Categories
D&D OD&D Old school Tabletop RPGs

OD&D’s implied setting

Via a private share on G+, I followed a link to OD&D Setting, a free PDF by Wayne Rossi of the excellent Semper Initiativus Unum blog. It’s excellent.

In 11 pages of logical observations, it pulls apart the components of OD&D‘s implied setting — the encounter tables, the Wilderness Survival map, etc. — and uses them to infer what that setting would actually look like. Wayne’s conclusion is a handy summary:

So this is the setting of original D&D: a frontier land, perhaps with a single state in its center, with wilderness populated by creatures of myth, legend and giant creature films. It is a world of Arthurian castles, knights templar, necromancers, dinosaurs and cavemen. It is wild, and it feels profoundly like the world someone who watched every cheesy science fiction movie about giant monsters and every classic horror film would make. This is bolted onto a world with openly Tolkienesque elements – elves, goblins, orcs, balrogs, ents, hobbits – and other entries that quickly became generic fantasy because they were in the D&D books. The result is far more gonzo and funhouse than people give D&D credit for, and I think it winds up being a good mix.

Here’s one of my favorite inferences, which was confirmed by Gary Gygax (as Wayne notes in the PDF):

But the real weirdness, and this was apparently confirmed in Gary Gygax’s campaigns, is what is there when you start wandering about the wilderness. Mountains are haunted by cavemen and necromancers; deserts are home of nomads and dervishes. The “Optional” animal listings turns swampland into the Mesozoic Era – rather than alligators and snakes it is full of tyrannosaurs and triceratops. Arid plains are Barsoomian, with banths, thoats, calots and the lot, while mountains are outright paleolithic, peopled by mammoths, titanotheres, mastodons, and sabre-tooth cats.

I love this kind of D&D. It’s rawlished, it’s wild, it’s weird, and — most importantly — it sounds like an absolute hoot to play. It also makes me sad that my OD&D boxed set and copy of Outdoor Survival are buried in our storage unit, more or less impossible to retrieve.

Even if you don’t play OD&D, or want to play in its implied setting, Wayne’s PDF is a fantastic read.

Categories
Old school Tabletop RPGs

“Rawlished”

I was noodling about zines and the “raw but polished” quality that attracts me to the ones I like best (most recently the DCC RPG zines Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad and Crawl!), and it occurred to me that the portmanteau “rawlished” might actually be useful.

It describes a lot of my favorite old school fantasy stuff, not just zines. Raw because it involves creativity unfettered by fucks, polished because it didn’t just get shat out with no concern for quality.

I also like that it’s a near-homophone for relished, which is quite appropriate.

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

Alchemy, agency, and surprises

I was struggling to articulate my play style preferences last night, during a session debrief, and I kept thinking, “Didn’t I write about this on G+ like a year ago? I wish I could find that — and all those great posts that helped me figure out what I wanted in gaming, too!” What I was trying to find took some digging, G+ searching not — ironically — being all that robust, so I decided to collect it all here for easy reference.

Putting it all together turned out to be a useful exercise in its own right, too. I reread some of the posts mentioned below, many of them quite long, and tried to distill my thoughts into points that could be expressed succinctly.

Play style preferences

Here are the results of that unpacking and distillation, the core of what I want out of gaming:

  • Plot is what happens at the table. If the GM preps a bunch of stuff that will happen, and the PCs are supposed to follow along, I’m out. I played and GMed that way for years, and I’m not willing to play or GM that way anymore. I make an exception for small doses of plot — convention one-shots, a session or two to try out a system, that sort of thing.
  • No prep, or at least very little. I figured out that I don’t enjoy prep back in 2005, and that hasn’t changed. I’ll read a book (the shorter the better), and I’ll putter at some stuff before the first session if it’s useful for the whole campaign, but that’s about it. On the flipside, if I’m a player and the GM has done a lot of prep (excluding things like making a sandbox or prepping situations), that’s a pretty good indicator that the game might not be for me.
  • Roughly equal distribution of surprise. Whether I’m GMing or playing, I want to come to the table and be as surprised as everyone else by what happens. In my experience, the more prep there is, the more likely it is that the GM will steer the game to employ that prep and the players will feel pressure to follow along because they feel bad about all the work the GM has done. If the GM doesn’t have to do any work away from the table, those problems vanish.
  • Player agency and emergent play. The only plot that interests me is the one that emerges from play, based on meaningful player choices with meaningful consequences. The more player agency in a game, the better.
  • No railroading and no fudging. This might be redundant, but it’s worth calling out. If my choices as a player are being negated, or, as a GM, if I feel compelled to negate a player’s choices, we’re doing it wrong.
  • Alchemy. The magic of gaming, the thing I can’t get from a video game (as compared to a tight, scripted experience, which video games generally do much better than tabletop RPGs), is the alchemy the comes from meaningful player choices, random die rolls, and playing to find out what happens.

My thinking on these topics, and on play style in general, has been heavily informed by these excellent pieces of writing:

The Czege Principle

Paul Czege has a principle named after him, although the references to it that I found (one, two) are both followed by Paul saying that the Czege Principle isn’t the Czege Principle. In any case, the principle is both splendid and concise:

when one person is the author of both the character’s adversity and its resolution, play isn’t fun

Lots of awesome stuff flows from understanding this principle and applying it to games, and it neatly encapsulates a lot of what I wrote up top — no railroading, no fudging, emergent play, and more.

Brain damage

This excellent summary of “the brain damage posts” hit my radar about a year ago, and it changed the way I think about gaming — and about Ron Edwards. I might have chosen a different term than “brain damage,” but Ron’s observations are spot-on.

That summary thread, which includes links and nested threads, offers up a huge amount of content to digest. But it’s worth reading all of it, especially if your only prior contact with it is hearing that “Ron Edwards says gamers have brain damage.”

Here’s one bit that stands out for me:

To engage in a social, creative activity, three things are absolutely required. Think of music, theater, quilting, whatever you’d like. These principles also apply to competitive games and sports, but that is not to the present point.

1. You have to trust that the procedures work – look, these instruments make different noises, so we can make music; look, this ball is bouncey, so we can toss and dribble it

2. You have to want to do it, now, here, with these people – important! (a) as opposed to other activities, (b) as opposed to “with anybody who’ll let me”

3. You have to try it out, to reflect meaningfully on the results, and to try again – if it’s worth doing, it’s worth learning to do better; failure is not disaster, improvement is a virtue

I refer back to these principles often, and they help me look critically at whether I’m doing the kind of gaming I actually want to be doing, rather than making excuses for why unsatisfying gaming is okay.

Railroading and not prepping plots

Taken together, these seven posts by The Alexandrian comprise one of the biggest influences on why I want what I want out of gaming. Here they are in order:

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from these posts.

From Part 1, a clear and useful definition of railroading:

Railroads happen when the GM negates a player’s choice in order to enforce a preconceived outcome.

Note, however, that both parts of this equation are important: The choice must be negated and the reason it’s being negated is because the GM is trying to create a specific outcome. The players must try to get off the train and the GM has to lock the doors.

From Part 2, why railroading gargles dicks and makes GMing feel like work:

When a GM predetermines what’s going to happen in the game, they become solely responsible for the entire experience. And that’s a ridiculously heavy burden to bear. Are your encounters balanced? Did you include enough “cool stuff” for every player to participate in? Did you incorporate enough elements from each PC’s back story? The list goes on and on.

This is how you end up with GMs stringing together precariously balanced My Precious Encounters™ in a desperate juggling act as they try to keep all of their players happy.

When you allow the players to make their own decisions, all of the pressure and responsibility melts away: They’ll choose the fights they can win. They’ll approach situations in ways that let them do cool stuff. If there’s not enough stuff from their back story seeking them out, then they’ll go looking for it.

From Part 3, about playing to see what happens:

What tabletop RPGs have going for them is the alchemy of player agency. Of presenting a situation and seeing what happens when a unique set of players make a unique set of decisions and produce a unique set of outcomes. When you railroad your players, you specifically set yourself at odds with the very thing that makes playing an RPG worthwhile in the first place.

And, lastly, one from Don’t Prep Plots:

For me, the entire reason to play a roleplaying game is to see what happens when the players make meaningful choices. In my experience, the result is almost always different than anything I could have anticipated or planned for.

If I wanted to tell my players a story (which is what plot-based design really boils down to), then it’s far more efficient and effective to simply write a story. In my opinion, if you’re playing a roleplaying game then you should play to the strengths of the medium: The magical creativity which only happens when people get together.

The whole series of posts is fantastic. They’re long, but not long-winded — rather, they’re packed with examples, special cases, and dissections of common arguments in favor of railroading.

Fudging, emergent play, and systems

I often feel like Bryan R. Shipp of Room 209 Gaming is living inside my brain. He has a knack for putting things succinctly, well, and in such a way that I can feel the gears in my brain clicking into a new configuration as I read them.

Fudging can die in a fucking fire. Here’s a handy summary of exactly why, from Fudging is Bad Form:

Even in situations where the GM only fudges “once in a while,” or fudges only to the players’ benefit, the fact remains that the GM, once fudging is introduced, could fudge at any time. The inevitable result of this is that all rolls are irrelevant because they can be overruled by GM fiat.

Deciding to stop fudging has been one of the best gaming-related decisions I’ve ever made. Few things make me less happy at the gaming table, as a player or the GM, than fudging.

Here’s Bryan at his succinct best, from Emergent Play is the Only Way:

When you’re playing a game, you shouldn’t know how it’s going to end. No one should. That’s the benefit of gaming over watching TV or reading a book – your participation means you can affect change.

Lastly, here’s a quote from Game Systems That Get Out Of The Way:

If you’re looking for a game system that gets out of the way when you want it to, you’re looking for the wrong kind of game. You’re looking for D&D without the specific fiddly bits you don’t like. But I have a different proposition: look for a game system that doesn’t get out of the way when you want it to. Look for a game system that, instead, reinforces what you’re trying to do.

For me, wanting to ignore a portion of a game’s rules — or seeing a GM ignoring rules — is a canary in the coal mine, a signal that I’m probably playing the wrong game.

To choose just one example, a few years ago I GMed a long-running game where I removed possibility of PC death because it fit the genre (without telling my players, because I assumed the illusion of danger was important). As well-intentioned as that choice was, in hindsight it meant that much of the system didn’t actually matter, and the parts that did matter were working less efficiently in support of the group’s play than would a system designed to do what we wanted in the first place.

Looking back on a lifetime of gaming, my tastes have changed over the years. I’m sure they’ll change again, but for now this is a good snapshot of where my head has been at for the past year or two, and where it’s at now.

Categories
Board games Tabletop RPGs

My 51 in 15

Back in January, Epidiah Ravachol issued a fun challenge: Play 51 games in 2015. I paid attention to folks’ posts about it throughout the year, but figured I didn’t have a shot at hitting 51 — it was a busy year. To my embarrassment, I also spent nearly the entire year thinking the challenge was 51 games new to me in 2015, which sounded very unlikely indeed.

But taking stock here in late December (edit: updated through the end of the month), I made it to 80 games in 2015, of which 12 RPGs and 22 board games were new to me. Across my 19 RPGs, I logged 46 gaming sessions. For board games, it was 184 plays across 60 games.

In 2014, I played 12 RPGs and 58 board games, for a total of 70 games. I love trying out new RPGs, so I’m glad to see that total up 63% this year. 2015 was also the year I played my 100th RPG, which would put my 200th something like 5-6 years out, in 2021-2022.

Just typing those dates makes me feel old! Somehow, I’ve lived to see The Future.

RPGs

  1. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition
  2. Apocalypse World
  3. Barbarians of Lemuria
  4. DCC RPG
  5. Dragon Age
  6. Executioner
  7. Fear Itself
  8. Honor + Intrigue
  9. Microscope
  10. Mini Six
  11. Psi Run
  12. Savage Worlds
  13. Star Wars: Age of Rebellion
  14. The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game
  15. The Final Girl
  16. The Plant
  17. The Quiet Year
  18. The Thief
  19. tremulus

Board Games

  1. Animal Upon Animal
  2. Bausack
  3. Biblios
  4. Candy Land
  5. Click Clack Lumberjack
  6. Concept
  7. Connect Four
  8. Cosmic Encounter
  9. Disney Dazzling Princess
  10. Don’t Break the Ice
  11. Don’t Spill the Beans
  12. The Duke
  13. Duplik
  14. Elefun
  15. Enchanted Cupcake Party Game
  16. Escape: The Curse of the Temple
  17. Fibber
  18. Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed
  19. Funemployed!
  20. Go Away Monster!
  21. Go Fish
  22. Hamsterrolle
  23. Hedbanz: Identity Crisis Game
  24. Hold On Scooby-Doo
  25. Hollywood Game Night Party Game
  26. Hungry Hungry Hippos
  27. Kingdom Builder
  28. Labyrinth
  29. Last Will
  30. Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game
  31. Let’s Go Fishin’
  32. Longhorn
  33. Loopin’ Louie
  34. Love Letter
  35. Memory
  36. Mermaid Island
  37. Monopoly Junior
  38. Old Maid
  39. Pandemic: The Cure
  40. Patchwork
  41. Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords
  42. Quiddler
  43. RARRR!!
  44. Red7
  45. Rhino Hero
  46. Richard Scarry’s Busytown: Eye found it! Game
  47. Risk Legacy
  48. Scrabble Junior
  49. Seasons
  50. Slamwich
  51. Sorry! Sliders
  52. Splendor
  53. Spot it!
  54. Superfight
  55. Sushi Go!
  56. Temporum
  57. The Castles of Burgundy
  58. The Magic Path of Yoga
  59. The Sneaky Snacky Squirrel Game
  60. Tsuro
  61. XCOM: The Board Game
Categories
Life

Driving the War Rig from Utah to Seattle

Below, the War Rig. Witness me as I get single-digit gas mileage all the way to Valhalla Seattle.

Day one of two:

Miles driven: 597
Caffeine consumed: 1 large coffee, 6 Red Bulls
States crossed: 3
Percentage of me that feels like roadkill: 73
Current location: Hermiston, OR

Utah

Some guy cut off my War Rig at 65 with less than a car length between us. His GVW: 3,000 pounds. Mine: about 16,000 pounds. This is Utah driving. I’ll miss a lot of things about Utah, especially my friends and the state’s mountains, but I won’t miss its drivers.

Idaho

The flat parts were very convenient for making good time. Lots of very pretty mesas. Very specific definitions of “truck,” spelled out on road signs, allowed me to go 10 mph faster than actual trucks. Highlight: gassing up at Stinkers Fuel Stop, which was next to T-Bone’s Guns & Sandwiches.

Oregon

America’s bossiest road signs, with a frequency of about 1 per 25 feet. Fantastic landscape. I mocked the first stretch of 6% grade — bush league compared to the many miles of 12% grade I’ve driven in Utah — but not the second. In the rain, at night, with tractor trailers comparing dick length by competing for Most Reckless Behavior, in a giant Uhaul, after 12 hours on the road, 6% grade ceases to be bush league.

Categories
Books

The Dark Forest

I finished Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest (paid link) today, and it blew me away.

I wasn’t sure he could follow The Three-Body Problem (paid link),and the first 80% of the book was a solid four stars — I thought that was about the best I could hope for, given how amazing and surprising and wonderdul TTBP was.

That last 20% was a complete surprise, a nuclear fireball of pure jaw-hanging-open whoa that kept me reading in the bath for much longer than I’d planned. I couldn’t stop until I’d finished it.

It’s different than the first book, especially in its structure. More straightforward, with less of an undercurrent. But so good. I can’t wait for the final volume, but I’ll have to as it’s not out in translation until April 2016.

Categories
Life

163 flights of stairs

What’s that, Empire State Building? I can’t hear you from the top of the Burj Khalifa.

Today I hauled 135 boxes up from the basement to the ground floor and staged them for our upcoming move. Then I jogged up and down the stairs a few extra times to hit 163 floors for the day.

Categories
Books

Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem (paid link) was amazing.

The hook is great. The story it promises puts a twist on a premise I’ve seen before, but it’s solid.

But underneath that story, unfolding throughout the book, is a story that went nowhere I expected it to, in the best way possible.

Reading it reminded me of watching The Wire (paid link). I came for an excellent cop show, but every season I got so much more. The Wire peels back layers as it goes, and The Three-Body Problem is like a delicious motherfucking layer cake of wonders.

Its Hugo is well-deserved.

Categories
Books

The Shepherd’s Crown

Terry Pratchett’s final Discworld book, The Shepherd’s Crown (paid link), came in the mail today, a bittersweet arrival to say the least.

I almost never buy fiction in print anymore, but I’ve got every Discworld book in print; it felt right that I should read this one in print as well.

Categories
Bleakstone Old school Tabletop RPGs

Bleakstone artwork by Steve Zieser

I commissioned some artwork for Bleakstone from one of my favorite old-school artists, Steve Zieser. Steve brought Bleakstone’s dominant intelligent species — humans, skurliths, uzbardim, null slimes, and gharrudaemons — to life, and I couldn’t be happier with how they turned out. (Thanks, Steve!)

If you’d like to read more about any of these species, check out the anchor post for the Bleakstone campaign setting.

December 21, 2015 update: I’ve just learned that Steve Zieser​ has died after a long battle with cancer.

I had the privilege of working with him just once, on this project, but had chatted with him several times since then. He was a great guy, warm and funny and generous — not to mention a fantastic old school artist.

You’ll be missed, Steve.

Humans

Skurliths

Uzbardim

Null Slimes

Gharrudaemons

What’s next for Bleakstone?

With Focal Point in wide release, I’m slowly turning my attention to other projects. I’ve been poking at Bleakstone for the past year, since I first posted about it here, and my plan is to invest additional time and money into the setting to get it ready for publication.

I love Bleakstone. It fires my imagination, and I want to see it in print. I’ve got specific ideas about how a setting like this should be published, and I’m looking at the best ways to implement them.

With an impending move to Seattle, the next couple months are going to be pretty patchy in terms of project time, but Bleakstone will continue to progress, slowly, in the background.