Sunday, April 19, 2009

Update for NTRPG Con

The number of D&D Old Schoolers flocking to Texas the first week in June continues to grow. I'll never live down my quote of "If we are lucky, we'll get 10-15 gamers here." Whoops. We now have 48 registered with six weeks to go!

Since my last post on this subject, we've added Rob Kuntz to our guest lineup, the co-dm of Castle Greyhawk and the creator of Castle El Raja Key and the World of Kahlibrun. Rob has agreed to run two ERK delves but space is VERY limited! Rob joins old school luminaries Frank Mentzer, Tim Kask , and Paul Jaquays in our all star lineup. Needless to say the guests we were able to hook, plus the response, has gone beyond my wildest expectatons. Sign up for games will be at the end of the month, and I expect the spots to go VERY quickly!

There will be lots of old school gaming, some raffles, a BBQ, a tour of Reaper miniatures, and of course lots of fun and fellowship during the mini-con. Check out the site, and if you are in Texas the first weekend in June, come by and meet some of the Giants of the Game.

BTW thanks to James Maliszewski and his shout out for the NTRPG Con on his very excellent blog grognardia (

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Anti-Sandbox Sandbox Pt. 1

Well, I noticed I haven't posted in a week, but I have an excuse: income tax time. Ok, well, not really since I let my wife handle all that ("Did I make any money this year, honey? No? Am I getting a refund check? If I am you're spending it at JoAnns? Ok thanks!"). No, I got the sandbox bug and decided to go after it, so every non-working moment has been filled with the joy of filling blank sheets of graph paper and finding various sources to help me do it.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum....

I first thought I would give it a try because it's really hard to get my core group of five grown men (including myself) together more than once a month (if that) to game. And sometimes (the last three times, specifically) one has been missing due to obligations outside the game table. So, I thought, let's have a "backup" campaign that is easy and quick to run in case only two show up, or in the case I have unexpected guests want to join in at the table (my present 2E campaign is very plot and character oriented, and it's hard to shoehorn a "one week only" character into the ongoing plotline). Just roll a few dice, arm your character, and it's off to the local megadungeon to kill wandering monsters. It would be great, I could use an existing simulacrum rules set like Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry to keep the simplicity, and roll up a bunch of random stuff and link it all together. Everyone would have fun for a few hours getting their characters killed by orcs.

Except, there weren't enough fiddly bits. I love the fiddly bits, the crunchy bits, what have you. Heck, I wanted to play AD&D before I was even through with my first game of Holmes D&D. The tiny spell lists given in basic D&D and the simulacrums weren't enough. 8 spells? How about I add a few....and then why are all the priests the same? I'll have a priesthood of Healing,one of Battle, one of Knowledge. Whoops, they all have to have unique powers, right? Ditto with the mage spell lists. Have to beef it up a bit there too. Of coures, gotta have the fighter and thief. Oh, yeh, and the bard, love bards. Oh, and Rangers and Paladins. What the heck , a Barbarian.

Then I started making the "random" dungeon. Cool, there is a priests stronghold in the first big room? What are they doing there? They are there to heal up and support delvers. Before I knew it, I had a five paragraph writeup of who the priests were, their motives, what they were doing there, their spells, their belongings, their treasure, arghhh!!! Ok, onto the next room down the hall . Goblins? How come they are not that faraway from the priests? Ok, they recently arrived and are engaged in a war of attrition with the priests. Pretty soon....another few paragraphs about the goblins, their leader, their goals, motivations, treasure, why the have bugbear with them...arghhh! This is taking far too long for a random dungeon. Let's skip a few rooms....a fountain? Cool! What does it do? Another few paragraphs...erk.

Ok, this is getting too complicated. Let's concentrate on the city/town nearby. Keep it simple, right? Just need a pre-fab like the city in L1, or...hey, what about Carse? I always wanted to use that. Dang, it's huge! Well, that would make sense, my dungeon backstory would support a large city nearby. But look at all the work involved, I just wanted a small village where the characters could buy equipment...but wouldn't it be more logical to have this city? All the gold coming out of the megadungeon, it would lead to this, right? So much for the easily dropped in Village of Hommlet-type setting....

And thus it came to pass, I realized I am the anti-sandbox DM.

I will say, I did give it a shot, in good faith. I used for my megadungeon the levels of the classic TSR Dungeon Geomorphs (fitted together to make one giant level), I figured that would be a fun inside joke for players if they happened to recognize it, and made my participation minimal (only having to roll for room contents). All the rest of it...not so much. I just couldn't jettison the homebrew rules I've lovingly crafted the last 25 years or so for someone elses system, no matter how brilliant. And as I said, I really love the fiddly bits. So, instead of a simple return to Holmes basic or Labyrinth Lord, I'm back to using my version of 2E. So much for simplicity.

Now, I will say, I am proud of myself for some of my innovations here. I did manage a few easy workabouts, and the rules system actually came together really quickly once I realized I am far too wedded to my own campaign worlds and house rules to jettison them for anything else. I can cut the rules down to but a few pages of essential bits, basically throwing out all the options and sticking to the basics (you swing, you hit or you miss, nothing fancy. Mages throw spells. Thieves do thiefly things. Clerics heal. That).

But I streamlined it down to an odd hybrid I'm going to call "2E/OD&D". Basically, the characters, spells, monsters, etc are all a stripped down form of the 2E game we play and loved for the last 15 years, completely btb. I halved the spells available, kept the class abilities to a bare minimum, and did a few other time saving features that will have character generation down to five minutes, tops. However, except for that, the DM figures everything else out and tells the players what happens. So, keep track of your character abilities, thief skills, spells, etc. Stuff like movement rates, initiative, surprise, encumbrance...not so much. The DM will let you know all that stuff, it won't need to be looked up, and when in doubt I'll just roll the dice to keep the game moving. My goal is to have completely rulebook-less sessions here, and I think it can be done if I pass out spellcards (how many sets of the Wizard and Priest spell card sets do I have floating around, half a dozen?) and print out short "cheat sheets" of character abilities. If a character wants to do something, I'll make a ruling, and we'll roll the dice, no page flipping required. I've been gaming for 30 years now, I trust myself to make on the fly decisions that won't break the game. We very seldom look at the books at this point in my regular game, anyway. As for the rest of it, well, I have a few tricks up my sleeve...I hope

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Can We Have a Do-Over?

In the wake of one of the biggest "oops" in RPG blog history (the mistaken reporting of D&D co-founder Dave Arneson's passing earlier today), there has been a generally red faced, embarrassed, "what on earth happened?" response among the blogger community. Not one of it's best days, and it could have been easily avoided. The problems range from using Wikipedia as a source (it had the false news up pretty quickly) to not checking sources (basic operating procedure for any serious member of the media) to joining the ill-informed, rush-to-post gang of would be Woodward and Bernsteins for no reason than to be the "first one" to inform the world at large of a "death in the family" (actually kind of a morbid response, if you ask me, to try and get the news up before anyone else scoops you?).

One of the reasons so-called "hard news" (newspapers and television) is failing miserably lately (a record number of print publications are going under this year) is because of the immediacy offered in internet news and reporting. Bloggers exemplify this immediacy and their importance is seen daily by the amount of people that now rely on them for their news fix everyday in lieu of "traditional" news sources. Unfortunately, a total cock-up like this is what leads to lots of greybearded types knowingly nodding and saying things like "THATS why you can't trust blogs".

For quite a while the entire lure of blogging was "Anyone can blog" (which often leads to the thought, if you read enough of these, "No, NOT anyone can blog") and traditional media outlets contributed to their own downslide with stuff like the almost constant ridiculous scandals at the New York Times (where they make up more news than they report real news). However, the sort of outpouring of grief and sentiment today for only be forcefully stopped as dozens of bloggers backtracked all over the the kind of silly tent-show that makes one wonder how this blogging thing expects to ever be taken seriously.

Wacky opinions about Non Weapon Proficiencies, OD&D vs 1E vs 2E, how 3E became the end of D&D as we know it, and whether Monte Cook is a sell-out or not doesn't mean our types don't do serious commentary on serious subjects...I read insightful comments everyday and respect the hell out of many of the bloggers I read (and recommend anyone I have listed on "My Blog List" in that respect). However, these types of fiascos, while understandable, do nothing but undermine any sort of basic tenets we operate under and cheapen anything serious we have to say. Radio, TV and News 101 in high school teaches the first thing you do before running with a story is to get at least THREE confirmations of your story; Now, I took that class almost 30 years ago so I don't know what the procedure is now (one source that's not drunk, in politics, or named "Wikipedia?). But I'm talking about a solid line of bloggers restating something they read on Wikipedia (the most laughable source of information in the history of the internet) or on someone else's blog with ZERO confirmation...please.

Unfortunately the lure of being the "first" causes a lot of us (and a lot of professionals, mind you: Dewey beats Truman, anyone?) to run with a story before going through the proper channels. And despite what this looks like I'm not hammering the one or ones who originally ran the Arneson story (I'm honestly not 100% sure who it was, anyway); I'm actually a bit more annoyed at the legions of others who ran with the story based on this information or something flimsier. Next time someone in our family dies, or doesn't die, can we please make damn sure we know what we are talking about before running with it?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

WOTC, and PDFs, and I Don't Care.....

By now everyone has heard the new of WOTC’s PDF Pull Program….and the screams and cries of rage coming from gamers worldwide. WOTC has pulled all PDF sales of current and OOP products, and are positioning to either sell them on their own site, or sell the company (also explains the recent announcement about seeking prosecution against some poor saps pirating the recently released PHB2).

My reaction was a big, fat…Meh. Tempest in a teapot, anyone?

I feel sorry for everyone purchasing a PDF expecting a certain amount of downloads (typically, five) through a service such as Drive Through RPG or RPGnow. But frankly, your beef should be with those companies and not WOTC…because obviously, they were promising something they had no control over. I don’t know the nuances enough to understand why WOTC only gave a day’s warning before pulling the PDFs, but I doubt the reason was to screw over the common man (no matter how important most of us think we are). Some kind of legal froo fraw is my guess….the same reason they are being less than forthcoming in the face of thousands of fans screaming for blood. I think it’s wrong to react too strongly to this, since I think we are seeing one of the first actions in some kind of pre-planned strategy, so save your ire for the eventual atom bomb to be dropped in the months to come....

Oh, and a did spare a few giggles for the indignant “I’m never buying from WOTC again!!!!” comments here and there. Please. WOTC doesn’t give a hoot, and besides they know you are lying anyway. People say all kinds of things in the heat of the moment (“No, really, I’ll call you tomorrow” being one of my unfortunate fallbacks in the past) that they have no intention of following through on….this being one of them. Unless you are an old schooler like myself or most reading these sorts of blogs (I haven’t bought anything from WOTC since 1999) you’ll be back in the fold as soon as the next kewl item gets released.

I’m going to go all out and say this move has little or nothing to do with actually piracy, but is all about cleaning up their house…..part of the same strategy as bringing Dragon and Dungeon magazines back in house (albeit in a ridiculous form) last year. Bringing the PDFs in house along with everything else, along with trying to shore up their copyrights and bottom line, can be seen as an interesting move…perhaps along the lines of getting their properties “fixed up” for marketing in a future sale.

The bottom line is that practically anything TSR ever published is still readily available for download with a minimum of effort. All the wailing and gnashing is for naught, and actually rather embarrassing if you want the truth.

That all being said, already there are a few winners and losers here:


Resellers. Despite what WOTC or anyone believes, many people will not illegally download and will gladly pay for the privilege to download OOP products such as 1E items. While PDFs will still be abundantly available (again, despite whatever WOTC is claiming), there does exist a segment of collectors and gamers that will simply move to once again buying hardcopies of modules and books. Although the genie is out of the bottle (PDFs have been available for many years) we could still see a modicum of interest in the print versions of old school classics and 3/3.5 items alike. Prices should rise.

RetroClones: Maybe not a flood, but perhaps a trickle of interest will grow in these products as old school rules sets (OD&D, Basic, 1E) are not readily available in PDF form for purchase. It’s up to the creators of said simulacrums to strike while the iron is hot and parlay their creation’s best aspects (free, nice easy to read layout and arrangement, virtual exact copies of the originals) into increased readership. Hopefully the easy availability of most of these will lead many old schoolers to use them instead of the real thing…not that I have anything against the real thing, but in the long run it might end up easier for gamers to use Swords and Wizardry than the original OD&D rules if the latter are unavailable online, and will definitely help spread the word to future gamers who will never pick up a white box set but would definitely flip through the awesomely

Old School Defiance: All the grognards and cynical old bastards like myself get a chance to lean back in our rockers and cackle maniacally at all the frantic outrage. “Told Ya So!” will ring out across the land….especially since 99% of us haven’t purchased anything from WOTC this century….


WOTC: Not in any monetary sense (a bunch of online bitch babies screaming they won’t buy their product anymore won’t impact the bottom line at all), honestly a company as big as WOTC/Hasbro only looks at the bottom line and PHB2 sold bunches. However, in the sense that those who were too young to experience the Lorraine Williams’ driven internet purges of the early 90s (when any page mentioning “Armor Class”, for example, got a cease and desist notice from T$R’s lawyers) or the 6-8 month “Great Silence” when fans were lied to about the sudden demise of TSR (right before being bought out by WOTC they quite paying their printer, all products including the magazines were halted, and no one at TSR said a word to anyone about why their subscriptions had suddenly stopped) don’t understand that WOTC never really was their “buddy”. The good will built up by the Open Gaming and other innovations was unceremoniously dumped out and a new generation of buyers/fans will be more wary of buying into whatever it is WOTC is now peddling. Welcome to the old schooler world, kiddies….

PDF Buyers: I myself have about 40 GB of PDFs on my computer for easy reference, and I find it quite a bit more convenient to go through these than dig through a mountain of boxes in the closets for that one issue of Dungeon or one basic module I need for a reference. I understand that most people don’t have this sort of library at their fingertips (mine took about a decade to accumulate) and for them I feel bad, especially if they paid for a service they now don’t have (eternal downloading of a PDF at an online service, for example). I’m not going to advise hunting up a bit torrent and downloading some ginormous file with every published TSR item on it, but….why not.

Old School Nostalgia: If you want a copy of the OD&D rules, or B1, or the Ruins of Undermountain boxed set, and you aren’t proficient enough to operate a bit torrent (or even understand what one is), or are dead set against any sort of illegal downloading, you are stuck with buying a copy off ebay or hoping someone you know with 40 Gigs of RPG stuff will burn you a CD copy. It’s not as easy as rolling over to an online store and charging 5 bucks to your account anymore to get a copy of whatever you wanted to

I keep getting the sense this is but the first move of what may become in interesting 2009 in regards to D&D, WOTC, Hasbro, RPGs in general, and their interaction with each other in particular. Sleep on the left side, keep your sword arm free...

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Holmes Delusion

There’s this pernicious rumor going around old school circles nowadays. I’m sure you’ve caught a whiff of it, either on the forums supporting basic D&D or simulacrum games, or in the writings of the various bloggers that talk about old school D&D. The rumor is that play at lower levels is desirable to the point where mid level or high level play shouldn’t even enter the equation. To wit, that it would be a swell deal to cap level advancement at, oh, say, 3rd level, and have an entire campaign built around a Conan-wanna bes blundering around at 1st and 2nd level for the duration of the campaign (after an estimated 1-2 years of playing time, mind you). I’m going to call this “The Holmes Delusion” in honor of the ruleset enabling this madness, the basic blue book D&D rules by J Eric Holmes.

Now, to start out, I have nothing against the “Holmes” edition of Basic D&D. It’s the rules set I started with (out of the classic blue box with the Dragon cover), and B1 was the first adventure I played in as a player and ran as a DM. As a starter, and a beginning introduction to the game, it’s great. It introduces the concepts you need to know, with character classes, spells, magic items, monsters, and a great beginner’s dungeon (Tower of Zenopus). Along the way most of the concepts of RPGs are disseminated---going up levels, melee, different character classes and races---the “basics” as it were. The preface itself states “It (the book) is aimed solely at introducing the reader to the concepts of fantasy roleplaying and the basic play of this game. To this end it limits itself to basics. The rules contained herein allow only for the first three levels of player progression, and instructions for the game referee, the “Dungeon Master”, are kept to the minimum necessary to allow him to conduct basic games.” All very well and good, and definitely spelled out, if not implied: This set does NOT go to “eleven”. Roll with this for awhile, but when you know what you are doing, move to AD&D and continue your advancement and enjoyment of this game. The blue book can be your guilty little pleasure; keep it around to run your kids through it someday to whet their appetite for the real thing.

Some however have a different viewpoint. Why not the ENTIRE campaign in this one blue book, capping everything at 3rd level (the highest level discussed in the rules set), and go from there? Which isn’t a problem per se,, since different strokes for different folks, etc. What’s interesting to me is the amount of play this discussion has generated, and the positive spin given this style of play from the grognardic masses.

The idea was first introduced (as far as I can tell) on the Dragonsfoot boards by none other than Geoffrey McKinney of Carcosa fame ( In a thread entitled “Holmes Basic D&D as a Complete Game”, Geoffrey leads off his post with “The 46-page basic D&D rulebook edited by J. Eric Holmes in 1977 can serve as a complete game in and of itself. The rulebook has rules only for characters of levels 1-3. There is no reason that even a long-term campaign could not be conducted using PCs and NPCs of only 3rd level and lower.” The posts go on to describe in more detail the fantasy world where everything tops out at 3rd level, and the consequences of such (mages not being able to cast more than 2nd level spells, limited magic items, severely high mortality rate among PCs, long stretches between leveling, Gods who are barely higher than 3rd level in power, etc), and what a game of Holmes-only might look like. Both pros and cons are given for this quirky idea, and anyone wanting to explore this further can travel to the Dragonsfoot threads under the “Classic D&D” board to get more info (check anything with “Holmes” in the title).

Left by itself, this idea hurts no one, and IMO only exists in a sort of make believe campaign world that you think up when you are either drunk or really desperate for something new (How about a campaign world where there are only elves? Or one where we play intelligent talking bunnies? How about a world where orcs are good and humans are evil, and there are no other monsters? ). It falls under this category because no matter how exciting or intriguing the idea is at first, inevitably this type of campaign is exciting and intriguing to only one or two people (the creator/DM being one of these), and either never gets created, or gets played maybe a handful times before everyone gets thoroughly bored of the concept and moves on to more traditional fantasy settings.

I feel the “Holmes Delusion” falls squarely under this category. While it would be a novel idea for a short period of time (particularly as a good backdrop for a tournament setting), I find it very unlikely a solid group could be found to experiment with this concept for a year or more, delighting when their long-surviving character (the 19th one they have rolled up) finally makes the jump to 3rd level (only to die at the hands of a group of kobolds the next adventure). Not the stuff of heroic roleplaying, for sure. The entire premise of Dungeons & Dragons is setting a long term goal for your characters, whether it be material wealth, a kingdom, marrying the princess and moving to the suburbs, killing the lich that killed your pet dog, whatever. To do this, the general idea is to acquire more and more abilities, spells, powers, and magic items to achieve your goal. To say the entire concept of the game is built around rising in “levels” is so entrenched it pretty much goes without saying…..hey, even EGG ran some high level characters once upon a time (Not to mention those pesky character experience tables in the PHB that show advancement to double digit levels)

So by itself, an interesting idea by Geoffrey of a campaign world that surely no one would be masochistic enough to actually play in, no harm there. Except something I like to call “The Holmes Delusion” starts creeping in, and suddenly supporters for this unusual proposal start piping up as time goes on with the idea that “this is real old school D&D”. With a touch of “Good Old Days Syndrome”, suddenly a bunch of otherwise rational gamers are writing things like “All the best games are low level games, anyway” and “Low level playing more accurately replicates the traditional Sword and Sorcery experience” and “Conan was only a 3rd level fighter, anyway” and “Low level playing is grittier and grimmer; high level play loses all sense of wonder”? I can and have refuted all of these assertions time and again, but the consistency with which they are spouted make me wonder if these supporters are truly serious, or like in the above examples, they are just fantasizing of a simpler time and place and would no more start up a “Holmes Only” campaign than they would a “Pixie Characters Only” campaign.

What is very interesting to me is the amount of Dungeon Master types that jump at the idea of limiting a game to level three (or level six, or level 9). I wish there existed the means to study this phenomena more and work up some kind of operating hypothesis….are they, deep inside, afraid to run higher levels? Are these mostly DMs who are regularly out-maneuvered by players once the players get more capabilities, and wish to keep the advantage? Do they have trouble imagining a campaign that goes beyond a randomly made underground dungeon with kobolds, orcs, and giant centipedes? Does the thought of the TPK give them anticipatory shivers of delight? Are they truly just hankering for a time when a simpler game meant one rulebook, some dice, graph paper and a pencil? I wonder if the conclusion reached would be that those who want a more “authentic” sword and sorcery experience are just not equipped to run players higher than 3rd level? BITD a notorious OD&D DM I knew of was quite good at killing off players by the handful (no one made it over 5th level in any of his campaigns) and slowly but surely the players in his games dwindled as they came to realize he didn’t have a clue what he was doing. Running a high level party does require a DM to keep track of a lot of nuts and bolts, and having run the GDQ series as a fledgling DM I can attest to the fact that the only thing that kept me ahead of 4-5 players with 2 characters each was extensive preparation and quick thinking on my feet. But honestly, I bet none of the above are the main reason.

Perhaps all this Holmes Love, it’s nothing more than a “Back to the Womb” by older type gamers who are also enamored of the renaissance of retro-clones and simulacrum games (which I admit I am also fascinated by). Alas we’ll probably never know. From my experience I enjoy low level play, mid level play, and high level play about the same….all types have their own attractive bits. Part of the fun for me at DMing higher levels is the entire vista that opens up when characters get to 9th level or so, a new world of dragons, giants, beholders, high level evil mages and clerics, liches, etc. Not to mention you aren’t afraid to have your characters jump on a boat and cross an ocean, climb a mountain, or trudge across an arctic waste (why, the hypothermia alone would kill poor little Pipkin the 1st level fighter in a Holmes game!). And for my games in particular, higher levels are the times when the characters move from dirt covered peons to true movers and shakers in the campaign world. In the Holmes world, it’s impossible to be much of a mover and shaker when a well trained war dog can gut you in two rounds….but that may be the point.

Somewhere along the way, tied in with dislike of 3E and it’s successors, and going all the way back to the shabby way EGG was treated by TSR, the old schoolers have latched onto the “Less is better, more is worse” mantra and are now taking it to it’s logical extreme. It’s only a matter of time before someone creates a D&D campaign that resembles Twerps, with every die roll being a d6, all dungeons being completely random affairs with miscellaneous monsters and treasures, and each adventure being a “back of the 1E DMG charts” created megadungeon of 15 levels sitting one atop the other with no rhyme or reason.

There was a reason the game evolved into the version most of us prefer ( a pre-2000 version in most cases): We got bored of that random, low level shit. We wanted our mages to toss Fireballs and Lightning Bolts and Cloudkills; we wanted our fighters to hack through an army of gnoll warriors to rescue the princess; we wanted our thieves to backstab the gloating evil priest before he ever got a spell off; we wanted our clerics…well, hell, we wanted our clerics to become the head of their own church with followers, worshippers, and servants doing our bidding (who says there isn’t a touch of the Jimmy Swaggert in some of us???). WE WANTED POWER! It’s a dream as old as the day the schoolyard bully shoves your face in the dirt; “Hey, you scaly little kobolds, WANT A PIECE OF ME NOW????” The Holmes Delusion eliminates that possibility; you might as well be playing “Schleps and Schlubs” as D&D, with your 10 STR fighter screaming like a little girl as he runs from the bugbear threatening him in the dungeon (after playing said fighter for a year and getting him to the edge of 2nd level, of course).

Anyway, as you see, I have lots of observations but no solid conclusions. The rules don’t support such an interpretation, so anyone wanting to run such a campaign must have solid reasoning that goes against everything EGG and others who created this game both played and preached. I have asserted time and again that I’d love to hear an account of a regularly attended Holmes run game as described that extends past a year (with the same players who are still hanging onto their 2nd level characters, one sword hit away from rolling up Joe the Fighter #16). So let’s go to the DMs and supporters of the Holmes Delusion, and ask them: Do you want to run this sort of game? Have you run this sort of game for any length of time? What is the appeal of this sort of campaign? I’d also love to hear from players who would enjoy this type of campaign and why; seems like the very antithesis to what we have come to expect out of RPGs in general and D&D in particular. Personally, I love to wrap up a 2-3 year campaign with the clich├ęd giant battle against the Evil Overlord’s Army of Darkness, not Fred the Ogre’s motley band of goblin minions.