Sunday, September 30, 2012

I wish I could forget the Forgotten Realms (Part 2)

In 1989, when I finally got to play D&D, I was oblivious of the politicking at TSR that forced Gygax out of the company in 1985. I believe that  I hadn't even heard of the Forgotten Realms until about two years later when I saw advertisement in Dragon Magazine.

I remember thinking: Why would I need another campaign setting? I already have Greyhawk. I had access to my brother's World of Greyhawk boxed set. In 1992, I picked up Greyhawk: From the Ashes. While even I disagree with some of the aspects of From the Ashes, I still think Greyhawk is a perfect campaign setting--until maybe 3rd Edition when Erik Mona got a hold if it, even so, he was more faithful to the original source material than was expected.

Still, Greyhawk remains a generic campaign setting with a history of it's own, but not as obtrusive as the Forgotten Realms at the gaming table. In the original boxed set, TSR gave DMs a bare bones setting, meant to be tailored by the DM.

The Forgotten Realms, however, is very obtrusive and guided by novel sales, TSR and later WotC's sales plans. If you've ever encountered a Realms Lawyer, you'll understand what I'm talking about. People obviously must have enjoyed the Realms, and still do.

But as somebody firmly in the Greyhawk camp, I didn't (and still don't) completely understand the Realms phenomenon, and why people continue to buy the material, especially the 2e stuff. The Realms seemed to cater to the power gamers and rules lawyers. In the 2e boxed set, I recall that the introductory adventure pitting the 1st level player-characters against several 5th Level Drow. They also needed magical weapons to defeat a couple creatures, like an aballin.

Furthermore, the material seemed everywhere and it was sub-par. When I'd read Dragon or Dungeon magazines, the moment I saw the Realms I thought my money was just being wasted. If the material was Realms specific, I didn't want to bother trying to convert it to Greyhawk or Domikka (my homebrew setting). The Ruins of Undermountain was supposed to be a gigantic dungeon filled with monsters, traps, and puzzles galore. It does, in a way, the DM has to fill in a lot blanks--most of the dungeon isn't keyed at all. (Perhaps, as a Greyhawk fan, I should like the "bare bones" of Undermountain, but I don't, because that's not how it was advertised.) I also recall that a lot of supplements, if used, made characters really powerful.

Well, that's enough ranting for now. Next up, I do a book review...

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Running a Dark Ages Campaign

Any edition of D&D is roughly based on medieval Europe around the 14th Century. Gygax had to have his classic swords and sorcery mixed with 14th century knights in armor during the Hundred Years' War. Some supplements and articles have addressed other periods. But for the most part, D&D has maintained this legacy, even with 4e with it's "points of light concept" (though it quickly departs from there). Furthermore, a dark age doesn't necessarily have to be medieval. Look at Dark Sun for example. For a non-D&D game, look at Warhammer 40k and its associated RPGs (Dark Heresy, etc.). Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG has some sound advice for GMs wanting to run a Dark Ages game. And so do I.

For the last 20 years I've been working on and running a homebrew world called Domikka, set in a dark age. After much experimentation, I offer the following three tips to those wanting to run a Dark Age campaign.

1. Make knowledge scarce for the PCs. Seriously, don't even let them look at the map of the world, no matter how cool you think it is. They should only have a vague idea of the geography of the world. Even those who have access to maps cannot be certain--maps are most often wrong. In a similar vein, knowledge and information should be a treasure in it's own right.

For example: The PCs come upon a hidden vault within a ruined monastery. They find some old coins (gold and silver mostly), some gems, some relics (some genuine--magical?, others false), and finally several scrolls containing the history of the monastery (including descriptions on how it was built and noble lineages). Which item is the most valuable?

2. Make manufactured goods valuable. Heck, use a barter system using the gold piece values in whatever equipment list as a rough estimate of what a trade is worth, particular when characters are just starting their careers. Manufactured items are valuable because somebody took the time and effort to create them. They weren't created in a factory, mass produced. In fact, mass produced items and factories shouldn't exist. When players find a treasure cache, most of it should consist of manufactured goods--perhaps masterwork.

Taking this a step further, rank equipment by craftsmanship: Poor, Typical, and Masterwork. Poor quality items cost less, much less actually, making them tempting purchases for characters just starting out. But you get what you pay for. A poor quality sword might do -1 damage or has a chance of breaking on a roll. Many low level NPCs should have poor quality weapons and equipment, making typical quality items that much more valuable

3. Most magic items are priceless. Thus, a dark ages campaign should also be a low-magic campaign. I ruled that in my last 3.5e campaign that "disposable items" like potions, scrolls, and certain wands were rare, but did not deviate from their described powers. All other magic items, however, are unique. There were no simple +1 swords in my campaign. Each item had a history.

That's all for now. I know there's more. Older editions of D&D (pre-3e) made running a dark ages campaign easier since equipment wasn't necessarily tied with character level advancement. But I've run two 3e/3.5e campaigns with the dark age theme. They both worked fine at lower levels but around 8th or 9th level, I began noticing disparities between the characters and the Challenge Rating of the monsters they had to face. Basically, the Challenge Rating system assumes that PCs will have a certain amount of magic items and equipment at a given level, for the sake of balance.

I don't recommend running a Dark Ages game with 4e.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Growing up in the d20 Dark Ages (Part 2)

What's your earliest memory of D&D?

Okay, my story isn't quite from the d20 Dark Ages, but I had to start some place. My first brush with D&D wasn't my first time as a player. 

D&D found me when I was around four years old, if I recall. My older brother started playing D&D sometime when he was in junior high. He often DMed for his friends, who would come over to our house a rummage for snacks. They would pack around the kitchen table. And sometimes I'd watch. At times, he would get stuck baby-sitting me and have to bring me over to one of his friend's house, much to his annoyance, I bet.

I had a good idea how D&D worked. The Saturday morning cartoon shed some light one what D&D was about. I also understood that my brother was telling some kind of story and the player's were, well, playing characters in that story.

The books had scary pictures on the front, but at the same time I found them fascinating. I remember liking, I mean really liking the artwork on the back of the Dungeon Master's screen. My brother would let me behind the screen and look at his notes, though I barely understood them. Once I let spaghetti hang from my mouth to imitate the four-armed creature being summoned on the back cover of Deities and Demigods. I do remember my brother running the Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh one night, when the kitchen windows were as dark as the windows of the Haunted House. 

I know my brother wrote more adventures than what survived to this day. I remember the maps. I remember somebody saying, "Why would somebody put a door in a hallway?" Somehow I had seen that map, and the question made sense. My brother had like a 100ft long hallway with a door right in the middle. I also remember everybody laughing because some body's character was left behind in a dungeon corridor, unconscious. The player, my brother's best friend, just had to suck it up. 

I did have a taste for the theatrical. See, I had these full color He-Man stickers of He-Man, Skeletor, and a few others. I don't remember where I got them from. But I do remember I thought they would look good on the DM screen for the players to look at and get in the mood.So I stuck them to pieces of notepad paper and then paper clipped them to the DM screen (trying not to cover up the original artwork, of course). He took most of them down. 

I'm sure at some point I asked him if I could play because I remember him pointing out that the age requirement: 10 and up. In the end, this was a good thing. D&D started off as a "game of adult fantasy" and the books do contain content not for kids.

This didn't bother me too much, if I recall. I had a lot of other things like Transformers and G.I. Joe to keep me occupied. I also read quite a bit, too.

So what's your earliest memory of D&D? Was it before you played the game? If so, what did you think D&D was like? Who introduced you to D&D or to RPGs as whole?

I wish I could forget the Forgotten Realms (Part 1)

"'Man, this City of Greyhawk campaign bites. You people should dump this stupid world. It's dead anyway. Let's get a Realms campaign going. I had a character once who was Elminster's nephew, and he--"

--Roger E. Moore, "Final Quest," Dragon Magazine #228

I'll state my bias up front: I'm firmly in the pro-Greyhawk camp, whether it comes from the original material (the booklet or the boxed set) from the early 1980s or From the Ashes. I even like some of the fan-created stuff on the Internet.

Moore was coming up with famous last words one might hear from a character just before every member of his own party kills him. For me, this quote sums up the Forgotten Realms vs. Greyhawk friction I experienced in the 1990s. Moore wrote in 1996. But before, and after, I had potential players turn their nose up at me when I stated that I ran Greyhawk. Turn about is fair play, I'd already turned my nose up at them when they said they liked the Forgotten Realms.


Well, maybe it's because of the guy who cornered me in the RPG section at a Waldenbooks so he could brag about his character who just happened to be Elminster's nephew. I was still a teenager, but even at that age I understood that nobody outside my gaming group really wants to be regaled about my favorite character's exploits. Yet there I was, with this man who was at least in his 30s, telling me about how his character, who was third level, got a magical staff from Uncle Elminster. The staff allowed him to do all kinds of things like vanish into the shadow realm and la-de-dah. (I still wonder what kind of DM would allow a low-level character a staff that powerful, or if the player in question just created the character that way).

Or perhaps I don't like the Realms because Ed Greenwood seemed to mimic the behavior of that guy in Waldenbooks. Elminster appeared in nearly every single Forgotten Realms rulebook and supplement in the 1990s, at least in the form of a quote. I got tired of seeing Dragon Magazine waste space so some guy could brag about his character. It turns out that Greenwood has been writing about Elminster since he was seven years old, according to an issue of Dragon in the 2000s. Elminster was a kind of childhood imaginary friend. 3e Realms seemed all right, even though Elminster massive stat-block on page 5 of the campaign setting sourcebook.

I've witnessed this behavior in the handful of Realms session I've experienced over the years. Almost every time somebody wanted to tell me everything about their character, even though I didn't ask. Usually they possessed magic items that defined their character. I recall another person who showed me his 14th level half-elf ranger, who possessed a Sunsword and a +4 longsword that was intelligent with many kinds of powers. He wanted to bring that character from the Realms into my Greyhawk campaign, even though the PCs were still low-level. I told him "no." He got a little frustrated at first. I think he played one session with yet another character who was a half-elf ranger, before leaving the game.

Do the Forgotten Realms, both then and now, encourage players to brag about their characters and the magic items they possess? I don't know. Maybe you can shed some insight. Yet Greenwood certainly leads by example.

To be fair, I've heard people brag about their favorite elsewhere in the hobby. I've done it occasionally, too, but only if asked. But the image of that guy in Waldenbooks, and Ed Greenwood constantly writing about Elminster still puts a negative bias against the Realms in my mind to this day.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Where's the Common Ground?

The way I see it, the d20 Dark Ages generation has a tougher time finding common ground with fellow gamers outside their normal gamer circles. That is 2e players and onward do not have shared and familiar experiences like the previous generation. I'm talking about modules and boxed sets in particular.

The oldest of grognards, of course, remember the original 1974 wood-grained D&D boxed set. They are the rarest. They can probably tell you stories about how wargamers became upset at this new D&D 'fad.' Gamers in the 1970s share the common experience of being creative because, well, they had to be. The 1974 edition was very bare bones and not even complete (it used the Chainmail rules). Furthermore, both the main rules and supplements, even reprints, were often hard to find.

With the grognards, Gygax became a household name. TSR put him on books that even he had little or no authorship.

This trend mingled with the module's that TSR produced. Many from that Golden Age recall with fondness the giant and drow series. Or with mixed feelings about how unfair Gygax had made The Tomb of Horrors. 
The Keep on the Borderlands introduced thousands of players into the hobby. These shared experiences seem to unify the players from the Golden Age.

The d20 Dark Ages generation have fewer shared experiences. TSR published vast amounts of material from AD&D 2e and the newest edition of D&D. AD&D 2e and D&D ceased being "generic," with modules published for nearly any campaign setting with a pseudo-medieval theme (or, by default, Greyhawk).  AD&D 2e had Greyhawk, The Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, Dark Sun, Birthright, Planescape, Al Qadim, etc.. Mystara was generic, but it used D&D Rules, which were different from AD&D 2e. The Forgotten Realms could even be broken down into different campaign settings, given that they slapped on any pseudo-historical idea onto the Realms (Maztica, The Horde, Kara-tur, and so on). With so many options the gaming community was bound to fragment. (And this doesn't even factor in other systems being published at the time).The 2e era wasn't known for it's modules, anyway. Thus, this generation experienced a lack of shared gaming experiences.

And it still does. 3e at first unified D&D players with the d20 core mechanic. 3e and 3.5e did have a few modules that seemed to generate some common ground, like the Sunless Citadel or The Forge of Fury. 
Players who went through Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil seemed to share common ground with the Crater Ridge Mines being a such a chore. Some of the best modules, in my opinion, that produced shared experiences came from Necromancer Games: The Crucible of Freya, Rappan Athuk, etc. These seemed to generate a following. Keep in mind thought that Necromancer Games was run by people from the Golden Age. "Third Edition Rules, First Edition Feel," was their slogan.

Still, there was so much being published. A glut of third party products flooding the market. Many may have bought The Worlds Largest Dungeon or the stuff Monte Cook published, but did anybody have the time to actually play through everything that was out there? No. Players faced more choices than they did even with 2e.

Don't even start me on what 4e did to the gaming community.

With D&D players fragmented into what I call "gamer ghettos" (more on that later), the gaming community as a whole is split up like the provinces of the Western Roman Empire after the Fall of Rome. Each sub-community is like a barbarian successor kingdom, almost always at war. We'll say Pathfinder is like Charlemagne's Empire.

While the Edition Wars ever wage onward, the grognards look on, like the Byzantines of the East.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Growing Up in the d20 Dark Ages (Part 1)

I finally got to play D&D in 1989, after watching my brother and his friends play for a few years before. I was ten years old and my older brother let me roll up a dwarf fighter to play in one-on-one sessions whenever he visited from college. My character's name was "Havoc" and I remember him having a broadsword and a crossbow.We played through a couple sessions, and I was hooked. But then my brother didn't want to run games anymore. He was too busy with school.

He did, however, leave me with a bunch of his AD&D books. This collection grew as I grew older and my brother knew I'd take care of them better. I devoured them. And then I bought the 2e books, and devoured them, too, paying close attention to the storytelling aspect of the game.

I didn't know it at the time, but at least three main factors would influence how I approached D&D and the hobby as a whole.

1. Although I had been well read as a child, I had not read much of the adult fiction that inspired D&D. I did, however, want to tell a story. I was a very young aspiring writer. The creators of Dragonlance told a great story with Dragonlance, so to my young mind I thought that's what you are supposed to do, at least in part. I also poured over my brother's old hand written adventures. He seemed to be telling a bare-bones story. I'll probably go into that more in a later post.

2. I had been exposed to AD&D, not really knowing that there was an official "D&D" until a year or two later (when I realized that hobby stores and B. Dalton sold RPGs). I was poking around in the advanced edition, rather than "basic" D&D. I had skipped the basics, so to speak. Soon I discovered AD&D Second Edition and believed it to be a superior product. The rules were all codified from AD&D. And yet, I was torn. 2e was good, but lacked the "feel" of 1e. I mainly consulted the 1e DMG instead of the 2e DMG. Gone were all the demons and devils and other "cool" stuff. The artwork seemed tamer, too. So, I was running 2e for the rule, but felt that 2e somehow lacked the "substance" of 1e.

3. My brother ran me through only two one-on-one adventures before leaving. By default, I became the main DM among my friends. I rarely got to sit on the player's side of the DM's screen. Which is unfortunate, because I railroaded my players at times for the sake of story. Had I been on the other side of the screen, I might have found that annoying. Still, I was self-taught as a DM. And much of what was being published at the time encouraged me to do this or even "fudge" rolls to kept the game fun. I learned that story took precedence.

In my games, villains, even minor ones, kept getting away, despite the best efforts of the players. For example, I developed an evil adventuring group: a half-ogre fighter, a human thief, and a gnome illusionist (think The Princess Bride). This group stole the "Eye of Traldar" from the PCs. The evil thief sneaked into the PC's second story inn room. If I recall, he was invisible. But the PCs had kept watch. So I had to somehow explain why he was able to get the Eye, climb back out the window, and then get away. It was railroading at it's finest.

The PCs had discovered the "Eye of Traldar" in a previous adventure. But I wanted to run the D&D adventure of the same name. So PCs chased the evil trio down the Greyhawk's Wild Coast, from Narwell to almost the Suss Forest. They eventually found the Eye and wanted vengeance on the evil adventurers. But the evil adventurers were long gone. This irritated the players.

At one point, between sessions, I asked my brother, whom I wanted to please. "So, what to you think of the NPCs I created?"

"What are you talking about?" he said. "We've hardly encountered them. When we do they keep getting away."

Yet I was fortunate. I did tell a good story and we did have good times. Otherwise my players probably would have quit.

How many of you faced similar situations back then? How many groups fell apart in the 2e age because the DM sacrificed player choice for the sake of story?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

We live in the d20 Dark Ages.

The grognards of the Old School Renaissance (OSR) have had their say. The Golden Age of D&D started in 1974 and ended anywhere from 1983 to even as late as 1993 or so. Later, D&D saw a boom during the 3rd Edition years. Many even still play D&D 3.5e. D&D 4th Edition, of course, is the most controversial of all the editions. I wonder what will happen when D&D 5th Edition/Next comes out. But where does that leave poor AD&D Second Edition? It is the middle child of D&D history, at times the Merovingian dynasty of D&D history.  And, well, I believe it signifies the beginning of the d20 Dark Ages, which continues to this day, despite the 3e boom.

d20 Dark Ages?

The term "Dark Ages" often connotes some kind of regression in intellectual thought and culture, things falling apart, and so on. When it comes to d20/D&D, I think something was lost, something that did not translate well for the younger generation of gamers. What that something is, I'll try to define in a later post.

For now, I identify the d20 Dark Ages with the following trends (although there are probably more):

1. Second Edition AD&D split the gaming community, much like how the Roman Empire split between the West and the East. Second Edition is the West. The grognards are the East, the Byzantines who are carrying the experience of D&D's antiquity to this day.

2. RPGs in general switched to focusing on telling a story, rather than exploration (dungeon crawls and what-not). There was, indeed, a switch, albeit a gradual one starting from around 1983 with Dragonlance and even the module I6: Ravenloft. Character actions took second place against the story or plot of the DM/GM, or the whims of the RPG book author. Settings, and even the novels written about settings, dictated what happened at the gaming table. Anything else was against canon. This basically meant that the actions of the player-characters don't matter. Finally, from what I've seen with 5e Forgotten, they still won't matter.

3. In many ways, AD&D Second Edition is the "lost" edition. The barbarians, manifesting in other game systems, overran it. Indeed, Magic: The Gathering came out of the wilderness, smashed apart many D&D groups, and eventually overran the capital in Geneva, Wisconsin. Even then, like certain Frankish and Visigothic kings realizing the value of retaining Roman laws and customs, Wizards of the Coast ushered in D&D 3e as an amalgamation of old and new. "Back to the Dungeon" they proclaimed. AD&D 2e was quickly swept aside with the promise of D&D finally getting it "right." Yet, the magic soon wore off for many players. 3.5e seemed to be the answer. And even that failed to "fix" the problems with the rules. Thus, 4th Edition.

4. Character building now trumps character development. Character sheets have grown over the years, so have stat-blocks in monster manuals and modules. The Roman Empire began as a lean and mean Republic. As it grew, so did it's laws and bureaucracy. Eventually, the Roman Empire became unmanageable by one emperor alone. The average player today has vastly far more published options that players did in the Golden Age. Yet, more options and rules do not make necessarily a better game. Second Edition consolidated a lot of these options published earlier. TSR also cranked out the "splatbooks" for characters. You could build your character just the way you like it, sort of.

5. D&D/d20 now emulates other games, instead of emulating the science fiction and fantasy works that inspired the game itself. D&D was once the leader, but since around 1989 it has been playing catch up to systems with more rules and options (GURPS, Rolemaster, etc.), systems that focus on storytelling ("The World of Darkness," etc.), and even computer games (Diablo II with "skill trees," and, of course "World of Warcraft." I think this is the most important point. And it is one I'll get back to often. See, I think most players after 1989 were introduced to RPGs and D&D without reading the fiction and the history that the games are based on. The game itself is a means and an ends. This has trained them to always want more. I could be wrong, but it is what I've observed over the years.

That's the five trends I can think of at the moment. There's probably more. Next time I'll share with you what it was like being introduced to D&D and growing up in the d20 Dark Age.

(As an aside: as a medievalist, I loathe to use the term "Dark Ages." Indeed, it has fallen out of favor among most medievalists, who prefer the term "Early Middle Ages." I use the term "Dark Ages" because it is still familiar to most people).

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