Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Designing Music: Pits & Perils...

Yours truly loves music in its various forms and, not surprisingly, listens to quite a lot of it while working.  My older brother was a music fan since the age of eight and began an impressive vinyl collection that's only grown in four-some decades (trivia: he became a disk jockey of the internet type, although he's now retired); and he spun the soundtrack to my childhood right up through my gaming years.  Fast forward several decades and I'm writing games with my beloved and doing so to the music of my youth...

Now here's the funny thing: each project gravitates towards certain artists; again, a soundtrack.  Whether the oldies of Pits & Perils or the progressive metal of Red of Tooth, each title found something that captured its particular mood.  I won't even try to cover everything here, but maybe I'll start at the beginning with Pits & Perils:

ABBA: Super Trouper (1980).  Oh my god I love ABBA, and this album was an absolute masterpiece from the Swedish band.  Their fun, earnest sound remains a breath of fresh air in a world where bad things happen and a much-needed counterweight to my coarsened  tendencies.  I remember listening to On and On and On while absorbing the latest issue of Dragon Magazine (#48, with the Phil Foglio cover) back in the day.


BEE GEES: Living Eyes (1980).  I know, everyone thinks Disco.  But the Brothers Gibb enjoyed distinguished musical careers in the decades before (and well after) the leisure suit years.  Caveat: Main Course through Spirits Having Flown are all great albums, but their post-disco output was also excellent, starting with this gem.  I swear, just listening to He's a Liar brings back fond memories of my Grenadier and Ral Partha miniatures. 

TIME LIFE SOUNDS OF THE 70s (1989): Ten flawless discs covering pop hits from my favorite decade.  I was alive when A Horse with No Name (America) was a Top 40 record, so this stuff resonates big time.  From ELO to Jigsaw (you're a member of the old folks club if you remember them), this collection is solid gold for someone like your truly, just another relic from the pre-internet age (ironic, I know) when D&D was brand new.  

Observant readers will notice that two out of three are from 1980, a fact I'll very happily explain.  I started gaming in 1978 but wouldn't get my act together until Christmas of 1980, when Holmes Basic came wrapped under the tree.  It's timeless stuff, but I had a happy childhood on top of it all and have every right to feel nostalgic.  Now as it happens, music is the ideal medium for storing our deepest feelings, and when the time came to excavate gaming gold, the old stuff became a nuclear-powered time machine on steroids...

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Elves of 74'...

As much as we like AD&D's multi-classing rules, they weren't exactly a master class in technical elegance.  But they weren't all that bad either because; really, how difficult is it to divide earned experience between two (or more) classes?  It's just a little math, and not exactly differential equations.  And because dwarves and elves live longer and are already older than their human counterparts, they've had more time to learn...

Time to master the arts of combat and spellcraft.  Time to wield the great sword while simultaneously developing one's stealth.  And multi-classing certainly gave non-humans a unique set of abilities.  But demi-humans already came with a fairly impressive array of racial talents, from dwarven toughness to elven skill at arms.  And then there's infravision, an unnecessary throwback to when non-humans were dungeon-dwelling monsters because anyone who wasn't a player character was a monster, obviously. 

And so in the interest of killing our darlings and finding gold where others may see only tarnished brass, we'll suggest here that OD&D just might have been the first time the hobby got elves right.  Dwarves and halflings were a different matter; but elves were absolutely something OD&D did right, even if it wasn't the only right way to do things (there's seldom any wrong way to do imaginary play).  Now let the gushing commence...


OD&D elves could switch between fighter and magic-user between (but never during) adventures, wearing armor and wielding weapons during one descent and taking up a cloak and staff the next.  And once they got their grubby mits on a suit of magical armor, elves  could wear it while acting as a spell caster.  Awesome!  But its value was diminished as early as the supplements, where a more traditional multi-classing, complete with armored spell casters, took hold, which begs the question: Why OD&D's way?

First off, it was easy.  If you played as a fighter and got 1,000 experience, forget the division; everything went to the fighter class.  Ditto when going as a magic-user. 

But it was also realistic (as far as that goes).  Spells can't operate through armor, and a magician needs their hands free for complex maneuvering.  But magical armor is specially engineered to accommodate such energies, so a suit of mail +1 is no obstacle for elven thaumaturgy.  At any rate, different strategies require different equipment.  If heavy fighting is part of the plan, best to suit up and polish that sword.  But with stalwart henchmen at the ready, going light and casting spells just might be the better option.

Finally, OD&D elves felt special; and this uniqueness was highlighted by the fact of its simplicity.  Soon enough, too many additional powers were added, leading to even greater attempts to balance them all.  But the mere ability to switch between two classes when others couldn't was more than enough to set them apart.  Over time, things began to feel like a bloated bureaucracy badly in need of the streamlining B/X and BECMI literally brought to the table.  OD&D needed more work, but it got its elves right from the start.

Elves are naturally magical, so most (if not all) eventually learn to cast spells.  It's just something they can do.  And like all races, they can arm themselves for more conventional fighting as well, because there's nothing more basic than picking up a nearby club and bludgeoning your enemies senseless.  But magic allows the impossible to happen, making it useful and its practitioners in high demand.  You can't play piano while kayaking down a raging river either; but it's cool to switch between them.  That's elves.   

Now to be clear, we adore AD&D; and for those desiring a more robust old-school experience, it's the cream of the crop.  But for all OD&D needed to work out (dwarves and halflings spring to mind), its elves clearly delivered.  Add the fact that they demanded superior strategy on the part of the player was old-school as hell and in keeping with the hobby's earliest traditions.  If nothing else, it's another tool in the toolkit and something worth checking out if you want to challenge a group minus the fuss of later editions...

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Agency and OD&D's Forced March...

Yesterday our friend Mark Hunt reminded us of this gem from OD&D (specifically, Men & Magic, page 10 for those wishing to follow along).  It reads as follows...

"Prior to the character selection by players it is necessary for the referee to roll
three six-sided dice in order to rate each as to various abilities, and thus aid them
in selecting a role."

That's right, Gary expected the DM (referee in those days) to roll ability scores for the players, which probably seems wrong to our modern sensibilities.  It's the player's character for Pete's sake; they should roll their own abilities.  We happen to agree and, luckily for subsequent generations, so did most everyone else - and right away!  But this early way of thinking wasn't limited to ability scores.  It was implied (when not outright mandated) that the DM should roll dice for the players in many other areas as well.

In these modern times we have all sorts of ideas about player agency and what people should be able to do in a game.  And we’re not being unreasonable here.  If Joe’s the one creating Borg, then Joe should roll for Borg’s abilities.  And when Borg swings his trusty battleaxe, Joe should be the one rolling.  Otherwise Joe's just a spectator who maybe gets to tell the DM he’s opening a door or swinging said weapon.  But when the rubber meets the proverbial road and it’s time to physically act, he’s as inert as a rock and all the action is done behind a figurative curtain.  It didn't take long for folks to reject this approach.


So here’s at least one instance where the hobby took off not because of its founder's assumptions but despite them.  And it bears examining why things began this way and why they eventually (hell, almost immediately) changed.  Here's our take... 

Fantasy role-playing evolved from historical wargaming, and history imposed some serious constraints on player agency.  William, Duke of Normandy couldn't build catapults for the Battle of Hastings because that's not how history says it happened.  Ditto for Roman chariots or Greek fire.  Players understood this and accepted the need to color in the lines for the sake of historical accuracy.  In short, wargamers were conditioned to limited agency within a narrow scope.  What forces they played, how they deployed, was all imposed by someone else; in this case, history itself, and no one expected anything more at the time. 

Even David Wesely, founding father of the hobby and creator of Braunstein (precursor to Blackmoor) created and assigned characters to his players.  The idea that anyone could or should expect more wasn't on the table.  But the seeds were planted...

Enter Blackmoor.  It wasn't a historical setting, so there was no official word on what was done and how it eventually turned out.  More than ever, players were writing history as they went along; and since they were playing individual characters in a realm of pure fantasy, coloring outside the lines was finally an option.  But the impositions of wargaming persisted because the games were still seen as wargames - old habits and all that jazz. 

And so Gygax wanted DMs to roll ability scores, among other things.  But it couldn't possibly last.  Once people started running individual characters they named, nurtured, and started to identify with, everything changed.  And then the non-wargamers arrived with expectations of greater agency for the reasons we all agree on, and this quickly ushered in a new age.  Oh, and we're sure most DMs didn't want to roll for everything.

Sure, the hobby was born from specific rules, created by specific people with specific assumptions about how things would work.  But they couldn't have anticipated the power of legions of others, laboring in isolation from one another and shaping the industry through their expectations and experiences of what actually worked at the table.  In this way, gaming was a free-market economy full of entrepreneurs.  A system where the so-called market decided best practice.  It's a tradition that continues to this day to the good of all...

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Ask Not What a Game Can Do...

Ask not what a game can do for you. That's an odd request because, obviously, games do quite a lot for us, and we judge them on what they have to offer.  From rules for making characters to content in the form of monsters and magic, games deliver tools we need and use to make it all happen.  We ask a lot of the games we play; and with so many great ones available, there's literally something for everyone...

We're not in the business of judging games.  It's all a matter of preference unless the rulebook can't even provide inspiration for games using better systems.  Thankfully, this is seldom the case, so don't expect a treatise on what's supposedly good or bad.  I'm only interested in what I care for and don't need others telling me what that should be, although I always appreciate informative reviews telling me what to expect.


So no, don't ask what a game can do for you; ask what you can do with a game, because ultimately, it's all about what you can use.  I call it "the feeling", and it's always been a trustworthy gauge.  Are you immediately filled with a million ideas for a campaign using System X?  Do its rules enable a thousand ideas you never knew you had?  Are you eager to put this new thing to use?  These things tell the truth of it.

When I got my Holmes Basic for Christmas, 1980, I immediately mapped a dungeon and badgered my family into playing.  Yes, this new thing was clearly doing something for yours truly, but that wasn't nearly the half of it.  The rulebook inspired me with a million ideas I immediately wanted to try.  D&D was an activity.  It's whole value lay in my ability to use it for my own purposes.  Gaming wasn't just a noun for me.  It was a verb.

Ask not what a game can do for you.  Ask what you can do with a game, because that's the sum total of its value, even if you only mine it for inspiration...

Maybe you find an intriguing system that needs house ruling.  How is this a problem, especially when the result is an awesome system tailor made for you?  And short of actually redeeming a system, what about a rulebook you can mine for ideas and inspiration that fundamentally changes an existing activity?  In all of the above, the game's value lies in its ability to be used.  And like food or sex, we immediately know when we want it...