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...

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Reviews (and Indoctrination)...

Ok, so last week I read a review of Chronicles I: Roman Silver, Saxon Greed, our first published scenario for Barons of Braunstein.  Spoiler alert: while they kind of liked it, they felt it was too lethal because they thought Barons of Braunstein was too lethal.  That last part came as a surprise because no one's ever accused our old-school titles of being particularly deadly, quite the opposite.  Pits & Perils has a nice little cushion...

In Barons, it's literally impossible for a new character to die from the first successful attack made against them.  Not even with max damage from a greatsword.  Not even using the lethality provisions in Appendix II.  Now spending LUCK carelessly can change all that, but a thoughtful (read: restrained) use of said resource still leaves them a bit tougher than the average OD&D upstart.  And herein lay the confusion.  The reviewer in question assumed that Barons was basically an OD&D retro-clone because really, aren't they all?

Now I'm not slamming this person, who I happen to like and respect.  But all of this does speak to the primacy of D&D and the success of the OSR.  And it definitely speaks to how the old-school renaissance has maybe (unintentionally) indoctrinated us to assume that certain approaches are universal.  Lethal gameplay?  Dungeon crawls?  OD&D is classic - but it's far from the sole blueprint, especially when adventuring in historical settings.


Open-ended gameplay?  Strategy over builds?  Aren't these old-school as well?  This debate has been done ad nauseum, so I won't do it again except to say that aspiring to the early days of the hobby doesn't necessarily imply OD&D's approach - or rules.  But this is a totally forgivable impulse given that much of the OSR really is a cloning experiment - and it's not confined to rules either.  OD&D casts a long shadow over pretty much everything...

Case in point: our module features a realistic interior setting.  Suffice to say, it's not some fantasy dungeon where you can go room to room killing enemies without consequence, a fact we emphasize in the book.  Our reviewer called it a dungeon crawl - but is it?  Should we label every interior area a dungeon - much less a crawl?  Modern spy games are full of such places, as are historical ones where the term has no meaning.  The reviewer went on to suggest that our adventure fails because it can't be approached this way...

Full-on fighting or dull silence are the only choices - and the danger of the game, already addressed here and rightly put to bed, is seen as a bug, not a feature.  But is this bad design or just poor strategy?  I think it's a failure of the imagination, as the players have abundant choices once they climb outside the box.  Everything's on the table, whether recruiting locals to swell the party's ranks or staging lightning-fast raids.  If a frontal approach isn't possible, maybe they need to try something else instead.  This is never even considered. 

Again, indoctrination at work.  The OSR is great; but some quarters emphasize a mere fragment of its many possibilities, until every interior is a dungeon and door-to-door murder the only solution.  Now this is true for some, where gold equals levels; but soon enough, every problem becomes a nail to be pounded by a metaphorical hammer, and we forget that old-school could be so much more.  Especially the historical side, where reality reigns...

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Booking the One-Minute Round...

Classic D&D prescribed one-minute combat rounds.  So does that mean it took a whole minute to swing a sword?  No way.  One round - or so the story goes - consisted of multiple thrusts and parries, meaning each attack roll was (at least potentially) the culmination of several such actions.  Abstracted to be sure; but we were good with that because the game was so damned awesome we didn't care.  Nowadays, six-second rounds (or thereabouts) are preferred, but it wasn't always so, and I blame books and wargaming:

Ok, so books.  Fantasy has long been a literary genre; but anyone born after 1970, and certainly after 1980, might not appreciate just how little of it there was outside the pages of books.  Dragons and wizards were difficult and expensive to render, so movies generally avoided them (with notable exceptions, obviously).  At any rate, the genre wasn't mainstream by any stretch of the imagination.  But we had literature.  From vintage storybooks to pulp barbarians to Tolkien (among others), books gave what the mainstream couldn't...

And books are abstracted much like those combat rounds.  Consider this:    

Thorgir cut through a jungle of writhing limbs and snarling faces.  His blade drew sweeping, gruesome arcs and still the things came, eager to kill or die in a suicidal last attempt.  

The above isn't blow-by-blow.  Fiction isn't photorealistic, except when it is.  But the best writing lets the reader's imagination do some of the heavy lifting.  Poor Thorgir is up to his ass in foes; and one can easily imagine the blood flying with each swing.  Wargamers raised on the tales of Howard and Tolkien were doubtless predisposed to accept this.  Now I know that books are still a thing.  I'm not an old man yelling at clouds just yet.  But modern hobbyists have access to entire channels devoted to fantasy, so expectations may differ.

Fine, but what about wargaming?  I'll only suggest that when one figure on the tabletop equals ten (or more) troops on the battlefield, you aren't rolling for each one.  This is D&D on a grand scale.  One round equals many blows from many combatants, each performing a melee of enormous scope - and with longer combat rounds to match.  D&D's first generation was likewise programmed to accept this, especially since characters were also seen as far more disposable.  Anyway, as more individuality crept in, so did changes to the rules...

Characters got more hit points.  Clerics got more spells.  A stab at survivability in service to an ongoing narrative became the standard as more non-wargamers signed on.  Add the inevitable influence of movies and television, where each strike is captured in precise detail and - huzzah - one roll of the dice equals one attack in a blow-by-blow narrative.

Of course, it's not so simple.  Back in 1978, we were already narrating attack rolls in rich detail, so the shift was probably inevitable because players, being human, became attached to their characters.  Even so, we can't discount the way in which popular media influences expectations.  Movies, television - and now computer games - have greatly changed how we consume fantasy; and it's hard to imagine this hasn't made a difference.  But young or old, the mainstreaming of fantasy is a good thing, and our hobby only better for the trend... 

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

The OSR's Goldilocks Zone...

Before getting on with this week's offering, Robyn and I are please to announce the release of Chronicles I: Roman Silver, Saxon Greed, a starting adventure module for Barons of Braunstein set in Saxon England of the 8-9th century.  If this sounds like your thing, you can pick it up for just $1.49 from Drive-Thru RPG.  And now, on with the show...

So weeks ago on Facebook (or somewhere; I remember the issue more than the forum), someone suggested that the OSR seems to want the old days while co-opting the newer stuff it often decries.  It wasn't an adversarial encounter, since he liked this best-of-both worlds approach as much as he disliked the gatekeeper mentality of some.  We ended up agreeing; but the exchange got me thinking about how thin the so-called veil between old and new really is, especially since neither side has a monopoly on inefficiency.

Old-school D&D (but not necessarily the OSR) was remarkably clunky in its particulars despite its reputation for simplicity.  Separate mechanics for combat?  Stealth?  Turning the undead - not to mention saving throws?  The dungeon master was looking up a dizzying array of charts, making a DM's screen a necessary investment.  I can't imagine anyone using AD&D's grappling rules.  Seriously.  I didn't even bother.  Fiddly subsystems (to quote one friend's characterization) ruled this universe - and it wasn't always a stable reign.

But early D&D was delightfully open ended, with lots of gray area for the players - and their referee - to fill in with an alchemy of rulings and strategy.  It was the social contract on steroids, with just enough rules to keep it all from devolving into anarchy.  This is sometimes mistaken for simplicity; but it's not.  Awkward - and scattered - as they often were, these systems were confined to the most critical of functions, with everything else being optional guidance at best.  Its clunkiness was at least redeemed by this fact...

So maybe OD&D squandered its open-endedness by failing to employ a simple core mechanic (not at all out of reach, by the way).  Which is to say that early D&D succeeded despite its clunky mechanics, but clearly missed an opportunity to achieve its goals.

Enter modern D&D.  Here you get a simpler, more streamlined mechanic, which is frankly impressive, but also not the sole property of the younglings.  OD&D's combat resolution (roll d20 against a target number) was always there.  But applying it to everything else was a stroke of brilliance undermined by a tendency to mechanize everything until your character can't fart or scratch their ass without invoking some rule, however streamlined, robbing player agency in the name of simulation.  Bad?  No.  A missed opportunity?  Sure. 

Now enter the OSR.  This gets derided by a certain faction of reverse-gatekeepers as a contingent of dinosaurs shaking their fists; but it's remarkably progressive in at least some of its accomplishments.  By combining OD&D's rulings-not-rules approach with the modern hobby's thoughtful streamlining, you get gaming's Goldilocks Zone (but the baby bear's was just right).  The inverse would be untenable; a clunky, overwrought system appropriating every conceivable choice.  I'd say the OSR (like the baby bear's porridge) is just right...

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 of 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...