Posts Tagged ‘adventuring parties


What’s New with Games that Can’t Be Named

This Wednesday we have a double-top-secret, as in we’ll make you sign a NDA before even giving you the second NDA, session of Games that Can’t be Named. Our location for this week, 333 Court Street, is in keeping with the “you get to see it before it’s publicly available” theme. The Brooklyn Strategist is still under construction, but they’re opening their doors early for this event. Owner Jon Freeman says:

What's New with Phil and Dixie. Did you know there were new (as in 'created this millennium') ones of these, and they're all online? Click the picture to check 'em out!

Just so I can set everyone’s expectations at a realistic level, it’s still a construction zone.  It won’t have the amazing and cool vibe we’re hoping to achieve in the final product and it’s possible that the place will be a little dusty (plus I won’t have any shelving or counters up – they won’t go in until end of the week).  That said, I’m a big proponent of “if you bring good people together with games, food and drink, it usually doesn’t matter where they are…”

Hopefully it doesn’t matter too much what the games are either, because those are also under construction! Only those adventurous souls prepared to trip over an as-yet-unfixed mechanic, an uneven seam in the thinset concrete, or proud nails both literal and figurative need apply.

This Wednesday will be the third installment in the Games that Can’t Be Named series. The next two, 2/8 and 2/15, will be back at the Soho Gallery for Digital Arts at 138 Sullivan St. On those nights we’ll continue to have folks ready to run and play the games from earlier in the series (including the one we’re busting out tomorrow), and will continue to introduce a new not-widely-available game each night.

Here are some things that players in the sessions so far have ventured past the veil of silence to report!

Co-organizer Alex Guzman writes at

We had OSR gamers playing alongside 4e players playing alongside indie gamers all having a good time. It was great validation for my belief that people aren’t looking for the perfect game they are looking for a good time. What our hobby needs isn’t more products its more people to play with. That’s my opinion – but what the hell do I know right? lol

nerdNYC has lots of people daring the fiery wrath of disclosure to talk about the experience. The quotes below from cawshis leave out some great stuff, including more of the saga of his mom playing tabletop games again after 20 years (also referenced at

Happy to have been there for the first one. Hope to make one the next time I’m in town! I should say, despite the logistical considerations, I had a great time and so did my mom, who talked about it all the way home. I was mainly interested in the full “stranger” to the scene experience and that’s what I got! From where I sat, I thought you guys pulled it off. Everyone appeared to be having a fun time and that’s what’s important to me. The format needs only a few tweaks in logistics.

I encourage everyone to go! These kinds of experiments in ad-hoc gaming should be supported and encouraged! It can only improve the more folks go and try it out. And it’s fun gaming with strangers since, as Eppy taught me, it’s all about going out on dates with lots of gamers to find those perfect matches.

The logistics he mentioned were:

  • Big groups: we had a larger turnout than expected and wound up with a table that, while not exceptional by White Sandbox standards, had more players in one group than most are used to. Tomorrow we’ll have at least four people ready to GM, with likely group sizes thus in the standard 4-8 range.
  • Setting expectations: This is a tough one. The format means there are things that can’t be said; the games are so new that it can be hard to know what they’ll be like; and what part of the experience comes from the GM rather than the material is hard to assess. However, to answer some of jenskot‘s questions for tomorrow’s game, I expect it will be skewed toward combat rather than role-playing (although being player-driven means it could go either way) and a system-matters playtest.

Blogger Tenkar reported on the second session, where we did much better with logistics and solved at least some people’s expectation issues by describing the game as “inspired by OD&D and Burning Wheel and old-school video games”:

It was a blast! I met some really cool gamers, had some excellent Tunnels & Trolls conversations (last thing I expected to find), saw some amazing Old School D&D art from the likes of Peter Mullen (rendered on digital screens) and got some gaming in. I wish I could talk about the RPG I played a session of, but I can’t (NDA and all that). I will say it was a lot of fun and a blast to play.

Lessons learned? I should bring an old notebook, more then 2 sets of dice, gem dice don’t read so well depending on the light at my semi-advanced age and gamers are gamers no matter the age.

Most important lesson? My wife is awesome! Thanks for encouraging me to attend ;)

One game that happened at last week’s session can’t be named only because, when Michael Mornard learned to play it, various people called what they were doing “Blackmoor” or “Greyhawk”. Now that we’ve settled on “original Dungeons & Dragons” as a name, however, both myself and Paul Hughes (here and here) have been eagerly sharing the lore Mike is helping bring out from behind an undesired veil of secrecy.

I’m sad to report that Mike won’t be at tomorrow’s session – seminary school starts this week, making weeknights tough for him although I hope we’ll find another time. However, if you’re in range of Brooklyn, please do come by and help us make some new gaming history!


Pledge Allegiance

This morning on the bus, I tested my son’s knowledge of Tarzan to check Charlie Jane Anders’ assertion that the character is unknown to people under 30. It turns out that nine-year-olds have enough familiarity to nickname you “Tarzan” if you wear a lion-print Halloween costume that started as one year’s Charles Atlas and was re-used as Hercules the next. What Javi knows about Tarzan is that he swings on vines and drowns enemies in quicksand who are not hip to the vine trick. Tarzan’s origin story is news to him, which is probably not good for the long-term survival of what makes the character unique; apparently we are no longer much interested in people being raised by apes, but still need an iconic image of a guy who runs around hollering while half-dressed.

Cover from Doc Savage Magazine, July 1935

Anyway, Javi wanted to know why I was grilling him about Tarzan so I explained that I’d read an article about what new pulp characters have come along to replace old ones that are forgotten, like Doc Savage. Then he wanted to know who that was. Being a fan of Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life I was able to do a credible run-down on the Man of Bronze, but a nine-year-old’s thirst for knowledge makes it very handy to have a hivemind in your pocket. The Wikipedia entry brings us to the thing I want to talk about, Doc Savage’s credo:

Let me strive, every moment of my life, to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it.

Let me think of the right, and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice.

Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage.

Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do.

Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.

Since Green Lantern was Javi’s first heroic fascination, he and I are no strangers to oaths. Our conversation about why the Guardians of Oa require that their agents to recite a daily oath to receive their powers, and what benefits Doc Savage might receive from having a code to guide his conduct, got me thinking about creating a credo for characters in a role-playing game.

I am at the stage of unpaid taxes where I guiltily suspect that a commenter like NUNYA who likes all caps and creative spelling might be Joesky in disguise sending me a warning, just as an unrepentant Scrooge might flinch at the sight of passers-by who just happen to be androgynous and candle-headed, robed and torch-bearing, or gaunt and spectral. So instead of just waxing theoretical, I will try to offer actual game-useful content. (Before the gassiness ban takes effect, let me note that Doc Savage is awesome because his myth is the unfamiliar archetype that sheds light on elements of our culture so familiar that they’re hard to perceive directly; doesn’t “strive to make myself better and better that all may profit” and “take what comes with a smile” sound like a perfect encapsulation of the ethos that makes original D&D appealing?)

And I won’t just say “hey you should make up your character’s code of behavior” because I haven’t done this and have no reason to suspect it would be a good idea. When I suggested to Javi that he and I should make up oaths for ourselves, he was clearly embarrassed by the notion and I suspect your average player, or even me when I’m not wearing my enthusiastic Dad hat, would feel the same.

But I really like the idea of striving, every moment of our lives, to make ourselves better and better, to the best of our abilities, that all may profit by it.  Since the Joesky tax fund is full of stuff that’s useful to DMs, I’ll start a series of posts aimed at being better players.

Michael Mornard's dice are not older than me only because I am really old. The twisty white thing at left was not a joint, but I don't know what it was.

Last night in the OD&D game Michael Mornard ran (here I make an exception to  Games That Can’t Be Named‘s name-no-names policy), I rolled up Boboric the Huscarl and did not want him to get killed. Being a first-level fighting man, I decided that having plate-mail would go a long way to supporting this ambition, but I only rolled 60 gp and needed cash for flaming oil and door spikes and all the other things that would let me contribute to the welfare of the party without needlessly exposing myself to death in the front lines.

So I approached Roger de Coverley, who had emerged from the previous adventure with all kinds of wealth and second-level-ness, and announced “Sir, I will pledge myself as your guard and servant if you will equip me with a full suit of steel armor!”

After making sure that this pledge included standing in front of Roger in the marching order, Paul agreed to equip Boboric. Seeing the success of this tactic, the player of Melbar the Lesser got in on the action. “Hey, is there a Melbar the Greater?” I asked. Upon learning that he was indeed, M. the Lesser was of unspecified relation to Melbar the Greater, Lord of Toast, I said “Cool, will you accept me as your vassal so that I may wear his coat of arms?”

Paul cut himself into this action too: “Hey, Roger has a garter that you can wear.” Being quicker on the draw, Boboric  got to wear the right garter, Melbar was stuck with the left. (He also wound up in the first rank of the marching order; sucker!)

What started out as a simple exercise in advantage-seeking (with overtones of greed and paranoia) became my key to roleplaying Boboric. When I challenged a bandit leader to single combat, after defeating him I went over and laid down my spear (which cost me 1/60th of my wealth, and had a valuable spider stuck on it for safe-keeping!) at Roger’s feet, establishing to the surviving brigands that he was the big man here; Boboric had proven himself to be tough and fierce, but how much more to be feared was the guy who commanded him!

Gronan, Roger, and Melbar (background, from L to R); The Mauler (foreground)

The decision to play a character who was eager to pledge allegiance and see what he could get in return unlocked a lot of fun for me during the session. Here’s what I think can be generalized as advice on being a better player:

  • Want something. D&D is a great and compelling game because, in every edition, it gives me ways to “strive to make myself better and better.” As we’ve said at the Mule before, one of the great things about XP for GP in TSR editions is that it gives characters a specific, concrete thing to pursue with monomaniacal zeal in pursuit of that goal. Both gold and XP are so fundamental that the advice to want these things is unlikely to lead to better D&D play, although it may be useful to note that a character concept that involves not wanting wealth and power will probably be no fun to play. Odyssey has written about how a party full of characters who are addicted to things other than gold would provide not only motivation but also a reason for everyone to know one another. Maybe the greatest benefit of wanting something is that it helps you understand other people who might want that too. Boboric’s drive to get a suit of armor out of pledging allegiance to the highest-level dude around set the stage for the party to embrace the idea that the bandits would sign on to our party once they learned that, under Roger’s leadership, we ate three times a day.
  • Look up and down the ladder. One of the biggest things I learned from Adventurer Conqueror King is that low-level guys want to wear the insignia of a higher-up on their shield for the extra protection it affords: mess with me and you’ll answer to Melbar the Greater. And name-level characters want to find competent people to wear their coat of arms because they want someone to go around showing the flag and doing the scutwork that’s beneath their notice. You don’t need ACKS for this (although the PDF will be available for sale real soon now!) – you could have learned it from Jeff’s posts about to-do lists for BX characters, or just from the basic assumptions of D&D. Last night’s session began when, as we were working out our marching order in a tavern, Lord Gronan sought us out because Roger’s success in the kobold mines meant we might make useful vassals, and we were delighted when taking over from the deceased bandit leader meant we emerged with nine new henchmen of our own. This stuff is as old as RPGs, but like much of the original D&D lore it risks being forgotten.
  • Set up connections within the party. You never know whether the situation in a session will provide whatever externals are necessary for you to pursue the thing you decide your character wants. The one thing you can be sure of is that you’ll always be around your adventuring companions. Linking them into whatever striving you have in mind for your character means you’ll never lack for a roleplaying hook. Boboric got lucky (or plugged into an omnipresent D&D current) in that we did meet NPCs who wanted to play allegiances with him; but since Gronan of Simmerya was Michael’s character from the original Greyhawk campaign, even this was an example of making PC-to-PC connections.
  • Be considerate of fellow citizens. Allegiances within the party shouldn’t obscure the fact that everyone’s first loyalty should be to one another. Boboric was Neutral; he kept his word but was careful about what he pledged, and although he gave his loyalty for keeps he didn’t commit until a quid pro quo was established. The player to my right, Maurice, rolled up another fighting man, The Mauler, who (as Mike pointed out at the end of the night) was definitely Good. The Mauler never hesitated to risk his life by stepping up in battle, and when one of our magic-users was killed by a poison chest trap, the rest of us were like “oh yeah, old-school play is lethal, what can you do?” The Mauler didn’t accept that answer, even when the player of the magic-user in question was like “hey no big deal”. He took the body to Gronan and demanded that something be done for his fallen comrade, and the next thing we knew we were in the Temple of St. Cuthbert of the Cudgel witnessing a miracle (and receiving a geas in return). Wanting to do the right thing is a powerful motivation, and I think we were all inspired by the dedication with which Maurice lent his assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice.

Games that Can’t Be Named

Alex Guzman of BAD WRONG FUN and my outfit Adventuring Parties are organizing a weekly series of gaming events over the next six Wednesday evenings. 1/18, 1/25, 2/8, 2/15, and 2/22 will all be at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art, 138 Sullivan St. in Manhattan; the location for 2/1 is likely to be the Brooklyn Strategist’s new location, construction permitting. There will be roleplaying going on from 7-11 pm each of these Wednesdays.

Here are answers to some questions you may have:

What are Games that Can’t Be Named?
I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you!

OK, it’s no secret that there are a lot of things in the RPG world going on right now that haven’t yet been released, that some people are playing, and that NDAs make it hard to talk about. Come by and we may hook you up with one or more of these, which may or may not be the ones you’re thinking of.

Is this event open to the public?
Yes, just show up and we’ll have you sign in blood at the door.

Do I need to be there right at 7? Is it OK if I need to leave before 11?
Come by whenever you can, stay for as long as you like! Different structures for gaming is one of the things we’d like to test out in this series of events. A barrier to entry for new players is that you usually have to make a somewhat substantial time committment before you know whether you’re going to like RPGs. It’d be sweet if we collectively worked out a way to offer a Vegas buffet of fun that could suit nibblers as well as those interested in a full sit-down meal.

Will there be gallery-goers wandering in and out?
No, we should have a relatively private space (where D20 Burlesque did their thing for the last event we did at the SGDA). However, if you have friends who might be interested in gaming for whom it’s easier to talk them into going to a gallery, feel free to bring them wandering in!

Do I need to bring anything?
No! If you have a favorite set of dice, paper and pencil, etc. you’re welcome to bring those, but it’s not necessary.

Is there a cover charge?

These first two weeks we’re going to pass the hat to help cover expenses. The SGDA owner is a gamer and liked having games in the gallery so he gave us a good deal on the venue, but it’s not free. As part of our agenda of generating positive representations of gamers in the media and recruiting baby bats, we’d also like to cover the costs of things like flyers and making actual play videos and suchlike fun. So we’re going to suggest that if you have a good time, you throw in something like the price of a movie ticket to crowdfund this goodness. Bad Wrong Fun’s list of sponsors is impressive and growing all the time, so down the road we may have other ways to make ends meet like selling raffle tickets for some of their cool stuff.


Why Monetizing RPG Design Sucks

In the discussion following a fascinating roundup of the state of the RPG business at the nerdNYC forums, deliverator asked:

Isn’t it bad for the hobby if the business side can’t support full-time, professional game designers?

I think full-time professional game designers are bad for the hobby, from my limited experience of playing with some of them and having done some professional design work myself.

The problem is that, at least given the current financial difficulties of the product-based RPG business, if you are supporting yourself solely by writing RPG material there is a real financial disincentive to play. During the development of a new core system you might have a R&D budget that supports just sitting around trying things out and figuring out what’s fun, but the limited profitability of each supplemental release means that you really ought to be spending all your time cranking out more words.

Sure, maybe you play RPGs in your leisure time, but probably with people who have the same narrow focus on the particular thing you’re all working on, and who could blame you if when you finish a long day of RPG writing what you want to do is passively kill orcs playing WoW instead of going back to the same well of creativity you use during your day job? The strong temptation when you play is to make it a playtest of whatever your current assignment is, and those assignments usually have a distant relationship to the things you’re getting into with any independently existing actual play.

Doing the stuff that would refill the creative well – going and playing different games with different groups and experiencing the full diversity of styles and approaches – is something I generally don’t see full-time professionals doing. Mostly this is just due to lack of time. Sometimes it’s because the personality types that want to delve deeply into rules design are kind of autistic, and/or eager for the authority and in-group status you can claim from being a RPG pro as ways to compensate for being poorly paid and not respected by anyone outside the subculture – neither of which is a recipe for happy experiences with lots of different groups and their variant playstyles!

My interest in finding ways to professionalize playing RPGs instead of writing them is in part to counteract this trend. I think it’d be good for the hobby if the people who were most deeply involved in it could financially justify spending time on the performance art side of things as well as generating products to support others’ performance.

Note that I have heard that some of the more famous mainstream designers of the last decade do run games for fans who have approached them with offers to pay e.g. $100 an hour for their GMing. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are people whose writing I really respect. They’re not eager to talk about this publicly because there is a stigma against “pay to play”, but I think the desire to live up to their self-imposed professional standards when running a game – to engage with play with the same commitment they bring to design – makes them better writers as well as better GMs.

Thanks to Matt for setting me up with this strawman – you’ve heard me do this rant before; to Chris for suggesting it’d be a useful addition to the conversation over here; and to John for the confirmation and pointer to alternate publishing strategies


The OSR Has Won, Now What Does It Stand For?

Hot elf chicks deserve serious discussion as the OSR considers how we want to reform the gaming industry. Click the picture to buy these pasties on Etsy, another condender for what the future of the RPG business will look like.

If the OSR is an old-school revolution, the revolution is all over but the shouting. The bulldozers are on their way, and it’s not too soon to celebrate the overthrow of the gaming industry. Sure, our share of the XP is just one among many, but how many hit dice does an 800 lb gorilla have? Enough that we will all level up for sure – even those of us who were name level already.

We wanted the leaders in the RPG industry to release introductory boxed sets, and they did. We wanted people like ourselves to be at the creative forefront of those industry leaders, and we got Mike Mearls and Eric Mona who have demonstrated their love of classic RPGs and Appendix N inspiration again and again. We’re going to be getting a lot more of the things we have been asking for. So what do we ask for now?

If the OSR is an old-school reformation, the work of clearing away the old is basically done. It’s time to start building a new RPG industry in our own image. Let’s start exploring what that looks like, beginning with the recognition that the best of us are already dead. If we the survivors want there to still be people to play with in our old age, there needs to be something that fills the role the game publishing business does now, because almost none of us would be in the hobby today if it weren’t for a commercial product.

If the OSR is an old-school renaissance, that implies its own business model. I am a big proponent of patronage projects and Kickstarter backing, which beat the pants off of both Medici princes and traditional “print first, see if it sells later” publishing. However, all the evidence I’ve seen suggests that patronage is only better at getting committed fans to tell you what they’d actually find useful in play. When it comes to attracting new fans, this Renaissance-era version of a product-driven industry seems even less capable than traditional publishing.

One of the awesome things Zak S. does on his blog sometimes is teach his readers how to talk about things without devolving into the usual noise. It must be working, because Cygnus’s comment to my last post demonstrates a peerless mastery of how to build a conversation:

The thing I love about the multiplicity of gaming blogs is that it lets me encounter viewpoints that are far outside my own “head space.” Like in this post, when I saw the initial question…

“So the interesting question is, how can RPG businesses meet their customer’s actual needs instead of manufacturing desire for inessentials?”

…My initial response was something like “Well, maybe the people involved should reconsider whether they really want to BE an RPG business at all.” Rather than thinking up more ways to “monetize” the hobby, why not step back and re-engage with the amateur/D.I.Y. aesthetic that (presumably) was the thing that got us all interested in the first place?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with asking one’s players to kick in a few bucks to cover the cost of the snacks and drinks. But I’ve got to say that this “pay-to-play” model (or the related model of “pay nothing now, but here’s some hard-sell for a timeshare”) strikes me as the wrong direction for the hobby to go. I hope I’m not whacking at a strawman of my own making, but this whole deal of increased monetization just smells, smells, smells…

Let’s talk about “alternate” instead of “increased” monetization. At this point I don’t think we have to worry about increasing the overall commercialization of RPGs – the existing attempts to commodify play by selling products have become more pervasive because they were failing. Now that the old empire is collapsing, how will we fund the work of building something new?

The OSR is many things. One of them is people like me and James Maliszewski and Rob Conley and Melan doing  just as Cygnus suggests: reconsidering whether we really wanted to be part of the RPG business at all. Working for WotC and Necromancer and Goodman Games was supposed to be the highest level of achievement Gygax described in MASTER OF THE GAME, but it gave us a lot of chances to experience first-hand how the RPG business as usual has a negative impact on the culture of play. We take it for granted that game designers should be paid for their work, but many aspects of that whole deal just stink, stink, stink.

Another thing the OSR is people like me and Mearls and Calithena and Kesher and most of the New York and Vancouver Red Boxes who were around when the Forge was really digging into alternate business models for RPG publishing. Long before I heard the OSR’s rallying cry to “do it yourself”, I was attracted to the Forge’s practical advice on how to “sell it yourself”. In many ways, the OSR’s business model to date is just what you get when better print-on-demand technology and the Open Game License meet the Forge approach of small print runs sold direct to the customer.

If the OSR is an exercise in using exploring paths not taken, hindsight tells us a lot about the drawbacks of the decision to build an industry around gaming by selling products. What other ways could it have gone? Set one clock to whenever Napoleonics turned into Braunstein and Blackmoor and roleplaying, and another to whenever the OSR got started. Roll both forward three years, and we’re now reaching the same point when TSR answered “why should we do any more of your imagining for you?” with “because you will pay us to do so”.

“Pay to play” seems fishy to us because we are used to a world in which game designers are professionals and game masters are amateurs. But if we imagine that Gary was the great communicator and Dave the great storyteller, is there any intrinsic reason why only one of them should have able to get paid for the exercise of their talents?

Looking back to 1976, it seems to me like part of why Dave Arneson and Rob Kuntz left TSR is that they got wind of the bad smell coming from the now-traditional business model for RPGs: supplement treadmills and tournament adventures standardized for organized play and new rules editions designed to support organized play by reducing the role of individual adjucation. Could a different way of monetizing the role-playing experience prevented the loss of Dave and Rob, if it took advantage of their expertise running games and let them teach others how by showing, rather than telling?  Note that during Dave’s later career he did professionalize his GM skills at venues from a convention charity auction to a gaming cruise ship, and since Spinachcat’s account of one of these games is among the best documents of Dave’s style out there, I think our hobby is better because he wasn’t afraid of the “pay to play” stigma.

As the product-driven trends entrenched at AD&D’s roots marched toward their logical extension in 4E, one of the most valuable things the OSR has done has been to say “this stinks, let’s go back to basics.” We did that and now we’ve spent enough time reconstructing to reach the same point TSR was at. If we want to achieve the full potential of this thing we’re part of, we have to figure out a way to pay the bills.

Part of that will be making commercial RPG products that resist the market pressure to suck. Can we also take our hard-won knowledge of all the ways monetizing RPG play through products can go wrong, and use it to think about how to make making commercial RPG experiences not suck?

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. A few victory laps are in order before we roll up our sleeves. The OSR is dead, long live the OSR!


On Monetizing RPG Play: Background and Publicity

Opening night gaming party for Dungeons and Dragons: On & Ever Onward. Photo by Timothy Hutchings; pictured are Luke (Burning Wheel), Ray (Compleat Strategist), Stefan (Dwarven Forge), and Peter (Gen Con).

It is not interesting that a great time was had at Adventuring Parties’ event for the opening of Dungeons and Dragons: On & Ever Onward show at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art. No reader of the Mule requires further proof that it is fun to get together with friends and make new ones by rolling dice and imagining adventures while eating chips and drinking beer. Should it surprise us that it is even more fun when you are also looking at fifteen monitors each displaying a different loop of gaming-related art and supplementing the usual gamer-snacks with wine and cheese?

What’s worth sharing is the knowledge I gained about party gaming. Around the time that the picture above was taken, I was talking about the basic problem faced by anyone who wants to sell roleplaying games as a product: no gamer actually needs a rulebook.  Poland’s first samizdat RPG proved the only thing you need is the idea that it’s possible to use dice and imagination to tell a collaborative story. If I’m correctly understanding the story I heard from some gamers in Krakow, no game-system texts made it across the Iron Curtain in the ’70s and ’80s. Just the distant rumors of this thing called Dungeons & Dragons was enough for Polish gamers to whip up Kryształy Czasu and start playing. (The fact that it is known for having insanely complicated charts may be because engineering students had the best access to what their counterparts in the Western world of nerds were up to, or because trends in gaming exist independently of borders or causality).

It was very gratifying when Luke arrived in the middle of this conversation and, like Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, I could collar him to make a point. His unhesitating reply to “what do gamers actually need?” was “More people to play with.”

So the interesting question is, how can RPG businesses meet their customer’s actual needs instead of manufacturing desire for inessentials?

We know from the general success of the RPG hobby industry to date that there is a role here for selling game systems: rulebooks and accessories and all kinds of support products. If we want to have more people to play baseball with, it helps if everyone shows up with their own mitt. And even though we don’t really need Big League Chew to play, it’s nice to have. So there is some correlation between how many businesses are trying to sell baseball equipment to people in our community and how easy it is to get a game together on any given sunny day.

The problem is that even a cursory look at the RPG industry shows that a product-driven business model can do as much to drive gamers apart as it does to bring them together at the gaming table.  The Open Gaming License was a great leap forward because it got manufacturers to collectively produce baseball equipment, instead of trying to market the Bases & Balls System to the customers they could splinter from the userbase for Advanced Balls & Bats. But new editions and meta-plot-driven supplement treadmills and requiring a deck of Dungeons & Dragons Fortune Cards to contain a multiple of 10 cards when they’re sold in decks of 8 are typically cases where the publishers’ need to make things outshines the customer’s’ need to buy them.

Last night’s Tower of Gygax event was many things in addition to fun. In part, it was another of my ongoing experiments in ways a business could meet its need to generate money by directly creating the play experience that’s the essence of what gamers need.

I started this post meaning to talk about the results of this experiement. Unfortunately I have to run out to get the stuff for Adventuring Parties’ afterschool class. One new, not unexpected data point is that doing stuff for kids remains the best source of revenue for a RPG service business that I know about. Here all my experimental data just confirms the example of the Roleplay Workshop, the Brooklyn Strategist, and their many counterparts in Israel: parents are accustomed to paying for their kids to have educational/wholesome/creative experiences. I was happy with some of the things I tried last night to get adult gamers to feel like having these experiences themselves was worth money, but the fact remains that we already know how to DIY our own balls and bats; the amount we’re willing to donate to a fun event like the Tower of Gygax seems like the same amount we might spend on Big League Chew.

Tonight’s event is an example of another reason product-based businesses are motivated to create opportunities for gamers to sit down and play: promotion. Here you’re not asking them to pay up front or during the event, because you have something you want them to buy later. In this case Adventuring Parties is promoting the distribution deal for Adventurer Conqueror King that Autarch just signed with Game Salute to get the hardback and PDF combo into stores where this buying and selling can happen. Hooray to Bits & Mortar for helping tie these two halves together! Here is the press release which has some details about tonight’s party.

When talking about money or politics, and their near cousins products and publicity, a hard-boiled tone tends to creep into one’s voice. Also when talking about two companies I’m part of as if they were separate things, I run the risk of A Scanner Darkly dissociation. Before I run off, here are some points I don’t want to be obscured:

  • Buying a shiny new (or enticingly old) product is an important source of a gamer’s recommended allowance of joy, and even if I think DIY playing together at the table should be at the base of this food pyramid, I don’t scorn those for whom buying things is their primary source of RPG fun.
  • The primary goal of just about everyone involved in producing new RPG materials, myself included, is that they want to make it easier to find players for their own favorite kind of baseball. We can’t talk about how business motives distort play without also talking about how individual motives to be like Gygax and have your name on the cover of a beloved gaming book distort business strategies.
  • The #1 way that adults spend money on their gaming hobby is by treating it as a business. Even though I know it will never be anywhere near as profitable as my day job, I passionately seek to get involved in just about every RPG business I can, whether it’s selling products or services or vapors, because I find this to be really, really fun. It’s almost as much fun as playing RPGs, it uses many of the same skills, and you can spend more time doing it.
  • Finally, a bit of hucksterism for the Roleplaying Retirement Home, coming soon, in which being off the hook business-wise means we will be able to spend as much time playing as we want. The return on our willingness to pay for our kids to have educational roleplaying experiences (aka babysitting) will be that they will pay for us to have dignified end-of-life experiences (aka babysitting). Suckers! I know there will be a potion of longevity in one of the many treasure hoards I will loot in my elder years. It will be a long time until you can pry the dice from my cold, dead hand.

Press Release for Dungeons and Dragons: On & Ever Onward


Dungeons and Dragons: On & Ever Onwards

Art, role-playing games, and historical preservation unite in an exhibit at the Soho Gallery of Digital Art

New York ­- Jan. 4, 2012 – Dungeons and Dragons: On & Ever Onward is a snapshot of the contemporary NYC scene at the intersection of roleplaying games, the art world, and the conservation of Dungeons & Dragons’ legacy. Curator Timothy Hutchings has assembled a retrospective of digital works from two exhibits he was involved with that helped illuminate this scene, The Cursed Chateau at the Indianapolis MOCA  and Doomslangers at the Allegra LaViola gallery, as well as a selection of images from the Play-Generated Maps and Documents Archive (PlaGMaDA) that demonstrate the roots of the connection between playing D&D and making art.

Artists whose work is featured in the exhibit include Casey Jex Smith, Ryan Browning, Sean McCarthy, Rebecca Schiffman, Josh Jordan, Jeffrey Brown, Giovanni Garcia-Fenech, Chris Bors, Owen Rundquist, Andrew Guenther Jason Phillips, Ketta Ioannidou, Fiona MacNeill, Kitty Clark, Erol Otus, Steve Zeiser, Matt Brinkman, Chris Coy, and others.

The show also presents new works by two of these artists, Ryan Browning and Erol Otus, that reflect the ongoing collaborations between gamers and artists arising from this scene. The panel discussion on “Dungeons & Dragons in Contemporary Art” during the Doomslangers run in NYC began the conversation that led to Ryan’s venture outside the world of fine arts to contribute the illustrations for the Adventurer Conqueror King role-playing game which are included in the exhibit.  Adventurer Conqueror King’s publisher, Autarch, will also be partnering with Erol Otus and the North Texas RPG Convention to release his fantastically illustrated adventure “Island Town” this summer.

Adventuring Parties LLC will be throwing gaming events at the gallery from 7-11 pm on Wednesday and Thursday nights. The opening night party on 1/4 combines a wine and cheese reception for the artists with a beer and Doritos fundraiser for the Tower of Gygax. Inaugurated by Eberron author Keith Baker as a way to celebrate Gary Gygax’s legacy following his passing in 2008, the Tower of Gygax has become one of Gen Con’s most popular events, introducing thousands of gamers to the joys of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Tavis Allison, one of the event’s volunteer DMs since the beginning, is proud to bring the event to NYC for the first time. Thanks to Manhattan’s Compleat Strategist, proceeds from the sale of dice at the event will support the Tower’s fan-driven work on the great Gygaxian project of bringing role-playing games to the world.

The party on 1/5 celebrates Autarch’s deal with Game Salute to bring the Adventurer Conqueror King System into retail stores following its successful crowdfunding effort on Kickstarter – helped in no small measure by ACKS’ stunning cover, an oil painting by Ryan Browning, and the video animation thereof by Timothy Hutchings. Both of these works will be on view in the exhibit. During Thursday’s celebration at the gallery, Adventuring Parties will be introducing guests to Erol Otus’s forthcoming Island Town adventure, which will be one of the first releases to use the Adventurer Conqueror King compatibility logo. The night will conclude with a performance by D20 Burlesque.

“Dungeons and Dragons: On & Ever Onward” marks the beginning of an exciting year for the NYC art and gaming scene. On March 15-19, the 319 Scholes gallery will present “Big Reality,” curated by Brian Droitcouer and building on his important survey of art and role-playing games in last year’s Rhizome piece of the same name. Curator and PlaGMaDA founder Timothy Hutchings is also preparing a new line of books documenting the intersection of art, RPGs, and gaming history, which will be announced later this year.

About Adventuring Parties LLC (

Adventuring Parties is a different kind of role-playing game company, dedicated to providing services and experiences rather than products. Founder Tavis Allison got started by donating a gaming-themed birthday party to the PTA auction at his son’s public school, and runs a weekly after-school class introducing NYC elementary school students to RPGs. Since then Adventuring Parties has expanded to offer bachelor parties in states from Pennsylvania to Texas, public outreach gaming events like the Arneson Memorial Gameday, and promotional events like the launch party for the digital release of IDW’s D&D comics on comiXology.

About d20 Burlesque (

D20 Burlesque is a critically acclaimed burlesque show catering to the gamer community in the New York City area.  Their monthly event at the Parkside Lounge is regularly selected as one of Time Out New York’s top 5 nightlife events. You haven’t lived until you have seen the dance of the giant twenty-sided dice.

Doing a press release always strikes me as hopelessly archaic. Then I ask people to, you know, give press coverage to something I’m doing and am caught flat-footed when they want to know what it should say.

I have a post full of practical and theoretical advice about how to run D&D as a party game and use it to raise money for a good cause that I wanted to get out today. Unfortunately I have to pick up my son and then go do those things instead of writing about them. I guess it’s good that I thought it through beforehand if only for my own benefit, but I can’t help but feel that the reason joesky hasn’t posted in a while is that he is walking cross-country to come kick my ass for unpaid taxes.


Support the Positive Representation of D&D in the Media

On Facebook, Ethan Gilsdorf asks:

for a photo shoot for a national newspaper story I’m working on, I’m looking for ideas of places to send a photographer to take pix of folks playing D&D. know of any gaming shops/gaming groups with events/games this week?

I’ve already suggested that the gaming events Adventuring Parties is organizing around the  Dungeons and Dragons On & Ever Onward show I posted about yesterday should provide some great photo opportunities. For those who don’t want to follow links, we’re doing an opening night party tomorrow and another celebrating Adventurer Conqueror King’s recent distribution deal on Thursday, both from 7 until 11 pm at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art on 138 Sullivan St.

My fellow gamers, it is time to stand up and be counted. (That sounds less painful than “stand up and be shot,” and more interesting than “sit down and have your picture taken”.) If you want to ensure that the folks who read newspapers get an accurate view of people who play D&D, come out and be one of those people this Wednesday or Thursday night. If you’re not in NYC, pass the word to anyone you know who is!

There will be games being run, or you could bring your existing group and run your regular weeknight game at the gallery. There will be wine and cheese, beer and Doritos. There will be awesome gaming-related art and, on Thursday night, there will be Michael Mornard:

I was one of Gary Gygax’ original gaming group, I was part of Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor group, and I taught MAR Barker to play D&D and was part of his first EPT group. I have credits in Greyhawk and the 1st Ed AD&D PHB. I’m living here in NY and I’m interested in the event. I also have brought to NYC my LBB set, my dice including a circa 1972 d20, and my AD&D 1E DMG autographed and personalized by Gary Gygax. I’m looking forward to seeing the event and maybe rolling some dice. I’d also be happy to talk about “Ye Olde Dayse” if anybody’s interested.

What we need now is you and/or your NYC-area friends!

UPDATE: I’ve got confirmation that the newspaper will be sending a photographer to Thursday’s event; they also took my recommendation to get some shots of the Encounters program, Wizards of the Coast’s organized play program to introduce new players to 4E, at the Twenty Sided Store in Williamsburg on Wednesday night. Which is to say that if you went to both you’d have two chances to be one of the the public faces of roleplaying to the wider audience of people who don’t know what it is. Alternatively, if you just want to check out cool art and play games in a nice gallery space but don’t want your picture taken, Wednesday at the Soho Gallery of Digital Art is a safe bet.


Dungeons and Dragons On & Ever Onward

Ryan Browning, 2011. "Adventures". Chapter illustration for the Adventurer Conqueror King core book. India ink on archival bristol paper, 11 x 8.5 inches.

I am helping organize a show of RPG-related art, video, and illustration this week, which is also providing the opportunity to do some gaming events. If you’re in NYC on Wednesday or Thursday nights, come join us to celebrate the opening of the show on 1/4/12 and the successful Kickstarter for ACKS on 1/5/12!

“Dungeons and Dragons On & Ever Onward”

Curated by Timothy Hutchings

Works by Casey Jex Smith, Ryan Browning, Sean McCarthy, Rebecca Schiffman, Josh Jordan, Jeffrey Brown, Giovanni Garcia-Fenech, Chris Bors, Owen Rundquist, Andrew Guenther Jason Phillips, Ketta Ioannidou, Fiona MacNeill, Kitty Clark, Erol Otus, Steve Zeiser, Matt Brinkman, Chris Coy, and others.

Featuring historical selections from the Play-Generated Maps and Documents Archive

Soho Gallery of Digital Art

January 4th – 11th, 2012
138 Sullivan Street
New York, NY 10014

Gallery exhibit 3 – 7 from 1/4/12 until 1/11/12

Gaming events Wednesday and Thursday nights by Adventuring Parties LLC:

Opening night party & Tower of Gygax fundraiser (1/4/11, 7pm – 11pm)
Adventurer Conqueror King distribution deal party featuring d20 Burlesque (1/5/11, 7pm – 11pm)

Dice will be available for sale during the events thanks to the Compleat Strategist.


party gaming to celebrate the digital release of the D&D comics

A while back I ran a public open-table OD&D game as part of the opening ceremonies for the Doomslangers exhibit at the Allegra LaViola gallery. One of the players was Kevin Pearl; when not scouring dungeons, he is part of the comiXology Social Media & Production Team. So when they were preparing for the launch of the Dungeons & Dragons comics from IDW Publishing on their Comics by comiXology service, Kevin reached out to me to put together a gaming event as part of the launch party.

If you’re in NYC and free this Wednesday night, come play with us at Jim Hanley’s Universe; check out the flyer image at right, or the press release below, for details. If you’re coming, be sure to RSVP at the Facebook event page!

Even if you aren’t in the area, or need more lead time to arrange your gaming schedule, I think this is a noteworthy development in a conversation we’ve been having here at the Mule. To review what’s gone before:

The scenario I ran for the Doomslangers show where I met Kevin was a room I created for the Tower of Gygax at Gen Con, which first got me excited about the possibilities for party gaming: ways to do outreach to new players through a reduced barrier to entry, and to entertain existing ones on a larger scale through audience participation and easy drop-in/drop-out. I ran this scenario again at Jaysoncon, where the Tower of Gygax approach worked as well for the small audience celebrating Jayson’s birthday as it did for the hordes who queue up at Gen Con to see how long they will survive before death means they have to give up their seat to the next player in line.

My experience trying to run 4E for a mixed group of experienced current players and newbies or long-lapsed ones at the D&D installment of Ryan McGinness’s  50 Parties series pointed out some of the issues that have to be taken into account to make this kind of public, all-access gaming work. The bachelor parties and birthday parties for kids and adults my fellow Mules and I have done since then are attempts to try out solutions.

I’ve said before that there are  interesting questions for the OSR about the interface between this kind of party gaming and the long-form campaigns that we normally celebrate. There is also an important conversation to be had about commercialization and commodification of our scene. Ryan McGinness told me that he created 50 Parties  in reaction to “the proliferation of parties with corporate sponsorship, where you’re always going to a party that exists to showcase the introduction of a new brand of vodka”. At the time this seemed as far away from my geeky world as could be, but in NYC these worlds are now in collision.

The fact that I really like both vodka and the IDW D&D comics doesn’t blind me to the issues here. How can we keep the collision of worlds from being a disaster and instead ensure that we get their planet’s women and Coca-Cola in exchange for our surplus ray-guns and radium saucers? I’ll have more to say about this down the road; for now, here’s the press release:

Harken to the call of adventure as comiXology, IDW Publishing, and legendary comic shop Jim Hanley’s Universe team up for an unprecedented Dungeons and Dragons gaming event!
In honor of the latest release of IDW’s massive collection of fantastic Dungeons & Dragons comics on Comics by comiXology, comiXology and IDW Publishing will be hosting an evening of classic Dungeons & Dragons gaming at Jim Hanley’s Universe in New York City! Gaming oversight provided by Tavis Allison of
When: November 23rd, 2011 6:00pm
Where: Jim Hanley’s Universe on 33rd Street, right next to The Empire State Building in New York City.
What: Come prepared with a Dungeons & Dragons Digital Comic already downloaded on your device and receive a free comiXology t-shirt that adds + 5 to your base Awesome factor! Didn’t understand that last joke? Worry not as players need not be experienced in the grand tradition of D&D to play. Adventurers of all levels are invited to take part in an evening filled with magic, adventure and a whole lot of geeky fun. So gather up thy lucky dice, digital devices, and whatever else one might need to slay Orcs or hunt for treasure and come join us on November 23rd at Jim Hanley’s Universe.

Past Adventures of the Mule

January 2023

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