Friday, January 2, 2015

Red and Pleasant Land

In my opinion, A Red & Pleasant Land by Zak S. is the best D&D supplement that has ever been written to date (2014).

The book is extraordinarily difficult to describe adequately, because it's based within material that has been done virtually to death in RPGs, fiction, and movies -- Alice (yes, the Alice of Wonderland fame) and vampires. Taking Alice's world and mixing vampires into it sounds like a ridiculous idea, simultaneously unworkable and hackneyed. Then, you know, if that wasn't enough, why not just set your artwork alongside John Tenniel's, and your prose alongside Lewis Carroll's. But oh holy shit. Zak's book not only works, it makes other things work: like explaining the existence of a megadungeon that's weird, rich, huge, and incomprehensible without using "mad wizard in Arthurian countryside."

Let me say, quickly, that I'm reviewing a copy that I paid for, and that neither Zak nor Jim Raggi asked me to write a review.

Just about the only part of the book I don't like is the character class of "an Alice," which is done much better than it sounds, but doesn't fit the way I like to run a game, which is why I don't like it. Members of the Alice character class aren't needed, so one can simply ignore that part if one feels as I do, or pay attention to it otherwise.

The writing is phenomenal and evocative. The underlying idea is brilliant. The art -- and I only occasionally like Zak's art for fantasy -- works perfectly. Indeed, the entire book is a piece of art as well as a gaming resource.

One other point about this book: there are a few things that some people will see as strengths, and that others will see as weaknesses, depending on how you're going to use the book. Any gaming book has to find the right balance between the "table reference" use and the "enjoy reading the book" use. As Lewis Carroll does, so does Zak mention several important points as if they are asides, irrelevancies, or afterthoughts. It makes the book read very much like Lewis Carroll (and also like Gary Gygax) to encounter comments like, "If characters in Voivodja are, in the course of any adventure in Voivodja, ever looking for evidence of any kind of misdeed and happen to kill a pudding, the proof will be in the pudding." There are any number of important facts buried in the text to be encountered chronologically by a front-to-back reader, but somewhat hidden from the at-the-table DM who needs to find the answer to a specific question. A gaming book must be readable in the first instance, for if the DM puts it down as a book it will never be played as an adventure in the second instance. Zak had to make choices, and the 6x9 format makes it difficult to meld readability with reference quality. When you run this, you'll forget important things that Zak wrote: if you think this would make you a poor DM, or an inaccurate conduit for Zak's sage wisdom, or create undue complications, you aren't going to work well in this sandbox. This book is for people who (like Lewis Carroll's characters) consider themselves quite the author's equal when it comes to interpreting the author's work.

In other words, you're going to have to read it, assimilate it, and then be willing to make up all kinds of stuff once you start running it. It's not a module, it's a campaign setting, so it can no more be played out of the box than the old World of Greyhawk folio. It's about as user-friendly as the original JG City State of the Invincible Overlord, which is to say, it isn't very. You simply can't have something that is both a perfect reference tool and at the same time evokes a sense of wonder. Check out the Cetology chapter of Moby Dick for an evocation of this tension. Zak had to make some choices, and some readers will applaud the same decisions others deplore.

A couple of other points. (1) I haven't read it as an editor, but I have not spotted any typos in this book. Not any. (2) The physical quality of the book is stupendous.

If you absolutely can't stand Zak's art, or if you simply can't consider a gaming product well-written if it leaves gaps, then you might not like this book. However, I strongly suspect that ARPL will actually show some people what "old school" writing looks like in the modern gaming age, why it was written like that in the first place, and how it is a valid contrast with more modern, codified, game-writing.

If you want to read what OD&D looks like in the year 2014, it is A Red and Pleasant Land. My hat's off to you, Zak, this is a masterpiece.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Marching on to Chapter 11

Having finished Chapter 10 of the Cyclopean Deeps, I move on to Chapter 11, which already has 21,000 words written. Mainly it's a matter of filling in some gaps with the one exception of still having to write the "boss monster" as it were. So, hopefully, I'll have the chapter finished by the end of the month and be rolling into the last chapter (which is also mostly complete).

Source of art:

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Post-Completion Confusion

I just finished writing Chapter 10 of the Cyclopean Deeps. I tell you, when you finish writing an adventure module (which is what each chapter is), there's a period of time afterwards where you're a bit like a gaffed fish. "Is there something obvious that I missed?" "I should be working on ... wait, no, it's done." I need to send this to someone to read it, to make sure it's tight and organized. Yes, that's our editor, Jeff Harkness. Poor Jeff.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

3 days left on Quests of Doom Kickstarter
I'd like everyone to take note that I refrained from posting a "What is the OSR" entry during the (most) recent flap about what the OSR is, was, should be, and isn't. I have something more interesting, which is the old-school-rules version of Quests of Doom, a book of 18 adventures. The authors are definitely old-schoolers, although there's a slant into authors of the late 1e and early 2e era more than the classic 1e or earlier. However, the rule set is Swords & Wizardry (0E) (click format to pdf for free copy of rules), and the mission statement is to produce adventures that fit the 0E/1E mold (avoiding railroading, too-strong NPCs, etc.), and there are strong authors with non-2e chops (me, Bill Webb, Casey Christofferson, and Michael Curtis, to name 4)

The list of authors is: Matt Finch (Swords & Wizardry, Tome of Adventure Design), Ed Greenwood (The Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, The City of Splendors), J. Collura (Caverns of Thracia Reloaded, Chaos Rising), Michael Curtis (The Dungeon Alphabet, Realms of Crawling Chaos), and Casey Christofferson (The Tome of Horrors, City of Brass). Throw in a few D&D long-timers like Steve Winter (Tyranny of Dragons, Murder in Baldur’s Gate), James M. Ward (Gamma World, Pool of Radiance, Castle Keeper’s Guide), Skip Williams (Axe of the Dwarvish Lords, The Rod of Seven Parts), and Bill Webb (Rappan Athuk, The Lost City of Barakus).

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Can a Dungeon Master Cheat?

I saw this question somewhere on the web a couple of days ago, and I can't find it anymore. Incidentally, that's my biggest problem with social media as opposed to blogs and message boards, but that's a topic for another day.

Can a DM cheat? In other words, does the DM so completely rule the game that there is no recourse under the rules themselves for a player?

It's an interesting question when you get into it, partly because when you try to break down what "cheating" means, there are many different possibilities, and it's all mixed in with the fact that the DM certainly is in a position to make rulings. But to break rules, is that simply a "house rule" or a "house ruling" when the rule snaps in two?

I would tend to say that while a DM can't cheat, there are certain things that are "cheap shots." Depending on how you run the game, some things might be cheat shots at one DM's table, but not so much at someone else's table where the base expectations of the game are different.

The "killer DM" isn't cheating, but he's taking cheap shots that will ultimately destroy his game. Still, I am so much in favor of the word "Referee" as opposed to "Dungeon Master" that just the mental vocabulary tells me that somewhere ... I think a DM could be accused of cheating. Hmm.

Just a thought.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Map Challenge - Domes of the Serpentfolk

Okay, so here's a map in response to Erik Tenkar's challenge. Everyone is supposed to post some maps. So ... this is my original draft for the map of the Domes of the Serpentfolk, appearing in Cyclopean Deeps vol. 1, Chapter 5. The version that actually shows up in the book is Robert Altbauer's rendition of this draft.

The idea of the thin stone wall between the domes, filled with secret corridors of different serpent-folk societies developed while I was drafting the map. It originally just has three domes in a big cavern, and that was kind of boring, so I worked with it until I stumbled on the idea of having not only 2 caverns (that was idea #1), but to have the wall be thick and filled with rooms (that was idea #2). I'm pretty happy with the result.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Do-or-die for 5e D&D: third party publishers

Here's the summary of a long post.

If D&D doesn't allow third party publishing, it forces the 3rd party publishers to compete with D&D, using the Pathfinder system. Or whatever, but mainly Pathfinder. They have the choice of recruiting a mass of competitive allies, or throwing all that capital and creativity onto Paizo's side of the scale. It's an existential decision. Not this year certainly, but as early as next year I think the absence or presence of third party publishers will begin determining the ultimate survival of D&D in the face of Pathfinder.

Whether it's public relations to call it a "license," or whether something titled "license" was put in there with the operative legal documents, what WotC has done with Kobold Press and presumably again with Sasquatch, isn't what I'd call a license in terms of putting the benefits of third-party creativity into the system.

I don't fault them for that; they had to have an adventure to go out with the core books, and they no doubt had (and probably still have) internal wars over exactly the same question here on this thread -- is a real license a good idea for WotC or is it a bad one, and even if it's a good one then some poor lawyer has to write the thing with multiple people telling him/her how to word it. (I'm a lawyer, my heart bleeds for that person)

But the arrangement with Kobold is more like hiring a production company at best.
(1) Surely no one thinks Kobold wasn't given parameters for content (betcha it had to have at least one dragon, no dead kids, etc.). Granted, some content ratings, though, can definitely still be "like a license," (see Paizo's nipple restriction) but the amount of restriction and guidance is obviously quite major in this case.
(2) Surely no one thinks Wolfgang Bauer was required to invest his own money at a measurable scale relative to the project for an investor's share? That's in the nature of a license.
(3) Surely no one thinks that there wasn't a set range for the page count.

See, here's the thing. Licenses can take many forms, and have many layers of complexity, including all manner of restrictions, but AT HEART a license is something that allows a third party to be an independent business using the licensed material. Not necessarily a successful one, not necessarily one that supports a family, but one where the significant decisions, most of the risk, and most of the gain, are undertaken by the licensee. Here, WotC is undertaking all the risk, and capturing most of the upside. That's not a license agreement, it's hiring a group of excellent authors who have a company. Which, again, was a good call. I don't fault that decision for even a moment in terms of where WotC stood on its production schedule, its work load and personnel coverage, the evolving state of the rules, and the legal/marketing interface on the question of how open to be with the rules. I would have done the same thing at that point in time. Remember, it takes a LONG time to produce a book like Tyranny of Dragons, and you have to manage lots of moving pieces. WotC effectively hired Kobold to handle as many of those moving pieces as possible within the context of a flagship product. Wolfgang Bauer was a brilliant choice for it. But that's (a) not really a license in any meaningful sense of the word, and (b) not something that grants the benefits of a robust licensing system -- or the downside either, and some downside does exist.

The question of true licensing is this: WotC is trying to catch up with a well-funded, popular competitor that has a well-established brand name, in almost exactly the same competitive space. WotC has a more widely recognized brand name, but it's an older brand name with fewer loyal, die-hard customers than Paizo has. The different aspects of those brand names are important to the way the competition is going to roll out. WotC is starting from behind, but has to work slightly less hard per new customer, and slightly less hard to shift a customer from the Paizo circle in the Venn diagram to the WotC circle. On the other hand, Paizo has WotC under siege. All Paizo has to do is hold onto enough customers that WotC doesn't meet the expectations of the Magic the Gathering return on investment for long enough that WotC decides not to keep funding new books for D&D. Paizo can last much longer because of that existing base of loyal customers. WotC can generate phenomenal return on investment with the core books, but has to sustain a cash flow stream. Paizo already has, and will undoubtedly retain, enough cash flow to continue publishing Pathfinder under their existing model. D&D will, without question, grab enough fans to stay in business if those fans keep playing and buy more books. But they have to hold that ground.

That's a summary of the competitive space, and I think it's accurate. D&D probably got the one, big, expenditure authorization. Core books. After that, have production houses produce smaller books that will also sell to players (campaigns, adventurer sourcebooks. Look at the production schedule and whether full-time WotC employees are doing the writing: I rest my case).

Where do third party publishers fit in here? It all has to do with the popularity of one system or the other. D&D is fighting to survive in that competitive space long enough to gain customer loyalty for those player-targeted books (and the ability to license pinball machines, shirts, computer games, movies, happy-meal toys, etc). They have to stay in the game.

You can't. Cannot. Stay in the game against Paizo with limited funding and a single WotC-supervised line of products. Not even if you are casting a wide net on your product definition such as "Forgotten Realms," or "Greyhawk," or "Spelljammer." That's been tried. The older ones of us remember how successful D&D can be if it runs many campaigns, player-targeted books, and attempt to control outside publishing. That was late-TSR business planning, and it ran TSR out of business. It didn't kill the brand name, but that's because there was no established competitor of any size.

In this case, there's Paizo. Phenomenal customer service, fanatic customer loyalty, stable game system rules (I think WotC's D&D rules are pretty stable and spiffy, too, but I'm profiling Paizo, not comparing), well funded, and with owners that won't cancel the game over a couple of bad fiscal quarters in a row.

One of the ways Paizo got so powerful as a competitor? Third parties publishing "alternate visions" of Pathfinder. Publishing little things to spice up a non-standard game. Publishing robot-power-pirate-dinosaur adventures for the 25 gaming groups that needed exactly that module on exactly that release date. All those people who might have drifted to D&D or Savage Worlds, or Swords & Wizardry, or gone back to First Edition D&D ... they stayed with Pathfinder because of the 3d party publishers. And then maybe a week, maybe a month, maybe six months later, they bought another Pathfinder book from Paizo. Or they bought another robot-power-pirate-dinosaur adventure in the Paizo store, giving Paizo a percentage.

WotC benefits LESS from third party publishers than Paizo, because they don't (and won't) have a store like Paizo does, where they get cash flow direct from the third party publishers. Let me tell you, Paizo got a measurable chunk of change by selling Frog God Games' Rappan Athuk. WotC wouldn't get that cash flow stream. But having the third party publishers prevents this scenario: "Hey, let's play Rappan Athuk. Oh, it's for Pathfinder not D&D. Oh well, drag out the Pathfinder books again, we'll play D&D again later, maybe." Because remember, D&D needs that cash flow stream now, not later. They need: "Hey, let's play Rappan Athuk. There's a 5th edition version [not yet, fans, this is an example]. But I need a DM screen. No problem, I'll get one this afternoon over at the game store [where, additionally to the DM screen, there are other WotC products next to it on the shelf]."

There's no question that in the above example, some WotC product (say, Tyranny of Dragons) got left on the shelf, and all WotC sold was a DM screen (and maybe a related impulse buy). But the relevant comparison ISN'T less vs more, which many commenters seem to think. The relevant comparison is an existential one: it's selling NOTHING vs selling something. Selling "something" to those who would otherwise play the competing game because of third party publishers keeps the lights on at D&D headquarters.

D&D alone can muster up a nice, robust product line that will sell to people who like the common denominator. Mike Mearles has done a good job of hitting a broad common denominator. He's in there swinging. He built an awesome battleship out of what looked like a sunken wreck.

The competing product line, though, is a freaking juggernaut. Paizo is at the center like an aircraft carrier, delivering wave after wave of common denominator product. What's different is the vast armada of third party publishers meeting every need of the Pathfinder player, from alternate minis, to little status tokens, to specialized adventures, to variant character classes, to whatever imaginable whim that player might have. If they play Pathfinder. Instead of D&D.

The summary is this:

Without those 3rd party publishers, WotC has no way to capture the marginal customer. The people who simply can't live with the concept of a world without [your favorite Pathfinder 3pp product]." Single product line relying on multiple official campaigns and policing 3pp production didn't fly in 1998. And now, in 2014, Paizo is out there. Paizo is lean, mean, and popular. If D&D wants to beat the empire, it needs a plucky rebel alliance. They need to start assembling that rebel alliance, fast. And that doesn't mean hiring companies to produce company-approved material using WotC capital and Hasbro's corporate bonds. That's the TSR model circa 1998. I'm assuming that this is just because the rest of the WotC business model hasn't rolled out yet. But the clock is ticking. OGL-based material won't continue to flow from 3rd party publishers without a license to use the copyrighted terms in the rules (not necessarily the trademark, and not an SRD). Without at least that level of open license, D&D won't have the staying power, and Paizo just has to wait. The third party publishers will do all the competing that Paizo needs done.

If D&D doesn't allow third party publishing, it forces the 3rd party publishers to compete with D&D, using the Pathfinder system. Or whatever, but mainly Pathfinder. They have the choice of recruiting a mass of competitive allies, or throwing all that capital and creativity onto Paizo's side of the scale. It's an existential decision. Not this year certainly, but as early as next year I think the absence or presence of third party publishers will begin determining the ultimate survival of D&D in the face of Pathfinder.