Saturday, November 18, 2017

D&D history in context: some like it demanding (a polemic against the commercialization of our hobby, if you need to know)

Every time I see the argument made that we don't need more than light rules because "the story is the thing" and how all the Great Old Ones rolled that way, I get the feeling that it can't be true. Never really was able to put my finger on the why, though. Now, I just saw this floating past in my stream again and felt that same concern rising. However, this time I remembered a good friend of mine telling me he translated the Nibelungenlied again, in his free time, just for leisure and to experience the original in all its glory. I am now prepared to address this topic among other things. This one is for all the nerds out there.

But Gary did it!

It starts harmless enough. Yes, if you dig deep, you'll find the first big names in our hobby saying something to the effect that they use simplified versions of the games they sell. You just need a die and the yes/no resolution is enough to keep the game going, is what they seem to say. Because, the story is the ... you know the gospel. Fun fact is, though, that none of them stopped writing games (Gygax certainly didn't and his games didn't get less complex, too) or just relied on the established to play their games (Barker, for instance, never stopped expanding on his setting and had a HUGE corpus to loot from for his stories ... actually to an extent that you could say that the setting superseded the rules).

So, there is no "easy" answer to the question how many rules are "just right" for a game. One thing should be clear, though, games with "light" rules certainly aren't the solution to everything. Especially not because of some obscure quotes used out of context. There is an argument to be made that light rules are, in fact, not the "better" tools to tell stories, because that would be like saying that using fewer words would make for better stories as well.

That said, I'd like to add that everything has its place and function and a game being light in rules does not necessarily mean it's bad. There is just no universal truth attached to it other than that it is one way to game.

Furthermore, to claim it is "old school" to use rules light systems is just as much bullshit. If you need proof of this assertion, look how the hobby developed in it's early years, commercially and on the DIY front (check out Arduin, for instance). You will find that it is very much about diversity and individual solutions before anything else. The tenor has not been "less rules" but "make it your own!".

Hence, what all those new light rule systems flooding the market seem to forget (conveniently so, I might add) is that the bare bones version that is the first edition of D&D not only specifically states that it is just to show how it's done and that a DM is to make his own game following those examples (something many, many groups did, btw), it also wasn't considered as "finished".  Here is the quote from the tome itself (OD&D, Vol. 3, p.36, 1974):
AFTERWARD:
There are unquestionably areas which have been glossed over. While we deeply regret the necessity, space requires that we put in the essentials only, and the trimming will oftimes have to be added by the referee and his players. We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you? Write to us and tell about your additions, ideas, and what have you. We could always do with a bit of improvement in our refereeing.
Gygax is saying this after having completed roughly 100 pages, spread over 3 booklets. Printing in the 70s most certainly also had an impact on that (limitations we tend to forget nowadays since it is fairly easy to print and/or spread books). Sometimes I wonder how thick those first books would have turned out to be if they could have printed what they wanted. I think how the game developed after that first edition gives us an idea.

Let's take the deep dive here.

A short and partial history of D&D

Of course they added more supplements with the success of the game and a revision of the rules shortly after that (B/X) until the game had matured enough to evolve to AD&D 1e as early as 1977. That's 3 years after the original release! Here is another fun fact: while the last revision of the AD&D 2. edition had been published in 1995, development of that iteration of the game had been going strong until as late as 2009 when Kenzer & Co.'s HackMaster 4e, the true successor of the original D&D, got discontinued. HackMaster had been published as a pure revision of the AD&D rules in 2001 and should be considered AD&D 3e. In other words, it took 27 years of development to get what started as OD&D in 1974 to the level of maturity that is the HackMaster series.

I'd like to stress at this point that this is only talking this specific strain of D&D, not including a plethora of magazines and hobby efforts that also added to it during that time. It also disregards the commercial successors of the D&D brand (3e onwards) and completely ignores every other role playing games written in that specific quarter of a century (for now). Still it's a whole lot of material to go with the original premise of those early books and not just 2 pages of rules with supposedly everything said that needs saying ...

It is only after the corporate attempt to get rid of the original (A)D&D (no new publications and no reprints or pdfs of the early versions of D&D) that the so called old school movement got enough traction to become popular (namely with OSRIC and Basic Fantasy in 2006 and Labyrinth Lord in 2007, all being not that popular in the beginning and falling right into the decline of HackMaster while referencing older/different editions/versions of the game). OSRIC runs 400 pages, btw.

After that Swords & Wizardry (in 2008) and Lamentations of the Flame Princess* (in 2010) made their debut and at some point after that it started earning enough money that the Wizards of that Coast took notice and not only started to make stuff available again as reprints and pdfs, but also incorporated as much as they could into D&D 5e (in 2014). It's also somewhere in that last phase that publication cycles started shrinking dramatically, a development we see now reaching its peak (or already being in full decline, not sure what it is ... the market has reached saturation long ago).

A history to learn from?

The point is, when someone tells you the game needs just one die and one rule to be played and that's how they did it in the early days or that that's "old school", well, then that person is feeding you a line. The history of our hobby is, if anything, one of development and exploration of the possibilities. And while those first games openly embraced and accommodated that fact, while the DIY-corners of the hobby still celebrate it to this day, there is a concerning amount of people openly not only ignoring it, but also trying to re-write that history for their own marketing endeavors (a trend arguably starting with D&D 3e, as far as the corporate version goes).

The things people do to earn a buck, right? However, there is an alarming tendency to not only flood the market with product, the feedback loop is vanishing as well: it's just not possible to find enough meaningful reviews to do all that material justice (considering that people might actually have to have played a module or game to get a proper impression of it's potential makes this even more difficult!). In consequence, published material is reduced to short-sighted and (unfunded) opinionated marketing schemes, innovation gets mostly short-handed or ignored and earlier developed insights/achievements get hand-waved or re-written.

It's crazy. The Taxidermic Owlbear lists over 210 entries of games as D&D "retro-clones" and from what I have seen, it's not complete (the whole Black Hack movement is missing, for instance). It's not far-fetched to say that in the last ten years there have roughly been 2 new and complete D&D clones published per month (on average, of course). Add other games to that, add modules, adventures, supplements. Nowadays no month goes by where you couldn't buy at least 10 new OSR related products. Plus those you can get for free. All mostly unchecked and (or consequently) unplayed. For all we know there might be some brilliant unknown games among them (there are some great known games for sure). It's just all rather unprocessed, I think.

This is neither "old school" nor in the spirit of the hobby. Not to that degree. Right now it's nothing better than milking the masses and adding to the pile. I admit that I partly came to that conclusion due to the latest climate in the gaming community at large where it's no more about the quality as much as it is about the person who wrote/published/talked about it that decides whether something has merit or not (mostly using so called ad hominem argumentation as business model).

The only thing "old school" about the whole affair right now seems to be that it shows the same patterns of inconsiderate and greed-guided commercial harvesting our western culture is known for, if need be by going as low as using politics, elitism and gate-keeping. It's not about the art or the game as medium, it's not (as much) about exploring what's possible or about diversity or being welcoming. It's all become cyclic in a way that people don't do the research for their stuff anymore. It's not important how many times people already have written about a topics or the insights they had, it's about being the first to voice an original thought about descending AC (or whatever), as if that is possible.

It's about ignoring history to keep the train running.

[source]
That's not to say we shouldn't write or publish ...

Sounds a bit counter-intuitive at first and I've heard friends already say that they don't dare publishing something because of the thresholds they see in the community. As I said above, the market is saturated and it is mostly not about content or the effort, but about how well something looks or who is associated with it. It's also tough competition, especially if you are not being all political, polemic or loud about it in general.

However, if you are willing to put in the time to write a game or an adventure, you should of course give it your best effort and put it out there. Not because it's published and there are prestige and fame to gain, but because it is all about the journey. Nothing will make you understand a thing better than making it yourself with the attitude to do it as good as possible. As much as this is true for, say, building a boat, it is true for writing a role playing game or an adventure or a monster ... You will gain every time and if you have patience, people will take the time and discuss it with you. Honestly, even if one person reads what I wrote and takes something away, that's a win in my book.

Well, and that's why history is so important. If we take this DIY-ethos seriously, we rely on what is established so that we can move from there. Standing on the shoulders of giants and all that jazz. We need communities that are open for that kind of exploration, but communities start with a couple of like-minded people. We help each other getting better at what we love and, in consequence, maybe get to be better people than we where before. That's why you write, that's why you publish.

If that also gains a little profit and makes you somewhat famous in your corner of the Internet, it's just as well. But if the recent developments have shown anything, than that there comes responsibility with being a public figure and many aren't ready to take that responsibility, it seems (again emphasizing the importance of learning from history, btw).

Anyway, don't do it for a buck, don't do it for the fame, just do it for the thing itself. You'll find nothing more rewarding than that (which goes for everything or whatever you chose).

Now going full circle!

So what has all of this to do with my friend translating the Nibelungenlied just for the fun of it? The short of it is that he was able to do it and he liked the exercise. Even so, there is a whole mindset behind it and it is the opposite of going the easy road. Some people like a task to be demanding, even for leisure. It can't be surprising that the same is true for our hobby. Looking at crunchy but popular games like GURPS or RoleMaster is easy proof of that and they are almost as old as the hobby itself.

However, there is a deeper meaning to it. Something that relates more to the second part of this post, the part about doing it yourself or what that really means. First of all, there had been no pressure but the one he gave himself for doing this. There is a lesson in that, as time is now our highest commodity. He could have gone for a translation instead if he wanted to revisit the story, translating it takes so much more time. It's about dedication.

If you "just" cater the market needs you will have the pressure of deadlines and all kinds of restrictions for form and content. Add competition and market saturation and you'll get an ill climate to be productive. It's so easy to forget that we are not only able to create without pressure, but that pressure actually diminishes and restricts innovation (also and as an aside, giving a market what it wants works to earn money but produces something exceptional only in the rarest of cases, see your standard Hollywood movie).

The market is like a greedy raccoon, just not as cute ... [source]
Or to put it another way: how much time does it take to write a complete role playing game? Done properly, maybe an average of 3 to 5 years? That is including testing and assuming it's done on the side but on a regular basis. You'll also have writing and publishing to consider ... According to the market, you won't get the attention span from the crowd you need to make this worth anybodies while (although kickstarters brought the illusion that it is very much possible ... although for a price and without guaranties). How long does it take to write a proper setting? Or a module like Stonehell? A book? It takes time and dedication.

What I'm saying is, the audience cannot be taken into account for this. No one will listen to you babbling about something for that long unless you are able to keep it interesting all the time (which is unlikely if you are actually working on it, right?). Which is another way of saying, if you do it, do it for yourself before anything else. Forget the market. Let them make the noise and do your thing. If your thing is writing the crunchiest game ever written and takes 25 years to finish, I'd say, hell yeah, please do.

Explore, experiment and create. Question what is already done. Embrace obscurity instead of the mainstream, it's what true nerds always excelled at. And don't listen to people that try to tell you that their marketing scheme to produce as much content as fast as possible by producing light weight copies of already existing games is the "true way" or old school. It isn't. It's more often than not just people looking at your wallet. 

I hope this resonates with some of the people getting this far. I'd appreciate it. Our hobby can do so much more that just sell empty books with funny pictures and we are barely at the beginning to find out what exactly that means (or can mean). As long as people interested in finding out where this journey is headed manage to gather and exchange, it's all good.

For me, well, I guess I will halt and start to look at what was accomplished in the last couple of years. I couldn't keep up with all the noise if I wanted to. There's so much unread stuff on my hard drive, it's uncanny. Enough to read and talk about, I'd say. And then I have to keep writing my own fantasy heart breaker no one is going to read ...


*Which has, interestingly enough, no English Wikipedia entry, but a Finnish one instead ...

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Look! There's a challenge! (rules vs. story ... again)

Hey folks. Long time no post. I have been around but busy. Anyway, just saw this while having my tea and thought "Finally! Someone is starting to take this whole "story vs. rules"-problem serious!". And I somewhat agree with the result. However, this being a challenge, I'll fight it with the scheme I had posted some time ago and connect it with some of the ideas and concepts I came up with. Let's rumble!

First of all, I do not disagree with the +Jack Shear's proposal. I think it illustrates a crucial part of the dynamic between rules and story quite well and I applaud that. That said, I think it is lacking one very important aspect: "story" as a result of playing role playing games is always focused on what the players make of the encounters their characters had. In other words, the elements presented in the post linked above are incomplete as they lack (or merely imply as given?) the sender-receiver relationship necessary for every communication and how that correlates to gaming.

I'm using "encounters" here in a very broad sense, as in, "a story they hear from a peasant in the street is an encounter"-kind of way ... everything in the game is filtered through that lens. There might be other stories (like, what the DM had in mind, for instance), but that is yet another layer in that everyone brings his own story to the table ("Goals" in the scheme below), each feeding into how the story in the game shapes up or what story for the characters is agreed upon.

Here is the version I came up with. It actually applies to all stories, but it sets the rules into perspective and involves how stories are structured or experienced (depending on where the story emerges):

Open in new tab to see it in all it's glory ...

[From the post linked below]: "The CHARACTERS are the center piece and everything resolves around them as ENCOUNTERS in the established WORLD (could be the DM in the moment of play, the world described in a novel or tv series or the world as you see it, to name a couple of examples, narrative would be another good word for it). A WORLD could be defined now by (at least) 4 corner stones:
  • STRUCTURE: or patterns. Structure lets you recognize and work with established patterns in a world. Is it a comedy or a tragedy? Is it magic or technology? English or French? All those patterns will shape everything around them and, in the end, the story.
  • THEMES: or labels. It's the selection you chose to describe your surroundings. Easy example would be the description of a game by the winning side compared to that by the losing side ("best referee ever!" vs. "cheating bastard of a referee!"). Fake news is another good example of labeling to influence a story.
  • RULES: or consistency. It's the rules we play by. Could be laws, could be D&D or a social contract, could be grammar ... They are always there to one degree or another and shape how we behave or judge behavior, for instance.
  • GOALS: or motivation. This is what propels the action. You want world domination? That's what you work towards. You are lonely? There you go, you'd want to meet someone. You want xp? Do what you have to do to get them and advance in levels ...
ALL THAT cumulates to STORY, every time, again and again. Depending on the story you tell, the parameters might shift and change in prominence, but they are always in effect. So if you are in the story about a couple of friends meeting to play a game of D&D it will have different parameters than the story the characters of those friends will encounter in the campaign they are playing. While the motivation in the first story might be, for instance, to have FUN, the story in the campaign and what the characters experience might just as well be a tragedy. Those things can happen simultaneously, even without conflicting with each other."

There is more and here's my attempt to collect some of it (including the explanation of the scheme above). I hope this helps giving the whole discussion a bit more fodder as I strongly believe that we are way behind in exploring this. Compare this to how they put some serious research into this for computer games, to give just one example. We need to get out of our comfort zones to see what's possible ...


Thursday, October 26, 2017

Now, there's a bad idea ... (a prelude, maybe)

It's been rough lately. Didn't not feel the urge to write, but who'd read with interest and then some? So I've been thinking, what could I write about. Well. I got that one idea I've been chewing on for way too long now. Might be that bridge is burned for reasons I might not want to touch right now. Thought I'll pitch it first, see what's what ...

Damn, I miss writing here :)

Let's play "find the fail"

All right, all right, I'll get to it. You might be aware of my everlasting love for HackMaster (4e, yo). If not, you know now. I frickin' love that game. Wrote a post about it, too. HackMaster 4e was the AD&D 3rd edition we never got (sort of) and it's how I started playing D&D somewhat serious. They had a shitload of interesting modules out there, 98% of them revisioned versions  of old classics. The campaign we had running back then was The Temple of Existential Evil. Yes, you read that right.

It'd been great fun and I always wondered how the original held up against the HackMaster variant. That's what I wanted to do, going at it chapter by chapter, comparing them, what was changed, what choices made, what's better (imo, of course). Nothing detailed, maybe, but going from the first survey I made, I'll bet you I'll find enough odd, stray observations to keep me entertained for a bit.

And there's just the thing. I started with the first chapter of the Existential variant and got stoked. Believe me, it's good shit. Naturally I wanted to know how chapter 1 of The Temple of Elemental Evil holds up. The cover was what stopped me in my tracks:

Please, find the fail, would you?
Might need to open it in a new window, too ... [source]
See the problem? Bless your heart if you don't. But most likely you'll see it right away. It's the authors of this beauty. Both implicated in acts of harassment. Not charged, mind you (as far as I know there are no criminal charges yet). One's just whispered about, even (a twitter guy saying a dead D&D celebrity was "problematic" that way for TSR back then). Anyway, it's enough to make this a hot topic. No side looks good in this latest flame war and I honestly don't want to share my opinion on this online (as I said in my previous post, I have no dog in this fight). Other than saying that it's all very sad, of course.

However, this is a perfect example why ...

The Temple of Elemental Evil is an undeniable cultural phenomenon. There's a part 2, a revision, a novel, a computer game and a board game. That's almost all media short of having a movie about the damn thing (or TV show? I'd see that, probably) and I might have forgotten some (is there a version for 4th edition? they definitely made ma NWN mod for it, right?). The amount of players having first hand experience with this module one way or another is mind boggling. My bet would be 6 figures, being in the millions would be very likely. Think about it! It got published in 1985, 32 years ago, it's "the grandfather of all dungeon crawls" and ranks high among the best D&D modules of all time. This got some mileage, for sure.

In short, it's legendary for several reasons and if you never care about the authors, their world views or their failings, you can still (and should!) enjoy this. Everyone else? Fuck if I know. But I know for sure, if I would judge everything based on its source, I'd be pretty depressed pretty fast. In a way, it's all flawed for some reason or another.

Here is the thing, though: every now and then an artist might produce something of value despite the short-comings of being human. There's beauty in that, I suppose. There's a lesson, too.

So, how about it?

I really enjoyed DMing this bad boy with HackMaster back then, I enjoyed the book (a bit short on the crawl part, though, if I remember correctly) and I definitely loved the computer game. Reading the original and comparing it with the HackMaster version ... yeah, I'd have fun doing that. But should I do it here on the blog? This begs another interesting question, doesn't it? A classic by itself, if you will: is art a thing in its own right or can it not exist without the author in mind?

I don't even think there is a right answer. Or an universal one, for that matter. It depends, as they say in law school. So I wonder, has it merit in this case? I like to think so, yes.

But what do you guys think? Is this piece of art tainted by the actions of those who made it?

As I said, this may be a bad idea.


Saturday, September 23, 2017

Losing interest in 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... (a rant, you have been warned)

I just had to use that title ... Now I need a post for it, too. Turns out it was  just a question of time. This is not about me quitting the blog or anything like this. I'm just tired right now. Thus the neglecting. I'm also tired about that OSR shit show on g+ right now. What a cluster fuck of ill-advised politics and commercialism. This will be my long-winded way of saying "Get the fuck off my lawn!". Enjoy. Or not.


Never got invited to the mob, so ...

At this point the OSR has something like 4 or 5 distinct elitist clubs that milk the masses for money and entertain the Internet with their trench warfare. The latest kerfuffle (for those not in the know) was about one of those groups mobbing a well known blogger from the digital grounds. I think what happened is somewhat represented here (even if you subtract the Pundit's usual hyperbole and his call to arms, you'll still have enough bad taste left for a mouth full of vomit).

I do not care about politics. Really, I don't. I'm not here to take sides. I came for the creative and vibrant scene. When I'm looking around now, I see a couple of friendly faces in what turned into a very poisonous environment. To some degree I'm able to take the bad with the good, but at this point I just don't care enough.

So here is the short of it: if you participate in witch hunts or think it's a good idea to parade your political views, I do not care for you. If all you do is talking about the next thing I should buy while hiding content behind a pay-wall and ignoring all the DIY efforts all around us, I do not care for you. If you think everyone around you should care about your sexuality or kink or whatever else edgy you have going and how everyone should have that in his game, I'm sorry to say it, but I do not care for you.

And there's that, too ... [source]
Behave like decent human beings, be kind and tolerant, show some fucking empathy and respect each others borders and we will get along just fine. Actions show who you are, not big talk or justifications or rewriting history. You are what you do and if that's despicable in any way, you will have no business with me. I also just might not get along with somebody. End of story. It's not everything about gaining power or earning a buck. Shouldn't be, anyway. If we, as a hobby, want to have a positive impact, we shouldn't behave like 3 year olds in kindergarten.

Shit, did you know that people in our corner of the Internet are actually afraid to take a stand nowadays? Afraid to say they don't like something because they'll get hunted down for it? Let that sink in ... 

Consequences no one cares about

I know this means little, as this is just a small blog not many care about. But in the end this is about my freedom of mind as well and for that I will trim the shit out of my blog-roll and my g+ circles. There's always the off-switch, as my girlfriend put it just this morning. In the end my actions here are without consequence for any of that. Never got considered "OSR" to begin with, never ran with the "in-crowd", so why even try to belong just to be exposed to so many poisonous people? Right, there are no good reasons.

All things considered, it won't change much of the topics here. I'll still blog about D&D and my own projects and about ways to make it all a better experience. I'll throw in the occasional review and whatever else comes to mind. If talking elf games is what you came online for, I'm all for talking about it. I just don't consider myself as a part of the OSR movement or rather, what it became.

I don't need this shit and I won't have it on my blog ...


[source]


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Rules are the compromise you agree upon ... (discussing "Rules vs. Reality" again, are we?)

Time to write a post, I think. Work has been killing me, but that shouldn't be an excuse, right? Main problem is, that I'm really fresh burned out of ideas after most work days and the weekends are needed for recreation. Sad but true. Anyways, post time! I just saw that old argument flame up again, if games should be played raw and how to take "reality" into account ... I have, of course, an opinion on that. Thought I'd share.

I've talked about this to some degree three years ago in this post about why it's fun to take the rules serious. It brushes some of the concepts discussed here, so you might want to check it out. (I also think it's one of my better posts, for what it's worth).

There is two more posts down this road published just this weekend: +JD McDonnell has written on his blog about the question why we play by the rules

and

+Howard Beleiff aka The Goblin Stomper has written about how The Game is played "right" and the learning curve of becoming a good DM/player (which is, of course, also related) on his blog.

Both good reads, check them out, if you haven't already. My thoughts are loosely related to theirs, but I will go different directions with this. In that sense this post is not understood as an answer or critique, but as its own thing. An addition, maybe?

"Rules vs. Reality", my ass

There is something fundamentally flawed with an argument of "rules vs. reality" and that is assuming that rules don't take reality into account. People who have been around on this blog (bless you and your children) know that talking about languages is one of my pet peeves here. That's mostly because they are so damn relevant for role playing games. Everything you could possibly read about languages is somehow relevant to our games. Same here.

First of all, languages follow rules and try to describe reality. Easy as that. A table is a table because you say this construct is called "table", fulfills the following criteria: [...] and everyone agrees on that (within limits, because other languages and dialects are a different matter). Or that a "?" signals a question and there are rules to signify a question when talking ... etc., etc., you get my drift. It's so common sense, most people don't spend a second thought on that. They just grew up learning the rules and use them almost naturally. Some more successfully than others, of course (which is also somewhat important, in the grand scheme of things).

That being said, we have with role playing games a second layer that needs to be taken into account, as it is about using language in connection with other systems (the rules of the games we chose) to sustain a fiction (and this is definitely another stab at "reality" here). It's more akin to a book or a tv series in that sense. To finish reality off, the proper term would actually be "suspension of disbelief". That's what you want to have and it's highly subjective.

[source]
A bunch of 10 year olds will have a totally different suspension threshold as an old fart like me has. Which is not only totally fine, but also very, very relevant. It's about compromise. You don't (you never!) just play a game. I don't know why people don't seem to get that on a regular basis, actually. There's also the language you use, the people you play with and the experience and synergy they all bring to the table. Only that makes a game and every game is different.

Just like with language, the rules will "color" your game. They are one aspect. Think about that famous scene in Pulp Fiction, where Vincent Vega describes how different the golden M is in France just because of being French:


Rules are (again, just like languages) the terms you agree upon to sustain the fiction you aim to produce at the table. And just with learning a new language, there is a learning curve to that. So, yeah, people will encounter situations where the rules aren't clear enough, then people will talk about it and compromise to a degree that the game doesn't fall apart (suspension of disbelief often enough doing the trick here, even to a point where the table beliefs it's how the rules themselves are and go on because of it). Sometimes they find the appropriate rule, sometimes they have to find their own solutions, but it's all part of the learning curve.

Therefor it's not only about which set of rules you are willing to use, it's also about how well you not only use them, but need to use them. Which is a matter of taste. Somewhat. But also offers a deeper understanding you can achieve if you put in the time and the effort to go there (think "system mastery"). To give the language comparison one more run for its money: it's the difference between barely being able to communicate and being able to write a book. Both have their place, with lots of places in between to get comfortable in. Compromise.

I'll keep it short

We tend to look at those games as if they are entities of their own. Holy texts, maybe. Scripture. But when it comes down to it, they are just analogue apps to use language in a fictional context. They can be, within that analogy, underdeveloped or have bugs, but the beauty of it is, you don't need to be a programmer to fix them to get the game you have in mind, just like you don't need to be a linguist to play with language.

You still have to take all of it serious and explore what it means, though, even if it's just to explain what it means to you. That's the least you'll have to do, the minimum of effort you have to put into anything, really. Beyond that, the sky is the limit and I don't think it's a good thing to discourage people going there. They should push the boundaries, experiment, talk about it and go as deep as they dare.

The essence of it is, we are mistaken if we assume that the rules make the game. It's a common mistake, deeply rooted maybe in consumerism, maybe in corporate lies, maybe just in the common misconception that an object, a thing itself can have meaning without context (a bit like Dungeon World tells you it is what D&D can be ...). In my opinion, nothing we as humans are able to comprehend is ever without context. It's all connected.

That's not to say rules aren't a crucial ingredient to the game. They are, but so are the players (are they friends? are there some group politics or negative vibes? did the DM have a shitty day at work?), the season (summer games are different than winter games, aren't they? why is that? is it important?), the language (see Pulp Fiction), time of the day (you are supposed to play Vampire in the dark ...) and everything else that adds to a single rpg session. Context.

No man is an island ...

In the end rules are nothing more than accessories. That's nothing to look down at, of course, it's just as important as the clothes you like or the people you decide to hang out with ... But those decisions will always have a deeper meaning, a motivation that stems from somewhere. Especially with role playing games it's more often than not an idea we like and maybe (just maybe) we fight so hard about those rules because those ideas are dear to us, but to see them realized, it needs others. And others are complicated. Always.

So the discussion maybe shouldn't be about how "realistic" a game needs to be or how that is in conflict with the "real world", they shouldn't be about right or wrong. Instead they should be about the "why" way more often than not. Why might it be important to someone to feel his understanding of reality reflected in the rules? Or why is a rule perceived as broken? Why does a game not work for a certain group? Why did the campaign fall apart ...?

Because when all is said and done, it's all about making it happen at the table. What's your opinion on the best rules EVER worth if no one plays with you or if you need to force people?

Alright, I'll close: the tension between rules and the suspension of disbelief is somewhat system-inherent. It's the equivalent of describing a color you haven't seen before or explaining an emotion. In a way, it's not even about the rules you use but more about how good you are at using them in context with what you bring to the table (aka: everything else). In that sense, a couple of Navy Seals will have an easier time to use a simple system in a military context than anybody without that training might have. They will interpret the game with their experience and actually compensate any shortcomings a game might bring. But let them play ballerinas and they'll have a hard time getting anything out of that without some help. Needn't be the rules, could be a capable DM or seeing Black Swan and so on and so forth.

And that's just that.


Punchline ... [source]

Sunday, August 13, 2017

[400] State of the game, state of the blog (400th post!)

I wondered what I should do for my 400th post and I decided to muse a bit about what makes this blog tick right now and where it is headed. The short of it is: the development of Lost Songs of the Nibelungs makes me sit down and write. It's long overdue that I tell people who don't want to read 3 years worth of posts (again?) what this game is about. So this is my first attempt of a structured overview of the development process and where the game is at:

Wyrd is not Charisma, is it? (origin story)

The Nibelungenlied is something I grew up with because the town where I come from maintains the seem that it is one of the original backdrops of that tragic story (Worms, in case you were wondering). Growing up with it I had the common "knowing-the-story-without-caring-attitude from children being forced to memorize something. Not inspired. Not at all. It was only much later that I started to see merit in the classics, but by then the Lied had just been one of thousands of books I'd be interested in reading. So I owned a version of it, but never really get back to it.

Well, I'm not going to torture you with the hairy details, but at one point, round about three years ago, all the ingredients had been right: the blog was something I'd do on a regular basis, the D&D RC was something I thought about a lot, some Wagner for a comic inspired me and the right amount of curious boredom (the best kind of boredom where you actually want to sit down to tackle something demanding) led me to take this book back into my hands. All of this came together in one post (or two) and that's when I started thinking about writing my own game for real.

And to answer the question headlining the last two paragraphs: yes, Wyrd is the same as Charisma. It fulfills the same purpose but from a different perspective (or time or frame of mind ... your choice). Once you follow this path, it'll lead to some strange places. For instance, people had been so unhappy with the idea to change the terminology of the game that they actually started arguments with me about it. You know you are up to something when people start getting upset about petty details. Indeed it got so intense that I thought about changing it all. And then I did:

And here's the post from 2014 about it! D&D from an alternate universe ...
This never saw play. At least not at our table. But it got me thinking and at least Muscle, Finesse and Nerve made it into Lost Songs!

Just new meat on the same old bones? (design goals)

As you can see, Lost Songs has in a way very strong roots in D&D. I wouldn't call it a "retroclone", but I'll frequently call it a "Frankenclone" (which has one more layer of pun than I realized up until now ...) and it still is very much compatible with D&D, if you know how to look at it. What it not is, however, is "just" the D&D bones with some new meat and skin around it (like we see so often nowadays).

We all know that D&D is easily customized to be every game you want. With the market being as it is right now, you just have to take your pick among all kinds of flavors. Just don't be fooled to believe that those are "new" games. There's some work to it, art, even, but when all is said and done it's just a myriad of flavors of the same thing. And if my experience with things like this is any indication, then you can believe me that if you are going to write a new game, design it from the bottom up, well, it's going to take years before it's done. Not just a couple of months.

That's why it's rarely done. If you are to earn a buck with these kinds of things, it can't take you years because that'd be economical suicide, especially if you end up writing something that doesn't work with the consumer (for several reasons, the least of them being a bad game). So most just take the same old, but well working formula, bring their very own style and creativity to it and put it out there. Not a bad thing, just something to be aware of, I guess.

That said, I pretty early decided that I'm doing this for the fun of exploring the process, so I really don't care if this takes one or three or six years (I just want to live to see it, to be honest) or if people would be willing to spend money on it. Not even if they play it, really, because, let's be realistic about this: there are some people out there following the process (love you all!) and they'll probably even read the thing as soon as it is done. Maybe a small fracture of those people will actually attempt to even play this or use parts of it for their game (I know of two who already do!), but I'd be very mistaken to do this for anyone but me.

Even that is coming from a guy who has roughly 100 games at home he didn't write and still wants to play/DM at some point, so ... it's for the sport of it. It's for finding new approaches to the same old questions and attempts to not necessarily finding better, but just-as-good working solutions away from the well trodden paths. That's what I'm doing trying for every aspect of the game (like setting and combat and DM tools ...) and it takes time, but it also is pretty satisfying, in a way.

Early version of the character sheet!

It's not about if you hit, but how ... (all those strange ideas)

There had been some defining moments early on in developing Lost Songs. Because what started as a play on terminology, came with more and more decisions along the road, history being the first among them. Setting-wise we are talking Dark Ages here, 550 AC, somewhere north of the Alps and west of the Rhine. The Romans are in heavy decline and the great migration of the tribes just settled down, ready to explore their surroundings filled with the ruins of an old Empire. There's magic, too, and fairies and trolls and gods and ... it's a lot of stuff to hide in a historic setting.

But how "historic" should it actually be? I mean, at that time you have an early Christianity fighting the old faith, you have slavery and you have what we perceive as the role of women in medieval times to worry about. It's not the beer 'n bretzel approach, but how  much of it should I actually embrace? Well, one of the early defining moments of the game ended up to be a post about this very topic: who are the Nibelungs?

The answer is that they are not the winners of this epic struggle that produced kings and knights, but all the unsung heroes that got lost in history. Roleplaying games are about exploring certain topics, tropes and concepts. In that sense Lost Songs is a game about exploring the possibility of history, the stuff in the shadows, like that they had fighting women and even whole tribes led by women or all the little strange beliefs and cultural habits you can come up with or wars or tragic stories ... There's a lot possible in the little confined space that is the setting. So that's a thing, history is embraced and will be very different to what you'd expect (as it always is as soon as you look closer at something).

Combat had been the next big step. The basic idea had been to take the d20 and divide it into 3d6 (nothing new there). Now, if you use this for attacks, you don't just roll to see if you hit something, but (and here's the twist) you can take the individual results and find out how you hit. That's it. Going from there Lost Songs ended up having rules for delaying dice into the next round, giving them away as cooperation, using them to protect yourself or other ... a whole game in the game, really.

If you want to check it out in all it's (early) glory, go and read this post about the Bare-Knuckle Fighter and the Pub Brawl. We had a shit-load of fun with this. And it is just right for Lost Songs, as it is a combat experience very few other (role playing) games offer in that the tactical possibilities over weigh the pure results over the course of a fight. A system you can get better at as a player, as a very good friend put it.

Print this a couple of times and have a brawl with your friends!
Nonetheless, it is still a work in progress in many ways, as I just learned while testing the mid-level game, but we are having blast exploring the possibilities while killing giants.

Arguably the next big phase in development had been the DM tools, a much neglected aspect of role playing games, in my opinion. It's what kept me busy the last couple of months. The basic idea is that everything should be random and still produce material that works for the game. Lost Songs now has oracles for the weather, sandbox generators, narrative generators and right now I'm working on some mechanics that work as connectors between the characters and the sandbox.

As an interesting side note, all of this started because I wanted (needed?) a proper substitute for the brilliant D&D Encounter Reaction Table. There is, in my opinion, nothing just like it and it works so good, in fact, that I would use it for every game without thinking twice. It's just that I wanted my own system to do the same and the first piece to the puzzle that turned out to be had been the Random Narrative Generator (all you need to know about this is in a huge post I wrote about the topic here).

Took me 17 months from the first concept of the narrative generator to getting close to finishing that replacement for the Reaction Table. And that's before testing it in-game! I'm very much looking forward to that :)

There are lots of little concepts that established over time. Nothing that motivated me as much to go on as the pieces above, but strong contenders nonetheless. One of the most important among them is the concept of the hero as scarred but experienced and powerful. The basic idea goes back to how Siegfried dies in the Song of the Nibelungs: he dies because others had been jealous of his power and betray him. It has been, one might argue, his fate (think "Wyrd") to die this way. I wanted that in the game so the idea was born that ability scores actually are pools and can get "scarred" until they are no more and the character dies.

How he dies is defined by which ability score gets depleted to zero. If it's Wyrd, the gods really don't like you anymore and take care that your surroundings will betray you (but it could just as well be a bard spreading ill rumors about the characters until the people come for you because [reasons]). All of that comes together as the gaming experience that Lost Songs of the Nibelungs intends to be. Most of the time.

Character sheet done by one of my players ...
If you want an impression what the games end up being like when I'm DMing them, you could check out this little series about our early play testing, this post about a TPK in a more recent mini-campaign or this post about the mid-level game we are testing right now.

Where it's at

The phase with developing the proper DM tools is almost done (I think). As soon as I have the monsters and NPC rules in testing I got one more thing to write here and that would be a culture/tribe generator. Once that's done there's just one aspect left to do: magic. That'll be a tough nut to crack but I'm somewhat confident that I'll end up having an idea a soon as I'm ready to have it.

However, the hardest part so far has been to take myself as a DM out of the process. That might sound strange, considering that I just wrote a couple of paragraphs above that I don't assume many people will eventually actually play this thing, but it is not difficult for the reasons why I write it and instead about what I attempt to write. Every role playing game should have the aspiration to work for everyone interested enough to try it and the same is true for Lost Songs.

So where is the game at? Well, life being as busy as it is right now, it won't get done this year, but things will get finished and I'm approaching a stage where I'm confident enough to give this another DM for the play-testing (it's already in the works and it'll be very interesting!), maybe even to offer a mini-campaign online ... 

After that I should start writing this bad boy. I'm really not sure if I'm ready yet. At least I don't have a concept visualized that would be able to represent the game properly. Well, I'll get there eventually. Other than that, there is nothing harder than writing rules, let alone a set of rules. It's going to be a challenge. I'm okay with that. In it for a penny, in it for a pound, as they say.

Latest version of our Character Sheet ...
Either way, if you are reading this and this wall of text (attached to other walls of text) got you interested enough to give this a shot, contact me and I'll set you up.

State of the blog

Well, 400th post, everyone! This is not a very popular blog, but a somewhat read blog. People come over, read it and sometimes comment and share their thoughts when I post something. Well, most of the time anyway. I tend to write long posts, so although 400 posts is not much considering that I'm doing this for close to 6 years now, I'm pretty happy with all of this. 

That said, I sometimes feel like I should be more out there, write more, comment more, publish more ... but I guess that is a luxury I cannot afford right now. So for now, it is what it is and Lost Songs is the main reason for that. There'll always be some posts about D&D (as they are popular) and I'll keep coming up with helpful tools for our games, if I can. Maybe even publish another adventure (if I find the time and muse to write one).

One last comment on this being a blog that defined itself to be under the flag of the OSR for a long time (fourth wave OSR blogger, if you will ...). I'm not quite sure the OSR still is what I thought it was 6 years ago (if it ever was that to begin with) or if my little blog ever got accepted as one of those considered to be "old school". Things change and none of the bloggers I like to read and wait for updates nowadays are OSR. Many of them still write about older editions or retroclones (many more have just disappeared) but I got the impression that everyone but those cashing in moved on and OSR is more and more reduced to being a label and a club instead of an open and lively community. That, the drama and the turf wars start to get on my nerves, to be honest.

For now I leave that banner up, as it stood for something positive once and still does for some (I believe), but it is under probation. We'll see what the future brings.

Other than that I hope you guys have had some good reads over the time on the old Disoriented Ranger blog. I'm sure trying. Here's to 400 more!


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

[399] A very different take on Monster Stats - Part 1 (LSotN Development Post)

It's been a while since I had a chance to develop some thoughts and vague concepts into rules for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, but this one has been long coming and I'm happy to tackle this specific topic now once and for all in a way that allows some testing (no, I'm not talking magic here, dammit). This post is about how I aim to codify monsters and NPCs in the LSotN rules and why. Let's start with some theory about encounter "technology" ...

Oh Monster, where art thou?

There is a huge discrepancy between the level of detail we allow for characters and the one a DM is able to manage for every other creature a group can encounter. The simple reason for this is (1) the lack of encounter predictability in traditional games (actually, the more baroque a game is in its monster stats, the more likely it also depends on prepared encounters to happen) and (2) sheer mass in direct contradiction to just one person handling it all.

So you get cooked down versions for managing creatures, the bare minimum. It never has been a perfect solution, actually. While simplicity works fine most of the time, you'll miss ways to get complex characters fast and without tons of preparation as soon as, say, a D&D group hits mid-level. There is no such thing as a satisfying random level 20 magic user, if you know what I mean. What spells does he have? What magic items? Did he cast or use any of them already today? Why? Where? How about retainers? Followers? Powerful allies? Because you just don't get to be level 20 without doing some serious noise before ...

Same goes for powerful monsters like dragons. They need to be prepared, if only to be fair about it when they are encountered. And that's a problem, because you either prepare them and hope the characters actually confront them or you wing it and most likely leave ignored the necessary complexity those encounters actually demand. No one wins either way. Maybe this is one of the reasons why mid- to high-level games aren't that popular. Maybe.

In conclusion you might say that one of the main concepts role playing games usually feature has very clear limits out of pure necessity: you can't have a world where everything has numbers (or random tables to get those numbers quickly) and it gets impossible if you want your creatures to have the same amount of detail characters have. A random level 12 thief will not nearly have the same level of detail a played character will have at that point.

Guess who's the player character ... [source]
Yeah, but it's about the illusion of depth, isn't it?

Sure, and as far as a conclusive narrative is needed at the table, every DM worth his/her salt will make it work just fine. But (and that's a big "but") it's almost impossible to make a level 12 non player character as challenging an enemy as player character would be without some hard preparation. What I'm trying to say here is that depth works at the narrative side of most games, but doesn't always translate that well into the mechanics without actually putting the work into it.

Seriously, it's something I did years ago and it scared my players shitless: I let their mid-level characters face themselves. And we are talking traditional games here. Think about NPCs having story points to avoid death, for instance, or every other nice little rule that gives players more power over the narrative. Can't have that with NPCs, can you? There is a truth hidden there and I can't quite put it into words yet ...

Alas, I don't need to, because the problem at hand is a different one. The problem is that we assume that each individual entity actually deserves their individual set of numbers to relate to the characters in a meaningful way.

Maybe it goes back to the war gaming roots of the hobby where everything was units, maybe it's even something way more cultural, but in the end we tend to see things as separate and not as connected (this might really be connected to something deeper than just the war gaming, to be honest ...). To point at the bigger picture here: it's also why we assume the world around the characters must be complete to one degree or another, with maps and history and pictures in addition to all the numbers.

But maps are never accurate, information about your surroundings might be wrong or old or misleading and pictures capture only a specific moment in a specific place and time, so they really don't apply all that often in a gaming context or only in the vaguest of senses ... What we have here are tools that certainly help if you have them and can put them to use, but which are, in the end, not only less helpful, but also false friends.

Let me explain that a bit: the most complex amounts of data in comparison to everything else in a gaming world are the characters. Everything that happens at the table has the characters as context, from the goblins they slaughter just now to the story about the new king they hear from a peasant. Information congregates around the group, if you will.

Wrote a whole post about it, too.
Actually it's as easy as that, if it doesn't become part of the game, if it isn't shared with the group one way or another ... it just didn't happen. It might be prepared, it might be written somewhere and you might have plans with it, but if it never comes up, it never becomes part of the story that is being told at the table.

Which means ...

Well, the "false friends" I mentioned above keep the illusion alive that they are what is needed to make the game "complete" on the DM side of things, but that is far from the truth and actually hinders development of solutions that are more true to the nature of the game (as described above).

Let's take another approach for a second. There is a discrepancy between what an encounter looks like (as in: the data he needs to work if he happens) and how he manifests (as in: traces he might have left, rumors, history, impact, tells ... stuff like that). Given that the narrative always manifests around the characters and develops from there on, it really seems counter-intuitive to roll the encounter itself instead of the signs that are discovered by the group.

Take that one step further and you only need to know what is responsible for those signs to an amount where it allows meaningful choices for the players. And that does NOT mean that it needs to be specific beyond "to proceed means danger". In other words, just one or two signs ahead of the players. In a sandbox those signs will seek connectors with the toys being at hand. Done this way, you establish the background of an encounter while the characters are getting closer to it and only to the extend you need it at the moment.

There is the obvious and then there is what the DM knows ... [source]
There might be different approaches to the whole affair, but it is how I decided to handle it in Lost Songs. The game develops around the group and all the tools I use add to that principle. What I've been lacking the whole time, though, was a system that fulfills all the criteria I described above and connects all the dots right. Since this is still D&D in a very basic way, it hasn't been easy to find something.

The Short Of It!

The basic idea here is that individual entities of the game are always part of some sort of context in the gaming environment. A soldier is part of a group among other groups that form an army. If something happens to him, it might affect the others, at least those who knew him. So the sphere of influence an entity might have is a good point to start. Let's say we have a Contubernium, that's a part of the Roman legion that consists of 9 men. A squat. So the Type and Number would be "Contubernium (9)".

Everything in Lost Songs will measurably affect all numbers on a character sheet. Someone is spreading bad rumors about the character? His Wyrd is affected. Exhaustion? Grit is affected. And so on and so forth. There are also stages how hurt a character is. Those stages are nice little indicators how the character is feeling and easily tracked. While those numbers are nicely detailed on the character sheets, all I need for the unit is one number, the "Potential", and a couple of indicators. If that number reaches 0, the unit will surrender, flee, die, whatever the approach towards the number had been.

There's also a random element called "Category", that's the base number used for the Potential (a reminder what the original number must have looked like). I chose Roman numerals for that (see example below). It'll be relevant to measure experience points.

The last aspect will be the "Strengths". Here I'll use the Elder FUTHARK, the appropriate rune alphabet for the setting. It'll be randomized and will give a unit unique powers for combat, background and interaction. It's also have layers that correspond to character levels. It's used like an oracle, so it'll be applied as the encounter manifests (see above). So a short hand with all the basic information needed will look something like this:

That's all there is ...

Everything from combat to interaction to experience points is right there. Potential can be reduced by all kinds of damage, the runes in their different combinations will make it all feel different (adding magic and what not) and the categories will give indicators how much of a threat an encounter will be, with the nice side effect that you don't just encounter a Contubernium, but maybe they are drunk or wounded or demoralized, all depending on the narrative at hand.

The rest is taking notes and context as they come up.

That's it for now

Alright, so that's the basic idea and my thinking behind it, Part 2 will handle the details (which will be a bit more tricky, especially with the runes). With an example, I suppose. It'll be possible to handle character companions with this and even combat with bigger units is a distinct possibility. There is a lot of potential, I think. A huge part of what the game still needed done. Play-testing will tell if the scaling is right or not.

I'll also try and write a version for the D&D RC. Might it be possible to use a system like this based on the xp of a Monster in D&D? Maybe. Thoughts and impressions are, as always, very welcome.