Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Debbie's Screwing the Ankheg from the Mailroom (or Gaming's Only Sorta Like Storytelling)...

So you woke up to rain hammering your window like a million tiny castanets in time to an invisible (and doubtless sadistic) Spanish dancer.  You wanted to sleep in, but since you like being employed better you sucked it up, put down some coffee, and hit the road with the enthusiasm of a condemned prisoner making The Long Walk...

Some asshole in a Prius cut you off, and all the good parking spaces were taken; so you ran under your briefcase from across that toilet of a parking lot and bolted for the double doors with all the grace of a staggering drunk.  Someone yelled at you and you flipped them off in the privacy of your mind - and you hadn't even made it to your desk yet! 


You spent the morning reading the new Privacy Policy while trying to ignore Brad and Deborah yucking it up two cubicles down and then went to a staff meeting where everyone competed for who had the brownest nose.  You didn't win.  Lunch was a pointless and relatively tasteless affair, but things picked up at three when you found out Deborah slept with the new mail room guy.  No biggie, except that Debbie's married to your next-door neighbor and you don't know how (or if) you can possibly face him and keep this awful secret to yourself.  Your bad day couldn't end fast enough, to be honest...

Luckily, home and your spouse await and things get better.  He or she asks you about your day and you tell the tale.  That's right, the tale.  You tell the story of your day.   

So here's a truism about gaming.  That encounter with the ankheg was just a random happening.  Something the DM rolled up while your party took its shortcut through Farmer Jacob's field and stole corn to supplement rations.  It's no different from the Prius or the Privacy Policy read over a stale bagel.  Just a series of events, maybe not even connected in any coherent way.  But by the end of the adventure it becomes the story of your day, complete with all the dramatic arcs.  And maybe it takes time to unfold.  Debbie's screwing the mail guy, but the whole sad, sick story doesn't play out until a month later when her husband finds out and tosses her stuff on the lawn for all to see...

Ditto for gaming.  Individual events are just events in a simulation.  But taken in retrospect, they become the story of your character's day (or adventure, as the case may be) that contributes to a narrative arc no one could anticipate in advance, which to say: Gaming isn't storytelling.  It's story making, and happily, everyone at the table gets to participate!

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Skepticism in the Age of Magic...

Skepticism is alive and well in the real world, where evidence for the supernatural is remarkably elusive.  In ten-thousand years of history we've seen one magical explanation after another overturned by naturalistic evidence.  A process which, incidentally, never happens in reverse.  I'm not saying the supernatural doesn't exist, only that the skeptics aren't stubborn or unreasonable by any stretch of the imagination...    

And that's good.  A healthy skepticism is the spice of life and brings contentious debate to just about everything.  But what about our fantasy worlds, where magic is on constant display and the gods intervene in a way that would convert Richard Dawkins and make The God Delusion a ridiculous proposition?  Is there room for skepticism, much less outright atheism, in such a setting?  To be clear, we aren't advocating an atheistic or naturalistic campaign unless that's what you happen to want, but only a world where skepticism is reasonable and the accepted cosmology less than certain and up for debate.

So first, and as a disclaimer, we can always imagine a low-magic world where the supernatural is rare and suitably understated.  Magic, when and if it occurs, can be written off as coincidence and monsters as a feature of the natural landscape.  But we aren't really talking about that universe, although skepticism surely lives there as well...  


No, we're talking about the "mage on every corner" type of world.  What sort of debate can possibly exist when your party members are happy to demonstrate magic and what it's capable of?  As it turns out, doubt can thrive even in the face of seemingly obvious evidence to the contrary, and the following might help to make it all happen:

#1 MAGIC ISN'T REALLY MAGIC

Nope.  It's more of a natural energy that can be harnessed and released by means of specialized formulas to some predetermined end.  This is hardly a new idea, and D&D broke with millennia of tradition by imagining it as anything other than the work of bound spirits flexing their muscle.  Not really that big of a deal except when it runs counter to the prevailing view in academic circles.  A benign contention to be sure, but one that adds flavor...   

#2 THE GODS AREN'T REAL

This is a bigger deal.  The gods don't exist, and any power supposedly granted through worship is really magic of the more ordinary sort.  Once again, D&D already imagined this with respect to lower-level spells, but ours applies to everything.  Now this is the stuff of heresy - and inquisitions.  How dare those ungrateful apostates deny the blessings of faith and reject the gods who make it all possible?  And what of The Church and its place in society?  This usually ends with thumb screws in a dungeon somewhere.       

#3 THE GODS ARE REAL, BUT...

Again, no.  They're really just powerful beings who've mastered natural energies and probably steal a bit from the faith of their followers.  This isn't a new idea either, but it really lays the ground for skepticism - and heresy - in an otherwise magical world.  Perhaps it's apostasy in the eyes of The Church, or maybe the so-called gods resent any revelations as to their true nature.  This one leads to sprawling cosmic quests in other dimensions. 

All of the above can upend the social order and make the skeptics reservoirs of authentic knowledge in a superstitious age.  Of course, just because some things are possible doesn't mean everything is real.  Far from it.  Charlatans abound, and perhaps that shady peddler sells more fake amulets because the real thing exists!  Either way, we don't have to imagine bland worlds of uniform belief.  Yes, gods and religions are constantly warring for human attention.  But if the gods and magic aren't what they seem, things can get hairy quick, with crusades and inquisitions vying with charlatans for mortal hearts and minds...

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Lovecraft and What the Shadow Knows...

If you read enough Lovecraftian fiction, you'll start wondering what’s supposed to be so terrifying anyway.  I mean, any cosmic entity more than happy to annihilate us is scary, make no mistake.  But reading about black vistas on Yuggoth or non-Euclidean geometry hardly qualifies as the stuff of nightmares unless there's something else going on in the character's head.  And it’s not like Lovecraft has ever been a Hemingway or anything.  He was far too isolated and antiquarian to write good dialogue or develop characters beyond the situation at hand.  But I love him still despite his inevitable flaws, both literary and otherwise (he was quite the xenophobe), and we can still admire his unique body of work...

That said, Lovecraft was a master in ways that go far beyond his tentacled creations.  He understood that sometimes it’s better not to say too much, and while he couldn’t have possibly anticipated the advent of role-playing games, he did manage to offer some advice for those who play - and as it happens, some good advice indeed. 

Horror thrives on mystery.  It’s a fear of the unknown.  But if there’s ever been a medium more antithetical to mystery, RPGs are it.  These games are simulations, after all, and simulations reduce everything (people, places, and things) to hypothetical ones and zeros; and you can’t stat out a Lovecraftian baddie without describing both it and its assorted cosmic powers.  Chaosium tried hard to preserve the mystery by showing these as black silhouettes in the rulebook, but they still had to explain Cthulhu’s powers and abilities, which gave him (and all the rest) form and structure.  And this is largely unavoidable... 

Hey, we do it too.  Stalkers of the Elder Dark lays out its Elder Ones is statistical detail, although as a rules-lite game, this is suitably minimal.  But a re-reading of Lovecraft offers a few techniques for preserving mystery - and Howard wrote a master class!


First, Lovecraft imagined alien gods antithetical to human understanding.  Sure, we might discern their material forms.  But their psychology was diametrical to anything humans could possibly understand, much less relate to, and to the extent the "enemy" could be engaged rationally, it was always through alien races or human agents.  The dark powers themselves were always kept distant, remote, and inaccessible to inquiring human minds.

Moreover, while Lovecraft described "strange rites" and "non-Euclidean" geometry, he focused more on his character's reactions to said information than the sordid details of the knowledge itself, and the reader was set free to imagine some dark revelation or terrible understanding beyond words to express.  Something felt but impossible to put into human words.  Again, Lovecraft deflects to mortal agencies and leaves as much mystery as possible where his cosmic creations are concerned.  Cthulhu is barely knowable, but his worshipers are another story.  At best, we see these things reflected in humanity.
   
These approaches are gold for the horror referee.  Yes, the characters may encounter the Old Ones and most likely will.  But any sort of rational engagement should be impossible under the very best of circumstances.  We can do otherwise, of course, but now the danger has moved into something more predictable.  Mr. Derleth ruined Cthulhu by making him conventionally evil, balancing his power with Elder Gods of good (in opposition to Lovecraft's amoral and naturalistic universe), and reducing the bad guys to mere elementals having conventional family ties.  Hastur is Cthulhu's brother?  Yog Sothoth save us!  Now it sounds like an all-too-ordinary family drama.  Dark Gods should never be so ordinary...   

Moreover, while the players will eventually access forbidden books and uncover useful information, it's best to offer only a few nuggets of coherent intelligence surrounded by blurry impressions (consult the literature here) that a character can't explain and can't help but to feel and experience.  Tell them they can't get the visions out of their head but can't describe them either, and maybe salt the whole thing with hints of something they already think is disturbing.  Find out what bothers your players and exploit it!  But always strive to keep as much knowledge as possible under wraps.  The best horror is like watching shadows on the wall.  The shapes are blurry, indistinct, and outline something terrifying!  

Despite the tentacles, Lovecraftian horror is a subjective personal experience that thrives in the dark.  Knowledge is power while mystery is fear (and horror) in its purest form!

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Is Gaming a Separate Fantasy Genre?

I’m a bit ambivalent towards fantasy literature.  Sure, I love Moorcock and Tolkien and confess a fondness for Tad Williams, whose writing (the earlier stuff, especially) transcends genre.  Burroughs, Howard, and Lovecraft also hold a special place in my heart, mainly because they evoke such authentic atmosphere (I’m not a huge fan of the modern Mythos writings though, and tuned out starting with Derleth, who sapped poor Cthulhu of all its mystery and demoted Lovecraft's creations to mere elemental status).  But am I hitting the bookstore and coming home with armloads of books with pictures of dragons and wizards on the cover?  Nope, although it does happen from time to time.

In fact, the last book I read was The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King, and I’m getting ready to hit Updike’s Rabbit stuff (again).  King and Klein are less interesting to me because of their supernatural inventions, which are adequate (although Pet Semetary is one of a few books that actually frightened me).  No, I prefer writing that focuses on the actual human condition (sue me), and both King and Klein (and Clive Barker) do nicely here.  It’s just a matter of preference.  Oh, and I understand that good fantasy can do this as well, and can be an excellent vehicle for exploring any number of human themes... 


But one place I love fantasy is in gaming.  Indeed, I’d go as far as to classify the role-playing hobby as a bona fide genre, with rules and play, among other things, as its medium.  Is it art?  Debatable.  But is a gaming session a form of performance art?  Maybe.  When it comes to tabletop (and some computer) games, I freakin’ love dragons, wizards, and eldritch spells, so bring em’ on!  Hey, some work in oils or clay.  Me, I work in dice.  And as far as creative mediums go, self publishing is a great one because you're reading, writing, and assembling what amounts to an arts-and-crafts project with every rulebook!

Now I'm not some literary snob (the King, Klein, and Barker are proof enough of that, not to mention the pulpy writings of Burroughs and company), and followers of this blog should already know how much I love fantasy.  It's just that my love of it is pretty tightly bound to the gaming hobby.  Simulating fantasy is a lot different from reading or writing about it, although writers are obviously doing a bit of simulation of their own.  But there's something special about listening at a door or hoping you make your saving throw.  Indeed, there's something entertaining about seeing how others simulate phenomenon and resolve actions that's unique and amounts to an entirely different experience of it all.  That's what I like.    

OK, so maybe gaming isn't fine art.  But there's definitely a way to do dwarves and wizards that's experienced differently and unique to it alone; a gaming genre...

So there's really not much else to say.  Literary fantasy?  Some of it is great because, well, it's great and good is good, though I read for something else, mainly.  But expressed as a rulebook with charts and tables?  Fantasy gaming, for all it involves (and implies), is a bona fide genre squarely on par with the Pulitzer Prize winners!  Just my opinion (and maybe a controversial one at that).  Is role-playing a genre or just a clever pastime based on a pulpy literary segment (Tolkien and others excluded)?  You can decide.  But my mind's pretty much made up.  Oh, and when I leave the bookstore, it might be with some role-playing title under my arm that I'll read for the fun of absorbing its rules before hitting the rack with Portnoy's Complaint (a funny, filthy little book) or something else that's purely of this world...

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

What I Owe the Satanic Panic...

Back in 81-82’ I was a D&D-obsessed youth.  But I was also fourteen/fifteen years old and stumbling headlong into my adolescence, which meant a tendency to rebel and question authority.  Now understand that I was a relatively obedient kid surrounded by family, friends, and neighbors who really did have my best interests at heart.  I didn’t do drugs or get a tattoo someplace unmentionable.  But I did start to ask more questions and question everything, especially when I sniffed hypocrisy or straight-up ignorance...

And one discovery I made was that, apparently, everything I liked was Satanic, from my enthusiastic taste in music (metal) to my love a certain fantasy game (D&D).  It was the 80s in the south.  Evangelicals were already a force to be reckoned with, and hysterical moral panics found fertile ground to root and grow.  D&D, with its magic spells and pagan gods, was wide open for outrage.  It rubbed against Biblical prohibitions against sorcery (although I had/have many Christian friends who see no problem) and, clearly, it took young people to a place their parents couldn’t follow and didn’t bother to.  It was easier to attack than to listen and learn.  Luckily, I had open, understanding parents who supported my hobby and even sat in on a few sessions just to see what this gaming thing was all about.


Cool.  But this didn’t stop me from seeing the hysteria around me though, and one bit that stuck in my mind was a newspaper article about the evils of D&D.  It was loaded with uninformed nonsense, but what really stood out to me was the idea that the game taught its players actual spells.  It certainly looked sensational in print even if it was totally divorced from reality.  Sure, the Player’s Handbook told me that certain spells required a verbal and/or somatic component.  But it never said what those components were.  The rules were more forthcoming with material components, but still.  Now, to be clear, I don’t believe in magic and the supernatural.  Mind you, I don’t claim these things don’t exist either, but only withhold belief in the absence of reliable evidence, for which I see none.  If working magic existed in the world, evil, unscrupulous people would certainly have exploited it, and history would have been a mosaic of powerful magicians transforming world events... 

All that aside, there was simply no way to cast a working spell from the information given, mainly because it was geared towards gameplay only.  It was enough to know that you needed to speak and, therefore, couldn’t cast certain spells if gagged and/or silenced.  This  should have been obvious to anyone actually looking through the books, and that’s what really got me.  The evidence, indeed, the truth was right there in the rulebooks.  But these hysterical adults couldn’t be bothered to verify anything.  And many of the adults I could trust in most other areas couldn’t be trusted here, which was a revelation.

Now I somehow understood that forty years of experience usually trumped my fifteen summers of existence.  But as I entered adolescence, it was more than just thoughtless and childish rebellion.  I discovered that the well-meaning adult figures in my life could still be wrong.  They could fall prey to faulty logic and dispense terrible advice, even with the best of intentions, which was usually the case in my world.  Fortunately, the wiser adults in my life had more perspective.  Sadly, more than a few (typically, neighbors and the parents of friends) jumped on the panic bandwagon and gave a master's course in how not to think or evaluate information.  And you know what?  I'm grateful for all of it!  D&D taught me to communicate and strategize, and the Satanic Panic taught me (showed me, really) that it was time to become a critical-thinking adult.  We're all shaped by childhood experiences, and when that childhood is full of D&D, gaming itself becomes the formative thing... 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Age and the Elven Character...

It was a hundred years ago that the Lich-King Agrilad was laid to rest in a barrow near Oxton.  This is ancient history, especially for a party of upstart adventurers barely out of their teens, lost even to their great-great grandparents; and if they’re wise, they’ll consult a sage or at least an old-timer in town before setting out.  But wait a minute.  Elandil, the party’s lone elf, is an impressive two-hundred years old.  He actually remembers the event.  Moreover, he was old enough to know, and really understand, what it all meant...

But what does it mean to have such antiquity in a low-level party?  Elves are immortal or nearly so, and even dwarves, abbreviated against to their pointy-eared friends, lead very long lives, at least by human standards.  How do we handle this in a game where knowledge is quite literally power?  Treat it as another racial ability?  We could do that.  

The question takes on new meaning when we look at the starting age tables in the original Dungeon Master’s Guide.  Here we learn that a newly minted elf is somewhere in the neighborhood of hundred years or more!  What do we make of this?  Do elves age more slowly, remaining as children at a time when human lives are long-finished?  And assuming time is experienced the same way for both races (which isn’t necessarily so), plenty of knowledge and experience is gained in those decades.  The youngling elf can’t help but possess insight beyond anything their round-eared friends could ever aspire to unless they somehow learn and grow differently, remaining in a Peter Pan-like state of prolonged immaturity.  Of course, this assumes that elves aren't waiting longer to leave home and go on adventures, which is possible.  But the result is still more knowledge...   

Elves, with their longer lifespans, risk being
inaccessible as player characters unless steps are taken... 

And who knows?  Maybe they do.  But it seems odd for a race otherwise known for their intelligence and wisdom.  And children are constantly learning and applying knowledge gained in mere years of their short lives.  Of course, this is only a problem if the referee has a problem with first level characters possessing extra knowledge, at least as far as history is concerned.  But there’s a way out.  One need only imagine that elves grow much like humans except that once they reach their thirties (or maybe their early forties) they just stop.  I mean, they live on barring accident or injury and enjoy the seemingly endless summer of elven longevity envied by mere mortals.  But they no longer age physically.  This is the approach I prefer because it makes that elven teenager a greenhorn; a kid with no more experience than their adventuring companions.  And no more than the players themselves.

In other words, that first-level elf is sixteen years old (or whatever), just like their human peers, except, of course, that the elf can look forward to centuries of vitality and life.  I’ve long opposed the notion of elves as humans with pointy ears, perhaps as much as I dislike the donkey eared internet variety.  Elves aren’t, in fact, human, and as they age, the differences only grow; a fact which makes non-player elves valuable sources of insight.  Why consult a human sage when there’s an elven settlement nearby, especially when your typical adult remembers the Renaissance (for instance) like we remember high school?  But this assumes they’re even accessible.  As a rule, I eschew the idea of an Iron-Age Star Trek with its elven shopkeepers.  Most humans should have never seen an elf, for elves have their own concerns and change with time beyond the openness of their youth...

And maybe this reclusiveness only increases with age until, at last, they succumb to that undeniable urge to leave our mortal realm for far-flung shores, doubtless to remember (perhaps with fondness) their adventures with those quaint, round-eared humans.  Fantasy games thrive on the notion of antiquity, and elves can serve as a link to the campaign's distant past and help to explore issues of mortality which impact us in this all-too-real life! 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Checking Our Alignment(s)...

Chaotic good?  Neutral evil?  We shall know them by their alignments, except that some players aren't too keen on the concept.  It's irrelevant, they say.  Their characters will develop through play and do what they're gonna do, so formalizing it is pointless...  

Sure, makes sense.  And the fact is, most of us like to think that what we do is good or, for the more philosophically obsessed among us, at least justified.  Few (if any) of us cackle maniacally while twirling our mustaches.  Evil is something others call us when we fail to live up to their expectations, although in ten thousand years of human history, we've come to a reasonable consensus of what might count as evil.  I align with Sam Harris and view morality as an issue of well-being.  Rape and murder violate the well-being of others and, rightly so, qualify as "evil" is many (hopefully) contemporary moral systems.    

So we can jettison alignment and let the water find its depth. And for that matter, let whatever fictional societies may exist in a campaign weigh in on what a character's behavior maps to, complete with pitchforks and/or angry mobs.  It's the realistic approach.

But then, dragons and elves aren't realistic either, and we miss opportunities...

First and foremost, fantasy is a genre predisposed to view good and evil as bona fide manifestations in the universe.  Good and evil aren't just choices.  They're actual forces no less real than gravity in the scheme of things.  Alignment becomes an actual thing.


Moreover, while the gods might have chosen good or evil, their respective servitors may or may not enjoy such liberties, although good-aligned deities are more likely to value individual liberty in their followers.  Evil creatures, in particular, tend more towards a selfish, slavish devotion to their masters, whether under the usual pain of death or because they're literally manifestations of evil who can be no other way.  And perhaps the mortal races are unique in actually having a choice, making this approach far from unenlightened.  Hmmm...

I say this because there's a small wine and cheese segment* of the hobby that assures me I'm an unenlightened philistine for liking both alignments and archetypes!

Finally, if good and evil are palpable things, then certain spells (and magic items) will absolutely channel their power to great consequence in a campaign.  And if we imagine the characters as among the few true "free agents" in the cosmos, it opens the door to many intriguing ideas.  That Staff of Corruption is literally corrupt.  And the players may approach something close to Moorcockian tragedy while binding (or enslaving) themselves to one side of an everlasting struggle.  Cogs in the wheel.  Champions, slaves, and probably both...

And now, at last, we understand the situation poor Elric found himself mired in!

Of course, this doesn't apply universally.  Pits & Perils and Opherian Scrolls (Blood of Pangea) are the only two of our own titles to address this.  But given how modern games are more than happy to mechanize every other social interaction, the aversion to any sort of alignment system seems particularly strange.  Especially in a fantasy game where the idea is seemingly right at home.  To them I say, alignment is the ultimate social mechanic...

*Not everyone who eschews alignment is part of this set, and we mean no offense here!

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Mainstreaming with the Basic Sets...

Last week we talked about the so-called old-school period in gaming's history, settling on 1984 as the end of its early days.  And our readers had thoughts.  First, we agree that innovations started almost immediately.  We even posted about it last year.  Moreover, we recognize that changes in the hobby are incremental and overlapping.  The very idea of a role-playing game is old-school, as is the GM.  Nothing just stops.  That said, a few offered a more compressed version of old-school around the three original rulebooks, while others stretched things into the early 90s.  And we totally get this.     

But we focused on the mainstreaming of D&D (the first such game to break) because this introduced the hobby to the popular culture, and because the demands of a mainstream (and non-wargaming) audience drove the hobby from its roots.  AD&D was mainly a reference collection meant for those who already understood the game.  But in order to go mainstream, the hobby required a standalone and self-instructional manifestation...

Luckily, TSR was working on it, and they gave us the basic sets!     

HOLMES BASIC (1977) was the first attempt to instruct newcomers.  Now you could be the first on your block to understand the game and share it with your friends, which is exactly what started to happen!  At the time, it was the only way to learn D&D from scratch, marking the undisputable start of the mainstreaming process.  Why not sooner?  I mean, Tunnels & Trolls (and similar) games were doing a much better job of explaining themselves almost immediately.  But none of these games achieved anything close to mainstream status in the decade, whereas D&D did.  And Holmes basic got the whole thing rolling...  

Moreover, while learning the game from others is certainly an important thing, it's hard to argue that mainstreaming is even possible when you can't buy a product (much less a game) and understand it on your own!  It almost had to be a standalone.

And so the hobby spread, with Holmes acting as a seed, implanting itself in the minds of players who could then spread the gospel.  By 1978, it was a cult hit on college campuses, and by 1980, it began to show up in national retail outlets (I found mine at a local KMart), making it visible to everyone, even those who had no interest in buying it.


But (and here's where the other shoe drops) while the product was starting to penetrate the popular imagination, it wasn't there yet.  And while I love Holmes with a passion, it was nonetheless pretty rough around the edges, both in terms of writing and its approach to its subject matter.  For instance, two-handed weapons still did just 1d6 damage while only striking every other round.  Why even bother?  Oops!  Good thing for house rules.  And the book, in general, drew more heavily from its wargaming origins... 

B/X (THE BASIC/EXPERT SET, 1981) streamlined Holmes, sometimes incredibly well, offering perhaps the best explanation of ability scores and the best attempt to make each one relevant to each and every character.  No dump stats!  Better still, its writing was consistent and complete.  And, as a matter of course, it's production, layout, and overall design was superior, complete with a set of (sadly, crumbly) dice.  The artwork was geared more towards younger readers (a good match for its 6th grade reading level), bearing all the hallmarks of something marketed to non-gamers.  A birthday/Christmas gift of choice!

Better still, the boxed sets were consistently available in most retail outlets.  They weren't just an oddity at KMart.  Not anymore.  They were fully mainstream products in book and toy stores everywhere, from B Dalton Books (I date myself) to Toys R' Us!

But D&D had one more trick up its sleeve, and that was the final boxed set of the 80s!  The most ambitious one of the decade (and one to close out an old-school era)... 

BECMI (THE BASIC/EXPERT/COMPANION/MASTER/IMMORTAL SET, 1983) offered even better, more streamlined writing and more complete rules in the form of three additional booklets.  B/X promised a companion set, but BECMI delivered!  By now, the product was driven by demand for it, and TSR's success meant slicker, better production at the hands of Larry Elmore, a truly professional artist.  At this point, the last of its amateur ethos (which lingered in B/X courtesy of Erol Otus) perished with its wargaming feel.

And to seal the deal, there's the D&D cartoon show (also 1983).  This was 18th level merchandising for sure!  Whatever else the game was, it was also a toy stocked alongside He-man and the Masters of the Universe.  A cartoon meant that nearly everyone at least knew what D&D was.  The kids.  And their parents.  And given a year to stew in the national consciousness, the hobby, through Dungeons & Dragons, had truly arrived!

By now we're at 1984.  D&D was increasingly driven by the demands of a non-wargaming population and its love of roleplaying and storytelling.  And the proof is in the black pudding or, rather, 1985's Unearthed Arcana booklet, a tribute to character-centric, customization-focused, and (increasingly) power-gaming play.  Top it with the Satanic Panic and you know the hobby's underground days were over, even if many games were still just that, because once you've threatened uninformed parents, you've achieved something as enduring as rock and roll itself!  Agree or disagree, the three basic sets played a huge role in all of this... 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Alpha and Omega of Old-School...

So when does old-school gaming begin?  And when does it end?  This might seem like a trivial (or pointless) question, but either the designation means something or it means nothing.  And a relative, subjective definition is little better than none at all.  But first, some context to get started.  I recently spoke to a younger gamer who defined "old-school" as those old World of Darkness games he played in the 90s!  Clearly, this was his introduction to the hobby, so it probably seems downright primordial to him.  But if this is how we're gonna define things, then everything is old-school, which means nothing is.

Now, I argue that old-school refers to the first ten years of the commercial hobby, and this bears some explanation.  Wesely and Arneson were doing their thing as early as 1967 (earlier, actually), but their fabulous creations weren't available beyond a relatively small group of insiders.  Think about it.  The imaginary childhood games we all made up with our siblings are no different, and no one seriously suggests they should amount to a cultural movement.  But with the release of the first D&D rulebooks in 1974, the game was (at least theoretically) available to everyone.  Now that's a movement.  That's a bona fide thing, and it rightly forms an objective starting point for the hobby.  The birth of old-school.

From here, I say the next decade.  The first decade of the hobby.  Why?  Well, because ten is a nice, rounded figure.  I mean, why else would the gods give us ten fingers?  But it's more than that.  This first decade represented a certain state of the hobby.  Sure, the games were commercially available, but they were still largely an underground phenomenon.  Gaming represented a distinct subculture largely unnoticed by the world at large.  Now this changed as the decade wore on, but it holds for most of the period.  The Satanic Panic of the 80s could only begin once parents knew the games existed, and this didn't start to happen until the B/X set (more clearly aimed at younger readers) hit Toys R' Us.

Yeah, all old-school gaming groups looked like this...

But it's more than just an underground pedigree, and like I said, the hobby became progressively more mainstream as the decade rolled on.  Being an underground thing meant less money to invest in production, which resulted in an amateur look and feel.  RPG rulebooks weren't yet the slick products they would later become.  I don't mean to sound like a snobby purist.  Games are guidelines at best, and the real action takes place in the participant's heads.  But there's something about gaming-as-cottage industry that really speaks to its origins in the basements and rec-rooms of the early 1970s...  

Amateur production creates a sort of punk ethos.  Gaming as punk with all its purity.  But getting back to marketing, the hobby's first decade ended in a very different place from where it began.  D&D started as a sort of wargame (and never mind my previous postings to the contrary on this blog).  The rules referenced armor and weapons with an emphasis on historical accuracy and a wargamer's general sensibility, and one need only read the earliest issues of The Dragon to see that wargaming still featured often enough, or that so many readers were (still) interested in military simulation.  Indeed, remnants of this would show in 1985's Unearthed Arcana, where Gygax regaled us with his love of pole arms.  I can only wonder about this particular obsession, but then, who am I to judge?

So there you have it.  1974-84.  The hobby was an amateur, underground phenomenon with production values to match that retained strong ties to its wargaming roots...

But the scene would change.  And how.  Things would become mainstream enough for parents to panic about it, and with mainstream notice came money (and with money came better production).  At the same time, the games were increasingly appealing to non-wargamers more interested in the role-playing and storytelling aspect.  You see a noticeable shift to younger readers with the He-Man art of the BECMI set.  Indeed, Elmore's artwork became ubiquitous across the entire spectrum of TSR's growing catalog.  There was a D&D cartoon (I won't alienate friends by weighing in on that), AD&D action figures, stickers, and activity books.  I can only imagine D&D toothpaste and other (mainstream) marketing fiascos, but I don't have to.  It was clear that the hobby had turned a corner.  Not a bad one.  You can't stay young and hungry forever.  But it was no longer old-school as I knew it.  What do you think?  Did we get it wrong?  Share your ideas!  What's your old-school timeline?

ADDENDUM: To avoid any appearance of gatekeeping, anyone who plays and enjoys old-school games is an old-school gamer in our eyes no matter their age!  Game on... 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

On the "Neutering" of Ability Scores...

I remember what it was like to make a D&D character back in '78 (or '80, for that matter; we were still rubbing the 70s out of our eyes).  You rolled 3d6 in order and knocked on wood, praying for an 18 somewhere, preferably in a prime requisite.  Now this could be fun because you never knew what you were going to get.  But it could also be a bummer if you wanted Conan and got Steve Urkel.  This wouldn't stand, especially as non-wargamers entered the hobby, attracted to the idea of roleplaying and storytelling.  Inevitably, such players came equipped with a character concept, and Mr. Gygax, always good at divining the zeitgeist, was quick to address this in the Dungeon Master's Guide...  

The rule of the day (well, option is more like it) was to roll 4d6 and pick the highest three, arranging to taste.  This wasn't the only option on offer, but it quickly became the most popular.  It was certainly the most popular at my table and for the inevitable pickup games at conventions (back in my young and single days, you'd meet people and end up playing upstairs and completely off the schedule).  And as an idea it really holds up.

But like so many things in life, the other shoe always drops eventually...


And a side effect of this (very good) idea was neutered (and inflated) abilities.

Obviously, you gotta take the good with the bad, and this method also served to address the problem of hopeless characters.  Don't get me wrong, I love D&D (and strongly prefer its original iteration to its later incarnations).  But when you can actually fail at character creation by rolling a hopeless character, something's broken in the machinery.  The optional rules certainly helped here because you were generally assured a workable result.  But it also lead to a sort of "stats inflation" and, in general, less varied characters.  The fighter always had their highest score in Strength (given a choice, you'd be out of your mind not to prioritize this way) and the magic user in Intelligence, etc.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Sure, you could always assign scores to have a fighter who's more intelligent or wise than physically strong, but again, why?  Especially when the AD&D Player's Handbook placed such a premium on good prime prerequisites.  Your viability (and survivability) depended on it!  

If you wanted to get the most from your magic user (for instance), you needed a high Intelligence or you'd be shut out of spells you aspired to eventually cast.  D&D was always a speculative venture (although maybe less so now).  You built your character on what they could do right now, but also on what you hoped to be able to do in a few levels...


Okay, so you got characters who were predictably gifted.  But you also got many scores clustered around the average (or slightly above).  On the one hand, this was more realistic than Borg with the 3 Intelligence.  Mind you, that's a 30 IQ if Gary's to be believed!  If my tenure in the Army taught me anything, it's that going even 10 miles with a 30-pound pack is extremely difficult.  The stereotypical weak magic user wouldn't stand a chance.  And the fighter doesn't get off much easier, for while the dumb barbarian is ubiquitous in the popular imagination, Conan was anything but, and fighting requires a keen intellect.  Characters probably shouldn't be too deficient.  But when most of your scores are clustered around an average (with a few predictably placed outliers), small differences become meaningless, even with roll-under mechanics.  And ability scores feel increasingly "neutered"...      

Note: With roll-under mechanics, each point of attribute works out to a 5% difference, so having a 12 dexterity instead of 11 matters.  I get this.  Each point is like a +1 magic sword by way of analogy.  Still, variety comes from having a few lower scores and, possibly, an exceptional ability or two, although this comes with its own baggage.     

And so back in 2002, as I was scouring my memories for how my old-school games ultimately felt to me, I opted to treat characters as basically average across the board with one or two superior attributes.  No scores, no rolls.  Just pick (or roll for) the ability you imagine your character excelling at and go from there.  And abilities were more like perks than anything else (preserving randomness for those who wanted it).  Moreover, there were no prime requisites.  Your fighter could be wise above all else, with no one rewarded (or penalized) for anything but the quality of their play (in as much as possible).  The result was Pits & Perils, not a retro-clone, but a spiritual one for sure.  One born from years of play spent reflecting on how D&D tried to manage what it was becoming.  Let us know what you think about all this.  House rules?  Modifiers?  How did you keep your ability scores virile?         

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Ghosts In the Game (or Unfinished Business)...

So, your character dies in the middle of an adventure.  It happens.  But with all that unfinished business, maybe they aren't ready to move on.  And in situations like this, maybe it makes more sense to hang around as a ghost.  Yes, this can be a viable option if done properly, and that's the theme of this week's frightfully haunted post...

So first off, the doomed character needs to die in the course of an adventure and leave some unfinished business to be tidied up before going to their final reward.  The referee can be liberal on this point, being free to imagine any conditions.  And the unfinished business need not relate to the current adventure, either.  Maybe it's back home.


Either way, the character rises as a non-corporeal ghost that otherwise resembles its former self, perhaps down to their armor and equipment, although these are non-functional.  The real items are left on the person of the deceased (assuming their friends don't shamelessly help themselves).  This ghost moves as per the applicable rules, being ethereal and capable of passing through solid walls and the like.  This makes them a useful spy, although they may not otherwise attack or affect the physical world (by any means) while in this state, the one exception being any spells already prepared.  Ghosts don't sleep, after all, and are therefore unable to recover or otherwise prepare new ones.  This applies to clerics as well, although given their ties to an actual deity, their ghostly state might be related to some holy work with miracles granted on a case-by-case basis.  There's no wrong answer here...

Finally, while the ghost can't be physically engaged, they can still be harmed with spells and magical weapons, where applicable, or by anyone going in ethereal form.   

Once the task is complete, the temporary spectre passes on, although the referee can be flexible here as well.  For instance, a successful resurrection may restore the character to life assuming the body is more or less in one piece.  And even if reduced to ash (or whatever, I've sliced, diced, and squashed 'em), they might be allowed to return minus an eye or limb or (better still) one or more levels!  Alternately, specialized dwarven smiths might be able to fashion a magical golem form, with details left to the referee.  These will perform as a regular character but cannot heal normally, requiring repairs.  Of course, the ghostly state might relate to some curse that must be broken.  This is chain-rattling adventure fodder...

And that's it.  Ghosts in the game.  Of course, the referee will have to do the heavy lifting here, but this shouldn't be too difficult, and there's lots of gaming potential.  Boooooo!