Monday, May 12, 2008

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.


  1. For what it's worth, I'd be interested in purchasing either/both, but I'm particularly intrigued by the concept of the Endgame product. This from a "grognard" who owns only three RPG books published since 1987 (Gygax's Living Fantasy and Kuntz's Bottle City and Living Room.

  2. Great ideas on both counts James. One question: I'm a little fuzzy on the whole Endgame idea. It sounds like this would be a guide/supplement to help players use their high level PCs to do things like set up a fortress, gather henchmen, engage in politics and the like...but from what I've heard (here and elsewhere) it sounds like for the most part the old guard ended up dropping their high level characters at this point and, as you say, started playing henchmen and new low level characters, never actually engaging in this high level play. Is this the case?

    Are you then seeing this as filling in an old school hole that was implied, but never actually implemented by the earlier generation? Or am I misreading you?

  3. Both proposed projects sound wicked cool to me.

  4. Having proposed Endgame after your earlier post (I really like the title, actually), I have to say I'm mad keen on seeing the idea go ahead. Then again, I'm biased. :)

  5. I have to suggest that Endgame might be a somewhat unfortunate title choice. Just as there are no winners or losers in A/D&D, there is no "end" to the game. It's catchy, and I understand what is meant by it, but the terminology is rather infelicitous and sounds a bit like the last station along an "Adventure Path" railroad.

  6. Oh, yeah, tough choice.

    Honestly, they both look extremely cool, and either would find use in my games.

    The real question, however, is which better furthers your aims? (Yes, which would sell better is an important issue, but unless you can afford scientific market research I doubt you'll actually be able to acquire any decent, actionable data. And if you could afford that sort of research, you'd just make both of them while lounging on the beach of your own private island, where bikini-clad beauties poured you fresh mojitos and rolled up characters for your latest five-nights-a-week game.)

    Endgame is intriguing because it offers a glimpse at a key component of Old School gaming that often gets short shrift even from Old School gamers. It will likely include techniques and ideas that could even be bolted onto 4e. Unfortunately, it's not something that most groups could pick up and use right away, meaning that it's likely to get picked up by the curious, but maybe not actively played with by most who buy it.

    The Forbidden Isle on the other hand, sounds like one of those products that DMs would snatch up and throw at their players right away. With a lot of hand-holding and coaching, you could introduce those DMs and players to Old School themes and techniques, both in playing and crafting adventures and settings. Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that folks won't just toss out the Old School components and try to run it as a hack-fest or modern-style game. I expect it would also be a lot more stat-dependent, making its appeal limited to those who are already interested enough in LL or C&C to hunt for adventures keyed to those systems. Finally, lots of adventures are published every year. Where Endgame's unusual theme would draw attention from those outside the grognard community, The Forbidden Isle will require a larger degree of marketing to stand out from the crowd. Granted, if you get a really dynamite cover artist, that alone might be enough.

    Anyway, those are the pros and cons I can come up with right now off the top of my head. I hope there's something useful for you in all of that.

    - Brian

  7. Are you then seeing this as filling in an old school hole that was implied, but never actually implemented by the earlier generation? Or am I misreading you?

    It's not exactly a "hole" in old school gaming, so much as an area that was never as fully developed as other areas and, more importantly, that fell out of favor as D&D developed. OD&D includes rules -- very basic ones -- for domain rulership, as well as rules for the construction of strongholds. AD&D has the latter but not the former. Mentzer era D&D did have some nice rules in the Companion Set, but (aside from Birthright in the 2e era), this is the extent of the idea's development, which is entirely absent in 3e and, so far as I know, 4e.

    My point is that OD&D had a different conception of what "high-level play" consisted in and I'd like to resurrect it and give it a nice spit and polish. My goal isn't anything exhaustive or systematic so much as inspiring and evocative. I think many of the problems with modern fantasy RPGs come from the outlandish expectations about character power that resulted from the elimination of the old endgame. I see this product as a way to correct things.

  8. Both titles are just placeholders, especially Endgame. If I actually get around to writing them, their actual titles may be quite different.

  9. Both sound interesting, but Endgame is a product that's never been done quite right. I think it might have appeal well beyond the audience of "old school" gamers.

  10. Both proposals are compelling and I would jump at the chance to purchase the finished products.

  11. Hi James -

    I was actually working on a product very like 'endgame' at one point. One of the hard things - TSR never got it quite right with Swords & Spells or the Battlesystem - is you do in fact need some kind of tack-on mass battle rules. I think probably either a generic hex-and-counter system or something like Reign's companion rules are the two roads for reasonable inspiration here.

    Also - are you playing for the endgame up front? That is, do choices made earlier effect outcomes later somehow? That would be the seductive line relative to current design wisdom, but anti-D&D in certain respects IMO.

    Third issue - how do the old characters effect the game as it goes on. Do old players continue to gain some value from them even when they've moved on to a new character? Does being a band of 3rd levelers working for X instead of Y make a difference to some kind of metagame resource, or something like that? A lot of this stuff is ad hoc in the old games.

    Anyway, lots to chew on for a project like this. The most useful things I've found for my thinking are Mentzer's old five-stage boxed sets on the one side and then stuff like Trollbabe and Reign on the other. But it hasn't really been done exactly right yet IMO.

    In general, if you wrote either of these projects and wanted some synergy, I could get them into Ig's store on lulu (if you decided to go that way) and send you 100% of the author's cut, no vig for the Ig.

    - Calithena

  12. 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.

    I certainly don't mean to denigrate old school presentation and art. I happen to be very fond of them and, in a couple of cases, I prefer the older ways to the newer ones. But I'm also aware that, even among grognards, this is the minority viewpoint, so, if my goal is to bring some old school goodness to as many gamers as possible, I need to present the products in a way that's more broadly appealing than simply aping TSR circa 1980.

  13. Hey Calithena,

    Thanks for your copious comments and questions. I don't have the space to answer them all here, but I will clarify one point about Endgame. The goal of this product, should I do it, would be to provide stronger explicit support for playing old school D&D at the higher levels of experience (9th and above). I don't intend to introduce lots of rules nor do I want to systematize or codify anything, since I think these run counter the old school play styles I wish to promote.

    Instead, Endgame would be a toolbox of ideas, suggestions, advice, examples, and, yes, some rules to aid the referee in keeping his campaign going once the PCs have reached "name level" and decide to become respectable and settle down. I personally find this a much more satisfying endgame for D&D than the idiocies of epic level 3e, let alone what we'll likely see in 4e, both of which strike me as very much contrary to the spirit of the game as originally envisioned.

    So, never fear: this will be a thoroughly old school D&D production, barely touched by newer design sensibilities. In part, the idea for the project percolated because I explicitly wanted to reject newer design sensibilities, which I feel have gone off in the wrong direction, particularly where D&D is concerned.

  14. Endgame sounds much more interesting to me (not that Forbidden Island doesn't sound good either, EG just sounds better to me); I suspect, though, as trollsmyth says, that the adventure would sell better and generally be more noticed. (It would also, likely, be plug-n-play with anyone playing the 3.x "Savage Tide" AP from Paizo, which may offer some expanded-market appeal/cross-over sales).

    If you're curious, RJK and I noodled around on the campaign play aspects of higher-level PCs in his OJ14 interview @ It may spark a few ideas, perhaps.


  15. The thing which makes me think Forbidden Isle isn't so hot of an idea is a simple one: there's plenty of people writing old-school style adventures out there already. (Heck, the Dungeon Crawl Classics line is in every averagely well-stocked game store out there). While I'm sure an adventure written by James will be great, I don't see any reason to believe that it will be so great that it will light a fire of grognardery that will consume the world, or convince a bunch of gamers of the merits of old school play.

    This is not a slam on James's design abilities, it's just a fact of gaming life: I've never heard of anyone changing their approach to gaming simply because of an adventure model.

    For me, the bottom line is simple. Endgame not only provides something that old school D&D lacks, it's also an example of the type of product that people simply don't seem to be making for old school games any more. If the commercial presence of "Old School" is to amount to anything more than a particular flavour people apply to adventure modules, people need to be designing more than just adventures, no?

  16. Let me preface this comment by saying I would buy either product as soon as it was offered. I like both ideas.

    If forced to choose, however, I would choose your Forbidden Isle concept. I would argue that there really is a dearth of adventure support for A/D&D; bear in mind that only a couple of the Dungeon Crawl Classics are actually converted to AD&D rules, the vast majority being written for 3.5.

    I like the fact that the Isle lends itself to modularity; if successful you can always produce additional modules in the series. (One caveat; it does sound a tad similar to the Lendore Isle series, but I might be wrong.)

    While I like the concept behind Endgame, I'm wondering just what sort of form it would take. If a supplement, I wonder what "crunch" (to use the modern term) it would include that wasn't included in the DMG, which covers costs of construction, hirelings and soldiery, etc. If an adventure, I'm wondering how you could construct it so that it would be applicable to a contemporary party; construction of strongholds is something of an individual PC effort.

  17. I don’t think you need to appeal to both the grognards and “old school curious”. As you say, the grogs have everything they need, so why target them at all? If you want to grow the “old school movement”, target the curious.

    (Although, I think there are a lot of us who fall somewhere in the middle, too.)

    I think both ideas sound fantastic. While there may be modules targeting the grogs, are there a lot that are targeting the curious?

    The Endgame is something that I also think could use more exploration. I have nothing wrong with the “I don’t want the nature of the game to change at higher levels” point-of-view. That’s fine for them who like it.

    But I think more consideration needs to be given to the alternative. The idea that the single-digit levels are the “colored belts”. They’re training. Name level is black-belt. You’ve completed your training. You’ve mastered the basic skills of your class, and so it is no longer about improving your basic skills. It’s about becoming an “adult” PC. About taking your place in the world. That needs to be explored in a manner that isn’t about mass-combat rules or war machines or domain management systems.

    And there is some room for some random tables there. What’s the Endgame equivalent of the random dungeon generator?

  18. I'm still curious about what exactly you envisage Endgame to be James. It's sounding to me like for the most part it will be twofold: 1) rules for building and maintaining a domain in terms of cost as well as resources that can be developed and 2) something along the lines of wargame rules where you would take your armies out into the game world to expand your holdings/powers.

    Is number 2 the case? If not what actual 'role-play' elements do you see in the endgame level of play? How does a character who is now in effect a warlord of some kind continue on an adventure path without either getting into the high-level superheroics you mentioned or becoming merely the figurehead (in game-play terms) leader of an army fighting a wargame?

  19. Allan,

    Thanks for the link. I often forget about the existence of the Oerth Journal. Lots of great stuff in there.

  20. Re: Adventures

    It's true, I think, the old school market isn't exactly suffering from a lack of adventure modules. Indeed, I'd argue that there are in fact too many of them out there (the reasons for which I really should write about soon). However, I think far too many of the putatively old school modules out there these days -- those by Necromancer and Goodman, particularly -- aren't really old school at all. They are much more plot-drive and modern to be called old school unironically and many of them contain concepts that are thoroughly modern. So, I think there's room for more truly old school adventures.

    That said, Endgame (or whatever I call it) does seem to be something a lot of people would enjoy and that hasn't been done to death in an old school context. It'd also take a lot more work to do properly, which is why I might need to do something else beforehand to set the stage.

  21. Let me say, at this point, that Endgame is just an idea and a pretty inchoate one at that. I do not have any of the details worked out or indeed a strong sense of what it would include or not include. So, unfortunately, until I do, I have no answers to the very many excellent questions people have posed here and elsewhere. All

    I can say at this point is this: I think there's a need for a book that details the ins and outs of high-level old school play. That's never really been done before except in a vague way. My own interest isn't so much in making lots of new rules -- though there'd have to be some -- so much as providing lots of advice and examples to inspire others in their own games. Beyond that, I have no specifics yet and won't for some time. This is still very early, so I hope everyone will bear with me as I sort out what I want to do and how I will proceed.


  22. Re: Necromancer and Goodman's output not being genuinely "old school"...

    The thing is, I'm not convinced that the best response to that situation is to put out Yet Another Module which will be lost in the tide (seriously, everyone and his mother is putting out modules these days). At best, you'll be a lonely voice wailing in the storm; unlikely to be heard, since you'll quite likely be drowned out by the likes of Goodman and Necromancer.

    It's difficult. On one hand, I can see why it would be a bad thing to let Goodman et al. define "old school" as "linear adventures". On the other hand, I'm increasingly of the opinion that the true definition of "old school" is "the style of play you started out with, provided that you've been roleplaying for at least a decade".

    For someone who started out playing through the Dragonlance modules and their successors, linear adventures are "old school". Heck, I've seen people on World of Darkness forums talking about the older WoD games as being "old school".

  23. Actually, I would like to rephrase your question to 'Which of these should I do first?'

    In which case, I would think starting with simpler and then move on to the more complex.

    [Switching to elf mode]OTOH, if you aren't really going to do both, I would tend to agree with Arthur's comments and go with Endgame.

  24. “It’d also take a lot more work to do properly, which is why I might need to do something else beforehand to set the stage.”

    Yeah. I think both The Forbidden Isle and Endgame would be ambitious projects. If I were you, I would want to do the module first, but I’d also want to come up with something even smaller to start with.

    A short “side trek” sort of adventure? A short work expounding on lesser-known aspects of the low-to-mid-level game? Something concerning the endgame but focusing on a particular part of it?

  25. Another kind of product that I think would be good is something along the lines of the JG Book of treasure maps and Book of ruins.

  26. Re: Old School

    While I think there are many legitimate usages of the term, when I use the term I mean it to refer only to the content and style of play that existed in the hobby between 1974 and 1983 or thereabouts. It's fuzzy, yes, because there are many things within those nine years that aren't old school and some after 1983 that are, but that's what I generally mean.

  27. Re: Book of Ruins and Book of Treasure Maps

    That's actually a really brilliant idea and one that might achieve what I want with less trouble and immediate expense. I just commented earlier today to a friend that Judges Guild is the model of what I want to do. Guess I should have taken my own advice. :)

  28. I'd also take a look at Dr. Rotwang's recent review of Darthanon Queen, also by Judges Guild.

    By suggesting multiple spins on the same location, you can demonstrate why Keep on the Borderlands isn't a broken module. :p

    - Brian

  29. Glad you like the idea. While I’d be interested in the other two products, I’d snap up a “treasure maps” style product in an instant.

  30. I think one of the vast ironies of "old school" A/D&D is that we were never given an example of how the game was actually played in its earliest formative years.

    That is, all of the modules that TSR came out with early on were, by necessity, tournament modules. They were linear, with a defined goal, and the proverbial Boss guarding the Treasure Room. This, I think, is where Goodman Games gets their inspiration from; modules like the G or A series.

    However, as is clear from reading not only accounts of the Greyhawk, Maure Castle, etc. campaigns, as well as the PH and DMG (as well as the LBB's) is that the original original campaigns were centered on a single, vast dungeon complex with no particular singular goal (at least, none that was immediately known to the PCs; to wit, the "slide to China" on level 13 of Castle Greyhawk). PCs were left to formulate their own goals and pretty much wander about the place killing things and taking their stuff. Smaller self-contained modules (such as S3) were side-treks, rather than the central focus. Yet we never got any model for the mega-dungeon concept back in the day; it was all tournament modules. I think this lack has colored a lot of folks' idea of what "old school" campaigns were like.

    I've been thinking that there might be a market for modular mega-dungeon levels (or groups of levels) that could either be inserted into a DM's own mega-dungeon complex or pieced together to form a singular whole. Seems to me that would be a lot more genuinely old-school than most of us realize...


    PS - I also like the "Treasure Maps" idea; lots of good ideas here for an enterprising budding game publisher.

  31. There are people who think Keep on the Borderlands is "broken?" The mind boggles. It's about as close to perfect as old school D&D gets.

  32. I think this lack has colored a lot of folks' idea of what "old school" campaigns were like.

    Very, very insightful comment here. I may have to expand on it at some point, because I think it bears repeating.

  33. I like both ideas, of course, but I agree with the comment that there are lots of adventures out there, while Endgame is something new that also fills an obvious gap. If I had to choose, I'd choose Endgame.

    In terms of appealing to a wide audience, would you consider publishing it for Castles and Crusades? I like all Old School systems, but C&C seems to be the most commercially thriving, as well being the most compatible with 3e. I can't imagine Osric, LL or BFRPG ever becoming a major part of the RPG scene, but I can imagine C&C doing so.

  34. There are people who think Keep on the Borderlands is "broken?" The mind boggles. It's about as close to perfect as old school D&D gets.

    Yeah, well, you might have the best power drill in the world, but if you try to use it as a hammer you just end up with a bent nail, a broken drill, bruised knuckles, and a lot of anger and frustration.

    - Brian

  35. ry, very insightful comment here. I may have to expand on it at some point, because I think it bears repeating.

    Thanks. I've been working on it 30 years or so. ;-)

  36. C&C is a great system and I agree that, of the various "neo-retro" games out there it's the one with the biggest following and has had the most commercial success. It's not quite what I want, though, and key elements of the system aren't open, so I'd require a license from Troll Lords, so I'm looking at other options, at least for the moment.

  37. I concur about the C&C rules. Maybe it's the D20 elements they've inserted, but it just feels ever-so-off-kilter to me. That doesn't stop me from buying it all, of course, if for no other reason than to support a company whose heart is in the right place.

    The modules (CZ!) are especially interesting to me, as I can use them in my AD&D campaign with next to no conversion.


  38. I fell in love w/ C&C after the announcement of 4e. In fact, it's so well done that, I'm teaching both of my daughters.

    That said, I'm a total hard-core swords and sorcery nut job. I love the "feel" of oder modules... Lost City and Night's Dark Terror are two of my faves... Now, although Goodman Games produces the Dungeon Crawl Classics, I don't feel that they're a decent representative of that ever elusive "feel" that I had mentioned previously. I'm not knocking DCCs, I like them, they're just not exactly what I'm looking for.

    So, in lieu of my rather verbose and nonsensical rant, I'd purchase your Lost Isle at the drop of a hat.

    End Game sounds pretty cool too. But I'm partial to adventures. I read through them and cherry pick all day long.

  39. Re: DCC

    The Dungeon Crawl Classics line are pretty much a paradigmatic example of nostalgia products rather than old school ones. With a few exceptions, they concentrate on the externals of the old school modules rather than their actual content.

    Which is fine. I think many of the DCC modules were among the best produced in the 3e era, but they're mostly very modern in their design and sensibilities, despite the blue and white cartography and amateurish interior art.

  40. The forbidden island idea is something I'd like to see developed. I worked on an island setting for my homebrew a couple years back but the native islanders weren't remnants from an ancient advanced culture, the natives instead were young and blessed with a homeland that was rich in natural and magical resources. This made them powerful, but not evil. Adventurers arrive on an island as citizens of an empire who is intent on colonizing the island so it's sort of a frontier type of scenario.