Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Rules, Roles, and Assholes...

I remember explaining D&D to my brother back in 1980. I'd started playing in '78; but this always happened off camera (mere coincidence because we did share friends), so he didn't have questions until I got a Holmes Basic set for Christmas, forcing him to reckon with an emerging phenomenon. His first observation was that the DM could do what they wished, and there wasn't much anyone could do about it. Unfairness loomed because (obviously) we humans are natural-born assholes largely helpless to resist our nature... 

It's a fair assessment. I've seen all too many misuse their authority, mainly the immature, a quantity in no short supply among adolescents (and too many adults). My only defense, unassailable by every measure, was that in a game of ongoing adventures, killer DMs would quickly find themselves without players. All this, and several months before I got my first Dungeon Master's Guide and read Gary's take on deficient DMs. I pitched this in terms of game balance (and whatnot); but at the end of the day, who likes an asshole?

GMs are the usual suspects given their obvious power. But players can also be a problem, albeit differently. I'm not talking about those too shy or insecure to contribute. Friendship and understanding goes a long way. Nor am I talking those of evil alignment, sanctioned by the rules and allowed to exist. OD&D had its Conan rule, which I'll employ. Assassins and similar miscreants shouldn't want to attract the wrong sort of attention, so this tends to sort itself naturally once the city guard and/or church (or archmage) gets involved.

I'm thinking more in terms of disruptive people who disrespect their fellow players and the referee for any number of bad and unjustifiable reasons. The vile player who wants to fantasize sexual violence against NPCs finds that people don't appreciate that sort of thing and react accordingly. Those seeking the same against their fellow players, delighting in whatever real-world harm results, get invited to leave. Of course, consent matters, as does good communication. It's only a problem when boundaries are willfully crossed...

Oh, and those who lack the good sense to not get stupid when boundaries aren't clearly stated (because, obviously, restraint is the safest bet) and especially, those who take advantage of a situation to feign ignorance. I've encountered that personality too, because decades of gameplay experience tends to do that. Young players might recoil at more traditional notions of rulings over rules, preferring dense rules as an absolute authority (to which all are beholden); but neither approach insulates against assholes.

So the good news is that gaming is social. That's its biggest strength, and one exceeding the power of mere storytelling alone. But the bad news is that gaming is social, meaning the experience is subject to the social contract - and easily derailed without the people skills no rules can possibly provide. Not the modern iteration, mechanically structured around the concept of fairness, and certainly not the free-kriegsspiel revolution. Only people can deliver that, so it's up to us whether my brother's observation becomes a dire prophesy...

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Teasing Out the Wargame...

OK, so I apologize in advance for what might seem a pedantic post about the little things residing within our various inspirations. Longtime readers know Robyn and I appreciate rules-light gaming, exchanging complex mechanics for complex narratives. Roleplaying doesn't require minimalism; but it almost certainly benefits from getting out from behind the rules and re-engaging with players and their unvarnished decisions, which brings us to this month's offering: teasing a simple roleplaying game out of wargaming rules...

So sometime back in the days of manual type, the New England Wargamer's Association published some LOTR-themed rules, provided below with apologies to your collectives eyes, click the image to enlarge. It's made the rounds in gaming circles, and I've just now gotten around to mining this bit of inspiration for ideas. These are evolutionary ancestors to modern roleplaying, and maybe we can (reverse) engineer something useful from them.   

So first, dragons. There's talk of triangular cones (surviving into modern play); but I'm more interested in the idea that dragons crush their targets, and that said targets can save and subsequently escape on a 5 or better. This probably isn't a direct ancestor to saving throws; but it shows the concept was kicking around the hobby. More importantly, and for present purposes, it suggests an alternative to the typical "hit point" approach...

Next, we have wizards (dragons and wizards are a great starting point). There's talk of fireballs, a staple of magic, and special immunities (as opposed to spellcraft); but I'm more interested in the idea that it takes 20 non-cumulative hits in a single round to defeat one owing to their abiding power. Non-cumulative. In a hypothetical roleplaying situation, Gandalf can take 19 hits without succumbing and bounces back the next round renewed.  

SAVE YOUR EYES AND CLICK TO ENLARGE

Finally, and I'm lumping the rest together, there's ents, orcs, and men to complete the fantastical battlefield. Ents defeat orcs on a roll of 3 or better, men (humans) with a 4 or more in an early version of armor class. Heroes (including anti-heroes) endure some 10 non-cumulative hits, akin to wizards, before succumbing to death. Now is this enough to cobble together a simplified combat mechanic? You bet your splintered shields...

Let's say characters can take 6 non-cumulative hits in a round of combat before dying, with attacks dealing one (or sometimes two) dice in damage. Less than 6, you live to the next round, refreshed in whole; but suffer 6 or more, roll to save (5 or better) with armor granting an appropriate bonus: light (+1), heavy (+2), shields (+1), such that a character in heavy armor and shield only dies on a 1. No attack rolls, just rolled damage against foes.

DISCLAIMER: I started playing in 1978; D&D, not wargames. I don't pretend to be an expert on wargames or the specific inspirations for particular mechanics, welcoming (warmly) the expertise of better heads. The point of this isn't forensic, but a desire to construct an original system from a wargaming source, especially one we might not fully understand (however intriguing it may otherwise be) and to demonstrate just how little is needed...

The above could be a simple, no-magic game of men vs. monsters. Everything else, whether money and equipment and/or the specifics of individual foes (and why shouldn't these be exclusive to the setting), falls to the referee. The earliest campaigns did just that. Dave had his game, Gary had another. Only with D&D as a commercial, for-profit enterprise did this paradigm overturn, and it wasn't always smooth going. Anyway, the best thing about gaming just might be the pleasure of creating our own, and that's an empowering thought.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Arsenic & Old Lace (a Review)...

The free-kriegsspiel revolution (or FKR; sometimes free-kriegsspiel roleplay) has been getting a lot of attention lately, which seems inevitable given renewed interest in the pastime's wargaming origins. But this style is far more than the minimalism it's known for. Instead, imagine that complexity is transferred from the rules to the narrative. This is free kriegsspiel in its purest form, and one most aspiring products fall short of by necessity...

Enter Arsenic & Old Lace by Tainted Edge Games. This release doesn't shy away from narrativism, embracing its promise by way of an evocative (and overlooked) backdrop; namely, The Thirty Years War, noting that this isn't history as it was, but how it was believed to be, complete with its cunning men, wise women, and mercenaries hardened by the endless conflict plaguing the land. It's an adventurer's paradise.*

The book is laid out like a period handbill, with woodblock-styles artwork to heighten the game's atmosphere. Narrative is everything, which includes the visual; and after an explanation of the system's core premise, the reader is offered a list of suggested readings (and viewings) to further reinforce the primacy of narratives as the guiding light of this approach. From here the rules proper begin, in keeping with the FKR spirit...

Characters each choose a vocation, including the aforementioned cunning men (and wise women) and mercenaries, but also thieves, witch hunters, and woodsmen. Each is offered as a descriptive narrative. What can they do? Whatever their definition allows for. And how is success decided? By rolling against a target number set by the Storyteller (a variation of the GM), supplemented, for added flavor, by some mechanical flourishes...

Resolve is a combination hit points/spendable luck point provision You spend it staying alive and/or improving dice rolls. Destiny is granted at the onset of an adventure and otherwise accumulated whenever the character rolls a natural 20 (we love this). Spending a point of this turns a failure into a success, albeit at a price, adding additional nuance to the emerging storyline. What happens? Ask the narrative. Does it work? Roll the bones...

From here the rules veer into seven appendices, covering everything from random encounters to potential spells. Magical effects are negotiated with the Storyteller, but with narrative (and historical) guardrails to impose balance. There's a total of three charts, extraordinary even in rules-light fare, and no monster lists (most enemies are human anyway) because imagination, through the narrative, is enough to give them life.

Of course, all of this relies on the same high-trust dynamic characteristic of the OSR in general; but taken to a whole new level. Narratives are rules, and rules provide the atmosphere expected of a simulated reality. Rules serve at the pleasure of the narrative, which means the perfect FKR just might read like a good story. Arsenic & Old Lace exemplifies this style, making it an essential addition to any FKR collection...

*Yes, it has black-powder rules and would work nicely with Barons of Braunstein.

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Gratification in the Gaming Age...

There's no doubt we live in an age of instant gratification. There isn't much we can't get immediately. Instant books, instant food, games, and instant movies and/or television (binge watching is a guilty pleasure in our personal orbit). Nice, and who's complaining? When hunger strikes, it's nice to get DoorDash. General Tso's is delicious, while pants are definitely overrated. Let's not pretend this fact isn't hot-buttered awesome...

Ditto for tabletop games. Steam makes us wait at least 10 minutes; but Drive-thru is nearly instantaneous. A universe of gaming goodness awaits a clicking finger. And again, who among us would dare to complain? In the time it took to write these words, someone picked up the complete Pits & Perils (and may they enjoy their purchase), underscoring just how good this is for everyone involved. Speedy delivery rocks; but what gets lost?

Things are precious because they're rare. Or infrequent. And that's the price we pay for this windfall. At the risk of waxing nostalgic, I remember the following well...


(1) Ordering my dungeon Hobby Shop catalog and waiting two weeks, only to order some miniatures and wait several more, checking the mailbox Christmas Story style. 

(2) Waiting all month for the next issue of Dragon (with a subscription).

(3) Patiently saving my allowence for some desired thing. The pleasure of a monthly trip to Pizza Hut. Next week's episode of (insert show here), seasoned by the waiting.

Speed is good, and variety better. Truly we live in a golden age. But if things are precious when they're rare, and it's sometimes better to wait, how do we square that circle and get the best of both worlds? Maybe we have to cut ourselves off from the glut of options, imitating yesterday's deprivations today. Yesterday was unintententional. There wasn't as much, and fewer ways to deliver it. These days, we need a more conscious approach... 

Curate a wishlist, schedule purchases in imitation of a middle-school budget (few of us are rich, so this part's easy), and maybe control social media time. Kickstarters are the very definition of delayed gratification, but proceed with caution. I'm not so old I think living was better with less; but just like we need to exercise to make up for the physical activity we lose in our sedentary lifestyles, maybe we should engineer that specialness ourselves.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

No Clouds Above, No Men Below...

Ageism might be the last acceptable predjudice; and given the young/old divide implied by the OSR, you definitely see this in the gaming community. Case in point: last week on Facebook (because it's always Facebook), some grognard posted a meme waxing nostalgic about their younger days and marathon sessions. No putting anyone else down, no ugly edition warfare, just reminiscing about a happy childhood. Well along comes the inevitable contrarian, who suggested it sounded like "old man yells at cloud" stuff...

Really? Also, absurd. So here goes. Simply (1) being old, (2) preferring older editions of whatever system, and (3) enjoying happy memories doesn't make you the proverbial old man (or woman) yelling at clouds beyond the rather thoughtless imaginations of some. By this reasoning, every grognard should immediately burn their rulebooks and rend their garments over these false memories of happiness. If you're denigrating the younger generation and their rulebooks, you are this guy. But simply liking your favorite stuff is far from it.

I get it (and rather suspect it's tit for tat). The young are denigrated ad nauseum for being born decades too late. Their games, famously forgiving, are too soft (as though generation X stormed the blood-stained beaches at Normandy). It's Marxism. Storygamers are entitled swine (take that, Forge). This is old man vs. cloud multiplied, and every bit as ridiculous as the reverse. Games are played for fun, and each offers a different experience. Unless a ruleset involves bona fide homicide, it's hardly Hitler's invasion of Poland...

But it's not all bad. Last year (also on Facebook) someone posted a gag module called Against the Grognards. I pointed out that grognard implied the aged, broad brushing them as stereotypical Boomers who resist everything. What they meant was Gatekeeper, a sadly universal phenomenon transcending generations. And you know what? My Facebook friend agreed, changing the title and making it all the funnier. Laziness is easier than nuance, accounting for much confusion. But preference and nostalgia alone are no offense.

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Action: Reaction Rolls, Take Two...

Reaction rolls seem pretty old-school to me. It's just the sort of sandbox, create-the-world-as it-happens provision that early gaming thrived on. But like the grappling tables, it might be one chronically ignored by later generations who inevitably simplified their new hobby through selective application. It happens. Don't like [insert mechanic here]? Vote with your feet and leave it out, all the easier if it seems extraneous to being with. Monsters are the bad guys, so roll for initiative already. That's my experience anyway; yours may vary...

But if you want to incorporare reaction rolls and keep it simple, you have options:

Take One: Assign predispositions to enemies in advance. Most are irredeemably hostile, doubtless explaining why so many have abandoned (or otherwise ignored) the idea straight away. Those foes amenable to bargains or bribes can be identified in advance, with terms and conditions spelled out. The Goblin Chief is wicked, but appreciates bribes of 100 GP or more per the GM. This is implied in certain rulesets and bears elaboration.


Take Two: Once again; the above, in some form, is close to standard practice, with countless iterations befitting the milieu. Another approach, for the adventurous, is to rework a game's entire system, merging combat initiative and enemy reactions in a single roll. One player rolls for the entire party (a rotating duty) with enemy reaction and initative as indicated:

2-4      Hostile; enemy takes initiative and attacks immediately
5-7      Negotiable; monsters hold initiative, but may pause for sufficient overatures
8-10    Hostile; party holds initiative and may attack or attempt to bargain
11-12  Negotiable; characters win initiative, but the enemy displays hesitation  

Of course, any openess to negotiation is lost with hostile action from the party, noting that superior players will already know to inquire about an enemy's non-verbal cues, saving themselves needless bloodshed. The GM will still need to establish temperment in advance, adjusting accordingly. This approach has the added benefit of being easy to remember in battle, and easy to tailor to conditions. Reactions are only positive when conditions are met, meaning that Take One (above) still applies. A great choice for Mydwandr.

Some enemies are always hostile, others always amenable to negotiation. In these instances, dice indicate potential attack order only. The rest comes down to the fine art of game mastery. That's because while the dice can generate outcomes, only a seasoned referee can translate entries on a table into a natural and seamless narrative where player decisions matter. Reaction tables are old-school because old-school rests on a sandbox stocked with random outcomes seasoned by strategy. But it needn't be difficult...