Monday, April 18, 2016

A Belated Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day

Although it was yesterday, I don't think anyone will hold it to me that I'm contributing 24 hours later. The truth is that I have much more playing experience with Labyrinth Lord than Swords & Wizardry, although the two games are similar enough that I poached plenty of material from the latter. The things I like most about Swords & Wizardry may be far different than other bloggers' thoughts, but I feel that they work.

Race and Class: In most OSR games, nonhuman races are locked into a type of role; there are no dwarven thieves or spellcasters, and elves are fighter-mages. Although this has been preserved to an extent in the Core Rules and White Box, S&W Complete and Core actually separate race from class. Instead of locking dwarves, elves, and halflings to their own full class, it presents three or four qualities for their races. A halfling cleric or dwarven thief isn't really game-breaking, and it provides an interesting springboard for making your own races.

The Single Saving Throw: Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess have 5 saving throws. 3rd Edition and Pathfinder 3; 5th Edition has by far the most, with 6 saving throws. Swords & Wizardry boils it down to 1; and to simulate different key resistances, certain classes get a bonus on said Saving Throw against certain phenomena, like traps or spells.

Again, the single Saving Throw is a minimalist yet elegant design element, while still allowing for some variety with classes getting situational bonuses.

Comprehensive Projects: Labyrinth Lord may be the king of 3rd party OSR projects, but the ones that exist for Swords & Wizardry tend to be large and broad in use. A large part of this is thanks to Frog God Games, whose Lost Lands campaign setting gave us sandbox adventures such as the Sword of Air and megadungeons such as Rappan Athuk and Slumbering Tsar. There are also 2 large bestiaries full of several campaigns' worth of monsters, Swords & Wizardry Monstrosities and Tome of Horrors Complete. The latter updates a lot of classic D&D staples from earlier official materials such as the Fiend Folio, so it's got hundreds of converted material ready-made for you.

Then there is also White Star, a space opera retroclone which has a lot of nifty ideas and support from many publishers. So the third party support gap might be closing up after all, if more due to sci-fi material.

Outsider-Friendly Options: By 'outsider,' I'm referring more towards mechanics which make it easier for players of other Edition and retroclones to jump right in. Namely ascending armor class and Challenge Levels for monsters. One of my major critiques of OSR retroclones was the use of a to-hit matrix for combat, which was a lot more cumbersome than the ascending AC of newer games. Lo and behold, Swords & Wizardry had a good idea with this rules variant, allowing you to just roll a d20, add relevant modifiers, and compare the result to the enemy AC. I found that this was a lot easier to grasp for gamers from Pathfinder, and to continually use for campaigns.

As for Challenge Levels, the Challenge Rating system of 3rd and 4th (and likely 5th) Edition gets a lot of flak, but used ideally it's a good abstraction for a ballpark estimate of monstrous power. Swords & Wizardry's system is actually keyed to the 'dungeon level' format, where the deeper levels tended to have stronger monsters, and was built from there. So with Challenge Levels for monsters from the core and new sourcebooks, you can get an inkling of when to deploy that monster in your campaign.

It's Got a Nifty Compatibility Logo: Specifically, the one I'm thinking about from Gamers & Grognards Studios. It's free and open source for self-publishers to use, but its design is quite eye-catching:

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Hey folks, let's talk

So within the last week a bunch of things happened in the tabletop fandom. Instead of replying immediately I thought to wait and give the issue some time so as to formulate my responses.

Then another thing came up, which is a separate issue yet reflects the greater issue at hand. Again I thought to revise my post and possibly tie in the two together. And so I waited. I did the same thing several times the past few months, worried about kicking the hornet's nest.

Back in 2013 I used to be a poster on Giant in the Playground, a rather large community of folks with a shared appreciation for Dungeons & Dragons, Order of the Stick, and similar things. It was a good place, full of homebrew and neat discussions; the moderators kept the peace by putting a lid on controversial topics such as politics and religion. This is a reasonable thing, not at all uncommon on most message boards.

Yet there was a troubling trend I saw board topics revolving about gender and women in game of an oddly regressive nature. They were springing up every week or so; the most blatant I remember was a player asking for help in a campaign where his adventuring party saved a baby from an evil cult and were now hiding out in the woods miles away from civilization and being hunted by said cult.

His major concern? The adventuring party was all-male, and thus wouldn't be adequately suited to taking care of the baby and wetnursing it.

Then another thread followed about Strength caps for women, and whether you'd tolerate a group whose DM mandated it. Sadly, there came many board regulars rushing to the defense of said hypothetical DM as though those people who stuck to such a regressive rule were being unfairly attacked.

This kind of shit was going on GiantITP for a while, and prompted me to write up a large post about it. At first restricted to said site, I decided it was a larger issue and reposted it on as many message boards as I could find. I did my best to word things in a calm way, in a way which wouldn't condemn a person for enjoying games with problematic material.

I got many people agreeing with me. But in spite of all that, in spite of being a male poster with no visible indicators of belonging to a minority group, there were gamers who got very, very angry at my post. I was told that I was a hyperactive woman who nursed a vendetta against the entire male gender, was told I was starting up a witch-hunt even though I named no names in my post, and accused of trying to force irrelevant political issues into a gaming forum.

It's been 3 years and the dialogue hasn't changed. But even more so outside media is focusing upon us due to the most recent incidents. And regardless of our desire to wash our hands and stay out of the way, such things have an effect on us all. Like it or not, tabletop gaming and broader nerd fandoms are engaged in the middle of a culture war, and the more reactionary elements are paraphrasing any criticism of troubling behavior as an outside attack against nerddorm from barbarians at the gate.

Look at this response to Ed Greenwood's Facebook post regarding a transgender NPC in Siege of Dragonspear. Just as importantly, look at the amount of upvotes his post got:

There are jerks in every hobby; there are bigots in every hobby; there are people who style themselves as 'open-minded' and 'liberal' yet who interpret greater attempts at inclusiveness as a zero-sum game which will somehow hurt the end product. These aren't fringe voices, either. They're trolls whose sole purpose is to get people upset, but they're also folks with years-long membership in communities and who can be completely reasonable when talking about other issues.

They're folks who won't out-and-out say that they want gaming to remain the domain of a "guys' night out" or get uncomfortable when gay and trans* NPCs show up, but will rephrase their opposition under the guise of something nobler. That it's about freedom of speech, or opposing Cultural Marxism, or something which sounds better than "I don't like X people and I don't want them showing up in my escapist fantasies."

Sometimes they're a great homebrewer with a 10+ year membership on a popular messageboard, a man married to a wife with three daughters, but who says that women gamers should put up with sexual harassment due to a "boys will be boys" attitude.

Sometimes they're folks who are kind to you, offer you advice and help spotlight your product on the Internet, but whose social media posts expressing extreme hatred towards Muslims makes you realize that associating with them won't be a good idea for publicity or one's own scruples.

Sometimes they're CharOps folks who contributed a lot of value to their website with useful Handbooks, but unironically calls someone a "vagina-fearing sissyboy" in an argument about healthcare.

Sometimes they're bloggers who have a lot of creative ideas, but interpret a self-publisher's hiring of cultural consultants from non-European societies as being discriminatory against whites.

Sometime's they're a third party self-publisher who sells a product for Pathfinder but includes a tentacle rape feat with no hint of forewarning to readers that his sexual fetishes are present in the book.

The thing about tabletop is that those with such views rarely take pains to hide them, and can easily be spotted if you know what to look for. Their boldness is in part due to common Geek Social Fallacies. It's easy to imagine us going "fuck you, get out of here" to one of these folks if they're a total stranger or act like jerks all the time. But when they're fixtures of their small communities, or people you know and shared fond memories with, or who the moderators won't bother to sanction, it can be harder for a lot of people.

Refusing to say or do anything never fixes the problem, but at the same time I understand why people are afraid to go forth. It's these voices in our hobby which make it a worse place, who cut off so many potential new gamers who are made to feel unwelcome and unwanted. Some people don't want to get caught in the middle of drama, receive hatemail, or creeps stalking them and their friends on social media for speaking out. Some are worried about weighing in prematurely and end up tainting someone's reputation.

I get that.  The claim that "to be silent means to support" is a statement I never agreed with, for not everyone can be a crusader when it means risking their own mental well-being and that of their loved ones.

But you can help in your own way.

You can show support to companies who take a stand against the regressive elements in the hobby, like Posthuman Studios and Paizo. And at the same time you can tell gaming companies who reinforce and defend toxic voices that they just lost a customer.

If you see a fellow gamer who's given shit because of an aspect of their identity they have no control over, you can let them know that there's a gaming table with an open seat for people like them.

You can petition the moderators of message boards overrun in prejudice to enforce the rules they have against "racism, sexism, homophobia, etc" by reporting the many troublemakers. And if they don't enforce their own rules, point the victims over to message boards and circles you know are more inclusive and tolerant.

And lastly, whenever you see a Gaymer X convention or Female Pathfinders group, instead of waxing despair over "unnecessary divisiveness," instead ask about the circumstances which led to their creation and what we can do as a community to make them feel like comrades in greater geekdom once again.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Fifth Edition Feats and the Danger of Straight Conversions

When browsing the 5E storefront on Drive-Thru RPG, I notice that a lot of the material is geared towards crunchier aspects; ones useful to players especially so. This is in contrast to Wizards of the Coast adventure-focused release schedule, so I get the feeling that the PC-friendly material's being left to third party publishers.

5th Edition has feats, but only one of them is OGL. Even including the full array, there wasn't much. Total Party Kill Games came up with a product to address this, with an array of new "core feats." It's extremely popular, regularly in the top 10 5E-Compatible category and already a best silver seller. Two out of the 2 reviews as of this posting are 5 stars.

However, I noticed that over on Amazon a softcover version's available for sale. In contrast the reviews are not so kind. A running theme among them is that many feats are pulled straight from 3rd Edition without the proper rewording of mechanics so as to fit inside the new game's framework. Additionally several are copied directly out of the Player's Handbook for 5th with some slight variations, which is problematic as only Tavern Brawler is OGL. The four and five star reviews on both sites are extremely vague as to why they enjoyed the book in question.

I'd also like to note that this isn't the first instance with Total Party Kill Games. They did a similar book of feats for Pathfinder which I reviewed in-depth, and sold itself on the idea that all of their feats are viable at every level and can effectively replace magic items. Keep in mind that Pathfinder has a wealth-by-level format which makes such a suggestion a tall order. Turns out that most of their feats fell short of the mark, so I'm not surprised to see history repeating itself here.

I do not own the book myself, but I do think it serves as a valuable object lesson for folks doing conversion work. Such a process is like translating a language: you want to make sure you get all the nuances as well. I once asked some questions on things to look out for when jumping into 5th as a 3rd Edition fan on Reddit, and there were quite a few small things which seem similar on the surface but in reality add up to big changes.

What does interest me is that in spite of this, TPK's feat-based sourcebooks are popular sellers all the same. I do worry about quality control, in that this plagued the D20 Boom in the early Aughties and led to a Bust down the road. There's only a few 5E compatible books which grab my eye, and I haven't even bothered with the DM's Guild.

Or maybe it's a case where books are popular in spite of reviews, in that many consumers grab it up all the same without such problems?

I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts!