Posts Tagged ‘michael mornard


RPG Retirement

This is a post about how, back in the day, players would set a safe and comfy retirement as one of the driving goals for their player characters. The post about the RPG Retirement Home, the safe and comfy place (probably in the Midwest) which I am driven to create so that we can spend the last years of our lives pretending to be elves 24-7, will wait for another time.

Original gangster Tim Kask, founding editor of Dragon magazine and co-founder of Eldrich Entertainment, posted recently at the latter’s blog:

End-game goals? What a novel idea, at least for what seems to be a majority of contemporary players. Just what were those novel ideas? Same as you and me in real life: make a stack of cash, buy or build the home/castle of our dreams on our own substantial property where nobody is likely to mess with us and retire to enjoy the fruits of our labors. Yes, Virginia, we really did play like that. All of us had PC’s that were “retired” or “semi-retired”; we did not use them except for special circumstances.

Adventurer Conqueror King is as interested in setting out a system for players to pursue end-game goals as I am in exploring how these goals arose out of the original conditions of play. In playing and talking to some of the OG’s, I’ve seen secondary evidence for PC retirement as the ultimate end-game goal. During one of the side chats during the campaign Michael Mornard ran in NYC, he talked about how, because clerics got their stronghold so much sooner than other classes, everyone wanted to play the class that was the easy route to becoming landed gentry. It didn’t occur to me at the time that this castle would be a de facto retirement home, but because clerics in OD&D also hit their more-or-less maximum level earlier this makes sense. (Tim’s post is mainly talking about class level limits. It also gets into players having a big stable of different characters in the same campaign as a corollary of PCs retiring, which Mornard posts about here.)

Last night’s game was the first time I’ve seen a player in one of my campaigns (Ray Weiss, author of Everything is Dolphins) expressly say that the main goal for their character (whip-wielding, whiskey-drinking Randy Buffett) was to reach a safe place and retire. After having celebrated this sighting of an old-school trope arising spontaneously in the wild, I’m now ready to speculate on the reasons why PC retirement might be sought after in some games but not others.

Character sketch for Randy Buffett, retiree wannabe.

Lack of advancement. We used the original edition of Metamorphosis Alpha as the player-facing rules in last night’s session. (Behind the screen it’s Adventurer Conqueror King, or a mutation thereof.) Metamorphosis Alpha has almost no system for a player to improve their character’s abilities through play. I’ve cobbled together a Burning Wheel-style advancement mechanic using the closest thing there is in MA – when you make five successful tests against Mental Resistance you get to improve it one point – but the zero-to-hero payoff is muted. My houserules mean that MA characters start off at the point an OD&D character reaches at name level, where further adventuring might get you some extra hit points and more spells per level but you’ll never get another hit dice or new level of spells. When MA is played as written, a new character is more like a max-level D&D character of one of the classes referenced in Tim’s article that have a hard level cap: they’re basically as bad-ass as they’ll ever be. Note that the original group of D&D characters to visit Metamorphosis Alpha’s Starship Warden ranged from 18th to 20th level, plus an intelligent sword and some level-capped characters: “Tom and Tim went as druids (probably because they liked all types of herbs).”

Recent editions of D&D place a lot of importance on offering many benefits from advancement evenly spread all the way to level 20 or 30. Given this incentive to keep adventuring, it’s not surprising that retirement isn’t on the minds of players in these games; few will ever run out of zero-to-hero. Mornard and Kask described groups in which, having reached the point where rewards from further adventures diminished, retirement became “the ultimate and totally honorable goal of the game.” Such lofty levels remain a distant dream for any of the New York Red Box D&D campaigns, but last night suggests that retirement is a much more immediate goal in MA where advancement isn’t much of a hook right from the start.

A long road to the top. No goal that’s easily achieved is worth setting for your player character. Original D&D, and Adventurer Conqueror King even more so, very clearly lays out a lot of worthy obstacles between you and building your own gated retirement community, all of which – like amassing a lot of gold and clearing a hex of monster lairs – can be achieved through play. (Interestingly, you’re assumed to do this at the point where your character’s stats can still advance by adventuring, and one of the benefits of levelling up is getting free followers to staff your castle with, so the system uses the zero-to-hero carrot to reinforce the retirement incentive.)

Last night the group had a chance to return to their home village and lord it over everything they surveyed, but they passed up this chance at early retirement because they hadn’t yet achieved true security. Retiring onto a patch of land that isn’t hurtling out of control through interstellar space, rapidly breaking down, and in the power of the deranged intelligences Mother Brain and the Captain is almost as beyond Randy Buffett’s grasp right now as a level cap is to a newly-minted D&D character.

Love for your character. Some of the strong reactions to Kask’s blog post at and theRPGsite come from the assumption that a rotating stable of characters means that the player has no more attachment to any of them than you would the counters provided to your side in a wargame. (Some also derive from the fact that Tim is either enough of an OG to have stopped caring who he offends, or enough of a showman to know the value of controversy.)

This is obviously wrong, even setting aside the ample evidence in Playing at the World that wargamers have been developing personalities for, and emotional ties to, individual units for centuries. If none of your characters means anything to you, why would you derive satisfaction from knowing that one of them has escaped from the fray to enjoy the good things in its imaginary life? The reward for advancing a pawn across the board is the exact opposite: it levels up and can fight more effectively, and because you don’t care about it like you do a player character you’re glad to pay the price that turning your pawn into a queen has also painted a target on its back.

As a point of OSR research and intellectual interest, I’m glad to see that this campaign has generated the conditions necessary to make an end-game goal emerge organically from play. (This bears out an observation of Chris Clark’s that the most important innovation of Metamorphosis Alpha was to make the end goals explicit and urgent: whether you’ll try to save the ship or escape from it becomes a pressing issue as soon as the players figure out what’s going on.) But as a player, what makes me proud is that in just two sessions of play Randy Buffett has gone from being 3d6 in order to a person who Ray cares enough about him to fervently hope he reaches a place where he’ll never again risk being sliced apart by animated bottles of Aunt Jemima syrup.

EDIT: I just remembered that one of the first OD&D characters ever created in my White Sandbox campaign, Lotur the Scurrilous Cur, was also explicitly retired from play. The omission was probably because Lotur’s goal seemed primarily to achieve domestic bliss with his beloved gynosphinx Ontussa, which seems different but is really just a specific flavor of retirement home. To the points of a large stable of characters and threat of death, though, Lotur’s player Greengoat was also explicitly interested in making room for a character whose stats wouldn’t suck so bad and perhaps would thus not be so constantly on the edge of mortal peril.


The Seven Geases

"Inhabitant of Hyperborea", by Clark Ashton Smith. Rumors that this was Rahbar Vooz's character sketch are unfounded.

Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Seven Geases,” which Michael Mornard says was his and Rob Kuntz’s pick for the quintessential literary expression of what Dungeons & Dragons is about, can be read online. Go do so now, and then I will ruminate on some passages:

The Lord Ralibar Vooz, high magistrate of Commoriom and third cousin to King Homquat, had gone forth with six-and-twenty of his most valorous retainers… He and his followers were well armed and accoutered. Some of the men bore coils of rope and grappling hooks to be employed in the escalade of the steeper crags. Some carried heavy crossbows; and many were equipped with long-handled and saber-bladed bills which, from experience, had proved the most effective weapons in close-range fighting with the Voormis. The whole party was variously studded with auxiliary knives, throwing-darts, two-handed simitars, maces, bodkins and saw-toothed axes. The men were all clad in jerkins and hose of dinosaur-leather, and were shod with brazen-spiked buskins. Ralibar Vooz himself wore a light suiting of copper chain-mail, which, flexible as cloth, in no wise impeded his movements. In addition he carried a buckler of mammoth-hide with a long bronze spike in its center that could be used as a thrusting-sword; and, being a man of huge stature and strength, his shoulders and baldric were hung with a whole arsenal of weaponries.

Everything about this passage, from the big party of henchmen to the details of their equipment, is pure D&D.

“Most of the caves were narrow and darksome, thus putting at a grave disadvantage the hunters who entered them; and the Voormis would fight redoubtably in defense of their young and their females, who dwelt in the inner recesses; and the females were fiercer and more pernicious, if possible, than the males. “

The discussion of women and children amongst the humanoids of the Caves of Chaos often focuses on Gygaxian naturalism, but Clark Ashton Smith is no naturalist.  There is something pulpy and visceral about the image of  Ralibar Vooz slugging it out bare-handed with the females and the young of the Voormis; I think it’s the implication of savagery on both sides, so far removed from a duel between gentlemen with shiny epees and clean white fencing jackets.

“You speak in terms of outmoded superstition,” said Ralibar Vooz, who was impressed against his will by the weighty oratorical style in which Ezdagor had delivered these periods.

I think I remember reading that Gary wasn’t a CAS reader; certainly Klarkash-Ton is the most notable omission from the AD&D Appendix N reading list. (CAS does appear among the Moldvay recommendations.) However, whimsically baroque dialogue is a key ingredient in the D&D canon  by way of Jack Vance. Vance was famously influenced by P.G. Wodehouse, which suggests a line of transmission to Terry Pratchett. The Discworld books were ones Gary said he would have added to a modern Appendix N, and in our last session of Ramshorn Dungeon Mornard used a reference from a Pratchett (was it The Truth?) to describe how rapaciously the locals tried to pass themselves off as potential hirelings to claim the free meat and ale I foolishly promised.

Owing to such precipitancy, he failed to notice that the web had been weakened and some of its strands torn or stretched by the weight of the sloth-like monster.

I was (mis)telling the plot of “The Seven Geases” at Gary Con and Jim Skatch said “That’s the same story as Gilgamesh.” Notably, this was before I got to the ending!

I’ve been talking recently about whether role-playing games are truly a new thing under the sun, and if so, why it is that they weren’t invented sooner. I think that for lots of human history, legends were lived as much as told: sacred narratives incorporated into one’s daily experience, such that each of us takes on the role of the hero. The ending of “The Seven Geases” holds nothing sacred; the protagonist’s striving and fate are enjoyed from an ironic distance.

As literature, this distance lets us admire the impressionistic color and Smith’s lingustic brushstrokes. As source material for a game, it makes room for uncertainty and multiple protagonists. Attempts to make D&D into a heroic myth are unsatisfying because the hero’s triumph is foreordained, and the possibility of failure is necessary for player agency to be meaningul. And on a practical level, having one mythic hero who represents human aspiration is a bad fit for RPGs as a group activity; who is going to play Gilgamesh’s sidekick?

“The Seventh Geas” says that you can have any number of characters as bad-ass as Lord Ralibar Vooz, with his mammoth-hide buckler and 26 dinosaur-leather-clad henchmen, since any of them can have their illustrious career ended by a failed Spot check. Lots of later editions focus on fulfilling the promise of epic heroism; “The Seven Geases” says that the original game is really about coming oh, so close.

I should also say that Mornard uses “The Seven Geases” to illustrate that D&D is the story of the world, not the characters in it. I don’t have a particular quote to make that point, and hopefully he’ll do the job better in the comments than I could have.


Pledge Allegiance

This morning on the bus, I tested my son’s knowledge of Tarzan to check Charlie Jane Anders’ assertion that the character is unknown to people under 30. It turns out that nine-year-olds have enough familiarity to nickname you “Tarzan” if you wear a lion-print Halloween costume that started as one year’s Charles Atlas and was re-used as Hercules the next. What Javi knows about Tarzan is that he swings on vines and drowns enemies in quicksand who are not hip to the vine trick. Tarzan’s origin story is news to him, which is probably not good for the long-term survival of what makes the character unique; apparently we are no longer much interested in people being raised by apes, but still need an iconic image of a guy who runs around hollering while half-dressed.

Cover from Doc Savage Magazine, July 1935

Anyway, Javi wanted to know why I was grilling him about Tarzan so I explained that I’d read an article about what new pulp characters have come along to replace old ones that are forgotten, like Doc Savage. Then he wanted to know who that was. Being a fan of Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life I was able to do a credible run-down on the Man of Bronze, but a nine-year-old’s thirst for knowledge makes it very handy to have a hivemind in your pocket. The Wikipedia entry brings us to the thing I want to talk about, Doc Savage’s credo:

Let me strive, every moment of my life, to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it.

Let me think of the right, and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice.

Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage.

Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do.

Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.

Since Green Lantern was Javi’s first heroic fascination, he and I are no strangers to oaths. Our conversation about why the Guardians of Oa require that their agents to recite a daily oath to receive their powers, and what benefits Doc Savage might receive from having a code to guide his conduct, got me thinking about creating a credo for characters in a role-playing game.

I am at the stage of unpaid taxes where I guiltily suspect that a commenter like NUNYA who likes all caps and creative spelling might be Joesky in disguise sending me a warning, just as an unrepentant Scrooge might flinch at the sight of passers-by who just happen to be androgynous and candle-headed, robed and torch-bearing, or gaunt and spectral. So instead of just waxing theoretical, I will try to offer actual game-useful content. (Before the gassiness ban takes effect, let me note that Doc Savage is awesome because his myth is the unfamiliar archetype that sheds light on elements of our culture so familiar that they’re hard to perceive directly; doesn’t “strive to make myself better and better that all may profit” and “take what comes with a smile” sound like a perfect encapsulation of the ethos that makes original D&D appealing?)

And I won’t just say “hey you should make up your character’s code of behavior” because I haven’t done this and have no reason to suspect it would be a good idea. When I suggested to Javi that he and I should make up oaths for ourselves, he was clearly embarrassed by the notion and I suspect your average player, or even me when I’m not wearing my enthusiastic Dad hat, would feel the same.

But I really like the idea of striving, every moment of our lives, to make ourselves better and better, to the best of our abilities, that all may profit by it.  Since the Joesky tax fund is full of stuff that’s useful to DMs, I’ll start a series of posts aimed at being better players.

Michael Mornard's dice are not older than me only because I am really old. The twisty white thing at left was not a joint, but I don't know what it was.

Last night in the OD&D game Michael Mornard ran (here I make an exception to  Games That Can’t Be Named‘s name-no-names policy), I rolled up Boboric the Huscarl and did not want him to get killed. Being a first-level fighting man, I decided that having plate-mail would go a long way to supporting this ambition, but I only rolled 60 gp and needed cash for flaming oil and door spikes and all the other things that would let me contribute to the welfare of the party without needlessly exposing myself to death in the front lines.

So I approached Roger de Coverley, who had emerged from the previous adventure with all kinds of wealth and second-level-ness, and announced “Sir, I will pledge myself as your guard and servant if you will equip me with a full suit of steel armor!”

After making sure that this pledge included standing in front of Roger in the marching order, Paul agreed to equip Boboric. Seeing the success of this tactic, the player of Melbar the Lesser got in on the action. “Hey, is there a Melbar the Greater?” I asked. Upon learning that he was indeed, M. the Lesser was of unspecified relation to Melbar the Greater, Lord of Toast, I said “Cool, will you accept me as your vassal so that I may wear his coat of arms?”

Paul cut himself into this action too: “Hey, Roger has a garter that you can wear.” Being quicker on the draw, Boboric  got to wear the right garter, Melbar was stuck with the left. (He also wound up in the first rank of the marching order; sucker!)

What started out as a simple exercise in advantage-seeking (with overtones of greed and paranoia) became my key to roleplaying Boboric. When I challenged a bandit leader to single combat, after defeating him I went over and laid down my spear (which cost me 1/60th of my wealth, and had a valuable spider stuck on it for safe-keeping!) at Roger’s feet, establishing to the surviving brigands that he was the big man here; Boboric had proven himself to be tough and fierce, but how much more to be feared was the guy who commanded him!

Gronan, Roger, and Melbar (background, from L to R); The Mauler (foreground)

The decision to play a character who was eager to pledge allegiance and see what he could get in return unlocked a lot of fun for me during the session. Here’s what I think can be generalized as advice on being a better player:

  • Want something. D&D is a great and compelling game because, in every edition, it gives me ways to “strive to make myself better and better.” As we’ve said at the Mule before, one of the great things about XP for GP in TSR editions is that it gives characters a specific, concrete thing to pursue with monomaniacal zeal in pursuit of that goal. Both gold and XP are so fundamental that the advice to want these things is unlikely to lead to better D&D play, although it may be useful to note that a character concept that involves not wanting wealth and power will probably be no fun to play. Odyssey has written about how a party full of characters who are addicted to things other than gold would provide not only motivation but also a reason for everyone to know one another. Maybe the greatest benefit of wanting something is that it helps you understand other people who might want that too. Boboric’s drive to get a suit of armor out of pledging allegiance to the highest-level dude around set the stage for the party to embrace the idea that the bandits would sign on to our party once they learned that, under Roger’s leadership, we ate three times a day.
  • Look up and down the ladder. One of the biggest things I learned from Adventurer Conqueror King is that low-level guys want to wear the insignia of a higher-up on their shield for the extra protection it affords: mess with me and you’ll answer to Melbar the Greater. And name-level characters want to find competent people to wear their coat of arms because they want someone to go around showing the flag and doing the scutwork that’s beneath their notice. You don’t need ACKS for this (although the PDF will be available for sale real soon now!) – you could have learned it from Jeff’s posts about to-do lists for BX characters, or just from the basic assumptions of D&D. Last night’s session began when, as we were working out our marching order in a tavern, Lord Gronan sought us out because Roger’s success in the kobold mines meant we might make useful vassals, and we were delighted when taking over from the deceased bandit leader meant we emerged with nine new henchmen of our own. This stuff is as old as RPGs, but like much of the original D&D lore it risks being forgotten.
  • Set up connections within the party. You never know whether the situation in a session will provide whatever externals are necessary for you to pursue the thing you decide your character wants. The one thing you can be sure of is that you’ll always be around your adventuring companions. Linking them into whatever striving you have in mind for your character means you’ll never lack for a roleplaying hook. Boboric got lucky (or plugged into an omnipresent D&D current) in that we did meet NPCs who wanted to play allegiances with him; but since Gronan of Simmerya was Michael’s character from the original Greyhawk campaign, even this was an example of making PC-to-PC connections.
  • Be considerate of fellow citizens. Allegiances within the party shouldn’t obscure the fact that everyone’s first loyalty should be to one another. Boboric was Neutral; he kept his word but was careful about what he pledged, and although he gave his loyalty for keeps he didn’t commit until a quid pro quo was established. The player to my right, Maurice, rolled up another fighting man, The Mauler, who (as Mike pointed out at the end of the night) was definitely Good. The Mauler never hesitated to risk his life by stepping up in battle, and when one of our magic-users was killed by a poison chest trap, the rest of us were like “oh yeah, old-school play is lethal, what can you do?” The Mauler didn’t accept that answer, even when the player of the magic-user in question was like “hey no big deal”. He took the body to Gronan and demanded that something be done for his fallen comrade, and the next thing we knew we were in the Temple of St. Cuthbert of the Cudgel witnessing a miracle (and receiving a geas in return). Wanting to do the right thing is a powerful motivation, and I think we were all inspired by the dedication with which Maurice lent his assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice.

Past Adventures of the Mule

April 2014
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