Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Gaming's First-Generation Non-Wargamers...

I'm a first-generation non-wargamer.  Ok, but what does that even mean?  Que the history lesson.  Dungeons & Dragons was created by historical wargamers who just happened to like low-fantasy sword and sorcery.  Gritty stuff that bordered on the real.  Gygax famously (and perhaps ironically, given where the hobby ended up) disliked Lord of the Rings, with its elves and (to hear him say it, tedious) pretensions.  I disagree, finding this a reverse-conceit, but whatever.  Strokes.  Folks.  But it did impact how these early games were played... 

Primordial D&D was two-fisted action with swords.  And spells.  It was at once both ridiculous and serious, historical and fantastic.  Your fighter might pass a nearby castle, armed with historically accurate armor and weapons (and polearms, of course), aware that yonder fortress housed a squadron of knights mounted on fire-breathing rocs.  It leaned heavily on wargaming because it was created by - and for - wargamers, and approached its fantastic elements with a nod and a wink because it couldn't take them too seriously. 

Now Gygax delighted in John Carter's exploits, so he must have genuinely admired the fantastic.  Even so, this was pulp, with its shirtless-men-fighting-bears aesthetic.  Magic was window dressing at best, which translates to the OSR's emphasis on human choice over superhuman power.  Monsters became a strategic challenge, and magic a strategic cheat he was keen on limiting.  In short, OD&D was a serious wargame with a sense of humor, a beer-and-pretzels diversion for those who'd rather relitigate the Battle of Trafalgar.

Early D&D was wargaming - and wargaming was its endgame.  Level up, build a fortress, and it's back to protractors and green felt tabletops.  The fantastic stuff was its sense of humor, hence the gonzo, but in all fairness to its adherents, a strategic challenge as well.  This was the hobby's first generation, and it deserves our deepest respect.  But the hobby saw its second wave in the form of non-wargamers.  These were fantasy enthusiasts drawn to the storytelling potential of a game where magic figured more prominently... 

And more seriously.  We were Tolkien fans who longed to recreate the adventures we thrilled in and to walk within their lavishly constructed worlds.  We (and I say that because I was there) were geeky types who devoured comics, haunted the aisles of our local bookstores back when everything was lumped under science fiction, and stood in line for hours to watch a groundbreaking film called Star Wars.  And as we read Starlog, we became aware that there were others like us: fantasy lovers in search of a community - and a voice.

Geekery wasn't mainstream, but Star Wars was changing that.  God bless America, but once you can sell a thing, it becomes a thing.  There was a sea change brewing, and we kind of knew it, although it was hard to put our finger on it.  This was 1977, the year AD&D's Monster Manual appeared in hobby shops.  You'd walk in to buy some Testors model glue for your Shogun Warriors kit and get slapped in the face with that.  Oh, and the strangers in the back cheering about the damage their fireball just did was a powerful siren song. 

Holmes aside, there was no coherent instruction; and no one, however brilliant, was going to actually learn to play from the original digests or the slick new hardcovers.  You needed a mentor, often, a first-generation wargamer who imported much of their gonzo idealism.  But we were quick learners eager to put our own stamp on things - and we nailed it.  From the beginning, Gygax cited those who were by no stretch of the imagination ardent wargamers as keys to the hobby's growth.  And for a guy who hated Tolkien, he was pretty right on...

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Holmes Complete, Redux Edition...

I love Holmes Basic.  Aside from being my gateway drug (long story), it's just the perfect synthesis of old-school D&D and something simpler and more streamlined.  As far as introductory sets go, it's stuffed with content; and the fact that it only takes its players to 3rd level evokes the wonder of low-level play and everyone's first time at the table.  The spell inevitably fades with experience; but it begs the question: Is it possible to play Holmes Basic as a complete game?  It's a question a fanatic like me loves to ask.     

In fact, I asked it four years ago.  It was a thought experiment written in the moment, but I've had time to refine the idea.  Looking back, it needed the work.  So here we go, once more tackling my pet project.  If you own this excellent product, you can use the following rules to run Holmesian games in all their low-level glory.  Just observe the following:

(1) Assume everything else is the same except for that which follows...

(2) Characters begin the game with maximum hit points at first level (i.e., 8 for fighting men and women, 4 for magic-users, etc.), rolling randomly for levels beyond first.


(3) Should a character die, whether in combat or similar misfortune, they fall unconscious, losing one level.  If recovered by their friends (within a reasonable amount of time), they awaken with 0 HP, but very much alive, and may be further healed, although never beyond what their new level allows.  First-level characters aren't so lucky and die, an all-too common fate, noting that lost levels may only be recovered through further adventures.

(4) Clerics add +1 to all turning attempts per level after 1st.  Third-level clerics add +2 and may turn mummies on an unmodified 12.  Specters and vampires represent the apex of undead villany and reject even the most pious of practitioners.  This serves to preserve some mystique for these monsters and a sense of lore (if not dread) within the campaign... 

(5) Elves serve as both fighting men (maximum 2nd level) and magic-users (maximum 1st level) for a total of three levels, beginning with 6 HP, +1d6 at their second fighting level when eventually attained.  Experience points are split between both classes - even when further advancement (as a magic-user) is no longer possible.  Those at first level in both classes die when reduced to 0 hit points, but enjoy the benefits of armor and spellcraft. 

(6) Fighting men (and elves) add +1 to hit per level after first to reflect their prowess.

(7) Spellcasters get access to more magic and miracles, mainly to keep them relevant in a scaled-down game where higher levels will never be reached.  Clerics get spells at first level, while magic-users employ more across the board per the following spell table


(8) Thieves must redo their entire table lest they perform so poorly that their relevance gets called into question.  After all, a 3rd-level robber, is supposed to be a master thief...


(9) Hirelings are necessary to take on the toughest foes, which are included in Holmes' introductory rulebook just begging to be fought.  To this end, the referee should ensure an expeditionary mindset, incorporating men-at-arms and porters to full effect. 

(10) For every successful expedition into the dungeons or wilderness, meaning one where the party leaves and returns alive, each character earns 1 renown representing the fame surrounding their exploits.  At 50 renown, they may occupy a church (cleric), castle (fighting man), tower (magic-users and elves who opt out of a castle), or den (thieves, and always located in the city).  Each employs 3-12 servants, a third of which are henchmen who never leave the home base.  Such abodes earn enough revenue to be largely self-sufficient.   

Doing this will (hopefully) result in a game that captures old-school's emphasis on ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.  Clerics are warriors, with powers all the more miraculous for their rarity; and magic-users feel more like Gandalf and less like the overdone superheroes of modern fare.  Powers take a back seat to good strategy, and every delve feels like an expedition into the Amazon, because it is.  The excitement of low-level play is preserved because, really, a lot comes down to little guys against big dangers.

But of course, the last and most important thing is what you, the reader, add to this, for no game is ever complete until the players make it so.  Anyway, in this time of isolation and knuckle-biting politics, a new take on a classic game just might be just what the proverbial doctor ordered, and Holmes (an MD and neurologist) was the real deal.  Anyway, please enjoy this, and don't hesitate to add or change anything - surely Dr. Holmes would approve...

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...