Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Schindehette Part II: Art and Meaning in Old School D&D

Like many of you, the art of early D&D played a crucial role in shaping my understanding of the game.

When people talk about art though, they tend to reflect on their favorite artists rather than examining how or why their art is meaningful. Let's take a moment to look at the three things most often depicted in D&D: monsters, characters, and dungeons.

With most of the early D&D artists being gamers themselves, they understood the lethality of the game. They understood how fragile their characters were in a dark dungeon surrounded by voracious, fearsome monsters. If I could generalize, the art was about the monsters or about the scene, not about the characters. Monsters normally overshadowed the depiction of PCs. They were larger and took up the majority of the visual space. They would be presented in the foreground and made a priority, or, their superiority would be emphasized by being positioned higher than the PCs. Monsters would also be depicted surprising or surrounding unwitting adventurers - a technique referred to as dramatic irony. Normally, monsters would be sticking it to the PCs in some fashion, such that the scene would provide a  single over-riding message - things aren't going well and you are (more than likely) going to die. To old school D&D subculture, we could easily see the self-reflexive humour of it all. We, through the artists, were poking fun at ourselves and the situations we've all found our PCs in at one point or another. These were meaningful to us because they were evocative, otherworldly, and funny. In some cases, the worse the predicament of the adventurers, they more it peaked my interest. I don't think I was alone.

A similar approach was used with the representation of player characters. This is what I love about Stefan Poag's and also Pete Mullen's work today. Rather than gym-rats, early D&D artists depicted thin-armed adventurers who looked like they would have trouble holding up a sword (as an aside, I'm 6'5 260 lbs. I once tried picking up a legit 6' long two-handed sword and I couldn't even get the tip off the ground). So, when artists illustrated thin armed adventurers, they allowed us to see ourselves in the characters depicted. The PCs were accessible. This too was a self-reflexive form of humour. We/the artists were poking fun at ourselves. Just the thought of running around some dungeon trying to stay alive, wearing some snappy Erol Otus headgear, breaks a smile on the face.

The monsters and characters, for the most part, were backgrounded by dark dungeons or caverns. Yes, "dark" was the operative word. These were dank, dark, nasty places where only the foolhardy ventured. Unlike the default dungeons of 4E which are (were?) lit, old school dungeons celebrated the absence of light. Those sinister eyes always seemed to be following you through the dungeon from the safe confines of the darkness. So, the depiction of old school dungeons highlighted the play of light and shade. This was absolutely central to providing a sense of drama and atmosphere. It's a shame the people in charge at WotC don't seem to consider this aspect of the game's history in the same way. As far as I'm concerned, they've rejected their inheritance (see Edmund Burke on the French Revolution).

Of course, we all know where the WotC art has taken the game. Rather than an emphasis on monsters, the emphasis, by and large, rests with heroic characters in lit environments. How heroic would it be to hold the torch? The humour, by and large, is gone. The game is supposed to be fun and the art should reflect that IMHO.

Like Sean mentioned in the comments of a previous post, I don't believe the art of the editions can be reconciled. The art must reflect the mechanics, if it doesn't there will be a serious disconnect with the game. Schindehette may not want to here about THACO, but what about all the other mechanics that factor into how a game is played and communicated through art to its players? I think his comment was a little hasty. The art must fit the expectations of the subculture it's intended for - if it doesn't you won't reach your audience and people won't find the game meaningful. I'm not saying they should go whole-hog with old school art (although I wouldn't mind), but they're going to need to make very difficult decisions indeed. I have no doubt of this: the art of 5e will tell you a great deal about the target audience.

I'd like to say that I'm wrong in my outlook, but I don't think I am. I am willing to stand corrected, but the WotC Creative Team will literally have to pull a white rabbit out of Pinto's Conical Cap - and I just don't see it happening.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Barrowmaze Print Update

After waiting 10 long days, I just received my hard and softcover print copies of Barrowmaze this afternoon for inspection and editing. Why did they send the copies from the UK when they could send them from the US? Not that I'm bitter over it.

Anyway, there are tweaks that need to be made to the covers and I need to address some minor errata.

I'm hopeful to get these addressed shortly.

When I have another update, you'll hear it here first.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hey Schindehette, Does This Look System Neutral to You?

As readers will know, I've recently worked with a grad student on the creation of his MA thesis on module art and old school D&D subculture. We have the paper under academic peer-review at the moment and I've been writing additional material on my own on a similar topic. I have spent months studying the nuances, however small and seemingly insignificant, of classic fantasy art. So, it's from that standpoint that I wrote a long, long post on D&D art in response to John Schindehette's article (he's the D&D creative director) and then I deleted it. I'm convinced it won't matter.

Interestingly though - on the heels of Schindehette's column where he encouraged a broad discussion of D&D art in an effort to make 5e inclusive and welcoming to D&D gamers of all stripes - the cover of the apparently system-neutral splat Elminster's Forgotten Realms was released. If that's a troll, then I need to hire his personal trainer.
When I first heard of this system neutral supplement I commented on it - I ran some WotC Speak through my handy WotC 5000 translator.

As far as I'm concerned, this was yet another missed opportunity by WotC. This could have been a real nice set-up piece for the forthcoming AD&D books and to back up the inclusive speak with action.

Obviously, this is something else. I understand the Creative Team is in a really difficult position. If I were them I think I would take the rest of my holidays, quit, and then go into cat-herding. It would have to be easier than appealing to all generations of D&D gamers. Having said that, if this is the kind of effort we can expect from the creative team on the all-inclusive 5e then large segments of the people they are trying to get back will be in serious disappointment, or deeper apathy, whichever you prefer.

Ok, folks. Thoughts and feelings of the inclusiveness of this visual style to signify a system neutral D&D product?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Barrowmaze: Top 5 at RPGnow!

I looked this morning to find Barrowmaze had risen to 5th on their Hottest Items list and has already hit the first "Popular Pick" category as well.

This can mean only one thing: quick painful death for player characters everywhere!


Friday, February 24, 2012

Barrowmaze Session Report from Thursday

The most recent session report is now available.

We had four players at the table and a special guest via google: Sean from Tales of the Flaming Faggot!

Sadly, I didn't get to kill his character, but I should get points for putting in an honest effort :)

A much more conservative approach by the group after the near tpk last time.

Be sure to check it out at RBN or http://www.barrowmaze.com/

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Barrowmaze Review at Grognardia

James M. at Grognardia has undertaken a review of Barrowmaze.

He seemed to enjoy it. Obviously, it's meant for play, but I hope folks find inspiration in the dungeon if nothing else.

I'm glad he liked the art - a lot of thought and care went into the illustrations. I played a pretty active role in the type of scenes and images with all the artists. I hope they still want to work with me on Barrowmaze II :)

As I've mentioned in the past there are numerous homages and themes in Barrowmaze, some in the art and some in the text. I think it might be fun to have a post on that and we can delve together for some hidden loot in the pages of the dungeon :) Let me know what you think.

Still haven't received my print copies.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Barrowmaze Tomorrow Night

Looks like our stalwart band of tomb-robbers want to see some more action - despite the recent near-TPK.

Gotta love D&D :)

Anyway, we might have room for a player via google+ (Thursday 7:45 eastern). I'm still trying to determine how many empty seats I have. We have a swanky new omnidirectional mic that should work well.

The life expectancy of your character is about an hour.

Anything longer than that and you can claim that you won D&D.

Drop me a note at kilted dot yaksman at yahoo dot ca

Monday, February 20, 2012

Barromaze Session Report

The most recent after-action report of the Barrowmaze is now available. You can find it here at http://www.barrowmaze.com/.

This was an unusual session (for us) because it was our first foray with google+.

We had two players and myself at the table and two on plus. It worked really well and we have thoughts to work out some of the minor bugs and issues in the future.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Advice Needed: Podcasting Mics

I need to buy an omnidirectional mic for my home-game so I can have the voices of players around the table heard by players on google+

I know zip about this sort of thing.

I know prices can get crazy quickly. Can anyone suggest a good, reasonably priced omnidirectional mic and perhaps any dos/donts to consider along the way?


I Don't DM Screen Often, But When I Do...

I bought this custom screen a year or two ago. It was outrageously expensive, but I like the idea of customizing it and changing the motif periodically. It has panels on the inside and out, which is great because I've redone all the LL tables to include my preferences (additions to tables such as the broadsword) and other random tables I want grouped in specific ways. I also strongly prefer the landscape screen to the older, taller style.

Barrowmaze Tonight!!

After a long hiatus for the holidays (and early 2012 sicknesses) we are finally playing Barrowmaze tonight.

In our last session we ended on a TPK, so we will be starting over from scratch (hmm, I sense a trend here lol)

Also, I'm going to pop the google+ cherry and have two on plus in addition to 2 other players at the table.

Should be an interesting experience.

I'm looking forward to it!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Barrowmaze: Barrow Mounds Hex Map

For those of you interested in a hex map of The Barrow Mounds, I've made a rudimentary version to scale in AKS Hex Mapper. It's available on the Barrowmaze site here.

My hex mapping-fu is not strong and limited by the low resolution of the program. However, if you want to take a kick at the can I'd be happy to post your map on the site with appropriate credit.

Review: D&D Tee from Welovefine.com

Welovefine.com have a number of tees with old school D&D prints, so I decided to order a shirt. I don't have very nice things to say about the experience.

First: It took them over a week just to make the shirt.

Second: It was expensive, like $25 for the shirt plus $12 dollars shipping, because, you know, I live on Mars. If I bought two shirts the shipping price jumped to $28 bucks, if you can believe that! Gimme a break.

Third: As you can see from the image at the webstore and the image above the prints are very different in size.

Fourth: The worst part is that the quality of the tee is average to poor. The tshirt is very thin. If I'm paying that much for a tee it had better be super sweet and durable. It isn't and it won't be.

I contacted them and explained my point of view and was invited to return the shirt. GEE THANKS.

Overall, I was disappointed with the entire experience. I wish I could say something positive, to balance this discussion but there was no silver lining whatsoever.

My advice - find your gaming tees somewhere else.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Another Review of Barrowmaze

Gothridge Manor posted a review of Barrowmaze.

I'd just like to say that you so much for taking the time to write the review. I really do appreciate it.

Sex and D&D

All I'm going to say about the discussion regarding sex and ability scores is this: the same people complaining about ability score mins/maxs, should also be complaining about height/weight tables. If they aren't, then it's just correctness talking and take those folks with a grain of salt. That is all.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Level Limits and Level Draining

I've been reading a lot of BS lately, both in posts and comments, about level limits and level draining in D&D. Most of the comments are directed toward Old School games but some are also directed to Monte's shameful 5e post where he threw out the baby with the bathwater:

For example, it would be difficult to imagine that THAC0 would make a comeback. Armor Class values going down to represent them getting better. System shock rolls. Racial level limits...

For the record, I have zero problem with level limits. I prefer to play dwarves if the rolls go that way. I've played dwarves (and other demi-humans) for a long time. They have all had level limits. There's no crying, moaning, or god-damn belly-aching. I've yet to have a demi-human actually reach a level limit. Our games are too lethal.

I also have no problem with level draining (as those of you who have read Barrowmaze already know). Guess what? If you don't want to be drained a level - lift tail and run the fuck away. I am cowardly enough to know there's a time to get the F outta dodge. Hell, stab a hireling or fellow PC to slow him down to make good your escape (you want to play with me now, don't you? lol). Do what you gotta do. I'm looking forward to the day I get level drained to zero and rise as a unholy member of the undead! Huzzah!

Moral of the story. I think some folks need to stop the "my tummy hurts" nonsense and just play the damn game.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Barrowmaze Maps

I received an email from Guy Fullerton (who makes super cool adventures) this morning asking me about the Barrowmaze maps. So I thought I'd take a moment to talk about them.

When I constructed Barrowmaze I didn't want 1) to be limited to the one-page dungeon format, or 2) be limited to an 8.5x11 sheet of paper.

Don't get me wrong, I think the one-page dungeon format is D&D genius in a box and graph paper will always play a key role in my game regardless of battlemaps or Hirst Arts block or whatever. The flip-side is that I really didn't want big poster maps that are unwieldy at the table either (see Sets, Boxed, from back in the day).

So I started with six 8.5x11 sheets stuck together, and with some basic design aspects in mind, started drawing maps.

For those of you holding out for the print copy (which should be sweet btw, see earlier posts for an update), the map for Barrowmaze spans 3 pages with the idea that DMs can cut and join them together. They will also fold together nicely to be very manageable at the table or behind the DM screen.

I considered doing them in black and white, as I know some folks have trouble with various colours, but I just couldn't resist the allure of old school blue maps.

If folks like, at some point in the future I can do a free download of the map(s) in black and white.

Here's a sneak peak at the small section of the map.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Barrowmaze Review

Erik of Tenkar's Tavern has written a review of Barrowmaze.

In short, he seems to really like the Old Schoolness factor :)

He's posted his review here.

Please take a look.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Wanted: Old School Ranger Illustration

Does anyone know of a good black and white line-art style illustration of a ranger?

I'm thinking an Aragorn type, but beggers can't be choosers.

I've gone through most of my old modules without much success.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Barrowmaze Print Update

Here's an update on Barrowmaze.

The .pdf is available at RPGnow and DrivethruRPG. I've been very humbled and pleasantly surprised by the interest in the .pdf. Thank you. Please continue to pass the word to your gaming comrades.

In terms of print, you'll be able to order softcover and hardcover paper copies shortly. My copies are enroute, but I do want to make 100% sure that there aren't any issues. I need to be sure that when you order your copy it will look super-sweet. The long and short of the story is that you will be able to order print very shortly. Just hang in there with me.

Finally, www.barrowmaze.com is up and in its infancy. Look for some additional content etc to appear there as things move along. Meatshields! will now be hosted from that site and we are working on a content and interface update for all you Old Schoolers, so you can rock your games as hard as possible.

Thanks again for your support.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

One Edition to Rule Them All...and in the Basement Emulate Them

So, I thought Cook's Legends and Lore column had some interesting items this week.

I'm still not exactly sure whether the notion of multiple edition characters at the same table is correct or incorrect. Either that was very poorly communicated on their part, or it was interpreted wrong. Cook felt the need to clarify with:

"To be clear, we're not talking about creating a bridge so that you can play 1E and 4E at the same time. Instead, we're allowing you to play a 1E-style game or a 4E-style game with the same rules. Also, players at the table can choose the style of character they want to play."

Wow, that's so much clearer now.

Another interesting notion:

"Some choices then—such as whether a character has a long list of skills and feats; or skills, feats, and powers; or just ability scores, hit points, Armor Class, and an attack bonus—are up to the player. Some choices are up to the DM. If miniatures and a grid are used, that's a DM choice."

No, after the basic building blocks DMs make choices (or are cajoled by their players). If I don't want feats at my table, there won't be feats at my table - that's not a player choice. Actually, I'm more open to discussions re: minis, grid, etc. than I am some of these other things.

Perhaps the most interesting quote was the following:

"So, the game is actually a matrix of these choices, with some made by the DM and some by the players, which will end up determining the feel of the overall game and might allow the group to "emulate" a prior edition. More importantly, though, these choices allow people to play what they want to play. In effect, the group can make their own edition of D&D. And that's really the most exciting part of it, I think."

So the One Edition to Rule Them All (which I argued against a couple weeks ago) is merely rising to the level of an emulator? One Emulator to Rule Them All? Just imagine the profliferation of splatbooks for all the various mechanical modules. Most imprtantly, all this really does is restate the edition wars under the same umbrella, rather than have them under their various edition umbrellas. It will result in the same thing, just in a different form. OSR emulators - stand over here, 3tard emulators - stand over there.

Tell me I'm wrong.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Tome of Horrors - Follow-Up Post

I wrote about the Tome of Horrors Complete for Swords and Wizardry here.

I tried to provide a balanced review (even though Frog God wasn't willing to help a guy out North of the border regarding shipping and duty (esp. the latter)). As I said at the time, they have to do what they have to do, and so do I.

I decided to buy the .pdf instead and take it to a local bookbinder who actually does the theses and dissertations for my university. I didn't choose high end binding options, just enough to do the job. My wife has access to a great printer at work (with great quality paper), so that didn't cost me anything to print it off.

So, if I bought the hardcover from Frog God I would have paid $99.00, plus $30+ shipping, plus $30+ duty. So a total price in excess of $160+

I ended up buying the .pdf at $29.99, plus the book-binding $50.00, for a total of 79.99. The best part is that I stuck it to the government by only paying $5 in HST (Harmonized Sales Tax).

Why do I care so much? I really don't like getting bent over for shipping on gaming stuff just because I live in Southern Ontario. It pisses me off. It's also the main reason why hard copies of Barrowmaze (when ready) will be on RPGnow rather than lulu - fair shipping prices. As an aside, and by way of example, I recently ordered a gaming tshirt from the US. They told me it would be $12 shipping for one shirt or $28 for two. That's the kind of bullshit I'm talking about. Canadians and Americans share one of the longest undefended borders in the history of the world - we need to get this figured out.

Monday, February 6, 2012


Note: This post is one part rant, and one part constructive response to the rant.

I've been reading on Enworld quite a bit lately. Yeah, I know. Not quite the hub of the Old School Renaissance, is it?

When I read posts there, I'm struck by the breadth of the D&D experience, specifically across the editions - and, at times, how little we have in common.

One of the things that I know is completely perspectival, but still bugs me, is the god-damn "adventurers are heroes" crap. I realize that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but that doesn't mean that I have to agree with it. Part of the reason why the "hero" thing bugs me is that it connects to all sorts of broader discussions about play-style, edition preference, and the influence of Hollywood fantasy/sci-fi films in tabletop gaming. These are usually the same folks who claim "cinematic action" is a necessity of tabletop gaming. I don't lay blame at their feet solely. To some degree it's generational and it's what they've been told to expect in word and image from WotC and others.

That being said, here's my take on the perception of adventurers:

In my game, adventurers are considered from a low fantasy point of view. They are scruffy and morally ambiguous. They might actually do "good" on occasion, but that wouldn't necessarily be done for its own sake. More often than not it happens to be coincidental to treasure seeking. In addition, adventurers occupy a unique social position much like gladiators in Ancient Rome. Adventurers are both lauded and despised by society. They are despised because adventuring is the act of desperate men (or women). Only those on the social and economic fringe of society would knowingly choose a quick gp (and certain death) over gainful employment. On the other hand, of countless rabble who strap on a sword and are never heard from again, occasionally an adventurer or a small group will return laden with coin and recount tales of their exploits against Draconis the Red Dragon! Or their battle against the Goblins of Kertle! Or whatever. These adventurers are very few, but their tales hang on the tongues of local villagers such that their reputations become much larger and grander in the constant retelling (than they really are in drunken reality).

So how do you consider adventurers?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Linking Blogger to Google+

I'd like to be able to cross-post from blogger to google+ but every example I find on how to do that either doesn't work or is just BS. Can someone strong in the ways of the force suggest a page/tutorial that will do the trick? Cheers!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Interesting Discussion

There's a very interesting discussion going on over at enworld regarding the differences in combat styles between 1E and 4E.

None of the information is effectively new. However, the author of the original post does an outstanding job of explicating the situation.

Basically he breaks combat into two forms: combat-as-war (1E) and combat-as-sport (4E). The former requires the PCs to do everything in their favour to ensure an unfair fight (right on!), whereas the later emphasizes balance and teamwork (I'm paraphrazing on both counts).

Anyway, be sure to give it a good read.

Happy Super Sunday!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Critical Hits

I'm curious how you or your DM runs critical hits in your game?

In my BX/LL game, a roll of 20 indicates a critical hit and the PCs can double their rolled damage. We also play with critical fumbles. If PCs roll a 1 they then roll on a d8 sub-table for mishaps.

There seems to be more consternation about critical hits in more recent editions. This is just another example of rules bloat to me.