Diana Jones Shortlist Announced

The shortlist for the coolest of all gaming awards, the Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming, has been released, and it’s got me, at least, very excited. For one thing, I’m actually familiar with more than one item on the shortlist. Indeed, I have reviewed two of them on this blog.

I am not familiar with Burning Wheel Gold and I am cynically suspicious of the mechanics in Risk Legacy that require you to destroy parts of the game, but the other three on the list are strong contenders. Crowdfunding services like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo are nothing short of revolutionary, especially for an industry like ours.

However, it’s the last two books on the list that have me all excited. First, there’s Vornheim, written by Zak S. and published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess. It’s a remarkable work that delivers in its compact form as complete a city product as the classic boxed sets of the 1990s. Though the book acknowledges its position within the genre of D&D fantasy, it refuses to be shackled by its tropes and gives them its own weird fantasy spin. Vornheim is full of clever ideas in both content and presentation, and an Award delivered to Zak would not be a misplaced one.

My personal favourite for the award is Nordic Larp, edited by Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros, published by Fëa Livia. Frankly, I must confess to being quite surprised it made the shortlist—not because it were not deserving, but because it is a niche product detailing the exploits of a relatively small group of gamers quite far away from Gen Con. It is heartening to see that mere geography is not an obstacle to such deserved recognition. Nordic Larp shines a light on a gaming culture very different from the one that engages in heated debate over the new edition of D&D on RPG.net or EN World. It’s an exceptional, challenging culture, often provocative, sometimes strange, sometimes frightening, but always fascinating.

And it’s a damn beautiful book.

Adventures in Forum Gaming

I wrapped up my first play-by-post Pathfinder RPG scenario last week. I ran it on our Finnish Pathfinder Society forum, as a sort of an experiment on whether it can be done and to figure out how it works. The module I used was The Frostfur Captives, by Jim Groves. It’s a pretty good module, but that’s not the main point of this text. You may consider it a companion piece to this post from 2008.

First things first: yes, we finished it. Forum games are fragile things and die easily. They don’t require a great deal of time or commitment as such, but they make their demands on a daily basis. The Frostfur Captives took us 93 days, with six players and a GM. There were some quieter spells at some points, especially when I lost steam in mid-March, and during my trip to Berlin in April. No players dropped out, though. Overall, I deem the experiment a success.

Of course, the play-by-post format imposes certain limitations on the practical side of the game. All rolls were handled by me. Some I rolled by hand, some on a dicebot on our IRC channel, depending on where I was at the time of posting and whether the roll was such that the players could know about it—e.g. Perception rolls to detect an ambush would be rolled in secret while the initiative rolls when the ambush gets sprung are public.

Similarly, not all information was public for all players. We utilized the private messaging system of the forum extensively, especially when characters executed their secret faction missions. After complaints by one player, the decision was also made to shift information on the health of a fallen player character to private messages. They were also used to communicate ahead of time what the characters would do on their combat turns.

Another important thing is that there’s no battlemap. While there are various ways I could execute it, they’re all rather work-intensive and anyway, as one of my players pointed out, the lack of a battlemap reduces gamist thinking. I give descriptions of the environment and list distances and directions. It is up to the players to interpret them accurately. Of course, I have a notepad with an accurate battlemap that I use to keep track of where everybody is.

We host character sheets on the Mekanismi wiki, with the rest of our local Pathfinder Society stuff. Usually the character sheets are public. One of the players likes to have his sheet behind a password, but I had access to that one as well. It’s pretty much mandatory to have the sheets somewhere online for a game like this, so I can update the game on my mobile phone from a café, if need be.

We had two separate forum threads for the game. Primarily, there was the in-character thread where the gaming action occurred, and secondarily the out-of-character thread, where people asked questions, commented, had arguments about differing playstyles, and complained about the leisurely pace.

PFS scenarios are organized into several acts and the action usually flows logically from one act to another. In some of the more sandboxy scenarios, the middle acts can sometimes overlap or be played in a different order from the one presented, but The Frostfur Captives is about taking a bunch of goblin prisoners from Point A to Point B, through intermediate points, wherein lay encounters and challenges. I opened each act with a longer, very descriptive post, sometimes utilizing art and always including a YouTube link to an appropriate piece of music. For this scenario, I drew from the soundtracks of the games Icewind Dale and Icewind Dale II, since they do an excellent job of evoking the kind of cold, wild desolation that I envision Irrisen to be.

I think the act structure and the fact that there’s a clear endpoint to the game in sight is a contributing factor to the game’s success. Everyone is working towards a goal and, for the most part, will have an idea of what they should accomplish next. The action keeps going and it’s pretty much never dependent on a single player to make a move. If someone falls silent when their character is called upon to act, I can allow them a day or two to react and then just coldly skip them. This has been an issue with many forum games that I’ve seen. To my shame and regret, I’ve pretty much killed one last year by falling silent, and I was a mere player.

The scenario chronicle sheets were printed out, filled by me, and then scanned and mailed to the players as .jpg files after the game.

The forum game differed from tabletop sessions by its tone. The written medium forces people to consider how they express themselves more carefully than they would in a face-to-face situation. OOC banter is also entirely absent. The result is that the game moves closer to an exercise in collaborative storytelling. Of course, each participant has their own idea of what the style of the game is and the characters can be a very strange bunch. For instance, the party in my game included two sorcerers. One of them was Black Annis, a very dark sorcerer character from the far north, whose player was essentially running her as a Vampire: The Masquerade character, and the other was Gnublebum Rikikii, a whimsical gnome with an affinity for goblins. It’s a challenge for the participants to reconcile such disparate characters and the story of the adventure itself into a cohesive whole. Unlike a regular tabletop gaming session, a forum game is not ephemeral but is preserved for posterity, even if some of the events that transpired are visible only to me and the player in question, in our forum mailboxes.

I’ve now seen how a journey module works online, and I think it worked pretty well. My next project is Mists of Mwangi, which is closer to a traditional dungeon crawl. I am interested in seeing how it works on a forum.

Incidentally, the game is now accepting players. It will be played in Finnish, I estimate the timeframe to be around three months, and will be played at Tier 1-2. The signup thread is here.

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.