Saturday, September 3, 2011

Dissension in the Ranks

And so it goes. We've got those who are fairly unhappy with the vote. Oops. I knew this would happen. We also have at least one member that voted wrong. Not reading the directions thoroughly he marked his choices backwards. I fixed his, but wonder now how many others made the same mistake. Members are coming to me in number, however expressing dissatisfaction with the voting results. The tendency for gamers to be loyalists is remarkable. It's actually the same in the ranks of adult gamers, so why should it be any different among the young? The real danger of course is that members get so upset by having to play a game they don't like, they will leave the club. Deomcratic process and open discussion are critical to making everyone happy.

Our Pathfinder devotees have been the most vocal, doing some down and dirty comparisons of the systems in their own minds and why PF wins out over the others. They want a chance to explain this to newbies who may not be as intimately familiar with the systems as they are. One kid has done a point by point analysis of the differences in S&W and his game and makes it clear there is no comparison. He sees the earlier games as too simple, to "optionless" and bland in presentation. Good points really. So I talked with him about the play differences between the two. Hilighting for him the difference the way rules oriented systems played versus roleplaying oriented systems. He understood, but was not convinced. In the end he made a very astute observation when he said, "I just like more complex systems." Man, that kind of self awareness in a young gamer surpasses the self analysis of many adult fanboys!

Some other young men who really prefer DnD 4e have expressed their concerns as well. But they like the focus on roleplay present in eariler systems. Of course the question of whether you can achieve such roleplay in 4e is an open question for them. Currently they are just taking my word for it. And I have to be careful that I'm not proselytizing too much, but maintaining a neutral, informative stance that allows these young gamers to find their own way.

It was also pointed out to me by several club members that many people who had never gamed before are trying to vote on systems they know nothing about, except for my little blurbs. The brief descriptions I provided (last post) are either totally unhelpful (like the Dark Dungeons and OSRIC descriptors) or are interchangeable. They see my voting system as inherently flawed. Cool! I love this sort of deep thinking from students (but then I'm a teacher). So the question becomes, how do we really confront this issue?

Two options are under consideration. One is a club meeting where we discuss all the systems and present the books and materials for each one so that everyone can peruse them. Fanboys can give their personal spiels for the systems they like. Debate will be allowed on the virtues or flaws of each system. I will mediate and clarify points that I feel are too emotional, unfounded or are incorrect. Then we will hold a silent vote and determine a system.

The second option was mentioned in my previous post as well, and also encouraged by ADD Grognard's comments. Instead of a detailed debate on the systems, we meet them on their own ground: in a play session. I worry just presenting all the 4e or PF books against the simply PDF of S&W will unfairly bias the debate. I mean heck the art and books for those two modern systems are like eye candy to the average teenager. Show them some splashy pages of fantasy art and they won't see anything else for the whole meeting. But that doesn't allow them to really experience what playing S&W or C&C is like compared to PF or 4e. If we play each one for a brief session then they can vote on which game they like based on how it actually played.

I also like ADD Grognards suggestion we play them in historical order. Something like:
  1. S&W
  2. LL / DD
  3. OSRIC / ADD
  4. C&C
  5. HM
  6. PF
  7. 4e
Which sort of follows the development of the game. Although HM as it currently stands doesn't really fit in there anymore, unless we play HM 4e which is OOP. The new HM is much less D&D like than it ever was before. At any rate a brief one hour session or even half hour session for each one, with pregen PCs and we aren't talking about more than 3 days. We currently game twice a week for 2 hours each, but a third day is being considered. I've got to decide what to do this weekend, because I want to be ready to go Tuesday for the first meeting.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Vote is in! Kind of ....

So I gave the club members of the school club I advise a chance to vote on the system we would use this year. Mainly because my own gaming preferences are so confused right now. I gave a short blurb for each version, (probably influenced by my own prejudices and perceptions, but oh well). Each member that signed up was then asked to rank their preferences in order of from 1 to 3, 1 being the game they preferred the most. I was actually expecting only three rankings; but students actually rated several games as 1, several as two and several as three on each sheet. Unranked games were given a score of 4. I took these rankings and added them up, giving me an overall ranking of game preference among members. Lowest would of course be best.

The game blurbs were as follows:

Free Systems


___Labyrinth Lord: A great, simple and straightforward fantasy system with lots of flexibility. Includes both sci-fi and horror gaming if you so desire, and the rules are free for download.

___Adventures Dark & Deep: An innovative mixture of advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules with a wide variety of race and class choices. Also free for download.

___Dark Dungeons: A comprehensive reproduction of Basic, Expert, Companion, Master and Immortal Dungeons & Dragons Rules. Free for download.

___Swords & Wizardry: The original fantasy roleplaying game. Designed for the ultimate in creative freedom. But requires house-rules for many situations. Free for download.

___OSRIC: A reproduction of the core rules of 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons. Basic Races and Classes. Free for download.

Commercial Systems

___Pathfinder: Similar to the last version of Dungeons & Dragons. Oriented to endlessly flexible character creation. Many rules cover just about every gaming situation. Basic Core Book: $32 from Amazon.com.

___DnD 4e: the latest version of D&D, very different from previous versions. Geared to superhero-type gaming. Very gameboard-like combat. Basic Player's Handbook $23.00 at Amazon.com.

___Castles & Crusades: A fresh approach to a rules lite, story oriented roleplay experience. Simple mechanics. Player's Handbook $15-$25 from Troll Lord Games.

___Hackmaster: A gritty, hard hitting game designed at creating a realistic fantasy world. If you traveled to a fantasy world today would you survive? Hackmaster will let you know. Basic Rulebook $20 from Kenzerco Games.
 
I tried of course to make the descriptions as innocuous as possible, giving no real assessment of the game in my opinion except with a few select adjectives. The one exception is perhaps D&D 4e where I make it clear that the game is distinctly different from the others.
 
The voting results were as follows:
 
1st Place Swords & Wizardry 31

2nd Place Adventures Dark & Deep 34
 
3rd Place Labyrinth Lord 35

3rd Place Castles & Crusades 35

4th Place Hackmaster 36

5th Place Pathfinder 37

6th Place OSRIC 40

7th Place Dark Dungeons 44

8th Place DnD 4e 47

Which honestly was a pleasant surprise. I fully expected 4e to score higher because of it's local popularity. But maybe my description was a bit too biased. Though, I'm not gonna worry about that too much. I also expected Pathfinder to be at the top of the list; and it is one of the higher scoring games. But that students slightly preferred Hackmaster over PF was refreshing to say the least. That may mean my hopes of eventually running a long term Hackmaster game with the club may some day be realized. What was truly surprising was that Swords & Wizardry won the day. Maybe that phrase "Designed for the ultimate in creative freedom" was a little too enticing? I mean it is designed thusly, but maybe I overemphasized it. Ah well, it is what it is. And we are dealing with about half of the membership having little to no experience with most of the games. I suppose they might get discouraged with their choice after a bit of play, but that will have more to do with me than the game per se.

And all the applications are not yet in. We still have about six out there that may come in today. I'll allow their votes to count today only and then the voting will be closed. There is no school on Monday and the first game begins Tuesday. Good times!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Day Kenpo Died: A Gaming Fable

I have practiced the martial arts for some time. I started in Chinese Kung Fu, several different styles off and on until I hit my late 30's. It was about three years in that I realized one of the difficulties facing the kung fu community. Lineage. Many teachers simply did not know how to apply the arts they taught in any practical way. They would often explain that the applications were embedded in the forms; and all you had to do was practice them continually and the applications would become apparent. Others would show an application or two, usually very unrealistically and explain that there were thousands of variations on this technique that would become apparent over time. I became frustrated with this and drifted to other arts. Then I found Kenpo. Kenpo was a great art. But it was actually in decline.

Kenpo had been created by Ed Parker in the early 70's , and he was constantly revising the art and the manner in which it was taught. He gained several devoted high level students that began the spread of Kenpo throughout the Americas. At that time Kenpo was a living and breathing art reaching new students every day. Until Ed Parker died suddenly from a heart attack in his 50's. The Kenpo world was in shock. He had named no clear successor but left a half a dozen high level black belts with strong personalities behind. It wouldn't take a statistician to predict what was about to happen. Kenpo splintered first into three then six and a dozen different Kenpo variations and organizations. Today the Kenpo world is shattered. Her roots withering from branches grown too far from the source and indeed cut off from the source altogether. The most commercially succesful branches have left Kenpo altogether and begun entirely new arts. I have practiced in many schools, and there is little depth in them. They are like plastic copies of what has come before. It is the same thing I felt with some Kung Fu school separated from their roots by thousands of years. Kenpo is dying too. If it's not dead already.

I can't help but feel the same thing happening to gaming today. I mean there are lots of people gaming, just like there are lots of people practicing in dojos all over the world. But what are they doing really? What are they playing? Are they plastic imitations of the originals or some new branch that has broken off of the staff? I'm at a loss to tell you the truth. It may be just me. But I can't seem to find the magic--anywhere. The clones don't quite do it, the new commercial offerings don't quite do it. They get close, but they are missing some ineffable quality that the originals possessed. At least for me.

These news games are excellent creations, I don't want to down them. Just like some very successful Kenpo schools teaching a new twist on the old. But they aren't "it". They are ultimately different. Some might say that they are close enough, or that they are even better. But I don't see it. I don't see it and I don't feel it. In my opinion the only reason one would even play a retro clone would be that they are better than the originals. Otherwise you might as well play the originals.

Now, some might be confused by this. Just recently I recommended that those that want to play 0e play S&W instead of the originals. But you know what? I'm not even qualified to make that statement. I have never played 0e and I never played B/X. I am a strict AD&D 1e man. That's what I played and that's what I know. I owned B/X and I played some the modules, but I tweaked them for AD&D. Why play B/X, I reasoned, when AD&D was available? (That is strictly opinion not a commentary). So the only clone I feel inclined to judge is OSRIC and maybe LL AEC. LL AEC is just not advanced. It's more like Basic on steroids. And we all know how I feel about OSRIC.

Variants are really different games altogether. They make changes to the original idealogies and add their own twists. So unless you are looking for a new game they aren't an adequate replacement for the originals either. C&C comes really close to AD&D feel with the exception of the d20 mechanic and the Siege Engine. It's a light system however, and so they play differently in many regards. And they certainly don't have that baroque spirit enshrined in the original AD&D.

So call me a lost soul a grognard or a purist. I'm still not happy. Not sure exactly what to do about it, but going back to originals looks better everyday. If I want to write something for publication I can use OSRIC. OSRIC is allowing designers to pump out new material that I can also use. The community is a bit weak, truthfully. But maybe I can help that ...

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Castles & Crusades: What's in a Name

Normally I don't do this, (hell who am I kidding I do this alot) but I'm wandering around the web looking at Castles & Crusades stuff last night and run across some hate dialogue. It was old (2007), granted, but it still irked me a bit. Some uber nut was going on about how he wouldn't play C&C because of the name. According to him Crusades were about "killing brown people for Jesus" and the name offended his sensibilities. ... Ooookaaaay ....

Sorry but this idgit is more than a little misinformed. First of all the word crusade comes from the Old or Middle French and the Medieval Spanish for a word meaning "marked with the cross". The word was not created for the military campaigns to regain Christian control of the Holy Land, but it was applied to much of the endeavors there. And the fact was, the Muslim Empire militarily spread out first; conquering Syria and later expanding throughout the Mediterranean World and eventually the European Continent. Europe's involvement actually started in the Spanish Peninsula. There the Moors gained a substantial foothold in the Europe. One cannot even truly understand The Crusades without understanding the campaign to regain Iberia from the Moors. Such an attack on Europe at all constituted an attack on Christendom. However the battles to remove the Moors from Iberia were largely political in nature. A response to invasion, though sanctioned by the Church. The campaigns against the Moors eventually led to the reclamation of the Holy Land. It was true, the Pope had reservations about such a Holy War, shedding blood in the name of the Lord, but political expediencies were as forceful as were religious ones.

If we are going to be holier than thou about our fantasy gaming we might want to question the ethos of the knighthood altogether. Knights were notorious for looting, raping and pillaging across the countryside. Regardless of how mightily we might praise the concept of chivalry today, it was not the norm. So great was this problem that the religious leaders of the day enlisted knights in these wars as ways to pay penance for their wickedness and redeem themselves. Questionable? Yes, but politically expedient; and in its own way justified. You have to recall that the entire western world was largely Christian at this point and the Church was intimately tied to the political landscape. As was the case in Moorish held regions where the whole Empire was Muslim. Wars throughout time have all been questionable in one regard or another; and have been noble in other respects. To single out one and condemn it as unethical on the grounds that one side was Christian is a pathetic argument at best. The Crusades were in no way that simple.

And most importantly we must recall that in the 1700's the word crusade was changed to reflect any effort, usually waged by underdogs, against a public evil. It is in this sense that the word crusade is most often used by people today. Crusades are waged by various groups and people to defeat what is seen as a common evil against mankind. In this sense the words crusade is very appropriate for a fantasy rpg. For we have noble and heroic warriors venturing forth into the world to defeat the evils that plague man and demikind. "The Crusades" refers to a specific medieval military campaign waged to push the Moors back from Europe and reclaim Christian control of Europe and the Holy Land.

It is not Castles and The Crusades it is Castles and Crusades as "In a land of castles, magic and danger will you wage your crusade against the evils of the world?" To say we can't use the word crusade without being politically incorrect or hinting at some past perceived evil is ridiculously ill informed. And it's one of the supidest criticisms levelled against an RPG I think I have ever read. Actually no, "D&D is a tool for inducting kids into satanic cults" is about the stupidest, right before "D&D causes suicide". But the whole "I can't play C&C because it has the word crusade in it" is right up there at the top.

And if we are going to pick nits about whether the games we play are politically correct you can't ignore the obvious elephant in the room. Any game that is about running around killing things and taking their stuff could be said to be morally questionable. Let's not split hairs here. All RPGs are rooted in violence as well and there are decriers a plenty that condemn them for exactly that reason. I think in the big picture there are lots of other ethical reasons we could choose to be bent out of shape over.

Sorry but this kind of stuff just pisses me off.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

What's in a Game? And What's in a Gamer?

Gamers, gamers everywhere. So many, many games, so very little time.

Lately I've been drowning in gaming goodness. There are so many excellent games out there, old school, new school, retro, nouveau, crunchy, lite, complex, simple, and every genre under the sun. They each have their strengths and they each have their weaknesses. Having the pleasure of teaching young kids to game has been educational for me in many ways. What I've seen time and again is the tendency for young gamers to stick to the game the started with. They tend to prefer their first game more than others. There are a few exceptions who switch systems and a small number that system bounce. But generally speaking these kids develop a strong passion for their game of choice and express a devoted loyalty to it. And this is true across systems. I have seen kids feel this way about 3.5, Pathfinder, 4e, OSRIC, 2e and 1e. It's inspiring if a little frustrating. Especially when trying to cater to 25 different gamers.

I've also seen this generally among gamers everywhere. Even though a sign of gaming maturity (according to Gary Gygax) is the ability to try different gaming systems and understand and thrive within them. Gamers still have their preferences and often desire to create within that system more than others. There will always be a market for new games because gamers eventually branch out. This branching out usually takes the form of "trying out" different games and sometimes by eventually changing their preferred system. At times friends foster or force such a change. If all our gaming buddies want a change we are hard pressed to not go along. Sometimes we end up changing our hearts over time and adopting a love for the new system; and other times we drift back to what we used to play.

Watching all of this I have determined a personal categorization of gamers into certain groups.
  • The Devotee: A true loyalist this type of gamer may have tried other games and may still play a little of this and a little of that, but they have one preferred system. They don't like long term games in other systems, and prefer to play in their preferred system at least once a month. They are brilliant creators within their system and often have rules, mechanics and passage of the core committed to memory by long term reading and use. They embody their system's spirit as well and often become the heart and flame of their system's continuation over time. Many in the OSR fall in this area. Like wizards in their towers toiling over their tomes for ages to gain the next drop of wisdom, power or magic from their beloved discipline.
  • The Cultist: Another highly committed if slightly weird loyalist to one system. These gamers live their system-lierally. They not only read all literature even slightly related to their system they often write their own works in the system's genre. They frequently wear costumes to game night and may be frequent LARPers in a group that is similar to their chosen system. They elevate the creators of their chosen game to quasi-deific status and see any who play others games as heretics to the one true game. Some Call of Cthulhu players fit this bill, though cultists can be found throughout gamerdom.
  • The Fanboy: The most vitriolic of gamers, these too are devoted with utter and complete passion to their game of choice. They are unable to reason with any other system but theirs. They are impossible to hold a conversation with outside of their system and they will claim to be utterly convinced their game is the only one and true game. That is until something else comes along that everyone else changes to. Fanboys are very common in modern games and share much in common with ardent video gamers. But don't cast stones too quickly, many of us were fanboys at one time or another.
  • The Dilettante: Often skilled in one game, the dilletante does not hold the devoted character of previous gamers to one system. They may have specialized in one system, but hold no particular devotion to it beyond the excellence of the system itself. Dilettantes love games, all kinds of games. They are able to switch gaming dialogues between systems and are frequently highly capable game designers. This is because they are conversant with so many systems and able to evaluate systems with keen insight. Their bookshelves are full to brimming over with literally hundreds of different game titles.
  • The Designer: Frequently devoted to one system for awhile, this type of gamer created within their system with mad abandon. Quickly however, they outgrew their system and began setting their sights on other games. Frequently such gamers go through a number of games and are Dilettantes for awhile before deciding no game has quite what they want, or that there exists a hole in the gaming universe they desire to fill. They then contribute to the hobby by creating their own system. Sometimes they will make such a system their magnum opus, but others are discontent continuing to pump out systems and supplements like there is no tomorrow. Always hoping that one day they will achieve their dream and support themselves by creating games.
  • The Gaming Whore: Some prefer Gaming Junkee, but Whore is actually more apt. Where junkees jones for a fix of their favorite gaming narcotic, whores will lay with any game for a night. At times we can all be gaming whores. This usually happens when we've gone for long spates without any gaming at all, and then fall in bed with a trashy group or lame game just to get a fix, only to wake up the next morning feeling cheap and worthless ourselves. Some live this sort of life willing to game anything, anytime, anywhere. It is still open to debate as to whether such gamers are actually addicted to gaming like nymphophiliacs are to lovemaking.
  • Wannabes: We all know the feeling of not quite fitting in, but really wanting to. That's what wannabes feel all the time. Many gamers feel this way when looking for a gaming home. Especially when switching systems to an established game. We are outsiders and we know it. We know it because we made others feel like outsiders when they came to join our gaming community. This can happen to any of us once in awhile. But true wannabes never really know any game well, but are always trying to fit in with one gaming crowd or another.
  • Lost Souls: Sadly there are many gamers who wander aimlessly through the realms of gamerdom. Eternally seeking what was lost they now truly belong nowhere. They live a hollow and empty gaming existence as if missing their hearts and souls. This is a pitiful by byproduct of games going out of print and gaming companies shutting their doors. The first occurrence of lost souls occurred with the ending of 0e, which was slightly mitigated by the introduction of the B/X line, but started again with the production of 2e then hit climax with the selling of D&D to WoTC. These are not the only instances of lost soul creation but just the first and most profound. Though some movements seek to give a new gaming homes to these poor individuals they seem to prefer the life of the gaming homeless; reveling in their unique and melancholy status. Some lost souls themselves have even sought to rebuild their lost kingdoms, but they are usually pitiful imitations at best. Carboard castles in a land of ruins. Even today there still exist many who wander and are lost.
  • The Dazed & Confused: There indeed are so many games to try these days it is understandable that some gamers exist in a perpetual state of confusion. Bombarded by the massive output of creative gaming material in today's warkeplace of gaming ideas they have no system to cope with the information overload. No understanding of how the gaming world works or operates beyond it's about playing cool games. It can take years to leave this state of being, and some never leave. They'll play what you put in front of them, because they like the experience, and know there is something appealing to the hobby. But are never truly able to quite grasp the full scope of what gaming is about or what it has to offer. Most fanboys are drawn from these ranks, but not all.
And I could go on, simply 'cuz it's so much fun making all this crap up. But I'm sure you can sense that there's more than a mote of truth to it all. And actually all of us go through these stages in one form or another. Did you see elements of yourself in there somewhere? One might even assert that each stage is sequential in some form or fashion. But truth is I just pulled this out of my arse. And I have no idea whether it's useful or not beyond mere entertainment value. But it was fun to write. Hope you got a chuckle or two. For you know what they say, if you can't laugh at yourself once in awhile then your too damn serious.