Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Archworld (or How OD&D Was Made)...

Yesterday, we talked out manual type as the poor-man's typesetting, and while we rarely post any kind of next-day follow-up, we had to today.  I talked a little about local game designers who typed up their rules, photocopied and stapled them, and sold them in Ziploc baggies at the local hobby shop.  However, there's also a tradition of semi-professional companies exploiting manual typewriters in place of Letraset Dry-Erase font sheets and/or professional typesetting services, because it's both easier and cheaper to pull off...

But I've used Letraset in the printing lab at school and found it to be a tedious pain in the ass compared just typing a page.  I mean, if you already know how to type, it's a hell of a lot faster than rubbing out individual characters, especially for something as ambitious as the original D&D rulebooks.  Letraset for covers, maybe.  But not the insides.  And securing any commercial typesetting requires capital that goes beyond the merely amateur, which points to the fusion of amateur and professional elements in the early hobby.

The early gaming industry was a
fusion of amateur and professional elements...

But first, a primer on offset printing and how OD&D was physically made...

First, all text and illustrations are laid out on a board to be photographed using a big graphic arts camera (probably a Robertson back then).  The negatives of each page would then be used to "burn" metal printing plates (photosensitive bromides) that would be mounted on whatever press was used.  Now, here's the interesting part.  The plates were secured on a roller that ran through an ink trough, where the ink stuck only to its burnt image, and then through water that flushed clean any unprinted area.  Finally, paper was fed through the printer, with (properly oriented images) offset from the inked images to the paper.

A small offset press and an
example of photosensitive printing plates...

Black and white requires only a single plate, whereas four-color printing employs separate and overlapping plates for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.  If you've ever looked over a box of Cheez-Its or something else, you'll see a bar with all four colors used as a tool to help the printer align the colors.  But OD&D was simple black and white... 

Even then, we aren't done.  A sizeable run had to be quality controlled and subjected to the bindery process.  Books are collated, stapled, and trimmed along the edges for a clean and professional appearance.  This is actually was kind of fun, and this equipment remains in use today even as photocopiers and printers dominate the inheritors of this craft.

But is this amateur?  I mean, there's money and professionalism at work here.  Yes, OD&D's artwork was delightfully (and some say horribly) amateur.  But everything else speaks to a melding of amateur and professional elements.  Other emerging companies took the same route, but split things up differently, with the Arduin and Archworld games providing two prominent examples (and for those in the know, Archworld was the spiritual inspiration for our own Pits & Perils, both in terms of visuals and mechanical approach...

Illustrations, manual type, and Letraset were
doubtless combined for Archworld's delightful interior...

Archworld was a wargame by Mike and Sheila Gilbert.  She wrote and he drew, and both developed the rules, which also draws parallels to our own games.  This delightful wargame with role-playing elements is something I'd kill to get a License to revive and would actually throw myself into securing the capital to make a good product possible.  But it was released by Fantasy Games Unlimited who, apparently, received their homebrew markups and sent them off for printing.  And these markups, complete with Mike's art, were manually typed and completely (and delightfully) self-made at home.  Talk about an amateur pedigree!

I'm really not sure why FGU lacked a consistent aesthetic, but it undoubtedly gave the authors freedom to do their own thing at home.  Especially since one of them was a damned fine artist and the other an equally fine writer and editor.  And in the earliest days of this budding hobby, things were never too far removed from their homebrew origin...

That's it.  We promise.  Vacation beckons (and I just kicked a flu).  See you next month!      

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Tale of the Type (and Why We Love It)...

In the 70s, there were no personal computers, so anyone who wanted to make nice-looking manuscripts at home needed a typewriter.  Luckily, these were commonplace in business and industry and represented something of a professional standard.  Only newspapers and book publishers had anything better, and even by the early 90s in the Air Force, typewriters were still in use in some quarters, although this would end soon enough...

I remember spending my allowance on a used typewriter in 1978.  My mother kept me in ribbons and white-out because (ostensibly) it was educational, although mostly, I used it to write adventures, campaign notes, and the homebrew monster magazines I made with my brother (who never became a gamer).  Back then, typewriters were analogous to Microsoft Word today, and I was very proud of what I did with mine.

Now, OD&D is praised/reviled as amateurish, and the artwork certainly was.  But the cover and interior fonts would have most likely required metal type, and the books were doubtless printed on a AB Dick printer or a similar offset process, and even its bindery (stapling and trimming) would have required professional equipment beyond most...


As an aside, I studied printing and graphics arts at the local community college and even earned an associate's degree, working at several print shops until I met Robyn and joined the service, so I think have a fair understanding of what OD&D must have entailed, although I'd welcome talking shop with anyone in the direct know about this. 

So OD&D was semi-amateur at best.  But what about Joe (or Jane) amateur who wanted to publish their own stuff?  Answer: they used typewriters.  Now, I can only speak for my own experiences, but there was the equivalent of a small press publishing thing happening, where people (enthusiastic amateurs with great ideas) typed up their own games, stapled them along one side, and sold them in big Ziploc baggies for a few bucks at the most...  

And these creations made their way into my local hobby shop until professional products soaked up all the demand.  Again, I can only speak for my own experience, but this left an indelible impression and guides what Olde House Rules does today! 


Now, as someone who's used typewriters extensively, here's my advice for anyone wishing to recreate this sort of thing (for what it's worth, cause' I'm learning still):

(1) Boldface was possible by retyping over the same words several times, although this didn't always get the best results.  Instead, all capitals were used.

(2) Right justification of a sort was possible, but only by counting each character and making sure each line ended in roughly the same place.  This was a colossal pain in the ass, and I can't emphasize this enough, right justification was rarely, if ever, attempted.

(3) Underlining was possible by backspacing and using the line key, but many publishers drew this in themselves, which is a nice flourish for added realism...

(4) Finally, Adler is a nice, rough font.  However, it doesn't have the (!) character and always displays this invisibly unless you use something else, like Sears Tower, etc.  My Underwood is a cleaner font, but doesn't have the (!) or (+) characters, usually defaulting to Times New Roman.  So instead, switch to Sears Tower to preserve a uniform look.  Sears Tower is probably rougher than Adler, but dammit people, this one has all the relevant stuff! 

Oh, and Adler types (1) as a Roman numeral (I), so maybe replace it with a lowercase L to preserve some semblance of readability (hard-won knowledge, folks).

And that's the tale of the type (and why we love it).  Robyn and I are going on vacation this coming weekend and won't be back until June, so be safe and take care, everyone...

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Diceless Dungeons Are Here!

Inside every old-school game is a diceless system waiting to get out, and so we're proud to announce the release of our digital version of Diceless Dungeons!  Because diceless gaming is just about as old-school as you're gonna get.  After all, decision-making, exploration, and role-playing are the foundations of old-school adventure, and anyone who's spent an entire session debating how best to proceed knows what we mean...

Seriously, how many of us have gone an entire session without so much as rolling die one, or with minimal dice in favor of negotiation and role-playing? 

So Diceless Dungeons exploits the no-brainer stuff, because you never know what's hiding around the next corner, and this is just low-hanging fruit.  But Diceless dungeons does other things meant to preserve an old-school feel in a gaming genre otherwise known for it's more modern leanings.  Ultimately, we wanted something pure that would feel more like childhood play, only with an objective mechanical foundation to hold it all together:

(1) Simple (but detailed) rules for character creation that include the mysterious sorcerer's apprentice and a challenging, but straightforward, magic system.

We kinda think our rulebook
channels Tunnels & Trolls in some respects...

(2) A combat system that preserves the feeling of risk and uncertainty while possessing an objective mooring to guard against supposed unfairness by the referee.

(3) Monsters and powerful magic to be won (and wielded) and a non-typical advancement system that makes it easy for replacement characters to jump in!

(4) A narrative system of gameplay that makes everything a tactical choice with combat, in particular, becoming a chance for players to manage personal resources while preserving a traditional division of labor between the party and, or course, their referee.  

(5)  And, finally, all of this is delivered with the look and feel of an amateur digest rulebook from the early 1970s.  Oh, and there's also an optional dice mechanic offered for the faint of heart and all those diceless skeptics out there (one called himself die-curious)!

The aims of this 42-page rulebook are summed up in its closing words:

"More than anything else, this is a game of 
imaginative play.  There is enough freedom to make anything 
possible balanced with just enough structure to hold it all 
together, and a willingness to negotiate and improvise will unlock everything it 
has to offer.  Thrilling adventure awaits, with or without dice..."

Also worth pointing out is that this game emphasizes human adventurers in a low-magic world seeking fame and riches underground.  There are no demi-humans on offer, although creative types will surely add them, and we might too at some future date!  Oh, and we're working on its softcover (and digest-sized) counterpart we hope to get out in the weeks ahead, pending a proof from Lulu, cause' it's always that, right?  Until then, the digital version beckons...

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Real Roots of Role-Playing...

With the release of "Dave Arneson's True Genius" by Rob Kuntz, we have a book asserting that Arneson did something special.  Well, no disagreement here!  In fact, that's probably an understatement.  Arneson pretty obviously did something incredible and for which our entire hobby is rightly indebted.  Glad to see that recognized...

Now, a disclaimer:  I haven't read this book yet, so I can't fairly comment on the substance of its arguments and won't try.  But the back cover does summarize his thesis:  

(1) D&D was not descended from Chainmail, as many have asserted.

(2) Arneson did something previously unheard of in 2,000 years of game design.

OK, so to the first point, I concur.  OD&D is credited to Gygax & Arneson, but that's not even the important part.  Gygax heard of Arneson's Blackmoor campaign, and the two men joined forces to create the game.  This is just a matter of fact, and there's no reason to think that Gygax was on the cusp of inventing the role-playing concept on his own...

Yes, D&D imports plenty from Chainmail, going as far as to suggest that combat be resolved using Chainmail's rules, but this borrowing was probably inevitable.

Now, to the second point, I'm not a systems/design wonk by any stretch of the imagination and can't speak to what Arneson may (or may not have) introduced to the hobby and won't even try until I read the book and the proper context of this particular claim...

These creative youngsters get it...

On the other hand, here's my thesis, for what it's worth:

Dave Arneson tapped into something abiding in humanity since before recorded history.  

Wow, OK.  Here's my context.  When I was a child back in the early 70s, we engaged in all manner of imaginary play, pretending to be the Six Million Dollar Man, Superman, and just about every other superhero badass popular at the time.  Indeed, my backyard was a LARP edition of Marvel Super Heroes, circa 1974!  We were, dare I say it, engaged in a structured form of role-playing.  We didn't roll dice, but we did follow rules.

Superman could fly.  But the Six Million Dollar Man could not.  And woe to anyone who tried to flip the script and change these around!  We imposed narrative rules, and any deviations were duly coordinated and informally approved in advance.  And talking to others over the last fifty years has yielded similar stories about play and its assumptions...

Blackmoor (and Wesely's Braunstein) added a referee player in charge of the setting and supporting characters and rules to simulate the abilities of the main characters.  Now we can create our own characters and (as an added bonus) never know if an attempted action will be successful.  But while this was both innovative and without precedent, it was also pretty much just a structured form of childhood play, which is better still. 

What possesses grown men (and women) to paint toy soldiers and move them around on a tabletop diorama?  I mean, this probably isn't gonna get anyone laid (and we're not sure we wanna hear about when it might have), but it speaks to a love of something...

And that's the love of imaginary play!  I look forward to reading Kuntz's book, and probably reviewing it here.  Who knows?  Dave Arneson might, in fact, have introduced something previously unheard of in the annals of design.  But it seems to me that, in addition to whatever else he may or may not have done, Arneson also added random numbers and structure to the play we're enjoyed for millennia, and that's cool, although Wesely's pivotal Braunstein (and wargaming in general) had already begun this...

Play is play is play.  And from where we're sitting, imaginary play is a fun thing indeed!          

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

When Gaming Went to War...

OK, so I was ambushed.  Only it wasn't my first time...

In April, 2003, I was deployed to Iraq as OIC of a small combat weather team embedded in the 159th AVN BDE of the 101st ABN DIV (sorry, the contractions stick with you).  We were part of a ground assault convoy headed towards An Najaf, and we were ambushed after a solid 18 hours driving.  First on good hardball in the south and, later, back roads covered with an incredibly fine powder we called moon dust.  And this is where it happened...

And sure as shit, part of our convoy came under attack.  And I thought it might.  We were on this narrow back road flanked by berms.  Perfect ambush conditions.

We felt like the Clampets going
north in this thing (our IMETS weather van)...
  
But it wasn't my first ambush.  Nope, that was 22 years earlier.  It was also late at night, and our party was travelling through a narrow mountain pass flanked by rocks.  It was also an excellent ambush point.  But by 12-year-old self hadn't learned that yet (hell, none of us were prepared for the goblin ambush that followed).  But I remembered it two decades later. 

No big story here.  No dissertation.  I was injured, but rode out the deployment, seeing a few more skirmishes and surviving an airstrike on a nearby enemy position that came close to taking our convoy with it (hours later, the fireball still glowed faintly like a setting sun on the horizon as we set up camp miles away).  But what I am saying here is that tabletop gaming prepared me for this sort of thing in its own small way, and probably saved me.

Yes, we spent the last two weeks explaining how Wesely and friends had to detour away from wargaming to create RPGs.  But I fully recognize that role-playing has a strong tactical element and owes much to the wargaming tradition.  Add that to math, grammar, and good problem-solving and communication skills; all the vital life lessons I owe to role-playing...

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Braunstein Experiment: Wesely Weighs In...

Last week we talked about how Wesely's Braunstein was the precursor to role-playing as we know it today because Braunstein directly inspired Arneson's Blackmoor, and Blackmoor inspired OD&D.  Hell, Arneson's earliest games were called medieval Braunsteins, for Pete's sake, which speaks to the very real connection between two friends who knew each other well and played in one another's games going way back...

And in order to pull off this amazing feat, Wesely had to step outside of wargaming and tap into something different; namely, what we'd call role-playing these days!

But Robyn and I were only just born the year Wesely ran his first Braunstein (there were four of them in all), and it seems silly to speak for him when we have access to the undisputed expert on all things relating to his creation.  So the good major weighed in, and we're all the better for his sage advice.  Modern role-playing was born out of an experiment more turbulent and undeniably fun than any of us could have ever imagined: 

Wasn't Braunstein just a setup for some planned wargame?

No. it was not my initial intention.  If the “adventure game” I had planned turned out to be a dud, I was ready to switch over to a Napoleonic wargame, and just hope no one would remember how I had wasted their time.

Was there any connection to your wargames?

While I let them imagine that we were gathered at my folks basement to fight out a Napoleonic battle, I really did not use anything from our Napoleonic rules (since only a few Prussian troops even got onto the table, and no French arrived to fight).  I was ready, if the "adventure game" I had designed turned out to be a flop, with everyone complaining “Aren’t we ever going to fight?” to just give up and have a column of French cavalry and artillery show up and start attacking the town, and turn the evening into a “normal” Strategos-N wargame.  However, that did not happen, so the link with our Napoleonic wargame rules was pretty thin. [Note: We're sure glad it was a hit!] 

Wesely's took a major detour
from his Napoleonic games to our benefit...
(artwork by Jennifer Mei)

OK, so how did role-playing figure into your earlier experiences? 

The one thing in common was that I had done little bits of proto-role playing in earlier Napoleonic battles, pulling out some late-arriving player to tell him “You are the owner of the tavern in this town, and the local Spanish guerrillas visit you a lot.  Last night they were boasting about planning an ambush of the next French supply column that comes through the pass west of town.  The French have sent  a cavalry patrol into your town looking for the guerrillas.  They are offering a reward for information.  You should decide what you are going to tell them.” And then I would tell the French cavalry commander to talk to the tavern owner.   After which I would assign  a command (French, Spanish or British) to the “tavern owner” player.  This kind of livened-up the proceedings in our battles.  It increased the “fog of war”, and saved me from having to invent all of the dialog between the French player and the local civilians. [Note: This really speaks to the hobby's evolution]

But weren't some of the other games you played doing this?

Again, this role playing was not spelled out in my Strategos-N Napoleonic rules nor was it in Strategos: The American Game of War the 1880 US Army wargame rules that inspired me, beyond a very loose suggestion that the referee could provide information that might be obtained by talking to local civilians.  Much of what we now expect in an RPG, the interactions between player and GM (or as I called him, the referee), the referee telling the player to roll dice rather than just declaring the result, players being given a LOT of room to come up with tricky ideas, and so on, was not planned in the first Braunstein, but evolved as I floundered forward through the two flops (Braunstein 2 and 3) and then got it working well in Braunstein 4 and its successors from June 1969-September 1970.

We thought the division of play into turns might be one thing you retained.

[The] division of play into turns was one idea in the first game which quickly broke down when the players started wheeling and dealing between themselves without asking (or even telling) me about it.  My first Braunstein ran for about 12 hours, and so a lot more than three turns, though the players were not bothering to take turns, so who could count?  My planned scoring system went right out the window.

But wargaming got added to your later Braunsteins, right?

Braunstein 4 contains more rules for combat between Army, Air Force Paratroops, Navy Marines and the Guerrillas of the MRAB (Marxist Revolutionary Army of Banania) if any of those players decide to go to war – but ¾ of the players do not have any troops under their command, and games usually end with a coalition taking power, rather than a civil war.   The wargame side of later Braunsteins got reduced to an external threat, more than a chance for tactical play – “If you assassinate the manager of the Imperial Banana Company, will the UK send in HMS Jingo and her Royal Marines to restore order?”

That's Wesely on the left and
Arneson (pre-Blackmoor) at the far table...

Modern War in Miniature always seemed like a proto-RPG.

While Modern War in Miniature, by Michael F. Korns: was a step toward being an RPG, it did not involve any more role playing than any other skirmish-level modern wargame: It does not suggest that players even name the anonymous soldier they are telling to run across the street, let alone create a backstory for him, or have him do anything except try to stay alive and kill the enemy.  It was much like my Strategos-N rules, with a referee talking each player through a brief period of combat, and providing quick rules resolution.  Korns also did not take it any further.  It did not evolve into Brownstone Texas, Blackmoor and Greyhawk, but remained a modern minis game with interesting play mechanics. I had not seen a copy of Modern War in Miniature before I developed Braunstein, so it was not part of the ancestry of Braunstein, and thus of D&D.  Rather it was a parallel prototype, like Count Zeppelin’s airship, which flew before the Wright Flyer, but did not become the ancestor of all airplanes.

Cool!  And finally, we understand you didn't like the term role-playing?

I did not call Braunstein a “role-playing game” because there were already two other things called “role-playing games” and I felt it would be stupid to over use the name, when I was not trying to create another version of either of them.   What were these other things?   

Well, one was a form of group therapy in which patients  would be asked to pretend they were animals and then asked how their animal felt, or thought about  one of the other animals: the idea being that people would be willing to tell you about problems their imaginary animal had, which they would not admit to having themselves: “Say doc, I have a friend who has this problem...”.  The other “role-playing game” was an improvisational theater training device for actors: For example, in the “Cheese shop game” one player is the customer, who asks for any kind of cheese: “I’d like some cheddar, please”, and the other player is the store owner, who tells him he cannot sell it to him: “Sorry, fresh out” This dialogue goes on until one of them repeats himself, at which point the other rattles off a few more cheeses or reasons to clinch his victory.  You may remember this from the Monty Python show, where Michael Palin and John Cleese star in the Pet Shop skit.  SO after trying “multiplayer multiple objective game” (or MPMOG for short!) I settled on “adventure game”.  Unfortunately,  people who had never heard of the Cheese Shop game decided to use “role-playing game” as the generic name, when TSRs lawyers told them they could not call their imitations “games like D&D”.

And there you have it!  Wesely had precious little but vague and unformed suggestions to role-play from his wargaming inspirations and imported very little mechanically into his first Braunstein game.  Apparently, even the division of play into turns didn't pan out, and it took several tries to get the right balance by his own estimation...

Now, this is important, because it appears that Wesely introduced role-playing as a formal element and on an unprecedented scale.  Why else would Arneson be so enamored with the concept if it was already being done in any serious way?  But even if it was, history tells us it was the friendship between the two men, and the fact of their close proximity, that allowed one to influence the other.  So if you have the good fortune to meet Major Wesely at some local convention, be sure to shake the hand of our hobby's founding father!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

We're Still Not Convinced That RPG's Were Originally Converted Wargames (Braunstein Edition)...

Several months ago, we posted our assertion that modern role-playing games weren't really converted wargames after all, and it met with pushback given that D&D billed itself as rules for fantastic medieval wargames, and that the hobby's pioneers were all wargamers and simulationist of some stripe.  And they made some valid points, so we'll soften our position very slightly (but not by much) to (re)stress the obvious: 

Role-playing is undeniably linked to wargaming, and to say otherwise ignores the essential elements of its history.  But it would also be a huge mistake (and factually wrong) to assume that Wesely simply converted his Napoleonic game to a man-to-man scale.  Or that modern role-playing represents a neat (and linear) progression from wargame to RPG when, in fact, he needed to step away from wargaming to create Braunstein; the hobby's precursor. 

Braunstein was a game.  But was it a wargame?  That's at the heart of the matter, because games, simulations, and wargames overlap considerably...

Yes, David Wesely was an active wargamer.  So what?  I'm a (retired) meteorologist.  Does that mean our Pits & Perils is a weather forecast?  It just doesn't follow...

A long time ago, in the
fictional town of Braunstein (Brown Stone)...

And yes, the eponymous Prussian town of Braunstein did lay between two opposing armies in his other (ongoing) wargaming campaign.  Fair enough, and I guess we could call it a spin-off from his usual game.  Still, Braunstein didn't require the other's rules to execute and could have easily existed without the events of that parallel game.  

Moreover, the successful execution of combat was never a condition of victory in the original game, where players became bankers and/or students (among other occupations) who found themselves embroiled in decidedly non-combative actions at the table.

To underscore this point, Wesely, despite (presumably) having multiple combat mechanics at his disposal, was completely thrown when a duel broke out.  Indeed, he thought his creation was a failure because it seemed so freeform.  And it was freeform.  Aside from the division of play into turns, there was very little beyond on-the-spot rulings.

Now, much was made of Wesely's inspirations.  He got the idea for a referee preparing the evening's battle from Strategos, The American Game of War by Charles Totten.  But does that make his Braunstein a wargame?  D&D has a referee, and no one considers 5th Edition a wargame.  The Compleat Strategist by J.D. Williams also plays a part, but this is a book about game theory and not some wargaming reference beyond the inevitable overlap...

All wargames are simulations.  But are all simulations wargames?  And where do we draw the line?  Monopoly is a real-estate simulation for sure.  But is it wargaming?

A signed copy of a limited-edition
print of Barons of Braunstein (from Chirene's Workbench)...

I'd say that, at a minimum, wargames should be about actual war and the execution of the same through effective strategy and tactics.  And in order to do this, you need to simulate a world where terrain and weather, among other things, are taken into account.  But we need to ask ourselves if a game where you have to get your (non-combatant) banker out of town with their gold counts as anything close to a true wargaming experience.

Of course, the lines get blurred because Arneson converted the original Braunstein concept into a fantasy milieu that absolutely required detailed simulation.  And wargaming stood at the ready with the rules and mechanical structure needed to make it happen...

And so, D&D was briefly a wargame.  At least until it wasn't.  Or put another way, Braunstein wasn't a wargame so much as a deviation from wargaming by a wargamer interested in trying something different.  It's essential structure (one player per character) and freeform execution were retained, with simulationist mechanics added because the need to introduce special powers and abilities obviously demanded it.  But it quickly became role-playing once it was clear that armchair generals had little to do with the emerging hobby! 

More importantly, given the execution of Braunstein, it owes more to the sort of imaginary play that predates modern (and probably ancient) wargaming by millennia, and this chicken definitely came before the egg, although I'll concede that a close kinship exists.  

But perhaps the best proof of this is that David Wesely, himself, didn't view his creation as a true wargame, preferring instead "adventure game" to describe his innovative idea, and our hobby owes literally everything to one wargamer's foray into something very different...      

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Not the OSR's Middle Ages...

OK, maybe this isn't relevant to some (most) of you.  But we hit the forums sometimes, and we occasionally run into those who mischaracterize old-school gamers (us) as grumpy relics resistant to new ideas.  But it's just not true.  And it never was.  Consider... 

Some have (wrongly) accused the OSR as being manned by dinosaurs resistant to greater inclusiveness and hiding behind the presumed medieval mindset as justification for this tendency.  Thus, for instance, women are barred from the city guard and other positions of authority in deference to medieval orthodoxy because, after all, this is authentic and reflects the period as it actually was.  But this defense fails on the face of it...

Old-school gaming has always been progressive and wide open to all manner of ideas, setting it far from any supposed Land of the Dinosaurs.  Any and everything was on the metaphorical table.  Everything.  And if you are one of those dinosaurs who cites medieval realism as justification for anything, consider this:  The OSR is just barely medieval! 

So first, calm down.  If you've carefully tailored your favorite ruleset to arrive at something historically accurate (or just close enough), that's one thing.  You've deviated, and at great length, from the rules as written.  But taken at face value and using everything thrown at you in the way of magic and monsters, the OSR is something else...   

Obviously, the presence of actual, working magic in any capacity would have a tremendous impact on whatever culture we're talking about.  Now imagine this magic conspicuously on display almost daily in the larger towns and great cities.  What does it say about the nature of the material universe and the forces that bind it when such power can exist?  And what would it mean to have such an equalizing force in a world where physical strength should otherwise be the accepted standard of worldly might?  It pretty much changes everything.

It's how we get from this...

The fact that this is accepted and not under constant persecution, by itself, precludes the sort of historical model we think our old-school games are based upon!

Face it.  The western medieval world was a Christian world.  And any power not originating squarely from the Trinity was evil.  There were only two sources of power, and if God wasn't pulling the strings, then Satan was at the wheel!  But then, the OSR treats magic as a neutral force to be channeled and used, which puts it at odds with how these things were viewed in the medieval mind.  No, magic as natural science simply doesn't apply here...

Religiously speaking, clerics of Poseidon didn't wander the streets of Prague, so if this is anyone's idea of old-school campaigning, forget it!  And even if we imagine an original setting that just happens to look a lot like the real medieval period, the absence of a monolithic religious entity demolishes one of the cornerstones right off the bat.

Oh, and the fact that OSR deities (1) actually exist and (2) exert actual, tangible power beyond the subjective attribution of natural phenomenon matters.  Man has a habit of fighting over who's god has the bigger package (ahem), and this cosmic measuring contest has resulted in plenty of earthly misery.  But what does it mean when the gods can prove they exist and, indeed, there are several "one true gods" operating in the universe?

Wait?  What's that sound?  It's yet another pillar of "authentic medievalism" toppling!

Finally, the presence of intelligent non-human races changes a lot.  Dwarves and elves are physically and psychologically different (and psychology owes much to physiology), which really puts them beyond anything merely ethnic.  And the fact that elves naturally wield the magic at work in this universe sets them even further apart.  These aren't the Moors, with a different culture and religion, but what amounts to intelligent alien life! 

To something more like this...

And the fact that any of these things exist at all precludes a medieval view of the world beyond the superficially technological.  Yes, it's the Iron Age, and feudal systems will almost certainly predominate.  But the difference wrought by actual magic is considerable...

Magic might be rare and in the hands of a few.  But those who have it will use it, and unlike the real world, where magical accounts are purely imaginary, authentic sorcery would have a profound effect on the outcome of battles and the spread of plagues, etc.  Just imagine if King Harold had access to (actual) magicians during the Battle of Hastings in 1066!

Furthermore, the gods would war among themselves for supremacy and fight proxy wars among their followers, granting them supernatural powers as an enticement and to make them useful against their enemies.  At any rate, it only takes one angry god (or goddess, as the case may be) to reduce a willful city to a smoking crater.  These things are hard to miss or write off as mere coincidence, and they're (mostly) without precedent in real history...

Finally, different intelligent races would almost certainly view one another (and their unique religious and cultural traditions) with some suspicion, even as they traded with one another for desired luxuries.  And the psychological differences wrought through biology would have resulted in a uniquely different cultural and scientific legacy.  Very different.

Any of these things alone, and certainly in combination, would have necessarily resulted in a vastly different historical situation.  And all are hallmarks of old-school gameplay.

Which is to say, it's fantasy, folks.  You can do what you want, and the only ones you need to please are the people in your own group.  You'll get all the reality you can stomach in your daily life, so feel free to eschew realism in a game where you can be a pointy eared elf who shoots magical lightning bolts out of their fingertips!  But if you're playing a historical version of D&D (or its many imitators), congratulations!  This represents considerable effort on your part and belongs to you.  The hobby most of us remember is a thing of pure whimsy...  

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Hathluu (a Pale House for Opherian Scrolls)...

This week, we're serving up a NEW PALE HOUSE for BoP: Opherian Scrolls for use in your own campaigns:

HATHLUU is a lesser-known house, being concerned with torture and interrogations, but also ritual sacrifice, which figures prominently even in Youngling culture.  As such, they serve Uku Utargarath, a demon lord especially fond of graven images and depicted in numerous altars and the elaborate temple in Yaminse.  His servants perform UKU'S OFFERING, allowing them to sacrifice once per day.

UKU'S OFFERING allows the user to convert a single slain enemy, although never any undead, into a BOON; usually, a bit of fantastic good luck within the same game day.  The power of this is always proportional to the strength of the sacrifice made.  

Note that for game purposes, a bound/helpless captive can be slain instantly, and that an agent of Uku will usually appear...

Cruel Uku is disdainful
and delights in human suffering...

UKU (Goru/Goruku/Urukurum) is a huge (12' tall) demon clad in the skins of former enemies, all inscribed in runes detailing their confessions gained through torture.  In combat, he attacks with his single horn for 1d6+1 damage or his whips, a successful hit from which extracts a single confession from its victim and incapacitates them for 1d6+4 rounds from the horrific pain inflicted.

Those entering into formal pacts with Uku may receive a grisly artifact in the form of one of his UKUAN SKINS which, whenever worn, bestows one random benefit (roll 1d6: 1-2 combat, 3-4 magic, 5-6 stealth) as suits the confession of its prior owner.

The city states formerly dedicated to Uku's house have long-since fallen to the Younglings, although lingering cults still occupy ancient ruins and still-active temples in Opherian cities now under human control.  Although reviled, the talents of his elder House, including specialized torture techniques, are in high demand among the Youngling kingdoms, who have no shortage of prisoners!

Note that because this is an especially dark house, judges might limit it to non-player characters.  But if the campaign seems suitable, players can be allowed membership, noting that Uku's house is prone to madness or similar infirmities given its evil work...