Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

More Diceless Than We Think...

The Olde House Rules gang is headed out of town, so this is our last post for a couple of weeks; but we'll leave you with a classic gaming topic: dice...  

Dice are ubiquitous in gaming; so much so that we think they had to be there from the beginning.  Now to be clear, they were (this should save some time in the comments section and is only right).  OD&D used dice from the very start because the war-games before it absolutely did and to great effect.  Battle is terrifying precisely because we don't know how things will turn out; and that's a hell of a lot when life itself is at stake...

Ditto for thievery.  Ditto for surviving a deadly poison.  Ditto for pulling off the heroic move that'll cement your fighter's badass reputation into eternity.   

Still, old-school gaming (specifically OD&D, pre-supplements) was largely dice-free where gameplay was concerned.  Seriously; while dice were there, it's entirely possible that the early version of D&D used them less than any time since, if for no other reason than because the referee had more power to enact rulings.  This is well-traveled territory.

Rulings not rules.  It's a mantra at this point.  Rules (I'll say usually) mean dice, whereas rulings often avoid them completely.  If you want to find that secret door, look.  And be sure to describe exactly how.  Spot checks are a rule that calls for dice.  It's been said a thousand different times in a thousand different ways (a thousand and one now).  We uphold this truth as fundamentally right; still, diceless remains controversial...  

Some love diceless play, others (seemingly) hate it.  It comes down to preference, and I confess to gravitating towards the traditional model myself, both as a player and a designer, although without the hate.  It's a practical thing.  Risk and uncertainly are useful states to trigger in others, a sort of adrenaline rush for the dice rolling set.  Making people care is job one - and threatening all the players care about just might be job two!


It's a confidence thing.  If you want to feel good, do something you didn't think possible, whether rolling a natural 20 that (maybe literally) brings the house down or just a successful attack that averts what should have been a bloody total party kill. 

Still, much of what happens (and much of what players engage with) is decision making, exploration, and role-playing through problems.  Often enough, just coming up with a clever solution is challenging; and watching the way in which choices build narratives can be as entertaining as any movie when the players care about what happens.  In short, old-school players want more than just blood.  They want to participate in experiences...

And experiences don't require dice, certainly not 90% of gaming ones!

I'll take it further.  In OD&D there was no roll-under mechanic.  Abilities granted just a few obvious bonuses (missiles come to mind), but beyond experience adjustments, existed primarily as an aid for the referee in adjudicating tasks.  For instance, intelligence was used to determine if certain actions would be taken (that's almost a direct quote).  Sorry Gordo, that clever strategy is beyond your 5 intelligence.  This tilts towards the diceless...

Gary Gygax once famously said (memes be believed) that referees roll dice because they like the sound it makes.  That's an exaggeration.  People like dice for the reasons cited above, but also because it seems to put a character's fate up to the ultimate objective third-party in the form of dumb chance, but there's nothing necessary about it.

In our own Diceless Dungeons, smashing open a door makes noise, which in turn alerts nearby monsters.  But what kind of monsters?  This is just as uncertain and seemingly random as what might happen if the party had decided to go around.  Moreover, while taking on that small pack of goblins is probably survivable, albeit with wounds, it's a tough choice without foreknowledge of the rest of the dungeon.  This is true dice or diceless.

But risk and uncertainly aren't the only way to create tension.  Being forced to make tough decisions is another, as real life will attest.  In Diceless Dungeons, engaging a basilisk in melee guarantees that someone has decided to get turned to stone (you'll just have to read the rules).  Who wants to make that decision?  And this isn't corporate shill either; these problems are universal regardless of what system (or dice) are involved. 

Remember, chess doesn't involve dice either, but remains very challenging.  A dungeon stocked with unknown things coupled with hard decisions adds up to a tense and engaging experience, especially if the players care about their characters.  This is surely how the hobby's founders saw things, at least before dice took over; and it remains good advice for anyone, including the majority who roll 'em because they like the way it sounds...

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

On Gaming's (Flawed) Makers...

Disclaimer: This posting is about real people with complex feelings, hopes, dreams and desires; and perhaps some reading this actually knew them.  To be clear, I think the loss of friendship was tragic and frankly depressing.  With that out of the way...    

The growing popularity of D&D (and the recent Secrets of Blackmoor film) have piqued the interest of a new generation.  How did our hobby begin?  For the newcomers, many of whom weren't even alive in the last century (Jesus, how old does that make me), these facts are buried in the myth-shrouded past, when cell phones didn't exist yet and if you forgot to grab (insert grocery item here), your spouse couldn't call or even text.

Those were dark times when we couldn't answer every nagging trivia question by pulling a phone out of our pocket, but we got by somehow.  And given just how much information is at our fingertips (or resting in our pockets and irradiating our vitals), it's all too easy to dismiss the youngster's lack of understanding.  But we were all newcomers once...

That said, there's been a trickle of new articles by young journalists shedding light on the mysteries of our hobby's past.  One Kotaku article in particular reads like a Watergate-esque expose of what the evil industry has long hidden.  You mean Gary Gygax wasn't the sole creator of D&D?  Some guy named Dave Arneson was also involved?  Yeah, it's all too easy for us greybeards to snort at this, but we shouldn't.  We were all young once and should applaud (and stoke) the interest of the hobby's next generation.

Truth be told, a certain mythos has emerged, one where Gygax became the central personality behind a certified cultural phenomenon.  But if you played the original game back when it came in digest form, you'd have to work hard not to know that it was a joint affair forged by a creative duo, especially if you owned the Blackmoor supplement.  Indeed, you could buy the B/X version as late as 1982 and see Gygax and Arneson credited.


But AD&D was attributed to Gygax alone, the result of that timeless money changes everything and not for the better shtick that ended an era.  By second edition, Arneson was a fading memory, and third was the nail in the coffin.  I won't speculate on the motives of Hasbro and Wizards in perpetuating this; but by 1986, money changes everything forced Gygax out of the picture as well.  Anyway, if you're a 15 year old who started with 5th edition purchased through Amazon, you can easily be forgiven for not knowing.

So much for the kids.  What about the grognards?  I've heard the Kotaku article variably described as an anti-Gary hit piece or long-overdue justice depending on who you happen to ask.  Those who actually knew the pertinent parties have taken sides; for instance, Robert Kunz's Dave Arneson's True Genius.  As for this blogger, I began playing in 1978 and never once met either of the hobby's leading lights, although I've been fortunate enough to know David Wesely (Braunstein's maker) later in life, so my take is suitably nuanced... 

Here goes: Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were imperfect human beings.  

That's right folks, the founders of the hobby we love don't have to be these perfect, semi-divine figures with pure intentions. That's nonsense, and the imperfections of these two men were probably vital to the hobby's cultural advancement.  The ugly stuff matters...
                          
Dave Arneson, who forged the first fantasy campaign and reshaped the culture, was undoubtedly a visionary of the highest order.  That's to his credit.  But he clearly lacked the businessman's motivation.  This reality may (or may not) also be to his credit, although it guaranteed that he wouldn't be the one to successfully market his creation.


Gary Gygax had marketing savvy as well as creative ideas of his own, although often borrowed from others.  This was to his credit.  But he was clearly also a hard-nosed businessman, which may (or may not) also be to his credit.  His efforts are why I have the OD&D rulebooks framed and hanging over my desk, which speaks to his legacy.

We don't live in Candyland.  People are greedy, selfish, and sure to act in their own best interests whenever a cash cow stumbles into view.  Now I'm not suggesting that either man was personally awful.  I can't (and won't) presume to know.  But if I can be a card-carrying asshole from time to time we all can, including the hobby's founding fathers...

And this joining of flawed personalities was probably the only reason our hobby exists as anything more than a quaint local phenomenon.  Chemistry is messy.  It often involves explosions and sudden trips to the eye wash station.  But amid the fire and chaos discoveries are made.  If we like being able to role-play, we can thank Arneson; and if we like actually owning nice commercial products made by people who can justify the effort in creating them, we owe Gygax big.  Pulling this off meant serving two masters, which is challenging.  

Arneson needed Gary's discipline and focus as much as Gary needed Arneson (and other's) creative input.  And the hobby insisted that both men suffer greatly in childbirth...  

Still (and redemptively) time and loss are humbling, and Gygax and Arneson reconciled eventually.  Fame and especially, money, are corrupting influences, and while we'd all prefer to think of the hobby's founders as laid-back gamers, this clearly wasn't always the case, especially once sales surged.  In the end, we can appreciate the contributions of both flawed humans, even if we're occasionally disappointed by them.  Their chemistry was real.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Clones and Heartbreakers...

So I stumbled upon a post from 2017 about so-called retro-clones.  It was interesting, insightful, and without the snooty pretensions of some.  I was doubly pleased that its author was a fan of our own Pits & Perils RPG because, I mean, c'mon; it's our game, of course we're gonna be appreciative.  May it bring them endless joy.  With so many superior options available we always appreciate it when someone chooses ours...

But one thing did stick with me.  The author referred to it as his favorite clone.

Now I love retro-clones.  They've saved many an older system from extinction and offer exciting new ways to enjoy old things.  Wrinkles are ironed out, much-needed streamlining happens, and we see just how timeless our hobby can be.  If you truly love gaming, and especially bygone systems, you owe the clones big.  Did you ever want a Second Edition of BX or BECMI D&D?  Or perhaps a surgical scrubbing of AD&D?  If you love these early iterations and want to pay it forward into modern times, thank the clones.     

But what's a literal clone and what's just heavily inspired.  Luckily, there's no fine line here and little controversy.  If a rulebook preserves mechanics from whole cloth and does so deliberately; if its stated purpose lies in doing so; and if it does this so well that it requires the Open Gaming License or (someone's version thereof) to avoid legal wrath, it's a true retro-clone and, might I add, one by design.  Retro-clone is not a pejorative in my eyes.

But is a game a retro-clone just because it has dwarves?  Elves?  Parties exploring dark dungeons in search of wealth and fame?  If it passes the legal sniff test, yeah.  But what if it employs original mechanics such that you couldn't shoehorn D&D into gameplay with the proverbial ten-foot pole?  What if the spells are completely different and operate under unique conditions?  Or combat is resolved through different means?  I think we've left retro-clones behind and entered into the realm of spiritual clones, which are honorable.


Cheeseburgers are great; and while the local specialty with double bacon might not be the first one ever grilled, it just might be your favorite, which is better by a long shot.  

Pits & Perils is one of these.  It has clerics, dwarves, spell casters, the works.  It even recreates the six ability scores, although players roll (or choose) just one exceptional ability instead of rolling 3d6 for them all.  There's no Vancian magic.  D&D scorned spell points; sorry Gary, but Pits & Perils embraces them.  Simplicity rules the roost.

Now some call spiritual clones Fantasy Heartbreakers, which I'm not wild about...     

Coined here, it's a term that's lazily thrown about, and you'll have to form your own opinion about it.  I will offer, however, that The Forge is gone while D&D (and its derivatives) are doing quite well, thank you very much.  Moreover, there's nothing about the original games that requires them to be dungeon crawls or murder hobo affairs.  They can be turned to complex themes of the sort Ron Edwards would approve of with zero mechanical changes, and anyone who doesn't get this probably doesn't understand the hobby.

The rules are just a guide.  The GM can add or change anything, and house rules will inevitably happen; perhaps deliberately, but maybe by accident as well.  Moreover, bending over backwards to be different from D&D can be just as contrived as copying it verbatim unless some higher cause is being served.  There are a thousand possible variations of a theme; and that means something for everyone if the fact is honestly disclosed. 

Maybe someone put off by OD&D would love White Box.  Or perhaps someone intimidated by Fifth Edition's complexity might prefer Pits & Perils, where they can explore a monster-infested underworld without dying in the first room of the dungeon.  Either way, it's a convert to the hobby, which is something we should all celebrate.  Retro-clones make this happen, and so does any game not afraid to offer up these time-honored concepts...

And that's why I love retro-clones.  And spiritual clones.  And fantasy heartbreakers when they're also good systems.  I'm of the crazy idea that games should be fun, and that no one's in a better position to judge this than the actual participants.  Call me old-fashioned.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

D&D: The One I ****ed Up...

Many years ago, when yours truly was a wee lad who could still fit into his size 30 jeans without turning blue in the face, he (that's me) ran what I thought would be a one-off adventure for a friend's dark elf character.  I had an ingenious idea, although it turned out I was a little too smart for my own good.  The premise was simple enough; an unwed, childless duke had perished, leaving his lands up for grabs...

But there was a catch (there's always a catch).  The Duke had a plan.  Headship requires courage, so aspirants could brave the late Duke's dungeon, stocked with exotic and hungry monsters and deadly traps.  Anyone who managed to make it through with all their vitals intact could claim the title of Duke with the honors and privileges thereof.

He almost didn't make it.  But in the end he emerged, alive, his beating heart hanging by a vein from the gaping hole in his chest.  All in all, a fun afternoon. 

And that was that.  My friend's character was a noble.  Duke Someone of Something, situated in a suitably remote part of my setting.  It was really meant as a one-time excursion, and the character, shelved after our other DM moved away, had never been my friend's favorite to begin with.  It was supposed to be a last hurrah before retirement.

This quickly proved not to be the case, and it didn't have to be.  My friend's ascension to dukedom opened up many gameable possibilities...

But I wasn't prepared for just how fully my friend embraced his newfound status.  He frequented libraries (it was a pre-internet age), studied feudalism and medieval tax schemes, and mastered the minutiae of building (and fielding) an army.  And good for him!  This is interesting stuff.  He wanted to conquer other parts of the setting, starting by inciting a civil war and becoming King.  And we were more or less cool, for a while.


We role-played his political machinations and dabbled in 1985's Battlesystem, although Swords and Spells might have been funner.  But then a creeping obsession took over, and his in-game aspirations began to overtake everything else.  I enjoy gaming as much as anyone; but I enjoy lots of other things and partition my life accordingly.  But it got to the point of getting calls at all hours wanting to talk about the allocation of grain and how to convince the Church to endorse his claims.  This went on for months.  

I began avoiding my friend and losing my temper, and it all came to a head at a group session involving vampires (or something).  Another player had gotten Bucknard's Everfull Purse and my friend's eyes lit up with unmasked avarice.  It seems the Duke was having trouble financing his ambitions.  Anyway, my friend pulled me aside.  He was literally, physically trembling, and I swear tearing up a bit.  I've got to get that purse, he said with a real, palpable desperation that blew a fuse in my brain and turned ugly.

So I decided we'd all had too much of this and retreated from gaming; and for years I imagined (assumed, really) that I was in the right.  But was I?  Who was really the problem player here, and who was the better friend?  Turns out it wasn't me...

My friend clearly had a problem, and I was a terrible friend for not seeing that.

Was he having trouble at home?  Struggling with self esteem and hoping to find it in an imaginary world where he was of noble blood?  My not-so-fully formed brain saw only inconvenience when it should have sensed a cry for help.  Life went on.  We gamed again, but drifted apart a year later; and I regret that fact as much as my reaction to what was clearly a problem.  I should have been honest sooner, made my boundaries clear and asked if anything was wrong or something.  Easy words for a 52-year old man.

I suppose I should give myself a break.  We were kids.  But it does go to show what might happen when we aren't attuned to more than ourselves and our convenience.  When it comes down to it, gaming is a human activity indulged by people who may or may not bring their assorted troubles to the metaphoric (and literal) table.  Even if it's only hurt feelings, chances are it's also a missed opportunity to do good.  There are very few activities where a little kindness and understanding aren't preferable, and gaming isn't one of them...