Wednesday, April 30, 2008

REVIEW: The Original Bottle City

The Original Bottle City is the second product in what Pied Piper Publishing is calling the Lake Geneva Castle & Campaign (LGC&C) series, the first being the previously reviewed The (Original) Living Room. The LGC&C series comes close to being a Holy Grail for old school gamers. As I noted previously, Rob Kuntz was the co-DM of the Greyhawk campaign that Gary Gygax ran in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin back in the 1970s. Despite the prominent role Gygax played in writing for and promoting D&D, he actually provided comparatively few details about his own campaign. Certainly we got snippets here and there, sometimes quite large ones, but few of them were ever presented in a way that would allow Joe Gamer to experience the same adventures as those players of yore. We never got, for example, a true Gygaxian treatment of Castle Greyhawk, instead having to content ourselves first with an unfunny parody module, then a valiant pastiche, and finally a still-incomplete reconstruction by the Man himself.

The lack of such products now feels especially acute in the wake of Gary's death this past March. The death of Bob Bledsaw this month is a further reminder that the original generation of gamers is getting older and much of what they created and experienced in those bygone days may soon be lost. Consequently, Kuntz's LGC&C series fills a sizable void. He's in a unique position to be able to fill in gaps in our knowledge about the Greyhawk campaign and, at the same time, to produce products that evoke not an "old school feel," for that implies a certain amount of artifice, but rather are a window on a time when what we now call "old school" was simply "fantasy gaming." Indeed, the mere existence of the term "old school" only highlights the discontinuity modern gaming has with its past. Before that past is forever lost, we need more products like the LGC&C series; they provide a valuable service in preserving the hobby's collective memory of what it is and where it came from.

Most of my quibbles about The Living Room are nicely corrected in The Original Bottle City. Comparing the two products purely in terms of production is like comparing night and day. Bottle City is a staple-bound 32-page module with a cover, complete with a color illustration by Eric Bergeron that is nicely evocative of 1970s-style gaming art. The interior text, which is even more densely packed than that in The Living Room, is laid out in the two-column style we used to see in TSR's old modules. Jason Braun provides several small pieces of art to break up the text and these little pieces remind me a bit of Dave Sutherland's pieces in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. The text continues to be clear and well-edited and proofread. I noticed no glaring typos or other errors. I should add that, unlike The Living Room, the OGL is properly filled out this time around and both Product Identity and Open Game Content are clearly identified. (The module uses several terminology changes -- "umbra hulk" and "brain flayer," for example -- to get around WotC's reservation of some iconic monsters to itself) All in all, the production of the module stands head and shoulders above that of the earlier product. On these qualities alone, Bottle City is a good value for its $20.00 price tag, which, I concede, is still probably higher than some would like, but I think, given its small print run and audience, perfectly justifiable.

Before moving on to the actual content of the module, allow me a moment of editorializing. The Original Bottle City looks almost as if it could have been a TSR module from the old days. This was clearly intentional and it's an intention shared by many publishers who trade in "old school" modules. On the one hand, nostalgia is an important part of what these products are about, so I can't really begrudge any company that decides to take advantage of that. At the same time, though, I do worry that, given how far the "technology" of game products has advanced in the last 30+ years, old school products are handicapping themselves by explicitly adopting older styles of presentation and art. I love the artwork of Trampier, Otus, and Sutherland as much as the next grognard. However, I think there's something to be said for, if the goal is to introduce a wider audience to old school content and style, using contemporary techniques and artwork rather than simply aping the past. I'm half-tempted to try and produce an old school product of my own that employs contemporary production values and see how well it's received. I have a feeling it might attract more attention from younger gamers than one that tries to look like it was made in 1977.

But I digress.

The premise of Bottle City is that the adventure described within its pages all take place within a city in a magical bottle, hence the name. The bottle can be placed in any location, whether in a dungeon, as it was in Castle Greyhawk, or in some other place. Once again, this makes the product delightfully modular and easily adaptable to anyone's campaign, regardless of its setting details. The module details only a single "level" of the city, one that seems to be a sub-level of some sort, since there are references to undescribed "upper" levels that form the city proper. I presume that, in the original campaign, these upper levels were seen and experienced by the player characters. Kuntz suggests he may detail these other levels at a later date and I certainly hope he does so, although, in true old school fashion, design lacunae like this serve as excellent opportunities for individual referees to make the material their own.

The same principle applies to the map of the level itself, which includes many, many rooms that are not keyed. This was a common practice back in the day, both to allow the referee flexibility in adding new encounters on the fly and because old school dungeons were "alive," which is to say, they changed between adventures. Far from being static, isolated collections of rooms with monsters that didn't interact with one another or that served no purpose other than to wait for adventurers to enter them, old school dungeons were living, breathing ecologies, albeit fantastical ones. There was in fact a rhyme and reason to their internal workings and the presence of empty rooms helped facilitate them. Bottle City comes with a beautiful and inspiring reproduction of the original map Kuntz drew on graph paper. The map is charming, right down to its misspellings of words and lack of clarity in places. It reminds me very much of the maps I used to draw in my youth. I do wish Bottle City had also included a modern version of the map, simply for ease of use if nothing else, but that's a minor criticism.

The meat of Bottle City are the descriptions of the many rooms, chambers, and other locations within the level detailed. These descriptions are all quite fascinating, since the nicely illustrate a lot of old school gaming principles. There are puzzles aplenty, as well as obstacles that can only be overcome through trial and error. Likewise, there are a goodly supply of new creatures, in this case three creatures originating in The Empire of the Petal Throne game and used by kind permission of M.A.R. Barker. There's a terrific amount of variety here that should appeal to players of all stripes, provided they enjoy these challenges in the spirit in which they were written.

The specific content includes reams of trivia and insights into elements of the Greyhawk campaign. For example, there is a Hall of the Gods in which aspects of nine gods can be encountered. These gods have names that might seem vaguely familiar to those familiar with Greyhawk lore -- Hyero, Arathnul, Trython, Rhalysh, Sestian, etc. -- just as the idea of nine trapped gods echoes a famous incident involving Kuntz's own Lord Robilar character (a fact Kuntz himself readily admits). There is also an encounter with a witch named Ahsat, who rides a flying cauldron, and perfected an "uncontrollable laughter" spell. Clever readers versed in Greyhawk lore should be able to connect quite a few dots here. And of course Kuntz includes lots of commentary throughout the product, both on his reasoning in creating a particular section of the level and on how these elements worked in actual play. It's frankly an amazing package and I'm hard pressed to see how a fan of gaming history could pass it up.

The Original Bottle City is written for character levels 8-12 and I think that's about right. Many of the encounters are difficult and even unforgiving of mistakes, which is exactly what one ought to expect from it. I think it would prove a fun and exciting challenge for players who appreciate the old school sensibilities Kuntz has so lovingly presented here. What strikes me most of all is how joyful a module it is. By that I mean that it's clear Kuntz has fond memories of his time as a DM and it shows. Likewise, his digressions into the theory and philosophy of refereeing are refreshingly positive and free from jargon or pretense. They come across as a bit "rough" at times, but they're also practical, which is the other thing that comes through -- this is a module to be played. Theorizing is all well and good, but gaming is about, well, playing together with your friends in an imaginary world and anything that doesn't serve that goal is beside the point. Would that more RPGs nowadays took that approach.

In short, The Original Bottle City is a great product and I'm very proud to own it. As an adventure, it looks like a lot of fun and, as an artifact of the hobby's past, it's invaluable. I sincerely hope Mr. Kuntz will produce many more products of this sort in the near future. Lots of older gamers will appreciate being reminded of why they fell in love with this hobby in the first place and many younger gamers may have no knowledge of what they're missing. If Pied Piper Publishing came produce more products like this one, both goals could be served and I, for one, will be a very happy gamer.

Final Score: 5 out of 5 Polearms

Monday, April 28, 2008


I plan to do regular reviews of old school gaming products on the site. I have a review of The Original Bottle City (by Rob Kuntz) coming up soon. After that, I'm not sure what I'll do, so I'm asking for suggestions. If you know any new old school products that have come out recently and should be reviewed, let me know. I'd not only love to review them, I'd also love to own them, but I often overlook products from smaller publishers. Any help you can provide in correcting this deficiency on my part would be appreciated.

How Dragonlance Ruined Everything

How's that for hyperbole? And it is hyperbole. Dragonlance didn't ruin everything, but it did exert a baleful influence over the development not just of D&D but also roleplaying in general. In part, that's because it was such a brilliant idea and succeeded so well at its intended goals as an early foray into the creation of a "multimedia" campaign for an RPG. They didn't call it such back in the day, as the term hadn't been invented so far as I know, but that's what it was.

wasn't just a collection of adventure modules; it was also a series of fantasy novels -- phenomenally successful ones at that. One of the things people can easily forget is that, before D&D, and especially before Dragonlance, the "fantasy" genre was pretty small and paled in importance compared to science fiction. Sure, there as Tolkien and Howard and handfuls of pulp fantasies left over from the late 60s and early 70s, but, by and large, most "fantasy" novels were written by SF authors and they weren't (generally) what people would recognize today as fantasy novels, either in content or style.

Dragonlance changed all that. No, it didn't do that alone, so please don't harangue me with dissertations about how the Shanarra series came out seven years earlier and sold X number of copies or whatever. I am aware of these things. Remember, this entry is partially hyperbolic. But here's the thing: whereas Shanarra and Dragonlance are both quite obviously Tolkien knock-offs in broad outline -- being epic fantasies whose settings are pastiches of Middle Earth -- Dragonlance, by being associated with D&D, is the one that probably formed the imaginations of more future fantasy writers. This next generation of writers would, instead of imitating Tolkien, imitate Weis and Hickman, thereby starting the process by which D&D -- and fantasy RPGs in general -- would be snakes swallowing their own tails creatively. That process continues to this day, with D&D ever more influenced by its creative progeny rather than either cleaving to older traditions or creating its own.

On the gaming front, though, Dragonlance commits even greater crimes. Firstly, the original Dragonlance modules were unique in that they presented not merely an entire campaign story arc -- what we'd today probably call an Adventure Path -- but, more importantly, it was an arc written for specific characters who had specific fates. Gamers love to bemoan "railroading," but few adventures were as railroad-y as Dragonlance, a series whose every dramatic element was mapped out in advance. There were, as written, few or no provisions for deviating from the planned story arc or introducing new characters into the saga. Goldmoon would always be the first cleric since the Catalcysm, Raistlin would always slowly descend into evil, and poor Sturm Brightblade was always doomed to die.

Now, at the time, Dragonlance was an amazing innovation. I don't believe there was anything like it and, playing through it, even within its heavy-handed restrictions, simply felt awesome -- especially if you were smart enough to pick one of the cooler characters who didn't die due to dramatic fiat. For the first time, D&D had its own Lord of the Rings, complete with D&D staples like metallic versus chromatic dragons. What wasn't to love? Plus, the Dragonlance modules were well presented, with gorgeous art -- they even made a calendar -- terrific 3-D maps, and a host of hand0-outs and other paraphernalia. In short, Dragonlance was exactly what D&D players had wanted for so long and it was a huge success for TSR.

And like many things D&D players want, it turned out to be a deal with the Devil. From that point on, "story" came to dominate the way D&D and other RPGs were presented. No longer were adventures "modules," implying they could be swapped in and out of campaigns with minimal impact. Now, they had to tell a coherent narrative that was dramatically satisfying. Instead of "just a bunch of stuff that happens," adventures had to make sense. Worse still, the success of the novels meant that, inevitably, there would be more novels and these would alter the game setting in ways meant primarily to sell more books, not necessarily to retain the coherence of the original adventures. Railroad-y the modules may have been, but at least they ended and the players could take pride in having shared in an epic story with a beginning, middle, and end. The novels, though, ensured that the modules meant nothing and that no victory, even one scripted from the start, would remain so. Newer and bigger Cataclysms would be visited on Krynn on an annual basis to sell more books and whatever charm Dragonlance had as a D&D setting was sacrificed on the altar of a profitably exploitable IP.

If any of this sounds familiar, it should. Dragonlance represents the point where D&D definitively took a turn into becoming not merely a brand name with which to sell lots of things unassociated with roleplaying but where TSR decided that the mere making of money was more important than making money by selling fun games. Very few people realized this at the time. All they saw was an epic storyline illustrated by Larry Elmore and Keith Parkinson, with novels whose sales put them regularly on the New York Times bestseller list. I don't think anyone can be blamed for thinking this was all a good thing. D&D had become a huge mainstream success and Dragonlance was a vital part of that. Dragonlance also set the tone for much of what's happened in the hobby since then, mostly for the worse from my perspective, but I'm sure WotC's book department would say otherwise.

Like all "unified field theories," the one I present here has holes large enough to drive Mack trucks through. I don't mean to imply that all that's wrong in the hobby today -- i.e. all I dislike about the hobby -- can be directly connected to Dragonlance. There were precursors to it that set the stage and there were successors that did what it intended better and probably more thoroughly. However, Dragonlance is an important touchstone in the history of RPGs. It certainly represents the end of "old school" as a mainstream part of the hobby. It also marks the time when the fate of RPGs became tied to non-RPG products in a definitive way. I think it's fair to say that, as a hobby, RPGs exist in a post-Dragonlance world, for it changed roleplaying's face forever.

REVIEW: The Living Room

Furniture which is animated to trip, confine, and smother (rugs and carpets) or move about and hug and kick (stools, chairs, divans) or blinds and throws down (tapestries and wall hangings). (Ours is known as the "Living Room".)
That's a quote from OD&D Supplement I, Greyhawk, and describes a small portion of Castle Greyhawk's environs. Last year, Rob Kuntz, player of the redoubtable Lord Robilar and co-DM of Gary Gygax's campaign, released a 7-page description (plus map) of the Living Room through his Pied Piper Publishing company. So far as I know this is the first time the Living Room has ever been described in any detail and it's a particular treat to have it described by Kuntz, its originator. I'm a sucker for gaming history -- what a surprise! -- so it was a no-brainer to pick this product up.

First things first: The Living Room (or The Original Living Room as it is called in the text, though not on its cover) is not a complete adventure module nor does it purport to be. It is, in Kuntz's words, "a set-piece." The intention is clearly that a referee can drop the Living Room into an existing dungeon or ongoing campaign of his own. In this sense, it's very much a "module," but it provides little to no context or explanation for why the Living Room is as it is. For old school referees, that's a feature, not a bug, since it offers plenty of leeway to customize or augment as he wishes.

The Living Room is not a bound book, but rather 9 pieces of laser-quality paper -- 7 pages of text, a single-page map by Eric Bergeron, and a credits and Open Game License page -- plus a cardstock cover illustrated by Jim Holloway, showing a band of comical and scruffy adventurers being attacked by the inhabitants of the Living Room. It's a classic Holloway piece, reminiscent of his work on Paranoia back in the day and nicely sets the tone for the product. One of the things that gamers sometimes forget is that old school gaming was suffused with humor of a sort I can only call "dark slapstick" -- the Three Stooges meets the Marquis de Sade, if you will. The Living Room is definitely in that tradition.

The map of the Living Room is a very small scale one, with one square equal to 2 feet rather than the more usual 10. The map shows the location of all the Room's magical inhabitants and, given its scale, could very easily be used as the basis for a miniatures battle map for those so inclined. On the whole, I'd say the map was functional but not inspired. To some extent, that's to be expected, since it details but a single room. Nonetheless, I'll admit to being a little disappointed with the map, though, as I say, the fault is not in the cartography, which does what it needs to do, but rather in my own unreasonable expectation that, somehow, the map should be "cooler" than it is.

The meat of The Living Room covers 7 pages of small type text, beginning with a history of the Living Room, including the names of individuals who played in the original campaign where it appeared. It's a who's who of old school gaming -- Ernie Gygax, Skip Williams, Tom Wham, Jim Ward, Michael Mornard, Dave LaForce and many more -- and nicely puts the Living Room in context. The product is published under the Open Game License, which would imply that it's 3e-compatible but there are in fact fairly minimal stats throughout and what stats there are seem more compatible with OD&D and AD&D, given the AC values and the use of inches for describing movement rates. At any rate, the text claims The Living Room is suitable for character levels 4-6 and that seems roughly correct for the older editions of D&D for which it was original designed. 3e characters of that level would likely have a much easier time, given their greater comparative power.

For a set-piece encounter, The Living Room contains very extensive notes for use in play. There is lots of information of how the various pieces of animated furniture and items attack, how much damage they take from various weapons and spells, and any special abilities and fun features they possess. I'll say that I was a bit overwhelmed by the level of detail here, but, at the same time, gratified, since the Living Room is intended to be a memorable encounter that's far from ordinary. I expect that it'd take the referee some time to familiarize himself with all the furnishings' abilities and stats, but that doing so would make the entire encounter run more smoothly. And since this is meant to be a "dark slapstick" encounter, smooth running is essential. This is not the sort of encounter that'd benefit from having to keep referring back to the text. The Living Room feels as if it should be run quickly, almost extemporaneously.

The remainder of the text describes the locations within the Living Room -- what the characters see, which furnishings are there and what triggers their attacks, etc. -- as well as any treasure to be found therein. Despite being only 7 pages long, there's a lot of text here and very little of it is wasted, although the boxed text descriptions of the locations are so minimal that I'm not certain they serve much purpose. Again, that's a taste issue, so I won't complain overly much about it. I do wish that there were more commentary or insights from Kuntz himself on the Living Room and how it was used in the old Greyhawk campaign. Subsequent publications from Pied Piper Publishing (to be reviewed here later) do in fact include such things and I'm grateful for that, but I feel they'd have been useful in The Living Room too.

As a piece of gaming history, I think The Living Room is terrific. As a gaming product, I'm torn. At $9.95, I think it's pricey, especially when you consider that it has no art except the cover, no binding, and is laid out like a Microsoft Word text document. Likewise, the OGL's Section 15 isn't filled out correctly and there is no indication that anything within the text is Open Content (or Product Identity for that matter), suggesting that Pied Piper didn't quite understand how the OGL works. Honestly, I don't even think the OGL was necessary here, but, since they did include it, I'd have liked to have seen it used properly.

Again, it's a quibble. However, it reinforces my impression of The Living Room as "amateurish." I do not mean that as a criticism. In this case, the product is extremely charming and I am glad I own it. It oozes with old school feel and is a reminder of a style of play that has long since disappeared from contemporary gaming. I'm glad Kuntz and Pied Piper are making products like this. I do wish that either the price had been lower or the physical qualities of the product had been higher. It's an early product of Pied Piper, though, and I am accustomed to high prices for old school products given the small audience of interested buyers, so I'm willing to overlook it in this case.

Final Score: 3 out of 5 Polearms

Saturday, April 26, 2008


RPGnet's "D20/Dungeons & Dragons" forum is the poster child for how little the average Net-active gamer knows about the history of his own hobby. I've learned all sorts of fascinating "facts" over there that I'd never heard anywhere else, such as that OD&D was a miniatures wargame, for example. Now, I realize that not every gamer is as obsessive as I am about the history of our shared hobby and indeed that the vast majority of them could care less about the whys and wherefores of the past. Still, I find it frustrating when I see erroneous "facts" go unchallenged and used as the basis for bizarre discussions that touch on reality only in the most tenuous ways.

So, it was with some pleasure when I saw old school sage T. Foster pop into a thread about the definition of "Gygaxian." Amidst all the usual nonsense, he offered the following:
solutions coming the player's problem-solving ability rather than the character's stats, casual out-of-character/out-of-milieu anachronism, punning/word-play, and an affected appeal to a very old-fashioned "high cultural/literary" mindset
That's about as good a summation of Gygaxian old school play as I can think of and Mike Mornard, the "Old Geezer" and one of Gary's gaming buddies from back in the day agrees. I can certainly say that my own preferences tend toward the Gygaxian, right down to the old-fashioned literary mindset, which is why you'll hear me go on and on about pulp fantasy and the extent to which D&D has lost sight of its heritage.

The crux of it, though, is this: challenge the player, not the character's stats. That's probably the single most important difference between old school and contemporary roleplaying games. I think that it's at the root of why most old schoolers have an instinctive hatred of skill systems in RPGs. Skill systems often imply not just what your character can do but also what he knows. That creates both a powerful separation between player and character knowledge but also creates the expectation that a character's knowledge ought to be able to give the player the solutions needed to solve in-game puzzles, tricks, traps, etc.

Now, I don't think skill system necessarily have to work that way in play, but they frequently do. 3e is notoriously bad on this score -- beat the DC on a skill check and your character does X or knows Y. The player's knowledge or cleverness is rarely engaged and "challenges" are reduced to game mechanics. I haven't a clue how 4e handles such things, but I'd frankly be amazed if they were more in line with the Gygaxian heritage of the game than they were with 3e's approach. D&D is often accused in some circles of being "gamist," but the history of the game suggests that such narrow distinctions are predicated upon yet more ignorance about the history of RPGs and what Gary and his contemporaries did when they played.

As with all such things, I don't think this style of play is the be-all and end-all of roleplaying, nor do I think it's for everyone. However, I think it's mightily important that players and designers alike know where RPGs came from and what they were like in the past rather than relying on half-truths, misunderstandings, and outright slanders of what came before now. The truth is that old school play is not somehow underdeveloped or inchoate "modern" gaming. Rather, it's a totally different perspective on what an RPG is and how it should be played. But most importantly it's fun. Sometimes that simple reality gets lost in all the theorizing and polemics. If old school games weren't fun in their own right, the hobby would never have survived to reach its "culmination" in this or that contemporary game.

Once again, thanks, Gary.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Times Have Changed

This is the first sample character in the history of Dungeons & Dragons. Take note of his ability scores and his class.

Name: Xylarthen
Class: Magic-User

Strength: 6
Intelligence: 11
Wisdom: 13
Constitution: 12
Dexterity: 9
Charisma: 8
This is the sample character in Empire of the Petal Throne, published the following year. He's called "Character X" in the text. All scores are out of a possible 100.

Strength: 98
Intelligence: 53
Constitution: 37
Psychic Ability: 26
Dexterity: 14
Comeliness: 83
Then, in 1977, we get this:
Furthermore, it is essential to the character's survival to be exceptional (with a rating of 15 or above) in no fewer than two ability characteristics.
That's from the AD&D Players Handbook, written by the Man himself. See a trend?

New Perspective on Open Gaming

My friend and frequent partner in crime pointed me to this article from an IT-oriented site that touches on issues relating to possible outcomes of the whole GSL fiasco. It's also an interesting read because some have argued that the existing OGL depends entirely on WotC's continued goodwill to work, which is nonsense and this article makes it clear why. Whatever the ultimate form of the GSL -- and we still have no idea what that form might be -- the OGL is and will remain a safe haven for anyone wishing to keep alive and develop the v.3.5 rules, as Paizo is showing with their Pathfinder RPG. There's really nothing WotC can do to stop that and I don't think they have any interest in trying. I have little doubt they'll do everything they can to discourage people from following in Paizo's footsteps, but I the chance they'll attempt anything legally? Nil.

Heavy Metal Fantasy

“When D&D started, Gary Gygax was influenced by simple pulp adventure fiction. For him it was about dungeon adventuring. D&D, especially the second edition with Dragonlance and all that stuff, got really into creating a saga, and to me that lost the original spirit of D&D. When dungeon masters started creating these epic world-saving fantasy stories, I think D&D lost its way. I see a parallel between old D&D and people who keep to that spirit, and old metal and the people who keep to the spirit of that. I prefer my D&D to be more necro and cult.”
This is a pretty fascinating article that makes explicit the connection between metal and Dungeons & Dragons. I've noted elsewhere that, when I was a younger man, D&D was the only point of contact between "traditional" geeks like myself and metalheads. I was initiated into both D&D and Traveller by my friend's older brother, who was a metal fan and both games have forever been associated with such music in my imagination, even if I'm not an aficionado of it.

In any case, the article's worth a read. It's not a scholarly piece, so it makes a number of mistakes about the history of D&D and roleplaying in general, but they're nitpicks mostly. On the essential points, it's dead-on, even singling out Dragonlance as where D&D lost its way. That's an opinion to which I hold as well, so it's always notable when someone else comes to the same conclusion independently. Perhaps I should post on why I believe this later.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

On the Oracular Power of Dice

While reviewing the first issue of Fight On!, I was reminded of something I knew but had never articulated before. An important part of what characterizes true old school gaming is the acceptance of the oracular power of dice. This acceptance ties into several distinct elements of old school gaming, so I want to discuss each of them in turn.

Firstly, randomness is an important part of any game that can reasonably be said to be "old school." Most old school game mechanics, from character creation to combat to the creation of settings, include random elements, often quite significant ones. To some extent, I suspect this has to do with the simple love of dice. There's something powerfully primal about tossing dice and waiting to see the numbers they reveal. There's also a bit of risk involved -- or at least what passes for risk in a tabletop RPG. Unless thy dice be ill-wrought, you have an equal chance of rolling high on a D20 as you do of rolling low. Every toss is thus a kind of mini-adventure, whose outcome is beyond anyone's control.

That's the second feature of old school gaming and the real heart of this particular matter: the embrace of events beyond your control as an integral part of the gaming experience. This includes players and referees alike, it should be noted. One of the things that is often forgotten is that, back before he became a "storyteller," the referee was as much a player as anyone other. What this meant in practical terms is that, while the referee created and established the starting conditions for an adventure, he couldn't guarantee any particular outcome to it. Indeed, he doesn't generally know what the final outcome is going to be. I mean that non-trivially, since any game that uses random rolls in, say, combat has gameplay elements whose outcomes are unpredictable.

In true old school games, though, dice rolls can determine how almost anything can happen and frequently do. That's why you see things like NPC reaction tables, morale rules, and other such elements. In old school gaming, many things are literally outside the control of the referee; the dice determine whether a possible NPC employer likes the PCs enough to offer them work or whether those hobgoblins stand and fight or run away like scared little girls. Even if he wanted to do so, the refree cannot dictate how many elements of an adventure will play out, as the dice often have purposes of their own. Old school referees simply roll with these punches and adapt accordingly.

In old school games, the "story" arises from the synthesis of design, randomness, and reaction; it isn't something you can set out to create. That's why lots of people, in reflecting on old school gaming, will talk about how "unsatisfying" their experiences were. Likewise, many trends in modern RPG design are driven by a desire to ensure that every given game session is not only "fun" -- whatever that means -- but also meaningful. The simple reality is that that's an impossible goal and in fact I would argue that it's an unworthy one. Much like life, old school gaming is often "just a bunch of stuff that happens" and sometimes that stuff can be frustrating, boring, or even painful. The only "meaning" that stuff has is what the players and their referee bring to it.

Consequently, old school gaming makes demands on those who play it and relies pretty heavily on an imaginative and quick-thinking referee. Lacking in even one of those and its gameplay can feel "flat." At the same time, when it possesses both, you have an entertainment like no other because the outcome is largely unexpected. You never know where an old school game is going to take you, even if you're the referee. The dice sometimes point the way clearly and sometimes hazily, but you have to learn to trust that, even if you can't yet see it, they do point somewhere fun and exciting. And here's the great thing: you can always roll some more. The plethora of tables and charts in old school games mean that there's always a way out. Not sure how to deal with the latest weird results of your dice roll? Roll them again and see if they give you a better "answer" this time.

Like the oracles of old, dice aren't prophets; they're invitations to look at the world in a different way. I personally find this style of play refreshing and liberating. It's why OD&D excites me in a way that 4e does not and indeed cannot. Fortunately, I'm not alone.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Fight On! Review in Brief

Now that I have seen the first issue of Fight On!, I wanted to do a quick review of its contents, both to advertise the 'zine itself and to use the contents to highlight some important points about old school gaming. So, without further ado, here we go:

  • Issue one is dedicated to the memory of Gary Gygax. 'Nuff said.
  • I quoted Ignatius Ümlaut's introduction in an earlier post below. He hits a lot of important points there.
  • The Devil's in the Details by Kesher is the first in a series of random tables intended to generate little details about characters' backgrounds and outlook. The first installment covers dwarves and is far more inspiring than you might expect from a mere three tables, each with between 16 and 20 details. Random generation is a cornerstone of old school gaming, as is the acceptance of the "oracular" power of dice. Both have long since fallen into disrepute in modern gaming, particularly the latter.
  • The Swanmay by Calithena is a new playable race inspired by Poul Anderson's seminal Three Hearts and Three Lions. The race is evocatively presented and its associated mechanics are elegantly old school. Also of interest is the author's preference that the gender of characters match the gender of the player, a sentiment I largely share but that I suspect is politically incorrect in this day and age.
  • Flexible Sorcery by Jeff Rients, with Jason Cone and Calithena presents several ways to use OD&D's magic system that aren't covered by the rules. Examples include spontaneous "minor" magic of the sort I discussed in my "pulp fantasy D&D" entries, counterspelling, and magical duels. What I like about all these options is that use lacunae in the existing rules to develop new ideas rather than replacing those rules entirely. This is commendably old school.
  • The Ruined Monastery by some hack is an introductory adventure set in an abandoned monastery dedicated to Saint Gaxyg the Gray. The less said about this here, the better.
  • The Tomb-Complex of Ymmu M'Kursa by Gabor Lux is a positively charming adventure locale that simultaneously conjures up memories of Judges Guild's best efforts and the weird fantasy of Clark Ashton Smith -- how can you go wrong?
  • Setting Up Your Sandbox by Calithena is a very useful article on "sandbox" style play -- another evocation of Judges Guild and one of which I approve. It's a positive contribution to the fight against the notion that old school gaming means simply dungeon crawling.
  • Puissant Priestly Powers by Santigao L. Oría introduces some new spells for use with the OD&D cleric class. They all are nicely flavorful and go a long way toward make the class more "priestly" and less like proto-paladins, which is a good thing in my opinion.
  • Enchanted Holy Symbols by Jeff Rients offers up a collection of magical holy symbols. Simple yet evocative.
  • Nature's Nasty Node by Makofan is an extensive wilderness encounter and for that alone I approve of its inclusion. Not to sound like a broken record, but I think the over-emphasis on dungeoneering has been a constant bane to D&D in general and OD&D in particular. Well presented and interesting wilderness encounters show that the game's focus need not be that narrow and this one does just that in spades.
  • The Space Wizards by Paul Czege isn't technically an OD&D-related article, being system-less and included because the editor thought it evoked some of the weirdness of high-level old school play. I'll admit that I'm unconvinced on that score and found it a bit like those interminable falling damage articles in Dragon issues of yore: undoubtedly interesting to somebody but that somebody wasn't me.
  • Creepies & Crawlies by Andrew Reyes and Jeff Rients is a mixed bag of new monsters for OD&D. They tend toward the "whimsical," which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I will admit that, with a couple of exceptions, I probably wouldn't use them myself. Mind you, I'm probably more straitlaced than most, so do not view this as a criticism of the article itself.
  • In the Time of the Broken Kingdom by Ignatius Ümlaut is an editorial that discusses the meaning of old school gaming and the place of Fight On! in preserving and promoting the traditions of that style of play.
  • Artifacts, Adjuncts, & Oddments is a grab-bag of unusual items, some magical, some not, for inclusion in your game. It's a solidly diverse collection of items and thus quite usable in a variety of campaigns.
All in all, Fight On!'s first issue is successful in what it set out to do and nicely sets the stage for future issues, which I have every reason to expect will not only be better but also more widely read. As I've noted elsewhere, I honestly do feel there's a renewal of interest in old school gaming and I think Fight On! will play a role in this renaissance. Goodness knows I intend to keep submitting to it and purchasing it. I haven't been this excited by a gaming product in a long time and both Calithena and Ignatius Ümlaut are to be congratulated on a job extraordinarily well done. I'm sure Gary is smiling down on them right now.

Monday, April 21, 2008

D&D & MMOs

A very interesting, if somewhat self-congratulatory, interview with Bill Slavicsek, Scott Rouse, and Chris Youngs about the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The interview is with a reporter from MMO Report and focuses to a great extent on what 4e has to offer players of MMOs. Some of what the WotC reps say makes sense and some of it is just claptrap, but I have to admit the virtual dungeon designer does look awfully nifty (even if I think the character visualizer is still woefully sub-par).

Here's the interview:

Lots of food for thought there, but I have to live up to my grognardism and wrap Bill Slavicsek on the knuckles for not knowing his D&D history. The game has most emphatically not had four classes since the beginning, as he claims. OD&D had only three to start: the fighter (or fighting man), the cleric, and the magic-user (not wizard, as Slavicsek states). The thief (not rogue, as claimed in the video) didn't appear until Greyhawk. I realize this is persnickety and that WotC doesn't give two figs about the history of the game anymore, but it still burns me up when I hear people say stuff like this as if it were true.

Sea Change

Since sometime last summer, I've noticed an indefinable change in the hobby, something that was lurking beneath the surface and that finally burst free in the weeks and months after the announcement of 4e last August. That's certainly when it all started to fall into place for me. As I told some friends of mine this weekend, I think 4e actually came at the right time. People were ready for a new edition of D&D, especially people who'd been playing 3e since its release in 2000. I was one of those people.

And then we started to hear more about 4e and it seems as if it left a bad taste some people's mouths. Some of that, of course, has to do with WotC's execrable PR for the new edition. They seemed never to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity and many people began to wonder if maybe the game were similarly ill-conceived. Not badly designed, mind you -- I have little doubt that 4e will be an extremely well-designed game, perhaps even the best designed edition of D&D ever in an "absolute" sense -- but tin-eared and missing the point of why people actually play and enjoy roleplaying games. Or at least missing the point with regards to a sizable minority of gamers.

That's what's really different this time around. It's been 34 years since the release of OD&D, a generation and a half. That's a lot of time -- time enough, in fact, for the grandchildren of the oldest gamers to have been born and take up gaming. While "this ain't your grandfather's D&D" sounds exactly like the kind of slogan I expect WotC's marketing department to come up with to promote 4e, the reality is that, for some gamers, such a slogan is exactly why they feel wary and exactly there's there's been this strange, indescribable undercurrent to the hobby over the last year.

My gut tells me, though, that we're on the cusp of a change. I'm reluctant to go all-out and say there's a full-scale Old School Renaissance in the offing and yet it certainly feels as if that's the case. Just take a look at my Links of Interest on the right and you'll see quite a few blogs, forums, and companies that are dedicated to the spirit of old school roleplaying. And those barely scratch the surface. Certainly, they're a minority within a minority, so maybe it all doesn't matter in the end. Still, it's interesting to see how many grognards and neo-grognards have started to come out of the woodwork and, rather than just sniping from the sidelines and complaining about those "damn kids," they're actually engaged in some really interesting and constructive projects, things that actually celebrate this hobby. They're not just bitter beardos writing jeremiads anymore -- they're guys and gals who love the history and traditions of this hobby and are working to preserve them for a new generation. That's really exciting.

Speaking only for myself, I can tell you of two factors that finally drove me back into the loving arms of OD&D. The first is that, quite frankly, I increasingly find modern RPGs too restrictive and too driven by concerns to build an exploitable IP rather than anything having to do with the simple joy of playing games. The second is that computer and video games have now reached the stage where there is simply no point in trying to beat them on their home turf. D&D combats are never going to be, solely based on game mechanics, as interesting and as engaging as those of many video games. But then I've never felt that the heart and soul of D&D -- or any RPG -- was in its mechanics. Trying to compete with video games on the field of "pure" gameplay is a recipe for failure.

Early RPGs, though, aren't about game mechanics. Certainly, such things have a role to play, sometimes even an important one, but anyone who looks at OD&D combat mechanics and hopes to have, simply on the basis of dice rolls and combat matrices, an exciting and memorable combat is setting themselves up for disappointment. RPGs live or die by the passion and skill of their players, particularly the Game Master. This is a simple yet often overlooked fact. It's one of the reasons why some people can talk about the most poorly designed games in glowing terms: they played them with a great GM and a bunch of imaginative friends. There's no way to make a formula that guarantees good gameplay every time. RPGs are notoriously "swingy" entertainments. No company, not even WotC, can ensure that every session you play will be memorably fun. That's the nature of the beast.

What I am seeing, though, is more and more gamers are realizing that fun isn't a formula. Fun is what you bring to a game. If that's the case -- and it is -- why not play games that don't merely encourage but demand that the GM and players alike have to engage it in order to create a fun experience for everyone? That, I think, is part of why we're seeing the return to old school games. It's not just nostalgia (though I'm sure there's some of that); it is, I think, a realization that, somewhere along the line, something's been lost in this hobby. Maybe it can't be found again but it's worth looking for nonetheless. I am hardly surprised to see gamers rediscovering the roots of roleplaying and finding that, despite what collective wisdom would have them believe, older games weren't in fact so bad at all. Indeed, they might just teach us a thing or two we've forgotten.

Exciting times.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Bob Bledsaw, RIP

James Mishler has reported that Bob Bledsaw, founder of Judges Guild, one of the earliest and most prolific publishers of third party support for RPGs, including D&D, has died of cancer.
It is with great sadness that I must pass on the news that Robert Bledsaw, founder of Judges Guild, creator of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, died this morning in Decatur, Illinois.

Bob was at his son's home, surrounded by family and loved ones, and passed on to the Great Adventure peacefully.

Bob was a good man, a creator of worlds, and a great friend.

I will have more details on services and memorials in the morning.
In a year that's already seen the loss of Gary Gygax, this comes as yet another blow. One by one, the titans of the Golden Age are leaving us and the hobby will be worse for their departure, just as it was better for the many, many contributions they made to it.

Bob Bledsaw was a pioneer, as Gary Gygax noted in the preface to the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. And while I'll be the first to acknowledge that many Judges Guild products were less than ideal, quite a few were classics that defined an era of gaming that I grew up with and that I long to see return. Judges Guild defines "old school." The Wilderlands of High Fantasy are the ultimate expression of sandbox style campaigning and the epitome of the "hexcrawl." It -- along with many adventures -- have, in my opinion, never been surpassed in their imagination, enthusiasm, and the reckless abandonment to the possibilities of fantasy roleplaying.

Mr. Bledsaw will be missed. This is a sad day for gaming.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Shared Fantasy

I mentioned the release of the first issue of Fight On! the other day, but I wanted to share a little snippet from it, which I think perfectly encapsulates why I'm so excited about gaming these days. It's part of the editor's introduction to the 'zine and it's brilliant.
Fight On! is a journal of shared fantasy. We who read and write for this magazine are a community of role-playing enthusiasts united by our love of the freewheeling, do-it-yourself approach that birthed this hobby back in the 1970's. We are wargamers who write our own rules and fantasists who build our own worlds, weekend warriors sharing dreams of glory and authors collaborating on tales of heroism and valor. We talk, paint, draw, write, act, costume, and roll dice in service of our visions.

We game. And you're welcome to join us.
That's the stuff.

GSL Thought

The GSL, so far as I know, hasn't been released even to the people who are on WotC's "short list" of third party publishers. Likewise, even if it had been released, its terms are still covered by NDA, so no one outside of those publishers will know much about its restrictions until its public release on June 6, 2008.

So, I don't have much to offer of substance here beyond the usual wild speculations. Here's another one: the GSL -- or, should I say the Dungeons & Dragons 4E Game System License, as it's now called -- won't be viral, by which I mean that it won't allow third party publishers to use the work of other publishers in their own products. What the GSL will turn out to be is a limited use trademark license. WotC will allow third parties to reference 4e's rules, include 4e-derived stat blocks, and use a version of the 4e logo for a limited range of products (certainly adventures, probably campaign settings, and possibly some sub-set of rules expansions), but there will be no "open content" in the sense that the OGL/D20 STL defined it. What this will mean is that each publisher will exist in his own little world -- tied to the rules and branding of 4e but isolated from the products of other publishers.

We already know WotC is keen to ensure that no one produces another Mutants & Masterminds or Spycraft with 4e. Likewise, they've said that they want to make the OGL and the GSL "mutually exclusive" licenses. By making the GSL non-viral they further ensure that even third party-produced mechanics (assuming such things are even allowed) won't spread beyond their original source, thus reducing the likelihood that someone can make a new RPG based on 4e that isn't, ultimately, just a support product for it rather than something independent.

Again, I may be wrong -- I was wrong that there'd even be a GSL, which, to be fair, there technically still isn't -- so take this all with a grain of salt. Still, if I am right, I'd love to see how anyone can claim that 4e is "open."

Do It Yourself Days

I've often been heard to make a sharp distinction between "the hobby" and "the industry" of roleplaying games and I think I do this with good reason. In the early days (1974-1977 or thereabouts), there really wasn't much of a RPG industry. Sure, there was TSR and there were a handful of other companies selling RPGs, but those companies were (mostly) just extensions of fandom. You have to remember that this was all before the advent of personal computers, easy to use desktop publishing programs, and print on demand services. This was also before the rise of the Internet and PDFs. Back then, if you wanted to get your RPG out into your fellow gamers' hands, you either had to create a fanzine or found your own company to do so.

I think it's fair to say, though, that the appearance of AD&D over the period between 1977 to 1979 changed the face of the hobby forever. Not only were its books the first hard cover RPG volumes -- a fact Mike Carr boasts of in his foreword to the Monster Manual -- but they were also the beginning of a shift in the way companies and, eventually, fans approached RPGs. To begin with, AD&D had its genesis in a number of non-hobby factors. By "non-hobby," I mean factors other than ones related strictly to gameplay.

OD&D was, by all accounts, still going strong in 1977. Indeed, its popularity was very much on the upswing, as more and more copies of the game and its supplement were being sold than ever. Likewise, attendance at gaming conventions were growing as well, as was interest in RPG tournaments. The tournament scene is an example of a "non-hobby" consideration that led to AD&D's creation. Gygax, in his June 1979 Dragon editorial leading up to the release of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, explained that the demands of tournament play created a need for standardized rules of the sort that AD&D would provide. Likewise, he noted that OD&D was too "vague and often ambiguous" to bring in new players, many of whom were not "familiar with medieval and ancient history, wargaming, military miniatures, etc." that OD&D assumed. Finally -- though I hesitate to say so -- there was almost certainly a calculation on the part of TSR to cut Dave Arneson out of the D&D equation entirely by creation a "new" game with a "different" name that was wholly the creation of Gygax.

All of the factors I cite above are non-hobby ones. They all pertain to TSR's desire to maximize the popularity -- and sales -- of Dungeons & Dragons. Obviously, this isn't a bad thing in itself, but AD&D marks the real beginning of the "the industry" with interests and agendas that didn't always match up with those of "the hobby." At the time, AD&D was in fact quite controversial among OD&D players and many vowed, as D&D players have with every edition change, not to buy or play it. The saw it as a money grab and an unneeded revision, as well as a "betrayal" of the open-ended and do it yourself ethos of the original game.

Gygax acknowledged this himself when said that "there is no similarity (perhaps even less) between D&D and AD&D than there is between D&D and its various imitators produced by competing publishers." Obviously, I think he overstates his case a great deal, because, mechanically at least, AD&D is clearly derivative of OD&D. On the other hand, the spirit of AD&D is indeed dissimilar to that of OD&D. Again, Gygax acknowledged this by saying, "AD&D rectifies the shortcomings of D&D. There are few grey areas in AD&D, and there will be no question in the mind of participants as to what the game is and is all about. There is form and structure to AD&D, and any variation of these integral portions of the game will obviously make it something else."

That right there is when "the industry" began, maybe not literally but spiritually. It's an interesting counterpart to the lengthy Gygax quote I posted yesterday, because it's also clear that Gary never intended what he saw as the immediate needs of TSR to set any kind of precedent that would deform the way RPGs would be made for the next 25 years. And yet it did. Since that time, the demands of the business side of gaming have been in the driver's seat. This was probably inevitable and it hasn't always resulted in either bad games or in the destruction of "the hobby" side of things. Still, I can't shake the feeling that we're still coasting on the momentum of the crazy, gung-ho, rough around the edges, and not entirely consistent early days of gaming. We're living off the dwindling interest of the imaginative capital from the Do It Yourself days.

What thrills me so much about gaming lately is that technology is allowing a return of the Do It Yourself days. Not only are clone games ever more prevalent, but gamers with great ideas can now disseminate them without having to form their own companies if they don't want to do so. While I fear that "the industry" itself is about to be lost, I am far more sanguine about the prospects of "the hobby" side of things, which is probably as vibrant and creative as it's ever been. It's a great time to be a gamer and I expect we'll see some really remarkable things over the next few years.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Gary Gygax: 1979

Somehow the school of continuing evolution has conceived that D&D can go on in a state of flux, each new version “new and improved!” From a standpoint of sales, I beam broadly at the very thought of an unending string of new, improved, super, energized, versions of D&D being hyped to the loyal followers of the gaming hobby in general and role playing fantasy games in particular. As a game designer I do not agree, particularly as a gamer who began with chess. The original could benefit from a careful reorganization and expansion to clarify things, and this might be done at some future time. As all of the ADVANCED D&D system is not written yet, it is a bit early for prognostication, but I envision only minor expansions and some rules amending on a gradual, edition to edition, basis. When you have a fine product, it is time to let well enough alone.

Fanatical game hobbyists often express the opinion that DUNGEONS & DRAGONS will continue as an ever-expanding, always improving game system. TSR and I see it a bit differently. Currently D&D is moving in two directions. There is the “Original” game system and the new ADVANCED D&D® system. New participants can move from the “Basic Set” into either form without undue difficulty — especially as playing aid offerings become more numerous, and that is in process now. Americans have somehow come to equate change with improvement.I do not believe that hobbyists and casual players should be continually barraged with new rules, new systems, and new drains on their purses. Certainly there will be changes, for the game is not perfect; but I do not believe the game is so imperfect as to require constant improvement.

Does this mean that D&D will be at a dead end when the last of AD&D® is published? Hardly! Modules and similar material will continue to be released so as to make the DM’s task easier and his or her campaign better. Quite frankly, the appeal of D&D rests principally upon the broad shoulders of the hard-working Dungeon Masters. The rules never need improvement if the DM is doing a proper job, but of course he or she can do so only if the rules are sufficient to allow this. With refined rules and modular additions, all aspects of a long lived and exciting campaign will unquestionably be there for the DM to employ. Will D&D dead end when its novelty dies? That is impossible to answer. It is my personal opinion that the game form is a classic which is of the same stamp as chess and MONOPOLY® ; time will be the judge. No doubt that there is a limit to the appeal of the game in any of its current forms. If tens of millions play a relatively simple, social sort of a game such as MONOPOLY, it is a sure thing that a far more difficult game such as D&D will have a much more limited audience. As the game cannot be simplified beyond a certain point, we look to another means of popularizing it.

The Clone Wars

One of the fascinating things about the Open Game License Wizards of the Coast introduced with the release of Dungeons & Dragons 3e back in 2000 is that it more or less guarantees that that that particular edition of D&D could legally remain in print forever. Indeed, Paizo's Pathfinder RPG is more or less just that -- 3e under a different name. Except for its trademarked name and a very small amount of IP (mostly iconic monsters, such as the mind flayer and beholder), any publisher can produce their own version of Dungeons & Dragons without having to ask WotC's permission or pay them one red cent for the privilege of doing so.

This is an entirely new situation. Neither 1e nor 2e, let alone OD&D or its descendants, was ever made open content and so, when a new edition was released, the previous edition effectively "died," which is to say, it had no legally permissible commercial support. Fans of those older editions had no choice but create their own material to share amongst themselves, which they did, often with great gusto. Still, I think it's fair to say that, especially in the days before the ubiquity of the Internet, it was very hard to recruit new players to an older edition of D&D once that edition went out of print. Thanks to the OGL, though, that need never be the case with 3e, provided someone is willing to publish it.

Interestingly, it also need never be the case with older editions either. One of the fascinating and unexpected twists of the opening up of 3e is that, because this edition, while different from previous editions, is nevertheless derived from them, enterprising people have been able to use 3e as the back door through which to retro-engineer early versions of the game, most notably the Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert edition (in two distinct flavors) and 1e. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one has yet done this for 2e)

The whole reason why these "retro-clone" editions are possible is because the OGL basically amounted to WotC's admission that game mechanics are not copyrightable. This is pretty well established in law, as I understand it, but that never stopped TSR from legal bullying against third party publishers who tried to make a buck off of D&D by producing compatible products back in the day. WotC hoped that, by bringing third parties "inside the tent," so to speak, they could ensure better quality, greater compatibility, and -- perhaps most importantly -- feed sales of official D&D products.

Exactly how well the OGL succeeded on any of these points is a matter of some debate even eight years later, but it's clear that the most lasting effect of the OGL has been to inspire others to try and recreate retr0-clones of other beloved games from the 70s and 80s. I can't even begin to list all the ones I've encountered, but the ones of most interest to me are Mutant Future (a Gamma World clone) and DoubleZero (a James Bond 007 clone). I have no idea how Gary Gygax felt about OSRIC, but I do know that David "Zeb" Cook approves of the retro-clone of his Conan RPG, known as ZeFRS. James Ward, creator of Gamma World, has publicly spoken out against retro-clones, which he considers theft. I'm not sure that his position has much merit either philosophically or legally, but it's still fascinating to note that there's still a difference of opinion regarding the nature of these games.

As for me, I'm generally in favor of retro-cloning, if only because it theoretically ensures that the great RPGs of the past are not lost to future generations because some megacorporation has locked the rights away in a vault somewhere "just in case" they can squeeze some more money out of them at some future date. I'm increasingly of the opinion that the future of this hobby depends ever more on us than it does on game companies, some of whom have sadly turned RPGs into IP mines for novels and video games rather than into "products of your imagination," as the old TSR ads used to proclaim. I'm a big believer in do-it-yourself-ism and the retro-clone movement is all about that. I can't help but admire these guys for what they're doing, because they're quite literally preserving both the past and the future of our hobby.

4e GSL

Word is spreading that the mythical Game System License (née OGL 2.0) for Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition will be released by WotC any day now. Look, WotC has even put up a press release about it. Of course, there are no details about the terms of the GSL or even when the GSL will be available. The only dates mentioned in the press release are when the 4e SRD will be available (June 6, 2008 -- the same day as the release of 4e) and the earliest on which 4e-compatible products may be sold (October 1, 2008).

So, basically, lots of people are getting excited about ... nothing. We must remember that WotC has already said that GSL will be released "soon" on several occasions, stretching all the way back to last Fall. Each time they failed to deliver anything and each time they returned to the scene they said something different than what they had said previously. One can be forgiven, I think, for believing that either WotC didn't actually know their own Open Game License very well and were scrambling to try and find a way to put the genie back in the bottle, so to speak, or else there was some kind of internal disagreement over the extent to which 4e should be open and how WotC should proceed, if at all.

Granted, a press release like this implies very strongly that the logjam has finally broken and something is about to be revealed. Exactly what is hard to say at this point. However, in the interests of honesty, I must admit that I am in fact surprised that WotC is following through with a GSL at all. I had previously predicted that there would be no GSL and on that point I seem likely to be proven wrong. Of course, the GSL still has not yet appeared; it's entirely possible that, press release or no, the license could still never materialize, in which case I'd be forced to say that WotC is simply incompetent. Likewise, it's also possible that the terms of the GSL will undercut the whole point of openness in the first place. From the link above, we already know that WotC plans to limit the kind of products one can produce under the GSL, although, in return, third parties are permitted to use a version of the D&D logo to denote compatibility with 4e, which is more than the 3e OGL ever permitted.

Still, the proof is in the pudding and I remain convinced that the terms of the GSL will be restrictive enough to make it only worthwhile if your business plans consist solely of being a support company for D&D, which is to say, writing adventure modules. Given that publishers are expected to "register" with WotC to be able to use the D&D logo, I think tighter restrictions are inevitable.

In the end, I think this is too little, too late. Paizo is already lost and the number of confirmed companies who will support 4e no matter what number (I think) two. I can't imagine many people will be jumping on the bandwagon this time around. It's another misstep by WotC in the roll-out for 4e that could have been avoided but wasn't.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Take a gander at this 20-Point Letter of Protest Regarding the New 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons (from a Gnome and a Half-Orc). Beneath all of the silliness, there's actually some insightful commentary about both D&D and the new edition. Some of them are points I've made myself or to which I am sympathetic.

Suffusing them all, though, is the most important point of all: the loss of an entire "culture" of gaming. Odds are that even younger gamers, who never played 1e or even 2e, let alone OD&D, get most of the jokes in that list of 20 points. That's because there was a common culture of players. We all spoke the same language, if you will, and shared in common experiences, including bafflement at the 10 x 10 room with an orc guarding a chest. That culture has its roots in the 70s and has been constantly under attack by designers and gamers alike, who want to "update" D&D in various ways, without regard for which fraying thread of the tapestry might be the one that unravels the whole thing. I'm not saying that 4e will be a D&D "culture killer" by itself, but there are many things in its design that trouble me as someone who places great value in the traditions and heritage of this hobby. Time will tell, I suppose, if my fears are misplaced or not.

Tip of the coif to Jason Barker for the link.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Fight On!

Just a quick link to the premier issue of the OD&D fanzine Fight On! for which I contributed a short adventure. I'm hopeful that this will be the start of something big and that the subtitle, "a fanzine for the old school renaissance," is prescient. I do think there is in fact a growing movement to go "back to the sources" of our hobby. This movement isn't just a reaction to the mechanical bloat of contemporary RPGs or the supplement treadmill or any of dozens of other things we gamers complain about. Rather, I think it's evidence of the maturing of the hobby and its fanbase.

Many of us second generation gamers are pushing or have reached 40 and we're probably at the tail end of that generation. The first generation of gamers are now, at their youngest, solidly in their 40s and many are much older. With age often comes the realization the simpler need not be less good than the more complex. Likewise, I think a lot of us once again appreciate that the do-it-yourself nature of the early hobby was one of its best features -- the very thing that drew us as kids into roleplaying in the first place.

Back then, there weren't any lavishly detailed settings or compendious explications of rules. When in doubt, we just made it up and we had a blast doing it. I miss those days ever more as I get older, especially as I watch my children draw closer to the age when I first discovered gaming. I think nowadays kids need the kind of creative hobbies that early gaming represented. There's not much like it anymore.

So, I have high hopes that Fight On! is the tip of the iceberg of some exciting stuff to come. Even if it's not, I intend to enjoy myself reading and writing for it.

Quick Note: The fanzine is only now available and it's possible that the print quality may yet still have some bugs in it. If you wish to purchase a copy, it might be wise to wait a week or so before doing so, just to ensure it's as it should be.

Backwards Thinking

I've got a bad head cold, so I need to take a break from writing this weekend, I think. That said, something has been bugging me and I figured I should vent about it here.

One of many issues that seems to cause the most consternation about 4e is that monsters and NPCs are (generally) built according to different rules than are player characters. A lot of gamers have a hard time with this concept, first because it's contrary to the entire philosophy of 3e, which emphasized a seamless mechanical continuity for everything, and because it's different even than 1e and 2e, which did not treat NPCs as monsters but rather as, well, characters.

What I find amusing is that the justification for this change is that creating NPCs is too complex and time-consuming a task for the DM. I agree that this assessment is correct. Pretty much anyone who's DMed 3e for any length of time, especially at high levels, can sympathize with the complexity and indeed tediousness of designing NPCs according to the 3e rules.

While I think the diagnosis is correct, the solution the 4e designers have chosen strikes me as backwards. Rather than create different rules and guidelines for monsters and NPCs because the rules for PC creation are too complex to serve as a model, why not make PCs less complex? There is an unchallenged assumption in modern RPG design that player characters can only be "unique" if there are a vast array of "meaningful" mechanical choices for players to make in creating them.

In my experience, basing a character's uniqueness on mechanics is a certain way to ensure that the character is hardly a character at all but rather more like a well-built CCG deck. Moreover, most rules, in order to maintain "balance" -- another bit of backward thinking -- end up creating a wide variety of false choices. Sure, you may now have dozens of feats and prestige classes to choose from, ensuring that no one else in your character's party will have the same exact ones as he does, but, in the end, most of these feats and prestige classes differ only in either flavor or in limited situations. In the end, what you get is characters whose uniqueness is predicated primarily by roleplaying -- as it always has been -- but with a unnecessarily baroque mechanical superstructure to support a Potemkin village of "choice."

From what I can tell, though, gamers like this approach and it's certainly one that sells more supplements, so I can't blame WotC for pursuing it, but is this better game design? I'm not convinced that it is. At the very least, I'm not convinced that raw 4e characters will have any more depth as characters than raw 1e characters, despite the greater amount of mechanical complexity. As I have said elsewhere, what D&D desperately needs is an Aspect system, as it would both reduce the mechanical complexity of the game and increase the flexibility of the core rules to allow for anything from the pulp fantasies I prefer to the more over-the-top wuxia insanity the kids these days seem to think is cool.

Obviously, it's too late for 4e to go this route. I expect that, within a few years, we'll be hearing that creating player characters is too complex and tedious and that this justifies the publication of a new edition to "fix" the problems of 4e -- assuming D&D continues to exist as a tabletop RPG at all.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Apocalypse

“Peoples of the world - you appear bent upon the destruction of a civilization that has taken centuries to build, and the extinction of life on earth.”

“If that is your will ... so be it!”

“We, the Apocalypse, demand an immediate cessation of this insane violence, or we will end it for you with a force you cannot conceive.”

“We have the power!”

“The choice is yours!”

What D&D Is

Many people, particularly nowadays, as we slouch toward yet another edition, claim that it's impossible to define D&D, because "D&D" is so intensely personal a thing that if you asked 10 different people to define it, you'd get 10 different definitions. Though I recognize the agenda behind such a stance, there's a certain truth to it -- how one perceives "D&D" is greatly influenced both by one's first experiences with the game and how one has approached it since. That's why, for me, D&D will always be, first and foremost, a pulp fantasy game, albeit one with a batch of idiosyncratic accretions that allow it to transcend its roots and become this weird melange I call "D&D fantasy," about which I'll talk in due course.

I'm not going to define "Dungeons & Dragons" in this entry. That'll have to wait for later, when I have more time to write at length, because it's a complicated question (though not one that defies an answer, despite what the obscurantists will tell you). What I will do, though, is present a small illustration of what D&D was back in 1980 and what it was is something that I both miss and feel is missing from more modern claimants to the name "Dungeons & Dragons."

Here are four pre-generated characters from a module I was re-reading last night, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. These guys are a nice little window on what D&D once was and what I wish it were again.
Hum Ftr 12, AL N, HP 54, Str 15, Int 14, Wis 12, Dex 13, Con 14, Cha 16, +3 battleaxe, +2 plate mail, +2 shield, ring of fire resistance

Hum MU 11, AL N, HP 27, Str 10, Int 16, Wis 14, Dex 15, Con 14, Cha 14, +2 dagger, gem of seeing, boots of levitation, wand of cold (28 charges)

Hum Cl 10, AL LG, HP 34, Str 12, Int 11, Wis 18, Dex 14, Con 12, Cha 15, +2 mace, staff of striking, ring of protection +3

Human Th 10, AL N, HP 27, Str 10, Int 14, Wis 13, Dex 17, Con 12, Cha 7, +2 sword, bag of holding, cloak of protection +3
These guys are a snapshot D&D in its most perfect, "real" form, as opposed to an idealized one, which is to say, D&D as it was played at that time, right down to the fighter's having broadly better stats than his companions and more generally useful magic items. This certainly mirrors my own experiences both as a player and as a DM.

Yet, for all that, a 12th-level fighter still only has 54 hit points. Even with his -2 AC, he is nevertheless very vulnerable -- his companions even moreso. Of course "vulnerable" does not mean helpless and, with the gear and class abilities these characters possess, they ought to be able to handle most threats in the module, even the dreaded froghemoth.

I can't yet offer a definitive definition of "D&D," but if you want an illustration of where I'm coming from, I point you to these guys.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Art of D&D

Lots of people have their own understanding of how D&D has changed over the years and their own opinions of just whether these various changes have been good or bad and whether any have been extensive enough to make this or that edition "not D&D."

Naturally, I have my own opinions on these matters and I'll probably get around to discussing them at greater length in due course. For now, though, I will point out one way that earlier editions of D&D were different: the art. I'm not even specifically talking about the content of the art so much as the fact that early D&D benefits, I think, from a lack of coherent art direction. Indeed, I doubt TSR even had a formal art director until many years into its existence. Certainly no such person is credited in 1983's Monster Manual II, one of the last books of the Gygax era of AD&D.

Nowadays, though, D&D is all about its art direction. Defining "the look" of D&D seems to have been a significant part of both the 3e and 4e design process. I haven't seen a lot of 4e's art, but 3e's shows a high degree of consistency over the course of the edition's run. Though there were many artists who graced 3e's pages, they all adopted similar styles in my opinion, which makes it very possible to talk about a "3e esthetic" in a specific way that you can't about 1e books, for example.

Obviously, the 3e books look very nice. They're extremely high quality books, masterfully designed and much of the art is gorgeous. Unlike a lot of self-professed grognards, as I've said, I actually like a lot of modern D&D art and find much of early D&D's illustrations amateurish at best. That said, the one area where I think early D&D wins hands-down, though, is in terms of the variety of its art. Perhaps by design and perhaps by simple necessity, there really isn't a lot of consistency in early D&D art. If you compare Dave Trampier's 1e Players Handbook cover with David Sutherlands's 1e Dungeon Masters Guide cover, for example, you see two similar but not identical styles, with Trampier's being a gritty, "low fantasy" approach to its subject matter, while Sutherland's City of Brass encounter suggests quite the opposite. The 1e Monster Manual, whose interiors were done by Trampier and Sutherland, varies even within a given artist's contributions, particularly Trampier's pieces, which range from the starkly realistic to the cartoonish.

I don't think early D&D art is better, either technically or esthetically, than more modern treatments of the same subject matter (though I am very fond of certain older pieces). In almost every way, I think modern gaming art is superior to its predecessors. The sole exception is in its implication. This is a subtle and subjective thing but, for me, early gaming art, in its diversity, with its rough around the edges rawness, is far more evocative of what I want roleplaying to be -- an amateur activity -- and better highlights that it is an intensely personal thing that varies greatly from gamer to gamer. Frankly, I don't want slick; I don't want polished. Roleplaying games grew out of the confluence of multiple kit-bashes to wargaming in the late 60s and early 70s and it's that gung-ho do-it-yourself enthusiasm that I see in early D&D art.

It's that same enthusiasm I just don't see in many modern gaming products, particularly D&D.

Nerves of Steel

I continue to think it best, despite my intense interest in the entire Pathfinder Roleplaying Game project that Paizo has launched, that I continue to avoid the open playtest boards as much as possible. Initially I did so because they were filled with dozens of people who either didn't read or didn't understand Paizo's mission statement for Pathfinder, namely backward compatibility with v.3.5. Seeing yet another person advocating the elimination of Vancian magic or alignment or some other fundamental aspect of D&D made me wonder why these guys weren't signing up for 4e and it just annoyed the heck out of me. But, being the biggest name in fantasy gaming since 1974, D&D has always attracted more than its share of players who didn't really like it in the first place and wanted to "fix" it in ways that shredded its very soul. Players like that have been around since I started playing in the late 70s and I suspect they'll always be around. That was only the first stage of my disillusionment, unfortunately. Nowadays the boards seem to be filled with a different kind of player who doesn't really like D&D. Whereas initially the complainers nibbled around the edges of things and lashed out in pretty inconsequential ways, now we have pamphleteers, zealots, and dime store philosophers who are all peddling their own theories about how to improve D&D and correct "problems" with its mechanics and play.

Now, don't get me wrong: as a dime store philosopher myself I have some sympathy with these guys. More to the point, the entire pulp fantasy D&D project is all about "fixing" D&D so that game play is more in tune with the early game's literary inspirations. The difference, though, is that I accept and acknowledge what I'm doing will make the game different from the current version of the game. Backward compatibility with v.3.5 is not my goal and indeed I recognized early on that v.3.5 is a terrible foundation for the kind of D&D I wish to create. So, yes, I have my own little agendas and theories and I intend to run with them as far as they'll take me, but I'm not playtesting the Pathfinder RPG here. I'm not trying to impose my vision of D&D on Pathfinder.

The guys at Paizo, especially Jason Buhlmann, have my utmost respect for being able to stomach all of this. I still think the open playtest is a brilliant idea and that, if they can maintain focus and herd the cats on their forums, the end result will be vastly better for it. If nothing else, it shows that Paizo is more like the kind of RPG company I want to support than WotC is. At the same time, I can't help but think that too many of the people who're posting to the boards lack basic comprehension skills about the purpose and scope of Pathfinder. Finding the golden comments and insights in the mounds of dross that litter those forums has got to be a thankless and nerve-wracking experience. My hats off to Paizo for doing it, because I certainly couldn't.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Strength in D&D

This obviously doesn't apply to OD&D, where most character attributes have no mechanical consequences whatsoever, but it does apply to all subsequent editions: why does Strength give you a bonus to hit? Damage, yes; I can see the logic to that. A stronger man ought to deal my physical damage when swinging a sword at an orc than a weaker one. But on what basis does a stronger man have a better chance to hit?

I know what you'll say -- "hitting" in D&D isn't necessarily a matter of actually hitting your target so much as hitting him with sufficient force to overcome his defenses and deal him damage. After all, the default length of a combat round in old school D&D is one minute. During that time, your character gets to roll to hit but a single time. Obviously it's not realistic to assume your character can only swing his weapon once in a minute -- and he isn't. Over the course of a single round, your character is dodging, thrusting, blocking, and lunging, among many other things. The "to hit" roll is an abstract summation of whether everything he's doing offensively results in doing any damage to his opponent.

Given all of that, doesn't it make sense that Strength should affect "hitting?" Possibly but I still don't like it very much. The reason is that D&D already models how well a character uses his innate and learned abilities to hit an opponent through the combat matrices (or BAB in 3e). A fighter is better at doing this than, say, a wizard, which is why he has an easier time dealing damage against an armored opponent. Should Strength add to that further? Maybe. I'm of two minds about it and need to give it some more thought, but I am leaning heavily toward restricting "to hit" bonuses mostly to being class features (and some rare magic) and instead shifting most bonuses toward damage instead.