I’m back. Because I could not be silent. I know that I put the blog to bed a while ago but recent events have upset my ability to let it go…
On this blog, I have been a huge supporter of Adventurer Conqueror King System. It is an amazing game and incredibly well-written, designed, and implemented. Unfortunately, it is also in bed with the notorious internet troll and alt-right hack, Vox Day.
Without belaboring the point, here is the outline.
- Autarch has a new kickstarter for two books for the ACKS line.
- Autarch worked out an agreement with Vox Day to provide a “bonus” reward to Day if his followers took up the battle cry to include content, “for the Dark Lord.” This also might or might not include adding money to their pledge specifically for this bonus reward.
- Vox Day advertised this by mentioning that one of the pieces of art he’d commission for his reward was, a picture of vile minions eating SJWs.
- A few – and I admit it was only a few – of us who are fans of Autarch spoke up about our concerns about this.
- We were very politely told that Vox is a big supporter and paid his money so that is it. The company (and owner)’s stance is strictly apolitical.
Before I go on, one thing is important to clear up… Alexander Macris, the man at the heart of Autarch… has always been excellent in my dealings with him. I worked the Autarch booth at GenCon last year because I believe in the product and wanted to be a part of sharing it with the world and gaming community at large. Alex has always been extremely straightforward and professional in our dealings and until this incident, I would not have believed that I would ever be speaking against Autarch. It’s a shame.
But life and business are not, in fact, apolitical. Providing Vox Day with a new soapbox is not a move I can support. He is abhorrent and espouses openly hurtful views under the guise of “rationality” and “standing up against the intolerant left.” His crusade – specifically against John Scalzi – borders on obsession. (Though even I must acknowledge that there is one area where Vox Day and I agree — Scalzi is a terrible writer.) Saying that you are being apolitical is a way to wash your hands of the other guy’s sins while still taking his money.
Alex and I then engaged in private communication. I will not delve too much into what he said as it was between us and not in a public forum, but there are two issues in his response which I feel compelled to take up.
First, Alex listed off to me a history of his business decisions which led him to his current stand on the issue of Vox Day. I understand the list he provided and the decisions he discussed. I appreciate him taking the time to provide such a personal response. That said, there is a fundamental difference and misunderstanding between many of his previous decisions and this current one. In almost every previous case, his decisions involved parties that were doing no harm and were simply, “objectionable” to one group or another. There is a fundamental difference between that and the active anger, disdain, and hatred propagated through Vox Day’s community and his own writing. Day has taken an active stand to be a troll and an extremist. He does harm by his actions. Alex said that the protest is about “who Day is, not what is in the book.” That is a fair point. But unfortunately, you can claim to be apolitical but you cannot claim that working with Day is the same as previously employing someone that others claim to be objectionable when they are harming none. That is a false equivalence.
Second, just briefly, I am going to quote one very small part of Alex’s letter to me. It is in the interest of speaking to it directly.
private economic boycotts over differences of identity and politics are harmful to civil society... I know that many disagree with me, and believe it is better to cause those who espouse unpopular views to suffer for them because they deserve it.
This is important. I do not believe that it is better to cause those who espouse unpopular views to suffer. No one deserves to suffer. What I do believe is that my private boycott of a product (also, not so private as I voiced my concerns in the Autarch forum before writing to Alex privately) is about not being willing to associate myself with the objectionable person or content specifically because of their actions. I don’t care about someone’s identity or politics in the abstract. I care about how they manifest those actions in the world. Vox Day is an internet troll who actively chooses to take a harmful road with his words and actions. His site and writing are not merely “words” they are calls to action. To say that you are apolitical but still associate with him because he has money and has said nice things about your work is not apolitical – it is willfully choosing to endorse, tacitly or not – the messages that he spreads.
Again – Alex Macris has always, always been excellent to me and I have a great respect for his hard work and the product he has created. Autarch’s ACKS is, really, the best D&D style game I have ever played and I’d rank it one of the best games in the market. And again, to be fair, Alex has repeatedly stated that he is in final control of the content and will be certain that it is appropriate to the tone and mechanics of ACKS. I believe him completely when he says that.
But the fundamental disagreement here is not about politics or identity. It’s not about whether Vox Day is a “good person” or not. I frankly don’t care. I’m not always a good person. The issue is that Vox Day actively creates a hostile atmosphere in our community and acts to sow discord, disdain, and spite while frequently patting himself on the back for same. And that is not something that I can associate myself with. If you have reservations, I hope you will express them as well.
I used the term “murder-hobo” in public the other day and I realized that to anyone who does not play D&D, they might seriously think I was endorsing lethal bum fights. I was on a college campus, so this seemed extra likely.
The context of my comment though, as it would make sense to gamers, concerned the idea that even though I – ostensibly – enjoy a sandbox, hex-crawling style of play – I wonder if sometimes I only think that I enjoy that. I worry about this because it doesn’t just inform my fun as a player but it affects my thinking when I’m planning and running a game.
If I may take a brief aside into video games, I really struggled to enjoy Fallout 3, but I very much enjoyed Fallout: New Vegas. The difference being, for me, that New Vegas included this whole layer of civilization which was lacking in F3. In New Vegas, I was able to connect with different factions, have recurring enemies, build a storyline around my exploration and I didn’t just feel isolated like I did in Fallout 3. I make no objective claims that one is better than the other – it’s just that New Vegas satisfied my need to be a part of something in a way that the purely open exploration of Fallout 3 could not.
This difference really affects my enjoyment of playing an RPG at the table too. I enjoy old-school play to the extent that I really enjoy fragile characters and having to make tough choices and the mystery of a wide-open map with a million stories to be told. But out of the OSR movement, I naturally gravitated right to Adventurer Conqueror King System because of its emphasis on civilization (especially in sharp contrast to the great wilderness). During the explosion of settings surrounding D&D, Second Edition, while everyone was raving about Planescape and Dark Sun, I was quietly sitting in my corner running Birthright (and I would love to see a Birthright revival in 5e). The domain rules appealed to me precisely because they inherently connected player characters to the setting. You were a regent (or if a non-regent, then connected in some way to survive the world of regents). When I was running Warhammer Fantasy, I unbundled the “blooded regent” rules from the domain system and used it in conjunction with my homebrew world. That was a seriously fun game.
Taking another example, out of all the Pathfinder Adventure Paths, the only one I was ever pulled toward was Kingmaker. The whole concept of getting a hex-crawl which was explicitly tied to the idea of building a domain was fascinating to me. It served both purposes and we had some very memorable roleplaying based around the council the team put together to run their budding kingdom.
Amber – my gaming crush from way back – is another example of finding this freedom. Characters created for Amber games are intricately and explicitly tied to forces larger than themselves which will demand their allegiance (or rebellion) and with which their interactions are vital. That said, during the course of any given session it is likely that the players will roam all over Hell and half of Georgia (as my Granny used to say) because they can literally go anywhere. But they still have important, inescapable social ties which are as much obligation as they are sanctuary.
So why is it – as I am running my second 5e game – that I find myself falling back on the habit of treating D&D like a set of disparate adventures thrown together in episodic fashion and not able to find my footing in building a sense of community and continuity? It’s a question that keeps me up at night.
There was an announcement that Green Ronin is going to bring back the Blue Rose RPG. I was excited about this for two reasons. First, I’m a huge fan of romantic fantasy. Second, I’m a fan of the AGE system and I am interested in seeing it supported outside of Dragon Age. That said, I was not enamored of the world/setting of the Blue Rose RPG which shares much more in common with Mercedes Lackey than Tamora Pierce (or new writers like Rae Carson). Don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy Mercedes Lackey’s Valdamar stories – and I certainly respect their longevity – but even for a civilization-loving gamer like myself I find everyone just a bit too reasonable for my tastes. Everything is just a bit too ideal. I mean, I wish the world worked like that. At the end of the day though, I appreciate the complexity of motivations which often seem to drive the characters from the later waves of Romantic Fantasy. That said, I am happy that Blue Rose is coming back if for no other reason than it had a beautiful aesthetic and presented a very different kind of fantasy – which is almost always a good thing.
To return to my problem which prompted this think aloud session… What is it about running D&D which shoves me back into module mode? Why do I find it so hard to create, in D&D, the same kind of free-floating wonder I am able to capture in Amber or other games? Why are there so few opportunities in the D&D realm to mix sandbox-style play with a world full of connections? Is it because the nature of sandbox style play (the freedom to roam) is conflicted by the need to have connections which, by their nature, tie your PCs down?
I struggle with this. As a DM/GM of over 30 years, with many successful campaigns at my back (at least, based on feedback from my players… I am often my own worst critic) why is it that I still struggle with a game I genuinely enjoy? It vexes me.
Let me close with this. I was reading some of the introductory material to Silent Legions and I found the discussion of sandbox play there refreshing. Specifically, the idea that “the stories it produces are all in retrospect – the tale of the choices the PCs made and the consequences that came of them.” This is a well-crafted thought and explains precisely what it is that makes me love the idea of sandbox-style gaming. It captures the spirit of what I have done in my best games – the ones I have run that even I love looking back on – which involves a give and take between the setting and the PCs such that sometimes they will have to accept consequences for choices not made; the road not taken and all that. If I can capture that again – if I can capture that sense of freedom and wonder compounded by a living, breathing world – I think I’ll be happy. Until then… I’m not sure what comes next.
Thoughts, feelings, reactions, stories? Feel free to share.
As always. Thanks for reading.
The Amber Diceless Roleplaying game is the greatest diceless RPG of all time. That is a statement of opinion but one that I will joyously discuss with anyone to explain the virtues of this most excellent system. To say that Amber DRPG changed my life would be a bit melodramatic. To say that it changed me as a gamer and a game master, not so much.
I had not even read the Amber novels when I was drawn into the game by the spectacular Phage Press ad which ran in Dragon Magazine. I was sold without even knowing the setting. I wanted to play this game with a “mature and demanding” character creation system and its weird auction rules that forced character creation to be both collaborative and competitive. As someone whose gaming life up until that point was dominated by D&D and GURPS, I couldn’t even imagine how profoundly I would be shaped by the ideas presented in that book and then explored through years of campaigns.
So this is part two of my observations about 5E started in my last post.
I’ve spent a little more time with the Starter Set box contents and the free D&D 5e PDF – which you should take a moment to download and read if you love RPGs and haven’t done so yet. Let’s not call what follows a review… let’s call it an exploration of my perceptions as I move through the material. I’m mainly going to focus on the Starter Set and occasionally reference the more complete PDF rules.
A disclaimer: I did not follow the playtest very closely. I kept it at the edge of my awareness but I did not play any games with rules, etc. I mention this only to say the new material was very new to me and not tempered by the playtest experience. Also, what follows is my own meandering ruminations and should be considered in that light…
The Short Version (again)
If you just want the really short version… I like it. I enjoyed reading it and think that some of what has been done here is amazing, some of it is derivative, and some is “meh.” But overall, I really like what I’m seeing so far.
Honestly, I don’t yet fully know how I feel about this. I like the new character sheet – it feels like an old school character sheet but with some notable differences (like prioritizing the stat bonus over the stat) which I find interesting and useful. Many d20 system-style games have simply done away with the base stat and gone to the bonus but I think keeping the 3-18 range is nice. 4d6 drop the lowest is probably the most common version of “roll your stats” and with a solid point buy option in the rules as well I think they covered everything.
The basic 4 races are covered well and each is pretty exciting. The use of subraces is awesome and really evoked 2e for me as I was reading, while still feeling like a new game. This makes me excited to see the full PHB and the treatment of some of the newcomers to D&D. One of the great innovations of 3e/4e was the fact that you could make effective characters (maybe not optimized, but effective) with almost any race/class combination. I’m a huge fan of this and happy they continued this trend.
Classes look solid. They all have something and the clever implementation of advantage/bonus actions seems like it will be a big part of 5e design. Obviously, with smaller design space it may become an issue at some point but if they are planning to keep the splat books to a minimum this may not be as much of a problem anyway… time will tell on this front. I like the idea of Backgrounds.They seem well-integrated into the system and to provide evocative, helpful choices without being all-important decision points. That’s a good thing. Yes, some of this stuff doesn’t need mechanics but these seem to be well considered and I think they are going to become a fun part of the new game.
We don’t know a lot about multi-classing or implementation of options like “feats” yet but from the little clues we have in the PDF, I’m happy with the direction I see this going in. It looks like a real trade-off and a genuine way to expand the design space without overwhelming the core choices. Again, we’ll see as it grows, but the initial implementation looks very well thought out.
I haven’t run a combat yet. I’m still trying to process how I’ll fit in time to play 5e around my Star Wars game and everything else I do during the week but… it says something that I actually want to do it. I’ll freely admit to being predisposed toward not wanting to play this edition. Now, I’m intrigued. Other than that, I’ll say that I like what I see about the combat chapter. It seems straightforward. I’m a fan of removing tactical/map & mini based combat as the core option (though I’m sure it will be supported as a play-style, which is good) and the focus on simple actions again feels like they learned real lessons from their previous iterations and really worked to keep the good stuff. I look forward to trying this out for the first time.
Magic and Spellcasting
I’ll start this by saying that I’m not really sure why the Fireball needed a base 8d6 damage (I get it, because they changed the scaling, etc.) but it feels really strong now at level. On the whole, I really like the “cast it in a higher slot” as an alternative to all the metamagic craziness of previous editions. Again, tough to say how it will grow and change across the life of the edition but just the basics we see now are very encouraging. Not sure yet if this will change but… I did love the discussion of “Spellcasting Services” in the equipment chapter and how no prices were attached. It was more about whether or not you could find someone willing to do it and what they’ll want in return.
One thing I’m still missing is the fact that spellcasting is still so simple. One action, no chance of failing for most spells. I get why, really I do, but after playing Adventurer Conqueror King with its system of asking you to declare spells in advance of initiative and then a chance that they get ruined before you go… that’s good stuff. This is fine, and probably “fun” but it seems too consequence free considering how overwhelming magic gets pretty quickly.
Something I’m wishing for…
So, this is just a little tidbit from me and my own wish list. I get why they are using Forgotten Realms as the default setting. I get that this makes sense for them from a product standpoint and a game standpoint. I do. But as they go forward with this edition, as they dive into the next incarnation of D&D I have to wonder… why not bring back Birthright? This incarnation feels like it would be perfect for Birthright (with the subrace rules and the focus on offering options through backgrounds) and its vaguely 2nd ed feeling. But more than that… we live in an era of geekdom practically ruled by Game of Thrones (btw, Birthright had a novel of kings and tragedy title, The Iron Throne, just sayin’). Birthright is the dark fantasy game of kings and armies with a vibrant, well-detailed world and history that D&D already has sitting right in front of it. Sure, it’s not really the best choice for the “core” setting experience but it seems a shame not to revisit this wonderful world perfect for the tastes and environment of the now. It’s always been a personal favorite and I’d love to see it come back.
Again, this is long enough. I can say without reservation that I’m heartened by what I’m seeing and I really think the new rules have a chance to be a great D&D, that feels like D&D and brings the community back together again to some extent. That said, we still know very little and we’ll have to see more when the full PHB comes out in August.
Thanks for reading.
This is a little random but I have a question which often vexes me. Why are spears the oddballs of weapon charts and rules in almost all fantasy games?
I’m going to start off by saying that I know just enough about the historical evolution of melee weapons and real world fighting techniques to admit that I don’t know enough. So I have no intention of attempting to dive down the rabbit hole of “but this and that exotic historical point!” If anyone with expertise wants to chime in in the comments, I’ll be happy to learn something but know that I’ll be taking your word for it for the most part…
My last post and some other things I’ve been reading lately have been running around in my head. I’m also considering something that might surprise those who know me well… but I’ll get back to that.
The thing that is running around in my head is this… the difference between established world play and emergent world play. I was thinking about this with my last post about how it is so much easier to get player interest and investment into worlds that they are capable of grabbing onto. I think the reason so many D&D worlds are practically carbon copies of “medieval world with magic” is because it is so easy to grab on and build a character concept. Heck, my homebrew world that I’ve been running for something like 15 years I pretty much describe as, “imagine the time of Charlemagne.” It’s just a really easy short hand to, “it’s this kind of medieval world.”
Same thing with Star Wars and Amber, etc. Everyone (okay, maybe not everyone) identifies with some character from Star Wars and knows about Rebels and Jedi and the Empire and Wookies. Heck, I always just wanna play Lando. And Amber is this powerfully evocative fantasy world that allows players to have a wide range of backgrounds while still fundamentally existing in a universe that just makes sense.
It just seems to me that the wealth of information and easily accessible hooks really aids player engagement. Players can go to the places they’ve seen in the movies, interact with favorite NPCs, be a part of the Rebellion, etc. And despite this they can also play a game which NEVER interacts with the mainstream story told in that universe.
This vexes me though because I think about games like “Houses of the Blooded” which is meant to create emergent detail as the game is played and my current ACKS game which I started a new game world for and which has this problem of, well, if the details are being invented as we go then there is a lot of freedom but… it comes with an inability to predict or plan ahead because you don’t have stable points of detail to build on.
And all of this comes down to the fact that despite my difficulties with FATE and my difficulties with entirely emergent play (because emergent play is a big part of most of my Amber campaigns) I find that I really want to run Houses of the Blooded and have players who are interested in the game. So I need to think more about this, more about how to make such a thing sing… because I want to run the best game I can and I want my players to feel good about it, but I’m fundamentally a planner, a thinker, and it’s tough for me to say, “I don’t know.”
This is a small post and I’ll say up front, I’m covering some well trod territory here… but it’s something that was on my mind recently as I began thinking about how to put together a toolkit for encounters.
At the con this past weekend we had several conversations about the difference between old school play and more modern “D&D” play, specifically thinking about how frustrating encounters are to create in a game like Pathfinder. It can take hours to plan a single encounter in Pathfinder. More importantly, we were discussing the idea of planned/balanced encounters vs. story-driven encounters.
I started thinking about the games I’ve played the most and how I GM, how I create encounters. I find that the more rules-light and the more well-defined the setting, the more capable I am of improvising and feeling good about it. I think back to running Star Wars D6 system in the Rebellion era and it was incredibly easy to run on the fly. I could improvise details and encounters easily. Amber DRPG works the same way for me.
Part of this comes from the fact that the whole group of players are very comfortable with those settings. They know the details and so they are not thrown off when encounters are not “balanced” because the expectation exists that they could run into odd but appropriate stuff at any time. Some other games really emphasize the encounter-mechanics-based method over the idea that encounters make sense for the setting. I think this is why my return to old-school, open-world style gaming has really been a boon. Sure, it’s sometimes a pain to make up treasure hoards and I am still getting my players familiar with the setting I’m running in, but the feeling of freedom has invigorated my desire to GM.
I’d never really thought about this from the player side before, and how it affects the play experience. I’m going to keep ruminating on this more, but it’s a thought that might show dividends at my table.
When I was teaching writing a few years ago, we would get approached by vendors from various publishers – hoping that we would adopt their book for our classroom use. One such book that I got a sample copy of and used a few times was titled, Everything’s an Argument. The fundamental idea is that everything is persuasive. Students were exposed to the idea that they were surrounded by argument in their lives and attempted to prepare them to not only analyze arguments but to write their own effective arguments.
While I find some value in that approach, I find that overall I’m uncomfortable framing the world with the idea that everything is an argument. I mention this mainly because I think one of the things I find myself disappointed with in most of the conversations I read about gaming these days is the idea that the players and the gamemaster are in an argument-space when they are playing. Even if not specifically adversarial I get the sense that the belief is that the players and GM are in some form of opposing alignment. And I think that is a fair characterization of many games but I would propose a different perspective.
Everything is a conversation.
I know, before you ask, that I am splitting hairs. Sometimes the players and GM are going to work to persuade one another (and I’m completely okay with that) but I find that shifting the basic premise from persuasive argument to collaborative conversation is a small rhetorical shift which potentially pays big dividends. Characterizing the interaction as collaborative conversation – if everyone is willing to go in on that together – has often been enough to improve my gaming experiences.
Here at the Rhetorical Gamer I’ve made little secret of my love of the Amber Diceless RPG. Amber and 2e D&D are the games where I truly cut my teeth as a gamer. 2e D&D taught me a lot, but Amber taught me how to really be a GM. I didn’t have to supply adventure, didn’t have to worry about playing “DMPCs,” or feel like I was working at cross purposes with my players. Amber taught me to relax and just embrace the flow of the game. I learned how – or perhaps taught myself – to just be a part of the game at the table beside my players while still existing in a space where I was able to help them shape the game, adjudicate their encounters, and set stages as needed. Usually, in Amber, I was the most comfortable I ever am when running a game.
Because the game is a conversation. The rules are so light but so useful that I can improvise anything I need to. More than that though, the game creates an incredible space for just diving headfirst into the play experience without pulling up short. I am able to embrace the spirit of conversation with my players.
And while I don’t want to speak ill of rules-heavy systems – I am a very happy Pathfinder player – I can say with confidence that one of my favorite things about the old school spirit of Adventurer Conqueror King System has been the fact that I feel that same freedom to embrace the play experience and just immerse myself in the conversation of the game. When I was running 3.5 and 4e D&D I often felt constricted – like if I didn’t know the rules inside and out I was somehow letting my players down. But have you seen the Pathfinder rulebook? It’s hefty. And I know that my attitude about the game is my problem. But it’s a fair cop to say that Pathfinder, 3.5, 4e, reward player skill in the form of system mastery over other values.
I find that small shift in perspective also makes a significant difference at the table. It changes and shapes the conversation at the table. And that’s a fair trade-off if that is the gaming experience you want. I try to embrace the spirit of conversation even when running a rules-heavy game but it’s harder. The weight of the rules tends to overshadow things and the desire to create argument tends to creep back in.
As I write this I understand (and kind of discover) how counter-intuitive this seems. It would seem to follow that a tight, comprehensive rule set would discourage argument more than a loose, interpretive rule set. But I find that my players relax more too when the rules are more open. No one is quite as tense to make sure that we are “doing it right” or taking advantage of every corner of the rules. Trust between players and GM is one of the hallmarks (perhaps the most important) of a good game in my mind. Framing the game as a conversation really makes that so much easier.
This attitude is also why I can’t frequent gaming forums anymore. The contentious nature of most boards is painful to observe. I have to wonder if those people are even having fun at their home tables. If they are, good for them.
But I suppose for me the game only really works when I work to remove the sense that Everything is an Argument and re-frame the table space as an ongoing conversation larger than one session, one fight, or one character.
Thanks for reading.
I’m finding a lot of inspiration these days from reading other blogs. I hadn’t realized how much I’d really missed reading some of the other great blogs out there until I came back. So I read a great article today at Fear of a Geek Planet about how XP are a serious problem.
I pretty much agree with everything he says – I’ve been chasing my tail about XP for a long time and I feel pretty strongly that some genres just have no place (or a very limited place) for advancement mechanics at all (like superhero games). The poster mentions the “tick a skill” style of advancement in BRP, which I’ve always been a fan of. It’s been pointed out to me the weird lengths that some players will go to in order to subvert that system and make it work for them in warped ways.
But I’m coming to a bit of a re-imagining in my gaming journey. Having started playing Adventurer Conqueror King (a really, really excellent game) which is built around a core of the old school D&D experience, I’ve started to remember some of the genuine joy I derived from those old games. And experience points are an interesting part of that.
I’d forgotten, playing 3rd ed, 4th ed, and Pathfinder, how much fun it is to have PCs leveling at different rates. My party right now has a 1st level fighter, a 2nd level wizard, and a thief and bladedancer (cleric variant) at 3rd level and it’s working out great. Their henchmen are also at different levels and their adventures are shaped somewhat (in a good way, in my opinion) by the oddity of having characters of different levels in the party.
It’s time for me to admit. In the games of my childhood, we didn’t understand XP for gold so we just didn’t do it. We basically did, “level when the GM says so.” That worked for us at 11 and 12 years old because we just wanted to be ridiculous and fight goblins and shit.
I’m also somewhat fascinated by the ways different DMs treat and deal with XP and leveling. Some give XP on a rolling basis, some only at the end of the session – heck – there are probably as many ways of doing this as there are games. I love running Amber Diceless RPG and in that game you only do advancement at the end of story arcs and the player has no idea how many XP they actually earned… which is one of the coolest things ever. As a long-time Amber person, on both sides of the screen, I can’t explain how much fun this part of the game has been. You just have to experience it (Jesus, no pun intended).
Ultimately, I guess my point is, I’m completely in… treating XP as a purely mechanical bit that acts as the carrot to go with the stick of, you know, playing the game (insert eye roll here) then it is just an awkward, buckled-on bit of awful paperwork. But when it can actually shape interesting play bits then I find that I enjoy the way XP works in the tapestry of the rules.
Thanks for reading.