Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Homunculi (for Diceless Dungeons)...

OK, no dissertation this week, just a little something for Diceless Dungeons; a sorcerous companion that can be magically fashioned, albeit with difficulty, from a forbidden tome that will only be found on adventures (a dragon's hoard perhaps)...

Click on the above link to get this creature (item?) in pdf form.  But also read on to consider the special role of the homunculus in a quasi-medieval world setting...  

Now, this ruleset doesn't go into too much detail about its implied setting, and this is by design (the referee should be free to create whatever they wish).  However, it does suggest something vaguely medieval; a place where magic is rare and, more importantly, widely feared and mistrusted.  That said, any magical writing is going to be exceedingly rare and probably forbidden, and while the homunculus so created offers obvious advantages, clever referees should avoid the tired assumption that magic (and at the very least, magic of this sort) can be practiced with impunity.  All power comes at a price.

That being said, going about in public with a miniature demon on one's shoulder is sure to attract the wrong sort of attention, and even the act of hunkering down for days at a time performing strange rituals will doubtless alert religious authorities!  None of this has anything to do with special rules and everything to do with proper role-playing, which we've always maintained was diceless to its very core.  So roll your minds and get busy playing!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

My First Time (Toys Without Tots)...

Remember your first time?  The excitement?  The sweat?  No, not that first time.  The other first time.  I mean, when you first realized that you were a gamer

So, testimonial.  The story of my first time (minus the sweat)...

Back in the sixth grade, I used to catch the bus on a street corner just one block away from where I lived.  We'd been there for years, and I clearly remember walking to elementary school and passing my future bus stop every day.  Hell, I even remember doing the math and calculating how old I'd be in the year 2000, getting the numbers right, but utterly failing to anticipate home computers and the whole Y2K thing.  But yeah, I knew that I'd turn 33 in that future time and was pretty sure I wouldn't get that awesome flying car...

But back in 1978, I found something better.  I found role-playing.

Now, I was a sixth-grader and in the process of outliving my interest in toys.  Sort of.  The truth was, I was still interested in play, but I didn't know how to channel it.  I liked models and still appreciated my Shogun Warriors and Star Wars action figures.  In short, I still loved the stuff of childhood play, but didn't have clue one about what to do with any of that...

Check out these toys.  I mean, who could resist?
(Image courtesy of the talented painter: The Mighty Eroc)

Play without toys?  Adult play?  I craved some mythical next step...  

OK, so, back to the bus stop.  It sat on the driveway of a house on a corner lot.  And sometimes, usually on warm summer nights over the previous season, the garage door was open to reveal people playing something around an elaborate tabletop diorama.  I was intrigued.  And yes, it was a war-game.  But my curious inquiries led me to a friend and his older brother who was becoming interested in a new kind of war-game called D&D.  And so it began.  My first character was Elvor the Slayer, an elf in the old-school, meaning he could alternate between fighter and magic user between adventures.  He died in old-school fashion, but the genie (so to speak) was already out of the bottle and doing stuff. 

So I was a role-player now.  It was a Saturday afternoon in early Autumn.  We were still rubbing summer out of our eyes, and there was lots of pre-game chatter about Star Wars and the latest episode of Buck Rogers coming on that night.  And there was also an adventure; something about exploring the ruins of a crypt.  But what I really remember is rolling up my character and getting a 14 intelligence.  Exciting stuff.  And then there was the game.  It was like playing with really cool toys in my mind.  Only the best toys ever...

We fought some kobolds and got a quick (and rather brutal) lesson in why we needed to search for traps and carefully explain everything we were doing.  There was surprisingly little combat, but I staggered away with 2 HP and decided I was wearing my armor next time, although my one spell had helped us stay alive.  It was chaotic, crazy stuff.  And I was totally hooked.  My love of play had survived adolescence, and I found out who I was.

Now, to be clear, I'm a lot of things.  Most more important than gamer.  But my first time, happily devoid of awkward backseat acrobatics, was still a critical (and accurate) revelation... 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

That Rule Ain't Old-School! (Not!)

Nothing too big, folks.  Yours truly is sleeping off a weekend at KantCon, where we play tested an upcoming adventure for Diceless Dungeons.  We had a great table with a fantastic group who creatively overcame terrible challenges and made me work for it, and Robyn joined the fun as an exiled noblewoman tasked with defending these reluctant heroes (they were all criminal, you see).  The Realm was saved and fun was had by all.

But now we're back, and I'm ready to tackle that old debate about what makes an OSR game, not by arguing its definition (I've already made it clear where I stand), but by discussing something I think doesn't make a good basis for one.  Namely, specific game play mechanics!  Now, I bring this up because a few weeks ago, someone argued against a certain game (as belonging to the OSR) because it employed dice pools.  I mean, c'mon people!  Dice pools are a modern idea, right?  New-school nonsense...

Wrong!  Dice pools go back to Tunnels & Trolls from 1975, making them old-school.

The court finds Ghostbusters
"Not Guilty" of being the first dice pool system to hit the 

streets (and the shelves).  It just wasn't...

Which brings up an important fact.  OD&D may have been the first commercially available game.  But rival systems began springing up almost immediately in its wake.  Moreover, the mechanical diversity of these early games was truly immense.  Kind of like the Cambrian explosion.  So here's a list of RPGs, each one released within five years of OD&D, and the innovations they wrought (and before their so-called time, might I add)...

Bunnies & Burrows (1976) - Likely the first skill-based RPG (a break from class)
Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) - Employed phobias (flaws) that would feature in later D&D
RuneQuest (1978) - An early percentile and roll under system.  Also, classless magic use
Superhero: 2044 (1977) - Divided points between ability scores instead of rolling dice
Traveller (1977) - Introduced life paths vs. class, but also employed target numbers
Tunnels & Trolls (1975) - Resolved combat by means of the aforementioned dice pools  
Villains and Vigilantes (1977) - Had pulled punches and other complex combat feats  

The fact is, there were many creative people ready to pounce on this new idea and build upon it with smart innovations.  And thus, we have dice pools almost from the start and shouldn't appropriate them for "modern" gaming exclusively, however intuitive that thought might seem.  Oh, and it does make the methodological OSR seem appealing...

Flaws seem pretty new-school,
but Chivalry & Sorcery had them (phobias) well
ahead of modern D&D.  Just sayin'...

I mean, if every mechanical approach was there right from the beginning, the only way to designate "old-school" in any meaningful way is to focus on specific systems (D&D) and the retro-cloning of the same.  Or old-school approaches to game design.

And I do accept that a methodological core exists.  But its boundaries aren't fixed.  The core has an outer periphery that overlaps the greater hobby; an overlap made up of hallmark approaches and assumptions that may or may not be shared by later systems, but that were still there from the start.  Approaches that have been abandoned by some new schools of thought.  I've already covered this.  But I'll say again that games that deliberately take up an old-school approach deserve a place in the OSR or in some adjacent category.  

But if there's nothing new under the sun, then what ideas are new-school?  I'd say three things at least, although I'm sure I'm also wrong about some of them:

(1) Consolidated mechanics (something D&D and its early peers weren't guilty of), 

(2) A tendency to automate social interactions and/or problem solving, and... 

(3) Breaking down the traditional division of labor between players and the referee and, in general, a greater tendency to approach the rules (and not the referee) as a final authority while making everyone co-equal partners within an emerging gameplay narrative.

At any rate, what's new is old, because innovation abounded in the early gaming scene, which saw a major creative explosion within its first ten years that isn't over by a long shot! 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Methodological OSR?

So there's this ongoing discussion (and one fairly recently) about the OSR (Old-School Renaissance) and what it means or should mean, or whatever.  And sometimes, it devolves into horrifying exchanges by people who I can only assume labor under the delusion that gaming, however fun, is, well, important.  That is, important enough to brutally attack anyone over.  Watching mutual friends fight (not debate, that's another matter) over something as trivial as games where we pretend to be elves is sad at best.  Usually, it happens when someone insults someone else, and it quickly ceases being about the hobby and more about the fight, which is inevitable.  And sadly, I've gotten pulled in myself. 

This is troubling because I'd really like to see everyone on good terms.  And because our hobby should unite people.  That said, I'm feeling a bit self-destructive this week and think I'll weigh in.  This is just my opinion, and if yours differs, that's cool.  I'm not one for labeling those who disagree (or game) differently from me with distasteful epithets unless they map to dreadful behavior outside of gaming.  It's just food for thought and debate...

OK, so the Urban Dictionary defines old-school as:

"Anything that is from an earlier era and looked upon with high regard or respect."

Of course, that's painting in pretty broad strokes.  But in tabletop role-playing, it means the earliest state of the hobby and the games as they were played back in the day.  So yes, OD&D is old-school because it was the first commercially available role-playing game.  It's all a matter of timing, and if Shadowrun were (somehow) the first published system, we'd be calling that old-school.  That's not the way it happened, and we can't ignore our history.  But I point this out because it shows just how subjective "system-as-old-school" can be.

This matters a lot because the OSR began as a "D&D Preservation Society" committed to resurrecting older editions of that venerable game through retro-clones.  Later, this expanded to other early systems, be it RuneQuest, Traveler or whatever.  This is fine; moreover, I don't wish to denigrate any of these fine products (we've had quite a bit of fun with some of them, and that speaks for itself).  But there are some who want to say that these early games define the boundaries and parameters of the OSR, which I'm not so sure about.

Although we disagree with their
more fanatical voices, the gatekeepers do
have a point when taken in context...

To these gatekeepers, the OSR means retro-clones of early games, like White Box, or variations, be it Lamentations of the Flame Princess, White Star, or whatever.  And there's something to this, actually.  Back in the day, D&D was the common language, and each campaign, with their innumerable house-rules, was a regional dialect.  Sure, it's sometimes hard to hear through a thick southern drawl.  But once you get the hang of it, you realize everyone is still speaking English.  So yeah, this element really preserves something of the old-school environment and much of what I personally remember from 1978.     

Call it the methodological OSR.  And yeah, this rightly matters because, as at least one gatekeeper put it, you can't just stamp "OSR" and anything and pass it off.  Sure, I'll concede the point.  I mean, the OSR has to stand for something, am I right?

But then, are specific systems the only thing about the hobby that can be old-school?  What about the assumptions, approach to subject matter, and design philosophy of the early games.  Can't they also be considered old-school?  Especially since they can change (and obviously have).  I mean, 4th Edition D&D isn't an OSR game.  But why not?

Now, some have balked at these things as irrelevant.  For instance, the division of labor between the GM and the players was there from the start.  Technically, it's old-school.  But we're still doing this today and in contemporary games.  Even so, this fact is pretty much inevitable.  Homo erectus was an old-school human, but their genes live on in homo sapiens because it's an evolutionary process.  And I shouldn't have to point out that many newer systems (story games, in particular) are veering hard from this model.

Call it the philosophical OSR.  The idea that old-school can also be about the overall approach to design even in an otherwise original system.  And moreover, the idea that this can still inform a potential buyer and steer them towards systems they'll like...

If you lived in the 60s/70s, this
was the popular depiction of elves, and
Tolkien's original artwork readily
invoked these old-world conceptions...

Our hobby developed organically from Braunstein and Blackmoor.  These were games people actually played and developed from the ground up.  And this fact, alone, necessarily implies certain (perhaps inevitable) qualities, including the following...  

(1) The rules were just a guide for the referee to build their own campaign.

(2) Greater emphasis was placed on personal decision-making and problem solving, and conscious effort was made not to automate these processes with spot checks (or whatever) whenever possible.  These were games of strategy, after all.

(3) The referee had the final say because their job was to create a believable world, and this meant putting many things beyond the players.  And if the players hoped to change things, they had to do it through their characters and the choices they made by proxy.

(4) Things were approached from the perspective(s) of those living at the time.  Believe me, four decades of role-playing has given rise to many abiding conventions; among them, the idea that dwarves are miniature Vikings with a Scottish accent.  But back then, dwarves were more often based on the stuff of 19th century fairy tales.  You know, impish little people with colorful cloaks.  Look at the elf on page 32 of OD&D's Men & Magic booklet or the various depictions in TSR's Swords & Spells.  It was all tasseled hats and curly-toed shoes because back then, that's the antiquated lens we saw demi-humans through.

(5) And finally, production was amateur and primitive because that's all one could do.  But it nonetheless paid big dividends.  It felt accessible, like a peer-to-peer exercise.

But what if you grew up in the 70s and want to design games in that mold?  Games that might have been published back then.  Original mechanics derived from bona fide wargaming approaches of the time.  Games that emphasize decision-making and problem solving over the mechanical resolution of things that ought to be left to the players.  Games that approach their subject matter from the head of a 70s-occupant.  Oh, and rulebooks that deliberately emulate "amateur" design and production to top off the illusion.  Games that do #1-5, above, because they represent an intentional (and legitimate) design strategy...   

Would this be old-school?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But if so, it belongs in the OSR!

Now obviously, quite a few modern games embrace at least some of the above and do so deliberately.  And, not surprisingly, many appeal to fans of the OSR.  So let's turn the hat over, shall we, because if you're a game publisher who does this by design, you'd be out of your ever-lovin' mind not to reach out to the OSR community.  After all, its devotees are more likely to appreciate your approach.  Oh, and buy and play your games!  That said, if you're designing specifically to appeal to these sensibilities, you belong to a wing of the OSR, even if it's just its philosophical wing.  But then, our foundational principles matter.

So is the OSR a methodological or philosophical thing?  In the end, I'd argue that it's both!