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.