Friday, May 16, 2008

What system to run? What system to publish for?

When I got back into role-playing at the beginning of 2006, there wasn't much choice as to what to play. Certainly there wasn't much new material out there to buy. The game I played most often in my youth was AD&D (1st edition mainly, although I switched to 2nd when it came out... I was supposed to realize at age 14 that I had a choice?). So that's what I played.

When I started another fantasy campaign at the end of last year, there were choices. The "retro-clones," or simulacra as I like to call them (it seems more respectful, and doesn't showcase working, living game systems as out of date in any way - I also hate the term "old school"), are out there, and they work.

Being a writer and a bit of a publisher, there is also the decision as to which system I should write my material for.

I suppose some musing is called for.

The Original- Dungeons and Dragons

Obviously I can't publish something directly for Dungeons and Dragons. But I can certainly run a campaign with Dungeons and Dragons.

OD&D. It's too loose for me. I see the framework and I start mentally filling in the details that later versions added. I can't see it for what it is, or leave it as fast and loose as current supporters seem to like it. I have to skip it.

Basic D&D. I've only ever seen the Mentzer version, and it's what I started on. It suffers from being spread out between five box sets (a pain in the butt when it comes to looking up spells and monsters), and the Rules Cyclopedia version seems to be too simplified a compilation with too much unnecessary material added. On the plus side, it's marvelous for being easy to set up and play, and all the dominion stuff in the Companion set is just awesome. I'd need the Basic, Expert, and Companion sets for any campaign I'd want to run, I'd want them in hard copy, and that's five books (the Expert set wasn't divided between Player and DM books, right?) with essential information spread out all over. Hmm, not so handy. And it has race as class. Ouch.

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 1st Edition. Look at all those options! See, I look at these rules and I want to use everything. Everything. I want to do the complex initiative with segments and everything (I love the ADDICT document), and I love using the Weapons vs AC Type tables and weapon speeds - what other reason is there to have all those weapons in the game? Looking through the DMG, there is so much in there that I don't remember anyone ever using. Naval combat, sieges, sages... I just want to make adventures specifically to use all these obscure rules. The downfall of the game is the horrible organization of the rules. Gygax's writing is awesome, and the essays in the 1E books are entertaining, valuable, relevant reading. The actual rules? Spread out and disorganized in format, and often not so clearly explained (sometimes because it's spread out all over the place). Is it possible to play AD&D strictly by the book?

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition. No. The rules are cleaned up and much better organized. I like how they handle the thief and bard classes much better than 1E. I even like the more powerful monsters. But the entire thing just seems so... whitewashed. In organizing the game, they stripped it of soul. Not that the soul is system dependent, one could certainly take the 2E core books and run a 1E spirit campaign, but I'm one of those idiots that thinks when you play a game, you shouldn't have to cherry-pick and choose elements of that game to use. 2E became a mess. The crap started with those kit books for all the classes, and I was out completely (not entirely by choice) by the time the rules expansion hardcovers came out. And D&D with no demons or devils? Who are they kidding? Are they publishing a game to please the gamers and fans of fantasy and swords & sorcery, or are they publishing a game to please parents and religious groups who will hate anything called D&D no matter what's in it? Argh. No. Plus I'd have to buy all the books for it.

Dungeons and Dragons 3.x Edition. No no no no no no no no no no. 2E was distasteful, but still fully recognizable as Dungeons and Dragons and very compatible with every version that came before. 3.x changed everything - the look, the feel, the game play. I don't give a shit who owns what trademark, this shit might be something, it might even be something good on its own terms, but it is not Dungeons and Dragons and calling itself Dungeons and Dragons makes me hate it with the intensity of a thousand stars going supernova. "Re-imagining" things has ruined many "intellectual properties" for me. I can't stop them, but none of these fuckers can make me accept it.

4E. Bloody hell. I have not seen one. single. thing. in all the pre-release hype to make me think it's anything other than complete garbage. Low-level 3.x play could have some appeal in a similar way HERO would with the tactical combat. My impression is that 4E just goes super-gonzo with empowering everybody and making "game rules" that can not be reconciled with the idea of a setting that makes any sense if you strip the game out of it. Maybe I'm wrong, but it's not like I'm ever going to read the books to find out (and I never hopped onto 3.x, so there's no reason to suspect that I'll be one of those "early detractor yet subsequent adopter" types). Well, OK, some of the artwork is pretty. Some of it.

The Simulacra

Castles & Crusades. Another one just for playing consideration and not publishing consideration. It's smooth and clean, it feels like the traditional games, and it does a lot. Sure, it's got some innovation, but it seems really obvious that it's trying to recreate the feel of the previously published games, and not the (then-)current version of D&D, so I count it as a simulacrum. There are some negatives though. The DC system seems completely arbitrary. "Well the adventure is for 10th level characters, so we'll set it this high, whereas if it was for lower level characters, we'd set it this high instead." Maybe I'm misrepresenting the game, I've owned the rulebooks (twice!) but never really played except a game where we had a TPK in the first half hour (most of the players didn't show that day...). Another minus is that that two core books are fairly slim, so why are there two books to buy? Why not a heftier single-volume Castles and Crusades book? This is also one of my original critiques for the game - it was advertised as a one-book game, and it definitely was not. The original book referenced creatures that were not included, just for starters. I don't think they advertise it that way anymore. At least I hope not. And the last thing I don't like about C&C (and why it pains me to say I have no interest in buying the Zagyg stuff that I'd otherwise be all over) is the dumb shit format of the stat blocks. Look at this crap:

Ifon Picton (He is a lawful neutral, human, 3rd level bard whose vital stats are: HP 17, AC 10. His prime attributes are: cha, int and wis. His significant attributes are: wis 14 and cha 15. He carries a longsword, dagger and ring of enchantment.)

The problem isn't that it's a format I'm not used to, but that the wordiness actually makes it more difficult to find the information I need in the stat block, plus it doesn't even include simple yet vital information like attack bonuses or weapon damage.. Horrible. And completely irrelevant since I largely run my own adventures so I wouldn't use this anyway, and who knows if they've changed this in the couple years since I've seen any new C&C material. But it still shows an intent on the part of the creators that makes me uncomfortable using their rules. Hey, it's my money and my pasttime, so it doesn't have to be entirely rational, does it? I'm still going to get that Engineering Dungeons book soon though. Hopefully it's generically useful with no stat blocks. :D

OSRIC. It's not a complete playable game, really. It's simply a publishing tool. The in-development second version is going to correct this I do believe, but the game it's emulating is so flavorful that I don't know that any rewrite or restatement will ever feel right. Can you imagine saying to someone, "We're going to play D&D, the OSRIC version." I can't.

Labyrinth Lord. I like it. A lot. It feels just like the classic version of the game it's emulating, but maybe too much so. I don't mind things like the traditional to-hit tables, but the race-as-class thing is just too much to swallow. Even moreso that the race/classes are so limited in levels. Maybe for halflings I could understand. Maybe. But dwarves and elves living hundreds of years and being unable to reach human levels of achievement? That's an ancient artifact and should have been left out.

Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game. This is my current game of choice, over the second-place AD&D 1E. AD&D character generation can take an hour with unfamiliar players. Really. Mathematical computations with saving throws with demi-humans, all those class and race abilities and language computations. Plus pull out the second book and look up secondary skills and aging modifiers, and, and, and... Sure, you could just not use all that stuff, but then why are you playing Advanced D&D? BFRPG is dirt-simple, and characters can be made in, no exaggeration, just a couple of minutes. Just the four archetypal classes seems a tad too simple (but I'm not happy with the extra optional classes so I don't use them) but it has race as a separate trait than class so that helps a lot. Plus it has a lot of great ideas and options. No level limits for the demi-humans, but humans get a +10% XP bonus to even them out. The Attack Bonus that 3.x introduced really does make more sense and is easier to use than the old extensive attack tables. Everything is so much easier that my preferred play-style, "let the dice fall where they may," is much easier. Character deaths don't take someone out of the game for more than a few minutes (although in-game explanations for new characters appearing may be tricky) so there's no reason to not be a hard-ass GM and require that the players play tough and smart. I only use one house rule as well: Spell-casters get an extra first level spell a day. I don't like the spellless first level cleric but I don't want to rewrite their spell chart, so that's an easy way to fix it. Using OD&D's "everyone uses d6 for hit points" is an intriguing notion but fatalities are too frequent as it is to hamper the fighter. Maybe just increasing the d4 classes to d6, with the cleric's armor capacity acting as the balance point there?

But yeah. BFRPG for me.

In addition to being a free download (as are OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord), BFRPG is also downloadable as an Open Office document... which means I can take the text and make my own digest-sized (OK, A5-sized here in Europe) booklets and have them printed up for my own convenience. This game is just made of pure, distilled awesome.


So the decision then. I want to publish. I have almost a compulsive need to publish. And I really don't want to develop my own system because what I play is this other stuff here. It's really so stupid, because realistically, anything published for one of these games is compatible with all of them. But there's this legal landmine and everyone has to be careful and... I hate it, and I'll probably set myself up for problems sooner or later just because it's just so fucking dumb. OSRIC is D&D. Castles and Crusades is D&D. Labyrinth Lord is D&D. Basic Fantasy is D&D. WotC releases are not. That's what I believe, and at least the first sentiment is absolutely true, even if you're not supposed to say so for legal reasons. Stupid, stupid, stupid shit, to act like one is walking on eggshells concerning something everyone already knows. I'm as big a believer in copyright and intellectual property and all that, but damn this is silly. So do I get crucified now? So what are my real options then?

The Trademarks. Yeah, no-go publishing something specifically for "Dungeons and Dragons" or "Castles and Crusades." Understood.

"Systemless". I got away with this for the Creature Generator (he says, as if after three weeks he knows if he's going to get sued yet. :P), but full adventures? I'd do it if it weren't for the difficulty that listing spells would cause. Obviously, I'm not going to be one to use a lot of standard monsters. But I could just go OGL without using any of the simulacra licenses, but why would I? Sure, you're not hanging your hat on any one hook when any of them would do (and yes, I know there are differences in the feel of them, but when you're writing an adventure, the adventure provides the atmosphere more than the rules), but at this level every sale is significant and not publishing under one of these labels will cost a few sales. So which one?

Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game. That's what I'm playing, so that's what I should publish, right? Hmm. No go. It's obvious that Gonnerman wants his game to be kid-friendly. It's right there in the first (non-game fiction) paragraph of the book, and that feeling pops up in a few other places. There's also this line in the BFRPG license: "2. The work may not be obscene in nature; in general, any work containing subject matter that would qualify for an NC-17 movie rating in the United States, or an R rating due to explicit sexual content, is considered obscene for purposes of this license." Naked boobies and serpent-gorged penises in the Creature Generator notwithstanding, I don't intend to publish porn or erotica of any kind in my gaming material, but movie ratings are ridiculous to me. Standards for what is NC-17 and what is R, for either violent or sexual content, change constantly, and hearing what the ratings board requires to get specific ratings infuriates me. I think there will be a lot of possible interpretation in the things I publish in the future that may make this problematic, especially for someone who wants their product to be "kid-friendly."
Interaction with fantasy RPG creatures involves a lot of violence and killing, games that include demonic influence, evil cults, and bestial humanoids can devolve into sadism if described and presented matter-of-factly (I fill my brain with Argento, Fulci, and Deodato films, so that should tell you where my "squick factor" is), and social life in a sword-and-sorcery game almost has to involve prostitutes... and what do you think people mean by "court intrigue"? Tiddlywinks? Not to say I'm going to use or focus on any of this in my own stuff (although the kitchen in the goblin lair in Insect Shrine isn't going to be a fun place), but if I come up with an idea where such things would be present, I do not want to feel restricted from using plain language or put things behind a curtain if the situation would benefit from not doing so. RPG writing and adventure creation are creative enterprises and I will not be censored. Maybe I'm making a mountain out of molehill here, but... better to be safe than sorry and I don't mean to cause the creator of this fine version of the game any grief. I will continue to play it as my iteration of choice.

Labyrinth Lord. I like the license terms, but... the game itself is restricted. I won't write in terms of races and classes being separate, so it wouldn't make any sense to use this.

OSRIC. Almost as a default, it's down to OSRIC. Not that it should be taken as any sort of insult, because OSRIC has its advantages. I believe the OSRIC "brand name" is the strongest of the three simulacra, which is no small thing! I believe that material released in "advanced" OSRIC formats is much easier to convert to other "basic" formulas than it is to convert the other way around. And I already naturally think in the language that OSRIC speaks, if you know what I mean.

I have a feeling that as soon as I do release something under OSRIC, my legal opinion about it being D&D will change. Obviously it's a spiritual successor to D&D, but after further reflection, it's definitely not the same thing.



  1. Talk about coincidence. Your post today is eerily similar in its subject matter to my own, although with a slightly different focus.

    Something must be in the air.

  2. Something must be in the air.

    I've noticed this kind of thing, too; I think we're all just reading the same stuff at the same time. You're right, though, it is kinda eerie...

  3. Many years later, I have to ask... How come the guy who wrote this is the same guy who made Dwarves, Halflings and Elves classes in his own version of the game? I don't mean that as a jab, it's a genuine question.