Sunday, August 31, 2008

Frank Frazetta Does Sci-Fi

Or more specifically: he does some concept art for the original Battlestar Galactica series.

There are a few more examples of his work over in this thread at the K&K Alehouse.

I'm taking it easy this holiday weekend, so regular posting and some replies to comments will resume on Tuesday, September 2. Until then, enjoy!

Friday, August 29, 2008


Resolved: That the entire history of the development of Dungeons & Dragons as a set of rules has been one of incremental change in order to minimize, if not outright eliminate, the likelihood that a "bad," which is to say inexperienced, arbitrary, or malicious, referee might adversely affect a player's enjoyment of the game.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

REVIEW: Classic Monsters Revisited

Part of Paizo's Pathfinder Chronicles line of products, Classic Monsters Revisited is, to put it plainly, a peculiar little book. Written by a variety of authors (many of them associated with D&D's Third Edition), this 64-page, softcover book examines ten of "classic" monsters -- bugbears, gnolls, hobgoblins, orcs, lizard men, trolls, ogres, kobolds, minotaurs, and goblins -- and "reimagines" them for the Pathfinder fantasy setting of Golarion. Given how often the term "reimagining" is used nowadays as a synonym for the wholesale gutting of an idea or concept in the interests of marketing an existing IP, I can't say I was keen on picking up this book. But, buoyed by what I saw in the Pathfinder Chronicles Gazetteer, I decided to take a chance and I am glad I did so.

This is not to say this book is flawless; I have a number of nits to pick with it from my own idiosyncratic old school perspective. Overall, though, this book is written with imagination and with more respect for the traditions of D&D than was 4e. It's hard not to have one's heart warmed, at least a little, after reading editor James Jacobs' introduction, where he states plainly that the authors of Classic Monsters Revisited went back to the original Monster Manual for inspiration when writing their reimaginings. More to the point, his words are not just idle. Take a look and you'll see, for example, that orcs have tribal names that are clearly inspired by those in the 1e MM. There are many other little bits of color and detail like that, loving nods to the original source material.

The book itself is well made and sturdy, with glossy full-color pages. I can't say that I'm a fan of this format, not least because I'm sure it pushes the cost of the book up ($17.99 retail) unnecessarily. The art itself is good but very modern, in its obsession with detail and "action." That said, there are a number of pieces I quite liked. Anything with the reimagined goblins is terrific, but then that's because Paizo's version of these monsters as malicious little vermin with a love for twisted battle songs and a fear of dogs is simply inspired. There's also a nice piece showing an unwary adventurer, torch in hand, about to turn a corner in a labyrinth, where a minotaur lays in wait.

The bulk of the book is made up of ten chapters, each of which presents a new monstrous race as it appears in the Pathfinder setting. Each 6-page entry includes an overview, as well as discussions of ecology, habitat and society, campaign role, treasure, variants, and additional details about the place of the creatures in Golarion. Each chapter ends with single-page stat write-up in v.3.5 terms. In most cases, this write-up is identical to that found in the v.3.5 Monster Manual, but there are small alterations in some, small enough that they'd probably escape notice unless you were specifically comparing the two, as I was. I presume the changes were done both to bring them closer to the reimagined versions of the monsters and also to make the game mechanics simpler and easier to use, which seem to be the watchwords of Paizo, as they forge ahead with their own v.3.5-derived Pathfinder RPG.

The reimaginings themselves are almost universally good. I've already noted the goblins, who are far and away the best things in this book. That said, many other reimaginings struck a chord with me; the "bogeyman" bugbears, the Spartan hobgoblins, the cursed minotaurs, and the cannibalistic ogres all stand out. In reading these entries, I was often pleased at how the authors had managed to do something quite remarkable: create a new version of an old favorite that was still somehow continuous with nearly 30 years of D&D tradition. They didn't succeed in every case. I intensely dislike the draconic kobolds that 3e foisted on us and that this book continues to develop, for example. Yet, despite the missteps, there is a solid core here that I felt I could use in my own games.

Although written with v.3.5 in mind, there is in fact very little rules content to it. Aside from the stat block and the occasional item or feat relegated to sidebars, this book is almost pure "fluff." I think an old school gamer will find a lot to enjoy here. Certainly six pages is probably more information than most of us need for these monsters. There is, I can't deny, more than a whiff of new school indulgence in setting for setting's sake in this book. At the same time, I was reminded often of the way that, prior to the advent of the Monster Manual, each referee's interpretation of an orc's appearance was different. And just what the heck was a gnoll anyway? As much as I love my Gygaxian MM, there's a certain sense in which it was the beginning of the end of the imagination and creativity that OD&D demanded. After its appearance, we knew what an orc looked like and that a gnoll was a hyena man, not some magical cross between a gnome and a troll. And while I'm as fond of established D&D tradition as anyone, there's a big part of me that longs for the wild and woolly days when one campaign's orc and another's were not necessarily the same.

Classic Monsters Revisited goes a long way toward making many old favorites new and interesting. After reading this book, I want to use minotaurs again in a way I haven't in, well, probably ever. The same goes for goblins and ogres. That's a pretty remarkable achievement. Even more remarkable is the way that the book made me look at other monsters not described in this book and whom I thought I knew well. Now, I'm not so sure; I think the next time I use, say, a gargoyle I'll present it somewhat differently than the way it's traditional presented, because that's what D&D is all about.

OD&D presented itself as a toolkit for building your own fantasy world and I think that would be the best way to present and market even modern editions of the game. Believe me, I am not arguing that Classic Monsters Revisited is in any way an old school product or completely consonant with my own Quixotic hopes for the hobby. This book is too clearly part of a plan to build and promote a new IP for that, but I am willing to forgive it that sin, because it made me look at things I've "known" for nearly three decades and reconsider them. I can't remember the last D&D product that made me do that, but then that might explain why I'm no longer buying new D&D products. On the other hand, I will certainly continue to buy Pathfinder products, so long as they continue to spur my imagination the way this one did.

Final Score: 4 out of 5 polearms

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

An Example

Like my previous post, this is an inchoate one -- notes toward a thesis to be published later, if you will. I thought I'd share a very memorable example from my own gaming history of how a campaign with a referee-created succumbed to what I see as the inherent danger of such things: the referee came to love his own ideas so much that those of his players weren't even considered. I'll say again that I am not saying this outcome is inevitable or even unavoidable, only that it's likely and highly problematic and one of the reasons why I have come to eschew the notion of "theme" or "story" in planning a new campaign. It's only an anecdote and thus highly specific and idiosyncratic. Nevertheless, I think it illustrates well what I'm talking about.

Some years ago, I joined a campaign in which a character who'd previously been established as the last surviving heir of a far-off kingdom received an invitation by members of a rebel faction who wished him to return to his ancestral homeland and claim his rightful throne. The reason they wished him to do this was because, after the deposition of his ancestor (I think it was his grandfather but it may have been more distant), the priesthood of an evil ice goddess -- this was a northern realm -- took over the reins of power and they were nasty and tyrannical, as evil priests usually are in fantasy worlds.

The character in question knew of his ancestry but never gave much thought of returning to his homeland. He certainly had no interest in becoming a king, but he was good-aligned and the rebels told of the horrible atrocities committed by the evil priests, so he eventually agreed to return and lead this rebellion that had been fighting in his name for some time. He collected some mercenaries and brothers in arms to join him (my character was one of them) and together they set off into the frozen north to fight against the minions of the ice goddess.

So far, so good. The problem was that, as we soon discovered, even the rebellion worshiped this evil ice goddess and propitiated her with human sacrifices each winter in order to keep the worst weather away. The referee explained to us (through the rebel NPCs) that the state religion had always been devoted to the ice goddess. The objection to the priesthood was not their beliefs as such, but that they had usurped the proper place of the king. Their "tyranny" was mostly that they had upset the social order, not that they had imposed an evil religion upon the land.

Needless to say, none of us, least of the character of the heir to the throne, would have any truck with the idea of participating in a rebellion dedicated to evil (we were all good-aligned as well), even they did so as appeasement rather as piety. Now, it had previously been established in the game world that the beliefs of mortals were what gave gods their power and that new "aspects" of a god might spring into being if there were enough mortals with a heretical/heterodox interpretation of that god's teachings. We then hit upon the plan to use the rebellion not just to place the heir upon the throne, but to create an alternate, "friendlier" version of the ice goddess by manipulating the beliefs of the common folk of the northern kingdom -- the ultimate in psychological warfare. We thought it a great idea and one with a bizarre fantasy feel to it. In short, it'd be the basis for a memorable campaign.

The referee, though, would have none of it. His plan for the campaign was about the heir's having to come to grips with the nature of the society whose rulership he had inherited. Over time, there'd be many other aspects of his people that he'd learn about that would "challenge" his previously held notions and this would lead to a great campaign. There was also, if I recall, the introduction of a woman, unpleasant in some way, who belonged to some important faction or other and thus was intended to be betrothed to the heir. My friend, who played the heir, would have none of it; his character had been led to the northern realm under false pretenses and he felt it reasonable that he'd take action accordingly. More to the point, the ideas he and the rest of us players had come up with were exciting and interesting and at least worth a try. Even if we failed, who can say that plotting to use a rebellion to give birth to a new god isn't fantasy roleplaying at its finest?

The referee simply wouldn't budge on this point. He had already made it clear what the campaign was about and had done a lot of work to plot out this campaign. He wasn't interested in taking our alternate ideas and running with them -- ideas, I might add, that made perfect sense given the setting and the nature of the characters involved. I still look back on this failed campaign as an opportunity lost, because it could very well have been an amazing one. The setup for the campaign was fine and the reaction of the players to that setup reasonable. The problem was that the referee didn't see that reaction as reasonable at all, because it was strongly at variance with the "story" he wanted to tell. And so the campaign died before it ever got very far.

I tell this not to suggest that there is nothing to be gained by considering long-term plans in a campaign or that there's something inherently wrong with a campaign's focusing on a particular activity or activities. However, I do believe there's a great danger in attempting to plan story arcs for characters or settings. That danger is identifying these plans as what the campaign is about, when, in point of fact, a campaign is about what the players say it's about through their choices and actions in-game. Sandbox play is not the only way to ensure no one forgets this, but it's a very good one. The further one gets away from that style of campaign, the greater the danger that what I experienced in that long-ago campaign will come to pass.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

No Guarantees

I've got to step out for a while, so I'll be unable to respond to any comments here but a thought occurred to me this morning that I wanted to throw out there for discussion.

Two common complaints about old school gaming is that it lacks "story" and that there's little interest in character development beyond what occurs as a result of gaining XP. I've already, I think, argued that both these complaints are utterly mistaken and result from a misreading of old school games (not to mention a misremembering of the history of the hobby). The big difference between the old school and the contemporary one is that the old school assumes that "story" and character development are things that evolve organically through play rather than something one presumes before play. The old school also allows for the possibility that neither story nor development will evolve and isn't willing to find ways to ensure that either takes place through the imposition of game mechanics designed to do so.

Anyway, what I was thinking about is that what makes old school gaming so appealing for me is that notion that, if I create a 1st-level Fighter, whom I call Conan and say is a young Cimmerian warrior out to find his fortune in the world, I actually have to play D&D well -- not to mention get lucky -- in order to fully realize that character. That is, it's not a given that because I create this character with dreams of one day ruling his own kingdom that he will in fact one day rule his own kingdom. I don't sit down with the referee and agree that, yes, the campaign "theme" will be about Conan's rise from obscurity to his accession to the throne of Aquilonia. Rather, I, as the player, decide that that's what I want to do with my lowly 1st-level Fighter and then I play the game with that in mind, doing everything I can to make that "story" that I've chosen come alive through play, but with the understanding that an unlucky dice roll -- or the whims of other players -- might derail that story, even ending it forever.

My point is that one of the essential features of old school play is that there are no guarantees. I sometimes think the hobby has emphasized the roleplaying aspect of RPG to such an extent that it's forgotten what the G stands for. Old school gaming never forgets that games typically involve chance and the best gamers are those who can roll with the punches randomness throws at them and succeed in spite of them. To me, there's more fun to be had in the story of a would-be Conan who actually fails at his player's original intended "story arc" and then goes on to do something else as befits the circumstances than one whose story arc has a conclusion that's foreordained by mutual agreement with the referee at the campaign's start. If you know your 1st-level Fighter is destined to become King of Aquilonia and that the whole campaign is about the steps to achieving that destiny, why bother? I don't personally see any fun in that and I think one of the big dividing lines between the old and new schools lies here.

Anyway, this is a random, inchoate thought, so be gentle. And play nicely while I'm gone. It might be a while before I can wade back into discussing this.

Patrimony of Evil

Say what you will about the Third Edition of Dungeons & Dragons itself -- and I have -- but I cannot countenance anyone complaining about the Open Game License, which is nothing sort of a godsend for the old school community. Why, you might ask? Quite simply, the OGL literally ensures that the Gygaxo-Arneson heritage of the game is available to any and all in perpetuity. Without it, games like OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, and Swords & Wizardy, among others, would not be possible. The OGL is nothing short than an insurance policy against the day when Hasbro decides to treat D&D like so many other bits of IP it controls and locks it away in a vault somewhere, never to be seen again (like so many Avalon Hill titles). One day, "Dungeons & Dragons," as a brand name may disappear forever, but the specific ideas and concepts of its creators are now forever available to the hobby to use, develop, and disseminate.

To cite some rather specific examples, let's take a look at some demons and devils created specifically for D&D and see how many of them are now Open Game Content:

Baphomet: This name is, of course, public domain, but the specific association of it with the demon lord of minotaurs is a Gygaxian invention. Thanks to the Tome of Horrors, you can now use him in your retro-clone products if you so desire.

Fraz-Urb'Luu: Famous for having been imprisoned beneath Castle Greyhawk, the demon prince of illusion is OGC, thanks again to the Tome of Horrors.

Geryon: Derived form Greek mythology by way of Dante's Inferno, D&D's serpentine ruler of the fifth layer of Hell is OGC.

The "Faceless Lord:"
No, we can't call him Juiblex, but we can call him Jubilex. Again, ToH is to be thanked.

Kostchtchie: Again, a real world mythological name, but his portrayal as the demon lord of frost giants is unique to D&D -- and he's now OGC.

Moloch: Of Biblical origin, Moloch is the ruler of the sixth layer of Hell and lieutenant to Baalzebul. Both and the name of his master are OGC.

Orcus has a real world analog, but the image of him as a bat-winged, goat-headed prince of the undead is pure D&D; it's also OGC.

Pazuzu: An ancient Baylonian demon famous in the 20th century for his connection to The Exorcist, D&D's version of him is now OGC.

Careful examination of other OGC products will reveal many other formerly D&D-specific monsters are now Open Game Content that may be freely used by anyone under the terms of the Open Game License. I find it hard not to be very happy about this, because it means, for example, that, were I to publish an old school gaming product, I am free to use many distinct elements of AD&D rather than having to create my own substitutes.

This may seem like a small thing, but it isn't, for much -- though not all -- of the appeal of old school gaming is its unique storehouse of monsters. Without them, there's a sense in which a fantasy game could never claim to be Dungeons & Dragons anymore. I know that, for many people, one of the reasons that 4e does not feel like a true successor to OD&D is because of the way it has abandoned or extensively reworked so many monsters that have been strongly associated with the game for 25 or more years. But, of course, if one's goal is to build an IP you can exploit and others cannot, you have no choice but to abandon the past, particularly since so much of D&D's patrimony has been bequeathed to us, the gaming community, to do with as we please.

And that's why I shall be forever grateful to Ryan Dancey and the Open Game License.

Monday, August 25, 2008


You learn something new every day and today I learned that Charles R. Saunders, creator of Imaro, has a blog of his own. He updates it only irregularly, based on his archive, but it's nifty nonetheless. Check it out.

Grognard's Challenge #3: Six of One, Half Dozen of Another

I received a lot of excellent submissions for Challenge #3, but one stood out as a clear winner: Michael Curtis's "Six of One, Half Dozen of Another."

A narrow alcove has been carved into the stone here. Standing in this niche is the life-sized statue of a woman, carved from unblemished white stone. The woman is of indeterminate age and dressed only in a loose-fitting sarong that leaves one leg and her bare feet uncovered. Her hair is coiled in dreadlocks, hanging just past her alabaster shoulders. Her eyes are obscured by a thin blindfold and her mouth and chin are set in a resolute manner. Six shapely arms extend from her sides, palms up-turned and cupped as if waiting to receive something.

The statue is carved from fine marble and stands 8' tall including the base and weighs 500 lbs. It depicts a female aspect of the Luck God, which may or may not be recognizable to a cleric encountering it. The statue is imbued with the nature of the goddess, and while it does not radiate magic, any cleric or paladin who approaches the statue will feel a warmth emanating from it that is likely of divine origin.

The statue can bestow weal or woe upon any object that is placed in one of the statue's six hands. The exact form of this luck is random, determined by the whim of the Luck God. When the statue is encountered, roll a d6. On a roll of 1-3, the right three hands bestow luck on an object placed in them. On a 4-6, it is the left which are lucky. Any weapon placed in a lucky hand temporarily becomes a +1 weapon for 24 hours. Any other object placed in a lucky hand becomes a form of a luckstone, providing a +1/+5% bonus to any saving throw, proficiency or ability check, and thieves' skills for 24 hrs. After such time, the object returns to normal.

On the other hand(s), any object placed in an unlucky hand becomes cursed for 24 hours. Weapons act as if they were -1 cursed weapons (including not being able to be discarded or allowing use of another weapon) and any other object is treated as a loadstone (movement reduced to half, attacks per round reduced by 1).

The enchantment is of a divine nature, but does not radiate magic. Weapons that bear a luck boon are considered magical for attempts to hit or damage creatures only affected by magic. Both boons and banes vanish after 24 hours, but the enchantment can be removed prematurely by either a dispel evil/good as appropriate. A remove curse will also negate the effects. A boon or bane is only applied to one item per week. After that, the statue still radiates divine warmth, but grants no further effects.

I liked this entry for a number of reasons. Firstly, it reminded me of the kind of thing I might read about in the reminiscences of players from the original Greyhawk campaign. There are lots of examples of peculiar statues that do random or semi-random things when one interacts with them, so this is in keeping with that tradition. Secondly, the attributes of the statue, as well as its game effects, have a mildly Gygaxian cadence to them: "weal or woe" just tickled my esthetic sense, but there's a slight voluptuary tone to the description of the female form of the statue that also reminded me of other parts of the Gygaxian corpus. Finally, the game effects were simple, straightforward, and equally subject to random chance and player observation. All in all, it had just enough little touches that set it above its competitors, many of which were very good indeed.

So, congratulations to Michael Curtis. He can contact me via the email address to the right and give me his street address, so I can send him his copy of Greyhawk as soon as possible.

CONTEST: Grognard's Challenge #4

With the third Grognard's Challenge now completed -- the winner will be announced shortly -- it's time to turn to Challenge #4. For this contest, the prize is the volume pictured to the left: Supplement III of Dungeons & Dragons (1974), Eldritch Wizardry

The fourth Grognard's Challenge is somewhat more specific than previous ones: create, describe, and provide game stats (if necessary) for a single new demonic monster (including demon lords), artifact/relic, or psionic item. Unlike Challenge #1, there is no word limit on this challenge, so feel free to make it as long as you feel necessary. Game stats should be for either OD&D or AD&D (or compatible retro-clones/simulacra).

Entries will be judged on the basis of creativity, brevity (there may be no word limit, but concision is rewarded), and old school feel, the last of which is an entirely subjective metric based solely on my own peculiar preferences, most of which regular readers of the blog should know by now. The whole point of this and subsequent contests is to foster an appreciation for old school traditions and philosophies, so bear that in mind. Think pulp fantasy and the early days of the hobby and you'll be on the right track. No one is barred from entering, including friends and colleagues. I will post the winning entry here and explain why I selected it over its competitors, meaning that even were my wife to submit an entry -- not that she will -- it still has to withstand my rather exacting standards. Winners receive a copy of Eldritch Wizardry (in nearly mint condition) and retain ownership of their creation, which they may then do with as they please (I recommend submitting it to Fight On! or another old school product).

The contest begins immediately and ends at midnight (EST) on September 8, 2008. Submissions may be sent to my email address indicated on the right hand side of this blog. Multiple entries are allowed and encouraged, but each one must be sent in a separate email. Although not strictly necessary, I'd appreciate it if you'd make the subject line of your submission something like "Grognard's Challenge #4" as that'll make it easier to keep the emails straight in my inbox.

Any questions about the contest can be asked either in the comments below or by sending me an email at the address to the right.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Taking the next couple of days off to get some work done. I'll be back on Monday with my regular postings.

See you then.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Old School Adventure Path

In the comments to yesterday's post about the difference between plot-driven and locale-based modules, the possibility of an old school "adventure path" is briefly discussed. I'd been giving that very idea some thought and had been looking into the structure of earlier modules to see if there might be a model lurking among them -- and in fact there is, namely the famed G and D series of modules written by Gary Gygax.

What's really remarkable about these modules, the first ones ever published by TSR for D&D, is how many people's memories of them differ rather radically from their actual texts. The biggest misconception is that they're plot-driven, when in fact there's only the thinnest of plots in them. G1 begins thusly:
Giants have been raiding the lands of men in large bands, with giants of different sorts in these marauding groups. Death and destruction have been laid heavily upon every place these monsters have visited. This has caused great anger in high places, for life and property loss means failure of the vows of noble rulers to protect the life and goods of each and every subject - and possible lean times for the rulers as well as the ruled. Therefore, a party of the bravest and most powerful adventurers has been assembled and given the charge to punish the miscreant giants. These adventurers must deliver a sharp check, deal a lesson to theclan of hill giants nearby, orelse return and put their heads upon the block for the headsman’s axe!
And that's extent of its "plot." The body of the adventure itself consists simply of a map and description of the steading, the dungeon beneath, and its inhabitants and their treasures. The description of Nosnra, the main "villain" of the adventure, provides only game stats and nothing more. He is not given any real background or motivations and indeed his role in planning and/or executing the giant raids mentioned above is never explained. In his treasury, the characters find a map of the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and a magical chain that will transport up to 6 people to said locale.

Module G2 follows a very similar pattern to G1, with Jarl Grugnur not being given any background or motivations other than simply being the leader -- and most powerful example -- of the frost giants who are among those raiding civilized lands. In his private cavern can be found a magical lever that transports people outside the Hall of the Fire Giant King, Snurre Iron Belly. But, again, that's the extent of the "plot": seek out the frost giant stronghold and deliver a blow to them that might dissuade them from ever again attacking the lands of men.

Module G3 ramps up the actual plot elements somewhat, but not by much. In King Snurre's council room, there is a signed missive from the drow high priestess Eclavdra, encouraging the fire giant monarch to make an alliance with as many giants and humanoids as he can muster so that they might march united against the nearby settled lands. No explanation of why Eclavdra wishes this is provided and even the description of the drow leader provides no more details. There is a hint of a suggestion that the drow may be doing the bidding of the Elder Elemental God, a shrine to whom is found in the lower level of the Hall, but even the drow's connection to this Lovecraftian entity is implied (by proximity and their use of tentacle rods) rather than outright stated. When the drow flee the adventurers (or are killed by them), they leave behind a map of their escape route into the deep caverns beneath the world.

Modules D1 and D2 provide nothing in the way of a "plot." They are simply descriptions of locales and encounters along the way to the drow metropolis of Erelhei-Cinlu. Along the descent into the depths of the earth, the characters might make various friends and enemies to aid them in their explorations, but none of these encounters is part of a grand plot as such. Instead, what we get is a subterranean "wilderness," with many different monster lairs, along with the usual tricks and traps. Even the fabled Shrine of the Kuo-Toa is mostly a dungeon without any greater significance, although the characters may loot from it drow brooches and clothing to aid them in infiltrating the Vault of the Drow.

Module D3 is, like its immediate predecessors, mostly a travelogue, in this case of the drow city and its surrounding areas. The only plot we get is the following text, in the description of the House of Eilserv:
The Eilservs have long seen a need for an absolute monarch to rule the Vault, and as the noble house of first precedence, they have reasoned that their mistress should be Queen of All Drow. When this was proposed, the priestesses of Lolth supported the other noble families aligned against the Eilservs, fearing that such a change would abolish their position as the final authority over all disputes and actions of the Dark Elves. Thereafter, the Eilservs and their followers turned away from the demoness and proclaimed their deity to be an Elder Elemental God [see MODULE GI-2-3). Although there is no open warfare, there is much hatred, and both factions seek to destroy each other. An attempt to move worship of their deity into the upper world, establish a puppet kindom there, and grow so powerful from this success that their demands for absolute rulership no longer be thwarted, was ruined of late, and the
family is now retrenching
In this text, we finally get an explanation of the reasons for the alliance of the various giants, as well as some specific insight into the politics of Erelhei-Cinlu. Beyond that, though, there is nothing. The city is otherwise treated much like a wilderness area, with individual "lairs" of drow here and there and the Fane of Lolth is given a map as if it were a dungeon like any other. There is even an opportunity to square off against the Demon Queen of Spiders' physical form if the characters prove themselves bold (or unlucky). It's interesting too that there's a dissident male drow imprisoned in the Fane named Nilonim, who is neutral aligned -- with good tendencies -- and who leads a band of rebels trying to overthrow the nobles of Erelhei-Cinlu. D3 ends with this rather inspiring text:
Terrific stuff.

My memories of these modules were quite different than the reality. My recollections were of a number of memorable encounters with various antagonists, strong connections between the various groups of evildoers, and an overall coherence that simply isn't there. But then I was the referee for all these modules and ran them many times. I provided huge doses of "connective tissue" based on what my players did and how well they succeeded (or failed). The end result was as least as much "my" module as it was Gygax's.

One of the key things I noticed in rereading these modules is how there are no "events" that occur within them. They're largely static, with the monsters occupying some location (or series of locations, since some of them do move around). Events occur when these monsters interact with the PCs. They're almost entirely player-driven rather than being modules where things happen to the characters by fiat of the plot. Thus, there is no inherent "drama" in them other than what the players bring to them. I like that and my memories bear out the fact that "steady state" adventure locales can and do inspire great roleplaying moments.

I'll still have to ponder some more about the concept of an old school adventure path, but I'm more convinced than ever that we have a good model here in the Giants/Drow series. What we need now is for someone to produce another series in the same general vein. A project for the future perhaps ...

Character Assassination in Module Form

From the "Background" section at the start of module G1: The Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, you can read a description of the titular villain:
This chief, one Nosnra, is a grossly fat and thoroughly despicable creature, sly and vicious, loving ambush and backstabbing.
Words fail me.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Fight On!'s Film Debut

Lifestyle Gamers?

As a company, we will continue to be the leader in entertaining the lifestyle gamer. Re-aligning resources ensures we achieve this goal for our most powerful brands.
What the heck is a "lifestyle gamer?"

More to the point, have I become some kind of granola-eating, tree-hugging hippie while I wasn't looking? I ask, because -- and I'm being completely serious here -- I find that quote reeks of everything I fear about the future of our hobby. The reduction of D&D to a "powerful brand" disturbs me on many levels.

I don't so much fear what RPG R&D might do to Dungeons & Dragons if they had their own way. That's not to say they'd do what I would; clearly, they wouldn't. But I think, in the final analysis, they're not out to destroy the game or trample on the memory of Gygax. The problem is that I don't think they're the guys calling the shots anymore. They have to conform to a business plan handed down from on high and how much does Greg Leeds know about the hobby beyond what he sees in a ledger? His words above are very telling and not in a good way.

Grognard's Grimoire: Anagrams

Gary Gygax was a huge fan of oblique homages, puns, and especially anagrams. A careful examination of the Dungeon Master's body of work makes this plain. The indefatigable Allan Grohe has cataloged many of these here. Over the years, I've indulged in the use of anagrams in my games. My contribution to Issue #2 of Fight On! is positively riddled with them, for example, as is the retro-stupid masterpiece, Encounter Critical. Consequently, I regard anagrams as part of the hobby's old school heritage and would like to encourage their use whenever possible.

To that end, the referee should grant a small but lasting boon to players who indulge in non-silly anagramming (unless your game is silly, in which case full speed ahead). For example, my friend Kevin once played an Elric wannabe named Nivek. The great thing about the name Nivek is that it worked; it sounded appropriate and, while it was an anagram, it didn't reveal itself unless you already knew something was up.

The boon should be something significant but not overwhelming and, most important of all, it shouldn't be game mechanical in nature. One of the big mistakes many contemporary games make is buying into the notion that the only way to reward a player is to give his character a +2 bonus here or extra skill points there. That is the road to hell. Instead, provide a specific in-game boon that is appropriate to the character, such as the fact that children instinctively trust him or that merchants never try to cheat him. Or whatever. The point is that the referee rewards the player for his clever use of an anagram by giving the character some little extra bit of personality/background that's beneficial to him in his adventuring career in a small way. A similar approach could be applied in games where the referee wants to encourage punning or allusions or whatever.

And if you have trouble coming up with anagrams, here's a nifty little webpage to help you out.

Shilling Isn't Just an English Coin

I've mentioned Paizo's Planet Stories line of reprints a lot in this blog. I do that for a couple of reasons. One is that I like Paizo; I think their hearts are in the right place when it comes to our shared hobby and I'd like to see them succeed. Another is that they're singlehandedly doing more to educate today's gamers about the literary foundations of the hobby than probably any company out there. The stories they're reprinting are forgotten classics by authors whose influence on D&D cannot be underestimated. I'm a firm believer, as you know, in respecting the past and Planet Stories is a giant love letter to the early days of fantasy and science fiction.

I had been buying each book in the series piecemeal through local retail stores. However, I decided that, since I was buying them all anyway, I might as well get a subscription. Obviously, this isn't something everyone will want to do, not even if you're a fan of pulp literature. Still, I'd like to recommend it as an option, because I'd like to see Planet Stories prosper for many years to come. And maybe one day my dream of seeing every author and story in Appendix N to the Dungeon Masters Guide back in print will come true.

Locale and Plot

A common topic of discussion among gamers reminiscing about their past is, "Which adventure modules have you run more than once?" I would contend that how one answers that question says a great deal about when one was introduced into the hobby and/or one's early experiences in it. I would hazard to guess that the majority of self-identified grognards would be able to list several modules they'd run more than one time. I myself could regale you with multiple tales of my having run, for example, David Cook's Dwellers of the Forbidden City, at least a half-dozen times, often with the same group of people. I expect this general pattern is true for many old school gamers, while it's something most younger players can't even imagine. How could I have possibly gotten multiple uses out of a single module whose page count didn't even break 30?

The answer is quite simple and it's this: old school modules were, by and large, descriptions of adventuring locales, whereas new school modules are plotted (loosely or tightly) adventure stories. That's not to say there aren't elements of plot in many old school modules. The aforementioned Dwellers of the Forbidden City includes a backstory about caravans being raided by mysterious enemies and the PCs are hired to go and find the source of the raiders and stop them. By the same token, many more strongly plot-driven modules, such as those in the Dragonlance series, include extensive descriptions of locales. There's a difference between the two types of modules, not merely in their focus -- which is important -- but also in their content. Dwellers never explicitly deals with the question of exactly who is behind the caravan raids. Presumably it's the yuan-ti, but the matter is left rather vague (someone can correct me if I'm mistaken on this point) and, at any rate, the backstory is there as an excuse to get the PCs to venture into the jungle and find the Forbidden City and its denizens. The real "plot" of the module is what happens to the PCs once they're there, not something the author has scripted in advance. That's patently not the case with the Dragonlance modules, whose entire purpose was to advance an epic story in which the player characters can take part but the general outlines of which were mapped out not by the referee but by the modules' authors.

If you're looking for a good signpost in determining where the old school ends and the new one begins, it's the shift in emphasis from locales to plots. It's not a hard and fast division; there are examples of both on either side of the line. Nevertheless, I think the expectation that a module "tell a story" rather than provide a location for a story of your own devising is a good indicator of where one's gaming sympathies lie. Since the late 80s at least, roleplaying has largely been defined as "freeform storytelling" and, given that, it's no surprise that adventure modules have been structured accordingly. Now, I don't actually think that definition is incorrect but it's misleading, because it doesn't take into account the increasingly heavy-handed role played by the manufacturers of modules, who've largely usurped the role of the referee in creating and maintaining his campaign world. This is why, though I love the folks at Paizo dearly, I've never been a fan of the whole "adventure path" concept that they've developed into a high art. I'd love to see them produce more location-based modules myself, but I expect they know their fanbase better than I do.

To some extent, I expect that the shift away from the location-based approach is a concession to the oft-repeated saw that gamers no longer have as much free time to make things up as they once did. I think this is hooey myself. More to the point, I do not favor the abandonment of modules entirely -- far from it! Rather, what I advocate is that modules should be made more, well, modular and that means providing lots of options and alternatives that a referee can then use to make its contents his own rather than someone else's. When I was a kid, I may have had lots of time to waste that I no longer have today. I can tell you, though, that I didn't spend hours and hours planning out my adventures, most of which were seat-of-the-pants affairs. What modules gave me was a structure -- map, room descriptions, game stats, etc. -- onto which could hang the story my friends and I created as I refereed their adventures. What I think has happened over the years is that, because "adventure module" has become so strongly associated with the notion of a pre-made adventure story, gamers now simply recoil at the notion of having to "make up the story yourself." They see it as too much of a chore, when, in point of fact, creating a plot/story is the easiest part of being a RPG referee, not the hardest.

I'd love to see some modern day easily reusable modules. Perhaps I need to write them myself.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Father of Us All

On this day in 1890, Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island. Perhaps the finest practitioner of the "weird tale" ever to have put word to the page, his influence on the subsequent development of horror, fantasy, and science fiction is incalculable. Even during his lifetime, Lovecraft's ideas were widely disseminated, as his colleagues in the pulps borrowed and expanded upon his imaginary mythology. After his death, thanks to his many admirers and imitators, his ideas were disseminated wider still and are now part of the common pool from which numerous genres draw inspiration. This, of course, includes roleplaying games, including not just the explicitly Lovecraftian Call of Cthulhu, but also Dungeons & Dragons and many others. Had "Grandpa Theobald" (as he sometimes whimsically styled himself in letters) never lived, the course of several genres of literature, not to mention the popular media they spawned, would be very different indeed.

As I noted in a previous post, Lovecraft has been a powerful influence on my conception of horror and fantasy. Most of my D&D campaigns include Lovecraftian elements and, while Lovecraft's worldview is about as contrary to my own as any, I still find something powerful in his writing that speaks to me on many levels. Like him, I have strong antiquarian tastes and I recoil at many aspects of the modern age. I also can't help but feel an aversion to the popularization of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos. When you can buy stuffed versions of the Great Old One in a Santa hat, I hope I can be forgiven for feeling that H.P. wouldn't have been pleased at how his work has been treated. I understand that this is all evidence of many people's affection for Lovecraft and his stories. After all, there'd be no stuffed Cthulhus at all if people didn't love his work. Still, I'm uncomfortable with the way the Mythos has been reduced to a geekish jest in many quarters. But then I'm inclined to treat authors and ideas I like with a fair degree of reverence, so maybe I'm constitutionally ill disposed to find it all in good fun.

Of course, even Lovecraft smiled on occasion and so today shall I. I owe the old gent a great deal and it's only fitting I should remember him on the day of his birth. I encourage others to do the same. Chances are that anyone who's reading this blog owes him a lot as well.

Great Minds

An idea I've had for a long time and that I've never yet had the chance to fully implement is the creation of an "interplanetary" D&D setting, by which I mean one in which there are multiple inhabited worlds, each of which is (or has been) in contact with the others. This strikes me as true to the pulp fantasy inspirations of OD&D, with its regular invocations of Burroughs, and also with Vance's The Dying Earth, where there are frequent references to powerful wizards traveling to other moons and planets. I've also felt that the existence of congress with other worlds made it easier to justify the smörgåsbord of weird creatures that inhabit most D&D worlds. If I can say, for example, that lizard men are natives of the Green Planet and that those on the main campaign world are degenerate descendants of interplanetary travelers from the past, in my mind it's all a lot more "believable," if that makes any sense.

In my mind, I always imagined that the main campaign world had two sister planets, which I called simply the Green Planet and the Red Planet. I might give them actual names, but, as I envisioned it, regular travel between worlds was no longer common, having been curtailed by some cataclysmic event in the past (because all good fantasy worlds need a cataclysm in the past), so those names were known primarily to sages and savants and the rare wizard who still traveled there by arcane means.

The Green Planet is pulp Venus -- a lush, steaming jungle world filled with intelligent apes, all manner of reptiles (including dinosaurs), and weird amphibians. Imagine the Isle of Dread as an entire planet and you'll get the idea. The Red Planet, on the other hand, is pulp Mars -- a parched desert world whose decadent civilization teeters on the brink of collapse after untold millennia of practicing black magic and demon worship. Imagine if H.P. Lovecraft had written A Princess of Mars and you'll have the right of it.

What's fascinating is that Paizo's Pathfinder RPG setting, Golarion, seems to be trying to mine the same vein of pulp science fiction. It even uses the terms Green Planet and Red Planet much as I do. It's stuff like this that makes it hard for me not to wish the guys and gals at Paizo well, even if their taste in game mechanics are decidedly more new school than I like. If I ever get to use this in a campaign, you can be sure I'll be swiping a couple of ideas from Pathfinder.

Public Service Announcement (Again)

I've said before that I don't see being passionate about roleplaying games -- or any other hobby -- as a bad thing. Without passion, the world would be a much duller place. But passion can also lead people astray and make them say and do things in the heat of the moment that, on reflection, they'd probably never consider saying or doing. That's why I'd like to ask that, if you disagree with me or with anything I've said, if you think an idiot, a fool, or just an opinionated bastard, please direct your ire toward me and not toward my family, least of all my children.

I have a very thick skin and am not someone who cries foul whenever a voice is raised in anger against my views; it's happened my entire life and I fully expect it to continue so long as I dare to say anything the least bit controversial. I don't have any problem with someone engaging me in spirited debate or even launching a good polemic against me and what I think about gaming or anything else. If I shied away from disagreements, I'd never have put this blog out there for people to read. I'm sincere when I say that I welcome opposing viewpoints.

I may seem like an immovable stick in the mud who closes his ears to the world, but that's pretty far from the truth. I can and have been swayed to revise my opinions in the face of reasoned discourse. "Reasoned" is key here. And wishing ill upon my children because I happened to say something you disagree with, even strongly, is not a good way to convince me of your rationality. So, please, don't do it.

Thank you.

REVIEW: Points of Light

Points of Light, written by Robert Conley and Dwayne Gillingham, packs more old school goodness in its 48 pages than any product published in 2008 has any right to. Don't believe me? Take a look at the 11-page PDF preview and then come back here. Even a quick skim of that preview will make it clear what I'm talking about. Quite simply: Points of Light is the Wilderlands of High Fantasy for the 21st century -- and in some ways it's better. Hyperbole comes easily to me, doesn't it? Perhaps. Let's take a closer look at the book before continue with my effusive praise.

Points of Light describes four different settings, each one broadly consonant with the notion of a dangerous wilderness punctuated by small outposts of civilization. As everyone knows, this is the default setting assumption of 4e and the book's title is an allusion to it. I'll grant you that, when I first heard the title, I wasn't enthused. Like most things about 4e, "Points of Light," as a phrase, reminds me too much of my college philosophy classes, where 18 year-olds, confronted with Plato's dialogs for the first time, suddenly think thoughts they believe no one has ever thought before, failing to realize of course that Plato has been read and analyzed for 2500 years and that there are very likely no new thoughts about the great thinker. By the same token, "points of light" isn't new at all; it's been a setting assumption of D&D from the start. The formalization of the concept -- and the creation of jargon to describe it -- is a good indicator to me of how rootless 4e is, but that's a topic for another time. I don't blame the authors of Goodman Games for adopting the title in an effort to sell the product to players of the new edition, who could certainly learn a few things about the old school from its tightly-written pages.

Despite its title, Points of Light is not, in fact, a 4e product; indeed it's not a product for any system, since it contains almost no game stats at all. What stats it does include, such as references to classes and levels, for example, suggests that it's intended for D&D, but I have no doubt it'd be easily adaptable to any fantasy roleplaying game built on the same concepts as D&D. I was mostly quite pleased with this approach, as it increased the utility of the book a great deal and makes adaptation a snap. My only quibble -- and it's a tiny one -- is that some "high-level" NPCs are in fact given specific levels (Clr12, for instance). I'd have preferred that such things remain vague, so each referee could decide for himself what constitutes high-level. Now, such things are supremely easy to change, so I cannot complain too vociferously. I know from experience, though, that, if something is written in the book, at least some referees or players will expect it to be so and, in a toolkit product like this, the fewer expectations that are introduced, the better.

The meat of the book are the four settings it describes, each with an accompanying one-page hex map (each hex representing 5 miles). Each setting is given a capsule history of three or four paragraphs to "set the scene" and Adaptation Notes that give some ideas about how to customize it to suit the needs and interests of each referee. There is also a table of random encounters and random rumors to give the referee something from which to work in making the settings his own. The descriptions of the settings are divided into sections: Geography, describing terrain features and Locales, describing fixed "encounters," whether they be settlements, monster lairs, ruins, etc. Each hex is numbered and there is an entry in the appropriate section if the hex contains anything noteworthy. These entries are typically no more than a single paragraph, with a few (generally settlements) containing a little more detail (and possibly a thumbnail map). There's just enough detail here to spur the referee's own imagination and give a sense of a greater whole, but not so much that it's hard to change the details if so desired.

The four settings included in Points of Light are as follows:
  • Wildland: An area analogous to an outlying province of the Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D. -- after the legions have gone. As its name suggests, it's a "wild" region, overrun with humanoid and barbarian tribes and only a few small outposts of civilization that cling to the old ways.
  • Southland: An homage to the Outdoor Survival map of which OD&D often speaks, this setting is an untamed area "to the south" of civilized kingdoms and where the PCs are expected to go and establish themselves as local lords.
  • Borderland: This is a war-torn area where several different factions seek the upper hand. It's a good locale for referees and players who like moral ambiguity and intrigue.
  • Swamps of Acheron: The most unusual of the four settings, this one is located in an extraplanar realm dedicated to a Lawful Evil god, meaning that it's also the most limited of the settings. It's also the shortest of the four settings (and the one with the smallest map), which can be seen as either good or bad, depending on one's proclivities
Of the four settings, I found that both Wildland and Southland fired my imagination powerfully and I am already torn between using one or the other as the basis for a new campaign. Borderland is also excellent, but it's a bit less "primal" than the other two. The Swamps of Acheron is a puzzle. There are lots of good ideas within its description, but it's also very esoteric, being extraplanar in nature and the realm of an evil god. Its utility is much less than that of the other three, but the other three are so well-done that I scarcely minded. And of course, the Swamps of Acheron is good; it's just not as good in my opinion as the others, but tastes differ on such things.

The layout of the book is simple and usable. The illustrations are nice black and white pieces, definitely contemporary in their appearance but not of the Elmore strike-a-pose school. The writing is generally very clear and concise, with only a few infelicities here and there. The hex maps are simply gorgeous, a beautiful melding of old school sensibilities with modern technology. Indeed, that's how I could characterize Points of Light in general. It's an old school product with new school production values. The book even includes an extensive index, making it easy to find things, which is a nice if somewhat unnecessary touch in a book of this size. All in all, the presentation of Points of Light should serve as a model for how old school publishers present their own products. I'd have liked different interior art, for the most part, but it's not a huge issue and, given that the book is intended to appeal to a broad spectrum of fantasy gamers, I can't fault Goodman Games for not going with something more strongly connected to older forms of illustration.

If Points of Light has a significant flaw, it's the intimation of a larger setting when you look at all four regions it describes. Certain names, historical events, and concepts reappear throughout the book. Now, none of these things gets much -- or any -- explication in the text, so it's not a huge concern. My worry, I suppose, is that there will be a temptation to use these names and so forth as the basis for creating a larger setting that encompasses them all, as was done with the Dungeon Crawl Classics line. The desire to find coherence and unity where there is no need for either is a powerful force in the RPG hobby today. As it stands, Points of Light gives us the thinnest of details, a pencil outline on a broad canvas that we can then color to our own liking. However, I am sure there will be gamers out there who'd like to know more about the history of the Bright Empire or the teachings of the goddess Delaquain and game publishers have a tendency to cater to such obsessives. I'd hate to see that happen, but I can hardly fault this book for what might or might not happen in possible sequels to it.

Leaving aside my concerns for a future that might not be, Points of Light is nearly perfect -- so perfect in fact that I can reasonably call it the Wilderlands of High Fantasy for the next generation. Like its illustrious predecessor, this is a product that's meant to be used rather than pored over for trivial details. One cannot (yet) talk about the intricacies of any of its settings, because they simply don't exist. In that respect, I think it has more utility than the Wilderlands, but then the Wilderlands has had almost three decades of support products. Given that much time, I fear the "world" of Points of Light would be just as detailed. I hope that does not occur; I hope that the toolkit approach of this volume is kept pristine.

The animating philosophy behind this great book is "imagine the hell out of it," a do-it-yourself perspective that is positively refreshing in a hobby filled with brand building and canned settings. Points of Light is gaming at its best -- a call to each referee to use these raw materials to create their own worlds of the imagination rather than relying on the pabulum spoon fed by game companies looking to develop an IP. I have no idea if Points of Light will appeal to today's gamers; I'd love to find out that it sold like gangbusters. That'd be proof that the old ways aren't quite dead, that the kind of gaming I enjoy is still cherished. Regardless, this is a terrific book and I can't speak highly enough about it. Go out and buy a copy and see for yourself.

Final Score: 5 out of 5 polearms

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Bit Like Rock Music

"Games are a bit like rock music, in that no matter where you take them, there needs to be at least a grain of stupidity there, a thread leading back home. I think the same is true of anything done for pleasure."
Thus spake S. John Ross in his Epilogue to the True Scientific Edition of Encounter Critical, which arrived safely in my mailbox this morning. I'm very happy to have been turned on to this game by guys whose opinions I respect, like Jeff Rients. EC is a thing of beauty and I hope to have the chance to inflict it on my gaming group sometime soon. If I do, you can be sure I'll make a post about it -- oh yes indeed.

Grognard's Grimoire: Weird Monetary Treasures

One of the things you need to remember about old school D&D is that most characters received the bulk of their experience points for accumulating treasure rather than from slaying monsters. That's why treasure generation is given such detail in the old rules. It's also why many valuable items are bulky and/or unwieldy -- to make it hard for the characters to haul it out of the dungeon and thus gain experience points appropriate to its value.

That said, I was never really one of those referees who saddled his players with a funerary boat made of solid gold and took big to fit through the doors of the burial chamber where it was kept or a dragon's trove consisting entirely of copper pieces in the millions. I liked to toy with my players, of course, and test their ingenuity, but I preferred to go the route of simply making ordinary things like coins, gems, or jewelry sufficient weird that it took cleverness and perseverance to be able to be able to cash them in.

I used to have a formula for the way I determined the likelihood that monetary treasure was unusual in some way, but I can no longer recall it. So, I'm going to borrow a page from Matt Finch's Swords & Wizardry and go with the following:

For every 100gp in value, there is a 10% chance that 100gp worth of monetary treasure is unusual, AND

For every 1,000 gp in value, there is a 10% chance that 1,000gp worth of monetary treasure is unusual, AND

For every 5,000gp in value, there is a 10% chance that 5,000gp worth of monetary treasure is unusual.

Remember, of course, that "monetary" here means treasure whose value to the characters is expressed entirely in how much cash it can bring through its sale. I never used this method when dealing with weapons, armor, and other such things, because there already were tables to determine their unique properties, if any.

For every Xgp worth of monetary treasure determined to be unusual, roll on the following table to determine in what way it's unusual:

1 Unusual Shape (e.g. triangular coins or square gems)
2 Unusual Size (e.g. giant-forged coins or small bead-like gems)
3 Unusual Color (e.g. green gold pieces or blue rubies)
4 Unusual Markings (e.g. strange glyphs on coins or carvings on the surface of gems)
5 Unusual Property (e.g. glowing coins or floating gems)
6 Hazardous Property (e.g. coins coated with contact poison or gems that give off radiation)

Except for number 6 on the list, all of the other unusual qualities add about 10-25% value to the monetary treasure, but the characters have to work hard to get someone who will be willing to buy them. After all, how many fences have ever heard of blue rubies and would recognize their value when he did? The intent here is to spur side adventures and visits to sages and esoteric collectors in order to offload the weird loot.

The Art of the Old School

I'd read this quote a while ago and agreed with it then, but, in light of the terrific conversations going on my comments lately, I'm going to bring it to everyone's attention, because it succinctly says a few things I've been trying to get across about old school games. I've bolded a section I think is particularly pertinent and that speaks quite clearly on why I see devolution rather than evolution over the course of D&D's history.
The rules themselves were barely there. You had to make it all up. This put so much responsibility on the GM. He had to be entertaining, imaginative, fair, rational. In many ways the steady march away from original D&D has been a sustained effort to remove the effects of a bad GM on the game. The more game elements are objectively determined, written down in books, the less you have to rely on the GM. The less you need a really good GM to run the game. And yes, the more of a science it becomes, and less of an art. Running this game was an art form and only a few people could do it really well. There’s something magical about that. Newer versions become more systematized and therefore more people can play. Mediocre GMs can run good games. But, if I’m being honest with myself, something of the magic is lost. That feeling that most of this game lived in your mind. Because of that, I think, it was more real. As more and more of the game lived in the rules and on character sheets, it became a game instead of a world in your head.
Read the rest of the post too. I have a fair number of quibbles about it, but, overall, there's a lot I agree with and would recommend to anyone who still doesn't quite get the old school philosophy.

The Old School Culture

One of the occupational hazards of championing the older form of something for which an updated version exists is the charge of "fogeyism," which is to say, a form of contrariness with no rational basis, only an emotional attachment to the old over the new. Fogeyism is an extreme example of nostalgia or rose-colored glasses syndrome -- viewing the past in a purely subjective fashion and comparing it favorably to the present. Now, I can't deny I indulge in fogeyism from time to time. I'm temperamentally well-disposed toward contrariness, particularly when doing so makes people question the notion that "newer is better." Likewise, I'm a wretched traditionalist about most things in life, so, as a mindset, fogeyism suits me well.

So, I would hope no one would be surprised by the fact that I look on the three earliest iterations of Dungeons & Dragons -- OD&D, Holmes Basic, and AD&D -- as my primary sources when it comes to discussing the game. Of the three, I played AD&D the most and the longest, while Holmes was my introduction into the hobby. OD&D I have played only a handful of times, but I revere it as an important historical artifact and quasi-philosophical text. When I am confused about the development of a particular rule or concept, I always refer back to OD&D to see where the idea began; it's a good guide when asking questions about D&D, even if it's rarely a place I find answers.

As I have refined my own views about this hobby, I've come to the conclusion that its faddish success in the late 70s and early 80s -- the so-called Golden Age of 1978-1982 -- was in fact a glorious Autumn before the onset of Fimbulwinter. My entry into the hobby in late 1979 puts me squarely in the middle of the Golden Age, when D&D became a household word and schools and public libraries across the nation sponsored game clubs and game days. Hobby and toy shops everywhere sold D&D books, dice, and miniatures and almost everyone in my circle of friends and acquaintances played the game.

It was a heady, exciting time to enter the hobby, because it was still a single hobby at this point. The first generation of gamers, the guys who'd played wargames in the late 60s and early 70s and who remembered a time when there was just D&D without the O or A, were still around and active. They were mentors to a lot of us and they took great pleasure, mixed with occasional annoyance, at all these young kids who suddenly took an interest in the same things they did. It was during this time that I was introduced to Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Michael Moorcock, took up my love of history, and began my lifelong love affair with maps and languages.

Though only a young person, these were interests I shared with the older guys and together we formed a single hobby. Of course, the reason we formed a single hobby is because I had adopted my hobby from the older guys. I'd been "initiated" into the brotherhood and was deemed worthy to participate in its mysteries. There's a quote from Mike "Old Geezer" Mornard that's been making the rounds lately and it's a good and pertinent one:
Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax originally developed OD&D for adult wargamers. Those of us under 18 were there because invited, and because we could 'play like adults'.
I'm certainly younger than Mornard and I never had the chance to game with Arneson, Gygax, and Barker as he has, but what he describes there mirrors my own experiences. Back in the day, I often played at game gatherings with "old" guys and never once considered it odd. We all could quote from Conan stories, knew details about the Hundred Years War, and liked to show off hand-drawn maps of our campaign worlds. Why wouldn't we game together?

But then something happened and that something was the mass marketing of D&D to appeal to people outside of this little brotherhood into which I'd been initiated. The Basic Rules of 1981 (Moldvay) and 1983 (Mentzer) were attempts to broaden the appeal of the game and make it more accessible to people who, either by circumstance or disposition, weren't able to hook into the network of masters and padawans that I'd so gleefully joined a few years previously.

The mass marketing of D&D succeeded and succeeded brilliantly, bolstering the ranks of people who bought TSR products. However, it was also a hammer blow to the common culture of the old school. The people who entered the hobby with Moldvay and Mentzer were (largely) those who discovered fantasy in the post-D&D world. They weren't into Howard or Moorcock; they were into "fantasy," this suddenly-popular genre of literature that had sprung up in the aftermath of D&D's amazing success. Let me be clear: I'm not faulting anyone for having been born too late to have experienced the Golden Age of Gaming or whose circumstances militated against their picking up a Lin Carter anthology and devouring it. Nevertheless, the influx of new gamers whose acquaintance with the old culture was superficial at best wrought changes, changes that weren't obvious at the time, but that, as the years wore on, shattered the old consensus, replacing it not with a new consensus but a fragmented one.

When I bemoan the state of the hobby today, I do so because I miss the old culture. I miss the days when I could enter a game shop and strike up a conversation with a guy thirty years my elder and share common interests and experiences. Fantasy now is too balkanized and diffuse to serve as the basis for a common culture. I often feel quite alienated from younger gamers, because, other than a vague commitment to "roleplaying" (however defined), we simply don't have a common frame of reference anymore. A lot of times I express my alienation in what comes across as contempt for the new stuff; heck, sometimes it is contempt. But what I am trying to get across is that I lament the passing of the day when there really was a brotherhood of gamers, when I really could talk about The Hobby with the definite article and it meant something that wasn't just platitudinous can't-we-all-just-get-along Kumbaya nonsense.

Often, what might appear to be anger on my part is actually sadness. I dearly miss the old hobby shops and companies. I miss the game clubs and game days. I miss the old school culture that I enthusiastically joined almost thirty years ago. Any ire I feel is mostly directed at those who argue that the things I miss are not just long gone -- I know that already -- but unimportant and that keeping their memory sacred is a waste of time. I simply won't accept that. 2008 has already seen the deaths of Gygax and Bledsaw, two titans of the Golden Age. Over the next few years, we'll undoubtedly lose even more of the founders of the hobby. I'm not willing to forget them or abandon the things they created; that's just not the way I am about the past, particularly when that past laid the groundwork for my present. I owe a lot to this hobby and I've chosen to honor it the best way I know how: by keeping the old culture alive and trying to inspire a little more love for it in others.

I know that makes me a fool, but I've been called worse.

I Hate Technology

I'm still finding it impossible to convince Google Analytics that I have a tracking code embedded into this blog. I have tried pretty much everything and nothing works. And given that I use Blogger to compose Grognardia, my ability to monkey around with its inner working is pretty limited -- that is, assuming I even understood how to do so, which I don't.

I have less than 1000 regular readers and I don't sell anything through this blog, so it's not vital that I have the ability to track visitors and so forth. Still, I found it interesting to see where all my visitors were coming from. I discovered a number of great new blogs by checking my Analytics stats. I'd like to continue to be able to do that, but technology seems to be conspiring against me.

And people wonder why I prefer a game made in the 1970s ...

Monday, August 18, 2008

Castle Zagyg: Upper Works

I understand this product was released as a boxed set for GenCon. Has anyone seen it or, better yet, know anything about it? I ask because I'm in principle quite interested, but there's also a part of me that's rather worried that, for various reasons, it won't meet with my approval. I rather liked Yggsburgh, warts and all, so I'm hoping this product will be in a similar vein. And let's face it: I'm a sucker for a boxed set. At the same time, I have fears and trepidations.

Anyone have any deep insights to share?

The Shoulders of Giants

Growing up as a gamer in Baltimore during the 1970s meant that it was impossible for me not to know about Charles S. Roberts and the company he founded, The Avalon Hill Game Company. Called by some the "Father of (Board) Wargaming," Roberts was the designer of the classic Tactics, which he published in 1954, a game that revolutionized the way wargames were published and played forever after. Between Tactics and his second game, Gettysburg (published in 1958), most of the features we now associate with wargames (hex maps, cardboard counters, combat resolution tables, etc.) became established as standards that all subsequent wargames would either imitate or react against. Originally located in Avalon, Maryland (hence the name of the company), Avalon Hill eventually moved to Baltimore in 1962, after Roberts sold the company to one of his creditors, Monarch Printing. The company remained there at 4517 Harford Road until 1998, when the company and its properties were acquired by Hasbro.

As I've said before, I was never much of a wargamer myself, but I knew wargamers, mostly my friend's father and his buddies, as well as guys I knew through various hobby shops I'd frequent. I'd occasionally join them in playing various games -- 1776, Gettysburg, Rise and Decline of the Third Reich and, of course, Squad Leader -- and I enjoyed them well enough. I was never very good, of course, which may explain why people liked playing wargames against me, but I didn't mind. I found the games fascinating as physical artifacts, with all those counters and hex maps. I used to use my Squad Leader maps when playing D&D, because they worked great as generic wilderness areas. Little did I realize I was recapitulating history, albeit with a different game. I also played a lot of other "wargames," like Diplomacy, Freedom in the Galaxy, Kingmaker, and so forth and was generally more adept at them.

Given all of that, it was rather hard not live in awe of Avalon Hill. Sure, there were other wargame companies out there, most notably SPI, but AH always seemed to me to be the king of this particular hill (no pun intended). I felt considerable local pride in the company and its accomplishments, even if it had (as the legend goes) turned down the opportunity to have published D&D and thereby deprived me of the chance to work for my favorite game's publisher in my own hometown. Not that I'm bitter about that or anything ...

Anyway, my father, as was often the case, knew one of the printers who worked for Avalon Hill and he arranged for me to get a tour of the place. I still have very fond memories of that day, as I watched men laying out books -- by hand -- on these giant machines. I realize it only confirms my Luddite credentials, but there's something so right about old fashioned printing. I was absolutely captivated by it, so much so that I almost forgot where I was. I met a number of editors and designers too, although, for the life of my I can't recall a single name. Back then, if you weren't Gary Gygax or Marc Miller, you really weren't a "name" in my book. Still, just being there made me feel like I'd died and gone to Valhalla; this is the place where games were made. And I mean literally. This is where they were printed and packaged and shrink wrapped and all the rest. I mean, people used to hand pack these wargames. I saw huge stacks of cardboard counters and the machine that made them. It was an astounding thing.

Like many companies, Avalon Hill fell prey to a combination of economic factors that led to its being purchased by Hasbro in 1998. In a strange irony, Avalon Hill is now a brand name under the auspices of Wizards of the Coast, the company that bought TSR, publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, and itself purchased by Hasbro in 1999. Disappointingly, very few classic Avalon Hill games have been re-released since Hasbro bought the company (Diplomacy being the notable exceptions). AH is now mostly a brand name, like Parker Brothers or Milton Bradley, without much connection to its history or origins. Under WotC/Hasbro, Avalon Hill's logo goes on "strategy" boardgames like Axis & Allies or Risk 2210. A few classic AH wargames of old, like Advanced Squad Leader, have been licensed to other publishers, but most are in the vault somewhere, unlikely ever to see the light of day again.

Avalon Hill occupies a strange place in my history as a gamer. Even when the company was still around, I viewed it as a relic from an earlier age, but one that welcomed me into the borders of a wondrous kingdom, like the Argonath. There were untold riches here; this was, after all, the company that had created an entire hobby around itself and whose games had nourished the imaginations of my heroes, Gygax and Arneson. I might not have ever been a true wargamer, but I always had respect for Avalon Hill. It was an institution and a link with the past and I took great interest in that past. The stories my friend's father told us about the games he had played in his own youth with his friends and the real world history that I learned from these games are memories I'll always carry with me. They're part of what drew me into roleplaying, strangely enough -- a desire to be part of something that had been going on for decades, ever since Charles Roberts changed the world forever in 1954.

Grognard's Challenge #2: The Lightning Field

I received far fewer entries for Grognard's Challenge #2 than I did for #1, owing, I think, to the much greater difficulty of coming up with clever tricks or traps to befuddle players, which is why I extended the deadline and expanded the scope of the contest. Nevertheless, I did receive many excellent entries and I thank everyone who made a submission.

Having examined them carefully, though, there was one that stood out in my mind as a clear favorite and that was Ed Moretti's "The Lightning Field." Not only did his entry include a very nice map -- with hexes! -- but the core concept of his trick/trap is one that speaks to many different aspects of my own gaming philosophy. In essence, it's a giant gamble, because there's a healthy dose of randomness involved. There's a chance a character could easily cross the lightning field without every running afoul of its dangers -- but it's only a chance. In addition, the randomness isn't "pure," since the presence of characters wearing metal armor introduces another degree of variability that is also unpredictable.

The Lightning Field reminded me of tricks/traps I used when I was a younger man. For a long time, I had an obsession with giant chessboards and other similar kinds of puzzles involving plotting a course across deadly terrain that followed certain not easily discernible patterns. I think the Lightning Field is unique too because, while it could be transported to a dungeon environment with ease -- bonus points for flexibility -- it is "native" to the wilderness. I'm of the opinion that old school gaming tends to be overly dungeon-focused to its detriment and I appreciate seeing submissions like this, because they're a good reminder that there's a whole world out there in which to adventure in an old school fashion.

So, without further ado, here's the Lightning Field. Congratulations to Ed. I'll be sending him a copy of The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures shortly as his prize.
Description: The Valley of Storms is as shrouded in mystery as it is shrouded in the veil of perpetual storm that gives it its name, for no one has gone into the valley and returned in living memory.  The knowledge of who or what dwells within is beyond the reach of even legend; all that one can be sure of is that some sinister intelligence guards the valley against the curious and the venturesome.

The entrance to the valley is a narrow ravine, 20 yards wide, with sheer walls and floor of polished, smooth, hard, black stone slick from the constant rain. The ground between these walls is dotted by long metal poles embedded in the black stone floor every three feet for a distance of 100 yards. The purpose of these poles is given much speculation by those who view the valley for the first time. Impalement? Astronomical observatory of some kind? A new spectator does not have long to wait, however, to learn the awful truth of what these poles mean in a land whose atmosphere is a seething boil of constant storm. Each round, a bolt of lightning erupts from the clouds, attracted randomly to one of these metal poles, with lethal results to anyone in the vicinity.

Rules: The pole that the lightning strikes can be determined by obtaining a 1d20 roll representing the X axis and a 1d100 roll representing the Y axis (see Figure 1.0 below). A lightning strike will do 6d8 points of damage to anyone in the hex determined by the roll with the amount of damage decreasing by d8 for each hex a character is standing away from the hex struck (save for half damage).

If the roll determines that lightning will strike within 6 hexes of any character wearing metal armor, there is a 60% chance (-10% per hex distant from the hex rolled) that the lightning will strike that character instead for a full 6d8 points of damage (no save). If more than one character wearing metal armor is in range, roll the percentage for each character. The lightning will strike the character who rolled under the percentage chance with the highest number displayed on the dice. For example, Character 1 in plate mail is 2 hexes away from the hex rolled and thus has a 40% chance of being struck and rolls a 15; character 2 in scale mail is 4 hexes away with a 20% chance of being struck and rolls a 19; and character 3 in chain mail is 1 hex away with a 50% chance and rolls a 70; character 2 will be struck by the lighting. The slick wet stone is slippery so that any character crossing it will be limited to their base movement rate when traversing the field.

I plan on sticking with two week spans for each contest from now on, meaning that Challenge #3 still has another week to go before I announce a winner. Good luck to everyone and many thanks to those who have submitted to the first two challenges.