Saturday, September 16, 2017

What Frank Mentzer Taught Me

If anybody has gaming in their blood it is the old guard of the TSR D&D generation. Sure, others have it, I like to think I have it, but put up against a GBC (Gaming Blood Count) comparison I feel that the earliest creators and designers have the greatest percentage. Now, that doesn't mean what they say is law, or that it shouldn't be disagreed with or gone against--nothing of the sort. These guys are human, sometimes moreso than even they might like. But they have been in the gaming trenches for the longest. They have a level of experience and have dealt with things most of us haven't seen or even imagined. And they are the ones who broke through into the industry, piled up a string of firsts, navigated those unknown waters, defended the game against the Satanic Panic, the yellow journalism and carried on. Through it all, they brought gaming to us today. I have a lot of respect for these guys, and their stripes earn them more than a few passes on any number of faults they might possess or display in the industry. And as another aside these folks from early TSR have done a lot to help the gaming world understand the beginning of the hobby and how things worked in those foundational years--a shout out to Tim Kask particularly for the excellent insights he has given in this regard.

I'll be the first to admit that I put these guys on a pedestal they themselves probably don't want to be elevated to. When they make comments I listen. I try not to venerate or idolize, but I could certainly be accused of doing so at times, especially with regards to Gary Gygax, as my past blog posts readily attest. Today, though, I want to refer to something Frank Mentzer recently said, and how it has affected me. Namely, in response to recent troll related drama online Mr. Mentzer was quoted as saying,

"A common characteristic of most Old-School sites is adherence to one specific point in the Past, generally out-of-print game systems. Very cool. Nothing wrong with that, most systems have value to many. But of all the tabletop RPG fans, the OSR buys the fewest New Products. This is fine [if] I want to give things away... strongly preferred in these circles of course. Culturally the OSR is unique and priceless, and I applaud it. But they have chosen to be irrelevant to the current market."

Now, I analyzed this quote in my last blog post, which you can refer to if you like. Today I wanted to talk on a more personal level about what Mr. Mentzer has made me think and helped me clarify for myself.

I love AD&D as my mind remembers it, from back in the day. And the reason I emphasize those words is that the first thing Mr. Mentzer's words helped me process was that I was nurturing a false memory. I was talking to my brother, also an avid gamer, about it when I was able to first express the idea. I think I remember the AD&D game as something it really wasn't. That may not sound revolutionary, and in fact, I've talked around this idea on my blog before. I am not the first to realize that the 1e game was something none of us played in its entirety. We didn't use all of the rules. What most of us did was play something that was alot like the Original Game with all the added bits and the new 1e content. It varied from group to group, I'm sure, but this idea--that we all played a kind of sort of AD&D game--is what gave rise to many later simulacra and variants.

The two that probably come to mind strongest are Castles & Crusades and Labyrinth Lord with AEC. Soon after came Swords & Wizardry Complete (not quite as smooth, but certainly more "complete"). These were variously advertised as "The Rosetta Stone of RPGs", "0e with all the Supplements", and "1e the way we remember playing it". So, obviously I am not the first person to realize this. But my realization was something slightly more than this. I have written before on my blog about nostalgia and saudade--that melancholic ache that comes with the realization that something long ago was lost and is now not only longed for , but longed for along with the realization that it can never be regained. This too was a part of my realization, and still something more. Memories that come to us nostalgically, inevitably censor the unpleasant bits out. It is exceedingly hard for us to be honest with ourselves and admit that things are never quite as sweet as we remember them to be.

I recently heard a radio program about a wrongfully imprisoned gentleman who served 23 years for a crime he didn't commit. He talked about how bittersweet being released was. He said that what kept him alive for 23 years on the inside, what made him able to endure the harsh reality of prison life, was his light filled and beautiful memories of the outside. He explained how on the inside everything is gray, lifeless, lit by glaring fluorescent lights, and dirty. No matter how they cleaned it was always dirty. In contrast his memories of the outside seemed clean, sparkling, and filled with light. He said it even smelled sweet and the breeze was always just cool enough to refresh. Of course when he got out, while it was wonderful to be free, it far from lived up to his memories of it. He said the outside is often dirtier than inside, harsher at times, and the breeze is often hot and dry, or bitter and cold. His memories had been falsely elevated in spite of having been based on the reality of his life before.

Is that what I had done to myself in regards to AD&D? Was I lying to myself? I'm not trying to cheapen those memories or denigrate AD&D at all, I'm just trying to be honest with myself. I mean if all I needed was to play with rules that sought to mimic "how we really played" I should be able to just pick up LL AEC, or C&C. Which I had done and still not been able to recapture the "magic". That's why my realization had to go deeper still.

AD&D was culturally bound. In fact it is one of the reasons 1e and 2e are so very different, even if they are not all that mechanically distinct--in fact can almost be played interchangeably. 1e was born in an age of pre-fantasy glut. The majority of fantasy works at the time were a weird combination of Swords & Sorcery, Science Fantasy, Early Low Fantasy (JRR Tolkien, Le Guinn, Zelazney, Anthony, Aspirin, Donaldson, Alexander, Norton, Moorcock, de Camp, Howard,) Star Trek TOS, Dr. Who, Silver & Bronze age comic book production, Star Wars: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, & Return of the Jedi,  Led Zeppelin, Rush, Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult and a host of other cultural phenomena of the time. Heck it was even engendered in part by the occult, the rise of witchcraft, polytheism and the Satanic Panic. All of it came together, for many of us at the most impressionable time of our lives -- early adolescence and teenage-hood. It was a time of overwhelming biological chemistry  and psychological angst. For me tied up in my first true friendships, first loves, renaissance fairs and SCA camps. I lived and breathed Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy and adventure as deeply and longingly as I could. All of that wove together in the wild and strange time of the 70's and the early 80's. And by the time we had made it through, and were graduating, sweating in basic training, and stumblingly trying to come to grips with real life it was over and second edition had arisen.

2e scrubbed most of the hard, sharp edges off the game, just like society was trying to scrub it off of life as well. We settled into the age of early adulthood, and the chemicals, both biological and illicit began to rinse out of our systems, the world seemed less dangerous and a lot less magical. Even our game had been tamed down to a nice safe level. This too was a response to cultural forces. The same forces that gave us political correctness, bumper lined playgrounds, and stranger danger was increasingly working at making life sparkly and pretty and accepting and really rather dull. Or so it seemed to us who had grown up in the hard edged days of the rise of D&D.

In fact what you see today in the rise of games like DCC RPG, LotFP and it's much maligned supposedly x-rated and abominable Carcosa, have sought to reach back into those dark and dangerous times we recall from the early days of the games when demons were real and the Gods spoke to gamers. All elements that scared the Christian right and most of traditional society bat shit crazy. Such a phenomena is not unknown in other forms of creative expression as well. Music created today inevitably reaches back to the sounds the musicians heard in their youth, the movie makers seek to make real the fantasies they first encountered in their young hypersensitive childhoods. Thus we have Peter Jackson making over the top and epic rewrites of the LoTR, and Disney co-opting Star Wars for their own purposes, and a Marvel and DC cinematic empire that has strayed so far from canon I don't even recognize it anymore. The thing is, a work life Carcosa, brilliant though it is, is decried as unfit for consumption or gaming, but to me it was simply a delightful riff on the edgy tone of those early gaming days.

I'm not trying to be grumpy cat here, just trying to pull the lid back on a cultural phenomenon that affects us all, whether we like it or not. And I'm not saying we shouldn't have these movies, or music or the games we have today. My kids love them, hell all kids love them and a boatload of adults do to. Why? Because the production values are so good kids can't help but be enthralled and for the rest of us it reminds us of our childhood. Even though they are awesome and quite exciting though, they don't quite see to match up to what giants they seemed to us back in the day. They can't compete with a censored memory that nothing can quite measure up to. And the fact is the kids and teens of today will build upon the foundation of what today's adults create from the bones and artifacts of the dust covered cities of their youth. And so it goes.

That, my friends was the synergistic swirl of thoughts that came to me that night, talking to my little brother, now a 38 year old successful CEO of a multi-million dollar real estate company, myself a public school principal pushing 50 and both of us still as much in love with this game as we ever were. That, is part of what Frank Mentzer taught me. Thank you again Lord of the Red Box.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The OSR Wasn't Started by the Creators of D&D

I almost started this post with the title "The OSR wasn't started by Old School Gamers". But, it should be fairly obvious why I decided not to. I mean, the OSR was started by old school gamers. What I was trying to say was that the OSR was not started by Gygax, Arneson, Mentzer, Kask, or any of the other early gaming luminaries that had a hand in creating Dungeons and Dragons. Now, granted, they were sort of the "reason" for the movement if not the raison d'etre. I bring this point up in response to some recent conversations that have been happening around the internet TRPG community.

Anyone who knows anything about the history of D&D knows Frank Mentzer. Mr. Mentzer wasn't exactly in on the ground floor, but by '79 he had been hired and soon became an invaluable fixture in the middle ages of TSR. He pioneered the most well loved edition of the Basic line of D&D which began with the famed Red Box. Not to put too fine a point on it, but next to Zeb Cook, Mr. Mentzer was probably one of the most instrumental figures in shaping the evolution of D&D through the 80's. 

So, his preeminence established as a forgone conclusion, let us move into the modern day. Recently, and I have no desire to go into the ugly details (you can peruse them over at Tenkar's Tavern), there was a falling out between Mr. Mentzer and the Dragonsfoot forum over his interaction with some trolls on that site. As I said, I will not go into the details of the interaction, as I simply cannot keep up with it all. However, what I am concerned about here is the ensuing discussion that even Mr. Mentzer encouraged gamers to have. That discussion centers around the purpose of the OSR and its relevance to the current gaming culture, especially to the D&D-centric gaming culture.

In communication with Erik, Mr. Mentzer mentioned the following:

"A common characteristic of most Old-School sites is adherence to one specific point in the Past, generally out-of-print games systems. Very cool. Nothing wrong with that, most systems have value to many. But of all the tabletop RPG fans, the OSR buys the fewest New Products. This is fine I want to give things away ... strongly preferred in these circles of course. Culturally the OSR is unique and priceless, and I applaud it. But they have chosen to be irrelevant to the current market."

Whatever you make of this comment, what has resulted in it's wake is a discussion of the various "kingdoms" within the OSR and what defines them. Two strong demarcations are among the kingdom of what I will call the "traditionalists" and the kingdom of the "alchemists".

The traditionalists are those who prefer a certain edition of D&D (or any other game) and seek to continue to play by those rules, with those rulebooks preferably. They are usually supportive of supplements to those systems if they are in the spirit of their preferred edition of published rules and generally do not violate the spirit of the rules themselves. They will readily admit that they may not play with all of the rules in a given edition, but they are the rules they play with. They are comfortable with the rules "as a guide", much as Gary Gygax outlined, as long as the rules we are talking about are the originally published rules. Most of the 3rd party supplements created by and for this group involves adventures in a style reminiscent of old school production qualities. Products like OSRIC have made this work possible, and truthfully many of these pure traditionalists are focused on AD&D, though Basic line and Original edition purists also exist.

Alchemists on the other hand, I almost called them mad scientists, are those who are revolutionizing old school D&D and have produced products like DCC RPG, LotFP, C&T, HM, AS&SH, C&C, ACK, LFG, and others who are coming out with games "like" D&D but also very different from D&D. Some claim to be seeking the true spirit of the game, others riffing on what D&D "was meant to be" or "how cool it could be" but in general are a much more active, open and productive bunch. Something else all of these publishers have in common is that they are selling out there in the rough and tumble place of the market.

Frank Mentzer's comment seems much more squarely aimed at the traditionalist group, as he makes clear that they are seeking to adhere to some point in the past. Their irrelevance to the market aside, they are a much less productive bunch since they are targeting their products and their play on a very narrow band. Most have little desire to mix with other editions or games and rarely produce product outside their chosen field of play.

I think the general point of view among the internet community in response to this discussion is that the Alchemists are very relevant to the market. Quantifying the market share of D&D trademarked, clone and variant products is likely to require an economics degree. I tried a simple hunt for how much Hasbro reported from its WoTC D&D line versus Magic the Gathering recently and about gave myself a migraine. I found some data, but extrapolating details is very hard indeed. The fact is none can doubt that the amount of new old school product coming out and being paid for digitally has to be fairly significant even if it is only 10 to 20% of what Paizo and WizBro pull in. And that's not to mention the general effect the OSR had on the abandonment of 4e and the rise of 5e. Again, even if it was a 70 / 30 split to Paizo, there was still a profound influence. Consumers vote with their pocket books OSR or not.

Now, having said all that, I am left with a sort of no man's land between the Traditionalists and the Alchemists. What about Labyrinth Lord, especially the AEC and Basic Fantasy RPG, and S&W Complete? What about that no man's land between pure clone and the way we all remember playing it? I'm not sure where these fit, but I have a tendency to settle them a lot closer to the alchemist camp than the traditionalists. The reason for this is that those in this group who are clearly producing solid, innovative product for gamers are doing so a lot like the alchemists instead of the traditionalists. They are not mimicking style or production. I mean they have--as some have presented clear "white box" rule sets of their clones--but what I think they are doing is producing work that is meant to be played with any similar ruleset, not just the originally produced rules. And they are doing so with very high quality production values. Companies like Goodman Games, KenzerCo, Frog God Games, Lesser Gnomes and others are clearly producing innovative old school product as well as often producing for the 5e.

Now, many of them are doing this because they know producing 5e adventures nabs a portion of the market share of 5e enabling them to produce stuff for the older rulesets as well. But this is not a condemnation, rather a mindset more in tune with the alchemists than with the traditionalists. However, if you were to corner them, many would readily say they prefer this or that older edition and certainly prefer an older school style of play. But I've noticed something else as well. They are not quick to knock other systems or styles of play.

Which brings me to another point from Mr. Mentzer. He refers to a sort of "meeting" or "gentleman's agreement" between several big league designers and game developers that agreed all this rancor of games and editions and styles was not doing gaming any favors. If you recall one of my posts on Jolly Blackburn being an example of magnanimity among gamers you will know what I am talking about. He was one of those who decided he was going to be a builder and not a destroyer. Mr. Mentzer too has taken the same pledge that he is here to build up the hobby, not tear it down.

However, Jolly Blackburn, Matt Finch, Dave Kenzer, Joseph Goodman, Steve Jackson, Erik Mona, James Raggi, and I could go on, all have one thing in common. They are trying to make money producing products others want. Frank Mentzer, did it, Tim Kask did it, Gary Gygax did it. And from everything I read, it aint easy. There is a portion of the gaming community, and just about every community these days, that feels product should all be open source and as free as can be. I laud that notion, truly I do. I also have benefited from it. However, I also hold fast to the notion that artists should be paid for their work. And the fact is the better the art the more value it has. This has also been an issue in the current brouhaha, but I think it is aught but a tempest in a tea kettle. Turn out great product and people will pay for it. Release free product and people will pick it up. Both camps are entitled to do what they will and nothing will change that.

The fact is, noone can escape the clearly ironic situation that one of the few still active luminaries of early D&D (Mr. Mentzer) is calling out the OSR. He did not create the OSR, even though they venerate him and others as icons of the hobby, and he has no special allegiance to it or beef with it. The same could be said for Gary Gygax when he was still alive. Sure, I'm certain they are flattered that people consider them so highly and are very interested to see if they still have contributions to make to the hobby. However, if these contributions aren't in accord with whatever certain OSR traditionalists or alchemists have in mind they certainly shouldn't be shooing him off. Who are they anyway? They certainly don't speak for me, and I do consider myself a part of and supportive of the OSR. I think what Mr. Mentzer has done, inadvertently or not, is asking us all to take a good long look at ourselves. What do we really want?

So, in the very long end, all my opinions on the matter aside, what did it mean for me personally? Well, it was like a cold splash of water in my face. In trying to take a look at myself and my role I have begun to come to some conclusions. I wanted to share some of the thoughts I have had since I came across the discussion.

I have tried to give the impression that this blog is more or less a defense of my favorite edition: AD&D. However, I have talked about other games that have caught my fancy, played every edition of D&D that has existed, and spent posts ranting, frustrated, celebrating and enjoying just about everything and anything that turned my crank remotely associated with gaming. And I'll be honest. This blog is a product of the OSR. It came about at a time I was technically playing 4e, but the OSR had just taken off. So, I was still playing 4e while trying to be firmly rooted in the old school ethos. Obviously that internal personality conflict didn't last for long.

I have found other games that I thought might become my new gaming home. I became excited about how they seemed to be the heir apparent of AD&D. In rules, in spirit, in tone or some other manner they reminded me, at least in part of what I recalled from my past gaming days. But nothing quite stuck. Nothing really seemed to do the trick.

The other thing this blog has done is to allow an intermittent stream of consciousness venue for me to work out my own thoughts and ideas about gaming and my relationship with it. Am I traditionalist? I have certainly wrote at times like I was. But I don't think I honestly am. I mean hell, I play 5e. I am certainly not a new school gamer who really loves and latches onto the current editions either--I have complained about every one since 2e. But am I an alchemist? I don't really think so. Though I absolutely love the products that the swords & sorcery, punk rock wing of the OSR puts out. However, I can never quite bring myself to be cool with embracing them in play. They're more like cool stuff others have done that I buy, but seldom play without hacking it for my own use. This blog attests to the fact that I spend most of my time wrestling with my current edition and trying to make it fit the way I want to play.

I have also wasted tons of pixels on considerating of what AD&D really is, along with other early editions of the game. And one thing has become clear. I never played AD&D. I played "at" AD&D. I played a roughed down version of the game with the AD&D content. The more I read and study the rules of AD&D I realize I wouldn't "want" to play that way. Those rules as written are not the game I recall playing.

So what the heck does a guy do when he can't tweak the new games to play like he remembers and the old games are actually not as he actually remembers them being? 

What does the OSR have to do with it, and what has Mr. Mentzer inspired me to do? I'll try and tackle that in the next post. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

GMs: Time and Artistic Inadequacy

I have been a GameMaster, Dungeon Master really as most of what I have played is Dungeons & Dragons, for 35 years. I mean not continually, there was a period from about age 24 to 32 when I wasn't actively gaming. But generally when I've played 85% of my time has been on the DM side of the screen.

I love DMing and I love the creative part of it. I am not a great artist, nor a great graphic designer. I mean I'm passable, but not anything special. As an ability score scale from 3 to 18, I would rate my artistic ability at about an 11, maybe a 12.

Most of the D&D stuff I worked on back in the day was better than what a lot of my friends were doing with some exceptions (my friend Joe actually wrote a complete short story of a character adventure and at least submitted it to Dragon). But I never claimed to be a great artist, or mad designer. My strengths were decidedly in storytelling, creative ideas, weaving varied parts and portions of modules, campaign info and character actions into a tapestry that most seemed to really enjoy. Even if I was a bit of a hardass death wise.

But my stuff was mostly me fooling around with my D&D stuff. I had lots of loose papers of my creations, most never used, but a testament to how much time I spent "fooling around." The thing was, that most of this were the absent minded creations of a an amateur, a hobbyist. Eventually people start noticing and encouraging, and what not. But most of that is just a general admiration that someone spends time doodling and scribbling instead of playing video games or watching TV. It was not praise of some type of unearthly talent. One can have talent, but it doesn't always translate into something praiseworthy. That generally requires work. Concentrated, focused effort on improving at a task.

I am most decidedly _not_ a work-a-holic. I was fortunate that school came easily to me. I could read Conan comics, behind my Latin textbook, scribble half finished fantasy and horror short stories in my Honors English class, and draw dungeon maps in Honors History and monsters in Algebra. All this while still maintaining a 4.0 GPA and graduating near the top of my class. I mean I am a successful professional in the education industry now as well, but I make no allusions. I do not live to work, I work to live. Having said that I rarely take my pastimes much past that amateur level of the avid hobbyist still playing at his games and daydreaming my time away. Truthfully, I have a soft spot in my heart for Randolph Carter in the Lovecraft's The Silver Key, who having grown despondent that the dreams of his youth had left him with the cold, sterile vacuum of modern life returned again to the lands of dreams.

The great query then is what keeps me from rising above the simple level of a devoted amateur. There is a certain poetic and rare beauty in the pencil scrabbled creations on the lined notebook papers of our youth, and the pencil drawn maps that we all churned out in the early days of the game. I feel little need to rise above that. Perhaps it's my grognardly nature, or my love of the way things were, but I have realized something. I don't have the skills or the time to publish a game with the production values of similar games coming out today. Now, this realization is something I am still processing and trying to understand completely.

I also have recently run across some occurrences online and in the blogosphere and forumverse that have given me pause to consider what exactly I am about, and what I should set my sites on achieving. There is nothing wrong with staying in that devoted amateur arena, it's comfortable and it's where I've been for over 30 years. One of the things I've learned in my own profession (administration in public education) I have come to appreciate the fact that change requires vision and mission if we are to be successful. So over the next few blog posts I'll be going through these thoughts and hopefully clarifying for myself where I am at.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Low Fantasy Gaming

Low Fantasy Gaming
So, I have several topics I have been wanting to cover but work has been so busy lately I've not been able to write for a day or two. I did want to take a minute though and offer a shout out for the Low Fantasy Gaming RPG.

If you don't want to read the rest of my thoughts on it, just know this: I absolutely love it! Go and get the free PDF now and see for yourself.

If you chose to hang on and at least get my take on this little gem, thank you. I don't feel like I can quite do justice as a full review as I am still absorbing the rules, and have yet to play a game of it. But this is the nutshell on why I love it:

  1. Beautiful, old school, pen & ink artwork.
  2. Very nice presentation value
  3. Free!
  4. Setting neutral
  5. That said it caters to a Swords & Sorcery, low magic setting
  6. Built on the d20 OGL thus very compatible with 3.5/PF/5e
  7. Old school ethos and thus very familiar to 0e, Holmes, AD&D, B/X, BECMI, & RC players
  8. Incorporates the best of the new on a solid old school framework
  9. The loose Luck Mechanic
  10. Skill Re-Roll Pool
  11. Classes with ability augmentation, but not overpowered
  12. Simple but satisfying Combat
  13. Staggered, Dead & Mostly Dead
  14. Lingering Injuries after a comeback
  15. Dark & Dangerous Magic

Now, I could go over each element separately, but let's put it in a potion bottle: Stephen has managed to put together a game that could stand in for 5e or PF or 3.5 and yet still evoke not only old school but that cool weirdness indicative of DCC RPF, LotFP, AS&SH and C&T. A very nicely done job and an inspiration for me. 

That's what I wanted to talk about most. I have been fairly frustrated lately. I have been trying to rules tweak 5e for a while now and not feeling like I can hit the magic sweet spot. Truth is I really don't want to tweak it, as my heart is not really in the game.  However, Low Fantasy Gaming showed me that not only is it possible, but essentially did what I have been unable to pull off. I'm always in awe of people who put out this kind of work. Who put in the blood sweat and tears the rest of us aren't man enough, to summon. I mean sure, I'm busy, but I'm sure Stephen is too, but he still got it done. And from what I can tell it took the better part of two years to get this far and he is _still_ coming out with product! I say bravo, and keep up the good work.

I suppose the question most want to ask is: will I jump ship to play some LFG? I would sure like to. I'm thinking of running a one off some time soon, and letting the group know I want to do more. But for now, I just had two new 5e players added to my current group and one ask me to run a second game of 5e at another location. Cool to have eager, committed gamers who want me to game with them, but it seems like it's all 5e from shore to shore right now. So, we'll see. But at least LFG has relit my fire, and confirmed for me that turning out good product is not easy. If it was we would all be doing it in spite of ourselves.