Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Gender of Art

There’s been a lot of pixel-ink spilled lately on the subject of women in gaming art. I’d like to take a slightly different tack on that subject. Instead of discussing how not to market to women, I’d like to take a look at how some industries successfully market to women.

As a recap from Anna Kreider’s article on sexism in gaming art, here are two examples of how not to market to women. And here are two examples of cover art from industries who have made women not just the cornerstone of their business, but pretty much the entirety of it.

Now, some are going to jerk their knees and demand that there’s no significant difference. This isn’t true. There are differences, and though subtle, they are vital. It goes beyond just context. Remove the words and branding, and you can still see these differences, if you’re looking for them.

Heck, you probably see them even if you don’t. If you’ve been a member of Western Civilization long enough, you can see pretty clearly that the second set of pictures are coded as “targeted at women” while the first pair are clearly coded as “targeted at men (who probably haven’t been getting’ any recently).” In both cases, the artist is assuming a heterosexual audience with an interest in the erotic, but not going so far as to cross the line into the pornographic.

What intrigues me is how the coding is achieved. The most obvious technique is the deformation of female bodies in an almost cubist attempt to show “all the good parts” in a single image. This sort of thing is blatantly coded as “targeted at men.” Likewise, poses of groups that send “couple signals” (two characters touching or focused on each other in a non-antagonistic way) are nearly always coded as “targeted at women.”

There are tons of other techniques for coding art either way. Artists know this stuff, either overtly or subconsciously, and can turn it off and on in their work as needed. It’s much, much more than the figures chosen, but includes colors, composition, focus, and mood.

Obviously, if you want to attract a female audience, you put art coded towards women on the cover. Only if you do that, most men won’t touch it with their old-school ten-foot-poles. While a woman openly reading something coded as male by its cover art might garner a second look, but little more, a man reading something coded as female causes discomfort and confusion. Gender-bending in that direction is often the focus of comedy while going the other way hasn’t been part of the comedic repertoire much since Shakespeare gave us Twelfth Night.

So here’s where things get interesting: can we mix-and-match our coding? Can you compose a piece that signals as “targeted at men” to the guys and “targeted at women” to the gals? Is it possible to invite the women without sending the men running for the hills in the cultural climate we have today. I’d like to think the answer is yes, especially considering how subtle some of this coding is. But I have to admit I really don’t understand the techniques at even a surface level yet. Mastering this sort of thing is going to require a deft hand by someone who really understands this stuff. I think this was a first good stab, but we need more if we’re going to make women actually feel invited to the RPG clubhouse.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Unleashing the Lawyers of Yuletide Cheer!

Dan over at "Sword and Board" reports that WotC has sent a cease-and-desist order to Crystal Keep. For years that site had blatantly copyrighted material posted for download, being a sort of mostly-up-front version of those sketchy Russian torrent sites so famous in gaming circles.

Most see this as WotC getting tough about defending their IP. I’m not so sure that’s necessarily what’s going on. As Ghostofmarx pointed out, WotC’s virtual table appears to be system-agnostic. Yes, I know WotC has been strongly anti-pdfs in the past. And yes, I know this flies in the face of all that the intranetz holds to be true about business (in spite of evidence that 3e with OGL has sold much better than 4e without it), but I think this may be the opening moves in attempts by WotC to get a piece of Paizo’s action.

The Pathfinder RPG did commit some pretty serious tweaking on 3.5, but they claim it’s still backwards compatible with at least that version of 3e, and I haven’t seen a lot that leads me to think otherwise. Which means all the customers WotC “lost” when they didn’t migrate up to 4e are playing a game that’s compatible with large numbers of books WotC could still sell them. No, reprints are almost certainly not going to happen, but pdfs could.

That could be a win-win for both WotC and Paizo. The truth is, it’s not really competition; by this point, the 3e/Pathfinder folks aren’t likely to migrate back to WotC for anything less than 5e (and probably not even then) and the 4e folks most likely to go back to 3e probably already have done so. And, quite frankly, there’s no reason someone couldn’t play both. :p

So, WotC releases a their virtual tabletop as the flagship of a revamped D&D Insider, and to sweeten the pot even more for those holdouts firmly in the Pathfinder camp, they’ll offer pdf versions of 3.5 material to subscribers. Now WotC has folks who never bought the 4e books paying monthly subscription fees for their digital initiative.

And now Paizo is getting support from the biggest gorilla in the jungle. People have a new way to play Pathfinder even when they can’t get face-to-face, there’s old-but-cool exciting material to incorporate into their games, and more excitement and buzz about their work.

Keep in mind that just about everyone at Paizo got their start working at WotC. The people involved here are not bitter rivals, but old friends, colleagues, and creative partners. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they game together on their off hours, hang out at the same bars and clubs, even attend the same Christmas parties. The assumption of bitter rivalry just doesn’t appear to hold up to the reality of how this industry works. DDI goodies for Pathfinder can bring new subscribers, and Pathfinder goodies (tile sets, monster tokens, etc) for the virtual tabletop will make that product more fun for everybody. If this is, in fact, where things are heading, it could be a big coup for both sides.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Art Order Challenges

Have you been by the Art Order blog? It's maintained by Jon Schindehette, who is the Creative Art Director for D&D at WotC. Among other things, they apparently do a lot of themed art challenges. These seem to be really popular right now. Artists really like them because they offer all sorts of great opportunities for discussing different approaches towards tackling any particular theme, and great examples for demonstrating the strengths of different techniques. Most recently, the Art Order blog did one on dungeon delving. Some poor fool was to be depicted in an underground environment, battered and clearly in over their head, navigating by lantern light. You can see all 121 entries here. To my eye, Krisztian Balla’s stands head-and-shoulders above a lineup full of exceptional art. Part of it, of course, is the you-are-there simplicity of the setting and the gear of the explorer. Beyond that, the muted, washed-out palette really plays up how his only source of light is his lantern. He looks both battered and capable, and you can see he's carrying the sorts of gear we typically mark on our character sheets. Here’s hoping we see a lot more of Balla’s work in the future.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

More Honey Cakes for Cerberus

Alexis at "Tao of D&D" has started poking at building some social mechanics for D&D. There’s been some questions and a few wrong assumptions about how I generally handle social interactions in my games, so I figured now was a good time to revisit the topic

There are two important issues that need to be understood. The first may be the hardest: social interaction skills are not magic. Sure, there's a place for coercion, browbeating, intimidation, seduction, insinuation, and all that sort of emotionally charged stuff. But honestly, I don't see much of this in my daily life. Most interactions I have, and I see others having, generally boil down to fairly simple exchanges. I'll invoke Heinlein:
Never appeal to a man’s “better-nature.” He may not have one. Invoking his self-interest gives you more leverage.
Generally, when I want something from someone, and I think they might not be willing to give it to me, I find some way to turn it into a barter. So do most people. Sometimes, this is fairly open-ended and long-term, like helping your friends move on the assumption that they will help you move when the time comes. Sometimes, it can be fairly immediate, like when I helped my neighbor set up a printer in exchange for homemade macaroons. Often, it's flagrantly commercial: I give the guy behind the counter a $10 bill and he gives me a Big Mac, fries, a soda, and change.

When the other person is highly resistant, you up the offer and invoke a stick to juxtapose with your carrot. If you show up for work on time and perform your duties correctly, you’ll get a better performance review, which may lead to a raise. Failure to do these things will absolutely result in getting fired. Sometimes, all you get is stick. “Take down the copyrighted material,” reads the nastygram from the lawyers, “or we’ll see you in court.”

But honestly, most of the more exotic interactions really boil down to the same thing. Intimidation, at its heart, is exchanging something you want for not unleashing a world of hurt on the person you're attempting to intimidate, just as with the cease-and-desist letter. Seduction is the promise of pleasure given in exchange for pleasure received. In either case, your success is going to depend heavily on how well it appears you can follow through on the promises. Issues like reputation, how you look and are dressed, and how you express your desire for the exchange can all have a vital affect. For instance, you'll be a lot more successful at the seduction if you know what sort of pleasures your target wants and hasn't been getting, and your behavior, posture, and outfit hint that you’re just the person to deliver that sort of fun.

And this really is the heart of the matter. It's got nothing to do with coercing the DM or vague threats or knowledge of the rules or reputation outside of the game or anything like that. At my table, it’s never a contest of wills or wits between players and DM. If your character wants to seduce someone, they’d best have a good idea what that person wants in a lover. Otherwise, the chance of success is pretty damn low. This is why this post and the previous one are entitled "Honey Cakes for Cerberus". If you wish to slip past Hades’ three-headed watchdog, you could try a move-silently roll, with the knowledge that you’ll be savaged if you fail. However, you’re much more likely to succeed if you follow the advice of the ancients and slip the pooch a honeycake just as Aeneas did. In exactly the same way, knowing how Lord Rouschford prefers to be touched, and by whom, makes it far more likely that you'll succeed when attempting to seduce him.

Now, as Alexis correctly points out, this can result in a hell of a lot of recordkeeping. For just about every NPC you’ll need to know what they want, what they have, and what they're willing to trade for it. You’ll also need to know who else knows what they want and what they have. Traditionally for me, this has not been terribly difficult. I've always seen this as just part of knowing who people are. But it is a lot easier with some recordkeeping. (Currently, Odyssey and I are experimenting with different ways to make those records easier to use and peruse. This is one of those areas were someone of a more visual mind is helpful, as we want a way to convey a lot of information in a quick, easy package. Who has what, who knows what, who wants what, and how do they all relate to each other. I use tables right now, but it doesn’t make things easy, especially when you’re trying to use someone else’s campaign notes.)

That's really the bulk of it right there. The hard part, honestly, is making sure you have players who enjoy that sort of thing. Alexis’ crew clearly wouldn't. I haven’t played with people like that in quite some time. If there is a theme to this blog, it is this: know what you want and know how to get it. My games abound in background detail, conversation, emotion, and conflict. Once my PCs start talking to somebody, they’re likely to question that person every which way from Wednesday. I imagine Alexis and his crew would see this as a verbal version of pixel-bitching. Minds would wander, eyes would glaze over, and fun would drain out of the room fast. There's nothing wrong with that. It's just not what they want, and not what they find fun. This is why I'm not antagonistic in any way at all to his attempt at a more holistic social interaction system. In his game, in-game conversations get in the way of the fun. In my game, in-game conversations are the fun. Different strokes for different folks.

I do, however, dislike the term "social combat" which I've seen tossed around the 'net here and there, mostly as a short-hand for this sort of thing. The idea that social interactions are some sort of winner-takes-all conflict strikes me as utterly ludicrous. Life just doesn't work that way. You've almost always got to give a little to get anything.

However, I'm certain people schooled in the ways of swordsmanship and such may very well feel the same way about D&D’s combat. I'm perfectly fine with the abstractions of hit points and a single to-hit roll covering an entire minute’s worth of combat, because combat isn’t where the fun is in D&D for me. Getting down into the details of footwork, feints, styles of combat, and dirty tricks would force my games to linger on exactly those points where I want things to be quick and simple. Combat just gets in the way of the fun. And I imagine those who use "social combat" systems probably feel the same way about social interaction.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Taverns Three by Satyre

Over at his blog, Fame & Fortune, Satyre offers a free pdf detailing a trio of taverns. No maps, but the layouts are simple enough that they shouldn't really be needed, and the vibe is decidedly Sword & Sorcery. The OGL is invoked, but no stats are listed, so you could use these taverns with pretty much any system you please.

The first, the Zaros Road Taverna, is an orderly, well-run place that could be plopped in just about any village or town in your fantasy campaign. The Minotaur's Horn is a bit closer to the wilderness, and faces monstrous, supernatural threats. The final watering hole, the Standing Sphynx, is a den of cutthroats, harlots, witches, and the unfortunate goatherds who find them eager buyers for the flesh and milk of their flocks. Located outside a half-looted necropolis, the locals regularly must contend with the restless dead.

Each is rather flavorful and includes prices for food and lodging, details about the people who live and work and stay there, and a handful of adventure hooks. More than worth your time.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A New Direction for 4rt?

It's no secret I had little affection for the art of 4e's core books. Frankly, I've ignored most of the stuff produced for 4e, and what little I have seen hasn't really inspired me to seek out the art associated with it.

But Ben Wootten is turning out some exceptional work that really grabs me. Over on his Deviant Art site, he's posted three pics from the Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms book which is part of the Essentials line, I think. This battle scene has a few dungeon-punky elements, and more than a few nods to the art direction of the LotR movies, but the anatomy, weapons, and armour are largely toned done from the excesses we saw in 3e art.

"Kraken" invokes the best of Wayne Reynold's "wall of action" pieces without feeling completely over-the-top or out of control. Instead of the directionless vertigo that some of the art in 4e's core books used to create mood, the tilt here very much guides the eye through the action while still giving you that sense of unbalanced, roller-coaster action.

And how about that archer at the center of it all? Here's a better look at her. I'm hoping I'm not insulting Mr. Wootten when I compare this to other fantasy artists, but it really invokes the best of many of my favorites: Elmore's you-are-there atmosphere with Reynold's attention to tiny details and evocation of how we actually play the game, coupled with Eva Widermann's arresting, character-full faces. And, of course, "Saving the Best for Last" by Daniel Horne.

Mr. Wootten mentions Kate Irwin as the art director for this book, and she's not listed in my 4e PHB, so we could be seeing a new direction in art for D&D. Maybe this is just an attempt to look back at older styles for Essentials, or perhaps follow the same trend in fantasy art that the Paizo books have captured so well? I can't really say, but whatever they're doing at WotC, I sincerely hope they keep it up!

"Because they are animals!"

This. Very much this. ;D

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Internetz to teh Rescue!

My style of gaming relies heavily on winging it, DMing by the seat of my pants, often with little more than a few vague ideas and the backstory of the campaign to-date. I'm pretty good at that, but I've had over a quarter-of-a-century of practice, trials, amazing successes and humiliating disasters to guide my way.

If you're not so comfortable playing D&D by ear, and sandbox play works best when you are, frankly, there are lots of tools to lend you a hand. Just recently, these tools seem to have taken a quantum leap forward. First, via The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms, I found Dave Millar's Mapper App. Unlike the random map-builders of yor, this one takes advantage of a number of very cool original geomorphs that have been appearing on various blogs lately. It's got lots of customizability options, and the maps look great.

Mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut, so I'm not sure what all's being discussed at Von der Seifenkiste herab... but I could follow the link to this great collection of Labyrinth Lord tools. The map generator only uses the geomorphs of Risus Monkey. Apart for the occasional bit of repetition, and the things kinda falling off the corners, it's damn near impossible to tell that these maps were not made as one whole, rather than being assembled from bits.

In addition, that site also has various arrangements of the LL monster lists (alphabetically, by region, and by hit dice) and random room and treasure generators, so you can populate your assembled geomorph dungeons.

Speaking of treasures, did you catch Jeff Rients' series on ornamental and semiprecious stones? They include pics (so you can know what it is you're talking about) in addition to brief historical and mythological blurbs on many of them.

Truly, this is a golden age for those of us in gaming in general, not just the old-schoolers. Tools like these are becoming easier to make, and we're finding new resources all the time. I can certainly understand why some folks balk at including a laptop at the table, but I'm getting to the point where not having the resources of the intranetz at my fingertips is annoying, especially when I'm designing a setting or mapping a dungeon. Stuff like this only makes it more so.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Aztec Murder, Gamer Gold

If you’re the type of reader who is going to enjoy Aliette De Bodard's Servant of the Underworld, the cover to the American edition is likely to grab your attention. The clearly Aztec inspired circle isn't the sort of thing you expect to find on the cover of a book in the fantasy section of your local bookstore. Even if you do see it, you're likely to assume that this is a modern day story in which ancient Aztec relics serve as the MacGuffin, and, if you're lucky, there may be a handful of flashback scenes actually dealing with life in pre-Colombian Mexico.

Luckily, this is not the case with Servant of the Underworld. Instead, this is a murder mystery that takes place in the century before the arrival of Cortez, so there's nary a gringo to be found. In addition, the religion, myths, and superstitions of the Aztecs are, in fact, correct; the book is full of spells, gods, and monsters from Aztec myth. If you're a fan of a literary style jokingly referred to as “anthropology porn,” in which part of the fun is the description and exploration of strange and alien cultures, Servant of the Underworld is a delight. If you're a fan of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel novels, or pretty much anything written by Martha Wells, and have even a modicum of interest in Mesoamerican cultures, you should definitely give Servant of the Underworld a look.

If you're a fan of mysteries, you'll likely find the mystery at the center of this novel to be a touch weak. From the start, it's fairly clear that the original kidnapping is perpetrated primarily as a cover-up for more nefarious doings. Still, there's fun to be had in following the threads of the various political and personal plots that tangle together in the story. The characters are very human, and in the tradition of noir crime fiction, nearly everyone is tormented by their past in some way or another. Ms. De Bodard's skill at weaving the personal and the political allows her to couch large chunks of exposition within very personal drama. While it can get a little thick sometimes, the empathy she builds for the characters keeps you turning the pages.

This empathy does come at some cost to historical accuracy. As Ms. De Bodard comments in the afterword, she "twisted" the rituals of the main characters priesthood "slightly by not having them offer human sacrifices; in reality, like most cults, they would've relied heavily on those." Still, you're never allowed to forget that the characters did not grow up in a modern suburb. No Dr. Quinn Anachronism Woman here! ;)

For gamers, this book is a trove of coolness. There's lots of thematic sorcery, from calendar-based summoning magic, to charms sung to quiet monsters, to blood magic opening portals to the underworld. Even better for those of us who typically use polytheistic religions in our gaming, this book shows feuding cults within the same pantheon, and how such things can happen within an otherwise unified culture. There's none of the monotheistic "false gods and demons" nonsense that we see too often. Nobody doubts the existence of any god in the local pantheon, and for good reason: a handful of them make personal appearances in the story. And yet, the gods have their agendas and, when those come into conflict, their mortal servants are called upon to act on their behalf.

Beyond that, you have this really cool culture in which the aristocracy is held to higher personal standards than the lower classes and death as a human sacrifice is seen as an enviable end. Servant of the Underworld is out in paperback right now from Angry Robot and promises to be the first book in a trilogy. I am very much looking forward to reading the other two.

Friday, December 03, 2010

More Poking at Rules and Actions

Oddyssey told me that I should just keep it simple. I should just point out that different games require different mechanics. But instead I wrote something long and slightly rambling.

Shlominus replied with a rather long, point-by-point rebuttal. It highlights certain areas where I need to be more clear. So that's what this post is about. Let's start near the top:
this statement of yours baffles me. what you are saying is considering any non-physical ablilites you always play within your "real" personal limits.

Well, not exactly. Let's go back to the ideas that got this whole ball rolling. Mr. Dancey wants an RPG that is not targeted so heavily at the Rules Masters and Number Crunchers. He points to Dogs in the Vineyard as a way to move forward. The problem with this is that, in truth, if you look at what actually happens at the table, he's just replacing one set of rules with another. When I played Dogs in the Vineyard at GenCon, it was once again the ace rules guy who dominated the game. In short, if you want to make an RPG that appeals to people who aren't all about the rules, you'll need to offer them something other than more rules.

Here is my argument in a nutshell: what the players do at the table is what your game is about. Does this mean he should never have rules for social interaction? Of course not. What it means is you should not have mechanics for social interaction if the goal of the game is to have the players interact socially. In the same way that the combat rules in D&D mean that the players don't have to actually swing swords in the air, mechanics to handle social situations mean the players don't actually have to engage in any sort of social interaction.

If social interaction is just something that's going to happen, but is not a primary focus of your game, feel free to throw in all the social interaction mechanics you want. If, for instance, your game is all about being space merchants, and your focus is on buying, transporting, and selling commodities, you might not want spend too much time on bribing port officials. So, you make a real quick mechanic, maybe based on the characters’ reputation versus the honesty or the greed of the port official in question. That way, you can quickly adjudicate what the cost of corruption is to the PCs, and get right back into the heart of your game.

This is why the social mechanics of early D&D mentioned by DHBoggs are so simple. One quick dice roll defines how the people you meet feel about you. Because the game is more interested in exploration than combat, only a third of such encounters will result automatically in a fight. Probably less, if you allow a PC’s Charisma to influence the role. The situation can be swiftly adjudicated, allowing everyone return to the primary activity.

The rules, in short, allow us to quickly get through things we do not wish to linger on. It's not the only job they do, however. Let's take a look at another of shlominus' comments:

but in an rpg all the players do is make their characters do something.

Ah, but this is not true at all. Most RPGs, especially more recently produced ones, are chock full of mechanics that have nothing to do with the actions of the characters. Saving throws are a good example. A saving throw is pretty much a get-out-of-jail-free card, a last chance for some mitigating force, usually luck, to save a character’s bacon. Usually, it's entirely up to the DM to decide exactly why a successful save is effective. Most don't even bother; we just assume when successfully saving that through a quirk of luck, positioning, and some sort of native resistance to magic, your character only suffers half the damage they would have otherwise.

Another example is Fate Points and the like. Lots of games these days have a mechanic by which you earn points, usually via some nonmechanical means like "good role-playing”. These points can later be spent in all sorts of ways. Among these are rerolls, automatic successes, or the transformation of a fatal wound to a lesser injury.

This is an example of a resource that the player can spend that is completely invisible to the character. Aragorn and Legolas can't have a discussion about how many Fate Points they have left. They can discuss how battered they are, how low they are in provisions, or how many arrows they have left in their quivers, but Fate Points are a resource that only the players can discuss. In some instances, their use can be described as an extra effort on the part of the character, but in most cases this isn't so. (These sorts of mechanics really annoy people who love immersion in RPGs because it forces them to think about issues in ways their characters absolutely can't. But that's a discussion for another day.)

Again, this highlights the distance between the actions of the players and the actions of the characters. Characters might be leading massive armies, wading up to their knees through sewers, falling in love, engaging in character assassination, or struggling with existential fears, but through all of this the players may only be rolling dice and managing abstract resource points.

Which brings us back to my central point: what your game is about is what the players are actually doing. If Mr. Dancey wants to make a game that appeals to people who are not attracted to the current iteration of D&D, he’s going to have to make game that isn't simply a reskinning of D&D.

This is why mechanics are important. They can either support your fun, or get in the way. As shlominus pointed out:

you may have chosen the wrong system for this game, but i bet you had fun, so... what's wrong?! :)

And the honest answer is, nothing that can't be fixed with a few minor tweaks. But these things still bear fixing. If there is something in your game that inhibits the fun, rather than supports it, you absolutely ought to remove it. Of course, you need to know what removing that aspect will do to the rest of the game, which is why it is important to understand exactly how the whole thing hangs together. This is one of the benefits of working with a simpler system.

In this case, while Oddyssey was still having a blast, the fact that her character was not increasing in level was a minor annoyance. It was, quite simply, making the game much less fun that could be. It's not so much an on/off Boolean thing as a matter of efficiency. Rules should support the fun.

The intriguing thing about RPGs, however, is that while rules can support the fun they cannot bring the fun. Again, to quote shlominus:

an endless series of empty rooms filled with monsters and a bit of treasure works perfectly within the rules. sure, it would be a terrible game and it won't be fun but it wouldn't "break" anything.

unlike your game with oddysey, which "broke" the game, but most likely was fun for you both.


Hm, indeed. Or, to quote Mr. Gygax:

"The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don't need any rules."

Thursday, December 02, 2010

What is this Game About Revisited: a Reply to Erin

Erin over at Lurking Rhythmically (and congrats to her on the LotFP contract) has a lot to disagree with me about from my last post. I'm going to tackle her arguments here because I think they get at the heart of a number of misconceptions about gaming in general. They also give me the opportunity to take some of the ideas I was playing with in the last post and apply them to other aspects of design.

I'm going to save the abuse issue for later. Instead, I'd like to start with the issues of fairness and prejudice. Erin asks, "What if I, the player, have no social skills whatsoever, but I still want to play a smooth-talking seducer or a quick-witted scoundrel?" It's an interesting question. I've got one in response: what if you have no skill at throwing the ball, but you want to be the quarterback in your local backyard football game? Can you all just go inside, start up a game of Madden NFL 11, and still say you played football?

Let's tackle this another way: what if I want to play a tactical genius in a game of fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons? Should I be allowed to simply win combats through a single skill check? Of course not. 4e is about tactical combat. That would make about as much sense as changing the rules of Dogs in the Vineyard to make combat more fun and less deadly.

Again, this comes back to questions of what a game is about. Is chess about homicidal queens teleporting across the battlefield and slaughtering all who stand before them, or about enraged war elephants trampling clergyman into bloody stains on the turf? Of course not. Those are just the trappings of the game, the fluff. Chess is about maneuver and positioning. In the same way, Go Fish is about memorization, not about worms or boats.

Let's take a more complex game. Warhammer 40K isn't about the moral dilemma that arises when the only hope for humanity's survival is a bloody-handed and cruel dictatorship. That, as the fans of the game are wont to say, is the fluff. The actual game is about building an army of units with various strengths and weaknesses, and then maneuvering that army on the board to maximize the strengths and minimize those weaknesses. The game works just fine if you don't know any of the fluff. The game is an utter disaster if you have encyclopedic knowledge of the fluff, but don't know the actual rules. You could, with only a little effort, replace space marines with Care Bears and Eldar with My Little Ponies, not change a single number or dice mechanic, and the game would play just fine.

What a game is about is not what the characters do. It is about what the players do. This brings us back to the issue of abuse. Erin is worried that replacing dice rolls and resource management with actual actions on the part of the players will lead to min-maxing. She's absolutely correct, of course. Quite frankly, if I was running a game in which some aspect like a stat was useless, I would just remove it from the game. For instance, if I did not play with retainers or morale, I probably would drop Charisma from my D&D games. After all, my games already don't include a Comeliness stat, or a Luck stat in spite of the fact that every time characters do something that requires the players roll the dice, they are testing their luck.

My suggestions yesterday demonstrated how to add small elements to an already existing game to add more flavor. The goal was not to turn D&D into a game about social interaction. These additions simply add an element of social interaction to the game. I know this, because I play with most of those suggestions. In one instance, the solo game I run for Oddysey, the game has become about social interaction and cultural, as opposed to geographical, exploration. This utterly broke the game. Since her character was not going into dangerous places and retrieving treasure, the advancement system completely collapsed. The result? Next month will be the second year anniversary of the game, and her character, the same character she's played since day one, only recently achieved third level. And she only did that because I completely jettisoned D&D's advancement mechanic.

First edition D&D is about exploration. Remove exploration, and the game no longer works. This is why linear dungeons are such a disaster in first edition D&D. Fourth edition D&D is a game about tactical skirmishes. Remove the tactical skirmishes and a game falls apart. This is why linear dungeons are not a problem in fourth edition D&D. You can easily add social mechanics to either game. Heck, you could use the exact same social mechanics for either game. However, you should not delude yourself into believing that by doing so you have created a game about social interaction. On that basis, you could argue effectively, I believe, against the suggestions I've made in my last post. If Mr. Dancey wants a game that is actually about social interaction, he will need to make sure that his rules support players interacting socially with the setting and the NPCs. Simply replacing that with dice rolls and resource management will not achieve that goal. I got the chance to play Dogs in the Vineyard at this past GenCon. Among the players was the real rules mechanic and min-maxer from one of Oddysey's old groups. He looked over the rules, figured out the central mechanic involved betting dice and raising stakes, and optimized his character for that behavior. He ended up with the character who couldn't shoot his way out of a paper bag, but who could sell ice cream to Eskimos.

And this is because Dogs in the Vineyard is not about social interaction. What you, the player, say makes no difference to the outcome of a conflict. What matters is how many dice you can and do risk in the exchange. What is hiding at the center of Lumpley’s diagram? Story. Dogs in the Vineyard is about creating a series of rising actions, climaxes, and dénouements. It might not actually be good story, but it will have that sequence of waves that we, in the West, recognized as the architecture of story.

Personally, I don't think story is a winning topic for a game. Quite simply, writing stories is work. In and of itself, it isn't fun for most people. This is why procrastination is the bane of all professional writers. It's quite often easier to clean the kitchen then is to write your story. Trust me, I know whereof I speak. D&D worked because exploration is fun. Going somewhere you've never been before is exciting, scary, and intriguing. So is pulling off a caper, achieving victory in a contest of skill (either individually or as part of a team), and uncovering the truth through assembling a diverse collection of clues. Games about resource management can be a lot of fun. They can also easily be replicated on a computer. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if the resources you are managing are called hit points, mana, or prestige.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Supporting, Not Replacing

Over at the RPG site, Ryan Dancey has started a discussion on how adding social mechanics from Dogs in the Vineyard may be a way to improve gameplay in traditional Dungeons & Dragons. Yeah, I know, I know... And the thread starts off as a hideous mess, just as you'd expect. However, John Morrow has some very interesting things to say. I suspect he and I share very similar attitudes about gaming. Things get a lot better around this post.

This gets to the heart of what I have been talking about with neoclassical gaming. Ryan Dancey, having found some neat social mechanics in Dogs in the Vineyard, has suggested that such rules might make D&D more fun for people who would prefer tabletop RPGs to computer games. Mr. Morrow complains, and I think quite rightly, that this "gamest" approach hurts more than it helps. We see this a lot in games. Substituting dice rolls and resource management for the activity itself, in this case, social interaction, which is very easy to do at the table, undercuts what we really want to have happen.

I'm assuming here that Mr. Dancey is interested in games where the characters interact with each other, are parts of their social environments, and are motivated by the peoples and situations that exist inside the game. Festooning these things with mechanics undercuts that. The players never really care about the in-game reality, because they're too busy dealing with mechanical bits that have been bolted on top of them.

John Morrow makes this very point when he says:

[T]he players are no longer making decisions based on what's happening in the setting but wing up looking for ways to wedge things like background mentions or relationship connections into the situation just to get modifiers. This is also one of the reasons why John Kim's Dogs in the Vineyard strategy page explicitly mentions that very broad traits are frowned upon. The same problem crops up in Spirit of the Century and any game where invoking some aspect of a character or their background makes it more likely for a character to succeed. Games that give bonuses for clever descriptions can also get goofy when the players start playing to the GM rather than the situation their characters are in. Yes, it gets the characters to bring those things into play, but there is a point where it doesn't help the quality of game and even a point where it turns the game into a farce…

So is there some way for us to have our cake and eat it too? Can we encourage the sort of activities we want without burying them in mechanics?

I think we can. I think that old-school D&D shows us how. D&D is a game about exploration that has almost no rules about exploring. It discusses the problems of exploring, and gives us tools for tackling logistical issues associated with exploring, and creates rewards of various sorts for exploring, but does these things in a very tangential way. Your character never earns experience points from exploring itself. Instead, you gain experience through moving treasure from dangerous, unexplored territories back to home base. Monsters, traps, and the usual issues of exploration (such as provisions, light, and getting lost) all must be overcome to achieve the goal of rescuing treasure from the wilderness.

Mr. Dancey seems to want a game that is more about relationships and the social landscape. I've discussed this before. The neoclassical approach (and, interestingly, the approach of the guy who actually wrote Dogs in the Vineyard) seeks to encourage the desired gameplay obliquely. The final result would most likely be a game that looks very traditional to most gamers. However, it would have certain tweaks that encourage players to forge alliances and call on their friends for help. If we were just going to house-rule D&D, these might look like additional ways to take advantage of hirelings and henchmen, or at least, the rules dealing with them, rules that grant bonuses in combat for having friends fight with you (either by their diversity, or by their quantity), and for using social resources to solve traditional dungeon challenges. Let's take a look at two examples of what these might look like.

I frequently encourage my players to search for information about a dungeon before they attempt to enter it. Usually, this begins with visiting the local tavern and buying drinks for the old-timers with stories of days-gone-by, and ends with the PCs visiting the local sage in order to verify and flush out what they've learned. It would be easy enough to include local groups like adventurers guilds or wizards guilds, knightly orders, secret organizations like the Harpers of the Forgotten Realms, and the like. Any of these groups might have more information about the places the players wish to explore, as well as specialized tools for tackling the dangers they might have to face. In order to acquire some of the information or supplies, players may need to be on good terms with these groups or even members. However, not all of these groups will be friendly with each other, and membership in one group might earn the enmity of the others.

This sort of thing doesn't even actually require rules per se. It's simply a new way for the players to interact with their local environment. It's simple enough for the DM to implement, requiring only a list of such groups, what sort of information they may have, and how they feel about each other. I use things like this in my game successfully all the time.

Here's another example: a while back, Zak was pondering how to add something like feats to old-school D&D. The solution he came up with was rather intriguing; instead of presenting his players with a dizzying list of feats and their various pathways, he simply associated feats with different social groups, and, when the players reached an appropriate level, they were given the opportunity to learn the feet associated with whichever locale the PCs happened to be in at that time.

It would be simple enough to expand this and other aspects of the game. Maybe certain equipment can only be purchased from certain areas. Lembas bread, for instance, makes it easy to provision a large expedition, but only certain elven bakers can make it. Perhaps certain spells are only known to a particular sorority of sorceresses who carefully guard such secrets. Now where the PCs go to find adventure doesn’t just change the window-dressing (jungle vs. forest vs. plains), but actually affects what sort of rewards they can expect to earn or how their characters develop. Traveling to the Ashen Wastes in order to learn how to fight with a spiked buckler or the dreaded Disintegration spell are exactly the sorts of things we’d expect from a character like Elric or Cugel.

None of these rules violate Mr. Morrow's desire to avoid replacing actual social interaction with resource management or dice rolling. They also encourage exactly the sort of entanglement with the social landscape that I think Mr. Dancey is looking for. Where they do fall down, however, is in dictating what that social landscape looks like to a certain extent. Old-school D&D is incredibly flexible and can be used to model any sort of civilization from Bronze Age city-states to Renaissance-style empires linked by magically powered dirigibles. As the rules currently stand, including the sorts of additions I’m discussing is something the DM will have to tackle when creating the setting. For me, this sort of stuff is part of the fun of world building, but it's a rare to find it in most rulebooks, especially those that purport to be fairly generic.

It would be simple enough to create some Reintsian random tables to distribute this sort of thing among groups created via other random tables, but again, the more we do this, the more we dictate to the DM what the setting is like. Whether that is a bug or a feature depends entirely on the preferences of the group. Unfortunately for Mr. Dancey, attempts to do similar things with prestige classes in 3e fell flat: people just assumed that every prestige class ought to be available in every world, in spite of direct statements to the contrary. Then again, the players who embraced this sort of universality tended to be exactly the sorts that Mr. Dancey says we 40 lost to computer games. Perhaps those of us who are left can be expected to be slightly more careful readers?

Friday, November 26, 2010

All Outta Bubblegum is Always Right

Yeah, I know, most who still don’t get it won’t, but this is silly fun, just like All Outta Bubblegum itself. The game manual is only 385 words long, so take a peek and then come back and we’ll get this ball rolling.

Pretty simple, huh? And clearly the sort of thing just kinda slapped together on a whim, a game that’s designed on a napkin around a few beers. And yet, the game’s got a certain surprising depth to it.

From Deepest Dungeon to Furthest Galaxy

Let’s start with what’s obvious. While the game clearly implies action-genre adventures, within that very broad milieu, you can go just about anywhere without adding a single rule. Classic dungeon-delving, noir gumshoe detective, space opera, swashbuckling pirate action, heck, some crazy mashup of Watership Down meets Neuromancer meets The Wizard of Oz, you can do it all with AOB.

And that’s if you don’t want to mess with the core mechanic. Once you start tinkering under the hood, all sorts of possibilities present themselves. Instead of “kickin’ ass” you can make the core activity anything you want, from “skiing” to “pitchin’ woo” to “classic thiefy activities like sneakin’ and stealin’.” But that’s getting a little ahead of ourselves. For now, let’s just stick with core AOB, in the spirit of “…is always right.”


What this game is about is resource management. But that resource management is so simple and, dare I say, elegant (in a gum-smacking kinda way) that it’s not going to interfere much at all with what’s going on around the table. The resource management also implies and, I think, encourages, a certain arc to a session of the game. The players are going to want to be certain they’ve got everything lined up to resolve the crisis de jur with violence before they run out of bubblegum. This means expending their chewy resource at the beginning of the session in eliminating ass-kicking-resistant obstacles and making sure they know exactly what ass needs to be kicked. So the early part of the game is going to be spent investigating clues and preparing the battlefield for the righteous smack-down to come.

In short, this ridiculously simple mechanic encourages a game that plays a lot like an episode of “The A-Team,” “Dukes of Hazard,” or a Bond flick: a swift introduction of the primary conflict and villain, investigation of the villain and the elimination of certain key resources the villain might rely on for protection or, at least, to prevent ass from being kicked, and then wallowing in over-the-top action-hero violence.

But there’s another, cooler twist here as well. Since the players decide when and how to spend their bubblegum, pacing of the adventure is really in their hands. The GM can kinda-sorta encourage matters by the layout of the adventure, but the players can force the issue one way or another by how quickly they spend their bubblegum. With the right group of players and some GM flexibility, it’d be simplicity itself to hand pretty much the entire pacing issue to the players to manage.

Designated Drivers

The game’s also got a clever method for handling niche protection. “Niche protection?” you ask. “The game has no classes! How can it have niche protection?”

Ah, but it does have classes, two to be exact, implied by the rules: skill-users and ass-kickers.

It’s easy to be an ass-kicker: spend your gum frequently, whenever you absolutely need to succeed in a task. Soon, you’ll be all outta bubblegum and your PC will be a seething volcano of posterior-punting fury. These characters will spend their bubblegum frequently on the most important tasks.

The “designated drivers,” however, will hoard their gum, spending it carefully, and relying on dice-rolls to mitigate their expenditure of bubblegum. You’ll want folks with bubblegum still available near the end of the game, just in case there’s a wrinkle you didn’t see coming.

One of those wrinkles might be bad luck. Someone who wants to play a “designated driver” might be frustrated in their choice by a string of bad dice rolls, pushing them into “ass-kicker” mode. And that might force someone who was planning on playing an ass-kicker to switch over to skill-user mode, meaning a few, if not all, the players at the table may be pushed out of their comfort zones every so often.
(And this is why this sort of analysis can be useful. Playing outside your comfort zone is one of the benefits of old-school random character generation. But what if your players *hate* being pushed out of their comfort zones? Then AOB probably ain’t the game for them. Or, you can add mechanics that allow a bit of bubblegum-protection; perhaps the players can trade bubblegum with each other, or there are ways to refresh your supply of bubblegum in the middle of an adventure. As the recipes often say, “and season to taste.” Knowing what you’re working with makes that a lot easier.)


“But wait,” you might ask, “did the designers really intend for all of this to be in the game?” Probably not. I figure they were just tossing together some really quick, beer-and-pretzel-style gaming based on a silly catch-phrase, and intended nothing more.

Or maybe not. Still, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. This is how the game actually plays when the rubber meets the road. Intentions are nice, and can give you some insight into why certain decisions were made, but if the game plays like an ‘80’s action tv show, all the fluff about existential despair and deep investigations of the human soul won’t change that.

And that’s really what this sort of exercise is about: getting past the intentions, the fluff, and the assumptions we might be bringing to the rules and getting right in up to our elbows with what they actually do, how they actually perform at the table.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Truly, the End Times are Upon Us...

For the D&D Virtual Tabletop is going into beta test!

Yeah, I know, the world just flipped upside down for me, too. ;)

SquareMans has some intriguing notions about where WotC could take this new functionality, but I think a shift of that magnitude is too great to pull off without an edition change. But then, I'm already in shock that the VT might actually see the light of day.

And this isn't entirely useless to us old-schoolers, since the interface appears to be rules-agnostic, from what I can tell. Be interesting to keep an eye on this one, and see where they take it.

UPDATE: Oddysey, whose young eyes are keener than mine, is doubtful of the VT being rules-agnostic:

...we don't know that it doesn't, for instance, keep track of where you can move based on your combat speed. It's clearly calculating turn orders and tracking your defensive stats, and this is just the DM view.

The player view might have, say, a list of the powers that you've got, and track whether you've used them and roll for you.

There must be some kind of support for the system built in. Not sure how much, but there has to be something that would give people a reason for using this rather than, say, Fantasy Grounds.

So maybe it's just easier to use, but I can't see WotC competing on interface. ;p
The initiative tracking is going to be an issue in itself, for old school applications.

Since so many of us use alternative initiative systems.

So yeah, don't be buying any DDi subscriptions just yet. ;)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Investigating Resource Management

Robert Fisher isn't quite certain about the Gumshoe game. I have to admit, I'm largely in agreement with him, but I haven’t played the game either, so what follows should not be seen as a criticism of Gumshoe. And there certainly is a place and a time for such mechanics. It really all depends on what your game is about.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: when you're rolling dice you're not playing the game. Managing resources is a little better (it actually involves decision-making, which is the very heart and soul of gaming), but managing resources should never be mistaken for anything other than what it is. When I say old-school D&D is a game about exploration, I recognize that resource management is a part of that. But resource management is merely a limit on the amount of exploration the PCs can do. The primary activity is still trekking into places that are unknown. The important choices are exploration choices; left or right, stay at this level or descend to a deeper level, visit the Caves of Chaos or the Ruined Moathouse. The resources which must be managed, things like provisions, equipment, memorized spells, and hit points, are in truth obstacles to be overcome in order to do more exploring. More than experience points, getting to see one more room is the real reward for good play.

As a bit of an aside, much of what we saw in third and fourth edition D&D are attempts to transform a game about exploration into a game about tactical combat. Fourth edition has largely completed the transformation. The game focuses primarily on positioning, powers, and cooperative, synergistic effects. This is why linear adventures are not anathema in the fourth edition game. The multiple paths of branching options is vital to old-school D&D because it allows players to decide how far they want to push their supplies, how they will explore the unknown, and gives the players the opportunity to pick and choose which fights they want to risk. Avoiding fights in fourth edition D&D would be like avoiding the ball in baseball; it would pretty much mean fleeing the heart of the game altogether.

A game about investigation should have the players searching for clues, questioning witnesses, and puzzling over what they learn. This can be problematic, however, because the models for such games don't give us good examples. The point of the detective novel or TV show is to showcase the brilliant analytical mind of the detective. These detectives, whether they are Sherlock Holmes or Dr. House, tend to be quirky individuals who do not think like normal folks. They always (or, at least, eventually) see the clues in exactly the right light to understand their proper meaning. Players almost never do this. As faustusnotes points out in the comments, you really need lots of clues pointing in the right direction so that the players don't end up creating their own red herrings.

Actually, discussing this with Odyssey, she pointed out that the best way to handle this sort of thing is to come up with the bare bones of the situation and improvise the clues the players find based on their assumptions and what they're talking about. This way, you can better tailor the clues to show them what they will understand as pointers to the truth, and they'll be a little less likely to run off odd directions.

Again, this isn't to say that dice rolling and resource management have no place in RPGs. It is to say, however, that the current trend of making resource management and dice rolling dominate the core activities of the theme of the RPG is bass ackwards. What your game is really and truly about is what the players are doing at the table. Dice, resources, and the rules should support that activity, but they should not supersede it. Success should come from player action and not for mere rolls of the dice.

On a very related note, I am somewhat intrigued by this capers game. The dice rolls appear to be less about success or failure, and more about interesting complications. That seems to me to be a more interesting way to go, especially if your assumption is that the PCs are hyper-talented and extremely competent individuals who nearly always succeed. The notion that the PCs should always be skirting the ragged edge of disaster in every exercise of their skills is another of those ideas that I think has become a bit too pernicious in game design these days.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Mohammad Bahareth

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What the...

So I'm checking out my stats for this blog and I see I got an insane number of hits last Wednesday, exactly a week ago today.  It's more than three times my usual hit count on a day I don't post anything.  Unfortunately, I can't pull up details from that long ago.  Anyone have any idea what happened?  Did I miss someone linking to me?

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Hows and Whys of City States

At his blog, In Deep Places, Evan has been wondering about the demographics of city states. My reply is bit too long for a comment, so I'm resorting to another blog post.

I'm going to be pretty flexible in my definition of city states here. Traditionally, the city state is a city that is also an entire nation. Today, both Singapore and Vatican City are considered modern versions of the city state. However, many of what we call city states from the past violated that definition little bit. Classical Athens, for instance, made itself the capital of an expanding empire, the acquisition of which led to the Peloponnesian Wars. In this case, I'm going to call a city state any nation dominated by a central city whose borders extend only to the extent of a few days march.

Heck, even that is problematic, because what exactly is a city? These days, any respectable city probably has a handful hundred thousand citizens. The walled city of Jericho at around 8000 BC probably boasted a population as large as 2000. Here's another fact about Jericho to twist your noodle: cities started forming before agriculture. It appears that the walls of Jericho may have been built to protect rich hunting and gathering territories. Settled living probably later led to the development of agriculture, rather than the other way around as we were taught when I was in elementary school.

So exactly what we're talking about when you say city states entirely depends on what you want in your game. I'm assuming that Evan’s thinkgin along the lines of the classical city state like we see in ancient Mesopotamia or Greece. Where you find city states like these is pretty simple; human communities form near water. It's vital for drinking, it's vital for agriculture, it's vital for sanitation, and helpful for both defense and trade. So, if you have a map of your world, your rivers are going to run from the mountains to the sea, and population centers are going to be placed along those rivers. You can also put small cities in desolate places where there are oases, and, if you don't mind being completely fantastical, you can have magically supplied cities.

The why of city states might not be nearly as important, especially if you don't really want to get into the mechanics of demographics. Many city states seem to be primarily about defense, like ancient Jericho. People gather together, build walls and other defenses, and protect their rich territory from those who would invade. Others are more about geography. Rough terrain, like you find in Scandinavian countries and in Greece, tend to support the creation of small, isolated communities. The terrain was fertile enough to support the creation of city states in Greece. In Scandinavia, communities tended to be much smaller and there seem to have been a much stronger emphasis on going elsewhere (going “a-viking”) whenever possible.

So, the question of supporting themselves is fairly simple. For the most part, these city states are going to be self-supporting. Local agriculture will be producing enough food to support both the farmers and non-farming citizens of the community. Keep in mind, most everyone was a farmer in ancient Greece. They may have had their home within the walls of the city, but they usually had a plot of land outside as well. The Spartans got away with not having everyone be a farmer by invading and enslaving the local population, the Helots. The indigenous slaves did all the farming, freeing up the Spartan men to concentrate almost exclusively on warfare.

With agricultural surpluses, the city state doesn't necessarily need to trade with anybody. Trade frequently happens where communities intersect, but it's not a given. In fact, the closer communities are to each other, more likely there is to be acrimony, especially if their territories are close enough they could possibly overlap on each other. In this case, it's not unusual at all for one city state to utterly dominate its neighbors, and now we’re back to empire building.

So for Evan’s underworld campaign, I’d suggest city states be placed fairly far from one another, with at least 50 miles between each. The intervening land might be peppered with small freehold farms and farming communities which help support the city state. I'd clustered these in river valleys, arable plains, or at oases. Local culture and character can be heavily influenced by local resources. A city state on the edge of the jungle, for instance. is going to sport a lot of wooden structures, while one in the hills or at the foot of a mountain chain may use more stone. You can break this pattern to create mystery, a sense of unease, or say something about the local cultures. Maybe the city state at the edge of the jungle uses stone because the forests of the jungle are too dangerous to harvest. Local customs, holidays, clothing, and diet will be heavily influenced by what is available in the area. Salted fish, fried locusts, and beer were favorite foods in ancient Ur, while in Athens you're more likely to find wine, bread and olive oil as the staples of the diet.

So yeah, I'd create a scattering of city states with maybe 75,000 total souls in each larger metropolitan area, in states of either uneasy truce or frequent war with one another, and each largely self-supporting. That should create all sorts of fun political tensions, reinforce local character, and provide frequent opportunities for adventure.

Monday, November 08, 2010

PvP Plays D&D Without BAB

Can I buy a vowel, please?

Seriously, D&D without combat?!? And it was even 4e, I think. And they had fun! Poor Scott has taken his first steps down to the Dark Side. ;)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

What Are the Attributes of an Old-school Game?

Yeah, okay, I went there. I'm not sure I want to, but as this OSR thing keeps rolling on, it's going to become a bigger and bigger question. Clearly, D&D, Traveler, Rune Quest, early versions of GURPS, Star Frontiers, and similar games are all old-school. Are there games from the '70s and early '80s that are not old-school? Are their new and original games that are? Exactly how far can Raggi go with his alterations to the basic D&D chassis and still be able to call his games old-school?

I ask this because I think the OSR is about to turn a corner. Most of what we've seen up until now has been attempts at faithful re-creation of the old games. There have been notable exceptions, including X-plorers, Mazes & Minotaurs, and possibly Mutant Future. But I think we're about to start seeing a number of games that are not so faithful to the mechanics of the games of yesteryear. I think we're about to start seeing games that try to capture the spirit of old-school while striking out much further afield in terms of mechanics.

The OSR is getting very playful. For instance, there are things like Zak's map of an inn run by a medusa and Raggi's excellent character sheets and encumbrance system. We are seeing a lot more tweaking of rules to support emergent play from long-term gaming, especially in terms of reward systems and balance issues. And there is, as always, just the usual playing with the aesthetics, especially with things like magic systems.

And I'm seeing a lot of stuff around the edges of the OSR that looks like brand new games with inventive new mechanics, things like the work of the Evil DM, Barbarians of Lemuria, Warriors of the Red Planet, The Metal Earth, and others. Even WotC is clearly trying to get its old-school on with its random character generation and frequent deaths in the new Gamma World game.

now I could just launch into what I think an OSR game is, and I kinda sorta almost did that I when attempted to define neo-classical gaming, but let's be honest here: any definition from me is going to be heavily influenced by the Silver Age and my love of verisimilitude. And I'm pretty certain that's far too limiting. The OSR so far has easily bridged the Gold and Silver Ages, and maybe even a bit of the Bronze as well.

So I toss this out to you: what are the bare minimum attributes of an old-school game? I'm tempted to say any true answer cannot be as specific as, "it must include random character generation." I think that gets too specific. I think the true answer has more to do with goals and attitudes than techniques and tools. But maybe that is too slippery. So what do you think?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

D&D's Gorgon Found!

So that's where they came from!

Like most, I was confused by D&D's reptilian bull gorgon, since the gorgons of Greek myth were three sisters, one of which was Medusa. But, via the quite fun Monster Brains blog comes this Life magazine article from 1951 which includes mention of Libyan gorgon more in keeping with what's presented in D&D.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

15 Games in a Distracted Troll's Chest! Yo-ho-ho...

Ok, hoppin’ on the meme. I believe it’s something like the 15 most meaningful games, scribbled out in a quick 15 minutes:

  1.  D&D ‘cause, yeah…
  2. Dark Tower: I still want to build an RPG campaign off that game board.
  3. Joust: more for what I thought it should be than what it was.
  4. Warhammer 40k: more for what it wanted to be than what it was.
  5. Shadowrun: elves and cyberpunk and the end of the world as we know it
  6. Star Frontiers: H. Beam Piper, the RPG!
  7. Revolt on Antares: so many cool little pieces.
  8. Trust and Betrayal: the Legacy of Siboot: rock, scissors, paper for world domination!
  9. Blue Rose: never played, but the fever-dreams it inspired still get to me.
  10. StarSiege
  11. LotFP: elegance and focus. Maybe I can do that too!
  12. Ultima series: World-building is about culture, not just where the orcs live.
  13. Space Rogue: Elite with focus.
  14. Elite: huge universe, small ship.
  15. M.U.L.E.: Unfairness can be a feature, games can be different, and people play for different reasons.

These are not in any real order. So why these games? Because they fired off my imagination and led it in interesting directions. I mean, Settlers of Catan is a fun game and all, but it does make me go, “ooo, ooo, what about a world in which sorcerers can transform bricks into sheep?!?”

Joust is the most interesting one to my mind. My first encounter with the game is seeing classmates in 5th grade draw pictures of it. They just reproduced what was on the screen, but my mind invented a game in which noble aerial knights rescued and safeguarded eggs from ravening bandits. My conception of the game was a lot more fun than the real game turned out to be.

Games like Dark Tower and Revolt on Antares had similar effects, even though I did play them. These games were vague and handwavey in their details, with just enough art and detail to ignite sparks I could nurture into full-blown daydreams. Who were those named mercenaries at Anatares? What exactly did those keys open in the frontiers of the Dark Tower map? Cool banners and futuristic wargear still simmer in my imagination.

Art by Bob Pepper.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Death is Boring

New Fish in an Old School asks, “To Kill or Not toKill?” and comes down on the traditional (and, I think, fairly common) compromise of not to kill much, with an emphasis on letting the dice fall where they will. (Frankly, I think that’s the actual Old School preference. Yes, the dungeon is designed to be deadly, but it’s also beatable. That’s often what Old Schoolers mean when they talk about putting “game” before “role playing.”)

That’s an attitude I have a lot of sympathy with, and it’s been my default mode for decades. Lately, however, I’ve been drifting away from it. You can see that in my Table of Death & Dismemberment; sure, there are broken bones and lopped-off limbs, but the most likely results are knock-outs.

Why is that? It’s not because death is inconvenient. I do not base my campaigns around any one character (PC or NPC), so simply killing or dying won’t derail things. Likewise, with the opportunity to hire henchmen, it’s fairly easy for the PCs to fill out the ranks of the party if there are holes in their team.

No, the real problem with death is that it’s, well, boring. You roll up a new character, the other players weave in a bit of grief and angst into their play, and you move on. And that just feels rather “meh” to me.

(Let me make an important distinction here, however; while death itself may be boring, the threat of death is not. Though this can highlight the problem even more, as the death of a character can feel horribly anticlimactic, after the threat of it has been ramping up.)

So, what other than death? Maiming, broken bones, and unconsciousness. If only one or two PCs are incapacitated this way, now the others need to figure out what to do with them. They certainly don’t want to abandon their comrades to capture or being eaten. Now the tension of the fight rises. The players of downed characters are still riveted to the game. Will the others be able to drag them away to safety? How much will those still standing risk to safeguard the fallen? This is a lot more thrilling than rolling up a new character.

This means, of course, that I have to be a bit more on top of things ahead of time. What does it mean when the bugbears capture the party? Do they have a history of ransoming captives? Do they keep slaves? Or do they have a relationship with some other race, deeper in the dungeon? Will the PCs be kept in cells until they are to be eaten or sacrificed to their dark god? And if that’s the case, what are the cells like? How or when are the PCs fed? How long will they be kept before they are sacrificed? What are the opportunities for escape?

It also means TPKs are far more likely. Defeat to unintelligent monsters probably means some, if not all, of the party gets eaten. (And though they were intelligent, that always makes me think of Bilbo and the dwarves, strung up by the spiders, kept poisoned and weak until it was time to feast.) Who gets eaten first? What happens to those “saved” for later?

Luckily, I love answering those questions, and usually I find examples in real-world animal behavior or the fantastic cultures I’ve created for my game. And heck, if I do get a TPK, the way my campaigns are usually put together, that means an adventure in the realms of the Afterlife.

Art by Charles-Gustave Housez and Edmund Blair Leighton.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Mice in a Box

Via the Hopeless Gamer blog, comes word of a new boxed set, this one for the Mouse Guard RPG.  For those not in the know, Mouse Guard is comic of anthropomorphic mice in the wilderness of medieval Europe.  It's all about loyalty and intrigues, legends and betrayals, and courage and death.  Heady stuff, and ripe for RPGing.  The game itself is a variant of Luke Crane's Burning Wheel game.

I'm not sure how much crossover potential there is here, and I doubt we'll see this box in places where we don't already expect to see RPGs (comic book stores and FLGS).  Still, it promises to be a lovely box with unusual goodies in it.  And, I must admit, I'm still buzzing from how the boxed set has gone so quickly from the pariah of gaming accessories to the must-have new product of the decade.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Great Purge

In the future, I'm thinking it would be appropriate to wait until May Day to commit such atrocities...  ;)

I've gone through and cleaned up my RPG links along the right side of the blog.  It's been long overdue.  I was sad to see so many blogs had gone dormant (many, for some reason, last saw action in July '09).  Still, I've been adding new ones, and the old ones were making it impossible to find them.  I'd especially like to draw your attention to Henchman AbuseGaming All Over the Place, and New Fish in an Old School.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bigger, Better, and Quite Insane

So if you've been following along in the RPG pundit-sphere, you know that there's been some thought that RPGs will go the way of wargames and model railroading. That is, as the niche shrinks, more and more products will become very high-quality collector's treasures, and will be priced accordingly.

There's a push-me-pull-me effect right now. In addition to WotC's very cheap new Red Box, there are lots of projects with a strong do-it-yourself vibe, like Fight On! and now Paizo's talking about an intro set to their Pathfinder game.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have things like Raggi's boxed set and the latest version of the Warhammer RPG. I'd thought that things like that, and the Ptolus mega-book, would be what premium RPG products of the future would look like.

That was, until Raggi linked to this today. Ye gods...

I'm a little torn when I see something like that. On the one hand, yeah, very cool. I'd love to be involved in a product that looked like that. On the other, I have to wonder at the utility of most of it. CoC has long been a game associated with props: photographs, coffee-stained letters, edlritch inscriptions and rubbings, and other such. Creating the proper mood and atmosphere is vital to the game, and the props help.

That said, some of this looks cool, but extraneous. The box, for instance, is awesome, but would it really help to set the proper mood? Ditto for the flag. I suppose we could mount it on the wall, crank the AC down to 30, bundle up in our sweaters and turtlenecks, and try to recreate the feeling of being at the bottom of the world, but...

Still, if you shoot for the moon and miss, you're likely to land among the stars. You certainly can't fault the French here for a lack of audacity. If nothing else, they've created a piece of gaming history.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

MZB Takes JB to School

Hey, remember me waxing enthusiastic about books targeted at gals? JB over at B/X Blackrazor has a fascinating post up today, inspired by his recent reading of some of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels. Here’s a teaser to whet your appetite:
In some ways, she’s RE-teaching me things I already knew but forgot. For example, fantasy/sci-fi adventure doesn’t have to include combat to be powerful, dangerous, dramatic, or life-and-death.


I remember reading a comment on someone’s blog (maybe even mine), that fantasy role-playing games require some sort of combat system because, for a game to BE a fantasy adventure RPG, COMBAT needs to be involved. I know this echoes a sentiment expressed by my brother in a discussion we had awhile back (when talking about RPG design) that people EXPECT some sort of combat/fighting action to take place in any role-playing game.

Bullshit. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.
All I’ll say on that front is that it’s been literally over a month of real time, with weekly playing, in the game Oddysey is playing in, since we last rolled for to-hit. And that was in a game of skill, not combat. And we’re having a blast! Though she does accuse me at times of playing not-D&D with her. ;)

As for JB's discussion of motivations, this is also great stuff. Speaking of Paizo, one of the things I appreciate about their Pathfinder adventures is the option for personal motivations and quests for the PCs. I do think they work better if they come from the players and the intersections of their interests and the themes of the setting, but having a goal beyond just completing the grand quest (or amassing great wealth, as is the default in traditional sandbox play) just makes the game richer to my mind. So it’s not something I push on players; if that sort of thing interests them at all, there’s more than enough time after the game begins to develop goals, rivals, and conflicts a-plenty.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010


There are so many good blogs out there! I might almost say too many; I'm having a devil of a time keeping up with all the good stuff going right now. Case in point: nearly a month ago, Navdi posted about his desire to use Pathfinder materials to run a more sandboxy, Old School game. I just discovered this last night. It struck a chord with me because 3e in all its incarnations leaves me cold, but I love Paizo's design style, artwork, and just the look-and-feel they give their stuff. So, how to infuse a more Old School feel into a game that is based on Paizo's rules and Pathfinder adventures?

I offered some suggestions in his comments, and this is expanding on what I wrote there. Generally, what the players want from 3e and its ilk is a sense of story and verisimilitude to their adventures; they don't want to just whack random monsters for random amounts of treasure. What DMs pining for a more Old School game often want is a more open-ended story and a more proactive approach from players towards tackling challenges; they don't want the players twiddling their fingers while they wait for the DM to deliver the adventure on a silver platter. With a creative and flexible DM, those goals are absolutely compatible. (Where you'll run into trouble is the conflict between the players' desire for mechanical customization of their characters and the DM's desire for simplicity. If you find a good way to harmonize those discordant themes, please let me know.)

I don't know any of Paizo's adventure paths well enough to say, but the ones I have read at least make nods towards player choice (and their latest, Kingmaker, promises to do more than that), and as Navdi points out in the comments of his blog, Paizo does a great job of establishing settings that are larger than the mere adventure path and its dungeons. With all that in mind, here are my suggestions to Old School-ify your existing collection of Pathfinder adventure paths:

1) start the players off with a clear, obvious, but open-ended problem. My favorite is a shipwreck (players need to gather supplies and find their way to civilization), but you can also use a natural disaster or alone in the wake of a military defeat for their side.

This works great because the players are presented with concrete, obvious problems to solve, but while there's no dungeon in sight, they're immediately put into the proper, creative, open-ended problem-solving mode that is the backbone of Old School play.

2) Once they've reached civilization, shift the focus to an urban environment. Everyone knows that Old School play and city adventures are incompatible, right? (We just won't mention Aerie of the Slave Lords and Vault of the Drow. Or the Random Harlot table. ;) ) Give them something concrete to do as soon as they get into the city, or better yet, have it be something they need to do that they discovered while solving the issues of the start of the campaign. During the course of this first urban adventure, start planting the seeds of conflict that will inspire the players to make choices: let them hear rumors, find treasure maps, or make enemies that will guide them to your adventure locations. Let them choose sides in local conflicts, and make those choices matter. Most importantly of all, make it clear to them as early as is reasonably possible that their choices have a direct and powerful impact on the setting. If they're not utterly bizarre, they'll love it. And again, that puts them in the proper headspace for Old School play.

3) Use more than one Pathfinder series. Since you're giving the players choices about what challenges to tackle, you'll likely need more adventures than one Pathfinder series can provide. So feel free to seed your CotCT adventures with some cherrypicked from Rise of the Runelords or Legacy of Fire. If they don't know much about the OSR, you might be able to squeeze in a Raggi adventure or something from Fight On!

4) By the time the PCs reach 4th or so level, most of the work should be done; they'll be interacting with the world as a place, rather than looking for the markers pointing them towards the next adventure. Don't be surprised if it takes that long, however. Even when the players are all on-board for that sort of thing, it can take some time before they know enough about the setting and the NPCs to really start being proactive and taking their destinies in their own hands.