Archive for January, 2012

GenCon Hotels

I just got through GenCon hotel reservations.  What a shitty system that is!  I get the hotel rooms for a group of 7 people.  We prefer to get the 3-bed suites, which are a bit more economical and we thus only need 2 total rooms.  There are about 3 hotels that offer those kind of rooms, and they do go fast.

So there I am, logged into the site on two different computers, once as me and once as my wife.  As they only let you reserve one room at a time, my hope is to reserve two rooms very rapidly with two different accounts so we have a better chance at getting the rooms we want, or at least rooms in the same hotel.  Both computers get a “you’re in line” message.  OK, waiting…

One gets in.  I select the room I want: 3-bed suite at the Hilton.  I enter guest names and email addresses.  Why is it required to enter a separate email for each guest?  What a pain.  I get that all in.  I enter the CC #, and the room is booked.  By now the second computer has made it in.  I select another 3-bed suite at the Hilton.  I enter more guest names and email addresses (as a cheat, I’m just copy/pasting my own email address 3 times).  I get to the CC entry point, and I get an error: the room you selected is no longer available.  WTF?  It went away while I was entering freaking guest info?!

I go back, the Hilton is gone as a choice entirely.  I select the Comfort Suites instead, which I’ve never heard of, but seems to have 3-bed suites.  This time I successfully reserve a room.  I go back to computer #1 and see if I can somehow switch my reservation to this other hotel.  I find the hotel still has another room available.  Screw it, I book it, now we have 3 rooms.  Two at least are in the same hotel.  I figure eventually when the dust settles I’ll cancel one.

OK, lest I just complain without offering a solution, here’s how to do it right Housing Bureau:

You know this is coming months in advance.  So do many of the people attending.  Let us log into a site and enter exactly which hotel rooms we want.  Allow us to enter multiple rooms per account, and enter all the guest info at our leisure.  Maybe even the CC info if we’re comfortable with that.  Let us create a prioritized list: 1st choice: 2 3-bed suites at the Hilton, 2nd choice: 2 3-bed suites at Embassy Suites, etc.  Then, on the day the thing officially opens, just hold an automated lotto and send us out emails about which rooms we got.

OK, you don’t like the site holding onto your CC # that long?  You can still do all of the above, and then just make us log in and enter that last piece of crucial info on the date registration opens.  Sure, we still have to queue up, but at least it’s quick and immediate about which rooms we get.

Hey GenCon, here’s a hint: do event registration the same way.

Will this get me better rooms or into more events I like?  Probably not.  Will it prevent me from having an extremely stressful experience at your website?  Definitely.

A1 Sewers in Pictures

Last weekend I ran the second half of A1 (the sewers part) for a group of friends and coworkers as a test run for TotalCon.  We had a good time, and I definitely feel like I learned a lot about that module.  I chose this one because I felt it was the one with the most interesting and varied terrain, and wanted to see if we would get to a point where the players really wanted to use a battle-mat, which will of course inform me as to whether I need to bring one to TotalCon.  The answer: no, just about every player seemed to appreciate using description and my typical miniatures for marching order and grouping only.

Once everyone left and I was cleaning up, I was delighted to find that one of the players had doodled all over the back of her character sheet.  It amounts to a sort of pictorial record of their adventure, and after getting permission from the author I thought I’d share it.  Here it is (click to see it larger):

To accompany the art, here’s a description of how the adventure went.  Those of you with A1 in hand may want to get out your map of the sewers and follow along.  There will likely be some spoilers here, so if you think you will play this module (especially if you’re signed up to play one with me at TotalCon), you may want to turn back now:

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Fighting Shoulder to Shoulder

Yesterday I ran another practice run of one of the A-series modules, the sewer part of A1 in fact.  I will post more detail about this later, but one thing that quite surprised me was how the fighting in cramped corridors worked.  The map clearly has pretty much every corridor as being only 5′ wide.  When informed of this my players immediately formed themselves into single file marching order, as opposed to the two-abreast marching order they usually prefer for 10′ corridors.

It wasn’t until they hit the first big combat with the orcs that I realized the module assumes the corridors are actually big enough for two to fight side by side.  In fact, both major encounters with the orcs dictate that the orcs should have ranks two wide.  It’s even depicted that way in one of the illustrations.  Now, since the party had already made the assumption that 5′ was only wide enough for 1 and we had gone that route for some time, I stuck with it and adapted the orcs’ strategy.

Of course, now that I have the time I dug into the books.  According to B/X, “When fighting in a 10′ wide corridor, it is not likely that more than two or three characters could fight side by side.”  (B26).  Hmm, that’s not too helpful.  AD&D is of course a bit more specific:

Each ground scale inch can then be used to equal 3½ linear feet, so a 10’ wide scale corridor is 3 actual inches in width and shown as 3 separate squares. This allows depiction of the typical array of three figures abreast, and also enables easy handling of such figures when they are moved. (DMG, p. 10)

I’m pretty sure this is not at all how most people play.  Those of us used to using miniatures in the modern versions of the game probably got the 5′ per inch stuck in our heads, and thus when using a battle-map and miniatures only two figures can fit side by side in a 10′ wide corridor.

Of course in my games I don’t use a gridded battle-mat, so that’s not a concern for me.  Now I feel conflicted about which direction to go on this.  Certainly when running A1 again I will allow two side by side in the 5′ wide corridors as it seems that’s what the module is built for.  For general use though, I could see going either way.  Sounds like a good excuse for another poll:

How many fighters can fight standing side-by-side in a 10' wide corridor?

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Increased Complexity in D&D

I read a delightful article in The Dragon issue #39 (July 1980) last night, titled “Uniformity, Conformity, or neither?” by Karl Horak.  It’s a short little one-page article comparing editions of D&D and trying to calculate what areas have increased in complexity, and based on that predict the complexity of potential future editions.  It kind of reminds me of this Mike Mearls article which does pretty much the same thing.  However Mearls’ low end of the chart (AD&D 1st edition) is Horak’s high end.  Horak in fact only has three data points that may be surprising to some: the Chainmail Fantasy Supplement, OD&D, and AD&D.

His predictions really vary, some being extremely prescient, while others are downright humorous.  Here’s a sample:

Based on the numerical values in the list, one can expect an increase to 10 in the number of character classes, with subclasses doubling, in the next five years. A third dimension may be added to alignment, making 27 total variations. Standardized lists of equipment prices will exceed 300 items.

Since both hit dice and the average amount of damage per hit will have risen, the minimum rate of unassisted healing must increase in proportion.

I had to include that last one as I was shocked at just how on the money it was.  It’s the “unassisted healing” portion that really struck me, which pretty much exactly describes 4th editions “healing surges”.  Of course, on the other hand the idea of 27 alignments is pretty amusing.

All that said, it’s Horak’s opinion on where the best balance lies that most rung true for me:

Of course, in D&D the attempt is to simulate fantasy. Increasing complexity, and hence, more accurate simulation, is counterbalanced by a loss in playability. Most referees omit some standard material as well as many of the optional items. This is strong evidence that the point of equilibrium between accuracy and playability has been passed by the Advanced D&D project. The beauty of it all is that the individual campaign can be designed around the needs of the players, sacrificing some material for one game and reincorporating it in the next.

I think he’s hit the nail on the head here.  While AD&D really does strike some strong nostalgic notes for me, when I run it I definitely feel a little hampered by the lack of playability.  I spend more time digging through books to make sure I’m getting it right than I’d like to, and though I know this is ultimately my own bad habits (I probably should just make a call and move on), surely the text itself bears some level of blame for goading me into this behavior.  I mean, isn’t part of the point of AD&D to assure some level of uniformity to play across DMs (as the title of this article indicates)?  Still, I’d rather start with D&D (Original or Basic) and add in the couple additional complexities I like than start with AD&D and have to strip out all the stuff I don’t.

Anyway, I don’t mean to bash AD&D here, well not too much.  Also I think it really says something about TSR as a company that they would even publish this article at this time right after the AD&D books hit the shelves, not to mention the fact that the author repeatedly misspells Gary Gygax’s name.  Despite that, I still think this article is a really great read, and I highly recommend you check it out.

More Good News from Wizards

Discovered this transcript of the 2012 D&D Products seminar posted at ENWorld.  In the Q&A section is this rather encouraging bit of info:

Any plans to rerelease the other products for 1E and 2E and other editions, either in print or electronically?

We are looking at making a lot of that older material available to you, but we want to make sure we do it right for you guys and for Wizards. We’ll have more news on that.

Sure, that’s some pretty non-committal language there, but still the attitude is what I want to hear.  This is pretty much a complete turn-around from the kind of mentality that pulled all the old PDFs off of Paizo several years back.  All in all I’d say things are pointed in a promising direction.

Frank Mentzer is Reading My Mind

A lot of my recent blog posts have centered around conventions and tournament games.  I guess that’s not too surprising.  The convention season really starts up for me right around this time each year.  After the holiday lull, I find myself doing last minute prep for games I’ll run at TotalCon in February, making plans for my own mini-con HelgaCon which happens in April, and preparing to deal with the madness that is GenCon hotel registration, which opens this Tuesday.  Though the conventions are spaced out several months from each other, each sees a little flurry of activity in January.  The tournament thing has come up both because I’ll be running a couple sessions of the A-series modules at TotalCon, and all the articles I’ve been reading in the early Dragon Magazines recently.  And of course because tournaments are really innately linked to conventions.

So there I was last Friday, idly browsing through the internet, and the thought struck me to check out what the Dragon Footers’ response was to the announcement of the 1e reprints.  Yeah, OK, I was bored.  The news by now was a bit stale, but I haven’t read the Dragons Foot forums in ages.  I didn’t find what I was looking for, but what I did find was this post by Frank Mentzer, made just hours before I logged in.  In it, Frank poses the question “do you think that enough of us attend conventions to warrant the resurrection of old-school tournaments?”

Crazy!  How strangely serendipitous is it that I chose that time and day to check DF after months of not reading it?  And is this some kind of weird group-think that the same topic is on our brains?  I certainly don’t flatter myself into thinking that Frank even reads my humble little blog, never mind draws inspiration from it.  I have to assume this is just some kind of bizarre coincidence.

Naturally, I spewed forth a long and overly-excited response, probably tripping Frank’s fan-boy filter when he read it.  Well, I’ll have to see if I can squeeze in some questions about his ideas at TotalCon.  I have conveniently not yet registered to run anything at GenCon yet…

Convention Games Follow-up

The poll in my post from earlier this week seems to be pointing me in the direction of AD&D for running convention games, at least certainly for running old tournament modules.  To be honest, I was kind of leaning in this direction anyway, but it’s nice to see some proof that it’s the right choice.  This brings my current gaming habits to an interesting point: B/X D&D for my home campaign, AD&D for conventions.  Something about that just feels right: the right tool for the right job.

This weekend I will be running the second half of A1 for a group using AD&D fairly by the book as a practice run.  I will still use simplified initiative and target-20, which I think will be the biggest divergences from the core rules as written.  Other house rules may sneak in from habit, but I suspect will be fairly trivial in nature.  Last weekend I spent some time transcribing the characters to character sheets.  I had the PHB and DMG on hand to fill in some details, and the whole experience just felt right.  Something about flipping between those specific charts, the smell of those books in the air, a #2 in my hand — it really hit all the right nostalgic notes for me.

Assuming this practice run goes well, this is how I will run those games at TotalCon next month.  I really like the idea of billing this as in recognition of WotC’s plan to reprint those books.  I see no reason to buy the reprints myself (I already have two copies of each book), but I like the idea of encouraging others to buy them, especially folks who may not have nor ever had copies.

In the long run, I think I’d still likely use B/X for intro style convention games, but in that case I’d probably still stick closer to the book as written than in my home campaign (when else do I get to play with race as class?)  For re-running old modules though, AD&D does seem like the right choice.  Hmm, I suppose the question is, can I imagine ever writing my own convention game for use with AD&D?  Actually, that might be the distinction, I much prefer to write for B/X than AD&D, but if something is already written for AD&D, I’ll just use that.

Or maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.  Maybe I just need to take this one convention at a time.

Gateway to Adventure

I made an interesting little discovery when Delta visited last week.  We were in my game room when Delta spotted my Holmes box set on the shelf, and he pulled it down to admire the artwork on the cover.  The box is in pretty good shape, and the range of colors on the cover kind of belie the moniker “blue box” it has earned.  Anyway, I pulled out the Moldvay boxes as well to compare and look at the difference in quality of those boxes, and conversation turned to the “Gateway to Adventure” sales pamphlet included in those boxes.

It’s a cute pamphlet to skim through, with nice full color images of the products that were available in 1981.  I mentioned to Delta that I really enjoyed the page on OD&D, which by that point was 6th edition and already being billed as a “Collector’s Edition”.  “What OD&D page?” he asked bewildered.  We flipped back and forth through the booklet, and could not find the page I was referring to.  I was sure I had not imagined it — but where was that ad?  I opened up the 2nd Moldvay basic box I own (yeah, I own two, don’t ask).  Sure enough, there was the same pamphlet, but this time with the OD&D ad.

The two booklets are identical in almost every respect except for page 9.  Here are the two page 9’s side by side:

OK, that’s not entirely true, there are two other minor differences.  The index page on the old booklet says “Collector’s Edition, Collector’s Edition Supplements” for page 9, while the new booklet says “New Releases”.  Page 10, the obverse, varies slightly in that the old booklet has a section at the bottom (about 25% of the page) listing “new releases” including the minigames, and the modules for boot hill, gamma world, and top secret as “coming in 1981”.  In the new booklet, this ad has been replaced with one for the RPGA, which is not surprising given that all those items now appear on page 9.  While both booklets are copyright 1980, and both have the date 1981 displayed prominently on the front cover, clearly one is slightly older than the other.

Delta and I both found this really fascinating.  Though we’re several years apart, Delta having cut his D&D teeth on Holmes and I on Moldvay, we have the shared experience of never having heard of OD&D until fairly recently.  We wondered if perhaps there wasn’t some kind of intentional effort over at TSR to cover up the existence of OD&D starting around 1981.  That sounds perhaps a bit more nefarious than I mean it.  I could imagine that TSR might think that OD&D was confusing to its audience, and wanted to steer them either towards basic D&D or AD&D.  Two different lines is confusing enough, a third only makes things worse.

I seem to recall in one of the Dragon magazine articles I read recently concerning the upcoming releases of AD&D and the basic set (Holmes), that while readers may be interested in AD&D as a second separate product from the game they were already playing, the basic set was meant strictly as an introduction to neophytes.  Dragon Magazine readers, being already familiar with D&D, were not the target audience and were actually being dissuaded from purchasing that product.

Perhaps these two booklets come from the Moldvay Basic and Expert sets respectively.  I certainly don’t trust that any of the boxed sets I own actually come with all the original pieces.  In fact, for my Holmes set I put the bits together myself, buying each part separately (the box, the book, B1, and the dice) and reassembling the set once I had collected them all.  I could imagine that once the Expert set was released, the combined Basic/Expert box sets were looked at as the replacement for the OD&D line.  What was once simply meant as an introductory set took on the purpose of its ancestor OD&D — that of being a simple toolkit for creating a custom home campaign as opposed to AD&D, which is clearly meant as a standard system which offered consistency likely born from desires of the tournament community.

I wonder if the folks at TSR had as clear a picture of the needs the two different products addressed.  From reading Gygax’s articles, I think at least he did, but whether he was able to communicate that to all his employees is less clear, and certainly I think they failed pretty hard at communicating it to the market.  As a kid I had no idea that the basic sets and AD&D were really different beasts.  I think a lot of us were in that same boat back then too.  Perhaps TSR as a company would have been better served by just picking one and running with it, though personally I’m kind of glad today they didn’t, as I appreciate both products for what they are.

Anyway, interesting food for thought.  I don’t know if the changes to this booklet are well known by the collector’s community, but if not I’m happy to provide further info or scans as desired.

Gamer Culture

With the recent purchase of an e-reader, I’ve found myself reading through the early Dragon Magazines as my pre-bed reading.  I’m up to about issue 30, so still in the late 70’s right around the publication of AD&D.  What I find is that I’m tending to skim through the articles about game mechanics while really reading carefully anything that mentions gamer culture of this time period.  My conclusion: wow, the convention scene of the late 70’s really was the life-blood of this hobby.

There is not a single issue I have read yet that does not include at least one, and often multiple articles about conventions.  And I’m not just talking here about a little blurb about what conventions are coming up, though those do exist.  Pages are devoted to describing how to run tournaments, play reports of past tournaments, descriptions of organization issues of conventions (looks like Origins ’79 almost didn’t happen), photos from conventions, etc.  Some have argued that a lot of what’s in AD&D was specifically a reaction to the tournament scene at these conventions, which I can definitely see.  That said, it’s not like the folks at TSR had some kind of inflated sense of what the point of the conventions were from the business side.  In issue #28, Gygax writes about his take on the manufacturer’s view of conventions.  Here’s a little blurb:

The goodwill generated from “showing the flag” is considerable. Still, considering that there are probably half a million game hobbyists, and perhaps no more than about 10,000 different gamers attending the major conventions, half of whom will be the biggest show, the overall portion of the market reached by exhibiting is 1% to 2% or so. Even if this “hard core” represents a disproportionate share of the market in dollar volume of their purchases, 2½% to 5% is not earthshaking. Yet, whenever TSR attends a convention, we must assume that the advertising and goodwill generated there will be considerable, and be prepared to write off a considerable sum as expense incurred advertising.

He goes on to do the math of the cost for a manufacturer to attend a convention, which sounds humorous to modern ears if you fail to account for inflation.  His point though is clearly to show that the cost out-weights the benefit in the perspective of raw sales.  Why do they attend?  Gygax attributes it mostly to the “good-will” factor mentioned above, plus the fact that ultimately the manufacturers are themselves gamers, and just love going.

In fact, GenCon pre-dates the creation of D&D by several years — the first GenCon was a little gathering in Gygax’s basement in 1967 (called GenCon 0), and D&D doesn’t hit the printing presses until 1974.  You might even say D&D may have never existed without GenCon, as according to this wikipedia article Gygax and Arneson first met at GenCon II.

In the early days, I’m sure the conventions were a major factor in the distribution of ideas and interest in this hobby.  Now with the internet that aspect may be lessened, but it does not change that the hobby is essentially a social one requiring that we all gather together at a common location.  Sure, some people, myself included, have had some success at playing over the internet, but I don’t think we’re at a point yet where it’s really a viable replacement.  And so the draw of the gaming convention remains high, in fact disproportionately to the growth of the industry.  Unfortunately I can’t find any good numbers or graphs showing the rise and decline of the gaming industry for comparison, but general wisdom is that the industry ‘aint what it used to be.  That said, check out this lovely attendance graph of GenCon over the years:

Sure, there was a lull starting around 1995, but it looks like since about 2006 we’ve been trending upwards again.  What’s my point here?  I guess ultimately I think conventions not only started out but continue to be the lifeblood of this hobby.  If nothing else, it forces a group of normally introverted folks to go out and mingle with other hobbyists, gets them bouncing ideas off each other, and keeps the whole thing vibrant.  Even if you yourself don’t go to conventions, I bet you game with someone that does, or read the blogs of someone who does (you’re doing that right now).  The internet is great at disseminating ideas, but the convention is where they are formed.

I sincerely hope that continues, even if the big companies change their faces or go away entirely.  I see folks like Kask and Mentzer trekking around to conventions these days and think yeah, that’s pretty much how I’d like to spend my retirement.  I hope it’s still there as an option when I’m ready for it.

Convention Games

The news about the 1st edition AD&D reprints has got me thinking once again about what system I use when running convention games.  For my home campaign, I run B/X D&D with 3 pages of house rules, several of which pull from OD&D and AD&D (race/class split, Paladins and Rangers, etc.)  I’m totally happy and comfortable running this system, however sometimes I wonder if it’s not a bit confusing or annoying looking to convention goers.  My convention descriptions often list the system as something kind of ham fisted, like:

B/X D&D with house rules including some AD&D-isms

The temptation is, at least for convention games, to switch to a more recognizable or at least by-the book appearing system, which would essentially be either OD&D or AD&D.  Ultimately this would have little effect on how I actually run the game, however in both there’s a chance that I overlook something unique to that system and get called on it during play.  There’s certainly something to be said for sticking with what I know.

OD&D has the benefit of being pretty close to what I want to play — I think B/X is closer to OD&D than AD&D.  Plus, given how open the text is, I’d say it’s pretty much expected that any DM of OD&D is going to have a fistful of house rules, so it’s probably not even worth mentioning that in the description.  The downside is that OD&D is probably the least recognizable version of D&D to your average convention attendee.  That said, I think there’s a certain glamor to a convention game that uses “the first ever printed rules.”

AD&D, on the other hand, is probably the most recognizable and used of the old school systems at conventions.  If I ran using AD&D, there’s a good chance several players would have a PHB in hand during play.  Plus, AD&D does have some expectation of house ruling, at least in as much as “we don’t use rule X” is a pretty common refrain, given AD&D’s tendency to define everything including the kitchen sink.  That said so much minutiae is included in these rules and so many players have devoted themselves to dissecting them, that there’s a good chance I get called on something during play.  Honestly I don’t mind being called on rulings during play, so long as the player respects my iron-fisted DMing style and my refusal to slow the game by pouring through the text.  Not every player is cool with that though, and what kind of players you get at a con game is definitely a crap shoot.  AD&D is especially attractive though when running old tournaments like the A-series, which were specifically written for that system.  There’s some cache I think in saying “we’re going to play this as it was played in 1979.”

Given that all this is so much logistical detail and will have little effect on how I actually run the game, the real question here is, what will attract the most players.  I’ve never really had a con game completely fill up, so butts in seats is what I’m after.  This sounds like a good excuse to use a poll.  So please let me know, if you were leafing through a convention brochure for a game to play, which system would most likely draw you to my game?

What description would you find most enticing in a convention listing?

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