Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Speaking of Keeping Clean

So my daughter has checked out the Junior High School Pathfinder club which made me quite pleased. Not only because I love the fact that my daughter is out there looking for gaming opportunities on her own, but also because the gaming club is a sort of legacy of my time at the Junior High where I started the RPG club and ran it for six years. I think we introduced a good 80 or more students to the wonder that is gaming.

So she went in and checked it out, went back rolled up a character, but then the Drama Club took over as she loves acting on stage and play practice ran at the same time as the gaming club. At least that's what she said ... she also made the observation that "Well, dad some of those guys were kind of gross."

"Gross?" I questioned, "What do you mean gross?" My overly protective fatherly alarm bells beginning to sound.

"I mean some of them were okay, but some of those guys kind of smell, like they need a bath."

Ouch ... I thought back to my days running the gaming club. My fellow teachers would occasionally stop by and watch our games, where as many as twenty active adolescent gamers gathered around my center table, most of them teenage boys. And unfortunately they were there after a full day of school, and we gamed for a good two hours a day most days. Let's just say I got more than one complaint about the lingering odure that permeated my classroom for days after our gaming sessions.

Of course I tried to defend my gaming compatriots with the hollow--we are not all like that! I don't stink! I never did! ... At least I thought I didn't. "That's an unfair stereotype!!" I cried. "Not all gamers are unwashed geeks!" Of all the nerve!

Then again, I did recall that we are probably one of the few hobbies that actually made a product designed to entice us to bath. You've heard of soap on rope, well what about dice IN a soap.
Still offered today at Store Envy. Not sure whether to be offended or delighted. But I know what I'm asking for in my stocking next year :-)

My sincere apologies good sir!


So, some may have been off put (put off?) by my last entry. Say they, "How lobbest thy insults towards us who critique the games sans creative credentials, when with the same breath decry the criticism of those who have never been trained to so criticize?" Well, fairly said, fairly said.

My last rant was stirred up to fuego by an online tirade against a retro clone/variant by an untutored critic. In fact the whole thing got rather personal, and I dared not refer to the incident directly for fear of poisoning an already toxic pond. Can that even be done?

As any good fan base is wont to do, we step on each others toes from time to time. My point, made in total absence of context, was that until you have actually gone to the trouble of creating a game and overcome the many steps, hoops, obstacles and mountain of resistance that entails, don't be too quick to trash another's efforts.

I probably should have just said that. Yeah, probably.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Mastering the Game


There is an old tale of a Jewish Rabbi who talks about the fact that there is never a wrong or a right but always a middle. It's not right or wrong, it's somewhere in between. The idea of course is that truth rarely lies at extremes, but usually as some sort of compromise between the two.

I've been doing a lot of reading across the blogosphere about the very same issues I have been writing about lately and have come to a few conclusions.

There is no one true game. I never meant to imply there was one, only to explore what D&D is and was and is becoming.

There are as many ways to game as there are gamers. I've reached out to several gamers that I thought I knew pretty well, and even though we gamed together in the same games, our memories and experiences were all still somewhat different.

It takes quite a bit of self awareness and distinction to be able to know how you game, let alone try to classify how others do. This can be problematic when trying to find the type of game and gaming group that makes you happy.

Oddly, through this process I've made a few realizations, and am somewhat surprised at myself.

In a world filled with so many gaming choices, the idea of making a game is more appealing than ever. However, doing this for the wrong reasons may be more problematic than helpful for me or others.

As Gaiseric said over on dark Heritage blog, "I appreciated the elegance of B/X over OD&D, so of all of the older versions of the game out there, that's the one I'm most likely to be willing to revisit. But even then, it wasn't really what I wanted when I could see the potential in the hobby. I spent many a year on a probably somewhat quixotic quest for the Holy Grail game that did exactly what I wanted in exactly the way I wanted it—only to find it in middle age and to discover that nobody else will appreciate it as much as I do, and at best, my fellow gamers see it as merely one more option that caters to me especially and is just another game to them. Yet another Fantasy Heartbreaker, if you will." Seeking for the Holy Grail of gaming can not only be a lonely road it can ultimately leave you out in the cold forever more and people will be peeling the grail from your cold dead fingers, wondering why you ever died for this anyway.

Creating a game beyond a clone, in my opinion, has several worthy purposes to it:

One, you are in a situation where you need to publish material and need a game system within which to do it. James Raggi did this with LotFP. Though he arguably could have done the same with S&W.

Two, the game you want is not even remotely like anything out there and you really need to put it out there for people to even get the idea. I put De Profundis in this category, simply because I can't think of any others right off the top of my head--but I'm sure there are others. Monte Cook's Numenera is arguably another, but also arguably not.

Three, your doing it as the next level in your mastery of the game.

It would be hard to find other valid reasons for doing so. Publishing your house rules for a game could be included in the list, but house rules generally apply to a certain campaign setting and are best released in that format--as a campaign of a given game. You could also add I want to pubnlish materal for X, Y, or Z Game, but the copyright won;t let me. Well, that's what the OGL and clones are for. And in that case you're really doing number one, creating a game that is like a clone, but not quite so you can publish your material.

But it's the last one I want to talk about in today's post.

Every gamer I know has tons of notes, adventures, campaigns, and yes even games half written or completely so tucked away in notebooks, file cabinets and digital folders just sleeping. I would dare say for every official supplement published there are a hundred or more that are not.And by an large I think we would all agree it's a good idea that they continue slumbering away in their cold and dusty homes. The market is flooded enough already with every Tom, Dick and Harry's version of the best game ever, a cool variation, another kick a** supplement or what have you for easy consumption. A good portion of them are even free for nothing more than a click and some file space. Drive Thru RPG, RPG Now and others are popping up all the time, offering scads and scads of new material all the time. Is this a good thing?

Well, I don't know. You may be surprised to hear me say that, but I'm not sure it's good for the hobby and I'm not sure it's bad. Really I'm not. What I am somewhat satisfied with is that there is at least an opportunity at professionalism. What do I mean by that?

Recently I finished my masters degree. It was the first time I had to write something to the standard of professional acceptability required by the academic community. It had to be critiques, edited, re-edited, reviewed, analyzed and critiqued again. I spent almost two years to complete it. Granted it took a year to do my research, but my point is, it was not a quick process. And the experience gave me several things, not the least of which was a newfound respect for academic writing. Because even once you have it to a level of acceptability from the academic establishment at your college, you then release it into the academic world generally with your name attached to it. All the world can now view it with all its warts and blemishes, despite how much time you spent scrubbing them away. I also realized how important and critical honesty and transparency is.

All that being said, it does not qualify me to write a game. I'm not even sure it qualifies me to critique a game from anything more than an amateur status. So what does all this have to do with gaming? Well, the huge open source market that now saturates the gaming community may be good for gamers and gaming for more reasons than I had previously realized. If I am so ready to get up and shout about what a game is or isn't--what the hell do I know about it? I can cast stones or throw flowers at WoTC or Gary Gygax or other gamers and game designers all I want, but really, what the hell do I know?

Do I really know anything more than what I like and what works for me and my gaming group? I don't think so. And I don't care who you are, you simply cannot play all the games out there. Certainly not enough to really know the games as a player or referee to the level that you can adequately critique them all. Now, I know, I know, movie critics don't have to create movies, and literary critics don't often write novels. But I do have a degree in English Language and Literature and my intro to literary criticism always explained to me that critiquing a written work should always come from some stance or other. You should be using some framework or rubric by which you are choosing to criticize a novel, and not just spout off in relation to what your gut says and an ability turn a phrase. So, what really qualifies a person to critique a game?

Well, this is where Mastery of the Game comes in. Being able to truly understand gaming and what gaming is is no clear path to gaming enlightenment. Mastery of a Game in the sense of being so aware and clear on what a game is, what it was intended to do and what it can and can't achieve is a monumental task that few, I think, are able to assail it. However, what I do think is that you should get out some pen and paper and just try to write a game some time. Write a game some time that is either

1) Completely different from any other game out there = Amber Diceless

2) A completely new spin on a game, genre or approach out there = DCC RPG

3) A unique enough expression of a type of game that you can call it yours = Crypts & Things

and then maybe you'll appreciate what actually goes into writing a game. And I don't mean just your 3e house rules, or the way your group plays Shadowrun or something like that. I mean a game you could slap a shiny cover on and sell without violating copyright if not the world's sensibilities. Something you not only wrote but playtested. In fact not just once, or ten but hundreds of times. As a friend of mine recently said, playtested the hell out of it. And revised and refined until it was a well oiled machine. Or at least until you couldn't hear its squeaks and rattles anymore.

I've begun to realize that putting the blood, sweat and tears into writing a game of your own will let you master the idea of gaming in a way few other things will. Of course it goes without saying doing the same thing in adventures, campaigns and other supplements will give you a good idea as well of a particular rules system. 5e has done this in somewhat the way 3e did and is pushing it in an unprecedented manner. You have huge PR and marketing just by writing for DMs Guild right now. Which brings me to my last point.

If you really want to know what its like and if your creation is even able to pass general muster, put it out there. Make it free if you want, but you might as well and take the extra step now and raise it to a decent production level. Try and find some art that you feel captures its essence, and do a decent job with layout. Once you feel like you've got it there, put it out there. It is surprisingly easy to do so on RPG Now, Lulu, or any others that turn your crank. Make a face book page for it, or a website and be open to having discussions with people about it. This is a brutal process, very humbling, and I know this simply by watching those I admire for doing this very thing.

If you can do this, and survive and still game, I don't even care if you never play your game again--chances are you've come to appreciate other peoples games a lot more--you will have taken a significant step towards actually Mastering the Game. For having passed the equivalent of gaming's academic community. And then I will take what you say about games and gaming with more than a grain of salt. If you notice, very few game designers have a lot negative to say about other people's games. I suppose this could be self interest, but I think it's because they know what it takes to do so, and are a lot less quick to shoot holes in someone else's house. That and they are too damn busy creating an gaming to take the time or give a damn.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Matt Finch's Elegance

Matt Finch, a star of the old school renaissance if there is such a thing, and co-author of OSRIC and author of Swords & Wizardry has shown his game design ability and his acumen in regards to old school gaming time and time again. Though I only know him by reputation, reading his opinions in interviews, his comments on social media and above all his products I have come to deeply respect him. Gary Gygax he is not, but nonetheless he is much, much more qualified and knowledgeable than I to opine on the differences between versions of the various flavors and expressions of D&D.

It is with this in mind, that I would like to "guest host" his work in the form a link to a blog post he made about a year ago. In this post he quotes a response he made to a review of S&W in a Facebook discussion. The salient point here is his explanation of the differences between what is old school D&D and B/X D&D. Now granted, he is talking about a clone of B/X, Labyrinth Lord --and a quite good one at that-- but the way in which he describes the difference,

"Labyrinth Lord, which is a clone of Moldvay Basic D&D, tries to reproduce an approach that was (at the time) quite the opposite of OD&D -- namely, an emphasis on a more elegant rule-system that was internally very complete. Still open-ended and designed on a concept of a high level of DM fiat, but without the need to house-rule any fundamental portions of the rules (such as initiative)."

sheds light on the recent thoughts I've been trying to work out for myself. It is true that B/X, even as early as Holmes, and certainly by the time of Moldvay/Cook we are beginning to see the codification and formalization of the rulesets. In point of fact all of the B/X lines had the express aim of making the game more approachable, easy to understand and a way of easy entry into the game. This required a ore formalized system. What Matt points out is that the clones have gone a step further and made the systems "elegant".

Now, this word, elegant, is a very apropos word to describe something simple and easy to understand. In fact, in mathematics a proof is considered elegant if there is no simpler or more clear way to state the truth of it. And this point, that the clones went in the opposite direction of the original rules is profound. For if you have followed my reasoning, and some of the rebuttals to my reasoning (Josh Dyal has been quite skilled at the debate) then the crux of the contention has come down to whether 0e or AD&D was the progenitor of the subsequent editions of D&D. My contention was that AD&D stood alone or apart from all editions in the codification of its rules. That this was the reason Gygax said it was "different" than all the others. For there was no real way in which it could have been. What Mr. Finch does in his response to the reviewer is point out that all subsequent editions have been an effort to formalize the rules--to state them more clearly, simply and elegantly.

In a response to one of my posts Josh said B/X D&D post Mentzer became "bloated" with the RC. He is right. This is the same thing that happened to AD&D, to 2e, and to all subsequent editions of the game. The "tightness" of the rule set continued to increase to the point of 4e, one of the tightest written version of D&D I have ever played. It was an incredibly elegant game, but it was not heir to 0e. And, if I'm not incorrect, this was at least part of Josh's point.

As I have worked through the argument in my mind, I think AD&D was a more codified approach, and a more formalized one. It was not, however, elegant. That was a part of its charm. Its quirkiness, its baroque compilation of components, growing vine-like into the dark corners of the fantasy genre. And just how much  Gary meant it when he pushed the idea that AD&D was either played right or wrong is hard to know. The quote in the Foreword mentioned earlier today alludes to the spirit of the game over the rules. I've written about this before, and honestly, I'm still not sure what it means. Gary also writes about this spirit in RolePlaying Mastery. But it seems that the spirit of AD&D can only be defined as "you know it when you see it" rather than some actually clear cut form.

My idea that playing the game with greater adherence to the rules unlocks the treasure chest to that spirit is something I'm still intrigued by however. I'm just less sure what it means than I was previously.

What I am more sure about is that WoTC D&D from 3.5 on has not followed the traditions of 0e. Matt has helped me to see that in his exposition of what that old school spirit truly was. What these later editions did was create ore and more elegant systems through which to express what they saw as what D&D should be. 5e is no exception. And though WoTC's designers went back tot he source as it were, what they came out of the dungeon with was a treasure of ideas on how to make an elegant system of what they feel encapsulated all D&D has been, with a few new twists. However, the level of its elegance and if it fits the bill for those who actually played those old games is something else entirely.

Which brings me to myself again, what the hell does all this mean for me? I never really played 0e, but I did play a 0e flavored version of AD&D. It was never RAW, and I'm not entirely sure if I played it that way it would feel like the game I played back in the day. This was what Steven Warble was saying when he reminded me, "As someone who has been playing since 1977 I disagree with you. Even while Mr Gygax preached AD&D orthodoxy from his TSR pulpit, the players around the world did the same as you - played AD&D mixed with house rules, D&D, home systems, etc... "One True Way" -ism was quickly defeated at the game table."

Maybe, you're right. Matt, Josh, Steven, and Mr. Kask, who Josh quoted, and Gary himself when he wrote that Foreword ... I must admit, I'm still confused. I mean Gary wrote that article in #26, and he said some rather unequivocal things. Just how much I can rely on those words, or any words as the final arbiter of what is or is not D&D or even AD&D is more in doubt than ever. And I suppose I should quit trying to do so. Perhaps my own confusion, so evident in the recent blog posts, is evidence enough of that.

And then there's this ...


So, I was reading through the Dungeon Master's Guide and came across this quote from the afterword on that page with the now famous and racy drawing of Darlene's succubus, literally the last word in the DMG,

AFTERWORD

"IT IS THE SPIRIT OF THE GAME, NOT THE LETTER OF THE RULES, WHICH IS IMPORTANT. NEVER HOLD OT THE LETTER WRITTEN, NOR ALLOW SOME BARRACKS ROOM LAWYER TO FORCE QUOTATIONS FROM THE RULEBOOK UPON YOU, IF IT GOES AGAINST THE OBVIOUS INTENT OF THE GAME, AS YOU HEW THE LINE WITH RESPECT TO CONFORMITY TO MAJOR SYSTEMS AND UNIFORMITY OF PLAY IN GENERAL, ALSO BE CERTAIN THE GAME IS MASTERED BY YOU AND NOT BY YOUR PLAYERS. WITHIN THE BROAD PARAMETERS GIVEN IN THE ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS VOLUMES, YOU ARE CREATOR AND FINAL ARBITER. BY ORDERING THINGS AS THEY SHOULD BE, THE GAME AS A WHOLE FIRST, YOUR CAMPAIGN NEXT, AND YOUR PARTICIPANTS THEREAFTER, YOU WILL BE PLAYING ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS AS IT WAS MEANT TO BE. MAY YOU FIND AS MUCH PLEASURE IN DOING SO AS THE REST OF US DO!"

Right there in all capitals, the final words of the book. How did I forget that? Why did I not consider it in light of recent discussions on my blog? I think it's time to do so ...