Wednesday, March 17, 2010


I am undecided as to whether or not I can count myself among the number of ‘old school’ or not. On the one hand, I can appreciate arguments about limited resource playing (set number of spells, hit points, items and so on instead of that 4e crap), the DM making a final ruling on more open-possibility game, a greater abstractness with regards to combat and the like ... sounds good to me, I’ve been playing that way all along.

On the other hand, most of the loudest ‘voices’ crying out for DIY-D&D also seem to have something to sell – a module, a new published copy of ‘old’ game rules, whatever else they can dream up. And yes, this sure is old school ... I remember hating that freaking approach then, too.

Play your OWN game with OUR ideas ... bleh.

I am all for reading other people’s blogs and succouring ideas from them. Ideas are everywhere. But a pre-made module is NOT an idea. It’s a cage, and it is designed to make DMs dependent on other people inventing the dungeons and other people inventing the story line. Back then, the argument was that a new DM could get their start with a few new modules, before learning how to write modules themselves. Yes, DIY modules, written exactly the way TSR wrote them.

Like I said, sounds like old school to me. Old school bullshit.

I hope the gentle reader can understand me here, because I’m about to explain why I never gave a shit about Dragon magazine.

Without bothering to go look up on Wikipedia to find out how long the magazine lasted and during what years, I’ll rely on my memory, since that’s really all that matters to me. Yes, there was a magazine that was a huge influence on the game, particularly in the 1980s. It did run for more than 240 issues (I think the last one I saw was #244). In the beginning it had some good comics. I read Fineous Fingers avidly, and later What’s New (note the link on the right; couldn’t find one for Fineous). Murphy’s Rules were sometimes funny.

I suppose I read the editorial with every issue, and I remember we did have arguments about those editorials back in the day ... but I can’t remember a single one. The actual substance of whatever I may have read in those days has blended together into one large pasty wad. I can no longer deconstruct the source.

I do remember the magazine always had reviews for games (call shilling for the advertiser), a new list of monsters, a new list of spells, or of gods, or of traps, and generally one or two ‘adventures.’ What I remember most about the adventures was that they all sucked. Never used them. Never got an idea from them. It was just more mucky duplicating of the modules I mentioned above. Same old thing.

I seem to remember some of the monsters got used, but none of them stuck in my world until the appearance of the Fiend Folio (in which 60% of the monsters were laughable, ridiculous things – I own the internet rights to if anyone wants to buy it from me). The gods were entirely worthless. I told my players if someone liked a spell from Dragon magazine, they could research it in my world and I would allow them to use it. No one ever did such a thing.

Beyond that, the magazine had advertising. Loads of advertising. For games I didn’t buy, for modules I didn’t want, for crap I didn’t need.

So you can imagine how I feel when I hear someone quote not only the item, but which issue from the Dragon it came from.

To me, this sort of thinking - along with the endless creation of jazzy stuff meant to jazz up a world – IS old school. It reflects perfectly the dumbass mindset of those days.

This game doesn’t need ‘old,’ it needs a Renaissance. I can’t ask for a complete ban on products (since I’ve pitched a few on this blog), but let’s not pretend that modules and DIY go hand in hand, hm? I do need a list of traps, and a list of new monsters. But I need new traps and monsters ... but I need them to actually be NEW – not just retreads of other monsters. I don’t need sixty new colors for slaad; I don’t need twenty new materials for golems; I sure as hell don’t need another humanoid race with less than 4HD. And I don’t need these things inside a module, I need them in a written form that resembles a Biology Textbook. Or an Engineering Textbook.

I need a method to map a three dimensional castle that doesn’t require fourteen pieces of paper or my getting a degree in graphic design. I need treasure tables that are simple simon, that enable me to ‘plug in’ new ideas I have for giving my players treasure – and I need those treasure tables to be based upon what people are carrying, what they’re keeping in their living quarters, how far they’ve pimped out their ‘ride’ and how much they’ve dressed up their guards and servants. These treasure tables don’t need to be in another goddamn paper module where they apply only to the Gold City of Freaksburg, they need to be in a full-ass excel spreadsheet that applies to EVERYWHERE.

Don’t give me another ‘storm damage table for ships at sea’ that has six possible outcomes in toto ... I invented that thirty years ago. Do some research on spars and holds and forecastles, and tell me how many seamen I need to make the ship go at optimum turning speed – tell me where those seamen are positioned on-board and how many years experience they have. I don’t know sailing, people ... some bastard out there that plays this game must, and they ought to be working on this, right now. And the same goes for spelunking, construction, farming, blacksmithing, political assassinations inside a monarchy and god knows what else. I’m not going to be happy until the twenty page pamplet is written on “How to use a sword from a hand glider.”

I need meat, and that is what this hobby needs. MEAT. Not more swill, not more buttfarting, not another three-page dungeon or another list of gods with 200 words or less written on each one. Meat, people. Give me meat.


Lord Hobie said...

With all due respect, why do we as old-schoolers even need the meat? Most of the OSR-related blogs I read seem to indicate that DMs are doing incredible stuff with the resources they already have.

Leopardi said...

I don't mind the odd module, but I do tend to buy more than I use. But yeah give me more meat as well, give me more stuff!

As for wondering if you are Old-School or not, the joy of any DIY scene is people being different and creating and sharing their dumb shit for nothing or a few dollars whether it is a fanzine or a show or blog or whatever.

If everyone thinks the same it gets old and dies; as the Dead Kennedys said:

"if the music's got boring it's because of the people who want everyone to sound the same"

Blair said...

I dig what you mean about "meat," especially the part about treasure tables (you're going to hate me for this...but I remember two Dragon articles that did a halfways-decent job of what you want..if you mashed the two systems together).

I'm trying to do something similar to your treasure table concept for generating NPCs..and it's appalling how many half-assed bits and bobs and fragments of NPC generation systems are out there.

Word verification: Chyporso

John said...

This has been a very thought provoking post ...

Zak S said... didn't like the Moon Man...?

Adam Thornton said...

How much you want for the Flail Snail? I have a sort of a fetish for those critters.

Cameron said...

"but I need them to actually be NEW – not just retreads of other monsters. I don’t need sixty new colors for slaad; I don’t need twenty new materials for golems; I sure as hell don’t need another humanoid race with less than 4HD"

I was thinking somewhat along similar lines when I stumbled across an on-line version of AD&D 2e's Monstrous Manual last night (linked at my blog.) It wasn't just the art that depressed me, but the dearth of anything truly interesting. The new monsters were rubbish and just weird-ass stupid (and not even original; the editors just culled the chaff from previously-published modules). And the updates on the "classic" menagerie seemed even more silly to me last night then they did when they first came out however many years ago it was. How many different types of dragons is the D&D zoo up to these days? How many freaking varieties of dragon does a game need? (By my count, only one variety is needed: Effin' Huge.)

And here I think we part ways a bit. I don't think the game needs new monsters. At least we don't need any new combinations of claw and fang and horn and tail.

What is needed is [1] for DMs to learn how to properly use the monsters they've already got; [2] for DMs to give their monsters new psychologies, habits, motivations, appetites, and etc.; [3 - the most important point] for players to let it happen; for them to allow DMs to tweak, in many cases drastically, the whole bloody list.

The trouble with "monster manuals" (any edition) is - and has ALWAYS been - that everybody who plays these games knows their contents. There are far more players who have monster stats memorized than there are active DMs. Indeed, the stats - the monsters' strengths and weaknesses and HD and everything else are all part of the Received Wisdom of the acolytes, and heaven help the priest who messes with THAT part of the canon.

That's my little slightly-off-topic rant for night. Felt good.

Oh, and in doing a little research for this rant I discovered how many varieties of dragon the zoo now has. It's 101.

Unless they've added anything else since 2007, and I'm sure they have.

Dungeonmum said...

Cameron, good point. In our group we have 2 DMs. One DM makes up his own monsters anyway, plus the other one uses obscure ones and never tells us what we're fighting, only describes them. It's not like we're always retreading the same ground.

I consider myself one of the lucky players as I don't know the stats of every single monster. I think this is what makes Zak's gaming group so interesting (apart from the other appeal), is that they aren't all veteran players and everything is exciting, shiny and new. Whenever newbs play it's always an exciting time as they see things with fresh eyes and tackle problems with a totally different perspective.

Darok said...

I largely agree with Alexis. We always read dragon, but never used it.

We read some modules, but NEVER ONCE used one.

Other than as interesting PC races, most monsters didn't get used too much either. We always found ourselves facing off versus humans and humanoids, often in an urban setting.

We need a general draftworks for RP, so that one can, in a matter of minutes, flesh out a city and its inhabitants, and make it feel alive to the PCs, instead of just being a scene.

Those are the tools that I want. That's why I like reading Alexis' blog; this kind of world building is my favorite pass-time.

Tom said...

All those meaty things you suggested sound great and if you ever work them out and sell them I'm sure you'll find some buyers. Personally I like reading the old school blogs and it has been a big influence of my current D&D game, but I've not had the desire to buy any products from the movement so far.

Dan said...

I share your desire for meaty info, on sailing and like (I have been writing an archepelago themed setting, very nautical in atmosphere).

I end up doing a hell of a lot of research myself. Hours on wikipedia and age of sail websites. This is fun to a point, but I could appreciate being helped by the collation of someone with existing knowledge. I want to know how these thing WORK. Not rules for them - most can be represented fairly well with existing rules. But rules aren't that helpful if you don't quite know what it is you are simulating with them.

I want images for my mind's eye.

nextautumn said...

I have to disagree with your assessment of Dragon and, to a lesser extent, published adventures in general. I came upon the magazine a little later than most around these parts, and those later issues were indeed as useless as you say; but I recently picked up some of the older stuff and there is some great stuff in there. I bought a whole stack of them at the used bookstore and the first thing I flipped to in the first magazine I picked up was a great high-level AD&D adventure by Roger Moore (I think) called "The Dancing Hut." I understand your point about DIY and I write A LOT of my own stuff, but if the adventure's really good...why not work it into the mix? And in the other issues there were a lot of articles about exactly the kind of stuff you seem to be asking for -- details about gems, ships, all kinds of stuff. Not my cup of tea, personally (in rpgs, as well as in fiction, I believe too many details interfere with the player's/reader's imaginative engagement)-- but I really don't understand the hate on this one. I do, however, enjoy reading your blog. Cheers!

Carl said...

Regarding your need for 3-D mapping, have you checked out NBOS for mapping software? I used AstroSynthesis and liked it a lot. I'm going to give the free trial a whirl.

I know you've invested a lot in your maps so far, but you could actually lay your map out on a globe and then print out the segments you needed, complete with hexes.

Look at me hawking products!

Alexis said...


You underestimate the level of that investment. It isn't just the maps themselves, it is the whole trading table hinged on the distances informed by the maps.

Just to change the distance data would be an unbelievable amount of work. But I'm happy with the maps and I'm not looking to improve them ... except possibly in appearance, at some point. I'll be happier with a computer that will give me a tera of ram so I don't have to chop my maps into 30x35 hex areas, but instead can have 200x200 hex areas.

Herb said...

I think you are selling The Dragon short.

I don't think I used much D&D stuff in terms of items from it but it was hugely influential in my game (and outside it).

Both Giants in the Earth and the book reviews influenced my reading. I remember an article with a table of interesting places you were supposed to roll on to create James Bond style globe hopping adventures. I never used it but it influenced how I thought about the game. I'm sure I could rattle off a couple of dozen of these articles and you'd get the point.

The single biggest influence I remember was an article on taking Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces and using it for world and adventure building. I can't say at the time I got all of it and tackling Campbell in the 7th grade (the article was in the 30s somewhere) was not a winning idea, but my game (and my intellectual life in general) were the better for it.

I did use some crunch. There were Traveller features in both the 30s and the 50s with lots of short articles I used. I do remember using the witch character class from the 40s once in an AD&D game. While I never used the items an article on artifacts of Dragon Pass influenced my view on magic items and was my first step from generic +1 swords.

You'll note I used the definite article in the magazine's title. Nearly all the articles I can remember (except for the excellent Dungeoncraft series late in the magazine's run) are in issues below 60 (give or take) and I doubt any are below 100. In fact, the only reason I extend the range that far is not to miss the series of articles on the Moon in various sci-fi settings.

If all you remember are adventures and crunch I think you missed the best part of the early issues of The Dragon. My junior high and high school mind sucked up the references to books I've never read and ideas I'd never had like a sponge.

Aos said...

I more or less agree with Alexis. I always found the magazine a little disappointing- with one exception and that is David Cook's Crimefighters RPG which was in the March of '81 issue (a fact I only know because I have a copy of the game in a binder next to me. That was some meat there. I also liked Finneous Fingers. However I was like 15, and I thought Wolverine was cool too. I never bought the magazine, though, I read it at my rich buddy's house. Strangely enough, it was that guys dad, not Dragon Magazine, that turned me onto S&S and SF.

Alexis said...

Herb ... the fact that you wax on so poetically about this rag causes me to seriously want to sell you just as short as the magazine. If you thought to convince me, sorry. I've met too many Spaniards.

Er, hem, read too many issues.