Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

More Diceless Than We Think...

The Olde House Rules gang is headed out of town, so this is our last post for a couple of weeks; but we'll leave you with a classic gaming topic: dice...  

Dice are ubiquitous in gaming; so much so that we think they had to be there from the beginning.  Now to be clear, they were (this should save some time in the comments section and is only right).  OD&D used dice from the very start because the war-games before it absolutely did and to great effect.  Battle is terrifying precisely because we don't know how things will turn out; and that's a hell of a lot when life itself is at stake...

Ditto for thievery.  Ditto for surviving a deadly poison.  Ditto for pulling off the heroic move that'll cement your fighter's badass reputation into eternity.   

Still, old-school gaming (specifically OD&D, pre-supplements) was largely dice-free where gameplay was concerned.  Seriously; while dice were there, it's entirely possible that the early version of D&D used them less than any time since, if for no other reason than because the referee had more power to enact rulings.  This is well-traveled territory.

Rulings not rules.  It's a mantra at this point.  Rules (I'll say usually) mean dice, whereas rulings often avoid them completely.  If you want to find that secret door, look.  And be sure to describe exactly how.  Spot checks are a rule that calls for dice.  It's been said a thousand different times in a thousand different ways (a thousand and one now).  We uphold this truth as fundamentally right; still, diceless remains controversial...  

Some love diceless play, others (seemingly) hate it.  It comes down to preference, and I confess to gravitating towards the traditional model myself, both as a player and a designer, although without the hate.  It's a practical thing.  Risk and uncertainly are useful states to trigger in others, a sort of adrenaline rush for the dice rolling set.  Making people care is job one - and threatening all the players care about just might be job two!


It's a confidence thing.  If you want to feel good, do something you didn't think possible, whether rolling a natural 20 that (maybe literally) brings the house down or just a successful attack that averts what should have been a bloody total party kill. 

Still, much of what happens (and much of what players engage with) is decision making, exploration, and role-playing through problems.  Often enough, just coming up with a clever solution is challenging; and watching the way in which choices build narratives can be as entertaining as any movie when the players care about what happens.  In short, old-school players want more than just blood.  They want to participate in experiences...

And experiences don't require dice, certainly not 90% of gaming ones!

I'll take it further.  In OD&D there was no roll-under mechanic.  Abilities granted just a few obvious bonuses (missiles come to mind), but beyond experience adjustments, existed primarily as an aid for the referee in adjudicating tasks.  For instance, intelligence was used to determine if certain actions would be taken (that's almost a direct quote).  Sorry Gordo, that clever strategy is beyond your 5 intelligence.  This tilts towards the diceless...

Gary Gygax once famously said (memes be believed) that referees roll dice because they like the sound it makes.  That's an exaggeration.  People like dice for the reasons cited above, but also because it seems to put a character's fate up to the ultimate objective third-party in the form of dumb chance, but there's nothing necessary about it.

In our own Diceless Dungeons, smashing open a door makes noise, which in turn alerts nearby monsters.  But what kind of monsters?  This is just as uncertain and seemingly random as what might happen if the party had decided to go around.  Moreover, while taking on that small pack of goblins is probably survivable, albeit with wounds, it's a tough choice without foreknowledge of the rest of the dungeon.  This is true dice or diceless.

But risk and uncertainly aren't the only way to create tension.  Being forced to make tough decisions is another, as real life will attest.  In Diceless Dungeons, engaging a basilisk in melee guarantees that someone has decided to get turned to stone (you'll just have to read the rules).  Who wants to make that decision?  And this isn't corporate shill either; these problems are universal regardless of what system (or dice) are involved. 

Remember, chess doesn't involve dice either, but remains very challenging.  A dungeon stocked with unknown things coupled with hard decisions adds up to a tense and engaging experience, especially if the players care about their characters.  This is surely how the hobby's founders saw things, at least before dice took over; and it remains good advice for anyone, including the majority who roll 'em because they like the way it sounds...

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

On Gaming's (Flawed) Makers...

Disclaimer: This posting is about real people with complex feelings, hopes, dreams and desires; and perhaps some reading this actually knew them.  To be clear, I think the loss of friendship was tragic and frankly depressing.  With that out of the way...    

The growing popularity of D&D (and the recent Secrets of Blackmoor film) have piqued the interest of a new generation.  How did our hobby begin?  For the newcomers, many of whom weren't even alive in the last century (Jesus, how old does that make me), these facts are buried in the myth-shrouded past, when cell phones didn't exist yet and if you forgot to grab (insert grocery item here), your spouse couldn't call or even text.

Those were dark times when we couldn't answer every nagging trivia question by pulling a phone out of our pocket, but we got by somehow.  And given just how much information is at our fingertips (or resting in our pockets and irradiating our vitals), it's all too easy to dismiss the youngster's lack of understanding.  But we were all newcomers once...

That said, there's been a trickle of new articles by young journalists shedding light on the mysteries of our hobby's past.  One Kotaku article in particular reads like a Watergate-esque expose of what the evil industry has long hidden.  You mean Gary Gygax wasn't the sole creator of D&D?  Some guy named Dave Arneson was also involved?  Yeah, it's all too easy for us greybeards to snort at this, but we shouldn't.  We were all young once and should applaud (and stoke) the interest of the hobby's next generation.

Truth be told, a certain mythos has emerged, one where Gygax became the central personality behind a certified cultural phenomenon.  But if you played the original game back when it came in digest form, you'd have to work hard not to know that it was a joint affair forged by a creative duo, especially if you owned the Blackmoor supplement.  Indeed, you could buy the B/X version as late as 1982 and see Gygax and Arneson credited.


But AD&D was attributed to Gygax alone, the result of that timeless money changes everything and not for the better shtick that ended an era.  By second edition, Arneson was a fading memory, and third was the nail in the coffin.  I won't speculate on the motives of Hasbro and Wizards in perpetuating this; but by 1986, money changes everything forced Gygax out of the picture as well.  Anyway, if you're a 15 year old who started with 5th edition purchased through Amazon, you can easily be forgiven for not knowing.

So much for the kids.  What about the grognards?  I've heard the Kotaku article variably described as an anti-Gary hit piece or long-overdue justice depending on who you happen to ask.  Those who actually knew the pertinent parties have taken sides; for instance, Robert Kunz's Dave Arneson's True Genius.  As for this blogger, I began playing in 1978 and never once met either of the hobby's leading lights, although I've been fortunate enough to know David Wesely (Braunstein's maker) later in life, so my take is suitably nuanced... 

Here goes: Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were imperfect human beings.  

That's right folks, the founders of the hobby we love don't have to be these perfect, semi-divine figures with pure intentions. That's nonsense, and the imperfections of these two men were probably vital to the hobby's cultural advancement.  The ugly stuff matters...
                          
Dave Arneson, who forged the first fantasy campaign and reshaped the culture, was undoubtedly a visionary of the highest order.  That's to his credit.  But he clearly lacked the businessman's motivation.  This reality may (or may not) also be to his credit, although it guaranteed that he wouldn't be the one to successfully market his creation.


Gary Gygax had marketing savvy as well as creative ideas of his own, although often borrowed from others.  This was to his credit.  But he was clearly also a hard-nosed businessman, which may (or may not) also be to his credit.  His efforts are why I have the OD&D rulebooks framed and hanging over my desk, which speaks to his legacy.

We don't live in Candyland.  People are greedy, selfish, and sure to act in their own best interests whenever a cash cow stumbles into view.  Now I'm not suggesting that either man was personally awful.  I can't (and won't) presume to know.  But if I can be a card-carrying asshole from time to time we all can, including the hobby's founding fathers...

And this joining of flawed personalities was probably the only reason our hobby exists as anything more than a quaint local phenomenon.  Chemistry is messy.  It often involves explosions and sudden trips to the eye wash station.  But amid the fire and chaos discoveries are made.  If we like being able to role-play, we can thank Arneson; and if we like actually owning nice commercial products made by people who can justify the effort in creating them, we owe Gygax big.  Pulling this off meant serving two masters, which is challenging.  

Arneson needed Gary's discipline and focus as much as Gary needed Arneson (and other's) creative input.  And the hobby insisted that both men suffer greatly in childbirth...  

Still (and redemptively) time and loss are humbling, and Gygax and Arneson reconciled eventually.  Fame and especially, money, are corrupting influences, and while we'd all prefer to think of the hobby's founders as laid-back gamers, this clearly wasn't always the case, especially once sales surged.  In the end, we can appreciate the contributions of both flawed humans, even if we're occasionally disappointed by them.  Their chemistry was real.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Clones and Heartbreakers...

So I stumbled upon a post from 2017 about so-called retro-clones.  It was interesting, insightful, and without the snooty pretensions of some.  I was doubly pleased that its author was a fan of our own Pits & Perils RPG because, I mean, c'mon; it's our game, of course we're gonna be appreciative.  May it bring them endless joy.  With so many superior options available we always appreciate it when someone chooses ours...

But one thing did stick with me.  The author referred to it as his favorite clone.

Now I love retro-clones.  They've saved many an older system from extinction and offer exciting new ways to enjoy old things.  Wrinkles are ironed out, much-needed streamlining happens, and we see just how timeless our hobby can be.  If you truly love gaming, and especially bygone systems, you owe the clones big.  Did you ever want a Second Edition of BX or BECMI D&D?  Or perhaps a surgical scrubbing of AD&D?  If you love these early iterations and want to pay it forward into modern times, thank the clones.     

But what's a literal clone and what's just heavily inspired.  Luckily, there's no fine line here and little controversy.  If a rulebook preserves mechanics from whole cloth and does so deliberately; if its stated purpose lies in doing so; and if it does this so well that it requires the Open Gaming License or (someone's version thereof) to avoid legal wrath, it's a true retro-clone and, might I add, one by design.  Retro-clone is not a pejorative in my eyes.

But is a game a retro-clone just because it has dwarves?  Elves?  Parties exploring dark dungeons in search of wealth and fame?  If it passes the legal sniff test, yeah.  But what if it employs original mechanics such that you couldn't shoehorn D&D into gameplay with the proverbial ten-foot pole?  What if the spells are completely different and operate under unique conditions?  Or combat is resolved through different means?  I think we've left retro-clones behind and entered into the realm of spiritual clones, which are honorable.


Cheeseburgers are great; and while the local specialty with double bacon might not be the first one ever grilled, it just might be your favorite, which is better by a long shot.  

Pits & Perils is one of these.  It has clerics, dwarves, spell casters, the works.  It even recreates the six ability scores, although players roll (or choose) just one exceptional ability instead of rolling 3d6 for them all.  There's no Vancian magic.  D&D scorned spell points; sorry Gary, but Pits & Perils embraces them.  Simplicity rules the roost.

Now some call spiritual clones Fantasy Heartbreakers, which I'm not wild about...     

Coined here, it's a term that's lazily thrown about, and you'll have to form your own opinion about it.  I will offer, however, that The Forge is gone while D&D (and its derivatives) are doing quite well, thank you very much.  Moreover, there's nothing about the original games that requires them to be dungeon crawls or murder hobo affairs.  They can be turned to complex themes of the sort Ron Edwards would approve of with zero mechanical changes, and anyone who doesn't get this probably doesn't understand the hobby.

The rules are just a guide.  The GM can add or change anything, and house rules will inevitably happen; perhaps deliberately, but maybe by accident as well.  Moreover, bending over backwards to be different from D&D can be just as contrived as copying it verbatim unless some higher cause is being served.  There are a thousand possible variations of a theme; and that means something for everyone if the fact is honestly disclosed. 

Maybe someone put off by OD&D would love White Box.  Or perhaps someone intimidated by Fifth Edition's complexity might prefer Pits & Perils, where they can explore a monster-infested underworld without dying in the first room of the dungeon.  Either way, it's a convert to the hobby, which is something we should all celebrate.  Retro-clones make this happen, and so does any game not afraid to offer up these time-honored concepts...

And that's why I love retro-clones.  And spiritual clones.  And fantasy heartbreakers when they're also good systems.  I'm of the crazy idea that games should be fun, and that no one's in a better position to judge this than the actual participants.  Call me old-fashioned.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

D&D: The One I ****ed Up...

Many years ago, when yours truly was a wee lad who could still fit into his size 30 jeans without turning blue in the face, he (that's me) ran what I thought would be a one-off adventure for a friend's dark elf character.  I had an ingenious idea, although it turned out I was a little too smart for my own good.  The premise was simple enough; an unwed, childless duke had perished, leaving his lands up for grabs...

But there was a catch (there's always a catch).  The Duke had a plan.  Headship requires courage, so aspirants could brave the late Duke's dungeon, stocked with exotic and hungry monsters and deadly traps.  Anyone who managed to make it through with all their vitals intact could claim the title of Duke with the honors and privileges thereof.

He almost didn't make it.  But in the end he emerged, alive, his beating heart hanging by a vein from the gaping hole in his chest.  All in all, a fun afternoon. 

And that was that.  My friend's character was a noble.  Duke Someone of Something, situated in a suitably remote part of my setting.  It was really meant as a one-time excursion, and the character, shelved after our other DM moved away, had never been my friend's favorite to begin with.  It was supposed to be a last hurrah before retirement.

This quickly proved not to be the case, and it didn't have to be.  My friend's ascension to dukedom opened up many gameable possibilities...

But I wasn't prepared for just how fully my friend embraced his newfound status.  He frequented libraries (it was a pre-internet age), studied feudalism and medieval tax schemes, and mastered the minutiae of building (and fielding) an army.  And good for him!  This is interesting stuff.  He wanted to conquer other parts of the setting, starting by inciting a civil war and becoming King.  And we were more or less cool, for a while.


We role-played his political machinations and dabbled in 1985's Battlesystem, although Swords and Spells might have been funner.  But then a creeping obsession took over, and his in-game aspirations began to overtake everything else.  I enjoy gaming as much as anyone; but I enjoy lots of other things and partition my life accordingly.  But it got to the point of getting calls at all hours wanting to talk about the allocation of grain and how to convince the Church to endorse his claims.  This went on for months.  

I began avoiding my friend and losing my temper, and it all came to a head at a group session involving vampires (or something).  Another player had gotten Bucknard's Everfull Purse and my friend's eyes lit up with unmasked avarice.  It seems the Duke was having trouble financing his ambitions.  Anyway, my friend pulled me aside.  He was literally, physically trembling, and I swear tearing up a bit.  I've got to get that purse, he said with a real, palpable desperation that blew a fuse in my brain and turned ugly.

So I decided we'd all had too much of this and retreated from gaming; and for years I imagined (assumed, really) that I was in the right.  But was I?  Who was really the problem player here, and who was the better friend?  Turns out it wasn't me...

My friend clearly had a problem, and I was a terrible friend for not seeing that.

Was he having trouble at home?  Struggling with self esteem and hoping to find it in an imaginary world where he was of noble blood?  My not-so-fully formed brain saw only inconvenience when it should have sensed a cry for help.  Life went on.  We gamed again, but drifted apart a year later; and I regret that fact as much as my reaction to what was clearly a problem.  I should have been honest sooner, made my boundaries clear and asked if anything was wrong or something.  Easy words for a 52-year old man.

I suppose I should give myself a break.  We were kids.  But it does go to show what might happen when we aren't attuned to more than ourselves and our convenience.  When it comes down to it, gaming is a human activity indulged by people who may or may not bring their assorted troubles to the metaphoric (and literal) table.  Even if it's only hurt feelings, chances are it's also a missed opportunity to do good.  There are very few activities where a little kindness and understanding aren't preferable, and gaming isn't one of them...           

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Was Gary Gygax Afraid of Magic?

Read the title.  Is it on the mark?  I don't think so, at least not in the literal sense; and seasoned grognards who grew up in the man's company and played his games personally know better than anyone, certainly more than this humble blogger.  But I do know how to read, and I've been making a study of OD&D and the various supplements, which never fail to delight and inform with each new perusal.  There's always something more to discover, some fresh bit of insight revealed in its delightfully amateur pages...      

And with my latest reading, I can almost believe that Gygax was afraid of magic!

No, I don't think he was superstitious.  But he was a war gamer and mainly accustomed to managing ordinary humans who couldn't levitate or otherwise bend the laws of physics through clever spellcraft.  Indeed, the whole challenge of historical war gaming lay, at least in part, in having to operate well within the bounds of nature.  Just imagine how the Battle of Hastings might have gone with a unit of magicians armed with Sleep spells!  

And that's the point, really.  In our non-magical reality even the simplest magical effect, however minor, would be spectacular.  The ability to magically nudge a pencil a quarter of an inch (or even less), something with virtually zero real-world impacts, would nonetheless be incredible because it would represent a violation of nature as we know it.  And it would speak to forces beyond our knowledge.  This is obvious, gee-whiz stuff, but there's a point...    

Magic, in any form, is powerful.  And in a fantasy game, where spells do have actual, measurable consequences, even the lowliest magic is spectacular.  Especially in a game otherwise designed to force its players to work through obstacles within the bounds of (Newtonian) physics.  What good is that pit trap when the magic-user can cheat and levitate above it all without a care?  And that's the point.  Magic is, at the end of the day, cheating reality of its due.  I'll say it again: game magic is a form of "legal" cheating.


So let's jump back to OD&D.  Here we have something about as close to Gygax and Arneson's gut-level instincts about game balance as we're likely to see.  And it's clear in the way spells were assigned power levels (and the torturous climb needed before the best of these finally become available) that Gary didn't want them in the hands of anyone before they started fighting dragons on a regular basis.  Oh, and these early spells were powerful and without many of the qualifiers shoehorned into the later Greyhawk supplement...

Charm Person was permanent until Dispelled.  Strong stuff.  Greyhawk would later allow targets a saving throw at shorter intervals; but it starts off pretty powerful, and in the hands of first-level characters no less.  The Death Spell killed 2d8 monsters up to 6th level or 2-16 minotaurs if you want a little perspective.  Gary clearly saw even the weakest spell as very powerful.  Some of this was surely the newness, but some of it was Gary.

Now this is all simple game-balance stuff; but the creator's perceptions almost certainly influenced the original design, and one way this might show itself is in the number of magic-user spells available.  OD&D had 70 spells divided between six levels as shown...

1st level (8) 2nd level (10) 3rd level (14) 
4th level (12) 5th level (14) 6th level (12) 

On a level-by-level basis, there's fewer 1st and 2nd-level spells, far less in the case of 1st level magic; but what a huge proliferation in the mid and upper levels!  Gary was hard-pressed to imagine any spell weak enough for those spell-slinging newbies.  But this also makes sense.  Low-level magic-users are not only limited in power, but in sheer variety precisely because magic is so inherently powerful.  This also explains the near-doubling of available spells at higher levels.  Still, it's easy to see Gary's reluctance.

Spells are powerful.  And Gygax imagined very powerful, sweeping and oftentimes permanent effects straight out of the storybooks.  This clashed with a war gaming mindset accustomed to regular people being challenged precisely because they couldn't levitate across that covered pit trap.  Of course, Gary had already done this with his Chainmail rules; but the more individual nature of role-playing meant that the magic-user could potentially outshine their peers and bypass the referee's obstacles minus any human effort.

And this was hotly debated in the early scene and made it into the pages of Dragon Magazine, where some defended the "poor magic-user" and others argued the class had enough power as it was!  It was a ongoing process of rules refinement...

OD&D was the purest form of the game in my humble opinion, and while it clearly needed some additions, it probably needed less than even the first supplement added with respect to rules and spellcraft (monsters and magic items are a different thing entirely).  Anyway, it's always a revelation to see the unvarnished version of a game and to witness the humanity of its designers.  Time and added content necessarily changes things; but sometimes, first instincts are the best instincts, and OD&D's magic system is an excellent example of this!

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Ten Commandments of the OSR...

(1) The OSR is an attempt to preserve, promote, and/or revive old-school games.  

(2) Its aims can be met by playing these early games, but also by publishing content under the Open Gaming License or developing original systems in this style.  

(3) There's nothing about seeking to preserve, promote, and/or revive old-school games that suggests (much less requires) any particular political, religious, or social agenda.

(4) The fact that some people in the OSR behave badly says nothing about the OSR as a whole.  Some are good, others bad; but all of them can like older games.

(5) If you want a positive, welcoming OSR, be a positive, welcoming person.  Splitting off into ideologically pure communities just might be the worst possible way to achieve this.


(6) We desperately need values, but we'll have to look beyond the OSR to find them; and when we do, shouldn't they apply to everything and not just our gaming?

(7) As long as people remain fascinated by older games, the OSR will never die.

(8) Things like Sword Dream and The Inglorious OSR are at best subsets of the OSR; and far from signalling the death of the movement, they speak to its diversity. 

(9) The OSR has no leaders.  Some are louder and more vocal, but they can only speak for themselves (and that includes yours truly).  Feel free to add your voice to the mix.  

(10) If you've fled the OSR only to run your weekly OD&D game, you haven't escaped the movement at all.  Indeed, you've aided it's sole purpose.  Long live the OSR!

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

On the Slow Death of Shock...

Okay, so James Raggi, shock maestro of the OSR, offered a clever play on the whole Kids on Bikes game with Kids on Pikes.  Yes, the cover of his GenCon catalog depicts dead children impaled on pikes, seemingly for our amusement.  I've seen worse in real life, and while I find it distasteful in the extreme, I'm not clamoring for censorship.  These things inevitably correct themselves, and James isn't helping himself.  I've never played his game, and the gross marketing tactics don't communicate anything informational.

Dead kids bleeding on wooden pikes!  Will the ideas never cease?  Seriously though, this latest non-controversy does at least invite a conversation about how we're supposed to view violence in games where the whole point is to stick pointy things into others and take their money.  How do we enjoy this and have any issue with Kids on Pikes?    

Birth, sex, and death are part of the human condition and impossible to ignore.  If you’re reading this paragraph, you were born.  And if you aren’t having sex now, the smart money says you’re the product of it (and very likely seeking your next encounter).  Our desire to survive and reproduce is indelibly hardwired, so much so that we omit these things from our narratives to our peril and to the detriment of the concepts we hope to explore...

I get it.  I'm not some prude who wants to play tea party.  Orcs pillage the countryside, slaughtering all in their path.  Lust reduces men to quivering jelly, makes them the lovers of demons (or maybe their own sisters in Caligula's case) and worse yet, predators of the topical sort who populate our news cycles all too often.  Indeed, these realities elevate our fiction and our games, and their omission would suck the humanity out of our efforts and leave a huge, unsatisfying hole in its wake.  Candyland doesn't interest me.


But that's the rub, isn't it?  When do our narratives go from being stories about humanity which just happen to involve death and sex, even if prominently, and when do they become death and sex for its own sake divorced from any context?  This distinction matters...    

So first, let's partition sex and violence.  Sex between consenting adults is nothing to oppose or censor so long as it's basically responsible and hurts no one.  But once it becomes non-consensual it devolves into violence.  And let's extricate death because this, in and of itself, is the natural end of our cycle, however painful it can be to the survivors.  We can disentangle these things and distill that which any considerate human should rightly reject...

Namely, the suffering of others as an end unto itself and offered up as entertainment or a clever marketing strategy.  And this is why I'm ultimately turned off by Kids on Pikes.   

Pain and suffering are things that happen in our narratives.  That doesn't mean we should find them cool or entertaining for their own sake.  Now I totally get that the grindhouse genre playfully exploits blood-spattering gore.  It's basically dark humor, and I was raised on the excellent Creepy and Eerie horror comics of the 1970s.  But these stories were surprisingly moralistic in their approach and never suggested that we should enjoy, much less find humor, in the suffering of helpless innocents, as horrific as they could sometimes be...

Feel free to disagree.  Free country.  For fans of Raggi's work, it's entirely consistent with an unbroken trend and maybe even good marketing.  But for adult gamers, human suffering shouldn't be amusing or diversionary fare.  Not when real children die in depressing numbers every day.  I don't care for (most) Quentin Tarantino movies because only a pampered and protected millionaire would find graphic suffering amusing*.  Again, that's just me.

There's no easy way to partition the fact of violence and the enjoyment of it, especially when the lines are so easily blurred.  We're rightly horrified at actual violence against children, including James Raggi (who obviously doesn't condone it), while simultaneously devouring splatter flicks.  It's the whole duality of man thing.  But live long enough and see enough actual suffering firsthand, and maybe the smile fades a little and we move on; and this is the slow and inevitable "death" of shock.  These tactics will eat themselves alive...

*From Dusk til Dawn and Pulp Fiction were decent, but the victims sort of had it coming!   

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Was Google+ Gaming's Camelot?

Okay, so it's been a little over a month since Google+ died (at least for the gaming community), although most of us escaped to new online homes well before the proverbial axes fell and our heads hit the basket.  But G+ was such a vital organ of the hobby, a landscape where it truly thrived, that nothing like mere escape could ease the effects of its passing.  And, not surprisingly, it's taken some time for me to process...

First off, Google+ was the social media platform of a media giant; so being there felt something like having our own cable network.  We were sending (and receiving) across an immense public sphere.  Of course, this wasn't a universal sentiment or our beloved G+ would still be; but for those of us in the tabletop world it felt like we were broadcasting to a substantial chunk of the hobby, because we almost certainly were

Imagine being in Time's Square on New Year's Eve.  More on that bit later...

But its reach, even among the gaming set, went far beyond the hobby - and tabletop enthusiasts weren't the only ones using the platform.  Its home feed could be a window on the world (remember that 90s promise?) depending on what you followed.  Mine was a motley assortment of news, tabletop gaming, and music.  From the tragic death of Tom Petty to the 2016 presidential election, Google+ kept me in the know.  I get that all social media makes this possible; but G+ did it on a bigger scale, or so it seemed.

Google+, for all its supposed failures, succeeded at being an immense and public facing phenomenon, the social-media equivalent of a personal cable network.  Now I can see legions of online types waiting to quote figures and demonstrate where I'm objectively wrong about (insert _______ here).  But this post is about my feelings and experiences with the platform, something largely immune to objective analysis, even if I'm wrong.


But perhaps the best way to express the experience of Google+ is to look at what happened in the wake of its demise.  At first everyone pitched their best alternative and made for the escape pods.  And it's not like there wasn't lots to choose from.  But quite a few of us made it MeWe, including those who didn't originally want to go.  The migration was big enough that the new landlords had to make accommodations, which speaks well for them, but also to the enormity of the move itself.  And it absorbed only some of the refugees!

MeWe isn't a wealthy tech giant, and its passion for privacy means that it's more intimate (and insular) than Google+ ever was.  That's a two-edged sword.  My circles are smaller, but also stocked with authentic friends, something I'm immensely grateful for.  The friendships started on Google+ were the most valuable things there.  But as a person who enjoys feeling connected to a larger public, I miss the sheer reach of my former home and its "one stop shopping" atmosphere, which brings us back to the whole New Year's analogy...

So it's New Year's Eve in Time's Square.  People are everywhere and it's easy to get whipped up by the crowd.  It's a noisy, festive event; and if you're standing in the right place at the right time, you just might show up on TV.  But your friends are there too, forming intimate little clusters, familiar eddies in a fast-moving stream.  MeWe is more like a small gathering in a friend's apartment - and there's nothing wrong with that.  

But Google+ was a veritable Camelot for tabletop gamers.  A massive, thriving kingdom that spoke to the public at large.  It benefited greatly from the sheer number of voices and the ease of which new ideas and products could be disseminated.  Bloggers and publishers alike could spread their respective wings and reach an impressive audience.  This was good for the game publishers, obviously; but ours is a hobby that needs new products as well as fresh ideas, and Google+ absolutely enabled this unprecedented creative economy...

Which is to say: the Google+ era was special, and Robyn and I are both immensely glad for the five years we got to be part of it.  And we've held on to the best parts...

I don't say this because it's over, but because it's in recovery.  There's no squelching the creative urge, and that goes double for gaming.  The same voices that made Google+ such a great community are alive and well in new online homes.  History shows us that kingdoms don't just fall.  They also rise from the ashes.  For a decent chunk of us, MeWe could be a pit stop along the way or the start of a new golden age.  History (and gaming) goes on...  

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Lightning Strikes In the Games We Play (and Some Real-World Safety Advice)...

Lightning spells are ubiquitous in gaming, and it isn't hard to understand why.  There's something decidedly elemental about these powerful (and visually impressive) displays of nature's fury.  And given that the ancients saw lightning as a sign of divine displeasure, electrical bolts from the heavens, it certainly feels at home in worlds where magic works and the many gods are real.  Getting electrocuted is deadly, but the ability to wield lightning is highly sought after by warriors (Thor's hammer) and wizards alike... 

But have we ever taken the time to quantify the staggering power of lightning?

We're not talking dice here, although 9d6 is clearly powerful.  No, we're looking at things in a real-world sense.  How hot can lightning get?  And how often is it deadly?

As for heat, lightning is the movement of an electrical charge which, strictly speaking, generates no sensible temperature.  However, environmental resistance to this movement does generate heat; and because air is a poor conductor of electricity, the heat thereby produced is just incredible.  How about 53,540 degrees Fahrenheit or five times hotter than the surface of the sun, although this is, admittedly, its coolest layer.  Pure power...


But how often is it fatal?  Luckily, only in about 10% of cases, which means your typical gaming displays are probably deadlier.  Sadly; however, many survivors suffer painful third-degree burns, and that's not all.  Metal jewelry can instantly melt, leaving a painful tattoo, while the victim's blood vessels explode in so-called lightning trees or Lichtenberg figures, a temporary scarring that outlines the internal damage.  Indeed, lightning can stop the heart instantly, making cardiac arrest a leading cause of lightning-related deaths.   

Short of death, however, lightning can cause permanent blindness, deafness, and brain damage, which is horribly tragic.  Gaming oversimplifies this, but let's forget about the hobby for a few minutes and talk about real world safety.  I became a meteorologist because my younger self was intrigued by the weather, but also because I cared about protecting others from its frequent, more turbulent moods.  Lightning is dangerous, especially as we enter severe weather season in the United States - but the following tips are for everyone...    

When thunder roars, go indoors (this one's top of the list, folks). 

If outdoors and unable to find shelter, crouch low, with as little of your body touching the ground as possible (strong electrical currents can run along the surface).

Stay away from concrete walls, floors, or shelters.  Avoid electrical equipment of all kinds and corded phones (cordless or cell phones are safe to use, however).

Go HERE for more advice and stay safe!  No matter where you live, lightning is deadly - in gaming and in real life - and we want you healthy and enjoying the hobby.

The above trivia can enhance a game.  For instance, GM's who seek realism and allow critical injury can incorporate lightning's effects well short of death; but even those who play straight can better describe either side of the saving throw.  And who knows, generous referees (in the spirit of charity) can grant bonuses to those characters who take the right precautions against this most powerful of forces.  Do what you want, but in real life we hope you'll play it safe and protect yourselves (and your families) against the angry heavens...    

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Tick, Tock, It's About Time...

Not much of a post this month.  We don't have time, which brings me to an interesting observation about fantasy role playing; namely, that it takes time to prepare a good adventure.  This goes without saying to the grizzled veterans of the hobby, who'll probably  respond with their several decades worth of campaigning experience.  We take this for granted now; but it wasn't always that obvious.  And Gygax himself clearly thought that time was a unique requirement on par with the paper, pencil, and dice...

From Men & Magic: A quick glance at the Equipment section of this booklet will reveal just how little is required. The most extensive requirement is time.


Yes, time.  The above was from the Foreword, two paragraphs in, which proceeds to elaborate upon the referee's duties to their players and the imaginary world they'll spend hours bringing to life.  This wasn't Monopoly.  Now I can hear the veteran war gamers protesting the laborious setup of their own pastime.  No doubt about that.  But D&D and all that followed in its wake requires the creation of an entire world, not to mention a very patient referee willing to sit down with their many players.  War gaming means setting up and tearing down miniatures, while role playing is the day-to-day life of a universe

Now I don't mean to denigrate war games, and I understand that many of these are exceedingly complex and border on RPG territory.  But Gygax and Arneson, two ardent war gamers if ever there were, understood that their creation was different...

Different enough to qualify the time needed to participate, especially as the new game inevitably brought non-war gamers to the fold.  Newcomers who needed to learn what we all take for granted now; namely, that role playing is well worth the time spent on it!

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Designing Music: Pits & Perils...

Yours truly loves music in its various forms and, not surprisingly, listens to quite a lot of it while working.  My older brother was a music fan since the age of eight and began an impressive vinyl collection that's only grown in four-some decades (trivia: he became a disk jockey of the internet type, although he's now retired); and he spun the soundtrack to my childhood right up through my gaming years.  Fast forward several decades and I'm writing games with my beloved and doing so to the music of my youth...

Now here's the funny thing: each project gravitates towards certain artists; again, a soundtrack.  Whether the oldies of Pits & Perils or the progressive metal of Red of Tooth, each title found something that captured its particular mood.  I won't even try to cover everything here, but maybe I'll start at the beginning with Pits & Perils:

ABBA: Super Trouper (1980).  Oh my god I love ABBA, and this album was an absolute masterpiece from the Swedish band.  Their fun, earnest sound remains a breath of fresh air in a world where bad things happen and a much-needed counterweight to my coarsened  tendencies.  I remember listening to On and On and On while absorbing the latest issue of Dragon Magazine (#48, with the Phil Foglio cover) back in the day.


BEE GEES: Living Eyes (1980).  I know, everyone thinks Disco.  But the Brothers Gibb enjoyed distinguished musical careers in the decades before (and well after) the leisure suit years.  Caveat: Main Course through Spirits Having Flown are all great albums, but their post-disco output was also excellent, starting with this gem.  I swear, just listening to He's a Liar brings back fond memories of my Grenadier and Ral Partha miniatures. 

TIME LIFE SOUNDS OF THE 70s (1989): Ten flawless discs covering pop hits from my favorite decade.  I was alive when A Horse with No Name (America) was a Top 40 record, so this stuff resonates big time.  From ELO to Jigsaw (you're a member of the old folks club if you remember them), this collection is solid gold for someone like your truly, just another relic from the pre-internet age (ironic, I know) when D&D was brand new.  

Observant readers will notice that two out of three are from 1980, a fact I'll very happily explain.  I started gaming in 1978 but wouldn't get my act together until Christmas of 1980, when Holmes Basic came wrapped under the tree.  It's timeless stuff, but I had a happy childhood on top of it all and have every right to feel nostalgic.  Now as it happens, music is the ideal medium for storing our deepest feelings, and when the time came to excavate gaming gold, the old stuff became a nuclear-powered time machine on steroids...

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Elves of 74'...

As much as we like AD&D's multi-classing rules, they weren't exactly a master class in technical elegance.  But they weren't all that bad either because; really, how difficult is it to divide earned experience between two (or more) classes?  It's just a little math, and not exactly differential equations.  And because dwarves and elves live longer and are already older than their human counterparts, they've had more time to learn...

Time to master the arts of combat and spellcraft.  Time to wield the great sword while simultaneously developing one's stealth.  And multi-classing certainly gave non-humans a unique set of abilities.  But demi-humans already came with a fairly impressive array of racial talents, from dwarven toughness to elven skill at arms.  And then there's infravision, an unnecessary throwback to when non-humans were dungeon-dwelling monsters because anyone who wasn't a player character was a monster, obviously. 

And so in the interest of killing our darlings and finding gold where others may see only tarnished brass, we'll suggest here that OD&D just might have been the first time the hobby got elves right.  Dwarves and halflings were a different matter; but elves were absolutely something OD&D did right, even if it wasn't the only right way to do things (there's seldom any wrong way to do imaginary play).  Now let the gushing commence...


OD&D elves could switch between fighter and magic-user between (but never during) adventures, wearing armor and wielding weapons during one descent and taking up a cloak and staff the next.  And once they got their grubby mits on a suit of magical armor, elves  could wear it while acting as a spell caster.  Awesome!  But its value was diminished as early as the supplements, where a more traditional multi-classing, complete with armored spell casters, took hold, which begs the question: Why OD&D's way?

First off, it was easy.  If you played as a fighter and got 1,000 experience, forget the division; everything went to the fighter class.  Ditto when going as a magic-user. 

But it was also realistic (as far as that goes).  Spells can't operate through armor, and a magician needs their hands free for complex maneuvering.  But magical armor is specially engineered to accommodate such energies, so a suit of mail +1 is no obstacle for elven thaumaturgy.  At any rate, different strategies require different equipment.  If heavy fighting is part of the plan, best to suit up and polish that sword.  But with stalwart henchmen at the ready, going light and casting spells just might be the better option.

Finally, OD&D elves felt special; and this uniqueness was highlighted by the fact of its simplicity.  Soon enough, too many additional powers were added, leading to even greater attempts to balance them all.  But the mere ability to switch between two classes when others couldn't was more than enough to set them apart.  Over time, things began to feel like a bloated bureaucracy badly in need of the streamlining B/X and BECMI literally brought to the table.  OD&D needed more work, but it got its elves right from the start.

Elves are naturally magical, so most (if not all) eventually learn to cast spells.  It's just something they can do.  And like all races, they can arm themselves for more conventional fighting as well, because there's nothing more basic than picking up a nearby club and bludgeoning your enemies senseless.  But magic allows the impossible to happen, making it useful and its practitioners in high demand.  You can't play piano while kayaking down a raging river either; but it's cool to switch between them.  That's elves.   

Now to be clear, we adore AD&D; and for those desiring a more robust old-school experience, it's the cream of the crop.  But for all OD&D needed to work out (dwarves and halflings spring to mind), its elves clearly delivered.  Add the fact that they demanded superior strategy on the part of the player was old-school as hell and in keeping with the hobby's earliest traditions.  If nothing else, it's another tool in the toolkit and something worth checking out if you want to challenge a group minus the fuss of later editions...