Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Levels and the Old-School Brain...

Level matters in role-playing games.  It speaks to how powerful a character is, how much damage they can suffer, and how many spells they may cast.  Ditto for monsters.  If you want a side-by-side power ranking, level gets you where you need to go and helps the GM build challenging but fair adventures and assign rewards appropriately...

And yet the first (and arguably the best) games might not have been all that concerned with level even when they otherwise embraced the concept.

Now I'm talking about OD&D here because for all it might have gotten wrong (errors of omission more than anything else), its approach to characters and levels was pretty much spot on - even if it wasn't expressly highlighted in the rules.  Level, for all its undeniable importance, was always secondary to what old-school enthusiasts often frame as player skill vs. character skill.  And its implications go far beyond simple gameplay...  

More than anything, OD&D saw characters as a mind capable of asking questions, solving problems, and working together as part of a team.  Class, with all its necessary power, seasoned the soup and gave everyone both the practical skills to survive and a specialty to further distinguish themselves.  But ultimately, it was the cleverness and strategy of the players that overcame the odds and led their characters to victory.

When a 5th-level character died, a 1st-level hero took their place.  A neophyte walking alongside more powerful companions.  A novice character among seasoned professionals going up against objectively more powerful adversaries.  How on earth was this even supposed to work?  Or be fair?  Or survivable for that matter?  The answer lies in the fact that the party was never expected to fight everything, and when they did enter into hostilities, clever strategy was just as important as high marks in the level department.


Superior parties always tried to set the conditions of battle.  And they never, ever took on a fair fight.  Hell, if they could get riches without fighting, they'd do it.

None of this had much to do with level.  At best, in encouraged strategy, especially when working around limited power.  The earliest games took this as a given.  As long as you had a mind capable of solving problems and contributing ideas, you had at least half of what you needed to succeed.  Level was just another resource in the party's toolkit... 

And, of course, there were hirelings.  Even an oaf with a 3 charisma got one, making the typical party more of an expedition complete with porters and men-at-arms.  This approach put lower-level adventurers in charge of a fighting force, which was in keeping with the hobby's early self-identification as wargaming.  And think of the power a low-level character had with even one armed fighter under their command.  Seriously.

Note: OD&D made men-at-arms expensive to find but cheaper to maintain.  By way of example, a heavy footman could be had for 100-ish GP and maintained for a mere 3 GP per month in upkeep.  But in a game where the rules are just a guide, locating one might be simpler and less expensive.  At any rate, a relative inheriting their kin's wealth could easily afford to take on some hired help depending on the circumstances involved.

Oh, and relatives inheriting equipment and/or magic items already enjoyed substantial advantages from the go, greatly improving their chances of survival.

Relatively low-powered (and interdependent) characters leading an expeditionary force underground, avoiding danger, and setting the conditions for battle?  Sounds like old-school gaming to me - and sounds like challenging fun!  The earliest games assumed a mode of play that allowed anyone to get involved.  Bring your brains and your hirelings.  Challenging adventures await those willing to put cleverness and strategy ahead of level alone...   

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Olde House (1974-1979)...

So yesterday I found my old house on Google Maps*.  I lived there four and a half years, seemingly the totality of my childhood right up to my dawning adolescence, and it never left me even though I was forced to leave it behind (but then, children seldom have that much control over their early destinies).  I was reminded of how happy I was, and how badly time ravages even our most cherished memories.  But some things abide...

We were never especially wealthy, and sometimes outright poor.  Or homes were never the biggest or the best on any given street.  But to see the old place now in such ill repair detonates a nuclear bomb somewhere inside of me.  The roof is ugly patchwork seemingly incapable of enduring the hard southern rains, and it looks for all the world like no one's painted since we moved out in 1979.  Is it a meth house now?  Not a charitable thought, but the other houses on the street are just as pristine as they were decades ago.    

Of course, I can't expect others to care the way I did, and I have no knowledge of the current resident's circumstances.  It's really just me bemoaning my distant past...


I discovered I was a geek there - years before it was fashionable.  Star Wars was this new thing, and I think we were all scrambling to adjust.  And back then, most all of our geeky entertainments were home brew.  My brother and I drew weekly comic books for each other, ambitious affairs set in the fictional town of Creepville, Ohio.  These were loosely based on the Aurora Movie Monster kits we obsessively assembled through much of the decade, rendered in Pedigree colored pencil on notebook paper.  Amazingly, we kept it up for three years (an eternity for children) through numerous issues and several spin-offs...  

And one summer we published homemade horror magazines in the style of Famous Monsters of Filmland.  These were "professionally" published on our venerable Underwood typewriter, complete with photocopied stills from our favorite magazines, copied and re-copied by our indulgent mother and stapled along one side.  I swear it was easily the most formative creative experience of my life.  There's really something to be said for living before everything was available.  No cable, no internet.  We made our own fun, and things were better for it.  There's just no beating the purity or deep sense of ownership. 

Long story short, I discovered this thing called D&D, and it spoke to my home brew sensibilities.  Every one of them.  We moved eight months later, and by 1980 I was playing Holmes Basic in another house - in another town with other friends.  I grew up, met and married the love of my life, and discovered whole new ways to be fulfilled.  These days we publish small press games on the side, most in a manual type font.  We're Olde House Rules, and now you know where this all comes from - and what the "olde house" really is...

*Sorry, no picture.  People live there now, and we want to respect their privacy.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Thermodynamics of Wishes...

Wishes, those reality bending rewards; they come in bottles and on rings of power.  But beware always the capricious and trigger-shy game master...

Some GMs are understandably fearful of the game-breaking power of wishes, and this frequently results in them becoming non-existent or guaranteed bummers no player wants to touch.  And that's a pity, because wishes add an element of wonder and the possibility of reversing unfortunate events.  Yes, much mischief can be done as well, perhaps leading to memorable adventures (in retrospect of course).  But if the players somehow manage to find a magic lamp (or whatever), it should at least potentially have value.

Wishes alter reality, but thermodynamics insists that nothing can be truly created or destroyed, only moved around; and herein lies a guide for managing wishes in a campaign where they're desperately needed.  We'll begin with categories:

RESTORATIVE wishes affect the user (or a chosen target) to restore or reverse some personal misfortune.  If Bjorn was somehow reincarnated as a badger, he should be able to wish himself back to his former self, and denying this or imposing penalties to avoid breaking the game probably looks and feels like meanness.  Of course, the player must still wish responsibly.  Asking to be human again is not the same as wishing to be restored to their former (read: previous) identity.  But even then, the GM can respect intent... 


ENHANCEMENT wishes improve appearance, abilities, etc.  This is a mixed bag because some desired enhancements are potentially more game-breaking than others.  When wishing to change gender and/or modify appearance, it's pretty much doing a hard reset of the character concept.  This can be done with few consequence beyond the campaign narrative and may be interesting.  On the other hand, wishing to improve abilities has more serious implications.  Maybe each wish only raises an attribute by one point, and upon reaching the racial maximum, only by 1/10th of a point.  AD&D took this approach.

Of course, wishing to fly or shoot lightning bolts out of your eyes can significantly alter the fabric of reality.  In this case, the added powers absolutely should come at a price.  I suggest transforming the aviation enthusiast into a sentient pigeon or striking the lightning-bolt lover blind as their new power (forever theirs) blasts the eyes out of their head...   

Now we've entered bummer territory.  Tread cautiously here you would-be wishers!  

EVENT REVERSAL wishes involve any reversal that extends beyond an individual to the entire party (or even larger groups).  This requires seismic shifts to the fabric of reality because it literally reverses events for several people.  If half the party died in a terrifying pit trap - poof! - they're restored.  But every subsequent benefit, including magic items and levels gained by any survivors, are lost because the events never really happened.

As a rule, restoration/reversal for individuals is fine.  Restoration for groups requested by survivors actually with that group results in the loss of any and all subsequent gains because that much reality can only be altered by reconfiguring the "mass" of prior events.

GRANDIOSE wishes involve any fabulous (and external) acquisitions that can potentially unravel the campaign.  These always involve a trade-off.  Ask for infinite riches and you'll be teleported (quite alone) into Tiamat's lair.  Wish for the Wand of Orcus and enjoy an all-expense paid trip to the demon lord's throne room in Hell.  Requests of this magnitude can only be realized with great effort, and taking the wisher to the goal is typically easier in a cosmic sense than bringing said riches to the waiting character on a silver platter.

Ultimately, the idea here is that (1) wishes involve a sort of conservation of energy, a thermodynamics of reality.  Nothing new is added, just moved around, and (2) smaller and more reasonable requests involve far less effort and should be granted in the spirit of compensation for treasure justly earned.  Do this, and the players will know to exercise due discretion, which rewards them and keeps the game intact.  We can only wish...     

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Bound to Please (Printed to Use)...

Buy an RPG rulebook and you've bought the publisher's version of what their physical product should be, which is obviously fine (and convenient).  But download the PDF version and you can print it out yourself and re-imagine its presentation, which is not only a nice capability, but also one in keeping with the hobby's home-brew, DIY ethos.  We all interact with our gaming materials differently, so this is actually pretty handy...

Interestingly enough, the BX game of the early 80s got the ball rolling by setting up the booklets with a three-hole margin for easy removal and insertion into a three-ring binder or whatever else you happened to use.  And it would be very easy to combine the various rulebooks into a single volume and insert your own house rules in the appropriate sections, which was a friendly nod to the primacy of the Dungeon Master.

Forty years later, PDFs deliver this and more.  I've seen the "old" rulebooks printed in a variety of clever forms, all tailored to the needs of the individual GM.  People do this with our own titles as well, which is immensely flattering.  We've seen digest-size, saddle stitched booklets made from letter-sized rulebooks and slick, glossy covers over spiral binding in the style of the greats.  One friend printed out our Pits & Perils as an antiquated volume with actual string binding (and in the digest-size format he still wants to see)...

Me, I prefer putting the pages into heavy document protectors in a three-ring binder complete with a cover image slipped in the front.  There's no wrong way to do this when it's for your own use at the table, and here's some of what we're talking about:


Combining the OD&D rulebooks into a single, spiral-bound format bookended by the covers of the original boxed set is an act of pure genius by our friend Norbert Matausch.


Bill Lackey turned our entire catalog (at the time) into a series of digest-sized booklets that capture the look and feel of 1970s production better than we ever could!


Dull by comparison, but functional; it's my personal printing of Holmes Basic using the aforementioned document protectors and binder.  I guess I'm rough on things and benefit from a little durability!  The best gaming is home brew, though, so I'm happy with it. 

There are others, and we apologize if we left anyone out.  Home-brew printings of PDFs capture something essential from the early days of the hobby and remind us all that it's the players - and not the rulebook - that makes the game.  We're all enthusiastic amateurs making our own fun, even when we're making it with someone else's rules; and I don't think anyone in the old-school community would ever have (or want) it any other way...