Friday, December 29, 2017


One area in which AD&D (and 2E and 3E and 4E and 5E) exceeds B/X is the number of different classes it offers players from the outset, ensuring a large variety of possible character types, and thus distinct variations in players' party composition.

Which is a good thing, because that makes for interesting play.

Now I can quibble over how good, or useful, or redundant, or necessary each available character type is (and I have in the past), but I've come to the conclusion that this doesn't change the end result: a little extra variation is a good thing to encourage long term interest and engagement, and the seven B/X classes might not provide sufficient options.

Hell, I probably already knew this (deep down somewhere in my subconscious) I not the guy who published The Complete B/X Adventurer, containing some 17 new character classes for B/X? Certainly, I allowed these new classes to appear at my B/X gaming table (and they did), spicing up the rather staid parade of fighter, fighter, dwarf, fighter, elf, etc. For all the benefits inherent in the streamlined B/X design, it remains a BASIC game, one that needs tooling for long-term engagement. That's no joke.

My longest running campaign, in which I was involved both as a player and as a DM, lasted from circa 1982 to 1988...close to seven years. That may not seem like all that long...and it isn't, compared to some long running campaigns spanning decades. But it represented a significant number of hours, considering how much available time we had to play as children. Homework was light in those days (or easily ignored), and what extracurricular activities we practice, piano lessons, Scouts, whatever...only took a couple hours a week. At school, after school, weekends, vacations, we were planning or playing our game.

During that time we had six to eight regular players, with a couple other visitors showing up for the odd game or two. Among the seven I'd consider to be real contributors to the campaign...who actively participated and around whom our various adventures resolved...we had a total of 29 original characters whose names and specs I can readily recall. Remembering that we started with B/X, only gradually converting to AD&D as we acquired books (and grandfathering in old B/X characters when necessary), I can tell you that:
  • Not counting henchmen (of which there were few), only ONE race-class combo was repeated (there was a human fighter, created during our B/X days, and a second created a few years later. Interestingly, both were played by female players, despite AD&D strength limitations based on sex).
  • Of those 29 characters, 21 were race-class combos found in the first edition Players Handbook.
  • Of the eight characters that were not "standard" PHB characters, six were made using rules found in  the Unearthed Arcana (three were Drow, one was a human barbarian, and the other two incorporated the thief-acrobat subclass in their design).
  • The remaining two characters were created using rules found in Dragon magazine or 3rd party sources.
  • None of the characters were gnomes or (if I remember correctly) half-orcs.
  • None of the characters were druids, paladins, monks, or cavaliers.
Race-Class combos for years, y'all.
That's a lot of mileage out of a single book. The total number of race-class combinations found in the first edition PHB are 34, not counting dual-class, multi-class, or bard characters. As we tended towards "optimal" configurations (no half-orc clerics or elven fighters, for example) it's unsurprising we only used a portion of the possible character types available.

But we did create a large number of characters...and there were NPC druids and monks, etc. who found their way into the campaign, representing their individual character types. The sheer number of possibilities permitted by the AD&D system provided plenty of grist for the imagination mill, allowing us to churn out a thriving campaign world of class/race-based factions, colorful characters, and adventures equivalent to any cheap-ass, knock-off fantasy novel.

Which isn't said to be harsh, by the way. We weren't authors trying to create "great literature;" we were kids playing an adventure game. The play of the thing, and our engagement with it, was la cosa mas importante...the most important thing (sorry, still in Mexico). Having that variety...occasionally supplemented by a Dragon mag, or the UA, or whatever...allowed us to remain engaged, and play the hell out of the game, for many years. Our game group fell apart for reasons of social dynamic, not any lack of interest or inspiration. We weren't failed by the system...certainly not the way (I believe) later editions failed their players...we were failed by issues that arose outside the game.

[folks who continue to play and enjoy later editions of D&D...2nd to 5th...are welcome to disagree with that last sentiment. And, yes, I guess the jury IS still out on 5E (people are playing it and loving it, from what I gather). But from my own experience, 2nd and 3E both failed to retain the interest and engagement of myself and those I played it with (due to their system design "features") and it appears evident that 4E failed a majority of players on a pretty large scale]

Anyway, as I consider the system requirements of my own redesigned campaign world, I find myself remembering things that worked well in the past, and this particular aspect of the AD&D game was one of those things. Wholesale availability of class and race combinations isn't desirable (I've seen the madness of that in my 3E days), but I'm a lot less opposed to the idea than I was a few years ago.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

It Starts With Religion

Hope everyone had a "merry, merry" and all that jazz. My holiday (which continues this week in Mexico) has been pretty good, what with the food, family, and fun. Heck, I even got to watch the Seahawks game Sunday, an exceptional gift, in and of itself (as well as a bit of a Christmas miracle, all things considered).

But has been tough to get any blogging done (duh) with the festivities. Not to say this was my intention (it wasn't), but I have had some things I wanted to write about. I've been trying to finish up a post on The Temple of Elemental Evil for about four days, and just haven't quite put the capper on it. Still, that's just one of several things floating around my brain.

When considering the creation of a fantasy campaign...or, more accurately, it's "milieu" (to use the Gygaxian term) has to consider how things tie together, setting and system, in order to ensure a type of consistency that will last long term. Not necessarily because "everything needs to make sense;" sensibility, is actually a little bit down on the list of necessaries for a good, fun game. But because it helps establish boundaries and paradigms within which one can create.

[does it sounds like I'm gearing up for some sort of painfully amorphous, "thought exercise" blog post? Yeah, I guess it does. But I'll try to keep it short]

Ancestor was raped by a dragon.
For example, what is the overall fecundity of fantasy species in your game world? Is it some sort of Xanthian cauldron of crazy that allows for half-dwarves and goblin-troll hybrids? Some fantasy allows for vampires to have biological progeny (the "daughter of Dracula" kind of thing); others take a far more staid approach to the subject. Decisions like this (and the relative sentience of species and levels of variance and ability) not only inform how the game world looks, but important system considerations like what are playable races, and whether or not non-human characters are allowed to choose between different classes.

Similarly, there are issues of tone to consider. Here, I'm not talking about dictating player behavior...over the years, I've come to the conclusion it's damn near impossible to influence something that will be (largely) determined by the particular group dynamic of the players you're saddled with. But one has to decide the "background noise" of the world. Is everyone living in fear of some unconquerable horde that periodically ravages the civilized lands? Do the rulers of the realm more resemble the High King of Gondor or the scheming nobles of Game of Thrones? Is magic an inherited birthright, a supernatural art, or some form of lost, "higher science?" All these things contribute to the flavor of the campaign setting, informing what type of scenarios and situations might be encountered by players...and also places limits on what becomes necessary for rules.

For me, however, I've come to the conclusion that my first cosmological priority is, and has to be, the form and shape of religion in the game world.

Not, necessarily, the God or gods of universe, or the "creation story" of my little fantasy setting. These things are generally "higher mysteries" that players may or may not discover...and that are possibly subject to change (with new "discoveries" or revelations that occur in play). And anyway, I already know how this particular universe was created: I made it. Probably the players will know that, too.

But people relate to their belief systems (and the effect those belief systems have on the people) is a major, serious, foundational bit of world building for a fantasy campaign, especially one based (however loosely) on the Dungeons & Dragons system. Not only with regard to the clerical class and its related subclasses, but also alignment, magic, the ordering of the natural and supernatural, the organization of societies, the conflicts inherent in the world, the value of treasure...just a crap-ton of different aspects of the game, its systems, and the fantasy environment in which the players will adventure.

Anyhoo. Maybe I'm wrong, but for my game, that's what I'm starting with. Apologies, but at the moment, I don't have time to elaborate.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


Apologies, folks. I'm a total jackass.

By which I mean to say, I had originally planned on writing a rather long and insightful (or, at least, entertaining) post, but I simply don't have the time. I am winging off to Mexico tomorrow to spend the Christmas holiday with the in-laws, and I thought my travel time was to begin in the afternoon/evening. Turns out: no. My plane leaves at 9am, which means I have precious little time to get everything packed (and the house in order), before catching a little sleep and getting the kids up, a couple hours earlier than they're used to. I'm doing this on my own, of course, as my wife is currently in Paraguay; we're meeting in the middle.

[my children, while under the age of seven, are veteran travelers and real troopers when it comes to this kind of thing. Unfortunately, they are fuck-all worthless when it comes to packing and organizing or even (with regard to my youngest) dressing themselves or cleaning their own nether regions] I am pressed for time, I will simply give you the skinny in bullet point form:
  • I will be out of the country till New Year's so anyone ordering books are S.O.L. until January, when I will fulfill any and all orders in my inbox.
  • Likewise, I will be (mostly) unavailable to answer the various emails and comments I sometimes receives.
  • I am very hopeful that you ALL have a HAPPY and SAFE holiday season. I know that's not always possible, through no fault of your own (observe Monday's tragic Amtrak derailment in my own neck of the woods), but I'll send up a prayer that everyone makes it through to 2018.
  • I've been doing a lot of reading and research on the old Traveller game this last week. And not just ANY edition of Traveller but, specifically, the original 1977, first edition of the game...which happens to be (oddly enough) different in many respects from all the later editions, even the 1981 "re-print" (the only one available in PDF at the moment, as far as I've found). I found an incredibly interesting resource over at the Tales to Astound blog, and have spent at least a dozen hours or so reading through his entire string of "classic Traveller" posts. Very enlightening stuff, especially the relationship of the game (both its themes and gameplay) to the original version of Dungeons & Dragons. Fascinating, and definitely recommended reading for the Traveller enthusiast. Hopefully I'll have a chance to revisit the topic in a future post.
Aaaaand...that's about all I have time for. I'll try to get out a post or two while I'm in Mexico, but if I don't, know that I'm wishing you all a "merry, merry" one...whatever it is that makes you merry this time of year.
: )

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Admitting Defeat

The other day I blogged about picking up a few 2nd edition AD&D books (used) in a moment of birthday self-indulgence. One of these books was the adventure Return to the Keep on the Borderlands. Return is one of those "silver (25th) anniversary" adventures put out by TSR shortly after TSR's acquisition by Wizards of the Coast; it is, of course, based on the old B2 adventure Keep on the Borderlands of which I've spilled plenty of internet ink. As I've only played 2nd edition on a couple occasions (even after it was published, my friends and I continued to use 1E), these were never a priority of acquisition, although I have owned Return to White Plume Mountain since it was first published...a lovely little adventure that greatly expands the original, creates several interesting challenges, encourages faction play, and has a nice little moral quandary and multiple ending "solution."

Nice art, but I prefer Roslov.
Return to the Keep on the Borderlands isn't quite as expansive, appearing to adhere much closer to its original source material (though I'm still in the process of giving it a really thorough read). It is also, much like the original B2, designed to be used with beginning players and characters, offering all sorts of tricks, tips, and advice to the new Dungeon Master which, as I recently mentioned is sadly lacking in the 2nd edition DMG.

Of special interest is the following note on page 3:
Dividing Treasure & Experience
The original D&D and 1st edition AD&D games gave experience points for treasure gained and monsters slain; 2nd edition AD&D shifts the emphasis to story awards and specifies that it's only necessary to defeat the foe, not necessarily kill them (sometimes it's better to take prisoners). For purposes of this adventure, the Dungeon Master is strongly encouraged to use the optional rule that grants experience for treasure (at the rate of 1 XP per 1 gp value); this sends the message to the players that there are a multitude of right approaches to take (combat, stealth, negotiation), not a single preferred method of play.
[a slight quibble, but per the 1981 Basic D&D set, "Experience points are also given for monsters killed or overcome by magic, fighting, or wits." Outright slaying is not required]

Emphasis added by Yours Truly.

While (as might be imagined) a crotchety old grognard like myself is inclined to cackle a bit upon reading this (oh, you finally figured out your 2E XP system was silly and counterproductive), I mainly find myself wondering why this reasoning wasn't carried over and implemented in later editions. After all, the author of Return to the Keep is John D. Rateliff, a WotC employee for years, and co-editor for both the 3rd edition PHB and DMG.  After all-but-outright conceding that an XP-for-treasure reward system is a road that opens D&D to something other than straight combat, WotC defaulted the other way, making the game about fighting monsters ever since.

Fuck, dudes.

I took the time to review my old 3E books this afternoon, just to see if there was some "optional rule" about calculating XP based on treasure I'd missed or failed to remember. Nope. Just challenge ratings and "story awards." I wonder what the reasoning was, what was discussed in the brainstorming sessions and design meetings when they decided this would be the way to go. Were they already considering the plethora of other-genre D20 games that would be published based on their proprietary OGL? I know that the OGL itself was developed as a tool to rope in and destroy D&D's competition in the marketplace.

Hmm. Maybe something to look into.

Friday, December 8, 2017

On Victimhood

Kyle Mecklem recently blogged his thoughts on how and why D&D has become a "boring" game in recent years. While I think his analysis is a little off (you can read my comments on his post), it still raises a subject I find worth discussing.

[not beating up on Kyle, here...I'm just riffing off his subject matter]

Sure, I can get on board with the idea that the latest editions of D&D don't hold the same appeal for me that the older versions of the game do, but that doesn't mean they're boring to everyone. Clearly there are folks enjoying 5th edition in some capacity, and who are more than willing to put their cash in Hasbro's cash register. Perhaps I am simply out-of-touch with what "the kids" want these days...certainly that's true with regard to pop music and reality television.

And even if though I can come around (rather easily, I admit) to an idea that the game is objectively "less fun/exciting" than it was "back in the day," I'm rather hesitant to consider it has anything to do with the reasons Kyle lists: low effort players, hand waving away of minutia, and the lack of "true challenge." I can see how these things might appear to be causes of this "boring-ness problem" -- they are all features of classic "old school" play, and Kyle's premise seems to imply old school play being more desirable than the current systems -- but I'd argue against them. After all:

- There are plenty of RPGs that require extensive, pre-play character development that offer nothing like classic D&D play. Furthermore, if players are approaching the game with a "video game mentality" (as Kyle suggests), I would lay the fault at the feet of a game designed with video game sensibilities, not the players' response.

- Too much minutia can be off-putting and distracting from the escapism of the game being played. Some people want to count arrows and torches; some people find this breaks their immersive experience. Different players have different thresholds for the amount of minutia they can handle; I for one did not enjoy the "challenge" of worrying about my caloric intake when I played in a certain on-line campaign.

- Games that are too deadly in nature promote caution in players, leading to slower play, which I consider to be fairly boring. On the other hand, what Kyle describes as a "slow grind" is very inherent of some styles of Old School play, and the wahoo "lich council assault" he describes sounds much more video gamey in nature. I suppose I'd just say these are matters of style and personal taste over something inherent in the game itself (neither in its current nor past incarnations).

Here's the thing: what Kyle is expressing is a lack of satisfaction with the D&D game experience these days, and I can agree with that. I mean, I have sampled 5th edition and found it dead boring (and 3rd edition, which I played for a couple-three years, was at least as much, if not more so). Mostly though (mostly), I would chalk this up more to the manner in which the game has been presented...the main marketing thrust of the game since the advent of the 21st century seems to have been to make the perspective DM reliant on company-created game resources, rather than promoting one's own ability to create and run the game independently. This may be an excellent business model (evidenced by the company remaining in business) or it may not be (I haven't purchased any of their D&D stuff in 15 years). Regardless, I don't subscribe to this presentation of D&D, and I would actively discourage anyone else from doing so, were they to ask my opinion.

['course, I'm not playing much at all these days, though I am gearing up for the future, so take my opinion for what it's worth]

Alexis Smolensk, bless his ever-present-desire-to-help-us-be-better-DMs, has written a couple good posts about encouraging player agency over victimhood.  "Victimhood," a term I'd use interchangeably with "de-protagonization," may be the usual state players find themselves in when playing a published adventure path, but it's been the default starting point for adventures since the Hickman/Weiss era of the mid-1980s. See examples such as Dragonlance ("Your village has been burned and you've been captured by the Dragon Army"), the Desert of Desolation series ("You've offended the local lord and you are being forced to do this quest in the desert"), and, of course, Ravenloft ("You're trapped by this mysterious fog in some Transylvania-equivalent; go break the curse!").  And reading and running (and aping) published adventures is one of the main ways young DMs learn their craft.

[I'd argue that earlier adventures (Against the Giants, the Slavers Series, early Basic modules) offer a bit more player agency: here's some adventure site, do you want to take it on or not?]

Unfortunately (in addition to de-protagonizing players), relying on this kind of heavy-handed story-forcing doesn't do a DM any favors, either. Not only are they subject to extensive cliches (how can it not be, when fantasy adventure gaming is built upon and chock full of cliches?) but requiring a DM to follow a dramatic plot...whether a published one or a story of her own design...ties the DM's hands, limiting the DM's ability to improvise and adapt to the needs/wants of players or even (on occasion) the results of the dice rolled.

Yes, such constrained play can certainly feel trite and/or boring.

In my opinion, the main lacking in the most recent editions (perhaps ALL editions) of D&D is the clear, concise instruction needed by perspective DMs for building and running adventures and campaigns. Without that instruction...well, you get what you've got.

And that's all I've got to say on the matter right now.

***EDIT: I wrote this post before reading this, published today. It's a little harsh, but not terrible advice to the perspective DM. More of this kind of thing would be helpful, I think.***

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Better Wheel

There are a number of different posts that I've been wanting to write lately, but lack of time and distraction has made it a real challenge to do anything besides scribing in my own brain. Because of this, I might be hitting a bunch of semi-random subjects in this post.

I'll start with this:

I've been considering re-writing Dungeons & Dragons for my own purposes. This is stupid on a lot of levels. First off, it's not a very original idea. Second, it's not a profitable use of my time (no one's going to buy such a thing). Third, I've already done this before (see Five Ancient Kingdoms). Fourth, it's just a stupid, stupid idea.

I might still do it, however, because there are some things that really bug me about the game as it exists. Ability score modifiers. A lot of stuff about combat. Lack of specificity with regard to classes. Too much specificity with regard to classes. "Subjective time" in a game. Some spells. A bunch of random things.

Here's a thought that keeps going through my head: should a fight with a band of orcs be run the same as a fight with Demogorgon? How about a fight with an ogre? If the answer to either of these questions is "no," then you may (like me) have a problem with the combat rules, regardless of the edition you're using. I know I do, in part because it's caused me to avoid certain types of play in the past (depending on the edition I'm running)...and I shouldn't have to do that.

More on that (perhaps) later. Next:

I've been re-reading Alexis Smolensk's How to Run, specifically Part 4: Worldbuilding. When I wrote about this section in my review of his book (a few years back), I may have given it shorter shrift than it deserved...and if so, I would chalk that up to being intimidated, overwhelmed, and (frankly) not really understanding everything in that section. Well, I'm a couple years older and wiser and I'm seeing the thing with new eyes. Maybe it's just more extensive reading of Alexis's blog, but I'm comprehending the concepts he's communicating and I'm drinking the Kool-Ade. It's still intimidating, but it's not overwhelming.

The last couple years or so I've been considering what kind of setting I'd prefer to run as a D&D campaign...always assuming I will (eventually) get the chance to run a D&D game at some time in the future (as my children continue to get older, it seems the possibility is more likely). It's been tough nailing down concepts...what I want the setting to look like, what I want the game to look like. Sometimes I want something one way, sometimes another. But up till now, I've never bothered to sit down and actually outline it, actually write it up. I haven't bothered considering the functions and structures I'd need to get the game that I want. Re-reading How to Run, four years later with a lot of water under ye old bridge, I find Alexis has a great roadmap for creating such a thing...if I bother to use it.

Back in September, I wrote a post that I intended to follow with a discussion of strategies for enhancing play and increasing gaming "longevity." Obviously, I never got to that. But the gist would have been (mainly) about attending to the immersive least, with regard to fantasy adventure games like D&D. Much of that particular discussion could have involved cribbing from strategies outlined in How to Run, manipulating players feelings/stress level both through one's presentation/style (as Dungeon Master), and use of the rules (structure) in play. I've started coming around to the idea that what has made me a successful Dungeon Master in the past (i.e. one that could attract and retain players), has far less to do with any amazing creativity on my part, and much more about how I handle my players at the I run my games.

Which may seem like a no-brainer to folks (duh, JB)...but I'm talking about the extent of the importance. Let me put it this way: Sure, I've always felt I was fairly competent (hell, competent enough to expound on "the Art of Being a DM" here on Ye Old Blog) and that this contributed to my players' enjoyment. After all, I've been at the table with other GMs whose style or ability wasn't to my liking, to the detriment of the game being played. But I figured this accounted for only a small percentage of a game's overall "enjoyment factor;" say, something in the realm of 30-50%.

What I'm starting to believe (now) is that the manner in which we run a game accounts for more like 80-90% of whether or not a game is going to be successful. Assuming everyone's on board with the game being played (system, genre) originality and creativity of design, while important, is only a small part of what makes for a successful gaming experience. We've all killed orcs before, re-skinned or not. Can the DM immerse you in a game world that sucks your breath away, not with its unique design, but with the manner in which it's presented? Pacing and panache; competence and confidence.

While the game remains a game, can the DM make you forget that fact? If he or she can, even for a moment, then you can enjoy a short period of transcendence which makes RPGs like D&D so much more enjoyable than most pastimes.

This is why "world creation" is such an important step for the guy (or gal) running the game. In developing one's world, you have the opportunity to know it intimately...and that allows you to speak with authority to your players. It's why you need to have real investment in your world (and sound the time creating the world you want): so that you, the DM, wants to spend time there. If you can't be excited about your own setting, how can you communicate that to your players?

In the past, I've rarely considered the world past the adventures I've designed...I've tended to run my D&D games as "episodic," dungeon-of-the-week affairs (at least, since my adulthood). I've achieved some success (i.e. created enjoyment) for players because of the way I run my game sessions, but I've had little success running long-term campaigns. I've no established world that makes folks want to come back for more. I've no established setting that makes me want to come back for more. I have no Middle Earth, no Urutsk, no Tekumel, no Greyhawk. I have nothing invested, and there's nothing in which to invest.

Running the game (that 80-90% of determining player enjoyment) includes running a campaign/setting. Long-term play is one of the bennies an RPG lie D&D enjoys over other's one of the "perks" of its design. And I've always known that (duh)...I just haven't paid that fact the attention it needs and deserves.

Anyway. Remaking the wheel. That's what I'm thinking about lately, with regard to D&D. World building and rule writing. Function and structure. I'm beginning to think that it's no coincidence that many original campaign settings, developed by individual creators over decades, have rules that deviate substantially from the published game system (see Alexis, Kyrinn Eis, M.A.R. Barker, Dave Arneson...even Gygax). Maybe I'm wrong; maybe I'm wasting my brain power. But it's a thought that keeps carousing around my skull. Just thought I'd share.