Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Olde House (1974-1979)...

So yesterday I found my old house on Google Maps*.  I lived there four and a half years, seemingly the totality of my childhood right up to my dawning adolescence, and it never left me even though I was forced to leave it behind (but then, children seldom have that much control over their early destinies).  I was reminded of how happy I was, and how badly time ravages even our most cherished memories.  But some things abide...

We were never especially wealthy, and sometimes outright poor.  Or homes were never the biggest or the best on any given street.  But to see the old place now in such ill repair detonates a nuclear bomb somewhere inside of me.  The roof is ugly patchwork seemingly incapable of enduring the hard southern rains, and it looks for all the world like no one's painted since we moved out in 1979.  Is it a meth house now?  Not a charitable thought, but the other houses on the street are just as pristine as they were decades ago.    

Of course, I can't expect others to care the way I did, and I have no knowledge of the current resident's circumstances.  It's really just me bemoaning my distant past...


I discovered I was a geek there - years before it was fashionable.  Star Wars was this new thing, and I think we were all scrambling to adjust.  And back then, most all of our geeky entertainments were home brew.  My brother and I drew weekly comic books for each other, ambitious affairs set in the fictional town of Creepville, Ohio.  These were loosely based on the Aurora Movie Monster kits we obsessively assembled through much of the decade, rendered in Pedigree colored pencil on notebook paper.  Amazingly, we kept it up for three years (an eternity for children) through numerous issues and several spin-offs...  

And one summer we published homemade horror magazines in the style of Famous Monsters of Filmland.  These were "professionally" published on our venerable Underwood typewriter, complete with photocopied stills from our favorite magazines, copied and re-copied by our indulgent mother and stapled along one side.  I swear it was easily the most formative creative experience of my life.  There's really something to be said for living before everything was available.  No cable, no internet.  We made our own fun, and things were better for it.  There's just no beating the purity or deep sense of ownership. 

Long story short, I discovered this thing called D&D, and it spoke to my home brew sensibilities.  Every one of them.  We moved eight months later, and by 1980 I was playing Holmes Basic in another house - in another town with other friends.  I grew up, met and married the love of my life, and discovered whole new ways to be fulfilled.  These days we publish small press games on the side, most in a manual type font.  We're Olde House Rules, and now you know where this all comes from - and what the "olde house" really is...

*Sorry, no picture.  People live there now, and we want to respect their privacy.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Thermodynamics of Wishes...

Wishes, those reality bending rewards; they come in bottles and on rings of power.  But beware always the capricious and trigger-shy game master...

Some GMs are understandably fearful of the game-breaking power of wishes, and this frequently results in them becoming non-existent or guaranteed bummers no player wants to touch.  And that's a pity, because wishes add an element of wonder and the possibility of reversing unfortunate events.  Yes, much mischief can be done as well, perhaps leading to memorable adventures (in retrospect of course).  But if the players somehow manage to find a magic lamp (or whatever), it should at least potentially have value.

Wishes alter reality, but thermodynamics insists that nothing can be truly created or destroyed, only moved around; and herein lies a guide for managing wishes in a campaign where they're desperately needed.  We'll begin with categories:

RESTORATIVE wishes affect the user (or a chosen target) to restore or reverse some personal misfortune.  If Bjorn was somehow reincarnated as a badger, he should be able to wish himself back to his former self, and denying this or imposing penalties to avoid breaking the game probably looks and feels like meanness.  Of course, the player must still wish responsibly.  Asking to be human again is not the same as wishing to be restored to their former (read: previous) identity.  But even then, the GM can respect intent... 


ENHANCEMENT wishes improve appearance, abilities, etc.  This is a mixed bag because some desired enhancements are potentially more game-breaking than others.  When wishing to change gender and/or modify appearance, it's pretty much doing a hard reset of the character concept.  This can be done with few consequence beyond the campaign narrative and may be interesting.  On the other hand, wishing to improve abilities has more serious implications.  Maybe each wish only raises an attribute by one point, and upon reaching the racial maximum, only by 1/10th of a point.  AD&D took this approach.

Of course, wishing to fly or shoot lightning bolts out of your eyes can significantly alter the fabric of reality.  In this case, the added powers absolutely should come at a price.  I suggest transforming the aviation enthusiast into a sentient pigeon or striking the lightning-bolt lover blind as their new power (forever theirs) blasts the eyes out of their head...   

Now we've entered bummer territory.  Tread cautiously here you would-be wishers!  

EVENT REVERSAL wishes involve any reversal that extends beyond an individual to the entire party (or even larger groups).  This requires seismic shifts to the fabric of reality because it literally reverses events for several people.  If half the party died in a terrifying pit trap - poof! - they're restored.  But every subsequent benefit, including magic items and levels gained by any survivors, are lost because the events never really happened.

As a rule, restoration/reversal for individuals is fine.  Restoration for groups requested by survivors actually with that group results in the loss of any and all subsequent gains because that much reality can only be altered by reconfiguring the "mass" of prior events.

GRANDIOSE wishes involve any fabulous (and external) acquisitions that can potentially unravel the campaign.  These always involve a trade-off.  Ask for infinite riches and you'll be teleported (quite alone) into Tiamat's lair.  Wish for the Wand of Orcus and enjoy an all-expense paid trip to the demon lord's throne room in Hell.  Requests of this magnitude can only be realized with great effort, and taking the wisher to the goal is typically easier in a cosmic sense than bringing said riches to the waiting character on a silver platter.

Ultimately, the idea here is that (1) wishes involve a sort of conservation of energy, a thermodynamics of reality.  Nothing new is added, just moved around, and (2) smaller and more reasonable requests involve far less effort and should be granted in the spirit of compensation for treasure justly earned.  Do this, and the players will know to exercise due discretion, which rewards them and keeps the game intact.  We can only wish...     

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Bound to Please (Printed to Use)...

Buy an RPG rulebook and you've bought the publisher's version of what their physical product should be, which is obviously fine (and convenient).  But download the PDF version and you can print it out yourself and re-imagine its presentation, which is not only a nice capability, but also one in keeping with the hobby's home-brew, DIY ethos.  We all interact with our gaming materials differently, so this is actually pretty handy...

Interestingly enough, the BX game of the early 80s got the ball rolling by setting up the booklets with a three-hole margin for easy removal and insertion into a three-ring binder or whatever else you happened to use.  And it would be very easy to combine the various rulebooks into a single volume and insert your own house rules in the appropriate sections, which was a friendly nod to the primacy of the Dungeon Master.

Forty years later, PDFs deliver this and more.  I've seen the "old" rulebooks printed in a variety of clever forms, all tailored to the needs of the individual GM.  People do this with our own titles as well, which is immensely flattering.  We've seen digest-size, saddle stitched booklets made from letter-sized rulebooks and slick, glossy covers over spiral binding in the style of the greats.  One friend printed out our Pits & Perils as an antiquated volume with actual string binding (and in the digest-size format he still wants to see)...

Me, I prefer putting the pages into heavy document protectors in a three-ring binder complete with a cover image slipped in the front.  There's no wrong way to do this when it's for your own use at the table, and here's some of what we're talking about:


Combining the OD&D rulebooks into a single, spiral-bound format bookended by the covers of the original boxed set is an act of pure genius by our friend Norbert Matausch.


Bill Lackey turned our entire catalog (at the time) into a series of digest-sized booklets that capture the look and feel of 1970s production better than we ever could!


Dull by comparison, but functional; it's my personal printing of Holmes Basic using the aforementioned document protectors and binder.  I guess I'm rough on things and benefit from a little durability!  The best gaming is home brew, though, so I'm happy with it. 

There are others, and we apologize if we left anyone out.  Home-brew printings of PDFs capture something essential from the early days of the hobby and remind us all that it's the players - and not the rulebook - that makes the game.  We're all enthusiastic amateurs making our own fun, even when we're making it with someone else's rules; and I don't think anyone in the old-school community would ever have (or want) it any other way...   

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Critical Hits: Live Scarred or Die Pretty...

Conan did a lot of fighting.  A lot.  And it strains credibility to think he wasn't cut open a few times.  You know, deep gashes and blood everywhere.  But if he was, it certainly didn't show beyond the occasional, strategically displayed battle scar.  Ditto for Red Sonya who, much like her Cimmerian friend, displayed quite a bit of flesh (because let's face it, they were both mostly naked half the time).  By all rights each should have been a horrific mass of scar tissue.  Not the stuff of sexy, sensual fantasy, but realistic nonetheless... 

So how did two barely dressed warriors, seasoned fighters who put themselves in harm's way with careless abandon, avoid unsightly harm?  Heroism!     

If Conan were a D&D character, he'd be that one guy who somehow avoided death and serious disfigurement through twenty levels.  Sure, historical warriors have gone to their old-age ends with all their parts intact.  But never under so much exposure.  Assuming all of Conan's adventures (comics and otherwise) are canon, Howard's barbarian has seen more combat than a WW II veteran!  And through it all he stayed, well, mostly unscathed.    

So there's a decision to make.  Is your game gonna be the heroic variety where the characters keep their good looks if they manage not to die?  Or is it gonna be a grindhouse affair where there's a 5% chance per battle of looking like a reject from a bloody Quentin Tarantino movie?  Either approach is fine; but it's also important because it gets to the heart of how the experience ultimately feels.  Each has its pros and cons...


Ultra-violent affairs with homemade critical damage tables can be fun.  I mean, there's a visceral excitement to losing an ear because someone somewhere rolled a natural 20.  But it also detracts, considerably might I add, from any sense of heroic, abiding characters and doesn't always map to the sort of fantasy a lot of us like to read and enjoy playing.  I've heard men scream minus body parts.  Only a privileged sadist finds it entertaining.

Oh, and it can be tedious.  One roll in twenty you're stopping combat to hit the tables, stifling momentum.  Yeah, maybe it's kind of exciting the first few times.  But critical injury on a natural 20 happens more often than you'd think -  and it gets old quick.  Frequent grievous injury can also start to feel unrealistic.  Now this can be remedied with sub-tables where disfigurement is only one of several possibilities.  You can do this, but beware if you aren't one of those people (I'm talking me) who isn't keen on breaking play to consult endless charts and tables.  During adventure prep, sure, but it's not for everyone... 

Now the heroic stuff lets you feel like a bad ass just for not dying.  And it's not without its narrative justifications.  I've long held that clerical healing and potions (clerical at a minimum) actually mend visible wounds.  Scars heal, deep cuts vanish.  The works.  And it's simpler because you aren't constantly checking tables.  Even so, it's possible for combat to lose its sense of danger, which isn't necessarily a good idea.  Battle should be scary. 

Again, either choice is fine.  And it can vary from campaign to campaign.  But for the undecided there's always the mixed approach.  It's simple.  Grievous injury is only possible with certain enemies or from certain traps, with effects appropriate to the situation, be it corrosive attacks or sweeping blades that lop off feet.  Moreover, you can offer disfigurement as an alternative to death.  Sure you can live - but now you've lost an eye and suffer -1 to missile dice.  Clerical healing can eventually set things to right; but in the meantime, players give certain enemies (and situations) the respect they surely deserve.

Keep these rare enough to make them a big deal when they happen.  Oh, and when Zarlathan the Lame comes hobbling up on his staff, you can be sure he earned his moniker through something truly heroic.  That demon lord was almost impossible to defeat, but sacrifices were made and the world saved.  Now that's an abiding and heroic character fit for the sagas.  And really, that's part of why we play.  Of course, Robyn and I don't wish this suffering on anyone in real life, so be safe and try to stay in one piece everyone!