Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Why are we even talking about the "1st edition feel"?

One of the fascinating things happening right now are the numerous discussions about how the actual play of D&D 4e either does or does not have either a "1st edition feel" or a "Basic D&D feel," both of which have been claimed by people playing 4e. These debates can get very heated, and it actually seems to me like there are players of 4e out there who really, really want 4e to be perceived in this way. But why? Who cares, and what does it matter? I only mentioned in passing in one blog post that I think 3.x publishers are partially responsible for the "old-school revival," and I think this relates to what I'm talking about here.

When 3.0 came out, as there always is with a new edition, there were flames galore on the internet. The shift represented a major change in the way D&D was presented. I remember being shocked as I thumbed through the new 3.0 core books. Forget about whether mechanics were in any way related to old editions, just looking at the art and presentation alienated my old-school senses. The stat blocks and variious powers/feats were completely alien to me. It was clear that this new game would play very different than 1e or even 2e. But lest we dwell on the rules too much, I want to move on to the main topic.

The point I'm getting around to is that 3.x, despite people like me who dreaded it, was received with great enthusiasm. People were very unapologetic at accepting it, basking it its differences compared to older editions. there were a number of people who welcomed the change. One thing that is very different about then versus now is that you never saw anyone talking about the "1st edition feel" At that time I don't think as many people really even cared about that, much less found it something desirable to inject into the new edition.

That is, until the marketing efforts of Goodman Games and Necromancer Games. I honestly think that their marketing is very much responsible for the internet phenomenon we have now where it is so important to some people that 4e have that old-school feel. Whereas in the shift to 3.x no one cared, in this shift to 4.0 people have been told over and over by marketing that the old-school feel is both desirable and maybe the best way to play....but it butts heads with the idea of what system to use.

The problem with the "1st edition feel" is that not only does that mean something different to many people, but it is also warped to mean whatever it needs to mean to be attributed to 4th edition. But rather than argue the finer points of that, I think it is enough to acknowledge, and I think many people would agree with me, that this whole desire to play like the old-school but to do it with the current rules, if that is even possible, is a desire injected by 3.x publishers.

So I think what all of this means to the "old-school revival" is that more and more people are starting to explore the idea that maybe, just maybe, the best way to get that old-school feel is to actually play the old-school games. That maybe, just maybe, those games are not "evolutionarily obsolete systems" after all.

Keep in mind that I'm not saying that either 3.x or 4.o are bad games, because they may very well be, but frankly I don't care because they don't interest or appeal to me. That they can be "old-school," though, at least in terms of what I think is old-school, no, not for me. And that's ok, they don't have to be anything other than what they are, which are games designed both in system and aesthetics to appeal to a specific market of which I am not a part. But the really interesting thing is that this marketing of "old-school feel" is bridging this gap between old-school and the new audience WotC is aiming for, and I think that bridge will help bring in new people who may not switch over to older games, but who may at least develop an appreciation for them.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Mutant Future Podcast Review

The guys over at Midnight's Lair put together a very nice review of Mutant Future, based on a game they ran at Draconis, a game convention in Canada. I just want to shout out a thanks to those guys, and I'm very glad they had a good time!

This review is very interesting to me because from some of their comments I take them to be more "modern gamers," or part of the "new school" instead of "old school" to some extent. What I mean by that is gamers who are more accustomed to sort of streamlined game systems and games that spend a lot more time talking about "story" and role playing.

One of the things I think is very cool about this review is that we get a window into seeing how modern gamers who are "old-school curious" react to older games. But in truth I don't know the gaming background of the reviewers, and how much they played older games, but I *think* this is a fair assessment of their leanings based in the comments.

One of the things that came up was that they felt some of the rules were not well thought out or considered, like saving throws and how to find traps. I think this feeling comes for a couple of reasons. First, Mutant Future is designed to be compatible with Labyrinth Lord. So there are constraints, but mainly rules like these are designed to be simple. This isn't a skills-base system. It assumes that everyone can pretty much attempt anything, so what you have are guidelines that can be used as written or adapted on the fly to other situations.

But, I don't want to spend a lot of time commenting on those sorts of observations. I think it's fair for people who are used to more "unified" and "story driven" games to find elements of Mutant Future confusing. Also I think the reviewers recognize where these design choices come from. What I do want to say something about is how the reviewers seemed a bit baffled about how to take the wacky randomness of Mutant Future and run a story-driven game session.

Part of this bafflement is due to the fact that older games, and I mean specifically D&D and their variants prior to AD&D 2e, are not "story driven" in the same way a lot of modern games are. If you go back to the older modules, whether for AD&D or Gamma World, what you have are skeletons of a story. You have a situation that is described only as much as the referee needs to throw the characters into it. The actual story emerges in play, as the characters interact with the environment and each other. There is no compulsion that the characters actually "finish" the module in the way it was "intended," or that they follow a specific path and have interactions A, B, and C required to take place in any order.

This is in contrast to games that emphasis the story and have more rules surrounding how to create a story. In old-school games this is taken for granted because they assume you know how to tell a story, that you don't need any rules about how to play your character. It is up to the characters to help tell the story, based on the situation and how the dice fall. That is one difference between some story driven games, that randomness is seen as bad to the story. I disagree, but I recognize that these are two different approaches.

One thing I think that can sum up some of the difference between old-school and "new-school" story driven games is that old-school embraces the fact that it is a game, and everything that goes with it. Randomness, character death, these are all opportunities, not limitations. It's true that old-school typically means that the dice decide when randomness is a factor...but not always. Referees have always fudged die rolls. What do people think the GM screen is for, anyway? It isn't entirely to hide the GM's notes. Brutal interpretation of the dice is definitely, at least to me, an old-school characteristic but it doesn't have to always take place.

So, certainly adventures are possible but they need to be designed in a way that makes them flexible. They have to be able to adapt no matter what the players decide or how the dice fall. The story can't necessarily be geared toward everything culminating into a particular encounter or situation.

Anyway, what a great review! I'm very happy to be seeing people enjoy Mutant Future!

It's all about $

A business seeking a profit should be about making money, of course. So we can't blame WotC when they discontinue a game line because it isn't making any money. Or more accurately in the case of D&D, when they create a new edition because it will make more money than the current version.

Consider this quote from Andy Collins, D&D rules manager:

"Nothing is forever. Any expectation that the debut of a new game (or TV show, or comic series, or brand of dog food) also includes an implicit promise that it'll be supported ad infinitum is simply unreasonable.

All we can keep doing is making games & accessories that we believe are worth you, the customer, paying for. Enough folks told us (by their absence) that the current model of D&D Miniatures didn't meet that criteria that we had to make a change."

Now of course he's talking about the miniatures game, but the same is true for D&D proper. When he says that, "All we can keep doing is making games & accessories that we believe are worth you, the customer, paying for," it is a politic way of saying "we make games for maximum sales."

And that's OK. We all know how it works, it's business, no big surprise there. Also consider another of Andy's quotes regarding the minis and why not publish stats compatible with the old ones:

Every minute that a designer, developer, editor, typesetter, graphic designer, or web specialist spends getting a set of stats to the website is a minute they're not spending on another product.

If those minis stats are going to make the company more money than that other product, it might well be a good idea.

But if I can use those folks on a different, more profitable project--say, a D&D sourcebook, or an RPG-focused minis product--I'm obligated as a responsible member of WotC management to support their reassignment.

Yup, that's cold and heartless. But any other decision leads to me AND those folks looking for new jobs when the company's bad business practices leads to layoffs or bankruptcy. I'm not particularly interested in exploring that eventuality.

So for those of you out there who keep asking why WotC won't republish old editions of D&D, I think you have your answer right there. It's not that they have some secret agenda. It's nothing personal against AD&D, OD&D, Basic D&D, etc. If they thought they would make money hand over fist on any of those you can bet anything they'd have published them a long time ago. Again, it's about the $.

The point of all of this? This is why hobby publishing is so important. The biggest goal of hobby publishing is not to make money. OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Mutant Future, Swords & Wizardry, those of us who produce these games do so because we enjoy the hobby and want to see these rules carry on.

So when Andy says, "Any expectation that the debut of a new game... includes an implicit promise that it'll be supported ad infinitum is simply unreasonable." He's wrong. It isn't unreasonable depending on the publisher's goals.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

We should stop whipping THAC0.

Oh, poor THAC0. When people talk about older editions of D&D, and how the rules can be confusing, THACo is often dragged from its poor cupboard under the stairs and beaten viciously.

AD&D 2e is usually credited with the advent of THAC0, but shhhhh...lean close to your monitor because I want to whisper a secret...

THAC0 has always been there.

No, really, it's true. However, like other sorts of conditions you can have, people often don't think it exists until you give it a name. You just like to double check that the doors are locked at night 13 times before you go to bed (and get out of bed 5 more times just to make sure), until someone tells you it is an OCD, then suddenly you have OCD. So OD&D, Basic D&D, and AD&D 1e all had the THAC0, they just didn't know it.

I think the confusion around THAC0 is partly there because it begins to meddle with your sense of reality as soon as you read it. I mean just look at it. THAC0. "To Hit Armor Class Zero." Uhh, wait a second. Shouldn't it be THACZ?? Well that doesn't have quiet the ring to it.

One thing you may not have thought of is that there could be a THAC4, or THAC-3, because choosing 0 as the starting point was arbitrary, but intuitive (or maybe it just sounded better). The reason I say that THAC0 has always existed is because although older editions relied on presenting the full attack matrix, all THAC0 does is save space and make you, gentle reader, do the math yourself.

That's where the second problem comes in. But before I continue, I feel like we've gotten to know THAC0 a little better, so we can do away with formal titles. Lets call him Chad instead. Chad is just the personification of a simple algorithm. Where the confusion sets in is that we are dealing with opposites. In order to get rid of that big clunky attack matrix we just say, "Ok, Chad tells us that a 1st level fighter needs to roll 20 to hit an AC of 0." Easy, right? Now what happens if you (as the fighter) are fighting someone with an AC of 4? You subtract 4 from Chad, so you need to roll 16 or better. Why? Because remember that the higher the AC the worse it is and the easier it is for you to hit your opponent. Now, hah hah hah, here we go. What if, brace yourself now, you're a 5th level fighter and Chad tells you that you need 15 or better to hit AC 0, and you are attacking someone with AC-2. You need to roll 17 or higher. That's right! Remember, negative ACs are harder to hit. You add a negative AC to Chad, but you subtract a positive AC from Chad.

You see, the thing is that it is simple arithmetic. It confuses people because you subtract positive numbers but add negative numbers when normally if you add a negative to a positive you subtract. Hmmm, I'm not sure if that helped you or not. But don't blame Chad, because it isn't his fault. He's just a scapegoat because someone wanted to get rid of the attack matrix table.

Of course I got sick

There's a bug floating around Delhi, and of course I had to catch it! Hit me fast too so I hope it's a short 24 or 48 hr bug. There are a number of alternative remedies here, and my wife and her family uses them fairly regularly. My wife gave me a dose of belladonna this morning. I'm not exactly sure which symptoms it is supposed to address, but I figure better safe than sorry, in case I get bitten by a lycanthrope.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Where in the World is Labyrinth Lord?

So I have been toiling away on mi proyecto secreto for the last few weeks, after finally getting to the stage were I can write after doing a few months of research off and on. Hopefully I can say more about it later...though it may be much later since my "real life" research is going to take me away for a while.

On another note though, as many of you may know Labyrinth Lord went into traditional distribution on October 1st, through the consolidator Key20. Prior to that I had it only in distro through the Lulu plan, which is ok but it is primarily online through any internet bookshop that has ties to Ingram. So that includes Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Paizo, and many others around the world.

So the good news is that distributors have been buying Labyrinth Lord; in fact as of today half of the print run is gone. I've got a team of incredibly generous and talented proofreaders looking over LL at the moment so I can make the next print run as good as it can be. There have been one or two grumblings on the internet that Labyrinth Lord is too expensive (the paperback is 17.95), and I think that comes from being spoiled with so many products being offered at cost at Lulu. I priced Labyrinth Lord where I did from the start because I knew it would need to be priced that way in order to be in distribution. I make very little from the books in distro, just enough to hopefully make the print run a little larger next time. I'm also kicking around the idea of replacing a few of the art pieces to improve the interior on this next run, but I have o do it in a way that does not interfere with the page count.

Anyway, I plan to post a report to various message boards in a month or so to let people know how the LL distro is going. It was only through the massive show of support in the Labyrinth Lord distribution drive sale that I was able to afford that first print run. So far, it looks like the effort has been worth it. My hope is that if Labyrinth Lord can become more visible then more third-party companies will get involved. We'll see! I also want to get Mutant Future into distro, because i think it will kick serious ass once I manage that, but I won't be able to think about that until Spring.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Power Creep Assumptions: Creeping Based on Power

I occasionally see discussions where people are talking about using modules from one edition of D&D with another, and suggestions for conversion. One thing that often comes up, especially when people talk about using Moldvay/Cook or OD&D with AD&D is that clerics don't get a spell at 1st level, and hit die are lower compared to AD&D.

All these things are true. However, take a look at how things changed in OD&D as the supplements were added. Monsters became more challenging, for starters. As a result, no spells at first level becomes a "problem" since monsters can inflict more damage each round and might have more than one attack. Changes were made in aspects of the system, and not necessarily followed through in other aspects of the system right away in predicting what the repercussions might be.

The point I'd like to make is that for some changes, not all mind you, but some, like whether a character has a spell at 1st level or whether on average a character will have 1 or 2 fewer hit points each level, or whether ability bonuses give a few more hit points or damage bonuses...etc. etc. etc....leave the burden on the player, not the referee or module, to cope (which is a good thing). When people comment about the power level of modules based on edition, they are often making the assumption that the module was scaled somehow to account for all this, when in fact, for example, differences in the HD and damage inflicted by monsters from Moldvay/Cook versus AD&D are little different. It's true that fewer hit points and less healing capability can make things tougher, but that only means that the players must play according to the situation. This means they might have to flee more often, or stop to rest more often, or head back to town a little sooner to recoup.

We have to keep in mind that no edition of D&D is really a fine oiled machine. There is a lot of variation across and within editions, and it isn't always consistent. Old-school gaming is, among other things, about thinking on your feet and playing smart. You play with the tools at your disposal. The burden is on the player to survive under various circumstances. Don't expect perfect balance, because D&D, at least earlier versions, were not about balance. Things were intentionally designed to not balance in favor of the PCs! You take the tools at your disposal and run with them.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Authorizing the Unauthorized

Frankly it's amazing to see how things have changed since 1977. I'm going to revisit the piece written by Gary Gygax that I mentioned in another post, from The Dragon Dec. 1977. Much of the article, "View from the Telescope Wondering Which End is Up" is a response to people at the time who were trying to cash in on TSR's success by releasing unauthorized D&D supplements, or in some cases, complete games that were basically rewrites of D&D. Consider this quote:

I cannot resist the analogy of a lion standing over its kill. The vultures scream, and the jackals yap, when the lion drives them off without allowing them to steal bits of the meat. Perhaps a hyena will manage to successfully grab off a mouthful, but that is all. Other lions may
also prey upon the same herd and make even bigger kills, but that is the law of the land. Pardon me, please, if you find the picture not to your liking. From my end it seems most
apropos, for I hear a good deal of screaming and yapping. TSR was the lion which brought down the
prey, and we intend to have the benefits derived therefrom. If we share with anyone, it will be on our terms. The hunter which fails to bring down its kill dies itself.

You really can't blame them. They hit on something that took off with such vigor, of course they would resent people trying to take anything away from them or piggyback on their work. However, this does bring to light a few issues. People often claim that when Loraine Williams took over TSR that this is when TSR became sue happy and the evil overload game company. I have no idea what the numbers are on how often TSR pre-Gygax threatened to sue versus post-Gygax, but I think no one can deny that there was certain an air of contention with competitors who claimed compatibility with D&D on their products. Probably rightly so.

The point I'm working around to though is the change, or transition, that seems to have occurred as D&D developed. I think that when D&D was first released, it was viewed more as a hobby effort. Then it took off and became a fabulous financial success. But in those hazy days in between you had all sorts of spin off products by third parties, and from little bits I pick up here and there it sounds like TSR wasn't totally opposed to them. I read somewhere that "The Complete Warlock" (which is an OD&D rewrite, essentially, but more complex) was unofficially accepted by TSR but later TSR began to tighten its policies and try harder to regulate who was doing what.

So keep in mind that the article quoted above was prior to the release of AD&D; it's no surprise then that in the AD&D books we find warnings to avoid unauthorized supplements, books, miniatures, etc. Thus is born the rhetoric that only official=quality. Again, I'm making no judgment on whether this was "good" or "bad," because it is certainly understandable from a business perspective. The side effect though is that it is a complete turn around from the early days when "do it yourself" was preached.

I remember begin at a con once where I overheard a lady dressed in a princess outfit declare that she only bought OFFICIAL TSR material, and wouldn't touch any of those Role-Aids (from Mayfair Games). I point out Mayfair because at least in my perception they were the third-party company that had the most visibility back in the day. I remember as a little kid going into the game shop and rifling through their supplements, buying some that looked interesting. From a consumer perspective, third-party products are great because you get different ideas that might not be explored otherwise.

So jump forward to today. After the openness of the OGL and D20 SRD, we have a shift back to a "closed" mentality toward D&D. Maybe I'm just cynical, but I think that the new GSL was made only as a PR move, and despite mutterings to the contrary I don't think we will see a revised publisher-friendly version, especially if rumors are true that Hasbro is going to do away with WotC after they finish the slate of products scheduled. Everyone agrees that the openness of the OGL was to encourage support of D&D, and while that certainly happened, other unpredicted things happened as well. I was at Norwescon, in Seattle, WA, shortly before 3.0 was released. I went to a WotC panel for 3.0 discussion (Ryan Dancey might have been on that panel, I don't remember for sure), where they said that one idea with an open game system is that there would be no need for people to invent their own system. The D20 system would be there and everyone can support that.

Well, surprise surprise, the general need of gamers to tinker caught them off guard! Who would have thought back then that all that open content would be used to create complete games like True20 and others? That license allowed people to go on, create D20 clones that they actually use to license major properties like Conan! It's really unbelievable when yo stop to think about that. Part of this is why it's so baffling that people got so angry when OSRIC came out. It was only a new concept in that it applied to OOP versions of D&D, not new in the sense of cloning D&D. I wonder if part of it is the deeply ingrained idea of game "evolution" and that ideas like True20 where seen as an evolution of D&D, while OSRIC is seen as a throwback that is somehow threatening.

Well, I've been all over the place in this post, sorry about that. Usually I have a focused point to make, but this time it's just a bunch of loosely knit thoughts. The general direction I'm heading though is with the idea that the future of "game design" is going to be in the hands of the hobby publisher. I really look for a return to the hobby mentality of the mid 70s, and it will be supported by the internet that allows so many people with similar interests to share their work.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Line in the Sand and Hobby Publishing

I want to congratulate Matthew Finch and everyone involved in getting Swords & Wizardry out! I've only had a chance to glance at it, but so far it looks to be a great contribution to open gaming and old-school gaming.

I want to say a few things. When I released Labyrinth Lord many people assumed there would be an antagonistic relationship between LL and Basic Fantasy RPG. Now that LL has been out for over a year I think time has told that this didn't manifest. All of these efforts complement each other. It's true that people have a tendency to prefer one rules set over another, but in many cases people who prefer say Swords & Wizardry probably won't turn their noses up at a product for OSRIC or Labyrinth Lord. Competition between these systems is largly fictitious in reality, at least as far as I can tell.

In many ways Swords & Wizardry treads on the same ground as Labyrinth Lord. Their overlap is striking. For the record, though, I support Swords & Wizardry and I hope it is well received. I don't anticipate an antagonistic relationship, and I hope people can support both efforts in spirit.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Original Dungeons & Dragons was a rush job.

A while back I was perusing my Dragon Magazine Archive, and read an interesting article by Gary Gygax in The Dragon #11, Vol. 2 No. 5 (December). The article is titled, "View from the Telescope Wondering Which End is Which."

This article is actually very rich as a spark for a number of discussions. The one I want to visit right now is based on the following quote, "Two years ago we determined to revise the whole of D&D in order to clean up the errors and fill in the holes. The project is a long and complicated one, a task not accomplished overnight. Some players have impatiently demanded immediate release of such material, but we are not about to step into that mess again — D&D originally came out as it did because of demands from those who had tested it and fallen in love with the concept."

The gist of this portion of the article is essentially saying that outside pressure (excited fans) caused the new company TSR to release OD&D before it was ready. The "gaps" in the rules are a result of this. I think this begs the question, even though it is a fairly common assumption, of whether the vagaries of OD&D are a feature, not a flaw....or are they actually a flaw (in the technical sense)?

I think this point is most relevant not in the idea that there should be rules for everything, just that the material present should be explained more completely and better organized. For instance, spell descriptions, monster descriptions, some class info, how the elf works, and a few other things could have been fleshed out.

There are a number of reasons why the revision talked about was handled as "the great split" of Basic D&D and Advanced D&D. Some of these reasons are political and legal, discussed in many other places on the internet, but one reason was to create a "different" game more like OD&D in case TSR was successfully sued by Dave Arneson. There is a nice interview series over at Grognardia with Tim Cask that mentions some of this (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

But I just want to hit on a couple of things I've been thinking about. It seems that the idea was that AD&D would take all of the published supplements, merge them, and flesh them out with articles from Dragon, as well as make other adjustments and add extra detail. The real successor to the original three OD&D set is Basic D&D (I'm mainly talking Moldvay/Cook here, since the later sets by Mentzer took on a very different path and the first set by Holmes was less complete than Moldvay/Cook), though while they did substantially clean up the core rules, which I think are much better presented in Moldvay/Cook, a bone of contention many people have is that they altered the generation of characters.

So in the end, all legal and political issues aside, probably the "best" thing they could have done for OD&D, IMO with my armchair designer's hat on, at the time was to essentially take the path of revising OD&D with an eye toward better explanations for the core three books. I think that final result would have looked a lot like Moldvay/Cook D&D (and in fact I think that was what this was for), but probably without thieves and not with a "merged" elf class. It is interesting that later "basic" D&D was seen as the game for kiddies. If that is true, then OD&D would have to be a game for kiddies also since its complexity is no greater. But in reality we are only talking about presentation, and seeing Moldvay/Cook as a kiddie game is only in the context of comparison to AD&D, coupled with the push to sell the new "basic" D&D to kids since the explanations of game play had been vastly clarified.

I recommend going back to read this article by Gygax, it is an interesting window into a certain period of time when D&D was undergoing some interesting changes.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Nurse, Scalpel! Or, tinkering with D&D.

How much can you tinker with D&D before it becomes something that works great for writing stories but not for actually gaming? I've been mulling over various campaign ideas of late, and thinking of the elements that make D&D game play D&D game play. Here are three elements (I'm sure people can name more, or even refine these) that I think are essential to keeping in D&D no matter what sort of campaign world one creates.

1) Emphasis on dungeon environments. This is where D&D started. Whether a red sun burns in the sky, there are three moons, or the only available character classes are fighting men and Wookies, the traditional game environment is in the dungeon. Naturally, this one element takes on the most importance, so the other elements have to support it. This isn't to say that other adventure environments shouldn't be had from time to time, but if the available game options are not conducive to dungeon play then you don't have a viable D&D game (more on this below).

2) Questing for treasure. Without the quest for riches, why the hell else are the characters down in the dank underworld risking their lives? While various other motivations can and should be incorporated into dungeon play, the base line should be that adventuring in the underworld has the potential for awarding treasure. As a consequence, treasure and ruins should be scattered throughout the world.

3) Enough toys to keep things interesting. People like toys. Even if your game world has less magic or even no traditional magic items, players still need toys to keep them interested. So magic items don't exist? Then instead of the wand of fire balls there better be a blaster pistol somewhere, or a laser grenade.

Since I'm assuming dungeon play is the primary setting, all things must support it. Sometimes people forget that D&D is a game. Yes, it is a role playing game, but that doesn't mean it should be devoid of game elements that really only make sense because it is a game. One could come up with an elaborate fantasy world, with rich cultures, interesting races, a deep history....but the big question that must always be asked is...what is happening in the dungeon? Have the monsters been so cut back that there isn't anything interesting to kill in the dungeons? Are the challenges and rewards making the adventures interesting?

In the end, the greatest danger in world design, IMO, is in creating the backdrop forgreat stories, but horribly boring game sessions. Worlds should be designed from the dungeon up, so to speak, not so much from the big picture down. Or at the very least, from the dungeon up, flavored by what you have in mind with the big backdrop.

Old-school Revival Part 2: D20 vs. OGL

There is a battle I've fought with a few other publishers, mostly behind the scenes in the now defunct RPGnow publisher message boards. I mentioned in passing in another post on the Old-school Revival that I felt that the fact that the D20 logo became meaningless was the fault of publishers. I'll explain what I mean by that, but let me back up a little bit.

When the Open Game License (OGL) and system reference documents (SRDs) were made available, Wizards of the Coast also created the "D20 System" license. They created the D20 trademark for 3rd party publishers to create supporting materials for D&D 3rd edition. There is a lot of confusion about a few things; frankly, confusion from some people who should know better. It may be semantics, but just to clarify, the "D20 System" at the start was not really a game in the sense that there is a game out there called D20; it is in reality a trademark without a system. It is only a trademark that worked as a proxy for D&D. What WotC essentially did was create a blanket between them and 3rd party publishers, creating a trademark (D20) that merely implied their more valued trademark (Dungeons and Dragons).

The OGL is a completely separate license, which grants the use of material designated open game content by users of that license. The OGL itself does not inherently use any game system. For example, one could theoretically use the Traveller SRD with the OGL, without ever having anything to do with the SRDs released by WotC (except that for some inexplicable reason Mongoose cites the WotC SRDs in the Traveller SRD, but that's another matter). So where am I heading with this?

There came a time when 3rd party publishers realized that dropping the D20 System trademark logo didn't affect sales one bit. In addition, the D20 System license prohibited a number of things, so people would not use it so that they could create content the D20 license prohibited. The kicker is that even though the D20 logo wasn't being used, publishers would still advertise products that used the OGL as being "D20." Also, products would be advertised as "D20/OGL" equating the two in the minds of consumers.

So where I am going is here: it's true that the D20 logo doesn't imply anything about the quality of a product, which is one area where publishers claimed the D20 logo was useless. But then again, the OGL doesn't imply anything about quality either, and people used the OGL as if it were a system logo, even creating "OGL" logos that served as proxy D20 logos. So the battle I currently fight is that I personally think publishers should stop presenting the "OGL" as if is the D20 system, and if they insist on creating a proxy logo they should create something more suggestive of the actual underlying system.

However, whenever I bring this up with publishers the main response I get is that the difference between D20 and the OGL is meaningless to consumers. My reply is that yes, that's because they are told over and over again by publishers that D20=OGL! Consumers are not going to know the difference until you start telling them there is a difference.

So if you've gotten this far you're probably wondering what the heck all of this has to do with the Old-school Revival. Granted, it only has a small connection, but here it is. For me, supporting old-school gaming and open gaming are closely connected. I want the OGL, when it is advertised on a product, to only have the implication that the product makes use of the open game license. IMHO, if the OGL has any connotations they should be surrounding open gaming in general, irrespective of game system. The OGL has become a powerful "symbol" and I think that taking it away from D&D would be a good thing. Besides, the reality is that the OGL will be used to support a number of systems completely unrelated to D&D, including Traveller and RuneQuest just to name a few. No matter what the original intentions of the OGL were, the fact is it has taken on a purpose of its own and will continue to live without the support of its creator.

When I place "OGL" on my products, I do it not to imply a system but to show support of open gaming in general.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Open Game Content Library

It's entirely possible that Wizards of the Coast will be good sports and continue to host the Open Game License and their system reference documents (SRDs) on their web page. However, better safe than sorry, so I have created an Open Game Content Library. I know that the SRDs are available online in various forms and at various places, but I feel that a source should be maintained in many places and in unaltered form, so that they continue to be useful to everyone without worry that they may have been altered in illegal ways or ways that make them unusable.

Soon I may add other SRDs, especially those released by Mongoose Publishing.

In my next blog I plan to carry on some spin off discussions regarding the Old-school Revival.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Old-school "Revival": Origins, Current State, and Future; An open discussion

It's been called various things, such as the "Old-school Revival," or "Old-school Renaissance." But why is it happening, and where is it going? I've been thinking about this for some time and decided to write down some of my thoughts. This isn't an exhaustive treatise or anything of the sort, but is presented as an open discussion. So here is how I've been structuring my thoughts. It could definitely be fleshed out, but here are the basics.

Origins of the Old-school Revival

Before we can really talk about the old-school revival, we have to define what we mean by the phrase. To me it means the resurgence of interest in old out of print games and game styles that has happened over the last several years.

An interest in old-school games has always been on the internet. The internet is the main thing responsible for the revival, since people with the same interests who would otherwise never meet are able to share common interests. For many years communities have come together to talk about older games, and have produced a plethora of support for the games in the form of netbooks and other sorts of internet postings. However, I think old-school gaming got a major adrenaline shot in the arm, ironically enough, with the advent of Dungeons & Dragons 3.0/3.5 along with the Open Game License (OGL) and system reference documents (SRD) by Wizards of the Coast.

With the WoTC D20 license and the OGL, suddenly people could legally (or maybe more accurately, safely) create supplemental material for the D&D game. The result is the birth of the electronic book/supplement market for RPGs. There is a whole lot that could be said about that, by people who are much better informed and experienced than I, so I want to jump to the part I think is most relevant to this discussion.

So we already have in the background small internet communities that support old-school games. One of the marketing tools used by WoTC when they released D&D 3.0 was the rhetoric that the game was getting back to the dungeon, or in other words, back to its roots of game play as opposed to AD&D 2e which placed considerable focus on wilderness settings, and game worlds overall. A few prominent 3rd party publishers (or I should say, publishers who became prominent) used this idea to help sell their products. Goodman Games came up with their line of Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure modules, using a sort of "back to the dungeon and simpler times" theme. This was and is an extremely successful product line. Then we have Necromancer Games, with their trademark phrase, "3rd Edition Rules, First Edition feel."

So we have an atmosphere in which consumers are being told that old-school=more fun, so long as you are grabbing that "old-school feel" and using it with the current published rules. So I think in a sense the old-school revival owes something of a debt to these marketing elements, because it communicated to gamers that there is something worthwhile about the "old-school" that should be preserved. There is so much more that could be said about the effects of this, but I will move on. Of course, as is always the case, you can't please everyone. Some people got tired of the rules bloat in 3.0/3.5 and decided to use the OGL for purposes it wasn't intended for.

To be fair, it wasn't the first time. As soon as publishers realized that the d20 logo didn't help for most of them with sales (which IMO is there own fault, but I'll discuss that somewhere else), many dropped it and used only the OGL for supplements and, unexpectedly for WotC, to create entire RPGs that actually compete(d) with D&D. Someone can correct me if I am off here on the timeline, but at about the same time, the Basic Fantasy RPG was created, and Castles & Crusades was created.

Basic Fantasy (BFRPG), by Chris Gonnerman and a number of other contributors, was the very first of what is now commonly called a "retro-clone" game. It uses the OGL and the SRDs to essentially recreate many of the rules from the Moldvay/Cook edition of Dungeons and Dragons, but the rules are tweaked with AD&D elements and other elements to allow a number of other features. Castles & Crusades (C&C), on the other hand, is created as a game that is really a mix of Basic D&D, AD&D, and D&D 3.x. C&C really made a lot of people angry in the old-school community, because they were hoping for a product that more closely emulated AD&D. the battles around that were bitter and continue today, though they have diminished, but the important thing that came from that dissatisfaction, and I think the event that really changed the course of the "old-school revival," was the advent of OSRIC by Stuart Marshall and Matthew Finch.

OSRIC was created as a reaction to the dissatisfaction of C&C. OSRIC emulates 1e, and it met a firestorm of debates about its legality and so on. The positive outcome of those debates is that it really made a big difference in drawing attention to itself, so that the name OSRIC is recognized by the majority of gamers who frequent online RPG communities. OSRIC opened a lot of peoples' eyes to just what might be accomplished with the OGL, and it somehow inspired people to begin producing material, not just for 1e through OSRIC, but for several other old games.

So to draw things together, the old-school revival, in my eyes, is the result of the following. An existing presence of old-school game fandom on the internet, combined with the advent of the OGL and SRDs, advertising from 3.x publishers that "old-school" is a desirable style of play, the creation of C&C and OSRIC, and all of this combined with the ease of PDF publishing and, in more recent years, viable print on demand services. Suddenly, anyone with a computer and minimal desktop publishing software can produce not just a PDF, but also a physical, high quality product.

Current State

So today we have a number of games that are either "retro-clones" or near clones, of games. As already mentioned, we have BFRPG, OSRIC, and then came Labyrinth Lord, and then Mutant Future, and soon also Swords & Wizardry. I group these together because they were/are produced within sort of the same "circle" of creators. There are now several other similar efforts, probably most notably the 4c System.

These are the "big" projects that were taken on early in the "movement." Now it seems there are old-school periodicals popping up with great frequency, the first of which was the Old-School Gazette, then the Scribe of Orcus, Fight On!, and more that are planned by various parties.

The big question right now is how far will things go, and will old-school games ever become more mainstream. C&C has been very successful, as they were able to dip into the D&D 3.x buyer pool, but other efforts that stick more closely to older rules have not enjoyed quite the popularity, and though some success has been achieved in traditional distribution (Expeditious Retreat Press with their Advanced Adventures OSRIC modules) most efforts are still circulating only with a small audience "in the know" on the internet.

The Future

It will be interesting to see how things progress. Rather than offer too many predictions, I will note some challenges (in my opinion) the "old-school revival" faces.

Probably the biggest challenge is that older games do not broadly appeal to younger gamers who play D&D 3.x or 4th edition. I think that while there are many reasons for this, we can narrow it down to three big ones.

1) The idea of game "evolution." It is true that in our culture there is a misconception, broadly, that cultural evolution evolves "upward," so that changes are for the "better." This social Darwinism is deeply ingrained. It is only natural that people translate that false assumption to games, often equating role playing games with technology, as if the next edition of an RPG is quantitatively better just like the next generation computer games that have better graphics. Of course this is false. An RPG is only "better" in the eyes of the beholder, not quantitatively.

2) Taking advantage of #1 above, in the case of Dungeons & Dragons, WotC encourages this thinking because it justifies creating and buying a new edition. I'd argue the push was less with TSR in the shift to AD&D 2e, greater with WotC in the change to 3.x, and the rhetoric was drastically increased in the shift to 4e. In order to sell more books WotC communicated strongly that 4e is better, and more evolved, than previous editions. They even took this so far as to create a video in which they depict earlier editions as being silly and primitive.

3) Gamers have changed. Or rather, the next generation of gamers have a very different gaming culture than the previous generation of gamers. Popular culture has influenced how gamers play (it always has), especially with MMORPGs that present a different kind of actual play, and with what they expect from imagery. Gone are the typical Tolkien races (what was, I think, the "conservative race lineup"), and in are the more "comic bookish" images of bizarre races. The entire artistic representation, and sources of inspiration, have changed. All of this makes it difficult to attract younger gamers to older games, because older games seem less fun due to the absence of super-power like game options that minimize character death, combined with the imagery around the games, making them seem quaint and primitive (see 1 and 2).

Finally, reaching a wider audience is a problem. It is difficult to reach a wider audience so long as the old-school games remain solely on the internet. To that end some people are making efforts to get the games out there in physical stores. There are also various psychologies at work. People often question the need for retro-clone games, citing the fact that to one degree or another used books are available of the original systems. This is true, but the problem is that it is hard to appeal to a new audience with an out of print game. Desire for and sales of modules for 1e games, for instance, in theory would be better if 1e is actually in print. Many gamers simply will not look at out of print games, and I think "bringing them back" through retro-clones is the answer to that dilemma.

The whole Old-school Revival is still in its infancy, so it will be interesting to see where it goes. I think a good conservative prediction would be that there will be some break into the "mainstream," but at least for a while it will exist as primarily an internet phenomenon. Print on demand technology makes it easy to create books, and if there becomes a cheaper and more effective way to get these books into distribution then I think all bets are off on what might happen. Nonetheless, it is entirely possible that the current produced by more "modern" expectations of games is far to strong for the old-school to ever gain much popularity. We'll see.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Mental/Psionic Combat

I'm slowly plodding away at a project I haven't announced yet, and likely won't until I have more of it finished. One of the things that it requires is a system to handle psionics.

My initial idea was that I would use the SRD to recreate the algorithms in AD&D 1e. As I investigated it I realized that not only had I never really read the 1e psionics rules, but that mental combat had already begun in just trying to figure out how it all worked!

I played a lot of 2e back in the day, and we did use psionics in that, but the system was much simpler. So I went back to the source with the OD&D and found psionics to be even more convoluted.

This is all probably one reason why most people didn't like or use psionics to begin with.

I don't like the 1e psionics system for several reasons. One reason is that psionics is far less effective against non-psionic characters. So if you incorporate psionics in your game, even if just for monsters, most characters will not have psionics in the first place, thus handicapping your psionic creatures. I don't like that a lack of psionic powers actually grants a form of immunity to psionic attack.

Another reason, and probably the biggest, is that 1e (and OD&D) psionics is a LOT of book keeping and needless point exchanging. You see, with 1e psionics non-combat powers only cost one point of psionic strength, of which say an average character will have 70+ to as much as over 150 points. Given that with complete rest a character can recover a lot of points per day, this makes point expenditure needless. You will never run out of points anyway.

Psionic combat in 1e is another matter. The combat powers do cost more points, as do defense points, but opponents could fight several rounds before they have broken through defenses and finally do something useful. Say 10+ rounds (if each side as an average amount of points) of playing with each other's points. This makes psionics sort of pointless in combat since most of the butt kicking will happen in the first several rounds of combat, and if your character is sitting around not doing damage or something else useful for 10 rounds or more, he may as well not be in the fight. Not to mention that all things being equal, say when opponents have about the same points available to them, by the time an attacker breaks through defenses he won't have any points left to attack anymore!

So, what is the solution? I think the best course of action is to revert to a simpler system that is not point based. If I'm going to do that, I'd like to keep the system compatible with my previous work. So I think I will port over the mental combat system from Mutant Future, and treat psionics in the same way as mutations, so that they will be cross compatible. This will be convenient because I can envision this book I'm writing as something someone would use as inspiration in creating campaign worlds for the Mutants & Mazes aspect of Mutant Future.

For people unfamiliar with mental combat in Mutant Future, it is essentially a test between opponent's willpower ability scores, so that when opponents with equal abilities pair off, the attacker has a 55% chance of succeeding. The probability is adjusted in either direction by 5% for each ability point difference higher or lower between the opponents. In Mutant Future all of this takes place using a d20, so an attacker with WIL 15 against an opponent with WIL 13 would need to roll 8 or better on 1d20 to succeed.

An interesting thing about this algorithm is that while it is used in Gamma World 1e, it is also used in the Basic Roleplaying System (Call of Cthulhu, RuneQuest, etc) where it is call the "Resistance Roll" and uses a d% instead of a d20 (also the percetage is 50% when abilities are the same), but the overall probability increments are the same. When I noticed this it made me wonder whether one game borrowed from the other, or whether these algorithms were arrived at independently. In either case it is a system that works very well.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Welcome to my blog!

Even though I operate a small-press publishing effort (Goblinoid Games), this blog is not solely focused on matters related to my publishing company.

Rather, I want to use this space to talk about gaming in general. The name of this blog is inspired by the spectacular cult classic animated movie Heavy Metal, wherein the "Den" segment there are two factions fighting over the Loc-Nar so that they can summon Uhluht'c and gain unspeakable power. Of course, "Uhluht'c" is merely Cthulhu spelled backwards.

I find Heavy Metal to be very creatively stimulating, due to its diverse imagery and no-punches-pulled gritty presentation of fantasy and science fantasy. It was definitely an inspiration when my friend Ryan and I where working on Mutant Future. I think the Den segment is my favorite in Heavy Metal because it seems to be a Lovecraftian science fantasy world, which I think is ripe for use in gaming. I will have more to say about this later, for the mean time, welcome and I hope you enjoy the blog!