Saturday, August 26, 2017

Matthew Colville, Priest and Thief

No, I'm not writing about some defrocked Catholic father. Perusing Youtube the other day brought me to an unexpected goldmine: Matthew Colville.

I was looking for gaming videos to listen to while I was driving about and came across his helpful vidcasts of gaming tips. Ostensibly he makes videos to, in his words, make people want to run D&D and to realize how easy and fun it is. What I found was his fast-talking, knowledgeable and insightful commentary for gamers of all ages of experience with the game. I personally have found his videos helpful for my DMing, and the guy can tell a good story! I do recommend checking him out. He is currently playing 5e, but he has played all editions and brings that sensibility and tone to all his commentary and advice. Though I am not a twitterite, he can also be found on Twitter @mattcolville, and he has a Twitch channel as well.

He puts his stuff out for free, and asks only if you find his stuff interesting or entertaining to check out his books at Amazon. That's where my excitement really blossoms, because not only is Matt an author, he is a darn fine one at that! He has two books out now:


And yes, that's obviously where the Priest and Thief come in. These two books are the first two in a series that Matt once briefly described as a story of adventurers, called Rathcatchers in his books, getting together. An admirable summary, to be sure, but so underestimates the storytelling woven into the first book so far. I am about two thirds of the way through Priest and have become enthralled with the story of a middle aged Cleric struggling with the PTSD of his adventuring days, reluctantly accepting the task of traveling back into a powerfully menacing place called The Wode to save the reputation and existence of a band of powerful and enchanted knights called The Green. No spoilers here, but I just passed a passage in which he may have met the subject of the second book, but I' not sure. A kind of sinister and dangerous halfling/gnome type. A powerful character that I would love and hate to have in my adventuring party if given the opportunity.

At any rate, I am up to about a strong four stars so far with the first book, and Matt has not bored me once during the tale thus far. If it lives up to a strong ending it will deserve a solid five star rating from me on Amazon. So, while Matt's videos are great, you owe it to yourself to pick up these books. Good books about D&D flavored adventuring by non-TSR/WoTC authors are rare and these are amazing gems. The only ting I' really worried about is that by the time I buy and finish Thief, Matt may not be out with the third!

Friday, August 25, 2017

Gygaxian

On Gygaxian Naturalism & Unnaturalism

The term Gygaxian probably rests most strongly in three different qualities:
  1. The erudite and innovative use of literary language, usually archaic
  2. The implementation of a fantastic Gygaxian Nautralism
  3. The presence of unmistakably quirky and weird Gygaxian Unnaturalism
And I would add a fourth common element that I do not think is Gygaxian so much as it is old school generally, but has come to be equated with the term among internet gaming communities:

     4. The use of DM fiat, and contesting the skills of the players instead of characters

What I wanted to visit today is how the two qualities of Gygaxian Naturalism and Unnaturalism intermingle to form what I think of as typically Gygaxian Dungeons & Dragons and led to the creation of AD&D as a uniquely Gygaxian product.

Gygaxian Unnaturalism is best covered first, since it actually comes first in the development of the Gygaxian school of thought. The idea of unnaturalism is much less talked about among gamers today, even OS gamers. I first came across the term on, yes, James Maliszewski's Grognardia recently while re-reading his entries. However, other old school gaming bloggers have also referenced the term. As I currently see it, this mode of gaming is rooted in the weird and pulp origins of D&D as expressed in the original edition. This sense of oddness, unreality and the fantastic is and should be an integral part of D&D.  Now, to some this may seem like an obvious point. After all, D&D is a fantasy role playing game and filled with orcs, goblins, elves and gnomes, dragons, unicorns, giants and gnolls. Of course it is fantastic and supernatural, that is the name of the game after all isn't it? Well, no, not exactly.

You seen the second term, Gygaxian Naturalism, gives a frame of reference for the second term. I also feel that the blending of these two elements are what actually is critical to Gygaxian roleplaying. I won't go into detail here on what Gygaxian Nautralism is, as it is discussed in numerpus sites throughout the old school online community. Just do some Google-Fu and you'll come up with tons to read through the night. What I will say is that as D&D developed, Gygax created in a direction that aimed for a degree of verisimilitude in his gaming. Some called it simulationist, but I like to give it ore of an ecological definition. The world had to make some degree of sense. This can be seen in the first publications of the World of Greyhawk. Oerth had a very naturalistic and even scientifically plausible origin. The development of the races of men seemed to follow a course similar to the development of men and cultures in our world. What's more, the fantastic creatures endemic to the D&D worlds also had culture, a reason for being and a society that went on outside of whatever the adventurers did in the world. Now, this wasn't true right off, it developed over time. Early adventures were replete with rooms of kobolds and other beasties just awaiting the arrival of adventurers, often guarding randomly placed treasure. But as the game and Gygax's creation grew it took on an increasingly naturalistic approach to fantasy world building.

Granted others have taken this further than Gary ever did, and that is part of the point as well. If you take it too far the game can lose its sense of wonder and strangeness--the unnaturalism. You see, goblins in our world would be a massively strange and bizarre occurrence. It would be reality shattering if you happened to run into one. When, in D&D, goblins are routinely known and encountered--even if dangerous and unfamiliar--much like wolves or mountain lions are in our world. Running into a wolf in the wild would scare the crap out of us! It might be a wondrous, and aweinspiring moment, but we still wouldn't feel comfortable standing too close. The real point is that we would not consider it unnatural. Amazing? Frightening? Of course, but wholly natural. And see, seeing a goblin in a naturalistic Gygaxian world would also be something similar. Perhaps goblins are creepier, more dangerous, sinister, even evil, but still natural within a Gygaxian world. Goblins have a language, a culture, individual motives, relationships, and pursue their own lives ost often independent of any encounters with player characters. Characters in the world would also know this, and though they may hate them, hunt them, while still being terrified to enter their subterranean lairs, they would consider them natural within the structure of their world.

What is needed, what is wanted, is an unnatural, unexpected, terrifying, wonder inducing element that we all crave. That sense of weirdness replete in favorite sons such as Clark Ashton Smith,  H.P. Lovecraft, Abraham Merritt, and others. This sense of the unexpected is what any 0e players often aim for. The oft counseled advice to create new monsters to surprise your players, catch them offguard is, at least in part, due to the need to recapture the wonder. We have all experienced the feeling of being a bit bored, when we open the creaking dungeon door to find a troop of kobolds waiting behind it. Kobolds?! Not again!! The strangeness which is a part of any 0e simulacra, Crypts & Things, DCC RPG, and LotFP are also examples of this quest for the weird in the game, and an effort to build it into gameplay. But, these games often abandon, or do not pay enough attention to the naturalistic necessities required to make the unnatural standout. In a world where all is unnatural and strange, even the unnatural can become mundane.

Allow me, if you will, an example in our own world. Though not a perfect one, I think it illustrates my point. But for a moment you have to allow your worldview to include the possibility that all might not be as it seems in this apparently materialistic world in which we live. If you have taken any time to delve into the paranormal in our world. Even if it was only to watch a horror movie and lose yourself in the high strangeness that creeps over your consciousness as you let the strange taste of fear embrace you, you should be able to at least understand what I am about to say here. In our world, the search for and study of the supernatural is inherently frustrating. Two primary reasons exist for this. First, there is the bizarre nature of such experiences. Those who see ghosts, UFOs, bigfoot, or traffic in such things for long all speak of how real, almost ore real than real these experiences feel. At the same time they talk of the sense of unreality, of high strangeness and almost always of a sense of overpowering dread that comes over them and their surroundings. Now, whether you believe such experiences are real or not--the sensations and experiences these people have are very real, more than real, to them. However, the second nature of these phenomena is their very elusiveness. This very fact is what does cause so many to doubt their experiences, especially materialists. For you see, the minute one tries to pin down their experiences, get at the facts, or track down the cause, the answers see to evaporate like smoke. Phantoms of the mind in a very literal sense. But these phantoms haunt us, and haunt our civilization. And no amount of rationalism will dispel them from our collective minds. It is in this very natural world, where the stories of elves, goblins, demons and angels find their origin. And the recorded encounters with such beings are events of high strangeness indeed.

Now, the metaphor is not perfect, but part of the reason I think fantasy role playing games have such an appeal to so many is that it gives us the chance to vicariously experience a world that brings these legends to life. However, unless the world continues to offer wonder to those that play it, the truly magical even this world can begin to seem mundane. Now, while world of D&D offers magic on a daily basis and offers such a difference from our everyday mundania that we keep coming back even for that. However, Gygaxian gaming includes a strange unnaturalism that Gygax expressed in such works as Dungeonland, the Land Beyond the Magic Mirror, and the Tomb of Horrors, but in truth such special spices are sprinkled throughout most of Gary's work.

The melding of the two approaches are what makes a game unmistakably Gygaxian. And it is, in my opinion, what sets AD&D apart from other editions. 

AD&D and the OSR

My reading of late, Grognardia and other apparently shuttered OSR sites, has left me wondering what the current state of the OSR really is, and more particularly what the status of 1e is in regards to the old school movement today.

What seems clear to me is that the OSR seemed to trend towards two common grounds:


  1. Those games and communities that take their inspiration from the original edition of D&D.
  2. Those gamers who prefer to play some form of 0.5 or proto-AD&D.
By far the more active community is the first group. This group has created products like LotFP, Crypts & Things, Astonishing Swordsmen ... , and Adventurer, Conqueror, King. It has also had the strongest communities built up around the 0e clones such as Swords and Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord. However, the second has had a more diffuse community centered around extensions of 0e, basically proto-AD&D in the veins of Castles & Crusades, LL Advanced Edition Companion, and S&W Complete. Many of these editions and clones claim to be modeled not after a faithful rendering of the AD&D rules system, but rather as "how AD&D was really played back in the day." The only real exception to this last rule would be the OSRIC compatible supplements and resources which might be said to more closely rely on the AD&D rules per se, since OSRIC was built to mirror them. 

Unfortunately, AD&D has not garnered the kind of attention that 0e has as a rule, since most of the games mentioned above, with the exception of OSRIC were built from a 0e starting point. Even Castles & Crusades, which I think is awesome by the way, is a well pruned version of AD&D, cutting out most of the mechanically baroque rules native to AD&D. 

Whatever Gary Gygax intended for AD&D and the future of the game, and I have spent many miles of rhetoric in this very regard, AD&D was a distinct and unique form of expression of the game that seems little championed by today's gamers. 

We may find a post on Grognardia useful here. James Maliszweski pointed out the reason he didn't use AD&D was that to play the kind of game he wanted to play he would have to subtract from AD&D instead of add to it. He felt the idea of adding to a game much less psychologically restrictive for players rather than saying certain things in the rules weren't permitted in his game. While I agree with him generally, the games above prove that few seemed to play AD&D with the rules as the books presented them anyway. They were subtracting without knowing it. Some of the things that often get left out are: surprise determinations, full initiative rules, spell casting times, material components, weapons vs AC, weapon speed, even gender and racial ability limits, and class level limits just to name a few. Now, not all of these were regularly ignored, but some more than others. They were subtracting without even knowing it. But, I still get James' point. 

I also think, in the interest of "getting at the roots" of D&D we all went back to OD&D, some even to Chainmail and the Fantasy Supplement, and found the freest expression of old school in those fertile grounds. I think that's fine. I find a lot of appeal in those early pulp filled days myself. However, It was not the game I played. I played AD&D. It was the culture from which I hailed, and for me, the true expression of what D&D was supposed to be. 

Now, admittedly I also played without certain rules, but have come to a new appreciation of these rules and why they are the way they are. But there is more to AD&D and the OSR than just those rules themselves--of which I will have more to say in future posts--but I tend to judge that the OSR did not serve AD&D as well as it did Original Dungeons & Dragons and even the Classic D&D set (Holmes/Moldvay/Cook/Mentzer RC). 

Actually I think OSRIC comes closest to the high point of truly serving the AD&D community and it exploded onto the scene in 2008 and was fading by 2012 (again, another topic). But whatever the OSR is now, and I see it now as a small semi-professional publishing niche for designers mostly selling to each other, it is not doing a lot to serve AD&D. Yes, there are a number of people playing a form of AD&D, mostly AD&D lite, or proto-AD&D, but that group is better served most of the time by the 0e OSR crowd instead of AD&D.

Reading James Maliszewski

James Maliszewski's Grognardia

Foreword

I have been re-reading all of James Maleszewski's blog entries over the past few days. I miss Grognardia and I miss James. Frankly, I think the internet gaming community did him wrong. I don't know the whole story, and I'll probably earn myself some enmity as well, but I have to to think he bowed out from the fallout over his failed Kickstarter campaign. I know some people probably have the right to be pissed off, failed Kickstarters seem to be endemically plagued with this sort of thing. And honestly I don't know the whole story and don't want to. James is evidently a sensitive soul, as this early post points out. I think most creative souls are inherently sensitive, and James was no exception. I think those who chewed him up, besmirched his reputation and bad mouthed him, failed to see the forest for the trees. Before we knew it, the Pope of the OSR (a title he never asked for) had fallen silent and we lost a strong and eloquent voice for the OSR. But, please, this is not what I want to really talk about. I prefer to remember James for the amazing ideas he had, the voice he spoke with and the OSR philosophy he espoused. He has helped me frame a few things in my mind and that is what I wanted to talk about here.

OD&D

I have spent alot of pixels lately on writing why AD&D is my preferred edition and opining on AD&D's place in the arch of D&D history. Some have disagreed with my conclusions which has sent me looking for answers, mostly for myself, but for the blog as well. For, see, this blog has caused me to wonder if it has outlived its usefulness for others and myself in the gaming world. The OSR is not what it was. It has entered a phase past the hobbiest stage and into the professional production stage. The products now available to pursue old school gaming have high production values and are at least beautiful to look at if not always perfect representatives of the OSR James had envisioned. But I think James argued quite persuasively that the old school ethos of OD&D was aimed at the "hobbyist" and not the professional producers. 

OD&D, if I understand James' take, was a system that was designed for the creator. You were taking the framework provided and "imagining the hell out of it" as the early books encouraged. It was a platform to build not only your own world, but your own version of the game based on what you wanted to achieve. The Original version clones that have come out since '08 have all aimed to one degree or another at recreating this approach; and the simulacra that now flood the market are the end result of what this approach to Original D&D can achieve.

I think this approach is great, and in many ways would agree that this was the original inspiration that allowed Dungeons & Dragons to manifest. And by manifest I mean this creative momentum was the "snapshot" that was captured in the three LBBs and sent out to the world. I would also argue that the original creators thought others would do the same thing they were doing--"imagine the hell out of it". Now whether you can call all the different games that were being played across the land based on this fertile seed D&D is a matter open to discussion. I would say yes, basically. But I present a question to you: is the wonderful game Crypts & Things D&D? Or Astonishing Swords ans Sorcerers of Hyperborea? Or Adventurer, Conquerer, King? What about Lamentations of the Flame Princess? And how about Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG? In this way, yes--these simulacra are all D&D. They are clearly based on a rough D&D outline, and therefore they have a direct descendancy from D&D in the original spirit and intention.

What they are is an approach to play that is strongly flavored by campaign differences implied in play. The rules of the game make strong world and campaign implications as to how the game is played. And this is fine, as the original approach to D&D really required that a DM make these kinds of adjustments and decisions and creative elaborations to fill out the game. This approach to D&D, the original approach, is what James makes clear and others, like Matt Finch, still argue for and prefer. I don't know if argue for is quite the right approach. While they may at times lament that games took a different turn, they generally don't throw stones, but instead like and encourage this particular style of play. 

If you haven't read the Grognardia posts, I strongly encourage you do so--even if you don't play in this way. They are an amazingly insightful journey of one gamer grappling with what he feels D&D is and what style of play he really prefers. James calls this style of play pulp fantasy, and bases its genesis in the pulp fiction of early to late middle 20th century speculative fiction of the day. He also makes subtle insinuations that, though he cannot be entirely sure, this inspiration is what D&D is really based upon. I think, to a large degree he is correct. But I think this has less to do with what D&D "is" than what flavors colored the early imaginings of the game. For we have to admit, if Original D&D is this open ended rule set designed to allow people the thinnest skeleton of a starting point from which to build up their fantasies on, then it should not be constrained to pulp.

Defining D&D

One thing James did not do, which I have done many times :-), is undertake to definitively say what D&D "is". In fact in one insightful blog post he deliberately avoids defining D&D, but rather gives evidence to what is once was and what he wishes it were again. In yet another he hits on, I think, the real issue of defining D&D when he says "That's because, to read OD&D out of its proper cultural context is to misunderstand it." He points out that those who saw problems with the old editions only saw them because they were not a part of the culture of the older editions. In tying the definition of D&D to culture James hit upon something that narrowed the definition of D&D as well as widened it. D&D could be defined as the game you were playing and or preferred. Of course, endless edition wars have been fought blind to this inherent truth. I admit I have made the same error in trying to focus on the narrow approach that D&D is the way I play it, instead of the more magnanimous and realistic approach that we are all "right" and that the way you play D&D can just as easily be defined as D&D as well.

Doesn't that feel all warm and fuzzy? Perfect for our overly politically correct world today :-) And no, in case you were wondering, it doesn't sit well with me. And it didn't sit well with James either. In numerous entries, James lamented the overly commercial approach to games in general and D&D in particular. The "brandification" of the name and the game to James' eyes (at least as far as I can tell) bothered him and pulled the game further and further away from what it once was, and it seems to me what it was intended to be.

Something became clear to me recently when I read a post somewhere about an older gamer walking into a game store and seeing young gamers salivating over tables of MTG cards and totally engrossed in the digital additions to the tabletop world. What this observer pointed out was that it reminded him himself back in the day when he walked into the hole in the wall shops we used to frequent. The looks on our faces drooling over Judges Guild supplements and the latest module on the small shelf space they took up back then. These new young gamers, so vital to the continuation of our hobby, are experiencing the same feelings and emotions we had. And they experiencing it over the latest editions and the culture that surrounds the game today. Are we wrong to decry this excitement? Should we crap on their interest simply because it's not like we remember? Of course not. The danger of course is that our preferred style of play gets forgotten or avoided or worse goes extinct, because of lack of new blood, new interest.

Are these young players playing D&D? Of course they are, regardless of edition. I might have disagreed with that earlier in this blog, in fact I have. And really, the expansive nature of the original edition has brought us to where we are today. I still maintain that part of what D&D does is encourage imagining outside the lines and thus we have the continual reimagining of the game in edition after edition. I personally think the differences in the last three editions of D&D are much greater than in most revisions of other game systems. Even 5e went to its roots and built up a new game from those original inspirations. But this gift of D&D: creative freedom, is also its curse. As I said, the differences of each D&D far outweigh the similarities, and I think that is bad for the game overall. As long as D&D can bring in new blood and old gamers switch to new editions the D&D market commodity will live on. And what D&D is, like James points out, is more about what you think it is, rather than what edition is currently sitting on the store's shelves.

5e Old School Rules We Tried Out

By Old School Rules, I mean rules that I though would make 5e more Old School. And *spoiler alert* they didn't work. But I'll let you know what they were, why decided on them, and why I think they didn't work.

We used a mod that long rests don't auto heal, but I modified it some. Base HP was Con + HD + mods, of which your Con represented your actual physical ability to take damage. So HD were the abstract portion of the HP. Once you started taking damage that went below your Con your were taking physical damage, in essence--bloodied. That could only be healed magically or on a table I had devised. You could still regain HD and heal via HD, which represented your ability to bounce back from combat stress and fatigue and be back on your A game. But that nasty belly cut you got in the last battle--yeah, you're still nursing that. Not a perfect system, but it was a compromise between player ability to withstand damage and the notion that combat dealt more than abstract hits. This was important mainly for the second rule...

No death saves. If you got to zero you were going to bleed out in 1d4 rounds + your Con mod. This was a big blow. Because, honestly the death rate has been very low in my campaign so far because of those blasted death saves! I have only had one PC actually die in two out of three death saves. Which, by my calculations is actually much higher than what is supposed to be statistically happening. And few Players even roll three saves, since some other PC usually uses an individual or party heal that spares them. My experience is that it's hard to die in 5e--am I doing something wrong? Anyway the HP rules above were a compromise in making PCs a bit tougher in the HP area, while realizing that if they drop to zero they ar more than likely to die.

Shields splinter and armor breaks. As per Ubiquitous Rat we used these rules almost verbatim. I really liked them in print, not so much in play--but I'll come to that in a moment. We also used the spell acquisition rule that wizards had to find spells to acquire them and not acquire them automatically. We also used critical hit and fumble tables, but this is somewhat of a norm at our table anyway.

Now, having said all that I did allow 4d6 drop the lowest arrange as your like, and I gave them inspirations points to start with, and allowed them to have feats. I know, I know, not at all old school. Well, I truly expected a high death count, and wanted to blunt the edge to the moral blow to their power quotient the new "old school" rules would impose. Turns out this was wrong on both counts.

So, how did it go? Well, the new healing rules were a pain to implement. Required way too much in game tracking, and my players, being somewhat younger generally and relatively new to RPGs were not fond of or adept at the extra record keeping. Also, healing was still sufficient to avoid too much trouble for them, and the cleric and other healing classes (grrr) just made sure to compensate. So we literally had no death saves to make--it seemed that the game was a tad grittier, but the rules would need modified to work fluidly. Maybe more work with them would have helped, but frankly, I felt like I was tacking on a clunky addition to a game that simply wasn't designed to work that way.

The shield splinter and armor breaks rules also became clunky--same problem as above. And we quickly dropped them. I dropped the healing issues next, as I found I was having to police HP more than the players were. As we dropped these about the third session we also dropped the inspirations points. I didn't take their feats, but we made it clear we wouldn't be playing with them for future characters.

So we went back to a pretty much regular 5e game, and pressed ahead. We are now over a dozen sessions in and they are fourth level--another thing I hate--how quickly low level characters zoom to mid levels. And what is my conclusion?

I'm sure a group could play 5e what might be called classically old school. But, it aint easy, and the game isn't really designed to do that. I am just now wrapping my brain around bounded accuracy, and I can't say I like it all that much. So, here I am again. Not pleased with 5e as a game itself, and it is just that: a different game from every game that has come before. It is not like AD&D, nor like 3.5 or like 4e. It is a rebranded package designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator in gaming. I personally think that is why so many of the old school crowd has picked it up--it is "sort of" old school, at least when compared to the last couple of editions. And I think those who did like 3.5, Pathfinder, and 4e, find enough of 5e likable that they are okay playing it as well. Maybe that is what the company aimed for--hit the broadest swath of gaming culture they could. Problem is, they have alienated the fringe. And I am on that fringe. I tried it, and I am not liking it. I will say, I have given it longer than any other edition I have played thus far except of course AD&D. But it is about time to change that.