Tag Archives: D&D

Candela Obscura Quickstart Review

This review doesn’t really matter.

This review doesn’t matter because there are four types of people who will click on this review when they see it, and none of them are looking for more information in order to form an opinion. You will have critters who’ve already decided they love Candela Obscura and want to see if I do too, and then critters who’ve already decided they hate Candela Obscura, think switching rulesets was pointless…and want to see if I do too. On the indie/OSR side, you have those who can’t stand Critical Role, and want to see if I’m going to bag on it, ranting as long as I did when I reviewed Root. You also have those who are just thankful that the largest Actual Play in the game is using something other than D&D, and have already decided it’s better. Ultimately, I don’t think my conclusion is going to satisfy any of these camps.

It’s fine.

Now, given my own biases from both years of experience in RPGs as well as other media (not to mention writing to a specific audience for a living), I find it hard to believe that anyone was expecting a conclusion other than ‘it’s fine’ for the first ground-up new game from Darrington Press. Just like nobody should have expected Tal’Dorei to be a Planescape or Spelljammer or other setting that really pushes on the conventions of the D&D genre, nobody should really have expected that a new game from Critical Role Productions would do anything other than nestle neatly into the range of genres already popularized in roleplaying, specifically nestling in next to another bestseller, Call of Cthulhu.

I’m starting the review in this way because, ultimately, the specifics of Candela Obscura aren’t nearly as interesting as the reactions they’ve elicited. On Twitter, the first reactions I saw were mostly from indie designers who seemed primed to hate it. Apparently everyone became an IP lawyer since the OGL kerfluffle, because there were people outright claiming that the game had plagiarized Blades in the Dark and was violating the terms of the Creative Commons license (in case it isn’t clear, this is untrue). On Reddit, I read a lot of confusion about the system, though it’s hard to tell from comments if this is just from newness and lack of context, or if it is actually confusing in play. And, of course, the first big review expressed disappointment at how much of a retread the whole thing is.

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A Chat With Jerry Holkins At PAX East ’23

I sit down with Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade, aka CEO Omin Dran of Acquisitions Incorporated, to talk about the primordial actual play experience , its history and changes, its official D&D book, and the ongoing Kickstarter for its second video series!

Thanks to Jerry for taking the time to talk with me! Musical notes yoinked from Sneaky Adventure by Kevin MacLeod
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Intellectual Property for Gamers

The biggest piece of news in the RPG world so far in 2023 has been OGL 1.1. Wizards of the Coast announced a revision to the Open Gaming License for Dungeons and Dragons back in December, and then earlier this month a copy of the new license, OGL 1.1, was leaked to the gaming press. As of last week, the full text of the leaked license is available for anyone to read. While the terms of OGL 1.1 are simply worse for third party creators than OGL 1.0a, the previous version of the agreement, the worst part of the whole thing is the attempt to ‘de-authorize’ OGL 1.0a, a move which, if deemed legal, could threaten the futures and possibly even the back catalogs of dozens of creators. With the stakes that high, there has been an outcry on social media directed towards Wizards of the Coast and its parent company Hasbro. Among that outcry, though, is a lot of armchair legal work which is only confusing matters.

There are really only two things that need to be understood about what’s going on with the new version of the OGL. First, OGL 1.1 is a problem for game designers because it gives Wizards of the Coast a lot of control over licensees’ work, and takes away licensing rights which many designers assumed would be there in perpetuity because of the earlier version of the agreement. Second, intellectual property law and contract law, which cover what goes on both in and around the OGL and games affected by it, are both arcane enough that nothing about the new agreement’s legality, applicability, or enforceability is truly known unless a case goes to court. With that said, let’s take a look at intellectual property law and why it’s particularly weird for games.

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The Meaning of Heartbreaker

Ever since Dungeons and Dragons was first released, there have been designers who thought they could do better. Some of them were right, and right fairly quickly; Ken St. Andre, Greg Stafford, and Marc Miller are all luminaries of the hobby who made their mark before the 70s ended. Many others, though, were not. After all, game design is like many creative pursuits, and while some have the talent and skill to pull it off, others…don’t.

As the hobby developed, someone came up with a name for the less inspired clones of D&D and its ilk: the fantasy heartbreaker. There are a couple of etymologies for this phrase. The first refers to the heart of the designer. In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, if you wanted to put out a game, you really had no choice other than to get it printed. Not only was there no PDF or print on demand, there was a much smaller ‘small press’ industry, and fewer printers who would take on a run of a few hundred books. No, these designers usually, if they wanted their book in print, had to order a run of at least a couple thousand. The heartbreak, then, is having a pallet of game books, unsold, in your garage or basement, serving only as a reminder of the massive bill they produced.

The second etymology refers to the heart of the critic, and due to the common use of the longer phrase ‘fantasy heartbreaker’ I believe this one is more accurate. A fantasy heartbreaker specifically is a clone of D&D, hence the genre modifier. What makes it a heartbreaker is, to put it bluntly, wasted potential. The motivation of a designer who writes a heartbreaker is to make a better version of the game they’ve been playing; generally they have somewhere between one and half a dozen interesting and often very good ideas about how to make a game they’d rather play. What they don’t have is the understanding of how to integrate those ideas into a coherent ruleset. The result, both then and now, is a game with several good ideas shoe-horned into rules which are basically D&D without any understanding of what changes were needed to make their ideas work. A critic sees the good ideas, then sees the rest of the game, and then their heart breaks.

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On Game Preparation

Games are static documents. No matter what supplements or errata are released after the fact, the text of a game is just words on a page once it leaves the designer’s head. What makes a role-playing game more than that, though, is the act of play. Role-playing games are different from board games or card games because unlike those, where there are procedures and set-up and specific things to do, role-playing games in their text form merely template the play experience. In traditional role-playing games, it’s up to the game master, or GM, to actually produce the play experience.

I haven’t discussed much in the way of procedures for running a game, and this oversight became more clear as I was attempting to write about how specifically to run a long-duration game in the conclusion of Meet the Campaign: Anti-Boredom. Also, and surprisingly, there’s been some discourse about game prep recently? I was under the mistaken impression that understanding how best to prep for a campaign or session was essentially a solved issue at this point, that writing about prep would mean giving advice, not taking a position.

That all said, there is better and worse prep technique, and there are better and worse games to prep for. One reason that so much of what constitutes ‘GM Advice’ in the broader RPG discussion world is merely advice on how to prep for and run a gaming session is that the monopoly game, Dungeons & Dragons, is a poor tool for GMs. When it comes to running the game D&D has been getting worse by the edition, really, and players who were raised on earlier editions, versions of the game that were much more specific about how to prep and play them, are only getting older. So if you are struggling with running your game, my first piece of advice is to stop playing Fifth Edition D&D.

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