Archive for October 1st, 2009


What game were we playing?

(This was once a post to NerdNYC, but it’s a decent summary of my earliest days playing.)

I started playing RPG’s at age 9, after the Wrightstown Elementary School Barn Dance.  Hollis’s mom, who was kind of a strange hippie type, had bought him a new kind of game–Dungeons & Dragons (Mentzer, Red Box, 1983)–and he wanted us to play it with him as the “Dungeon Master.”

For pretty much the next twenty years, I’ve been a big fan of RPG’s in general, and Red Box D&D has always held a special spot in my heart.  That was our favorite game from about 1985 to 1989.  Our characters went on crazy quests, defeated Demogorgon, won strange artifacts, fought beasts from the 5th Dimension (the Dimension of Nightmares, as everyone knows).

In late 2007, as the Old School Renaissance was gearing up, I dug out my old copies of Mentzer’s BECMI–and I’m astonished that, to the best of my knowledge, we never engaged with any of the rules.

On that first night back in 1985, I played a Cleric with 4 Charisma. None of us knew what “Charisma” meant, but I was very unhappy with that low score.  Tim played a Fighter.  I don’t remember anything about the dungeon, except that it involved graph paper, and all kinds of crazy monsters from the AD&D Monster Manual (which had funky pictures in it).  My Cleric died almost immediately fighting a carrion crawler; we bribed Hollis with Halloween candy to let us live.

Most of the rest of our “campaign” over the next couple of years ended up being weird, random stuff that didn’t make much sense, handled almost entirely through declaration and fiat. For example:

  • We never bothered with encumbrance rules
  • We never bothered with morale
  • We never bothered with movement rates
  • We never bothered with spell durations & AoE
  • We never bothered with spells, actually
  • We never bothered with attack rolls, damage, etc.

Basically: you name the rule, we ignored it.

The process of playing Basic Dungeons & Dragons consisted of…

  • Drawing maps on graph paper.  All the time.  I was lucky because my dad was an engineer, and he had easy access to all the graph paper I would ever need.
  • Imagining your character’s crazy adventures to yourself, and then maybe telling your friends about them.  I think my guy found the Scarf-Sword of Sinbad–it was this scarf, that was also a sword, and Sinbad used it.  I found it in this port city in the desert!  It was hard to get to!  I had to read directions on how to get there, by using my Elf-vision to read a map written in vapor upon the ocean mists.
  • Also: imagining making friends with strange monsters. Like, the lion-pegasus friend, who was really smart and fierce and probably gave me advice, and looked cool even though I could not draw lions very well.
  • Along the same lines, having sex with were-tigers.  A few decades of sexual development have persuaded me that this would most likely be a bad idea.  I am sorry, all you fine were-tiger ladies out there.
  • Every once in a while, we’d get together, and imagine a new crazy adventure for a character.  Like the time I subdued this gold dragon, sold it, and made enough money to buy a warship.
  • At one point early on we had a party of NPC’s, including Greegan from the Mentzer Basic set (because he looked awesome) and Grax the Dwarf who was so dumb we paid him with dirt.  We got a lot of mileage out of how dumb Grax was.
  • Reading and re-reading the adventure modules, wondering what it would be like to play them. I remember CM7: The Tree of Life in particular, and thinking it was potentially cool but also involved a lot of stupid shit about colorful rainbows, puzzles, and trials.  But the villain, who was a Wizard obsessed with turning into an Elf via cloning, and who around on a wyvern, was pretty bad-ass.
  • Buying more of the boxed sets, to think of more crazy adventures.  One of them involved advancing 20 levels  by giving the DM a lot of candy at lunch time.  (This candy-based XP system appears to have been a common theme in our play at that time.)
  • The one time I remember actually playing the game more or less as intended, my guy was in a dungeon, off on his own, in a room when the Orcs start knocking on the door.  I decide that my character will hide under the bed!  To demonstrate, I then hid under the bed myself.  Tim and Hollis demonstrated the Orcs’ reaction by jumping on the bed.  I think we never finished playing out that combat, because someone had to leave.
  • I think in early middle school, Adam joined our group, and became our go-to DM.  He ran a bunch of adventures involving the Lone Wolf world.  Adam’s adventures were cool because he had character-specific subplots, and occasionally we actually used the rules.  But God, being a Thief was awful. We assumed that to backstab someone, you had to succeed at Moving Silently (10% chance) and Hiding (10%) – essentially, you had a 1% chance of being useful, and a 99% chance of getting stomped when the enemy turned around to see you inexpertly trying to lurk around beind it.  But I thought Thieves were cool anyway.  I ended up with an Intelligent Morning-Star.  Adam also used Lone-Wolf as a GMPC character, which I remember resenting, but mechanically he might have worked as a high-level Elf.

But it really does baffle me that, for all the time we spent in an activity labelled “playing D&D”, we really never played the game. It was just like “ridicuous 10 year olds imagining an incoherent fantasy world.”  A friend described it as Super Awesome Let’s Pretend Time, which seems pretty apt.

We briefly tried it again when we were 13, but AD&D 2e came out almost immediately after I drew the campaign map, and after some heated argument (“Multi-class? What’s that?! It’s the stupidest thing I ever heard! What, you can be a Dwarf/Elf???!”) we switched to the newer edition.

Over the last eighteen months or so, the New York Red Box crowd has gone back to the early editions of D&D to “do it right,” this time with rules.  (I’m a big believer in Encumbrance, which I think is a crucial but frequently overlooked mechanic.)  If you’re reading this blog, it shouldn’t surprise you that the game-as-written is a lot of fun.  But it’s not quite the same.

So here’s a question.  If we arrange Gygaxian D&D in a spectrum based on how “nailed down” the rules are (I’m envisioning OD&D as the “not nailed down at all” pole, and AD&D as the “rules for everything” pole), do you get closer to Super Awesome Let’s Pretend Time the closer you move to OD&D?  If so, doesn’t this imply that playing “freeform” is even more fun than anything D&D can muster?  If instead this is a state of mind that doesn’t depend on a particular rule set, what are the rules for?


Magic Items Should Do the Impossible

I recently discovered the awesomeness that is Hugh Cook’s Chronicles of an Age of Darkness series. One of the many mindblowing things that happens in the first book, Wizard War (US) / The Wizards and the Warriors (UK), is that the protagonists find a green bottle in a case with a pair of rings. When its wearer twists one of these ring, he and anyone he’s touching is transported into the bottle. The interior is as large as a castle and crammed full of provisions for a siege, ancient tomes, and all manner of things the wizards who stocked it felt might be useful to have inside one’s magic bottle.

This is a cool magic item in its own right, but Cook’s invention really kicks into high gear when one of the characters winds up trapped in the lower levels of the green bottle without the ring to let him exit. Locked behind a portcullis and taunted by his enemy, he finds a red magic bottle with its own ring – which would seem only to let him escape one sealed bottle for another until he realizes that he can toss the red bottle past the portcullis, enter it with his ring, and then twist it again to emerge on the far side. Having the bottle lets you do things that would otherwise be impossible, and the rest of the book inventively explores some of those implications.

Justin Alexander and Ben Robbins have written great essays on how to making magic items feel magical by linking them to the backstory of your campaign: This isn’t just a +1 sword, it’s the blade of the Shamed King, or evidence that one of your rival adventurers was here before and lost their weapon. Likewise, Hugh Cook’s magic bottles certainly say interesting things about the history of the world that created them.

But their use also shapes the future of the world in dramatic ways, because now the protagonists can do things that were previously impossible. This role for magic items is one of the glories of original Dungeons & Dragons, but each edition that’s followed has increasingly swapped it out for items that let you do much the same kinds of things you could before, except with a numerical bonus that has no discernable effect on actual play unless you’re subjecting your PC’s performance to rigorous statistical analysis.

Example: A new player joined my White Sandbox campaign, bringing in a character named Ookla the Mok who had reached 3rd level (where our native PCs start, as per Gygax’s OD&D house rules) playing another AD&D campaign back in the day.  Ookla had a pair of +1 swords, so I said “I’m fine with you having these, but you should be aware that in this edition all magic swords are intelligent – depending on how I roll them up, trying to wield them might kill you or leave you dominated.”

He decided to take the risk, and survived the damage when each of them turned out to have an opposing (single-axis, three-valued) alignment. Roleplaying the subsequent interactions was fun, and different from other social interactions in the campaign because the ego rules provide a mechanical basis for resolving conflicts between sword and wielder that’s more detailed than the reaction roll for conflicts between PCs and NPCs. But it wasn’t until he managed to win some cooperation from his longsword that I really understood how substantially old-school magic items can impact a campaign.

Ookla still isn’t able to wield his sword, which would mean that it was useless  to him in any other edition. But one of the abilities OD&D randomly assigned to this weapon is detecting secret doors. As near as I can tell, nothing else in the game lets you do this automatically, so a fighting-man’s ability to wield magic swords thus has a huge implicit potential to let the class do the impossible. The effect on our game has been amazing. Paul Jaquays filled the with hidden areas, reachable only by secret doors in places I never expected the players to search and thus could never imagine them finding. Ookla’s sword has thus opened up vistas previously unimagined by the adventurers, suddenly multiplying the richness and potential of the campaign. Even knowing it was there all along, I’ve vicariously felt the thrill of a discovery that shatters the limits you thought were there, like Warren Robinett’s easter egg in the Atari 2600 Adventure cartridge.

Pfaugh on magic items that fulfill their designed role with 30 finely gradated levels of numerical sufficiency! Give me magic bottles and portable holes;  I want to haul goods, carry passengers through inhospitable environments, and create a last-ditch improvised extra-planar explosive device with the addition of a bag of holding!


The Mule rolls for initiative

Welcome to The Mule Abides, our group blog devoted to Old School role-playing games.  We’re a party of low-level Bloggers who delve the New York City megadungeon and explore the wilderness sandbox of Internet gaming.  We’ve found shockingly little treasure in either venue, but then again casualties have been light.  So far.

Which is a cute way of saying we’re gamers in NYC starting a group blog to talk about Old-Timey role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller, Tunnels & Trolls, and games of similar vintage.  Because we have different gaming histories and eclectic tastes, we’ll also talk about a wide variety of other games, but we’ll try to relate these back to the “first generation” role-playing games somehow.

Ideally most of our posts will touch on playing these games: the thing that makes The Mule Abides unique, or at least uncommon, is that we’re bloggers who role-play together.  This gives us common points of reference, and also serves as a launch point for group discussions.  Eventually we might get into theorizing for its own sake, but I think it’s important to keep these speculations grounded very solidly in actual experience at the table.

We gathered ’round our own gaming table – the huge hardwood conference table at Cafe 28 – a few weeks after Gary Gygax passed away in March 2008.  We wanted to roll some 3d6’s in order as a way of paying respects to a stranger who had enriched our childhoods.  We had a blast, and we’ve been playing some variation on Dungeons & Dragons regularly for the past eighteen months.  Someday I hope to make it to Level 2.   If you want to suffer relentless indignities yet die laughing, swing on by when you’re in the neighborhood.

Thanks, Gary.

The blog takes its name for our group’s gaming mascot, Bill the Mule.  Bill has survived something like thirteen dungeon expeditions as the poor adventurers around him die like flies.  He’d be our institutional memory if anyone survived long enough to research a speak with mule spell.  At this point, ensuring Bill’s continued survival as we’re desperately driven into more perilous parts of the dungeon is a major concern: he’s our lucky thirteenth member, and has even inspired our variant alignment system (about which more later).

But fundamentally The Mule Abides sounds a little more family-friendly than our runner-up choice, Strangling the Flesh Golem.

I’m starting this blogging adventure with some trepidation.  I’ve got enough 1980’s gamer baggage to still feel a little embarrassed about my pastime, and I’m in a profession that’s extremely conservative.  But the hell with that – I want to have fun with my friends, and I want to talk about it.  On the Internet.  With you.

My name is James, and I play Dungeons & Dragons.

Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2009

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