Archive for November 2nd, 2009


In Media Res

I tend to take some time at the start of a session to introduce new characters to the group. This is a holdover from running character-driven games like Amber DRPG, Ars Magica and Vampire: the Masquerade, where so much of the game revolves around watching the characters interact and exploring their personalities. But old-school D&D is a different beast with different goals, and I’m wondering whether these introductory sequences are useful, wasteful or outright counterproductive.

Old-school characters aren’t painstakingly assembled over a matter of days or weeks, nor does the DM go into the game preparing storylines for each starting character. Your first level OD&D or BD&D character is a brittle thing, a tissue of single-digit hit points wrapped around a pawn for the player to manipulate. These characters start off with one-note personalities and backstories that develop organically and gain complexity through the adversities of play. As such, new characters don’t have a lot to contribute to introductory scenes, since no one—not even their players—really know who they are yet.

There’s also the issue of spotlight time. Old-school games can involve lots of players; I’ve had as many as ten players at a session, and Tavis has run even larger groups. More players in attendance means more players twiddling their thumbs during introductory scenes, and I’d prefer to keep the entire group engaged with play whenever possible.

Last session we had three new characters and I more or less threw them in willy-nilly, with a bit of “oh, based on your concept you probably know player character X; hey, player X, are you cool with that?” It worked out fine and sped play along significantly, giving us more time in the dungeon. Success! I’ll want to experiment with various approaches to character intros before coming to any conclusions, however.

I’d love to hear other’s thoughts on introducing new characters in old school games, especially those with more of a beer-and-pretzels vibe. What kind of approach do you take to character intros, and what are the consequences with regard to play style?


Blogosphere Explorations: Grognardia

I’d like to propose that the Mule undertake a semi-regular series of posts highlighting other blogs we find interesting. In part this is because I’m always looking for topics for blog posts that won’t run to thousands of words and hours of effort. In part it’s because I know other posters are attuned to blogs I’d like to learn more about, like James and World of Thool. Most importantly, though, it’s because the very notion of gaming blogs embodies the spirit of the Mule. They’re new-school tech that stays true to the old-school virtues of APAs like Alarums & Excursions and zines like The Dungeoneer, and they’re a great resource for actual play. The mere act of thinking about how you could run a kick-ass Red Box campaign using nothing but classes, races, spells, monsters, and magic items created by the blogosphere further burdens my list of gaming projects I lament not having time to pursue.

Despite the fact that not even a d1,000 would be adequate for dicing the probablility that Mule readers don’t already follow this blog, I’m going to start our exploration with James Maliszewski’s Grognardia. On a personal level, this makes sense because it’s the first blog of any kind that ever became a regular reading habit for me, and also because James’ gaming history parallels my own. We both learned to play D&D in the company of our peers’ big brothers, became professionally involved in RPG writing a couple of decades later, and began a process of re-engagement with the original D&D we never experienced as kids after Gygax got screwed by the DM in 2008. Oftener than not, I feel like his writing in Grognardia speaks for me and my generation.

More generally, Grognardia is a necessary starting place because, more than anything in my experience except maybe Finarvyn’s OD&D boards, it established the way we all talk about old-school gaming. Maliszewski’s style plays with self-conscious intellectual pedantry for its own sake in a way that’s perfectly suited for a game firmly rooted in Jack Vance’s writing, just as his default mode of ardent investigation into the nearly-forgotten lore of the past evokes D&D’s eternal fascination with ancient artifacts of lost civilizations. If we’ve managed to preserve the lore that lets us keep the pipe organs in the basement of the Temple of the Frog in good repair, much of the credit must go to Grognardia.

Because Maliszewski is so prolific and far-ranging, it’s likely that each of his fans has a different favorite aspect of Grognardia. For me, it’s the Pulp Fantasy Library, if only because there didn’t used to be a place where I could find others who shared the experience of reading the stranger entries on Gygax’s Appendix N like Sign of the Labrys. It’s interesting to watch Grognardia exhaust that territory and expand beyond it, just as it’s been interesting to see more discussion of James’ actual play (and to experience the Dwimmermount campaign as a player in his PbP game). I’d say that you should read Grognardia (on the less-than-1-in-1,000 chance that you don’t already) to see how it’ll continue to define the boundaries of what old-school means as a subject matter, but that’s yielding to the temptation (common among Grognardia fans) to over-intellectualize things. Read it because it rocks, on a daily basis.

OK, now I’ve got dibs on Playing D&D with Porn Stars!

Past Adventures of the Mule

November 2009

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