Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Weview Wednesday - DIY Zenopus vs Sleek Corporate IP Rick








Hey fam! Been off the blogging train for a bit, trying to get my brain in order. Frankly, since the Death of Google Plus and the Great Migration, I haven't been nearly as involved in an online RPG community as I previously was, although I wish that I could be. Working on that, by the way. I'm not great at Twitter, and I find that I piss people off on there who I might otherwise enjoy engaging with, for reasons of privilege and my belief that people give a fuck what I think. The upshot is that I am somewhat heavily invested in my face to face group game, which is typically biweekly. I gave up the reins since I was burning out on DMing all the time, and we drifted from Dungeon Crawl Classics to 5th Edition D&D. I know, I know. Despite my previous proclamations, I will in fact play 5e if there is nothing else going on because a little D&D is good, none is better than bad, and bad D&D is the worst. My DM for this past few weeks has been Eli, a fun roleplayer on the other side of the table and a great DM (all the people in my group are pretty terrific and I value them immensely).

So: I don't pick things to play but I play things. I DO buy things to play, though. One thing i bought is Zach Howard's The Ruined Tower of Zenopus. First, understand that Zach is a bit of a scholar about these things, and I do not believe any person to have more knowledge or research experience in the realm of Holmes-era D&D and early ODnD things. I think that's his schtick; like if you hire a sage then what you get is him. Disclaimer: I know him, sort of, like him and his work, and see him every so often at local regional cons. I think we're related in a long chain of friends who know friends, but I don
't interact with him except online, these days.

Like other people (ahem), even Zach must bow to the blowing of the winds and what he's done here is take a fun scenario, maybe one many people have played, and turned it into a thing that 5th edition players can use as a launching point for a whole campaign. I've not yet played Ghosts of Saltmarsh - and probably never will - but! BUT! If I were, this would be a great way to lead into it. My favorite part of the document is the factions and conversion section which takes the tantalizing bits offered in the original 1977 text and fleshes them out to something on solid ground. This entry-level dungeon can, and should be, perched precariously onto the top of whatever you might desire beneath it. It's a lot like the dungeon beneath the Abbey that was offered in many versions of the DMG as a starting point for gamers - these tutorial dungeons by design leave much to the imagination. Something, I think, that older versions of the game are much, much better at than current versions. The thaumaturge/Keledek can be bested, or go on to become a thorn in the side of player characters for years. The whole place is pregnant with possibility. The adventure is not just a well-written introduction, but a launching point. A not-quite-blank slate for you to play with and make your own. You could pick this up and take it anywhere. And it would be good because it has a strong foundation. Hats off to you, Zach. It shows what love for the source material and an understanding of what the medium can accomplish. What do you get for the price? A literal jumping off point for hours and hours of fun with friends, and of course some tropes that are as warm and comfortable as a bubble-bath. Zach has lovingly taken a 40-odd year old thing and made it readily accessible for current audiences and users of the system. Not much to steal, since they are given to you, and the bones of D&D are literally baked on top of this. A home-base, bandits controlled by evil wizards, winding stairs down into the dark. A respectable and admirable offering. B,B+ for nice layout, heart, and respect and fondness for the source material

Let me offer a counter-example of what I mean, here. 5e seems great on the face of it. Easy to run, easy to hack, easy to leave out burdensome bits. Even says so right in the books, like all good books ought to say. I especially like that they offer many many OPTIONAL rules, variants, and stress time-saving countermeasures for getting bogged-down in rules-buggery. A lot of the PC options seem like they are there for PLAYERS and not DMs to have any thoughts about. What I don't particularly like is that it's a company product , and a brand, and ripe for completist bookshelf pictures. The books are fabulously expensive, too! I remember when I was a kid the TSR hardbounds were expensive but not out of the reach of a teenage guy with a weekend job or access to a lawnmower. Then again, in the 80's our books were in black and white, and these 5e books are beautiful examples of printing technology and material goods.

I picked up this (admittedly clever) monstrosity on a Sunday-night jaunt into Gettysburg. That being the Dungeons and Dragons vs. Rick and Morty boxed set. Well, it's mostly for Rick and Morty fans. I've seen all the seasons on Hulu (so I'm not up to speed), and I like it. It's cleverly written, pretty self-aware, is somewhat nihilistic and awful in a way that even e.g. South Park cannot be. The character of Rick Sanchez is, simply put, reprehensible and the glee with which he tears apart and rebuilds the universe around him (even his dysfunctional family) is part of the appeal of the show. If the Simpsons was about a lovingly dim American family, and South Park and Family Guy are the fast-forwarded products of that, then R&M is the self-hatred and dysfunction and wry awareness of those eras cranked up to 11 and smoking meth. It's interesting that the show highlights that Rick is not just capable of kindness and empathy at times, but he is grotesquely fond of his daughter and his grandson, and although he hurts them over and over in ways that (as a therapist) I find hard to watch, you can see that some part of it is driven by love and kindness (what a critique of our age, eh! more later!)

So, what do you get in the box? Well, a Rick-ified rules manual, mostly lame. The best part about it is the art, and the spell-selection advice from Rick for novice Wizard players. Also, the writer/editor/author-viewpoint of Rick really kicks the shit out of DnD as a bit of a crusty joke not to be take too seriously. Although he has respect for the genre of roleplaying games, much of the text is devoted to explaining that these conventions are mostly absurdities.

The dice are a hot green color - pretty nice for what they are. I haven't tried them yet. The DM screen is terrific - one side covered with absolutely useful information and the other with the clever R&M style box art, which I love, but I probably wouldn't want to stare at it if I wasn't a fan of the show.

The pregens are pretty close to what you might expect, with the caveat that they are sort of tied to R&M characters - the notion being that you are playing Rick's family and a friend playing D&D with Rick as the DM. Meatface, which since I'm not a R&M grognard I can't recall if Meatface is a character in the show or created for this box set. Leading me to the boxed adventure "module".

What do I think? To start with, pretty tediously "self aware", like Rick and Morty's show. Somewhat funny? Yeah, that too. Full of weirdness? Yes, absolutely! There are a few things to steal - in fact I remarked on Twitter some ways back that this isn't a great D&D module for most people who play D&D but it would absolutely make a good module for players of Dungeon Crawl Classics who are (like me) transitioning into D&D5e, because it takes a bunch of tired out tropes and goes out of its way to discard rules and regulations in this regard. Lots of 4th-wall breaking, references to the show, crude teen humor (it's aimed at 13 y/o and up), and roleplay. Highlighting, it seems to me, that you could go through this whole thing and not have a combat round at all until the end (in my mind a mark of almost-quality) and that it's written to appeal to a couple of different kinds of gamers (like 5e, broadly). Most of it will fall flat on you if you're not a fan of the show. But there is a lot to lift. I would probably bring over the Meeseeks box, maybe the Cult of the Buttless, the Ooze Cult, and maybe the Writer's Room encounter. The door to other planes of reality, subtly different than the one you start in, and the reverse trope where the players meet their dopplegangers and are forced to fight them individually. I sort of dig the style of these authors and wouldn't mind seeing what they would do unhindered by the R&M franchise, I guess. There is an encounter with a family of Orcs at what is Orky-Christmas that really throws the tropes of D&D into a stark light, right there in the open and with full knowledge of the authors and (presumably) the people at WoTC who evidently don't take themselves too too seriously. Most of the puzzles are pretty forced, although the one with the undefeatable wizard seems like it would be fun to roleplay. it shows what you can do with a disregard for the rules, and a tired, almost hostile criticism of the source material. B-/C for overuse of the selling-point to the point of weariness, and downright spitefulness of a kind I think is ubiquitous these days

Zach's thing is a couple of bucks. Throw the guy a bone, he's good at what he does and he's part of, if not a bedrock part of, the gaming and blogging community. The R&M thing is more (like maybe 15 times as much!) and if you're not a fan of the show, take a hard pass. If you've got a teen who is into R&M, buy him or her Zach's thing instead. You are, and your young friend is, aware enough to be able to pull off anything in the DnDvsR&M boxed-set and the empty self-hatred that comes in the box won't stain your DM robes.

I'm trying to get my Anchor thing going, and take part in Discord n such. twitter seems a wasteland. I thought about telling Kickstarter to fuck off but there are a great many fun Zines in Zinequest 2, and so I don't know. I backed a couple. I want my friends to be successful. I want us not to turn our hobbies into a side-gig. Does it cheapen us? Cheapen DnD? I don't know. I guess the whole thing is predicated on the purchase of books, to start, yeah. But to wrap this B up, you could get the DnD Basic Rules pdf for nothing, get Zach's Zenopus module for 2 or 3 dollars, find the map at a link and OFF YOU GO. The flipside is for 7 lawns or whatever, teenage me could barely afford the box set of DnDvRnM and I'd be left with wry-dislike and hatred of RPG conventions, a set of dice, and a one-shot that I would never play again that has ties to nothing and nobody else unless you crammed it (and its hefty attitude) into your play. If you leave out the Rick-sposition, it's really a poorly crafted gimmick thing that has been beaten to death over the past 40 years. But aren't they all, at this point?

I don't know, man, I don't know.

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