The Red Box Blog

Ramblings about D&D.

Good Riddance to the OGL

There was a huge outcry when Wizards announced the changes to its D&D license that would be coming with 4th Edition. Gamers who loved the third party products wanted nothing more than for the status quo to continue. The Open Gaming License was a good thing for D&D fans and a good thing for many small publishers, but it was bad for Wizards and it was really bad for gaming.

Oh I can already hear guys like this screaming at their monitors. But before I explain why the OGL was bad for gaming, I am going to start with the low hanging fruit, and explain why it was bad for Wizards.

TSR went under in large part because they made an absolutely insane number of products for 2nd Edition. They made something like 13 campaign settings, countless splat books, and enough modules to drown in. Worse, the production qualities seen in most of these were fantastic, dwarfing anything they had done before.

Now you don’t buy out a bankrupt company without a plan, and clearly Wizards had a plan. Their plan was to sell a limited number of rule books and a few high quality modules. The OGL was brought in because Wizards recognized that D&D fans were used to having broader selection of products than they were willing to produce. They wanted to be cautious, and needed a few holes plugged.

I would venture to guess that Wizards misjudged the amount of content that would get made under the OGL by a factor of 100. What they were hoping for was a handful of small game companies to come along and collectively produce a few dozen modules, a couple campaign settings, and some niche rule books. What they got instead was a tsunami.

Almost every game company of every size started producing d20 material. Countless companies were founded for the sole purpose of creating d20 material. Instead of complimenting Wizards’ core game, the best of these companies were competing with it.

While fans of Pathfinder consider its success to be a blemish on 4E, you can be sure that is not how executives at Wizards see it; to them Pathfinder’s success shows the absolute insanity of making your game OGL. While every new edition of D&D has had players that didn’t want to upgrade, never before have the hold outs had the option of continuing to buy new releases for the old edition.

If you couldn’t believe the restrictions that Wizards was throwing at publishers for 4E, this is why. They only ever wanted a small amount of help, and this time out that’s what they are getting.

But what about for the industry? I did say this was bad for all of gaming. To understand what I mean you really have to look to the last time D&D was more popular than it was under 3.x – the 80s. In the 80s the success of D&D inspired a lot of small publishers to put out role playing games. Yeah, a lot of them sucked and a lot of them have been completely forgotten, but their presence was very important.

You see, when you have scores of little companies putting out hundreds of rpgs, new ideas are being generated. And the best of those ideas launched successful games and companies. By having many successful games and even more importantly, successful new games, gaming in general is made much richer.

How many people said upon first playing 3E, “This feels a lot like Role Master.”? If AD&D had been produced under an OGL then ICE would have been too busy making AD&D products to make their own games.

If you have ever wondered why 4E borrows from MMOs while 3E and 2E borrowed from other rpgs, look no further than the OGL; the OGL killed the game industry, so there was nothing there worth borrowing.

And finally, as a preemptive answer to potential critics trying to throw games at me that are not new (aka existed pre-2000), not successful enough, not plentiful enough or are just OGL releases, come up with a list from the past decade of new games that matches this list of games 1981 – 1991

  • Star Wars
  • Palladium
  • Paranoia
  • Shadow Run
  • Champions
  • Role Master
  • Call of Cthulu
  • Twilight 2000
  • Toon
  • Marvel Super Heroes
  • Amber
  • Vampire

September 30, 2010 Posted by | 3.x, 4E, Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , , , | Leave a comment

Living Greyhawk – How I Benefitted from a Campaign I Didn’t Care About

I am a big fan of Greyhawk as a setting. I think its because it has just the right amount of character for me – I get the help I need without feeling constrained – and because the players I have played with over the years have just the right amount of knowledge about it for me – they have been aware of it and some its major points, but have little commited to memory.

From 2000 to 2008 the RPGA ran a massive campaign called Living Greyhawk. Playing as a part of the LG campaign never interested me, but I was a huge benefactor of its existance.

Most overtly, the Living Greyhawk adventures I got my hands on were almost always to my liking; they were short, one night adventures that could be dropped in just about anywhere. Most of them were very well written, particularily with regards to the organization and clarity they gave the DM.

However, there was another manner in which I benefitted that I didn’t give any thought to, at least until it went away. Because of the Living Greyhawk campaign there was a massive amount of information about Greyhawk available all over the internet; in the day I could search google for darn near any aspect of Greyhawk I could think of any come up with many results. But things are changing…

I didn’t really notice till just recently, but its becoming a little harder to find certain resources I have depended on; not impossible, yet, but a growing number of the websites about Greyhawk are vanishing. I am concerned enough that I think I am going to start saving pages instead of bookmarking them because who knows if it will be there the next time I look.

So if you’re like me, and love Greyhawk, better scour the internet while you still can and if you’re all about Forgotten Realms – understand these years may be the last hurrah for your world.

September 29, 2010 Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , | Leave a comment

Review – Obsidian Portal

A decade ago every time I had a new idea for a campaign in my head I would flesh it out by making a website for it. The absolute pinnacle of this process for me was the campaign I ran when I formed my current group. To this day I am very proud of that website; on it I documented every PC, every NPC, every adventure, every location, and every house rule, plus I had immense background information, and a huge library of stories I wrote to set the mood of the game.

In all I spent about 100 hours preparing the site before the game began, and about a dozen every week that the game was running. It was beautiful, but it was exhausting; in fact I ended the game because I was burnt out (between the website and other DMing prep work, I was spending about 4 hours in prep for every 1 hour played).

Since then my online efforts have been minimal. There was one game a couple of years ago I ran a blog for, but mostly I have just ignored the electronic side of gaming.

Not long after I started the aforementioned blog I became aware of Obsidian Portal. I wasn’t up to checking it out at the time, but I bookmarked it both in my browser, and mentally. In the intervening time I have read nothing but good things about it, so when my players and I started discussing a new game including a website, I immediately signed up.

I must say, that I have been very underwhelmed by what is there. When you create a campaign on Obsidian Portal you get sections for Home, Adventure Log, Wiki, Characters, Forums, Maps, and Comments. In each of these sections you can create html files.

This all seems well and good, but the problem is that you only get 2MB of space to work with. (also, for no apparent reason you can only have one picture file listed under maps) This is brutal. Basically with 2MB of space you probably aren’t going to have more than half a dozen images for your whole campaign. I’m can’t imagine having a campaign website without lots of maps, character portraits and other pictures.

Ah, but for a very low price of $5/month they will sell you 2GB of space. That’s not very much money, but as soon as you start charging any money I have to start wondering what can I get elsewhere for free.

Within minutes I could setup a WordPress blog that is organized in the exact same way as Obsidian Portal with none of the limitations. With that in mind, basically the $5/month is for

  • A built in forum
  • The ability to hide parts of documents from players

Neither of these are very important to me, and if the forum was it would be very easy to create a message board and just link to it from the blog. The only person I could imagine making extensive use of the hiding feature would be a DM who keeps all his notes on the website. (and that seems very alien to me)

I’m not sure who the customer base for this site is or why so many people rave about it, but it isn’t for me; I think I will go the blog route for my next game,

September 28, 2010 Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, Review, RPGs | , , | 3 Comments

Tap-Tap-Tap . . . Gygax

I was reading somewhere online (for the life of me I can’t remember where) where someone was expressing concern about how to get players who are used to new school D&D (either from having always played it, or from years of playing just the newer editions) to be a little more competent in old school play. I know when my group first tried to go back to Basic this was a huge problem, though one that was largely over shadowed by the TPKs that kept happenning.

A perfect example of this problem came in the form of treasure. Treasure was very important in old school games because gold was worth XP; in fact treasure frequently made up over 90% of the XP a party was getting.

The idea behind gold=XP was that getting the treasure was the purpose of the quest, and it didn’t matter how the characters acheived that end; in effect, it was a method of rewarding characters for reaching their goal no matter how they achieved it (so brains could be rewarded as well as brawn).

Unfortunately for newer players, getting gold in old school games requires a bit of an understanding of where to find it; in old games there was generally a small amount of treasure sitting out in the open, and huge pile of it hidden beyond belief. Newer players frequently don’t find the well hidden treasure because they aren’t used to searching in the ways that they need to. Not only don’t they find it, they aren’t even aware they missed it. Then, by not finding the treasure, they lose out on most of their XP, and continue to lurk at first level till they finally get picked off.

My first attempt at a solution for this was just to tell my players they needed to search more because they were missing out on a lot; it didn’t work. They tried to search more, but they really didn’t understand how their search patterns needed to change.

So when I decided to revisit the searching issue I opened up an old Gygax module we weren’t ever going to play, and read to them just where treasure was hidden in some of the rooms. After this session they began to understand the kinds of places they needed to look, but it still wasn’t part of their style; in game they kept forgetting to apply their new knowledge.

So one time when they were going to miss out on a minor treasure in a room I said quietly “Remember, you have to think like Gygax.” A light came on and they tore the room apart, eventually getting the loot.

The next couple of outings I made a point of at least once quietly tapping my temple and saying “Gygax.” This queue would be the only time all night they would need to be reminded.

Lately it has become completely unnecessary, but for fun, and as positive renforcement I do still try to work in a Tap-Tap-Tap . . . Gygax every session.

September 27, 2010 Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , | 2 Comments

Email: We Are Not Twisted

One of my players forwarded this to me (I have no idea where it originated from) with the added comment “Aren’t you glad we are not THIS twisted?”

Ok, let me set this up. I have a half elf sorceror that decided to use Mage Hand during melee. His idea, ingenious, was to use the spell to squeeze the testicles of an opponent (goblin adept) to get him to break concentration.
He tried it later against a hobgoblin fighter and I allowed that it would work, but the hob would get a -4 penalty because it occurred after combat commenced (owing for adrenalin, etc).
My question is, should there be a save against this, or some defense, like armor, to protect against this move (which according to the spell is telekinetic). Should the appropriate ability (charisma for a sorceror) play into it at all?


Well, for starters, by the letter of the rules, this isn’t remotely possible.

Mage Hand


Level: Brd 0, Sor/Wiz 0
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Range: Close (25 ft. + 5 ft./2 levels)
Target: One nonmagical, unattended object weighing up to 5 lb.
Duration: Concentration
Saving Throw: None
Spell Resistance: No

You point your finger at an object and can lift it and move it at will from a distance. As a move action, you can propel the object as far as 15 feet in any direction, though the spell ends if the distance between you and the object ever exceeds the spell’s range.

The spell is clearly written; it can only impact non-living objects, and what it does is move them, not squeeze them. The fact that it has the word “hand” in the name does not allow it to do anything a hand can do.

However, I am really big on players looking for new ways to use things, especially spells. To me the magic system in D&D is way too rigid to properly emulate fantasy, and so I like to give players a lot of leeway.

That being said, this is also a balance issue. Mage hand is a 0 level spell. Spells at that level are generally only able to do one thing, and they don’t do that very well. Giving Mage Hand the ability to lift/throw objects, and break caster concentration, and give melee characters a -4 penalty is way too much for a 0 level spell.

So if one of my players suggested this, the answer would be “Nice, but no.”

September 26, 2010 Posted by | 3.x, Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , , | 2 Comments

My Life in Polyhedrons – The First Campaign

When I talk about the first campaign I was part of/ran, I mean the games that we played between May and September of 1986. In fairness we didn’t call it a campaign at the time because the word was not in our vocabulary – we were just playing D&D.

Though I would literally invite anyone to play with us, there were four of us who were regulars – myself, Dale, Warren and Jamie. The job of DM was split about 80/20 between myself and Dale. Its worth pointing out that we had some very different notions back then of how things should be done than I would have later.

First of all Dale and I were both DMs and players; I don’t mean we switched between the roles, I mean we were always players, even when we were the DM. Though there were certain things we would not partake in when we were DMing (like choosing which direction to go). In fact, because Dale and I were always present for every session, we had the most characters and the highest level characters.

Second of all, we didn’t consider the DM to be the ultimate authority, we thought the rulebook was. This led to a number of situations that really were less than ideal. Chief amoung them was that Dale and I had characters far more powerful than anyone else (because every new character had to start at level 1, and every XP had to be earned)

Third, if something wasn’t specifically addressed in a rulebook it was fair game. Perhaps chief amoung these was that we never saw it written anywhere you couldn’t play the same adventure again and again. “In Search of the Unknown”, “The Keep on the Borderlands” and “The Isle of Dread” were pretty much committed to memory by everyone.

The game lasted till the day came that I reread the rules, decided that we were playing completely wrong, and needed a fresh start. At the end of this campaign I had two fourteenth level clerics – the highest level characters I have ever had (or anyone else has had in a game I have DMed).

September 25, 2010 Posted by | My Life in Polyhedrons, RPGs | , | 2 Comments

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Minis

I have a bone to pick with gamers who complain that Wizard’s is gouging them by forcing all players to buy miniatures. There is a part of me that hates any time people talk as though they are being forced to buy a luxury good, but this is far more than that. I get riled up because those who decry that they are being forced to buy minis claim that is impossible to play 3.x and/or 4E without minis. I take huge exception to this because I have played 3.x to death, and spent a whole year playing weekly 4E sessions and out of a few hundred sessions of 3.x and about 50 sessions of 4E, there were only two sessions that there were ever any miniatures (a guest DM brought them; and he was horrified we normally played without them)

So for the benefit of pocketbooks everywhere I give to you 5 alternatives to standard miniatures; I have played them all extensively and can recommend them all.

1. Imagination
As shocking as it may sound, it is completely possible to have a combat with no physical representation of the participants and environment. That 3.x and 4E do everything in 5′ increments doesn’t mean you have to. Having two combatants standing 7′ apart doesn’t cause the rule system to break down, it just means that one of them needs to move 2′ before they can reach each other. Instead of combatants threatening every adjacent square, they threaten 5′ in every direction. You don’t even need to make a house rules document for how rules get changed by removing the grid because its just common sense.


  • Games generally move faster.
  • Players are not distracted by the miniatures and focus more on what the DM is saying.
  • Players don’t know exactly how far away things are; this can be more realistic.


  • The DM will need to be more descriptive of the environment and the enemies.
  • The DM may need to warn the players when they are about to give up tactical advantages, such as attack of opportunities.
  • Some times there will be confusion about what a layout is, what a monster is doing, or what a player is doing.

2. White Board
This is one of my favourite techniques as it incorporates most of the advantages of pure imagination, while adding some clarity to the relative locations of things. Basically this involves having a white board, large or small, in a location everyone can see it. When combat erupts the DM makes a quick sketch of the situation (using letters or symbols to represent participants). The DM continually adjusts the sketch as the battle progresses.


  • Games generally move faster.
  • Players are not distracted by the miniature; focus more on what the DM is saying.
  • Players don’t know exactly how far away things are; this can be more realistic.


  • The symbols can get confusing at times, especially if there are a lot of different creatures to be tracked.
  • The symbols can sometimes give the players hints that the DM had not intended.
  • The players can become too focused on the white board (in the same way that can happen with minis).

3. Virtual Minis
This works really well if you play in a room with a tv. Just hook up a laptop to the tv and you can use one of the virtual mini programs that are available. (many are free)


  • This method is very flexible; depending on the program you choose and the options you pick, you have a lot of choices in terms of look, feel, price, and features.
  • If you pick the right program, and perhaps invest enough time, you can make this very visually appealing.
  • It is possible to do things with a computer program that you just can’t do with real minis.


  • It is very easy to lose many hours of prep time to making your maps and virtual minis look “just right”. (that’s why I stopped doing this)
  • The worst aspects of minis are all a part of doing this, and some are magnified by the players not being right next to the map.

4. Paper Minis
I came up with this as a way of emulating the virtual mini program we had been using. Basically, make your minis out of 1 inch diameter circles of paper with a penny taped to the back to add weight. Custom images can easily be generated on computers then cut to the appropriate size.


  • It is very easy, and cheap, to make a mini of anything you need; you never need to have a mini stand in for something else.


  • As this really is just another form of minis, it comes with all the disadvantages of using them.

This is only a good idea if you already have lots of LEGO onhand; if you have to buy it LEGO can be much more expensive than minis. To make this work its best mount each LEGO man on a 4×4 thin base. The base is his 5′ x 5′ square.


  • LEGO is cool!


  • Hard to make non-humanoid creatures be both to scale and visually appealing; virtually impossible to make good looking short humanoids.
  • LEGO can really distract gamers from the game.

Those are five different solutions I’ve used over the years. If anyone has others please let me know.

I’d also like to add that I don’t actually have anything against minis; they’re just not for me. What I have something against though is people who pretend that Wizards is putting a gun to their head and demanding their wallet – that pisses me off.

September 24, 2010 Posted by | 4E, Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , | 2 Comments

Inception – Awesome Movie, But Could it Be a Campaign?

I was a little late seeing Inception, having only finally seen it last week, and like most viewers, I walked a way with my head full of ideas. Of course, being a gamer, these ideas eventually turned to, how I could leverage this awesomeness into a game.

Well, first off, I think one of the great things about the whole dream world idea, is that it could be very easily adapted to many genres – fantasy, science fiction, super hero, spy, and horror all come to mind as genre ripe for a similar dream type world.

But as I was thinking about how best to realize such a game, I thought of another idea that would make the game seem more dreamy and very unique. Imagine this, what if you started the game using an existing system, playing in the unusual manner. But whenever a dream world is entered, the majority of the GMing duties shift to whomever is playing the architect of the world the group is entering. The GM would continue to play NPCs, except ones created by the architect. This could add real meaning to the shifting between different levels of dreams within dreams.

If you wanted to take the idea one step further, you could allow the architect to choose an entirely different rule set for the dream world; you could start by playing d20, but then the dreamworld is in d6, and the dream within a dream is diceless.

The more I think about it the more I wish I could run this. Alas, with my current group this would not be possible; every one of them dislikes getting behind the screen.

September 23, 2010 Posted by | Campaign Ideas, RPGs | , | 1 Comment

Sage ,and not so Sage, Advice

Poking around today I had a wave of nostalgia for Skip Williams and his long running column in Dragon magazine Sage Advice. For a quarter of a century Williams wrote Sage Advice answering just about any obscure question readers could come up with about Dungeons and Dragon. The things that made his column great were:

  • As a major participent in the creation of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd edition rules Skip was very much in the know; he was almost always right, and willing to admit when he wasn’t
  • The questions he choose to answer for the column were often obscure and non-obvious
  • He not only gave the answer he explained why it was true and how to find it

The three of those turned what should have been a boring subjuect (rules queries) into an always enjoyable read. He picked hard questions, he knew the answers and he explained why the answers were true.

Because he tended to pick such obscure questions very few of the questions ever had any direct applicability – at least for me. But because he always explained how the reader could have determined the answer, his coulumn was a great way to learn how to answer your own questions.

But like all good things it had to come to an end and a few years ago he gave up writing the column, it was only then it became clear just how good he was. His replacement picked easy questions, which he somehow managed to frequently get wrong, and worst of all he rarely explained why the answer was true.

More recently the column has stopped being in print (because Dragon Magazine itself has), and has gone to being just a section on wizards website. The questions on the website are absurdly easy, and yet still poorly explained. On the bright side I don’t see any answers that are wrong, though that may just be because you can edit a website after the fact, unlike a magazine you’ve mailed out.

That’s my bit of nostalgia for today.

September 22, 2010 Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | Leave a comment

Kids’ RPG – A Fruitless Quest in Game Creation

Have you ever had an idea that you thought was original, but you went on to discover that “its all been done”? Just recently I read a post, in which the author describes his struggles to make an rpg for 8 year olds. Reading that reminded me of my own struggles to make an rpg for 5 year olds, and inspired this article. But before I could even write the article I see a review of a game for 4 to 7 year olds that is already on to version 1.5. I guess there really is nothing new under the sun (heck, my intended title of Kids’ RPG is pratically identical to RPG Kids), but I think my tale is worth sharing anyways. (though obviously the fact that there is an existing product that contradicts some of the assumptions I had been making perhaps makes my thoughts invalid)

My story began 18 months ago when my son was 3 and a half. I was looking for a creative outlet when I began wondering what was the earliest age a child might learn to play rpgs. I have a few rulebooks with 12 listed on them. I learnt to play at age 11 and taught friends who were 10 and 9. Obviously 8 would not be unrealistic.

So, I asked myself just what the core of rpgs is, what makes a game an rpg? Surely the complex and archaic rules that might elude an 8 year old are not the heart of role playing games, but rather playing a role.

It was then I recognized an interesting dichotomy – that while with age comes a greater capacity for understanding complex rules (as most rpgs have) it also brings a lessened capacity for playing pretend. Young children are natural role players, we just don’t call it that.

With that realization I decided to make a game for a younger audience than I previously would have imagined possible – 5 year olds. Some of my friends told me I was crazy and it was impossible, while others eagerly awaited the results.

Unfortunately, changes in my life forced me to abandon the project long before it came to fruition; I no longer had the time needed to work on it, nor will I till my son is already 6 and it would have limited value to me. But before I was forced to abandon it, I had spent quite a bit of time working out just what I though a game for 5 year olds ought to be.

I had started by trying to gut various existing rules systems so as to give me an idea what a rule set for a 5 year old might look like. I was never satisfied with the resuls of this; no matter how much I took out, I always felt like what was left was more than a 5 year old needed till I reached the point that what was left wasn’t really a game.

Next I decided to work the other way, and try to determine what it would take to move a typical 5 year old’s game of pretend in to the realm of a rold playing game. I came up with this list:

  • a GM
  • a conherant story
  • the possibility of continuity

This list led me to the most important idea I think I had; for an rpg for 5 year olds to work it needs to have a story structure that children understand. If you look at tv shows aimed at the 5 and under demograph, the most successful ones all have very rigid story structure. Think of Dora the Explorer – 90% of the episodes follow the format

  1. Dora and other characters say hello
  2. The problem is introduced
  3. The Map explains that Dora needs to go to A, then B then C
  4. Dora travels to A
  5. Dora overcomes an obsticle at A
  6. Dora travels to B
  7. Dora overcomes an obsticle at B
  8. Dora travels to C
  9. The characters review the journey and celebrate

Along the way there are certain plot points that occur every episode, such as dealing with Swiper the Fox and having to get an item from Backpack.

At one point I was so enamoured of the formula used in Dora, that I wondered if I should just make a Dora RPG; it certainly would have appeal to 5 year olds.

A lot of my ideas outside of story structure were in constant flux. At various times I considered

  • A D6 based game, with just raw attributes
  • A card based game
  • A diceless game
  • A very simple, but recognizable character sheet
  • A character sheet that was more of a log, where kids could draw a picture of each adventure
  • A reward system like XP
  • A reward system that didn’t impact the game, but instead gave the child positive renforcement

and countless other things as well.

So that’s the gist of what I had in mind. I won’t ever get back to it, so if anyone sees any value in any of these ideas they are yours for the taking. I, on the other hand, will be purchasing RPG Kids.

September 20, 2010 Posted by | RPGs | , , | 1 Comment