Sunday, May 31, 2009

Is This How D&D Is Supposed to Be Played? - One Year Later

This post was one of my first "famous" (as in, linked and talked about elsewhere) blog posts, done just four days after starting the blog. It got nominated and accepted for the Open Game Table anthology before I even knew that the project existed, so somebody thought it was more than fodder for that day's boredom-breaking flame wars. Hell, it ended up being discussed on Paizo's message board last week!

It's been a long year of odd living situations and personal weirdness, not to mention a lot of reading, discussing, and arguing about role-playing matters. I'm going to go through and quote bits from the original article and give my thoughts on them... ONE YEAR LATER!

One of the positive effects of Gary's passing was that many were inspired to play old versions of D&D as a tribute and memorial to him. I think that opened a few eyes to how good the old games actually are.

Recently there's been a bit of a tendency for people to claim that 4e is the major cause and booster for the Old School Renaissance. Well, they claim that dissatisfaction with it has driven people to the old games. While some of that is obviously going on (although I suspect any backsliders who were expecting to enjoy 4e are more likely to stick with 3.x or move to Pathfinder than come our way), I think Gygax's death is a more important catalyst. Boards like Dragonsfoot and Knights'n'Knaves have been around forever, and all the major simulacra were around or announced long before Gygax died or 4e was even announced, but it was Gygax's death that pushed the blogging into high gear (... inspired Grognardia anyway, which seems to be both a direct inspiration for others to start their own blogs, as well as being the best place to find them), resulting in a greater visibility for the whole thing. I don't think it's wrong to say that the established old-school boards aren't the best environments for newcomers to jump in and splash around, nor the most constructive place to present ponderings of a more philosophical or experimental nature.

I really wish that these modules had been designed and released with less consideration as to how nice they'd be for a session or three's adventuring, and more consideration for what they displayed concerning the game as a whole.

Modules are a tricky beast. They have to be self-contained, but at the same time the good ones have to communicate the "campaign" factor. I've been trying to reconcile the two with my own projects as they come closer to release. I see that others (although this is not an absolute) still release adventures in the "self-contained good for one-shotting" mindset, which is not productive in the long run.

Ryan Dancey's "20 minutes of fun packed into four hours"

I still don't know which 20 minutes were supposed to be the fun. Looking at how 3.x is set up, I have my suspicions, and that stuff has never been the fun for me, and I tend to design adventures to turn that sort of fun on its head. But we'll have more reminiscing about fun in a couple weeks, won't we?

Matthew Finch's The Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom

I was rather unkind to this module, and I should address that. In the past year, I've run this module for my group, so my opinions on it are far more credible than they were last year. Finch is a master of presenting weird situations and ideas that really get players involved and interested. There are plenty of individual bits of Pod-Caverns that had them quite invested in the situation (and one of the characters, months of real time later, still has to speak in rhymes). Many of Finch's Eldritch Weirdness spells prove his talent at coming up with odd yet eminently gamable ideas, and his City Encounters has much the same flavor.

But the Pod-Caverns as a whole just didn't come together for me. It seemed like a lot of the weird stuff was in there just to be weird, and all these great individual details didn't make sense as part of the same environment. Not to mention that the Shroom didn't seem to have a tight grip on his own home caves so believing he was a threat to outside communities (as briefly offered in the module's intro) didn't seem right... so in my game, I made the Pod-Caverns the connecting point between a cavern where a brownie was trying to protect his fox-coup from the giant chicken in the mushroom forest, and a rip-off of SSOC's Valley of Howling Shadows (talk about a diverse selection off odd...), with no pod-men territorial encroachment.

And I still think that dwarf gag is frickin dumb!

That said, I am very interested in The Spire of Iron and Crystal, since the bit of buzz about it I've heard makes it sound like it's full of the odd stuff that Finch does well, and just might all be housed in an environment to make it all ring true as a package. Now to find it in a way that doesn't involve Lulu or an upcharge. :P

(not that fully-described locations are anything to sneeze at - it's the only reason why I haven't released module after module yet... but I can make up something marked "Location 10. Kitchen" just fine in play with no written text, I just have trouble sitting down and writing a publishable and complete description for such a room... shit... I wonder if I should just release modules without all that description? 38746238742638742 releases in the next month, here I come!)

I still believe that a published adventure should flesh out its location descriptions (and relationship between various entities therein), popularity of the one-page dungeon notwithstanding.

B1 In Search of the Unknown

You know... I would run this today, and it was a location in my Olden Domain game... at least until someone figured out my thinly-veiled rumors about it and informed me they know the module.

B4 The Lost City

I've seen it since then, and it really does look like a lot of work to make it live up to its potential. Just as-is, it is far too simplistic and small to really evoke the atmosphere it could. Again, I feel providing all that detail is the entire utility of a module... else why not put that effort into my own creation?

Hmm. There was a lot less commentary on that old post than I'd have thought. Perhaps I was more clear-headed writing that post than certain others. I'll just reproduce the final bits from one year ago, because I still believe they are very true today:

To focus on reproducing the worst and most cliche elements of traditional gaming is not a celebration of days gone by, but a bastardization of it, and it plays right into the hands of what the detractors ignorantly claim the game is all about.

With the attention that traditional gaming has gotten from the passing of the progenitors, and the division caused by the new edition of what claims to be D&D these days, there is a chance here for a renaissance of commercially feasible and creatively vibrant products. If we don't take advantage of that, then all we have is nostalgia and if all we're doing is reminiscing about a "better time" then the only place we'll go is away.


  1. I will say that my desire to switch back to older versions of D&D was based on my (and my group's) disappointment with 4e, and my burnout on all 3.X versions of the game. I am not the only one I know who feels this way. I wanted to start reading the old books again after Gygax died, but I never actually got the desire to run/play the game until around November-December of last year, when I could stand 4e no more. I'm not sure if I'm in the minority or what, but there is at least some truth to the 4e reaction claims.

    Also, it was your blog that got me blogging... I don't remember how I found it but I was searching google for Original D&D stuff (right after I had ended my 4e game)
    I actually discovered Grognardia and the rest from your blog roll.

  2. I had never before read Dancey's "20 Minutes of Fun" comment. Wow. His assertion that 3x is more fun to play than 2e because it is more consistent is bizarre. Perhaps consistently more difficult, perhaps.

    My experience is very similiar to Ryan's above me. I went backward in editions because 3x was burning me out and 4e struck me as ridiculous. There was no way in hell I was going to start from scratch with a game that looked even more arcane that 3x.

  3. I never read your original post, since I wasn't into the blogging thing then. Now I did so, and it sure feels like you surely hit the nail straight on its head. I have never thought of modules that way, but it's very obvious after reading your post.

    While I hope people get dissatisfied with 4th ed, since I think it reinforces some bad gaming habits, I am very sure that other factors are more important for old school resurgence. I think the dissatisfaction started already with 3.x, mostly.

    It sure feels like there are some challenges ahead, and that those showcase modules for psionics/naval combat/wtf still needs to be written.

  4. What bad habits, exactly does 4e reinforce? I wonder how much time has been spent on this subject?

  5. My beginings in the OSR were the result of being sick of third ed. I've played with a lot of groups of 3.Xers and I've very rarely seen a game where some rare obscure rule was not invoked, or a monster's stats weren't shouted out in combat. In short I hated the type of players that 3rd ed seemed to attract.

    On the other hand after Character creation i can not recall any one other than the cleric ever asking to see a book in over six months of playing my first BX campaign (and even then it was only so he could copy spell descriptions.)

    I do play 4th ed on occasion, but I still can't stand 3rd ed.

  6. I can talk about myself and my group.

    We had an ongoing 3E campaign that we started in the very earliest days of 3E, right after I moved to St. Louis. We played off-and-on, with interludes of other games (Call of Cthulhu, GURPS: Whatever, all kinds of stuff), but eventually we had one character in the party legitimately achieve 20th level.

    I've never seen that happen before, and it was pretty cool (the core group did all start out in _Thieves in the Forest_ as 0-xp first level character). It was indeed pretty cool.

    We are still sort of playing that game, but it's HARD and TIRING to do combats and encounters at really high levels. So, basically, they're in what, as far as I know, is the last arc of the campaign. But we kind of ran out of energy and wanted to take a break and do something else.

    So that's when 4E came out. And we played it, once, and realized that we really weren't having much fun. We weren't ready to go back to our 3E game yet though. So we kicked around some other things. Spirit of the Century was a blast, although it's turned into Pulp-rather-than-Noir Cthulhu. But we also broke out Moldavy and tried Isle of Dread, and although one of our players HATED descending AC, the rest of us had a blast, and it was such an amazing breath of fresh air for the character sheet to be, you know, a SHEET, and for character creation to take 20 minutes, not hours.

    FWIW, we really liked playing 3.0. I thought it got back a lot of the mojo TSR squandered in late 1E and 2E, which I really didn't care for at all, but made the game function with a cleaner mechanic; I find equation-based rules easier to handle than matrices, although I realize peoples' mileage varies. 3.5 fixed some of the inconsistencies but overall made it clunkier and was not an improvement.

    About that time I got interested in _Encounter Critical_, and then S. John Ross pointed me to Jeff Rients' blog, and then I was off and running. (I started with Holmes Basic in 1979 or 1980, btw, and I still have 90% or more of all the RPG stuff I have ever owned, so I come by this pretty honestly.) Not long after that some stuff went down in my life such that I needed some escapism, so I started writing my own Megadungeon, and then we kicked around a while and figured out a lightly-houseruled Microlite74 gave us what we wanted in terms of mechanics familiar to the 3E players, quick rulings-not-rules, and fast, fun play.

    So we're mostly having a blast. Yesterday was a good example. My wife, playing Anon the Magic-User (human, 2d level, gender unspecified), wanted to shift from stabbing one rat to stabbing another, with a spear. But there was someone else in the way (a spear having a reach, of course), and it was in the dark, and Anon is a mage, not a Fighting Person, so I just said, "OK, roll it, and don't fuck it up too badly."

    Well, Anon rolled a four, so I said, "Ummm, yeah. You just stabbed Urg the Dwarf in the back. Roll damage."

    Amy started to protest, "Hey! I didn't fuck it up that badly! I didn't roll a one." Another of the players at the table DID MY JOB FOR ME, and rolled her eyes, and sighed, and said "You rolled a FOUR."

    And without complex rules-not-rulings, we can evolve tropes. Like, when Father Clancy rolls a 1 attacking with his morningstar, he's managed to wrap yet another body part in the chain (and maybe hit himself with the spiked ball).

    I imagine some day we'll get back to the Nine Hills Dairy and wrap it up, but everyone's having a blast delving through the Megadungeon of the Mad Archmage Gary-Stu right now.


  7. I am in the same boat as Ryan. I started looking at the OSR when 4e came out and 3e and Pathfinder had burned me out. I still play all those games but the games like OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord just have a greater appeal to me. I like their rules-lite nature and it's approach to play. Yes, the game is more limited from the players perspective after playing these other games, but with a little imagination, you only need the 4 classes and 4 races to really play anything you want.

    I also like how they empower the DM which 4e and 3e have pulled away from. The DM should be the one with all the power, though he should never abuse it, he has to run the world. In 3e, I've found that many of the players pick up on the rules and will try to use them to their advantage instead of trying to use the map or his own skills to do so. I've seen many arguments break out over the rules because of this adding to "20 minutes of fun in 4 hours".

    Strangely enough, I began blogging because of various styles of play in 3e and how the traditional DnD setting or assumptions don't cover some of these styles. I also started blogging because of all you OSR bloggers, you at the top as many of the others on your roll. So when you speak of how the game should be played, I often will nod in agreement or ponder those that I don't, though I may never yield to them. As long as you keep posting, I'll keep reading them.

  8. lokipan,

    I think 4th ed breeds the idea that gamers are entitled to succeed. A game where the magic items are in the PHB and you are even encouraged to write up a wish list is encouraging bad habits, IMNSHO.

  9. Interesting to hear of a gamer that likes old D&D, likes 4th but detest 3rd ed! In my former 4th ed group we had one guy with that opinion and I couldn't wrap my head around how that worked.

    Personally I think 3rd ed is excellent, and the most versatile edition of D&D of all time. I also happens to think B/X or Mentzer is more my kind of fun. But, where I to get my act together and run a Midnight campaign I'd use 3rd ed without hesitation.

  10. The only thing bad about 3e are the modules and the culture they bred, which ultimately led to:
    WAR-illustrated Railroading Extravaganzas (aka Pathfinder) or the ridiculously encount4rded 4e.

    And that´s why I dig the OS-folks: They put out some nice gameable material for my 3.5 games! Rock on, you guys. Except James Maliszewski, he´s pure poison to all things Roleplaying. Stop pontificating, and start/continue writing game material, OS-Folks!

  11. The DM should the one with all the power.Though never abuse it,he has to run the world.Interesting to hare of a gamer thats like old D& D,likes 4th but detest 3rd ed!we had one guy with that opinion and couldn't wrap my head around how that worked. Roulette

  12. I have a group that hop-scotched from 3.5 to 1E and then 4E over the course of 2006-2008. I presently run three different games (one weekly and two bi-weekly), with a 4E game full of 1E converts (the lighter approach to skills in 4E feels more comfortable to these guys, and they have all been using minis since the 70's so 4E's minis-heavy approach does not bother them), a 4E game with a mix of various people who all seem to enjoy the fact that my 4E game still plays like an open-ended sandbox world where they can do as they wish (it's perfectly doable, and in fact 4E is proving very flexy, I find), and finally a Pathfinder game which converted over from C&C, chiefly because in the course of the C&C game we had fitted it with a custom skill system and a 1E adaptation of the 3.X feats, to the point where C&C was looking more like 3.X anyway. Pathfinder turned out to have just the right "vibe" for this group, which wanted old-school appeal with more modern mechanics.

    Um, I guess the long story short is it's been a weird ride, but as DM for all three groups my only problem is avoiding letting mechanical differences bleed over from one session to the next (I have caught myself managing invisibility, for example, like it works in PF in my 4E game, or preparing to offer up an opportunity attack in the C&C game. Gah!)