Saturday, September 17, 2011

We're Not In Kansas Anymore Toto

Long Ago L. Frank Baum wrote a series of books that took the world by storm. His first The Wonderful Wizard of OZ was a resounding success and introduced the world to the magical world which Baum often maintained was a real place. Himself the Royal Historian of OZ. He transported millions of readers to these realms in their mind's eye and helped their imaginations soar to new creative hieghts. It is no small debt that CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien owe to Baum for first showing the world the keys to such incredible realms. And Baum himself owed a great debt of gratitude to the nursery rhymes, folk stories and fairy tales of the world. Thus we stand on the shoulders of giants in everything we do.

Thus it was years ago still that Dave Arneson, Gary Gygax, Don Kaye, Rob & Terry Kuntz and others began playing a game with what seemed endless possibilities. This game would come to be called Dungeons & Dragons. It too took the world by storm. Another key had been discovered that allowed us all to play with our imaginations in ways we had never really before considered. We owe a debt of gratitude to these initial explorers. And truly all that has come after has been by standing on the shoulders of giants who came before. The true tribute we give to these men is that we continue to play, that we continue to enjoy and we are still creating almost 4 decades later.

Any who follow my blog regularly know that I have been in a time of transition. My slightly rebellious nature has not let me stay idle as I look to recapture what I felt all those years ago when I first played AD&D. It was a time of endless wonder and magic. No one could see the ends to the depths of possibility that lay before us as we reveled in this new playground opened by those early pioneers. For several months and even years now I myself have wondered exactly what was that magic in a bottle that Gary, Dave, Rob and others passed onto us. Where was my magic and where was my game.

Recently I have had the pleasure of conversing with one of those pioneers. An unassuming man with little pretense, Ron Kuntz has some profound and deep ideas about what exactly RPGs are and specifically what D&D is all about. He is a man that has stayed true to that early artistic spirit he first felt as a boy and has journeyed far and wide to see where it has led him. This has made him controversial to some who might like to cast D&D into hard and fast definitions. But it has also made him a light for the truly artistic and creative souls that pursue something deeper than easy answers to questions that plague many gamers today.

For now I reserve much of the details of our exchange, as it is still ongoing; With his help I hope to present some of his ideas here in the forms of interviews and the like. But for now I simply say Rob has helped me see the moon. The metaphor to which I allude is that once expressed by Bruce Lee. "It is like a finger pointing the way to the moon. Don't concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory." Let's just say that I have been staring at the finger. I think lots of us have. Hopefully Rob is pleased with the metaphor, and doesn't want to kick me in the pants. Because Rob does not like the idea of being set up as some sort of gaming guru. He'll tell you when you first meet him he's just another human, just like you.

The thing that Rob does have is an innate scholarly nature. His knowledge on gaming design and the current research in this field and several others is impressive. For this reason if not for a host of others, Rob has something sorely missing in today's gaming world. long term experience and knowledge in gaming design. Not the redesign of already existing games, but the design of new, original games. Of searching for new keys that might lead us to new realms of creative discovery and simply fun.

The problem now in teh gaming world is that we've all been hanging around in OZ so long that it has become just like Kansas. And we're so busy telling people not to leave state lines we have limited ourselves in discovering new creative lands. Don't limit the human potential. Don't tell people they can or can't. Let them discover for themselves. Otherwise we begin to lose that initial wonder the creators first unleashed those years ago. I now worry in retrospect if I have not damage many new andd young gamers impressions of the possibilities of the game by my own concretized ideas and advice.

D&D is a simple concept and a simple game. But it is also infinitely profound. The glory and wonder and detail of it all is in the playing. Not in how well we can draw or describe or scientifically detail the finger. Let's get back to shooting for the moon. Grab a game, any game and play. Play the way YOU want to, the way YOU feel like. Take D&D to realms it has never been--because only YOUR imagination and creativity know the way.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

That Was Then This Is Now

So, if D&D was focused on free form creativity placed completely in the hands of the players and DM initially, what did it become? And did any of this element stay with D&D over time?

Evidently the advent of AD&D was born out of several needs. First there were issues involving Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax that related to lawsuits and the like. Gary needed a game that was distinct from what had come before. Even though the original rules were formalized by Gary much of the initial work was forged by Dave. I personally see the work as a synergy, but that's just personal commentary from the outside. Whatever the case, lawsuits were one reason Gary needed to create a distinct game. This had to do with intellectual property rights. But I really don't see the problem other than maybe Gary and Dave didn't get along. Or maybe Gary saw the game as his or Dave did. Hard to say. And I'm not sure exactly how this worked, because the original game was published through like 1979 when AD&D was finished, but whatever.

Second, there was the revelation provided by Rob Kuntz that AD&D was a response to the commercial opportunity to market supplements, modules, campaigns and the like to a hungry and very eager audience. Rob mentions this idea being spawned by the receipt of a submission module. But there seems to be other indications that Gary already was aware that people wanted content. Greyhawk was the first, then Blackmoor and shortly after Eldritch Wizardry, Gods, DemiGods and Heroes and Swords & Spells. Strategic Review and Dragon Magazine were also providing supplemental info since 1976 or so. The disconnect for me is that like most human decision this was a complex one. Could be that the module submission was the first time they really considered module creation, but the idea of creating content seemed to be a part of D&D early on.

So how and in what way was AD&D different? Well, first of all we get a complete rewrite of the rules, additions in numerous areas; more detailed class descriptions; addition of optional rules like psionics & the bard; exposition of basic cosmology of the D&D universe; lots of design helps for dungeons, wilderness, aerial, and campaign types. Combat was kept basically the same, but the charts changed and lots of additional rules were added. We get quite a bit of prose about how the D&D universe works in terms of basic physics, magic and the like. We also get a bigger and still strongly Greyhawk flavored list of magic items, and spells. The rules are presented a little more organized than the original books. The game is basically the same in theory only more detailed, complex and content rich.

The effect for me is that AD&D is a more limited fantasy game in scope. But only slightly so. What I mean by this is that the realm of AD&D is understood to be a Medieval European Fantasy setting with some of the universal structure inherent in the game. You can opt of just about everything: the Greyhawk flavored elements, optional rules, additional combat rules, the cosmology. Pretty soon you are playing a fairly basic game. But you do this by cutting away from the game. We didn't play this way. We used all the magic items, artifacts, cosmology charts, tables and on and on. We didn't use weapon speed, but just about everything else was added in the mix. Our game was sort of the standard AD&D world. Fairly well written out, explicated and contained in the 3 main AD&D books.

We did create dungeons, campaigns, npcs, worlds, magic items, and other stuff. So why was what we did different from what 0e people did? Well, the difference was in terms of scope in my opinion. AD&D implied a sort of carbon copy series of worlds that all felt pretty much the same. Bigby's Crushing Hand, Mordenkainen's Disjunction, Rary's Mnemonic Enhancer, Baba Yaga's Hut, The Hand of Vecna were all there regardless of what dimension your world might exist within. Even when you left those elements out a D&D world carried a sort of default definition from AD&D on. Now it didn't have to be this way, and I have talked with others who did it differently. It wasn't until much later in my gaming career that I began to step outside of that box.

Personally I think AD&D reinforces that kind of narrowly defined play. That's not necessarily a fault, and it certainly doesn't proscribe other types of play using the system. Gary himself makes it clear that cross genre games are possible and TSR has produced for your gaming pleasure: Boot Hill, Top Secret, Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World ... well you get the idea. Gary also speaks at some length about designing your own adventures and campaigns. So this model still existed within AD&D, but the game itself was fairly narrowly defined within the classic high fantasy route. I also know that there were many that continued the old approach to gaming and took AD&D apart and reassembled it to their liking. I suppose, for me and my early gaming friends, we were accepting the game RAW as the model designed to play. Straying outside that box was only to be performed with caution. An idea Gary himself reinforced within the DMG and his later book RPG Mastery. This was a clear departure from the earlier approach.

Subsequent editions increased this divide until we get to DnD 4e where rules for balancing encounters and constructing adventures, properly disseminating treasure value and XP are so tightly constructed that it is clear you may only create within a narrow tunnel of design. Now, technically nothing prohibits you from straying outside this structure. You can still do just about everything you want, but try and change core mechanics or structure and you usually get rebellion. Take powers out of DnD for instance and players often complain or refuse to play. Limit race and class selection and grumbles, groans and outright refusals are received. The game is what the game is, don't screw with it. Try and amp up an encounter or throw something in unexpected and 4e gamers chide you for not balancing the game. Can't be too hard, or too easy. Has to be "just right". You can try to change things, but the ethos works strongly against the free wheeling, creative anything goes days of 0e.

Now, if you can find a group willing to allow you free creative license with whatever version you play then great. Like minds make for progress. But why play a game where most players don't like that appraoch? Wouldn't it be better to play a game where everyone understands that they are entering an unknown and unexplored region of the imaginative landscape? Where the familiar tropes and landscapes are left behind as they sally forth towards a realm of high strangeness and unexpected danger. A land where you can truly let your imagination soar.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

So What Is D&D Anyway?

Here I am, a 30 year veteran of RPGs and particularly D&D, reconsidering what the heck this game  means anyway. What was it's founding intention? And what does that mean for D&D today? First off I feel the need to clarify that though I've been playing D&D (mainly AD&D, but I've played most versions) since 1981 I am not a child of the 0e era. I was not 'in" on the founding period of D&D and I am also still barely scratching the surface of true D&D history. So please take what I say with a grain of salt. No matter how passionate, dogmatic or grognardly I may come across. These are just the opinions of one gamer seeking understanding.

It seems to me that the game was originally about free form creativity in a role playing game atmosphere. You had a referee or DM that would be responsible for creating the adventures for the player characters and eventually a campaign or world in which these were to take place. You had players that would assume the role of character types drawn from the speculative and adventure fiction of the time. The game was designed to be cross genre like much of the fiction of the period, but was essentially a fantasy game. Combat structure was basic and simple, characters were basic and simple in terms of mechanics. And the game rules were kept straightforward and few. Hence the term "free form". There was lots and lots of wiggle room for creative personalization and basically anything goes.

I'm loathe to say the game was designed to focus on roleplay as a way of covering all the inherent rules-gaps in the game, but it certainly enabled that. There were those gamers, I'm sure, that filled in those gaps with personalized rules and extensions of the rules to more consistently address those concerns. But these technicalities were left up to individual DMs and their groups. The game also allowed lots of openness for additions of new classes, treasures, monsters, and the like if players and their group so desired. In fact it seems that was what was expected.

And, as has been previously mentioned, the game to this point (the initial publication of Greyhawk) was still considered done, complete, as is. You needed nothing more to play the game. The quote from Gary "Why have us do any more of the imagining for you?" is indicative of this approach. The game was designed for players and the DM to take control from here. And from what little I know and understand about the way early games were played with Gary, his kids, Dave Arneson, Rob Kuntz and others the games were all played this way. Creation of the milieu happened as the game unfolded. The newness of it and the fast and furious gaming of those early days necessarily required lots of improvisation and experimentation and free form creativity. At least it appears this way when one reads the stories of early games. Gary would literally stay up late after a session to finish the next level of the dungeon so he could be ready for the next day's session (this is from his EnWorld Q&A). All of these comments and explanations make it clear that they expected everyone to play the game like they had when they were first discovering and enjoying it.

Now, that being said obviously D&D changed over time. There were certainly different fanbases with different ideas of what the game was about with each successive iteration of the game. I was one of those. I was introduced to the game via AD&D and that determined how I saw the game. The real question is how much of that version of the game, and later ones, were truly different in the minds of the players from the original game? And could that early creative ethos have persisted in later editions and if so to what extent and in what form? More on that next time.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Reading Rob Kuntz Part III & How Matt Finch Fits In

So an apology to Matt Finch. Basically I'm slow on the uptake. Well, that really isn't the problem I'm just ignorant. Rob Kuntz has help me discover that lately. And now I can truly appreciate what Matt Finch said about not wanting S&W to be a replacement for Original D&D. I've already commented some about this, but have to apologize for encouraging people to do exactly what Matt says not to do. Matt urged people to not let S&W be your game of choice, but rather to be an intro to original D&D. He recommended they try and secure the originals and play them instead of just continuing with S&W.

After reading Rob Kuntz's comments I think I have yet another reason why this may be; and one in which I now have to agree with Matt. Because if what Rob is saying is true, and I have no reason to really doubt him then the ethos preserved in the original three BB is that emphasis on player driven creativity. As opposed to producer driven creativity apparent in later versions. This original ethos is best absorbed from the source itself. To tell the truth I have never read the original books. Though I vaguely recall handling the copies of one of the guys who introduced me to the game way back when. I promptly judged them inferior to my big shiny hardbacks and gave it not another thought.

Now, I want nothing more than to get my hands on those original books. And that is a desire I have never before fostered. I mean sure I wanted them on my bookshelf to say I had them, but never really felt the need to read them. Much less incorporate them into my play. Since I had the AD&D books written largely by Gary himself, why would I want the obviously imperfect, less than complete originals? Well color me stupid, but now I understand. I want more than ever to read those books. In fact I don't really see myself spending any more money on gaming books until I can get ahold of those books.

Why? Well, if it isn't obvious by now, it's so I can absorb that original vibe. The purpose with which the original game was designed: to spawn creative design in those that played it. To fully expect that the players of the game would create their own world, their own adventures and their own expansions and rule extensions on the game to make it their own. I want to feel that tone and presence in the books. In fact if indeed Gary makes the comment after supplement 1 (I think) to the effect of why have us do any more of the imagining for you; then I've gotta not only get the books, absorb the feel and maybe reassess my whole approach to gaming. That is why you want the originals.

I'm sure, Matt incorporated some of that magic into S&W and I do get some of that reading through his rules. But even more so in his Quick Primer. If the 3 BBs are really as engrossing and colorful as Matt has alluded to then S&W really doesn't have that same magic in a bottle. Or book as the case may be.

Now, let's pause for a moment and consider. This is really just one man's opinion isn't it? Sure Rob Kuntz was there, but he's going on his take of things, and maybe his view isn't the only valid view. Well, it might be true he is the one who has been the most clear about what exactly spawned the transition between Original D&D and AD&D/B/X. But not only do I value his word by the closeness to the source, but in a way he _is_ the source. He actually experienced the shift. And also Matt's words and comments make so much more sense in this light. And the mysterious quotes by Gary about being bewildered someone would want to play in someone else's world instead of one of their own creation and the like. They all make more sense in light of what Rob is saying.

Put all the pieces together and I begin to hear bells. It seems to make sense. Finally it's making sense. It's a little shocking, but it's coming together. The real question is what the heck do I do with it all? Maybe I'll let you know after I get ahold of those 3BBs.

Reading Rob Kuntz Part II

The story thus far:
  • Rob Kuntz makes is clear that Original D&D was designed under the assumption that the players & GMs would do the creating of worlds, adventures, races, classes, monsters, treasures and the like.
  • AD&D and subsequent iterations are based on an entirely different model that makes the game publisher responsible for creative endeavors and the players just end users of those products.
Now, time for some analysis of this assumption. Dungeons and Dragons in most versions still encouraged, at least in prose, creation of your own worlds and adventures. However, Gary made it quite clear that rules tinkering might be out of bounds. Change things too much, he explained, and you might change the fundamental nature of the game. I can't count the times I have used that very reasoning to defend a staunch interpretation of the "spirit of D&D" whatever that means. Now I understand that the decision to formalize the ruleset was not, as Gary said, to facilitate tournament play. But rather to make production of commercial products usable by the D&D gaming consumer. In other words if everyone was busy custom designing their own version of the game then commercial modules might not be usable in their highly personalized versions of the game. Hence sales would suffer. But if everyone plays under the same rule structure and game assumptions then the modules should be usable by great numbers of AD&D gamers. Hence sales would be higher.

Now, are we to assume that Gary was lying when he said formalized rules would facilitate tournament play? I don't think so. But in business the consumers don't need to know the whole truth. I certainly do now believe that the decision was at  least in part an economic one. And it would have been ridiculous for Gary to admit that to his gaming fans. The tournament idea is basically true and it plays much better with the gamers at large.

So does this mean that all gamers stopped creating? No, I don't think so. And obviously Gary wanted to keep that element as part of the game. However, we are now being guided to create within definite bounds. The core rules had been released for AD&D and most people didn't stray too far from those bounds. Get too weird or create monsters or magic items that weren't in the books and somebody might call you on it. Now, to be fair, there was still a lot of free wheeling creating going on in the early AD&D days. I personally think the early ethos had a holdover period. And for lots of people they just kept doing what they always had in the original edition. Some people must have taken this better than others. I know my gaming circle was always a little reluctant to accept homebrewed stuff into our "official" AD&D campaigns.

In fact the ultimate truth of this changing ethos of TSR delivering gaming edicts from on high is enshrined in The Knights of The Dinner Table comic book and Hackmaster. It is an ethos I was very comfortable with and that I accepted as old school. It was gaming as I knew it. And as much as their is truth is satire, KODT hits the nail right on the head with Hard 8 Enterprises and their Nazi-like control of the gaming world. We all laugh and find it funny, especially when Gary Jackson makes gamers out to be unwitting market dupes. Yeah laugh all you want, but it was more true than we may want to admit. Of course that's what make parody so successful as a comedic form. We can all sense the truth behind it.

I even think of my own gaming angst over the loss of gaming "community" that was so clear when TSR was king Gary ruled the roost and the RPGA was the official gaming world. We hungrily scanned the shelves every month for new gaming modules and supps. Like junkees looking for a fix from their game dealers. Did we create for ourselves? Sure we did, but it always was seen as second best. Even when the end product was twice as good as some of the stuff coming out of "official" publishers. We just didn't trust ourselves. Because the ethos of the game when I came in was that there were the gaming gods and the gaming worshippers. Gaming gods lived on mount TSR and the best we could do was wait like grovelling serfs for the granting of divine boons from on high. *Whap!* Thank you sir, can I have another? And we ate it all up.

Now, at the time I never really noticed this. I would never have questioned it. But it's as if the curtain was pulled away and the man behind the screen isn't very god-like. In fact it's all just a bit of a put on. And I can't help but wonder what I've been missing out on all these years. For the first time I begin to see the old school movement in a different light. As Rob makes clear, we're really just perpetrating the same model in our clones and variants that were perpetrated on us so long ago. Even OSRIC was a tool for creating marketable supplements. We wanted more gaming food. Why couldn't we just plant our own gaming gardens and grow it ourselves? And that community we so longed for? It was an illusion born of the creation of a market segment. It took the power from us and gave it to the sole hands of TSR and the gaming companies.

This model has continued today to the point that home brew is more rare than ever in 3.5, Pathfinder and 4e. In fact so much material comes out so quickly that there's little need to look beyond this month's shipment of new gaming books. The whole system is set up to work against spontaneous creation. We are more like actors in a play instead of playwrights and authors of our own gaming destinies. Are there those that still create in 4e and PF? Sure there are, but the system is now even more tight that before. It is an even more strict system within which you have to work in order to let your imagination run free. And yes, there is still prose about creating your own stuff, but do they really want us to, or do they want us to go out and buy their stuff? Do I really need to answer? The point is the whole system is geared away from spontaneous and original creation.

Rob speaks to this at length in his interview and in many of his own blog posts. And for me it is like a game shattering revelation. And it makes me wonder if this is really what I needed. For the longest time I'd been adrift in gaming land. Uncertain if I should try and go back to my roots, try and stick with OGL clones, move to a new game. I was a lost soul. This recent discovery has cause such a massive paradigm shift for me I can never really look at gaming the same way. The gaming I did or that I now want to do. In many, many ways it speaks to the truth of my heart. A truth I was never able to admit to because I was so busy letting others tell me what my own heart said. And interestingly enough Rob has some links and video clips on his blog about creativity, what it really is and how to develop it that are inspiring and game changing as well. This goes so much deeper than just gaming. And right now I'm still just trying to take it all in.

Part III and how Matt Finch fits in very soon ...

Reading Rob Kuntz Part I

Wow. First I owe a debt of gratitude to ADD Grognard. His last comment in response to my post The Story's The Thing opened my eyes to an incredible world of D&D insight via Rob Kuntz. Likening the experience I've had this weekend to a game changing epiphany would not be overstating the issue. And coming as it does on the heels of the rather unfortunate and emotional  cancellation of our school's gaming club it has had an even more profound effect on me. I'm not exactly sure of the full import of this revelation for me personally. But the implications are such that I wanted to start brainstorming about some of them here.

First some caveats, if you'll bear with me. You will want to read Rob Kuntz's interview on The Hill Cantons.  I want to thank Rob for doing this interview. It was very enlightening and I must say I'm really looking forward to his book project where he will evidently continue his thoughts on this and other gaming related matters. I also have the utmost respect for Rob Kuntz and for his as yet understated influence on D&D and the creative world. So as I write on these topics, whatever I might say, there is absolutely no disrespect intended to Rob Kuntz or anyone else. For me this is an open exercise in reflection. I don't want for anyone to inadvertently take offense because I have a tendency to put my foot in my mouth. I'm just beginning to wrestle with some of these ideas, so your pateince and indulgence is much appreciated. Alright, nuff said about all that. On with the idea mill ...

As to my original thought expressed in my story post. I don't think that anything I've learned thus far mitigates against RPGs being story driven. I've been reading quite a bit lately on Rob Kuntz's blog and he makes it clear there as well as in the interview that storytelling skill is critical for GMs. I can only assume that it has always been thus. Not the railroaded storyarc I mentioned before, but creating a good story, even if improvisationally, anytime they GM. Rob even makes it clear in several places that GMs should work at developing those skills that promote being a good and engaging storyteller. So any idea that story isn't old school is wrong in my opinion. I don't think there was a tendency to "start at the dungeon door" so to speak. I mean sure it could have gone that way, but to hear Rob tell it the campaigns were as richly developed then as they are now. In fact even moreso.

And there's the rub. The more I read Rob's writings on LOTGD the more I am impressed by his point of view. And that point of view is reinforced by the fact that Rob was there. He was in at the very start of the game, playing with and even GMing Gary Gygax. The amazing revelation of course was that I was totally wrong about my concept of the development and purpose of D&D. Well, I suppose I can't say totally. There may have been elements of my pseudo history that were close to the mark. Like publication dates and the like. But when I try to intuit motives to the creators, I am a much less reliable source than someone like Rob a close personal friend and codesigner with Gary. No, Rob wasn't in on everything, but I respect his voice on the matter much more than most.

And the primary fact that I and it seems just about everybody else got wrong was that  Original Dungeons & Dragons was built under an entirely different structure and theory than later iterations of the game. On top of that my late introduction to the game in 1981 was under the new design ethos. I never even comprehended the initial purpoe and scope of D&D, because by the time I entered the hobby that idea had been closeted. I was schooled to have TSR and other companies feed me my creations for the game. I was as Rob calls it an "eager dependent."

I don't know if many of you felt the same way I did when I read through this concept and slowly understood it, but for me this was a game-changer. The whole establishment of D&D is currently built upon the model that caters to the "eager dependents". And for this reason the true nature of D&D is lost amidst the now saturated RPG marketplace. But the model itself is doomed to failure or to at least a short shelf life. As companies need new cashflows they have to rewrite or recreate the systems to provide new products for the consumers to buy. But the problem goes deeper than this.

The original idea for D&D was built upon a perspective of ultimate creative freedom resting in the hands of the players and GMs. TSR and teh creators never plannde to release tons of support material for the game. They planned to make their money producing other games on top of D&D. None of the original creators had ever thought that consumers would want someone else to do their imagining for them in the context of the game. This idea came up with the submission of the first for publication module; and with the demands for creator campaign material--most notably with Greyhawk and Blackmoor. This was not a new idea for me. I had run into this comment before in an online history about the development of the Greyhawk campaign. Gary himself was evidently surprised people would want to play in his world and not one of their own devising.

The original design ethos was to promote player imagination.  You were supposed to do the creating. TSR wasn't supposed to do it for you. But the moneymaking opportunities didn't escape the notice of Gary and others. Pretty soon the whole game is redesigned for a number of reasons; not the least of which is to consolidate and solidify official rules so that commercial supplement offerings can be facilitated. AD&D then was not a rennovation of a faulty game it was a marketing ploy!

Part two coming soon ...