Showing posts with label Gary Gygax. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gary Gygax. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Siri as D&D Dungeon Master

As might be guessed Siri is a "killer DM." I think she ran a Call of Cthulhu adventure for me at an old DundraCon (it's in Apple's backyard).  On a serious note, check out the copy of Gary Gygax's ROLE PLAYING MASTERY on the table. That is a significant easter egg, especially given the kind of DM Siri turns out to be.


And yes, I own a copy of ROLE PLAYING MASTERY. I also have a copy of MASTER OF THE GAME.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Tim Kask: A Tale of Two Magazines

Back in July of 1981 Tim Kask launched the first issue of ADVENTURE GAMING magazine. It was a magazine dedicated to the entire gaming hobby. The magazine launched just as two of the largest "Industry Magazines" (DRAGON and WHITE DWARF) were beginning their slow migration from magazines that covered the entire hobby and into house magazines that covered primarily the products offered by the company publishing the magazine. Tim Kask had been the editor of DRAGON for the first 34 issues of the magazine, so if anyone was qualified to launch a new magazine for the growing hobby he was certainly on that list. Unlike the two previously mentioned magazines, and magazines like Space Gamer, Tim's new venture wouldn't limit what kinds of games it covered. To quote Tim from his "Off the Wall" editorial:

Do you really plan to cover it all? You betcha, Buffalo Bob! The lines that used to separate the types of gamers are becoming more blurred. The amount of crossover interest and participation has never been greater. There can be no disputing the fantasy phenomenon erased a number of those lines, as well as gave the industry an incredible boost in interest in sales. Fantasy remains the dominant force in the industry today, but all areas are showing increased interest and sales. We plan to accurately reflect the hobby whatever direction it may take.
 The words that Tim wrote in 1981 were true, but they weren't sufficiently true for him to launch a successful magazine that lasted years. ADVENTURE GAMING published only 13 issues. As a fan of the hobby as a whole, I find this to be a great loss. Magazines are one of the best ways for modern fans to learn the history of the hobby. They are the primary way we can cut through the "common knowledge" and assumptions about the history of the hobby we so often encounter in conversations across fandom. If you read the article in FIRE & MOVEMENT magazine about the TSR/SPI merger you get quite a different picture than what you hear from former SPI employees. That merger doesn't look to be a clean merger from either side, and one wonders if TSR's attempt to acquire IP while avoiding debt obligations that would have been demanded during bankruptcy wasn't poorly communicated. It certainly created bad blood, and TSR may have been being too "creative" for their own good. Add to that the state of nature-esque competitiveness of that growing market, and modern gaming historians are poorer for the fact that magazines like ADVENTURE GAMING, SPACE GAMER, and DIFFERENT WORLDS didn't do better outside their regional spheres of influence.

Let's just have a look at what ADVENTURE GAMING #1 had to offer:

  1. Scepter & Starship -- A Traveller Variant article. Note that Traveller recently had a very successful Kickstarter over 20 years after this issues publication.
  2. Starting Over: Some Points to Consider Concerning New FRPG Campaigns -- A good how to start a campaign article.
  3. The Joys of Napoleonic Wargaming -- Here you begin to see the breadth of the magazine's coverage.
  4. Reflections -- A "Gamer POV" article about the hobby.
  5. The Adventures of space Trader Vic -- One of the obligatory cartoons.
  6. Campanile -- A column by Kathleen Pettigrew that was a gamer opinion column.
  7. CIVILIZATION: A Game Review -- What it says.
  8. What Makes a Player Good? A DM's View -- An article that looks at a topic that is often under evaluated, that of what players can do to make a better game experience.
  9. Heroic Combat in DIVINE RIGHT -- A cool variant rules article by one of the designers of the game.
  10. Away to the Wars! -- A variant for the KNIGHTS OF CAMELOT game.
  11. Cangames 81 and Canadian Gaming by John Hill -- Yes, that John Hill of SQUAD LEADER fame.
  12. NPCs are People Too! -- An article on how to give more personality to NPCs.
  13. On Being a Gamemaster -- A GM advice column.
  14. Any News of the Questing Beast? -- An overview of KNIGHTS OF CAMELOT
  15. Whither Boardgames -- A column dedicated to the discussion of boardgaming and about how RPGs are hurting boardgame sales and how boardgaming still has value.
It's a pretty interesting lineup and one that would be fun to see in a modern publication. Speaking of modern publications, Tim Kask and his merry band of adventurers are at it again. Late last year/early this year saw the launch of GYGAX Magazine, a quarterly "adventure gaming" magazine. A magazine with a distinctly familiar mission:

We've go material that reaches back to some of the earliest role-playing games, and some of the absolutely newest. Virtual tabletops, fantasy miniatures rules for toddlers, complicated mathematical answers to simple questions, even a city in a swamp...we've got it all here. If there's one question that's come up more than any other while we were making this magazine, it's been "what are you going to write about?" From here on out, we would like to direct a similar question at our readers. What would you like to read? Drop us a line and let us know. With your help, we want to see tabletop gaming thrive and expand.
 While the wording is more "marketing" oriented than the older editorial, the message can be said to be very similar to the older quote, "We plan to accurately reflect the hobby whatever direction it may take." The first issue of GYGAX features the following:

  1. The Cosmology of Role-Playing Games -- An incomplete but interesting look at the role-playing game hobby as a cosmology. It has a lot of important games, but it misses a few games I would consider highly influential. Not to mention that it just ignores 4e completely.
  2. Still Playing After All These Years -- An editorial by Kask. A very good one.
  3. Leomunds Secure Shelter -- An article by Lenard Lakofka, of Bone Hill fame, that looks at the math of AD&D.
  4. The Ecology of the BANSHEE -- With the demise of Kobold Quarterly, it's nice to see an ecology article.
  5. Bridging Generations -- An article by Luke Gygax discussing the continuation of the hobby.
  6. Gaming with a Virtual Tabletop -- What it says.
  7. Keeping Magic Magical -- An article by Dennis Sustare the designer of SWORDBEARER a game that very much kept magic magical.
  8. Playing It the Science Ficiton Way -- A discussion of METAMORPHOSIS ALPHA and its origins.
  9. DMing for Your Toddler -- Cory Doctorow's less useful version of Highmoon Games RPG KIDS. Do yourself a favor and buy RPG Kids.
  10. Greate Power for ICONS -- Steve Kenson article for the supers RPG.
  11. The Future of Tabletop Gaming  by Ethan Gilsdorf -- The second "celebrity" article. It's a good article, but I'm wondering if Shannon Applecline couldn't have done a better job.
  12. The Gygax Family Storyteller -- What you might imagine, in the best possible way.
  13. Talents OFF the Front Line -- An article for GODLIKE by Dennis Detwiller.
  14. D&D past, now, and Next by Michael Tresca -- A good article that none the less falsely states that 4e is the "first edition to explicitly require an objective environment." No, that would be 3e and both Line of Sight rules and Flanking rules.
  15. Gnatdamp -- A city in a swamp. Good article.
  16. The Kobold's Cavern -- Wolfgang Baur!
  17. Magical Miscellany -- Support for Green Ronin's AGE.
  18. An AGE of Great Inventions -- More support for Green Ronin's AGE, which is a wondrous thing.
  19. Scaling Combat Feats for PATHFINDER -- A good article by someone who wants to address the "feat taxes" of 3.x and PATHFINDER. Insert my snarky remark about how PATHFINDER is already amped up, so why does it need to be turned up to 11. Answer with "because it's a game and there is no wrong way to play" response.
  20. Marvin the Mage -- Obligatory Cartoon.
  21. What's New -- Obligatory Cartoon.
  22. Order of the Stick -- Obligatory Cartoon.
As you can see, Tim is being more conservative in the new venture. There are no mentions of Napoleonic games here and the focus is on fantasy. The magazine still covers a wide swath of the hobby though. It has yet to be seen if there is a market for this publication. I'm certainly the target audience, and I've already got a one year subscription to print and digital, but who else will be is the vital question.

Will GYGAX be the next ADVENTURE GAMING or will it be the first of a new breed of hobby based magazines? Only time will tell. It wasn't for lack of quality that ADVENTURE GAMING failed.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Remembering Gary Gygax

For geeks like me, today is a day of memorial celebration. E Gary Gygax, co-creator with Dave Arneson of the Dungeons and Dragons game, was born on this day in 1938.

Gary Gygax and Arneson created a game that provided me with untold hours of entertainment, a game that introduced me to great literature (and horrible drivel), a game that helped me form life long friendships. Because of this man's creation, my life (and many others) were made better and more enjoyable. I am extremely grateful to Gary.

Gary Gygax Memorial Day seems the perfect time to share Gary stories of gaming goodness and fun.  It seems that every gamer worth his or her salt has a Gary Gygax story, and I envy those that do their stories. I have no "when I met Gary story." Instead, I have a when I "almost" met Gary story.

You April of 2007 I was on a trip for work in eastern Wisconsin -- Racine to be specific, and I decided I wanted to do two things. First, I wanted to watch a baseball game in Wrigley field. I am a huge Cubs fan, and there is no better place to watch baseball. Second, I wanted to tour Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, the birthplace of gaming in America. Trust me. Whether you play modern boardgames, video games, collectible card games, or role playing games, the game you are playing likely has some connection to the gaming movement started in that small Wisconsin town.

So I drove to Lake Geneva and toured all of the locations that once housed the offices of TSR, the company that published D&D. Then finally, I stood in front of what I believed to be Gary's house and took about 10 pictures from across the street. It was relatively early in the evening and I contemplated walking up to the door and knocking, just to tell Gary how much entertainment his game has provided me over the past three decades. I walked up to the cars parked in front of the house (pictured below), but then I thought..."what if it is the wrong house?"

What if I walk up to the door, knock and ask for Gary and it's the wrong house? What if it's the right house? What kind of crazy stalker gamer knocks on a game designer's door uninvited?

So...I walked to the library, took a couple of pictures of the beautiful lake, walked around the small downtown area, and left. I was angry at myself for not emailing/message boarding Gary earlier, or later, and I promised myself that I would do so when I next traveled to the Wisconsin or Chicago area.

That day cannot come now.

While I am sad about that, today is not a day of sadness.  It is a day of remembrance and celebration.  So let me share with you a couple of pictures from a D&D Encounters session I ran last night at Emerald Knights Comics and Games.  These pictures show the real gift that Gary and Dave gave to the world.  They gave us  a tool with which to build community and have a good time.  Gary might not have liked the 4th Edition of the D&D game, but I think he would be happy to see the enjoyment these gamers had last night.

A little pre-game discussion.
Did Christian actually bring a character sheet for Miles Edgeworth?

It looks like the Kobold Wizard Speelock is in a bit of trouble.

Can his companions help him out, or will the Drow win the day?

Later this month, I'll make my group endure a small reading from one of the books Gygax wrote. We all need to push through a little Gygaxian prose every now and then. Maybe I'll open up "Master of the Game," or read the introduction to the Player's Handbook (1st edition) one more time. That introduction made me feel like I was part of something special, even before I rolled my first die.

It also seems like a good time to make a donation to the Gygax Memorial Fund.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

[Gaming History] Power Gaming -- Boot Hill NPCs

As a fan of Westerns, I've always wanted to play Boot Hill. I've owned a copy of the Second Edition of the game -- the one that came in the box and was published in 1979 -- for many years, but I have never had the chance to sit down and actually play a session of the game.

This isn't to say that the players I have gamed with over the years haven't been up for Western themed gaming.  I've played sessions of Avalon Hill's Gunslinger (not an rpg) and sessions of Deadlands.  We've always had a good time.  I've just never had a chance to play Boot Hill.  This being the case, it wasn't until recently that I began to read the rules to examine them for play.  The Old School Renaissance, combined with the recent release of Dungeon Crawl Classics, got me into a nostalgic mood.  So the other day, I opened up the rulebook to learn how to play so I could pitch a session to my gaming group.

The first thing I noticed was that while Boot Hill is a role playing game, it is largely a Tactical Tabletop game.  The campaign elements while "role playing" oriented also allow for players to play against one another -- but doesn't require it.  Some players will play "law men" and others "outlaws."  This isn't to say that one couldn't create a more "PCs are a team" style campaign, just that the rule book is written to allow for player dictated storylines where other players can react.  The campaign system is set up so that the individual players can play their own individual stories regardless of other players' activities. I think that this mode of campaign play is interesting and definitely echoes the style of a Braunstein game more than the D&D rules did.  

One of the things that many in the OSR community find appealing about old school games is the lethality of the systems and the lack of "superheroic player characters."  OSR players often want the characters played by players to feel some what mortal.  This sentiment likely stems from the fragility of 1st level characters in D&D, especially Magic Users who are notoriously fragile at low levels.  PCs in a 1st edition D&D game are often one small mistake away from death.  In fact, in the first D&D rules set while characters where rated for their physical and mental attributes, having highly rated attributes had little effect on game play in comparison to later games.  A Fighter with a high Strength score gained very little immediate benefit from the score, though that character would gain experience more rapidly than his/her compatriots.

It didn't take long for that to change though. It was in the Greyhawk supplement that added ability score modifiers for combat.  And once a character's strength score affected one's combat ability, every player wanted to have a higher strength score.  After all, who doesn't want to hit opponents 10-15% more often and to deal 2 to 6 more points of damage per hit?

The 1979 rules of Boot Hill definitely demonstrate the transition from ability scores being primarily a measure that influences speed of advancement to things that immediately and directly affect combat.  D&D used a bell curve that was close to a Normal Distribution with a range of 3 to18.  The bonuses roughly falling along lines of standard deviation especially in the Moldvay/Cook edition.  Boot Hill, on the other hand, has different distributions for Non-Player Characters and Player Characters based on percentile rolls.

Player Characters are far more proficient than randomly generated NPCs.  Take a look at the following two tables illustrating the probability of a character having a specific "Speed" rating.  The first illustrates the chance of a randomly generated NPC having a given modifier.  These range from - 5 to +22 and 0 is described as "average" in the descriptor.  The second illustrates a Player Character.  Once again, 0 is "average."

NPC Speed Probabilities

PC Speed Probabilities

Two things stand out to immediately.  The first is that the character generation system doesn't generate "average" characters on average.  An NPC has only a 10% chance of being "average," and has a 15% chance of being "above average" or "fast."  PCs are even more powerful than NPCs, as they are completely incapable of being "average."  Given that the -5 to +22 is a modifier to initiative, and that one sees similar though not identical distributions for Gun and Throwing Accuracy, one wonders why the game's mechanics didn't scale down toward average actually meaning average.  This could have been done by deciding that a majority of NPCs have a speed of x, and that the majority of PCs have a speed of y.  The speed of x could have been called average and have provided no bonus or penalty.  Instead, Boot Hill uses a counter intuitive system where an average roll (50.5) results in a "quick" NPC (+4) or a "Very Quick" PC (+6).

A part of me could forgive the non-intuitive use, if it wasn't for the section of the rules listing "The Fastest Guns That Ever Lived."  According to this chart, Billy the Kid has an unachievable Speed of +23 and even Ike Clanton has a +12.  All of the "Fastest Guns That Ever Lived" are extremely fast and seem to me to reflect a kind of power creep in the rules.  What is most remarkable is how many of these characters have Speeds of 18+, with many having more than 22.  One might say, "but they are the 'fastest' aren't they?"  Okay, but does the name Bob Younger really bring to mind speed with a pistol?  Besides, the point of having these gunslingers listed is for use in the game.  If all of them are so quick, then there is no real distinction among them.  The slowest of the fastest guns has a +6.  Why not set +6 as average?  It seems to be the average of the NPC distribution -- or at least close.

I can say that the first thought I had looking at these numbers was that none of my players would want to even try a character who didn't have at least a +9 in their Speed Stat.  I think that a system having bonuses that directly affect the probability of actions makes players more likely to worry that their stats aren't high enough, and to try to power game a system.  As time has gone by, I'm becoming more convinced that maybe statistics should matter less mechanically than they do.  Players might obsess a little less about what their Speed score is if they aren't worried about someone with a +25 (Wes Hardin) bringing the gun to bear.

Oh...and the list completely leaves out Bass Reeves.  How can you leave out Bass Reeves?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Gaming History: The Space Gamer and Black Gate Magazine, TSR Buys SPI

On February 28th, the publisher of Black Gate Magazine, wrote a blog post celebrating an old SPI game called Swords and Sorcery.  He praised the game in his semi-regular "new treasures" column.  The game itself was published in 1978, but O'Neill had just acquired an edition from eBay.  If the edition he purchased is the edition photographed in the blog post, he and I own the same edition of the game.  The game may have been old, but it was new to him. 

The post is quite positive, and I largely agree with O'Neill's review.  As is common in discussion of old SPI games, a discussion of TSR's acquisition of SPI -- and their subsequent "killing" of SPI game lines -- was brought up in the comments section.  Among the grognards of the gaming hobby, of which I am certainly one, there is often a good deal of ire aimed at TSR for their behavior.  This ire is often directed at Lorraine Williams, but not always.  One of those cases where it isn't directed at Lorraine Williams is in the TSR purchase of SPI in 1982.  At that time, the company was very much in the control of Gygax and the Blumes -- though they were having plenty of internal strife at the time.

In this particular post, Black Gate's managing editor (and talented author Howard Andrew Jones) was the individual who brought up TSR's "killing" of SPI product lines.  In my typical "provocateur" fashion, I mentioned that I thought that the TSR acquisition and killing of SPI was more complicated than most grognards think and even included some slight praise for Lorraine Williams -- as a fan I am actually amazed at the products that came out during her tenure, even if she hated gamers.  Here is what I wrote:

While it is easy to blame TSR for what they did to SPI — and they deserve a lot of blame — one should keep two things in mind
First, when they purchased SPI it was in dire financial straights and would likely not have survived.
Second, they had hoped to keep SPI’s staff, but those staff members refused to work for TSR — for varied reasons — and left to form the Victory Games studio over at Avalon Hill.

Third, and this is where I get near heretical, it was the Blumes who devalued SPI’s contributions. A massive resurgence of publishing of SPI games happened under Lorraine Williams. We would never have seen the SPI monster TSR World War II game, or Wellington’s Victory, SNIPER (including BugHunters), let alone the 3rd edition of DragonQuest.

I believe she did the publishing of SPI stuff out of desperation, not any love for the product or the fans, as TSR was starting to have financial troubles which could only be met by an ever expanding publication schedule and continual revenue flow.

It was the Blumes who refused to acknowledge lifetime subscriptions to SPI magazines.
There is an excellent issue of Fire and Movement, printed by Steve Jackson Games, that goes over the purchase of SPI.

I have since hunted down the issue of Fire & Movement I mentioned, and it is issue 27 (May/June 1982).  In that issue Nick Schuessler writes a remarkably detailed article about TSR's acquisition of SPI and provides some context for the purchase.  Some highlights of the article are:

  • On March 31, 1981 TSR announced they were initiating a chain of events to purchase SPI.
  • On April 7th, eight key SPI staffers tendered their resignations and announced they were forming a new company called Victory Games that would work under the auspices of Avalon Hill.
  • TSR acquirexd the trademarks and copyrights of the entire SPI inventory.
  • Mark Herman, the leader of the eight defectors, had been negotiating with Avalon Hill to purchase SPI.
  • The TSR conglomerate owned a science fiction magazine (Amazing), and a needlepoint company, in addition to D&D and in 1981 they had $17 million in sales revenue.
  • SPI was a $2 million a year company.
Schuessler's article is heavy on facts, and only has one bit of speculation.  That bit of speculation is whether the brain drain, the loss of Mark Herman and crew, will have a long term negative effect on the acquisition.  I would argue, from a historical perspective, that this was the single most devastating part of the acquisition.  SPI's strength was in its designers.  Mark Herman, Jerry Klug, John and Trish Butterfield, and Greg Gorden were some of the most talented designers of their era.

But the May/June issue of Fire and Movement only gives us a part of the story.  It doesn't truly show how desperate TSR was to diversify their brand, and how much internal strife existed at the company.  Those elements can be seen in old issues of The Space Gamer.   In issue 60 of TSG, John Rankin writes an article about a visit by TSR employees to Dallas where TSR Vice-President Duke Seifried were to meet with Heritage-USA and where there were possibly discussions for TSR to purchase Heritage or to enter into a joint venture with them.  John Rankin's article states:

  • Heritage USA still owed Duke Seifried money from his time with the company, and that Duke was a stockholder in the company.
  • TSR was very much in need of a miniatures company if they wanted to diversify. 
  •  No meeting between TSR and Heritage actually occurred, though Duke did likely get information from them as a stockholder.
  • TSR "left no broken hearts in Dallas.  But they didn't make any new friends either."
  • There is a sense of some instability at TSR, and they are seen as not wanting to lead the industry rather just to "control it."  

This all seems like a relatively mundane deal gone bad...until one looks at other issues discussing TSR.  By issue 65 of The Space Gamer, the internal strife at TSR comes to the fore.  In that issue, the following facts are reported.

  • TSR released 40 of its employees in June of 1983.  Among these employees was Duke Seifried.
  • TSR was reorganized into 4 companies.
  • TSR Public Relations director Dietur Sturm described TSR finances as, "More or less, what you're looking at is money coming into the company from sales and not focused properly...Sales are there as far as the distributors and retailers and stores (are concerned); they have nothing to worry about."
This news demonstrates a number of problems within TSR.  There is obviously internal strife.  The firing of Seifried and the "banishing" of Gygax to Los Angeles hint at that.  The company also clearly had no idea how to maintain and expand their product lines.  They purchased a needlepoint company for goodness' sake!  Why?  What synergy could that provide?

They purchased SPI, a company that had a rich catalog of war games but that also had a Fantasy Roleplaying Game called Dragon Quest.  Supporting the SPI rpg would have possibly meant cannibalizing their own product lines.  They had no plans to retain the talents acquired in the SPI purchase, and in fact eventually fired everyone they hired from SPI and refused to support life time subscriptions to SPI's magazine Strategy & Tactics.  TSR did everything they could to alienate the customer base of the company they had just acquired, and they were "reorganizing" to end an outpouring of money.  They were in constant need of revenue to stay afloat. They were selling a ton of product, but they also weren't developing products with any logical consistency.  These are trends that wouldn't end any time soon.  You can read Ryan Dancey's financial audit of TSR when Wizards of the Coast purchased them to see just how much this remained a problem in 1997.

I think that Rankin's comment regarding not wanting to lead, rather to control is a perfect description of the company.  They boycotted GAMA and demanded D&D not be played at Origins.  They had no plans for talent retention.  They didn't publish the products they acquired.  They don't seem to have been logical in the determination of the size of print runs.  They cannibalized product lines -- even in the Blume/Gygax era though this became disastrous in the Williams era.  As much as I love TSR's many settings having the Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Mystara, Hollow World, Birthright, and Dark Sun all as simultaneous fantasy setting product lines is a case study definition of cannibalizing product lines.  Having "Basic," "Expert," "Companion," and "Master" D&D as well as Advanced D&D -- let alone a 2nd edition -- is also a case study definition.

The company produced great games, but they were not managed well at all.  Bad management is endemic throughout the rpg industry.  It is an industry primarily run by hobbyists and not business people.  This is a creative boon, but a business curse.

On an interesting note, as I was looking through old The Space Gamer issues I found a letter by a John O'Neill of Ottawa, Canada in issue 66.  I'm going to take a huge leap here and say that the John O'Neill in that 1983 letter is the publisher of Black Gate Magazine.  Why would I make such an assumption?  Just look at the first two paragraphs of that letter:

In an age of man now only distantly remembered, there existed a magazine which the good people in the land of Fandom did enjoy.  But lo, there came a day unlike any other day, when the Powers That Be sent a lightning bolt to rend asunder that magazine.

From the fragments of the one there emerged two magazines, and the Powers That Be told the people of Fandom to partake of them.
Who, but the future editor of a Sword and Sorcery magazine, could write such a letter? 

Image Copyright 2012 Jody Lindke


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

AD&D's Appendix N? What About the Moldvay Appendix?

now become a widely used shorthand for the literary origins of RPGs."  James' site often includes discussions of the appendix, its influence on the early days of the hobby, and from time to time he even reviews books and authors featured in the Appendix. 

Given that he has taken the time to review the Carnelian Cube, a book that fellow Appendix N advocate Erik Mona has found "wanting," it is my hope that James will someday review the Kothar series by Gardner Fox.  Though if that doesn't happen I might just find the time to do so.  Having endured a couple of Lin Carter's Thongor books, I figure they cannot be much worse.  That said, Carter at least has the virtue of being one of the best editors in SF/F history even though his Thongor stories fall very short of the best of Sword and Sorcery fiction.

If I were to say that the influence of Appendix N extended beyond the gaming table and that many of the works therein are also seminal works of Science Fiction and Fantasy, I don't think there would be many who disagree.  The Appendix includes luminaries like Leigh Brackett, Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkien, Manly Wade Wellman, and Robert E. Howard -- and many others beside.  But the list is also incomplete.  There is no listing for Clark Ashton Smith, for example. 

But this is not the only list of recommended reading that the Dungeons & Dragons games have provided their readers.  No indeed.  The Erik Mona edited Pathfinder roleplaying game, or as I call it D&D Golarion, has it's own Appendix 3 which features a list of recommended reading.  It is a longer list than Gygax's, and a good one.

My own favorite "Appendix N" is a combination of the "inspirational source material" provided by Tom Moldvay on page B62 of the 1981 Dungeons & Dragons Basic and in the module X2 Castle Amber.  While others may have based their youthful Fantasy purchases on Appendix N, I based mine almost entirely on the Moldvay list.  It should be noted that Tom Moldvay was assisted in the creation of his list by Barbara Davis who was  Children's Librarian at the Lake Geneva Public Library.  Davis eventually became the Library Director from 1984 to 1996.  I don't know where she is now, but I'd like to thank her for the many hours of joy the list she worked on has provided many young people.

Maliszewski has already written a brief comment about how the Moldvay list differs from the Gygax one, and argues that it represents a shift from material that influenced the design of the game to a list that might provide inspiration or entertainment for those who play the game.  To quote James, "Whereas Gygax's list was a list of the specific books and authors who influenced him in creating the game -- and are thus a window into how he saw the game -- Moldvay's list is a generalized quasi-academic survey of fiction and non-fiction that might hold some interest to players of D&D."

His language is strong, and as much as he demurs from the quote being used as a "this list is better than the other list" statement, it seems clear to me that the use of the term "quasi-academic" is somewhat loaded.

Let's just say that James and I hold similar, but not exact positions on the lists.  I agree that the Gygax list is a specific list that influenced him in creating the game.  I think the list was also one which he thought would appeal to people who were currently playing D&D.  That is to say, adults.  When AD&D was first published, the game was just beginning to escape from college campuses and niche SF/F reading circles and into the mainstream.  The Moldvay list, on the other hand, is written for a generation of emerging players.  It is written for the young. 

Both lists include some overlap -- Fritz Leiber, Robert Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and J.R.R. Tolkien.   But Moldvay's list is divided into many sections. 

There is Fiction: Young Adult, which includes Lloyd Alexander, L Frank Baum, and Ursula Le Guin. 

There is Non-Fiction: Young Adult, which includes Olivia Coolidge's Legends of the North.

There is Fiction: Adult Fantasy with Poul Anderson, Leigh Brackett, Avram Davidson, E.R. Eddison, Heinlein, Jack Vance, Karl Edward Wagner, and a host of others.

Adult Non-Fiction includes Jorge Luis Borges' The Book of Imaginary Beasts and Thomas Bullfinch.

In most ways, the Moldvay list is inclusive of Appendix N.  There are only four authors Moldvay's list leaves out that are in the Gygax list.  These are Frederic Brown, August DerlethMargaret St. Clair, and Stanley Weinbaum

If you want a wonderful overview of the Sword and Sorcery field, I would argue that you should start with the Moldvay list and add the four authors that Moldvay excluded.  If your primary mission is to see the books that influenced Gygax, stick to Appendix N.

Both are good lists, but I still prefer the Moldvay.  That attachment probably stems from an overall affection for the Moldvay Basic Set, but...

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Game Master's "Appendix N" -- A List of Books Every GM Should Own

Gary Gygax's list of recommended reading, is "appendix," on page 224 of the first Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide holds a special place in the role playing game community.  In role playing circles, the list is as influential -- if not more so -- than the Lin Carter Ballantine Adult Fantasy series is for Fantasy fans in general.  Gygax provided the list so that Dungeon Masters could be filled with the same wonder and inspiration that eventually culminated in his creation of the Dungeons and Dragons role playing game.

The appendix is quite marvelous.  It begins by mentioning that Gygax's father's story telling was a key component in sparking young Gary's imagination.  Too often discussions of Appendix N leave out the opening paragraph when discussing the important influences, but we should all remember how important it is to share stories with our children and to take some time to make up our own bed time stories.  It is wonderful to read to our children, but by telling them stories we show our children that it is okay to invent their own tales.

But this post isn't about Gary's list. There are plenty of posts discussing "Appendix N," such as this Cimmerian post on the topic. The original "Appendix N" was a list of inspirational authors and works of fiction that Dungeon Masters could read to spark their narrative imaginations, and better understand the kind of Fantasy that would be experienced using the Dungeons & Dragons rules. That was a lofty goal, and one that the list succeeded at, but it is only half of what a good GM needs. A GM needs both food for the imagination, and food for the presentation.

By this I mean that GMs need stories that can lead them to create wonderfully rich narratives for their players, but they also need the tools that will help them to manage very good sessions. Essentially, GMs need both a degree in "Literature that Inspires Good Gaming" and "Game Session Management." Over the 25+ years that I've been running games, and as someone who was once a terrible GM, here is a list of books I've found invaluable. Future blog posts (on no particular schedule) will highlight some of these books and talk about why they are so important.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Defense of D&D Movies and Some Commentary on Playing Styles

Ever since I purchased a copy of Thousand Suns, I have been a big fan of James Maliszewski. It was obvious from this product, and his excellent Shadow, Sword, & Spell, that he and I share a deep affection for many of the same things. It didn't take me long to enter his name into a search engine and find his excellent blog Grognardia where he shares his love of Old School gaming and pulp fiction with an engaged and passionate audience. I'm a big fan of the site and cannot recommend it -- or the two games mentioned earlier -- highly enough.

Though we share affections, his explorations into pulp and old games usually discuss things found on my book shelves, I don't always agree with his critical opinions of new gaming systems. James is an ardent advocate of not merely "old school games," but also of what he considers "old school play." While I advocate owning and playing older games, I have no preference for old or new style play. James is a knowledgeable critic of the gaming industry, and I am a devoted Pollyanna.

A perfect Case Study for how our hobby opinions differ is his recent post regarding Dungeons and Dragons movies. In a post entitled "The Pointlessness of a D&D Movie," James argues that -- regardless of the quality of a D&D movie -- there is no real point to making a D&D movie since any such film would be D&D in name only. In his opinion, it would be difficult -- if at all possible -- to make a film that truly captured the essence of D&D. He argues that any D&D movie would likely be a "generic" fantasy film as much as it would be a D&D film. Therefore the exercise is largely pointless.

I both agree and disagree with his argument, and I disagree strongly with many of those who posted comments on his site -- especially with regard to what constitutes the "feel" of D&D.

While James is correct that most attempts to create a D&D inspired movie would likely be "merely" generic fantasy films, he would be wrong if he thought it were necessary that a D&D inspired film would be a generic fantasy film. To be fair, James asks his audience to give him an example of what such a film would be like rather than to assert that it is impossible.

In my opinion, a D&D inspired film would take one of two forms.

In the first case, one could create a film inspired by the intellectual properties associated with the D&D brand. One could make a Mystara, Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Birthright, Eberron, Dark Sun, or Planescape movie. To be fair, it would be possible that any film set in these creations might end up defaulting to generic fantasy, but it isn't a necessary condition. A Greyhawk film that focused on Zagyg's quest for immortality, Iuz's plans, or on Mordenkainen and friends would be different enough in character to matter. Similarly a Forgotten Realms film about Drizz't or based on Paul Kemp's "Shadow" series would have as distinct a tone as is possible. As for Eberron, Dark Sun, or Planescape, each of these has a character so unique that they would stand out on their own. These settings are rich for exploration and would also have the marketing potential to bring in new gamers, as they have directly related products.

In the second case, I can imagine a film akin to Andre Norton's Quag Keep, L. Sprague DeCamp's Solomon's Stone, or Joel Rosenberg's Guardians of the Flame. In this scenario, players of a D&D game would be transported into a mystical world -- or the actions of players in the real world would be interposed on characters in the fantastic. I also think one could do something like the Gold web series where gaming is used as a setting for a larger story.

From a marketing perspective any of these would be desirable. The purpose of a film is to help build brand and provide revenue and this would be easily possible with any of the above strategies. Which comes down to the crux of it. It isn't pointless from a business perspective to make a D&D film because it can bring revenue for shareholders while providing entertainment -- and employment opportunities -- for stakeholders.

Almost no one reading James' blog approached the question in the above fashion. Looking at the responses from James' readers though, one is taken aback by a couple of things. First, the venom some of his posters had for existing D&D entertainment enterprises. Commenters disparaged the D&D movies, the Dragonlance animated film, and the D&D cartoon that aired in the 80s.

In future posts I will discuss the various D&D movies individually, but let me just put forward the following. I think that everyone involved in making those products wanted to make something entertaining, and many of them were gamers themselves. I agree that the first D&D movie was a disappointment (though it also had moments). I think that the second film was much better, and on a fraction of the budget. I think that the flaws of the Dragonlance movie stem from weaknesses in the first Dragonlance novel (the weakest of the first six books) and that the film is actually a good translation of that book. I deeply enjoy the cartoon series, as do my twin daughters. Lastly, I eagerly await the next D&D film and know that the people working on it want to make a good film. But I will elaborate on all of these in the future.

Another thing that struck me in the posts, in addition to the venom aimed at existing attempts, was the vision many of James' commenters had for what constitutes "D&D narrative."

Some examples include this one from commenter Johnstone:

A group of adventurers arrives at the mouth of a dungeon. They enter and explore rooms, get around traps, fight monsters, run away from monsters, find gold and treasure, and Black Dougal dies from poison. Then they fight two or three dragons at the end, after which only the fighter and the thief are still alive. The thief backstabs the fighter, grabs (some of/the best of) the treasure and books it. The end.

This one from Reverence Pavane:

Well a good movie about D&D would probably go back and examine the basic tropes of the game, rather than trying to fit a plot to the games. Such as the existence of dungeons. The fact that adventurers form up in small teams of highly egotistical individuals to go down into the dungeon and slay things, loot their victims and furnishings, and then return to the tavern.

This one from Lord Gwydion:

Personally, if I were to write a D&D script, I'd focus on these things:

No big 'save the world' plot.

No 'revenge' plot (although a subplot might involve revenge).

No 'hero's journey' plot.

Those three stances alone mean it would not be made by Hollywood (or they'd hire someone to come in after I was done and add all of those back in).

Each of these, and a couple of other posts, exemplifies a particular view of what constitutes the spirit of D&D play. They also depict a way of playing D&D that I haven't personally experienced since I was in high school. That doesn't mean that this style of play is an "immature" or "childish" way to play the game. In fact, this was a way of playing D&D that was popular among the adults who taught my friends and me how to play the game, but it was one my friends and I abandoned for heroic adventure. It is also a game style that is supported by the rules. One cannot help but to expect a game that gives experience points for how much money you acquire, in addition to how many creatures you kill, will do anything other than foster a "mercenary" style of play.

I call this style of play "D&D as Tomb Raiders," and I don't much like it. I understand that many do, but I think it goes against the grain of what the game is about. I blogged about J. Eric Holmes' opinions regarding game balance and the games spirit last week. To me D&D is a game of "Heroic Journeys," battles against evil, saving the world, and fighting the good fight. It isn't about wandering mercenaries plundering loot -- that's Tunnels and Trolls. D&D is a game that features Paladins battling the hordes of Hell.

In his book Role-Playing Mastery, Gary Gygax writes about how each role playing game rules set has its own "spirit." This spirit cannot often be described in bumper sticker terms, but it is something that will permeate the statistics, mechanics, descriptions included within a game. According to Gary, a game master, and player, is charged with learning more than just the rules of the game, but is also charged with learning the spirit of each game and attempting to play accordingly.

As I mentioned earlier when discussing the recent discussion at Grognardia, one might come to the conclusion that the spirit of Dungeons & Dragons was one of selfish mercenaries, tomb robbers, and skallywags. But this isn't the spirit that Gygax describes. He describes the spirit of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as follows:

I shall attempt to characterize the spirit of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game. This is a fantasy RPG predicated on the assumption that the human race, by and large, is made up of good people. Humans, with the help of their demi-human allies (dwarfs, elves, gnomes, etc.), are and should remain the predominant force in the world. They have achieved and continue to hold on to this status, despite the ever-present threat of evil, mainly because of the dedication, honor, and unselfishness of the most heroic humans and demi-humans -- the characters whose roles are taken by the players of the game. Although players can take the roles of "bad guys" if they so choose, and if the game master allows it, evil exists primarily as an obstacle for player characters to overcome...the goal of the forces of good can only be attained through cooperation, so that victory is a group achievement rather than an individual one.

I eagerly watch a D&D movie that embodied Gygax's D&D spirit, and I prefer to play in games that do so as well.

To me "classic D&D" is about saving villagers from ravaging hordes of Giants, only to learn that these Giants were being displaced by Dark Elves, and that the Queen of the Demonweb pits was weaving sophisticated plans that would bring down the forces of good in the world.

That style of play isn't for everyone, but it is a style of play that is fun and would make some good movies.

Of course a dark, brooding, heist film would be pretty good too.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Adventure Gamebooks as RPGs Part 2 -- Sagard the Barbarian: #1 The Ice Dragon

Gary Gygax, the co-creator of the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game, dove into the adventure gamebook craze in 1985 with his Sagard the Barbarian series of gamebooks. This series of four interactive novels took place in Gary Gygax's signature "World of Greyhawk" campaign setting. Sagard's adventures in The Ice Dragon begin in a mountain range called The Rakers which make up the border of Ratik and the Theocracy of the Pale.

Gygax co-wrote the Sagard series with Flint Dille. Dille's other works have included the Transformers and GI Joe TV series, as well The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay video game. Gygax met Dille while he was in Hollywood working on the Dungeons & Dragons animated series, and his relationship with Dille led to Gygax asking Dille's sister Lorraine Williams to help save a floundering TSR in 1984. The Williams saga is its own story, one which has left Lorraine's name an epithet in some gaming circles. By the end of 1985, the same year that The Ice Dragon was published, Gygax sold his stock in TSR to Williams and ended his relationship with the company.

All of this leaves one to wonder what Gygax thought of Dille and whether the Williams affair is one of the reasons why the Sagard saga is limited to the four existing volumes.

The Ice Dragon is an engaging gamebook, but is its game system sufficient to support game play outside of the game book environment?

Let's have a look at the rules.

Game Mechanics

With the exception of rules for keeping track of "trophies" that Sagard collects during his adventures, The Ice Dragon rules set is entirely limited to combat mechanics. By itself, this doesn't automatically mean that the rules won't be able to be expanded into a complete rpg, combat is a central part of most rpgs, but it does mean that there will be some work for the game master who tries to adapt the system. If the combat system is robust enough, than one could extrapolate from those rules to create mechanics for other actions as well. Games like Dragon Age use the same mechanics for combat resolution and task resolution, so it can be done.

The Ice Dragon's combat mechanics are relatively simple. Characters and opponents are rated for Hit Points which determine how much damage an individual can take before being defeated. These are a common mechanic in D&D descended rpgs. Characters and opponents are also rated by level which represents their skill in combat. Their effectiveness in combat is determined by rolling a 4-sided die and comparing the result to the character's statistic block. An example of a character's statistic block looks something like the following:

SAGARD (LEVEL 2: 1/0, 2/1, 3/1, 4/2)

This stat block tells us that Sagard is level 2, has twenty hit points, and how much damage he does depending on the roll he makes on a 4-sided die. For example, if Sagard rolled a 3 on the die he would do 1 point of damage. Given that each number has an equal chance of occurring, this gives Sagard a Damage per Round of:

DPR = (.25)(0) + (.25)(1) + (.25)(1) + (.25)(2) = 1

A level two character like Sagard delivers 1 point of damage per round to his opponents, so it would take Sagard approximately 20 rounds to defeat someone as tough as himself. Thankfully, most monsters don't have the same number of hit points as Sagard or game play would be quite time consuming. The full chart for combat effectiveness can be seen in the table below:

Combat Ability 1 234
Level 0 0004
Level 1 0011
Level 2 0112
Level 3 1123
Level 4 1233
Level 5 2334

Looking at this table, I can see one quick discrepancy. Level 0 characters have the same average DPR as Level 2 characters, and are more effective than Level 1 characters. I understand that the mechanics are attempting to represent Level 0 characters as "unpredictable" and capable of "getting lucky" but the results don't seem quite satisfying.

These mechanics are easy to understand and present a fairly limited combat system. The system doesn't compare the combat abilities of combatants, like Fighting Fantasy, nor does it offer the possibility of maneuvers like Fighting Fantasy does with its "luck" mechanic. The system could be used as a basis for a skill system. Players could receive level ratings in skills. For example, Sagard might have a Level 2 skill in Stealth. This would allow him to roll 1 or 2 "skill success points," on a roll of 2 or better, demonstrating how stealthy the character was. These points could be compared to an opponent's Perception skill. If the opponent generates more skill success points than Sagard, then Sagard fails to hide.

Hmm...I actually like that. In this case, a Sagard stat block might look like the following:

Combat (Level 2: 1/0, 2/1, 3/1, 4/2)
Stealth (Level 2:1/0, 2/1, 3/1, 4/2)
Perception (Level 1: 1/0, 2/0, 3/1, 4/1)


The Ice Dragon, unlike the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks, does provide a simple system for character advancement. As a character wins and loses combats he acquires and loses "experience marks." When Sagard has acquired enough experience marks, he acquires the abilities of the next level. One could easily expand the experience mark system to the skills system by giving 1 mark per successful use of the skill, or even failures if the attempted use was creative enough.

As you can see, the system in The Ice Dragon taken by itself doesn't provide a full game system, but that it can fairly easily be expanded to create one. Were I to use the "Sagard System" as the basis for a game though, one of the first things I would change is the use of the 4-sided die for resolution determination. There isn't enough variety in it and when comparing the different levels it allows for a Level 0 individual to be as good as a Level 2 character on average.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bill Willingham Contemplating Marathon RPG Session at Gary Con 2011

Bill Willingham -- author of DC Comic's FABLES, early Dungeons and Dragons illustrator, and creator of the classic independent comic book THE ELEMENTALS -- recently posted on Monkey House Games' website that he was planning on attending next year's Gary Con.

But wait there's more.

Willingham posted that he was hoping to run a game session at the convention, but this wouldn't be just any game session.

Mr. Willingham plans to run a 3-day non-stop marathon session in which players will experience an entire Villains and Vigilantes campaign.

That's right. A legendary comic book writer wants to run a 3-day gaming session using one of the oldest Superhero roleplaying game systems at a small local convention that honors one of the founders of the roleplaying hobby.

Does that sound like heaven or what?

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Indie Game Designer James Maliszewski Interviews Role Playing Founding Father Ken St. Andre

The Role Playing Game hobby is approaching its 40th anniversary. Like any phenomenon that has been around for any good length of time, the hobby is beginning to see the passing of its founders. Over the past couple of years, several of the founding fathers of role playing have passed away: Gary Gygax, David Arneson, and Tom Moldvay to name just a few.

It is odd that Cinerati did a blog post for both Gygax and Arneson, but not for Moldvay. It is true that Gygax and Arneson invented Dungeons and Dragons, and thus the RPG hobby, but it was Tom Moldvay who made the game fun to play and was among the first designers to show me that D&D could be about more than "kick down door, kill monster, loot stuff, repeat." His design work on Isle of Dread too the adventure out of the dungeon and into the world, it also added more "story" to the experience. Then came Castle Amber, maybe the single most important module in D&D history. Without this module, there would have been no Ravenloft and Mystara would be a much less interesting world. Moldvay used the works of Clark Ashton Smith as an inspiration for the module and demonstrated completely how a module could be used to tell stories. Player's of the module are even treated to a nice "Fall of the House of Usher" moment. Moldvay's career in gaming was an important one, to the hobby in general and to me in particular.

It was an oversight that I didn't blog a nice obit for Moldvay, it is unforgivable that I never wrote any posts praising his work -- a situation that will be corrected soon enough. We too often forget to write about those who work in the gaming industry while they still live -- I have yet to find a recent update or post on the internet regarding J. Eric Holmes who wrote the first Basic Dungeons & Dragons book. In today's information age, it is baffling that we don't keep better track of gaming's founding fathers.

This is what makes James Maliszewski's recent interview with Ken St. Andre for Escapist Magazine such a treat. Where Gygax and Arneson are the founding fathers of the tabletop roleplaying hobby, Ken St. Andre is arguably the founding father of the roleplaying game industry (a title he likely shares with Rick Loomis). His Tunnels and Trolls was the second roleplaying game published and its publication turned rpg gaming from a monopoly into an industry -- that's quite an achievement. St. Andre's Tunnels and Trolls has, like D&D, gone through a number of editions. While it has never achieved the popularity of the flagship of rpg gaming, T&T still has an active and loyal group of followers -- many of whom meet up at Ken's Trollhalla website to chat about gaming, play online games, and generally geek out.

Ken St. Andre is still very much with us, though he did just finish a series of treatments for prostate cancer, and will likely be around for years to come. This is great for the members of Trollhalla, like me, but it is articles like Maliszewski's that expose more gamers to the thoughts of Ken St. Andre. I don't agree with all of Ken's design philosophies, but he is certainly one of the game designers whose contributions I return to again and again.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Gail Gygax and Family Want a Gary Gygax Memorial in Lake Geneva, WI

Reporting out of Janesville, WI, Kayla Bunge has a nice public interest story about Gail Gygax's desire to have a memorial built in Lake Geneva in memory the founder of much of modern gaming.

According to the article, Mrs. Gygax desires the statue be built in Library Park on the shore of Lake Geneva. I can write, based on personal experience, that Library Park would be a perfect location. The one time I visited Lake Geneva, I drove by the Gygax residence (I should have stopped by, but didn't) and spent some time on the shore of lovely Lake Geneva. It was a wonderful trip and is a beautiful location.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Wizards Pulls PDFs: Good and Bad for Wizards, Just Good for Competitors

Yesterday, I read a tweet that Wizards of the Coast would be ending all pdf sales of its current and back catalog of products. Wizards required that all of the web-based stores that sell their pdfs not only cease selling pdfs (as of midnight last night), but that they also remove the capability to download previously purchased pdfs from patrons who had purchased pdfs in the past. I regularly purchase pdf products from DriveThruRPG (I use their RPGNow gateway) and from Paizo Publishing. Like many consumers, I am disappointed that Wizards of the Coast will be -- at least temporarily -- suspending all digital sales of their products.

The twitter news was verified by both RPGNow and Paizo. In fact, Paizo sent me an email reminding me to re-download any products that were not currently on my hard drive. The email read as follows:

Wizards of the Coast has notified us that we may no longer sell or distribute their PDF products. Accordingly, after April 6 at 11:59 PM Pacific time, Wizards of the Coast PDFs will no longer be available for purchase on; after noon on April 7, you will no longer be able to download Wizards of the Coast PDFs that you have already purchased, so please make sure you have downloaded all purchased PDFs by that time.

At the time, Wizards had given no reason for the cease and desist on all sales, but it quickly came to light that it was response to rampant piracy of their products. Wizards has recently taken eight individuals to court for illegally distributing their recently published Player's Handbook II.

While I am disappointed in Wizards' decision, unlike a lot of people on the internet, I am not angry. In fact, I understand and think that in the long run this choice may be good and bad for Wizards and just plain ol' good for the industry as a whole.

Before I begin my analysis, you should know that I am a strong advocate for creator rights. This means that I am very much pro-copyright and anti-piracy, though it also means that I am highly critical of corporate "work-for-hire" agreements. I understand some need, in a company like WotC/Hasbro, for "brand ownership" of a property for the purpose of continuity, but I think most writers should receive royalties based on current and future sales of IP they helped create. The fact that Gygax and Arneson saw little money from D&D after they were no longer directly contributing to new editions was a tragedy, as is the fact that Wolfgang Baur sees no royalties from Dark * Matter. The gaming industry could learn a lot from the film, tv, and music industries (particularly the film and tv industries) when it comes to acknowledging creator rights.

In addition to being pro-copyright myself, a friend of mine is former Senior Counsel, Content Protection Litigation at Fox. Not only do I think that he isn't evil for suing the hell out of pirates, I think he was right to do so. This is especially true since Section 512 of the DMCA affords Internet service providers with general immunity for transmitting, routing, or providing connections for materials through their networks. The law prevents companies like Fox from attacking the "deep pocket" highways that allow for the illegal transmission of data, and forces Fox to go after the actual criminals who -- lacking deep pockets -- are often sympathetic compared to big companies like WotC and Fox.

I think Section 512 is good and necessary (because I am a fan of free speech and I don't want corporations deciding what I can and cannot I wrote I am a fan of creator ownership and control), but that the current environment forces corporations to act as "law enforcement" which is potentially bad for everyone. By making corporations the enforcers, the law forces corporations to act against their own interests while acting in their own interests. This is the situation that WotC/Hasbro find themselves in. They must defend their property, because no one else will, but in doing so they will alienate fans and cost themselves money.

So, what do I think they should do? According to Landslide (the American Bar Association's IP trade publication), entertainment piracy is "estimated to cause $18 billion in trade losses around the world last year." The ABA information was based on the International Intellectual Property Alliance's Special 301 Letter to the U.S. Trade Representative dated February 11, 2008. This isn't an industry ending problem, but it is a significant one. There is very good news regarding the majority of IP providers cooperating with IP holders when there is alleged infringment, (according to the same source) "ISP compliance rates remain high even in jurisdictions where the framework of intellectual property laws generally is perceived to be weak." But there is also bad news in that there are (once more according to the same source) "rogue sites and ISPs that refuse altogether to play by the DMCA's rules. One of the most notorious examples is the Swedish torrent index site The has been estimated that The PirateBay enables more than 40 million downloads of protected content every month."

We have a serious problem, and it's a problem that doesn't merely affect big corporations. I have been a patron of Wolfgang Baur's Open Design Project since its inception and have contributed to every project he has worked on so far. The purpose of the project was to create a product that only the funders would have the ability to use. It isn't cheap to participate at the "Patron" level, and I have never felt so used as a consumer when I discovered Open Design Projects listed in bit torrent indexes. While it is true that small companies can actually benefit from file sharing, it can replace advertising for these firms, it is also true that word of mouth without file sharing could work just as well. There is such a thing as fair use and while the particulars of fair use are vague, it certainly includes reviews on websites and message boards.

This problem isn't limited to entertainment either. The AP recently announced that it will be taking a more active role in enforcing the proper use of its content on the internet. For years, people have been cutting and pasting AP articles without paying for the right to publish them and have been contributing to the strains on the news industry. The news industry certainly has other problems as well, but it is still true that the "information wants to be free yo" crowd are helping to nail the coffins in on that industry. And if you think that web ads are going to pay for everything and allow for all the free content you want, you might want to read this article in The Register. Apparently, YouTube "will lose parent Google $470m this year, because it can't generate worthwhile income from advertising." And if advertising won't make up the difference for what is given away free, Atlas will Shrug and the content will go away.

And that is exactly what happened with WotC. Atlas Shrugged and essentially told the world that it was taking its digital toys home and not letting anyone else play with them. This has made a lot of fans very angry. And while it certainly won't stop pirates, it will allow WotC to look for ways to better predict the impact of piracy on their profit margin and provides them an opportunity to look for alternate ways to offer the products digitally.

And here's where I finally write how this is good and bad for Wizards, and just good for the industry.


The good is that Wizards is protecting their intellectual property and is showing a genuine desire to proactively go after pirates. The music industry lawsuits may have been onerously expensive and cost the labels a lot of goodwill, but they also reduced piracy. The lawsuits work. People are actually rational actors and weigh the costs of paying a small fee for a song or potentially getting sued. Wizards actions will likely reduce the amount of piracy they are suffering.

The bad,'s the same as the good. Wizards' fans are beginning to feel as if they are the ones being attacked. I don't personally understand how any non-pirate could ever feel this way, but many do. Add to that the fact that Wizards' isn't just suing the fans who are pirates, they are punishing fans who have done no wrong by removing the product from the internet and you have a public relations disaster. This is bad for WotC/Hasbro and is more evidence that the current legal team at WotC have no idea how to deal with their consumers. The first was their awful attempt at a Game System License for 4th edition -- it was too restrictive and like yesterday's action seemed to punish those who wanted to work in WotC/Hasbro's best interest.

I think it is a good thing that WotC/Hasbro removed all of their newer product from digital availability. They still have publishing costs on most of this stuff. They have physical product, which is far more expensive to produce than digital, that needs to "turn over." The 4th edition stuff, contrary to naysayers, is selling well, but it would sell better if piracy were minimized. This is moderately sound business.

I think it is a bad thing that WotC/Hasbro have removed access to all of the out of print product. The bandwidth costs for the products was being absorbed by the online stores, so these were nothing but a revenue stream for WotC/Hasbro. Now the only way to get these products is through second hand distribution, legal and illegal. Either fans hunt the books down on eBay or fans download them illegally. They have no other options. This is bad business.

What WotC/Hasbro need to do is make the old and new available in ways that minimize, because you cannot eliminate, the affects of piracy. The first thing they can do is use a World of Warcraft/Music Subscription model for their digital content. By using a Flash based reader they can allow DDI subscribers to access all of the 4th edition books currently available. They should do this at two fee levels, the player fee and the DM fee. "Players" would be able to access, with an internet connection, any and all player oriented books that are currently in publication -- in addition to other DDI materials -- anytime they want. They will be allowed to read the books for no additional charge. When the core books were the only books, this would have meant just the Player's Handbook, but as time passes it includes more and more books for the same fee. "DMs" should be allowed to read all publications, on Flash Paper, that are in publication for the current edition. It is up to Hasbro whether they want to allow the printing of these books, rather than just the reading of them, but I would recommend that they do.

They should also make available Kindle editions of the books...just for me.

Second, they should allow the purchase of all older editions through either traditional channels or their own pdf store. Piracy is no more, and actually less, a problem with these products when they are available for sale. Currently, you can get the entire catalog on various bit torrents, but you cannot buy them. Let consumers buy them and minimize the damage that piracy is doing to your bottom line. Do this now!

This may be what they are planning, but WotC/Hasbro have been silent on the issue and this is costing them loyalty and goodwill. This also provides a wonderful opportunity for small businesses to fill the gap.


By pulling out of the digital marketplace, WotC/Hasbro have left a large number of legitimate consumers in search of a product provider. Smart companies like Paizo (they are offering their Pathfinder PDFs for 35% off the regular retail price through the end of April), Rogue Games, Louis Porter Jr. Design, are immediately seizing the opportunity. With lower overhead, and lower advertising budgets, than WotC/Hasbro they have much to gain through goodwill and less to lose from piracy. Companies like WorldWorksGames still worries about pirates, but they beg their fans to not become them. They use their small size as a marketing tool to dissuade piracy, and it works...a little (see Open Design comment above). Companies like Pinnacle Entertainment Group couldn't have survived some pretty rough patches if it weren't for digital sales. They still suffer piracy, but their rules and products are also inexpensive so hopefully many pirates become customers in the long run. As I wrote earlier, piracy can serve as word of mouth for these companies. One imagines that few people are so callous as to acquire all of their products through piracy. But it is still true that the same word of mouth could be achieved without piracy.

Nothing will stop these smaller companies from risking the seas of piracy, as they have less to lose than WotC/Hasbro -- and that is a good thing. It is good for the hobby if more companies are competing for your dollar, it leads to innovation in gaming. Savage Worlds, Pinnacle's excellent RPG, wouldn't exist if they hadn't needed to find a new way to compete. The Indie Press Revolution is filled with excellent games, available digitally, looking for your gaming dollar. As long as WotC/Hasbro stay out of the digital market, these companies will have a chance to grow, and that is good for the industry.

It might be bad for WotC/Hasbro, but that depends on what they do in the next few weeks. And I think that is all they have before to announce where they are going digitally before the ill will will overwhelm them.