Friday, July 22, 2011

Tribute: Peter "20 Dollar" Bradley

I haven't done a lot of artist tributes. There are, admittedly, lots of good RPG artists out there. But I'm currently re-reading the Castles & Crusades PHB, and all the art and layout is the child of the marvelous artist Peter Bradley.

Until I read Castles & Crusades, I had never heard of him. But honestly the first thing I noticed when I bought the book was the art.

And to tell you the truth a digital jpeg doesn't do the overall impression justice. Peter Bradley's art jumps off the page at you. He has a way of conjuring motion and energy that you don't see in many fantasy artists. I mean I don't want to throw names around, but lots of fantasy artists that we think of when we think of D&D art don't hold a candle to him in this regard. As you know, if you read my blog at all, I love C&C's writing. What such writing requires is art that does it justice. The two have to meld seamlessly toegether. As I flip through the C&C books where Bradley is represented the action literally pours out of the page.

Now, I'm not an artist, nor a critic, nor an art historian. But to me Bradley seems to meld the best of Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta. Frank had a way of capturing emotive energy and motion. I've often wondered how much skill he had in water color, because what he does with oils was always amazing to me. Boris painted Gods and Goddesses. His art was more than photographic in its intense portrayal of a person and the archetypes they represented. He never just painted women, or men, or beasts. Boris captured something of their soul. Peter Bradley does full body portraits every bit as good as Boris did. Just check out his site above and you'll know what I mean.

So here's to Peter "20 dollar" Bradley. I have no idea how he got the "20 dollar" nickname. But if I paid $200 for one of his works I would consider myself lucky. $2000 is more like it. But I have a feeling that unless he worked his way through college doing street portraits for $20, it has nothing to do with his art. Check him out. I have included the link to his art site, Ravenchilde Illustrations above for you to peruse his work.

Without a doubt C&C has used some top notch old school fantasy artists. But I wanted to thank them for introducing me to Peter Bradley and his work. And because of what his art does for me as I read through and use the C&C books.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Letter to Mike Mearls -and- Do I Really Want an Answer?

Well, I sent a letter to Mike Mearls. I pretty much just copied my blog post to him. Hope he's not offended or anything. My intent was to give him some advice on how he might bring back some of the OS crowd. We'll see. I don't expect a response for a week or so, if at all. I'm sure he's busy what with all the layoffs and everything. In case you're interested the letter went something like this:


Hi Mr. Mearls,

Thanks for taking the time to read my note; I know you're very busy. I'm a long time gamer that started with 1e back in 1981. Though I've played 3.5 and 4e they are not really my style of play. I'm an old school gamer mostly playing C&C, but have played OSRIC when unable to get a 1e game together.

I'll be honest I've been a bit dismayed by the current directions of D&D, but I'm not really here to write about all that. I, like many others, are wondering about the rumors that Wizards is contemplating a 5e release. This is, as always, exciting. Especially since I hope against hope that maybe this edition will be closer to the way I like to play.

So I thought I would take advantage of the opportunity to express my hopes for a 5th edition. I copy to you here my most recent blog post regarding these hopes and recommendations. I know I'm but one voice in the wilderness, but I do know that there are others who think similarly to me. So without further ado, my post:

--here I inserted the last entry of my blog--

Thanks again for taking the time to listen to my suggestions. I apologize if in any way I have offended. That was not my intention. My blog posts are a bit acerbic at times. But what I truly desire is to help the game be the best it can be.
Chris Jones aka Sizzaxe

We'll see, eh? I suppose I'm engaging in an effort of futility. I mean the real question is even if WoTC did change, why would it matter to me? Even if they could manage to put together a game that was as solid as Castles & Crusades or Hackmaster or even as good as DCC RPG looks in its beta stages. Why would I drop a sure thing for a company that has a track record of changes on average every 4 years. Literally every four years or less WoTC comes out with a new edition. Just look at the numbers for yourself:
1974 0e

1977-79 1e released
1990 2e released
2000 3e released
2003 3.5 released
2007 4e released
2012? 5e?

0e/1e/Basic are all kind of mashed together, but that gives a technical spread of

5 yrs between 0e and 1e
11 yrs between 1e and 2e
10 yrs between 2e and 3e
3 yrs between 3e and 3.5e
4 yrs between 3.5e and 4e
5 yrs between 4e and 5e

So under TSR we have an average of 8 and a half years between editions. Under WoTC: 4 years. So what if they can come up with a game that the OS crowd likes? Yeah, so what. 'Cause you can't count on it beiing supported beyond 3 years. Everybody is saying they are switching to 5e 'cause 4e flopped. Really? I have a hard time swallowing that if they change every four years anyway.

Nope. I think I'll stick with a sure thing. Castles & Crusades and Hackmaster are here for the long haul. I grew up in Austin, Texas; home base for Steve Jackson games. Even knew Bill Armentrout who used to write for them. They were always a small company. Sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller but never a corporate giant. Now, I own some GURPS books, but its not my game. I like class based systems. But the point here is that those who do like GURPS have counted on it for 30+ years. Steve has stayed small and focused on what they do best--write games. And he's not ashamed to bring people on for contract work to do game writing. And GURPS is still going strong.

Any other companies like that? You bet. Though they're a bit younger than Steve Jackson Games, you have Troll Lord Games, KenzerCo, and the venerable Flying Buffalo Games and a handful of others. The point is they stuck to what they were good at. I feel like the guys at Troll Lords are in it for the long haul. Same with Kenzerco. KenzerCo was in then unique position of having a game they had to let go to cut ties with WoTC, namely HM 4e, but they had already had resounding success with Aces & 8's. So they took that success and built HM from it. I have high hopes for AHM and have faith that both their games will continue getting the best support for years to come.

I mean, why change a winning combination. The more I look around the web the more surprised I am with how popular C&C is becoming. For lots of people C&C is their go to game for fantasy RPGing. And all the smoke WoTC made about trying to appeal to younger audiences, piffle. C&C just made an elegant game and kids naturally flock to it. I know more gamers whose game of choice for newbies and kids is C&C. It's what I'm gonna play with my kids when they are old enough (they're getting close too). But C&C is also the preferred game of tons of adult gamers as well. You can have your cake and eat it too.

So what if WoTC copies the success of C&C and the other variants and clones out there? Well, they do have marketing power and lots more money to invest. But I defy you to come out with a book or supplement as high quality as C&C's core books. Or KenzerCos Frandor's Keep or new Hacklopedia of Beasts. It doesn't get any better than that. So for me, even if Wizards gets smart and joins the game again, I think I'll have to say thank you very much; I wish you luck, but I've already got my brand: Dr. Pepper and C&C/HM.

Video courtesy of Troll Lord Games You Tube Channel
Featuring: The Illimitable Stephen Chenault -- Troll Lord and Dr. Pepper Drinker

What Wizards of the Coast Could do to Win me Back With 5e

Well, not win me back, but win me over. They never really won me. They seduced me for a time, but I have  always abandoned their editions after short stints of trying them out. But I can't help but wonder what would 5e have to look and play like for me to become a devoted 5e player and WoTC Customer? This is what I came up with:

  1. Go Rules Light: The core of the system needs to be light and flexible. It would have to resemble 0e and B/X more than 1e and certainly lots more than 3.5 or 4e. This includes several things,
    1. Stick with iconic classes: Fighter, Cleric, Thief, Magic User. Make PC creation about character development, not adding lists of skills, proficiencies, powers, feats, prestige classes and blah blah, blah. Other games have already done that. But about _real_ character development. About history, background, parentage, personality etc. etc. Lead the way into letting people know that D&D is about telling stories not building the perfect program of a character. Skills are linked with class, you don't need to list them. If a fighter should be able to do it he can do it. Have it roleplayed or maybe linked to an ability check.
    2. Simple, but elegant and flexible, Vancian Magic. There's some room for play here imo. Magic could be more dangerous and wierd ala Swords & Sorcery. In most Swords and Sorcery literature magical items are powerful and dangerous, not useful little trinkets. And spellwork can cost you your sanity, your life or your soul. You could incorporate some optional rules to make magic more complex, and perhaps more flexible, especially in magical combat.
    3. Fast, streamlined combat as a base, with options for making it more complex. GURPS is sort of the icon for complex combat. But GURPS gives a basic combat option. I'm not saying to make the combat like GURPS, but maybe build two combat rule sets. Basic combat and advanced or full combat rules. So people who like all the crunch can add it in, but don't have to. And I'm NOT talking about PC options or power builds. I'm talking about combat rules like crits, movement, dodging, parrying, grappling, etc. etc.
  2. Stick With The Core Rules!
    1. PHB, DMG, MM only!
    2. New supplements should be adventures, worlds, novels, magazines (please bring back Dragon in print!), articles, comics, minis, myth & legends, homages to Appendix N style literature, art, posters, T-Shirts, retrospectives on past supplements, etc. etc. But NOT a freakin new core rulebook addition every blasted 15 minutes!!!!!
  3. Take Submissions! What a novel idea!! Instead of paying 60k/yr + bennies to five or six writers, pay 60k/yr + bennies to a good editor or two and take submissions for material. You save tons of money, involve your fanbase, and still maintain control over content. Nothing gets out without your approval, at least not officially. And heck, look at all the overnight sensations that have cropped up in the OSR. You've got tons of gamers dying to write stuff for games. Pay them $1000 or so a pop and I bet you get all sorts of stuff pouring in.
  4. Keep The Community Alive. Don't ditch Wednesday Night Encounters. Just shift to the new edition. And beef up the RPGA and sponsor more RPGA events. Let some fans run living campaigns sanctioned by the RPGA. They can even be at minimal cost. Allow it on a volunteer basis. Instead of your massively flopping DDO attempt, set up a website that caters to pbp and skype gaming where DMs can run blog-like worlds that gamers can participate in. Don't go MMO--stick with what D&D does best: in-person RPG play, even if people are coming together digitally. It would work like this: A DM volunteers, registers with the RPGA/WoTC and gets set up with a framework site that includes a blog feature, a pbp feature (like a forum), and a skype feature. The skype like feature is a virtual tabletop where all the players log on and can see each other and the interface allows everyone to be seen, maybe has a pc view feature, digital dice roller, mapping tool, etc etc. You could charge monthly fees, and could even offset costs by selling advertising on these sites to third party publishers. These games could be RPGA sanctioned or they could be purely private. Then a group of skype players scattered from all over could actually get together at conventions and the like and played sanctioned games. One of the hardest things for some people is to find people and time to play with. Wednesday Night Encounters has gone a long way to eliminating this and I'll admit that I prefer physically present play; but I am really considering skype play simply because of lack of local players.
I'm telling you, WoTC could be at the cusp of a revolution. Such a change would not only win me over it could win back the gaming world and rise to the top once again. By creating a "Universal D&D" model that is compatible with all the big names of the gaming field: 0e, Basic/Expert, OSRIC, 1e, 2e, Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy, Castles & Crusades, Lamentations of the Flam Princess, BECMI, Dark Dungeons, Delving Deeper, Swords & Wizardry, etc. etc. etc. You open up a new era of gaming. An era where the biggest and most powerful publisher is bringing back in the fan base and returning to its roots. The new game can be a key that unlocks the worlds to all these games and much much more. WoTC owns the D&D name. They might as well use it to reassert itself. Become the D&D that will serve as the true Archon of the hobby it deserves to be. What Wizards does not own is the rules. Only the content. Don't create a new game with new rules, you don't own those either. You own content. Presentation. Play with those factors. Using all of its proprietary material and trademarks D&D can stand apart as the unique and original source from whence all fantasy gaming springs. But at the same time embracing the grassroots passion it has ignited in the hearts of so many.

Imagine a world where the name everyone thinks of when they think of fantasy worlds is Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Dark Sun. Use the content you already have! Make the worlds even bigger and better than before. Don't wrench them from their foundations and slap a new rule set on them. What you've done to Forgotten Realms is heinous. You haven't just changed it, you've erased it. Shame on you. And you've completely dropped the second gaming world of all time: Greyhawk. A game IS its world. Yes, we all create our own worlds. But games are often linked thematically and spiritually to the worlds against which they are painted. And yes there can be more than one if they are done in high enough quality. D&D had several. Think of Runquest. RQ did not get played because of its rules but moreso because of Glorantha. Glorantha served as a shining beacon to what RQ could be. We need more of that and less rules tinkering. Noone else can do this because you own every whit of Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, Mystara, Gamma World, Boot Hill, etc. etc. Reclaim them!! Reclaim them and take us on new journeys within them. You do this and hordes of gamers will flock to the stores to buy your products. Discussions will begin to be again about worlds, races, political intrigues, mysteries, murders, adventures, treasures, heroes and gods. Not rules and playstyles. Please! I beg of you. I long for a world like this once again. A world where imagination is the reason we play, not some sort of gaming activism.

It really wouldn't be that hard to do. But that is what it would likely take to win me over to supporting a 5th edition. Anything else won't do. I'm not sure what they have in mind, but it has to get back to its roots. D&D should focus on the content that made it famous, not the rules. Sure implement the new and great stuff in game design that we use today. Fine. But reclaim the game's spirit.

GenCon is August 4th to the 6th. On the 6th at noon WoTC is holding its product announcement sessions. There it will announce what new products players can expect for the coming year. I, like other more respectable names in the gaming industry, fully expect an announcement that 5e is in the making. I guess we'll see. You just might have the chance to bring the gaming community back together again Wizards. You've failed me twice already. Please make the third time a very powerful charm. Please.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Only Reason to Play a Retro-Clone

Now this doesn't mean the other two reasons don't apply. They do. But they always seem to morph into number two or someone stops playing the clone. If you're a bit lost check my previous blog post.

If you start with a clone because it's all there is or it's convenient, one of two things will happen. Either you will end up going to the original sources eventually anyway, or you will end up preferring the newer "clone" version. Hence you are playing for reasons #2. And if you are designing for 1e but playtesting in say OSRIC so you can actually publish your work then you really think 1e is preferable; it's just that OSRIC allows you to have a testbed. If you are writing for OSRIC because that's what you play, you obviously prefer OSRIC. Hence #2 holds the day again.

So, the only reason to consistently play a retro-clone is because the rules are preferable to what came before. Because you like the flavor of that version. This could be due to organization, presentation, writing style, art, or slight rule changes and fixes that correct previous problems. No retro clone is actually a clone. They can't be by law. There're some slight differences and the differences are significant enough to not be able to seamlessly play with original rules and clone rules side by side.

Devotees of original system rules, wether 0e. 1e, B/X, 2e, BECMI or what have you either prefer to play with the rules as originally written or they convert over to a clone. And there's nothing at all wrong with that. Clones are a step forward in game design from what was. If nothing else in presentation and organization. But if you prefer original rules the clones will never quite do. They are not the same and many fanboys and girls demand the game they used to play, without outside tweaks. However, there is a growing fanbase following of retro clone players too.

I frankly don't even like the term retro clone anymore. As said, they aren't really clones. They are something new and original in their own right. ADD Grognard said it best when he defined the OSR game design movement as 'gamers creating games they like to play'. And some of them are very good and very original. And no, I don't really have a problem if somebody is playing Labyrinth Lord and says they are playing B/X. They can call it what they want. I prefer that they call it what it is however. Why not proudly proclaim that you play Labyrinth Lord, or OSRIC, or Dark Dungeons? I mean it does two things for us. It clarifies our terms and it also gives these old school games a shot in the arm. It gets their names out there more. If everyone who was playing some version of B/X only ever said it was B/X we would hear alot less of LL, BFRPG and others.

Play them because you love them for what they are: better, or at least more preferable, than the originals. There's nothing wrong with that. To tell you truth this is what drove me away from OSRIC. It wasn't my game, which was decidedly 1e. There was simply nothing else that would do. I mean sure I use OSRIC products like Advanced Adventures and First Edition Fantasy, but I run them strict 1e. At least I prefer to. What I'm understanding is that few people want to play OOP games very avidly. At least in my community where gaming is limited at best. And fewer still want to invest in buying lots of OOP products. Believe it or not for them OSRIC is better. They actually prefer it to my 1e rulebooks. And thus my situation is one wherein I find myself looking for a game that I and my players can be happy with.

So, there you have it. ... unless of course you're playing an inferior (for you) game 'cause there's nothing else to play; or it's what everyone else wants to play. We've all been there. We are talking about an ideal world here.

Why Play a Retro Clone?

Many old school gamers would shout a quick reply to that question: Because the games were better back then! But that doesn't quite make it. They're talking about the OOP games, not the clones. The gamers who prefer older styles of play usually played the original old school games. Like myself. I own all of the 1e rules, most of the supplements and lots of the modules and setting material. Why would I need OSRIC or LL AEC? Well, I'm certainly not advocating for the dismissal of the clones. Retro clones serve a few important purposes. What I am advocating is an understanding of their place in the gaming world. So, why would someone play a retro-clone?
  1. They don't have access to the original books. Either they sold/gave them away and are coming back to the hobby or they want to try the game out for the first time. Retroclones serve this purpose well. They are an easy, cheaper and still largely compatible option to play older style games without actually buying all the old rulebooks. This also works for a DM who has the rules, but whose players do not; as long as they are all willing to switch.
  2. They like the presentation better in the clone than the original. Many of the retro clones have better presentation and organization than was available in the original works. This is true for clones where the rules closely mirror the originals. It is also true for those who would have preferred slight rule changes, fixes or house-rules that seemed logical, but weren't available in the out of print games. But in this second instance, where the rules are still largely the same as the original.
  3. They want to create new material for original games. Though it is not necessary to play the games to do this it helps. Because newly printed material must closely abide by copyright laws, it is always wise to at least playtest such games in the retro clone environment to make sure the new material abides by the clone's restrictions.
And that's about it. I mean anyone can play any game they want to because they think it's cool. So such an answer really doesn't apply beyond why anyone would play RPGs generally. Because they are fun? Why do you play 4e? Cause it's cool! Why do you play Basic Fantasy? Cause it's cool! Such answers are really meaningless in terms of understanding the place of such games in the hobby from a purely meta-game standpoint. Only slightly more meaningful is that it just "feels" right. That too is fine in and of itself, but it's very little help without further clarification.

So in my opinion, and my opinion is of course law (snicker), there are three reasons to play a retro clone and they are listed above. See, when I was playing OSRIC, it was because I was trying to install 1e as our game of choice in the RPG club which I advise. But getting lots of younger gamers to amass the rulesbooks was unfeasable. So we went with OSRIC. I was squarely located in reason number 1. But personally, I firmly believe that only reason number 2 is valid. Which means there is only 1 reason, and 1 reason alone to play a retro-clone. Wonder why I say that? Well, first let me ask you all out there in webland: Why do _you_ play retro clones?

The Future of Gaming

Check out The Game Page IV. I've been writing some short, permanent reviews of The Big Three in the gaming world. No, it isn't about 4e or Pathfinder or even GURPS. This is The Big Three names in gaming that have preserved various aspects of the old school spirit and whose futures look exceptionally bright. I've mentioned them before, but it never hurts to do so again
  • Castles & Crusades
  • Hackmaster
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG
Of the three I've only played C&C. But I've read them all several times and am rereading them again. They each have their persnickety issues, but no deal breakers in my opinion. Heck every iteration of the game has had issues. So, to quickly "get over" the fidgetty things I'll quickly mention them here and explain why they aren't really significant.

C&C uses the the Seige Engine mechanic, which bases almost all checks in the game on attributes. Really it's the concept's brilliance that can be a pitfall. It is so intuitive, light and flexible PCs and DMs can overly rely on it. The fix here is easy. Focus on what C&C does best -- roleplay. The game is very much oriented in the imaginative aspect of play, the actual roleplaying itself. You should default to roleplaying anything you want to do by explaining it. Talk it out. Don't just do a check. In fact the rule for find/remove/set traps for rogues explicitly states that the player _must_ describe what they are doing in order to make a check. I think this can be more broadly applied as well. The beauty of C&C is in the imagination. Just read through their Codex of Erde. I have never seen a setting portrayed in this way; and its sales numbers are proof enough of its popularity. I'm currently re-reading the After Winter's Dark release exactly because I love the mythic background so much. If someone were to ask me what to play now that D&D has gone the way of the ghost I would recommend C&C in a heartbeat. Retro clone devotees pardon me but C&C _is_ the D&D of today.

Hackmaster is in transition. Keep that in mind here. First I should say I loved Hackmaster 4e. Well, I never actually played it, but I love the rules. They make me feel like I'm a kid again just finding AD&D for the first time. I also love the depth of the game rules-wise. Like AD&D few would be able to play with all this crunch in mind, but it's there to be used. HM 4e is two things at once. A min-maxers dream (not quite like GURPS, but close) and a brutal DMs playground. This game has enshrined DM vs Player, and you know how I feel about that. Sadly, HM4e is no more. But Kenzerco aren't dummies. They have begun building a potentially even more awesome game. Though the present rules set, HM Basic, is billed as an intro to Advanced Hackmaster, I wonder if HMb couldn't be looked at as an extended playtest. Things are still developing for AHM and the KCo forums are active with rules discussions on the new version. I foresee some changes that may address some of the snarly problems of HMb. But truthfully the persnickety thing here is also rooted in one of the games most admirable strengths. HM is deadly. And HM5e has been made even moreso. Combat is the bugaboo here, but KCo does smooth realistic combat well. Just check out Aces and 8's. The initiative count up is ingenious and much more indicative of how combat would actually play out. Lots less abstract than previous games, but not so detailed as to slow to a crawl. And surprise can eat your freaking lunch if you roll badly or aren't a thief. I foresee a bit of a change there in AHM. And ranged combat is complicated but _very_ realistic. Admittedly more organized rule presentation could make ranged fighting a bit easier to handle; but going abstract with ranged combat really strains verisimilitude. Just remember that HM is about deadly combats with more of a degree of realism than you may be used to. And keep an eye out for Advanced Hackmaster to see how things really shake down. Hackmaster is probably closer to my heart as a DM than any game out there, but I'm still holding out for the Advanced GMs Guide and PHB before I dedicate myself to a wholesale switch over. If the new Hacklopedia of Beasts is any indication we are in for a real treat. I'll be honest though, HM scares the poop out of most players I know. For me it's been hard to find players willing to take the plunge.

DCC RPG has fulfilled a dream of mine. For some time now I have been delving more deeply into Appendix N in the DMG. At first I was just looking for good reading. I have always enjoyed Lovecraft and Howard, but I was looking for things more connected to the early roots of gaming. Well, little did I know Joseph Goodman was doing the same thing. Only his purposes were more grand. He asked the question: "What if Gary and Dave had access to modern improvements in rules mechanics when they designed the game?" But he really goes deeper than that. What Joseph really sets out to do is to take a modern approach to rules lite gaming and create a game designed to emulate Appendix N style play. He goes back to the source and starts from scratch--almost. What we have here is very much like 0e/B/X concepts in a simplified d20 model placed in a setting that simply kicks rawkin butt! Joseph has built a beautiful weird fantasy RPG. If you believed that D&D was designed and inspired by Apendix N, as Gary claims, then read DCC RPG. Put simply it grips you by the gut and won't let go. In fact it twists. Now, DCC RPG is in open playtest right now, and the actual rules won't be released until November. So the little bugaboos will very likely be addressed in that release. The PC Funnel concept has turned some people off, and I'll admit there's some problems with 0 lvl nobodies upping to first level just like that (without any background); but it's a minor problem unless you are playing a demihuman. Since race is class, you all of a sudden gain racial abilities at 1st lvl you didn't have at 0 lvl. Small beans really, but it hangs some people up. Overall this game whets my dark side. I love the way magic is done, especially spell duels. I have already pre-ordered my November release copy and can't wait to try a game.

So why are these games the future of gaming? Well, put simply the majority hardcore gamers are in one of two camps right now. Either they are playing originals/retro clones and doing their own thing, or they are waiting to get their hobby back. It looks like WoTC is playing catch up now with their pretalk about 5e. And the direction they are heading these games have already been down, cleared a path and set up castles along the way. They are waaaay ahead of the design curve. And they are doing so in the real spirit of the game. They are giving gamers what they want, keeping what works and innovating where needed. Put simply the real innovation in design is coming from companies like Troll Lords, KenzerCo and Goodman Games. Yes, I left out Paizo. Paizo chose a path for themselves and they are doing pretty well. But they also limited themselves. In choosing to replicate 3.5 they are bottlenecked. They have to innovate. The last time they did so was with Adventure Paths and supplement subscriptions.

I mean let's face it. No matter what Grognards like me may say there have been a few things learned in the past 37 years or so. To not implement that wisdom is well ... just unwise. The trick is to do so without losing the spirit of the game. 4e failed to do that. These Big Three are in my opinion what the future of gaming looks like. And right now, the future's so bright I gotta wear shades.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Can't Kill a Character? Make Him a God!

A quick update on Parlifin. You remember, Parlifin the Unconquerable? Well, a few friends of mine emailed me after they read the Parlifin remembrance. One just happened to be the player of Parlifin himself. He reminded me that Parlifin was killed, after a fashion. At any rate their emails were so much fun I thought I'd share them here:

First was a quick note from my partner in crime who was as ardent as I at devising ways to defeat the power munchkin. He writes:

"I can kill him, where is his character sheet????? RIIIIPPPPPPPPPP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Slippery rat bastard."

Which was sufficient to summon the being himself, player of Parlifin. Who writes:


Oy vey! : (

Parllifin, the Half-Black/Half-White... The ultimate Munchkin... AD&D taken to the extreme.

You know... You *did* actually slay Parllifin, Chris. It was a brilliant maneuver...

It was you, wasn't it? Or was it someone else? I can't remember, getting senile in my old age.

I remember that one game, where when I displayed my power, I earned the adoration of a single follower... Then two... Then 10... Word spread and suddenly a movement sprang up around Parllifin... Then a religion... Then Parllifin had no choice... He was a demigod.

Powerless in the face of his growing population of worshipers and their prayers.

Parllifin the character was slain, replaced by the demigod, Parllifin the Half-Black/Half-White, Parllifin the Invincible/Untouchable, Parllifin the Anathema of Metal, Parllifin the Nexus of Positive/Negative, Parllifin the Unborn, Parllifin the Immutable Point in Time.

And here I had thought I can every possible danger covered. Who knew that the fervent prayers of a large mass of followers would change everything.

Good job, Chris. :)

And feel free to rip the sheet my friend. It is just paper with some lead pencil squiggles on it.

Parllifin still lives on in your mind and in your heart. :D"
 Spoken as only he can. Parlifin is dead! Long live Parlifin!

D&D 5th Edition

Don't play with me Wizard! I mean you've taken me in once before. Two times! Fool me once shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me. Fool me three times and somebody's just an idiot.

I know I said I was gonna get away from the industry stuff for awhile, but this is just too good to pass up. News is a little different anyway; and we can never have too many opinions on the news, right? Just ask Dan Rather, or Ted Kopel, Barabara Walters or, well you get the idea. So bear with me for some exciting news!

Not like this is really news anyway. I mean I'm always the last one to know. Which is another good reason I probably shouldn't be trying to blog on the news. But, regardless this is worth some commentary.

And it's mostly rumor right now. I mean no one knows anything definite -- What's that? Oh, right, get on with it ... okay.

Wizards of the Coast is gearing up for 5e.

Yep, that's the news. Well, okay that's just the rumor part, but you can bet your last drop of spit while crossing the Sahara that's what's coming. Just you watch. The real news is actually a bit sadder, at least for lots of WoTC employees.

Wizards of the Coast just went through another big round of layoffs.

Yep, just like they did before they started gearing up for 4e. And the layoff just aint lackies either. Bill Slavicsek is gone too. Yes, THE Bill Slavicsek. The head of R&D for 4e Bill Slavicsek. Read into it what you like, but Mike Mearls is now head of R&D and doing some interesting insinuating. To be fair we don't know if Bill was part of the layoff, or if he resigned. He announced his departure in late June and the layoffs more or less coincided with that.

I'm not trying to be a conspiracist or anything, but this is just too good to pass up. You can kind of see the scenario where Bill heads up the direction of 4e. 4e tanks and Bill gets the boot. Or is it that he feels like, hey, I did my best, gave you what I thought you wanted, what I thought the fans wanted, and well--it didn't work too well. Sorry, C ya ... Hmmm ... But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Okay, so where did this come from anyway. Well, it'll be more fun for you if you hunt down all the links yourself, so I'll just summarize the development of things for you.

Sometime around January it became pretty clear that Mike Mearls was taking the helm of game design at the company. I really have to wonder if there wasn't a difference of opinion between Mike and Bill, as they did essentially the same thing, but that's pure conjecture. Whatever the case was, 4e was losing players. And by players I mean consumers. This was news to me, but it has been happening for awhile now and obviously that would create pressure at the head office. They tried to account for the loss in sales by Pathfinder, the one big competitor in the field, but it didn't add up. There were either lots of people just not gaming, or they were going somewhere else. Lots of bloggers were thinking that it was likely they were ghost numbers heading to the OSR retro-clone and retro-variant games. It's hard to account for these numbers as there is no commerical reporting available besides download numbers. My feeling is that whereever they were going they were simply getting their gaming fix elsewhere. That was a problem for 4e.

I can even see Hasbro Corporate offices sitting in conference with the Wizards branch and looking at the dismal numbers. "You gotta do something about this." Before you know it we lay off half the staff and are talking about a new direction. And that's exactly what Mike Mearls is doing. Check out his Legends and Lore columns on the Wizards site. He has written about the history of D&D, the foundations upon which the game is built, the core concepts associated with the game, trying to satisfy different types of gamers with one game. And changing the game to be more rules light and flexible. If you ask me he's trying to rebuild D&D in the image of Castles and Crusades. Which is a big credit to Stephen Chenault and the Troll Lord crew. I mean as you read through those entries you get the feeling that he is basically creating design notes for a new release.

And that's not mere conjecture. That's what being echoed on a number of blogs and gaming news sites web-wide. Check it out to get into all the details. Just Google "Wizards of the Coast layoff" "Bill Slavicsek" or "D&D 5e" and you'll come up with enough stuff to keep you reading all night.

What it means for us out here in the trenches is two fold if you ask me.
  1. We made a difference. We voted with our dollar. 4e tanked because it was exactly what we did _not_ want. And though 4e pulled in a new young element they lost most of their hard-core gamers. There's a lot of power in that fact and we need to respect and understand it.
  2. We may get a decent release of D&D again.
Okay it's that last one that really scares me. I keep getting duped by WoTC. They have never satisfied me. Not really. But I always go back and check them out; like a weakened drug addict jonesin' for a fix. And I always end up back in gaming rehab. So, don't screw with me Wizard--just don't do it. If you're gonna do it, do it right. Release a strong core that preserves and hallows our gaming roots. And support it with good, quality well written Adventures, Settings, and Color. NOT with a damn new rule book every 15 minutes!!

'Cause I'll tell you Wizbro, with the OSR going strong and games like C&C, HM and DCC out there it's going to be tough to compete. Tough.

I may have to write a letter to Mike Mearls tonight ...

Min-Maxing ... Is it _Really_ a Bad Thing?

I would like to introduce you to a legend out of time and out of mind. Though born in the fires of min-maxing affliction this god-like being went on to figure more prominently than any other in the halls of player memory in our campaigns. He was the source of endless hours of discussion in my youth; and the tales of his origin and deeds read like ancient myth and are still shrouded in mystery and wonder.

Parlifin the Unconquerable

A good friend of my youth at some point before we met, set out to create a character. I'm not sure of the original concept, but he told me he was looking for a name and saw a Harlequin romance commerical and so, playing with the name he came up with the name of Parlifin. Little did he guess what a famous figure Parlifin was to become; and even less did he imagine what a figure of controversy.

When we first heard of Parlifin we were, I think, talking about the highest level our characters had ever attained. Now, we all knew that some might exaggerate their level prowess to be seen as better in the eyes of their peers. But when we came to my good friend he shocked us all by announcing that his highest level character was a 52nd level fighter!

To say he was ridiculed is to be too kind. There was simply no way a PC could get that high. How much adventuring would it take?! So after the shouts and jeers died down he began in earnest to tell us a bit about Parlifin and his many tales.

Parlifin was a level 52 fighter. He had adventured long and hard to rise into the 30's before he was commisioned by the Gods to retrieve a sword. Not just any sword, nor even any magical blade, but an artifact of great power. This amazing blade would bond with it's rightful owner and bestow powers beyond belief to its companion. So Parlifin set out across the multiverse in search of this great blade of power. And though I remember not the obstacles he had to overcome on the way, he did so. Upon retrieving the blade a dire thing happened. Dire but wondrous. The blade, sensing Parlifin's soul, bound itself to him. His abilities were already great, all of them above twenty by this time, the blade elevated his stats to all 25s. The blade would spring to his hand simply by thought from anywhere in existence. No amount of damage might kill him before he magically regenerated the wounds; and no longer would he need food, water, air or sustenance of any kind. All needs being provided by the new extension of his soul. The blade warned him of danger and protected him from all forms of magical attack. Myriad other powers Parlifin attained in this bonding. And with no fear now of what the Gods might do he returned to their realms on high to explain the situation to them.

The Gods were not pleased. They set about to kill him or at the least shrive the blade from his bonded soul. But the artifact was too powerful for even the Gods to overcome. And vowing eternal war with him, they hurled him across the mutliverse. His spinning form cartwheeled through multi-dimensional space, and moving at faster than the speed of light itself he passed through the positive and negative material planes almost simulatneously. The blade strained to protect him from this menace, and though he lived, he would remain forever changed. The positive and negative polarities of his body split into two halves. When he came to rest Parlifin discovered that half his form was as white as the driven snow and the other half as black as pitch.

This new form bestowed even more powers upon him and he found he had control over energy; around him circled a magic dampening field that did not affect the magic on his person, but only that of those who drew near him. His life was extended indefinitely now, and age would not touch him. For certain he was the match of any divinity in the heavens or the hells, but none would have him in their midsts. So Parlifin became a celestial wanderer. Continuing his adventures back and forth through time and across numerous worlds.

Our jaws were slack, our eyes wide. The Audacity! The Gall! The Cajones!!!! Did he expect us to believe this tale? It was so obvious to us that he had set about to create an undefeatable character and has simply made him up. ... Hadn't he? My friend always maintained that his rise to power was fairly DMed and fairly won. But to us it simply couldn't be.

As true adventurers we couldn't leave a challenge alone. We would devise sinister plots to wrest Parlifin from power, but my friend would calmly answer each of our plots with how Parlifin would easily defeat them.

"We'll appeal to the Gods! They can do what they wish and will take your sword from you and thus your power."

He would explain "They already tried that. Part of the bonding prohibits such from occuring."

Drat!! "Then we'll travel back in time before his rise to power and kill him!"

"Parlfin," he simply explained, "would be warned of this danger by his blade and stop you. And even if you could succeed in going back in time, Parlifin has the bracers of a Time Lord and nothing can warp his timeline without him arighting it."

"Bracers of a Time Lord?!" Firk ding blast!!! "Then, if we simply hurl him back through the positive and negative material planes in reverse he would explode!" We shouted, not really understanding physics too well at the time.

"The blade would again protect me and my polarities would just reverse. ... But," he paused, scratching his chin in thought. "That might be interesting because my powers might be work in reverse."

And so it went for endless hours. Some in our group even got him to agree to adventure under them. They would claim it was to kill him. I have always maintained that it was instead to have the thrill of DMing such a godlike PC. One DM even had him travel to our time where Parlifin comandeered an SR71 Blackbird. ... *urp* ... He never let me DM him. I think he knew my opinons all too well.

Yes, the legends and exploits of Parlifin were legion and the stuff of pure wonder. To this day I don't think any PC has been quite so talked about as the Black and White Wanderer of the Stars. We cursed him, we damned him, we hated him. But we _loved_ hating him. He added so much to our gaming world that we could never repay him, my friend or the many DMs willing to hurtle him along to greatness for the imaginative joy he gave us.

I've always been against min-maxing. But occasionally I think about Parlifin ... and I wonder what might be if we simply ebmraced the wonder fully and let our imaginations go, without limit, across the multiverse.

Thank you my friend, and thank you Parlfiin.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Gaming Industry

Yes, James Maliszewski, we ARE too obsessed with the industry. And I also agree with you, it's not necessarily a good thing. I've tried to stop just posting about other bloggists entries, but this point is too good not to make, so check it out here.

I have to wonder if my own confusion doesn't mainly come from my obsession with the old school movement, and all the ins and outs that come along with it. Shouldn't we really be out playing games more? That's where the rubber meets the road so to speak, or the imagination meets the dream.

When I was younger we talked more about what Solabaris and Elektra the ninja (yeah I know, but that's the name he chose) were going to do to each other when they face off again. What new demon Tunner might ensnare since he had just defeated the Demogorgon on the Prime Material; and if there existed any foul trap in the multiverse that might actually defeat Parlifin. Would Nealin finish his Tower of Evil on the Sea Beneath the World? And would his former party members be able to stop him? Or should they?

Now when I talk to gamers we talk about versions, editions, rules systems, mechanics, Old School vs New School, 3.5, 4e, retro clones, variants and on and on ad nauseam. Maybe we've matured? Pooh and piffle I say. I want my old discussions back. I just want to play more and worry about the meta-hobby less.

Sounds like a good idea James. Thanks for the insight. You have been my gem of truth today, and I think I'll go over in the corner and polish it up a bit and see what shines back at me. ....

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons VS OSRIC

AD&D is honestly my game of choice. It's what I started with and most of my creative energy has went into writing for AD&D. I don't know if its's the High Gygaxian writing, nostalgia, or something more numinous but given the choice this is what I play. Trouble is noone else in my area used to play 1e. So noone else has the books. 

So I've run some OSRIC campaigns for some time. But OSRIC is different enough from 1e (for copyright purposes) as to not be fully compatible. I mean it's as compatible as you can get, and changes are easy enough to make if your converting from one to the other. But trying to run a game where I use 1e resources and the players use OSRIC just doesn't work. There are enough differences that they come up quite frequently. So I have to end up defering to OSRIC or imposing the rules from my more official rulebooks.

Lately I began to compile a list of differences between the two. Thinking maybe I was overexagerating the extent of the differences. But I'm not. I stopped looking after I had filled up one whole page of differences before I had reached page 50 in OSRIC 2.0. Now, I understand why these differences have to be there. I'm not faulting the game or the designers for that. OSRIC works great to produce compatible resources for 1e without violating copyright. But it presents a unique situation gaming for the future of 1e gaming. And I think this same situation applies to all retro clones.

One can buy OOP 1e PHBs online fairly cheap. They run from as little as $5 to as much as $50 depending on condition and the seller's disposition. But they can usually be bought for under $15 So why not have players just buy the PHBs and call it good? That might work if I had a fixed set of gamers in my gaming group. But I run the RPG club for the school where I teach. We cater to 20 or so younger gamers and add 10 new gamers each year. And even though we have a club libary for member use, players inevitably want their own copies of the rules. For these new, young players to look online to buy OOP books is a bit much. It just hasn't worked.

Which I believe speaks to a larger problem in the OS community. If we expect to bring new gamers into the fold to play OS games they are going to be relegated to using clones instead of the originals. I suppose this isn't a problem in and of itself. Retro clones tend to strive to preserve the spirit of the originals at least. But it forces those of us who prefer and still have our original books to make the change to the clones as well. And as much as I like what OSRIC is doing I prefer to game with my old 1e books.

The result is the inevitable extinction of 1e gaming regardless of our efforts to preserve it. Sure there are those groups that have always played 1e out there, who's players own all the books and are still going strong. But new groups have this unique and not insignificant problem. And this is true for all the retro clones from what I can see. Buying the OOP source materials is not nearly as easy as just printing off a free retro clone.

I have read through numerous clones now and I'm sorry, none of them scream play me. Lots of people prefer the neater presentation and organization of the clones, but I just can't get into them like I get into my originals. The closest it came was LoTFP. Raggi's artistic presentation was captivating and the tone of his hype about the game (very dark fantasy) had me really hoping this would be "it". Until I read the rules. The rules were a rather stale presentation of Basic D&D. Now, to be fair I haven't read all the books, just the free download.

Now, I can't say that about the retro-variants. Retro-variants are new games taking their inspiration from D&D and the Old School in general. But they have taken their creativity in new directions. They invite players to play a new game, and to join in a new vision. Some of the masterpieces in this field that I have found imminently intriguing are:
  • Hackmaster Basic
  • Castles & Crusades
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics
In these beauties we have something truly special. Number one they have staying power. These are games with weight behind them. They also each present a new spin or angle or experience that is unique from what has come before. Their writing and production is top notch. And not coincidentally I think you have experienced writers who have strong connections with early gaming and early gaming icons. Jolly Blackburn, Dave Kenzer, Stephen Chenault, and Joseph Goodman. If you ask me this is where the future lies. And granted there are some other less known retro-variants out there that deserve a bit of attention, but they don't quite shine like these three above.

So, in the debate of OSRIC vs AD&D. My answer might be, play Castles & Crusades, or Hackmaster or give the new DCC RPG a look. I wonder if the future of OS is not in looking back, but looking forward. I know for the next little while before the gaming season starts once again, I'll be doing some serious looking myself.

The OSR Support Network

Well I was wrong ... sorta. My recent rants about the crazy confusion of the Old School Movement were right on a few points.
  1. There is no central authority.
  2. Resources and support are scattered from hell to breakfast, as they say in the cowboy west.
  3. No network exists to unite OS players
But after conversing with a number of other OS bloggers and doing quite a bit of deep surfing through the OS web I've found some things out.
  1. The OSM doesn't want a central authority--it defeats the purpose
  2. While resources are all over the place that's a good thing; it shows more and more gamers are creating material. And there are a number of sites dedicated to collecting and cataloging such resources on their sites.
  3. Lots of OS players are using pbp, pbemail, and skype gaming to get their fix until they can find gamers close to them
I've also heard the analogy drawn between the early days of gaming (from '74 to '78) and what is occurring now in the OSR. Back then, that came to a close with the release of AD&D, and with TSR's growing litigation- happy approach to anyone that looked like they were stepping on their turf. The desire now seems to be to keep the spirit of openness provided by WoTC with the OGL and the SRD. So, many of my points are really moot, at least to much of the OSR crowd.

The "support network" if one can call it that is actually vast if rather diffuse. For anyone wanting to start playing old school games, for someone looking to get back into the hobby where they left off 20 plus years ago, or for avid gamers just looking for old school stuff, just do a google search. You'll come up with enough OS stuff to keep you busy for weeks. It's what I've been doing for awhile now. I've still not plumbed the depths. I'm not sure anyone could. It would be a full time job to wade through all this stuff. And I've got a full time job.

Me? I just wanna play games.