Monday, April 10, 2023

The Genres the OSR Can't Do

If you only ever listened to annoying AD&D fanboys, you might think that the OSR is strictly about crawling through big megadungeons as sword and sorcery murderhobos. But no community should be defined by its worst gatekeepers. The very fact that they suggest the OSR to be anything other than a manufactured revisionist narrative is reason enough for them to be suspect. To me, the OSR is an enduring illusion in large part because it's a very flexible culture of play. And I feel that despite its reputation for being notoriously difficult to define, "old school play" is still pretty cohesive and compelling.

I usually find myself on the side arguing for an expansive definition. "Renaissance," not "revival." The most important non-D&D game in the OSR lineage is Traveller and its relatives, and indeed, moderately-hard sci fi is a cornerstone genre in this space. So too are noir / investigation games and horror games. The genres often get blended together (Lamentations of the Flame PrincessMothership, Electric BastionlandEsoteric Enterprises, and Liminal Horror come to mind) but they just as often remain separate! Perhaps these four genres are simply the cornerstones of all RPGs. The most robust and reliable ones you can emulate in nearly any play culture. Remember, Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness have historically been the biggest serious competitors to D&D globally.

Despite this, I've recently been thinking about some things that have got me feeling out the borders of what can count as "OSR." This is a rare occasion when I'll be the one standing guard at the gate. But more interesting than that, I aim to discuss why these outsider genres can still be very exciting anyway for someone with OSR-inclinations like myself, even if they're "incompatible" with my default preferences.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

The Forgotten Fire Bird of Castle Greyhawk

I haven't blogged in awhile, but I've still been spending a lot of my time on D&D-related things. I recently had an experience I simply have to share. I got a hold of some obscure and fascinating records from early TSR, honest-to-goodness RPG buried treasure.

Behold, the Alicanto, AKA Gary Gygax's "Dresden Bird":

Allow me to elaborate.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Spoiler-Free Review of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

I just got out of an advanced screening of the D&D movie. It was better than I expected. Not great, but good. I have a lot of very negative things to say, but does anyone want to hear that? Maybe you'll enjoy hearing about some things I enjoyed (without spoilers, of course).

There are many moments in this movie that felt very authentic to the experience of playing an RPG. I don't really give a shit if it "wouldn't work in 5E." If anything, it was a pleasant surprise whenever I saw something that is in 5E. But leave it to a bunch of pedantic, joyless nerds to dwell on the accuracy of rules. This movie understood the far more important thing to get right: what it's like to play an adventure with your friends. Everyone brought a delicately-crafted snowflake PC to the table with some backstory prepared, maybe didn't read up on all the class features they have, sometimes forgot the magic items they got, created stupid running jokes throughout the campaign, and were doing their best to say badass one-liners and funny quips despite being a bunch of nerds sitting around someone's parents' dinner table.

In the first half of the movie, a criticism in the back of my head was, "this is a very mid D&D campaign." The Forgotten Realms remains a garbage setting, and this movie does nothing to redeem it. The DM definitely came up in the modern, story-focused tradition of running the game in "scenes" that they've strung together with some excuse plot which the players are asked not to depart from. The PCs are neither cliche nor are they creative. They are the exact sort of forgettable class+race+tragic backstory combos that most first-time D&D players come up with. "Tiefling druid raised by elves whose motivation is some vague thing about wanting to protect nature, but is still pliable enough that they'll work in the DM's campaign without much friction." A big part of me wished that it was more like, y'know, a good campaign. Maybe even a great campaign.

In the second half, I began to appreciate the value in it being, like, an extremely generic campaign instead. Because that's what most people who play D&D are going to experience. They'll run some shittily-made WotC 5E module set in the Sword Coast with a forgettable villain, listen to (and forget) tons of lore and backstory that both does-and-doesn't matter, and then, every once in awhile... they get to actually play. They're thrown into a scene with a weird and tricky problem to overcome, and they start trying to solve it. They debate, make plans, leverage their resources, make some hilariously stupid suggestions, and eventually succeed through a combination of lucky die rolls and genuinely good ideas, the kind that only D&D players can come up with.

Asking whether or not the movie is good is a bit useless. I have a far more interesting question.

Every now and then someone asks about what movies and shows "feel the most like D&D." The most commonly-agreed upon answers usually aren't high fantasy works like Lord of the Rings or Willow. Rather, they're the ones about characters going on quests, using their noggins to solve problems, usually working as a team, and overall just seem to be tackling challenges that feel like the sorts of thing a DM would cook up to entertain their friends for the evening. Tremors, The Expanse, Jim Henson's LabyrinthThe Mandalorian, Big Trouble in Little China, those sorts of things.

My one thing I was hoping for more than anything else is if this movie would be a fitting answer to that question. "What movies feel the most like playing D&D?" And it actually was.

Overall I rate it a 1/10, because it only had one dwarf in it.


Wednesday, January 18, 2023

I Remember My First Time

Noisms wants to hear stories about your first time playing an RPG. Unfortunately, I don't think mine is particularly interesting. 

I was onboarded to the hobby by my older brothers, one of whom is my co-writer on this blog. I was in 6th grade, making me about 11 or 12. It was 2008, the year of 4th Edition D&D's release. My brother had several years of experience with 3.5 Edition but was closely following 4E's development and was ready to make the transition like any loyal fan would. So he put a copy of the 4E PHB in my hands and told me to read it. I have a short attention span, especially when it comes to reading (ironic, I know). But I slogged through the main bits over a few days.

Then, my brothers helped me make a PC using the character builder software that WotC put out for 4E, since their game plan also involved heavy use of digital tools. We all remember how that worked out, right? I made an Eladrin Paladin who worshipped Bahamut. I think his name was Conall, since I looked up Celtic names.

My other siblings all made characters so that we'd have a party of four. My oldest sibling, who had all the experience, DMd a single session for us. I remember it being really fun, but I was a little kid who had to be coached through most of it. I never quite got a handle on the rules. I could only really approach the game with a "play pretend" mindset, which my brother translated into the rules for me. Which is, of course, still a very popular philosophy of play.

I remember that all my siblings played as various shady characters, whereas I was of course a goody two-shoes. It was a classic "here's a contrived excuse for how you all meet each other and become a team" first session. The setup was that all the other PCs were in prison but were going to be put on a release program under my supervision, a fledgling paladin. In hindsight, appointing the youngest sibling as the "leader" was doomed to failure anyway. Then our meeting was interrupted by a goblin raid on the town, so we stepped outside and had a combat encounter. I distinctly remember a crowd of goblins (who I now know were "minions," mechanically speaking) surrounded me, made a bunch of attacks, and all missed. Their blows just bounced off my armor with a pitiful tink tink tink tink sound. I remember that exact description almost 15 years later because it made me feel awesome. Then I killed all of them in a couple rounds, since I probably had some kind of cleave-like area-of-effect attack.

Shortly after this, my older brother was quickly disillusioned with 4E and decided to switch to the also-brand-new Pathfinder. He asked us all to switch to the new system before our second session. I was frustrated and disappointed because I was asked to learn a new RPG already and reading is hard and learning new rules sucks and Pathfinder didn't have Eladrin.

It didn't take long before my own RPG opinions began taking shape and I, too, became a 4E hater. I also eventually became a Pathfinder hater but I do still think it's a better option for what I want out of my gaming.

This whole story is very typical, but in hindsight I see a lot of lessons learned and trends foreshadowed. I still really like playing Superman-like Lawful Goodies, I still like being a big powerful warrior in armor, I still slog through learning rules, and I still like thinking fiction-first instead of mechanics-first.

Maintaining a campaign with my siblings proved impossible. I realized soon that the only way I'd be able to play D&D was by running my own game. So I began studying Pathfinder, got together some guy friends from school, and spent a few months planning an unbelievably ambitious campaign based on Irish mythology. I ran one session of that and quickly discovered that the immaturity of 7th grade boys would guarantee my grand artistic vision would be completely ruined. But they had a lot of fun. I kept trying to start new campaigns over the next 3 years that all fizzled after one session, so most of my early history with this hobby came in the form of reading about games and game history by myself. Oh, and Order of the Stick.

I can't blame myself for making such typical mistakes when I was just in middle school, but I do really wish I hadn't wasted so much potential back then. In hindsight, I didn't truly begin playing RPGs until years after that "first time." I have a lot of criticisms of the modern norms of D&D's design and playstyle, but one of the most important has to be that... it's so geared against developing good habits as an RPG player when you're first starting out. Their design encourages you to spend more time reading and theorycrafting than playing. More time writing lore dumps, crafting all-too-serious plots, and carefully calibrating combat encounters instead of coming up with fun stuff for your friends to play with. More time investing in a perfect little original character than getting experience throwing yourself at challenges and developing those problem-solving muscles without fear of consequence. As Justin Alexander once said, asking your friend to play D&D is like asking someone if they want to join a fucking baseball league who has mandatory practice 5 days a week as an adult, when it should be more like asking someone "you want to play catch?" If I had been introduced to the hobby through something like Maze Rats, I have a feeling it would have led to a much richer experience early on and would have shaped me into a better GM in general.

Oh well. Instead you get a guy who just can't let go of Knowledge checks because he was trained by Pathfinder.

Monday, January 2, 2023

Picture Book Gameplay

I recently had a very novel experience running a game that I think has some potential that ought to be explored. Maybe someone out there has done this sort of thing and would like to share. It's a weird one.

Not too long ago, I was flattered to be asked by W.F. Smith (of Prismatic Wasteland fame) to do some playtesting for his upcoming crowd-funded adventure "zine," Barkeep on the Borderlands. The premise is simple: 200 years after the famous Keep on the Borderlands adventure from the TSR era of D&D, long after the Caves of Chaos have been cleared out by adventurers, the keep has grown into a large, bustling, cosmopolitan community. Its present-day culture and institutions of power are colored by the long history of consequences from that legendary adventure, and now your 21st-century players are invited to partake in one of the all-time great traditions celebrating that legend: six days of non-stop carousing in the Raves of Chaos. It's a barcrawl adventure with a hand-crafted town populated with lots of fun NPCs, factions, plot hooks, and 20 fully-detailed pubs.

I playtested it with three separate groups across 4 sessions, getting about 20 hours of experience running this adventure in total. I am happy to report that it was a great success, much fun was had, and valuable feedback was gained and incorporated. I recently gave high praise to one of Smith's previous, smaller adventures, and I myself originally backed the Kickstarter for Barkeep simply as a fan, not having yet really met him. Well before moving on to the main subject of this post, I'll go ahead and give a quick two thumbs up review. This adventure is dripping with that special sauce you want. I wasn't compensated in any way, save for the privilege of getting to play this adventure before anyone else on Earth. Here's a link to pre-order a copy.

But there was one pub my players went to that was a bit different.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Product Identity? In MY Monsters?

It's more likely than you think.

Notorious bird Prismatic Wasteland is up to his antics again trying to get decent, law-abiding folks to weasel their way around legal trouble, and I'm here to help.

I put together a similar list a while back and I figure it's worth sharing.

First, More Names for the Monsters He Covered

Mind-Flayer: Bathalian (Reaper Minis), Cephalid (Dark Sword Minis), Mind Lasher (Old School Essentials), Octopoid/Gastropoid (The Black Hack), Philosophers (Zak S), Brain Fiend (Fantasy Craft), and, arguably, Genestealers (Warhammer 40K).

Beholder: Eye Tyrant (the alternate, generic name they already have in D&D), Eye Beast (Reaper Minis), Eye of Terror (Old School Essentials), Gazer (Dragon's Crown), Watcher in the Dark (Fantasy Craft).

Personally, the name I'm using is an Oculus.


...Just... just get rid of the Orientalism, they'll be fine. Really.

I offer to you: Nagendra (Reaper Minis), Librarians (Zak S), and... that's all I could find. Really disappointed to see how many companies just go with "snake men" or "snake folk" for these guys.

Now, For Some Other Monsters

Bullywugs: Gullygugs (Old School Essentials), Boggards (Pathfinder), Squogs (Reaper Minis), Boglings (Greg Gillespie's adventures), and one of my own, Croaks.

Kuo-Toa: Deep Ones (Lovecraft, and seemingly the "default" name instead of "fish-folk" or something terrible), Dagonites (Otherworld Minis), Dagathonan (Dark Sword Minis), Pelagic (Darkest Dungeon).

Myconid (which isn't actually protected, but people like coming up with alternate names): Shrooman (Dungeon Crawl Classics), Funginids (Veins of the Earth), Fungoids (Reaper Minis), Sporling (Fantasy Craft), Mycelian (Old School Essentials).

Personally, what I really need is a good-sounding generic word for "bug-person." Can't (and don't want to) use "Thri-Kreen" or "Formian" from D&D, and everything else I've heard was way too setting-specific or bug-specific. What do y'all got?


Monday, December 26, 2022

Not All Balance is the Same

Artist Credit: Wayne Reynolds
This is a spiritual sequel to a previous post about crunch. Everyone uses the word "balance" in reference to something in RPGs but they frequently use it to refer to different things. Sometimes completely unrelated things. And yet it's become intensely emotionally-charged despite being, essentially, a non-word.

So while you very likely have strong opinions about this word, it might be useful to take a closer look. In this article, I'm going to examine six ways that the word "balance" commonly comes up when discussing RPGs, and why it's important to recognize that they are indeed distinct.

As usual, I will mostly be making reference to ol' D&D as my primary example, but don't mistake that for meaning that this only carries relevance to D&D alone. All kinds of gaming philosophies might benefit from a little bit of thought about these six different meanings for the word "balance," even if there are some that you can safely dismiss. So yeah, balance matters to other crunchy games like GURPS and Lancer and Genesys-system stuff of course, but it can also come up in your rules-lite games, story games, FKR games, lyric games, and so on. If you want to design a Star Wars game and you aren't sure about how to handle the Force, or if you're going to be running a Call and/or Trail of Cthulhu and are crafting a mystery for your investigators, or you're making a random mutation table for a Mothership adventure you're writing, then there's likely something in this post that you should be thinking about. It just might never have occurred to you before because you're only ever thinking of one possible definition out of many.