Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

On Gaming's Polar Trolls...

Some weeks ago I posted this oldie in an AD&D community on Facebook (call it a love letter to my favorite era of our beloved hobby); and while I got lots of interesting and thoughtful commentary, especially from those who disagreed on some point, I got two responses from the polar opposites of our fractious scene that highlight its basic divisions: 

On the left (I'm convinced), there was the person who thought I shouldn't have made any distinction between disparate backgrounds at all, as doing so forms ruinous hierarchies and sets the needs of some above others. In short, analysis is oppression. All approaches are worthwhile, and we should ignore any differences. I agree about acceptance; but the answer isn't pretending there aren't clear distinctions worthy of debate...

We simply must be able to talk about the history of our hobby; and we can't do that by constructing an imagined steady state. D&D could only grow beyond a quaint local wargame by reaching past its base, a matter of marketing to bona fide others. Their heart was in the right place, never rising above motherly scolding; but the internet's full of misguided utopians who think we'll only be free when we're all the same, which is, uh...problematic. 


On the right (certainly) was the guy who thought non-wargamer meant no combat of any kind allowed. A bunch of douchebag 5th edition pansies making friends with orcs and chanting Kumbaya from their safe spaces. Setting aside the absurdity; my point was that fantasy fans who never played anything by Avalon Hill flocked to D&D because it promised them the adventures they read in Howard and Tolkien, heroic combats included...

Non-wargamer doesn't mean no fighting; and we might have had that conversation if he hadn't called me a douchebag and personally blamed me for ruining our hobby with activities I don't even engage in. No 5th edition, no friendly orcs. But even if I did, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be any of his business. Let people be themselves. The internet's full of self-styled libertarians turned thought police when faced with some hated thing or another.

This isn't left vs. right. I've made many conservative friends who avoid wargames and enthusiastically embrace the roleplaying elements present in D&D from the start, just as I know liberals aplenty who demand nuance. Left, right, and center, these rational actors peacefully inhabit gaming's ranks. The ugly extremes demand outsize attention; and they want the same thing: control through a caricature of their preferred ideology... 

It's possible to go so far left that you become right and vice versa; so maybe the best way to keep our identities intact is a solid center with robust right and left leanings willing to act responsibly and practical enough to realize they need to. I'm happy to report that the majority of our scene, doing great things despite the outrage, upholds this balance. The trolls are wandering monsters rolled on a 00 and easily overcome when we don't feed them. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Gaming's Central Finite Curve...

I loved Google+. After an adulthood avoiding social media, it was my first experience, as both publisher and online denizen; and when the end came, I mourned what must have been the hobby's Camelot. Older and wiser now, I realize it was the central finite curve from Rick and Morty; a device joining only those parts of the multiverse where its unsympathetic hero, Rick Sanchez, was the smartest man in existence. Google+ took cues from that...

Now Google+ was a flop. For a Facebook alternative, it lost its fight like a kobold loses to Demogorgon; I'm talking no chance territory. But its ultimate failure, ruinous to the platform's long-term existence, gave rise to a vibrant small-press scene as great at it was brief, with plenty to offer while the good times lasted. It was gaming's central finite curve, shutting out the big-press people (beyond fan impressions) and setting up a delightful facsimile of the professional scene in its place. The result was a truly amateur space.

You couldn't follow Wizards of the Coast. Or Metallica. Or any artist, brand, or publisher having anything resembling mainstream success. Brands didn't flock to Google; they politely declined the inevitable loser G+ would become. This didn't help the platform catch on; but small-press gaming found opportunity in the space they left behind and built its own universe, a central finite curve of sorts where the little guys were its dominate lifeforms...


Google+ had its own publishers. And journalists. And artists and freelancers servicing the same in imitation of the professional scene. It had its own celebrities and fandoms. You could set up shop and operate there, and many small-press classics got their start in its rich soil, aided by an architecture designed to provide the same basic experience, although scaled to a decidedly amateur, small-press form. In short, Google+ gave the little guys a space beyond the shadow of the bigger names - and all because of its ultimate 
failure.

Of course it helped that 4th edition D&D* fumbled. Tabletop gamers were looking for other alternatives; and while Pathfinder was popular at conventions (from my own experience), people were exploring the ascendant OSR, itself a small-press phenomenon, along with other fresh options on Drive-Thru and Lulu in its prime. Google+ added an online platform, large, active, and public facing, where the scene could work as a self-sustaining thing.

It was (and remains) real, just like the carefully curated realities from Rick and Morty are technically real. But it was also a compelling illusion born of notable failures converging on a single point of opportunity. More than anything though, it was a textbook example of what happens when the big names go away and the little guys can come out and build their own economies. Oh, and it was an awesome place to land as a small press publisher in 2014, although the metaphorical winds of change were already beginning to blow.   

Fifth edition was a return to form. Demand for small-press fare waned, although the OSR remained popular, being a flavor of D&D. Hell, Stranger Things - and Critical Role, propelled the game to new heights of popularity (and fashionableness) unthinkable in decades past, which changed the scene pretty much forever. Google's failure was the killing blow; and while the scene continues to thrive, it's scattered now, sharing precious oxygen with a victorious Facebook while its alumni mourn the lost Camelot of gaming's central finite curve...

*Totally subjective; lots of people loved it; please don't hurt me; I want to live!

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Game Review: Have Axe, Will Travel...

It should come as no surprise that Robyn and I love minimalist gaming. So when we chance upon a good example, we can't resist the opportunity to toot its horn and pitch the style to anyone within earshot of our megaphone. Turns out a good example of the Free Kriegsspiel is Have Axe, Will Travel, the latest from James Hook (Talon Waite to some) and Exalted Funeral. It's an inspired little system; and in addition to saying why, it's a perfect opportunity to evangelize and make the case why this might be the system to start with: 

Physical production is nice, straddling the line between primitive roughness and elegant presentation. With artwork by Inked Gas and some excellent font choices (I'm in love with the body font and grainy watermark), you really get an amateur, old-school atmosphere, which speaks to the core of its identity and aspirations. There's old-school, and then there's a deep time of the hobby; an Arnesonian time when games were minimalist affairs dependent on robust social contracts and a freeform narrative born of pulp goodness...

And HAWT lives up to its aspirations. Some rules are almost bullet papers, others denser treatments brimming with more than enough. HAWT wisely steers a middle course, offering up meaty details with a clever eye towards just enough to explain things adequately while providing room for the reader's imagination to blossom. You're almost immediately thinking of what you can do with these rules; essential, but often overlooked as a yardstick.

Character creation is an elegant, 7-point process, chief among them traits. Who (and/or what) is your character? From nimble elf to magical tree person, this is negotiated between the referee, who builds their setting, and the participants. All too often, I've seen novice players come with great ideas, only to get shot down (and possibly discouraged) by the rules. This is Free Kriegsspiel in it's purest form, friendly to creatives; and anyone who appreciate the approach will find a masterful expression of the concept at their fingertips...


Traits include a profession; again, negotiated, along with languages and cosmic bondage, alignment in the game's unique parlance. How long should it take to say you want to play an elven archer? Or to work out that you come from the Blue Forest? Free Kriegsspiel says people are in the best position to decide - but so does HAWT. Readers are also treated to one of the best explanations of Law, Chaos, and Neutrality I've read anywhere, bounded by wonderful artwork that screams OD&D rendered by abler hands for added flavor.

Oh, and you get one extraordinary ability useable once a day, whether a magical pet who intervenes at critical moments or whatever, barring the godlike and game breaking (and again; who better than the players to say what that looks like). It's great stuff, and very much in the spirit of Arneson. You're playing to have fun, not to struggle through daunting rules seeking the perfect mechanical build. Imagine if literary characters were made that way; no, give me Conan and Frodo - or doom-haunted Elric with his sea of troubles.  

And there's money, a starter kits of sorts, and equipment tables. Every effort is made to balance breadth and depth on the side of freeform gameplay, which seems instantly easier just following the book's guidance. Those seeking tedious explanations of the system's monsters are missing the point of Free Kriegsspiel. The referee gets to build on their vision, which assures engagement for those who never tire of flexing their own imaginations in service to a fun shared experience. HAWT caters to this creative audience... 

And what of Gameplay? If you can do something (common sense and traits) roll 2d6, with a result on 5 or 6 on either die meaning success. Acting at an advantage, whether skills or circumstance, roll additional dice; when acting at a disadvantage, roll less. It's a simple and organic system that works well in practice. There's no adding or needless calculation, just eyeballing results, which Robyn and I liked a lot when we tried it. And there's Might, serving as hit points and a resource to expend gaining advantage or casting spells...

In this sort of game, choices are everything; and rather than just roll for success or failure, players tell their tale with resources that steer their fate. It's not story gaming; but something in line with what Arneson had in mind. But Might can also be spent casting powerful spells; provided - but with room to grow - limited only by the participant's imagination. This involves imprisoning spirits in runic objects, channeling the sorcery of historical imagination more than the impersonal science of D&D. I find it a nice departure from Vancian stuff for sure.

Characters advance. They fight monsters, win treasure, and get better. This content is provided, showcasing its simplicity (monsters get three easy stats). And there's the expected other stuff; overland travel, structural damage, the works. Its offerings are amply robust, complete and quickly extracted from the text for easy reference, which harkens back to what a rulebook should provide when not dabbling in heady fare. And even if you don't plan on tackling the rules as written, there's a body of useful - and universal - material.

Gaming is rules; but it's also technique. And philosophy. To this end, and to tie it all together, HAWT includes advice galore, both from it's author and contributors from across gaming community. Full disclosure: I'm one of them. Scott Malthous, Wizard Lizard, and Phantasm 72 add their voices, along with Tad Vezner, a seasoned veteran of the first dungeon adventure regaling the reader with invaluable experience (this one's almost worth the price of admission in my humble opinion). The author knows the genre - and recognizes a kindred spirit...   

Oh, and there's a sample adventure in homage to Arneson and a character sheet that nails the freeform spirit of the game. All told, it's a solid minimalist package, and one that ultimately succeeds as a toolkit around which clever referees can build their own universes.

VERDICT: Have Axe, Will Travel is a minimalist Free Kriegsspiel game that thoroughly understands - and respects - the genre and presents it well. Some hobbyists are intimidated by this approach, finding it untethered. HAWT shows that it can possess a solid structure while invoking the creative instincts of its participants, making it a great choice for seasoned minimalists and enthusiastic newcomers ready to flex their imaginations. If this sounds like your cup of tea, Have Axe, Will Travel is a worthwhile addition to your shelf and table...     

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Story Gaming the Old School?

Tabletop roleplaying's traditional form involves a sharp division of labor. Conan, for all his might, had little control over the enemies he fought, only his own choices and those things he could change through personal effort. But there's another tradition: storygaming, perhaps without a formal gamemaster, where everyone collaborates on all elements of an adventure - and all without the classic authoritarian bent. Not my cup of tea: but I'm a live-and-let live person who gets how our hobby's origin might also have been collaborative. 

So early D&D was a freestyle affair, emphasizing rulings over rules (as befit the game; nothing's absolute, least of all our hobby) and leaning heavily into the social contract. Even so, there was a clear division of labor as vital as any rule. The Dungeon Master built the setting and became any and everything not a player character, whether innkeeper or lurking cutpurse. This lent a sense of realism because, much like our world, influence was hard-earned and greatly limited. No collaborative, lets-make-a-story-together stuff here...

Or was there? Because in OD&D's Monsters & Treasure booklet, Gary offered this piece of advice for "unlisted" monsters. Read to the bottom of page 20 for this gem: 

LARGE ANIMALS OR INSECTS: If the referee is not personally familiar with the various monsters included in this category the participants of the campaign can be polled to decide all characteristics [End quote; and this included Martian beasts from Burroughs].

That's right, Gary suggested that certain campaign elements might be subject to collaborative debate among the players; and while this doesn't rise to story gaming as we know it today (and certainly not the stuff The RPG Pundit so reviles), it nonetheless suggested that players could have a hand in establishing elements their characters would never reasonably have any control over. I mean, when I was in Iraq we really wished we could magically dictate the capabilities of the enemy to our favor, but such influence was beyond us all...

I make no claims beyond Gary's words. I wasn't part of the early sessions and can't speak to the extent this sort of thing happened (although it's not a stretch to imagine enthusiastic amateurs borrowing each other's ideas while creating this new hobby off the cuff). But what it really means is that while the so-called classic playstyle was cemented early on, there was nonetheless this transitional time when it hadn't happened yet. A time where D&D's true purpose (and ultimate source of fun), lay in people interacting with each other first.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Loving the Dungeon Bummers...

Something I love about old-school gaming is how character centric everything is. Dungeons exist because the players need someplace cool to explore; and monsters, especially of a certain variety, were made exclusively to challenge the party. We can retroactively provide an ecological justification; but really, these monsters (original creations and not derived from mythology) exist solely because characters exist. I call them dungeon bummers, and these made-up baddies remain close to my heart, especially the following creatures:   

Gelatinous cubes are virtually invisible and fill a corridor; i.e., the very open space in a dungeon becomes dangerous and requires special care to safely navigate.

Lurkers above drop on the unwary, punishing those who fail to look in all directions.


Mimics make virtually any stone or wooden object potentially dangerous, almost as much as all the mimic memes on Facebook. This is the mother of dungeon bummers...

Ochre jellies slip through cracks in the walls, meaning danger lurks in the ordinary crevices abundant underground. They only exist to endanger the unwary adventuring party.

Piercers are the spawn of an asshole god. Now all those stalactites are potential monsters, ensuring paranoia and yet another excuse to prod stuff with your 10-foot pole.

Now I get that any monster presents challenges to a party, however realistic. Bears are terrifying adversaries; and we get those in New Jersey. But monsters specifically created to exploit some common occurrence are a whole other ballgame. These character-centric encounters only exist because the characters exist and interact with the campaign setting, a delightful love letter to the players. It says the game exists for them; dungeons were made with them in mind; and a good DM labors with love to challenge and amaze them...    

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

I Was an 80s Gaming/Metal Nerd...

Around 1982, I discovered that everything I liked was Satanic. Dungeons and Dragons, obviously (hence the blog), but also metal music (to be clear, its better specimens and not the questionable hair-metal variety). You'd think I was holding a daily black mass to hear the hysterical rumblings from certain quarters. Youth was under assault; Satan was pulling dark strings using every tool in his arsenal - music and, apparently, imagination... 

I'm sure some of those who never came to their senses would be horrified at my secular humanism; but this isn't a religious thing. Some of the best and brightest hobbyists, people I like and respect immensely, were - and remain - people of faith. And I saw firsthand how moral panics, unmoored from reality or evidence, hurt these early gamers as well-meaning parents locked away their rulebooks, convinced they were saving souls.

Demons, magic; things prohibited by the Good Book featured prominently. And just like rock and roll and cars (yes, cars), gaming took kids to places adults couldn't follow (barring the superior sort who took the time to ask or actually participate). I suffered articles in supposedly respectable media claiming things objectively - and demonstrably - false, which made me appreciate the value of evidence while showing that my elders could still be wrong.

It was a volatile mix. We were young and newly rebellious; and here's this sweet new thing that allowed us to experience another world - and to be another self. It wasn't about rebellion, per se (our Chess Club was dubbed The Mild Bunch); but it became a subversive act once everyone began freaking out. More than anything we'd seen, gaming was awesome because fantasy was awesome. Dragons and wizards and magic swords are awesome...

And then one day your buddy plays some Dio - or Ozzy, or whatever, and it speaks to that fantasy loving part of you. The driving guitars marched us into battle even as the solos taught us that a person could do more than play chords behind a singer. And its lyrics, running the gauntlet from horror to magic to samurai warriors, was the wizard painted on the side of your neighbor's van. With matching imagery, heavy metal was gaming music made flesh.

And you saw this speciation; the drama nerds, obviously, but also some pure metalheads (think Eddie from Stranger Things) who may not have even graduated but loved fantasy, because it's awesome, and saw their aspirations in dice and dragons. This didn't help polish gaming's image to a hysterical public - be we understood. And the cross pollination won metal some unlikely devotees - and elevated a genre to the status of nerd rock.

I steered a middle course. My friends called me a Mingler because I moved through many circles (steadfastly avoiding certain ones), including the metalheads. In my experience, roleplaying showcased their criminally overlooked talent and intelligence, and this went both ways. Metal friends made us more worldly and open to experiences beyond our relatively sheltered existence. The benefits to both factions was definitely not a stranger thing...    

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Gaming's Non-Gaming Seeds...

Games inspire games, especially fifty years on. There's a whole industry catering to the hobbyist's every potential need; but no one's born a gamer, however enthusiastic they become a few delves in (going by my experience). No, it all begins with any number of non-gaming influences seeding our beautifully fertile ground. Feeling nostalgic, here are mine, ranked in rough order and all from the 1970s when the hobby was born:

(1) Rankin/Bass Hobbit. Here was a colorful look at a world of dwarves, elves, and humans unlike anything I'd seen before. I have no regrets that this was my first Tolkien...

(2) Famous Monsters of Filmland. A great magazine! You got deep dives into pretty much everything from Bela Lugosi to Harryhausen. Fandom began in its pages.

(3) DC Horror Comics. House of Mystery, House of Secrets; this was usually modern horror stuff with trademark ironic endings, which nonetheless delivered a fantasy feeling.

(4) Marvel Monster Titles. Think Where Creatures Roam - or Monsters Dwell. The emphasis was on Jack Kirby monsters enough to stock a modern gaming sourcebook.


(5) Star Wars (Chapter 4, exclusively). Forget the tech; this was a fantasy film. 

(6) Planet of the Apes (original films and comics/merchandise). A sci-fi future where humans and non-humans shared a tense coexistence. Another early fandom.

(7) Aurora Movie Monster Models. Dracula, The Salem Witch; these glow-in-the-dark kits instilled a love of (and expectation for) hands-on customization of my own monsters.

(8) Land of the Lost (the 1970s series). Marshall, Will and Holly...and a world of Sleestaks, dinosaurs, and proto-humans I swear was inspired by someone's D&D game.

(9) My Grandfather's Encyclopedias. Pre-internet, this was how you looked information up; and I delighted in its mythology. A perfect fit for gaming's pseudo-academic methods.    

(10) Late-Night/Weekend Creature Features. Damn I'm old! Before cable, you bought TV Guide and waited days on end for these goodies to hit your local UHF station.

All I can suggest is to look this stuff up. Some is timeless (Star Wars, anyone), with modern relevance while others are quite obscure in an age where the "big two" comic publishers cater to superheroes and the internet's gobbled up the magazines. Google's gateway to porn likewise opens to some (not-quite-forgotten) remnants worth the effort to excavate.

I started gaming on the cusp of its breakout success (1978), where it quickly became self-referential and internally driven. But the seeds of interest in this stuff were planted as I painted models (doubtless huffing a little glue in the process) and poured over an assortment of comics and magazine articles carefully curated by yours truly. It was a golden age of storybook innocence and a growing community - and budding fandom - looking for a voice.

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Alignment As Moral Shorthand...

Character alignments are surprisingly controversial in some corners of the hobby, although hardly a universal complaint. I've come to the conclusion that they're pretty much essential for a certain kind of fantasy to operate, and for reasons obvious and sometimes obscure: 

I know; there's the usual stuff about good and evil being palpable forces. I know this because I've used it to defend the idea of alignment in the past - and because having your magical longsword dedicated to (and exclusively useable by) good seems altogether appropriate to a world of actual gods and working magic. It really depends on what kind of campaign you're running. Ditching alignment is fine; but you're not getting anything like the above, and maybe that's your point. But if you do, it has an ease of use it seldom gets credit for... 

Alignment is a convenient shorthand. Each one or two-word descriptor stands for a range of moral behaviors and motivations, clumsy to describe without them. You could spend a bloated paragraph explaining how Thorvin is compassionate and oathbound - or you could just write lawful good (LG or lawful, system dependent) instead. I agree that major NPCs deserve a well-written entry; but LG is elegant and immediately translatable into meaningful information. Think of it as a condensed profile, just add water and a little creativity.

Now the naysayers insist that alignment's limiting. Really? So characters are all over the place, becoming cruel enforcers at the drop of a hat and returning whole to kindly altruism in the name of personal freedom? Fine; but there's already an alignment for that guy: chaotic neutral depending on how far they go down the rabbit hole in a pinch. But most are far more consistent; and each falls somewhere on the line. Again, it depends on the campaign; but every good concept maps to some designation even when they aren't used...

And I'll dispense with the notion that alignments are inordinately (or even necessarily) limiting. When your player hands you their ten-page backstory and it screams chaotic evil, they've limited themselves well in advance. Concepts are limiting. Form too, even while welcoming new possibilities. Good characters can be petty and vengeful. They just have a noisy conscience that pumps the breaks, averting disaster. Evil characters can show love and compassion, albeit for selfish reasons. Anyway, plenty of variety within alignments. 

Now I can hear some scribbling their ALIGNMENT HAS TO GO essays already. Just bear in mind that most our projects outright reject the concept, and for reasons the most diehard contrarian would doubtless agree with. This isn't about being wrong. I could write a heartfelt defense for the opposing position - and probably will someday. If the world's governed by moral imperatives radiating from the mind of god(s), alignment works. Otherwise, naturalistic free will has its place, and let none say you're wrong if you choose that path...

Historically, people have been good to their own and horrendous to those they deemed outsiders, so I understand a certain strain of realistic fantasy. But voices calling for an end to moral labels insist that some ideas shouldn't be explored, which feels, well, immoral.*

*Hyperbole; no one's Hitler for disagreeing with me. Have a nice day dear reader...  

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Brewing the Game Fantastic...

My favorite feature of gaming in the late 1970s (aside from the manual type and amateur aesthetic) was the rules-are-just-a guide mentality. We were playing D&D, a common tongue known by all, with each campaign a quaint regional dialect. From a thick Boston accent to lazy southern drawl, we spoke the same language, but it was different. The referee could mix and match what they wanted, even taking from other games. Decades later, our so-called classic catalog tries to do the same. You can eat 'em RAW or get creative...

RAW (rules-as-written) is fine; but you can add or change anything to suit your style, and guess what? Our stuff was deliberately made for this. Try these: 

Barons of Braunstein with Pits & Perils' armor system (and for added detail, assign bonus hits per Gaming Primitive). Oh, and maybe its magic items as rare artifacts...

Blood of Pangea using Barons of Braunstein's literacy system and/or Gaming Primitive's dual hit point/skill point approach for versatile heroes and gameplay...  

Diceless Dungeons, but with Barons of Braunstein's dicey combat and modifiers.

Pits & Perils, with Barons of Braunstein's mass combat and siege rules with outcomes tied to specific actions undertaken by the characters on some secret mission...

Each of these has its own feel; which is to say, Barons of Braunstein is experienced quite differently, thematically and mechanically, than say, Pits & Perils. But they snap together like Lego blocks with minimal effort. They have a shared core. It isn't quite an engine (I reject mechanical builds and video-game comparisons); but make your system simple enough and focus on content (monsters and the like), and you get something very much like an engine, although a common tongue with many regional dialects is my preferred comparison. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Mentors: Gaming's Miyagi Effect...

Back in the 70s you couldn't learn D&D by reading the little brown books, much less the luxurious hardcovers, all of which were reference works for the already initiated. Long story short, you couldn't learn without a mentor. Or two or three. An indulgent group willing to instruct a neophyte (although let's be honest, we always wanted new players). In this way D&D was much like an apprenticeship, and gaming akin to magic*...

Until 1977, when Holmes Basic reached out to a generation of new gamers, condensing these mysteries into 48 classic pages. Its readers were subsequently directed to AD&D, and who wouldn't crave the upper levels of power those hardcovers represented? This was a necessary avenue for many, although personal instruction remained the principal gateway as these new DMs sought players (assuming most took up that essential vocation).

When the Basic Set (1981) landed, I assumed it was an updated tutorial. The Expert set cleared that up; but this parallel track still led many to AD&D. And once again, it spurred ever-increasing numbers to join the pastime and train their interested peers. Imagine an honest pyramid scheme where everyone wins. Anyway, for players learning the rules this way, there had to be at least one friend or family member ready to receive instruction.

A lot's happened since then. The parallel tracks converged; but every new edition has its introductory rules. Gaming's mainstream now, and you could probably learn how to play just about anything with a google search. But it's still in-person mentoring (allowing for online instruction with a human on the other end), that holds the hobby's attention, initiating fresh players into mysteries beyond any rulebook to bestow. Mr. Miyagi would be proud...

*Mine was a walk-in. My neighbors were playing with their garage door open! 

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Gary Invictus, the Great Escape...

So last week or so, there was some debate about what Gary Gygax might have thought about the latest edition of D&D. Who knows? But it wasn't lost on me how both sides of the metaphorical (and all-too political) divide claimed Gary for their own and fancied either a kindly, tolerant acceptance or utter disdain (although the latter might have been hyperbolic rambling), which suggests the man's ultimate transcendence...

Gary very sadly left us in 2008. But he lived long enough to change the world, make legions of friends, and share his wisdom. There were decades of articles and interviews galore, including threads on many forums, all of which offered glimpses into the man. But he left us before Twitter and today's toxic political environment, so we'll never know who he'd have supported in our contentious elections. Ditto for the (numerous) hot-button issues endlessly debated online. People try to infer this or that, but it's a clumsy stretch. 


I'm realistic. He was an older man from a previous time, and I somehow doubt his views would consistently align with contemporary mores*. Gary would have run afoul of one faction or another, and the tribes would predictably close ranks faster than you can say sheeple, overshadowing both the man and his work. I'm thankful this never happened in his lifetime, especially given the (absurd) politicization of the current hobby.

By leaving when he did, Gary put his game ahead of himself; and this is as it should be, especially for a hobby explicitly laid in the able hands of its far-flung adherents. No man, not even the pastime's progenitor, should claim the final word. Moreover, by avoiding today's sometimes vulgar (and never particularly humble) online debates, Gary became a universal figure in which everyone can see at least some reflection of their values. In a time of ugly divisions, it's nice when something can unite us in positive and enjoyable ways...

*He had libertarian leanings to be certain; but no one's a monolith or mere stereotype.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Fantasy (TM), Overexposed...

Gaming (and fantasy in general) has long-since gone mainstream. From computer games to television shows, the fantastic is seamlessly integrated into the popular imagination so completely that even non-fans understand its conventions in broad strokes. You can find polyhedrals at Dollar General, plush beholders on Amazon; and thanks to the movies, Santa's helpers are no longer the go-to response to elves (my cell phone offers elf emojis far removed from the toy-making kind). TL;DR: this fantasy stuff is popular...

And that's a fundamentally good development. No old man yelling at clouds today. It means we aren't reviled as geeks or nerds anymore (those born after 1990 might not realize how much of a thing that really was back in the mist-shrouded 70s). It means more products - and definitely more people to play with and/or share our love for all things fantastic, with fewer barriers to creative souls wishing to partake. The incredible diversity of people in the hobby is quite literally the best thing about the mainstreaming of our collective dorks. 

But the mainstreaming of fantasy means the commercialization of it all. Every book is part of a Trilogy (TM), every movie part of a Franchise (TM). Half a century of lovingly enshrined conventions become Product (TM) in a crowded marketplace; and no, it's not lost on Robyn and I that we sell games in this saturated environment. To call our popular culture fantasy obsessed is a profound understatement. Don't get me wrong, good fantasy sells better than bad, and we're rewarded by the market with some great entertainment...


But am I the only one here who who gets tired of it sometimes? From the sheer glut of steampunk and plush Cthulhu toys to the latest formulaic (insert your platform here) series designed in a boardroom and calculated to generate Twitter traffic, it can be too much to stomach. Not sure if the kids here know how familiarity breeds contempt; but it surely applies in this situation. There's no greater threat to wonder than the crass commercialization of whatever takes our fancy. Words to ponder while cuddling our plush beholders. 

But it's a trade-off world, and this is the price of mainstreaming. If that's what it takes to welcome everyone and provide them with choices, so be it. And it's not like we don't have options here. Be a better consumer of products. Tune out the commercials. Given how ridiculously easy it is to sidestep the pitfalls of oversaturation, the complaints of this post are frivolous and probably downright petty. It's our job to act responsibly towards our personal abundance, whether food (drink), money, and/or popular entertainments...

Better still, we can take back our passions. Write (and play) a homebrew system. Make fantasy something we do rather than something we just watch or buy. That's what's so great about gaming, 5th edition as well. It's easy, and inevitable, to make these things our own, which is wildly subversive and positively human. And if there ever was a pastime subject to commercialization and simultaneously immune to its worst effects, gaming, in all its glory, might be it. That's all for this week. Time for this old man to go yell at some clouds... 

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

D&D's Icon (and Sutherland's Last Laugh)...

So D&D's almost 50 years old. That's half a century of gaming goodness, and I'm sure Hasbro's gonna commemorate this to the hilt when the time comes. But with so much history behind it, I sometimes think about its imagery (and its many changes) and what artwork is emblematic of the game. Something universal despite its seemingly endless remakings; basically, a single image that stands for all it was and will ever be. I pick the cover of Holmes Basic. Here's a look. After some (much) debate, it's the quintessential image:

The game's called Dungeons & Dragons. Here's a dungeon; and a dragon; and a pair of adventurers ready for battle. Nothing comes closer than this to depicting, and I mean literally translating, a name to an image. But it also nails the essential experience of the game by showing its actors, action, and setting. And its creator must have understood this...

Sutherland was a great artist. Not because he was slick like Easely, but because he was simultaneously accomplished with a rough-around-the-edges amateur spirit. This fine artist was relieved by WotC when it aspired to more modern production, and he was right to feel abandoned by the industry he helped bring to visible life. But he gets the last laugh because his work is emblematic where other, more polished efforts fade away.

Gaming is at its very best a peer-to-peer exercise. The later stuff sometimes feels top-down, which is why Sutherland was so effective. I don't mean to denigrate the obvious talent of modern artists. I couldn't draw my way out a paper bag, so those who can get my undying admiration and respect. But artists from the hobby's amateur age also deserve credit. Minus the photorealistic depictions of orcs in sophisticated city adventures, it's that much easier to grasp the hobby's central truth: fighting dragons and winning gold in dark dungeons...  

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Gaming Past, Future Primitive...

It's a new year, and we're ringing it in with a new title: Gaming Primitive; an alchemical mixture of traditional freeform/kriegsspiel with the structure and consolidation present in more contemporary offerings. If any of this sounds familiar, it's our mission statement. Read the games free preview to get its measure. This week's post is more concerned with its history and what it means for the future of Olde House Rules - and this blog.

So back in 2018, yours truly considered retiring from active publishing. I'd said everything I wanted to say on the subject and hoped to sign off on a high note. And Robyn lent her complete and enthusiastic support, which gets me through everything. But I wanted to make one final statement. Something a bit more polished that summarized the best of what we genuinely thought rules-lite gaming had to offer. The result was Gaming Primitive...

And then a funny thing happened. I didn't retire after all. If anything, I fell back in love with our back catalog (a back-to-basics moment I guess) and enlisted Robyn's able hands on The Diceless Wilds and Chronicles I: Roman Silver, Saxon Greed. Gaming Primitive was shelved not because of this, but because there was so much else going on. Long story short, it sat gathering dust until I decided it was high time this little piggy went to market.

And now it is. And I'm not retiring just yet. And this blog isn't going anywhere. Indeed, we're returning to a bi-weekly format effective immediately. But as the new year rings in, Robyn and I would like to thank everyone who's supported us through the years. You're the reason we stick around, and you're the reason Olde House Rules is anything more than some greybeard making games in his underwear (you're welcome for the visual). Happy New Year...  

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Heritage Hafkungs, a Nostalgia Bit...

So a month or so ago, I gushed about Grenadier miniatures. But years before I learned to love those delightfully ugly metal men (and monsters), my heart belonged to the old Heritage Dungeon Dwellers (R.I.P.) stuff I adored in my gaming adolescence. And that love's easy enough to understand. These things had real style, and their evocative roughness emulated the grainy look and feel of the early artwork that informed my gameplay.

And one set that really stands out, and stands for everything I love about gaming, is the so-called HAFKUNG ADVENTURERS package. That's a bastardized halfling, and it's my favorite typo ever. Check your keyboards and you'll see how it all went down. Anyway, the typewriter font is an enduring love, and $3.49 for four miniatures was something my 80s allowance could handle. I had this set. I remember everything like yesterday...

Now look at this guy. He's fat with big hairy toes that channel Rankin/Bass a little. The roughness is there, don't get me wrong. They were courser than Grenadier. I can't explain it, but all that metaphorical empty space spoke volumes. And check out the cool page-boy hairstyle. Today's muscular and sexy halflings; you know, the ones who look suspiciously like contemporary people? Nope. Oh, and there's a little weapon for little folk.

And that's it. These Hafkungs speak volumes about how I take my fantasy. Supposedly medieval characters who look like 21st-century cosplay fall flat. That's just me and not any kind of objective standard. Do your thing, I'll do mine. But the best games always leave something to the imagination; and that miniatures could capture this too is nothing short of amazing, really. It's how bugs become features and a hobby charmed the world...