Sunday, May 28, 2017

Jeffro Johnson on Old School vs. New School

Old School fun (uncredited illustration from the Basic Fantasy RPG)

In a recent post at Castalia House, Jeffro Johnson critiques some of the critiques of his book, Appendix N. Also buried in the comments is Jeffro's quick explanation of Old School vs. New School D&D. Many old schoolers have tried their hand at it. I did so here. But I think this effort is about as good as any:
The difference between old school and new school in a nutshell:
Old School: The players are given every benefit of the doubt. Every ruling and interpretation is made in their favor. They have planned for an hour, coming up with a sort of Rube Goldberg type scheme to do something. They go into the dungeon and things look like they will work. Then… something unexpected goes wrong. Something goes sideways. One player panics. Then another does something stupid. The dungeon master rules what happens next and the players are not surprised by any of the die rolls that are required– they knew the odds for various things from the beginning. But then an awesome conjunction of player choice, dungeon design, rules, and chance conspire to create something no one expected. Player morale plummets as things fall apart and player characters start to die. The party splits up to flee the dungeon at different movement rates, with wandering monsters greeting the stragglers as the mage and thief make the exit. When the delve comes to a close, players roll up some new characters while everyone argues excitedly about what a newer and better plan would entail.
New School: Everyone knows that there is some sort of “boss encounter” they are being shepherded toward. Players are almost guaranteed to level up after the first session– and maybe level up after the second encounter. Nobody dies and no one is surprised when the party has just enough hit points and so forth to defeat the big baddie at the end of the session. Everything feels linear and pre-plotted. Choice doesn’t seem to matter except at the tactical level. People don’t imagine anything, they just make skill checks for everything. There isn’t the same need to learn how to cooperate because everything is set up in advance for the players to pretty well win.
Now, as far as the first two sentences go, I wouldn't have put it quite that way (remember, it was a quick comment): "The players are given every benefit of the doubt. Every ruling and interpretation is made in their favor." I mean, I think I know what he's getting at - among other things, that players should be given the benefit of the doubt on the possibility of succeeding or for trying pretty much anything - but that every ruling or interpretation should go their way sounds more New School to me. I know when I was playing in a 4th edition campaign, I lost all interest in it when it became clear that the referee was interpreting all dice rolls - both open and secret - in such a way such that I would not die. And I know Jeffro doesn't advocate that. See the rest of his comment.

And of course, Jeffro arguably exaggerates the fun/deadly nature of many old school games and the goofy/clever plans and abilities of old school players, as well as the boring/stupid railroady totalitarianism of new school games - railroady totalitarianism in the interests of being nice, of course.

But exaggeration or, rather, highlighting what something is in its pure form, is exactly what one does when one tries to give an explanation or definition.

I can vouch for much of what Jeffro says from my own early games. In my first megadungeon, the first room after the entrance contained a number of stirges - it was quickly dubbed "The Stirge Room" and became a sort of legend. I didn't intend to make it a particularly tough room, but I guess I underestimated the power of those cute little bloodsuckers. There were two or three TPKs before a party made it past them into the dungeon proper.

Now, if you want to say that was bad dungeon design, you would perhaps be right. But the point is it ended up actually being fun (I think) for the players. They knew I wasn't out to get them, but nor was I going to hold their hands. The stirges were simply there, and they had to figure out how to get through them. And when they did finally make it through (I don't remember what the plan was, but it worked), there was a huge sense of accomplishment on everyone's part (including my own - it was my first dungeon, after all). And this was just one generic room with a bunch of fairly vanilla low-level monsters.

The fact that they had earned that (albeit with a bit of help from the dice), set the tone for the rest of the dungeon. Among other things, whatever tougher things they would go on to face, they all now had a bit more confidence in their own smarts and abilities.

And they would go on, many sessions later, to mount an attack on the Big Bad (or Big Bads - it was a huge goblin lair) somewhat before I thought they would ever dare to, or were ready.

They won, of course.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Jeffro Johnson's Appendix N: Preview to a Review

I'm midway through reading Jeffro Johnson's Appendix N: a Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons, published by Castalia House. I'm going slowly and it's been a sort of surreal experience for reasons having nothing to do with the book itself. Rather, since Appendix N is not yet available in hard copy, and since I do not own a Kindle or tablet, I'm reading it entirely on my iPhone - a first for me. And for reasons of pride or habit or whatever, that means I'm reading it exclusively on busy train rides. It's sort of an experiment. I'll probably reread it quickly on my desk computer.

The book is wonderful.

If you haven't read Appendix N but you've heard a bit about it, I wonder what you think it is. I had thought it would be more of a straight literary analysis of books that Gygax and others claimed had influenced D&D, which would of course have been fine. But in fact there are many more references and discussions of gaming than I anticipated, which is more than fine.

It's interesting to compare it to the discussions of the relevant fantasy literature in Jon Peterson's Playing at the World. A bit of the same ground is covered, but of course Johnson has the space to go into much more detail, as well as marching into new and interesting territory - he does a lot more than look at alignments or the Vancian origins of magic, etc. Just to take one example, there's a neat discussion of how Vance's Dying Earth setting was perhaps at least part of the inspiration for the random encounter tables on Castles in The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures - inspiration that was largely overlooked or forgotten, as well as becoming somewhat of a lost opportunity as the game developed.

Peterson was the neutral historian, a stance that was precisely appropriate for his task. I've read his 698 page book twice and think it's clearly the book of record on the overall historical topic, as well as being endlessly fascinating. But I can see how some (who might have a mild aversion to long history books or whatever) might call it "dry."

Johnson's Appendix N is anything but, partly because the genre of Appendix N (it was for a while - still is? - number one in the Criticism and Theory category on Amazon) allows for and requires more in the way of opinions - an area in which Johnson does not disappoint - but also because, unlike the historian, Peterson, Johnson is writing as an active gamer, in part for active gamers. So, for example, in the middle of a discussion of L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall - a book that I inexplicably didn't like twenty-five years ago, but that I am now convinced I must read again - there's an out of the blue (or so it first seemed) detailed discussion of how to run a good "domain game" in Dungeons & Dragons. Of course, the discussion makes sense in the context of de Camp's book. High-level player-characters run by 21st century players are in somewhat the same position as the time-traveling 20th century protagonist of Darkness. But it was still a delightful surprise.

Johnson also incorporates some input from current game bloggers, as well as including in his appendix, reviews of three game products as well as a fascinating interview with Tunnels & Trolls designer Ken St. Andre.

In fairness to me, or to my initial misunderstanding of the contents of the book, Johnson had earlier summarized some of his conclusions after reading and reviewing (in blog form) most of the Appendix N literature. None of them directly addressed game questions per se. If some of the following claims sound counter-intuitive or even a bit outrageous, I urge you to read the arguments for them in the book:

  • Tolkien’s ascendancy was not inevitable. It’s really a fluke that he even became the template for the modern fantasy epic
  • A half dozen authors would have easily been considered on par with Tolkien in the seventies . . .
  • Entire genres have been all but eliminated. The majority of the Appendix N list falls under either planetary romance, science fantasy, or weird fiction. Most people’s readings of AD&D and OD&D are done without a familiarity of these genres.
  • Science fiction and fantasy were much more related up through the seventies. Several Appendix N authors did top notch work in both genres. Some did work that could be classified as neither.
  • It used to be normal for science fiction and fantasy fans to read books that were published between 1910 and 1977. There was a sense of canon in the seventies that has since been obliterated.
  • Modern fandom is now divorced from its past in a way that would be completely alien to game designers in the seventies. They had no problem synthesizing elements from classics, grandmasters of the thirties, and new wave authors.

Read the rest here.

Full review to follow, but if anyone who hasn't purchased or read it yet, wants to jump on board now, you won't be disappointed.

Friday, May 19, 2017

On Player Agency, Old School vs. New School and Published Adventures

"Er, thanks, but I think I'd just rather rescue Hekaton."*
*Dungeon map by Tim Hartin at Paratime Design.

The blogger, Raging Owlbear (Marty Walser), wrote two critical comments on a post I wrote a few days ago, Why Do Players Enjoy Being Puppets? I told him I would respond to them in another post. Owlbear has a great blog that I have read with interest and enjoyment. It seems like we might disagree on a few things, which is, of course, fine. This post is simply a response to his comments and questions. It's not about having the last word, or anything like that.

The reason I will largely frame this current post around some of Owlbear's actual comments is not to be snarky or last-wordish, but because I'm too lazy to compose a structure for this post from scratch.

Keep in mind that Owlbear typed his comments (the ones I will be excerpting in this post) quickly on an iPhone, whereas I'm at a computer, sitting back with a cigar and a drink and a thesaurus and all the rest. By the way, I'm basically incapable of writing more than three sentences on an iPhone.

Owlbear ended his second comment with this question:
As I noted, this railroad adventure style has nothing to do with whether you are playing "old school" or "new school". It is an issue specific to adventure design when writing a campaign-length module, regardless of which version of D&D you are playing.
So, stated simply, do you agree or disagree with that assertion?
Let me try to answer that, as well as responding to some of the other comments.

The what-is-old-school vs. what-is-new-school debate is interesting and important to a point. Obviously, once it threatens to come down to mere arbitrary semantics, it gets silly and tedious. But I think it's obscurantist to suggest that it must always do that (I'm not alleging that Owlbear says this.)  

On old school vs. new school, one thing that OSR people often do is to draw a chronological line somewhere, say at edition 3.5 or whatever, to separate the two. But virtually everyone agrees that if the categories are meaningful, then there are "new school" elements before that line, and "old school" elements after.

Indeed, old school people such as I, often argue that the seeds, so to speak, of various new school developments were present from almost the very beginning of D&D (long before any quasi-arbitrary line) and developed gradually from there. So, for example, I would point to Greyhawk (1975) - published barely a year after the three little brown books (1974) - as the origin of such new schooly things as skills and hit point inflation. (Indeed, the thief and thief skills predate Greyhawk.) That probably makes me and those like me sound like reactionaries saying that 2017 problems really stem from the French Revolution or the Enlightenment or whatever. But there it is.

New things don't just suddenly spring up. And it's not silly or contradictory to argue that a new thing might have been present, in embryonic stage, right beside an old thing. It happens.

But note, I (and, I assume most other OSR types) are not condemning Greyhawk or, say, 1e AD&D or 2e AD&D as horrible games or horrible heresies or whatever when compared to the "pure" original edition of D&D (first printing, of course). We're just, among other things, making the, I assume, non-controversial point that historical developments in game design happen gradually and often in an unintended and unforeseen way, unnoticed at the time.

But chronology does matter to some extent, otherwise the words "old" and "new" would have no meaning.

The focus of Raging Owlbear's comments was the question of whether old school or new school adventures were railroady vs. sandboxy, etc. One of the problems with discussing this is that many of the terms seem loaded - Who wants to be railroaded or manipulated as a puppet? Let's all play in a sandbox together, yay! - so let me try to choose terms that are as neutral as possible. How about unplanned vs planned?

Here is an unplanned adventure, Palace of the Vampire Queen (1976), the first published (and not by TSR) adventure in D&D history. It consisted of five dungeon levels with a room key detailing monsters and treasure. That was pretty much it. True, there was a very short introduction and back story, but I'm not sure it was that important. The idea was: here is a dungeon, go and explore it. There was no preplanned plot or path, desired or anticipated.

Here is a planned adventure, Storm King's Thunder (2016), and here is an excerpt from A Guide to Storm King's Thunder:
8. Iymrith: The group gets the artifacts and returns to the oracle. They learn that they need a conch. On the way out, Iymrith attacks and Harshnag makes a heroic sacrifice.
9. Find the Conch: In the book, every giant lord has a conch. The heroes will need to go steal a conch from a giant lord. I liked a lot of these areas, so in my version I changed things a little so I can use Svardborg, Ironslag and the Cloud Giant castle in my campaign.
10. Use the Conch: It takes the group to Maelstrom (page 201). There, the heroes hopefully expose Iymrith and get a clue to Hekaton's whereabouts.
11. King Hekaton: The group tracks down Hekaton and saves him!
12. Final Battle: The adventurers team up with Hekaton to take down Iymrith.
If Owlbear wants to argue that one could run Storm King's Thunder in a more open or unplanned way, perhaps by changing some things around, I'm not going to try to refute that. I'm just going by how it is usually presented, and how it seems to have been originally designed and written.

Okay, now let's get into the argument. Here's Owlbear:
You are cherry picking your examples to somehow show that "old school" D&D is better, but it's a false premise.
I assume what Owlbear is partly reacting to is this:
But I think contemporary D&D would be more fun, or at least more fun for many people, if it went back to its original, yes, Gygaxian conception, where player agency was emphasized more - less Storm King's Thunder and more Keep on the Boderlands or In Search of the Unknown.
Well, sure I was cherry-picking. I was contrasting planned vs. unplanned adventures. But Keep and Search (unplanned) happen to be the first Dungeons & Dragons - as opposed to the chronologically later Advanced Dungeons & Dragons many of whose first published adventures were designed as tournament modules - adventures ever separately published by TSR, and Thunder (planned) is one of the most recent. I could have emphasized the chronological point even better by going back further and citing the first non-published, non-separately published or non-TSR adventures: Dave Arneson's Blackmoor, Gary Gygax's Greyhawk , Arneson's "Temple of the Frog" in the Blackmoor supplement (1975) and of course the first Judges Guild published adventures (which all predate the TSR efforts) - City State of the Invincible Overlord (1976), Tegel Manor, Wilderlands of High Fantasy and "Night of the Walking Wet" (1977), among others. All of these were unplanned.

One could also look at the sample dungeons in, say, The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures (1974), the "Holmes" version of D&D (1977) or even the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide (1979). All of these were unplanned.

And note, this is not about good vs. bad. Most people, even sympathetic OSR people, seem to think that Temple of the Frog is virtually unplayable. And, for better or worse, I'm sure most current players would regard Palace of the Vampire Queen as a sort of crude and childish joke compared to the long and detailed Storm King's Thunder. 
Any long running adventure module is going to have rails because one can't anticipate the actions of the players completely. This was just as true in AD&D as it is today.
I honestly have no idea what this means. Why must you have rails just because you can't anticipate the actions of players (and if you can anticipate them, who needs rails)? Why not just not have rails? Or, in other words, why not just create places for them to explore and then react to that as needed? Why can't you simply have, say, a dungeon with stuff in it?
Designers must write several pre-plotted scenarios for the players to run through because it is impossible to write an open world pre-published adventure.
Well, actually, Wilderlands and many current OSR efforts, such as Rob Conley's The Majestic Wilderlands (2009), are exactly that - "open world" pre-published campaigns, if by "open world" Owlbear means wilderness settings. But, more to the point, there's no reason why "open" (in the sense of unplanned) has any necessary connection to the outdoors. What about just a big dungeon with no preplanned plot?
Look at "Night Below" written for AD&D. It takes characters from 1st to 14th level culminating in a boss fight with aboleths. Are you claiming it somehow gave more control to players than Storm King's Thunder does?
No (or, I assume, no - I haven't actually read Night Below) But, among other things, Night Below was a 2e AD&D module written in 1995, twenty-one years after year zero. It's hardly evidence for the presence of, say, a planning element in chronologically early old school adventures.
Q: If you claim old school D&D gives more player agency, how are series modules like A1 - A4 (Slaver series) or Night Below, or any other longer campaign path written for AD&D any different from something like Storm King's Thunder or Hoard of the Dragon Queen?
In the Slave Lord series in particular, A3 "forces" the DM to capture the PCs because the A4 module starts out with the PCs as captives of the Slave Lords.
In a previous post that Owlbear commented on (and, thus, presumably read), I myself admitted that some of the earliest published adventures had railroady elements:
And some early TSR adventures or sets of adventures, did have their "railroad" elements. After all, you were sort of expected to go from G1 to G2 to G3 of those Giant Modules (though, I would argue that you still had much more freedom within the modules, and that "railroading" in general was not present to anywhere near the extent that it is now).
The last clause covers an important point. I would also say there's a difference between railroading the party into an adventure - going from  Scourge of the Slave Lords A3 to A4, where you must contrive to have the player-characters captured so that they can be thrown into a cave complex - and railroading them once they're there. But there's no question that the adventure path thing, or whatever you want to call it, started early. And, no, I'm not claiming that that, in and of itself is wrong or evil. I greatly enjoyed the Slavelords series.
It's more about a comparison between *any* pre-published scenario versus one that is home brewed... or an adventure module that is short in scope/length versus one that covers a broad swath of class levels (B2 versus Night Below, for example).
No. It's not about published versus home brew. That has nothing to do with it. Published adventures can be, and often are, unplanned. Consider the first D&D adventures previously mentioned, or the contemporary Stonehell Dungeon (2009) by Michael Curtis, Barrowmaze by Greg Gillespie (2012) or Dwimmermount (2014) by James Maliszewki, Alexander Macris, and Tavis Allison. And home brew adventures can be planned (though, they are perhaps less likely to be so because many people don't like dreaming up and writing up all that complicated plot stuff). In terms of adventures that are short/long in scope, the unplanned Stonehell can potentially "take you through" 10th level (the "you" refers to you, the player, as it's likely that many player characters will die). The unplanned vs. planned thing is not about length or scope.
Even aside from all that... Some DMs don't have time to build a large over-arching campaign arc because we have jobs, kids, and precious less free time than we did in high school or college...
Well, I would argue that if a DM has time to wade through 900 pages of 5th edition core book rules (!!!), he probably has time to draw a map and put some monsters and treasure in it. But more importantly and to the point, I'm not against buying pre-made adventures. Indeed, personally, I'm in favor it. I bought Stonehell for the equivalent of a few hours of work at minimum wage, and now I can play it for, literally, years. I think that's a great deal.
So a wide ranging adventure with some sandbox elements to customize like SKT [Storm King's Thunder] is a relatively treat. To criticize these kinds of modules as treating the players like puppets is entirely misdirected.
Fair enough, but I think my analysis was more nuanced than that. I said that a) I sometimes like such adventures, b) they have their place, and c) they still allow a fair amount of room for player agency. I used "puppets" to bluntly frame the general issue. See my original post, especially the discussion of "points" 3 & 4. And I suppose it is true that detailed planned adventures can be a "treat" in that I can't imagine anyone coming up with that sort of thing, in such detail, on their own. That's not a criticism.
No published adventure can give a player 100% agency, no matter how short. Even B2 goes with the assumption that the players will get to the "boss fight" with the cultists.
See above. But also, having a "big boss" at, say, the bottom or end of the dungeon and, thus, anticipating that the players will probably eventually fight him, is completely different from choreographing how they are going to get there. See the excerpt from the Guidebook above.
Your premise is entirely flawed because you seem to connect this to mechanics (specifically when you call out 4th edition) when it has absolutely nothing to do with mechanics or edition and everything to do with the limits of adventure design when trying to provide a long running campaign to DMs in published form.
This brings up a more complex issue that I don't want to spend a lot of time on here. But briefly, when I speak of an edition, I mean at least three things - a) the mechanics, b) the explanations, guidance or philosophy expressed in the text of the rule books and c) the associated products, such as adventures, marketed with it. Among other things, looking at b), 5th edition, which is supposedly a partial return to D&D's roots, the current Dungeon Master's Guide contains many pages of advice on how to create drama and suspense through careful plotting of your adventure etc., etc. (so here's the core book telling you how to home brew a planned scenario). There is nothing like this in the three little brown books, Holmes. Moldvay/Cook (I don't think) or AD&D.
The whole argument just falls flat when you turn it into some kind of OSR vs new school rant, when it has absolutely nothing to do with that.
Well, to summarize, at some point this arguably just becomes silly semantics. But if the terms have any meaning (which I assume Owlbear believes or else he wouldn't be using them), I think it's a commonplace in the OSR blogosphere that one of the things that "old school" means is putting a emphasis on unplanned sandbox or dungeon/megadungeon settings, as opposed to preplanned plots or stories. I just don't think one can deny that - that most OSR blogger people believe it, and partly understand the term in that manner, regardless of whether they "should." And I think if most people use a label, even if arbitrary (which most labels in a sense are), it sort of ceases to be arbitrary, if that makes sense.

But I have also tried to show that this is not simply arbitrary or a misunderstanding or whatever, but well grounded in the actual early history of D&D. Now, obviously, one can be a new school person who likes some old school elements, or an old school person who likes some new school elements, or a mix of both, or just one or the other, or whatever. And/or, if one simply doesn't like any of the labels - perhaps because of annoying associations, etc. - one can just dump them entirely. There's no law against that. But I don't think one can as easily ignore the history. Or rather, one can ignore it, but what's the point of that?.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Tim Kask's 2nd Game of D&D - "I'm a lord! Wow, this is too cool!"

Gen Con XII, 1979. From left to right: Tim Kask and the Holmes family - Chris, Sig-Linda and John Eric

It's so easy to forget how - before anyone knew what a "roleplaying" game was, before video games, before Star Wars or modern fantasy or science fiction movies - one's first experience playing Dungeons & Dragons could be so mind blowing.

Here's Tim Kask describing his second game of D&D, played just a few minutes after his first. (This was on the last evening - I think - of the 1974 Gen Con.) Recall that in his first game, the entire party, including a sort of clueless Kask, had been carved up by a laser machine into paperweights.

Joseph Bloch reminds us that this was probably the infamous Machine Level of Gary Gygax's Castle Greyhawk. Bloch's excellent homage to that megadungeon, Castle of the Mad Archmage, can be found hereThe entire Grognard Games interview with Kask may be viewed on YouTube.

Note the end of the interview, where Kask describes how, after his first experience with D&D, he then decided to buy the game and infect his friends with it. I always thought of the early game as being spread by what I like to call, evangelization. But perhaps infection is at least as appropriate a metaphor . . . 

Grognard: Did you enjoy that first game or was it just a case of . . .

Tim Kask: I really didn't have any idea what had happened because I couldn't hear half the time. You know, we're in a large hall, and there's games going on all over, and there's movies going on, out in the in the garden area in the center, and I just kept missing snatches of the conversation. So, all right, what the heck . . .

Grognard: Your very next game was with Ron Kuntz who was shouting for volunteers . . .

Tim Kask: I think it was. I believe it was. I'm still sitting there scratching my head, and I'm not ready to leave yet. So a young man comes through, getting players together again. And I said, well, okay. I looked at my watch. I got time - that last one didn't take very long. So I, okay, I signed up.

And this time, I was a dwarf. And I liked that idea. And I had an axe, and I was wearing chain mail. and I had a shield and a helmet. And I'm I'm getting into it now, and I'm up in the front - all right let's do it! you know? So, I'm just telling him what I do. And, of course, none of us had dice so he's doing all the dice rolling and everything. And I'm just, "I'm chopping at em!" And in the course of about, I don't know, maybe two hours that adventure lasted, we rescued a dying dwarven duke or something. And, as I was the only dwarf in the party, he gave me this, like, medallion of office. Now, all I had to do is go find his duchy or dukedom. And I had a hundred fighting men at my disposal. And I had a castle underground (you know, of course, he's a dwarf). And this was the . . . this was like hitting the jackpot, because the whole point of D&D was to adventure up to get enough money to build yourself a keep, go out and carve yourself a kingdom out of the wilderness, build yourself a keep and rule it as a lord. Ha! Second game, I'm a lord! Wow, this is too cool!

So I went back and I bought the game. I bought a box - I bought the box, the little brown box. And I bought a set of dice. And I took them back, and I infected my game group at college, several weeks later. So that's how I started.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Tim Kask's First Experience Playing D&D Was a Bizarre and Befuddling TPK

Elise Gygax and Tim Kask at Gen Con XI, 1978
This is a neat story.

It actually tracks my own first experience of Dungeons & Dragons - being a quasi-anonymous and unimportant character in a large group, and having absolutely no idea what was going on.

I expect others have similar memories.

Is this how you first experienced the game?

Tim Kask was one of the most important figures in early D&D. As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, a chance phone call had earned him the friendship of Gary Gygax. And shortly after the events of the following story, he would be hired by Gygax at Tactical Studies Rules (the name of the company was in the process of being changed to "TSR"). Among other things, Kask would edit The Dragon magazine for a number of years.

It may be that Kask's account is told or related elsewhere. But I had never heard it. It is part of a Google+ Hangout interview that Grognard Games did with Tim Kask on February 15, 2013, and that is now available on YouTube. I highly recommend watching or listening to the full conversation.

The topic of the interview was ostensibly Gygax Magazine, which had just been announced, but it ended up being a wide-ranging talk about many things, including the early history of Dungeons & Dragons. This two-minute portion starts at the 18:00 minute mark:

Grognard: Your first ever game of D&D was at Gen Con. Was it 74?

Tim Kask: 1974.

Grognard: 1974. Can you take me through that game, that day. And can you take us through your first game, and then the second game that you had that day?

Tim Kask: Okay, well, I was there because Gary (Gary Gygax) had told us about this get-together at the time. I think he said, man, there's a couple, three hundred of us. Well my biggest gathering of gamers had been my club, which is about 20 strong, and so, I gotta go, I gotta go see 300 gamers in one place, yeah.

And so, he'd been telling me all along about this new game he was working on, because I met him through the context of Chainmail. But he'd been telling me about this new game he was working out. And so I had the rudiments in my head, and naively I thought I'd find a hotel when I got there, and I realized I didn't. So I'm gonna game until I drop, and then I gotta drive four and a half hours. Oh, I figured I would just drive with my head out the window to keep me awake after all, it's gaming (laughs).

Yeah, and so somebody's walking down - it was later in the evening, it's already dark - I remember that somebody was walking down one of the hallways at the Horticultural Hall saying we need some players, need some players. And I said, oh that's that thing Gary was talking about. I've been playing miniatures all day. And so I said, okay, sure I'll go. And I raised my hand.

So okay (the man says), here, you're a fighter, and you got a sword and shield. You know, I'm, okay, cool, this sounds good, you know. And it was about six or seven of us, I guess, and so I got stuck in the back. And they said, watch the back. So that's all I did. Ok, I'm watching the back, and I'd tell them every once while, I'm looking behind us. And I don't know why, but apparently while I was looking behind us, something happened up in front of us, because the next thing I know - and I really don't know what's been going on because I'm also literally sitting in the back of three rows of chairs not catching everything - all of a sudden I find we're encased in some enormous block of gas permeable lucite of some sort, because we're not suffocating but we're completely . . . we can't even blink, we're so immobile.

And I'm just sitting in the back, going, wow what just happened, you know. Yeah, I've completely bewildered and befuddled. And so we're dragged before this enormous bank of what must have been lights and dials and knobs and levers and whatever. And it didn't go well, because - again, I couldn't hear what was going on - but it was announced that we had all been cut up with laser beams into 1-inch cubes and made into paper weights. And I just . . . And this is like 35-40 minutes into the thing, and I'm going, well, that was certainly different than anything I've ever done before . . .


Next: Tim Kask's second D&D game.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Why Do Players Enjoy Being Puppets?

A few days ago, I critiqued an argument given by Kotaku blogger Cecilia D'Anastasio that the history of Dungeons & Dragons was partly about how players had gradually wrested autonomy and control from an all-powerful Dungeon Master. Or, as she might have put it, if D&D is about storytelling, then in early D&D, the story was largely told by the DM, whereas now it is largely told by the players.

I claimed that, if anything, this was actually the reverse of the truth.

I cited one of the most popular current Wizards of the Coast adventures, Storm King's Thunder, where almost every major event or happening is predetermined by the DM (or the authors of the adventure) beforehand. From A Guide to Storm King's Thunder:
8. Iymrith: The group gets the artifacts and returns to the oracle. They learn that they need a conch. On the way out, Iymrith attacks and Harshnag makes a heroic sacrifice.
9. Find the Conch: In the book, every giant lord has a conch. The heroes will need to go steal a conch from a giant lord. I liked a lot of these areas, so in my version I changed things a little so I can use Svardborg, Ironslag and the Cloud Giant castle in my campaign.
10. Use the Conch: It takes the group to Maelstrom (page 201). There, the heroes hopefully expose Iymrith and get a clue to Hekaton's whereabouts.
11. King Hekaton: The group tracks down Hekaton and saves him!
12. Final Battle: The adventurers team up with Hekaton to take down Iymrith.
And so on. 
There were two caveats to my claim. The first caveat is that the movement away from player autonomy is an average trend, not an all-ecompassing law. When you look at the question, at the one extreme, you have absolute player choice with no manipulation by the DM or predetermined planning by the scenario author or authors. At the other extreme, you have players as total puppets. No D&D game in history has ever been played at either of these extremes. While I think it's undeniably true that there's much less of an emphasis on player freedom and choice now (in terms of actual play, not silly rhetoric by those such as D'Anastasio), that's certainly not how everyone plays. The very existence of the OSR is proof of that. And while I think that contemporary D&D, as promoted by Wizards, allocates much less freedom to players than, say, original D&D or early AD&D, it's at least arguable that 5th edition D&D represents a small reversal of the overall trend (when compared to, say, 4th edition).

The second caveat is that while I think there's less player autonomy now, control hasn't necessarily been usurped by the DM per se. Rather much of it as been taken from the players by, as I put it, "an uncredited collective of author bureaucrats, employed by a multi-million dollar corporation." It's the scenario authors that are directing you through their story in, say, Storm King's Thunder. The DM is simply helping them to do their dirty work, so to speak.

Let me, insert a third caveat or point that I didn't bring up in the earlier post. The loss of player control is actually even worse than the above suggests. Not only are current players much more, so to speak, at the mercy of the DM and the scenario authors, they're also much more at the mercy of the dice. Randomness is not the same as player choice, and can often hamper it. Now, of course, random dice rolls have always been a central part of the D&D experience, especially for combats. What I'm referring to here is the progressive replacement of determining many outcomes based on player initiated problem solving in favor of, say, "knowledge checks" and the like. This takes real autonomy away from the players. "Choice nodes" or "problem solving nodes" are replaced with "dice nodes."

So, I would say that, in so far as players have ever been puppets, they're much more puppets now than they ever were. Indeed, I would say, again to speak very generally and roughly, they weren't puppets in early D&D, but they are now to a large extent,  - or they are now in "official" Wizards of the Coast D&D.

D&D may not be as popular as it was back in the day (and I would argue that the puppet thing is one reason why it's not as popular), but there is no question that the game is still relatively popular. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of children and adults play it, and the products are, I assume, still money makers for Wizards.

So let me ask (and then try to answer) a blunt question. Why do current players enjoy being puppets?

Let me suggest four answers:

1. They don't know they're puppets.

It's at least conceivable that someone could play through Storm King's Thunder and not know that the major happenings and events that they "experience" were all preconceived and determined beforehand. In the same way, many early published D&D adventures and current OSR offerings contain some "railroady" elements. It's perfectly fair to think that the players are often not aware of them, or if they are aware that they exist, they don't know which of them, precisely exist, if that makes sense. But it's hard for me to believe that this is the case with most current D&D players. If one reads the rulebooks, or any of the adventures at all, or even any of the blurbs on the back of the adventures, one can't fail to notice what's going on - "This will take your players from 1st to 8th level, as they progressively meet greater and greater challenges!" Of course, greater and greater challenges are precisely what they are not - in the same way that going from room 1 to room 8 on a Disney ride is not to confront greater challenges per se.

2. They like being puppets.

To some degree, actors are puppets. They (usually) didn't write their lines, and are often told (by the director) how to say them. But that fact does not detract from the enjoyment that many actors get from their craft. It's fun to dress up in a period costume and pretend you're Richard III, etc.

3. Puppets still have some freedom.

Or at least D&D puppets do. Just because the universe has already determined that you're going to fly in the cloud castle to Bryan Shander and experience the frost giant attack, and steal a conch and save Hekaton, doesn't mean that you can't goof around in the cloud castle and try out different tactics in the frost giant battle, and save Hekaton in a variety of different ways (I assume), etc. etc. And it's not like the players are sitting there with actual strings attached to their arms. A lot of playing a fantasy game is being willing to suspend your disbelief. If you can suspend your disbelief that there aren't really dragons, you can suspend your disbelief that you don't really have complete freedom in choosing how and where to proceed in a predetermined sequential adventure, such as, say, Tyranny of Dragons.

4. The puppets don't know any better.

Why do people play D&D? Not just to exercise what we have called player choice, but more generally to simply be in or experience (via pretend) a fantasy world. Even if you're playing with a bad DM or a stupid rule set or a railroady scenario or whatever, D&D still might be fun, at least for awhile. And if you don't know there's anything better...

They say that bad you-know-what is better than no you-know what. Well, I wouldn't know about that, but I get the point.

After my return to D&D, almost six years ago, and my shock and horror at 4th edition, it still took me a number of months to "discover" the OSR. And while I'm not an internet expert, by any means I'm not a total wallflower either. The existence of the OSR is taken as a given by many of us, but most D&D players are completely unaware of it. And if you don't know that something better exists, you're not necessarily going to have an easy time finding it if it does.

I love sushi. It's pretty much my favorite food. But I didn't eat it for many years, even when my friends did. I thought or assumed that it was gross. When I started eating it, it wasn't because my preferences had changed, but, rather, because I had suddenly "discovered" it, or more accurately, I discovered I had been wrong about it.

So, I don't think game preferences are completely subjective. Certain things work or work better for most people, and certain things don't. But "preferences" for most people (including me) often reflect only what we know or what we think we know.

I suspect that if they knew there were an alternative, many would prefer a less puppetish existence.

By using the term "puppet," I'm not trying to be snarky towards anyone, especially players (or players who "like" being puppets). But I think it's valuable to sometimes use blunt names for things. To some extent, even I think that games that treat people as puppets or partial puppets can be fun. I love Call of Cthulhu, but many CoC scenarios, especially the "classic" ones, are at least potentially somewhat railroady. In some of these, you're a quasi-puppet, being taken on a predetermined path from New York to the Himalayas to Timbuktu to East Oshkosh, etc. But it's still fun.

But I think contemporary D&D would be more fun, or at least more fun for many people, if it went back to its original, yes, Gygaxian conception, where player agency was emphasized more - less Storm King's Thunder and more Keep on the Boderlands or In Search of the Unknown.

And despite my often strong "power to the people" language, here and elsewhere, I don't believe it's all an evil corporate conspiracy. While I think that Wizards publishes many banal and inferior contemporary products, they also have republished many of the best original ones. They're not really trying to make you into a puppet or control you like a puppet (I hope). They don't care one way or another. They just want to make money.

But what about you? What do you want?

Do you enjoy being a puppet?

Friday, May 12, 2017

Cecilia D'Anastasio's Silly Theories About the Tyranny of Gygax and Early D&D

Power to the people

I was pointed to this by a blog post at Castalia House.

In the guise of reviewing the graphic novel Rise of the Dungeon Master: Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D by David Kushner and Karen Shadmi, Kotaku blogger Cecilia D'Anastasio celebrates contemporary D&D as a good thing. However, for D'Anastasio, D&D started out as a bad thing, or at least a sort of bad thing. Gary Gygax created it (with a little help from Dave Arneson and others) but the game only really came into its own when it grew away from him or beyond him.

I wouldn't waste my time writing about a silly Kotaku post except that I've heard this sort of argument before. It's especially popular among the crowd that loves bringing politics into D&D. I want to consider the argument and then hopefully put a stake through its heart, not because it offends my politics, but because it doesn't even work on its own terms. In seeking to make a subjective claim - old D&D = bad, new D&D = good - it gets most of the objective facts wrong. And it ends up sort of slandering a few people in the process - Gygax, not least among them.

D'Anastasio's "review" begins like this:
Storytelling was never the same after Dungeons & Dragons. When players, guided by a dungeon master, knit a dense narrative whose many threads are each supported by their neighbors, it makes the case that many voices are greater than one.
As it happens, I think storytelling, at least in some form, is certainly a part of D&D; there is nothing wrong with dense narratives per se; and sometimes many voices are in fact greater than one. But if someone puts all those together in the lead paragraph to an essay on Dungeons & Dragons, I guarantee you they have some silly agenda up their sleeve.

Even now, we can perhaps implicitly see the outlines of the argument. Consider: when you started playing D&D, you didn't think of the game as storytelling, had no idea what a narrative, let alone a dense narrative, was, and would have puked had anyone suggested that playing D&D was just like holding hands and singing, or whatever. That's because, in some sense, it was a different game then. See, old D&D = bad, new D&D = good.

D'Anastasio calls Rise of the Dungeon Master "enchanting," but then states, "perhaps Gygax has enjoyed enough time on D&D's altar of hero worship." Even this is, in and of itself, unobjectionable. No mortal man should spend too much time (any time?) being worshipped on an altar. And the criticism of Gygax here is pretty restrained - perhaps he shouldn't be worshipped on an altar? Perhaps? But one senses there's something more going on. Sure enough, in the comments section of the post, D'Anastasio flies her true colors:
I am a diehard D&D fan who seriously dislikes Gygax and his legacy.
Okay. This is strong stuff - not dislikes but seriously dislikes. And it does seem a bit contradictory and odd. After all, since D&D is clearly a big part of Gygax's legacy, how can she be a diehard fan and hate it at the same time? And if she strongly dislikes the man so much, why would she find a picture book about his life enchanting?

But I think the most relevant question is why does she seriously dislike him?

She tries to tell us:
If you compare Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons adventures to today’s, it will strike you how much control—and veneration—he allocates to the dungeon master...
It is he, the smiling, all-knowing dungeon master, who controls the game’s mysteries. An afterthought, players are the puppets who act out the fantasy...
Today’s Dungeons & Dragons adventures ask more of the player and less of the dungeon master. Scenarios are open-ended. Dungeon dimensions are less particular, to leave room for players’ whimsies. On top of their race, class, alignment and stats, today’s character sheets want to know why the player adventures, and what they ultimately hope to gain. Today’s Dungeon Master’s Guild, an official D&D website that publishes anyone’s adventures and additions to the game, tells us who really owns its legacy. It was Gygax who originally fought against making the ruleset open source.
Today is the age of the player...
We might summarize the above, this way: Gygax and early D&D were a necessary social stage (sort of like capitalism). But we've past out of that and are now above it (true socialism has come). In past ages we were puppets, being manipulated by a tyrant in his own dungeon. But today, we're in the open air and free. It's our time, now. Yay!

Do not misunderstand, I like good Marxist analysis just as much as the next man. The problem is, her analysis isn't very good. Pretty much everything stated in her above four paragraphs is either extremely misleading, false or (and this applies to the majority of it) the reverse of the truth.

How does D'Anastasio justify her claims?

Well, here she is on Gygax almost insulting his players with his blatant ableism:
[In] his famous “Tomb of Horrors” module, he warns that players who are not clever will not enjoy the module.
Wow. How tyrannical and mean of him.

But what did Gygax actually say? I have Tomb of Horrors right here:
So here's D'Anastasio at her most dishonest, twisting an admonition against violence and in favor of thinking, into a rude right-wing (or whatever) attack on non-clever people.

Would "kill everything!" have been more progressive?

She makes a second attempt with a direct quote:
In his Descent into the Depths of the Earth, Gygax again assigns great narrative power to the DM: “Here are the bones of the adventure. You must breathe life into this framework after you flesh it out.”
Well, that's certainly right-wing, almost Hitlerian, even Trumpist, in fact. The DM "must breathe life into this framework." I can just hear the jackboots coming towards me along the dungeon corridor.

I'm joking, of course. Anyone who would object to that statement from Gygax, for any reason whatsoever is clearly insane, or at least as easily triggered as, say, one of those Tomb of Horrors traps.

So I'm going to help D'Anastasio out and give her some juicier Gygax quotes that will serve her purpose better. These are from the Dungeon Master's Guide (1979), written (or approved) by Gary Gygax:
The Dungeon Master (DM) is the creative force behind a D&D game. The DM creates a world for the other players to explore, and also creates and runs adventures that drive the story.
...You're the DM, and you are in charge of the game.
Every DM is the creator of his or her own campaign make that world your own over the course of a campaign...
The world is yours to change as you see fit and yours to modify as you explore the consequences of the players' actions.
So, the players do take actions, but if you (the DM) don't like them or their consequences (or for any other reason), you can modify the world. And it is your world, not the players' world. You created it. You get to run it (and thus drive the story). You get to change it, as you see fit. You are the master. It is your own.

Well, if that's not a tyranny, I don't know what. Personally, I prefer collaborative storytelling. Down with masters! (Yay.)

Actually, I lied.

The above passages weren't written by Gygax. They were written by the Wizards of the Coast team that authored the D&D 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide (2014), and they placed those words in its Introduction.

And obviously, neither the Gygax quote nor the 5th edition passages have anything to do with anything other than making perfectly reasonable statements about what it is that dungeon masters do and should do (though, Gygax was a much better writer than Team Wizard).

Here's the thing: It's true that D&D certainly can be played in such a way that the players are to some extent puppets, participating in a story, yes, but a story that has already been or is currently being largely determined for them by outside forces.

But this is precisely what Gygax, Dave Arneson and early D&D for the most part did not do. By the same token, it is what modern "progressive" D&D, the kind favored by D'Anastasio, does in fact do, not always, perhaps, but all too often.

The early campaigns and adventures - Arneson's Blackmoor and Gygax's Greyhawk being the most famous - as well as the first published adventures by Gygax and others, were, for the most part, almost entirely "open-ended" (to use D'Anastasio's term). Yes, the DM designed the dungeon (someone had to do it). But the players were then free to, so to speak, roam at will within it, creating their own stories - to use D'Anastasio's language - however they wished. Indeed, back in the day, the concept of a scenario (implying that a scene had already been planned or set up beforehand), didn't even exist.

You are a player in Blackmoor or Greyhawk. If your group wants to skip three levels and immediately fight the vampire on level five, you can. If, as a result, you get bitten by the vampire and want to, in effect create a whole new angle on the thing by just being a vampire in the dungeon, you can. If you and your group want to set up turnstiles at the entrance to the dungeon and then charge admission, you can do it. Or you can just tramp off to the Egg of Coot or wherever and try to induce the Elves to attack the vampire for you. Or not. Or whatever, etc. There is no preset plan or storyline or scenario. The players create it themselves with their actions.

Contrast that with a contemporary 5th edition adventure, Storm King's Thunder - presumably one of the "scenarios" that D'Anastasio recommends that you buy in her How to Get Into Dungeons & Dragons:
Acquire the Materials...An adventure (a pre-made book that contains a story, NPCs and monsters)
But, but, I thought the players created the story?

According to A Guide to Storm King's Thunder by Sean McGovern, hyped by the publishers of Storm King's Thunder, Wizards of the Coast, and available on their friendly Dungeon Master's Guild page, here is the outline of the story that the players will be participating in (when the author addresses "you," he means the DM):
1. Nightstone: The group goes through chapter 1. That's very straightforward. The villagers need help.
2. Pick One of Three Locations: Chapter 2 is trickier. The group will have to pick a hook. If there is one place you like and want to use, just give the group that one hook. For example, I like Bryn Shander. So I would have the group be asked to go to Bryn Shander and tell Markham his sister is dead. I wouldn’t even mention the Goldenfields and Triboar quests.
3. Zephyros: Now we fly in the cloud castle to Bryn Shander.
4. Bryn Shander: In Bryn Shander, we go through the frost giant attack.
5. Sort Out Chapter 3: Then we get to the most complicated part of planning this thing out. Chapter 3 is wide open. Ultimately, the group is meant to meet Harshnag (page 118). How and when that happens is completely up to you! Remember, if you like another of the chapter 2 locations, there's nothing stopping you from using it now.
6A. Winging It: If you are a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of DM, then just let the group go where they want and when it feels like it is time, plop in Harshnag.
6B. Planning: If you are like me and you like to prepare, I suggest that you go through chapter 3 and find all the things that you want to use. Then look at the map on pages 74-75 and see where all these places are in relation to each other. Then just connect the dots - make a reason for the group to go from one place to the next. I have already broken down this chapter into quick little blurbs in my Guide to Storm King's Thunder.
7. The Oracle: Once the group meets Harshnag, then they are off to the Eye (page 121). The group will be asked to go to all those burial mounds in chapter 3. I don't like those, so in my version I changed it. Some people online have said they didn't like the idea of desecrating holy sites, so consider your group before you run this as written.
8. Iymrith: The group gets the artifacts and returns to the oracle. They learn that they need a conch. On the way out, Iymrith attacks and Harshnag makes a heroic sacrifice.
9. Find the Conch: In the book, every giant lord has a conch. The heroes will need to go steal a conch from a giant lord. I liked a lot of these areas, so in my version I changed things a little so I can use Svardborg, Ironslag and the Cloud Giant castle in my campaign.
10. Use the Conch: It takes the group to Maelstrom (page 201). There, the heroes hopefully expose Iymrith and get a clue to Hekaton's whereabouts.
11. King Hekaton: The group tracks down Hekaton and saves him!
12. Final Battle: The adventurers team up with Hekaton to take down Iymrith. As written, there's a bunch of NPC giants with the group. That seems a little unwieldy, so think about if you really want to take these NPCs along.
Most contemporary adventures published by Wizards of the Coast are more or less like this. Of course, people don't have to use them or play this way. But it's pretty clear that Wizards of the Coast wants you to purchase them and D'Anastasio seems to think they're pretty spiffy. (By the way, the idea that anyone would want to purchase someone else's pre-made adventure was looked on with astonishment by the early Gygax).

The group gets the artifacts and returns to the oracle.
The group tracks down Hekaton and saves him!
On the way out, Iymrith attacks and Harshnag makes a heroic sacrifice.
The age of the player.
The adventurers team up with Hekaton to take down Iymrith.
Admittedly, the prisoners have a short exercise period:
[T]hen just let the group go where they want and when it feels like it is time, plop in Harshnag.
But even when the players are given a little bit of freedom, it's largely illusory, for the ever-watching and controlling DM is just biding his time before he "plops" someone in.

I mean, what the hell? Seriously, WHAT THE HELL!? This is what "age of the players" means? This is what players creating a story means?

Can I have my revolution back, please?

If there was a revolution, it must have been a fake one. It threw off the alleged evil tyranny of the DM (which never really existed anyway) and replaced it with the rule (in the form of writing your stories for you) of an uncredited collective of author bureaucrats, employed by a multi-million dollar corporation that wants to sell you "scenarios" for $49.95 a pop.

Or so it might seem.

How progressive. Yay, one final time.

When I say that the narrative of D'Anastasio and her friends is the reverse of the truth, I don't mean it's the precise reverse of the truth. Unlike them, I'm not a complete ideologue on the historical question (though I admit my pro-OSR rants may often make it appear so).

The early Gary Gygax was an explicit advocate of making D&D your game - with the "your" referring to both the players and the DM. But the later corporate Gary Gygax was a bit more mixed - "If you want to change the rules, you can, but in that case you just won't be playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons." And, as I understand it, when he ran his own campaign, Gygax was often as much of a Svengail figure as he was a referee, with all of that mysterious rummaging behind the file cabinets, and so on. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, but opinions differ.

Gygax famously said that your "backstory" was what you did to get to 6th level (or some such). Now, I personally think that that's more of a pro-story approach than anti-story. Or, more accurately, it's simply a philosophy about how stories are or should be created: It's better to make them by playing, instead of by writing them before hand. I happen to agree with that. But if you think D&D is better now because there's a bit more of a focus on backstories, that's okay with me.

And some early TSR adventures or sets of adventures, did have their "railroad" elements. After all, you were sort of expected to go from G1 to G2 to G3 of those Giant Modules (though, I would argue that you still had much more freedom within the modules, and that "railroading" in general was not present to anywhere near the extent that it is now).

As snarky as even I can sometimes be about them, the current Wizards people are not all horrible corporate meanies. The Dungeon Master's Guild, while clearly a vehicle designed to help the brand, is not a bad idea (though, I don't much like the rule system - 5th edition - it is built around).

And, of course, the OSR owes a huge amount to Wizards for the OGL. The irony is that the OGL is often used by OSR people to design products that (as I would put it) circumvent the banality of current Wizards products.

By the way, before I forget, the claim that "Dungeon dimensions are less particular (now), to leave room for players’ whimsies" is just about the stupidest thing I've ever heard - as if caves in Storm King's Thunder contracted or expanded in response to the player-characters holding hands and singing.

Or maybe they do, I haven't read the 256-page thing.

Let me end on a serious note. Cecilia D'Anastasio knows nothing about D&D. Nor is she probably even a "fan" in any meaningful sense. Back in the day, she wouldn't have played the game because it wasn't cool. Now, because the "progressive" version of it - a version existing mostly in the imaginations of a small minority - is cool, or supposedly cool, she gets together occasionally with other like-minded people in that small minority (or whomever else she can cajole) to act out a story someone else has created for her.

Or maybe she just blogs about it.

That's freedom.

Well, it is for her. To D'Anastasio, freedom means imposing her silly ideology on others.

Also, she gets her kicks lying about Gary Gygax.

She does that because she strongly dislikes him and his legacy. I'm sure the fact that he was a white male who started out playing toy soldiers with other white males has nothing to do with it.

Nothing to do with it at all.

What an ignorant and biased person.