Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Boo! Gaming As Trick or Treat...

I remember growing up and leaving behind the stuff of childhood with a little reluctance, especially the imaginary play part.  Toys were out, and so was Halloween, especially since I didn't want to be that old guy at the door with his sack out sheepishly.  Tabletop gaming allowed me (and later, Robyn) to translate childhood play into an adult context, noting that everyone's favorite RPG bears a striking resemblance to trick or treating...

During Halloween, we go house to house dressed as ghosts and goblins.  In gaming, we go room to room (or hex to hex outdoors) fighting ghosts and goblins.


And during Halloween we collect tasty treats.  In gaming, we amass treasure

Finally, during Halloween we become someone (or something) else, something fantastical and decidedly fun.  In gaming we do the same, only its a costume of the mind when we aren't doing LARP or going cosplay at conventions.  It's Halloween for grownups, and for kids too, obviously.  Short of actual candy, gaming preserves this sense of play.

It's essential that adults be grownups.  Neither Robyn or I have much patience for the perpetual manchild.  We need to meet adult responsibilities and care for our families first and foremost.  But when the work's done, we still need play, and neither Robyn or I have much patience for the sourpuss who defines adulthood as giving it up.  Tabletop gaming translates childhood play into an adult context; and looking at Halloween it's easy to see how...

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Death, Where Is Thy Sting?

Play enough computer-type games and you'll find that death is brief - at best.  You either revert to a saved game or re-spawn where you fell.  Not very lethal, but that's okay because the challenge lies in mashing buttons like mad and defeating a foe after several (doubtless frustrating) attempts.  Tabletop games are a different breed.  Here death is more permanent, barring divine intervention, because it has to be.  A sense of risk is essential...

But what is risk, exactly?  Let's start by suggesting that job one of a game is to make people care.  Job two is threatening all they care about, and herein lies the risk.

What can we possibly care about more than life itself. barring family, obviously?  And in a tabletop game, our imaginary "life" counts for a lot.  Heroes stake life and limb in a vast underworld and have a vested interest in staying alive.  You know, risk.  But what does death mean in a game where you just roll up another character and rejoin the adventure almost immediately?  Especially when they inherit money and/or powerful magic items.     

I once played no less than six dwarven brothers who picked up where their dead relatives left off, inheriting most of their stuff in the process.  It was a brazen exploitation of the rulebook and something close to "immortality" in a game everyone calls lethal.  No, what players really care about is the preservation of their cherished in-game personality figure...

And there's lots of ways to threaten these.  Lots.  Que maniacal laughter.  Luvar the Shining gets turned into a slimy toad.  Thingol the Foe Smasher loses his Dwarven Hammer.  The diabolical possibilities are endless, and players will vigorously avoid them all.  Herein lies yet another way to threaten the characters.  Don't kill 'em.  Let 'em live and force the players to struggle with an uncomfortable blow to the identity they've struggled to preserve.


With this in mind, is it possible to reduce in-game death while simultaneously raising the stakes and building greater dramatic tension?  Ironically, letting characters live longer could actually make death more effective when it finally happens because the players have had time to grow attached.  Talk about cold.  Could it be that old-school dungeons might actually go easier on the players by killing off their heroes before attachments form?   

That being said, here's an outline for an alternate deathless D&D where characters live longer but possibly suffer more.  The latter is debatable; but the players will feel like all they hold dear is threatened, which feels a lot like death.  Take it as the suggestion it is... 

(1) When a character falls in battle, they go unconscious instead.  Should at least one companion survive or manage to drag their friend to safety, that character revives and even recovers up to 10 lost hit points.  It takes a total party kill to produce true death.

(2) Death magic, poison, and/or traps are still fatal, as is death from one-on-one fights with no backup.  There's safety in numbers, and splitting the party or going alone is a bad idea.

(3) Cheating death incurs an experience debt equal to the opponent's level x 1,000, with earned experience applied to the deficit first. The player must pay off the debt before further advancement is possible, and since levels are everything, this one hits home! 

(4) If advancement is capped, the character loses 1d3 levels instead.  Alternately, they could sacrifice one or more magic items with a total experience value equal to the experience deficit incurred under rule #1, above.  Higher-level characters have more options and more opportunities to recover, so the cost is firm (but fair) given that life itself is at stake.

Once again, these are just suggestions, and admittedly not fully formed ones!

Death is a clear and present danger, which in turn motivates careful planning to avoid the possibility.  At the same time, too much death lessens the impact, which in turn saps its motivational power.  It could be that improving survival while dishing out harsher, albeit non-lethal, consequences for defeat might actually feel riskier.  Ultimately, this depends on the system and the desired ends of the group; but when story matters, so does survival.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Miracles (Spells, by God)...

Gaming is rife with abstraction.  Game balance demands it.  No matter how detailed a simulation is, everything gets reduced to metaphorical ones and zeros sooner or later, and that’s okay.  There something charming about games and their machinations, especially when we take them on their own terms.  All fantasy works better this way.  Elves and wizards are ridiculous otherwise, and where's the fun in that?  But not all abstractions are created equal, which leads us to this week's rant: so-called clerical spells...

Spells.  Wizards get 'em.  But then, that's the point, isn't it?  Through study and maybe a demonic pact or two, magicians work their way to power with quasi-scientific elegance, meaning specific formulas performed under almost laboratory conditions.  A gesture here, a magic word there and lightning bolts shoot from their fingertips.  Wow, there's something ambitious (and quite possibly selfish), about seeking out such personal power. 

Clerics, on the other hand, are humble servants of their god(s).  Well, they may not be precisely humble; but they tow the line where it matters most and serve at the pleasure of the Powers That Be, who decide how, when, and definitely if they intervene.  Played by this paradigm, clerics are hobbled as a playable class because discrete spells are resources to be managed; and without them, their usefulness to a party wanes... 

I mean, who wants to hire, much less play, Brother Otto if he's just a glorified fighter who has to pass on that +1 sword and has a razor-thin chance of performing some useful miracle should disaster strike?  No, it's better to say he has x-number of "spells" he can perform per game day and leave it to the player to use them wisely.  The gods deliver a formulaic and precise effect more or less by the numbers.  Just what the doctor ordered and just when they (and their friends) need it most.  How else can they reliably contribute to a party?  


But is something lost when we succumb to this necessity?  The gods become cosmic bureaucrats rubber-stamping cookie-cutter interventions pretty much on demand.  Useful in practice, but also a missed opportunity.  So how do we engineer spontaneous miracles delivered at the pleasure of the gods while preserving some measure of predictability and resource management?  No easy answers here, but we offer the following:

#1 CUSTOM EFFECTS

Clerical spells are treated more like an appeal for a specific kind of aid.  Control Weather is basically a cry for help when the weather is bad or a certain type is called for in a given situation.  The DM (GM, referee) can then tailor the effect to the situation so it feels more like the spontaneous whims of a deity.  In other words, the chosen spell is just a guide.  

#2 CUSTOM SPELL LISTS

This has been tried in various ways, and it works.  Different deities have different spheres of interest and specific powers they're willing (and able) to grant their servants.

#3 HOLY SACRAMENTS

Clerical spells aren't spells at all; they're sacraments, scriptures, or psalms.  Saying "Lord, thou hast dominion over all things" can be invoked to do anything from turning sticks to snakes to the aforementioned weather control.  This is a narrative justification; but the best parts of a campaign are narrative, and it's a worthwhile effort to incorporate them.*


#4 MAKE A CUSTOM SYSTEM

This is a lot of work, but usually worth it.  Ideally, clerics have a decent chance of working minor miracles and a slight chance of doing something dramatic, perhaps with a requirement that the priest tithe or make sacrifice afterwards.  I played a game once where the Powers dispatched servitors (a sort of guardian angel) to intervene within the limits of their ability and sphere of interest.  The possibilities are endless and, shall we say, divine...

Clerics and magicians are two sides of the same coin.  Magicians seek power through their own effort, imposing their will upon the universe.  Clerics submit to the gods and trust in them to deliver (or withhold) aid as they so desire.  The Judaeo-Christianity tradition is strongly opposed to magic in its many forms at least in part because it seems like an appropriation of power that rightly belongs to God.  Wizards have no such qualms and, depending on the setting involved, may be at odds with the Church and overzealous witch hunters!

Put another way, clerics have but one spell: Almighty __________, this, your servant, needs your aid!  Anything else is blasphemous and/or a distressing lack of faith!

If the rules were ever in need of tailoring, clerical "spells" are just one example why; but by incorporating some combination of the above, the servants of God (or the gods, however many there may be) become humble petitioners, and the miracles they invoke all the mightier (and wondrous) because of it.  This benefits the cleric, but also the true spell casters, who can better occupy their magical niche.  But story matters too, and a campaign benefits most of all because the gods, and their mortal servants, become divine.  Can I get an amen?

*Robyn and I suspect that this assumption underlies many campaigns, especially those with a quasi-medieval/Christian religion.  There's just so much to draw from here... 

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

D&D's False Choice...

There's been a lot of talk lately about D&D's founders and the evolution of that which is arguably the two men's greatest creation: Dungeons & Dragons.  The thinking seems to be that Arneson emphasized a fluid, story-centric approach while Gygax leaned heavily on miniatures wargaming and ambitious marketing.  Strictly speaking, this is true; but like so many things, the truth is complicated and the waters muddied by facts...

So first, Arneson imagined a simple game without wargaming's complexity; a game where story mattered more.  Sounds good, right?  And he did favor something like this.  But anything he eventually made and marketed would inevitably spawn additional rules and become more complex, if only to codify new content.  One need only look at his Adventures in Fantasy RPG to see a system as clunky and complex as any. 


But what about Gygax?  He's the guy who envisioned a 1:1 scale wargame where players ran a single character instead of an army but did all the same things.  But once people started making original characters, they'd begin identifying with them and making in-game decisions that would start looking a lot like role-play.  This was pretty much inevitable, and it's hard to imagine not role-playing Mocha the Magnificent under these conditions.

In short, Arneson's story-centric game was always going to become a more complex simulation while Gygax's Chainmail-inspired wargame was always fated to become the role-playing thing we know and love.  The two men, and their approaches, were always on a collision course.  Luckily for us, they joined forces, however briefly, to forge a unique version of what each would have inevitably become on its owngiven enough time.

Now to be clear, this inevitability might not have happened in the hands of either man, although there's abundant evidence that it would have.  The aforementioned Adventures in Fantasy comes to mind, as does Gygax's not-so-subtle nods to story, be it the powerful Charm spell or his requirement that characters act out the hiring of henchmen.  Simulation and role-play were always gonna happen, and it's a false choice to think otherwise... 

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

More Diceless Than We Think...

The Olde House Rules gang is headed out of town, so this is our last post for a couple of weeks; but we'll leave you with a classic gaming topic: dice...  

Dice are ubiquitous in gaming; so much so that we think they had to be there from the beginning.  Now to be clear, they were (this should save some time in the comments section and is only right).  OD&D used dice from the very start because the war-games before it absolutely did and to great effect.  Battle is terrifying precisely because we don't know how things will turn out; and that's a hell of a lot when life itself is at stake...

Ditto for thievery.  Ditto for surviving a deadly poison.  Ditto for pulling off the heroic move that'll cement your fighter's badass reputation into eternity.   

Still, old-school gaming (specifically OD&D, pre-supplements) was largely dice-free where gameplay was concerned.  Seriously; while dice were there, it's entirely possible that the early version of D&D used them less than any time since, if for no other reason than because the referee had more power to enact rulings.  This is well-traveled territory.

Rulings not rules.  It's a mantra at this point.  Rules (I'll say usually) mean dice, whereas rulings often avoid them completely.  If you want to find that secret door, look.  And be sure to describe exactly how.  Spot checks are a rule that calls for dice.  It's been said a thousand different times in a thousand different ways (a thousand and one now).  We uphold this truth as fundamentally right; still, diceless remains controversial...  

Some love diceless play, others (seemingly) hate it.  It comes down to preference, and I confess to gravitating towards the traditional model myself, both as a player and a designer, although without the hate.  It's a practical thing.  Risk and uncertainly are useful states to trigger in others, a sort of adrenaline rush for the dice rolling set.  Making people care is job one - and threatening all the players care about just might be job two!


It's a confidence thing.  If you want to feel good, do something you didn't think possible, whether rolling a natural 20 that (maybe literally) brings the house down or just a successful attack that averts what should have been a bloody total party kill. 

Still, much of what happens (and much of what players engage with) is decision making, exploration, and role-playing through problems.  Often enough, just coming up with a clever solution is challenging; and watching the way in which choices build narratives can be as entertaining as any movie when the players care about what happens.  In short, old-school players want more than just blood.  They want to participate in experiences...

And experiences don't require dice, certainly not 90% of gaming ones!

I'll take it further.  In OD&D there was no roll-under mechanic.  Abilities granted just a few obvious bonuses (missiles come to mind), but beyond experience adjustments, existed primarily as an aid for the referee in adjudicating tasks.  For instance, intelligence was used to determine if certain actions would be taken (that's almost a direct quote).  Sorry Gordo, that clever strategy is beyond your 5 intelligence.  This tilts towards the diceless...

Gary Gygax once famously said (memes be believed) that referees roll dice because they like the sound it makes.  That's an exaggeration.  People like dice for the reasons cited above, but also because it seems to put a character's fate up to the ultimate objective third-party in the form of dumb chance, but there's nothing necessary about it.

In our own Diceless Dungeons, smashing open a door makes noise, which in turn alerts nearby monsters.  But what kind of monsters?  This is just as uncertain and seemingly random as what might happen if the party had decided to go around.  Moreover, while taking on that small pack of goblins is probably survivable, albeit with wounds, it's a tough choice without foreknowledge of the rest of the dungeon.  This is true dice or diceless.

But risk and uncertainly aren't the only way to create tension.  Being forced to make tough decisions is another, as real life will attest.  In Diceless Dungeons, engaging a basilisk in melee guarantees that someone has decided to get turned to stone (you'll just have to read the rules).  Who wants to make that decision?  And this isn't corporate shill either; these problems are universal regardless of what system (or dice) are involved. 

Remember, chess doesn't involve dice either, but remains very challenging.  A dungeon stocked with unknown things coupled with hard decisions adds up to a tense and engaging experience, especially if the players care about their characters.  This is surely how the hobby's founders saw things, at least before dice took over; and it remains good advice for anyone, including the majority who roll 'em because they like the way it sounds...

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

On Gaming's (Flawed) Makers...

Disclaimer: This posting is about real people with complex feelings, hopes, dreams and desires; and perhaps some reading this actually knew them.  To be clear, I think the loss of friendship was tragic and frankly depressing.  With that out of the way...    

The growing popularity of D&D (and the recent Secrets of Blackmoor film) have piqued the interest of a new generation.  How did our hobby begin?  For the newcomers, many of whom weren't even alive in the last century (Jesus, how old does that make me), these facts are buried in the myth-shrouded past, when cell phones didn't exist yet and if you forgot to grab (insert grocery item here), your spouse couldn't call or even text.

Those were dark times when we couldn't answer every nagging trivia question by pulling a phone out of our pocket, but we got by somehow.  And given just how much information is at our fingertips (or resting in our pockets and irradiating our vitals), it's all too easy to dismiss the youngster's lack of understanding.  But we were all newcomers once...

That said, there's been a trickle of new articles by young journalists shedding light on the mysteries of our hobby's past.  One Kotaku article in particular reads like a Watergate-esque expose of what the evil industry has long hidden.  You mean Gary Gygax wasn't the sole creator of D&D?  Some guy named Dave Arneson was also involved?  Yeah, it's all too easy for us greybeards to snort at this, but we shouldn't.  We were all young once and should applaud (and stoke) the interest of the hobby's next generation.

Truth be told, a certain mythos has emerged, one where Gygax became the central personality behind a certified cultural phenomenon.  But if you played the original game back when it came in digest form, you'd have to work hard not to know that it was a joint affair forged by a creative duo, especially if you owned the Blackmoor supplement.  Indeed, you could buy the B/X version as late as 1982 and see Gygax and Arneson credited.


But AD&D was attributed to Gygax alone, the result of that timeless money changes everything and not for the better shtick that ended an era.  By second edition, Arneson was a fading memory, and third was the nail in the coffin.  I won't speculate on the motives of Hasbro and Wizards in perpetuating this; but by 1986, money changes everything forced Gygax out of the picture as well.  Anyway, if you're a 15 year old who started with 5th edition purchased through Amazon, you can easily be forgiven for not knowing.

So much for the kids.  What about the grognards?  I've heard the Kotaku article variably described as an anti-Gary hit piece or long-overdue justice depending on who you happen to ask.  Those who actually knew the pertinent parties have taken sides; for instance, Robert Kunz's Dave Arneson's True Genius.  As for this blogger, I began playing in 1978 and never once met either of the hobby's leading lights, although I've been fortunate enough to know David Wesely (Braunstein's maker) later in life, so my take is suitably nuanced... 

Here goes: Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were imperfect human beings.  

That's right folks, the founders of the hobby we love don't have to be these perfect, semi-divine figures with pure intentions. That's nonsense, and the imperfections of these two men were probably vital to the hobby's cultural advancement.  The ugly stuff matters...
                          
Dave Arneson, who forged the first fantasy campaign and reshaped the culture, was undoubtedly a visionary of the highest order.  That's to his credit.  But he clearly lacked the businessman's motivation.  This reality may (or may not) also be to his credit, although it guaranteed that he wouldn't be the one to successfully market his creation.


Gary Gygax had marketing savvy as well as creative ideas of his own, although often borrowed from others.  This was to his credit.  But he was clearly also a hard-nosed businessman, which may (or may not) also be to his credit.  His efforts are why I have the OD&D rulebooks framed and hanging over my desk, which speaks to his legacy.

We don't live in Candyland.  People are greedy, selfish, and sure to act in their own best interests whenever a cash cow stumbles into view.  Now I'm not suggesting that either man was personally awful.  I can't (and won't) presume to know.  But if I can be a card-carrying asshole from time to time we all can, including the hobby's founding fathers...

And this joining of flawed personalities was probably the only reason our hobby exists as anything more than a quaint local phenomenon.  Chemistry is messy.  It often involves explosions and sudden trips to the eye wash station.  But amid the fire and chaos discoveries are made.  If we like being able to role-play, we can thank Arneson; and if we like actually owning nice commercial products made by people who can justify the effort in creating them, we owe Gygax big.  Pulling this off meant serving two masters, which is challenging.  

Arneson needed Gary's discipline and focus as much as Gary needed Arneson (and other's) creative input.  And the hobby insisted that both men suffer greatly in childbirth...  

Still (and redemptively) time and loss are humbling, and Gygax and Arneson reconciled eventually.  Fame and especially, money, are corrupting influences, and while we'd all prefer to think of the hobby's founders as laid-back gamers, this clearly wasn't always the case, especially once sales surged.  In the end, we can appreciate the contributions of both flawed humans, even if we're occasionally disappointed by them.  Their chemistry was real.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Clones and Heartbreakers...

So I stumbled upon a post from 2017 about so-called retro-clones.  It was interesting, insightful, and without the snooty pretensions of some.  I was doubly pleased that its author was a fan of our own Pits & Perils RPG because, I mean, c'mon; it's our game, of course we're gonna be appreciative.  May it bring them endless joy.  With so many superior options available we always appreciate it when someone chooses ours...

But one thing did stick with me.  The author referred to it as his favorite clone.

Now I love retro-clones.  They've saved many an older system from extinction and offer exciting new ways to enjoy old things.  Wrinkles are ironed out, much-needed streamlining happens, and we see just how timeless our hobby can be.  If you truly love gaming, and especially bygone systems, you owe the clones big.  Did you ever want a Second Edition of BX or BECMI D&D?  Or perhaps a surgical scrubbing of AD&D?  If you love these early iterations and want to pay it forward into modern times, thank the clones.     

But what's a literal clone and what's just heavily inspired.  Luckily, there's no fine line here and little controversy.  If a rulebook preserves mechanics from whole cloth and does so deliberately; if its stated purpose lies in doing so; and if it does this so well that it requires the Open Gaming License or (someone's version thereof) to avoid legal wrath, it's a true retro-clone and, might I add, one by design.  Retro-clone is not a pejorative in my eyes.

But is a game a retro-clone just because it has dwarves?  Elves?  Parties exploring dark dungeons in search of wealth and fame?  If it passes the legal sniff test, yeah.  But what if it employs original mechanics such that you couldn't shoehorn D&D into gameplay with the proverbial ten-foot pole?  What if the spells are completely different and operate under unique conditions?  Or combat is resolved through different means?  I think we've left retro-clones behind and entered into the realm of spiritual clones, which are honorable.


Cheeseburgers are great; and while the local specialty with double bacon might not be the first one ever grilled, it just might be your favorite, which is better by a long shot.  

Pits & Perils is one of these.  It has clerics, dwarves, spell casters, the works.  It even recreates the six ability scores, although players roll (or choose) just one exceptional ability instead of rolling 3d6 for them all.  There's no Vancian magic.  D&D scorned spell points; sorry Gary, but Pits & Perils embraces them.  Simplicity rules the roost.

Now some call spiritual clones Fantasy Heartbreakers, which I'm not wild about...     

Coined here, it's a term that's lazily thrown about, and you'll have to form your own opinion about it.  I will offer, however, that The Forge is gone while D&D (and its derivatives) are doing quite well, thank you very much.  Moreover, there's nothing about the original games that requires them to be dungeon crawls or murder hobo affairs.  They can be turned to complex themes of the sort Ron Edwards would approve of with zero mechanical changes, and anyone who doesn't get this probably doesn't understand the hobby.

The rules are just a guide.  The GM can add or change anything, and house rules will inevitably happen; perhaps deliberately, but maybe by accident as well.  Moreover, bending over backwards to be different from D&D can be just as contrived as copying it verbatim unless some higher cause is being served.  There are a thousand possible variations of a theme; and that means something for everyone if the fact is honestly disclosed. 

Maybe someone put off by OD&D would love White Box.  Or perhaps someone intimidated by Fifth Edition's complexity might prefer Pits & Perils, where they can explore a monster-infested underworld without dying in the first room of the dungeon.  Either way, it's a convert to the hobby, which is something we should all celebrate.  Retro-clones make this happen, and so does any game not afraid to offer up these time-honored concepts...

And that's why I love retro-clones.  And spiritual clones.  And fantasy heartbreakers when they're also good systems.  I'm of the crazy idea that games should be fun, and that no one's in a better position to judge this than the actual participants.  Call me old-fashioned.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

D&D: The One I ****ed Up...

Many years ago, when yours truly was a wee lad who could still fit into his size 30 jeans without turning blue in the face, he (that's me) ran what I thought would be a one-off adventure for a friend's dark elf character.  I had an ingenious idea, although it turned out I was a little too smart for my own good.  The premise was simple enough; an unwed, childless duke had perished, leaving his lands up for grabs...

But there was a catch (there's always a catch).  The Duke had a plan.  Headship requires courage, so aspirants could brave the late Duke's dungeon, stocked with exotic and hungry monsters and deadly traps.  Anyone who managed to make it through with all their vitals intact could claim the title of Duke with the honors and privileges thereof.

He almost didn't make it.  But in the end he emerged, alive, his beating heart hanging by a vein from the gaping hole in his chest.  All in all, a fun afternoon. 

And that was that.  My friend's character was a noble.  Duke Someone of Something, situated in a suitably remote part of my setting.  It was really meant as a one-time excursion, and the character, shelved after our other DM moved away, had never been my friend's favorite to begin with.  It was supposed to be a last hurrah before retirement.

This quickly proved not to be the case, and it didn't have to be.  My friend's ascension to dukedom opened up many gameable possibilities...

But I wasn't prepared for just how fully my friend embraced his newfound status.  He frequented libraries (it was a pre-internet age), studied feudalism and medieval tax schemes, and mastered the minutiae of building (and fielding) an army.  And good for him!  This is interesting stuff.  He wanted to conquer other parts of the setting, starting by inciting a civil war and becoming King.  And we were more or less cool, for a while.


We role-played his political machinations and dabbled in 1985's Battlesystem, although Swords and Spells might have been funner.  But then a creeping obsession took over, and his in-game aspirations began to overtake everything else.  I enjoy gaming as much as anyone; but I enjoy lots of other things and partition my life accordingly.  But it got to the point of getting calls at all hours wanting to talk about the allocation of grain and how to convince the Church to endorse his claims.  This went on for months.  

I began avoiding my friend and losing my temper, and it all came to a head at a group session involving vampires (or something).  Another player had gotten Bucknard's Everfull Purse and my friend's eyes lit up with unmasked avarice.  It seems the Duke was having trouble financing his ambitions.  Anyway, my friend pulled me aside.  He was literally, physically trembling, and I swear tearing up a bit.  I've got to get that purse, he said with a real, palpable desperation that blew a fuse in my brain and turned ugly.

So I decided we'd all had too much of this and retreated from gaming; and for years I imagined (assumed, really) that I was in the right.  But was I?  Who was really the problem player here, and who was the better friend?  Turns out it wasn't me...

My friend clearly had a problem, and I was a terrible friend for not seeing that.

Was he having trouble at home?  Struggling with self esteem and hoping to find it in an imaginary world where he was of noble blood?  My not-so-fully formed brain saw only inconvenience when it should have sensed a cry for help.  Life went on.  We gamed again, but drifted apart a year later; and I regret that fact as much as my reaction to what was clearly a problem.  I should have been honest sooner, made my boundaries clear and asked if anything was wrong or something.  Easy words for a 52-year old man.

I suppose I should give myself a break.  We were kids.  But it does go to show what might happen when we aren't attuned to more than ourselves and our convenience.  When it comes down to it, gaming is a human activity indulged by people who may or may not bring their assorted troubles to the metaphoric (and literal) table.  Even if it's only hurt feelings, chances are it's also a missed opportunity to do good.  There are very few activities where a little kindness and understanding aren't preferable, and gaming isn't one of them...           

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Was Gary Gygax Afraid of Magic?

Read the title.  Is it on the mark?  I don't think so, at least not in the literal sense; and seasoned grognards who grew up in the man's company and played his games personally know better than anyone, certainly more than this humble blogger.  But I do know how to read, and I've been making a study of OD&D and the various supplements, which never fail to delight and inform with each new perusal.  There's always something more to discover, some fresh bit of insight revealed in its delightfully amateur pages...      

And with my latest reading, I can almost believe that Gygax was afraid of magic!

No, I don't think he was superstitious.  But he was a war gamer and mainly accustomed to managing ordinary humans who couldn't levitate or otherwise bend the laws of physics through clever spellcraft.  Indeed, the whole challenge of historical war gaming lay, at least in part, in having to operate well within the bounds of nature.  Just imagine how the Battle of Hastings might have gone with a unit of magicians armed with Sleep spells!  

And that's the point, really.  In our non-magical reality even the simplest magical effect, however minor, would be spectacular.  The ability to magically nudge a pencil a quarter of an inch (or even less), something with virtually zero real-world impacts, would nonetheless be incredible because it would represent a violation of nature as we know it.  And it would speak to forces beyond our knowledge.  This is obvious, gee-whiz stuff, but there's a point...    

Magic, in any form, is powerful.  And in a fantasy game, where spells do have actual, measurable consequences, even the lowliest magic is spectacular.  Especially in a game otherwise designed to force its players to work through obstacles within the bounds of (Newtonian) physics.  What good is that pit trap when the magic-user can cheat and levitate above it all without a care?  And that's the point.  Magic is, at the end of the day, cheating reality of its due.  I'll say it again: game magic is a form of "legal" cheating.


So let's jump back to OD&D.  Here we have something about as close to Gygax and Arneson's gut-level instincts about game balance as we're likely to see.  And it's clear in the way spells were assigned power levels (and the torturous climb needed before the best of these finally become available) that Gary didn't want them in the hands of anyone before they started fighting dragons on a regular basis.  Oh, and these early spells were powerful and without many of the qualifiers shoehorned into the later Greyhawk supplement...

Charm Person was permanent until Dispelled.  Strong stuff.  Greyhawk would later allow targets a saving throw at shorter intervals; but it starts off pretty powerful, and in the hands of first-level characters no less.  The Death Spell killed 2d8 monsters up to 6th level or 2-16 minotaurs if you want a little perspective.  Gary clearly saw even the weakest spell as very powerful.  Some of this was surely the newness, but some of it was Gary.

Now this is all simple game-balance stuff; but the creator's perceptions almost certainly influenced the original design, and one way this might show itself is in the number of magic-user spells available.  OD&D had 70 spells divided between six levels as shown...

1st level (8) 2nd level (10) 3rd level (14) 
4th level (12) 5th level (14) 6th level (12) 

On a level-by-level basis, there's fewer 1st and 2nd-level spells, far less in the case of 1st level magic; but what a huge proliferation in the mid and upper levels!  Gary was hard-pressed to imagine any spell weak enough for those spell-slinging newbies.  But this also makes sense.  Low-level magic-users are not only limited in power, but in sheer variety precisely because magic is so inherently powerful.  This also explains the near-doubling of available spells at higher levels.  Still, it's easy to see Gary's reluctance.

Spells are powerful.  And Gygax imagined very powerful, sweeping and oftentimes permanent effects straight out of the storybooks.  This clashed with a war gaming mindset accustomed to regular people being challenged precisely because they couldn't levitate across that covered pit trap.  Of course, Gary had already done this with his Chainmail rules; but the more individual nature of role-playing meant that the magic-user could potentially outshine their peers and bypass the referee's obstacles minus any human effort.

And this was hotly debated in the early scene and made it into the pages of Dragon Magazine, where some defended the "poor magic-user" and others argued the class had enough power as it was!  It was a ongoing process of rules refinement...

OD&D was the purest form of the game in my humble opinion, and while it clearly needed some additions, it probably needed less than even the first supplement added with respect to rules and spellcraft (monsters and magic items are a different thing entirely).  Anyway, it's always a revelation to see the unvarnished version of a game and to witness the humanity of its designers.  Time and added content necessarily changes things; but sometimes, first instincts are the best instincts, and OD&D's magic system is an excellent example of this!

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Ten Commandments of the OSR...

(1) The OSR is an attempt to preserve, promote, and/or revive old-school games.  

(2) Its aims can be met by playing these early games, but also by publishing content under the Open Gaming License or developing original systems in this style.  

(3) There's nothing about seeking to preserve, promote, and/or revive old-school games that suggests (much less requires) any particular political, religious, or social agenda.

(4) The fact that some people in the OSR behave badly says nothing about the OSR as a whole.  Some are good, others bad; but all of them can like older games.

(5) If you want a positive, welcoming OSR, be a positive, welcoming person.  Splitting off into ideologically pure communities just might be the worst possible way to achieve this.


(6) We desperately need values, but we'll have to look beyond the OSR to find them; and when we do, shouldn't they apply to everything and not just our gaming?

(7) As long as people remain fascinated by older games, the OSR will never die.

(8) Things like Sword Dream and The Inglorious OSR are at best subsets of the OSR; and far from signalling the death of the movement, they speak to its diversity. 

(9) The OSR has no leaders.  Some are louder and more vocal, but they can only speak for themselves (and that includes yours truly).  Feel free to add your voice to the mix.  

(10) If you've fled the OSR only to run your weekly OD&D game, you haven't escaped the movement at all.  Indeed, you've aided it's sole purpose.  Long live the OSR!

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

On the Slow Death of Shock...

Okay, so James Raggi, shock maestro of the OSR, offered a clever play on the whole Kids on Bikes game with Kids on Pikes.  Yes, the cover of his GenCon catalog depicts dead children impaled on pikes, seemingly for our amusement.  I've seen worse in real life, and while I find it distasteful in the extreme, I'm not clamoring for censorship.  These things inevitably correct themselves, and James isn't helping himself.  I've never played his game, and the gross marketing tactics don't communicate anything informational.

Dead kids bleeding on wooden pikes!  Will the ideas never cease?  Seriously though, this latest non-controversy does at least invite a conversation about how we're supposed to view violence in games where the whole point is to stick pointy things into others and take their money.  How do we enjoy this and have any issue with Kids on Pikes?    

Birth, sex, and death are part of the human condition and impossible to ignore.  If you’re reading this paragraph, you were born.  And if you aren’t having sex now, the smart money says you’re the product of it (and very likely seeking your next encounter).  Our desire to survive and reproduce is indelibly hardwired, so much so that we omit these things from our narratives to our peril and to the detriment of the concepts we hope to explore...

I get it.  I'm not some prude who wants to play tea party.  Orcs pillage the countryside, slaughtering all in their path.  Lust reduces men to quivering jelly, makes them the lovers of demons (or maybe their own sisters in Caligula's case) and worse yet, predators of the topical sort who populate our news cycles all too often.  Indeed, these realities elevate our fiction and our games, and their omission would suck the humanity out of our efforts and leave a huge, unsatisfying hole in its wake.  Candyland doesn't interest me.


But that's the rub, isn't it?  When do our narratives go from being stories about humanity which just happen to involve death and sex, even if prominently, and when do they become death and sex for its own sake divorced from any context?  This distinction matters...    

So first, let's partition sex and violence.  Sex between consenting adults is nothing to oppose or censor so long as it's basically responsible and hurts no one.  But once it becomes non-consensual it devolves into violence.  And let's extricate death because this, in and of itself, is the natural end of our cycle, however painful it can be to the survivors.  We can disentangle these things and distill that which any considerate human should rightly reject...

Namely, the suffering of others as an end unto itself and offered up as entertainment or a clever marketing strategy.  And this is why I'm ultimately turned off by Kids on Pikes.   

Pain and suffering are things that happen in our narratives.  That doesn't mean we should find them cool or entertaining for their own sake.  Now I totally get that the grindhouse genre playfully exploits blood-spattering gore.  It's basically dark humor, and I was raised on the excellent Creepy and Eerie horror comics of the 1970s.  But these stories were surprisingly moralistic in their approach and never suggested that we should enjoy, much less find humor, in the suffering of helpless innocents, as horrific as they could sometimes be...

Feel free to disagree.  Free country.  For fans of Raggi's work, it's entirely consistent with an unbroken trend and maybe even good marketing.  But for adult gamers, human suffering shouldn't be amusing or diversionary fare.  Not when real children die in depressing numbers every day.  I don't care for (most) Quentin Tarantino movies because only a pampered and protected millionaire would find graphic suffering amusing*.  Again, that's just me.

There's no easy way to partition the fact of violence and the enjoyment of it, especially when the lines are so easily blurred.  We're rightly horrified at actual violence against children, including James Raggi (who obviously doesn't condone it), while simultaneously devouring splatter flicks.  It's the whole duality of man thing.  But live long enough and see enough actual suffering firsthand, and maybe the smile fades a little and we move on; and this is the slow and inevitable "death" of shock.  These tactics will eat themselves alive...

*From Dusk til Dawn and Pulp Fiction were decent, but the victims sort of had it coming!   

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Was Google+ Gaming's Camelot?

Okay, so it's been a little over a month since Google+ died (at least for the gaming community), although most of us escaped to new online homes well before the proverbial axes fell and our heads hit the basket.  But G+ was such a vital organ of the hobby, a landscape where it truly thrived, that nothing like mere escape could ease the effects of its passing.  And, not surprisingly, it's taken some time for me to process...

First off, Google+ was the social media platform of a media giant; so being there felt something like having our own cable network.  We were sending (and receiving) across an immense public sphere.  Of course, this wasn't a universal sentiment or our beloved G+ would still be; but for those of us in the tabletop world it felt like we were broadcasting to a substantial chunk of the hobby, because we almost certainly were

Imagine being in Time's Square on New Year's Eve.  More on that bit later...

But its reach, even among the gaming set, went far beyond the hobby - and tabletop enthusiasts weren't the only ones using the platform.  Its home feed could be a window on the world (remember that 90s promise?) depending on what you followed.  Mine was a motley assortment of news, tabletop gaming, and music.  From the tragic death of Tom Petty to the 2016 presidential election, Google+ kept me in the know.  I get that all social media makes this possible; but G+ did it on a bigger scale, or so it seemed.

Google+, for all its supposed failures, succeeded at being an immense and public facing phenomenon, the social-media equivalent of a personal cable network.  Now I can see legions of online types waiting to quote figures and demonstrate where I'm objectively wrong about (insert _______ here).  But this post is about my feelings and experiences with the platform, something largely immune to objective analysis, even if I'm wrong.


But perhaps the best way to express the experience of Google+ is to look at what happened in the wake of its demise.  At first everyone pitched their best alternative and made for the escape pods.  And it's not like there wasn't lots to choose from.  But quite a few of us made it MeWe, including those who didn't originally want to go.  The migration was big enough that the new landlords had to make accommodations, which speaks well for them, but also to the enormity of the move itself.  And it absorbed only some of the refugees!

MeWe isn't a wealthy tech giant, and its passion for privacy means that it's more intimate (and insular) than Google+ ever was.  That's a two-edged sword.  My circles are smaller, but also stocked with authentic friends, something I'm immensely grateful for.  The friendships started on Google+ were the most valuable things there.  But as a person who enjoys feeling connected to a larger public, I miss the sheer reach of my former home and its "one stop shopping" atmosphere, which brings us back to the whole New Year's analogy...

So it's New Year's Eve in Time's Square.  People are everywhere and it's easy to get whipped up by the crowd.  It's a noisy, festive event; and if you're standing in the right place at the right time, you just might show up on TV.  But your friends are there too, forming intimate little clusters, familiar eddies in a fast-moving stream.  MeWe is more like a small gathering in a friend's apartment - and there's nothing wrong with that.  

But Google+ was a veritable Camelot for tabletop gamers.  A massive, thriving kingdom that spoke to the public at large.  It benefited greatly from the sheer number of voices and the ease of which new ideas and products could be disseminated.  Bloggers and publishers alike could spread their respective wings and reach an impressive audience.  This was good for the game publishers, obviously; but ours is a hobby that needs new products as well as fresh ideas, and Google+ absolutely enabled this unprecedented creative economy...

Which is to say: the Google+ era was special, and Robyn and I are both immensely glad for the five years we got to be part of it.  And we've held on to the best parts...

I don't say this because it's over, but because it's in recovery.  There's no squelching the creative urge, and that goes double for gaming.  The same voices that made Google+ such a great community are alive and well in new online homes.  History shows us that kingdoms don't just fall.  They also rise from the ashes.  For a decent chunk of us, MeWe could be a pit stop along the way or the start of a new golden age.  History (and gaming) goes on...