Posts Tagged ‘OSR

08
Nov
12

RPG Retirement

This is a post about how, back in the day, players would set a safe and comfy retirement as one of the driving goals for their player characters. The post about the RPG Retirement Home, the safe and comfy place (probably in the Midwest) which I am driven to create so that we can spend the last years of our lives pretending to be elves 24-7, will wait for another time.

Original gangster Tim Kask, founding editor of Dragon magazine and co-founder of Eldrich Entertainment, posted recently at the latter’s blog:

End-game goals? What a novel idea, at least for what seems to be a majority of contemporary players. Just what were those novel ideas? Same as you and me in real life: make a stack of cash, buy or build the home/castle of our dreams on our own substantial property where nobody is likely to mess with us and retire to enjoy the fruits of our labors. Yes, Virginia, we really did play like that. All of us had PC’s that were “retired” or “semi-retired”; we did not use them except for special circumstances.

Adventurer Conqueror King is as interested in setting out a system for players to pursue end-game goals as I am in exploring how these goals arose out of the original conditions of play. In playing and talking to some of the OG’s, I’ve seen secondary evidence for PC retirement as the ultimate end-game goal. During one of the side chats during the campaign Michael Mornard ran in NYC, he talked about how, because clerics got their stronghold so much sooner than other classes, everyone wanted to play the class that was the easy route to becoming landed gentry. It didn’t occur to me at the time that this castle would be a de facto retirement home, but because clerics in OD&D also hit their more-or-less maximum level earlier this makes sense. (Tim’s post is mainly talking about class level limits. It also gets into players having a big stable of different characters in the same campaign as a corollary of PCs retiring, which Mornard posts about here.)

Last night’s game was the first time I’ve seen a player in one of my campaigns (Ray Weiss, author of Everything is Dolphins) expressly say that the main goal for their character (whip-wielding, whiskey-drinking Randy Buffett) was to reach a safe place and retire. After having celebrated this sighting of an old-school trope arising spontaneously in the wild, I’m now ready to speculate on the reasons why PC retirement might be sought after in some games but not others.

Character sketch for Randy Buffett, retiree wannabe.

Lack of advancement. We used the original edition of Metamorphosis Alpha as the player-facing rules in last night’s session. (Behind the screen it’s Adventurer Conqueror King, or a mutation thereof.) Metamorphosis Alpha has almost no system for a player to improve their character’s abilities through play. I’ve cobbled together a Burning Wheel-style advancement mechanic using the closest thing there is in MA – when you make five successful tests against Mental Resistance you get to improve it one point – but the zero-to-hero payoff is muted. My houserules mean that MA characters start off at the point an OD&D character reaches at name level, where further adventuring might get you some extra hit points and more spells per level but you’ll never get another hit dice or new level of spells. When MA is played as written, a new character is more like a max-level D&D character of one of the classes referenced in Tim’s article that have a hard level cap: they’re basically as bad-ass as they’ll ever be. Note that the original group of D&D characters to visit Metamorphosis Alpha’s Starship Warden ranged from 18th to 20th level, plus an intelligent sword and some level-capped characters: “Tom and Tim went as druids (probably because they liked all types of herbs).”

Recent editions of D&D place a lot of importance on offering many benefits from advancement evenly spread all the way to level 20 or 30. Given this incentive to keep adventuring, it’s not surprising that retirement isn’t on the minds of players in these games; few will ever run out of zero-to-hero. Mornard and Kask described groups in which, having reached the point where rewards from further adventures diminished, retirement became “the ultimate and totally honorable goal of the game.” Such lofty levels remain a distant dream for any of the New York Red Box D&D campaigns, but last night suggests that retirement is a much more immediate goal in MA where advancement isn’t much of a hook right from the start.

A long road to the top. No goal that’s easily achieved is worth setting for your player character. Original D&D, and Adventurer Conqueror King even more so, very clearly lays out a lot of worthy obstacles between you and building your own gated retirement community, all of which – like amassing a lot of gold and clearing a hex of monster lairs – can be achieved through play. (Interestingly, you’re assumed to do this at the point where your character’s stats can still advance by adventuring, and one of the benefits of levelling up is getting free followers to staff your castle with, so the system uses the zero-to-hero carrot to reinforce the retirement incentive.)

Last night the group had a chance to return to their home village and lord it over everything they surveyed, but they passed up this chance at early retirement because they hadn’t yet achieved true security. Retiring onto a patch of land that isn’t hurtling out of control through interstellar space, rapidly breaking down, and in the power of the deranged intelligences Mother Brain and the Captain is almost as beyond Randy Buffett’s grasp right now as a level cap is to a newly-minted D&D character.

Love for your character. Some of the strong reactions to Kask’s blog post at RPG.net and theRPGsite come from the assumption that a rotating stable of characters means that the player has no more attachment to any of them than you would the counters provided to your side in a wargame. (Some also derive from the fact that Tim is either enough of an OG to have stopped caring who he offends, or enough of a showman to know the value of controversy.)

This is obviously wrong, even setting aside the ample evidence in Playing at the World that wargamers have been developing personalities for, and emotional ties to, individual units for centuries. If none of your characters means anything to you, why would you derive satisfaction from knowing that one of them has escaped from the fray to enjoy the good things in its imaginary life? The reward for advancing a pawn across the board is the exact opposite: it levels up and can fight more effectively, and because you don’t care about it like you do a player character you’re glad to pay the price that turning your pawn into a queen has also painted a target on its back.

As a point of OSR research and intellectual interest, I’m glad to see that this campaign has generated the conditions necessary to make an end-game goal emerge organically from play. (This bears out an observation of Chris Clark’s that the most important innovation of Metamorphosis Alpha was to make the end goals explicit and urgent: whether you’ll try to save the ship or escape from it becomes a pressing issue as soon as the players figure out what’s going on.) But as a player, what makes me proud is that in just two sessions of play Randy Buffett has gone from being 3d6 in order to a person who Ray cares enough about him to fervently hope he reaches a place where he’ll never again risk being sliced apart by animated bottles of Aunt Jemima syrup.

EDIT: I just remembered that one of the first OD&D characters ever created in my White Sandbox campaign, Lotur the Scurrilous Cur, was also explicitly retired from play. The omission was probably because Lotur’s goal seemed primarily to achieve domestic bliss with his beloved gynosphinx Ontussa, which seems different but is really just a specific flavor of retirement home. To the points of a large stable of characters and threat of death, though, Lotur’s player Greengoat was also explicitly interested in making room for a character whose stats wouldn’t suck so bad and perhaps would thus not be so constantly on the edge of mortal peril.

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02
Sep
12

Wear a Tall Hat Like a Druid in the Old Days

By stringing together lines from Mark Bolan lyrics, this Abulafia generator has everything you need for generating the themes of your next D&D game. A million thanks to Jeremy Duncan at Dandy in the Underworld for creating this handy non-pharmacological tool for injection of the daydreamer fantasy strain.

I’ve been buckling down to read Playing at the World cover to cover, after intially dipping into pages at random and then picking the brain of its author Jon Peterson as often as I could at Gen Con. I haven’t yet reached the chapter on the cultural influences of fantasy and swords & sorcery that fed into D&D. Convenience sampling indicates that this section is typically completist and uses primary sources to reveal all kinds of antecedents that are new and exciting, but I don’t yet know what it makes of T. Rex. Certainly I learn something about the early ’70s from the fact that a band whose first drummer was called Steve Peregrin Took was able to make it big with a mash-up of druidic lyrics and video effects of clouds drifting against mirrorshades.

One idea that came up in talking with Jon was that pattern recognition is fundamental to D&D. This is central to Playing at the World‘s theme of simulation because it means that the level of detail provided by the game can be very coarse. Given just a few dots and lines, humans will tend to see a face; add gamers’ willingness to participate in the process of imagining another reality and you get vivid experiences from a handful of d6.

An example of pareidolia, “a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant.”

For me, the enjoyment of pattern recognition in itself is part of the pleasure of playing in the old-school style. Random encounters, sparse one-page-dungeon keys, and evocative hex descriptions all foreground the experience of making narrative sense out of very minimal inputs. And playing with systems like OD&D that are full of lacunae and contradictions compels pattern recognition at the table on the level of game design; we’re cobbling together both an imaginary universe and the way we simulate it. I find that a high level of indeterminacy in story and system go hand in hand to create the sense that we’re discovering an independently real place through play. Both the things we discover there and the lens through which we view it are continually adapting as this other world comes into focus.

However, thinking about T. Rex also points out that pattern recognition works on familiarity. We see faces in rocks and trees because we’re humans and that’s what our brains are primed to see. Bolan’s lyrics often touch on mythology because that’s a deep well of familiarity that can be tapped with just a word or a sentence fragment.

It’s unlikely that T. Rex was any kind of formative influence on D&D’s creators, especially never having been big in America, but there’s no doubt that a huge part of D&D’s early audience was made up of the kinds of longhairs who thrilled to find hobbit references in Led Zeppelin lyrics. Gygax didn’t see Tolkien as a significant contribution to D&D, but this becomes academic once hundreds of thousands of people seize on the game as their gateway to Middle Earth. Likewise, the fact that the face on Cydonia is in reality just a coincidental arrangement of shadows on rocks shouldn’t limit our enjoyment of this:

One of the major accomplishments of the OSR has been doing the kind of religious education you need to see Jesus’s face in a tortilla. Marc Bolan’s lyrics can look like word salad if you don’t bring a big investment in druid hats to the party, while they’re super exciting if you care a lot about Beltane walks. Likewise new-school gamers didn’t see the virtue in random encounters causing TPKs because they hadn’t read The Seven Geases, and scorned games that generated narratives of amoral murder-hoboes because they lacked the Vancian language that made Cugel’s similar exploits suitable material for “the greatest living writer of science fiction and fantasy.”

The fact that we’re now ready to play the DCC RPG as a “system that cross-breeds Appendix N with a streamlined version of 3E” depends on a lot of work getting people to read the fantasy canon that enables us to make a vivid image out of the minimalist elements of 1974-era D&D. My favorite part of being in the loop of the DCC development team was getting one another up to speed on the things ’70s fantasy means to us. Here’s one example from Erol Otus:

“George Barr is one of my favorite artists because he puts personality into his creatures, they all seem to have intentions. Little did I know that some 20 years later I would be sharing artistic duties with him on Star Control 2. I don’t remember Alan Garners story in detail except I have a feeling its one of the several that formed the basis for Harry Potter.” – Erol Otus, 2010 email

If the OSR is ready to rest on its laurels and go gently into that good night – which is a thesis I offhandedly advanced at Gen Con and need to explicate in a future post – it’s because we’ve laid the groundwork for understanding random Mark Bolan lyrics as a gateway to the wonders of 1970s daydream fantasy. However, the fact that there are still more of these awesome paperback covers Erol turned me onto which I haven’t blogged about yet means that maybe there is still some distance to go before we deposit our corpse in the well where it will taint the groundwater for generations to come.

09
Jan
12

you heard it here first

Sign-up image for Wizards of the Coast's 5E open playtest.

Today’s pieces by Ethan Gilsdorf in the New York Times, David Ewalt in Forbes, and Greg Tito in the Escapist – as well as the Legends and Lore column by Mike Mearls – bring confirmation that the OSR has won sooner than I expected. Apparently there is some inaccuracy in taking a summer temperature by counting the frequency of cicadas chirping, or in predicting the arrival of 5E by how often people are crying that the sky is falling.

Here are folks I know have been listening to what the OSR has been saying, talking about the announcement:

“The long open testing period for the next edition, if handled correctly, could be exactly what’s needed to make players feels invested in D&D again.”

“I’m not a fan of fourth edition. I find the combat slow, the powers limiting, and the rules inhospitable to the kind of creative world-building, story-telling and problem-solving that make D&D great. But so far, the fifth edition rules show promise. They’re simple without being stupid, and efficient without being shallow. Combat was quick and satisfying; we got through most of an adventure in just a few hours.”

  • David Ewalt, one of the participants on the “The World Dave Built” panel at the Arneson Memorial Gameday.

“It’s a compliment to the new rules that I was rarely aware of them. It might have been Mike’s expertise as a DM, but the new D&D does feel like a pleasant amalgam of every edition and the elegance of the rules allowed us to concentrate on the adventure’s plot… Many of us fell in love with the game through the adventure modules released by TSR in the early days of the game. Gygax’s Against the Giants modules are still regarded as a crowning achievement in how they planted plot details in the dungeon along with exciting combat, and Mearls said he wants to get back to that level of story-telling through new published adventures.”

  • Disgruntled 4E playtester Greg Tito, in his own piece.

Are these not some of the things that we’ve been asking for?

I don’t think that the OSR’s every word has been taken to heart. It’s certainly not that our size or market impact has made any kind of meaningful impact on Wizards of the Coast’s business projections; I’m not even sure our OGL ally Pathfinder can claim that distinction.

What I do believe is that the OSR represents the same zeitgeist that is putting like-minded souls into art galleries and theaters and sports teams and the leadership of WotC and Paizo. And I believe that our cacophonous, insanely divergent group of loudmouthed blind men provided an unusually complete description of the elephant in the room throughout the 4E era. Facing an insanely difficult task of design and marketing as they try to usher in the new age of creation, not even WotC would have the hubris to completely refuse to drink from the OSR’s pool of free advice and analysis.

Of course, WotC’s capacity to screw things up often seems limitless. If in trying to give the OSR what we want they make a complete mockery of everything we believe in, feel free to say I was among the first to get egg on my face.

06
Jan
12

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!




Past Adventures of the Mule

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