Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Fiends, Folios, and the Edge of Amateur...

As yours truly and his beloved are crafting the new Pits & Perils, I've been mining some (much-needed) inspiration from gaming's antiquity.  If the original rulebook was analogous to someone's home-brew Chainmail, where do we take our second edition?  Physical design wise, how do we preserve its old-school credentials while improving production?  Luckily, we aren't the first to have this so-called problem.  As it happens, D&D got there first and paved the way for those of us who would claim the power of gaming's amateur aesthetic.  

Talk about those crappy, amateur rulebooks from the 1970s, and OD&D springs immediately to mind.  And how could it not?  Take a look; it speaks for itself.  But as the game grew in popularity, it was clear a better edition was called for.  Enter Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (or AD&D for the uninitiated).  Starting with the Monster Manual, which created quite a stir among my nascent circle of gaming friends, onward through the Player's Handbook and the ever-useful Dungeon Master's Guide, it earned some well-deserved respect...

Here you had (gasp) full-color hardcover books with evocative artwork and definitely not embarrassing interior typesetting.  These tomes could hold their own on the shelves of your local bookstore (mine was a B Dalton Books at the Orange Park Mall).  But they were still very much an amateur endeavor - if that makes any sense.  The black-and-white interior art felt like the work of talented amateurs, and everything was bounded by the limits of 1970s production- and the low end of that, truth be told.  It was, to me, the perfect next step.

Visually, AD&D (at least in its early days) looked like what OD&D was trying, but couldn't quite manage, to be.  The Sutherland artwork, some of it recycled in the newer books, continued, along with the likes of Otus and Trampier.  It was both old and new - and totally familiar to folks like me who remembered what it used to be.  I suppose it's the nostalgia; but seriously, does AD&D look or feel remotely like anything which followed - aside from the superficial similarities all such materials share, obviously?  I'd say no way, man...


AD&D succeeded in being both primal and professional, and it probably achieved the uppermost limits of what could be called amateur.  Maybe it was an accident, but it clearly worked.  But the rising popularity of the game meant it couldn't possibly last.  The later rulebooks became increasingly polished, not to mention aware of themselves as products, although that's another story.  So when's the cutoff?  That's majorly subjective; but I'd put it at the release of 1981's superb Fiend Folio, that last hurrah of a vanishing amateur era.*

Quirky, cool, but not-quite polished cover art?  Check.  Stark, and sometimes grainy, interior production values?  It had that too.  Now there was some great artwork here.  I never said amateurs couldn't be talented.  Far from it.  But check out page 20 and you'll see something a friend might have drawn on the back of their notebook in math class.  Rough and polished, amateur and talented; this one walked the line like a circus tightrope act - and with content to match.  Easley and Elmore would change AD&D's vibe, making this a last stand.

I remember saving up my allowance to buy a Dungeon Dwellers miniatures set, only to see this prize at Hobby World (R.I.P.).  I didn't have the coin for both; but it was a choice any D&D-obsessed youth would have settled on.  And I never looked back.  Some people didn't like this one at the time, which kind of startled me.  The Drow finally made it into a proper manual, which meant no more dog earring my modules, and there were lots of awesome new monsters to throw at a party.  Luckily, time has vindicated most of my favorite entries...

Firedrakes gave me a low-level "dragon", and grimlocks offered a fresh alternative to the overused orcs of canon.  The githyanki would go on to fame in later editions; but they started here, so take that, you non-believers.  What was really cool about these was the story they implied.  Contrary to popular belief, we old-schoolers like stories too; and we definitely love a well-wrought setting.  Each felt straight out of someone's campaign, because they literally were.  Most were created by readers of Britain's classic White Dwarf magazine.

Quirky, amateur art, earnest, but rough-around-the edges production, and content from the community of gamers.  That's what make the Fiend Folio last in AD&D's amateur lineup, although the Monster Manual II held on to some of this.  I'm sure everyone reading this has their own opinion.  Oldsters like myself lean on nostalgia more than we care to admit; but my thesis has some objective support.  If not for the Fiend Folio, I'd draw the line at Deities & Demigods; but that, too is another story for another time.  We'd love to hear what you think...

*Ten is a nice, round number; and I'm tempted to demarcate any old-school era in these terms, meaning the amateur era ended in 1984.  That's certainly reasonable, although actual events do seem to show the hobby trending mainstream a few years before then.  

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

What? Why? And The Diceless Wilds...

Ok, so how do you have surprise in a game without dice?  That's a question I've heard recently, and one that demands an answer.  It depends.  If we're talking about a condition of surprise as put forward in AD&D (for instance), you simply can't.  In order to generate a sense of uncertainty; real, knuckle-biting, I-don't-know stuff, dice can't be beat.  Uncertainty is an ephemeral thing until you roll those bits of plastic and watch the pips either break your heart or make your adventuring day; which is to say, dice matter...     

But are they necessary?  That's something else.  I'd say absolutely not.  Surprise is what happens when you open a door not knowing what's waiting on the other side.  It's what you get for not sending out scouts and getting the lay of the land; which is to say, surprise is about what the characters don't know - or don't take the time to find out.  And it emphasizes what the players do - or choose not to try, which seems to me an altogether appropriate characterization.  Heroes are lucky - but they should make their own luck too.


Make no mistake, dice are important.  In the military we called it a force multiplier.  Dice engender an atmosphere of risk and uncertainty.  How could they not?  They're an essential tool in the GM's toolkit, and the proof lies in just how widespread their use has become, something like natural selection, where their utility has made them well nigh indispensable in the hobby.  But there's a danger to this.  Over-reliance on random outcomes can leave us drowning in a veritable sea of dice, oblivious to how we got there...

Every game asks what, why, and how much.  What?  A skeleton.  Why?  To guard the necromancer's lab.  How much?  Well, there's one skeleton with 6 hit points delivering 1d6 damage with their scimitar (a nod to Seventh Voyage) in their undead grasp.  And you'll notice how things transition from the qualitative (what, why) to the quantitative (how much) with surprising rapidity.  But you can also see just how much of any game is inherently qualitative, even if we beef up the mechanics - all the best parts, in my opinion.       

Now I don't say this to knock dice (none of us are giving them up anytime soon), but only to remind us all of just much of a game doesn't require them.  And these boundaries matter, especially if we want to get the most out of both the rules and the narrative.  These elements work best when they stay in their respective lanes and overlap at the proper times.  But it's worth noting that while we can't have a purely quantitative game, we can come damned close to having a purely qualitative one, which pretty much tells the tale...

Making it a fine time to announce that Diceless Dungeons 2: The Diceless Wilds has arrived!  This was conceived (and promised in some circles) three years ago, on the heels of the basic game.  Boy can we procrastinate!  With rules for demi-human characters, added talents and high sorcery, henchmen, a bestiary of new monsters, and rules for populating the overland, this one greatly expands upon the possibilities of the original with a high-fantasy vibe to season the meat.  Give it a try and see what this diceless thing is all about...

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...