Rethinking D&D lineages with a mix of old and new

As I’ve started tinkering with what I’m jokingly calling The Snyder House Rules, I even toyed with totally new concepts for character backgrounds. For the record, “race” is an awful term, and I won’t use that. The ideas below aren’t even that anyway. I’ve called them Natures.

The idea here is a mix of the strange and dark fantasy. And, my approach here is in the vein of Five Torches Deep. That is, an old-school re-thinking of D&D’s fifth edition, pared down.

One of my core assumptions here is that ability bonuses (or penalties) for lineages encourages choices I want to see changed. Instead, I grant those ability bonuses in the classes, letting players create any lineage/class combination they like.

So! Here are some alternative character types to be merged with any class.


The Damned

The damned are mortals consigned to doom. The cause of their fate varies, but the consequence is largely the same. They take on the mask of death, yet remain live and mortal. Having foreseen their fates, they have no more to fear from other terrors. The Damned take on an increasingly ghoulish appearance, their skin wrinkling and stretching over bones. But their heart still beats, blood flows, and they savor and prolong every remaining mortal minute. Still, being damned has its boons. Your damned character: 

  • Has immunity to fear.
  • Gains proficiency in Death Saves.
  • Has disadvantage on social interactions (Charisma rolls) with other mortal folk. 

Not Today

You may re-roll any ability check, saving throw, or attack roll (including those with advantage or disadvantage) for your Damned once between lengthy rests.

The Mortal

Mortals are simply humans unchanged by the chaotic forces in the world. They are the most numerous of mortals, adaptable and often ambitious. Humanity is varied across the lands, with many ethnicities and cultures in every reach and clime. Their appearance varies accordingly. Human kingdoms and cities grow ever larger, their fields more bountiful. Such mortals are prone to any kind of virtue or vice. Your human character:

  • Has one additional Ability of your choice with proficiency. (Your chosen class grants two Abilities with proficiency; this grants a third.)
  • Speaks common and one other language you choose.

Quick Learner

Your mortal character gains levels more easily. Subtract your character’s current level from the milestone XP required to gain your next level. See the Levels chart early in this section.

The Others

Others are the forest folk with many names like boggart, hob, or nix. Many know them as the fae, though they’re often simply called the Others out of superstitious fear. In truth, they have one nature and an affinity with strange and dark places. Your character is a wayfarer from one of their many wild, hidden kingdoms. They are smaller folk and slighter than humans. But, they are quick and quiet, and fierce when they must be. They have murky eyes of varying color. Their skin is any tone from pale ice to charcoal, and even some like blue sky or green leaves. Others’ visages vary as well, from fair to frightful. Others are at times whimsical and lively, at different times they are mischievous and even spiteful. But like all mortals, they covet riches and find themselves on adventures often. Your other character:

  • Has advantage against enchantment magic.
  • Sees out to long range in dim light while in the wild.
  • Has advantage on stealth-related actions when outdoors.
  • Speaks Fae, Common, and one other language of your choice.

Other’s Luck

When misfortune befalls you — like a deadly blow or a failed save — roll 1d20+LEVEL:

  • 18-20 Avoid the disaster after all.
  • 9-17 Whatever the disaster, it’s half as bad for you. But your luck has run out until you rest.
  • 1-8 Ask the GM if you make it. Maybe you learned your lesson.

The Vessel

Vessels were once mortals, but they have another fragile chance at life through possession of another form. They are arcane creations or experiments that inject mortals’ souls into another chance at life through possession. Unlike the soulless golem, the vessel has a will of its own. Its body is an amalgamation of flesh and metal. The result is a scarred and prodigious form with appearances as varied as their flesh’s origins. Most cover themselves in layers of clothing or additional armor, as they are often shunned by man. Ironically, vessels have all the needs of humanity — for warmth, for sustenance, for companionship, to say nothing of a need like all for fortune. Your vessel character:

  • Has advantage on any saves against paralysis or petrification effects, magical or mundane.
  • Has a natural armor rating of 1 (reduce damage from any single source by 1). This armor cannot be used to reduce all damage as armor equipment does, but neither is it damaged or in need of repair.
  • Cannot be resurrected, but it can be reincarnated.

Back In the OSR

Today I turned 46, and I don’t seem capable of growing out of my affection for tabletop roleplaying games. Lately, I’ve been delving deep (again) into the OSR. That’s “old school renaissance,” which is short hand for a style of game and play that embraces the original game (the very early versions of D&D) and emphasizes creative thinking and play over detailed character capabilities found in most versions of D&D lately.

I’d dabbled with this stuff back in 2010-2012, but came back to it here lately while we’re all cooped up from the god damn plague. And it’s really grown in surprising and delightful ways. To date I’ve been reading:

  • Index Card RPG: Don’t be fooled by its prosaic name. The game is a brilliant take on the classic style game.
  • Old School Essentials: This is as pure a recreation of “Holmes box” B/X D&D. That means a leaner version of D&D (B/X = Basic & Expert rules).
  • Dungeon World: I knew about this one when it arrived in 2012. It is a well-developed “hack” of Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker, whom I consider the best RPG designer … ever. I actually started my return to OSR here because I wanted to bring Vincent’s concepts to the table.
  • Five Torches Deep: A D&D 5th Edition “port” of the old school style. That is a heavily slimmed down version of 5th. It’s a smart version, but cuts down a lot of corners.
  • The Black Hack: Like Index Card RPG, this one is a brilliant paring down of the B/X style rule elements.

I’ve got my sights on others, especially Electric Bastionland, an evolution of Into the Odd that looks like a twisted, Gilliam-esque game. Also, I’d like to see the upcoming Dolmenwood source book for Old school Essentials, which is a much more traditional fantasy setting but with heavy dark fairy tale elements.

All of these are getting my old design gears turning, following down the path of similar fun ideas. It may be just for my own amusement, but I’ve enjoyed re-thinking old ideas in new creative ways.

Swords Against Magic: Or How I Learned to Love the Glow

I’ve been playing role-playing games since I was about 10  years old. 

It was around 1985. I revered my older brother. In the early 80s, he and my older cousin spent their weekends with old versions of Dungeons & Dragons that they had somehow gathered up in rural Iowa. Early on, they even used little cardstock chits in a bowl as randomizers because they didn’t have the dice yet. 

One year for Christmas, my brother got the three main books of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I was 8 or 9, maybe? I didn’t know what all that stuff in those books meant, but I knew I loved it. The artwork captivated me. The books held charts of things that sounded interesting, pictures of swords and cut-throats. Goofy cartoons. And all those monsters from my elementary school nerdy kid Greek mythology were there in the Monster Manual, the best book of all from my perspective.

A Pedigree in Geekery

I had seen fantastical movies like Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and Clash of the Titans. I remember being obsessed with the giant scorpions in second grade. My brother even took me to see Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, just the two of us. That’s one of my fondest memories from back then. One of those nights, once my brother figured out he could rent VCRs and video tapes, I literally watched through a keyhole a movie I had no business seeing at that age. But I knew I desperately wanted to see it: Conan the Barbarian. The parts I saw, well, let’s just say it was a formative movie. I was, of course, a Star Wars movie and toy fan, though I had friends that were lovable fanatics about it (I still do!). We had a literal garbage can of my brother’s scattered and messy comic book collection. I loved what he had: Avengers, Micronauts, X-Men, Power Man & Iron Fist, John Carter: Warlord of Mars, Defenders. There was a crazy, gIant sized Superman vs. Flash, and another with a Superman and Spiderman crossover. And, of course, a few Conan comics.

I had read the Chronicles of Prydain (another brother hand-me-down in a wonderful series case set of all the books). Choose Your Own Adventures were all the rage at the school book fairs. But Wizards, Warriors, and You were so much better. You could pick your path and your own weapons! Another cousin and I loved those. My aunt (yet another cousin!) got me a Star Frontiers module around then. I barely understood it was an adventure module, and I didn’t have the role-playing game main books themselves. But I must have looked through that thing a hundred times, wondering what is a Quickdeath and why is it so scary? Also, giant lizards with lasers on their heads were very cool. That aunt later got me the Marvel Super Heroes box set — the yellow “basic” one. That was actually the first role-playing game I owned, but by then I had played D&D.

The Man Without a Tribe

It took me remarkably little time to figure out — or at least assume — that everyone else wasn’t into all this stuff. As far as I could tell (and I was no doubt very wrong), girls didn’t want anything to do with that stuff.

To top all that off, it was thick in the days of Satanic Panic. So much so that the cousin my brother first played with wasn’t allowed to play any more. I had a friend whose dad made him burn all his books. I hated everything about that nonsense.

One of my best pals was our ringleader on the role-playing games front. He had friends, and soon enough we all were pals. Later, other friends I made were into D&D. I was in a small town very near a small city. Everyone knew everyone. Popularity and cliques and being the cool kid was all what one might expect of being a Midwestern town in the 1980s. I had my geek friends, and I had my non-geek friends, and ne’er the two shall meet. At least, my cool kid pals didn’t seem interested at all. I sort of lived between tribes, which it turns out is one of my life-long habits.

The rest is amusing history. I played RPGs all through college and adulthood, and made great friends. I even published some mildly successful independent RPGs of my own in the 2000s, and I made even more friends while doing it.

Talkin’ ’Bout my Generation

Now here I am. I’m of a generation, now in its 40s, that grew up from a younger age into the guts of the hobby, a sort of post-golden-age in the 1980s in which role-playing games really took a more commercial form. Now, D&D is more popular than ever in its fifth edition. It’s a very different scene from my days with a bunch of fellow dorky guys. I’m amazed and in awe of the diversity of D&D fans. Sure, there are old farts like me getting soft in the middle and still dreaming about swords and dragons. But there are people who watch other people play the game, and this is a Very Big Deal. Celebrities join in as part of their celebrity-dom and persona (and, sure, they’re real fans, too). The lively scene on social media and elsewhere is remarkable. Artists and mapmakers have successful patronages and kick-started projects in the five and six (or a few even seven) digit figures. That was unthinkable even 15 years ago for me, let alone 35 years ago.

All of this wonderful resurgence, and in large part the game itself, has evolved and changed what it’s like. It’s a superbly designed game overall. It’s very familiar looking, with all the parts and pieces, characters and monsters. There are more of all of those. Whimsical art that has no business on the cover of a heavy metal album fills up my Twitter feed. D&D is many things to many people, as it should be. No one owns it, and it changes and shifts to an ever-larger fanbase. Rumors abound of movies and shows. More video games are on the way. Amusingly, the D&D publishers, Wizards of the Coast, are relatively sparse with what they produce for the game. Wisely, they’ve mostly tapped into an enthusiastic fan base that more than makes up for the old schedules of books each month (that, frankly, weren’t very good most of the time). There’s so much to love with all of this. For lifelong fans, myself included, that’s not going away. 

Still, those memories of being a kid and loving what we loved, stick to one’s ribs. Lately, I’ve been watching some (really impressive) YouTube videos. They tend to be done by guys roughly my age sharing their tips and techniques for D&D. They advise on how to play, how to prepare, amd any number of creative ideas.

Interestingly, some might say something like “Today’s D&D is built for high fantasy. It’s super-powered heroes with all kinds of bizarre characters to play — like dragon people and devilish people and cat people and on and on. With a few exceptions, whatever your character, they probably have magical powers. Even the good old fighting and outdoorsy types bring supernatural powers to the tabletop.”

They explain this is just how the game is, how it’s evolved. Of course that’s true. And it’s not all bad. And then their real motive for saying all that sneaks in. “I tend to prefer low magic, myself. I liked the good old days of winning with your wits and your sword.”

Some are more polite about this than others! But of course they usually recognize that most people really like the game it has become. And these older guys like it, too. It’s just … remember when? I’ll get back to this. 

Delving into Dungeon World

A few years ago, I was on the tail end of part-time graduate school, and soon changed my career. I pulled back from the small-time games I had published, and I focused on work and family and fiction writing. But, I stayed on the sidelines, picking up new games here and there, and playing a few times with old friends. That small-time indie publishing scene I had known grew to be pretty big time for some. One of those was Dungeon World. It was an homage to D&D, wrapped up in a bunch of game design and play techniques that really differed from what most of the hobby does at the table (some do, bear with me).

In other words, it’s an edgy game dressed up like the most traditional one. Characters seem about the same as D&D characters, on the surface. Elven wizards and noble paladins, sneaky halflings, dastardly orcs and dragons. Adventuring into the wilderness and dungeons — all that D&D core stuff is there. It was D&D, it just used a wildly different operating system, so to speak. Dungeon World is brilliant. It’s still around, although the popularity seems to have trickled off some as the publishers moved on to other things. And D&D itself keeps picking up steam. 

Role-playing game fans — especially those older dogs like me — can be really strange about their tastes. Dungeon World challenges a lot of D&D sacred cows. The rules are radically different, though the play procedures really aren’t. But Dungeon World is not a tactical game played on a grid with sometimes hours long fights with the bad guys that last turn after turn. Not every D&D group does that, but a whole lot do. The core D&D rules are built to do that. And this is the “easiest to understand” version in five editions over 40 years! 

The newer D&D rules are many things, but at the heart of those rules is a tactical engine. There are elaborate rules that instruct how your character can do things or not do things, except when your character advances to get that one power then they can. And so on. 

Whereas, Dungeon World is a fictional engine. It also still focuses on fighting bad guys and exploring the world. But it doesn’t do tactical battles. It does what I will call fictional, consequential scenes. This gets a little tricky. At a higher level, D&D does this too, but the actual hows and whats are very different when you look at behaviors by players, decisions they make, and how it all ties together. At risk of diving deep into a meta-geeky world of arcane game design, I’ll just say that Dungeon World tries (and in my view largely succeeds) to “bring back” imagination in a way that D&D has veered away from to be that tactical game that many love today.

Phew! Finally, I’m reaching for my point here. 

The Highs and Lows of Fantasy

Remember previously when I mentioned I started noticing (usually) middle-aged guys like me saying D&D is “too high fantasy” for their tastes? Well, Dungeon World is arguably high fantasy. But it has another flaw some old fuddy duddies don’t like: Artwork and aesthetic.

D&D has a decades long history of artwork, and with it the look and feel of the game. What started in the 1970s as line art sketches, some goofy cartoons, some solid ink illustrations, and some psychedelic weirdness evolved. It became more realistic. But also remember my bit about how it looked like heavy metal album covers? Yeah, it often became that. Not all of it. But, certainly for many, it was the gritty, sometimes dark, and especially the edgy, high-end full color artwork that captivated. Mad-eyed wizards raising up hordes of skeletons. Big flames. Jewels. Hulky dudes with runed swords. Hordes of sneering orcs. And, of course, glorious dragons, usually wreathed in oil painted flame. Larry Elmore. Jeff Easley. Keith Parkinson. A bit later Todd Lockwood and Gerald Brom.

I’m oversimplifying and squeezing together a longer timeline to illustrate a point. The point is this: The art — and the aesthetic — of D&D today is more diverse, more imaginative. It’s high fantasy. The visuals are vibrant. The characters are more diverse, which I applaud overall. The vision of the various worlds is wildly magical. Magic glows. Damn near everything glows.

It’s true those earlier artists I mentioned did a lot of high fantasy art. And D&D had plenty of high fantasy content since at least the mid 1980s. But, in general, the cast of characters was human or dwarf or elf, halfling or half-orc. The character classes did their thing, often very unequally. Most classes did things based on their skills and innate characteristics. But innate magical abilities were for the magical classes like wizards and clerics and the rest of the group’s magic items. Yes, paladins and rangers and bards could cast some limited spells. They could not close their eyes and detect whether a celestial was within one mile, rest a bit, and do it again, as they do in D&D 5th edition. The fighters and thieves and (mostly) the rangers did things swinging swords and running around trying to outsmart nasty bad guys or find items that could do it for them. D&D wasn’t really the “go to” game for low fantasy or gritty, dark fantasy, but you could see it and do it that way, especially in those older editions.

I have a couple other conspiracy theories about this shift. Anime, I’m looking at you — why is it if you’re in your mid-40s, chances are pretty good you don’t like the “look” of anime? I’m 45 and … yeah. But beyond that, video games and mediocre urban fantasy shows, must everything glow? World of Warcraft’s cartoon-like style is another “culprit.” Obviously, millions of people love it. I’ve heard over and over again for years that people, typically around my age, don’t like the cartoony-ness of it all. It leaves them wanting. 

This look-and-feel thing happened over the period of many, many years. It was an evolution, not a revolution. And there’s nothing wrong with how things have changed. Nearly all of it is for the better, by far. The vast majority of the art and style and aesthetic for D&D — let alone streaming shows and video games and so on — blows my mind.

This You Can Trust

I read Game of Thrones in 1996 because I’m geeky, not because I’m wise. I thought it would be some long epic fantasy book that I might not finish (not the first). The book was so realistic and brutal! I absolutely loved it, in part for those reasons. Finally, someone had made a “realistic” fantasy with superb writing and didn’t need every character to have a magical thing. I insisted all my role-playing pals read it. All of them read it and loved it.

What is this thing? What is it about my generation’s peculiar upbringing that has something rooted in this idea of swords & wits, not flashy magic and anthropomorphic heroes (easy, they’re just examples)? Why do guys — and in my experience it’s usually, but not always, us guys — prefer this kind of gruff stoicism and mortality than, say, a cat-person wizard who rides a feathered dragon? If the first thing that popped in your head about that cat-person I just made up was “Ok, come on, that sounds freaking awesome!” then you’re probably not the every-so-slightly cranky 40-ish fantasy fan I’m talking about.

If you’re still reading, you may have forgotten in my blathering that I have a long habit of living in between tribes. I tend to be a pretty wide-ranging-tastes kind of guy, so much so it used to drive my old role-playing groups crazy as I jumped from interest to interest. I can happily get on board with some high magic adventuring. I mean, maybe not anime … I just … sigh. But I also really love my crew that wants swords & sorcery style or the hard-fought adventure in which the big magic was earned, dad-gummit, and didn’t always glow.

Back to the Dungeon

Which, finally (I promise) brings me back to Dungeon World. I actually love the artwork and style in the Dungeon World book. It’s a whimsical nod to the oldest days of the D&D hobby. I’ve bumped into a handful of comments over the years with, you guessed it, guys about my age who say they can’t stand its artwork, even if they love the game. And some who definitely do not love it — it’s non-starter on art alone!

How to bring these tribes together? How to get their chocolate in my peanut butter? How does one resurrect the style of the old days with the abundance and brilliance of the new? The answer is an uphill climb because it takes a hell of a lot of work and a recognition among that old group of fellows to really look at what makes their game fun and fill some old wants. But it’s where my brain tends to wander lately: Writing absurdly long diatribes about geeky things, and even kick around making that game, fates help me.

Dust Devils music

I stumbled on some great music for Dust Devils inspiration. It’s a band called The Builders & The Butchers. Their album Western Medicine is great!

Also reminds me of the EP The Last Pale Light in the West by Ben Nichols. It’s directly inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridien.

And, there’s always this atmospheric instrumental by Earth called Hex: Or Printing In the Infernal Method. I listened to that one while writing the “revenged” edition of Dust Devils.

Illumination: Nine Worlds’ prologue

This is one of my favorite bits from Nine Worlds. It appeared as the book’s Prologue.


“I know what you’re thinking, Alex,” Prometheus said. “Everyone wants to know two things when illumined. First, you’re going to ask me how this all started.” He waved his hands. “How the universe came to be like this. How you have any awareness or power at all in the first place.”

“You’re right. I was going to ask you that. So, can you read my mind?”

“No. No, I can’t do that. Let’s just say I’ve done this before. The questions are always the same.” Prometheus’ lip curled in a wry grin. “Why should you be any different?”

Alex had no reply, and silence crept between them. He looked out the rosy glass window of the strange piscine vessel they had boarded in the train station. People were everywhere. Most raced to meet their connections. Some waited along the wall reading newspapers, eating sandwiches, or drowning out the world with headphones.

Not a soul seemed to acknowledge the huge bronze and glass fish hovering in the steam near Terminal 3A. No one except for a small boy who stood staring, mouth agape at the glassy red eyes of the fish, from where Alex surveyed scene. Alexander waved at the child, and the child cowered behind the legs of a woman that must have been his mother. He heard Prometheus chuckle.

“What about the second thing?” Alexander asked coolly, still staring at the boy.

“You don’t miss much, do you?”

“Not much.”

“That’s good for you. The second thing you’re going to ask me is what you should do about it — about the hidden war, the powers that be, the ignorant masses of humanity. …” Prometheus motioned to the bustling travelers outside.

“Right again. So? You’re the big, bad Titan, right? Surely you have some advice for what I should do now. Or, maybe what you’d like me to do?”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you, Alex? I’m loathe to disappoint you. The choice is yours.” Prometheus leaned back and sighed. “I have no earthly idea.”

Playing Pathfinder

I’ve spent the last nine years of my hobby discussing, designing and playing independent role-playing games. I published three stand-alone games in that span, and who knows how many hours jabbering away — mostly online — about RPGs. In fact, I got started on that road after playing D&D 3E and becoming frustrated with playing, and especially running, that game.

But, lately, I’ve spent my game time playing Pathfinder. I had two separate requests from pals, whom I met because of my involvement in indie RPGs, to explain why I play Pathfinder. Here’s a long overdue post to answer Keith and Judd.

A bit of my gaming history

For starters, I’ve got to explain a bit about my own RPG history. If you want to get right to the specifics of Pathfinder, skip this post and wait for my next update.

Mercifully, I’ll keep this brief. I basically have two gaming groups with a bit of overlap between. Each has its quirks, which is to say it’s a pain trying to get everyone together these days.

One of the groups is a bunch of guy friends from my home town, where I still live. While the fellas and I have dabbled in other games over more than 15 years, we’re basically still a bunch of guys who really like fantasy RPGs, especially D&D. This is the crew I’m playing Pathfinder with now. We’ve dabbled in Burning Wheel and a one-shot of 3:16. But, D&D play still tops the charts.

My other group’s interests in RPGs are more varied. We’ve played some indie RPGs, including some steady playtesting for my game 44: A Game of Automatic Fear. But, I don’t consider the group devoted to indie RPGs or anything.

The Nostalgia Factor

Over the last year or so, busy real lives, crazy job schedules, and parenting resulted in basically no actual play. Despite repeated attempts, game sessions rarely materialized. When they did, they quickly disintegrated into distractions. But, last fall I managed to get several of my guy pals together for a day off from work to play some board games and hang out. We spent the morning eating and talking about how we never get to play RPGs anymore. A couple of us had, independently, picked up the Pathfinder book, and we all chatted about it.

The enthusiasm for Pathfinder was obvious. So much so, I found it a little surprising. They were not only pawing over the books, their interest was vocal. My friends said things about gaming I never expected to hear from them. Things like how much they missed it, how much they loved all the bits and pieces of the D&D experience. These were things I took for granted, or even a handful of things I had dismissed for various reasons.

I’m often the organizer of our game sessions, and I had tried to stoke this kind of enthusiasm for years, in many ways. I tried different games, including D&D 4E. The responses were mostly quiet.

Somehow, Pathfinder struck a nerve. I think it had two main causes. First, it was reaction against D&D 4E, which I discovered my friends unanimously found disappointing. Second, they saw in Pathfinder an appealing mix. It combined their comfort zone of 3rd edition with enough new, exciting twists to try it out again.

Good times

So, a few phone calls later and we had organized a monthly game night, literally in ink on the wives’ calendars. That was at the end of December, and attendance has incrementally grown each month since. The old group is excited again.

And, the game sessions are the most fun I’ve had in a long time, precisely because everyone’s enthused. We had a bunch of 2nd level characters fighting 4 tieflings. As GM, I figured this would be a quick and dirty warm up for the brief adventure I had planned. I’m still scratching my head on why exactly it turned out to be the most dramatic, fun, and tactical combat span we’ve played in years. Maybe it was just a drought of play. But, everyone was talking how much they had that session, and the fight was by far the most memorable.

Oh, the sessions are brief, which I find a bit challenging as a GM. How do I create just enough material for these relatively brief session (3 hours, maybe 4)? Pathfinder provides a couple useful tools for that, actually. But, still, it’s a thick and complicated game. I worry our short sessions won’t let us get to the real meat of the game as the players progress.

Pathfinder and trailblazing

So, we’re learing as we go. The current “campaign” is doomed. We’ve already agreed to reboot with a new campaign setting of our own making. Players are coming up with mind-blowing ideas for that already, and I’m having fun designing both setting and new game concepts for it. We’re aiming to kick it all off this summer. Meanwhile, no one’s feeling odd about their current characters, destined for mid-level greatness at best. The group’s enjoying the sessions as they come, and looking forward to a steady game group back in action.

I’m not sure I’ve answered any of Judd or Keith’s questions. Or, my own for that matter. For now, this will have to do. I’ll share more about the game sessions and our new ideas as they come. I have to at least post the new “Name levels” bit of nostalgia we came up with! That’s too much fun to pass up.

Eric Mona talks RPGs, marketing and more

“You are not going to have much success in any side of this business unless you’ve got a network of customers who are interseted in buying what you want. You might have the most brilliant one-shot game that has ever been invented, but if nobody knows about it and you don’t have a way for people to try it out or to know about it, you’re going to sell probably in the hundreds of copies.”

“There are a number of strategies that I think companies can take to figure out how to sell their product ot a large number of people.”

— Eric Mona, speaking at Neoncon in February, 2010

His strategies summarized:

1) Use the open game license — essentially, tap in to the Dungeons & Dragons market. Sell to people who exist and have existing habits.

It may not be what you as a publisher want to do, he says. (Mona mentioned his own company’s Pathfinder license.)

2) Have an organized play strategy — a regular groups of people who have an ongoing connection to your game. He mentions Living Greyhawk. Also important for demo type exposure — e.g. a 4 hour game.

3) You really have to spend at least as much time working on marketing and getting word out as you do on creating, writing and designing the game.

Barriers and perceptions of the Forge

So, here my friend Kevin Weiser interviewed my friend Ron Edwards. They talked about the Forge, and the notorious “Forge cult” thing came up. That then had a small echo effect on Twitter, including this post by Josh of the Brilliant Gameologists (whose last name I don’t know — sorry Josh).

On Twitter, I remarked to Vincent Baker (also a friend!) that the cult label is a distraction, but there is something going on with the label. He basically agreed. Now, keep in mind, Vincent and Ron operate the Forge! And, that I have long been a Forge proponent and all that. But, in last couple years, I haven’t participated there much at all.

So, the “Forge is a cult” thing. What’s going on here?

Well, one thing that’s not going on is idenity politics and posturing. That has gone on (and probably will continue), but that’s not the issue here and now.

The “cult” thing is really about barriers. There are different kinds here.

First, there’s the barrier of entry — someone who observes the Forge, appreciates it’s mission, but can’t penetrate the language or the social rules or whatever thing. Despite wanting to participate, they bounce off the surface instead.

Next, there’s the barrier of ideas. This probably comes in two forms, and these two overlap some. There are people who see the philosophies of the Forge as single-minded or wrong or just not very useful to them. And, there are folks who see the business model (i.e. creator owned publishing) as not right for their purposes. So, at best they see the Forge (and to some degree the Forge sees them) at best as tangential, and at worst as contrary. Perhaps even to the point of challenging their very profession and livelihood. I’ve seen people describe themselves and their games as attractive in part because they are not associated with the Forge. In essence, leveraging their identity and marketing as contrarian in effort to appeal to others who confront the barrier of ideas.

And, there’s the barrier of play. This is more true of players rather than of publishers or would-be publishers. There is a sense out there, I think, that if you interact with the Forge, “they” will critique your group’s play as wrong or awful or something. That you’ll be shamed. That you have to go through some kind of odd purification before you’re accepted. This is profoundly not the case. It’s an unfortunate misconception that contributes to the “cult” thing. But, still, it’s out there in people’s thoughts.

Finally, I think there’s an emerging barrier — the barrier of obscurity. I think we can confidently point to a declining trend in the Forge’s reach and relevance. It’s presence at GenCon is smaller. It’s influence online is lesser. Now, the Forge is still purring along as it always has. It’s still doing the same thing in its forums. But, there’s growing perception that it’s become quieter and less important. And, people and designers wander elsewhere as a result.

All of these barriers add up. People think, “Hey, there’s this thing over there called the Forge. And, you know what, it has some weird qualities to me. It sort of seems like a cult.”

And, then we’re all ships passing in the ether.

Now, so what? Right?

The Forge has a perception problem, whether or not the barriers have factual merit. Ron knows this, and he doesn’t wish to remedy it for various reasons. He’s doing exactly what he wants to do with the Forge as a thing in the hobby, as is his right, of course.

I still support the Forge with that. But, my activity there remains scant. I’ve just recently started to move in other directions that are, in their small way for just me and my games, confronting the perceptions described above.

The little black book of fantasy

Over the years, I’ve kept little journals. I’m fond of Moleskines in particular. In one of those, I collected my thoughts on fantasy as a genre, fantasy RPGs, and thoughts on what draws me to it. I looked at my favorite authors and what I find so compelling in their work. They included Michael Moorcock, J.R.R. Tolkien, Gene Wolfe, Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, George R.R. Martin and a small handful of other influences. It also included some influences from video games. The Fable series is notably influential here.Â

Interestingly, I also discovered something about what I’m doing here on this blog. I kept seeing a theme as I thought about fantasy. I discovered that I defined some of my preferences by what I excluded. That is, I find most fantasy novels, for example, to be utter garbage. I want nothing to do with the mountains of awful artwork that populate game covers or web sites and T-shirts. This is not new to anyone. Many genre fans get pedantic about their breed of favorites. I’m guilty of it as well. But, it helps chisel out a better piece of what I want to create.

From that, I came up with some concepts that I decided are what makes fantasy matter to me:

Question the unquestionable – Chalk this one up to Michael Moorcock, probably my favorite fantasy author. I think he deliberately set out to dismantle silly notions about morality and good and evil in fantasy. I cheer for Elric when he literally slaughters an entire city in one novel. That’s not exactly moral behavior. It’s not good ol’ hero stuff.

Heroes are disturbing or unsettling – Another Moorcock theme, though other authors share it. There’s something slightly awry in the fantasy heroes I’m drawn to. They have dark sides. They aren’t folks that settle down and live life. Maybe that’s exactly why I’m drawn to them.

Humanize by fighting the impossible – Tolkien snuck this one in on most of us. When the Peter Jackson movies came out, an online publication — I think it was — ran a long article about the pagan myths of northern Europe and Tolkien. It hit home with me somehow. The idea is that we (we being heroes, that is) are human only to the extent that we choose to face impossible enemies. Failing to do so makes us something like skulking animals full of fear. Beowulf trots off to fight the dragon almost certainly know he’s doomed. Turn up the cheese factor slightly and we get Theoden hollering “Spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered, a sword day, a red day ere the sun rises!” in the film version of Return of the King. Ok, slightly cheesy, but it’s easily my favorite moment of that film. He knows he’s dead. Better that then Sauron’s vassal.

Romance is insincere – Gene Wolfe taught me this trick in an unsung novel pair called The Knight and The Wizard, respectively. In The Knight, a teen from modern times finds himself in a fantasy world. It’s an old fantasy author trick, and not the part that grabs me. (I almost didn’t buy it for that reason alone. Don’t worry, Wolfe pulled it off.) He dubs himself Sir Able and goes about volunteering himself for many adventures. We realize that he’s simply willing himself into heroism. He’s not born into anything. He has no title. And, he performs some odd and definitely unheroic deeds.

Nature is horribly alluring – That’s probably not the best language for this idea. It my reaction to Robert E. Howard. His Conan stories are great fun, if a bit dark and troubling in places. But, he portrays such a visceral, murky ancient earth. It’s the idea that far away planes of existence aren’t necessary to both captivate and terrify one in fantasy.

Despite it all, laugh – Ah, this one goes to Leiber, who also ranks very high on my list. Fafhrd and Gray Mouser get themselves into mischief — say in “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” which is likely my favorite short story fantasy or otherwise — only to be blindsided by gruesome tragedy. And, despite their world-treading therapy, they end up drinking and joking away their dark and corrupt surroundings. What else could they do?

Humanity first, fantasy second – George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is the inspiration here. His books are the best “normal” fantasy in years and years. They’re the best because they are about human characters. Note I’m not saying literally human (though most are). I love the books not because there are weird, mysterious icy undead in the north threatening everyone. I love them because I really feel bad for the Hound, and I think Jaime’s an ass … but not that bad after all. And so on. Characters I care about because of their choices and emotional reactions, not because of their fantastic trappings.

Well, there it is. My list of thematic guidelines as I think about fantasy and move to create fantasy stuff.