Posts Tagged ‘Arnesonian


A D&D That Never Was: Champions of ZED Kickstarter

Daniel Boggs’ vision of what the original release of Dungeons & Dragons could have been, Champions of ZED, ends its Kickstarter funding period this Saturday, June 16th, at 11:11PM EDT. I’m a backer; here’s why I think you might want to pick this up for yourself, and what a strong showing for this crowdfunding effort could mean for those of us who are interested in roleplaying history.

Last October my family and I drove to Schnectady to go camping, visit Secret Caverns and Howe Caverns, attend the Council of Five Nations gaming convention, and visit Dan and his family. I knew Dan as Aldarron from the OD&D forums, and as D.H. Boggs the author of Dragons at Dawn, and we’d talked by phone while I was putting together the Arneson game day. At some point he told me the story of how he came to have a copy of a  manuscript, “…Beyond This Point Be Dragons…”, which – as he relates in his analysis of a D&D archaeological mystery (PDF) – he believes is an alternate branch of the development of the first roleplaying game. BTPBD seemingly reflects Dave Arneson’s further refinement and expansion of a draft that resulted from the initial back and forth between him and Gary Gygax, with illustrations, clarifications, and new ideas that weren’t included in the text that was published as Dungeons & Dragons in 1974.

While I was in Schnectady, Daniel let me take a look at his copy and take a few pictures with my cell phone, which always makes me feel pleasingly like James Bond. At the time I was working on dungeon encounter tables for ACKS, so those are the things I focused on:

Dig the Anti-Superhero on this encounter table from …Beyond This Point be Dragons…

A number of fans have expressed their frustration that the Champions of ZED Kickstarter is not publishing this manuscript itself, and I understand where they’re coming from. I’ve got no way to verify its authenticity, although I have great respect for Daniel’s Arnesonian scholarship and find his reasoning about what BTPBD represents convincing. What I can say is that looking over this manuscript gave me a powerful sense of secret history and unrealized possibilities.  I wish more people could share that experience, but Daniel is in no position to publish this work directly. I do believe that there are other copies of this and similar historical manuscripts in the hands of people who are better situated to release them; it’s my hope that the show of interest demonstrated by this project convinces someone who can that it’s worth the effort to bring this manuscript to the public.

I don’t really know how many other people will thrill to the revelation that, just as an Evil High Priest is the dungeon-dwelling counterpart of a Patriarch, at one point Arneson made clear that a Superhero goes into the underworld to confront an Anti-Superhero. Of course, I eat this stuff up. But what was really mindblowing was having lunch with Daniel afterwards and talking to him about the things I’d seen in “…Beyond This Point Be Dragons…” and the even more interesting things his immersion in the early D&D texts allowed him to spot that I had missed. It’s valuable to see an alternate Arnesonian experience point system; it’s fantastic to have Daniel put this in the context of Arneson’s writing like The First Fantasy Campaign , an analysis of how many experience points are potentially distributed in Dave’s dungeons, what interviews with him and his players suggest, etc. This is the kind of thing I’m confident Champions of ZED will deliver; this is why I’m looking forward to getting my copy.

Champions of ZED is fully funded; it doesn’t need your support to become a reality. But if you care about the kinds of roleplaying history we talk about at the Mule, you owe it to yourself to pick up CoZ and whichever of the backer rewards catches your eye. Go now, I’ve left this post until it’s almost too late!


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!

The World Dave Made: Panel Discussion for the Arneson Memorial Gameday

What would modern culture look like if it weren’t for Dave Arneson?

At the Third Annual NYC Arneson Memorial Gameday, a panel discussion will explore all the things we owe to his life and work. That’s a legacy that stretches from his involvement in the birth of role-playing games as a player in Dave Wesely’s Braunstein, to the invention and refereeing of Blackmoor, the first fantasy campaign,  through his co-creation of Dungeons & Dragons, and into his later career teaching game design at Full Sail University. Panelists will present key aspects of our Arnesonian inheritance, including the concept of having a character that represents you in an imagined realm and is described by statistics that reflect your advancement as a result of experience, and talk about how these ideas continue to shape progress in their own fields. Here are the folks I’ll be encouraging to say interesting things while playing the role of moderator:

  • Luke Crane is one of the most influential role-playing game designers working today and an outspoken advocate of self-publishing. His participation as  panelist and game-master affords a chance to see both theory and practice.
  • Brian Droitcouer is a staff writer at Rhizome–an organization supporting art that engages emerging technologies based at the New Museum–and a regular contributor to Artforum. He is currently organizing an exhibition titled “Big Reality” that takes role-playing games as a starting point for considering how consumer technologies have integrated fantasy and play in everyday life. He will offer some thoughts on the place of role-playing games in contemporary culture, and examples of how it is reflected in the work of some artists.
  • David Ewalt is a senior editor at Forbes Magazine, where he reports on the game industry, and is writing a book about Dungeons & Dragons, which will be published by Scribner. David will be sharing insights from his interviews with people in all walks of life who were influenced by roleplaying games.
  • Nicholas Fortugno teaches the Game Design and Interactive Narrative program at Parsons New School for Design and is the co-founder of the NYC game design studio Playmatics LLC. Nicholas will be talking about why learning to play Dungeons & Dragons was simply the most influential element of my childhood and has profoundly shaped his career, his identity, and his life.
  • Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of the award-winning book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, his travel memoir investigation into fantasy and gaming subcultures. He also blogs for’s Geek Dad, and writes about movies, books, and pop and geek culture for, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times.
This year’s Arneson Memorial Gameday will be held from 9 am until 11 pm at the Brooklyn Strategist on 288 Atlantic Avenue. It’s open to everyone and admission is free, with a suggested $10 donation to juvenile diabetes research.
We’re funding the costs of this better-than-ever event with a Kickstarter effort that includes donor rewards that may be of interest to you whether or not you can make it to the Gameday. Go check it out; your support makes this possible!

Annoucing the GMs for the Arneson Memorial Gameday

Scott LeMien - skatay on New York Red Box & nerdNYC - created this awesome logo. Click on it to see more of his work!

Saturday, October 1, 2011 would have been Dave Arneson’s 64th birthday. If you’ll be in the area, come help celebrate it from 9 am until 11 pm at the Brooklyn Strategist!

Here is a partial list of the designers and GMs who will be participating:

  • Luke Crane will be running games of Arneson’s adventure DNA/DOA using a hack of Burning Wheel Gold
  • Darren Watts will be running games of Lucha Libre for the HERO System
  • Michael Curtis will be running games of Stonehell Dungeon
  • Joseph Bloch will be running games of Adventures Dark & Deep, and will have a new version of the Bestiary
  • Paul Hughes will be running games of 4E Dungeons & Dragons using his poster of the OD&D random monster charts
  • Tavis Allison will be running games of Adventurer Conqueror King

From 9 until 5, we’ll be doing open-table games with a focus on kids and drop-ins. From 5 until 6:30, there will be a panel discussion that will be the subject of my next post. After that we’ll set aside some of the space for socializing with wine and beer and snacks, as well as more focused gaming sessions.


Third Annual Dave Arneson Memorial Gameday: October 1, 2011

This year’s Dave Arneson Memorial Gameday will be the third to be held in New York City, and the first to be celebrated on the day of Arneson’s birth, October 1. I don’t have much more to say about this yet – I just want to get the word out well ahead of time, instead of waiting for the last minute like I usually do.

Lushomon Canal. OMG that's a triceratops pulling a wagon.

An important advantage of the new time is that our event happens after the one the Aethervox Gamers organize, which lets me share some stuff from their game. As posted at Chirine ba Kael’s blog chirine’s workbench:
Scenery we got; “Saving Serqu’s Sisters” will be the two drop cloths from the old ‘Islands of Death’ game from 2004, with all the jungle I can cram onto the table. Lots of bridges for movement, and we have to use the Mayan bookends I got from Dave Arneson; they’ll be the Lost Temple of the Nameless Ones, which is a joke based on Prof. Barker’s SF fanclub in the 1940’s. (Memo to self; buy some FFG Cthullus for the temple; it’ll look nicer, and they’ll be happy.)
The second table will be the Lushomon Canal game from the first DLA MMM event three years ago; use some of the blank drop cloths from stock, and the 30 yards of light blue vinyl table cloth for the canal – we can eat our pizzas on it, as it wipes off and we have some very sloppy eaters. Use the ‘temperate’ scenery sets, and use the Sakbe road from the Battle of Anch’ke terrain set as a backdrop; it plays no part in the game itself, but looks cool as all get-out and will help get people interested. (It did.)
“Sisters” gets all the Hlutrgu and their nasty little coracles. The humans get two larger galleys from the collection with larger contingents of troops, and we add the pirate fleet of three ships and a longboat for Harchar’s four henchpersons. Total, seven players minimum. Each boat or ship gets as many figures as it’ll hold, and we learned last time that the humans barely held their own so we add archers to the troops. We also add the two sisters as a player, because I have twin sister figures (the two Pathfinder “Seoni” figures) and giving the rest of the players a mobile objective with hidden movement will add to the challenge. The sisters get three chits, only one of which is actually them; the other two will give the rest of the players fits as they chase noises in the jungle.
Total forces, spread amongst eight players:
Sisters [one player] – derelict boat, two figures; goal, get saved by the Tsolyani and not killed.
Tsolyani [one player] – medium galley with 10 pikemen, 10 pikemen with bows, eight officers, one standard-bearer, one trumpeter; goal, save the sisters and arrest Harchar.
Salarvyani [one player] – medium galley, 10 infantry, 10 archers, five officers, one standard-bearer, one trumpeter; goal, rescue sisters (ransom money!) and arrest Harchar (reward money!)
Pirate Fleet [four players] – three small ships, one longboat; 20 marines, 20 sailors, four mates, one captain; goal, rescue sisters (ransom money!), keep Harchar out of the hands of law and order.
Hlutrgu – [one player, expanded to three to get late arrivals into the game] – eight coracles, 80 Hlutrgu; goal, kill all the humans that they can, sacrifice the sisters to the Nameless Ones at their Lost Temple.
“Canal” gets all the boats we have left, with a mix of mercenaries, pirates, and possible targets for piracy. And the River Police, who never seem to do much but always seem to get a lot of money in the course of the game.
Total forces, spread amongst six or seven players:
River Police – [one player] – small galley, six officers of the law; goal, get rich.
Vriddi Pleasure Barge [one player] – towed barge, rich folks; goal, don’t get kidnapped for ransom.
Temple of Dilinala – [one player] – medium merchant ship, ten Temple Guards disguised as dancing girls; goal, get off board with their valuable treasure.
Mercenaries – [two separate players] – two small galleys, each with ten warriors; goal, get rich.
Carolyn, the Pirate Queen of Butrus – [one player] – small galliot, ten warriors; goal, get rich.
Malia, the Pirate Princess – [one player] – small merchant ship, twelve warriors cleverly disguised as dancing girls; goal, get rich.
Now, the intelligent reader will note that an Opportunity for Considerable Confusion exists here; you’d be right, and that’s part of the charm of doing a game like this. It keeps things fun for the players when a) they board the ship full of helpless dancing girls, who pull out weapons and cut them to ribbons, and b) it’s the wrong ship full of helpless dancing girls who pull out weapons and cut them to ribbons.
(And yes, this kind of thing does take a lot of miniatures to pull off. We happen to have some 4,600 little lead people in the Aethervox collection, so we can do two boatloads of helpless dancing girls who happen to be fanatical warriors all armed to the teeth.)
That’s the set up. Pick a card at random, roll for move-counter-move, and we’re off on game turn one. Please feel free to ask more questions about all this; it’s what I’m here for…
All of this, and especially those gorgeous pictures, makes for great inspiration. It’s unlikely that we can do any of this ourselves here in NYC – we lack 4,600 lead people, for one thing – but I for one plan to try out some of these kind of Braunstein-like scenarios, for which Chirine lays out the design specs here. And it’s fantastic to see the maritime miniatures milieu in which Dave’s former gaming group believes he is best honored; Charlatan’s saltbox inherits the oldest of traditions. Even if what we do here is totally dissimilar, though, I think the universe of people who owe a debt to Arneson’s work – a set which most of its members are unaware of belonging to – benefit greatly from having two events: Minnesota’s with a unique and specific focus and a direct link to the original, and NYC’s that’s open to all the diversity of everything that Dave’s work has made possible, and admires it through the unearthed lens of distant time and space.
Another great thing about having these two memorial gaming events happen on different days is that it makes it possible for me to attend them both! Here’s Chirine again:
Planning for the next one, the Fourth Annual, is already starting; several of the folks at this year’s event have very kindly offered to do the spadework for next year, and I think it’ll be something Dave would be proud of. More on that, too, as we get things put together!
I join him in promising more details on our plans for the NYC gameday soon – I can say now that it’s unlikely to be at the Complete Strategist, like last year’s, because their basement is usually booked for the first Saturday in each month – and also in hoping it will make Dave proud.

Blackmoor Dungeons: What Mapping is Good For

Last week, Bob (who I am fortunate to know from the awesome Cyclopeatron blog and the equally awesome So Cal Mini Con) wrote me to ask:

I think I recall in one of your blog posts or comments you mentioned having run First Fantasy Campaign. I am struggling to understand how to make this dungeon fun – on the surface it looks like a horribly tedious nightmare maze. I can’t comprehend how players could stay interested in mapping and exploring a complex maze dungeon like this, especially if they’re mapping off of verbal descriptions.

The quick answer for how I made mapping non-tedious was that I bypassed verbal descriptions as much as possible by drawing the parts of the dungeon visible to the party on a wipe-erase TacTile. The party’s mapper then just had to copy my sketch and add it to their own map. I had graph paper available for each of my Blackmoor runs at Gen Con, and offered it to the players along with the suggestion that they designate someone to keep the map. Early on, one group said “we don’t need to map, he’s drawing it for us” and I was like “yeah but I’ll erase it as soon as you go off the edge of this tile…”

The first time I ran Blackmoor Dungeons was at the Arneson gameday I blogged about here. These players did a moderate amount of exploring, but the group included a number of players from the NY Red Box crew so we had a pretty smooth understanding of how to negotiate mapping together. I find that having worked out these procedures makes it much easier. When I tried to map El Raja Key at GaryCon II I had a hell of a time because I wasn’t used to the way that Rob Kuntz counted from the square we were in when he called out descriptions; I wound up getting a lot of help from Luke Gygax sitting next to me, because he was accustomed to Rob’s way of doing things.

Both groups that I ran at Gen Con this year wound up going down by instinct as soon as they realized that moving laterally tended to lead to many branching corridors and rooms that were often empty. I found this to have a cool psychological effect – all the odd angles created a sense of being somewhere strange and unsettling, and the tension grew with each time they entered a room and found nothing: when would the shoe drop? The tendency to make downward progress led to the party taking on encounters beyond their weight class with memorable and exciting results. I much preferred this to the urge to clear out everything on a level that you get when said level spoonfeeds you a steady drip of challenges and rewards, laid out in a neatly comprehensible way so that all you need to do to get out is follow the trail of enemy dead from one room to the next.

My first Gen Con group, the second expedition I witnessed, didn’t ever really need a player map. Their 1st through 4th level adventurers got into two encounters in the basement right after entering the dungeons, then hit the Orcian Way and wound up dining at a banquet held by two balrogs on the tenth level! There was no chance they’d fight these guys, backed up as they were by dozens of wights and a small army of orcs, so instead they convinced the balrogs to send the party after Sir Fang, who they killed. Their experience this party had was more like a modern lair dungeon – go in, get quest, fight boss battle – and although this result was wholly surprising to me, it shows that you could set up a conventional scenario within a nightmare maze megadungeon. Doing so would combine the advantages of new-school adventure design, like a focused goal and encounters pre-planned to be exciting, thematic, and meaningful, with the old-school benefits of massive freedom to go off the rails in interesting ways and the utterly convincing evocation of a dungeon environment that’s much too huge and inimical to care about your personal goals.

It was the second Gen Con group, my third overall, who showed what player mapping is really good for. First they figured out that lateral stuff was challenging, so they adopted an always-turn-left rule. Then they found that lots of rooms were empty(which I improv’d as being pirate quarters currently with no one home) and started looking for down stairs. At one point they found an apparently room with nothing but a little treasure, which I improv’d was the gilding on a weirdly carved gnollish floor covered in offal and maggots; this spooked them so much that they left it alone. Then
they realized that there were fewer down stairs than ones going up, and used their player map to contemplate where they might be if they went up.

The tension mounted with each time they went down and still found no encounters to tell them whether they were on a level whose denizens were way too tough for them. Then they found an unkeyed room with “ghost room” written on the map, which I improv’d in a creepy way. Then they encountered three high-level M-Us, developed a tactical plan to surprise them, and got away with it – gaining literally a ton of gold and ten tons of silver. So now they’re six levels deep, as burdened as they possibly can be, and with half an hour left in the session they’re hoping to get back to the surface intact.

What ensues is an enormously enjoyable process of mutual map consultation. They’re using their player map to tell me which way they’re going to get back. I’m following their progress on my DM map, watching to see if they take a wrong turn, and counting squares to see when I next get to check for a wandering monster. I roll these in the open, so there’s a collective cry of relief each time I don’t roll a 1. The players also cheer each time they work with the mapper to tell me which way they’re going and I begrudgingly acknowledge yes, you’re in an area you’ve seen before. When they successfully used their map to re-emerge into daylight, there was a tremendous sense of

There was also a real sense of discovery – I had no idea from looking at the Blackmoor Dungeon maps that this is how it’d play out, and there were lots of emergent properties that were deeply surprising and fun for both me and the players.  Even the guys in the third group, who had lots of dungeoneering savvy like the left-hand rule, I don’t think had any
more experience with this kind of super-old-school nightmare maze. The very bare-bones key was also real satisfying for improvisation – I drew information onto the map (monsters, treasure) like I was talking about in this post, so it was very fast and free-flowing.

I had so much fun with Blackmoor Dungeons that I’m planning to run it again at Gen Con, perhaps as a pair of continuous 12-hour delves with players dropping in and out. I will eventually post maps of the areas players have visited before: presumably they have supplemented their loot by selling these maps to other would-be adventurers!


Henchmen Are the Opposite of Dissociated Mechanics

These would make great minis for henchmen.

During arguments about whether game/edition X counts as a roleplaying game, people like to say that you could roleplay Monopoly. This is intended to end the argument, but I think it actually points out the way that roleplaying depends on a correspondence between something in your own personal experience and the situation you imagine your game-token to be occupying.

It’s easier to roleplay Monopoly than The Game of Gaining and Losing Points Due to Random Motion across a Regularly Demarcated Perimeter. The mechanics of both are identical; the difference is that Monopoly gives you imaginary things to manipulate that are easy to associate with things that have meaning in your life. (I’m talking here about money and real estate; the top hats and poodles remain inexplicable.)

Dungeons & Dragons is and always has been, among other things, a game of resource management. The great thing about old-school D&D is that the resources it gives you to keep track of are so often concrete and meaningful. It’s vivid and compelling to imagine having your last torch burning your fingers as you try to find an exit from the underworld, or taking your last swallow from a waterskin beneath the burning desert sun.

Hit points and spells are more abstract. Owing, perhaps, to long practice, we are usually able to associate these game variables with things that make sense to us. Nevertheless, when people want to make a “more realistic” version of D&D they often start looking for alternatives to fire-and-forget spellcasting and complaining about how it takes more sword thrusts to kill a high-level fighter than an elephant. I think this is because hit points and memorized spells start floating loose from anything we can have real-world experience with.

Healing surges and martial daily powers are a step further dissociated from the players’ concrete experience, and for many people that’s a step too far towards The Game of Gaining and Losing Points Due to  Random Motion across a Regularly Demarcated Perimeter.

When I ran Blackmoor Dungeons at Gen Con, I gave each player some henchmen to control. In one session, the players positioned their henchmen and heroes around a door and then went storming in to meet a roomful of poisonous spiders. When they pulled out again, sealing the door with a wizard lock, I said: “Okay, you left three dead henchmen on the floor inside. What were their names? There are two more corpses on this side of the floor. What are you doing with the bodies?”

Henchmen are the opposite of dissociated mechanics, and I love them. They’re a game token that’s more easily commodified and spent than a PC. At the So-Cal Mini Con, in the first fifteen minutes of play I probably killed a dozen henchmen, immediately illustrating the lethality of the situation and depleting the players’ resource without having to take away anyone’s sole means of interaction with the action of the game.

Broken swords and bulging-with-gold backpacks are also good, concrete resources for game management. But, being  people, players are interested in stories about people. The great thing about henchmen are that they create events in play that make for interesting stories. Will the souls of the abandoned henchmen come back to haunt the living? What might the families of the others do when their corpses are brought back to town? How do the survivors find the courage to keep descending despite the loss of their comrades?

The problem with dissociated mechanics is simple: you can’t tell stories about them. “We lost four henchmen” is more satisfying than “we lost four healing surges” for the same reason that “you landed on my Park Place hotel, pay me $2,000” is more satisfying than “your random motion earned me two thousand due to my investment in the penultimate gradation.”

In case this post makes a blahblah blah sound, here’s the way I did henchmen in the Blackmoor Dungeons run:

  • Ask each player their charisma, tell them how many maximum followers they can have as a result.
  • Offer a choice between guaranteed henchmen or rolling for them.
  • If you go with the guarantee, you have three zero-level men-at-arms (fewer if your Charisma doesn’t allow that many).
  • If you choose to roll, you get a d6 worth (again limited by your Charisma max). If you rolled a 6, one of them is a first-level fighting man, cleric, or magic-user (with two randomly chosen spells in their spellbook).
  • Don’t roll any stats for the henchmen; assume they have perfectly average or just below normal scores. If a player’s PC is killed or incapacitated, they take over one of their former henchmen; rolling up their ability scores at this point creates some excitement and gives them a new sense of ownership over the character.

In my first Blackmoor run, we had a lot of time before the official session start so I had people roll their henchmen’s stats; this put more focus on them at the start of the game than I think was necessary, and when henchmen were known ahead of time to have great ability scores players were like “Can I sacrifice my main guy and play this one instead?”

Alternately, a nice way to turn alternative ability score generation from a dissociated mechanic into a concrete one is to have people roll multiple sets of 3d6 in order. Your favorite of these is your PC; the others are your henchmen.

Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2017
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