Wednesday, June 25, 2008

In which I admit that I might not be an entirely analog gamer...

Nah, screw it, I still am.

When it comes to the important things, that is. Roleplaying games are played at a table, with your friends. Computers are tools; they will never replace the active imagination of a gamemaster. Period.

But, on the other hand, last night we picked up a Nintendo Wii.

Oh, my gawd!

There was one incident, in a tank game, which neither of us had yet played. The screen said there was one enemy tank. I traversed my turret and fired, bang!

And blew away my sweetie's tank.

She, meanwhile, was trying to understand what was supposed to happen. She hadn't even moved yet.

I didn't get a score, so I looked more closely at the screen -- and then, I finally saw the enemy tank I was supposed to shoot.


We laughed ourselves hoarse at that one. Seriously, it was nearly worth the price of the silly machine all by itself.

So yeah, for roleplaying, I'm still seriously analog. But for other things, I can see a point to digital...

Thursday, June 19, 2008

In which I make what feeble contribution I can

I gotta admit: I'm a huge fan of the new fan-produced, old-school magazine Fight On! Loved the idea back when it was just an idea, loved the first issue, love the discussion surrounding the second issue.

For the first issue, I did an illustration. Not a good one, but one that was requested (albeit based one an earlier title for such a venture). (If you're curious and want to play along at home, it's on page 29.)

And then, issue two rolled around.

And I really wanted to contribute.

And -- I had nothing.

I was hoping for an article, or a game variant, or a scenario, or whatever. Anything but art. I'm not really an artist; I don't even play one on tv.

So, what did I finally come up with? A comic strip.

I gotta admit, I'm a huge fan of the old Finieous Fingers strip that ran in the early days of The Dragon. Let's take a stereotypical thief and see what happens with him in a typical D&D world. And a legend was born.

Now, I'm not gonna swipe such greatness; I couldn't do it justice. But I will allow myself to be inspired.

My character is a beginning Magic-User. You know, the old, traditional, one-spell-and-then-he-has-to-go-for-a-little-lie-down sort of Mage. I submitted my first strip today, and Calithena (the editor, or coordinator, or whatever) said they could use it.

So, yay! I'm gonna be a published cartoonist! Maybe someday, I'll be able to collect all the strips in a book like the Finieous Treasury (which was one of my best eBay purchases ever...)

Or, y'know, not. We'll see.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Back to Reality

Okay, enough of this 4.0 nonsense.

I'm seriously looking at doing the Worldwide Adventure Writing Month this year. I've done NaNoWriMo for the past 4 years, so it's about time.

And, I have a confession to make: I've never written an adventure in my life.

Sure, I've run games. Many times. Occasionally, I'd use a published module. Or I'd design a "dungeon". Many many times, while running Champions, I'd just throw a villain or two out there and let the heroes beat the hell out of him.

But I never actually sat down and wrote out an adventure, something that someone else could use. And I think it's about time.

And, if I get it done fast enough, I can enter it into the Summer Adventure Contest that Fight On! and Otherworld Miniatures are sponsoring.

So, anyway, we'll see how that goes.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Worldwide Dungeons & Dragons Game Day II

In which I sucessfully make my saving throw vs. 4th edition.

Played the scenario; I was a cleric. Why, oh why, do they have to put a riddle as the first encounter? I was barely awake when I got there, so it wasn't easy.

And from then on it was all combat. There's stuff for every character to do, even the Wizard, but there's almost too much to do. And this was for first level characters.

Anyway, I didn't end up buying the 4th ed player's handbook. I really couldn't justify it; I don't think I'll ever actually play.

But I did get to see Dave Arneson, and he signed my First Fantasy Campaign, so that was pretty darn cool. And there was one of his original players there, Pete somebody (I knew I should have written that down...) He was a blast to talk to. Can't remember anything he said, but it was seriously groovy.

Anyway, that's about all for now.

Abstractions II

I've been thinking more about abstractions since my last post.

Back in the 80's, it seems like everything had to be nailed down. Also, it seemed like every one of us (I know there were exceptions; there always are, but most of us) wanted things nailed down.

Case in point: My highest level character back then was a Hobbit Master Thief. I know, I'm not supposed to call them Hobbits. Bull. TSR was not supposed to call them Hobbits; we did. Because they were. And because the Professor's heirs weren't part of our game, and we weren't causing him any loss of income (if anything, just the opposite).

Well, he built an estate. I took my graph paper and my pencil and planned it all out, with pantries, treasure stores, secret exits, the works.

Never used it.

But I had fun, making it. And this, I think, is the key: If you have fun making something, go ahead and make it (except a mess, of course...) But if you don't have fun, don't let some set of rules force you into something you don't want.

3.5 has a massive stat block for each NPC, monster, critter, etc. It drives me crazy. There's way too much information here, especially for an NPC. All I really need to know about this guy is his name and his attitude, and I can fake the name if need be.

Back in the day, we played lots of Traveller. Now, one of the "games" in Traveller was the starship building 'game'. It was lots of fun; you decided what you wanted a ship for, then build it by selecting a hull and cramming components into it. Afterward, you could easily tell the capabilities of the ship: If it was on the sheet, it could do it, and as well as rated. It was all there.

But nobody really needs that. A lot of people want it, and I used to be one of them. But I never needed it.

I learned that from the Space Fantasy supplement to Big Eyes, Small Mouth. Up until that point, spaceships simply were those things you had to detail in specific terms, period. But S.F. said essentially that "hey, if it's a mecha, fine; detail it. But if it's a set, then it's just a set and you can handwave the rest."

This was immensely liberating for a recovering rules-lawyer like myself. I started to question other methods of doing things, like having an entire world laid out before starting a campaign. I no longer believe that's necessary. It might make the campaign seem a bit less "real" when starting out, but beginning characters don't care about such stuff anyway, in my experience. Besides, when a player brings me a character concept that needs a specific type of place for its origin, I can just arbitrarily say "Sure! I have such a place; it's 200 miles to the west northwest."

They'll never know the difference anyway.

Anyway, that's what's been in my head this morning.

I'm heading off to Worldwide D&D Game Day in a minute. Hope things go well! See ya later.

Friday, June 6, 2008


James Maliszewski has a post over at his Grognardia blog about D&D's abstract combat.

I've already commented upon it, but I'd like to take the concept of abstraction in RPG design a bit further here.

One element of OD&D and AD&D that I frequently see taken out by well-meaning DMs is the aspect of Experience Points for treasure. Gary Gygax once defended this practice by saying that the loot is what the characters are going there for in the first place; it fits to use that as a measure of the experience derived.

(Okay, I'm seriously paraphrasing here; I don't have the exact quote handy at the moment.)

I have to say that I agree.

Others don't; the common refrain is "Big deal, so you picked up a huge ruby worth 5000 gp. How exactly does that make you a better fighter?"

Directly speaking, it doesn't. But I have a counter-question:

So, Mr. first level magic-user, you've already used your one spell today and now you're sticking your dagger in an orc's back. How exactly does this make you a better spellcaster? Or mister cleric, bashing in a kobold's skull; how exactly does this make you better able to turn undead?

The answer in all of these cases is: It doesn't. It's simply a useful referent. You defeat certain challenges, you gain the rewards of experience.

This has been taken way too far in 3.x. The only XP you get is for defeating (i.e.; killing) monsters; treasure "is it's own reward". That's all well and good, if you want to end up with a bunch of psychopathic killing machines instead of characters.*

If you can get 100,000 gp worth of treasure from, say, a dragon, by means of trickery, stealth, and damn good roleplaying, I say it should be worth the XP. You're actually using the skills and such you've learned dungeon crawling for the purpose every adventurer holds most dear: Wealth! Plus, think of the story you'll have to tell!

On the other hand, if you just run in there and kill the dragon (and an experienced group of murderous thugs can usually do this in a couple of rounds, max, at least in AD&D...), it shouldn't be worth anywhere near as much. It certainly won't be as valued, nor make for such good story fodder.

It really depends on what you want to reward your players for.

Now that I think about it, I'm almost tempted to give an option to any future players I might have. You can decide, as a group, whether you want to get experience for:

a) Treasure gained, or

b) Monsters slain.

Option a will not only lead to faster advancement, it will show the players that they can have a good time, develop their characters, and not have to kill everything in sight.

Option b will be the status quo, slow advancement, players killing everything around (including, when they really need those extra few points, each other...) and a bloodthirsty, boring game.

Do we really want that? 'Cause I don't.

Anyway, there; I said it. Let the flamewar commence.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

* And there's something fishy about advancement in 3.5, anyway. I've never run the game, so I didn't know this until recently: The DMG warns against more than 3 encounters per day, because that's when characters start to die.

Okay, now, the established goal is 13.3 appropriate encounters per level. So, follow along here:

We go out Monday and have three encounters. Same Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Friday, during our first encounter, we all level up. Ding! We continue on for two more encounters. Saturday there are three more; we rest on Sunday.

Monday, 3 encounters, same Tuesday, same Wednesday, but we level up around midday.

It's been a week and a half and the party is now 3rd level. Another week and a half and they'll be fifth.

Three weeks to fifth level? That makes 12 weeks (3 months!) to 21st (which, as you'll recall, is Epic Level).

Am I the only one who thinks this is whacked?

Worldwide D&D Game Day

Worldwide D&D Game Day is tomorrow. I'll be going to The Source, my friendly if not-so-local game store to participate.

They'll be releasing 4th edition, so I'll be able to check it out. I predict that I'll buy a Player's Handbook, just to have one. (I've already determined that I won't want to run the game.)

If I think 4e totally blows, you can expect a massive rant about it sometime this weekend. If I don't I'll probably mention it briefly on Monday.

I'm also planning to bring my three little books along, so I can run a dungeon in case they need more DMs. I didn't plan this in advance with the store or anything; I should have. But you never know.

But mostly, I'm kind of excited about seeing Dave Arneson again. He's the guy who started it all. He was there last year (October, 2007) and I had him sign my Blackmoor and Dungeonmaster's Index. I couldn't think of a single damn question to ask him (and I felt like a fool...) This year, I have his First Fantasy Campaign, so that's next on the autograph list. I'm also putting out a general call for any questions any of you might have for him. Let me know (by tonight, please; I can't guarantee I'll look at this in the morning).

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Oh, yeah, and the other thing I wanted to mention but didn't:

I love the fact that Tunnels & Trolls has solo adventures. I picked up four of them from DriveThru, and I can't wait to play them!

Never Trust your Friends

Back in my formative years in the RPG hobby, my group was compose of old-timers (who had started with those weird little brown booklets...) and kids. The kids were called munchkins (or, more commonly, munchies) and were given no respect until they had earned it. They did so by playing their character well and not ticking off the old-timers at the table.

I was 20 or 21 or so when I joined the group, and still had my crew cut from when I'd tried to join the National Guard (but they wouldn't take me; too nearsighted). So I didn't look like a kid. In the world of D&D, remember, I was a babe in the woods. But they gave me the benefit of the doubt, so I was accepted as an adult. (It helped that I could sit still, pay attention, and not interrupt...)

Now, these old-timers knew way much more about everything to do with roleplaying than I did; although I owned a few games* I had never actually played any of them. So I took what they said as gospel.

They didn't use the Arduin Grimoire; that was some way-out stuff. So I didn't even bother looking at it.

And they wouldn't play Tunnels & Trolls; it was "just a cheap knockoff of D&D". So I didn't even look at that.

Well, recently I've gotten volumes II and III of Arduin, and there's some interesting stuff. I can see why they wouldn't use it: There was a belief that if something was out there, you had to use it. If you allowed even one class from Arduin in your game, you would have to accept everybody else, with whatever outrageous twit character** they came up with. (I don't know why this was, mind you; nor was it ever explicitly stated. But the rules lawyers were all over the place...)

So I missed out on the gonzo whackiness of Arduin, and also the simplicity and ease of Tunnels & Trolls.

So I'm kinda retroactively pissed.

I got the Tunnels & Trolls boxed set of 5th edition (actually, 5.5). And I love it.

Sure, it isn't as complex as AD&D, or even D&D. But to me, that's a good thing. Throughout the book, designer Ken St. Andre keeps reminding you that you are the GM, and that you get to come up with whatever you want. Oh, and to have fun!

This was not the attitude I noticed in the D&D books. (I mean, we did have fun; it's just that we weren't specifically reminded to do so.) It's handy to have that in there for when you're digging through the rules late at night, wondering why on earth you're putting yourself through all this stuff.

Because it's fun. And because, through your efforts, others (your players) can have fun also.

[People have accused me of not growing up. Well, if growing up means not having fun anymore, than I don't wanna.]

Anyway, I'm going through a real retro renaissance here. OD&D is just the tip of the iceberg for me. I've also recently gotten Metamorphosis Alpha 1e (pdf, alas), Gamma World 1e, Champions 1e (I started on 2e...) and the original three Traveller books (I had the revised ones.)

And I'm loving it.

I want to create scenarios for each of these games, and just travel around to game stores and conventions with my big bad bag of old school goodness, ready to run a game at the drop of a hat. I'm not sure if that's feasible, but I can dream, can't I?

Anyway, to get back to the subject of this post: Never trust your friends. That is, when you can check it out for yourself. (Though there are some things you can trust your friends on; I wish I'd listened to them when a certain female came along...)

_ _ _ _ _ _
* Specifically: The Fantasy Trip, Top Secret, Traveller, and the Basic and Expert D&D Rulebooks (Moldvay/Cook editions)

** That group's particular terminology for a game breaker, something that shouldn't be allowed or was too overpowered. A 15th level Wizard in a 3rd level game, for instance. Or any Wizard that was proficient with and carried a vorpal sword. That sort of thing.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Some of my cantankerous old-fart views on RPGing

This may be a bit rambly, since I'm trying to organize my thoughts here (and trying to get it done on my lunch break...), so bear with me.

D&D 4th edition is about to be released.

The fact that this has people up in arms puzzles me a bit.

Sure, there are things I don't like about 3.x; there are always things I don't like. There will undoubtedly be things I don't like about 4.0, too. You wanna know a secret? There are things I don't like about AD&D, also.

I don't run AD&D.

I have the boxed set of Castles & Crusades (the "collector's edition" -- a typo-ridden mess that harks back to OD&D, but not in a good way), and it looks entirely playable. I may run that some day.

But I won't run the full C&C.

Nor will I run 4.0.

All of this is for the same reason: I don't wanna get bogged down in extra stuff.

I'm clairvoyant, you see; I can see the future. Here's how it would go:

I sit down and write up an AD&D (or C&C) adventure for 4-6 players, expecting the four basic classes to be well represented.

I sit down to run said adventure, and find myself looking at two Illusionists, a Ranger, and Assassin, and a Druid.

And, probably, a Monk.

And I don't want that. I don't want any of that.

* Illusionists, in my opinion, are the bad guys. They mess with Conan's head, until he kills them (or precipitates someone else killing them).

* The Ranger is a loner/archer sort, we've all seen them. Refuses to get into melee whatsoever, and prefers to go off on his own. Will not speak to the others in the party.

* Assassin: Again, the bad guy. And not to speak ill of the dead, but Gygax gives two completely different readings of the Assassination Table in the DMG. One, my preferred reading, is this: If you don't want to role-play sending an NPC assassin off on a job, you can use this table to see if he'd successful or not. The other, which all the PC Assassins lean toward, is "Hey, I can use this table instead of the whole combat system and get automatic kills in the dungeon!" Either way, I don't want it.

* The Druid would probably be okay, but Druids these days are a lot like militant Vegans (not all Vegans, mind you; I'm specifically referring to the militant ones...). Go ahead and kill a fellow human, or elf, or goblin or whatever; that's fine. But if you needlessly step on a blade of grass and crush it, I'll roast you over a slow and entirely magical fire (because fallen logs should be just left to rot and not burned at all in any way...) Sorry, Druids, but I don't buy that.

* The Monk gets a pass in OD&D, but not in AD&D. Gygax was specific that these were different games, and it shows. AD&D has a specifically quasi-Medieval Europe tone to it. Monks don't belong in this environment (except the cloistered version that breeds peas and copies manuscripts). In OD&D, particularly Blackmoor, Monks were some of the least of the oddities involved, and the game was better because of it.

So, I looked at running 3.x. Then I looked at running AD&D. (I skipped over 2E entirely). I went so far as to decide to only run S. John Ross's wonderful rpg-lite Risus. But there's something about D&D that keeps me coming back.

I picked up copies of Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert rules in my friendly local used book store (and for less than I paid for the originals, back in 1981). But even that had things I didn't like.

Bottom line, America: The more I pared away, the closer I came to OD&D. And that's part of why I'm an old-school-game gamer. I like a bunch of really old games, like OD&D, Top Secret, Traveller, Tunnels & Trolls, and the early editions of Champions. Partly because of their simplicity (as ranted about above), but also because of their attitude.

"Take me," they say, "you and I can have lots of fun together!"

Whereas a lot of the new games these days are different:

"Study me!" they bellow. "I'm friggin' homework!" (Remind me sometime to tell you how and why a setting like the original folio of Greyhawk was perfect but how today's settings are evil...)

I'm also an Old School gamer. I believe the game belongs to the GM, and the players had better realize it. He who quotes and/or argues rules at me had better learn to duck. Dave Arneson had the right of it: "If I change a rule that makes it official." I'm not here to pander to their basest tastes, to their predilection for weird subclasses.

I'm here to test them in the fires of the dungeon, and see what comes out: True forged steel, or mere wisps of smoke.

And no matter what rule set you're using, that's the old school way.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Initial post

Okay, to be fair: I don't drink as much coffee as I used to. But I still drink some.

It's just that Coffee is my screen name on a couple of sites, mainly the Original D&D Discussion.

But back in the day...

When I started regularly playing D&D, back in '83 (it was actually AD&D, but we just called it D&D), we didn't do much of that "character development" or "deep immersion" stuff at the table. The table was for putting out the lead (and even occasionally moving it; it was mostly there to mark the marching order) and rolling the dice. We'd fight and explore and fight and suchlike for several hours. And then we'd pack up our goodies and turn out the lights.

And then, we'd go out for coffee.

This is where the real role-playing occurred. We'd have entire conversations in character. We'd also discuss what happened that evening, what could have gone better, what we did or didn't like. This could go on for another three hours or more if we weren't careful.

There were some of us who had entire histories for our characters, along with family trees and coats of arms and such. And there were others who had to be pointedly asked when they were going to name their characters.

One of these guys was only that way as a player; but he was a pretty darn good DM. He also lived a block away, so I'd frequently go visit him of an evening. And yes, the coffee pot was always on. To this day, if I visit, the first thing he does is grabs me a cup of coffee.

So, yeah, coffee and my roleplaying past are intertwined. That's why I felt it was a good name for a blog about roleplaying.

The other part, the analog part, I stole from Wil Wheaton. Yes, that Wil Wheaton; the one who played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He's also a gamer. And it was from his blog that I got the term "analog gamer" for my hobby; it lets those computer gamers know right away that I'm not one of them. I don't have the time or the inclination for computer games (and, for the most part, I don't have the manual dexterity. I get killed immediately in every first person shooter I've ever tried, and the words Real Time Strategy on a game let me know that I'll get slaughtered in a timely fashion by a merciless computer that can execute it's strategic commands faster than I can.)

Don't get me wrong; I'll use computers. I'll even use them as an adjunct to roleplaying. But I don't do computer games, aside from a few versions of Solitaire.

So, there you have it.