The Manifesto of the Materialist School

I posted this on the Roolipelaaja forums in reply to a thread about storebought adventure modules that had a few days previous gone off-tracks into the untamed wilderness where there be dragons and Forgeist trolls.

Some people (well, me) thought it was amusing, so in lieu of creating new content, I translated this.

 

The Manifesto of the Materialist School

The most important tools and aids of the game master are his imagination, his pencil and his pad of graph paper, and a quality adventure module.

 

Only after these come the rulebooks, the laptop, the GM screen, the mallet used to discipline unruly players, background music, and dice. Only the imagination or the adventure module can offer a direct answer to the question “what the heck am I gonna run tomorrow?”

 

The first and foremost goal of an adventure module is direct usability as written, for its first and foremost advantage against an adventure written by the game master himself is the amount of time used in preparation and its comparative ease. This goal is supported by finished maps, NPCs, a carefully crafted milieu and all that other cool stuff that helps the job of the game master. It should also be well written, and the so-called “boxed text” must be clear and understandable, and include all information of significance of the scene described.

 

An adventure module does not need to include any rules material, but in this case it also should not be tied by plot or setting into a specific game. If the module is about the intrigues between Houses al-Malik and Decados, it is either disingenuous or just plain lazy to leave out those Fading Suns stats. Double-statting for more than one game (such as Fading Suns’ D20 version) improves usability.

 

When the adventure includes rules material, it should follow the rules of the game. If the adventure uses rules material from outside the core rulebooks of the game, it should include enough information to be usable without the additional sourcebook. If the adventure knowingly breaks or bends the rules, this should be done in such a way as to not cause compatibility issues, and have a damn good explanation.

 

To be of quality, the adventure must be playable as a part of an extant campaign. It must not make assumptions about party composition except the most general ones that can be drawn from the game rules and genre. A D&D adventure cannot hit a brick wall because the group has no tracker, and a Vampire adventure should never assume the group to include members of a certain clan. While the adventure must allow for failure, it must be because of the party’s own deeds. Challenges should allow for alternative solutions or enough information that the game master may adjudicate the results of unorthodox approaches.

 

To be of quality, the adventure’s story must be whole. It must have a beginning, a middle, and several endings – one for each logical conclusion of the story. What happens when the player characters succeed? What happens when they fail?

 

To be of quality, the adventure must be internally consistent. The plot must not contradict itself, the NPCs must be believable and the it all must work as a whole. The adventure is not required to follow real-world logic, but it must follow its own. Deviating from this breaks the illusion.

 

To be of quality, the adventure must include something that makes the game master want to run it instead of taking the time to write up something of his own. Good examples are a surprising or an intelligent plot, a complex political intrigue, an elegantly executed chase scene, a well-crafted atmosphere, the introduction of the game rules or setting for beginning players, an innovative reimagining of an old genre convention, a truly interesting NPC, or simply epic proportions.

 

When the adventure fulfils these demands, it may be good. How it all comes together in a whole is the key. The rest is in the hands of the game master. The adventure may be used entirely or in part. It may be looted for plot, NPCs, milieu, maps. It may be run as a one-shot or as part of an extended campaign. It may be refurbished for another game system or genre. Kalashnikovs may be turned into swords, orcs into gangbangers, the demon prince into a corrupt politician, and catapults into Howitzers.

 

I have spoken.

Dragons of Spring Cleaning

Figures. I get a new blog up and immediately my home internet connection dies on me. It’s in times like these that USB memory sticks and workplace computers show their true worth.

The other day, before my AD&D 1st Edition game, I swung by the game store and picked up a few items. One of them was Dragons of Spring. It’s the third and final adventure module of the classic Dragonlance trilogy, updated from the original 1E AD&D ruleset into the shiny, new 3.5. Well, sorta new – between the release of Dragons of Autumn and Dragons of Winter, the first and second episodes, 4th Edition was announced and Margaret Weis Productions’ licence to publish this stuff was supposed to expire at the end of last year. Apparently, this one was the last of the series they managed to squeeze out before they lost the licence.

The concept of making light of the classic 1E adventures does have some precedence. Around the turn of the millennium, Wizards of the Coast released a series of Greyhawk novels, including three by Paul Kidd, White Plume Mountain, Descent into the Depths of the Earth and Queen of the Demonweb Pits. They’re so hilarious (intentionally, in a good way!) my stomach cramped when I read them a few years back, and I can only heartily recommend them. There are also Aaron Williams’ Nodwick comics in some issues of Dragon, where the party visits old adventure modules. They’re funny, but unfortunately many of the jokes hinge on knowledge of the modules.

The History

For those of you not yet in on the joke, the Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy, the one with Caramon and Raistlin and Sturm and all your other favourite fantasy clichés, is based on these. Well, the first one is, at least. I think the novel release schedule caught up with the module series – originally numbering twelve – around Dragons of Winter Night, and the final novel came out before its corresponding four modules. I’d still imagine the plot outlines of the novels are based on those of the modules, though. I’ve always thought it tremendously amusing. They’re pretty much the most popular of all the D&D novels, coming maybe second to the Drizzt novels, and they go and spoil the plot of the modules from the start to the finish.

Now, I understand Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman have been going back and doing a new series, also based on these adventures, where they go over the bits that the original series missed. Lost Tales, I think they’re called. Dragons of the Dwarven Depths, as far as I can tell, is based on Dragons of Hope and Dragons of Desolation, for example, which were skipped over in the original trilogy. I think most of Dragons of Ice was handled as a poem in the beginning of Dragons of Winter Night.

I mean, pretty much every player of the game has read these when he was a kid. What DM would even consider running the adventures when he knows that his group has every big reveal and twist memorised by heart? Everybody knows Eben Shatterstone will turn traitor at a predetermined spot. Also, everyone wants to play Raistlin. Wolverine’s claws optional.

Well, I would.

The Campaign Classics

Ever since I picked up Dragons of Autumn, I’ve been considering running them as a campaign, complete with the pre-made player characters.

Those characters are an interesting set, by the way. You’ve got the original Innfellows, the nine nincompoops who everyone knows and loves, but also the cleric Elistan, the gnome Theodenes, the elven princess Alhana, and some others like the fighter Vanderjack who never got to even make a cameo in the novels.

Anyway, I think they’d make the perfect D&D comedy campaign, just served straight-up to the players. It’s impossible for anyone who’s read the novels at age twelve to take it seriously at age twenty-two, so humour springs naturally without any extra work. (Actually, in my experience, that’s the only way it’ll ever spring in a game – if you actively try to make a funny game, it tends to fall flat.) Also, there’s the therapeutic value of seeing Tanis Half-Elven bite the dust fifteen minutes into the first session at the hands of Fewmaster Toede.

There’s also some genuine gaming history and nostalgia going on there. They’re classics. You can question the quality of the story, the depth of the characters and the general naivety of it all, but the fact remains that everybody knows who’s Raistlin and what’s funny about his eyes.

I’ve been poring over the classics a lot lately. If my deductions are correct, our DM in the 1st-Edition game is running us through the GDQ, and there’s something else that I’m working on that’s involved reading choice parts of the S series. The classic adventures – Dragonlance, the GDQ series, Tomb of Horrors, I6 Ravenloft and so forth – form a type of shared experience for gamers who were active in the eighties. It was before the product explosion of the nineties when TSR could release up to sixty game books a year. Both the RPG hobby and AD&D were different then, and those adventures were what you had. I surmise there was some word-of-mouth thing going on, but everyone ended up playing at least some of them at some point. It’s an interesting phenomenon, and perhaps worth exploring later in more depth.

Returning to the inherent hilarity in offing a procession of Heroes of the Lance in ignominious ways, I was also considering showing the players the cartoon adaptation of Dragons of Autumn Twilight after the group had wrapped up Dragons of Autumn. Roolipelaaja gave it half a star, and my DVD is already on pre-order. Should be perfect. I hope we’ll get the other two as well, though I kinda doubt it.

The Palette

Of course, I still should go over the desired tone of the game with the players first. Something I’ve noticed is that it really pays to make sure everybody is on the same page about what sort of game you’re going for.

Last year, I started in a game run by a friend of mine called Stefan. I came to the game after nearly two years when almost all my gaming on the illustrated side of the DM screen had been Living Greyhawk, where the tone (at least in Naerie under Sampo Haarlaa’s iron fist) is one of grim realism with a rainbow of grey shades. There are also many plot elements that foment intra-party conflict. I sorta went in without thinking about it all that much, assuming Stefan’s game would be more or less the same. He’s a veteran of Living Greyhawk, as was one of the other players, and all of them had been seen at an LG table at some point.

Now, when you go in with an expectation for serious intrigue and intra-party conflict, it’s better to make sure that everyone else expects the same. If not, you’ll have an unsatisfying experience at best, player conflict at worst. It makes everyone uncomfortable and does not make for good gaming.

Crushing Tasslehoff with a grand piano, though… that does.

Pathfinder

Right, on to business.

A couple of days ago, Paizo gave everyone a fright by replacing their front page with an image of goblins burning the town and an announcement that goblins had taken over the offices and were forcing a decision.

Fortunately, it was not a declaration of bankrupcy, or a decision to get out of the business, or even discontinue a game line.

Indeed, it was pretty much the ballsiest move I’ve seen a gaming company make since Wizards of the Coast came out with the d20 System Licence seven years ago.

What Came Before

For a bit of background, Wizards of the Coast is coming out with the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons next summer. It’s actually closer to the ninth or eighth edition, but nobody cares. Now, the current, or third, edition, was released with the d20 System Licence. This means, basically, that any game publisher can make D&D-compatible games, accessories and sourcebooks and sell them, without paying Wizards of the Coast a dime. It makes sense to do so, too, because D&D is the market leader by a margin so huge that it isn’t even funny.

Now, the next edition of D&D is not going to be compatible with the d20 rules. Also, while it will have its own licence, it will be a lot more constraining. Also, any company who wants to get stuff done before the licence becomes public in… 2009, I think, has to pay WotC $5,000 to get the rules in advance. WotC, however, has been tardy in making this actually available. Additionally, by the designers’ own admission, the rules of the new game will be so different from the current edition that conversion will not be recommended, and unlike with the second edition-third edition shift, no conversion guide will be forthcoming, which in turn will mean that the loads of sourcebooks released for D&D and under the d20 Licence will be essentially useless to a 4th edition game. But I digress.

What Paizo has been doing until now is release a quality series of adventures under the d20 licence, called Pathfinder. They’re pretty, have high production values, and at the first one, Burnt Offerings, is one of the finest first-level D&D adventures I’ve had the pleasure to read. Paizo started the series after they lost the licence to produce the Dungeon and Dragon magazines for WotC – a task they also performed admirably. The discontinuation of the magazine was a black mark on WotC, especially since their online replacement for Dragon is nearly void of useful content. WotC has made a great many unpopular decisions with 4E, and they’re bleeding fanbase.

The Pathfinder adventures have apparently been selling well – to the degree that it’s a pain in the ass to try and snatch a copy of a new one over here before they’re sold out. The first Pathfinder story arc, Rise of the Runelords, has just come to a close, and the next one is kicking off. Paizo has scene cred and goodwill up the wazoo.

The Meat of the Matter

Now, Paizo is cashing in on the popularity of their game line, and pretty much establishing themselves as the new top dog of the d20 System industry, and ensuring that the game will keep going even after the third edition rulebooks by WotC have gone out of print and been dumped by retailers. They announced Pathfinder RPG, a roleplaying game that promises to fix the many, small, niggling issues with the current edition of D&D while retaining backwards compatibility.

And to top it off, they’re doing an open playtest. Alpha testing is already underway, and the first alpha release is available for download. A classy move, that.

The major selling points here, for the record, are the backwards compatibility and keeping the rules on store shelves after WotC abandons the game. They’re marketing to an extant player base, the people who are heavily invested in the current edition, and/or don’t like the look of the new one. Meanwhile, keeping the rulebooks on sale means the game system is alive and supported, which makes it possible for new people to pick it up, and perhaps just as importantly, sends the message that the game is still alive, still being supported. Continued support for a game is very important to certain players. It’s mostly just psychological, but getting errata is always nice. It’s even nicer when you don’t need it, though.

The beta test release will hit next August, and will be both a free pdf and a dead tree edition at a game store near you. The final game will be hitting the shelves in August 2009. They’re also starting an organised play campaign, Pathfinder Society, which, as an RPGA veteran, I find most interesting. Of course, they’ve got Erik Mona on board, who was there kicking off that whole Living Greyhawk thing that I’ve been playing for the last four years.

Me, I will be running playtests once I can find the time. Our resident number crunchers and rules lawyer already combed over the first alpha and identified possible sticking points, which we can then test, document and post to Paizo. Also, I’ve been dying to run Burnt Offerings.

Hi

So. This is my shiny new gaming blog. Why? Well, mostly because I like to write, and I like gaming. I do a lot of both.

Me, I’m a 22-year-old occasional student and occasional office assistant from Finland. I’ve played roleplaying games since… let’s say 1996. Possibly earlier, but I was young and can’t honestly remember accurately. I started with Middle-Earth Roleplaying Game, which I still can’t figure out, and have since played or tried to play over a dozen other games. I have a packrat mentality, and I think my collection numbers a bit over eighty games at the moment, with the total number of rulebooks, supplements, sourcebooks, accessories, magazines and adventure modules in the hundreds. Of kilos.

I dread the day I have to move.

Currently, I mostly play Dungeons & Dragons, with occasional sessions of Dark Heresy, Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, Godlike and a few other games. I’m also playing in an ongoing campaign of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, first edition.

My published writings include a few articles in Roolipelaaja, a Finnish roleplaying game magazine, one Living Greyhawk adventure called NAE7-04 Unyielding, and along with Kaj Sotala and others, a book about roleplaying games that was imaginatively named Roolipelikirja (“Roleplaying Game Book”) and published by BTJ Finland. I’m currently working on another Living Greyhawk adventure with Sampo Haarlaa, scheduled to come out next summer.

I also frequent a number of Finnish and foreign RPG forums and have varying levels of posting activity on each.

This blog will contain stuff about the traditional roleplaying games. Likely a large amount of D&D material, possibly game reports, reviews, my opinions on industry news, and whatever else catches my fancy. I may also document forays into the world of electronic games, though as my computer grows elderly, I hate consoles and consider Planescape: Torment the pinnacle of computer gaming, those will be rare. I’m fairly deep into the workings of the RPGA in Finland, so that will also be occasionally featured. I’ll try to keep the rate of updates at around two a week, but I know I’ll fail miserably at that and say that if I get something up once a month, I’m doing fine.

What this blog will not contain is roleplaying game theory, LARP stuff or discussions of storygames. I will try to keep One-True-Wayism and accusations of badwrongfun to a minimum. As long as you’re not playing FATAL, you’re doing fine in my book.

Let’s see what comes of this. I may be tinkering with the layout and the little things a lot in the days to come. Do not hesitate to give suggestions for improvement.

– Jukka Särkijärvi