REVIEW: Slaying the Dragon by Ben Riggs

To paraphrase Homer Simpson: We’ve all thought about writing a history of Dungeons & Dragons at one time or another, but what about the victims? Hardworking historians like Jon Peterson, Michael Witwer or David M. Ewalt. These are people who saw an overcrowded market and said ‘Me too!’

Now… obviously there is some degree of truth to this gag. Dungeons and Dragons has been around for nearly fifty years and for most of that time the closest you could get to a book about gaming was Shannon Appelcline’s industrial histories, some stuff written from the point of view of theatre studies, and a sociological study that says a lot more about male-dominated social clubs at mid-western universities in the 1970s than it does about RPGs themselves. Then, after literally decades, the dam broke and it feels like we’re getting a new history of D&D published every six months or so.

While this is all technically true, it kind of fails to acknowledge that not all of those histories are particularly good and those that are good are quite often attempting to do subtly different things with subtly different results. Thankfully, Ben Riggs’ Slaying the Dragon is attempting something that is not only quite precise and well-executed but also a welcome addition to the field.

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Into the OSR – Post Zero

Into the OSR is an occasional series in which I write up some of the creative decisions I have made in the preparation of my old school sandbox D&D style fantasy RPG campaign. The rest of the series can be found here.

What is the OSR?

OSR stands alternatively for Old School Revolution, Old School Revival, or Old School Renaissance depending upon whom you ask and when it is you ask them. The term OSR dates back to the mid-00s when people on a number of online forums began trying to re-connect with a style of gaming associated with the origins of the hobby and the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons.

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Thoughts on Adventure Design and Nephilim’s “Les Veilleurs”

Looking back over the scenario reviews that I have published on this site, I am struck by the fact that most published scenarios seem to miss my personal sweet-spot when it comes to the trade-off between providing content and empowering GMs to create their own content: Those scenarios that go long on detail feel restrictive and that sense of restriction makes me second-guess and resent the author’s creative decisions. Meanwhile, those scenarios that are short on detail under the guise of allowing GMs more freedom to write and/or improvise often feel thin, poorly structured, and a waste of money. I would argue that this sense of dissatisfaction is inevitable and unavoidable.

The problem is that every group has its own energy and every GM has their own creative workflow. Indeed, before we even address the question of what constitutes a ‘creative workflow’ we need to recognise that while some groups are happy taking action and driving their own narratives, other groups will be much happier sitting back and allowing GMs to narrate a story around them. Back in the day, we would have said that the first group were simply better or more experienced players but my time in the hobby inclines me to think that this is as much a reflection of personality as it is of experience. Either way, a group of people who are happy to have a story told to them are going to want something very different from a scenario than a group that wants to create its own stories. There is no such thing as a one-size fits all published scenario. Even the greatest and most legendary of campaigns is likely to fall flat if your group don’t vibe with the type of story that a campaign contains.

Moving beyond the players to the people running the games, I think that different GMs have different levels of comfort with the idea of a mutable text. Even GMs who do enjoy improvising will sometimes struggle to deal with groups that depart too violently from narratives laid out in published materials and some people do not want to improvise at all. Indeed, if you look at your average published dungeon crawl you will find very little room for ambiguity or the kinds of mutable narratives that are unlikely to survive initial contact with a group of players determined to pursue their own goals and create their own stories. I am even tempted to say that the emergence of a non-traditional RPG scene has allowed traditional RPG designers to double-down on the use of linear narratives. After all, if you want your players to assume control over the narrative, why not play a game that explicitly gives them narrative powers?

The best RPG sessions I have ever run were those in which the players were free to explore and engage with the things that were of interest to them. While it would be impossible to produce a published scenario that allowed for every possible narrative swerve groups throw at their GMs, it should be possible to produce published adventures rich enough to encourage player agency whilst supporting a GM’s ability to deal with that freedom. This is what I mean when I talk about my personal sweet-spot for adventure design and I find it really interesting that so few scenarios and campaigns have any interest in positioning themselves anywhere near it.

Reflecting on this point, I tried to remember which (if any) published adventures manage to get that balance right and while my first thoughts went to Gary Gygax’s The Village of Hommlet (opening chapter of his famous Temple of Elemental Evil module) I then remembered the first supplement put out in support of the original French edition of Nephilim.

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GHR: Scales

Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another.  The rest of the series can be found here.

Published in January 1994 by INS/MV publisher Siroz (who later changed their name to Asmodee Editions) and written by the legendary designer Croc, Scales is an urban fantasy game with a contemporary setting that feels very much like it was inspired by Nephilim, the World of Darkness, and older French initiatic games like Hurlements.

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GHR: In Nomine Satanis / Magna Veritas

Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another.  The rest of the series can be found here.

In Nomine Satanis – Magna Veritas (usually referred to as INS/MV) is unquestionably the most famous French RPG of all time. This is largely due to the fact that Steve Jackson Games decided to produce an English-language adaptation in 1997. While the SJG version would turn out to be a bit of a disappointment, it was released not only within living memory of the anti-D&D moral panics of the 1980s but also at a time when White Wolf were making a lot of money selling urban fantasy-inspired games. The hype-game was strong, the game-game and setting design considerably less so but in order to understand the failure of In Nomine, you really have to understand what made INS/MV so memorable in the first place.

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GHR: Gangbusters

Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another.  The rest of the series can be found here.

Decades before The Wire, TSR was putting out games that tried to model the political realities of American policing.

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REVIEW: Game Wizards by Jon Peterson

Jon Peterson is rapidly making a name for himself as the foremost academic expert on Dungeons & Dragons. This rise to prominence may have started back in 2012 with a book about the history of Wargames and RPGs before a momentary detour into D&D-themed art books but the last couple of years have been spent doing serious groundwork not only into the history of Dungeons & Dragons but also the early years of the RPG hobby.

Game Wizards is not the first long-form history of D&D, it isn’t even the only book on the early history of D&D to be published this year, but its desire to move beyond the broad narrative strokes of cultural memory lays down a gauntlet for all future RPG historians: You must be at least this rigorous to pass muster.

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