Sunday, December 21, 2014

My Advice To WOTC Now That 5e Has Been Rolled Out

First thing to acknowledge:

People talk a lot as if Hasbro cares a lot if 5e does well: They kinda don't.

It's the same as how Disney doesn't really care that much if Marvel sells a lot of comics and Warner Bros doesn't care that much if DC does. They care about them as research and develoment and as intellectual property--the books don't make that much money.

As they used to say "DC can sell anything with Superman's face on it except the comic."

To the degree D&D might ever make Hasbro-Cares level money it'll be as a video game, movie or TV show--until then they just want WOTC to not embarrass them and if it spits out a few good ideas or people they can use later, that's awesome but not a requirement.

This leads to two rarely-considered effects:

-The independent RPG people are way more motivated to care about the state of the industry than the major players are. They don't even have to make that much money. Just exist.

-WOTC can afford to fuck around a little.

So what do you do? Let's take comics as an example:

The Avengers movie is like the third highest grossing movie of all time or something and Iron Man is right up there. Spider-Man is no slouch. The X-Men movie was a hit as were most of the Batman movies. This is some successful-ass IP.

But what was it built on?

1. Years of customer buy in from people who fans who are, by now, of all ages.

(For D&D? Check!)

2. Well-regarded filmmakers and media people who have a personal connection to the material--Joss Whedon for Avengers, Bryan Singer for X-Men, Tim Burton for Batman, etc.


3. A zeitgeist that was ready for the movie and ready to throw money behind it

(Check, these are the days of gambling on fantasy and sci-fi--even Pacific Rim got made)

4. Things that set it off from the competition in the genre

(No Check! The average viewer will, in 2014, see a D&D movie as a cheap and generic excuse for a Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movie. The brand is not differentiated in the public's mind there.)

5. A relatively recent body of work in the original medium that explored the possibilities a movie could exploit and made older fans believe the material could be handled in a way that wasn't as cheapshit as the cash-in attempts they'd seen before. Burton and Nolan's Batman were made possible not by the 60s Batman show but by Miller's Dark Knight Returns, Singer's X-Men came from Byrne, Silvestri, and Lee's work with Chris Claremont on the comic, the Avengers movie (done as a banter-heavy ensemble piece) is clearly built on Brian Michael Bendis' work on the title with Leinil Francis Yu and others. 

(No Check! Despite D&D being much in the news lately with lots of genre-oriented sites talking about how cool 5e is and respected authors talking about how it influenced them, if you heard there was a new D&D movie out tomorrow, nothing WOTC has done in the last 30 years would convince anyone it was anything but another schlocky cash-in. When the Avengers movie came out, the fans were ready to believe it might be good--can D&D say the same? And perhaps more to the point: what would you show a studio exec to explain the possibilities of the franchise to a modern movie audience? Keep On the Borderlands? Fuck no. Maybe Monte's Planescape, but that's pretty far from the center of D&D.)

Put 4 and 5 together and what do you get?

D&D needs some modern classics.

If Bob Kane's Batman was the only Batman, there'd have been no Batman movies since the '60s. D&D, as a brand needs a Dark Knight Returns--something that says what--to savvy kids and obsessive grown-ups--makes what D&D can do different from what The Hobbit or Harry Potter can do.

Right now the buzz about D&D from mainstream authors and directors is based on D&D as a process and a tool--as something that sparked their creativity as kids, not D&D as a set of unique, cool ideas that stand on their own.

Now right off the bat I'll say this is a self-serving solution--what adult D&D fans, the kind who write blogs about D&D want--is exactly that: high quality auteurish content. And what I am saying is good for the company is that same thing.

So take it with a grain of salt. On the other hand: since WOTC can afford to fuck around--what have they got to lose?  They've tried everything else.

If we're in a cultural moment where Serious People are looking at D&D, why not make something Seriously Cool to show them how vital it is? When Maus made people look at comics in the '80s, comics could show them Watchmen. What can you show them?

But you can't just hit people over the head with it and expect us all to believe whatever you have planned next is totally the shit--you have to build to it.

How I'd Build Up To It If I Was The Boss Of You

The main reason to use D&D instead of another system has always been its flexibility and Lingua Franca status. Parlay that into creating some fan goodwill about what D&D can do now.

The first thing I'd do if I was WOTC is publish an awesome 5e Camelot supplement. Why Camelot? It's public domain, it isn't Tolkien, it isn't core D&D and you've got Greg Stafford right there ready to write half of it. Show whoever's paying attention that D&D can do knights and damsels and a classic story it hasn't ever done right before. And don't do a cheesy D&Dified version of Camelot with a different name (you can always do that later) just do Camelot with King Arthur and everything.  Just establish that you can put out cool stuff. This is low-hanging fruit. Get someone British and distinctive on the art and it writes itself: you have people who can write it, you have an audience that'll buy it, it won't cost any more than what you were going to do anyway. 

It won't get much mainstream press, but it will spark fan interest. Fans will go Hmmmm....

Second supplement is an awesome Wuxia supplement with Completely-Out-Of-Left-Field anime-influenced art. Do not worry about maintaining "the D&D look" establish that D&D Owns Fantasy Roleplaying. Period. In any style or genre. If it has a sword, D&D does it. This is The Game, we own the market.

Those are easy, right? The usual fanboys will buy them because everything from D&D right after 5e comes out is exciting and the snobs like me will take a look because they're so different.  So we've generated some good will and, by doing the Camelot supplement early and right, we've proven this D&D is dedicated to doing truly new things.

(And yeah, yeah, you do the things people always say to do: make plushie beholders and more board games and try to get decent actual-play films of people playing D&D. But that's obvious...)

Now this is a little harder and will cost a little more: Once those two supplements impress everyone, go ask Hasbro to snatch up some rights that've been floating around--put out a sword and sorcery supplement that shows how to make characters and stuff from Lankhmar, Conan & Red Sonja, Elric, and Jack Vance's Dying Earth. If you don't publish something about those guys every 10 years, someone else will.

After that--go for Bas-Lag and Tolkien if you can.

Ok, now you've done three things in a row that:

-Are as likely to be successful as anything else you were doing

-Didn't cost any more than what you were going to do anyway

-Didn't fuck with your core brand in any way


-Proved you really could do new things with D&D if you wanted

...NOW you go ahead and take a risk: you give your writers and artists (AND GRAPHIC DESIGNERS!) the same deal DC gave Frank Miller with Dark Knight Returns--you give them the money and the time and the freedom to go completely nuts with the core D&D IP. Let people with real talent loose on Dark Sun, Eberron and the Planes. Give someone the opportunity to make a beautifully intricate, beautifully illustrated Forgotten Realms sandbox with gorgeous cartography using every monster in the manual.  And for god's sake get someone to make a campaign based on whatever the fuck the world of Magic: The Gathering is.

Did you split the audience by creating 5 different lines of products? So what. You need to make compelling work, and let the licensing division worry about profit. Maybe it's easier to sell people one line of supplements than 5, but it's way easier to license 5 things than one--and that's where the money is anyway.

And these are the things you show to the studio execs to prove that D&D can be a compelling and original world for the average moviegoer. And we'll back you up and believe it and carry the signal, because we all now believe things are gonna be done in a new way.

The other option is to just keep on keeping on and let us out here in indie land do all the heavy lifting. But if there's a decent Numenera or 40k or Night's Black Agents  (or, god forbid, Red & Pleasant Land) movie before there's a D&D one, Hasbro is not gonna be happy.

TL;DR: Invest in real quality. Now is a rare moment where the market might actually notice and then do something about it.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Something Is Deeply, Deeply Wrong At RPGnet Today...

Just screencapped the active topics on RPGnet's D&D board:
So, not only is dominated by 5e, Path and old-school stuff, but the Red & Pleasant Land thread has 6,000 some views and been up for two whole weeks, yet the RPGnet trolls haven't showed up once.

Don't believe me? Look at it--all smiles.

What the hell?

The owners still subscribe to a server that runs sexist ads, the moderators still include people who claim my publisher is the spawn of the devil, and people who openly launch misogynistic attacks on women in my group are still members in good standing, but they all seem to be too scared to say a word.

Maybe they got so completely embarrassed about how gullible they were during fracas about me consulting on 5th edition D&D that our long subcultural nightmare is finally over.
Which is awesome, because with the trolls dead it hopefully paves the way for some amazing stuff on the way to be seen and talked about without having to wipe foam from anyone's face:

Broodmother Sky Fortress (the world's best introductory D&D module) is coming soon and DIY D&D godfather Jeff Rients is working on something else, Noisms wild opium dream Yoon-Suin is out any minute, Chris Kutalik is working with some amazing artists for his Slumbering Ursine Dunes projects, and rumor has it Scrap Princess and False Patrick are working on something for Mr Toxic Influence On Our Youth himself, James Edward Raggi.

It is so cool to think that maybe maybe maybe enough billy goats have crossed the bridge that finally people new to the hobby can read about cool new DIY D&D stuff without having to wade through psychotic whining about how Jeff's a clueless nostalgist, Noisms is an imperialist cultural appropriator and Scrap must be hungry for your babies because she's trans.

But then I guess I shouldn't be that surprised--if you check your Chinese menu, 2015 is the Year of the Goat.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Behold, He Is To Thee A Covering Of The Eyes Unto All...

-Genesis 20:16

Still redoing the Monster Manuual,--FINALLY A GOOD MONSTER!

Beholders are wonderful and terrible, of course--and the several variations that the Monster Manual lists just spread the terror thin. Before you get to the actual Eye there's all these preparatory minor terrors like Spectators to worry about. Fuck that. Also, the eye-themed lair actions seem misguided.

Here's a beholder-lite (and sort of a lair action) that makes sense to me. Y'know the gas spore...
…the monster that notoriously looks just like a beholder but is hollow and filled with murder?

I assume these are bio-engineered by the beholder itself as decoys in its moist and stygian alchemical pits.*

(Also, I figure beholders--what with telekineses and no hands and therefore likely thinking of their entire environment as part of their body--are philosophers.)

But where do the Beholders themselves come from? 

Do you remember that issue of Thor where he went to look for Odin's missing eye and he found it and it shot fire at dwarves and told Thor stories? Well that's obviously a beholder.

Beholders are the cast-off eyes of gods--that's why they're so rare.

When psychotic white elf alchemists get ahold of beholders, they do this with them...

*Scrap Princess has a great idea: the gas spore is a cordryceps-like fungus that takes over the eye.

OH WAIT HOLY SHIT: the Beholder itself is what happens when the fungus takes over a god's eye and the gas spore is what happens after thousands of years when it finally gets totally fungusized.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

These Are The Days, This Is The Hour


Sure, these famous artists and writers and designers like it, but what do random D&D people think?

"I spend a great deal of my time waiting with people. Waiting in courts. Waiting in hospitals. Waiting in office buildings. Waiting for someone whose hidden behind a door to walk in with a proclamation that will alter the course of the person I'm sitting next to. Distraction is key. That is where A Red & Pleasant Land comes in. 

I'd say that when Zak was writing this book I doubt he was thinking that it would be used in such a manner but, let's be honest, if anyone could grok his books being read on the floor of crisis centers and in high back courtroom pews, it's going to be Zak. 

People know Alice. People like games. People love stories of how there are people in the world who make things, especially when they are stuck waiting for a door to open and someone to walk in and pronounce ruin or rebirth. It makes it a little less awkward for all those involved to have something to do with their gaze. The very least this world can do is offer them something beautiful. A Red & Pleasant Land is that." 

"It's good, really, really good. "
Here (of all places).

"I really liked what I have read and seen and I gave me lots of game ideas. Somehow, it is the direction that I wished Ravenloft and Vampire : the Dark Ages had taken : a bold and weird direction..."

"If you don't buy a copy of this while you can, you will regret it. It's a masterpiece of RPG artistry." -Here.

"It makes most full-colour rulebooks look like some old bullshit. "

"The book is gorgeous, and it reads like literature."

"I am thoroughly impressed. Not only are the illustrations beautiful (of course), but it exudes weird faerie tale, the old old kind filled with cruel murder and dream logic."

"In a year that saw the release of yet another edition of Dungeons & Dragons, A Red & Pleasant Land is nevertheless the most impressive – and inspiring – RPG book to have come out in 2014. It’s wittily written, beautifully appointed, and, above all, bold in the way it reworks its source material to create something at once recognizable and original. Even if you’re not the least bit interested in adventuring in Wonderland, consider taking a look at A Red & Pleasant Land simply as an artifact. It’s a reminder of just how much energy and creativity is to be found in the old school/DIY gaming scene these days."

"It may be the best thing to come out of a small press RPG publisher ever."
Here (David's post isn't public, so if you don't believe me and aren't one of the 2000 people in his circles, ask him)

If you're curious about what's actually in it--there is an extended review here --along with a sample of what it's like to use the tools inside to generate an adventure location.

If you want to hear what it's like from a player's point of view, there's a nice write-up here.

Thanks Kelly Sue!

Yeah, ok, that is just a bunch of random internet people but on the other hand: zero disappointed customers so far. Just think: hundreds of gamers have been looking at this pdf for six whole days and still not found anything to complain about.

So, yeah Red & Pleasant Land is selling well enough to have turned the publisher from a man into an order-filling Christmas elf for the rest of the winter. Be patient with him, if you have any trouble ordering check out this post he made. There are still copies of the hardcover as of this writing.

Also: here is an interview I just did for Bleeding Cool where the writer uses the word "controversial" four times and which features a photograph of me next to a chihuahua dressed like the devil.

Oh and here's a message from Santa:

Monday, December 8, 2014

Silence Darkness Death Silence Darkness Death

So the party was rolling up on this castle tucked away in the excellent Shoe Thief map Jez drew for Red & Pleasant Land* which I have defaced with…
…"Pale King's knights fighting decimator".

Being hungry for adventure--and noticing the decimator had 60,000gp worth of gems embedded in its wrists--they decided to intervene.


The Decimator

Colossal Avatar of Ona -- a deity of indeterminate gender and variety that snuffs out illumination in all forms. Particularly hates books, and it's priests punish speaking with death. Paradoxically also associated with light, but in forms like Cherenkov radiation and white phosphorus. (Ona invented by Odyssey)

AC: 19
HP: 300
3 Atks at +10 for 2d30/2d30/d100

1st round--Silence Aura 1000'
2nd round--Darkness Aura 200'
3rd round--Death Aura 20' (1st hit knocks you to zero hp, second kills anyone at or below zero)
…then it starts over again

Move: as human

(and yes this is this same rancor as this guy…



The D&D W/PS team…

Stokely the tiefling wizard
Brian the human wizard
Kerowhack the human thief
Tizane Ildiko the tiefling cleric
Gypsillia the half-elf thief
Mariah the human cleric

The megalethality of the monster did what I wanted--it forced everybody to work together...

So Brian wasted no time casting Reverse Gravity...
…and now an interesting situation obtains: the spell's radius is smaller than the height of the Decimator, so he was reverse-gravited from his nipples to his toes but the top of him was fine.

(Also note Reverse Gravity has a ceiling of 100' in 5e.)

This cleverness freed everybody up to start artillerying the now-floating decimator, who had to make a Dex Save Vs Bryan just to move on account of having to use its big paws to walk.

Still, that left it with two attacks doing 2d30 each per round, and it (that is: I ) figure out it could throw pieces of castle at people….

At least until they disintegrated its right arm, at which point all it could do was hold on with its left and kick stuff.

Oh, and do the silence then darkness then death thing.

Kerowhack came through with a natural-20 with a dagger for 44 points of damage (non-spellcasters add their entire d20 roll to damage) and Mariah used locate creature during the darkness rounds.

There were a few close calls (Rolling d30s for damage creates so much tension at the table it's amazing. Try it. Stokes was down to 4 hp at one point and I rolled a two. Everybody exhaled.) but only Gypsillia fell afoul of the death aura, mostly because she was trying to climb into its butt and timed the rounds wrong --quoth Gypsillia: "Trying to get into a Decimator's butthole is like doing double-dutch".

Mandy shot a blade barrier at it in the dark and missed, then Stokely used Bigby's hand to shove it towards the barrier and that was the end of the Decimator.

So she's up there in the sky at zero hp, floating against the 100' anti-gravity ceiling along with dozens of shredded chunks of colossal flesh.

Someone had featherfall and cast it just as the spell wore off--allowing Gypsillia to avoid becoming Flatsillia and then healing her up.

Good job, team…though since they used so many of their best spells I surrrre hope there's not another one….

*Available now! GO GO GO! BUY BUY BUY!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Red & Pleasant Land And Death Frost Doom Deluxe Are Out But Disappearing Fast

Last I checked Red & Pleasant Land was disappearing at faster than a copy a minute--at the current rate they will be gone in two days. Anyone who's tried to scrounge up a print copy of Vornheim knows how hard it is to get your hands on these things once they disappear.
Connie says: "This is the greatest book I have ever read…"
"…Glory can be yours, too."
So I am very happy with it and you should buy eleven (one to mark up, one to keep and nine to give people on each day of Hannukkah) now.

But don't take our word for it! Here's what the rest of the free world has to say:

China Miéville (author of Perdido Street Station and The Scar)

"How lucky are we? Once again we get to experience the artistry and art, the cantankerous smarts, the dissident gaming philosophy of Zak S. It's inadequate to call Red & Pleasant Land brilliant. With alchemist swagger, Zak takes the base matter of well-worn fantasy standards and our cheerful nerd hobbies, and makes the strangest gold."

Molly Crabapple (artist, journalist, author of Shell Game, King's County suspect # 2-2-14 08955-10)

"God, it's so beautiful, I love this. It just makes D&D look so fucking now."

Kenneth Hite (author of Qelong and Night's Black Agents)

"It should be next to impossible to do anything original with Dracula or Alice, but Zak S demonstrates instead that it's next to impossible for him to put out a bad game book. He trails his barbed artistic and gaming sensibilities through these two modern myths and emerges with something more than a mashup or a collage: it's a necromantic restoration of a nightmare that never was."

Monte Cook (author of Numenera, Ptolus, The Strange)

"Zak is not just imaginative, he's bold. Which means that while he recognizes the value of fantasy traditions, he doesn't hesitate for a moment to throw out anything that's become tired or dull. Going to Zak's blog is like opening a window to let in fresh ideas when the room is full of only stale, trite, conventional ones."

Keith Baker (creator of Eberron)

1-21. Intriguing
22-49. Innovative 
50-62. Insane
63-92. Indispensible
93. Warm & Fuzzy
94-95. Torn through a wormhole from a dystopian future that can only be stopped by the timely intervention of a Nordic cyborg
96-100. Roll twice and use both results.  "
--Keith Baker

Vanessa Veselka (journalist, author of PEN-prize winning novel Zazen)

"Let me be plain in case it is not obvious; you want Zak Smith as your GM....Zak unfolds one mind-blowing illustration after another. Art is never absent from anything he does. The world we are in was once the site of a giant castle roughly the size of a continent. Worn to its roots now, all that’s left is the foundation of old power structures. There is a Red King (who dreams of an Antiland) and a Heart Queen (who is cruel) and a Slow War. One name for this place is “The Land the Gods Refuse to See.” It has mirror portals that lead to a Quiet Side of the glass where you go “unplayably insane,” a reminder that Zak uses Lewis Carroll like manga uses the atom bomb, as inspiration for a terrifying and wondrous landscape…"

…in Matter.

Charlotte Stokely (star of Skater Girl Fever and Not Too Young For Cum 4)

The new, deluxe Death Frost Doom--the classic fantasy module that I started my campaign with--is also out. James had me completely re-write it.
with massive new art by Jez Gordon

From the introduction:

When a freakishly original thing is made, it inevitably contains both inherited and mutant genes. When the original Death Frost Doom was found on the doorstep of the old school gaming scene, its horror-short-story tone and structure came thinly wrapped in familiar adventure-game trappings. James and I agreed that this new edition should maintain that tone and structure, but replace as many of the handed-down bits as possible with more creepy magic.

When I first read James' Death Frost Doom, I considered it not just the best module I'd ever read, but the only usable one I'd ever read. It demands only a little of your campaign's space and time, but it does something with every inch of that space and every second of that time. I've tried to keep it as disturbingly efficient as it was when I first met it five years ago--when it helped kick off the campaign I am still running today (and when it caused most of the trouble the characters have been dealing with since).

I think we've done no violence to it, and given you and your players a few more toys to play with. And smash.

…the reception of the pdf has been good:

So go buy things. There's a package deal on shipping, too, so literally, this is the best time to pick up anything else you might want from LOTFP including the must-have Carcosa hardcover (which not nearly enough people own) and new ones like The Idea from Space and No Salvation For Witches.

I am extremely pleased with everything we've done here. It's been years of effort to bring this to you. These are days the like of which will not be seen again. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

If Nobody Ever Asks For Your Ideas You May Not Realize Some Ideas Are Better Than Others

Sometimes you read people on-line--you read their game blog or in a forum or whatever--and you think: this is the first time anyone has ever listened to you about anything, isn't it? Some handle it with grace, and it's cool to see. Some don't--but they don't in a very specific way.


If people often seriously ask you for your opinion and then go do something with your opinion that affects something, then you might start to think of opinions as affecting things.

If nobody ever seriously asks for your opinion, then you might not think of your opinion as carrying much weight or affecting anything.


If you think of your opinion as affecting things, you might be incentivized start to try to make sure it makes sense.

If you don't think of it as carrying much weight or affecting anything, you might not be incentivized to think too hard about trying to make sure it makes sense.

("Makes sense"--that is: matches what you know or could find out.)


If you try to make sure your opinion makes sense, you might think of opinions in general as things people have thought out and really believe.

If you don't think too hard about whether your opinion makes sense, you probably think of opinions in general as inherently provisional things that you usually keep to yourself because they're not thought out.

(Like: if you don't think too hard about your opinions or value them much, your opinion of who is smarter might be, in your mind, about as meaningful as who is wearing a better shirt. The idea that one might be a thing you could go figure out and check on and the other isn't might never occur to you, if nobody much ever did anything based on your opinions anyway.)


If you think of opinions in general as things people have thought out, you'll tend to think of sharing opinions as basically just polite.

If you think of opinions inherently as provisional things people usually keep to themselves because they're not thought out, you probably think of sharing one as a bold, confident act.


If you're used to thinking of opinions as things people have thought out, someone sharing an opinion is (baseline) helpful, good, productive, polite, respectful, necessary and…inherently to be challenged by other opinions. And all subject to fact and being thought out.

If you think of sharing your opinion as a bold, confident act then someone saying what they're thinking is risky to everyone involved--it is asking for things to be put at risk, it is asking for people to make themselves vulnerable. After all--everyone risks revealing their opinion is not thought out, don't they?


You see people who seem shocked and alarmed not just to have their opinion contested (which is strangely common) but to be asked at all. This is frequently followed by a diatribe about how unimportant they are--as if that were the point. 

If people often seriously ask you for your opinion you won't see that request as hostile and won't see why people do.

If nobody ever seriously asks your opinion you may be scared. It's not just that you can't handle a conversation about your ideas, it's that you misunderstand why you're being asked to have one.