Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules
Tuesday, December 17, 2019
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
Tuesday, December 3, 2019
Tuesday, November 26, 2019
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...
Tuesday, November 19, 2019
We oldsters, conservative or otherwise, rolled lots and lots of dice. And we absolutely understood the role of dumb luck. It would be damn near impossible not to. Good decisions and prior planning don't make it impossible to roll a "1". Don't worry, we figured this out almost immediately. But these things do ensure that luck isn't the only thing influencing the outcome. Do nothing and it comes down to luck; act, and players have a say.
Giant spiders are dangerous. And poisonous. Once engaged, dumb luck could get a character bitten; and the same blind chance could easily cause the victim to roll "1" on their saving throw and die a terrible (and instant) death. But due diligence might ensure those oversized arachnids never get within melee distance, so fire missiles; throw oil; do whatever it takes to avoid getting too close for comfort lest dumb luck rule the day.
In other words, strategy reduces the need for saving throws and therefore, the chance of rolling low. Make no mistake; there'll still be plenty of dumb luck in a universe where adversaries lurk in every dark corner. But old-fashioned planning goes a long way towards stacking the deck and allowing the players to manage risk. Thrusting your arm into that jumble of garbage invites an attack from the centipedes hiding within, which in turn invites a save vs. poison. Both are reducible to luck, so use your ten-foot pole instead...
Of course, those centipedes might come scrambling out of the trash heap to attack the nearest exposed foot. There's always that risk. But with a little distance and the whole party waiting to stomp 'em flat, it doesn't look good for the bugs. At this point we're reduced to maybe a single roll and perhaps not even that much. A clever party might encircle the heap with oil and drop a lit torch at the first sign of trouble coming out to play.
And this is the challenge of old-school. This is what you come for when you want the authentic old-school experience. It's not better or worse, just different - and it's something worth preserving, especially if you want to be properly challenged. And here the hobby imitates life because; really, aren't we all doing this? We lock our doors at night, buckle up on the highway, and avoid smoking crystal meth because these choices mitigate risk.
Old-school gaming was never unfair. Character classes are carefully balanced and the dungeons survivable with effort - and a little luck. It just so happens that many of its challenges require active engagement, which shouldn't be too much to ask of its intelligent participants. Rules don't make a game fair - people do. No amount of rules can ever defend against an asshole, and it takes little effort for friends to treat each other decently and recognize good ideas when they come. Nothing is more old-school than that.
I firmly believe that anyone, regardless of age and/or politics, can appreciate old-school gaming as a unique experience with their respective worldviews intact. In my five decades on planet Earth I've observed that everyone is a person with a fundamental drive to act, improving their lives one decision at a time. It just so happens that old-school gaming, with its emphasis on personal choice, taps into that human urge to shape our destinies...
Tuesday, November 12, 2019
So first off, I'm a retired military officer. To some, that means I'm a stodgy conservative who thinks The Constitution was hand-written by Jesus himself, who then used it to clean his modified AR-15 while wearing a DON'T TREAD ON ME t-shirt. Um, not quite. I'm an active secular humanist (although I avoid the subject here), with at least some of the political leanings to go with it. I’m also a retired meteorologist who accepts that anthropomorphic climate change is happening and bears attention. Rush Limbaugh would disagree.
Tuesday, October 29, 2019
During Halloween, we go house to house dressed as ghosts and goblins. In gaming, we go room to room (or hex to hex outdoors) fighting ghosts and goblins.
And during Halloween we collect tasty treats. In gaming, we amass treasure.
Finally, during Halloween we become someone (or something) else, something fantastical and decidedly fun. In gaming we do the same, only its a costume of the mind when we aren't doing LARP or going cosplay at conventions. It's Halloween for grownups, and for kids too, obviously. Short of actual candy, gaming preserves this sense of play.
It's essential that adults be grownups. Neither Robyn or I have much patience for the perpetual manchild. We need to meet adult responsibilities and care for our families first and foremost. But when the work's done, we still need play, and neither Robyn or I have much patience for the sourpuss who defines adulthood as giving it up. Tabletop gaming translates childhood play into an adult context; and looking at Halloween it's easy to see how...
Tuesday, October 22, 2019
But what is risk, exactly? Let's start by suggesting that job one of a game is to make people care. Job two is threatening all they care about, and herein lies the risk.
What can we possibly care about more than life itself. barring family, obviously? And in a tabletop game, our imaginary "life" counts for a lot. Heroes stake life and limb in a vast underworld and have a vested interest in staying alive. You know, risk. But what does death mean in a game where you just roll up another character and rejoin the adventure almost immediately? Especially when they inherit money and/or powerful magic items.
I once played no less than six dwarven brothers who picked up where their dead relatives left off, inheriting most of their stuff in the process. It was a brazen exploitation of the rulebook and something close to "immortality" in a game everyone calls lethal. No, what players really care about is the preservation of their cherished in-game personality figure...
And there's lots of ways to threaten these. Lots. Que maniacal laughter. Luvar the Shining gets turned into a slimy toad. Thingol the Foe Smasher loses his Dwarven Hammer. The diabolical possibilities are endless, and players will vigorously avoid them all. Herein lies yet another way to threaten the characters. Don't kill 'em. Let 'em live and force the players to struggle with an uncomfortable blow to the identity they've struggled to preserve.
With this in mind, is it possible to reduce in-game death while simultaneously raising the stakes and building greater dramatic tension? Ironically, letting characters live longer could actually make death more effective when it finally happens because the players have had time to grow attached. Talk about cold. Could it be that old-school dungeons might actually go easier on the players by killing off their heroes before attachments form?
That being said, here's an outline for an alternate deathless D&D where characters live longer but possibly suffer more. The latter is debatable; but the players will feel like all they hold dear is threatened, which feels a lot like death. Take it as the suggestion it is...
(1) When a character falls in battle, they go unconscious instead. Should at least one companion survive or manage to drag their friend to safety, that character revives and even recovers up to 10 lost hit points. It takes a total party kill to produce true death.
(2) Death magic, poison, and/or traps are still fatal, as is death from one-on-one fights with no backup. There's safety in numbers, and splitting the party or going alone is a bad idea.
(3) Cheating death incurs an experience debt equal to the opponent's level x 1,000, with earned experience applied to the deficit first. The player must pay off the debt before further advancement is possible, and since levels are everything, this one hits home!
(4) If advancement is capped, the character loses 1d3 levels instead. Alternately, they could sacrifice one or more magic items with a total experience value equal to the experience deficit incurred under rule #1, above. Higher-level characters have more options and more opportunities to recover, so the cost is firm (but fair) given that life itself is at stake.
Once again, these are just suggestions, and admittedly not fully formed ones!
Death is a clear and present danger, which in turn motivates careful planning to avoid the possibility. At the same time, too much death lessens the impact, which in turn saps its motivational power. It could be that improving survival while dishing out harsher, albeit non-lethal, consequences for defeat might actually feel riskier. Ultimately, this depends on the system and the desired ends of the group; but when story matters, so does survival.
Tuesday, October 15, 2019
#4 MAKE A CUSTOM SYSTEM
*Robyn and I suspect that this assumption underlies many campaigns, especially those with a quasi-medieval/Christian religion. There's just so much to draw from here...
Tuesday, October 8, 2019
So first, Arneson imagined a simple game without wargaming's complexity; a game where story mattered more. Sounds good, right? And he did favor something like this. But anything he eventually made and marketed would inevitably spawn additional rules and become more complex, if only to codify new content. One need only look at his Adventures in Fantasy RPG to see a system as clunky and complex as any.
But what about Gygax? He's the guy who envisioned a 1:1 scale wargame where players ran a single character instead of an army but did all the same things. But once people started making original characters, they'd begin identifying with them and making in-game decisions that would start looking a lot like role-play. This was pretty much inevitable, and it's hard to imagine not role-playing Mocha the Magnificent under these conditions.
In short, Arneson's story-centric game was always going to become a more complex simulation while Gygax's Chainmail-inspired wargame was always fated to become the role-playing thing we know and love. The two men, and their approaches, were always on a collision course. Luckily for us, they joined forces, however briefly, to forge a unique version of what each would have inevitably become on its own, given enough time.
Now to be clear, this inevitability might not have happened in the hands of either man, although there's abundant evidence that it would have. The aforementioned Adventures in Fantasy comes to mind, as does Gygax's not-so-subtle nods to story, be it the powerful Charm spell or his requirement that characters act out the hiring of henchmen. Simulation and role-play were always gonna happen, and it's a false choice to think otherwise...
Tuesday, September 17, 2019
Dice are ubiquitous in gaming; so much so that we think they had to be there from the beginning. Now to be clear, they were (this should save some time in the comments section and is only right). OD&D used dice from the very start because the war-games before it absolutely did and to great effect. Battle is terrifying precisely because we don't know how things will turn out; and that's a hell of a lot when life itself is at stake...
Ditto for thievery. Ditto for surviving a deadly poison. Ditto for pulling off the heroic move that'll cement your fighter's badass reputation into eternity.
Still, old-school gaming (specifically OD&D, pre-supplements) was largely dice-free where gameplay was concerned. Seriously; while dice were there, it's entirely possible that the early version of D&D used them less than any time since, if for no other reason than because the referee had more power to enact rulings. This is well-traveled territory.
Rulings not rules. It's a mantra at this point. Rules (I'll say usually) mean dice, whereas rulings often avoid them completely. If you want to find that secret door, look. And be sure to describe exactly how. Spot checks are a rule that calls for dice. It's been said a thousand different times in a thousand different ways (a thousand and one now). We uphold this truth as fundamentally right; still, diceless remains controversial...
Some love diceless play, others (seemingly) hate it. It comes down to preference, and I confess to gravitating towards the traditional model myself, both as a player and a designer, although without the hate. It's a practical thing. Risk and uncertainly are useful states to trigger in others, a sort of adrenaline rush for the dice rolling set. Making people care is job one - and threatening all the players care about just might be job two!
It's a confidence thing. If you want to feel good, do something you didn't think possible, whether rolling a natural 20 that (maybe literally) brings the house down or just a successful attack that averts what should have been a bloody total party kill.
Still, much of what happens (and much of what players engage with) is decision making, exploration, and role-playing through problems. Often enough, just coming up with a clever solution is challenging; and watching the way in which choices build narratives can be as entertaining as any movie when the players care about what happens. In short, old-school players want more than just blood. They want to participate in experiences...
And experiences don't require dice, certainly not 90% of gaming ones!
I'll take it further. In OD&D there was no roll-under mechanic. Abilities granted just a few obvious bonuses (missiles come to mind), but beyond experience adjustments, existed primarily as an aid for the referee in adjudicating tasks. For instance, intelligence was used to determine if certain actions would be taken (that's almost a direct quote). Sorry Gordo, that clever strategy is beyond your 5 intelligence. This tilts towards the diceless...
Gary Gygax once famously said (memes be believed) that referees roll dice because they like the sound it makes. That's an exaggeration. People like dice for the reasons cited above, but also because it seems to put a character's fate up to the ultimate objective third-party in the form of dumb chance, but there's nothing necessary about it.
In our own Diceless Dungeons, smashing open a door makes noise, which in turn alerts nearby monsters. But what kind of monsters? This is just as uncertain and seemingly random as what might happen if the party had decided to go around. Moreover, while taking on that small pack of goblins is probably survivable, albeit with wounds, it's a tough choice without foreknowledge of the rest of the dungeon. This is true dice or diceless.
But risk and uncertainly aren't the only way to create tension. Being forced to make tough decisions is another, as real life will attest. In Diceless Dungeons, engaging a basilisk in melee guarantees that someone has decided to get turned to stone (you'll just have to read the rules). Who wants to make that decision? And this isn't corporate shill either; these problems are universal regardless of what system (or dice) are involved.
Remember, chess doesn't involve dice either, but remains very challenging. A dungeon stocked with unknown things coupled with hard decisions adds up to a tense and engaging experience, especially if the players care about their characters. This is surely how the hobby's founders saw things, at least before dice took over; and it remains good advice for anyone, including the majority who roll 'em because they like the way it sounds...
Tuesday, September 10, 2019
The growing popularity of D&D (and the recent Secrets of Blackmoor film) have piqued the interest of a new generation. How did our hobby begin? For the newcomers, many of whom weren't even alive in the last century (Jesus, how old does that make me), these facts are buried in the myth-shrouded past, when cell phones didn't exist yet and if you forgot to grab (insert grocery item here), your spouse couldn't call or even text.
Those were dark times when we couldn't answer every nagging trivia question by pulling a phone out of our pocket, but we got by somehow. And given just how much information is at our fingertips (or resting in our pockets and irradiating our vitals), it's all too easy to dismiss the youngster's lack of understanding. But we were all newcomers once...
That said, there's been a trickle of new articles by young journalists shedding light on the mysteries of our hobby's past. One Kotaku article in particular reads like a Watergate-esque expose of what the evil industry has long hidden. You mean Gary Gygax wasn't the sole creator of D&D? Some guy named Dave Arneson was also involved? Yeah, it's all too easy for us greybeards to snort at this, but we shouldn't. We were all young once and should applaud (and stoke) the interest of the hobby's next generation.
Truth be told, a certain mythos has emerged, one where Gygax became the central personality behind a certified cultural phenomenon. But if you played the original game back when it came in digest form, you'd have to work hard not to know that it was a joint affair forged by a creative duo, especially if you owned the Blackmoor supplement. Indeed, you could buy the B/X version as late as 1982 and see Gygax and Arneson credited.
But AD&D was attributed to Gygax alone, the result of that timeless money changes everything and not for the better shtick that ended an era. By second edition, Arneson was a fading memory, and third was the nail in the coffin. I won't speculate on the motives of Hasbro and Wizards in perpetuating this; but by 1986, money changes everything forced Gygax out of the picture as well. Anyway, if you're a 15 year old who started with 5th edition purchased through Amazon, you can easily be forgiven for not knowing.
So much for the kids. What about the grognards? I've heard the Kotaku article variably described as an anti-Gary hit piece or long-overdue justice depending on who you happen to ask. Those who actually knew the pertinent parties have taken sides; for instance, Robert Kunz's Dave Arneson's True Genius. As for this blogger, I began playing in 1978 and never once met either of the hobby's leading lights, although I've been fortunate enough to know David Wesely (Braunstein's maker) later in life, so my take is suitably nuanced...
Here goes: Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were imperfect human beings.
That's right folks, the founders of the hobby we love don't have to be these perfect, semi-divine figures with pure intentions. That's nonsense, and the imperfections of these two men were probably vital to the hobby's cultural advancement. The ugly stuff matters...
Dave Arneson, who forged the first fantasy campaign and reshaped the culture, was undoubtedly a visionary of the highest order. That's to his credit. But he clearly lacked the businessman's motivation. This reality may (or may not) also be to his credit, although it guaranteed that he wouldn't be the one to successfully market his creation.
Gary Gygax had marketing savvy as well as creative ideas of his own, although often borrowed from others. This was to his credit. But he was clearly also a hard-nosed businessman, which may (or may not) also be to his credit. His efforts are why I have the OD&D rulebooks framed and hanging over my desk, which speaks to his legacy.
We don't live in Candyland. People are greedy, selfish, and sure to act in their own best interests whenever a cash cow stumbles into view. Now I'm not suggesting that either man was personally awful. I can't (and won't) presume to know. But if I can be a card-carrying asshole from time to time we all can, including the hobby's founding fathers...
And this joining of flawed personalities was probably the only reason our hobby exists as anything more than a quaint local phenomenon. Chemistry is messy. It often involves explosions and sudden trips to the eye wash station. But amid the fire and chaos discoveries are made. If we like being able to role-play, we can thank Arneson; and if we like actually owning nice commercial products made by people who can justify the effort in creating them, we owe Gygax big. Pulling this off meant serving two masters, which is challenging.
Arneson needed Gary's discipline and focus as much as Gary needed Arneson (and other's) creative input. And the hobby insisted that both men suffer greatly in childbirth...
Still (and redemptively) time and loss are humbling, and Gygax and Arneson reconciled eventually. Fame and especially, money, are corrupting influences, and while we'd all prefer to think of the hobby's founders as laid-back gamers, this clearly wasn't always the case, especially once sales surged. In the end, we can appreciate the contributions of both flawed humans, even if we're occasionally disappointed by them. Their chemistry was real.