Thursday, June 30, 2016

Two New 5e Resouces - One free, one inexpensive
We had a couple of new Fifth Edition products at Tabletop Library today. One is free, and one is the first in a series. The Deep Magic series is by Kobold Press, and is a serialized conversion of their Pathfinder Deep Magic book. This first part of the series, Clockwork, contains some stuff that's definitely new in terms of Fifth Edition:
  • A Clockwork domain for clerics, featuring Improved mending, Channel Magic, and Clockwork Apotheosis
  • The Great Machine pact for warlocks, with three new invocations: cloud of cogs, heat of the furnace, and voice of the machine
  • A Clockwork Mage school of wizard magic, with new abilities including Clockwork Savant, Clockworker’s Charm, Metal Shape, Golem Form, and Clockwork Mastery
  • 45 new and updated spells, including chains of the goddess, gear barrage, hellforging, robe of shards, and more!
Clockwork is currently only $2.99 for the substantial pdf, which makes it a smoking good deal if you're building unusual ideas into a 5e campaign.
Our other new Product is a free one-page generator for books found in a library, published by Rusted Iron Games along with several other free one-page resources.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Old School "Syndrome"

Note: this article only really talks about old school D&D, not about other game systems, even if they date back to pre-1980. Certain parts of it can probably be applied to other games, but I don't think that the analysis necessarily translates.

One of the factors involved in the Old School Renaissance (which is now pretty naissanced, to coin a phrase) has always been quite a bit of argumentation about who's "in it" and who's "out of it." At the very beginning, Rob Kuntz emphatically rejected the idea that he was in an OSR, since he'd been playing old school all along. Many people got very dogmatic about a certain set of "tests," and different "tests" were a popular topic for quite a while. Rob saw the proliferation of "tests" as being the manifesto of a "movement," and since he considered himself not to be part of a movement with exclusions, he opposed the entire idea.

That may have been a correct read on that particular phase of the OSR, actually. It hit a dogmatic patch early in its self-definition, which is also the reason, I think, that RPGPundit also rebelled against the idea that the OSR had any particular value. This despite the fact that his own opinions dovetailed fairly closely with what most of the OSR people were saying.

Anyway, I'm not going to even try, in this article, to propose any kind of overarching definition of the OSR, especially since it still has a variety of different expressions. However, I'd like to mention a very incisive comment by a poster named Wheggi. His comment was that old-school gaming isn't defined by any particular set of attributes: it's more like a syndrome, where if enough factors from a larger set are present in a game, it can be called old-school for lack, frankly, of a better term.

I'll propose a few of these factors, but what's interesting is that some are purely historical, and others evince a system approach that stands outside of its historical context. I tend to think in terms of that ahistorical system approach as being old school, although I also have personal preferences in favor of lots of the other factors -- I just wouldn't consider those other factors to define borders on the definition. I also think that some or many of the historical-context factors can serve to make a game more old school than another, without necessarily making it better or worse.

My own, overarching view of what old-school means is that the rules are open-ended, meaning that the players aren't constrained to particular actions on a character sheet, and that there is a great deal of interpretation, or refereeing, required on the part of the DM. This generally means that "rules-light" is a factor, but not necessarily. You can have an extensive set of rules that don't constrain the DM, they simply define player options. D&D 5e is thus in my mind considerably more old school than D&D 4e, and even 3e. As a rule-set, anyway.

However, here are a few other factors, and REMEMBER I'm not saying ANY of them are independently a defining feature of old-school gaming. Most people will react to several elements with "that's not old school at all," which is my point. The thing is that all those people who reject particular elements ... will pick a DIFFERENT combinations of elements to criticize. Which makes all of them relevant, and none of them dispositive. Also, just because I say something is ahistorical doesn't mean that it's not also part of the historical context, it just means that it can be seen as an old-school principle that isn't purely lodged in time.
  • The open-ended, few-rules-on-DM approach I just mentioned (purely outside historical context, it's a game-design and play-method principle)
  • Actual rules from the old days, not a retroclone or a later-produced edition (part non-historical, mostly historical context)
  • Black & white art, the printing methods used in the early time period (this I consider only to be partly historical, since it's actually something else as well, not just the way books looked in the early days of D&D, but also the way they looked during the Medieval period being presented).
  • Blue maps on graph paper (okay, that's purely based on historical context)
  • Maps are very much diagrams, with few artistic elements (partly historical-context, but also a non-historical preference for having maps that are easily read during play)
  •  Gygaxian prose. (Mainly historical, but as a writing style it does have some independent, non-historical effect in terms of flavorful reading)
  • Using retro-clones in preference to newer games, even if you don't use actual original rulebooks. (In many cases this is due to the fact that retro-clones have a large audience, available and often-free pdfs, and new products coming out, so it's more of a community and convenience issue than a game-method -- I guess that's non-historical).
  • Killer DMing style. This sucks, and is one of the potential failures of an open-ended gaming style, not a defining attribute.
  • Letting the dice fall where they may. This is different from aggressive killer-DMing, and I think it fits in as a characteristic of old-school gaming as long as you realize that many, many old-school DMs don't necessarily stick to this approach all the time. Frank Mentzer is, I think, one of the group that focuses on player skill as an offset to the game's purely random element. On the other hand, I think the "dice fall where they may" is an outgrowth of the wargaming roots of the game. It's also a definable, non-historical style of play. So I'll include it as a non-historical element of old school gaming, and a good example of how not every element here is required to push a game into the "old-school" category. 
  • Weapons and armor remain within historical boundaries, not reaching anime proportions. (I think that's actually a non-historical element, although it's mostly aesthetic)
  • Rocks fall, everyone dies. (Non-historical, this is simply a gaming method that takes common sense into account rather than using dice in silly situations. However, filling your adventure with this sort of lethal-but-common-sense trap approach can still fall into the killer-DM category, which is poor adventure design)
  • Zero to Hero. This is non-historical, having to do with the strength of starting characters relative to regular people. Many people in the oldest days would still start the characters at higher level than first. It provides, though, a human scale to the heroes, making the game grittier even when the game is at higher level, so it's a definite contrast to newer approaches in which the characters have a sort of super-human feel.
  • Sandbox, not railroad. This is both historical and non-historical. It's clearly a matter of design and play-style, which is independent of historical context. However, it's very much connected to the fact that during the 2e period a series of highly railroady adventures were published by TSR, and that most post-2e published adventures are also far more railroaded than what was common in the pre-2e era. This is one of the areas where 1e and 2e people tend to squabble about what's "old school."
  • Whatever edition you started with is old school. Very common psychology, obviously not actually relevant in any objective sense.
  • No diplomacy checks or other die rolls that can substitute for role-playing that sort of encounter. This is ahistorical, and I think it's a fairly major element.
  • Level tends to be more important than character attributes. This is ahistorical in the sense that it is clearly an attribute of the game's design rather than the way in which it's played. It's also probably the one feature of old-school that absolutely doesn't map onto other games than D&D, and doesn't even map onto other games existing in the late 70s.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Gamehole Con registration starts tomorrow

Registration for Gamehole Con 2016 opens this Saturday, June 25 at noon CST. Gamehole is a fast-growing RPG convention in Madison, Wisconsin on November 4th-6th. Alex Kammer, the con's organizer, asked all of us special guests to spread the word about the convention's registration, so I am dutifully doing so.

Gamehole is an excellent convention, and a great place for OSR folks to meet each other and game. I met lots of cool people last year, and I was pretty psyched to be invited as a special guest this year.

Hope to see you there!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

OSRIC is Ten!

Allan Grohe has pointed out that OSRIC is 10 years old today. Man, it seems like it was only a few weeks ago that Stuart Marshall and I released it ... with the expectation that only fifty or sixty people would ever find a use for something as weird as this "retro-clone" thing we had dreamed up.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Small Publisher Tip: The term "Full Bleed"

If you're like me, as a small publisher, you're learning some sides of the business in bits and pieces. In my case, I had the writing skill, but no graphics or printing knowledge. And sometimes, if you're learning things in bits and pieces, you'll get the wrong understanding of some of the jargon used by the other guys involved in the process. In fact, the better they are, the more likely that they'll assume you know something you don't.

In my case, one of these misunderstandings was about the term "bleed," when applied to printing a cover. I managed to go at least three years with a mistaken understanding of what this meant. As far as I understood it, "bleed" was just a layout artist's weird way of saying that the artwork was supposed to go to the edges of the page. Almost all the time, you can tell an artist that the graphic is "full bleed," and they'll just say, "okay," and you'll get what you need.

However, it becomes an issue if you want two pages to lie next to each other and match up at the borders (this is how my mistake got revealed). Because here's what "bleed" really means:

When the artist produces something with full bleed, it means the graphic is actually bigger than the space you want to fill. It's slightly larger, in the case of cover art, than 8.5 x 11. Part of the artwork is designed to spill off the edge of the page, and this is called the "bleed."

What's that all about? Isn't this whole process digital? Well. if you think about it, there's one part of the process that isn't entirely digital. Think about how, when you print a document, your home printer shakes a bit as it moves blank paper into place and prints on it. The presses used by book printers do the same thing. They vibrate, they shake, and they jiggle while printing. Thus, the page of paper can't be guaranteed to be EXACTLY in the right place. The bleed is a bit of excess picture that will get printed if the page is off center by a fraction or two of an inch. If the graphic is precisely and exactly the size of a sheet of paper, you risk having a white line along one side if the paper is off center in any direction.

So, if you're printing on lulu or somewhere similar, and you've ween white lines along one edge or another of the cover, it's because you didn't have any bleed outside the margins of the page.

This little note will probably only help a few people who make the same mistake I did, but since it happened to me, it might have happened to other publishers with no graphic/layout experience.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Adventure Design Starting Points

I've had several people ping me in the last couple of days, including my Sorcerer's Apprentice, about starting points for designing an adventure. From talking to lots of gifted people over the last few years, I think I can definitely say that there is no objective "right" starting point. The most common things I have heard tend to divide between those who write monsters first, and those who draw maps first.

In my case, it's usually the map first, starting with really tentative sketches. Then coming up with a basic idea and writing it as the "Background" just so there are words on the blank page (a completely blank page is a real inhibitor for creativity).

Then I put some numbers on the map and begin filling in what's in those numbers. This process totally changes the background, and it often means going back to earlier encounter areas and changing them to match the new ideas that are developing. There's a lot of inefficient re-writing, but usually it's worth it as the adventure develops into something I really didn't expect at the beginning.

The final product is usually completely different from the starting point, and being surprised by the outcome is definitely part of the fun of writing an adventure. You never know what you're going to find in your own head.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Sometimes I don't know why things are important

When I first wrote OSRIC, I couldn't put my finger on why I felt it was so important. I've got another interesting example of that, on a smaller scale, and I'd love to hear some input.

I'm working with a teenager who's writing their first module for general consumption. The very first thing I did -- and I don't know why -- was to have them open a commercial module and read it for 5 minutes, telling me what they were looking at as they went.

The result was a lesson that most of us know. No one reads a module sequentially. You flip around from introduction, to maps, to interesting locations you see on the map, etc.

What I don't know is why I felt so intently that this was a FIRST lesson in writing a module.