Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Designing Music: Pits & Perils...

Yours truly loves music in its various forms and, not surprisingly, listens to quite a lot of it while working.  My older brother was a music fan since the age of eight and began an impressive vinyl collection that's only grown in four-some decades (trivia: he became a disk jockey of the internet type, although he's now retired); and he spun the soundtrack to my childhood right up through my gaming years.  Fast forward several decades and I'm writing games with my beloved and doing so to the music of my youth...

Now here's the funny thing: each project gravitates towards certain artists; again, a soundtrack.  Whether the oldies of Pits & Perils or the progressive metal of Red of Tooth, each title found something that captured its particular mood.  I won't even try to cover everything here, but maybe I'll start at the beginning with Pits & Perils:

ABBA: Super Trouper (1980).  Oh my god I love ABBA, and this album was an absolute masterpiece from the Swedish band.  Their fun, earnest sound remains a breath of fresh air in a world where bad things happen and a much-needed counterweight to my coarsened  tendencies.  I remember listening to On and On and On while absorbing the latest issue of Dragon Magazine (#48, with the Phil Foglio cover) back in the day.


BEE GEES: Living Eyes (1980).  I know, everyone thinks Disco.  But the Brothers Gibb enjoyed distinguished musical careers in the decades before (and well after) the leisure suit years.  Caveat: Main Course through Spirits Having Flown are all great albums, but their post-disco output was also excellent, starting with this gem.  I swear, just listening to He's a Liar brings back fond memories of my Grenadier and Ral Partha miniatures. 

TIME LIFE SOUNDS OF THE 70s (1989): Ten flawless discs covering pop hits from my favorite decade.  I was alive when A Horse with No Name (America) was a Top 40 record, so this stuff resonates big time.  From ELO to Jigsaw (you're a member of the old folks club if you remember them), this collection is solid gold for someone like your truly, just another relic from the pre-internet age (ironic, I know) when D&D was brand new.  

Observant readers will notice that two out of three are from 1980, a fact I'll very happily explain.  I started gaming in 1978 but wouldn't get my act together until Christmas of 1980, when Holmes Basic came wrapped under the tree.  It's timeless stuff, but I had a happy childhood on top of it all and have every right to feel nostalgic.  Now as it happens, music is the ideal medium for storing our deepest feelings, and when the time came to excavate gaming gold, the old stuff became a nuclear-powered time machine on steroids...

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Elves of 74'...

As much as we like AD&D's multi-classing rules, they weren't exactly a master class in technical elegance.  But they weren't all that bad either because; really, how difficult is it to divide earned experience between two (or more) classes?  It's just a little math, and not exactly differential equations.  And because dwarves and elves live longer and are already older than their human counterparts, they've had more time to learn...

Time to master the arts of combat and spellcraft.  Time to wield the great sword while simultaneously developing one's stealth.  And multi-classing certainly gave non-humans a unique set of abilities.  But demi-humans already came with a fairly impressive array of racial talents, from dwarven toughness to elven skill at arms.  And then there's infravision, an unnecessary throwback to when non-humans were dungeon-dwelling monsters because anyone who wasn't a player character was a monster, obviously. 

And so in the interest of killing our darlings and finding gold where others may see only tarnished brass, we'll suggest here that OD&D just might have been the first time the hobby got elves right.  Dwarves and halflings were a different matter; but elves were absolutely something OD&D did right, even if it wasn't the only right way to do things (there's seldom any wrong way to do imaginary play).  Now let the gushing commence...


OD&D elves could switch between fighter and magic-user between (but never during) adventures, wearing armor and wielding weapons during one descent and taking up a cloak and staff the next.  And once they got their grubby mits on a suit of magical armor, elves  could wear it while acting as a spell caster.  Awesome!  But its value was diminished as early as the supplements, where a more traditional multi-classing, complete with armored spell casters, took hold, which begs the question: Why OD&D's way?

First off, it was easy.  If you played as a fighter and got 1,000 experience, forget the division; everything went to the fighter class.  Ditto when going as a magic-user. 

But it was also realistic (as far as that goes).  Spells can't operate through armor, and a magician needs their hands free for complex maneuvering.  But magical armor is specially engineered to accommodate such energies, so a suit of mail +1 is no obstacle for elven thaumaturgy.  At any rate, different strategies require different equipment.  If heavy fighting is part of the plan, best to suit up and polish that sword.  But with stalwart henchmen at the ready, going light and casting spells just might be the better option.

Finally, OD&D elves felt special; and this uniqueness was highlighted by the fact of its simplicity.  Soon enough, too many additional powers were added, leading to even greater attempts to balance them all.  But the mere ability to switch between two classes when others couldn't was more than enough to set them apart.  Over time, things began to feel like a bloated bureaucracy badly in need of the streamlining B/X and BECMI literally brought to the table.  OD&D needed more work, but it got its elves right from the start.

Elves are naturally magical, so most (if not all) eventually learn to cast spells.  It's just something they can do.  And like all races, they can arm themselves for more conventional fighting as well, because there's nothing more basic than picking up a nearby club and bludgeoning your enemies senseless.  But magic allows the impossible to happen, making it useful and its practitioners in high demand.  You can't play piano while kayaking down a raging river either; but it's cool to switch between them.  That's elves.   

Now to be clear, we adore AD&D; and for those desiring a more robust old-school experience, it's the cream of the crop.  But for all OD&D needed to work out (dwarves and halflings spring to mind), its elves clearly delivered.  Add the fact that they demanded superior strategy on the part of the player was old-school as hell and in keeping with the hobby's earliest traditions.  If nothing else, it's another tool in the toolkit and something worth checking out if you want to challenge a group minus the fuss of later editions...