Archive for January 13th, 2012


D&D’s associative mechanics

Just a quick one.

A million years ago, Justin Alexander wrote a thing about dissociative mechanics in modern editions of Dungeons & Dragons.  Justin’s a smart guy, and he says it better than I could, but the basic thought is that certain parts of the modern game feel very “game like” without a lot of fictional justification.  Here’s your “daily power card,” and you play it.  And it’s glossed a little bit with a fictional description that doesn’t really explain why you can’t do that more than once a day.  In other words, what’s going on at the mechanical level doesn’t really have any pointers to or from the fiction.

(Vincent Baker had a whole bunch of things to say about the interaction of dice and fiction in 2009, collected here.  Not necessary to the discussion, but there are some connections to the OSR along that line of thinking.)

Anyway, I kind of think Justin’s a little wrong about some of this.  The Thief rolling d100’s to disarm a trap isn’t particularly associative; it’s one of the reasons people dislike the Thief class so much.  But the Fighter is the Thief of fighting.  Even the early days are full of sub-systems that don’t do much to immerse you.

Anyhow: this is what I like about early D&D class design, because looked at in broad strategic patterns, the classes are very strongly associative, even if the particular mechanics are not.

The Magic-User can only survive by anticipating the situations she will likely face, and then carefully selecting the right load-out for the mission.  This is a difficult intellectual exercise, often resulting in trying to puzzle out how to make the best of a poorly-chosen spell.  To do well, you’ve gotta play really smart.

The Thief is so hopelessly screwed, even in the things that he’s supposed to be good at, that in order to prosper you’ve got to play a super-cautious, extremely attentive, sneaky little bastard alert to seize every unfair advantage or momentary opportunity.

The Cleric fights well, has some great spells, dominates a whole class of monsters, has a terrific XP curve, and at the end of the game gets a castle at half-price.  I don’t know if there’s a God, but certainly the rules of D&D are looking out for this guy.

The Fighter isn’t situational.  She doesn’t need forethought, devious schemes, or the favor of the gods.  She shows up; she’s tough; she can go all day without loss of effectiveness.  Maybe she doesn’t go “nova” like the others, but she’s got the defenses and hit points to confidently slog through whatever the dungeon throws at her.

There are a lot of times when I think, “Geez, this game is a kludge of crazy ad hoc rules that nobody really thought through.”  But when I look at this, I come away thinking that the foundation of the game was laid exceedingly well.

joesky tax

I’ll post the scenario I’m running at Recess in a few days



positive representation of gamers: mission accomplished

For all my talk of the OSR having won, I forgot to fly a big banner and pose on the deck of an aircraft carrier for this latest one!

Over at and Story Games, cherished nerdNYCer and NY Red Boxer E.T. Smith wrote:

I so hope I can level up a few more times before this dude completes his phylactery. Aircraft carrier = phat lewt.

So it turns out that a request by the NYTimes for pictures of actual gamers in the act of gaming D&D, first circulated a couple weeks ago, was not an attempt to to find out anything about the actual culture, or give a chance for gamers to represent themselves in a diverse and positive light. It was just a way to grab a bit of flash to garnish the WotC press-release announcing 5th edition.

The article, as has been hashed out here extensively, appeared in Tuesday’s paper, Jan. 10. The image chosen for the print edition is of a few folks watching a giant d20 with shapely legs strut about, a performance by the “D20 Burlesque” troupe. I suppose in the end, gamers actually gaming wasn’t hot enough to appear in the NYT (no disrespect to the skillful troupe intended).

Here’s the interesting thing about that image: it was taken at the Soho Gallery for Digital art during the “Dungeons and Dragons: On and Ever Onward” exhibit. The exhibit involved displays of art by golden age TSR illustrator Erol Otus and several artists working from his tradition. It was also a release party for “Adventurer Conquerer King,” a new game in the OSR style. Besides ACK, tables were playing original tan-box D&D (run by one of Gygax’s original players) and a huge table running BXD&D (I was one of a dozen players at that). Also briefly present was Luke Crane of Burning Wheel and a few other indie folks.

What is notably absent from that gathering was any element of modern D&D or anything to do with Wizards of the Coast, its corporate properties, or profits derived therefrom. It would be hard to come of with a gathering that better illustrtes the irrelavance of WotC’s strategies and ambitions on people who just enjoy playing and celebrating the games or making their own.

Three things I take from this experience.
* Somebody at the NYTimes know well in advance of the coming announcement. I really hate being reminded how much of the news-media is just a process of distributing press releases.
* I am slightly miffed that WotC managed to steal hard-won publicity away from independent producers by co-opting coverage of the gallery event, even if unintentionally.
*WotC’s stated goal of “unifying the editions” makes good press but is laughably irrelevant to significant audiences.

ET I love you, but this is all wrong! We managed to steal some of WotC’s carefully orchestrated spotlight and give it to local independent producers and artists. This scheme succeeded remarkably well, I think everyone involved is as happy as adventurers who have proved James_Nostack wrong by actually using the pick pockets skill.

– The author of the NY Times piece, Ethan Gilsdorf, contacted me to get some quotes for the article. One of his questions was “where can the Times get pictures,” but I answered lots of other questions knowing that he wouldn’t be able to use most/all of what I said and that his editors might omit whatever was left.

– Ethan made sure that credit went where it was due by running a piece in Wired’s GeekDad blog, where he does have pretty much complete control over what appears. I think it’s a good idea to fill journalist-types with as much info about RPGs as possible – even if it’s not immediately useful it could crop up later – but Ethan is a deep-dyed gamer and all-around good guy, I was preaching to the choir.

– I likewise knew (but maybe should have been clearer in saying) that it was also possible that none of the pictures would make it in. Although I was sad when they pleased their corporate masters by using the WotC publicity photo on the initial website version of the story, I think it was actually a clever bit of subversion that for the print edition of the paper they went with the more interesting and local image.

– Tim Hutchings, curator of the gallery show, can be seen in the front row of that photo and continues to be as pleased about it as you can see he was to be watching the burlesque in the first place.

– One of artist Casey Jex Smith’s images from the show – a portrait of Mitt Romney as a character sheet – was covered in the Huffington Post, giving him mad press with which he and his gallery, Allegra LaViola, was very pleased.

– One of artist Casey Jex Smith’s images from the show – a portrait of Mitt Romney as a D&D character sheet – was covered in the Huffington Post, giving him mad press with which he and his gallery Allegra LaViola was very pleased.

– The Soho Gallery for Digital Art, whose owner is a gamer & was really glad to host gamers for these parties, was mentioned in the Times print photo caption, making him happy as well.

– d20 Burlesque wasn’t mentioned in the caption – I think because it is an in-joke hard to explain in so few words, whereas “Soho Gallery for Digital Art” is self-explanatory – but I think Anja and Keith are pleased as punch nonetheless. And they got to try out the Action Castle-style piece Jared Sorenson wrote for d20 Burlesque in front of a highly appreciative audience!

– All the attendees I heard from had a good time, that’s one of the things that counts!

– The other thing that counts is that this event is what brought Michael Mornard out – I’ve been trying to reach him ever since learning he was in NYC, with no success until now. Some of us got to play with him and we’re all benefitting from the resulting discussion of his playstyle, his taking part in the D&D Documentary and being interviewed for Of Dice & Men, and the resultant increase in shared knowledge of the roots of roleplaying and perspective on where we come from.

I am an OSR partisan but in the end we’re all fighting for more recognition of roleplaying games and their history. Thanks to everyone who helped make this happen, we can call this battle a victory.

EDIT:  The Twenty Sided Store did get a profile and a slideshow in the NY/Metro region, and I did suggest that they send a photographer out there to get pictures for the D&D piece, but these two events are unrelated! Luis emailed me to say that the reporter for the profile happened to be in the neighborhood and attracted by the Twenty Sided’s logo and storefront, which are indeed attractive. It was coincidental that the profile appeared at around the same time as they were gearing up for the D&D article.

Past Adventures of the Mule

January 2012

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