Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Gender, Rules, and RPGs

Greg over at the Synapse Design Blog is, er, well, designing an RPG called Synapse. This started out as a reply to his latest post, and then, as happens too often with my replies, grew huge and unwieldy. And since I don’t have time to write a short reply, everyone gets a big, ugly post. Enjoy!

In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's DevelopmentGreg, if you can, I’d take the time to go straight to the source, which in this case appears to be Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice. This is one of the grand old works of feminist psychology (and as such, isn’t without its controversy). The basic premise stems from older work which declared women to be inherently deficient in terms of moral development.

Now, I know that’s going to confuse some of my readers because the widespread assumption today is that women are just inherently morally superior to men in pretty much every way. The methodology for arriving at the opposite conclusion is the focus of Gilligan’s book.

Basically, it works like this: if you go up and ask most boys and adult males whether or not it is morally right to steal medicine to save a dying person, they will consider the question and then, based on their own internalized paradigms of right and wrong, give you a yes or no answer. (Unless they are my readers, who, being gamers and fans of Captain Kirk’s solution to the Kobayashi Maru test, will naturally try to game the system. ;) ) If you ask the same question of girls and adult women, they are more likely to start asking question about why stealing is the only option; doesn’t the thief know their neighborhood pharmacist, who might be willing to work out a payment plan? What about borrowing the money needed from friends or family?

In ye olden days, psychologists (who were, of course, largely male) found the frustrating female answers (or, in their eyes, lack of an answer) as a sign that women were incapable of, or at least very resistant to, creating a set of universal precepts upon which to base a system of morality. Since the development of these precepts and their use in moral decision-making were important steps in going from boyhood to manhood, it was quite clear to the psychologists that women were locked in a perpetual state of moral adolescence.

(And, of course, that’s horribly simplifying the science. I’m about to get worse as I discuss Gilligan’s work. Seriously, read the book yourself; it’s only 174 pages long. If you can read the 4e PHB in a weekend, In a Different Voice will only take a slow Sunday afternoon.)

Gilligan, however, recognized that girls develop into women along a different, though parallel, path to boys. The girls and women did not see morality as a set of dry, universal precepts, floating in the vacuum of the Great Beyond, but rather as an imperative to maintain and manage the (very) human web of social interactions that make up life and society. Where the psychologists were presenting their subjects with what they saw as a logic puzzle, the girls and women saw a tattered and damaged network, and set about to rolling up their sleeves and finding ways to repair it (by adopting, interestingly enough, a very RPG-like mode of interaction).

This brings us to the crux of our discussion: Gilligan’s playground examples. When boys are playing a game and a rule dispute ensues, the boys pile on to the argument. It’s an exercise in logic for them; the rules have failed and must be fixed to meet this unexpected challenge. It’s a giant logic puzzle, and they toss different ideas and plans into the ring until, by some form of magic, one solution is chosen as most perfect by popular acclaim. Armed with their new rule, they resume the game.

Girls, however, do not see such conflicts in the same impersonal terms. A failure of the rules is a threat to the delicate social network. Suggesting a tweak means taking a personal stand, and is completely wrapped up in your relationships with the other people in the game. To champion one suggestion over another means standing with one person and against another. In the end, it’s often easier to just let the whole thing drop and go play something else.

Which, unfortunately for Greg in this case, means that, yes, girls don’t like rules. (Trust me, girls generally have no more issue with killing, violence and all of that than boys. Gilligan hardly even brings that up in her book.) The more complex your rules, the more likely they are to instigate a dispute (as is quite common with the third edition versions of D&D) and once that starts many girls are going to tune out.

On the other hand, it means that girls are more likely to embrace a game based on “rulings, not rules.” Tackling the rules as a sort of debate-driven logic puzzle is less the issue in rules-light games than the networks of trust and cooperation between everyone at the table. Where a girl is more likely inclined to tune out (or even be actively turned off by) battling paradigms for how social combat should be adjudicated, she’s more likely to be actively engaged in organizing the next session in a West Marches style game or how to deal with captured prisoners or dividing up the loot from the latest dungeon delve.

Or, at least, those are the lessons derived from Gilligan’s work. YMMV, of course, especially when you’re talking about people who already stand outside the norm by being involved in our delightfully odd little hobby.

Monday, March 29, 2010


Zenslap, apparently. I’d never heard the term before. (Just another clear example of my personal cultural illiteracy.) New words are fun to learn, but I’m more interested in what Mr. Donoghue has to say:
Since then, It's been a lot easier for me to be comfortable with the different ways in which people get their fun, and more skeptical of one-size-fits-all solutions.

This is the unspoken truth, the hidden pillar, the secret door if you will, of the OSR. Not everybody wants the same things from an RPG. This is why you can have fans of 4e and fans of 1e (or even, the gods forfend, fans of both!) enjoying their games in the same room.

This knowledge carries with it some implicit activity on your part. In order to really dig into what it means, you really ought to:

This seems stupidly obvious, doesn’t it? Of course you know what you like, right? Who doesn’t?

Lots of people, as it turns out. For something like a decade, I thought the game I wanted was 3e. No more level-limits, lots of skills, feats to make playing the fighter still interesting after level 6, the monsters were as interesting and varied as the PCs, and finally a decent solution to that stupid nonsense about my magic-user not being able to swing a sword.

Only, when I finally got to play 3e, it was unwieldy, overburdened, and just not fun. (Not fun for everyone? Clearly not. But not fun for me. It wasn’t, as it turned out, what I really wanted. It was only what I thought I’d wanted.)

This point has two sides. The first side is, of course, knowing what you really like. This requires a bit of self-reflection, of picking apart what you’re doing and finding out what you do enjoy and what you don’t. The second side is, of course, playing lots of games. The more data points you have, the closer to the truth you can get. And don’t assume that just because one attempt failed that you know all you need to know. You might need to see what an enthusiast can do before you really understand what it is you’re looking at. Oddysey had played and run a few dungeons already before she got to see what they were really about.

Once you know what you want, you can go looking for it. But to really understand if a game will deliver, you need to figure out how games work. This may require digging a bit into probabilities, or understanding the relationship between themes and mechanics. It certainly means being able to step back and take that view from 30,000 feet with an objective eye. It’s amazing how many people still think that Old School D&D was primarily about killing things.

While conventional wisdom can be in error, ad copy is almost always wrong. Too many people making games don’t take into account the unintended consequences, the bizarre behavior of players, and the simple truth that things will not be understood, or, at least, won’t be used, the way they were intended. Some simply don’t know games well enough themselves to produce the intended results. None of them know you well enough to match their aims with your preferences.

Once you’ve got those two down, the world of RPGs is your oyster. You can find the games that will give you the maximum fun for the minimum effort. You can houserule “almost” games into near-perfect matches while avoiding the trap of feature-creep, or breaking things with unintended consequences.

And, when someone asks you for advice on games or your write a review, you can honestly speak about who the game does serve, and who it doesn’t serve. You can get beyond the edition wars to find the hidden gems in the most “unplayable” systems. You can not sound like an opinionated twit spamming your knee-jerk preferences and stereotypes, and start sounding like someone who really knows and understands games, and who wants to be honestly helpful instead of a cheerleader for their game de jour.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Marketing: Sexy and Comforting

Playing D&D with Porn Stars: the name itself is pure marketing genius. It’s simple and yet screams. It causes the train of thought to derail, the tape to rewind, a moment of “Wait, what, did I just read that?!?” It demands at least one look.

We’ve all rolled our eyes at it, of course, and chuckled at how blatant a ploy the whole premise is. Is some of the popularity of the site (his followers count officially stands as of this writing at 319) due to the premise? Undoubtedly.

But if that’s all it was, there’d be no there there. And between his kit-bash house-ruling, his actual-play reports, his off-kilter but fascinating art, his original monsters and his thoughts on repurposing traditional monsters, there’s quite a bit there for actual RPGers to enjoy.

So I’d like to take a moment to compare (a bit more than contrast) Playing D&D with Porn Stars with a blog that might at first appear to be its polar opposite. This site, however, also plays on the readers’ baser urges, but this time it’s our desire for comfort, for the warm fuzzy blanket of tradition with a hint of nostalgia and just a pinch of novelty and righteous indignation. It’s a heady brew that plays the Norman Rockwell to Zak’s Alberto Vargas, and has landed a cozy 409 followers.

I speak, of course, of James Maliszewski’s Grognardia.

Again, the title is genius, taking a term of mild approbation and wearing it like a badge of honor. It flies in the face of pop culture, of conventional wisdom, and is playfully deviant. It’s also perfectly descriptive; just as Rush Limbaugh and Markos Moulitsas do for their respective ends of the political spectrum, Maliszewski’s primary message is “you are not alone; here’s someone else who knows that something is wrong with RPGs and hasn’t been right in nearly two decades, someone who takes these matters at least as seriously as you do.” Grognardia has established itself as a (if not the) tentpole blog of the OSR.

I think, however, that both have a lot in common, especially when it comes to explaining their popularity. First, both take their subjects seriously and treat them with respect, but they come at it from opposite directions. The trick with Playing D&D with Porn Stars is to prove that it’s not just a gimmick; actual D&D is being played with actual porn stars, and it’s not just kicking down doors and thumping orcs for pie. (That last part is probably easier than it looks, since new players are often more interested in exploring all the possibilities of the medium than old hands.) Zak manages this primarily by speaking intelligently about the details of the game and offering concrete, common-sense advice for the issues he faces while DMing.

The trick for Grognardia ought to be proving it’s more than just a camping ground for cranky ramblings about those darn kids these days and how they play the game wrong. James, however, blew past that hurdle long ago, primarily by treating the subject as an intellectual and academic exercise. His delving into the history of the hobby, it’s roots and paths-not-taken and personalities and inspirations, has given the OSR the bedrock material its needed to understand what it is they’re doing and where they came from. (Mr. Maliszewski claims the OSR is really a Counter-Reformation, but in truth it seems to follow the patterns of a classic Reformation movement: a return to basic principles and a “purer” vision of the past from which to launch a new beginning, in response to the perception that the current caretakers of the old tradition have gone too far astray. If there is a Counter-Reformation going on, it’s probably Paizo’s Kingmaker, as it attempts to wed the best of the Reformation ideas with the practices of more modern systems. Or possibly Cook’s Dungeon-a-Day project, but I couldn’t really say since I’ve not heard much about it in a while.)

The challenge for James has actually been avoiding becoming (or, more accurately, being perceived as being) too dogmatic, dry, and stuffy. He does this by poking fun at himself a lot, and by showing that he’s actually playing and having fun with this stuff. (That, actually, is vital to understanding the success of the OSR as a whole, but that’s a topic for another post.)

It’s interesting to see how this informs the small details on their blogs. For example, let’s take a look at the icons they use as their personal images. James has taken to using playful pictures of himself in Halloween costume or, as currently, peeking through a King Tut cut-out. I think it’s likely that both of these pics were taken during outings with his own children. He follows it up with the following tongue-in-cheek bio:

Eternal Pharaoh of the Old (School) Kingdom, he prolongs his adolescence by playing in the woods with his legions of fawning sycophants, from whom he will brook no dissent.

Zak, on the other hand, has his crowned skeleton, an image in black and white and grey with only a splash of color in his own personal style that highlights his being a professional artist. The scratchy penwork flies in the face of the clean and graceful artwork found in 4e and other more mainstream publications, so while it may not exactly be metal it’s absolutely in fitting with the DIY and the crazier-the-better stylings of the OSR.

And then there’s his very interesting (in its very mundanity) bio-blurb:

I'm Zak, I live in Hollywood. Most of the people I know in LA I know from work--so they're porn stars and strippers. So that's who I play D&D with.

Very low-key, very down to earth. And almost apologetic, as if he were saying, “Hey, it’s not like I set out to attract a bunch of porn stars to play D&D with me. These are just the folks I hang out with. It’s not my fault they’re more interesting than another crew of balding, slightly overweight middle-managers, Python programmers, and frustrated novelists.” ;)

But again, we’re talking trappings here. If you want to get to the core of their popularity, you need to step back and look at the basics. Both post daily, nearly every day. Zak's blog is rather young, but he seems to be consistently hitting more than 25 posts per month. James is a monster when it comes to posting: 675 posts in 2009 alone, nearly two a day. He started the blog in late March of ’08 and still cranked out an impressive 449 posts that year. And he’s not let up the pace much at all. This month, he’s logged 55 posts, better than two a day.

And it’s not just blogging. You’ll find Zak’s writing in the latest issue of Fight On! just as you’ll find James’ work in a number of other issues. They link to the work of others. And they both just plain write well about interesting topics.

Finally, they leap at (or make their own, and I suspect it’s a bit of both) opportunities. Zak’s I Hit it with My Axe! may be a bit more flashy than James’ articles in The Escapist, but both are actively working outside our little echo chamber here to spread the word.

And that, ladies and gents, is how it’s done.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

And Now a Word From the Counter-Revolution

In the tabletop RPG community people think that skimping on the world is okay, because the fans can fill it in – everyone has a D&D campaign world, right? It’s also easy to believe that nobody really wants the infodumps in CRPGs because it’s not at the center of the play experience. This is the reverse of the truth. In the post-fanfic world where the greatest trend in user-driven RPGs is based on IP canon freeform, people who represent the progressive edge of the audience want the world more – they’ve demonstrated that they can create stories with its guidance.

That’s Malcolm Sheppard over at mobunited.com, waxing a bit ranty about how “Story is So Over.” Frankly, the idea of using themes isn’t exactly new, but I doubt that’s what he’s really getting at. Working from context is pretty much what Mr. Maliszewski’s doing in his Dwimmermount campaign. Creating style is exactly what Raggi’s doing, only in miniature, since he doesn’t work in worlds so much as in more intimate locales.

I’ll be the first to agree that the kids love their popular IPs, but existing IPs don’t do much for us (or Margaret Weis Productions would be on the tip of everyone’s tongues instead of the cause for double-takes and “hey, isn’t she that writer from the ‘80s?”). I rather get the feeling that people glom on to IP for their play because it deals with themes they’re interested in. Produce a game that reinforces those themes, and you have a popular game, or, at least, as popular as the IP will allow.

(I’ll fully admit at this point that I may be overthinking things. It’s entirely possible people just want to be quidditch-champion for a day.)

But theme and its complimentary attributes of context and coherent style (which allow conflict and interaction to be meaningful) are difficult to pull off. Mr. Sheppard admits as much. Which leaves us locked in something of a catch-22; either the game holds the players’ hands and walks them through rituals that reinforce the theme (but strongly limit what can be done with your game and seems to be the tack taken by Vincent Baker in games like In a Wicked Age and Dogs in the Vineyard) or you run the risk of having the game run off the rails into new thematic territory that, while supported by the game, isn’t really what the setting is about. (Frankly, I’m not certain how much that second thing is a bad thing, but…) I do think a strong grasp of your themes on the part of the players and GM can overcome Tékumel-shock syndrome; if everyone groks your themes, and all flows from those themes, players can interact with the setting in ways that feel natural. But communicating themes and how they can be used isn’t easy to do.

Mr. Sheppard ponders whether the RPG industry needs to fire the fans. That seems to be putting the cart before the horse, honestly. The industry still hasn’t come up with a compelling vision of the future. Most of what we see appears to be exactly what we’ve had, but with more rules and some electronic gadgets to help us overcome the burden of those rules. To follow Mr. Sheppard’s lead, the industry first needs to identify some compelling themes, develop ways to communicate those themes to players and GMs, and then give them flexible tools that will allow them to explore those themes. And that’s such a hard-right turn that I think the industry is simply incapable of making it; the competencies that they’ve been cultivating are simply not geared towards those sorts of activities. It’s likely that I’m completely misunderstanding what Mr. Sheppard has to say, but it seems to me his vision would be better served by the fans first firing the industry.

Art by Valentine Cameron Prinsep, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and William Michael Harnett.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Personality, Hirelings, and Meat Shields

Daddy Grognard has a great little article about hirelings, mentors, meatshields, and Marry Sues. Luckily, my ego is tied up more in the game than any particular characters, so I’m fairly good at avoiding the pitfalls he brings ups. I also roll up my NPCs and let the PCs pick from a small list of the available hires. Here’s a list of sorcerers recently looking for work in Pitsh, as I sent it to my players in email:

  • Keshnal of Druusis – A tall, emaciated guy with long, greasy hair and bloodshot eyes. His clothing consists of a tattered robe he wears open and pair of linen pantaloons. His reputation is one of brilliance, and he has a history of really coming through when the chips are down, but his opium addiction and sarcastic attitude make him erratic and difficult to live with. He wants 50 gp up front, and a half-share of the treasure.

  • Norbis Lal – He'll proudly tell everyone and anyone he's the second son of the third wife of the Warlord of Korba, one of the strongest human city-states not in alliance with the gods. The bookies give his claims only a 30% chance of being true. He's short (5'4”), pudgy, with a round face and warm, expressive eyes. His robes are of fine but sturdy linen and his sandals are simple, but he wears a fancy-looking ring on every finger. He's a competent sorcerer, if not inspired, and he reads and writes both normal and High Fey. He wants 65 up front, a half share of the treasure, and the first wand, staff, or book of spells you find.

  • Meshna – Is young for a sorceress, with long, black hair, and haunted green eyes. She wears surprisingly long, black robes that would seem sensible back in a dwarven community, but are too heavy for Pitsh. Still, she doesn't sweat. Her eyes move constantly, flicking between the exits as she answers your questions in short, to-the-point phrases. She has a reputation for being weird, even for a sorceress, and vicious in a fight. She wants 60 gp up front, a quarter share of the treasure, and dibs on anything you can find that creates illusions or turns people invisible.

  • Koreat Pashnal – Koreat is in her mid-thirties, and so the oldest of those suggested to you. She's practical, smart, and has a reputation for staying cool and collected no matter how crazy things get. She has ginger-colored hair that she wears pulled into a bun, a smattering of freckles across her face, and an expressive mouth. She wears a linen kilt and halter-top, buskins, and a broad straw hat. She speaks and reads common Fey, Nagpa, orcish, and makes a point of telling you, in a voice just a hint over a whisper, that she's had “experience dealing with efreet before.” She wants 70 gp up front, a half-share of the treasure, and dibs on the first spellbook or magic staff you find.

I don’t share the stats with the players, and they can sometimes learn more about these characters by asking around. And these are characters, with personalities and interests beyond just being a pocket-full of neat tricks for the PCs to whip out when needed. They don’t often get forgotten in the middle of the dungeon. “Oh yeah, isn’t Koreat with us?”

I can usually whip folks like this up off the top of my head pretty quickly, but there are tables in the back of the 1e DMG that make rolling up personalities a snap. (True story: my 8th grade English teacher had photocopied the tables and handed them out in class as tools to help with creative writing assignments.)

So the players get a basic reputation, how much they’ll charge, and a brief list of pros-versus-cons in hiring each potential person. This puts the ball in their court; do they want the slightly unstable but more experienced sorcerer? Or someone who’s a bit more boring but more dependable? Or do they want to pay for both quality and reliability?

Luckily, these sorts of decisions are usually set up near the end of a game, so I have time to whip these descriptions up and email them to everyone, and they have a few days to chew on it before making a decision and buying equipment for them.

Art by Ludovico Marchetti and John William Waterhouse.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Brian's Satirical Poetry

That was my Amazon pay phrase. Interesting enough, but not nearly as intriguing as:

Brian’s Satyrical Poetry

A long poem supposedly stolen by Brian (“the Clumsy”) from the courts of the Fey in his quest to woo the Lady Mercedes. According to legend, he won each stanza (in truth, each is an individual poem in its own right, each having its own character and style but linked by certain themes, word choice, and imagery) by passing a test set to him by the various members of the fey court: the fool, the minstrel, the steward, the weeping girl, the queen’s champion and then the queen herself.

Each stanza must be committed to memory. A character can memorize one stanza per point of Charisma bonus. Spellcasters (either clerics or magic-users) may memorize an additional stanza in lieu of a first-level spell.

The first stanza is a humorous bit of doggerel requiring a mere five minutes to recite. If the target of the poem fails a save vs. spells (adjusted for Wisdom) they suffer a -1 to resist any spell cast by the reciter. If the save is failed, the listener will sit eagerly for the second stanza if it’s recited within the next week.

The second stanza, a lyrical poem of true love lost, and is a half-hour long. If the target of the poem fails a save vs. spells (adjusted for Wisdom) they suffer a -1 to resist any further recitation of the Satyrical poems and must give the reciter one present or token of their affection. Failing the save also means the listener will be compelled to hear the third within the next week, after which the magic fades.

The third stanza is a riddle-poem meant to maze the mind and takes a full hour to recite. If the target of the poem fails a save vs. spells (adjusted for Intelligence this time) they suffer a -2 to resist any further spells or later poems cast or recited by the same person. They must also surrender a kiss to the reciter.

The fourth stanza is a sonnet of lost love, taking twenty minutes to recite again. If the target of the poem fails a save vs. poison (adjusted by Charisma), the target must grant the reciter one simple favor (it must be something that can be done within the space of an hour and not risk life or limb). Failing the save also means the listener will do anything that doesn’t risk life or limb to hear the fifth stanza within the next week.

The fifth stanza is an epic poem, and will require a full two hours uninterrupted to recite in full. If the listener fails a save vs. spells (adjusted for Wisdom) then they succumb to a charm spell as if cast by the reciter. The duration, effects, and limitations are just like the spell.

The sixth stanza is a blank verse profession of raw love and passion. If the listener fails a save vs. spells, then they fall madly in love with the reciter, a love that can only be broken by use of a wish or divine intervention. If they pass this saving through, but failed one of the others, they are overcome with lust for the reciter which will last until sated or the passing of a full month.

According to legend, Brian only got halfway through the poems when he found the affections of the Lady Mercedes too unpleasant to endure. But he fell for a daughter of a fisherman. On their honeymoon, he tossed the poems into the sea where they were swallowed by a fish. This fish was caught half-the-world away where it came into the possession of a starving storyteller, who bought the fish with his last coin. Finding the poems in the belly of his meal, he used them to woo a princess and became a king. His grandson lost the poems when his palace was plundered by a vengeful dragon. Where the poems went from there, none can say, but there are at least three copies of the complete poems floating around.

Art by Jacob Jordaens and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Foaming at the Mouth

From the '95 TSR "Code of Ethics":


The use of religion in TSR products is to assist in clarifying the struggle between good and evil. Actual current religions are not to be depicted, ridiculed, or attacked in any way that promotes disrespect. Ancient or mythological religions, such as those prevalent in ancient Grecian, Roman and Norse societies, may be portrayed in their historic roles (in compliance with this Code of Ethics.) Any depiction of any fantasy religion is not intended as a presentation of an alternative form of worship.


Fantasy literature is distinguished by the presence of magic, super-science or artificial technology that exceeds natural law. The devices are to be portrayed as fictional and used for dramatic effect. They should not appear to be drawn from reality. Actual rituals (spells, incantations, sacrifices, etc.), weapon designs, illegal devices, and other activities of criminal or distasteful nature shall not be presented or provided as reference.

From the Chick Publications webpage today:

On top of that, the second issue is that the materials themselves, in many cases, contain authentic magical rituals. I can tell you this from my own experience. I was a witch high priest (Alexandrian tradition) during the period 1973-84. During some of that period (1976-80) I was also involved in hardcore Satanism. We studied and practiced and trained more than 175 people in the Craft. Our "covendom" was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; just a short drive away from the world headquarters of TSR, the company which makes Dungeons and Dragons in Lake Geneva, WI. In the late 1970's, a couple of the game writers actually came to my wife and I as prominent "sorcerers" in the community. They wanted to make certain the rituals were authentic. For the most part, they are.

(Emphasis in the original.)

Yeah, you and I know that there are no rituals listed in any of the D&D books, but that clearly doesn't matter, does it? This is why it's not worth the effort to jump through hoops like the above nonsense in the Code of Ethics; it only annoys your customers and does absolutely nothing to placate the loonies.

Art by Pieter the Elder Bruegel.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Pathfinder Goes Old-school

In spite of embracing 3.x, there's always seemed to be a certain friendliness among the Paizo ranks towards the Old School way of doing things. I know Mr. Maliszewski has been very grateful, for instance, for their reprinting of many of the pulp classics that inspired the founding of D&D.

Pathfinder, however, has been fairly antithetical to the Old School way of doing things. While the adventures offered allow flexibility in how their challenges are tackled, the existence of an "adventure path" pretty much necessitates a railroad.

So I find this press release about their latest six-volume adventure path rather interesting:

We're very proud of Kingmaker, as it marks a new kind of Adventure Path for us. As always, there's an underlying story—this one involving a secret villain and a bandit lord and trolls and barbarians and missing villages and superstitious kobolds and drunk thugs and so much more—but how that story unfolds is going to be left in large part up to the players. In each of the six Kingmaker volumes, you'll find several quests for the PCs to complete. And don't be surprised if players make up their own quests as they explore the land!

Not only are we tackling a more nonlinear "sandbox" approach to adventure construction (which means that it's very likely your PCs will work through this adventure in a completely unique order), but as the Kingmaker Adventure Path unfolds, your PCs will settle towns, gather followers, raise nations, and fight wars. By the end of Kingmaker, chances are good that one of your PCs will, indeed, be king or queen of his or her own nation!

And just to drive home the Old School vibe, each volume will include an original monster from Ed Greenwood.

Now, if I thought people were actually sinking the money into market research, I would be crowing from the rooftops about how Old School is the new Cool School. Between this and WotC bringing back Gamma World and boxed sets, there certainly appears to be a real Renaissance underway.

I suspect, however, that what's really happening is a sort of Old School fever; our enthusiasm for our games and our styles of playing is infectious. And we keep doing the impossible. Fans are not supposed to be able to churn out regular, dead-tree periodicals full of volunteer articles and art that look worth a damn, but we do. Boxed sets were supposed to be dead, but we sell out print runs. "Unsupported" games are supposed to quietly die away, but things seem better than ever for TSR-era versions of the game.

These are amazing times we're living in, and it's us who are making them so. Fight on!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Cognitive Disson4nce

There’s been some neat back-and-forth between the Escapist and WotC. WotC interviewed ZakS who’s I Hit it With My Axe will be appearing on the Escapist sometime in the near future, while the Escapist got to interview Liz Schuh and Andy Collins from WotC about 4th edition.

There’s been some hay made from comments about how 4e is aimed at a younger generation. More specifically, there’s this comment from Mr. Collins about the shorter attention spans of everyone today.

Y'know, it's not even just the new gamers. I've been playing D&D for, well, let's say a lot of years, and my attention span isn't what it used to be either. It's not about youth, it's just about the culture we live in and what we're used to. I can't imagine how the 10-year-old version of me learned basic Dungeons and Dragons from the old blue book games that I got back in 1981. If you handed me that game today, there is no way I would have the patience to learn it. And I'm a pretty smart guy, I do this for a living. But it's just a different time.

Er, yeah, ok. So, because you don’t have the attention span for a single, 64 page booklet (the full length of Moldvay Basic, which included player info, monster list and DM’s section) you had to write a trio of tomes, none of which is shorter than 288 pages.

Ok, I’ll grant you, greater length can be used to create simplified play, but that’s not really what the quote was about, was it? He was saying that he didn’t have the attention span to learn to play the old boxed-set Basic D&Ds.

So what does 4e do to facilitate play right out of the box... er, I mean, book? Does it come with a complete starting town and adventure, like the Moldvay Basic did in B2: Keep on the Borderlands? Not really. It does have that starting village in the DMG, but it’s not complete, and we really don’t get a good adventure to begin with. Besides, how could poor Mr. Collins muster the concentration to read all that verbiage? Much better to have a solo, choose-your-own-adventure style mini-dungeon like in the Mentzer Basic book. We could even teach a whole new generation to hate Bargle.

Only, they don’t have that either.

Don’t get me wrong; they absolutely made the life of DMs much easier compared to 3.x. They transformed how combat works, reducing the number of rule look-ups required. Large combats involving lots of monsters are more fun and less work for everyone. But that’s only after you’ve slogged through these massive tomes of rulebooks. 4e is not for the attention-challenged.

It's still not for us grognards, however. We’re still playing D&D as a strategic, logistical challenge; the history of D&D in WotC’s hands has been a focused campaign of transforming it into what many people assume it is: a game of tactical combat. The games of Moldvay, Cook, and Mentzer handle that sort of play poorly. 4e is all about focusing play on tactical challenges and options. Basic D&D, in all its incarnations, didn’t need skill challenges or social combat, because players were expected to play that sort of stuff out, using their own imaginations and problem-solving skills in situations that challenged the players. 4e requires them because such things can prove frustrating and distract from the tactical combats.

In short, older, TSR-era D&D had quick, simple combat because it was just another strategic challenge, a drain on PC resources that kept the logistical puzzle from getting too simple. 4e minimizes the strategic challenges so they won’t distract from the core play of tactical combat.

(None of which is to say that you can’t roleplay in 4e. The daily powers and treasure system make maintaining verisimilitude nearly impossible, but nothing prevents certain sorts of roleplay, especially the off-the-wall wahoo stuff some grognards seem to prefer. 4e is far more toxic to Silver Age play than to Golden Age.)

From what I’ve heard so far, the new boxed sets appear to be more accurately aimed at the goal Mr. Collins was espousing: fast play right out of the box. If that was the goal of the first trio of core books, they were horribly hobbled by assumptions: that RPGers will only take a game seriously if it’s presented in monstrous coffee-table style tomes, that boxed sets are a financial sink-hole, that more (races, classes, powers, etc.) is more. If that’s the case, then the boxed sets are a second chance to sink the called shot.

Art by Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velazquez and Jean Beraud.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

"Rant, Rant Against the Dying of the Light..."

I lack scottsz's skill with the snark, but he's taking the day off so you'll have to put up with what I've got for you.

DEVIL'S IN THE DETAILS: Mr. Maliszewski put out the call after Mr. Curtis gave us his gnomes. And shortly after that, he gave us his orcs. I'm fairly certain there are more, but I'm not finding them right now, so if you did one of these, let me know and I'll add you to this list.

Update: Here are David's kobolds. (Can't believe I forgot this one.) I love that some of his kobolds "feel a compulsion to fix things that adventurers break."

And Bigfella gives us his jann (a race of half-genies) and kedai ("cat people in Arabian Nights gear").

Mikemonaco has half-orcs, for when you don't need a full orc. While you're over there, check out his great-looking minis.

Thanks for cluing me in, guys. :D

My players are excellent at building their own backgrounds, but I'm always in the need for NPC details. The tables in the back of the 1e DMG are a godsend, of course, but I decided to put together my own for slaves purchased from the priests of Shkeen.

And if you think this sort of cross-blog inspiration is fun, Erin's got an idea for something along those lines. Now I just need to figure out what "Brian's Satirical Poetry" is. ;p

And here's wishing a happy birthday to both Erin and Beyond the Black Gate.

INFAMOUS MOULDERING TOMES OF LOST SORCEROUS KNOWLEDGE: Blair gives us a great idea for making magic tomes a lot more atmospheric. To give you a head start on using this sort of thing in your games, here are a bunch of tomes, ready-made to drop into your campaign today. And a killer book to keep your players on their toes.

Further Updateage: Blair just pointed me to more awesomeness from David, He of the Kobolds: a random name generator for your eldritch tomes. I love the way inspiration arcs from blogger-to-blogger in the OSR.

And speaking of eldritch tomes of mind-warping knowledge, Oddysey flips through her new copy of the 1e Fiend Folio and doesn't have to go very far before finding something blog-worthy.

ADDICTIVE SUBSTANCES: Badmike takes another hit before discussing the link between gaming and dopamine.

Finally, Nick at Carto Cacography passes on a favorite link to maps of ancient Egyptian ruins, tombs, and the like:

What they have done there is incredible: Complete and detailed maps of real world "dungeons" that are scaleable, zoomable, measureable, accurately detailed, and verbally described.

Be warned, however, that the dopamine flush from the site may induce you to "spend the rest of your day there."

Have a great one, folks. :D

Art by Frederic Remington.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Devil is in the Details: Slaves of Shkeen

Mr. Maliszewski has thrown down the gauntlet:

John Laviolette, over at The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms, has even suggested that the old school renaissance would be wise to offer up more examples of tables and systems in this style in order to better demonstrate the old school approach to character generation and background. I think he's absolutely right about that and I'd like to suggest that, in the coming days, my fellow bloggers and forum-ites share their own "The Devil's in the Details" tables.

And he shares with us his table for the elves of Dwimmermount.

In the port city of Pitsh, there are two sources for henchmen and hirelings considered the most sure: the pubs and taverns of the freebooting treasure-hunters on the southern end of the town and the slave market at the Temple of Shkeen.

Justice at the hands of the priests of Aratshi is rather Aristotelian; gaols are only used to hold prisoners until the time of their trial, and sentences are nearly always in the form of fines and weregild. Those who cannot pay are handed over to the Shkeenites. By use of magic, mind-bending drugs, and disturbing sciences, the will of the convict is bent to the service of society. The slave is marked with a magical tattoo which records the slave’s remaining debt to be paid (which includes the costs of feeding and “training” the slave before sale). Slaves are supposed to be given opportunities to earn the coin they need to purchase their freedom, though how many actually manage this is a matter of much conjecture.

While slaves are nearly always more expensive to purchase than henchmen are to hire, their owners enjoy bonuses to the slave’s moral and loyalty.

Many slaves for sale in the temple market (roll 1d20 three times):

  1. Are trained in local etiquette.
  2. Are trained in the culinary arts.
  3. Are trained in the erotic arts.
  4. Are conditioned to never cause harm to a priest of Shkeen.
  5. Have a pathological fear of all clerics.
  6. Still have contacts in the local underworld.
  7. Still have friends in the local community.
  8. Suffer from recurring nightmares.
  9. Have friends or family who were also sentenced to enslavement.
  10. Can recognize certain poisons by taste.
  11. Prefer to wear as little as weather and local custom will permit.
  12. Prefer to go barefoot so their toes can grip the earth.
  13. Have a budding artistic talent.
  14. Are preoccupied by how much they might be currently worth on the market, to the point of vanity.
  15. Are deeply concerned with their appearance and health.
  16. Are fastidious about their owner’s appearance and health.
  17. Are hesitant to use speak their owner’s name aloud.
  18. Pray every night before going to sleep.
  19. Are adept at catching catnaps whenever possible.
  20. Are exceptionally graceful and poised.

Some slaves for sale in the temple market (roll 1d16 once):
  1. Are conditioned to never lie to a priest of Shkeen.
  2. Still have contacts in the local Thieves’ Guild.
  3. Are recovering gambling addicts.
  4. Are recovering alcoholics.
  5. Are addicted to a psychedelic substance.
  6. Are addicted to sex.
  7. Know where the loot is buried.
  8. Know where the bodies are buried.
  9. Suffer from amnesia.
  10. Are literate.
  11. Have family or friends eager to see them freed.
  12. Have victims still eager for revenge.
  13. Is a dwarf (1-2 on 1d6) or half-orc (3-6 on 1d6).
  14. Is an elf (1-4 on a 1d6) or goblin (5-6 on 1d6).
  15. Have holes in their memories.
  16. Was taken as a spoil of war and thus their owner is not obligated to allow them to purchase their freedom.

While most slaves are sold stark-naked, they may possess the following (1d16, 1d3 times):
  1. An unusual tattoo.
  2. A significant birthmark.
  3. Nothing.
  4. More nothing.
  5. Even more nothing, and do not roll again, even if the d3 roll indicates otherwise.
  6. A set of orichalcum acupuncture needles.
  7. A jar of peppermint-scented massage oil.
  8. A small pouch of rock salt from home.
  9. A collar and leash of braided leather.
  10. Manacles for wrists and ankles.
  11. A hollow tooth.
  12. A tiny wooden statuette of a loved one.
  13. A prophetic vision.
  14. 1d3 gemstones worth 2-200 gps total value, still working their way through the slave’s guts.
  15. The answer to a riddle.
  16. A secret name.

Art by John William Waterhouse.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Building a Better Adventurer Trap

Via Baz Stevens and his RPG Treehouse comes this call for help from Rodney Thompson of WotC:

So, what I’d like to hear from the community is what you think would make published adventures better. What areas are WotC adventures lacking in that could be improved? What makes a good adventure for you, and why are the published adventures so far not doing that for you?

If you want to just post some thoughts, that’s fine by me, and I’ll be eager to read them. However, if you REALLY want to be a superstar, when you talk about something that can be improved, give me an example of a WotCadventure that does that thing badly (or not at all), and an example of an adventure that does that well.

Unfortunately, I’ve not played any of the WotC-authored adventures for 4e, so I cannot cite chapter and verse as requested. That said, I doubt Mr. Thompson could go wrong by starting with a high-level review of how maps can be laid out and the flow of play that creates and allows.

If they really want to bring their A-game (and stealing Mr. Raggi’s brain isn’t an option) they can leap from that high-level of abstraction to a down-in-the-mud-and-the-blood-and-the-beer worm’s-eye-view of how mood and expectations are shaped from before a module is even purchased. It’s a bit long and content-rich, however, so I suggest you block off some time to follow all the links, have a nice cup of tea or an adult beverage of your choice handy, and read with an open mind ready and eager to have thoughts provoked.

From this point on, I can give vague suggestions based on what I’ve read. For instance, in H1: Keep on the Shadowfells, the game begins with a kobold ambush. There’s no thought given to how the players can avoid the ambush, ambush the ambushers, or the like, and it’s a nightmare for characters of the Defender role since it takes place in a wide-open field where the kobolds are free to move and “shift” all over the place. While I certainly won’t complain about challenging encounters, it’s usually not best to start things off with a frustrating encounter, and this one reads a bit like playing whack-a-mole while ants crawl up your leg, biting every inch of the way.

But again, I’ve not played it. Oddysey, wasn’t this the one you ran your crew through? Any thoughts?

Art by Francois Antoine Bossuet.

Saturday, March 06, 2010


At its core, criticism is the only antidote that human beings have discovered against error. It is the chief method that a skilled person can use to become "even better."

Alexis puts out the call for standards. That’s a hard call to dismiss; I think all of us know that some games, campaigns, players, and GMs are clearly better than others, even if we can’t quite define how. If we could define how, however, that might go a long way towards better games, campaigns, players, and GMs.

Mr. Benedicto responds with a splash of cold water:

To define OD&D -- to come to some viable conclusion on how it should be played -- is a pipe dream. Or a pipe nightmare, depending on where you stand. I don't know about the rest of you, but I have yet to lose sleep at night because we will never find OD&D utopia.

Alexis responds in comment to Mr. Benedicto:

In and amidst all the patting each other on the backs for the original, accepted games you all run, I wonder that anyone meaningfully criticizes anyone else.

Obviously, my own over-the-top indecent effort aside, are people here capable of not thinking in terms of 'us' vs. 'them'?

The emphasis is mine, because “meaningful criticism” isn’t bomb-throwing or starting fights. It’s about spending the time to really understand a work, to tease apart how it fits to together, and using that knowledge to improve what works.

Before you poo-poo that idea, understand that this is very much what Mr. Maliszewski has been doing with the older versions of D&D with Grognardia. The point of understanding the personalities, source material, and history of how the game mutated over time is to get at the essence of what it really is and what it does and why that’s so much fun.

Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to offer useful critique on a game that you’re not in, or ideas made for a game that’s not yours. A lot of what I do here has been a struggle to draw at the purest essence of what does work in my games and try to offer it up to you, and I know I’ve only been marginally successful at that. What I know I’ve done, and what I’m proud of, is offer up ideas and thoughts and tweaks couched in the context I use them in, so you can decide if they offer any merit to your own play.

But at the end of the day, Jeff Reints and I are barely playing the same game. I think I could enjoy playing at his table, if I just let go of my expectations and rolled with the gonzo, but I'm pretty sure he'd end up gnashing his teeth and ripping out his own eyeballs at mine, in spite of the fact that my players are clearly quite happy with what they've found. And poor Chgowiz would feel soiled even reading a summary of one of our games. ;)

And that pretty much kills any hope at meaningful criticism. What Alexis might call rabbit-poop pizza is my filet mignon. His pointing out that wrapping an expensive cut of meat in cheap strips of pork-butt just comes off as bizarre and missing the point to me. Likewise, my puzzlement at the rigorous background detail he meticulously crafts for his settings must seem like the results of mental impairment.

Now, that all said, I do think there is some common ground between Alexis’ games, Chgowiz's games, Jeff's games, and my own. I'm not sure, however, that there's much there to talk about. I'd enjoy being proven wrong, of course, but in discussing such matters between ourselves, the common ground forms our basic, bedrock assumptions; I fear it would end up like fish trying to discuss how wet the ocean is today.

Art by Adolphe Alexandre Lesrel.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Ripples in the Sandbox

There’s been a bit of good-natured snickering in some circles at the play we’re seeing in Grognardia’s Dwimmermount campaign. “He’s playing a Silver Age game,” is the cry, and, as much as I’d like to beat him with that stick (again, good-naturedly), his beef with the Silver Age is more its obsession with realism and the front-loading of story and detail that came later.

So I’m not sure if I should call myself a Silver Age DM anymore. I also adore the Dungeoneers Survival Guide, because I think it’s a perfect sourcebook; full of inspiration for when you’re planning your campaign or an adventure, but I never touch it when the game’s actually going on. Which means, in effect, I’m ignoring something like half the book. The moral of the story, I suppose, is watch how we play, not what we read.

There’s been some talk about getting players “plugged in” to the campaign. Most of it has focused on front-loading character involvement in the campaign. I’m going to respectfully disagree. While I certainly enjoy working with a well-detailed character history, my players will report that it’s more a toy for them to play with than for me these days. I’m much more about giving the players all the rope they need to hang their characters.

While a good character background (and “good” is not necessarily synonymous with “long”) gives you something to start with, it’s only a start. What players really care about are the things their characters do. This, to my mind, is the key difference between computer and pen-and-paper RPGing; computers can only react to things they are programmed to notice, but a good DM can react to any- and everything.

The players are going to need treasures and magic items identified, so they’ll naturally build a relationship with the local sage. They’ll want their loot fenced, so that means a relationship with local jewelers, collectors, and patrons of the arts. They’ll need wounds healed, curses removed, diseases cured, and a steady supply of holy water, so that means a relationship with at least one local temple. And, as they acquire skills, magic, and powerful weapons, they’ll become a force to be reckoned with, which means the local temporal powers will want some sort of relationship with them (even if it’s mostly the understanding that if they step out of line they’ll be squashed like bugs).

The classic West Marches campaign minimizes stuff happening in town, so a lot of this might be glossed over, but that’s fine as it’s weak sauce compared to what happens in the wilderness and dungeons. This is why the wilderness encounter tables are full of humans and beasties the PCs probably won’t be able to overcome easily. This is why the monsters in a dungeon are not necessarily going to attack the PCs on sight and why Gygax didn’t bother to name the residents of the Keep on the Borderlands, but did explain the relationships between the various humanoid tribes living in the Caves of Chaos.

The players should be putting down roots, especially if they’re exploring a megadungeon. Even if they eventually intend to turn on and betray the goblins they’ve allied with against the orcs, they have a stake in what happens to the goblin tribe. They should hate the troll sorcerer who charges them to cross his bridge, have a wary, arms-length relationship with the witch who lives in the woods and can be good for a few healing potions or cure poison when it’s desperately needed, but maybe asks them to perform actions of dubious morality in exchange. And possibly also a love-hate relationship with the fun-loving but emotionally rough-and-tumble satyrs who camp in the clearing halfway between town and the dungeon.

The point of simplicity is not to keep things simple, but to give the campaign room to grow. Your players will show you what they’re interested in and how they’re interested in playing with it by their actions and the questions they ask. Some may need some encouragement, but generally speaking, everyone wants to know they’re leaving their mark on your shared imaginary worlds. Show them how they can do that, find out how they want to do it, and you’ll know how to fill in those blank spots in the map. As Mr. Maliszewski says:

That's the real key to my current refereeing style: creative leeway. I don't fill in any more details than are needed about anything, whether it be the setting of the game or the rules that govern it. My feeling remains that, if there's no immediate need to establish a fact or make a ruling, it's always better to refrain from doing so. That may make it seem at times as if things are "incomplete," but I prefer to think of it as leaving "room for expansion." One of the real reasons I've come to detest most pre-fab campaign settings and bloated rules sets is precisely because they establish facts and rulings outside of the context of play, which, for me, is utterly backwards.

UPDATE: Mr. Conley goes into greater detail about how he helps his players create the backgrounds for their characters. It may result in stronger identification with that character than many OSR DMs want, but it certainly will get the players thinking and knowledgeable about your setting.

UPDATE 2: And Uncle Bear goes someplace similar. Combining what Uncle Bear says with what Mr. Maliszewski says, you remain aware of the questions, but you don't answer them until you need to, and you base your answers on the demonstrated interests of your players. If they want grand, epic battles, then you lean towards there being a major war brewing in the background. If they prefer stealth, skullduggery, and intrigue, maybe the goblin bandits are in the employ of a rival merchant guild or religious order set on harming a rival faction.

Art by Reinhold von Moeller, Eugene Pavy and John Frederick Lewis.