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.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Concept of a Basic Game Part 3

So, in my last installment of this series, I pointed out that there have been two different approaches taken for D&D in terms of creating a basic set. The first of these, the Holmes basic set, was essentially a full set of rules that only went up three levels. The second, the Moldvay Basic set, was the first half of a complete game, a game that ran parallel with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons all the way up to the top possible levels. The rules of this parallel game were less complex than the rules of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (for those who are unfamiliar with the game's first edition, it was a rather difficult game if you tried to use all the rules).

Now that Wizards of the Coast has released a new basic set for 5th Edition D&D, it's worth taking a look at the philosophy and approach of the new approach. Is WotC taking the "just for a couple of levels" approach, or the "less-complex but all-the-way-to-the-end" approach?

The answer, interestingly enough, appears to be that they are simultaneously taking both approaches. What's different here with the two past offerings isn't the contents, it's the medium. The starter kit, which comes in a box and will get sold in stores, apparently takes the Holmes approach. It's only good for a short time; you learn the essential rules and you have some pregenerated characters. You don't have the ability to level them up beyond a certain point, and you don't even have the rules to build different ones. Some people (all of them experienced gamers on the internet) labeled this as crippleware, even though it's a basic set. If the starter set is viewed in isolation, I suppose it's not as robust as the Holmes set. However, let me tell you something, the Holmes set wasn't exactly easy to learn. It wasn't until the Moldvay set that any kind of linearity of concepts really leached into the D&D rules, Basic or Advanced. The Holmes set, like OD&D, was magical. AD&D was rich and epic. Moldvay, however, came up with the first easy-to-learn version. Let's not hear the argument about "kids these days:" I got the XP rules from Holmes dead wrong, and I'd read the Hobbit at age 5, and eventually got a perfect score on the SAT verbal, and went to Harvard. The Holmes rules weren't easy to nail.

WotC has taken the discrete task of "get playing and learn through playing" to a new extreme. Here are your pre-generated characters. How to use them. Go.

At the same time, though, there's the rest of the plan, the other shoe, the parallel strategy, whatever you want to call it. With the free pdf of the Basic Rules, WotC picks up the BEMCI (Mentzer Basic) approach to Basic-ness to accompany the "even simpler than Moldvay" one.

That's enough for this installment -- in the next one I will pick up why the difference between past and present is centered on the medium rather than the content of the WotC 5th Edition Basic.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Concept of a Basic Game Part 2

So, after yesterday's post about the first Basic Set, the Holmes Blue Book, let's recap by saying that the Holmes set lacked vital rules for playing beyond a certain point. It wasn't a working but simplified version of AD&D (e.g., missing rangers, some spells from each level, some monsters, some treasure, etc). Rather, it stopped working entirely at a certain point.

The next Basic Set to come out was the 1981 Red Box, "Moldvay Basic," or "B/X." The reason for the "X" in "B/X" was to stand for the Expert Box that a gaming group could move on to once they had exhausted the resources of the Basic Set.
Now, if you've been keeping track of my focus so far, you've probably already guessed the point I'm about to make. The Holmes Basic Set graduated the players up to Advanced D&D. The Moldvay Basic Set (which went to level 3 just like the Holmes set) didn't. It graduated you to something that was effectively a parallel to Advanced D&D, because the Expert set (which I just looked up for information) went to level 14. At this point in time there were two versions of low-to-high-level D&D.

I don't have much to add about 1983 "Mentzer" Basic, also called BEMCI because it contained Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortal rules. I never happened to play this edition (I was a proud-to-play-Advanced-snob even by the time of the Moldvay set), but the Mentzer edition isn't relevant to this particular history because it's essentially a continuation and a culmination of the trend started with the B/X sets -- the creation of a parallel D&D game.

Although there have been other D&D Basic sets, the continuum from Holmes to Mentzer set the stage for two different approaches to Basic Sets, which now that I have established, I'll get into in the next installment of this series. Stay tuned!

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Concept of a Basic Game Part 1

Dungeons & Dragons has used the concept of a "Basic" version since fairly early in the game's history. With the game first being published in 1974, the Holmes Basic set came out in 1978, four years later. Together with an expanded Monster Manual, the Basic Set ("Holmes Basic," or the "Blue Book") was an integral part of the marketing plan for the first radical step in rules revisions that TSR was to make: the new "Advanced" D&D. The Holmes Basic set gave players (and DMs) a full and robust set of rules for playing their characters up to third level but no further.Oddly, it contained several monsters far too difficult for characters of low level. For me, that was like heroin. I had to get the expanded, Advanced game so I could fight purple worms and dragons. From the standpoint of marketing, it was brilliant.

The fact that it only went to third level was absolutely fine to us at the time. It certainly meant that we wanted AD&D, but we saw AD&D almost as an expansion rather than something that would cure the "crippleware" of a Basic set that only went to third level. In other words, I don't think it was crippleware; it wouldn't be now, and it most certainly wasn't at that time in history before the internet made us expect everything for free.

Interestingly, Holmes Basic had LOTS of rules that were completely different from AD&D. Those rules have actually been duplicated and used to created an entire game based on Holmes that reached beyond third level. However, these differences were pretty much disregarded at the time, at least by everyone I knew, as the parts that made the game "Basic." For all I know, that might have been what TSR intended. It's interesting, though, because I think the internet would die of nerdrage if WotC's free (FREE!) Basic Game turned out to have such differences as the Holmes Set did to AD&D.

I don't mean to be delivering one of those "uphill in the snow and we LIKED it" tirades -- I'm trying to point out a couple of areas where the lack of instantaneous communication probably affected the relationship between a Basic Game and an Advanced Game in a big way.

Wizards of the Coast is releasing a Basic Game into the piranha tank of the internet age, and I'm going to take a look at some of the parameters of the game, talking about the entire theory of a Basic Game (and a couple of historical comments about TSR, although I'm very much only a dilettante of D&D's history). For the time being, here is the page with WotC's parameters for the 5th edition Basic Game.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Keying the Map, or Mapping the Key

I've seen this discussed before on a message board, but I can't find the thread. The question was this: when getting ready for the game, do you (a) draw a map first and then key it, (b) draw the map and the key at the same time working as you go, or (c) write some sort of key (such as a roster of monsters and traps) before building the map to suit? This also begs another question, that of the backstory. In general, unless it's a funhouse type of dungeon, there's a backstory -- whether or not it's ever revealed to the players, some sort of idea usually unifies the encounters even in a location-based adventure.

What's the order in which you mentally organize, prioritize, and develop your adventures?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Stuff Monsters Have

One way of generating interesting treasures, especially when it's a powerful monster, is to think about what's important to the monster. What kinds of things might a dragon really need? If the answer is that, hey, maybe this one needed a laxative recently ... pity the adventurer who misuses that barrel of pink potion in the lair. How do guy dragons make themselves attractive to the scaly sirens at the saurian singles bars? Is there a bucket of scale-shinola in the lair's hidden compartment? Maybe that stuff actually strengthens metal armor (or leather armor) for short periods of time.

And do dragons have pets? A pet and some pet supplies would be interesting stuff to find in the dragon's lair. Watch the characters take really, really good care of that cockatiel until they can figure out what it "does." Negotiating with a dragon that wants 40 pounds of mixed seeds?

The most recent bit I wrote this morning was about a monster that eats brains. In the treasure hoard? A long-handled gold spoon...

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Sometimes You have to Lower the Bar to Improve Things

Sitting here with a cup of coffee, typing away at Chapter 7 of my Cyclopean Deeps "Under Realms" mini-campaign, my thoughts drifted over to the problems I've been having with this blog. I think I just figured something out.

Really, the hardest part of keeping a running blog isn't the writing, it's thinking up the interesting topics. If you come up with something interesting but you don't really cover the ground very well, or perhaps you miss your own point, that's okay: someone else is likely to pick up the topic, handle it better, and link back to your blog. Even Homer had some places in the Iliad and the Odyssey that didn't really measure up. It's not a catastrophe.

What I've been doing, subconsciously, is rejecting the topics that are of medium interest. If I didn't have some sort of Big Idea, I didn't write at all. That's not what people read blogs for (although the occasional Big Idea increases visitor numbers, especially if it's controversial).

I need to focus on the fact that it's okay to have blog posts that are chatty rather than profound, that can even be stupid sometimes. The willingness to stumble out with a half-baked idea isn't an insult to the readers (provided that it's only occasional) -- it's a sign that you respect the readers enough to post something where they have to connect a few of their own dots. Every so often, a half-baked idea can lead to several awesome ones.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Duck with some Blog on the Side

This particular post is time-limited, since it's about a sale going on. Purple Duck Games has a Swords & Wizardry module that's on sale at the moment. It's called the Monastery of Inexorable Truth. I haven't read it myself, but it has a five star review from a staff reviewer. For $2.67, it's worth taking a look at a well-reviewed product.

Why haven't I read it? Good question. It's because I very seldom read anything written by someone else. I'm worried that it would be too easy for me to assimilate a visual picture, or a neat idea, and then duplicate it later without realizing that it was a memory rather than an idea. It doesn't say anything bad about the Monastery of Inexorable Truth.

Purple Duck also carries a large inventory of DCC and at least one Pathfinder resource that I could see, so if you play other fantasy RPGs you might find something to your tastes.

Okay, that was the duck. The title also mentions a side order of blog, and blogging is something I haven't really been doing enough of ... at least, not here. At the Frog God Games website we've kicked off an initiative to have a daily blog going, and I'm part of that effort. If I write a good post on a general topic, I'll cross-post it to here, but I'll probably also be putting up a couple of chatty little blog posts that are really specific to fans of Frog God Games, and I won't bother to reproduce them here. Therefore, if you're a fan of Frog God Games, head over to the blog page there and take a look. It isn't just me blogging there: Bill Webb, Skeeter Green, and others will be putting up their ideas and experiences about gaming and Frog-Godliness.

Friday, June 13, 2014

A Minor Observation on Adventure Design

At North Texas RPGCon this year, one of the things I did was a first playtesting run for Cyclopean Deeps Chapter 9: Hidden Worlds of Jupiter Kwan. This particular bit of the Cyclopean Deeps has been an open question for a long time with me. It is a very complex map with lots of possible locations (at least 300, I'd estimate) and multiple possibilities for several things in each of the areas.

When you're approaching an adventure that contains locations with multiple nested possibilities, there are basically three ways to do it. You can key all the locations, you can create tables to generate the various internal possibilities on the fly, or you can pre-generate a huge number of locations using those tables.

Option 1 (Key ALL the rooms!) had to be discarded immediately, if for no other reason that when you've got 300 keyed locations, your map looks like it's nothing but numbers. You can barely tell which numbers go with which location.

Option 2 (Multiple Tables) was what I playtested. Each time the adventurers entered an area, I rolled on the several tables required to generate the area. I immediately discovered that it wasn't going to work. There was way too much page-flipping and fast reading going on as I tried to assemble a description of what the characters could see. So, I am now in the process of creating a large number of pre-generated locations. There is still some die-rolling required, but this will cut it in half and minimize the need to flip pages around.

Normally I consider pre-generated locations to be the worst of both worlds: by numbering everything you can get well-crafted descriptions that are highly unique, and by creating a full set of tables you can get an even larger number of descriptions, although they will of necessity be a bit less well-crafted than if they were all written out straight.  

What are the Characteristics of an Adventure that Works Best with Pre-generated Random Locations?
However, Chapter 9 of Cyclopean Deeps has a particular set of characteristics that happen to work best with pre-generated locations: the movement is fast from place to place (in real time), the areas involve several different possible components, and there are many of these locations.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Dirty Tricks and Grimtooth's Traps

Part of this is just to let people know about a good review that Bill got for his Book of Dirty Tricks (for the evil DM). Bill occasionally gets a bit more Grimtoothy than I am, but even when you disagree with something in it, it's a rockin' read.

As I mentioned, it reminds me a little bit of Grimtooth's Traps, that sort of over-the-top glee with fantastical death and danger. I love Grimtooth's Traps ...

Thursday, May 29, 2014

5e Don't trip now it has been going so well

This is a response to a post on Erik Tenkar’s blog, about WotC’s recent announcement that they don’t plan on doing any licensing for third party publishing (specifically, by “fans”) until long after the completion of the launch of the actual game. For third edition, Wizards allowed many third party publishers to launch products virtually alongside the 3e core books; one even beat the Monster Manual onto store shelves.

It's worth pointing out that 3e was a smash hit, which is what they are hoping for here, and up until now have programmed the launch of D&D Next pretty well. But players have options for what they actually play, and with Pathfinder out there as one of the options, the D&D offering is going to look awfully thin on the ground without third party publishers. WotC isn't competing with 3rd party publishers who publish for D&D, they are competing against Pathfinder and the 3pps who publish for Pathfinder. If this fact isn’t grasped, then it’s a serious risk, and we who have watched the “market” dynamics of the OSR are well placed to see it. I’ll get to that later; first I’ll point out what my reasoning is, and then I’ll point out how it’s supported by the events of the OSR’s history.
We start with the concept of variety. A lot of people might be interested in 5e but not in the Tyranny of Dragons series. Not everyone likes that type of adventure. And what it does is to co-opt third party publishers as competitors, forcing them in the Pathfinder camp -- even the ones who might otherwise have backed D&D -- continuing to promote and write material that competes with D&D. Or they could just sit around. Not likely. This approach probably isn't a disaster, but it could be a very significant rock in WotC’s shoe over time. 

Now a comment about the fact that they only mentioned “fans,” without actually saying anything about for-profit publishers. If the idea is to have no third party publishers at all other than fan material, then the game is dead. Sorry, that’s strong language, but I’m about to back it up. We have a very good control experiment, the OSR. If you look at the timeline of publications for "AD&D" before OSRIC (when it was a no-third-party-publishing system) there's very little other than Footprints magazine (at Dragonsfoot). After OSRIC, there's an explosion of material for “AD&D.” Not all of it is good, some of it is awful, but there's a hundred times more good material in total than what the pages of Footprints produced. More bad stuff, but also more good stuff. The OSR (which I’m identifying here as ultimately generated by the OGL version being released, which is admittedly simplified but works for the purpose of this comparison) spawned blogs by the hundreds, modules (hundreds? Probably by now), cottage-industry game companies, etc. I can definitely say that if WotC tries to set things up by seeing D&D third party publishers as the competition, instead of Pathfinder with its legions, D&D's survival as a game won't go long beyond its novelty value. It depends on every fan liking the WotC trade dress and adventure style. They won't. Some will prefer something that has a different design focus, or a different writing style, or – let’s look at ourselves – even a different font. And the gamers that don't like the WotC adventures will migrate or return to other systems that are better supported. Fourth edition was panned as a bad game, and there were other problems with the 4e launch that don’t exist here, but 4e proved one thing very solidly. When gamers are not happy, they can migrate away from even a big brand name. Part of the dissatisfaction with 4e, although it wasn’t the biggest part, was that popular third party publishers wouldn’t sign on to the restrictive GSL license.

WotC, for all that it appears to have produced a very good game that can be played at different complexity levels, and is giving the basic rules away for free, would be making a very bad mistake by attempting to force every for-profit third party publisher to support any system as-long-as-it's-not-D&D. It isn’t the way to claw back into a dominant market position. Times have changed since the 1990s, when intellectual property could be kept well bottled. TSR’s demise corresponds to the rise of the internet, which they failed to survive, and WotC’s success with 3e corresponded to the OGL.

Our own experience with the OSR shows a before/after scenario with an even better control group, since it’s essentially the same rule set before and after, with the only change being the application of the OGL to an AD&D clone.

It’s not science, but it’s the best we can do in terms of observing the effect of third party publishers on a system, and the value of a supportive relationship between the publisher of the system and the third party publishers. Paizo supports third party publishers, and utterly crushed the first WotC system that tried to keep third party publishers out (4e).
There are lots of good games out there that go unnoticed – it’s not enough for a game to be good. It’s also not enough for a game to start with lots of sales of rulebooks, which 4e did. In the days of the internet, a game requires long term support from a broader creativity base than one company can achieve, even a big company. And the D&D division inside WotC is not a big company compared to what it was in the 3e days.

This is the first thing that I’ve seen in the launch that’s a potential problem, and I’m on the record that I thought the slow rollout of books and the dribble of initial information was pretty brilliant marketing and use of social media. And I’m certain that the sales of 5e will be good; the question is whether they will be enough to regain market share – over the longer term -- from Paizo, with its fleet of third party publishers.
I think 5e lives or dies in the long run by how many third party publishers it can attract to its side, not how many it can force into the role of reluctant competitors.

I'm a big fan of a relatively simple, free basic set that's targeted at younger gamers and creates a strong network for a simpler game than Pathfinder. I really don't want to see it drop onto shelves with no support on the internet, because for "kids these days," the internet is where it all happens. You've got to win the air war before you can win the ground war.

Monday, May 19, 2014

5e Rolling Out

Above is a copy of the D&D Starter Set, which is going to be the first release of the new D&D line, followed by a Players Handbook, Monster Manual, and DM Guide, each a month or two apart. I haven't been keeping up with the playtest versions of the rules, so I don't really have any opinions on the new edition other than the artwork. Which so far I like. They appear to have ceded the crisp, Vallejo-like detail to Pathfinder, and gone with a more raw look.

One of the real outstanding issues is what the third-party publisher agreement (if there even is one) will look like. I think that's going to shape the success of this edition a great deal.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Penis Jokes and Quenya Elvish

The Game-Theoreticians of Candlekeep have identified two different approaches to gaming. The first approach would be a sort of emulation of J.R.R. Tolkien, a heroic or anti-heroic saga created by the players as their characters fight and spellcast their way to fame and fortune.

The second approach to gaming almost certainly has penis jokes from time to time, or at the very least a healthy dose of Monty Python and the like. I don't mean that it's written into the adventure; even the bawdiest of DMs, if they're experienced as a DM, knows that the players will create plenty of humor on their own if left unchecked. For the DM to write it into the adventure is probably going to fail. I don't know why, but it just seems too heavy handed. On the other hand, if the thief suddenly says, "*snurk* this ten foot pole is longer than the wizard's staff, so I better do the probing," that's stone-cold brilliant. Cue for everyone to fall down laughing.

Some DMs try to restrict this sort of thing, attempting to get the players to stay "in character," or stay "focused," or even "serious." I can understand that kind of play. Really, I can. I saw someone post the other day a triumphant announcement that his character had done this-and-such, slaying that-and-such, and being awarded the barony of where-and-such. The pride was glowing, and you could tell that this adventure session would be talked of forever, possibly a high point of the guy's life.

(let me tell you about how when I was 12, my character became the King of Celene in Greyhawk, if I can ever corner you at a convention some time.)

So, that sort of epic in-character gaming can be rewarding beyond belief, I totally get that. But then ... there is penis-joke gaming. And penis-joke gaming is always awesome, because it's a game. It doesn't forget that it's a game. And, you know, even if you name your stronghold something like "Bigspire of [Character Name]," the World of Greyhawk can absorb that kind of humor. Heck, the place was built on puns and anagrams in the first place.

So, even if it's not ACTUALLY penises that arise from the group's humor, having a good mix of at least potential humor -- without being "serious about the fantasy" -- makes for more fun in the long run, in my opinion. And even if the DM is making everyone speak in Tolkien's Quenya dialect of Elven ... the DM will probably discover that you can make penis jokes in Quenya, too.

Welcome to Candlekeep. *Snurk*

Monday, May 12, 2014

Manic Monday - Writing Again

All of a sudden last Tuesday or so, I suddenly started being able to write well again, after yet another long dry spell of looking at blank pages, keyboard to hand, empty of prose. It's always hard to tell when that's just a creative dry spell or a depression-without-mood-downswing. Similarly, starting Tuesday, it's hard to tell if it's hypomania or if it's just a sudden influx of creativity.

The suddenness of the demarcation makes me thinks it's bipolar-related. Not that I care, frankly. As long as I'm functional, I'm back, baby!

Highlights of the day all have to do with Cyclopean Deeps. The dimensional realm of the archmage Jupiter Kwan has made progress by leaps and bounds. I inked the draft map today and sent it to Skeeter (the project manager of the gods), who will assemble the maps and get them to Robert Altbauer (our awesome cartographer). Everything that I'm doing is suddenly the filling in of gaps rather than building new places.

Image (you'll see why, in the chapter I'm writing) Hound of Tindalos by Manzanedo

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Archaological News

(Edward Whitson waits while yet another tortured wraith rises from a dig site in Syria.)

For those considering a career in archaeology, this article might give you pause to think. "Turning to the subject of his latest incident at a dig site in Peru, Whitson maintains he was not at fault for summoning the forces of evil."

A couple of other bits of archaeological material: The discovery of the race of skeleton-people, and one that appears to be real: bunny archaeologists.

Here, incidentally, are the stats for Whitson's Ocelot, the creatures discovered by Dr. Whitson in Peru:
Whitson's Ocelot: HD 2; AC 6[13]; Atk 1 bite (1d6) or breathe; Move 18; Save 16; AL N; CL/XP 3/60; Special: breathe lightning bolt (60ft) for 1d6 damage, save to avoid.

Friday, February 7, 2014

OSR Superstar Contest

Tenkar's Tavern has announced a pretty cool contest -- old school creativity. Different rounds involve creating a monster, creating an adventure to go with it, and other things galore. It will create a LOT of good ideas, partly because the prizes are phenomenal. First prize is an actual $250 in cash plus one of the new OD&D sets.

Frog God Games is going to kick in some coupons, because right at the moment there aren't many runner-up prizes. I think these competitions get a lot more attention if people know that they don't necessarily have to win first place to be recognized and to win a prize. I can't get too aggressive with this, since Bill Webb is on his way to Hawaii right now, but I know that I can offer:
1 20% discount coupon
5 that are 10% off, and
10 that are 5% off

I might be able to increase the amounts of those discounts, or the total number of coupons, but first I have to get into contact with Bill.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Rock of Stability

Okay, here's a magic item that I think isn't too powerful. It's very useful in the context of the adventure I'm writing, so I want to give away a couple of them. Is there some use of this item that would make it super-powerful -- in other words, am I missing something obvious?

Here's the item:

A rock of stability, unsurprisingly, appears to be a normal rock. The rock’s possessor cannot be affected by turbulence, although a steady force of air or water, such as a gust of wind, will still exert one half of its normal effect in that direction. Taking river rapids as an example: the character will be moved down the river at half the normal speed and with half the normal force that the river’s flow exerts. However, the character will not be thrown from side to side in the rapids at all. If the river rapids are moving at a rate of 7mph, the character will be forced along at a rate of only 3.5mph, and will thus likely be able to avoid rocks much more easily than a character subjected to the full 7mph force of the river. Only the movement of gases and liquids is affected by the rock; a moving wall of stone or a falling anvil would push or strike the character as per normal.

(This isn't intended as a test of your ingenuity as a player, although feel free to show it off if you want.  It's really about whether there's a fairly obvious use of it that I haven't noticed).

Monday, February 3, 2014

Ningauble of the Seven Eyes

My favorite "wizards" are the two patrons of Fafyrd and the Grey Mouser, the ineffably cool Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes. That's sort of where I'm going with Jupiter Kwan in the Cyclopean Deeps, although so far he's more about what he does than what he is.

Cyclopean Deeps is almost certainly going to represent a financial loss for Frog God Games, and has cost me a disastrous amount of time that should really have been spent on the Swords & Wizardry game -- promotion of the game, publication of smaller stuff, keeping in better contact with people on the net, and this blog. In light of that ...

it had better be a masterpiece.

Working diligently on that. In the meantime, remember: dealing with archmages always has a cost, even if it isn't immediately apparent.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Bipolar Disorder and the Reptile God

I just realized that the graph of page views here (which basically maps when I'm posting) is a pretty good map of my bipolar disorder cycles. I have been planning on getting back into the habit of posting on the blog, but I didn't really expect to start quite this soon. I have been working on a little sheet of possible blog topics so that I wouldn't suddenly run into "blank page syndrome" and utterly lose the ability to write.

However, with Erik Tenkar posting an account of Swords & Wizardry in the module N1 (Cult of the Reptile God), I wanted to at least offer a link to that post. It isn't really about Swords & Wizardry except as a vehicle for Old School gaming. I read the post mainly as being about what's Old School (always an interesting topic, IMO)  -- and also about the module.

Cult of the Reptile God is one of my favorite modules of all time. It has been a while since I read it, so I don't have anything analytical or brilliant to say about it, other that that it has all the components spot on.

1) A good villain who is the catalyst for events that are "clues" to locations and backstories.
2) The solution is not plotted out for the players. It's a sandbox.
3) A good home base

From discussions long ago on message boards, I thought I was the only big fan of that module. It appears that I was totally mistaken about that - there's a virtual fan club out there!