Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Does Gaming Get Horror?

Can gaming do horror?  Sure.  Ever hear of Call of Cthulhu?  Chill?  Yeah, gaming's taken many stabs at the so-called horror genre.  But can it produce what horror's supposed to engender?  Fear in its devotees?  Because really, horror only feels like horror when it comes uninvited into our lives.  From pulse-pounding jump scares to cold revulsion at something disturbing - or grotesque, horror lifts our rocks to expose the metaphorical nasties we'd rather not see but can't look away from, an experience not easily packaged...

The best books get into our heads, a prerequisite for feelings of unease, while movies are multisensory and replicate real-life experience, although they often go for the easy, low-hanging fruit of gore.  Gaming (of the tabletop variety) happens in the participant's heads, which saddles the GM with some of the responsibilities of a writer; and herein lies the challenge of horror games.  It's much harder to nail the landing.    

First, horror's not exclusive to any one genre.  It's just one of a whole range of feelings humans are capable of.  Horror strolls literally every avenue.  Soldiers fear war; lovers fear the death of their paramours.  Every survival story has a horror novel buried in its pages, ending be damned.  The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is more than just an examination of human innocence amid genocide.  It's ending, especially, is simply horrifying.

Worse still, it's arbitrary.  Werewolves in the middle ages are fantasy; but toss one into modern-day London and it's a horror movie.  And I get why.  Monsters are the danger that intrudes upon our safest moments.  Medieval knights and wizards are equipped to deal, however incompletely, with these things, making them truly heroic.  Modern people, ignorant of the old ways and softened by the illusion of safety, are merely victims.


At any rate, gaming horror is all-too-often reducible to monsters already neutered by heroic fantasy and a lack or actual risk.  Ghosts?  Check.  Vampires?  You betcha.  Man-eating werewolves?  The party just killed one last week and levelled up.  The sanity we lose in Call of Cthulhu isn't ours to give.  It's all just math on a sheet.  We risk nothing vital enough to merit panic, much less actual horror.  The scares are fake and largely academic.

In the end, horror's deeply personal.  And the things that scare us are closely guarded and shared only in confidence such that exploiting them for a game comes off like what the philosophers of old called a dick move.  Who would knowingly do this?  A little emotional intelligence goes a long way, but it sometimes means your game is long on Stradh and short on scares because horror absolutely implies dealing real-world discomfort... 

There's a goldilocks zone that's hard to find.  A sweet spot.  I prefer to focus on existential dread of the sort that briefly disturbs, but respects most reasonable boundaries.  Earth is really the egg of a cosmic monster just waiting to hatch.  A long-standing - and trusted - NPC is revealed as a cannibal - after one of many celebratory dinners!  It's the philosophy that intrudes on sleepless nights and bothers us short of anything approaching trauma. 

I'm sure I get this wrong.  A lot.  And my games become modern fantasies with ordinary (sometimes trained) protagonists fighting monsters they'll meet - empowered by white magic or machine guns - and winning out in the end or dying with no more heartache than a total party kill.  The OSR, with its life-is-cheap culture and homebrew critical tables, recalls slasher flicks in their gory particulars.  But it's cartoon violence and often reversible.

So can gaming do horror?  I've changed my mind.  Gaming can do monsters and stat blocks, the raw materials of a horror campaign.  Games can do the rules needed to measure out survival and quantify just how terrifying that elder god was.  Gaming simulates the suffering of imaginary minds; but that's where it ends.  You can't bottle this stuff.  It takes a GM and the right group of players.  A group willing to scare and to be scared within certain boundaries set largely by consideration and emotional intelligence.  Only then can horror be play...

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Size Matters, So Digest This...

When we first published Pits & Perils, lots of people assumed it was a digest-sized affair because, you know, Dungeons & Dragons.  The rules, which definitely took on wargaming's pretensions, were often compared to Chainmail, yet another digest-sized production; and while yours truly remains deeply honored by the comparison, our game was probably more influenced by Holmes Basic and FGU's Archworld, two letter-sized rulebooks...

The early days brought some great digests; not just OD&D but an assortment of others, all charmingly rendered in neat, saddle-stitched packages.  And it's easy to see why from a purely practical standpoint.  Most rulebooks aren't stapled down one side.  They're folded and either glued into the binding or saddle stitched to make one; and what do you get when you fold a letter-sized page in half?  You get a digest.  So yeah, digests.

But letter-sized rulebooks have their own advantages; and it's not at all surprising that this was quickly (and almost universally) adopted once the money started flowing.  Not only can you fit more text onto a single printed page, not to mention more charts, tables, and more ambitious illustrations (with equally ambitious layouts, by the way); they're also the same size as the notebook paper, character sheets, and graph paper you're already using.


So here's an incomplete list of digest-sized rulebooks from the early days, with the admission that we've probably left out a lot.  Still, there's some classic stuff here...

Arduin, Boot Hill, En Garde, OD&D (and its assorted supplements), Traveller

Followed by a list of early letter-sized rulebooks, every bit as incomplete...

AD&D, Adventures in Fantasy, Bunnies & Burrows, Bushido, B/X/BECMI/Holmes, Chivalry & Sorcery, Gamma World, Runequest, (the great) Tunnels & Trolls, Villains & Vigilantes 

We'll freely admit to more digest titles; but there's a palpable trend.  Letter-sized rulebooks, often packaged in boxed sets, came to predominate early on; and I'm ashamed we didn't include more Chaosium stuff (Cthulhu and Elric, especially), because these were state-of-the-art productions back in gaming's youth. Oh, and those three-hole punches in B/X and 2nd Edition's Monster Manual really spoke to the expected compatibility of this size... 

Which is to say, size matters.  Always has.  Always will.  But in this time of modern (and decidedly digital) self-publishing, choices abound.  We've tried to recreate the hobby's early, amateur aesthetic, and this definitely leaves room for a letter-sized style.  But we've also experimented with a digest format (Diceless Dungeons, especially) and found this not only nostalgic, but also easier - proving that in life and gaming, some things never change.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

On D&D's Speciation Event...

In biology, a speciation event occurs when a segment of an animal population changes so much that it constitutes a separate species.  Well games evolve too, albeit for different reasons; and it occurs to me that D&D just might have undergone a speciation event in the late 90s with TSR's acquisition by Wizards of the Coast.  And for those lamenting D&D's changing ways, take heart: it might not even be D&D anymore!  Luckily, that's not a bad thing either, since the earlier games still exist.  But first, a history lesson... 

OD&D (the three digests) was a game unto itself, although each supplement (especially Greyhawk) substantially changed things.  Greyhawk stands out because it added more than mere content, altering bedrock mechanics such as ability scores and even the sort of dice employed, with downstream impacts to everything from attack damage to what was possible with random tables.  But for all of this we're still talking incremental changes.*

Change within a species, for AD&D was basically a just better organized, better produced OD&D, which would have come as no surprise to anyone following Dragon Magazine through the late 1970s.  It was still classic D&D right through Unearthed Arcana, although here's where things start to become a bit more complicated.  The Survival Guides introduced non-weapon proficiencies, a natural extension of the existing rules; only now we begin to see the seeds of Second Edition AD&D, which was its next incremental step... 

Still, incremental.  Like AD&D, Second Edition reorganized (and repackaged) AD&D to consolidate and refine its disparate innovations, by then spread across multiple sourcebooks, into a new, coherent form.  It's necessary work as a system grows and sprawls out like a dragon stretching across a gleaming hoard.  It was still D&D, only increasingly consolidated, if not simplified.  There were the aforementioned proficiencies, but also THAC0, seriously maligned, but really just a mathematical manipulation of the original combat tables.

Bottom line, Second Edition felt like the original game or rather, the house rules of an industrious DM who really, really had their shit together.  It might have been my imagination, but Dragon Magazine actually felt more like its 1970s iteration - and despite the period's greatest liability: TSR's new management.  Yes, Gygax was a shrewd marketer.  But D&D was also his baby.  He loved it even when he thought it would only sell 1,000 copies, no small feat in the small press of the time.  Lorraine Williams saw only a cash cow...

This stuff matters because while in nature, natural selection and random mutation drive evolution, intellectual properties evolve under the powers of creative impulse, cultural and demographic change, and the almighty dollar.  Right through Second Edition, D&D was undergoing a gradual refinement.  Williams didn't care; but her creative staff did, something that countered her tyranny for a few years.  Sadly, an extinction event came calling.

A meteor ended the Late Cretaceous with a devastating fury that toppled the dinosaur dominion.  But it wasn't the end of all life.  Birds, who arose from a shared ancestor with the theropod dinosaurs, carried on.  D&D's meteor was named Lorraine Williams, who had a sneering disdain for her product's core audience and no respect for the work it took to fashion quality material.  Overextended and creatively spent, D&D was acquired by Wizards of the Coast and underwent its first speciation event from the ashes of extinction...

Enter Third Edition.  I call this a speciation event because it was.  William's TSR had the benefit of staff continuity, at least for a while; but Third Edition could only ever be a dramatic shift from its ancestry.  Some of its DNA remained, whether ability scores (and a method imported from AD&D's Dungeon Master's Guide) or d20, which, like THAC0, amounted to an inversion of some long-standing mechanics.  But the game's underlying philosophy was radically changed, which overshadowed nearly every choice its designers made.


The new game was increasingly naturalistic in its approach, feeling more like an Iron Age Star Trek than a fantastic medieval wargame.  Any Tolkienesque influences (especially halflings) were traded for insectoid elves and outlandish weaponry, a superficial complaint except that D&D was previously something else.  Moreover, anything that players might possibly, in some potential situation, attempt was codified with a vast array of modifiers until D&D began to feel like just another game merely similar to its namesake...

It became something else.  Maybe a new species.  And its new management seems to have stopped evolving the game in favor of radical transformations between editions driven by marketing data, real or imagined.  Fourth Edition channelled computer games because that's what someone thought the kids liked (and a battle game would sell miniatures).  Its current form pivoted back to something more traditional; but it's a slave to trends, trading on its past while simultaneously rejecting it and riding an ever-changing fleet of bandwagons.

D&D has always been a product.  Gary knew it and was happy to milk that cash cow with both hands.  But he also had a personal love for his creation.  I'm sure Wizards does too, but they're even more aware of the game as a product, to the point of substantial reinventions whenever the demographic winds change.  This might seem disingenuous to older eyes, but it's inevitable.  We're on the way out.  The kids (and their cash) are the future.

These radical shifts between versions just might constitute speciation events (as I rather suspect Fifth Edition is).  D&D was remarkably stable for around 20 years, but its acquisition by Wizards of the Coast changed so much that it just might be an entirely different game these days.  Fortunately for any grognards out there, the older editions are still available from a company that shrewdly panders to the young and old alike.  And don't forget the assorted retro-clones, great (and sometimes free) stuff that keeps the past alive in TSR style...

*B/X, BECMI, and The Rules Cyclopedia also diverged.  Call it a parallel evolution or whatever.  This is a debate for another post and not really addressed here.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Rules? Or Tools? You Decide...

This week, Timothy Brannon wrote an interesting post about Dragonraid, a so-called Christian role-playing system from the 80s.  No, we're not talking about that this week, although I heartily recommend reading Timothy's excellent take.  Instead, his insights got me thinking about the axis of complexity (let's call it Rules) and tailorability (Tools, hereafter), both of which intersect to shape a game's character and usefulness.  Now I'm a sucker for modelling; and I've built an axis on the following terms:       

RULES refers to mechanical complexity or a game's crunch.  The more rules present, and the more work required to execute them, the higher a system ranks here.   

TOOLS means the scope of a game.  Simulations meant to present an entire world rate high, while those focusing on narrow, abstract concepts rank low.  In practical terms, it denotes how easy (or difficult) it is for a GM to tailor a game to other milieus. 

From here it's possible to construct an axis; a mental exercise mostly, but potentially useful when evaluating a game or to designers wishing to better create their own system... 


LOW RULES/LOW TOOLS indicates a rules-lite, if not minimalist system, often heavily abstracted and centered on a narrow range of actions.  My Life with Master, focusing heavily on the dysfunctional relationship between a mad scientist and his or her minions, falls into this category.  With scores for LOVE and a simple core mechanic, the rules deal with nothing beyond the relationship between master, servant, and villagers.  By the time a GM has tailored this to another context, they'd have made a new game altogether.   

HIGH RULES/LOW TOOLS denotes a game with crunchy mechanics that nonetheless exhibits such a narrow scope that tailoring is difficult.  Dragonraid, a Christian-themed RPG from the 1980s, definitely fits the bill.  There's no shortage of rules; but with abilities like LOVE and KINDNESS plus a pretty direct Christian allegory, it would be hard to tailor this to any other genre (with the possible exception of Narnia) without substantial effort. 


LOW RULES/HIGH TOOLS suggests a rules-lite game that exploits simplicity to cover a wide range of in-game situations.  It's a world simulator in simplest terms.  Our own Blood of Pangea allows its players to write their characters into existence and exploits a single core mechanic for literally everything.  Bows?  Blasters?  It's all the same; and although made for sword and sorcery, a GM would have little difficulty tailoring it.  Of course, the Retrospace and Opherian Scrolls supplements do this for you, so check 'em out...   

HIGH RULES/HIGH TOOLS means a system that knows it's really a toolkit.  Anything that potentially could exist in a hypothetical world is offered, with abundant rules for a GM to build their own campaigns.  GURPS (Generic Universal Role-Playing System) is likely the best example of this (the name pretty much says it all), although Hero Games takes a worthy stab at the mantle.  Think of an erector set, only one designed to construct games...

And that's it.  But what value does it have beyond thought experiment?  Setting aside my conviction that thought experiments are worthwhile exercises, the Rules/Tools axis might help designers conceptualize where they want their game to go.  Old House Rules specializes exclusively in LOW RULES/HIGH TOOLS systems, although our Red of Tooth and Monsters Destroy All Cities might push the envelope.  In any case, it's been helpful to actually know where we're going with a design and to somewhat model the experience.

Robyn enjoys actually playing games and brings a practical, this-is-what-the-players want emphasis to things.  Her stable voice of reason has been invaluable. Me, I'm a rules nerd all the way.  Or maybe just a nerd and prone to such indulgences.  But I've long believed that every gamer is necessarily a game designer on the inside, and that none of this is anything people aren't already doing in the privacy of their minds.  Either way, we hope this little detour into design philosophy is at least entertaining.  Rules?  Or tools?  You can decide...

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Pits and Progress, Perils of Product...

Okay, sad news.  Life happens, and real life takes priority over our imaginary ones, even the semi-real companies that publish the games we play.  Recent events have forced us to rethink our priorities, and the second edition Pits & Perils is taking a backseat for now.  We're sorry; but there's a silver lining.  The first edition remains a playable system and, arguably, much closer to the hobby's finest instincts.  P&P was conceived as an amateur rulebook from the 1970s, and thanks to real life, it gets to be one for a little bit longer.

So last summer we promised a second edition Pits & Perils.  This was done with the very best of intentions; and it was something we were genuinely eager to take on.  No plan survives contact with the enemy; however, and 2020 was full of landmines ready to detonate and take a leg.  As the year wore on, it became abundantly clear that we weren't getting anywhere close to our optimistic projections of a 2021 release.  We want to get this right, and we can't do it quickly amid real life demands.  Let's just say the release is TBD...

Or DOA.  For now at least.  I'm sorry.  We hate disappointing people; but churning out crap to make an arbitrary deadline seems like a worse betrayal.  And this leads to a related issue; namely, the right balance of work and play, life and our hobbies.  Olde House Rules began as a hobby masquerading as a business; but at times it's felt like a business disguised as a hobby, which is exactly backwards.  So much of our venerable industry; its finest parts in my humble opinion, are the work of hobbyists laboring in their skivvies at four in the morning, birthing little bundles of joy for less than anything close to a living wage.

It has to be fun.  And preferably, it has to be a thing you do to escape the stress of your day job, whatever that may be.  Once play becomes work there's no play left, so I'm glad the hobby remains the domain of amateurs.  Long live the side hustle!  And the small press in all its glory.  This is where the pastime delivers.  Face it, games are only fun because people play them; and they're more enjoyable when there's a sense of ownership.  Turning play into work turns hobbies into productswhich brings to mind an exchange I had in 2017...

Buyer: Diceless Dungeons looks like crap.  What do the monsters look like?

Me: That's for you to decide.  The world is yours to create and populate as you wish.

Buyer: How come you don't have rules for (insert any mechanic here)?

Me: It's rules-lite, and we don't wanna tell you how to judge every little thing.

Buyer: Well maybe I could make my orcs look like this (emails a picture).

Me: That's awesome!  You should definitely do that (it was actually pretty cool).

Buyer: I was thinking of handling initiative with (insert house rule here). 

Buyer: And adding this to spells.  And this to the weapon rules.  And this magic item...

The last I heard he was still running a campaign.  He took 100% of the rules (I don't know if they picked up the expansion) and added 150% of his own material.  They're not running Diceless Dungeons; they're running their game using the Diceless Dungeons ruleset, which is how it's supposed to be.  Big press stuff is pretty sweet, but it's predisposed to its own problems; and one of the perils of product (TM) is that sooner or later, it appropriates the very choices players make, wraps them up, and sells them back as an expansion. 

Of course, professional products can also serve as inspiration for original campaigns, so I don't mean to knock 'em.  I own a few and delight in their gorgeous production and valuable content.  But the small-press scene offers another very worthwhile experience; a required experience, for those who wish to thrive creatively.  And for anyone lamenting the delay of a second edition Pits & Perils, remember that the first edition is 100% playable, and 100% what we intended to make: an old-school game that invites you, the players, to give it life...