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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

It's Torture, Playing OSR Style...

This blog post isn't about right or wrong.  It's not about good, or evil either.  The way I approach torture in-game is not about my personal beliefs or my moral compass (assuming I have one), it's about two basic concepts, role-play methodology and a mechanic.  In other words, what is the PC doing in order to extract the information they seek, and how does the target of this behavior react?

  1. 1.
    the action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting the pain.
    synonyms:infliction of pain, abuse, ill-treatment, maltreatmentpersecution
    "acts of torture"
  1. 1.
    inflict severe pain on.
    "most of the victims had been brutally tortured"
    synonyms:inflict pain on, ill-treatabusemistreatmaltreatpersecute
    "they have tortured suspects in order to extract confessions"

In OSR play, the player doesn't simply declare that he/she is looking for traps and then rolls, instead the player tells the DM that he is searching for traps and (more importantly) the methods being used to do so, and THEN a roll is made to determine success or failure. The Old School Primer by Matt Finch does a great job of explaining this difference, as below:

The Pit Trap (Modern Style) 
GM: “A ten-foot wide corridor leads north into the darkness.” 
John the Rogue: “I check for traps.” 
GM: “What’s your target number for checking?” 
John the Rogue: “15.” 
GM: Decides that the pit trap in front of the party is “standard,” so all John has to do is roll a 15 or better. “Roll a d20.” 
John the Rogue: “16.” 
GM: “Probing ahead of you, you find a thin crack in the floor – it looks like there’s a pit trap.” 
John the Rogue: “Can I disarm it?” 
GM: “What’s your target number for that?” 
John the Rogue: “12. I rolled a 14.” 
GM: “Okay, moving carefully, you’re able to jam the mechanism so the trap won’t open.” 
John the Rogue: “We walk across. I go first.” 

The Pit Trap (Old Style) 
GM: “A ten-foot wide corridor leads north into the darkness.” 
John the Roguish: “We move forward, poking the floor ahead with our ten foot pole.” 
GM: Is about to say that the pole pushes open a pit trap, when he remembers something. “Wait, you don’t have the ten foot pole any more. You fed it to the stone idol.” [if the party still had the pole, John would have detected the trap automatically] 
John the Roguish: “I didn’t feed it to the idol, the idol ate it when I poked its head.” 
GM: “That doesn’t mean you have the pole back. Do you go into the corridor?” 
John the Roguish: “No. I’m suspicious. Can I see any cracks in the floor, maybe shaped in a square?”
GM: Mulls this over, because there’s a pit trap right where John is looking. But it’s dark, so “No, there are about a million cracks in the floor. You wouldn’t see a pit trap that easily, anyway.” [A different referee might absolutely decide that John sees the trap, since he’s looking in the right place for the right thing].
John the Roguish: “Okay. I take out my waterskin from my backpack. And I’m going to pour some water onto the floor. Does it trickle through the floor anywhere, or reveal some kind of pattern?” 4 GM: “Yeah, the water seems to be puddling a little bit around a square shape in the floor where the square is a little higher than the rest of the floor.” 
John the Roguish: “Like there’s a covered pit trap?” 
GM: “Could be.”
 John the Roguish: “Can I disarm it?” 
GM: “How?” 
John the Roguish: “I don’t know, maybe make a die roll to jam the mechanism?” 
GM: “You can’t see a mechanism. You step on it, there’s a hinge, you fall. What are you going to jam?” 
John the Roguish: “I don’t know. Okay, let’s just walk around it.” 
GM: “You walk around it, then. There’s about a two-foot clearance on each side.” 

It's obvious the difference in play style here, and this play style permeates OSR style games throughout, which brings us to the topic at hand, torture.

Assuming you allow torture as part of your game-world/game-play (and if you don't for whatever reason maybe you should stop reading here, because it could become offensive if you're easily outraged) the question becomes, how deep down the role-play rabbit hole do you go, and how do you resolve such behavior?

In my games I love good role-playing, and an incident involving torture can add much intensity, emotion, and yes even humor to a game session.  Like much OSR play, this is usually a situation where I will blend rolls with rulings.  The victim has X amount of resistance before he/she/it gives in or gives up (expires) which I attribute to a few factors but chiefly CON.    The Torturer has Y amount of CHA to oppose this, and the modifiers I determine based on the role-play. It sounds complex, but it's really far more quick-n-dirty.

Glokta, the Inquisitor from Joe Abercrombie's First Law Trilogy

Let's say there is a goblin with some information the party believes useful, but the goblin is loyal to his mates and has no reason to give the intel up.  The goblin has a CON of approx. 10 (this is a ruling, completely arbitrary, as I have no stats for a goblin) and Barg the Fighter has a CHA of 10, so they are evenly matched here.  Barg needs to roll under a 10 on a d20 (since there is no formal mechanic for this) in order for the goblin to give up the info.  Maybe the Goblin is more scared of Skel the Orc leader of his band of misfits, then he is of Barg, so I decide to give the goblin a +2 to resist, so now Barg needs to roll under an 8.  Barg smacks the goblin up a bit, but not worse than his mom used to, so no bonus there.  The player (Barg) rolls a 15.  No good.  The goblin remains quiet.

The player seeks a new tactic and lets the DM know that Barg has decided to up the ante by sliding his serrated knife into the goblins knee.  Ok, now we are getting somewhere.  This will negate the goblins 'fear of the boss' modifier, so we are back at 10 as the target.  the player (Barg) rolls  an 11.  No good.  Lot's of screams but no info.

Now the player decides that Barg is gonna lay it on thick.  He decides that a very hot blade near the goblins eye, or in it, will do the trick.  This is really awful stuff, and the goblin knows that Barg has come to a point of permanent bodily disfigurement.  I change the modifier to a +4 and the player rolls, getting a 9.  Bingo!  The goblin screams, then begins to tell Barg everything, even things Barg never asked about.

maybe your players carry a torture kit?  Like thieves tools only hurtier...

There are other ways to handle this OSR style.  AD&D1e has Subdual (which you may have seen used against Dragons perhaps), which involves doing non-permanent HP damage to a target in order to make that target pliable.  the DM could easily apply this game mechanic to torture damage in order to determine the point at which the target reaches a point of compliance.

I know that there are alot of DMs who do not use or allow torture in their games, but I have to say, in my experience it is often very common for a player to engage in this behavior, so those opposed should either be clear at the start of a game, or not get their nuts in a knot when a player brings it up.  Given the nature and setting of most games, it seems perfectly reasonable to me.  To ME.

Do you have a method, mechanic, or process for determining the efficacy of torture in your game?

Friday, January 27, 2017

OSR Characters Don't Need a Background...

But I Still Give 'em One!

With true, rules-light OSR systems, PC's really don't often last long enough to have a background be meaningful.  No matter how skillfully or carefully one plays them, the chance of dying is very high in the game where 'save or die' is the modus operandi.  That's fine with me, as I came up in that world.  I was born and forged in the fires of a game that tried to kill any and all who sought fortune and fame within its bounds.   I don't care though, because I still give my guys a short background.  In this case, it gives me something to say about them as they are buried in the folder with their adventuring brethren.  Even level 1's deserve a few, short words spoken over them as they greet the great beyond.

I've had the opportunity to play in a few 5e games now, which means I've created a few characters in that ruleset.  In the past, creating my characters has been one of my favorite parts of the game.  With OSR  rulesets, character creation is a fairly quick process once it's been done a couple of times, even by a new player.  I like the process regardless of how the DM house-rules it, so play the numbers where they lie, or mix it up...whichever.  I usually end up with a PC I can get behind and enjoy playing.  Even when the DM hasn't called for it, and the chances are high that the PC won't even last a full session, I tend to write a few sentences about that characters life, his history, his other words, a background.

In 5e, the background bit is built in to the ruleset, so as you create your character you pick up/roll for traits, flaws, bonds etc.  I understand why they baked it in, but I don't like it one bit.  New DM's are likely (as I and many folks were) to follow the rules/guidelines as written.  They don't have to of course, they can choose to ignore this part of character creation entirely, or mold the process into anything they choose it to be.  Instead I have the sneaky suspicion that players fill these fields out, and give little further thought to them, or if they do, only in passing.  In a game where survival is high, I think that players should be encouraged to really flesh out a background, perhaps even writing a page or two.  After all, 5e has death saves, short rests, and a host of other ways to keep the PC's alive and kicking so there's no harm in a bit of background investment.

As a player, I create a background for each PC regardless of the DMs rules.  I find that my character isn't complete without me knowing something about him.  It's not always the same things, sometimes I work out some family history, other times a terrible incident that led him to become an adventurer, and at times I just list a few traits and flaws so I have a key to his behavior.  It all depends on the character class and stats, the game I'm going to play, and most of all my mood.

When I'm in the DM's chair, I often rely on the players to offer up some sort of character background.  I live between the sandbox and the railroad, and my game world grows very organically through play.  The backgrounds of the characters help to forge the foundation for much of the game-space.  This is less of an issue when I run Holmes or Labyrinth Lord (without the AEC) or Swords & Wizardry, but as I creep into more advanced rulesets like 1e and Castles & Crusades (or add the AEC to my LL game) I find that story and history of the game world take more of my time and energy and the backgrounds become a focal point for some or all of the characters.

As an example, a player who's character is born in poverty, a bastard child who grows to become a dangerous fighter, may have a father of unusual racial descent.  Another player may come from great wealth and/or nobility, and being a third son is sent away to study with a mage of questionable morals and ethics.  You can see that a little goes a long way.

I know that for new players, writing a background (however brief) may not be something they know how to do or understand.  Here is where the DM should step in.  Do a bit of hand-holding and talk the player through the process. "Did you have parents?  What did they do to earn money?  Did you grow up rich or poor?  How did you get that sword you now have?" are all great questions to both help the player determine an background, as well as get that players juices flowing for more information about the character, information yet to be played out!

Some DM's play sans backgrounds of any kind.  For many people, playing the game as-is and having the players amass only new history without having any origin story or similar background information getting in the way of the 'here and now' of it all is as valid as any other mode.  I find this not as enjoyable, but that doesn't mean it's wrong.  Regardless of how much time and effort I put into any character, I realize they can end up as food for a hungry Owlbear or on the wrong end of a goblins rusty blade. A game where death is not omnipresent is problematic for me, but that's another post altogether.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Adopting the Future...

The last few blog posts have been good ones.  Enlightening.  Thought provoking.  A bit controversial.  I appreciate everyone who took the time to read them, and those who commented in the various forums they inhabit.  It's safe to say that people hold some strong opinions about these topics, and while no argument is likely to sway them from their current position on such matters, we've been exposed to some viewpoints from the other side...and I think we can all agree that everyone is entitled to their own opinions no matter how we feel about those opinions or the topic at hand.  It's time to move on now...

Many of us OSR guys have been touched in some way by the new generation of games and gamers who enjoy our hobby, even if what they've adopted is not necessarily as easily identifiable by us Old Heads as the rpg we know and love.  The introduction of 5e has had an interesting affect on the gaming landscape, and while it's not my cup of tea, it has certain aspects that I consider advancements, rules or mechanics that bear closer inspection and perhaps even adoption.

Even many of the OSR games, retroclones like Labyrinth Lord, Castles & Crusades, and Swords & Wizardry contain small changes that make a big difference for those folks clinging to older core rulesets like AD&D 1e, which I still play as well.  Thanks to the Fantasy Grounds AD&D1e ruleset that has recently become available, I'm now playing my favorite game once again.  While I always Housefuled the game, as I think most folks did/do, I did make a concerted effort to try and remain true to the core of the ruleset and that Old School manner of play.

Still, it's hard to ignore some of the great ideas that can add texture and nuance to the older games, and that likely will not break them but instead elevate them, clarify them, and make them once again seem as fresh as the day you first cracked a rulebook.

What sort of houserules have I adopted in the past?  Well, for one thing, I always felt that if a character could close the distance between himself and a combat target, that in that same combat round he could strike.  Is it a charge attack at that point?  No, I don't treat it as such.  In fact, I allow a move a strike in the same round, each combat round.  I know that it's not how AD&D1e combat should play can move OR you can attack, but normally not both (though there are exceptions).  I know there will be folks who are now running to the books to figure out if I'm right or wrong, but that isn't really necessary.  The bottom line here is, I allow a move and a strike in the same combat round on most occasions.  Exceptions are determined by me as each combat round unfolds, because that's how I roll/rule.

Which brings me to the sort of new rules that I find intriguing, and might introduce into my Old School Game.

I think that it's safe to say that alot of OSR gamers like the concept of Advantage/Disadvantage.  It's a quick and easy (and a bit dirty) way to adjust the possible outcome of a situation that we would have solved in the past with a simple +/- modifier.  5e really brought the heat with this.  It's not a game changer, but in every way possible it seems like a game enhancer.

It's also interesting that there's now a formal Inspiration system.  I've been using a simple system like this for many years, calling it Luck Points or Fate Points or some-such so that players had a small amount of control over their universe beyond their character sheet.  There was never anything formal for me, but if I had a player who engaged in some great role-playing, or they took an action that was heroic/insane in order to solve a problem or defeat a monster, I would reward that behavior with both XP and a Point.  So it's safe to say that I've already adopted this mechanic, or did they steal it from me???  Hmmmmm....

Many GM's will weave a tapestry of rules and mechanics from other systems into their game.  That's not me.  I really am, at heart, something of a purist.  When I show images of monsters during my 1e game, I pull those images from the Monster Manual or Fiend Folio.  I try to remain true to both what I love about a game, and what my players will enjoy.

I'm curious what other bits and pieces OSR folks may be adopting from 5e.  Do you allow the use of anytime cantrips?  Have you adopted a quicker form of healing?  There are many things that make 5e wrong for me as a whole, but it's possible to find some value in a newer system even if you never intend on playing it as a standalone work.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Being the DM is Hard Work...a Rebuttal.

It's funny how one blog post seems to so easily lead me to the next via comments.  Patterns of commonality or dissonance quickly emerge and provide some nice meat to chew on for the next bit of writing.

As always, the opinions expressed below are mine.  You aren't required to share them, but I'm always interested to listen to other people's thoughts and feelings about the subject matter I tackle.

In my last blog post I talked about my mixed thoughts and feelings about Pay to Play DM's.  You can read it here if you missed it.  Also, it's important to understand that I often throw these thoughts up for discussion on some facebook groups and twitter and such, so the comments on the blog page likely do not encompass the entire discussion.  If you want to delve further down the rabbit-hole, maybe check out these groups on FB, or some of the G+ communities that focus on the OSR or Roleplaying, where I've likely posted links as well.

OK, so more than a couple of people held the opinion that DM's certainly have the right to be paid, and their reasoning often fell upon a common theme.  In a nut shell, 'it's hard work.'  I will concede that it requires work, though I'm not so sure it's all that hard.

Look, don't misunderstand me.  As a DM of well over 30 years, I  realize that a certain amount of time and preparation is required to ensure that a game runs moderately smoothly, is interesting and entertaining, and doesn't run off the rails.  If this is indeed labor, then it is a labor of love.  If you are putting time and energy into the DMing aspect of the hobby, and you aren't having fun...stop doing it.  There's also a rather large investment of your time, though this is the same for most hobbies.  Also, as with most pastimes, your time investment is usually larger on the front end as you learn.  Once you've gained a certain level of proficiency, the amount of time required to pull off a successful game session lessens, sometimes to almost nil.

Let's not forget the endless supplements and modules available to the DM.  If you can afford to spring for this stuff, your 'job' as the DM just took several steps in the direction of 'much easier'.  Now you just need to read and familiarize yourself with the material, and then be prepared to manage the table.

Manage the table?  But isn't that work?

I don't think so.  If your group is unruly and they don't already respect the position you've chosen or been given as the DM, then maybe you need to rethink the folks at the table, or your place among them.  Let them know your expectations up front, but after that my own personal rule is 'no quarter'.  If you are an adult hosting a game for adults, this should not be an issue. If you're an adult hosting a game for've got bigger fish to fry.  That's it's own special situation and isn't really what I'm talking about here.

As a kid playing with my friends (now I'm an adult playing with my friends) I often take on the role of DM.  Would I rather play?  Sometimes, but not always.  Being the DM puts me in a position to be creative in ways that playing does not allow.  Inhabiting the persona of myriad NPC's, deciding what the rules and structure of my game-world are like, becoming the arbiter of all that occurs within the confines of my game-verse are some but not all of the reasons I love being a DM.

Also the snacks.

Many folks think I'm just looking to stir the pot, cause a scene, make some trouble.  Nah.  I'm not looking for controversy, just dialogue.  Some of the time it really seems as though folks are from another planet entirely.  Anyone who is running the game/being the DM and doesn't WANT to do that because it's too much work, or the work is too difficult, simply shouldn't do it.  That seems like a normal reaction to me.  If you build model airplanes, that takes time and skill, and yeah, I guess it's work but it's work the model builder enjoys.If you think you, or anyone, should be paid because of the work involved with being a DM, well my own personal jury is still out on that one.  What's obvious to me now is that there is a divide among enthusiasts about that particular topic, and while many are fine with it, a host of others feel that it somehow is a slap in the face of the spirit of the game.

For many people, the hobby is not too far removed from their religion, or it's become somehow enmeshed into their moral fiber.  I think this is the case with me, and though I try to remain open to changes to the hobby and it's social dynamic and players, I still find that a deeper part of me is still very passionate about the spirit of the game and what it has meant to so many of my generation, the old-heads.

This morning on my twitter feed @goblin_stomper  I posted "We may all be roleplayers, but like Wizards, there are many factions...", and much like wizards, the magic comes first.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

GMing for Gold Pieces: Mixed Emotions

A few days ago I posted a followup article to an even earlier post (It's like Inception up in here) that made me think about the 'professional' angle of DMing for a 'cast of some kind.  Previous to this whole thing I had seen a smattering of posts across the internets about people who would DM for money, essentially people 'deciding' that they were good enough DM's to charge a group of people for their services.

At first, my knee-jerk reaction was one of disdain and disgust.  Who the fuck did these people think they were?  What body of experts ordained that these people were qualified to run a TTRPG for MONEY???  I was angry that a game, a hobby so near and dear to my heart and that had always been a refuge, a safe harbor, a hippie commune of sharing and joy would be some fool's idea of an easy way to make a buck.  It made me sick.

Fast forward a bit, to a moment where I've had some time and space from the subject, a place I could think it over with a clear head.  After all, I needed to take stock of who I am and what I believe, and this needed some level of reconciliation from my initial reaction.

I believe in free commerce.  A free-market is what our country is founded upon, and it's something that I usually take pride in.  Now, I'm not saying that it's ok for someone to make a buck by lying or cheating or stealing from others.  This is just plain wrong, and any son-of-a-bitch who engages in these sort of foul business deals should be hung as an example to others.  For those who work hard, find a proper niche, or even manage to discover a previously untapped market ripe for the biz, I'm on board.  The American dream is about this very thing, and I'm a big believer in dreaming big.

While my 'hobby' self was still full of rage about these DMs who thought they could get paid to run a game, my free-market self was slowly stroking his head and whispering soothing words, calming him to a place where he could listen to some reason.  Finally at a calm place, it was time to reassess and figure out under what circumstances this sort of thing would be ok.

  1.  If said DM is also 'Watching' another individual or group of individuals aka. Babysitting
  2.  If said DM is 'instructing' a group of Professionals as an exercise in Team Building
  3.  If said DM has been hired by other, experienced Players/DM's to run their game, or a game in their stead ex. At A Game Demo for a new Ruleset
  4. If said DM is a sought-after/famous & professional member of the gaming industry ex. Tim Kask or Frank Mentzer or Matt Mercer (Yup, I just said that...)
Maybe there are a few other situations that would qualify, but these four seem to cover most of the reasons that being paid to DM makes sense to both parts of my psyche. It's still hard to reconcile, not gonna lie.  

I certainly have no issue when it comes to being paid for work done in the TTRPG community, I mean I would be one huge hypocrite if that were the case.  I'm not trying to make a living from my modules, but it would be nice to have a few extra $$$'s in my account so I can grab the next installment of Black Pudding or some new stock art for the next module or supplement I decide to release.  There are people who DO make a living this way, and I respect and appreciate their dedication.  For me, turning my hobby into my vocation would likely turn me sour on all of it rather quickly.

Now I'm not sure that anyone could reasonably earn a living from this sort of work.  At best, it may provide enough income to keep hobby-habits alive...books, dice, t-shirts, and pizza for the non-paid gaming session.  So, in the end, who am I to stand in the way of someone charging for such a service?  I'm certainly never going to use it or pay for it, so why criticize it?  

I'll tell you why.

First, it seems like these people have just arbitrarily decided that they are skilled enough to charge for this service.  I take issue with that.  Who the hell are they to just decide for themselves that they are professional level DMs?  Some accreditation seems reasonable if you are going to charge for a service.  Second, by what scale do they determine the going rate for such a service?  Third, how can the people paying for such a service know if they got a reasonable deal, or that they aren't being hornswoggled?

There are some big issues to wrangle here, and I don't claim to have the solutions.  If you are considering paying someone to run a game for you, maybe you should do some research first?  Check around at your FLGS (Friendly Local Game Store) for some more info.  You may find someone willing to run a game for free, or at least you might get some info on the dude trying to take your cash.  I'm pretty sure that it's not a new niche market that's been untapped. It feels more like a few greedy bottom feeders trying to take advantage of unknowing noobs to the hobby-space.  Running games as a primary occupation is in all likelihood a pipe-dream. 

Would I do it?  Nope.  I game for free from both sides of the DM screen.

Here are some links to folks you will have to pay if you wanna play with them...I'm not pimping them, but I felt it was important to bring them into the light of day.  These are a few I found, but I'm sure there are more. (broken links...heh) (in the comments bottom of page) do you feel?

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Weird & Wonderful Things that Influence a D&D Game

My experience with Dungeons & Dragons begins in the early 1980's, by my nearest estimation around the late part of 1981. I think it's safe to say that popular culture during that time was flourishing. We were coming out of the strange and Turbulent 60's and 70's and the counterculture movement into what felt like a more modern era, and TV and Films of the time were reflective of the change.  We (my friends and I) devoured it.  From Star Wars to Alf, we were consuming more media than our parents could imagine.  It wasn't uncommon for my mom or dad to turn off a show in mid-play and tell me to 'go play outside and get some fresh air', because the TV was going to 'rot my brain and make me go blind.'

Like many kids of that era, I had pretty limited access.  Movies were only starting to become available for home viewing on VCRs.  Most of my movie-watching was actually done at the movies, but I also loved watching old movies on TV.  Saturday, after the morning's cartoons ended (for the younger readers, you may not know that a block of time was allotted each Saturday morning by the big three networks for cartoon programming for kids) I was likely to turn the channel (yup, by turning an actual physical knob on the TV) to the UHF channel 48 for their Creature Double Feature, a presentation of two classic monster movies from decades past.  Much of this behavior influenced my Dungeons & Dragons game, but so did something else, something not so readily available or mainstream.

My friends and I were always avidly and actively seeking underground media.  We loved finding those books, movies, magazines and comics that were not popular, not readily available, and probably were not written by or for twelve-year-old boys.  It wasn't easy to find these things.  Usually it was the older brother or cousin who had access, an influencer, and he or she would point us towards something dark and wonderful that we had previously not known existed.  Many of these things had an even greater impact on 'game time', especially when I was the DM.  What appears below is a short list of things that I discovered as a youth and that helped shape how I imagined my fantasy worlds and the people, monsters, and magic that populated them.  If you look deeply enough at these things, and you've played in my games, you can quite clearly pick out the bits and pieces that floated from them, to my minds-eye, and out the other side spilling over into my game in the 1980's and early 1990's.

Heavy Metal (The Magazine, and the Movie)


This is likely the most influential art-based magazine in my young life.  I had been exposed to Mad Magazine a few years before, and science magazine OMNI came to my house every month thanks to my dad (also thanking him for Playboy and Penthouse, which also were delivered), but it was Heavy Metal's strange and wonderful art and stories that were so engrossing and intellectually stimulating.  They pulled no punches with sex or violence, strange and beautiful and horrible landscapes and creatures.  It changed the way I thought about fantasy and science fiction, shifting my inner-vision from the more mainstream Tolkeinesque view to something out of the ordinary. Watching it come to life as an animated feature film with the added bonus of an all-star voice and musical track was immensely powerful.

Ralph Bakshi's Wizards (and anything else Bakshi ever did)

It started with Vaughn Bode's Cheech Wizard, but nothing grabbed my imagination in the same way as Ralph Bakshi's animated masterpiece, Wizards.  It was my gateway Bakshi Film.  I had long been a fan of animation of all kinds, growing up with Filmation superhero strangeness and more mainstream Saturday morning offerings, but Wizards turned me on to a completely new way to tell a story, an adult allegory.

National Lampoon & High Times Magazine

Nothing yelled 'anti-establishment' as loudly as these two periodicals, and at a time when Ronald Reagan was 'making America great again', I found that free thought, comedy, and imagination were alive in well in the pages of these magazines.  Lampoon I could grab at the bookstore, but High Times was something filtered to me via the (very) older brother of a close friend.

Underground Comic Books (Starring The Fabulous Freak Brothers, Poison Elves, and Peter Bagge's Hate)


Most of this content came from somewhere strange, and starting out it was only infrequently that we got a hold of one of the Freak Bros. comics.  Later on, when I was mobile enough (could ride the train and had a drivers license) I could take myself into the city to visit urban comic dispensaries that usually had that one, lone shelf of indie comics.  Sure, I was a big Marvel and DC fan, though even in those great houses I often gravitated to the stories and characters of lesser renown.  I cut my indie teeth reading Son of Satan, Silver Surfer, and Doctor Strange (and yes, I loved Spider-man and Batman as well), but once I found the indie comics my hard-earned dollars usually ended up there.

The Essays & Fiction of Harlan Ellison

That Stylish 80's Hair...

I've made reference before to all of the reading I did as a kid.  Lots of reading.  Tons.  Yes, I dug deeply into Appendix N and enjoyed much of it, and yes it helped to form and formulate the way I would approach, play, and run Dungeons & Dragons games.  In my early teens I discovered the short works of Harlan Ellison.  If you have not read anything by this man, you should stop reading and head to your local bookstore, library, or download on your reading device something, ANYTHING by Mr. Ellison right now.  His style and content influenced many things in my media 'galaxy'including but not limited to movies, TV,  books, and comics.

Prog Rock


I would be remiss if I didn't give a shout-out to progressive rock and the influence it had on me as a young person.  Sure, I might occasionally hear some Genesis, Yes or Rush on the 'regular' radio (which was the only radio we had kiddies), but these arena-grade rock icons opened the door to a much wider musical realm.  Raised in a house that commonly heard tunes from Neil Diamond, Gene Pitney, Johnny Mathis and the Bee Gee's (all great BTW), discovering popular prog rock and then seeking out lesser known acts (such as Camel or Mike Oldfield) heavily influenced the soundtrack of my life, and thus the sounds that I associated with D&D.

I could go on, but I won't.  Suffice it to say that we all have these things, these influences that somehow found their way into our lives and exerted pressure in strange, sometimes soft ways, opening doors of thought and perception that ultimately shaped who we are as people.

Playing TTRPGs for me is a culmination of much of this, a hobby and pastime that brings together all of these things and allows me to experience a certain creative freedom, as well as a shared social experience with people who have their own personal library of underground media to share and add during game-time.  How many strange floating cities did I first see in Heavy Metal?  Where did I get the image of fairies and their potent magics?  Why are so many of my game worlds inhabited by hippie wizards and deadly, melancholy elves?

What makes up the miasma in your mind that becomes your game?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Orgies in D&D...Yup, That's a Thing!

I am somewhat amazed at the number of new players that D&D has had in the last few years. Sometimes it boggles my mind that with all of the available entertainment options, people still choose to pick up a book, some dice, some paper and a pencil and play make-believe.  When I started playing we had entertainment options, but few of them reflected my interests.  Fantasy and Science Fiction got some play in movies and on TV, but books was where the genre really came to life, and so my love of TTRPGs stems primarily from my life in books.

Ah, my life in books.  I still have a life in books, mind you, but back when I was sliding precariously into puberty from my fanciful time as a child, books were my entire world.  Books were like gold.  Books, I think, were like food.  I not only wanted them, I needed them.  I read every piece of fantasy fiction (with a smattering of SF) that I could find, good or bad, new or old.  The 1980's were a golden age for my favorite genre, arising from the weird and wonderful fiction of the drug-addled 60's and the macrame 70's.

Some of my favorite books were series books, things like Piers Anthony's Xanth and John Norman's Gor.  From tongue-in-cheek high fantasy to swashbuckling sword and sorcery, Conan to Vlad Taltos, I found all of the campaign fodder I needed.  It was all fertilizer for the games I was playing and would eventually run.  It was sometimes gruff, oftentimes sensitive, and once in a while it was base and crude.  If we are being honest with each other, I think I loved the base and crude stuff the most.

My games were not puritanical retreats, far from it.  Sure, people died in sometimes awful and dramatic ways, but that happened in everyone's game, didn't it?  You hacked a few kobolds, sliced up some orcs, and threw burning oil on the owlbear.  That's all ok stuff, right?  Now and again, the players would head for an local inn, and sometime start or become roped into a barfight.  Again, not so bad.  A punch here, a kick there...maybe the thief cut a hamstring when nobody was looking, then snuck behind the bar to steal the money.  Seems normal....right?

What about sex?  Sure...we had sex.  We were normal, young, healthy just-turned-teen boys.  It was a fantasy world, dark and grim and based on medieval tropes.  There were whores!! Of course there were, because everyone needs to earn a living.  We didn't get graphic, but the players often bought an evening of pleasure with a lady or two, or three.  You just came back from a dank, dark, dangerous dungeon where your life had been hanging from a thread many, many times.  You deserved some fun, some relaxation, a reminder that you were alive, and rich, and two levels higher than when you entered that pit of pain and danger.  What you needed, my friend, was an Orgy!

Dragon magazine backed me up.  In an article in Dragon #10, I present to you, the ORGY!!!

and then there was the case you were a Psionics fan:

Damn!  Orgies were quite taxing.  No wonder, have you ever seen the sort of folks at an D&D orgy?  Take a look...

That's some crazy event!  I mean, I get the elf girls and the goblin guys, but whats the story with the dragon?  Is he the proprietor?  Seems awfully pissed at the couple of guys hanging on the curtains, and I don't blame him.  If that was my joint, hanging on the curtains would be frowned upon severely.

By now, you're either offended, laughing, or remembering fondly.  

Nowadays, I don't present my players with options for sex workers, or orgies, or anything in that realm unless they bring it up.  I'm not opposed to it, very far from it.  Sexual repression or political correctness in my game are a no-no.  I don't let it get out of hand, or take over the game, but if a player or players wanna have a good time with consenting NPC's of any class or race, I say good on-ya!  I'm not a kid anymore, and I don't play out those scenes with a teenage boy's fertile imagination.

These days, if you're gonna throw an orgy, prepare to pay a premium.  Then, when it's all over, prepare to roll of the STD chart. 

 Oh yeah, and then the pregnancy chart.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Party Balance is an Illusion

Often when I begin to DM a new campaign with new players, they ask me 'what is everyone playing, what does the party need?'  I understand the question of course, but I do wonder why it persists.  For example, if every player wished to swing a sword as a fighter, why would that be a problem?  If they all wished to be band of thieves, or a clerical/ecclesiastical missionary group, or a coven of magic-users, why is this an issue?  Where do we get the notion that the party must consist of a well-balanced group of character archetypes?  Who started it?

I play primarily older rulesets, or retroclones thereof.  As a player and DM since 1981, I cut my teeth on Holmes, Moldvay, and AD&D1e...still where my heart is.  If there are specific passages in these books outlining a well-balanced party, I have not located them.  Perhaps they exist, but I think it is more something we inferred from the text.  It seems only logical to have a fighter, a healer, a thief, and a magic-user in the group to insure that the challenges faced whether trap, or foe, or magic portal have someone in the party who is adept at identifying, managing, and overcoming.

I freely admit that it's something I did over and over and over again as I played, and would even demand as a DM.  "Well, the party already has a fighter and a cleric, so you can play a thief or a magic-user, your choice," was something I'm sure I said, along with, "oh man, I guess I'm the cleric."  Why?  What would possess me to shoehorn someones good time into a costume they didn't wish to wear?

As I grew to understand the game, the modes of play, and most importantly my role as a DM, I came to the realization that it was the job of the player to play, to chose a character that would make his/her experience the most enjoyable.  In that way, the group would have the most enjoyable time, and if the group is having fun, more often than not so is the DM.  If I restricted character choice in this way, I was most likely ensuring someone was not having their best time.

So the question then becomes, if it is a party of fighters, how do they heal?  If it is a coven of magic-users, how do they fight? The answer is simply being a bit more creative as the DM.  below are a few things that can help any party, but especially those lacking in some way, to play any combination of character archetypes they choose.

  1. If the party lacks healers, potions will suffice.  Certainly there is no end to list of magical items that might induce healing, but potions seem the simplest and most convenient way for each player to manage their characters healing
  2. Does the party lack fighting men?  They can be hired!  Henchmen and hirelings were a very important piece of the gaming puzzle back when I started, but somehow it fell out of use in later editions.  Bring it back!  
  3. What?  No Wizard among your ranks?  That's what magic items are for, silly.  I mean sure, you can hire a magic-user to follow you about, but they are expensive and tend to whine.  Instead, round out the party with a few well placed and possibly rechargeable magic items.
There isn't any aspect of play that can't be reproduced in order to allow players to choose their own adventure path.

A fully balanced party, in retrospect, isn't really balanced at all.  In a party of four that requires muscle, one fighter will hardly resolve all necessary combat, one cleric will be unable to heal everyone who may require it.  This notion that having each player assume a very specific role in order to insure maximum survival is a illusion.  

Let the players choose.  If as the DM you need to compensate, or make options available in order to give your players a fighting chance (which they should, IMHO, always have), then do so.  Be creative.  That is, after all, your job.  

Monday, January 16, 2017

Fantasy Grounds VTT is a Great Way to Play

There's new construction under way, and I'm enjoying myself immensely.

I haven't DM'd in a little while, and some recent events have opened the door for me to run some games.  First, the DM for our regular Sunday night Fantasy Grounds game had injured himself and required a long rest & recoup, so I heeded the call and started prepping.  We recently moved from Castles & Crusades to 5e in order to help recruit some new folks to the virtual table.  The other game I'm prepping is also for Fantasy Grounds (FG), but in a complete 180 degree shift, it's for AD&D 1e, a ruleset just recently developed.

I've been a user of the Fantasy Grounds Virtual Tabletop platform since 2008, when technology finally rose to the point where playing a game via the internet became plausible with the advent of the VTT software and VoiP services like skype and hangouts.  I enjoy the flexibility of playing in this way, though in no way does it replace the more personal and intimate experience of playing live and in person around the table.  The dice are not as fun to roll, and the books are all digital...there are elements of roleplaying that siimply cannot be reproduced via the internet.

What I HAVE managed to do via the internet and VTT's is schedule games that I can regularly attend, engage with people who also desire to play but cannot get to a group at all or as much as they would like to, and I've even managed to make some long and lasting friendships.  Adulting is busy work, and it doesn't allow for the sort of freedom and flexibility I had as a young person engaging in my hobby.  Many weekends were lost to the table, and I wouldn't trade that time for anything, but now the choices are harder, and VTT's fill the void nicely.

I've spoken before of my dislike of 5e, but I'm running it.  Most of the players now coming to Fantasy Grounds, and coming to or back to gaming are doing so because of 5e.  I'm split about how it makes me feel.  I know that coming off of 3.5e, and then 4e, it feels like a step forward in the evolution of the product for many people.  To me it feels like a compromise on many levels, but I'm not going to rehash, just read the first post.  What I DO like is that it's incredibly well supported on Fantasy Grounds, and there are features I wish were available in many of the other rulesets I enjoy like Castles & Crusades, and now AD&D1e.  It makes character creation, and campaign creation, a much more pleasant process than I'm used to with other rulesets
With the new AD&D1e ruleset, which is neatly built on top of the familiar (to me) Castles & Crusades ruleset, it's like coming home.  The look & feel of the ruleset is very Old School and the coder of the ruleset will be joining in as a player so that should be a good time.  Fresh out of it's 'wrapping' it has a few bugs, but the ruleset creator has been quick to make adjustments.  It's getting alot of positive attention and I think it will be well supported.

Mostly, I'm enjoying the creative process of worldbuilding.  I plan on doing a few near-future blog posts on my process that are a bit more specific, but I've learned over many, many years of creating playvironments (I just made this word up...maybe it will catch on) that it's good to start with a small place, a few encounters, and a couple of interesting NPC's and let the game world build itself organically through play.  At its simplest, I drop a rock I made into a pond I stumbled upon, and the ripples will become the gameworld.

I'm a big fan of Fantasy Grounds.  It has managed to keep me in the hobby, which certainly would not have been the case if playing live and in person was my only option.  I know that many folks don't like gaming this way, or prefer the freemium model of Roll20, but FG seems to me to be the best VTT currently available.  Is it expensive?  Not really, if you are interested in playing rulesets that aren't 5e.  Not gonna lie, buying all of the add-ons to make 5e work well (and give you and your players access to all the bits n pieces of the PHB, DMG, and MM) can run upwards of $100+.  It's not cheap to be one of the Cool Kids, never is.  Thankfully that's not my main mode, so over the last 8 years my financial investment in the product has been negligible.

There are many Fantasy Grounds actual play videos as well as video reviews and tutorials on youtube so head over and take a look if you're interested in what VTT gaming with FG has to offer, and stop by the forum on their website to see how involved and passionate the user base can be.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Professional Dungeons & Dragons is Not a Thing

Once more unto the breach...

If you missed my last post, which seems unlikely given the tweets, G+ pings and Facebook notifications I am still getting as of the writing of this next post, you can find it here. It was wildly popular, and received both positive and negative attention from a wide spectrum of TTRPG players, DM's and self-proclaimed aficionados.

I was glad for it all.  My thoughts and questions sparked of a wonderful and lively conversation.  Some folks denounced me outright, while still others proclaimed my point 'well put'.  Even Matt Mercer reached out with his own thoughts via twitter.  For the most part it was all very civil, and I think these conversations, questions, and opinions should be available to anyone who has access and wants to listen, or has something to say.

A pattern arose.  At first I didn't see it, drowned out by much of the noise being created by those who agreed and those who did not.  Suddenly, it appeared.  Many of the people who disagreed with my query/opinion did so using the following analogy (more or less)...

 "It's like saying there should be no pro basketball because some kids play street ball and could never live up to that standard. Or no MLB because there's little league."


"Isn't that like saying watching the Cubs win the World Series is bad for potential Little Leaguers, because they shouldn't expect every game to be at the same level of play?"

So it seemed that in many cases people who saw nothing wrong with Critical Role, or any other popular or unpopular 'cast of actual play roleplaying sessions saw the very 'best' of these as PROFESSIONAL, as in Professional Sports.

Wow.  Mind Blown.

That got me wondering even further, this rabbit hole now deeper than the last.  What did it mean that people who play TTRPGs, some new to the hobby and some long time players, thought that what Critical Role was doing was broadcasting a professional level game?  Holy crap.

To my knowledge, and to date, there has been no such thing.  People being paid for game materials to date have been the creators, the writers, the artists who build the tools we all use to play our games.  From Gygax and Arneson, Steve Jackson, and now to Goodman, Finch, and Spahn (and a whole mess more).  These were players of games who loved games and expanded the knowledge base and rule base to make the game more fun and interesting for players of every type, in every place.

Now, however, what seems to be emerging is a new breed.  The Professional Gamer (DM/Player), not unlike the pro video game players of the last decade (even though there really is no competition here, where in other games (sports) it is clearly a competition...

...Which is where the analogy that I kept seeing again and again ultimately fell apart.  It's not a competition.  It's just a fun game.

Matt Mercer is indeed a professional.  He is a fantastic voice actor.  When my son (11) found out that I had had a brief twitter exchange with Matt, he smiled and shook with joy.  As a big Overwatch player he was well aware of Matt's involvement with that game.  I scored big dad points, which means more to me than any and all the conversations we're having about this here stuff.  What Matt does during his game, employing all of his skill and training as a professional voice actor, makes for a fun and engaging show.  SHOW.  It's great that his players get to experience Matt's talents in that way, during a game that is all about telling a story through characters.

In my opinion, Matt is not a professional DM, he is a professional voice actor (and a great one, just check out his IMDB) who 'casts his games, his hobby.  His broadcast games are not professional level games, they are just games he plays his way.  Maybe he is making some profit from this endeavor, and that is absolutely fine.  His JOB is to entertain people, and he's good at it.  He should be paid for it.  This is not normal, however.  There are few other people who can earn a living, in full or in part, by doing what he does with Critical Role.  By comparison, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of people who end up in professional sports as players.

TTRPGs are amazing, and I love them.  I've been playing these games for a long time as a DM and player, but never once did I think that I should get paid to do it.  I'm very good at it, maybe great depending on who you ask, but I don't see it as a profession.  I don't think Matt sees it as a profession either...

...but many of his fans clearly do.

[I'd like to state, for the record, that while these won't be the last opinions I post on my blog, it will be the last in what appears to now be a series (if 2 makes a series).  Next week it will be back to my normal postings, which will likely interest considerably fewer people, but I hop that those new folks who have happened upon my blog will check back now and again to see what I'm up to, and check out some of the gaming content I enjoy providing.  Thanks for reading.]

Friday, January 13, 2017

Critical Role May Be a Fumble...

It’s important to start this little blog post with a caveat.  I don’t enjoy most actual play ‘casts, and I rarely listen or watch.  There.  Now you know how I feel/act in general regarding this type of media.

I know that these sort of things have become popular, due in part to ‘casts like Critical Role (CR) and Acquisitions Incorporated (AI).  I am NOT saying they are a bad form of entertainment, or that they are poorly produced, etc.  For some, they are very entertaining.  Also, some folks enjoy Survivor, or Days of Our Lives.  Whatever.  That’s cool.  There are plenty of other things to watch so I’m not forced to join those who do view.

Here’s my concern.  Do these sort of forms of entertainment set up a DM for an impossible, perhaps Herculean task that has no chance of success?

If I have never played D&D, and my first exposure is watching Critical Role, is every DM I play with going to fall very short of Matthew Mercer?  If I watch Acquisitions Inc., will all the players around me not be as fun as Patrick Rothfuss or Mike Krahulik?  These are Actual Play ‘casts, and are billed as such, but my actual play games, while fun, aren’t at all like either of these.

As a DM, I like to do voices for my npc’s (who always end up sounding Russian or German...why?  I have no idea), but I’m certainly no voice actor.  Also, I play a fun but not whimsical game like the ones I see on AI, but if that ‘cast is my first glance into the crystal ball, then when I get to a game where the play is taken a bit more seriously or isn’t moving as quickly, how disappointed am I going to be?

Now, in no way am I advocating that these ‘casts are harmful or dangerous.  We are still talking about a game, so no reason to go over the edge here.  I want new folks to play, and if their gateway into that realm is these shows than fine, but if all you ever saw on the road were Corvettes, and your first car is a ‘92 civic, there’s going to be some disappointment.

Interesting to me is the flip here.  I’ve tried watching regular folks (like me) playing D&D on Youtube, Twitch, etc.  Holy crap that’s boring.  If my first introduction into the world of TTRPGs was watching some of the long winded, slow, boring live-play ‘casts from some dude’s game room I wouldn’t be in a hurry to play.  Sure, I know that if I was sitting at that table, I might be having a good time.  Perhaps I’d be tweaking my sheet, considering my next move, waiting for my turn to strike during battle, but watching is not the same as doing.

Look, this are just my thoughts, my opinions.  Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t, maybe I’ve incensed you...but this wasn’t my intent.  As always, it’s important to understand that on many levels i’m just a crotchety old dude who likes his D&D Advanced and 1st Edition.  The only media I had as a kid that had Dungeons & Dragons affiliation was the cartoon.  Maybe I feel as though I had to do it/learn it the hard way, and I don’t like the idea of some young turks coming along and streamlining the process, adding a bell curve, and making it all simple and easy to digest.

Hell, I was killing orcs when Matthew Mercer was still crapping his diapers!

Don’t worry.  These shows aren’t going away simply because I don’t watch them or like them.  The takeaway should be thus...remember that the internet is alot like TV in that most of what you see there isn’t real.  The actual world, and playing in a real game of D&D isn’t going to be a mirror image of that ‘cast.  Watch it, enjoy it, but be prepared for something that may only resemble, in pale shades, those wonderful internet toons.