Wednesday, September 30, 2015

More video reviews of Adventures Dark and Deep!

Seems that someone really likes Adventures Dark and Deep! Keegan Reid has posted two reviews on his YouTube channel, one for the Players Manual and one for the Game Masters Toolkit, that are positively gushing. :-) Please do take a look, and subscribe to his channel. Lots of other interesting stuff in there as well.

I just love that years after they're published, folks are still discovering the Adventures Dark and Deep books and getting this excited about what they see. Really, really makes it all worthwhile.

(Check's in the mail, Keegan)

Monday, September 28, 2015

Deconstructing Clerics

Now that my first swing at doing a religion-specific subclass of cleric, rather than just doing a tweak or two to the existing cleric class, as was the norm for a long time (see my notes on the Greyhawk Adventures book for some examples), is out the door and off to the editor, more of my thoughts on the subject of specialist clerics have coalesced somewhat.

Setting aside the question of level limits, because 1E hits its "sweet spot" generally before the maximum of 15th level for a druid is reached, here are several chief differences between the cleric and the druid:
  • Clerics have the ability to turn undead
  • Clerics require fewer x.p. to advance in level early on, then advance more slowly
  • Clerics have access to better armor
  • Clerics and druids have different spell lists
  • Druids have woodcraft
  • Druids have immunity to woodland charm
  • Druids have the ability to shape change
I submit that the clerical turn undead ability is particularly powerful, especially since it is an "at will" power, and the tables upon which it relies grant a fairly powerful application of it fairly early on (a first level cleric has a 50-50 chance of turning a skeleton, while a 4th level cleric has a 100% chance of doing so, while a 1st level cleric actually has a chance to turn a shadow, which is a fairly powerful undead creature).

I would rate woodcraft and immunity to woodland charm are fairly low-utility powers, dependent on very specific circumstances. Shape change, on the other hand, is quite a powerful ability, carrying with it the power to heal 10-60% of wounds, although it is somewhat mitigated by the fact that it can only be used three times per day. 

Given these factors, we can arrive at a fairly general formula when it comes to the creation of specialty priests:
  • Turning undead is on par with shape change, although slightly above it because of the limited number of times shape change can be used.
  • Better armor and fewer x.p. is worth the same as two specialized skills, with a little more thrown in to offset the druids' major power being usable only three times per day.
From this, we can turn to the creation of specialty priests. If they have an ability that is roughly equivalent to being able to defeat specific types of level-appropriately dangerous adversaries 50% of the time, and quicker level progression, they're about the same as clerics.

If they have a selections of abilities that are roughly equivalent to two specialized skills plus one generalized skill that is limited by daily use, they're about the same as druids. 

That is the very rough formula I used with my demonolater class; the druid was my guide. Although one specific sub-type, who has Orcus as his patron, is on par with the cleric, because they also have the turn undead ability (along with a very specialized minor power or two, to offset the fact that they use the same level progression table as a druid). 

I don't claim to have a hard-and-fast formula, but looking at the two types of "deconstructed" cleric classes in this way gives a much better guide to what is, and what is not, over- or under-powered when it comes to powers and abilities.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Showing, rather than telling

One of the great differences between the "silver age" of AD&D 1st edition, and more modern editions, is the preference for showing in the earlier products, vs. telling in the newer ones. "Showing" means that details are given in the context of an adventure, and only those details that matter to the particular adventure are given. "Telling" means that details are given in a big honking info-dump, with all sorts of information that will be completely irrelevant to the DM. Indeed, it forces the DM to play the scholar if he wants to use the setting as written. Something casual Forgotten Realms fans have lamented for years.

A lot of it has to do with market forces. A rule supplement is going to sell more than an adventure module, and something aimed at "all players" is going to sell more than something aimed strictly at dungeon masters. Completely understandable, but before 1985 or so, when the designers wanted to introduce a new big bad, or flesh out some locale, they did so in the context of an adventure. After 1985 (when Gygax was forced out of TSR), that changed, and adventures were aimed more to push sales of setting books or, later, rulebooks.

Take, for example, the quintessential introduction of a new major demon queen, Zuggtmoy, in the module T1-4, Temple of Elemental Evil. The only history that was presented was that which was essential to the adventure, and she's presented at the end of the module in an appendix like any other new monster (ditto for Saint Cuthbert). Players (and for that matter, dungeon masters) were expected to learn about her by interacting with the campaign setting, and piecing together bits and pieces scattered hither and yon.

Contrast that with later products, such as Manual of the Planes, which was basically an information dump that forced a level of uniformity on the inner, outer, astral, and ethereal planes that would not have been the case if, for instance, the planned adventures Shadowland and the vaguely outlined series of outer planes adventures had been published (or, for that matter, Rob Kuntz's City of Brass or Demonland adventures; City of Brass was eventually published, but without the official imprimatur that would have made necessitating a section of Manual of the Planes irrelevant).

Dragonlance, for all its flaws, did this very well at the beginning, and I always liked that about the series and the setting. The players and the DM learned about Krynn through the adventures, which contained the information needed for the adventure and maybe some extended background to cover contingencies. But no big sourcebooks. Those came later.

I don't count the original World of Greyhawk folio or boxed set because they were very deliberately written at a 10,000 foot level. There were tantalizing hints scattered around, but there was never a comprehensive and exhaustive treatment of some personage, kingdom, or subject. It was all a skeletal framework upon which the DM could fill in the details.

As the editions wore on, the trend to fill in all the blanks only got worse. To take but one example, in doing research for my new Darker Paths book (Demonolater), I needed some information on the home planes of various demon lords. The information is scattered across at least a half-dozen rulebooks published in the last ten years, each with an ever-growing accumulation of information that just gets recorded, and published, and added to.

Never actually used. Never actually relevant in a published adventure. Just... there. Like an encyclopedia. Planescape sort of tried to show, rather than tell, but in so doing it was forced to reduce the outer planes to "just another campaign setting" and that drained all the specialness out of them. And in the end they ended up with sourcebooks that told, rather than showed. (There were 12 adventures, 6 boxed sets, and 14 accessories; clearly the telling was weighted more than the showing.)

I vastly prefer showing rather than telling. You want to do an info-dump about the home plane of Graz'zt? Do it in the context of an adventure where the PCs are wandering around. That would be not only a lot more fun, but it would also introduce all the interesting little special bit and bobs that arise when you're considering the low-level impact of what you're writing. Better by far, in my opinion, than a "Graz'zt sourcebook" or something.

That's how I am proceeding, anyway.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Irons in the Fire

So, I know my product schedule is somewhat... mercurial. I work on something, and it just doesn't gel, and then I get a burst of inspiration and push the thing over the finish line in short order. Sometimes things just hit me as I'm working on other things, and I can't even think about the first thing until the second thing is done. And sometimes I start something, and finish it, right as planned.

Anyhoo, here's what I'm working on now, with (always, always tentative) release dates.

Darker Paths 3: The Demonolater. Folks have been at me for a while to continue the Darker Paths line, but I just didn't have any inspiration. That is, until I was working on another project (see below) that needed a priest of Dagon (amongst other things... ahem), and that led me to think about generic clerics, and that led me to think that a book of specialized demon-worshiping priests would be a good thing. And that, naturally, fell under the Darker Paths label. So... a chaotic genesis, but maybe that is fitting for priests of demon lords! Estimated date: October 2015.

The Golden Scroll of Justice. This is something I've been working on in fits and starts for about three years. Then earlier this year inspiration struck about how to handle the kung fu skills, and everything else just fell into place. The manuscript is done and off to the next phase, the art is in process, some already received (will post some samples soon) and it's got an estimated date of November 2015.

Dread in the Deep. This is the adventure module (really a huge mega-module) I'm working on that started the need for the priest of Dagon. It's got pirates, and long-defeated cults returning to power, and lots of factions and blind alleys and twists and turns. You know all that speculation and analysis I was doing of Temple of Elemental Evil? Here's the outcome of that research, and it's about a third written. Everything went on hold so I could write up the priesthood of Dagon, which morphed into the Demonolater project. But no particular creative blocks stopping me finishing once that's out of the way. See how it all impacts each other? Estimated date: first half of 2016.

Castle of the Mad Archmage. I'm planning to do an expansion module every year, and that means a new one next year. I've got a four-level interconnected area already mapped out, and that's the planned focus for the 2016 expansion, but I might take a crack at something less ambitious depending on how long it takes me to knock out Dread in the Deep. Estimated date: Summer 2016.

The Heavenly Empire. I've got a bunch of notes on what a setting for The Golden Sword of Justice would be like. This would be that. Consider this very tentative. I might even contract this out to another author. (I've even got someone in mind...) Let's be generous and give it an estimated date of Fall 2016.

Cygnus Sector. My "starcrawl" style adventure for White Star. I wrote it in something like a week and a half, and while it's some of the coolest stuff I've ever done, no one other than me could even come close to running it. I'm not sure if I need to start over from the beginning, find some other way of reorganizing the thing, or just run it as a convention game myself. Sometimes you just need to walk away from a project. It's one of those things that makes perfect sense to me, but everyone I've shown it to was utterly baffled. I'm not even going to give this a tentative date at this point.

Adventures Great and Glorious. No, I haven't forgotten this project, which is my take at "domain level" play, as well as long-term campaigns, groups/factions, mass combat, etc. This is another project that has been worked on in fits and starts for years. So this is probably the most tentative of the bunch, and depends entirely on my getting inspiration on a couple of issues that have hung me up. It could happen. It happened with Golden Scroll of Justice. Again, I'm not even going to give this a slot, but hope springs eternal.

So... to wrap things up, I've got two projects in their final stages, due in the next couple of months. Fine, comfortable with those. A big project that got put on hold because of a creative side venture, but no real issues foreseen. Something that has maps and some notes. Something I might pawn off on someone else. And two things that are dependent on the Muses to come down and grant me inspiration. Not bad for a year's work. :-)

Friday, September 18, 2015

A Belated Happy Birthday

I'm a day late, but a warm Happy Birthday to Cassandra Peterson, aka Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, who turned 63 years gorgeous yesterday.

I remember catching her show while in college in the mid-1980's in Boston on Saturday nights, and it was a blast. I want to say it was on channel 38, which was also noted for its weekly classic movie show, "The Movie Vault".

And, in honor of the occasion, a sneak preview of my special Halloween coverage! A mouldy oldy from the grooveyard of forgotten hits. :-)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Generic clerics

There is something of a dichotomy in the way the Dungeons & Dragons (and its descendants and emulators) approach religion. On the one hand, there are clerics, which as a class tend to transcend religious boundaries and be used for priests of wildly differing religions. On the other hand, there are druids, a sub-class of the cleric, who seem to follow a faith so different from those of the clerics that they are deserving of their own sub-class and spell lists, including dozens of unique spells.

The question becomes; which is right? If clerics as a class are generic enough that the same class, and spell lists (albeit with reversed versions of spells being available), can be used for clerics of Saint Cuthbert (the lawful good god of wisdom, truth, zeal, and disciple) as well as clerics of Iuz (the chaotic evil demigod of deceit, oppression, and evil), then how is it that druids, whose veneration of nature seems at least as diametrically opposed to both of those as they do to each other, get a class unto themselves?

The obvious answer is that clerics get their spells from deities, while druids get their spells from Nature, but this is belied by the fact that, in Greyhawk at least, some deities (such as Ehlonna and Obad-Hai) are said to be served by both clerics and druids alike!

Second edition did try to mitigate the problem of the over-extended cleric class by the addition of kits and spell spheres, which narrowed the range of spells available based on the particular deity. Third Edition did the same with prestige classes aimed at followers of specific deities. But in doing so, it also codified the notion that every character (or, at least, every cleric) had to be dedicated to a single deity, which is not always true in the sort of polytheistic society that most D&D campaigns use, and the rules heavily imply.

Bishop Odo from the
Bayeux Tapestry. Note the
That implication, by the way, is quite ironic, considering the heavily Christian origins of the cleric class as a whole. The idea of the cleric's power over undead was lifted straight from Hammer Films Dracula movies (where doctor Van Helsing would flash a cross and "turn" Dracula), the rule against edged weapons comes from the historical figure Bishop Odo, who fought alongside William the Conqueror in 1066, and many of the spells come straight out of the Bible: bless, the various cure wounds spells, create food and watercure blindness, cure disease, prayer, speak with dead, exorcise, sticks to snakes, tongues, flame strike, insect plague, raise dead, part water, earthquake, and resurrection.

So I propose that each religion get its own sub-class, handled along the same lines as the druid. There would still be clerics, but they would be priests of a particular religion (not necessarily monotheistic; Asatru or the Religio Romana are examples of polytheistic religions that have priests who serve all or most of the gods of that religion), to whom paladins would explicitly belong, as well as mystics (at least for those using the Adventures Dark and Deep™ rules, where mystics are explicitly stated to be part of the clerical religion, but coming at it from a different point of view).

This opens up all sorts of possibilities, although it does entail a great deal of potential work for the game master. Imagine priests of different religions possessing vastly different powers and spell lists, where not every cleric is the "designated healer" by default (indeed, imagine a campaign where none of the priests are particularly focused on healing!), where priests of evil deities and demons aren't just clerics with a different spell list and maybe an edged weapon if they're lucky, but are as different from clerics as druids are.

You might just get a taste of what that looks like come Halloween. Remember those two Darker Path books I wrote a couple of years ago? We're about due for another one or two. Mua-ha-ha...

Monday, September 14, 2015

Why am I a publisher?

The discussion over at EnWorld about the OSR dying (yet again) did get me to indulge in a bit of self-reflection as to why I turned from a hobbyist blogger into a professional publisher. I can assure you, it wasn't for the money or the fame!

Indeed, at first, I was offering stuff here for free. I did the Castle of the Mad Archmage as a series of free installments, and everyone really seemed to like it. But after a while, it became more about wanting to make the thing better. Nicer. With art. And then I started on my Adventures Dark and Deep project, and it seemed a damn shame to just use free clipart from the web. I certainly couldn't use the original art from the DMG or the Monster Manual, for legal reasons.

For me, that's why I publish what I write, and charge for it. I want to be able to make what I write look nice, and that means hiring artists, and editors, and (sometimes) consultants. A free pdf loaded with typos and with clipart from Google would work from a utilitarian perspective, but (especially in the case of Adventures Dark and Deep) the presentation was part of the project, and I wanted it to be as good as I could make it.

After I started doing things this way, I started to feel a bit of a responsibility towards the artists, editors, and cartographers, and such that I was using to help me realize those visions. I really do take a point of pride in supporting the artists that I use. Without me, there would literally be hundreds of pieces of fantasy art that would never have existed, and the artists themselves would be out thousands of dollars, collectively. There's something of a responsibility there, and there's definitely a feeling of "I'm helping to support artists" that comes with doing things the way I'm doing them.

Are there profits? Absolutely. Do most go back into new projects? Also yes, as witnessed by the fact that I've been able to self-fund my last three big projects, and several smaller ones, without having to dip back into the Kickstarter well. And I've been able to make a mortgage payment or two because of the games, but hardly enough to turn into a full time job. Do I wish something I write takes off like Cards Against Humanity? You betcha! Do I think it's likely? Not particularly.

But to be honest, I still consider myself to be a hobbyist. The OGL and POD make my life much easier than it would have been back in the late 1980's, but essentially in my mind I'm still just a part of the DIY ethos that is such a huge part of the OSR. (Acronym quadruple score!) And in the process I'm able to support artists, and editors, and other folks who are also part of that relatively tight-knit community. I make a few bucks off my hobby, I get to see my visions brought to fruition, and people seem happy enough with my work to buy it and keep the cycle going.

And truth be told, I'm not sure what more one could ask from a hobby.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Thoughts on the OBS Offensive Content Policy

I've been reluctant to make any formal comments about the "Offensive Content Policy" that OBS (the company that runs and, which I use to sell my own products) until there was an actual policy upon which to comment. But last Wednesday, the company published its policy on the official company blog and sent an email to publishers with (a different version of) the policy, and now there's some real "there" there to react to.

I'm only going to quote what I feel are the salient portions of the full policy. Those interested in reading the whole thing can do so at the link above.

At the outset, I am compelled to point out that yes, of course, as a private business OBS has the right to sell or not sell any title they wish. That is not remotely the point, although their near-total domination of the gaming print-on-demand sphere gives their policies a weight which might be compared to three of the big cable news networks deciding not to cover a particular political candidate, because their viewers raised a fuss.
What is the process for flagging offensive titles?
Step 1: Customer reports a product.
Step 2: A human being at OneBookShelf does a cursory review to determine if the title should be temporarily suspended from sale or not. Either way the product is put in queue for review.
Step 3: A more thorough review of the product in completed. If deemed not offensive the product is whitelisted. If deemed potentially offensive then...
Step 4: We have expanded internal review and discussion with publisher possibly resulting in publisher retraction of the title or banning of the title.
I confess I'm not a fan of the proposed process. It relies way too much on the subjective intervention of an OBS staffer, and is therefore ripe for abuse. Having a title turned off for a couple of days while it's being reviewed can literally cost a publisher hundreds, or possibly thousands, of dollars. By definition, one OBS staffer is going to have a different opinion about what is ban-worthy than another one. Are some subjects and words simply off-limits completely? That's what it seems like; rape is not to be tolerated, even if the game is about punishing and killing the rapists. As if banning a word will stop the reality. If not, we are relying on some subjective evaluation which is inherently unfair. If my hypothetical product is flagged, and I get the libertarian OBS staffer (is there one?), I could emerge unscathed, whereas if I happen to get the one who spent the fall of 2011 at some Occupy Wall Street protest, I could be toast.

That sort of uncertainty is death to a publisher. Or any business, for that matter. Again, remember OBS's position in the market. Realistically, they're the only game in town.
Will a title be turned off automatically if it is flagged?
No, just because a title is flagged as offensive, it will not be automatically turned off. Only the administrators of the site can toggle the title to private. This process will send alerts to our staff for quick review. If our staff sees a product that is problematic, they will temporarily suspend it for further review.
This is a good thing. It prevents the sort of "I hate you so I'll try to hurt you any way I can" abuse that many publishers feared. But I'm not sure it's enough. I would like to see a requirement that an attempt to flag a product can only be made by someone who has actually purchased the product. Not only would that make the system far less open to abuse, and be more objective (rather than subjective), it would also allow for the identification of the person doing the flagging. It also would allow for the potential ignoring of flagging requests from people who have a history of flagging things frivolously. I asked about this, and was told it's under discussion.
Will you be giving scrutiny to certain topics?
We're going to give extra scrutiny to products that include rape, real world racial violence, torture, sexism, homophobia, and crimes against children. However, we will also be reviewing products reported for other reasons as needed.
This part worries me. Why does this list of left-wing Politically Correct identity politics grievances get priority over, say, religious-based terrorism, selling body parts of unborn babies, anti-police violence, or class warfare? I'm not arguing that those items should be added to the list; I'm saying that the mere existence of a specific list of potential ban-worthy items carries with it a certain political slant that reflects the predispositions of its creator. In this particular case, a very definitively left-wing slant (which some would argue isn't politically slanted at all, which is part of the problem; "progressive" does not equal "objective"). And that last item on the list is pretty much aimed directly at Carcosa. Just sayin'.

But there's another factor that must be brought up, even though it's not explicitly mentioned in the policy.

The simple fact of the matter is that OBS, and specifically it's president Steve Wieck, has already caved more than once in the face of pressure from SJW's on social media. The first time I'm aware of was when Gamergate the Card Game was published (ironically, as it committed no crime other than to make fun of both sides of the Gamergate controversy). I interviewed Steve Wieck about the incident on this very blog, and he flat-out said that the publisher wasn't given any chance to appeal the decision to ban the game, nor was he consulted during the decision-making process. That does not bode well for the new policy.

Incidentally, that points out a bit of disingenuous wordsmithing on OBS's part. In the email that went out to publishers, they explicitly say "At this time, we have not yet banned an RPG title." This is technically true, but omits the fact that they did, in fact, ban a card game. Shame on you for that sort of misleading word-parsing, Steve. I'm not surprised that part didn't get published in the blog post.

The question becomes, as they already have a history of caving into political pressure on social media, what guarantee do publishers have that, even after a title has been "whitelisted", there won't be a continuing campaign to apply pressure to OBS, which eventually results in the title being re-evaluated and banned? The answer is that there is no guarantee at all. If Fred Hicks, or Cam Banks, or some other prominent SJW, decides he doesn't like a title, or an author, or a publisher, or an artist, then he already knows all he needs to do is keep jumping up and down about it, and OBS will roll over and show him its jewels. They've done it twice do far. No reason to think they won't do it again.

The mere fact that OBS is rolling out this policy points to the fact that they're absolutely willing to compromise their editorial discretion in favor of caving into the forces of Political Correctness, or at best the Heckler's Veto, at the expense of the principle of Free Expression. This is just putting an official cover to a policy that says, in essence, "complain loud enough and we'll pull what you don't like off our website."

Friday, September 11, 2015

Monday, September 7, 2015

Kickstarter announcement - Golden Scroll of Justice

And the big announcement concerning the Kickstarter for The Golden Scroll of Justice, my upcoming mythic China/Wuxia sourcebook for old-school RPGs is...

There will be no Kickstarter.

A funny thing happened when I ran the numbers while I was preparing for the Kickstarter of this book. I realized I didn't need the money to make it happen. Sales of Adventures Dark and Deep and Castle of the Mad Archmage have been good enough that I don't need to go to the fans beforehand to make the next book happen.

I'm a firm believer that Kickstarter should be used to help create things that could not otherwise be created. Not as a pre-order platform, not to gauge public response to a product. I pride myself that, if I don't need to go to the Kickstarter well, I don't go. That's what I did with the Game Masters Toolkit, and that's what I'm able to do with Golden Scroll of Justice.

So... the planned release date is still by the end of this year. Hmmm... that'll be just in time for Christmas. How convenient!