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Dragonhelm Keep is Live!

Greetings, friends, and welcome to the new and improved Dragonhelm Keep! I’ve had this site for a while, piddled around with it, but have done nothing serious with it until now.

For those that don’t know me, I’m the administrator of the Dragonlance Nexus fan site, the host and producer of the Dragonlance Canticle podcast, a Dragonlance RPG designer, and a voice within the podosphere.

So why have my own blog? I believe in having a voice on the internet, where I can talk about the things that interest me without having to worry about other peoples’ format. This is my own private playground.

What can you expect? Talk about RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons, sci-fi and fantasy movies and TV shows, and other fun geeky things that interest me.

I’ve started out by reposting my Fear the Boot blogs here. So there’s lots of yummy content. I will try to make this site even better still.

So sit back, and enjoy the ride. Dragonhelm Keep is live!

Who says that role-playing stops when the dice drop?

In some recent episodes of Fear the Boot, Chad has made the statement that role-playing stops when combat begins. He ascertains that the world somehow is put on pause while the dice are brought out, to-hit and damage calculations are made, and monsters are wiped from the field. Chad makes a very convincing argument, which you should check recent episodes for.

I will state up front that I think Chad is fan-tastic! He has a lot of good thoughts, and I truly enjoy him on the show.

However, I have to call shenanigans on this one. I have been in too many games where we role-played in combat to think that it doesn’t exist when the dice are brought out. Are we not role-playing when we make a skill check? Now, if you say that role-playing changes a bit, I won’t argue there. There is always a different vibe role-playing out of combat and role-playing in combat. But the role-playing doesn’t have to go away.

Need an example? In my current online game, I have a three-way battle going on. There are no real good guys and bad guys, just folks on different sides of the fence. Had I just rolled dice, we would all be pretty bored right now. However, I didn’t. We have a lot of banter going back and forth. One character is goading another, who is obsessed about his cause. Meanwhile a third is trying to stop the combat from escalating. It’s all very tense. It’s the type of epic role-playing that really helps to shape and mold the characters.

So how do you keep the role-playing going while in combat?

Imagine what your character is going through in combat, and then act it out. Is he afraid? Maybe he stutters a bit when combat begins. Maybe he begs the bad guys not to hit him.

Does he use witty banter? Think of Spider-Man here. Spider-Man often uses witty banter in combat, whether it’s to calm his own fears or to lure the bad guys into dropping their guard and making a mistake. This is particularly good for your roguish scoundrels.

Or perhaps your character is more on the serious side. Does he like to intimidate his foes? Personally, I’d be a bit scared if a dwarf yelled at me before going into a rage. Or maybe your character is very devout and swears an oath to his god before going into combat.

Also, be sure to play off of the other characters. When your character is surrounded by three ogres and the other player just dispatched his foe, feel free to say, “Hey, could I get a little help over here?” Or you may just say, “Not bad, for an elf.”

I will admit that there are some limitations to watch out for. You don’t want to be so busy bantering that you forget to let everyone have their fair turn. Many game systems allow you to have a free action during combat. Banter during that time. Sometimes, the banter may come up naturally in a combat, so go with the flow. Just remember that when the turn is over, let the next person join in.

I submit to you that role-playing and combat are not independent. With a little practice, role-playing can take your combat from being a matter of rolling dice to a scene straight out of Hollywood.

Evil Characters

It is said amongst gamers that you should never allow evil characters in the party. There is a good reason for this. As a Dragonlance fan, I’m reminded of the Law of the Dark Queen, which states that evil feeds on itself. This is a truth that surpasses the Dragonlance setting. When you have an evil character in the party, they often cause untold havoc. They don’t work as part of the team, as their motives are self-serving. In other words, they don’t play well with others.

I experienced this phenomenon a couple of times myself. I will say upfront that I, as (a much younger) game master, was as much at fault as anyone else, if not more so. I knew that evil campaigns ended badly, but I didn’t heed the warnings.

In one case, I ran a Realms game where the player characters were determined to kill, rape, and plunder everyone in sight – often in that order. It didn’t last more than two game sessions. By the time it was all done, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth. A gamer should never leave a game with that sensation.

In another case, I thought that a couple of bounty hunters in a Star Wars game could still work within the mold of a heroic game. As it turns out, heroism doesn’t pay well. The players abandoned the whole premise of the campaign in one fell swoop. Before I knew it, the party was somewhere else in the galaxy other than where my game was, and I sat there staring. I was a game master defeated.

Mercenary games, in general, are not to my liking. I like some of the concepts of games like Shadowrun, but the idea that all you’re doing is adventuring to get more money so you can buy more stuff is just not something that interests me personally. Plus, mercenaries can be jerks at times. I like heroic games, where you fight for some greater cause and some better purpose.

Yet can’t evil fight for a greater cause? Many evil organizations do just that. Look at the Empire in Star Wars, or the Knights of Takhisis in Dragonlance. Both entities seek to bring order to their respective settings. It’s when evil puts aside its own ambitions for something greater than itself, whether misguided or not, that it becomes palatable to play.

If you are dead-set on playing an evil character, then my recommendation would be to assign characteristics to the player character that makes him more than some murderer. If you want him to gel with the party, give him a reason to. Maybe he’s working under orders, or has a code of honor he cannot break. In these cases, I would recommend using a character with a Lawful Evil alignment. They seem to be more likely to work well with others, whereas Chaotic Evil would just kill and maim everything indiscriminately.

Maybe the character has something he cares about more than being evil. If his wife has come down with the plague and the party is questing to get the antidote, he might decide to play nice. Or, maybe the character was once good, but was misled, and so now he lives a life of evil. I would recommend placing some chances at redemption if you go this route.

While I still do not recommend evil characters, I think they can work so long as the players are experienced and willing to put aside any issues that would disrupt game play. Use the group template, and talk to the other players and GM about how you can make this work.

Vampires? Enough, already!

I came home this evening, opened my e-mail, and saw an e-mail from  I subscribed to their newsletter to check out some of the cool action figures they have, as well as all the other goodies that are way out of my price range. 

This time was different.  You see, it seems that wanted to get an early start on Halloween this year, so they sent out an early Halloween newsletter.  I opened the e-mail, and to my horror (pun intended), I saw a picture of Princess Leia as a vampire.

Vampire Princess Leia

I was utterly disgusted.  First, to use Princess Leia as a vampire is just ridiculous.  This was originally some sort of Halloween party invite that was turned into a product to sell.  Fine, I get that.  No problem with them wanting to make a buck.  Then they made the pic look like it was straight from the pulp era.  Fine, no worries there.  But Princess Leia as a vampire?

Vampires have gone from being unique, or at least rare, monsters who scare you to being the everyday, average monster on the block.  We no longer have Dracula, Nosferatu, or Strahd.  Now we have entire vampire societies, roaming about.   In Stargate: Atlantis, you have the Wraith, who are little more than space vampires.  Even in Dragonlance, you have the Beloved of Chemosh, who are a variant of vampires in their own right.  No matter how you disguise these monsters, they keep coming up as vampires.

Let’s also consider why we glorify them so much.  There’s supposedly some sort of sex appeal there.  Beyond physical beauty, I don’t see it.  I don’t find sucking blood to be attractive – not unless you happen to be a leech.  Maybe it’s the horror factor.  We have been bombarded by vampires so much in the last few decades that they no longer seem to scare.  It’s kind of like how you watch the evening news and are no longer shocked by a murder.  Likewise, vampires just don’t scare me anymore. 

Why did Lucasfilm do this?  Because it was easy.  Vampires sell, and making money off of this is a guarantee.  Yet in the process, the Princess’ image of a strong female protagonist is tarnished.  How could the Princess fall prey to the likes of a vampire?  Why should a company known for its creativity resort to the most uncreative thing they could do?

There are a few lessons that we, as gamers, can learn from this.  First of all, a unique monster is more memorable than several.  Dracula scares me.  The umpteenth vampire that Buffy slays doesn’t.  This is also true of other gaming elements too.  Let’s take Tasslehoff’s Magic Mouse Ring for example.  As a unique magic item, the ring has a certain notoriety.  When they revealed it to be one of many, the ring became lackluster.

Be true to the characters.  If you have a white witch NPC who suddenly dresses in black and wears a rainbow wig, your players will look at you funny.  If your dumb goblin suddenly sprouts off Shakespeare, something isn’t right. 

Don’t take the easy way out.  Let’s say your players are fighting against a cult dedicated to your local God of Death.  Good thus far.  But then the cult reveals themselves to be vampires, or sends zombies after you, etc. etc.  You might as well give all your players pillows for their nap.  Mix it up some.  Find a new monster from your latest monster book, or invent something new.  If you must use a vampire, then at least take some time to give it some unique qualities.  Maybe your vampire absorbs natural light, or is blind, or is a vegetarian due to his religion. 

I am very disappointed in Lucasfilm, as I expected better.  Certainly, they deserve a punch in the junk from Krazy Joe of Slice of SciFi fame.  However, this is part of a larger issue that permeates pop culture.  We need to get away from this vampire hysteria so that they can become a monster to be afraid of again, rather than being commonplace, like goblins.

What path will you choose?  Will you take the easy way out, or will you push the bounds of your creativity to come up with something unique to wow your players with?

Reinventing Characters

One of the tricks I use to learn a new edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game is to re-envision an old character in a new edition. Often times, I pick some NPC who got little “air time” to make it easier. He has no mega-history to worry about, and only a very basic amount of rules and story development. With the new 4th edition rules, and in particular the Player’s Handbook 2, I decided to toy around with the character builder (available through a D&D Insider subscription) to see how I can make the old new again.

I should mention that the 4th edition D&D character builder is addictive. It’s relatively quick, it presents choices and suggestions. I love it. Combine that with a love for all the options 4th edition has to offer, and I’m like a kid in a candy store.

I decided to go hard-core. I pulled out my old half-giant gladiator from Dark Sun. He was an NPC I had who followed around one of the player characters. In Dark Sun, every character gets a psionic wild talent. My character, Kalador, had this power from the Dragon Kings sourcebook titled Strength of the Land. It had two prerequisite powers that he gained automatically as well – Lend Health and Share Strength. Something about a half-giant who could give of his strength and HP to fellow adventurers seemed great. The fact that he could draw power from the very earth beneath him was just awesome.

Imagine my surprise when I got the PHB2, cracked it open, and saw the warden class. Here was a class that seemed to be based around the Strength of the Land theme! I was so excited. I also had my eyes on the goliath race, which had awesome written all over it. I knew what I had to do.

Using the character builder (Did I mention that I dearly love this program?), I transformed my old half-giant gladiator into a goliath warden. I won’t bore you with all the details, but I found a few tricks that may help you if you decide to re-invent your character.

1. It’s okay to change the race. If a new race works out better, or if the race is thematically similar to your old one, give it a shot. Sometimes you will find some new gem, whether rules-based or fluff-based, for your character.

2. Ditto with classes and powers. In my case, I went from an arena gladiator to a primal warden. Yet they share certain similarities. I went from one defender type to another, and I maintained the Strength of the Land theme. In fact, I built upon the theme. I’m not certain yet about the other powers, but maybe PHB3’s psionic power source will have something to offer.

3. Backstory can be modified, but you can also keep it as-is and provide an in-game explanation for the change. I had a 3.5 wizard recently that just wasn’t cutting it for me. An in-game change made him into a favored soul. The cool part about this change was that it added some fantastic story to the game.

4. You will always lose something, but you will always gain something. It’s the trade-off of making a change.

5. Did I mention themes? You won’t ever get a direct translation, but you can use the themes to re-build characters from the ground up. Just remember to build them within the game system you’re using, keep your foundations, and be open to change. My goliath’s tattoo pattern, for example, is eerily similar to his old slave tattoos.

6. Above all, have fun with it. This isn’t too serious of stuff here. If the changes fit, great. If not, don’t convert!

So give it a try and see what becomes of your old characters. You may find new life to old characters, and the desire to play them once more.

Buying Books for the Wrong Reasons

Recently, I bought a book not because I liked the author or subject matter, but because I wanted to support a guy whose book got some undeserved criticism. J. F. Lewis was recently interviewed on Dragon Page: Cover to Cover episode. His book, Staked, was the cause for him and his family to nearly be kicked out of their church. It’s hard to explain, so I can only recommend that you listen to the podcast. I was quite appalled at the way the church talked to him about the book, and so I decided to buy a copy to support the guy.

While my intentions may have been noble, I have discovered 90 pages into the book that I really shouldn’t have bought the book. There were a few reasons. Mainly, the book came across as juvenile to me. The transitions in the book were bad; the characters didn’t act in a believable way. Also, I haven’t read vampire novels in the past, but I thought I’d try something new. I should have listened to my gut instinct here. When I think of vampires, I think of Dracula. I prefer to think of individual monsters with strength of personality, not some sort of secret society caste system where being a vampire is almost commonplace. At 90 pages in, I’m ready to trade the book in at a used book store. Others may find it to be good, but it just didn’t work for me.

I began to look at this book and think of other books that I bought over the years, and wondered how many others were bought for the wrong reasons. First, though, I think we should define some good reasons to buy a book. Perhaps you enjoy a particular setting, or you like the author. Maybe the book has art that you enjoy, such as a comic book. Maybe the book has vital information, such as an RPG sourcebook. You may have a friend who broke into the business and you want to offer him your support. The list goes on.

There are, however, some reasons not to buy a book.

1. I’m making a statement. See my story above as an example. All you’re really saying is, “Here’s my cash. ”The chances of your hard-earned dollars making any sort of statement are minimal at best. In the case above, I may have been better served either e-mailing the author to express my point of view or just venting to a friend. Now I’m out $14 on a book I probably wouldn’t have read normally.

2. The author had one good book, so they must all be good! This one is real tricky. How do you know? You might be able to catch some clues from reviews, but oftentimes, you won’t know until you read the book yourself. I enjoyed Scott Sigler’s podcast novel The Rookie quite a bit, so I also listened to the podiobook of Infected. It was well-written and well-produced, but had way too much gore for my tastes. I tend to buy print copies after hearing the podcast novel version, but I really can’t justify spending the money on this book when it is just…gross. Don’t get me wrong, I like Sigler’s writing. I just think he can write a good story without all the gore.

3. It’s got a cool cover! Remember foil covers for comic books? They could sell the worst of comics because they were all shiny. And the price was jacked up too.

4. It’s part of a collection. Guilty! I’ve got quite a bit of that collector gene in me. I collected the original X-Factor comic book series, and have every issue. I was quite proud of this collection. Yet despite having them all, I hadn’t enjoyed the stories since issue #100. That’s nearly 50 issues I bought just for the collection’s sake. I read characters acting out of character, had bad art…all for the sake of a collection. I need more.

There are probably a few dozen more, but you get the idea. You’re not buying the book for the right reasons. Your brain suffers a serious malfunction, and you spend your hard-earned cash.

I don’t have a lot of advice here. If I did, perhaps I would know how to stop myself. I think, though, that the best one can do is to just stop, put the book back, and think about it for a while before making the purchase. If you’re still interested later, you can just get your book. However, you may find that the interest is fleeting at best.

I may have lost a few dollars and a few hours reading Staked, but I came out of it knowing a few things. I know now that vampire books are not for me. I know what genres I like and what ones I don’t. I’m not afraid to try new things, but I must expect that I won’t like them all. I know that buying a book based on some sense of’ righteous fury’ just isn’t good. In other words, I know that I bought the book for the wrong reasons.

Be sure that, when you buy a book, you do it for all the right reasons. Happy reading!

Balanced? Yeah, but is it fun?

When 3rd edition D&D came about, one of its promises was to have a balanced game system. In fact, game balance had become so prevalent that it seemed that every other topic on some forums was about whether some element of gaming was balanced. Is the new prestige class balanced? What about X spell from Y sourcebook? It would go on and on and on.

I have to admit that it reached such levels that I wondered if this is what new players thought gaming was about. Were they assigning numerical values to every class ability and weighing them against one another? Was there a mystical set of scales by which all things were weighed upon? Were those scales provided by Hiddukel, the evil god of tricks and lies in Dragonlance known for his symbol of the broken scales?

I wondered how all this talk of the almighty Balance entered our vernacular. I remember the occasional talk of something being “overpowered,” but we never used the term “balance.” That isn’t to say the term wasn’t used, just that my own experience never saw the use of the word. I would say that it was the internet that saw the term gain prominence. Despite the mass-communication medium, it also takes a force to drive the new terminology. Enter the game designers, perhaps most notably Monte Cook. They used the term “balance” quite frequently.

Needless to say, the almighty Balance began to annoy me to no end. Why was it that people were asking if every little rule was balanced? Why this obsession? Did nobody ever have fun before the almighty Balance? I sure remember having fun playing AD&D with some off-balanced rules.

That’s when it clicked with me. Why do we ask left and right if something is balanced? Why do we not ask instead if something is fun? I mean, that’s why we came to game, right? To have fun?

Don’t get me wrong. As a game designer, I fully understand that game balance is an important factor in the game. You don’t want your wizard doing nothing while your fighter is having all the fun. Everybody should be able to take part in the gaming experience.

However, we should not forsake the fun in the name of game balance. Keep balance in the background, but focus on the fun. You will find your gaming experience to be so much more enjoyable because of it.

Revised Editions – Good or Bad?

Lately, as I scour around for new RPG’s to buy, I’ve been bombarded by a ton of products that have either been revised (typically for the 3.5 rules) or have had a new edition put out. Just off the top of my head, I can think of Mutants and Masterminds 2nd Edition, Shadowrun 4th Edition, Everquest II, Spycraft 2.0, World of Warcraft 2nd Edition, and the Tome of Horrors Revised book (only released as a PDF, no less!). I’m sure I missed several in there.

If you’re big into role-playing games, this is a serious blow. At $30 – 40 a book (if not more), that puts a big dent in the pocketbook. The general feeling that I’ve seen among RPG fans, and I tend to agree with this sentiment, is that they don’t like paying for the same thing twice. I’m sure that the die-hard fans of each of these books are more willing to shell out a few extra dollars for the improvements made in the new editions and revisions, but casual fans get hit a little harder.

Revisions and new editions have been around since RPG’s began, but the intensity of them seems to have increased in recent years. Wizards of the Coast’s 3.5 revision to the D&D rules is largely to blame for this. By changing the core rules to the 3.5 version, they caused a backlash wave. Many publishers put out revised editions of old products to match the new rules, which again disenfranchised the public by “forcing them to buy the same product twice.”

I know, I know. Nobody is holding a gun to your head. You’re still capable of running a game with the outdated version. Yet we, as RPG fans, are an obsessive lot who want the most current materials so that they work with the most current materials without having to do conversions. Many fans, self included, don’t like to make the conversions, and they want something in print (rather than the SRD).

At this point, we come to another major point in the whole mix from the other end of the spectrum – relevance. If an RPG company’s product is not relevant (i.e. compatible with the 3.5 rules), then it simply won’t sell. Many publishers revised their products to keep their products relevant so that they can continue to bring in revenue from them.

The 3.5 revision, like any edition change, has its good and bad points. While it improved the rules dramatically, it also had an adverse effect on publishers (who had to revise their own products to remain relevant) and fans (both in terms of cash flow and trust).

New editions allow for companies to take already good products, and make them better. The new World of Warcraft RPG stands as a means to appeal to the core Warcraft computer game audience, rather than a D&D audience. Mutants and Masterminds, an already great game, is reportedly even better now.

All of these revisions and editions bring to mind a few questions.

How can we trust that the products we buy will be the final version? Quite simply, we can’t. We don’t know what the industry will do, and when a new revision or edition might come down the pike. People have been predicting 4th Edition D&D since 3rd Edition came out. Do not doubt that it will happen eventually. It’s just a matter of when. It might be next year, it may be ten years down the line.

How can RPG companies, who have been forced to make tough decisions, maintain an audience when they’re doing what they need to in order to survive? Some may have solely been motivated by profit, but there are some who truly need to make the revisions in order to be able to sell a product. Do they get too greedy with new editions? Do RPG companies make revisions just for the sake of making a revision and profiting off of it?

All of this being said, this is an editorial, so let me editorialize.

Though I can see all sides to this, and sometimes people make the hard choices that don’t necessarily make them popular, I think it gets to be too much after a while. RPG fans could use a sense of security. I’d like to know that, if I bought a product, it won’t become irrelevant in two years’ time. I’d like to know that I won’t have to relearn the rules.

Though substantial profits are made, the market does suffer for it. How many RPG companies didn’t last through the 3.5 revision? How many companies find that their revisions split the fan base?

Don’t get me wrong. I think RPG companies have the right to make their products better and to make a profit. At the same time, they should consider all the effects that a revision or new edition might make, including on their fan base. For fans, I recommend voting with your dollar. If you feel the product is worth getting, then by all means buy it! If you’re a little strapped for cash or don’t feel you should “have to buy it again,” then don’t worry about it and spend your money elsewhere. Be sure to communicate with your RPG company (on boards, through e-mail or snail mail, etc.) and let them know what you think.

Also, ask yourself if you would even use such a product. For example, I played Shadowrun in college with the 1st edition rules (right when 2nd edition was released). Most of my Shadowrun products are 2nd edition. I haven’t played in probably 10 years, so it doesn’t make sense for me to buy the 4th edition book. Yes, we sometimes get attached to those worlds and our instincts tell us to get the latest and greatest.

It’s a tough road to walk down, for fans and RPG companies alike. The choice of making a new edition will always cause some sort of backlash in the fan base. Companies should look to make sure that the revised editions are necessary, and that they’re not making a revision for revision’s sake. Know when to say when, and look towards the internet as a way to accomplish some of the same goals. Fans should vote with their dollar, using their head to temper their heart. Don’t buy a revised edition just because it is there. Buy it because you want it. Or don’t, if you don’t feel it is worth it to buy a new edition. Above all, though, it should be fun. If a new edition isn’t fun, don’t buy it. If it is, more power to you.

Happy gaming!

Mad Ramblings From a Gaming Nostalgist

What do you think of when you hear the term ‘grognard’? Is it someone who is bitter about new gaming books? Does this person hate new things? Or is it a badge of honor? I’m certain that each one of us could offer a slightly different take on what it means, but the fact remains that the word can come with a certain amount of baggage.

Lately, I’ve been referring to myself as a ‘gaming nostalgist.’ For those of you who would remind me that ‘nostalgist’ isn’t a word, I will simply remind you that I am an American and we Americans have been bastardizing language for far longer than anyone. So nyah!

So what does being a gaming nostalgist mean? Well, a nostalgist is a grognard minus the negative connotations. We nostalgists are proud of our origins and seek to keep a bit of that with us. We make no apologies, yet we also aren’t going to poo-poo over everyone else’s fun. We’re the folks who play Star Wars Saga Edition, yet still love our old West End Games d6 Star Wars books – and use them. We’re the folks who play Castles & Crusades, and use both AD&D and d20 versions of D&D in our games. We are not ashamed of our origins, nor do we condemn them. We celebrate those origins.

We’re an odd breed of gamer, having the ability to love the new and the old all at the same time. It also means that we sometimes have a hard time in fandom. We’ve got one advantage in that we can work with a diverse group of gamers, but it can also be difficult working with gamers who are adamant about their own point of view. I have a hard time dealing with fans that have to rain on AD&D’s parade, yet I also have a hard time dealing with folks who have to be down on d20. Despite AD&D’s flaws, did you not enjoy the game at the time? It’s a perfectly workable system and people still play it, so why spoil their fun? For that matter, why rain on anyone’s parade for having fun in a different way than you? Maybe I’m more of a story-driven gamer, but if Joe Gamer prefers a tactical minis-based game, why should I spoil his fun?

Being a nostalgist also means that you have your own style of play. Do your 4th edition games carry with them a 2nd edition feel? This reminds me of Necromancer Games, whose tag-line of “3rd edition rules, 1st edition feel” really set the tone for all their products. It was a formula for success, as evidenced with their highly-successful Tome of Horrors. I know that as I go forward in the world of Dragonlance, I will always keep the feel from the Margaret Weis Productions books with me.

A nice mix of the old and new can lead to a lot of fun in your games. Celebrate your origins, but don’t be afraid to try new things. Respect others. Above all, play the game your way.

Love the Product/Hate the Company

D&D anymore is kind of like how I feel about Michael Jackson. I loved his Thriller album when it came out, so I bought it. His Bad album was pretty good too. But let’s face it – Michael Jackson is freaky in the extreme. I like the music, but not the performer himself. At the time, I didn’t know that Michael Jackson would turn out the way he did; none of us did. Would I buy those two albums now knowing what I do? I may debate it some, but I think I would. I would just look at it as buying a product I enjoy, rather than as supporting Michael Jackson.

Recently, I’ve been confronted with a similar situation in terms of Wizards of the Coast and D&D 4th edition. I’m really digging 4th edition. There’s still a lot I need to learn, but I’m genuinely excited by this version of the D&D game. Yet as I say this, I can’t say I’m as big of a fan of Wizards of the Coast as I used to be.

As of this writing (12/2/2008), several WotC employees, including Dave Noonan and Jonathan Tweet, were laid off. This is the same company that laid off gaming legend Jeff Grubb, one of the original Dragonlance designers, the guy largely responsible for Spelljammer, and an all-around gaming legend. He’s worked on D&D for many years, and they nixed him.

I can’t say I’m a big fan of WotC’s lack of continuity between editions. Or the Forgotten Realms’ time jump. It’s the Realms’ version of Dragonlance’s Fifth Age, in my opinion. Or the discontinuation of Dragon and Dungeon magazines (and no, the online subscription versions are not the same). And so on and so forth. Nor do I feel like paying for online content from WotC’s digital initiative. Partly, I feel that you’re not getting your money’s worth. I also feel that they shouldn’t charge for materials that were once free on their site. But I digress.

Wizards of the Coast is but one example. Any number of other companies may have great products, but lots of background drama going on. You may find that you like their product, but they have poor shipping. Or perhaps their customer service skills are lacking. Maybe you don’t like the people behind the company. So what’s a gamer to do?

I talked with my friend and fellow Dragonlance game designer Cam Banks about this, and he suggests that you buy the products you like. You’re not supporting companies here; they are not charities. I think this is an excellent idea. Separate out the company from the product. When I buy a D&D 4th edition product, I’m not doing so in support of WotC. I do so because I enjoy the product. Voting with the dollar also has the added benefit of sending the message to WotC about what you like and what you don’t.

What happens, then, when a company’s definition of some game element doesn’t match your own, or changes over time? Lately, I have been concerned about the heart and soul of D&D. While I like 4th edition, it is a very different game than its predecessors. It’s definitely a reinterpretation of what D&D is. In this process of transition, we’ve seen some reimagining of some D&D elements. Some of it is good, some not so much. Of course, I also felt a bit this way when 3rd edition came about. Take the halfling, for example. Once, it was a knock-off of the hobbits from Lord of the Rings. Since 3rd edition, they have been more kender-like. Hobbit fans may not like the change. However, that’s easily remedied by changing a little fluff. Likewise, the renaming of dragon types to become “new” chromatic dragons (i.e. deep dragons becoming purple dragons) is annoying.

Rules and flavor are often not one and the same. Sometimes they’re tied together. But in D&D’s case, there is room for adaption. I have so many pre-4e Realms gaming supplies that making the time jump forward doesn’t make much sense. I also prefer the pre-4e Realms flavor-wise. So I’ve got the 4e Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide, but my plan isn’t to use it for playing in the current era. The FRPG gives some good basics for playing in the Realms in the current era, but materials can be adapted for using 4th edition rules in previous eras.

In other words, just because WotC says that dragons act a certain way and halflings look a certain way, that doesn’t mean it is gospel. Use the rules you want, and if the flavor doesn’t match what you want, then grab some flavor elsewhere or make up your own.

I know I’ve singled WotC out quite a bit here. That’s not my intention. It’s just that they are the company I’m most familiar with, and are the most well-known gaming company out there. The same basic principles I mention here can apply to any company.

These principles also apply to fandom. I’m a huge fan of the Castles & Crusades game by Troll Lord Games. The Trolls are great folks. Unfortunately, some of their fans can be quite negative and vocal about d20. It’s enough that some people stay away from the product due to its fans. What I did to circumvent this was to just no longer bother with their forums. Problem solved. I have a nifty RPG I like, and I’ll play it my way, even if that way is ‘incorrect’ by some peoples’ definitions.

So in short, buy the products you like and don’t pay the companies any mind. Getting involved in company politics and drama will just sour you on the gaming experience. If you don’t like the decisions companies make regarding in-game elements, then discard those elements and use the ones you want. And if the fans of said product or company bring down the experience for you, then feel free to ignore them.

It’s your game. Focus on that and ignore the rest, and you’ll have a happier gaming experience.