Posts Tagged ‘theory


Mass Combat as Sport, Mass Combat as War

D@WThe Kickstarter for Domains at War launched yesterday, and my fellow Autarch Greg Tito recommended it on Facebook by saying “Domains at War is probably the most versatile fantasy wargame I’ve played.”

Versatility is an important feature to have in something you’re going to use in a RPG campaign, because of what S. John Ross said

may be the most unique feature of RPGs: tactical infinity. In Chess, the White Queen can’t sweet-talk a Black Knight into leaving her be; in Squad Leader, a group of soldiers can’t sneak through an occupied village dressed as nuns. In an RPG, you really can try anything you can think of, and that’s a feature that thrives on anarchy.

Game systems cope better with this infinite possibility than stand-alone games. One of the first things the original D&D set tells you is that you should have several other games on hand before you start playing, which you’ll then glom together to make a Frankengame.

Dungeon! is a great game, deeply linked to D&D thematically and developmentally, but it’s not on the Recommended Equipment list. I think this is because it is the closest to what ordinary players would recognize as a game instead of a set of rules for making your own game: it’s immediately playable out of the box, no elaborate customization needed, which means that it can’t be easily incorporated into a RPG. It’s only useful for gaming out the outcome of dungeon-crawling this one dungeon represented on the board, with these specific heroes printed on these cards. As a result, Dungeon! manifests in OD&D not as itself but as an abstracted set of principles for dungeon-crawling activities like finding secret doors, gauging risk/reward by dungeon depth, and earning victory points by bringing treasure out of the dungeon.

Outdoor Survival fares little better. This one is more of a hobby game, and less of a mass-market ready-to-play boardgame: the rules provide for several different scenarios, each of which introduce variant rules. It makes the Recommended Equipment list mostly because its hex map is such a useful play aid for RPGs (which is why we’ve included a version of it an add-on reward for Domains at War). You’re not encouraged to actually play a game of Outdoor Survival to resolve your character’s wilderness travel, although doing so may help make sense of D&D procedures like getting lost that are abstracted from its rules.

Chainmail is the game that actually makes it whole into OD&D. With the exception of the “alternate combat system”, you are encouraged to set aside playing a RPG whenever your characters get into a fight, at which point you’ll translate the shared imaginative space from D&D into the setup conditions for a Chainmail battle. Not coincidentally, this is the one on the list that, to the uninitiated, looks least like a game and most like a self-help manual in some esoteric discipline.

Domains at War can be as versatile as Greg says because, like its inspiration Chainmail, it’s a game system rather than a game. This DIY element means you can use it to recreate ancient or medieval battles from real-world history as easily as you can use it to resolve mass combat situations from your favorite hit-point-and-armor-class RPG. Domains at War’s default scale is 1 unit = 120 foot soldiers, 60 cavalry, or 30 giants, but it’s simple to adjust this to play out engagements between a large adventuring party and its mercenaries vs. an orc lair, or titanic conflicts with thousands of troops on each side.

ACKS Afterschool

That said, the goal of Domains of War is to present a system that’s quick and easy to use to generate a game. It succeeds at this well enough that nine-year-olds all jumped up with having had to sit still all day can learn and play it in an afternoon, while still retaining enough complexity that their impulsive tactical decisions have consequences.

The kind of versatility that makes Domains at War most valuable when incorporated into a RPG is that you can use it for both combat as sport and combat as war. In the game at right, I set up the forces opposing the kids’ characters to give them a well-balanced challenge, because I wanted the process of playing out the battle to be enjoyable in its own right. It took a long time to get the system presented in Domains at War: Battles to the point where it can be used to set up a game that’s fun in itself rather than just an exercise in dice-based resolution. That’s what I wanted in that particular after-school class, and it made sense in the imaginary scenario of the campaign.

In this afternoon’s session, however, it’s entirely possible that the kids will choose to lead their surviving armies somewhere else on the hex map and run into a wilderness encounter that’s not at all balanced. In a game like D&D 4E that’s strongly designed for combat as sport, this would be a problem because every combat is a symphony of interlocking choices that takes a long time to play out even when the outcome is more or less pre-ordained. Using the detailed tactics in Domains at War: Battles to dice out the kids’ armies wiping out a tribe of goblins, or getting stomped by an entire ogre village, would be no fun for the same reason. Here’s where the abstract resolution system in Domains at War: Battles – or the Free Starter Edition which you can download at DTRPG right now – shines. It’s got just enough dice rolls to make squishing goblins feel satisfying without taking up the whole session, or to make having one’s troops exterminated by giants while the PCs run and hide feel like a misfortune instead of a lengthy ordeal. And the rules for armies attempting to avoid detection by enemy forces in Campaigns make even the attempt to run from enemies fun and gameable.

Even accepting that most players didn’t use both Chainmail (which itself encompasses three different resolution systems) and the “alternative” d20 system to handle OD&D combat, old-school games work well in sandbox play because they facilitate their own versions of this toggle between interesting, slow, and detailed and trivial, fast, and abstract. As a result, you can do sport and war with the same rules. When a major fight comes up in the White Sandbox, the pace of the game naturally goes into bullet time; I’m very careful with the initiative count, and each player’s turn takes a long time as they search their character sheet for the half-remembered magic item or special ability that might save the day. If it’s a random encounter with nothing more at stake than a few hit points here or there, everyone accepts that I drop the individual initiative count-down and ask everyone to roll to hit as one big volley; we all want to get back to the exploration or logistics or narrative-building which the combat is interrupting. To my mind, the way the overall Domains at War system can be used to mirror either of these modes is its single biggest asset to me in running a RPG campaign.


Dungeons & Dragons In a Theater Near You

Two D&D-related plays are running this April: SHE KILLS MONSTERS is at the Steppenwolf in Chicago until 4/21, and GOLDOR $ MYTHYKA: A HERO IS BORN is at the New Ohio Theater in New York until 4/27.


I haven’t seen this one yet, but I can say that:

  • it’s based on a true story of a gamer couple who become folk heroes following “a theft so large and brazen that even law enforcement officials admit some admiration for it”
  • the coverage in the NY Times that inspired the playwright is remarkable for presenting RPGs as the opposite of a predisposition to crime:”Mr. Dillon, who regularly led long sessions of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, dreamed of doing something grand with his life… Friends of Ms. Boyd and Mr. Dillon say they never drank alcohol, took drugs or smoked, preferring books, movies, music and role-playing games for entertainment.”
  • the play’s production company, New Georges, is making a concerted effort to reach out to gamers, including a D&D page on their website and weekly pre-show games of D&D held in the theater every Friday at 7 pm
  • this Friday the 19th I’ll be running a scenario I developed for the Tower of Gygax, as this format’s audience participation, short playtime, and fast turnover are great virtues in running games in unconventional settings. (Unfortunately I’ll be arranging for another DM to fill my shoes on the 26th. Also unfortunately I didn’t post this in time to say “hey go play with DM Andy Action of 2 Skinnee J’s on the 12th!)
  • if you want to check it out on any of these Fridays, they’re offering complimentary tickets to the DMs to share with their gaming circles: I certainly plan to take them up on this offer at 8pm this Friday. See below for details!

New Georges presents
a new play by Lynn Rosen
developed with & directed by Shana Gold

APRIL 3 to 27

Wednesdays thru Saturdays @ 8pm     Sundays @ 5pm

Mondays @ 7pm      opens April 8


154 Christopher Street

(between Greenwich & Washington in the far West Village)

tickets   $25 / $35 premium seats
Mondays: pay-what-you-will OR ROLL OF THE DIE (at the door only)
Fridays: enter the world of Dungeons & Dragons!  starts at 7pm in the lobby; curated by D&D consultant Rusty Thelin
Sundays: late brunch! FREE McClure’s Bloody Marys & crinkle-cut chips! or call 212.868.4444

Fun and appropriate for kids, say, 12-ish and up!

WATCH, IF YOU DARETH, as love and hunger collide most fantastically with the elusive American dream. In hearty games of Dungeons & Dragons, young Bart and Holly escape the dreary reality of hauling money all day in armored transport vehicles. When jobs are lost and the boss starts looking at Holly funny, escape becomes reality, releasing Goldor & Mythyka upon the world. Thusly, lucre shall be heisted! Throngs shall cheer their criminal exploits!

And Have Nots will rule the day!  Until…


I blogged about the premiere of this play at the Flea Theater before seeing it, but never got around to reporting “hey this is really awesome!” The frame story follows a woman who comes back to her home town after her younger sister’s death in a car crash. Big sis finds little sis’s D&D campaign notebook and, seeking to understand her better, convinces that gaming group to reform and run her through the adventure it describes.

Overall SHE KILLS MONSTERS is fantastic – funny, action-packed, and well written. If you’re in Chicago at the right time, you wouldn’t do wrong to invite anyone you know to go see it. For gamers in particular, you can be reassured that this is an accurate and sympathetic portrayal of the role-playing experience. Following one of the performances in NYC, I organized a panel about how RPGs relate to theatrical performance. Here are some reasons SHE KILLS MONSTERS is especially worth checking out in this light:

The frame story allows the audience to be led through the process of learning what a RPG is about. Our viewpoint character is initially awkward about sitting down and playing let’s pretend with her sister’s friends. As she gets into it, the staging has her and the GM sitting and talking while in the background the events described are being acted out. Soon big sis is fully into the fantasy – the actor is dressed up like the character, grooving on killing monsters as promised – and then the play cuts back to the mundane reality of being in a room rolling dice.

A gaming group is first and foremost a social gathering. I’m aware of being in a room with other human beings with whom I’m looking to have a good time. Part of the enjoyment of the game is then appreciating the imaginative performance of these people; I’m not just cheering the hobbit Lucky as he delivers the killing shot to the Beast Lord, I’m also moved by his player Quendalon’s description of these events. To the extent that the game is immersive and compelling, I care about Lucky and want to learn about how he overcomes challenges. Still, this is just a shadow of how much I care about my friends and want to get to know them better through the lens of gaming. The narrative of SHE KILLS MONSTERS gets this right – little sis’s gaming notebooks and the stories told about her by her gaming group reveal an inner self otherwise hidden from the world – but it’s the way this story is told through the medium of the theater that sells me on the idea.

In a film like Heavenly Creatures which likewise plays with the link between reality and imagination, the fantasy sequences are neither more nor less real than the depictions of the people imagining them. Special effects aside, both are just images flickering at 60 frames a second. As a rule, I prefer watching movies to seeing a play because  the awareness that I’m seeing people acting dramatical tends to inhibit my immersion into the story. As a way to explore what a RPG is like, though, theater seems to me exactly the right tool for the job.

As the audience for a play, I’m normally judgemental: watching people act rarely convinces me I’m seeing another reality the way the illusions of film can. When playing a RPG, I’m not just a spectator evaluating others, I’m also a participant eagerly trying to get to another reality. The need to be forgiving of my own ham acting in the service of this goal means that I’m full of charity and good will towards my other players’ own turns on the imaginary stage.

In the frame story, I’m aware that I’m watching someone on a stage, acting out the hesitancy faced by someone who wants to be cool and adult as they try to get into the silliness of playing a RPG. When I see the character they’re playing starting to sink their teeth into the game, and then in the next scene the actor is dressed like the character in the role-playing game going wild with the stage fighting and whooping out over-the-top battle cries, it’s a great dramatization of why RPGs are awesome. Here is Zak’s famous observation about ironic distance in the form of a play; I’m simultaneously aware that I’m seeing a person, and seeing a person pretend to be something they’re not, and in my mind’s eye seeing the thing they’re pretending to be. Being a gamer trains me to cheer on this process and do everything I can to help with the make believe, and being a good play means that SHE KILLS MONSTERS keeps getting energy out of the frame shifts the same way that a RPG feeds on breaking the action to make out-of-character jokes or to admire the fact that it’s your friend who is coming up with these wild inventions and impromptu dialogue.

In the panel after the show, we talked a bunch about the idea that a key difference between RPGs and other theatrical forms is the way that RPGs combine spectator and audience. Nick Fortugno said that plays have to be good in an Apollonian sense, worthy of being held up for objective appraisal; trying to appeal to some imaginary audience of theater critics would immediately squelch a roleplaying game.  SHE KILLS MONSTERS appealed to me as a gamer because it showed the process of conjuring an imaginary space, but at the end of the night I realized that it also appealed to my desire as an audience member to sit back and be entertained by people more talented than me, at no effort to myself.

If one of the high moments of your play is going to be a puppetry gelatinous cube, it helps to have the audience in the mindframe of gamers eager to imagine that the GM’s amateurish sketch is whatever it’s supposed to be. But I wouldn’t pay for the experience of being a spectator for the exact same roleplaying session twice, and if I were going to be anywhere near Chicago this week I’d eagerly see SHE KILLS MONSTERS again.


On Dwimmermount, And Failure

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, maybe in the comments to this post about Gygax, Arneson, and a music video. My mom was a little girl when Hawaii became a state. She’s about the age of D&D’s original gangsters, and the vogue for Hawaiian shirts and hula hoops affected her the way Tractics did them. The world wasn’t changed by my mom’s lifelong devotion to hula dancing, but it did mean my childhood was surrounded by the paraphernalia of a hobby most people left behind decades ago.

In 2000, her halao, a hula group made up of dancers who commuted between Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio (for non-Texans, this is a whole lot of six-mile hexes) to practice together, was the first in the continental-US-other-than-California to be invited to the Merrie Monarch festival. This would be hula’s equivalent of Gen Con, if Indy had this big contest we all cared about so much that just being allowed to enter was a big deal.

A women’s group competing in the Merrie Monarch festival. We had all these kinds of cowrie shell necklaces and coconut shell bras around the house when I was a kid.

The day my mom was getting ready to go on stage – braiding all those grass skirts takes a long time – the rest of my family,  my fiancee, and I went swimming at a black sand beach on the big island. After a while the rest of us went in to build sand castles while my dad looked for coral with a snorkel. At one point we looked up and wondered if he was swimming a little far from shore; when we looked again a minute later he had drowned. My brother and I swam out to try to rescue him, but our attempts at CPR failed.

Kehena Beach can be seen in the background of this shot. Most of the folks who helped with the rescue weren’t wearing any clothes.

Like many gamers I grew up devoted to science fiction, especially everything Robert A. Heinlein ever wrote, and I was strongly influenced by its cult of competence. Years later, in a class on SF, Chip Delany identified this as one of the genre’s fixed ideas – the delusion that an exceptional person should be able to do everything exceptionally well, whether it’s to skin a squirrel with your boot or fix a gourmet meal or repel an alien invasion – but it was gospel to me as a kid. I never built a bomb shelter using rolls of toilet paper as radiation filters the way Heinlein told me to in Expanded Universe, but I did lots of other stuff, from taking karate lessons to getting certified as an emergency medical technician, for the time when my training might mean the difference between life or death. When the time came, I failed.

One failure followed another. The Ph.D towards which I’d invested five years of my time and a bunch of other people’s money stalled and eventually sputtered out, a long painful process of disappointment for my mentor, my friends, and others who’d counted on me to deliver my thesis. For a long time I felt like a loser, hiding myself away in shame to avoid evidence of how I’d let people down or fantasizing about grandiose ways I could re-establish myself as an exceptional person. Eventually I got over the idea that I deserved to have life suck forever; the decision to get myself into therapy was a key step, but that and its interesting relationship to what we do in roleplaying sessions is for another post.

This one is about Dwimmermount. If you supported its Kickstarter, or if you’re reasonably attuned to an online community that contains folks who did, you’ll have heard that the project is in some trouble. As the person at Autarch who’s been the public face for the Dwimmermount crowdfunding effort, I’m doing all I can to make sure that what it promised is delivered – although, since James has both the funding and the copyright that are required to release his work, I’m not in the best position to do so. Autarch is still looking for solutions, but everyone’s best efforts can never banish the possibility of failure.

I can’t talk about what’s going on with Dwimmermount author James Maliszewski and how it relates to the project’s problems – mostly because he’s not telling me, and the desire to respect his privacy covers what’s left – but here’s what I can say from my experience following my father’s death.

  • There are worse things in the world than a delayed Kickstarter or a pre-ordered gaming product that fails to ship. People have to take responsibility for their actions, sure, but the reality is that life contains some tragic fucking shit and the only thing that makes it bearable is our compassion for one another.
  • Sometimes failure is a way to realize you’re on the wrong path. I’d been going nowhere as a grad student long before my dad died, and although this isn’t the way I would have chosen to get there, I’m now happier than most of the people I know who continued down the track I got jolted out of.
  • You have to fail if you’re going to learn from your mistakes. The biggest thing I had to overcome was the feeling that I was a failure, and since that’s all I’d ever be there was no point in trying. The flip side of this is the science-fiction fantasy that I should be good at everything, meaning the best way to evade the sneaking suspicion that this wasn’t so was to avoid doing anything at which I might fail. Either way, I was shutting myself off from the opportunity to see that you win some, you lose some, and meanwhile it’s fun to play the game.

Autarch is a new company, and we’re still making rookie mistakes. Going into the Dwimmermount project, I felt like Autarch’s success with the Adventurer Conqueror King Kickstarter, and the failure of mine for the Arneson Memorial Gameday, had given us considerable expertise. I see now that those those were relatively smooth hits or misses. We’ve learned a lot more from a project that’s been rocky and whose fate remains uncertain; we won’t again put ourselves in a position where we’re holding the bag and have left ourselves so little control over the outcome. Although I still think there’s a valuable role for crowdfunding to act as the testing ground and collaborative inspiration for projects early in their development cycle, the Kickstarter currently on Autarch’s drawing board, Domains at War, will have a basically finished draft ready to give to backers as soon as they pledge and will explicitly be seeking funds just to illustrate, print, and ship a thing that already exists.

Kickstarter is a new thing under the sun too. Without being privy to their process, the fact that they are growing successfully means they must be learning from their mistakes. I’d like to think that the requirements for project creators to discuss risks to backers, which have been put in place since we launched Dwimmermount, might have helped us avoid another serious mistake in not being transparent from the start about Autarch’s contract with James and the ways it could go wrong. But hindsight is misleading, and there are still many ways that Dwimmermount could come out right.

To bring this back to gaming and pay the Joesky tax, roleplaying lets you make mistakes and learn from the consequences in a safe space. I’ve written before about my frustration with party optimization in 4E, where I felt like no feasible amount of play time would give me enough observations to statistically distinguish successful group strategies from sub-par ones. Tim Harford’s fascinating Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure shows that it’s not just statistics that can be make it hard to recognize when you’ve made a mistake (this being an obvious prerequisite to learning from it). Some of the unconscious biases he points out are kind of a benefit for roleplaying: the tendency to retrospectively cast our bad decisions as good ones can make the story of a gang of insanely greedy, stupid, merciless cowards trying to bullshit their way to a wholly undeserved victory seem a little less undeserved.

But the fear of failure is what drives these attempts to airbrush away one’s mistakes, and it makes for bad gaming. Fudging the dice robs us of the ability to learn. The wisely titled Play Unsafe presents techniques like holding ideas lightly (because they might be wrong) and not planning in advance (because no amount of worrying will never eliminate the possibility of rolling a natural 1) that I think are at the heart of the old-school approach. Best of all, they’re things you can try out and see if they work for you right away, no statistical analysis necessary.


RPG Retirement

This is a post about how, back in the day, players would set a safe and comfy retirement as one of the driving goals for their player characters. The post about the RPG Retirement Home, the safe and comfy place (probably in the Midwest) which I am driven to create so that we can spend the last years of our lives pretending to be elves 24-7, will wait for another time.

Original gangster Tim Kask, founding editor of Dragon magazine and co-founder of Eldrich Entertainment, posted recently at the latter’s blog:

End-game goals? What a novel idea, at least for what seems to be a majority of contemporary players. Just what were those novel ideas? Same as you and me in real life: make a stack of cash, buy or build the home/castle of our dreams on our own substantial property where nobody is likely to mess with us and retire to enjoy the fruits of our labors. Yes, Virginia, we really did play like that. All of us had PC’s that were “retired” or “semi-retired”; we did not use them except for special circumstances.

Adventurer Conqueror King is as interested in setting out a system for players to pursue end-game goals as I am in exploring how these goals arose out of the original conditions of play. In playing and talking to some of the OG’s, I’ve seen secondary evidence for PC retirement as the ultimate end-game goal. During one of the side chats during the campaign Michael Mornard ran in NYC, he talked about how, because clerics got their stronghold so much sooner than other classes, everyone wanted to play the class that was the easy route to becoming landed gentry. It didn’t occur to me at the time that this castle would be a de facto retirement home, but because clerics in OD&D also hit their more-or-less maximum level earlier this makes sense. (Tim’s post is mainly talking about class level limits. It also gets into players having a big stable of different characters in the same campaign as a corollary of PCs retiring, which Mornard posts about here.)

Last night’s game was the first time I’ve seen a player in one of my campaigns (Ray Weiss, author of Everything is Dolphins) expressly say that the main goal for their character (whip-wielding, whiskey-drinking Randy Buffett) was to reach a safe place and retire. After having celebrated this sighting of an old-school trope arising spontaneously in the wild, I’m now ready to speculate on the reasons why PC retirement might be sought after in some games but not others.

Character sketch for Randy Buffett, retiree wannabe.

Lack of advancement. We used the original edition of Metamorphosis Alpha as the player-facing rules in last night’s session. (Behind the screen it’s Adventurer Conqueror King, or a mutation thereof.) Metamorphosis Alpha has almost no system for a player to improve their character’s abilities through play. I’ve cobbled together a Burning Wheel-style advancement mechanic using the closest thing there is in MA – when you make five successful tests against Mental Resistance you get to improve it one point – but the zero-to-hero payoff is muted. My houserules mean that MA characters start off at the point an OD&D character reaches at name level, where further adventuring might get you some extra hit points and more spells per level but you’ll never get another hit dice or new level of spells. When MA is played as written, a new character is more like a max-level D&D character of one of the classes referenced in Tim’s article that have a hard level cap: they’re basically as bad-ass as they’ll ever be. Note that the original group of D&D characters to visit Metamorphosis Alpha’s Starship Warden ranged from 18th to 20th level, plus an intelligent sword and some level-capped characters: “Tom and Tim went as druids (probably because they liked all types of herbs).”

Recent editions of D&D place a lot of importance on offering many benefits from advancement evenly spread all the way to level 20 or 30. Given this incentive to keep adventuring, it’s not surprising that retirement isn’t on the minds of players in these games; few will ever run out of zero-to-hero. Mornard and Kask described groups in which, having reached the point where rewards from further adventures diminished, retirement became “the ultimate and totally honorable goal of the game.” Such lofty levels remain a distant dream for any of the New York Red Box D&D campaigns, but last night suggests that retirement is a much more immediate goal in MA where advancement isn’t much of a hook right from the start.

A long road to the top. No goal that’s easily achieved is worth setting for your player character. Original D&D, and Adventurer Conqueror King even more so, very clearly lays out a lot of worthy obstacles between you and building your own gated retirement community, all of which – like amassing a lot of gold and clearing a hex of monster lairs – can be achieved through play. (Interestingly, you’re assumed to do this at the point where your character’s stats can still advance by adventuring, and one of the benefits of levelling up is getting free followers to staff your castle with, so the system uses the zero-to-hero carrot to reinforce the retirement incentive.)

Last night the group had a chance to return to their home village and lord it over everything they surveyed, but they passed up this chance at early retirement because they hadn’t yet achieved true security. Retiring onto a patch of land that isn’t hurtling out of control through interstellar space, rapidly breaking down, and in the power of the deranged intelligences Mother Brain and the Captain is almost as beyond Randy Buffett’s grasp right now as a level cap is to a newly-minted D&D character.

Love for your character. Some of the strong reactions to Kask’s blog post at and theRPGsite come from the assumption that a rotating stable of characters means that the player has no more attachment to any of them than you would the counters provided to your side in a wargame. (Some also derive from the fact that Tim is either enough of an OG to have stopped caring who he offends, or enough of a showman to know the value of controversy.)

This is obviously wrong, even setting aside the ample evidence in Playing at the World that wargamers have been developing personalities for, and emotional ties to, individual units for centuries. If none of your characters means anything to you, why would you derive satisfaction from knowing that one of them has escaped from the fray to enjoy the good things in its imaginary life? The reward for advancing a pawn across the board is the exact opposite: it levels up and can fight more effectively, and because you don’t care about it like you do a player character you’re glad to pay the price that turning your pawn into a queen has also painted a target on its back.

As a point of OSR research and intellectual interest, I’m glad to see that this campaign has generated the conditions necessary to make an end-game goal emerge organically from play. (This bears out an observation of Chris Clark’s that the most important innovation of Metamorphosis Alpha was to make the end goals explicit and urgent: whether you’ll try to save the ship or escape from it becomes a pressing issue as soon as the players figure out what’s going on.) But as a player, what makes me proud is that in just two sessions of play Randy Buffett has gone from being 3d6 in order to a person who Ray cares enough about him to fervently hope he reaches a place where he’ll never again risk being sliced apart by animated bottles of Aunt Jemima syrup.

EDIT: I just remembered that one of the first OD&D characters ever created in my White Sandbox campaign, Lotur the Scurrilous Cur, was also explicitly retired from play. The omission was probably because Lotur’s goal seemed primarily to achieve domestic bliss with his beloved gynosphinx Ontussa, which seems different but is really just a specific flavor of retirement home. To the points of a large stable of characters and threat of death, though, Lotur’s player Greengoat was also explicitly interested in making room for a character whose stats wouldn’t suck so bad and perhaps would thus not be so constantly on the edge of mortal peril.


Wear a Tall Hat Like a Druid in the Old Days

By stringing together lines from Mark Bolan lyrics, this Abulafia generator has everything you need for generating the themes of your next D&D game. A million thanks to Jeremy Duncan at Dandy in the Underworld for creating this handy non-pharmacological tool for injection of the daydreamer fantasy strain.

I’ve been buckling down to read Playing at the World cover to cover, after intially dipping into pages at random and then picking the brain of its author Jon Peterson as often as I could at Gen Con. I haven’t yet reached the chapter on the cultural influences of fantasy and swords & sorcery that fed into D&D. Convenience sampling indicates that this section is typically completist and uses primary sources to reveal all kinds of antecedents that are new and exciting, but I don’t yet know what it makes of T. Rex. Certainly I learn something about the early ’70s from the fact that a band whose first drummer was called Steve Peregrin Took was able to make it big with a mash-up of druidic lyrics and video effects of clouds drifting against mirrorshades.

One idea that came up in talking with Jon was that pattern recognition is fundamental to D&D. This is central to Playing at the World‘s theme of simulation because it means that the level of detail provided by the game can be very coarse. Given just a few dots and lines, humans will tend to see a face; add gamers’ willingness to participate in the process of imagining another reality and you get vivid experiences from a handful of d6.

An example of pareidolia, “a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant.”

For me, the enjoyment of pattern recognition in itself is part of the pleasure of playing in the old-school style. Random encounters, sparse one-page-dungeon keys, and evocative hex descriptions all foreground the experience of making narrative sense out of very minimal inputs. And playing with systems like OD&D that are full of lacunae and contradictions compels pattern recognition at the table on the level of game design; we’re cobbling together both an imaginary universe and the way we simulate it. I find that a high level of indeterminacy in story and system go hand in hand to create the sense that we’re discovering an independently real place through play. Both the things we discover there and the lens through which we view it are continually adapting as this other world comes into focus.

However, thinking about T. Rex also points out that pattern recognition works on familiarity. We see faces in rocks and trees because we’re humans and that’s what our brains are primed to see. Bolan’s lyrics often touch on mythology because that’s a deep well of familiarity that can be tapped with just a word or a sentence fragment.

It’s unlikely that T. Rex was any kind of formative influence on D&D’s creators, especially never having been big in America, but there’s no doubt that a huge part of D&D’s early audience was made up of the kinds of longhairs who thrilled to find hobbit references in Led Zeppelin lyrics. Gygax didn’t see Tolkien as a significant contribution to D&D, but this becomes academic once hundreds of thousands of people seize on the game as their gateway to Middle Earth. Likewise, the fact that the face on Cydonia is in reality just a coincidental arrangement of shadows on rocks shouldn’t limit our enjoyment of this:

One of the major accomplishments of the OSR has been doing the kind of religious education you need to see Jesus’s face in a tortilla. Marc Bolan’s lyrics can look like word salad if you don’t bring a big investment in druid hats to the party, while they’re super exciting if you care a lot about Beltane walks. Likewise new-school gamers didn’t see the virtue in random encounters causing TPKs because they hadn’t read The Seven Geases, and scorned games that generated narratives of amoral murder-hoboes because they lacked the Vancian language that made Cugel’s similar exploits suitable material for “the greatest living writer of science fiction and fantasy.”

The fact that we’re now ready to play the DCC RPG as a “system that cross-breeds Appendix N with a streamlined version of 3E” depends on a lot of work getting people to read the fantasy canon that enables us to make a vivid image out of the minimalist elements of 1974-era D&D. My favorite part of being in the loop of the DCC development team was getting one another up to speed on the things ’70s fantasy means to us. Here’s one example from Erol Otus:

“George Barr is one of my favorite artists because he puts personality into his creatures, they all seem to have intentions. Little did I know that some 20 years later I would be sharing artistic duties with him on Star Control 2. I don’t remember Alan Garners story in detail except I have a feeling its one of the several that formed the basis for Harry Potter.” – Erol Otus, 2010 email

If the OSR is ready to rest on its laurels and go gently into that good night – which is a thesis I offhandedly advanced at Gen Con and need to explicate in a future post – it’s because we’ve laid the groundwork for understanding random Mark Bolan lyrics as a gateway to the wonders of 1970s daydream fantasy. However, the fact that there are still more of these awesome paperback covers Erol turned me onto which I haven’t blogged about yet means that maybe there is still some distance to go before we deposit our corpse in the well where it will taint the groundwater for generations to come.


Ryan Browning, Mackenzie Peck, and Zeb Cook Talk Art and RPGs

Ryan Browning brings word of a panel on RPGs and art happening in Baltimore tomorrow:

We’ve got David ‘Zeb’ Cook coming to participate in a discussion about art and virtual + imagined worlds at the Creative Alliance TOMORROW, Thursday the 31st of May at 7PM. David is known for writing a lot of the 2nd Ed D&D material, including the core books. Additionally, he’s credited for being the lead designer of the City of Villains mmo.

Ryan Browning, Wallness, oil on canvas, 30 by 36 inches, 2011

The overall conversation we’re having will also include artists’ talks by myself and MacKenzie Peck, who is also exhibiting her artwork in the same show, and another local artist, Mina Cheon. The discussion will be more of a panel kind of discussion, and we’ll probably be ranging quite a bit in topic but the main theme is creating or envisioning imaginary worlds, and how each of us goes about doing this. In other words, I’ll be talking about games+art, David will be talking about games, and the other two will be talking about art, mainly. If you want to get some culture on and meet an RPG figurehead from the past, it could be cool! This will probably run for an hour, including time for questions.

Here’s a link to my artwork (the kind I make for exhibitions): In the RPG sphere, I did the cover and most of the black and whites for Adventurer Conqueror King.

My artwork is influenced in part by my experiences playing RPGs, so I’m looking forward to the discussion and meeting anyone who cares to stop by! MacKenzie, the other artist, is exhibiting some works that look a lot like artifacts to me – you can hold them and interact with them, though they are not game-related. The whole exhibit and talks are free, of course. The exhibit runs through this weekend.

I’m hoping some Mule readers are able to check this out, and further crossing my fingers that there will be video or audio recordings for those not in the area!


The Seven Geases

"Inhabitant of Hyperborea", by Clark Ashton Smith. Rumors that this was Rahbar Vooz's character sketch are unfounded.

Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Seven Geases,” which Michael Mornard says was his and Rob Kuntz’s pick for the quintessential literary expression of what Dungeons & Dragons is about, can be read online. Go do so now, and then I will ruminate on some passages:

The Lord Ralibar Vooz, high magistrate of Commoriom and third cousin to King Homquat, had gone forth with six-and-twenty of his most valorous retainers… He and his followers were well armed and accoutered. Some of the men bore coils of rope and grappling hooks to be employed in the escalade of the steeper crags. Some carried heavy crossbows; and many were equipped with long-handled and saber-bladed bills which, from experience, had proved the most effective weapons in close-range fighting with the Voormis. The whole party was variously studded with auxiliary knives, throwing-darts, two-handed simitars, maces, bodkins and saw-toothed axes. The men were all clad in jerkins and hose of dinosaur-leather, and were shod with brazen-spiked buskins. Ralibar Vooz himself wore a light suiting of copper chain-mail, which, flexible as cloth, in no wise impeded his movements. In addition he carried a buckler of mammoth-hide with a long bronze spike in its center that could be used as a thrusting-sword; and, being a man of huge stature and strength, his shoulders and baldric were hung with a whole arsenal of weaponries.

Everything about this passage, from the big party of henchmen to the details of their equipment, is pure D&D.

“Most of the caves were narrow and darksome, thus putting at a grave disadvantage the hunters who entered them; and the Voormis would fight redoubtably in defense of their young and their females, who dwelt in the inner recesses; and the females were fiercer and more pernicious, if possible, than the males. “

The discussion of women and children amongst the humanoids of the Caves of Chaos often focuses on Gygaxian naturalism, but Clark Ashton Smith is no naturalist.  There is something pulpy and visceral about the image of  Ralibar Vooz slugging it out bare-handed with the females and the young of the Voormis; I think it’s the implication of savagery on both sides, so far removed from a duel between gentlemen with shiny epees and clean white fencing jackets.

“You speak in terms of outmoded superstition,” said Ralibar Vooz, who was impressed against his will by the weighty oratorical style in which Ezdagor had delivered these periods.

I think I remember reading that Gary wasn’t a CAS reader; certainly Klarkash-Ton is the most notable omission from the AD&D Appendix N reading list. (CAS does appear among the Moldvay recommendations.) However, whimsically baroque dialogue is a key ingredient in the D&D canon  by way of Jack Vance. Vance was famously influenced by P.G. Wodehouse, which suggests a line of transmission to Terry Pratchett. The Discworld books were ones Gary said he would have added to a modern Appendix N, and in our last session of Ramshorn Dungeon Mornard used a reference from a Pratchett (was it The Truth?) to describe how rapaciously the locals tried to pass themselves off as potential hirelings to claim the free meat and ale I foolishly promised.

Owing to such precipitancy, he failed to notice that the web had been weakened and some of its strands torn or stretched by the weight of the sloth-like monster.

I was (mis)telling the plot of “The Seven Geases” at Gary Con and Jim Skatch said “That’s the same story as Gilgamesh.” Notably, this was before I got to the ending!

I’ve been talking recently about whether role-playing games are truly a new thing under the sun, and if so, why it is that they weren’t invented sooner. I think that for lots of human history, legends were lived as much as told: sacred narratives incorporated into one’s daily experience, such that each of us takes on the role of the hero. The ending of “The Seven Geases” holds nothing sacred; the protagonist’s striving and fate are enjoyed from an ironic distance.

As literature, this distance lets us admire the impressionistic color and Smith’s lingustic brushstrokes. As source material for a game, it makes room for uncertainty and multiple protagonists. Attempts to make D&D into a heroic myth are unsatisfying because the hero’s triumph is foreordained, and the possibility of failure is necessary for player agency to be meaningul. And on a practical level, having one mythic hero who represents human aspiration is a bad fit for RPGs as a group activity; who is going to play Gilgamesh’s sidekick?

“The Seventh Geas” says that you can have any number of characters as bad-ass as Lord Ralibar Vooz, with his mammoth-hide buckler and 26 dinosaur-leather-clad henchmen, since any of them can have their illustrious career ended by a failed Spot check. Lots of later editions focus on fulfilling the promise of epic heroism; “The Seven Geases” says that the original game is really about coming oh, so close.

I should also say that Mornard uses “The Seven Geases” to illustrate that D&D is the story of the world, not the characters in it. I don’t have a particular quote to make that point, and hopefully he’ll do the job better in the comments than I could have.

Past Adventures of the Mule

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