Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The 'Good' Old Days

I recently came into possession of a few PDF scans of the very first issues of Dragon Magazine, back in the 1970s when it was known as The Dragon. It featured authors such as Fritz Leiber* and Gardner Fox coupled with some truly awful artwork and articles that really demonstrate how the roleplaying game in those days was only just beginning to distinguish itself from the wargaming hobby.

On one hand, you've got interesting articles describing how to wargame the Battle of Five Armies from The Hobbit, or innovative tables to determine the circumstances of a character's birth. On the other hand, you've got some striking relics of the era, such as a cartoon poking fun at the recycling craze (adventurers run from a "Recyclosaurus", who wears a t-shirt that reads 'Ecology Now!' and munches on a can of 'Tree Frog Beer'), and truly odd articles like "The Idiot Class", which describes an NPC that player characters can hire "to confuse the enemy so that it will run away, attack a wall, commit Hari Kari, eat all its treasure or some related act, just so it will not attack the troop." Suddenly Gamma World seems like a pillar of sanity.

Lest we forget that there was a time when gaming was an almost exclusively male hobby (and, as the TV show "Life On Mars" tries to tell us, the 70s were a very different culture), one needs only look to a truly insulting article titled "Notes on Women & Magic - Bringing the Distaff Gamer into D&D". The author stipulates that female characters should not be able to fight as well as their male counterparts (though they "in some ways surpass men as thieves"; mid-level female thieves get to be titled "Succubus." Was the author in the middle of a nasty divorce?), and that the Charisma ability score should be replaced by Beauty, which is "important to thieves, fighters and magic users." It is further noted that "Clerics may not use beauty if they are lawful or neutral. Chaotic clerics may use their beauty score." "Fighting Women (warriors) may incorporate the spells of Seduction, Charm Men or Charm Humanoid Monster depending upon their level and beauty scores (see spells of seduction, et al). Women's strength scores range from 2-14." (Emphasis mine)

In case you were wondering what 'Humanoid Monsters' might include, here's the list given: "Hobgoblins, Ogres, Trolls, Giants, Mummies, Vampires, Gargoyles, WereWolves (either shape), Werebear (man only), Lizard Men and Centaurs."

...Dang. I don't know what women do for mummies, exactly, or why wolves are turned on by women while bears aren't, but I don't really feel like speculating.

Perhaps it's telling that in a number of the illustrations there is a recurring character who looks like a fairyland elf (you know, the kind with pointy shoes and hat that peaks in a curl?) and is always smoking some sort of hallucinogenic substance from a suspiciously-shaped pipe...

*A surreal and amusing article where he tries to explain wargaming to Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser.

One of my favorite lines: "Oh, so they fight only with their minds?" Fafhrd said. "That sounds sick to me. I keep my mind solely for enshrining the images of beautiful women."

Also: "About these wargamers or mind-fighters," the Mouser said, turning back to me. "I'll wager some of 'em aren't above using a real knife under the table, especially if the games goes against 'em."

"A man could keep on playing a table game, though hamstrung," Fafhrd put in.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Modeling After MMORPGs

There's been a lot of talk about how 4th Edition D&D attempts to emulate many of the features of MMORPGs. I don't have any firsthand experience of this; I haven't played 4th Edition, and my decision to pass on the entire thing was based on a lack of disposable income and the realization that I already have all of the editions of D&D I'll ever need to play D&D. I've got Moldvay Basic/Expert D&D and a half-dozen variants on it (Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy, etc.) if I want a simple, nostalgic game, I've got True20 if I want a simple version of d20, I've got Microlite20 if I want a REALLY simple version of d20, I've got OSRIC and Swords & Wizardry if I want a REALLY nostalgic game...and I've got D&D 3e and 3.5, with about a million supplements for that system.

So I didn't really feel a need to remain cutting-edge. In fact, I rather enjoy being a little behind the times, because all of the books I use suddenly start getting cheaper.

Back to the point, one of the complaints people seem to have with 4th Edition is that it attempts to emulate many aspects of "World of Warcraft" and other MMORPGs. While I'm sure you could easily look up any number of threads about this on RPGnet's d20 forum (though I'm guessing you'll have to navigate a fair amount of flames), the gist of it seems to be that a) there are things a pen-and-paper RPG can do that a computer game can't, and b) vice-versa. Trying to mold a PnP RPG after a computer game may be an exercise in futility; if the idea is to attract MMORPG players to the tabletop gaming hobby, why present them with a product that tries do what their computer-based game does better? Wouldn't it be better to focus on the unique aspects of tabletop gaming?

Well, people seem to react both ways - some people like it, others hate it. My impressions after reading some of these reviews put me in the camp of "I'd play if someone wanted to run it, but I'm not interested in buying it, much less running it." Still, I'm intrigued by the idea of adopting certain aspects of MMORPGs to tabletop games.

Leave it to Paizo Publishing to come up with an interesting way of accomplishing this. For those outside the loop, Paizo is a company that took over the publishing of Dragon and Dungeon magazines when 3rd Edition D&D came out. The quality of that venerable company organ boosted noticeably; the artwork was gorgeous, the articles were interesting, the adventures were interesting, and the entire enterprise was given a much-needed injection of fun. Shortly before 4th Edition was formally announced (if I'm remembering my timeline correctly), Wizards of the Coast decided to repossess both publications from Paizo in preparation to take the magazines to an online-only format. I think. I haven't really kept up with what WotC did with them after getting them back from Paizo. Anyway, shortly after that came WotC's decision to leave the Open Gaming License and the d20 System behind, and the ultimatum to third-party publishers: you can publish works for 4th Edition (the GSL, I think is what that license is called) or for d20/OGL, but not both. While most companies took the 4th Edition route, Paizo seemed to think there was still a large enough market for d20 (possibly based on the sizable outcry that 4th Edition came too soon / 3.5 is good enough for me) and stuck with the OGL. They published the Pathfinder RPG, what they describe as "D&D 3.75". While the rules have met with a bit of criticism for being even more "overpowered" than its predecessor, the quality of Paizo's design and content seems to have made this a feasible business decision.

One of the nice things Paizo does is periodically send out free PDF preview copies of upcoming publications. They did this with the Pathfinder RPG, and more recently, they've done it with their campaign setting book, The Legacy of Fire Player's Guide. Aside from being a fantastic model for how to make a player's guide to a campaign world, Legacy of Fire introduces something they explicitly describe as MMORPG-inspired: Achievement Feats. My knee-jerk reaction is to say, "This is how you adapt ideas from MMORPG mechanics to a tabletop medium." It takes the 3rd Edition concept of Feats - special abilities that characters can do that are kind of like skills or powers or spells, which you accumulate as you progress in level - and adds a "World of Warcraft"-inspired twist: Achievement Feats are feats your character can earn by accomplishing certain tasks in the campaign, just like Achievements in "WoW". For example, you can earn "Healer's Touch" after curing a cumulative total of 1,000 hit points of damage for other creatures using healing spells; this feat treats your healing spells as if they were Maximized (as per the Maximize Spell feat), so long as they are cast upon others. "All Gnolls Must Die" can be earned if your character delivers the killing blow to 20 gnolls, hyenas, dire hyenas, werehyenas, jackalweres, or minions of Lamashtu; as long as you carry some sort of trophy harvested from a gnoll, you gain a morale bonus to all your Will saves and a competence bonus when fighting that variety of monster. They're not game-breaking, and while they require a bit more bookkeeping and planning on the part of the player who wants to attain them, Achievement Feats can be used by a creative GM to encourage PCs to accomplish something pertinent to their campaign.

I thought that was pretty sweet.