Posts Tagged ‘Arnesonian


Blackmoor Memories: The 16 Ton Weight

I’ve got a number of longer posts to make about conversations I had at Gen Con with David Wesely and Ross Maker about the early history of the Blackmoor campaign, but here’s a quick one from Ross:

At conventions, Dave [Arneson] would have a room where there was a rope hanging from the ceiling with a sign saying: “Do Not Pull This Rope or a 16 Ton Weight Will Smash You.” You can probably guess where that came from! And even though the sign told you exactly what would happen when you pulled the rope, someone always would. Usually it was the most annoying munchkin in the group, and everyone would breathe a sigh of relief and keep going.

Nice to know that gamers making Monty Python jokes are participating in the oldest of old-school traditions! (See also the wizard named Tim in Jaquays’ “Borshak’s Lair”.)


Advocating for Original D&D on the Canon Puncture Podcast

Something that Mule readers may find interesting, should they wish to stop being readers for a little while and become listeners instead:

A while back I did an interview with Rich Rogers, aka Orklord of the Canon Puncture podcast.  It’s part of a series called Game Advocates, in which people talk about what they get out of one of their favorite RPGs. Mine was #99 in the series; previous entries feature all manner of cool folks providing practical insights about their RPG experiences.

The podcast is half an hour, and Rich and I spent at least as much time talking afterwards. He’s a very enjoyable conversationalist with a lot of enthusiasm for roleplaying games, and I think it would have been cool to have captured some of that discussion as well. I was very interested to hear about his experiences with old-school games (specifically Labyrinth Lord, if I recall) and expand together on the themes I sketched out during the formal interview portion.

Nevertheless, what’s here is a pretty rapid-fire summary of how I see the evolution of OD&D, why the 1974 edition in particular is worthwhile as an inspirationally incoherent collision of the Arnesonian and Gygaxian approaches, and how its framework of dice-based improv can result in fun and surprising gameplay. For those who have played OD&D with me, I’ll be interested to hear whether you think the way I describe things here matches your own experience of what we do. For those I haven’t played with yet, this is probably a pretty good indication of what it’d be like to hear me interrupt the game and go off on a tangent for thirty minutes while you wait for your turn to act.


Baby Killer Frogs Rescued from Blackmoor Dungeons

Here's where it all began.

The Second Annual Dave Arneson Memorial Gameday (NYC Branch) was a rousing success, and a great conclusion to TARGA’s International Traditional Gaming Week. Having been out to Gary Con at the start of the ITGW and then organized four different games for the Gameday (plus helping put together fifth table of George Strayton’s 4E conversion of Temple of the Frog when the first one filled up) leaves me with a lot of ordinary day job stuff to catch up with, so I’ll let other people’s posts tell most of the story.

Here, then, are actual play reports from the excursion into Blackmoor Dungeons that I ran using Daniel Boggs’ fascinating Arnesonian proto-D&D rules, Dragons at Dawn:

Rock-god of the Red Box littleidiot wrote:

I got to be a magic user with plate mail and sword. A novelty. Not that he could wield that sword to save his life. At will Lightning bolts and fireballs was also nice. I got to strangle people with their own hair, save amazonian babies and get a sh*t load of gold. Unheard of in any other ‘early edition’ I’ve played. Oh and the amazonians were played by, well, an amazonian. Seriously, she must have been 6 foot tall.

My Amazon ringer was weisse_rose, the intrepid player of Lydio the Spider Dwarf in the White Box campaign, who very kindly agreed to be typecast when she fortuitously arrived right after the dice told me that the 11 warriors right next to the room of the giant frogs were all women. I decided that they were survivors of the destruction of the Temple of the Frog, so their “babies” in need of rescuing were carnivorous frogs bred to take over the world. Whether this juxtaposition of maternal affection and razor-sharp batrachaian teeth also counts as typecasting is for more enlightened observers to determine: I’m just glad that the “you meet one or more females in a dungeon” scenario didn’t end in violent betrayal as usual, perhaps because weisse_rose’s PC glow smoothed over that little misunderstanding about the man-eating pony-sized babies.

Here’s aldarron‘s recap from the Blackmoor boards:

In short: it was awesome. There was quite a turnout, so much so that at times it was hard to hear over all the other games. Tavis ran a great game with lots of creative takes on the old Blackmoor dungeon and he did a magnificent job of debuting the Dragons at Dawn rules I put together. There were eight of us playing and every class from the ruleset was represnted except “Sage”. I was particularly impressed with the Merchant character and how well that was played as well as other characters clever use of their stats like “Appearance” in gaming situations. The group made it past the Elves using some fast talking and slight of hand and found our way into the dungeon. There were encounters with some intimidating undead, a lot of passage exploration and secret doors and some not always successful negotiating with the bad guys encountered. We did strike up an alliance with some warrior women on the third level and had just gotten into a fight with some theurgistists when unfortunately I had to leave to catch the bus back to Schenectady. All in all the event was an excellent tribute to Arneson and kudos to Tavis for organizing it.

People chose their own classes, so I had nothing to do with the diversity – in fact I said “the choices are warrior, wizard, and some other stuff,” but people wanted to know about the other stuff regardless! There was indeed one sage – Ed’s character, the Count Ed Vainglor. He was the one who kept crawling off on his own, and at the end (after aldarron left) he managed to talk one of the valkyries into telling him how to contact Sir Fang. So the rats appear, and then four bats circle around him, and then one lands and turns into Fang’s vampiric ogre companion:

“What do you want, mortal?”

“I seek an audience with Sir Fang,” says Ed.

So Fang lands and assumes human shape: “I admire your courage. What do you have to offer me?”

“Companionship,” says Ed. “Give me the gift of undeath and I will accompany you until the end of time.”

“As you can see, I am not without companionship. What skills will you bring to my entourage?”

“I am an expert in poetry and literature,” Ed replies confidently.

“Ah! Do you hear that, ogre? No longer will you have to carry the burden of making intelligent conversation that is so difficult for you! You are welcome indeed among my children of the night.”

It was an great moment for Ed and sages everywhere, and word has it that becoming a vampire is Ed’s eternal goal as a player so I’m glad to have seen it fulfilled!

One interesting thing was that the group really focused on Sir Fang, I guess because they had heard from the elves that he was the reason they were making everyone drink holy water etc. before entering the dungeon. I’d worried about how huge and open-ended the dungeon was, making pacing difficult for a one-shot four-hour game, but the initial mention of Sir Fang proved to be a powerful nudge that beautifully set up Ed Vainglor’s vampire apothesis as one climax to the session. Eric’s memorable character Bloodgrave, cleric of the Starving God and wearer of the futurisitic battle armor and shield from the Temple of the Frog, was also all in favor of seeking out Sir Fang, but it’s probably for the best that their choices of the many, many possible directions for exploration led them to the set of rooms that created the interesting Amazonian plot and enabled another great Arnesonian climax: helping return frog-babies to their loving warrior-mommies, while burdened with 260 lbs. of gold apiece.

I didn’t manage to kill any PCs, but I did get a rarer privilege for a DM: having a player who was new to roleplaying! He’d learned about tabletop gaming from the Robot Chicken and Penny Arcade actual-play podcasts, and I was honored that the Arneson Memorial Gameday provided an opportunity for him to see what it was all about. He went out to dinner afterwards with Joe_the_lawyer and some of the players from his Castle Zagyg game, and it was great to see him swapping war stories just like an old-timer. The birth of a new gamer is a glorious thing, and less dangerous to witness than the birth of a giant carnivorous frog.

My very amateurish video of the Gameday can be downloaded from The first shows the players in my Blackmoor Dungeons event, and the cover of the Dragons at Dawn rules we were using as a recreation of Arneson’s early ’70s proto-D&D. The second video tours Mark’s Pallid Plague, then Joe’s Castle Zagyg, then George’s Temple of the Frog.

P.S. A Chicagoan I met at Gary Con II told me that the Comeback Inn, the famous tavern detailed in Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign and shown in the inset map above, was based on a real pub of the same name in Melrose Park that Dave used to visit.


D&D Was a Wargame: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

It’s common to see people saying that old-school games like Dungeons and Dragons (1974), or its new-school sequels like D&D 4E, or indie games like Burning Empires, are like wargames. In at least one case, that’s incontestably true: the covers of all three original D&D booklets announce that these are “rules for fantastic medieval wargames campaigns playable with paper and pencil and miniatures figures.”

However, the meaningfulness of drawing a parallel between any given RPG and “wargames” as an abstract, monolithic entity is hugely overstated. 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. People who talk about something being “wargamey” based solely on their experience of the contemporary wargames industry are talking out their ass. If someone says “Yu-Gi-Oh and poker dice  are like RPGs; I know because I’ve seen people playing the Warhammer Fantasy RPG in my game store, and it uses cards and dice with different things printed on each face,” their ignorance is obvious because we’re familiar with the essential nature of RPGs, the diverse ways that can be expressed, and the ways its mass-market expression has changed over time.

I’m not a wargamer. My formative experiences were part of a gaming culture where Diplomacy, Starship Troopers, and Advanced Squad Leader were played alongside Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Stormbringer, and The Fantasy Trip, but I never really got into that side of things. Unlike RPGs, I wasn’t motivated to keep up with more recent wargame designs, or seek out and play predecessors like Little Wars. But having that interest in the roots of RPGs means that I’ve spent a couple of hours reading about the history of wargaming on the internet and going to  seminars at Gen Con 2008 (Dave Arneson’s on “My Fantastic Gaming Group” and David Wesely’s on Braunstein). Sadly, this is more than enough experience to dispel at least those commonly-asserted fallacies which relate to D&D and the specific wargaming culture from which it arose.

Wargames aren’t all about combat and death.

The game that was published as D&D grew out of the house rules Dave Arneson was using for his Blackmoor campaign. Although the combat system he used was adapted in part from the Chainmail wargame, the essential gameplay grew out of the Braunstein wargames refereed by David Wesely and, later, by Dave Arneson. Here’s how a participant in the 2008 recreation (which, sadly, I wasn’t able to play in) described the experience:

We then played a game that falls somewhere between a LARP, Diplomacy, boardgame and tabletop RPG. The players were given character roles, turn-based order sheets and some plastic WW2 miniatures to represent our units. After the initial rules explanation and set up phase, players spent the bulk of the game milling around in the hallway outside the room in various groups, negotiating with and plotting against each other. Each of the characters had hidden agendas that required us to betray someone, but we also had to work with others in order to achieve these. A few seemingly random crises events popped up as well, such as a smallpox outbreak and rumors of a looming invasion by Banania’s hostile neighboring state. At the end of the game, each player was asked to vote on who they trusted and distrusted the most. I tallied Dave’s spoken results up on a whiteboard so we could see who would have come out on top in the next government.

The essential concern of a wargame is conflict, but there’s nothing in the form that says what form that conflict has to take or what mechanics will be used to resolve it. One of the proponents of the fallacy that wargame = hack and slash says “the absence of skill system and rules pared back to basics for everything except combat, and a very abstract level of combat resolution, are hall marks of a wargamey system… that’s what you have to get if you return to that system.” Looking at the earliest D&D fanzines, it’s clear that the same people who were interested in this “wargamey” RPG were also playing a lot of Diplomacy, where the absence of any rules except a highly abstract combat system leads to… intensely social play centered around scheming, hidden deals, bluffing, and backstabbing.

Wargames aren’t all about moving figures around a tabletop.

Although players in the Braunstein recreation were given miniatures, they weren’t used (in the original, they tracked which characters were in the same location, like pieces in a game of Clue).  The Napoleonic miniatures campaigns Dave Arneson had been playing prior to Blackmoor had been exploring similar directions, using his power as referee to introduce an element of the unknown that tabletop battles could not. He talked about telling one player ““Wait, don’t set up your army just yet. Your situation is that coordination has gone awry; the force you were supposed to link up with wasn’t at the rendezvous point.” He’d take the player into another room and draw him a sketch of the area: “Here’s the river, here’s a road, here’s where you think the sound of cannons is coming from, figure out what you’re going to do while I go see what the other players are up to.”

This  is the kind of wargaming that the original D&D rules grew out of. Sure, you could find other wargames that feature tactical maneuvering of figures on a pre-published battlemap. But saying that D&D 3.5 or 4E is like OD&D because both are like wargames is like saying that Minneapolis is like New Orleans because they’re on the Mississippi River.

Wargames aren’t all about choosing between pre-defined options whose outcome is rigidly defined by the rules.

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. Unlike a simple and clear-cut set of rules laid down in advance, the referee could provide flexible and intelligent adjucation of specific situations. Players could try doing anything  at whatever level of detail the group wanted to get into, and create new rules and modify existing ones as play demanded. Unlike interpretation by committee the referee’s decisions were fast and final.

This DIY hobbyist style of wargame play demanded many things of its referees, and downplayed the importance of purchasing new systems for doing different things. Not surprisingly, this is not the direction game publishers followed. Parallels between modern RPGs and modern wargames may be accurate because both reflect commercial pressures and contemporary tastes. That tells you  nothing about the kind of wargames that RPGs actually came from and the style of creative referee  adjucation and open-ended player freedom that both originally shared.

Wargames aren’t all about abstract gameplay instead of simulating the imagined world.

Giving the referee authority over the rules and how they were applied didn’t end quibbling about the outcomes of player actions in Arneson’s Napoleonic wargame campaigns. If anything, the promise of a referee whose adjucation could take into account everything you could imagine empowered quibbling about historical accuracy. Clearly, the muzzle velocity of a cannon in 1802 meant that my troops could not possibly be taking fire from an enemy position that far away! No, I can totally shoot you because this source it says that the new black powder formulation was available to elite troops on this front!

Arneson said that he was drawn to create a “fantastic medieval wargames campaign” because no one would be able to tell him what a dragon could or couldn’t do! Of course, anyone who’s ever heard RPG players argue about of the game implications  of the performance of longbow troops against mounted knights at Agincourt knows what became of this. Still, to say that D&D 4E players argue that of course an ooze can be tripped because the system is wargamey makes as much sense as saying that Silver Age issues of Dragon Magazine devoted so many pages to the aerodynamics of falling human bodies because the system was wargamey.

I don’t think that word means what you think it means. I think it means focused on social play, in which negotiations and alliances are as important as combat; enriched by, but not reliant on, tactical maneuvering of figures on the tabletop; allowed players to try anything they could think of; and emphasized imagination over rules as the key to figuring out what happened.


Announcing the 2nd Annual Dave Arneson Memorial Gameday

I’m pleased to announce that on Saturday, March 27th we will be celebrating Dave Arneson’s seminal contributions to adventure roleplaying by getting together and playing games in his honor!

This date is chosen to fall at the conclusion of the International Traditional Gaming Week, organized by TARGA, the Traditional Adventure Roleplaying Game Association. The week begins on March 21st with GaryCon II, which I’m also excited to be part of; I’m very happy to have the ITGW bracketed by events remembering these two sadly departed heroes of the polyhedral dice.

Thanks to the generous support of the Compleat Strategist, we will be meeting in the gaming space of their New York location:

11 East 33rd Street (between Madison and Fifth Avenue)
New York, NY 10016

Games will begin at noon and wrap up at 5, to allow time for cleanup before the store closes at 6.

I’m hoping we will once again have a variety of games, since Arneson’s legacy reaches beyond Dungeons and Dragons and encompasses all of us who like to get together with friends and imagine that the fate of our imagined adventures will be determined by the roll of a dice. If you’d like to run a game, just send an email to with the title of your game, the minimum and maximum number of players, and a brief description. I’ll post mine in a week or two as an example.

If you’re in travel distance of NYC, I hope to see you on 3/27/10! If you’re too far-flung, why not run a local event during the International Traditional Gaming Week? Let me know what it is, and I’ll add it to the list of ITGW events.


Wine, Women, and Song = Experience Points

This summer at EN World, the Jester asked: “A while back someone mentioned a game that gave xp for burning money on drinks and whores. This sounds like a very interesting way to inject a certain ‘gritty fantasy’ element to the game- if you get xp for spending money on stuff that gives you know material benefit, you sometimes have to choose between gaining xp and improving your armor! Anyone know what game this is, or have any experience (ho ho) with this system for giving out xp?”

I’m reposting & revising my reply here as a prelude to future discussion about my carousing rules in the White Sandbox campaign:

The game that gives you XP for spending money on ale and whores later became D&D. This idea is literally as old as roleplaying itself.

In 1977, Dave Arneson published The First Fantasy Campaign, in which he looks back on the development of the Blackmoor campaign beginning in 1970/71. It’s a weird, fascinating, and confusing book because somewhere in that time span what started out as a campaign of PvP miniature battles turned into the modern RPG. This seems to have appeared as natural to the group at the time as it seems bizarre to us, because Arneson discusses some aspects about the ongoing evolution of the game but takes many others for granted. One thing that was established early on was that you got 1 XP for each gold piece you discovered and brought safely out of the dungeon.

OD&D indicates that you were meant to get the bulk of your XP from treasure-hunting; the example of experience awards is a troll whose treasure is worth eight times the XP you get just from killing him. In Supplement I: Greyhawk, Gygax called the previous combat award of 100 XP per hit dice of creature killed “ridiculous” and bumped it down, so that from 1975 onwards you got maybe 8 XP for killing an orc instead of 100. This attempt to focus the game on finding creative ways to seek profit and avoid combat was carried over to AD&D, but the message was totally lost on me & I think most other AD&D players – I don’t remember ever giving or getting XP from treasure, and I do remember thinking that it’d take forever to make second level by killing orcs.

Anyway, looking back on the development of the proto-D&D game, Arneson mentions that his group soon evolved a new approach to getting XP from GP. Bringing it out of the dungeon was no longer enough:

“Character motivation was solved by stating that you did not get experience points until the money had been spent on your area of interest. This often led to additional adventures as players would order special cargos from off the board and then have to go and guard them so that the cargo would reach their lodging and THEN the player would get the experience points. More than one poor fellow found that his special motivators would literally run him ragged and get him killed before he got anything.” – Dave Arneson, The First Fantasy Campaign

Note that the FFC list of prices includes both kegs of wine and two different grades of pleasure slaves, so that you could quantify how many wagons worth of wine or women you had to shepherd through the wilderness to your barony in order to earn the XP you’d paid for!

Like many of the essential innovations in RPGs or any other DIY field, this idea seems likely to have been independently invented a number of times. Also in 1977, an article called “Orgies, Inc.” appeared in issue #10 of The Dragon magazine that also outlined a system where gold was awarded for gold spent on character-class-related activities. Basically, you get XP equal to gold spent divided by your level. You can spend on the following categories:

– Sacrifices, to a god or a demon or his representatives. Any classes, no more than 1/week, no limit.
– Philanthropy. Lawfuls only, no limit.
– Research. Magic-users and alchemists, up to 250 gp per level per day. Spell research counts, but magic item / poison / potion creation does not.
– Clan hoards. Dwarves & other clannish folk, no limit but must travel to location of clan & its hoard.
– Orgies. Fighting Men (not rangers & paladins), bards, thieves, and all Chaotics. Max spent is 500 gp per level per night (“250 if recuperating and under 50%” <- hit points I presume). A player may orgy continuously as many days as he has constitution points, but then must rest for as many days as he has orgied.

Here’s David A. Trampier’s magnificent illustration for this article, rendered safe for work (sorta) by the guys at Head Injury Theater:

And the EN World thread linked above has a player report whose DM used XP-for-gold-spent as a way to balance out stronghold expenditures; those who had invested their treasure in their demesnes got XP for the GP of taxes collected, while those uninterested in stronghold-building got XP for investing their treasure in wine, women, and song instead. It’s possible that DM was inspired by Arneson or “Orgies, Inc.”, but it seems equally possible to me that he thought of it on his own as a solution to the stronghold XP issue and a way to to emulate stories like Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser where heroes are always broke at the start of the next adventure.

In my White Sandbox campaign, I award XP for treasure twice – once for getting it out of the dungeon, like in core OD&D, and once for spending it as per Arneson’s inspiration and Jeff Rients’ “Party Like it’s 999” carousing rules. I’ve tracked down “Orgies, Inc.”, but it’s mostly useful to me as a way to define the canonical activities each class might indulge in. In practice I’ve allowed carousing to cover spending gold on a wide variety of stuff that’s not immediately useful than the PCs, rather than just awarding XP for money spent raising hell or donating to temples.

I’m really happy with the ways it’s helped characters develop unique personalities & expanded the campaign beyond the dungeon. This New York Red Box thread talks about some of the ways players planned to use it. More recently the gold-for-XP rules have led to an assassin PC founding a ASPCA-style animal shelter, and to another magic-user having to taste the giant eagle dung he was passing off as giant roc guano. Good times!

Past Adventures of the Mule

May 2020

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