4E, OD&D, and Cheap Urine Gags

Back in ’09, when the OSR and blogging were yet kinda young, I played in a Swords and Wizardry game that Michael aka chgowiz ran at Gen Con to showcase old-school play for a bunch of folks who were mostly recent-edition gamers: Phil (The Chatty DM, no longer a stranger to S&W), Dave and Danny of Critical Hits, and Greg who was neither yet working at the Escapist nor one of my co-authors on Adventurer Conqueror King (although we had worked together on Goodman’s Forgotten Heroes books, and one of the seeds of ACKS was a conversation we had later in the con about how the 4E idea of tiers of play relates to old-school campaigns). Although even the current holder of the D&D name is no longer all that shiny and new these days, I thought that Mule readers might be interested in the reflection on the experience I wrote in an email to these guys afterward:

I’m pleased to be able to say that my 100 percent old-school player death rate is intact, and that it was very satisfying to die with all my pockets, sacks, and backpacks stuffed with treasure!

Given the unique (to put it mildly) characterizations and hilarious & inventive improv skills on display all around the table, I don’t doubt for a second that I would have had a great time with whatever game we played, or none at all. I do think, though, that the stark & elegant simplicity of the OD&D system makes it especially easy to both give in to every wacky impulse and opportunity for a cheap urine gag and also still get in adventuring, exploration, and pulp drama. The 4E group I play with has lots of laughs & also likes to kick ass, but the process of having to add up your initiative bonus, choose powers, etc., etc. makes it harder for me to switch between the two modes.

I think that the lethality and hilarity of OD&D go hand in hand, which is why Leiber is for me the truest inspiration – the situation comedy of Fafhrd as Issek of the Jug is the bright obverse of the doomed pulp grimness of Thieves’ House. For me, the original rules do this best both by letting you switch from one face to the other more quickly, and also by reinforcing the feeling that luck and wits may stave off Death for a little while, but quickly rolling up a new contender is part of the essence of the game.

I am interested to see that this idea perfectly prepared me to be blown away by Swords without Master‘s emulation of pulp adventure via a dice mechanic devoted entirely to whether you narrate things in a glum or jovial way; when Eppy broke Conan’s melancholy and mirth down this way and quoted Leiber from memory at the start of that session to back up his thesis, I’d entirely forgotten having once reached a similar conclusion via that source myself.

7 Responses to “4E, OD&D, and Cheap Urine Gags”

  1. July 20, 2011 at 3:31 am

    Ah! Your “100 percent old school player death rate” at this point in time might explain why you were so careful during the last SoCal Minicon. Besides learning a lot from playing in your game, I was really, really impressed by your skill as a cautious old school player when we were both in Telecanter’s Undertavern. Now I know how to get as good as you are as a player- play and die… I need to find myself an old school ref so I can play as well as ref…

  2. July 20, 2011 at 3:56 am

    Yeah, my 100% death rate is no longer true – my character Gael Ur-Boss in the Glantri campaign has survived multiple sessions, although she did get level drained and turned herself from a five-year-old girl into a five-year-old boy* by sitting on a cursed throne.

    When I played a thief in Steve Winter’s Hollow Earth BECMI game at NTRPG Con, other players were impressed with my performance but I had to laugh. Fellow Glantrites can categorically reject the idea that I have developed any kind of player-skill; I think that:

    a) Glantri is so seriously no-fooling hardcore Fantasy F***ing Vietnam that a level of player skill that is dangerously sub-par there is still impressive to outsiders


    b) the only reason I have been dying less often in Glantri is that Eric is getting soft in his old age. (Having less time to play means I can make such statements and not have to test them too soon.)

    * It always baffled me that the futa incest comic Orc Mom was a frequent referrer of hits to this site, but now I will have to go back and check whether that started happening before or after other players convinced me that the death of Gael Sr. meant I should start playing the orc waif he rescued. Under no circumstances should you yield to the urge to Google Orc Mom, in fact if you ever come into possession of a time machine please stop me from doing so.

  3. July 20, 2011 at 5:02 am

    Glantri sounds completely bad ass.

  4. July 20, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    I agree with max above. I wonder if you and the other Glantri players could put a post together about the skills that are necessary for survival in a Fantasy F***ing Vietnam style game.

  5. July 20, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    I can say what skills I’m lacking! Impulse control is one. Another is realistic evaluation of a plan and calculating the odds, not just going ahead with something because I can envision a possible way it might work out without thinking of whether that’s likely given all the things that can go wrong. (See also: impulse control). Another is putting “I will be alive at the end of this” ahead of “This will make a funny story.” (See also: realistic evaluation; I am usually not thinking “This will be a funny story about how I died.”)

  6. July 20, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    Nice. Actually, that gives me some insight into how some players think. I usually play gamist enough that I’m thinking “what is the smartest thing my PC could do right now?” It’s good to remember that other players aren’t necessarily thinking the same thing. (And that’s not just OK, but actually improves the game.) Thanks.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

July 2011

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