Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Olde House Rules: It's an OSR Thing...

I love the OSR and Robyn appreciates fantasy period.  That's why we dabble in game design.  But in six years of publishing (has it really been that long), we've never tackled that which is my personal favorite: old-school Dungeons & Dragons.  Of course we love what we've published so far.  Can a parent truly hate their child?  But it's also been plenty of work - and work that feels like work and not like fun.  I'm ready for this to be fun again.

At my heart I'm a Dungeon Master, writing adventures like I did in the 1980s.  D&D was my medium, and it provided the raw materials needed to create entire worlds of fantasy, complete with interesting people, places, and things.  Rules are great; but I'm a little weary of writing raw materials for others to enjoy (although we love everyone), and thus our newest child was conceived:

It's an OSR Thing is a line of published adventures designed (very broadly) for games in the OSR and meant to be inserted into an existing campaign.  Our first release is scheduled for sometime in early 2020, the first of many more.  In the meantime, here's a look at the introductory pages that will be part of each release.  We're pretty excited about what we're making here, precisely because it's fun, not to mention narratively challenging.  But we're also becoming more comfortable with our tools, with consequences for our other titles, although that's still a ways off.  We're taking the holidays off and won't be back until after the new year.  Be safe; enjoy the season.  We'll return in full force because, hey - it's an OSR thing...

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Barsoom, OD&D, and Story Games...

Robyn and I love stories, but neither of us are what might be called a story gamer.  As a crusty old grognard I prefer the traditional model, with a clear division of labor between the referee and the players.  Everyone stays in their lane; and if players want to influence the story they do so through the actions of their characters.  Robyn, a computer RPG enthusiast, is more inclined to consider what the players want from a game, whether getting an animal companion or possessing some unique piece of equipment.  Between the two of us we steer a middle course, although we both tend towards making desired opportunities available within the context of a game and leaving the characters to seek these out on their own…

So we’re talking about old-school gaming as we know it, as opposed to so-called story gaming, where some degree of collaboration takes place.  Depending on the system, a group might work together to determine the nature of the setting and even the powers of its villains.  Slaying a dragon isn’t just something that might happen during play, but something specifically negotiated beforehand.  Robyn and I draw the line here because it feels less heroic.  We have little power over who pulls up next to us at the stoplight.  We’re acted upon by any number of external forces beyond our control, and success depends largely upon our ability to deal with this.  Of course, we can set personal goals and take steps to achieve them; but at no time is success, much less the opportunity, guaranteed.  This is the only way true heroism is possible.
       
Story gaming seems anathema to the old-school way, although Robyn and I subscribe to a different strokes/folks mindset.  Certain rather outspoken personalities have referred to story gamers as swine.  Ouch.   I think (and fervently hope) they’re being hyperbolic.  Gaming is just too trivial to say anything about one’s character.  Even so, old-school enthusiasts know why they like the way they play and feel like they can defend their preferences.  The feelings run deep, and we’ve grown accustomed to thinking it’s been that way from the start.  Sorry, but it hasn’t.  Some collaboration between the players and their referee has always been there, and the social nature of the experience was well understood from the beginning.  Don’t believe us?  Check out this direct quote from OD&D’s Monsters & Treasure… 
         
“If the referee is not personally familiar with the various monsters included in this category the participants of the campaign can be polled to decide all characteristics.”

In short, the players and the referee can work together to write the specific abilities (read: statistics) of the monsters they encounter, which is not unlike deciding the characteristics of the campaign’s primary villain in true story-gaming style.  This grievous sin is enshrined in old-school’s Holy Scriptures and by the one person who should have opposed it!  Now this referred to miscellaneous large insects or animals, but included (potentially) Banths and similar pulpy creations not formally covered in the rules.  Gygax clearly understood that the campaign, any campaign, really, would be a social contract between its participants.  He could have left this to the referee alone (which ultimately happened), but he didn’t at this early juncture in the hobby’s history.  Collaborative, story-gaming elements were there, albeit in small ways, and I contend that they continue even in the most traditional fare.
  
But the rulebook isn’t the game; and as early as 1980 I was working one-on-one with my players to establish what their characters wanted and took care to make these opportunities available.  Was this story gaming?  Aside from introducing whatever opportunities they wanted for their characters, my players were at the mercy of a world they couldn’t anticipate and could only influence through their personal choices.  And this was assuming they even survived their expeditions into the underworld!  When Jarl the Red said he wanted to eventually procure a griffin mount, I expected him to make queries and do the legwork.  But I also threw out offhand references to the griffin breeding grounds in the context of a local complaining about attacks on their livestock.  The rest was up to Jarl, which is to say that in forty years of gaming I’ve determined that there’s no hard line between the different modes of play, just a sliding grey scale.  Old-school thrives on a strict division of labor between the players and the referee.  Even so, the line between this and story gaming’s more collaborative approach is broad and fuzzy, with plenty of room to stretch.  We bring this up only to point out that Gygax seemed to know this from the very beginning; but also because a good GM knows their options and the fundamentally social nature of the hobby...

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...