Posts Tagged ‘theory


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.

Dave Wesely on D&D Was a Wargame

Last year prior to Gen Con I wrote to Major David Wesely about a re-creation of his Braunstein I game he organized via commenting at Ben Robbins’ ars ludi blog:

I had the pleasure of being introduced to you by Col. Zocchi in 2008 and sat in on your seminar on Braunstein, but sadly had a scheduling conflict that kept me from playing. I’m hoping that I might get another chance this year – and even if my busy schedule rules that out, perhaps I can buy you a drink or a meal and pick your brain about the early history of adventure gaming, which I find endlessly fascinating.

I have yet to write about the insights I took away from that lunch, but for now I’ll share some things I learned from the correspondence that followed Maj. Wesely’s kind response to this initial sally. In a subsequent email, I took the opportunity to point him to “some pieces I’ve done inspired in part by hearing you talk in 2008″, Random Events Make You Say Yes and D&D Was a Wargame: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means. Rather than direct you to go re-read these – especially since the former is available in full only in Fight On! – I will repost the bits that he responded to, with his replies in bold. From the Random Events essay:

Were Arneson, Gygax, Bledsaw, and Hargrave aware of improv techniques when they stuffed their early work chock-full with just the kind of random tables that make dice-driven invention shine? Could be. In talking about about his early-70s Braunstein games and the evolution of D&D, Dave Wesely points out that “role-playing” already described several other kinds of games. One is an improv exercise in which two actors each assume a character and try to force the other into a pre-agreed defeat. In Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch, John Cleese wins when Palin says “yes, sir” twice in a row. We don’t have to posit that Wesely’s awareness of improv techniques was widespread or in the forefront of anyone’s consciousness when D&D was taking shape. What we do know people were thinking about, from Wesely’s revisions of the Braunstein scoring system to rein in the chaos to Arneson’s development of the dungeon, was the problem of how to allow players free action without overwhelming the referee’s preparation.

So in my email to Maj. Wesely I asked: “I’m wondering if the awareness of “role-playing game” being an improv comedy technique meant that an awareness of improv comedy techniques, like the “always say yes” principle that I find so useful in running RPGs, was part of the intellectual environment of the Braunstein-Blackmoor period.”

He replied:

I did not see the Monty Python cheese shop skit until long after Braunstein (the show it is in probably first aired in the UK well after Braunstein, and even later in the US). An actor friend pointed out that meaning of “Role Playing Game” to me back when it was first being suggested as the generic replacement for saying “D&D-type-games” which usage T(c)S(c)R(c) was trying to stamp out. When I saw the cheese shop later, I recognized it.

By the way, so is the “Pet Shop” (“It is, in short, a Dead Parrot!”) skit – the pythons were just as willing to reuse a good idea as Edgar Rice Burroughs.

About D&D Was a Wargame I asked:  “I’m curious to know where I take it wrong, where I didn’t take it far enough, and where I’ve confused things you said with ones Dave Arneson did.”
He replied that he very much agreed with the central argument of the post, that “The genre of wargames encompasses enormous diversity in theme, content, and playstyle. Wargames have a considerably longer history than RPGs, and have undergone at least as much change over time“:
“Wargame” is a very big tent.  Redefined to exclude or include anything the speaker does not like, depending on whether he thinks wargames are good or bad. When D&D arrived, there was an ongoing feud over miniatures  AKA “real Wargaming” and board games “just pushing cardboard around.”  The first time anyone saw lead figures being used in D&D it was instantly denounced/recruited as being Miniatures Gaming (and hence not entitled to get a Charles S. Roberts Award: they invented the H.G.Wells Awards so it could get something as a Miniatures game).  It was like classifying float airplanes as a new kind of sailing ship because they don’t have steam engines.
In the D&D Was a Wargame post I wrote, based on my memories of Arneson’s 2008 seminar, that
Arneson said that the first wargaming group he joined played with a kriegspiel developed as an officer training exercise by the Prussian military. Like many gamers past and future, they were drawn to using the most comprehensive, complex, and incomprehensible set of rules they could find. The fact that what they had was a bad and incomplete translation from the original German meant that anything a player tried to do could touch off an endless string of arguments about which rules applied and how they should be interpreted.
Arneson and Wesely eventually decided that what this group really wanted to do was argue and rules-lawyer. They wanted to play, so they formed a group of their own. Did they react to the everything-is-subject-to-interpretation environment fostered by the kriegspiel by choosing a system with more clear-cut rules? Many such options were available, polished and throughly play-tested efforts by Avalon Hill’s professional game designers. Instead, what they choose to do instead was keep the parts of the rules they liked, but create the role of a referee to interpret them.
Maj. Wesely replied:

“Avalon Hill’s professional game designers” makes me laugh. In 1965 they were down to (I think) three people who had admittedly designed a number of games and were doing it for a living (one step up from sleeping on the floor in the office and eating beans at every meal). AH had gone bankrupt and been taken over by Monarch Avalon industries, whose president , Eric Dott, saw a great future for Wargames and was willing to keep the company going as a captive account to his printing business. They really did not take off until 1969 when they bought Squad Leader, an outside design. I loved the early AH games, but the skill level of the people who were writing hobby games rules at the time was very low.

Charles S. Roberts (in his address on the 25th Anniversary of the founding of Avalon Hill) said to Tom Shaw, his original partner, “Tom, tell the audience how much play-testing we did on our games back then.”

Tom: “Playtesting? What’s that?”

They had Africa Corps already printed up and were assembling the copies for their first shipment when Charles Roberts had a flash of insight that allowed them to reprint the rules and save the game, which was previously impossible for the Germans to win.

As for miniature wargames rules, they were being churned out by eager gamers with great romantic historical national enthusiasm, and poor understanding of history or technology…

The real professionals were working at the Navy War College or the Rand corporation and were not putting their work on the market.

Strategos, our original guide, was a free-kriegspiel that assumed a strong referee… the first pass at creating rules from it ran aground on our experience with using all the other wargames rules on the market, which were all rigid kriegspiels with no ref, just a rule book full of loopholes. It’s the Code Napoleonique vs. common law.

In one of the comments to the wargame post, I said:

I think that it’s important for us to understand the nature of the wargames that Arneson’s group were used to because it yields insights into what they thought D&D was about, and what they designed it to do well. But of the millions of players across the history of the game, an infinitesimally small fraction knew or cared about the way the original campaign approached it! So I think it’s equally important for us to remember that from the moment that the first wood-grain boxes were sold, people began trying to take D&D in different directions.

Maj. Wesely said:

Very good observation.  With thousands of copies scattering out by word of mouth, and inconsistent (or should I say imaginative) referees teaching the game to their friends the way they thought it should run, and the vagueness of the OD&D rules on so many points, it is not a surprise that the OD&D experience was wildly different for all the people who had it.  TSR saw huge economic reasons to standardize and dictate that everyone had to keep buying the flood of official rules changes… Knights of the Dinner Table did a good strip on that… Arneson had favored a wide-open system that put a lot of burden on the ingenuity and style of the ref.  Most gamers, I think, lacked that ability and wanted rules that would tell them what to do (were most of those gamers under 15? Maybe so).

I’ll close by thanking the Major for his enlightening responses, and apologizing to you the reader for taking so long to share ‘em!

Some Interesting Questions for RPGs and the OSR

First, how do you make roleplaying games something that anyone can pick up and play for as much or as little time as they like – for example, at a party where people who aren’t already gamers are walking up and looking to experience this new thing without having to commit their whole evening to something they’re not sure they’ll be into? I feel like this is an OSR question because one of the hallmarks of the RPGs of the original era was that they enabled a situation where stoners with Frodo Lives buttons in a college dorm, or new recruits on a military base, or imaginative kids at a school game club would be able to walk up, create a character, and get hooked. And revivalist things like the Tower of Gygax are better enabled to do this than anything else I know about.

Second, how do you reconcile delivering an instant hit of RPG goodness to newbies with the contradictory goal of satisfying the “this campaign could be your life” promise of the neverending story? James has talked about how, even in a nominally open-table game like the White Sandbox, the mass of information an ongoing storyline accumulates can be off-putting. What structure will keep an enlivening churn happening between new players who want to be enthralled by the way their choices produce immediate results and old ones who want to keep on getting deeper into an exploration of the consequences of choices they made many sessions back in their collective memory?


When Players Frustrate Themselves in Sandbox Play

The promise of sandbox play is that players can choose to do whatever they’re going to enjoy doing in a wide-open environment. In practice, though, it often doesn’t work this way.

Some of the problems come at the beginning of the campaign, when a lack of information prevents players from translating “what is there for our characters to do” into “which things will be fun for me as a player.” This is a pretty well-discussed problem, with excellent suggestions from the classic sources including the West Marches and Rob Conley’s Bat in the Attic.

A problem I haven’t seen discussed as much develops in a sandbox campaign that’s well underway. The players have made a choice about what their characters want to pursue, and they’ve really gotten invested in it. The problem comes when that investment turns the sandbox into a tunnel of the player’s own making.

In the White Sandbox campaign, we saw that happen between the second and third level of Caverns of Thracia. The players had identified “killing the Beast Lord” as the thing that was going to be fun for them. But the intense opposition they faced as they drew near his domain was pushing them towards a style of play they really didn’t enjoy. Hiring a big force of mercenaries and pushing these disposable troops in front of them seemed like the only solution available to them. They wanted to kill the Beast Lord with the same madcap brio they’d dealt with previous encounters, but the way the dungeon was set up made this difficult to impossible. (Ray Weiss told me that this is an emergent property of dungeons stocked using the OD&D procedures; perhaps, as Oban was saying, “saturday night specials” are assumed to become important in this zone, so that the generated treasures no longer have to carry the load of character advancement.)

As the referee, it was really clear to me that the sandbox was full of other dungeons that would support that style of play – many of them also designed by Paul Jaquays.  As I watched the players becoming frustrated with Caverns of Thracia, I suggested in increasingly overt terms that they might want to try going on some side treks which I knew they would both enjoy more for themselves, and would also yield the gold and magic items that would allow them to become powerful enough to deal with the Beast Lord’s forces in their accustomed style. But there was a remarkably strong commitment to continuing to bang their heads against the same wall.

This seems to me to potentially give the lie to the sandbox promise: all the opportunities to choose what you’ll enjoy are for naught if you can’t unchoose a previous decision that is proving not to be enjoyable.

In the Adventurer Conqueror King demo we ran earlier, I refereed for characters who were about the same level as the Grey Company of old. The key difference was that the players had also previously played the characters who were the mentors and lieges of these “adventurer”-level characters. In this role, they chose which mission their low-level characters would be assigned to.

The intentional design feature was to highlight the ways that the different spheres of activity in ACKS come together. Over a long-term campaign this can become clear, but in a demo where each player might only participate for a few hours, we needed to highlight right away all the experiences that ACKS supports. Having players switch their viewpoint between three characters at different levels proved to be very successful in this regard. (I initially resisted the idea because I don’t love the troupe style of play in Ars Magica nearly as much as I love its noun-verb spellcasting. I think the difference is that in Ars Magica, a grog will never become a companion will never become a magus, so switching viewpoints feels like playing different games. In ACKS, the organic progression from adventurer to conqueror to king makes switching as natural as reading Conan stories outside the character’s internal chronology).

The unexpected design benefit of this is that it offers a way for players to switch out of the mindset that leads to frustration. In the Abandoned Monastery, the low-level party ran into bugbears tough enough that the characters had to retreat and rest after a single fight. Normally this is where the dogged “never surrender even if it becomes a bitter grind” approach sets in.

But because  I thought it might be a good switching point, I said “OK everybody, your lieges don’t want to see you get killed and they do want you to come back with information. Do you want to try to return through the wilderness and report – in which case we’ll play out what the kings do with this new data at the domain level, and you’ll get a pat on the back? Or do you want to go back in the dungeon and get something for yourselves, whether that’s treasure or revenge?”

Framing it this way turned around their initial beat-head-against-wall tendency. I think it’s because it offered a choice where both results would be fun. A choice between admitting defeat and going back for another beating is never fun. So introducing the option of switching to play the characters who had a different range of things to do, related to but possibly independent of the situation with the bughears, restored the wide-open possibility of doing lots of enjoyable things that is, to me, the essence of sandbox play.

One of the design posts of Adventures Great and Glorious mentions that players will play factions instead of characters, which I suspect is going to afford the same kind of anti-frustration switching of perspective as we’ve evolved through the ACKS demo and the playtesting thereof.



Building Blocks of the Second Wave Retroclones

Matt Finch asked for “a laundry list of various things of note that have happened in the OOP fantasy RPG gaming scene”, and I realized that I hadn’t posted here about my notable entry to that list:

In the OSR it’s steamship time for takes on the Arnesonian progression from dungeon to stronghold, and the economic framework developed in the Adventurer Conqueror King System looks like it might be the go-to building block for this among second-wave retroclones, just as LotFP is for encumbrance. ckutalik’s Domain Game was developed in parallel, but he decided that “because the unified economic system inside ACKS is a really inspired piece of work,” he will publish the now-titled Hill Cantons: Borderlands under the ACKS compatibility license.

Unpacking this a little:

  • ‘Steamship time’ is Charles Fort’s for the way lots of people all seem to independently start working on the same stuff at the same time. Like many Fortean phenomena, I think it’s not so mystical. The OSR is old enough now that campaigns started to try out its ideas, like my White Sandbox and Alex’s Auran Empire, have now progressed to the point where they’re starting to need to deal with stronghold building rules and the like. And it’s not surprising that we’re all interested in doing that with our name-level characters since that’s clearly promised by the original D&D texts.
  •  ‘Economic framework’ you can read more about at the Autarch blog; it’s important so that the progression from dungeon to stronghold is organic and internally consistent. Even if Arneson knew the answer to questions like “why do the knights in castles expect that parties passing within two hexes of their castle will be able to pay 100-600 gold pieces if their fighting men don’t want to joust’, it wouldn’t help me when questions come up in play like “so if the knights in question are hill giants carrying 1,000 to 8,000 gp on their persons, why is there so much lucrative traffic on this wilderness river for them to shake down that much?” because that figure comes from AD&D. Since the Arnesonian and Gygaxian assumptions don’t always match, and B/E/C/M are all at odds with one another (let’s not even touch I), having someone sort it all out under one cover is a good answer to “why let us do any more of your imagining for you?”
  •   ‘Second-wave’ retroclones is a name I made up for those systems that a) are built on the work of the original wave, which used the OGL and reverse-engineered the d20 SRD to make it possible to publish stuff that emulated older editions and b) are now focused on supporting a specific style of play rather than a particular edition. I will repeat this term until it sticks.
  • The Domain Game was a really exciting project to handle lots of the same stuff ACKS does. We saw that he was looking for players for a PbP exploration of these ideas at a point when Autarch had already started down the same path, and I was so busy doing so that I regretfully decided not to join the game. I meant to reach out to ckutalik but to my shame kept forgetting until the spectre of two competing approaches already darkened his door.
  • Hill Cantons: Borderlands is the product that will result from the Domain Game, and because I am as excited about it as it’s possible to be, the fact that it will be compatible with ACKS cannot make me any more excited. “Compatible” here should be read as “this work is intended to be part of the same conversation as this other work”, the way that say Moldvay and Mentzer are compatible because they use the same toolbox to do takes on the same pre-existing ideas, but are different because they emphasize the things each presenter thought most important/had the best ideas how to handle.  In this case the difference is even more marked, because ACKS is designed as a complete system and HC:B is modular and designed for cherry-picking.
  • Compatibility licenses are an important way for the second-wavers to announce their unity as part of a new movement as well as their continuity with the old. In a comment to the annoucement of Lamentations of the Flame Princess’s compatibility license, I wrote:

 Creating a compatibility license has worked spectacularly to transform Adventurer Conqueror King and Hill Cantons: Borderlands from potential competitors over the same “domain game” turf into collaborators, each focusing on the part of this where we have the most unique vision and sharing the best ideas in areas which we agree. We would have wanted to try to do this anyway, but having the compatibility license + the open gaming license made it like duh, of course a declaration that these games work well together is the way to go.

In the post where I coined ‘second-wave retroclone’ (that sounds fancy, no?) I asked for help thinking of more second wavers. Having gotten some feedback on this, I now seek to predict which piece each of them is going to contribute to future waves built on our legacy:

  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Encumbrance.
  • DCC RPG: Some tool for glorious swinginess, of which it has too many and I am too close to see which will get picked up. Spell charts rock but, like class powers in 4E, are system-specific and creating them requires an amount of design that most folks will want to get paid to do.
  • ACKS: Economic framework, which is kind of a cop-out because it subsumes a lot of stuff but whatever, it’s all good.
  • Astonishing Sorcerers & Swordsmen of Hyborea: rules that inform the setting, and setting that informs the rules.

Let me pause here to note that a defining characteristic of the second-wavers seems to be problems with coming up with both a good name and a good acronym. I will talk Ghul into using our compatibility license just so we can say ASSH for ACKS. I will leave a dirty-sounding way to work LotFP:WFRPG in here as an exercise to the reader.

Now onto a subgenre of second-wavers which use the retroclone framework to shoot for a type of play modeled on a different genre:

  • Stars Without Number (modern space opera): Judging from a post-game conversation with jedo and foner, and reinforced by the way they’ve brought it back to fantasy in Red Tide, this has to be the use of tags to summarize characteristics of organizations.
  • Mystery Men (superheroes): ?
  • Terminal Space (classic space opera): ?

This list is by no means exclusive, and my predictions entail no money-back guarantee.

Since this post mostly makes a blah blah sound, I will pay the Joesky tax. However this is usable only in your game if you are contemplating publishing it under the OGL and are thinking about compatibility with ACKS, or if you are playing a Papers & Paychecks campaign in which you are simulating the travails of a retroclone publisher. See below the cut if so.

Continue reading ‘Building Blocks of the Second Wave Retroclones’


Campaign Economics as Player Empowerment

Who is served by the classic D&D rules for economic activities like building strongholds, hiring armorers, and (if your definition of classic includes the B/E/C/M/I gazetters) running mercantile enterprises? An email from Eppy, the designer of Dread and Swords without Master, that followed up on a mention in my last post has me thinking about this in a new way. He wrote:

I had a moment, last year, while working on Swords, where I found myself compelled to hack D&D. It was like I was exorcising a demon. With both Sw/oM and the hack, I was striking at the very roots of my gaming in an attempt to capture the essence of what lured me into this hobby. And what I was finding was two completely different games. Swords answered all the promises in one way; and something in that Basic-Expert-Companion set combo felt like the other way to answer them. ACKS looks like it’s hitting right on that second way. I’m excited about that.

I think that one of these different games empowers GMs, and the other empowers players.

As a GM I don’t feel compelled to work out economies in a rigorous way. I want to be able to make stuff up like “gold pieces are huge things that weigh 1/10th of a pound because the gods designed them for their own hands” and “coins are inherently Lawful because of this divine origin, and because they symbolize the sun” and “dragons hoard gold because, as Chaotic creatures, they seek to weaken civilized economies by depriving them of their life-blood.” I just want to throw these ideas out there half-baked; I don’t feel like I need rules for how a dragon in the region would cause a depression, because if it seems to make sense that this would happen I’ll just use my narrative authority to make it so.

This is the style of play that “why let us do any more of your imagining for you” systems like OD&D facilitate for GMs, and modern indie improv and shared narrative authority games like Swords without Master facilitate for all players.

But when they sit down to scratch their itch to “play D&D” with whatever system best acts as a backscratcher for them at the moment, I think most players neither have nor want the kind of narrative authority that would let them say “My robot cleric attracts more followers because it’s sitting on a giant pile of gold that demonstrates how well it has pleased the Lawful deities.” Even though that totally follows from the premises, I can see why as a player I’d want rules to show how I could make that follower-attracting goal happen in incremental steps, and guarantee that I can make it so without the GM taking the improv in some other direction.

The great promise of old-school sandbox games is that your character’s goals and beliefs can organically become part of the game by just taking concrete actions in the world that will make them manifest. Yes, there is a strong belief in rules-lightness in the OSR. And yes, as a GM it no longer appeals to me to calculate the construction costs of every castle I plop down on the landscape. But I think there is a real utility for players in having detailed rules for building their own castles, running their own thieves’ guild, and every other kind of concrete, large-scale way they might act on their beliefs and pursue their goals.

For GMs, I think the virtue in having a ruleset like Adventurer Conqueror King that thoroughly encodes those detailed economic rules is that when you randomly generate a band of knights, the size of the castle it is implied they come from makes sense given the size of the domain it supports and all that other world-building stuff I want baked in rather than having to pay attention to myself. This kind of “making sense” is important because it enables appropriate player action. The party won’t be frustrated that they can never afford an army big enough to reduce to rubble these castles that pop up as a result of dice-based-improv, because the tables that generate the castles follow the same internal consistency as the rules the players use to build them.

Now, the idea that more rules = player empowerment is frequently advanced in the context of D&D’s change over time, but I generally feel that this isn’t the case. For example, having a skills or feats or combat maneuvers tends to disempower players who didn’t have the system mastery to choose those rules options in pre-play. I feel differently about rules for economics because:

  • they lead in lots of different directions and leave open what the game is about in a way that combat, which is where most detailed rules development tends to happen, does not. Players who really want to build strongholds may feel gypped if they don’t get to use those rules, but I think that providing lots of rules for combat produces a much stronger feeling that a session without using crunchy fighting rules is a waste of time, and tends to disempower players who want to make non-combat characters.
  • they model concrete and high-granularity stuff, which affords lots of leeway for doing it in ways outside the rules. Like if you have the Trip feat and I say someone else can trip just by sticking a polearm between the giant’s leg, it feels unfair not to use the rules in that situation. But if you follow the guidelines for building a castle, and I say someone else gets one for free as a reward for helping the Faerie Queen, it’s a different kind of unfair because you can deal with it within the game – “how can I suck up to this gauzy-winged royal tart,” not “how can I get a DM who doesn’t cheat.”

Cross-posted to nerdNYC this morning hoping for confirmation of these ideas, which mumblethrax provided in the form of a claim that his rogue once disarmed a liquidity trap 


the binocular thief

The Thief, right?  Nobody digs this class.  Every blog and every forum has about 20 different variations on the Thief.  Most of the complaints fall into three categories:

  1. The Thief is weak.  You cannot suck this much without professional training.
  2. The Thief bolts a weird-ass percentage skill system onto D&D, which is as elegant as a brick upside the head.
  3. The Thief doesn’t model the Grey Mouser very well.  (I’d argue, though, that it’s a pretty good fit for the ridiculous number of thieves in Dunsany’s Book of Wonder, which may have been the primary inspiration.)

So check it out: my theory is that the Thief wasn’t really meant to work as a class in its own right.

  • Debuts in Supplement I: Greyhawk
  • Greyhawk introduces AD&D style multi-classing for demi-humans, finally making sense of the OD&D Elf
  • All demi-humans are eligible to take levels in Thief
  • All demi-humans have strict level caps . . . but unlimited advancement in the Thief class (even in 1e)
  • All demi-humans get sick Thief skill adjustments
  • The Thief is pretty much a joke at low levels, so the demi-human is getting half XP in the main class for little benefit.  Maybe this is a handicap to compensate for the demi-human’s racial bonuses over a Level 1 human character.
  • By Levels 7-9 or so, the Thief no longer stinks out loud, and this is approximately when the demi-human hits a level cap in a “real” class.  Thus the Thief class becomes viable around the time the demi-human has nothing better to do. (Halflings hit the level-cap earlier, but their insane Thief bonuses are like having an extra level or two of Thief so they’re viable earlier.)
  • In Greyhawk your XP will always be divided by your number of classes, even after you hit the level cap.  So a Halfling Fighter/Thief who’s hit level 4 as a Fighter is still only going to be getting half-XP to devote to the Thief class . . . which may explain why the Thief XP chart is so ridiculously easy to level.

I mean, I can’t help you if you think the Thief’s percentage score ability thing is a kludge implemented without any forethought (it obviously was), or if you think that the Thief absolutely must model the Grey Mouser (it mustn’t).

But looking at the Thief as a component of a multi-class character, rather than as an independent class in its own right, helps me understand why the class was designed in such a weird way.

No Joesky tax today because I am late for work.


Illusionism and Improvised Puzzles

A trilithion is three standing stones; a dolmen is a portal tomb. In play I called this a henge, which is wrong.

Like my previous post about illusionism, this is a reflection on the refereeing style I used for the last D&D birthday party James and I ran. To recap, the kids in my group rolled a wandering monster, which I decided to use to provide them with a map leading to the location of two magic items, the horn of the valkyries and the cloak of shadows. James and I had prepared what these items did, but not where they might be found or what was defending them.

When the griffon-riding adventurers reached the hilltop where I’d told them the map said the horn of the valkyries was located,  I used a wipe-erase board to present the players with a situation map. “At the peak, you see a pair of standing stones, with a third stone laid across the top,” I said, drawing as I went. “Surrounding that is an area that’s scorched and burnt, parts of it are still smoking. You can see some dead bodies lying on the ground in this burnt area. Over here are trees that weren’t damaged by whatever happened here.”

Given that all of this was off the top of my head, what was I thinking? Here are the principles that I was using:

  1. Make it concrete. Drawing a map bought me a little time to think, but more importantly it gave the players a specific set of elements to work with – the trilithion, the burnt area, the zone of safety – each with a graphic reminder that these are the things we’re going to be interacting with in this scene. Vagueness is the enemy because it allows for an overwhelming number of possibilities; pinning myself down to these few elements was important for the same reason that improv actors start a sketch by having the audience provide them with a name, sentence, or concept that they’re going to riff on.
  2. Focus the mystery. The players’ goal is to snag the horn of the valkyries, but when they arrive it’s nowhere to be seen. That sets up a puzzle, which is great, but it also takes away the obvious path to the goal that’s motivating their efforts. I used the standing stones, a genre icon of the mysterious and otherworldly, to quickly suggest a new motivation. Without this hook, the search for the treasure might have become diffuse and frustrating.
  3. Set the stakes. The presence of the dead bodies establishes that something here is deadly; it sends the message to the players that they need to proceed with caution. (I’ve learned not to use the term “skeletons” when playing with kids, because that sends a different message: there’s something here to fight, yay!) I think it’s a good idea to signpost dangerous traps even when they’re planned ahead of time and thus somehow existing independently of me, but since I’m making this all up as I go along, I’d feel like a jerk if I just up and decided that touching the stones zaps you dead. Showing that someone made a wrong move and suffered lethal consequences lets me introduce consequences into play with a sense of fairness.
  4. Establish the limits. As a referee, I’ve learned that putting trash on the staircase will throw players into a frenzy of trying to figure out what’s going on. This can be useful when I don’t know what’s going on, because it buys me at least fifteen minutes to think and also spurs the players to generate lots of conjectures which I can use as inspiration. However, that kind of threat analysis can be paralyzing if it spins out of control. By drawing a perimeter of untouched trees around the area, I was signaling that this much at least is safe, you can get this close and try things out without fear,  in order to forestall an ever-widening panic zone.

So even though many of the kids in this group had never played D&D before, they immediately start thinking like adventurers, eagerly grappling with the problem of how to extract the maximum loot at minimal risk to themselves. Meanwhile, I’m improvising the situation, letting my reactions to their actions and ideas define what’s going on in the world we’re all imagining together.

    • Kids: Is there any writing on the stones?
    • Me: Yes, as you fly over them you can see runes carved into the front of each stone.  This is a no-brainer – it’s impressive how many conventions of the fantasy genre are already known to nine-year-olds – but I draw a sketch of the stones and rune-writing to make it concrete.
    • Kids: Can we read it?
    • Me: I don’t know, why would your character be able to? Throwing questions back is a good reflex for an improv referee. Apart from just buying time to think, it gets the players involved; few will pass up a chance to fill in the details of how and why their character is capable of fantastic deeds.
    • Kid #1: Because I’m a magic-user!  As noted previously, we didn’t have the kids do the character generation process that, from edition to edition, has made sitting down to play D&D ever more like filling out a tax form. However, it seems the basic ideas of classes are also part of the conventions third-graders have absorbed.
    • Me: You can tell that it’s magic writing, the kind that’s used in spells, but you’re not sure what it means. This is because I’m not sure yet either, but we’re closing in on the writing being part of a magical lock or trigger.
    • Kid #2: Let’s send the hippogriff we found down there and see if it gets burnt up!
    • Kid #1: No, it’s an animal and we made friends with it, we can’t make it get hurt!  Although Kid #2 clearly has enormous natural potential as a D&D adventurer, I’m impressed by Kid #1′s convictions. Alignment is another thing we haven’t introduced, but this kind of morality is something I want to encourage and explore…
    • Me: The letters on the top stone light up with a red glow.  So now I’ve decided that the trilithion is a gateway. Only those who prove themselves morally worthy will be allowed to pass through to the Rainbow Bridge, where the Valkyries wait to give the horn to true heroes.
    • Kid #2: Oooh! OK, I want to look at the dead bodies on the ground. Can I tell what killed them?
    • Me: You see the charred bones of humans; some are surrounded by melted metal that might have been armor and swords. These are mingled with what look like the bones of lions with wings. Reincorporation – taking things that have been established before and tying them back in as the story unfolds – is a powerful improv technique for creating meaning, depth, and coherence.
    • Kid #2: Hey, this is what happened to the rider of the griffon we captured! Those guys came here with the map to find the treasure, but they did something wrong and only that griffon escaped! This is good adventurer thinking, of the less morally-questionable variety that I want to reward…
    • Me: The letters on the left stone light up!
    • Kids: All right! What if there’s an item you’re supposed to put into the stones? Someone should fly down there and check it out. Not me, though, I don’t want to get burned!
    • Me: The letters on the last stone turn dark. Now these two are glowing red, but these are a deep black. I’ve decided that the last virtue the gate is looking for is courage, and am signifying that the players are displaying its opposite.
    • Kid #3: I’ll ride my griffon between the stones and see what happens! This kid also has a great D&D career ahead of him, although he’ll roll up a lot more new characters than the guy who herds livestock ahead of him into every potentially dangerous situation.
    • Me: As you bravely descend towards the stone, the runes on the last stone change from black to red. Your griffon soars between the stone, and everyone else sees you disappear! What you see is a rainbow stretching down from the clouds. A knight rides a horse down the rainbow, and as she draws near she takes off her helmet so that her long hair blows in the wind. “You have passed the test and proven yourself worthy of the Horn of the Valkyries,” she says. “You showed Compassion when you chose not to send the griffons to their deaths. You showed Intelligence when you learned from the mistakes of those who came before you. And you showed Courage when you approached the gate despite the danger.”

One definition of illusionism says that

In order to qualify, the players must be presented with a choice or series of choices that when made seems to affect game events, while in actuality the consequences of each option are the same.

I don’t think this kind of illusion of choice is what’s going on here. At some points during the discussion, the kids talked about just flying away from this situation and seeking out the cloak of shadows instead. If they’d done so, the consequences would not have been the same; the scenario didn’t require them to get either magic item, and I would have been just as happy to see them go flying around at random capturing Pokemon and beating up wandering monsters.

However, we are in the realm of “deliberately leaving an area blank in anticipation that I’ll just fill it in with whatever my players dream up,” which some of the commenters on the previous post had problems with. Justin Alexander said:

I think there’s an important distinction to be drawn between “I’m going to change the game world to match what the players are saying” and “this bit of blank canvas hasn’t been filled in yet and Bob just said something clever”. As a player, the former would de-invest me in the game world. The latter, on the other hand, is A-OK in my book: It’s simply a fact of reality that no fictional game world can be wholly pre-defined, and saying “I definitely WON’T have the balrog by a servant of Galfeshnee because that’s what Bob said” would be just as artificial to me as saying “the balrog WILL be a servant of Galfeshnee because Bob said it”. I’m not sure where “deliberately leaving an area blank in anticipation that I’ll just fill it in with whatever my players” would fall on this scale. (For example, “I’m going to design a murder mystery, but not both figuring out who actually did the murder. I’ll just wait for my players to come up with a theory that sounds good.”) But since it would annoy me to the point that I would probably quit playing with a GM who did it, I’m going to lump it into the first category.

And Stuart concurred:

Being presented with a mystery that we wasted time trying to figure out when there was in fact no solution would definitely annoy me to the point of quitting the game. I think it’s important the players understand whether there is in fact anything to figure out looking back, or if it’s all about looking forward and collaboratively improvising something new.

I would be psyched to have Justin or Stuart playing in my game, so I want to figure out how I could keep them from getting so annoyed they would quit! Let’s first address the issues about honesty and disclosure by imagining that I was explicit about this at the start of the campaign: As you decide where to go in this sandbox, sometimes you’ll encounter pre-planned adventures I’ve placed in a location: modules prepared by others, or less often, completely written out by myself ahead of time. In this case, I’ll pretty faithfully stick to the text to decide what you find when you go there. Sometimes you’ll go places I haven’t prepped for, so I’ll use procedural generation and improv tools like wandering monsters, interpreted on the fly, to decide what you find. And sometimes, to give meaning to things that come up in play and to advance my own DM agendas, you’ll encounter the edges of stuff I’ve just made up, or for which I have some pre-existing ideas about what’s going on without having decided on all the details. I’ll do my best to conceal from you that this is what I’m doing because I want you to engage with these conspiracies, NPC machinations, events in the world, etc. in the same way you would if they were part of a pre-planned adventure, and because I want you to experience your character’s unraveling of this situation as if it were a discovery of something that existed in the world of the game even though it’s really an improvised co-creation.

For Justin and Stweart, and folks who share their feelings: Would this be the point at which you’d say “this isn’t a game I want to play,” or would you get annoyed only if the illusion kept slipping and making it apparent when the content was improvised? And do you foresee that becoming apparent because improvised stuff was annoyingly more shoddy or awkward than the stuff prepped ahead of time?

I feel like, for my style of DMing, the only way I’d include puzzles like the example above is to have them be more or less improvised. The closest approximation I can envision to the situation Stuart describes – wasting time solving a mystery that has no solution – sounds to me like what I fear would happen if I pre-scripted puzzles: wasting time trying to solve a mystery that has no solution that makes sense to the players. One great advantage of improvised mysteries is that they are guaranteed to have solutions that exist in the player’s minds, and specifically the best solution that evolves through play.

I have relatively little experience designing pre-planned adventures, and when I do they don’t tend to include mysteries and puzzles. Presumably if I did, I’d have more of a sense of how to set it up so that the players found their way to the designated solution without getting frustrated or feeling railroaded. As it is, I’m much more comfortable letting both the puzzle and its solution arise during play. The balrog random encounter referenced in the last post became an awesome moral conundrum: will the players decide to get out of a seemingly hopeless situation by sacrificing innocent henchmen to demons? Trying to set up dilemmas like that seems better suited for games with our Indie Filth tag, and even there I often feel claustrophobic when gameplay always gets re-focused on building to the next opportunity to test the characters’ beliefs.

I’m happiest when unplanned elements suggest ways to create puzzles, because I feel like that way the context is appropriate to the situation they’re placed in and the content can reference stuff that we all obviously care about and have in the forefront of our consciousnesses. The fact that these puzzles will usually start with a great lead-in, but not know the great solution ahead of time, seems to me like a small price to pay. But I dig that folks I respect may feel differently, and am eager to understand why.

Past Adventures of the Mule

April 2014
« Nov    

RPG Bloggers Network

RPG Bloggers Network

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog & get email notification of updates.

Join 1,030 other followers


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,030 other followers