Monday, September 18, 2017

Azurth Adventures Digest

The first volume of the Azurth Adventures Digest has been released! Pdfs on drivethrurpg, hard copies available directly from the author.

I can't give you an unbiased review of the book because I did some editing work on it, but I can tell you that the adventure contained in it saved my ass a few weeks about when I ran out of prep time in my Scarabae campaign. I switched out the aesthetics to fit with what I already had mapped out, but I can also say that, as written as a place to explore, the adventure works really well and generated a great session; you can read about it here

And you don't have to take my word for it, Anne Hunter played in that session and did a great write-up of it here on her blog DIY & Dragons. I love all the commentary she has about her character's motivations and shifting emotional landscape. 

I've been super lucky to play with great people like Anne on Google+, and we're all super lucky that people like Trey are adding fun stuff to our games.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Old-School Heresies

I don't think druids and bards are lame at all.

* * *

So I'm fine with druids and bards, yeah? But you know what I do think is kinda lame, though? Greyhawk. I've never been able to find anything really, truly interesting about it, and worse yet when I ask fans what is interesting about it they can never seem to articulate a reason. Sometimes I get a list of Proper Names as the reasons why it's a cool game setting, but when I press them on what's neat about those things I get back "Oh, those guys are an evil order of assassins." O...kay.

I've also noticed that Greyhawk fans also don't seem to even agree about the basic feel of the setting. I've had people swear up and down that Greyhawk is the epitome of D&D sword & sorcery...but then someone else will pop into the thread and tell me that it is D&D's best medieval society simulator...which the cover image above does do a lot to support, but come on, which is it?

I even think the names in Greyhawk tend toward the embarrassing. Fuckin' Wee-Jas, you know?

It turns out, for the record, that the official D&D settings I tend to like are the ones least rooted in traditional fantasy:

  1. Ravenloft
  2. Planescape
  3. Dark Sun
  4. Eberron
  5. Dragonlance

Yes, that's right, I think Krynn is way more interesting than both Oerth and Faerun. Don't @ me.

* * *

Arguments about character skill versus player skill often seem silly to me because the "old-school tactics" held up as examples of player skill seem more like ritualistic behavior than inventive strategy. Maybe the first time lard and marbles were used to make a hallway tough to traverse was a novel event, but by the twentieth time you've seen that particular deployment of "player skill" it's just going through the expected motions. It's a lot like making the same fucking Monty Python jokes every game.

I also suspect that there is a certain type of old-school game master who prefers light, stripped-down rules just because it limits the stuff that characters get as they level up. Some people have a weird "But what if they get abilities that interfere with the adventure I wrote?" or "What if they break my precious dungeon?" or "What if they have fun I have not personally sanctioned?" vibe about them. If you're overly worried about the other players having too much fun, I admit I don't really understand your orientation toward gaming as a hobby.

* * *

I honestly think this is the least appealing cover I can remember seeing on a game book. Yeah, there are probably some worse ones made with poser art that date back to the d20 glut, but that stuff is like doesn't stick in mind at all and once seen it is quickly forgotten. I feel bad saying that this is unappealing because someone obviously sank time and effort into making it, but, man, I just do not like that image. 

Chubsley the Cleric, those Escher Lite stairs, that masked elf no no. I do sort of appreciate the "someone touched my bottom" look on the dwarf's face, but even that can't save this one for me.

* * *

Anyone who says that old-school D&D isn't concerned with balance is lying--if only to themselves. Old-school D&D is obsessed with balance; you can tell because it uses a ton of different ways to try to achieve balance between character classes: mechanical differentiation (this class gets a d10 hit die, this one gets a d4), advancement rate (this class needs less XP to level up because it's weak but you'll get more hit points quicker), mechanical restrictions for gear (this class can wear plate mail, this class can't), roleplay limitations (paladins get tons of powers but they are constrained by these moral restrictions or they get punished), etc.

So it isn't that older editions of D&D aren't concerned with balance, it's just that they're pretty kludgy in the way they go about the business of a balancing the game. 

* * *

When a game reviewer associates themselves with a particular community or small niche within the gaming world, I find that I can't trust their perspective. The politics of minor difference and tribal thinking creep into everything. 

But then you realize that the "luminaries" in any small niche of the hobby will have an impassioned defense mounted for them no matter what they say or do, so it becomes harder and harder to even sympathize with the kind of sadness that lets these cults of personality flourish in the first place. People, by and large, seem to crave the intersection between authority and validation in a way that makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Related: I don't trust any manifesto or primer about "how games were played back in the day" written by someone with books to sell. As a wise man pointed out to me, the "old-school" way of playing games presumes a way of playing that has probably never held a majority stake in the hobby anyway. 

Similarly, I think there is a certain type of gamer who makes a show of trying games from outside their "camp" only to crap on them performatively. "We gave it a shot, we played their game, and look how bad it was!" is such an obviously disingenuous move.

* * *

I think Gary Gygax got lucky when he captured lightning in a bottle with the creation of D&D rather than it being the results of skillful game design. None of the games he did after are noteworthy, and there's a lot of badly explained concepts in OD&D and a megaton of cruft in AD&D. 

Bonus outrage fuel: I think the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide is a disjointed mess of boring random tables, poor advice that might make your games worse if followed, and amateurish writing.

* * *

Attempts to make 5e D&D "old-school" almost always seem misguided to me, especially since actual old-school versions of D&D have never been more available. Sometimes it feels like people need a game to be tagged as explicitly "old-school" in order to feel like they have permission to enjoy it.

Also, repackaging the free basic rules for 5e as "old-school" and asking money for them is the opposite of a sound old-school ethos, just sayin'.

But when someone writes the history, that will be the shape of the narrative: when people smelled blood in the water after a couple successful Kickstarters made bank, something was lost in the old-school gaming community in the transition from homo reciprocans to homo economicus at the drop of a few stray coins. History repeats itself, I suppose; consider the Jekyll to Hyde transformation from the Gary of OD&D ("Don't let us to the imagining for you!") to the Gary of AD&D ("You must buy official AD&D products to really be playing the game.")

* * *

I truly believe that some of the best advice on how to run a D&D game is found in books that don't say D&D on the cover. Check out the stuff on fronts in Dungeon World, the advice on failure on Fate Core, the general principles outlined in Apocalypse World (first edition, haven't read the new one) and Blades in the Dark.

Note: I'm not saying that these newer games invented better ways to play. I am saying that they offer clearer explanations of good practices that people have been doing since the beginning of the hobby than we have had in any edition of D&D.

* * *

Many dungeon-based adventures, hexcrawls, and "sandboxes" strike me as railroads in the sense that none of the options presented in them ("Do we go left or right at the intersection of these fairly featureless corridors?") represent meaningful choices for the players to make.

Funny thing about actual sandbox wargames: they weren't completely open "you can go anywhere" scenarios. A sandbox has hard limits because it has walls to keep the sand in the box. There's a good metaphor in there if you want to find it.

* * *

Yeah, I don't think wands look silly either. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Campaign Reference Sheets

I've made myself a couple reference sheets for my D&D campaigns (one for Krevborna and one for Scarabae), and they've really helped me maintain focus on how I want to run my games. Let me walk you through what's on these sheets and why they've been so helpful to me--perhaps they might inspire you to make similar reference sheets for yourself.

The leftmost column has three sections: Goals, Principles, and Actions. 

The Goals section is there to remind me, at a glance, what I want my campaign to be about. For Krevborna, this means that the text there steers me toward monster hunting in a Gothic setting. For Scarabae, this means skulduggery in an urban setting. This section is helpful to me because if I feel the game is straying off focus or we're losing site of the campaign's purpose, I can nudge it back into its lane.

The Principles section is there to remind me to keep involving the players (via what they take an interest in) and their characters (via the world-building the players have done to make their characters). When things are stalled out or feeling a little flat I can look at that section and draw on something the players are gravitating to and interject it into the game to get things back in motion.

The Actions section is there to remind me of the things I most often lose sight of during play as well as that D&D can support more than a binary pass/fail system of action resolution.

The center column of both sheets is simply a list of genre-appropriate Names. If there is one thing I find myself grasping for during play, it's a name for a NPC I hadn't counted on needing to name. As new contacts, antagonists, and allies emerge, I need to put names to faces; this column gives me a grab bag of names that I can quickly scan and choose from. I've italicized feminine names so that I can narrow down my scan to get the kind of name I'm looking for. (I tried color-coding the names with blues-for-boys and pink-for-girls, figuring that a little gender essentialism would add visual cues, but it ended up being too "loud" instead of adding utility.)

The rightmost column gives me lists of descriptors. 

I have a section for Looks that's helpful when I need to describe an NPC I haven't spent any prep time on; the Looks section is broken down into a subsection about physical appearance and a subsection about what clothing and items the character might have. 

I also have a Setting Descriptors section that gives me general aesthetic notes about the campaign worlds' look and feel that I can draw on in play. 

This section ends with a list of names for Public Houses (or taverns, or inns, or tea rooms...) because, like NPC names, I often find myself scrambling to name an establishment when the players seek one out and I hadn't planned on that.

(All of this was inspired by the references sheets for John Harper's Blades in the Dark.)

Monday, September 11, 2017

Red Spectres

Red Spectres, translated and edited by Muireann Maguire, collects examples of a rarely-seen side of Gothic literature, tales produced in the early days of Communist rule in Russia. These macabre stories have many of the elements familiar to Western readers including ghosts, evil doubles, and mad science, while representing a worldview unique to the time and place in which they were created.
How well do totalitarian regimes and fantasy stories mix? What were some of the very real dangers faced by the authors of these works? Is there an audience for nihilist Top Gear? Find out all this and more in the latest mini episode from Bad Books for Bad People.
Intro/Outro music: "Тайна при жизни [Secret during the lifetime]," Isa [Purchase the album on Bandcamp]
Find us at, on Twitter @badbooksbadppl, Instagram @badbooksbadpeople and on Facebook. You can discover where to get all the books featured on Bad Books for Bad People on our reading list.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Abandoned Grace

† Cadaveria - Spell †
† Haggard - De La Morte Noire †
† Peccatum - Speak of the Devil (As the Devil May Care) †
† Moonspell - Dreamless (Lucifer and Lilith) †
† Tiamat - Forever Burning Flames †
† November's Doom - In the Absence of Grace †
† Emperor - Ensorcelled by Khaos †
† Electric Wizard - We Love the Dead †

Friday, September 8, 2017

How To Unsell Me on Your Games

Promote your game by shitting on some other game. I don't really care how boring or banal or vanilla you think the other game is, but I do know that as soon as you draw an unfavorable comparison between your game and another I begin to suspect that your game isn't a worthy effort on its own merits.

Present your game as edgy, boundary-pushing, or irreverent and then claim outrage as soon as your intentionally/potentially offensive product is deemed offensive. Courting controversy also reads as not having much faith in your game's value. Also? I lived through the 90s, I already know how hollow 'tude is as a marketing tactic. Yes, it works on rubes, but what doesn't?

Fail to make your game open source if your game is based on open source material. If other folks were good enough to give you the basis to make the rules for your game, I think it's ethical to pay it forward by also putting your rules work under the same umbrella if possible. And if you're just copy/pasting an already extant game into a new format with shittier art--get lost.

Tout a mechanic as revolutionary when, in fact, it's been around forever. This makes me wonder if you have played many games that aren't D&D. There is a wide world of games and game systems out there, I hope that anyone doing game design work is at least conversant with it.

Emphasize your game's "structured play" (turns, phases, procedural generation, etc.). Most games that game-ify the flow of play end up making it feel mechanical and abstract in a way I don't care for. This is purely a personal taste thing, but I like things to be more free-moving and open rather than either rigidly defined or randomly generated on tables as the guiding principles of play. I don't even like B/X's Order of Events in One Game Turn or Combat Sequence.

Bring up your game material (with a link to where it can be bought, natch) in threads and conversations only remotely (or not at all) connected to your game's premise. Pushy people suck, and so do people that treat others as wallets to be rifled. There are games I'd probably like but there is no way I'm checking out because the author made a nuisance of himself.

Try to sell me on a game I already own. When I see Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma on the character sheet for your game, I assume I could approximate your "retroclone" or "hack" with a page of house rules applied to the books I've already got. Seeing the OSR logo on the cover is sometimes a red flag. Similarly, calling your narrative game a "love letter" to another game that already exists isn't exactly a deal-breaker, but it does give me pause.
Your list, of course, may vary.