Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Gaming's Non-Gaming Seeds...

Games inspire games, especially fifty years on. There's a whole industry catering to the hobbyist's every potential need; but no one's born a gamer, however enthusiastic they become a few delves in (going by my experience). No, it all begins with any number of non-gaming influences seeding our beautifully fertile ground. Feeling nostalgic, here are mine, ranked in rough order and all from the 1970s when the hobby was born:

(1) Rankin/Bass Hobbit. Here was a colorful look at a world of dwarves, elves, and humans unlike anything I'd seen before. I have no regrets that this was my first Tolkien...

(2) Famous Monsters of Filmland. A great magazine! You got deep dives into pretty much everything from Bela Lugosi to Harryhausen. Fandom began in its pages.

(3) DC Horror Comics. House of Mystery, House of Secrets; this was usually modern horror stuff with trademark ironic endings, which nonetheless delivered a fantasy feeling.

(4) Marvel Monster Titles. Think Where Creatures Roam - or Monsters Dwell. The emphasis was on Jack Kirby monsters enough to stock a modern gaming sourcebook.


(5) Star Wars (Chapter 4, exclusively). Forget the tech; this was a fantasy film. 

(6) Planet of the Apes (original films and comics/merchandise). A sci-fi future where humans and non-humans shared a tense coexistence. Another early fandom.

(7) Aurora Movie Monster Models. Dracula, The Salem Witch; these glow-in-the-dark kits instilled a love of (and expectation for) hands-on customization of my own monsters.

(8) Land of the Lost (the 1970s series). Marshall, Will and Holly...and a world of Sleestaks, dinosaurs, and proto-humans I swear was inspired by someone's D&D game.

(9) My Grandfather's Encyclopedias. Pre-internet, this was how you looked information up; and I delighted in its mythology. A perfect fit for gaming's pseudo-academic methods.    

(10) Late-Night/Weekend Creature Features. Damn I'm old! Before cable, you bought TV Guide and waited days on end for these goodies to hit your local UHF station.

All I can suggest is to look this stuff up. Some is timeless (Star Wars, anyone), with modern relevance while others are quite obscure in an age where the "big two" comic publishers cater to superheroes and the internet's gobbled up the magazines. Google's gateway to porn likewise opens to some (not-quite-forgotten) remnants worth the effort to excavate.

I started gaming on the cusp of its breakout success (1978), where it quickly became self-referential and internally driven. But the seeds of interest in this stuff were planted as I painted models (doubtless huffing a little glue in the process) and poured over an assortment of comics and magazine articles carefully curated by yours truly. It was a golden age of storybook innocence and a growing community - and budding fandom - looking for a voice.

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Alignment As Moral Shorthand...

Character alignments are surprisingly controversial in some corners of the hobby, although hardly a universal complaint. I've come to the conclusion that they're pretty much essential for a certain kind of fantasy to operate, and for reasons obvious and sometimes obscure: 

I know; there's the usual stuff about good and evil being palpable forces. I know this because I've used it to defend the idea of alignment in the past - and because having your magical longsword dedicated to (and exclusively useable by) good seems altogether appropriate to a world of actual gods and working magic. It really depends on what kind of campaign you're running. Ditching alignment is fine; but you're not getting anything like the above, and maybe that's your point. But if you do, it has an ease of use it seldom gets credit for... 

Alignment is a convenient shorthand. Each one or two-word descriptor stands for a range of moral behaviors and motivations, clumsy to describe without them. You could spend a bloated paragraph explaining how Thorvin is compassionate and oathbound - or you could just write lawful good (LG or lawful, system dependent) instead. I agree that major NPCs deserve a well-written entry; but LG is elegant and immediately translatable into meaningful information. Think of it as a condensed profile, just add water and a little creativity.

Now the naysayers insist that alignment's limiting. Really? So characters are all over the place, becoming cruel enforcers at the drop of a hat and returning whole to kindly altruism in the name of personal freedom? Fine; but there's already an alignment for that guy: chaotic neutral depending on how far they go down the rabbit hole in a pinch. But most are far more consistent; and each falls somewhere on the line. Again, it depends on the campaign; but every good concept maps to some designation even when they aren't used...

And I'll dispense with the notion that alignments are inordinately (or even necessarily) limiting. When your player hands you their ten-page backstory and it screams chaotic evil, they've limited themselves well in advance. Concepts are limiting. Form too, even while welcoming new possibilities. Good characters can be petty and vengeful. They just have a noisy conscience that pumps the breaks, averting disaster. Evil characters can show love and compassion, albeit for selfish reasons. Anyway, plenty of variety within alignments. 

Now I can hear some scribbling their ALIGNMENT HAS TO GO essays already. Just bear in mind that most our projects outright reject the concept, and for reasons the most diehard contrarian would doubtless agree with. This isn't about being wrong. I could write a heartfelt defense for the opposing position - and probably will someday. If the world's governed by moral imperatives radiating from the mind of god(s), alignment works. Otherwise, naturalistic free will has its place, and let none say you're wrong if you choose that path...

Historically, people have been good to their own and horrendous to those they deemed outsiders, so I understand a certain strain of realistic fantasy. But voices calling for an end to moral labels insist that some ideas shouldn't be explored, which feels, well, immoral.*

*Hyperbole; no one's Hitler for disagreeing with me. Have a nice day dear reader...  

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Brewing the Game Fantastic...

My favorite feature of gaming in the late 1970s (aside from the manual type and amateur aesthetic) was the rules-are-just-a guide mentality. We were playing D&D, a common tongue known by all, with each campaign a quaint regional dialect. From a thick Boston accent to lazy southern drawl, we spoke the same language, but it was different. The referee could mix and match what they wanted, even taking from other games. Decades later, our so-called classic catalog tries to do the same. You can eat 'em RAW or get creative...

RAW (rules-as-written) is fine; but you can add or change anything to suit your style, and guess what? Our stuff was deliberately made for this. Try these: 

Barons of Braunstein with Pits & Perils' armor system (and for added detail, assign bonus hits per Gaming Primitive). Oh, and maybe its magic items as rare artifacts...

Blood of Pangea using Barons of Braunstein's literacy system and/or Gaming Primitive's dual hit point/skill point approach for versatile heroes and gameplay...  

Diceless Dungeons, but with Barons of Braunstein's dicey combat and modifiers.

Pits & Perils, with Barons of Braunstein's mass combat and siege rules with outcomes tied to specific actions undertaken by the characters on some secret mission...

Each of these has its own feel; which is to say, Barons of Braunstein is experienced quite differently, thematically and mechanically, than say, Pits & Perils. But they snap together like Lego blocks with minimal effort. They have a shared core. It isn't quite an engine (I reject mechanical builds and video-game comparisons); but make your system simple enough and focus on content (monsters and the like), and you get something very much like an engine, although a common tongue with many regional dialects is my preferred comparison. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Mentors: Gaming's Miyagi Effect...

Back in the 70s you couldn't learn D&D by reading the little brown books, much less the luxurious hardcovers, all of which were reference works for the already initiated. Long story short, you couldn't learn without a mentor. Or two or three. An indulgent group willing to instruct a neophyte (although let's be honest, we always wanted new players). In this way D&D was much like an apprenticeship, and gaming akin to magic*...

Until 1977, when Holmes Basic reached out to a generation of new gamers, condensing these mysteries into 48 classic pages. Its readers were subsequently directed to AD&D, and who wouldn't crave the upper levels of power those hardcovers represented? This was a necessary avenue for many, although personal instruction remained the principal gateway as these new DMs sought players (assuming most took up that essential vocation).

When the Basic Set (1981) landed, I assumed it was an updated tutorial. The Expert set cleared that up; but this parallel track still led many to AD&D. And once again, it spurred ever-increasing numbers to join the pastime and train their interested peers. Imagine an honest pyramid scheme where everyone wins. Anyway, for players learning the rules this way, there had to be at least one friend or family member ready to receive instruction.

A lot's happened since then. The parallel tracks converged; but every new edition has its introductory rules. Gaming's mainstream now, and you could probably learn how to play just about anything with a google search. But it's still in-person mentoring (allowing for online instruction with a human on the other end), that holds the hobby's attention, initiating fresh players into mysteries beyond any rulebook to bestow. Mr. Miyagi would be proud...

*Mine was a walk-in. My neighbors were playing with their garage door open!