Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Reviews (and Indoctrination)...

Ok, so last week I read a review of Chronicles I: Roman Silver, Saxon Greed, our first published scenario for Barons of Braunstein.  Spoiler alert: while they kind of liked it, they felt it was too lethal because they thought Barons of Braunstein was too lethal.  That last part came as a surprise because no one's ever accused our old-school titles of being particularly deadly, quite the opposite.  Pits & Perils has a nice little cushion...

In Barons, it's literally impossible for a new character to die from the first successful attack made against them.  Not even with max damage from a greatsword.  Not even using the lethality provisions in Appendix II.  Now spending LUCK carelessly can change all that, but a thoughtful (read: restrained) use of said resource still leaves them a bit tougher than the average OD&D upstart.  And herein lay the confusion.  The reviewer in question assumed that Barons was basically an OD&D retro-clone because really, aren't they all?

Now I'm not slamming this person, who I happen to like and respect.  But all of this does speak to the primacy of D&D and the success of the OSR.  And it definitely speaks to how the old-school renaissance has maybe (unintentionally) indoctrinated us to assume that certain approaches are universal.  Lethal gameplay?  Dungeon crawls?  OD&D is classic - but it's far from the sole blueprint, especially when adventuring in historical settings.


Open-ended gameplay?  Strategy over builds?  Aren't these old-school as well?  This debate has been done ad nauseum, so I won't do it again except to say that aspiring to the early days of the hobby doesn't necessarily imply OD&D's approach - or rules.  But this is a totally forgivable impulse given that much of the OSR really is a cloning experiment - and it's not confined to rules either.  OD&D casts a long shadow over pretty much everything...

Case in point: our module features a realistic interior setting.  Suffice to say, it's not some fantasy dungeon where you can go room to room killing enemies without consequence, a fact we emphasize in the book.  Our reviewer called it a dungeon crawl - but is it?  Should we label every interior area a dungeon - much less a crawl?  Modern spy games are full of such places, as are historical ones where the term has no meaning.  The reviewer went on to suggest that our adventure fails because it can't be approached this way...

Full-on fighting or dull silence are the only choices - and the danger of the game, already addressed here and rightly put to bed, is seen as a bug, not a feature.  But is this bad design or just poor strategy?  I think it's a failure of the imagination, as the players have abundant choices once they climb outside the box.  Everything's on the table, whether recruiting locals to swell the party's ranks or staging lightning-fast raids.  If a frontal approach isn't possible, maybe they need to try something else instead.  This is never even considered. 

Again, indoctrination at work.  The OSR is great; but some quarters emphasize a mere fragment of its many possibilities, until every interior is a dungeon and door-to-door murder the only solution.  Now this is true for some, where gold equals levels; but soon enough, every problem becomes a nail to be pounded by a metaphorical hammer, and we forget that old-school could be so much more.  Especially the historical side, where reality reigns...

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Booking the One-Minute Round...

Classic D&D prescribed one-minute combat rounds.  So does that mean it took a whole minute to swing a sword?  No way.  One round - or so the story goes - consisted of multiple thrusts and parries, meaning each attack roll was (at least potentially) the culmination of several such actions.  Abstracted to be sure; but we were good with that because the game was so damned awesome we didn't care.  Nowadays, six-second rounds (or thereabouts) are preferred, but it wasn't always so, and I blame books and wargaming:

Ok, so books.  Fantasy has long been a literary genre; but anyone born after 1970, and certainly after 1980, might not appreciate just how little of it there was outside the pages of books.  Dragons and wizards were difficult and expensive to render, so movies generally avoided them (with notable exceptions, obviously).  At any rate, the genre wasn't mainstream by any stretch of the imagination.  But we had literature.  From vintage storybooks to pulp barbarians to Tolkien (among others), books gave what the mainstream couldn't...

And books are abstracted much like those combat rounds.  Consider this:    

Thorgir cut through a jungle of writhing limbs and snarling faces.  His blade drew sweeping, gruesome arcs and still the things came, eager to kill or die in a suicidal last attempt.  

The above isn't blow-by-blow.  Fiction isn't photorealistic, except when it is.  But the best writing lets the reader's imagination do some of the heavy lifting.  Poor Thorgir is up to his ass in foes; and one can easily imagine the blood flying with each swing.  Wargamers raised on the tales of Howard and Tolkien were doubtless predisposed to accept this.  Now I know that books are still a thing.  I'm not an old man yelling at clouds just yet.  But modern hobbyists have access to entire channels devoted to fantasy, so expectations may differ.

Fine, but what about wargaming?  I'll only suggest that when one figure on the tabletop equals ten (or more) troops on the battlefield, you aren't rolling for each one.  This is D&D on a grand scale.  One round equals many blows from many combatants, each performing a melee of enormous scope - and with longer combat rounds to match.  D&D's first generation was likewise programmed to accept this, especially since characters were also seen as far more disposable.  Anyway, as more individuality crept in, so did changes to the rules...

Characters got more hit points.  Clerics got more spells.  A stab at survivability in service to an ongoing narrative became the standard as more non-wargamers signed on.  Add the inevitable influence of movies and television, where each strike is captured in precise detail and - huzzah - one roll of the dice equals one attack in a blow-by-blow narrative.

Of course, it's not so simple.  Back in 1978, we were already narrating attack rolls in rich detail, so the shift was probably inevitable because players, being human, became attached to their characters.  Even so, we can't discount the way in which popular media influences expectations.  Movies, television - and now computer games - have greatly changed how we consume fantasy; and it's hard to imagine this hasn't made a difference.  But young or old, the mainstreaming of fantasy is a good thing, and our hobby only better for the trend... 

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...