Thursday, September 30, 2010

From Wargames to Roleplaying Games and Back Again

Lately the use of minis in roleplaying games has been on my mind. When I first began playing in the mid 80s we just didn’t use them in the game. We engaged in what I call “narrative combat.” The DM would vividly describe the scene, the position of the monsters, etc., answering the players questions when necessary. The combat was more like a movie reel in our heads and less like a game of chess. Oh sure, sometimes we’d buy a Ral Partha mini or two if they resembled our characters, but apart from perhaps showing marching order when entering a dungeon they had no real use in our games. They were there for flavor or fun but not much else…and we liked it that way.

It seems to me now that the most dominant games on the market today, namely D&D 4e and Pathfinder, require minis for combat. I’m sure there are plenty of people who find ways to work around it if they find that style of combat distasteful, but the systems themselves seemingly necessitate them (with attacks of opportunity, 5 foot steps, flanking bonuses, etc.). The element I find disheartening is listening to players as they engage in those styles of play. In the games I’ve observed at my FLGS, gone is any sense of narrative. The focus is completely on the battlemat and game mechanics. It used to be “I stumble backward fumbling with my pouch to retrieve my spell components, trying to stay out of the path of the charging orc.” Now it’s “I five foot step here [pointing at the battlemat] so our fighter can get the flanking bonus and I cast defensively.” I’m afraid the roleplaying has turned into boardgaming/wargaming.

The people I’ve spoken with who are sympathetic to the OSR generally blame D&D 3e. However, I think the preoccupation with elaborate tactics requiring minis in D&D goes back a bit further, to AD&D 2e. Specifically, to the Player’s Option: Combat & Tactics book. I bought it when it first came out in the 90s but after going through the book once it sat on my shelf unused (and still does). In hindsight, I see that book as almost a blueprint for how combat would work in fantasy RPGs post 2000.

I’m quite sure there is a way to use minis, and minis-oriented combat, while retaining descriptive combat. Like most things in the game, it requires a capable DM. Sadly, it seems to me, the newer systems almost seem to assume that the DM is an incompetent schlub so they add in more and more rules/mechanics to make up for his/her inability/lack of creativity.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Attack of the Clones

I’ve spent the last few weeks downloading copies of the various retro-clones on the market. I’ve been reading through everything from Swords & Wizardry to OSRIC (and everything in between) in an attempt to find the one I want to use. The difficulty, thus far, has been twofold: (1) An illogical brand loyalty. (2) Realizing just how deeply new systems have impacted my thinking.

When it comes to brand loyalty, I’ve always been a D&D fanatic. While I sometimes used other rpgs as temporary diversions I always returned to D&D. It may sound strange, but not playing D&D, even when it is ostensibly a D&D rules set, is really sticking in my craw. There’s just something about looking down and seeing that familiar TSR logo (in any one of its incarnations) looking back at you. It is totally irrational, I know, but that subjective pull just won’t seem to go away just yet. Anyone else experience that? I’m hoping that, in time, the retro-clone logos/covers will take the place of those old TSR covers in my mind’s eye as being representative of great fantasy rpgs.

I’m also coming to grips with how deeply I drank from the waters of the new school of gaming. For example, I was working on a dungeon the other day and found myself asking lots of questions: (1) Why do the monsters get more powerful as the players delve deeper? (2) Why don’t the monsters ever attack and kill one another? (3) Why don’t the monsters trigger the traps? (4) How do the monsters navigate the locked doors? Etc. My need to have everything explained, up front, is a habit that will die hard. Don’t misunderstand me, all of these things will likely be explained as the players explore, but I think that’s sort of the key. Allowing players, their decisions, their exploration, etc., to root out the answers. I think, inevitably, deciding all of these things ahead of time will likely lead me to railroad my players in certain directions to find the answers I’ve predetermined. Better, I think, to have several potential answers in mind and let the players find it out for themselves (or not, as their actions determine things).

At any rate, as I navigate the waters of the OSR, one thing is certain…I’m having a blast!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Begging, Borrowing, and Stealing from The History Channel

I’ve recently been watching, and immensely enjoying, a television show which has given me some great ideas for crafting some fun dungeons. It’s a show on the History Channel called Cities of the Underworld. Wiki defines the premise of the show as exploring “the subterranean environment and culture beneath various civilizations.” Programs have featured everything from the torture chambers beneath the stronghold of Vlad the Impaler to the tunnels beneath Portland where unwary travelers were abducted and taken into the slave trade. It’s been a wonderful source of inspiration, not only to spruce up traditional dungeons, but to add in some subterranean fun your players would never expect. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend checking it out (there are some episodes on Youtube if you don’t have access to the History Channel).

Monday, September 20, 2010

Redeeming Canned Worlds

As I stated in my first few blog entries, I’m new to the OSR. One thing I’ve noticed is that old school gamers generally eschew the pre-generated worlds created by TSR and their offspring. Indeed, apart from Greyhawk or Blackmoore (since Gygax and Arneson could do no wrong in many peoples’ minds) it seems they’re almost universally rejected and even looked down upon. I believe that much of this likely has to do with what TSR/WotC eventually did with things like Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms (e.g., railroady modules, limiting other product choices, etc.). Still, I believe these settings can be redeemed and wisely used in the OSR.

I appreciate the want, even the compulsion, to create your own setting (what longtime DM doesn’t?). I understand that all these pre-generated worlds will have things we don’t like about them (as does the real world). But because my free time is limited these days, I still enjoy using the worlds crafted by others. That doesn’t mean I’m afraid to change things at will (e.g., “I don’t care if this is Krynn, you have a war party of orcs in front of you. What do you do?”). That doesn’t mean I need to use their modules, or if I do, to run them as suggested (e.g., “That’s right, I said Drizzt is dead in this timeline.”). It doesn’t mean I need to mindlessly plunk down my hard earned cash to buy every book published for the setting, useful or not (despite my completist tendencies). It simply means that I have a place for the PCs to adventure, explore, and generally ransack as they see fit.

I think that last point is key when an old school gamer contemplates using canned worlds. What the players want to do should be honored. Their goals and desires should never take a back seat to a DMs storytelling endeavors. In fact, the story should emerge as a result of what goes on in the game, dictated by the choices of the players, not the “top down” approach of all too many modern DMs who decide ahead of time what will happen, forcing (or tricking) players to comply when necessary. If you can do that in a canned world, great (I suppose fans of the settings overly infatuated with “canon” might not enjoy such an approach)! If not, perhaps avoiding them is the wise thing to do.

For my gaming group, we’ve always enjoyed the tension of playing in a world created by someone else, but ultimately shaped by our choices and actions. One of our best Dragonlance campaigns ever was when my players actually stopped the war of the lance, shifting the focus to my players and their quest to rediscover the olds gods and away from the “Heroes of the Lance.” One of our best Forgotten Realms campaigns took place during the Time of Troubles but had absolutely nothing to do with it. Unexpected? Yes. Fun? You betcha!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What Ever Happened to Immersion?

Yes, yes, I know we all play roleplaying games. But one thing that has been missing in most of the games I’ve played since returning to the hobby has been…well…roleplaying. Our games used to run something like this…

DM: Okay, you remove the steel grate and drop your silk rope down the shaft. After a second you hear it land at the bottom with a splash. Extinguishing the parties torches, you peer into the darkness as your eyes begin to adjust to the velvety blackness. The dank smell of mold assails your nostrils and you can hear the faint sound of dripping water. What do you guys do?

Dwarven Warrior: I’ll go down first. I sheathe my sword, slide my shield onto my back, and slither down the rope…but only halfway! Do I see anything with my infravision?

DM: Nope, it looks like the floor is covered with cold water but you can’t tell how deep.

Dwarven Warrior: Okay, I slide down the rope slowly and see if I can reach the bottom. I yell up at the others “Don’t drop me boys, I’m almost down.”

Halfling Thief: “Ha! If you didn’t eat so much you wouldn’t have to worry!”

Dwarven Warrior: “Quiet runt, or I’ll eat you next!”

DM: As you reach the bottom of the rope you dip your feet into the water and find that it’s only ankle deep. The water seems unusually cold and you’re standing in what appears to be an old sewer of some kind. The walls are hewn from a grayish stone which is now saturated with water and largely covered with bluish-green algae. There is a small tunnel to the north. It’s large enough for you to walk through, but your taller companions may have to stoop a bit. [DM rolls some dice] You can faintly hear the sound of splashing water coming from the corridor the north. In short order, the splashing grows louder as whatever it is seems to be speeding toward you. You can now hear the sound of clanking armor and a voice barking guttural orders.

Dwarven Warrior: “Come on guys, we’ve got company. Hurry up before I take ‘em all myself!”


You get the idea. I’m not the greatest player in the world and I’m certainly not the greatest DM but we enjoyed being as vivid as we possibly could. It really helped with the immersion and fired our imaginations. The role playing was actually fun. It wasn’t something we skipped over just to get to the combat. I don’t know if the emphasis upon description and RPing are features or hallmarks of old school gaming but in every single game I’ve participated in since returning to the hobby about 6 months ago, they tend to go more like this…

DM: Okay, you see a hole leading into a sewer. What do you guys do?

Dwarven Warrior: I’ll go down first. Do I see anything?

DM: [rolls dice] Nope.

Dwarven Warrior: Okay, I slide down.

Halfling Thief: [Yelling from the kitchen] Where is the Mountain Dew!?!

DM: Okay, you’re in the sewer. [rolls dice] You hear some orcs running toward you. What do you do?

Dwarven Warrior: Hurry up and get down here guys I only have half my hit points left over from the last fight!


Granted this evidence is anecdotal since it relies on my personal experiences over the last six months. Still, I’ve played with close to six different groups in that time. On several occasions, the DM says he’s been playing since the White Box or since AD&D was first released. What’s the deal? I’m beginning to wonder if my gaming groups as a kid were just filled with oddballs or if people just don’t play that way anymore.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Lessons from History: The Death of TSR

I was recently reading Ryan Dancey’s account of TSR’s demise. He (I think rightly) summarized the downfall of TSR as follows: “I know now what killed TSR. It wasn't trading card games. It wasn't Dragon Dice. It wasn't the success of other companies. It was a near total inability to listen to its customers, hear what they were saying, and make changes to make those customers happy. TSR died because it was deaf.” He sharply contrasts TSR’s approach with that of Wizards of the Coast: “At Wizards of the Coast, we pay close attention to the voice of the customer. We ask questions. We listen. We react.”

Since the release of the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, I can’t help but wonder if WotC is now following in TSR’s footsteps, forgetting the lessons of the past. Indeed, witnessing the current events at WotC is like reading the history of TSR in the mid 90s: laying off/disenfranchising employees responsible for past success, a new edition with floundering sales, modeling significant portions of D&D after other types of non-rpg games, a severe fracturing of the customer base, competition nipping at their heels (and surpassing them in some cases), flooding the market with more product than anyone is buying, etc.

TSR became hopelessly locked in a failing business strategy due to an unwillingness on the part of their leadership to listen (and acquiesce) to their customer base. They adapted the attitude of “we know better than you” and, as a result, their customers abandoned them. Likewise, before 4th edition was even released (and despite the fact that long time fans were bemoaning the changes) WotC had already wed itself to the new system (hence the 4th edition “trailer” narrator promising “the game will remain the same”). I’m hearing echoes of yesteryear. Here’s hoping that WotC will recognize what happens to those who ignore their customers.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ornithology of Old School Gamers

One of my favorite issues of Dragon Magazine was released in 1989. I know that for many gamers that’s a year that will go down in infamy since it marked the release of 2nd Edition. Issue 144, however, had nothing to do with that. It was a “humor” issue packed mostly with gag articles such as “Cheating Made Easy” by Jefferson Swycaffer and “Cheating Made Even Easier” by Spike Jones. Both articles had my gaming group testing their theories, filing our dice to roll 6’s every time, etc. (nevermind the fact that our whole gaming group was doing it together, in the same room, making the “loaded” dice useless…we did it for fun not to actually use in games).

One of the articles in that issue fascinated me to no end: “Field-Guide to Game Convention Ornithology” by Skip Williams. In the article, Skip went through all the different types of gamers, categorizing just about every type you’d encounter at a convention or even just around your kitchen table. It held my attention because it was the first time I’d ever seen such a taxonomical approach to gamers. In reading, I learned about rules lawyers, Monty Haul players, and all the rest. It was uncanny how the article absolutely nailed every player in my gaming group.

Recently, I’ve been wishing I had an article like that to “decode” the various species of “old school” gamers. I’m constantly running into folks (mostly at my FLGS) that describe themselves as “old school” gamers who seem anything but. Here’s my taxonomy…

Oldus Geezerus: Gamers who describe themselves as “old school” simply because they’re advanced in years. Nevermind the fact that they began playing modern games (the modern way) just last year, if you’re over 30, the Oldus Geezerus says you’re “old school.”

Gamus Geneologicus: Gamers who describe themselves as “old school” because they’ve been playing since the White Box (or, fill in whatever ancient edition you like). Nevermind the fact that they currently play 4E, according to the Gamus Geneologicus they’re “old school” because they’ve been playing various iterations of D&D since the early 70s.

Crabbius Maximus: Gamers who describe themselves as “old school” because they hate the current edition of D&D supported by the current license holder(s). So, those who cling to 3.0, 3.5, or even Pathfinder are “old school” because they reject what is currently “new school.”

Neverus Satisfiedus: A close cousin to the Crabbius Maximus, the Neverus Satisfiedus refuses to acknowledge games printed in this decade as “old school” (because old wargamers consider chainmail players new school, who consider white box players new school, who consider Holmes players new school, who consider Moldvay players new school, etc. etc. etc.).

Ancientus Collectionis: Gamers who describe themselves as “old school” because they take pride in only playing old or out of print games. Often mistaken for the Crabbius Maximus or the Neverus Satisfiedus, the Ancientus Collectionis nevertheless relishes his tattered collection(s) of old books and knows you have to play games at least two decades old to be genuinely “old school.”

Gygaxius Originalis: Gamers who describe themselves as “old school” because they enjoy playing the game the way it was originally envisioned by Gygax (and sometimes, if they’re charitable, also Arneson). For these players, Gary’s rule is law (especially his rules about there being no absolutely binding rules).

I’m sure there are lots of others out there as well as various “mixed breeds” of those noted above. Like the article that inspired it, this post is just supposed to be fun. I know there are no hard and fast rules for what qualifies as “old school.” So, what kind of “old school” player are you?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Return of the Red Box

So I went in to my FLGS to pick up a sparkly set of pink polyhedral dice for my wife, who, you will remember, recently agreed to try out some rules light rpgs.

As I thumbed through the Pathfinder adventure paths (I’ve heard some great things about Kingmaker and wanted to see what the hype was about) I spotted something out of the corner of my eye that almost made me drop the Pathfinder books. There, on top of the WotC section of books was Frank Mentzer’s “red box” basic set for sale.

I’ve already written about my love for Mentzer’s edition of D&D so I won’t repeat that here. Needless to say, if they were released today, I’d buy them all again in a heartbeat; my copies have worn exceedingly thin over the years. Of course, as I approached the box I noticed it wasn’t what I was expecting. First of all, it was published by WotC. Second of all, it was 4th edition D&D. Apparently, it was their new “starter set” aimed at bringing in new players (and dare I say, lapsed gamers who remember owning the set this one was manufactured to resemble).

Still, I considered buying it. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of 4e but, to be honest, I really wanted the box. It looked a fair bit sturdier than the ones I had as a kid and, while I still have the books, the boxes were crushed from one too many moves a long time ago. But this one box could house all of my BECMI books (it’s a nice size, for those who haven’t seen it). I deliberated but ultimately couldn’t justify spending the money for a box (since I’d probably just end up chucking the 4e contents inside). In addition, I swore off any WotC products once 4e was released (persnal choice, not a judgment on 4e fans).

As I drove home I couldn’t help but think about the box. It seems that someone in the know has taken notice of the OSR and decided we’re worth marketing to. Yay for us.