Saturday, April 19, 2014

Popular Cultural Association Conference

Greetings, readers, from Chicago.

I'm up here for an academic conference, and presenting a paper. My session went pretty well, yesterday, and there seems to be at least some modicum of interest in pen-and-paper gaming, tabletop RPGs and the like. In a little bit over an hour I'll be going to meet with an acquisitions editor for a publisher to talk about my work, and a potential book proposal.

What will it be about? You guys. My people in the Google+ communities, and old-school gamers more generally. This is what my research is about, after all.

Wish me luck.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Shadow that Magic Casts

I was thinking this morning about the nature of magic items. I've just started reading (for the umpteenth time) The Annals of the Black Company. In the first book the Company is stalking the wizard, Raker, and uses a bit of his hair to bait a trap. Later on, one of the Company's wizards begins making a fell artifact, a black spear, crafting it over the course of his remaining years, until it finally is used to kill a goddess. Here are two different versions of the magic item: Fire and forget, and the Life's Work. I'm much more interested in the latter, and why even a minor wizard like the Company's might be capable of such master craft.

Let's just suppose, to begin with, that being a wizard is something that "bleeds through" into other dimensions and planes of existence. So, the basic laws of thermodynamics get violated, right? Where does that energy come from? Where does it go? It goes into those Places Between, the Ways, the Traveling Spaces, and those places aren't anywhere in particular, but they are very real and very important to magical beings, and beings that use magic. They also are conduits that can be harnessed in various ways through the use of things existing on the material plane  (e.g., henges, sacred groves, arcane circles, ley lines, etc.) to get a better purchase on the world, to make it do things it shouldn't. With me so far? Okay, so here's the twist.

What if being a wizard means that, just by being a wizard, you are constantly "bleeding through" into those empty places, where shadows lurk seeking form, and that your magic signature (like a scent) provides the Ones Who Dwell Between with a way to reach you. This may mean they hunt you, certainly, but more like the more powerful you are, the more magic you use, the more likely it is that an unworldly creature of some kind is going to notice you and find a way to use you for its own purposes (e.g., for exotic food, for easy power, for twisted amusements). That being the case, wouldn't you want to, if you're a wizard, figure out a way to keep that from happening? Here's a neat trick: Make the equivalent of a magical heat sink, something to diffuse those energies.

For example (also from the Annals) we have the Silver Spike. Literally a silver nail, but this time forcefully imbued with the power of the Dominator, the most fell wizard of several eras, corrupted in his death with his own deathless essence. It's not an intelligence, necessarily, but an essence of your Self and Craft. Note: that's another thing about being a wizard: Using magic allows you to hang on to life, perhaps without end, just because it works with Law and Chaos in ways that completely remake a wizard's body, over and over again. Sure it corrupts you, but that also means that you're getting additional life in the bargain. Think about that: Magic is a danger, but you have to use it or you will eventually die. You don't want to die, so you have to get as powerful in the use of magic as you can. Doing so puts you in greater and greater peril from the Powers that Be, so you begin to assemble some sort of device(s) or object(s) to serve as dimensional analogs for the shadows that your power casts in the Spaces Between.

In game terms, maybe that means that wizards are always making magic items. They have to, for self-defense. Magic items aren't made with a single spell, or a ritual. Instead, wizards carry objects they've designated to hold this magical essence, and to keep the heat off, so to speak. In time, those mundane objects become empowered, but in peculiar ways, taking on the character of both wizard and wizard's magical history. This is why your magic sword has an ego, and why it has a purpose. It's also why there are magical items just floating around the game world without anyone to look after them. The wizard gets rid of 'em so the magic can't be traced back. As for those poor bastard what have the the items, well... don't be surprised when you get caught holding the bag (of holding).

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Last Survey Post: Game Players and Judges

I assume that anyone reading this post either runs or plays in tabletop RPG games. I need your knowledge and experience.

My research on gaming is about not only what people do (as in group and individual) behaviors, but why they do it and what they get from doing so. Though a survey is a crude instrument in comparison to a skillful interview, it provides the sort of scope to one's research that would not be achievable without a research team. A research team... I do not have. But I do have you.

Please take the time to fill out these surveys. You don't have to do them both, or at least you don't have to do them both at the same time. ;)  I just ask that you take 20 minutes of your time to give me the best possible answers to one of them. When and if you find more time, do the other. If it's something you are interested in, consider filling out one of the other surveys. Just go to Edgar's Game Blog. All the surveys are linked at the top of the right-hand column. Finally, spread the word about the research, and encourage others to take part.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Survey #5: The OSR Survey

Yes, yes, I am doing all of this stuff out of order. I reject your quaint notions about so-called "ordinal numbers," entirely! Here, then, is the survey:

For those who are interested in learning "Why do you have an OSR survey, anyway, Johnson?" a bit of background about this aspect of my research.

Clearly, the Open Game License (OGL) issued by Wizards of the Coast in 2000 opened the tabletop RPG world to a variety of results, some anticipated and some not. I won't go into that, beyond saying that it gave rise to what some call the Old School Renaissance (or Revival, or whatever), the OSR. At the risk of raising old controversies, let's look at how the term OSR, itself, is a point of contention.

Some posters on a recent thread at Dragonsfoot made mock of the very idea that a thing like the OSR even exists, attributing it a vast and ongoing delusion among various unnamed Personalities & Poseurs that their contributions to the so-called movement, matter. I'm engaging in a bit of hyperbole, here, but not by much. Poster Saunatonttu and Moderator skathros were particularly adamant in dismissing the very idea of a real thing called the OSR, the former saying:
Dragonsfoot is pre-"OSR" and it will be here when "OSR" has ended. DF was never built on the egos, posturing and other miscellaneous activities the "OSR" cretins engage in. DF was one of the things that carried the torch during the "dark ages" of OOP gaming and places like this (and people like those who published free stuff and talked about D&D on newsgroups, AOL and the early forums) are so often sadly forgotten when the "OSR" types start polishing their OSR Of the Year Awards and congratulating eachother on how they invented and saved OOP gaming.

No, Mr. OSR, you did not. You just added scene politics and posing to it and slapped a price tag on the product.
and the latter:
I very much agree with Sauna. Df along with DF publications and things like OD&Dities are the elements i thought would be kept in the OSR. What I mean is, i thought the OSR would continue the tradition of supporting OoP D&D. In the beginning, it seemed that this whole movement (for lack of a better term) was going in that direction. OSRIC and LL were there to give folks a legal way of supporting 1E or B/X, and with their availability to purchase, it gave the added bonus of preserving the rules (in as much as legally feasible). So, in the beginning, it was all about supporting and preserving. Why, because just like DF, the fine folks that brought us LL and OSRIC thought the original were good enough to merit such support. And then things started to change. People decided the rules needed changing and started offering up their house rules versions. They weren't adding to the game we loved, they were changing the rules of the game we loved. I remember thinking, wasn't this what WotC did? After that, the OSR decided to go in it's own direction, far removed from the ideals of preserving and supporting OoP D&D. And no, "can be used with any OoP version of the world's most popular roleplaying game" stamped on the cover doesn't cut it. Now, it's just a bunch of guys making their own games and putting it up for POD sale. Its become a completely meaningless term whose only purpose is to give a sense of belonging to a handful of folk who think they can do OoP D&D better than OoP D&D
It's an interesting bit of rhetoric, here. On the one hand, there's the "originalist" appeal from Saunatonttu, which (a) claims temporal primacy for DF and (b) attributes the very term OSR to unspecified bad actors, out to more or less hijack the non-existent "movement" for personal gain and ego inflation. skavros goes a bit further, making the claim that the "true" movement was about supporting and, more importantly, preserving gaming in the old styles and under the old rulesets. This appeal is a variation of Saunatonttu's originalist appeal, except that it is more interested naming the functions of the "movement" and claiming a purity of purpose for those involved in support and preservation (i.e., Dragonsfoot) rather than those who would monetize their own "houserules" version of the hobby.

Collectively, these statements could be reduced to the following base arguments:
  • There is an origin to what people call the OSR, and it has nothing to do with so-called OSR blogs, products, and so forth, nor with the preening poseurs who flog the OSR "brand" at every turn.
  • The people who originated the movement to support and preserve the hobby's connection to older rulesets, prior to the OGL and what followed, are the true hearts. Those who came later are charlatans who seek only self-aggrandizement, and hucksters out to make a buck from selling old wine in new bottles.
  • Labyrinth Lord and OSRIC are different, because they sought merely to preserve the True Text, instead of bastardizing it with unneeded content (e.g., houserules). The others, well, they're heretical texts and probably should be burned.

Essentially, being there first grants not only primacy in order of appearance on the "scene," but moral primacy and moral authority to separate the sheep from the goats, as it were. Basically, it's argumentum ad hipsterem (i.e., They were still into this shit when it was still underground.).

Nonetheless, it's still a rhetorical fallacy, because temporal primacy (I was here first.) is not equivalent to moral primacy (I'm the source of real knowledge about what is right.), unless we accept the unstated premise, "Being here first grants me the authority to tell you what is best." That, right there, is an assertion of power and description of ownership of something that, frankly, is the commonwealth of those who inhabit a cluster of discourses and practices related to gaming under old rulesets and their variants. The Old Game, basically, cannot be owned, even by those who claim temporal or moral primacy. The very fact that the OGL exists, suggests that such authority must be granted by an external authority (e.g., WotC). It's a very theological sort of argument, in that we're dealing with an argument about what is the True Scripture and who are the True Prophets thereof, with some attention directed as rooting out heresy and blasphemy. Funny Thought: What if I ran Dark Heresy: OSR Wars? What would that look like?

The rest of the thread degenerated into what became a very ugly Internet fight between +Zak Smith and a variety of people on the thread, until the mods shut it down. I understand that some people in the OSR, broadly defined to include DF and the Google+ community, think Zak's a blowhard and an asshole. I don't fall into that camp, but I'm not here to adjudicate that point. In truth, Zak's Escapist web series, I Hit It with My Axe, is the reason I even became aware of this OSR thing in the first place. After seeing that, I read his blog (all of it, every entry), and was blown away by it. I followed from his blog to others' blogs, and more or less figured out that this is A Thing I Like. So, I might be a bit biased.

Anyway, suffice it to say that I find it difficult to agree with the idea that the good folk of Dragonsfoot are in a position to put boundaries around My OSR experience, or to limit what about the OSR is good or valuable, or to determine who can speak for the OSR. I find it amusing, frankly, that those who attempt to do so are reduced to the ur-hipster bullshit argument, "I was here first."

The larger issue, as I see it, is the discussion about what the OSR is, if it even exists (Spoiler: I think it does), and what it is for. Ultimately, what the OSR is can only be determined by asking everyone who sees themselves as part of it. That's what this survey is about.

A few provisional observations:

  • The OSR is not so much a movement as it is an accumulation of talk and practices, a discourse formation, one that has a variety of elements, purposes, spectra of relevance to each other, and so forth. It's easy to categorize this stuff as OSR, because it coexists in time and is linked consistently to a small number of topics and genres of discourse, but not so easy to make all of the parts of it "fit" into a coherent whole, because no one person or group controls the content of it.
  • Some people get really pissed off when other people disagree about their particular interpretations the OSR (Yeah, not the biggest surprise, I know).
  • Even if I got everyone in the OSR to tell me what the OSR is, the answers would contradict each other, talk past each other, unnecessarily restrict or expand the boundaries of the "movement" (or whatever it is), and otherwise present itself as a sloppy mess. That's good. That means there's something real there.
  • Whatever it is, the OSR creates consequences. It may be consequential in the sense that it might have fueled the development of D&D Next and the reissues of a lot of old TSR/WotC products, to whatever extent is did so. It's also consequential in that there is cultural productivity happening. People are making things, doing things, and talking about things related to the OSR. It's an interesting time to be gaming.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Metal... gods?

I've been thinking a lot, lately, about what I mean when I make reference to the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad campaign. What, at its heart, does that term "Metal Gods" even mean? Some correspondence with +Daniel Bishop got that idea rolling around my tiny, hollow noggin (again), and I've finally got a bit of time to write about it. I've written about stuff like this, before, but it's been a while, and I think I might be able to explain it better than I did before.

Who are the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad

First, I must make clear that the so-called "Metal Gods" are not me, +Adam Muszkiewicz+Wayne Snyder, and the other guys in our campaign. We are merely conduits for Their glory. Nor are the Metal Gods the actual band members of whatever musical acts from which we draw inspiration. However, those acts are a good starting place to talk about the Metal Gods, in much the same way talking about the avatars of a particular god is a good starting place to talk about divine power. However, I am only one of the cult of the Metal Gods; my household deities may not be yours, and that is right and proper.

In this, as in most things, I must begin with Lemmy.

They call him Lemm the Killmaster, in Ur-Hadad

You know what? I don't need to write a fucking essay to make this make sense. Let's try lyrics instead. I know you can't hear the song, but just sort of imagine it as a Motorhead song.

In the midst of the din and the mist in the night
Axes will fall.
Axes will fall

Our elven oppressors will feel iron's bite
Killing them all
Killing them all

The sons of Men are riding
Our swords shine in the sun
Elven spires stab the heart of the sky
Like the points of our lances
Driving forward, all as one

With steel we take vengeance
In iron we shall trust
Drive them from the Golden City
Onward to the First City of Men
It's Ur-Hadad or bust.

The Lost Hymns are playing
A chorus heard by all
The hammers are pounding
The swords, they are ringing
Drowning out elven battle calls

Take one step forward and bash them with our shields
We will not break
We will not kneel

I've got wounds the priest can never heal
But I won't be broken
I am still standing

Caught in the web of the Mistress of Spiders
The secret one, Atraz A'zul
The silent one, she has a plan
For Ur-Hadad she'll make a stand
And She has made us Her tools

Once, I was an urchin starving in the street
Begging for a crust of bread
Now I'm in the Divine Order
A veteran of slaughter
Got silk sheets on my bed

So, yeah, it's a bit more like that. "Metal Gods" means taking this crazy DCC RPG thing and turning it up to 13. There's palace intrigue, and violent unrest, dungeon crawls, trips to other planets, and visits to other planes of existence. We've got a goat-hooved wizard, and a cleric with chaos runes carved in his arms. We've got a halfling haberdasher to pimp our wardrobes, and a chapter house of our own. We've got veterans in the ranks, and a stable of replacements for when they all go down or retire. We have no home but the Order, no family but our brothers and sisters. We don't take shit from anybody.

Next Survey: General Survey of Participation in Tabletop RPGs

Geez, Johnson, all you post these days are these stupid fucking surveys!

Yes, sadly, that is true. I promise a real post or two sometime this weekend. There may be poetry, even.

For now, though, a new survey! This on is a pretty general romp through the landscape of your experiences with tabletop RPGs, from when you got started, to your encounters with the Original Game, to your thoughts (if any) about D&D Next. It's 37 questions, and probably will take you the standard amount of time to complete (est. at 20 minutes).

Coming soon: Three more surveys.

Also, thanks to everyone who already has completed surveys. If you are able, please help me reach more people for whom this research might be relevant. Pimp it, yo!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Another Survey: DCC RPG

Readers of this blog already know that I am a rather fervent proponent of the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, its variants, and its adventure modules. I recently had the privilege to become an author of one such adventure, as well. There's something about this game that has grabbed me; I'll risk saying that it's the potential for the unexpected inherent in its weird dice mechanics. The magic is... magical.

It also will be a focal point (though probably not the focal point) of my research. For that reason, I've developed a survey for DCC RPG players and judges. It's 44 questions, some multiple choice and some open-ended, covering a variety of concerns. It'll probably take about 20 minutes of your time, maybe a bit more if you have a lot to say.

Please consider responding to the survey. I'd like to get as much feedback as I can from this particular community of gamers, and from gamers with an affinity for this particular gaming style.

Also, if you enjoy responding to this survey, I encourage you do respond to the other gaming surveys. They're listed over there on the right-hand side of the page.

Thanks for your time.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

First Research Survey: Social Media and Online Gaming

Fellow gamers, I request your help.

As I mentioned before, in an earlier post, I am conducting a research project about tabletop roleplaying games. As part of that research, I will be publicizing a number of surveys on this blog, and on various Google+ communities. This is the first of the surveys, and it deals with how gamers use online media to engage in gaming activities, broadly defined. There are 31 questions in this survey. Please take the time to answer them as completely and specifically as possible.

In a perfect world, everyone who has me in a circle or community will pass this along to others, and I'll have a very, very large number of respondents. I would like to have as many of you take the time to respond as I can get. I would be very pleased to have your participation. I would be doubly pleased if you each would pass this opportunity to participate in my research along to others who might also be interested.

Thanks! I look forward to hearing from a couple thousand of you, and appreciate (very much!) the time you will spend on this.

If you are interested in doing more surveys for this research project, please follow this blog, and you will be able to find them here.