Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Thoughts on why the Forgotten Realms are popular

So early this November the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide is slated for release.  Although the land of Faerûn has been a priority setting-wise in 5th Edition releases so far, it reminded me of various conversations I've been seeing in some gaming circles on why it seems so dominant, a debate as old as time itself by Dungeons & Dragons standards.

I'm quite certain a lot of the points I'm making have been said before, but I'd like to try and go beyond the "kitchen sink appeal" statement I see as the most prominent of explanations.

Reason #1: Forgotten Realms is the closest thing we have to a superhero setting

Elminster Must Die by Kekai Kotaki

World-changing magic.  Multi-talented archmages who can stand up to demigods, dark elf rangers who can cut a swathe of destruction through an army of a thousand orcs, an evil wizard leader of an international business conglomerate with an array of Doombot-style clones.  Gifted children born with the ability to channel spellfire which is a great power, but causes others to fear them and in some cases hunt them down for their own ends.  Genuinely good-aligned nations and cities such as Silverymoon are worthy of defending from evil, safe and secure places to live without the looming spectre of totalitarianism to spoil things.

The personalities of the Realms are a draw for many, as evidenced by best-selling novel series chronicling their adventures, akin to how the Marvel and DC Universes revolve around the plots and conflicts of powerful men and women in a world of mortals.  In spite of its high-magic, high-powered reputation, most folk of Faerûn are still in normal medievalesque professions, without a hint of magical talent.  Even the legacies of Netheril and the elves tend to be relics of the past and MacGuffins to drive adventure than common-as-dirt trinkets.  Even things such as Thay's omnipresent scrying network is a cause for fear, a tool for oppression, than magic which benefits all.

Even if it doesn't have explicit or even well-thought out rules for high/epic level play, Forgotten Realms is one of the few settings which is not afraid to take the kid gloves off and show what a world filled with gods and wild, powerful magic would really be like when things get dangerous.  A lot of settings, both official and third-party, attempt to put a limit or veneer of low-powered "realism" or an end to the campaign when folks approach the upper levels, but Forgotten Realms rushes headlong into it without fear.

Reason #2: Dark Elves

Cover for Advanced Race Codex: Drow by Todd Lockwood

A popular enough "monstrous" race that they ended up as a core option in 5th Edition.  Sure, there are many GMs sick of players with Drizz't clones or who feel that Salvatore removed the unknown mystique from ye olde days, but the fact of the matter is that a lot of players love them, whether as a PC option or as a plot element from the GMing side.  No other "evil option" gets as much support or written material as they do, and I talked about this phenomenon in an earlier blog post.

Even though drow have a presence in Greyhawk and other settings, the common mental image many gamers have of them aligns closely to how they're portrayed in the Forgotten Realms.  Orcs are more or less a one-note "faceless horde," goblins and kobolds low-level cannon fodder adventurers are supposed to outgrow minus some famous exceptions.  Drow are appropriate for all levels, and can be a plausible threat for all kinds of schemes.

And of course, Drizz't do'Urdlen spearheaded one of the best-selling D&D novels who's still popular to this day by gamers both old and new.

Reason #3: Still room for standard fantasy

In spite of Reason #1, there's quite a bit of material dedicated to the more iconic adventure tropes.  Places like the Dalelands and the Silver Marches are great starting points for low-level adventurers, with small villages in need of saving and dungeons and ruins filled with treasure for the taking!  Metropolitan cities like Waterdeep had a literal underworld to explore with the megadungeon of Undermountain or the hive of scum and villainy known as Skullport.

Faerûn balances the familiarity of standard fantasy tropes which appeal to many gamers.  There's quite a few adventures for low and mid-level parties published over the past decades so that things don't feel constrained to the high end of the power spectrum.  Although it may not always do so well or give valid reasons why the setting's super-NPCs aren't dealing with the problem, the world does its best to accommodate adventurers who are still holding their own against common monsters on a local level as well as parties thwarting Shar's machinations to destroy the Weave itself.

Reason #4: D&D's most well-known video games are Realms-centric

Neverwinter Nights Wallpaper

Ask someone about a Dungeons & Dragons video game, and the likeliest responses you'll get back are Balder's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Pool of Radiance, and Planescape: Torment.  They may be the best known, but they're far from the only ones.  In fact, there have been many D&D video games over the years, but a lot aren't well-known or aged well.  Heroes of the Lance had a non-intuitive interface, Dark Sun Shattered Lands was released too late, and attempts into non-RPG playstles such as Iron & Blood: Warriors of Ravenloft met with poor reception.

With the exception of Planescape: Torment, the ones which stick out in the public consciousness are the games which use an RPG format similar to the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset and detail the people and places of Faerûn.  This may not be a fact that many in the fandom want to admit, but video game RPGs overshadowed their table-top counterparts for about twenty years now.  When it comes to greater nerd culture, the average geek at GameStop picking up a cartridge with the Dungeons & Dragons logo is more likely to hear the tales of Waterdeep and the machinations of Cyric than the War of the Lance or rough-and-tumble city of Lankhmar.

Reason #5: Many sourcebooks are useful, regardless of edition

Even though 3rd Edition was once remarked as "Dungeons & Dragons for bureaucrats" on an OSR forum along with similar sentiments elsewhere, the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting for that very edition had its praises sung by old-school and contemporary gamers alike.  It was a comprehensive and detailed account of the land and its people, covering races to deities and common cultural traditions as well as mechanical benefits.  Even if you do not care for the D20 System and new feats and prestige classes, the wealth of system-free material was enough to justify its purchase alone.

In Conclusion: I don't think that there's any one thing which draws so many gamers to Ed Greenwood's world.  I think its iconic characters, accessibility, and popular video games and novel series bolstering the table-top sourcebooks allow for an easier point of entry and engagement to share in for D&D players.

Quasar Knight's One-Year Blog Anniversary

It's been one year and two days since I started this blog.  It began as a general depository of various gaming ideas, and still serves that function quite nicely.  I was taken aback at the amount of interest generated.

As of this posting I have nearly 22,000 page views and 107 followers on Google Plus.  I'd like to thank all my readers for staying with me since then.  Here's to another year!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

OSR Tropes and Implied Settings

So there's a mutual player and friend of mine who played 2nd Edition back in the day who's seen the OSR and doesn't really connect with it.  Basically the subgroup fandom shows an appreciation for older versions of Dungeons & Dragons, but to his view focuses on rose-tinted glasses or takes specific play-styles as emblematic of the TSR-era games in general.  I do think that he has several good points, in that several distinct trends have emerged among popular OSR publishers and gaming groups.  This isn't by definition a bad thing, but what OSR gamers like and hold as ideal doesn't mesh with what people like my friend knew and experienced back in the day.

This isn't the first conversation we had about the subject, but afterwards this got me thinking about things.  The fandom originated as faithful OGL conversions of prior Editions with Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, and the like, but over time branched out into new paths with things like Lamentations of the Flame Princess and White Star.

There's the Primer for Old-School Gaming and preferred Editions, but beyond the mechanics and GMing attitudes what other trends are present?  For starters I focused on overarching themes and setting tropes:

Body Horror: Adventuring is not a clean job.  The dungeons of the world contain monsters, magic, and traps which puree, masticate, go beyond the adequately necessary to leave adventurers a gooey, soulless mess.  Lamentations of the Flame Princess may be the best-known example due to its artwork, but this trope shows up in other places like the Slaughtergrid dungeon by Neoplastic Press. The Vivimancer spellcasting class specializes in "life magic" but it takes strange forms, like lab-grown homunculi, acidic fungal blooms, and debilitating creations which can be even more disturbing than the undead creations of necromancers.

Examples: Lamentations of the Flame Princess (same publisher), Slaughtergrid (Neoplastic Press), Teratic Tome (Neoplastic Press), The Complete Vivimancer (Lesser Gnome Productions)

The Flailsnail

Gonzo Factor: Unorthodox combination of genre expectations makes the adventure or setting feel beyond a typical Tolkienish fantasy, or more of an emphasis on weirdness and throwing out expectations than overarching themes.  In some cases this may take the form of science fiction elements in fantasy, like a dungeon being a crashed alien space ship, or the injection of humorous elements into an adventure like a troll trying to sell the PCs timeshares or scrawled graffiti on an ancient obelisk proclaiming that the prophetic runes are wrong and that the halflings are the favored race of the gods.

Examples: Crimson Dragon Slayer (Kort'halis Publishing), Dungeon Crawl Classics (Goodman Games), Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (TSR), Lamentations of the Flame Princess (same publisher), Realm of the Technomancer (Faster Monkey Games), Sword of Air (Frog God Games), Vornheim: the Complete City Kit (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)

Cover Art of Lost Lands: Tales from the Borderland Provinces by Frog God Games

Low Fantasy: This originated as a literary subgenre, detailing worlds which can have fantastic elements but tend to focus on a more down to earth and less mythic scale, where things such as magic and monstrous races are less present in normal society and instead cloistered away as the things of fear and legends.

On a similar note, many OSR adventures tend to presume that the PCs are more along the lines of opportunistic folks than people out to save the world, and the vast majority of civilizations tend to be humanocentric and are unfamiliar with the workings of magic on everyday life.  The exceptions that do exist tend to be within the confines of dungeons and places for the PCs to explore as part of their adventures.

Examples: Chronicles of Amherth (Small Niche Press),  Lesserton & Mor (Faster Monkey Games), The Lost Lands (Frog God Games)

Entrance to the Famed Rappan Athuk by Frog God Games

Megadungeons & Sandboxes: These two campaign styles are by no means limited to old-school modules and sourcebooks, but they are a very popular style.  Both of them take a non-linear path to player exploration, where the adventure focuses more around where the party decides to go and what they want to do than a pre-determined path.  Megadungeons are very large dungeons that can last for an entire campaign, whereas sandboxes are open-ended worlds where the PCs have more or less freedom to journey where they want.  For a video game example, consider the open world of Skyrim.

Examples: Anomalous Subsurface Environment (Patrick Wetmore), Barrowmaze (Greg Gillespie), Castle of the Mad Archmage (BRW Games), D30 Sandbox Companion (New Big Dragon Games Unlimited), Dwimmermount (Autarch), Red Tide (Sine Nomine Publishing), Rappan Athuk (Frog God Games), Stonehell (Michael Curtis), Sword of Air (Frog God Games)

No Gods, Only Men: Although many retro-clones provide support for going up to 20th level, doing this by the book is a long and arduous task which can take many months, if not years, of weekly gaming.  Many adventures take place between 1st to 9th level, and some of the more popular rulesets such as Scarlet Heroes and Dungeon Crawl Classics only go up to 10th level.  Even though a 10th level Magic-User is still a wonder to behold, and a Thief of equivalent level can effectively disappear or undo locks and traps on tier with the Gordian Knot, some of the more high-powered elements of D&D aren't present.  Wish spells, fighting gods, and enough hit points to power through molten magma and stave off all the bites of a 12-headed hydra aren't in the purview of this level range.

Examples: Dungeon Crawl Classics (Goodman Games), Scarlet Heroes (Sine Nomine Publishing), Too Many Adventures to Count

Official Artwork of Phantasy Star video game series

Science Fiction/Science Fantasy: Owing some credit to Sword & Sorcery and gonzo influences, the mixture of futuristic and space elements in a more typical fantasy world is not unknown.  In some cases OSR rulesets are taken out of the fantasy genre entirely and transposed into a sci-fi setting, most notably Sine Nomine's acclaimed Stars Without Number RPG.

Examples: Anomalous Subsurface Environment (Patrick Wetmore), Dungeon Crawl Classics (Goodman Games), Dwimmermount (Autarch), Hulks & Horrors (Bedroom Wall Press), Isles of Purple-Haunted Putrescence (Kort'halis Publishing), Stars Without Number (Sine Nomine Publishing), White Star (Barrel Rider Games

Sword & Sorcery: Before the Tolkien influences of dwarves, elves, orcs and the like set the standard for Dungeons & Dragons, elements from early pulp magazines had a clear inspiration in the game.  This still continues in several areas, and more than a few retro-clones sought to emulate worlds closer to Conan the Barbarian and the Gray Mouser, where mages enact pacts with alien entities and fallen empires of Atlanteans and serpent folk dwarf the feeble accomplishments of humanity.  Civilization can be divided between tyrannical city-states and nomadic barbarians who recognize strength and warfare as the greatest virtues.

Examples: Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea (North Wind Press), Crypts & Things (D101 Games), Dungeon Crawl Classics (Goodman Games), Tales of the Fallen Empire (Chapter 13 Press), Works of Kort'halis Publishing

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Reblog: Understanding Your Breakeven Point by Creighton Broadhurst

Raging Swan Press is a third party publishing company which specializes in GM aids for players of Pathfinder and other fantasy role-playing games of a similar bent.  They have a good reputation in the fandom, and are known to hire many freelancers for their projects.

Creighton Broadhurst had an interesting article for fellow self-publishers on how to calculate your "breakeven point," or the point in revenue when a product's sales are enough to cover the cost of making it.  Considering that table-top games aren't the most financially lucrative industry, this is a very important subject, and I found it an enlightening read for newcomers.

PS Apologies if my blog updates have been sporadic this month, but I promise to have something substantial out when I get the ability to do so.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Video Game Review: Undertale

Screenshot taken from the game

It is not often I talk about video game RPGs on this blog, but over the past week I discovered a rare gem thanks to one of Jim Sterling's videos.  Undertale is a PC game done in the style of 90s-era RPGs, but it turns the genre on its head in a pretty big way.  Basically the main crux is that it's an RPG game where you don't have to kill anyone, where each battle can be resolved without violence...that is, if you choose to do so.

The story starts out with a child of ambiguous gender climbing Mt. Ebott and falling through a hole.  Said hole leads into some underground ruins part of the world of monsters, a civilization of people banished below the earth after losing a war against the humans long ago.  While there you meet a woman named Toriel who adopts a motherly attitude towards our hero and explains the many dangers of this new world.  At first it seems like a typical "explore exotic locales, fight bad guys and return home" type of plot, but early on in the game you encounter some monsters in battle who seem...different.  Ones who seem afraid of you, or apprehensive of your presence.  Beyond the commands for 'Fighting' in battle, you have the option of 'Sparing' weakened monsters or interacting with them via the versatile 'Act' command to come to a more peaceful solution.  But not all monsters you meet are so reluctant to leave a human unharmed?  It's one thing to say you won't fight and will show mercy: can you still do as much when in the face of certain death?

Attempts at subversion of common tropes don't always end well, but the way Undertale pulls it off makes it much more interesting than just a postmodern commentary on the violence-centered aspect of RPGs.  You can definitely play it hack and slash style, or try your best to be a pacifist in spite of the many dangers laid in front of you.  The best thing is that Undertale has great replay value and lots of hidden secrets, with even minor choices having resonating effects throughout the plot.  The characters are all well-detailed, and it's one of the few games which had moments where I burst out laughing or a sense of remorse at seeing a character I grew to like over time come to a bad end.  When I first bought it I found myself playing it for 6 hours in a single day, so engaged was I with everything about it that I couldn't wait until tomorrow to see what happens next.

The game has good replay value; as of this post I'm on my second run, and the story isn't linear even if a lot of the locations you visit are the same.  The events and characters change in major ways depending on your actions.  A monster who you spare in a random encounter might show up later as a person to talk to, whereas ones you kill might come back to haunt you as their friends show remorse on losing a loved one.  But it's not quite a simple "black and white" moral choice like in most mainstream games such as Dragon Age.  It takes major effort to go the route of either a pacifist or remorseless killer, and Undertale's atmosphere and plot changes where it often feels like you're playing a different game entirely: there's a rather significant number of players who simply can't find themselves the willpower to go through the 'evil path,' or "No Mercy" run.  I'm starting to find myself in their camp as well as time goes on.

In conclusion, Undertale is a great game which made me care for the people of its world far more than many other RPGs on the market.  It has a free demo, and can be purchased for ten dollars on Steam's online store.  It has the potential for being one of 2015's top games in spite of being an indie-published.  I highly recommend you at least give it a shot.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Update: OSR tag is back up on OneBookShelf


That's some good news.  However, a few OSR products which previously had the tag still do not, such as Sword of Air.  Still, the number of OSR labelled products as of today is 1,397, meaning that the majority of them got it back (the last number I recall a week ago was around 1,500).

This is good news, but if you're an OSR publisher, it might do you good to double-check back to see if your products got their tags back.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The OSR label is no longer an searchable option on OneBookShelf

Hello folks.  Apparently Drive-Thru RPG underwent some organization changes, namely in the D&D/D20 department.

Now they have a primary Rules System tag: D&D/D20.

And these are the sub-category tags:

Dungeons & Dragons (Third-Party) and Dungeons & Dragons (Official).  The categories below are more or less identical save for the option in parenthesis:

3x D&D/d20/OGL (Third-Party/Official)

5e/D&D Next (Third-Party/Official)

4e D&D/GSL (Third-Party/Official)

Basic/BECMI and OD&D (Third-Party/Official)

2e AD&D (Third-Party/Official)

1e AD&D (Third-Party/Official)

So I decided to browse some popular products which used to be part of the OSR:

Sword of Air is now D&D/D20

Silent Legions is now D&D/D20

Spears of the Dawn is not organized under any tags at all

White Star is just OSRIC and D&D/D20

Ambition & Avarice has no category or tags

Barrowmaze Complete is OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord, but not D&D/D20

If you read this post, please spread the word.  Whether you be a fan or publisher, it's possible that products you published or had your eye on are now categorized differently.  OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord still have their own categories, but given that there are many games which fall outside this purview this leaves many others in the dust or under the generic D&D/D20 label.