New on Desk #24 — Wizarding in the Woods

I spent the week again being a muscle wizard in the woods: the forestry has moved on from planting trees into wholesale destruction in the form of underbrush clearing. I’m happy to report that outside of a reinforced boot hewing on my calf like it had teeth, I’m keeping the muscle wizard form and handily conquering the shrubbery.

Forest Meditations

The forestry’s pretty intense, so much so that I’m not feeling up to much in the way of extracurricular activities. A bit of swimming, and prepping the game, that’s it. However, there’s time to think in the forest, while slaying alders by the copse. Let’s review a few top picks for future needs:

A Primer to Dungeoneering, Reformed

As you know if you’ve been reading the newsletter, I’ve been considering the possibility of crowdfunding an old school D&D guidebook; it seems to be what my friends and correspondents are most interested in, and it seems that there’d be a fair chance of attracting sufficient interest to fulfill the Quest for Lucre in one fell swoop. The main reasons to dislike the project are firstly that I’m not so sure that people would want to buy a guidebook when they could instead buy an adventure module; and secondly, that it’s a pretty big project, which implies a high-ish pre-order goal. Realistically speaking, it’d be something like a 10k € goal, it doesn’t make sense to write a major book for less than that.

However, my forest insight seems to fix a lot here: why not take a page off Matt Finch (steal from the best, I always say) and pitch something akin to the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming to the public? A “primer” differs from “guide” in that it’s targeted as a basic treatment rather than an exhaustive one, and I think that might make all the difference here: a lower cost project that’s useful for both GMs and players, and something that will clearly benefit the scene. I think that Finch’s primer is both a good idea and a nice product, but it does the world good to have several takes on a concept, and it’s not like I agree with Finch on any particulars of playstyle.

The primer-based crowdfunding project would focus on writing a let’s say 24–64 page basic doctrinal manual intended for introducing my particular playstyle (challenge-oriented, refereed wargamey old school D&D) to newcomers. Something light and fun to read that you can give to prospective new players, both newbies and people coming from mainstream gaming. Product-neutral, of course: suggest some rules sets and such, sure, but essentially unassociated with any specific game texts. Maybe interesting to veterans (you can always learn new things, after all), but not as the primary audience. The primer would, of course, be under open license so as to maximize utility, so the crowdfunding would be pure ransom model. The funding goal wouldn’t need to be extremely high — a few thousand euros, basically enough for the Quest for Lucre and some art and whatnot.

The more ambitious DMG-equivalent could, I suppose, be a stretch goal here. I’m not particularly opposed to it if the price is right.

I also formulated a possible idea on what to call the booklet, and by extension, my specific style of D&D. (“Old school” is a bit generic and doesn’t really capture the creative thrust.) “Reform” might work as a term that is reasonably available and captures the relationship that my D&D has to e.g. orthodox Gygaxian style and whatnot. Specifically, “reform” implies a sharper, renewed focus, which is I think basically the gist here. It’s at least better than “wargamey D&D”.

A Post-D&D adventure game

A second, unrelated train of thought that I’ve been messing with is based on something that comes up in the cultural saloons regularly: the idea that D&D as an institution is getting out of step with what the cultural mainstream actually wants. Everybody of course thinks that they’re creating Really Important Games that will displace D&D, so nothing new there, but surely it won’t hurt to have cultural macro trends on your side, right?

Actually, this is easiest to explain in bullet point form. See what picture emerges:

  • D&D is inextricably a modernist project, which implies a danger of getting out of step with present-day increasingly postmodern values. The very concept of being a dungeon-conquistador is, well, what it is. Can a game with a colonialist core subject matter continue to dominate, or is it forced to change? So far superficial virtue signalling (various child-proofing in the TSR era, ethnic diversity in game art, etc.) has worked just fine to keep gamers happily gaming, but how long can a strategy that relies on the audience’s cultural illiteracy truly function?
  • It is possibly the case that the plurality of the potential audience of roleplaying games wants a Simmy “GM story hour” / “princess play” game. Not the old school D&D wargame, not the new school skirmish combat boardgame, not a mutualistic story game, none of those weird things. Just a game where the GM tells you a story, and you get to play act your character. Flexible-weight rules, definitely not dominated by the preferences of the nerd demographic.
  • D&D actually was a bit like the above point once, it’s sometimes called the “middle school” period of the game. It never was very good at being that kind of game, as the history of D&D prevents it from clean reform, but the ethos was there in things like Dragonlance and whatnot.

Regardless of how true those statements are, I see a game there in the cracks and counter-positions of what D&D is. Here’s a sketch:

The post-D&D adventure game is a sitcom adventure drama game about “adventurers”, exceptional heroic problem-solvers. Character creation is class-based and player-empowering, with a focus towards playing the character you want to play. Stronger character concepts have less in-play development, while weaker concepts ramp up in power relatively quickly; players can pick whether they want to play a grizzled veteran mentor figure or the hotshot protagonist, essentially trading power for spotlight.

Play is not adventure/mission based; rather, the model is taken from superhero stories and cartoons: adventurers hang out at the Green Dragon Inn (the team HQ) and engage in a modicum of social roleplaying until their unique talents are needed. The crisis (or “adventure”, I suppose) is an action sequence with a setpiece choice or a few alongside a combat system with a fair balance between mechanics and narrative. A session of play ends with a distinct homily, which helps maintain the game’s adventure design cohesion: your story is actually about something, so be ready to state it out loud at the end.

It is important that the adventurers in the post-D&D adventure game are not commandos, or a kill team, or conquistadors or filibusters: the adventures are about exploration of the unknown, superhero stuff (averting disasters) and character drama (NPC wants thing X from your character, therefore pesters him, fight ensues). Violence is presented as a step in a distinct ladder of escalation, engaged in what basically amounts to ethical way, mostly ending without fatalities — and certainly not the methodical blood-baths typical of D&D.

The game’s structural theory regards the empowerment of character acting as the genuine priority, which is why the mechanics focus on delivering successful character scenes (adventurers hanging out, interacting with recurring NPCs) and characterful action scenes. Long-term campaign stuff is actually literally drawn from player character builds, with players indirectly “ordering” events and adventures that spotlight the individual stories of their characters.

The game mechanics are 90% D&D. The changes are vast, but they’re more procedural (what is done in the game, and how) rather than mechanical. The biggest change I’d make is dropping the boring character classes and inserting a “Magical Princess” class, really. (No idea why modern D&D doesn’t have that one yet.)

The interesting thing here is that I don’t see a particular reason why this couldn’t simply be D&D 6th edition, aside from the fact that it’s probably not feasible for D&D to abandon the conquistadorial base activity. You can’t break an IP like that; even if Hasbro wanted to develop a flagship adventure rpg that distanced itself comfortably from the slaying-and-looting, they’d be better off with a fresh label. The D&D brand is surely going down with the ship — assuming it ever sinks, of course, which is far from obvious. Pretty unlikely for humankind to generally just get its fill of violent adventure stories; the market for D&D will surely continue to exist in some form.

Monday: Coup de Main #1

We started the Coup campaign last Monday, as planned! The initial group of players was so Finn-dominated that the lone English-language participant actually decided to leave us get our Finnish on in peace. Not exactly ideal, but they’re coming back next week, so I’m sure we’ll be a bit more international then. Not like you’re really missing anything in the first session of a sandbox campaign.

The session revolved around campaign set-up; generating characters, learning about the setting, scoping out adventure hooks and making plans for the actual adventure. The party was hot to trod, and ready to throw themselves at the first job they found, but the more they learned, the more interested they got in investigating and preparing more, until in the end they ended up spending a couple of days in town gathering rumours and background information on their planned target. The starting town, “Yggsburgh”, is a small agrinexus south of Greyhawk, midway to Hardby.

Many GMs consider it a best practice to start even a sandbox campaign from the dungeon door: by providing the players with a simple fait accompli starter dungeon the game gets “adventurous” quicker. I think that starting at town and choosing your own starter adventure has plenty of merit as well, though. My start-up processes leave the characters pretty strapped for cash to begin with, and living in town costs money, which makes for a pleasant little subgame to start with: given that you only have money for N days of background research and job-seeking, which of these adventure hooks will you take? Some are better than others!

In this case I did have a few adventuring opportunities lined up, indeed, but of course you only need one, so most were left for later consideration as the players focused their attentions. Still, we did consider a few legit adventure options:

Greyhawk Castle: Apparently the castle, long considered an empty and inaccessible ruin, is showing signs of activity again. One of the player characters actually emerged from out of the bowels of the castle, barely escaping the kobolds infesting the place. The players know roughly what the deal with the Greyhawk megadungeon is, which works in-setting as well, because everybody in the region knows of Zagyg the Mad. There’s great opportunity here, surely, but also an intimidating degree of dungeoneering before any payoff.

Gnarley Forest: The western woods promise old-fashioned border region warfare with hostile humanoids. The locals of the Five Oak village have actually outright asked after adventurers, which is in striking contrast to how they are treated in Yggsburg: the locals around here are certainly tickled pink at the idea of adventurers gracing the sleepy little town, but it’s not like they have any work for such. Not so in Five Oak, with its promises of hospitality and a free hand in sending the undesirable elements packing.

The Horse-flesh heist: One of the PCs is actually a local Thief, so he naturally knew about this heist that his pals have been spitballing for literal years now. Lord Blackfair has his manor on the other side of the Ery river, not far from Yggsburgh, and he’s absolutely famous for (and zany about) his horse-breeding. They say that he sells them for anything from 2000 GP up to people truly invested in horse quality. I suppose robbing the lord is something of a pipe-dream for the locals, whose thievery activities are generally limited to short cons among the travelers on their way to Greyhawk City.

The Dark Chateau: OK, so there is one local-legend-slash-landmark in the otherwise peaceful Yggsburgh that the adventurers managed to fish out — and it’s a doozy! Believe it or not, the Mad Archmage himself, before ascending to become the landsgraff of Greyhawk, acted as the governor of Yggsburg (strictly nepotistic; Zagyg was the adopted son of the landsgraff). He lived in the area for 15 years and only left his manor house to move to the Castle he’s famous for. The manor house now stands abandoned; the locals avoid the place, as it’s known to act as a halfway house for goblins moving in between the hills and the Gnarley Forest.

That last one was, of course, the one the players picked. The characters have a range of motivations involved here, one of them amusingly enough an honestly Lawful desire to figure out who owns the abandoned manor of an archmage believed either dead or ascended into godhood. Is it the state? Is it the cult of the ascended god? Is it still the god himself, despite the property taxes having been unpaid for 20 years now?

Behind the Coup: prepping the sandbox

My other occupation aside from clearing the forest this week has been cleaning up a suitably high-resolution map of Flanaess to be used in the game. Annoying grunt work, but now it’s done, at least.

There’s of course plenty of other stuff that a sandbox campaign of this scope needs; the big map took most of my attentions this week, which means that I’ll have plenty of work to do later on, but fortunately a game like this moves relatively slowly; we have plenty to do for tomorrow’s session, particularly as I happened to figure out most of the hexcrawling procedures as part of my forest meditations.

Here’s the start of a hexcrawl map that I put together this morning. That plus some crawling procedures and random encounter tables suffices for tomorrow’s game. The map’s based on the original map of Flanaess (blown up underneath the hex grid) with its 30 mile hexes, with a 6-mile hex overlay on top.

The Greyhawk plains are of course a relatively safe place to wander around, but I figure that it’s good practice for learning hex crawling procedures and developing the play tools. So far Google Draw seems like a reasonable tool for this. Besides, approaching the actual Greyhawk Castle may not be as simple as it seems, should the characters wish to try.

Gentlemen on the Agora

You know, I’ve probably not been following my clubs as closely as I could. Either that, or the gentlemen and other creature contributors haven’t been very chatty this week. Either way, let’s see what the Agora yields:

  • We had some rather insightful discussions about the Circle of Eight, this strange metaplotty piece of Greyhawk lore. Apparently Flanaess’s most powerful hair rock band, magician cult or superhero team (I’m entirely uncertain of which it is) is called “Mordenkainen and the Circle of Eight”. These powerful wizards subscribe to the chillingly meta ideology of ensuring that adventuring opportunities continue to flourish: as long as neither Good nor Evil triumphs, there’s plenty of work for adventurers! I got many invaluable insights into the nature of the Circle from the gentlement. For instance, I think now that those eight “wizards” Mordenkainen hangs out with are actually sorcerer-psionicists rather than true wizards. Also, Vecna is Skeletor.
  • For some reason the Finnish politician Katri Kulmuni hasn’t gotten the gentlemen into our usual political jousting: aside from a few generic swipes towards the Center Party (“Kepu pettää aina!”), her little consult scandal seems like so comfortably ordinary political corruption that everybody’s mostly cheered by the return to the usual dance steps. Beats pandemic news, I guess.
  • A contributor is starting a Legend of Five Rings campaign as character player. The game seems to encourage system mastery, offering an intricate character building subgame to distract players from the emptiness in their lives. I boldly encouraged the gentleman in question to create the character they’re excited about, rather than getting trapped by effectiveness calculations. Life’s too short to pursue that extra +1; the opportunity cost is too high, I might say, when the alternative is to do what you want yourself, unrestrained by the tyranny of optimization.
  • We heard that the ever-industrious Jim Raggi is preparing to publish a book with mirror-sheen pages. I for the longest time simply refused to consider that this actually meant the inner pages of the book rather than the covers — that would be insane, right? Shows what I know. Dare the unimaginable!
  • A contributor is planning to tackle the primordial egg-head Michael Foucault’s book about the history of insanity. There was a surprising amount of Foucault-knowledge at the Agora; he’s not the most read author. I missed the discussion myself, but I’d like to state here that I support the project and look forward to hearing about any conclusions later.
  • There’s a new scenario out for Tales of Entropy! “Leijona ja Susi” (‘The Lion and the Wolf’) is only in Finnish for now, but I hear that it’s going to get translated in due time as well. The scenario’s a tight relatively-vanilla pseudo-historical take on Robin Hood (Robin’s the wolf in the analogy), based on the author’s experiences in doing demo runs of Entropy at gaming cons. I guess you might as well reveal your secrets now, it’s not like there are ever going to be any more gaming conventions.

State of the Productive Facilities

Well, I’ve done hardly anything this week aside from the forest meditations and prepping the Coup campaign, so yeah… Next week promises to be pretty busy as well. Fortunately we’re not on any particular productivity schedule here. I’m enjoying the forestry fine (a nice change of pace to do some honest work), so no worries there.

While I’m doing everything except writing, I’m also Very Smartly querying the audience for new topics to write on. You wonderful, delightful people have apparently figured that rpg theory is what this world needs: all theory topics are at the head of the line at this writing, with the Big Model overview (I mean, there are like a dozen of these out there, so what’s that about?) leading the pack with the slack-jawed gaze of the true cavil.

I added a few topics related to my forest meditations into the poll for your consideration, so be sure to pay attention to the options.

[June 2020] What should I write about in more depth?

  • [theory] The Sacrament of Death (19%, 66 Votes)
  • [theory] A Big Model overview (15%, 54 Votes)
  • [theory] The semiotic significance of game mechanics in rpgs (14%, 51 Votes)
  • [design] Notes on my Basic D&D homebrew (13%, 46 Votes)
  • [design] more C2020 Redux (10%, 36 Votes)
  • [design] Concepting the post-D&D adventure game (8%, 27 Votes)
  • [design] TSoY and SS update (6%, 21 Votes)
  • [design] Drafting an old school primer (5%, 18 Votes)
  • [design] a Chronicles of Prydain wargame (4%, 14 Votes)
  • [design] Coup de Main in Greyhawk campaign protocol (3%, 11 Votes)
  • [design?] Put together some He-Man shit, for reals (2%, 8 Votes)

Total Voters: 145

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