Friday, January 27, 2023

And so the OGL crisis ends with a whimper

It's over. WotC has folded like a cheap suit: they're no longer trying to deauthorize the OGL 1.0a, and they've put their money where their mouth is by releasing the complete 5e SRD under the Creative Commons license (CC-BY 4.0), something that will be much harder for them to try and claw back in the future. True believers in open-source gaming can at long last take a breath and rest easy: crisis averted.

Not to undersell the moment—it absolutely means something that in a time of crisis, when a corporation sought massive overreach and enclosure of a promised commons, an entire hobby stood up in solidarity and said, "No, and furthermore, fuck off"—but I had considered this whole business something of a tempest in a teapot from the get-go. The outcome changes very little for me personally. I'm thrilled, of course, that third-party publishers whose livelihoods had been threatened by this idiocy aren't quite so directly threatened anymore. But it was mainly 5e content-creators who were in the crosshairs, and maybe Paizo and Pathfinder.

For old-school and OSR creators? It wasn't such a big deal. More like a waste of a good three-and-a-half weeks.

Monday, January 23, 2023

I finally have the 1e core

Anyone who has been reading this blog for a long time knows that I like to fulfill my nostalgic childhood dreams by assembling complete collections of things that I wanted as a kid but never got around to acquiring. Early on, I wrote a great deal about retro game-consoles and 8- and 16-bit computers. But lately, I've also started an earnest initiative to collect physical, deadtree copies of RPG rulebooks.

I had already completed my collection of all the OD&D core rulebooks some time ago (OD&D broadly construed, that is—Chainmail, the white box, the four supplements, Swords & Spells, Holmes Basic, B/X, BECMI, the 1070 black box, the Rules Cyclopedia, Wrath of the Immortals, and the 1106 tan box). And now, as of today, I've finally assembled all of the 1st Edition core books (with two caveats)—

—namely, I'm not holding out and waiting around to find an early printing of Deities & Demigods. I like the unified aesthetic of the orange-spine editions better anyway. So I'm cool with having a vintage copy of Legends & Lore, and then just printing off a booklet containing the missing sixteen extra pages of Lovecraft and Moorcock matter myself. And I'm also including Trent Smith's Heroic Legendarium in this collection, because it's really well done and basically the Unearthed Arcana II that never happened. It deserves to sit alongside the rest of the hardcovers.

When I was a kid, I only had two 1st Edition rulebooks—the PHB and OA—because I really liked monks and kung fu and wanted to make sure that both were in my AD&D 2nd Edition campaigns in plentiful supply. But now I finally get to delve into the system in its entirety, to see the big picture as a whole gestalt for the first time, and I'm really looking forward to it. Hopefully I'll find the time to blog about what I learn.

In the meanwhile, I can now turn my attention to finishing my collection of 2nd Edition core books, which is actually already mostly complete too. I have the Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, Monstrous Manual, Legends & Lore, Tome of Magic, Book of Artifacts, and the four Option hardcovers (Skills & Powers, Combat & Tactics, Spells & Magic, and High-Level Campaigns)—which leaves only the four Monstrous Compendium Annual volumes, which I have not yet sought out and which are sort of borderline between core books and supplements. The Annuals are sort of semi-core, along with all of the leatherette reference splats (the red-brown player reference guides, the blue DM reference guides, and the green historical reference guides) and the Spell Compendia and Encyclopedia Magica volumes.

My goal, ultimately, is to collect these splats and also the GAZ, AC, and PC series of D&D supplements. At that point, I will consider my collection of OD&D and AD&D manuals to be essentially complete. ■

Monday, January 9, 2023

I Have Made At Least One Decision

As the story of the new OGL continues to burn through the online gaming world, things only look worse and worse for everybody. One thing, however, is clear: Ha$bro/Wot¢ are now firmly established as the villains in this story. There is no going back from that.

So, whichever path I choose from here—continuing to publish under the old OGL v1.0a or making a clean break from the OGL entirely—the path I choose will be whichever one I deem to be the biggest middle finger flipped at Ha$bro/Wot¢. Either keep using the perpetual, irrevocable license and all that sweet, sweet IP that they don't want anybody using anymore; or just say fuck 'em and cut bait. 

I still haven't quite decided which one would be more satisfying. ■

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Situation: There Are 14 Competing Standards.

This is just a bit of idle, facetious play to take my mind off things. Until Friday the 13th rolls around (hah!), we truly know very little about the future status of the OGL. I certainly won't presume to make a decision before then on whether to continue publishing under the license or to begin the laborious process of scrubbing my books of OGC and anything resembling WotC's IP. But even if the sky is not falling, and the OGL v1.1 is indeed opt-in, and publishing old-school content under the OGL v1.0(a) can continue uninterrupted, it does seem prudent to at least consider what a future without the OGL would look like.

Retro-clones would have to be very different. Instead of focusing on not breaching the terms of the OGL, the focus would have to be on avoiding artistic expressions derived from WotC's IP. Lots of vocabulary that could be used freely under the terms of the OGL would likely have to be changed. The ability scores at a bare minimum. Armor Class and saving throws quite probably. Hit points are fine (everybody already uses those, so they've become generic) but hit dice are not. Experience tables and level titles would be a major sticking point.

The hardest task of all, however, would be to come up with terms that everyone could agree on. Terms that could be used consistently across the open gaming hobby.

Ability scores are easy enough to rename. Sure, you lose the nostalgia factor, but it's probably non-optional in a post-OGL world. Now, me? For the longest time, I've been a proponent of abstract ability score names that don't easily map onto personal talents and attributes. My feeling is that the game's six ability scores are (or ought to be) functionally a measure of Fighteryness, Thiefyness, Monkishness, Wizardliness, Priestliness, and Bardyness. So I would be quite happy naming them something like Pugnacity, Guile, Discipline, Mystery, Piety, and Creativity. But that won't satisfy 99% of old-school gamers. The notion that the ability scores represent inherent, measurable, die-checkable character capabilities is too deeply ingrained in the game's wider culture. So my preferred names would never suit as a hobby-wide standard. For that, I humbly submit the prosaic alternative: Might, Agility, Stamina, Reason, Perception, and Bearing. Legally distinct, but pretty hard to misinterpret (or to fail to grasp the parallels). (There is also the slightly more daring, "fuck you" alternative: change the grammar involved in a very minor way and call the scores Strong, Dexterous, Constitutive, Intelligent, Wise, and Charismatic. Then the stat abbreviations can stay the same!)

Saving throws are easy. I've redubbed them resistance rolls in past games. For those who prefer to use five distinct saving throw categories, things get trickier, but we can be as euphemistic as we need to be. Minor Devices, Major Devices, Temporary Neutralization, Permanent Neutralization, and Miscellaneous Effect. Or if a slightly more poetic approach would serve better: Insult, Injury, Removal, Defeat, and Disaster.

Armor Class is an interesting one, because at last, we could avoid all that clunky business involving Ascending AC and Descending AC! Just call a defensive stat that gets better as it goes up Defense, and a defensive stat that gets better as it goes down Vulnerability. Clunkiness is avoided, and the terms involved become considerably more intuitive to use. (Along the same vein, THAC0 could be given the more intuitive name Attack Roll Target Number, even if "ARTN" is a bit harder to pronounce.)

Hit points and hit dice present us with two simple alternatives. (1) Keep hit points on account of the fact that they're already used everywhere, and just rename hit dice as they pertain to monsters: monsters now have a monster level; or (2) dodge the whole issue by renaming both hit points and hit dice to something like wound points and wound dice. (I consider "wound" to be the best possible alternative to "hit" because it's nearly synonymous: even if you believe, as most do, that hit points are more "breath" than "meat," having a buffer of hit points means that when you take damage, you're not taking literal, physical hits. If a pool of wound points is to work the same way, it must mean that the wound points themselves are an abstract buffer between taking damage and taking literal, diegetic wounds.)

Experience points, I think, are universal enough that the name can stay. (I've used achievement points in the past; there are certainly suitable alternatives if such are deemed necessary.) But as to the artistic expression of how they work in games? I believe that the best bet for keeping the math intact but changing the expression is to simply change the order of magnitude for the point totals. Suppose, for example, that 100 gp of treasure = 1 XP … or, heck, let's go for maximum legal distinctiveness and say that 100 gp of treasure = 1 AP. The math works in reverse, of course, so taking home only 1 gp of treasure is worth a paltry 1% of an AP. Likewise, killing a Level ½ monster nets you 0.05 AP, killing a Level 1 monster gets you 0.1 AP, killing a Level 2 monster is worth 0.4 AP, and so on.

The fighter—scratch that, the soldier's Achievement Points to Level table could then look like this:

Level … Title … AP
1st … Private … 0
2nd … Corporal … 20
3rd … Sergeant … 40
4th … Lieutenant … 80
5th … Captain … 160

Etc. Naturally, the class names would all have to be selected carefully. (Or cheekily—perhaps soldier, scoundrel, sorcerer, and saint?) But level titles are so setting-dependent that it might be a good idea to do what most early retro-clones did and simply leave them out of the rules. Save them for the settings.

Anyhow, that's where I'd begin if I were ever inclined to create a de-OGL-ified, de-WotC-ified, de-D&D-ified, open-source retro clone. Just for the record, of course, I don't believe at this point that it's necessary; I remain skeptical that WotC has both the intent and the ability to end the OGL v1.0(a). But, given the present uncertainty, it's something that I'll definitely be keeping in the back of my mind as I prepare to release the third edition of the Engines & Empires Core Rules: it might just be worth the time and effort to simultaneously produce both an OGL-compliant version that I can publish under the license and a future-proofed version that I can swap out for in the (unlikely) event that I ever need to. ■

Thursday, January 5, 2023

The OSR, the OGL, and the Future

So… only a few days into the new year, after I had written a post here about recommitting to publishing my games, a whole bunch of stuff suddenly happened all at once. I'm going to try and break it down piece by piece. 

First, Jim Raggi posts a video on YouTube about how "LotFP is open to everyone" and that he's "happy to commercially shoot himself in the foot." Is he talking about trademark and copyright? Switching to a copyleft model or something related to open gaming? Anything cool that benefits the gaming community as a whole?

Nah. He just wants Zak back. 

I'm posting the video here for the sake of sourcing, but in short, it's a forty-five-minute rant about how gosh-darn mean everyone has been to Raggi ever since Zak Smith crossed one line too many and got his reputation blown up. And so Raggi responds by telling everyone, fuck you, he should have stood by Zak all along, and he just won't stand for censorship or cancel culture or witch-hunting mobs anymore. He then goes on to assert that since we don't hold artists of the past to the moral standards of today, and yet we still benefit from the ability to enjoy their art, it's wrong to hold artists of today to the moral standards of… today… lest we deny the future any present-day bad actors' good art. (Oh, won't someone please think of the poor, art-deprived future-children!?)

I hope it's apparent just what kind of utter nonsense this is. Raggi is taking a brave stand against a strawman here, rambling on about how wrong it is to censor someone for their politics or their identity, about how "enforced consensus is tyranny," as if Zak Smith had been run out of the old-school gaming scene for his politics or his opinions or whatever. No, Jim: he was run out of the scene for being a quarrelsome asshat, and for being credibly accused of various shenanigans and abuses. But we don't even need to go into all the salacious accusations of emotional abuse and manipulation, doxing and brigading, minions and sock-puppets, and whatever else to say this. He was a pugnacious jerkwad right out in the open where everyone could see, and he treated people like garbage if they didn't kiss his ass, first resolving to destroy his enemies with facts and logic (and bullet point gish-gallops and goalpost-moving and other bad-faith argumentation tactics), then harassment, and nowadays litigation. 

But, sure, Jim, keep tilting at that censorship windmill. Meanwhile, all of the usual suspects crawling out of their caves to support you in the comments are telling you "never to bend the knee," and isn't it just so very ironic that this is happening in defense of a narcissistic keyboard-warrior who would only treat you with a modicum of cordiality if you personally "bent the knee" to him?

Sigh. I'm getting too old for this shit. 

But then I realized, hey, if I'm not technically part of the OSR scene anymore myself, do I even need to care about this?

And that was when this article from PBS News starting making the rounds, an article that includes the following paragraph:

But even within these gaming communities, there is some friction. Old School Renaissance, or OSR, is a gaming movement whose players claim they are “against outside politics permeating their game space,” said Dashiell. These players support the use of traditional fantasy tropes in game design, such as the existence of “good” and “evil” races with no nuance. OSR gamers are often seen as the old guard of tabletop gaming and tend to idealize the past, which “defaults to a white, masculine worldview,” Trammell said.

The article in question is apparently promulgating the tired, old, oft-repeated chestnut that equates old-school gaming with regressive politics. "No nuance," says the quote. Isn't that rich, given the subject matter? As if preferring old game mechanics necessarily entails preferring outdated political ideas. I'm starting to notice an ironic trend here, with lots of people judging motes and missing beams.

(EDIT: It has come to my attention that at least one of the two scholars quoted in the above excerpt does indeed have a more nuanced view than the article portrays. So the journalist is the one at fault here, not the academics. I consider that important additional information.)

Needless to say, liking old game rules does not by any stretch of the imagination mean being on board with racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, etc. It's absurd on the face of it. It's not like you need to change the rules of chess to personally be against monarchy. 

More importantly, every hobby and niche interest group in the world has its weaselly conservative elements that cry "no politics!" as a tactic to defend the status quo from progress. The OSR is not unique in this regard. To claim that it is uniquely conservative is a bit like blaming neo-paganism in general for the fact that Nazis like to co-opt Norse symbols and paganism. "Man, Ásatrú and Þeodism sure do seem to have a problem with white supremacists appropriating their shit… I know! Blame Germanic paganism in general, and while we're at it, also the Wiccans and the Druids!"

But, man, I'm really getting too old for this shit. And once again, if I don't personally lay claim to being a member of the OSR, do I really need to care even about this?

And that was when all of this OGL v1.1 hullaballoo started blowing up. Now most of it came out of YouTube videos that I am not going to link to, because I think that the leaked language is tremendously sketchy. I'm skeptical because it does not look in any way like the legal language of a professionally published license. But I guess you can judge it for yourself:

"This agreement is, along with the OGL: Non-Commercial, an update to the previously available OGL 1.0(a), which is no longer an authorized license agreement. We can modify or terminate this agreement for any reason whatsoever, provided We give thirty (30) days’ notice. We will provide notice of any such changes by posting the revisions on Our website, and by making public announcements through Our social media channels."

"You own the new and original content You create. You agree to give Us a nonexclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, sub-licensable, royalty-free license to use that content for any purpose."

"You waive any right to sue over Our decision on these issues. We’re aware that, if We somehow stretch Our decision of what is or is not objectionable under these clauses too far, We will receive community pushback and bad PR, and We’re more than open to being convinced that We made a wrong decision. But nobody gets to use the threat of a lawsuit as part of an attempt to convince Us."

Okay, 2023. You have my attention. This is something I have to reckon with. Despite the weirdly unprofessional language, game journalism outlets everywhere—such as Gizmodo—are taking this story and running with it. Everyone is panicking that the OGL v1.0a, the open license that underpins the vast majority of OSR publishing (to say nothing of 3e, Pathfinder, and 5e based third-party publishing, as well as a fair number of games that don't even rely on any WotC intellectual property but which nevertheless use the OGL as their open source paradigm—FATE, Open d6, and others), is being revoked or "deauthorized." 

At the moment, it is a very open question as to whether the OGL v1.0a even can be deauthorized. After all, the license is authorized by text within the license, and I cannot think of a mechanism by which WotC can possibly compel anyone to publish under the OGL v1.1 instead of v1.0a. There seems to be nothing stopping anyone from just pretending that v1.1 doesn't exist and going on their merry way publishing under v1.0a.


One of the rumored changes in v1.1 grants WotC a “nonexclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, sub-licensable, royalty-free license to use [Open Game Content] for any purpose.” Since anything designated as OGC is OGC for the purposes of all versions of the OGL, this means that any OGC published under any version of the OGL (including v1.0 and v1.0a) becomes something that WotC can take and play with going forward, without their having to abide by the OGL and treat anything derivative of it as more OGC. But this is IMO a very minor issue. It just means that WotC can uniquely draw from the common well of Open Game Content without having to put anything back, unlike the rest of us, who have to designate any OGC-derivative content that we create as more OGC that anyone can use (subject to the terms of the OGL).

This really only concerns me personally as a matter of open-source principles. I believe that the OGL has been a very good thing for the RPG hobby as a whole. The free sharing of open-source game mechanics has propelled innovation and creativity. I'd like to keep that train going for as long as possible.

But I do have a choice to make.

Going forward, I can either continue to use the OGL v1.0a—at least, in all likelihood I can, because I really don't believe that WotC can possibly "deauthorize" it—or I can try to publish without the OGL. Both have their risks. The biggest deal for me at the moment is that Engines & Empires uses a great deal of verbatim text drawn from other OGL games. If I decide to go forward without the OGL, I will have to rewrite… a lot. This is not an appealing prospect. Furthermore, I would have to find some other suitable license (Creative Commons, for example) under which I could release E&E so that others could freely use what I've written as open-source game mechanics, because I believe in open-source and want to contribute to the community. The OGL was a nice, useful paradigm under which we could all work, share, and share alike; if it does go away, that will be tragic for the hobby-wide enterprise of game design and development.

Given all of that, while it might perhaps be nice to no longer be beholden to WotC or the OGL or any other OGC creators, I would certainly prefer to simply keep using the OGL v1.0a, as I always have. There really doesn't seem to be anything that WotC could do to stop it, either in principle or in practice. But everything is uncertain right now; we have to wait for the official text of the OGL v1.1 to drop, which is supposed to happen on January 13th. Time (and analysis) will tell. ■

Sunday, January 1, 2023

The Plan Going Forward

I'm committing myself to getting back in the saddle again, to focus on publishing games. I've put a lot of thought into this lately. I have a pretty good idea of what I want to do now. Ultimately, I'm going to have three distinct product lines.

The first is, of course, Engines & Empires. My flagship game. It needs another revision, but only a minor one this time. I think the second edition still holds up, but I really need to incorporate my improved understanding of old-school gaming into the next version. The biggest change will be the restoration of alignment—which honestly isn't huge, but it has to happen. Once the third edition of the Core Rules is finished, then I'll worry about expanding the E&E line with adventure modules. But that can come later.

The second product line is going to come out of E&E, and it will remain related to it, but only tangentially. I've taken down the World of Gaia Campaign Setting, not merely to revise it, but to make it system-agnostic. I'm going to re-publish it eventually, but it's a low priority, and when I do get around to it, it will include rules for using the setting with Engines & Empires, regular old BECMI, or really any OSR-type fantasy system. I eventually want to use this product line—which I'm tentatively calling "TAGs" (Tabletop Adventure Games)—to publish a variety of mini LBB or BX hacks for different genres, anything that I feel has slipped through the OSR cracks. But the meat of these books will be settings—with the actual rules content being maybe a few new classes or rules tweaks that otherwise leave the core of OD&D intact. The idea here is to publish content that anyone can use, regardless of their preferred iteration of old-school systems—TSR D&D, Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, BFRPG, OSE, OSRIC, whatever.

Finally—hoo-boy, the elephant in the room—my years-abandoned strategy RPG, Shining Armour, which I had intended to replace Retro Phaze. After revising Engines & Empires, this is priority number two. I want to finish getting this game out the door. In so doing, I will have almost caught back up to where I was back in freaking 2010, back when Retro Phaze (initially called Elegia) was first published. That's a mildly depressing thought, but no matter. I have my goals. They're clear-cut and not overly ambitious: 2023 will see a revised Engines & Empires core rulebook, the Shining Armour strategy/skirmish game, and a system-agnostic re-release of World of Gaia.

Three projects, two of which are mere revisions of existing books, while the third has the overall game design and mechanics more or less hammered out and just needs to go through a lot of editing and laying out (with the primary hurdle being the need for decent pixel art illustrations). 

I seem to have a bit more time these days than I did in 2021 and 2022. I think—I hope—that I can get it done. ■

Friday, December 30, 2022

New Year's Resolve

I haven't published anything in over two years.

Procrastination is one hell of a drug. Habit-forming and hard to shake off.

Two years is too long. It was high time I made something new.

Wait, check that: I need to make new games, and I need to make old games new again. Both are worthy pursuits. 

Am I coming back around to this whole "Old-School Renaissance" thing? I don't know. Maybe; maybe not. Between artpunks and NSR games on the one side and right-wing goons on the other, the notion doesn't seem terribly appealing. More likely than not, I'll just keep on playing BECMI and hopefully designing a few games on the side that are semi-compatible with it. And adventures—I really need to start cleaning up and publishing my adventures. 

It has to happen. This has to be the year.

Urgency. Gumption. Action

No more loafing around. 

The boxing gloves are coming off; it's time to get typing.