Red Boxalypse Now

[As a quick off-topic preamble, I am ridiculously proud of the title of this post.]

Mentzer's Basic D&D

While statistics tell me that apparently the best way to draw pageviews to my blog is to do nothing and let it stagnate in days-old posts, I’m afraid that that, in and of itself, is not a viable long-term approach to a successful blogging experience.  So I am forced to make comment on some recent events.  Namely, the upcoming release of the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, scheduled for September 7.  And I would just like to comment and how much that description has sparked my imagination already.  Group adventure material?  Several different character races?  6 polyhedral dice?  (Well, at least they have a little bit of Gygaxian verbosity in there, considering, you know, dice are polyhedral kind of by definition.  But that’s just the mathematician in me talking.)

So yeah, Wizard$ of the Coa$t (man, it’s so much easier to do that with T$R) have recently decided that the only good products, or at least the only products which will sell, are old products.  Along with that Starter Set, which harkens back to the classic Basic Set as compiled by Frank Mentzer, they have plans to release a Castle Ravenloft product and have already put out a book bearing the title Tomb of Horrors.  On the latter I have little to say, aside from the fact that it apparently has absolutely nothing to do with its namesake.  Of the former, I will note that the original Ravenloft was one of the first, if not the first, published modules that was heavily based on a plot rather than a mere dungeon crawl, with actual developed characters and motivations and possibly even roleplaying (well, as much as is possible to cram into a 32-page or so module).  So the natural way to pay homage to this classic is of course to release Castle Ravenloft as a mother-effin’ board game.

Sometimes WotC can be seen on their widow’s walk gazing out into the sea for hours on end, praying that the point will return.

So that’s that for classic modules.  But what about this Red Box thing?  I personally have very mixed feelings about this.  Trollsmyth seems excited at the prospect that the new set might attract older gamers who will then be led down the rabbit hole into the OSR.  I’m not so sure.  One of the problems facing the OSR is the general lack of coherency.  Note that this isn’t a problem just in and of itself, it is actually a very good thing in many respects, but for purposes of attracting converts, it is.  There is no hub around which we all gather, but merely a hodge-podge collection of blogs and products with, very broadly speaking, similar philosophies with respect to gaming.  Some (such as myself) might stumble upon one of these sites and find themselves intrigued, clicking around until they are following [quick check-up on my OSR bookmarks folder] 34 blogs and playing, or at least wanting to play, one or two old school products themselves.  I believe the majority, however, will be overwhelmed with the shotgun approach the OSR has towards its public face.

WotC's "D&D"

WotC's "D&D"

Which is totally OK.  If it were any different, it would not be the OSR we all know and love.  Dragonsfoot is the closest thing we have to a communal hub, and that is fine.  That’s what we are.  It is very difficult to market the OSR to those who are not already in the know, and it will always be until we have some product that is fairly consistently on the shelves in gaming stores alongside D&D and World of Darkness.

On the other hand, it may be that we underestimate the kids these days.  While it is true that many of the people that make up the current OSR grew up with the Mentzer Red Box or earlier games, this is not a requirement to be a successful old school roleplayer.  Take me for example.  I am young (19), particularly by OSR standards.  Many in the OSR seem to believe that the only people who love old school products are old grognards who grew up with those games and only know better because they weren’t spoon-fed all the newfangled shite that WotC has been putting out.  But this is my Red Box.

The 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons “Adventure Game.”  And it sucked!  It came with about 8 pre-generated characters, and rules to bring them all the way up to level 2 (Level 2! In 3rd Edition!  That’s 14 encounters, by the book!)  There was one poster-sized foldout map that had a dungeon on one side, and a blank grid on the other.  There were six supplied “adventures,” which were all just monsters set up in certain places within the dungeon where the PCs could come and kill them.  There were no rules of character creation.  The grid-map and the little counters that came with it cemented in my mind for years that D&D should be played with miniatures on a grid, and combat could not possibly be played out any other way.

But I loved it!  There was a blank dungeon map that had all the same rooms as the fold-out version, and I would make copies of it and key it in so many times.  I created dungeons, towns, I believe I even did a tavern once, all with the exact same layout, just with different monsters.  When I later got the three core rulebooks, I simply added new monsters from the Monster Manual.  Never traps though.  For some reason, to this day, I am utterly incompetent when it comes to setting up traps.

But eventually, I grew out of this.  When reading through the books (and yes, I read through those books cover to cover, even the Skills and the Feats section, something for which I would never have the patience or time today), I was promised that I could do anything I wanted, that I could write adventures any way I wanted.  But for my ideas to work, I would often find that they required something very specific to be done with the rules, requiring either a very specific combination of powers or spells, or in the case of campaign building, specific races and classes that had to be included or the game would become “unbalanced.”  I grew increasingly frustrated with not being able to do what I wanted because of the rules.

Somewhere along the line, probably during one of my early forays into researching the history of the hobby (I am kind of obsessed with knowing the origins of everything I am interested in), something clicked, and I realized that just because there are rules, does not mean that I have to play by them.  This is the mindset that ultimately led me down the road into the OSR, which is filled with likeminded people who often change or completely ignore rules to fit their campaigns.  I became, as a result of my own personality and the constrictiveness (constriction?) of WotC’s rules, a 19-year-old grognard.

So I believe that, for people with a certain personality, they will find a way into RPGs.  If that way happens to be WotC’s latest tabletop MMORPG that happens to be called Dungeons & Dragons, that’s fine.  If they are the type of person who would prefer the old school, they will find the old school.  As long as the published D&D products inspire just enough to get people excited about endless possibilities, while simultaneously stifling that excitement with the rules as written, the OSR will have initiates.

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Noble Intentions

In the October 1986 issue of Dragon magazine (issue #114), one of the letters to the editor voices concerns about the upcoming second edition of the game and how it will make all previous products obsolete.  Here’s a little sample of Zeb Cook’s (lead designer for 2E) reply:

I know many players have made a sizable investment in the AD&D game and that we are asking you to change your investment. We are looking at ways of keeping your costs down.  Central to the current plan is to keep the core of the game down to two books, one of player’s information and one for the DM. . . The 2nd Edition is in no way an attempt to rob you.

Yeah, because if there’s one thing that 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons represents it’s devotion to the customers and the love of quality, thoroughly playtested and not-at-all-money-whoring product lines.

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Variant Rules: Curvy Battleship

Here’s one for all you Battleship afficionados out there.  A nice set of variant rules to spice up an old classic and add all new levels of strategy and depth to an already highly entertaining game.  Battleship, I feel, is an underappreciated gem of old school wargaming, and one with a general lack of variants and mods.

The way Curvy Battleship works is thus. Each player still has the 5 classic ships (I will use the following names and numbers of pegs, Patrol Boat – 2, Submarine – 3, Destroyer – 3, Battleship – 4, Carrier – 5).  However, rather than representing the ships with the traditional game pieces, each ship is represented by white “miss” pegs. This requires that the player remembers exactly which peg corresponds to spots on which ship, but this is a mild inconvenience, and it is necessary considering the one major difference between Classic and Curvy Battleship.

Curvy Battleship ships, as may be deduced from the title, need not conform to the traditional straight shape, but can turn, at will, to any adjacent square.  That is to say, a carrier may occupy any 5 squares, as long as each peg is adjacent to the previous peg. This path can curve diagonally as well.

I played a great game of this earlier today with Kevin, with whom I developed this variant, and lost handily, falling to his strategy of mostly ignoring the curvy rules, and misleading me with straight ships (which quite goes against his character). The fact that my ships resembled a certain recognizable yet mostly inappropriate pattern probably also helped spell my demise.

I am only half-joking.

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The Origin of Man

Of late I’ve been taken by this whole evolutionary biology thing.  The way organisms gradually develop into other organisms better suited to their environment is incredible and astounding and all sorts of other adjectives I would use to cushion my word count were I writing this for an assignment.  I’ve been particularly excited about computer simulations of evolution (like this one which simulates the hypothetical evolution of a clock) and the evolutionary ancestry of the human race.  Even more specifically, Neanderthals.

There is debate withinthe scientific community whether the Neanderthals were a separate species withing the Homo genus (homo neandertalus) or a subspecies of homo sapiens, as we are (homo sapiens neandertalus).  The difference being that if they were a subspecies, they would be able to mate with modern humans and produce viable offspring.  Otherwise, they would not be able to produce offspring with anatomically modern humans, or those offspring would be infertile.  I believe the common prevaling hypothesis is that they were a subspecies, thanks to elements of the human genome that are shown to be shared with neanderthals which were not present when the two species split, which would suggest interbreeding.

The question is related to the question of how the neanderthals went extinct.  There are two prevalent hypotheses here as well, each corresponding to whether neanderthals could interbreed with anatomically modern humans.  If they could (that is, were they a subspecies), they likely went extinct through assimilation with the human population.  That is, through extensive interbreeding, the two populations merged into one, which is indeed what is expected to occur when external barriers to breeding are removed between two subspecies.  However, if they were a separate species, then it is believed that they would have been driven to extinction by direct competition with modern humans.  Either way, the neanderthal is an extinct species.

But for a period of time (a very long period of time by standards of modern civilization), there were two or more species of intelligent, sapient beings on Earth, living in communities very near one another.  My hypothetical yet certainly not rhetorical question is this: how would society have evolved differently provided that (a) modern man and neanderthals were separate species, and not genetically compatible, and (b) rather than competing in prehistory, the two species comingled and formed mixed-race societies.

I do not have satisfying answers to this question, I’m afraid.  I do know how improbably such a scenario really is, but it is still an interesting thought experiment to try to imagine a modern society in which two separate races physically cannot reproduce.  Would inter-species marriages be allowed?  Would racism be softened by the years of literal inter-racial communities or would it be heightened?  Would such a society even be stable, considering there would undoubtedly be communities consisting entirely of one race or the other at least in the early history of humanity?  If the two species could produce offspring, but those offspring would be infertile, where would these children’s place be in society?

I want thoughtful answers, and I know that my adoring fans have been holding out on me as far as comments are concerned.  So come on, what would this society look like?  I really want to know!  In return, boobies:

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This Day In History

Today in 1938, a man was born who would change the world, although most people do not recognize this fact.  Gary, you are missed.

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What Six-Year-Olds Are Good For

I’m just going to come right out and say it, Adventure Time is the best show on television right now.  Yes, it is on Cartoon Network.  Yes, I was introduced to it by my six-year-old brother.  Yes, The Simpsons is still on air, and The Simpsons is the greatest show of all time.  But right now, at this moment, I have seen nothing else that is as refreshing, as creative, or as downright entertaining as Adventure Time.

For the uninitiated, Adventure Time is based on a short that came out a few years ago, and it follows the antics of self-proclaimed adventurers Finn (a human boy with an awesome hat) and Jake (his canine companion, who inexplicably has the power to alter his size and shape at will) as they explore their native Land of Ooo.  The Land of Ooo is populated by all sorts of zany surrealistic characters, including a puppy-sized elephant, a rainicorn, a cantankerous old-man-winteresque Ice King, and all shapes and sizes of monsters to be slain and princesses to be rescued.  At the beginning of one episode, Finn and Jake are seen melting beached icebergs with flamethrowers in search of parts to be used in building their gauntlet-dock (“A dock which is also a gauntlet!”).  Jake, however, can find nothing but left childrens’ booties.

It is this kind of wonderful surrealism that saturates every moment of the show.  The ridiculous situations in which these characters find themselves are made all the better by the protagonists’ relative groundedness.  Perhaps “grounded” is too kind.  Finn and Jake relish the opportunity to perform heroic deeds, to fight monsters, to rescue princesses, and, more to the point, go on adventures.  In short, Finn and Jake are PCs.

More specifically, they are PCs in a decidedly old school world.  If you don’t believe me, or you think I’m overthinking things, one recent episode features the following:

  • A descent into a clearly dangerous dungeon in search of “The Crystal Eye”
  • A Mimic
  • A Trapper
  • A Gelatinous Cube

This episode, titled “Dungeon,” is currently available on Kids On Demand if you have Time Warner Cable (at least it is in my region).  I strongly suggest anybody who has ever been remotely interested in anything I’ve ever said on this blog or elsewhere go and watch as much Adventure Time as you can.  There has so far not been a bad episode.

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In Which I Comment On A Blog Post That Is 11 Days Old

I was really going to try to make this post about something non-D&D related.  Yes, I know, where other blogs apologize for straying too far away from the hobby, here I am apologizing for being too focused.  The reason being that I am an attention whore who seeks to please everybody in every way possible.  And I mean every way.

And now that we are officially PG-13, I’d like to touch on an entry from a couple weeks ago on Playing D&D With Porn Stars.  In it, Zak equates Old D&D with DC, in that the games facilitated by these systems are less about the characters and more about the worlds they inhabit, and New D&D with Marvel, in that those games are more about the characters themselves and how they affect the world around them. (It is strange that I unconsciously capitalize “new” and “old” in reference to Dungeons & Dragons, as if I hold a reverence for different editions of a game almost to the extent that Christians do for different Testaments of the Holy Bible, but I’m afraid if I comment any further, Jack Chick would have a field day)

Old School

I think this is interesting in that it highlights an aspect of my personality with respect to gaming that I didn’t really know existed before.  As a gamemaster, I love the simplicity and unobtrusiveness of early (B/X, BECMI, and OD&D) versions of the game.  When world-building for the earliest incarnations of D&D, there are so few assumptions made by the system that it facilitates an enormous variety of worlds.  There is much more room for improvisation around the core three/four classes of fighter, magic-user, cleric (and sometimes thief) than later editions.  No matter what kind of world you want to create, be it standard medieval fantasy, feudalistic Japan, time-traveling neanderthals bent on destroying the future galaxy-spanning empire that threatens to eradicate the peaceful spore-producing alien race of the Planet of Unicorns and Lava Floes, the basics will always apply.  Your character can fight, cast spells, steal, or pray.  Don’t like the magic system?  Change it.  The changes will affect two classes, as opposed to the 7 spell-casting classes in the core books alone for 3.x and the total unbalancing of the entire power system that would occur if you tried to fundamentally alter the way magic works in the first version of what Wizards of the Coast are now calling D&D.

Building worlds for later editions (I will use 3.x as my basis here, since I am the most familiar with its system) the GM is under much greater pressure to conform to an established, albeit implied, setting.  With seven core races, eleven core classes, and more of both in the various splatbooks, at least one of which some experienced gamers in your group are bound to own, the game expects your setting to have room for all of them.  And while, yes, you can set your game in the seedy underbelly of a world-spanning city where demi-humans are spat upon and the only way to the top is on a ladder of corpses, there’s going to come a time when somebody wants to play a half-orc paladin, or a tiefling bard, or a gnome anything, and you’re going to have to either downright refuse or somehow shoehorn in an explanation.

New School

New School

You could, of course, handwave all the fluff and just use the mechanics of a class but deck your character out totally differently, but at that point couldn’t we just handwave everything away down to the core three/four?  Personally, as long as we’re cutting away certain aspects that don’t fit, I’d rather just cut all the way back to OD&D and take it from there.

The difference, however, is that the classes of 3.x and beyond are specifically and scientifically engineered to be badass.  High-level characters get multiple attacks, and the combat types get all sorts of cool abilities that let them kill even more enemies in a single round.  Spellcasters develop the power to change worlds and kill at will.  Thieves can perform feats of agility and deceipt that would fool any mere mortal.  Bards… well, they help everybody else do it.  The thing is, while I don’t want to design a setting for these types of characters, it’s sure as hell fun to play them.

Take, for instance, my character in the only 4E game I have played thus far.  He was a dragonborn rogue.  Upon entering combat with a large number of opponents, he would catch them flat-footed, jump into the middle of them, and explode into shurikens and lightning-breath.  And opponents would drop like flies.  Yes, this was awesome every single time.  No, this never got old.  Sure, I was pretty much useless after that unless I could maneuver myself to flank somebody.  And no, that character would have absolutely no place in my current setting, especially as dragonborn seem to me to be an inherently new school race.

Does this mean that everybody’s preferences are or should be just like mine?  No, of course not.  Does it mean that either system is objectively superior to the other?  Yes, yes it does.

P.S. Writing this post has led me to the conclusion that the new Google Images system is obnoxious.  Probably because it is new, and if it is new, I fear it.

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