Thursday, January 26, 2023

An Advanced D&D Campaign

Damn. I was not going to post anything today, but this one's too good not to share. From 42 Rolls of Duck Tape:
"I've got this one player who keeps asking me to run this or that old module for him, and I keep saying that they exist as locations and he would have to get his pc to make the effort to discover and go to that place(which he finally did for [module B4] the lost city). Because I use my version of mystara that means that most of the basic line of modules are present in my world, I just don't run them as "adventurers" that I take the party on. 

"I run a setting not an adventure. I don't separate between the two. The current actions of the PCs are the adventure, they don't go from one adventure to another, going through a cycle of Dungeons and plots and whatnot. The only real thing separating "adventures" is each individual session we get to play; it's all one continuous adventure. The adventure is the players(not the pcs, but the actual players) discovering my world and interacting with it. Without their direct interaction, there is no game. As much effort as I put into the campaign setting it is nothing without someone else playing in it and finding their own adventure. 

"It's my job to present the setting, and most assuredly not to give the players an "adventure" to play through; the adventure is created by them."
Lance Duncan gets it. 

Take all that in and you won't need another long-winded, digression-filled scrawl of text from me. I mean, I'll keep writing them (because I'm bat-shit crazy), but you won't need them.

Remember this old post? Yeah, I said making dungeons was the "hack" approach to playing D&D, and promised I'd write a follow-up explaining what you needed to do for an "advanced" campaign. And then I never came back to the subject. *sigh* Because I'm busy and I suck, all right?!

But now I don't even need to write that post, because Lance has spelled it all out for you:

The ADVENTURE is the PLAYERS DISCOVERING the WORLD and INTERACTING WITH IT.  The campaign is ALL ONE CONTINUOUS ADVENTURE.

This is what "advanced" D&D play is. It doesn't matter that Lance uses Mystara and (probably) some version of Basic D&D as a rule set for his game...he's still playing D&D in an advanced fashion. 

What do I mean by that? Look: the Basic sets (as has been well-documented elsewhere) were written and designed to INTRODUCE NEW PLAYERS to the foundational concepts of Dungeons & Dragons. Full stop...that's why Holmes wrote his book, that's why B/X was published, that's why BECMI was written. 

And AS SUCH they provide a method of play and procedure that allow players to dip their feet into the whole D&D thing. Here's a dungeon. Here's a wilderness. Here's some cheap-o rules for domain play and immortality quests (Mentzer's C and M sets).

Fine. Dandy. Great, even...D&D is a complex game and introductory rules are strongly recommended for new players. B/X taught me how to play D&D, too.

But that's only the opening move of the game. The TRUE game is the ADVANCED game, readily and headily described in Gygax's Dungeon Master Guide. The DMG discusses (explicitly and at great length) how to create campaigns and how to run campaigns, as well as providing a plentitude of specific ideas of the content one can put into their campaigns...from diseases and hirelings to politics and economics to legendary artifacts and relics.

It also (as I've noted before) provides precious little guidelines on how to create/write a an "adventure."

[still, that last bit makes sense when one considers the campaign to have moved out of the dungeon and into the wider world of the campaign. Which (duh) also explains why world building is so important, right? Yep, I just keep end up harping on the same stuff...]

Anyhoo. Lance has got the concept down. Doesn't matter that he's using Mystara as a world setting/map. Doesn't matter what rule set he's using (not much, anyway...). What matters is the way he uses them. 

All right...we'll cut this one short and sweet. Happy Thursday, folks.
; )

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

YOU Are The Story

Jeez Louise...so many topics to get to (none of which are OGL-related, thank goodness!) and so little time. I'm trying to write a damn blog post about an orc (not just any old orc, but a SPECIFIC orc), and then THIS comes up. Sheesh.

But it's (kind of) important. 

So, Adam (Barking Alien, for those in the know) posted a comment on my last post (Boring Old D&D) saying:
"It's posts like this that confuse me in regards to what it is you enjoy and why you enjoy it. You don't go in for the Story, Narrative driven games but 'it's not just about killing monster and taking stuff'. How does that work? 

"How do you have no story but it's not just a video game with paper and dice?"
For the record, this is (perhaps) the thousandth time BA and I have danced this little dance. He is very much of the (now old) New School of RPG game play...the kind that came out of Dragonlance and 2E-era D&D, the kind that in the '90s led to White Wolf games like Vampire and all its many imitators. Games that wanted to explore story and genre until birthing (and being killed by) the rise of the indie, Story Now (or Narrativist-oriented) games. For those of us who've been around since 1981 (and followed the evolution of the hobby), its pretty easy to recognize the foibles of 5E D&D as the second coming (and rebranding/marketing) of 2E AD&D. 

[that's probably a whole 'nother post. What'd I say? Too many topics these days. However, here's a hint: WotC/Hasbro's quest to "more monetize" the D&D brand has direct parallels with post-1985 TSR]

ANYway. Adam is no 'spring chicken.' He's been playing RPGs nearly as long (or perhaps longer) than I have. He came in with Basic...Holmes, if I remember correctly...long before Dragonlance. Certainly long before 2E. One might jump to the question, "Hey, why isn't this guy on the same page as JB? He's an old geezer...doesn't he have the same sensibilities?" Just remember: the story-centric "role playing" that followed Wargamers Gygax/Arneson initial creation was created by folks OLDER than us. The Hickmans are OLDER than me...they were married adults in their 20s when they were writing epic Dragonlance modules.  This is not an issue of age, generation, or "wargamer background."

[in case anyone's wondering, I don't have a wargaming background]

The way I see it, the problem here is one of confusion and misunderstanding. There is a (LARGE) segment of the hobby that sees RPGs as vehicles for "telling stories." That "telling stories" is the OBJECTIVE of play. "This game [insert name] allows you and your friends to tell stories, just like [insert favorite book, film, or genre one wishes to emulate]."

Before going any further, in this post you need to BREAK that presumption. Even if the game instructions SAY that's the objective of play, you need to nip that right in the bud because there's a good chance that A) the game writer had a poor understanding of what was going on, AND/OR B) was simply emulating prior games description of 'what an RPG is' when they wrote it.

BREAK THAT PRESUMPTION. DO NOT PRESUME THE GAME IS DESIGNED TO TELL STORIES.

Okay. Are we clear? Blank slate everyone? Now we can advance.

There ARE games on the market that are specifically designed to tell stories. Once Upon A Time is a good example. Story Cubes are another. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is yet another and also includes some elements of 'role-playing' in it. 

There are ALSO many RPGs (and pseudo-RPGs...like Fiasco) that have been published over the years that have the objective of telling stories, using recognizable RPG elements, that can somewhat succeed presuming everyone is on board with genre emulation. The Dying Earth RPG. My Life With Master. New Fire: Temikamatl. OrkWorld (maybe). Dust DevilsPrince Valiant. Maybe Amber Diceless. Christian Aldridge's Maelstrom (i.e. Story Engine) The degree to which the telling stories is supported by the game's mechanics (rules/systems) varies between games, but they are GENERALLY supportive of creating stories...in their particular genre...and they don't do much else. 

[there are other examples...really, too many to list]

Then there are...the other games. Games that are based on D&D concepts, mechanics, and play dynamics. "Role-playing games" they are called...games run and moderated by a game master while the other participants play the role of a single character. Games with explicitly stated (or else assumed) objectives of "telling a story." Of creating a narrative with a point to it. Because OTHERWISE the act of play is deemed to have no point or reason to play

Or, to use Adam's words, "How do you have no story but it's not just a video game with dice?"

This is coming at the game from the wrong angle. It is starting with the presumption that playing the game must be about something (it is), about something meaningful (it is), like creating a narrative with a plot a climax and heroic...or at least worthy...protagonists (it is not).  

Dungeons & Dragons was...originally...never about creating stories in the way an actual story telling game is designed. That doesn't mean stories didn't result from the antics of the players, stories that might emulate much of the genre books that inspired D&D (i.e. the infamous Appendix N). But any story creation was the by-product of play, not the point of play. The point of playing Dungeons & Dragons was playing Dungeons & Dragons.  And any textual statements to the contrary should be chalked up as either:
  1. a failure to understand/grasp the appeal of a very new, very unusual game by the original authors, AND/OR
  2. blatant lies and/or terrible attempts at marketing a game that was poorly understood even by its own publishers.
Later RPGs tried to take the "magic" of D&D into their own genres, settings, with tweaks to the system (as TSR did with Top Secret, Boot Hill, Gamma World, Star Frontiers, etc.). But for a number of reasons (which I might get to in a later post) these were LESS successful...and not just because people prefer elves and swords and magic. 

[like I said...needs its own post]

But SOME folks really still wanted elves and swords and magic but with something MORE. For the Hickmans, they had very specific design goals: they wanted objectives that weren't limited to pillaging and looting, they wanted an "intriguing story" that was "intricately woven into play itself," and they wanted scenarios that could be finished in an evening's play. When the Hickmans were hired by TSR, they incorporated these design priorities into their adventures and when those adventures were successful, the design priorities of the (for profit) company shifted to match.

And all the imitators of D&D followed suit.

Again, realize that creating a story was NEVER the "point of play" for the D&D game. The systems (i.e. rules) it has are there to facilitate playing D&D, not to facilitate "telling stories." People like playing D&D (it's why the game is so successful...and will be explained in that later post), just like people enjoy playing baseball or soccer despite there being no real "point" to the game. The point of play is the play of the game. You are not creating stories...you ARE the story. 

Some of the biggest name designers in the story-oriented RPG industry never understood this. Here's Mark Rein-Hagen, designer of Vampire: The Masquerade:
"I have always been in love with roleplaying. Slap-happy mad over it. Ever since that first Sunday afternoon when my father and I sat down with the church intern and played Dungeons & Dragons, it has been my passion....

"In short order we'd created our characters and begun our adventure. I rolled up a Dwarf and my father made a Cleric...we were prepared to encounter all manner of fell beasts and sinister mysteries, but not to be caught up by it the way we were. The adventure was called In Search of the Unknown. How apropos that title was I was not to realize until much later.

"After a few hours of play we found ourselves hopelessly lost due to a magical portal...(description of adventure follows)...I was so excited that I couldn't sit still whenever the gamemaster rolled the dice...and when we finally got out of the dungeon with our treasure and our lives intact, I raced around the house screaming with relief and exaltation.

"It was wonderful. It was exhausting. It was miles beyond any other experience I've ever had.

"In that afternoon I was transformed, elevated to a new plane. I had a profound, almost spiritual experience. My entire goal in roleplaying has been to once again visit that mystical garden in which I so enjoyed myself, and discover a means by which I might remain there...it is the sort of thing that changes a life.

"But the trouble is, it didn't happen every time I played. In fact, it didn't happen for a very long time...(long description of seven years of gaming, going from dungeon crawling to wilderness crawling to PVP to min-maximing munchkinism)...sure we had fun, but it wasn't exhilarating, it wasn't transforming, and it wasn't what I really wanted....

"Eventually, it grew altogether too wearisome, and I began to roleplay less and less. Roleplaying became a hollow experience, a sad reenactment of the rites of youth. 

"Then it suddenly happened again, while playing Runequest and exploring the ruins of Parvis. An experience just as intense and transforming as the first. All of a sudden I realized what I had been missing, and I was horrified. A skilled and intense gamemaster had brought back the magic.

"These two experiences are what, for me at least, define what roleplaying is about. Is is what attracts me, and continues to compel me."
[all excerpt taken from The Players Guide for V:TM, essay: "A Once Forgotten Dream," copyright 1991]

That's not the end of Rein-Hagen's essay, as he goes on to explain his thoughts about how to create that exciting, transformative experience in your own games. He arrives at the wrong (practical) conclusion despite having the right answers. He gives four simple points to follow, none of which require one to play a "deeply personal," "intense," "story focused game" like Vampire: The Masquerade:
  1. Make you mind as open and receptive as you possibly can
  2. Believe in the world and scenario created by the game master
  3. Identify with your character (the character is your avatar for interacting with the world)
  4. Exercise (grow/develop) your imagination
Of course, all that is just player-facing advice (this is the advice section in the PLAYERS Guide, after all). The part that he glossed over...or ignored/forgot/discarded...was the most important revelation of his essay: All of a sudden I realized what I had been missing, and I was horrified. A skilled and intense gamemaster had brought back the magic.

It's not about creating a story...it's about experiencing the fantasy. And to do that requires a skilled, intense, and committed GM...and players who are open, receptive, and committed to operating in the GM's world. When THAT happens...whether you're playing D&D, RuneQuest, Vampire, whatever...THEN you're getting the point of play. The point of play is the experience of playing. YOU are the story.
: )

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Boring Old D&D

Dennis commented thusly on my last blog post:
"This week, my older boy and I started playing a campaign dungeon crawl board game. My friend, the game host Adam, the other adult player Emily, and I were discussing RPGs at our lunch break. Adam was telling us how he's usually uncomfortable with RPGs because he's not really into "doing voices" or trying to think like a fantasy person. He's much more into the puzzle-solving, tactical decisions, and finding ways to gain advantage from the rules side of game play. Hence his preference to play these sorts of games that sort of mimic D&D play, but with just the interaction with the rules and the current state of play to worry about. 

"I think he would 100% agree with this blog post, and honestly, I agree too. Knowing the rules, including the in-game lore that comes baked into the rules, is not destructive metagaming at all. It's good game play. 

"He was curious about how someone could play the same game for decades and not get tired of the rules, though!"
[emphasis added by Yours Truly]

Ah, yes. Boring old D&D, right? Let's get down to it. 

I'll start with this: my kids have been playing more video games lately than I like, which is probably about a quarter of what their friends play. They have Nintendo Switches with a couple-three games, the main one of which they play being Minecraft, a game that shares a lot of its play elements with old style (if Basic) D&D. Prior to this Christmas, they'd shared a single Switch, but my daughter received her own as a gift, and now they're able to do much more...cooperative play, for example, or networking with friends who own their own consoles. 

Yesterday, Diego asked if he could download Fortnite, a game that has been all the rage with his classmates the last year or two. Sofia asked if she could download Roblox, a game that is popular with kids in her class (and which I remember, was very big with Diego's classmates when they were Sofia's age). I told them both that I would "think about it," balancing the pros (21st century social networking and friendship building) with the cons (stunted development of mind/imagination as your entertainment is piped directly into your brain). I'm still thinking about it.

Video games are a vice. They can be addictive, they can lead to obsession. Are they as destructive as, say, alcohol or drugs or pornography or caffeine? Probably not...but they are damaging. And the damage they can do, minor though it is, can hit you in multiple ways from multiple angles. Relationships. Health. Mind. Maturation. I don't let my kids drink booze or coffee or surf porn or smoke...as a parent, why should I not police their gaming?  

D&D is not a board game (duh, says the choir I'm preaching to...just hold on). Yes, "duh," you say, no shit Sherlock, D&D isn't a board game.And yet there are plenty of folks, including longtime RPGers who've left D&D play, or who only play later edition D&D who look at the game I play and say, "sure, it's not a board game, but it's not much more than that, is it?" Guys (and Gals) who see the thing in the most simplistic of terms:
  • Kill monsters (roll-roll-roll)
  • Get treasure (count points)
  • "Level up"
  • Rinse
  • Repeat
How boring is THAT? Where are the bells? Where are the whistles? You play a fighter? So, you're a walking stack of hit points with a backpack to put treasure? And a sword and heavy armor? And all you do is charge and roll a D20 and play a game of dicing for attrition so that you can get an abstract "score" of points based on g.p. value in order to gain MORE hit points? How is that even FUN?  Didn't the whole novelty of the thing wear off after the first couple sessions? 

Hell, didn't the novelty wear off after the first couple of encounters?

And for some folks, the answer to that question must be a resounding YES, as evidenced by their own actions...their leaving of the hobby, or their moving on to other games, or their need to make D&D about something other than the game (It's about the "role-playing!" It's about the story making! It's about the strategy of character builds! It's about the camaraderie of friends playing together! It's about annoying the other players at the table and doing PVP! Etc.). The game...as written, as designed...is simply TOO SIMPLISTIC, even if you play the "advanced" version with its extra options and tacked-on complication and fiddly-ness.

For those people...well, I can only imagine what they must think of me. I mean, what do you think about a guy who's been playing the same game for 40+ years? Haven't you explored (or drawn) enough dungeon corridors? Haven't you found (or given out) enough treasure chests? Haven't you killed (or run encounters with) enough imaginary monsters? Isn't it BORING? 

Why not just play Sniper 3D (a stupid video game that I currently have loaded on my phone)? All the mindless bloodshed and violence, all the imaginary gold coins and points (and leveling), all the new gear upgrades and none of the WORK it takes to play (or DM) a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Right? If what you want is BORING OLD D&D why not just get an app that lets you murder-hobo in the free minutes that you can sneak during the course of your humdrum day? Take out some aggression on imagined foes! Feel good (*ding!*) about another "achievement" earned!

*sigh*

For all the imagination I see on display these days -- the huge numbers of tabletop games and RPG products on the market (both digitally and in print), the huge numbers of video games on the market, the huge numbers of TV shows and films on the various channels, networks, and streaming services -- for all the imagination I see on display these days, there is a surprising lack of imagination on display. 

Old D&D isn't boring. YOU are boring. Or, to borrow and repurpose a pithy phrase from a shopping bag picked up at a bookshop some years back: "If you think playing old D&D is boring, you're doing it wrong."  If you're tired of the game, you're not really playing the game to its potential.

Most games of the "board" variety, like most consumable entertainment "product" (movies, TV shows, video games, etc.) are FINITE. They have limits; they have boundaries. They END. You can take a game like, say, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and play through it 3-4 times before it gets tiresome. Other games, like Red Dead Revolver might only be worth a single playthrough. Films and TV series are similar (some are worth a re-watch)...same with books and (probably) story arc campaigns of the type published by WotC.

But unlike these forms of entertainment, D&D is ENDLESS and INFINITE. For all practical purposes, anyway...there is (maybe) a limit to the human imagination, but in some 5,000 years of recorded history we haven't yet reached it. People who focus on the "killing" and "looting" aspects of the game are, in fact, missing the point of play: these are mechanical elements of game play (as is the Vancian magic system) that enable D&D to run. They are not the objective of game play anymore than the engine of a car is the "objective" (or point) of owning a vehicle.

Does it really not make sense? I'll try to clarify even more:
  • D&D is a fantasy adventure game...it provides (imaginary) peril and danger and as a game requires rules (systems, mechanics) for modeling its inherent violence. There are LOTS of good reasons why the system works as well as it does (that's for another post), but you NEED the system in order to run a game of fantasy adventure with perils, dangers, and inherent violence.
  • So why play a game of "fantasy adventure?" Well, I've addressed that before in a different long-winded post. Rereading it...well, I don't think I could restate things much better but (for purposes of this post) I'd just emphasize that experiencing fantasy adventure is kind of the opposite of experiencing boredom.
My daughter and I spoke at length yesterday about the kinds of games she enjoys playing (because she complained she doesn't like the same games Diego and I do, and neither he or I want to play her type of games). I found that the games SHE enjoys playing on the playground at school are (mostly) variations of video games her friends play, imaginary games based firmly in the gameplay of games like Doors, or Choo-Choo Charles, or Minecraft. Often, one or more participants will take the role of narrator, describing what occurs while the other kids react within the context of the game...it is imaginary play based on video games without the video game console.  

[not much different from how my friends and I played at her age...except that we were running D&D without books and dice]

The human imagination is an amazing thing, and (in conjunction with other likeminded individuals) can provide hours of entertainment without the need to resort to dice or rulebooks or gaming consoles. Boundless as it is, however, it requires grist to mill and fuel to go (I've written about this before, though it was with regard to artwork)...and here, HERE, is the main, major difference between "boring old D&D" and any number of other finite, consumable forms of entertainment: it encourages (some would say requires) you to go out and expand and explore and research and fill your mind and imagination

Instead of stunting growth and development, D&D (done right) increases growth and development.

Finite, closed system games (like all video games) do not do this. To build a world (as a Dungeon Master must) requires you to study geography, history, politics, philosophy, religion, economics, military warfare, agriculture...whatever!...all to varying degrees depending on what points you are emphasizing at the moment. Depending on what part of your imagination you need to expand for the requirements of your campaign.

And the exploration of the world (which is the part of the players) will expand their own imagination and understanding, even assuming they DON'T participate in outside research, because of the necessity of reacting to and meeting the challenges the Dungeon Master offers them.

I can't praise it enough. 

Closed system games don't offer this "mind expansion." Instead, they offer the opportunity for system mastery...board games, played enough, will evolve competent strategies, opening moves, specific tactical plays and functions that randomizers can only somewhat mitigate...in the end, one hopes for adequate opponents to offer challenge.  Understanding this, I see why a game like Magic: The Gathering maintains its popularity...it is endlessly evolving, endlessly offering NEW tweaks and forms of system to master. For the aficionado of competitive MTG play, any ennui is dispelled with each new series issue.

Old D&D, of the kind I play, does NOT evolve...au contraire, the more I tweak the rules, the more I end up going back to the tried and true default systems (more often than not). Instead, it is the PARTICIPANTS of the game (the DM, the players) who end up evolving. I am a different Dungeon Master today than I was a year ago, let alone three-four decades ago. Likewise, I'm a vastly different player (very much improved) than I once was. Very much improved...and loving it.

Tired of the rules? Tired of boring old D&D gaming? 

No, not at all. My interest and excitement only deepens the more I engage with it. Many long-lasting games have simple rules that are easy to master. It's important not to conflate "complexity" with "depth." The rules are simple so that they don't get in the way of the game. The game play is what makes D&D the King of Games. 
: )

Friday, January 20, 2023

Metagaming & Myopia

From the D&D Basic set, Sample Expedition (Moldvay, page B59):
Morgan: "...I'll search through the rags. Anything that looks like a cloak or boots?"

DM: "...Morgan, you do find a pair of old boots, but nothing like a cloak."

Morgan: "Fred will dump the silver and look for hidden compartments in the box. I'll try on the boots to see if I move silently -- we could use a pair of elven boots!"

DM: "...Morgan seems to be moving very quietly."

Morgan: "GREAT!"

The game of Dungeons & Dragons is a game. I know I've written that many times before; I know that other people have expounded on this idea many times before. It's not a new statement.

And yet, folks are constantly forgetting the fact.

"Your character wouldn't know that!" How many times has this phrase (or a variation of it) been uttered at the gaming table. How many times have DMs (or "helpful" PCs) policed would-be actions in the name of preventing a player from metagaming?

Per Ye Old Wikipedia, "metagaming" (i.e. approaching a game from outside the normal rule structure of the game in question) as applied to role-playing games
...often refers to having an in-game character act on knowledge that the player has access to but the character should not. For example, tricking Medusa to stare at a mirror when the character has never heard of Medusa and would not be aware of her petrifying stare.
In the above example from Moldvay's Basic, the Morgan's player is metagaming: she (the player) realizes there is a magic item called elven boots. She understands she is playing a game where players find magical treasures in dungeons. When she discovers an old pair of boots in a locked chest, she tries them to see if they function like the magical item...she uses player knowledge to inform and direct her character's action. Same as the player trying to trick Medusa into viewing her own reflected gaze.

Metagaming in roleplaying games is, generally, frowned upon. I was reminded of that recently when listening to the excellent first episode of the The Classic Adventure Gaming Podcast...a bunch of FAGs ("fantasy adventure gamers") discussing the fundamentals of fantasy adventure gaming, i.e. old edition D&D gaming.  These worthies bemoaned attempts to curtail metagaming as disrupting player agency...a bad thing in their estimation. A good example they cited was the DM disallowing a player from using flaming oil on a troll until AFTER seeing the thing regenerate from wounds sustained. 

As a longtime FAG myself, I found myself in total agreement with these youngsters (pretty sure I'm older than all of them...EOTB only started playing circa '87). But I wanted to consider WHY that is. I may be a cranky geezer, but I'm not so clueless as to believe I'm in the majority opinion here. What's the pushback against metagaming...and why do I find myself taking the opposite stance?

Back to wikipedia (*sigh*) where I find that the dislike of metagaming stems from two main issues:
  1. It upsets the suspension of disbelief.
  2. It affects game balance.
I'll address the second issue first. Metagaming for advantage has a loooong history, and applies to all sorts of competitive endeavors, not just roleplaying. If an umpire is calling pitches tight, you can draw more walks by making yourself smaller at the plate; if your boss cares more about friendship than performance when it comes promotion time, you go out of your way to be a "buddy." 

Gaming the system in this manner is certainly a form of cheating, but whether it is perceived as such is a matter of degree. Stealing signs in baseball wasn't illegal until 2017...and only then became illegal to use electronic devices to aid in sign stealing. Spreading rumors to your boss about a rival employee (in order to raise the boss's comparative estimation of yourself) would definitely be underhanded behavior.

But in a game like Dungeons & Dragons...a cooperative game of survival...what's the issue?  So what if the players know they need fire to defeat the troll? Oil, torches, fireballs...these are finite resources. The DM's ability to apply challenge (create monsters, etc.) is infinite. Why would a DM sweat players finding ways to circumvent challenge? Win or lose, the DM is going to responsible for creating NEW challenges anyway (in an on-going campaign). 

"Okay, JB, sure...but what about breaking the game? What about players that use the rules to their advantage such that there's no challenge AT ALL, EVER, EVER AGAIN?!"  Um...not sure what game you're playing there, pal. I guess I'd suggest you need to play something more robust...like 1st edition AD&D. In all my years of playing, I've never seen someone 'break' the system...and I've seen some pretty munchkin-y attempts.  The game scales amazingly well.

If the players aren't challenged by the game, it's the fault of the Dungeon Master, not "the meta."

So, let's look at the other complaint: upsetting the suspension of disbelief. Breaking the "immersion." Throwing sand in the well-oiled gears of the "role-playing" machine.

Mm.

D&D is a fantasy adventure game, i.e. a game that allows one to experience fantasy adventures. I know it is a "role-playing" game, but the role-playing is not the point of play...it is the medium through which the "play" gets done. You have a role to play. You are the fighter. Or the cleric. Or the All-Powerful Dungeon Maestro (trademark pending). What you are allowed to do in the game is based on the role you are playing. If you're a fighter, you don't get to turn undead or cast spells. If you are a player character, you don't get to design the dungeon. Got it?

"Immersion" (which I suppose could be loosely defined as "losing oneself in imagined escapist fantasy") DOES occur in the process of playing D&D, and for many participants...perhaps most participants...it is the main draw and attraction of the hobby. 

[I can tell you that my wife strongly dislikes playing RPGs because she is incredibly uncomfortable with the immersion experience: for her, it is NOT fun...rather it is disconcerting]

But in my experience, immersion does not come as the result of playing a role, or a character, or attending to one's background, backstory, character arc, etc.  Instead, immersion ONLY comes from being directly engaged with the gameplay at the table. That requires interest in the material and pressure applied by the circumstances of the game, as facilitated by both the DM and the system mechanics.

Now, I understand there are LOTS of human beings out there who don't give a rip about armor-clad, sword-swinging elves confronting slimy monsters in underground caves while looking for gold and jewels. I get that! Just like there are LOTS of people (like me) who care absolutely zero about whether or not they can put a round rubber ball through a netted hoop 10' off the ground. Different strokes for different folks. Hard to be engaged in a game whose premise you're just not into.

But it's the play of the game you are interested in that creates the immersive experience, the time loss where you look up and say "we've been playing for HOW long?"  You might get a kick out of pretending (internally or externally) that you are Michael Jordan, LeBron James, etc., but it's the action of playing basketball that draws you in, not the play-acting on the court. Likewise, I might enjoy putting on an accent and referring to myself as Wendell the Wondrous Wizard at the game table...but ACTING like an imaginary person is NOT the game. Confronting the challenge of the fantasy adventure at hand is the game.

Metagaming, then, does not discourage immersion...and, in many cases, can lead to deeper immersion as it allows players to more actively engage with the material at hand:

"Oh My God: a TROLL? We need fire to kill these guys!" "Who has the oil?" "I only have two flasks left and we're going to need the lantern to get out of the dungeon!" "I still have a light spell left." "Okay, we can risk it...see, this is why you save the fireball spell!"

D&D is a game. It is not a film, not a story. It does not require suspension of disbelief, because the immersion that occurs does not come (as with a film) from sitting down and passively absorbing the story that is fed through our senses. The immersion comes from participation and active engagement...as with any game.

No DM should worry about metagaming. Just worry about building the world...the game parts, run correctly, will take care of themselves. 
: )

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Kid's Birthday

Tomorrow is Diego's birthday. I am a bit stumped what to get him. 

Back in November, I ordered a very nice Blood Bowl team that I'd hoped to have assembled and painted for him by Christmas...unfortunately, it was coming from over seas and has YET to arrive (just received a notice from the post office...looks like it won't get here till next week). Had thought that might make a decent b-day gift but...c'est la vie.

SO...what to get, what to get. Hasn't helped that both kids have been getting over colds the last 3-4 days...Diego just went back to school today...and my time to shop (even on-line) has been limited. No way to get something here mail order by manana.

Any suggestions?

Oh-oh...other kid's awake...gotta' get her ready for school. Later!

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Legal Musings

Back when (the American version of) The Office was running, I made every effort to catch every episode (which was back before I had cable and access to DVR technology). I found a YouTube link to what is one of my absolute favorite scenes in the entire series:


For context, if I'm remembering correctly, Michael had left the Dunder-Mifflin company over being reigned in by on-site corporate stooge (Charles) and then formed his own paper company (with Pam and Ryan) in Jerry Macquire-esque manner. The D-M corporates confronting Michael in this scene have decided it is easier and more convenient to buy out Michael, ending his enterprise, rather than compete with his tiny company in an already-shrinking market.

The analogy of this scene doesn't map 100% to the RPG market, but there are lessons to be learned. 

Copyright law, in its current form, is pretty much an American invention...despite its origins in England/Europe...and was structured to serve an American objective: encourage industry. If anyone were allowed to copy, distribute, and profit from a creative individual's work (without paying the initial creative) than what incentive would there be for the creative in question to, well, create? Why would ANYONE be bothered to put in the effort and sweat of creation just to see someone else, with an eye for profit and a better marketing team, steal your work and reap the benefits?

The ability to copyright one’s work exists to incentivize creators to create.

But while holding a copyright provides some protections versus would-be thieves and liars (i.e. “plagiarist profiteers”), it is not an all-encompassing carte blanche. The term “fair use” in copyright law is (yet again) a concept originating in America designed to encourage and incentivize industry, rather than stifle such possibilities because of the fear of litigation. Fair use is the reason the Margaret Mitchell estate (Gone with the Wind) was unable to stop the publication of The Wind Done Gone; fair use is the reason Oracle was unable to stop Google from using Oracle's Java API code in Android phones.

Two things to always consider: 
  1. copyright law protects the expression of an idea, not an idea itself
  2. copyright law is designed to promote creative industry
Copyright law is different from trademark law. You can't write a game and call it Dungeons & Dragons; "Dungeons & Dragons" is a trademarked property. But trademarks mainly apply to brands and logos: "Dungeons & Dragons" (and "D&D") are trademarks of Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro. "Wizards of the Coast" and "Hasbro" are ALSO trademarks of Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro.

"Mind flayer," on the other hand, is not trademarked property.

If I write an adventure that includes an encounter with a mind flayer, am I infringing on WotC's copyright? So long as I don't include the creature's stat block (i.e. the expression of the idea of "mind flayer"), then probably not. Could WotC sue me over the use of their intellectual property ("mind flayer") without permission? They could, but they wouldn't have much of a case: the main argument they could make is that I am siphoning off their business, which is a bogus claim for a number of reasons, the main one of which is this:  WotC/Hasbro does not hold a monopoly on adventure writing.

Again, copyright law exists to encourage creative industry. Fair use exists to encourage creative industry. My use of a mind flayer in an adventure does not prevent WotC/Hasbro from selling books; on the contrary, if it is a popular/successful publication it probably encourages consumers to purchase more books in order to make use of it. And it does not prevent WotC/Hasbro from publishing their own adventures which might include mind flayers...it does not replace/supplant their ability to do business in this vein, for a number of reasons that should be rather obvious.

[okay, just in case it's NOT obvious: WotC/Hasbro would have to somehow prove that they have sole rights and privilege to publish D&D adventures, which would go against decades of examples to the contrary and would also be the same as proving they have the right to a monopoly...which courts in the USA tend to look down on]

But what if I wanted to write a supplement called "All About The Mind Flayer" describing the creatures' culture, society, and statistics; creating an entire variant background and description of how to use the monster in one's game? A definitive collection of gameable content; an "alternate history" of mind flayers, if you will...would THAT seek to subvert and replace a key intellectual property of WotC/Hasbro? Would it be perceived as undermining their business? Could the Hasbro corporation file a lawsuit against me?

Let's be clear: persons and corporate entities can ALWAYS sue you. 

Doesn't mean their lawsuit will be successful. And D&D has been explicit in every iteration that they fully expect owners of the property (Dungeon Masters) to feel free to create their own worlds, modify the game to suit their needs, change it as they see fit.

Yes, JB, sure...but monetize those changes? Isn't that infringing on the company's copyright?

Remember: fair use. A doctrine established to prevent the stifling of innovation and the discouragement of creation for purposes of industry (our delightful capitalist society). In this particular situation, it's instructive to check out the landmark case of Sega v. Accolade. Despite it being with regard to video games, many parallels could be drawn in a hypothetical legal battle with the publishers of Dungeons & Dragons. In brief:
  • Accolade (video game maker) reverse-engineered Sega technology to create video game cartridges that were compatible with Sega's new Genesis console, circumventing Sega licensing.
  • Sega sued receiving an injunction against Accolade, citing in part Accolade's unlicensed use of Sega's (copyrighted) computer code in their game design.
  • Accolade appealed and won based on fair use doctrine; the injunction was lifted, Sega was forced to pay the cost of the appeal, and precedent was set for decades to come including that functional principals of computer software cannot be protected by copyright law.
The case is worth reading (and studying), not the least of which for its later ramification on trademark law. Are "functional principals" of computer software much different from the "functional principals" of a roleplaying game? That's something that would need to be decided in court, but given the plethora of RPGs that have made it to market using similar language and terms as D&D (and which haven't been sued to death), my guess is: not bloody likely.

[and Hasbro could hardly argue an independently published book "Compatible with the World's Most Popular RPG!" tarnishes their trademark brand. Even a low quality product is just more evidence of the ubiquitousness of their product. Apologies for the digression]

However, in the end, the real question is always one about MONEY. How much money gets made by independent publishers? How much money does the corporation lose because of third-party publishers? How much money would it cost them to litigate every perceived infringement (not just issue a "cease & desist" notice) given the doctrine of fair use and the potential impact to the company's bottom line?

Now...

It's difficult to imagine that Little Ol' Me might ever fall into the crosshairs of Hasbro's corporate attorneys given how little money I represent, especially when I've gone out of my way to NOT use their registered trademarks (or "mind flayers") in my published books. I mean...really? To paraphrase Michael Scott, I can just start a new game company tomorrow...I have LOTS of names for game companies.

But that's ME...a hobbyist game publisher. I don't need to sell books to live...to eat or to pay rent. I do it because it's enjoyable and it's a creative outlet and because it's put a little extra money in my pocket, somewhat validating my participation in the hobby. Other people...people more financially invested or leveraged in the hobby...might be a LOT more "risk averse" than I am.

Thing is: I AM risk averse. I've been sued before (an old medical bill that wasn't covered by my insurance went too long overpaid when I was living in Paraguay for three years...eventually got straightened out); not a pleasant experience. I spent 15 years working in a field that involved interpreting, establishing, modifying, and enforcing superior court and administrative orders. My advice to folks has always been to stay on the right side of the law and work within a system, rather than trying to circumvent it...keep your nose clean, in other words.

And, in my estimation, that's exactly what I'm doing. 

I don't use the OGL in my books. I've entered no licensing agreement with WotC/Hasbro, free or otherwise. My books use my own text, copyright me. Many concepts and ideas are inspired by and/or borrowed from other games and RPGs (as well as works of fiction). I don't plagiarize. I try to give credit for inspiration and ideas when and if it is due, but it's impossible to cite ALL the creative influences on one's work. When my work is compatible with an existing work or game, my hope is that it will encourage people to play that particular game...raising all tides, so to speak. 

That's the biz, as I see it. And while 'good intentions' really don't matter (certainly not compared to money, sadly) I am still participating in creative industry...exactly the kind of creative industry that copyright law is designed to encourage and incentivize. 

Okay...that's enough for the moment.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Fair Use Friday

Anyone looking to stream a terrific interview should check out the Roll For Combat guys' YouTube video with Ryan Dancey. Yes, it's two hours and twenty minutes long...time you could spend watching a film or something. I listened to the thing while doing household chores and waiting in my car at (a very rainy) soccer practice. It's fascinating, not only discussing the legal ramifications of the original OGL, but also the history, purpose, and intention of it, why it came about, how it affected the gaming industry, possible consequences of WotC/Hasbro's attempt to "revoke it," and reasons why they would torpedo themselves (and upset their fan base) taking the actions they are.

If you're a person interested in the nuts-and-bolts of the industry behind the hobby, it's very good stuff.  Certainly more informative and interesting than anything I could write about the subject myself.