Saturday, January 8, 2011

On Playtesting, Lovecraft Releases, Moving Away from Retro-Clones

Lots of good stuff on the blogs lately. Of course I must be a bad businessman and actually have opinions on things. And express them.

First, playtesting.

If something goes to print and you accept money for it, it should be playtested.

But blog posts? Whatever for? Blogs are for throwing ideas around, not for presenting Professional Product. I think the same applies to "fanzines," and may be how the term signifies "idea bank!" even if the final result is as swanky-looking as Fight On!.

The thing is though, what does playtesting mean? In more mechanically advanced games and systems, rigorous testing to make sure things work is important. In games where balance is important, you really need to be rigorous in figuring things out if you're going to be sure that a game does what it says it will. If you proclaim there is a right way for a game, then everything you do has to follow that way and unintended consequences are bad.

In looser games where things blowing up and the entire session going downhill on a bad die roll is not undesirable, playtesting is done for a different purpose. What one group does in a more open game will not be representative of a damn thing that is possible. Basically, as long as it's possible for a group to survive the adventure while experiencing all the major bits, and it's possible for them to die along the way, as far as I'm concerned the adventure's good balance-wise.

And I have to point out, I've run Death Frost Doom a bunch of times. All that playing and enjoyment of the module didn't help Alexis enjoy it, now did it?

What I've found in the value of playtesting adventure material is in determining that all necessary expository material is included. Making sure the relationships between different elements in the adventure are explained so that the purchaser, without benefit of contact with the author, can run the darn thing in the spirit it was intended. I've seen actual play reports of most of my work that reinforces that it can do what I intend it to do without my being there. Success!

Confession: You know that Purple Lotus in Death Frost Doom with the random effects? Before publishing (and after publishing and probably until the end of time) not every one of those effects had happened in play. :P

Seriously though. There's the original D&D which is damn near incomprehensible as a stand-alone product that didn't even include essential rules and upgrades being played at the time of its release, and that created this entire hobby. There's AD&D1e core, which had a ton of stuff which really doesn't work well in play and which even the attributed author didn't use or in some cases even want in there, and people have played that just fine for over 30 years. But then there's Unearthed Arcana, which was full of wonky ill-advised shit that ruined campaigns worldwide, and the Dungeoneer and Wilderness Survival Guides which were full of wonderful detail that you can tell were formulated in a lab without ever coming into contact with an actual game table.

Somewhere in there is a mixed message, and the truth, about the importance of playtesting.

Labyrinth Lord has a Lovecraft thing coming out.

I think I might have dodged a bullet. Lovecraft has a heavy influence on Weird Fantasy Role-Playing, obviously. but to me "Lovecraft" and "Cthulhu" are not the same thing. At conventions when talking about the game I've tried to play down the tentacles, because tentacles are not what I'm pushing. Remember my micro-rant here.

I'm going to get Realms of Crawling Chaos. I'm willing to bet money (which is what purchasing a gaming book is, really) that parts of it will end up in my campaign (especially appropriately-themed spells). But it looks to really take Lovecraft elements and put them directly into the game. It's a different approach than I'd take, and I'm glad for the difference. There is a forthcoming (how soon?) Swords Against the Outer Dark that I'm not so clear on as far as tone and what it will deliver. My worry is that people will still put Weird Fantasy Role-Playing into the same mental space as these products, because being different is important. The strength of Weird Fantasy Role-Playing is that you already know how to play, it's all very familiar, but it can deliver a different play experience than the other simulacra or the games they emulate.

(Yeah, Carcosa has Cthulhu & Co, but to me they aren't the selling point or defining setting element.)

Which brings us to the big one.

Moving Away from the Retro-Clones (with other good talk here and here and here).

Odd that there seems to be a little surge in "Why don't we have anything new?" talk in the OSR, which was built on the rejection of new things and the desire to have new things which directly recalled what we already knew we liked.

Look, I don't want mechanical innovation. I might switch around spells on a list and screw around with things that nobody used or never worked right (encumbrance, wrestling), but my game looks the way it does because there is a skeleton of what I want in a game that's been out there for ages and ages and that's that. Game over.

Goodman's DCC game advertising seems to have spurred the discussion. Goodman has released some great things (Dungeon Alphabet, Creature Generator, Points of Light), but the Dungeon Crawl Classics? That whole brand? Remember their marketing:

Remember the good old days, when adventures were underground, NPCs were there to be killed, and the finale of every dungeon was the dragon on the 20th level? Those days are back. Dungeon Crawl Classics don't waste your time with long-winded speeches, weird campaign settings, or NPCs who aren't meant to be killed.

That's what the DCC name and brand still means to me. Not how I play at all.

Their self-description of the rules engine for their new game?

Rules Set: DCC RPG, an OGL system that cross-breeds Appendix N with a streamlined version of 3E.

3e is what made me hostile to the "D&D" brand, so obviously this game isn't for me. Even if it does create discussion.

And then there's the Appendix N thing.

It goes back to "What is this thing we're doing?" Is it a set of rules? Or inspirations?

Things need to be different in order to find their own audience. With nobody pushing OSRIC (if OSRIC had been released as an in-print, for-profit concern in 2006 this discussion wouldn't exist in meaningful form - OSRIC would own old-school by such a margin that there'd be zero incentive to bring anything else to market), Swords & Wizardry moving closer to 1e with the Complete edition makes sense, and it's a move that benefits both S&W "prime" and "White Box" as it makes them different. Labyrinth Lord's core game is now comfortably between the two (and keeps chugging along as probably by far the most successful of the simulacra; wasn't it Proctor who first saw the value in wider distribution back in 07 or so, unfortunately going through Key20 at the time?).

Those games have the advantage of being able to say "This is the game that's been around forever." They all present the same thing in different ways. The spells, the monsters, the magic items, the implied setting. The rules vary bit by bit, but the trappings are the same. I think the clones are both necessary and awesome, but I certainly understand that another "pure" clone isn't necessary.

There is still room for additional things building on that familiar base.
Things that change the trappings, that deliver a different feel and experience, without changing the rules skeleton. Obviously I feel this way! The success of these additional things will be due not to pure originality, but in how well they are presented (hopefully a love for publishing that matches a love for writing will make a difference here...) and how well they straddle the line between being different and still being familiar.

Creativity will help there.

But I'll say it plainly:

Fuck originality.

Give me interesting and well-done things that I can use for my existing campaign.

We're not making fine art here, we're making game-play aids. Too much originality reduces general usability. The imagination should be sparked more on the consumer's end than on the producer's end, really. It's why you make adventures with no definite "end encounter" or victory conditions, why you make rules without strict expectations of the progress of play.

I happen to think the cross-compatibility of this scene is its strength, the common understandings of the fanbase is the only thing that makes the OSR anything worth a damn in the first place, and anything that moves outside of those elements might as well be 4e or FUDGE for all I'm going to care. It's why I change only certain things and leave the rest alone.

The perfect example:

The Dungeon Alphabet is probably the most universally well-received (and commercially successful) thing that anyone in the OSR has produced, and it deserves every accolade it receives. Every single last damn one of us can pick up that book and get inspired and make our game better. It's creative as hell.

But is there a single original element in the whole thing? I say no. The whole thing celebrates the well-worn and familiar elements of dungeon crawling. By its positioning the dungeon as a vibrant and worthwhile gaming environment in many ways it discourages pure originality by keeping people well satisfied with the original baseline gameplay assumptions.

And that's fine by me.


  1. There is no originality, just trails less traveled.

  2. @JimLotFP:
    Part 1 of Post

    Everyone should be doing this, in the industry, or out. I do! If I count, not having any commercial product to my name.

    Your Brand Identity:
    It's safe, if only based on your style alone! I don't think HPL inspired games will corner the market. Even if so, your 'weird' vibe stands out.

    The OSR and New Things:

    'Fuck originality.'
    I would've said as much of originality as you're comfortable with, but not it for its own sake, but ok....

    'Too much originality reduces general usability.'-
    seems to mean people aren't comfortable with 'weird' shit. I'd argue that it varies, and it's always worth taking a chance on,. But many people like the tried and true. Good thing the Wargamers didn't take this tack in the mid 70's right? What with the fantasy in their battles :-)

    According to you the OSR is built on the these two pillars:
    1)the rejection of new things and
    2)the desire to have new things which directly recalled what we already knew we liked.

    I believe that your supposition that both 1 and 2 are espoused across this spectrum of players is shaky if you read the blogs and peruse forums, chat with other players,etc...
    From what I've seen 2 by far is the overarching motivation, with very few articulating 1.(Unless they don't want anyone to know that they simply hate new things cause they're new, rather than having evaluated and rejected them, like most have, I wouldn't see why they would.) A fair amount were players of 3rd Edition plus, but found that they enjoyed older editions more due to it being faster, more familiar, in many cases mechanically simpler, and that it brought back good memories.

    I doubt the OSR is built on negatives: I wouldn't say its adherents are fundamental rejectionists. Not a few do play other games outside the Old School(even Dragonsfooters!), and even enjoy them on occasion. They simply prefer the familiar mechanics and play style of (certain) rules. I'd say the OSR crowd wants new settings utilizing tried and true mechanics(with a few insubstantial tweaks[most notably Ascending AC; an innovation of 3rd Edition!])

    I would also add there's a 3)Desire to have the fun we had back in the day with our friends around the game table! A motivation not to be discounted, I'd say, but I don't think it blinds this group to new, enjoyable games.

  3. Part 2
    On the Desire for new things:
    You can have your Dungeon Alphabet, Stonehell, and your Carcosas and Empire of the Petal Thrones.(I'd add Mazes and Minotaurs and Encounter Critical, but that's just me. On the professional side, Skyrealms of Jorune, Underground, Nexus: the Infinite City, Street Fighter RPG, and so on.)
    New, exotic settings and tweaked rules aren't going too banish the favored flavors of D&D. Products with unfamiliar premises and strange assumptions aren't going to swamp the familiar play. The Generic Sword-waving Orc of Bog Standard Fantasy isn't going to turn into a Purple 4 Armed Throgg with the ability to molecularly alter the composition of copper living in a pocket universe in the mind of a demented siliconoid tomorrow! There's room for all kinds, and that's what ChicagoWiz(rather efectively, to my mind) is trumpeting hither and yon. It'll all be in good fun. D&D 20's days of crowding everything else out is over, and everything can fit on the new virtual shelf., so everyone's favorite game and style will still be here.

    As for me, I want more Old New stuff and more New Old Stuff. :-)

    @Aberrant Hive Mind:
    'There is no originality, just trails less traveled.', and occasionally, along those trails something NEW is discovered.

    Great post for discussion and winnowing ideas for the current drive of OSR!!

  4. >>Playtesting: Everyone should be doing this, in the industry, or out. I do!

    I would hope that everyone is playing what they're talking about, but it's no great crime for someone to post something before it's been used.

    >>I doubt the OSR is built on negatives

    I think the defining moment of the OSR was the release of OSRIC, which was a direct result of Castles & Crusades not being what was hoped for, and Castles & Crusades was itself a step away from 3e and towards The Way Things Were.

    The good stuff is what allows the OSR to grow, but I do think the foundations were built on the dislike of how things were going in mainstream gaming.

    >>There's room for all kinds

    I don't think there is. At least not under one recognizable umbrella. There comes a point where something is so different that it shouldn't be grouped in with its inspirations. Where exactly that point is, that's what we argue about. :D

    And I think it would be a shame if the cart started being put before the horse. "This is how I play, I should develop that further so the game reflects that," and "I am going to create something that's very different!" are different impulses that lead to very different outcomes, I think.

    >>and everything can fit on the new virtual shelf

    At the turn of the century I could go into a game store and not find jack shit that I want to bring home. It was an awful, awful time to be a gamer and I hated it.

    Today, there are tons of things that are available that I can choose from that I can use. I want this to continue and become a bigger and bigger piece of the overall pie.

    Simple as that.

  5. What's that saying, hate the player, not the game? The extra Lovecraft & D&D we'll be seeing this year *should* be a good thing... for one thing, it might get more people reading. And then instead of replacing the Lizard Men in the 'Fountain Room' on level 2, with Deep Ones, to make their dungeon crawl 'Lovecraftian', they might actually use the monsters, in, you know, an actual horror scenario.

    Okay, I guess that's just restating the rant.

  6. Wasn’t ascending AC an “innovation” of Metamorphosis Alpha?

  7. @velaran -

    The point of the OSR is to play older editions of D&D. Not something like it, or similar but D&D itself.

    It is no more defined by the negative as the chess club.

  8. Rob- Your definition of the OSR would come as a shock to those people who play Encounter Critical.

  9. @all: missing 'exclusively' before built in this sentence: I doubt the OSR is built on negatives. :-P

    @Robert Fisher: I forgot the scare quotes on 'innovation'. Was it Metamorphosis Alpha? I was under the impression it was Gamma World. I stand corrected. Fail.

    @Rob Conley-
    To a degree, this isn't a 'club', per se. And the Chess club occasionally plays variants, like Chazz or even gets psycho with Speed Chess.

    LL, Swords and Wizardry, OSRIC are basically similar: D&D. Like I said, I think people are asking for setting stuff, but they don't mind rule-tweaked stuff every now and the, like LotFP, for example.


  10. 'but it can deliver a different play experience than the other simulacra or the games they emulate'

    That's what I look for in a ruleset - does it deliver a qualitively different play experience - but at the moment I think that it's only when allied to the adventure modules that LotFP is doing that, otherwise it's just degrees of difference from B/X (Although the more you tweak, the more I see a new stranger flesh adorning the skeleton). No-one has pwnd weird fantasy, just like sword and sorcery.

    When someone reports that playing thru KOTB with LotFP is qualitively different due to the ruleset rather than the DM, I'll punch the air.

  11. @Joseph-Ha! EC can do that to you!

    Ascending AC-apparently Dave Arneson used it in 1970-71 in his games! Somehow, this seems right.

    When someone reports that playing thru KOTB with LotFP is qualitively different due to the ruleset rather than the DM, I'll punch the air.-Try this with Warhammer Fantasy 1st Edition!

  12. Speaking as a magna cum laude graduate
    in mathematics (not spelling velaran)
    the OSR is ergodic

    Ergodic refers to a mathematical or logical system that within a finite sequence of steps or permutations will frequently revert back to a state resembling its original condition.

    Now that the Old School Renaissance has made a splash upon the internet and print media, a significant amount of veteran gamers/ RPGers are introducing their friends and family to the hobbyist or classical version of RPGs that laid the foundation for much of the modern video game industry.

    Funny voices not required ; - )

  13. >>When someone reports that playing thru KOTB with LotFP is qualitively different due to the ruleset rather than the DM, I'll punch the air.

    Trick question! That adventure is so open that experiences will be different playing it every time no matter if the Ref and ruleset are the same or not!

  14. 'Trick question!' - Agreed, fair point :)

    Totally agree about OSRIC, what happened there ?

  15. @ Valeran - Well, Arneson used a 1-6 (6 at least for certain, but probably 1-8), worst to best AC system, so that is "ascending", but otherwise does not play especially like the "Ascending" system in D&D that starts, (pecularly IMHO), at AC 10.

    @Jim, I played in a playtest of the DCC game and basically agree with you. I'm all for new rule sets when they address some percieved need/niche. I can't see what need the DCC set addresses and personally found the rules a bit fiddly and overcomplicated - a nich already amply filled I'd say. On the other hand, I'd disagree that OD&D is well covered. Swords and Wizardry and LL original characters plays and feels like another Moldvay to me - not that that's a bad thing - but the quirkiness and color of OD&D has yet to be captured, I'd say.

  16. Playtesting is an essential ingredient at White Haired Man. We playtest our adventures ourselves and forward to people who are willing to run our adventures with their groups. The process can go long when holidays rear their ugly head as in the case of our current product development. Creating content that is balanced and gives a GM the ability to provide memorable roleplaying moments with his group is more important than any product release schedule.

    Each time we playtest we learn more about our product. Sometimes we find we must add or replace a piece of art. We certainly find organizational improvements at every turn. The copy is tightened up along with structural improvements. In short, we run the games, accept feedback and rework areas that may be improved. Along the way I think our playtesters enjoy the interaction and become some of our best fans. They tell people about their experiences and it drives sales later down the line.

  17. On the other hand, I'd disagree that OD&D is well covered. Swords and Wizardry and LL original characters plays and feels like another Moldvay to me - not that that's a bad thing - but the quirkiness and color of OD&D has yet to be captured, I'd say.

    Going back to OD&D to recapture the wow-this-is-neat! feelings of your adolescence is like phoning up your now-40-years-old married high-school girlfriend because you miss the experience of being a fumbling virgin. If you miss her, call her; otherwise, you wanna fumble around like a newbie, take up fencing.

    Or Warhammer 40K.

  18. I wonder if the ways that people find S&W and OEC lacking as an original D&D clone mainly concerns the non-cloneable parts? It’s hard for me to imagine a clone that comes significantly closer, but—being more of a classic D&D than oD&D person—I’m not the best judge of that.

  19. The thing about the OSR I find is that it's not a thing but a concept. To me it means that having 3 Player Handbooks and a thousand pages of rules just for the player is insane.

    That's me.

    The impression I draw from the rest of the blogoshere is that there is much more diversity out there than most know. One thing I know for a fact is that OSR=D&D is completely wrong. My own work as well as the very blog these comments are on is proof of that. I currently track over 200 blogs and read as much as I can and the opinions all vary about what working in the OSR arena means.

    Taking it back to the roots is not so much about being a slave to tradition but approaching gaming from that open minded viewpoint that anything is possible. From the guy just building his own flavor to play with friends to those marketing their work the sky is the limit.


    "Hey, you got fantasy in my wargames", "No, you got wargames in my fantasy"..."Umm, this tastes pretty good"

  20. Fuck originality because you have an existing game system to sell?

  21. Do you think the game does not accurately reflect what I'm saying here on the matter?