"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Monday, February 13, 2023

The Ship of Theseus: When Does a New Edition Become a New Game?

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

— Plutarch, Life of Theseus 23.1

SO WE ALL KNOW THE PARADOX. You have a ship. Over the years, as the planks rot, you replace them with new wood. At some point the entire ship has been replaced. Is it the same ship, or a new one?

The thought problem becomes somewhat more complex when applied to RPGs. Novels get reprinted. They often get new covers, possibly a new foreword, but remain the same text. If we bring them into another language, we call it a "translation." If we take a novel and turn it into a movie, we all agree the film is not the novel. It is an "adaptation." If a song is performed by a different artist, we call it a "cover." If a painting is copied, it's a "reproduction." 

With roleplaying games, we generally use the term "edition." Unlike new editions of other books, roleplaying games are often changed when this happens. Errata is included. Corrections made. Material is added or subtracted. Often, however, the rules themselves change, and sometimes substantially. I am always reminded of Bones McCoy in Star Trek: The Motion Picture lamenting, "I know engineers, they LOVE to change things." Game designers do too.

But this is where it all gets messy.

Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu remained largely the same throughout sixth editions. There were clarifications, some things were removed, some added, but all were completely compatible with each other. They shared the same ethos. The same setting. The current seventh edition is probably the most changed, but it is still, clearly, Call of Cthulhu. Anyone who plays seventh edition will recognize it as Call of Cthulhu.

RuneQuest is mildly more complicated. Chaosium's first and second editions were nearly identical, separated mainly by a few clarifications. Avalon Hill's third edition, however, was more of a departure. While still compatible with the original setting of Glorantha, sweeping changes were made to make it a more generic game. Currency was renamed, all the in-text play examples changed, Rune magic became "Divine" magic (the same, but very arguably different), etc. I think this raised some very interesting questions. If, say, Legend of the Five Rings was relocated to fantasy Europe, would it still be the same game? If The One Ring was relocated from Middle-earth, would it? 

With the latest edition of RuneQuest, there is a new subtitle and some additional mechanics, but in a move quite unusual in the hobby it returned to both its original setting and core system. It is even more recognisable as the original RuneQuest than were its immediate predecessors.

But what about the elephant in the room?

Over the last two months, the question I am posing to you here as an entertaining philosophical conundrum has become deeply relevant to much of the hobby. We need to talk about D&D.

Around the time Wizards of the Coast acquired Dungeons & Dragons, the question of "what is a roleplaying game" became incredibly complicated. The original 1974 game had gone through several editions, but the differences between them were minor, much as they were in our examples of Call of Cthulhu or RuneQuest above. Holmes clarified and simplified. B/X made a few more revisions. BECMI added a great deal of additional options, but at the core it was the same game. And it was in several ways a very different game from Gygax's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which--while renamed for reasons of shutting out the original game's co-author from royalties--was presented as a different game, not a different edition. AD&D's 2nd edition included many rules changes, the renaming of "problematic" elements like demons and thieves, and a shift in focus from its original setting (Greyhawk) to the Forgotten Realms and others. Still, I think if you compare AD&D and AD&D second edition, they are as recognizably the same game as RQ2 and RQ3.

Then we hit "third" edition, and it all goes off the rails somehow. Presented as a "third" edition--clearly a reference to the two previous editions of AD&D--and sold in the AD&D format of three hardcover books, it nevertheless called itself Dungeons & Dragons, the "other" game traditionally in boxed sets. It had AD&D's alignment system. It had AD&D's iconic monsters. It preserved AD&D's spells and cosmology...all VERY different from the actual Dungeons & Dragons. Well, fair enough...they were simply calling AD&D by the other game's name.

But then on top of this, the new game had a completely different engine. While the d20 system carried over a lot of the terminology of previous editions, it was a completely new game. After all, no one confuses RuneQuest with D&D despite shared use of concepts like STR and DEX and hit points. The d20 version of the game was neither D&D nor AD&D mechanically, just in name.

At the same time, adding even more confusion, the creation of the OGL license allowed for the emergence of dozens of games that actually were the same as D&D or AD&D, they just couldn't use the name. OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, Old School Essentials...these are all recognizably earlier editions of D&D in new forms, while the game calling itself D&D became even less so (looking at you 4e, looking at you).

In recent leaks from Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro we have heard Dungeons & Dragons referred to repeatedly as an IP and as a "lifestyle brand," but not so much as a game. I think the argument can be made that this is what it has been since the early 2000s. I am not saying that 3e, 3.5, 4e, or 5e were not themselves "games," only that they were entirely new systems to which the name D&D was attached. They were no longer the original line of games, but a brand. An "idea." It was the Athenians selling tickets to the ship of Theseus when none of the planks remained.

But, let's push the question even further. If any of the leaks are true, and the next iteration of D&D will be played on a VTT and apps, with AI Dungeon Masters, we are not even bothering with the concept of the ship. Forget whether or not it is still D&D, as an automated online game is it still even a traditional roleplaying game as we understand the term? It is akin to the Athenians deciding to replace the ship of Theseus with a museum dedicated to it instead.

D&D is hardly the only game go through such changes. For example, the third (Fantasy Flight Games) edition of the Warhammer Fantasy RPG line was also a completely different entity from the previous editions. Yet the new (Cubicle 7) fourth edition of Warhammer, like RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha, returned to the first and second editions for game design inspiration. The fifth edition of Vampire the Masquerade is mechanically different from the original game, but it returns to the original setting (unlike the sequel game Vampire the Requiem) and in many ways the "spirit" of the first edition (excluding Sabbat characters, returning more to a game of personal horror, etc). There seems to be an awareness among game designers that you editions can change...but there is a danger of changing "too much." Something of the original DNA has to remain. Wizards approach with "One D&D," shrugging off the concept of editions at all, is a very different response.   





Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The "Special Reference Works" of Courtney C. Campbell

IN HIS OWN 1978 "SPECIAL REFERENCE WORK," The Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook, Gary Gygax wrote;

Considerable enjoyment and excitement in early play stems from not knowing exactly what is going on...(e)xploration, travel, and adventure in the "world" will eventually reveal the secrets heretofore hidden, and the joy of actually earning them will be well worth the wait. (p. 7)

This is an early articulation of the "three pillars" of classic Old School gaming: combat (the "adventure" part, the joy of getting your character into and out of scrapes), social interaction (the "travel" part, encountering all the odd NPCs with their quirks and motivations), and exploration. Really, all of this can be summed up as "discovery," and it was the thrill of discovery that kept players coming back to the table. Combat was part of it, but not as much as it would become in the decades ahead.

The Old School Revival or Renaissance (with a nod to George Lucas we might even call it "Return") is about the rediscovery of discovery. Instead of well-lit dungeons where half the party has infravision anyway, these are darker delves where your torch is your best friend (one of my favorite treatments of the "light is your best friend trope" is in Veins of the Earth). Instead of building a character, players roll them, and their "feats" and "bumps" will largely derive from what magic items they uncover. And instead of GMs planing narrative arcs and engaging in hours of world-building, the entire gaming group gets the thrill of discovering the world as they go along.

Now there is a lot of creativity in the OSR, but every now and again a product comes along that knocks you back on your heels and plants a grin on your face. Recently for me, a series of three books--On Downtime and Demesnes (2019), Artifices, Deceptions, and Dilemmas (2021), and Bestial Ecosystems Created by Monster Inhabitation (2022)--did just that. I will let you, dear reader, work our the acronyms of those titles for yourselves. These are the brainchildren of one Courtney C. Campbell, who author's bio in the first work captures the flavor of the writing in general. 

System agnostic, these books would make wonderful additions to a brand-new OSE campaign just as easily as they would a 1st edition AD&D game that has been going on for decades. I have even used bits of them in my RuneQuest campaign. It doesn't matter what "Old School" game you are playing. You want these.

The first volume, ahem, OD&D, is completely dedicated to what characters do when not in the dungeon. It focuses on creating villages, towns, and cities, on making them logical and believable, but chiefly on making them fun. With ideas ranging from "Influence" (characters building up power bases as they settle in a community) to what to do with all that gold (philanthropy? research? orgies?), it is simply brimming with brilliant ideas. One of the earliest, "Navigation," was a sort of lightbulb moment for me that I was embarrassed to confess to never once having thought of in running and writing RPGs for decades. Basically, it takes time to get around a city, and characters get lost. The bigger the community the more time it takes. Trust me. I have lived in Tokyo for a decade and I still get lost on a weekly basis.

There are rules on gaining optional skills and talents, but making them location and character-based, not generic class features. There are rules on henchmen and hirelings, there are hundred of quirky random NPCs. All of them clean, simple, and self-contained. The book is a buffet to add spice to your game.

AD&D (Courtney's book, not Gary's) has a subtitle that had me doing a spit take with my coffee, "Killing Characters Fairly." Like OD&D, this is a compilation of ideas, rules, and suggestions, this time on how to make hazards, traps, and encounters...fair. I don't mean "balanced!" Again, this is Old School philosophy. But as the author says on the back "No longer will your players complain about traps or unfair encounters. Now when they meet their doom, they will blame themselves for their own foolishness!" It is filled with images and examples of rooms one might encounter in a dungeon, truly devious traps that if players are cautious and logical they should be able to get around, and the kind of hazards (natural and not) that can get you killed while adventuring.

Finally, BECMI. This book is dedicated to the monsters, but this is not a collection of stats. Instead, Campbell goes monster by monster alphabetically, covering all of the truly classic beasties, and offering suggestions of how to make them different for each campaign. In some cases there are four, five, or six pages of clever ideas. Essentially, these prompts get you thinking, ensuring that players will forever be on their toes. Do unicorns, for example, "gain their power from the chaste and pure of heart" or are they "warlike fae sustained by bloodshed, righteous fury, and fanatical zeal?" There are scores of ideas, some dark, some comical, but mainly clever.

We are told not to judge books by their covers, but these are really evocative and quirky, throwbacks to the eerie and awesome game art popular in the pre-Dragonlance days. The art wraps around, so on the shelf they really stand out.

These books are currently available on DriveThruRPG in PDF and print-on demand. I link the bundle here, but scroll to the bottom of the page for other buying options. There are terrific examples of the energy and creativity coming out of independent and community content creators, at a time when we need to remind ourselves how valuable those folks are.