Posts Tagged ‘boasts


I’m a Third Level Gen Con Industry Insider Guest of Honor

I am proud to make two announcements concerning yesterday’s events:

  • My Glantri character, Gael Ur-Boss, reached third level – the greatest such achievement of any PC I’ve played in Quendalon’s campaign!
  • I was announced as one of the Industry Insider Guests of Honor for Gen Con ’12.

Particular reasons I care about these announcements:

  • Playing Glantri is fun. Having a character who is more capable will make it more fun (although it is to be noted that third level is nowhere near making Gael a force to be reckoned with in any Glantrian party these days).
  • Doing panels and workshops is fun. Having a larger audience resulting from the extra publicity from these being on the Industry Insider track will make it more fun (although it is likely that the bulk of this audience will be attracted by those GoHs more illustrious than myself: Wolgang Baur, Stan!, Dennis Detwiller, James Ernest, Matt Forbeck, Jess Hartley, Kenneth Hite, Steve Kenson, T.S. Luikart, Michelle Lyons, Ryan Macklin, Dominic McDowall-Thomas, Jason Morningstar, Susan Morris , Mark Rein-Hagen, Elizabeth Shoemaker-Sampat, Gareth-Michael Skarka, Christina Stiles, George Strayton, Richard Thomas, Rodney Thompson, and James Wyatt).
It’s a truism that no one wants to hear about your character. I’m deliberately drawing a parallel by talking about my beloved Gael (did I tell you that s/he got a +1 to Constitution just from becoming a six-year-old orc instead of a five-year-old one, even before s/he leveled up?) in the same breath as my Gen Con appearances. These are games you can play within the world of roleplaying. If you invest enough time and effort, you’ll get a recognition which is meaningful to the other players in your group.  But even should you make it to name level, it’s still a game that’s pretty uninteresting to anyone not intimately involved.
That said, here are some reasons you might care about these announcements nonetheless:
  • You will be adventuring in Glantri and need a comrade with not zero, not one, but two whole first-level cleric spells!
  • You will be at Gen Con this summer and might be interested in stuff I’ll talk about at the panels and workshops I’ll be on.

Panels etc. are yet to be determined, but here are the ones I said I “would feel comfortable hosting” in the application to be an Insider GoH:

Fund Your Game Project with Kickstarter (panel)             

From publishing your RPG or boardgame to opening a gaming café, learn how crowdfunding can help you achieve your dream from those who have succeeded (and failed) with Kickstarter.

Raising Money for Charity with Gaming Events (workshop)

Learn how you can use your gaming skills to help a good cause by studying previous examples, getting practical advice, and participating in a celebrity roleplaying event to raise money for a gaming-related charity.

Record and Share Your Roleplaying Sessions (workshop)

Podcasts and actual play videos are increasingly popular as ways to share the excitement of your games and help bring new players into the hobby. Learn how to get started!

Teaching Games (panel)

Educators, parents, and kids share their experiences with programs that introduce kids to gaming, from school curricula to homeschooling to summer camps, and pass on advice and inspiration.

Getting Paid to GM (panel)

A survey of professional opportunities for roleplaying gamemasters and advice on how to get started.

Lunch hour being over, I should get back to the business of Getting Paid to Have a Day Job, but will perhaps come back to this topic (or ones raised in comments) in future.


Zombies Don’t Have Gender


The other day I was reminded that I never posted how things went when Javi was DMing at Anonycon.

The quick summary is that he had a great time and was eager to do it again this weekend. He has not yet learned practical aspects of the craft: if you let the players buy dragons at the ride shop in town, or pour the M&Ms GaryCon’s DM concierge service brought him onto the table and say “everybody take four”, it will take a long time to get everyone to focus on the dungeon again. However I am filled with pride that he knows that dragon-riding and candy-coated chocolate are good ways to awesome up your players.

Quote from the player of the druid Layla, sitting to the left of the GM screen: “Skeletons don’t have gender.”

Quote from Javi, boasting to a spectator: ‘I’m draining levels!”

Javi played in two other all-kids games earlier at GaryCon. Friday’s was very expertly run by the player of Sir George, identifiable in the picture above by his black gm lanyard. Saturday’s Haunted Keep was run by Paul Stormberg, who taught me that bringing a treasure chest full of coins, jewels, potions, wands, and cloaks is a great way to awesome up kids especially; he kept them enthralled for seven hours (!).


Saturday Gaming in NYC for Dwimmermount and the Marvel RPG

Yes, it is clobbering time! I googled it.

I often wait too long to post about upcoming events for anyone to do anything about it (or for those who do not live in travel distance of NYC to feel bad for what they’re missing, like crazy high rents and getting gum stuck on their shoes in the subway). However, given the awesomeness of this Saturday’s events, I hope this will be enough lead time for at least some of y’all!

First up, nerdNYC is organizing a Marvel RPG launch party at the Compleat Strategist on 11 E. 33rd St. Anytime from 11 am until 4 pm, you can learn to play the new Marvel RPG from Margaret Weis Productions. I cannot confirm that James will be there to field-strip its reward systems or demonstrate his hot and weird abilities to open his brain to the Marvel maelstrom and barf forth continuity, but I know for sure that my son and I will be there with bells on. This should provide an interesting experiment in player skill, as my son has been reading himself to sleep with the Marvel Encyclopedia ever since he got it at his last (9th) birthday, whereas I wanted to put “It’s Clobbering Time” as the caption for that photo but then was unsure whether that was a Marvel or DC thing.

Then later that very same day at 7pm, I will be kicking off a series of explorations of the legendary Dwimmermount mega-dungeon at the Brooklyn Strategist‘s sweet new location on 333 Court St.

Geek Chic's hypographer says that the Sultan gets more press than Giles Corey. I love that they hire nerds so advanced that I need to Google this caption too.

If you can’t make it to this one, fear not! The Dwimmermount events will be at the B-Strat every Saturday throughout the campaign by Autarch and Grognardia Games to crowdfund the process of turning the notes and experience from James’ home campaign into a location other referees to use as the tent-pole location for their own campaigns, as an inspiration for designing their own dungeons, or as the source for many unique creatures and weird magical items that can be dropped into any fantasy game.

However, if you can’t make it I am not above making you feel bad. We will be playing on the B-Strat’s Sultan gaming table, and recording our progress by building the dungeon as we go with Master Maze pieces from Dwarven Forge sculptor Stefan Pokorny’s personal collection. Eventually we will also be using miniatures sculpted for the project by Sandra Garrity based on backer’s descriptions of their rival adventurers, which will also be illustrated by Jeff Dee.

If I can convince Jon Freeman to let me hang stuff on the walls of his beautiful new place, visitors to the B-Strat can also admire the original of the painting Jeff is doing for Dwimmermount’s back cover. Up in Toronto, players in James’ campaign will be basking in the glory of Mark Allen’s painting for the front cover, which shows their adventuring party in a characteristic moment of mystery and wonder. I am no less proud that my PbP adventurer Locfir the Astrologer was among the group seen on the back cover, especially since this let me earmark that one for display in my home town.

To continue this goal to make the published work reflect what really happened in play in as many ways as possible, one of  the seats at the Sultan each evening will be reserved for an artist in residence. Their sketches and maps and doodles during the game will be donated to the Play-Generated Maps and Documents Archive for the enjoyment of all. We also hope that each session of play will inspire at least one illustration, so that a moment from our adventures together will be published in the final Dwimmermount book and PDF bundle.

If the Kickstarter hits the right bonus goal level, a copy will be etched into gold, attached to a space probe, and sent beyond our solar system to make aliens feel bad about missing these Saturday events even there is no way they could possibly have attended.


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.


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!


Introducing the Adventurer Conqueror King System

At the most recent session of the White Sandbox campaign, Greengoat passed around a copy of the Adventurer Conqueror King System, which had been freshly printed that morning by Adjua at McNally Jackson Books. I’m going to be talking about this game a lot in the coming weeks, and I want to start by explaining why.

First is that I’ve been involved with the making of ACKS for months. As anyone who’s tried to become a parent knows, it’s wise not to talk publicly about the forthcoming arrival of a new baby until you’ve passed some milestones. The initial one was having a tangible book, with stunning cover art by Ryan Browning. The second was when the website for Autarch, the partnership we formed to release ACKS, went live earlier this weekend, thanks to Ryan and Carrie Keymel. Now that these concrete indicators have convinced me that this thing is really going to happen, I’ve got a lot of pent-up things to say about it.

I had Adjua digitally print and perfect-bind a copy of ACKS to use as a prop in the video I shot at Greengoat’s studio. This video will serve as an introduction to the Kickstarter project, launching later this week, which will fund the publishing of the game. We worked hard on making the cover look right (Carrie’s layout assistance was invaluable here as in the composite image above), because the cover is what was visible in the video. Although the 256 pages of the interior do indeed contain a complete and playable fantasy roleplaying game, at this stage in ACKS’ development there is still plenty of stuff left for us to add.

One of the things that’s currently missing is a credits page. Eventually that’ll include Ryan for illustration, Carrie for layout and Greengoat for cartography, and Alexander Macris, Greg Tito, and myself on the text side of things. When we get around to assigning ourselves titles I’ll probably get an Additional Design credit, since that’s what I have for a similar role on the DCCRPG: telling the guys involved in the actual design work what I think they should do to make the game better suit my lazy ass. In this I join many great minds in the old-school renaissance scene who have similarly been putting forth great ideas they didn’t have to implement themselves; we have used as many of their ideas as we could make fit into ACKS. (This is not to say that there aren’t OSR folks who are expressing their great ideas in design form; in this case my role has been to point to the sources we should steal from. Another of the things left to do is to write for permission to specifically credit the originators of these stolen ideas. Ironically, it’s often harder to thank those whose ideas we used when they were originally put into practice than it is when they were just thrown out there half-baked. This is because the former are usually released under the Open Game License, which makes it easy to copy but hard to credit what exactly you used from where. My old publishing company Behemoth3 released books with a limited license to use the name of our books & our company to make this possible, but it never caught on – probably because Section 14 of the OGL which creates this problem and the legal language we used to get around it are both pretty arcane, and also because it was and is generally easy to get hold of folks in our little community and get permission on a case-by-case basis. I digress because of a recent post of Jeff’s; as he says, it’s a shame that more people don’t do this, but the way the OGL is set up means it’s not a simple courtesy.)

Perhaps this telling the writers what to do job is what they call being a developer at places like Wizards of the Coast where that’s a separate role from being a designer. If so, it reinforces my conviction that it would be sweet to work there, because this development thing is nice work if you can get it. This brings me to the second reason I’ll be talking about Adventurer Conqueror King a lot. Unlike the work I did for Wizards where I got paid the same whether the book was a hit or a flop – or even, as with Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium, when it never got released at all – I have a direct stake in the success of ACKS. I don’t think there is necessarily a financial conflict of interest between my selfish desire to see ACKS sell a zillion copies and my responsibilities to entertain and enlighten my fellow followers of the Mule. The best way to get y’all interested in ACKS will be to have a ton of interesting things to say about it, which I do (at least to the usual blogging standard of “interesting enough to me to wax on self-indulgently about”). Contrariwise, an excess of boringly crass hucksterism will cause you to tune out and me to lose this free marketing channel, I mean, esteemed podium from which I am honored to be able to share my exudations of hot gas.

The last reason I’ll be talking about ACKS around here a lot is that in a very real way, the game is an outgrowth of the Mule and the New York Red Box community from which both sprang. Over at Autarch, I posted the original email in which Greg – an old gaming buddy from a pair of long-running 3E campaigns and one of my co-authors on Goodman’s 4E Forgotten Heroes books – introduced me to Alex, whose online magazine the Escapist had seduced Greg to leave Brooklyn for Durham, NC. I waxed fannish about how I’d been reading the Escapist since the beginning due to its laudable practice of hiring my tabletop RPG heroes to write about all manner of interesting stuff. In his reply, Alex said that he’d similarly been reading the Mule and the NYRB forums since their inception. I originally thought he was blowing smoke up my ass, but it turns out that yes our pond may be tiny but some of the fish swimming in it really have done stuff like turning startups into multi-million dollar media empires. Better still, said empires can then indulge their publisher’s lifelong devotion to funny-shaped dice by running columns like Check for Traps (written by Alex and Greg) and Days of High Adventure (featuring installments not least by the Pope of Old-School himself), video shows like Zak’s I Hit It With My Axe, and one-off articles like my own D&D Is The Apocalypse.

Adventurer Conqueror King is the product of several long-running old-school campaigns. Glantri and the White Sandbox you’ve been reading about here and maybe also participating in as a player and referee, like I have. The third is Alex’s Auran Empire, a sandbox which he credits the Mule and the Red Box forums as having helped inspire him to launch. Our campaigns started influenced each other even before we began development on ACKS – for example, the 4:1 ratio of XP from treasure to combat that I use as a rule of thumb in the White Sandbox was suggested by Alex in a comment here at the Mule, based on his own experience on what worked for his group in the Auran Empire.

Although we didn’t know it then, during Gen Con 2010 Greg and I took the first steps towards the game that the players of the Grey Company passed around last weekend. He was telling me about the appreciation for the Old Ways he’d gained as a player in Alex’s campaign, in particular how awesome the expansion of scale was when they emerged from the dungeon and started doing wilderness exploration. They had warhorses now – heck, one of them had been reincarnated as a centaur – and the baffling-on-paper transition from 1’ = 10 feet to 1’ = 10 yards expressed the visceral and compelling evolution in their party’s ability to dominate much larger battlefields through their fighters’ unconstrained mobility and the power of their mages’ area-effect spells. We started kicking around ideas for mapping the 4E idea of tiers of play onto the classic adventuring concepts, sketching out what scales of time and space the players can act upon in each tier, what key abilities must be gained to permit advancement to the next tier, and what activities constitute the campaign during each stage. ACKS is, among other things, the culmination of that late-night conversation.

At one point as Greg was telling me these war stories from Alex’s campaign, I thought to myself “some of that sounds a lot like the Caverns of Thracia.” I was right: ACKS is a game by and for slayers of the Beast Lord. To the extent you’ve enjoyed reading the Mule posts that have come out of our engagement with these ‘70s gems – which is just about all of our posts in one way or another – I think you’ll enjoy Adventurer Conqueror King when it comes out, and I hope you won’t mind me going on about it until then.


You’ll Get No DCC RPG First Impressions From Me

"In today's adventure, we will confront the Grants and Contracts office as we attempt to solve the mystery of why its computer system won't interface with the one that does the financial conflict of interest forms."

In my day job, I spend a fair amount of time getting research investigators to fill out conflict of interest forms. This requires an annual statement of all the things you have any kind of financial stake in, then each time we apply for money from a new funding source everyone involved has to state whether the proposed work does or doesn’t affect these interests.

I like to think that my own financial conflict of interest statements bring a smile to the face – or milk shooting out the nose – of some guy in Compliance. He’d have to be a nerd like me to get the joke: here we sit, who dreamed of becoming puissant magic-users or legendary thieves, now trying to survive our institutional mega-dungeon as Papers & Paychecks characters instead. Last year I reported income from Wizards of the Coast, Goodman Games, and my son’s elementary school’s Board of Regents (for the afterschool class), plus ownership of Adventuring Parties LLC which I formed to take over the latter. This year I may or may not get paid by WotC for invoices on stuff I never fully completed and they never released as planned; I’ll have equity in two new gaming startups, which will get their own here-are-my-biases posts as they get announced; and I sure hope to cash a few checks from Goodman Games for writing some of the adventures Mr. Goodman and I have been kicking around, like Moonlight on Elf Hill or Robbing You Makes Me Rich, Slavedriver, and Gutting You Makes Me Glad.

All that said, it’s not a clash of financial self-interest that keeps me from talking about the DCC RPG beta the way everyone else in our echo chamber is doing. First, any actual paid work is still in the fantasy realm of when-I-have-more-time. Second, I’d get paid by the word, so that once it’s published neither helping the project succeed nor trying to make it fail would affect my bottom line. And third, getting paid to do something for Goodman, like Zolobachai’s Wagon in the Book of Rituals, hasn’t stopped me from talking about it before.

The problem for me in talking about the DCC RPG beta is that I’m too close to it. And the reason that’s a problem is not a conflict of interests, it’s that it makes it hard for me to perceive what’s actually on the page. I formed my first impressions of the game over a year ago, at a pickup playtest Joe put together at Gary Con II. Immediately afterward, I started bugging him to become a playtester, shamelessly exploiting our previous working relationship to get a look at the rules-in-progress. Since then, I’ve:

  • run Joe’s adventure Citadel of the Emerald Sorceror at Fal-Con, and played it with my nine-year-old son in preparation
  • converted Castle Zagyg and Castle of the Mad Archmage on the fly to the DCC RPG for Anonycon (which I wrote about in the Glorious Swinginess post)
  • converted the Paizo 3.5 adventure “War of the Wielded” on the fly to the DCC RPG (which I wrote about in the Uncomplicated Fun post), and playtested the Moonlight on Elf Hill adventure I’d drafted specifically for the system, for the New York Red Box crew
  • taken all of the feedback my players and I generated from these experiences and passed it on via email and in-person conversations to Joe Goodman, Harley Stroh, Doug Kovacs, Dieter Zimmerman, Michael Curtis, along with my suggestions about how the problems we encountered could be addressed and the things we like carried further, which we then all kicked back and forth until there was a collective “yes that’s it”
  • participated in discussions with some/all of the above plus artists like Stefan Poag, Peter Mullen, Brad McDevitt, and Erol Otus on visual inspirations – what was special about the look of the pulp covers that the original D&D creators grew up on, what does it mean to be “retro” nowadays, how does that relate to the backward-looking mystique of the original game where most of the Appendix N entries were already oldies and the art looked like medieval woodcuts and grimoire illustrations even when it also referenced contemporary underground comix?
  • tossed in a lot of unsolicited stuff of my own like “here’s how XP for both finding and spending GP has made the White Sandbox campaign more fun” and “this is my personal theory on why wandering monsters are essential” and “a good idea from the OSR hive mind handles this problem thusly” and “yeah that Margaret St. Clair book is totally wack, wouldn’t it be awesome to play in a game that pays as much attention to that inspiration as to the Big Three?”

At some point I apparently did enough of this kind of stuff to earn an Additional Design credit, even though I didn’t write a word of the rules. The important thing here isn’t that my name appears on the book, although this is indeed a game I’m very proud to have been part of. Nor is it that Joe is the kind of standup guy who would give me that credit, unasked for and indeed unmentioned until I saw the beta release. The thing that matters to you, the thing that is amazing and unprecedented in my experience, is that Goodman Games listened closely to its playtesters and made ongoing, substantive changes to essential design features of the DCC RPG system based on volunteer feedback.

When I look at the beta, I don’t see what’s on the page. I see the realization of a vision of what D&D would have been like if it had grown out of all the same pulp fantasy and early-70s inspirations Arneson and Gygax and their playgroups loved, except with the 3E System Reference Document swapped out for Chainmail as the “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures” that were near to hand when they reached the limit of the number of rulings they could make on the fly and still keep track of in their heads, and thus decided to add a little more systemization. Like a D&D game or a shared hallucination, this vision is both personal and collective, and it’s responded to my input continually and organically. At this point it would be both hard and not-fun for me to go through the document and discern what’s there for outside readers to see vs. what’s just the way I dreamed it.

There are many good reasons you might not care about the DCC RPG. But if you are interested in its vision even a little, and/or in the scale on which that vision will be able to reach the wider population of gamers, I encourage you to go play a session or two. You might start out by assuming it’s always right, in order to see how the rules play out and what their unspoken implications might be, but the text frequently encourages you to house-rule, interpret, and make the DCC RPG your own game. When you do – when you achieve the mix of old-school and new, of pulp inspiration and gameable mechanics, that hits your group’s sweet spot – go to the Goodman Games forums and post about it. The shared vision hasn’t yet died and left a fossil; on the contrary it’s unusually vital, growing and changing to better adapt to its environment. Once it’s published you can always change it to make it the way you want – but now is the time when your input can result in changes to the system that’ll help others discover that the way you want it is awesome and they never would have thought to do it that way without your input. Seize this opportunity!


Caverns of Thracia: “Mwa Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha”

After the adventurers in the White Sandbox defeated the Beast Lord, I asked them to sign my copy of Caverns of Thracia in memory of all the great times we’d had within its pages. Tonight I collected the last signature in the set: Paul Jaquays relishing the hundred-plus hours of suffering his brilliant dungeon design inflicted on y’all, which made the final victory so sweet.


super awesome lets pretend time (pt 1)

This afternoon Tavis and I played a home-brewed version of D&D with ten 8 year old children at an afterschool program in Manhattan.  Let me front-load with the cute stuff:

  • Two of my five players were girls.  One of them, Joan, ended by saying, “That was AWESOME.  That was, by far, the best game I have EVER played.”  We loaned her a copy of the new 4e Starter Set to read this week – God knows what she’ll make of it.  So at the end of the session, a copy of D&D ended in the hands of an enthusiastic new (and female) player, which is what this is all about.  I am awesome (Tavis is more awesome, but gets second billing on this).
  • Joan initially was disappointed that there were no “normal girl” miniatures, but at the end of the session said, “I wish I could keep this, I LOVE her” in regard to her black-leather-clad dual-wielding female Doomguard.
  • “Okay, as you’re travelling along the old bridge road, you see a strange little lizard man, about 3 feet high.  He is astride a giant weasel, and looks to be having a nap in the saddle.  What do you do?”  “Kill it!  “Um, kill it.”  “Ooh, ooh, I attack it and then kill it!”  “Let’s just kill it!”  “Okay . . . Roger, what do you want to do?”  “I guess . . . I chop off its head, and then kill it.”
  • In the process of killing it: “I chop out its eyes!”  “Whoa cool!!  It can’t see!!”  “Nice one!”  “Yesssss!”  (twenty minutes later) “In the dungeon, you find Sir Justin.  The monsters have chopped out his eyes, leaving him blind.”  “That’s horrible!!”
  • All of these kids were 8 years old.  They showed strong ability to do D&D-type reasoning: “It sounds like this route is very direct, but dangerous.  Let’s try an indirect route and get there a different way. . . . Let’s stick together so the monsters don’t get us . . . This key probably unlocks a dungeon cell, let’s take it along with us. . . . This monster invited us to dinner: it must mean he’s planning to eat us!”  So all of these signals from the DM are immediately understood correctly.  I delivered these signals in a slightly exaggerated fashion, but the children had no problems understanding the big idea and how stuff fit together entirely on their own.
  • RaQuel said, “My second sword is also a cell phone.”

The idea is that we’d get a whole bunch of kids at the elementary school to role-play, using the Dungeons & Dragons brand as a bait-and-switch.  The idea would be to teach newcomers that these types of games exist, and Dungeons & Dragons is a fun thing to do.  And for kids who are already D&D players (there are a few in this bunch), we’d show them how to do things in a more Old Skool kind of way–which is to say, just imagining stuff and having fun, without worrying about “builds,” rules, feats, and other stand-ins for status-mongering.

Some of these kids are new.  Several of them that I was playing with had no prior role-playing experience, and were very frightened and worried about trying something totally brand new.  So I did a lot of work reassuring them that, “This is a game that is fun.  It helps you imagine.”  We would play as a team (“Yes!!  I’m so glad we don’t have to compete!”) and while unexpected things might happen, you’re never out of the game.

Tavis home-brewed some super-simplified version of 4e which was still too complicated for me to understand, much less teach.  My bunch played pretty fast and loose: roll + stat bonus = hope for the best.  Basically, my version of it was a D&D 4e Skill Check type system, just without skills, and 5 kids managed to accomplish 5 encounters (with 2 combats) in just over 40 minutes.

Maybe some day soon I will post up the little adventure I drafted, if I can figure out how to do it.


A Walkthrough for B2: Keep on the Borderlands

Go N. Hail castle. Go N. Get mission. Go S. Go S.

As readers of the New York Red Box and Red Box Vancouver forums know, I’ve been working on a piece for the online magazine The Escapist‘s Issue 271: The Red Box Diaries, “How a decades-long love affair with Dungeons & Dragons is reshaping the industry.”

My just-released article is called “Imagine Your Perfect Arcade Game“. The title refers to one of the key metaphors I use to talk about what makes Basic D&D and the way we play it unique, shamelessly lifted from cr0m’s blog post Running a Red Sandbox: “Red Box is an arcade game, not a video game.

In my enthusiasm for the subject, I ran well over my word count. Heroic editor Greg Tito just emailed me to say:

I cut it down a little bit more to get it under 2000 words. Unfortunately, the anti-walkthrough was a casualty, even though I thought it was hilarious it just didn’t illustrate more than what you are already saying with less words in other places.

As an appetizer, then, here is that excised tidbit: an illustration of what it would look like if you tried to write a video-game style walkthrough for the original Red Box’s starter adventure Keep on the Borderlands, meant to illustrate how radically different its improvisational approach is from the kind of RPGs most gamers know from computer games or even most modern tabletop ones.

Enter the lowest cave to the north. There is a 33% chance six kobold guards are here. If so, your DM may roll dice to see how they react to your arrival. If they want to be your friends, just play it by ear; maybe you can guess what explanation the DM has dreamed up to make sense out of this turn of events. Don’t let the conversation go on too long or you could be interrupted by a random wandering monster! If there are goblins, and they decide to fight, according to the rules your best weapon is flaming lantern oil. However, since one of the DM’s jobs is to model the physics of the imaginary world, you should first make sure no house rules have been introduced to reflect the danger inherent in tossing Molotov cocktails around a cave the size of a schoolbus.  If you can kill one of the goblins, and the DM is using the optional rules for morale, a lucky roll may cause the rest to run away from you. If not, you might need to roll up a new character. Try to get more than one hit point this time!

Past Adventures of the Mule

May 2023

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