Thursday, August 18, 2011

OSRCon Thoughts (Part IV)

On the evening of the second day, I had the opportunity to play in an AD&D game run by Ed Greenwood and set in his Forgotten Realms campaign. It has literally been more than a decade since I last played any sort of AD&D, but that didn't make a difference. For one thing, all forms of TSR D&D are close enough mechanically that, if you know how to play one, you know how to play them. For another, Ed plays a fairly "fast and loose" game, where game mechanics are secondary other concerns (about which I'll say more shortly). In this respect, I found myself reminded of the stories of how M.A.R. Barker runs his Tékumel campaign, an analogy that I think is quite apt, given that Greenwood, like Barker, has been imagining his fantasy world most of his life. For both of them, it's the world and its contents that are important, not the rules used to simulate them.
Before we began, Ed had two rules for us. First was a purely practical one: don't split the party. Second: anything that came out of our mouths came out of our character's mouths, unless it was something obviously rule-related, like "I rolled 15." These rules were fine by me, even the second one, which had the effect of both limiting unnecessary chatter and ensuring that everyone involved made at least a minimal effort to roleplay. I've never seen the need to adopt anything like Ed's second rule and my experiences refereeing Dwimmermount at OSRCon only confirmed me in that opinion, but I don't begrudge him the rule. I'm sure it's one that arose after many years of running con adventures.

As I said above, the game used AD&D, ostensibly its second edition. Truth be told, it was difficult to tell that it wasn't first edition, since Ed didn't use non-weapon proficiencies, which is, for me, one of the signature differences between the two editions. I played a cleric -- I'm sorry, priest -- of the goddess Tymora named Tashram and, while some of his spells were ones I'd never encountered in 1e, I found the experience indistinguishable from playing a cleric in the old days. That said, Ed uses the rules very loosely, mostly for the adjudication of combat and spellcasting and, even then, he seemed to do so mostly as a spur to his imagination. Again, I found myself thinking of Professor Barker and the descriptions of how he referees Tékumel using only percentile dice.

The specifics of the scenario we were playing are, frankly, unimportant, since, as an adventure written for a con, it was something of a "funhouse dungeon." The PCs were tasked with finding someone who'd fled through a series of "hop-gates" that were hidden and whose locations we could identify with a magic ring that glowed bright when we were near one. Thus, our party went from one place to the next, each place presenting a new and sometimes bizarre challenge intended to slow us down or kill us, thereby preventing our finding our quarry. The challenges were fun and many were very odd indeed, reminding me very much of the dungeons I created and played through in my younger days. I'm sure the convention format had something to do with this, but I also got the sense that Ed enjoys watching the players attempt to puzzle their way through his tricks and traps, so perhaps it was all reflective of his overall refereeing style.
Which reminds me: Ed is an absolutely enthralling referee. He's also a shameless ham. Every single NPC we encountered was played to the hilt, funny voices and all, and you can tell that Ed was having a blast doing so. Of course, his theatrics were delaying our progress, which, I suspect, was part of the point, since there was a time limit on our activities, both in real life and in the game. But there were plenty of times where everyone at the table was having so much fun interacting with one of the NPCs that we forgot about the time and just enjoyed ourselves. I can only imagine what it must be like to have Ed refereeing an entire campaign.

My fellow players were much fun, too, with some of them following Ed's lead and adopting funny voices and mannerisms. There's no question it was goofy, but it was also entertaining, so entertaining, in fact, that we soon attracted a crowd of onlookers watching us play. I remember as a kid visiting the back rooms of game stores where RPG sessions were being held and doing just the same, watching these older guys sit around a table and speak in character as they explored some fiendish underworld. It's not for everyone, I'll readily admit, but there's no question that it has a long pedigree in our hobby. We had so much fun that I think we dawdled a bit and so we reached the conclusion of the adventure rather late, resulting in a less than satisfactory conclusion to it, a fact Ed noted to me afterwards.

Looking back on the session now, one things really sticks with me. Though Ed was clearly more interested in characterization than many old school referees, he was nevertheless very keen to use player skill as the deciding factor in most instances. He didn't call for dice rolls a lot and, when he did, they were for things like saving throws or weapon damage. When we encountered a trap or a puzzle, we had to work them it for ourselves; we couldn't just "make a Spot check at DC 15" to find what we needed. The longer I am involved in old school gaming, the more convinced I am that that is the crux of the difference between older games and newer ones. For all the ways that Ed's refereeing might cause some grognards' skin to crawl, he is nevertheless, fundamentally, "one of us." He clearly gets that rolling dice should never be a substitute for individual cleverness and creative thinking. I had great fun playing in his adventure and would very happily do so again. I don't doubt that all the other players who sat around that table with me for four hours last weekend feel exactly the same.

43 comments:

  1. When it was first announced that Ed was going to run a game I was sad that I couldn't afford to make the trip. Maybe next year he'll do the same and my finances will allow me to travel.

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  2. Ed's two rules are awesome. The second more so than the first.
    I don't think in a regular session I'd decree that the party may not split, but I'll be offering a 10% xp bonus if they follow rule 2.

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  3. Just a comment about "we couldn't just "make a Spot check at DC 15" to find what we needed."
    What did you mean?
    This has, as you surely know, absolutely nothing to do with "new games." Call of Cthulhu and its ilk all more or less worked based on this exact same principle, and they are not exactly new games.
    Unless you were referring explicitly to OD&D (and even in this case, one might argue about the checks to spot secret doors, find traps etc. which have been in the game almost from day one.)

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  4. Another comment about AD&D2e; I read a bit of "surprise" at the fact that it plays like 1e; have you ever played it? Because IIRC you have criticised it in the past; where those critics not based on actual play? Just curious.
    In AD&D2e Nonweapon proficiencies are strictly optional, as are Weapon proficiencies (which in 1e are not.) Also a Priest is just a specialised Cleric, though it might well be that you played the baseline cleric but Ed used the term Priest. Regarding the spells, most of the 2e spells are taken from 1e and Unearthed Arcana.

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  5. This has, as you surely know, absolutely nothing to do with "new games." Call of Cthulhu and its ilk all more or less worked based on this exact same principle, and they are not exactly new games.

    Unless you were referring explicitly to OD&D (and even in this case, one might argue about the checks to spot secret doors, find traps etc. which have been in the game almost from day one.)


    In my original comment, I was speaking primarily of D&D in its various incarnations, though your point is a good one regardless. In the past, I've been very critical of BRP-derived games for the proliferation of skills for things like "Spot Hidden," which I think are better served by dialog with the player. Nowadays, I'm more forgiving of such things, but they're not my preference, which is why I like the fact that, in early D&D, thieves had the ability to remove traps but not to find them (or, rather, no more of an ability to find them than anyone else).

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  6. Another comment about AD&D2e; I read a bit of "surprise" at the fact that it plays like 1e; have you ever played it? Because IIRC you have criticised it in the past; where those critics not based on actual play? Just curious.

    I had played 2e in the past, but it had been so long in the past that my recollection of what it was like was fuzzy. Now that I've had the chance to do so again, I'm quite prepared to say that, mechanically anyway, it's not very different than 1e, especially once you drop NWPs.

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  7. I'm suffering a serious case of gamer envy, James. Sounds absolutely wonderful; nothing in your account would cause my skin crawl at all...

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  8. Just curious, when did Mr. Greewood become an old school D&D "wise man"? From what I understand his very setting (Forgotten Realms) and the characters (Elminster, et al) and novels based on it are the very antithesis to "old school". I hope it's not because we've lost Mr Gygax and now Mr Greenwood is the "next man up". He hardly seems to be the old school type with his rigorously detailed world and all. Not too mention his predilection for one of the more reviled versions of the game in 2E. Seems odd to me.

    "which I think are better served by dialog with the player"

    Fine in theory until you happen upon a DM that no matter what you do as a player you can never "spot the damn traps" so rocks fall and every dies at the DMs whim constantly. I understand your point, but keep in mind strict mechanics make for fair game play. A very nice to have when you play a lot.

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  9. Never understood why some of the old schoolers see 2E as the most "reviled version of the game", like civet says. If you stay with the core books , it is pretty close to 1E.

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  10. Just curious, when did Mr. Greewood become an old school D&D "wise man"?

    I don't think anyone claims that he is, least of all Ed himself. But he's been playing since the hobby began and his play style is strongly rooted in the early days.

    From what I understand his very setting (Forgotten Realms) and the characters (Elminster, et al) and novels based on it are the very antithesis to "old school".

    The way the Realms and its characters were presented and sold by TSR and, later, WotC are certainly not to my liking, but then they're not at all representative of the man's own campaign except in the broadest sense. Ed's as critical as many about the way the Realms has been treated in its published form.

    He hardly seems to be the old school type with his rigorously detailed world and all. Not too mention his predilection for one of the more reviled versions of the game in 2E. Seems odd to me.

    The Realms wasn't rigorously detailed in actual play. That happened primarily through publication by TSR and WotC. Compare the original "Gray Box" and later versions of the Realms to see what I mean. As for 2e, I think most of the revulsion old schoolers feel is directed toward its tone and presentation, which was decidedly more family friendly and "Ren Faire-esque" than was 1e. Rules-wise, at least if you stick to the core rulebooks, it's not far off 1e -- closer than, say, 3e or 4e. I have no qualms about calling it old school even if it's not my preferred edition (but then neither is 1e).

    Fine in theory until you happen upon a DM that no matter what you do as a player you can never "spot the damn traps" so rocks fall and every dies at the DMs whim constantly.

    No rules can obviate a bad referee, so I'm far from convinced that adding rules in an attempt to do so does the game any good in the long run.

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  11. Never understood why some of the old schoolers see 2E as the most "reviled version of the game", like civet says. If you stay with the core books , it is pretty close to 1E.

    I'm not sure it's true that 2e is the most reviled version of the game among old schoolers. I'm pretty sure most of them would have harsher words to say about 3e and, especially, 4e. That said, there is some antipathy toward 2e, most of which has little to do with the rules themselves and more to do with the changing "culture" around the game that 2e's publication coincided with (and, to some degree, baptized).

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  12. cibet, Check out James coverage of Greenwood in the past. Greenwood contributed to Dragon Magazine since the early days, and I think his background speaks for itself.

    One of the things I hate is for people to stick thing into some very awful black and white "Buckets". I fear a lot of people attack Greenwood and praise Gygax, yet there is a lot that was shared between them. I suspect if Gary had stayed with TSR, the revisions to the game would be more like what we got with 2e than others seem to think--not that Gary adapted to the so-called "Silver Age" (more narrative approaches, novel tie-ins, more descriptive and detailed modules). And I have a feeling because of Greenwood's talents, we would have gotten a Forgotten Realms campaign regardless of what happened with Greyhawk.

    It's almost like because Gygax split with TSR they think everybody who stayed = bad and Gary = good and sticking to the old principles, yet I think that's an incredibly biased view that does not reflect reality.

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  13. Just curious, when did Mr. Greewood become an old school D&D "wise man"?

    I believe the real answer is your status as such shifts with your proximity to opinion leaders of the OSR.

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  14. It is probably more honest to say second edition is almost exactly the same as first edition, and if you choose to include the optional proficiency rules it is very similar to first edition in the period 1985-1989 (yes, I am being facetious). ;)

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  15. Interesting picture there. How tall you are James? I've met Ed, and I'm taller than him. Seeing you I wonder, am I that tall?

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  16. Interesting picture there. How tall you are James?

    I'm quite short -- maybe 5'5" tall or thereabouts.

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  17. Eh.. now it because problematic. I blame your time spend south of the border. :)

    165 cm? That would be considered short, I guess. I'm 193 cm myself so...

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  18. Argh! I think I need to sleep.

    "Eh.. now it became problematic. I blame your time spent south of the border. :)

    165 cm? That would be considered short, I guess. I'm 193 cm myself so... "

    I'm probably ridiculously tall.

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  19. 193 cm is nearly 6'4", so that's tall, yes, but "ridiculously tall," I don't know. By most standards, though, I am short.

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  20. The criticisms of 2nd Edition are fine, as long as you aren't heralding 1st Edition as being anything but the same game.

    Both versions of AD&D had a large list of pointless rules that my group never played with, and from what I've read on blogs such as this one, most people didn't play with them.

    I can't even begin to guess how many times over the years we had groups that had characters from both 1st & 2nd in the same party. It didn't matter.

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  21. Ed Greenwood is one of those dudes I find fascinating, and would love to meet. I've heard a few podcast interviews with him, and man, that guy can talk! His beard is also the epitome of radness. Even if you aren't fond of his contributions to the hobby, I've never heard of anyone that met him and said he was a dick. He seems to be a personable guy.

    On a side note, in the MA game I play in run by Jim Ward, he never called it out as a "rule", but he will often hold our characters to the stuff we say at the table. My little cousin has a particular penchant for getting caught "thinking out loud", breaking the laws of robotics and such. I think it adds an interesting dimension to the game.

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  22. 6'4" is 99th percentile, so yes it's tall.

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  23. Ed Greenwood is one of those dudes I find fascinating, and would love to meet. I've heard a few podcast interviews with him, and man, that guy can talk! His beard is also the epitome of radness. Even if you aren't fond of his contributions to the hobby, I've never heard of anyone that met him and said he was a dick. He seems to be a personable guy.

    Ed is quite simply one of the nicest and most gracious people I've ever met in this hobby. He's also weirdly charismatic. Spend any length of time with him and you quickly find yourself hanging on his every word. He's humble and self-deprecating, too, and was very kind to my 11 year-old daughter, who wanted to meet him after I told her "the guy who wrote those Forgotten Realms books" would be at OSRCon. I cannot speak highly enough about him.

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  24. Ed sounds like a natural actor, indeed he may even have some acting background. Lesson: theater geeks make good RPG players.

    Perhaps the lesson of Ed Greenwood is the best "R.P.G." involves no Rolling, perhaps even no Gaming, just simply Playing ie. No rules. D&D began as a vision of playing around in a fantasy world in GGygax's living room with his children, the rules were added later piecemeal as they were worked out (then made into a commodity to be sold.) With the right GM, why not just forgo the rules and dice entirely. "Rules" would be how to act, how to create, how to build narrative, etc.. the classic arts of drama and literature. How to be more like Ed Greenwood (!)

    The older I get, the less interesting rules become, indeed they seem false and shallow reductions of the complexity of life to knowable bell curve randomness. I'm currently reading The Black Swan in which he shows bells curves to be a logical fallacy. The world is much less knowable and predictable than we like to believe, rules based on dice (or computer games) don't simulate life - in fact any narrative is a false approximation of life, but then playing wouldn't be fun without a story, it would be James Joyce's Ulysses.

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  25. " With the right GM, why not just forgo the rules and dice entirely. "

    I believe combining the rules with the role play is what makes D&D so special. We can play many games with rules (chess, poker) and we have many ways to role play (acting, telling stories) but we have only one medium to role play and apply rule based tactics, and that's D&D (or more generally role playing games). I think both suffer without the other.

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  26. Having rules for a variety of situations (such as various perception skills) can be an advantage, but only if the GM doesn't let the rules dominate the players' choices. "Your 22 Spot check finds the trap and you move on" can be as dull as "Your party doesn't have a thief, so you automatically fail to detect the pit".

    Wise game masters instead present their traps as puzzles, using the rolls' success (or failure) when describing the situation to their players. Instead of "you detect a scything blade trap, bypass it and move on", the players get "you notice a tripwire a few inches above the floor. What do you do?" What information they get next depends on how they choose to investigate the trap.

    In the end, players remember the choices they make, regardless of the system used.

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  27. There's something about the "player skill vs dice rolling" theme in the OSR community that is starting to irk me, but I'm not sure what or why. I think it could be that it gets bandied around with a certain smugness by some exponents, as if saying how they search the chest makes them superior to someone who "just rolls dice". But then they run combats where a single to-hit roll can determine the outcome of a full minute of actions.

    (Might I say that I certainly don't mean this as a criticism of yourself, James, as I'm thinking more of the tenor of talk between players of the various editions.)

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  28. PCB: For me, player skill vs. dice rolling is all about the sort of immersion I want to promote in the games I run. Player skill resolution promotes visualization, imagination, and consideration of the game-world environment in "realistic" (i.e., non-metagame) ways. Player skill resolution fits game world interaction well because many of those interactions are deterministic, so a die roll can get in the way. And yes, it's perhaps odd that the line between player skill and dice rolling is drawn at combat, at least largely; but note that it's generally drawn only at the "trading blows" part of combat – the strategic and tactical parts of combat are still mainly player skill-based.

    And by making combat less deterministic than many other sorts of game world interactions, this helps encourage players to achieve their goals via more deterministic methods (i.e., by avoiding combat).

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  29. Greenwood's DM style obviously appeals to some folks, but not me. Maybe I've just had too many bad experiences with wanna-be thespians. Plus, that stuff seems like slippery slope to storygaming land. Just not my bag.

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  30. @Guy: the funny thing about immersion is that I've seen that argument used in the other direction too. If my skills are what's important, then am I unable to play a character who is more competent than I am? I've never seen anyone bat an eyelid at the idea that my characters can lift a weight that I'm incapable of shifting myself, nor that they could create magic which (try as I might) I cannot. By the same token, can I not play the role of a master thief, show the sharp tongue and wit of a bard, or have the insight of an intelligent wizard without being one myself?

    I do wonder if the large number of earthly person taken to strange land stories in the game's source literature indicates a premise that somehow you have travelled to Greyhawk (or Dwimmermount ;) ), and must face up to these unfamiliar lands yourself. That would give some explanation to the player skill dependency. This seems to gel with the set-up in Empire of the Petal Throne - characters who are strangers learning their way around could very well be you and I mysteriously transported.

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  31. Ed is old school. He wrote a bunch of classic articles in Dragon back in the good ol' days -- none more classic than the two-part "Nine Hells" in issues 75 & 76. He should no more be associated with later TSR products based on his campaign materials (unless, of course, he wrote them) than Gary should for later TSR Greyhawkery.

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  32. Greenwood's DM style obviously appeals to some folks, but not me. Maybe I've just had too many bad experiences with wanna-be thespians. Plus, that stuff seems like slippery slope to storygaming land. Just not my bag.

    That's fair enough. When I interviewed Ed, he said that, as a referee, he responded to what his players wanted and what they wanted was funny-voiced "acting," so that's what has become his standard style. It's not how I referee in my home game, but I'm not offended by it and, as I said, Ed does it so well that it's not hard to get sucked in.

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  33. He should no more be associated with later TSR products based on his campaign materials (unless, of course, he wrote them) than Gary should for later TSR Greyhawkery.

    Very much agreed. One of the main differences, I think, is that Ed continues to actively write about the campaign setting he launched, whereas Gary stopped doing so. That may explain why Ed often gets blamed for things he had no hand in.

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  34. I had played 2e in the past, but it had been so long in the past that my recollection of what it was like was fuzzy. Now that I've had the chance to do so again, I'm quite prepared to say that, mechanically anyway, it's not very different than 1e, especially once you drop NWPs.

    People tend to forget that the NWP's were an optional rule in 2nd edition.

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  35. People tend to forget that the NWP's were an optional rule in 2nd edition.

    They were, true, but, as 2e dragged on, more and more products assumed it was an option you were using. I don't believe I've ever played with a DM who didn't use NWPs in 2e until this time with Ed.

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  36. @PCB: I'd love to see some pointers to the other perspective on immersion vis-a-vis player skill. (And I'm starting to think "player skill" isn't a good term. Maybe "descriptive resolution" is better?)

    You can play a character who is more competent than you in the player skill, and in some ways it still gives the things you mention. That master thief still has the physical skills (lock picking, pick pockets, etc.) that the player personally doesn't have. The bard's high charisma aggregates into better overall reaction rolls (I like to think of the reaction roll being more of the other creature's "disposition roll", and a PC's reaction modifier just sort of shifts the other creature's disposition, much the same way racial preferences do). And the intelligent wizard has more spells than the player would have (I hope), and probably more known languages too. But it's true that none of those things necessarily afford the player a way to make better choices about how to achieve your goals. I'm okay with that. In my campaigns, a character's "mental" stats are, in many ways, the physical manifestation of the particular mental affinities in terms of the mechanics of the game.

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  37. Half the fun of old school D&D dungeoneering is working out how those traps and puzzles work and then working out practical solutions to avoiding them. Anything from simply avoiding stepping on the trigger, corking a suspicious looking hole, or gumming up the works of a clockwork trap with honey. I think reducing that to a skill test takes a lot of fun out of the game.

    If you take the time to search you are likely to work out clues as to the mechanisms involved. Which is why there has been a tradition of some very Rube Goldbergesque traps in some old dungeons. Grimtooth's anyone?

    And as for accidentally triggering a trap, well, that's what saving throws are for.

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  38. @Matthew :"It is probably more honest to say second edition is almost exactly the same as first edition, and if you choose to include the optional proficiency rules it is very similar to first edition in the period 1985-1989 (yes, I am being facetious). ;) "

    Eh; not only that, but the NWP rules in the 1e books WSG and DSG were horribly written and implemented (with two different resolution systems!) And OA defines yet another system.
    At least 2e gives a well-defined, polished and flexible core.

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  39. Very much agreed. One of the main differences, I think, is that Ed continues to actively write about the campaign setting he launched, whereas Gary stopped doing so. That may explain why Ed often gets blamed for things he had no hand in.

    I think what people might forget is that, at the end of the day, is most game designers are professionals, and what they write isn't necessarily what they play. I've seen R.A. Salvatore playing D&D with the 1e rulebooks, for instance. Game design is basically more commerce than art, at least for the major publishers where most assignments are work-for-hire and owned by the corporation.

    I think Ed gets blamed because people might think "how can you agree to X change" or the like, but I think from Mr. Greenwood's perspective, he knows it doesn't affect his campaign, he willingly signed a deal giving TSR/WoTC ownership, and I think he'd rather work within the system and be giving some creative control over things like his novels. It's kind of how any professional works--I might disagree with some decisions in my department, but if I'm overruled I accept it. A computer consultant might use Linux personally but accept Windows development work.

    Gygax was a bit different than most, but I don't think that as much to do do with "artistic principles", but in part because I think it would have been very difficult for him to accept a lesser role at the company he founded.

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  40. They were, true, but, as 2e dragged on, more and more products assumed it was an option you were using. I don't believe I've ever played with a DM who didn't use NWPs in 2e until this time with Ed.

    Right, pretty much all the supplements were built off the proficiency system, which also involved trading non-weapon proficiency slots for weapon proficiency slots to spend on fighting upgrades. One thing is for sure, though, when we did use non-weapon proficiencies, it was usually a case of choosing them, writing them down, and then forgetting about them.

    Eh; not only that, but the NWP rules in the 1e books WSG and DSG were horribly written and implemented (with two different resolution systems!) And OA defines yet another system.
    At least 2e gives a well-defined, polished and flexible core
    .

    To be honest, even the second edition version leaves a lot to be desired. The best iteration was probably the one that came along with Skills & Powers, but it was still bad.

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  41. james, this post was very informative, as the comments here. thanks!

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  42. I'll say this much. Some of the things that we see in 2E existed in 1E as options. Most of them fall after Gygax's ouster, however, and that might be the source of many grognards dislike for them.

    For instance, NWPs first show up in "Oriental Adventures" (Gygax was still around) and are expanded in teh DSG and WSG (afterwards).

    Specialty clerics with restricted spell lists and the like first appeared in the Dragonlance hardcover and again in the Greyhawk hardcover. Clerics using non-blunt weapons based on their deity's weapon appears in the Greyhawk boxed set as well as some idea of special clerics as well: clerics of Ehlonna who can track like rangers, clerics of Hextor who pick up assassin skills at 6th level, etc. Weapon choice is also highlighted in the article "Hammer of Thor, Spear of Zeus" in issue #115.

    Do I have a point? Well, if I do, it's that those who think that a Gygaxian second edition might look like what TSR came of with anyway have a pretty good point. I think classes might have been handled different (i.e., assassin. monk, cavalier, barbarian, etc., staying along with the inclusion of classes like the mountebank).

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  43. Though Ed was clearly more interested in characterization than many old school referees, he was nevertheless very keen to use player skill as the deciding factor in most instances.

    This element of "player skill", I think, is the most important element in "old school" gaming. I recently ran a 4e adventure that relied heavily on "player skill" to see the party through - the experience was exhilirating. Sure, the combat system was different, and there was a different die mechanic underlying the whole thing, but the vibe at the table was fundamentally different from our usual 4e games, because the players weren't obsessing over skill rolls or powers. They were just thinking about the problems facing them, and what they had in their toolbox to solve them.

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