Friday, September 22, 2017

What Part of the OSR is Old School?

Ask a dozen old school gamers what old school is and you'll get two dozen answers. Because much of the time they aren't even sure themselves. Perhaps for that reason alone the OSR is not what we think it is--I mean, we can't even decide on a consensus definition. But there are some other realities lurking out there in plain site which we often don't openly address.

The genesis of the OSR movement was a confluence of events spurred by WotC buying TSR and the D&D IP; the looming advent of 3rd edition under an entirely new system (d20); the subsequent OGL for 3.5; and finally came to a head with the release, and subsequent failure, of 4e. 

The mission of the OSR, however, is a lot more complicated than the tracing of it's history. Generally speaking, we could say it was a desire to have the older versions of the game in print. But, if I were honest, the OSR was also spawned by the OGL of 3rd edition D&D. 3rd edition was hugely popular, the open market it created was massive. Yes, that created a problem for WotC. There was so much material out there for 3e that WotC was likely having a hard time keeping up with, let alone competing with, all the new material. I wonder if they truly worried that they'd sold the goods down river. Certainly their market share was falling and supplements were being supplied at least as much if not more from 3rd party publishers as they were from Wizards. They needed a new big revenue generator and 4th was the ticket. 

Sure, 3rd was broken in parts, and certainly couldn't all be used at the same table--there was just too damn much of it. But that is not what led them to create 4e. Make no mistake, even Mearls came out about how the 3e glut was the reason they were witholding a similar OGL for 4e. And that, dear readers, is as much a linchpin in the rise of the OSR as any yearning for the past.

For you see, all those disaffected gamers and amateur designers just had the creative rugs pulled out from under them. They were no longer going to be able to produce D&D product for the current edition. 4e was a closed chest. Closed and locked. Closed and locked and trapped. It was at this time that we get the Rise of the Clones. Wizards announces 4e in 2007, about a year after OSRIC had hit the sites for downloads. Now, to be fair, all the 3.5 OGL publications that were flooding the market had some gamers wondering about bringing back an environment that could support out of print editions via the OGL before the official announcement of 4e, but let's look back even earlier.

As a mistake of happy circumstance Hackmaster ended up in creation at the very end of TSR's life. Two events coincided synchronistically to make this possible: 1) the pressure of KODT fans to see the Hackmaster game become a reality and 2) TSR and D&D is sold to Wizards and 2e dies. It looked like AD&D was headed out of print and what a better time to arrive on the scene as a nostalgic, if humorous, look at AD&D in all of its arcane and chaotic glory? As a result, Hackmaster ended up being the first retro clone long before the OSR ever saw the light of day. Shortly after this, Troll Lords comes on the scene with the Gygax-approved Castles & Crusades, the first "true" clone if you like. The whole intent of Hackmaster was to create Hackmaster, and thus it needed to be almost identical to AD&D, just taken to 11. C&C was designed as a clone from the start. C&C came out in 2004, and I believe began the gaming world really talking about possibly using the OGL, not just for creating 3.5 material, but possibly for resurrecting the games of the past.

However ... something changed. With the production of OSRIC what you get is not a game designed to be used as a game in and of itself (as C&C was), though it certainly could be; but to create a legal platform to start producing 1e material again. Amateur writers and designers were looking for a venue in which to produce their own material for their favorite games. They really didn't want to create a new game, they were looking to produce material. The 3.5 camp followers were eagerly participating in the PF playtest (an industry first and a process that would become a standard of the industry) and planning on creating OGL material for their new 3.5: Pathfinder.

But something curious lurks in shadows as the OSR begins to develop. With C&C one could argue that it was an alternative game to D&D that gave you an old school experience with some new school speed. There was really no hope in the early 2000's that someone could resurrect 1e, and so C&C would fit the bill. At least that was the hope. In fact C&C was truly a monumentally well designed effort to bring AD&D into the new age. It married the best of the old and the new into a fast and flexible game. But, if it was so good, why did OSRIC arrive? It's my belief that OSRIC tapped a different crowd. I think this crowd was actually flying under two banners: the flag of the creators who were looking to create new material much like 3.5 had done; and the second flag, the traditionalists. Sometimes the two overlapped, but traditionalists had no desire to play a new game--they simply wanted their game back in print again. Creating material wasn't enough, it needed to be almost identical to AD&D. 

What the OSR gave us in terms of OSRIC is not quite either or. For awhile at least, the supplements for AD&D via OSRIC took off and OSRIC itself looked almost like a technical manual clone of the original AD&D rules. So we have the new wavers playing with C&C, but then some shift to the more accurate clone, OSRIC. But what OSRIC stole from C&C, is stolen from OSRIC when we get a flood of designers seeking to fill the void of 0e/Basic/Expert/etc. Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy Role Playing Game come out in '07, Swords & Wizardry in '08 and something very different is occurring.

Labyrinth Lord, a beautifully done piece by the way, comes out looking like something from a Black Metal Album, Swords & Wizardry, also a work of art, like a Call of Cthulhu Weird Fantasy Mash-Up. People fall in love with them left and right. They are hard core old school--at least that's what we call them. But, this new ethos of old school takes its inspiration from a genre that Gary Gygax admitted was seminal to the D&D thematic tone but had never quite been done like these new retro-clones managed. The swords & sorcery, weird fiction, science fantasy and strange horror of the pulp fiction era is not only relegated to an appendix at the back of the book, but the heart of the hobby. Now, the exception was BFRPG, which managed to pull off a look somewhere between the presentation of the LBBs and the Holmes-Moldvay-Cook sets. Well put together and logical, though leaving out some pieces.

The critical point here, is that these 0e/B/X clones are the first productions in a new vein or expression of D&D gaming that heretofore had not been considered a part of the published sector of the game. By this time discussion about what was old school and what defined something as old school was rampant among blogs and forums. The culmination of these influence was in games like Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, Crypts and Things, and Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea. A dark, swords and sorcery, heavy metal, Lovecraftian feel descended over the games of this period. Many drew their inspiration from Gary's own Appendix N and claimed their territory to be what they considered the "true" spirit of the OSR, regardless of the fact that they were beginning to resemble something very different from the original games themselves. 

Now, while some of this quest for old school spirit is certainly valid, and it is true much of the early D&D production for the day was also a bit racy, edgy and dark. But it was truly nothing like the extended version albums of "old school demon" being summoned by most of the OSR material today. Now, don't get me wrong, I love most of this stuff. They are works of fine weird fantasy art. But I have begun to feel slightly uncomfortable calling such work strictly "old school". The new production market the OSR has generated has become a beast unto itself, not necessarily connected to old time gaming. 

In which case, you might ask, what the hell is old school then, if the OSR aint? Ya know, it's funny, but there is less and less production occurring that looks and plays like the games that were played in yesteryear. Good or bad, it simply is the way it is. We still have some die hard traditionalist producing material in line with old school values on Dragonsfoot and to a degree on the BFRPG site. Generally though, the OSR has taken off in a wild new direction from what we "think"  old school was like. The OSR has about as much in common with true old school as the later Star Wars movies do with the original three from the 70's and 80's. Or J.J. Abrams Star Trek does with the TOS or even STNG. Now don't get me wrong. I loved some of the other Star Wars and Star Trek movies. They just didn't seem like Star wars or Star Trek to me. And I think the same can be said for a lot of the OSR today--it just doesn't seem like the old games any more. 

Now, I know it's hard to make wholesale statements about something as big and amorphous as the OSR. And nothing I say here should be taken in a vacuum. The relationships are complex at best. But I do wonder a bit if we shouldn't ask ourselves what we are about in the OSR, and maybe call a shovel a shovel. I mean there is literally so much stuff on the indie sites now that I can't even tell what I'm looking at half the time, and it certainly doesn't "look" old school to me. OSR, OSR everywhere and not an old school game in sight.This may be the great new age of gaming liberalization, and that's fine. But I think we should be honest with ourselves about what our aim really is, about what we are doing.

Is the point to just get your stuff out there? Do we really need a new game just so you don't have to be compatible with LL, OSRIC, S&W, or PF or 5e whatever? Or so you can produce your own, stuff for your own game, instead of someone's else's that is almost 94% the same? We had a name for that in the old days--house rules. Or would your rather be compatible with all of the above to get the greatest market saturation? Frankly I see some cool little ditty on RPGNow come up on my email and I have to read and look to see--is it compatible with LL? LL+AEC? OSRIC? S&W WB? S&W Core? S&W Complete? DCC RPG? LotFP? 5e? PF? C&T? BFRPG? AS&SoH? ACK? DD? ADD? System Neutral? or some little known game I've never heard of that might or might not be compatible with any of the above. You get the picture? Yes, in one way this is all great, and in another it is really, really tiresome. Maybe I'm just too Lawful, or not Chaotic enough, but it is enough to give me headache. 

The OSR, 5e D&D and Broadway Theater

A funny thing happened on the way to the gaming market. Ig you have never seen the delightful Sondheim musical A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum, do yourself a favor and check it out some night you want to laugh. In a nutshell, the farcical play is about a Roman nobling who seeks the help of a family slave in procuring the heart of the girl next door. In fact you might want to watch it before, or at least after, reading this post as it will make much more sense in the light of the dramatics therein.

I mention it here today because I can't help but realize recent irony over the OSR, the current gaming powerhouse Wizbro and what role the market plays between them. The play mentioned above more than aptly offers an amusing metaphor of the "drama" buzzing about online.

The beautiful young maid, or the paying gaming customer, is desired by Hero next door, the OSR crowd, and yet betrothed to Gloriosus, Wizbro and the hilarities that ensue in trying to rectify the situation so that true lovers can unite is what makes the play and this gaming drama worth watching at all.

The fact is the play ends with everyone happy, except perhaps for poor Senex, still stuck with his shrew of a wife, and gets what they want in the end. As is the gaming industry, with the OSR busily churning product out to the tune of thousands of downloads on RPGNow and other sites, while Wizbro laps up the profits from its recent old school revival simulacrum, 5e. Which, truthfully is the real meat of my post today.

5e is OSR. Yep, and no matter what anyone says, it is basically an D&D based OSR variant as much as several others that take similar bold new school options and have tacked them onto what is essentially designed to be a rules light game that plays like the old days. Now, I have played 5e for the last couple of years and tried to make it "more" old school and failed. It just doesn't quite do anything you want it to, but it also plays "enough" like an older game that it seems to satisfy lots of old school gamers as well as the new kids on the block. So whether you want to say in this case the lovely Philia is able to marry both Pseudolous and Gloriosus or simply that they are both happy having gained a wife and a sister respectively they were able to divide the pie. Much as the OSR and Wizbro crowd have done to current crop of D&D aficionados.

But, if 5e is old school after some sort of fashion, and we owe that fact largely to the influence of the OSR and the anti-4e crowd as well, then why do so many continue to play other versions? This, dear audience, is the $50,000 question. And we could just as easily ask why so many old "die hard" OSR fans have chosen to move over to 5e? That question however, is worth not nearly as much. It simply seems to confirm that 5e is OSR enough to satisfy a large number of gaming consumers. Although I can;t quite help but wonder if a certain portion of the 5e converts are there simply because Wizbro made them feel welcome in the manner they conducted the playtest and solicited their feedback so openly. A smart market move and a possibly genuine one to boot. Time will only tell us how genuine.

Which leaves us with why some simply continue to play other games. A part of the answer is undoubtedly wrapped up in simply loyalty to their current preferences and perhaps disgust with the other guy. Enough OSRers were very vocal about never giving Wizbro another dime for another edition with umpteen splat books to boot. It was simply corporate-sanctioned robbery and they would have no part in it. That nor its associated similarity to the high dollar shininess of the 3e, 4e, and now 5e production quality. It was just something too may gamers associated with bad games in their view. Games that had strayed from the truth and been eternally tainted by their outland wanderings.

But it is yet a final option that interests me here. A cultural phenomena thus far best captured in the "There and Back Again: The Construction of Nostalgia in Advanced Adventures" by Darren Allen Crouse, a paper presented for his master's in Popular Culture. In this paper Crouse argues that "The authors of retro-clones strive to regain control, or restore, immutable qualities believed deficient in the latest edition of D&D." Some of these immutable qualities Crouse outlines are: style, feel, mechanics, playability, and the images of the old school sensibility. The challenge, Crouse points out, is doing so without the violation of copyright law. In other words if we get too close we risk prosecution, and so must chart our course carefully. In achieving such a delicate balance the author mentions such advanced concepts as textual analysis and process and production to align this new material to be accepted in an old school context. In other words, to be truly accepted as old school by those seeking to reconnect with their gaming past in the gaming present, a product has to look and feel and play like the old games did. They recreate an experience through these vehicles.

I would argue, some have continued to do this in producing material that is similar in mechanics and style and feel of old school material as well as playability an content imagery. Such producers as New Big Dragon, Expeditious Retreat, Three Sages, Maximum Mayhem, Goodman Games, BRW Games have all produced content that reads almost identically to old TSR modules and rulebooks. The key here is that we are still playing with products that look and sound like the material which we consider endemic to the game. Or in some cases looks like or sounds like. New style is a step away, as are new feel in terms of prose and rhetoric, but step away with both feet and such products are less culturally connected to the past.

At the risk of stepping out of my depth, allow me to refer to cars. I am not a "car" person nor a "vehicle" person of any type, but the example may help make my point. The muscle car known as the Mustang had a typical look and feel. It became iconic, as many such cars did, and is a model continually revived or resurrected to draw on the nostalgia and love for the old models. Inevitably, however, such productions are received critically by car-lovers who carefully critique how close to or far from the original each new "version" is. But if you notice, all Mustangs have drawn on a similar look in order to hark back to that original classic.

So too are games designed to summon the style and feel of the original games. But I also think it is more than style, feel and aesthetics generally. The mechanics and writing of the old games are also best mimicked as closely as possible in order to harmonize with the vibe players of the original games recall and are looking for. Which brings me to a foreshadowing of my next post: are the clones, simulacra and variants doing that? Or are they doing something else as well?

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Criticism, Philosophy and Gaming


Cultural criticism is often described as the process of describing, interpreting and evaluating a culture. It often breaks down the difference between levels of culture and uncovers the political, historical and sociological reasons why certain aspects of a culture are valued more than others.

Philosophy can be described variously, but at its most simple can be understood as a study of the theoretical foundation for a particular school of thought or body of knowledge.

Some time ago, James Maliszewski described the role of the OSR bloggers as the philosophers of the OSR movement. In this light, OSR bloggers are investigating the theoretical basis of old school gaming--what it is and what it is not.

I think that is part of what I have done on this blog, but I also think I have spent a lot of time doing cultural criticism. In particular criticism of the gaming culture. Especially the the table top role playing game community, and much more relevantly the OSR. But when you come right down to it, philosophy and cultural criticism really go hand in hand. In fact, Kant made it clear in his foundation of critical philosophy. Not only did he argue all philosophy is critical philosophy, his whole body of work has come to be called The Critical Philosophy. In a nutshell, Kant believed it is not philosophy's job to come to any ultimate conclusions about life, the universe or everything. In fact, says Kant, philosophy can't really do that. It can only evaluate and judge the accuracy and coherency or a proposition, subject an idea or a thought to critical inquiry and judge its worth in relation to other ideas and thoughts.

Whatever you may think about Kant, criticism, philosophy or critical philosophy, one has to wonder what the real purpose of bloggers are today. In a world where opinions are cheap and everybody has one, or more, what role do bloggers really play? Reviews, criticisms and judgments are had aplenty in the blogging world, and it requires no more than a decent computer and an internet connection to get yours out there. But what the hell good is it? And what's more, why would anyone engage in such a practice?

In fact it brings to mind Shaw's Maxim 36 from the Maxim for Revolutionaries, "He who can does, he who can't teach." As like to say it is easier to write about something than to do that something. Cultural critics are often decried as making their point on the backs of others' work. And this is certainly true to an extent. Critics require something to evaluate, understand, interpret and judge. For some it is visual art, for others movies, for others literature, or fashion. For me its games.

The question is, is what I'm doing really of any use at all. I look around at blogs, circles, feeds, Facebook, Kickstarters today and Lord, it's hard to keep up with it all. Half of the sites that were around in the opening salvos of the OSR aren't even active anymore. A whole new crop of interactive media has opened up, and most of it focused on new content and new games. I can't help but ask myself if I keep doing what I'm doing here because I can't do anything else. Which of course is not totally true. Regardless of the "quality" of my game design, I spend upwards of six hours a week prepping game material for my current campaign and generating new gaming material, some of which I may never even use. When I go to "put it out there" though, I always hesitate. Is it not good enough? Hell, I'm not sure. Most of my work is a lot like the van they loaded up with Dave Arneson's old papers and files. A disorganized avalanche of half scribbled papers and out of order files that may have made perfect sense to Dave, but were nothing but chaos to anyone else.

I mean I certainly could make my work more suitable for commercial consumption, but I don't. Why? Well, honestly, it doesn't interest me. I'm not a production person. I create my stuff for use in my game and, largely, for my own entertainment. At times I dream about owning a gaming and comic book store, a common enough day dream among gamers. But I've done the numbers. Read what it is really like to be a business owner--and I have no desire to do that. I love going into gaming stores, hanging out there, talking with other gamers and collectors. But I do not want to run a small business--even a game shop. It is close to the same thing with creating content. I do not want to go to the trouble to edit, polish, produce and make understandable, not to mention, playable by others my creations. That's a lot of work that isn't about gaming or creating--it is about polishing, editing, and marketing a product. I lose interest in that about as quickly as I do the sports report on the evening news.

So, what do I do? I whip off these little essays at about 30 minutes a pop. I don't have a lot of time during the day, and yet I think about gaming, and speculative culture in general, all the time. And my mind has a natural philosophical bent. This blog has become my outlet for those thoughts. It takes little time, and the thoughts are already there. Writing them out actually helps.

But ... Then there's Mr. Mentzer. As I said last time, there was another part of what Mr. Mentzer taught me. And this part is what is not as easy for me to process. Is what I'm doing actually worthwhile?

I've been struggling with my place in the larger gaming world ... and, my influence in it. Clearly there is less and less taste for what I do, which could be called a cultural critique of the gaming world, and its product and process. Its history and its politics. I do not claim to be the best informed, nor the most erudite and incisive. I am however, a voice. A voice offering not just another review, or news of the latest and greatest, or even new product; but a voice offering a barometer of how one old gamer sees the gaming world--and reflects on its relation to the rest of the world in which gaming, and gamers, find themselves. I also come by this sort of pontificating rather naturally, as well as by training. My first degree is in cultural anthropology, and I ended up there because my natural proclivities predisposed me to be fluent at observing and analyzing social and cultural groups. My second degree is in English Language & Literature, and my two strengths there, besides a love of reading generally, were a talent at rhetoric and penchant for literary criticism. So, though it hard's to know whether the chicken of education or the egg of interest came first, my blog is what it is because of who I am, what interests me and what I do.

But Mr. Mentzer has caused me to pause. The whole idea that he and other game designers (some of whom I truly admire) came together to intentionally be supportive and non-critical, because it is "good for gaming", sort of pours salt in the eye of much of my rantings here. Of course, just because Mr. Mentzer and others are seeking to pursue one path doesn't mean I'm obliged to jump on board, but I do have to ask: is what I am doing useful? Does it serve a purpose beyond the limitations of the length of my nose? Would I be better off biting the bullet and shifting my site to yet another review site? Or a homebrewed content site? A campaign log blog? A gaming news feed? Or even shuttering the doors for good?

Well, considering I've tried all three and none has ever quite stuck--it isn't likely. Yes, even closing the doors--lasted for all of a few months at best. I simply love communicating about gaming far too much. What then is the core of Mr. Mentzer's message in this regard? I've come to the following conclusion. I'm going to keep doing what I do because of what Mr. Mentzer himself is doing. It's odd really, that I should give this much time and thought to a short phrase, that in itself is a form of  cultural criticism. Yes indeed. Mr. Mentzer is offering an insightful critique of the OSR community. What he points out is true--in a certain light. And the very discussion it has engendered is proof enough of the value of such criticism.

And, as my last post alluded to, scrubbing off all the sharp bits that can scratch you is part of what society did to the early days of gaming. Making everything nice and complimentary is nothing but a mutual admiration society and we know what those turn into: dogmatic priesthoods of the status quo. Yes, philosophy and cultural criticism have a very valid place in the human experience. As does asking ourselves what we are about and why. Gaming has always been more to me than just a game. And yes, I understand that it is just a game, but we all know it is more than that. Culturally, gaming shifted the world, and the world would literally not be the place it is today without it. Good, quality criticism is required if we are to act as responsible and aware stewards of the great gift we have all been given. And yes, Mr. Mentzer helped me realize that. Thank you again Prince of Empyrea.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

What Frank Mentzer Taught Me

If anybody has gaming in their blood it is the old guard of the TSR D&D generation. Sure, others have it, I like to think I have it, but put up against a GBC (Gaming Blood Count) comparison I feel that the earliest creators and designers have the greatest percentage. Now, that doesn't mean what they say is law, or that it shouldn't be disagreed with or gone against--nothing of the sort. These guys are human, sometimes moreso than even they might like. But they have been in the gaming trenches for the longest. They have a level of experience and have dealt with things most of us haven't seen or even imagined. And they are the ones who broke through into the industry, piled up a string of firsts, navigated those unknown waters, defended the game against the Satanic Panic, the yellow journalism and carried on. Through it all, they brought gaming to us today. I have a lot of respect for these guys, and their stripes earn them more than a few passes on any number of faults they might possess or display in the industry. And as another aside these folks from early TSR have done a lot to help the gaming world understand the beginning of the hobby and how things worked in those foundational years--a shout out to Tim Kask particularly for the excellent insights he has given in this regard.

I'll be the first to admit that I put these guys on a pedestal they themselves probably don't want to be elevated to. When they make comments I listen. I try not to venerate or idolize, but I could certainly be accused of doing so at times, especially with regards to Gary Gygax, as my past blog posts readily attest. Today, though, I want to refer to something Frank Mentzer recently said, and how it has affected me. Namely, in response to recent troll related drama online Mr. Mentzer was quoted as saying,

"A common characteristic of most Old-School sites is adherence to one specific point in the Past, generally out-of-print game systems. Very cool. Nothing wrong with that, most systems have value to many. But of all the tabletop RPG fans, the OSR buys the fewest New Products. This is fine [if] I want to give things away... strongly preferred in these circles of course. Culturally the OSR is unique and priceless, and I applaud it. But they have chosen to be irrelevant to the current market."

Now, I analyzed this quote in my last blog post, which you can refer to if you like. Today I wanted to talk on a more personal level about what Mr. Mentzer has made me think and helped me clarify for myself.

I love AD&D as my mind remembers it, from back in the day. And the reason I emphasize those words is that the first thing Mr. Mentzer's words helped me process was that I was nurturing a false memory. I was talking to my brother, also an avid gamer, about it when I was able to first express the idea. I think I remember the AD&D game as something it really wasn't. That may not sound revolutionary, and in fact, I've talked around this idea on my blog before. I am not the first to realize that the 1e game was something none of us played in its entirety. We didn't use all of the rules. What most of us did was play something that was alot like the Original Game with all the added bits and the new 1e content. It varied from group to group, I'm sure, but this idea--that we all played a kind of sort of AD&D game--is what gave rise to many later simulacra and variants.

The two that probably come to mind strongest are Castles & Crusades and Labyrinth Lord with AEC. Soon after came Swords & Wizardry Complete (not quite as smooth, but certainly more "complete"). These were variously advertised as "The Rosetta Stone of RPGs", "0e with all the Supplements", and "1e the way we remember playing it". So, obviously I am not the first person to realize this. But my realization was something slightly more than this. I have written before on my blog about nostalgia and saudade--that melancholic ache that comes with the realization that something long ago was lost and is now not only longed for , but longed for along with the realization that it can never be regained. This too was a part of my realization, and still something more. Memories that come to us nostalgically, inevitably censor the unpleasant bits out. It is exceedingly hard for us to be honest with ourselves and admit that things are never quite as sweet as we remember them to be.

I recently heard a radio program about a wrongfully imprisoned gentleman who served 23 years for a crime he didn't commit. He talked about how bittersweet being released was. He said that what kept him alive for 23 years on the inside, what made him able to endure the harsh reality of prison life, was his light filled and beautiful memories of the outside. He explained how on the inside everything is gray, lifeless, lit by glaring fluorescent lights, and dirty. No matter how they cleaned it was always dirty. In contrast his memories of the outside seemed clean, sparkling, and filled with light. He said it even smelled sweet and the breeze was always just cool enough to refresh. Of course when he got out, while it was wonderful to be free, it far from lived up to his memories of it. He said the outside is often dirtier than inside, harsher at times, and the breeze is often hot and dry, or bitter and cold. His memories had been falsely elevated in spite of having been based on the reality of his life before.

Is that what I had done to myself in regards to AD&D? Was I lying to myself? I'm not trying to cheapen those memories or denigrate AD&D at all, I'm just trying to be honest with myself. I mean if all I needed was to play with rules that sought to mimic "how we really played" I should be able to just pick up LL AEC, or C&C. Which I had done and still not been able to recapture the "magic". That's why my realization had to go deeper still.

AD&D was culturally bound. In fact it is one of the reasons 1e and 2e are so very different, even if they are not all that mechanically distinct--in fact can almost be played interchangeably. 1e was born in an age of pre-fantasy glut. The majority of fantasy works at the time were a weird combination of Swords & Sorcery, Science Fantasy, Early Low Fantasy (JRR Tolkien, Le Guinn, Zelazney, Anthony, Aspirin, Donaldson, Alexander, Norton, Moorcock, de Camp, Howard,) Star Trek TOS, Dr. Who, Silver & Bronze age comic book production, Star Wars: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, & Return of the Jedi,  Led Zeppelin, Rush, Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult and a host of other cultural phenomena of the time. Heck it was even engendered in part by the occult, the rise of witchcraft, polytheism and the Satanic Panic. All of it came together, for many of us at the most impressionable time of our lives -- early adolescence and teenage-hood. It was a time of overwhelming biological chemistry  and psychological angst. For me tied up in my first true friendships, first loves, renaissance fairs and SCA camps. I lived and breathed Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy and adventure as deeply and longingly as I could. All of that wove together in the wild and strange time of the 70's and the early 80's. And by the time we had made it through, and were graduating, sweating in basic training, and stumblingly trying to come to grips with real life it was over and second edition had arisen.

2e scrubbed most of the hard, sharp edges off the game, just like society was trying to scrub it off of life as well. We settled into the age of early adulthood, and the chemicals, both biological and illicit began to rinse out of our systems, the world seemed less dangerous and a lot less magical. Even our game had been tamed down to a nice safe level. This too was a response to cultural forces. The same forces that gave us political correctness, bumper lined playgrounds, and stranger danger was increasingly working at making life sparkly and pretty and accepting and really rather dull. Or so it seemed to us who had grown up in the hard edged days of the rise of D&D.

In fact what you see today in the rise of games like DCC RPG, LotFP and it's much maligned supposedly x-rated and abominable Carcosa, have sought to reach back into those dark and dangerous times we recall from the early days of the games when demons were real and the Gods spoke to gamers. All elements that scared the Christian right and most of traditional society bat shit crazy. Such a phenomena is not unknown in other forms of creative expression as well. Music created today inevitably reaches back to the sounds the musicians heard in their youth, the movie makers seek to make real the fantasies they first encountered in their young hypersensitive childhoods. Thus we have Peter Jackson making over the top and epic rewrites of the LoTR, and Disney co-opting Star Wars for their own purposes, and a Marvel and DC cinematic empire that has strayed so far from canon I don't even recognize it anymore. The thing is, a work life Carcosa, brilliant though it is, is decried as unfit for consumption or gaming, but to me it was simply a delightful riff on the edgy tone of those early gaming days.

I'm not trying to be grumpy cat here, just trying to pull the lid back on a cultural phenomenon that affects us all, whether we like it or not. And I'm not saying we shouldn't have these movies, or music or the games we have today. My kids love them, hell all kids love them and a boatload of adults do to. Why? Because the production values are so good kids can't help but be enthralled and for the rest of us it reminds us of our childhood. Even though they are awesome and quite exciting though, they don't quite see to match up to what giants they seemed to us back in the day. They can't compete with a censored memory that nothing can quite measure up to. And the fact is the kids and teens of today will build upon the foundation of what today's adults create from the bones and artifacts of the dust covered cities of their youth. And so it goes.

That, my friends was the synergistic swirl of thoughts that came to me that night, talking to my little brother, now a 38 year old successful CEO of a multi-million dollar real estate company, myself a public school principal pushing 50 and both of us still as much in love with this game as we ever were. That, is part of what Frank Mentzer taught me. Thank you again Lord of the Red Box.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The OSR Wasn't Started by the Creators of D&D

I almost started this post with the title "The OSR wasn't started by Old School Gamers". But, it should be fairly obvious why I decided not to. I mean, the OSR was started by old school gamers. What I was trying to say was that the OSR was not started by Gygax, Arneson, Mentzer, Kask, or any of the other early gaming luminaries that had a hand in creating Dungeons and Dragons. Now, granted, they were sort of the "reason" for the movement if not the raison d'etre. I bring this point up in response to some recent conversations that have been happening around the internet TRPG community.

Anyone who knows anything about the history of D&D knows Frank Mentzer. Mr. Mentzer wasn't exactly in on the ground floor, but by '79 he had been hired and soon became an invaluable fixture in the middle ages of TSR. He pioneered the most well loved edition of the Basic line of D&D which began with the famed Red Box. Not to put too fine a point on it, but next to Zeb Cook, Mr. Mentzer was probably one of the most instrumental figures in shaping the evolution of D&D through the 80's. 

So, his preeminence established as a forgone conclusion, let us move into the modern day. Recently, and I have no desire to go into the ugly details (you can peruse them over at Tenkar's Tavern), there was a falling out between Mr. Mentzer and the Dragonsfoot forum over his interaction with some trolls on that site. As I said, I will not go into the details of the interaction, as I simply cannot keep up with it all. However, what I am concerned about here is the ensuing discussion that even Mr. Mentzer encouraged gamers to have. That discussion centers around the purpose of the OSR and its relevance to the current gaming culture, especially to the D&D-centric gaming culture.

In communication with Erik, Mr. Mentzer mentioned the following:

"A common characteristic of most Old-School sites is adherence to one specific point in the Past, generally out-of-print games systems. Very cool. Nothing wrong with that, most systems have value to many. But of all the tabletop RPG fans, the OSR buys the fewest New Products. This is fine I want to give things away ... strongly preferred in these circles of course. Culturally the OSR is unique and priceless, and I applaud it. But they have chosen to be irrelevant to the current market."

Whatever you make of this comment, what has resulted in it's wake is a discussion of the various "kingdoms" within the OSR and what defines them. Two strong demarcations are among the kingdom of what I will call the "traditionalists" and the kingdom of the "alchemists".

The traditionalists are those who prefer a certain edition of D&D (or any other game) and seek to continue to play by those rules, with those rulebooks preferably. They are usually supportive of supplements to those systems if they are in the spirit of their preferred edition of published rules and generally do not violate the spirit of the rules themselves. They will readily admit that they may not play with all of the rules in a given edition, but they are the rules they play with. They are comfortable with the rules "as a guide", much as Gary Gygax outlined, as long as the rules we are talking about are the originally published rules. Most of the 3rd party supplements created by and for this group involves adventures in a style reminiscent of old school production qualities. Products like OSRIC have made this work possible, and truthfully many of these pure traditionalists are focused on AD&D, though Basic line and Original edition purists also exist.

Alchemists on the other hand, I almost called them mad scientists, are those who are revolutionizing old school D&D and have produced products like DCC RPG, LotFP, C&T, HM, AS&SH, C&C, ACK, LFG, and others who are coming out with games "like" D&D but also very different from D&D. Some claim to be seeking the true spirit of the game, others riffing on what D&D "was meant to be" or "how cool it could be" but in general are a much more active, open and productive bunch. Something else all of these publishers have in common is that they are selling out there in the rough and tumble place of the market.

Frank Mentzer's comment seems much more squarely aimed at the traditionalist group, as he makes clear that they are seeking to adhere to some point in the past. Their irrelevance to the market aside, they are a much less productive bunch since they are targeting their products and their play on a very narrow band. Most have little desire to mix with other editions or games and rarely produce product outside their chosen field of play.

I think the general point of view among the internet community in response to this discussion is that the Alchemists are very relevant to the market. Quantifying the market share of D&D trademarked, clone and variant products is likely to require an economics degree. I tried a simple hunt for how much Hasbro reported from its WoTC D&D line versus Magic the Gathering recently and about gave myself a migraine. I found some data, but extrapolating details is very hard indeed. The fact is none can doubt that the amount of new old school product coming out and being paid for digitally has to be fairly significant even if it is only 10 to 20% of what Paizo and WizBro pull in. And that's not to mention the general effect the OSR had on the abandonment of 4e and the rise of 5e. Again, even if it was a 70 / 30 split to Paizo, there was still a profound influence. Consumers vote with their pocket books OSR or not.

Now, having said all that, I am left with a sort of no man's land between the Traditionalists and the Alchemists. What about Labyrinth Lord, especially the AEC and Basic Fantasy RPG, and S&W Complete? What about that no man's land between pure clone and the way we all remember playing it? I'm not sure where these fit, but I have a tendency to settle them a lot closer to the alchemist camp than the traditionalists. The reason for this is that those in this group who are clearly producing solid, innovative product for gamers are doing so a lot like the alchemists instead of the traditionalists. They are not mimicking style or production. I mean they have--as some have presented clear "white box" rule sets of their clones--but what I think they are doing is producing work that is meant to be played with any similar ruleset, not just the originally produced rules. And they are doing so with very high quality production values. Companies like Goodman Games, KenzerCo, Frog God Games, Lesser Gnomes and others are clearly producing innovative old school product as well as often producing for the 5e.

Now, many of them are doing this because they know producing 5e adventures nabs a portion of the market share of 5e enabling them to produce stuff for the older rulesets as well. But this is not a condemnation, rather a mindset more in tune with the alchemists than with the traditionalists. However, if you were to corner them, many would readily say they prefer this or that older edition and certainly prefer an older school style of play. But I've noticed something else as well. They are not quick to knock other systems or styles of play.

Which brings me to another point from Mr. Mentzer. He refers to a sort of "meeting" or "gentleman's agreement" between several big league designers and game developers that agreed all this rancor of games and editions and styles was not doing gaming any favors. If you recall one of my posts on Jolly Blackburn being an example of magnanimity among gamers you will know what I am talking about. He was one of those who decided he was going to be a builder and not a destroyer. Mr. Mentzer too has taken the same pledge that he is here to build up the hobby, not tear it down.

However, Jolly Blackburn, Matt Finch, Dave Kenzer, Joseph Goodman, Steve Jackson, Erik Mona, James Raggi, and I could go on, all have one thing in common. They are trying to make money producing products others want. Frank Mentzer, did it, Tim Kask did it, Gary Gygax did it. And from everything I read, it aint easy. There is a portion of the gaming community, and just about every community these days, that feels product should all be open source and as free as can be. I laud that notion, truly I do. I also have benefited from it. However, I also hold fast to the notion that artists should be paid for their work. And the fact is the better the art the more value it has. This has also been an issue in the current brouhaha, but I think it is aught but a tempest in a tea kettle. Turn out great product and people will pay for it. Release free product and people will pick it up. Both camps are entitled to do what they will and nothing will change that.

The fact is, noone can escape the clearly ironic situation that one of the few still active luminaries of early D&D (Mr. Mentzer) is calling out the OSR. He did not create the OSR, even though they venerate him and others as icons of the hobby, and he has no special allegiance to it or beef with it. The same could be said for Gary Gygax when he was still alive. Sure, I'm certain they are flattered that people consider them so highly and are very interested to see if they still have contributions to make to the hobby. However, if these contributions aren't in accord with whatever certain OSR traditionalists or alchemists have in mind they certainly shouldn't be shooing him off. Who are they anyway? They certainly don't speak for me, and I do consider myself a part of and supportive of the OSR. I think what Mr. Mentzer has done, inadvertently or not, is asking us all to take a good long look at ourselves. What do we really want?

So, in the very long end, all my opinions on the matter aside, what did it mean for me personally? Well, it was like a cold splash of water in my face. In trying to take a look at myself and my role I have begun to come to some conclusions. I wanted to share some of the thoughts I have had since I came across the discussion.

I have tried to give the impression that this blog is more or less a defense of my favorite edition: AD&D. However, I have talked about other games that have caught my fancy, played every edition of D&D that has existed, and spent posts ranting, frustrated, celebrating and enjoying just about everything and anything that turned my crank remotely associated with gaming. And I'll be honest. This blog is a product of the OSR. It came about at a time I was technically playing 4e, but the OSR had just taken off. So, I was still playing 4e while trying to be firmly rooted in the old school ethos. Obviously that internal personality conflict didn't last for long.

I have found other games that I thought might become my new gaming home. I became excited about how they seemed to be the heir apparent of AD&D. In rules, in spirit, in tone or some other manner they reminded me, at least in part of what I recalled from my past gaming days. But nothing quite stuck. Nothing really seemed to do the trick.

The other thing this blog has done is to allow an intermittent stream of consciousness venue for me to work out my own thoughts and ideas about gaming and my relationship with it. Am I traditionalist? I have certainly wrote at times like I was. But I don't think I honestly am. I mean hell, I play 5e. I am certainly not a new school gamer who really loves and latches onto the current editions either--I have complained about every one since 2e. But am I an alchemist? I don't really think so. Though I absolutely love the products that the swords & sorcery, punk rock wing of the OSR puts out. However, I can never quite bring myself to be cool with embracing them in play. They're more like cool stuff others have done that I buy, but seldom play without hacking it for my own use. This blog attests to the fact that I spend most of my time wrestling with my current edition and trying to make it fit the way I want to play.

I have also wasted tons of pixels on considerating of what AD&D really is, along with other early editions of the game. And one thing has become clear. I never played AD&D. I played "at" AD&D. I played a roughed down version of the game with the AD&D content. The more I read and study the rules of AD&D I realize I wouldn't "want" to play that way. Those rules as written are not the game I recall playing.

So what the heck does a guy do when he can't tweak the new games to play like he remembers and the old games are actually not as he actually remembers them being? 

What does the OSR have to do with it, and what has Mr. Mentzer inspired me to do? I'll try and tackle that in the next post. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

GMs: Time and Artistic Inadequacy

I have been a GameMaster, Dungeon Master really as most of what I have played is Dungeons & Dragons, for 35 years. I mean not continually, there was a period from about age 24 to 32 when I wasn't actively gaming. But generally when I've played 85% of my time has been on the DM side of the screen.

I love DMing and I love the creative part of it. I am not a great artist, nor a great graphic designer. I mean I'm passable, but not anything special. As an ability score scale from 3 to 18, I would rate my artistic ability at about an 11, maybe a 12.

Most of the D&D stuff I worked on back in the day was better than what a lot of my friends were doing with some exceptions (my friend Joe actually wrote a complete short story of a character adventure and at least submitted it to Dragon). But I never claimed to be a great artist, or mad designer. My strengths were decidedly in storytelling, creative ideas, weaving varied parts and portions of modules, campaign info and character actions into a tapestry that most seemed to really enjoy. Even if I was a bit of a hardass death wise.

But my stuff was mostly me fooling around with my D&D stuff. I had lots of loose papers of my creations, most never used, but a testament to how much time I spent "fooling around." The thing was, that most of this were the absent minded creations of a an amateur, a hobbyist. Eventually people start noticing and encouraging, and what not. But most of that is just a general admiration that someone spends time doodling and scribbling instead of playing video games or watching TV. It was not praise of some type of unearthly talent. One can have talent, but it doesn't always translate into something praiseworthy. That generally requires work. Concentrated, focused effort on improving at a task.

I am most decidedly _not_ a work-a-holic. I was fortunate that school came easily to me. I could read Conan comics, behind my Latin textbook, scribble half finished fantasy and horror short stories in my Honors English class, and draw dungeon maps in Honors History and monsters in Algebra. All this while still maintaining a 4.0 GPA and graduating near the top of my class. I mean I am a successful professional in the education industry now as well, but I make no allusions. I do not live to work, I work to live. Having said that I rarely take my pastimes much past that amateur level of the avid hobbyist still playing at his games and daydreaming my time away. Truthfully, I have a soft spot in my heart for Randolph Carter in the Lovecraft's The Silver Key, who having grown despondent that the dreams of his youth had left him with the cold, sterile vacuum of modern life returned again to the lands of dreams.

The great query then is what keeps me from rising above the simple level of a devoted amateur. There is a certain poetic and rare beauty in the pencil scrabbled creations on the lined notebook papers of our youth, and the pencil drawn maps that we all churned out in the early days of the game. I feel little need to rise above that. Perhaps it's my grognardly nature, or my love of the way things were, but I have realized something. I don't have the skills or the time to publish a game with the production values of similar games coming out today. Now, this realization is something I am still processing and trying to understand completely.

I also have recently run across some occurrences online and in the blogosphere and forumverse that have given me pause to consider what exactly I am about, and what I should set my sites on achieving. There is nothing wrong with staying in that devoted amateur arena, it's comfortable and it's where I've been for over 30 years. One of the things I've learned in my own profession (administration in public education) I have come to appreciate the fact that change requires vision and mission if we are to be successful. So over the next few blog posts I'll be going through these thoughts and hopefully clarifying for myself where I am at.


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Low Fantasy Gaming

Low Fantasy Gaming
So, I have several topics I have been wanting to cover but work has been so busy lately I've not been able to write for a day or two. I did want to take a minute though and offer a shout out for the Low Fantasy Gaming RPG.

If you don't want to read the rest of my thoughts on it, just know this: I absolutely love it! Go and get the free PDF now and see for yourself.

If you chose to hang on and at least get my take on this little gem, thank you. I don't feel like I can quite do justice as a full review as I am still absorbing the rules, and have yet to play a game of it. But this is the nutshell on why I love it:


  1. Beautiful, old school, pen & ink artwork.
  2. Very nice presentation value
  3. Free!
  4. Setting neutral
  5. That said it caters to a Swords & Sorcery, low magic setting
  6. Built on the d20 OGL thus very compatible with 3.5/PF/5e
  7. Old school ethos and thus very familiar to 0e, Holmes, AD&D, B/X, BECMI, & RC players
  8. Incorporates the best of the new on a solid old school framework
  9. The loose Luck Mechanic
  10. Skill Re-Roll Pool
  11. Classes with ability augmentation, but not overpowered
  12. Simple but satisfying Combat
  13. Staggered, Dead & Mostly Dead
  14. Lingering Injuries after a comeback
  15. Dark & Dangerous Magic

Now, I could go over each element separately, but let's put it in a potion bottle: Stephen has managed to put together a game that could stand in for 5e or PF or 3.5 and yet still evoke not only old school but that cool weirdness indicative of DCC RPF, LotFP, AS&SH and C&T. A very nicely done job and an inspiration for me. 

That's what I wanted to talk about most. I have been fairly frustrated lately. I have been trying to rules tweak 5e for a while now and not feeling like I can hit the magic sweet spot. Truth is I really don't want to tweak it, as my heart is not really in the game.  However, Low Fantasy Gaming showed me that not only is it possible, but essentially did what I have been unable to pull off. I'm always in awe of people who put out this kind of work. Who put in the blood sweat and tears the rest of us aren't man enough, to summon. I mean sure, I'm busy, but I'm sure Stephen is too, but he still got it done. And from what I can tell it took the better part of two years to get this far and he is _still_ coming out with product! I say bravo, and keep up the good work.

I suppose the question most want to ask is: will I jump ship to play some LFG? I would sure like to. I'm thinking of running a one off some time soon, and letting the group know I want to do more. But for now, I just had two new 5e players added to my current group and one ask me to run a second game of 5e at another location. Cool to have eager, committed gamers who want me to game with them, but it seems like it's all 5e from shore to shore right now. So, we'll see. But at least LFG has relit my fire, and confirmed for me that turning out good product is not easy. If it was we would all be doing it in spite of ourselves.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Why Don't You Tell Me How You Really Feel ...

I came across a Halfling's Luck review for a low magic game very close to a 5e vibe or feel called Low Fantasy Gaming. The product is generally awesome, and decidedly low magic, rules light somewhat old school feel, with new school rules and touches. You can pick up the rules PDF for free with nice art, excellent layout, and a little-brown-book look to it. I also recognized it as a nice accomplishment of sort of what I was going for in my Next Hack. So much so in fact, that I think I'll shift more that direction instead of trying to retool 5e. And frankly, all this retooling I'm doing is getting old.

Yeah, bear with me while I tell you how I really feel ...


I play a 5e game. I don't want to play 5e. I don't like it. I dislike bounded accuracy, I dislike the power curve, I dislike the nerfed monsters and the upped magic, I dislike the art and presentation--I feel like I'm reading a video game manual, I dislike the healing rules and I dislike the optional rules, I ... well, that's enough.

I also am reluctant to leave my 5e game. I could. Yes, I could, and I think my players would humor me. But the pressure to "please" my players with a game I would rather play is not something I want either. I could try and make AD&D as awesome as I feel it is, and really hype it up--but I don't want to have to do that.

I don't want to tweak 5e, or rewrite it, or try and rewrite 1e to try and "please" my players. Why can;t we all just play he damn game and live with it!

Of course, that's rhetorical, because I know the answer. The answer is there are so many games out there and a culture of gaming nowadays that places the consumer as king. Instead of us wanting to the play the game no matter how hard, challenging or brutal it was and learning to really take pride when we accomplished something in a difficult, dangerous and deadly game, we now have a cafeteria line of personal choice so we can "play the game we want to". I hate this new gaming culture.

Or is this just my perspective? Again, rhetorical. Yes it's my perspective. Born of my experiences in gaming and my age and the time I came into gaming. Not even everyone who came into gaming when I did feels this way. It is just me, or a small handful of people like me.

And if there is anything worse than all of this (besides the ranting itself) is not playing at all. So I continue to play 5e. I continue to DM 5e. My other players are simply not ready to DM--they've made this abundantly clear. And so I continue trying to invest myself in 5e, and trying to make it something a little more like I want to play. And in creating content for my game that is almost as schizophrenic as my game is.

And that, my handful of faithful readers, is the hardest part for me. I feel torn, divided, disassociated. Torn between editions, torn between content, torn between ages. Stuck. I keep trying to talk in this blog about old school gaming, all the while grappling with the new school age we find ourselves in. I am having a problem with all of this. And this is certainly one of the things that has kept me from posting more regularly in the past. I have tried to redefine myself and this blog for some time now and it never quite sticks, because nothing really fits and I still end up conflicted. In case you can't tell, I'm suffering a bit of a gaming identity crisis. Don't worry it's not you ... It's me.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Criticals and Fumbles


Thought I would share an idea reaped from Hackmaster 4e (my principal ongoing source of AD&D inspiration) that I have ported into my 5e game. The HM 4e GMG has a brilliantly crunchy and awesome d10,000 critical hit table, complete with anatomical maps.

My players absolutely love criticals, I mean don't we all ... But we have quite a bit of fun with them. One player started a tradition of playing a "Critical Hit!" gif on their phone, (no, not the one above, that is just my geeky love of Jerry Lewis, may he rest in peace) and of course they all groan in doom laced unison when somebody fumbles. We've used standard double damage, maximum damage rules for Crits, and the 1-2 drop, 3-4 break, 5-6 self inflicted wound for fumbles; we also used the Pathfinder Critical Hit and Fumble decks; and finally the HM d10,000 critical hit tables. The HM tables have been the favorite by far. I a in the process of modifying them, as they are not exactly designed for a d20 based game, and I'll share my tables as soon as they are complete. But you can find the originals in the HM 4e GMG. They also use a similar and somewhat simpler table in 5e, but it is based on their new two roll combat system--which you could also modify. I've wanted to get the 2e Players Option book on combat to get an idea of what inspired HM, but haven't had the time. The one complaint I have about the tables is that I have not found a way in the rules to modify them for animals other than basically human-like in anatomy. Regardless, they tables are a great success at the table, and only take about 2 minutes to apply--definitely worth it for a critical. And believe it or not, I think rolling the d10,000 is their favorite part:
We also use the fumble table from HM 4e, and they are pretty cool, though not quite as varied as the crits, you only roll a d1,000. But nonetheless, better than anything we have used thus far... For, no matter how awesome the descriptions I weave in for the crits, nothing brings laughter to the table like a well played fumble


Saturday, September 2, 2017

Update Next Hack

I have modified the document some, updating it with more playable versions of the rules I first mentioned. Enjoy.

Is my DM Playing Gotcha?

Basilisks, Black Puddings, Brain Moles, Catoblepas, Dragonne, Floating Eye, Ghosts, Ghasts, Ghouls, Grey Ooze, Green Slime, Groaning Spirits, Harpies, Lamias, Lycanthropes, Medusae, Morkoths, Mummies, Night Hags, Ochre Jellies, Otyughs, Neo-Otyughs, Giant Portuguese Man-o-War, Purple Worms, Rhemoraz, Rot Grubs, Rust Monsters, Spiders, Ticks, Poisonous Toads, Trappers, Troll, Umber Hulk, Vampire, Giant Wasps, Wights, Will-o-Wisps, Wraiths, Type D & E poisons, and Death Traps.

What do all these things have in common?

Give Up? Probably not. You probably already know. Each of these critters has an exceptionally nasty ability or two that makes most players very, very nervous. Petrification, Paralysis, Death Poison, and more. All designed to make you a helpless sitting duck while these critters devour you at their leisure or will kill you dead on the spot. You usually do get a save. One save. Sometimes at with a bonus, sometimes without. But that once chance stands between you and almost certain, or sometimes very certain, D-E-A-T-H.

So today's question is, when these things come up is your DM playing the gotcha game? I absolutely do not think so. Well, I mean he might be, but by now if you have a DM being dirckly like that you probably already knew that before these beasties or obstacles came up. If all the kobolds in your DM's world are running around with type E poison, something is wrong. But generally no, the appearance of these monsters or traps or poisons in the world are not your DM being an execrable ass, they are simply the world of AD&D.

If you haven't yet noticed all of the above monsters are drawn from the 1e Monster Manual alone. 225 monsters by my count are in the Monster Manual and 38 of them listed above (maybe minus a few others), about 17%, are notoriously sinister in their ability to put you down quickly. I don;t think that's an awfully lot, and granted some of those are rarely used in most adventure settings. But they do exist. They are a part of the game.

But, some people have a really hard time with such obstacles being placed before their characters. In fact they have a hard time with these kinds of monsters even being a part of the game. Personally I like them, and the risk they represent.

The last time I played a character we ran upon an investigation of some lycanthropes. We actually
didn't know it was at first, because the adventure set it up to almost appear like a murderous psychopath was loose around the countryside. But turns out we got caught unawares in a community where the Lycans were running things. They lured us into the townhall for a celebration at night to be trapped inside when they closed and locked the windows and doors.My thief managed to vault over a table out a window before a window was completely closed, but got caught at the last minute. Long story short we were ambushed. But we still didn't know they were lycans or why we woke the next morning unconscious in the wood side with only but wounds on us, and not any other damage or lost items. We should have wised up between the DM stressing a full moon the night of the party and the "bite" wounds, but oh well.

As soon as we found out the we were suffering from lycanthropy--it didn't take too long after we blacked out or woke up in the woods covered in blood--I was seriously concerned. Why? Isn't it cool to be a Lycan? No!! Not in AD&D! If full lycanthropy hits you, you eventually go mad and have to surrender your PC to the DM. You're as good as dead within a month or so. So, I obsessively looked for a way out of the disease. Turns out the DM didn't expect this--he didn't even know that was a rule--but he went with it and we found a way to a cure.

The point is I understood that this was a part of the AD&D world, and accepted it. I went with it
based on the magical biology I understood to be at work within the world. I also had to accordingly accept the fact that I might fail and that it meant the end for my character. I see save or die poison, petrification, level drain, ability drain and other extreme dangers a part of the AD&D world as well. I mean, sure a DM can write them out of his or her world, but just because they choose not to, doesn't mean that your DM is trying to screw you over. The world is a dangerous place, and you may be a hero, or at least trying to become one, but you are not invincible.



Wednesday, August 30, 2017

AD&D as a Uniquely Gygaxian Toolbox

Don't go Vampire Hunting without your ToolBox ...
And you can't  play AD&D without your Gygaxian ToolBox

AD&D is often seen as a restrictive and rules heavy version of the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Admittedly, later editions (even 2e) make AD&D look like the cliff notes to D&D, a lot like )e looked when first compared with 1e. But without argument AD&D was certainly an increase in volume of paper and rules over the original version of the game. The real question is: why?

How was this new game supposed to be played? Anecdotal evidence gives us ample proof that Gary rarely played AD&D with all of the rules, and like most of the old guard actually preferred playing in a manner closer to the original edition plus supplements, see Mentzer, Kask, et al. The three most popular clones of AD&D seem to be Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion, Swords & Wizardry Complete, and Castles & Crusades. All of which are lite versions of AD&D that more closely mimicking the 3 little brown books plus supplements than actual AD&D. OSRIC is the exception, and can be played (as I have done) as a game in itself when the books are not readily available to your players. But OSRIC is not a popularly played version, especially since the AD&D books are now so readily available. It tends to be used as a supplement production base.

And it seems to those I have been talking to about the matter here and there on the internet, and among gamers I know off the internet, that the preferred way to play AD&D is with a selective use of the rules and some houserules. In other words not with the by the book rules as written. Now, I've written before about this. I never played AD&D rules as written early on either--in fact I never have. But, as you can tell from this year's posts, I have felt a desire to do so more than before. This is a perspective that I have developed as I have tried to come to grips with what AD&D is and where it "fits" in the overall scheme of D&D generally.

I mean why play AD&D if you are not going to use the rules? And what about all those injunctions that the DM should remember the rules are guidelines and ruling are important? That "The DM only rolls the dice because of the sound they make," and other such nebulous comments? Well, and the dragon articles I have quoted in recent posts make clear, that D&D suffered from a bit of an identity crisis in the late 70's. I would love to believe Gary had a distinct grand vision in mind with the development of AD&D, but having listened to Tim Kask and his commentaries on how the AD&D and Basic lines developed it is clear that it was a lot more haphazard and slapdash than we might want to think. Much of AD&D, and the Dungeon Masters Guide is most clearly representative of this, were notes and resources Gary had come across, developed and dreamed up for his campaign and play and for the game generally that made it into the DMG as appendices. Much of the rules, when you take the time to read them, are laced with that strange cant we call Gygaxian delivering justifications of why things are the way they are, what Gary's thinking was when he made some of the choices he did and equivocations about applying certain ideas and rules to the game. Monster race characters in the DMG comes to mind here, as do allowing characters to start at levels above level one. Both sections are equivocal about which way to take this, and sort of discourage it, but say if you do choose to do so, then this is how you could handle it. And Gary himself, when approached about rules questions, like the infamous answer of how invisibility really worked, was prone to default to answers like "Umm, by magic." And again the extremely helpful Mr. Kask also makes clear that alot of time Gary would listen to some request to solve some deep problem with the rules or that the rules didn't cover, and then pause and ask the questioner, "How did you handle it?" After which he would listen carefully and thoughtfully and say something like, "that sounds really good to me, I don;t know that I would have handled it any differently." In other words, it wasn't the rules so much for Gary as it was the game.

Now, none of this is new for most people. But the question comes up again, why play this then if most of the rules and options can be safely ignored? Or even worse if the rules don't really "matter", at least not in the way we might have once thought. Well, I have two ideas, and they aren't revolutionary in any great way, and only one of them makes good sense.

  1. AD&D is a toolbox

This is the idea that spawned the title of this post. AD&D up through Unearthed Arcana, and the Survival Guides not to mention the Dragon magazine articles and the like created a vast tool box to use within the game. But even if you limit yourself to the three canonical works of DMG, MM, and PHB, you can still see them as a tool box of rules to use as needed to build the kind of AD&D world you want. There is nothing wrong with not using some tools or with bringing in new tools, as long as they worked to build the kind of game and world you and your players wanted. This seems to be most people's approach to AD&D. This is the tack that games like C&C took, and their DMG is advertized as just that, a large toolbox of ideas you can choose to implement or ignore altogether. In fact, you don't need the C&C DMG at all to play their game. It is that modular in design. The simple and complete design of the game is contained in the PHB. AD&D didn't do that, and you really can't run the game without a DMG, or at least a DM's screen with the attack and saving throw tables. But this doesn't really get at why one would choose this toolbox over other toolboxes. Undoubtedly the game is a tool box, but it's not just a toolbox.

     2. AD&D is uniquely Gygaxian

Here is where the real argument comes in. AD&D is the only uniquely Gygaxian game out there. Well, I mean Dangerous Journeys and Lejendary Adventures also have a strong Gygaxian flavor, but they are hurt by trying too hard to not be D&D for reasons not critical to the discussion here. If you are going to play Gygaxian D&D you can only do it with AD&D. And sure, a person could be so "in-tune" with the Gygaxian muse that they are able to make their campaign unmistakably Gygaxian despite the rules system they are using, but most of us rely to some extent on the words of the master in guiding our game to fall within his flavor of game style. I wrote about Gygaxian some posts ago, and tried to make the point on at least part of what this style of play encompassed, but whatever you might think it is, it is enshrined in one game--AD&D. And though AD&D is a tool box of sorts, it is a uniquely Gygaxian one. It is the only Gygaxian toolbox that exists. Other supplements and articles to one degree or another express this quality, and other early D&D designers write in this vein, but we have to be judicious with what we consider Gygaxian and what we don't. We also liekwise have to be careful with what we allow in and what we don't if we want to hew at least somewhat closely to the Gygaxian style of fantasy. And if we choose AD&D as our base we are already 75% of the way there. And moreover, this toolbox is the turn of first resort that we look to when we have a question or uncertainty about the rules. Sure we make rulings instead of rules, that too is the Gygaxian ethos, but then afterwards we research and look to see what if anything the rules have to say about this. And even if we don;t find something, we are steeped further into the Gygaxian tone as we search and our rulings tend to be flavored with the spirit of the game. Our players search through them as well, and strategize, plan and create within those same Gygaxian rivers of thought. In this way the game stays ultimately Gygaxian and keeps the tradition, and in a very real way Mr Gygax himself, alive. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Gaming: How Much is Too Much?

A recent critical article about addiction to MMORPGs got me to thinking. Well, honestly it first ticked me off considerably. Anything that aims some nouveau criticism at RPGs by any stripe always raises my ire. This is the kind of stuff we dealt with in the 80's with D&D. It's just that the Satanic abuse craze has been replaced with the codependent/ADHD personality, I'm causing my kid to be screwed up stage. This psychological mumbo-jumbo is the same quackery that told us violence in cartoons made kids more violent. Uh, wrong! The problem has always been that it takes decent research about a decade to address the half baked sensational claims thrown around.

"My Son is Addicted to MMOs!" Makes a much better headline than No direct correlation exists between increase in addictive behaviors and MMOs. The fact is you can be addicted to anything. Chocolate, Sex, TV News, Double Ply Toilet Paper, Pornography, Texting, Church Choir, Internet Surfing, Booger Picking, Zit Popping, Monday Night Football, Cow Tipping, Hair Pulling as well as Video Games. Let's face it humans are an addictive species. Addiction is a complex human trait and not easily pigeon-holed. But true addiction is rare. Just look at all the people who drink alcohol and those that are actually alcoholics. Approximately 1.2% of America is known to be alcoholic while 54% of America self report drinking on a monthly basis. Sure, some factors are more addictive than others, and a few are highly addictive. Just as some people are biologically more prone to develop addiction than others. But condemning a substance/activity on the grounds of addiction is a highly charged accusation.

The Addiction Center lists the five most addictive substances known as:

  1. Heroin
  2. Alcohol
  3. Cocaine
  4. Barbituates
  5. Nicotine
We are all in agreement that there are substances that are harmful, such as those listed above, that rarely have sufficient reasons to even use, with the possible exception of alcohol. That being said, food itself, which we are evolutionarily geared to seek out, can provide a reward/satisfaction response akin to drugs, especially those which provide high carbohydrates. This makes even cookies, candy, soda, and breads potentially addictive. Let alone substances like caffeine, which have stimulant properties which also cause an addiction response in us biologically. 

However, sometimes the very act of eating itself, and not necessarily the food being eaten, can be addictive. This is called compulsive eating, and falls into what are commonly called behavioral addictions. Behavioral addictions are non-drug activities or behaviors that we engage in that can be addictive. These kinds of behaviors are sometimes called natural rewards. Doesn't sound nearly as ominous when framed in this way, does it? However, another key component of behavioral addiction is that we engage in these activities and behaviors regardless of the consequences to our well being socially, psychologically or financially. In other words, the definition of addiction is doing something compulsively or obsessively without regards to other aspects of our life.

This is the real stop light we should heed. How much is too much? Well, if these behaviors are having a negative impact on some critical factor in our life, our family, our marriage, our schoolwork, our job, or our financial stability, just to name a few then we have become addicted and it is something we need to seek control over.

But can we say that something like MMO's or video games, or the internet is "more" addicitve than other substances or as addictive as other substances. Well, there is a way to make these comparisons, but it is helpful to understand why things become addictive in the first place. Addiction is generally a reward response involving the neurochemicals in the body, like dopamine, that become involved in the learning-motivation pathways. Basically put, very basically in fact, our brain realizes some pleasure and learns that that thing is good because it gives us pleasure and we want and therefore seek out more pleasure through the thing that provided the pleasure in the first place. We can easily see these sorts of pathways building in response to drugs, and behaviors like sex, food and exercise. However, are we dealing with the same thing in video games?

To a degree, yes. But the learned behavior for reward seeking is complex as is the stimulation response that occurs to things like interaction with the internet and video games. I will admit however, especially with online games, there is a ratio of difficulty to reward, frequency of reward and the programming of games to get people playing and keep them playing. Such a calculus also figures into in game purchases required to continue the stimulus response behavior. There are also factors like visual stimulation, and rate of change to visual/cognitive content that is carefully paced to retain attention. And the bottom line is that there are a lot of powerfully rich companies involved in making sure they get and keep our attention and reward us just enough, but not too much, to keep us playing and interested. In this way yes, video-games and their interactive cousins MMOs can be engineered even to provide a potentially addictive response in some people, and develop these responses in those not so strongly inclined.

However, like many addictions, some are predisposed to display addictive behavior regardless of the mode of addiction. Others are much less inclined. No matter how much I've really wanted to "get into" video games, for example, I just get tired of them after about 15 minutes or so. I'll come back to them, but they just don't quite do it enough for me to become addicted. Others, I'm sure, are very different. I also have drunk alcohol in the past, but it never really turned my crank. I rarely have the desire to drink either and in fact am a non-drinker now. However, I also used to smoke about 25 or more years ago. I quit when I was about 23. However ... I still dream about cigarettes, I still crave cigarettes occasionally, and love the smell of cigarette smoke. And I don't consider myself particularly prone to addiction.

So, addiction it is not a simple issue. It is very real, and something to be aware of in our lives. Anything can become addictive. Whether one thing is more addictive than other, depends on a number of factors and again is a complex issue. I am not however, one who believes we should jettison all things that could become addictive, or even be afraid of them. For instance, if we are going to get down on MMOs or video games for being potentially addictive, let's get down on Sex and chocolate as well. And we've all been down that road :-) The fact is, if anything is interfering with your life negatively, evaluate yourself and that thing. Make choices and strive for balance.

The Next Hack

A few posts ago, I put up some ideas I had for rendering 5e old school. For some context, I've been running a 5e game for about two years now. We are on our second campaign. The first was mostly a homebrew campaign based around a meg-dungeon of my own creation called Broken Finger. I had started detailing some of that campaign way back then, but never got around to finishing my campaign journal on this blog. We finished that campaign with the characters at about 8th level. Recently, we shifted eastward on my world to a different section of the kingdoms and I ran Phandelver as an intro to a Slaver's campaign. I found I was having a hard time keeping up with the demands of campaign creation and decided to shift to a pre-fab module from 5e (Phandelver) and then to a series converted from 1e to 5e (A1 - 4, The Slaver Series). We have just finished Phandelver, which took longer than I had realized. I relied a lot on Forgotten Realms (not my favorite campaign setting) locales, which worked since I have a region in my world that is very similar. The characters are now level four and creeping up on level five--perfect for the slavers difficulty level.

By now, however, I have become somewhat disillusioned with several aspects of 5e. I could probably boil my primary dissatisfaction with the game to two factors:

  1. The power level of the PCs
  2. The concept of Bounded Accuracy
Now, to be fair the two are entertwined, but they are not the same thing. In my head I imagine WoTC statisticians crunching numbers involving complex, multi-variable statistical analyses on what factors contribute to player power versus monster power and encounter difficulty and coming up with what they consider their ideal sweet spot. Yes, I'm overly imaginative like that. In reality it's probably a much more nuanced and flexible design process whereby a combination of play experience and back of the envelope calculations lead to a general idea of play-ability according to their various design goals. 

One of those design goals was obviously to achieve a less restrictive system feel and give players options to customize. One of the things I have never been very happy about was the power creep that has been going on since 1976 with Greyhawk and Blackmoor. So, in a way one could say D&D has always been dealing with power creep, and that would be a valid argument, but I also feel there has been a constant struggle with balance and feel that argument could be just as valid. Let's face it, the original game was brutal. I personally like it, and I only experienced it with AD&D until about two years into playing I actually got a copy of and read the DMG to find out there was an assumption, even by Gary, that PCs should have better than average stats and needed to be "exceptional". I still recall being blown away by that and running to tell my best friend and gaming buddy, unsure even then if it was legitimized "cheating" to play this way! We were still playing 3d6 straight down the line and if you rolled a one on you HP, it was a 1 sucker, deal with it. We actually kept playing with that last rule for a long time. I also recall being shocked that Gary approved of a less than zero kill level (players being able to go below zero before dying). 

So, the game was brutal, lots of PCs died, players thought that sucked, so we amped up player power and put off death. This endless cycle continues not in one definite direction, though player power has increased to the levels of 4e, we have backed off some in 5e. The difference now, is that the basic assumption of the formula has changed. I have to wonder if this was due to WotC seeing this and the need for developing some end to this cycle. Hence we have bounded accuracy. 

Now, I have some idea of what they said bounded accuracy was supposed to be, but basically, mechanically, this is what it achieved. Characters didn't really get "better" at doing most things very quickly. Proficiency bonuses replaced levels as a measure of skill, and level became indicative of toughness (HP) and range of options (spells and class abilities). Accordingly, a 4th level PC can't really hit anything more easily than a 1st level PC, but the 4th level character has more stuff he can do and more hit points. Which leads to the second thing, that it is a lot less important how "powerful" (as in CR) a foe PCs are up against and much more important how many of them there are.  The real determiner of difficulty is how many attacks are we dealing with as a party. If there are 4 PCs of 4th level they each have usually one attack each which is four attacks available per round. Set them against 8 kobolds that is a huge challenge because there are 8 attacks versus four. Which is where player power comes into consideration. Generally the game is amped up damage wise so that monsters and players are both doing more damage per attack and monsters, even low level monsters, can often do decent damage with an attack. So in the above scenario if we say average damage per attack for the players is 7 HP they can deal 28 HP of damage per round, while the kobolds with an average of say 6 dmg per attack can deal 48 per round. Keeping in mind that kobolds can hit about as well as 4th level PCs that makes for s serious problem since most PCs are going to have an average of 36 HP at 4th level. 

Now, this new idea of bounded accuracy has been touted as a great thing, since it keep monsters that are typically relegated to the nuisance heap in earlier editions are now still relevant in 5e,just up their number. The problem, of course, has been that the reverse is also true. Through a difficult monster up against the same group, say a basilisk, and the encounter can become pitifully underpowered on the monster's side. Especially since many of the iconic abilities of the monsters in 5e have been nerfed so much as to make them much less of a threat. The poor basilisk now can only petrify you magically, an effect that ends as soon as you make a DC 12 Con check, and even then can be reversed by a restoration spell that most Cleric's refuse to go without. At least what I have found is that though such an encounter is nothing to sneeze at, unless there is more than one basilisk, or some lackeys to back her up she will likely be relatively easy meat for a decently healthy party of 4. 

The other thing I have found is that most 5e encounter builders are exceedingly undernourished strength wise. I've used several and have been displeased with all of them. Some used the balance rules as written in the rules, others use, I assume, their own tweaked metrics. None have I found build a solidly reliable encounter based on desired difficulty. This general approach can  be mitigated by assuming some old school ethos in our adventure and campaign building. I have sort of reached a balance myself and now "have a feel" for the edition to know about what kind of power level I am going to need to challenge my players. I am not fond of allowing PCs to wade through battle after battle, challenge after challenge (what happened to save or die?!) until eventually they need to recharge spells to carry on. I also have not found the healing rules acceptable--but I can go into that another time.

Now, to be fair, 5e itself does give some advice in the DMG as to how to deal with all these issues based on the kind of game you want to play. And I am as sensitive as the next guy in knowing that players don;t want to feel as if their are entering a meat grinder every time they step outside of the city gate. Contrary to what it may appear, I am not a killer GM. We have had one death, count it, one, in a total of 13 characters. Not counting the NPC hireling who bit it before they reached level 3. But I am looking for a slightly more authentic feel, and little less superhero to my game. In other words I'm willing to make compromises. The document below is my first attempt to do that. This was penned at the start of our current campaign about 4 months ago. It is my first draft, and I am already rewriting it. I've tried to drop in several of these rules and they haven't worked too well, as I wrote before. But I am tweaking them some, and making them easier to understand and play. Feel free to take a look and beg, borrow, steal or barf on them as you will. Ideally I would like to shift to a more 1e game overall, but if I can get these to work and keep tweaking, I may be able to fee more satisfied if we continue playing Next. 

Oh, and a word on the name. Obviously we know where Next comes from. The Hack part is a three part metaphor, for hacking the current system I'm playing, and drawing inspiration from the Hackmaster system, and Hack & Slash as in making the system more gritty, dangerous and exciting. Let me know what you think. I'll be posting a revised draft sometime soon. 

GDoc for the Next Hack