Why the OGL changes are a big deal

I intended to be optimistic. For all the chaos surrounding Wizards of the Coast’s attempt to revise the Open Game License, I’m optimistic about the future of tabletop RPGs. I still am, but it has become abundantly clear that, in order to fully describe the situation, it would take more than one article. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s just going to take a while to get there.

Besides, while those of us who have been following the story might take its importance for granted, to anyone less plugged into the online discourse, it isn’t quite so obvious what the big deal is. It’s a change to the terms of a license, how important could it possibly be?

So, for right now, I’m going to dive deep into what the OGL is, why it’s important, and why the first round of proposed changes caused such a tumult throughout the entire tabletop RPG community. Optimism will have to wait (and there might be an article in the middle about Wizards’ fumbling of multiple responses to the situation), but there WILL be reasons to be optimistic after all this. Promise.

Continue reading “Why the OGL changes are a big deal”

First Impressions: Torchbearer Scholar’s Guide

Is it still first impressions if its the second book?

The Torchbearer Scholar’s Guide is the companion to the Dungeoneer’s Handbook, forming the core of the game. (Sort of, more or less, I’ll get to that in the future.) My expectations going into it was that it would be “the GM’s book,” and while technically the players are welcome to read it, and expected (or hoped) to read and digest parts of it, it’s still largely written for the GM. It’s just that the split is less “player/GM,” and more “characters/the world around them.”

The short of it is that this book is a bit more work. It’s more utilitarian, sometimes a bit drier, and even a bit cerebral in explaining how to create an experience. While not quite as breezy as the previous volume, it might be more rewarding long-term.

Continue reading “First Impressions: Torchbearer Scholar’s Guide”

First Impressions: Torchbearer Dungeoneer’s Handbook

Just look at that little guy!

I have a very specific type when it comes to RPG rule books: digest-sized, uncoated pages, hardback. I blame it on Burning Wheel Gold. Nothing against the taller books with glossy pages, but with so many of them, the one that looked like a fantasy novel really stood out—and as someone who likes reading rule books for the sake if it, I appreciated the more comfortable form factor. I even imagined it would be easier to lug around to the Burning Wheel game I never quite managed to get going.
Now, there’s a little more competition. In particular, Old-School Essentials fits exactly the same niche, and has also earned a top spot in my collection. I’ve had more luck getting old-school games going too, or at least cribbing from that style of play when tables demand the current edition of D&D.
All of this is to say that I offered no resistance to the Torchbearer 2nd Edition Kickstarter. Old-school dungeon crawling? Based on Burning Wheel? In a series of chunky digest-sized hardcovers? Now that I have my hands on them, the plan is to read them, give my initial impressions of each book (and, if I can whip up the interest, review the game at a couple of points in a short campaign). I’ll be looking at the books along three lines:

  1. Reading. How much I enjoyed just paging through the thing. Even if you’re not a weirdo like me who likes doing that for the sake of it, I’ll go into more pertinent details, like the writing and physical quality of the books.
  2. Stealing. In the sense of stealing ideas from the book to put into your other games, whether its specific rules or general inspiration. (Don’t actually steal the books. Support the people who make them.)
  3. Playing. Admittedly this is just a guess, but I think it’s the fundamental goal of any rule book: does it make me actually want to play the game?
    With that out of the way…
Continue reading “First Impressions: Torchbearer Dungeoneer’s Handbook”

First Impressions: Worlds Without Number

Ever since I heard about Worlds Without Number, I knew I wanted to get it. Designer Kevin Crawford has earned a reputation for himself, largely on two fronts: his work tends to be based on old-school D&D, with some really clever tweaks and adapted into different genres; and even if you don’t use his systems, his GM tools alone are worth the price of admission (which, graciously, is often free). Combine that with a product intended to be a good old classic fantasy setting, and I was chomping at the bit to play that game as soon as possible. I backed the Kickstarter, got my hands on my physical copy about a month ago, and can now happily report that I have… read it. Mostly. More or less.

But I think I can explain why it’s at the top of my list of games to run next.

Continue reading “First Impressions: Worlds Without Number”

The Crispy Hack: Behind the Scenes of an Old School 5e Hack

I’m in a bit of a tough spot. I love the vibe Old School Renaissance and the fantastic content coming out of it… but it’s just so much easier getting people to play Fifth Edition. To find a compromise, I tried my hand at a light set of house rules to give 5e that old-school feel.

The results are here! And they’re kind of short, to be honest. Most versions I’ve seen are much, much more complicated. I’ve even seen one clocking in at nearly 200 pages, and at that point, you’re really better off just playing a different game, or even creating one from scratch.

But that’s the point of mine. My goal was to pick house rules that could fit onto a single page, give the best return on investment for creating an OSR feel, with the ability to run those cool OSR modules for players who want to use the latest edition of the game. A lot of thought went into so few words—and in case my thought process might help you tweak your own 5e game to suit your own tastes, I’ve written that, too.

Continue reading “The Crispy Hack: Behind the Scenes of an Old School 5e Hack”

Accidental Death & Dismemberment: Lethality and Lasting Consequences in RPGs

There are no practical limitations in role-playing games. It’s all a matter of imagination, and as such anything is possible. So, of all the worlds you can create and stories you can tell, if it’s to have some fun with your friends, why would you make death a part of it? Even if a GM approaches a game intending to let the dice fall where they may, it’s often hard to actually commit to letting a character just die. It’s not fun—at least in the short term.

But that’s just a single moment at the table! There’s still the entire rest of the game around it, and I thing that the potential for death—or really any major, lasting, negative consequences—can often benefit the game as a whole. Not that every game will need or want it, and that certainly doesn’t mean a game has to be highly lethal, but rare is the game where a little hint of mortal danger doesn’t lift the game as a whole. Continue reading “Accidental Death & Dismemberment: Lethality and Lasting Consequences in RPGs”

God Plays Dice: Random Tables, Procedural Generation, and Storytelling

Writers have their own methods. There are meticulous writers, like Nabakov, who wrote novels one index card at a time, with a meticulous attention to detail; there are more free-form writers, like Jack Kerouac, who wrote On the Road on one scroll of paper inside of three weeks; and, naturally, there are those in the middle. There’s another axis entirely, though: giving up some level of authorial control, and leaving it all up to pure, dumb luck. It’s a much narrower spectrum, of course: if you leave a story completely up to chance, you’re going to get an incomprehensible mess. But, if you let go just a little bit, you might get something far more satisfying—like The Man in the High Castle.

In an interview with the magazine Vertex in 1974,  Philip K. Dick explained his method of using the I Ching, a divination tool that uses random numbers to generate a fortune, in writing his novel:

VERTEX: Do you use the I Ching as a plotting device in your work?

DICK: Once. I used it in The Man in the High Castle because a number of characters used it. In each case when they asked a question, I threw the coins and wrote the hexagram lines they got. That governed the direction of the book. Like in the end when Juliana Frink is deciding whether or not to tell Hawthorne Abensen that he is the target of assassins, the answer indicated that she should. Now if it had said not to tell him, I would have had her not go there. But I would not do that in any other book.

It’s just a small detail—The characters use the I Ching, and instead of picking the results himself to direct the story intentionally, Dick let the dice (or coins, rather) fall where they may, and let that pick his direction. Turns out it works well for games, too. Continue reading “God Plays Dice: Random Tables, Procedural Generation, and Storytelling”


I collect RPGs. There are more books in my collection than I could reasonable expect would be used at the table, but I’ve got them anyway just because I like reading them. Being so familiar with the breadth and depth of games out there, it’s easy to forget that they’re all in the shadow of the mountain that is Dungeons & Dragons. Of course I didn’t forget about D&D entirely, but recently I stood at its base and admired just how damn big it really is.

Taking a look at the ICv2 report reveals, well, nothing surprising. D&D is the top-selling RPG, but we already knew that. Luckily, Roll20, the online tabletop RPG platform, releases reports on what games are being played. Not only is the top game the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons, it along makes up 54.93% of all games played! Looking at the extended list, 63.08% of games were an official version of D&D, and Pathfinder, based on third edition D&D, accounts for another 13.06%. Taken together, that means over three quarters of all games played on Roll20, 76.14%, are Dungeons & Dragons or a variation thereof, and that’s before including a small number of D&D clones, and a rather larger number of games that are heavily inspired by it.

(Fun fact: this roughly lines up with the number of subscribers to certain communities on reddit. /r/DnD has just over 400,000 subscribers, which is nearly three times as much as /r/rpg.)

To say that D&D is synonymous with RPGs isn’t hyperbole; it’s a fairly decent approximation. As much as I love the vast field of games out there, and hate to think of them as a rounding error, I have to say—I get it. And D&D kind of deserves it. Continue reading “D&Default”

Gaming Genealogy: League of Legends, Part Two

Last time, we traced the distant relatives of League of Legends from Kriegsspiel in 1812 through to Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. This time, we get to draw consistently direct lines of influence, and start with a recognizable game rather than end with one. Where the last article ended with fantasy war gaming leading to the creation of the RPG, this time we need to back up a bit, and see how fantasy war gaming developed on its own… Continue reading “Gaming Genealogy: League of Legends, Part Two”