Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

A Classy, Old-School Debate...

Character classes.  Some love 'em, others hate 'em.  But most, I suspect, are willing to go either way with the understanding that each has something to offer.  I fall into the latter category.  Classes, where used, create a sense of mutual interdependence and contribute to a game's implied setting.  How's this a problem?  Skill-based systems, on the other hand, enable near-total customization, which is undeniably cool.  There's nothing not to love about this approach so go ahead, make that armor-wearing battlemage...

But when it comes to classes, is it possible that less is actually more?  I mean, how many character classes becomes too much?  I'm a little torn.

On the one hand, if I come across a really nice class with a good skill set and progression options, I'm definitely all in.  It's really, really hard to hate something that's cool on the fantastical face of it.  And who can blame me?  But the problem with some class-based systems is that the only way to add a new skill set is to introduce a new class; and let's face it, some new classes come across as bloated, redundant, and unnecessary...


Barbarians?  As a class?*  They're just fighters from a primitive, probably northern culture, complete with loincloths and outdoor survival skills.  Can't we just roll up a fighter and embellish the backstory?  Gygax, for all I loved Unearthed Arcana, built an overwrought class around his apparently fawning love of Conan.  Of course, I have a fawning love of rules-lite games, so others may disagree.  But do we really need to build a whole new class around the ability to take natural cover or climb trees? Seriously, do we? 

Or a class built around the lance (cavaliers) or acrobatics (the thief-acrobat)?

All of the above feel more like backstories to me.  Barbarians and cavaliers can exploit Unearthed Arcana's weapon specialization rules and leave the rest to the player and their negotiated character concept.  Can Borg climb that tree?  Why not?  He grew up in the Northern Wood, after all.  Just roll under dexterity to make it happen.  Ditto for cavaliers and lances.  Or charging on horseback, for that matter.  And really, how did thieves perform acrobatically before 1985?  Hint: they were quite acrobatic since 1975!

Feel free to disagree.  Trust me, I see both sides of the coin.  Barbarians and cavaliers behave differently in the game's implied setting.  But is something lost when there's increasingly less opportunity to proceed from a character's backstory?  And does a game suffer when each new class is just an excuse to introduce a few new skills when said system already got along fine without them?  It's definitely a "classy" debate for the ages...

*Yeah, yeah, Pits & Perils has a barbarian class, and I still have reservations!

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Game Reviews as Matchmaker...

Ok, so our friend over at the Necropraxis blogspot posted about game reviews; specifically, what constitutes a good (and useful) one.  This is well worth reading.  Potential buyers depend on reviews to make informed decisions, and while we all have opinions, reviewers just might have a responsibility to help their readers along.  And so in the interest of full disclosure, we offer the following (not at all surprising) admission... 

We haven't always written "pure" reviews.  Often, we're just gushing about something we personally enjoyed.  But to our credit, we've always tried, at a minimum, to explain what the product is (and what it isn't) and to identify precisely who might be interested.  This goes without saying, but if we're going on about how "rules-lite" a system is, then it might not be to your liking if you don't like rules-lite games!  Anyway, we've always felt like we had some obligation to those who might put their money down on our recommendation. 

So read the Necropraxis post.  We'll take it's advice on board for future reviews because we want to help (and not confuse or mislead) others.  But we want to add something to the discussion; namely, that "good" and "bad" are sometimes subjective.


I'm sure everyone understands this.  Yes, it's possible for a game to be broken beyond the point or repair in it's present form; but some so-called failures are only failures to certain people based on personal preferences.  And to provide a couple examples... 

(a) The monsters are rote and derivative.  That's bad, unless the reader wants something more traditional or something "blank" they can put their own stamp on.*

(b) Magic requires too much book keeping.  A no-no in my book, but quite a few people actually get off on this, and telling readers I was turned off isn't the same as saying rules-lite gamers may be turned off, but fans of crunchier systems might be interested.    

As Necropraxis said, take the time to explain the what of a game minus any snark or personal broadsides that might detract from a review's usefulness.  But if I'm posting this for any reason, it's to offer a single addendum: in our reviews, we should try to identify who a particular product is likely to appeal to, and who it isn't.  On more than one occasion, I've bought (and enjoyed) a poorly-reviewed product because its supposed failures were actually strengths in my biased eyes.  I'm not sure the reviewers meant it that way...

Which is really just a fancy way of reminding would-be reviewers that one man's trash is another man's treasure.  Good reviews inform and (in extreme cases) serve as a warning to others.  But when so much comes down to personal preference, the goal of any review should also be to get the right games into the hands of the right people.  Our preferences can't possibly be the standard.  At best, we're more like old-time matchmakers!  

*And really, how do we objectively define this?  Remember, one man's trash/treasure...

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Playing Dumb in a Game for Brains...

Gaming is 100% mental.  I mean, we aren't really swinging our swords, and rolling dice or reaching for a drink is probably as physical as it gets.  This means that the best way to participate is either through role play or strategy and tactics.  Now good role play is a must, and I can't emphasize enough the joys of using funny voices and making stunningly bad decisions in deference to a low wisdom (I have stories).

Strategy and problem solving is another.  Gaming is dangerous for the characters, although maybe not so much for the players (I did get a cramp in my dice hand once, and there's always the Onion Dip Incident of which we never speak).  Good strategy is what keeps our characters alive and lets us be a badass Conan style; and while we sometimes have to depend upon the cleverness of others, it's nice to be the hero sometimes. 

Sure, we can get there by rolling a natural 20, but that's mere luck, not heroics, and actual participation demands that we think and act.  And so here's the rub...

How do we contribute solutions when our character has a 3 intelligence?  I mean, this is an accident of birth that unfairly shuts folks out of full participation.  Sure, we can spend the session doing Lennie Small from Of Mice and Men, all the while hoping that the dice manage to make us look good - but that's not enough.  And I'm not sure it could ever be.

     
Now one reader suggested that we could treat it as acting.  A low intelligence means we withhold ideas even if we have them because our character is slow (OD&D suggests this in the core rulebooks).  And by contrast, having a brilliant character when we're otherwise decidedly average entitles us to a roll, with success delivering just the right strategy on a silver platter. I won't go that far, but my friend was still on to something...

So the best answer is to rethink intelligence.  Someone (I think Gygax in an early issue of Dragon) suggested that INTx10 =IQ, meaning a 3 intelligence is an IQ of 30!  And just to be clear, a 30 IQ is severely mentally disabled and incapable of even basic self care, which makes adventuring out of the question.  And the Monster Manual II says an intelligence of 3-4 counts as semi-intelligent (probably below dogs).  Sorry, no way.

Instead, imagine character (and humanoid) intelligence on a scale as follows:

3-7 (Slow).  The character is dim-witted or maybe just an incurious person.  They're capable of self care and understand how the world works enough to get by, although maybe not without some misadventures.  And while they won't contribute brilliant or complex strategies, they're more than capable of simple, direct solutions, especially when all the required information is right there in front of them.  This is superior to just "playing dumb" because it calls for a fusion of thoughtful role play with due deference to the numbers.


Think of this character as a Forrest Gump.  Maybe not the brightest bulb, but capable of understanding simple things extremely well.  Combined with a low wisdom, the character is impulsive and id-driven or maybe naive and easily taken by scams.  There are plenty of foibles.  But paired with a higher wisdom, they possess a clear, simple insight.    

8-14 (Average).  This is us.  And most characters, really.  Nothing to add.

15-18 (Brilliant).  This character knows a lot.  But maybe they lack common sense (low wisdom) or simply lack the practical experience to make good decisions in a given situation, especially if outside of their experience.  An 18-intelligence magic user should always be outclassed by a 7-intelligence fighter in combat situations.  Really, don't think for one minute that a high intelligence is a golden ticket to all the best strategies.  No, the real value of a higher score is languages and spells known.  And rolling under for knowledge...

Does your character know something about the campaign setting?  Maybe.  If their background allows, and if they roll under their intelligence on a d20 in true B/X style, which makes having a higher score meaningful while (appropriately) penalizing those who lack intellectual prowess.  And it does so by granting clues, which must still be interpreted by the player (no free lunch here, not even for geniuses).  This is quite reasonable. 

So Dorn the Dim (of the 5 intelligence) will never exploit the temporal flow of dimensional energies to disrupt an evil wizard's trap.  But he can think to ignite the oil at their feet, meaning that the challenge of "playing dumb" isn't withholding solutions, but devising simple and effective answers consistent with a simple and direct personality.  And while Bran the Brilliant very well could exploit their knowledge of extra-dimensional physics and maybe think to ignite the oil, they'll still have to think it up themselves.  It's the smart thing to do...

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Levels and the Old-School Brain...

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Olde House (1974-1979)...

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Thermodynamics of Wishes...

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Bound to Please (Printed to Use)...

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Critical Hits: Live Scarred or Die Pretty...

Conan did a lot of fighting.  A lot.  And it strains credibility to think he wasn't cut open a few times.  You know, deep gashes and blood everywhere.  But if he was, it certainly didn't show beyond the occasional, strategically displayed battle scar.  Ditto for Red Sonya who, much like her Cimmerian friend, displayed quite a bit of flesh (because let's face it, they were both mostly naked half the time).  By all rights each should have been a horrific mass of scar tissue.  Not the stuff of sexy, sensual fantasy, but realistic nonetheless... 

So how did two barely dressed warriors, seasoned fighters who put themselves in harm's way with careless abandon, avoid unsightly harm?  Heroism!     

If Conan were a D&D character, he'd be that one guy who somehow avoided death and serious disfigurement through twenty levels.  Sure, historical warriors have gone to their old-age ends with all their parts intact.  But never under so much exposure.  Assuming all of Conan's adventures (comics and otherwise) are canon, Howard's barbarian has seen more combat than a WW II veteran!  And through it all he stayed, well, mostly unscathed.    

So there's a decision to make.  Is your game gonna be the heroic variety where the characters keep their good looks if they manage not to die?  Or is it gonna be a grindhouse affair where there's a 5% chance per battle of looking like a reject from a bloody Quentin Tarantino movie?  Either approach is fine; but it's also important because it gets to the heart of how the experience ultimately feels.  Each has its pros and cons...


Ultra-violent affairs with homemade critical damage tables can be fun.  I mean, there's a visceral excitement to losing an ear because someone somewhere rolled a natural 20.  But it also detracts, considerably might I add, from any sense of heroic, abiding characters and doesn't always map to the sort of fantasy a lot of us like to read and enjoy playing.  I've heard men scream minus body parts.  Only a privileged sadist finds it entertaining.

Oh, and it can be tedious.  One roll in twenty you're stopping combat to hit the tables, stifling momentum.  Yeah, maybe it's kind of exciting the first few times.  But critical injury on a natural 20 happens more often than you'd think -  and it gets old quick.  Frequent grievous injury can also start to feel unrealistic.  Now this can be remedied with sub-tables where disfigurement is only one of several possibilities.  You can do this, but beware if you aren't one of those people (I'm talking me) who isn't keen on breaking play to consult endless charts and tables.  During adventure prep, sure, but it's not for everyone... 

Now the heroic stuff lets you feel like a bad ass just for not dying.  And it's not without its narrative justifications.  I've long held that clerical healing and potions (clerical at a minimum) actually mend visible wounds.  Scars heal, deep cuts vanish.  The works.  And it's simpler because you aren't constantly checking tables.  Even so, it's possible for combat to lose its sense of danger, which isn't necessarily a good idea.  Battle should be scary. 

Again, either choice is fine.  And it can vary from campaign to campaign.  But for the undecided there's always the mixed approach.  It's simple.  Grievous injury is only possible with certain enemies or from certain traps, with effects appropriate to the situation, be it corrosive attacks or sweeping blades that lop off feet.  Moreover, you can offer disfigurement as an alternative to death.  Sure you can live - but now you've lost an eye and suffer -1 to missile dice.  Clerical healing can eventually set things to right; but in the meantime, players give certain enemies (and situations) the respect they surely deserve.

Keep these rare enough to make them a big deal when they happen.  Oh, and when Zarlathan the Lame comes hobbling up on his staff, you can be sure he earned his moniker through something truly heroic.  That demon lord was almost impossible to defeat, but sacrifices were made and the world saved.  Now that's an abiding and heroic character fit for the sagas.  And really, that's part of why we play.  Of course, Robyn and I don't wish this suffering on anyone in real life, so be safe and try to stay in one piece everyone!

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Old-School Gaming As Punk...

Nothing too big this week.  The real world, with its myriad stresses and delights, has occupied a disproportionate (albeit appropriate) chunk of my time.  Nevertheless, I've had time to reflect upon the hobby and its place in my life.  Call it a bit of mental accounting, spiritual reflection, or whatever.  The fact is, I've always preferred a certain approach to our hobby, and whenever I deviate too far from that center I lose interest.  That's not to say alternative approaches are bad, mind you, only that my love of gaming is securely bound to my personal experiences and preferences - as it should be for everyone... 

The gaming I love recalls what it's like to be an eleven year old in the late 1970s who discovered this new thing called D&D.  It wasn't some slick, mass-market thing at the time, understand, but something positively garish and amateur to behold.  

There were no home computers (well, not enough to make any real impression) and no internet or social media.  If you knew someone who had a typewriter or early word processor it was a big deal, and the whole thing felt accessible because none of it was beyond the capabilities of the people actually playing the games.  It was homemade fun...

Even when you were playing D&D it was homemade fun because you were free to add or change anything through the social contract.  Anyone remember that?  

Some modern games seem bent on taking all the decision-making power away from the participants, mechanizing any and all possible choices and offering them back to the player as part of some optimal character build.  No social contract.  No negotiations.  Face the monsters and hope you achieved the optimal build.  Fine.  But it seems like all the effort is on the wrong side of the equation.  Most of the work should be done during play.

   
I call this Champions Syndrome.  You spend a week achieving the perfect build only to get bored shitless after a single session because the best work is behind you. 

While class and race were ostensibly central to the games I played, it was really the players, with their strategies and problem-solving, that ruled the day.  Whether you were a fragile magician with a single spell or a stout fighter with the intelligence of a clam, everyone was an actual person capable of making decisions and offering up a winning solution.

In one game our party distracted a hungry reptilian horror by catapulting the corpses of slain orcs (it's a long story) into the courtyard of an old castle, sneaking safely across while the monster enjoyed its unexpected feast.  Not one rule was invoked.  Not one.  Sure, the referee could have been an asshole.  But everyone understood that we were there to have fun and that the solution was a clever and reasonable one.  That's the good stuff...  

Your class?  Your spells?  That's just a foundation.  Your choices and clever strategies are what makes the game happen.  And you'll get none of this from any rulebook.

I'm not telling anyone to get off my lawn.  It's a big neighborhood and people can prune their bushes how they like.  But it seems to me that at least some so-called "modern" gaming externalizes the experience of play, and that's just not entertaining to me.

So give me clever small-press rules with no aspirations beyond being just a guide for the referee to follow.  Homemade fun with a homemade look and feel I can match with additions and changes of my own making.  And give me systems that put player choice and strategy ahead of mechanical solutions to everything.  Why bother playing if all you're gonna do is roll spot checks?  At that rate just skip the adventure, roll to see who died, and work up riches enough for the survivors to bicker over.  Me?  I'll be in my basement making my own fun the old-fashioned way.  Call me a relic (guilty as charged), but it's kind of subversive...   

It's that punk thing: This is a rule.  This is another.  This is a third.  Now make a game! 

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Achilles, the Industry, and the End...

Gaming is fun.  Yeah, we totally get that.  As far as hobbies go, this one puts the "P" in participation and gets everyone involved in a way stamp collecting can't touch.  GMs build their own adventures, run their own campaigns, and devise new content.  It's a timeless refrain: the GM can add or change anything.  The rules are just a guide offering tools for the creative workbench.  And the players have their own creative options...  

So yeah, gaming is an all-hands-on-deck sort of affair.  And while this is the hobby's greatest strength, it's also the industry's Achilles heel and self-limiting.

Remember, the typical RPG is a set of written rules where the GM is free to add or change anything, going as far as creating original content and house rules to turn the source material on its head.  And all in the name of fun.  You can't do this with Monopoly any more than you can buy a Coke and turn it into a Mountain Dew.  Gaming is unique in this way; miniatures be damned, the action takes place inside the participant's collective heads.

Now gamers are a creative, intelligent lot, so they eat this stuff up and ask for seconds, preferably, served with a side of d20.  People are lining up to buy new stuff, and Drive-Thru RPG does a brisk business.  But the industry has a "competitor" in its own customers, although not in any mean-spirited or adversarial way.  Simply put, creative people quickly figure out how to develop their own rules, and since they're already happy to imagine whole worlds (if not entire universes), many inevitably drift to game design... 

And with self-publishing and print-on-demand options, it can surely happen.

Now, this is wonderful news for a hobby which, in my opinion, thrives on creative and enthusiastic amateurs making their own fun.  A nice rulebook is a wonder to behold, don't get me wrong.  But the action, indeed the adventures, take place inside the player's heads and ultimately wanders from the rulebook.  Attractive, professional production is essential for creating atmosphere, communicating information, and just makes it easier to read and absorb the rules.  But we don't live or play in the rulebook.  We play in our imagination...

And sooner or later, it's the players, not the product, doing all the heavy lifting!


The concept of the game is the game.  One player provides the setting and supporting characters and everyone else runs a character.  It's all decision making, exploration, and role-playing, as we're fond of saying.  Rules don't matter at this point, and when we eventually decide we need them, it can be as easy as saying "roll 7 or better on 2d6" with modifiers for difficulty.  And we can have all of this (and more) free of charge. 

Of course, people can devise awesome rules based on great ideas and wrap them up in a gorgeous package for sale.  Nothing wrong with that.  But when the most creative enthusiasts can make and share their own stuff in the social media universe, you realize that buying anything is a nicety and very often non-essential to enjoying the hobby.  Tabletop gaming as an industry is therefore self-limiting.  And long may it be.  It's really better this way.  

How far can the industry go?  It has a ceiling.  I went three years buying nothing more than paper, pencil, and the occasional replacement dice.  And Robyn and I spent close to a decade playing a game we sort of worked out around some simple mechanics and the social contract.  Social contracts are free, and P&P's content came from various adventures I judged over that time.  And God knows, we absolutely appreciate the folks who've bought and played our little ruleset.  We appreciate it because we know you really don't have to buy anything at all.  And we mean that in the most literal way possible.  Thank you...

The demand for games is out there.  But some will inevitably satisfy their urge to play and create by whipping up their own materials while the small-press industry absorbs many others.  Indeed, the two go hand in hand.  Remember, play happens outside the rulebook, and I've never seen a game that played better because it came in a slick package, even though I've certainly enjoyed these products and like having something physically nice for the bookshelf or the gaming table.  And when you can can tailor a favorite system to whatever purpose, there's absolutely an upper limit to the industry's maximum possible growth.     

Put another way, the gaming industry grows sideways more than it grows upward.  How many are living off game design?  Really?  But that's good, because the people in it tend to be those who love it, and this is reflected in their products.  We have a ceiling too, dear reader, because we make rules-lite games.  Blood of Pangea (plus its two supplements) covers everything from the ancient world to the far future, and its narrative emphasis pretty much ensures that you'll never need anything else to get what you want from it.  

We've sort of written ourselves out of the equation, and we know that at some point we'll have said everything we want (and need) to say.  Probably sooner than later.  And then, dear reader, the ball will be in your hands.  The industry may be inherently self-limiting as a rule, but the hobby (very happily) is a genie that won't let itself get put back into the bottle...

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...