Sunday, May 11, 2008

Seeking Advice

I'm thinking very seriously about self-publishing an old school fantasy product that'd be compatible with OD&D and AD&D. I'm not sure whether I'll even bother with explicitly connecting it to OSRIC or Labyrinth Lord or any of the other retro-clones, because I'm not at all certain it'd make a whit of difference. That's not intended as a knock against either of those retro-clones, which I happen to like a great deal; it's more a comment on the state of the market for old school games right now.

The problem I'm having as I think about this, though, is that I'm not quite sure what I ought to produce. One of the fascinating things about old school games is that, with a few noteworthy exceptions, they didn't really have supplements. The vast majority of their products were adventures -- why that is I plan to use as the basis for an upcoming post -- but the market is already pretty crowded with old school adventures and I'm not a name like Rob Kuntz, so I'm not sure how much attention I could garner. On the other hand, I have a couple of ideas, one being a full-tilt pulp fantasy adventure to lay the groundwork for my pulp fantasy D&D project. The other idea would be an old school "adventure path," basically a series of loosely connected adventures that do for old school gaming what Paizo has done for the newfangled stuff. More to the point, I think a lot of gamers don't have a good sense of how an old school campaign was structured and a series of adventures would nicely illustrate its differences from more contemporary models.

I have some other ideas too, but I'm still not sure which way to go. Mostly, I want to put my money where my mouth is and see if I can produce something whose production values and presentation are attractive and modern but whose content doesn't just feel old school but in fact is old school. I truly think there's a market for this stuff, a market far bigger than the make-it-look-like-TSR-circa-1981 stuff that strikes me as what Jeff Rients has called "symptomatic of stodginess."

Old school gaming isn't stodgy and shouldn't be stodgy. I think I can prove that, but I need the right product to do it. So, suggestions please! If you were to give me an assignment to create the ultimate new old school product, what would it be? What would you want to buy? What do you think would attract the most gamers who might otherwise never give an old school product a chance?


  1. I think an adventure would be super, especially if you're explicit in the text about what you're doing and why - kind of like a Keep on the Borderlands as far as all the advice text, but from your perspective.

    Wait until you get that done, make it stand-alone but with an obvious "out" to continue, so if that does well (by whatever standards you decide is "doing well") and wasn't too much a pain in the butt to produce, you can then go on to do an adventure path. And if you don't do another, then your target audience is well able to make their own "sequel."

    Adventures rock, and I'm sorry I stumbled with my efforts to do a module to the point where it wasn't the first thing I put out as planned. Yeah, the market is crowded, but if you can write an adventure as cutting and lucid as your blog, I don't think you have much to worry about.

    Or if you want to do something different... do a "Sword and Sorcery" themed re-tool of the concept of magic items. I tried to start that project but I quickly figured out I just had a rant on the subject (that's how all my ideas for *anything* start - with a mental rant...) and no idea what to do for actual game content. :P So that's dropped. I've got a page or so of notes if you want to see them. :D

  2. Here's an ambitious idea: old-school epic level play.

    In OD&D, AD&D 1E, and Moldvay/Cook D&D, your fighter got himself a sweet little barony at around name level, the thief started a guild, the cleric built a big-ass temple and the wizard made a foreboding tower. Now, what do you do with it? Mentzer's Companion and Master sets offered some ideas, but they're geared very much towards running baronies and mass battles. There's several good reasons to come up with another way of tackling this subject in old-school systems:

    - It helps party balance. IIRC, in AD&D particularly the wizard's awesome magical powers were balanced at higher level by the fact that they didn't get much in the way of followers, whilst fighters were compensated for their lack of mystical mojo by getting a small army.

    - Mentzer's rules don't really differentiate between the classes, which is a shame: what the old-school D&D rules are really crying out for, in my opinion, is rules for handling the activities of thieves guilds, the manipulations of temples, wizardly tinkerings in tower laboratories, fighters patrolling their baronies, demihumans ruling their clans, and so forth on an organisational level, making them distinct and interesting and yet allowing them to help one another (so the party's various holdings can come together to form a cohesive, self-reinforcing whole - a bit like the party itself).

    - Such high-level play, in my experience, enriches campaigns and throws out tons of opportunities for lower-level characters to do their thing.

  3. Forget the Paizo method. Too linear. If you want modern inspiration look to Savage Worlds and the Plot Point books in their line. They're much more an "adventure matrix".

  4. In my opinion, Adventure Path adventure series are the opposite of Old School adventure design as they generally require the players to turn their characters into actors who have to follow the Adventure Path's plot fairly closely and make the decisions the author of the adventures needs them to make to continue along the path.

    If you want to do a series of old school adventures that have an overall plot that the players can discover and (perhaps) decide to deal with no matter what order they play them in, that would probably be a good combination of the old school with modern design.

    For example, a series of (say) six adventures set in independent sites in a recently settled frontier barony. One might be set in an old ruined temple complex, another in a strangely well-preserved tower, another in a forested area with orc bandits, one in the main township, etc. They would be independent adventures, but in each of them would be clues to an overall plot to drive the new baron and his forces away. Perhaps a rival noble is behind it or some ancient evil that all the activity has disturbed, etc. If the players put the clues together as they adventure, they have a chance to put a stop to the plot before it reaches a boiling point. If not, they get caught up in it when it all comes to a head.

    Something like this would provide a sandbox adventures style series but with an overall plot that works without railroading the players into a novel's plotline the way most modern adventure series seem to do. If you are really inventive there could be several plots that could be uncovered, interrelated or not. Wheels within wheels is very old school.

  5. I think I agree with everybody. There, how useful is that?

    I think a module is probably the best way to go, and one focused, as Arthur says, on high-level play, might be best. While I enjoy the idea of adventure paths, I think the whole idea of a "path" is antithetical to Old School play, but you know that sort of thing much better than I do.

    So my suggestion is a module based on the PCs setting up their strongholds and towers and whatnots. Include a wilderness to be tamed (mapped in hexes, naturally), NPCs to interact with, and maybe some locations (mapped or just mentioned) where high-level adventures can take place. You might include suggestions on how to run mass-battles and sieges, how DMs and players should handle henchmen and followers, and you could include lots of stuff on how Old School play differs from New School, especially in the are of the end game.

    That, however, is a fairly ambitious project, though it sounds like a hell of a lot of fun. If that's too big for what you have in terms of time and budget, you might create a guide to henchmen. I know they were fairly common in parties in the first days, but by the time I got into gaming, they seem to have faded out of use. A lot of players coming to Old School play from 3.x or other modern systems probably have no idea how to properly use henchmen or what sort of benefits they can bring to the game.

    I would love either product, so of course my opinion is biased. ;) I'd also be willing to pitch in if you needed help on the smaller components of a larger project, even if it wasn't either of those I mentioned above.

    - Brian

  6. Re: "Adventure Path"

    Just a quick clarification in between all these excellent suggestions: when I said "adventure path," I meant a genuinely old school take on the concept, which seems so popular nowadays. You're all correct that a path is in fact antithetical to old school game play, but my goal would be to appropriate the model in order to subvert it -- show how a series of connected adventures would be done in proper old school fashion.

    Anyway, keep posting. This is good stuff and I'll reply with a post later on about my own thoughts.

  7. I like the idea of a "building your barony" adventure too. Don't forget to throw in the odd religious conflict for clerics building their temples, and an urban area for thieves or assassins to establish their Guilds in!

    In fact, you could potentially come up with a decent set of adventures where each one focuses on a different character establishing their particular stronghold. So you've got trollsmyth's proposed wilderness-taming hex-exploring romp for the fighter, a nicely detailed city for the thief to get to grips with, a rundown of local religions and their most important followers to butt heads with PC clerics (make 'em varied enough that no matter what type of god the player follows, they'll have some natural allies and more natural enemies...), perhaps a secret society of established local magicians to take umbrage against the PC setting up a tower in their turf... And each of them could tie into the other, so that between them the PCs could slowly discover a threat against their entire realm.

    The joy of such a product, of course, is that not only can it be a pre-packaged set of adventures for PCs establishing strongholds in the situation described, it can also be used as a model for GMs to tinker with for any stronghold-establishing process, and is a good platform to include all sorts of ideas about handling this stage of the game.

  8. Great idea, and I can't think of anyone better suited to such an undertaking. My stuff is a bit too 'quirky', and my writing style is rather haphazard and lacking eloquence...the exact opposite of your efforts.

    While I like the high level barony building theme, I'd rather see a true old school module. Something along the lines of Caverns of Tsojcanth. A product that could be used in a few ways; as a one-off or con module, a stand alone adventure in an exisitng campaign, or even inserted into an existing dungeon as a sublevel, or central level. Something with plenty of new monsters and magic items.

    Let me know if I can be of any help!


  9. I know most are replying to the suggestions for product direction, but I am, if you will, going to address your initial comments.

    Concerning OSRIC & Labyrinth Lord, it really wouldn't matter which you use. Obviously if your release was based more toward OD&D/Classic D&D then Labyrinth - more toward AD&D 1e then obviously OSRIC. But it still isn't or shouldn't be a set in stone decesion for one or the other (I hope my OSRIC compatriots will excuse me for saying that. heh)

    The key thing, which I am sure you have considered, but those who read this may not consider if they too are or at some point considering to releases something like this be it module or supplement for sale. That being, the sole reason to associate it with OSRIC or Labyrinth is the licensing is already taken care of. This is a sticking point with a lot of potential authors of old school material and trying to get things published. If you want to add more old school type feel and references then just using the 3.0 OGL can confine what you do, even though it is a free license. To use the conversions and layouts that are familiar to many from Rob Kuntz's system or even Castles & Crusades you have to pay for the privilege. Which most of us can't afford to begin with and even if we were to do it then we would have to increase product cost to help pay for the license fee.

    This is where OSRIC and Labyrinth is the best option. They are free to use without overbearing guidelines and they are no longer some obscure little backwater names thanks to companies like Expeditious Retreat Press. Labyrinth Lord and even more so, now, OSRIC is a recognized logo not only on online stores but also in many game stores across the U.S.A.

    Unless you have a system in place already or you plan on only releasing Free modules and supplements then OSRIC, Laybrinth Lord, or GORE (for horror genre) allows you a road to publishing for pay without the legal team at WOTC breathing down your neck - as long as you stick to the OSRIC or LL License and don't breech the 3.0 OGL where WOTC IP is involved.

    IMO, to try to publish something for pay and not use one of these licenses becomes not an issue of if there will be problems down the road, but a simple matter of when the trouble starts.

  10. Very good points about the licensing issues. Thank you kindly for reminding me of these realities, which, in my enthusiasm, I let slip from my mind for a moment :)

    The difficulty, of course, is that my preference is for something that's very "light" with regards to rules beyond some very basic stat blocks and references to spells, magic items, etc. Ideally, what I want to do is something easily usable with OD&D, Classic D&D, or AD&D. In a case like that, I'm not sure the best approach. OSRIC seems more specific than I want, but LL isn't a perfect fit either, though perhaps closer to the OD&D I like best of all.

    Much to ponder, but please keep making suggestions/observations. They are much appreciated.

  11. Your blog is currently my favorite old school gaming site, so I will probably buy whatever you publish.

    I think you can safely self-publish an unlicensed old school game product if you keep it stat-light and don't infringe on copyrighted or trademarked terminology or concepts.

    I disagree with the deprecation of old school production values. I don't understand a desire to make the product appealing to those who do not find old school material appealing. Sell to your market. If you want to sell something to people who don't like old school, don't make something old school. If you want to make something old school, don't worry about selling it to people who don't like old school.

    I like the idea of a supplement for high level play best of all. Such material would also lend itself to a rules-light, non-infringing treatment.

  12. Professional module wirtting is a bit outside my area of expertise. I don't think I could give any advice that has not been already provided.

    I am curious however on what the art to the finished product will be. Will you draw it yourself? Do you already now any artist willing to contribute with their work, or will you simply use open source art?

    [shameless plug] One of my players is an artist and has recently began taking comissions...

  13. I disagree with the deprecation of old school production values. I don't understand a desire to make the product appealing to those who do not find old school material appealing. Sell to your market. If you want to sell something to people who don't like old school, don't make something old school. If you want to make something old school, don't worry about selling it to people who don't like old school.

    This is probably deserving of a blog post of its own but my short answer is this: I think there are in fact a lot more people out there interested in old school material than we suspect and many of these would-be old schoolers are either intimidated or turned off by the way the old school community presents itself and its products. I want to change that and one way to do so is to make solid, old school products that don't look like the state of the art for 1979. At least, that's my thesis and I may well be wrong, but my gut tells me that we'll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar and, to many younger gamers raised on slicker production values, old school products reek of vinegar.

  14. Re: Art

    I have at least one artist whose style is perfect for what I want to do and who has expressed interest in helping me with this. I'm, of course, open to other artists as well, particularly since one of the hallmarks of old school products were their esthetic diversity. I don't like the uniform, "plastic fantastic" approach WotC has taken with 3e and 4e and I welcome a variety of styles for art. So, if your player wants to drop me a line, I'm all ears. Mind you, what I want is artwork that is evocative of either of the old pulp fantasies or 1970s era gaming art -- evocative, not imitative. What I want is contemporary art that harkens back to the past without being bound by it, if that makes sense.

  15. I love the idea of an adventure path done up in old school style James. I think there is a lot of room for great adventure modules that are loosely tied together (by virtue of NPCs and story elements that are complementary, but that in no way lead to plot railroading). Every good adventure, no matter how old school, needs a few good plot hooks and some well-fleshed out NPCs to make it really fun. It's what the characters decide to do with those elements that make each adventure unique. Leave things open-ended enough to allow them to be dropped into any campaign and I think it would be a winner.

  16. The only thing I'd add to what jrmapes said about using OSRIC or Labyrinth Lord is this: These efforts are in part an attempt to establish an open brand, available to anyone. So choosing to use them would really boil down to whether you are interested in helping us establish these brands as having a certain meaning. If not, I can respect that. If you do use one or both brands, it will help to get them out there and promote what they are and what they stand for. OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord are basically "rally points," and for those of us without instant name recognition, they can help to communicate exactly what a product is for.

    In short, what I'm trying to say is that while simply using the OGL and WoTC SRD is perfectly sound, by using OSRIC or Labyrinth Lord in addition to this it would help support what some people call the "retro-clone movement," though I hesitate to put it quite in those terms.

  17. Going back about the "look" where you think old school wrapped in new school layouts may attract more new folks to look at old school... was that confusing enough?

    IMO I think this is a great idea. I do love the old school minimalist approach and the line art pictures. What is interesting is that it was Dungeon Magazine and to some extent later issues of Dragon Magazine that started the move to more graphically pleasing layout and art.

    There is high nostalgia picking up a module with an Otus type cover and Willingham style interior art. Otherwise we would never had seen the rise of Dungeon Crawl Classics.

    But many people, even many that grew up with the classic old school style, I think would like to see more bang for the buck where exterior and interior art is involved. Granted it has been discussed (to near death) at places like Knights & Knaves about if the style of art really effects the sell ability. K&K being a stronghold of everything old school usually falls on the side of the old style art - which in itself is fine.

    But even the most hard nosed old schoolers tend to agree that if the art is good and more importantly, the module/supplement content is good, it will sell.

    I think where most of the hesitation of accepting more modern FRPG art comes into play is that many really find no appeal in the pointy and spikey, asexual, anime layouts (on one hand) and (on the other hand)the overtly "Beef Cake" style of certain artists that many find pushing the line of homoeroticism.

    Of course, in the artists own words, they say since so many females play the game now, that they deserve equal time by the addition of the beef cake.

    In my not so humble opinion, I as well as many others find it difficult to accept this regardless of the amount of truth to it.

    When one goes to a RPGA convention in a larger city and observes that, yes, there are about %30 females to %70 males playing RPGA D&D3.x this IMO is still not representative of the typical home games and far from typical when compared to the other D&D (of all editions) being played at the non-RPGA tables and conventions.

    So what I am trying to say is that I think it would be fine, even great to get away from the old and sometimes boring art styles and layouts that many think you must use to designate this game product is old school. But I don't think it would be fine to swing so far over to the new school D&D 3.x styles.

    It still represents too much of what those that have never accepted modern editions of the games, or tried and was found wanting so they dropped the new versions to return to the old games.

    I for one, and I think a lot of other old school types wouldn't mind and would like to see better layout and more snappy artwork, as long as that line in the sand wasn't crossed.

    I hope I made at least a little sense. This subject usually draws multiple pages of opinions and observations on forums - to nutshell it is a bit difficult.

  18. Is there any reason why you can't say that your product is compatible with all three of LL, OSRIC, or BFRG?

  19. For my money, if you put out stat blocks that are compatible with LL, there's no reason why the product in question shouldn't be entirely compatible with OD&D, Holmes Basic, BECMI, or AD&D 1E.

    I mean, could you tell Moldvay/Cook from OD&D just by looking at a stat block?

  20. I for one, and I think a lot of other old school types wouldn't mind and would like to see better layout and more snappy artwork, as long as that line in the sand wasn't crossed.

    Very much agreed. I think, for me, the issue is that a lot of old school products indulge in nostalgia for nostalgia's sake and that's not something I think many people, even a lot of old schoolers, find appealing. I think it's possible to stay true to the spirit of the best while still acknowledging that nearly 35 years have passed since OD&D was published.

  21. Re: multiple compatibility

    License-wise, I have no idea how easily one could identify a product as compatible with OSRIC, LL, and BFRPG. In terms of content, though, it'd be very easy -- and with OD&D. I'd say the mechanics are about 80-90% mutually intelligible.

  22. At least, that's my thesis and I may well be wrong, but my gut tells me that we'll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar and, to many younger gamers raised on slicker production values, old school products reek of vinegar.

    For me, crude black and white line art is honey, and glossy color art is vinegar, especially when I pay extra for it. It's not nostalgia either; I'm not old enough for that. I will readily concede my tastes put me in a minority. However that minority is one that old school products already appeal to, whereas old school products with new school production values start to vinegar in my taste. In any case I hope you find success in your efforts to update old school production values, I'll be interested to see what you come up with, and I'll buy it.

  23. At this point, I think we’ve learned a lot about how people (like myself) misunderstood the older games. I think it would be very valuable to have a product that addressed that. That’s the kind of thing I’d like to try if I ever found the time and energy.

    Thinking about it, though, a module might be a perfect vehicle for this sort of thing.

    There’s also the fact that I think many of the TSR modules did us a deservice. I think very few of taught us much about how a master DM actually built adventurers and campaigns. They were too “polished for mass consumption”, too focused on being an immediate tool for the game at hand rather than a teaching tool, and too often slightly expanded tournament modules rather than campaign modules.

    So, besides there being room for addressing the misunderstandings of the systems themselves, I think there’s room for modules that teach people how to not need modules. (^_^)

    And I think there’s probably enough different styles within “old school” to create several different modules that approach this in different ways.

    If you’re targeting (at least in part) people who are interested in the “old school” but who aren’t conversant in it, then many of them aren’t going to know the name “Kuntz” any better than your own. (^_^)

    Anyway, those are my thoughts. Unfortunately, I don’t know a lot about what stuff is already out there. I’ve never been one to buy lots of supplements, so I’ve only got a few of them so far.

    In any case, I think it’s much more important to create what you want to create than what you think others want.

  24. Hello; I have been enjoying reading your blog, so I thought I might as well post and say so!

    I really don't think the system or art matters so much. All the old-school systems are almost compatible with one another, and good art is good art regardless of what style it's in. The only thing is that it's important that the maps are not too cluttered.

    The main things I would look for in a new D&D supplement would be usefulness and originality.

    I like the idea of the high-level play and henchmen supplements.

    Some other things I might like:

    A book of "dungeon areas", mini-dungeons that can be easily slotted into a larger dungeon. Even better would be if the maps for the dungeons were in "geomorph" style.

    A number of short city-based adventures that could be used in any standard D&D city. Or one long city-based adventure likewise for use in any city.

    An adventure based around a dragon, without too much other stuff getting in the way.

    An adventure set in an enormous garden.

    An adventure set in a *realistic* cave complex. It should have lots of water, narrow tunnels, and vertical drops.

    An adventure set in a castle; a functioning one that rules over the surrounding area, and with a cool architecture. The castle owner should NOT be a Human Male Fighter!

    An adventure where the focus is on having fun by interacting with NPCs/monsters rather than killing them.

    An adventure, or series of adventures, set in or based around a non-human community or nation.

    An adventure focused on some under-used monster.

    Pictures to show to the players ("this is what you see"). Ideally the art style would be such that they could be coloured in by the DM!

    An adventure which is partially "do it yourself", like module B1.

    An adventure set entirely within a small wilderness area, with no dungeons or settlements other than very small ones. Bonus points for having an unusual landscape.

    Finally, every adventure needs to include an interesting new monster, and an interesting new magic item or spell!

    And one more thought - maybe you should consider collaborating with someone. That way, you could bounce ideas off one another, and you would have twice the creativity.