Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Foundations of Medieval Europe: Technological Revolution

Noisms has mentioned an interest in learning more about the Middle Ages. I’m assuming he means the European Middle Ages, as this follow-up post implies.

My bachelor’s degree from UT Austin is technically in liberal arts, because UT doesn’t award undergraduate degrees in history. But it was the history sequence I completed with a focus on medieval Europe, especially England and France. UT has a great Medieval Studies program, and if you get the chance, I strongly recommend you take any class you can from Janet Meisel and Martha Newman.

Ask any historian about pretty much any topic, and they’ll want to cast back a handful hundred years to discuss how things got to be that way. I’m going to do the opposite and discuss the Middle Ages by hopping forward in time to answer the question, what were the Middle Ages?

The term comes from a time when very little was known about medieval Europe. So far as historians were concerned, European history kinda stopped with the fall of Rome, then restarted again with the Renaissance. Documents from the time were few and far between, and peppered with mythology, like King Arthur. (Want to see a medieval historian get all flustered? Ask ‘em about Joan of Arc.)

Modern efforts to restore and catalogue medieval documents have helped us fill in a lot of the gaps, however, and we now know far more about what happened during those days. The period called “the Dark Ages” has been pushed back to the handful of centuries just after the fall of Rome. Written sources are very rare for those years even now, and what we have to work with primarily comes from oral accounts later committed to vellum and the fruits of archeology.

What we do know is that, as the power of Rome declined, western Europe was awash in successive waves of invaders from the east. On the continent, Goths, Huns, and Franks pushed in from the east, conquering as they traveled, settling down, and merging their customs with those of the people they’d subdued. In the north, the invaders were Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Vikings.

When the armies of Islam had conquered the length of northern Africa and crossed into Spain, the peoples they fought there were Goths who had invaded a few centuries before. When the Saracens attempted to raid back east across the Pyrenees, they got their hinies handed to them supposedly thanks to a technological marvel that I think shaped what we know as the Middle Ages. The myth (remember what I said about the difficulties of separating fact from fantasy in medieval history) goes that seven men, draped in mail and riding powerful horses, each slew a hundred Saracens and only lost one of their own number at the Battle of Tours. These men would have been the first knights, and their exploits, whatever they might have truly been, were due in large part to the stirrup.

The stirrup had been in use in Asia for hundreds of years before the 8th century battle that saw the Islamic advance into modern France stymied. What the Franks did that was different was to use the stirrup to outfit their cavalry with heavy armour that made them nearly impervious to the standard weapons of the day. The weapon system of the armoured knight, while extremely effective, was also extremely expensive. Each knight needed a handful of mounts to be effective in battle, and these horses required oats to put on the bulk and muscle the knights required, especially as their armour grew heavier over the years. Knights also needed lots of training to get the most out of their mounts and their weapons. In short, a lot of man-hours were eaten up by the care, training, and breeding of horses for use in war.

In order to make sure he had knights when he needed them, a king would grant large tracts of land to his ablest warriors, in exchange for the promise, usually backed by sacred oath, to deliver a certain number of knights and infantry when the king called for them. Each warrior would organize the land and the peasants living on it to feed him and his servants while they went about the business of preparing for the next war. Such a lord might also divvy up his land into smaller parcels that would be given to other knights, so that they could do the same thing, creating a pyramidal organization of land passed down in exchange for oaths of service traveling up the pyramid. It was sort of like Amway, but with swords and battle axes.

And there you have the foundations of medieval Europe’s social structure. The granted land was called a fief, and the knight who ruled it could pretty much do as he pleased with it, so long as he delivered his quota of warriors to his king’s wars. In order to protect his fief, knights built castles on their lands, and divided their larger holdings into smaller fiefs so that they, too, could raise armies when the need arose.

Of course, in practice, things could get a bit messier than this perfect picture. Sometimes a knight might grow stronger than his lord, or even his king. Knights sworn to the same king might disagree about exactly where one fief ended and another began. Most fiefs were passed down to eldest sons when a knight died, but the exact details of such inheritance were sometimes settled by open warfare between knights. (A similar issue served as the pretext for William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066.) Knights who had covered themselves in glory by slaughtering lots of people might attempt to ease their blood-spattered souls’ passage into Heaven by gifting churches and monasteries with their lands, allowing the Church to acquire great wealth and even, at times, raise its own armies.

In spite of all of this, the coming of the mounted knight pretty much ended the successive waves of invaders from the east. Islam was held at the Pyrenees and then slowly pushed back, first to the southern edge of Spain and then, in 1492, out of western Europe all together. In the east, Europe slowly went on the offensive, spreading Roman Catholicism by the sword into eastern Europe and the Middle East. As the Vikings found raiding more difficult and less profitable, they began to settle down. The Vikings who settled on the northern shores of modern France learned the ways of the knight. These Norsemen slowly became Normans and more French than even the French. When they invaded England in 1066, their chivalric heavy cavalry faced a shield wall which was more akin to their ancestors’ ways of making war than their own.

It was on this foundation of landed knights, supported by the serfs who toiled at menial tasks to support and equip them, that medieval Europe was built. Once you’ve got that down, it’s a lot easier to understand what came later, and how Europe slowly transformed into the modern nation-states we know today.

Photo credits: rutlo, frielp, magoexperto.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Trollsmyth Fails the Old School Purity Test

49. Have you ever walked in on people using encounter powers to fight lizard folk?

50. Have you ever joined in?

When I first chose Labyrinth Lord for my new campaign, I was tempted by the idea of staying true to that rules set and using only material created for it. I would leave all my other books on their shelves and just use the handful I had for Moldvay/Cook and BECMI. When I started getting players who had never played those old rules (and who hadn't even been born yet when they came out), it seemed even more important to try to create as “pure” an old school experience as possible.

Yeah, right, who was I kidding?

The truth is, back in the day, we were pulling ideas from all sorts of crazy places. We all wanted the over-and-under crossbow from “Ladyhawke”, giant jackalope mounts like we saw in the postcards at the tourist shops, and tricked out helicopters modeled on “Airwolf”. In one of my first campaigns, I gave my brother's elf character a magical sword called the Triangle. The name was swiped from the first Ultima game. I had no idea what it did in the computer game, but in our pen-and-paper adventures it shot out forcefield cages and blasting bolts of power and was pretty much the ultimate magical sword in that campaign. I think I stole most of its powers from the “Blackstar” cartoon.

Beyond such wackiness, which old D&D openly invites, the entire range of what is generally accepted as “old school” is pretty compatible. And this last Sunday night, I really pushed that.

The original guardian for the magical laboratories beneath the villa of the Poyma was a single brain collector. Yeah, that's a nasty monster, but I was only giving it 3 hit points per hit die and no spells. So not insurmountable, but if the PCs were victorious, they'd know they'd been in a fight.

But then Dave Arneson passed away, and Oddysey mentioned she had a thing for frogs. So I went back to the monster lists and hunted for an appropriate froggy critter to replace the brain collector with. I really didn't find what I wanted in my usual Moldvay/Cook/BECMI/LL sources. Besides, I knew what I really wanted: slaadi.

I know a lot of folks are not fans of the slaadi. The technicolor frogs don't seem to be the proper poster-children for primordial chaos. Me, I like the whole amphibious thing, and see it as a good metaphor for mutability. Plus there's the life-cycle of frogs, being born as fish and slowly transforming into land-walkers (or, if you prefer the medieval explanation, being born out of mud, the ultimate terrestrial representation for chaos). So I'll take slaadi over constantly morphing shoggoths.

The easy thing to do was to port in a red slaad from the original 1e Fiend Folio. The red slaad was actually a lot more manageable than the brain collector, having an AC of 6 (rather than 2) and 7 hit dice, so I could give it the full 3.5 hit points per die. Mechanically, I didn't need to change a thing.

I still wanted to turn it up to 11, though, so I went even further into the future and took a few pages from 2e. I have a copy of a Planescape appendix for the Monstrous Manual where I think we get the first publication of the bizarre reproductive habits of slaadi. The short version is, red slaadi make blue slaadi by injecting eggs under the skin of sentient victims through their claws. Which is freaky and kinda neat, but since we're talking giant frogs, I thought they needed to do something with their tongues. So instead of injecting the eggs with their claws, in my worlds red slaadi plant them with their tongues, kinda like Samael from the first Hellboy movie. The other thing I took from 2e was turning the red slaadi's power word: stun into a stunning croak. These are mostly just cosmetic issues, but that sort of thing is what makes the game sing.

So in one fell swoop, I took my campaign from “pure” Labyrinth Lord to including material from the first two editions of AD&D. And it's actually worse than that, as I'm also working to convert 3e's yak folk. Why? Because converting stuff from my favorite movies, TV shows, and books is just as much fun now as it was when I was twelve. ;)

Photo credits: Free-er, Vandelizer, and Deadrobot.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Romance, Sex and D&D: Dragon Sex

Donny over at “The Fine Art of the TPK” has discovered dragon sex. Or, to be specific, dragon sex as it occurs in fantasy literature. His wife talked him into reading The Dragon DelaSangre by Alan F. Troop:

This intense and painstakingly described DRAGON SEX was (to say the least) not what I was expecting, that's for sure. In fact, what surprised me was that my wife though it was pretty hot.

I don't know Donny or his wife, so I can't really speak to their backgrounds and reading habits. However, I think it's likely this is not the first time Mrs. TPK has encountered dragon sex.

I first ran across it when I borrowed my mother's Anne McCaffery novels. At the time, I was crazy for anything with dragons in it, and the “The Dragonriders of Pern” novels had awesome dragons on their gorgeous Michael Whelan covers. At the time, I thought they were wonderfully unusual novels, unlike anything I'd read before. What I didn't know was that they were firmly rooted in a style of literature the Blue Rose folks would call “romantic fantasy”. A young person (usually a woman) is estranged or separated from a family that is not good for her. She forms a telepathic bond with an intelligent animal (in this case, a dragon) and with its help, begins to fashion a new, healthier family for herself. For and with this new family, she risks all to make the world a better place or at least save it from an impending catastrophe.

And, sprinkled within, was dragon sex. It wasn't very detailed, and actually read more like an aerial race where the males attempted to catch the females to prove their worthiness. It mostly served as a counterpoint to the relationships of the people.

Years later, I came across dragon sex again in the books of Melanie Rawn. This was something else entirely. Sex between dragons in her books was more like sex between sharks. It was primal and violent, and served in part as a metaphor for the clash between the chaos fomented by the greed of the villains and the civilized order the heroes were trying to establish.

Dragon sex, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. I've mentioned before the differences between fantasy novels aimed at gals and those aimed at guys. Sex, especially “deviant” sex, is common in fantasy novels written for women and even teens. It's not just authors who are known for it, like Laurell K. Hamilton. You didn't get much more mainstream back in the “ultra conservative” (though they weren't, actually) '80s than Mercedes Lackey, and yet her books included homosexual characters, bisexual characters, and the polyamorous Hawkbrothers. Arrow's Fall includes a rape. Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon tangled with incest (as did the non-fantasy but widely read Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews). The trend was continued through the '90s by authors like Anne Rice, and today S&M appears to be popular with Anne Bishop's “Black Jewels” books and Jacqueline Carey's "Kushiel" novels.

Now the ladies in the audience are probably shrugging their shoulders at all this. I might as well be talking about how grass is green and rain is wet. The thing is, even among authors writing for guys who are notorious for sexual themes, fade-to-black was the general rule. John Norman's “Gor” novels, in spite of the rampant nudity and eroticism, always drew the curtain before sex. The erotic exploits of brazenly hedonistic pulp heroes like the Gray Mouser, Conan, and Elric were only alluded to and never detailed. Even Jack Chalker, whose prose could run hot and heavy right up to the act, would suddenly seem bashful as the event was efficiently mentioned and then passed through and beyond, where consequences would arise as the story resumed it's normal descriptive depth and pacing. And while they would seem to be close kin to the relationships of the “romantic fantasy” novels, the raw, painfully honest relationships in Joel Rosenberg's “Guardians of the Flame” series are a breed apart.

Again, my suggestion for guys who won't burst a blood vessel doing so, is to pick up one of these books and give it a try. You might hate it, but you'll likely be exposed to a style of storytelling you've never experienced before. Even if you don't have dragons carving notches into their bedposts, you'll find new ways to work relationships and similar themes into your games.

UPDATE: This was worth dragging up above the fold. Thanks, Chris.

Chris said...

Ursula Vernon did a great post on the antecedents of this subject, seen through the filter of fanfic.

From the article:
I did not, at nine, actually comprehend on any kind of level that homosexuality was something real people did. Like every other girl of my generation, I figured that out from Mercedes Lackey books, and at one point put down the book and went, "Um. Whoa." while the universe carefully re-aligned itself around my newly expanded brain.

Perhaps inevitably, she also drew the odd creature of the subconscious that thrives on such psycho-sexually charged weirdness as dragon sex. She calls it Susan.

Fight On! Victorius!

It's official: Fight On! came in at #1 in Lulu's recent sales contest. Congrats to all involved!

Congrats also to the Mythmere crew who managed to hold on in the top 10. Old school gaming put on a strong showing.

Monday, April 13, 2009

OpenRPG Crashes, Goes Boom

No, it's back now, but last night, when I needed it, it wasn't. We lost an hour of game time arguing with it.

So it's time to find something else. Over at the consensus appears to be MapTool. I'm downloading it now as I type this. If anyone has experience with MapTool, or has another suggestion they'd like to make, please sound off.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Update, uh, what, 6? The WotC PDF Mess Keeps Rollin' On

ENWorld has posted an interview with President of WotC, Greg Leeds. The topic, of course, is the recent decision by WotC to yank their PDF offerings from online retailers. I can understand the impulse, but unfortunately for poor Mr. Leeds, he's been pushed out to placate the pitchfork-wielding mob with nothing they haven't heard before.

First, let's start with the only bit of "real" news in the piece, which is this footnote:

The 10:1 ratio that Greg references is for PDFs only – it has nothing to do with the physical books. For every one PDF purchased legally, there were at least 10 downloaded illegally. And yes, we can track it.

*snicker* No, you can't, and everyone knows you can't. Saying otherwise just makes you look silly.

But not nearly as silly as the line of reasoning. Because people were pirating WotC's latest release at a ratio of ten pirated for every one purchased, WotC decided to yank their entire catalog of PDF offerings.

First, why is Mr. Leeds being shoved out the door to explain this situation days after the event itself? Did they not understand how the PDF market works? Did they not understand that people who had legitimately purchased PDFs would now no longer be able to download the product they had legally bought? When the event itself happened, the only official word from the company itself was posted on bulletin boards, leaving understandably shocked and angered customers to speculate wildly on the reasons.

Granted, this explanation, even if it had been announced in advance, wouldn't have helped much:

The piracy of our products was increasing at an alarming rate, and we felt that it could have a negative impact not only to Wizards of the Coast, but to the hobby industry as a whole...

The piracy became a substantial concern when we saw thousands of copies of our recently released Player’s Handbook 2 being downloaded illegally within hours of its release. We cannot share sales figures, but I can tell you that we conservatively estimate the ratio of illicit downloads to legally purchased copies was 10:1.

I'm still having trouble wrapping my mind around a world where this action makes sense. First, if it's true that the folks at WotC "do not have any plans to resume the sale of PDFs, but are actively exploring other options for the digital distribution" of their texts, what possible good was achieved by shutting down the legitimate sale of PDFs? The digital copies were already out there, and apparently there are 10 cracked copies for every legitimate copy of the PHB2 already loose on the net, where they can be reposted to torrents or made available through other means. Stopping the sale of any more digital copies of PHB2 can't have much of an impact on this.

It gets even worse when you look at WotC's out-of-print catalog. Even if the pirated-to-purchased ratio of these texts was a billion-to-one, WotC was still selling that one at almost no cost to themselves. Whatever their volume of sales was on these products, it's now zero. This is the very living and breathing definition of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

If piracy was, in fact, the reason for ending the sale of their PDFs, it would have made more sense for WotC to announce a six-month delay between the release of the dead-tree and PDF versions of their books. As it is, all they appear to have done is annoy their customers while denying themselves income from the sale of PDFs.

A Battle of Wits

What makes for a really great encounter?
That the players overcame the obstacle by wit and not muscles.

Thus spake the recently departed Mr. Arneson in an interview with Kobold Quarterly. It's a sentiment I certainly agree with. I've been writing a lot lately about the need to challenge the players directly, rather than just their characters. I enjoy more a challenge I defeat with my own brain rather than just bulling through it with dice rolls. At the very least, choices need to be made with options weighed and abandoned, or else why bother having the other players there? Choice is an integral part of what makes games fun.

Obviously, an open, sandboxy game with lots of options for "lateral" action and thought invites nearly constant opportunities for exercising your wit. A key component in my games has been including consequences. Sometimes, no matter what the players do, there are negative consequences for their actions. This just spurs them on to make more choices and look for new clever ways to aggrandize their characters while thwarting their enemies. This sort of play keeps both the players and the DM on our toes.

But that's not the only way to employ wit in overcoming a challenge. 4e, for all its faults, demands wit from players and the DM in combat. By turning fights into mini battle games, where you must constantly weigh matters of positioning and zones of support and danger, ranges, and which powers to use when, 4e has transformed D&D combat from a quick flurry of dice rolls (or not so quick, as generally was the case in higher-level 3.x combat) into a tactical challenge, a ever-shifting puzzle that is both constantly new, but also based on simple groundrules. This creates a situation that remains fresh, even as it is repeated in its basics. Simple rules that yield complex play.

The two, of course, can be combined. I prefer my combat quick and dirty, but I can imagine a system more like 4e's that also embraced a more off-the-wall sensibility.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Beagles and Unicorns in Austin

Yet another reason Austin rocks.

I probably won't get to make it, which is a shame. I got to meet Mr. Beagle on Wednesday, and he's a great guy. I'd love to hear what he has to say about this film. "The Last Unicorn" is by far my favorite of the Rankin/Bass films. It's a wonderfully odd film that starts out trippy, turns into an action/adventure and ends... Well, I probably shouldn't say.

If you get the chance, see it. And if you get the chance to speak with Mr. Beagle, don't let it slip by.

Death and Tea Parties

I've been too busy lately, and I've just yesterday got around to listening to Canon Puncture episode #63 where they start off talking about not just one but two of my posts. The first they mention, “Fair is Fair, but don't Expect Any in the Land of Moldvay/Cook” is something that's been tumbling in my head because I can feel I'm circling an idea I'm having trouble expressing, and the reaction of the folks on the podcast makes it clear I'm not there yet.

Yes, character generation is easy in my game. No, no one has given me pages of character history. But learning to live with high character mortality is only part of the equation, and the lesser part at that. So far, we haven't actually killed any PC or NPC hirelings or henchmen. The point I think I'm trying to get across is that you don't have to kill every goblin you meet.

The party has met two groups of goblins. One had captured a cleric and was torturing him. The PCs attacked with surprise and slew most of them, though one fled and escaped. The second group they met was minding their own business in the ruined villa they've been exploring. Neither side got surprise. The PCs backed off and closed the door. The goblins had bigger fish to fry and were not terribly interested in fighting the PCs. And so no fight happened.

In regards to the gefirir, the critter mentioned in the fair-is-fair post, not only did the PCs not fight it, but they actually ended up being given a quest by the elemental. That's what I hoped would happen, but I was ready to throw down with the d20s if they'd decided to try and fight it. So far, caution has been their watchword, and the emphasis has been more on exploration than murder. That's not the only way to play Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord, but it certainly makes for a fun game.

And it's important to point out that talking and retreat aren't always options. Hungry tarantellas are more than happy to chase young, juicy dwarves and clerics, no matter how fast or far they run. “Automated” magical defenses will attack anyone who enters their “activation zone” and often destroying them is the only way past.

You have to pick your battles in this sort of play. Some things are difficult to defeat. Others are nigh impossible to slay. Sometimes you need to be clever and lead the monster into a trap. If you're lucky, you might be able to bypass the monster all together, or, if you're really good, you might get the monster to help you.

It's all on the table. Up front, I tell my players that I won't feed them fair fights, and I don't expect them to fight fair either. I am, as the Canon Puncture folks say, fair to the world. This also means that the players can learn how the world works and use that to their advantage. Any challenge can be tackled in a variety of ways, depending on the tools the PCs have at hand.

On the flip side, I also don't toss them into inescapable deathtraps. There's always a warning, a way out, a chance to back off or escape. Sometimes you need to be clever to find it, and it's almost always better to not get into the situation in the first place.

That's a lot of words to try and describe something I understand at a gut level. That means I'm still probably not there yet. Don't be surprised if I revisit this theme again in the near future. The title, by the way, is a reference to something one of my players said to me. She'd had a rough week and was looking forward to bashing some heads. “So light on the tea parties this time, got it?”

UPDATE: Lord Kilgore riffs on a similar theme:

I prefer PCs see wandering monsters as something to be avoided (or parleyed with) if possible. I want players to see their characters on a mission and unwilling to risk derailing themselves by getting sidetracked (or killed) by those bugbears who just happen to be passing through. If you greatly expand the combat XP awards, now there’s no reason NOT to fight. In fact, heading out and HOPING for wandering monsters could become a decent strategy. How is that “good decision making”?

Monday, April 06, 2009

WotC Shuts Down Sales of PDFs

You can read all about it here.

So what's up? Why are they doing this? It's hard to say, but looking at this press release from WotC, I'd guess (and yeah, it's a pretty wild guess) that they're trying to shore up business in the brick-and-mortar stores. The sale of cheaper pdfs is the easy answer for why the FLGS is a vanishing breed.

But if that's the case, why cut off sales of out-of-print stuff that's never going to be in a FLGS? I'd believe WotC was going to sell D&D to Necromancer Games before I'd believe that they were actually going to start printing dead-tree versions of the little brown books again.

In any event, the winners here are clearly Swords & Wizardry, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, and the rest of the old school simulacra. With the originals now beyond (legal) reach, folks wanting a taste of that grognardy goodness will have to turn hunting through used book stores or the simulacra. As far as the old school renaissance is concerned, I think this will result both in a lot of teeth-gnashing and lamentation, and a greater sense of freedom and experimentation.

UPDATE: Paizo just published this:

Wizards of the Coast has notified us that we may no longer sell or distribute their PDF products. Accordingly, after April 6 at 11:59 PM Pacific time, Wizards of the Coast PDFs will no longer be available for purchase on; after noon on April 7, you will no longer be able to download Wizards of the Coast PDFs that you have already purchased, so please make sure you have downloaded all purchased PDFs by that time.

We thank you for your patronage of Please check out our other downloads at

So if there was something you wanted, best hop over there quick!

UPDATE 2: And there are losers, too:

According to my data on RPGNow and DriveThru, a large chunk of my orders come from multi-product orders which include WOTC products. Now, with WOTC making this decision, those orders won't be there, because those customers won't be there.

UPDATE 3: Is piracy the reason?

April 6, 2009 ‹ Wizards of the Coast LLC today filed three lawsuits in US
District Court for the Western District of Washington against eight
individuals, including named defendants located in the United States, Poland
and the Philippines, for copyright infringement of its recently-released
Dungeons & Dragons® Player¹s Handbook® 2. The lawsuits allege that the
defendants illegally distributed the Player¹s Handbook 2 via free
file-sharing websites and that these illicit uploads resulted in a
substantial number of lost sales and lost revenue to Wizards of the Coast.

If that's the reason, then this is a prime example of using a sledgehammer to swat a fly. Why shut down all PDF sales? I doubt piracy of their out-of-print catalog was a serious threat to their business. It's also not likely to be terribly effective in a world of flatbed scanners. The scanner I use at Kinko's has no trouble picking up the blue grid on my maps, or my many stray pencil marks. The days of fuzzy scans and missing text or pictures are long gone. But then, one should never underestimate the power of wishful thinking.

ADDENDUM to UPDATE 3: The official word is, it's piracy:

Unfortunately, due to recent findings of illegal copying and online distribution (piracy) of our products, Wizards of the Coast has decided to cease the sales of online PDFs. We are exploring other options for digitial distribution of our content and as soon as we have any more information I'll get it to you.

This is a very, very bad sign. Seriously, the original three 4e core books were out on torrent downloads before the dead-tree versions had even been printed. So why the sudden interest in piracy? I have no secret bugs hidden in WotC headquarters, but I can guess what happened here. A recently released book, or spate of books, did not achieve projected or desired sales. Piracy is an easy scapegoat; nobody in the company gets fired because of something those naughty Polish pirates did. Shutting down all PDF sales is obvious, bold action meant to reassure someone that steps are being taken and the trend will be reversed.

But this obviously only delays taking useful action. This sort of activity confuses thieves with customers. Those who stole were not likely to buy in the first place. Which means when their is no significant improvement in sales for the next few books, some other, more drastic action will need to be taken. And that's where this story could get unpleasant.

Again, this is all supposition on my part, and I may be way off base here. Still, we've seen this pattern before, and it rarely leads anywhere good.

UPDATE 4: And, of course, we can always rely on to bring sober, level-headed commentary steeped in the history of the industry:

This is the stupidest goddamn bullshit I've ever seen a gaming company pull, bar none. I apologize to Kevin Siembieda for making fun of his donations pitch, and I heartily congratulate the makers of FATAL on their relative professionalism, maturity, and common sense.

I don't know about you, but I needed that laugh. ;D

UPDATE, uh, er, 1, 2, 3... 5!: Or maybe there actually is a clever plan:

Most likely, according to a variety of sources I'm spoken to over the last few hours, WotC is developing an improved online store in order to sell these items themselves. The PDFs will likely have a special password protection or similar encryption making it difficult to copy the initial download. This way, WotC doesn't lose money and prevents piracy of its product (to some extent at least).

Piracy might be a nice excuse for cutting out the middleman. Or maybe it drove them to it.

In any case, here are the important things to take from this: first, I have no idea what's really going on. Really, I'm just guessing here, and as Oddysey pointed out, PHB2 made the Wall Street Journal's best seller list. That doesn't mean it did as well as everyone hoped it would; just like with stocks, making mad phat profits will still tank your stock price if you didn't make as much profit as the experts predicted. But it does make it less likely that this is a desperation ploy to excuse poor sales.

Second, no matter how you slice it, this is a win for the publishing arm of the old-school renaissance. Resources like Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord are now a lot more valuable with the originals no longer readily available as downloads. There's a chance we might see some retrenchment, with publishers feeling they need to more closely preserve the original games more faithfully rather than just embracing the essence of those games. I don't think that's where we're going, however. Especially with guys like Umlaut, Rients, and Raggi leading the charge.

ANOTHER FIRKING UPDATE?!?: Yep, one last time, because Ryan Dancey has spoken:

Wizards is about to be forced into the D&D end-game which is something that many publishers have gone through but none ever with a game the scale and impact of D&D (TSR walked right up to this cliff but WotC saved them from going over the edge). There are 3 outcomes:

1: A total collapse, and the game ceases meaningful publication and distribution at least for one gamer generation and maybe forever.

2: Downsizing until overhead matches income; could involve some kind of out-license or spin off of the business - think BattleTech in its current incarnation.

3: Traumatic rebirth, meaning that someone, somewhere finds some way to cut out the cancers that are eating the tabletop game and restarts the mass market business for D&D.

Note that 2 and 3 can be mileposts on the road to 1.

I don't think this is too far from the truth. DDI was the big gamble to save D&D. As of now, it's still more promise than reality. I once predicted that the core books for version 5 would either be given away free as loss-leaders for DDI2 or published by Necromancer Games.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Old School or Troll School?

A rules system is not a grail. It's a system that should be subsumed by the play of the game, not something we pride ourselves in using or are aware of on any level while immersed in a fantasy realm.

So sayeth E. N. Shook over at “Lord of the Green Dragon”, in a rather long post warning against the onset of fundamentalism within the old school movement and the rise of the rules lawyers. Such matters have been on my mind lately as I work on my Labyrinth Lord game because it is, in part, a teaching experience for me. Every new campaign has a bit of that, but in this one it's more noticeably than most. So now I'm thinking about how I run a game in ways I haven't before. Is there a system? Is it reproducible? Or is there just a vague sort of “this feels right” going on, something that shifts and changes with events?

I've mentioned before the lack of fairness in those old rules. There's no safety railing in Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord. The outdoor wandering monster tables can decree a red dragon as easily as they can a pair of lost kobolds. On the face of it, this implies a certain callousness, and you can certainly play the game that way. I think that's a bit of what Ryan at “Save vs. Poison” was seeing. “I think he was just running the game with strict impartiality,” he says in the comments. Me, I'm not even close to impartial. I'll be the first to admit it. In many cases, I'll give my players the benefit of the doubt. “Say yes, or roll the dice.” Hell, you could even accuse me of coming close to embracing the Rule of Cool.

Here's an example. Say I roll up a red dragon as a wandering monster. The players have many choices. They can ply the dragon with flattery and offer it half their treasure. That's probably a fairly standard way of dealing with a wandering dragon, and so long as they don't annoy the beast, I'd probably not roll, though the dragon would also probably snort and sniff and squeeze until it got 75% of their coins and jewelry. Maybe the PCs attempt to escape by diving into a nearby river. That's a clever idea, and I'd probably say the dragon doesn't pursue, though now they've got to survive the river instead. But if they come up with something completely unique, extremely clever, or surprising, I'm likely to let them get away with it. In short, if they do something that amuses and entertains the DM, the DM is more likely to reward them with success, or at least more favorable odds.

Horribly arbitrary? Yes, though nobody has ever accused me of it. I like to think that my decisions have been reasonable, consistent, and preserve verisimilitude. My players have often said so. But I'll be the first to admit that a different DM with a different set of expectations and interests might have reacted completely differently. I've played with DMs who would have been delighted by a sudden, chipper invitation to the dragon to come back to town for ice cream. In those games, even if the PC didn't make a friend for life, they at least would have ended their encounter with the dragon with their bodies and treasure intact. In most of my campaigns, the dragon would have purged the world of such an anachronistic twit with flame and fang.

But that's not the greatest example anyway, because one thing that is consistent and potentially reproducible about how I DM is my constantly asking why. Why is this dragon bothering with the PCs? Is it hungry? Or in need of knowledge they might possess? Does the dragon see them as a potential threat? Or as the possible solution to a problem? Does it just enjoy making mortals soil their breeches in terror? Does it think they've stolen something from it? Does it want to send a message to someone else? How the players interact with the answers to that question is where the fun happens

American Cancer Society Relay for Life Event

Another reason Austin is cool. Even if it's happening in Round Rock. ;)

Just got this from a friend of mine:

Hey Everyone,

Harmoni and I are taking part in Relay for Life of Round Rock this weekend.

Relay is an overnight event designed to celebrate survivorship and raise money for research and programs of The American Cancer Society. During the event, teams of people will gather at Stony Point High School in Round Rock and take turns walking or running laps. Each team is to keep at least one team member on the track at all times. Teams are to also set up areas to hang out and raise money at the event. I might to do small drawings for a donation.

Also one of the reasons we're doing this is that Relay is the main event that brings in the most money for ACS every year. At work they're wanting 100% invovlement in Relay this year. ACS isn't doing as well as it should because of the economy. Harmoni's salary comes from donations. If we dont get enough donations the call center has to let people go. This has already happened to a small extent in my area of the company.

Please support us in this important cause by donating online using the links below. Harmoni and I have a goal of $100 each. All we're asking is for $5 donations.

This is my personal page

And this is Harmoni's

Thanks in advance!


I plan to go, if only to catch a peek at Michael's sketches.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Whisperer in the Darkness

Found this on Tor's site:

Majesty: D&D's Endgame on Your Computer

Majesty is an oooooold game. It was originally released in 2000. The version I'm reviewing here is a combination of the original game with The Northern Expansion, which adds a few new features. The game is simple enough: you're given a castle and a few other buildings, and you must accomplish a goal (usually clearing the countryside of monster lairs) while collecting taxes, expanding your settlement, and warding off monster attacks.

Your tools for accomplishing your goal are fairly limited, making the game pretty simple to just dive into. Your primary resource is gold, which is collected as tax revenue. Most buildings generate tax revenue, usually based on how much use they get. You use taxes to recruit heroes, cast spells, and build more buildings. Buildings provide static defenses (such as the guard tower and wizard's tower), improve your heroes (the blacksmith improves weapons and armour), recruit heroes (the warriors guild allows you to recruit bog-standard warriors by itself, or various flavors of holy warriors when combined with certain temples), allow you to cast spells, and generate revenue (one of the first things you want to do in every scenario is build a marketplace as it's your primary revenue generator). Most buildings have multiple uses; the wizards' guild, for instance, allows you to cast a number of spells, recruit up to four wizard heroes, and also adds magical improvements to the weapons of your heroes.

And that's the bulk of the gameplay. You drop buildings on the landscape, recruit heroes up to the associated building's limit, and cast the occasional spell. Everything else is automated. Your heroes, guards, peasants, and tax collectors are controlled by the AI. You can influence their motions by taking buildings off the repair and taxation cycles, or by offering rewards for the exploration of certain parts of the map, or the destruction of specific monsters or lairs. But that's pretty much it. Otherwise, you sit and watch your community do its thing from a god's-eye-view. It's not unusual at all to be busy improving your buildings or dropping a new wizard's tower when you're interrupted by a report that you've won the game. Because of this lack of control, it's hard to shake the feeling that the game largely plays itself. If you really enjoy micromanaging, this isn't the game for you. If you enjoy setting up situations and watching them play out, Majesty can be an enjoyable distraction. This is furthered by how you can create your own scenarios and the fact that most games play out in about an hour. It's a fun way to kill a bit of time between, say, work and dinner.

My own reactions to the game are heavily mixed. On the one hand, sessions are so simple and quick, I've yet to actually save a game in the middle of play. On the other, I still play it occasionally, and I didn't expect that. I'm not a huge RTS fan, and the very hands-off style of play further distances you from the action. But I love to fiddle with things like this, setting up new arrangements, imagining how the locals react to a new temple to the Goddess of Death being plopped down next to the marketplace, and stuff like that. And at $5 US from the local used bookstore, I feel I got my money's worth. If I'd bought the game at its release price, I'd probably have felt cheated, but as it is, it's a fun way to waste time that won't devour my entire day.