Thursday, February 26, 2009

Meanderings on Market Glut

Last weekend, after we finished up with S&W (and my unfortunate companions had finished rolling their replacement characters), I took a stroll through the shelves of the FLGS that kindly hosts our game. The shelves had kind of a graveyard vibe to them...a wall of d20 stuff, mostly Eberron and 3rd party material, all marked down to 50% retail price. Some of the stuff was 3.0 and clearly had been on the shelf a long time. I found obscure core books of games I'd never heard of, stuffed between the White Wolf games and the GURPS section. (Which in itself contained a lot of old stuff from GURPS 3rd; some even had faded covers.) I found games that I'm reasonably sure are out of print now. Before me was a glut of books, a sprawl of supplements, and all I could think was what a tremendous waste it all was. Many of the supplements are so specific as to be useless to all but niche gamers or autistic collectophiles.

I think perhaps I'm being too harsh. Recent discussions on my blog roll have brought to light the peril of gaming being a supportable industry, and as I picked through the books it made even more sense. Publish too much non-core material, and people accuse you of spitting out fluff. Put out too much core material and people bitch about how you have to buy so many books in order to play the game. I don't envy any company that is trying to make it's bread and butter with RPG books. At the same time, I wonder how many d20 books on war and seafaring and abominations we really need. I also wonder why anyone would buy Dark Champions: the Animated series when the plug on the back pretty much tells you how to do what the book proposes. (That is, play Dark Champions with the violence and grit toned down. Look, I just told you how to do it in even less text than they used.) I'm not picking on Champions (or Dark Champions), but you get the idea... the rpg market seems pretty flooded to me, and has seemed so for a long time. It just seems like there's so much creativity and effort that's being spent on....what, another book of bloodlines for Requiem? (They're on the third one now, methinks) Splatbooks that microdetail every class or faction? The Quintessential Elf 2? Was the first book not quintessential enough? It just doesn't seem like there's anything worth my dollar on the shelf anymore. Maybe I'm being a dick. Certainly anyone who designs rpg books for a living has a sweet job... but as a gamer these days, I find myself buying less and less because I've seen it all before. Unless I'm forgetting something, the only gaming book I bought in 2008 was the core book to the new Hunter. (Actually, I didn't buy it...it was a birthday present from my wife)
I want to support those gamers who are lucky enough to produce games for a living... I want to support the FLGSs in my area, but I'm not going to buy shit just because it's there, you know? Right now, the only games I really want to buy are various retro clones, but most of those are graciously given away by their authors via PDF.

Sorry if I come off as ranty, but this is something that's been on my mind for awhile and I just thought I'd share it.

EDIT: Not sure how I could've forgotten about this, but I did buy the 4th edition core books in 2008. Of course, I plan to be rid of them in the very near future, as I have given up on the new edition after seven months of trying very hard to like it.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Swords and Wizardry, Session 3

We really need to start taking spider webs as a cue rather than set dressing.
That being said, Cedric the Pious is now the only surviving member of the original party. Due to the fact that he collected all the treasure, he is a hair's breadth from level. Also, next week I am hiring some goddamn fighting men as retainers, like three of them.

The game has also become a sort of hybrid of S&W Core and Labyrinth Lord, as the material in LL is a little more robust when it comes to details. We might also be allowing the S&W thief from GROGNARDIA, in which case we're totally hiring one of them as well.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Build Mentality

I never heard the word "build" used in gaming slang until I started checking out the online 3rd edition community. (Which, by the way, I consider to be a waste of my life and I wish I could have the time and brain cells back.) I'm not sure if the "build" mentality in D&D existed before 3rd edition because I was still in high school when I played 2nd edition and most websites I visited consisted mainly of people's homebrew material for the game (including an excellent character generator that has long since vanished into the gaping maw of the internet)and no bickering discussion boards. (Yeah, I know there was usenet, but I never got into that.)

Anyway, "build" culture came upon us (my group) even in the early days of 3.0. Everyone was constantly dicking around with feats and prestige classes, buying anything that had new crunchy material. Favorite prestige classes were picked and characters were mapped out like the Soviet Five Year Plan. In fact, one of the first DMs I played 3.0 under encouraged us to find a prestige class we liked and map our character development to qualify for it at the earliest possible level. It seems like the build of your character became the objective of the game, and many of the lovely tribes of the internet would say "Yes, it is the objective." The whole point of the game became how to have an effective build. You didn't take something because it was cool or because it fit your character concept, you did it because it was mechanically more effective. We ended up with ludicrous rapid fire chain trippers, guys dual wielding two handed swords, a character who could add every single ability bonus aside from Strength to his Armor Class... and this was, admittedly, shit that people did just because they *could.* The Elven thinblade replaced the longsword because there was no reason for it not to. Character classes became totally divorced of any meaning and just became buckets of abilities that one could "dip" into. You took a level of ranger for the two weapon fighting (until they moved it to level 2 in 3.5 so you had to...I don't know, dip deeper?), you took a level or two of barbarian (but no more) to get rage and fast movement. When I voiced my opinion that I still viewed character classes as a representation of character profession and not as a special ability buffet I was called a retard. (Among other, less nice things)
It wasn't long before I abandoned the forums and the build-crazed and tried to run a game where you didn't necessarily have to have the most efficient selection of feats, skills, and other mechanical stuff to have fun. Of course, some of my players were still build-happy, and I'm not the type of DM to tell you that you can't do something just because I personally don't like it... so we had builders mulching through combat encounters and non-builders who often felt frustrated because, in comparison, their characters were useless. (Or so they thought) Meanwhile, the WotC machine churned out book after book, always with more feats, more prestige classes, the precursor to 4E's powers with Tome of Battle, etc, etc, ad nauseam etc. Finally I just put the books down and declared myself done with 3.X. I suppose you could say I was fatigued. I understood that I didn't have to use anything beyond the core books if I didn't fancy it, but my perception of the game had been changed; it seemed like just playing the game wasn't enough anymore, it was about obtaining some kind of mechanical benefit to one's character, which was often just a stepstone to another mechanical benefit, and so on. I'm not trying to get all OTW on everyone, but this just wasn't doing it for me, and I can't see myself returning to this incarnation of the game any time soon.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Have You Tried the Prismatic Spray? It's Excellent

My pulp education begins with Jack Vance, which I am thus far enjoying very much.

Also, robots have crept into our S&W game. We had session 2 and nobody died this time. It was excellent, though not quite as excellent as the Prismatic Spray.

That is all. Thank you.

Alignment

Generally, I prefer not to have alignment in my game systems. I find that alignment tends to detract more than it adds, particularly when the DM or game designer's take on Good/Evil, Humanity, whatever becomes objectively true, regardless of what the players believe. What I might consider an evil action, they player might not... or another DM might not.

A specific example: In ages past, I ran a game where a true neutral thief did not get along with the party's lawful neutral cleric. The player of the thief told me that he intended to let the dwarf walk into the next trap he detected without telling him to "teach him a lesson." I told him that was an evil act, and that if he carried on down that path his alignment would eventually change. The player argued with me over this. Later on, another DM told me that I was unfair to the player because it's not evil if you don't directly harm someone. Well, I believe that allowing harm to come to someone because of your deliberate inaction is, in fact, evil.
So...who's right? Well, we all think we are. The problem is that this kind of thing can have in game consequences; if someone had cast a detect evil spell on the thief when he was formulating his plan, I might have had it detect as evil intent. If it were a cleric or paladin and not a thief, I'd probably have taken away his spells until he atoned (if his character had actually gone through with it, that is) When alignment has game mechanics attached to it, players are essentially rewarded or penalized for conforming/not conforming to the interpretation of good/evil/whatever set down by the DM or game designer.
If we have to go that route, I almost prefer that the game designer, rather than the individual DM, set down the exact terms of the alignment system. Take a look at Vampire: the Masquerade (or Requiem...or actually any of the "new" White Wolf games) At Humanity 7, stealing triggers a degeneration roll, and so does anything that would trigger the lower Humanity levels. You might not agree that stealing is enough to push your Humanity down to 6, but at least there are no surprises, nor is there much room for argument.

If anything, I think OD&D and, strangely enough, 4th edition have better takes on alignment. OD&D takes good and evil out of the picture and replaces it with Law, Neutrality, and Chaos... those are, in my opinion, much less open to interpretation. More importantly, alignment had much less of an impact on the game as a whole. (Though often the game material seemed to treat Lawful as good and Chaotic as evil.) 4th edition, as far as I played it (which was about seven months), attached no particular mechanical importance to alignment, and it replaced the philosophically wonky Neutrality with simply being "Unaligned." I liked the idea that you could simply opt out of the alignment system. Now, I have no idea why they eliminated Chaotic Good and Lawful Evil, but as long as you keep those mechanics out of my hair, I don't really care.
The next time I run OD&D, I am also removing the alignment tongues, no matter what I do with alignment itself. I never liked that rule; even when I was ten I thought it was silly.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, in it's 2nd edition, abandoned alignment entirely. I ran a campaign of that game last year and I have to say that the lack of a mechanical morality system, or even a non-mechanical system that simply identifies alignment, does not hamper the game in any way.

Here's an experiment I will likely never try: run Vampire without Humanity, or perhaps the only thing that causes a degenration role is the act of feeding from a living person. Characters might not be so cavalier about "filling up" before they go off to cause trouble, and because the idea that a vampire becomes more of a monster for stealing a car stereo is inane.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Ye Gods

The only thing I don't like about world-building is making a pantheon. I hate, hate, hate building pantheons. Any deity I create feels kind of silly to me. I'm never satisfied with my pantheons. As a result, I tend to do one of the following when starting a new campaign:

*When I ran d20 D&D, I just took the plain old Greyhawk holdovers they had in the PHB. Fast, easy, and seldom does anyone in my gaming group give a damn except the cleric. Honestly, if I never play in another campaign featuring Pelor again, it will be too soon.

*Embrace vague dualism reminiscent of the various monotheistic religions popular in our world today; there's the Big Good God and the Nasty Evil God and they fight for control of the universe. It works, but is hokey and oversimplified. (I'm not big on strict Black & White morality) This works pretty well for OD&D where all clerics were essentially the same except for a few spell reversals, but it leaves Neutral clerics high and dry.

*Make the players create their own damn deities. This tends to lead to weird, mishmash, half-created pantheons...or game worlds where the one cleric in the party has a deity and they go otherwise unmentioned.

*Grit my teeth and come up with a set of gods that I don't find overly lame.

I always find that I have no idea how to approach the "assignment" that gods get in many historical pantheons. For instance, why is Apollo god of the sun and of music? Do I need a god of music? What about a god of fire? Do I hand out portfolios at random? I'm never sure when my pantheons are macro or micro enough.

I suppose next time out I could always steal a historical pantheon or three, but to me that always feels like kind of a cop-out; if I'm making the whole damn world, why steal gods? Then again, it worked for the Romans, right?
...on second thought, perhaps cop-out is a harsh term. If you're not running a game based on or set in fantasy Earth, I see no reason to snatch the gods of earth.

Demi-humans open a fresh can of worms. The last few campaign worlds I built, I tried to stray from theistic religion for demi-humans. I usually portray halflings as cheerfully agnostic, if you can even get them to talk about religion. I've had Elves and Dwarves alternate between being a society of atheists to having some old Chinese style ancestor veneration.

I'm not running any D&D in the near future, so I'm off the hook for now, but I've been thinking about building a "ready to go" pantheon for when the time comes, and I need to shake up the way that I do it. For the next campaign, I'm thinking of having religion be something extremely localized. More on this later. (Likely much later)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Some Thoughts on Microlite d20

I like diet coke. I drink it all the goddamn time. I used to drink regular coke, but switched to diet in an effort to help me lose some weight. Several years later, they go and release Coke Zero, which is supposed to taste like regular coke but have no calories or sugar. So I buy it, try it...and it does taste like normal coke, except that years of drinking diet coke have cause me to find the taste of regular coke to be disgustingly, unbearably sweet. Alas, thought I, if only they had come out with this just a couple years ago...

A true story, and an analogy for me and Microlite d20. If only I had discovered this a couple of years ago, I might not have burned out on d20 the way that I did. It has been out for a couple of years, yes, but I hadn't heard a word of it until I heard about the later released Microlite 74, which I heard about through the various blogs and retro-rpg channels. By the time it reached me, I had basically sworn off the whole scene.

A tiny part of me wants to mess around with M20 (particularly to create a version that doesn't use classes), but I've pretty much moved on.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Swords & Wizardry: First Session

I doubt I'll post every single session of the campaign, but I thought I would at least write about the first one, since it's the first actual old school play I've had in probably five years.

The DM started us off as a pre-formed adventuring party. We were plunked down into a town, fed some rumors and information about the surrounding area, and let loose. We actually spent most of the session dealing with the logistics of getting to where we were going...it would have been a simple gig but for the only easily accessible route between us and our goal being controlled by a potentially hostile faction. Our party found itself trying to circumvent the area. We spent a lot of time calculating distances and days required, food and supplies, buying a big enough raft or negotiating for travel aboard river boats... I'm sure many players I know would have found it boring, but I actually really loved how tactical everything was. We ended up hearing about a dungeon and deciding to delay our first goal until we could plumb the depths for some treasure...perhaps enough to buy our own boat and go around the hostile faction blocking the way to our chosen plot threat. Of course, we keep hearing rumors everywhere we go, so I'm already starting to get the sort of ADD I get when I play video games like Grand Theft Auto, Morrowind, or Fable II.

Sadly, the magic-user with one hit point died in the first room of the dungeon. It was sort of my fault and I felt terrible about it, until the player showed me the back-up character, who was also a magic-user. (He was going to be a cleric until he realized that S&W is one of the retro clones where clerics don't get a spell at first level)

I'm looking forward to next Sunday. I'd forgotten how much fun the game is when you're just free to explore. We didn't earn much in the way of XP, but next week we'll hopefully plunge deeper into that dungeon.