Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why Level Draining Sucks

Yeah, it's Halloween, so I figured it was a prefect opportunity to focus on the undead and their much-feared ability to level drain.

I've always thought that level draining was a particularly unfair game mechanic, since it robs the characters of hard-earned expereince levels in a "cheap" and arbitrary way.  It's entirely possible that a high level character could lose expereince that took years worth of play-time to aquire.  Especially when if that character is fighting creatures that drain multiple levels at a time.

Needless to say, this violates the "Rule of Fun", and leads to player resentment.  It's the sort of thing that could easily cause players to just quit playing altogether.

Yes, a Restoration spell could restore the lost levels, but it's not exactly easy to find clerics with access to level 7 spells... 

A 1st edition cleric doesn't get access to restoration until 16th level, and it will only restore 1 level per casting.  A 2E cleric can cast restoration at level 14, but it ages him two years to do so (although it also restores all lost levels, not just one per casting).

I don't know about your campaign, but in mine top-level clerics are pretty damned rare, and they're not exactly happy to have adventurers bugging them unnecesarily.  Especially if they're asking for something that's going to shave a few years off of their natural lifespan.

Needless to say, getting a restoration spell for your character is a monumental challenge, and he'll be feeble and weak until he can make it happen.

And this is assuming your character survived the encounter in the first place.

Because level draining drains levels, you lose hit points for the attack, AND hit points from the level drain, AND class abilities, AND proficiencies, AND spells every time you get hit, so your combat ability goes down much faster than it does in a typical combat.  God forbid you're up against something that drains multiple levels per hit.

Which brings up one of the WORST things about level draining... the book keeping.  It's a royal pain in the ass to keep track of every level bonus you get when you level up, and then you've got to subtract all of that stuff and recalculate for every single hit. 

And if the DM didn't keep meticulous records, he's going to have to fudge it, which makes players even more unhappy, becuade they stand to lose more than they would have otherwise.

What a fucking pain in the ass!

When a game mechanic kills the fun for player and DM alike, it probably needs to be shitcanned.

It's particularly bizarre that energy draining (ie, experience loss) is not an really an ability that is associated with undead, especially vampires.  Vampires might drain enough blood to leave you feeling crappy, and they might leave you with some side effects, but if the vamp dies, the victims usually recover just fine.  The notion that a vampire would punch you and all of a sudden you've forgotten the last few years of your life is NOT a part of any vampire myth.

As near as I can tell, the energy drain concept comes was inspired by Tolkien's Ringwraiths, who inflict a kinda-sorta similar malady on those who come into contact with them (the Holmes version of the D&D game flat out states that Nazgul would be considered spectres in case you needed a more explicit connection).

And you know what?   I have no problem with them taking some inspiration form Tolkien.

But I do have a problem with the fact that they greatly exaggerated the effects.  Unlike the horrendous energy drain of the D&D game, the Ringwraiths affliction is easily cured by Aragorn using some herbs he found.

And it's worth noting that the Ringwraiths were not random, wandering monster-grade chumps, like D&D spectres.  No, the Nazgul were Sauron's elite death squad.  These guys were incredibly badass by the standards of Middle-Earth.

So the fact that they had a much weaker energy drain is particularly significant.  Yes, the Black Breath was lethal if left untreated, but it least it was a slow death that gave the character's some time to come up with a cure, and it didn't require 14+ level clerics to magic up an antidote.

Likewise, the barrow-wights were not nearly as dangerous as the D&D wights.  They made the hobbits sleep, but they didn't drain levels, or leave them permanently incapacitiated.  In fact, after Tom Bombadil rescues them, they turn out to be completely uninjured.

To make matters worse, though, this dodgy level draining mechanic was applied to all kinds of undead, not just the wights and spectres.  The crowning moment of excess is probably RQ2- Thoughts of Darkness, a module which features vampire Illithids and a boss vampire that drains 5 levels at a time.

Amazingly, the energy drain mechanic survived for 30+ years before it was removed from 4th edition D&D (probably the only thing they did that I agree with).  The current 5E playtests appear to be tinkering with it in a more limited fashion.

I have long been a proponent of ditching the energy drain completely.  Undead can be plenty scary without having to resort to "cheap" special attacks that screw the players over in an unnecessarily ruthless manner.

Vampires, for example have super-speed, super-strength, the abilities to fly, shapechange, charm, spiderclimb, turn into mist, and command creatures of the night.  They also have resistance to normal weapons, special immunities, and regeneration.  And immortality.

That's plenty scary and plenty dangerous without adding a "screw-you" mechanic like energy draining.  All you have to do is treat the vampire as an NPC instead of a stupid grunt-level monster.  Seriously... if you can't scare the player with all of that, you suck as a DM.

Likewise, you can change the abilties of other energy draining undead to make them a little more player-friendly without sacrificing their scariness. 

Wights for example, could inflict wounds that can't be magically healed, and take double the time to heal naturally.  This makes them a serious pain in the ass, but it makes it a more manageable threat and it doesn't kill the mood like the energy drain does.

Or hell, just bump up the wight's damage.  There are a lot of ways a creative DM can tackle the problem.  The important thing is to remember that the game should be FUN.

                                                                  Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

An Unexpected Discovery

I was going through my storage unit today, looking for some of my old D&D books.  I was pretty sure I'd seen my old 2E Monstrous Compendium at some point when I was moving everything into my storage unit and I was hoping it would turn up.

While I didn't find my old MC, I did find a bunch of stuff I hadn't seen in ages.  Some of it was old 1st and 2nd edition modules, boxed sets, or accessories.  I managed to put together an old Battlesystem set, even though the parts were scattered across a couple of boxes.  I found a ton of graph paper of various types.  I even found the old Basic D&D Red Box set that was my first entry into the game.

But the best thing was yet to come...

In the farthest corner of my unit, is a huge stack of boxes.  I went through every single box, and in the last one, in the hardest place to reach, was a box with all of my old DM notes.  I didn't really have time to go through all of it in the storage unit, but I was surprised to see a lot of stuff in there that I though had been lost over the years, so I took it home to go through it at my leisure.

The first thing I noticed was just how much of it there was.  Apparently I was quite prolific in my younger years, but very badly organized.  Some characters are laid out on scrap paper and others are written out on custom-made character sheets.  Some maps are meticulously drawn and are quite lovely to look upon, and some look like they were scrawled out by a 3rd grader with ADD (in-game maps most likely).

This was stuff I hadn't really looked at in at least 15 years, and it might have been closer to 20 for some of the stuff in there.  Looking at the evolution of my handwriting and some of the drawings indicates that some of that stuff was leftovers from my Jr. High years.  

Up to this point, all I had was one page of old notes on adventure hooks that had somehow ended up with the bulk of my AD&D books.  Unfortunately, the ideas I had written on that page were fragmentary and difficult to make sense of without any context.  They were basically code phrases that only I would understand, but over the years I had forgotten what those codes referred to!

I spent a few days trying to figure out what the heck I had been thinking when I wrote that page, and I was able to piece together most of it by trawling through my old gaming materials.  Still, there were a lot of gaps where my memory had failed me.

But while I was going through this godawful hodgepodge of notes, I started making connections and filling in those missing gaps.  This stuff may have been a mess, but it had enough meat to make sense of the rest.  Not only did I have enough notes to show where I had stolen those old ideas from, I also had a bunch of inspirational pictures clipped from old magazines and whatnot.  This included a bunch of art from the articles on Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy that were snipped from old Nintendo Power issues.

Those pages and pages of ideas are enough to keep me supplied with years worth of gaming material.  I'll end up posting a lot of it when it's cleaned up.  Some of those ideas might be fleshed out in detail for articles and suggestions, and some of them might even end up as full modules.

What's really surprising is how much of that stuff is relevant to the campaign I'm currently building.  I came up with the basic concept back then, and I've been refining it over the years.  But I wasn't expecting to find a full synopsis of the original idea buried in my notes.

I was also delighted to come across an old list of gods that I was using for my pantheon back in the day, complete with holy symbols and the like.  It's a big messy thing, but I'll definitely be pilfering ideas from it for my current pantheon.

In addition to the big structural elements, there are also some smaller story fragments that figure in to my current campaign that I didn't realize went back so far.  For example, the ideas that Ogres are a servitor race to humans was an idea that I've incorporated into my current backstory.  Instead of being a traditional bad-guy monster, they're usually on the side of the humans, and serve as full fledged NPCs.

This is a pretty big departure from the traditional role of ogres, but I wanted to make my world unique and have a different take on the classic creatures.  And I was delighted to see that this idea was fully-fleshed out even back then.    

I even found a page of plants and herbs that I had sketched out, complete with colored pictures and everything, which was a part of a module that I was working on at the time.  Since I was already working on plants and animals as part of my background, this adds a lot of new material to pad things out.

I also found a bunch of maps going back to that period, including a map of the town, it's castle, and the peninsula.  And they're all in glorious color!  I was inspired by the classic Forgotten Realms maps and decided to make up a few big maps for the campaign and then fill them in with markers or colored pencils.  Discovering these lost gems put a huge smile on my face.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

TMI: Too Much Information- Part 1

The Dungeon Master is the window through which the players see the world.
                                                                    Deez nuts!

To most people, this means that the DM lays out the background, sets up the plot twists, and plays the NPCs.  But one of the most critical jobs of the DM is to control the flow of information to the players. This limited control of information is an integral part of all dramatic storytelling, but it is also one of the cornerstones of role playing games as well.

Much of the game's dramatic tension comes from the players trying to solve problems with incomplete knowledge of what is actually going on, and trying to find ways to fill the gaps in their knowledge by exploring the gameworld.  Done right, this can make for an incredibly vivid and memorable expereince.

In my opinion, the game doesn't put enough emphasis on the control of player information.  I suppose that's because it is a difficult skill to develop, and because it depends so much on the individual DM's playing style.  Nevertheless, I feel it is one of the more important skills for the novice DM to have in his mental toolbox.

And it's all too easy to give out too much information even if you're consciously trying to avoid it.

I remember one game session I was DMing that revolved around an unusual monster that was terrorizing the local village.  I was trying to conceal the true nature of the creature from the players, because the plot revolved around discovering the mysterious nature of the creature, and figuring out how to defeat it.

So I described the creatures physical form but I didn't tell them what it was.  The players were fully engaged, asking questions, and coming up with theories, and having a grand old time digging into the mystery.

Unfortunately, when the players got into combat with the creature, I accidentally used the creatures name to describe it, and all of a sudden the players knew exactly what they were facing and how to defeat it.  This let all of the tension out of the game, and led to a rather limp climax since the players were able to fast forward to the end of the scenario.

Giving out too much information is particularly problematic if you're dealing with players that have been playing the game for years.  These players will tend to have the monster books memorized and will usually have a plan for dealing with anything they come across.  This can lead to jaded players and boring games because the players have too much power from their accumulated knowledge.

To make the game interesting and keep players on their toes I use the following strategies:

A)  Don't tell the PCs exactly what they're up against.  Let them figure it our for themselves.

Give the players vague descriptions of the monsters they meet, but don't use the monster's name.  Instead, tell them what they see, hear, smell, etc, and let the players come up with their own conclusions (which may be better than your own!).  Players may recognize some common creatures from past experience or from folklore, but much of the things they come across will be alien to them.  This is a good thing.

If my players want more information on a creature they just met, they'll have to do some research on their own. This is a good way to get your PCs to talk to the locals, or visit libraries, which makes the gameworld feel more real, and which makes the players feel like they have a larger stake in it.  It's also an opportunity to give out false or misleading information, or to introduce a new adventure hook.

B)  Change your notes.

For example; Instead of having a monster entry that says "Ghouls" change the name to "Flesh-Eating Corpse".  This gets you our of the mindset of thinking about you monsters as a DM, and puts you into the mindset PCs by telling them what they see.

It also introduces doubt about the creature's true nature.  These things might be ghouls, but they might also be flesh eating zombies, or something else even more sinister.  But the bottom line is that the players won't know.  They won't have the comfort of knowing that they are up against the same familiar monsters they've seen for the last several years.  And that uncertainty raises the dramatic tension of the situation and makes the adventure more exciting.

This also makes it a little easier to avoid accidentally using the monster's real name during the game and spoiling the surprise for your characters, like in the example shown above.

C)  Change the monsters themselves.

After a few years, the same old monsters can get pretty stale.  Changing the monsters' abilities keeps things fresh and keeps the players on their toes.  For example; instead of paralysis, maybe your ghouls have a "blood frenzy" that doubles their attack if a wounded character is present.  Their sensitivity to blood might also increase the chance of a wandering ghoul attack when characters are wounded.

You can also keep the rules the same and just change the looks, ecology, or background.  Maybe your hobgoblins are based on ancient Sparta, and have a pebbly, toad-like skin, in shades of green and brown.  The rules stay the same, but all of a sudden, the tone is radically different.

You can also change the names.  Maybe your re-imagined hobgoblins call themselves Therions and are the remnants of a once mighty people, looking to reestablish the power of their lost empire.  Now you've got something really fresh and interesting that your players won't see anywhere else.  And all you did was make a few measly changes to the hobgoblin entry.

Of course, there's nothing to say you can't got further and just make your own creatures from scratch.  It's more work than just slapping a new skin on an old monster's stats (as in the previous example), but it makes the gameworld feel that much more exciting when the players realize that they are dealing with completely unfamiliar creatures.

A pleasant side-effect of changing the creatures up is that the players can't argue the rules with you if you're not using the rulebooks.  But they'll also be less likely to argue if they're looking at something mysterious and exciting, instead of the same old shit that's been around for 30+ years.

And if you do decide to trot out an old favorite, the players will have more appreciation for them, since it's a familiar face in a strange crowd.

Who knows, your players might even be happy to see a notoriously bad monster like a flumph.  You don't need to tell them that in this universe flumphs are chaotic evil and capable of shooting small lighting bolts.  Let them find out for themselves...

Monday, October 22, 2012


Alignment always seems to be a hot topic amongst the role-playing community.

Morality is such a integral part of the human experience that we spend a great portion of our lives studying it and trying to understand it.  For thousands of years our philosophers and religions have struggled to make sense of it.

Even today,  most of our forms of entertainment deal with morality on a regular basis.  So it is no surprise that we should give some consideration to the issue in a game where anything can happen.

The 3-alignment system from the original D&D game was inspired by the popular fantasy books of the time, in particular the works of Michael Moorcock and Poul Anderson.  

When I first got started with the old Basic D&D "Red Box" I found this alignment system to be confusing and rather arbitrary.  I didn't have the same literary background that game designers did, and the game didn't do a good job of justifying this odd law/chaos conflict. It just assumes that the major conflict of the gameworld is between law and chaos, rather than good vs evil, which tends to be the more relevant axis of contemporary morality.  

As an adult, I understand that lot of that law/chaos conflict was influenced by the wargamer mentality where the game is about the "big picture", and where there's little focus on individual actions.  And I know that a part of it also has to do with the tone of the pulp fiction of the day that featured morally questionable anti-heroes as the protagonists.

But I don't think it was an ideal moral system for a fantasy game, especially in the simplified version of the game where abstract concepts of grey morality are likely to be overlooked by kids who just want to kick Bargle's ass and get some payback for Aleena's death by magic missile.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against a great law/chaos conflict as part of the campaign background, but I do think it's rather presumptuous to assume that this would be the case in every fantasy world, rather than the good/evil conflict that is more universally understood.

So I was thrilled when I finally got some AD&D books and found that the game had 9 alignments, allowing for a much more nuanced approach to morality.  This 9-point alignment scale is incredibly versatile, and it allows us as gamers to communicate much about a creatures personality with a mere two letters. The simple notation "LG" denotes an upstanding guy who is reliable and kind-hearted.  Likewise, when you see somebody with "CE", you know they are dangerous and unpredictable.

This alignment system has been a resounding success, and over time it has become so dominant within the RPG culture that it has reached memetic status.  Even people who have never played the game can understand the concept when you stuff their favorite fictional characters into the appropriate boxes.

So it is particularly surprising to see the 4th edition of D&D do away with 30 years of success and tradition by dropping 6 of the classical alignments and going with a 5-point alignment system: Lawful Good, Good, Neutral, Evil, and Chaotic Evil.

I'm not sure why this was changed... it's not like the existing alignment structure was difficult to comprehend.  The fact that the 9-point alignment system has become a universally understood meme, and the fact that it persists years after the game abandoned it says something about the degree that people have embraced it.

I could understand doing a simplified good/neutral/evil system, or going back to the old law/neutrality/chaos system, but this half-assed approach is just really bizarre, particularly after the universal acceptance of the 9-point model.

While there are an awful lot of issues that people argue about regarding alignments, this dumbed-down alignment system doesn't really address any of them. It just changes a well-understood and much-loved game mechanic for something that's more awkward that the thing they were trying to fix.

Even worse, this attempt at simplification actually throws the established order of things into chaos.  Especially with regards to demons, devils, and other creatures that have always been associated with a particular alignment up to this point.  

Needless to say, this was an unwelcome change for long-time players, and it is one of many changes that radically alters the game in the 4th edition.  Given the negative reaction to the game, I sincerely hope WotC and Hasbro learn from their mistakes, but I have grave doubts about the future of the brand.

In the meantime, I will ignore that particular idiocy and continue to use the 9-point system as God and Gygax intended.


The Unfairly Maligned Flumph

The poor Flumph has long been considered one of the worst designed and least useful monsters in the D&D universe, but I believe that reputation is unfairly deserved.

It's true that there are a lot of lame monsters in the Fiend Folio, but I think that the Flumph has a lot of untapped potential that many of the others do not.

Take the Adherer, for example: It's a humanoid thing that looks like a mummy, but's really just a sticky dude that will tangle up your weapons if you take a swing at it.  It's immune to most 1st level spells, but takes a wopping 3-18 points of damage per magic missile, and is very vulnerable to fire, like a mummy.

Essentially, the adherer is a novelty monster.  "It's a mummy, oh wait, no it's not."  Once the players figure out the gimmick, it becomes a boring and easily defeated creature that doesn't really do anything else.  Even worse, the fact that the creature is a novelty creature in an official monster book means that even players who haven't met one before can study the book and learn how to defeat it, thus ruining the gimmick.

Part of the problem is fact that it is only semi-intellegence (2-4 INT).  This means that it's not really capable of communication... it may look human but it's really incredibly stupid.  It won't be able to fight intelligently, and it can't really be communicated with in any meaningful way, making it useless as an NPC species.  This creature is just there to be a nuisance and not a meaningful part of the adventure.

The Nilbog, the epitome of the novelty creature, is even worse.  It's basically a goblin that heals when you attack it, and takes damage when you heal it.  I get that the game designers were trying to make something that subverts the player's expectations.  But it begs the question of why getting hit with an axe makes it heal.

It's an illogical game mechanic, but unlike, say conjuring a lightning bolt, it is a game mechanic that strains the credibility of the gameworld's verisimilitude.

But as bad as that it, it gets MUCH worse.

The Nilbog has a vague sort of temporal field effect: "The adventurers have no control over their own actions and will generally pursue courses of action contrary to their normal intent."  As an example, the text states that the adventurers may feel an overwhelming compulsion to load all of their treasure into an empty chest in the Nilbog lair and leave empty-handed.  No saving throws are allowed, and a WISH spell can only offer temporary protection.

This vaguely-defined, heavy-handed approach to player coercion is a recipe for disaster.  Something that important deserves to be explained in great detail, but the Nilbog barely scratches the surface of what this power can do.  There are no parameters or limitations given for this power.

Not giving the players a save of any kind save is incredibly harsh, and you know something is way off-kilter when the rules suggest using a Wish to mitigate the effects of a low-level mook monster.  Most DM's I know don't exactly hand out Wish spells like candy.

Used as-is, this effect will result in some extremely pissed off players.  Which is probably why I have never seen this rule used in play when Nilbogs are actually used.

In comparison, the Flumph is actually pretty good. Heck, I actually think it has the potential to be one of the better monsters in the Fiend Folio.

I'll be honest... for a lot of years I overlooked the flumph based on the drawing alone.  It's ugly, and it's weird, and it's sitting right next to Russ Nicholson's bad-ass Flind illustration.  It's easy to pass on the flumph in favor of something flashier.  But if you actually give the thing a chance, it can be surprisingly useful.

It's basic appearance and combat abilities would make for an interesting low level gonzo monster, but it is the creature's human intelligence and Lawful Good alignment that make the creature particularly interesting.  This in not just a weird fantasy creature to kill for it's loot, it's a potential NPC.

And I loves me some NPCs.

And unlike a lot of the other critters in the Fiend Folio, the flumph doesn't have any rules that are messy or difficult to deal with.  In fact, the only real flaw in the rules is the part about the flumph being able to communicate only in the lawful alignment tongues.

Because nobody uses alignment tongues.

But if we ignore that bit of silliness and just say that it speaks the common tongue, we've got a surprisingly useful creature to interact with.  It can offer advice or information, provide adventure hooks, act as an ally, a henchman, or a familiar, or whatever.

And that, my friends, is the stuff adventures are made from.

Pathfinder recently redesigned the flumph to be a race of benevolent otherworldly beings drawn to the prime material plane to warn mankind about Lovecraftian cosmic horrors.  This is a terrific idea, and it works well with their unusual form, and their role as an NPC monster.

What's really impressive is that this upgrade doesn't really change anything important about the creature, it's still pretty much the same old flumph.  It's just that it now has a mission and a reason for interacting with the PCs.  This is a small role-playing tweak but it gives a great potential for an important role in the campaign.

But even the original flumph is quite usable out of the box.  Much more so than a lot of the other crappy Fiend Folio monsters like the Gambado (Italian skullfaced jack-in-the-box), Khargra (a living dirt-rocket), Sheet Ghoul & Sheet Phantom (haunted bedcovers... ooooh!), Sussurus (a weird plant gorilla that puts undead to sleep), and what is arguably the lamest D&D creature of all time, the Tirapheg.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Problem with Demi-Humans

One of the thing's that has bothered me a great deal about the D&D game is the increasing emphasis on playable demi-human races.

Demihumans have been available as optional PC races from the very beginning, but for the first few editions of the game they were limited to much lower levels than humans.  These level limits served as a deterrent to keep demihumans from pushing humans out of the limelight.  

The problem with this approach was that most people felt that the level limits were too harsh, and ignored them, but they still kept all of the bonus racial powers, making human characters weak and inferior in comparison.  Even worse, multi-classing allowed demihuman characters to stack the class abilities of multiple glasses for a trivial experience penalty.

This led to many min-maxers taking the most powerful demihuman race and class combinations and leaving humans in the dust.  This led to a massive surge of popularity for elves that is still going strong today. But it also ushered in an era of demihuman proliferation that gotten out of control in the 3rd and 4th editions. 

Now some folks may wonder why I favor a human-oriented approach to the game.  It all goes back to one of my guiding principles: "When everything is special, nothing is special."

Making humans the dominant focus of the game world makes it more plausible and easy to relate to, but it also makes the demihumans that do appear more mysterious and noteworthy.  When everybody is running around with a fey-touched, warforged, dragonborn it just sort of overloads the senses.  When there are literally hundreds of races, it's hard to give a fuck about any one in particular. This, to me, is a large part why the WotC versions of D&D seem so phony and frivolous.  

A big part of the blame rests with WotC for making new races a marketable aspect of the game.  The plethora of splatbooks marketed toward the players (rather than the DM), made character creation a sort of masturbatory aspect of the game, where many players spent more time on character creation than playing the actual game.

Unfortunately, the seeds of demi-human wankery were hardwired into the DNA of the orignal game.  While the game was originally built on the foundation of the pulp fantasy literature of the period, there were so many request for Tolkinesque characters that Gygax added them to the game, despite the fact that he didn't particularly like Tolkien.  

And unfortunately, that Tolkienesque racial assortment has dominated the game ever since.  TSR had an opportunity early on to change things up with their campaign settings, but the Tolkiensque races have been a constant, even in settings where they don't really fit well, like Eberron, Dark Sun, and Ravenloft.

The Lankhmar setting is the only setting to have it's own distinctly unique races (because the stories it was based on pre-dated the game).  It is also probably truer to the vision of the game that Gygax intended, being part of the pulp-fantasy tradition that formed the game's early influences.  As a result, the Lankhmar setting feels much more mysterious and compelling than the more generic settings.

Unfortunately, there was never much in the way of development for Lankhmar and it went largely unnoticed by the gamers at the time.  Even worse, the most generic settings, Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms, proved to be the most popular and influential, which made it even harder to deviate from the established racial templates.

This Tolkienesque racial mix forces the game down a certain path, despite the fact that the game was originally intended to be flexible enough to do anything.  It's really pretty sad, how much potential was lost by trying to shoehorn elves, dwarves, and halflings into every possible setting.  

At this point in the game, it all just feels old and stale.  Sure, new races keep popping up, but I think that just exacerbates the problem rather than fixing it.  Sometimes less is more.

Now I'm not suggesting that I'm completely against demihumans, or that I'm against having them as playable characters.  But I do think that the official settings and novels have a tremendous impact on how people perceive the game, and they structure their own games.  So much so that even homebrewed campaigns tend to resemble the official product lines to an uncomfortable degree.

One of the things that I'm trying to do is to rebuild the D&D rules to be more flexible, to make it the game that I always wanted it to be.  A major part of that process is doing something that I feel TSR/WotC should have done years ago... make humans the default race and add additional races as needed (playable at the DM's discretion).

This gives the DM a clean slate to get really creative with.  By asking yourself  "Do I really need elves?  Or Dwarves?" it allows DM to look at the game in a fresh light.  By taking out those old standbys, you make room for something new and fresh.

In my own personal campaign, I've dropped elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, orcs, kobolds and most of the other commonplace races from the game completely.  Humans will be the only race available from the start although others may be available down the road as the players mingle with the inhabitants of the world.

Instead of doing humans in the normal manner, where they're pretty much the same anywhere you go, I've developed different countries and cultures that are reflect the real diversity of human civilizations.  This is something that is rarely done with most D&D games, which tend to use different demihuman races in lieu of developing separate human cultures.  

By restricting the amount of non-human races, you also make it possible to create unique backgrounds for the demihumans that you do use, instead of relying on the same old generic fluff in the rulebooks that wasn't great to begin with.

I've altered the different races that I did keep to fit into the background and setting of my game world in a manner that makes some kind of sense.  In addition, I've changed most of the races and monsters so that they're not the same old creatures you've been encountering for the last 40 years.

The goblins in my campaign, for example, are not the standard evil mooks that they're usually portrayed as. In fact, they're not even goblins at all in the D&D sense.  In my world, goblins and humans are both descendants of a common ancestor species, much in the same way that humans are related to other primates.

They are covered with fur, and have lanky but powerful bodies.  They live exclusively in the forests, and they are master bowmen and trackers. They fight primarily with stone and bone weapons, but often trade with humans for metal hatchets, knives, spear and arrowheads.

Culturally, they are more like wild elves or native Americans, using stone age tools, but with highly developed cultures.  While they generally avoid human contact due to past conflicts, they will sometimes befriend woodsman and establish trade relationships with them.  Alignment-wise they lean toward neutrality, though any alignment is possible.

Instead of being a traditional bad-guy race, these goblins are potential friends and allies.  Sure, a lot of the characters in the game world fear and misunderstand them, but as long as the players don't get on their bad side, they shouldn't have any problems with them.

This gives the goblins a complicated background that can be used in lots of different ways down the road, but it also shakes up the players preconceptions about the gameworld, and it makes them pay close attention to what's really going on.

                                                    Scarwood Goblins- by Ron Spencer

(I got the idea of wood-goblins from an old Magic The Gathering card for Scarwood Goblins.  The artwork by Ron Spencer presents a really nasty, gnarly looking goblin, and I always though these guys would make a great D&D creature.  My version is very similar to this goblin but with fur rather than bare skin.)

Simple changes like this can give a homebrewed campaign world a radically different vibe than what you'd get in the standard game.  By shaking things up a little I've created something that makes something old and tired and turned it into something that's fresh and new.  

There are familiar elements, but these are put together in a new and interesting way that takes the players out of the safe and familiar zone, and places them into unknown territory.  Most players are pretty much bored by the same old monsters they've seen time and time again. By changing the rules, you force them to deal with the game on it's own terms rather than relying on memorized monster manual stats.  

Even better, you've made the game more exciting by taking away the player's rule book crutch.  This has the added benefit of neutralizing rules-lawyering because they can't argue about what's in the rulebook if you're not using it.

This adds to the verisimilitude of the setting, and increases the immersiveness of the game.  And both of those things are, to me, a big part of what makes the traditional pencil & paper RPG so much fun... not just for the players, but for the DM as well.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Video Games: Dragon's Lair

I remember my brother telling me about this amazing video game where you actually played a cartoon character trying to rescue a princess from a dragon's castle.  When I was told that it looked just like a real cartoon, I just dismissed it as a euphemism for good graphics.  In 1983, video game graphics were pretty damned crude, and I just thought this game would be slightly better than the stuff I was used to.

But Dragon's Lair was something truly different.  It was like no video game that anybody else had ever seen.  Seeing it for the first time was mind-blowing.  It was like living in a society where horses were the dominant mode of transportation, and then seeing a guy fly by in an X-wing fighter.

Hell, it STILL looks better than any conventional video game!

Of course, Dragon's Lair "cheated" and used a laser-disk for it's graphics, which greatly limited your options, but that didn't matter when the only video games that we had seen up to this point featured blocky, abstract shapes that only vaguely resembled the things they were supposed to represent.

Dragon's Lair not only looked like a cartoon, it looked like the best cartoon I'd ever seen.  At the time, I had no idea who Don Bluth was, or any idea that he had revolutionized the art of animation for Disney... all I knew was that this was the most bad-ass thing that I had ever laid eyes on.

It had everything... a brave knight (Dirk the Daring), a bimbo princess (Daphne), blood and guts,  monsters beyond my wildest dreams, and an epic showdown with a dragon in a room piled high with treasure.

Dragon's Lair was always kind of special.  It wasn't the sort of game you'd usually find in a pizza parlor.  Usually only the bigger arcades had a console, and I always made a beeline for this game when I was at Disneyland, or Great America, or the Santa Cruz boardwalk.

At the time it was controversial because it was the first game to cost 50 cents instead of the industry standard 25 cents.  I always knew it was going to soak up a few of my hard-earned dollars, but it was worth every second, and every gruesome death.  I remember that I went to the Six Flags in Atlanta and the arcades there were FREE.  I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven when I found a Dragon's Lair console.

Dragon's Lair wasn't perfect.  It was a linear game that allowed for no improvisation from the player.  Each room had the same solution because the animation didn't allow for any solutions that weren't animated into it. The only deviation you'd come across is when the game would reverse the animation, which meant that you couldn't memorize a simple left/right pattern, you had to actually react to what was on the screen.

And it could be frustrating.  I don't know how many times I got squished by the giant marbles.

But even dying was a lot of fun in a game that had so many amazing death animations.  Each room had a couple of different ways to die... most of them gruesome, horrifying, or humorous.  Even the monsters sometimes got this treatment.  When Dirk slices into a Giddy Goon, you can see the pink guts of the creature... when Dirk cuts a tentacle in half, you can see the innards and the spray of monster fluids.

More than 25 years later, Dragon's Lair still sends a visceral thrill through me every time I think of it.  It was obviously influenced by D&D, but at the same time, it has always been hugely influential on the way I've always seen the game.  What else is Dirk's mission if not a dungeon crawl?

If I have any misgivings about the game they aren't about the gameplay (which works just fine for what it is), but about the fact that Dragon's Lair could have been an epic animated fantasy movie instead of a passing fad of a video game.

Years later, when Disney released The Black Cauldron, I was hoping that it would capture the awesomeness of Dragon's Lair.  By this time, I actually knew who Don Bluth was and tried to watch all of his movies, but unfortunately, The Black Cauldron wasn't the movie I had been craving, and it wasn't a particularly successful movie for Disney either.

Nevertheless, Dragon's Lair still remains near and dear to my heart.  I still borrow ideas from it, and take inspiration from it for my own games.  I eventually got a copy on CD-Rom and finally beat it, and I was thrilled to actually be able to experience the whole thing from beginning to end.

I've included a link to the complete walkthrough so you can see the game in it's entirety.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.  There was a sequel to it a few years later but I never liked as well, and it is notoriously difficult to beat.  It is also made up of a single linear animated sequence, rather than the separate rooms of the original game, which always seemed more creative and fun to me.

There was also a Saturday morning cartoon based on the game, but I remember it being much less awesome than the game.  It did have an unusual gimmick where the cartoon would give two options that Dirk could take, and it was up to the viewer to decide the right option during the commercial break.  One option would always turn out bad, and one option would always turn out well, but it would show you the results of both choices, which was kind of neat.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Dungeonpunk vs Verisimilitude

The 3rd edition of the D&D game marked a great shift in the rules of the game, but it also introduced a controversial Dungeonpunk aesthetic to the game's artwork.

All of a sudden, over-sized weapons became commonplace, armor started getting heavier, spikier, and more asymmetrical, and gratuitous buckles and straps were EVERYWHERE.  All of a sudden elves had horribly mutated, uncanny-valley  faces with giant, horrifically slanted eyes and ears that stuck out 6 inches from their heads.  Halflings went from chubby little hobbits to toddler-sized humanoids with adult human proportions.  Dwarves went from short stocky humanoids to midget linebackers with enormous feet.  Even humans look more comic book-proportioned than realistic.

The artwork for 1st and 2nd ed AD&D, in contrast,  had a very realistic, naturalistic look.  Sure, the weapons and armor might have been a fancier than their historical counterparts, but in most cases, the equipment looked like it could really be used, and the people wearing it looked like they could actually be real people.  Even the demi-humans had a certain plausibility to their design.

For a lot of folks (myself included), this dramatic shift in the tone of the artwork made the 3rd edition feel very cheesy and unrealistic.  It felt more like the sort of thing you'd see in a video game or comic book, which undermined the verisimilitude of the imaginary worlds we were trying to create.

I'm not trying to be a grumpy old grognard for pointing this out, and it's not about being overly sensitive or picky.  Like it or not, the artwork sets the tone for the game, and it it changes how people see the game in their imaginations.

Realistic artwork helps support the fantastic elements, giving them a plausible framework to contrast against.  It's much easier to immerse yourself in a realistic gameworld.  On the other hand, if the artwork sets a cartoony vision for that game, the players have to work that much harder to suspend their disbelief in the fantasy world.

3rd edition also marked a massive power increase for player characters, making them much more like superheroes within their world, rather than very lucky and/or skilled normal people, and I think this ties in with the same comic book/video game influence that I alluded to earlier.

I dislike the "Medieval Superhero" theme because it sets the PCs apart from the normal folk of their world and makes the NPCs seem like a hopelessly inferior species.  I also think it's a lot more fun to work your way up from zero to hero rather than starting off as a certifiable badass.  3E and 4E have definately made it easier to advance which cheapens the experience, in my opinion.

But I digress.  I don't want to stray too far into the rules, because this is about the artwork.

While I consider the 3E artwork to be a step backwards, the 4E artwork is just flat-out terrible.  Everything that was bad about 3E artwork is multiplied tenfold in the 4E artwork.  The artwork now clearly reflects an MMO influence and any sense of subtlety and realism is completely gone.

Sadly, while much of the artwork is actually very good from a technical perspective, and the production values are obviously better, there are very few illustrations that really grab me the way that a lot of those old-school drawings did (despite the amateurish nature of the artwork).

Dave LaForce's flooded dungeon picture above (from pg 68 of the 1E DMG) is a great example of how a rather crude drawing can still pack an emotional wallop.

This adventurer has just found himself stuck in a water trap, and while he's trying to get out a skeleton is sneaking up behind him.  This picture preys on your primal fears (drowning, dark places, unseen enemies, a knife in the back) and hits you with a number of things all at once.

Notice too, that this doomed adventurer is wearing modest, realistic armor and equipment, and he's not built like Arnold Schwarzenegger... he's just some poor schmoe who's luck is probably about to run out.  It's easy to relate to this guy and imagine yourself in his place.

Ideally what I'd like to see is artwork that had the soul of the old-school artwork with the technical ability of the new-school artwork.  Too much of the new stuff just comes off as tasteless, trite, and derivative, while I end up finding myself drawn to the simple black and white artwork of the old-school for inspiration again and again.

I really do feel that the tone of the artwork is MUCH more important than WotC realizes, and that they're painting themselves in a corner with the current art direction.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Rescuing the Owlbear from mediocrity

The poor pitiful owlbear.

As a chimerical monster, the owlbear doesn't make much sense.  Bears are already scary, and there are no owl parts you can add that are going to make it scarier.  Given its goofy looks, it's arguably that it's less scary than a regular bear.

I also dislike the "created by an insane wizard" origin because it's pretty fucking lazy.  I've never liked chimerical creatures since they always felt a little ridiculous, and I've always felt that the owlbear is simple enough to have a mundane origin.

The Owlbear has unfortunately been stuck with lousy artwork from the beginning, and every new iteration seems to miss the point.  The first edition owlbear was arguably the worst; with its fat pudgy body, and feathered toupee it's hard to take it seriously.

Now to be fair, the owlbear was inspired by a Japanese toy that Gary Gygax came across, and if you look at the original picture, it certainly looks like something you'd see in a Godzilla movie.  I'm not sure if the original toy was that ugly, or if it was Dave Sutherland's art that failed, but either way, that design has haunted the creature for a long time.

Recently, Wizards of the Coast tried to revamp this creature. There are multiple drawings in the series, but this one is probably closest to the original design (which is not very close at all).

This new design looks pretty cool, but it's clearly an avian semi-biped with no bearish qualities whatsoever.  It also misses the point badly.  This thing looks like an owl-gorilla not an owl-bear.  It was the bearish qualities of the owlbear that made it scary in the first place.

But despite the fact that this thing looks cool, I still want something that has some bearish qualities, and at least a nod to the aesthetics of the original. While I might use this creature, I certainly couldn't bring myself to call it an owlbear (maybe an ogre-bird?).

It seems to me that it would be a very simple thing to have a creature that has a bearish body with a beaked head, which is pretty close to the original design.  But what made the original so goofy was the feathers.  And that's the one detail that almost all subsequent designs have shared.

So my version of the owlbear has no feathers.  Just a big beak and a bearlike body.  Instead of the "owl horns" that have become popular in the newer iterations, this creature has a smooth head with it's ears mounted close to the head which gives the head a vaguely birdlike silhouette.  It has large golden eyes that have excellent long range vision and good night vision.

It hunts primarily by sight, rather than scent and tends to favor territory that allows it to make the most of it's excellent eyesight, such as hilly plains and rocky badlands. It tends to avoid the forested and mountainous areas that normal bears dwell in.

My owlbear is not a magical creature at all, but simply a large mammal with some birdlike qualities, not unlike the platypus.  My campaign also has some other creatures with similar bird/mammal combinations to indicate a separate evolutionary branch of creatures that evolved from birds.

I like to have a lot of non-magical creatures in my game for the simple reason that the really unusual monsters become much more memorable when you've got a backdrop of realistic creatures.  Because the owlbear is such a basic "bread and butter" creature, he doesn't need to be magical or particularly special in any way.

Going back to my thoughts on verisimilitude, I believe that a mundane version of the owlbear is easier for players to swallow than a magical Frankenstein-hybrid creature.  What I'm aiming for is not strictly realism, but  plausibility.  A beaked bear-like creature could easily have evolved on this planet, and that doesn't require my players to stretch their belief that far.

This last picture is the closest thing I can find to what my vision of an owlbear looks like.  I particularly like the head and the fur on the front claws.  I'd prefer it without the feathers, and with a more ass-heavy design like a real bear, but otherwise it's perfect.  It's got a definite bearish quality, but the beak and shape of the head also resembles that of a predatory bird.  It's the feasrome beast that it always should have been.

I'm not entirely finished with my owlbear rules, it's sort of a work in progress, but I like what I've got so far and I'm interested to see where it goes.  Because I'm working on my campaign world at the same time, much of that will probably influence the final owlbear design.

The role of Verisimilitude in D&D - part 2

Verisimilitude in a campaign world helps the players immerse themselves into the game. If the DM can make a world that feels real, it stops being a simple tabletop game. It becomes a place where the players can leave their mundane lives behind for awhile, and experience the wonders of another world.

That, my friends, is the magic of the pencil & paper RPG.

On the other hand, a badly designed game world makes it harder for a person to suspend their disbelief.

This is one of the major reasons I dislike the 3rd and 4th editions of D&D.  The characters have undergone massive power-creep, everybody is playing some exotic demi-human race (drow, tiefling, warforged, dragonborn, etc), and everybody is wearing two inch thick spiky armor and slinging around oversized, overstyled weaponry that is so tacky and tasteless it would make Gil Hibben blush with shame.

Nowadays elves teleport naturally, and unwanted magic items can be ground down into magic dust and traded at the local corner magic shoppe for something better.  A character that's been pin-cushioned with arrows can take a 6 hour nap and wake up in full health.

It's ridiculous.

4th ed D&D feels so gamey and fake that it's hard to take it seriously.  I realize that it was purposely engineered to emulate MMOs (WoW in particular), but the mechanics and aesthetics that work successfully in a video game do not translate well to a traditional pencil and paper RPG.

It also doesn't help that the game's focus is on tactical boardgame-style miniatures combat.  In the old days, we didn't even use miniatures (except occasionally for party order).  All of the combat was completely imaginary, and that's a helluva lot more immersive than moving pieces around on a board.

This is not to say that I'm opposed to the use of miniatures. But I do feel that they should be an occasional aid to combat rather than the focus of it.

But I digress...

As much fun as it is to poke fun at 4e, that's not why I'm here.  But I do believe that 4e offers some insight into where things went wrong. As I mentioned above, the 3rd and 4th editions of the game have gotten much more outlandish, and this has adversely affected the verisimilitude of the game.

One of the cornerstones of my game design philosophy is that fantastical elements should be used sparingly.  I try not to use a fantastical element when I can achieve the same thing with a mundane one.

Take the giant spider for example:

Giant spiders are so common that players never bat an eye when they're encountered, even if the player is arachnophobic.  The only worry they have is whether or not they'll be poisoned. The player understand that giant spiders are just there to provide XPs and treasure, and as a result, they don't have any real fear of giant spiders.

So what I've done is to make small spiders scary.  Take the following example:

Skeef the thief: Okay I'm searching behind the bookcase...

DM: (rolls dice)  You feel something scuttle across your hand, and then a sharp sting.  Roll for poison.

Skeef: Sonofabitch! (rolls dice)  Whew, saved! What bit me?

DM: You see a small dark spider scurry into the crack between the bookcase and the wall.

Skeef: Little bastard!  So did I find anything in the bookcase?  Secret door, hidden panel, gemstone?

DM: No, but that bite is really starting to hurt.  You can actually feel it throb every time your heart beats.

Skeef: What the hell!  I saved, didn't I?

DM: (Shrugs noncomittally)

Eric the Cleric: Let me see that.  Does it look like any kind of bite that my character would be familiar with?  I have healing as a skill.

DM: It looks like a bug bite.  They all kind of look the same.

Blighter the Fighter: Hey, if you two are done making kissy face, can we take it to the next room?

Skeef: Okay, am I like, losing any hit points or anything like that?

DM: No.  It just hurts like hell.  But you probably won't be picking any locks or pockets any time soon.

Blighter: Alright we go into the next room. What do we see?

DM: You see all sorts of torture equipment; a rack, an iron maiden, branding irons... and a couple of rotting human corpses.  You see them pick themselves off the floor and they start walking toward you...


DM: Alright, guys, you've sent those corpses back to whatever hell they came from.

Bligher: Hell yes!  What do we get?

DM: Well the corpses are just wearing rags, so there's nothing worthwhile on them, but you can feel free to search the room.  Oh, and Skeef?  Your hand doesn't hurt so much anymore but you're starting to feel really nauseated.

Skeef: Whaaat?  I though I saved!

Eric: Is he gonna be alright?

DM: (Shrugs and pretends to look innocent)

Blighter: Alright, there's nothing we can really do about it right now anyway, so lets get this place searched.

DM: (after a few minutes of poking around): You find an old bundle of rags with an ornate dagger and a small bag of mixed coins.  There's also a bunch of torture equipment, but the only thing that particularly stands out is a pear of anguish with some gold inlays.

Skeef: Can I estimate it's value?

DM: Actually you're feeling pretty fucked right now.  The hand that was bitten is numb, and you feel like your almost completely drained of strength.  Right now the only thing you want to do is curl up in a corner and go to sleep.

Skeef: Wait... am I gonna die?

Eric: I though he made his poison save.

DM: Posion is a funny thing.  Sometimes there are modifiers... and sometimes even if you save, you're still kinda messed up.

Blighter: So we have no idea if he's going to be okay?

DM: Nope.

Skeef: Can we please find an antidote or something?  Cause this sucks.

Eric: Why don't we go back to town and get some help?  My church will cure him for a small donation.

Skeef: It took us three days to get here, remember?  I might die by then, or lose a hand or something!

Blighter: Is there anyplace else we can go that's closer?

DM: The village of Milkweed is close by, but it's tiny and doesn't have a church of its own, just a shrine to Hengus. Brother Lemple, the guy who runs it is even less of a priest than Eric. However, there is supposed to be a woods witch that lives in a cave on Red Bear Ridge.  It's a few miles from here.  You could probably find it in a few hours.

Eric: I really don't like the sound of that.  Witches are bad news.

Skeef: Hey, I'm the one that's dying here.  I vote for the wicked witch!

After an episode like this, your players will be paranoid of even small spiders.  Not every bug bite needs to be this bad (and it will become predictable if you do this too often), but the occasional serious bite will keep your players on their toes and give them a healthy respect for bugs.

When it's time to take things up a notch, you don't need to go all the way up to a 10 foot tall spider.  Let's imagine for a moment that Skeef is crawling though a small tunnel with nothing but a candle to light his way.  He comes to a bunch of spider webs and this time he pokes the candle at the webs to burn anything that might be hiding in them.  He's also wearing leather gloves to protect his hands.

He's making good headway, until he sees something in the darkness.  It's a spider... a BIG spider.  The body is the size of a rat, and the legs would spill over the edges of a dinner plate.  It pivots on the spot and turns to look at Skeef.  And then it jumps on his face...  and his candle goes out.

Now that's a memorable encounter!

It's a hell of a lot more interesting that simply using giant spiders as dungeon fodder.  By establishing that tiny spiders are lethal, I have made it possible for the players to relate to their characters in a way that would not be possible if I just threw a giant spider at them.

Something that big is too hard for the player to grasp and it pushes them out of their suspension of disbelief.  They know that giant spiders don't exist, and so it's safe to drop their emotional guard.  That giant spider could just as easily be a venomous Klumvark (a creature I just made up).  The creepiness of the giant spider is lost because it's just a normal monster.

The second spider in the tunnel is big, but not so big as to be unbelievable.  There are real-world spiders about that size, so the player cannot take refuge in the knowledge that this is a purely fantastic creature.  Thus, he is still subject to the natural human fear of spiders.

This is exacerbated by the fact Skeef is in a tight tunnel, and unable to defend himself properly.  If he was on his feet he might be able to kick it, or stomp it, but on his belly, in the dark he's at a serious disadvantage. All of this is something that Skeef's player can personally understand.  And because it is plausible, there's an emotional edge to his fear that would not otherwise be there.

So let us assume at this point that the party is sufficiently bug-o-phobic.  But they've managed to do pretty well for themselves, and the DM hasn't thrown anything truly scary at them for awhile, and they've gotten a little complacent.

Unfortunately, they keep running into these guys with webs tattooed on their bodies.  These guys are apparently part of a spider cult, trying to summon their horrifying god to this world.  Eventually the PCs find their temple hideout and lead an expedition to clean it out.

The cultists themselves are easily dealt with and the PCs but when they enter the inner sanctum they find that it is full of spider webs.  And when they look up, there's a 20 foot spider clinging to the ceiling.  Apparently the PCs were too late to stop the summoning, and the god-spider is now climbing down the wall to close off the exits...

Cue epic boss battle.

Now it's important note that the bigger spiders are treated as special encounters.  This is not something I would use on a regular basis, or else it would lose its impact.  The only spiders commonly encountered are small ones.

This goes back to what I said in the 1st article: When everything is special, nothing is special.  By treating these as unique encounters it gives them much more emotional punch than they would otherwise have.

The larger spiders are scary because they are unexpected and because there has already been some build-up to the encounter to raise the emotional tension.  But you lose that inherent creepiness of spiders if you use them too often (this is true of any creature that you want to use to cause fear in the players).

By using less special creatures overall, and by making the encounters that do feature them more memorable, you make the game feel more dramatic and believable.

The role of Verisimilitude in D&D - part 1

One of the things that I strive for in my game design is verisimilitude (or believability if you prefer).  I find that one of the biggest problems with the D&D game is that each iteration is less and less plausible than the one before it.

A lot of this is due to the nature of the game.  The creators took every myth, legend, and fantastical creature, and all of the fantasy novels and stories that had come along in the last few hundred years, and threw it all together into a big sloppy mess.

So a lot of the items in the DM's toolbox don't really work well together from the start.  The average D&D campaign is a crazy, mixed-up, nonsensical world where nothing really makes sense, and there's no rhyme or reason to how it's put together.

But while that works passably well for a casual game, it can undermine the believability of the game world.  Even worse, that aesthetic has crept into the fantasy literature of the past 30 years, which has in turn, continued to influence the game itself.  Thus the ever-escalating silliness of subsequent editions.

The problem with this is that when everything is special, nothing is special.  When every character is a super-badass, misunderstood, emo, dark-elf ninja dual-wielding twin vorpal katanas,with a full set of Ioun stones, elven chainmail, a portable hole, and a zillion gold pieces worth of loot it's harder to care about the game.  Gamers end up getting and jaded and the game becomes a never-ending pursuit for MORE POWER!!!

In the meantime, George Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (and the Game of Thrones TV show) has been an incredible success, despite the fact that there is little that's actually fantastical about it.  Yes, there's some magic, but there's not much of it.  There are dragons, but they haven't done much yet.  And yes, there are undead, but they also haven't done much yet either.

Hell, you could take all of the fantastical elements out and still have a great story, because it is the characters and their relationships that drive the narrative.

While Martin does use fantastical elements successfully, they are also used sparingly.  These elements influence the story, but they don't dominate it. They serve to spice things up, but they're not the whole show, in the same way that a good chef uses a few spices to change a boring meal to an extraordinary meal.

I believe that ASoIaF/Game of Thrones has been a success largely because people are tired of the hyper-fantasy fiction that is so prevalent these days.  It stands out in the crowd because it is so believable.  We can relate to those characters.  We can see our real world reflected back at us when we read those stories.

In comparison, RA Salvatore's Icewind Dale Trilogy feels hackneyed, amateurish, and cartoony. Salvatore continues to crank out Drizzt books, but it all feels tired and stale at this point.  Much like the D&D game that inspired it.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

Continued in Part 2

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

About this blog:

I've been a gamer all my life.

And Dungeons & Dragons was always my favorite game. Even when I wasn't playing it I was always thinking about it.

While I had been curious about the game for a long time, I didn't get a chance to play until a friend loaned me the old Basic D&D "Red Box" set (Mentzer).  My friends and I started playing, but I was always disappointed by the limited nature of the starter set, and I switched over to AD&D as soon as I found the books at the bookstore.

The 2nd edition had just been released and so I started accumulating all the necessary books (and a whole lot of unnecessary ones too!).  I was also keeping an eye out for any of the 1st edition books that might still be kicking around.

While I enjoyed the polish and depth of the second edition, I was pretty pissed about how the game had been censored by TSR in an effort to placate Christian fundamentalists that thought the game was a gateway to Satan worship and witchcraft.

Luckily, my 1st edition books still had all of the requisite demons, devils, harlot encounter tables, and bare-breasted monster chicks to fill in for the stuff that had been bowdlerised from the 2nd ed books.  Even from the beginning, I was kitbashing my own set of rules to play the game that I wanted to play.  All of this took place in jr high and high school.

After high school, I joined the army.  Right before I left, I had been introduced to this cool new card game, Magic The Gathering.  At the time, I just thought it was a really cool game, but I had no idea it would become such a smash hit.

During my time in the army, I rarely played D&D at all, but I ended up laying a lot of  MTG because you could carry a deck in your pocket.  A bunch of us would bring a deck when we went out of field training exercises, and we'd lay out a poncho liner and play a game out in the woods to keep ourselves entertained.

But even then, I'd noticed that MTG had pretty much replaced D&D for many people.  It didn't help that TSR seemed to lose their focus, and the final insult was when Wizards of the Coast bought them.

I had already begun to pull away from the game, but the introduction of 3rd edition D&D was just too much.  All of the things that I didn't like about the game suddenly seemed magnified.  So I stopped playing.

But I never stopped thinking about the game.  I'd always scribble notes down for future ideas and then squirrel them away for later.  A few months ago, one of my friends was talking about how she'd like to play a D&D game, and so I started dusting off my old notebooks, and organizing all the notes on my computer.

Somewhere along the line I discovered the Old-School Renaissance movement, and I realized that I'd been missing out on something major within the hobby.  It was exhilarating to see the energy and audacity of the old-school D&D.  Even better, all of this was happening outside of the official game... all of these people had just decided that they didn't need WotC's stamp of approval to play the game anymore!

Anyhow, all of this stuff encouraged me to make my own blog, where I could swap ideas with other folks as I continue working on my D&D campaign and my own set of house rules.  While this is mostly a D&D blog, I'll also be posting about board games, video games, miniatures games, and all of the other assorted geekery I dabble in.