Thursday, August 21, 2014

Cthulhu Claus Holiday Card Backer Button for Our Kickstarter Project

I designed the first button to hand out to our Cthulhu Claus Holiday Card project backers. It uses a piece of art from the first series of cards. What are your thoughts?

If you want to become a backer of our project, please visit Kickstarter and join in.

Friday, August 15, 2014

#RPGaDAY #5 Most Old School RPG Owned: Did you even have to ask?

The fifth topic of @autocratik's (aka +Autocratik ) #RPGaDAY list is the Most "Old School" RPG owned. Like most of the prompts in the #RPGaDAY list, this one got me thinking about what Dave Chapman meant by "old school." Did he mean Old School in the sense of the Old School Renaissance movement which used the OGL to create games that evoked play that echoed the way games used to be played, or did he mean the games themselves? It could mean either as sometimes when one refers to "old school" one is only talking about the metacognitve content that is referring to an older age and not to that older age itself. The material from that older age might be called "classic" while the modern material that evokes that feel might be called "old school."

I know that this may be a bit too pedantic, but since I am writing full blog posts rather than merely providing a one sentence reply, I reserve the ancient right of industrious pedantry. Michael J. Finch - author of Swords & Wizardry which happens to be an "old school" game for which I own the "white box" edition - writes in his "A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming" that for an old school game like Swords & Wizardry "just printing the rules an starting to play as you normally do will produce a completely pathetic gaming session -- you'll decide that 0e is just missing all kinds of important rules. What makes 0e different from other games isn't the rules themselves, it's how they're used."

To phrase it in a cruder and less flattering light, "Old School Games are games that are missing rules, but are cool enough to inspire you to make your own." That's not exactly what Michael is saying, but it's kind of what I think the Old School Games actually were. Original D&D was so vague in its mechanics that it lead to the creation of a host of other role playing games -- starting with Ken St. Andre's innovative Tunnels & Trolls (which I blogged about here). The game that best captures this "missing rules but great inspiration" is Superhero 2044. The game is incomplete as it is, but it influenced so many later games like Champions and Superworld as I discussed in this earlier post.

By this "missing rules but great inspiration" criterion, most of the successful OSR movement games qualify. Those that don't qualify lack the inspiration component of the equation, though there are a couple of OSR games that are more "Middle Age" School than Old  School and have more complete rules as the games of the 2nd age of RPGs tended to. Among the most successful of these OSR games - and these are all games I own - I'd list Swords & Wizardry, Adventurer Conqueror King, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

Having said that these games qualify as Old School Games, I'm going to revert to the easiest answer to the initial question and combine it with the new definition. I'll be answering what game from the 1st generation of RPGs I own is the "Most Old School" or best exemplifies the "missing rules, but great inspiration" mentality. I thought about Superhero 2044, but have decided against it.

I own a copy of the White Box Collector's Edition of Dungeons & Dragons - as well as all of the supplements - and I certainly think that it is in the competition. The core 3 "little brown books" do not contain enough clarification on the combat system to make a completely playable game, add to that a lack of mechanics for a host of other situations, and it falls firmly in the "missing rules camp." The supplements like Blackmoor, Greyhawk, and Eldritch Wizardry added a rich inspirational flare - as did Gygax's prose - all of which make it a strong contender for the title.

But Game Designer's Workshop's En Garde! is a strong competitor. It is filled with tidbits of background and inspiration and yet is lacking in a number of mechanical areas. I say lacking, but let's face it a part of the OSR movement happened due to the fact that a lot of rules may not actually be necessary. I love En Garde!'s dueling mechanic, and I love that it is "dedicated" to Danny Kaye - among others. 

Fletcher Pratt's Naval Game isn't a role playing game, but since his Harold Shea novels (co-written with Sprague De Camp) and this game influenced the creation of D&D, I thought I'd list it hear as in the running. The game requires you to own Jane's Fighting Ships or similar book to properly play. 

Then there's the Fantasy Heartbreaker entry. The Complete Warlock is a product of the Southern California gaming scene and is an attempt to fill in some of those areas that were missing in the D&D rules set. There is a lot to like in Warlock and it is clear that it influenced J. Eric Holmes' writing on the Basic Set of D&D. It has critical hit charts, percentile based combat charts (by weapon), a spell point system, level based abilities for Thieves akin to 4e, Elves as a class, and a cornucopia of alternate ways to "play D&D." I'm desperately tempted to call this glorious book the "most old school RPG" I own.

In the end though, Original D&D wins out. I'm still not sure how to play this game. Have you checked out that initiative system in Eldritch Wizardry? Do you use it?

Special Self-Promotion Section

As a reminder, I am in the middle of a Kickstarter for a second series of Cthulhu Claus Holiday Cards. You can back it by clicking the link in the side bar. A picture of the first series is below.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

D&D -- Manuals of Monsters and How They Have Presented Them OD&D to Present

This year marks the 40th Anniversary of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game and the release of the "5th Edition" of the Dungeons & Dragons rules. Long time fans of the game will understand that there are scare quotes around 5th Edition due to the fact that there is room for discussion that there have been seven or more editions of the game, depending on how you count a new edition. I've enjoyed each edition of the game and have never taken sides in any of the edition wars. If you were to ask me what my favorite edition of the game is, I would answer with the Weem's rallying cry:

While I haven't taken part in any edition wars, I have noticed some things that I think have contributed to negative sentiments some players have regarding various editions of the game. For example, I believe that one of the main factors contributing to criticism of 4th edition D&D is quite simply the graphic design choices and "fluff" choices that the game designers made in the construction of that rules set. I believe that Robert Schwalb's observation are essentially correct . You can see an example of how Robert would have reformatted some of the information here. It's a little rough around the edges, but you can quickly see how 4th edition could have been formatted to look more like previous editions.

I also believe that many of the complaints people had about changes in the rules of 4th edition are actually due to their own house ruling of earlier games. For example, complaints about required miniatures use ignore the fact that 3rd edition's flanking and attack of opportunity rules made miniatures a vital component of that game. In fact, 3rd edition was the first time I ever used miniatures in any non-Champions game I'd played. This isn't to say that there aren't legitimate criticisms of 4th edition's combat system - it can bog down and take an hour plus to run a combat - just to say that some of those criticisms also apply to other editions as well. In fact, I would argue that the presentation of the rules in 4th edition is WHY so many people think the game is radically different rules wise. There is no fluff or context for almost anything presented in the rules. The abilities of the classes are presented in a Magic the Gathering style box, with Magic style text, but there is no sense of place in any of the rules. That is a killer and the graphic design hurt tremendously.

No where is this more evident than in the presentation of monsters. For over 30 years the Dungeons & Dragons game had been increasing the amount of "fluff" in its monster entries. Early editions of the game had minimal information scattered over many pages - or even a couple of booklets. By 3rd edition there was a combination of beautiful and useful statistic blocks combined with ample ecological and sociological data about the monster that was being presented. 4th edition - prior to the publication of the excellent Essentials Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale - completely reversed this trend. It returned to the earliest days of presenting monsters as little more than a set of numbers. I believe that this was one of the primary reasons players thought that 4th edition was less able to facilitate "role play" instead of "roll play" than earlier editions. I have often argued the opposite as page 42 of the DMG and the Monster Manual on a business card are almost everything a DM needs to run 4th edition. The DM can wing the rest and up the role play all day. I have argued that many times, and believe it to be true, but I cannot argue that the presentation of the monsters as mere lines of numbers doesn't convey the sense that "role play" was far less important in the minds of the designers than "roll play." 

I think the best way to demonstrate the history of monster presentations in D&D is not a discussion, but a demonstration. The following are stat blocks from the various editions of D&D selected to highlight how each edition added depth of presentation to the monsters...until 4th edition...and how 5th edition has restarted the tradition of more detailed entries with greater verisimilitude. One caveat. The entry for OD&D was pieced together by me from information contained on multiple pages in two booklets. Those booklets are Book II: Monsters and Treasure from the OD&D box set and the Greyhawk Supplement. I own physical copies of all the books featured in this article.

Original D&D

The OD&D Gnoll features very little information about Gnoll's as a creature and the illustration makes it difficult to visualize what kind of creature this actually is. The reference to "Lord Sunsany" (Dunsany?) not making clear what Gnolls are like only ads confusion to the reader. There is room for the Dungeon master to expand on the information, but there is no context for the creature and it is primarily being presented as a set of numbers that players can fight. The "number of attacks" and "points of damage" information come from the Greyhawk supplement as all attacks did 1-6 in the primary OD&D rulebooks.

Advanced D&D Monster Manual

You can clearly see a radical shift in emphasis between OD&D and the Monster Manual. Gygax not only describes what the Gnoll looks like, but provides sociological and ecological information. We know where Gnolls live. We know a little bit about their social  structure. We also have a better illustration of the creature.

The Moldvay Basic Gnoll is very similar to the one presented in the OD&D boxed set. This is likely due to the introductory nature of the rule book. It should be noted here though that the presentation here is cleaner than in OD&D and that there is some description of appearance and mannerism. It isn't as complete as the Monster Manual, but it is still a step up from OD&D.

Second Edition Monstrous Compendium

By Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition, TSR was providing a great deal of information about their monsters. This Gnoll entry takes information from the earlier MM and organizes it into a more cohesive order and provides some roleplaying information about Gnoll behavior. This is a very useful stat block.

Third Edition Monster Manual

The 3rd edition Gnoll has excellent art, but after the 2nd edition Monstrous Compendium's single page per monster layout the need to flip between two pages to get the information is less than ideal. The description provides a number of interesting bit about society and appearance. There is also a good section on how to use the monster in combat. Notice here the inclusion of factors like "reach" which comes into play for the attacks of opportunity. This has the best art so far. The 3.5 rulebook is similar with added information regarding level adjustments and Gnolls as characters. The stat block section is considerably larger in 3.5 due to the inclusion of information regarding "touch" and "flat footed" armor classes. All of which is done to speed up play in a tactical game by removing from the DM the need to do math on the fly.

4th Edition Monster Manual

First, let me say that there is some cool stuff in here. There are multiple types of Gnoll, each with distinct attack types. The art is more cartoony than 3rd, but I really like it. If you want to run combat, there is good advice. If you read the "Gnoll Lore" section, there are some interesting tidbits. BUT...everything is presented related to some mechanic. The Gnoll Lore is given in increments based on skill checks. It isn't narrative fluff, it's "stuff you roll for." Encounters are set up including terms like "level 8 brute" which means almost nothing to the new gamer and makes it seem like you are putting together a Warhammer Fantasy Battle or Warmachine group. And that's the crux of the ire right there. The entry focuses on the mechanical and miniature wargame elements of D&D. Is there stuff that makes for good role play here? Sure. Take this quote, "slaves who show strength and savagery might be indoctrinated into the gnoll vanguard." That's pretty cool, but it requires a DC 25 to know. Huh? The DC to know set up was something that I largely ignored in 4th edition, just like I ignored "segments" and "weapon vs. armor type" in AD&D (though a recent issue of Gygax Magazine demonstrated that at least Lenard Lakofka uses them in his games). 

What About 5th Edition?

It looks like they've returned to - and taken a step further - the presentation style they used in 3rd edition and merging it with the ease of use of the 2nd edition presentation. This post at Critical Hits shows the Bullette and this one from Dread Gazebo shows the Umber Hulk.  Wizards of the Coast has been kind enough to provide us with the Sphinx.

If you want to know why I'm so excited about 5th edition. This is why. There is a full page of narrative description of sphinxes that also includes an inset of the riddle from a classic AD&D module. The art is very good and the layout is wonderful. The stat block tells you a lot about the new D&D edition. Check out that Armor Class. It's only 17 for a Challenge 17 monster. For a 4e player, who is used to AC increasing by one per level or for a 3rd edition player who is used to Fighters adding +1 to hit every level, this must seem quite low. In fact, it isn't for 5e. Yes, the monster is likely to be hit fairly frequently by appropriate level opponents - but the 199 hit points will help it stick around. Also examine that section on Legendary Actions. This is a modification of one of my favorite developments in later expansions for 4e, monsters taking actions during an opponent's turn. In this case at the end of an opponent's turn. The stat block also isn't as reliant on miniatures based mechanics as the 4e block. I've written a couple of posts on "Zones of Control" for this blog that demonstrate that D&D has always been a miniatures war game, but it has typically been one where one can ignore that element and move on with game play. 3.x and 4e made that more difficult than earlier editions, but we seem to be moving back toward a nice balance.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tyranny of Dragons Trailer Looks Pretty Cool

My favorite effect in this video is how the Adamantine shield shatters one of the Cultist's weapons. This looks to be a much better use of Tiamat than I managed in my middle school all-night first DM-ing session. I guess it helps when one has a story to frame the encounter.