Thursday, April 30, 2009

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ship of Fools Contest

I'll be announcing the Ship of Fools contest started earlier this month in about a week. I've had several interesting submissions but not a huge run. If you are feeling creative, give it a go.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Etretat in Dinnsenchas

Burning crows in amber dawn,
Shattered waves shine through gold
In arcs of drops and silvery foam
As years fade in childish games of old.

Beaches and cliffs dancing in half-light,
Sea gulls flirting with rain and cloud,
My heart beats and shivers with delight
As my soul cries memories so loud.

Sacred groves and blessed hawthorns,
Venerable oaks and hidden thorns,
Ancient oaths and promises fade away
As gentle spines lead my lonely way.

Glorious battle born from an alliance
Covered the grass with tender crimson.
Salty tears and memories kill vengeance
As mothers' mourns ramble in off-season.

Dream-like birds and kites in dawn
Recalls a forbidden childhood
For which today I quietly moan,
Creating verses for our brotherhood.

Burning crows in amber dawn,
Shattered waves breaking in rays of gold,
Arcs of pearls shine in silvery foam
As years fade in childish games of old.

Note : Composed according to the Irish Dinnsenchas. Etretat is well-known in France for its cliffs and beaches. It is located in Normandy, where I used to live when I was a child. The "Glorious battle born from an alliance" evokes of course memories of D-Day. I thought the Lord of the Green Dragons could use a few of my own verses. Please let me know what you think.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Academic Study of Dungeons and Dragons

(Below is an excerpt from a larger work. I thought it might be of interest to LotGD followers. I've made a few edits of interest here and there. I'd be happy to read your questions and comments. Thanks to Benoist for getting the ball rolling.)

Despite the 40 year history of the game, and the very recent development of Game Studies as an interdisciplinary field of study, no critical mass of cultural research exists on Fantasy Role-Playing Games (FRPGs) or Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) specifically.

However, there are individual studies and pieces of research notable for their contribution to this subject. Fine’s often-cited landmark study of FRPGs as social worlds, published in 1983, is the only sustained, full-length ethnographic study on D&D subculture. Given the time period of the early 1980s, his monograph was forward-thinking in relation to the application of ethnographic methodology to an object of study from popular culture. Alas, no scholar extended Fine’s work.

With few exceptions (Toles-Patkin, 1986; Lancaster, 1994), published studies of D&D between the mid 1980s and the late 1990s came not from the developing fields of cultural studies or popular culture, but rather from psychology. These studies, somewhat stereotypically, examined the personality traits of gamers as they relate to issues of deviance and emotional instability (Simon, 1987; Derenard and Kline, 1990; Blackmon, 1994; Carter and Lester, 1998; Raghuraman, 2000). These studies found no correspondence between gamers and these personality traits.

In the last ten years, a group of young interdisciplinary scholars from around the world have sparked the study of D&D and FRPGs (Marshall, 2007; Mona, 2007; Williams, Hendricks, and Winkler, 2006; Patri, 2006; Borah and Schaechterle, 2006; Hernandez, 2006; Chrulew, 2006 and 2005; Waskul and Lust, 2004; Mackay, 2001; Ronnick, 1997). These studies likely stem from the demographic of original or second wave D&D gamers (such as myself) now in their 30s with their PhDs. In contrast, Master of Arts (MA) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) level graduate students in their 20s study MMOs almost exclusively, with little beyond a brief acknowledgement to D&D. Academic conferences and research on MMOs far outstrips the work on D&D and FRPGs today.

The above research provides a foundation, and does indeed point towards recent and increased attention from interdisciplinary scholars. However, the research on D&D/FRPGs does not constitute a critical mass of secondary academic literature.

Why does no body of research exist on this topic? I can explain this situation with each of the following three factors contributing equally to the current academic context. First, the lack of research has stemmed, at least in part, due to what Brian Sutton-Smith calls the “Triviality Barrier.” By Triviality Barrier he references that - despite politically correct claims to the contrary - not all subjects are considered appropriate for study in universities (not all subjects will get you hired either). Without question, a broadening of the definition of “appropriate” has taken place in universities in the last decade. However, the ontology of scholars stills suggests the unworthiness of D&D as a topic for study. When calls for research do come forward they emphasize ethnographic approaches - a point reiterated in the inaugural issue of Games and Culture. Second, as a subject hidden in full view, D&D subculture takes place quietly at dinner tables during weeknights or weekends and remains at the fringe, outside of the contemporary social spotlight. Finally, the D&D gaming phenomena reached its peak in the early 1980s prior to the development of academic units devoted specifically to the interdisciplinary study of popular culture subjects. By the mid-to-late 1980s, when the disciplines of Cultural Studies and Popular Culture began to coalesce, D&D had already moved to the margins and was effectively missed as an object of study.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Interesting gaming historian

I thought folks might be interested in Rob MacDougall's blog @, in particular his observations on the need for a good, reliable history of RPG gaming.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What applies to Game Rules applies to Game Settings

“The secret we should never let game masters know is that they don’t need any rules”

This quote has been attributed to E. Gary Gygax. I do not know if it truly belongs to him, but I sure see the wisdom in these words.

We’ve been talking for a while now about rules systems and how they stole the thunder of role-playing games. How they have been progressively worked on, refined, and balanced to the detriment of immersion, fantasy and enchantment.

The solution to this death spiral of game design, I believe, is to take a step back and consider the rules as a tool, a mean, and not an end. Rules help bring entertainment at a game table, but they are no substitute to the cooperation and good sense of the people participating around the gaming table. Rules help to support and share the make-believe but don’t replace the imagination of those who end up playing the game.

In game design, I believe one should at all times remember that the game elements offered via products are just that: unfinished, unassembled pieces of a puzzle that will ultimately be pieced together by other people around a game table.

The same goes with game settings. Any world of fantasy presented via sourcebooks is composed of set pieces that aren’t worth anything in game terms until they are brought to life and pieced together at the game table.

If the designer should keep this in mind and make sure these set pieces can be used effectively in a number of different circumstances by a wide variety of users, the user himself should also make sure that the set pieces themselves do not hijack the creative process of role-playing games.

I’m alluding here to the idea of “canon” as it refers to setting materials. To put it simply, the notion that there is a canon to consider when running a game in a particular setting originally designed by someone else is anathema to the raison d’être of role-playing games. If we consider the rules as tools, support for actual role-playing and rulings at the game table, it makes no sense not to consider a published setting any other way. It is a support, a collection of unassembled set pieces which support the backdrop the DM and players use at the game table, but no substitute for the actual process of bringing the setting to life by piecing it together.

This means there is no such thing as “canon” in role-playing games. When a DM peruses through a boxed set searching for ideas and inspiration, he shouldn’t need to consider any of the ideas developed on the paper as more than just ideas. There is nothing sacred in this instance, nothing that would be set in stone, and thus nothing that should or could be considered heresy when the world comes to life at the game table.

Let us start a Greyhawk campaign, for instance. We know that the campaign was run by EGG and Rob in some way. We sure can benefit from the knowledge of how these men managed their games, and came up with this or that element of the backdrop and pieced them together themselves, but it makes no sense to me whatsoever to consider it the right way to play a Greyhawk campaign.

What if I don’t want any Iuz the Evil? What if I want to use the Greyhawk Wars or, God forbid, the Dragonlance Cataclysm components to alter the setting and make it my own? If I discuss it straight and make the changes clear to my gaming partners from the get-go, there can be no objection that this wouldn’t be “the real Greyhawk”.

It is. It is my Greyhawk.

My point here is that role-playing settings are not and should not be evaluated the same way literary settings are. Role-playing game settings are not complete settings in the sense that they only exist when they are actually put into play. Using a setting under the assumption that it has to be played in a particular way described by this or that sourcebook or boxed set is in essence committing the same mistake as assuming the rules have to be played as written.

There isn't, and shouldn’t be, any such thing as “canon” regarding role-playing game settings outside of a theoretical discussion of written sources, but even then, it should be clear that the written material alone is not alive. It is not yet used as it was designed to be used: at a game table, with real people, real needs and wants, real imaginations.

To quote the old-schooler: imagine the hell out of it! Don’t shackle yourselves to game materials written by others. You have to trust in your good sense, your wits and imagination to make the game world come alive. If it contradicts some clause of the written product, so be it! Your game will be all the better for it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Anima Mundi

The distillation of wonder is always before us as gamers and as game designers, and is no where more prevalent than in life itself, where from all of our imagination springs, but a mirrored reflection which we try to express time and time again.

This cannot be accurately expressed or portrayed through the simple overlay of images and numbers, but only through the derivation of feeling as we attempt to immerse ourselves in these impossible and unyielding moments, timeless in their exercise, unending in their passion.

Enjoy the wonder of life, the ultimate fantasy.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

PPP Contest

Ship of Fools, Inspired by the above picture.

Detail in 1,000 words or less what this ship does, how it affects its passengers, who might be associated with it in worldish-terms, etc.

The winner will receive a $25.00 honorarium prize when published and will be listed in the credits for designing the piece.

Open up your creativity and email me your submissions at Only the winning submission becomes property of PPP.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Gladiator

My latest commissioned illo,
Inspiration for this piece is definately directed towards Brom and Darksun.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

PPP NEWS: Call for Designers & Graphics People

I am looking for designers and graphics people to assist PPP with several projects.

For details, please forward your credentials, or if unpublished, samples of your work (in both cases) to

Please feel free to cross-post this announcement elsewhere.

Rob Kuntz


Just to let everyone know I will be attending the North Texas RPG CON June 5-7. I will be DMing my Castle EL RAJA KEY there. For more information go to this link.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Up The Beanstalk

A follow-up on the fun of role-playing. Thanks to Greg from Ontario for inspiring this entry!

Earlier on this blog, I alleged that gradually, modern game design discarded the Enchanting value of role-playing games in favour of a self-contained, self-fulfilling gaming logic. The fun of the game came from the rules, and the rules provide the fun of the game. To improve the fun of the game, one must then improve the rules.

I believe this is a false premise that just ends up divorcing role-playing games from their unique nature as products of our imaginations.

We play role-playing games, I believe, because one day we felt enthused by the idea of being Jack, now and forevermore, climbing up the beanstalk.

What does this mean? What made this moment so special? What happens then that does not occur, or to a much lesser degree, when playing Diablo, World of Warcraft or when reading the Lord of the Rings for the first time?

I believe the answer resides in countless tales and legends we’ve heard, read, witnessed ourselves at a very young age. This is the substance of what built the Arthurian tradition, the appeal of Greek Myths, the allure of Sagas. What made the stories of Cuchulain, Hercules and Erik the Red ring true for us as young lads. What Jean Markale called this “Eternal now where all the contradictions blend into each other”.

This is the nature of Myth which gives us this ability to connect with what it means to be alive. To quote Jean Markale from Le Roi Arthur et la Société Celtique (King Arthur and the Celtic Society) :

Imagination is real in the sense that it is a reality of thought and that the one imagining is persuaded of the reality of that which he imagines at the very moment this process intervenes. Once again, reality is movement, movement of thoughts which can only cease to exist in the stasis of death, of non existence. Imagination, in this regard, is a personal, subjective movement of individual thought, which can however be transmitted to others, alienated within the context of the tale. Others are then free to consider the tale as real or imaginary: it will in any case result in a movement of another’s thoughts, and this movement will thus acquire a quality of reality, however different this reality might be from the original input. Epic tales, legends and myth are thus perpetual movements of thought which now and forevermore create the Now where all contradictions blend into each other. There is no more Past or Future but an eternal Now which is the only existing proof of a reality of the Mind.

This, I believe, is why we play role-playing games. It is not necessarily, and as a matter of fact, often isn’t, a conscious decision on our parts. We might play because we want a pause from the tribulations of our daily lives, what some would call “escapism”, of all things, while in fact we are doing exactly the reverse: we reach forward to share this perpetual movement of thought that existed since the dawn of time. We take part, not only as witnesses like so many before us, but as actors, due to the inherent magic of role-playing, in a tradition that depicts humanity in its moments of suffering, despair, hope and glory, a Now that makes sense of all contradictions and communicates to us what it truly means to be Human.

I know some will scoff at this. “I play to have fun. D&D is just a game”. It is absolutely true. What I am trying to wrap my mind around here is what, exactly, is fun about role-playing games. It’s not about some pompous definition designed to make the game greater than it already is. It’s not to create some sort of agenda that would point out right and wrong ways to enjoy role-playing games. Not at all.

It is about what makes role-playing so appealing in the first place. It’s about that very first moment we played role-playing games and felt Enchanted by the premises before us.

This notion points out not only the fundamentally social nature of this game which reaches well beyond the gaming table into the unknown depths of our very own souls, but also why the game may feel so right, so personal, so engaging to many of us. This is where we trim ourselves to our bare bones and gaze at ourselves through the eyes of fictional characters in a land of make-believe. This is where we feel we exist, where we can grasp the vibrant reality of our very minds.

We climb up the beanstalk and stare at what makes us truly alive.

Now, and Forevermore.

A Boy & His Dragon - "Jotting" #1*

The teak wood floor planks of the bath are lain with open gaps between them, providing for a simple drainage & sweepage, which enriches the villagers who daily gather the fallen scales of the mystical creatures from beneath the house. These scintillating scales continue to grow for a few days after collection, and are thereafter used as a form of holy currency called Fayr.

Fayr glows in the dark with a feint golden light, by which one may either see the glow of virtue in men's faces, or else recognize the dullness of their uninspired minds. Thus, the children of the village are able to be chosen at an early age for their magical potential. Those glowing and fearless are considered apt for the dragonry and a future life of tending and growing with the dragon spawn, whereas, those with minds more suited to the drudgery of everyday life remain at home, indefinitely.


Thayish Dragons spawn of the coastal mists of Thayland, without kinship to each other. Occasionally, one of the dull minded villagers witnesses a glint of light, called an inkling, which leads them deeper into the shore's permanent haze, where they disappear. The inkling continues to travel the mists while gathering an ever longer tail of followers, whose energies feed it until it matures and spawns in the high reeds of Grick swamp, down the shoreline.

None dare enter this swamp on foot, as the reeds are set in an untraversably deep muck. Thus, the Dragon boys of Thayland ride their immature dragons into the Grick to harvest the teak trees that grow out of its occasional islands of scorched clay. Rarely, a dragon spawn presents itself, gripping the trunk of one of these trees, which the boys then harvest, whole, by enticing the dragon with their magics, leading them into the village in flight. A dragon unable to magically uproot a teak tree is considered too immature to make the return, and the boys are prohibited from assisting with their own magics, in just this one case.

Apart from dragon magic, the dragonry's armory finds teak swords, story books and soap are sufficient tools for developing the kinship bond between boys and dragons.

* "Jottings" appearing on Lord of the Green Dragons blog remain the copyright of Eric Nelson Shook, however incomplete and imperfect they may be!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Sail On My Friend

David L. Arneson Passed On

From the family:

Shortly after 11pm on Tuesday, April 7th, Dave Arneson passed away. He was comfortable and with family at the time and his passing was peaceful.

The Arneson family would like to thank everyone for their support over the last few days, and for the support the entire community has shown Dave over the years.

We are in the process of making final arrangements and will provide additional details as we work them out. We will continue to receive cards and letters in Dave's honor. We are planning to hold a public visitation so that anyone wishing to say their goodbye in person has the opportunity to do so.

Cards and letters can continue to be sent:
Dave Arneson
1043 Grand Avenue
Box #257
St. Paul, MN

Visitation will be on April 20th
Time: yet to be determined
Bradshaw Funeral Home
687 Snelling Avenue South
St. Paul, MN 55105

Link to the original post (which the family checks regularly).

Role-Playing Must Be Fun

This gradually became, within the past few years, how all instances of evolution of the game's design have been explained to the masses.

D&D is a game that ought to be fun. To increase the fun, it thus needs to be faster in game play. It needs to be easier to grasp. It needs to provide all sorts of elements that help players and DMs imagine as quickly as they possibly can, with the most "fun" value out of it. Okay, I guess, but... what kind of "fun" are we, in fact, talking about?

Never, in the last edition's text, do we get a comprehensive explanation of what, exactly, is supposed to be fun when playing role-playing games. I suspect that's where the fallacy of Fourth Edition began: the challenge of 4e's "design team" was to pick up Third Ed and instantly wonder "how do we get this game to be more fun?" rather than "what makes role-playing games fun?" in the first place!

I suspect that the fun that makes one play role-playing games has in fact nothing to do with "game balance" (which truly means "rules' balance in a vacuum" - maybe more about this later). It has nothing to do with the relative complexity of a game system, though it can affect the long term engagement of a player with a particular game.


The Fun of role-playing games has to do with that very first day we were given the occasion to play them. It surely varies in tone, feelings and experiences for each and every one of us, but I suspect it always comes down to "wow. I can actually be part of the fantasy world". Some will call it immersion. Others will call it escapism.

I prefer, like others, to call it Enchantment with a capital E.

Yes. Enchantment.

This "wow" factor of "Yes! This time and forevermore, *I* get to be Jack climbing the beanstalk!"

This has been ignored in game design for some time now in favor of a self-contained, self-contaminated, self-inflicted obsession about the rules and how these rules bring about fairness, choices, support to the fun of the game.

This is my theory, and this is why I think it is valuable to get back to the Lake Geneva campaign as a sort of cartharsis to our own first role-playing experiences. A way to understand why role-playing was so fun in the first place, and how, so that we can make our own games profit from this experience and become more "fun" themselves.

I suspect this post may be quite controversial to some people, and to tell you the truth, this is fully intended. Am I wrong in thinking this way? Then please, tell me so by leaving your comments! Whatever your thoughts may be, I hope you will share them and fuel this conversation. I feel this is part of the reasons why we are all here.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

To Send Dave Arneson Your Best

I received this e-mail today from Dave's family in which they asked me to post this for the community, fans and Daves's friends. I imagine that similar requests went to other forums/contacts, also.

"Please pass along the following from the family of Dave Arneson:

As of this writing, Dave is still with us. We have moved him into a facility where we can focus on keeping him comfortable. We have been and will continue to watch the forums and blogs and are passing along everyone's thoughts and prayers. Right now our focus is on getting Dave into the best possible position to maintain his comfort and his dignity. We will update the community as we can. We want to thank everyone for your thoughts and prayers and ask that you continue to send Dave your support in whatever form that means to you.

An address has been established to receive messages to Dave.

Dave Arneson
1043 Grand Avenue
Box #257
St. Paul, MN

An Exhortation For My Friend DLA

Don't Give Up the Ship, Buddy! The Whole Gang's
rooting for you!!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Round... About?

I recall the very first time I sat at a game table with a battle mat. The DM drew a long, 20' wide passageway and asked us to place our figures in marching order. Someone asked if one of the squiggly lines was just a mistake, since it exceeded the grid marks by a 1/4 square in several places, so the DM used a folder edge to redraw & conform the line to the grid. Instantly, I knew he was going to map out everything ahead of us as we moved through the dungeon. I was stunned by a sense of loss, where everyone else seemed to think of it as a convenient innovation.

Previous to crossing this dividing line, I had endured years of getting lost on maps made for their difficulty. Frustrating though that often was, my sense of loss at the battle mat was my sense of adventure being sucked out of my brain. I quickly became bored, as we were constantly watching the DM draw the map in front of us, often erasing huge portions, like a lecturing professor who thinks they must write everything they're saying out loud. During these moments, I went off the grid, so to speak. I spent time imagining the shock of the character's as a great hand constructed the walls of their world ahead of them. I tried to imagine exactly how that absurdity would work. I recall also being particularly amused by the theological implications resulting from moments when the DM would reconsider his map and make painstaking alterations to his battle mat pen work.

Undeniably, the supplies we've used to create our worlds have conformed them to subtle metaphysical rules. Millions of pages of graph paper have conformed the adventuring experience to a basically square experience. Anthropologists describe the world we westerners live in as a square world. Our houses and streets are relatively square. Whereas, many tribal cultures live in a round world, where their most basic structures are round (by no coincidence, Gary's college work was in anthropology.) Of course, the popular interpretation of this difference is that round is organic and natural, and square is artificial. This also correlates well to the idea that pen and paper gaming is natural and computer gaming is artificial, as if pen and paper gaming wasn't also constrained by limiting conventions.

Robert and I disagree a bit on this. I'm a computer geek, and I believe there is hope for a more fluid and virtuous computerized fantasy role playing experience, even if I suspect that I may be doomed to begrudgingly admit he's right. Computerized play may never admit to the beauty of direct interpersonal experience. But, we do watch movies instead of attend the theater, and there was a time when theater in the round was considered the best way to holistically experience a play. Still, I'm recently drawn to experiment with virtual tabletops, such as Fantasy Grounds or Battlegrounds. However, it appears that one of them might not allow you to mask parts of the map, which means you have to chunk your map up into presentable parts in order to limit the player's view. And how do you chunk up organic settings like the fluid turns of caves? In any case, the move from smooth hewn passageways into caves, perhaps carved by erosion or burrowing, marks more adventure. Imagine the surprise possible where monsters live in the square spaces and humans live in the caves of the dungeon - the grid/non-grid exepectancies reversed.

Sometimes you know you're getting into some adventure when you encounter a pattern that can only be interpreted on a large scale, which only had a loose structure on the small scale. Now, just how do you discover this on a battle map or when using a virtual table top? The magic of gradual realization is lost in such mediums. For example, consider this map on the right here. Imagine the odd spiral of chunks as gigantic stepped pillars. The ceiling is too high for light to touch, thus the chunks appear on the map as walls, not gigantic stepping stones.

You can see how I am gradually realizing the extent of my agreement with Robert, even if I am stubbornly pro computer. But what does this mean?

I see the rigid artifacts of our gaming materials, wherein we see that we have already conformed ourselves to a grid, in the same way as I see the effects of computing on gaming, or movies on plays. It doesn't mean there isn't a magnificent art to delight in. It just means that different signs and methods are used to reproduce Peter Pan's magic. Our magical Pan may be strung up on stage, while on TV he's framed by a rectangular viewing port, yet his flight appears free of attached strings. There's a trade off. And to end these thoughts, since they could sprawl into the gigantic "extense" of another 30 columns of text, we can be certain there were critics of theater in the round, who must have seen within it the hand of the devil... perhaps descending upon the audience... from above, where balconies no longer protected the aristocratic viewer... who could be seen by anyone looking through the play....

“Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared.” - Exodus 23:20

My thoughts go out to Dave, tonight, may peace be with him.

Of David Arneson

I just came upon the news of Dave Arneson's sudden health decline via James Mishler's posts at TLG, quoting this account:

David's cancer has unexpectedly worsened just this week, to the point that he is in the hospital. He is heavily sedated and not doing well. He is not expected to live for more than a couple days, if that long.

Obviously on a human level this is very sad news, and one wishes Mr Arneson and his loved ones courage and comfort at this time, and also a calm and conscious passing. It has also struck me a little oddly in its timing, mainly because I've just been musing a lot on Dave Arneson's role as a midwife at the birth of roleplaying as we know it. I must own that I come to this lacking much historical information, likely possessed by those who were present to the original time. But based on what has accrued since, on various boards and blogs and journals, and from secondary sources, it strikes me that Arneson has been a much less 'visible' elder than E G Gygax, and I wonder about this.

I also wonder about the ways in which these two idiosyncratic and fecund imaginations met and interpenetrated, and how through the friction of their connecting in the conditions that prevailed, they helped to seed the form we came to know as D&D. Perhaps this is not the time for such speculations, and I will leave the details to those who have more developed connections to the man and his work. But I do want to note the sense of an era ending. For me, well, seeing the news moves me to feeling a bit like I did when John Entwhistle died, leaving just the two surviving members of The Who.

I'll end with an expression of gratitude, and acceptance, from the fitting pen of Walt Whitman

To die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier

Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The 2009 Spring Gaming Hoopla!

I am posting the following for John Bobek in order to raise awareness of this event:

The 2009 Spring Gaming Hoopla!

April 25th, 2009 (8am - 10pm)
and April 26th, 2009 (8am - 4 pm)

Lake Como Beach Clubhouse
W3730 Clubhouse Dr., Lake Geneva, WI 53147

Only $7 for one day, or $10 for the weekend!

Pre-register and pay only $5 for one day or $8 for the weekend!
Remember, ALL proceeds from the Gaming Hoopla are being donated to the American Cancer Society through a local Relay for Life team!

Food and beverages will be available on site for very reasonable prices.

There will be plenty of room for open gaming, with a games library of over 220 games to check out free of charge! (Valid ID required)

GO TO here to pre-register!

John Bobek

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Erik Mona's Pictures

Posting will be light for me over the next week so I encourage other contributors here to keep articles flowing. And as there has been much discussion of late, and many words flying here or there, I am distributing some popcorn and invite folks to relax and enjoy a picture show, courtesy of Erik Mona. It's really neat what you find while perusing various subjects on the net.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Old School vs. New School

I find revitalizing movements exciting until they degrade into fundamentalism. The initial excitement revs everyone's engine like a Spring cleaning spree! This opens up space and makes it more useful, but quickly devolves into a set of repetitive instructions that eliminate making messes in the first place. These repeatable instructions, these rules, seek to preserve the openness, but make the openness that of a museum: "Don't touch!"

One can honestly read about "old school" and predict only one outcome: fundamentalism. The reason why is rather simple. Rules are more tangible than the fantasy adventure, so the rules lawyers have something they can easily discuss as if it were representative of the actual game. The rules are, after all, titled Dungeons and Dragons. Whereas, what actually happens in them, fantasy, is not so easily measured.

In all honesty, I can, and have, used any rules to produce the magic of my campaigns, and in a certain sense, I have never played Dungeons and Dragons in my entire life span. When I was introduced to the game the rules were up in the air. The rules books gave the initiate a sense of the mechanics, like a script outlines a movie, yet can say nothing about the effect of the final performance or directing. Back in the day, the script/rules were under constant change in order to better accommodate the actors and directors. The rules were a tool that could be rearranged rapidly and easily, to greater dramatic effect. Thus, everyone in Lake Geneva had a different version of Dungeons and Dragons. In fact, when someone else put out a new rules set, we were often quite eager to borrow whole cloth to see how it wears. At one point I was probably judging Rob using half D&D, 1/4 Chivalry & Sorcery, and 1/4 rules I'd made up or borrowed from the dozens of games in which I was participating.

Tell me if it isn't true that this exact same openness to rules isn't still taking place right now, throughout the role playing community? One can only imagine the answer is “more so!” I can hear you all shaking your heads in agreement here.

We are a community of strong minded individuals that pleases in a shared experience, which we might not otherwise have if it were not glued together by our amazement! It is the power of fantasy that permits us to open each other’s minds and dance inside of them, not the rules. The idea of our revival is to win over more members to the movement in order to extend and gain its greatest wealth. We need to generate a broad appeal. This is not accomplished by walking away from the future and only investing in the past.

Calling it old school is immediately limiting. At best, what we share is a certain sense and feeling of the game that we wish to return to, but that's not possibly achievable by settling upon a set of rules that wasn't even used for longer than a snapshot in time by its creators.

The successful and enduring mechanic of D&D can be found in almost all of the other games descending from it. Frankly put, once you've played one role playing game, you're far past the conceptual learning curve of any other. This is not true in the realm of board games, where one must compare Stratego to Candy Land to Monopoly to the thousands of counters and 32 square feet of map for Drang Nach Osten. The core goodness is much smaller than OD&D. It’s a more basic pattern.

The coin of the role playing realm should be the world. When comparing rules sets, we’ve not yet realized that what makes one rules set better over another are its organic elements. Do the rules abstract excessively, or are the mechanics closer to how things would really work? In other words, if I can cast a spell called magic missile without learning neurology, I'm better off. This means that the mechanics in a role playing game should correspond to what's found in the world. For example, there should be rules for pounding spikes, not rules for abstract success given the ratio of strength to skill additionally rated by experiences with hand held tools. We want to pound this flocking spike now, for heaven’s sake. We do so within the game world, not within the rules set. We must then ask, do the rules take us too far out of the world in which we are acting?

Of course, the more basic the rules set, the more likely we are in the world. But the truth is, the more organic the rules set is to the world, the more we are in the world and not the rules books. It is only happenstance that we find ourselves more attracted to OD&D, simply because we can see the more simple kernel of its truth. We certainly cannot be attracted to it because it makes the play any easier! It was terribly incomplete.

The idea of old school sounds to me like a well intended invitation to a retro dance, which seeks to honor the past. Right now I like the energy, the spirit, the intellectual endeavor, and the honest search for enjoyment that the movement seems to entail. However, I don't see anything new to adopt. I've been there. I'm hardly returning to it. I see no new ideas that would change my game. I have no reason to buy the rules. I knew them by heart in my childhood, but I’ve forgotten them on purpose, much preferring a D10 for fighter hit points over a D8. In fact, when I first encountered the phrase, “First Edition without its excesses,” I immediately thought, how about “OD&D without its excesses?”

If you want to go really old school, who's to say you shouldn't roll your character's hit points every morning when they wake up. So a fighter that rolled an 8 on that D8 yesterday may only start with a 1 today. Thus, the adventurers would need to consult with each other about how they're feeling before deciding to sally forth, or else wait until tomorrow. Does anyone really want to go back to that excess? It's how it was done for a period, and straight out of OD&D.

Frankly, OD&D introduces more uncertainties than most will realize. But folks don’t notice these differences because they apply what they already assume about the game to the rules set. OD&D isn't "D&D" anymore than 1st edition or 3rd edition.

And let’s admit it. Whenever we’ve been to someone’s game that intends to play exactly by the rules, we’ve quickly lost the enchantment of the evening, instead realizing we’re playing with someone that has very little understanding of what fantasy entails. The dim fact in these cases remains true: the DM can’t maintain consistency without recourse to the rules, therefore they also can’t adequately present the risk of chaos inherent in any conflict that fuels fantasy. Fantasy demands an imbalance if there is to be anything worthy of our rapt attention.

The game's essence is captured in the play. The proof for this is quite simple. We instantly recognize a suck-ass game when we're sitting there waiting to see who acts the fastest because we have to slowly figure out the dozen or so modifiers involved in the initiative system. Can anything be more ironic, waiting to see who’s not waiting?

It doesn't really matter what the rules say, too many rules and it's stupefying, not enough and you're assuming things. And what’s more, I haven't seen a single copy of D&D that fits my needs, because they are ALL merely guidelines. One could almost go as far as to say that a real and true fantasy campaign doesn’t have rules. It has only guidelines.

The chunkiest part of these guidelines would be the Action Resolution System (ARS), which would tend to seem mechanical, but which can be hidden using certain ideas as guides, such as class, rather than detailing out every single skill a character might have. Class is fairly organic, and while the idea of skill is also organic, a vast skill system such as one finds in roll faster (Role Master) is certainly not.

But even a most basic ARS is a guideline, since it can quickly be turned upside down on its head in a fantasy world. For example, a planar gate can transform strength into the force of one’s thoughts and intellect into the raw ability to hover in an amorphous, non-physical reality. How solid can any system be in such a place as magic rules? I’m more concerned with a DM’s consistency and ability to seamlessly lie than I am with rules in a fantasy setting. The lies of fantasy require convincing stories to hold them together, not a single, reliable mechanic. The idea of fantasy makes such a thing patently IMPOSSIBLE.

But what if a movement seeks to coalesce around guidelines? I can't imagine how that works. Where's the soul in that? Thus, there is an insecurity inherent in the idea of an old school movement. The strongest voices will tend to be the rules lawyers, those whose lack of imagination will succumb to fundamentalism.

Thus, while I am enjoying the feeling of the movement’s heart, I prefer to identify with the concept of the Old Guard, which implies honor, virtue, foundation, and generational preservation. I must refuse the term 'old school,' since I'm not part of a series of fads, not even if the succession of editions causes one to think in such terms.

Old school implies done and used, and anyone participating in fantasy is hardly that unless they embrace the limitations of the past, in which case they are defying the natural magic of the game's profusion and unpreventable advancement. And, magic is the one thing you cannot defy in fantasy without resulting in something boring and altogether unfantastic.

But are YOU really old school? Do you embrace the excessive limitations of OD&D? It doesn't even say how often you roll your hit points. Were you aware of that? Or, more likely, did you bring a core set of assumptions from your experiences with other gamers and editions to the table and simply didn’t notice how rudimentary and poor OD&D was due to these cultural aspects of the game that carry forward? A rules system is not a grail. It's a system that should be subsumed by the play of the game, not something we pride ourselves in using or are aware of on any level while immersed in a fantasy realm. I pride myself as a fantasist. How about you?

In all truth, I've noticed that much of the conversation about the old school is inaccurate. Folks are digging up the original game and making assumptions about it that were not present in that time, and therefore they are working a subtle revisionism. A canon is being created, not found. The story is identical to fundamentalism, where you return to an alternate past composed only of those parts of the past that conveniently fit the desired interpretation of the past. You end up interpreting reality to fit with a literal interpretation. You end up with unreal limitations that had no place in the movement’s heart at the outset, but which take it over due to the nature of talking versus doing.

If we all adventured together, the rules lawyers would have less weight. They tend to be less likely to come up with innovative ways to play. They tend to focus on the rules. They become the priests of any movement depending upon mechanics. But that’s not a revitalization, since the life of the game is in the play. How does it play? Not, what are the rules.

What do you do to make fantasy happen and how do you preserve it and propagate it? Are those specifically rules questions? No.

What will truly preserve the game would be the embrace of a “new school” that finds what is best and propagates play the easiest. But this isn't possible if you term the movement old school and tend toward fundamentalist rationalizing.

Any successful movement needs robin hoods more than altars. We need to steal back what is good without worshipping its wealth as if it were the end all.