Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

On the Origin of the (Demi-Human) Species...

Face it, most of us in fantasy games (sci-fi is another matter) imagine humanity, and the various non-human races, as products of a special creation by their gods.  Mankind has many competing deities, so it's easier to see them as them arising through natural processes and being fought over.  But demi-humans, perhaps by virtue of their more homogenous pantheons, almost have to be specifically created beings.  But do they really?

This week, we explore the idea of demi-humans as the products of evolution :    

DWARVES arose well before humanity (but after the elves) from a species of cave-dwelling hominids (subterrapithecus) selected for survival underground.  Their tool-making abilities were put to use expanding the natural caves they called home and shaping them into what they would become.  Given their mining prowess and racial love of precious metals, they've excavated far from their place of origin, digging deep and going north.


ELVES evolved before dwarves or men from an arboreal (and probably nocturnal) primate species (silvanopithecus) in steamy jungles.  Their need to evade enemies and navigate the treacherous canopies selected them for greater speed, keener senses, and their superior empathy for the natural world.  This allowed them to master magic and the ability to employ signs, symbols, and certain material components in the endless pursuit of it.          

GOBLINS/ORCS, like dwarves, are subterranean and probably evolved from a cannibalistic variety of cave-dwelling ape (the foul horridipithecus), although some speculate that their subsequent evolution was shaped by evil magic.  This fact probably accounts for the many humanoid species inhabiting the underworld and their aversion to light.       

HALFLINGS are a variant human species that are reproductively non-compatible, although in Pits & Perils, hill dwarves (i.e., halflings) are a completely dwarven strain.  

Of course, the GM can flesh this out as their campaign requires, perhaps going so far as to introduce remnant populations of prehistoric demi-humans.  But what about the supposed gods?  Perhaps they, too, were the products of evolution who ascended over time and sought mortal worshippers for whatever reason.  Worship has its benefits, after all, among them the fact that the soul at death, untethered and vulnerable, can reach the afterlife.  The possibilities are endless, and the GM can decide how to map the trajectory of their world's history...

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Sad End of a D&D Era (in Art)...

In my 39 years of gaming, I've seen a lot of artwork.  And as far as D&D is concerned, I've identified discrete periods that define the illuminations of the game:

THE CORE RULES (1974): To call the art in the original D&D rulebooks amateur is an understatement.  Sub-amateur better fits the bill.  The pictures alternated between clever doodles and stuff that was clearly lifted from Marvel Comics.  But there was a primal charm as well; one that conjured images of enthusiastic amateurs making their own fun.  Fun, incidentally, that transcends the physical appearance of the finished product.

Although the artwork depicted fantasy, it wasn't necessarily a fantasy that mapped well to the game's subject matter, and it never defined the experience in my mind.

One of my favorite images from
the original rulebooks.  It really nails the intro...

THE SUPPLEMENTS (1975-76): Starting here, the artwork got better.  The illustrations depicted specific monsters, like beholders and umber hulks, as well as adventuring parties plugging away in the dungeons.  The amateur aesthetic was still there, but these were talented amateurs, including the likes of David Sutherland (!), who, by now, were heavily involved in a hobby that was developing its own culture and conventions.

This, to me, in D&D's true artistic history.  The artwork was wedded to the game's subject matter while preserving a sense of enthusiastic amateurs doing their own thing.    

THE HARDCOVERS (1977-79): At long last, the work laid out in the supplements was gathered into a coherent whole.  The expanded ability modifiers (Greyhawk), assassins and monks (Blackmoor), and druids, demons, and additional magic items (Eldritch Wizardry) coalesced into a complete and unified system that would define the state of the hobby for the next decade.  The production values were excellent, and if you'd been using the original booklets and photocopies of Dragon Magazine articles, the new hardcovers were mana from Heaven.  Artwork-wise, Dave Trampier joined Sutherland, among others, to offer up a balance of professional delivery with an amateur ethos.  And it really worked...  

By the supplements and early AD&D,
the artwork began to capture its subject matter and
did so with an amateur flair that underlies
everything that makes our hobby feel accessible...

Imagine getting really into D&D in 1980 and seeing the same artwork you remembered from the booklets your first DM (a guy I'll never forget) had in '78.  Ancient history, man...

MAINSTREAMING (1980-1988): Here at last, we see the Great Schism: D&D and AD&D and all the legal horseshit that followed.  But it sure did yield some great art:

THE B/X SET (1981): Jeff Dee and Bill Willingham (by then, TSR staff artists) introduced artwork that was increasingly professional while preserving an amateur ethos, and Erol Otus delivered his trippy art for added flavor.  There were others, but these stand out...

THE BECMI SET (1983-85): Larry Elmore's art came to predominate by now, with Jeff Easley and (much later) Roger Raupp adding their own flourishes.  Fewer artists meant less variation and, overall, the rulebooks were increasingly slick and well-produced.  The visual link to the game's distant past was severed at last.  A precursor to the next edition...

Elmore is (rightly) held in high regard, but I've always thought his stuff looked too much like He-Man with too many nods to 1980s fashion.  Sorry about that!

Wait, is this from He-Man?  While
obviously talented, Larry Elmore's art never
really clicked with me.  Perhaps it was
D&D's growing outreach to younger players and
it's departure from its amateur past...   

As the decade wore on, Elmore, Easley, and others came to predominate in the AD&D lexicon and finalized the game's transition into a fully professional context.  Fortunately, these artists had already been a fixture in the pages of Dragon Magazine, so it felt like a natural evolution.  I was never into Snarfquest, but it really was a gradual transition...

SECOND EDITION (1988): I remember rushing out to buy the Second Edition Player's Handbook and how my smile faded as I flipped through its pages.  Yes, there was some great stuff here.  Non-weapon proficiencies, in particular, were an excellent idea that followed intuitively from AD&D's weapon proficiency system.  But the artwork, although attractive and professional enough, felt bland.  Lifeless.  I already missed the earlier rulebooks, although I still had (and would continue to use) them, happily incorporating the new rules while rejecting what I didn't like.  But it was the end of an era and weirdly heartbreaking.

At this point, D&D had ascended into the sky, where its blessing would fall in the form of innumerable sourcebooks that would, eventually, drive TSR into the ground.  Make no mistake, I had some great times with this edition (including a lost-world campaign), but in 39 years of gaming, it always goes back to what I now call the hobby's true Golden Age...

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

No, the DM Is NOT Your Peer...

Some (more than a few?) gamers are profoundly uncomfortable with the greater agency and judgemental authority referees are given, especially in old-school games.  Or, as my brother observed way back in 1979: "But the DM could say anything and the whole thing just breaks down and becomes unfair over time".  It was a fair point, but I countered with the fact that lots people obviously were playing these games, and that unfair DMs will find themselves without players pretty quickly if they abuse their authority...

He was forced to concede my first point and eventually, my second too.  

And the fact is, old-school gamers willingly submit to the DMs authority because it provides them with a specific gameplay experience.  But the DM (GM/referee) also lives by a code of fairness (and reasonableness) that their players will hold them to! 

To underscore the trepidation of some, consider a review of our Barons of Braunstein, which said: "[B]ut I think the "low definition, high trust" nature of the rules could make this game a bit rocky with players that like crunchy rules or tricky character builds."  Of course, the whole simple versus complex divide is a matter of preference.  But the concept of trust in a GM to fairly execute their authority underlies the essential old-school experience... 

Players want the experience of becoming a hero in a world of sword and sorcery, and the only way to do this is to put much (most) of the setting beyond their direct control. I mean, how often can we control the weather or world events?  Sure, we can control our personal choices and decisions.  But not who moves in next door (usually), or what family is in the car next to us, or who we'll meet in a gas station on vacation.  And there would be nothing particularly heroic about our circumstances if we did have power over these things.

The DM/GM isn't a coequal peer
and, for optimal results, they shouldn't be...

So players change things through their choices and get to earn their victories and take pride in their accomplishments - just like we do in the real world!  That's what they get out of it and what they should seek going in.  Now, this is strictly my personal opinion, but if you really just want to write stories and the ending to those stories, become a writer instead...

Narrative control over certain aspects of a character's performance?  Sure.  Clever resource management is a challenge and constitutes the sort of strategy we need to execute in our own lives.  Spend LUCK (or MIGHT) improving rolls?  You bet.  But you still won't know what's hiding behind that door unless you have a spell or, better still, a plan.

But what about the DM/GM/referee?  What do they get?  Well, they get to build a world and exercise unparalleled narrative control as the guy (or gal) who does know what's hiding in the shadows (or behind that door) and/or the necromancer's secret plan to rule the world.  
  
An unearned place of privilege?  Maybe.  Except they don't get to become a hero and hear their name spoken in awe.  And they pretty much have to be responsible for everything else and make the hard decisions when others don't.  It's a labor of love and involves its own form of personal sacrifice.  I love it.  But I remember plenty of times I was frustrated that everyone else wanted me to run when I just wanted to make a character and dive in.

And implicit in this arrangement is the understanding that both sides have to agree to certain terms to make things work.  Players agree to play well, make good decisions, and earn their success.  They also agree to submit to any agreed-upon rules and the judgement of the referee when justly rendered.  That said, the DM/GM/referee agrees to fashion challenging adventures and be fair, impartial, and reasonable in their dealings with their players, and that means being open to negotiation in the interest of mutual fun.  It's a win/win thing...

Of course, while the DM/GM (or whatever) isn't your peer, they or should at least be your friend.  And it does no good to forget that in a hobby ostensibly played for fun

Some modern games (and groups) treat the rulebook as the final, ultimate arbiter and reduce the GM to a peer with authority mainly over the monsters and NPCs and do so with the best of intentions.  But for greater challenge and dynamism, old-school values are unbeatable

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Death by (Game) Design...

OK, so at this point we all know the drill.  Old-school characters are free to try just about anything and stand or fall on their own merits, unlike those entitled new-schoolers who get a trophy just for showing up and can't even think of trying something not on their character sheets.  Now, this is an obvious straw man, but it holds a grain of truth.

Yes, old-school heroes fight the good fight and devise clever solutions and strategies before ultimately, and dare we say, inevitably, succumbing to the obligatory total party kill.  And again, how unlike the spoiled new-school crowd, who show up to play through carefully scripted encounters where victory is assured and treasure (and levels) await those with the courage to be there!  Another stereotype.  But let's turn the thing around a bit....

While we're busy chiding modern players for never dying and having it easy, enjoying a cushy railroad to guaranteed survival while we drop like flies, it's important to remember that the spectre of certain death can easily become its own form of railroading! 

Oh look, another total party kill.  How quaint.  We never saw that one coming...

No, the goal of the game shouldn't be to die.  If that were the case, I'm thinking most of us could wrap things up halfway through the first combat encounter and call it a night while rolling up replacements for next week's' equally fatal session (lather, rinse, repeat).

There's no badwrongfun here, but the goal should be to survive at least long enough to have some fun and validate the designer's efforts to include higher-level monsters and magic items in their rulebooks.  And when death happens, it's because the players were foolish or took daring risks and just happened to die at the hands of a cruel and fickle fate...

Gratuitous death is almost as
boring as having too little in your game... 

Moreover, the goal should be to succeed.  And survival is just one of many rewards for those who play well or even those who just get lucky.  So if high lethality is old-school and low-to-no lethality new-school, then what we're offering here is gaming's middle-school!

Of course, we already know this.  Good referees craft adventures that are survivable if played well and luck holds, and it becomes the player's responsibility to combine their talents to overcome the challenges set before them.  You know, old-school gaming.  

Every game tilts the survivability meter in whatever direction the designer(s) see fit, although this is ultimately up to the referee (who should know their players and what it takes to properly challenge them) and the players, who are always responsible for ensuring they don't become a TPK statistic.  We're no exception, obviously, and our games show it:

BLOOD OF PANGEA is a game where players write their characters into existence and take them on adventures, and this implies at least some degree of survivability.  But 10 MIGHT goes fast when spent improving rolls.  Especially after triggering that 2d6 trap and then falling at the feet of an angry tyrannosaurus dealing +3 damage!  Um, ouch...

PITS & PERILS is the primrose path.  After all, your first-level fighter has 12 HP in armor while the average hit scores but one point of damage.  But once you've triggered that trap and stuck your hand into a chest only to pull out a writhing snake that bites for 2d6 poison damage, death looms when the orcs show up armed with greatswords and their inevitable shaman (and too bad for you, one that happens to know the assorted Bolt spells). 

In fact, death has no sting unless
character life has value and is allowed to unfold...

THE MAZE OF MEMORY is straight-ahead "bang, you're dead" kind of affair, so if you like that sort of thing, this one will make you glad you wore loose-fitting pants...

Most of these systems, including DICELESS DUNGEONS, feature somewhat predictable damage so that hit points (or their equivalent) become another resource for the players to carefully manage while simultaneously punctuating the balance with deadlier things that introduce greater uncertainty.  Often, these are contingent on player actions, especially with respect to traps that can be avoided with skillful effort.  You know, old-school stuff. 

The bottom line here is that a certain level of survivability is built into each game while at the same time introducing risk and uncertainty.  Foolish choices are dangerous at best, and when death finally comes, it's usually to a cherished character and, therefore, felt...

Remember, Conan never died.  But when Belit did, it was a major bummer for sure.

But these are just our solutions.  Most referees want tough, but fair, adventures and must ultimately navigate their own path forward.  And players are better served when they work for victory and reap the rewards of their clever strategies.  Giving them a fair shot while imposing consequences for tomfoolery can be done, and the only system-neutral advice we have is to remember that death isn't the only punishment for failure in an ongoing campaign...

A cherished magic item is destroyed.  Some vital negotiation fails and the characters, once revered, become fugitives.  Established characters in a well-developed setting have goals and plans that undoubtedly matter to them (and their payers).  Go for these, and you'll have their undivided attention and, with any luck, make them wish for a speedy death! 

Because death needs sting.  And it has none when it never happens.  But then again, it has none when it becomes commonplace.  Put another way, the sting of death comes only when life has value.  And such value comes with time and experience at the gaming table...