Monday, October 25, 2010

10 Years of 3E & OGL

Here's a date that almost slipped by without me noticing: It's now been 10 years since 3E D&D was published.
... the Player's Handbook is only the first of three core books for the Dungeons & Dragons game. The Dungeon Master's Guide, available in September 2000, gives the DM all the tools to create and run fantastic D&D adventures. And the Monster Manual, available in October 2000, offers more than 500 fair and foul creatures. ["2000 Survival Kit", appendix to the 3E D&D Player's Handbook]
Let me give 3E a little bit of praise here, in retrospect. The frequency that commercial products these days evidence someone really caring about their production (or as I usually put it, "Did somebody at least give a shit?") is all too low. But 3E rises past that bar; whatever else one might say, clearly they cared (speaking of Cook, Tweet, Williams, et. al.).

Obviously, 3E was the first major D&D effort by WOTC and after TSR's long, slow, sad, stupid decline. In some ways it was a more detailed format, with high-level production values. It showed a generally deep understanding for the original AD&D system, even in places where it made different decisions. Its links to older works were respectful without being cheaply slavish (e.g., the quote above: "fair and foul creatures", echoing OD&D's "hostile & benign creatures" [Vol-2, p. 3] or AD&D's "creatures malevolent and benign" [Fiend Folio cover] without directly parroting them).

On top of all that, the rules were released in conjunction with the Open Game License, which offered the prospect of all of us contributing and publishing works for the game. I remember being absolutely excited at the combined prospect of all that; these were the first D&D books I bought since the end of 1E, and I wasn't alone.

In some sense, 3E was the initial "renaissance" of D&D, bringing lots of lapsed players back to the game, establishing a strong product line coming from a non-terminally-ill company, and laying the intellectual and legal groundwork for the spinoff OSR today. The truth is, since the only time in my life that I had a regular-as-clockwork weekly gaming group was in this era (1999 to 2005), I've probably played more actually-at-the-table 3E D&D than any other game system.

Of course, over time the heaviness of 3E came to feel a bit like a Sisyphean ordeal; I found myself struggling with the game and its choices, always feeling like the "right" game was within reach with a few fixes, but those fixes always led to other, larger fixes. Ridiculous hours were spent trying to get monster and NPC attack bonuses, skill points, feats, armor and size adjustments calculated properly. The complications of cleric domain spells probably contributed to breaking my camel's back on the whole class. Splatbook production had me sparking with some friends about exactly what "new" stuff should be allowed and what shouldn't on a near-monthly basis. Some of my casual players never intuited how attacks-of-opportunities would work, even after months of play. And of course the whole corporate project took a torpedo-hit when the 3.5 edition was rushed out only 3 years later, clearly signaling an end to company support for the OGL philosophy.

I stuck with 3E for while, until finally procuring a copy of the OD&D 1974 boxed set (what, close to 30 years after I started playing Holmes D&D?), and at some later point, decided that was my preferred ruleset, and then, this blog. To my surprise, it seemed like a lot of other people did something similar around the same time. Maybe without 3E we wouldn't even care about it any more; without the OGL, certainly the legal status of the OSR would be a lot more challenging. For all its warts, I'll say "thank you" to the guys who worked to bring it to us.

Friday, October 22, 2010

How to Hold a Lance

Another interesting blog post from a historical reenactor with copious primary-source citations: How to hold a lance on foot for single combat.

One of the excellent sources: The 1459 "Fight Book" by Hans Talhoffer:

http://www.thearma.org/Fight-Earnestly.htm


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

How To Deliver a Cavalry Charge

Doing my usual thing, researching this & that, and I come across what I found to be a very interesting article: "La Régle du Temple as a Military Manual, or, How to Deliver a Cavalry Charge" by Matthew Bennett. This was a piece written by the now-Senior Lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst (British West Point, basically), giving an overview of a mid-13th century manual for organizing the Knights Templar. It's been included in at least two published books, see it here:

http://www.deremilitari.org/resources/articles/bennett1.htm


Or, if you can read French, a translation of the original La Régle du Temple is available here:

http://www.archive.org/stream/largleduhenride00tempuoft/largleduhenride00tempuoft_djvu.txt

Monday, October 18, 2010

Elven Theme Recap

About a week ago, I posed the question: "The multiclass 'elven theme' is best extrapolated if elves automatically get what?" -- this being asked in the context of playing with the OD&D LBBs and thinking of expanding the classes available (specifically, to include Thieves).

I'm glad I asked it, because it turns out that my initial preference, how I've been playing it for a while now -- elves get any two classes of their choice -- came in dead last in popularity. What won over that by a wide margin (as you can see above) was having elves pick any one class, plus getting wizard (magic-user) for free. Some things I'd have a dogmatic opinion about, but this one not so much (hence the poll). So, I'm glad to have some data on what the grognards' consensus is, and I'll be playing OD&D this way from now on.

Of course, in my gaming -- with clerics discarded -- the choice is really one of picking either Fighter or Thief, and adding Wizard on top of that (but, if more classes are added in the future, it expands elegantly). Furthermore, since I play by the LBB multiclassing text of "switching classes" (at least insofar as which class is being trained for and gaining XP), and any combination of levels is possible, an elf PC might very well leave the wizard class fallow, and never rise past 1st level with a single 1st-level spell available to them daily. I like that flavor a lot, actually.

Thanks to everyone who helped me with their opinion!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Retrospective: Bismarck

There's one single wargame that I've played very much in my life: Bismarck!

Now, I feel like personality-wise I'm well suited for wargaming, but other than this one game, I never did much. I had a copy of "Little Round Top" (part of the Gettysburg conflict), but I think I played it once and set it aside. Of course, the D&D references to mass battles always intrigued me greatly, but the only thing I could access was "Swords & Spells" and those rules are not really a lot of fun or very immersive. But this game seemed to draw me like a supermagnet at a very young age -- I think I've had it since circa 1980, when I picked it out of a game store at age 10. I dare say it changed my life and understanding of games, history, tactics, and technology in many ways.

Bismarck was Avalon Hill's 1979 game simulating a famous engagement in WWII, in the spring before the U.S. entered the war. The action revolves around the time when the lone, technologically advanced German battleship Bismarck was sent out of the Baltic to cut off British shipping in the North Atlantic (with one cruiser escort), and came precariously close to holding off the entire British Royal navy that was sent to hunt it down. The game is very well known; in the recent and acclaimed interview with David Wesely (inventor of RPGs?), he mentions it twice, as he's searching for some random example of an Avalon Hill game, and it's the first thing that springs to mind. (There was also an earlier 1968 version of the game.)

Play takes place partly on a strategic-level searchboard of the Atlantic Ocean, and partly on a zoomed-in battleboard. The two strategic boards are kept hidden by opposing players. The action here winds up sounding a lot like the game "Battleship", with players moving air and sea units, and then calling out board coordinates ("I15! H17! O20!") in places where they have sufficient search strength in the hopes of detecting enemy targets. Random rolls affect the weather (i.e., visibility; sets a required search strength score), general British search and radio intercepts, and the possibility of German encounters with convoys. When enemy targets are found, play switches to the battleboard where either air attacks are rolled, or ship-to-ship maneuvering and gunfire is resolved. Victory points are assessed at the end when time expires or the Bismarck is sunk.

The Basic game, simulating the core historical scenario, is already quite involved (I find I have to cut back on even some of the "Basic" game rules on movement and fuel tracking in order to get other people to play with me.) The Intermediate game adds modular supplements, such as refinements to weather tracking, submarines and destroyers, aircraft carrier on-deck status, fighter aircraft, random breakdowns, and alternative scenarios including French, U.S., and other hypothetical German vessels. The Advanced game provides an immensely more detailed tabletop miniatures game for ship-to-ship combat (based on the prior Avalon Hill game Jutland), which can constitute a daylong game all by itself.



To the right, you'll see some photos of the Basic game setup. First, the opposing British and German sides of play, including Searchboard, Player Aid Card (including time track, weather gauge, and initial setup instructions), and Game Tables Card. Second, closeups of the starting positions for both the British and German player. Third, a closeup of the battleboard near the end of a sample game (when the Bismarck has been bombed repeatedly, cornered, and is about to be sunk after a fierce firefight with the combined British battleships Hood and Prince of Wales). Finally, the game's Hit Record Pad.



Okay, some analysis: First, in some general sense, Bismarck is a game of "piracy" of the sort that's never failed to intrigue me. A lot like Sid Meier's addictive Pirates! or my own D&D-based Corsairs game, the fundamental action is one of a heavily-armed vessel preying on the cargo ships of some enemy nation, and being hunted in return by a more powerful but spread-out navy. In some sense, historically, naval actions tend to hinge on exactly this dynamic (far more so fleet-against-fleet battles). Even more generally, the "two levels" aspect of the game (strategic map vs. tactical combat map) is shared not only by all of those games, but even D&D itself (with an exploratory map action, and a distinct combat-encounter action). Not only is it almost unavoidable realism-wise, there's lots of interesting dynamics available via the "game-within-the-game".



Secondly, I think that even today Bismarck is, intriguingly, the most asymmetric game I've ever seen. The German player has all of 2 ships; the British player has more than 20 (in the Basic game), including a variety of cruisers, battleships, aircraft carriers, etc. The strategies are entirely different; the German player is trying to quietly "break out" past the northeastern British search line, skulking and hiding around convoy lines for merchantman targets of his firepower; while the British player is managing an ocean-wide search and destroy campaign, managing scores of air and sea searches every turn. At the same time, the Bismarck is itself more powerful than any ship in the British navy, and also faster-moving than any of the British capital ships; such that frequently the British player has to send waves of sacrificial planes and cruisers at it, until some lucky hit slows it down and allows several battleships catch it at a disadvantage. I don't know what other game has this dual-level of extreme asymmetry -- kind of like an Escape from Alcatraz game spliced with Steve Jackson's Ogre. And, it really happened.



Before I'm done with asymmetry issue, consider the following: (a) The fascination with Starcraft, another asymmetric game (though not as thoroughly), which is one of the best-selling PC games of all time. (b) Erick Wujcik's comments on Ogre, which parallel my feelings on Bismarck: "asymmetrical, ... open-ended, ... a teaching tool. Ogre had restructured my mind pretty completely ... but it wasn't until 2002 ... that I realized how effective Ogre is at getting across so many important component mechanisms of play and design." (c) My strongly-held belief that classic Dungeons & Dragons has a great strength in offering character classes that are very distinct, both in flavor and in having different mechanics to support that flavor (and that 4E-style homogenization is a gross misstep).



Also, there's a slight bit of concern about the following question: Which side do you give to a new player when you're first introducing them to the game? The obvious choice is to give the new player the Germans (with just 2 ships, and likely sticking together as one unit, it's much simpler to manage), with the more experienced player taking the British (managing a much larger fleet of planes and ships, and a higher-level search task to administer). Compare this to the D&D tradition of giving Fighters to new players, and Wizards to more experienced players. However, this does have some slight awkwardness here in that (a) the Germans are more easily considered the "bad guys"; (b) it may look like the expert player is "beating up" on the newbie with the much larger British force; and (c) the Germans have a slightly more abstract goal of avoiding combat with enemy principals and seeking out faceless merchants that appear by random rolls only.



Thirdly, however, is the issue that there is an extremely high level of trust required between the two players, in that they are fairly and correctly managing their movement, patrol status, search strength calculations, air endurance, fuel expenditure, etc., etc., on each of the pair of hidden strategic-level searchboards. It would be trivial for a player to shift a vessel to a nearby empty space if they wanted to avoid combat, possibly a location that they "could have" been in legitimately; and even if the game is played honestly, it's easy to make a number of management or calculation mistakes. In addition, there's the slightly goofy reveal in that as one player (primarily the British) calls out search coordinates, the opposition then knows what areas have units in them and should probably be avoided (or attacked by air) on their next move.

I've always felt that there is such an obvious, overwhelming need to computerize the hidden information in Bismarck that it's practically a core experience of the game (secondarily, the computer could also manage all the number-crunching of search strengths, fuel allocation, combat mechanics, etc.) Even at age 10 or 11 I was writing a program for a TRS-80 computer to control the Bismarck's escape route by a virtual German player, and respond to search requests as I played the British side; of course, this also had the beneficial side-effect of permitting the game to be played single-player. Until I listened to the Wesely interview this summer, a different option had never occurred to me -- namely, having a 3rd player present to act as referee. However, in my rural Maine adolescence, my problem was not one of having extra participants around, but rather one of having too few.

So that's my take on Bismarck. Just about 30 years after first obtaining it, I can still play it with relish (as my girlfriend and I did on an afternoon this weekend in our newly game-friendly living room setup), and afterward have a fairly extensive conversation about its history, strategy, and ramifications. I find that a lot of my interesting intuitions about game design are frothing around inside the rulebook and tables to this game. I still get wired after a game, almost hearing the waves and sea-spray, smelling the smoke powder, feeling the deep shock of cannons when dice hit the table (to the extent of sometimes having trouble sleeping afterward). I'm not exactly sure how the 10-year-old version of myself got drawn to the Bismarck box out of all possible games and wargames in the hobby store, but I think it was the right move. Maybe I've just got the North Atlantic salt-water in my veins, or something.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Elven Theme

In OD&D Vol-1, all elves are multiclassed fighter/wizards (or, to be specific in the language of the time, they can "freely switch class whenever they choose, from adventure to adventure, but not during the course of a single game" [OD&D Vol-1, p. 8]). They're also the only character type formally allowed to multiclass -- in math terms we'd say "a character is multiclassed if and only if they are an elf".

Sup-I Greyhawk switches this up a bit. It introduces the Thief class (available to all racial types), and other races can now multiclass (i.e., dwarves can be Ftr/Thf or NPC Ftr/Clr, the new half-elves can be Ftr/Wiz or Ftr/Wiz/Clr). At this point, Elves can explicitly be one of the following class combinations: (1) Fighter/wizard, (2) Fighter/wizard/thief, (3) Thief alone, or (4) NPC-only Fighter/wizard/cleric.
Elven thieves work in all three categories at once (fighter, magic-user, and thief) unless they opt to never be anything other than in the thief category. [Sup-I, p. 5]
Now, this seems like a truly odd asymmetry to me. Elves can be Ftr/wiz/thf, but they can't focus to the extent of being just Ftr/thf or Wiz/thf. They can't be a fighter or wizard alone. It seems like "fighter" and "wizard" are glued together and only come as a joint pair (unlike any other race) -- particularly odd because in Vol-1, elves could in theory just ignore one of their classes and never "switch" to using it at all. (Obviously in AD&D the options were expanded to any mix of one, two, or three of the core non-cleric classes; but by then, elves have lost anything particularly special in their multiclassing.)

So I'd like to pose the following as a question: If we look at the critical moment when Thieves are being added to the game as the 4th core class, what exactly is the OD&D elven multiclassing specialty really communicating? Are they simply "special" at picking up extra classes in general? Are they exceptionally gifted at fighting, such that they get that class for free? Are they supernaturally gifted at magic-use (wizardry), such that they get that class for free? How would the Vol-1 rule be best extrapolated to maintain the "elven theme" at the point when we add Thieves? What would fit best for the way you like to play? (See poll results here.)

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Dungeon Master by Sam Lipsyte

This week in The New Yorker magazine, there's a fiction piece by Sam Lipsyte called "The Dungeon Master". As the title implies, it largely revolves around a regular D&D game (obviously, even if the brand name isn't itself used) played by a certain DM and four players.

To my mind, it's a rather surprising throwback to 80's-style portrayals of D&D, in the tradition of Mazes & Monsters and stuff like that. The teenage boys playing are all outcasts, losers, kleptomaniacs, abusers and/or abuse survivors, mental patients, and likely suicides. While the four players have names, the DM doesn't go by any name in his social life other than "the Dungeon Master" (somewhat like the Seinfeld episode of "The Maestro"). This DM runs a nightmarish game, heaping emotional abuse on the players, repetitively killing their characters at an inn, a store, a kitchen, in bed, by disease, etc., with implicitly unfair adjudications, and without them ever seeing any actual dungeon or adventure.

Now, in its defense, the story makes some knowing nods to the fact that there are potentially other ways to interpret the game. There is a separate school-sponsored game for the kids "in gifted", although that game sounds like a Monty-Hall wish fulfillment exercise, and the players unsympathetic and described in-character as "some snotty faggots". The narrator's mom clips newspaper stories "... about how the game makes kids crazy? Makes them do horrible things?" to which the Dungeon Master responds, "The game doesn't create suicides. If anything, it postpones them." So I guess that's as good as it gets here.

Not that everything needs to be a polemic promoting my favorite game, but I was mildly surprised at what an early-80's D&D-scare-story vibe I got from reading this. I guess if I start flag-waving for an "old school renaissance", I should be careful how I phrase my wishes. :-)

Read the story here -- "The Dungeon Master" by Sam Lipsyte.