Friday, July 31, 2009

Is Old School the New Cool?

Mr. Lizard is a very clever guy. He recently started a thread at which accused the OSR of indulging in historical revisionism when it comes to how D&D was played way back when. He used terms sure to get the blood pumping (“rose-colored-backward-facing glasses”). He discussed the way people did play the game back then (in his experience) with how people talk about and play the game today.

But that was all just bloody chum in the water, an attempt to get a feeding frenzy stirred up. The point of his article, the true thesis, can be found in the final paragraph:

To me, old school is not about freedom or lack of rules, but attitude. To me, the ultimate old-school is the Arduin Trilogy, just pure ideas pouring one after another so fast you can't even stop to evaluate them. I like to consider my work "old school" in that sense, I like variety and options and things which are hinted or implied but rarely explicitly said, things which inspire the DM to create on his own.

See what he did there? Of course you do. It's the same thing that Monte Cook did when talking about his Dungeon-a-Day project, the same thing we saw a bit of in the build-up to the launch of 4e. I think we saw a bit of it in the latest issue of Kobold Quarterly. Everybody seems to want a bit of the Old School magic.

Why? Is the OSR really that popular? Damned if I know. I doubt anyone has any real solid numbers. What can't be denied is the creative power that the OSR has focused and unleashed. Knockspell and Fight On! have gone from blabberings on chat boards to multi-issue magazines with impressive art and page counts in the three-digit range. I would have given a pinky for either magazine back in the day, and I'd hold up Knockspell against any other professional publication out there right now in terms of layout, editing, art, and writing. And now there's talk about a sci-fi mag too.

On top of that, we've got creative output coming out all over the place. Mr. Maliszewski has commented that he can't keep up with it all. Mr. Raggi's officially gone pro, and is churning out that doesn't look like anything the industry has ever seen before. Chgowiz has produced a quick-play packet, complete with adventure, for Swords & Wizardry. We're up to our eyeballs with bloggers publishing houserules, adventures, character classes, spells, monsters, treasure, on a daily basis. I can't keep up with it all; I know I'm missing cool stuff every day, and don't have the time to hit every blog on my blogroll every day anymore, and I have a growing list of blogs I really need to add to it.

The OSR might not be the most lucrative sector of RPGs right now. It might not be the most recognized. But it certainly seems to be the most exciting right now. It's no longer a question of whether or not anybody plays these old games. Now we're wondering if we're spread too thin, if projects like Fight On! are stealing the thunder from other projects, or whether or not we really need to reference the OGL.

In short, the OSR has arrived. It is, we are, now all players in the industry. Future products will take us into account, at the very least, in their marketing if not in the actual content. Now is not the time to let up or slow down. Now is the time to strike fast and hard and continuously, and leave our mark on the industry for the sake of the games we love so much.

Photo credits: egarc2 and Matti Mattila.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Charmed, I'm Sure

Charm is a fun but dangerous spell to use. I know a lot of folks who just avoid it because it can create drama around the table, and there are some groups I won't use it with except in very limited, contained circumstances. But if you can get around the silliness, man, is it a game-changer.

If you're playing a “classic” version of D&D, the rules for the spell probably contain a line along the lines of “[a]ny commands given will usually be obeyed, except that orders against its nature (alignment and habits) may be resisted.” That's a direct quote from the Moldvay Basic book, with emphasis added by me. This, ladies and gents, is how we differentiated between two fighters way back when. Whether you played your warrior as a paragon of virtue, who upheld a code of honor while defending the defenseless, or as an amoral brigand who'd gut his own granny for a shaved copper, it made a difference in the game. Commanding the honorable knight to stab his friends in the back is likely to force another saving throw, and won't be obeyed, where the greedy mercenary will do it without hesitation. Both situations can create all sorts of fun around the table, but of a very different sort.

There are some folks who just can't enjoy this sort of thing. Either they can't separate player from character (and, honestly, in this case, it might be best if you just ask them to leave the game, as they will be a constant source of friction), or they're too uptight about issues of control. I used to be one of these people, and learning to relax and roll with it was hard, but I think I got better. Any time you “de-protagonize” or remove more than the usual amount of choice from the PCs, you're treading on thin ice. You need to be cautious with this sort of thing. If the players trust you, and enjoy your game, most will be willing to roll with this sort of thing and that allows you to really push some in-character buttons.

You've all seen the episode in your favorite serial-esque TV show where the characters are pushed out of their comfort zones and forced to behave out of character by some external force. On “Chuck” it's truth serum, and on Star Trek, it's flying too close to an unstable star that makes everyone on the ship behave like they're drunk. This is where the charm spell really shines. Maybe it allows a character to indulge in a part of their personality they've been denying or suppressing. Maybe it's the push to take them through a mental block, a choice they've been avoiding, or a truth they've been denying.

As a player, charm and other mental/emotional manipulations are your chance to go Dark Phoenix/Dark Willow on the game. Yeah, sure, maybe Mister Goody-Two-Shoes can use his moral fortitude to resist the charm. But maybe he chooses not to. Or maybe, when you scratch the surface, that air of reserve and restraint is the armour that keeps the beast within contained. Maybe its his turn to keep the treasure for himself, or to spend it carousing and having fun. Maybe its his turn to torture and murder the bad guys, to look the other way when expedience wins over virtue, or to kick Christian in his cojones, throw Roxane over his shoulder, and ride off to some romantic hide-away with her.

What about after? Certainly, there are the consequences for things done, for confidences broken and expectations confounded. But what about the character? Maybe the satyr taught her that self denial isn't all it's cracked up to be. Maybe spending some time on the dark side has only renewed his fervor for justice and honor. Maybe a bit of time under a charm is exactly what you need to renew your interest in your character, or to justify within the game changes you've been itching to make for a while now.

UPDATE: More cool ideas and comments spawned by the charm spell from the Lost Papers of Tsojcanth:

Charming an NPC allows PCs to peek “behind the scenes” and learn tidbits about your setting without going out of character. This is a meta-tool that can be used either to showoff your effort, highlight or foreshadow something important that you want to make sure players notice (possibly because they didn’t get it the fist time around) or to provide closure for some events players have been puzzling about.

Be sure to read the whole thing.
(Updated 3/25/10)

Image credits: John William Waterhouse and Clodion.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Deadliest Arrow in Our Quiver

Chris at "Vaults of Nagoh" makes the case for Carcosa.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Playing with Culture: Noble Titles Among the Efreet

One of the things I love about DMing and world building is inventing and playing with cultures. The races of D&D each offer opportunities to play amateur para-anthropologist, creating imaginary ceremonies and customs to dazzle and intrigue my players. I like to take something about the races, combine it with something from the real world, and twist. That's why my gnolls tend to be matriarchal. How do you say thank you to myconids for vital information and 'shroomy snacks? How about defecating in their garden?

In my other game, efreet may turn out to be major players. (The players from my college game are probably snickering already.) It's fairly traditional to pepper the efreet with lots of Arabian trappings. In the recent Paizo adventure, “The Impossible Eye
,” the palace of an efreeti pasha comes complete with a mosque, including prayer rugs, shelves for footwear, minbar (no, this kind, not this kind), and minaret where “the imam of the palace would in times past recite the adhan to call the citizens to salah (prayer).”

I can certainly understand the impulse, since if you're going to have an adventure with genies and the like, people just naturally assume you're going to be including that Arabian Nights feel. Myself, if I wanted to give the efreet the trappings of a real-world religion, I'd probably have chosen Zoroastrianism.

As it is, in my Doom and Tea Parties campaign, the efreet revere the Eldest, and pretty much leave it at that. They are, mostly, pirates and reavers whose plundering ways have earned them the ancient enmity of the djinn, and the mistrust of nearly all the other genie races. They are also rather vain, and nearly all efreet consider themselves part of a natural nobility. That being the case, matters of title and station will be rather important to them, even if their social rankings can change suddenly and chaotically. But what titles to use?

Here, I'm going to use the traditional titles. The old 1e MM says this about the efreet: “A powerful Sultan rules the Efreet. He is served by many different sorts of nobles and officials (pashas, deys, amirs, valis, and maliks).”

There's a good start. The hierarchy of Middle Eastern titles listed in the 1e DMG is a bit of a mess, so I decided to do a bit of research to get things a bit closer to right. Not having mountains of time to work on this, I settled for using Wikipedia.

According to Wikipedia, “sultan” is Arabic, which works, and refers generally to a rule who claims absolute political authority over an area without claiming to rule the entire caliphate, but who generally doesn't have any temporal authority over them.

Pasha is from “bashaw” (which I could not use in a game without my players snickering) and is apparently an Ottoman title. The Ottomans also used the title sultan, though, so mixing them is ok. Apparently, the use of horsehair tails or peacock tails were used to designate just which level of pasha you were, from one to three. (Only the sultan was allowed to use four.) There are no horses in this campaign, and I'd prefer to reserve peacock imagery for the shaitan of Earth, so instead I'm going to use blue flames instead. The blue should stand out brightly against the black, gold/brass, and red that I see dominating the efreet palette.

Things get a bit odd when we get to dey, however:

Dey (Arabic: داي, from Turkish Dayı [1][2]) was the title given to the rulers of the Regency of Algiers (Algeria) and Tunis (Tunisia) under the Ottoman Empire from 1671 onwards. Twenty-nine deys held office from the establishment of the deylicate in Algeria until the French conquest in 1830.
The dey was chosen by local civilian, military, and religious leaders to govern for life and ruled with a high degree of autonomy from the Ottoman sultan. The main sources of his revenues were taxes on the agricultural population, religious tributes, and protection payments rendered by Corsairs, regarded as pirates who preyed on Mediterranean shipping.
The dey was assisted in governing by a divan (ديوان) made up of the Chiefs of the Army and Navy, the Director of Shipping, the Treasurer-General and the Collector of Tributes.

Obviously, my efreet don't rule Algiers or Tunis. But there's at least one city-state of some importance other than Brass. This is called Petal, a city-state famed for its Babylonian-style hanging gardens, where the bounty of the Plane of Water is harnessed to feed an agricultural and herbal industry famed throughout the Elemental Planes. Are there other such cities? I haven't dreamed any up yet, but it certainly stands to reason that there might be.

So our deys will be the rulers of such cities. While they owe fealty to the Sultan in Brass, they typically rule their realms with little oversight from that distant potentate.

Emir gives me some problems. It's typically used as a generic “leader” title, but more often means “prince” and ruler of a principality. My efreet don't really have principalities, but pretty much city-states and small holdings and citadels, scattered across fire. Emir may get the boot.

Wikipedia does give me “kaymakam,” which means a person who speaks or rules in the place of the sultan. I'm thinking that might make a good name for a conquering leader who claims new territory. Not sure there are any kaymakam at present, but something to keep in mind.

When I ask about “vali” Wikipedia turns me to “wali,” which means “trusted one” and “should not be confused with the word Wāli (Arabic: والي) which is an administrative title that was used in the Muslim Caliphate”.

Well, maybe I shouldn't, but I kinda like confusing them. Words shifting meaning and merging with other, similar words is something that happens in language. So I'm making a wali a pasha who has been entrusted with an especially important duty. Most of the major city-states will have a Wali of the Wall, who is in charge of maintaining both the architectural integrity of the city's wall as well as its military preparedness. They'd also be tasked with manning fortresses that protect important planar gateways.

Malik is another word for “king” according to Wikipedia. While the idea of a bunch of efreet giving themselves mostly meaningless and aggrandizing titles is amusing, it makes things a bit more chaotic than I think I want for them. Malik gets the boot!

However, if I'm going to use deys I need to have beys. Beys were more local leaders, clan heads, and chieftains. I'm going to make it a title also claimed by raider and pirate captains. A raider or priate with other ships or warbands under his command would be a “bey of beys”.

And then there's the old standby, effendi. It's sorta like “sir” or “master” and works well as a title all efreet would expect to be used at the very least when addressing them.

Unfortunately, these are all masculine terms, and I might want female deys and certainly effendi. I've seen “sultana” used as the feminine of sultan before. I suppose I could slap an “a” at the end of all but pasha, and declare that one to be unisex. Anyone who knows more about such things have any advice?

Image credits: Hans Makart, and Jean-Léon Gérôme

Monday, July 27, 2009

Neo-classical = Fast and Loose

There's a lot of neat stuff popping up on the 'net these days. Among the neatest is Clash Bowley's new blog, “I Fly by Night”. Just yesterday, he posted a great article entitled Abstract Tactics. It's a great article explaining how tactics do have a place in games with abstract combat that don't use miniatures and battle maps. This is not something new to the older editions of D&D, a game with an extremely abstract combat system. I think it was Old Geezer who pointed out that such tactics usually netted you a +2 on your “to hit” rolls. I typically run it so that a minor edge in position (being higher than your foe) or the like nets you a +2 bonus, but a serious advantage, like attacking an unaware target can ramp it up to +4.

Speaking of old guys, from Chgowiz we have this bit of wisdom:

The freedom I have with the sandbox is also an exercise in "What If" for me. I've got a running series of events that progess as time goes on. The players make choices that might involve them, or they may ignore those things, but if an army is going to invade, then it'll invade unless the players choose to get involved. The nice thing is that they don't have to - this is their game. I'm going to react accordingly.

This does force me to be more reactive in some of the outcomes. That's both a curse and a blessing. I have to run by the seat of my pants, within a broad set of objectives. If the players had ignored the goblin's request, then I would have had to come up, in game, to what would happen. It's nice, though, because I don't have to plot out and railroad outcomes far in advance - I can allow the world to evolve and react accordingly to the scope of events that the players involve themselves in. In this case, I had no idea how things would go, but I knew my NPCs and I knew the setup.

In both cases, we see “rulings, not rules” in action. The neo-classical GM, attempting to meld a living campaign with the sandbox principles that allow players nearly unlimited choice, simply can't have everything planned out in advance, whether its the events of a battle or ebb and flow of a campaign-spanning story arc. Playing fast, loose, and flexible is the rule of the day.

Luckily, this gets easier as you go along. The simplicity of most old-school rules systems make it very easy to give players one-time bonuses for good ideas, and invite the players to interact with their environment, whether at the physical or political level, without fear that they have the wrong feats or skills. It does require a certain amount of courage on everyone's part. The players have to trust the GM to be fair, but also understand that “fair” cuts both ways, be willing to live with the consequences when things don't roll their way. The GM has to be willing to get it wrong sometimes, and be brave enough to admit that and fix it when it happens. It requires that everybody be open and honest about their desires for the game and what is required for their idea of fun.

The results, however, are a game in which the boundaries are broad, but a core of solid predictability holds it all together. It gives what I consider to be the optimal combination of rigid framework and playful flexibility.

Photo credits: charliejb and wili_hybrid.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

A Fistful of Links

First, some music to get you in the mood:

And now, the links:

Erin Palette rakes it in with both hands thanks to her plutomancer prestige class for the Pathfinder RPG.

Oddysey gets out of jail without the usual dynamite and shoot-out.

The RPG Pundit actually says something nice about somebody.

Last time it was Elvis vs. Yog-Sothoth. Next time, it's your PCs vs. the shogoth, Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord style.

Harry Knowles talks about a Solomon Kane flick.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Review of Kobold Quarterly #10

I was lucky enough to receive a review, PDF copy of Kobold Quarterly #10 recently. When the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at the chance. I've been very curious about the magazine since it launched. It's received great reviews, even being called the rightful heir to Dragon magazine. Part of my curiosity, though, comes from the fact that Wolfgang Baur is the "Kobold in Chief." Mr. Baur gave me my first official rejection letters when I first started working on getting published professionally. They were very nice, personalized rejection letters, which made it clear that yes, he'd read it, and thought it was pretty good, but my stuff needed some work. And he was right. Since then, I've kinda kept half-an-eye on what he's been up to. His patronage-run Open Design project is fascinating from an industry viewpoint and has apparently turned out some neat product as well.

But both the Open Design and Kobold Quarterly are primarily focused on 3.x and 4e gaming. So while I'm interested, I've been more focused on Knockspell, Fight On!, Green Devil Face, and the like. Having read Kobold Quarterly #10, however, I'm tempted to make it part of my regular reading.

The cover looks like Dragon from '90s. It's got that glossy, "high quality," you-are-there look that reminds me of Parkinson, Elmore, and their ilk. The artist is Malcolm McClinton. I've only a passing knowledge of his work, but I like what I've seen. Unfortunately, like Dragon in the '90s, Kobold Quarterly clutters the cover with blurbs about what you'll find inside. While I'm sure it increases the number of people who pick up the magazine, and Mr. McClinton clearly made allowances for this sort of blurbage, it still makes me want to take a ball-peen hammer to someone's kneecaps. ;p

Inside, you'll find a veritable who's-who of D&D, stretching back into the '70s. We've got articles from Ed Greenwood, Monte Cook, John Wick, and Mr. Baur, and an interview with Jeff Grubb. While the crunch is heavily focused on 3.x and 4e, there seems to have been some attempt made to reach out to the Old School community. Most of the articles are idea, rather than crunch, heavy, and Ed Greenwood's article on a dwarven goddess has stuff that's easily transferred to any fantasy game. Monte Cook launches from the controversy over his use of the term "old school" when discussing his Dungeon-a-Day project to expound on just what the Old School movement is about. It's a surprisingly clear-eyed article which gets to the bedrock of what Mr. Cook sees as two separate themes which make up the Old School Renaissance. It's also another nudge towards me realizing that, while I love the OSR and working with the folks who are making it happen, my heart truly lies in the sort of gaming Mr. Maliszewski terms "Silver Age."

To continue the old school themes is an ecology of the hill giant. There's also an article on the halberd, for those of you who were infected with Mr. Gygax's polearm fetish. ;)

The big draw this issue, however, is probably the teaser material from Paizo's upcoming Pathfinder RPG. We get a quick overview from Jason Bulmahn of Paizo, which includes discussion of the open playtest process they went through and a sneak-peek at the shadowdancer prestige class. There's also some very interesting stuff on their Proteans.

Overall, there's a strong emphasis on cross-ruleset appeal. They've apparently started adding 4e material and beefed up the page count of the magazine so the 3.x fans don't feel cheated. A lot of what's in the magazine is also just cool ideas, with a few mechanics tacked onto it. Michael Kortes' article on feats and flaws available to characters who have been brought back from the dead is just asking for the Jeff Reints treatment of being turned into a random table, in spite of it clearly being written with 3.x in mind.

Overall, I had fun with this magazine, but not the sort of fun I had with Dragon. Part of that has to do with the goals of the magazines. When I started reading Dragon Magazine, with #74 in '83, it was the voice and town square of the hobby. In the days before the internet, we feuded and shared and bonded over the pages of that magazine. There were others out there, but Dragon was the biggie, and it carried ads and articles for all sorts of RPGs, boardgames, genre literature, and the like. From those days, Dragon always had an air of seriousness about it, a certain gravitas necessary to maintain its position as the voice of a hobby that sometimes found itself under fire. This only became more so after the infamous "Angry Mother Syndrome" editorial by James Ward and the magazine later becoming a house organ for WotC.

Kobold Quarterly, by contrast, has no such responsibilities or pretensions. It is, first and foremost, a magazine about entertainment, and it seeks to entertain. Mr. Greenwood's article about the dwarven goddess Ninkash is a subtle paean to the social benefits of alcohol. Mr. Baur's article is entitled "Elven Lust and the Green Gods". Things don't quite delve into the sort of juvenile, titter-inducing nonsense mainstream comics wallow in these days; this is no T&A magazine. But, like Paizo, the Kobold Quarterly folks seem quite happy to poke at the envelope of what is considered "acceptable" material for RPGs. The magazine is also laced with a certain playfulness that only showed up sparingly in the pages of Dragon. That sense of daring and fun appeals to me. Even if I don't get a subscription, Kobold Quarterly is now on my radar, and I'll be sure to at least thumb through the next issue to see what Mr. Baur has assembled to tempt me with.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Industry! HUAH! *thump-thump* What is it Good For?

Skirting along the edges of the recent convesation about the state of the RPG industry is the obvious question: so what? What difference does it make, at the gaming table, where the rubber meets the road, whether or not there even is an industry?

Trust me, if it vanished tomorrow you'd miss it. Here's a list of five things the industry does for all of us:

Gives Us Some of Our Best Thinkers: The Jameses Raggi and Maliszewski are both member of the industry, professional writers with a number of books to their tally. I don't agree with everything the man says, but Ryan Dancey has had a profound impact on the hobby. And, of course, we had Gygax, Arneson, and Hargrave whose thoughts and theories still inspire our gaming. We all need to earn money to put food on the table and keep the lights on. The professionals have more time to spend thinking about games, playing with the bits and pieces, and really plumbing the depths of the hobby.

Spurs Innovation: Yeah, ok, so maybe that's not always a great thing, but the fans tend to be the conservatives in any group. They want what they love, and they rarely see a need to change things. Professionals need to always be expanding or shifting their audience, and so are always looking for new and neat ways to add to the experience. I'm not a huge fan of 4e, but their attempt to find a new way to think about things like hit points has intrigued me, and was part of the inspiration for how the Table of Death and Dismemberment works. The industry gave us Amber Diceless Roleplaying, the World of Darkness storyteller games, the genre fruitsalad that is Shadowrun, the cereberal plunge into the abyss that is Call of Cthulhu, and the claustraphobic madness of The Shab-al-Hiri Roach.

Draws the Attention of Outsiders: If it wasn't for the industry, nobody would have noticed when Gygax and Arneson had died. The fact that, for many people, roleplaying games are summed up by D&D speaks volumes for the industry's position as the face of the hobby. That face may be more mask than reality, but that doesn't change the fact.

Creates Fun Toys for Us to Play With: Most of us don't have the skills or time to make the bizarre dice, cool minis, bits of terrain, coffeetable books, posters, novels, and yes, computer games that we all enjoy as parts of or adjuncts to our hobby. We get art from the likes of Otis and Parkinson and Elmore and Reynolds and di Terlizzi and Widermann. They give us web pages and discussion forums like Most importantly for some, they give us things to argue about between gaming sessions.

Gives Us a Shared Common Experience and Vocabulary: Beyond hit points and armour class, we have universal mechanics, NPCs, skills-based vs. class based, stats vs. attributes vs. flags, adventure paths vs. sandboxes, The Tomb of Horrors, Car Wars, Gen Con, Men in Black, Knights of the Dinner Table, and Nodwick. The industry defines the baselines and borders we all use to communicate to one another, and the shorthand that is part of our community. They make it possible for us to speak about the sorts of games we prefer with strangers, and the shorthand of "I prefer the 2nd edition of that game" speaks volumes for us.

Photo credits: poolie, Pockafwye, and Benimoto.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Supply, Demand, and the Teetering RPG Industry

James Mishler has, in the past week, written three articles on the RPG market. The rebuttals have been many, and a few have been crass and brutal. Buried in the veritable avalanche of obscenities from the RPG Pundit (NSFW) is a kinda-sorta a valid point. The real issue is supply and demand, and when the demand falls low enough, the supply dries up because the price customers are willing to pay won't cover the costs of production. Or, in other words, it's too easy to make significantly more money working in academia or computer games, and too hard to earn a liveable wage with RPG books and PDFs, to make pen-and-paper RPGs a viable industry. I think Mr. Mishler was making the same point, just from a different angle.

(As an aside, the price you pay for a product is never, EVER based on the cost of production. Pricing is based solely on two factors: what the customers will pay and downward pressure from competition. Costs of production might limit how much of a product is on the market, or even drive a product out of the market entirely, but they are not factored. Of course, that's assuming the price is being set by people who are knowledgeable about business, and not in it mostly for the fun of the thing.)

I will take exception with Mr. Mishler's comments about the youth of today. I know a number of people in the teaching profession who do not wear body armour to school or live in fear of their students. The reason there are metal detectors in school has more to do with the parents of today than the students, who also insist their kids never get on a bike without donning more protective gear than we wore to play pick-up games of football when I was a kid. It's certainly not because shootings in school are a new thing. That canard about not being able to find their own country on a map is at least as old as I am. Even if everything he says is true, it doesn't matter. Why? Because there is a huge number of kids out there reading, writing, and yes, even roleplaying right now. A sizeable groundswell of interest in fantastical fiction and play that crosses gender lines has risen up in the Harry Potter generation, the likes of which have probably never been seen before.

But you'll notice I mention nothing about games. Regular readers know what I'm talking about: fanfic and free-form roleplay. It's easy to laugh and dismiss this sort of thing (just as RPGs were laughed at and dismissed in my youth, when they weren't being blamed for suicide and devil worship), but here are a bunch of kids so desperate for roleplay that they have built websites and software and communities to facilitate their play. They've done it all on their own.

Why on their own? Why didn't they take advantage of the 30+ years of RPGs that were available? Probably because they were never invited to. Since 2000, the "gateway" product has consisted of three 200+ page books costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 bucks. Even that might have been reasonable if the kids had been shown what benefits they would have received for their time and treasure. Was there even an attempt to overcome the fact that D&D was the game Dad played when he was in junior high? I never saw it. I never saw any outreach to these kids, any attempts to study their interests, or any attempts to adjust the game in ways that would appeal to them, as we've seen towards the MMOG audience which shares much less in common with the tabletop RPG crowd. We're constantly told that the biggest issues with making RP gaming happen are logistical. But these kids overcome those every day. They don't freeform by themselves, but use chatrooms and bulletin boards and other services to play with their friends. This is where Mr. Colville of SquareMans is behind the curve in attempting to predict the future of pen-and-paper RPGs. The future is now, and these kids have already, on their own, created the roleplaying experience he's talking about. While they don't yet incorporate things like augmented reality, they take full advantage of cellphone texting and similar technologies that are available today. That, ladies and gents, is all set to be the roleplaying of tomorrow, and it's got no interest in your rulebooks, dice, or character sheets, thank you very much.

So are things hopeless? Maybe not. Green Ronin has been leading the rearguard action, first with their attempt with Blue Rose (which was disastrously hamstrung when their distributor took the money and ran) and now with a boxed set for their Dragon Age RPG, which will likely be showing up in computer stores, literally targeting those computer gamers we've heard so much about. But I'm more intrigued by Witch Girl Adventures, which aspires to a demographic the industry should have been courting since the '70s. The game's probably a bit too heavy with game elements, since its target audience is almost certainly already involved in free-form play, but it's the most serious attempt that's come across my desk ever.

UPDATE: Go back to the RPG Pundit post, scroll past the argument-laced obscenities to the comments, and look for the pic of the cheerful, greyhaired guy. That's Ryan Dancy, and he's got two great comments worth reading. Like Noisms, he thinks I'm underestimating just how much disposable income kids have today, but he's got a lot more to say than just that. Here's a little something from the first that caught my eye:

RPG designers should not be paid by the word, obviously. They are not writing novels. The value in a game design is not volume, it is utility. The basic model used in the industry of hiring a freelance writer to create "x" volume of words for "y" price per word is of course absurd and has no relationship to the underlying value, which is one reason that it is a broken system and one reason that people in the industry sense that there is a fundamental "unfairness" about their compensation.

Photo credits: foundphotoslj, aka Kath, and Bombardier.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Where Did They Come From, and Who Do They Think They Are?

I was chatting with one of my players the other day when I pointed out to her that her character has the ear of the high priest of the largest temple in the biggest city where her adventures had taken place so far. Not only is he the most powerful clerical spell caster within hundreds of miles, but he's also the de facto temporal leader of the city. Their relationship had grown out of the events of the game and the choices the player had made. It wasn't a given thing; she'd nearly become his enemy by joining forces with a band of pirates intent on robbing the temple. Her first visit to the place was actually to get information about a treasure shipment the brigands hoped to intercept. Her decision to side with priests over pirates has affected everything that's come since in the campaign. Her relationship with this priest has made magic, knowledge, and even the current dungeon she's exploring available to her. The high priest isn't her BFF or anything, and doesn't give this stuff away for free, but just having some of it available puts her ahead of other treasure hunters in the area.

The thing that intrigues me, especially in light of recent posts about character creation and styles of play, is how this rather pivotal aspect of the PC's life doesn't even appear on her character sheet. There isn't even a spot for BFF, assuming she had one. Listings for family make the character sheets for variations on D&D like Oriental Adventures unusual. And yet, these sorts of resources can be vital to success. They can be sources of coin, political influence, ransom, information, henchmen and hirelings or esoteric skills that simply can't be found any other way.

I know I'm talking crazy-talk here. Most D&D adventurers "spring out of holes in the ground", full-fledged like Athena with their allotted compliment of equipment, spells, and skills. They have no family, nor any other real reference or ties to the world beyond the dungeon they're currently plundering or the adventure path their working through, and the home base where they resupply and heal up between forays into danger. If any family exists, there's an unwritten agreement shared by everyone at the table that such people exist primarily to supply adventure hooks and be used by the DM as a handle for tormenting and manipulating the PCs. If the player didn't do the standard thing and have his entire family killed off, the hope is that the DM will forget they exist. There's certainly no benefit to drawing any attention towards these hapless, useless NPCs.

Over the past few years, spurred on primarily by the female gamers I've been playing with, I've been exploring other ways these sorts of relationships can be used. And yes, they're great for getting the PCs to jump when they'd rather be slow, or to supply that vital bit of information they need to put the pieces together. Beyond that, however, they are great for building verisimilitude and creating an emotional connection between the player and their character and the world their character inhabits. Aunt May doesn't just serve as someone to be rescued by Spider Man. She grounds Peter Park in the greater New York area. Beyond that, she provides a certain emotional touchstone for Peter that most of us can identify with. She makes Peter more real for us, makes us care about him more, and in this way makes Spidey's adventures more exciting for us. We care, not just that he'll save the city or the day, but that he'll do so in time to make it back for Aunt May's birthday party. And when he does, that victory thrills us more than seeing Doc Oc hauled off to jail, or the Green Goblin bound up in web, his bombs rendered useless.

UPDATE: JB weighs in with how his group did write this stuff on their character sheets.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Elvis vs. Shub-Niggurath

Just listen to the lyrics. It's more blatant than that "Rainbow Connection" song from the Muppet Movie.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Central Texas Old School D&D Mixer on July 11

From Kutalik of Hill Cantons comes word of a social mixer this weekend for folks who enjoy ye olde versions of D&D at Scholz's Garten in Austin. I've got family coming into town either that day or the next, so I'm not sure if I'll be able to make it, but it sounds like a good time. Scholz and Dragon's Lair are a pair of Austin landmarks every geek in Central Texas should know, making them the perfect pair for the weekend.

UPDATE: Mr. Kutalik writes, "We do have an issue with the gaming space, Dragon's Lair, and our back-up space, Battleforge--namely that they are running tournaments at both stores at the times we were hoping to play. Trying to find another spot..." More news as it becomes available.

Photo by bespam.

Place Your Bets

So, if you can lay bets on someone's ancestry, I have to wonder -- what other kinds of things do people bet on in Pitsh? And where does most of that go on?

Well, there are the usual games of chance played with dice, cards, notched sticks, and shells. There are also variations on cock-fights. The most popular in Pitsh currently are games with scorpions, spiders, snakes, and lizards.

All of these games are fairly common in the taverns, inns, and brothels of Pitsh, but the best place to go for this sort is currently the temple of Tiamat just outside the city walls. That's also the best place to bet on gossip and scandal, such as someone's ancestry, or whether or not a certain lady's child will, in fact, resemble the father, when it's born.

Down on the docks and those places which serve sailors, there's a very complex system of betting around the arrival of ships and cargoes. This is actually part of a byzantine system of insurance and very localized futures trading. Widow Kat of the Oarsman's rest is involved in this.

On the southern end of town, there's a far more informal system based on the treasure hunters who head out into the jungle. The sums tend to be pretty small, and it's primarily about bragging rights. The adventurers also frequently engage in impromptu competitions to show of their skills. These contests always spur a flurry of betting.

Clerics of Hasrit can really swing the odds wildly, since most assume they have some inside information when it comes to matters of chance and fate. Some bookies refuse to take their bets, and there are very stringent rules on how they can get involved in the shipping bets. Hierodules and witches are watched with the same attitude when they bet on social matters and gossip, since they seem to know everybody and everybody's secrets.

Any bet witnessed by two others is considered legally binding. Failure to pay up can get the clerics of Aratshi coming down on you. Those who are unable to pay are handled like any other debtor: handed over to the clerics of Shkeen to be sold into slavery.

Photo credits: pepperfoster and pedrosimoes7.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Tackling the Big Questions

Yesterday, Mr. Raggi posted an interesting rant against the use of supernatural forces, especially those of ultimate Good and Evil, in roleplaying games. He's since then gathered his thoughts into a more coherent, abbreviated form. I can see where he's coming from, and while I was considering a rebuttal, my own thoughts are casting out a broader net. So this is less an argument against what James has written, and more thoughts inspired by his recent exploration of good and evil and their place in play.

Unless the players are, in fact, playing rat-bastards, James is right that offering the players a choice between joining the side of Good or Evil isn't really much of a choice. It works in Tolkien because, in the novels, there is no Good side. Sauroman, who's supposed to be leading the good side, has decided that Good can't succeed without adopting the methods and tools of Evil. He builds an army of even-better-than-Sauron's orcs and then sets about to conquer his neighbors like he's playing some sort of RTS. The elves are too busy running like rabbits (in the books, they don't show up at Helm's Deep) to put up anything like a fight. The dwarves are fighting to keep orcs out of their caves, and the leaders of the free Men are either thralls of wicked agents or too fallen into despair to organize anything like a true resistance.

The choice for Gandalf, Aragorn, and the rest isn't “join Good or Evil”, but rather, “Evil's all geared up to conquer the world, and there is no Good side. What do you do?”

“What do you do?” is the question of the sandbox. Can you tackle the big questions in a sandbox? Absolutely, though they do define a lot of the possibilities and the terrain if you bring them into the game. Granted, that's nothing new in sandbox campaigns. Sandboxing is like jazz; your players need something to riff from. The hardest part of running a sandbox is the beginning, when the players know nothing, but are supposed to make decisions about what their characters are going to do. After they've explored for a bit, they'll discover what the limits of the terrain are: these mountains can only be crossed with great effort while facing great danger, this ocean requires a ship to cross, this desert can be traversed only with excessive logistical preparation.

In the same fashion, as the players make friends and enemies, they find other doors opening and closing. They are free to visit the Duchess whenever they wish, ever since they exposed the plot to replace her son with a doppleganger. They avoid Kharé since the Master of the Thieves' Guild still wants to cut out their tongues and nail them to the guildhall doors. Or maybe they're afraid of running, and it's finally time to take down the Thief Master? Exploring those sorts of possibilities is what sandbox campaigns are all about.

The Big Questions are just more grist for that mill. Good vs. Evil isn't my personal favorite, but it works. Ms. Palette's Light vs. Dark is a fun twist on that old chestnut. So is Michael Moorcock's Order vs. Chaos, which has becoming something of a hoary chestnut itself. Just about any dichotomy will do: old vs. young, male vs. female, free vs. secure, heck, even dichotomy vs. universality, if you want.

And since this is a sandbox, there's really no reason for you to choose. Toss in a few threads and see what your players decide to nibble at. They will nibble, eventually, because these are the questions that interest all of us, the things we go to see in movies or read in books that give the cool special effects and amazing settings depth and meaning. These are the questions we enjoy poking at late at night with good friends, or that shape our creative endeavors, like, you know, making characters and playing RPGs.

Not only can you let the players choose their poison, but you can let them decide how they drink it, too. As a GM, your job isn't to provide answers, but to pose interesting questions. Yes, being too coy can lead to frustration, but nobody really expects a pat, easy answer when it comes to things like Order vs. Chaos. Evil may have been defeated in Middle Earth with the destruction of the ring, but as the hobbits learned when they returned to the Shire, it certainly wasn't banished. Elric never really resolved anything, and in the end was devoured by the apocalypse he'd set in motion. The players have to find their own way through these questions, and decide what answers are right for their characters. Maybe it's to die for a cause, or to fight on even knowing absolute victory is impossible. Maybe it's to surrender to uncertainty and become jaded. Maybe the answer is found in true love or just-good-enough love. You keep throwing interesting questions at them, and over time the players will find their own answers that fit their characters.

This is what we call character development in the sandbox. The character finds its place within the ever-shifting physical, social, and metaphysical geographies of the game. It'll take some time, but some of the characters in your campaign will stake out territory as their own. This isn't the end of the game, but the beginning of the end game, where they develop their position and you marshal threats to it. Whether we're talking armies of gnolls with siege engines or a green knight who calls into question a hero's courage and devotion to duty by instigating a game of beheadings depends on the sorts of choices your players make and how you all define a fun night of gaming.

Photo credits: Jorge-11, mikebaird, catsprks, and Oddsock.