Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Why Let D&D Be the Gateway?

Teach Your Kids to Game Week last week started me thinking about introductory games. In my last two posts I talked about wonder in RPGs and gave some advice to non-gamers on what to buy to get their kids into tabletop RPGs. These two things are tangled up in another idea I have struggled with for some time as well.

The Problem

It feels like the RPG hobby is set up to make D&D and all its assumptions the default. This situation is perpetuated by WotC being the only company actively marketing to people who are not gaming yet. By ceding this introductory space to D&D we allow the idea to persist that D&D is the default RPG and for many, the correct way to play.

There is certainly good aspects to the situation. It makes it easy to jump from game to game as all fantasy RPGs have familiar elements such as elves, dwarves and hobbits. It is easy to understand who the good guys and bad guys are and understand the basics of the world without instruction. In this way, the bar is lowered for entry as the D&D platform for play has been repackaged for other media over the years, from video and board games to books and films. These advantages only serve the argument that D&D is the best product for introducing the hobby to new people who do not have someone to guide them into the hobby.

In my last post I explained why Fifth Edition D&D would be my first choice as a tool for someone to introduce themselves to RPGs. The thing is, I would not use it to introduce new people to RPGs when I run. I have done so, and it works well enough, but I prefer using something else for many reasons.

Philippe Caza

Genre is not one of them. I love playing in fantasy worlds. I love the possibilities allowed by the magic or blend of sorcery and super-science that is available in such settings. Genre may be a factor for others though and it is certainly a valid reason to try to grab people before D&D gives them ideas about the right way to play.

This past year, I used The Black Hack to introduce my kids and some others to playing fantasy RPGs. With my kids and their friends we call it D&D even though we're using a completely different 20 page rulebook designed for experienced GMs to run fantasy games with simplicity and flexibility in mind. I've reviewed it before if you are interested. Although, between their play and the blank spots in the rules we've added and changed so much it's not the Black Hack anymore either.

What bothers me about D&D as an intro-RPG is also one of the reasons it works so well. It is generic. It is the fantasy that everyone is familiar with and that means it in many ways is not fantastic at all. My struggle with this issue is mixed up with my post on wonder in RPGs. When I started playing D&D it was an amalgam of the different ideas in the fantasy genre. It drew on all kinds of fantasy traditions to create a tool to allow groups to play in worlds of their own creation, inspired their favourite stories and themes used by the game's creators or jump into their favourite worlds from the list of influences, such as E.R. Burroughs' Barsoom, R.E. Howard's Hyborian Age, Jack Vance's Dying Earth, Tolkien's Middle Earth, H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands, and the world of Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions.

Forty years later, controversy and corporate design has scrubbed it clean. Now its place in fantasy has eclipsed the media that inspired it and the elements in the game are part of regular fantasy.

"Regular fantasy."

"Normal fantasy."

"Mainstream fantasy."

As accurate as these descriptive terms are, they are words that simply do not belong together! Fantasy is expansive and wondrous! I think the first game should open doors to new spaces, like it did in the 70s and 80s, rather than present people with a well-worn path. While the well worn path leads to fun, it does not often lead to wonder. (I know it can, and since that earlier post generated so much discussion I'll certainly talk about that in another post. There's a lot to process!) I don't want new people who pick up an RPG, flip through it and try it with their friends to only have fun. I want them to have their minds blown the way ours were blown when I first started playing.

I'm not saying it is bad that so many people are exposed to fantasy as a genre, but the regulation of it makes the achievement of wonder more difficult. Reinforcing the walls around the fantasy gospel with the intro to fantasy gaming only makes it harder for people to hit one of the the high points of the gaming experience; the 'holy shit that's amazing' moments.

Sundered Skies is a campaign setting for the Savage Worlds RPG that suffers from where it stays inside the walls. The world is a shattered collection of rocks floating in an glowing mist full of madness and fantastic creatures. These islands of rock float in a chaotic arrangement that only increases the dangers of travel between them. Many could be lost or cut off to develop outside of the core society. Adventures feature characters sailing through the mists to explore these floating islands. The concept seems ripe for moments of wonder, at least in the short term, but it is populated with elves, dwarves, orcs, etc. Everything largely follows its type with a few changes to the elves. There are some playable fantasy creatures created exclusively for the setting that are interesting because they interact with it in unique ways, but even their origin is tied to the elves!

That's not the real problem though. Even if the publisher had committed to the setting and created everything to enhance their vision of the world no new players would have discovered it as their first RPG experience. It was made for Savage Worlds, a generic RPG system that is marketed to experienced gamers. In fact, the target audience for Savage Worlds is people tired of playing crunchy games like Pathfinder and 3e D&D.

If you agree with me, and I'm sure many of you don't, we're still stuck with a number of serious problems. How does a person design a game with wonder in mind? As an introduction, how much is too much when it comes to RPG conventions like levels and hit points? How do make sure the game works as an intro but is still fun for experienced players so they don't need to abandon it in favour of other games? How do we get an introductory game in front of the potential player without millions of dollars and 40 years of cultural capital?

Can a game be created to introduce the concept of RPGs, be fun to play and be a good platform for moments of wonder? What does that look like? To design something like that every element of a game's design could be examined with the criteria in mind to make sure it supports these three goals.

Hacking It Together

My home game, based on the Black Hack, could be a good place to start such an experiment (it certainly is for me), but almost any system or setting could work. I think simplicity is important for entry so a medium to light rule system is probably the best way to go. The lighter the better to keep rules from becoming a distraction that pulls people out of the events in the game.

Because the Black Hack is a D&D clone with bits cribbed from other, more modern games an intro version might be a gateway into regular D&D. The mechanics are different enough, and take enough from other sources that it should lead different places for different people. Hopefully, this means they explore RPGs with less of a bias than they would had they started with D&D. Besides, I think the main problem is the assumptions built into D&D that keeps it and many of its fans trapped in its lane.

One big thing from D&D that I did away with that is so ingrained in the system is initiative. The words 'roll initiative' signal a change from open roleplay and exploration to regimented, turn-based combat. 'Roll initiative" is such a part of the D&D culture it is an easily grasped punchline or image caption. I threw it out in my game with the kids because it was boring. Their short attention spans makes the moments where they are waiting their turn excruciating. Also, as the Black Hack has all player facing rolls so it seemed silly to keep it. Because they don't know when the monster will turn on their character or have a set time to act, they pay attention throughout the round, tense with anticipation or looking for opportunities. It's good for adults with smartphones too!

In practice, instead of switching from doing stuff to the combat game the players continue doing stuff in combat. This lack of transition is supported by the resolution for combat staying exactly the same as every other action. I've found this set up stops players from staying inside the box in combat. There's very little 'I roll to hit' and more of the 'I throw my maul at his legs' and 'I jump on the lion's back' I enjoy so much as a GM. It probably helps that I threw out half of the rolls from combat to cut down on needless die rolling as well. Anyone who plays Dungeon World will recognize these things as pretty normal, but from a D&D perspective, it's pretty revolutionary to separate RPGs from their wargame roots.

I'm keeping humans as the main playable choice because I think it is good to have us as a reference point to start from. I also added other options for creatures that characters can play as well as a host of human origins. The human origins help place the characters in the setting and add an extra dimension to them without needing too many character classes. They range from traditional staples like Barbarians and Street Rats to extraordinary ones like Child of the Prophecy, Driven by a Terrible Secret and Haunted. One good point made in the discussion about wonder was that it was most effective if it was interactive and personally relevant. These origins help flesh out the character's background with a single role or choice and that is something that can be used. The head of a giant statue might invoke wonder, but one that opens its eyes and delivers some important bit of information about a character's situation takes it up a notch.

I made playable creatures other than humans each its own origin. It makes the shared identity of each alien group important. Their otherness presents opportunities for conflict, roleplay and maybe even wonder. That's where I want to keep the focus. Otherwise the players are merely playing humans with pointy ears, etc. Lizard Folk have a different set of cultural values from humans largely based on their biology. Siebh (sheeve) are utterly alien hedonists cloaked in dreams. I was mocked on the internet for including felinoids and the like in my campaigns before because of the popular derision of furries, but they are fun to play, some people love them, and if I can think of a reason they support the presentation of wonder I'll keep them!

Goblins remained much as they were from our campaign as these malformed creatures, hatched fully grown, with a basic set of genetic knowledge and instincts. How does entering the world without a childhood change a creature's outlook? How much of that influences goblin behaviour, culture and history? Does playing that out give opportunities for wonder? I'll have to playtest it to find out.

I think there can be wonder found in playing something that thinks or feels different from humanity. Committing to that otherness might lead to some interesting ideas or interpretations of events that could change the whole group's perspective on events.

One game that built up each fantasy race as a different element well was Talislanta. It had a great variety of creatures to play with unique cultural identities. An example is how the desert people always wore elaborate masks. At one point in the fiction the masks were likely for protection from the elements but by the time the game was set in the masks had cultural and even religious significance. How does such a thing create opportunity for wonder? I'm not sure in that particular case, but room needs to be made for players and GMs to create those moments.

I don't feel like there is much room for wonder presented by another dour dwarf with a wretched Scottish accent. Fun? Certainly, but probably not wondrous. Do dwarves sap a game's or setting's potential for wonder simply by being present?Should they stay part of the mix because so many people love playing them? Is there a line that needs to be drawn? Am I being too hard on dwarves?

Maybe we accept dwarves the same way we accept humans and make sure there are no hobbits/halflings. The last time someone tried to make hobbits more interesting we ended up with kender. No one wants to take a chance on anything like that happening again!

The next thing is classes. Do character classes contribute to wonder?

Having each character inhabit an archetype of some sort ensures them spotlight moments. Dungeon World commits to that idea by not allowing two characters of the same class and going as far as saying the cleric, ranger or thief in the party is the only one of their class in the game world. Their archetype is unique in that setting. With the mix of stat variety, origins, classes and player choices every player character should be different enough to present the spotlight moments for everyone.

Is a spotlight moment wonderful though? On occasion, maybe, but they certainly are fun. With a good GM classes aren't necessary for spotlight moments but they might be for the sake of wonder. If anyone can cast spells is magic still magical? Besides, classes or any other form of specialization helps to ensure spotlight moments which might be important in an intro game where there is a learning curve for the GM.

For an intro game I think it's important to have clear differences between the classes. My nine options even start with different letters to make it that much easier to differentiate them (or put class in an NPC stat block with a single letter). In my campaign we have two spellcasting classes with the cleric and the magician. Their magic differs in significant ways. There are three classes that have magical abilities but no spells with the bard, druid and sorcerer. I set them up as reflections of each other, being structurally the same but thematically different. There are three classes that are exceptional at doing certain things with the expert, thief and warrior. The last one, the ranger, is so skilled at certain things they are kind of magical. I find this covers plenty of bases for fictional archetypes without being overwhelming. I didn't want to have more than nine because I read somewhere that the ideal number of significant choices is seven, plus or minus two.

Bards get a lot of hate for being lame, but in our campaign they are keepers of the law and truth. They are semi religious figures more like paladins, celtic bards, viking skalds, or biblical judges than the singing fools the class is often identified with. It works well with the Moorcockian Law verses Chaos vibe that I like to have in my games.

Levelled character improvement does serve the idea of presenting wonder. It allows the GM to scale events up so the experiences in the game can become bigger, more amazing and more epic. That process allows for more or easier opportunities for wonder. There's also an upward curve so the campaign feels like it is building. It's also good for new players as they get to grow with the character, learning how to play their archetype in slowly increasing stakes as they become more effective.

Hit points are a sore point for many and I can see both sides of it. I won't go into all of that in detail again since I've posted about it before. The real question is do hit points help with the presentation of wonder?

Hit points as an abstract certainly promote the cinematic style of play. That can help a group get to a place of wonder. The loss of hit points is often presented as a wound or other damage sustained which quickly becomes silly and makes it difficult to suspend disbelief as the characters level and gain more hit points. Making the recovery of hit points a healing process only exacerbates that problem. To keep new players from scratching their heads and to make hit points cinematic they need to be presented as the ability to continue fighting rather than soak up damage. Then hit point recovery needs to match the concept. With all of that, the abstract matches up with the levels and it all serves to get to those moments of wonder without breaking the fiction.

Based on the ideas above and my experience running it for the better part of a year I think our version of the Black Hack could deliver fun and wonder. I know it works for new players, but it needs to be repackaged for them.

Organization and Presentation

The problem with an intro game is how much of the necessary parts of it become useless the more it is played. The hate for the "what is a role playing game" section of every rulebook has featured in game reviews and internet arguments running back for years. It is a waste of space the moment it is read and understood, but it is necessary info to deliver in an intro product. This problem could be solved by putting the what is a roleplaying game on the back of the book along with the description of what is this roleplaying game.

As a reference an RPG works best with character generation in the front, followed by the rules and other resources for play. The how to play, and how to run are not necessary for most of the people using the book. In fact, the only person that likely needs to read such information is the first person to run it in a social group. They know their group better than any game designer and can explain it far more efficiently than we can. That means all the how to play, sample play transcripts and other nonsense can go in the back with the how to run a game advice.

The only problem with that is, as an intro book it's pretty crazy to expect someone to slog through all the other bits before getting to the context in the back of the book! Does that mean there should be a companion pamphlet that can be discarded? Would a 'how to use this book' section of the introduction/first page pointing new players to the relevant appendices in the back do the trick? I like the idea of the the context of what an RPG is and how to play it staying in the book because I'd like to be able to hand someone new the book and know they have everything they need. That's part of the problem with the game I'm playing now. I have nothing to hand to one of my players and say: "Here's the game. Have fun!"

What About the Marketing?

Let's say it's possible to have everything on how to play in the book without ruining it for experienced players. That still leaves the biggest problem: How do we reach the people not playing RPGs yet that would enjoy it without the advertising budget and place in our culture that D&D has?

Numenera owes much of its success to how its early marketing communicated a sense of wonder. The art was a huge component of that, but the setting itself seemed full of possibility. The idea of the Ninth World, an impossibly ancient version of Earth, filled with relics of an advanced past captured my imagination. The game itself is simple, the mechanics are easy to grasp and system takes no experience to run. It is organized so all the important rules are in the first 60 pages. The layout and design is nothing short of brilliant and it is a great reference book for game play. It could do all the things as far as presenting wonder and introducing new people to gaming.

Too bad it's marketed to experienced gamers based on Monte Cook's reputation in the gaming industry. It makes sense to do that. It's difficult and expensive to create new players for a game. Why not market to a receptive audience? It's good business!

Fate is dramatically different from D&D despite being part of its Open Gaming Licence. The gang that published Fate spent more than a decade building the audience for their game that they leveraged to create a hugely successful Kickstarter for the current version. With the exception of the Dresden Files fans who came to to Fate through their licensed RPG for it, Fate's core audience is gamers looking for something different. It's more of a game design kit, than a game itself.

Certainly there are games other than D&D used to introduce people to gaming. Plenty are brought into the hobby with all kinds of small press and indy games, but only when introduced by an experienced gamer. That limits new people to what they can find. For instance, there's no way anyone in my area plays Fate. I haven't even found anyone who has heard of it and there's no place to buy the special dice it uses within several hundred kilometres!

Even Hero Kids, a game designed as the first RPG for children, is marketed to gaming parents who are looking for a system they can use to introduce their children to the hobby. It's great for that, but it's not likely to be purchased by someone not already invested in the hobby.

D&D's fifth edition is the only RPG marketed effectively to new people. Pathfinder has its own starter set but you'll only find it at a gaming store. Even then, I'm not sure how many store owners would suggest Pathfinder to brand new gamers. When it comes to access, D&D is in the local bookstores and toy shops on top of the gaming stores. It is everywhere and that means many people will start with it not even knowing there are other possibilities. That's how it managed to cement its place in the market in the first place. I bought my first copy of D&D in a department store in 1982.

When successful gaming companies are shying away from the intro market what can a person with no money, reputation or cultural impact hope to accomplish? How can I get an alternative to D&D into the hands of the new people that don't even know they want it yet?

The 3 iconic player characters from the Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG -

I can think of two ways to approach it.

The first is a grass roots marketing effort. I'd reach out to people I know in the library system and try to get open games running there (because it fits with their mandate of promoting literacy). I'd need to convince them to support it with copies of the game book in the city and town library branches. It's possible local success could be built on to roll it out to other city libraries.

The local library also runs the local comic con. That's another cost effective way to get the word out to people receptive to the genre and possibly interested in the hobby. Getting some tabletop RPG intro games into the Con as events might even be possible.

There's a video game con that is put on locally that has potential as a place to reach the like-minded gamers. A lot of the common themes used in tabletop RPGs made their way into video games so it shouldn't be too hard to get some people at the con to try it out.

Both of those would do better with an online component. Luckily I'm married to a film maker who could shoot and edit a series of actual play videos. With those in place the people on the fence could see a demo that looks like actual fun. It also allows for a reach beyond the local area, which is key. A solid website is another necessary component but also not that hard to manage these days. That online component could then be delivered to bloggers and podcasters in any space that overlaps with RPGs. Building out from the face-to-face built core.

The other facet of the grass roots campaign would be marketing it to the current RPG market. Plenty of current players would love a solid tool they could use to introduce new players to the hobby that they could also hand off to them. Building some excitement in the gaming community for the game on its own merits would be important too. The more people playing it, the easier it will be to find a group to play with! A Kickstarter for an edition with colour art or a large print run might help build excitement and a reputation too.

As for the second method, I'm working on another approach that might completely change the RPG market. I'd be throwing out most of what I have above to operate on a level no one has conceived of before for gaming. I'll get to that in a later post. There's a lot of work I need to do first to see if it's even possible.

In the meantime, I'll at least get my rules into a printable version so I can hand it over to my players. The sooner they don't need me to play the better!

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

"My Kid Wants D&D, What Do I Do?"

Either Wizards of the Coast have done a good job promoting the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons or Stranger Things got it into everyone's head, because a bunch of people have asked me about getting D&D for their kids this Christmas. 

"You know about this stuff, Dave. Where do I even start?"

Good question! If you've never played a tabletop Role Playing Game before, guiding your child into the hobby could feel like anything from confusing to terrifying. Luckily, I have your back!

There are actually a lot of games that give you a great RPG experience. Some of them are even specially designed for young people. Despite that, I'm going to suggest starting with the fifth and current edition of Dungeons & Dragons for a few reasons. Everyone who has contacted me has had their kids ask for "D&D" by name. They want something that says "D&D" on it. As the former kid who received a Tandy COCO II from Radio Shack instead of a Commodore 64 for Christmas like everyone else, I'm telling you it's best not to disappoint them with an almost what they asked for. (Don't worry, my parents don't read my blog. Their feelings are safe!) The other thing is D&D has always been something of a lingua franca of roleplaying. Because it is so ubiquitous in the hobby almost everyone has some experience with it and can relate what they are playing to it. It's also the most popular game so it's easy to find other people to game with. The last reason is they've went to a lot of trouble to make it easy for new players to pick up the game without someone helping them through it.

 The best place for a new player to start is The D&D Starter Set box. It has a stripped down version of the rules with a set of sample characters to play and one of the best starting adventure campaigns ever! They can open the box on Christmas, read through it, choose someone to run the game and be playing as early as that evening (although Boxing Day is probably a more reasonable expectation). Everything necessary to jump in and actually play is in the box, including the funny dice. It's carried by some book and gaming stores, but it's also available to order on Amazon and Chapter's Indigo.

Each player controls a character who is an avatar in the shared, imaginary world of the game. One person is going to need to take the role of the referee who adjudicates the rules, runs all the people in the game not played by the players, and presents the problems and situations for the players to solve with the resources of their characters and their wacky ideas. This referee is know as the Dungeon Master or DM. The series of adventures in the box helps a new DM get the hang of running all these things with a great advice and explanations.

The adventure, called The Lost Mines of Phandelver, has a series of locations that the players can interact with in any order they like as they figure out what is going on in the campaign area. This is important because it introduces the idea of player choice to everyone playing. The fact that the players can do pretty much anything they want is what makes a tabletop RPG so much better than a video game. 

Everything in the D&D Starter Set box

To continue playing after they are done with what they get in the box they will need more rules. The Basic Rules are available online for free with a guide for both the Players and the Dungeon Master. These will allow them to create new characters and adventures of their own that can keep them going for years. As much as I love how the ease this creates for entering the hobby, I think it is worth spending some more money on a hard copy of at least the Player's Handbook. Dead tree books are easier to reference at the table than tablets and you can roll dice on them without scratching a screen. 

The Player's Handbook for D&D has all the rules and offers all the possibilities needed to create characters to suite the imaginations of the players in straightforward steps. It's fairly easy to get. Most book stores carry it and you can get it on Amazon or Chapters in a couple of days.

At this point you are up to nearly $60 in stuff, but if you are sure your kid is going to love it and you want to spend money on things that fit neatly on a shelf, there are a couple more things you can look at right away.

The first is not made by the D&D people, but one of their competitors. It's compatible with D&D and has a great deal of value beyond the adventure itself. Broodmother Skyfortress is an adventure in the first half of the book with all kinds of options to tailor the adventure to their taste. It is amazing! The second half is full of advice on how to create campaigns, settings and run adventures. The advice is super useful to a DM new or experienced. The other wonderful thing is the Jack Kirby, 1960s comic book style art is a nice contrast to what you get in the D&D products and might help them think outside of the box. It's from a publisher in Finland called Lamentations of the Flame Princess but is also available in a few days on Amazon.

After that you might want to look at the Monster Manual or Volo's Guide to Monsters for them but it's not necessary. Save them for a birthday!

Some other things you'll need right away are pads of graph paper, pencils and a stack of character sheets printed out!

To make playing easier you could look at player tokens or miniatures. Painting miniatures is a whole other part of the hobby that comes with its own costs and entry hurdles. If people ask me about that I'll do another post, but for now I'll give you some resources for paper miniatures. These can be printed out on a home printer and used as needed to help the players keep track of where everything is when they are playing. They aren't necessary, but I found with my girls that when they were younger (6-8) having miniatures helped them engage with the game.

Paper minis slid into plastic slotabases. They could have as easily been glued to some cardboard. 

One of my favourite sites for these is Eddnic's Fantasy Paper Minis. They can be printed and folded to create all kinds of monsters to help run encounters! It is possible to find these with some time spent on Google or Pinterest with a simple search for "fantasy paper miniatures" if you have the time. If you don't you can buy PDFs of different printable miniatures for a few dollars (a good use of someone's allowance maybe?) and download them from DriveThru RPG. I'm a fan of the Disposable Heroes and Trash Mob Minis. 

Click image to see more detail. 
These are the characters from the web series JourneyQuest and film The Gamers: Dorkness Rising. :)

After that they'll want more dice. To keep them for stealing all the normal dice out of your boardgames you should probably buy them a set or two at some point. This is another thing that there is no rush for. You can buy them in comic shops and order them online. I know a guy with an online dice store that can get you a great deal with free shipping (not in time for Christmas)!

If you are wondering about the benefits of RPGs as a hobby for children, it is a social game that helps develop problem-solving skills, creative thinking, imagination, vocabulary, math skills and teamwork. There are all kinds of benefits so if they want to do it there's no downside. After 35 years of gaming I have no regrets for the time spent. My involvement in RPGs has allowed me to meet some incredible people and is a part of some of my longest lasting friendships. 

Monday, 11 December 2017

Wonder vs Weird

The idea of Wonder verses Weird is one I've struggled with for a long time.

Kiel Chenier of Dungeons and Donuts fame started a thread on G+ back in March of 2015. He was talking about how the OSR seems to be caught up in the pursuit of the weird. According to his post old school gaming seems to be reaching toward more uncomfortable material and going for the ick factor while chasing the weird. What he's looking for from a gaming experience is wonder. The feeling of being taken aback by a scene and momentarily stopped by awe.

Wonder is a great thing to aim for in gaming but it's much harder to achieve than weird. I'd say the two of them are solutions to the same problem with most fantasy RPG material.

The majority of fantasy RPG material made in the last 40 years is based on the tolkienesque assumed setting of Dungeons and Dragons. There are certainly exceptions, but most fantasy games have the humans, elves, dwarves and halflings defending civilization against the evil creatures like orcs and dragons. These games influenced and inspired writers in the fantasy genre, entrenching these assumptions as "traditional fantasy" in RPGs and all kinds of other media like books, films and video games.

This common ground certainly makes entry into the hobby a bit easier since there is so much less explanation required. An introduction can be as short as saying the game is just like whatever movie, TV show or video game the person is familiar with that makes use of the common fantasy tropes and that's it. One sentence explanation. That easy summary has it's advantages, but it saps a lot of the wonder that comes from exploring something completely new.

That's not to say there was never wonder in D&D. I can remember opening up my Mentzer Red Box in total amazement at the scenes and creatures inside. I've seen that same look of wonder when I used the old Basic and Expert books to see if my daughters would want to play an RPG. They were blown away by what they saw and excited to explore the new world it showed them. The points of light in the "known world" setting worked well in terms of developing that sense of wonder as well. Civilization was in small pockets, slowly expanding into a wilderness full of monsters, ancient secrets and wild wonders. It's important to note that when I first encountered D&D I had not read any tolkien or his imitators. My exposure to fantasy by that point was small. Mostly books by Ursula K LeGuin and "historical" fiction with fantastic elements. I also read every Greek, Norse or Celtic myth and legend I could get my hands on. The only fantasy films I'd seen were Excalibur and Legend. When it came to D&D I took it all in like I was starving. Soaking up the elements of  Vance, Leiber, Moorcock and even Tolkien with all the wonder my ten-year-old brain could muster.

I started this post while musing about introducing a couple of brand new players to the RPG hobby and dealing with the pretty serious problem when it comes to wonder. As uber-geeks who have consumed all the fantasy and sci-fi pop-culture can provide there is little in the D&D multiverse that they haven't been exposed to at least in some part before. They had their players' handbooks and they'd read them cover-to-cover. The game itself held a sense of wonder in that it was a new experience and they have nothing on which to base expectations. They knew it has rules so they can count on it being something, but they can't know what that something is until they've tried it out and become familiar with it. If role playing is the novelty then they are likely to jump from campaign to campaign, and game to game and ultimately system to system looking for that feeling again. We played for the better part of a year before life got in the way. There was wonder as they explored the world and tried different things. The fact there was no edge to the map, that adventure could be found almost anywhere as long as they interacted with the world it would present endless possibilities to explore.

When I started playing D&D, and when I start any new campaign, the wonder comes from the world itself. A world with its own set of rules can hold its own wonder. Learning those rules, exploring the world for more surprises can provide all kinds of fun. But the more the world conforms to expectations, the more the players need to delve into the edges and dark corners to find something new, something that has its own set of rules.

That's how games like Call of Cthulhu and Lamentations of the Flame Princess build the impact of the adventures. They don't even try to provide wonder in the setting. They've given up that fight as unwinnable and built their world into the shadows of the one we have here. That's the foundation of the weird. It disrupts expectations instead of creating new ones. It changes and tears at the rules and assumptions. It also tends to be terrible in some way. The weird revels in the tension it creates but it needs the mundane as a contrast. Tension needs the norm to pull against.

Wonder is something different. It doesn't need to be grounded because it does't rely on tension. Wonder inspires awe. Lovecraft did it with his Cyclopean columns in the ancient ruins of unknowable peoples. Carroll did it with the dream-time logic of Wonderland. Fantasy and sci-fi has always had graceful or delicate towers reaching into the sky and strange people with customs that need to be unravelled to be understood.

Goblins, orcs and elves present little mystery these days. Even the fresh takes on the old themes are grounded in the common expectations surrounding these common fantasy creatures. How do I inject wonder into these common themes without disrupting them so completely they become weird? Does the audience matter? How much do I add to the basic framework of goblins and kobolds for my new players? Am I merely creating uncommon expectations they will attach to familiar names only to have them disrupted by their next group? Is that even fair? It's probably not necessary to change things dramatically to get that burst of wonder. No matter how the world is set up the players will figure out its mysteries and make it "normal" for them.

I've also been running games for my kids and their friends with the Black Hack. They don't know the rules and have zero expectations. They are developing them as they interact with the world and explore. Wonder is easy as each new thing is amazing. I could leave everything bog standard D&D and they would eat it all up, but I've made changes. These things, like goblins hatching from a queen's eggs fully grown, they accept as part of D&D. No matter what they read in rulebooks later, goblins will have queens and their nests will be an HR Geiger nightmare with a bloated queen and egg pods everywhere. Those changes are for me, not them.

For someone new to tabletop gaming the smallest brush against a fantasy trope can create wonder. I rolled an encounter for them at night and had a dragon fly over their camp. They didn't fight it. Their characters couldn't even see it. It was a silhouette revealed by the stars it blotted out above, but it blew their minds to be so close to a dragon! They talked about it for months as that time they saw the dragon with the wonder written all over their faces!

For adults, wonder seems easier for something like science fiction. Planetary romance or space opera can move from planet to planet. Each new planetfall brings a fresh world with its own set of rules and consistencies that need not relate to any other the characters have visited before. Even hybrids like Vance's Dying Earth where the long past of the Earth lays shadows on the world so that any location could be out of sync with the campaign would the characters already know. I think that is the draw of games like Traveller or even the Planescape and Spelljammer settings of D&D. The perpetual need to explore, to figure out the rules of the current locale and the wonder they present.

Many of the small press fantasy creators focussed on the disruptive and weird in the past few years, but it's the stuff that captures a sense of wonder as well that seems to gain the most traction and be talked about in the most glowing terms. I think when people use words like "original" and "different," they are really talking about the sense of wonder they found reading or playing it.

The little products that snag ENnies and get talked about with such passion online are the ones that present worlds with new rules that create a whole new set of expectations through play. A few examples that spring to mind are A Red and Pleasant Land, Yoon Suin, and Veins of the Earth. All three of these present new worlds. The two LotFP releases straddle the weird by having entrances to the real/normal campaign world with a R&PL on the other side of the looking glass and Veins laying deep below the surface, beyond the deepest dungeon or mine. Yoon Suin is a place that can be entered by ship like the original T├ękumel where your players need to figure out how things work and find a place in it. All three have their own systems for just about everything and incredible visuals that can deliver the wonder missing from the muddy roads linking the pseudo-european fantasy settings that have all started to look like New Zealand since 2001.

Maybe the audience doesn't matter. Maybe the need for wonder is my own no matter if I'm playing or running. I think for my next campaign setting I need draw inspiration from the crazy fantasy illustrations and paintings that have no limits like the work of someone like Moebius. Start with visuals full of wonder and build a fantasy world that makes sense with that.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Party Up Like It's 1976!

I played the original version of D&D, the one published in the little brown booklets back in the 1970s, for the first time last night. Even though I've played clones like White Box Swords & Wizardry the old game presents a unique experience.

We were using the reissue PDFs Wizards of the Coast released a few years ago. Those versions were cleaned up with a better typeface but they still use the same layout and art that the original booklets had. I thought we were going to stick to the first three books with the core classes of the cleric, fighter and magic user. One player wanted to play a thief, another wanted to play a druid and I don't see the point of standing in the way of a player's fun while DMing so we added the class info from books 4, 5 and 6. For quicker reference I was using one of the fan made single volume versions with a better layout and art. It included some rules from Strategic Review like grappling to fill in the odd blanks as well.

We needed to dip into Greyhawk for the thief class and the rules for the druid class is spread out across Greyhawk, Blackmoor and Eldritch Wizardy!

Character generation went well. Everyone rolled a good spread of abilities with some 15s and 16s balancing out the odd 4 and 7. When it came time to roll hit points everyone rolled a 1. All of them! The fighter starts with +1 to their hit die, so she ended up with 2 and the druid had a 15 Constitution so he also added +1 for a total of 2. The thief was out of luck with only one and refused to name his character until second level. When asked he called himself Thief. This led to some odd roleplaying, but he insisted that he was named that way because everyone from his culture was named after a calamity of some kind to keep them safe from it.

In play the old rules held up. As well as the rules work in play though, the organization is a total mess. It was clearly a "make it up as we go along" project over the two years the books were published. I'll be adding tabs to the pages I need the most before the next game!

Combat was easy to run, and with everyone doing 1D6 damage it made for some creative maneuvers rather than strategic weapon choices. One of my favourite moments came when our the player with the fighter said: "Damage is always 1d6 right? So it doesn't matter if I hit the goblin with my sword or smash him into the tree with my shield?" New DMs, the answer to 'can I smash the goblin into the tree with my shield' should always be yes!

Strategy featured high as the players used hit and run tactics to keep the advantage over their foes. Surprise is a great advantage and easy to achieve if you plan for it. Without the hit points to take a hit and keep fighting they planned for it!

For all their clever tactics, the group didn't manage to do much in the way of adventuring. Being afraid to take anything on in a straight up fight left them unable to commit to entering the only dungeon they found.

Most of the first session was spent getting the lay of the land and roleplaying in the town serving as the centre of the campaign. They started by entering the frontier town called Swan's Landing by river barge. They spent some time gathering and verifying the rumours they dug up and made a quick foray into the woods on the eastern shore of the large lake called the Deepwater to raid the goblins they heard were there. After surviving that they felt they needed to find some magic. That led them to track another adventuring party across the Serpent River to the west that disappeared about a week ago. Player skill made the difference here as they asked around and found someone who saw where the other party entered the woods so they could pick up the trail easily. Their other option was to accept a Geas from the local wizard and they weren't too keen on that.

The setting itself is a small sandbox with a few secrets of its own. Everything should shake out over time. We have plenty of things for them to mess with and otherwise destroy to get us well into the New Year. I'm looking forward to seeing how things change when we add the people who were missing and get into the wilderness adventuring the party is headed for now.

So much better than the original cover!

As a system I liked it. I have pretty much everything I need to run in those first three books and the rest I can easily make up or borrow from somewhere else. It's a bit quirky, with the miniature wargaming roots really showing, but it's not like that gets in the way. There's so little there, it's not like we'll break it by ignoring a rule or two.

The single best thing in the old rules is the 2D6 based table for initial reactions and the hiring. It made for some interesting role playing moments and gave Charisma a relevance it rarely receives in later editions. People say that system doesn't matter but the existence of that table caused one player to say: "Hey, in this edition we can talk to anyone and anything and it might work out, right? I think we need to do that all the time!"

The other thing I enjoyed was the titles of the supplements. Greyhawk, Blackmoor and Eldritch Wizardry all evoke a feeling of the fantastic in a way that something newer, such as The Black Hack or Dungeon World, does not.

This foundation RPG project is going well so far. Everyone enjoyed it and delving into the OD&D game should give our whole group a new perspective. If you are interested in how one of my players found it, you can check out their post here.