Archive for the 'White Box Archaeology' Category



05
Mar
12

When Someone Great is Gone

After last night’s Dwimmermount session at the Brooklyn Strategist, we were doing a post-mortem about how it had been awesome when we were using miniatures on the section of the dungeon that I’d fully laid out with Master Maze, but as soon as we ran out of pieces to build new areas explored in play we started getting confused about who was doing what where. The solution is straightforward – Stefan will come back from Prague and we’ll borrow more of his personal collection; also he is a skilled enough builder to take apart one part of the layout and use it to create a new area at the speed of exploration, so either he’ll be there to help out or someone else will contribute (or learn) that skill. But being of a theoretical bent, we kept chewing over why the problem arose at all.

I usually run without minis and have no problem creating a mental picture of the scene. Why then did the transition from an area we could see with minis to one where we’d use our imagination throw us off? A B-Strat regular who was having a smoke nearby said that this is why, as a book jacket designer, he hates being told to put a face on the cover. “Faces are specific,” he said. “As soon as you see one, you lose the ability to visualize the character any other way.”

So maybe why we don’t post music videos more often is that as roleplayers the words make pictures in our heads that the visuals contradict. Like, I love the image of the absent silhouette but I never envisioned this song as being about a lover. It makes sense; actual dialogue as my son and I are riding in the car en route to the So Cal Mini Con during the summer I was obsessed with “California Gurls:”

KATY: sun-kissed skin so hot we’ll melt your popsicle

SON: What does that mean?

DAD: Well, you know how you have to eat your popsicle fast in the summer because the hot sun melts it?

SON: I think it’s private parts.

DAD: OK, you got me. All pop songs are about private parts.

But I always thought “Something Great” is about the death of a mentor, and the reason I’m thinking about it now is that its personal meaning for me is tied up with Gary Gygax. Maybe it’s the timing of when the song came out and Gary’s passing four years ago today. Maybe it’s lines like this:

I miss the way we used to argue,
Locked, in your basement.

In that I hear my nostalgia-for-things-I-never-knew for the days when arguing about wargames over a sand table was an imaginary haven from the real war in another country. In my mind that time seems to have a purity and innocence that ended after D&D’s success cracked this world open. The war outside was over, to be replaced by dirty civil wars within TSR that were soon to be mirrored by the culture wars in which D&D was the devil. That’s the era I remember, in which the AD&D books seemed already artifacts of a magical time long past.

The video does this well as the shadow moves through the aisles between crates of records and adventure modules. Pulling out any one of them would teach me about how it felt to be alive in a time of magic, and that time had to be now because I was holding some of it in my hand. But I had the sense that the wizards who could teach me how to perform that magic on command were gone, even when I was young and this wasn’t really true.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the formation of TSR. I feel I’m old enough and have shared enough of the same experiences that I can put myself into the shoes of Dave Arneson or Gary Gygax or Don Kaye: as an idealist and a hobbyist and a gamer, as a publisher alternately elated or terrified by success, as a father and as someone who would have invested my life insurance into my friends’ dreams if Kickstarter didn’t avert that particular tragedy. I’m not comparing myself to these guys, just saying that having played in a sandbox filled with toddlers I have a little more insight when I roleplay a giant.

So maybe that’s why I hear “Someone Great” as being about the drafts going back and forth that aren’t yet D&D, the pressure to publish because Gary has kids to feed and the tension over whether Dave has creative control and can take his what must seem to Gary like a young man’s idea that there is all the time in the world to get it right :

There’s all the work that needs to be done,
It’s late, for revision.
There’s all the time and all the planning,
And songs, to be finished.

And it keeps coming,
And it keeps coming,
And it keeps coming, 
Till the day it stops

You have to know that I idolized my friends’ big brothers, and that the two things they introduced me to were D&D and the Beatles, to understand why I take what’s basically a lost-love song, “Paint it Black” with less masochism or “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” with less mist in your eyes, as being about TSR’s lost opportunities. For me D&D books and Beatles records were secrets of the world before I was born, beams of dazzling dusty radiance the older kids sometimes let slip between their fingers but I could soak up anytime I wanted by opening the covers. AD&D was that Book of Gold, sure, but so was Hawkmoon with its “terrifying ancient gods of Granbretan” Jhone, Jhorg, Phowl and Rhunga and The Einstein Intersection where Delany’s characters “treat the rise and fall of the Beatles the way we treat the rise and fall of Achilles”. (The fact that both of these are basically Gamma World under the skin rather than D&D explains a lot about me and my romance of lost greatness too.)

My omen that John Lennon had been killed was when, exploring a deserted beach, I saw that someone had written STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER in giant letters on the sand. After a long time alone bemused by this, I came home to the news. All the wonder and dread of that writing in the sand collapsed into a specific sadness: now I will never see the Beatles reunite and play live in concert. I guess I was as self-centered in 2008 as I was in 1980, because I had basically the same reaction to the news of Gary’s death.

Here’s Gygax, speaking to Lawrence Shick in 1991 for Law’s Heroic Worlds:

There is no question that the D&D game was the first of its kind, and from its success there sprang a whole industry… I did the AD&D system to go beyond that. Right now I’m working on something new to contribute to Fantasy Role-Playing Gaming. All of that, however, owes the Original D&D game far more than credit for “inspiration”. The D&D game was and remains the start of role-playing games. Dave Arneson and I have spoken frequently since the time we devised D&D. We don’t plan to collaborate on another game, but just maybe one day he’ll decide to combine talents again. Who knows?

This is as bittersweet with lost possibility, as rich with bruised tenderness, as the point where Lennon and McCartney are hanging out together in New York in 1976 watching Saturday Night Live (there is something sad about a rock star even in life). The two men have been making nice in the press for once about what was good about the thing they built together, and now Lorne Michaels is holding up a check for $3,000 and offering it to the Beatles if they’ll reunite and play a show there and then.

$3K in 1974 dollars seems to me about right for the budget to do the first print run of D&D. What was Gygax doing that night in 1976? Was he watching Saturday Night Live and if so what did it mean to him? Was he a Beatles fan too who hoped or dreamed or somehow knew that there was a possibility John and Paul would really hop a cab together and make it happen? Did he think about calling up Dave: “hey, is your TV on?”

Probably not. At the time it was just a joke that’s only imbued with significance in hindsight, right?

 I wish that we could talk about it,
But there, that’s the problem.

26
Jan
12

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.
20
Jan
12

Q&A with the 2nd Dungeon Master in Champaign-Urbana, 1974

Folks whose memories span several ages of creation may recall that my friend Nat Sims was a co-founder of Behemoth3, my first venture into RPG publishing. Nat went on to found the successful iPhone app developer Night & Day Studios, and although being its CEO keeps him pretty busy, over the last year I’ve had the pleasure of playing the card-based diplomatic wargame Here I Stand online with him and some members of his extended family.

The first cRPG, "The Dungeon" aka PEDIT5, may also be from Champaign-Urbana, written by Reginald "Rusty" Rutherford on a PLATO terminal at the University of Illinois. Click pic to learn more.

One of my first experiences on the road to the old-school renaissance was hearing Nat’s stories about playing D&D in the 70s with his parents. His mom was the DM for a group of players mostly made up of his dad’s graduate students in a drama program. What Nat remembered most clearly was impatiently waiting for the “grown-ups” to finish drinking wine and describing what their characters were wearing, hoping that at some point during the night they could kick down another door and kill something.

On one visit home, Nat picked up his old D&D stuff including a mimeographed set of rules and one of the dungeons that his mom used. At the time, I thought that the ruleset might have been some draft of proto-D&D; with the wisdom of hindsight I bet it was actually one of the re-typings that were popular at the time as a way to integrate houserules (and avoid buying multiple copies of the expensive D&D “white box”).

At some point I’ll tell the story of what Nat & I made of this ’70s dungeon, my first exposure to the wonderful improv challenge of trying to make sense of a funhouse on the fly – and doing it without any help. (It was the ’90s, so the Internet and OGL-based support system on which the old-school brain trust relies was just a glint in Mozilla and GNU’s respective eyes.) What I want to do now, however, is pass on some conversations I’ve had with the creator of that dungeon, Nat’s uncle Mike Metcalf.

My questions for Mike (presented henceforth in italics) began with:

I’ve been making a point of seeking out all the original D&Ders I can – most recently I met Michael Mornard, who was part of both Arneson’s gaming group in the Twin Cities and Gygax’s in Lake Geneva. I would love to pick your brain about those days! Do you still have any of your old maps and whatnot?

He replied:

I had the 2nd dungeon in Champaign-Urbana in 1974 and went on to be a dungeon master up at Gencon once. My Dungeon stuff is at Nat’s Moms (my sister) who borrowed the stuff once to copy etc.  Used that dungeon with the family once and ended up turning my Mother into a zucchini; great fun.  I think it is secreted away somewhere in their house.  But, I do have stories, experiences and ideas.

One of the things Gary Gygax did before Arneson introduced him to proto-D&D was to run a Diplomacy fanzine. It seems to me that part of why he latched onto roleplaying right away – it only took one session of Arneson DMing his Blackmoor game for Gary before he was ready to start DMing it himself (for his kids, the first Lake Geneva players!) using Dave’s fragmentary notes – was that the kind of writing as if you were a historical world leader that we do while playing Here I Stand and that people used to do in diplozines is much like pretending to be an elf.

 Does this ring true – did you have experience with Diplomacy zines or other correspondence-based kinds of writing-as-if-you-were-someone-else? Or were there “playing in character” aspects of board or wargames that you just brought over to D&D play?

The way I got into D&D was that a friend of mine had gone to GenCon and come back with a copy of the rules and a graph paper dungeon (#1 in the area).  Pretty basic stuff with a list of main character types and monster types etc.  Our group had played ‘Chain-mail’ miniatures and this was a partial take-off on that idea.  We just took to it.  Easy to get into character.  We had already done Diplomacy and, of course, had to play our character-states.  As we killed off character after character (never got to the points necessary for a level-2 – hard damned dungeon), we got into a flow.  I had the never-ending ‘Botnick’ brothers starting with Coors Botnick, Budweiser Botnick etc (down the list of bad beers).  I quickly made a dungeon (2nd in the area) and we played each dungeon in a revolving mode.  Didn’t have a ‘zine at the time – just those rules which were modified by each dungeon master as he saw fit.

I’ll tell you of my other Dungeon – where I tired of D&D being an open-ended game to one of fixed dimensions (meaning that it would end at some point – no possibility that it could continue).  After playing many a dungeon trip in many a dungeon and watching other people with more time (I was in veterinary school) make giant above ground (and below) fantasy realms etc., I realized that I was losing interest in the open-ended role playing genre. Yes, one’s character might eventually be killed off (though rarely after gaining a certain upper-levelness) but things just went on and on. I guess I was too much of a history-based gamer. So, years later, I concocted this idea of a Dungeon. I found 4 other D&D players who were interested. Each players tribe lived on an island having a causeway to the dungeon complex with no outside interaction with any other player/side. The dungeon was finite: geometrically 4-sided with a middle entrance level and one level above and below the middle. I stocked the dungeon with all the requisite treasures; once found and removed – no replacement. Monsters/traps were easier in the middle level and more diificult above/below.  As all 4 players and I were in the same room during the game session, I devised some fog-of-war.  Each player could enter the dungeon with 9 men (randomized characteristics but possible to improve).  Each player thought that their entrance into the dungeon was to their North.  In addition, I numbered each room with a color-number that was meaningless to them as to level etc.  Each player did a few moves, exploring, fighting, discovering then passing to the next player.  This was all being done game-time simultaneously so there was the chance that the parties within the dungeon might meet (and fight) each other was.  If one party got to a room previously sacked, they would see the results of the previous visit.  Since ‘North’ was different for each player, orientation of other players experiences was very difficult unless they could recognize the area of the dungeon being described.

A very enjoyable experience – everyone quite enjoyed it.

This evolution of play sounds like it’s coming from the sense of D&D as a “squadron-based war game, with a couple doses of light humor and the occasional funny accent” that James took away from Michael Mornard’s game. What’s interesting is that Nat’s memories suggest that, around the same time that Mike Metcalf was making D&D into a squad competition he found more compelling, his sister’s game was been moving in the direction of “the wacky imaginative, pretend to be a Cleric bullshitting drunk people to convert to your faith, stuff” that James thinks “wasn’t a strong part of the earliest playstyle; it seems to have been an opportunistic growth, like a lichen growing on a rock or something.” (Quoted from here.)

Got other questions for Champaign-Urbana’s second-ever DM? Let me know and I’ll pass them on!

24
Oct
11

bleg: origin of term “sandbox”?

You know how everyone is always saying “sandbox this” and “sandbox that”?  Where did that term come from, and when?  What’s the earliest recorded mention?

I’m asking because Ron Edwards asserts (PDF) that “sandbox” is one of those terms that everyone throws around, mostly by way of example–“Oh, you know, like Keep on the Borderlands!”–that probably could use some more examination, and I think he’s right.  I’m wondering what it was originally coined to encompass.

My own exposure to the idea behind it, if not the term, is the “Techniques of Story and Campaign Design” in the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (TSR 1986) where Doug Niles compares Linear, Open, and Matrix style games; this advice was rehashed in the 2e era in the Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide (TSR 1990 by Jaquays and Connors).  I’m presuming if the term had been around in 1986, Niles would have used it, if only as a touchstone.

But I’m wondering if there are earlier mentions of these ideas, and specifically the term “sandbox.”  Any thoughts?

12
Oct
11

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!
10
Aug
11

When Magical Blades Ruled the Earth

Another rule with possible wide-ranging consequences. From Monsters & Treasure page 30:

…the origin of each sword is either Law, Neutrality, or Chaos, but some of these weapons are forged by more powerful forces for an express purpose… …a score of 91 or higher indicates the sword has a special mission. Swords with special purposes automatically have intelligence and ego categories moved to the maximum score…

One in ten magical swords thus has an ego of 12. Depending on your exact interpretation of the rules, such a sword will automatically gain control of any fighting-man of level 6 or less, and wins a contest of wills 75% of the time versus a fighting-man of up to level 10.

These swords will dominate those around them and use those human resources in pursuit of a special purpose. Such weapons surely become objects of fear and simultaneously sought-after sources of power. Such swords could produce:

  • A Kingdom whose ruler is possessed by a neutral Sword +2, Charm Person Ability. The sword has built a charmed army of tens of thousands, biding time before moving in pursuit of its mysterious special purpose. All visitors to the Kingdom, including PCs, are immediately hauled into royal audience for charming.
  • A bandit troop leader controlled by a lawful sword with the special purpose: steal from the rich and give to the poor.
  • Hapless low-level fighting men possessed and relentlessly ridden to exhaustion or death in the pursuit of a sword’s special purpose (for instance forcing a hero to march in the direction of the sword’s chosen enemies non-stop for days until worn out, then passing the sword off to the next likely body…).
  • A chaotic sword made for slaying clerics, whose preferred wielder is afflicted with mummy-rot or some other terrible disease but of course every time they go looking for a cure…
  • Famous swords whose exploits are legend but whose owners are anonymous and even bards struggle to remember their names. “Harken to the story of the famous Durandal, held by Rolo, Rollie, no, that’s not it, um…”
  •  A lawful sword made for slaying fighting-men; its wielder is made to provoke duels of honor with any prominent hero they come in contact with, including the PCs.
  • High-level lords, wizards, and patriarchs striving at any cost to collect and remove such blades from circulation.

In a world containing some of the above, PCs may be more squeamish about picking up magical blades.  Or perhaps not…

 (Please feel free to add your awesome ideas in comments)

09
Aug
11

OD&D Certainties: PC Death and…?

On page 24 of The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures there is a throwaway rule related to upkeep. I have not seen it used in any version of D&D but think trying it to see what emerges is a worthy experiment.

Player/Characters must pay Gold Pieces equal to 1% of their experience points for support and upkeep, until such time as they build a stronghold.

It is a tidy way to relieve characters of money and makes intuitive sense: the upkeep and daily needs of a hero are more costly that those of an unrecognized veteran [1]. But what emergent behavior will it create?

The reason no one does this, of course, is the enormous and annoying book-keeping task created. The DM will have to calculate upkeep each time experience and treasure have been divvied out and experience totals have changed. This implies a weekly levy using the recommended rules on time in the campaign, or possibly a one-time fee each time a character gains experience.

One behavior the upkeep rule might reinforce is desire to attend each game session: miss too many sessions and your character’s coffers are slowly depleted. The rule might also create an incentive for players to spend their money quickly to prevent it being bled away over time.

Have you done this in your campaign? What other emergent behaviors have you encountered?

 

 

[1] For instance, a veteran spends between 0 and 20 gold a week on quarters, food, mending armor and weapons, training, and the like. A hero has deeper responsibilities and a reputation to uphold: more expensive repairs, upkeep of retainers, henchmen, horses, perhaps established rooms at an Inn, and thus spends 80 to 160 gold a week. A superhero will have visitors, guests, emissaries to entertain, minor bribes and tributes to bestow, taxes to pay, a retinue requiring day-to-day allowances, one or more bases of operations as she prepares a stronghold, exchange costs and commissions, and could easily spend 1,200 to 2,400 a week.

27
Jul
11

OD&D provides chunky experience rewards

And now a return from the heady thoughts of domain- level campaigns and estimating the cost of the accountant-hirelings you need to manage your riches. Let’s go all the way back to the first level dungeon and wrestle with experience gain in OD&D. Is it too slow? For monthly games it can literally take years for a party to build to mid-levels.

I wondered what the rules-as-written allocation of experience might reveal or confirm about the rate of advancement in dungeons, hoping it would help me decide if slow advancement is a problem (for me) or not. The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures gives guidance on stocking a dungeon on pages 6 – 8. Here is a rough summary:

Thoughtfully place a few important treasures (magical items and large amounts of wealth) in out-of-the-way locations, with or without guardians and traps. Then randomly generate contents of remaining areas. 33% of rooms contain a monster, with half the monsters having treasure. Of the remaining empty spaces, 16% have treasure (likely guarded by a trap or trick).

Let us imagine a dungeon with 100 rooms on the first level. Of the 100 rooms,

  •  X contain non-random, DM-placed treasures and encounters
  • 55 are empty
  • 11 contain treasure
  • 16 contain monsters with no treasure
  • 17 contain monsters with treasure

Expected treasure for a first level encounter is 52 gp with additional 5% chance each for jewelry, gems, and magic [1]. The expected value of each gem is about 233 gp [2]. The expected value of each piece of jewelry is a whopping 3,410 gp [3]. The distribution of treasures should look something like this [4]:

  •  X “important” treasures
  • 1 or 2 treasures with gold and jewelry, expected value 12,005 gp each
  • 1 or 2 treasures with gold and gems, expected value 887 gp each
  • 25 treasures with gold, expected value 52 gp each

This is a key element of the by-the-book DNA shaping am exploration-based game. Your party only levels by finding hoards; you find hoards through exploration and discovering out-of-the-way areas.

The rules promote periods of slow experience gain characterized by exploration, mapping, and retreat, followed by a big payoff when you find the occasional hoard. If your character is not present during the big payoff, you lose out. If this is seen as a problem there are obvious workarounds: make the average treasure bigger and reduce the size of hoards. But consider how else that may effect the feel of the game and behavior of players.

[1] See pg. 7

[2] Ignoring the specified 1-in-6 chance for each gem to be in the next higher category, because.  I am using the gem and jewelry tables from Monsters & Treasure pp.39-40.

[3] Look! We found a Bracelet of Leveling!

[4] This distribution provides about 19,350 experience from treasure, about enough to level a party of 5 to second level (assuming a 50% death rate along the way and other lost exp). If we assume an additional 6,000 exp from monsters (17 encounters plus wandering monsters) the level offers about 25,000 before the DM’s specially-placed important treasures are counted. And this is a 100-room first level; a similar 50-room first level would provide 12,500, etc.

30
Jun
11

the binocular thief

The Thief, right?  Nobody digs this class.  Every blog and every forum has about 20 different variations on the Thief.  Most of the complaints fall into three categories:

  1. The Thief is weak.  You cannot suck this much without professional training.
  2. The Thief bolts a weird-ass percentage skill system onto D&D, which is as elegant as a brick upside the head.
  3. The Thief doesn’t model the Grey Mouser very well.  (I’d argue, though, that it’s a pretty good fit for the ridiculous number of thieves in Dunsany’s Book of Wonder, which may have been the primary inspiration.)

So check it out: my theory is that the Thief wasn’t really meant to work as a class in its own right.

  • Debuts in Supplement I: Greyhawk
  • Greyhawk introduces AD&D style multi-classing for demi-humans, finally making sense of the OD&D Elf
  • All demi-humans are eligible to take levels in Thief
  • All demi-humans have strict level caps . . . but unlimited advancement in the Thief class (even in 1e)
  • All demi-humans get sick Thief skill adjustments
  • The Thief is pretty much a joke at low levels, so the demi-human is getting half XP in the main class for little benefit.  Maybe this is a handicap to compensate for the demi-human’s racial bonuses over a Level 1 human character.
  • By Levels 7-9 or so, the Thief no longer stinks out loud, and this is approximately when the demi-human hits a level cap in a “real” class.  Thus the Thief class becomes viable around the time the demi-human has nothing better to do. (Halflings hit the level-cap earlier, but their insane Thief bonuses are like having an extra level or two of Thief so they’re viable earlier.)
  • In Greyhawk your XP will always be divided by your number of classes, even after you hit the level cap.  So a Halfling Fighter/Thief who’s hit level 4 as a Fighter is still only going to be getting half-XP to devote to the Thief class . . . which may explain why the Thief XP chart is so ridiculously easy to level.

I mean, I can’t help you if you think the Thief’s percentage score ability thing is a kludge implemented without any forethought (it obviously was), or if you think that the Thief absolutely must model the Grey Mouser (it mustn’t).

But looking at the Thief as a component of a multi-class character, rather than as an independent class in its own right, helps me understand why the class was designed in such a weird way.

No Joesky tax today because I am late for work.

21
Dec
10

How awesome is your fighting man?

The image of the super-hero cutting a swath of destruction and mayhem through a troop of goblins is a key D&D trope. But how to simulate an overpowering attack in the confines of abstract combat rounds? The increasing “to hit” ability of the fighting-man (paired with better saves) captures the hero’s increasing prowess. But simulating combat vs. multiple enemies requires an additional mechanic – hopefully one that lets players be awesome(1). Otherwise a 10th level fighter takes eight rounds to slay eight goblins every time, and that is not awesome.

AD&D addresses this in two ways. Fighters get multiple attacks as the gain levels, and versus enemies of less than one hit dice they get an additional attack each round per level. This allows a lord to indeed put down eight goblins in a round or two.

Another more random possibility: a variation on Zak’s kung-fu points, where hitting your number could mean, for instance, that damage you do in that round applies to all enemies within melee range.

A third approach is seen in Empire of the Petal Throne. Once a hit has been determined in EPT, the damage (number of dice rolled to determine damage) in part depends upon the relative level of the combatants, so:

Why, yes, I am level "Vee Eye Eye Eye"

The example included in the rules extends the possibilities: damage can be applied across multiple enemies. The example is worth quoting, since it is open to multiple interpretations:

This becomes important in melees in which an advanced level character fights more than one low-level opponent. Fighting three Kurgha (one die creatures), a 9th level warrior rolls four dice. If he scores a total of 18 or better, he kills them all, since thier maximum total hit dice cannot exceed 18 points. A 4th level fighter does 2 dice damage to these same creatures, and the referree then rolls to determine the hit dice the three kurgha can take: let us say a 6, a 4, and a 2, totalling 12. If the fighter scored a total of 10 on his two dice, he would kill the weakest two Kurgha and leave the strongest one with only 2 points remaining!

How this works in mixed-level opponent situations is left as an exercise for the reader. One fallout of this system – any 10 hit die creature could in theory slay a group of 1st level players in one round with the swipe of a claw…

Do you have an alternate or favorite way to allow fighting-men characters to be awesome? Feel it is unnecessary? Please add in comments!

(1) ”Awesome” here is a shortcut for “engaging play” – awesome could be spearing two orcs at once, an epic fumble, or whatever fun and unexpected thing the dice and situation dictate, as long as it captures the attention and imagination of the players at the table.




Past Adventures of the Mule

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