Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Our Review of a Bad Review...

So tenfootpole.org reviewed Lair of the Shorlee Wyrm and didn't like it.  Great!  There's no such thing as bad publicity.  In six years of game publishing you'll get a bad review or two along the way, and believe me, we certainly have.  I don't care about bad reviews as long as the information is factually accurate and useful to the reader, and this underscores the very real service reviewers provide.  I mean, people's money is on the line.  But as gatekeepers of all that's good and right, they occasionally forget that they too can put out a crappy product, and in this spirit, we offer our review of a certain bad review of our product...

The review starts off strong, meaning highly detailed, describing the setting and general atmosphere.  It's actually quite good, as it gives the reader a sense of what the module has to offer and how the adventure begins.  The reviewer likes the low-magic vibe and makes several useful comparisons to the Harn setting that might resonate with those already familiar with it, which really boosts the utility of the review, at least to begin with.

And then the review, and its value and usefulness, begins to drag.  The reviewer is clearly taken aback back the sudden shift in tone, as the underworld is a fantastic affair in contrast to the mundane surface.  His disappointment is legitimate if he really hoped for a low magic setting all the way through; but when has D&D ever been anything close to that?  The fact is, this shift is deliberate, for the surface world is ordinary while the underworld is a place of excitement and wonder.  He's entitled to his opinion, and he does inform the reader.


What follows is the obligatory rant in keeping with his site's schtick.  Kobolds can't have furniture (apparently).  He's fine with dragons and wizards, but draws the line at furniture for some reason.  The cultists commit suicide, which he ridicules because, hey, that's never happened before, right?  I think he owes Heaven's Gate and Jim Jones an apology, which isn't to make light of these horrific tragedies.  It's an amusing, but useless, bit.

As the piece wears on, it becomes increasingly clear that the reviewer stopped paying attention after their initial disappointment at the shift in tone, for there are multiple factually incorrect statements about the adventure.  A certain NPC joins the party, but absolutely refuses to help, proof that the dungeon denies a party any advantage.  This is wrong.  The text clearly states that they help once the party earns their trust, and that the referee can adjudicate this as they see fit.  These gross errors of omission continue throughout...

The suicidal cultists die before revealing anything.  Can't a party get a break?  And how ridiculous.  I mean, fanatical devotees to darkness would never do that.  But he completely ignores that the kobolds will talk and have the same information.  After declaring the adventure a mere hack, he complains that a party only collects 10,000 cp and 5,000 sp, strongly implying that this is the sum total of all treasure from the dungeon when it's just the loot from one of many encounters.  The laziness here shatters credibility. 

It's clear the reviewer didn't pay attention.  He complains that the cult has no presence in the township when the introduction makes it clear that the dungeon just opened to the surface and the monsters below are only now going above.  This would be useful information about the nature of the adventure, but the reviewer would rather cherry pick and bitch.  He calls the adventure a hack, ignoring that many old-school adventures are.  I checked, and this was meant as an insult.  For someone playing since 1978, he doesn't understand that a dungeon is merely a sandbox that can be approached many ways.  So much for old-school... 

The review ends on a more useful note, making some genuine points about encounter descriptions and product previews.  We listened and expanded our preview on Drive-Thru RPG because we're big enough to take good advice.  But dear God, you have to wade through some rants and misleading falsehoods to get there, and the blatantly false assertions about the adventure's content and implications are enough to give the review an F; but this site borders on parody and thrives on schtick, so I'll give it a C for effort.  It's just too bad that potential buyers are badly mislead.  I can only hope that they're in on the joke.

Lair of the Shorlee Wyrm is available as a digital download.  You can check out our expanded preview and pick up the module here, assuming it's your cup of tea.  Have a great day! 

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Modules? It's an OSR Thing...

Today we proudly introduce our newest product line: It's an OSR Thing!  This will be a series of adventure modules for games in the old-school renaissance, beginning with Lair of the Shorlee Wyrm, available on Drive-Thru RPG.  Whether it's OD&D, AD&D, or any one of their great retro-clones, these scenarios aim to be as universal as possible (already a feature of the old-school movement) by sticking to D&D's System Reference Document, upon which all others derive.  Labyrinth Lord?  White Box?  B/X, BECMI?  There's nothing here a referee can't understand or make use of.  Call it the common language early gamers spoke back in the day, the Common Tongue for dungeon delvers everywhere...

What you get with each is a detailed adventure, easily inserted into an existing campaign setting, with seeds for future, offshoot scenarios and original content (monsters, magic items, the works) to extend the product's value and usefulness.  Each will be designed for lower, medium, or higher-level parties.  Beyond that, the referee will need to read the product and gauge their group, making adjustments to enemy size or strength (hit points) as needed, because with the wrong luck these scenarios are dangerous.  We think the referee is in the best position to know the needs of their group and how to challenge them!


Lair of the Shorlee Wyrm gets the show started with this conundrum: 

Years ago, a dragon was slain in the Shorlee hills, or so said the one surviving warrior who made it back, only to succumb to his wounds before the morning came.  But the attacks ended, so it must have been true.  Dead men tell no tales, and the lone warrior died before revealing the location of the beast’s lair.  Who knows what riches it held; who can guess what treasures lay unguarded for the taking?  There is an old saying in Shorlee: riches lie not for long, and who knows what dangers – and rewards – await those brave enough to go in search of them, for the site of the old lair is forgotten no longer.  Its long-sought depths await the plundering hand of adventurers seeking their glory – or inevitable doom…

If you played D&D in the late 70s through the 80s, those pre-packaged modules were ubiquitous - and pretty damned convenient.  Here were adventures you didn't have to make yourself.  How cool was that, although I always did prefer doing so.  But these scenarios were also instructional, not to mention inspirational.  I learned everything I needed to know about setting up a dungeon and nearby settlement from Keep on the Borderlands, the ultimate tutorial for new referees.  It was more than that though.  The monochrome cover of Steading of the Hill Giant Chief conveyed all the action (and terror) of a combat encounter, proving again that a picture is worth a thousand words - or a thousand games. 

D&D promised a pseudo-medieval, semi-silly storybook universe, and these early modules were a master class in how to make it happen.  Imagine all the promise of our pastime preserved in amber like a luckless Jurassic insect.  Modules are that.  It's felt good to step back into my 14-year-old self with the advice of my beloved and capable partner (and indispensable voice of reason), and to engage in the central act of the referee.  We stand on the shoulders of every DM who ever made a homebrew adventure, and hope that we can come at least half as close to re-capturing our hobby's spirit.  Lair of the Shorlee Wyrm is available as a digital download from Drive-Thru RPG.  We hope we got it right...

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Olde House Rules: It's an OSR Thing...

I love the OSR and Robyn appreciates fantasy period.  That's why we dabble in game design.  But in six years of publishing (has it really been that long), we've never tackled that which is my personal favorite: old-school Dungeons & Dragons.  Of course we love what we've published so far.  Can a parent truly hate their child?  But it's also been plenty of work - and work that feels like work and not like fun.  I'm ready for this to be fun again.

At my heart I'm a Dungeon Master, writing adventures like I did in the 1980s.  D&D was my medium, and it provided the raw materials needed to create entire worlds of fantasy, complete with interesting people, places, and things.  Rules are great; but I'm a little weary of writing raw materials for others to enjoy (although we love everyone), and thus our newest child was conceived:

It's an OSR Thing is a line of published adventures designed (very broadly) for games in the OSR and meant to be inserted into an existing campaign.  Our first release is scheduled for sometime in early 2020, the first of many more.  In the meantime, here's a look at the introductory pages that will be part of each release.  We're pretty excited about what we're making here, precisely because it's fun, not to mention narratively challenging.  But we're also becoming more comfortable with our tools, with consequences for our other titles, although that's still a ways off.  We're taking the holidays off and won't be back until after the new year.  Be safe; enjoy the season.  We'll return in full force because, hey - it's an OSR thing...

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Barsoom, OD&D, and Story Games...

Robyn and I love stories, but neither of us are what might be called a story gamer.  As a crusty old grognard I prefer the traditional model, with a clear division of labor between the referee and the players.  Everyone stays in their lane; and if players want to influence the story they do so through the actions of their characters.  Robyn, a computer RPG enthusiast, is more inclined to consider what the players want from a game, whether getting an animal companion or possessing some unique piece of equipment.  Between the two of us we steer a middle course, although we both tend towards making desired opportunities available within the context of a game and leaving the characters to seek these out on their own…

So we’re talking about old-school gaming as we know it, as opposed to so-called story gaming, where some degree of collaboration takes place.  Depending on the system, a group might work together to determine the nature of the setting and even the powers of its villains.  Slaying a dragon isn’t just something that might happen during play, but something specifically negotiated beforehand.  Robyn and I draw the line here because it feels less heroic.  We have little power over who pulls up next to us at the stoplight.  We’re acted upon by any number of external forces beyond our control, and success depends largely upon our ability to deal with this.  Of course, we can set personal goals and take steps to achieve them; but at no time is success, much less the opportunity, guaranteed.  This is the only way true heroism is possible.
       
Story gaming seems anathema to the old-school way, although Robyn and I subscribe to a different strokes/folks mindset.  Certain rather outspoken personalities have referred to story gamers as swine.  Ouch.   I think (and fervently hope) they’re being hyperbolic.  Gaming is just too trivial to say anything about one’s character.  Even so, old-school enthusiasts know why they like the way they play and feel like they can defend their preferences.  The feelings run deep, and we’ve grown accustomed to thinking it’s been that way from the start.  Sorry, but it hasn’t.  Some collaboration between the players and their referee has always been there, and the social nature of the experience was well understood from the beginning.  Don’t believe us?  Check out this direct quote from OD&D’s Monsters & Treasure… 
         
“If the referee is not personally familiar with the various monsters included in this category the participants of the campaign can be polled to decide all characteristics.”

In short, the players and the referee can work together to write the specific abilities (read: statistics) of the monsters they encounter, which is not unlike deciding the characteristics of the campaign’s primary villain in true story-gaming style.  This grievous sin is enshrined in old-school’s Holy Scriptures and by the one person who should have opposed it!  Now this referred to miscellaneous large insects or animals, but included (potentially) Banths and similar pulpy creations not formally covered in the rules.  Gygax clearly understood that the campaign, any campaign, really, would be a social contract between its participants.  He could have left this to the referee alone (which ultimately happened), but he didn’t at this early juncture in the hobby’s history.  Collaborative, story-gaming elements were there, albeit in small ways, and I contend that they continue even in the most traditional fare.
  
But the rulebook isn’t the game; and as early as 1980 I was working one-on-one with my players to establish what their characters wanted and took care to make these opportunities available.  Was this story gaming?  Aside from introducing whatever opportunities they wanted for their characters, my players were at the mercy of a world they couldn’t anticipate and could only influence through their personal choices.  And this was assuming they even survived their expeditions into the underworld!  When Jarl the Red said he wanted to eventually procure a griffin mount, I expected him to make queries and do the legwork.  But I also threw out offhand references to the griffin breeding grounds in the context of a local complaining about attacks on their livestock.  The rest was up to Jarl, which is to say that in forty years of gaming I’ve determined that there’s no hard line between the different modes of play, just a sliding grey scale.  Old-school thrives on a strict division of labor between the players and the referee.  Even so, the line between this and story gaming’s more collaborative approach is broad and fuzzy, with plenty of room to stretch.  We bring this up only to point out that Gygax seemed to know this from the very beginning; but also because a good GM knows their options and the fundamentally social nature of the hobby...