Monday, December 24, 2012

Holiday Break!

Christmas Eve in Minnesota last year
Taking a break today from posting anything.  I hope you are having a wonderful holiday, no matter your religion or belief, and more gaming is just around the corner.  Merry Yule!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

You CAN Make This Stuff Up...

UFO recovery seems to be a new part of Kurama's mission
I wrote a few days ago about the mysterious package received at the University of Chicago.  It seems that the entire matter has now been cleared up - albeit in a mostly mundane fashion, and very disappointing to those of us whose subscriptions to the Weekly World News have lapsed.

Coming to the rescue of the conspiracy-theory-challenged is the website, with a story usually reserved for the prologue of a new Godzilla movie:
“I can report with complete accuracy that Navy divers from the destroyer JS Kurama have brought up a substantial piece of the wrecked UFO,” he said. “Both civilian and military engineers took part in recovering the piece. It is now safely aboard the JS Kurama, which is the ship being used by the Japanese Navy for its salvage efforts.”
Man, I cannot wait to see what they've come up with - this should be really good!

The Grind

One of the interesting results to come out of my recent discussion with Ron Edwards was a keener appreciation for the games industry, and how it affects creativity.  I think I am with James Maliszewski when he says on Grognardia that "[i]f anything, I found my enjoyment lessened and a big part of my abandoning it was based on my knowing too much about [the games industry]."

I don't think of this as a major breakthrough, but I do think that the very aesthetic of the Old School Renaissance of "just make stuff up" is essentially subversive insofar as the games industry is concerned - as Dave Arneson once noted.  While it is true that the "indie" game movement has blazed something of a trail towards alternative commercial models for game publishing, the emphasis in the OSR on setting hobbyist creativity above commercialization simply for its own sake is no bad thing.

The telling element of this came about as I was looking for weblinks for James Wallis, who I have enjoyed gaming with ever-so-briefly in the past.  In an interview from a few years ago, he noted that the demand of acting in a business mode often conflicts with attempts to be artistically creative.  I don't think that this is true dichotomy, but the tension does exist.  All of this is to say that the value of what you make up for your own game shouldn't be measured against some abstract or artificial notion of "could that be commercially viable?" The real question ought to be:

"Are you having fun?"

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Why long-term campaigns matter

Long-term campaigns matter.  That may seem like a self-evident truth to those who are playing Pathfinder or have been involved in a Forgotten Realms campaign for any length of time, but from an OSR perspective, it might not be so clear.  One of the problems of today is that there are so many different choices when it comes to fun games to play.  It was an easier time when D&D was the only choice available - but that soon vanished when new games appeared.

Why do long-term campaigns matter?  Simple - for the story of the campaign and the players in it to develop and unfold.  If "the story" emerges from the play of the game, it's not unreasonable to want to see the "domain game" emerge from character development.  (Not too surprisingly, games like Adventurer, Conqueror, King are aimed at making that possible.)

Recently, I had this realization presented to me by one of my players.  After I told him about my new campaign setting, Aldwyr, Dave looked at me and said, "Well, I like the sound of that, but I hope there's room for some real character development" which he meant opportunities for play in the higher levels of the game - really anything over 7th level, as we hadn't gotten there in about 18 months of play in the campaign I had been running.  Combined with some thinking about pacing, and I decided to go back and do some background reading.  I ran across this quote from Gary in the last issue of The Strategic Review, April 1976:
It is reasonable to calculate that if a fair player takes part in 50 to 75 games in the course of a year he should acquire sufficient experience points to make him about 9th to 11th level, assuming that he manages to survive all that play. The acquisition of successively higher levels will be proportionate to enhanced power and the number of experience points necessary to attain them, so another year of play will by no means mean a doubling of levels but rather the addition of perhaps two or three levels. Using this gauge, it should take four or five years to see 20th level. ("D&D is Only as Good as the DM")
...which reveals a few interesting points about how Gary saw higher level play:

  • Game play should happen regularly and consistently.  Consider: "...50 to 75 games in the course of the year...." 
  • Advancement to "name level" is never guaranteed: "...assuming that he manages to survive all that play."
  • The rate of progress to higher levels slows considerably.
  • A long-term campaign is one that lasts easily more than a year, or even two.
All of which suggests a tension in the modern era between developing a campaign with that kind of timespan, and all the games we'd like to play, and the limited amount of time anyone has.  But if you want to maintain player interest, you need to think about they might develop their character - as long as those characters survive.

I don't think of this as a bug, more of a design feature.  But it is something that can come back to challenge a referee as they go from "town, nearby dungeon, and low-level player-characters" to something much larger and more developed over time. I'm rather curious to see where this will lead. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Winter Solstice!

Winter Solstice 2011 at Stonehenge
Does the calendar in your game year mean anything?  It should.  In pre-industrial societies, the cycle of the seasons and the turn of the year were important in the lives of everyone.  In our "disenchanted" modern world, we pay little attention to the seasons for their own sake, but more as markers of other events and matters of concern.  So there's an opportunity in fantasy roleplaying to re-enchant our world - just a little - not for the sake of superstition, but to reconnect with the world around us.  So add some awareness of time into your game - make that calendar matter for holidays, for the waxing and waning of magical, mysterious and divine forces.  At the same time, go outside and see the daylight begin to lengthen once again, and marvel at the amazing thing that is our world.

Happy Solstice!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

With apologies to Jon Peterson

Read more about this on Jon's blog
I want to be clear: this is an amazing book.  In some ways, it's the book I've wanted to write - but Jon does a better job at much of the subject material by having access to a vast wealth of documentation (and I thought I had an extensive collection!).

I managed to misremember both Jon's name and the title of his book in my recent appearance on Kevin Weiser's podcast, The Walking Eye.  I figured the least I could do would be to put in a plug for Jon's book, especially since it so richly deserves a wider audience. In short, Playing at the World is a history of how wargaming eventually led to D&D, and what other factors contributed to its success when it appeared.  Having lived through the early days of the role-playing hobby myself, I've found it a very worthwhile and interesting read. You can find out how to order it from Jon's blog.  Give yourself - or someone else - a tome of mighty magic for the holidays.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Starting a game club: why do it?

I just read over on a Google+ community about a fellow whose gaming group - like so many - was beginning to scatter. Whether it was due to college graduation or job and career issues doesn't really matter. My own brother-in-law has been meeting with his college gaming group on Yahoo Chat and infrequent get-togethers for years, so there's nothing really new here.  Once a group begins to fragment, gamers often feel a sense of loss and don't know what to do.  Hence, ConstantCon and Google+ hangouts and the like.

But while I enjoy getting together online to do some gaming, it has never really matched the satisfaction I get from meeting around an actual table in real time. Combined with fond memories of gaming clubs in my past, I've always preferred regular get-togethers for roleplaying. So why start a club?

There are a bunch of decent reasons for starting a gaming club:
  • Finding other like-minded gamers. The frequent complaint of "I can't find other gamers!" is a strong motivation to start a club. I would argue that starting a club and putting a little work into maintaining it is well worth the effort, especially if it results in connecting with gamers who share your interests.
  • Introducing new gamers to the games you like.  This is particularly important for the Old School Renaissance, as many of the games we enjoy are not always available at your FLGS.  Having a club builds visibility for "our" kind of games, which does not happen as readily with online gaming.
  • Getting introduced to new games and campaigns.  There is something worthwhile in seeing how it's all done by somebody else, and better yet, having a chance to play in something different.  It is easier face-to-face, which regular club meetings makes much easier.
  • Building a sense of community.  Unlike online forums which can sometimes descend into endless bickering, a local game club can actually help build friendships and strengthen a sense of community among members.  Don't get me wrong - I've seen clubs go through their own brand of drama from time to time - but if you remember Wheaton's Law and the Golden Rule, a lot of it will dissipate.
Ultimately, you need to be open to experiencing new things to be effective in starting a gaming club.  It might come as a surprise, but gamers are even more varied than the general public, so starting a club can be its own adventure.

Next Wednesday: timing and frequency of meetings.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Second Half...

...of the Walking Eye podcast conversation between myself and Ron Edwards, with my friend Kevin Weiser acting as moderator, goes up today.  I have to admit, I am interested in hearing how it will sound, given that there's a lot we talked about - although not as much about the OSR as I might have liked.  Still, it was an interesting conversation, and I'm looking forward to talking with Kevin and Ron again in the future.

Monday, December 17, 2012

They just aren't the same...

Editorial note:  I wrote this blog post some time ago, but aside from a few minor editorial updates, it is still very much how I feel about the current hype around the "evolution" of D&D.

Don't mistake all of this for...
One of the comments made sometimes by fans of D&D 4th Edition is, "oh, it's so much more old school than 3rd Edition!"  This may or may not be true, but that doesn't mean 4th Edition is Old School.  In fact, there seems to be a fundamental difference between 4th Edition D&D and Original D&D, insofar as I could tell from observing a recent Lair Assault game session at my FLGS.

It may be a contrast in ideal types, but there is a distinct contrast between the "D&D-as-product-line" and "D&D-as-toolbox" approach.  D&D 4th Edition is clearly in the former camp, while 0e is clearly in the latter.  "Yes, but that change took place a long time ago!" someone might suggest.  That's true.  It's quite visible in Gary Gygax's editorial "Dungeons & Dragons - What It Is and Where It Is Going" which appeared in The Dragon #22, in February 1979:

"From a standpoint of sales, I beam broadly at the very thought of an unending string of new, improved, super, energized, versions of D&D being hyped to the loyal followers of the gaming hobby in general and role playing fantasy games in particular. As a game designer I do not agree, particularly as a gamer who began with chess...I do not believe that hobbyists and casual players should be continually barraged with new rules, new systems, and new drains on their purses. Certainly there will be changes, for the game is not perfect; but I do not believe the game is so imperfect as to require constant improvement."
...for this..
Broadly speaking, the history of D&D reflects this tension.  The successive editions of the game have been produced with a fair span of time between each edition - but as every edition has been produced, there have been questions raised as to the necessity of the new edition.  But what has also occurred over time has been the slow shift away from the "D&D-as-toolbox" approach.  I would submit that this shift has been detrimental to the creative process - and why 4th Edition and Original D&D are fundamentally different from one another.  Despite recent suggestions, I believe that 5th Edition will be no better at this than 4th.

...or this...
One might ask why this shift has taken place.  One reason is the pressure of commercialization, as noted above.  Another is simply the work involved in creating your own campaign, as Gary himself recognized:

"DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is like none other in that it requires the game master to create part or all of a fantasy world. Players must then become personae in this place and interact with the other populace. This is, of course a tall order for all concerned [emphasis added] — rules, DM, and players alike."
What's interesting is that even at this date, Gary did not see commercial products as being anything more than add-ons to existing campaigns, noting that "[m]odules and similar material will continue to be released so as to make the DM’s task easier and his or her campaign better."  At some point, modules themselves supplanted original campaign creation, dovetailing nicely with the previously-mentioned pressure to produce commercial products to maintain the company - and in so doing, making it strange for anyone to engage in their own creative visioning of the game through their own campaign.  That's what is really unfortunate.
...or your own work.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

We've got top men working on that...

Ah, props in gaming.  Done right, they can add a lot to a gaming session.  Over time, I've created fake ID cards, accident reports, even a spy's briefcase right down to the unknown surveillance photos, cigarettes, and money (for the record, 20 Euros and 100 Rand).

But I don't think I've gone this far:

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Panning for gold

I've recently joined a bunch of G+ communities and combined with some of the other fun I've had over the past while, I now have too many links to follow for gaming goodness.  Here are just a few of the links:

  • Blade & Crown - a new RPG from Rachel Kronick.  Rachel is an old friend from the Twin Cities, and I know she does good work.  I had known Rachel through mutual interest in game settings like 2300AD and Tekumel, but Blade & Crown was something new to me.  I'm boosting the signal.
  • Dave's Mapper - a resource for artistically-challenged referees like me.  I'm just starting to explore it, but I can tell I will get more use out of it over time, not just for D&D but also potentially for Traveller.
  • DrawHexGrid 3.51 - in the past, I've used Incompetech's web-based hex paper generator, but DrawHexGrid looks like a way to get not only hexes but also numbered hexes.  If DrawHexGrid doesn't work for you, check out mkhexgrid as an alternative.
  • Empire - "the board game from Reed College" - Empire was (and is?) a long-standing campaign game that originated at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.  It is another example of the sort of strategic campaign-oriented game which may have influenced later developments in wargaming and roleplaying.
  • The Apocalyptic Post - issues 1-5.  For anyone irradiated with interest in Gamma World, this looks like an interesting resource.  I've downloaded a set and have begun reading.  Definitely something for use with Mutant Future.
  • Classic Traveller supplements from Gamelords, available from Different Worlds Publications.  You can get them on CD-ROM from Far Future Enterprises - and you should!  But also pick up the original booklets for some awesome CT goodness.
  • Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheetsalso available from Different Worlds Publications.  While most of the rest of the Judges Guild stuff for D&D is sold out, apparently Tadashi Ehara still has this classic resource for sale - and for cheap!  There are other items for T&T and RQ, too.
  • Mazes & Minotaurs - the Old School game inspired by Jason and the Argonauts and Homer's The Odyssey.  I'm not sure where I am going to put all the games I want to buy, but this one definitely has my attention.
I know this is what happens when I get to the end of the semester, but I am looking forward to the holiday season break.  I've got a lot of reading and game writing to do.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Just over three years and still growing!

In the beginning: Madison Games Day 2010

Back in September 2009, I moved to Madison, Wisconsin.  I had been hoping for some time to join the fabled Dungeon Masters Association at the University of Wisconsin.  Alas, that was not to be, as the DMA had folded just a few months before I arrived.

So I decided to start Madison Traditional Gaming - a group for people who wanted to play Old School RPGs.  After a somewhat shaky start (there were three people at the first meetup including myself), we've grown from a small number of gamers to several regular campaigns, three established referees, and about two dozen regular players and attendees.

For some time, I've wanted to write a series of blog posts about setting up a club and keeping it going.  I think this is important because there's a recurrent theme on the web and in the OSR that "it's just too hard to go out and find players for a game."  I think that's just not true, if you go about it creatively and with an open mind.  Hopefully, some of the things I have learned over the past three years will be useful to others who are looking for other gamers.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Ron Edwards, the Walking Eye, and me!

Some of you might be familiar with Kevin Weiser's podcast, The Walking Eye.  Kevin's an old friend from Iowa State, and some time ago discovered I was involved in the Old School Renaissance.  It also happens that he knows Ron Edwards fairly well, so he thought it might be interesting to do an interview with both of us, talking about The Forge and the OSR and things related to all that.  So we did that.  It was a lot of fun!  Looks like the podcast will be available on Tuesday.  I'm hoping I don't sound too bad - we'll see!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Dwimmermount play

Over the past few months, I've been playing in James Maliszewski's Dwimmermount campaign on Google+.  We've tried to meet every other week for two hours, but it has been difficult at times to get everyone together.  But it has been very fun - and interesting - to see how everyone plays D&D slightly differently from each other.

Case in point: last night, in our fifth session, we discovered a small band of orcs.  Two of them were carrying a coffer of gold, and the rest were acting as guards.  We gained the surprise on them, but before my slightly wisdom-impaired warrior could charge to the attack, the magic-user in the party cast a Sleep spell and the orcs all keeled over snoring.  That's where things got interesting:

  • What to do with the orcs?  In my gaming experience, the solution was simple.  The orcs were asleep, therefore go amongst them and administer a coup de grace to all of them, i.e. slit their throats.  But several of the other players seemed to have a different idea: tie up the orcs, strip them of arms and armor and leave them.  One of my compatriots argued for taking them back to town and turning them in to the local authorities.  Another idly suggested taking them back as "arena slaves."  I argued without success that all of these options seemed pretty weird, but I didn't press the point.  The orcs were tied up and stripped of their gear.
  • What about the coffer of gold?  Although my character, Talys, was a fighter, I said that he was going to check for traps on the coffer and attempt to pick the lock.  One of the other players said, "But there isn't a thief in the party!  You can't check for traps!"  I demurred, saying:

    "That's not an Old School way of thinking about it.  Here - Talys will use his dagger to check along the edge of the coffer, seeing if there is anything suspicious.  If not, he will use the dagger tip to pick the lock.  If that fails, we can bash the lock open."

    Fortunately, James informed us that the coffer had only two simple hasps, and those were not locked.  I suggested placing the coffer so that it opened up facing a wall, which several of my fellow party-members thought was a bit paranoid.  Quickly enough, however, we opened the coffer using two spears, one from each side flipping the cover back.  Voila! Many, many gold pieces.  While the gold was being divided up, I said that my fighter was going to search for secret compartments in the coffer; there were none.
What made me think about it all afterwards was that we all came from different traditions when it came to how to do things.  The question about the sleeping orcs showed a lack of agreement about what "orcs" were really like and how "civilized" society viewed them.  The question about opening the coffer revealed several different sets of assumptions about how things worked in the game.  What was fascinating about this was the range of expectations about what was the "right" course of action to take.