Monday, March 31, 2008

The D&D Reformation

My contention is that, while we've lost touch with the roots of our hobby, those roots are still there, waiting for us to connect to them again. Likewise, I'm not uncritical of the genuine flaws and shortcomings of early D&D. There are reasons subsequent editions evolved as they did and it's partly in response to these very flaws and shortcomings. I often don't like the response but I won't deny that there are issues that need addressing. So, I guess I would say that I don't see pulp fantasy D&D as "nostalgia project" because my goal here is more than just reliving or even recreating the past. Sure, it's animated by a love for a past long gone -- and in that literal sense, I suppose there's nostalgia at work -- but it doesn't stop there. My feeling is that D&D is the origin of our hobby and our hobby is sick; the only way to cure the sickness at the heart of roleplaying is to cure D&D and so I am.

Thus are reformations born. Sensing that things seem to have gone wrong somewhere along the line, people cast their eyes back to the storied past, in an attempt to “reboot” with a purer version, unsullied by the barnacles and accretions of time.

There seems to be a lot of this going on. Whether it’s Dr. Rotwang’s realization that “random” doesn’t have to mean incoherent, or Jeff Rients embrace of “Retro Stupid” games, more and more people seem to be investigating the old ways D&D used to be played, and finding that it’s not quite the schizophrenic disaster they’d always assumed it was. There are, in fact, nuggets of real gold that appear to have been lost along the way, just waiting for the right hand to save them from the grime and give them careful shape and new luster.

Clearly, the impending release of yet another edition of D&D has inspired a lot of this thinking. The death of Gary Gygax and other industry greats is also, I imagine, lending a certain spur to thoughts, reminding us that the past is not something that will preserve itself.

James Maliszewski, author of the recently published Thousand Suns sci-fi roleplaying game, has chosen to take this to the next logical step. He’s attempting to craft a new version of D&D based on a more perfect embrace of the original intents and inspirations. This isn’t a recreation of a specific version of D&D, such as Labyrinth Lord or OSRIC. Instead, he’s trying to get at the core of what made the original versions of the game such a smash success, and reground the game in the sources that inspired the original creators. Thus, he’s not so much looking to excise things that Gygax, Arneson, and others got "wrong," but instead taking what they did and pushing those ideas further. He’s embraced the incoherence of some of those ideas, pointing out how they force fans to personally invest in them by creating their own rationalizations. He’s even found imaginative ways to create new fun in hoary old chestnuts like Vancian magic.

In the modern equivalent of nailing his ninety-five thesis to the church door, Mr. Maliszewski has created a blog devoted to this project. It’s going to be a mixture of the hobby’s and pulp literature’s history, game design, and personal ranting. It promises to be a hell of a lot of fun.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

A Critique of Wayne Reynolds' Art

There are some folks out there who think I don’t like Mr. Reynolds’ art. Some assume this because I like to tweak 3.x-philes by pointing out his skill at making “furry” art. Others look to my appreciation of Elmore, Otus, and Parkinson, and assume that I must therefore denigrate Reynolds.

A lot of this appears to be based on how deeply the art of Wayne Reynolds has become associated with D&D’s 3.5th edition. For whatever reason, when people think about current D&D, they imagine Mr. Reynolds’ work. And well they should, because Mr. Reynolds is a master at his craft.

But it’s a lot harder to write a critique of Mr. Reynolds’ art than it is for other artists who have put their stamp on D&D. The others have a very firm, easily recognizable, and rarely changing signature style. The work of Erol Otus has its bizarre, fever-dream feel. Larry Elmore is the chief practitioner of the you-are-there school.

But among the many things that make Wayne Reynolds’ work unique is his mutability as an artist. Simply put, Mr. Reynolds adjusts his style conform to the needs of his clients. To show you what I mean, let’s take a look at some warriors he’s painted. This first was for WotC. She’s clearly an exemplar of what has become known as the “dungeon punk” style. Note the insanely spikey armour, that would seem to be as great a threat to the wearer as it would be to her opponents. Also notice the shield and sword, which seem heavy, ornate, and unwieldy. It’s hard to imagine anyone actually trying to fight in that get-up, but it’s certainly eye-catching, and fits perfectly the feel WotC has gone for with their D&D 3.5 products.

Now, let’s take a look at something different. This depicts a historical clash between Asian and eastern European warriors. Notice how much smaller the weapons are, how the armour and shields are clearly functional. Notice also how much more you feel drawn into the picture. The first picture is cool-on-display. This second has a much stronger you-are-there vibe. I believe it was done for Osprey’s series of military history books, so you’d expect them to stress historical accuracy and the ability to put the reader into the action. Again, Mr. Reynolds’ delivers, though the challenge is quite different.

Finally, here’s a dwarven warrior created as one of Paizo’s “iconic characters” for their Pathfinder series. The first thing you’ll notice is all the gear the poor guy is loaded down with. What sort of moron, you might say, would burden themselves with that much junk before venturing into a dungeon… that is, until you looked down at your own favorite D&D character sheet.

Oh yeah. Pot, meet kettle. Big time. ;)

It’s an interesting stylistic choice. I’m not sure who should get the credit, whether it belongs to Mr. Reynolds, or Sarah Robinson, the art director at Paizo. It’s not the anime-esque ultra-cool of artists like Wen-M. It’s also not exactly the you-are-there realism of Elmore and Parkinson. Instead, Mr. Reynolds is illustrating our RPG adventures. Sometimes, they’re heroic. Sometimes, they’re creepy. Other times, they can be a little silly.

I can’t think of another artist who has better captured the feel of our games as much as Wayne Reynolds has. Whether it’s the heroes strapped down with a hundred-and-one little odds-and-ends, or the black humor of the gaming table, or the joy that comes with struggling against what seem to be titanic odds, Mr. Reynolds has, for me, captured those slices of gaming life better than any other artist. Where Larry Elmore’s art illustrated what we were striving for in our gaming, I think Wayne Reynolds shows us what our games are actually like.

As such, it’s excusable when his anatomy seems a bit off, or the details seem a touch hazy around the edges. In his fantasy art, Mr. Reynolds appears less interested in capturing a world-that-never-was than in providing you, the viewer, with a visceral experience. Nothing exemplifies this better than his wall-of-action pieces. This is the stuff of childhood daydreams, where a hundred things are going on at once, gravity is a suggestion, and plausibility depends entirely on how much sugar you had in your breakfast cereal. This is what fans of D&D’s 3rd edition artwork mean when they say the new art is full of action and energy, where the art of older editions seems static, lifeless, and placid. Again, for these, Mr. Reynolds shifts his style, drawing on the techniques of comic book art. The silhouettes are iconic, the poses are full of action and momentum. We see not the moment of impact, but the follow-through afterwards that gives the impact its sense of energy. The weapons and armour are fantastical, without much thought given to such matters as how they could be crafted, or how they work. The focus is clearly on giving each figure a unique personality, expressed in that character’s choice of accouterments. Again, this stylistic choice reflects how we play D&D, with our focus on equipment as a way to empower and differentiate our characters from others of the same class and race.

I’m not one of those who thinks Mr. Reynolds can do no wrong. His cover for Green Ronin’s Black Company RPG is a mess, the sense of perspective so off that I can make myself feel a bit motion sick if I look at it too long. But I do get excited when I hear he’s got a new piece coming out. More than anything else, I find his art inspires me to think up new ideas for my gaming, whether it be unusual places to adventure, new foes to fight, or unusual challenges to overcome. Frankly, there’s no more important talent an RPG artist can have than that.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Everything New is Old Again

So like everyone else, I've been inspired by the back-and-forth on D&D's 4th edition to poke at making my own fantasy heartbreaker. Part of my effort involved reworking combat. I was thinking about damage by class, while your choice in weapons dictated armour penetration. This was inspired by thoughts that I articulated recently over at

Anyway, checking Jeff's Gameblog today, I came across this:

"Why would you ever wield a two-handed sword if it was just as deadly as a dagger?" is the inevitable question. Any OD&D ref using the weapon-versus-armor chart and weapon speed rules in Chainmail can handily answer that question...

I knew that 1st edition AD&D had a weapon-versus-armour chart that nobody, not even Gygax, apparently, ever used. But I had no idea that was the default back as far as Chainmail.

I've been walking in a giant circle, so large I thought it was a straight line, that had been trod down decades ago. This, boys and girls, is why it's important to know what has come before.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Pramas on Pathfinder

Chris Pramas of Green Ronin Games, has this to say on the announcement of the Pathfinder RPG:

I'm sure that some fans will think this is a foolish move on Paizo's part. How do you fight against the 800 lb. gorilla after all? Here's the thing: they don't have to. If Paizo can peel off even 20,000 current D&D fans and make them Pathfinder fans, that's a great business for a company of Paizo's size. WotC is likely going to lose at least that number of fans anyway, so at the end of the day I doubt it'll really affect 4E. I can easily envision 4E and Pathfinder both being successful for their parent companies.

He also makes mention of this decision sending "shock waves... throughout the world of third-party publishing." That's the part that has me sitting on the edge of my seat. 3.x really isn't my game of choice. The bifurcation of D&D doesn't really affect me directly, but there will certainly be consequences for my gaming. The survival of professional 3rd edition publishing will be a chink in D&D's aura of invincibility, which it managed to regain with the publication of 3rd edition. It means more "mainstream" games on the market, each making its own little waves, trying new things, and keeping things fresh and exciting in our hobby. It also means Paizo will be unfettered to a greater extent, able to take more risks and explore new directions. They've already announced their foray into organized gaming with the Pathfinder RPG. What else will 2008 and the following years bring us?

UPDATE: Welcome, readers of Jeff's Gameblog! I've got more on the Pathfinder RPG announcement here. Thanks for the link, Jeff. :)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Make Love, Not War - The 4.0 Way!

Have I been too hard on D&D 4.0? No, it's still chock full of annoying game-isms that I'd be happier off without. But Rodney Thompson has posted a nice, long discussion of non-combat mechanics in D&D that does put a smile on my face:

We showed off skill challenges in the Escape from Sembia event at D&DXP. Basically, it boiled down to this: the heroes needed to escape from some Sembian guards, prompting a chase sequence. The heroes then had the option of using a variety of skills to escape from the guards, and the encounter was built using the non-combat encounters guidelines in the DMG. Basically, the players could use any skill they liked, so long as they had a good explanation for it, and the encounter gave rules on adjudicating those checks based on the likelihood that the attempt would be feasible. For example, one player I read about used his History skill to remember an old sewer grate from some ancient plans of the city, where he was able to had. Obvious skill choices allowed players to hide, climb on top of buildings, disguise themselves as passers-by, etc. Now, before I get jumped on, yes, these are all things you could do before. However, unless a skill check was specifically called out in the adventure, most adventures leaned back on the hard-coded skill DCs and results in the skills chapter. The difference isn't that you can do these things in 4th Edition, but that the default assumption in 4th Edition is that players should and will find creative solutions to problems, and the rules are designed not only to allow the DM to fairly adjudicate those assumptions but also to reward players for doing so.

Nice, eh? Again, notice the excessive hand-holding, though newcomers to the game will, I'm certain, appreciate the effort. Anything that nudges the game away from the stereotype of "kill anything that moves and take its stuff" is a plus in my book.

I just wish they'd included something like this in 3.x. Combined with the lack of game-isms, it would have made D&D an excellent system for running the sorts of games I prefer. Instead, I had to wait for True20 to really get the sort of mechanical support I wanted from the d20 system. Still, better late than never, and the new generation of gamers are going to have this sort of RPing supported by the rules, rather than implied between the lines. WotC deserves a big thumbs up for this.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The 2008 Fantasy RPG Wars are ON!!!

The cute goblin “fire brigade” we linked to yesterday is no longer up at Paizo. It has instead been replaced with the boldest move you’ll likely see in the world of professional RPGs this year. Paizo has opted out of D&D 4.0 for their Pathfinder adventures series.

I may be making a bigger deal out of this than it warrants, but to me, this feels like a shift of seismic proportions. Paizo has long had a strong relationship with WotC. When WotC recalled Dragon and Dungeon magazines, Paizo sharpened their focus on their very successful “adventure paths,” linked adventures that create an entire campaign in the vein of the old Temple of Elemental Evil series from the first edition of AD&D. Paizo’s reliable and extremely high levels of quality in terms of writing, the use of rules, layout, and art, combined with their emphasis on adventures of a more polished and “adult” nature, created what appeared to be the perfect partner for WotC during the launch of D&D 4.0. WotC, with their name recognition, “social networking” and Web 2.0 initiatives, and marketing muscle, could have focused on creating a new generation of players, while Paizo focused on the 3.x “grognards”, luring them into the 4.0 fold with high-quality product aimed at a playstyle marked by lots of disposable income but almost no time to create the complex worlds older gamers desire.

But now that’s clearly not to be, and WotC has nobody but themselves to blame. Seriously, by now, we should be hearing how the Paizo and WotC staffers are playtesting their products together to ensure a seamless launch of a new generation of Pathfinder adventures, tailored to maximize the benefits of the new 4.0 rules set. We should be hearing how WotC is considering adding Pathfinder-focused options and tile sets for D&D Insider. Instead, in spite of the new edition having been announced to the public in August, the details of the new Game System License, that would allow third-party companies to produce adventures and rules compatible with the new edition of D&D, still have not been released. In order to learn anything about the new rules, Paizo employees had to attend the D&D Experience convention last month. In short, their first good look at the game system was the public unveiling. And in spite of that, they still haven’t seen the GSL, and still haven’t been offered a chance to really dig into the new rules to see how they work.

Considering Paizo’s business model, did they really have any other choice? Unable to even see the rules in time to create a Pathfinder series anytime near the launch of 4.0, or possibly even within the first half of 2009, Paizo was going to be stuck riding the 3.x horse after the launch of 4.0 regardless. Making lemonade out of these lemons by creating their own version of D&D 3.75, called the Pathfinder RPG, is only the logical next step.

I’m going to take a moment to tell you what I’m not saying in this post: I am not saying that Paizo’s Pathfinder RPG is a potential D&D killer, or even a D&D 4.0 killer. The only folks with the clout and power in the RPG market to deal D&D a mortal blow are WotC themselves. Unfortunately, that statement is not as facetious as it might seem. They’re eagerness to part with certain tropes of traditional D&D, both cosmetic and mechanical, has alienated a certain segment of their players. This has only been exacerbated by clumsy (some have even gone so far as to call it insulting) marketing. Changing the OGL to the GSL last month, a full half-year after they’d announced that 4.0 was in the works, coupled with their inability to actually produce a written license agreement that people could sign on to after declaring they’d charge “early adopters” $5,000 for the privilege, indicates that WotC is still uncertain what, exactly, they want their new license agreement to do. The digital versions of Dragon and Dungeon have failed to live up even to the standards of their print versions, forget the potential of the online medium. They are certainly not the best sources of information on the upcoming 4th edition: ENWorld retains that crown, largely unchallenged. Even worse, without Dragon and Dungeon magazine in newsstands and book stores, any D&D players who don’t frequent gaming web pages might not even be aware yet that a new edition is coming out later this year!

In short, everything seems to point towards hesitation, uncertainty, and confusion over at WotC. We don’t see a company forging ahead into the future, creating a new and exciting gaming experience for its customers. Instead, we see strong dead-tree periodicals replaced by anemic web pages, marketing derided as clumsy and sometimes even insulting, and a lack of action that has already transformed one potentially strong partner into a full-on competitor.

WotC can, of course, still turn things around. As the books go to print, I fully expect more resources to be devoted to D&D Insider, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t come to outshine both Dungeon and Dragon magazines. D&D remains the three-hundred-pound gorilla in the market. A sturdy, fun game could wipe away any lingering bad feelings between fans and WotC, and render the assistance of third-party publishers largely redundant. The promise of a streamlined gaming experience and flexible, powerful online tools has the potential to bring back lots of folks who have felt they couldn’t be involved in RPGs anymore, while a new edition is the perfect time to bring in a whole new generation of players.

Time will tell if WotC is up to both the challenges and the opportunities that 2008 offers.

In the meantime, there’s a lot of reason to be bullish about Paizo and what they are up to. They’ve already released the first document of their “alpha” version of the Pathfinder RPG. As to be expected, it’s a lovely document, expertly laid out, easy to read, and fun. (Putting Wayne Reynolds’ cute rampaging goblins at the top of the chapter describing how the playtesting would be done was a stroke of genius.) They’re encouraging their players to get involved now, which means by the time 4.0 is finally released, players will already have three months of Pathfinder under their belts. Their completely open playtesting process also allows them to leverage one of Paizo’s core strengths - their loyal and knowledgeable fan base - and stands in marked contrast to the tight-lipped behavior of WotC. With Wayne Reynolds also doing their cover art, Paizo’s books will look at least as good as WotC’s. Working with an existing framework of rules, and inviting an Army of David’s to playtest for them, Paizo is also less likely to publish a broken or unpolished game. And with their partnership with Necromancer Games, Paizo keeps one foot in the new edition. After all, if 4.0 does turn out to be a supremely popular and superior game, they can always convert Pathfinder over in 2010. already has a quick review of the first release of the Pathfinder RPG’s alpha-test rules. So far, things look promising.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Strangeness at Paizo

So if you try to hit anything on the Paizo web page today, you get this.

Does it mean anything, beyond maybe a server crash or reset? I doubt it, but who knows?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Pros and Cons of IRC-style Gaming

IRC stands for Internet Relay Chat, and for quite some time was the way to communicate with your friends on the net. It's a live-chat bulletin-board type system, where what everyone types shows up immediately on the screen for all to read. The possibilities for RPGs should be obvious.

Over at the Fear the Boot forums, Yaotl was curious how well this sort of thing works. Blindeye's response is worth posting in its entirety:

OpenRPG you say? I've used miRC for 10 years to roleplay. But here's the pros and cons to chatroom roleplaying:

Pro: Each line of description and dialogue will be more well thought out.

Con: Everything takes twice as long to do thanks to non-instantaneous internet transferring and the time it takes to type a message rather than speak it. Also... Typos.

Pro: Dice programming mean rolling goes really quickly

Con: Not being able to see your group's sheets, or having to keep track of them yourself can be confusing.

Pro: OOC can take place in a separate chat room entirely, clearly separating IC and OOC and keeping things more immersive.

Con: Real Life can disrupt it more easily, as can computer error. "brbs" and "afks" come in, random disconnects can be frustrating, and all sorts of things that you don't have at the physical table.

Pro: You don't need to worry about having people close by, all they need is a computer.

Con: Game attendance seems a little less for certain. You're just crossing your fingers that everyone shows up.

Pro: You can log the entire sessions really easily, and review it later, or be able to go back and check things from previous sessions.

Con: Descriptions can be harder to get across, it's not as easy to quickly doodle what a room looks like, or use your hands to illustrate things. There are ways around this, but it requires file sharing, and a bit more legwork. No Grids to run off of, no miniatures or anything. It all needs to be communicated through text.

I think that's all I'll get into. I don't know what OpenRPG is capable of... I'll have to look it up. this is all based on mIRC alone.

OpenRPG is a great little program that has built-in dice rollers and white-board/table-top-style miniatures support. And it's free, so you really can't beat that.

For myself, I prefer some of the more common IRC programs, and find many of the bells and whistles of OpenRPG to be distracting. But that's just me.

And if typing isn't for you, there's always Skype, which allows you to talk over the internet, without the fees of long-distance phone calls and all of that. Why Skype isn't replacing most people's land-lines for long-distance telephone communication is beyond me.

In any event, distance is no longer an issue when it comes to getting the old group together for a few hours of RPG fun.

Casanova, His Times, and Your Game

Balbinus posted this at back on '03. The thread has recently been subject to a bit of necromancy. Still, I think his original post is worth quoting, in total:

I'm presently reading The Story of my Life by Giacomo Casanova.

For those in the back row, Casanova was an Eighteenth century Venetian who was famous for his romantic exploits, thus giving rise to the term casanova.

Anyway, the book is tremendously well written. Extremely witty and erudite. It's also in places very surprising.

Sex per se forms a relatively small part of the book, despite what people might imagine. But social attitudes of the time are well depicted, if sometimes unconsciously. Some of those attitudes relate to sex in ways which are unexpected (this is heading to a gaming point, don't worry).

Casanova speaks on a couple of occasions about homosexuality, usually in the context of an anecdote where some guy has made a pass at him or he is mentioning that someone is gay. Casanova's view seems to be that homosexuality is not a moral issue, that is to say he sees nothing wrong with it. Indeed, he explicitly condemns the practices of countries which make it illegal or which pour scorn upon homosexuals. He sees such bigotry as essentially barbaric.

The only time Casanova has an issue with someone being gay is when a guy hits on him repeatedly and won't take no for an answer. He isn't bothered by the suggestion he might indulge, he knows his tastes don't run that way, he is rather bothered by the fact he is being pestered by someone he perceives as behaving rudely in not accepting defeat gracefully.

If he were fictional a modern reader would imagine that contemporary PC attitudes were being put onto the character. But this is a memoir written by Casanova himself. The surprising fact then is that an Eighteenth century rake was in fact more tolerant of homosexuality than most people today. Not what most would expect I think.

In another part of the book Casanova sleeps with two sisters on consecutive nights. One aged 11 and the other 12. Casanova is plainly no paedophile, he simply draws no great distinction between a girl of 11 and one of 21. Nor does anyone else in the book draw much distinction, including the girl's mother who knows about the affair. Casanova expresses surprise that a girl that young is interested, but once he knows she is there is no issue that she might be too young. The idea seems literally alien, it simply doesn't even arise.

Now, back then of course modern notions of childhood and adolescence simply didn't exist. You were either a child or an adult and as far as Casanova and everyone else was concerned if she was old enough to be interested she was clearly an adult for those purposes.

This is to modern sensibilities incredibly alien. An 11 year old today is seen as clearly being a child. That someone would make no distinction between her and a 21 or 31 year old makes no sense to the modern mind. He would in fact be arrested.

What struck me with this was quite how different his culture was, even in very basic things. There is no concept of the adolescent, most people know that but the practical implications of that fact are rarely so explicitly set out. In some things he is more modern than we are, in others he behaves in ways most people today view as not just morally repugnant but possibly even as a form of mental illness.

This is just 200 years ago and we're dealing with a Westerner.

Most games essentially have cultures which are America Lite, perhaps The West Lite if you prefer. There are cosmetic changes, people are loyal to a king instead of democracy, to many gods rather than just one, but fundamental moral assumptions of the modern day tend to still hold good. You don't sleep with 12 year olds in a fantasy game and homosexuality is rarely if ever mentioned.

Some try to depart from this. But generally most don't even bother.

Which leads to the issue of what we miss out by not even trying to put ourselves in another culture's heads. Heroic Greek rpgs rarely address the topic of Greek homosexuality. Western games usually try not to include racial attitudes of the day (often by the simple expedient of basically dropping all black people from the game). But these cultures aren't a huge stretch. I've summarised major differences in Casanova's attitudes from contemporary ones in one internet post, it's not impossible to put yourself in his head.

My impression is that most gamers like only cosmetic differences, elves aren't really alien, they're just Americans with pointy ears. But surely one of the great possibilities of roleplaying is exploring what it would be like to live in another time, another place. What's the point if when we go there everyone is just like us?

The short answer is, of course, that players can really only handle so much change from what they know. You can build on that slowly, but even then, you're going to lose some people. Even in the best group I ever played with, my college group, some of the players just couldn't get it through their heads that elves were polygamists who considered most of the human customs of marriage bizarre and deviant. The further you deviate from standard, the harder you have to work to reinforce these alterations in your setting, and the more frequently you must remind your players of them.

Still, I always push as far as I feel I can safely go, and then a tiny bit further. It makes my games memorable, and adds a hint of the fantastic to the worlds we play in.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Free Inversion

Catherine Asaro's Primary Inversion is the latest offering over at the Baen Free Library.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A Ronin Reviews D&D 4.0

Via the Velvet Dicebag comes word that Chris Pramas of Green Ronin, the classiest guys in RPGs, has posted his thoughts on D&D 4.0. He has a lot to say, and most of it is thought-provoking. Just to prove it, here are some actual thoughts:

I really felt that 3.5 was just more complicated than it needed to be and I hoped that 4E would simplify things. While it does fix many of the ongoing issues with 3.5, my feeling after today's session is that it's just complicated in a different way. It's not something I think experienced gamers will have a huge amount of trouble with, but it does seem that 4E may be even more unfriendly to new players than 3.5 was. It looks like 4E requires newbs to make too many choices and track too many things to make it truly accessible. Since D&D has always been the entry point for most RPG players, this is my most serious concern.

This is pretty serious stuff. I’ve heard that WotC is planning a beginner’s boxed set. Hopefully, they’ll be able to simplify things enough that new folks don’t have too many issues. Moldvay’s Basic was complex enough for me way back in 2nd grade. That should be the level of complexity they shoot for.

And since the rules seem to have been tailored to provide a very particular experience, I don't think they will make as good of a base for the variety of campaign settings D&D used to see. It's pretty clear that WotC realizes this, which explains why they felt the need to advance the timeline and have an apocalyptic event in the Forgotten Realms. I don't think many of the old campaign settings will transition over without a lot of cutting, spindling, and mutilating.

I’m very curious what he means by this. So far, I haven’t seen anything that would make 4.0 a bad fit for Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, or even Spelljammer. If you ignore the fluff, you ought to be able to make it fit even Planescape fairly well. But he’s played the game and I haven’t, so maybe he knows something I don’t. And if he does, what does that mean for Paizo and Pathfinder?

What I think WotC is going for here is what Marvel managed to pull off with their Ultimate line of comics: take the core of the IP and redefine it for a new generation. There will certainly be some longtime fans disenfranchised by this move, but I don't think there will be enough of those folks to hurt 4E. (I do think, however, that there will be enough of those for a third party company to carve out a good business for itself catering to them, but that's a topic for another day.)

Heh… Remember, this is the guy who has True20 in his stable, and the soon-to-be-released A Song of Ice and Fire RPG. So it’s not like he doesn’t have a dog in this fight.

That said, I think he’s right. I also think Green Ronin, with its stable of literature-based games and experience converting the settings of novels into settings for RPGs, is well-positioned to lay a claim to the fantasy storytelling terrain that WotC appears to be abandoning. Whether they achieve that through promoting True20 or the system they create for ASoIaF, they’ve got a good head-start on everyone else in the industry. And with the roadblocks that WotC has cast in the way of 3rd party developers so far, Green Ronin might very well find themselves forced to pursue such goals, simply from being shut out of doing anything for D&D 4.0 over the next year.

Viewed from this perspective, WotC’s marketing campaign appears hell-bent on shooting their corporation in both feet. First, by dragging their feet in getting the licensing info out to third-party publishers, they’re almost forcing those companies to compete with the release of 4.0, either by putting out new product that is unrelated to D&D, or, even worse, by continuing to support the older editions. Second, by insisting that older versions of D&D are not fun, they seem determined to drive a wedge between the players who adopt 4.0 and those who stick with older editions.

UPDATE: Mr. Pramas has continued to play with 4e. His after action report here, and my brief take on it here.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Gary Gygax, 1938-2008

I'm searching, in vain, right now, to find a quote that fits this moment. I can't find one, really, probably because I never knew the man, never brushed shoulders with him at a crowded convention, or even wrote to him. I can't, of course, deny the impact he's had on my life. Before the Trollwife became the Trollwife, and we were dating over a distance of 300 miles, it was D&D, played over AOL or IRC, that kept us close. This game, and its many imitators, have always been there for us. When times were tough, when sanity hung by a thread and money was tight, we could always turn to our imaginary worlds for comfort, for wisdom, for inspiration, and perspective. Even before I met the woman who would become my wife, friendships were forged in both victory and defeat around dining room tables, or around the campfire.

So while I can't speak of the man, I can let his own words say what his work has meant to me: Enjoy, for this game is what dreams are made of!!

Godspeed, Mr. Gygax.

UPDATE: More here, but be patient. A lot of people are hitting it today.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Premature Pontifications

Ok, just for the record, I haven’t gotten to play 4.0 yet. I’ve not even been in the same room as someone who has. But looking at what’s come out of the D&D Experience, and playtester comments, I feel justified in making some observations about the game and the industry. I may be waaaay off base, and I’m sure y’all will enjoy making me eat crow later if I turn out to be horribly wrong.

Please bear with me as I harken back to the days of 3rd edition D&D. With the benefit of hindsight, I’m more and more impressed with how holistically that game was managed in so many of its aspects. Even now, some of these are only coming to light. For instance, we’re all familiar with the marketing strategy embodied by the OGL. All RPG roads led to D&D, was the thought. With the OGL, WotC hoped to create synergies in the market that would tie everyone more closely to their brands. By spreading the d20 goodness as broadly as possible, it would be easier for players to move from system to system, and the more open they were to other games, especially games based on d20, the more likely they were to purchase WotC books.

But this strategy was not formed in a marketing-office vacuum. The promise of the OGL was woven into the very rules of the game. This can be seen most clearly in the eradication of verisimilitude-inhibiting game-isms.

Ok, what the heck is the Trollsmyth talking about, throwing around all these five-dollar words? Well, a classic complaint about D&D has long been that the rules had all sorts of wonky limitations in them about what you could do with your character. For instance, in just about every previous version of D&D, wizards couldn’t wear armour or learn how to swing a sword. It was simply forbidden, which meant that you couldn’t play Gandalf, clearly one of the best known examples of the archetype. The games were riddled with things like this. Probably the most bizarre was the 2nd edition prohibition against elven druids. If any race seemed tailor-made to worship the spirits of the wilderness, you’d think it would be elves. Nope, sorry. You couldn’t do it.

The reason given for the existence of these bizarre rules was game balance. In order to balance the powers of every race and class, restrictions were needed to keep any race and class combination from dominating the game. The results, of course, were mixed, but most people understood the reasoning. Still, the reaction was the creation of a number of competing games heavily focused on simulation-style play. These games attempted to bring as much realism and verisimilitude to RPGs as possible. The best of them, games like GURPS and Traveller, are still with us today, recognized as giants in the hobby.

However, 3rd edition needed to be all things to all people. If the OGL was to truly dominate the hobby, d20 needed to be seen as a universal gaming system. It couldn’t afford to be pigeonholed as any particular type of game. And so the game-isms were purged from D&D. Every race could aspire to every class, though some clearly worked better than others. Every race could also advance in every class as far as they wished, though at different speeds. And with 3.0, for the first time, every class could wear heavy armour and swing swords, though not always without penalty. The out-and-out prohibitions were replaced with choices and costs that retained, to a certain extent, the balance, but didn’t poke holes in setting by asking players to accept arbitrary rules that lacked any rhyme or reason within the context of the worlds we played in.

Success, of course, was spotty; just ask anyone who tried to play a ranger out of the 3.0 PHB. But most of the old criticisms of D&D were silenced. The game was positioned to straddle all different styles of play. Gamers still had their min-maxing and number-crunching victories, while simulationists were no longer forced to endure arbitrary limitations that required pretzel-like twistings of logic to explain. Those who desired a more storytelling experience were not actively catered to, but this was probably a good thing. You could still play the game for hours without touching the dice if you wanted to, while the gamers and simulationists were not forced to justify bonuses derived from eccentric behavior. And True20 proved how easy it was to bolt on a virtue/vice and “hero point” mechanics to the d20 chassis.

And, for the most part, it worked. There were d20 versions of all sorts of games created. Even the giants of simulationst games, like Traveller, and storytelling games, like White Wolf’s World of Darkness, had d20 versions. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to tell just how much these sorts of synergies benefited the individual publishers and the industry as a whole. And some games were smashed into the d20 mold that never should have been. Star Wars, for instance, was always a clumsy match for the d20 system. So things were far from perfect, and it was impossible to tell just how much harm or good was really being achieved.

So I suppose it’s no surprise that the designers of 4th edition have left all that behind them. D&D is returning to its roots. New arbitrary limitations are in the rules. Things like per-encounter abilities are included without any sort of verisimilitude-saving justifications for their limitations. Why can’t I use this ability all the time? The rules say so. No longer is D&D pretending to be all things to all people. Instead, it’s settling back squarely on what it does best: rollicking action-adventure, number-crunching gaming.

We can argue whether or not this is good or bad. What is undeniable is that, as D&D shifts away from its long-held middle-ground, it creates vacuums other games will fill. GURPS remains well-positioned to reclaim the simulationist crown. I expect folks who prefer modern and sci-fi gaming to return their focus back to GURPS, which has long held their loyalty.

Even more interesting are prospects on the storytelling front. There really isn’t a strong contender for the story-focused fantasy RPG. D&D’s focus on complex tactical challenges promises to make every encounter memorable, but it also alienates folks who are more interested in context and emotional arcs than 5’ maneuvers and tactically significant terrain. Honestly, I’m not sure things could be more perfect for Ryan Dancey’s storytelling game. The sour taste that 4.0 is going to leave in the mouths of these gamers will make them far more likely to cast about for something new that caters to their preferences.

The OGL may not be dead, but the marketing realities it tried to create are. As they continue to crumble, I expect to see a lot of dynamic activity in the RPG hobby. Unfortunately, it’s likely to lead to a lot more splintering as players, once united by a D&D that tried to command the middle ground by straddling all different styles, retreats into specialization, inviting other games with very different styles and assumptions to reclaim the territory WotC has abandoned.

Jeff Gets Stupid! And Retro!

Jeff of Jeff's Gameblog has posted his Incomplete Guide to the New Retro Stupid. Why would you want to read about Retro Stupid? Well, the way Jeff uses 'em, neither Retro nor Stupid means "not fun". In fact, I'd say Retro Stupid is Jeff's idea of a great time.

Most of the games Jeff talks about are free, too! So if you've been jonesing for some good ol' fashioned RPG fun, but are feeling a tad light in the wallet, this list is definitely for you.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Some Thoughts on D&D Insider

We don't know enough yet, but what we do know is not exactly encouraging. On the good side, it appears that their will be a searchable rules database, and you'll be able to search for rules that are even in books you don't own. Very cool.

On the not-so-cool side of things, you're going to have to buy your electronic monster miniatures and digital terrain. Yes, there will be very boring place-holders if you, like me, are cheap. There have been lots of howls about this. Being cheap, I can understand. But I don't think WotC is that far off-base. After all, their model has to be Magic: The Gathering Online, where you buy your electronic cards to play in the game. People have shown they are willing to shell out real money for virtual goods. Hell, Second Life is predicated on the idea. And there are other reasons to think that it might make sense. Over at, Samhaine said:

It's also common in subscription plans that heavy users are actually a losing proposition, since they use a bunch more bandwidth and resources than average users. In this situation, these users are probably the ones most likely to shell out extra for miniatures and terrain. If it works, this will allow WotC to not cap their earning potential from their hardcore users at $10 a month.

So while I, personally think spending real money on such things is a bit silly, if it works for them, great!

That all said, I still think they've stumbled horribly in not building more of a bridge between dead-tree Dragon and Dungeon and D&D Insider. I can certainly understand WotC focusing the vast majority of their attention and resources on the core books of D&D, but I think this is one of those decisions that is going to cost them in the long run. Time, of course, will tell.