Archive for October 12th, 2011


Maintaining Descriptive Mystique

Some in the OSR blogosphere have suggested that Google+ will soon replace the role of blogs as a venue for conversation in our circle. I haven’t been doing a lot of posting there on my own initiative, although it is fun to be drawn into discussions when people tag me in a conversation. Here is one started by Kirin Robinson, designer of the awesome Old School Hack, that uses the interview I did with Canon Puncture as the departure point for some interesting territory. Kirin wrote:

If you’re curious about some of the tenets of old-school D&D, and how they differ from modern D&D (no judgement here, though), here’s a great half-hour gaming advocates podcast with The Mule Abides’ +Tavis Allison as he goes on about the history of the game. I highly recommend it, I learned a lot listening to it.

What’s very interesting is that he’s not so much talking about D&D as outlined in the original little brown books, but about the “Mythic D&D” that existed beyond them at gaming tables in the context of the style of play being this new and exciting thing – D&D as a framework, where situational rules were made up as you went along in a sort of emergent “creating the game as you played the game” kind of way.

Thinking about +John Johnson‘s dice fudging debate, there’s something to be said here about the uniqueness of having a purposeful non-explicitness in how one runs a game. I know that that’s probably an immediate and almost painful turn-off for a lot of gamers, of course. Even me.


John replied:

There are a great many newer games that tie into this “making it up as we go along” idea.Fiasco may be the best well known of them. Personally I love those types of games, and they’re what I tend to gravitate towards these days. However I also enjoy having the rule set actually supporting the type of gameplay you’re trying to do.

I took him to mean that the OD&D ruleset doesn’t actually support its intended gameplay, which I think is not at all true – saying that it doesn’t enforce that gameplay is different, and I think this lack of enforcement is valuable. Re-reading it I’m not sure this is what he meant, but my reply isn’t direct enough that it makes a difference:

I think the interesting thing about OD&D is that it has a framework of very concrete bits with big lacuna everywhere else, including just about everywhere modern games assume rules are needed. You’re not at all making up the prevalence of a helm of telepathy in a treasure hoard as you go along (although you might make up your own variant on that table before play starts); it’s just what the helm does that is undefined.

That said, since that interview I’ve spent a bunch of time with some fan reformats of the OD&D rules – if you put together in one place all the things OD&D says on a topic throughout the text, it’s not nearly as non-explicit as I made it out to be. Which implies that you could take a tightly designed game and make it productively mystifying by a Burroughsian cut-up method!

Kirin replied “I’m certainly looking forward to seeing where you’re going with Adventurer Conquerer King, man. Can’t wait!”

The connection of these two thoughts made me realize that, like playing with Greyharp’s 3LBB reformat, developing ACKS has been part of a process of filling in my own blanks and de-mystifying the originally ever-puzzling OD&D text into something coherent:

Adventurer Conqueror King is kind of an OSR recapitulation of 3E; in some ways it’s very much a rationalization of the original rules. We’ve spent endless skull-sweat looking at the social organization & treasure types of B/X monsters like orcs and pirates and reverse engineering general principles about the distribution of wealth, and I’m pretty sure Cook & Tweet & Williams did the exact same thing to get to the demographics guidelines in the 3E DMG. (We just add “consistency with ancient-world history” and “avoiding the unintended consequences of 3E/4E” to the mix.)

There is still an emphasis on framework over rules, though. I was talking to some NYC storygamers and they were like “are you going to provide guidelines for adjucating the players’ clever solution for using a decanter of endless water to defeat a descending-ceiling deathtrap?” I was blown away that this was what they considered the important problem; it seemed obvious to me that you’d just rule that it worked, or ask the table what they thought the probability of success was and roll it on a d6, or do whatever else your group had evolved to deal with lacuna.

The ACKS design is all about figuring out how many apprentices it took to make that decanter of endless water, and who can afford to buy it, because when the players kill an appentice wandering monster we want it to be easy to adjucate that some baron sends his knights after you demanding to know why you delayed production on the item he promised for his liege’s niece’s wedding gift.

Kirin replied:

I was very lucky, in putting together Old School Hack I had equal measures of critique calling for more specificity and calling for maintained descriptive mystique.

By and large I like the latter. Adding more rules is easy, keeping things simple and interesting and establishing precedence for further extrapolation? Much harder.

I love the idea of descriptive mystique as something the designer of a ruleset has to work to preserve, just like the designer of a campaign setting has to make sure blank spaces get left on the world map. Thanks to Kirin and John for permission to repost their comments here!


Dave Wesely on D&D Was a Wargame

Last year prior to Gen Con I wrote to Major David Wesely about a re-creation of his Braunstein I game he organized via commenting at Ben Robbins’ ars ludi blog:

I had the pleasure of being introduced to you by Col. Zocchi in 2008 and sat in on your seminar on Braunstein, but sadly had a scheduling conflict that kept me from playing. I’m hoping that I might get another chance this year – and even if my busy schedule rules that out, perhaps I can buy you a drink or a meal and pick your brain about the early history of adventure gaming, which I find endlessly fascinating.

I have yet to write about the insights I took away from that lunch, but for now I’ll share some things I learned from the correspondence that followed Maj. Wesely’s kind response to this initial sally. In a subsequent email, I took the opportunity to point him to “some pieces I’ve done inspired in part by hearing you talk in 2008”, Random Events Make You Say Yes and D&D Was a Wargame: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means. Rather than direct you to go re-read these – especially since the former is available in full only in Fight On! – I will repost the bits that he responded to, with his replies in bold. From the Random Events essay:

Were Arneson, Gygax, Bledsaw, and Hargrave aware of improv techniques when they stuffed their early work chock-full with just the kind of random tables that make dice-driven invention shine? Could be. In talking about about his early-70s Braunstein games and the evolution of D&D, Dave Wesely points out that “role-playing” already described several other kinds of games. One is an improv exercise in which two actors each assume a character and try to force the other into a pre-agreed defeat. In Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch, John Cleese wins when Palin says “yes, sir” twice in a row. We don’t have to posit that Wesely’s awareness of improv techniques was widespread or in the forefront of anyone’s consciousness when D&D was taking shape. What we do know people were thinking about, from Wesely’s revisions of the Braunstein scoring system to rein in the chaos to Arneson’s development of the dungeon, was the problem of how to allow players free action without overwhelming the referee’s preparation.

So in my email to Maj. Wesely I asked: “I’m wondering if the awareness of “role-playing game” being an improv comedy technique meant that an awareness of improv comedy techniques, like the “always say yes” principle that I find so useful in running RPGs, was part of the intellectual environment of the Braunstein-Blackmoor period.”

He replied:

I did not see the Monty Python cheese shop skit until long after Braunstein (the show it is in probably first aired in the UK well after Braunstein, and even later in the US). An actor friend pointed out that meaning of “Role Playing Game” to me back when it was first being suggested as the generic replacement for saying “D&D-type-games” which usage T(c)S(c)R(c) was trying to stamp out. When I saw the cheese shop later, I recognized it.

By the way, so is the “Pet Shop” (“It is, in short, a Dead Parrot!”) skit – the pythons were just as willing to reuse a good idea as Edgar Rice Burroughs.

About D&D Was a Wargame I asked:  “I’m curious to know where I take it wrong, where I didn’t take it far enough, and where I’ve confused things you said with ones Dave Arneson did.”
He replied that he very much agreed with the central argument of the post, that “The genre of wargames encompasses enormous diversity in theme, content, and playstyle. Wargames have a considerably longer history than RPGs, and have undergone at least as much change over time“:
“Wargame” is a very big tent.  Redefined to exclude or include anything the speaker does not like, depending on whether he thinks wargames are good or bad. When D&D arrived, there was an ongoing feud over miniatures  AKA “real Wargaming” and board games “just pushing cardboard around.”  The first time anyone saw lead figures being used in D&D it was instantly denounced/recruited as being Miniatures Gaming (and hence not entitled to get a Charles S. Roberts Award: they invented the H.G.Wells Awards so it could get something as a Miniatures game).  It was like classifying float airplanes as a new kind of sailing ship because they don’t have steam engines.
In the D&D Was a Wargame post I wrote, based on my memories of Arneson’s 2008 seminar, that
Arneson said that the first wargaming group he joined played with a kriegspiel developed as an officer training exercise by the Prussian military. Like many gamers past and future, they were drawn to using the most comprehensive, complex, and incomprehensible set of rules they could find. The fact that what they had was a bad and incomplete translation from the original German meant that anything a player tried to do could touch off an endless string of arguments about which rules applied and how they should be interpreted.
Arneson and Wesely eventually decided that what this group really wanted to do was argue and rules-lawyer. They wanted to play, so they formed a group of their own. Did they react to the everything-is-subject-to-interpretation environment fostered by the kriegspiel by choosing a system with more clear-cut rules? Many such options were available, polished and throughly play-tested efforts by Avalon Hill’s professional game designers. Instead, what they choose to do instead was keep the parts of the rules they liked, but create the role of a referee to interpret them.
Maj. Wesely replied:

“Avalon Hill’s professional game designers” makes me laugh. In 1965 they were down to (I think) three people who had admittedly designed a number of games and were doing it for a living (one step up from sleeping on the floor in the office and eating beans at every meal). AH had gone bankrupt and been taken over by Monarch Avalon industries, whose president , Eric Dott, saw a great future for Wargames and was willing to keep the company going as a captive account to his printing business. They really did not take off until 1969 when they bought Squad Leader, an outside design. I loved the early AH games, but the skill level of the people who were writing hobby games rules at the time was very low.

Charles S. Roberts (in his address on the 25th Anniversary of the founding of Avalon Hill) said to Tom Shaw, his original partner, “Tom, tell the audience how much play-testing we did on our games back then.”

Tom: “Playtesting? What’s that?”

They had Africa Corps already printed up and were assembling the copies for their first shipment when Charles Roberts had a flash of insight that allowed them to reprint the rules and save the game, which was previously impossible for the Germans to win.

As for miniature wargames rules, they were being churned out by eager gamers with great romantic historical national enthusiasm, and poor understanding of history or technology…

The real professionals were working at the Navy War College or the Rand corporation and were not putting their work on the market.

Strategos, our original guide, was a free-kriegspiel that assumed a strong referee… the first pass at creating rules from it ran aground on our experience with using all the other wargames rules on the market, which were all rigid kriegspiels with no ref, just a rule book full of loopholes. It’s the Code Napoleonique vs. common law.

In one of the comments to the wargame post, I said:

I think that it’s important for us to understand the nature of the wargames that Arneson’s group were used to because it yields insights into what they thought D&D was about, and what they designed it to do well. But of the millions of players across the history of the game, an infinitesimally small fraction knew or cared about the way the original campaign approached it! So I think it’s equally important for us to remember that from the moment that the first wood-grain boxes were sold, people began trying to take D&D in different directions.

Maj. Wesely said:

Very good observation.  With thousands of copies scattering out by word of mouth, and inconsistent (or should I say imaginative) referees teaching the game to their friends the way they thought it should run, and the vagueness of the OD&D rules on so many points, it is not a surprise that the OD&D experience was wildly different for all the people who had it.  TSR saw huge economic reasons to standardize and dictate that everyone had to keep buying the flood of official rules changes… Knights of the Dinner Table did a good strip on that… Arneson had favored a wide-open system that put a lot of burden on the ingenuity and style of the ref.  Most gamers, I think, lacked that ability and wanted rules that would tell them what to do (were most of those gamers under 15? Maybe so).

I’ll close by thanking the Major for his enlightening responses, and apologizing to you the reader for taking so long to share ’em!

Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2011

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