Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Against Gonzo Dungeons and Total Party Kills (or Some Old-School Tropes Overturned)...

Old-school gaming.  The dungeons are gonzo, funhouse constructs with no discernable purpose save to be plundered by a never-ending succession of short-lived characters.  Death is commonplace, and the narrative structure of a game (such that any exists) is akin to the Donner expedition with swords and spells.  This is the customary image of old-school, and it certainly has its adherents.  But it's one I accept while also rejecting...

So let's start with the dungeons, because these are central.

Yes, some of the earliest dungeons were, in fact, gonzo affairs.  Arneson's Blackmoor dungeon was pay-as-you go, complete with turnstiles to admit a never-ending succession of enthusiastic adventurers.  And the elves kept fire hoses nearby to douse any undead with holy water (since the pesky things sometimes tried to get out)!  In short, the dungeon was a  landscape, deep and endlessly stocked with monsters and treasure.

This is the classic dungeon crawl.  The dungeon is just there.  And so are the largely disposable characters.  Play exists in the moment divorced from any overarching narrative, because that's the nature of the beast.  And it's a beast we all know and love...

Death happened, just not all the time which,
arguably, made it more impactful in a campaign with
established (and beloved) characters...

But by 1975 (still respectably old-school), Arneson's Blackmoor supplement to OD&D included the first published scenario; Temple of the Frog.  No spoilers here, but the dungeon was built for a reason.  There was an overarching storyline, complete with non-players possessing complex motivations.  And the characters could shape the 'story" through their own interactions.  In short, we're talking about bona fide role-playing.

So now we see two divergent models early on.  The gonzo, funhouse dungeon crawl and adventures with complex storylines with abiding (and interesting) characters...

In 1978 (still old-school), Gygax wrote Steading of the Hill Giant Chief and its esteemed follow-ups; Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and Hall of the Fire Giant King.  Once again, there was an overarching storyline with plenty of complex non-players to interact with, perhaps shaping the story in new ways.  Yes, a party could approach the whole thing as a hack-and-slash affair, but only if they ignore content and miss opportunities.

Oh, and the terrible conspiracy unearthed will lead the characters underground and, eventually, to another dimension!  It's a deep and richly satisfying campaign - and one that plays out like an epic novel.  And this approach was inevitable.  Once you have a game capable of replicating fantasy adventures, clever and creative players will absolutely turn it to recreating heroic tales because who wouldn't want to take part in a fantasy epic?

So is old-school just dungeon crawls with disposable characters?  No!  There were two parallel traditions - and almost right from the start.  Story has always mattered.

Having a game capable of fantasy simulation and
limiting it to hack and slash expeditions divorced from any real
storyline is a missed opportunity.  What do you think?

But what about the supposed "disposable" heroes?  One need only read OD&D's Men and Magic to understand that at least some were expected to reach higher levels and build strongholds.  Much time was given over to higher-level spells, for instance, which would have been a colossal waste of time if some longevity weren't expected.  Back in '78, we actively avoided combat and sought wealth with minimal danger.  Gold was experience, and we sought this with minimal fuss.  The thieves plied their trade, and everyone else gave them cover, because the goal was to get rich while not fighting everything...

And by AD&D, clerics (who originally couldn't cast spells at first level) actually got bonus spells for wisdom.  With the right luck (or the ability generation rules provided in the Dungeon Master's Guide), a first level cleric could cast three spells per day, which means three healings in the course of an adventure.  All it takes is a 14 wisdom, a feat not difficult to achieve when rolling 4d6, picking the highest three, and arranging to taste.  And this option was absolutely endorsed by the (old-school) manuals.  Indeed, it was Method #1!

Anyway, constant death caps level, which is at odds with all those high-level monsters, spells, and modules.  Sorry, everything wasn't meant to end in a total party kill... 

AD&D marks a perceptible shift, doubtless honed from years of prior experience in multiple campaigns, from a mere wargame to a role-playing system where characters and story mattered greatly.  And not coincidentally, it came at a time when the hobby was expanding beyond its wargaming demographic.  These were fantasy buffs who wanted to create meaningful characters and participate in epic tales.  Why read The Hobbit when you could actually be that hobbit scaling Mount Doom?  Our hobby makes it all possible!

A few month ago, we said there's nothing new under the sun.  Well, this applies to adventures and characters as well.  Yes, there was (and continues to be) a grand tradition of lethal dungeon crawls.  But almost from the beginning, old-school allowed for complex storylines and abiding characters.  And by the late 70s, almost heroic efforts were made to increase survivability in the name of the narrative.  The lethal dungeon crawl was merely one of two old-school traditions - and the game, happily, allowed us to choose our own way...      


  1. I've always favored reason, purpose, motive and an organic plot that involved good old dungeons. I've been in campaigns that were epic in deed, but some of the most satisfying and interesting ones were when a character finished their 'story arch' at a lower level. For example, I had a character who was a blacksmith who was recruited by his guild to infiltrate the guild of another kingdom to discover the secret of 'dragon powder'. It was gunpowder. It was an interesting campaign, I'd reach 4th or 5th level, returned to my guild with the secret, and that's where it ended. The GM and I decided that was a perfect place to end his career as an adventurer and that he become an NPC for the blacksmith guild.

    1. Great idea! Adventuring is always funnest at lower levels, and this sounds like an awesome way to develop fleshed-out NPC's for a campaign...

  2. If constant death was inevitable; if play was instances rather than serial; there would be no reason to have XP tables. XP is an implicit endorsement of serialized play with the possibility of advancement rather than death.

    This does not mean the DM ought to coddle the characters. Let the dice kill them. And more's the point, let the players get them killed!

    Just as satisfying as seeing your paper man become the ruler of his own demesne is to cap his story with a satisfactory death. It's ok to let them die.

    And now this is rather OT: the original Temple of the Frog "module" was more wargames campaign than D&D campaign. Just look at the number of bad guys in there. You'd need 20:1 scale rules to play it, else you'd wear your dice down to spheres.

  3. Interesting piece, but it strikes me you are conflating some different things and setting up a few false dichotomies. Consider these disparate concepts:

    Extent to which the rules and/or scenario are geared to high-level characters.
    Story imposed by the module (railroading?)
    Story created organically

    In my view, all of these things are DIFFERENT. Sure, some are often referred to as "old school" and some often as "new school", but that doesn't mean they're necessarily linked in any non-contingent way.

    I'm not trying to be argumentative. You're right that there was more diversity in approaches back in the day than sone people want to acknowledge. My point is simply that lumping all of these things together is potentially misleading in its own way if for no other reason than that it itself masks a certain degree of diversity in approaches.

    1. Fair enough! This was largely (although unstated) a response to those who identify old-school as lethal dungeon crawls exclusively. Combined with the linked post about the diversity of old-school mechanics, the message here is that our hobby was extremely diverse and early on...