Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Making the Arts Dark Again...

Sorcery.  The Dark Arts.  These words conjure up images of occult knowledge wrestled from forgotten old tomes and worked in guilty secrecy.  Magic is sinister.  Evil.  It comes with a whiff of brimstone at great personal cost; but such is its price.  Magic is a deal with the devil, a Faustian bargain that underscores the sometimes corrupting force of ambition.  But D&D has turned magic into a neutral energy to be manipulated, an undiscovered science exploited by studious and charming magicians to fight evil.  Quasi-Christian clerics work cheerily alongside wizened spell casters despite the adversarial nature of their occupations, and there’s nothing wrong with this except that magic loses some of its edge and, shall we say, much of its danger.  It loses its luster and differs from the common sword only in the particulars of what it can do.  And this just might be too bad because…

Magic is dangerous.  It’s a violation of the laws of nature and an existential threat.  Casting even the simplest spell erodes the fabric of reality, with dire consequences.  It’s like thermodynamics  the power has to come from somewhere, and each spell cast robs the universe of something.  Or perhaps the magician draws upon their own essence, becoming a corrupted, distended shadow of their former self to fuel ambition until they fade into shadowy dark.  The latter has primarily personal implications until they start targeting others to restore their vigor or channel their essence into a magic ring or some similar artifact.  Magic has a price.  And magic gets paid; there's no exception to the rule.

But magic is also diabolical.  Depending on the tradition, humans aren’t naturally adapted to its use and must bind or bargain with demons.  The spirit world is neutral at best.  At worst it’s the stuff of Hell, demonic to the core.  Good and neutral practitioners do this stuff at great risk, while the evil enter into pacts to secure ever greater power – for a time at least.  There’s something undeniably tragic about all this, especially when that kindly old wizard or village healing woman is basically damned, destined to roast in the pit of Hell for all eternity.  Cthulhu dethroned Satan in the scary department, although fandom has steadily neutered Lovecraft’s dark god, so maybe it’s the devil’s turn again.  It’s the same old song; magic has a price.  Magic gets paid.  This is dark stuff, and good stuff easily incorporated into an existing game, whatever the system.  D&D’s magic doesn’t have to be a neutral force.  It could be diabolically granted.   Let’s say the character racks up CORRUPTION points equal to a spell’s level when used, accumulating over time and erased only through good deeds or ritual purification.  Once a certain threshold is crossed, the devil (or whoever) comes to collect their soul!  Hell (so to speak), magic-users might even be allowed to cast any spell of any level, but at increasingly greater risk to their personal salvation.  Rules, remember?  There's no getting around 'em.  

Of course there’s a long tradition of so-called white magic, and many gamers won’t like the idea of their cherished spell casters getting their hands dirty.  They like being the party’s artillery and intelligence wing and prefer to see magic as an undiscovered science.  There’s nothing wrong with this, and astute readers will notice that our Pits & Perils game basically takes this approach.  At any rate, an overtly diabolical magic system would have validated the Satanic Panic, and since gaming is an industry with every right to make a buck, it’s not hard to see why this approach hasn’t exactly penetrated its mainstream wing.  But for those comfortable with a darker, edgier version of alternative reality, magic as a dark and diabolical art might be just what the (witch) doctor ordered.  I'm pretty sure most of what I've suggested is already being used somewhere; but here's a little reminder that it can be used anywhere, and with little additional preparation.  Go ahead, make that deal with the the devil or – better still, make your players do it.  Assuming your group is willing and their character concepts don't suffer, maybe give 'em a little Hell... 

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Of Hobbits and High Fashion...

Older guys like me tend to wax nostalgic about plump little hobbits with hairy toes who adventure despite their fear of it; and we like our gear to be historically accurate straight from the pages of Prince Valiant.  Forget modern fashion; we like our characters medieval.  But like it or not, we're all products of our time and see ourselves through the prism of whatever generation we happened to grow up in, with a fashion sense to match... 

Gaming, with its rulebooks and miniatures, is a surprisingly visual medium, especially for theater of the mind stuff.  That said, it's always depicted personal grooming by the standards of the day because that's how we see ourselves and, more importantly, how the customer sees their most idealized self.  Paradoxically, depictions of armor and equipment have moved steadily away from historical accuracy towards the increasingly fantastical because these things have no contemporary parallel.  Let's call it fantasy fashion.

We form our standards of beauty and style growing up, although I won't pretend the 70s or 80s had a clue about some things.  And as D&D and its imitators became products marketed to others, it only made sense that buyers see themselves.  Hence, the piercings and body tattoos that started popping up in the 90s in time with contemporary fashion.  But armor and equipment changes in response to stylistic shifts, which are far more subjective.
  
Anyway, we can see this trend play out across the decades of the hobby:

1970s: The Tolkien Calendars offered a gorgeous look at Middle Earth, courtesy of the Brothers Hildebrandt.  Nice, but their depictions were definitely a child of the times.  Aragorn had a serious pornstache and everything had a 70s vibe.  Fantasy wasn't mainstream yet, meaning no need for mass marketing.  The clothing mostly followed a historical template or cinematic precedent with Robin Hood tights and storybook tassels.  D&D did the same, owing to its identity as a pseudo-medieval wargame, with an emphasis on accurate armor and weaponry.  I have a soft spot for this, especially the 19th century storybook look.


1980s: Fantasy had gone mainstream, and it all converged on D&D.  Larry Elmore was a dominant force here, and the 80s slant was undeniable.  I've always felt like his artwork channelled He-Man just a little too much; but that's obviously a personal bias and in no way reflective of his great talent.  Let's be clear: I couldn't draw my way out of a bucket, so no poisoned pens, please.  But Elmore was also a child of his time, and demographic changes were increasingly on display; especially in the women's hair, which looked suitably blow dried.  Snarfquest absolutely nailed the 80s in terms of personal grooming.

1990s: This decade saw big changes.  The mainstreaming of fantasy, begun in the 80s, propelled its fashion far from any historical blueprint.  Starting with 2nd edition's apocalyptic Dark Sun through D&D's third re-imagining, the humans sported body tattoos and various piercings as the non-humans became exotically alien, especially the (almost insectoid) elves and (muscular) halflings.  Armor and weapons also got the extreme treatment, with heroic, sometimes ridiculous, proportions to match characters who were increasingly superheroes in an Iron Age Star Trek setting.  Looks-wise, it was the MTV generation slaying orcs.

2000s: The rise of self-publishing changed everything.  The hobby was less of a monolith, and independent voices had more of a say.  The art, and its implied fashion, was quite literally all over the place.  Of course, the rise of the OSR saw a return to the hobby's more traditional leanings.  Peasants looked like peasants, and the halflings were fat with hairy toes after a decade of channeling Adam Ant.  But this conservative pivot stood alongside some great modern fare, proving it's not a zero-sum game; and while I prefer the pseudo-historical approach, there's no wrong way to do this.  It's called fantasy for a reason.

Art imitates life; and if we somehow get to 10th edition D&D, we can be damned sure its characters will look suspiciously like what the kids are wearing.  This isn't new.  Conan the Barbarian looked like a silent movie hunk on the covers of Weird Tales.  But fantasy is a convention-busting genre.  There's always some new creative vision; and just like art deco once ruled the popular fashion, kids will find new ways to see everything from warrior kings to the weapons they carry into battle.  After all, what always changes can never die...

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Dumb Luck and Ten-Foot Poles...

Last week's foray into politics (which I'm not repeating any time soon) generated some interesting and thoughtful discussions, with a few suggesting that true conservatives might not like games with excessive dice rolling because it would demonstrate the role of luck, shattering their worldviews.  I respectfully disagree.  This is a misreading of how people see luck vs. personal action, and it goes to the very heart of old-school.  

We oldsters, conservative or otherwise, rolled lots and lots of dice.  And we absolutely understood the role of dumb luck.  It would be damn near impossible not to.  Good decisions and prior planning don't make it impossible to roll a "1".  Don't worry, we figured this out almost immediately.  But these things do ensure that luck isn't the only thing influencing the outcome.  Do nothing and it comes down to luck; act, and players have a say.

Giant spiders are dangerous.  And poisonous.  Once engaged, dumb luck could get a character bitten; and the same blind chance could easily cause the victim to roll "1" on their saving throw and die a terrible (and instant) death.  But due diligence might ensure those oversized arachnids never get within melee distance, so fire missiles; throw oil; do whatever it takes to avoid getting too close for comfort lest dumb luck rule the day.


In other words, strategy reduces the need for saving throws and therefore, the chance of rolling low.  Make no mistake; there'll still be plenty of dumb luck in a universe where adversaries lurk in every dark corner.  But old-fashioned planning goes a long way towards stacking the deck and allowing the players to manage risk.  Thrusting your arm into that jumble of garbage invites an attack from the centipedes hiding within, which in turn invites a save vs. poison.  Both are reducible to luck, so use your ten-foot pole instead...

Of course, those centipedes might come scrambling out of the trash heap to attack the nearest exposed foot.  There's always that risk.  But with a little distance and the whole party waiting to stomp 'em flat, it doesn't look good for the bugs.  At this point we're reduced to maybe a single roll and perhaps not even that much.  A clever party might encircle the heap with oil and drop a lit torch at the first sign of trouble coming out to play.

And this is the challenge of old-school.  This is what you come for when you want the authentic old-school experience.  It's not better or worse, just different - and it's something worth preserving, especially if you want to be properly challenged.  And here the hobby imitates life because; really, aren't we all doing this?  We lock our doors at night, buckle up on the highway, and avoid smoking crystal meth because these choices mitigate risk.

Old-school gaming was never unfair.  Character classes are carefully balanced and the dungeons survivable with effort - and a little luck.  It just so happens that many of its challenges require active engagement, which shouldn't be too much to ask of its intelligent participants.  Rules don't make a game fair - people do.  No amount of rules can ever defend against an asshole, and it takes little effort for friends to treat each other decently and recognize good ideas when they come.  Nothing is more old-school than that.

I firmly believe that anyone, regardless of age and/or politics, can appreciate old-school gaming as a unique experience with their respective worldviews intact.  In my five decades on planet Earth I've observed that everyone is a person with a fundamental drive to act, improving their lives one decision at a time.  It just so happens that old-school gaming, with its emphasis on personal choice, taps into that human urge to shape our destinies... 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

On Gaming Conservative...

Today Venger Satanis posted about why the OSR veers conservative.  He admits it’s a generalization (a good call on his part); and I see his point.  In short, he proposes that OSR fans prefer a laissez-faire game where the players are left to succeed or fail in a largely indifferent world, whereas modern (read: younger) players prefer a more secure, balanced, and fair experience where they’ll eventually get what they want.  Fair enough, although I suspect this has more to do with the average age of each faction and the fact that modern gaming is an industry with every reason to write more rules so they can sell ‘em…

And it occurs to me that games shouldn’t necessarily say anything about how we approach our real lives, which remain stubbornly devoid of elves.  That said, Venger's post reminds me that I’m a centrist (in gaming and real-life) and definitely a capitalistic GM.

So first off, I'm a retired military officer.  To some, that means I'm a stodgy conservative who thinks The Constitution was hand-written by Jesus himself, who then used it to clean his modified AR-15 while wearing a DON'T TREAD ON ME t-shirt.  Um, not quite.  I'm an active secular humanist (although I avoid the subject here), with at least some of the political leanings to go with it.  I’m also a retired meteorologist who accepts that anthropomorphic climate change is happening and bears attention.  Rush Limbaugh would disagree.

    
I strongly believe in capitalism (a great invention), but don’t for a minute think that the oligarchs wouldn’t happily poison the well if they could get away with it.  I think we need to advocate for the change we want, but also need to see the world for what it is right now, which means lots of hard work and personal sacrifice to achieve our goals, assuming we ever do, because life in itself owes us nothing.  Call me your basic political centrist.

But gaming is different.  The stakes certainly are; and the experiences we want in our games are (and probably should be) far removed from our best political path forward.  In the very least, gaming demands a level of abstraction nowhere present in reality, and the idea that the old school was devoid of balance and a sense of fair play is only half right.  No one would force a first-level party through Tomb of Horrors.  It’s meant for a stronger group.  Moreover, TSR’s packaged modules were highlighting party size and level requirements as early as the 80s, a clear nod to fairness.  Gygax warned against Monty Haul and killer dungeons early and often in the name of fairness and game balance because these things matter...

Hell, OD&D suggested that dungeon levels should correspond to the strength of their occupants, such that players could gauge the risk and act accordingly.  Stick to the upper levels and you’ll most likely survive, but with less to show for it.  Brave the depths and violent death awaits; but if played well, glory is yours!  On the surface this sounds like the laissez-faire, life-isn’t-fair approach the OSR allegedly endorses.  But there’s also a sense of balance and fairness written into the rules.  Real life sucks, our play shouldn't have to.

Me, I’m a capitalistic GM.  I supply the product (an adventure) and the players provide the characters (the demand side of things).  They direct this market with their actions and preferences.  Sure, I make it clear what kind of game I’m running and lose players in the process; but I also take the time to ask them what their characters hope to achieve and make an effort to insert opportunities into the campaign if they’re willing to work for them.  This is decidedly centrist, and quite possibly more conservative than what most think when they contemplate the OSR.  If the goal of gaming isn’t to have fun then I don’t know what it could possibly be - and fun absolutely demands a departure from the coarseness of reality...