Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Dungeons and Dragons: Attack of the Retro-Clones

Yes, I'm actually posting something game related today. Hopefully those who have gotten used to all of the rhetoric will be pleasantly surprised by the change of pace.

First of all, I'd like to acknowledge where the gaming industry is at, and where I'm at in relation to it. Last August Wizards of the Coast released Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition. This new game was completely overhauled from 3rd edition, placing an emphasis on player character powers, ease of DMing, and streamlined play. While many people loved the new edition, I would argue that an equally sized group did not find it to their liking. I am one of the latter. Without going into a lengthy diatribe, I'll say that it fails for several reason: the new emphasis on powers, forced movement, and the slaughtering of numerous sacred cows that had been with the game since it was originally released in 1974. D&D has strayed far from how it was originally conceived: as an emulation of fantasy novels, such as Lord of the Rings, Conan, and others, which allowed players to enter into an imaginary world as fictional characters. This was an outgrowth from tactical strategy games. Because the 4th edition game philosophy places a greater emphasis on gamism rather than roleplaying, in my mind at least, it is much closer to a fantasy miniatures game than it is a roleplaying game, and as such, is a fairly giant leap backwards in its evolution.

As I said earlier, I'm not the only one feeling this way. Paizo Publishing chose to continue using the Open Game License (OGL) to produce a new and improved version of 3.5, called Pathfinder. I'm placing the majority of my support and design skills behind that effort, as well as the True20 game, which I feel does a superior job of handling modern and future type roleplaying games.

So that should be the end of the conversation, right? We have two fairly major commercial games from large game publishers, and as a result, I still find my talents as a game designer in demand. So what else is there to talk about? Old school revivial; specifically, the rise of the old school clones.

The first game, published under the OGL, which attempted to take a step backwards in terms of the rules and overall feel of the game was called Castles and Crusades, by Troll Lord Games. They started with the core rules of 3rd edition, which were released as open content by Wizards of the Coast, and they stripped out many of the innovations made with 3rd edition. The standard experience point advancement was tossed in favor of a class-based system, as we had with previous editions, skill checks were replaced with ability checks (a system called the SIEGE system), weapons and armor were once again dictated by class as opposed to being open, and the big game changer, feats, were eliminated entirely.

Castles and Crusades is an excellent game. Let me just get that out of the way now. I bought the PDFs a while back and I've been looking them over, and I really like how it all comes together. It retains some of the things I like about 3rd edition, such as flipping Armor Class over so it's expressed as a positive number, while at the same time embracing the simplicity and ease of play that was found in the previous editions. The easiest way to sum it up is that it's as though they took the best parts of 1E, 2E, and 3E, stripped out all of the extra stuff that doesn't make for a streamlined, easy to play game, and put it out there for the people who want a game that feels similar to original. It should also be noted that before his death earlier this year, Gary Gygax had embraced Castles and Crusades as the spiritual successor to D&D, and he finally got around to releasing his dungeon crawl masterpiece Castle Zagyg (originally Castle Greyhawk) for this system.

Perhapse that would have been the end of the conversation, but there were still those who weren't crazy about Castles and Crusades. While you could literally run any old D&D or AD&D module under Castles and Crusades with very little modification, some people didn't just want a compatible system, but wanted the actual rules from the original game.

This is where the retro-clones come in. Copyright law is a funny thing. If I write a book, it is automatically copyrighted under me, and aside from the fair use laws, which allow others to use a small portion of that book for a variety of limited purposes, someone can't come along and snag the my book's text and republish it. This can even extend out into the realm of ideas, at which point things get tricky, but one thing copyright law does not protect are game rules. In other words, the rules of a given game can be lifted entirely, as long as you use your own explanatory text, trade dress, and give it a different name. The OGL allows publishers to use most of the intellectual property from the core rules of WotC's 3rd edition D&D game. Better, the OGL cannot be revoked, and there are no provisions within the OGL preventing a person or publisher from combining the IP released by WotC with the rules lifted from other editions. This combination is what has given rise to the retro-clones, which is where individuals and (extremely) small companies are recreating the original AD&D and/or Basic D&D game.

The two retro-clones that are specifically worth mentioning are OSRIC (Old School Reference & Index Compilation) and Labyrinth Lord. OSRIC started out as a simple open source reference guide for people who wanted to develop products that were compatible with AD&D 1st edition. It originally had approximately 150 pages, and it was basic, but nice. The 2nd edition of OSRIC, which Stuart Mashall has kindly given me a preview of, is a much more ambitious project. It includes an updated set of character creation rules, but it also includes the full (as near as I can tell) list of monsters, as well as all of the material you would need as a GM to run the thing. There's more art and more material, and one thing that remains the same is the stripped down, easy to use layout, which is reminiscent of the 1st edition game.

Along with OSRIC is Labyrinth Lord. This game, which is also available as a free download, is different because it attempts to recreate the old Moldvay/Cook version of Basic D&D. As similar as it is to AD&D, it has its share of subtle differences, which lead to a slightly different game experience. It also features a layout that looks slightly more professional than OSRIC and contains a great deal more art. It is visually impressive, particularly if you happen to remember those twenty year old games on which is is based.

Labyrinth Lord as created by a small company called Goblinoid Games, and LL isn't the only retro style game they produce. They also have a d100 based system called GORE (which is beyond the scope of this blog entry) and Mutant Future. What I like about Mutant Future is that rather than try to recreate one of the editions of classic Gamma World, they instead used the basic OSRIC based sytem to create a post-apocalyptic game that was otherwise very similar to Gamma World. The result is impressive, and still extremely reminiscent of the old classic.

As I said before, my support remains fully behind Pathfinder and True20, but I have to admit that there is an appeal to these retro-clones that goes beyond nostalgia. The fact is that unlike software, old tabletop games do not become unplayable as time goes by. What was a good rules system twenty years ago remains a good rules system today. In the case of the retro-clones, they still contain all of the old sacred cows, such as percentage based thieves skills and upside-down armor class, but they are still a joy to play. It seems that the further the official game called D&D wants to denounce its roots, the more interest there is in simply playing the originals. I for one have been inspired to get a second game going, probably using the Castles and Crusades game system (though I'm also contemplating OSRIC as well) and possibly even write some material for one of them. Sure, the pay would be nonexistent, but frankly, I got into game design to have a creative outlet, not for the money, and there's something very, very cool about the classic game I grew up with. The fact that going back to that system would allow me to make use of a whole bunch of old gaming products, including somewhere around 100 issues of Dungeon, is very appealing.

Oh, and here are the links to these games:

Labyrinth Lord
Mutant Future
Castles and Crusades

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Blog #7

Blog #7
Write a reflection on the third draft of Assignment #1. Use at least two terms
we have learned in class.

Your reflection should answer this question:
1. What do you think is better about this draft when compared to the others?
Why? (300 words)

I think my third draft of assignment #1 is considerably better than the second, mainly because I implemented Paul Muhlhauser's suggestions for improvement. In my experience, taking the feedback given to you by any given class's professor and using the changes they suggest leads to a higher grade. Not only does it acknowledge their situated ethos, but it also shows a willingness to follow their vision for the assignment, thereby striving for improvement.

Of course this answer a total non-sequitur because it doesn't address the qualitative changes that have been made to the paper. So a more on-topic response would be that I changed the thesis to a statement that I had originally made in the final paragraph of the paper. I've found that when writing my conclusions, I tend to write more concise thesis statements than I do when starting my papers. This might be because by that point I've already worked through everything I want to say and I can provide a more concise summary.

The other thing I did was combine a paragraph listing the various TRACE elements with the paragraph relating to the key. While it had originally been my intention to quickly address those elements to satisfy the requirements of the paper, I found that they made my 'key' argument stronger (Besides, Paul Muhlhauser recommended that I do this ;-) What that effectively did was answer the question, so what? to the relevance of that paragraph.

So in short, I feel that the third draft is really an improvement because of minor adjustments to the organization of the paper. I didn't perform a massive overhaul to the original, nor do I feel that it was broken to the point where it needed that sprt pf treatment. I do feel that the paper is stronger now than it was originally, and I mainly have Paul Muhlhauser's rhetorical expertise to thank for that.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Rhetoric of Babylon 5

As anyone who has watched Babylon 5 knows, as the plot moves along, the heroes encounter two overriding philosophies, which are truly only ever explained by the fundamental questions of their respective civilizations. The Vorlons, which represented order, asked the question, "Who are you?" The Shadows asked, "What do you want?" The third voice, which was represented only by the first One - the only being who remained behind and served as the God figure for the others asked, "Do you have anything worth living for?"

Up until near the end of the Shadow War, the Vorlons were believed to be the force of good in the conflict. "Who are you" Was a rhetorical question that they intended to use as a means to get people to examine the trappings of identity and see themselves as the true beings they are. According to the show creator, Joe Michael Straczynski, the intention is not to solicit a "correct" answer, but to "tear down the artifices we construct around ourselves until we're left facing ourselves, not our roles." Identity creates division, so casting it aside exposes the core of what lies beneath. This seems to be at least partially influenced by several eastern religions, such as Taoism, Jainism, and Buddhism, which emphasize non-attachment to material things, non-action, and acceptance. Indeed, in the real world, most dominant Eastern religions are considered peaceful even while they often tend to exist alongside totalitarian regimes that oppress their own people. As it turns out, the Vorlons were not the good guys, but were instead the predominant authoritarians.

The Shadows, by contrast, practiced an ideology of chaos. Their question, "What do you want?" illustrates that they use personal desire to shape identity. This was presented as disharmonious, destructive, and ultimately less than ideal, which is why the younger races were forced to struggle against them time and time again. The comparison that JMS seems to be making, but he never comes out and says, is that the philosophy of the Shadows is analogous to capitalism in the United States. In the US, lives are shaped by greed. Those with wealth desire more wealth, those with some wealth also desire more wealth, and coincidentally, the poor struggle for more wealth. Even while those who have live lives of comfort and privilege that most can only dream of, those with wealth and power desire the acquisition of wealth to the point where they are willing to circumvent common sense for personal gain. It is for this reason that the world is now faced with a deep recession or possibly even a depression. Greed is the great evil of the United States, causing it to cannibalize itself until there's nothing left. In an ironic twist, one of the most conservative presidents of the past hundred years is now forced to implement some of the most socialist measures to keep the entire economy from collapsing.

The final questions come from Lorien, who describes himself as the first one. "Do you have anything worth living for?" This was actually the question asked of Sheridan as he stood on the threshold between life and death following his attempted self sacrifice, and his question was eventually refined to two questions, "Why are you here," and "Where are you going?" For now, we'll only examine the original. "What do you have to live for?" is a far more powerful question than "Do you have anything worth dying for?" People die in wars, and for causes, and for loved ones. They do it all the time, all around the world in conflicts that are often horrible and quickly forgotten. Alternatively, asking what you have to live for asks what work to you have left undone? When asked this question, Sheridan ultimately answered Delenn, who was the Minbari ambassador to Babylon 5. This answer initially created puzzlement. The romantic relationship between Sheridan and Delenn had only been hinted at up to that point, but what they were doing was spearheading the war. It wasn't just the love they had for each other that was important, but the work that they were doing together. When stripped of all of the possible considerations, his answer was love, not just for Delenn, not just for humans, or Minbaris, but for all interstellar races - universal love.

While the Shadow War was happening, President Clark was busy transforming Earth into a totalitarian state. By advancing the politics of division and fear, he was able to assert absolute control over the society he led. At the time, the best historical figure to compare him to was Hitler, though just a couple years after the end of Babylon 5, President Bush rose to power and advanced a very divisive agenda that othered Democrats, Arabs, and even our allies in the United Nations. Bush is a far better example of the problems JMS warned about than Hitler, not because he used ideology, lies, and the media to secure his own power as a demagogue, but because ultimately it was the conscience of his own people that overthrew him. It was the love of others rather than the fear of them that ultimately led to the popular demise of their divisive ideologies.

Finally, the ascension of G'Kar as a prominent religious leader demonstrates the ultimate example of a transformation of love. G'Kar was a Narn, a member of a warlike race that had only recently won its independence from Centauri occupation. When we first see him, he is bitter, nationalistic, hateful towards the Centauri, and distrustful towards the other races. Throughout the series, he undergoes a trial at the hands of his enemies. His homeworld is once again conquered, with the help of the Shadows. He leads those of his people who escaped re-enslavement from Babylon 5 for a time, but is ultimately captured, tortured, made to amuse the Centauri emperor, at whose hands he is mocked and disfigured when they removed one of his eyes. When G'Kar emerges from his trial, he is no longer a figure who stands for nationalism, but instead universal love. He is a warrior philosopher who counts among his friends those who he once hated. In a final display of enlightenment, rather than allow his own people to turn him into a demagogue, he leaves for the outer rim, which is a metaphor for the frontier, often associated with death.

The message JMS promotes with Babylon 5 is, knowingly or not, an interpretation of Kenneth Burke's "A Rhetoric of Motives," and he suggests that the solution to the problems of the world is love of everyone. According to Robert Eddie, Director of Composition at Washington State University, love is a form of mysticism - which is itself an overwhelming feeling of connectedness with all people, and things.

When seeking the true underlying message of the multilayered plot JMS has constructed with Babylon 5, and to quote John Lennon, "Love is the answer." The welfare of the community is more important than the welfare of the individual.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Blog #6

Intelligence Officer, Navy Reserve

The Intelligence Officer ad that appears in the September issue of Discover magazine is relatively simple and straight forward. It features a piece of paper, apparently sitting on a desk with a series of simple instructions that one would give someone watching their house, and a pair of keys. The home owner left instructions to water the plants, bring in the mail, contact them at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. in the case of an emergency, and to shred the note immediately. There is a break towards the bottom of the page under which a short blurb is written on a metallic looking background, which reads, “Intelligence Officer. As an Intelligence Officer in the Navy Reserve, you’ll manage valuable intelligence and help to defend this nation as few others can. All on a part time basis….” This text sets up a particularly effective pathetic appeal because it suggests that the reader can add excitement to her life if he joins the Navy, picks the job he wants (in this case, Intelligence Officer), and then works part time. If the reader takes the suggested route, he can serve his country, thereby being part of something larger than himself, live a life of intrigue where he keeps valuable national secrets, all while earning what is presumably a good part time income, without having to leave his regular daily life and responsibilities to do it.

The text contains two main components, the first of which is what is written on the note. Items one and two are pretty ordinary and could be a note left for anyone who is taking care of someone else’s house for a few days. There is nothing particularly interesting, exciting, or notable about taking care of plants and bringing in the mail. In fact, those two items would likely be assumed for someone taking on these duties, making these instructions rather pointless. The following two lines, “….Contact me at the Pentagon….” And “Shred this note immediately!” are designed make an emotional appeal to a person’s sense of adventure. There is something dangerous about their line of work, so the caretaker is to ensure that nobody knows where they’re at while they’re away! The second of the text’s components is located at the bottom of the page simply lists the fact that a person can apply to be an Intelligence Officer if they join the Navy, and they can do it part time. This tells the reader that they can leave their ordinary life behind and do something meaningful and exciting for their country.

The constraints of this ad are that not everybody is open to the possibility of joining the armed forces. For many, risking their life for this country, particularly under the current administration, is simply not worth it. It is also not going to apply to people who can’t obtain security clearance, criminals, or the developmentally disabled. Further constraints are that the Navy is looking for people in the following professions: engineers, educators, IT professionals, CPAs, and consultants. According to their website, the actual Finally, the exigence of this ad is that the Navy needs recruits.

“Essentials of Argument” states, “Visual Argument establishes common ground and invites viewer identification. (240)” This is certainly true for this ad. The person making the ad wants the reader to think that the ad applies to them. Ordinary people, presumably like the person viewing the ad, leaves similar notes for people all the time. They typically include a list of things to do, how to contact them in case of an emergency, and any special instructions.

The keys are an interesting component of this visual argument as well. Normally keys would be a sign for gaining access to something, but not in this case. Despite their break with conventional symbolism, they still have meaning. In “Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric,” Foss, Foss, and Trapp say, “That signs and symbols often intertwine is typical of human communication. For instance, a tree standing in a forest is not a symbol; it does not stand for something else.” And, “The tree also becomes a symbol – an instance of rhetoric – when it is cut, for example, to use as a Christmas tree. (3)” The keys on this add seem straightforward – the person taking care of the house will use them to get into the house so that they can take care of the plants and drop off the mail. However, on a metaphorical level, they represent the reader’s mundane life. If the reader takes this job, they can drop their mundane life off with the most convenient person while they can leave home for a while (almost like a vacation) and assume the role of a spy. For a few days at a time, as part of their job with the Navy, they can become James Bond, or Jack Ryan. That implies danger, excitement, sex, and responsibility.

In addition to this, the remaining TRACE principles complete the argument. The reader is assumed to be an ordinary person. Since they’re appealing to a sense of excitement with this ad, the assumption is that the reader lives an ordinary life in the United States, working an ordinary job; a slave to the grind. They might be someone who needs to pick up a part time job to supplement their income. The ad’s author, the Navy, gives the impression that someone seeing this might be interested in joining the Navy so that they can live this exciting life. They know that this would appeal to possible recruits because it wouldn’t necessarily involve leaving home for months or years at a time and risking their lives in combat situations.

Although this ad looks almost mundane at first glance, its elegant simplicity stands out from the magazine in which it is situated and demands attention; it skillfully employs pathos to make an argument for recruitment into one of the branches of the armed forces. The appeal to excitement and service is a powerful tool for recruitment, and the Navy is likely to find success with this ad.

US Navy, "Intelligence Officer, Navy Reserve." Discover Sept 2008: 5.
1. Wood, Nancy. Essentials of Argument. 2nd. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc, 2009.
Foss, Karen, Sonya Foss, and Robert Trapp. "An Introduction to Rhetoric."Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric. 3rd ed. London: Waveland Press, 2003. 1-18. 28 Aug 2008 http://www.aml.wsu.edu/facultysites/Muhlhauser/FossFossTrappsm.pdf
U.S. Navy, Navy Reserve, Enlisted Opportunities, Intelligence and Communications. U.S. Navy. 18 Sep 2008 .