Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Monday, August 3, 2020

Early Gaming's Analog Mystique...

Years ago, we posted in praise of poor production.  This was my story more so than Robyn's (she started in 2002); but it remains the foundation for what follows.  The amateur hobby is the life's blood of the industry; and it's where we want to stay...

There's never been a better time to be a small-press games publisher.  RPGs are popular, and anyone with an internet connection and Office (or something similar) can distribute their own creations, whether original systems or supplements to everyone's favorite RPG under the OGL.  Columns?  No problem.  Watermarks?  You betcha.  Cool fonts?  You can get 'em for free from any number of great websites.  It's all out there.  Artwork?  If you can't create your own using a dizzying array of tools, there's always talented buddies in the community or endless public-domain images to play around with.  Create, upload, and share.

But there was a time when it wasn't so easy.  Sure, the hobby existed.  But the tools?  Not so much - or rather, not the same tools and not quite so easy.  The creative spark was there from the beginning.  If not, our gaming hobby might never have been.  These games weren't birthed in a corporate boardroom.  They were the stuff of enthusiastic amateurs who made their own fun and saw the potential in what they'd created.  And the success of D&D inspired a cottage industry of small-press rulesets and zines.  It's no different now; but looking back half a century, it was a whole other world, with far-reaching implications.

Imagine it's 1978.  You've got ideas.  You want to create.  Maybe you want to publish, if only for local consumption, your own ruleset or fanzine or whatever.  Home computers were available only to a limited few, and handwritten rules were out of the question.  So you ended up dragging a typewriter down from the attic or up from the basement.  It was the absolute state of the art back then, at least for home publishing.  You clacked away at your manuscript, applied correction fluid (google it, kids), and made your semi-pro masterpiece.  And it didn't stop there.  Add artwork and maybe bindery, and there was still lots of work to do...

  
Maybe you did your own art.  Cool!  Or maybe you were lucky enough to have a talented friend to lend a hand.  Alternately, your local library had plenty of public-domain art you could Xerox.  I had an indulgent mother with a photocopier at the office.  I'd leave space on my typewritten pages for artwork, copied what I needed, cut and paste the borrowed bits (and not pictures physically cut from the books, Heaven forbid) onto this, and finally, photocopied everything all over to get a delightfully amateur, semi-professional look.  If the project was especially ambitious, I'd print the covers on colored card stock for panache.    

This had material impacts on the way these products were approached and used.  You couldn't just backspace and insert new sections.  Major revisions meant starting all over, so you took care and avoided that.  This probably resulted in shorter, sparer products.  I'm convinced that old-school's open-endedness was only partly deliberate.  It was surely aided by the labor intensity of production.  There were entire worlds of imaginary space for the referee to wander in; and the lack of photorealistic art left more to the imagination.  It was an emergent property of this approach - and one of gaming's genuine happy accidents. 

Say what you will, but this is how our hobby began.  And observant readers (that means you) have surely noticed how many of the products displayed along the right side of this page resemble what I've described, with a few nods to style, obviously.  The early hobby's analog production made it an arts-and-crafts affair, but also a unique approach to play.  One well worth preserving.  For several years we've deviated into slicker production, and while I found it a worthwhile exercise, I've lately rekindled my love of amateur rulebooks.  Anyway, the primitive look of these early games is by now iconic - and not merely a failure...

There was this guy back in the day who published his game using the above formula, complete with card-stock covers stapled down one end and slipped into Ziplock baggies for sale at the local hobby shop (he knew the owner).  He sold a handful of copies and was ecstatic (he ran a local campaign, so was already a heavy hitter).  This added to his celebrity and probably remains a cherished memory.  Anyway, the budding hobby's analog mystique made his creative process personaland like him, we feel extremely fortunate just to be here publishing homemade games and recreating our history.  Long live the amateur hobby!   

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Orcish Enlightenment...

Old-school gaming benefits from a recurring cast of stock enemies; minions of monstrous aspect to pad armies and populate dungeons.  Traditionally, the orc has satisfied this particular need; but lately the poor orc has become, well, problematic.  I know, I know, orcs aren't even human, much less real; and inherently evil creatures of any race are simply impossible in our reality.  I've made myself clear on this point, but acknowledge that we must follow our conscience and that there's absolutely nothing wrong with the "nuanced" orcs preferred by some.  Indeed, such orcs can easily serve as stock enemies...     

Now if our only goal with enlightened orcs is to fight racism, we're misdirecting our efforts away from the actual humans we're trying to help.  But there are still plenty of excellent reasons for giving orcs a nuanced treatment; and the OSR, with its emphasis on personal creativity, agrees.  That said, here's some ways to make it happen:    

(1) Orcs are automatons, imbued by their gods with only one perspective.  Sure, these are still inherently evil; but they also aren't persons so much as an unusual golem having no discernable culture beyond acting on their programming There just has to be room for this sort of thing in a fantasy game, and it has absolutely no parallel in our universe.


(2) Orcs (and Drow) aren't inherently evil; but some of their numbers have succumbed to religious fanaticism, taking after evil gods.  This is similar to the Nazi cult of Hitler's Germany in its dark prime.  Hey, if orcs are a complex, nuanced race, there's no doubt some of them would turn to wickedness.  But still others would choose good, serving the orcish lords of light and fighting, perhaps alongside human allies, against the darkness.

In (2) above, evil orcs are just a faction of the whole, albeit large and distinctive enough to stand out.  It's not so much "orcs" as "evil cultists" of (insert wicked orcish god here).    

(3) Ultimately; some orcs are evil, just like some humans.  And if we can fight human bandits and diabolical wizards, we can surely fight orcs.  Perhaps an orcish warlord has arisen, amassing the worst of their kind under a banner of bloodshed.  Of course, these would be reviled by orcs of the honorable sort; and it provides a population of stock baddies to engage with proper, old-school abandon.  Call it a secular variation of (2), above.   

My beloved old-school orcs clearly fall under (1), above.  There's just enough personality to think you're engaging a person; but these aren't analogous to any so-called race, and the circumstances of their creation and continued existence should make that clear.  Everything else is what happens when we decide that orcs are people.  No, they aren't all uniformly wicked; but enough hold evil affiliations (we humans have many of our own) as to constitute a distinctive faction.  Anyway, there's never a bad reason to flex our creative muscles, even when we think we disagree with some conclusion.  Good ideas are everywhere...

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Orcs and the End of Symbols...

There's been a lot of chatter about gaming orcs lately.  Orcs are a racist stereotype, and inherently evil orcs give cover to the idea that some races (and by extension, some cultures) are better than others.  I agree racist thinking is wrong, just as much as I admit that more nuanced orcs are a legitimate approach.  But I emphatically reject the notion that evil orcs are necessarily racist, especially when we consider the symbolic nature of fantasy.

Fantasy is allegory.  Fantasy is symbolism.  It takes abstract, ephemeral concepts and embodies them for closer examination.  Think of it as psychotherapy.  Dragons, with their hoarded gold, represent human avarice whereas orcs symbolize pure hatred for others, something everyone fears regardless of their so-called race.  These are universal concepts that speak to everyone, because the need for symbols is itself universal...

Not so much anymore.  Fantasy can't be fantasy.  It has to be a cold, naturalistic thought experiment.  Orcs can't possibly represent the concept of hatred.  Symbols have no place in the sterile imaginings of tomorrow.  A thing in a fantasy rulebook must necessarily have its counterpart in the real world.  Not a concept, but a literal, material thing.  Orcs are people of color, and all this talk of universal symbolism is just a cloak for the slavery apologists.

  
But life is more than just things.  Life is a collection of abstract, subjective experiences we must all grapple with.  Otherwise, fantasy has its flesh-and-blood realism, but loses its metaphorical soul in a Faustian bargain.  Now I'll say this just because I know it's gonna come up.  Some would blame this all on secular culture, a popular boogeyman for a certain moral faction.  I'm a secular humanist; and while I see no evidence for any supernatural claim, I see abundant evidence for humanity, physical brains, and inner lives...

And when we abandon symbolism, we abandon our humanity, which is the only thing that makes fantasy resonate in the first place.  Otherwise, fantasy is just science fiction.

Now to be charitable, if the goal is to make D&D a realistic (read: naturalistic) universe, nuanced races make sense.  The gods are aliens, magic just another natural energy to be  harnessed.  It's our world wearing new clothes.  I've long thought that modern D&D has become an Iron-Age Star Trek, complete with elven shopkeepers and spells on every street corner.  There's nothing wrong with this; it can be fun, but it's not the only way.

That said, orcs aren't people of color.  They're the cop with his knee on an unarmed black man's throat.  They're the Nazis who took my Jewish family to the camps.  Orcs are the hatred we all must grapple with, and I find it sad that those who would challenge racism are unwittingly erasing the very symbols used to describe it.  Orcs are pure, unapologetic evil, which comes in many forms.  The Klan, the Nazis, the sex traffickers.  You name it.  And we desperately need such symbols in these times lest we become the very orcs we fear...  

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Experience (Minus the Murder)...

Killing monsters and taking their stuff; what could be more old-school than that?  But isn't violence just a way of mitigating the threat monsters represent?  And if that's the case, shouldn't we be rewarding clever players for mitigating the risk of violence as well; because fighting adds insult to injury (so to speak).  From turning on the charm and schmoozing a potential enemy to leading them on a heroic chase only to escape down a back alley, timely mitigation is a learning curve that maybe deserves experience points... 

So first off, players should only get experience for active mitigation; basically, anything requiring planning and skillful execution.  Negotiation (including bribes) falls into this category, along with active efforts to distract or defang an enemy.  Simply spying on monsters and deciding not to engage doesn't cut it; there needs to be an actual plan requiring some active execution on the part of the group.  This is the heart and soul of old-school gaming, with its emphasis on personal decision-making and problem solving:

Killing a monster nets its full experience point value because it's the riskier option; but a clever party can earn a percentage of this for non-violent solutions as follows:

BRIBERY nets 25% of a monster's experience point value plus 1 experience point per 10 gold pieces (or equal value) parted with.  Victory always has its price.


EVASION awards 50% of total experience when a monster is aware of the party and the characters assume great personal risk.  Avoiding passive enemies nets none.

TRAPS are another matter.  Some rulesets grant experience for disarming these; and the decision to award advancement lies outside the scope of this posting.

Using Holmes Basic (the only book handy at the moment), successfully bribing an ogre with 500 gp would net 31 or 25% of the giant's listed value plus 50 (500 gp/10) for a total of 81, assuming combat is otherwise inevitable.  Causing the ogre to give chase only to lose it in a nearby maze would net 62 experience or 50% of the monster's value; again, assuming the ogre would catch someone if the attempt failed - and that this was always the plan.

The above isn't perfect; but it's passable.  And it lays the foundation for even better systems for rewarding a clever party.  Old-school is killing; but it can be much more.

Some DMs think avoiding a dangerous encounter is its own reward.  They could be right, obviously; it really depends on the tone of their campaign.  But if old-school gaming is really about good strategy and tactics, it might be appropriate to reward a group with something extra for their cleverness, especially when in service to an overarching plan.  Nothing should beat gold and kills; but this might be a good way to encourage the sort of behavior we old-school enthusiasts admire.  Anyway, we'd love to hear how you handle this stuff...