Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Agency and OD&D's Forced March...

Yesterday our friend Mark Hunt reminded us of this gem from OD&D (specifically, Men & Magic, page 10 for those wishing to follow along).  It reads as follows...

"Prior to the character selection by players it is necessary for the referee to roll
three six-sided dice in order to rate each as to various abilities, and thus aid them
in selecting a role."

That's right, Gary expected the DM (referee in those days) to roll ability scores for the players, which probably seems wrong to our modern sensibilities.  It's the player's character for Pete's sake; they should roll their own abilities.  We happen to agree and, luckily for subsequent generations, so did most everyone else - and right away!  But this early way of thinking wasn't limited to ability scores.  It was implied (when not outright mandated) that the DM should roll dice for the players in many other areas as well.

In these modern times we have all sorts of ideas about player agency and what people should be able to do in a game.  And we’re not being unreasonable here.  If Joe’s the one creating Borg, then Joe should roll for Borg’s abilities.  And when Borg swings his trusty battleaxe, Joe should be the one rolling.  Otherwise Joe's just a spectator who maybe gets to tell the DM he’s opening a door or swinging said weapon.  But when the rubber meets the proverbial road and it’s time to physically act, he’s as inert as a rock and all the action is done behind a figurative curtain.  It didn't take long for folks to reject this approach.


So here’s at least one instance where the hobby took off not because of its founder's assumptions but despite them.  And it bears examining why things began this way and why they eventually (hell, almost immediately) changed.  Here's our take... 

Fantasy role-playing evolved from historical wargaming, and history imposed some serious constraints on player agency.  William, Duke of Normandy couldn't build catapults for the Battle of Hastings because that's not how history says it happened.  Ditto for Roman chariots or Greek fire.  Players understood this and accepted the need to color in the lines for the sake of historical accuracy.  In short, wargamers were conditioned to limited agency within a narrow scope.  What forces they played, how they deployed, was all imposed by someone else; in this case, history itself, and no one expected anything more at the time. 

Even David Wesely, founding father of the hobby and creator of Braunstein (precursor to Blackmoor) created and assigned characters to his players.  The idea that anyone could or should expect more wasn't on the table.  But the seeds were planted...

Enter Blackmoor.  It wasn't a historical setting, so there was no official word on what was done and how it eventually turned out.  More than ever, players were writing history as they went along; and since they were playing individual characters in a realm of pure fantasy, coloring outside the lines was finally an option.  But the impositions of wargaming persisted because the games were still seen as wargames - old habits and all that jazz. 

And so Gygax wanted DMs to roll ability scores, among other things.  But it couldn't possibly last.  Once people started running individual characters they named, nurtured, and started to identify with, everything changed.  And then the non-wargamers arrived with expectations of greater agency for the reasons we all agree on, and this quickly ushered in a new age.  Oh, and we're sure most DMs didn't want to roll for everything.

Sure, the hobby was born from specific rules, created by specific people with specific assumptions about how things would work.  But they couldn't have anticipated the power of legions of others, laboring in isolation from one another and shaping the industry through their expectations and experiences of what actually worked at the table.  In this way, gaming was a free-market economy full of entrepreneurs.  A system where the so-called market decided best practice.  It's a tradition that continues to this day to the good of all...

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Ask Not What a Game Can Do...

Ask not what a game can do for you. That's an odd request because, obviously, games do quite a lot for us, and we judge them on what they have to offer.  From rules for making characters to content in the form of monsters and magic, games deliver tools we need and use to make it all happen.  We ask a lot of the games we play; and with so many great ones available, there's literally something for everyone...

We're not in the business of judging games.  It's all a matter of preference unless the rulebook can't even provide inspiration for games using better systems.  Thankfully, this is seldom the case, so don't expect a treatise on what's supposedly good or bad.  I'm only interested in what I care for and don't need others telling me what that should be, although I always appreciate informative reviews telling me what to expect.


So no, don't ask what a game can do for you; ask what you can do with a game, because ultimately, it's all about what you can use.  I call it "the feeling", and it's always been a trustworthy gauge.  Are you immediately filled with a million ideas for a campaign using System X?  Do its rules enable a thousand ideas you never knew you had?  Are you eager to put this new thing to use?  These things tell the truth of it.

When I got my Holmes Basic for Christmas, 1980, I immediately mapped a dungeon and badgered my family into playing.  Yes, this new thing was clearly doing something for yours truly, but that wasn't nearly the half of it.  The rulebook inspired me with a million ideas I immediately wanted to try.  D&D was an activity.  It's whole value lay in my ability to use it for my own purposes.  Gaming wasn't just a noun for me.  It was a verb.

Ask not what a game can do for you.  Ask what you can do with a game, because that's the sum total of its value, even if you only mine it for inspiration...

Maybe you find an intriguing system that needs house ruling.  How is this a problem, especially when the result is an awesome system tailor made for you?  And short of actually redeeming a system, what about a rulebook you can mine for ideas and inspiration that fundamentally changes an existing activity?  In all of the above, the game's value lies in its ability to be used.  And like food or sex, we immediately know when we want it...

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Leveling Up: What Does It Feel Like?

Leveling up is a big deal for the players.  They roll up additional hit points by class and assume whatever powers and abilities are due to them.  Points are allocated and new spells added to the spellcaster's roster.  A good time for all.  But what does this feel like for the characters?  How do they experience this windfall of proficiency?    

Ok, so 30 years ago I was a meteorology student.  Synoptic forecasting was the worst because you had to hand-analyze the surface and upper air charts, identify and depict any important atmospheric features, and correlate them into a coherent picture of the current situation.  Only then were you ready to brief the instructor, who invariably knew more than I ever would for the next two decades.  It took me somewhere in the neighborhood of six frustrating hours to prepare the charts alone, plus another couple just to figure out what the hell it all meant.  And of course, I was wrong about a lot.  How could I not be?

Four years later, I'm forecasting in Korea (Camp Stanley).  There was a typhoon and the weather station was flooded.  I remember standing on a stool and taking calls from legions of concerned agencies.  Our Automated Weather Distribution System (AWDS) was down, forcing me to analyze data the old-fashioned way.  Only this time, I analyzed the charts in under 45 minutes, and after all that, they only confirmed what I already knew from the satellite imagery we were lucky enough to still have.  When the dust settled and I returned to the barracks, I realized that I'd come a long way in four years...

I'm sure everyone here has an equivalent story.  Through practice and exposure we gain experience and get better at what we do, often without realizing it until one day we're put to the test and we remember how difficult it used to be.  I imagine leveling up feels like this; steady improvement the character doesn't notice until one day they do.


Clerics and magic-users are a little different because they master discrete spells; high-profile abilities which come on suddenly.  But it's not all that different.  Clerics may experience a spiritual breakthrough.  A moment when their faith is validated and their relationship to their deity strengthened tenfold.  No doubt the real-world faithful experience something similar; and in a fantasy setting, the cleric can ask, and ultimately receive, more.  Magic-users learn from spell books (at least in the OSR).  They gradually grow in knowledge and understanding until at last those ancient, obscure spells start to make sense.

In short, characters aren't aware they've gone up in level.  Only that they've improved in some way and/or have become more comfortable in what they do.  Non-humans with level limits don't perceive any discrepancy between themselves and their human counterparts because they wouldn't.  Humans are physically larger than dwarves and elves and hungrier for power.  Demi-humans have their own concerns and special abilities humans lack, so level differences are usually written off as human ambition and (sometimes) folly.  

Now this makes sense in the OSR, where characters are already proficient in a class, a profession they've entered through some previous, off-screen apprenticeship.  Not so for the skill-based game; however, where a character may, presumably, learn blacksmithing mid-adventuring career.  Blacksmithing is a skilled trade which requires a lengthy commitment to master at even a basic level.  Here I ask the players to tell me what skills they plan on learning in advance and build the time into my game.  This gets the players thinking about their desired progression and goals, which is both realistic and helpful...

If Borg wants to become a blacksmith, they must locate a trainer and make the time to practice between adventures.  Once they take the skill, I'll assume they're absolute newbies and limit what they can do until they've gotten some time under their belt.  Smart players understand this; and when their characters are in town, they make a point of declaring their time spent at the forge.  No dice.  No mechanics.  They've just told me their character is practicing, which makes taking (and improving) a skill reasonable and justified.

Character advancement is a discrete event for the players.  But for the character, true proficiency sneaks up unnoticed.  Skill-based systems are a little different because the new talent is initiated and mastered well after play has already begun.  I'm fairly skeptical of busy adventurers taking on a complex trade (from scratch) in the middle of a campaign, but also understand that these are games.  As long as the players document their work in the gameplay narrative I'm good.  From here, time and practice makes perfect.

It just goes to show; narrative matters, and the important things that hold a campaign together are often the things that don't involve dice or rules.  People play the game, but their characters are the ones who experience it.  A little something to think about as your party takes on the world.  And that's all.  We'll see everyone after Halloween.  Enjoy now...   

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Did Sophistication Kill the Fun?

I remember my first dungeon (the first one I mapped, anyway).  It had laser turrets and a dimensional portal to a sci-fi universe.  This was an adventure that ended with dinosaurs and intelligent apes with rifles who had to be convinced not to invade the setting.  Yeah, that's pretty much the tone.  I dialed it back in later adventures, but the metaphorical die was cast and a fun-house atmosphere remained.  These were good times.

My games were dungeon-centric affairs.  The wilderness called for a wandering monster check along the way; but the dungeon was everything, and descending into that underworld marked the transition into a fantastic other world.  An exotic place filled with absurd and deadly things.  In short, Wonderland.  Now let's imagine a sorcerer lives in area 13, growing magical mushrooms with unexpected effects when eaten...      

But first, you have the hair salon with an exclusive clientele: a mummy (getting fresh wrappings) and a medusa (getting her snakes oiled).  It could be a bloodbath, or maybe the party gets their hair done instead.  And don't forget the giant talking head that delivers a terrible curse unless the party completes its dirty limerick.  Bottom line, the encounters were designed to entertain and give the players a wide variety of experiences.  

It wasn't all goofball.  Some were serious encounters, whether the domain of an orcish warlord or the owl bear nesting grounds.  You know, things that make sense in an underworld setting.  These got included because they were cool; but they were still punctuated with gonzo fare because that was also cool, and because magic in inherently absurd and requires a little whimsy.  In retrospect, it was an act of respect to the players...


That's right, respect.  Each encounter was designed to entertain and challenge them, unconstrained by things like internal consistency.  There was a greater variety of monsters to fight and traps to overcome.  Serious dungeons have a reason for being and a realistic ecology, which is cool.  But the characters are just "passing through", and the world largely responds to itself.  Not so for the gonzo dungeon, which is made for them.

Of course, it couldn't last.  I grew up and got sophisticated, and that meant world building, complete with complex cultures and realistic ecologies.  This was creatively challenging and fun to do, and for obvious reasons.  Serious isn't a dirty word, and realism brings its own rewards to the game.  But in the process, magic became a science and wonder went out the window.  Fairyland departed, replaced by a Darwinian consistency.

And I'll come clean.  I was briefly a nerdy douchebag who scoffed at the gonzo fare I'd previously (and enthusiastically) embraced, laughing at silly worlds of kobold cowboys and dwarven rock bands.  I was insufferable.  Luckily, I was only 14 and eventually got over myself, much to the delight of pretty much everyone.  But by then I was sampling a variety of adult pleasures, and it would take a few decades to fully appreciate gonzo.

Did sophistication kill the fun?  No.  Maybe.  Kinda.  Really, it all depends on personal preference.  I won't denigrate serious games because mine is 85% serious.  But the older I get (51 and counting), the more I appreciate the simple wonder of a fun-house dungeon stocked with the players in mind and built to provide them with a variety of challenging and absurd experiences.  Hey, magic could always use a little nonsense. 

Childhood's gone.  But with age I've rediscovered the gonzo dungeon; that underworld excavated by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses (thanks Gary) and built with the players in mind.  A realm where you can dine with demons and play chess with storm giants - and all in one place!  A love letter to the players because it was made just for them to explore with childlike glee and adult avarice.  A place where magic is, well, magic...