As promised, I have finally participated in the D&D Next playtest! If the past few months have been quiet on this blog, it is because I have been exploring the Caves of Chaos, or more like BECOMING the Caves of Chaos, welcoming the players into my chthonic depths from which, in some cases, they do not return. My initial disappointment that the D&D Next playtest adventure did not follow the “Return to the Keep on the Borderlands” continuity was offset by the exciting discovery that in the current iteration of D&DN, the ‘seatbelts are off’. Gone is the 4th edition expectation that you can just jump into any battle without preparation and that tactics, not strategy, are paramount. Encounter balance is completely absent from the playtest. Once again, as in older editions of D&D, the unsuspecting players may easily “bite off more than they can chew” and be rendered into finely chopped meat and eaten by goblins, hobgoblins, bugbears or even (spoiler) A LICH!!!! o_O

I would like to write more about the specific mechanics of D&DN, but I don’t want to say too much as it is obviously still in a state of flux and may change. At the moment, it clearly derives strongly from the Basic D&D set and 2nd edition, with the mechanical transparency of 3e. It is among the diehard 4e lovers that I have sensed the most sadness about the new edition. Wizards, which enticed them into a world of finely honed miniatures combat mixed with roleplaying, has taken another lover, the lover of oldschool simple “pick up and play” gaming. Like Thanos in Marvel’s “Avengers”, Wizards has embraced the dark allure of the TPK, of D&D at its most brutal and primal, where character life, like Winefoot Halflings*, is ‘nasty, brutish and short’. What does this mean for Wizards? Like Obama’s election, how did the shining future promised by 4th edition, after just four years, turn into this time of bifurcation and chaos? Was the “trick people into thinking they’re playing a board game and then hook them on roleplaying” strategy… or should I say TACTIC???… of 4e not successful? How did we get here, and what will happen next? I think the answer is best explained visually:

This map, of course, displays the Middle East’s oil reserves. Oil prices have been rising sharply in recent years, and experts like American investigative journalist Michael Ruppert have long foretold that the world was close to reaching ‘peak oil’ production. Oil is a naturally occurring flammable liquid consisting of a complex mixture of hydrocarbons of various molecular weights and other liquid organic compounds, that are found in geologic formations beneath the Earth’s surface. Yet around the world, oil reserves are dropping, and even Saudi Arabia is spending billions of dollars developing offshore oil platforms!!!!

While it is fascinating to think of the potential creation of dozens of new Sealands in the Arabian or Persian Gulf, the point is that the world’s remaining oil resources may be lower than we think. This has serious consequences as oil is used for many things, including THE PRODUCTION OF PLASTIC MINIATURES, which are derived from petrochemicals. D&D4e, like 3e, was very miniatures-driven (and to be fair, I think the new 4e miniatures rules were a great improvement). The need to ‘monetize’ the experience of roleplaying, always a problem with RPGs since players don’t buy as many books as GMs and I often forbid my players from buying the books anyway so I can surprise them better, was funneled chiefly into (1) D&D Insider and (2) selling miniatures. But after rising oil prices made miniatures less profitable, Wizards was forced to reevaluate the miniatures-heavy direction of 4e. While D&D Insider is still a strong, vital social network, the D&D randomized miniatures line was shuttered just two years ago. :’-( Is it such a stretch to think that the shutoff of this vital source of income led to the new ‘miniatures-optional’ D&D Next?

However, I think that miniatures and roleplaying can and should coexist, and I can see several answers to this problem. One is investment in new technologies such as resin or paper miniatures, although in my experience paper & cardboard miniatures are no good at the table because of their low burning point. Another option is to forge ‘strategic partnerships’ with oil-producing countries in the Middle East, and to take steps (military if necessary) to get hold of more oil, for the benefit of Western consumers. Consider that the D&D Random Miniatures Line ended in January 2011, and in March 2011 the US military intervened in the Libyan Civil War to create a no-fly zone, ensuring continued access to Libyan oil pipelines after the political transition. Consider that the international megacorp known as the United Fruit Company was instrumental in American foreign policy in South America, and that Hasbro acquired Milton Bradley in 1984, the same year that the United Fruit Company changed their name to Chiquita Brands International. Consider also that Charles S. Roberts, the creator of the modern wargame which directly led to the creation of RPGs, was employed by the CIA in the 1960s, and that Muhammad Abd al-Rahman Barker was not only one of America’s last great Orientalist experts on the Middle East but also the creator of Tekumel, THE FIRST EVER PUBLISHED THIRD-PARTY ROLEPLAYING GAME SETTING?

Do hypnotic patterns start to become visible? But I think if we look past the prismatic wall, we will find that there are other, better ways to maintain and foster interest in roleplaying, rather than strongarming ‘revolutions’ and finding pliable governments willing to sell oil to make miniatures. I’m not opposed to war on principle of course, but the long-term resentment caused by this kind of foreign military intervention only harms the cause of roleplaying in developing countries and the Middle East. Rather than having a Shiite immigrant in Qatif in Saudi Arabia working long poorly-paid hours building a pipeline to take oil overseas, better to have him actually playing a dwarf, and develop an indigenous market for roleplaying games among the peoples of the region! With respect to Mike Mearls, there are more important things than martial power. Gaming is a gift that must be shared, whether it is 1e or 2e, 3e, 4e, Pathfinder, D&D Next, or even Fiasco, although I think GMless games aren’t true roleplaying. If we come in peace, we will find not henchmen and hirelings, but fellow gamers.

CORRECTION 8/1/2012: Changed Darkseid to Thanos. I got them mixed up, sorry.

* Winefoot Halflings are a race in my original Neo-Pegana campaign setting.

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D&D Next

I have been spending many sleepless nights thinking about D&D Next. I will be posting about it later. Right now, of course, I am torn between coming up with ideas to improve Next and simply trying to finish all my possible 4e games and campaigns before it goes the way of the gharial and becomes difficult to find players for. STAY TUNED!!!

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I’m always excited to see how roleplayers are depicted in the media, and when a google search for historical comparative values of gold and platinum pieces led me to Gold: The Series, I watched all six episodes right then, right there. This web TV show boasts high production values, good music and a particularly nice opening credit sequence; the producers obviously sunk some money into the series and hope that their hard-spent loot will be rewarded. But what interests me, of course, is: is it good for the hobby? Is it accurate? Will it appeal to gamers? And will non-gamers have their prejudices about gamers confirmed… or shattered???

The story follows a group of players of the “Goblins & Gold” roleplaying game (why must people always use silly alliterative pseudonyms when we all know it’s Dungeons & Dragons? (ー_ー)) Jamie, an elderly gamer, has returned to his hometown after 15 years, and finds Martin, his old GM, still waiting to finish his Zombie King adventure, “that one last campaign.” During this promising first episode I couldn’t help feeling my chest tighten with emotion because every gamer has an unfinished campaign or two in their past; myself, I often dream about my unfinished 3e game from junior high, and still keep track of the players’ addresses and phone numbers hoping that one day we will be able to finish it. Jamie goes back to Martin’s house where they encounter the rest of the party: Brian, who is bald; Hicks, who works at a game store, and Danny, who despite her name is a girl. They gather their old characters (still preserved after 15 years — another good, realistic point) and resume the epic campaign!! Unfortunately, there is out-of-character bad blood between the players, and it all boils up in a steaming cauldron of gore on that fateful night…

For most of “Gold”, I had very mixed feelings. In terms of production values and “flash”, the show is very good. I admired the way that there is loud music throughout, particularly in (or slightly before) the emotional moments; I wish I had such good music in my own games, but it is hard to do moment-by-moment scoring while also rolling dice, etc. I don’t believe the old saying “All arts aspire to be music,” but music may be second best. I appreciate little touches, like the way the DM asks the players to turn off their cell phones. And there are some emotional moments — the line “You’re not the person who used to spend the night at my house… but neither am I” captures some of the complicated blend of feelings in the friendships forged during role-playing. The miniatures and gaming equipment are also convincing.

Unfortunately, there are problems with the show, and as it went on they began to grate on me. I am extremely flexible in terms of newbies making mistakes about D&D, but the script was tantalizingly — or frustratingly? — unclear on what type or edition of D&D they were playing. Based on one reference to Comeliness, they may be playing 1st edition, but references to “shifting” suggest they may be playing 4th; then again, another player dismisses 4th edition with harshly pointed words. Based on references to the Flaeness, they are in any case playing in Oerth… but it could be a homebrew Oerth… anyway, I have to give the makers a “thumbs down” for these inconsistencies. (And in what editions of D&D could four 10th-level characters handle an Ancient Undead Dragon? :/ ) These errors may have slipped in because of the other problem: the show focuses too little on D&D and too much on the out-of-character conflicts. I approve of the filmmakers stretching the definition of gaming by showing different types of gamers: instead of the bright, attractive young faces I associate with D&D, these gamers are middle-aged adults, and even jocks and football players (!). But one of the players actually throws another player down a flight of stairs IRL: is that really the way a person who roleplays a paladin would behave? (Granted, he is a fallen paladin.) Of course there are dysfunctional gaming groups in real life, in fact one of my best friends is currently being sued in a class action lawsuit for throwing dice in someone’s eye, but this focus on alcohol, violence and swearing distracted me from the real action at hand, the in-character action. One of the most important fight scenes in the game even takes place off-camera!! *_*

Clearly only the best DM in the world could bring such a group together, but sadly, Martin is not that GM. I was ready to give the series an “average” review when I got to the final episode, in which Martin does something which should be UNTHINKABLE for any DM or Gamemaster. Frankly I found the final episode offensive and I think that IRL the players would have stormed away from the table, the way I stormed away from my laptop, leaving it alone in the dorm lounge for two hours during which time it was unfortunately stolen (I am writing this from my desktop computer). “Gold” breaks new ground in the depiction of twilight-years gamers, and it is a very well-produced show, but I have to say — MARTIN IS NO GM. With the sixth episode twist, “Gold” jumps the shark and squanders what could have been a promising series.

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That was the greatest GenCon ever!

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As I work on new campaigns and wait for D&D 5e to come out (hastily trying to finish all my uncompleted 4e products in the meantime) /o\ , I have been thinking the question that all gamers must ask at some point: how should gamers relate to the society around them?

Unless you are lucky enough to live in Lake Geneva, Indianapolis or Seattle, chances are that you do not live in a roleplaying-friendly environment. Even when I was going to school in Glendale and playing in as many as four campaigns at once, if I asked a random person on the street “What do RPGs mean to you?” chances are they would give me some answer about facebook games. Even with recent advances in the acceptance of roleplaying, D&D is still being described as “human lunacy” and stars like Viggo Mortensen, afraid of being outed, still rush to deny the slightest rumor that they are gamers. Gamers in most of America live in a roleplaying desert, a gaming vacuum. Gamers who want to play RPGs during their lunch hour, for instance, may face the hostility of their coworkers; I even know a group of gamers who played in the restroom for fear of being seen. :(

IMHO, social opportunity is essential for the psychological well being of a person. Speaking as a DM, I am always looking for a bigger gaming group (email me if you live in Escondido!!! theodudek at gmail !!). What opportunities does the non-gamer society provide? When American men get together, they usually talk about baseball, football, women and interest rates, while drinking beer and wine. These things may not generate interest in a roleplayer. He may feel isolated and alone among them. Of course, a gamer who roleplays online may meet other gamers easily. But what about traditional table top roleplay? What about LARPing? What about the personal touch, that Mark Rein*Hagen said was 1,000x more important than the cold, clammy touch of lead miniatures and computer screens??

The answer, I think, is: don’t be ashamed. Don’t be overwhelmed, and remember your mission: the conversion of people to gamers so you have more people to roleplay with! Be proud of your gaming, and soon you’ll have new PCs popping up where you least expect it. Here are some suggestions:

* leave gaming materials on your desk, in your dorm lounge, etc. If you are worried about the expense, make photocopies or printouts.
* choose RPG-specific email addresses, nicknames, cubicle names, team names, etc. “Green Dragon Design Team” is much more enticing than “Mobile Team #2″, and maybe someone will ask about green dragons, giving you an opening to talk about breath weapons, etc.
* When someone asks you a question about something non-gaming-related, turn it towards gaming! Often people don’t realize just how much they have in common with roleplayers. “Flipping” houses can be interpreted as a sort of fantasy treasure acquisition or dungeon crawl. Fantasy sports are an easy gateway to gaming; come to a fantasy football meeting and bring a new, made-up player instead of using the statistics provided by the group, or, actually roleplay a specific player instead of a team manager! Remember: anything can be a RPG!
* bring polyhedral dice with you and roll them occasionally. It’s not necessary to actually have an aleactoric lifestyle, like the hero of the 1971 nonfiction study The Dice Man, but if you make people familiar with the instruments of gaming, the rest may follow. (Players of diceless RPGs may instead write on character sheets, etc.)
* Never be ashamed of who you are. Wear the noble name of roleplaying with pride and dignity, even in the face of ridicule, slander and persecution.

The challenges we face are surely less than those that Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson faced! The grassroots of gaming have now grown all across America, and it’s just a question of making them grow, like vegepygmies. Like Richard O’Brien wrote, “Don’t dream it… be it.” Don’t be discouraged and start your RPG campaign today!!

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While I was playing the Battlestar Galactica board game the other day (in a brief break from DMing ^^ ), I realized:

Wizards needs to make a D&D-branded version of the Battlestar Galactica game.

Hear me out. Battlestar Galactica is, after all, basically just an expanded and science fiction (“SyFy”) branded version of Shadows Over Camelot, so you could just as easily say “Wizards needs to make a D&D-branded version of Shadows Over Camelot.” What I mean is, D&D should make a boardgame which mixes the D&D tactical combat gameplay (as seen in the existing D&D beginner boardgames like Ravenloft et al) with the Galactica/Camelot “one or more players is likely going to betray the other players, and you don’t know who it is” gameplay.

How would this be done? It’s simple — alignment!! ^o^ And not simplified 4th edition alignment, but delicious, oldschool 3rd-edition-and-earlier alignment. The way the game would work is, the players are going on a dungeon raid, like in the Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashkardalon boardgames. They can choose certain character race/class combos, etc. But each player also has an alignment which is drawn randomly at the start of play, and there are victory rules associated with each alignment, as well as decision points (like the Crisis Cards in Battlestar Galactica) during which players have to make certain choices which may reveal their alignment choice. The players may suspect that there is an evil or chaotic person or two among their midst, based on their behavior, but that person won’t necessarily be revealed until later in the game. And yet, unlike in BSG/Camelot, there isn’t necessarily a *single* evil side, the evil players may just be out for themselves and (if there are enough players) different evil players may even end up fighting each other. Perhaps Lawful Evil players would have rules which reward the different evil players banding together, and Chaotic Evil players would only get rewarded for helping themselves, for example.

I’ve never liked the 4e alignment simplification and I think this would be a good way to reintroduce the many exciting shades of alignment to D&D. Because let’s face it: based on the success of Battlestar Galactica and Shadows Over Camelot, people *LIKE* boardgames where there is an option of doubt and treachery, rather than just shiny happy cooperation. “Should I work with these people, or should I compete against them? Can I trust my fellow party members?” So, I command Wizards, GO FORTH AND MAKE THIS GAME! I know this game must be made, and oldschool alignments reintroduced, for one simple reason: if I experience more actual role-playing while playing the Battlestar Galactica game than I do while playing D&D, something is seriously wrong. >_>

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Wikipedia defines ‘high fantasy’ as being fantasy set in imaginary worlds, and ‘low fantasy’ as fantasy set in the real world (or ‘a rational and familiar fictional world’) with fantasy elements. I think this definition is misleading. A story isn’t high or low fantasy based on whether it’s set in an imaginary world; low fantasy is an attitude.

If high fantasy is The Lord of the Rings, low fantasy is Conan. High fantasy is ‘shiny’ and over-the-top and often though not always optimistic; low fantasy is about low tech settings where life is short. Larry Elmore is high fantasy; Erol Otus and John Blanche are low fantasy. Monty Python and Terry Gilliam’s Medieval stories are low fantasy, with their emphasis on mud and blood and grass and grime.

If you look at trends in MMOs over the last 12 years, they’re basically a progression to higher and higher fantasy. Ultima Online, the first major commercial MMO back in 1998, had all the visual flair of a bunch of Renaissance Faire people running around in the woods of Michigan (it didn’t even have nonhuman races!), but Everquest, which overtook it in popularity, had more dragons and orcs and stuff, and in World of Warcraft, fantasy is almost indistinguishable from superheroes.

There are still some popular fantasy franchises which are more low-fantasy than high, like the “Song of Ice and Fire” series (an important character being murdered in the privy is definitely low-fantasy). But would anyone play a lengthy RPG or spend days in a virtual world if it put them at a *worse* situation than in real life—grubbing for roots, patching worn clothes, suffering leprosy and fighting off continual hordes of goblins?

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My site was down for part of the day today as I moved to Dreamhost, but now I’m back. ^^ My friend Jay did a great job with the site migration. Stay tuned soon for some D&D stuff based on my Neo-Pegana campaign, including 10 (!!!) different kinds of lizardfolk!

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I hadn’t mentioned it, but earlier this summer the second volume of “that graphic novel about RPGs” — the one full of thinly veiled references to me and my gaming group — came out. (I don’t like to mention the title because I don’t want to give publicity to this author who considers my life to be OGL content.) -^- I’m always skeptical of books and movies about gaming written by non-gamers — “Game first, THEN judge!!!” is what I would say — but there are so many problems with this book, it’s hard to know where to begin. My copy is already full of yellow sticky notes, just from a first readthrough.

From the first book, it was clear that the author doesn’t really play RPGs but was just faking, and from the 2nd book it doesn’t seem like he had a late-in-life conversion. Anime/games/RPGs references are crudely scattered throughout, but they feel like insincere fanservice, as if the author had cribbed from Wikipedia, or bribed unpaid interns with Fortune Cards to make sure his lingo was accurate. When depicting tabletop RPGs he makes a confused muddle of 3.0 and 4E, and he depicts plastic minis as still being widely available, apparently unaware that production ceased earlier this year. In another scene, the author depicts a MMORPG PvP tournament being suddenly turned into a PnP RPG tournament at the last minute, as if they were interchangeable, not depicting how incredibly difficult this would have been for the DM in question. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that only the greatest DM on Earth would have been able to make a horde of angry MMO players, and the tournament organizers, accept such a substitution.

Several events which happened IRL are absent from the narrative, such as Malakbel and Moggrathka’s first PvP match in WoW (oddly, since the author seems eager to show gamers hurting gamers in other contexts), and our road trip from Escondido to Irvine. Jen, Mike, Callie and Bill, all of whom are valued members of my gaming group, are almost absent from the story, something they are surely grateful for. But a much bigger problem is the “over the top” presentation. Everything is loud, loud, loud, turned up constantly to 11. It reads like a bad Pokemon fanfic. In the author’s world, tabletop roleplaying is a barrage of loud noises, explosions and player-on-player IRL violence, as if it wasn’t exciting enough without adding a bunch of special effects. It’s like if in the movie version of Gandhi’s life, Gandhi (a pre-eminent political and ideological leader of India during the Indian independence movement) has to fight the Thuggee cult and defeat the reincarnated Kali Durga, the tentacled death mother goddess, by driving the Howrah-to-Hoogly railroad into her body. Disputed dollar figures of property damage caused by gamers keep getting trotted out in some lame attempt at ‘authenticity.’ My foldout dice sling is shown being used as a deadly weapon, instead of a nonviolent crowd dispersal device.

The truly sad thing about this is that it misses all the quiet, emotional, character-driven moments that the author could have focused on. The way that we had to bathe Shesh’s body with hand towels while he was in the middle of his WoW spree, for instance, or the many touching player-and-DM moments between the encounters, when we loved, laughed, or just looked into one another’s eyes before rolling the dice. If the author truly loved gamers, he would have shown this soft, intimate side of gaming, akin to the romantic, sympathetic way that Kio Shimoku presented otaku in “Genshiken,” or Bryan Lee O’Malley in “Megatokyo.” But instead, gaming is just grist for his “excitement mill,” which he uses to shake excitement wantonly all over the table, like Adam Sandler as the waiter at the Italian restaurant in that Saturday Night Live skit on youtube.

In short, this book is the latest in a long line of negative depictions of gamers. I only hope that, instead of causing people to flip through it and think “Bah! Gaming is lame!” and turning into hardened RPGophobes, people will at least let the word “RPGs” stick in their head and maybe, the next time they see a man on the corner playing D&D or the next time someone comes to their house asking them to make a character for their campaign, they will stop and lend them a helping hand or at least cock their head quizzically and ask them “This RPGs thing…. is this like that book?” And then, the gamers can explain what RPGs are REALLY like, and the door will be open for a dialogue between gamers and non-gamers. In that way, at least, the author may have inadvertently helped cast Knock on that formidable barrier.

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“(Gilligan) grew up in Farmville, Va., a town of roughly 6,000 people, not far from Appomattox, the site of the South’s surrender in the Civil War. His father was an insurance claims adjuster, and his mother was a grade-school teacher who had a brief career as a wing walker. “Vince was an acolyte in the Catholic Church,” Gail Gilligan says, though she notes that he also played Dungeons and Dragons. “There was certainly a lot of evil in that game, but it never seemed to affect him adversely.” C.C

— From the New York Times article about Vince Gilligan, creator of “Breaking Bad”:

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