Thursday, May 29, 2008


One of the commonest complaints leveled against the cleric is that the class is just a glorified healer and nobody likes to play the healer. I have to admit that I've always been puzzled by this assertion, because in my experience, while cleric is indeed a healing class, that's not all that it is. Yet, you'll still hear lots of people make the baseless assertion, for example, that the reason the cleric was included in OD&D is because of the need for magical healing. I call this assertion baseless, because Chainmail, whose fantasy supplement is the immediate precursor to OD&D, does not include clerics among the options for play. There are "heroes," "superheroes," (both examples of what would later be called fighting men or fighters) and wizards, but no clerics. So where did clerics come from?

Like many things from the prehistory of roleplaying, the answer to this question is murky, but the most consistent explanation and the one offered by Mike "Old Geezer" Mornard, who enjoys the possibly unique distinction having played in the campaigns of Dave Arneson, Gary Gygax, and M.A.R. Barker. According to Mornard, Dave Arneson created the cleric class, modeling him on Abraham van Helsing as portrayed by Peter Cushing's portrayal of the vampire hunter in the Hammer Films series. According to this version, the cleric was intended as a foil to a vampire player character in Arneson's campaign, Sir Fang by name, meaning that the class was first and foremost conceived as a fighter of the undead, a role it has retained throughout every edition, including 4e.

As presented in OD&D, a cleric can heal. However, of the 26 clerical spells offered in the little brown books, only two -- cure light wounds and cure serious wounds -- are direct healing spells. Supplement I expands the total number of clerical spells to 46, but adds no more healing spells. There were, of course, "restorative" spells of various sorts, such as remove curse (which the cleric shared with the magic-user) and cure disease, as well as neutralize poison and raise dead. Nevertheless, the bulk of the cleric's spell selection in OD&D is made up of what might best be called "utility" spells -- light (again, shared with the MU), find traps, locate object, speak with plants, create food, word of recall, control weather, and so on.

AD&D expands the spell list for clerics yet again. There are 76 cleric spells in First Edition. Of these, there are only two new direct healing spells -- cure critical wounds and heal. The majority of the new spells are additional utility spells, particularly abjurations and divinations. Second Edition follows First quite closely in most respects, but the addition of specialty priests (of which the traditional mace-wielding cleric is but one possible example) actually made it possible to play a "cleric" who couldn't heal at all. Third Edition adds many, many more spells to the cleric's repertoire, including some new direct healing spells to fill in gaps in the progression (cure moderate wounds, for example), but, again, the vast majority of a cleric's spells are utility spells. Moreover, 3e seems to have gone out of its way to ensure there were also direct damage-dealing options available to clerics, a category that was largely non-existent in previous editions. Of course, 3e also added the spontaneous casting of healing spells, which allowed a cleric to freely convert any spell into a healing spell of the same level. Thus, if any edition formally turned the cleric into the "medic," it was 3e, but, even there, the charge is weak. (As an aside, in OD&D, evil clerics -- called "anti-clerics" -- could not heal at all and cast damage-dealing spells instead)

The identification of the cleric with "healer" is a classic example of how game rules sometimes take on a life of their own through play. Because the cleric was initially the only character class who could heal at all, that ability soon became its singular distinction. OD&D describes clerics in terms that suggest it was intended to be a "hybrid" between the fighting man and the magic-user. Likewise, AD&D -- and Gygax himself -- makes a connection between clerics and the medieval orders of religious knighthood, like the Templars. Thus, they were intended to be religious militants: crusaders who went toe to toe with their enemies rather than standing in the back and healing, to borrow a MMO turn of phrase. Part of the problem is that, in AD&D, the paladin usurped that role (OD&D's paladin is a slightly different class -- it's not a spellcaster, for one), leaving the cleric holding the medkit. The other issue is that, except during the 2e era, D&D has never provided examples of non-clerical "priests," which is to say, religious leaders who tended to the needs of the faithful. That made it hard to make a distinction between adventuring clerics who bashed skulls for their gods and the parish priests who hung around Hommlet preaching and giving alms.

Unfortunately, the D&D cleric is an incoherent mess -- half what its creators intended it to be and half what players expect it to be. I can't in good conscience recommend ditching either half, because the tension between the two is part of what makes the cleric what it is. On the other hand, I'm completely sympathetic to the notion that the cleric is in need of something; I'm just not sure what that is. In any pulp fantasy game I write, I'd be inclined to ditch the cleric entirely or subsume most of his abilities into an expanded magic-user class. That seems truer to the source material. But if I were doing anything that had to be recognizable as "D&D," I don't quite know what I'd do. Moreso than any other class, the cleric has issues that aren't easily resolvable and pretty much any proposed solution is sure to tick someone off.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Beloved Nylissa

I've been reading a lot of Clark Ashton Smith lately. As I believe I mentioned in a previous post, he's my favorite of the three best known writers for Weird Tales back in its heyday. Smith's "prose poetry" is something I find remarkably evocative and, more to the point, affecting. It's actually quite rare that I find the written word emotionally moving, at least in the case of popular literature. Besides Smith, Tolkien is one of the few others who can manage it for me, but that's probably because the two of them, despite their vast differences in world view, both share a melancholy awareness of the ravages of time. It's this in particular that I find strikes a powerful chord with me, particularly of late.

Last night, I read "The Last Incantation," a short story that tells the tale of Malygris of Poseidonis, a necromancer of the last surviving colony of Atlantis. Filled with ennui, he recalls a beautiful girl of his youth, whom he loved and whom he now wishes to recall from the abode of the dead. He consults his familiar, a viper, to see if such a feat is within his powers and whether it be a wise thing to do. The viper tells him that it is of course within his power to recall Nylissa, the girl from his youth, back from the dead, but whether doing so be good or ill can only be decided by Malygris himself.

So, the necromancer calls back the girl's shade and cannot believe, upon seeing her, that she is the same girl he once loved, for she is nothing like what he believed she would be. Disappointed, he ceases his necromancy before restoring her to life and returns to the viper to bitterly complain. He asks:
"Why did you not warn me?"

"Would the warning have availed?" was the counter-question. "All knowledge was yours, Malygris, excepting this one thing; and in no other way could you have learned it."

"What thing?" queried the magician. "I have learned nothing except the vanity of wisdom, the impotence of magic, the nullity of love, and the delusiveness of memory ... Tell me, why could I not recall to life the same Nylissa whom I knew, or thought I knew?"

"It was indeed Nylissa whom you summoned and saw," replied the viper. "Your necromancy was potent up to this point: but no necromantic spell could recall for you your own lost youth or the fervent and guileless heart that loved Nylissa, or the ardent eyes that beheld her then. This, my master, was the thing that you had to learn."


Penny Arcade is one of those comics that alternately befuddles and amuses me. Much of the time, especially when it veers into the world of console games, I haven't a clue what's going on. At other times, though, I feel as if Tycho is my own personal comic avatar.

This is one of those times.


It is both amusing and frustrating to read about gamers who've only ever played Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons calling themselves "grognards" -- amusing because it's good to see that younger gamers might finally understand that preferring an older edition doesn't mean you're "afraid of change" and frustrating because I don't believe invitations to the clubhouse have actually been sent out to these guys yet. Heck, I didn't start gaming until five years after OD&D was released; I began with the Holmes Basic Set rather than the little brown books and I never played a wargame until after I'd started roleplaying. I'm not even sure that I qualify as a grognard, so I'm pretty sure that gamers who didn't join the hobby until after 2000 don't.

But life is full of stuff like this, so I shouldn't complain.

Too much.

Monday, May 26, 2008

My First Character

I've always been the Dungeon Master.

From the moment I broke the cellophane wrapping on my Holmes Basic Set in December 1979, I was the default referee for all the many RPG adventures and campaigns in which my group of friends and I would participate. I certainly didn't mind. By temperament, I generally prefer being the referee and, when I am inspired, I think I can say, without too much hubris, that I keep the game entertaining. My forte, to the extent I have one, is the off-beat characterization of NPCs, both major and minor. My best creations are almost always eccentrics of one sort or another, individuals with personality tics or peculiar obsessions. Sometimes they're just background color and sometimes they're important elements of the unfolding story, but I think it's fair to say that, although many other details of my campaigns may be forgettable, my NPCs rarely are.

Consequently, I actually rarely get to play a character of my own. When I do, they often turn into somewhat toned down versions of my NPCs, oddities and all. Part of it, I suspect, is that I simply don't have a lot of experience with player characters, which are a very different beast than NPCs in my experience -- at least good ones are. By this I mean that a good NPC is often, by necessity, nothing more than a bundle of memorable quirks. That's how your players can keep them straight and not confuse one orc chieftain with another. PCs, on the other hand, need to be (generally) less caricatured while still being broad enough to admit change when random chance and other circumstances require it. That's why the best PCs I've encountered in recent years have all had both very thin backgrounds and "archetypal" personalities to start. Over time, of course, their backgrounds firmed up and their personalities developed subtleties, but, at the beginning, they often have less distinctiveness than NPCs.

All that aside, I did once have a character I played for some time, who, as it turns out, was my first character as well. Back in the ancient days, we played D&D almost every day we weren't in school and, while I was DM 90% of the time, that remaining 10% still represented untold hours of my wasted youth. So I was actually able to create a character and play him often enough for him to achieve the lofty level of 14 under the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules. Ironically, he was probably the second highest level character in our old campaign, because, unlike my friends, I never got bored with my character and created a new one every adventure. So, our campaign was littered, not just with the corpses of PCs who fell victim to untold hazards of the dungeons, but with literally dozens of characters between the levels of 4th and 7th levels, with the occasional one reaching in the 8th to 10th level range. Perhaps this is why I've got an almost congenital aversion to high-level play: we simply never managed to get characters to such lofty ranks.

My first character was, I am mildly embarrassed to report, named Sir James Calvert (his heraldic device looked like a thinly disguised version of the Maryland state flag). He was initially a Fighter, but I converted him into a Paladin once we got hold of the Players Handbook, because it better suited the concept of the character. He was basically a Knight of the Round Table of the Sir Galahad mold -- morally unimpeachable and a bit of a know-it-all. He traveled around with four henchmen who were themselves lower-level paladins that my friends would occasionally play. Unsurprisingly, we tended to battle demons and devils -- Sir James had a long-standing feud with Demogorgon and the various anti-paladins and death knights who served him -- and other exemplars of metaphysical evil. In time, Sir James acquired a +5 holy avenger, was granted a fiefdom, built a castle for himself, and adopted a young boy he'd rescued somewhere, whom he raised as his son. The son's name was Philip, if I recall, and I intended for him to become a ranger and take off into the wilds against Sir James's wishes, but I don't think I ever got around to that.

Looking back on him now, a lot of stuff I did with Sir James -- not least of which are his name and escutcheon -- were rather silly, but then I was barely 10 years-old and I had fun with it all, as did my friends. In the end, I guess that's all that really matters.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

REVIEW: Monsters of Myth

Monsters of Myth is an important book. Besides being packed with 128 pages of new monsters for use with, as it says on its back cover, "First Edition-compatible games," it is in many ways emblematic of the possibilities and pitfalls that lay before the old school gaming community in general and the retro-clone movement in particular. Produced under the auspices of the First Edition Society, Monsters of Myth is an anthology edited by Stuart Marshall and Matt Finch. Those names are significant, as they are the two principals behind the creation of OSRIC, a restatement of the underlying rules of a certain old school fantasy game from the 1970s and 80s. The involvement of Marshall and Finch thus makes Monsters of Myth as close to an "official" OSRIC product as any currently available and thus gives some insight into exactly how they intended OSRIC to be used.

But let's first look at the book itself. The copy I purchased is the hardcover edition, which cost $27.50. A softcover edition is also available for $14.99. I am quite pleased with the quality of the book's binding and printing; it is sturdy and should hold up to regular use, much like the AD&D books I purchased nearly 30 years ago and that were almost certainly models for the design of Monsters of Myth. There is a very brief foreword by Matt Finch, which explains the history of the project and thanks those who had a hand in its development. Following this is a brief overview of the format used for the monster entries of the book itself. Anyone already familiar with the format from D&D's Monster Manual will have no trouble understanding the format used here, even though it is not identical. My main gripe is that the overview is often unduly terse or else refers the reader to the OSRIC rules or some "other compatible ruleset." It's a small gripe but one that has wider implications that I shall discuss in due course.

The meat of the book is a series of alphabetical entries of monsters, from the antlerins, a race of stag-headed evil fey to the extraplanar undead beings known as the zuul-koar. Besides the game statistics you would expect, each entry also includes a description, typically 2-4 paragraphs, although some entries, particularly of new humanoid species are twice that length or more. Though short, I can honestly say that most of the entries are nonetheless evocative, exemplifying the "less is more" approach that characterizes the best of old school products. Likewise, the sheer variety of creatures on offer in Monsters of Myth is equally impressive and equally representative of old school sensibilities.

This is a truly catholic work, presenting creatures from many possible environments and climes, as well as from a wide number of "ecological" niches. By this I mean that the authors were not fixated on undead or demons or any of the usual hang-ups you expect to see in third party monster books. Instead, we are treated to the whole panoply of monstrous adversaries, from giant animals to nuisances and vermin to clever re-imaginings of mythical creatures to, yes, new examples of undead and demonic beings. I could not help but be favorably reminded of Gary Gygax's Monster Manual II, a particular favorite of mine and, in my opinion, the last Dungeons & Dragons book to have remained almost wholly in line with the game's origins.

Many -- though not all -- of the monster descriptions include black and white illustrations as well. These illustrations vary in quality from the excellent to the amateurish. Those by Peter Mullen and Matt Steward stand out at the excellent end of the spectrum and have done much to push me to re-evaluate my oft-criticized stance toward old school art. My feeling remains that too much "neo-old school" art is effectively a parody rather than an homage to the originals. That's because the original artists, such as Dave Trampier and David Sutherland, never set out to draw "old school art;" they simply drew in their own styles. That's not to say that there isn't such a thing as old school art, but I think the reason why, for example, Peter Mullen's work in Monsters of Myth (such as the shadowcat on page 26, which struck me as a tip of the coif to Wormy) appealed to me is because it was, first and foremost, Mullen's own work rather than a deliberate imitation or aping of another artist's style. One of the things that really distinguishes genuinely old school products is the lack of a "house style." Instead, you get a jumble of different styles that simultaneously complement one another even as they also jar. For me, it's that quality that's most absent from modern RPGs and most self-proclaimed old school products. Monsters of Myth doesn't quite produce the same effect in me, but it comes close -- and I am grateful for it.

Eleven pages near the back of the book are given over to Steve Marsh, a one-time collaborator with Gary Gygax and perhaps best known for his work on 1981 D&D Expert Rules. This section presents many new monsters derived from Mr Marsh's own campaign. They're by and large an eccentric collection of creatures, many of which owe their strange character to an otherworldly "chaos" that plays an important -- and Lovecraftian -- role in that campaign. Also included is a random table for determining which "chaos taints" a creature possesses. This calls to mind similar mechanics in RuneQuest, which is not a bad thing. I've long been a proponent of injecting more Lovecraft into D&D as an antidote to the high fantasy that's infected the game since the release of Dragonlance.

Simply taken as a book of monsters for old school fantasy games, Monsters of Myth is superb, by far and away one of the best I have ever read; it really is that good. The book both exemplifies what "old school" means and serves as a model for how to carry on that lost tradition in the 21st century. Reading through the book, I not only found many of the creature descriptions sparked ideas in my head for adventures and situations, but I was also occasionally transported back to 1979, when I first held the original Monster Manual in my hands and attempted to make sense of the smörgåsbord before me. The authors of Monsters of Myth should be proud of what they have accomplished here and thanked profusely for having given us a solid example of just what the old school community is capable of.

That said, there are a couple of some notes I must mention. Firstly, though released under the Open Game License, Monsters of Myth has adopted a "crippleware" approach to Open Game Content. Thus, "the statistics of all monsters are open game content. The names and descriptions of all monsters are Product Identity." What this means is that, if I were to publish an old school adventure that included the wonderfully villainous jackal-headed Kheph, I could freely use their game stats, but I could not call them Kheph nor could include the description of them from Monsters of Myth at the end of my adventure. Certainly, I could make up my own name and description for them, but, at that point, I might as well make up my own creature.

One of the many virtues of old school gaming is the relative ease with which you can create new game mechanics or statistics. Given that, the real value of books like Monsters of Myth isn't primarily in their game mechanics (though they are valuable) but in their creative descriptions. By closing them off as Product Identity, the First Edition Society has given us a terrific book brimming with great ideas and then encased it in Plexiglas so that no one else might benefit from them. I find this deeply disappointing. A book of this quality ought to have served as an inspiration to others interested in the old school revival. Had the book's contents been fully, or at least more fully, open, other publishers might borrow elements from it in their own products, which would not only have pointed people back to Monsters of Myth itself, but also would have helped spark the organic evolution of old school fantasy games and concepts.

This leads me to two other concerns I have, neither of which negatively impact Monsters of Myth directly, but which do, I fear, make it less successful a volume than it could have been. Firstly, OSRIC remains solely a publishers tool. It is not a commercially available game in its own right. I cannot go into a game store and buy OSRIC. Granted, that's because OSRIC is primarily a restatement of an out-of-print rules system rather than a game in its own right. Unfortunately, this means that retailers will never carry Monsters of Myth and very few gamers, even old school ones, will ever see the book. And many who do will be unclear for what system the book was written.

It's a pity, because, as I hope I've made clear, this is a really good book. This brings me to my third and final concern and it's probably the least of them. The back cover promises "more new releases by the First Edition Society in 2007!" Unless I missed them, Monsters of Myth is the sole release by the First Edition Society and here we are nearly halfway through 2008. Now, I understand well that producing new RPG books can be difficult and time-consuming. Delays are common. Likewise, I also know that old school gaming rightly eschews the supplement treadmill that characterizes modern RPGs. I'm not expecting -- or desiring -- there to be an ever-flowing stream of new books from the First Edition Society. Still, one gets the impression from the back cover text that there were supposed to be more and yet they never materialized. Why?

Perhaps it's an impertinent question. Perhaps it's even an unimportant question. After all, Monsters of Myth can clearly stand on its own considerable merits. I can't shake the feeling, though, that this book is, to use a metaphor, fighting with one hand tied behind its back. It's a metaphor that seems to describe a lot of the old school gaming community. There's no lack of passion, good ideas, and talent. We have all of those things in spades. And it's true that things are better now than they have been in many a year. I keep saying that I feel a change in the air and I still do. There's an old school revival waiting to be born. Products like Monsters of Myth should help get that revival off the ground. They still could, if they could overcome a few difficulties that, in my opinion, stand in the way of reclaiming the patrimony left to us by Gygax and Arneson.

Final Score: 4½ out of 5 polearms

Friday, May 23, 2008

RIP: Robert Asprin (1946-2008)

Robert Asprin, creator of the humorous MythAdventures and co-creator of the Thieves' World shared world anthologies (with his ex-wife Lynn Abbey) has died at the age of 61. Asprin will be remembered by a lot of gamers of a certain age, both because of his involvement with the Society of Creative Anachronism (where he co-founded the Great Dark Horde household) and because the fact that former Dragon magazine cartoonist Phil Foglio illustrated many of his MythAdventures books. But it was Thieves' World for which I will remember him most. I greatly enjoyed those anthologies in the early days, which brought together some of the biggest names in science fiction and fantasy to tell stories about the cutthroats and rogues of the city of Sanctuary. Anyone who loves swords and sorcery tales owes Asprin a debt of thanks for helping to create this series.

Asprin will be missed.

Good Stories

So, the fourth Indiana Jones movie is apparently out, seventeen years after the release of the last one. I haven't seen it yet, but I'll probably try to do so over the weekend. Despite my misgivings, I am cautiously optimistic that I won't hate it. I've read quite a few reviews by geek friends and colleagues and they all seemed to have enjoyed it, for the most part, and many of them are guys who still haven't gotten over The Phantom Menace (a film I don't think is nearly as bad as people say it is, but I digress), so that's actually a pretty good indication that I'll enjoy myself, though far from an ironclad one. I am nothing if not eccentric in my tastes.

This got me to thinking about a comment I read somewhere recently, one that I think applies equally well to RPGs as it does to movies or TV shows. The comment was about the difference between the original Star Trek series and its modern descendants, namely that the writers of the original series were simply trying to tell good science fiction stories, whereas the writers of the modern series are trying to tell good Star Trek stories. This struck me as a very keen insight.

There's often a difference between, for example, the first movie in what becomes a series of films and the subsequent ones. The reason is simple: the first movie is written as a story in its own right (often but not always -- let's face it, since Star Wars at least, many films are written with the intention of being the first in a series), while the sequels are written as a continuation of the characters and situations presented in the first. That is, sequels are almost always about the series, which makes them more complex and self-referential. They're sometimes close to unintelligible without a close viewing of the originals, which, to me, is a textbook case of putting the cart before the horse.

I think one of the reasons why old school D&D feels so different than its modern successors is that, especially with OD&D (and to a much lesser extent pre-Unearthed Arcana AD&D), the guys who wrote and played it were simply trying to create fun fantasy situations. Anything that served that end was acceptable and indeed encouraged, which is why there's a lot less fretting about verisimilitude or whether something "fits" into D&D. Eventually, as D&D became a thing unto itself rather than a rules set for creating fun fantasy situations, it started to become increasingly about itself. D&D is now like Star Trek or Star Wars -- a genre unto itself rather than a vehicle for simply telling good stories.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. The Wrath of Khan is universally regarded as the best of the Star Trek movies, for example, and it's to varying degrees unintelligible, or at least less powerful, without a knowledge of the original Star Trek series. At the same time, I think the reason why D&D no longer resonates as powerfully with many people as it once did is because the game has become too self-referential, too wrapped up in its own mythology. Ironically, what makes the older versions more enjoyable for me is that they represent the "before the Fall" period of the game, which is to say, the time before D&D became a brand, when it was just a name given to creating fun fantasy situations and playing them out around a table with some dice and your friends.

I say this is ironic, because grognards are often accused of being obsessed with history; I think that misunderstands a key point. To be aware of one's history isn't necessarily to be obsessed with it. Likewise, I think a better understanding of our hobby's history might remind gamers that there was a time when D&D wasn't just a brand and those were heady times. I don't think it's mere nostalgia to want to see a return to the days when Dungeons & Dragons -- and gaming in general -- wasn't so introspective and self-referential or a seedbed for "IP," a concept that, frankly, is antithetical to wild and wacky sharing of ideas and concepts that used to be a hallmark of this hobby.

So, I'll likely enjoy Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but I hope I can be forgiven if I don't think it's anywhere near as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones was just this guy with a fedora and a bull whip and not the standard bearer for a franchise.

James Mishler Answers More!

In response to some questions and concerns I had in my review of the first issue of AGP's Adventure Games Journal, James Mishler has responded. I have reproduced the following from his email to me with his kind permission:

1) Regarding the throne, that bit is all original. In fact, the original concept was for a pegasus-based crown (the Overlord's Crown of Telepathy), but the artist, Peter Bradley, felt that would be too small in detail to show up well. So we decided to go with a pegasus-based throne which, as the shield device of the Overlord in the Wilderlands of High Adventure is a pegasus rampant, is also most excellent. Pegasi appear in many places in reference to the City State; the Knights of the Inner Circle are pegasus riders. Hygelak still has the crown, too, he actually has several, he just doesn't wear it all the time (he dislikes crowns in general, feeling them to be ostentatious; he's a simple guy in many ways, sort of like Attila the Hun in that respect).

2) Just to make sure that readers of this review who missed the replies to XXXI know, the trade dress and graphic design are developing and improving with each product. The next product will have standard covers and page counts, and beginning with Adventure Games Journal #2, we will have full-color covers. I also plan to have as many maps in full color as is financially feasable; the thought of a Wilderness Book along the lines of Shield Maidens of Sea Rune with 22 hexes in glorious color is just too cool to resist!

3) "The World of the Wilderlands of High Adventure" article was, indeed, overly long. It was needful, however, to establish the setting, geographically and thematically, with fans both old and new. Most articles will not be remotely as long, though some will deal with Wilderlands minutiae.

4) I should note that the Shopping List and Adventure Finder will not be continued; the space can be better used for other articles, plus even were the magazine to hit its bimonthly schedule, the information would always be out of date on publication! I hope to offer both to the AGP website, especially the Adventure Finder.

5) Regarding articles with Wilderlands minutiae, I will always have at least one article along those lines in each issue, though not nearly as long as the original article, as mentioned above; perhaps five or six pages or so. There are fans who enjoy these articles. These articles, as with any articles or even whole products about the Wilderlands, are all optional for use by the judge; we fully ascribe to Bob Bledsaw's "The Wilderlands is what each judge makes of it" philosophy. Nothing we produce is to be taken as canon, in that a player can point to it and say, "See, this is the way it is, you the judge are wrong." There is no Wilderlands canon, only suggestions. Any player who argues this point needs a thorough ass kicking, or at least should have his character eaten alive by ghouls.

6) As to the delays, yes, there have been unforgivable delays. There are many causes, but no excuses. At first the difficulty was getting the first issue done right, especially the establishing article for the Wilderlands. It was literally as we sent that first issue off to the printers that we found out about Bob's cancer. Then followed Gary's passing, and not long after Bob's passing. It's been a bad year so far, personally; Bob and Gary were not merely my heroes, they were also my friends. And of course, Bob was my business partner. This, combined with a horribly underperforming games market has caused no end of stress, which severely impacts my ability to write. That's been the central issue with the delays... writer's block. I'm no Steve Long mind you, but on my good days I can write upward of 4,000 words; but it's been a long time since I've had a good day, or even a poor day.

Things have cleared up of late; Gary and Bob's funerals were cathartic, and we are slowly dealing with issues, personal and business, following Bob's death. There now remain two dual humps, the release of Dungeons & Dragons 4E and the 4E GSL and the effect they will have on third-party publishers. Ideally, both will release the pent-up purchasing decisions that game consumers and retailers have held in abeyance since the announcement of 4E at GenCon. There are further issues to deal with vis a vis the GSL vs. OGL and the Wilderlands "brand," but those cannot be worked out until we actually see the GSL.

As to not subscribing, I can completely understand. Had I to do it over again, I would not have gone with the subscription method; I did it mostly out of fond memories of the Judges Guild as a "guild," a gamer's sodality, rather than any proper business sense. One of the first rules of business is to not let your emotions overwhelm your business plan; in this respect I did, and my subscribers have been the ones to suffer for my failures. Their faith will not be misplaced, though it will take some time to get things back on track. I guarantee that subscribers will get their due, and will not be disappointed. I hope in the future to evolve the subscription base into something more like a true guild of gamers, as Bob originally envisioned for Judges Guild all those years ago.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Meanwhile, Over at Dragonsfoot ...

... former TSR Publications Editor, Tim Kask, drops what James Raggi rightly calls a "bombshell" in response first to this comment by Greg Ellis:
As someone who was introduced to RPG's via AD&D, for years I had the impression that the old three-booklet D&D game was much simpler, more primative and considerably less detailed.

That is, until I went back and read it.

With Greyhawk and the other supplements, it's essentially the same game as AD&D...
Sure, there are some differences... but all of the building blocks are there.
Kask explains,
You couldn't have made my point better if I had paid you to read script I wrote...

OD&D must be considered as the three boxed books and all four of the supplements; AD&D was, in part, a tidying-up of the contradictions.
Now this isn't news to old schoolers; we've known this for years and have been trying, often unsuccessfully, to make plain the true history of D&D.

Ellis then goes on by stating further (in the original thread):
One could argue that the extra detail baked into AD&D maybe isn't such a good thing; it seems to have encouraged a generation of players who enjoy fussing over the wording of the rulebook instead of deferring to their DM's judgement.
This is where things get interesting, because Kask's reply is not only one with which I agree, but one that I don't believe I've ever personally heard uttered by anyone associated with TSR in the days of the transition between OD&D and AD&D.
You win the prized Periapt of Perspicacity Award! Congratulations.

We shot ourselves, altogether unknowingly, in the foot. We had no idea that we were corrupting the original players into a flock of nit-pickers and rules lawyers. It was our own fault, although I don't think any of us could have seen that far into the future and foreseen it.
This is heavy stuff. Good stuff. Valuable stuff. Heck, Kask is providing us with lots of valuable insights and perspective in that whole thread on Dragonsfoot. Anyone at all interested in the history of the hobby and how and why it evolved as it did, often for the worse, sometimes for the better, would do well to wade through all 70+ pages of the thing. It's a gold mine of information.

"Universals are no one's IP"

There's not much I can add to this rather insightful post from the Knights & Knaves Alehouse on the dilemma that has befuddled the post-1983 development of Dungeons & Dragons.
... because classic D&D deals with some very Jungian archetypes. In the seventies and eighties, before the game was commodetised, It tapped directly into what a lot of people thought of as fantasy. An eight year old, like myself at the time, could jump in and start imagining the world because the scaffolding was cloaked in universal themes and images. The problem with that, from a business standpoint, is that universals are not anyones IP.
This is also part of the dilemma that befuddles efforts to create a successful business model that caters to the old school. Coming to terms with it, I think, is a key that unlocks the way toward the old school renaissance.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

You Don't Get More Old School than Wild Pigs

Here's a very short excerpt from something I've written for the second issue of Fight On!

0716 Wild Boars

A small herd of 6 boars (3 HD each) roams this area. The boars are generally hostile to any creature that disturbs them and will attack on sight. These wild beasts subsist on a number of local plants, but take particular pleasure in consuming a mushroom that grows along the edge of the nearby river. Besides being tasty, when ingested, the mushrooms create an effect similar to that of a potion of heroism. When encountered, there is a chance (1-2 on 1D6) that the boars will have recently consumed these mushrooms and thus will be under their effects; referees should adjust the combat capabilities of the boars accordingly. If the characters can find where these mushrooms grow (referee’s discretion), they may harvest them for their own use. The effect noted above fades if the mushroom is not consumed within six hours of its having been harvested, however.

Labyrinth Lord Distribution Drive

The Labyrinth Lord Distribution Drive kicks off today!

When Labyrinth Lord was first released just under a year ago, I stated that my ultimate goal was to get the game into retail distribution. This goal remains, but I’ve come to realize that it will not happen any time soon without the support of the community. I’ve said it before, and I’ll briefly reiterate here, that it is absolutely crucial that Labyrinth Lord reach retailers if we have any hope at all of bringing old-school gaming back into the mainstream. Our internet audience is a wonderful and loyal group, but we have to expand to the tangible shelves of hobby stores.

If you support retro-clones and old-school games in general (and especially Labyrinth Lord), now is your chance to demonstrate that support in a loud and unmistakable way.

Key 20 has indicated their willingness to distribute Goblinoid Games products. In order to get Labyrinth Lord into distribution, I need to stock their warehouse with an initial print run of 150 copies of Labyrinth Lord, but this is not an expense I can make on my own without pledges of support from the community I seek to serve.

Limited edition hard covers of Labyrinth Lord, in both standard and alternate covers, are now available at a higher distribution support price of $50 per copy. All proceeds will go to getting Labyrinth Lord into retail distribution. At this price we only need about 30 people to buy the book! If we can’t manage this humble number, then maybe some people are right that there is no audience for these games. I say we take that challenge and prove them wrong. My goal is to reach our total number of necessary supporters by the end of August, but we’ll go on as long as it takes.

If you can’t afford to help by buying a limited edition book, there are other ways to pitch in. Go to other online communities and let them all know about this drive. Tell your friends. Help me spread the word!

What do you get for your money? In addition to the limited edition cover with the limited edition seal, all supporters will receive a signed certificate bestowing upon the pledge the official and irrevocable title of “Labyrinth Lord” (see below). You can hang it in your gaming room to intimidate your players and let them know in no uncertain terms who the Lord of the Labyrinth is at your table! Finally, you will receive my deepest thanks and the satisfaction of knowing that when you see Labyrinth Lord on your hobby shop’s shelf, you are directly responsible for making it happen.

Please help me bring people “Back to the Basics” of fantasy gaming.

The distribution supporter’s books can be found here.

Instructions for supporters:

If you buy a book, please be sure to email me your full name and mailing address for the certificate, since Lulu does not give me this information (

Thank You!
Dan Proctor
Goblinoid Games

The Why of It All

Dave over at Sham's Grog 'n Blog has posted the first part of what I think will be an interesting discussion about "The Why of It All" behind his love affair with OD&D. Not only do some of his thoughts mirror my own, but I think they contain within them some of the same insights I've had lately that are leading me to rethink the best way to foster the coming old school renaissance.

Good stuff and well worth a look.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

REVIEW: The Random Esoteric Creature Generator

This is a review I've been putting off writing, but not because I wasn't looking forward to it -- quite the opposite. The Random Esoteric Creature Generator for Classic Fantasy Role-Playing Games and Their Modern Simulacra (henceforth RECG) is a very good product, far better, in fact, than one might think given its small size and high-grade amateur presentation. No, the reason I've been putting this off is because I felt a professional obligation to include at least one creature created using this product with my review. Compounding the problem was that I created so many new creatures that choosing a single one as somehow "representative" of the output of the REGC was all but impossible and, in many ways, contrary to the compelling and sound philosophy propounded within its pages. Fortunately, James Edward Raggi IV solved this conundrum for me by posting 10 different sample creatures on his blog. I would recommend anyone who's intrigued by the REGC to follow that link, since it ought to offer another dimension to the review I offer here. The rest of James's blog is worth a look as well.

The RECG is a 28-page booklet roughly the same size as the beloved "little brown books" of OD&D (being slightly wider due to the use of A4 paper rather than 8½ x 11). The booklet is staplebound and very sturdy, again reminding me of OD&D. The pages look to have been laser printed, but the are clear and easy to read. The text itself is small -- perhaps 8 points in size -- and quite dense in some places. As one would expect of a product like this, there are also many tables within the RECG's pages. All were presented in a straightforward and easy to use fashion, with a minimum of page-flipping needed to use them.

Despite its small size, the RECG has quite a lot of art. All of that art, with the exception the slightly disturbing photoshopped cover image is black and white line art by Aino Purhonen that is reminiscent of old school D&D art. This is certainly by intention and I think, by and large, the art nicely evokes the sorts of illustrations we'd have seen back between the years 1974 and 1983 -- the Golden Age of D&D. That said, I like some of the illustrations more than others, particularly the back cover art, which shows a party of four adventurers -- complete with a 10' pole and grappling hook! -- huddling in the dark, as the group's magic-user attempts to decipher some cryptic runes and an unknown menace lurks in the background. It's a remarkably evocative piece, one that rather nicely encapsulates not merely the core experience of D&D, but the core experience of old school D&D. The others are more hit or miss with me, but all are well done for what they are and the purpose for which they were created. (James has written two blog posts in which he discusses the art of the RECG and they're worth a read)

The "meat" of this product is the random esoteric creature generator itself, which takes the form of a series of sequential tables to aid the referee in creating new monsters for use in his adventures and campaigns. Though the product doesn't specifically say this, it's clear the generator is meant to be used with any pre-2e version of D&D. The tables, which remind me of Appendix D of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide -- no coincidence since the author offers "special thanks" to the appendix on his credits page -- usually offer a lot of possible results. This is good, as it means that there's likely to be a great variety to the creatures you can generate. Of course, some might see this as a bad thing, since it also means that the creatures will be random both in their abilities and their appearance. (This all assumes that the probabilities of the tables aren't skewed in some way, which I haven't had a chance to test).

I've written before on the joys of randomness and the RECG embraces that philosophy and runs with it. What people often forget about random tables is that, while they may provide "answers" of a sort, those answers are meaningless without context that only you, the user, can provide. What the RECG does is give you the raw materials from which to create an almost-infinite variety of creatures. Whether the creatures you create from those materials are nonsensical or inspired depends entirely on you. It is not a failing of this product that it, simply on the basis of a series of random rolls, you have no immediate idea how the results of those rolls fit together. Put bluntly: it is not a failing of the RECG that it doesn't do your thinking for you. That's because it's clearly meant to be an aid to the referee rather than a replacement for him. And in that respect, it's solidly within the old school tradition that James Raggi clearly loves so well. The booklet ends with the words, "EGG forever," which pretty well sum up his thoughts on the matter.

Of course, we're given more of James's thoughts than just those. The booklet also includes about five pages of text that are in many ways far more interesting than the random generation tables themselves. Taken together, they represent a kind of manifesto, telling us what the author thinks about fantasy RPGs both past and present and also -- and this is the invaluable thing -- the whys and wherefores of the RECG. Although written in a very un-Gygaxian voice, there's no mistaking the content as anything other than the type of exuberant swords and sorcery fantasy that the Dungeon Master would applaud. There's lots of practical, hands-on advice here that ought to be tattooed on the back of every referee's hands if they're at all interested in keeping their fantasies fun, exciting, and fresh. I won't hesitate to say that I was reminded of a few lessons I sometimes forget and I doubt that I'll be alone in this regard.

If I have any qualms about the RECG it is twofold. The first is the more easily dismissed, since it's a matter of taste. I'm rapidly getting the reputation in the old school community as the guy who hates amateurs. I exaggerate, of course, but it is true that I think high production values are vital to the ultimate success of an old school revival in the offing. The RECG is definitely an amateur product, much as Fight On! is and that's no crime. That said, given the quality of the content within, it'd have been nice if the booklet were more professionally produced. On the other hand, there is a definite charm to way the RECG is presented and many old schoolers will see its production as draws rather than drawbacks.

The second qualm I have is more substantial but, again, hardly damning. I'm honestly not certain how accessible it would be to a newcomer, which is to say, someone who's interested in old school games but has limited experience of them or of the philosophy that animates them. The author's commentary and explication are good first steps toward making the book more accessible. As I said, they contain much wisdom. Nevertheless, I'm not sure that someone unfamiliar with the mysteries of the Old Ways could pick and up and use the RECG with ease. A revised edition of the product ought, in my opinion, to strive to be a bit more "user friendly," but then this is a problem that's not unique to this product but to many RPG products, particularly old school ones.

In the final analysis, the Random Esoteric Creature Generator is an excellent product, a diamond in the rough that I think, with some polish, nicely exemplifies exactly the sorts of products I'd like to see spearhead the old school renaissance. I found my imagination fired by it and my creativity engaged -- what more can you ask for?

Final Score: 4½ out of 5 polearms

Live and Learn

I've been reminded of numerous truths over the last few days and one of them is this: talk is cheap. At the end of the day, the old school renaissance I remain convinced is going to happen can't be something we just talk about it and it certainly can't be something we just complain about. Instead, it just has to be done. So that's what I plan on doing. That's not to say that I won't be talking about it, discussing it, or even, from time to time, complaining about it -- but that won't be all that I am doing. The time has come to put up or shut up and the naysayers be damned.

I am certain that, for all the acrimony, disunity, and kvetching, the old school community is not in fact a herd of incontinent cats. Or at least it's more than that. Fight On! offers a good model of what I want to see more of. It's an absolutely brilliant example of people who share a common passion for old school games and not much else coming together to create something that brings the community together. That's due in no small part to the vision and dedication of its publisher and editor, who's a huge inspiration to me. Issue 1 was a terrific first start -- not without its problems, certainly, but a far, far more constructive example of what the old school renaissance could be than any I have seen. Fight On! will only improve with time and I have few doubts that it might, in spite of -- or maybe because of -- its lack of a unitary focus, help usher in a second flowering of old school gaming.

I'm a dreamer and planner by nature, as I told someone just yesterday. I'm not content with being told "but it'll never work" or "you just don't understand how it is." It's quite possible that I don't understand how it is, but I see that as a point in my favor, since it means I'm willing to try "crazy" things others have dismissed as impossible or even foolhardy. I know I'm not alone in this regard, which is why I am sure we will see more projects after the fashion of Fight On! and those projects will succeed, modestly at first perhaps, but such is the nature of leaven, whose action is initially small but nevertheless produces nourishment.

And so I say: Fight On!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Busy, Busy, Part Deux

Apologies for my scarcity. Lots of stuff distracting me from the blog, but I shall be back soon, perhaps as early as tonight, but more likely tomorrow. Thanks for your patience.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Busy, Busy

Updates to the blog will be spotty this weekend, as I have a number of other distractions. Regular posting will resume on Monday (if not sooner) with a review of The Random Esoteric Creature Generator by James Edward Raggi IV, whose new blog I highly recommend, particularly this post, which sums up a lot of my own feelings about old school gaming and its future. I'll also be posting another bunch of answers and clarifications from James Mishler, in response to my recent review of the Adventure Games Journal, Issue #1, along with my usual potpourri of musings and updates to my blogroll, since I now know of several more interesting blogs dedicated to old school gaming.

In the meantime, carry on the fascinating discussions in my comments boxes. I don't have time to respond to them at the moment, but I plan to write a summation of my thoughts, in light both of the comments and ideas that have occurred to me over the last couple of days.

Until then.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Universal System

I've been known to say that the transition to 4e this year will be very different from the transition to 3e in one undeniable respect: the Open Game License. Even though Wizards of the Coast will no longer be supporting v.3.5, others can do so freely and legally, as Paizo is doing with its upcoming Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. What I suspect this means is that, if they play their cards right, Paizo will soon become the de facto inheritor of a large portion of the remnant v.3.5 community. How large a portion I can't predict and it's really not important for the point I intend to make here anyway. What is important is that v.3.5 will not die with the advent of 4e. Indeed, it now has the capacity to grow and evolve along a natural trajectory, according to the wishes of both Paizo and its fans.

For that matter, even if Paizo were to declare bankruptcy tomorrow, v.3.5 will survive, thanks to the OGL. Anyone who wishes to publish their own version of the game can do so, using rules and, more importantly, concepts that are available to anyone who is willing to abide by the terms of the OGL and WotC can't stop them from doing so. Whatever else I may think of WotC and what it's become over the years, I owe the company my thanks, as the OGL is an amazing gift to the gaming community. Besides preserving the v.3.5 rules (about which I am largely ambivalent), the SRD also preserves innumerable ideas, concepts, and terms from the history of D&D. I can now talk about magic missile spells and ankhegs and gelatinous cubes and I'm not violating WotC's copyrights or trademarks. That's a powerful thing. D&D's DNA is now there for anyone to manipulate, provided they play by a few very simple ground rules that can never be changed. Thank you, WotC, for this! (I suspect the reason why 4e is in fact so different from 3e and doesn't "feel" like D&D anymore is because WotC regrets having "given away the store" through the OGL and now needs to reinvent the game from the ground up in order to "reclaim" it, but I digress)

Unfortunately, no previous edition of D&D is open in the same way that v.3.5 is. There have been numerous attempts to reconstruct past editions through the clever use of the OGL. I'm fond of all of them, for they all attempt to preserve different aspects of the patrimony bequeathed us by Gygax and Arneson. The problem with these retro-clones, leaving aside legal questions that some have -- questions I generally don't share, I should add -- is that none of them has come close to being universally accepted, even within the old school community. OSRIC, which attempts to preserve AD&D for the ages, seems to have made the most impact, but, honestly, its acceptance does not appear widespread. The number of products available under OSRIC's license remains small and I have a hard time imagining its growing significantly. Anything is possible, I suppose, but I don't have the sense that there are publishers laying big plans to use OSRIC to help fuel the old school renaissance I feel percolating beneath the surface. (The situation is, if anything, even worse for retro-clones of Basic D&D, where we have two competing versions, each of which takes a different approach to adapting the source material.)

I don't think I'm being Pollyannish by saying once again that, within the next year or two, we will see an old school renaissance. There were rumblings of dissatisfaction with the direction of the hobby before the announcement of 4e last year, but I think its arrival next month will serve as a catalyst for a lot of people to look back to where the hobby came from and where it strayed from its original vision. I'm not (necessarily) saying that this will result in the rise of a game or a company that will take the world -- or even the hobby -- by storm in the same way that old school D&D did. As others have said better than I, tabletop roleplaying will never again enjoy the faddish popularity it had in the late 70s and early 80s. So, I have no delusions of grandeur. What I do have, though, is a powerful sense that a line has been crossed in the development of the hobby and that some gamers -- and not just older ones -- aren't well served by the overly complex, difficult to learn, and time-consuming to prep RPGs that have become the norm. These gamers are looking for something simple, exuberant, and fun. Combine that with the era-ending deaths of Gary Gygax and Bob Bledsaw and I think you have the recipe for a counter-reformation.

But there's no standard bearer, no unifying figure or company, to lead this counter-reformation. Everyone who wants to get into the old school game wants to create their own system, their own interpretation of the original editions. And I think these desires, while understandable, are making the old school renaissance harder to get off the ground than it needs to be. No one is in the position Paizo is likely to be with regards to v.3.5 and that's a shame. The reality is that, for all the various persnickety changes to the rules, it's not so huge a leap from OD&D to 2e that a product made for one edition couldn't be used, with very few changes, for another. By and large, the rules have a degree of continuity that does not exist with 3e, let alone 4e. This isn't meant to minimize the differences between editions, but the reality is that even the much-reviled 2e is light years closer to Gygax and Arneson than 3e is. Its rules, as written, can be played in an old school fashion, whereas that's mostly impossible with more modern editions.

What am I getting at? Old school D&D already has a common language. But for some "dialecticisms," an OD&Der can communicate intelligibly with a AD&Der or a 2e-er in a way they can't with a player of a modern edition of D&D. Despite this, there's no universally accepted or recognized "meta-system" for writing old school materials. Back in the day, Judges Guild had what it called its "Universal System," which was a not-so-subtle reworking of common terms ("Hits to Kill" or HTK, instead of "Hit Points," for example) so that meaning was conveyed without using terms specific to any single edition (or even game).

I can't help but think that maybe we need something like that again. In the absence of One Retro-Clone to Rule Them All, what old school gaming needs to kickstart its renaissance is a lingua franca that everyone, from a fan of the three little brown books to a Zeb Cook groupie, can understand and use without much difficulty. In a very real sense, grognards don't need new games; they already have the games they like and have had them for years. What they don't have is new products that are professionally made -- yeah, it always comes back to that -- that carry the old school spirit forward to the future. Part of the reason why they don't is because no one has stepped up to the plate to do that. And part of the reason why no one has stepped up is because, if they choose OSRIC (or LL or BFRPG or ...) to do so, they're seen as "one of them." The old school community, like many marginalized communities, is very fractious and insular. It's riddled with ancient rivalries, nursed hurts, and bad blood and I see so many missed opportunities because of it.

Finding a way to unite all these people under a single banner would be a monumental task and it may not even be possible. The reality is that pre-3e D&D players, regardless of their favorite edition, have far more in common with another than they sometimes like to admit. I understand the appeal of elitism and exclusivity; I sometimes engage in it myself. But, ultimately, it's destructive and self-defeating. Too many of this hobby's traditions have already been willfully destroyed in pursuit of the bottom line. Why must we do it to ourselves without meaning to? No, the time has come to bury the hatchets and make an attempt to build on what we all have in common rather than to fixate on what separates us.

How will we do this? I'm not sure yet. The projects I want to undertake are a part of it, but just a small part. We need to do more and that's where I'm seeking advice (yet again). What can we do to bring the old school community together and help it become the seedbed for the flowering I see in the offing? We have a chance here to reclaim much of what we love about this hobby and make it vibrant once more. Will we seize it?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Rough Edges

I still have a head cold, so I'm feeling miserable, which may explain my current crankiness. Mind you, the latest excerpts from 4e, to which everyone keeps sending me links, certainly haven't helped my mood. I don't have much to say on this score that others haven't already said, but, reading them, I was reminded of a couple of things I'd been meaning to post about, things that say a lot about where our hobby has been and where it's going.

A lot of 4e's design decisions seem to have been made to address "issues" I've never had with Dungeons & Dragons or indeed gaming in general. That's because these issues are in fact features of the hobby. They're not things you can simply extirpate through good game design and, if you try to do so, you'll wind up ripping the heart out of why I game rather than making the experience more fun for me.

The first issue 4e looks like it was intended to tackle is the "swinginess" of gameplay. "Swinginess" is a function of the fact that D&D uses dice as random number generators and, being random, there's no guarantee that the outcome of any character's action, whether player or non-player, will be what anyone wants/expects. Sometimes, this is a good thing, such as when a character makes a saving throw at just the right time avoid certain death, while at other times it's not, such as when a wandering monster that slaughters the PCs as they are preparing to take on the evil necromancer who's holed up in the dungeon they're exploring.

For me, swinginess is part of the fun. I wrote earlier about the oracular power of dice and I stand by my contention that swinginess, even when it swings against my character, is essential to the magic of roleplaying games -- or indeed games in general. Rolling dice is the closest to risk taking that we can get in RPGs and there's a thrill that comes with knowing that it's always possible, however unlikely, that something monumentally bad could happen to your character when you toss those polyhedrals. At low levels of D&D, the likelihood of a bad outcome is quite high and so there's a sense of "danger" that I've always felt formed the basis of a unifying experience for all players of the game. The war stories of how your now-higher level PC narrowly escaped death at the hands of a fire beetle or a lowly kobold is one of those things that used to be commonplace. And what elevated those stories about your standard "let me tell you about my character" tales is the understanding that, for every character whom the dice favored, there was at least one whom they did not. PCs slain by random chance were a part of life, the somber backdrop against which one drew the story of a successful character's career.

That's just one example, of course; there are many other examples of "swinginess" in action and I'd speak glowingly of most of them. I like the unexpected in my games, even when it's bad. Sometimes -- many times -- dumb luck has a better sense of drama than I ever could. Sometimes -- many times -- the game is enriched by the fact that stuff happens for no reason at all. I can't shake the feeling that 4e is throwing the baby out with the bathwater by trying to provide a formula for fun, whether it be in making low-level characters more "robust" or in ensuring that just the "right" amount of magic items are distributed to the PCs as they level up. I think the quest for a more regular, even play experience will suck the life out of the game.

Which brings me to my second concern: hand-holding. Some will say and indeed have already said that much of what I see and object to in 4e is easily eliminated by an experienced DM. The guidelines I hate are there to help novices, to train them in the fine art of Dungeon Mastering. To that, I say hogwash. You cannot learn good refereeing from a book and I could argue that there's no better evidence that a lot of game designers never bothered to understand Gygax than the continual desire to turn the latest edition of the Dungeon Masters Guide into a how-to manual for DMs.

The ability to referee a RPG is a skill like any other. You get better at it by using it and that includes making mistakes and getting hung up on the consequences of your mistakes. It also means learning from others more skilled than yourself. When I started gaming in the late 70s and early 80s, there was an unofficial apprenticeship system to become the DM. You learned at the feet of more experienced DMs, like my friend's older brother and his father, until you were ready to try your hand at it yourself. In turn, you would train others in the ways of the Dungeon Master, thereby repaying your debt to your own teachers. I get the sense this system doesn't exist anymore and that people somehow expect the rulebooks to give them everything they need to be able to run a fun and satisfying adventure every time.

Well, it simply doesn't work that way; it never has. Conservatively, I'd estimate that, especially with less experienced groups, at least half of all RPG sessions end in failure, with "failure" being defined as a disjointed, possibly nonsensical, and certainly frustrating few hours. That's just the nature of roleplaying games. I don't think you can mechanize this away. There's no magic formula or recipe I can put in the shiny new DMG that will guarantee that every session is as satisfying as a finely-crafted R.E. Howard story. That's simply impossible and I think the sooner we teach new gamers that "successful" gaming takes time, effort, and a lot of luck, the happier we all will be.

For some, tabletop gaming will simply be inadequate approximation of literature, movies, or video games. So much of the success of gaming depends on intangibles and unpredictables; there is no way you can put that in a box and sell it. Gaming has too many "rough edges" that can't be pounded smooth -- and shouldn't be. For those of us who love this hobby and have stuck with it, those rough edges are what keep us coming back. We know that there's a chance -- a good chance even -- that almost given session won't be all that enjoyable or even coherent. But we also know that, when everything falls into place, when everything clicks, it's an experience unlike any other, an experience to be savored and remembered for a lifetime.

I'm sure it comes as no surprise that I think the hobby has taken numerous wrong turns over the years, but, even with all those errors, I still think the core of our hobby, the one Gygax and Arneson created back in 1974, is still very compelling. Especially now, when so much of our entertainment is slick and computer-generated, when fun has been reduced to a formula or an algorithm, there's a more a need than ever for something that's random, unpredictable, and often frustrating. The quest to make RPGs like every other entertainment is a deal with the Devil in my opinion.

I don't know about you, but I don't want every session of my D&D campaign to come with guaranteed fun. That may seem odd, but it's not. Most of us, I think, if we're honest, understand that we like rough edges -- we need rough edges. Something that's too smooth, too formulaic, especially in the pursuit of entertainment, will wind up producing its antithesis. I realize I'm just a crazy, aging gamer, but I've been at this hobby a long time and I've tried a lot of stuff and I can tell you one thing: there is nothing more truly fun, either as a player or as a referee, than watching a D20 turn up 1 and continuing the game anyway. Failure, even death, is not the end; it's an opportunity. But to seize it you need to embrace randomness, laud unpredictability, and understand that fun cannot be bottled and sold.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Bard of Auburn

I'm feeling under the weather today -- stupid Springtime cold -- and have a backlog of emails and writing to do, so please forgive my absence. However, I did want to pass along a discovery I made this morning, namely that Nightshade Books has finally begun to publish Scott Connors and Roy Hilger's definitive collection of Clark Ashton Smith's fantasies. Three volumes of a projected five have already been published. I ordered the first one today and will almost certainly pick up the others over the next few months.

Smith, along with Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, was one of the greatest pulp fantasy writers of all time. He had a profound influence on the development of modern fantasy and, while Gygax himself was not much affected by CAS, Tom Moldvay wrote the classic Castle Amber as an homage to Smith (much as The Lost City was an homage to Howard). Likewise, Jack Vance, while again not explicitly influenced by Smith, writes in a style that reminds me greatly of Smith and might reasonably be called his modern heir.

In any event, as I get older, my appreciation for Smith and his stories grows. There's a world-weariness to it that appeals to me, but there's also a sense of wonder and mystery and horror that make for a heady combination. He's certainly the most "romantic" of the three musketeers of Weird Tales and maybe that's why my estimation of his writing grows. He's a great inspiration for anyone looking for a different take on pulp fantasy and I recommend him without reservation.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Who is That Guy?

You know it occurs to me that, unless I missed it somewhere, no one has ever identified that guy in the picture on the left. Yeah, I know it's an idol worshiped by degenerate lizard men -- How do I know they're degenerate? They're being slaughtered by adventurers, that's how -- but an idol of whom? The thing doesn't strike me as something a lizard man would just create out of his own imagination. I mean, if I were a degenerate lizard man, perhaps especially if I were a degenerate lizard man, I'd make an idol in the shape of something more familiar, like, oh, I don't know -- a big, scary-looking lizard man. But that's not what we see here, is it?

So who is this guy?

I am slow

It's taken me 30 years to notice this, but the titular hill giant chief of module G1 is named Nosnra. Am I an idiot or what?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Summer Adventure Contest




are proud to announce our first joint adventure contest! Our panel of five judges includes the following RPG legends:
  • Frank Mentzer
  • S. John Ross
  • James M. Ward
as well as Richard Scott of Otherworld Miniatures and Ignatius Ümlaut, editor and publisher of Fight On!

We also have prizes available, as follows:

1st Prize - Your choice of Otherworld's "Giant Alliance" set, with four classic giants:


or the "Pig Faced Orc Tribe" boxed set, containing all 25 miniatures currently in Otherworld's Pig-Faced Orc range:



2nd Prize - One Demon Idol and Two Barbed Devils:


3rd Prize - An Ogre leading an Orc Patrol:


plus seven orcs such as those pictured above. Miniatures come unpainted and (where applicable) unassembled.

Honorable Mention: All three winners, as well as an indeterminate number of other submissions receiving Honorable Mention, will be eventually published in an issue of Fight On! Not only will this get your work exposure, but you can re-submit it to other publications or sell it yourself down the road as well, because Fight On! only asks for the right to publish your adventure in the issue we originally publish it in in the form it is originally published in in perpetuity. Ownership and all other rights remain with the authors of their adventures! This policy extends to regular submissions to the magazine as well.

If there are a large number of excellent submissions, a select number of First Honorable Mentions will be awarded as well. A First Honorable Mention carries with it a cash prize of $10 USD.

Contest Details: Adventures may use any style or format and may be written for any game system, though there is some preference for systems with simpler mechanics. Adventures which are in or can be easily translated into 'old school' style fantasy game mechanics will likely receive some preference as well, though we want to see your best regardless! Longer isn't better: 2 or 3 pages with really interesting situations or locales can be much more enjoyable than a long slog! Submissions should be no more than 25 pages in any case.

Other than that, there's only one important rule: your proposed adventure must contain one or more monsters or other elements available from Otherworld Miniatures! Check out more of their selection on their website: . Figures in the 'coming soon' section are fair game as well.

Please send all submissions by email to . All submissions are due by midnight, July 20, 2008. Contest results will be posted as soon as possible thereafter, though if there are many submissions it may take us a while to get everything sorted out. We will try to announce winners before GenCon, however.

We're looking forward to seeing your adventures. Happy gaming, and Fight On!

Fight On! issue #1 in PDF will be released Sunday, May 25.

Shot Heard 'Round the (Gaming) World

The big news hitting the Net this evening is that Monte Cook, one of the architects behind the Third Edition of Dungeons & Dragons is joining Paizo as a rules consultant on their Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

This is remarkable news for a number of reasons. Firstly, Monte Cook's name carries lots of cachet in the world of 3e D&D. Besides being the author of that edition's Dungeon Master's Guide, he was among the first people to take full advantage of the OGL and D20 STL. His Malhavoc Press sold PDF supplements to 3e when no one else did and, by all accounts, sold very well indeed. This quickly established him as a leading light of the Open Gaming movement and led to his writing and selling numerous very successful products that have been consistently well regarded by D&D fans as among the best material available for 3e/D20.

Secondly, Monte Cook is seen as a straight shooter. He often speaks out against what he believes are poor moves by WotC, either from a business or a design perspective. Even if one disagrees with his opinions -- and I often do -- there's no question that he cares about the hobby and is knowledgeable about the inner working of the industry side of things.

Thirdly, Monte had previously "retired" from the game biz. He had made enough money from his D20/OGL products and had had some success in branching out into other areas (such as fiction) that he indicated he was no longer going to write gaming products. Of course, his retirement has been more theoretical than real, given that he published two significant products after he has supposedly hanged up his hat. Nevertheless, it makes great theater to be able to say that Monte Cook is "coming out of retirement" to work on Paizo's new RPG.

So, by signing on with Paizo, even in a consultative position, Monte Cook lends an air of authority to Pathfinder, much in the way that Troll Lord Games' benefited from Gary Gygax's imprimatur on Castles & Crusades. If anything, I'd argue that Monte's decision to throw in with Paizo will be even more important, because he's remained a leader in the hobby since the release of 3e, whereas Gygax's influence was largely nil by the time C&C came out (except among grognards, to whom Troll Lord hoped to appeal). Likewise, having one of the designers of the previous edition lend a hand on your upstart RPG sends a signal: we are the true heirs of 3e.

I'm sure the guys and gals at Paizo, in their usual gracious way, will deny this and express nothing but admiration for the crew at WotC and the work they've done on 4e. I even believe they're sincere. But the fact remains that this is an important coup for Paizo and for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and it solidifies my belief that there will now be a permanent split in the fanbase of D&D and a fork in the development of its rules. I won't go so far as to say this spells doom for 4e or WotC, because it won't. I remain convinced that, at least initially, 4e will be a huge success for WotC. Long term, though, anything is possible and I expect that, when -- and if -- 5e rolls around, the landscape of the hobby will still be feeling the repercussions of Paizo's decision not to jump on the 4e bandwagon.

Two Possibilities

Having thought more about it, this is what I am regarding my old school project. I see two distinct projects, both of which have powerful appeal to me, both because they're interesting in their own right and because they address real needs in the old school gaming community.

The first is very straightforward -- a pulp fantasy "adventure locale" that's a "module" in the classic sense. It'd be a plug and play area that the referee could easily pick up and drop into an ongoing campaign without any trouble and that would suggest -- rather than outright provide -- lots of adventure ideas through descriptions of locations, NPCs, monsters, spells, magic items, etc. In short, it'd be both a sandbox and a toolbox in one.

At the moment, I'm calling this idea The Forbidden Isle, because I see it as the creative descendant of both The Isle of Dread and Dwellers of the Forbidden City. What I'd create would be a small tropical island chain, with a single central island, on which an outpost of civilization has been established by traders, explorers, missionaries, and the like. The eponymous Forbidden Isle was once, in the distant past, the center of an ancient and advanced culture that fell into decadence, evil, and barbarism and its ruins can be found across the archipelago. Naturally, survivors of the advanced culture still exist, using their powerful magic and technology to toil away in the service of the evil to whom they have sold their souls.

Ideally, The Forbidden Isle would allow me to illustrate many aspects of old school gaming that I think have been lost in contemporary RPGs. Likewise, I'd be able to use it as a springboard for some of the pulp fantasy rules mods I've been tinkering with. I don't think you can get more pulp fantasy than a remote tropical island filled with the ruins of a decadent evil civilization.

The second idea I have is for what I'm calling Endgame. Basically, it'd fill in the blanks on the lost endgame for OD&D and its descendants. One of the things that's clear if you read any of the old timers reminiscing about, for example, Gary's Greyhawk campaign is that, after a certain point, the game changed. High-level characters settled down, built strongholds, engaged in politics, and the players took up the roles of henchmen, hirelings, and others because their original characters were too bogged down in the demands of leadership to be able to keep adventuring in the traditional sense. Somewhere along the line, this endgame for D&D was lost, replaced instead with the cartoonishness that is "epic level play," a kind of fantasy superheroics that is alien both to the origins of the hobby and its literary antecedents. I can think of few things that'd nicely help to differentiate old school play from its bastard children than a proper treatment of what "high-level" really means.

Endgame is a fair bit more ambitious a project than The Forbidden Isle and I think its audience might also be smaller. Of course, the audience for both of these projects may be small in any case. I have no expectation that I'll get rich off either idea, but my whole purpose here is to try and produce a modern take on old school gaming and that means I'll need to make at least enough money to recoup any investment I put into this. And, sadly, my experience is that grognards are, quite frankly, a tight-fisted and miserly lot. On some level, I can't blame them; they have all the products they'll ever need and old school gaming doesn't encourage the supplement treadmill we see among new school products.

At the same time, the old school community needs new products to attract new blood. We cannot afford to remain insular and sterile or the values and styles we hold dear will one day disappear entirely. Consequently, my hope is that I might be able to do the impossible: convince grognards to buy something genuinely new with contemporary production values and artwork. I'm not interested in producing nostalgia pieces. What I want is to make new products that exemplify old school game play and philosophies -- a bridge from the past to the present. To do it right, though, I somehow need to appeal to the old schoolers out there without frightening off gamers who might in fact like old school products but are (justifiably, in my opinion) somewhat turned off by the stodginess and/or bile that sometimes surrounds us grognards. I'm not sure it's possible but I do want to try.

And this is where things stand now.