Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Grenadier: The Fine Art of Ugly...

The old Grenadier line, the official AD&D miniatures from the 1980s. Love 'em or hate 'em, there were undeniably better products on offer (Ral Partha comes to mind), so you'd be forgiven regardless of where you stand. No one's accusing Grenadier of being anything close to conventionally attractive - but dammit, I loved those things. But it was decades before I finally understood why. Even as late as last week, I wrote my appreciation off as an alchemy of nostalgia and my love of all things amateur. Turns out there was more...  

At first glance, the Grenadier miniatures were just awful. Really. I wondered how they got the job in the same universe where Ral Partha existed. It was the early 80s, when Tom Meier was making gorgeous, photorealistic creations anyone would want to paint and take to their gaming table. Grenadier, with its fat, pipe-cleaner arms and Mister Potato Head aesthetic seemed a strange choice for the world's leading RPG, but here we were, reading the ads in Dragon Magazine and drooling over colorful displays at the local hobby shop.


It didn't take long for me to warm to them, though. And don't blame nostalgia. Fourteen year olds aren't generally known for that. No, I found them strangely charming; but it would be another four decades before I could mount an objective defense. It seems their figures were beautifully stylized. Art is more than lines and angles. Good art is impressionistic on some level, even the realistic stuff. And if fantasy can't draw from that subjective, emotional side of ourselves, nothing can. Anyway, Grenadier's abstract figures nailed the magic.

But there's more; and here's the new revelation: those Grenadier miniatures did a good job capturing the game's source material. At this point, D&D still had one foot in its amateur origins, a fact reflected by its then-official artwork. So much of the Monster Manual's stuff was semi-amateur, with its grainy black lines and imperfect proportions. Deliberate or not, the official miniatures were nothing less than three-dimensional renderings of Otus, Sutherland, and Trampier, among others, which was a big reveal when it finally dawned on me...

Sure, some things are just crap, and I'm not sure we should elevate every warts-and-all effort to the status of Da Vinci. But sometimes, ugliness succeeds where beauty fails, especially when it's earnest and channels enough emotion to compensate for skill. We can't bottle this, at least not reliably; but when it happens, the chemistry is clear. Looks-wise, early D&D wouldn't pass muster in today's watermarked environment. But the early stuff carries on for good reason; and for a brief while, the game had a set of miniatures to match its charm.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Amateurs Against the Wine Snobs...

So last month, a certain (famously cranky) blogger eviscerated The Ruined Abbey of Saint Tabitha.  I don't care about that.  Hell, I requested the review knowing what I'd get.  But he crossed a line when he asserted that we don't understand the craft (wtf) or even our reasons for the choices we make, which is simply bizarre.  Olde House Rules has a mission we've proclaimed vocally from the start.  It's on our website, in the pages of the free previews of all our relevant titles.  It's present here.  Simply put, we make amateur games.

That speaks to the what.  But as to the why, we do it because we happen to think these products engender a style of play not possible otherwise.  Now here's the thing: amateur is more than just poor visual production.  It's what happens when people without advanced tools, a staff of editors, or professional freelance support make stuff anyway because they like it and -gasp! - just want to have fun.  This combination of deliberate and inadvertent elements gives rise to an emergent experience tied up in rulebooks...

Amateur rulebooks represent the initial state of the hobby. This alone lends them a certain historical value, and our attempts to relive the past an enduring legitimacy.  And they're certainly nostalgic for those of us who remember them firsthand.  But they're also quite exotic at this point, because they harken back to a time when the very means of production was fundamentally different.  Manual type?  Actual (physical) cut and paste?  I imagine the older stuff looks like an Egyptian papyrus to those born of the modern internet age.

But isn't this just skin deep?  Probably.  Except that amateur design and production had a material impact on the way these games were approached and played.  Again, we're talking about a fundamentally different experience here.  Their primitive style felt more accessible, like a peer-to-peer exercise.  This burrows deep into one's psychewhich lays the foundation for pretty much everything that follows.  And there's plenty to talk about...

First off, the amateur artwork left something to the imagination.  Do we really need to see everything to the smallest, perfect detail?  Yeah, there's some great stuff out there, and professional artwork helps bring a game's imaginary universe to life.  My gatekeeper's hat is at the cleaners, so I won't even try to say otherwise.  But when people are left to fill in the blanks, informed by their dreams and fears, we get something like true wonder.

Moreover, the earliest games were open ended.  This was most likely accidental, as the hobby was still in its infancy and too new for what would come later.  But often enough, this happened in the absence of experience, not to mention any sort of professional template, meaning the earliest publishers didn't know what to include.  At least not yet.  But deliberate or otherwise, this encouraged the emergent, work-it-out-at-the-table approach that would later come to define what should be recognized as a distinct style of play...

Now to be fair, our cranky friend never criticized our physical production.  But we're well beyond that now.  We're talking about an experience that permeates how a game's disparate elements are actually used.  Modern D&D mechanizes everything.  It absolutely imposes itself upon gameplay at the deepest level.  Amateur rulebooks from the 1970s did the same, albeit in reverse.  Crude art, omissions (deliberate or otherwise), and even the verbose Gygaxian prose brought the players in and redistributed the balance of elements.

Our friend (I like the guy) is free to disagree with this approach.  But he isn't free to pretend we don't have a deep, abiding philosophy behind our design choices.  There's a certain snobbery present in some (not all) modern circles.  Like we're sipping wine at the Cité du Vin instead of just having fun.  This comes with a cold, mechanical precision that shuts out the kind of organic, on-the-fly interactions humans are known for.  There's no wrong way; but we can agree that old-school, fueled by amateur production, is a viable choice...  

And that's what we do.  And why we do it.  We make amateur-style rulebooks meant to bottle an experience worth preserving.  The old days in amber.  It won't appeal to everyone (the reverse is definitely true); but we don't do it for them.  And we sure as hell don't do it for those who see the past as necessary for sure, but best left behind - or worse still, those who only understand the past as a failure to do better.  To them, amateur is skin deep.  But this mixing of ideas, omissions, and outright flaws enables an experience only amateurs can give.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

A Playable Druid for Pits & Perils...

Druids, those mysterious priests of nature have an enduring place in gaming history, and Pits & Perils is no exception, although in that game they appeared in the so-called enemies section as something encountered, but never played.  Well Robyn's pushed long and hard for a playable version, and others were asking as well, so we just had to make it so.  Now grab your books, turn to page 32, and add playable druids to your game...

The druid class is a rarity, being one of a few charged with advancing the order's cause from outside their secretive ranks.  As such, they sometimes fall in with adventuring parties, especially those with elves and/or others sympathetic to their beliefs, for many still observe the old ways.  That said, those lucky enough to attract their kind get the benefits of both a cleric and magician, although the adventuring kind is a magician variant first and foremost.  These come ready with the following abilities:

(1) Druids advance as magicians, but get spell points like a cleric, although unlike their sorcerous counterparts, enjoy access to all available spells immediately...

(2) Being nature-based, their spell selection is limited as shown:

Ally (plants/animals), Bolt, Calm, Cure, Find, Form, Heal, Mist, Ruin, Stun, Vine, Ward

(3) At 1st level (Initiate), druids can speak with plants and animals.  This requires no spell points, although a roll might be needed, for this is an appeal, not a command.

(4) From 4th level (Ovate), they heal as a cleric, restoring the maximum by level.

(5) Upon reaching 7th level (Versifier), the druid can receive a prophetic vision once per game day.  This involves a trance lasting 1d6 rounds during which the player asks the referee a single question about a single person, place or thing, and gets the answer in a vision which must still be interpreted.  This grants unprecedented knowledge.

(6) At 9th level (Master), they can work the Form spell at will without spell points.

Adventuring druids are limited to 9th level, although their special abilities definitely put them on par with their peers.  If the campaign permits, they might even be allowed to ascend to the rank of Arch-Druid (10th level), whereupon they retroactively get spell points like a magician and may spend all of them to reincarnate per the basic rules.  Achieving this station demands a vacancy and a specialized quest which may or may not involve the rest of the party, after which they transition into a powerful non-player figure. 

Our adventuring druid is a powerful addition to any campaign, although just enough that the referee might need to adjust for this.  But if their setting seems right for the old ways, they could be just what the campaign ordered.  And that's it is, a fully playable druid for Pits & Perils, although it's never really complete until you, the reader, put your own stamp on things the old-school way.  Until then, here's hoping nature smiles on everyone...

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

In Defense of the +1 Doohickey...

I've read some criticism lately around the supposedly trite, formulaic +1 sword (and its numerous equivalents, obviously).  Magic is wondrous, and bonus-granting stuff, although useful, squanders much of its potential.  Now this is a reasonable critique, and I'm hard-pressed to disagree.  Magic could always use a little wonder, and it's easy to get lazy when putting together your latest edition of (insert game-x here).  But ever the devil's advocate, I've decided that maybe our friend, the +1 sword, needs a little love too.

Clearly, bonus-giving items are a form of advancement.  Combat isn't everything; but it happens often enough that entire classes are devoted almost exclusively to battle.  For these characters, adding +1 to their attack rolls is a huge payday.  Or put another way, that +1 doohickey is only boring until it saves your life.  And these items are understated enough to blend with the user's normal kit, which makes the sexier stuff stand out more...

That's right.  Magic stands in contrast to the ordinary; and when everything's uniquely magical, nothing is.  And the divider shouldn't be just normal vs. magical either.  We need steady shades of gray between the so-called low stuff that nudges rolls and high magic capable of trapping souls in mirrors.  Incidentally, the former largely falls to fighters, while the latter goes to wizards, for whom overtly magical displays are expected.

Now I get it.  People aren't calling for the abolishment of +1 magic swords, only warning against over-reliance.  How about a ring of protection that grants +1 vs. poison and sings a song in the presence of tainted food and drink?  That's what they're after, and I'll happily agree.  Let magic be magical.  But I'll add that the largely invisible, bonus-granting stuff has an important place as the workhorses of the magical world, a necessary one; and perhaps we need this to preserve what makes magic - and the characters using it - truly special...