ZDL's blog

Our little hobby is filled with intriguing oddities.  One of the most persistent such oddities is our weird tendency to take what is already a fringe subculture and cut it up into further warring fringes.


In the '70s (and even a bit into the '80s) the hobby was divided into the camp of wargamers (themselves divided into board and miniatures camps, not to mention by era) and role-players.  This is where I entered the picture, and I came to it from a direction radically different than most RPGers of the time: I came at it from my high school drama flake crowd, not from the wargaming crowd.  I especially saw a lot of the disdain hurled at the role-playing fantasists crowd because I not only played them, I exclusively played them and really didn't like wargames.


As the great creative explosion of the '80s began, more and more weird divisions happened, usually in feuding camps based on genre (since most RPGs of the time still lived firmly in their wargaming roots).  This was also the era where "realism" vs. "playability" became an argument (despite no RPG ever written being even remotely realistic, and most were only barely playable: this is a hobby that demanded a degree of dedication to enter and be a part of!).


The '90s started to usher in the era of the "story-based" game (although the earliest of these were barely distinguishable in terms of rules focus from Dungeons & Dragons).  This is where the largest divide of role-playing games started and what is likely the largest single cultural shift of the hobby began, as typified by the (pretentiously idiotic) phrase "role-playing vs. roll-playing".


The earlier divides were arguments over taste.  Something in the loudest of the "story game" crowd stepped over a line from discussions of taste into very literal notions of "wrong fun".  In many ways it was the stalwart wargamer crowd's disdain of the role-playing crowd all over again, only it was the newcomers who held the most disdain.  The peak of this was likely the essays of people like John Wick or, worse, Ron Edwards who would start bizarrely hinting at (and sometimes openly stating) some kind of moral failing of those who preferred original-style dungeon bashes.  It reached the point that to this day I can't stomach the notion of actually buying a product published by some major names in gaming.  (And, naturally, because we can't have nice things, a lot of OSR advocates are just as disdainful of people who play differently as are people like the two I named above.  I'll just drop James Raggi's name here for that.)


And it was in the midst of this acrimony that sometime in the early '00s the OSR sprung up.  (OSR is an initialization I've seen expanded as Old School Revival, Recreation, Renaissance, and other such R words to the point I'm not sure which one is actually canonically correct, so I will just be using OSR.)  The OSR is a movement to return back to basics.  Back to E. Gary Gygax's original D&D.  To return to a time of simplicity.  It's a movement born of people wearing pink-tinted contact lenses because—hoo boy!—this is not a good description of the rules of the time!


There is a reason why the original edition of D&D was not the dominant one over the decades and that reason is not just, as has been claimed, a money-grab by TSR and others.


To establish my credentials, I have been playing RPGs of all kinds since 1977.  My first exposure to the genre was the 1977 "Blue Book" edition and I have backfilled experience with the original books, not to mention gone forward into both branches of D&D (Advanced and what would later become the Cyclopedia).  I played through the explosion of creativity in the '80s, witnessed the rise of story games (playing many of them, though not the White Wolf line of Storyteller games—I hated those), and continued through to the present day where I play intensely story-oriented games (FATE, Spark, Mythic, etc.) as well as some OSR or OSR-alike games (most notably Mazes & Minotaurs).  I am emphatically not a young-un telling grandpa what's what.  I'm one of the grandparents saying what actually was.


And what actually was was a mess.  Don't get me wrong.  I don't judge the OSR and, indeed, I like its ideals: simplicity chief among them.  I think modern games have gotten ridiculously and pointlessly complicated and as someone who works in marketing, I can even smell the marketing decisions that led to that.  I would love to have a game in the old style to play (and indeed do in the form of M&M).


I just don't want to play the original D&D.


So let's talk about why.


I have open on my screen the so-called "White Box" set of rules.  The three-volume set of Dungeons & Dragons published by Tactical Studies Rules in 1974 before they even had the TSR logo.  (Their logo looked like a bizarre stylized 'K' embedded in a similarly stylized 'G'.)  And already we're off to a rocky start.  On page 5 of the first book (Men & Magic) we have the recommended equipment which includes ... Chainmail miniature rules, latest edition.  Which, note, at the time of publication, wasn't even a TSR product.


Time to open another document.  (Picture me rolling my eyes here.)


The current edition of Chainmail at the time would have been 2nd.  The third was 1975, a year after D&D was published, while 2nd was 1972.  So this is the version we'll go with.


Back to D&D.  And here we get to the next problem with this edition of D&D (which I will refer to as OD&D from now on): the writing.  It's atrocious.  The information design is execrable.  Gary Gygax had a large vocabulary, but he had no clue how to use it to deliver information.  His writing style lies somewhere between the ponderousness of an academic frightened of clear communication because it would reveal how trivial the ideas under discussion actually are and a middle school essay writer earning his D+ marks throughout the term.  On page 6, for example, under the heading of "Characters", he introduces the 3 main classes of characters: Fighting-Men, Magic-Users, and Clerics.  Then, buried in the description of what these classes even are, he throws in the fact that fighting men can "include" elves, dwarves, and even halflings while magic-users can only be men and elves with clerics limited to men only.


(From the way it is worded it is easy to mistakenly think that men can only be magic-users and clerics, incidentally.)


In the section on Fighting-Men (referred to multiple times as "fighters" in the text because consistency in game terminology is for cowards?) there's a bizarre section irrelevant to the topic at hand consisting of base income for fighters of high enough a level.  In the section outlining Magic-Users there's a sudden table of income costs for making magic items.  In the section on Clerics there's more talk of income from high-level clerics and holdings.  NONE OF THIS IS RELEVANT.  The game is discussing stuff that comes at "end-game" (so to speak) for characters before they've even actually finished off what a character is and how to make one!  It's very clearly written stream-of-consciousness and it's a chore to decode.  THIS is why the Basic line was started and expanded into the Cyclopedia.  Gary Gygax's writing style is just not suited to actually explaining things!


And it continues on and on in this vein: opening up with the classes, introducing the classes, and mentioning races only in passing, suddenly, on the very next page, right after talking about Clerics, races are introduced at the same heading level in a jarring transition.  Each is defined solely by what it can and cannot do.  There's no explanation of what a "dwarf" or "elf" or "halfling" really is.  Maybe that's what you need Chainmail for?  Yep.  That's where the races are described.  (Though there's no "halflings".  Only hobbits.)  Further the races' advantages and abilities are explicitly specified in Chainmail.  You really do need Chainmail to play OD&D!


Alignment is handled in the same kind of slap-dash way: character types are defined by alignment, but alignment itself is not described (not even in Chainmail!).


This mess goes on and on.  There's rules for changing character classes that reference prime requisites, but prime requisites for classes haven't yet been defined!  (They do have the decency to forward-reference this, but this is utter crap information design.  We've known how to write better than this for centuries before D&D was written!)


Once you do decode this, the rules for making characters are, indeed, very simple.  It's just that the writing is so phenomenally bad that D&D rapidly became known as a game that you couldn't just buy and learn.  You had to have it taught to you.


And one of the purported advantages of the aulde skool rears its ugly head here: it is explicitly intended (according to the introduction) to be merely guidelines.  So what you were taught wouldn't transfer well to other groups…


Of course when you played, again you needed Chainmail according to the rules thus far.  We're on page 18 of the rules and half the rules mentioned explicitly call out to Chainmail for resolution.  Page 19 introduces the "alternative" combat system that replaces Chainmail's in which we see the beginning of the THAC0 system that was so beloved in later years.  And again it's incoherent dross.  The hit table only applies to fighters.  Magic-Users and Clerics use different progressions mentioned in an asterisked footnote.  This is also where the infamously bizarre categories of saving throws make their first appearance.  To this day I don't understand these categories, why they were made, what they were intended to represent.  I only know that it was really weird seeing rules in later editions say "save vs. paralyzation" for things that had nothing to do with paralyzation, just because those were the numbers the designer of the monster or trap or whatever liked best.


And of course the saving throw matrix manages to be incoherent there as well, interlacing levels and classes in bizarre ways making it awfully hard to figure out which is which when using it.


Anyway, I think I've made my point here.  The rules were awful.  They were incoherently written.  They relied on an outside book (then published by another publisher!) to actually use.  And on top of everything else, they covered so very little that, quite ironically, to use them meant the referee (DM being a later term!) had to make things up on the fly all the time.  Just like the "GM fiat" games that many OSR advocates deride now.


They're god-awful rules!


And note, I'm not saying here that the rules should cover every possible contingency.  In that direction lies madness (also known as Chivalry & Sorcery)!  But what the rules should provide (and emphatically don't!) is a coherent framework for adjudication.


Now D&D has an excuse.  It was the first game of a kind nobody had ever seen before.  Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax deserve the accolades they get for having made it and popularized it.  I will never cast shade on the giants who made the very hobby I love so well!  But I absolutely will cast shade on the people who think that OD&D was the best of all possible times to the point of wanting to return to it.


Not casting shade in the "wrongfun" sense either, but rather in the "are you really sure?" sense.  Because yes, there is a lot of the OSR vibe I love.  I just don't like the game at the core of it and I think an attempt to return to that in specific, even if rewritten to be more coherent, is doomed to failure.  I think there is room for the OSR concept: simple, fun-focused, hack-and-slash or exploration-oriented, pick-up-and-play games that also have room for depth and soul but that don't have a need for the millions of pages of rules for every contingency.  For the concepts behind D&D, but concepts executed with now nearly 40 years of design experience to get it right.

Full disclosure: I was given this game for free by its publisher.  This was not done for purposes of review (more out of pity!), but it would not be honest to fail to mention this potential bias.


I have a somewhat complicated relationship with Bloodshadows.  I originally encountered it when it was a West End Games setting for their Masterbook game (itself part of the '90s trend of turning every house game system—in this case the game system behind Torg and Shatterzone—into a generic game).  The thing is that while I admired several features of Masterbook, at it core I found it a pretty fundamentally flawed game that I didn't want to play very much.  Which was a pity because the Bloodshadows setting I adored straight out of the box.


So here we are, over two decades later, and I find myself with a Bloodshadows game in my hand from the home where all the great, undervalued games go for continued unlife: Precis Intermedia (rapidly becoming my favourite currently-active publisher of RPGs).


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This one is a weird one folks, so strap in and get ready.

Today's game is The Terran Trade Authority Roleplaying Game (henceforth TTARPG – and yes there's a reason why I'm using such a clunky initialization) released by Canada's Morrigan Press in 2006.  It's a science fiction RPG that …

Let's roll back the history a bit, because this is really unusual.

History


In 1978, Hamlyn Publishing released a book called Spacecraft 2000-2100 AD by Stewart Cowley.  It was a large, hardback art book filled to the brim with science fiction artwork of spaceships, planetscapes, and future cities/bases that were rendered by some of the greatest SF artists of the time: Angus McKie, Gerard Thomas, Chris Foss, Peter Elson, and others represented by J.S. Artists.

More than an art book, however, it was also a detailed future history with little vignettes of space battles, a future history, etc. all paired with pictures showing the subject.  It was a brilliant concept that was well executed, leading to more books in the series authored by Cowley—Great Space Battles (1979, with Charles Herridge), SpaceWreck: Ghostships and Derelicts of Space (1979), Starliners: Commercial Travel in 2200 AD (1980).

All of these books were tied together in a future history involving the name of the Terran Trade Authority (TTA) hence the name of the RPG.

... more

Today's review is going to come from the weird side of game publishing.  The game is Story Engine and it has a fairly convoluted history that led to its demise and current fate.


History


Our story begins in 1996 with a small indie press outfit called Hubris Games.  Hubris published a little game called Maelstrom Storytelling, that had some decent indie success spawning four follow-in products in the process.  They also published a free game called Story Bones with the essence of the ideas behind Maelstrom's game system but the setting excised.  Then in 1999 they published this game, Story Engine (sub-titled "Universal Rules") and followed that up with a revised edition in 2001.


... more

We're reaching deep into the wayback machine for this review.  Today's fringe gem is another game from the (in)famous game publisher Fantasy Games Unlimited (FGU).  As I said in an earlier review of Psi World, FGU was a game company willing to champion and publish any game concept imaginable (with predictable mixed results in quality and sanity).  One of the games I mentioned in my capsule history of them is a very rare beast called Starships & Spacemen (S&S).


... more

Mythic is, to quote the game's introduction, "a universal, improvisational role-playing game".  Designed by Tana Pigeon, a name you've likely never heard of (though you should have, because she makes some nifty stuff!), it is far more than what that unassuming little description says.  This review is all about teasing out exactly what Mythic actually is.

... more

Today's review is gong to be from the person I consider the James Brown of game design.  Which is to say the hardest-working man in game design.  His name is Greg Porter and he is the owner (and sole member) of the game producer BTRC (Blacksburg Tactical Research Center).  Neither he, nor his company, are likely names you know … but you should.  In his own, quiet way, Greg Porter has created some of the most interesting, most innovative, and most playable RPGs out there.

(Of course he's also created some of the most unplayable games as well…)


... more

Rolemaster

No history of RPGs would ever be complete without discussion of Iron Crown Enterprises' Rolemaster line of game products.  Despite its many epithets (most notably Chartmaster)—whether justly or unjustly applied (and I feel largely unjustly!)—it is hard to deny the influence this game had on role-playing games in general and D&D in specific.  First published in 1980 with the first component, Arms Law (a naming convention that set the table for all of the line), it began its existence as a replacement weapon/melee combat system for AD&D.  (They couldn't state it that flatly, of course, for reasons of copyright, so it was "for RPGs".)  It was rapidly followed with Claw Law (later packaged together) which added creature and unarmed combat to the mix.  This was followed by Spell Law for magic and finally, in 1982, Character Law, turning Rolemaster from a set of supplements into its own independent role-playing game.  1984's Campaign Law was the final component (and one of the earliest guidebooks for world-building for GMs).


... more

Unlike my previous, starkly negative review I'm switching back to the generally positive again.  Today's fringe game is actually a game line, one that is proudly hailed as being for "beer & pretzels".  This is by no means the earliest beer & pretzels game in role-playing.  The first of the line's products—a game called Shriek—was published in 2001.  Games like Ninja Burger, Kobolds Ate My Baby, and other such games were released before that in the late '90s.  Indeed I'm pretty sure I'd played loads of small, simple, comedy games before this game line was published.  Hell, Macho Women with Guns, which exists right on the very edge of that beer & pretzels divide, was published in 1988.

But this one is different.


... more

In my last, third, review I waxed reminiscently about the "halcyon years" of RPGs in the '80s, using Psi World, one of my favourite games ever, as an example of the feel of the '80s.

Unfortunately the '80s had its darker side as well.  A lot of very stupid things were done in that era and it would be remiss of me not to document some of them.  Further, to show I'm capable of more than twee paeans to my favourite games, I thought it time to show, too, what a negative review would look like.

And make no mistake, this review will be unrelentingly negative!

Avalon Hill

The Avalon Hill Game Company (AH) was a powerhouse in board gaming, especially wargaming, with a history stretching back to the early 1950s.  If you play board wargames in particular, even those not made by AH, you owe a debt to this one-time juggernaut.  Many of the standard things that identify wargames--hex grids, stochastic combat results, etc.--were a result of their innovation over the years and it is rare that a wargame can be found which doesn't trace its ancestry to something invented at AH.

In the 1970s, role-playing games started to get introduced and in the late 1970s they took off in ways that surprised hardcore wargamers.  In the 1980s, when it became clear that RPGs were not going to be going away, wargames publishers started looking around for games to publish in this new genre with varying degrees of success.  Simulations Publications, Inc (SPI) published, for example, Dragonquest and Universe, fantasy and science fiction games respectively to mixed success.  (I personally liked both games, but Universe in particular was rather gratuitously complicated in ways that weren't needed.  I could never have run either, but as a player I enjoyed both.)

AH was no exception to this.  They wanted to publish RPGs and in the end they wound up publishing three.  They published the third edition of Runequest (and I am one of, perhaps, five people in the entire world who liked their version of Runequest better than the previous two editions by far) to mixed reviews.  They published an intriguing-in-principle but deeply-flawed-in-execution game called Lords of Creation, and they published today's little gem: Powers & Perils.  (Technically the James Bond 007 RPG was also an AH property, but it was published by a wholly-owned subsidiary and I don't consider it part of AH canon proper.)


... more

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  • Nov 25
  • ncat:

    This heres a small attempt at trying to bring a more 3.5e esque casting system to 5e. Its mostly experimental here, but I think it turned out to be a fun subclass.

    But yeah, its sorta a 1|1/3rd caster, gaining the regular spells of a wizard plus a few extra lower level spells per day, with the downside being those spells use vancian casting.

    I might re-use this system for something else in the future at some point, probably for a full class or variant spellcasting system, like the Spell Points in the DMG.

    Nov 25


  • mythmaker5e:

    Spice up combat with this food themed spell 🌶

    Nov 25


  • caeora:

    Hello all!

    This is the free pack for the Rustic Furniture assets 2! Containing 26 assets all ready to go and use to make an awesome looking house or building in your TTRPG games!

    In the complete pack of the assets, you will find over 130+ assets, many are combinations of the assets I made last week but there are also a bunch of new assets that people requested, including tankards, glasses, wine bottles, rubbish, bowls etc!

    With the combined assets, like the setup tables you should be able to make an interesting room super quickly without having to place down each asset! If I do more packs in the future I think having these options is invaluable for creating maps and encounters quickly so I will definitely do more :) 

    This pack is available for free over on patreon!

    We had caeora as a guest on Inspired Unreality.

    Nov 25


  • angela-maps:

    Compete to be the best at the Holiday tournament. Jousting, archery, sword fighting! Or grab a cup of warm mulled wine and enjoy watching the competition.

    I LOVE the Riyria book series, so when I started making a tournament map, my mind kept coming back to the Wintertide tournament in book 5. And I decided I needed to do a snowy version for a holiday tournament 🙂 You can get this free on http://AngelaMaps.com with a small logo.

    There is also a summer version and night versions available, as well as the Foundry VTT and Fantasy Grounds versions on my Patreon.

    FREE MAPS: http://AngelaMaps.com

    PATREON: http://Patreon.com/angelamaps

    #riyria #battlemap #encountermap #fantasymap #worldbuilding #dnd #dndmaps #pathfinder #fantasyrpg #roll20 #fantasygrounds #angelamaps #inkarnate #foundryvtt #dndhomebrew #criticalrole #dungeonsanddragons #dungeonmaster #patreon #dungeonsanddragonsart #dmsguild #critters #cr #dndillustration #critrole #tabletoprpg #dndstories #ttrpg
    https://www.instagram.com/p/CWVExd1sW__/?utm_medium=tumblr

    Nov 25
  • thunderpowered:

    A couple cards from this year’s swordtember! Doing this deck is part of the reason I did multiple weapon types this year.

    Nov 25

 

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