Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

On the Origin of the (Demi-Human) Species...

Face it, most of us in fantasy games (sci-fi is another matter) imagine humanity, and the various non-human races, as products of a special creation by their gods.  Mankind has many competing deities, so it's easier to see them as them arising through natural processes and being fought over.  But demi-humans, perhaps by virtue of their more homogenous pantheons, almost have to be specifically created beings.  But do they really?

This week, we explore the idea of demi-humans as the products of evolution :    

DWARVES arose well before humanity (but after the elves) from a species of cave-dwelling hominids (subterrapithecus) selected for survival underground.  Their tool-making abilities were put to use expanding the natural caves they called home and shaping them into what they would become.  Given their mining prowess and racial love of precious metals, they've excavated far from their place of origin, digging deep and going north.


ELVES evolved before dwarves or men from an arboreal (and probably nocturnal) primate species (silvanopithecus) in steamy jungles.  Their need to evade enemies and navigate the treacherous canopies selected them for greater speed, keener senses, and their superior empathy for the natural world.  This allowed them to master magic and the ability to employ signs, symbols, and certain material components in the endless pursuit of it.          

GOBLINS/ORCS, like dwarves, are subterranean and probably evolved from a cannibalistic variety of cave-dwelling ape (the foul horridipithecus), although some speculate that their subsequent evolution was shaped by evil magic.  This fact probably accounts for the many humanoid species inhabiting the underworld and their aversion to light.       

HALFLINGS are a variant human species that are reproductively non-compatible, although in Pits & Perils, hill dwarves (i.e., halflings) are a completely dwarven strain.  

Of course, the GM can flesh this out as their campaign requires, perhaps going so far as to introduce remnant populations of prehistoric demi-humans.  But what about the supposed gods?  Perhaps they, too, were the products of evolution who ascended over time and sought mortal worshippers for whatever reason.  Worship has its benefits, after all, among them the fact that the soul at death, untethered and vulnerable, can reach the afterlife.  The possibilities are endless, and the GM can decide how to map the trajectory of their world's history...

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Sad End of a D&D Era (in Art)...

In my 39 years of gaming, I've seen a lot of artwork.  And as far as D&D is concerned, I've identified discrete periods that define the illuminations of the game:

THE CORE RULES (1974): To call the art in the original D&D rulebooks amateur is an understatement.  Sub-amateur better fits the bill.  The pictures alternated between clever doodles and stuff that was clearly lifted from Marvel Comics.  But there was a primal charm as well; one that conjured images of enthusiastic amateurs making their own fun.  Fun, incidentally, that transcends the physical appearance of the finished product.

Although the artwork depicted fantasy, it wasn't necessarily a fantasy that mapped well to the game's subject matter, and it never defined the experience in my mind.

One of my favorite images from
the original rulebooks.  It really nails the intro...

THE SUPPLEMENTS (1975-76): Starting here, the artwork got better.  The illustrations depicted specific monsters, like beholders and umber hulks, as well as adventuring parties plugging away in the dungeons.  The amateur aesthetic was still there, but these were talented amateurs, including the likes of David Sutherland (!), who, by now, were heavily involved in a hobby that was developing its own culture and conventions.

This, to me, in D&D's true artistic history.  The artwork was wedded to the game's subject matter while preserving a sense of enthusiastic amateurs doing their own thing.    

THE HARDCOVERS (1977-79): At long last, the work laid out in the supplements was gathered into a coherent whole.  The expanded ability modifiers (Greyhawk), assassins and monks (Blackmoor), and druids, demons, and additional magic items (Eldritch Wizardry) coalesced into a complete and unified system that would define the state of the hobby for the next decade.  The production values were excellent, and if you'd been using the original booklets and photocopies of Dragon Magazine articles, the new hardcovers were mana from Heaven.  Artwork-wise, Dave Trampier joined Sutherland, among others, to offer up a balance of professional delivery with an amateur ethos.  And it really worked...  

By the supplements and early AD&D,
the artwork began to capture its subject matter and
did so with an amateur flair that underlies
everything that makes our hobby feel accessible...

Imagine getting really into D&D in 1980 and seeing the same artwork you remembered from the booklets your first DM (a guy I'll never forget) had in '78.  Ancient history, man...

MAINSTREAMING (1980-1988): Here at last, we see the Great Schism: D&D and AD&D and all the legal horseshit that followed.  But it sure did yield some great art:

THE B/X SET (1981): Jeff Dee and Bill Willingham (by then, TSR staff artists) introduced artwork that was increasingly professional while preserving an amateur ethos, and Erol Otus delivered his trippy art for added flavor.  There were others, but these stand out...

THE BECMI SET (1983-85): Larry Elmore's art came to predominate by now, with Jeff Easley and (much later) Roger Raupp adding their own flourishes.  Fewer artists meant less variation and, overall, the rulebooks were increasingly slick and well-produced.  The visual link to the game's distant past was severed at last.  A precursor to the next edition...

Elmore is (rightly) held in high regard, but I've always thought his stuff looked too much like He-Man with too many nods to 1980s fashion.  Sorry about that!

Wait, is this from He-Man?  While
obviously talented, Larry Elmore's art never
really clicked with me.  Perhaps it was
D&D's growing outreach to younger players and
it's departure from its amateur past...   

As the decade wore on, Elmore, Easley, and others came to predominate in the AD&D lexicon and finalized the game's transition into a fully professional context.  Fortunately, these artists had already been a fixture in the pages of Dragon Magazine, so it felt like a natural evolution.  I was never into Snarfquest, but it really was a gradual transition...

SECOND EDITION (1988): I remember rushing out to buy the Second Edition Player's Handbook and how my smile faded as I flipped through its pages.  Yes, there was some great stuff here.  Non-weapon proficiencies, in particular, were an excellent idea that followed intuitively from AD&D's weapon proficiency system.  But the artwork, although attractive and professional enough, felt bland.  Lifeless.  I already missed the earlier rulebooks, although I still had (and would continue to use) them, happily incorporating the new rules while rejecting what I didn't like.  But it was the end of an era and weirdly heartbreaking.

At this point, D&D had ascended into the sky, where its blessing would fall in the form of innumerable sourcebooks that would, eventually, drive TSR into the ground.  Make no mistake, I had some great times with this edition (including a lost-world campaign), but in 39 years of gaming, it always goes back to what I now call the hobby's true Golden Age...

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

No, the DM Is NOT Your Peer...

Some (more than a few?) gamers are profoundly uncomfortable with the greater agency and judgemental authority referees are given, especially in old-school games.  Or, as my brother observed way back in 1979: "But the DM could say anything and the whole thing just breaks down and becomes unfair over time".  It was a fair point, but I countered with the fact that lots people obviously were playing these games, and that unfair DMs will find themselves without players pretty quickly if they abuse their authority...

He was forced to concede my first point and eventually, my second too.  

And the fact is, old-school gamers willingly submit to the DMs authority because it provides them with a specific gameplay experience.  But the DM (GM/referee) also lives by a code of fairness (and reasonableness) that their players will hold them to! 

To underscore the trepidation of some, consider a review of our Barons of Braunstein, which said: "[B]ut I think the "low definition, high trust" nature of the rules could make this game a bit rocky with players that like crunchy rules or tricky character builds."  Of course, the whole simple versus complex divide is a matter of preference.  But the concept of trust in a GM to fairly execute their authority underlies the essential old-school experience... 

Players want the experience of becoming a hero in a world of sword and sorcery, and the only way to do this is to put much (most) of the setting beyond their direct control. I mean, how often can we control the weather or world events?  Sure, we can control our personal choices and decisions.  But not who moves in next door (usually), or what family is in the car next to us, or who we'll meet in a gas station on vacation.  And there would be nothing particularly heroic about our circumstances if we did have power over these things.

The DM/GM isn't a coequal peer
and, for optimal results, they shouldn't be...

So players change things through their choices and get to earn their victories and take pride in their accomplishments - just like we do in the real world!  That's what they get out of it and what they should seek going in.  Now, this is strictly my personal opinion, but if you really just want to write stories and the ending to those stories, become a writer instead...

Narrative control over certain aspects of a character's performance?  Sure.  Clever resource management is a challenge and constitutes the sort of strategy we need to execute in our own lives.  Spend LUCK (or MIGHT) improving rolls?  You bet.  But you still won't know what's hiding behind that door unless you have a spell or, better still, a plan.

But what about the DM/GM/referee?  What do they get?  Well, they get to build a world and exercise unparalleled narrative control as the guy (or gal) who does know what's hiding in the shadows (or behind that door) and/or the necromancer's secret plan to rule the world.  
  
An unearned place of privilege?  Maybe.  Except they don't get to become a hero and hear their name spoken in awe.  And they pretty much have to be responsible for everything else and make the hard decisions when others don't.  It's a labor of love and involves its own form of personal sacrifice.  I love it.  But I remember plenty of times I was frustrated that everyone else wanted me to run when I just wanted to make a character and dive in.

And implicit in this arrangement is the understanding that both sides have to agree to certain terms to make things work.  Players agree to play well, make good decisions, and earn their success.  They also agree to submit to any agreed-upon rules and the judgement of the referee when justly rendered.  That said, the DM/GM/referee agrees to fashion challenging adventures and be fair, impartial, and reasonable in their dealings with their players, and that means being open to negotiation in the interest of mutual fun.  It's a win/win thing...

Of course, while the DM/GM (or whatever) isn't your peer, they or should at least be your friend.  And it does no good to forget that in a hobby ostensibly played for fun

Some modern games (and groups) treat the rulebook as the final, ultimate arbiter and reduce the GM to a peer with authority mainly over the monsters and NPCs and do so with the best of intentions.  But for greater challenge and dynamism, old-school values are unbeatable

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Death by (Game) Design...

OK, so at this point we all know the drill.  Old-school characters are free to try just about anything and stand or fall on their own merits, unlike those entitled new-schoolers who get a trophy just for showing up and can't even think of trying something not on their character sheets.  Now, this is an obvious straw man, but it holds a grain of truth.

Yes, old-school heroes fight the good fight and devise clever solutions and strategies before ultimately, and dare we say, inevitably, succumbing to the obligatory total party kill.  And again, how unlike the spoiled new-school crowd, who show up to play through carefully scripted encounters where victory is assured and treasure (and levels) await those with the courage to be there!  Another stereotype.  But let's turn the thing around a bit....

While we're busy chiding modern players for never dying and having it easy, enjoying a cushy railroad to guaranteed survival while we drop like flies, it's important to remember that the spectre of certain death can easily become its own form of railroading! 

Oh look, another total party kill.  How quaint.  We never saw that one coming...

No, the goal of the game shouldn't be to die.  If that were the case, I'm thinking most of us could wrap things up halfway through the first combat encounter and call it a night while rolling up replacements for next week's' equally fatal session (lather, rinse, repeat).

There's no badwrongfun here, but the goal should be to survive at least long enough to have some fun and validate the designer's efforts to include higher-level monsters and magic items in their rulebooks.  And when death happens, it's because the players were foolish or took daring risks and just happened to die at the hands of a cruel and fickle fate...

Gratuitous death is almost as
boring as having too little in your game... 

Moreover, the goal should be to succeed.  And survival is just one of many rewards for those who play well or even those who just get lucky.  So if high lethality is old-school and low-to-no lethality new-school, then what we're offering here is gaming's middle-school!

Of course, we already know this.  Good referees craft adventures that are survivable if played well and luck holds, and it becomes the player's responsibility to combine their talents to overcome the challenges set before them.  You know, old-school gaming.  

Every game tilts the survivability meter in whatever direction the designer(s) see fit, although this is ultimately up to the referee (who should know their players and what it takes to properly challenge them) and the players, who are always responsible for ensuring they don't become a TPK statistic.  We're no exception, obviously, and our games show it:

BLOOD OF PANGEA is a game where players write their characters into existence and take them on adventures, and this implies at least some degree of survivability.  But 10 MIGHT goes fast when spent improving rolls.  Especially after triggering that 2d6 trap and then falling at the feet of an angry tyrannosaurus dealing +3 damage!  Um, ouch...

PITS & PERILS is the primrose path.  After all, your first-level fighter has 12 HP in armor while the average hit scores but one point of damage.  But once you've triggered that trap and stuck your hand into a chest only to pull out a writhing snake that bites for 2d6 poison damage, death looms when the orcs show up armed with greatswords and their inevitable shaman (and too bad for you, one that happens to know the assorted Bolt spells). 

In fact, death has no sting unless
character life has value and is allowed to unfold...

THE MAZE OF MEMORY is straight-ahead "bang, you're dead" kind of affair, so if you like that sort of thing, this one will make you glad you wore loose-fitting pants...

Most of these systems, including DICELESS DUNGEONS, feature somewhat predictable damage so that hit points (or their equivalent) become another resource for the players to carefully manage while simultaneously punctuating the balance with deadlier things that introduce greater uncertainty.  Often, these are contingent on player actions, especially with respect to traps that can be avoided with skillful effort.  You know, old-school stuff. 

The bottom line here is that a certain level of survivability is built into each game while at the same time introducing risk and uncertainty.  Foolish choices are dangerous at best, and when death finally comes, it's usually to a cherished character and, therefore, felt...

Remember, Conan never died.  But when Belit did, it was a major bummer for sure.

But these are just our solutions.  Most referees want tough, but fair, adventures and must ultimately navigate their own path forward.  And players are better served when they work for victory and reap the rewards of their clever strategies.  Giving them a fair shot while imposing consequences for tomfoolery can be done, and the only system-neutral advice we have is to remember that death isn't the only punishment for failure in an ongoing campaign...

A cherished magic item is destroyed.  Some vital negotiation fails and the characters, once revered, become fugitives.  Established characters in a well-developed setting have goals and plans that undoubtedly matter to them (and their payers).  Go for these, and you'll have their undivided attention and, with any luck, make them wish for a speedy death! 

Because death needs sting.  And it has none when it never happens.  But then again, it has none when it becomes commonplace.  Put another way, the sting of death comes only when life has value.  And such value comes with time and experience at the gaming table...   

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!