Monday, October 25, 2010

To the Sources!

One of my passions in life is Christian theology. Lately, I’ve been reading on the history and theology of 17th century Christian Orthodoxy (riveting, I know). One of the things that struck me as interesting is seeing what happened to inspiration during that era. The passion, drive, and enthusiasm of the 16th century (with its ad fontes return to the sources of biblical Greek and Hebrew, a return to the writings of the church fathers, and an unprecedented Reformation and counter-Reformation) were replaced with a somewhat dry and lifeless systematization of doctrine. The 17th century thinkers didn’t necessarily deviate from what had come before them, theologically, but their somewhat doctrinaire approach to the theology of their predecessors was a marked change from what occurred just a century before. Renaissance had been replaced with cold rationalism. Thus began the “scholastic” period of that era.

In the same way, it seems like the roleplaying industry has entered into a “scholastic” era of its own. Gone are the wild and wooly days of blazing new trails. Gone are the days when you enthusiastically figured things out as you go. Gone are ingenuity, motivation, and zeal. They’ve all seemingly been replaced by “systems.” Complicated systems which, though they may work just fine, nevertheless appear to those of us from the previous era as somewhat hollow and lifeless.

In thinking through both, I can’t help but conclude that the fault lies with becoming overly self-referential. The theologians of the 17th century weren’t so much using the sources those in the 16th century used, they were using the theologians from the 16th century themselves as sources. So, instead of going back to Scripture and the earliest church fathers, the theologians in the 17th century just ended up citing the conclusions of those just one century earlier.

In the roleplaying game industry, we became exceedingly self-referential in the 80s. By the late 80s, gamers  weren’t so much using the sources Gygax and others used, they were using Gygax & Arneson themselves as sources. So, instead of going back to Howard, Lovecraft, Moorcock, etc., the gamers in the 80s just ended up citing the conclusions & methodology of the desingers of D&D.

The result, inevitably, became a bland and somewhat lifeless experience for many. Worse, we forgot what they said and did in those early days and started going along with additional systemization which really just took us further away from the roots of the hobby.

That’s one of the things I love about the OSR (especially since “Renaissance” brings to mind a return to long forgotten sources). When I see retro-clones, I see us going back to the original sources. When I see new and exciting products like Lamentations of the Flame Princess I see those deeply steeped in the sources which inspired D&D blazing creative new trails. That’s what we need in the RPG industry today. Ad Fontes!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pen and Paper Gaming in the 21st Century - GamesU 2009 - Keynote

Interesting take on the RPG industry by Erik Mona, Publisher at Paizo and general fan of old school games/gaming. He addresses the history, challenges, and opportunities that lie before those of us who are still playing and enjoying pen & paper RPGs. It’s a time investment, but well worth it in my opinion to get an insider’s view of things, one of the few insiders who has worked for the largest two companies in the industry.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Whys and Wherefores of House Rulings

House rules have long been a part of our beloved hobby. They likely started because OD&D, especially just the LBBs, were incredibly rules light. Those first dungeon crawlers didn’t have rules on things they needed, so they invented rulings on the fly. That worked quite well and encouraged folks (rightly) to rely upon the ingenuity of their DM and the creativity of their players where house rules were needed.

As D&D got more complex, house rules seemingly took on a new life. Whereas before, house rules were used to fill in lacuna in the written rules, now they were increasingly becoming used to reject written rules that just didn’t work well for individual DMs and players, depending upon the preferences of the particular gaming group. The more complex the incarnation of D&D, the more common house rules replacing written rules became. Again, this worked beautifully as long as everyone was aware of the preferences of the group in which they played.

Something that’s been bothering me lately is running into people (online and in my FLGS) hiding behind house rules who simply don’t know the written rules at all. As stated above, I have absolutely no problem with house rules. I use them and my group loves them. However, we at least try to learn the written rules and have our own rationale for why we do what we do. But I keep encountering folks who claim to have played since the 70s who reject the written rules in favor of their own rulings, without knowing why or what they’re rejecting.

I hate to keep picking on “DM Vince” from the Roll For Initiative podcast (a podcast I generally recommend and really enjoy) but he’s a perfect example. The other two hosts, Jayson and Nick, have a great grasp of the AD&D rules. When they differ from them, they know the written rules and they know why they opt for their own rulings instead. Vince, on the other hand, never seems to know any single rule, as written, but you can always be certain he’ll just do things his way under the mantle of “old school” gaming. That’s fine as far as it goes. Nobody has to be an expert to play and enjoy (A)D&D. However, he has not one, but TWO podcasts wherein he discusses (A)D&D.

Again, I don’t mean to pick on any one person. I’m just finding that lots of folks do what DM Vince does: decide against using written rules without knowing what they are or why they’re doing it. By all means, reject the rules as written in favor of your own rulings, but at least know what you’re rejecting and why.

Okay, rant over.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

To Kill or Not to Kill?

In reading through many gaming blogs recently, I’ve noticed two attitudes concerning PC death that I consider to be somewhat extreme: one largely represented by old school players and one largely represented by new school players.

Some old school players almost seem to take pride in killing off the PCs. When you read their session reports it’s as if they feel their job as a DM hasn’t been accomplished if they don’t somehow manage to achieve a near TPK. For them, the presence of monsters guaranteed to kill players or insta-death traps are a badge of honor which proves to their players and readers alike that they are card carrying Gygaxians. I was listening to an episode of the Roll For Initiative podcast recently in which they were discussing deadly traps. One of the hosts, Jayson (a more or less by the book kind of DM), asked another, Vince (a self described “evil DM”), about how he handles situations where his players cleverly figure out how to avoid a death trap he’d placed in a dungeon. Vince’s response? He just changes it on the fly to ensure it does what he’d originally intended. In addition to that being all too “railroady” for me I find the PC death philosophy behind it somewhat objectionable. Players aren’t there just to be killed off.

However, there’s another extreme in the new school which I find equally frustrating. This philosophy makes PC death almost impossible. Not only do new school rules typically allow a player to take much more damage before dying (with stat inflation, allowing them to go into negative hit points before real death, etc.) but DMs in the new school have become so accustomed to fudging rolls in favor of their players that death in the game is only something that applies to monsters or NPCs put into the party for just that purpose.

As far as I see it, there’s a happy medium here. I’m not there to kill the PCs but I will if they do something foolish or if the dice fall that way. That most commonly happens with low level PCs but it’s always a danger. Still, if I set out to get a TPK, I can. Every time. Even if it means fudging in favor of the monsters/dungeon. But let’s face it, that’s not fun for the players or the DMs (at least, not for me). Play the game, let the dice fall where they may, and let your goal be having a good time not being an “evil DM” out for your players’ blood.

By the same token, taking the threat of death out of encounters simply neuters the game. Adventuring is supposed to be dangerous. To a degree, casualties are going to happen without a DMs “help.” To consistently fudge the rolls in favor of the PCs is just as bad as consistently fudging them for the monsters. Let the polys fall where they may and let the players learn, through trial and error, through life and death, what they can and can’t do. I find that this style of play is much more enjoyable for everyone.

Still, it’s your game, play it as you will!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Soundtrack to Your Campaigns

Like many people who played D&D in the 1980s, I was a died-in-the wool metalhead. In fact, most of my gaming friends were. As a result, when we played, we often had music going in the background. Usually, we listened to speed/thrash metal like Metallica or Megadeth. However, we were also big fans of some of the more iconic metal bands of the 80s (Dio, Ozzy, etc.). Recently, I heard the song Flash of the Blade by Iron Maiden. Wow, did that song bring back memories. Surprisingly, not of junior high or high school, but of gaming. I can recall, in vivid detail, certain things that happened in our campaigns well over 20 years ago…memories sparked by little more than a guitar riff.

As the years rolled on, I occasionally tried to incorporate more “atmosphere appropriate” music into my campaigns. I recall a failed attempt to use a cassette of renaissance music I’d purchased in a used tape bin. I tried some of the music from TSRs own LPs First Quest (anyone remember those?). I tried some stuff from bands like Tangerine Dream which produced evocative synth music. Ultimately, none of it really worked. The only thing that ever felt really appropriate were film soundtracks but those had the added drawback of reminding us of the movies from which they were taken (still, I’ll always relish charging into battle to Anvil of Crom or Carmina Burana).

In thinking about this stuff lately, I can’t help but wonder what folks are using these days, especially with the advances in technology and the ready availability not only of music via MP3s but also sound effects. What sorts of music/audio do you use in your games to enhance the ambiance?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Class Multiplication

I’ve often seen old schoolers talk about stat inflation when it comes to successive versions of D&D. Those with experience with later editions will no doubt find that things really do develop rather quickly. As soon as one jumps from D&D to AD&D the average number for ability scores goes up by 2 (according to the Rules Cyclopedia). Hit points likewise tend to increase. Then, in 2nd edition, a whole host of alternate rolling methods were introduced, bringing with it more stat inflation. Now, it’s not uncommon for players not to roll stats at all, but rather to assign them using point buys or stat arrays, bringing with it yet more stat inflation.

While these things are bothersome to me, something that’s been getting under my skin lately is class multiplication. It seems that with each successive version of D&D we see more and more classes. While I personally think the addition of thieves was a good idea in order to capture a popular trope which was missing in the game (although, it wasn’t difficult to get by without them), I can’t say I much like what many newer RPGs are doing (and forget about keeping track with the addition of “prestige classes”!).

For example, just before I quit playing Pathfinder (I apologize for always using Pathfinder as an example, but it’s the only modern fantasy RPG I’ve played in the last year or two), Paizo announced the addition of several new classes with the advent of their Advanced Player’s Guide: Alchemists, Cavaliers, Inquisitors, Oracles, Summoners, and Witches. The next book Paizo will be releasing is Ultimate Magic, which will see yet another new class in the form of the Magus (a wizard/warrior hybrid). This officially brings the number of classes you can play up to 18! I can’t help but wonder when (if) the number of classes will top out.

One of the things I appreciated about 2nd edition was that it sought to put an end to class multiplication. Yes, I know that people enjoy classes like the barbarian or the cavalier from 1st edition, but 2nd edition ditched them. Why? Because, properly speaking, barbarians and cavaliers are really little more than specialized warriors. So why not play a warrior from the frozen plains as a barbarian? Why not play a warrior who excels in mounted combat as a cavalier? Why the need for new classes? That is, of course, how 2nd edition handled these classes. True, the addition of specialized kits from TSRs line of “The Complete * Handbook” of splat books probably isn’t very popular today (among old schoolers and new schoolers alike) but I at least appreciated the fact that TSR saw a potential problem and tried to handle it (even if their “solution” was just as complicated as the problem they sought to avoid).

One of the things I’m enjoying about getting back to our roots is ditching so many of the extraneous classes. Not because I don’t like tropes such as witches or oracles but because I think those tropes can be attained using the core classes, with a little imagination and roleplaying. I’m quite certain that there are inventive DMs and creative players who enjoy the new classes. However, the more I dig into our history, the more convinced I’ve become that the multiplication of rules/classes was little more than an accommodation to inept DMs and unimaginative players.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Why I’m Rooting for Paizo

While it’s true that Pathfinder’s massive Core Rulebook (or rather, my wife’s reaction to it) is the reason I came into the OSR, I have to say I still appreciate the materials Paizo produces for Pathfinder. Also, I happen to believe that Paizo’s success is promising for the OSR.

What success, you ask? Well, according to ICv2’s findings, Pathfinder is now tied with D&D 4E in sales. That’s pretty impressive given that WotC puts out roughly 4-5 books for every 1 book that Paizo publishes. A game only 2 years old competing neck & neck with D&D? That would have been unthinkable before Paizo! While many folks have challenged ICv2’s data as anecdotal, Lisa Stevens, CEO of Paizo Publishing, has confirmed ICv2’s findings with Paizo’s own figures.

I, for one, think this bodes well for the OSR. Why? Because it demonstrates several things key to our success…

(1) People aren’t just going along with edition changes as was largely the case in the past. Pathfinder’s success demonstrates that people are willing to play “older” versions of D&D unsupported by the current license holder.

(2) No more widespread brand loyalty. People aren’t just buying whatever WotC happens to put out. They are being more discerning in spending their gaming dollars. The fact that an ever increasing number of people are willing to spend their hard earned money on fantasy roleplaying game products not published by WotC is promising for Mythmere, Goblinoid, et al.

(3) WotC finally has some real competition. Rivalry is great for the industry, it drives the frontrunners to produce higher quality materials. In my opinion, it may also cut down on the “let them eat cake” attitude displayed by WotC in the past. Maybe, just maybe, this means that WotC may reprint some of the older things which appeal to us, or at least offer PDFs for sale.

(4) Viable competition also causes industry leaders to ponder what they can do to gain the edge, perhaps including marketing to our niche OSR market. WotC has seen this as is evident with the release of their D&D essentials starter set. Sadly, their idea of marketing to us is limited to pretty boxes. Paizo has picked up on the fact that more and more players are taking an interest in old school style (not just old school trappings), as is evident with products such as their sandbox style adventure path, Kingmaker, as well as their recent announcement that they will be producing an introductory/basic version of Pathfinder.

(5) Paizo already supports the OSR to a degree. Erik Mona is the driving force behind their publication of the pulp fantasy publication, Planet Stories. He has mentioned, time and time again, his love for and desire to serve old school gamers with future Paizo publications.

If nothing else, this news demonstrates that mainstream players now have viable options. If someone gets tired of the D&D 4E system, perhaps they’ll take a look at Pathfinder or some of the older editions of D&D before abandoning the hobby. Even if those of us in the OSR don’t see any gains, it’s good for the overall industry at the very least.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Target: OSR

I’ve posted previously about the return of the D&D red box (or, the cover at least). In that post, I mentioned that folks in the OSR may be, at least partially, the targets of the new WotC  D&D Essentials Starter Set. Since then, I’ve wondered if perhaps I was wrong and that maybe children were the primary intended audience.

However, I recently saw the advertisement for this product (posted above). I now have no doubt that we, or at the every least, our children are WotC’s targets for this product. Just watch the video. The backdrop for the ad is a pseudo-80s heavy metal song  and, as many long time roleplayers well know, gamers and metalheads often shared the table in the 80s. Likewise, the entirety of the video is made up of old school art & imagery, superimposed with things like graph paper (a far cry from the technology pushing ads we’ve seen in recent years from WotC). Finally, take a close look at the final shot: the new red box with the back of module B2 (Keep on the Borderlands) behind it. Strange, given you can’t play Keep on the Borderlands using 4E (although, I am curious as to what the hermit’s “Daily Power” would have been…/sarcasm off).

This version is apparently a marketing tool based upon the submission of a contest winner (which is even more overtly old school).

Thanks to 3d6-in-Order for posting the ad.  

New Arrival

My copy of the “X” in “B/X” arrived in the mail yesterday. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated the fact that the mail carrier folded the package in half and shoved it in to my tiny apartment-sized mailbox. Oh well, thankfully it was only the book (while I’d like to have the box and module as well, I don’t have the cash to spend on it right now) and it was only in there for about 30 minutes or so before I rescued it. I’m looking forward to reading it through completely.

I’ve had Moldvay's Basic set for quite a while now, complete with box and module. I somehow managed to pick up a near mint (both books inside were mint, the box is slightly damaged on one side) copy on Ebay for $11.00 a while back. The owner said a relative bought him the set but he and his friends had already moved on to AD&D, so the set was never used, it just sat on his bookshelf for decades. Since I only bought the book this time, I’ll just keep it with its little brother in the Moldvay box.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Railroading Players Into the Sandbox

As regular readers of this blog already know, I share the OSRs dislike of railroad style play. I don’t think players should be forcefully steered in one direction or another. I firmly believe in giving players real and meaningful choices which impact the game and the world around them. As far as I’m concerned, players are masters of their own destiny.

However, I’ve been wondering lately if there are any redeeming qualities to the “railroad” style of play. Perhaps that’s the wrong way of putting it. Even the terminology is repugnant to me (and probably also to you). Instead, I’ve been wondering about the limited use of plot-driven adventures under some circumstances.

Recently, I’ve been having trouble getting across to my new players just what a sandbox style of game truly is. They are constantly looking for that one adventure hook which will get them into the thick of the game. I’ve explained that we’ll get into the game no matter what they do but they just don’t seem to get it, quite yet.

For example, my players were recently part of a mercenary party traveling to the coast. One of the players got it into his head that I wanted him to uncover a plot to ambush the party from within. He spent the better part of an hour seeking to root out the non-existent conspiracy and was extremely frustrated that he couldn’t figure out what I wanted him to do. Of course, I didn’t want him to do anything…except enjoy himself.

So, I’m working on a sort of D&D version of the nicotine patch. For the time being, I’m giving my players the types of games they’re used to, slowly weaning them off the railroad style, while getting across the point that they really can do whatever they want. One helpful way to get the point across is to reveal to them (in game) that the world around them lives and breathes, responding (or not) to the decisions they make. For example, in our last game the players were traveling through the forest and opted not to investigate some tendrils of smoke curling into the sky above the treeline in the distance. Later, in town, they discovered that some goblins had attacked and killed some homesteaders, including the very man the players had been intentionally looking for.

This has been, by far, a much more successful approach in introducing them to sandbox styles of play than innumerable conversations on abstract gaming philosophies. Railroading players into the sandbox. Who knew!?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Child’s Play

My perceptions could be off but it seems to me that BECMI (aka, Mentzer) D&D isn’t all that well liked in the old school community. Sure, there are people (like me!) who began playing D&D using Mentzer’s rules but even those folks tend to prefer playing other versions of the game.

One of the arguments I hear frequently is that BECMI D&D is synonymous with “kiddie D&D.” I think the fact of the matter is that all editions after Holmes was enlisted are geared toward reaching children as well as adults. Tim Kask, the first full-time employee of TSR, has related that Holmes was brought in to sterilize D&D and make it less scary for children. Still, I’m not sure why Mentzer’s rules tend to act as the lightning rod for the “kiddie” criticism.

Of course, that’s not a new criticism. I spent the first six months or so of my gaming life working my way through Mentzer’s rules only to find out that the older kids (aka, high shcoolers) preferred AD&D. Basic D&D, we were told, was for kids.

So what is it about BECMI/Mentzer that people dislike? Why is that the edition people tend to associate with kids?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Basic Pathfinder?

There’s been some discussion generated over on the Paizo boards regarding the news that they’re working on a Pathfinder introductory set. They’ve asked for feedback from their fans (imagine that!) on what they’d like to see in such a set.

I’ve been surprised at the number of people requesting an old school/rules light version of the game. Not because I think old schoolers are few and far between but because I had no idea just how many seem to play Pathfinder despite their personal preferences. I freely admit to liking Pathfinder and Paizo as a whole. I see them as legitimate successors to the spirit of what was once D&D (albeit, buried under the barnacles of complexity). If a large/established company is ever going to work at brining the spirit of old school gaming back to the mainstream, I firmly believe it will be Paizo.

The encouraging news is that there seems to be an immense interest in having the intro game be more than just an advertisement for the Core Rulebook. Folks are asking Paizo to consider actually creating and maintaining a distinct line of gaming materials that are fully compatible with, but considerably less complex than, the full-feathered Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. In essence, they’re asking Paizo to follow the old TSR model of a “basic” game and an “advanced” game.

I played Pathfinder until recently. While I did enjoy some sessions I have to admit that the system is tremendously complex and games easily devolve into searching the rulebooks for this or that obscure directive as opposed to actually playing. Add to this the incredibly complicated minis-oriented/tactics heavy combat and I knew the system wouldn’t work for me long term.

I’d be lying, however, if I said I wasn’t intrigued by what may come of this. I, for one, would be ecstatic to see Paizo succeed in this endeavor.

Friday, October 1, 2010

D&D vs. AD&D

In reading through the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (1991) I came across this helpful summary of the differences between RC D&D and AD&D (p. 291):

·         AD&D characters tend to have higher ability scores, especially if some of the optional character generation rules are used. However, ability score bonuses are generally gained at a score of 15 instead of 13.

·         AD&D characters usually use different dice to roll hit points (for example, fighters roll d10).

·         AD&D game clerics get spells at first level, and often start with two or three spells.

·         The AD&D system separates character class and character race. Different class and race combinations are available (e.g. dwarf fighter/thief).

·         The AD&D alignment system adds a Good-Evil axis to the D&D game Law-Chaos axis, allowing greater detail (Lawful-Good, Chaotic-Neutral, etc.).

·         AD&D game spells are more complex. While one or two elements of a D&D spell may vary by character level, any and all elements of an AD&D spell (range, duration, effect) might vary in this way. AD&D spells are also more likely to have multiple effects or reversals.

·         AD&D game magical items are more complex; many have three or more separate functions.

·         The systems have different combat round time scales (affects encounter pacing).

·         The AD&D system uses a 10-point armor class scale.

·         The AD&D game weapons inflict different damage against larger-than-man-sized opponents than against smaller opponents.

·         Equipment prices and encumbrance numbers are different between the two systems.

·         Some D&D optional rules (Fighter Maneuvers, Weapon Mastery, and so on) have no equivalent in the AD&D system.

While I was aware of these differences, I thought it was nice to have the “official” listing as per TSR. It’s proven to be helpful as I work to determine which incarnation of (A)D&D I’ll ultimately choose as my main system.