Friday, September 10, 2010

Languages in Fantasy Worlds, Part 1

Languages add detail and richness to fantasy settings. They make the difference between a setting that feels artificial and one that seems organic and evolving. The grandaddy of all fantasy worlds, Tolkien's Middle-Earth, has at its heart the author's constructed languages. The carefully constructed place and personal names lend a subtext of depth and a verisimilitude that a selection of randomly derived names simply wouldn't. Whether the reader consciously realizes it or not, the setting is granted a sense of life and history by a systematic approach to language.

The trouble is that none of us are Tolkien, and very, very few of us are professional linguists or philologists. The only setting designed for gaming that boasts fully-developed artificial languages is M. A. R. Barker's T├ękumel. The world builder can and should think deeply about the languages used in his or her milieu, but both knowledge and a general aesthetic sense about languages are needed to create them in full, from scratch, and the only way to get that is to study them at or near the professional level.

What we really mean by "language" as it applies to world-building is names. We develop the languages so that the named things, places and people in the world seem like they fit together in a natural way, and so that the names themselves carry the associations that we want to convey, perhaps subliminally, to the reader or player. Developing a constructed language to the level of detail that real-world languages have is a monumental task requiring a large amount of education and very possibly a lifetime of work. Fortunately, there are shortcuts that can be used to create a credible facsimile of a fully-developed constructed language. Using them will give your setting an organic feel. You may not tell a player that Akhbar is from an Arabian-like culture, but hearing the name, they'll fill in that particular blank in their own imagination. Sterotyping, used in a constructive way.

This series of articles is about creating languages for fantasy worlds, not about educating even armchair linguists. It may be that the reader, having used the techniques presented here, will be intrigued by languages and want to know more, but aside from making some suggestions for further reading, that's beyond the scope of this article.

If you do want to explore linguistics further, be aware that the subject is one of the potential traps of the world-builder; it's possible to pay too much attention to it, and get trapped in linguistic minutiae. I have fallen into this trap myself - it's a fascinating subject that's worth study on its own merits, but if your goal is to construct a fantasy setting rather than to devise artificial languages, get the basics hammered out globally first. When your world is ready you can always go back and flesh the languages out to your heart's desire, in much the same way that Tolkien himself did. Meanwhile, you should be treating languages strictly as tools for developing pleasing and consistent names for your setting.

And the trap is actually two-fold; it's possible to take constructed languages too far, from the world-builder's perspective, renaming even common things. This hinders accessibility (just ask Barker,) and the world-builder should be leery of the tendency. As a general rule, if you have Kings in your world, just call them Kings - there's no need to make up an in-setting name for this kind of hereditary monarch when you have a perfectly serviceable and universally understood term ready to use in good old English.

Our approach here will mirror that in the world-building series; we'll start by answering some big questions, determine a good level of detail to work down to, and then do the actual dirty work of building the language and assembling names. Just as importantly, we'll keep things managable, by limiting ourselves in the amount of work we do on any particular language. A good limit that I apply myself is that everything about a language, from phonetics to grammar to the useful lexicon that we use to actually build names, has to fit on both sides of a 5x7 index card.

Be aware that I'll be using grammatical terms and concepts in this series of articles. I'll try to do this to the least extent possible, but there's no way to leave it out altogether. I will link to a helpful Wikipedia article where I feel it's warranted. Meanwhile, I'll hand out our first piece of recommended reading, English Grammar For Dummies. This will provide you with everything you need to know about grammar, and then some - and we'll be playing with those rules as we learned to apply them in English, to create natural-sounding fantasy languages.

Stay tuned for Part 2: What You Need To Know.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Fantasy World Building, Part 1

This will be the first in a series of articles on top-down fantasy setting design. We're going to begin with a few assumptions.

Let us call the setting non-system specific, at least for now. With that in mind, we'd like the place to be useful in at least a somewhat broad selection of rules systems, specifically including D&D and its various clones. We might also add Rolemaster and RuneQuest (3rd edition) to the list as well. This will have ramifications down the line, as it will keep us from delving too deeply into certain things, like the physical mechanism behind magic.

With this in mind, the world (yet un-named) will be a classic or traditional fantasy world. At least some of the traditional fantasy races will be present. The most traditional of these are Elves and Dwarves, probably also including Orcs and Halflings. This implies to me a somewhat Tolkienesque setup, so let's play with that.

The structure of Tolkien's Middle-Earth is both epic and mythic. Let's keep the epic but aim for a historical feel rather than a mythological one. So we're going with a Tolkienesque feel but emphasizing the synthetic history of the work.

Let's pillage liberally from history. But direct, one-to-one analogues of historical cultures is something to be avoided, in my opinion - this is a trap that, say, 7th Sea fell into. However, there are certain historical/fantasy tropes that I simply can't resist borrowing. Vikings, for example. So that's where we're going to be starting.

This being traditional fantasy with its need for Clerics and other servants of the divine, let's assume that the Gods are in fact real. Having one set of gods for the whole world, even if they're known by different names in different places, feels kind of synthetic to me, and it makes a metaphysical statement that I'm not terrible comfortable with. Therefore, let us posit multiple competing pantheons of Gods, who are powerful but nothing like omnipotent. This matches up reasonably closely with how Gods were viewed in pre-Christian times.

I have a hankering to explore a semi-monotheism as well. So while some of the pantheons will contain a bunch of Gods of more or less similar power, one pantheon is dominated by a single Over-God and an array of empowered, semi-divine servants, more along the lines of angels than saints.

We'll be sticking to the traditional fantasy sphere, for now, so we're going to stay away from Asian analogues like a fantasy Japan or China. We can assume that something like those places exist, if the campaign warrants it, but we'll leave them off the table for now. This also means that we don't need to work out the whole planet.

Now I will sketch a map.

I'm not an artist, and don't have access to fancy artist's gear. So we're keeping this simple, and just using pencil and quarter-inch graph paper. I'm doing this with an eye towards a digital treatment later on, so I want to keep it manageable; specifically, I want to be able to scan the maps. So I divide my world into regions 5 squares high and 8 squares wide, and I make the coastlines and continental shapes more or less fit into the grid. This is tricky to do while keeping things looking somewhat natural.

The world map is just a rough sketch; I'll be taking each of these regions and blowing them up into full-page maps, which I will then scan into the PC. The sketch itself is never going to be seen again, so things don't have to match up perfectly; only the general flow needs to be preserved. I'll add lots of details, like islands, bays, lakes, rivers and such on the individual maps.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I'll tackle regional mapping.

Monday, August 30, 2010

It's Been a Bit...

But I'm still around. I'm in the process of kicking off a new campaign of Ars Magica (5th Edition,) an ambitious monster I'll be sure to talk more about as we go on.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Odds and Ends

In this week's miscellany, I had a crack at D&D4e last night as part of the D&D Encounters program, which I decided to attend literally at the last minute. The point was to get a better handle on how the game runs at the table, but as luck would have it, this week's encounter was a skill challenge. I think this rule has a great eal of potential (compare it to, for example, the rules for extended contests in HeroQuest, or the Duel of Wits system in Burning Wheel,) but I'd rather have sat in on a fightier game.

Overall, it was a positive experience system-wise.

The Silverlands project is still underway - right now I am busy dividing up the gamable area into sub-regions, which due to an artifact of my mapping method is taking quite a while. I hope to have a new map and some more info posted some time in the next week or two - and after that, we get into the low-level work of finding interesting things to place on the map.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Defending AD&D Second Edition

I was no defender of AD&D 2nd Edition back in the day; indeed, my period of near-complete absence from D&D mostly coincides with its time in the sun. Had you asked me a year or two ago, I would readily have said that 2e was the weakest of the game's principal editions, and given a variety of reasons that this was so: failing to address any of AD&D 1e's many major mechanical issues, stripping material from the game in a cowardly kowtow to fanatical nutjobs, and a sprawling product line that included a great deal of material that was of less than stellar quality.

If you ask me today... well, all of those things are still true. But I've softened a lot on 2e. While it doesn't really fix anything that was wrong with 1e, it did clean up the presentation a great deal, and it's frankly a lot easier to learn out of the books. It's still mostly the same game as 1e, and 1e was a pretty good game on its own terms. Yeah, it took out devils and assassins and half-orcs, but all of those eventually made it back in in some form or another, and it's not like much of it would have been hard to adapt from earlier materials. And it did fix some stuff as well, the Bard being the obvious example, and while some of its efforts may not have been wholly successful... say, psionics, they at least represented an improvement over the incomprehensible babble that 1e boasted in that department.

The huge, incoherent range of products is the most interesting point. It was a lot of stuff, and the seemingly-immutable Sturgeon's Law held true, in that about 80% of it was crap. But that very volume meant that a lot of good stuff snuck in as well. The 2e era was, in many ways, the golden age of D&D, much as I loathe that term - at least from a publishing standpoint. There was a vast array of materials to pick from and a wagonload of different settings to run in. This may not have made any business sense at all, and I may not have liked all of it, but I did like some of it, settings and adventures both. Even the most virulent AD&D haters of the day probably would have admitted the excellence of a handful of products, even if they would have groused about the suitability of the AD&D engine for running them - a legitimate concern in some cases. Even if I grew to dislike the 2e Forgotten Realms for its excess and overdevelopment, I still liked and admired some of the products, like the outstanding Faiths and Avatars.

In retrospect, it's hard to say that AD&D 1e maintains the D&D tradition, follows the D&D paradigm or successfully executes the D&D playstyle while claiming that 2e doesn't, even if one might quibble over minutiae; and thus it becomes very difficult to credibly lambaste 2e as any kind of aberration in the history of D&D. And its advantages in presentation and in the breadth of options available, rivaled only by 3.x, actually make it pretty attractive. If you take the whole of 2e and apply to it a sensible gamemastering methodology, namely that you should use what you like, adapt what you need and discard the rest, the weaknesses of that edition suddenly become far less important.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Brief History of the Silverlands

I think a campaign world needs a historical framework in which to set events and stories of the DM's choosing. This needn't (indeed, possibly shouldn't,) be overly detailed, but it will provide the structure for what's to come. What follows is an outline of the history of the world of the Silverlands.

  1. Before Good or Evil, before the Gods, there was the Dawn, in which the world arose from the co-mingling of Law and Chaos.
  2. Powerful beings of Law, the Sun Princes of Qan, and of Chaos, the Thousand Cold Lords, arose in time, and their long struggles shaped and shattered the world. Few survived of either faction, but those that did ruled as the first Gods.
  3. Unto this broken world came the Elves, from where none know, to heal it. After came the Dwarves, and though there was often rivalry and mistrust between them, a long, Bright Age passed.
  4. Chaos, long-weakened, rose again and spawned the Orcs, against whom millennia-long wars were fought. A fragment of the Elves, sworn to Chaos, swung the balance in its favor, and they created a Long Dark Empire. During its reign Good and Evil arose or were recognized, causing strife within the Empire. Its fall broke the Old Races.
  5. Among the ashes arose the younger races: Gnomes (possibly an offshoot of the Dwarves,) Men, and Halflings.
  6. The Empire of Attalos, with the friendship of the Elves, rose to rule the world of Men. But hubris proved its undoing, and it was felled by darkest sorcery.
  7. In Inutheyn arose the Dark Kingdom of Thol astride the ashes. The Thirteen Kingdoms were forged against it, and vanquished it.
  8. The Present, in which many of the Thirteen still endure, while newer nations have arisen among the ruins of olden empires.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

First Venture Into the Silverlands

Last year, Rob Conley over at Bat in the Attic put up a terrific post outlining a method for how to set up a fantasy sandbox. Take a look at that before reading further, because I'm going to be following his steps, probably fairly closely.

Silverlands is going to be a very traditional D&D setting; this means that all of the various D&D races and classes will be built in. I have little intention of stepping outside of the rules to devise custom stuff (but there will be exceptions to this, as we'll see later on.) At the same time, traditional or not, I have no desire to go back to the dark ages of mapping by hand along with late-night trips to the 24 hour copy place. So I'll be using modern tools, starting with Fractal Terrains Pro and Campaign Cartographer 2 Pro.

With that in mind, I present the world of Melantea:



The world map was designed using Fractal Terrains Pro from a random base and tweaked significantly, then exported to CC2Pro and thence to JPEG. All fairly easy thus far. The developed campaign area (the Silverlands themselves) are obviously going to be much smaller than the whole world.



The region pictured above is called the Attalosean Reach, so named for the great seafaring empire of Attalos which once held sway there. The continent of Inutheyn lies entirely within the region, as well as portions of the landmasses of Ghulan and Larnet. Much of eastern Inutheyn is civilized or nearly so; most of the west is wilderness or occupied by inimical tribes of humanoids... and possibly worse. It is in these savage expanses that the Silverlands lie.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Why D&D4 Doesn't Suck

The first thing that must be understood is that the essence of D&D is found in what I call the "dungeon experience," using "dungeon" in the broader sense to include any kind of locale in which it's possible to have a fairly structured series of encounters; dungeons proper, as well as castles, manors, labyrinths and even wilderness areas.

But the real heart of D&D lies in the encounters themselves, rather than in the dungeon experience itself. Structurally, the game has always been about encounters. This is one of the things that contrasts D&D with many other roleplaying games. This has always been the case, in every version of D&D, when people actually sit down at the table to play it. In traditional D&D campaigns DMs structure adventures around encounters, and form the plot to fit them, rather than the reverse. Players manage their resources around encounters as well.

One of the things that D&D3.0 did that was a radical departure from previous editions of D&D was to enable more easily the structuring of campaigns which don't use the traditional encounter-driven adventure design philosophy, primarily by including a full-fledged skill system (replacing clumsy non-weapon proficiencies,) which allowed a much greater degree of mechanical support for games which had, for example, political intrigue as an important element. It was possible to do this before D&D3.0, of course, but prior versions of the game didn't specifically enable it, and groups who wanted it had to put it in by hand. Witness the utter lack of dialogue "scenes" with any narrative function in any AD&D1e module, even in adventures in which, in retrospect, such scenes would have been very appropriate. I point out I6 Ravenloft as the obvious example. L2 The Assassin's Knot was another. Both adventures have been denounced as the "beginning of the end" by the 'old-school' bunch, but neither departed even slightly from the traditional adventure format.

This facet of D&D3.0 might be perceived as a positive thing; indeed, anecdotal evidence suggest that it is seen as such by many. But scene-based adventure design and a play structure outside of a series of encounters is incidental to D&D play, even though some groups employed (and continue to employ,) such methods in their games. In enabling play outside of the classic D&D paradigm, 3.x represents a more powerful game system, in some respects, but it's also a game system that's less D&D than those which preceded it. This too might be seen as an asset by some, but to those who actually desire play within that traditional paradigm, it shouldn't be.

The paradigm itself transcends the game system employed; indeed, the case can be made that the choice of game system is largely irrelevant. Thus the long history of games such as Rolemaster which differ mechanically from D&D but which lend themselves to play in the same style.

But remember: rules matter. They are not the only thing that matters, but they do. All other things being equal, it's better to be using a game system that supports your group's playstyle than one that doesn't - it can make the difference between an ordinary campaign and an exceptional one. D&D3.x has all of the tools to enable the traditional playstyle, but also has other tools which enable play outside of it - a function, I suspect, of being designed by designers pulled from games other than D&D. I've come to believe that this dilutes the D&D experience for many.

There's also an issue of complexity. Now, I seem comfortable with the crunch level in D&D 3.5, but I don't think that anyone would care to try to make a case for its simplicity with a straight face. It's also unquestionably a dreadful game for the new hobbyist; if you have people that can teach the rules to you gradually over the course of play (the traditional method for learning D&D,) you'll probably be okay because there'll be someone to catch your mistakes. But for a 14 year old who doesn't know anyone already playing and who wants to learn the game by reading the books and then get his friends into it... that's a really tall order.

And so we come to D&D4th edition, a system many have denounced as something alien to D&D. And there's reason to think this, given that the changes made to the underlying mechanics are far greater than the changes from AD&D2e to D&D3.0. But I submit that, whatever the mechanical changes, D&D4 captures the D&D experience very well - better, I think, than 3.x did. In many cases it does so my making explicit things likes character roles and encounter-based play, both of which have always been around, implied by the rules rather than stated outright.

D&D4e's great weakness is that it's nigh-impossible to clue in to this just by reading the Player's Handbook; it takes actually participating in a game (or at least watching one in play,) to see it without a close study of all three core books. It looks very different on the surface, but in practice it plays just the same.

There's also some truth to the concern that D&D4 is designed like Magic: The Gathering; fairly simple basic rules with powers (or cards) that break or modify those rules in various ways. This is the Cosmic Encounter school of game design, explicitly employed in the crafting of MtG, and obviously used to assemble D&D4. It is not the design philosophy used in the creation of previous editions of D&D - any of them. But it's probably a better approach when it comes to introducing new players to the game, because complexity can be added at the desired rate.

So, yes: D&D4e was designed using a very different methodology. But if the output of two programs is the same, what difference does it make that one is coded differently than the other? It might, if one is coded more efficiently than the other - allowing it to run faster on a given operating system. D&D4e is more efficient than either version of AD&D, or D&D3.x, or really any other version save perhaps the earliest and most primitive designs.

I'll get to why I don't think OD&D or many of the retro-clones out there are viable options in a future post, but my point today is this: don't dismiss D&D4e as something completely different than D&D; it's not. It's not Gary's D&D, and it may not be your D&D, but it's somebody's D&D.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Campaign Begins

This is finals week, so work on Silverlands, which right now amounts to posting what I've done so far on it, has stalled somewhat, and my gaming attention for the last few days has been taken up by prep for the game for my current group.

Which went off very successfully, I must say. I am at once attracted by D&D4e while being quite happy, so far, with 3.5. I would eventually like to migrate the group to a "living" system - meaning either 4e or Pathfinder, but I suppose I'm in no hurry.

My happiness with 3.5 is despite the fact that it is a heavy game system, even without the cruft added by the many, many supplements, use of which I am neither encouraging nor disallowing outright. Thus far I'm not finding it overly burdensome, although I need to keep abreast of monster abilities as they come up. Looking this stuff up cold at the table, even occasionally, really doesn't work at all.

Three of my players are experienced and up-to-speed hands at 3.5, while the (four) others are rusty. And I, the DM, am worse than rusty, having never run this game before, and having only played it a handful of times. Having a prepared campaign in hand is helping immensely with the learning curve, as I can concentrate on the rules and the story and encounters are taken care of.

The campaign, by the way, is Age of Worms, which ran in Dungeon 124-135. Expect a report from me in the next day or so about the beginning of the campaign.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

D&D Run Successfully

Yesterday I ran D&D3.5 in a one-shot for the local Meeteup.com D&D group, which is a great little organization. The session ran to about 5 hours with relatively few distractions.

I elected to run the adventure that I'm prepping for the regular group, since... well, it was the adventure I was more or less prepared to run, and I'd volunteered to run at the last minute. To say that I am rusty with the 3.5 rules would not be accurate, since I have actually never been all that up on 3.x beyond the basics (which I remembered handily.) The whole affair was greatly instructive; I now know which parts of the module I need to execute better as a DM, and which rules elements I need to bone up on to actually run the thing correctly.

In addition, this thing needs to be run with a battlemat; not using one definitely subtracted some tactical elements that would otherwise have been there.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Introducing the Silverlands

In the lands of the East are mighty kingdoms and Empires as old as Time. But the western kingdoms are much younger, for they lie on the border of the most unforgiving wilderness upon the world. It is called the Savage West by easterners, Kingdom and Wilderness alike. But to the peoples of Seoland and Malrene, and Hesurea and the Dells, the wild lands beyond their borders are lands of limitless opportunity, where one might decide his own destiny upon the keen edge of a blade. Here savage tribes of Orcs fight amongst themselves, seeking ever to unite as they did in the elder days, to sweep aside all the kingdoms of men in a red tide of war. Here mad wizards delve into forbidden secrets in impossible towers which destroy the sanity of the weak-minded. Here there are riches to be found and kingdoms to be forged, as much as there are ill ends to be met. The men of the west call these forbidding reaches the Silverlands.

The centerpiece of reader-usable content here at Ardwulf's Gaming Table is going to be a "traditional" campaign called Silverlands (which has no relation to my previous aborted project of that name.) Silverlands is going to be a "structured sandbox." It will be up to the players to decide where to go and what to do, but seeds to help them along, with absolutely no actual prodding from the DM, will be built into the design, using traditional tools like randomly-generated rumors, and a set of rival adventuring bands and potential nemeses.

Silverlands is not going to be setting-heavy. I intend for the entire world background to be able to fit on one two-sided sheet of paper, suitable for use as a handout, to provide a DM with maximum flexibility. The Silverlands themselves - the wilderness in which the campaign will be set - will be mapped out exhaustively at 6 miles to the hex, with placement for major adventure sites, bases of operations, and miscellaneous places of interest. My model for this is going to be the Wilderlands of High Fantasy.

UPDATE 3/11: Silverlands is going to be developed for D&D 4th Edition, not D&D3.x as previously planned. The design is at such an early stage that this makes absolutely no difference. I'll still be posting my progress, although I've been made aware of a couple of resources, which I'll point to in due time, that will be of great assistance.

However, I will be running 3.5/Pathfinder as well, using one of the Paizo Adventure Paths - I haven't decided which one yet. I'll be reporting on this as well.

Against the Giants

And now for a bit of controversy.

There's a lot of hubbub in the RPG blogosphere and on RPG forums about the so-called "old school renaissance" right now, a movement that started to build a few years ago and has only grown in popularity. Many of the strongest voices in the tabletop RPG blogosphere are part of this movement. I appreciate a lot of what those folks are doing, and such sites as James Maliszewski's brilliant Grognardia are on my daily circuit through the blogosphere. But there's a streak of puritanism there that makes me grit my teeth every time I see signs of it.

Make no mistake, the old school renaissance is not about nostalgia. So its enthusiasts claim, anyway, and while I'm largely willing to take them at their word that nostalgia is not the dominant driving force behind the movement, I don't think I believe that it's not a factor at all. Witness terms like "golden age" being thrown around so commonly, for example, and recall that in any kind of context that term implies that we are currently living in something other than a golden age.

I think that the old-school movement that exists right now is profoundly unhealthy for the gaming hobby, because it means that there are voices (in James' case in particular, a strong and eloquent voice, and one of the most regressive,) which are looking backward instead of forward. Not everybody in the movement would admit to thinking so, but implicit in the whole idea is that our hobby's best days are behind it.

I reject this notion, and I reject the rose-colored glasses through which the old school movement views the history of our hobby. One of my reasons for starting this blog was to serve as a counterpoint, in however small a way, to the inertia that I see in RPG punditry today.

Take careful note, however - what I'm emphatically not saying is that nothing that comes out of the old school movement has any value. Quite the contrary, some of the retro-clones that it's inspired have a ton of solid work behind them, and while I don't agree on some of the major tenets of this ideology, one of the points I do agree with is a renewed emphasis on adventures as opposed to setting-heavy sourcebooks and rules expansions which change game systems so rapidly (and often radically) that they can only be called "unstable." In fact, I'd say that one of the reasons why the old-school movement has gained as much traction as it has is because so much good stuff has come out of it.

But it's difficult for me to accept that there have been no advances in RPG design in the past four decades that are worth adopting universally, and impossible for me to accept that the very pinnacle of RPG design lies in three moldy white booklets from 1974. I've seen those booklets, and there was a reason many people started designing their own games almost immediately (Ken St. Andre very famously designed Tunnels & Trolls to be a game that was D&D-like but actually playable.) And there's a reason early issues of the Dragon (and before that, the Strategic Review) are so filled with rules clarifications and expansions; the rules as written did not cover the stuff the people playing at the time wanted to see covered.

I can look back at classic Traveller and see an elegant, simple game, but it's really not there - I'd be putting it in three decades after the fact. What's really there is a game that is, to put it politely, incompletely imagined, and the years since then have filled in a lot of the gaps. In Traveller's case it took all three decades to take the simple, elegant elements that were already there and turn them into something polished and comprehensive. This fact belies another - that this process is not as easy as I'm making it sound. There's a fine balance to be walked when simplicity and flexibility are equal design goals. OD&D, although it has elements of both, is neither when viewed as a whole.

Thus, especially in the light of the towering complexity of something like D&D3.x, I can certainly see the desirability of something leaner. Even AD&D 1e/2e, while simpler in comparison, is a complex and incoherent design, which no longer has the advantage of near-universal familiarity to mask this.

But why, then, does the old-school movement eschew the simple, clean, elegant D&D Rules Cyclopedia? Being out-of-print is no excuse, since OD&D is even more out of print and far harder to get. To address this issue there are retro-clones like Swords & Wizardry (pictured above,) which emulates OD&D, or OSRIC (at left,) which does the same for AD&D1e/2e. But why also steadfastly refuse to consider the terrific Castles & Crusades a part of the movement, even though it does both with, I would argue, greater elegance and superior flexibility?

"Nostalgia" isn't the word we're looking for here. Lacking better terminology, I've taken to calling it "Golden Age-ism," the position, conscious or not, that roleplaying games were somehow better in 1974 than they are today. Most of the reasonable participants will frame this in terms of playstyle preference, but does anybody seriously believe there's anything that can be accomplished with sloppy old OD&D that can't be done with the lean, mean Rules Cyclopedia, one of the finest RPG products of all time, and completely self-contained in one handsome volume?

I'm not arguing against people using whatever game system they like, of course, be that OD&D, GURPS or even Rifts. System matters, but even so RPGs are what we choose to make of them. What's I'm arguing against is the echo chamber, and for the need for other strong voices. But the blogroll at right is not stocked with Old School Renaissance links for no reason. You'll be reading plenty about an approach to D&D gaming that one might describe as "old school," but I reject the label for what it has come to stand for. I think I'll use the term "traditional" for now - and at any rate, I intend to talk more about what I'm doing rather than grousing about what other folks are doing. Teach by example.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

My Life With D&D, Part V

I have to admit that my first look at D&D 4th edition, just about a year ago, left me cold. Really cold. Antarctic cold. It seemed to me that the game was so different from previous editions as to be a wholly separate game; mechanically, D&D4 resembles D&D3 considerably less than the Palladium Fantasy RPG resembles AD&D1e.

On top of that, I felt that D&D 4 had stripped down D&D to the barest essentials - the dungeon experience - leaving all of the enhancements that had marked 3rd edition in the dust. And it did - to the extent that I questioned whether or not it was even a roleplaying game anymore, instead of a boardgame like the old Dungeon. There's nothing to it but the dungeon and a skeletal framework for handling things that aren't directly parts of the dungeon experience.

Of course, supporters of 4th edition worked themselves into a huff whenever I said this kind of thing, so I pretty much kept my mouth shut about it - RPGNet frowns on edition wars anymore. They continued to insist, contrary to my feelings on the matter, that D&D4 played like D&D, when it obviously didn't.

But something very odd happened last month. The people behind WotC's D&D website started posting a series of videos on YouTube of Chris Perkins, D&D creative director, running D&D for the performers and staff of Cartoon Network's Robot Chicken, a show I've never seen aside from some admittedly funny clips involving Skeletor's burrito breakfast.

I watched the whole long series of videos. Then I watched the alternate versions with Chris' DM commentary, which is sometimes hilarious. The funny thing mentioned above, though, is that the videos show exactly what the D&D4 backers claimed in opposition to my belief that 4e was a debased version of a once-great game; it does play like D&D.

But not the kind of D&D I would have played under 3.0 or 3.5, a sort of melange of classic D&D mixed with elements that you'd see in various other games - the kind of play that 3.0 was intended to enable, if not encourage. No, it's the kind of D&D I was playing back in the early 80s when I first got started. A pure dungeon experience, with as much roleplaying and intrigue and other stuff as the DM could get the group to buy into. But perfectly centered around the dungeon experience.

D&D4 really is a dramatic departure from the mechanical heritage of D&D, but my thinking now is that it may nevertheless manage to hew closely to the spirit of the old days, in many respects better than 3e did in spite of being a nominally more flexible game system. Maybe not OD&D old, mind, but certainly AD&D1e old. It is thus time, I think, for me to actually try it out.

Monday, March 8, 2010

My Life With D&D, Part IV

At some point during the lifespan of 3.5, I picked up a product by Eden Studios called Fields of Blood, which contained, essentially, domain management rules for D&D3.5. Even before playing AD&D2e in the Birthright setting, this idea excited me, and after enduring a number of failed attempts by various third-party publishers to cover that ground, I was awaiting Fields of Blood with great eagerness - and as I recall, it was quite late. This process led me to also discover, as a side benefit, Expeditious Retreat Press' A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe, which does not cover domain management but is a really outstanding product anyway.

Now it happens that Fields of Blood has some issues involving scaling. But despite that, unless I wanted to dip into 3.x fan conversions of Birthright, it was the best option available at that time for that sort of campaign. (Nowadays we have Greg Stolze's Reign, which is what I'd use with domain management as the primary locus of campaign activity.) So to go along with it I picked up the three 3.5 core books, set them on the shelf, and left them untouched until maybe a year ago.

Understand that my opinion of 3.x as an improvement on the previous edition of the rules (AD&D2e) had not changed. The opportunity to even think about running it simply didn't come up, and I fell into the rut of playing only with my one remaining group and nobody else. This is not really a healthy habit for a gamer of my stripe. And, to be honest, there was probably a lingering strain of subconscious elitism.

I wasn't even paying much attention when official-sounding murmurings about 4th edition started to leak out of Renton. It was impossible to miss the news of 4e's release, of course, but I paid it little attention. At least immediately. As the months went by the itch to check out the new edition grew stronger, even though I knew by then that some radical changes had been made. I mean, it's D&D, right? You really can't exist in this hobby with any seriousness without at least a passing familiarity with it.

Friday, March 5, 2010

My Life With D&D, Part III

Despite years of holding AD&D2e in very low regard, I'd gotten turned on to TSR's Birthright setting while working at a local game store. I loved that world, but it seemed to me that 2e's mechanics would hold it back from achieving its true potential in actual play. Despite that, when the opportunity to play in a Birthright game came up, I jumped on it, and I'm glad I did, because that game was a tremendous amount of fun, and remains one of the highlights of my gaming history to this day.

TSR was already talking about a third edition of AD&D when the it became obvious to people that the company was doing very badly, and it was widely, in the wake of the company's takeover by Wizards of the Coast, thought that the new system would borrow some of the features of Alternity. But as actual details of what would become known as D&D3.0 began to leak out, it became very clear that some radical changes were in sight.

For me, now steeped in years of Rolemaster and Champions, it sounded like the new edition would actually address some of the issues that I'd felt 2e had failed to fix. And it sure seemed like former Rolemaster writer Monte Cook had imprinted some Rolemaster sensibilities of the game. Once it was in my hands I also recongnized some elements that seemed to have come from Johnathan Tweet's Ars Magica as well.

D&D3 came out right in the middle of our Birthright campaign, and we all saw that it would be a fundamentally better platform for Birthright than 2e was, although it still seemed tied closely to the dungeon experience. For the first time in some years, D&D - now having lost the "Advanced" moniker, was something I wanted to play again.

But play it I did not. Not very much, anyway, due mostly to logistical issues. And when I did play, I was bored to death at the table, with the same guy behind the DM's screen who'd been running Rolemaster to great effect all those years. As a player 3.0 simply didn't work for me.

I think I know why, now. See, another of my many other games I got to taking a shine to was Tweet's aforementioned Ars Magica, which I ran or co-ran for several years, taking occasional breaks for other games. During those breaks I found that for whatever reason, I seldom enjoyed playing anymore - I'd become a pure GM. Oh, I'd sometimes have fun as a player, but a lot of the time I sat at various tables bored out of my mind. I just didn't have it in me to sit on the wrong side of the screen anymore. It had nothing to do with the D&D 3.0 experience that came in near the beginning of that period - it was my own tastes changing.

But I still never ran 3.0. The group I'd landed with was firmly entrenched in Ars Magica, had little or no interest in D&D, and the friendly local game stores that I'd used as networking hubs all went out of business or lost my business for one reason or another, although it would be stretch to say that I was actively looking for a D&D game rather than willing to play one that fell in my lap. I sold off a 3.0 collection that had grown to a bulging shelf and a half. And the game's next revision, called 3.5, went off without me taking much interest.

My Life With D&D, Part II

Around the time I got to high school we started to hear murmurings about a second edition of AD&D. Gary Gygax had written about his ideas for such in various issues of Dragon, which have been analyzed recently by the Greyhawk Grognard, among others. No matter that D&D itself was no longer my primary RPG, I was excited by it. I had no knowledge, at the time, of the turmoil at TSR that would oust Gygax and send the revision spinning in an entirely different direction

When AD&D2e landed in 1989, it was therefore markedly different than what I expected - and I noticed immediately the lack of Gary's name on it. I found it underwhelming; as I later came to think, AD&D2e solved none of D&D's basic issues, while at the same time bowing in a very craven way (it seemed to me) to the fundamentalist crazies who saw D&D as a diabolic tool aimed at corrupting our innocent youth. It took probably a couple of years for this opinion to fully form, but eventually I hated AD&D2e passionately.

Eventually Al Gore invented a series of tubes called internets, and in the days of Usenet and rec.games.frp.misc there were flamewars over the issue of incredible virulence... far more hateful than the early days of RPGNet when that place used to resemble the wild west. I was not the most strident foe of AD&D in those days, but I definitely fell on the anti-AD&D side, although I always maintained a fondness for AD&D1e.

Around 1991 or so I abandoned even the pretense of wanting to play AD&D, even 1st edition, and even had I known at the time anyone who'd stuck with the older iteration of the game. I fell in with a group playing Rolemaster, and there I stayed for many years. Rolemaster, it seemed to me, was just like AD&D but lacked many of its flaws. No more arbitrary restrictions on weapons and armor for various classes - the reasons why magic-users didn't want to stroll around in full plate were built into the system. And everything was skill-based - a development that RuneQuest had sold me on. None of this halfassed non-weapon proficiency business that the AD&D kids were doing. And none of what we now commonly call Vancian magic; we had a real spell point system instead.

After a couple of years of that group sticking with Rolemaster, I started to drift again into the supposed "story-oriented" games, starting of course, with titles like Vampire: The Masquerade, which I had trouble getting into, because in play it didn't really seem any more story-oriented than Rolemaster; less so, the way we played.

But another new edition of AD&D was on the horizon - one that dropped the A - and which would change things far more radically than the second edition had.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

My Life With D&D, Part I

I was a gamer at heart even before I picked up my first set of polyhedral dice. Some friends of mine were playing D&D by about 1980, and I wanted desperately to get into it. My best friend as a youth was a kid named Dave, and his older brother and his friends were playing it. I wanted desperately to play as well, to the extent that by early 1981 I had reconstructed with great care something that I thought was an approximation of D&D, based on the information that I had - which was limited to small talk about the game.

My memories of that early time are pretty fragmentary, so I'm actually reconstructing a lot of this as I write. But I can date with absolute precision my formal entry into the D&D hobby. May 5th, 1981, which was my 10th birthday, for which I received the Tom Moldvay-revised D&D Basic Set with the legendary Erol Otus cover.

This was the real thing, and so I played it incessantly and when I wasn't playing, I was thinking about playing. I dragooned every neighborhood kid I could into the game in my exuberance, and we collectively must have played through the Caves of Chaos dozens of times. I'm sure we made an utter hash of the rules. But that edition of the Basic Set was, of course, only half a game - to get the other half you had to buy the D&D Expert Set. So that too joined my collection.

My buddy who'd originally inspired by drive to play D&D, however, lived far enough away that I wasn't allowed, at that age, to go to his house, and he was only seldom in my own neighborhood. But after owning the Basic Set for (I'd guess) some months I found out that he had moved up to Advanced D&D. Now there was the real thing! It let you play Elven fighters and Dwarf clerics, instead of making every Dwarf or Elf the same class, something that bugged me even as a ten-year-old. And there were ten times as many spells and monsters and magic items! And you could go all the way up to like 21st level, whereas even the Expert set only let you go up to 14!

By Christmas of 1982, I was playing AD&D - that was a D&D Christmas, let me tell you. I recall it taking me an extra-long time to hunt down a copy of the Monster Manual, for whatever reason - it was the last of the core books that I got, although I'm pretty sure I had a copy by that glorious holiday of 1982 where I got a whole stack of D&D stuff.

D&D was my bread-and-butter game for the next couple of years. I figure I started moving away in around 1984-85 when I discovered Champions and Traveller. And I moved still further away when I discovered RuneQuest in 1986, with the 3rd edition published in cooperation with Avalon Hill. By then I was very cognizant of what I perceived to be the limitations of D&D and felt stifled by it. I started moving away just as the rest of the hobby started moving away, in a direction that would call itself more story-oriented.

Welcome to Ardwulf's Gaming Table!

Today is March 4, 2010. Two years to the day that Gary Gygax left us for the big tabletop in the sky. Which has nothing to do, really, with me starting this blog today, although his work is very much in my thoughts right now.

I've run an MMOPRG blog for over two years now, posting, with occasional breaks, every day about the various goings-on in that universe.

But I am, fundamentally, a tabletop gamer, and, at least as of yet, the tabletop experience has not been replicated on a computer. This blog is where I'll tackle the subject of tabletop games - specifically tabletop RPGs - and even more specifically Dungeons & Dragons. Which D&D I'm talking about... well, I'll get to that.

Meanwhile, get to reading.