Dungeon Master Mentors

Here’s an idea spawned from a review of Mythmere’s Advanced Adventure Design Deskbook and the recent discussion about the difficulty of sandbox play.


Another group I’ve involved with runs a year long mentoring program each year for people new to it but serious about it who are interested in the controlling role. A combination of classes, meetings, and one on one mentoring by an experienced member are provided. More commonly, individuals find mentors (it is highly recommended by serious people in the lifestyle) to go to with questions and for support. In this case it’s not just the particular role the formal mentoring program covers but everyone is advised to get one or two mentors.

It is often said that a good DM can make any game better and a bad DM should ruin a perfect game. We can identify at least some of the masters both hobby wide and locally.

So, perhaps those of us trying to see the hobby thrive and make sure we have a supply of good DMs and players to play with are trying the wrong thing. It’s not the perfect boxed set or licensed game or level of rules complexity we need to provide. We need to take new people, especially new DMs, under our wings. Give them someone to bounce campaign ideas and problems off. Maybe even be their sponsor they can call when their game goes wrong. Sure, it’s more like something out of KoDT than our lives as gamers now.

Maybe it shouldn’t be that way.

Personal Appendix N: Short Fiction and Why It Matters

In yesterday’s discussion of the canon for the May Project I said:

If there is one area the OSR dances around but I’ve yet to see someone directly address is the importance of short fiction. A large amount of what is considered primary source material for D&D, via Appendix N and other sources, is short fiction. The Dying Earth is an interlinked collection of short stories, for example. The Hour of the Dragon was Howard’s only novel about Conan and it comes in at 72,659 words making it short relative to the fantasy novels of today.

This brought two responses. First from Trollsmyth:

I’m very curious about this comment, however. I’ve always seen the bedrock of the OSR being the short stories of Howard, Lovecraft, CA Smith, Leiber, Vance, etc. Or, at least, the D&D thrust of it. How do you think this has been ignored? How is a foundation based on the short-form significant?

and the second from Scott:

Co-sign. I’d say Gygax was influenced as much or more by the fruits of Argosy and other short fantasy fiction markets than novels. Some of the bedrocks rarely or never worked long, and others such as Dunsany did some of their best work in short form.

which both wonder why I think this is ignored.

First, I did acknowledge, albeit indirectly, that this has been brought up if you read the full quote. However, my indirection is the reverse indirection of what I’m talking about. Many, many people have all discussed the key early sources for D&D but I can count on one hand how often the difference between these sources and most modern fantasy in terms of length is discussed. We’ve had long discussions on the transition from Conan the free-booter to Tanis Half-elven the Heroic World Saver with the introduction of Dragonlance. What we have not had is a discussion about how we moved from a canon built of a variety of tales whose longest tale is a 72,000 world novel and a canon which is made up of three books averaging 120,000 word each which form a single story.

Why is this distinction important? Because one of the most common way to express what an RPG is “it’s like a novel or movie except you’re the main character”. This idea creates a certain set of expectations. First is the highly detailed overall world. Second is the idea that the campaign forms a single cohesive narrative. Third is it emphasizes the importance of every event in the process to moving towards the common end of the narrative (digressions are possible in a cohesive narrative but it is rare in modern genre writing).

If we emphasized the source material made up of short stories as in “it’s like a series of short stories or a television show where you’re the main character” we would create different expectations. The most obvious difference is the lack of the larger narrative which everything has to support. Some modern TV shows, especially genre shows, have used narrative arcs of various strengths but even they have plenty of irrelevant to the broader plot episodes. However, it goes beyond that. Nothing detailed in Dragonlance early on existed for anything but its use the story. If this sounds similar to my points in memoir is story it is. Conan’s tales read much more like episodes in his own memoir than a novel.

If you don’t think what kind of sources we use influences our expectations let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s say I wanted to set a game primarily based on Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar. Using Jeff’s rules I can have two fluff sources.

First, imagine the game setting I’d design if I based it on the Queen’s Own trilogy and the The Last Herald-Mage trilogy. It would be a very top level game. Most of the threats would be existential for my central kingdom. The characters would be primary heroes charged with “saving the world”. My setting details would high level discussions of rulers, borders, and long reams of history. Why would I have these things? Because much of these stories are centered on these things over smaller local details.

If, instead, my primary sources were Finding the Way and Other Tales of Valdemar and Sun on Glory and Other Tales of Valdemar what would it look like? I would be more likely to have inspiration for a bunch of individual locations whose broader connections would be more nebulous. I would know kingdom B was to the left and duchy C was to the right of my primary setting, but beyond B is good guys and C bad guys I wouldn’t have a lot of info on the relationships. Instead of a few big heroes, I’d have details and ideas on a lot of prominent figures who none the less didn’t dominate things. I would have a better picture of how characters fit into the setting without saving it.

Another dimension is the kind of campaigns short stories, series novels, and episodic TV inspire over epic novels. It is hard to imagine a sandbox if your only inspiration is The Lord of the Rings, novel or movies. It’s much easier to imagine a sandbox or episodic game when you’re reading the combined Conan novels or watching Star Trek: TOS. In fact, the linked Grognardia post about Star Trek: TOS is one of the few discussions about short fiction as RPG inspiration and why it works although even then James doesn’t discuss that directly.

If you go to the primary sources Gary et al uses this is obvious but that doesn’t always help. For one thing, if I’m interested in modern magical games I need a way to distill what makes Conan work better for designing a game than Tolkien. To take it to visual media why Space Seed is better inspiration than Wraith of Khan which is better than Undiscovered Country. Another reason it’s worth knowing if I want something more modern in its sensibility it helps to know that it’s better to use the short stories in my favorite world than the epic novels as we saw in the Valdemar example.

Memoir is Story…

I got to thinking about story in RPGs after reading the Hack & Slash analysis of O Glossary entries at the Forge. Specifically, of interest is the idea of “Ouija Board Roleplaying”. The idea evolves out of the belief at the Forge that one must prioritize and create story intentionally for it to occur in roleplaying. Edwards et al would go on to claim that players in Simulationist play (defined by them as play that prioritizing exploration), especially those who who concentrate on exploring a world as is the case in most OSR influenced games were expecting story to simply emerge which, according to them, was impossible.

While the analysis does skewer the issue appropriately I think it misses something crucial. It’s conclusion gives a key to this:

The entire category is a strawman, because there is not a single actual real world instantiation of his example. People aren’t sitting around tables, and rolling them, waiting for an interesting occurrence, they are playing a game, and characters, and it’s those interactions that create something special.

I would argue in sandbox and other OSR playstyles we are in fact waiting for interesting occurrences. In fact waiting for interesting occurrences as opposed to having them fixed in place as much happen items is one of the defining characteristics of sandboxes and other open play forms (another mistake I think he makes but that’s a quibble, a sandbox is always open play but not vice versa).

What is confused here is that story, or better yet narrative, is not restricted to fiction. In fiction, narrative is a planned thing. The author chooses which events occur in the fictional universe. If the author chooses it to happen it happens and until he inserts it into the story it hasn’t even happened. We may presume Harry Dresden eats every night at Burger King but until Jim Butcher inserts a visit to BK by Harry it hasn’t happened. Remember our ability to insert such events because they create an interesting symmetry later.

In contrast, a memoir constructs a narrative out of a set of pre-existing events. A person takes everything they’ve experienced in their life and selects a series of events that tells the story of their life. Biography does the same thing but the process is done by someone else. Journalism and history can also be done this way. Shelby Foote’s history of the Civil War is not groundbreaking in the sense that Foote perused primary sources to create a unique history of the war. Foote worked strictly from secondary sources but created a narrative version of the war. Foote’s success is not in finding new facts but creating a coherent story that organized facts about the war.

That is what Edward’s misses in what he calls simulationist play. Players in these games are living parts of the life of their characters. Story emerges not because the people at the table are co-authors creating a story in the fictional sense. Instead, they are individuals who, after the fact, create memoirs of their characters’ lives. This is how story “magically” emerges during play. People look at the events they experience, decide which are important, and arrange them into a story. In the broader sense the game can be seen as creating history which I think is what -C is after when he talks about things like motivations for NPCs and external events. However, in saying we’re not waiting for interesting events I think -C goes a few degrees off target. As he points out we create interesting interactions but we only know which ones are memorable and important (those part of the story) after the fact.

I think the problem many people have with this concept of story emerging from play is its lack of uniqueness. If we view the emerging story from play as memoir constructed by each player then Osric the Fighter will tell a different story that Mallamabar the Druid and both will be different from the story of Ian Lee the Monk. This maps very well to my experience. Ask all your players to summarize what happened last session separately and you will get roughly the same story but some will include parts omitted in others and the emphasis of common parts will be different. If your goal is literary story via play you won’t get the Lord of the Rings. You will, however, get the first three volumes of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.

Note: When I first posted this I forgot about the interesting symmetry I pointed out in the fiction example: We call also take fiction and back fill the other details. This is what much of fandom is about, filling in the non-story details that interest us or move the story closer to the one we want told.

Monday Pointers: Unemployed Edition

D4:Starting Like a Kid with a Sears Catalog
Scott at Huge Ruined Pile suggests building a campaign like you just had the Moldvay Basic set and addiing the Cook Expert set when someone reaches level four. I’ll discuss changing this to a more recent boxed set later this week.

D6:But What if I Added Harry Dresden and Dr. Who, then where are we
I’m actually linking to a comment, not a post but riffing on Jeff Rient’s excellent description of D&D: “You play Conan, I play Gandalf. We team up to fight Dracula.” in describing what a true sci-fi game in that vein would be: “Luke Skywalker and Spock team up to fight Cylons.” James Mal would add “on Arrakis” and change Spock to Kirk but either way it is a goal worth shooting for if I ever get back to Space Monks.

D8:What Fits in a Session
A new blog gets to Monday Pointers: Telecaster’s Receding Rule has a great little bit about dungeon design and what will fit in a session. Although I’ve been playing (and DMing) a long time my dungeons aren’t the greatest. So I love collecting bits and pieces to help me get better.

D13:Yep, I’m Looking for Work
As the title says I’m out of work. My employer had large layoffs the first of September and that accounts in part for my absence for September. I have another month of severance and good leads.

It’s About Sticking with Your Choices

James Maliszewski has asked about advanced old school games. His basic contention is that old school does not equal rules light. While he is true in chronological terms, and even uses the obvious example of just about anything published by Fantasy Games Unlimited there is a problem with including these games in the modern old school cannon.

The modern old school definition seems to have settled out onto three basic pillars. They are do it yourself, rulings over rules, and player skill over character skill. You can arguably add a four pillar which is literary sources over gaming sources. Advanced games strike directly at two of these, rules over rulings and player skill over character skill. The first of these should be fairly obvious while the second may not be.

To briefly cover the case for complex rules emphasizing rules over rulings you have to ask why more complex rules exist. In general they developed for two reason, which are somewhat interlocking. The first was realism, more correctly called verisimilitude. This was a major concern across the wargaming community throughout the 1970s and when wargamers began creating roleplaying games the concern crossed. Among readily available games today that date to the period the classic example of this is Rolemaster, most specifically Arms Law. The second reason is to cover all possible cases. The full Rolemaster system is also an example of this. It has twenty armor types, tables of modifiers, and hundreds of skills to cover every possibility in action and characters.

This last point shows how this starts to attack the player skill over character skill paradyme. This is really an extension of the process that brought up the theif. Complex games, with their breakdown of character abilities into finer and finer points as well as creating more situational modifiers encourages players to optimize against the rules set as opposed to optimzing against the situation. When you have a simple game the player’s do not have a laundry list of possible advantages and have to interact with what the judge describes. When you do have that laundry list players are encouaged to listen to the description through a filter created by that list.

At this point I have to ask, why is D&D3 not old school? I don’t think it is, but the only existing pillar it seems to really violate that complex older games like Rolemaster do not is the literary influences over gaming influences. Yet, I think most people will agree third edition was not old school even if it was recognizible as part of the family.

I think the difference, the fifth pillar, is up front choices versus continuous choices. In old school games your upfront choices were much more limiting than in new school games. Rolemaster opens every skill to every character and there are no per level forced abilities. In fact, leveling in Rolemaster beats the complexity of any third edition I played (although I quit before the insane prestige class prep that seems to have characterized late play based on my reading). Yet, a Rolemaster character is much closer to a pre-third edition D&D character in terms how his class defines him. He won’t multiclass, has no prestige class to graduate to, and will pay a high penalty for going outside his core skillset in terms of overall abilities. While you might emphasize character skill more that player skill in more complex old school games that skill is still more narrowly defined. When you choose to play a fighter of some kind you are playing a fighter at level ten, not a fighter/sorcerer/cleric hybrid who is going to join the Order of Draconic Lightbringers for some weird capabilities. Sure, your fighter is a two handed weapon specialist who knows ten psychic healing spells while their fighter is a bowman who also mastered savate for when the drunken dwarf calls a bar fight, but fighting is still their defining characteristic.

What really interests me is how we can apply this insight to make D&D3 a much more old school game. Perhaps d20 is the jumping off point for the advanced old school James is looking for.

Note on “What I’m Reading”

As I’m sure you’ve noticed I have a “What I’m Reading” sidebar with links to the books at Powell’s (yes, I’m in their partner program).

Traditionally I’ve only listed fiction that would seem to have a gaming bent there, but that’s far from all I read.

Today I decided to add the non-fiction book I’m reading right now, Seth Godin’s Linchpin. The reason is much of the book is about work that is also art. Godin defines art as a personal gift that changes the receiver. While I’m not 100% happy with that definition it, and much of Godin’s discussion, applies to roleplaying games in my mind.

This blog actually has an elevator pitch. The one line version is the subtitle above:
Championing tabletop role-playing games as the most accessible form of public creativity and self-expression.

A book about art and connection and creativity is certainly one that fits that pitch. I tend to read books about creativity, self-expression, and art. From now on I’ll consider them fodder not only for Dark Etiquette but this blog as well. That includes adding them to “What I’m Reading”.

I promise not to subject you to my computer and mathematics reading, however.

An Idea Has Been Eating My Brain

I came across this comment by the Trollgod himself via Grognardia:

Yes. My conception of the T&T world was based on The Lord of The Rings as it would have been done by Marvel Comics in 1974 with Conan, Elric, the Gray Mouser and a host of badguys thrown in.

Original Source

I think this could be the basis of a second alchemical proposal with three ingredients:

Rules: Pick a core rules set. You can use any game but only the core rules. Then add a single supplement for any game, not necessarily the one you are using.

Setting Inspiration:Pick the core book of your favorite fantasy setting. You may pick any setting but go for the core book/books. If you want Valdemar you get the original Heralds trilogy. For Pern, you get Dragonflight and Dragonquest. For Narnia you would get the four books with the Pevensie children. However, you’re not directly taking the setting but using it as an outlines: geography, character types, magic style, etc. You can also get characters and broad setting plot lines (wars, etc) from here.

Imagery and story types: Use one entire year’s output of your favorite comic company. From these get your imagery to describe fights, plots and motivations for NPCs, and even NPCs outright. Where the fantasy books provided your macro scale outline the comics provide your micro scale inspiration. For me it would probably be either 1977 DC or 1984 DC (I was always more of a DC fan), but you could do some minor or even indie company. The reason I say pick a year at a company over the run of one comic is there is more likely to be a distinct flavor to a given year than to a given comic, especially at the two majors.

For example, imagine your next Microlite20 supplemented with Testament game built using Narina (as above) with the DC 1984 run. Or imagine a Mutant Future game supplemented with Palladium’s After the Bomb that took its broad outline from Farmer’s Dark Is the Sun and the 1971 DC run (which brings in all of Kirby’s Fourth World among other things).

I think Jeff’s proposal was a brilliant idea. I think mine is pretty good, but I’d love to see others of you post formulas that you’ve used or just think would be interesting. Limited pallet is a powerful creative force. A sense of direction is as well.

Mentzer Dungeon: Introduction

This week I pulled the trigger on BCS Redbox and BCS Rebox Meetup. Our first meeting will be Sunday the 17th of April.

I don’t have anyone signed up but me. As such, I need to be ready to run something. While I have a ton of modules and such I thought, “since we’re playing Mentzer why not build a dungeon by the book.”

So, over the next week I’m going to try and pretend I’ve never done this before and design a dungeon step by step with random stocking of most rooms and all the other hallmarks of Mentzer’s procedure. For those wonder, the outline isn’t much different from Moldavy’s outline but the text is somewhat different.

For those who don’t have Mentzer handy the steps are:

  1. Choose a Scenario
  2. Decide on a Setting
  3. Select Special Monsters
  4. Draw the Map
  5. Stock the Dungeon
  6. Fill in the Final Details

My goal in this is two fold. First, I’d like to get back to basics and see if I can rediscover things I’ve forgotten, both in process and in response. Second, I’m hoping these posts will inspire those, especially those who have never designed a dungeon, to take the leap.

Other articles in this series:

A TED talk that has the soul of the OSR

Larry Lessig on laws that choke creativity | Video on TED.com

Most of this isn’t particularly relevant but two things are:

1. A lot of people complain using the OGL to create the retro-clones is just laziness at best and parasitism or piracy at worst. I think Lessig has a better interpretation in that the OGL has created a remix culture. While the first few out of the gate hew close to the original newer games like Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Roleplaying and Emprise are certainly going new (and very different) directions. My Chest of Wonders, which I haven’t discussed much, will hopefully be a new direction for another part of the family tree.

2. The core of roleplaying, to my mind, is expressed in Lessig’s “Read Write Culture”. Late last year I actually wrote a mission statement for this blog, the short version of which is now the subtitle. The long version, the elevator pitch is, “Places to Go, People to be champions tabletop role-playing games as the most accessible form of public creativity and self-expression. We provide reviews, ideas, rules, inspirational sources, and other guidance and encouragement for people to play tabletop role-playing games in a traditional manner. We prefer homebrew settings and mix-and-match rulesets. We want each game-master to build a unique game that tells the stories he and his players have in them instead of acting out stories already written. Are you ready for old fashioned adventure?”

Mix and match rule sets and telling the stories you and your players have in you are the essence of the OSR for me. While I do again with JER IV in that all it takes to be a member of the OSR is to play one of our games honestly and without irony I see that as lay membership. Initiate membership is when you start remixing the pieces of our games (and other games for that matter) to create your own (for those curious about Rune Lord membership see Grognardia for how it’s done…for Rune Priests, get busy creating your own material that becomes part of the common vocabulary).

So as a closing note, let me make two recommendations, one of which I pledge to follow with any products I produce and the other as another suggestion on where to find not only new players but plain fellow travelers:

1. Embrace open gaming via the OGL or Creative Commons. You don’t have to give up the farm but at least give back 10% of the total you have drawn from the open gaming world.

2. Meet and talk to the kinds of people doing the video and music remix culture. Listen to Paul’s Boutique (20th Anniversary Edition) and Fear of a Black Planet, two of the greatest sample albums of all time. When you meet a local remixer or YouTube video maker, invite them to your game. The ReadWrite culture is our culture and they are our people.

Robert Dubois of Dream Pod 9 Follows Up

First, before we get to the content of his reply let me publicly thank Mr. Dubois for taking the time to respond.

Second, let me appologize to him for letting this post sit for weeks.

Now, his response:

We talked it over at the office and will be correcting the price of a few of the titles next week (after the GM’s Day Sale ends) mainly a few of the older books that are priced at 70% off the printed book price they will be reduced to 50% off, for Tribe 8 its only the 2nd edition players handbook that will see the price decease. Our newer books for Heavy Gear Blitz will maintain their current pricing. I read the post you linked below and can understand peoples point of view, we have to live with piracy and we still have to pay all the writers, artists, sculptors, and production staff that work on the products, be they printed books or eBooks. One thing we came up with at the office was the idea of making bundles the eBooks for each gameline and selling them for a special additional 25% off discounted price for people that want to pickup the entire gameline at once. We’ll be putting those bundles up next week after the sale ends. Let me know your comments about our plans.

I’m glad to see they are looking at it. I’m disappointed that are doing so little. As I said in my original post I understand the issues with PDFs of books currently in print. However for PDFs of out of print books different rules apply.

As for having to pay his staff: if five plus years out of print books aren’t amortized off they never will be. If he is depending on PDFs above reasonable price points to fund future projects he also has problems.

The simple fact is, as is proved by a post over at RPG Blog 2 about The Cortex System PDF being over priced, there is a ceiling to PDF prices. If you can’t get under it I would say don’t bother being in the market.

Dream Pod 9 has ceded my business to the used market as has White Wolf. Perhaps I’m unique but I doubt I am. In a business with razor think margins pushing customers to the used market or piracy is not a smart long term strategy.