Friday, August 31, 2012

Parallels in the History of Operating System Development and Role Playing Game Design in Relation to the Old School Renaissance


(I suppose I could have picked a more boring title for a blog post, but it would have taken a lot of effort.  Hopefully the content will not be.  Well, at least to some.  This post kind of got out of hand and morphed into more of an essay, but is still maintains the style and inaccuracies of a blog post – so forgive the confused and melded style.)

Back when I was a kid, people were pretty unsure about what D&D was - much less all of the rest of TSR's products that revolved around the game.  I'd explain simply that D&D was a game with rules and procedures on how things worked, much like an operating system.  A module like Keep of the Borderlands was like a software package, or program, you'd run on the OS.  I, as Dungeon Master, was like the CPU of a Commodore 64, interpreting the rules and providing feedback to the users, or players.

Nobody understood.  It was 1982, for Pete's sake.  Pre-Macintosh – if you can imagine such a thing.

The Past is Prologue

Step back a decade to the swinging 70's.  About the same time that Gygax and Arneson were designing the first iteration of Dungeons and Dragons, researchers at Bell Labs were developing an operating system called UNIX for a honking big computer called the PDP-11/20.  Like the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons, UNIX was cryptic, spooky, and not for newbs.  You really needed to know what the hell you were doing to make it work, but if you did - wow - you never saw your wife again.

Bell Labs was a part of American Telephone & Telegraph, and as a behemothic monopoly, AT&T was subject to all sorts of governmental regulation.  One rule was that AT&T was forbidden from entering the computer business.  So, AT&T gave copies of UNIX away freely to whatever business or university that asked.  UNIX proved to be very popular since it gave system administrators a much easier interface to control how a computer ran, and provided a common platform for programers to write their programs.

Times, They are a-Changing

Then, in 1983, the U.S. government broke up AT&T into smaller companies and removed many of the regulations that controlled the giant.  Bell Labs decided to monetize UNIX.

Complete and utter chaos reigned as everyone tried to make their own UNIX, sell it, and sue competitors off the map.  Some lawsuits are still going on to this day.  To many businesses, UNIX was a hot potato.  Upstarts like Microsoft and Apple stepped in and succeeded in business where UNIX should have more logically reigned.

Microsoft and Apple had something going for them, though.  They concentrated on the USER, not the system administrators, with graphical interfaces and a click-drag mentality.  In fact, the Windows and Macintosh operating systems, in an attempt to simplify maintenance, took power and capabilities away from the admins, infuriating power-hungry computer science students everywhere.

In this same era, role playing games were undergoing a shift away from a kit mentality.  Role playing games once had more of a open point of view, where the game master took the rules only as a suggestion and borrowed ideas from other sources.  A large part of running a successful game was up to the game master’s ability to come up with new rules on the fly.

Newer games supplied more rules and attempted to be a ‘complete package’ for a game master, so that less preparation was involved, as well as on-the-fly making up of rules.

Furthermore, games like GURPS and Champions provided rules for creating exactly the character a player wanted to run in a game, while games like Vampire: The Masquerade seemed to shift RPGs from a gauntlet one had to survive into a cooperative social gathering where turmoils of the inner psyche were examined.  The person running the game became a ‘storyteller,’ rather than a ‘master’ of the game.

Free as in Speech, Not Free as in Beer

There was a backlash to the user-friendliness of graphical operating systems and the corporate greed that suffocated UNIX.  Hippie nerds at the University of California, Berkeley kept the old, free version of UNIX alive, writing additional features and increasing the types of computers their version of UNIX, the Berkeley Software Distribution, would work on.   At the same time, a computer anarchist named Richard Stallman created the Free Software Foundation, an organization bent on allowing software, and its source code, to be freely available to everyone.

These two movements gained steam in the 1990’s.  The Berkely UNIX, or BSD, was carried over into a multitude of projects, including FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD, each with different goals.  And a Finnish man named Linus Torvalds began to reverse engineer UNIX and make it his own in a form he called Linux.

Linux was developed under the Free Software Foundation’s GNU Public License, or GPL.  Software written under the GPL had to be distributed with the full source code.  That way, no company could take Linux, alter it, and sell as their own.  Everyone would always ‘own’ Linux, and no one could steal it and make a profit.

BSD’s license was slightly different.  BSD was free to everyone, but corporations could take it and use it in whatever way they wanted, changing it and reselling it however they wanted.

The operating systems of the Open Source movement caught on like wildfire amongst software developers.  Students devoted huge amounts of their free time to make the operating systems better and better.

Linux itself became so popular that it began to threaten Window’s dominance in the field.  Microsoft’s competitors, such as IBM, pumped huge amounts of money and the time of their own software developers to improve Linux and help bring Microsoft down a notch or two.

Free as in Games

The desire to create a more open environment for intellectual property spread to the gaming world as well.  One of the earliest was Fuzion, which had an open-source type licensing, which basically allowed others to use the Fuzion game system in their own product.

In a strange move in 2000, Wizard of the Coast, who had recently bought TSR, open-sourced the bulk  of Dungeons and Dragons via its Open Game License.  The OGL was very similar to the Free Software Foundation’s GPL, allowing free distribution of the core System Reference Document – and derivatives, as long as a copy of the OGL was included, and due credit was given.  That doesn’t exactly seem to be WOTC’s intention with the OGL, but that’s what happened.

Thus, the Old School Renaissance was born.

Very quickly, people began to reverse engineer the earlier editions of Dungeons and Dragons and legally distribute the ‘new’ rules.   The earlier versions of D&D had not been in print for decades so and those who wished to play them had a difficult time.

While some have argued that the rewrites of D&D could have been done anyway, since rules cannot be copyrighted, only text, the OGL gave publishers the legal ‘safety net’ to do so.  Game distributions such as Swords and Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord take advantage of the license.

Open Source – Old School

The open sourcing of UNIX as Linux and the BSDs caused ripples and waves in mainstream computing.  Linux and OpenBSD’s focus on security forced Microsoft to address security issues with Windows.  Many ideas brought to Linux and the BSD’s by volunteers made their way to Window’s as well.  Apple completely tossed their original Macintosh operating system and replaced it with a BSD derivative, still in use today and known as MasOSX.  The Android phone operating system uses Linux as it’s core.

To put it in simple terms, a relatively small group of people with some free time, and a desire to keep operating systems and software open to the public, changed the face of computing.

Similarly, the Old School Revolution, taking open and available components of Dungeons and Dragons, reversed engineered the game, making it available to all.  Hobbyists and game companies can now publish content for the game, and even different versions of the game, as they see fit.

The somewhat nebulous goal of the somewhat nebulous Old School Renaissance was to bring back an older style of gaming.  The OSR succeeded in that.  But like Linux and the BSDs, the OSR caught the attention of the big boys.  WOTC, owners of Dungeons and Dragons, is currently redesigning the game to be more like its earlier versions.

I find some gratification in being there, at least in a tiny way, for both of these revolutions – both as a software developer and a old school game player.  It’s nice to see grass-roots, heart-felt movements be successful.

- Ark

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

OSR is Dying


It is official; Netcraft WOTC now confirms: *BSD OSR is dying.

One more crippling bombshell hit the already beleaguered  *BSD OSR community when IDC Dragon Magazine confirmed that  *BSD OSR market share has dropped yet again, now down to less than a fraction of 1 percent of all servers tables. Coming close on the heels of a recent  Netcraft WOTC survey which plainly states that  *BSD OSR has lost more market share, this news serves to reinforce what we've known all along.  *BSD OSR is collapsing in complete disarray, as fittingly exemplified by failing dead last in the recent Sys Admin Game Master comprehensive networking play test.

You don't need to be a Kreskin to predict  *BSD's OSR's  future. The hand writing is on the wall:  *BSD OSR faces a bleak future. In fact there won't be any future at all for  *BSD OSR because  *BSD OSR is dying. Things are looking very bad for  *BSD OSR. As many of us are already aware,  *BSD OSR continues to lose market share. Red ink flows like a river of blood.

All major surveys show that  *BSD OSR has steadily declined in market share.  *BSD OSR is very sick and its long term survival prospects are very dim. If  *BSD OSR is to survive at all it will be among OS RPG dilettante dabblers. *BSD OSR continues to decay. Nothing short of a cockeyed miracle could save  *BSD OSR  from its fate at this point in time. For all practical purposes,  *BSD OSR is dead.

Fact: *BSD OSR is dying.

[ okay, if you recognize this ancient USENET and Slashdot troll, then you are an old, decrepid uber-nerd with a penchant for obscure alternate operating systems. ;) ]

- Ark

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Giant Robots Breaking Things


A Battletech tide has been swelling at the FLGS.  Sporadic talk and pick-up games morphed into BattleTech Night last Saturday in which 11 robot jox showed up to best each other in mechanized combat.

It was fun.

The Boy was introduced to the game through a marathon 16 hour Battletech king of the hill scenario at NTRPGCon near the beginning of summer.  It was hard to drag him from the table to go play the other games I had scheduled us for.  Literally.  His fingers dug into the table like claws as I tugged at this legs.

So, when my son saw the Battletech Introductory Box Set at our FLGS, Roll2Play, his eyes got really big. The price tag was a little costly for him, but his birthday was coming up and I suggested that we try the free Battletech Quick-Start Rules before he made a final decision.

He loved it.  Mopping the floor with me and my mechs probably didn't hurt, either.  So, for his birthday, along with a multitude of Lord of the Rings Legos and an bonafide actual real archery set, The Boy became the proud owner of the 31st century.

Hunchback: The Boy's Favorite Mech
After reading (okay, skimming) through the rules, we went back to the game shop to sit down and play.  People surrounded us with big eyes and some joined in our game of mechanical destruction.  It's funny that people had the same reaction and interest down at the comic book shop back in 1987 when I opened my first Battletech game box.

All in all, the rules haven't changed much in 25 years.  A few tweaks here and there, but nothing major, despite the game changing ownership and having various distributors over it's lifetime. What has changed drastically is the organization and presentation.  Where before you had separate, and sometimes disjointed, rulesets for theaters of operation (air, land, space, etc,) now you have things organized along rules complexity that build on one another.

The levels are:

  • Quick-Start
  • Introductory
  • Standard
  • Advanced

Quick-Start is the simplified version - free and easy to learn given an afternoon.  The Introductory Rules come in a $60 box that also contains the Quick-Start rules, a background book on the setting, a book of mech sheets, 26 plastic models (no chit,) and two thick, double-sided maps that are much, much nicer than the originals.  There are probably more things in that box that I am forgetting.

Really, the Intro Box has everything you need to bust giant robot heads for a long time.  There are extra books you can get that go with the intro box - scenarios and whatnot - extra maps - minis - all that jazz.

Eventually I did grab the core standard rules rulebook, Total Warfare.  It really just adds more complex maneuvers and things, as well as adding aerial and space combat.  It's what they use for the 'official' competitions and such.  Pretty nifty, but it may be a year before The Boy ever gets up to that level of complexity.

The advanced stuff gets into waging wars across star systems.  Again, nifty, but very far removed from the Boy's current interests in having giant robots explode in a shower of shrapnel.

There is, however, a piece that I'm interested in beyond the battle bot bash jamboree.  Remember MechWarrior?  Battletech's RPG?  Well, back in the day it really never took off with me and my friends.  But today, I have a different mindset and attitude.  I think i could pull off running a BattleTech RPG.  They call the RPG these days A Time of War.  There is even a quick-start set for it here.  I've got some interest players already.  So who knows?

The guy who is running the Battletech Nights games has some ideas for organizing competitions, having people be from different houses, etc.  Good for robot battles, but not so good for an organized group of PCs.  But the RPG and the wargame don't have to match in continuity.

So, whatever the case - The Boy is now a die-hard Battletech fan and will be spending an inordinate amount of time at eh FLGS blowing stuff up.  And me?  I'll be right there next to him - most likely getting blown up by him and his unstoppable HBK-4G Hunchback.

- Ark

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Picking Up the Pieces

The bout of pneumonia I recently had was kind of like a reboot - physically and mentally.  I had been feeling really frazzled, and was going to use my vacation as a time to reflect, meditate, have fun, recharge, and just basically figure out what the hell was wrong and get on a better track.

Three weeks of stabbing lung pain, hallucinations, and a seething, unexplained anger later, I was finally recovering slowly.  But in some ways, I felt better than I did before I left for vacation.  All of those little projects, those plans, those things I do on a regular basis - I just tossed them aside - not just put on the back burner - but cancelled indefinitely in my mind.

That's one heck of a load off.

I've been mentally focusing on the core things - the really important things - family and such - and putting the other things into their proper perspective.  It's been a pretty freeing exercise.

I've been adding things slowly back.  Simple, small things.  Reading Tolkien, for instance.  The pneumonia interrupted my jaunt through Middle Earth.

Letting my mind run free in the lands of J. R. R. Tolkien has been great.  No expectations - no projects - no end result.  Just getting to know the paths of the Shire again, so to speak.  Very nice.

Then I look at gaming.  Either DMing or playing - it takes a lot of work and effort.  I miss it and my gaming group greatly - but I wonder when I'll be ready to put it back into my repertoire   I mean, seriously - I went up to the game store last weekend and played an hour and a half of card games.  Those 90 minutes completely wiped me out - mentally and physically.  How am I supposed to do a 4 to 6 hour role playing session?

It worries me.  I feel old.

Well, enough staring into my navel.  How about something positive?  Drawing had been frustrating me, so I remembered to do some exercises that have helped out a lot in the past.  It's called gesture drawing, in which you basically give yourself between 30 seconds and 2 minutes to capture a pose.  I've been doing it a lot recently, and am pretty happy with the results.

Below are the last three gesture drawing I've done - each at the two minute mark, and I think they are the best ones I've ever completed.  Okay, yeah, there are some proportion issues - but that's not what's important in this kind of exercise.  We're looking for movement, action, and direction - all done as quickly as possible.

Hmm - maybe I just need the equivalent of D&D rehab.  I'll just sit here and roll dice for a while and see if I can strengthen my crit muscle.  ;)
 



- Ark

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Roads Go Ever Ever On

Before our vacation, The Boy and I started listening to the audio versions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, narrated by Rob Inglis.  Having more time than I typically do, The Boy raced ahead of me in the narrative, but would gladly go back with me and listen at my slow-poke pace.

Unexpectedly, one day, The Boy sat down beside me and said, "Do you know what my favorite part of the Lord of the Rings books is?"

I thought for a moment, imagining battles in The Hobbit and the other books, wondering.  Could it be the spiders is Mirkwood, or maybe Bard and Smaug?  Perhaps the fights in Moria, at Helm's Deep, or Minas Tirith?  Tolkein was typically more skimpy on descriptions of warfare than Jackson's vivid interpretations, so it was hard for me to pinpoint something in the books themselves that would rate high on The Boy's Awesome-o-meter.

"I don't know.  What is your favoirte part?" I smiled.

"The songs," he said.

It took me a second to process that.  He meant the poems.  Well, at least what I called poems - as I was introduced to them as 'spoken' cadences in my head.  But yes, they were indeed songs, as the narrator Rob Inglis reminded us by actually singing them.

Upon the realization of what The Boy meant, I was rather overwhelmed with emotion.  I had been blindsided.  As a kid, I had dug through those books are read those songs over and over.  I even sat down and wrote my own after hearing the songs in the cartoons.  I turned my head and wiped the tears from my eyes.

"What's wrong," my son asked.

"Absolutely nothing," I said, clearing my throat and weakly smiling.  "I like the songs too."

"You know what my very favorite song is?" he asked.

I shrugged.  It was safer to shrug at that point, since I was still blinking away moisture.

"Roads Go Ever Ever On," he smiled widely.

I just about lost it.  Only through an iron will did I not just sit there and sob.

"That's a good one," I squeaked.

Something about Tolkein's works get me - deep down.  I heavily identified with Frodo and his pains and travails as a child.  Tears still fall - either in the books or Peter Jackson's movie.  That's probably why I like to watch the DVDs in the dark.

Listening to the books, I'm amazed at how - absent - the songs are from the movies.  Jackson still provides the emotional context via images and the soundtrack.  But really, the songs are the soul of the books.  The fact that my son understands that at some level - while not surprising when I think about it - is still very comforting.

- Ark


Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

- The Hobbit