Thursday, November 27, 2014

ADversaries & Dragons (an essay)

Every gamer seems to have their own favorite edition of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). From die-hard grognards of the little stapled booklet days, to the feat-wielding and prestige-classing D20 adventurers - and beyond. The means of measuring an edition's appeal and suitability for any given gamer are too numerous to list on a d% chart, but there is one I've found works well for me.

How adversarial do you like your game?

Put down the bec de corbin and come out from behind that kevlar DM screen. We're not going to be talking about the troublesome dynamic of killer DM vs. hapless players. That's not what I mean by "adversarial." This essay is about the measure of danger and challenge you may or may not prefer in your D&D - from the point-of-view of a long-time gamer and DM. Dry statistics and hard rules optional.

In the beginning, player characters (PCs) died. A lot. In droves. Character creation was measured in minutes, instead of hours. Death was often a setback, at worst. We learned not to get too attached to those one-page (or one-index card) neophytes until at least third level. Today, it takes me the better part of an afternoon to meticulously craft a character using the D20 rules. Got to make sure I choose just the right feats and put enough points in the right skills so I can eventually reach my lofty future character classing goals. I don't build a PC, I set the foundation for a future hero.

And that's fine. But, it does set the game up as more of a hero mill than a daring adventure. Your PC is expected to not only survive, but to thrive. Death may be a possibility, but it is not expected. In fact, neither is failure. Sure, it's no fun to have all your PCs die in creative and messy fashion time after time after time. We all want to be a hero - eventually. For myself, I prefer to earn the honor. My comfort zone lies somewhere between grognard and D20 - leaning a little more toward grognard.

Is it because I started playing D&D around 1980? Perhaps. Still, I've played and enjoyed every edition up to v3.5. Still, I find myself settling into AD&D as my default edition. Somewhere between little-booklet-grognard and feat-loving D20 gamer - leaning toward grognard.

It's all about death. Well, at least the very real threat of my character cashing in his GPs one way or another. PC vs. DM in a friendly battle of wits and wills. When my fledgling adventurer creeps into some dark and musty tomb, sword in-hand, I expect something to try to kill me. I expect to be challenged within an inch of my life. I presume I will eventually need to retreat to lick my wounds and regroup for another assault.

That's right - retreat. We used to do that now and again. Sure, it's all about moving forward nowadays. Nothing wrong with that. Keep the action going. Get to the big bad guy at the end and the shiniest loot. That's exciting. There's a lot to be said for having your obstacles set neatly before you in a pre-determined and acceptable level of challenge. Even comforting, perhaps.

I don't venture into the mean dungeons to feel comfortable. I expect crazy tricks and traps. I watch out for nightmarish monsters to ambush me from some hidden alcove - even if that monster is out of my league. The concept of a massive underground labyrinth stocked with opponents and treasure is ludicrous enough - don't ask me to grapple with measured challenges and static encounters too.

Run away! An acceptable battle cry for heroes that survive to become greater heroes. Avenging fallen comrades is another heroic trope. Somewhere, there's a scything blade trap or many-armed demon with my name on it. It's up to me to make my heroic demise count for something.

After all, the DM is out to get me.

Does that phrase get your blood pumping, or does it make your blood boil? What's the point of heroic fantasy adventure if you don't feel the thrill of genuine risk? I said, "The DM is out to get me." Of course he/she is. Why bother, otherwise? We're not exactly equals by any stretch. The DM holds all the cards. All the feats and abilities in all the books and supplements will not change this simple fact. All it does is reduce the game to an endless series of Challenge Ratings and die rolls.

Feats? We had those back in 1980. We called them "creative role-playing decisions." If my fighter wanted to Cleave one or four nearby opponents, I'd say to the DM something like, "You said the goblins have me surrounded and I'm toe-to-toe with four or five of those beady-eyed suckers? Fine, I'll take my axe in both hands - the hell with my shield - and go down swinging as hard and as fast as possible, catching as many of those little backstabbers as I can." Then, any DM worth his/her screen would come back with something along the lines of, "Okay, if you're gonna sacrifice AC for all-out hitting power, give me a roll to-hit. You're pretty strong. If you succeed, you might have enough to catch the next goblin in line," - and so on.

Sure, it can be nice to have all the options clearly delineated and neatly listed, but it may not be absolutely necessary. If death comes, it will be death by math or very unfortunate die roll. Honestly, I prefer to play within the game, rather than from my character sheet. I want the DM to have to work at knocking my hit point total down.

Because, as a DM, I find I have more fun when I have to work at my trade. Picking out Challenge Ratings to set against the character party just isn't the same for me. This is a game of the mind and I enjoy pitting my mind against theirs. Of course I will scale most of the encounters for the average participating character level. That is common sense, and there is a certain expectation. But, I want to see hesitation and uncertainty in the eyes of the player. Yes - even a little fear once in a while. If I choose to put a Duke of Hell around the corner of the third level dungeon corridor, I don't want players crying, "Foul!" I want them racking their brains for a way out of this most dire peril.

Because a truly adversarial DM-player relationship is based upon trust. A player must trust the DM to present challenges that are dangerous, yet fair - most of the time. A Duke of Hell in a third-level dungeon? Seriously?! Absolutely. Maybe it's an illusion, or a disguise. But, even if it is the real deal, the DM can be trusted to have a plan. Can you talk or barter your way out? Does this very great devil even care about fighting you? Maybe he's on his way to an important meeting and you just happen to be in his way. Bow and scrape and let him go merrily along. Does he have some major treasure on him? Sure he does - but it's not for you. Not yet. Try to take it and you deserve whatever you get. And what you'll get is undoubtedly death, unless he's in a lesson-teaching mood that day. The DM gets to decide that. Maybe you'll get lucky. Maybe your DM is worthy of your trust.

Adversarial implies a give-and-take of challenge and occasional one-upmanship. Expect and give the unexpected. Share the wondrous burden of creating a memorable adventure. If the DM tries to kill you, make the task one that is truly epic. Think out of the character sheet. Challenge the DM as much as he/she challenges you. Be friendly rivals for the same goal - participating in an exciting heroic fantasy adventure. If you must die - die well. Then, come back for more.

A good DM will always be there, waiting. And plotting. A good player - the same.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Out and about...

Well, September was a wash - except...

I've acquired at least three new players for my home campaign. So - that makes a party of five. Let the good times roll!

The campaign starts again next Saturday, October 11th.

In the meantime...

Today, I stopped by my "new" FLGS. I've been out of circulation for a while and really wanted to reconnect with my gamer brethren. It was a great experience - even if I am currently broke. In fact, my lack of disposable income has really impacted by hobby pursuits. I no longer collect games.

Let me clarify that.

I won't get into games that require me to keep purchasing expansions and new pieces to keep playing. I realize that is now the way of things, but I just can't do it. No more CCGs. No more miniature wargames where I am required to sink my resources into more and more warbands and paints and scenery. No more RPGs with countless splatbooks I don't need or have any respect for. Not even boardgames with regular expansions and add-ons.

Wait --- I know I don't HAVE to buy most of these things to enjoy or participate in the games. BUT - these games encourage and support such an approach to play. I don't want that. I don't want the same stuff with a different twist shoved in my face whenever I turn around. I don't want rehashed junk pushed on me. I don't want a new edition of the same game thrust upon me every two or three years because the old version was somehow not hip enough.

I can't afford it and I just don't care enough.

I have lots of games and gaming stuff. I tend to write and create my own material. The idea is to make money and support an industry - I get that. I feel I've done my bit for the cause during the past 30+ years. Time for others to pick up the torch.

Go forth and conquer.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Pre-history of my D&D career

Before Dungeons & Dragons, there was Colossal Cave Adventure.

Well, at least for me. I remember being in elementary school...can't recall which grade - maybe third...maybe sixth (sometime around 1980 - I think). Anyway, my aunt had a boyfriend that worked with computers somewhere. In 1980-ish, that rather impressed me. Somehow, it came up in conversation that he and his colleagues spent some time playing a text-based adventure game on the computer. He had my attention. He also offered to "run me through" the game - without a computer - just me and him, sitting in the living room of my grandparents' house, talking. He would act the part of the program, from memory, and I would speak my input commands.

It was my first RPG experience. There were no character sheets. No dice. No books. Just me exploring a fantasy setting with a "Dungeon Master." I don't know why this guy put up with me for so long while playing this game, but I will always be grateful. I remember the forest, the building, the lantern, the maze of twisty little passages.

While I would jump headlong into D&D soon after, at that point I'd never heard of the game. I just knew I was hooked on "Adventure" - as the boyfriend called it. And it was. CCA and Zork both influenced my gaming style and content for the first few years, and the early versions of the D&D rules tended to support this style for me.

Also, my father and uncle would play Outdoor Survival together. I would get to play too. Thus, my perceptions of "wilderness adventure" were formed - and I had no idea the same game provided a sort of playing surface for the early D&D game as well. It was like I was exploring a dungeon behind the greatest adventurers that ever lived - but never actually caught up to them to realize I wasn't alone.

Sometimes, I think I might have created my own version of D&D if others hadn't. All the pieces were there for me. And, all the drive to do so. I even delved a little into "miniature combat" with the game of Feudal my father gave me. I never played it with anyone, or by the rules, but spent hours in my own tiny medieval realm with my tiny plastic medieval armies and castles.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Gazing into my cracked and bloodstained crystal ball...

Well - another month has passed, with precious little to show for it.

I've been tapped for the editorial staff of & Magazine. And all I did was submit an article after the editor asked me to write it. Can you imagine the calamity?! I hope to be worthy of the honor. Doubts plague me.

Still no gaming group. Considered running an online game. Don't know that I could handle the workload. Possibly my own warped perceptions, but it feels that running an online game is even more work for me than DMing in my own home. I admit it could be just me. is a daunting proposition. I just don't think I handle it well. Maybe I need some pointers.

Because I have no game, I've decided to focus a little more on writing for publication. That just means that I'm going to do my best to format all of my gaming stuff for public consumption - even if it is just free PDFs for the hapless masses. If I can submit any of my stuff and get paid - so much the better...but I'm not going to assume. In any case, I think it will do me good to get in the habit of writing for an audience other than myself. It will be good practice as I seek more and more freelance gigs.

Planning to have more to share soon-ish. Possibly some brief reviews of some nifty adventures and products. Definitely some original content of my own. Still bashing out my OD&D project. Bits and pieces, to be sure - but still striving to contribute.

Game on.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Idles of summer

Wow - I've really been neglecting you good people. So, to catch you up.

1. Been focusing more heavily upon my fiction writing - when my gainful employment hasn't drained the life out of me entirely. This has led possibly to:

2. A forthcoming writing gig for GP Adventures. Stay tuned.

3. In the hope of meeting at least one of my GP Adventures side-employers, I've registered for GameHole Con 2014. Hope to see some of you there!

4. Hopefully, I shall be working with the fine folks at TPK Games again over the summer. More to come on that front as well.

5. Odds are, I will have an article in the November 2014 issue (#11) of & Magazine. I'll make an official announcement when it is...official.

Well, that's about it on the gaming front. By way of feeble apology for my unforgivable lapse in blogging, here's a monster.


MOVE: 15"
% IN LAIR: 15%
DAMAGE/ATTACK: 1-3/1-3/1-10
SPECIAL DEFENSES: Surprised only on a 1

Sleek and agile, this creature is built like a mountain lion, but with a head resembling that of a cobra, with the jaws of a great cat, and the forked tongue and fangs of the snake. Instead of a mane, it has a flaring hood, and scales instead of fur. A cobra lion appears in any color or pattern common to the snake from which it takes its name and characteristics. It can be found generally in warmer climates, wherever lions or cobras tend to roam.

The cobra lion is very aggressive, almost always offering a display of flared hood and loud hiss before an initial attack. It can leap 15' upwards or 20' ahead, and its rear claws rake for 1-4/1-4 hit points damage. Of course, its most feared attack is a venomous bite which kills on a failed save and inflicts an additional 3-18 hit points of damage even if the save is successful. Some specimens also spit their venom in a 3" spray upon a single victim.

Some disputed writings claim the cobra lion was a creation of the yuan ti, or the naga. Certainly, these creatures are often found in or around the overgrown ruins that once served as centers of civilization for those terrible races. To date, no cobra lion has ever been tamed by a trainer of warm-blooded stock and the creature is known for its dislike of humans or similar races.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The OD&D Project the 13th

Wow. Has it really been since October that I posted an update for this? I am a bad, bad dog. My excuses? Well...soul-sucking job is probably number one on the hit parade. Trying to get a regular game and gaming group together has been draining my enthusiasm for RPG projects - see the previous entry for semi-sarcastic details.

Still, the show must go on. I was lucky enough to order a WotC reprint collector's set of the OD&D booklets before the prices doubled. So, that was kind of cool. Now, I have some official reading copies to work with. For the 1 or 2 people that retain any interest whatsoever, here are two more pages from my project to condense and consolidate the early D&D rules into a more user-friendly format.

Monday, March 24, 2014

I don't like to do this, but...RANT! (Warning: Vehement language ahead.)

I'm 43 years old and I've been a traditional RPGer for over 30 of those years. This, combined with the fact I have a blog and a Facebook account, gives me the credentials to spout off like a foaming loony about this hobby we all love so much. So, here I go.

The earliest versions of the D&D rules were so flimsy and incomplete. That's right. Because they were breaking new ground and publishing out of a garage before PCs, desktop publishing, and the internet. Later, the rules were so arbitrary and clumsily balanced against the false reality they strove to emulate. Yep. Because the creators were writing a GAME...with RULES...that needed to WORK. Then, the company got greedy and started cranking out countless splatbooks that we gamers snatched up off the shelves as fast as they hit. How dare they give us what we thought we wanted! How dare they try to profit from their work! While we're bitching about all the terrible rules and greedy corporations, should we dwell a little upon the countless hours of memorable adventure to be had from a flimsy 30-page booklet and three slender hardbound volumes?  White Plume Mountain is sixteen pages long. SIXTEEN!

Then came the D20 System that changed the hobby forevermore. Creating rifts and sucking away personal fortunes like the never-ending Magic: TG expansion sets. The complaints about expensive new splatbooks increased exponentially while we threw away our money on countless expansions and supplements for every game that hit the market. Hell, you can hardly find even a traditional board or card game that doesn't include expansions and boosters nowadays. How many friggin' Catans are there now, anyway? Oh noes! The lamentation! The ruination!

You know what ruined D&D for me? The goddamn players.

I embraced D20 because it included just about all of my house rules in the official matrix of my favorite game system. We were all apparently thinking the same things and WotC decided to put it all between some covers and make a buck from it. That's the good old American Way, right there. Good for them. The hobby had never been so vibrant. And expensive. Hasbro saw a good thing and bought that shit right up. Smart move. WizBro was born. Gamers handed over their wallets in droves. Gamers like me bailed out and never looked back. Grumpy old gamers. Many of us jumped on the Pathfinder bandwagon. I think I fell off the back of that wagon recently for lack of room to sit. We'll see.

Where was I? Oh yeah - the goddamn players.

The lazy, flaky, shifty, dopey (and a few other dwarves) players. Players with about as much imagination and social grace as a genital wart. Players that just want to sit and be entertained as if they were watching a film or fiddling with a video game. Except - I don't cost anything. Also, I'm much more invested in their amusement. Players that can't commit to a one-or-two-Saturday-afternoon-a-month gaming schedule, but can devote hundreds of hours a month toward consuming television and CRPG offerings like potato chips. Players that aren't nearly as invested in the success of the game they share with the group as the person devoting hours and hours to the organization and presentation of that game. Players that can sit and tweak their player character to finely-weighted perfection for hours but can't be bothered to learn the basics of their professed alignment. Players who can run a human, an elf, a gnome, or a half-orc...without anyone being able to tell the difference between any of them. Players who demand tons of options, as well as tons of the newest and shiniest options as they hit release, but can't be troubled to keep track of their spell points or item charges. Players that can't make a decision without rolling a die. Players that can't roleplay their way across a tavern common room. Players that name their characters after those from a book, game, TV series, or film. Players that can't tell left from right unless they're sitting in front of a gridded mat covered with terrain and miniatures. Players that make every game session feel like a job interview. As they sit and stare...and drink their soda...and stare some more.

Maybe it's me. The hapless DM. It is possible I'm not engaging the players as I should - even after all these years of being a captive DM for so many groups. I wonder if they'd tell me so. Apparently not. I never claimed to be the best DM around. It's possible I invest too much in the game. When I'm not writing fiction, I'm writing stuff for my campaign. I used to think I offered too much detail - then I saw some of the published campaign settings and got over myself. The players I had in high school and college were pretty great, for the most part. They were engaged. They were invested. They were involved. Not like the semi-ambulatory toadstools I seem to attract nowadays.

Sometimes, I think it was the times. Others, I consider the possibility that the edition of the rules could be to blame. Maybe I'm just old...set in my ways...cantankerous...less patient. Or, maybe it really is the goddamn players. I think I'm leaning toward that conclusion for now. Whatever the case, I am currently very disenchanted with gaming overall and am not sure when the spark may re-ignite...if ever.

Fucking sucks, really. It used to be so great.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Those hill giants...they love their Kool-Aid.

So, the blog has been dead during the winter. I know. I apologize.

Finally received my WotC collector's reprint of the OD&D booklets in their lovely wooden box. That was nice. Makes the work on my OD&D compilation project even more appealing. Yes - I'm still working on that, but I am also working on an AD&D campaign that started as something of an homage to the G-D-Q series of modules. I'll post occasional updates for that, if there is interest. Or - if I just feel like doing so.  :)

Otherwise, not much to report. Probably why this blog has been so empty of late. Hopefully, there will be something a bit more exciting to report before the next season is over.

Thanks for sticking around.