Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Gaming in the Aughts: A Retrospective Look at My Roleplaying in the Last Decade

November of 2004: White Wolf's Sword & Sorcery Studios put the nix on the Scarred Lands campaign setting. The reasons are, as quoted on White Wolf's website, "the highly competitive and highly fragmented d20 marketplace".
Since the Open Game License first gave third-party publishers the chance to create their own game material based on the d20 System, Sword & Sorcery has created numerous products. The Scarred Lands line was our opportunity for a gritty and diverse take on fantasy. Fans responded, and we like to think that the setting also influenced what other third-party publishers produced.

The d20/OGL market has always been competitive, though, and many product lines and publishers throughout the industry have felt the pinch of a fragmenting consumer base (to mix a metaphor) in the past year. Scarred Lands has taken some hits, too. It’s retained a core following, but sales in the current d20 market just aren’t at a feasible level. There are too many other books (many of ’em quite good) competing for the fans’ attention.
Unfortunately, the vast bulk of the D20 market production had been comprised of absolute crap, with rare gems such as Conan the Roleplaying Game (which I will get to in a minute), Iron Kingdoms (based on the previously extant War Machine miniature wargame), and Monte Cook's Ptolus: City by the Spire had helped in tipping the balance toward more quality merchandise.

Nevertheless, during my grad school days walking through the D20 section on the back wall of Days of Knights in Newark, DE, or picking through the new releases at The Gamers' Realm in East Windsor, NJ, I was struck by two things:

1) the exhorbitant prices, and
2) the general lack of quality in the products.

It's times like this when I go back and visit Pete Overton's abandoned but incredible
Quality in RIFTS website, and nostalgically scroll through what at then seemed like intelligent and well-thought demands, but now seem like naïve hopes and misguided idealism.

The tragedy about the Scarred Lands being canceled is that it actually was that good. It was the product of a number of fantastic ideas that made it a compelling setting to explore. In the four years that it was being published, Sword & Sorcery Studios managed to detail a unique setting that was put together much better than, say, Eberron, which seems slapdash and haphazard in comparison.

And that's the interesting thing. It wasn't long after Scarred Lands was retired that Eberron was released, an equally compelling but much less well-organized or logically constructed setting. What has catapulted it so far beyond Scarred Lands in sales? Name recognition: Wizards of the Coast and Dungeons & Dragons.

Equally as tragic was the slow death of the Ravenloft product line, also being produced by Sword & Sorcery Studios. Originally a campaign setting for 2nd Edition AD&D, it was canceled in the late 1990s with the buyout by Wizards of the Coast, and was sold to White Wolf to be produced under the Open-Gaming License. And White Wolf, being a company that is sometimes English major, sometimes goth-emo wannabe, decided to lean towards the English major for this setting, and produced a fantastic 3.0 core rulebook complete with a description of the evolution of Gothic Horror into the present era, with lists of authors to read for inspiration. They produced a number of brief, yet concise and detailed gazetteers that did a fantastic job of expanding the setting in detail from the corebook. They threw out any and all overt references to established 2nd Edition settings (such as Lord Soth and Vecna), which, in my opinion, is a Good Thing, although my brother's friend Luke would heartily disagree.

Nevertheless, Ravenloft's sales had been low, and their last product was released in 2005, a product I didn't even see on the shelves at Days of Knights.

Now, with Conan the Roleplaying Game we had a very different situation. In 2004, a $50 Conan the Roleplaying Game: Atlantean Edition core rulebook was released. And it was worth every penny. The corebook detailed a world that was drawn strictly from the mind of Robert E. Howard himself, and included no pastiche. In other words, the editing of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, and the many followup novels from the 70s, 80s, and 90s by the likes of Robert Jordan, Steve Perry, and John Maddox Roberts, was left out. Only Robert E. Howard's original descriptions were made into setting canon.

It was fantastic. The character classes, the combat system, the feats, the maneuvers, and the diabolical and dangerous sorceries all sprang directly from the pages of Howard's original Conan stories. Further supplements such as The Scrolls of Skelos (by Vincent Darlage and Ian Sturrock) and The Pirate Isles (by Shannon Kalvar) expanded possibilities and detailed what players and GMs could do with certain elements found in many of Howard's stories.

The heaviest producer of material for Conan the Roleplaying Game was Vincent Darlage, who had submitted material to Mongoose Publishing for such "gems" as the Shadizar--City of the Wicked boxed set, Aquilonia, and Stygia. Of the three mentioned, the worst was Shadizar, especially because it was a boxed set and lacked even the detail that Sharn: City of Towers had, and sported a god-awfully uninspired map that a 4th grader could have drawn. It was expensive, and ultimately, it was a waste of money. Indeed, the adventure that came with the set is utterly unplayable unless the GM does some major revision work on it, virtually re-writing the thing from the beginning.

The best thing Darlage had written was The Road of Kings which reads less like a world-guide and more like a compendium of all the pastiche ever written. Indeed, the three aforementioned books and boxed set all are derived from pastiche and contain very little original design. The good is that any and all gaps in society and religion are filled by Darlage, who does a brilliant job in describing societies, economies, and religions, but even this is derivative--he draws too much from actual history and not enough from his imagination. All of the characters in his books are taken from pastiche novels, comic books, and occasionally, Robert E. Howard's actual tales. Not a single character or faction or god is included that hasn't already been mentioned by someone else.

Sadly, the quality of Conan merchandise by Mongoose gradually declined, with a few gems sprinkled here-and-there throughout the text to make the books tempting, but little else once the price was taken into account. Production quality was fantastic, and the books were sturdier and better-printed during the aughts than they had been during the 1980s and 1990s. However, the quality of writing had declined. I'm under the impression that a lot of the Mongoose writers were, by-and-large, freelancers and fans cashing in on the fad. Freelance RPG writing is difficult work, and doesn't pay well. During the 1980s and 1990s, TSR had entire departments full of researchers and writers and an enormous library. But things had changed since then. The simplistic print-quality of the 1980s and 1990s had receded with the acquisition by Wizards of the Coast, and what had once been an $18 splatbook was replaced by the $25 splatbook. The $7 was just too much in the long run, especially when the writing degraded. And Mongoose was one of those companies that churned out mediocre setting material from starving freelance writers and charging $35 for slapping a hardcover on it.

Insult led to injury with the 3.5 rules for Conan: The Roleplaying Game. While a great deal of streamlining went into the rules, and sorcery (which had already been fantastic) was improved and made more sense, too much of it was simply a reprint of the original Atlantean Edition rulebook, but this time they were charging $50 for a hardback with poor print quality and none of the glossy, full-color pages. The paper was cheap, everything was black-and-white, and the binding was weak. Within a year of its release, I ended up selling back the vast bulk of my Conan paraphernalia.

I was raised on 2nd Edition AD&D. Through middle school and into college, I was spoiled by paging through sourcebooks and digging through boxed sets with dozens of maps, inventories, pictures, characters, factions, and societies. A brief glance at the 2nd Edition Forgotten Realms Boxed Set, and you'll find four giant poster-maps, and three world books, one containing almost a dozen city-maps, and a third detailing one small town and an enormous 1st-level adventure. When compared to the phenomenal City of Splendors boxed set, Darlage's Shadizar looks like a go-cart next to a Formula-1 racer. The detail just isn't there.

And it isn't there in the modules, either. They are brief, poorly written, and shoddily designed. Like the adventure in Shadizar they are completely unrunnable without massive amounts of ad-libbing on behalf of the GM, or a complete rewrite from the bottom up. Again, this is because I was raised on incredibly detailed adventures from 2nd Edition AD&D, like The Sword of the Dales or Marco Volo: The Departure.

I had noticed that the quality of writing and design throughout the current D20 line has diminished dramatically from the standards of a decade ago. Wizards of the Coast, by falling into Palladium's trap of focusing more on toys (feats, weapons, items, spells, prestige classes) and less on background and setting detail (people, places, things, description) had opened the floodgates for splatbooks that are full of nothing but more and bigger guns than the last splatbook.

I guess I should have expected this from the company that designed Magic: the Gathering, where every new release features cards that can beat the last one.

My final gripe here, though, isn't against the companies so much as it is against the fans. They are the reason that Shattered Lands collapsed, and why White Wolf hasn't produced a new Ravenloft product since 2005. The fans were, simply put, supporting crap. Most of what is produced under the Open-Gaming License isn't worth the ink and paper it was printed with. And much as it pains me to say it, much of the Conan the Roleplaying Game product line was just as unfit for print. But you wouldn't think that if you'd read the Mongoose forums, or the reviews on RPG Net.

The most critical statement I've read was, "Don't buy this unless you are going to run a game in this location" in regards to Aquilonia. A true, neutral, and balanced review would be seen as jaundiced and trolling to the forum-goers and fans. The sad thing is, most of the stuff in the Conan sourcebooks could be easily devised by GMs themselves with a little help from an encyclopedia, the corebook, and maybe The Road of Kings. The standards have been lowered in quality by Wizards of the Coast, and the fans have bought it. Maybe it's a generational thing, but coming out of the 1990s, and comparing the prices and quality of the 1990s to the products of today, I must say that I am not pleased by what I see.

This is not to suggest that everything produced in the late 1990s was great. Indeed, far from it. Much of it was dreck. But it seemed as though Sturgeon's Law wasn't really in full effect during the 1990s. Yeah, the plethora of railroad modules being produced was lamentable, but they were written well-enough to not feel quite like the players were on tracks. The sourcebooks were full of genuine setting-material that enhanced the roleplaying experience (in my opinion). And it wasn't just TSR that was pushing boundaries, but also White Wolf, Palladium, GURPS, and West End Games. The world of roleplaying seemed to be blossoming more under a multitude of systems and experimentation with different rule-sets than under the aegis of D20.

As time wore on, I felt as though 3.0 and 3.5 shifted tones from role-playing to power-gaming. I remember a game-store clerk extolling the virtues of the new books because they had more "crunchy bits." We were glutted on powers, skills, and feats. What used to be a flexible system for creating unique and specialized characters with different concepts turned into something else entirely. There were too many choices, many of them were not good, while others were simply so over-powered as to make them unreasonable. Each new D20 release contained new feats, items, weapons, spells, and skills for the players to use. Although a DM could refuse, the psychology of purchasing a book that you never use prompted most DMs to permit players to employ these different tomes. Customization transformed into munchkinization.

By the time 4th Edition was released, all pretense was gone. D&D was a game of power and combat. Gone were the exploration and interaction aspects.

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