, I was feeling like I'd like to pop a DVD into the old machine and replay the film when I got unconscious reaction on my part of something I often do with my OTHER Star Wars films, and just goes to show how quickly my mind has integrated the film into my psyche as part of the SW canon. No, I don't actually own a copy of the film (though they were selling pirate copies on the streets of Paraguay outside the theater)...I'll wait for it on Blue-ray, thanks]

However, watching a film in a language you don't fully comprehend, gives you a chance to observe other nuances you might miss. For example, I read one review that felt John Williams score had been less impactful/noticeable...certainly un-memorable...and I couldn't remember it myself, either. Paying closer attention the second viewing, I can confidently say it IS present, and quite good (as usual). However, the sweepings sounds of new sections to the "classic" SW score are often found as backdrop during the most exciting and visually stimulating scenes (like the battle at Takodana). Then, too, there are many scenes where the score is absent...those "quiet moments" I spoke about in my earlier post are sometimes bereft of music as well as dialogue (where in previous films even these quiet moments were highlighted with the music of the score...see Luke's discovery of his burned home on Tatooine. 

This is (what I'd call) part of Abrams's style of filmmaking: "real life" doesn't have a soundtrack, and these moments where the audience voyeuristically watches a person go about their daily struggles helps immerse them in the film's universe, rather than remind them we're watching a morality play in the space opera genre. 

There's a similar clash of Abrams/SW "style" going on in a later scene where the Resistance is discussing how they can stop the First Order's super-weapon. The dialogue plays like a bunch of genre-saavy role-players sitting around the table: 'yeah, okay, it's big...doesn't it have some kind of fatal flaw we can exploit?' Abrams is pointing out the ridiculousness of the space opera trope (in a light-hearted, fun way), because there's something more at stake in the film than just blowing up the giant planet-killer. additional thoughts:

1) The film really felt a lot better paced on a second viewing...where before I complained it was a little too fast, part of that might have been my ear attempting to keep up with exposition while my eye was watching the spectacular visuals. Knowing the story/plot, I was able to simply enjoy the film without having to "figure it out" and it felt quite good.

2) Sith lords (or whatever they call darksiders in this series) are the epitome of bullies. I'm sure when FFG, or whoever holds the license in the future, comes out with SW7 supplement, Kylo Ren will be statted up as a tremendous badass when it comes to his fighting ability. But there's nothing in the film that really suggests he's any good with a saber. He's slaying unarmed captives, old men, helpless (or unaware/surprised) opponents, or immobile machinery. Yes, he has a nifty weapon that he knows how to twirl with panache...that doesn't make him a good swordsman. It's all about intimidation and letting your goons do the dirty work, and Darth Vader was a lot of this, too, come to think about it. Against a rank novice, he's able to use his weapon's unique design and his opponent's lack of melee skill to ensure a win, but he still gets wounded (by the rank novice) in the process. And when he (wounded) actually goes up against someone with demonstrated hand-to-hand ability, he gets his ass handed to him. He's just a bully in a suit with a few magic tricks.

By the way: that doesn't mean he's not a cool villain. He's very cool. But get out of the mindset of "uber-dangerous bad guy" must equal "badass combatant." Can Lex Luthor go toe-to-toe with Superman? No. Is he still Superman's archenemy and greatest foe? Yes. 

[you know, Emperor Palpatine, too, was a total pansy prior to his scenes in Revenge of the Sith. Viewed only through the lens of Return of the Jedi, we see only a scheming manipulator, able only to manipulate or magically torture an unarmed opponent. The character displayed in Revenge would have had no problem slaying the only moderately trained Luke with a lightsaber. *sigh* There are a lot of times I wish I could simply ignore the prequel trilogy, much as I enjoy aspects of them]

3) These films work best when they're not about Jedi, but about the working man in space. I said previously that the return of the  Millennium Falcon really went a long way towards making this installment feel like a "real" Star Wars film, something sorely lacking from Episodes 1-3. But it's more than that. There are very few people that can really relate to the struggles of a Jedi in a literal sense...those of us called to a spiritual vocation similar to the Jedi (if such a parallel calling actually exists) probably have more important things to do then watch space movies in the theater. But we can relate to the other, mundane heroes...the ones scared of blasters and armies of stormtroopers, the ones with vehicles that break down and bills to pay and creditors to avoid. When we encounter the supernatural or magical in our real lives (as some of us sometimes do) our reaction might be fear or skepticism or is displayed by these "mundane" heroes (Han, Luke (before he became a Jedi), Rey, Fin). Yes, if you believe in goofy, woo-woo New Age stuff (as this blog author does) you know everyone has the potential for "psychic abilities" but few of us take the time (or have the inclination) to develop them, instead experiencing only occasional flashes of our hidden abilities (premonitions, "eureka" moments, inner strength/endurance, etc.). 

When the Force is mysterious and strange and magical...something to be discovered by the characters, rather than mastered (as was the case with the protagonists of Episodes 1-3), we (the audience) relate better to characters in the story. We can put ourselves in the shoes of a person trying to make ends meet (like Luke the farmer, or Han the truck driver). We can even take it a step further (mentally) and envision ourselves in a situation where we must fight a guerrilla war against an oppressive regime like the Empire or the First Order, even though such is outside the experience (fortunately) for most viewers...we can imagine what we might do in a Red Dawn-like scenario. Some of us might rise to positions of leadership (like Leia), while most would probably end up in a Porkins-like fireball. Such things happen in war. What does NOT happen is you becoming a fairy tale hero with magical powers and a sword that deflects bullets.

But that's what makes Star Wars "space fantasy." We like to fantasize some Obi-Wan/Carlos Castaneda figure shows up in our life and teaches us the ways of the wizard (though the reality is precious few of us actually have the fortitude for what such training involves), but we recognize that, even in the fantasy, we are more likely to be in the seat of the more "mundane" heroes, doing mundane things...and having mundane heroes still managing to be heroic makes the films relatable (i.e. able to elicit stronger engagement) than films about super powered warrior-monks.

In my opinion.

4) Much as I enjoy Star Wars AND role-playing games, I am not sure they really make for the best wedded couple. Oh, I'm sure there's more than a few people who will strongly disagree with that sentiment...people who have been running D6 Star Wars campaigns (or even D20 Star Wars) for years, not to mention the folks who've been playing (and enjoying) FFG's most recent version. Hell, I'm sure there are people who've adapted Traveller to Star Wars and have been waging war against the Galactic Empire using that system since before Return of the Jedi was in the theaters (Traveller being first published in 1977).

The first Star Wars RPG.
But aside from the way that Star Wars is sooooo cinematic, in a way that just can't be translated to the role-playing medium with any degree of accuracy...ignoring that (and any disagreement to the contrary) the Star Wars storyline is one of parallel plots, that simply work better in a story than in a game. Luke's quest to become a Jedi takes him on a path altogether different from those of his companions, one that overshadows the contributions of his companions, not just plot-wise but in shared scenes as well (note the battle on Jabba's sail barge; note the encounter with the speeder bike scouts on Endor). When a Han Solo...meets a Darth or Kylo...the results are one-sided to say the least. This is forgivable in a film because, while Han is a major character, he is not the focal point of the film; he is still a character in support of Luke and (now) Rey/Fin. 

"Forgivable" in film, not in a role-playing game where there is supposed to be equality amongst all the players at the table. I've experienced campaigns where one player's character became the focal point, and it wasn't pretty. It developed organically through play, but it still bred resentment, even when the DM presented parallel adventures for the other players (including splitting the group into separate game sessions). It just functions poorly when the spotlight favors one (or two) players at the expense of others. Even when you (the GM) are giving those others "something to do" commensurate with their skills, which is the solution that usually gets thrown around when SW campaigns contain both Force-users and non-Force-users.

But this is a long-standing gripe of mine that I've blogged about before. Perhaps you could tone down the power level (or perceived power level) of Force-users...see the above about Kylo Ren being a bit wimpy (I mean, he gets shot for goodness sakes! When have you ever seen a Sith Lord get shot?). However, regardless of parity when it comes to in-game effectiveness, there's little parity when it comes to plot/story importance. Star Wars is about Jedi and the Force and the struggle between Light and Darkness on a mystical level; you take that away and it ceases to be Star Wars. And yet, when this is in play, mundanes become second-fiddles in terms of plot importance, unless you really want to stray away from the themes of the films and give it more of an irreverent tone...the Big Trouble in Little China-version where the everyman truck-driving hero faces down the Powers of Darkness on their turf and wins. That's taking the "opera" out of space opera in my opinion, but I can grok how some people want to roll that's just another attempt to fix the basic issue: a story like Star Wars doesn't adapt well to a cooperative, multi-player RPG. struck me again when I was watching the film yesterday. And it made me a little sad. Because without a way to emulate Star Wars in gaming, my main option for having another cool SW experience requires waiting for the next film installment of the franchise, hoping it's at least as good as this one. And I'm not really big on waiting.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Comparing DMGs (P. 3b)

In my last post on this series, I reviewed the second (middle) part of the DMG5, ostensibly devoted to explaining how a DM goes about creating an adventure for D&D. This is, by the way, makes the DMG5 something of a necessity for the aspiring 5E DM because WotC's free "Basic game" PDF still offers ZERO information on how to create or run adventures in 5th Edition, basic or not.

[that's as of v.4, by the way...just checked today. Remember this old post from January? Yep, still a crippled fucking product]

ANYway, today I want to write the comparison of the original (AD&D) Dungeon Masters Guide approach to the same subject in order to compare the two, and fortunately for all my readers it will be a blessedly short post, because there's not much to say: the original DMG is sadly lacking in any such information.

And I was pretty surprised at that, but it is what it is. The AD&D DMG provides a lot of information, rules, and guidance for running a game or campaign, but precious little information on actually creating adventures. There's some information in THE CAMPAIGN section ("Setting Things In Motion") in which Gygax tells the reader to design a dungeon with multiple levels of gradually escalating danger/reward. There's a sample dungeon ("The First Dungeon Adventure") that includes both a map and key. There are treasure tables and wandering monster tables and appendices describing TRAPS, TRICKS, and DUNGEON DRESSING...mostly just random tables and ideas. There are things that can be inferred by the reader from other sections of the book, but even the section of the book called THE ADVENTURE provides only additional rules (this is one of those sections meant to be read in parallel to the same section of the PHB) with little real guidance other than making sure you have a well-detailed map. There's nothing like what's found in the's enough to make me wonder how I ever learned to DM the damn game in the first place!

But then I remember that long before I ever picked up a copy of the DMG, I cut my teeth on Moldvay's Basic D&D set, with its step-by-step guidance for DMs and how to create adventures. Using Moldvay's book (and having a copy of B2: The Keep on the Borderlands) gave me information and a ready model to follow. And then, of course, I remember that Gygax's Dungeon Masters Guide is a book for Advanced Dungeons & is not a book for teaching the game but an a guidebook for a DM who wishes to play an advanced version of the fantasy role-playing game called D&D.

And because of that, I'm a little willing to give the author a pass. However, I don't see anything to this effect in the fact, what Gygax writes is:
"There are sections on the development of the campaign milieu, dungeon design, random creation of wilderness and dungeon levels, and the development of non-player characters. In fact, I have attempted to cram everything vital to the game into this book, so that you will be as completely equipped as possible..."
I suppose that, if one's game consists solely of delving dungeons in a fantasy world than you will have everything you need within the book. But one would hope for some guidance on adventure design other than how to draw a map on grid paper...the intro itself says there is information on "dungeon design," but I see very little of this, certainly not set out in any particular place/section of the book.

Required reading for the AD&D DM.
If taken as an advanced guidebook to a basic game (as I did, in my youth), then the original DMG is passable. If, however, the edition we call "1E" is to be taken as a standalone game (as I think Gygax intended), then I'm going to call it a failure. I may disagree with the actual organization and design choices of the DMG5 with regard to the subject of adventure creation, but at least that book requires no additional context to learn its material.

Disappointing. As I wrote, I consider adventure creation to be the main responsibility of a Dungeon Master. It would be nice to have more than a handful of scattered references strewn haphazardly through more than 200 pages of text.

And that's about all I want to say on the matter. See? Told you this would be short.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Wars 7: Geezers and Abandonment Issues

I want everyone to know that I am breaking a (pinky) promise to my son by writing this...I told him I would do no writing on my laptop this weekend as my castigo for yelling very loudly at the bank folks on the phone after...well, never mind, it was their fault. Anyway, I said I wouldn't do any writing but it's 5:30 in the morning and everyone's asleep but me, who has been unable to sleep for 3+ hours now (since I got up with the baby), so...well, I'm breaking my promise.

Saw Star Wars VII this evening. Just walked in and purchased tickets. Star Wars isn't as big in Paraguay (though you'd never know it from the saturation of merchandise/PR/screenings). Plus, I went to the subtitled version (folks here prefer their films dubbed). But really, it's not as popular. I've met many Paraguayans (usually the non-billionaire, non-American educated, non-English speaking ones) who've never even seen a Star Wars movie. And I'm talking folks in their 20s and 30s.


It was a very good movie. Certainly the best Star Wars film I've seen in decades. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes the movies (especially the original trilogy). Heck, I'd recommend it to wife has never been a big fan of the franchise, but she was downright stoked after seeing the film. She wants to go back and see it in, we're already trying to figure if we should catch another showing tomorrow (since it's so easy to get in), or wait till we get to Mexico, or both. It was the first film she can remember seeing that she wishes was longer than its actual running time, mainly because the pacing through the latter half/two-thirds is so frantic and action-packed it was hard for her to believe the character development (in terms of relationships/bonding) that took place between characters.

And she'd just like to see more of the same. As with me, we left the theater hoping the sequel isn't too long in the making.

So...that's the "review" sans spoilers. I'd like to offer a few more thoughts on what I saw, and though I'll try to avoid giving anything away, if you haven't yet seen the film you may not want to read even what follows (and the comments section might be a bad read, too, depending on what folks write).

First off, I'd like to say that going into the film I experienced a momentary (and very slight) trepidation at the knowledge that the main protagonists (and, presumably, the main protagonists for the future installments) would be characters I'd have a hard time relating to...namely, non-white, non-male characters. Yes, I realize how ridiculous this is...I live in a world where the cinema is absolutely dominated by white, male protagonists, especially in the action, sci-fi, and fantasy genres and I am one privileged sonofagun. It was a momentary weakness. I quickly realized that there were already six Star Wars films featuring blonde haired, blue eyed men in the title roles (Luke, Anakin, Young Obi-Wan) certainly wouldn't hurt to let someone else drive for a few films.

And guess what? The new characters are awesome, wonderfully fun and interesting to watch, and I can't wait to see more of them. I am sooooo glad the filmmakers chose this direction in made the film so much more interesting to watch. The bad guys are back to resembling Space Nazis, but now their ranks are made of both men and women. There's more diversity in terms of people of color mixed among the non-alien extras and cast, and no I didn't think it felt "forced" at all. Rather, it looked natural to have more non-white humans on display than the first two trilogies combined.

[and I don't think that's an exaggeration]

So, yay, progress. Except that it's sad that I even feel the need to note it. At least my daughter can grow up and watch a movie and not aspire to being a princess in a bikini or a midriff-baring politico. That's kind of nice.

Stylistically, there's a nice return to the original trilogy, and I'm not just talking aesthetic...although that's there, too: the galaxy is once more a shabby, run-down place (probably even more so than the original trilogy...things have not been totally smooth since the end of the rebellion). But, no, I'm talking about a return to a focus on cinematic storytelling...the first ten to fifteen minutes is wonderful for how little dialogue is there (stormtroopers barking orders notwithstanding). You're left to just take in the sights of this strange galaxy, these new characters, this interesting spectacle-story. It grabs your attention and engagement without any vomited exposition. You see the character of the characters through their actions, not their words.

And then, of course, there's the action and pacing. Once the movie starts to pick up steam, it's pretty go-go-go with just a couple pit stops along the way. But it's well done, with a lot of movement-motion...again, something the original trilogy had that was in short-supply for the prequel trilogy (you had nice little set-piece combats in static environments...but gone were the chases and the sweeping ship-to-ship dog fights and whatnots). It's a lot more dynamic than saber-fights.

And I have to say, the Millennium Falcon was sorely missed from Episodes I-III. It is practically a character least as much so as R2 and C3P0 were. Having the Falcon in the movie (I don't think that's a's in all the trailers) makes up a LOT of ground. It communicates so much about the state of this fantasy doesn't matter whether it "makes sense" regarding its FTL travel or space-worthyness. The Millennium Falcon, in all its shabby glory, is a big (and needed) piece of the franchise. It's like the Enterprise for Star just don't get the same experience without it.

Likewise the Geezers. I have probably downgraded Harrison Ford over the years in a way that's unfair. He's like Madonna...not the greatest range, but she gets everything she can out of it. Ford brings as much nuance (if not more) to "Old Han Solo" as he ever did to Indiana Jones. It makes you realize that before he was ever a galactic hero, Han Solo was kind of a hotshot loser. And now you see where that road leads: sad sack loser. Still with the heart of gold, still with the quick wit (and quicker trigger finger), but this guy never really was Jedi material...nor was he ever really in the same league as a princess. Ford (and his character) are a highlight of the film.

The other highlight character (for me) was Kylo Ren, the villain. I haven't written my blog post on the Ant-Man film yet, in which I wanted to discuss how the villain really makes (or breaks) any kind of "heroic cinema." Kylo is great, truly disturbed, and fascinating to watch...powerful, yet flawed. His image is an echo of Darth Vader as originally imagined (if you read The Secret History of Star Wars, before the mask became a permanent fixture), and his character is what I always imagined Anakin was supposed to be (before the prequels gave us...well, what we got). He is the young, power-hungry Mordred...twisted and tragic. And his get-up is as visually cool as Darth Maul.

Looks like all my KOTOR characters.
But while those are the only two characters I want to specifically mention (in this post), all of the principles are great (well-written, well-acted) and, as I said, I am excited to see how their stories develop over the course of these new films. I will certainly be shelling out the ducats to see Episode VIII, whenever it gets released. However, right now I have a question to ask:

What is up with J.J. Abrams and the abandonment issues?

Seriously, how unhappily neglected was he as a child? There is this constant theme of orphaned, abandoned, unloved, and disappointed children that runs through his shows. You saw it with most of the main characters in the Lost television show, you see it in the reimagined Star Trek film (where both Kirk and Spock lose their parents), and now you see it with Fin, Rey, and Kylo. What's up with that, man? My wife said the movie brought up a lot of "maternal instincts" in, I just got the idea I ought to do a better job of taking care of my kids.

And speaking of son really wants to see the film, and both my spouse and I really want him to see it, but there are definitely some pretty intense, nightmare-inducing scenes in the movie, not to mention some pretty scary themes (killing and abandonment stuff). Right now, we've decided to recount the story to him verbally to see how he handles it, and then we'll consider taking him...but maybe not. A guy I know is taking his six-year old to see the movie in a few days, and I want to know how she handles it. That might decide me.

Anyway, that's all I want to say about the film at this time...except that again I can't help but think Cascade Failure is a great jumping off point for a Star Wars game (really works with the rundown future concept). Okay, maybe now I can get some sleep.

May the Force be with you.

[sorry...couldn't help myself]
: )

Friday, December 18, 2015

It's That Time of Year Again...

...the time of rolling blackouts in Asuncion, that is.

Summertime here is a bitch, as I'm sure I've mentioned before, and once again our home has had the power knocked out, almost assuredly due to everyone in the neighborhood running too many air conditioners. It's so strange...all around you see Santa decorations, Christmas trees (all fake), and snowflake art, but it's all a sham. The "white Christmas" tradition is something that belongs to the northern hemisphere of our planet; there isn't even a word in Guaranii for "snow."

I wonder how many swimsuits will be under fake Christmas trees this year. It's bikini season in the malls.

ANYway...thanks to the independent backup power our internet has (we didn't really get why the cable folks installed it back when we were first getting it's readily apparent), I can still blog and use my laptop. At least till the power runs out.

Merry F'ing Christmas, Paraguay.
But, man, it is hot. My iPhone was outside for ten minutes and over-heated to the point of shutdown (just like a Battlemech! It had a little thermometer icon with a frowny face that I'm sure every BT pilot has seen at some point during a heated battle...). And I find myself wondering: do I really want to try to catch a showing of that Star Wars movie in a theater here? What if the power goes out halfway through the showing? What a frustration that would be!

I'm sitting in a cool, dark room at the moment and sweat is still pouring off my face.

Anyway, I'll be heading out to Mexico in a few days and I won't have to worry about it for a bit. Ha! How many Americans consider a trip to Mexico to be an upgrade in comfort, technology, and overall quality of life? But there it is...other than the cartels recently moving into Veracruz and the increase of random gang violence, Mexico is going to be a real treat for my family. My wife asked if it was okay if we could stay a couple extra days. A couple extra days away from Paraguay? Eating great food? Of course it's okay!

Ope! Power's back on. And currently 97 degrees and oppressive, humid heat. I'm going to be humming the Heat Miser song for the next few days. "I'm Mr. Green Christmas, I'm Mr. Sun..."

Comparing DMGs (P. 3a)

As we continue our comparison of the original (AD&D) Dungeon Masters Guide and the 5th edition version, we leap into the nitty gritty of "what it's all about," i.e. adventure creation. Without adventures, there's really no game play, and creation of adventures is the main responsibility of all Dungeon Masters. Well, unless you just want to run pre-packaged adventures all the time (but then, what are you getting out of being a DM? Free beer?).

Starting with the DMG5, we come to the largest section of the book: Masters of Adventure (Part 2), consisting of five chapters (Creating Adventures, Creating NPCs, Adventure Environments, Between Adventures, and Treasure). After reading the first three posts of this series, folks are probably expecting me to rant even more about how much 5E sucks (in and of itself, or in comparison to older editions). Au contraire, mon frere! There's actually a lot of good stuff in this section of the DMG5, and some of it that I quite like. 

That being said, it's still something of a mixed bag, and (for me, anyway) gets off to a rocky start. I'm an old school D&D player from way back (by which I just mean "I'm old" and have been playing the game since before the TSR overhaul of '83), so I take some umbrage with the idea that D&D adventures are "stories," at least in the same way as a TV show, novel, or film. For me, D&D adventures are stories in the sense of a horrific weekend camping trip: something you can talk about, complain about, laugh about, and have fun embellishing once you're back, safe and sound in your "normal" environment (home, office, etc.). Some camping stories are so memorable that they'll be brought up and discussed years later...some are only have enough pizazz for the Monday morning water cooler talk. They are "war stories" for people who don't actually go to war...that's kind of how I look at them. The "story" that's told is simply of the experience that was exciting and/or traumatic at the time, but really just an excursion, an escape from the usual "daily life."

No, no: D&D adventures (for me) are not formulaic stories. They don't involve heavy use of theme, they don't have rising action, twists, climax, and denouement except and unless such is provided by the characters' actions and the random fall of the dice. Certainly such things shouldn't be scripted like a film or TV show, nor should there be written dialogue or narration to perform. Fantasy gaming is fiction, but we are not creating a work of fiction in the literary sense.

[by the way, I'm only talking about D&D here; there ARE role-playing games designed for creating stories, addressing premise, etc. and I appreciate and enjoy those on occasion. They are a different type of RPG from D&D and have different elements of design that facilitate their objectives and style of play. Those DO create something like a work of fiction through the shared experience of role-playing...that is their purpose. But I'm talking about D&D gaming in this series, okay?]

So the introduction to this section of the DMG5 isn't great when it states that adventures are fundamentally stories and compares them to works of fiction. However, it follows with Elements of a Great Adventure, all of which are good (except for the Something For All Players portion...I disagree strongly with their "three pillars" bullshit), and seems to fly in the face of their "adventures are stories" statement (see the Heroes Who Matter paragraph). There's good, actual guidance here. But then it gets back to this "story" concept (after a rather large section justifying why you should buy published adventures...Gygax might write a sentence or two in passing suggesting you check out a published TSR module, but 5E will fill a third of a page to sell you on the idea), and how to structure your adventure like a story, with a beginning, middle, and end that just smacks of leading down the road to railroad style play, even if the authors are fairly explicit in advising DMs against railroading.

After that is 9-10 pages of tripe (random tables of "ideas" to create your adventure "story") before we get to what is arguably the most important part of the DMG5: Creating Encounters. Here's the section that finally tells us how we DMs are going to bestow rewards that lead to that improvement of character every player salivates for. First there's the obligatory braindead section entitled Character Objectives that seems completely out-of-place with everything that follows (especially as there are no guidelines presented as to how to reward non-combat character objectives like those suggested. Yes, players will want their characters to do things other than fight...why do you need to list "some of those things here" when they're not pertinent to the rules being presented? Just let them do stuff...STOP FILLING YOUR PAGE COUNT). Then we get to the nitty-gritty of Creating Combat Encounters. And even though I dislike and disagree with the method of earning XP in these later editions of D&D, this isn't a bad section and seems fairly good at estimating challenge level based on the few numbers I ran.

For example, I applied their number schemes to the old tournament portion of I1:Dwellers of the Forbidden City (after converting monsters to those of the 5E MM), and found the challenges appropriate for the 6-person, tournament party with a good mix of all four difficulty levels. I don't know how well their math holds up for their "Adventuring Day" chart, but at least I could follow their, where there are actual rules, the DMG5 does a good job explaining a complex concept. Likewise, much of the "advice" section here is good (even in the Random Encounters section...though I dislike scaling random world encounters based on PC level). One thing seems clear: after making D&D all about the combat the last 15 years, they've gotten pretty good about the balancing act of challenging player characters.

Mmm...looks like I'm going to have to break this post up like the last one. Chapter 4: Creating Non-Player Characters is on par with the random tables provided in the original DMG; however, the latter book does more with less (managing to include detailed examples of NPC organizations/reactions, how interactions vary based on type of NPC, costs for spell-casters' services, hiring of non-human troops and how they get along). This section really needs to be used in conjunction with the spot NPC write-ups in the MM5 and the hireling section of the PHB5. While I like the villain options, I dislike them being here...if they are player options, put them in the PHB. Make a decision, take a stand: are evil player characters an option? Or are you going to go the "heroic" way of 2nd Edition? In the latter case, throw death clerics and anti-paladins in the MM and be done with it. Oh, and find a rogue archetype to replace the assassin while you're at it (how about a mountebank?). Why is there an assassin option in the PHB5, but the Death domain and Oath-Breakers are in the DMG? Because assassins are Sooo Heroic, right Assassins Creed lovers? Jesus H.

Okay, the last three chapters of this section are all good, mostly good, or excellent. I'll deal with Treasure first (even though it is the last chapter of the section). I'm not going to comment on the actual treasures or the new way of distribution: they're the same old-same old for a different edition that has its own system of parceling 'em out. What's great here is the Other Rewards section, which nicely consolidates a lot of different prizes adventurers might achieve: land grants and titles, blessings and charms, strongholds and medals and special training. A lot of good ideas here (many new) for carrots to dangle in front of the noses of players. And since 5E doesn't award XP for gold, this is a good way to make rewards mean something, as well as provide incentives for adventure.

Backing up, Chapter 5: Adventure Environments is the true "Creating Adventures" chapter, not that earlier, rollin-random-table-to-find-arch-villain-motivation thing. There's still a bunch of filler random tables that are high on my dumb-dumb scale (ah, yes...this dungeon, found beneath a farmhouse, was created by a lawful good beholder (without hands) to serve as his tomb until it was conquered by invaders...). After THAT, however, you get good sections on dungeon inhabitants and factions, dungeon ecology, MAPPING the dungeon, standard features (doors, secret doors, etc.), lighting, air quality, and hazards (molds, slimes, webs...what, no bottomless crevasse?). These are real rules and guidance, not random tables of ideas. This is followed by the WILDERNESS section, which is also good, detailing travel, mapping (finally those different scales from Chapter 1 become important!), movement, weather, environmental hazards (including high altitude and slippery ice...nice!), foraging, and random settlements...the latter of which is actually pretty cool and the most useful set of random tables in the whole book. This is followed by information on how to map a settlement, urban encounters, and law and order...a short, pointed, and useful section. After this is Underwater and Sky environments (both good and more streamlined than their AD&D counterparts), before (strangely) ending the chapter with Traps which, despite its strange placement, is good section, short with specific rules, and a tidy selection of sample traps (and no random table in sight? Was this part written by a different author?). This chapter (minus the beginning) plus the Elements of a Great Adventure and Creating Challenges (minus the "character objectives") sections from Chapter 3 could have been combined to create a real, useful tutorial in D&D adventure creation for 5th Edition.

Finally, we have Chapter 6: Between Adventures, which has a great compilation of downtime activities with real rules and no random "filler" tables. I'd skip the part about story arcs and such, but adventure seeding isn't bad and the campaign tracking section is much more in line with Gygax's notions of time...again, was this written by a different person than the one who gave us the sample calendar in Chapter 1? A list of maintenance/upkeep costs (including hirelings), simple stronghold construction and magic item crafting, plus rules for running businesses and finding buyers of magic items (not as easy as prior editions) are all great, simple systems, nicely compiled. The carousing table is a good one, though I'm not sure why higher level characters are more likely to be better gamblers...I'd probably make the last entry the "Makes an Enemy" option, instead. From my point of view, this was the most interesting and useful chapter through the first two sections.

Okay...I'll write my comparison with the original DMG's take on adventure creation in my next post.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Comparing DMGs (P. 2b)

[continued from here...I really hate to break this up, but the thing was already a giant wall of text]

In part 2a of this series, I went over Chapter 1 of the 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide (DMG5). Chapter 1 forms the bulk of the first section of the DMG5 (which consists of three sections, total, plus four appendices). The rest of Part 1 (i.e. Chapter 2) consists entirely of a discussion on Creating a Multiverse for high level play: other dimensions, planes of existence outside the material plane, etc. As with the earlier chapter, there are few hard, fast rules here but mainly suggestions, or ideas. For example, the section on Planar Portals states "a portal can have any conceivable requirement" for opening, then lists a handful of possibilities. There are suggestions for which planes to include in one's campaign (one for fiends, one for celestials, one for elementals, etc.), but no default multiverse. Much of the chapter is taken up with sample planes, most of which are recognizable from the earliest editions of D&D, and there are "Optional Rules" scattered throughout the text. However, it's clear that uniformity is not on the list of priorities for 5E. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.

[and that's really all I want to say on Chapter 2 of the DMG5; at least you won't need to buy a Manual of the Planes with this edition]

As stated in the initial post of this series, the AD&D DMG opens with a parallel of the Players Handbook, providing expanded information "for the DM's eyes only," prior to getting into any new material. This "new material" begins on page 86 with a section entitled THE CAMPAIGN. In this regard, there is some similarity between Gygax and the 5E design team: as with 5E, AD&D moves right to world building once the "nuts & bolts" are out of the way (5E just puts their nuts & bolts in the PHB5).

Gygax gets right down to it but, unlike the DMG5, he advocates a bottom-up approach to campaign creation. After congratulating the perspective DM on their new career as a "universe maker," he writes:
"...To belabor an old saw, Rome wasn't built in a day. You are probably just learning, so take small steps first. The milieu for initial adventures should be kept to a size commensurate with the needs of the campaign participants - you available time as compared with the demands of the players. This will typically result in your giving them a brief background, placing them in a settlement, and stating that they should prepare themselves to find and explore the dungeon/ruin they know is nearby. As background you inform them that they are from some nearby place where they were apprentices learning their respective professions, that they met by chance in an inn or tavern and resolved to journey together to seek their fortunes in the dangerous environment, and that, beyond the knowledge common to the area (speech, alignments, races, and the like), they know nothing of the world. Placing these new participants in a small settlement means that you need do only minimal work describing the place and its inhabitants. Likewise, as player characters are inexperienced, a single dungeon or ruins map will suffice to begin play. 
"After a few episodes of play, you and your campaign participants will be ready for expansion of the milieu. The territory around the settlement - likely the "home" city or town of the adventurers, other nearby habitations, wilderness areas, and whatever else you determine is right for the area - should be sketch-mapped, and places likely to become settings for play actually done in detail. At this time it is probably that you will have to have a large scale map of the whole continent or sub-continent involved, some rough outlines of the political divisions of the place, notes on predominant terrain features, indications of the distribution of creature types, and some plans as to what conflicts are likely to occur. In short, you will have to create the social and ecological parameters of a good part of a make-believe world. The more painstakingly this is done, the more "real" this creation will become. 
"Eventually, as player characters develop and grow powerful, they will explore and adventure over all  of the area of the continent. When such activity begins, you must broaden your general map still farther so as to encompass the whole globe. More still! You must begin to consider seriously the makeup of your entire multiverse - space, planets and their satellites, parallel worlds, the dimensions and planes. What is there? why? can participants in the campaign get there? how? will they? Never fear! By the time your campaign has grown to such a state of sophistication, you will be ready to handle the new demands."
Gary Gygax, Dungeon Masters Guide, 1979

Here we see Gygax's blueprint for campaign creation: start small, expand as necessary. Don't overwhelm yourself from the beginning, focus on the needs of the players, mastery (for the DM) comes with time. Detail is good for creating the immersive process (making the game more "real").

My first DMG; mostly destroyed.
Note that much of what is discussed in these three paragraphs (I've included everything from the opening section of the chapter, minus the introduction), is similar to the advice provided in the DMG5, just minus the extra padding. Later on, he writes about considering ecology and climate, typical inhabitants and social class/rank in society, all with an aim towards a singular goal: creating a world that is "real enough" to create an enjoyable experience while still being fun, and not detracting from the game. The DMG, he explains:

"...this is a rulebook, not a text on any subject remotely connected to climatology, ecology, or any science soft or hard."

He writes that while there's a presumption of some sort of social rank/title structure in Dungeons & Dragons, it may be defined by individual DMs depending on their needs, and that some may prefer to draw on historical data (though as I wrote in the last post, Gygax provides a list of noble titles...both eastern and well as a list of possible governments, both real and fantastical). This in addition to an overview of medieval classes and townsfolk of the kind that (presumably) fits his paradigm view of D&D as having a fantastical medieval society.

Following this information (sorry...I skipped the part about designing the first adventure; I'll return to that when comparing the DMG5's adventure creation section), he has a large section on economics, taxes, tariffs, and the like. Again, this information has specific, pertinent use for Gygax: it addresses how to deal with all the treasure the PCs will be accumulating (as the objective to the game system) and how this accumulation will interact with the campaign world. It is practical information, not simple "color" for one's campaign setting; it has consequence and reason for being in the DMG. He does mention different coin types (for his campaign) in passing, but there is no detailed thesis on designing money for one's campaign.

Directly after Economics, etc. (but still in  THE CAMPAIGN) comes three large sections describing Placement of Monsters, Placement of Treasure, and Placement of Magic Items. While there are no tables or charts in these sections, they are still "rules," directions as to how DMs should structure their campaigns for maximum benefit. These are less ideas or suggestions, more admonishments and warnings. They pertain to creating adventures within the campaign setting, with an eye towards preserving the campaign integrity, all towards that previously discussed priority of enabling long-term play and enjoyment. It may come off as heavy-handed ("How dare the author tell me how to run MY campaign?") and only actual experimentation with his methods over time will tell how if his assertions will be born out. I know that I've seen similar essays from more than one of our present day "Old School" writers, based on their decades of experience.

The final portions of the AD&D campaign section concerns the development of territory by players (not just building strongholds, but affects on the monster ecology) and a small section on "the chattel" (Peasants, Serfs, & Slaves). Again, these are actual rules regarding how fast (or if) monsters will repopulate areas, how land can be developed, and how strong armed uprisings of the populace will become if revolutions aren't put down quickly. This part of "The Campaign" is something fairly foreign to current editions of D&D, and I wouldn't expect to see its parallel. The point to note is that these are still rules, and ones pertinent to an older style of D&D gaming.

Oh, yeah...the Campaign section of the DMG ends with a sample dungeon and example of play. But we'll look at that in a later section of this comparison.

Comparing DMGs (P. 2a)

[continued from here]

Exactly what information should be in a guide for Dungeon Masters? This is probably a question that's been asked by every author/designer that set out to pen one since Gygax himself sat down in front of Ye Old Typewriter.

Mind you, I'm not asking this as mere hot air's a serious question. One would probably want some sort of information on how to organize and run a game, probably something on designing adventures and maintaining (long-term) campaigns, and of course something about the "mysteries players should not know" (like exact descriptions of magic items). However, just how much detail is required on each subject, and what other subjects should be placed in such a guide (rather than in the handbook written for players)? Probably, the answer is subjective, and based on each group's view of the DM's role and scope of authority. I'm not saying that to be simplistic, by the way, just giving a little leeway for why two editions' DMGs might prioritize info differently.

Gygax's priority appears decipherable from his text, and it is two-fold. One priority (that I'd judge the lesser) is to present a certain uniformity of rules with regard to certain systems. Certainly not all the Preface, he admits the limitations of his own imagination and that even a codification of every eventuality would be undesirable, were such possible. The other priority, which he hammers on again and again, is to produce a superior gameplay experience, by giving the DM the tools to draw out a provide a steady challenge to players that allows steady progress (not too fast, not too slow) while maintaining interest and engagement, thus prolonging the experience of adventuring in the fantasy "milieu" (which he terms as the world/setting). This appears to be his main priority, to such an extent that he obfuscates basic systems, leaving them to be discovered by adventurers in the course of play, rather than known from the beginning. Exploration of system (and eventual mastery) is, thus, one of the implied objectives/rewards of AD&D.

The 5E priority is a little different (and a bit tougher for me to articulate). What I get from the text is that it seeks to teach a person how to act as a DM, though not (like Gygax) with any particular aim in mind, save to provide a fun game for the players. It seems to be a bit of a "rah-rah" for world building, a "hey-this-is-the-fun-of-being-a-DM" as if the reader needed to be coaxed into believing such. Yes, yes, maybe I'm being too hard on the I said, it's tough to articulate (or guess) when the authors aren't particularly explicit about their objectives. Anyway, as we review, you can see if you agree or not.

Our basis for comparison review.
But let's get down to the actual comparison. Because the original DMG was laid out in such a way as to (first) be read in line with the AD&D Players Handbook, I will be using the DMG5 as the primary text and then referencing the corresponding parts in the original (AD&D) version. Cool? Okay.

As I wrote in my previous post, the DMG5 breaks up into three parts. The first part, Master of Worlds, sets out to show the aspiring DM how to create a campaign. This is what I'd call a "top down" approach, and not really "beginner level" stuff. I mean, you want to know how to make adventures and run games, right? Well, no, that comes later (which is why I think the priority here is to fire up the reader about DMing..."Look! You get to play God!" See?). First, there are the core assumptions of "default D&D" which, as I said in my 4E review, I think are pretty good, and nice to have spelled out. It is immediately followed by a "feel free to change them, here are examples" section. Which is like...what? Can I just learn the game before I start tinkering with it?

By The Way: I might as well get this out of the way because it's a recurring gripe. The DMG5 has a lot of...well, what I call "padding," but what others might call patronizing text. A lot of "helpful suggestions" of how to tweak things, and random tables with "ideas," just in case the reader is lacking in the imagination department. Presumably, anyone who's set out to play D&D (let alone RUN the game) is probably, hopefully, already oozing in the imagination department, or at least competent enough to appear imaginative by knocking off derivations of their favorite fiction (if you're not someone who likes to read, are you really going to be willing to read these giant rulebooks?). Some might find it insulting, some might find it a waste of space, and some might consider it both, but...well, you're going to find it throughout the DMG5.

Next up we have a section on creating the gods of your fantasy world. This is not establishing a cosmology mind you (why magic works, why there are monsters, etc.), but basically coming up with a list of strange syllable combos and their spheres of power. It's four pages of padding. There's nothing really useful here, just recycling some of the best concepts from the 3rd edition DDG (explaining monotheism, animism, etc. and discussing mystery cults) while providing no actual rules. Yes, there's a time and place for fleshing out the religions of the campaign, but that generally comes later. Again, this just seems to be "Look! You get to create the universe! Yay for you!" kind of stuff. And it's less useful than the example pantheons found in the PHB5 appendix.

Continuing the top down theme, we now move into mapping your world, and deciding which scale to use (province, kingdom, or continent). Interesting that the DMG5 actually says you can start with a top-down or bottom-up approach ("bottom-up" being small scale and expanding to suit the needs of the campaign), but there's no advocation for either approach...just a "whatever works for you." So far, not a lot of guidance going into this Guide. What is the importance of using a 1 mile scale for provinces, 6 miles for kingdoms, and 60 miles (per hex) for continents? Who's an unexplained mystery.

Next we talk about building settlements (villages, towns, cities) how to give them local color and atmosphere (aesthetic), and a list of government types that is cribbed almost completely from the 1E DMG (page 89), save that the original did not provide a table to randomize the list (because randomly dicing for the governments of your campaign world is good setting design?). We also have the same list of monarch ranks and titles (again, page 89) except that the DMG5 leaves out the Asian forms, the German/French translations, and the religious hierarchies which Gygax provides. Also, the DMG5 doubles the space it takes to describe their governments because it cites examples from the various prepackaged campaign settings that WotC is trying to hawk rather than actually giving you a useful guide for building your own.

Next is a section on commerce (a couple-three paragraphs) followed by a whole page on currency, most of which is used to describe the coinage of the Forgotten Realms setting as an example of how your money can be shaped. I mean...I don't know how to describe this without being insulting. It's padding and (again) it's stupid. Especially in a game where collecting wealth is such a small part of game play, due to there being no game mechanic reward tied to it (because 5E uses the same "XP for defeating monsters/challenges" paradigm we've seen since 3E). If cash means nothing, who gives a shit what it looks like? Even in games where it's valued (for accumulating XP or performing spell research or building strongholds), I've never seen a player who cared whether the copper piece was called a "nib" or a "thumb" or...aaaaaaagh! Stupid stupid stupid waste of space!

Then we have a section on "creating your own" currency (gah!) followed by languages and dialects (more useless padding...wasn't this info in the PHB5?). Then a section on factions and organizations and, no, we're not talking about factions in the dungeon or anything. This is about groups and guilds a player character might join and the way to gain status through a new mechanic called "Renown." And this entire concept (right down to acquiring Renown) is pretty much stolen directly from Gamma World (1st and 2nd editions) and their Cryptic Alliances. If you've played GW and want to add the (fantasy) equivalent of Cryptic Alliances to your D&D world, here are some "ideas" about it.

We follow this with a section discussing ways you might incorporate magic restrictions (in the legal sense), schools of magic (a la Dragonlance), "teleportation circles" (a games?) and some ideas for making it harder to raise the dead (like if the soul has a different alignment from your character) all of which is, well, not worth the word count in my opinion.

After all this, on page 25 (really? I would've thought we'd be around 80-some by now), we finally come to a section called: CREATING A CAMPAIGN. And here we get what probably should have come first AND (here's the kicker) it's right in line with the sensibilities outlined by Gygax in the original DMG: start small, limit players' information, worry only about the immediate locale. Create a home base with a small starting region (about a day's travel from the base) and a nearby starting adventure.

Why wasn't this all up front? Why did I spend all this time figuring out the shapes of the continents, the gods of the multiverse, the politics of the various kingdoms...hell, the name of the currency...just to come back to this? No, it's not top-down; it's bottom-up! Now you tell me.

[remember how I said this edition was dumb? This kind of design is the reason I write things like that]

This nice little (less than a page) instructional for the beginning DM ends with the following words: "Most important, visualize how this area [the home base] fits into the theme and story you have in mind for your campaign. Then start working on your first adventure!" Nope, I guess it's still top-down!

I'm going to blow through the last twenty pages or so of Chapter 1 pretty fast because it's mostly filler, and this post is already long (I'm going to have to do my comparison with the 1E DMG in a separate post). The next section is Campaign Events which are basically ideas of cataclysmic, "world shaking" happenings to inject spice into your campaign. Why is this here? Are we already concerned that your campaign can't sustain play long-term? We haven't even been told how to stock an adventure site, and you're already giving us random tables for invasions, rebellions, setting changing discoveries, and extinction events. Talk about putting the cart before the horse! That's about five pages that could probably go in an appendix.

We have a section on tracking time and making holidays that is as about as useful as the currency section. There's nothing explaining WHY creating your own fantasy calendar or tracking time is useful EXCEPT THAT it helps you (the DM) schedule your world shaking events. So useless.

Look at Gygax's section on time in the AD&D DMG (pages 37-38) for contrast. He is very specific about why recording time is necessary: because it is yet another resource to track and be utilized by the players. Time is everything, and "superior players" (EGG's words) will make the best use of it rather than squandering it. He provides specific examples of how exacting time-keeping works in a campaign, and how it can track player action (including training levels, learning languages, constructing magic items, and paying rent). He, too, talks (briefly) about creating your own "fantasy calendar," but the part that is stressed is the time keeping itself. Everything that 5E focuses on (with regard to campaign time) is little more than color.

Okay back to the DMG5: after the section on time, we read how one should run their campaign with regard to Play Style, and we're told the two ends of the pole are Hack and Slash and Immersive Storytelling, with most campaigns falling to Something In Between. Again, this is pretty useless stuff.  Why are we worried about customizing play style (or Campaign Theme...that's the next section) when we haven't yet been instructed how to run the game? There's an issue here of a game that lacks a default paradigm of play...the DMG5 wants to give you ideas for creating your own paradigm ("it's a tool box!") but it's just a bunch of abstract thought exercises, rather than real rules or tools or direction.

We end Chapter 1 with a couple pages describing the four Tiers of Play, based on the player characters' level (Local Heroes, Heroes of the Realm, Masters of the Realm, Masters of the World) and what types of adventures they should be having at each tier, FOLLOWED BY three or four pages describing the different Flavors of Fantasy (broken down as Heroic Fantasy, Sword & Sorcery, Epic Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Intrigue, Mystery, Swashbuckling, War, and Wuxia). Oh, yeah...and some examples from the game's past (all from when it was still published by TSR) that mixed the flavors (my word!). This is simply more pages of padding...the only actual "tools" here is a table that shows how much equipment PCs should start with if you want to start a campaign with higher level characters, and a list of Chinese/Japanese names for standard weapons (in case you want to inject "Wuxia flavor," you'd better know that in Japan a longsword would be a katana and a longbow a daikyu. Too bad that wuxia is a Chinese term for a Chinese genre, and 5E's cultural appropriation of the concept as applicable to "all Asian fantasy" - including ninjas and samurai - is a little embarrassing, and probably offensive to some).

OKAY...we're going to end this post there, and start writing a comparison with the original DMG, at least with regard to pertinent sections that parallel this opening chapter of the fifth edition Dungeon Master's Guide.

[here's part 2b]

Monday, December 14, 2015

Comparing DMGs (P. 1)

This is probably going to be a rather silly post (or series of posts), but I'm up early and my brain is a little loopy after watching yet another stellar Seahawk performance last night and, anyway, Shlomo said he thought this would be interesting. I dig on interesting.

The fifth edition Dungeon Master's Guide (hereafter called the DMG5) takes a different tact from the original AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide (hereafter called the DMG) when it comes to presenting its DM material, so a direct comparison may be a little tricky, if not downright impossible. Unfortunately, I don't have copies of the middle edition guides with me at the moment (not that I want to review all of them at once!), but I suspect that you could probably see a progressive evolution in layout from book to book.

I'm sure others have remarked before on the title change to reflect a possessive descriptor; the apostrophe first appears with the 2nd edition of the book. I'm sure it's just my "old man-ness" showing, but it bothers me, that singular possessive quality. The original title seems to say "here is a guide book for anyone aspiring to join the ranks of dungeon masters," while the latter implies "this is your book," as if there was no responsibility inherent with assuming the mantle of "DM," no requirement of consistency with the way game play (and game running) is intended. Which was, after all, one of Gygax's explicit, stated reasons for penning the DMG in the first place: to instill some sort of order and consistency to game play. The value you place on such an objective is, of course, up to you.

Shouldn't it at least be, Dungeon Masters' Guide?

Well, I said, this has been the title since the 2E, so regardless of any negative (or positive) judgment on the change, it's not anything to bestow on 5E.

ANYway...I've seen criticism of the original DMG (here and elsewhere) for its poor organization and scattered material, and up until a couple days ago I would have agreed wholeheartedly. Not that it bothers me...years of working with nothing other than the DMG has made me so familiar with it, I can quickly find whatever info I need. But to someone just glancing through it, there seems little rhyme or reason to why it's organized the way it is. 

Then I actually bothered to go and read the Introduction again (I believe the last time I read the DMG intro was the first time I opened the book, 30-some years ago):
"The format of this book is simple and straightforward. The first sections pertain to material in the PLAYERS HANDBOOK, and each pertinent section is in corresponding order. Much information was purposefully omitted from the latter work, as it is data which would not normally be known - at least initially - to a person of the nature which the game presupposes, i.e. an adventurer in a world of swords & sorcery. It is incumbent upon all DMs to be thoroughly conversant with the PLAYERS HANDBOOK, and at the same time you must know the additional information which is given in this volume, for it rounds out and completes the whole... 
"After the material which pertains directly to the PLAYERS HANDBOOK comes the information which supplements and augments. There is a large section which lists and explains the numerous magical items. There are sections on the development of the campaign milieu, dungeon design, random creation of wilderness and dungeon levels, and the development of non-player characters. In fact, what I have attempted is to cram everything vital to the game into this book, so that you be as completely equipped as possible to face the ravenous packs of players lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce upon the unwary referee and devour him or her at the first opportunity."
Those are the first two paragraphs of the introduction, and if one lays out the 1E PHB next to the DMG (something I was unable to do the first time I read the DMG, as I received my DMG about a year before I was able to acquire a copy of the PHB), you will see that the sections of the DMG through the first 86 pages directly correlate to the same sections of the PHB (up until that book's appendices). Yes, the PHB has a section on Combat (and even an example combat) but the rules of running the combat (including the all combat tables) are in the DMG, as conducting such in-game actions are the purview of the DM. Yes, the PHB outlines how a characters acquire XP (including the one GP = one XP calculation), but the DMG explains how to calculate monster XP value and how XP should be distributed based on player performance, etc. Gygax, in his original books, makes a clear division between what knowledge is needed for a player to play, and what additional knowledge is needed for a DM to run.

My second DMG acquired, and
the one that's seen the most use.
Is there wisdom in this method? I don't recall what the 2E books looked like, though I'm petty sure that THAC0 and saving throws were (at least) included in the 2nd edition PHB. Third edition is the first edition I recall that has the actual combat rules included as part of its PHB. This could be seen as a move towards transparency in the game (moving those "mysterious rules" out from behind the DM screen), or it could be seen as necessary to distribute the burden of the advanced tactics of 3E (players need to know how to move around the battle mat, especially with regard to reach, attacks of opportunity, etc.). For Gygax, it is apparent that such things are of secondary consideration to the priority of an immersive experience. At least, that's how I interpret a text that provides tips and advice (in the PHB) for how to adventure and participate in combat, while keeping the actual nuts and bolts of the game (ostensibly) invisible, hidden in the DM's tome.

This experience (which AD&D creates), renders tactical considerations dispensable. Or as Gygax explains:
"Material included was written with an eye towards playability and expedition. The fun of the games action and drama. The challenge of problem solving is secondary. Long and drawn out operations by the referee irritate the players. More "realistic" combat systems could certainly have been included here, but they have no real part in a game for a group of players having an exciting adventure."
Folks whose introduction to D&D started with 3E (or later editions) may not quite grasp this concept...even those who've since moved to "old school" systems. Longing for a simpler, more accessible (i.e. more easily mastered), quicker-moving system can be plenty motivation for "jumping ship," and won't necessarily result in the type of powerful immersive experience that is possible.

[Alexis Smolensk (who has expressed great disdain for Gygax or, at least, for people's deification of the man) has written two good books that can act as real aids on this subject: How to Run and The Dungeon's Front Door, the latter of which I'll attempt to review in the very near future]

Following the section that expands upon the PHB, the DMG moves into areas not addressed in the former book: creating campaigns, creating NPCs, construction (of strongholds and such), conducting the game (dealing with players, keeping the game fresh, etc.), magical research, and finally treasure and magic items...the single largest section of the book (close to 50 pages, about 44 of which are magic item descriptions). 

After this, you find 16 appendices, including a number of random tables: random dungeon creations, random encounters, random traps, random adventuring parties, etc. as well as some useful lists, including monster stat blocks, encumbrance amounts, and inspirational reading (the infamous Appendix N). Finally, a glossary, a short "afterword," and an index, the latter of which is nice because it has entries for both the DMG and the PHB in one place.

In contrast (and, yes, I know this post is running long), the DMG5 divides its book into nine chapters contained in three parts. The first section (Master of Worlds) is two chapters of 60-some pages with the purpose of helping "you decide what kind of campaign you'd like to run." The second section (Master of Adventures) has 160-some pages and purports to help "create the adventures - the stories - that will compose the campaign and keep the players entertained from one game session to another." Most of this section (100 pages) is devoted to treasure and magic items. The third section (Master of Rules) is the smallest of the three sections, being under 60 pages, and aims to help "adjudicate the rules of the game and modify them to suit the style of your campaign."

These three sections are followed by four appendices: one a random dungeon generator, one a list of monsters by challenge rating, one a selection of sample maps, and finally a list of inspirational reading. A good sized index rounds out the book. The fifth edition Guide comes in at a total page count of 320, a third again as large as the 1st edition version...not terribly unmanageable, considering there's a lot of artwork in the DMG5, including many full page illustrations. In fact, about 90 pages of the DMG5 are non-instructional illustrations. The original DMG has about 13-14 pages worth of illustration depending on how you measure 'em. Most of the extra page count is simply aesthetic, not text.

Let's take a look at just the the next post.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Far Trek - Last Chance

It's after midnight here, but folks over in the U.S. still have some time left to get C.R. Brandon's FAR TREK in soft cover from Lulu for just a steal of a price: under $3, with free shipping. That's a pretty great price for a 148 page game that does an excellent job of emulating the feel of the original Star Trek series.

At least, I'm assuming it still does. I have the Beta version in PDF (based on Mike Berkley's original Where No Man Has Gone Before), and was one nifty little game (though perhaps a bit less "gonzo Trek" than Berkley's original), at about one-third the page count.

Here's the link you want to check out if you're at all interested. Hurry...time's running out: the deal only lasts for today!

Yes, I bought it.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Vance (Take 37)

Vancian magic is so easy.

Which is probably why it's lasted as long as it has, being a staple of the D&D game through almost every edition (we'll forget that 4E experiment for the moment). The ease is, frankly, part of the brilliance of the original game offers yet another type/style of play for players of the Dungeons & Dragons game.

I'm sure I'm not the first person to have stated this, but it's worth noting: it's the asymmetry of play styles that gives D&D much of its charm. Look at the four basic character types:

Fighters are the most basic. They have no special skills, but they have no limitation when it comes to combat, having the best armor, hit points, attack ability, and weapon access of any of the classes. Sure, they are a "one-trick pony" but there is freedom in that. They are the foundation of the adventurer archetype.

Thieves (yes, I realize they were not a class in the earliest iteration of D&D...they became one of the four archetypes beginning with Holmes and extending through 2E) trade in fighting ability in exchange for some nifty options. However, they're options (skills) are extremely random, giving the character type a "gambler" aspect, as I discussed in a previous post. For players that like a little risk, and who don't feel the need to wade into combat (unless odds are on their side: see backstabbing), it's a different way to play. And yet their low-staying power (poor HPs, poor armor class, tendency to make more trap-related saving throws) requires a degree of smarts about how they gamble.

Clerics, like thieves, trade in basic fighting ability for additional abilities and, unlike thieves, there's little gamble involved. Spells always function and few of them are the type that give saving throws (being beneficial), and even their turning ability functions automatically as they go up in level. However, clerics also carry the additional burden of responsibility...a thief may not always be required to sneak ahead or disarm a trap (due to the potential for failure), but parties have an expectation that clerics will use their spells and abilities for the party's benefit. Indeed, while the thief's lowered combat ability is in staying power, clerics have excellent armor, hit points, and saving throws...they are supposed to "stick around" in order to fulfill their responsibilities in support of the party.

And then there's magic-users. Magic-users have almost no combat ability (compared to the other classes), but what they have is a number of versatile, powerful spells that automatically function, unless directly targeting a foe (who then usually receives a saving throw). There is no expectation of magic-users to fight well, no gamble in the use of their abilities, and little responsibility associated with their spells (other than to use them as they become viable options). Players of magic-users must be smart (and fairly good strategists) to play well due to the nature of the Vancian magic system.

Changing that magic system I did in Five Ancient Kingdoms, for example, or as recent editions of D&D have done...actually undermines one of the neat, asymmetrical pieces of the D&D game. I've been thinking about this a lot the few weeks (since doing that Holmes review) as I consider different magic systems for designs I'm working on. The system of linking power to (finite) power, but versatile power that functions without any sort of dice roll...balances well with the limitations of the magic-user class to make for a very different style of play.

And the more I think about it, the less I want to take away that option, that style of play...even though the Vancian system (so called) doesn't model the kind of magic system that I want in a fantasy adventure game. Magic-users in D&D don't look like anything but out of legends or fairy tales or S&S novels....not in the way their magic functions, that is...but they provide an alternative version of play, an unbalanced version that (when considered next to their other basic counterparts) makes for a nice stew of play types.

And the interaction of those play types, at the game table, helps give an organic feeling to the D&D game, very different than a game like, say, FATE or Savage Worlds where all the players are using the same mechanics, jockeying for ways to bring their strongest aspects to bear rather than working in a completely different fashion from their peers. Vancian magic, as designed, is part of the reason why D&D play has been able to sustain interest for as long as it has.

I just hate the way it scales.

So...working on that and (possibly) a few other minor tweaks, but will otherwise (for the foreseeable future) be scrapping any and all non-Vancian systems for my D&D-ish games. It hurts (a little) and means more spell lists (*sigh*) but the end benefit outweighs the discomfort. I think.

Crap...back to the drawing board.

Friday, December 11, 2015

How to Win

The title of this post remains the same, but I have erased the content to write the following instead:

As I read through the writings of Gary Gygax in the original Players Handbook, I am struck by a couple of things. The first is that Gygax provided a lot more information to running a good Dungeons & Dragons game than many of us (myself included) give him credit for. It's been so long since I've sat down and read the books...even the last few times I've played AD&D, or researched it for a blog post or personal writing project, I've only used the books for reference (what are the strength limits of an elf, what level do druids gain abilities, what's the casting time of "x" spell, etc.). Now that we've reached the point in our hobby when we are using other editions (like B/X or 5E) or retro-clones (like OSRIC or S&W or Labyrinth Lord) and the collected knowledge of gaming to be found on blogs and forums, many of us have neglected to actually mine the original source material for the wisdom that's there. The AD&D books really were Gygax's magnum opus, and much of what he presents is masterfully done. There's little that new "old school" texts really add to the discourse, when you get down to it...they're just refining things EGG was already saying.

The other thing that strikes me is that I'm really blogging down a silly road here. My half-formed idea of the last couple days was to do a series of comparisons between AD&D and 5th Edition, comparing and contrasting the two and (contrary to some folks presumptions) NOT necessarily just as an exercise in bashing 5E. Regardless of what 5E does or does not deliver in a gaming experience, me dredging up the past...or critiquing the present...isn't a very practical use of my time. What might I accomplish? Make people feel bad for enjoying 5E? Make people pine for the days when 1E was a thriving, supported line? Drum up supporters for my position? Antagonize people who've done nothing to deserve it?

No. I took a look at 5E (as much as I could stomach) and I noted my two cents on the blog and I'm tapping out. Done. There is no winning "edition wars;" to coin a phrase from that '83 classic film, WarGames, the only winning move is to to not play the game. I feel pretty silly that I got so lathered up as to even consider rattling off more potshots at WotC.

As fun as global thermonuclear war...just less death.

Now, if you'll please excuse me, I shall now get to writing something about Vancian magic. Again.

Regarding Reviews and Rants

Yesterday, I finished a "grumpy post" regarding my thoughts on 5E. Around halfway through, it turned into a typical JB rant about a product that I've never played or ran in its finished form. Lots of reads, lots of comments, lots of blog traffic, all of which is fun and good for my blogger self-esteem (yay! I'm worth reading!). So first off: thank you for that.

One commenter (littlemute) pointed out (or, rather, inferred) that I can hardly be fair in my reviews of these games and game products if I've never used them in actual play, and he has a point. Critics of books, films, music, and theater have all experienced the product they're reviewing in the form in which said product is intended to deliver itself. Same with video game reviewers and food critics: you expect a restaurant review to have been written by someone who's actually eaten at the joint.

A typical critic.
Which is one of the reasons I dislike using the term "review" for these types of posts. Yes, I've started putting the "review" label on them (that's for me to find them easier, down the road), but one can hardly be a true review (or rant or rave) if it hasn't been experienced in the fashion in which its creator intended can it? Some games look clunky on paper but play beautifully, while others look fantastic and play in a very "this-is-not-fun" way, and you'd never know except by playing the thing.

But RPGs are a slightly different beast, even from other games. You can open up something like Monopoly or Pictionary, read the rules in under 15 minutes and start playing. You can fire up a video game on the Xbox and immediately check how the gameplay feels. An RPG requires a significant investment of time and energy just to prepare for a game...not just reading the 900 page instruction manual, but convincing others to play (not always an easy task), organizing a gathering, going through the chargen process (for many RPGs this is a session in itself), before finally sitting down to play the game. Yes, you can cut-out the chargen (using pre-gens), but it's often such an important part of the game experience (especially for player identification/immersion) that a true review of game play requires it.

So what to do? offers two types of reviews for readers: "capsule" and "playtest" for out-of-the-box looks and actual play respectively. I don't really have the time to play test every RPG and RPG supplement I look at (perhaps if someone was paying me...) and yet I'd like to think that most of my "reviews" go a bit beyond looking at artwork, layout, and organization.

Should I just keep my thoughts to myself? Since it's all speculation anyway? I mean, I don't know that every druid player is going to make heavy use of the thorn whip cantrip, just like I don't know that most magic-users in B/X are going to select sleep as their first spell. Hell, even if I see it in play, there's always a chance that my gaming table is the anomaly, right? Rendering even a play test review worthless?

And isn't it possible that while I love or hate a film or book or piece of music, someone else who isn't me will have the opposite reaction? Even if I pan a restaurant for a poor meal, isn't it possible it simply wasn't to my palette's taste? Heck, could it be the chef just had an off-night?

The thing is, reviews are opinions. They're subjective, and they're coming from one fallible human being's singular experience. If the reviewer is an expert on the subject matter, the opinion may be better informed, may draw on a wealth of knowledge and experience, but it's still just an opinion. Your own opinion may differ.

Some of my gaming reviews are based on actual play, but most (especially adventures and supplements folks request I review via email or whatnot) aren't. For the most part, I don't have the resources needed (time, energy, players) to set up a game simply for the purpose of testing a product. Even an "important" product like the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons. BUT, even if I DID have the resources, my play experience wouldn't necessarily be your play experience.

After all, I'm a pretty good DM most days.
; )

So INSTEAD what you're getting from my "reviews" is my opinion of how well an RPG or RPG product delivers its goods to the intended players. I'd like to think that my opinion is fairly well-informed by my 30+ years of playing and reading a large variety of RPGs, adventures, and supplements, as well as my more recent (10 year) side-hobby/passion of game design and writing. My opinion is certainly colored by my own priorities of gaming, but I think those priorities are laid out pretty clearly, and people who don't share them are free to look elsewhere for, "reviews." Certainly, if one wants play test examples, they're going to have to look to other blogs (most of the time). And that's not a bad thing. When I'm on the fence about making a game purchase, I check multiple reviews (when they're available)...usually one's not enough to move my arrow.

But you know, much of the time I'm not reviewing anything that's uber-current (unless I'm talking about a film or television show I just saw). I've analyzing and examining and opining on games that have been out for a while. Things that have already been purchased...things that my readers have already formed their own opinions regarding. I'm not swaying anyone...and I'm not really trying to. I'm just presenting my thoughts, my feelings, my opinion on a game. It's me thinking out loud, through the blog, and the great thing about the blog is that readers can provide input and feedback and point out things I've missed, or things I might want to think about. Yes, it's my blog and my opinions, but it's not entirely a monologue...this ain't a review in a newspaper when all a dissenting reader might do is crumple the thing in disgust (or write a pointed letter to the editor). The comments from readers can have a transformative effect, and not just the "puffing my ego" kind.

And that's cool, and an additional motivation for me to keep typing my thoughts out here for everyone to see.

All right, it's lunch time. Later on, I'm going to quote part of the original PHB and then, if I have time, I kind of want to talk about my personal DMing style (in a separate post). We'll see.