Tectonic Shifts of D&D

“The original impetus for the open licensing of the d20 System involved the economics of producing role-playing games (RPGs). Game supplements suffered far more diminished sales over time than the core books required to play the game.” Wikipedia, “d20 System

One of many d20 books by Jim Ward, Tim Brown, & me

I think I sorta pissed someone off years ago by making this exact point. My opinion was based on the experience of watching GDW struggle to fund RPG supplements during my time there, and then TSR suffer the same.

The catch-22 is that (a) without supplements, customers lose interest in an RPG, and distributors don’t help by telling retailers your game is dead, but (b) only GM’s buy most supplements, whereas most everybody in the game group buys the game itself, so you’re doing the same effort (with, for example, the same cover painting expense), for a fraction of the market.

By handing off supplement publishing to an ever-refreshing pool of small companies (many just gamers with a one-book dream), WotC dodged that expense and enjoyed the unencumbered sales of core product.

Things like the “Community Content” section of DriveThruRPG are a more recent example of that farmed-out support.

I ain’t sayin’ this is a bad thing. It allows for a lot of diverse creativity. But it also explains why every new edition of a core game sets off tectonic waves among the small publishers putting out sourcebooks and adventures.

From DC, to D13, D6xD6, and BNHP

Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

What with Halloween just 13 days away, I’d like to share a tiny bit of Dark Conspiracy RPG history and of personal pitch.

My goal with DC was, as you may know, to create a setting into which any horror story could be fit. Details I needed to achieve that goal—cyberpunkish urban sprawl, anachronistic rural regions, areas of bleedthrough from hellish dimension, and a rationale for beneficent aliens becoming inimical, for example—slowly amalgamated into a distinct personality of DC’s own.

But not everyone likes the DC mechanics, the inhouse system ported over from Twilight: 2000. Note that the T2K rules did play their own role in shaping DC’s character as a combat-heavy game of meet the monster; get your asses kicked; learn its weakness; come back better armed and kill it.

For GDW it made sense to have a shared system for all of its RPGs. (Well, until Space: 1889 broke ranks.) And the other reason is I wasn’t yet a mechanics guy. My two contributions to the inhouse system were to add experience rules (in Traveller: 2300, which got me hired in the first place) and to push for a change from d10 to d20. Adding an Empathy stat and trimming the T2K weapons list to suit DC were more a matter of developmental editing.

But since that time, my design skills for game mechanics have grown. Even earning an Origins Award! In RPGs, I’ve developed a passion for minimalist precision. For universal mechanics that dependably but unobtrusively support play. Even, say, hmm, I don’t know, maybe Dark Conspiracy adventures?

So here’s the pitch. If you love DC as a setting, but not the mechanics, I have three options to sub in for them. First, D13 is specifically designed for horror, any type, a bit more brutally than DC, but with push-your-luck paranormal abilities rules suitable for DC’s Empathy stat. Second, there’s D6xD6 (d6xd6.com is the core rules), and come to think of it, Chuck McGrew’s use of it in Don’t Look Back 3e could handle the DC setting right out of the gate. Lastly, there’s the Bookmark HP RPG, a deceptively simple system that has been called “an epiphany in game design.”

Each game system has its own unique take on dice mechanics; all three with dependable math under the hood. So, if you love the world of Dark Conspiracy, but aren’t a fan of its mechanics, why not give one of these three a try? Links in the sidebar.

Confessions of a TFT Addict

The Fantasy Trip Legacy Edition

(Plans change. This post was originally slated as the introduction to a book of The Fantasy Trip essays, now found in issues of Hexagram. Watch for my TFT fencing article in Hexagram #6!)

My game design career started with selling a four-paragraph review to Steve Jackson Games’ Space Gamer magazine. Why Space Gamer instead of TSR’s Dragon? Because I was a Steve Jackson junkie.

In 1981, my game group had dumped AD&D in favor of The Fantasy Trip, at my own instigation. I wanted characters who, no matter how experienced, had good reason to fear wolves in a pack and goblins in a gang, and TFT supplied that. Along with skills instead of classes, and tactics instead of abstract one-minute combat turns. TFT provided a reason to use miniatures for more than just pretty. All that in literally 150 pages instead of literally 472.

I GMed The Fantasy Trip for years to the exclusion of all other RPGs. Our group played TFT long after Metagaming (its publisher) went out of business and TFT went out of print. I scoured hobby stores for supplementary material, photocopied and ringbound every magazine article I could find, bought Gamelords’ The Forest Lords of Dyhad and Warrior-Lords of Darok, and prayed for the two remaining books of that setting to be published. Prayed for anything new to be released.

No exaggeration, I still wake from the occasional nightmare that I’m traveling, stumble across some hobby store in Texas, find an unknown TFT-related title in a bargain bin, and don’t have the cash on me to pay for it.

So when I landed a full-time game design job in my hometown, at Game Designers Workshop (publishers of Traveller), I asked for a special dispensation to launch a non-GDW fanzine, The Fantasy Forum, in my free time.

As I recall, GDW let me run a little ad in their house organ, Challenge magazine, and even let me print out the ’zine on the office copier. And of course I submitted an ad to Space Gamer. Other addicted fans subscribed to this little quarterly. Content submissions soon exceeded the bulk-rate page count. To fit Howard Trump’s solo adventures, I had to print them in 6-point type with 1/8th-inch margins. (In retrospect, I could have published those separately and printed monthly.)

Gen Con 20 in 1987 was my first big convention, and as a brand-new industry pro, I approached Steve Jackson to shake his hand and goob over The Fantasy Trip. When I asked about the prospects of a new printing now that Metagaming was defunct, and Steve told me how much cash Howard Thompson wanted for the title, I gasped, and something inside me died a little bit.

So you can easily imagine my delight when Steve regained the rights in 2017 and launched a Kickstarter shortly thereafter to print a new, deluxe edition. That boxed set now stands in a place of honor on the very top shelf of my RPG collection, right next to the big ringbinder (“liberated” from The Armory) that holds my cherished collection of original TFT material.

And you can imagine my pleasure to be writing this introduction to a collection of essaygs honoring The Fantasy Trip.

Thank you, Steve, for the years of wonderful memories, playing The Fantasy Trip with my friends.

https://thefantasytrip.game