Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

The Wisdom of the Ancients...

When I discovered D&D in 1978, it was love at first sight.  But it didn't take long for me to see what appeared to be bruises on the apple.  Some rules seemed arbitrarily limiting, while others came off unnecessarily, and perhaps sadistically, harsh.  I took notes, and two years later, with Christmas and Holmes Basic, I houseruled my perfect game.  We had fun.  There's no wrong answer here.  But time sure flies, and it turns out the rules were right...

I used to think one spell at first level was too few (an argument can still be made).  Now I understand that players contribute ideas as well as power.  I said hey, a first-level fighter can swing their sword as much as they want.  No fair.  Now I understand that a novice warrior could die after a single attack against them - not unlike that single spell.

And I used to believe that level limits for non-humans were discriminatory.  Why can't an ancient, magical elf enjoy unlimited advancement.  A few decades later, I came to appreciate just how front loaded that elf really is.  And how powerful they are casting Fireball in magic platemail.  I'm sure many a wizard envies their -1 armor class.  Anyway, multiclassing doubles their power, so these limits are all that stands in the way of an elven dominion.

Once upon a time, I swore that level draining and save or die were too harsh.  Again, an argument can be made; but I get it now.  You aren't supposed to fight everything, especially if there isn't any treasure to be won.  Undead are what the cleric's there for.  And maybe you save your (one) fireball for those level-draining wights.  Or avoid engaging poisonous spiders in melee.  Avoidance is free and quite possibly the best weapon ever...

And so I houseruled in defiance of these indignities.  Magic-users got more spells.  Non-humans were unleashed.  Level draining never happened.  It was fun.  I mean, there's more than one way to play.  Pits & Perils channels these little rebellions, although seasoned by experience and a growing appreciation for why the old ways actually worked. 

Gygax and Arneson designed a game that put the players and their ingenuity ahead of the power of their characters; and even when these heroes reached higher levels, it only worked when said power was used wisely.  No man was an island.  Teamwork meant the difference between life and death, and choosing not to fight was every bit as vital to a character's future advancement as drawing swords or casting spells.  Here, strategy ruled...

In the decades since, I've seen D&D drift to something a lot like my youthful rebellion, complete with superhero characters and one hell of a safety net.  Kids, right?  But they don't own this.  I know a kid or two (I'm guilty) who pushed this as early as 1978.  Players are programmed to advance their cause, and young people are so full of the possibilities they can't help themselves.  But lately, I've come to appreciate the wisdom of the ancients.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Gaming's First-Generation Non-Wargamers...

I'm a first-generation non-wargamer.  Ok, but what does that even mean?  Que the history lesson.  Dungeons & Dragons was created by historical wargamers who just happened to like low-fantasy sword and sorcery.  Gritty stuff that bordered on the real.  Gygax famously (and perhaps ironically, given where the hobby ended up) disliked Lord of the Rings, with its elves and (to hear him say it, tedious) pretensions.  I disagree, finding this a reverse-conceit, but whatever.  Strokes.  Folks.  But it did impact how these early games were played... 

Primordial D&D was two-fisted action with swords.  And spells.  It was at once both ridiculous and serious, historical and fantastic.  Your fighter might pass a nearby castle, armed with historically accurate armor and weapons (and polearms, of course), aware that yonder fortress housed a squadron of knights mounted on fire-breathing rocs.  It leaned heavily on wargaming because it was created by - and for - wargamers, and approached its fantastic elements with a nod and a wink because it couldn't take them too seriously. 

Now Gygax delighted in John Carter's exploits, so he must have genuinely admired the fantastic.  Even so, this was pulp, with its shirtless-men-fighting-bears aesthetic.  Magic was window dressing at best, which translates to the OSR's emphasis on human choice over superhuman power.  Monsters became a strategic challenge, and magic a strategic cheat he was keen on limiting.  In short, OD&D was a serious wargame with a sense of humor, a beer-and-pretzels diversion for those who'd rather relitigate the Battle of Trafalgar.

Early D&D was wargaming - and wargaming was its endgame.  Level up, build a fortress, and it's back to protractors and green felt tabletops.  The fantastic stuff was its sense of humor, hence the gonzo, but in all fairness to its adherents, a strategic challenge as well.  This was the hobby's first generation, and it deserves our deepest respect.  But the hobby saw its second wave in the form of non-wargamers.  These were fantasy enthusiasts drawn to the storytelling potential of a game where magic figured more prominently... 

And more seriously.  We were Tolkien fans who longed to recreate the adventures we thrilled in and to walk within their lavishly constructed worlds.  We (and I say that because I was there) were geeky types who devoured comics, haunted the aisles of our local bookstores back when everything was lumped under science fiction, and stood in line for hours to watch a groundbreaking film called Star Wars.  And as we read Starlog, we became aware that there were others like us: fantasy lovers in search of a community - and a voice.

Geekery wasn't mainstream, but Star Wars was changing that.  God bless America, but once you can sell a thing, it becomes a thing.  There was a sea change brewing, and we kind of knew it, although it was hard to put our finger on it.  This was 1977, the year AD&D's Monster Manual appeared in hobby shops.  You'd walk in to buy some Testors model glue for your Shogun Warriors kit and get slapped in the face with that.  Oh, and the strangers in the back cheering about the damage their fireball just did was a powerful siren song. 

Holmes aside, there was no coherent instruction; and no one, however brilliant, was going to actually learn to play from the original digests or the slick new hardcovers.  You needed a mentor, often, a first-generation wargamer who imported much of their gonzo idealism.  But we were quick learners eager to put our own stamp on things - and we nailed it.  From the beginning, Gygax cited those who were by no stretch of the imagination ardent wargamers as keys to the hobby's growth.  And for a guy who hated Tolkien, he was pretty right on...

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Holmes Complete, Redux Edition...

I love Holmes Basic.  Aside from being my gateway drug (long story), it's just the perfect synthesis of old-school D&D and something simpler and more streamlined.  As far as introductory sets go, it's stuffed with content; and the fact that it only takes its players to 3rd level evokes the wonder of low-level play and everyone's first time at the table.  The spell inevitably fades with experience; but it begs the question: Is it possible to play Holmes Basic as a complete game?  It's a question a fanatic like me loves to ask.     

In fact, I asked it four years ago.  It was a thought experiment written in the moment, but I've had time to refine the idea.  Looking back, it needed the work.  So here we go, once more tackling my pet project.  If you own this excellent product, you can use the following rules to run Holmesian games in all their low-level glory.  Just observe the following:

(1) Assume everything else is the same except for that which follows...

(2) Characters begin the game with maximum hit points at first level (i.e., 8 for fighting men and women, 4 for magic-users, etc.), rolling randomly for levels beyond first.


(3) Should a character die, whether in combat or similar misfortune, they fall unconscious, losing one level.  If recovered by their friends (within a reasonable amount of time), they awaken with 0 HP, but very much alive, and may be further healed, although never beyond what their new level allows.  First-level characters aren't so lucky and die, an all-too common fate, noting that lost levels may only be recovered through further adventures.

(4) Clerics add +1 to all turning attempts per level after 1st.  Third-level clerics add +2 and may turn mummies on an unmodified 12.  Specters and vampires represent the apex of undead villany and reject even the most pious of practitioners.  This serves to preserve some mystique for these monsters and a sense of lore (if not dread) within the campaign... 

(5) Elves serve as both fighting men (maximum 2nd level) and magic-users (maximum 1st level) for a total of three levels, beginning with 6 HP, +1d6 at their second fighting level when eventually attained.  Experience points are split between both classes - even when further advancement (as a magic-user) is no longer possible.  Those at first level in both classes die when reduced to 0 hit points, but enjoy the benefits of armor and spellcraft. 

(6) Fighting men (and elves) add +1 to hit per level after first to reflect their prowess.

(7) Spellcasters get access to more magic and miracles, mainly to keep them relevant in a scaled-down game where higher levels will never be reached.  Clerics get spells at first level, while magic-users employ more across the board per the following spell table


(8) Thieves must redo their entire table lest they perform so poorly that their relevance gets called into question.  After all, a 3rd-level robber, is supposed to be a master thief...


(9) Hirelings are necessary to take on the toughest foes, which are included in Holmes' introductory rulebook just begging to be fought.  To this end, the referee should ensure an expeditionary mindset, incorporating men-at-arms and porters to full effect. 

(10) For every successful expedition into the dungeons or wilderness, meaning one where the party leaves and returns alive, each character earns 1 renown representing the fame surrounding their exploits.  At 50 renown, they may occupy a church (cleric), castle (fighting man), tower (magic-users and elves who opt out of a castle), or den (thieves, and always located in the city).  Each employs 3-12 servants, a third of which are henchmen who never leave the home base.  Such abodes earn enough revenue to be largely self-sufficient.   

Doing this will (hopefully) result in a game that captures old-school's emphasis on ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.  Clerics are warriors, with powers all the more miraculous for their rarity; and magic-users feel more like Gandalf and less like the overdone superheroes of modern fare.  Powers take a back seat to good strategy, and every delve feels like an expedition into the Amazon, because it is.  The excitement of low-level play is preserved because, really, a lot comes down to little guys against big dangers.

But of course, the last and most important thing is what you, the reader, add to this, for no game is ever complete until the players make it so.  Anyway, in this time of isolation and knuckle-biting politics, a new take on a classic game just might be just what the proverbial doctor ordered, and Holmes (an MD and neurologist) was the real deal.  Anyway, please enjoy this, and don't hesitate to add or change anything - surely Dr. Holmes would approve...

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Fiends, Folios, and the Edge of Amateur...

As yours truly and his beloved are crafting the new Pits & Perils, I've been mining some (much-needed) inspiration from gaming's antiquity.  If the original rulebook was analogous to someone's home-brew Chainmail, where do we take our second edition?  Physical design wise, how do we preserve its old-school credentials while improving production?  Luckily, we aren't the first to have this so-called problem.  As it happens, D&D got there first and paved the way for those of us who would claim the power of gaming's amateur aesthetic.  

Talk about those crappy, amateur rulebooks from the 1970s, and OD&D springs immediately to mind.  And how could it not?  Take a look; it speaks for itself.  But as the game grew in popularity, it was clear a better edition was called for.  Enter Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (or AD&D for the uninitiated).  Starting with the Monster Manual, which created quite a stir among my nascent circle of gaming friends, onward through the Player's Handbook and the ever-useful Dungeon Master's Guide, it earned some well-deserved respect...

Here you had (gasp) full-color hardcover books with evocative artwork and definitely not embarrassing interior typesetting.  These tomes could hold their own on the shelves of your local bookstore (mine was a B Dalton Books at the Orange Park Mall).  But they were still very much an amateur endeavor - if that makes any sense.  The black-and-white interior art felt like the work of talented amateurs, and everything was bounded by the limits of 1970s production- and the low end of that, truth be told.  It was, to me, the perfect next step.

Visually, AD&D (at least in its early days) looked like what OD&D was trying, but couldn't quite manage, to be.  The Sutherland artwork, some of it recycled in the newer books, continued, along with the likes of Otus and Trampier.  It was both old and new - and totally familiar to folks like me who remembered what it used to be.  I suppose it's the nostalgia; but seriously, does AD&D look or feel remotely like anything which followed - aside from the superficial similarities all such materials share, obviously?  I'd say no way, man...


AD&D succeeded in being both primal and professional, and it probably achieved the uppermost limits of what could be called amateur.  Maybe it was an accident, but it clearly worked.  But the rising popularity of the game meant it couldn't possibly last.  The later rulebooks became increasingly polished, not to mention aware of themselves as products, although that's another story.  So when's the cutoff?  That's majorly subjective; but I'd put it at the release of 1981's superb Fiend Folio, that last hurrah of a vanishing amateur era.*

Quirky, cool, but not-quite polished cover art?  Check.  Stark, and sometimes grainy, interior production values?  It had that too.  Now there was some great artwork here.  I never said amateurs couldn't be talented.  Far from it.  But check out page 20 and you'll see something a friend might have drawn on the back of their notebook in math class.  Rough and polished, amateur and talented; this one walked the line like a circus tightrope act - and with content to match.  Easley and Elmore would change AD&D's vibe, making this a last stand.

I remember saving up my allowance to buy a Dungeon Dwellers miniatures set, only to see this prize at Hobby World (R.I.P.).  I didn't have the coin for both; but it was a choice any D&D-obsessed youth would have settled on.  And I never looked back.  Some people didn't like this one at the time, which kind of startled me.  The Drow finally made it into a proper manual, which meant no more dog earring my modules, and there were lots of awesome new monsters to throw at a party.  Luckily, time has vindicated most of my favorite entries...

Firedrakes gave me a low-level "dragon", and grimlocks offered a fresh alternative to the overused orcs of canon.  The githyanki would go on to fame in later editions; but they started here, so take that, you non-believers.  What was really cool about these was the story they implied.  Contrary to popular belief, we old-schoolers like stories too; and we definitely love a well-wrought setting.  Each felt straight out of someone's campaign, because they literally were.  Most were created by readers of Britain's classic White Dwarf magazine.

Quirky, amateur art, earnest, but rough-around-the edges production, and content from the community of gamers.  That's what make the Fiend Folio last in AD&D's amateur lineup, although the Monster Manual II held on to some of this.  I'm sure everyone reading this has their own opinion.  Oldsters like myself lean on nostalgia more than we care to admit; but my thesis has some objective support.  If not for the Fiend Folio, I'd draw the line at Deities & Demigods; but that, too is another story for another time.  We'd love to hear what you think...

*Ten is a nice, round number; and I'm tempted to demarcate any old-school era in these terms, meaning the amateur era ended in 1984.  That's certainly reasonable, although actual events do seem to show the hobby trending mainstream a few years before then.  

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

What? Why? And The Diceless Wilds...

Ok, so how do you have surprise in a game without dice?  That's a question I've heard recently, and one that demands an answer.  It depends.  If we're talking about a condition of surprise as put forward in AD&D (for instance), you simply can't.  In order to generate a sense of uncertainty; real, knuckle-biting, I-don't-know stuff, dice can't be beat.  Uncertainty is an ephemeral thing until you roll those bits of plastic and watch the pips either break your heart or make your adventuring day; which is to say, dice matter...     

But are they necessary?  That's something else.  I'd say absolutely not.  Surprise is what happens when you open a door not knowing what's waiting on the other side.  It's what you get for not sending out scouts and getting the lay of the land; which is to say, surprise is about what the characters don't know - or don't take the time to find out.  And it emphasizes what the players do - or choose not to try, which seems to me an altogether appropriate characterization.  Heroes are lucky - but they should make their own luck too.


Make no mistake, dice are important.  In the military we called it a force multiplier.  Dice engender an atmosphere of risk and uncertainty.  How could they not?  They're an essential tool in the GM's toolkit, and the proof lies in just how widespread their use has become, something like natural selection, where their utility has made them well nigh indispensable in the hobby.  But there's a danger to this.  Over-reliance on random outcomes can leave us drowning in a veritable sea of dice, oblivious to how we got there...

Every game asks what, why, and how much.  What?  A skeleton.  Why?  To guard the necromancer's lab.  How much?  Well, there's one skeleton with 6 hit points delivering 1d6 damage with their scimitar (a nod to Seventh Voyage) in their undead grasp.  And you'll notice how things transition from the qualitative (what, why) to the quantitative (how much) with surprising rapidity.  But you can also see just how much of any game is inherently qualitative, even if we beef up the mechanics - all the best parts, in my opinion.       

Now I don't say this to knock dice (none of us are giving them up anytime soon), but only to remind us all of just much of a game doesn't require them.  And these boundaries matter, especially if we want to get the most out of both the rules and the narrative.  These elements work best when they stay in their respective lanes and overlap at the proper times.  But it's worth noting that while we can't have a purely quantitative game, we can come damned close to having a purely qualitative one, which pretty much tells the tale...

Making it a fine time to announce that Diceless Dungeons 2: The Diceless Wilds has arrived!  This was conceived (and promised in some circles) three years ago, on the heels of the basic game.  Boy can we procrastinate!  With rules for demi-human characters, added talents and high sorcery, henchmen, a bestiary of new monsters, and rules for populating the overland, this one greatly expands upon the possibilities of the original with a high-fantasy vibe to season the meat.  Give it a try and see what this diceless thing is all about...

Monday, August 3, 2020

Early Gaming's Analog Mystique...

Years ago, we posted in praise of poor production.  This was my story more so than Robyn's (she started in 2002); but it remains the foundation for what follows.  The amateur hobby is the life's blood of the industry; and it's where we want to stay...

There's never been a better time to be a small-press games publisher.  RPGs are popular, and anyone with an internet connection and Office (or something similar) can distribute their own creations, whether original systems or supplements to everyone's favorite RPG under the OGL.  Columns?  No problem.  Watermarks?  You betcha.  Cool fonts?  You can get 'em for free from any number of great websites.  It's all out there.  Artwork?  If you can't create your own using a dizzying array of tools, there's always talented buddies in the community or endless public-domain images to play around with.  Create, upload, and share.

But there was a time when it wasn't so easy.  Sure, the hobby existed.  But the tools?  Not so much - or rather, not the same tools and not quite so easy.  The creative spark was there from the beginning.  If not, our gaming hobby might never have been.  These games weren't birthed in a corporate boardroom.  They were the stuff of enthusiastic amateurs who made their own fun and saw the potential in what they'd created.  And the success of D&D inspired a cottage industry of small-press rulesets and zines.  It's no different now; but looking back half a century, it was a whole other world, with far-reaching implications.

Imagine it's 1978.  You've got ideas.  You want to create.  Maybe you want to publish, if only for local consumption, your own ruleset or fanzine or whatever.  Home computers were available only to a limited few, and handwritten rules were out of the question.  So you ended up dragging a typewriter down from the attic or up from the basement.  It was the absolute state of the art back then, at least for home publishing.  You clacked away at your manuscript, applied correction fluid (google it, kids), and made your semi-pro masterpiece.  And it didn't stop there.  Add artwork and maybe bindery, and there was still lots of work to do...

  
Maybe you did your own art.  Cool!  Or maybe you were lucky enough to have a talented friend to lend a hand.  Alternately, your local library had plenty of public-domain art you could Xerox.  I had an indulgent mother with a photocopier at the office.  I'd leave space on my typewritten pages for artwork, copied what I needed, cut and paste the borrowed bits (and not pictures physically cut from the books, Heaven forbid) onto this, and finally, photocopied everything all over to get a delightfully amateur, semi-professional look.  If the project was especially ambitious, I'd print the covers on colored card stock for panache.    

This had material impacts on the way these products were approached and used.  You couldn't just backspace and insert new sections.  Major revisions meant starting all over, so you took care and avoided that.  This probably resulted in shorter, sparer products.  I'm convinced that old-school's open-endedness was only partly deliberate.  It was surely aided by the labor intensity of production.  There were entire worlds of imaginary space for the referee to wander in; and the lack of photorealistic art left more to the imagination.  It was an emergent property of this approach - and one of gaming's genuine happy accidents. 

Say what you will, but this is how our hobby began.  And observant readers (that means you) have surely noticed how many of the products displayed along the right side of this page resemble what I've described, with a few nods to style, obviously.  The early hobby's analog production made it an arts-and-crafts affair, but also a unique approach to play.  One well worth preserving.  For several years we've deviated into slicker production, and while I found it a worthwhile exercise, I've lately rekindled my love of amateur rulebooks.  Anyway, the primitive look of these early games is by now iconic - and not merely a failure...

There was this guy back in the day who published his game using the above formula, complete with card-stock covers stapled down one end and slipped into Ziplock baggies for sale at the local hobby shop (he knew the owner).  He sold a handful of copies and was ecstatic (he ran a local campaign, so was already a heavy hitter).  This added to his celebrity and probably remains a cherished memory.  Anyway, the budding hobby's analog mystique made his creative process personaland like him, we feel extremely fortunate just to be here publishing homemade games and recreating our history.  Long live the amateur hobby!   

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Orcish Enlightenment...

Old-school gaming benefits from a recurring cast of stock enemies; minions of monstrous aspect to pad armies and populate dungeons.  Traditionally, the orc has satisfied this particular need; but lately the poor orc has become, well, problematic.  I know, I know, orcs aren't even human, much less real; and inherently evil creatures of any race are simply impossible in our reality.  I've made myself clear on this point, but acknowledge that we must follow our conscience and that there's absolutely nothing wrong with the "nuanced" orcs preferred by some.  Indeed, such orcs can easily serve as stock enemies...     

Now if our only goal with enlightened orcs is to fight racism, we're misdirecting our efforts away from the actual humans we're trying to help.  But there are still plenty of excellent reasons for giving orcs a nuanced treatment; and the OSR, with its emphasis on personal creativity, agrees.  That said, here's some ways to make it happen:    

(1) Orcs are automatons, imbued by their gods with only one perspective.  Sure, these are still inherently evil; but they also aren't persons so much as an unusual golem having no discernable culture beyond acting on their programming There just has to be room for this sort of thing in a fantasy game, and it has absolutely no parallel in our universe.


(2) Orcs (and Drow) aren't inherently evil; but some of their numbers have succumbed to religious fanaticism, taking after evil gods.  This is similar to the Nazi cult of Hitler's Germany in its dark prime.  Hey, if orcs are a complex, nuanced race, there's no doubt some of them would turn to wickedness.  But still others would choose good, serving the orcish lords of light and fighting, perhaps alongside human allies, against the darkness.

In (2) above, evil orcs are just a faction of the whole, albeit large and distinctive enough to stand out.  It's not so much "orcs" as "evil cultists" of (insert wicked orcish god here).    

(3) Ultimately; some orcs are evil, just like some humans.  And if we can fight human bandits and diabolical wizards, we can surely fight orcs.  Perhaps an orcish warlord has arisen, amassing the worst of their kind under a banner of bloodshed.  Of course, these would be reviled by orcs of the honorable sort; and it provides a population of stock baddies to engage with proper, old-school abandon.  Call it a secular variation of (2), above.   

My beloved old-school orcs clearly fall under (1), above.  There's just enough personality to think you're engaging a person; but these aren't analogous to any so-called race, and the circumstances of their creation and continued existence should make that clear.  Everything else is what happens when we decide that orcs are people.  No, they aren't all uniformly wicked; but enough hold evil affiliations (we humans have many of our own) as to constitute a distinctive faction.  Anyway, there's never a bad reason to flex our creative muscles, even when we think we disagree with some conclusion.  Good ideas are everywhere...

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Orcs and the End of Symbols...

There's been a lot of chatter about gaming orcs lately.  Orcs are a racist stereotype, and inherently evil orcs give cover to the idea that some races (and by extension, some cultures) are better than others.  I agree racist thinking is wrong, just as much as I admit that more nuanced orcs are a legitimate approach.  But I emphatically reject the notion that evil orcs are necessarily racist, especially when we consider the symbolic nature of fantasy.

Fantasy is allegory.  Fantasy is symbolism.  It takes abstract, ephemeral concepts and embodies them for closer examination.  Think of it as psychotherapy.  Dragons, with their hoarded gold, represent human avarice whereas orcs symbolize pure hatred for others, something everyone fears regardless of their so-called race.  These are universal concepts that speak to everyone, because the need for symbols is itself universal...

Not so much anymore.  Fantasy can't be fantasy.  It has to be a cold, naturalistic thought experiment.  Orcs can't possibly represent the concept of hatred.  Symbols have no place in the sterile imaginings of tomorrow.  A thing in a fantasy rulebook must necessarily have its counterpart in the real world.  Not a concept, but a literal, material thing.  Orcs are people of color, and all this talk of universal symbolism is just a cloak for the slavery apologists.

  
But life is more than just things.  Life is a collection of abstract, subjective experiences we must all grapple with.  Otherwise, fantasy has its flesh-and-blood realism, but loses its metaphorical soul in a Faustian bargain.  Now I'll say this just because I know it's gonna come up.  Some would blame this all on secular culture, a popular boogeyman for a certain moral faction.  I'm a secular humanist; and while I see no evidence for any supernatural claim, I see abundant evidence for humanity, physical brains, and inner lives...

And when we abandon symbolism, we abandon our humanity, which is the only thing that makes fantasy resonate in the first place.  Otherwise, fantasy is just science fiction.

Now to be charitable, if the goal is to make D&D a realistic (read: naturalistic) universe, nuanced races make sense.  The gods are aliens, magic just another natural energy to be  harnessed.  It's our world wearing new clothes.  I've long thought that modern D&D has become an Iron-Age Star Trek, complete with elven shopkeepers and spells on every street corner.  There's nothing wrong with this; it can be fun, but it's not the only way.

That said, orcs aren't people of color.  They're the cop with his knee on an unarmed black man's throat.  They're the Nazis who took my Jewish family to the camps.  Orcs are the hatred we all must grapple with, and I find it sad that those who would challenge racism are unwittingly erasing the very symbols used to describe it.  Orcs are pure, unapologetic evil, which comes in many forms.  The Klan, the Nazis, the sex traffickers.  You name it.  And we desperately need such symbols in these times lest we become the very orcs we fear...  

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Experience (Minus the Murder)...

Killing monsters and taking their stuff; what could be more old-school than that?  But isn't violence just a way of mitigating the threat monsters represent?  And if that's the case, shouldn't we be rewarding clever players for mitigating the risk of violence as well; because fighting adds insult to injury (so to speak).  From turning on the charm and schmoozing a potential enemy to leading them on a heroic chase only to escape down a back alley, timely mitigation is a learning curve that maybe deserves experience points... 

So first off, players should only get experience for active mitigation; basically, anything requiring planning and skillful execution.  Negotiation (including bribes) falls into this category, along with active efforts to distract or defang an enemy.  Simply spying on monsters and deciding not to engage doesn't cut it; there needs to be an actual plan requiring some active execution on the part of the group.  This is the heart and soul of old-school gaming, with its emphasis on personal decision-making and problem solving:

Killing a monster nets its full experience point value because it's the riskier option; but a clever party can earn a percentage of this for non-violent solutions as follows:

BRIBERY nets 25% of a monster's experience point value plus 1 experience point per 10 gold pieces (or equal value) parted with.  Victory always has its price.


EVASION awards 50% of total experience when a monster is aware of the party and the characters assume great personal risk.  Avoiding passive enemies nets none.

TRAPS are another matter.  Some rulesets grant experience for disarming these; and the decision to award advancement lies outside the scope of this posting.

Using Holmes Basic (the only book handy at the moment), successfully bribing an ogre with 500 gp would net 31 or 25% of the giant's listed value plus 50 (500 gp/10) for a total of 81, assuming combat is otherwise inevitable.  Causing the ogre to give chase only to lose it in a nearby maze would net 62 experience or 50% of the monster's value; again, assuming the ogre would catch someone if the attempt failed - and that this was always the plan.

The above isn't perfect; but it's passable.  And it lays the foundation for even better systems for rewarding a clever party.  Old-school is killing; but it can be much more.

Some DMs think avoiding a dangerous encounter is its own reward.  They could be right, obviously; it really depends on the tone of their campaign.  But if old-school gaming is really about good strategy and tactics, it might be appropriate to reward a group with something extra for their cleverness, especially when in service to an overarching plan.  Nothing should beat gold and kills; but this might be a good way to encourage the sort of behavior we old-school enthusiasts admire.  Anyway, we'd love to hear how you handle this stuff...

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Flagellants (Pits & Perils)...

We're of a medieval mind these days, and thinking about Pits & Perils as we dive into the coming second edition.  Here's a bit of fanaticism for your game...

FLAGELLANT

ATTACKS: 1(*)
LEVEL: 1
MOVE: 50'
SIDE: Lawful of chaotic
SIZE: M
NUMBER: 3-18 
TREASURE: B/I (*)

Flagellants are fanatical members of a religious order, convinced that the end is near and salvation lies with self mutilation.  They travel the land in groups of 3-18 (with varying degrees of sanction from their respective churches) living off alms and making a show of righteous self loathing.  Baring their backs, they whip themselves bloody, with intermittent calls for repentance and submission to their deities of choice.  There is an apocalyptic bent to their sermons, making them a common sight in times of plague, war, and woe.

Those who stop to watch these displays are free to make a donation (the offering plate is always somewhere nearby) and might even join in if sympathetic to their beliefs.  Being fanatically devoted, flagellants are lawful or chaotic only and very good at reading the room, with a 1-3 in 1d6 chance of identifying those of an opposing side or (worse still) the hated neutrals, reviled for their lack of commitment.  These are in dire need of correction and must be purified by the lash, which they reckon to be the highest honor.

Subjected to continual punishment, flagellants are treated as wearing plate mail (+3) and shield (+1) despite going unarmored at all times.  Any unmodified attack roll of 12 with their whips requires an opponent to roll saving dice or become disarmed.  Monks can engage unarmed and avoid this, although they lose ambidexterity when doing so owing to the sheer ferocity of their foe(s).  These fanatics roll all saving dice at +2, ignoring pain and other distractions in their religious zeal, making them quite impossible to reason with.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Lovecraft: Scared, Not Scary...

So I've been reading a lot through the quarantine; which in my case involves plenty of Lovecraft (and his various imitators); and what I've discovered (and not for the first time), is that the master of cosmic horror really isn't all that scary.  He just isn't.  His creations are interesting enough; and that's a big part of it.  But Lovecraft has never been truly frightening, non-euclidean geometry be damned.  So why is he so damned effective?  And why does anything "Lovecraftian" automatically bear the horror genre's stamp of approval? 

I think it comes down to fear.  And between the reader and the writer, there's two possible sources of this.  A truly good story elicits fear in the reader, which is obviously the gold standard for any writer in the genre.  Scare your reader and you're a pro.  Pet Sematary (the book, not either one of the amazingly shoddy adaptations) did this.  You can frighten your readers by appealing to their humanity and threatening all they hold dear once that human connection is established.  Make 'em care, make 'em relate; then scare 'em...

But Lovecraft was far too isolated, too socially maladapted (and not in the edgy, hipster sense) to write compelling, relatable characters.  He simply didn't understand the minutiae of daily life and relationships except to mention these in passing, often with an air of relief to have it done with.  He was the ultimate mamma's boy, afraid to leave home.  We quite rightly denounce his racism and xenophobia (often with an air of superiority), while ignoring the genuine fear and insecurity behind it.  Crowded streets, loud voices, unfamiliar people and languages; these things would be terrifying to Lovecraft's brand of (social) insecurity.


And herein lies Lovecraft's pedigree: he (the author) was scared of everything: the outside world, the present day.  He was frightened of it all and sought escape in the familiar New England landscape and an idealized antiquity that never was.  The Dreamlands were all that he held dear, and he admits it.  But the howling Void, with its squishy alien creations, was analogous to the real world with all its noise and sex and social demands.  Lovecraft couldn't scare his readers.  He lacked the skill and experience.  But boy could he channel his own fears to atmospheric effect.  And if you can't scare your readers, scare yourself.  

I'm not sure Lovecraft did this on purpose; but he did it.  And it speaks to why he was so effective.  Good horror, whether literary or of the gaming variety, demands fear.  And that fear needs to come from somewhere.  Otherwise, Cthulhu is just tentacles and the mythos just another enemy organization to defeat.  And now we come full circle to the present quarantine and my reading list; and armed with this newfound knowledge, am convinced that the best Lovecraftian horror is nowhere to be found in most mythos literature.  Might I suggest...

Harvest Home (Thomas Tyron): There's nothing supernatural about this book.  It has a bucolic New England town; but I'm guessing God is absent.  And yet its (first-person) protagonist makes a horrific discovery when he and his family settle there.  A discovery that shakes all that he holds to be good and true.  He ends (spoiler) maimed and mad.

Revival (Stephen King): This lengthy tale (also rendered in first person) chronicles the life of a boy who becomes a troubled man, all in a very ordinary world.  Ghosts and ghouls have nothing on the horrors of real life.  Nothing at all.  From tragedy to addiction to the pleasures of love and friendship, we follow our hero through the decades of his life and the gradual reveal of something profoundly disturbing about reality.  De Vermis Mysteriis is mentioned, so the Lovecraftian angle isn't accidental; but there isn't a tentacle in sight, and that's good.  

Neither of the above, especially Harvest Home, would be the first thing anyone might think of as Lovecraftian; but that's only if we see Lovecraft through a geek-culture lens.

Anyway, the pandemic (and its implications) are frightening enough; but if you're looking for Lovecraftian stories to while away your isolation, just know that this hides in strange and unexpected places.  Tentacles are only scary if you're allergic to seafood.  Now I'm not saying this stuff isn't lots of fun.  Read it if you've got it.  But I am suggesting that some of the best Lovecraftian fiction comes in unexpected places precisely because its progenitor wasn't scary at all - he was merely scared - and that just might be enough to produce great horror...

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Pits & Perils Gets a Rebirth...

Back in 2015, that's right before the Pits & Perils hardcover omnibus, we argued against the need for a second edition of the game.  It was the right decision at the time, as we lacked the ability to take it any further - and besides, why mess with fate?  That crappy little rulebook from the 1970s would remain just that; only now it's time for a second edition...

You see, the game has undergone many changes (we like to think of them as refinements) over the past seven years, which was pretty much inevitable as our little ruleset went to conventions and we listened to feedback from the community.  Much of this was included in the Referee Companion; but at this point it feels clunky and ad hoc, which was never our vision for the game.  What we're doing now is still decidedly old-school (channeling Tunnels & Trolls, among others), although simpler and more streamlined than ever, and this argues strongly for a second edition, especially given the original concept.

But we don't want to change too much.  Our goal has always been to craft a second edition where characters from the first could be imported with zero changes required, even as it makes substantial adjustments to the way the rules are done.  Change too much and we're not talking about the same system, which would feel like a huge slap in the face.


So yeah, we're refining the mechanics.  But we're also adding more content in the form of spells (and miracles), monsters, and magic items.  One advantage of a second edition is the opportunity to add value, and this is low-hanging fruit we can't resist.  Some of this comes from The Collected Pits & Perils, but we're not stopping there.  What a game lacks in heavy mechanics it should make up for in content, especially one with P&P's ambitions.  Expect a game that feels like the original, but with its extra space devoted to the things needed to play (and run) a good fantasy campaign.  We'll try our best to make it happen.

But what about production?  Pits & Perils has always advertised itself as a crappy little rulebook from the amateur underground of the 1970s.  Luckily, this isn't confined to manual type and grainy artwork lifted from library books.  The earliest RPGs (including everyone's favorite) were ambitious in their design, although limited by a lack of money and the amateur status of their creators; and one need look no further than early Judge's Guild to see what we're talking about.  Throw in Ralph Bakshi's rotoscope and you'll get the picture...

Let's face it, our abilities have improved.  Now we can make the games we've wanted to, delightfully old-school, decidedly underground, and simple.  Some years ago we asked here in this blog when it was time for a second edition.  That time is now.  We're assuming a year to get this project done, and we'll keep everyone updated as it happens.  

Big news, right?  But what about the original version?  We're thinking this might stick around as the Heritage Edition, maybe a digest-sized affair in homage to OD&D, although we're guessing Matt Jackson will doubly approve.  Taking a game people already like because it isn't a second (or third) edition is fraught with its own pits and perils, and we'll be taking every precaution to ensure we don't disappoint anyone.  I know we can't possibly succeed, but here's hoping most everyone understands what we're trying to do.  Now it's time to crank up Abba and the Bee Gees, que Hawk the Slayer, and put our noses to the grindstone...

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

From Feedback Boot Camp...

Everyone's a critic - even in gaming.  Product reviewers are obviously so; but the GM critiques their players (and their choices) all the time.  Bjorn forgets to check for traps and BANG! he's dead.  This is a critique of the player's judgement; and how we accept this criticism matters greatly.  But how we deliver it also matters.  We tend of think of these things as a one-way street to our peril.  The hobby, with its godlike GMs and influential reviewers, demonstrates a real power dynamic, which in turn requires good leadership.

I served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force; as an airman, a non-commissioned officer, and finally, a commissioned officer.  I gave and received criticism on a continual basis, but only just recently realized how this applies to the feedbacks unique to our hobby.  We're a community of people first and foremost, and our hobby is supposed to be about getting together and having fun.  But fun often requires a dose of criticism, and how we deliver this is important if we want to achieve our goals.  Here's what I've learned by serving...   

#1 LEAD BY EXAMPLE

I was a meteorologist commanding meteorologists.  If I'd never taken a surface weather observation or prepared a forecast, I'd lack credibility to my team.  Doing what I was asking others to do made them more likely to accept my critiques - and made me better able to formulate legitimate ones.  Believe it or not, this applies to our hobby as well.

Running an adventure is one thing; playing is another, and some experience with the latter helps greatly with the former.  Knowing how players think promotes better critiques because the GM can appreciate what people (and their characters) are reasonably capable of and what mistakes they can justifiably overlook.  The result is fairer, more defensible judgements for everyone.  Getting out from behind the GM screen and submitting to the adventures of others means doing what we ask of our friends, which builds trust.*

Reviews are a little different.  We're all consumers of things; and even if we don't personally fashion them, we can still judge their utility.  Even so, actually creating the sort of products we review doubtless results in better, more thoughtful (and insightful) evaluations.


#2 PRACTICE SERVANT LEADERSHIP

As commander, success meant elevating others.  They still had to do the work and earn it; but my job included making it easier.  Even when I had to discipline folks, it was because their continued service and success was valuable and deserved my support.  In gaming, the GM serves their players with a fun narrative experience, which just happens to include killing their characters from time to time.  The counsels of death and disappointment are much easier to accept when the GM makes it abundantly clear where their heart is.

Moreover, product reviewers are providing a public service; but they should also be concerned with improving the quality of offerings, especially in an industry like ours where peers generate content.  In other words, a reviewer should want to like everything they critique and offer criticism as if they wish to help creators to be their best.   

#3 DON'T BELITTLE OTHERS

The military is famous for Basic Training, where abuse is performance art.  Sure; but this is carefully regulated and gets ditched after training because it's no good way to engender trust or earn the kind of respect needed to be heard.  Unless you're just a servile doormat, overt belittlement triggers an involuntary, visceral response.  Call me an asshole and mean it, and I guarantee I won't hear the legitimate good advice you follow up with... 

I once had a GM who thought he was Mister Spock.  He'd steeple his fingers, raise an eyebrow and smile coyly as the party struggled to figure out his puzzles.  It might have been endearing if he wasn't so condescending.  He'd complain about how stupid everyone was, lamenting that he didn't have smarter players to match his intellect.  Soon enough he had no players at all, which was a shame because he was otherwise an accomplished GM.

I also read a recent review that ended with a profanity laden rant about how 90% of everyone failed to meet their refined standards.  My heart bleeds.  Good luck getting anyone, much less the publisher, to notice their otherwise legitimate criticisms.  Of course, the publisher is missing out if they don't - but what a roadblock!  The purpose of GMing or reviewing must never be to give the impression of arrogance, even when an individual is obviously committed to the rightness of their cause.  Belittlement hobbles every worthwhile goal.

Let your players run a game and put you on the spot; strive to help others get better; respect your message enough not to belittle people.  This is leadership.  I don't always get it right; seriously, I could fill a phone book with my mistakes.  But having the right ideals can surely help, and this isn't confined to the military either.  We're all called to lead in various ways, whether working our jobs, parenting, or just being there for the people we love.  Our games (and our relationships) demand no less.  Hopefully, we make the most of our abilities...

*I know, I know.  This can be difficult in certain groups.  Just do your best.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Nostalgia: OK (OSR) Boomer...

So I recently spoke with a young gamer who extolled the objective superiority of modern games, alleging that we oldsters only cling to the OSR out of nostalgia.  I reminded him that many older people like new games, and that many young people like older games, which effectively ended the debate.  This got me thinking though.  Is nostalgia really a dirty word, a doddering longing for the past that clouds our reason?  Sometimes.  We humans like our rose-colored glasses.  But for something as specific as gaming, I think not...   

We're born, blessed by genetics with certain innate predispositions, and thrust into the circumstances of our lives, where nature and nurture conspire to make us who we ultimately become.  Along the way we pick up interests; and if these survive the rigors of an ever-changing brain, they become lifelong passions.  To the extent that these are programmed, our nostalgia isn't a bad thing - it's merely inevitable.  Nostalgia, then, is what happens when we're lucky enough to accumulate interests and value them.


Our physical brains are still developing through young adulthood, with at least some of our personalities and preferences arising from this formative time.  This makes my abiding love of old-school D&D a bit of biological programming.  So?  To wax metaphysical, I have friends who ask how I can value love when I think it's just (their word, not mine) a chemical process in our brains.  To this I reply, so what?  Love is wonderful no matter where it comes from, physical or otherwise, and I can value it on that basis.  Love is what it is...

Ditto for gaming.  Sure, if I'd been born in 2006 I might be playing 5e and listening to (I honestly don't know what kids are listening to now) the latest thing.  Instead, I prepare my next adventure while listening to Ozzy era Black Sabbath.  It doesn't matter that it's the byproduct of my raising.  I like it.  Sue me for having a happy life and valuing my personal experiences.  It is what it is and I like it.  Anyway, I'm hard pressed to devalue nostalgia when it's really just us liking the thing(s) we've become through living.

So much for nostalgia.  Now let's play it forward.  Modern gaming enthusiasts are also being programmed by nature and nurture.  Sure, there are objective things we can say about 5e (quite a lot of them, obviously).  But we can say the same about the OSR, and our personal preferences come from the same place(s) regardless.  This ends nostalgia as a pejorative term.  It does nothing to diminish the objective facts about what we like, especially since the next generation is building their own future nostalgia - and we should all be so lucky!