Monday, January 30, 2012

RIP Jean Wells

Jennisodes Interview Next Week

Heads up, worthy readers; I was recently interviewed for the gaming podcast Jennisodes, and the episode will be posted next Monday (2/6/2012). We talked about Adventures Dark and Deep, of course, but also touched on the upcoming Castle of the Mad Archmage print volume and some other fun stuff.

There is also an exclusive and exciting announcement relating to Adventures Dark and Deep in there, so be sure to tune in!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Omni

I've been a fan of both science and science fiction as long as I can remember, but one of the things that really had a big influence on me just as I was coming into my own (and, perhaps not coincidentally, while I was deep into my discovery of Dungeons and Dragons) was Omni magazine.

I was fortunate that my high school library had a subscription to Omni from the beginning in 1978. Every month I would pour through its pages, and was invariably entertained and educated. It was a mix of hard science, science fiction, evocative artwork, and pseudoscience such as UFOs. But its glossy pages had enough gravitas to get authors like Robert Heinlein, Carl Sagan, Orson Scott Card, William Gibson, and George R.R. Martin, whose seminal short story Sandkings first appeared in its pages. The work of artists such as H.R. Geiger and Rallé graced its covers.

This was great stuff for someone in the 12-year-old crowd; there was a lot of learning in those pages, but a lot of fun as well. I was already a sci-fi fan, but Omni opened up new worlds of "serious" science fiction, as well as science speculation. I very much miss Omni's unique blend of science and fiction.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

This Should Make a lot of OSR Folks Happy

From today's Upcoming Products seminar at D&DXP:
Any plans to rerelease the other products for 1E and 2E and other editions, either in print or electronically?

We are looking at making a lot of that older material available to you, but we want to make sure we do it right for you guys and for Wizards. We'll have more news on that.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Fifteen Minute Workday

One of the things that plagues some D&D games (my own included, on occasion) is what is known as "the fifteen minute workday problem". To wit, characters in a dungeon go through two or three rooms, find themselves down some hit points and/or spells, and then return to the surface, heal up and re-memorize spells to return on the next day. Or, alternatively, they barricade themselves in a room and camp out in the dungeon itself. It's a problem that especially presents itself in lower-level games, because the spell casters have few spells and must recharge more often.

There are some tricks a game master can employ in order to discourage this behavior. Locking the player characters in the dungeon (whether literally or by simply denying them egress through having them get lost, having monsters block the exit, etc.), disrupting spell-casters' rest with random encounters, etc. But it's very easy to overdo these sorts of things, however, and can begin to smack of "the DM is just going to punish us for leaving, so we might as well keep going until we're dead" in the minds of the players.

4E attempted to address this problem at least in theory with its classification of powers as being per-encounter, per-day, etc. To my mind, however, that was a bit too "gamey", and lacked any sort of real in-game justification. But the problem is certainly not unique to 4E; it's existed since the beginning of the game.

I wonder, though, if there is some way of addressing this issue in a way that doesn't offend my grognardly sensibilities? On the one hand, part of the whole aesthetic of an old-school game is resource management. It's not just about making the right tactical choices in a combat, but making the right operational choices when selecting spells and buying equipment. In once sense, the megadungeon is its own solution to the problem; if the game master doesn't slack off when it comes to rolling for random encounters, the mere fact that the player characters may well need to fight their way out will encourage them to stay in longer. But that just shifts the site of rest to a barricaded room inside the dungeon, rather than the local inn or convenient cave near the site of the dungeon.

There is one solution to the problem, which applies perhaps more to the megadungeon environment than a smaller encounter area, but I'm sure the principle could be applied.

The monsters get tougher (or, perhaps, more wary) if the player characters keep coming in and doing hit-and-run sortees.

Not in the sense that they somehow get bonuses to hit, or more hit dice, but in the sense that they become more organized. They're more on their guard. Patrols are more frequent. Rooms and corridors are restocked with guards, ready to send out messengers to alert the leader to the renewed presence of the intruders. Once the player characters clue into the fact that the monsters will be waiting for them (perhaps even with traps, ambuscades, tougher monsters from deeper within the dungeon who are brought up as reinforcements, etc.), they may decide that two-rooms-a-day is not the best way to go. Maintaining the momentum, and thereby the element of surprise, becomes a superior (and thus preferable) strategy.

Naturally, this doesn't mean that resistance can't stiffen during the player characters' foray. Just because they haven't returned to the surface doesn't mean that the orcs will automatically stay in their rooms, conveniently grouped in 3's and 4's, perfect for slaughter and easy x.p. But that should be a more "ad hoc" thing on the part of the defenders (except for those very lawful humanoid tribes that have contingency plans already in place, complete with pole-arm-wielding troops to command narrow corridors and such), and to be expected. The idea is that pressing on should be the preferable option to retreat, except when the resources of the party really are exhausted, and R&R becomes required.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Flurry of 5E Updates

For them's as is interested, do check in on the EnWorld 5E information page (linked over on the right column of this blog as well). Now that the D&D Experience Con has gotten underway, they seem to be doing live updates as new information becomes available.

Update #1: A seminar transcript from the "Charting the Course: An Edition for all Editions" seminar has been posted based on liveblogging and tweets. 

Update #2: Geeksdreamgirl has a recap of not only the D&D Next seminar, but a (necessarily vague) account of having played a game in the new system.

Update #3: A transcript of the Class Design seminar. We're finally beginning to see some specifics. Doesn't sound nearly as old-school as some of the hype might have indicated. Warlocks? Wild talents? Rituals?

George Lucas Has Gotten All He's Going to Get From Me

I saw Star Wars 36 times in the theater in 1977. Empire Strikes Back 24 times. Return of the Jedi 12 times. Yes, I counted. Between us, my wife and I had 4 sets of the original trilogy on VHS, and we have 2 sets on DVD (the originals and the special re-edited editions). We've seen all of the prequels in the theaters, both the first time and then the second time when they were re-released. We even saw The Clone Wars when it was released. I cannot begin to estimate how much I have spent on merchandise; posters, t-shirts, action figures, etc. etc. etc.

No more. I'm drawing the line in the sand here and now. I'm not going to pay upwards of $20 to see Phantom Menace in 3D in theaters next month. Period.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Armies of Erseta: The Tamarian Army Takes the Field

Here at long last is the complete Tamarian army for my campaign, built as a starter army using the Field of Glory rules (using "Feudal French" as the basis for the army, and the whole thing can double for that when doing historical minis). It took a lot of work, and I don't consider myself a particularly good painter, but done is done, and any painted mini on the table is better than an unpainted one, so the saying goes. For all picks, as usual, click to embiggen.

 The whole army is arrayed. Javelins in front, crossbows on either flank (mounted on the left flank, foot on the right), the three commanders in the center, three groups of mounted knights behind them, two groups of spearmen, and a group of light archers behind the mounted crossbowmen.

 Close-up of the right flank...

 ...the center, featuring the commanders and standard bearers, all bearing the livery of Tamaria (the number of dots on the banners will allow them to be differentiated in a game, if needed)...

 ...and the left flank.

And here's what they're stored and can travel in. I bought a 5-drawer rolling cabinet from Staples, put some magnetic tape down in strips (you can see some of it off to the left in the photo above) because my FoG army has steel bases. They don't shift an iota when the thing moves, and the whole army (plus some of the demi-human auxiliaries I've also been painting) fits in a single drawer. I'll be moving my Ogre miniatures into the thing as well; just need to get the foam inserts put in for them, because they lack the metal bases and thus the magnetic strips won't work.

Minifigs WoG Picture Gallery Updated

I've finally updated my Minifigs World of Greyhawk Picture Gallery (link also off to the right in the "free resources" section). I've been saving up various pictures that have come up on eBay over the last several months, but finally got around to integrating them into the gallery. Here's one wonderful example, "Iuz Enthroned"...


Neat Ad for The Hobbit

I really like this one:


Monday, January 23, 2012

Coming Soon to a Disco Dungeon of Doom Near You: Hugh The Barbarian

Demon Dogs! In case you missed it, Goodman Games was giving out promotional posters featuring "Hugh the Barbarian", to publicize their upcoming Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG.

The art will, apparently, be featured on the back of the DCC book, and is quite nifty. I got my poster today, and just wanted to share. You can find a larger version of the artwork over in the Goodman Games forums, here:

http://www.goodman-games.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=60&t=13726&start=0

They're definitely pushing the '70's thing as far as (further than?) it'll go. Complete with mustache, bell bottoms, and of course the striped pants. But it's all in good fun, and a lot of neat ideas in DCC, so do check it out.

Armies of Erseta: Last of the Tamarian Knights

Only the commanders to go and then the army is done, baby, done!

I stretched out with a few new colors for the knights (those two dapper chaps in the orange livery, plus some new blues and such). Once I get the commanders done, I'll have a complete starter army (either Kingdom of Tamaria for my own campaign, or Feudal French for historical minis, even if the paint job is a little ahistorical).



Sunday, January 22, 2012

Fighting Schools of Chevis

I don't really have any problem with having special powers, actions, moves, etc. in a game. What I object to is when they become just things that a player can buy off a list without any sort of investment, and with no real in-game justification beyond "I want my character to be able to do cool move X".

The skill system in Adventures Dark and Deep (based on that developed by Gary Gygax for Castles and Crusades, published under the OGL) allows for the development of such cool moves by a game master, and I thought the following example from my own Erseta campaign might be a good illustration of the concept. Basically, one spends experience points in order to get a level in the skill, and further study gets one additional levels in the skill.

The x.p. cost is given below, and is multiplied by the skill level being sought. If the character's highest attribute is the one given first in the "base x.p. cost" line, he can use that cost. If not, he uses the "all others" cost. Ties count, so if your fighter has a 16 STR and 16 DEX, he can buy the "My Blade is a Reed" skill for 4,000 x.p. If that same character had a 17 STR and 16 DEX, he would need to spend 6,000 x.p. per skill level.

Using the skill requires a successful roll on a d20 against the relevant attribute, with bonuses if you have more than one skill level (-2 per level). Easy peasy. In my campaign, certain skills are only available if one's character takes the time to actually seek out those who can teach them, and spends the money, time, and experience points to gain the skill. Not so easy, sometimes, because there's no guarantee that a teacher will take any jackanapes that walks through his door with a bag of gold!

The city-state of Chevis prides itself on its fighting schools. Lords, princes, and kings send their scions to such schools to be trained in the deadly fighting arts that they teach, and regular knights and warriors dream of one day amassing sufficient wealth to study there. Other cities have such schools of course, but those of Chevis are regarded as the best of the best (albeit usually not by the masters and students of other schools in other cities!), and each is noted for a particular style of fighting. Note that these skills can be learned by characters of any class, not only fighters and cavaliers. Here are three prominent fighting skills taught by some of the preeminent schools of the city. Needless to say, the competition between the fighting schools of Chevis is intense indeed; the right to be called "the best of the best" is jealously guarded.

My Blade is a Reed

Base x.p. cost: 4,000 (dexterity), 6,000 (all others)
Make skill checks against: dexterity
Specialities: n/a

This skill emphasizes the art of parrying with a sword blade, in order to draw a strong enemy in and gain advantage thereby. It can only be used if the character is wielding a sword of some sort other than a two-handed sword. At the beginning of each round, a character with this skill can declare that they are employing this style. If the DEX check is successful, anyone fighting the character with a weapon (of any type) will receive a penalty equal to twice his STR bonus "to hit". Thus, someone with a STR of 17 would actually get a -1 penalty "to hit" rather than the +1 he would normally receive. Additional skill levels will add an additional penalty of -1 per skill level to the enemy's roll. There is no penalty if the character attempting to use the skill fails his DEX check; he can still attempt to use the skill on subsequent rounds.

This style of fighting is taught by the Torontoro School of Chevis. The current Maestro of the school is Schivano Trithi (F13). He holds himself as an impeccable judge of character, and refuses entry to his school to anyone he perceives as being unworthy. Several princes of the blood from around Dornia have earned his disdain, and been refused admission. On the other hand, he has been known to take in students free of charge whom he believes "show promise". Learning each level of this skill will require 6 weeks of training per skill level, and cost 2,000 g.p. per week, unless Maestro Trithi deems otherwise.The colors of the school are red and white.

The Bulette

Base x.p. cost: 3,000 (strength), 5,000 (all others)
Make skill checks against: strength
Specialties: n/a

This skill emphasizes the channeling of physical strength in order to overcome the defenses of others. It can be used by a character wielding any sort of weapon. It can be used by a character wielding any sort of weapon. At the beginning of each round, a character with this skill can declare that they are employing this style. If the STR check is successful, any "to hit" bonus the character would ordinarily gain from his STR score is increased by 1. Further levels of this skill will increase the bonus by an additional +1. This skill will not work unless the character in question already has a "to hit" bonus due to strength.

This style of fighting is taught by the Morfino School of Chevis. The current Maestro of the school is Tormano Nosca (F15). Entry to the school requires that potential students impress Maestro Nosca in a contest of grappling. His strength score of 18/13 makes this a relatively high bar to pass. This skill requires 5 weeks to learn, costing 1,750 g.p. per week per skill level. The colors of the school are purple and black.

The Death of a Thousand Cuts

Base x.p. cost: 4,000 (dexterity), 5,500 (all others)
Make skill checks against: dexterity or strength
Specialties: n/a

This skill teaches the art of wearing down an opponent by eschewing opportunities to deal killing blows in favor of inflicting a flurry of smaller, minor wounds that end up laying one's opponent low. It can be used by a character wielding any sort of edged or pointed weapon. At the beginning of each round, a character with this skill can declare that they are employing this style. If the skill check is successful, the character gets twice as many attacks as he normally would in the round, but each is made with a damage penalty of -3. It cannot be used in conjunction with weapon specialization.

This style of fighting is taught by the Chorvosa School of Chevis. The current Maestro of the school is Giovano Hech (F13). In the last few years, the school has fallen on hard times financially, and Maestro Hech has opened up the doors of the school to any who have the tuition (he is unaware that it is Maestro Nosca of the Morfino School who has subtly manipulated Hech's investments over the last year or so). This skill requires 8 weeks to learn per skill level, costing 1,500 g.p. per week. The colors of the school are red and black.

NOTE: In the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting circa 576 CY (or later), these schools could be said to exist in any major metropolitan locale such as Rel Mord, Rel Astra, or Zelradton.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Erseta Campaign #12

Several (real-world) weeks of being cooped up in Ritterheim, making glacial progress towards retrieving the magic lantern that would reactivate the portal to the ruins of the dwarven city of Glitterdark, got the players more than a little antsy. So, rather than move methodically towards finding the lantern, they decided to cash in what loot hadn't been yet traded in, paid for an identify spell to be (finally) cast upon the magic dagger they retrieved in the tower of the savant, and set forth for an overland journey.

They invested in a fair map of the barony of Rittergeist, so they had a pretty good idea of which way to travel. Most of the journey was overland on fairly good roads through settled farmland, so aside from fellow travelers, merchants, farmers, and the like, there was little of interest as they made their way to Treven, the jumping off point into the forest that leads, eventually, to Glitterdark.

They picked up the same forest trail that they had earlier, but this time were fairly prepared for the section of evil forest through which it led. At the first fork in the trail, they had turned right the last time, ending up out of the forest entirely and confronted by hostile Vanarian border guards. This time they took the left fork, which they calculated would lead them on a more direct route towards their goal.

They were first confronted by a swarm of giant wasps, and although no one was slain before the wasps were driven off, one of their number was brought to 0 hit points, paralyzed by venom, and barely escaped being injected with eggs. One thing I'm noticing is that putting in tougher opponents works very well when the rules for morale checks are used. Rather than fighting to the death, once the wasps were given a bloody nose and half of them were blinded by one of the illusionist's spells, they decided they had had enough and fled. The party was still bloodied from the encounter, though, and healing from the clerics was dealt out.

Unfortunately, as they continued along the trail, the party began to be shadowed by large black squirrels in the trees with evil red eyes. This understandably unnerved them, and they decided to press on into the night before camping, hoping to lose the squirrels. Around midnight, though, they came upon a creek with a troll on the other side. Kurbag, as he introduced himself, was collecting a toll so that he could afford to have a proper bridge built over the creek, under which he could live. Still weakened from their encounter with the wasps and not eager to fight a troll in the middle of the night, the party decided that 50 g.p. was a small price to pay to cross the stream without incident. The squirrels seemed to have lost interest in them and they camped a ways away from Kurbag's crossing.

The next day they avoided a large carcass of some animal on the path that was swarming with giant ants (they happened to choose the direction to avoid the ants that did not lead towards the ant's nest, thus neatly avoiding a potentially painful encounter). They later came across a stone arch near the path, well constructed but quite ancient, that bore a faint inscription in dwarvish: "King Drogo of Glitterdark slew the ogre champion Nurakug the Horrible on this spot, and drank ale from his skull." Lamenting that he had no ale to drink in honor of the long-ago king, the dwarven cleric paused to pull down some of the vines obscuring the arch, and the party continued on.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. They finally emerged from the region of forest with the evil aspect, and ended the session at the foot of Mt. Arak, ready to once again descend into the ruined dwarven city.

Friday, January 20, 2012

"The Wicker Tree" Finally Hits U.S. Theaters Jan. 27

"The Wicker Tree", the not-a-sequel, not-a-remake of 1973's exquisite "The Wicker Man" is finally beginning its theatrical run in American theaters one week from today, on January 27. For those who haven't heard, it was directed by the same man who did the original 1973 version, Robin Hardy, and explores many of the same themes, but with a decidedly "black comedy" angle which some fans of the original find off-putting, and others love.

No idea if this is a widespread distribution or something that only folks in Manhattan and Hollywood are going to be able to take advantage of, but I'm glad to see the film finally getting out there. Apparently, commercials have already been spotted on BBC America, which to me indicates a wide distribution is in the offing, but nothing definitive yet. If it's anywhere near me, I'll definitely be seeing it.

H/T to Val, one of the players in my campaign.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Worlds I've Known

Thinking back, the overwhelming majority of campaigns I've either played in or DMed have been home-brew campaigns.

I love Greyhawk, of course, and have a vast GH collection and (at the risk of being immodest) knowledge, but even then, I've done homebrew way more often than Greyhawk. My current campaign, the world of Erseta, is a homebrew campaign.

On the other hand, I was quite a fan of the Forgotten Realms up until a year or two after the gray box was released; after that, it just got overwhelming (but never actually played in or ran it). We played several campaigns (and I DMed one) in high school that took place in the Wilderlands (back when Judges Guild was still putting out new stuff). We had a terrific Dark Sun campaign while I was in the Air Force (I played a half-giant). And I took a stab at Ravenloft, but mostly looted it for ideas (and monsters-- "if you try to conjure an earth elemental in a graveyard, you'll get a grave elemental") that I ported over to whatever campaign I was doing at the time. Other than that, I've never done Forgotten Realms, Mystara, or Birthright, or Dragonlance, or Kalamar, or any of the others.

I'm curious about something related to this. How many others have relied more on homebrew than published campaigns? (And if so, what rules did you use with it?) I ask because I get the sense that the homebrew campaign is a dying art, and more modern players rely heavily on pre-published settings and adventures.

Monday, January 16, 2012

You're Right, Monte, It Does Sound Crazy

Monte Cook's first post-5E-announcement column is up, and it gives a broad view of what the folks at WotC are doing with the new version. It basically confirms the speculative chatter of the last week, that 5E will be modular. Fine, I get that. Options for simple, moderate, and complex combat, skills, etc. No problem.

What I can't seem to wrap my head around is this:
Second—and this sounds so crazy that you probably won't believe it right now—we're designing the game so that not every player has to choose from the same set of options. Again, imagine a game where one player has a simple character sheet that has just a few things noted on it, and the player next to him has all sorts of skills, feats, and special abilities. And yet they can still play the game together and everything remains relatively balanced. Your 1E-loving friend can play in your 3E-style game and not have to deal with all the options he or she doesn't want or need. Or vice versa. It's all up to you to decide. 
What he seems to be saying is that the players can choose which of the modular parts of the rules they want to play with, and that it won't matter which ones are chosen, since they'll all be inter-operative at some level. I'm dubious.

If I'm at a table, and I've got my stripped-down character sheet with 6 stats, hit points, and how much damage my longsword does, I don't want to have to sit through a lot of "I'm using my crushing blow attack and delivering a sarcastic denouement using my witty banter skill while casting dire meteor swarm because my character is following the mage-blade paragon path." I just want to roll a d20 to hit, and I want you to do the same, because you're slowing down my combat with your crappy add-ons.

He says that all this is going to be balanced (oh, that word!), but I can't help but think that someone who spends hours fine-tuning a character with dozens of options and add-ons and fiddly bits is going to be expecting some in-game bennies for doing so. If so, then we'll see an instant arms race that renders the rules lite players completely out of the competition. If not, then aren't the rules-heavy players going to resent doing all that work for naught?

Plus, it makes me wonder how all of this is going to affect the DM. Is he going to be responsible for knowing and using each and every little fiddly bit that some player at the table decides he wants to use? Or is the same modularity principle going to apply to the game at the level of the DM? If so, am I as a DM going to be able to run a stripped-down rules lite game while some of the players at the table are playing a rules-heavy characters? Again, I'm dubious.

So yes, Monte, it does sound like you just escaped from this video. But I'm still willing to give it a thorough look-see when the playtest version is released. Maybe you've come up with a miracle of game design elegance that will be a model for generations of game designers to come. Nobody will be happier than I if that's the case.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Magic Coffins

I was watching Religion and Ethics Newsweekly tonight, where they had a story on funerals in Ghana. One of the most amazing things about the funerary customs there is the idea of "fantasy coffins". These are actual coffins, intended for real use, that are, well, fantastic. They're shaped as animals, sneakers, fish, airplanes, vegetables, or just about anything you can imagine, in order to exemplify the life of the, er, occupant.

I thought this was a terrific idea (and if I wasn't going to be cryonically preserved, I would be putting in an order for a USS Enterprise-shaped coffin right now), and could possibly serve as inspiration for a game. Imagine skulking through a dank and dismal dungeon only to find a crypt with one of these babies (or, perhaps, one shaped like a dragon, or a basilisk, or whatever-- that might urge even the bravest adventurers to caution).

There could be a market for steel-lined coffins (with +1 enchantment, perhaps?) for graveyards plagued by ghouls and burrowing giant rats. One could imagine magic coffins intended to either prevent the occupant from becoming one of the undead. Perhaps one is fitted with vials of holy water triggered to douse the occupant in the event of any untoward movement. Or, on the flip side, a villainous necromancer could be in the business of supplying coffins that would actually be guaranteed to do so! There's an unexpected bonus for a bereaved family who takes the body of their loved one to the funeral parlor:
"I'm so happy you chose our half-couch, hinged-panel, Slumberon™ casket. And for no extra charge, it will bring your loved one back to a horrific state of un-life as a wight on the next new moon, guaranteed! Oh, wait, did I say that last part out loud?"

Friday, January 13, 2012

300 x.p. for 3 minutes

The new revision of the Savage Worlds RPG has something neat that captured my imagination and inspired me to an idea that could be used in just about any game that runs on x.p. This will piss off those who think that awarding experience points for anything other than hauling back gold coins and slaying monsters is akin to signing one's soul over to Mr. Pip, but so be it ("x.p. for plot points", they will cry, and I will simply shrug). My idea is thus (and it's not something that I would introduce to Adventures Dark and Deep, but it's definitely something I might do in my own campaign).

In "interludes", that is, times when the characters are on an extended journey, or an extended period of rest, one or more might be given the opportunity to do a little off-the-cuff exposition on some aspect of their character. The theme would depend on the situation, and ideally, I'd have a quick table (d6, d8, or maybe d12, depending on the circumstance and how inventive I feel) that would give a broad theme.

The player is expected to provide an in-character exposition relating to the theme. If they can keep up the banter for a full three minutes, they earn 300 x.p. (At higher levels, say 10 and above, I could see myself making that 3,000.)

One sample table could be, for a period of down-time while another player character was recuperating from a nearly fatal wound and nothing much else was going on:
  1. A romantic encounter
  2. A run-in with the law
  3. The PC discovers a new personal goal
  4. A friendship with an NPC that flourished briefly and ended suddenly
  5. A religious revelation
  6. An old skeleton in the closet emerges
  7. The PC is the victim of a scam artist
  8. A brief encounter with royalty, nobility, or some other high-echelon of society
The idea is that the player, in the course of describing the encounter, would have the opportunity to add a little something to the campaign. The GM would, naturally, have complete veto power, and be able to gently guide the player as he does his narration (filling in details and names and such), but the idea is that the campaign grows organically, and giving the players the opportunity to do so in a way that's particularly specific to their character.

I bought a nifty little hourglass-timer on eBay that goes for 3 minutes. Can't wait to try it out. Fair warning to my players-- 3 minutes is an awfully long time to talk.

EDIT: Some folks seem to have gotten something of an incorrect notion about this. It would be an opportunity to earn the x.p. through a little impromptu character development. As in, "Who wants to earn 300 x.p.?" and the first person to raise their hand gets the chance. Nobody would be chosen, randomly or otherwise.

NYT "Twenty Sided Store" Article

The New York Times has a great article about gaming, featuring The Twenty Sided Store in Brooklyn. Looks like a neat place; I'll have to check it out the next time we visit my wife's family.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/nyregion/at-the-twenty-sided-store-gamers-unleash-their-alter-egos.html?src=tp&smid=fb-share (You'll probably need a free registration to read the article.)

(H/T to Tavis Allison)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

"I Don't Need a New Game"

One sentiment I've seen on various OSR blogs and fora this week is that which forms the title of this post. "Why bother with 5E, when I've got all my 1st Edition books, or my BECMI boxes, or my Rules Compendium, or my LBB's, or Labyrinth Lord, or whatever?" I've got to say that's a feeling I simply cannot share. One might just as easily say*...

"Why bother with Diaspora, when I've got Traveler?"
"Why bother with Traveler, when I've got Ringworld?"
"Why bother with Gamma World, when I've got Metamorphosis Alpha?"
"Why bother with Marvel Super Heroes, when I've got Champions?"
"Why bother with Champions, when I've got Villains and Vigilantes?"
"Why bother with Twilight 2000, when I've got The Morrow Project?"
"Why bother with Aces and Eights, when I've got Boot Hill?"
"Why bother with Tunnels and Trolls, when I've got Chivalry and Sorcery?"
"Why bother with Savage Worlds, when I've got GURPS?"
"Why bother with Werewolf: The Apocalypse, when I've got Vampire: The Masquerade?"
"Why bother with Unicorn Games' Star Trek the RPG, when I've got FASA's Star Trek the RPG?"
"Why bother with FASA's Star Trek the RPG, when I've got Heritage Games' Star Trek RPG?"
etc. etc. etc. ...

Or, perhaps the most relevant to many readers...

"Why bother with Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, when I've got my white box?"

(I should point out that this is not a solicitation of lengthy discussions of any of those off-the-cuff examples, or any others that anyone might come up with. Seriously. Don't be pedantic.)

Seriously, though, the reason to be interested in 5E isn't because it will be "better" than 0E, 1E, 2E, 3.x, or 4E. I'm fully in agreement with those who chant "newer is not the same as better", and I myself repeat it like a mantra in some discussions. But honestly, in this particular instance, it's not the point. Even if I fall in love with 5E, I won't stop playing Adventures Dark and Deep, and it won't stop me from playing Call of Cthulhu, or Vampire: The Masquerade, or Gamma World, or Diaspora, or Star Trek...

The choice of RPG is not a zero-sum game! Just because I play 5E (or whatever), does NOT mean I am not going to play something else as well!

Newer doesn't necessarily mean better. But it does mean different. And I'm always on the lookout for something new and different, because it might be something I enjoy playing in addition to, or maybe, yes, instead of, something else.

I am a dyed-in-the-wool fan of 1E. I wouldn't be pursuing my Adventures Dark and Deep project if I weren't. But that does not preclude me from playing and enjoying other RPGs as well. Even fantasy RPGs. So I make no apologies for being excited at the prospect of 5E, even if 4E was such a disappointment (to me, as a gamer).

Newer doesn't necessarily mean better, but neither does older. They're just different. And different might... just might... mean better. Or better for a while. I'm willing to settle for that.

_________
* With two exceptions, all of these are games I have played at one time or another, btw... And those two exceptions, I do own and would like to play.

Sparky Needs Surgery

I try to keep appeals to my readership to a minimum, but I saw this and thought I would share. If you are able to make a donation, I encourage you to do so. Sparky is in the local animal shelter, and needs some help.

Sparky is a 6 month old wire-haired Dachshund pup who was born with a liver shunt. This is a blood vessel that's in the wrong place and keeps the liver from properly doing its many important jobs, resulting in a sick little doggie who has to be on medication and a special diet. The shunt can be surgically treated - but it's not a routine surgery - and it's costly. Please help us raise the money for Sparky's surgery. You can donate via PayPal with the Chip-in icon below, or you can send a check to BARKS, PO Box 593, Stanhope, NJ 07874. Please write 'Sparky' in the memo. Thank you!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

D&D 5E Information Roundup

ENWorld has a nifty page set up where they've rounded up all of the 5E information that's been put out to date. It looks like they're going to keep it updated, so I'll put a link to it over on the sidebar here, for those who want to keep up with it. Here's the link.

One good thing I noticed near the bottom of the page was that the team seems to know that a more 3.x-type license is going to help a lot more than a 4E-type license. Of course, the malebranche's in the minutae, but it's a good sign that they at least seem to be acknowledging the weaknesses of 4E.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Elusive "Family RPG"

Lately I've seen some references to RPGs in what is (to me, anyway), a new context throughout the blogosphere. That is what I call "the family RPG". Something that is "evergreen" (i.e., has steady sales at toy and mass market stores in the same way that Monopoly and Operation do), something that you would expect to find in any house with kids, and something that gets trotted out on "family game night" with more or less equal frequency as Risk, Life, and Sorry!

Among the OSR blogarati, such a thing is "rules lite" and weighs in at 36 pages; it's bought and the purchasers are never heard from again (perhaps "everbrown" is a more apt name for such a product from a marketing point of view). Among the rest of the RPG universe, it's a way to lure new people into more expensive (and thus lucrative) games; the longed-for gateway drug that will finally steal the audience away from WoW. I'm not sure such a thing is even possible, but let's explore the possibilities.

I believe there are a few criteria that a "family RPG" needs to meet:
  • It's got to be accessible. Weird settings that require a lot of acclimation and understanding are going to put off the average family, which should be looked at as a "quadruple casual" gamers, if that. Go with something at least vaguely familiar; a wildly popular IP is a choice, but it runs the risk of alienating folks who just don't like Harry Potter, Tolkein, or Iron Man.
  • It's got to be easy. Easy does not necessarily equate to "terse" or "short". A set of rules that's four pages long and packed densely with information, jargon, and acronyms is going to fail. Reading level should be no more than 5th grade.
  • Corollary to the first criterion: It has to be quick to start. Monopoly takes about as much time to set up as it takes to count out the money. Risk takes a little longer, but not much. Spending an hour on character creation is a non-starter.
  • It's got to be geared for 3-5 players. That means 3-5 classes, or races, or roles, or whatever. No more, no less. Save the rest for expansions for the hard-core players. You need to have one for mom, dad, and 1-2 kids, and deciding should be as easy as choosing between the car and the top hat. Why do you think "Hungry Hungry Hippos" is made for 4 players, and Monopoly works best with 4-5?
  • It's got to be forgiving. You trade two railroads for Baltic Avenue, you won't automatically lose the game, even though it might be harder. Same thing if you roll four 2's and a 1 when defending Kamchatka. The sort of "you are punished both for stupidity and for bad luck" that many old school games embrace just won't fly.
  • It's got to be fairly winnable. It could be a team win, or an individual win, but it cannot be a situation where one player serves as the referee/foil for the rest. In a family scenario, nobody wants to be felt "ganged up on", and that's what the DM is, basically, in traditional D&D-type games. Normally, that's counterpoised by the near-omnipotence of the DM, which in turn is balanced by the fact that people will leave the group and find a new DM if he is consistently unfair. However, plug that into a family scenario where mom had a bad day at work, or Susie stole Jimmy's last Popsicle from the freezer, and it becomes a madhouse of metagaming mayhem. What's lost is the last piece of balance; in a family game, you can't just go find another group, because you're stuck with the family you've got.
  • It's got to be fun. Because nobody plays a game twice if halfway through you have to ask "when does this become fun?"
The question becomes, can such a game be designed and still be recognizable as an RPG (in the way most of us think of RPGs)? I don't pretend to have an answer; if I did, I'd be pitching it to Hasbro right now. Thus the discussion; are there parts of the above that invalidate the RPG concept? Can you have an RPG in the D&D sense of the term that is easy, quick, accessible, 3-5 players, forgiving, fairly winnable, and fun? Did I miss a criterion or is one of mine off-base?  Please weigh in.

Game Company Interior Design

One of the threads spawned from EnWorld's coverage of the 5E announcement yesterday was Bet you wish your workplace looked like WotC. Go to the link; there are a bunch of neato-torpedo pictures of the WotC offices, with their props and such scattered throughout the workspace. And they are neat to me, because I don't work for WotC.

One thing that struck me, though, was that all of the cool stuff was very... self-referential. It's almost insecure in tone. Like seeing the golden arches on every wall in the McDonald's corporate HQ.

This is not me hating on WotC (honest; I can state an opinion without being mean). Just an observation that if I was in charge of a multi-million-dollar game company, the walls would be festooned with fantasy and sci-fi movie posters, covers of old 50's pulp magazines, and old historical or fantasy maps. Stuff to inspire the folks who worked there to look into new avenues, wool-gather a moment or two, maybe get inspiration. I probably wouldn't have the logo of my flagship product repeated over and over.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Here Comes 5th Edition!

As I discussed before, I've felt that certain actions on the part of Wizards of the Coast (not least of which was the re-hiring of Monte Cook) presaged a 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons coming down the pike, and lo! and behold I am once more proven correct:

Charting the Course for D&D

To those who doubted that I was right in saying that 5E was coming sooner rather than later, I will reply with a stately and dignified "neener, neener, neener". However, there are some interesting tidbits. FTFA:
"...starting in Spring 2012, we will be taking this process one step further and conducting ongoing open playtests with the gaming community to gather feedback on the new iteration of the game as we develop it. With your feedback and involvement, we can make D&D better than ever.


"We want a game that rises above differences of play styles, campaign settings, and editions, one that takes the fundamental essence of D&D and brings it to the forefront of the game. In short, we want a game that is as simple or complex as you please, its action focused on combat, intrigue, and exploration as you desire. We want a game that is unmistakably D&D, but one that can easily become your D&D, the game that you want to run and play.

"Then at the D&D Experience convention in late January, Wizards of the Coast will conduct a special playtest of ideas currently in development."

There's also a New York Times article covering the story (free registration required to read). They add a few more things, including this critical piece that flies in the face of those who predict that tabletop gaming is dead and should move over to MMORPGs:
Still, a new edition could backfire, if the changes requested by hard-core fans can’t be reconciled or if players believe the company is merely paying lip service to their concerns. Nonetheless the company remains “absolutely committed” to the core tabletop game-play, Ms. Schuh said. “People want that face-to-face experience.”
Also, this year's D&D Experience convention later this month has an interesting slate of seminars:
Charting the Course: An Edition for all Editions (Thursday)
Join Mike Mearls, Monte Cook, and Jeremy Crawford as they discuss the origin for the idea to create an edition of Dungeons & Dragons that encompasses all previous editions. The designers discuss the challenges in creating compatibility and balance, as well as the exciting possibilities such a system creates. Seminar to be followed by a Q&A session.

Class Design: From Assassins to Wizards (Friday)
Designers Monte Cook, Bruce Cordell, and Robert Schwalb discuss their approach to class design, including the difficulties in creating iconic versions of the classes that speak to players of all editions. Should the cleric be more martial or more healer? Does the default ranger have an animal companion? What level of complexity should the fighter have? Seminar to be followed by a Q&A session.

Future Products and Q&A (Saturday)
Mike Mearls presents upcoming D&D products for 2012, as well as a vision for the future of Dungeons & Dragons. Seminar is followed by a Q&A session. Other members of R&D on hand to answer questions as well.

Reimagining Skills and Ability Scores (Sunday)
The role of skills has fluctuated throughout the life of Dungeons & Dragons, and ability scores have been of varying importance in each edition. Find out what the design team has done to reimagine these aspects of the game, and how they arrived at a system to marry the two concepts more closely together. Seminar includes Monte Cook, Bruce Cordell, and Robert Schwalb, and will be followed by a Q&A session.

Takeaways from all this: 5E has been "in development" for some time, now. To the point that they'll actually have something ready for public exposure three weeks from now. They're following in the footsteps of Paizo and doing an open playtest, and it looks like they're aware that tabletop gaming is still their core competency, and aren't going to go 100% digital. Good.

I will say this again: I gave 4E a fair chance, read the rules and actually played the game, and made an informed decision that it wasn't what I was looking for. I will give 5E the same benefit of the doubt, and I am honestly and actually hoping it turns out to be something a committed old-school grognard such as myself can embrace. If they ask for input from me, I will be happy to oblige. I'm not optimistic, but I am open-minded.

EDIT: There is some more in-depth information over at EnWorld here and here. (Well, as in-depth as it can be, given that they have been asked not to disclose any specifics about the system, but they're a fun read if you're interested in 5E.)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

How D&D is Like Doctor Who

One of the truisms about Doctor Who is that your favorite Doctor is almost always the first one you ever saw on a regular basis. So, in my case, I happen to think Tom Baker completely embodies the character, and it's no coincidence that growing up in the 1980's, his was the only version of Doctor Who I was exposed to for years on television (PBS here in the New York City area, followed eventually by Peter Davidson and Collin Baker, but not until the stamp had left its mark). I think the same thing can be said, to some extent, with D&D.

In my own case, I first dipped my toe into D&D during the White Box days, but really glommed on to it as AD&D. I played 2nd edition, but 1st was always my true love, RPG-wise. That hasn't changed.

What occasioned this observation was the latest episode of the Dreadcast podcast, "Momanatrixs Old School Woes", which describes the reaction of someone who was first exposed to D&D through 4th edition (gads... it's even hard for me to accept that there are people playing who've only picked up the game in the last 4 years) after playing a couple of sessions of 1E/OSRIC. Some of her pithy observations (do listen to the whole thing; it's only 15 minutes and a valuable insight into what is clearly a generational rift D&D-wise):
“I don’t know where I am without a map. Why is there no map?

“These guys are around here somewhere, you’re somewhere over here, so what do you want to do? I’m like, I don’t know, how, how far or how close? I don’t know.”
“Like, I play a druid, and I don’t really have, like, that many… I have barely any… like, spells that I can do in combat. They’re mostly out-of-combat spells. … And that, I’m fine with that, for the most part, that’s okay. But, like, I have this long list of spells, and I don’t have, like, there’s no, like, cards that I have. I have no idea what they do, I have to, like, just look through the book every time? Or am I just supposed to memorize this, like, long list of spells that I have?”
“Yeah, because I like to… what I like to do is I like to pay attention to everything that’s going on, and then when my turn comes around, I’ll be, like, oh! Well, since I’m right here, and this is right here, and I have this spell that can do this to this many people, in this area, of this distance, then I can plan it all out. But now in this game, it comes to my turn, and I’m like, I don’t know what’s going on. And I have to ask, like, five questions before I can even decide what I’m going to do, and I… it makes me feel, it makes me feel dumb.”

At the end of the podcast, they invite commentary, so I'm going to provide some. First off, I would point out that the use of miniatures and battle mats is not limited to 4th edition. It is entirely possible to do so with 1st, or 0E, or 2E, or 3.x. However, running an RPG without recourse to visual aids such as miniatures is a skill unto itself, and it is entirely possible that the DM in question was a little overly vague in his descriptions, or capricious in his adjudication of combat. Obviously I have no way of knowing, but the lack of minis and a battle mat isn't a design flaw of 1E. Heck, we're told that 4E doesn't have to be played with miniatures (good luck with that, though).

As for the spells, well, you need to look up spell descriptions in 4E, too. I don't really see the issue with having to look up the spell description in a book, but as was mentioned in the podcast itself, the descriptions of specific spells could be put onto 3x5 cards if that's easier for you (and I think such a thing was actually done for 1E way back when). But those cards aren't standard 4E issue, either; you need to look up the descriptions in a book either way. Plus, I'm not an expert on 4E spell descriptions, but I don't remember them being any more explicit in terms of effects than the descriptions in 1E.

As for druids not having so many combat-oriented spells, I might disagree. Looking at the 1E spell list for druids, I see all sorts of spells that can be used in combat. But then again, I don't define "used in combat" as "deals out lots of damage to enemies". And that begins to pry open something of the disconnect, I think.

If you listen to the podcast, it becomes clear that it's the ambiguity of older school games that flummoxes the player. She wants everything laid out, "cut and dried". The problem, of course, is that doing so doesn't just cut down on DM caprice; it also limits creativity on the part of the players. So for every time the DM can't say "it's a cloudless day, so you can't use your call lightning spell", there's going to be a time when you can't use stone shape to cause a piece of wall to fall down into the pool of acid, splashing it on the ogre shaman while your thief swings over on the flower stems that were made bigger thanks to a plant growth spell. As a confirmed old school player, I prefer ambiguity that allows for more creativity, rather than certainty that requires conformity.

Having every possibility spelled out in the rules limits creativity in the game by definition, because it takes away from the ability of the DM to either create or respond to situations that the designers of the game never anticipated. Or, taken to the opposite extreme, it forces the rules to become so bloated in their attempt to cover every possible contingency that the game becomes unplayable. 

I find it very interesting that someone whose first introduction to D&D was 4E finds it so difficult to adapt to the tropes and expectations of 1E. Specifically that her objections stem from the fact that not everything is laid out with definitive rules covering it. I've said that I think 4E is much less a role-playing game than it is a skirmish miniatures game, and I predict that Angela would find a game like Malifaux or Heroclix exceedingly to her liking, much more so than a game that encourages extra-rules activities on the part of the DM and players such as 1E.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Raid on Frederikshavn Playtest #2

Saturday saw us venturing forth to the FLGS to give my Ogre Miniatures scenario "Raid on Frederikshavn" another test-run. We had done one playtest of it back in November, and many good lessons were learned, resulting in a much tighter set of rules for the second run-through, mostly concerning the victory points. I'm going to be running this twice at Dreamation next month, so I wanted to make sure it was solid.

The basic thrust of the scenario is that the Combine is attacking a PanEuropean spaceport in Frederikshavn, Denmark, with a coordinated attack by GEVs and an Ogre MK-IIIB sent across the North Sea. The PanEuropean player has to hang on long enough for enough reinforcements to arrive to push back the invaders.

The biggest changes were that victory points were now given only for destroying the critical objectives; the spaceplane itself and six critical structures (adminstration buildings, fuel depots, and workshops). No points are awarded for destroying enemy units or the various town areas.

Here's the setup for the game before the units were placed. The spaceplane is near the upper edge of the board, buildings and fuel depots scattered nearby, with swamp and forest in the middle of the board. The thin brown strips are road, the large brown blocks are town areas, which favor infantry greatly (triple defense!).


The PanEuropean defender (me) placed my Fencer (an Ogre with a whole lot of missiles and weak guns, code named "Rommel") right in the middle, with a mobile howitzer, a couple of missile tanks and infantry scattered about. The Combine attackers decided to divide their forces into two groups, each running up one edge of the board. You can see them in the upper-left moving through the few strips of solid ground between the swamps and forest. Unfortunately for the attacker, the defenders scored a very lucky roll right off the bat and took out two GEVs with one shot thanks to spillover fire (those two white puffs on the right side).


Eventually the attackers moved their remaining GEVs and Ogre MK-IIIB (code named "Skorzeny") up the left flank and took out the large building. 35 victory points in the bag. One of the GEVs was lost in the process, but the attacking Ogre was completely undamaged.


Meanwhile, on the right flank, the attacking force of GEVs and a GEV-PC carrying a platoon of infantry raced up and got close to striking distance of the spaceplane itself. 10 structure points of damage and it would be a guaranteed marginal victory for the attackers. Fortunately, the defenders had committed their Fencer to staving off the threat. Between the Fencer and the mobile howitzer (which, despite the name, wasn't all that mobile in the town area, only moving one inch per turn, but it did have the advantage of double defense) the threat was largely neutralized (completely so in the next turn or two, especially thanks to some fortuitous reinforcements in that sector).


Finally, the attacking Ogre Mk-IIIB was left alone. Only the one building had been destroyed, all of its screening GEVs destroyed, and the Fencer and scads of reinforcements (mostly GEVs and Light GEVs) rushing to engage. In two turns, the Fencer and the defending tanks and GEVs took out almost all the weapons on the Mk-IIIB, and the attacker threw in the towel. End result: marginal defender victory.


On the whole I'm very pleased with the way the scenario has turned out. Although this was something of a lopsided result, things would have turned out very differently had the attacker simply switched his forces running up the sides of the board. As it was, his Ogre ended up on the side that was furthest from the primary objective and most of the victory point-rich buildings. If the Ogre had been on the right instead of the left, we could easily have seen a couple more buildings taken out for a tie or even a marginal attacker victory.

Now, on to the con! (I'll post the pdf of the scenario after the convention, for anyone who might be interested.)

Erseta Campaign #11

We had a much more focused session this evening, due in large part to two new players (one the wife of one of our regulars, the other an old friend of two others, so nobody was a new newt dropped in the fishtank). This was a "caper" evening, where the players were presented with a problem that seemed pretty simple on the surface, but spent three hours planning how to pull it off.

First off was a little more intelligence gathering about "The Cleavers" and their leader Osterbeck. Since the party had learned last time that the magical lantern needed to reactivate the gate back to the ruined dwarven city of Glitterdark was in their possession, they decided to ask their shadiest contact in the city about them. Said contact, Thrivin Mossberg, a halfling fence, provided them with a little more information than they had; the Cleavers were a pretty low-rent band of thugs who mostly worked the area near the docks, but not exclusively. He didn't think too much of the Cleavers, apparently. He did, however, offhandedly ask if the group was open to another job-- several sessions ago they agreed to bring in some merchandise from the docks without it being inspected by the sheriffs for tax purposes.

At first they didn't bite, and that was fine with me (from a GM point of view). But then somehow they decided that the job might lead them closer to the Cleavers, and accepted. The job turned out to be bringing in two wagon loads of fruit into the city for a "secret society" in time for something happening on the Full Moon in 6 days. The catch? The fruit was a "surprise" and nobody could know that it was being brought in.

After being assured that the fruit was legal, and merely "a surprise", they set about their task, and this was where my fun began.

Was it really fruit? Was that just some euphemism for something else? They went to the farmhouse a couple miles out of town where the wagons were being kept and, yep, it's fruit. Bushels and bushels of some rare fruit nobody'd ever seen before. What was it for? The farmer's wife had no idea, but pointed out that the Feast of Deliverance, which commemorated the end of the Drowning Death in the town of Ritterheim, was going to be celebrated on the same day as the Full Moon. When this information was relayed to the party, you could just see the wheels turning. Why? What was this secret society going to do with rare fruit? The Cleavers were long forgotten.

Then came the planning of the caper. For three and a half solid hours, they argued and planned and plotted and schemed and came up with idea after idea. Our usual asides into movies, other games, and shiny things catching our attention were minimized as everyone focused on the problem of how to get two wagons full of fruit through a guarded gate and past the watchful eye of a tax-collecting sheriff. They'd use barrels, no, illusions, no, cover the wagons in straw, no too obvious, cover the fruit in dung, no, that would squish the fruit, maybe cover it in tarps and then cover those in dung, no the fruit would still get squished, maybe pack it in barrels and cover them in dung, no, fill them with fish, no, take out empty barrels, no, that would be suspicious, hire a third wagon and take it out to the farm to fill it up with fruit, no, that would attract attention, so go out one gate and return through another, no, there was no road connecting them outside the town... round and round they went. It was glorious.

They eventually settled on a scheme involving a facade of a third wagon, empty barrels, tarps covering the actual fruit, and the illusionist using his mirage cantrip three times to fool the sheriff into thinking the fruit was just empty barrels. While the two clerics staged a diversion at the gate involving a fascinate spell, because no plan would be complete without a clerical diversion. All the planning paid off, for they thought it through to the point where no obvious roadblocks stood in their way, got the wagons through the gate and to the home of the secret society. Which was known as The Shockers and whose headquarters was decorated with black and yellow bunting. The fruit was delivered to several men wearing masks and dressed in black and yellow motley (surely this had to be the most conspicuous "secret society" ever seen), the PCs got their pay from their halfling employer, and all was right with the world. At least until the mystery of the Shockers and their "secret fruit" is revealed...

What really excited me about this session was it was all role-playing. The players might be feeling a little frustration that there haven't been any goblins to hack through lately, but this time it was because the game just went in a different direction, not because we were distracted by other non-game-related things. And their forethought and planning paid off. The caper went off without a hitch.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Specious Model Railroading Analogy

Recently, Ryan Dancy was quoted in an article in The Escapist where he repeated the canard that the tabletop RPG industry is "becoming a dead hobby", because it's falling into the same pattern as the model railroading industry:
"Kids stopped playing with trains, and the businesses that remained dedicated to hobbyists who got more disposable income as they grew up, until the price of the hobby was out of reach of anyone except those older hobbyists. Eventually, it became a high-end hobby with very expensive products, sold to an ever-decreasing number of hobbyists. As those folks die, the hobby shrinks. That is what is happening to the tabletop RPG business."
The exact same argument (nearly word for word, interestingly), was recently featured in an anonymous guest post over at Wise Fugaros' blog:
Historically there was a time when model trains were a popular gift, the sort of thing that you give a child to occupy their time, or to play with with their friends. Then over time the trains got more complex, and the hobby got more and more focused. The kids grew up and kept their model trains, but not too many new kids came in. Now we see an interesting situation: it is hard to find a model train set for a kid to just get into, and you don’t go looking in a toy store for one, you go to a hobby shop.
Likewise, there was a time when an RPG (“Red Box” Dungeons and Dragons) was a popular gift, the sort of thing that you give a child to occupy the time, or to play with friends. Then over time the games got more varied, and the hobby got more and more focused. The kids grew up and kept their games, but not as many new kids came in. I’ll stop there to avoid belaboring the point, but the parallels are pretty clear.
The fallacies here are numerous, so I'll start with the most obvious.

The Hobby Manufacturers Association estimated that in 2010 alone the model railroading industry had sales of some $424,770,000. The tabletop RPG industry wishes it had sales anywhere near that. You can find model railroading magazines-- at least a half-dozen different titles-- at every Barnes & Noble in the country and a couple even in my local convenience store. That's hard copy, not some dubious "online magazine". If that's Dancy's idea of "a dead industry", then I say bring on the mourners. As for the claim that "it's hard to find a model train set for a kid to just get into", well, this.

But the more general notion is that tabletop RPGs don't attract enough kids. Without kids, the thinking goes, the hobby is doomed to die as the older players die off and aren't replaced with fresh youngsters clutching a red box to their breast.

That, of course, is specious because it presupposes that all growth must come from kids. While it is true that a large segment of newcomers to the hobby back in the 1980's were tweens and teens, I would argue that any attempt to recapture that golden era is doomed, and any attempt to make comparisons between the market today and how things were in 1983 is just not credible. Those times are gone, the product of a number of different factors that will never be repeated.

And you know what? I'm fine with that. Who says the hobby only has to grow through kids?

I'm perfectly fine with entrants into the hobby skewing older. Disposable income is not a vice! Just to take some anecdotal evidence, the folks I see playing D&D or Pathfinder at the local stores are in their early-mid 20's. They're not stymied by the lack of an introductory boxed set (a holy grail that some seem to think is the key to bringing back the hobby to its 1983 levels). They buy the core rulebook(s) and start playing. Whence this notion that people advancing from Pokemon when they're young to RPGs when they're older is a losing proposition? Why the need to dumb things down?

Plus, I would point out that most games today don't have the same model as Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder. Not every game is an attempt to get the customers hooked through a "gateway drug" cheap and easy boxed set so they'll feel compelled to step up to the heroin of endless $50 rulebooks. You buy Swords & Wizardry, or Labyrinth Lord, or Diaspora, or Call of Cthulhu, or Tunnels and Trolls, or any one of hundreds of games out there, and you don't really need anything more than that. There's no "starter set" required because the whole thing is self-contained, and can be played entirely as-is, with maybe an adventure module or pre-made setting for those who are inclined to use such.

That may not be good news for the RPG industry (which is built on the "call R&D and see if there's a way to make the pages physically addictive" model), but it's terrific news for the RPG hobby.

And every day dozens of new designers and publishers, often the much-maligned one-man-startups, are coming out with new games, new accessories, new ideas, and new twists on old ideas. That's where the future of the hobby lies. There will always be a few Big Players, who can afford full-time staffs and salaries, R&D budgets and television advertising, but experience has shown that innovation rarely comes from such corners. Once the lean newcomers "make it big", they begin to ossify, and are left in the dust by newer, leaner, entrants (I'm looking at you, White Wolf).

Personally, I don't really care what happens to the RPG industry (aside from the personal effects on friends of mine who are in it), because it is distinct from the RPG hobby. I am most decidedly a hobbiest, and proud of it.

The RPG industry is changing and facing challenges from new technologies. Does that mean that we should all give up and start playing MMO's? Well, Ryan Dancy might want us to, and belittle those of us who still think that getting together with friends... you know... across a table is an enjoyable thing, but I think it's hardly inevitable. But even if Wizards of the Coast went out of business tomorrow, and Dungeons and Dragons went unpublished for 20 years, the RPG hobby would still endure, and probably flourish. Or at least be as "dead" as model railroading. And I'd be okay with that.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

More Medieval Erudition: The Lament of Sudden Wealth

Life and customs were hard in Lombardy [at the beginning of the 13th century]. Men wore cloaks of leather without any adornments, or clothes of rough wool with no lining. With a few pence, people felt rich. Men longed to have arms and horses. If one was noble and rich, one's ambition was to own high towers from which to admire the city and the mountains and the rivers. The virgins wore tunics of pignolato [rough cotton] and petticoats of linen, and on their heads they wore no ornaments at all. A normal dowry was about ten lire and at the utmost reached one hundred, because the clothes of the woman were ever so simple. There were no fireplaces in the houses. Expenses were cut down to a minimum because in summer people drank little wine and wine-cellars were not kept. At table, knives were not used; husband and wife ate off the same plate, and there was one cup or two at most for the whole family. Candles were not used, and at night one dined by light of glowing torches. One ate cooked turnips, and ate meat only three times a week. Clothing was frugal. Today, instead, everything is sumptuous. Dress has become precious and rich with superfluity. Men and women bedeck themselves with gold, silver, and pearls. Foreign wines and wines from distant countries are drunk, luxurious dinners are eaten, and cooks are highly valued.
-- Galvano Fiamma, 13th century, as quoted in The Taste of Conquest by Michael Krondl

While Galvano Fiamma was complaining about the changes in lifestyle brought about by the conquerors returning home with wealth from the Crusades, he could just as easily be bemoaning the wealth that would be attendant to a steady stream of adventurers hauling boxes of gold and jewels from the depths of a nearby megadungeon. Gary Gygax spoke briefly of such inflation, but when I saw the above quote, I thought it said it much more eloquently than I could.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Convention Plans for 2012

Unfortunately, my convention plans for the upcoming year are going to be much as they were for 2011, despite my hopes to get westward this year. I'll be sticking close to home, and only attending the local conventions. Fortunately, Dreamation (February), DexCon (July), and newcomer Metatopia (October) are close enough to not need a hotel and really nice conventions with plenty of games and other stuff happening. My only wish is that the dealers room for Dreamation and DexCon would be better, with actual game companies showing up rather than just retailers. I might squeeze in Ubercon (November) as well.

Alas, no GenCon (August) in my future this year, nor Origins (June), North Texas RPG Con (June) or GaryCon (March). Finances just don't allow it this year, with everything else I've got happening.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Mysteries in a Magical Universe

The Classical and Medieval worlds were rife with mysteries that were supposedly solved through complex theological, philosophical, and other means. We, in our modern scientific world, see these solutions as quaint superstitions at best; the setting of the sun is explained by a Geocentric universe, the origin of humanity is found in the myth of Adam and Eve (or, if you wish, Ask and Embla, Phaenon, etc. etc.), myths of afterlives, the existence of demons and angels, and so forth.

However, in a world permeated with magic such as those most often found in fantasy RPG campaigns, this becomes harder to sustain, as magic allows a level of certainty on these sorts of answers that is rivaled only by modern technology. Not sure what happens to souls after death? Use your astral spell to travel to the outer planes, and get a first-hand look. Is the world round or flat? A jaunt in a spelljammer ship can show you definitively. Do demons or angels exist? Well, yes, and so do gods; they take physical form and walk the earth. In many ways, "mechanistic" magic gives more certainty than technology ever could, thus robbing the world of mystery.

In such a world, mysteries come from paradox.

One mage ventures to the outer planes and reports three infinite layers of Hades, "adjacent" to which are four layers of Gehenna and six layers of Tarterus. A few years later, another attempts to recreate the journey and only finds a single plane, also called Hades, but which is home to both demodands and daemons. Who is right? Who is wrong? It's a mystery, and the Oinodaemon isn't talking. The mystery grows when the player characters, on two subsequent journeys, find both conditions, or maybe one that is completely different. Instantly, mystery is reintroduced into the campaign, through paradox.

In such a situation, the players will likely try to come up with a rational explanation. Was one an illusion? Let them attempt to come up with logical explanations, but never, as a GM, allow yourself to be boxed in by them. Even when they see what they believe is "conclusive proof" that one or another side of a paradox is "the truth", the inherent mystery of the universe is always there, lurking in the background, ready to turn their rational, machine-like understanding of the world on its head.

Allowing for paradox also allows for radically different cosmologies adopted by different cultures, none of which has to be The True Cosmology. The worshipers of the Holy Family in my own campaign believe in a Sacred Island where all the faithful go after they die, and a fragmented underworld of Hell, the Abyss, Hades, etc. for evil-doers. Does the fact that the people of the Golden Kingdoms believe that when they die their soul will go to dwell on one of the stars in the heavens, with each star being home to a particular family, invalidate (or is it itself invalidated by) that view? Can both be true? Could neither be true, despite the fact that both are based on direct observation or revelation at one time or another? Of course, all of the above.

Even in a world with magic, nothing says that the universe has to be cataloged, logical, and 100% rational. Much like with the concept of mythic time, don't let your own modern predilection for absolute certainty and logic get in the way of introducing a little mystery into your campaign now and again, even if it's a mystery that is destined never to be solved.