Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Review: Taghri's Prize

This novel (link is an Amazon Affiliate link) is of the genre of not-so-young-man-does-good stories that were fairly common in days of yore. Writers like H. Beam Piper and David Drake used to give us lots of these. They deviate from the young-man-does-good stories of authors like Alan Dean Foster in that our protagonist has at least a decade of adult life under his belt. He's done his time in the trenches (often literally) and is ready to wed his worldly experience with youthful energy to carve out his place in the world. He'll use restless initiative and wits to shock the world and his enemies, along with a strong sense of justice and an almost present-day morality to earn the loyalty of his followers and comrades. There's almost always a young woman who's only just entered adulthood but who also exhibits maturity beyond her years to win, usually by climbing the social ladder (if the society has nobility, he'll be a commoner or close to it at the beginning of the story, but fairly elevated up the noble chain by the end). A large component of his success will be based on this character seeing what others cannot, often by finding new and innovative ways to use whatever tech is cutting-edge for their culture. Piper's Lord Kalvin of Otherwhen is probably the pinnacle of this genre, though you can absolutely see how it grew from books like The Count of Monte Cristo and A Princess of Mars.

This book posits a world like ours, but where the monotheisms that came to dominate the world never developed. Taghri's world is one of many gods, and even the gods of a single pantheon can be jealous of one another. It's a world where the gods also take a hand in things, though slowly, and often through agents. It's also a world of gunpowder and, but for the lack of faiths like Islam and Christianity, looks like our own in the 16th century.

Taghri is an experienced campaigner, a veteran of the Sultan's wars who tries his hand at being a merchant. He's hardly gotten started when he finds himself fighting for his life again, this time against pirates. He slays the pirate captain and claims his ship. Among the treasures stowed on board is a princess and a knife that tingles with magical power. These treasures bring him to the attention of both this world's secular and divine powers, and he uses this opportunity to work his way to greatness.

This is a decent book of its type, but not a great one. The writing is engaging and descriptive, Taghri is sufficiently sympathetic (the dude never misses an opportunity to save a cat), and the action is written with gusto.  A sea battle about midway through the novel is especially fun.  However, you rarely feel much tension; suspense for our hero or his friends is frequently undercut when they quickly show that their hard work and cleverness has made them far and away better prepared for any encounter than their foes. The world-building also feels fairly meh. We get just enough local color for this to feel like a modern retelling of a story from the 1,001 Nights, but little else. Our hero doesn't help matters by never failing to exhibit modern sensibilities towards issues like slavery. While he doesn't give any impassioned speeches about the evils of slavery, he never fails to free any slave he comes across, nor does he show any interest in enslaving his enemies. And, while the setting strongly implies that Taghri's friends and allies own slaves, we never, ever see even one. This and a few other choices by the author leads to the setting feeling a bit like a Hollywood back-lot more than a real place.

That all said, this is a fine book of its type, and if you're spoiling for a book along these lines, you'll probably enjoy Taghri's Prize.

Gamers will appreciate Taghri's gung-ho cleverness, and the relationships between the gods and their worshipers feels very much like what you'd expect in a D&D world. The magic item in-and-of-itself isn't terribly exciting, but DMs will be intrigued by the way the plot is woven around it, and by how it launches our hero into a world of political intrigues and results in moments where the gods literally steer our hero in the right direction.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Wherefore Gorgeous Hardcovers?

Noisms asks, “How did the publishing model for RPG books, particularly OSR ones, become so skewed towards high-production values and hence high costs?”

For the larger industry, the answer lies in the fact that most professional RPG shops are really more book-publisher than game-maker. The glossy, full-color, door-stopping coffee table tome looks more like quality than the thin booklets or magazine-like specimens that dead-tree RPGs have alternatively looked like. You can get away with charging $50 for these coffee-table monsters; you couldn’t do that with thinner, “cheaper” books, forget PDFs. And, while the coffee-table tomes are more expensive to produce, they’re not that much more expensive to produce. On top of that, the industry is so comfortable with this sort of thing, both as publishers and consumers, that nobody questions the choice and everyone feels they know what they’re getting into. So if you want fancy downtown Seattle office space and medical insurance and full-time staff, this is your tentpole product. It may not be the only way to go, but it’s where the “smart” (meaning “cautious and not-rocking-the-boat”) money is going to go.

But what about the OSR? Well, therein lies a tale. Actually, many tales, which can still be read on the old blogs, including Noisms'.

Return with me now to those heady days of yesteryear. WotC had saved D&D from the sinking ship that was TSR but something just wasn’t right. The 15 minute workday, the assumptions of a combat-focused design erected on a foundation that really didn’t support it, the terribly demanding math of encounter design that resulted in a single fight taking up a whole evening of playtime. There was a vague sense of dissatisfaction. Something wasn’t right. It was probably ’03 or so when I first heard someone say they’d rather be playing B/X if they could. (And Ferrus Minx, if you’re out there, you were a man ahead of your time!)

But then 2008 happened, and with every sneak peek at what D&D 4e would be, someone new experienced a visceral recoil from what they were seeing. The to-the-foundations transformations of not just the rules, but the setting info, of how parties were built and what adventures were about was bad enough, and it was coupled with an insulting ad campaign that literally drove people to seek other options. It had been fun back then. It wasn’t fun now. What had changed? Could we recapture the magic?

Yes, as it turned out, we could. And, when you read those old blogs, there’s a sense of shock and wonder when the old games were dusted off and played, followed quite often by a sense of betrayal and anger. It wasn’t something TSR or WotC had purposefully set out to do. They’d simply tried to improve the game, but they’d done so based on a set of assumptions very much not shared by fans of those older games.

The OSR knew that the old games were better (for certain definitions of better, sure, but as far as the OSR was concerned, those were the definitions that mattered). And the OSR wouldn’t just bring those games back, they would do it better than the Industry was doing! The rules would be better, the adventures would be better, and yes, the production values would be better.

James Edward Raggi IV was one of those making the most noise on this front. He was vociferous in denying all the “conventional wisdom” of the time. And he was right to do so; there was a lot of BS floating around that everyone “knew” was true about the hobby. (And keep in mind, among these was that RPGs were a dying hobby that could never recover; eventually, it would all be cheap little pamphlets printed from home, or deluxe luxury products like Ptolus, following the same pattern as the slow decline of the model railroad hobby).

James was determined to outdo the big companies, especially WotC. And, to him, this meant tossing aside what was expected. His books would be works of art. When his printing of McKinney’s Carcosa came out, it was shocking! Here was a beautifully bound book. The embossed cover felt decadent in your hands. The endpapers were not blank, but had hex maps on them. The high-quality binding meant it stayed open to the page you turned it to, and it didn’t crack and loose pages (like a certain PHB and MM of mine have done, not naming names, *cough*5e*cough*). It wasn’t full-color, and yet it still felt luxurious compared to the industry standard at the time (or even today, to be honest). It was a book that was meant to be used at the table and look gorgeous on a shelf. This was a book that was special, and you could tell that just by looking at it.

And Raggi wasn’t alone in this. We were told you could only hope to break even with six-digit print runs; OSR publishers printed high-quality books in the handful-of-thousands. We were told that print magazines were passé so Fight On! and others were created. We were told that boxed sets were too expensive and had lead to the death of TSR, so we got the Swords & Wizardry White Box, two boxed sets from Raggi, and, finally, when WotC got into the act, their boxed set looked like this!

The books of the OSR were experiments in usability, shrines for what we considered to be important in our hobby, and shots across the bow of a staid industry wallowing towards obsolescence. Probably the ultimate expression of this was Raggi’s hard-cover Free RPG Day offerings, each chock full of new, never-before-seen material, when everyone else was sending meager quick-start rules or thin pamphlet adventures.

I think there’s still a lot to be done with the book. I think Kiel’s Blood in the Chocolate is an amazing start, but I think we can push the functionality of the hardcover even further. I also think that electronic formats have been neglected by the OSR, and there’s lots of room for amazing things in that arena.

As for Noisms, he appears to see the high prices for these books as a gauntlet to be taken up. I very much look forward to seeing what he does as a shot across the bow of the rest of the OSR.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Why BX is the Best!

Got a copy of Moldvay's Basic D&D? Turn to page B16 and check out the Charm Person spell:

Any commands given will usually be obeyed, except that orders against its nature (alignment and habits) may be resisted, and an order to kill itself will be refused.

Emphasis added for what I hope are obvious reasons. This, I tell the young'ens, is how we differentiated between two fighters back in the day. If your character was a mercenary who'd gut his own grannie for a shaved copper, or a paragon of virtue who never raised a hand against the defenseless and the weak, mattered mechanically, and was specifically called out in the rules.

(Compare this to the rules in Gygax's AD&D Players Handbook, which do not reference habits or personality at all in resisting Charm Person or Mammal.)

Monday, August 05, 2019

The Agony of the Feets

I can’t remember my feet ever hurting this much. Not sure if it’s a testament to my waxing wimpiness or that this truly was the last rodeo for my sneakers. Poor things had a blow-out.

I saw lots of amazing and cool people this week. If you encountered me on Saturday or later, and I seemed terse or distracted, it wasn’t you; by Saturday the fire-hose of social interaction and ALL TEH AMAZEBALLS GEEKY THINGS!!! had me feeling more than a little punch-drunk. Next year, if you’re going to be at GenCon and want to hang, let me know and we’ll do a better job of arranging things.

Honestly, getting to sit down and debate theory with the likes of Zzarchov Kowolski and Jacob Hurst, discuss the ins-and-outs of the industry with folks who have less sexy but vital jobs that keep the wheels rolling, and just laugh and “OMG have you seen this?!?” with fellow geeks is one of the very coolest things about GenCon. But the coolest is almost certainly the Exhibition Hall. Even though I think a third of the things I saw were “kickstarting in the next four months,” (or maybe even because of it), the things to see and touch and play, and the excitement of everyone around you (shining through the “haven’t slept in two days” exhaustion in some cases), is amazingly inspirational.

The LotFP GenCon exclusives didn’t quite sell out, so there are some copies over at Noble Knight Games. I’m pretty sure the inclusion of She Bleeds, etc. is an oops and they only have the first four available. No idea what the quantities are, so if you want ‘em, best to snatch ‘em up now!

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Murdered by Pirates is Good

This year started off with so much promise for the blog but, obviously, I fell off the wagon in May. So what has the Troll been up to?

Quite a lot. I'm involved in three regular campaigns. One is weekly, the other two switch off weeks, so that's two evenings of gaming every week (plus regular meet-ups for board games and the like). What's crazy for me is that, due to quirks of fate, all three games are 5e D&D. What's really crazy? I'm a player in one.

The big news is that I'm getting an adventure officially, professionally published for the first time. I've written one of the GenCon exclusive adventures Raggi will be selling at the Lamentations of the Flame Princess booth this year. Being a fan of the Orientalist painters, I wanted to do something involving the Barbary Pirates, who were busting out of the Mediterranean and onto the world stage in a big way during the default time period of LotFP adventures.

I worked with Tabby L. Rose on this one. She's DMing the 5e game I'm actually a player in. Her experience with RPGs is very different from mine. She got started later (because she couldn't find anyone who'd let a girl join their games until after high school) and played very different games from me. Where I've been accused of treating most RPG rules as variations to add to Moldvay/Cook, Tabby had an extremely varied RPG diet, ranging from first edition Rune Quest and FASERIP Marvel to Talislanta and Shadowrun. The longest running campaign she GMed was a Firefly game that started using Margaret Weis Productions rules but later migrated to Fudge. This makes her fun to collaborate with because her expectations and assumptions are often very different from mine.

And this was very important on Menagerie of Exiles because, hoo boy, was this a reminder of how odd my games are. When my players' PCs board a pirate ship, whether as guests or crew or cargo, they want to know all about what's happening: who are the pirates and where did they come from and what are they doing right now (at 3 PM on a Tuesday afternoon) and when can we get the quartermaster alone without anyone else overhearing our conversation? They're going to want to seduce the First Mate, and if they see an opening, they're going to prep a mutiny plan, even if they don't necessarily pull the trigger.

Most of my notes for something like this would be almost-kinda bullet-points jotted into my moleskin or possibly just scribbled on post-its tucked in as bookmarks into the rulebooks. Now I had to make it intelligible for other folks all while keeping it within the word-and-art limits of a GenCon exclusive booklet.

We were absolutely overly ambitious. What you’ll get is a ship and crew with the broad outlines detailed and a bit more focus on particular individuals. There’s a dark secret on the ship that threatens to split the crew apart, a secret that the enslaved prisoners in the hold are part of. And that’s probably skirting too close to spoiler territory, so I’ll stop there.

If you’re running a LotFP campaign, you’ll get a creepy little adventure on the high seas that you can use to move the campaign to more exotic locales. In the decades before the start of the English Civil War, the Barbary Pirates were raiding as far afield as Ireland and Iceland (and, in both cases, absconding with the entire populations of small villages). So you could have these pirates pop up just about anywhere and transport the PCs to just about anywhere. If you’ve been looking for a way to move the campaign to North Africa for Rafael Chandler’s World of the Lost, here you go!

If your game is not set in a real-world analogue of the 16th through 19th centuries, you still get pirates with a dark secret. They can transport your PCs across an ocean and give your table something to do with that journey, rather than just handwave it as “time passes.”

If you’re going to be at GenCon this year, be sure to stop by Raggi’s booth (#3010) and check it out. For myself, I can’t wait to get my hands on Barbarians of Orange Boiling Seas. Zzarchov always does neat stuff. And I have a sneaking suspicion I know what James’ mystery book is. If I’m right, yeah, it’ll twist more than a few noses out of joint.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

From One Generation to the Next

So people are talking about the generations of D&Ders. And, as usual, I don’t really identify with what the author is writing about.

Part of that is my near total lack of running into any friction for my gaming. Nobody teased me about it. I was encouraged to bring my gaming books into school. My 8th grade English teacher used the NPC generation tables in the 1e DMG as part of a creative writing exercise.

But more than that, I don’t think the level of acceptance of D&D in the culture at large had a huge effect on how we played the game. Rather, I think it was the assumptions we brought to the table.

If you look at Grognardia’s Ages of D&D, you notice that the Golden Age doesn’t even look like D&D as most people know it. Players didn’t invest with their characters the way they’re encouraged to do so now. You rolled 3d6 in order to generate your character, meaning you had no idea what you were going to play until after you’d rolled your stats. You probably had a handful of characters ready to go at any time, and might play your cleric or your wizard depending on factors like which was too busy training up to their next level (something that didn’t happen automatically) or what the group was likely to need tonight. Taking your character on vacation with you and playing in a game across town or across the country was a completely natural thing to do.

But above all of that, D&D was a game about exploration. Monsters were not opportunities for EXP but resource sinks; every fight limited how much longer you could spend in the wilderness or dungeon. Barely any effort was made to balance encounters. Carefully mapping the dungeon unlocked opportunities for finding unguarded or lightly-guarded treasure which was the key to gaining those first few very precious levels.

Unfortunately, early D&D did a poor job of explaining itself. The assumption was that most would learn the game from someone who could trace their learning of the game back to Gygax’s group. Even the Basic boxes fumbled here; the clues were there but not everybody connected the dots. “Why should my characters become better killers from gathering treasure?” was a commonly heard refrain.

2e muddied these waters. The advancement mechanic moved to class-specific criteria: wizards and clerics earned EXP for casting spells, thieves earned EXP for acquiring treasure, fighters earned EXP for slaying things. Even more transformative was the stuff coming out of DUNGEON magazine. Gone were the funhouse dungeons like Castle Greyhawk or thematic ruins that were all about place. The adventures crafted by the Hickmans like Ravenloft and the Dragonlace series, already described as classics, were seen as the model. Everything had to be about story. The assumption that the PCs would be accompanied by a small army of henchmen, something obvious to the first generation of DMs, now seemed weird. You never saw Strider or Raistlin or Elric hanging out in a tavern, interviewing mercenaries to see who would go into the dungeon with them. Charisma transformed from being one of the most important stats in the game to being everyone’s dump-stat.

By the time TSR hit financial troubles, few still played the way that first generation did. The game was about story now, which meant actually killing characters became a hassle. Steps were taken to insulate characters from death, like going unconscious at 0 hit points instead of just dying, giving PCs max hit points at first level, and making resurrection spells more common.

When 3e came out, you could easily see that perceptions of the game had transformed drastically. Now D&D was seen as a game about combat. You earned most of your EXP from killing things, which meant wandering monsters stopped being a threat and started to be a boon to characters who needed just a few dozen more EXPs to level up. The game became more about mechanics; we got all sorts of new ways to differentiate our characters with numbers, like feats and skills. (And, suddenly, nobody’s character could tie knots or swim anymore.) The DM was given tools to balance encounters so that fights were more likely to be “close calls” or, at least of “reasonable” challenge. And to aid in this, each monster got massive, page-long stat blocks, allowing the DM to craft their own monsters using the same rules the PCs used to make their characters. The chains of feats and class abilities made character creation a mini-game, on par with deck-building in games like Magic: the Gathering.

With 4e, D&D had completed its transformation into a game centered around combat. Only, it turned out, that wasn’t really what the fans wanted. And with 5e, the focus was moved back to stories.

Unfortunately, the chassis of the game is still built around the exploration model of the original game. So it does story in a rather clunky way, requiring all sorts of bizarre tweaks (like ubiquitous resurrection magic) to smooth out the rough patches.

Ok, but how does this history help us make sense of D&D’s multiple generation gaps? Well, each generation comes to the table with its own expectations and assumptions. The oldest Grognards play a game about exploration and personal challenge. They want to use their own brains to overcome the challenges and fully expect to use their real-world knowledge of things like physics as well as the rules of the game to triumph. They approach combat as a war and expect to need to use every clever idea they can muster to just survive. Character death is just part of the game to them. They don’t invest in their characters as much, and might not even name them until they’ve reached 3rd level.

After them come the Voyagers. They wallowed in the crazy imaginative worlds of TSR from the ‘90s like Planescape and Dark Sun. They want simple rules that will keep things consistent but don’t get in the way of telling their stories. They love having entire sessions go by without touching the dice and really want to delve into the orc warlord’s backstory. Hacking the rules of the game to better fit the strange settings they love creating is very common. Meta-knowledge is something to avoid. Fights can be tense and dramatic, but not really why they came, and most discovered, sooner or later, that they were best served by the Basic/Expert rather than the Advanced rules. If the DM’s world is described as “Game of Thrones in Oz” or the player has an original character race with a detailed description of how its biology evolved, you’re probably dealing with voyagers.

3e engendered a new generation that reveled in rules mastery. They expected intricately balanced encounters that utilized the rules in new and challenging ways, but they viewed combat in the game as a sport, to be played within a certain set of bounds. The solutions to every challenge was on the character sheet; 10’ poles and using spilled wine to find hidden passages were replaced by skill checks and character abilities. DMs obsessed over encounter design, always seeking to create unique circumstances that conformed with the rules of the game, but did so in new and surprising ways. For some groups, story became simply a path that strung together one gorgeous set-piece battle or skill challenge after another. Crunch reigned supreme and everything else was just fluff. If you hear grumbles about how D&D doesn’t allow enough mechanical differentiation between characters (or, how you really ought to be playing Pathfinder), you’ve got some Rules Masters in your group.

We have a new generation of players coming to D&D today thanks to streaming games. They thrill to the roll of a natural 20, but they seem to be just as much about story as the second generation, perhaps even more so. They’re not as excited about exploring strange and alien worlds; rather they seem to prefer the tried-and-true high fantasy that’s considered D&D’s default. They also don’t appear to be as interested in kit-bashing the rules as the story-focused gamers of old, beyond crafting new backgrounds, races, and classes. They want to play the “real” game with as few tweaks as possible. And they apparently love the idea of not really earning EXP at all, but rather going up levels when their characters meet milestones in the journey of their personal and group stories. If you’re group uses “Milestone leveling” instead of awarding EXP, or the DM bends over backwards to avoid character death, and most especially if they only started playing in the last three years, you’re probably playing with Epic Stream players.

If you want to talk about generation gaps, discussing expectations and desires seems a far more useful taxonomy than simply Old vs. New, or even TSR-era vs. WotC players. And keep in mind, few groups or even players are purely one or the other. While I started in the “Golden Age” with the Grognards, I was self-taught and started the game with many of the Voyager’s assumptions. And, on top of that, most of my groups are dominated by players who are new to the game, so there’s a lot of Epic Stream influence in my games as well. How much mileage you’ll get out of this discussion will depend largely on your exposure (or lack thereof) to people with alternative expectations. When you find someone at your table making odd assumptions, it’s time to start asking questions. From my (terribly not scientific) experience, you’ll likely find the source of those assumptions comes from when and how they started playing the game.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Retail Déjà Vu

This is going to look familiar to those of you over 30. You may remember when D&D was sold in Sears stores. I actually never got any of my stuff from Sears, but I did buy the Sear's exclusive poster from Larry Elmore last year at GenCon.

If you needed any further proof that D&D is experiencing a Renaissance, I think this Target exclusive boxed set is another hefty data-point to consider. This, on top of the Stranger Things box, means there are now three different "beginner" boxed sets to get you into D&D. I'm wondering if we're going to see a Critical Role boxed set soon?

I'm also curious if the rules are different from the Basic pdf. The ad copy implies that they've been re-written from the other boxed sets to now "on-boards players by teaching them how to make characters". And that implies that it doesn't use pre-gens. If you've got more info on this box, I'd love to hear about it.