Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

The OSR's Goldilocks Zone...

Before getting on with this week's offering, Robyn and I are please to announce the release of Chronicles I: Roman Silver, Saxon Greed, a starting adventure module for Barons of Braunstein set in Saxon England of the 8-9th century.  If this sounds like your thing, you can pick it up for just $1.49 from Drive-Thru RPG.  And now, on with the show...

So weeks ago on Facebook (or somewhere; I remember the issue more than the forum), someone suggested that the OSR seems to want the old days while co-opting the newer stuff it often decries.  It wasn't an adversarial encounter, since he liked this best-of-both worlds approach as much as he disliked the gatekeeper mentality of some.  We ended up agreeing; but the exchange got me thinking about how thin the so-called veil between old and new really is, especially since neither side has a monopoly on inefficiency.

Old-school D&D (but not necessarily the OSR) was remarkably clunky in its particulars despite its reputation for simplicity.  Separate mechanics for combat?  Stealth?  Turning the undead - not to mention saving throws?  The dungeon master was looking up a dizzying array of charts, making a DM's screen a necessary investment.  I can't imagine anyone using AD&D's grappling rules.  Seriously.  I didn't even bother.  Fiddly subsystems (to quote one friend's characterization) ruled this universe - and it wasn't always a stable reign.

But early D&D was delightfully open ended, with lots of gray area for the players - and their referee - to fill in with an alchemy of rulings and strategy.  It was the social contract on steroids, with just enough rules to keep it all from devolving into anarchy.  This is sometimes mistaken for simplicity; but it's not.  Awkward - and scattered - as they often were, these systems were confined to the most critical of functions, with everything else being optional guidance at best.  Its clunkiness was at least redeemed by this fact...

So maybe OD&D squandered its open-endedness by failing to employ a simple core mechanic (not at all out of reach, by the way).  Which is to say that early D&D succeeded despite its clunky mechanics, but clearly missed an opportunity to achieve its goals.

Enter modern D&D.  Here you get a simpler, more streamlined mechanic, which is frankly impressive, but also not the sole property of the younglings.  OD&D's combat resolution (roll d20 against a target number) was always there.  But applying it to everything else was a stroke of brilliance undermined by a tendency to mechanize everything until your character can't fart or scratch their ass without invoking some rule, however streamlined, robbing player agency in the name of simulation.  Bad?  No.  A missed opportunity?  Sure. 

Now enter the OSR.  This gets derided by a certain faction of reverse-gatekeepers as a contingent of dinosaurs shaking their fists; but it's remarkably progressive in at least some of its accomplishments.  By combining OD&D's rulings-not-rules approach with the modern hobby's thoughtful streamlining, you get gaming's Goldilocks Zone (but the baby bear's was just right).  The inverse would be untenable; a clunky, overwrought system appropriating every conceivable choice.  I'd say the OSR (like the baby bear's porridge) is just right...

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Does Gaming Get Horror?

Can gaming do horror?  Sure.  Ever hear of Call of Cthulhu?  Chill?  Yeah, gaming's taken many stabs at the so-called horror genre.  But can it produce what horror's supposed to engender?  Fear in its devotees?  Because really, horror only feels like horror when it comes uninvited into our lives.  From pulse-pounding jump scares to cold revulsion at something disturbing - or grotesque, horror lifts our rocks to expose the metaphorical nasties we'd rather not see but can't look away from, an experience not easily packaged...

The best books get into our heads, a prerequisite for feelings of unease, while movies are multisensory and replicate real-life experience, although they often go for the easy, low-hanging fruit of gore.  Gaming (of the tabletop variety) happens in the participant's heads, which saddles the GM with some of the responsibilities of a writer; and herein lies the challenge of horror games.  It's much harder to nail the landing.    

First, horror's not exclusive to any one genre.  It's just one of a whole range of feelings humans are capable of.  Horror strolls literally every avenue.  Soldiers fear war; lovers fear the death of their paramours.  Every survival story has a horror novel buried in its pages, ending be damned.  The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is more than just an examination of human innocence amid genocide.  It's ending, especially, is simply horrifying.

Worse still, it's arbitrary.  Werewolves in the middle ages are fantasy; but toss one into modern-day London and it's a horror movie.  And I get why.  Monsters are the danger that intrudes upon our safest moments.  Medieval knights and wizards are equipped to deal, however incompletely, with these things, making them truly heroic.  Modern people, ignorant of the old ways and softened by the illusion of safety, are merely victims.


At any rate, gaming horror is all-too-often reducible to monsters already neutered by heroic fantasy and a lack of actual risk.  Ghosts?  Check.  Vampires?  You betcha.  Man-eating werewolves?  The party just killed one last week and levelled up.  The sanity we lose in Call of Cthulhu isn't ours to give.  It's all just math on a sheet.  We risk nothing vital enough to merit panic, much less actual horror.  The scares are fake and largely academic.

In the end, horror's deeply personal.  And the things that scare us are closely guarded and shared only in confidence such that exploiting them for a game comes off like what the philosophers of old called a dick move.  Who would knowingly do this?  A little emotional intelligence goes a long way, but it sometimes means your game is long on Stradh and short on scares because horror absolutely implies dealing real-world discomfort... 

There's a goldilocks zone that's hard to find.  A sweet spot.  I prefer to focus on existential dread of the sort that briefly disturbs, but respects most reasonable boundaries.  Earth is really the egg of a cosmic monster just waiting to hatch.  A long-standing - and trusted - NPC is revealed as a cannibal - after one of many celebratory dinners!  It's the philosophy that intrudes on sleepless nights and bothers us short of anything approaching trauma. 

I'm sure I get this wrong.  A lot.  And my games become modern fantasies with ordinary (sometimes trained) protagonists fighting monsters they'll meet - empowered by white magic or machine guns - and winning out in the end or dying with no more heartache than a total party kill.  The OSR, with its life-is-cheap culture and homebrew critical tables, recalls slasher flicks in their gory particulars.  But it's cartoon violence and often reversible.

So can gaming do horror?  I've changed my mind.  Gaming can do monsters and stat blocks, the raw materials of a horror campaign.  Games can do the rules needed to measure out survival and quantify just how terrifying that elder god was.  Gaming simulates the suffering of imaginary minds; but that's where it ends.  You can't bottle this stuff.  It takes a GM and the right group of players.  A group willing to scare and to be scared within certain boundaries set largely by consideration and emotional intelligence.  Only then can horror be play...

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Size Matters, So Digest This...

When we first published Pits & Perils, lots of people assumed it was a digest-sized affair because, you know, Dungeons & Dragons.  The rules, which definitely took on wargaming's pretensions, were often compared to Chainmail, yet another digest-sized production; and while yours truly remains deeply honored by the comparison, our game was probably more influenced by Holmes Basic and FGU's Archworld, two letter-sized rulebooks...

The early days brought some great digests; not just OD&D but an assortment of others, all charmingly rendered in neat, saddle-stitched packages.  And it's easy to see why from a purely practical standpoint.  Most rulebooks aren't stapled down one side.  They're folded and either glued into the binding or saddle stitched to make one; and what do you get when you fold a letter-sized page in half?  You get a digest.  So yeah, digests.

But letter-sized rulebooks have their own advantages; and it's not at all surprising that this was quickly (and almost universally) adopted once the money started flowing.  Not only can you fit more text onto a single printed page, not to mention more charts, tables, and more ambitious illustrations (with equally ambitious layouts, by the way); they're also the same size as the notebook paper, character sheets, and graph paper you're already using.


So here's an incomplete list of digest-sized rulebooks from the early days, with the admission that we've probably left out a lot.  Still, there's some classic stuff here...

Arduin, Boot Hill, En Garde, OD&D (and its assorted supplements), Traveller

Followed by a list of early letter-sized rulebooks, every bit as incomplete...

AD&D, Adventures in Fantasy, Bunnies & Burrows, Bushido, B/X/BECMI/Holmes, Chivalry & Sorcery, Gamma World, Runequest, (the great) Tunnels & Trolls, Villains & Vigilantes 

We'll freely admit to more digest titles; but there's a palpable trend.  Letter-sized rulebooks, often packaged in boxed sets, came to predominate early on; and I'm ashamed we didn't include more Chaosium stuff (Cthulhu and Elric, especially), because these were state-of-the-art productions back in gaming's youth. Oh, and those three-hole punches in B/X and 2nd Edition's Monster Manual really spoke to the expected compatibility of this size... 

Which is to say, size matters.  Always has.  Always will.  But in this time of modern (and decidedly digital) self-publishing, choices abound.  We've tried to recreate the hobby's early, amateur aesthetic, and this definitely leaves room for a letter-sized style.  But we've also experimented with a digest format (Diceless Dungeons, especially) and found this not only nostalgic, but also easier - proving that in life and gaming, some things never change.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

On D&D's Speciation Event...

In biology, a speciation event occurs when a segment of an animal population changes so much that it constitutes a separate species.  Well games evolve too, albeit for different reasons; and it occurs to me that D&D just might have undergone a speciation event in the late 90s with TSR's acquisition by Wizards of the Coast.  And for those lamenting D&D's changing ways, take heart: it might not even be D&D anymore!  Luckily, that's not a bad thing either, since the earlier games still exist.  But first, a history lesson... 

OD&D (the three digests) was a game unto itself, although each supplement (especially Greyhawk) substantially changed things.  Greyhawk stands out because it added more than mere content, altering bedrock mechanics such as ability scores and even the sort of dice employed, with downstream impacts to everything from attack damage to what was possible with random tables.  But for all of this we're still talking incremental changes.*

Change within a species, for AD&D was basically a just better organized, better produced OD&D, which would have come as no surprise to anyone following Dragon Magazine through the late 1970s.  It was still classic D&D right through Unearthed Arcana, although here's where things start to become a bit more complicated.  The Survival Guides introduced non-weapon proficiencies, a natural extension of the existing rules; only now we begin to see the seeds of Second Edition AD&D, which was its next incremental step... 

Still, incremental.  Like AD&D, Second Edition reorganized (and repackaged) AD&D to consolidate and refine its disparate innovations, by then spread across multiple sourcebooks, into a new, coherent form.  It's necessary work as a system grows and sprawls out like a dragon stretching across a gleaming hoard.  It was still D&D, only increasingly consolidated, if not simplified.  There were the aforementioned proficiencies, but also THAC0, seriously maligned, but really just a mathematical manipulation of the original combat tables.

Bottom line, Second Edition felt like the original game or rather, the house rules of an industrious DM who really, really had their shit together.  It might have been my imagination, but Dragon Magazine actually felt more like its 1970s iteration - and despite the period's greatest liability: TSR's new management.  Yes, Gygax was a shrewd marketer.  But D&D was also his baby.  He loved it even when he thought it would only sell 1,000 copies, no small feat in the small press of the time.  Lorraine Williams saw only a cash cow...

This stuff matters because while in nature, natural selection and random mutation drive evolution, intellectual properties evolve under the powers of creative impulse, cultural and demographic change, and the almighty dollar.  Right through Second Edition, D&D was undergoing a gradual refinement.  Williams didn't care; but her creative staff did, something that countered her tyranny for a few years.  Sadly, an extinction event came calling.

A meteor ended the Late Cretaceous with a devastating fury that toppled the dinosaur dominion.  But it wasn't the end of all life.  Birds, who arose from a shared ancestor with the theropod dinosaurs, carried on.  D&D's meteor was named Lorraine Williams, who had a sneering disdain for her product's core audience and no respect for the work it took to fashion quality material.  Overextended and creatively spent, D&D was acquired by Wizards of the Coast and underwent its first speciation event from the ashes of extinction...

Enter Third Edition.  I call this a speciation event because it was.  William's TSR had the benefit of staff continuity, at least for a while; but Third Edition could only ever be a dramatic shift from its ancestry.  Some of its DNA remained, whether ability scores (and a method imported from AD&D's Dungeon Master's Guide) or d20, which, like THAC0, amounted to an inversion of some long-standing mechanics.  But the game's underlying philosophy was radically changed, which overshadowed nearly every choice its designers made.


The new game was increasingly naturalistic in its approach, feeling more like an Iron Age Star Trek than a fantastic medieval wargame.  Any Tolkienesque influences (especially halflings) were traded for insectoid elves and outlandish weaponry, a superficial complaint except that D&D was previously something else.  Moreover, anything that players might possibly, in some potential situation, attempt was codified with a vast array of modifiers until D&D began to feel like just another game merely similar to its namesake...

It became something else.  Maybe a new species.  And its new management seems to have stopped evolving the game in favor of radical transformations between editions driven by marketing data, real or imagined.  Fourth Edition channelled computer games because that's what someone thought the kids liked (and a battle game would sell miniatures).  Its current form pivoted back to something more traditional; but it's a slave to trends, trading on its past while simultaneously rejecting it and riding an ever-changing fleet of bandwagons.

D&D has always been a product.  Gary knew it and was happy to milk that cash cow with both hands.  But he also had a personal love for his creation.  I'm sure Wizards does too, but they're even more aware of the game as a product, to the point of substantial reinventions whenever the demographic winds change.  This might seem disingenuous to older eyes, but it's inevitable.  We're on the way out.  The kids (and their cash) are the future.

These radical shifts between versions just might constitute speciation events (as I rather suspect Fifth Edition is).  D&D was remarkably stable for around 20 years, but its acquisition by Wizards of the Coast changed so much that it just might be an entirely different game these days.  Fortunately for any grognards out there, the older editions are still available from a company that shrewdly panders to the young and old alike.  And don't forget the assorted retro-clones, great (and sometimes free) stuff that keeps the past alive in TSR style...

*B/X, BECMI, and The Rules Cyclopedia also diverged.  Call it a parallel evolution or whatever.  This is a debate for another post and not really addressed here.