On Campaign Design Patterns II

A Quest isn't a design pattern. It's a definition, but because it's complicated and needs discussion, we're going to treat it like one.

Quest: A task accomplished by the players for a reward.
Design and Scope: A quest is the basic unit of gameplay. It is something that must be accomplished that provides some reward for the players.
Use: The quest is ubiquitous. All game action is driven by reward and quests formalize and increase the default rewards gained from playing the game such as character experience and player fun.
Consequences: Player driven quests are the most engaging quests. Dictates enforced from kings and geased by wizards are the most frustrating.
Related:

Quest Fan (or Array): giving players 2 or more quests simultaneously.

Design and Scope: The creation of the quest fan is to give players meaningful options. The problem with the quest fan is making sure the quests are meaningful. If it's just a list of quests and the order you complete them doesn't affect the other quests or the rest of the game, it's effectively a linear sequence. The quest fan is effective when completing one task means you can't finish or complete another. The quest fan is very effective when the order in which you complete the tasks opens and closes different options based on how they are completed.
Role playing is not a video game you can complete 100%. When you run a game that way, the game becomes tedious.

Use: This is common to anyone who's ever played an older bioware game. You have a start quest, then you reach a base, from which you have three quests you can complete in any order before you can advance the plot. In a video game, it's fine because the purpose of choosing a quest is to play the video game.
A classic example of a quest fan is the three-pronged quest in S2, White Plume Mountain. Characters are tasked with retrieving three weapons that have disappeared, each in a different location in the adventure and each with a different clue. There is a minimal amount of interaction between the three quests, each following a different direction in the dungeon and only affecting each other prong in the most direct way (i.e. slain guards remain slain). There is some interaction based on the order in which the players leave, retrieving wave last can cause the players to exit via the geyser, allowing them to avoid Nix and Nox and Keraptis's recruiting attempts. 

Consequences: Using a quest fan allows players to meet their own needs during play, based on what type of gameplay they are interested in. It allows the Dungeon Master to then alter play based on the choices of the player characters. Simply having a list of tasks to complete that do nothing but reward you doesn't work as well in a tabletop game and certainly doesn't leverage the strength of infinite play available from a live human Dungeon Master.
If you have a selection of quests available and the order you complete them in is irrelevant, it's might as well be a linear sequence pattern. No action the players take can affect the outcomes of the quest fan, they are just a list of tasks that can be completed in any order.
This is why "Retrieve all parts of the Rod of Seven Parts" are such bad campaign ideas. It's removing all the meaningful choice from the players. That doesn't mean such a quest can't be done in a good way. Pirates of Dark Water had such a quest, and it seemed like it was going to be tedious. From the very first in that show, the treasures rarely stayed with Ren for very long. Sometimes captured by Bloth, sometimes stolen. At the end of every show, there was a possibility that they had to acquire the treasures by some means other than simply heading to the next location the compass indicated. Also, the show moved at a very brisk pace. In 21 episodes (six months of play) 8 of 13 treasures were acquired. An entire campaign could be handled in 9 months, which is about the reasonable outer limit for a single quest or goal.
An extremely effective way to use the Quest Fan is to mix the quests with some time structure. If you give the players 3 quests, whenever they complete the first one, the other two get worse by some significant margin. This simple pattern of having unattended things grow more complicated, naturally leads into an organic campaign that drives creative play as the players struggle to put out or control multiple fires at the same time.

Grapevine: A pattern for characters to acquire tangentially related background information, quests, and world flavor. 

Design and Scope: This is a method such as a local news sheet, bulletin board, town crier, or rumor mill that provides quests and information to the players.

Use: Chris Kutalik provides an excellent example here on his blog about how he uses this design pattern to not only help provide cohesion to the campaign experience, but also to further his ends as Dungeon Master. His article talks about providing plot hooks, quests, background information, and flavor.
I'm quite fond of literally bulletin boards being in towns, created as physical artifacts I can hand my players. Not only can I then have plot hooks, but I get to use the best techniques of Craigslist and classified ad posters.
This is by no means a new technique. The most classic use of the grapevine pattern is the vintage rumor list. Examples can be found in any classic module, many also include grapevine patterns from a variety of sources, the church, thieves guild, quartermasters posting bounties, etc.
The grapevine pattern is a pristine opportunity for driving complex rumors that engage players in play through multiple dimensions. You can use the grapevine pattern to extend rumors to function as foreshadowing as I talk about here. Here I talk about using the grapevine pattern to create campaign mysteries and adventure.

Consequences: The largest consequence is the amount of time such a technique can require. Even going through weekly and writing a news brief on four or five items or two or three sentences each is going to require about 30 minutes, as well as the creative energy before hand. There's quite a list of standard options (such as bounties for bandits, missing people, looking for monster lairs), but the downside is that those are standard options.
However grapevines can rapidly expand play in a very natural way, which eases your work on the backend. The results are entirely driven by player activity and because you're writing the grapevine, it dovetails into the adventure you've prepared.
Related:



Hack & Slash 

On Reader Mail, A Quantum Quandry

Dane writes in and says:

"I'm a student of Games Art currently working on my dissertation. . .my question is this;

Assuming you have Woods A and Woods B as 2 separate paths the players can take but that regardless of their choice they will encounter the Ogre at the end of either; would player agency still have been removed if the journey through Woods A and the information or experiences therein painted the Ogre as an enemy, while the journey through Woods B sympathized with the Ogre, thereby changing the players perception of the Ogre based on the route they chose?"

Oh, how we complicate things that are simple. Player agency isn't removed in either of the situations. The players take no action that the Dungeon Master subverts. There's no action taken that impacts agency. The players make a choice with no information and one of two encounters is presented.

If they had taken some action before, investigating the woods, looking for tracks, etc. and had an intent that was subverted ("We want to avoid the ogre") that would be a different situation. Picking between two doors with no information about either and having one of two encounters has nothing to do with agency.

But wait, there's more!

Linear or Sandbox

"The reason I ask this is because player agency seems to play a significant roll (sic) in whether a game could be deemed as linear or open world and a point of debate seems to be having multiple routes to the same objective. From the bigger picture, 2 paths between point A and point B could simply be seen as a single path with a large obstacle in the middle and the 2 paths simply being the way the player chooses to go around it. However, on a closer look, if each path grants a different perspective on point B, or simply provides a different experience, then the player's choice retains its significance and could also determine how the player chooses to deal with the Ogre therefore preserving the players agency despite the inevitable encounter with the Ogre."

There is a real question here. Dane is talking about video games (the thrust of his research), but his question is applicable to both agency and design.

Player agency, whether the player can take action that matches his intent, is only tangentially related to the linearity or sandboxness of an environment. That is a spectrum determined literally by whether the avatar has choices of where to go. If you have two routes to the same objective, that's not strictly linear but I wouldn't be looking around for sand.

If 2 paths are given, and each has a different perspective or experience, and this is communicated to the player, then as long as the expectations are maintained; agency is maintained.

Let's drill down on this example a little bit:

Two paths diverge in a wood, at the end of both (where they meet again) there is a boss fight with an ogre.

If the left path is creepy and spooky and the player takes the left path and it's filled with skeletons, agency is maintained. If the left path is creepy and spooky and then the player walks down it to discover rainbows and unicorns agency is not maintained. The same as if the path were bright and sunny, and you keep getting attacked by ghosts and undead. Players were unable to take an action that matched their intent.

The fact that both paths end in a boss fight with an ogre is meaningless, especially in a video game. Chokepoints with boss fights are basic expectations in video games.

Significant Choice

The significance of the choice the player makes is not related to the agency of the player. What determines if a player has agency is if they A) have an intent and B) are allowed to take action that matches that intent. That is the determinator of agency.

What's important here is that they, on some level, understand the consequences of their choices beforehand. That allows them to have an intent. They have (or gather) information that allows them to make a choice where they have some idea of the outcome.

It's very important that we don't fall down the hole of endless strawmen in response to this answer. Yes, you can subvert player expectations. Yes, you can give misleading information. No, that doesn't impact agency as long as you don't take action to prevent the players from investigating further or taking precautions.

If they don't have information, then the choice is random. There are very few circumstances where this is appropriate. In Super Mario Brothers 3, when you were given an option of 3 chests to pick, the contents of the chest you pick were decided when you entered the room. This is widely regarded as a complete dick move by the programmers. It is literally illusionism where the cost is precious moments of a player's life.

Ultimately it isn't the ogre that's always in the woods that impacts agency. If the player doesn't want to fight the Ogre, they can always stop playing, get up, and walk away. It's when you remove meaning from or in response to the choices the player has already made that it turns into a bad experience for them.

Thanks for the question Dane. If anyone has anything they want to ask, feel free to write me at campbell at oook dotgoeshere cz



Hack & Slash 

On Campaign Design Patterns

In my personal experience most people are very, very, bad at campaign design. It's one of the reasons that gaming over hangouts has been such a positive experience. It's one of the only ways to get to play with high quality, high skill game masters.

What's my metric for high quality, high skill game masters? Do you have an online game with over 100 players signed up to play? Does your real life player pool exceed 20 people who want a spot at your table? Do players you do not know in your local area contact you to run games for them? Have you been running a game for the same people for over a decade and they are still excited about playing? These are some signs you are a high quality, high skill game master.

I've already addressed the cohesive theory behind campaign design. Now we are going to look at specific design patterns, putting that theory to concrete use. I am doing this so you can link this article to people who are bad at campaign design so they can read this and not be bad anymore because of how concrete and helpful it is. Please. I'm not begging, but let's help people! Right now so they can stop making me sad!

Note that unlike software (or architectural) design patterns, the following patterns all are methods of solving the same problem: How do I structure a campaign at the table with real players? They are all different patterns of solving that single problem rather then a collection of patterns to deal with a large variety of problems, as in code or architecture.

Campaign Design Patterns


Linear Sequence: A series of scenes/rooms/events that follows a sequence in sequential order.
Design and Scope: Linear sequence is the single most important campaign design pattern. It is simultaneously completely necessary and often terribly misused. Your campaign right now is completely linear, if you believe accurate time records must be kept for a meaningful campaign. The key factor in the design is that the sequence of whatever is in the campaign must be sequential.
The scope of this pattern is the broadest of all patterns which is why it's so important. Most campaigns only allow time to flow in one direction and do not use flashbacks, time travel magic, or other dilation effects. Time and its inexorable path forward is the most common use of the linear sequence in role playing games.
Linear Time
There are lots of reasons outside chronomancers that a campaign might not use linear time. Many classic first edition campaigns did not use linear time, due to training rules. Sure, the fighter might be out for several weeks training, but players often had alternate characters and might go on adventures that would take them out of the local space for months at a time. Their adventure would move forward and the characters back at the base wouldn't. Then the campaign would jump back in time to deal with the adventures of the other characters. This is one of the reasons for the strict admonishment in the 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide about keeping time records for a meaningful campaign.
And, of course, there are always chronomancers.

When discussing space, it refers to a sequences of encounters (rooms, scenes, etc.) that can occur in only one order or sequence. Note that providing side passages that can be explored do not undo a linear sequence. If the characters enter, and there is only one way between the starting scene/entrance to the final scene, then the linear sequence pattern is in use, even if their are side rooms and closets to explore.

Use: The linear sequence is by far the most common structure used in adventure materials sold to the public. Everything from the first major adventure for fifth edition, Tyranny of Dragons, to many Dungeon Crawl Classic dungeons, to Pathfinder adventure paths primarily uses the linear sequence. 

Why? Because people don't live, eat, and breath role playing. Linear adventures are easy to prep and easy to use at the table. It's a way for Dungeon Masters to prepare and run a campaign without a significant amount of work. It allows the Dungeon Master to open up the module or adventure path and go "Where were we?" and simply respond to player actions and direct his players to the next encounter area. The linear nature guarantees that set-pieces and "designed memorable encounters" will occur at regular intervals.

What's more, is that adventures and campaigns that are designed around linear sequence are often purchased by collectors, not by people ever intending to run them. The linear modules or adventures read in sequence with good imagery, and function as a form of entertainment for those who don't have a group to play them. An adventure that isn't linear and is instead a toolbox full of things that interact in strange ways has less of a traditional story structure and (generally) makes for less entertaining reading.

In small doses linear sequences are critical for successful adventures. Small sites such as monster lairs are an example of linear sequence being put to great use. Having a strict linear time sequences avoids heinous complexity, of time moving forward but party members not having spent their time yet. The outcomes of some player choice allows linear sequence to be used as an effective tool, e.g. the player makes a choice triggering a linear sequence of events.

Consequences: The largest consequence of linear sequence is the inability of the player to affect the outcome. It's most useful when focused on allowing the character agency in "character builds" and combat for tactically focused games and providing agency in the choice made during the scenes.
Although simple for busy players who want to get a game in, linear sequence over the course of a long campaign is soul-crushingly terrible. It is a very reactive style of play. Players show up and wait to be told where they go and what they do next.

The reason this is a real consequence and not a preference is that the primary advantage of role playing games over other media (such as video games or board games) is agency and infinite play. In campaigns that use only the linear sequence design pattern, both agency and infinite play must be limited or eliminated in order to retain the advantages of ease of use. In the likely case of a player looking for those specific things, a long linear campaign (i.e. adventure path) can seem like a slow, painful, death by one-thousand cuts.
Related Patterns: (Forthcoming)


Base: A safe place where adventure does not occur.
Design and Scope: This can be a building, headquarters, or even a city that the player's have their character's retreat to between sessions. The key factors in the base design pattern is that it is not a location in which gameplay occurs. It is the assumed location of characters before play begins. Use: The base is a crucial part of constructing a campaign, especially at low levels and for beginning players. We are playing a game, and as is useful in any game, it's important to have a line between where the gameplay begins. This base/game divide is as important as the overworld/mystical underworld divide in communicating to the players what their expectations should be. It's important that there's a clear delineation between what's a site for gameplay and what's not. Having a base is essential to that.
Base Camp
If you're having trouble wrapping your head around why this is so important, imagine sitting down at the start of your next session and saying "While you were sleeping, someone snuck into your room and stole several of your magic items." What does this communicate to the players?

  • I'm not safe anywhere. 
  • I don't have any expectations that gameplay ends anywhere. 
  • I'm going to have to describe where I keep all my things
  • I have to spend a non-trivial amount of time each session explaining the steps I take to insure that I don't ever leave myself open to this. 
  • Since their aren't any safe areas, I should make a list of precautions I have to take at all times.
The question that needs to be asked is: Is this what I want gameplay to be about?

Later, as the game progresses, and the characters increase in power, the focus can shift to them creating a base (Building a castle, et. al.) once they have the resources to do so. Gameplay concerns (enemies, rivals, etc.) drive the need to create a safe place.

An excellent example of this progression is Dungeons & Dragons basic module B2: Keep on the borderlands. It's clear from the setup and introduction that the Keep is not a base, but rather itself a site for exploration and adventure.

Within it, it provides opportunity for the players to acquire their first base at areas 7 and 14. Private apartments at number 7 are available for the well to do, and there is an inn with private rooms for a gold and a public room for a silver. Page 7 further notes the progression continues as they may eventually be allowed into the inner bailey upon completing a quest, and eventually once they've reached a certain level of power and dealt with the internal forces in the keep,

"After the normal possibilities of this module are exhausted, you might wish to continue to center the action of your campaign around the KEEP by making it the base for further adventures which you may devise. For example (assuming that the group has done good service for the Castellan), have a large force of bandits move into the area, and then appoint the group to command an expedition of KEEP troops, mercenaries, and so on to drive them away. Or the party might be-come “traders” operating out of the KEEP, hoping to find adventures as they travel in the surrounding area. . ."

Consequences: Having a base is entirely about communicating effectively with your players about where the gameplay lies. It answers questions so they can enjoy making meaningful choices, rather than being on the defensive and not knowing where to focus their energy. It isn't necessary to provide an area without risk, but is very useful for low level groups as well as helping players focus their energy on the gameplay you've prepared. Being clear about the relative danger levels in housing options also fosters an area of trust at the table and allows players to make informed decisions. Do I want to spend 1 silver to sleep in a common room, or pay 1 gold to sleep in a private one? Related: (Forthcoming)


We'll look at some more design patterns Wednesday.


Hack & Slash 

On the Religious Fanboy

Like this, only with a HUGE sword
Should you get rid of clerics in your game?

This question is a unique intersection of crucial information in the campaign.

Are they known gods? New gods? Should they have a selection of Judeo-christian inspired cleric spells? Does their existence explain away literally any mystery in the campaign? Are they not gods, but just powerful humans? Do they dictate right and wrong?

Are you going to have an alignment conversation?!?

On Gods and Superheroes

In the upper right is a picture of Yahweh, the israelite god of weather (or possibly divine winds) and war. He is a holy warrior, riding a chariot, wielding a honking huge sword and slaying the enemies of the country. His army is a host of stars and planets that smash his enemies. At various times he was associated as married to Anat or Asherah. Eventually, as we all know, he took the place of El, becoming a single god, shedding his pantheon containing thousands.

This guy, you see to your left, it the avatar of America. He is a patriotic warrior, wielding a shield and riding a steel horse. He leaps into battle against the enemies of America, smashing them with the stars and stripes of his shield, torn from the woman he loves, a man out of time, he struggles to find how the values of america fit into a hostile future—

Clerics were (and always have been!) the comic fanboys of their nations.

They gather in comic book shop temples, gather at huge comic-cons to worship, and war endlessly online with members of other faiths. Can Superman beat Batman? Is the new DC line awesome or terrible? Will the new new DC line be terrible or awesome? (Protip: Don't get hopes up.)

People have always been talking and telling stories about characters that are greater then men are. Is a god popular? Then his legend changes, with a heel/face turn, or perhaps the opposite when they fall out of fashion.

Time passes, and these stories get co-opted by societies, changing as the societies themselves change. Superman goes from being an alien in a human costume to an alien who is a man that puts on an alien costume. Iron man becomes alcoholic in the 70's. Someone important dies. And then they come back to life.

What's popular is what resonates. What resonates is what hero, what myth, represents the struggle of the people.

That's what the cleric is doing. He's reading the latest issue and arguing over it with the other members of the clergy. The higher ups are crafting new stories and tales and altering the old ones for new people in changing times.

The interaction with the pantheon is much the same. A fan of Captain America doesn't disbelieve in Thor. Thor and Cap hang out together all the time. Sometimes they are on the same side, and sometimes they fight. What's important is that you're a fan of Marvel and not those crappy DC heroes.

Clerics in the Game


The above is a perspective that makes the idea of cleric more palatable. And really, that's what we are talking about every time this comes up. Gods, clerics, and holy spells cause logistical problems. If you can heal, cure disease, and resurrect, then do leaders die? Are their epidemics? Does each god have a portfolio? Is that a lot of extra work? Are gods, gods or just beings on a power-level beyond characters? Does Healing magic just waste everyone's time, devaluing hit points as a resource and shoehorning in a character "because we need a healer"? Are armored spellcasters really a good idea?

These are a lot of annoying work-heavy questions for elf-games.

In the games I create, I've eliminated clerics entirely. I also tend to design spellcasters as needing to be much more focused, leading to a "Healing caster" niche for some. Having an unarmored healing caster class as one of over a dozen different specialties means that someone only takes it when they are actually interested in taking the healing role. Other games contain no healing class.

It's possible I'm understating the problems with the cleric. How do the common people react when every god can perform miracles on the street? Open access to an entire spell list? Turn undead neutralizing a whole class of monsters which become overwhelming otherwise? How about their paucity in fantasy literature?

If anyone is already formulating an argument for why clerics should be in the game; you know, stop. Clearly a lot of these problems have been surmounted. Someone wants to play a cleric in 5e, I just hand them the deity list, along with the convenient "additional deity specific" spells. It works. That plus spending hit dice during a rest plus being in the Forgotten Realms addresses most of the points against clerics made above. But the fact that changes were made, shows that it was a fairly common issue for groups to come up against.

Really, the problem isn't surprising, considering the entire class is a reaction to a single player, running around an ancient castle playing as a vampire, causing everyone grief. Nearly half a century later and we're still dealing with the fallout from that.

Get rid of clerics or change them if you want. It can only do the game good.


Hack & Slash 

On Innovation in the Old School Renaissance II

As you look over these items, some of which won multiple awards, keep in mind the number of people who aren't even exposed to this way of thinking. Excepting of course that which trickles down to the larger releases seen by the public at large.

It's good to have the industry leaders chasing your avant garde curve.

Posts of Singular Utility


Rob walks us through the creation of the feudal system he uses for the Majestic Wonderlands. Getting these kinds of things down and in print is an important aspect of the usefulness of blogs, and i love reading about the creative process of other people.

Pierce talks about elves. Your brain melts.

Another interesting development in 2015 is that kellri began posting to the blog again after a six year hiatus, though the content is much less earnest then it was in the past.

It is no joke how good this interview about Fire is between Dungeon Smash and Patrick

Alex had created the rapidly expanding and useful face generator as a super useful tool for role-playing games. There's almost half-a-dozen artists already and it takes just a few minutes to join and get started making your own faces. Of course you could use the millions of faces the generator already makes in your games, I suppose, if you were into pure, unadulterated, utility. This definitely gets my vote for best new automated role-playing game tool of 2015.

Among the erratic, yet consistently good stream from blog of holding, we got one page Spelljammer rules which is totally useful, both as an artifact and as an examination of a process on how to simplify something.

Dyson Logos is creating an artifact of power.

Releases in 2015

Last year started with an amazing release, Strange Stars by Trey Causey. It is kind of a revolutionary setting book, providing an entire universe of interplanetary adventure in about 20 full color pages. It was a good start to the year.

James Spahn's White Star came out to some glowing reviews, and some not.

Kabuki Kisers release this year was Castle Gargantua, the "Largest" (Sic) megadungeon ever released. It uses preset rooms, along with random generation, to allow your characters to move through the dungeon on a snakes and laddersesque board to generate a functional fascinating fun megadungeon crawl.

Richard Leblanc's released several important volumes last year, Creature Compendium and B/X Psionics. Richard spent some time with Steve Marsh talking with him about how psionics was originally envisioned for Basic/Expert, and then he spent approximately forever playtesting it. Personally, I'm super excited about B/X.

Yoon-Suin finally saw the light of day and it was glorious. What a strange renaissance to have. Both unannounced projects and the ones we know about years in advance that we long for meet our high expectations.

Petty Gods, that long maligned, oft forgotten albatross was finally released. 400 pages of instant at-the-table goodness. It's a pretty amazing work, available free or at cost for the print version.  There were various grumblings about how some of the gods weren't serious enough, but only by those people who are completely ignorant of the origins of the hobby.

The second amazing release from Chris Kultilk, Fever Dreaming Marlinko was released continuing to expand on our glimpses of the marvelous Hill Cantons. We expand into urban territory and tiger wrestling. Tiger wrestling. Just saying that again. Wrestling tigers.

Kevin Crawford release a free design guide to classic TSR layout and style If you're looking to emulate early works such as Basic/Expert or old modules, this is a fantastic resource, It comes with an indesign source file making it even faster to layout your work.

Wonder and Wickedness is possibly one of the most important spell systems ever published. It is a replacement for magic in a fantasy setting and does so by creating a magic system that is actually magical. No, not magical like Blackleaf hanging herself because she learned real magic, but magical in that it makes spell-casters feel like dabblers in the actual arcane.

If you're not into Vacant Ritual Assembly you should be. It's a Lamentations of the Flame Princess zine put together by the people you figured out were actually cool after you discovered that the people you thought were cool, weren't. I mean, who doesn't need more information on the culture and magical powers of the flesh-sewing of the Oolai people? Issues 2-5 came out in 2015!

John M. Slater of Nod fame continues his prodigious output with two versions of Bloody Basic, The Mother Goose Edition focused on fairy tales and The Sinew and Steel edition focusing on brave knights, storming castles, jousts, and other medieval events.

KDJ of Echelon Game Design continues quixotic task of collected every character option in pathfinder. It is a layout puzzle to challenge the ages: How do you take a four page wide graph of all the feats related to unarmed strike and fit them in a book legibly?

There were more releases that I'm less familiar with, Dark Albion: The Rose War (), an alternate historical setting by Pundit, Inventory v.1 a 70+ page book of illustrated items. Zzarchov's Gem Prison of Zardax which received high praise.

Oh. Although it wasn't released in 2015, Red and Pleasant Land did manage to snag 4 Ennies in a year a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons was released. Much to some people's chagrin.

This isn't a release, but Wizards of the Coast shuttered their forums. Much of the talk was how it was about time, but there was an incredible amount of content on those boards. Some of it was saved, but much was lost. Time marches on.

Conclusions

I was playing Dungeons & Dragons like I do several times a week, and one of the players said "I look on the beach for anything that has washed ashore." I picked up my ipad, entered "things on beach" as osrsearch, and within seconds got a list of 100 things you find washed up on the beach.

Here is what I know. I am involved in several games every week. There is so much good, new, material that the games I'm playing are more fun then ever. Dungeons & Dragons and old school type games get played and they are changing and better than ever.

Look over the last two posts. That's just this year.

If you're telling yourself there's no innovation in the old school, or that the old school renaissance is dying, then a 3000 word list of all the products and development in the last 12 months isn't going to change your mind. As to why, you'll just have to ask yourself that.


Hack & Slash 

On Innovation in the Old School Renaissance

The Old School of the Future! (source)
The Old School Renaissance is dead, right?

The blogosphere is drying up, no one is writing anything new, the end times are neigh! The gaming explosion is dead.

Well, not so much.

Let's ignore the fact that the 5th edition launch, a monstrosity somehow combining the best parts of 4th edition with a Basic/Expert shell had the largest launch of any Dungeons and Dragons edition ever.

What has the Old School Renaissance and the blogosphere been doing in 2015? Let's take a look:

Blogs of Note


The Patreon supported Alexandrian posted "Don't prep plots! the principles of Role Playing Game Villainy" not one week into 2015.  This kind of refinement of ideas and analysis turning into concrete tools you can use at the table continues all year long at the Alexandrian. This includes posts such as The Art of Rulings, discussing in depth the process of making rulings at the table. The essay was started in 2011, but the extensive essays on parts two through six were all published between October and November of 2015. The series is a practical and academic look at what actually occurs at the table during a role-playing game, and is a good example of why role playing games aren't Magical Tea Parties.

He also produced a number of adventures posted up on the blog, including, The Lost Laboratories of Arn  A radical expansion of two one-page dungeons that he prepared for his players, but was never used. It's stated up for his personal simplified 3rd edition, making it trivial to convert. He also produced numerous full adventures, remixes, and expansions of adventures for a variety of systems, Star Wars, Trail of Cuthulu and the Strange.

There's also the standard insights and useful advice always found on his blog. Most notable in 2015 is the exhaustive analysis and dissection in his manifesto on Railroading.

The Alexandrian is over a decade old and was one of my personal portals into the online community. It recently has experienced a resurgence in creative content. This is due to people giving him money. It is totally bonkers how that works. That said, this format is producing blog posts, where his Kickstarter met with less success.

Ok, ok, you say. Of course Jason produced some awesome stuff in 2015. He's been doing it for a decade. Telling you the Alexandrian has good content is low-hanging fruit. You're probably saying to yourself, "That isn't innovation! That's analysis and categorization!" Fine.

Let's talk about Centerra!

This year was the most prolific year by Goblin Punch author +Arnold K. There is no writer who's work I find more exciting. Every place and thing he describes has a reality to it and yet remains eminently gameable.

I don't think there's ever been a setting outside my own I gave much of a damn about, but I dream of the day Centerra gets released.

So what did Arnold do in 2015? Highlights include his work on class design, In fact, his whole suite of classes are designed to tackle unique problems and make them gameable, from the  Bug Collector, a class that has catch and release spells based on terrain to the rat master a class based around disposable minions, to the Hierodule a class based around pacifism, to Duet classes for two players like Brute/Rider and Dog/Master designed to be played by two people. Nothing innovative there, eh?

No, wait. I'm not doing a good job of communicating the value of his work.

How can I make you believe? He's revamping undead. Read this from the Shade revamping:

"Non-magical, non-holy damage cannot reduce a shade below 1 HP.  When they are at 1 HP, they look like a person-shaped hole in the universe and speak like a windstorm (full of wordless sound and fury)."

It's all like that. Every word of every post.

What's the other big news of 2015? Multiplexer writing Dungeonocomics at Critical Hits. This series is filled with the most thought provoking and creative essays on the Dungeons and Dragons gestalt. If you're not reading it, you should be.

Most non-old school games I've played in are a pastiche of tropes about medieval society. Never something creative, rarely original, and mostly pseudo-medieval dressing as a backdrop between set-piece battles, which also usually aren't very interesting.

Real history is fsking hypnotic and bizarre. We need more of that in our games, but that's kind of hard to implement, what with the magic and all. Enter Dungeonomics, which examines what actually happens to the pearl market on the supply curve of evil to how a tontine would function in a magical, adventurer rich world. Who's behind those quest-givers and what are their real motivations? Cargo cults and how Murder hobos are natural risk assessment machines. Murder hobo insurance, flying castles, scams, wealth distribution, price ceilings, and more!

It is some mind-blowing fantastic writing going on over there.

Drama in 2015


So, what was the drama in 2015?

Gnome Stew, wrote one of their most telling articles in years, reaffirming for me, at least, that I wasn't wrong about removing them from my feed. I wasn't getting any useful gaming content, and what they had for me was social drama content. Pretty simply, I don't feel like a creep, because, I'm not! James Raggi had a much more thorough and eloquent response.

That's not all, because the escapist doubled down on letting us know they were sexist discriminatory frat boys with money, but the really interesting part is the personal experience of being a creative who works with them.

As an aside, even when restricted to chromosomes gender isn't binary. It's made up of a bunch of different systems, all of which are made from gooey non-binary flesh which produce people. So Brandon Morse's claim is doubly ignorant, both of science fact and his attitude towards gender. In physical reality gender is a spectrum, so if that isn't something you're comfortable with, you're going to have a bad time.

As long as we're discussing 2015 drama, let's not forget the invention of the term "Sealioning". This particular drama is interesting because it's about public and private spaces. A blog, the internet, facebook, twitter, these are all public spaces as public as a town square. But because of their presentation to us, many people feel that isn't the case. If I make a public statement, well, then, people have the right to hold me accountable for it, no matter what I think they should or shouldn't do. A lot of this clears right up when you start to respect spaces as they actually are, rather than how you wish them to be. (Obviously this leads into Twitter taking a cultural stance in 2016, but we're talking about last year, sooo. . . )

Another worrying piece of early year drama, what's OK for us to read? Because if you talk about the wrong person or the wrong game, you get their negative traits transferred to you! This is how James Raggi became a Nazi. Or not.

Oh, and we aren't going to get through this section without mentioning the enormity of Ken "Whit" Whitman, who bilked kickstarter backers of out of over 140,000$, bought a new car, went on vacation, and then lied to backers over and over again as campaign after campaign failed to deliver, continuing his decade long habit of stealing from the gaming community.

Speaking of kickstarters, Far West? It's too late to join the pool, but it's good reading.

There was also a fair bit of drama with the Gygax family this year. From a lawsuit against Gygax magazine, causing both brothers to cease their association with it and cessation of publication, to vague non-answers from Gail Gygax about the status of the Gygax Memorial fund. Why is it so hard to get the memorial built? Where's the money Gail? The news isn't good.

If we just let people lie to us, they will continue to lie to us. Hold people accountable!

Join us for part 2 tomorrow, when we look at posts of singular utility and actual product releases of 2015!


Hack & Slash 

On What the Future Holds

I don't usually talk about personal things.

But I'm not gone and things are changing, so I'm going to.

2015 is, thankfully, behind us. Cancer, car wrecks, breakups, custody battles, moving, delays, hospitalization, injuries, and crisis after crisis made it one hell of a year. Yes, all that happened. I really lived life in a deeply intense way for the last 12 months.

But the good news is 2015 is finished. I am healthy, stable emotionally and financially, and somehow am still managing to game twice a week.  I played Hackmaster on Saturday with one group and started a Risk: Legacy game on Sunday with another. All of the changes were positive ones for everyone involved, and moving forward we are all happier and healthier. That list above of tragedies are experiences that are essential to the human experience. I am gloriously alive for experiencing them.

Near the end of the year, I was doing some paid writing for publishers, both Role Playing Game related and not (I am a writer after all) which cut deeply into my blogging time. My schedule has also changed, and I have my daughter during my previous writing days which has caused me to have to adjust my schedule.

I have a million things I want to write about. But before we do that, let's talk about the future and money.

I run what I consider a fairly successful Patreon. The way I'm going to manage that is going to change, but to find out how, let's look at how it was managed last year.

It 2015, my net income from Patreon was $ 2,154.51 
This is minus credit card fees and the cut Patreon gets.

My Patreon related expenses for the year were as follows.
I paid out $238.02 to other Patreon Creators.
I paid $168 to Cancer Research (and owe another 47$ to make it 10%—I've been preoccupied)
I paid $2,652 to Artists, Writers, and other Creators. Those articles not by me in Hack & Slash compendiums? Those people got paid .05$ a word. I'm proud of that. Artists did art. Writers wrote words.

So, what I'm communicating here, is that Patreon enabled that to happen. It made blog posts happen. It made artists and writers get paid. No Patreon? Then the work of 2015 wouldn't have happened. The 300 blog posts since I started the Patreon wouldn't have happened.

The point is that the idea behind Patron is not to extract money. It allows me to be a conduit of creativity that creates products and helps creators who are not me get a fraction of what their talent is worth. Those things, in spite of life, are going to burst from their creative womb, stronger for their tribulations and see the light of day.

But as the Patreon become more successful, my style of posting became more problematic. Sometimes I spend six hours on a post, but it ends up being 5,000 words. Should I split it into two parts? What about 750 word top 10 lists? Are those 30$ of my writing? Am I upsetting the public?

I want to be clear, these aren't questions of self-doubt, they are honest examinations of work, its value, and how I desire to interact with my audience. It's important to consider the way people interact with media. 1,500 words is perfect for a blog post. Longer and someone doesn't finish, or clicks save and never gets around to reading it. But I want to write posts that are longer than that, so by splitting them up and putting them under Patreon as two posts am I doing a bad thing?

What about quality? I did some online "office hour" hangouts which were fun, but editing for 8 hours is not. Should I put up the unedited, 90 minute hangout, or take the time to edit it down to a tight 22 minute piece of entertainment? Is one a disservice to me? To my viewers?

So here is what I would like to happen this year:
  • I would like to continue to engage with creative people and continue producing and encouraging the production of high quality content. 
  • I would like to write and have longer more in-depth articles (4,000-8,000 word articles) be Patreon Supported in ~1,500 word chunks, while shorter pieces would be free. 
  • I would like to talk to and hire someone about editing 60-90 minutes of video two to four times a month. I'd pay you, because f*&k working for exposure, but I can't afford full professional rates. If you know someone who dabbles, would like some extra pocket money, and is reliable, put them in touch with me.
Well, that's the stuff I'd like to see that I can do something about. I've got in-progress art for Perdition, and several people with manuscripts that I'm told will see the light of day. I hope to see all that too. The nice thing about the way I work (as opposed to kickstarter) is I'm not disappointing anyone with a moving deadline. 

If this sounds awesome, go chip in on the Patreon. If you can't right now, take some time to share work that makes you happy and thank those that allow these free things to be posted to the public.

We'll see you very soon, with more posts!


Hack & Slash 
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