Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Sign of the Cross: Early D&D's Clerics...

Early D&D, inspired as it was (hell, outright birthed) by historical wargames, channelled medieval Europe heavily. Gary's obsession with polearms is legendary; but it was more than that, and what else would we expect from a fantastic medieval wargame? Of course, the fantastic precedes a European mileu by millenia and extends beyond its borders to storied parts beyond. But Europe, with its armored knights and dragons, really stuck...

And part of this was medieveal Christendom, especially in regards to clerics. Now TSR, already aware of a growing panic, wisely avoided statting up Jesus; but its earliest artwork nonetheless depicted many clerics as Christian. From crosses (already effective against vampires) to monkish tonsures, early D&D art had a thing for the Church, doubtless because its faith heavily influenced the medieval expereince as understood by many.

Here's three of my favorites, with thoughts on what they meant to the early hobby:

(1) RESURRECTION. These decidedly Christian clerics are providing a service attributed to the saints. Indeed, healing and/or restoration is emphasized in this tradition...


 (2) A DUNGEON DWELLERS MINIATURE. Nothing says "Back in the name of (_______)" quite like a cross shoved in evil's face. There's no doubt who this adventurer serves...

(3) A FUN MEDIEVAL MONK. Played for laughs; but again, there's zero doubt that this is supposed to be the party's cleric. Crosses and tonsures made for shorthand...

Again, this was all about recognition. The fantasy genre by way of gaming was still being created, and historical influences reigned supreme. Magic users still wore robes emblazoned with moons and stars, and fighters wore historically accurate armor and weaponry (Gary's polearms) because this is how these concepts were understood. Fortunately, time and steady mainstreaming changed this; but a certain storybook charm absolutely remains.  

And there's more. Much more. Part Water? Sticks to Snakes? Their collective religious influences are obvious. Early D&D was a fantastic medievel wargame, and its understanding of the world was clearly centered thereupon. Even so, Greyhawk had its original deities, including non-human ones from the start; and the game quickly moved past its European roots to encompass the world's fantastical traditions, fertile ground for creative minds...

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

B/X and the Perfection of OD&D...

It recently occured to me (considering OD&D, sans supplements*) that B/X just might be the thing to play if you want the OD&D experience without having to decipher Chainmail (not necessarily enviable) or shoehorn in your own houserules (a more palatable option for many given the hobby's demographic). How so? Here's why I think it's best:

(1) ABILITY SCORES are simple and streamlined. It's modifiers are satisfyingly complete while avoiding AD&D's bloated approach. Exceptional strength might be cool (nothing compares to rolling that 00), but is it really a necessary thing? My mind goes back to Spinal Tap, where Nigel's amplifiers hilariously went to 11. In B/X you know almost immediately how well your character can read and/or speak. Wisdom is genuinely useful to non-clerics, and everything fits on a convinient page in purest OD&D fashion. 

(2) CHARACTER RACES make better sense. Race as class was a technicality. In OD&D dwarves and halflings could only be fighting men; elves could progress as fighters and magic-users subject to some incomplete rules, but it wasn't spelled out (and difficult without the Chainmail reference). B/X gives them all armor and weapons, making each de facto fighters with racial abilities added. Race as class? No. Class restrictions simplified? Yes.

(3) ALIGNMENT matters. And gets explained. I know it was originally concieved as faction, an approach so denuded of meaning as to feel unsatisfying. This might be a (relatively) modern innovation; but given its close proximity to the original texts, it certainly has to reflect approaches already happening at the table. I tread cautiously because I wasn't there and welcome wiser minds on the subject; but it certainly feels like a refinement of OD&D's style, which it is by definition even when different from Gary's original rules.


(4) SPELLS, MONSTERS, AND MAGIC ITEMS draw from the rich soil of OD&D's history, preserving early on the game's emerging traditions. Charm spells and rust monsters populate OD&D's hallowed halls, eternally preserved in amber for posterity; while Gary's alternative combat system gets properly explained with examples (yes, Holmes did this too; but as much as I love it, B/X is the more complete offering). Every effort is made to preserve OD&D's open-ended approach; but it does so in a coherent manner, if that makes sense. 

(5) LEVELS are capped at 14th for humankind, with all others mapping to OD&D's admittedly more limited offerings, although dwarves and halflings get a better deal. Men & Magic took players to 10th (16th for magic users), so everything translates. Both iterations invite the DM to extrapolate beyond that; and while accidental in B/X, which promised a later companion fulfilled by BECMI, it nonetheless clones OD&D's ceiling in a real way.

BONUS IMPRESSIONS (or why not just use BECMI instead)...

(6) ARTWORK by Otus and Willingham both preserve D&D's early and more amateur aesthetic while improving on its filched comic book style. I have nothing against BECMI (it's the same mechanics from the same publisher); but Elmore's steadfast professionalism marked a clear shift towards something else. It's a sound choice (and he's a talented artist); but I do miss the greater variety of the earlier stuff, although it's purely subjective.

(7) BECMI led the game beyond ordinary people under extraordinary circumstances, and while this might have been brewing early on (I'll defer to the experts), it doesn't feel like anything OD&D - or any of its supplements - endorsed. Again, there could be a mountain of proofs against this charge, but BECMI clearly shifted gears (speakers to 11). Now it's not remotely lost on me that B/X planned to do this; but accidental or not, B/X is what you play when you want a cleaned up and clarified OD&D that feels truly vintage...

All of this is academic, of course, as B/X and BECMI were seperated by mere years, and both from OD&D by little more than a decade (attesting to its rapid growth). But it really speaks to the combination of objective and subjective criteria that make a game feel right, and even then it's all someone's opinion. But if contemplating OD&D, B/X delivers. 

*If you want OD&D and its four supplements, AD&D is the far better choice...

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

From Iron Age to Faux Medieval...

Prowling Facebook and delighting in its memes and commentaries on various campaigns, especially D&D's 5th edition, it's clear there's a standard, implied setting - or at least one that resolves itself from what the rules have to offer. I also realize it differs somewhat from mine, pitting an Iron Age Star Trek against the so-called faux medieval I prefer...  

So here's IRON AGE STAR TREK. Please note, this isn't a pejorative. It's approach can be lots of fun, and might actually be a more practical solution by far: 

1. The technology is medieval, supplemented by spellcraft.

2. Magic is commonplace; indeed, it substitutes for high technology. 

3. Non-human races are fully integrated. Think dwarven blacksmiths and elven shopkeepers in human settlements. An orc runs the bakery - or a dragonborn.  

4. The world is more culturally progressive. Think 21st-century social values.

Again, this isn't a pejorative. I mean, what could be funner than a world with magic shops on every corner and fantastic races sharing space? I call this an Iron Age Star Trek because substitute magic for high tech and faerie bloodlines for alien species and that's the inevitable result. But it's also a more practical approach when you've got real magic in the hands of players eager to use it. And of course, subjecting players to unwanted racism and/or sexism in service to so-called realism isn't nearly as cool as some think it is...

SIDE NOTE: I've know referees who subjected characters to certain extreme violations, defending their artistic integrity against the victims of this terrible move. Spoiler: they avoided bathing and bought katanas at the mall. Absolutely don't be this misguided person.

And here's my approach: FAUX MEDIEVAL, which could also be seen as a pejorative when taken out of context. It's not perfect, but it offers another experience:

1. The technology is medieval, with no magical augmentation.

2. Minor magic is found in some villages, but more powerful stuff is in the hands of a few, with extravagant displays of power vanishingly rare. This makes magic precious.

3. Non-humans are known to exist, just like medieval Britons knew the Spanish existed. They just don't integrate with human communities, excepting halflings (maybe).

4. The culture is medieval; but I don't hit anyone over the head with obvious discrimination, especially when it maps to contemporary abuse. Realism is never worth that.

This, and none of the neckbeardy stuff that always requires prior coordination. Now certain people are horrified at the questionable circumstances behind half-demons and similar monsterous combinations. It's a darker side of the human experience, and if a player writes this into their character's backstory, so be it. But it's enough to imply these topical evils, especially when the adults at the table know it has to happen. I just don't subject anyone in my group to imaginary violation, studiously avoiding grindhouse theatrics...

Of course, there's no wrong way to do fantasy. I've played (and enjoyed) stuff I wouldn't consider trying myself, and I emphasize again this was negotiated beforehand. But just how much magic, or how much cultural integration, or how many similar variables comprising fantastical campaigns is up to the referee. I have preferences, but so does everyone, and it's always interesting to experience (especially at the table) what others generously create.

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Pits & Perils IV: The Divine Spark

Last year we promised an expansion to Pits & Perils, and it's our pleasure to finally deliver its latest rules supplement: Pits & Perils IV: The Divine Spark. As you might imagine, this divinely inspired book offers clerics the attention they deserve (and their adventuring party doubtless demands), along with more about the gods they worship, cosmic powers who now more than ever interract with a material world. But it's not all about them... 

Yes, there's druids and Paladins (not quite clerics, but a subclass nonetheless) and the hermit (contemplative)/militant split offered in The Collected book. And yes, there's special provisions for additional powers by a god's spehere of influence quite a bit beyond what some games offer in this regard, although I can't speak for everyone.

But it's not just clerics. Dwarves, elven and human fighters get new maneuvers, and magicians get new counterspells to resist magic they're more familiar with. Not to be outdone, thieves can now use the shortbow for additional reach. Non-human classes benefit from specialized secondary skills and everyone gets a boost without going overboard...

Pits & Perils has always been simple; and it aspires to a low/medium magic world, so machanical buffs (and an active role for the gods) threaten the order. Don't worry, we've made every effort to preserve its unique ethos. The rest is referee discretion.

Now an important feature of the expansion is play-styles. Up to now, everyone's been going so-called role-style, with the P&P buffer and emphasis on enduring characters in a story-centric campaign. But the new (and optional) war-style transforms Pits & Perils into a classic wargame from the 1970s for a more lethal approach. Less combat whiff and more death, although good strategy ensures survival, and levels aid their ongoing adventures...

Of course, the game includes new spells, some quite powerful to aid newly vulnerable magicians under the war-style. Old spells get new revisions, the works. But it's the enemy and treasure rules that take a hard left from the previous rulebooks, for while we get a handful of new baddies to stock adventures, much is given over to earthly avatars of the gods, formerly manifestations, each commanding a unique material sphere.

And treasures are given over to cosmic artifacts; powerful by P&P standards, but with a price demanding cautious use. Some of these map to the so-called legends, characters offered from the author's own campaign to give the rules a sense of history. Divine relics go easier on the players, who might need to take sides (no free lunch). It's all designed to present new challenging situations - and the gods - without imposing on the referee's universe.

The book ends with a bit about high-level campaigns, a look at Heaven, Hell, and lost Etherium (afterlives are simply apportioned), and rules for legendary status. Chatracters are still limited to 15th level; but upon completion of a special quest, gain additional utility to enable the sort of adventures this supplement promises. We hope you like it... 

Pits & Perils IV: The Divine Spark is a digital file on Drive-Thru, but available in softover sooner than later (November, probably). It's been seven years since we've tackled more than adventure modules and/or updates to the Referee Companion, and it's been an enjoyable return to form and a walk down memory lane adding to a system we still play. Even so, it's the fans we'd like to please. You're the ones who dig the pits and give them perilous life!