Monday, December 15, 2008

Thoughts on Searchlight #1

The article I posted from Bill Paley is fairly typical of some of the things I've found in the early run of Alarums & Excursions: it reflects the complexity and assumptions of the early years of RPGs in a way that I think gets lost when we just look back at the official products and the reminisces of the TSR old-timers.

I love the fact that Arneson let the players roll for level. But there's an element I want to point out that I think goes a bit deeper. In A&E, and throughout its early years that I've been reading this is consistent, a DM (referee) was a person who had a "dungeon." GenCon games weren't scenarios prepared with pregen characters made up for balance; they were forays into an existing dungeon, at least until TSR started releasing tournament modules and that became the basis of the whole format.

Both the PC group and the monster groups were simply massive. The PCs (there were upward of 12) run into 50 orcs. I guess the "# Appearing" column was read literally in some of the larger games. It's interesting to see in context, because decades in which 12 is an almost unmanageable number of players has created the expectation of much smaller enemy groups.

What's probably the most fascinating is the fact of wildly contrasting play style and expectations. Bill's "heretical" assumption about 1st level magic-users is interesting by contrast to the idea thrummed into my head, and probably countless others, that a first level MU is a sleep spell, or maybe a magic missile, and nothing else. The three little books, plus supplements (which earned quick and widespread use, but mixed approval) created a riotous diversity. And for what it's worth, I think that's something the modern old-school gaming scene needs to nurture and expand.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Special Post from Alarums & Excursions 15

I realize I'm not as prolific as I'd like to be on this blog. But I do have a bit of a treat from my stack of Alarums & Excursions issues: an actual play account from a game run by Dave Arneson in 1976. I was fortunate enough to get the ok from Bill Paley to reprint his article with proper attribution. I hope you enjoy it, and I'll be posting commentary soon enough.

The following article appeared in Alarums & Excursions #15, October 1976, as Searchlight #1 by Bill Paley. It is reprinted as it appeared in its original form (complete with all spelling and punctuation), with Mr. Paley's kind permission.

Anybody want some +1 Armor from Grimborg?

After a long hot wait in the wastes of North Carolina and an even longer one before that in the wastes of Los Angeles (Westwood to be exact) I acquired A&Es 10-14., SR 1-6 and Dragons 1 & 2, not to mention "Gods, Demigods and Heroes" (just in time!). Ah, nothing like an overdose after the dry season. There was scattered applause after my debut in A&E #8 with the poem of Gabbo (thanks to the typing skills of Mrs. Gold) but nobody threw the bard any gold. Maybe they saved....

Also, Jack Harness, I hear, wrote up a run into the Spire Vigilant in which he walked out much the richer. I made at least one mistake, perhaps more, but the party didn't notice, so I guess it's okay.

The main reason I'm adding this extra bulk to an already weighty 'zine is to relate a bit of what occurred to me at GenCon IX in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. I was returning home from my summer labors and stopped in Milwaukee. After teaching the relatives the wonders of D&D, we found out about the convention but an hour's drive away.

On Sunday, August 22nd, my cousin and I found ourselves outside Horticulture Hall, the seat of the convention. We perused displays of miniatures and such games as Banzai!, Boot Hill, Blue & Grey and others from the wargaming ranks. We found that Blackmoor was to be available to the first twelve entrants at 3:30. I found out that signups began at 2:45 and that (at 12:45) ten people were already in line. I grabbed the next spot. The wait was made bearable by the friendly atmosphere and the sudden appearance of the card game Nuclear War.

The expedition's prize for the "best" character was to be one year's subscription to the Dragon, but it was a very subjective prize. Upon arriving at the game, I found that several folks from Lake Geneva were added to the original twelve (though not competing). We rolled the six standard characteristics (sorry CalTech) and hit dice a la Men & Magic, but we were additionally allowed to roll a D4 for...LEVEL.

I rolled a cleric 10-11-14-11-10-9, Tindell. Unfortunately the #*&%¢$ die rolled a 1. (Nothing more useless than....) (Boy, did I miss Jock Root's tables, A&E 4). One of the Lake Geneva folks brought his 14th level Paladin--the Great Sweeney (apparently in case we ran into Sir Fang. I couldn't get no data on who this character (or monster) could be). When this occurred, I had a distinct shiver of fear course down my spine, but I decided that I would more likely learn something if I went and listened, than if I went and pretended to be a superhero.With a first level cleric, you either tend mules or die gloriously. (Surprise: we didn't take any mules! hint, hint.) There were two MUs , a third and a first, one hobbit thief (with a paladin! Good heavens!), one or two more clerics and a vast number of fighters. Things were so confused that I never really found anything else about them. Two dwarves, no elves.

Apparently Blackmoor Castle was destroyed during a battle actually played in Lake Geneva and over the hundred or so years ensuing the elves who took over ignored the increase of chaos beneath them. This led to the present difficulties.

The party went through various tests administered by the elves to try to make certain that we were not attempting to join the Chaotics below (drink holy water, touch silver crosses, etc.) We then entered a large odd-shaped room which I heard was once the throneroom of the castle, but had since changed shape. Many doors out of this chamber were found, leading to linen closets (with outhouse-style arrangements) and some leading to five-foot corridors.

We finally chose one such corridor (with some trepidation; walking single file can be dangerous!) after a drunken fighter named Richard leaped into a linen closet and tripped...We walked along it a bit until it widened to ten feet (apparently a major disaster collapsed the room and the area was repaired to different specifications).

At this point (having no graph paper), Tindell became lost. He vaguely recalls walking down a long corridor and then turning back when the ceiling started becoming quite wet. The group also burst into a room of goblins who fought tenaciously (Tindell racks up two!) until they caught sight of "the Great Sweeney." They instantly recognized him and immediately dropped weapons, etc., and ran heaven was after them. We pursued and killed a couple more and then found a door held closed by an ogre's body. We shoved our way in and continued exploration. Tindell brightly suggested spiking a door open and the group woke up...ten people began spiking it. Ho hum.

Finally we came to an open stairway with circular stairs down which we heard music playing. Richard stumbled down the stairs immediately. The rest of the group halted and tried to decide to follow him or not, Tindell urging them on. As we walked down, we heard the orc national anthem (don't blame me; it's Arneson's dungeon; how could orcs have one nation?) played backwards. This brought a horde of orcs on us from in front. While we battled (and Sweeney worked his way forward) ten of the fifty ran off. Soon after, thirty hit us in the rear as well. The battle was fierce with wounds exchanged rapidly on both sides, but when Sweeney appeared up front, again the orcs ran off. Arneson stated: "Sweeney, in a whirlwind, has just killed 17 orcs in this melee round" (!) (Not only that, no one else was allowed to pursue. I'm still confused about this.)

In the rear one fighter died and nearly everyone was wounded. At this point, I showed my ignorance. Coming from an LA dungeon (distinct from Bay Area) I was used to multiple spell casting capabilities and asked why our first level MU didn't throw sleep his second time. (The third level MU never threw anything!) The howls of shocked amazement nearly caused me to hide under the table. I rapidly learned "the right way" to play MUs.

After Sweeney "feared" the others, we slew all but one slept orc and questioned the remaining one. He told us Richard had come down the stairs, taken one look at the horde and run back up, disappearing. Figuring that he lied, ourdwarves dismembered him.

On exploring this level, we entered a room, finding some 12 "heroes" in plate with crossbows. We found they were not chaotic and not friendly, so we left. A bit farther on, we found a room full of gold. Sweeney and some of the lawfuls stayed out, but Tindell entered to investigate a gold statue (perhaps a religious article?). When Tindell realized that the others were merely filling their packs with gold, he complained loudly and ordered them to leave his "share" behind. A number of other lawfuls agreed but not many.

We began to return the way we had come when we came across some of the "heroes" playing craps. Two of our neutrals joined in, trying to win more gold. When the remainder of the party tried to pass, they found themselves taken under custody. Apparently the treasure room was the Heroes'. After many denunciations ("He did it," "No, he did it.") the heroes sent some men to find how much we'd stolen. At this point, they once again found Sweeney with two dwarves and a cleric. Genuflecting to Sweeney, they asked his permission to search the dwarves . A dwarf offered to fight to the death, winner takes treasure. Scratch one dwarf. THEY LEFT THE BODY BEHIND! The other dwarf surrendered. We were handed over to the custody of Sweeney.

We soon found ourselves at the magic stairway. At this point Sweeney teleported out of the dungeon (!) and left us behind. As we climbed up, we found that the stairs went up higher than we thought. Testing for illusions didn't work. We walked all the way up, where we found a trap door. Opening it revealed blue sky. We began to climb out, first the MUI, then Tindell.

The DM led me out. "As you climb out, you see blue sky above you, then around you, and then the trapdoor winks out and you have a gorgeous view of Blackmoor Castle and the lake below you, 200 feet. What are you doing?" "Stripping off my armor as fast as I can." "Very good, I'll only give you one hit die damage. How many hit points do you have?" "Four." What did the die roll up? 4." So Tindell's in unconsciousness. Glub, glub.

Don't ask me what happened to anyone else. I left rather than give it away. Somebody did ask if I got wet though.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The roots of the game

James Maliszewski, in his ever interesting blog Grognardia, makes an interesting post here stating what grognards have been saying for a couple of decades now: E. Gary Gygax was not primarily influenced by The Lord of the Rings when he wrote D&D. I believe it, and it's true for what it's worth when we are discussing Gygax's taste in fantasy novels.

But it isn't true of the phenomenon we understand as "D&D." Gygax wasn't just tossing in some random elements from one source when he included Elf, Dwarf, and Hobbit as races and Orcs, Balrogs, Nazgul and Ents as monsters in his game. While his contempt for some of them was pretty naked, and elaborated in many subsequent articles and interviews, it's disingenuous to say that this was just equal to dozens of other elements he added from other books. These elements were, in reality, anything but coincidental, and have dominated despite Gary's clearly stated intent otherwise.

Including elements from Lord of the Rings was decisively different from any other major elements of D&D. They were strategic, because — let me be blunt here — they were much more popular than fantasy of the type preferred by Gygax. LotR took fantasy out of the "pulp" magazine and put it into the paperback book. D&D was released at a point in time when Tolkien became popular that the utterly hacklike Sword of Shannara was published just because it was like Lord of the Rings. This was clever marketing on Gygax's part, as well; by injecting Tolkienesque elements in the game, he made it relatable to a much larger audience than the pulp fantasy connoisseur like himself. To go out on a limb, I don't think D&D would've been nearly as successful if it weren't so easy for an aficionado of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings to slip into it with familiar assumptions.

The influence is really straightforward when you look at the secondary literature of the time, such as Alarums & Excursions, where broad swaths of Tolkien were simply assumed to be good coin in D&D because the game had included so many of its core elements. There are articles that assume larger groups of Tolkien influence, such as the Dunedain, and incorporated it much more knowledgeably than, say, the large chunks of Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions (one of the seminal books for D&D). Eventually, despite Gygax's warnings about humanocentrism in the DMG, demihumans assumed the central role of the game, and in the Wizards of the Coast editions, they are more prevalent than humans, at least for anyone with any sense.

Now, I want to be clear that I'm a D&D humanocentrist. I find elves, hobbits and dwarves very dull after nearly a decade and a half of gaming, and could do with never seeing another pointy ear in my game. I also tend to use orcs sparingly, favoring goblins, kobolds, and hobgoblins at the lower levels. But dealing honestly with D&D as it really played out over the last 35 years, I have to acknowledge that the Tolkien elements played a tremendous role in popularizing the game and are a part of our history that we have to own, even if (like thieves and skill lists) we don't use the blasted things.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Classes, tradition and related problems.

A month or so back, I posted a barbarian class (later renamed berserker) to the OD&D board (you can read the thread here). It brought up a couple of points that I think are relevant.

First - there was a bit of backlash to the merging of the barbarian and berserker archetypes that I had perpetuated in the original sketch of the class. The separation of the two is, I believe, a bit artificial - Conan did have moments that are best described as berskerk rages. And it's a very old conflation in the hobby. Issues of Alarums & Excursions had a berserking barbarian as far back as 1976, and the 1977 Arduin Grimoire codified it as a class. So I don't feel that I was entirely off base. But, there are legitimate differences at work here, and since the "berserker" is in Monsters & Treasure, I changed the name to reflect this.

What I find equally important is the question of "What should be a class?". I view D&D as best played within a dungeoneering context, which plays a significant role here. The major classes that people were interested in during the early period of D&D were the paladin, the ranger, the bard (or singer or poet), the druid (or neutral cleric) and the barbarian. Most of these are outdoorsy types who are not necessarily a natural fit for the dungeon. I play the game with the Greyhawk paladin (pretty much any Charisma 17 character becomes a paladin), and I'm considering the druid as an addition.

I've been reading some more of the Conan stories lately, and Conan is plainly a fighting man. He can do a lot -- definitely at different points he's a hero and a super-hero -- but class wise, I would not put him in my berserker class. There's a certain cachet to being a barbarian, but there's not a lot of mechanical flavor that is going to differentiate the character from the OD&D fighting-man without going the weird route pursued by Unearthed Arcana or merging with the berserker. And I'm starting to think that this is okay.

The niche that I think has not been filled adequately is the lightly armored, clever type who dabbles in magic but isn't serious about it, and is a hell of a fighter nonetheless. (The Gray Mouser, Cugel the Clever, etc.) There were echoes of it in the Greyhawk thief class, but this was merged with a specialist who is probably best left as an NPC. I think that some adaptations of the bard came closer, but really it's one of the challenges that remain, and something I've spent some time thinking about.

Beyond the examples I've listed above, I think it's necessary to have a certain skepticism about the need for a new class. For instance, I've thought about a more potion-oriented magic using class as a witch, but too much of the interesting detail would happen outside of the game. It's a valid character type in the world, but I don't know if it translates to an interesting D&D class.

I think that this approach needs to inform our class-building. There's a certain degree of flexibility within the three original classes, but they tend to move in definite ways in-game. (For instance, fighters tend toward AC 2, magic-users go from one-shot "sleep 'em!" to world-shaking magic, etc.) But classes still need to be added with a "should I add this?" approach rather than "this would be cool."

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Monsters, levels and experience

One of the more natural things to appear in the early issues of Alarums & Excursions is a certain degree of fluidity between the concepts of monsters and player characters. This is one of the things that Gygax initially encouraged in the text of OD&D, saying that a player can be pretty much any "type" described in the game, but that was played down quite vehemently in the DMG, with a prolonged essay on humanocentrism that has stuck with the Gygaxian mode of play for decades. I don't disagree with its main thrust, in that I feel that the majority of PCs should be human, but it did change the overall direction of the game, particularly in drawing a hard line between PCs and monsters.

Early A&E issues were very heavy on the actual play stories, and one of the characters with a lot of stories under her belt was Brilliant Jade, a fox spirit (a fox who turns herself human, taken from Chinese myth). This is interesting to me for a few reasons. One, the lycanthrope was actually pretty thoroughly covered in the early A&Es, frequently as a player type and not specifically a monster so much. Two, the concept was freely borrowed from myth and inserted without a lot of world-building or fantasy mythologizing around it. You had fox spirits in myth, therefore they were relevant in D&D. Three, the boundary between player and monster types was very deeply fluid.

A couple of other examples should suffice for what I mean. A number of writeups include the fact that monsters were given character levels, this long before 3e made it standard. Hobgoblins could be 6th level Fighters just as well as humans. As time went on and more statistics were printed in the zine, monster writeups often included a full experience chart with multiple levels detailed out. I really like the implications of this, because it lets you come up with monsters that are really varied and unique.

It's interesting that this method, which seems to have fallen by the wayside for AD&D in favor of simply adding to the variety of monsters, was embraced most in 3e, where it allowed for nigh-infinite fine tuning of opponents. With OD&D, it's radically different. Since the system is so much simpler, it's possible to do this much more easily. The example that brought me to realize that this was an early phenomenon was a reference to an "F6 Hobgoblin," who would have 6 levels as a Fighting-Man. 6 HD, possibly better AC from armor, hits as a 6 HD monster. This seems to me like a simple way to make a lot more out of a small inventory of traditional monsters, and just the sort of thing one would expect of the time before there were dozens of books full of monster statistics. Definitely something that will find its way into the lower works of my dungeon.

Friday, October 3, 2008

On Vancian Magic

With this post, I realize I'm going into territory that some OD&D fans would consider heresy, but it's something that I feel needs to be explored. I want to examine the whys and wherefores of Vancian magic, and how it appeared in OD&D and how it came to be used.

To be clear: the magic system was not necessarily "intuitively" Vancian in the 1974 rules. The Magic-User and Cleric classes had a number of spells per day determined by level, and that was about it. With subsequent clarifications, it was made clearly and determinedly based on the ideas in Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories, where spells were "memorized" and stored for later use. Elements of other fantasy were also added, with verbal, somatic and material components making spells slightly different from a strict Vancian take. For purposes of paperwork and record keeping, it's a very workable solution with a sound basis in the source literature, and was used in every edition of AD&D and D&D up until the 4th edition, when it was done away with.

That is, in the published rules. Unofficially, the Vancian magic system was never all that popular. Early issues of Alarums & Excursions reveal that the magic system was considered seriously flawed and referees were reworking it from the very early days. Entire game systems developed around alterations, mainly, to the combat and magic rules from OD&D. But Gygax soldiered on with Vancian magic and it became a staple of the game from that point onward. I would think that an AD&D campaign without Vancian magic would be sort of like a Call of Cthulhu campaign without SAN — it's possible, but would be missing the point a bit.

However, one of the things I intend to emphasize in this blog is the idea that OD&D isn't AD&D, and that what is right for one is not necessarily right for the other. The magic rules in OD&D are simply a sketch of the fleshed-out system in AD&D, and I think they ought to prove vital and legitimate ground for tinkering. One of the things I will be looking at in coming posts is old-school approaches to magic, which actually are quite plentiful in print — there is a mana point system sketched in Arduin, discussion in A&E, and the systems of Chivalry & Sorcery and Tunnels & Trolls that I intend to look at for ideas, and adaptation into something of a cohesive alternate system.

The reason for this is not that I'm not happy with Vancian magic as such. As I said, I think it's a quintessential part of AD&D. The reason I'm interested in exploring alternative magic systems is tied into a particular vision of OD&D that I think is perfectly valid, one that looks outside of the AD&D / Gygaxian tradition for solutions to rules questions. I do believe, strongly, that OD&D is not AD&D lite, or with fewer of the specific rules and a trim; what attracts me is the idea that it's possible to build a D&D as one sees fit. The reality is that, when OD&D was at its newest, magic was not bound to any single interpretation but open to wild interpretation and creation. I think the old school renaissance needs to embrace this spirit if it is going to thrive.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Gygax and the old school

In the very first issue of the APAzine Alarums & Excursions, Mark Swanson wrote that he subscribed to a simple slogan — "D&D is too important to leave to Gary Gygax." A&E started in June 1975, the very infancy of the hobby, before even The Dragon made an appearance. Swanson was describing his differences with the way spells worked in the OD&D rules as described by Gygax, but he definitely hit on one of the points I want to explore.

For the curious, Gygax responded to Swanson in a letter published in A&E #2, and quite heartily agreed. It's important to remember that Gygax was not held in the kind of regard that he has been by latter-day followers; he was a designer who had released a game, and while other hobbyists were enthusiastic about it, they were also frequently perplexed by or in outright disapproval of the rules as originally presented in the "three little booklets". On the whole, Gygax's treatment of magic seemed to garner the most controversy. Very few contributors to A&E responded positively to the quasi-Vancian system presented in OD&D, or any of its possible permutations.

In a broader sense, I think that Gygax needs to be taken with a healthy grain of salt in the old school community. Obviously we owe the man a tremendous debt of gratitude for his design, and I think his philosophy of dungeon exploration games contains a lot of things that are worth taking to heart. But there are two caveats here. First, Gygax's interpretation is just one take — whether it's in the 1974 OD&D rules set or not. Second, he was a normal person and his interpretations changed a lot over the years, like anyone's ought to. The more imperious Gygax of the 1979 DMG and the years to follow was not exactly the same as the one who had been just another gamer a few years earlier, and when he explained his philosophy and ran games for people in his twilight years (certainly too few) they reflected a different level of maturity and perspective. In the very early days, most gamers knew little about Gygax's intent beyond the sketches presented in OD&D and Supplement I: Greyhawk.

For these reasons, I think it's important to consider Gygax's approach to gaming less as the gospel truth and more as one of several valid approaches that exist for gamers interested in the old school. While there is a definite tendency in the old school community today to stress Gygax's work and approach, I think it should be taken like any other part of D&D history — the good should be used for what it is and the bad left behind, with "good" and "bad" being what's good for your game. If Gygax happened to have a few more hits and a few less misses than most designers, all the better. But nothing Gary Gygax ever said should stand in the way of you running your game the way you best see fit. And Gary would've stood behind that statement all the way.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Intro & Statement of Purpose

This blog is one of a number that are covering the original 1974 edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game (OD&D). I am a member of the "old school" of gaming — not because of a simple conservatism or nostalgia (I was born in the same year as the Moldvay boxed set and the height of D&D as a fad) but because I am more inspired by the gaming philosophy of early D&D and the do-it-yourself community that is growing up around OD&D.

I named it after the name being given to my ongoing OD&D game by its players, "Semper Initiativus Unum," always initiative one. We roll a d6 for initiative, but the players seem to roll 1 with uncanny regularity. And I intend for this blog to be informed as much as possible by real play, which I think is the ultimate measure of game systems.

The other stream I want to include here is the history of the game as it existed in the early years. Chronologically, this spans the period roughly from 1974 to 1980. The period that followed was defined much less by amateur work and thought, although these remained important features of the gaming scene, and more by official publication. This gave way gradually over the course of multiple publications and a vast increase in size for the whole hobby. It's the do it yourself spirit of early D&D that I think deserves to be the cornerstone of the modern "old school renaissance."