Unpacking the entire experience one has at a Gary Con takes time - so much happens there. You meet so many awesome people and play in so many games. By the end of it, the memory becomes a blur. What I find is that over time the most important memories float to the top.
One of these was being able to spend about an hour one on one with Lou Zocchi and quiz him about all the games he made.
Something that had been on my mind for a long time is how I felt that his Alien Space and Star Fleet Battle Manual seem to be a huge influence on the Star Fleet Battles games. It is hard not to want to compare the ship damage logs between all three games as an obvious connection.
“… They contacted me about it. I told them to go ahead and make their game and I was fine with it. I had already printed 5000 of copies my game.” - Lou Zocchi
Ok, so a game designer just lets their IP go out and be used in someone else’s game?
It seems Lou is just a very magnanimous guy. He allowed another company to piggyback onto his original design and produce a game that became a huge success. I can’t think of any game club or group of gamers back in the 80’s where a copy of Star Fleet Battles wasn’t floating around in someone’s backpack, or actually being played at game night.
That story alone was an interesting peek into how the indy game community operated back in the day. Everyone knew everyone else and you could just ask someone if they minded you using their ideas in your game.
Meanwhile, also BITD, the big companies were busy unleashing their attack dog lawyers on each other over such things as Orcs and Balrogs. Maybe nothing changes after all?
An Old School Gem that is Worth Owning
Something else happened at Gary Con. Well it happened there, but I had no idea about it until I got home!
When I go to Gary Con I always bring a Banker’s Box with me. This is where I keep every game that I will be running at the Convention. This time it had a bunch of lead ship models and the various other implements for running Fletcher Pratt’s Naval War Game, A print out of Dave Arneson’s Draft Rules for D&D Areal Combat along with counters and dice, And Also everything I would need to run a game of Tonisborg Dungeon.
After the con my box of games just sat there in a corner untouched. I don’t need to unpack it as I leave it alone until a week or two before the next Gary Con when I go to work on creating new scenarios for my convention demo games.
I can’t recall why, but a few weeks ago I popped the lid off the box and sitting right on top was something I had no recollection of having seen before. Maybe it was handed to me and I forgot about it, or maybe someone was a little devious and snuck it into my box when I wasn’t looking.
Hmmm… some kind of booklet. I peered through it and realized it was a fanzine for D&D.
It floated around the house; meaning it would be on one of my To Read Piles located at various locations as I tend to read several books at once.
Thus I would pop it open and read a little bit of it then set It down unfinished.
I will tell you, the more I read, the more I wanted to read. It just seemed to get better and better the deeper I dug into it.
You see, this little fan booklet is a time machine. It has the physical dimensions of the original, Little Brown Books of Original D&D fame. It also is the same dimensions of another fanzine I was very fond of in the 70’s, The Dungeoneer.
If you want to know more about The Dungeoneer my advice is to do your own web search, as my fanboy passion for The Dungeoneer runs really deep and I would end up doing an entire article about it. Trust me, you’ll find a ton of info on it as others have already covered the subject extensively and most likely in a better manner than I could.
I have a thing for small books that can stack neatly with my LBBs. In the old days my white box had the 3 LBBs, 3 supplements. Chainmail (2 copies), and swords and spells inside it at all times, along with my favorite small form fanzines.
At first I couldn’t even tell what the title means. Is it, the Wizard Funk as an homage to Fred Funk of the Blackmoor Bunch, or is it just Wizard Funk as a commentary on smelly gamers?
What got me to keep looking through the book is the art. Cover art by Craig Brasco. Interior pieces by Colton Rosws and Josh Ross. There are other very interesting pieces which are un-attributed. There is a small gallery of art by Thaddeus Moore. Every bit of art is black and white and just screams old school.
To be honest the layout sort of turned me off at first. It looks like it was laid out in word, complete with Xcel sheet style grids. But now I’ve really warmed up to it. The fanzines of the 70’s reflected the technology available in their time, well then, a contemporary fanzine will reflect current technology. It should be made with ink jet printers and the all too familiar fonts and layouts of common word processors.
When it comes to books I am a bit of an ADD freak. I pick up a book and find a page and read for a bit. Then it gets tossed aside. Thus it has taken me a couple weeks to get through this book. Yet, the feeling I have from it is that I want more. And that this belongs in every traditional RPG players tote bag.
The Issue I found, which is issue three, contains:
3 interviews with old school luminaries
2 complete dungeons
5 Rule Variants and additions
Everything in this mag is the kind of stuff all of us would read back in the day. The interviews were eye opening for me. Granted the one with Stephen Rocheford was all stuff I already knew since I have 2 interviews with him and often call him on the phone to catch up on things.
But the other two were surprising and now because of these short interviews I have other games I may need to find copies of and study.
The same can be said for the pre-gen dungeons. I never run other people’s dungeons modules, but I love reading through them for ideas. Both dungeons are prepared in the time honored fashion of being very scant on details. Each room description has just enough info to guide a DM without railroading every little detail. A new DM could easily draw their own map and then place the encounters from both dungeons into it and create their own game.
The game variants are something that will inspire any referee. Eric Hoffman’s D100 Humanoid Traits is a random chart for designing unique properties for the standard Orc, Kobold, or Goblin clan. I may not like every idea on here, but you can be sure I will be ‘lifting’ some of these encounter ideas into my own Blackmoor Campaign.
Thaddeus Moore writes about uses for mundane items. Everything from Chalk to Wool Blankets has at least one way to use it creatively on an adventure. I love this article because again, it is a jumping off point for creative play both for players and DMs.
Other articles include a guide to using M.u. spells that are not combat oriented. A random dungeon generator and even a list of words one could use to describe weather conditions in the wilderness.
The beauty of this booklet is that it truly is fan material. You aren’t going to find it very easily. There isn’t any contact info in the booklet.
It does have attributions, thus I was able to determine that the most likely creator is Robin Irwin who played in my Tonisborg session at Gary Con. I expect that is when he slipped it into my bankers box.
I like it so much that you should not be surprised if an old blog post of mine appears in a future issue. I want to make sure this mag keeps on being published and I will gladly donate white box D&D content to it in order to make sure they have enough articles to publish into the future.
Last of all I would like to point you to our website. If you scroll down on the front page you can get on the mailing list.
Being on our mailing list gets you updates, but only the critical info. We won't hit you with a SPAM email every day.
Please get on the mailing list. It is the only way to find out when the Kick Starter for The Lost Dungeons of Tonisbrg will launch.
If you have a copy of TLDOT already please post some photos to your social media or on a forum and help us get the word out about this wonderful and unique book.
If you have seen the documentary make sure to tell a friend about it.
Thanks, Chris and Griff
For those who have never played the game. It is the first RPG with real interaction between players. It is also the first in a lineage of games. Over time it gets morphed into other games which are finally published as the Fantasy Adventure Game, Dungeons & Dragons.
Anyone who plays any RPG today is likely playing a descendant of David Wesely’s Braunstein games.
This year at Gary Con I once again managed to get invited to play as The Man from Imperialist Industries.
This means I get to play the American in the fictitious South American country of Banania.
The game is interesting since everyone is given a persona to play as well as an objective they must achieve. This is complemented by a variety of assets; be they a group of people who support you, weapons and vehicles, cash money, or dirty secrets about another player’s persona.
Since the game models the power struggle between people of varying levels in status in a fictitious banana republic in the 1950’s, one’s goals are based on improving one’s position in the social hierarchy during game play. It is non zero sum in that several people can win the same game. This is either because one’s objectives do not overlap with someone else’s, or due to an alliance of players with similar objectives.
As the game began we were all informed that today is the national holiday celebrating Banania’s liberation from the European Colonial Oppressors. There will be some kind of procession and carnival. But all is not perfect in Banania. Our great leader, El Jefe is on a diplomatic trip to the United States thus control of the great nation is in the hands of his capable, and equally corrupt, underlings who run the various military branches. El Jefe’s son is on hand as well, though many question his ability to lead anything more than a drinking party.
The banana picking and packing company has been exploiting the workers and the fruit pickers union, as well as the banana packers union, are both agitating for reforms and higher pay. It is even whispered in some places that they will demand the shockingly radical concept of the 12 hour work day!
Most games of Banania end with half the town on fire and tanks rolling around while helicopters hover overhead, while the populace is streaming into the jungles for safety. Words such as Byzantine, or the name Machiavelli, come to mind. The game is all about good wholesome back stabbing political fun.
For the record, this is my kind of game. It models human behavior really effectively. It also allows a creative schemer like myself to really stretch their creative ability.
Right from the beginning of the game the heads of the secret police, the marines, the army, and the air force all identified each other and left the main room to go outside in the hallway and collude.
This left me, as the American, with tons of cash, to go about stirring the pot of dissent and having meetings with the rebel forces whom I ask to create a bit of havoc in the city. Nothing really fuels the need for American made goods than a good old civilian insurrection. By goods, I mean arms shipment orders.
It’s the 1950’s and US interventions to promote democracy are ramping up around the world. Most of all, the military industrial complex has sidled up to the trough and demands its share.
I also met up with the fruit packing company owner and asked what I could do to alleviate the schism between the workers and the company. Oh, did I mention that I was already waving a big stack of dollars around and handing out tokens of my appreciation to everyone I met with? I don't really care if he talks to the unions, I am just spreading cash around to make friends as a form of insurance.
Yup - Cash is King in Banania!
I honestly cannot remember every detail of what transpired in the game. What I do recall is that the game seemed too imbalanced. Every turn, the heads of military would gather outside to discuss their plans for dominance, then return to the room we were playing in for the next set of moves with big smug grins on their faces. There seemed to be nothing to stop them from openly displaying this feeling of impending victory.
Having played games of Banania before, I knew that the workers would likely head en masse to the main city square in order to hold a political rally and that all branches of the military would then descend on this rally and start breaking skulls.
As the game progressed I also realized I had not achieved any of my own objectives of leaving Banania and heading back to the good old USA with a briefcase full of cash.
I was stumped. I wasn’t losing and yet I wasn’t winning. I was just sitting in my hotel on the south eastern edge of the map spinning my wheels. Of course this was my game persona sitting in the hotel. In reality I was sitting in a conference chair staring at the smug hubris of the military leader players and wondering what I should do to up end their glee.
Something needed to happen and soon.
As I sat there feeling a bit dejected, it came to me that what I needed was a way to pry them apart and make them feel less confident. Thus I hatched a plan to redirect their energy and cause a bit of chaos of my own. All I needed was the right kind of lever!
The next turn I took each one of them aside, one by one, for a private meeting. We would discuss their needs (This is where bribes would be mentioned as well.) and my need of a visa so that I can leave the country in a plane. Then as the meeting was coming to an end I would casually let drop a comment like this, “I suppose you already know about the assassination plot against all the heads of military?”
You’ve seen the old credit card commercial that ends with the statement that some things are priceless. Well, with every meeting I held, the revelation of the assassination plot was truly priceless. Every single player I met with briefly lost control of their facial expression. I could see their smug smiles contorted into looks of shock and even fear. Of course, I was inwardly giggling to myself.
“Oh, you had no idea that there is a plot to decapitate the entire military and secret police via assassinations and replace you with new blood?”
Somehow it had never occurred to any them that they themselves as individuals could be the targets of violence. Or, that they could be easily removed from the game entirely.
After a few seconds each would ask me where I had heard of this scheme, to which I would respond, “Oh, you know, rumors like this just float around in Banania. My advice is that you avoid public places and keep your defenses close.”
I would end with a plea for that visa I wanted along with a down payment in cash and a promise that I would send a large cash gift from America once I was home safe and sound.
Every meeting I held followed a nearly identical script. Talk about Banania business, ask for visa, reveal plot for assassinations, ask for visa again, offer some cash. All followed by a hand shake.
By the next turn, the military heads were once again gathering to confer on their master plan. I wasn’t privy to their scheming, yet I suspect that on this turn the mood was different. Most of the scheming was about how not to get rubbed out by assassins. They probably talked about little else thus their other schemes were delayed by this, shall we say, distraction?
On the next turn our game ended.
David Wesely conducted the epilogue stage of the game where he reveals all the secret story lines and what everyone had been scheming about during the game. We were low on time, thus he hurried through everyone else’s activities and did not cover what my persona did during the game.
I stayed to help David pick up the game and pack up to leave. As we did this he asked me what I had done on the last turns of the game. I explained that I had gotten a visa to leave the country, thus I had effectively won my game. Then I went on to explain how I had managed it and I had the pleasure of seeing David Wesely get an impish sparkle in his eye along with a look of admiration as we both laughed heartily over my end-game.
The game had ended strangely. By the last turn of the game we played everything was different from every other game of Banania I had ever seen played. Sure, the workers all gathered for their anti government rally in the city square. Yet, the military was nowhere to be seen. Unlike the other games, the military wasn’t running around cracking people’s heads in order to create peace.
Instead, what happened is that each branch of the military was hunkered down in their own area, safely away from everyone else, protecting their leader and doing nothing to stop the insurrection.
It was, dare I say, un-Bananian in every way I can think of.
Banania is just a game. You don’t get an award or certificate of participation for playing. All you have are the good memories of having played the oldest individual role playing game in the lineage of games that lead to Dungeons & Dragons being published. On top of that, the only person on the planet who runs these games in this exact manner is the creator of the game, David Wesely.
In my case, I got the respect and approval of the game designer himself for my medieval conniving. You see, I really needed that lever to pry apart the powerful alliance a little bit and to help me get what I needed to win - my lever was simply useful information.
I am proud to say that via my revelation of secret information, none of the generals got assassinated, and there was no bloodshed in the city square - just this once.
I even got my visa and left Banania, presumably while flying first class and sipping champagne.
Since this was the last game session of Gary Con on Sunday, we had to pack up quickly and my own plans were never fully revealed to the other players, which is a pity, since they never got to find out that the assassination attempt was just a story I made up to trick them all into helping me achieve my goals.
I will leave you with this quote from Ross Maker in Secrets of Blackmoor, “…He’s the American. You can’t trust anyone else in Banania, but the American has gotta be straight - right?”
Don't Forget to Tell Your Friends to go WATCH - SECRETS of BLACKMOOR:
LINK HERE TO SEE THE MOVIE
I speak for both Chris, myself, and the entire Blackmoor family in conveying sad news.
I’ve been struggling to come to terms with the loss of a great person from the Blackmoor Bunch. He is perhaps the least celebrated of all of them. He wasn’t a young guy in the Arneson basement and he wasn’t even a gamer. He was Dave Arneson’s father, John Arneson.
His grand daughter, Malia nicknamed him ‘Grumpy.’
Chris and I met Grumpy while making, Secrets of Blackmoor. He was a complete surprise to us because we were expecting a fairly calm and normal interview, after all, John was already in his 90’s when he sat with us for his interview.
In one of my first comments to John, I said, “You look like your son.”
And he responded with, “I feel sorry for the guy.”
John set the tone for the entire interview. No matter what we wanted to get from it, he was there to have fun.
I was with my own family when I got the news. Malia’s husband, Luke phoned and quickly told me the bad news that John Arneson was no longer with us. I sat at my dining table and cried while trying to explain to my own family what John means to me. All I could say is that the people I have met while making the Blackmoor movie are very close to me. They are my extended family. I care about all of them and I feel a duty to all of them. And that my feeling over John’s passing away shatters my heart.
He was the fly on the wall when Dungeons & Dragons was being invented in his basement on Hartford Avenue.
It is his retelling of those days when his son would gather with his friends in the basement that is most revealing about that time because his experience comes from outside the group of gamers. He was an adult who saw glimpses of what transpired. His voice can take us back to the time before role playing games were a household activity. When he tells us, “I had no idea what was going on down there… It was way over my head,” as well as,” It evolved - slowly,” he gives a look into a past where RPGs would be completely alien and not easily understood.
He infuses his retelling with his own perspective of the activities and people in that time. There is no glorification of events with an epic and grandiose tale about the invention of this new RPG game. In his voice It becomes almost banal. It was just a bunch of goofy teenagers wasting their lives playing games in his basement when they could have been out doing something more useful.
No one else could describe it like he does.
I suppose one would want to know more about John.
One can read obituaries where selected facts are reviewed.
These sorts of things: John married his high school sweetheart Maxine. Not long after, his wife gave birth to their only child a son they named David. He worked for the telephone company all his life. He is part of the greatest generation, which fought nazism and imperialism around the world. A decorated veteran, John was a marine and was at the battle of Pelellu. He could tell you stories about what it is like to land on a beach while being shelled by the enemy. He also served in Korea.
Within the inner circle of the Blackmoor Bunch we’re all just trying to make sense of losing John. As you get older, you experience these losses more, and perhaps too often. We try to get a little tougher about it. Yet, in moments of private reflection it can feel like one is alone in grief, or that no one else has ever had to deal with this kind of feeling. Everyone deals with these times in their own way.
I am trying to give you a feeling of who John is, yet, I am also trying to express what he means to the Blackmoor Bunch. His place within the group is singular.
Most of you only know John through having seen him in the documentary, Secrets of Blackmoor. You may not know just how significant John is to everyone who walked down the stairs to game in the Arneson basement.
Every one of those older people who we interviewed for the film was just a kid when they met John Arneson. Going to someone’s house to game also meant greeting their parents and making sure to say those please and thank you’s for all the free soda that was being provided at the game session. As the adult, along with his wife, John commanded respect.
When we interviewed John we invited David Wesely to sit with John during the interview. At one point John looked at David and you could tell by the way he addressed him, that for John, and despite his being ‘all grown up’, David was still one of those kids who used to come over to game in the Arneson basement.
I can also tell you that the one story I heard from nearly everyone in the group regards the bottles of booze sitting in the basement bar. It is a note of pride for all of them that not one of them tried to steal a nip of something from one of those bottles.
They were all guests in John’s house and no one was going to be breaking any rules if they wanted to keep coming back to game there.
John Arneson is the de facto patriarch of the Blackmoor Bunch thus he symbolizes many things which may be hard to put into words for those former kids.
I do feel that a sense of continuity is broken and it can never be repaired.
When a dear one is lost to us it can feel as if I we are the only one who truly acknowledges this loss. The only one to know. As if the entire planet is moving along in its daily routine and the greatest person who had ever lived has just left the planet. How can no one else seem to know. Yet, for us, nothing can ever be the same. No one else will ever get to experience what it is like spending time with the greatest person who ever lived.
The Blackmoor Bunch are never public about personal events past and present. Perhaps it’s a Minnesota thing, they just are not bombastic. Yet privately, we talk to each other, especially at times like this when our world is changed. I was pondering this, when I got a message from Malia this morning.
“He was such a pillar in my life. I welcome the distraction of planning the funeral because I can not fathom the massive hole/gap that I will have to face and feel when the dust settles.”
It’s good to be sharing our heartbreak. It is part of how we honor our loved ones.
I love how Malia splits the word cannot into two words. I feel I am with her in losing John. Time has slowed down and long words become longer until they split into two words. I wonder if she was even aware she was doing that. Yet, it is in times like this when anything more complicated than the most basic thought or action becomes as simple as possible. Everything is smaller. Loss is always a reduction.
Those of us who know John will tell the stories and remember the little things.
My favorite recent story about John happened during the Covid lock down. His great grand daughters missed him and were worried that John was all alone. They would color pictures and mail them to John. John liked receiving these letters so much that he joined a coloring group at his assisted living facility and sent back his own pictures to the girls through the mail.
Up to his last days, John was fully in his own mind and brimming with the can-do attitude of his generation. He decided to start working out. We’re talking about a 97-year-old man deciding to work out. He even told his trainer that twice during each work out he wanted to be timed and that he would go as fast and hard as he could for 30 seconds.
That is what I like about John the most. It is his toughness, mixed with humor and caring. He is the kind of person who takes up a lot of space when he enters a room.
The Blackmoor Bunch are a big family and it is hard for all of us to see our family grow smaller.
We want you to know that the greatest person who ever lived just left the planet.
He will be remembered.
I’ll leave you with a short message Stephen Rocheford wrote to his fellow military man - “Time to rest, Marine.”
Love and prayer to all, Chris, Griff, and the Blackmoor Bunch
GaryCon is long over with, and yet, a very good feeling still lingers from having had a chance to go this year and run some really cool games.
My drive to Gary Con is always long, 14 + hours of driving according to Google, but when you add my need to stop and stretch my legs, eat, and even wake up my brain, it can be around 16 hours by the time I finally walk in the door.
I even slept in the back seat for about 50 minutes at one truck stop and ran around the car 10 times to wake up at another. :)
I refer to the annual driving experience as my, Suicide Ride To Gary Con.
This year I drove through the night and arrived on Thursday around 10am a bit sleepy and worn out. It didn’t help that I neglected to read the fine print for my hotel and I did not call or check in ahead of time. When I left after my first day of convention fun and got to my hotel at midnight to sleep, there was no one in the office. I slept that night in a chair in the lobby for maybe 5 hours.
Thankfully I know of a good place to grab breakfast one town over and managed to refuel before day 2 of the Convention Marathon.
Despite my mishaps, it is always worth it, as nothing compares to introducing RPG gamers to vintage war games, in the Legends of War Gaming room at GaryCon.
Day 1 was simple. All I did was wander around the convention and chat people up until I was due to run my first game, Fletcher Pratt’s Naval War Game.
This is one of those games that to me is truly special. It has a long history. As far as I can tell, Fletcher Pratt invented it around 1937 and it was published in 1940.
It is like a combo of Lou Zocchi’s, Alien Space, and Star Fleet Battles set in WWII.
The game system is fairly simple too. It uses mathematical equations to create Ship Record Sheets. The sheets list the ship name, tonnage, weapon types, and a damage track for keeping track of how your weapons and speed get reduced when you take damage by enemy hits.
A turn is comprised of everyone moving their ship with rulers and then making note of what weapons they have chosen to fire at what targets.
We used post it notes to mark what was being shot at by whom.
Each player has to guess the enemy's range and writes that down, thus you end up with cryptic notes for how far the salvo will reach, with another value for the spacing between shell hits. i.e. Main Armament at 47 inches, with a half inch spread between shots.
The game system is dice-less, yet it provides a very good simulation.
It is the referee who then measures the distances for the salvos and places markers for shell hits. The rules specify using golf tee’s for the splashes, but I have a jar of buttons I found in a thrift store for about a dollar, and they serve just as well. Red buttons signify shell hits and white ones are splashes.
That’s pretty much all a player needs to know to take part in this game.
There are some other details in the rules, such as the gun caliber vs. range vs. armor thickness chart, that limits how far you can shoot and effectively do any damage. This too is easy enough to comprehend.
Did I forget to mention that the entire battle is played with really big 1/1200 lead ship models, and that these particular models I bring for the demo games are the Dan Nicholson collection of ships? The vary same Dan Nicholson who played the merchant in Blackmoor!
That is another historical detail about this game. Fletcher Pratt was very popular with the Twin Cities gamers and many photos exist of them playing games in the U of M library back in the 60’s and 70’s.
For our battle we had 5 players show up to the game out of 6 available places - which is not bad. Sadly, one player left early leaving a single player to run the entire German fleet in the scenario, She didn't do too bad considering how much paperwork she had to deal with as the captain for three ships.
One thing I do when I run these old games is get out of the way and let the players do everything. The game is supposed to have a referee, but since the game is a demo, I tell the players to do all the referee tasks of measuring salvos and placing splashes and hit markers. I feel this helps players really learn the game.
With only 20 or so pages to the rules, they can even read any pertinent passages as they play to help clarify any questions that may arise.
It quickly becomes very apparent that the players are fully engaged by the game as you watch them crawl around on the floor moving ships and measuring shots.
I also emphasize that the game is for everyone to study, appreciate, and learn from. Not to worry too much about winning or losing. Marking off damage on your own ship when someone scores a hit is very revealing, even if it is your ship getting blown apart.
Although the battle was not completed, everyone really enjoyed their chance to captain a large battle ship or cruiser for a little while.
I think next year I will open it up to more players as I expect word to get out about how fun this game is.
I hope you enjoyed this recollection on Naval War Gaming at Gary Con.
Some of you War Gamers may not realize you are also playing an RPG and some of you Role Players may not realize you are also playing a War Game.
If you are interested in finding out more about the overlapping elements between War Games and Role Playing Games - WATCH SECRETS OF BLACKMOOR!
As I sit here and prepare for my journey to Gary Con an interesting video has popped up in the Gamer Sphere.
It is a video by none other than RPG Pundit. Pundit and I tend to align very strongly on game design principals and interpretation. We also always have a good time talking about gaming in general too.
Today’s video was on a subject gamers have been arguing and ruminating over since RPGs were invented: What the heck are hit points and what do they represent?
Pundit’s video covers a lot of basic concepts regarding the need for a simplistic and non granular system for gauging when your luck runs out in a battle. I am in complete agreement with his assertions regarding their purpose and relatively abstract function. Yet, I wanted to add in some of my own thoughts on the subject.
Before D&D was published most war games treated men as individual one hit you die units. In some cases for larger scale battles a figure would represent a group of perhaps 20 to 50 men and receiving damage would be measured in groups of soldiers or figures. Chainmail, which had some influence on how D&D is designed though often to a much greater extent than the game deserves, measured hit points in figures and a unit of many men being made up of several figures would thus have a hit point value. This system works great in a massed combat situation and even with the Chainmail man-to-man combat scale where getting a hit means you kill a figure/man.
These ideas about hit points predate Chainmail. One source which we know the Blackmoor Bunch played extensively is a naval war game called, Fletcher Pratt’s Naval War Game. I also happen to be running a demo battle at Gary Con, so if you are at the con - swing by and I might even squeeze more players into the game. ;)
Fletcher Pratt’s rules date from around 1937 and were published in 1940. Pratt combined two elements which Pundit mentions. You have the idea of hit points as actual physical damage. You also have the loss of hit points representing a granular loss of capability. This is not what you get in Dungeons & Dragons. In D&D hit points are abstraction.
Much of the misunderstanding of hit points comes from Arneson himself. He is on record as calling to-hit die attack rolls, chops. People assumed he meant each die roll would be one chop and that melee is like two people standing apart and taking turns hacking at each other. Yet, playing a game of Blackmoor with Bob Meyer is very revealing as he follows Arneson doctrine as much as he can. Bob Meyer uses parallel actions. Combatants do not take turns attacking each other and there is no initiative die roll to determine who attacks first. In a battle both sides get a chance to attack each other in a melee round. Thus the combat is very abstracted and represents each side trying to wear down their opponent and is not a granular system by any means.
That is not to say that Arneson was not also capable of being granular with Hit Points. As Michael Wittig noted in his research, the Strategos ancients warfare variant, Strategos - A (Arneson and Hoffa) has elephants in it. And elephants got Hit Points. This dates back to around 1969 (Too lazy to put in citations and proper dates, feel free to roast me over this.) and reveals that Hit Points were already being used for individual figures long before Chainmail appears. An elephant was treated in somewhat the same manner as a battle ship in this regard.
Useful tip: Hit Points and Battles Ships are a recurring theme in D&D combat,
It was discovered early on that Blackmoor needed a system for taking hits which did not kill a player outright. Players did not appreciate being removed from a game based solely on one die roll. Many different systems were tried and over time Arneson created the system for combat that appears in D&D. Some would attribute this creation to Gygax, yet Arneson clearly states in Space Gamer magazine in 1979 that it was his own invention based on a (Brace Yourselves!) naval war game system he had created for his home games. Gygax never made such a clear claim and assumptions that he invented it are based on very questionable interpretations of what Gygax himself said on the subject.
D&D has a very specific and unique design for combat. You have a randomized chance to hit something and the target value is modified by the defenders armor class. No matter how hard to it, or heavily armored something is, once you hit you always get a chance to do the same quantity of damage. Other systems have a set chance to hit something and then the damage caused by the hit is determined by defensive ratings caused by armor as a damage die modifier.
Arneson would later go on to say that they had tried other ways of handling damage. Most interesting of all is his mention of defensive saving throws when being hit completely negating damage. He said the saving throw system was too cumbersome and required too many die rolls during combat. Yet, this variant on damage which likely comes from early Blackmoor is very revealing.
I mentioned the concept of defensive saving throws in an earlier blog post about how OD&D works. I also always like to cite Ara Winter for leading me to this understanding about die rolls.
Attack die rolls are always attack rolls for hitting and for damage. Yet the fixed values of Armor Class and Hit Points that attackers are trying to beat are actually a form of saving throw. I call them defensive saving throws.
Your Armor Class is a saving throw with a fixed value that your opponents try to beat. And your Hit Points are a saving throw with a randomly generated fixed value.
Thus if you can grasp the idea that D&D combat was devised as an abstract system with Hit Points in particular being a form of luck, or even skill in avoiding a deadly blow, you will have a clearer understanding for how to use Hit Points when you Referee a game.
They were created to give players a few chances to survive deadly blows. This luck point system must of course be fair thus the monsters get luck points too. Yet, since the game is so open to interpretation, a Referee is free to flip flop between seeing Hit Points as an abstraction or as a very granular damage system. It really depends on what is needed by the game play in the moment.
So am I saying that Hit Points can be either abstraction or a granular simulation? Yes, yes I am. But the foremost concept to keep in your mind is that it was designed as an abstract system and that it should be considered as such under most conditions.
Well, I am in a bit of a hurry. Pardon my bad grammar and typos. I really wanted to add some to the discussion the video posed and hopefully give you something to ponder as well.
Make sure to tell your Friends about Secrets of Blackmoor now being available on both, Amazon, and Vimeo.
T- Minus GARY CON!
The Seeker Character Class
An OD&D Variant
Griffith M. Morgan III
Although we who play the original version of D&D do love it for its simplicity, most referees will grow tired of the standard dungeon dive game and want to add other elements to their world.
My own campaign has turned into a medieval cold war spy game as players go on missions to root out spies working for the dread Egg of Coot. But I also have much deeper stories that are drawn from ideas I’ve seen in such films as, The Sixth Sense, Donnie Darko, Black Orpheus, and most of all Tarkovsky’s epic masterpiece, Stalker.
Each of these films deals with the subject of having an alternate, yet parallel realm. A boy who see’s the ghosts of the dead, a boy who figures out how to alter time, a man who travels down to hell in search of his lost love, a man who guides people into a place known only as The Zone.
Consider that although these films may not be fantasy films, the characters in them lend themselves to being added into a fantasy world, especially one like Blackmoor that is an amalgamation of Tolkien style fantasy with post apocalyptic sci fi on a future planet.
All of the characters I described have similar properties in that they are sensitives with unique powers of feeling based knowing. On top of that, they are heroes who do not choose to be what they are - they are the unwilling victims of fate.
Here is an ideal subject for a character class for expanding story ideas that you can use in your OD&D campaign, The Seeker.
The Seeker Class
The Seeker is here described as an OD&D Character Class. You may feel free to re-arrange adapt and alter the class for your particular game system. Or, even because you may feel I am “Doing It Wrong!”
Seekers have the power to perceive, influence, and even travel the unseen parallel realms of being. The three realms are the realm of the un-living such as purgatory or hell, the non present realm of time both future and past, and the realm of planes of existence or dimensions. This also covers places where these realms intersect with the physical realm or reality, thus creating anomalies. In fact, the Seeker class is ideally suited as a guide for adventuring in places where these rifts have occurred either by accident or through great magical power.
The Seeker must have a 17 or higher in both Intelligence and Wisdom. These values can only be attained through natural unmodified aptitude rolls on 3d6. This is an extremely rare player class. Seekers will more often be encountered as NPCs than as PCs due to how rare they are.
Optional: suggested by Hayde Rice - A point buy from other stats during character creation. I would suggest something like this: A player can trade 2 points from Constitution for every extra point of Wisdom and 2 points from Strength for every additional point of Intelligence.
Seekers always fight as 1st level fighters regardless of experience level. They gain hit points just as Fighters do. Yet, their hit dice do not represent fighting ability so much as ability to perceive threats and thus avoid them. If you are using Greyhawk Supplement, Holmes Basic, or AD&D the hit dice for seekers are a d6 just as clerics.
Seekers may never be dual class. Yet, they can be any species you feel works with the style of character you want to present.
Generally speaking a seeker will not enter a melee willingly, it is not their area of expertise, though they may do so in order to sacrifice themselves to protect others. They do not generally wear armor either, but some do wear odds and ends they have scrounged up. They may use any weapon they choose, but usually only have one weapon of choice and it is not always chosen due to how powerful it is, but rather because it has some personal symbolism for the seeker themselves. Consider a staff, or a sling and dagger as being appropriate. Yet, this Class should be somewhat free form so as to allow a player to really get into their character. Perhaps a Seeker armed with a Heavy Crossbow?
Magical Abilities by Level
Seeker Experience Hit Dice 1st 2nd 3rd 4th
Chosen One 0 1+1 1
Apprentice 2000 2 2
Soothe Sayer 4000 3 3 1
Divinator 8000 4 4 2
Witch, or Medicine Man 16000 5+1 4 2 1
Guide 32000 6 4 2 2 1
Visionary 64000 7 4 3 2 1
Enlightened One 120000 8 4 3 3 2
Stalker 240000 9 4 4 3 3
With each additional level of experience after 10th the seeker also gains a +1 in Intelligence or Wisdom (roll for which attribute is affected. This can lead to the acquisition of understanding in additional unseen realms.)
Seekers generally appear as frail and wasted due the intense inner struggle they constantly suffer from as they battle with inner conflict because of their keen intellect and intuition. I like to think of them as a cross between a seer and a philosopher.
They are faultless guides and trackers. They are keenly attuned to their environment.
Often they will also have some knowledge of herbs and tinctures.
They will be sensitive to the presence of one or more of these kinds of situations: The Un-living World, Temporal Anomaly, Magical and Planar Anomaly.
A simple guide to the kind of creatures which dominate each realm with a small set of examples follows. It is up to each Referee to refine the exact details on which creature pertains to each realm.
For the Un-living, this refers to any of the undead with consciousness, unlike skeletons and zombies, and most specifically anything non corporeal such as ghosts which travel along the edges of both reality and the land of the dead.
The temporal realm creatures are those which use temporal displacement such as displacer beasts.
For planar creatures a good example are the invisible stalkers, perhaps shadows may fall within this group as well.
This area of sensitivity can be either assigned, chosen, or rolled randomly. It is up the the referee to adjust this as required.
Total of intelligence and Wisdom:
Int + Wis = 34 one area
Int + Wis = 35 Two areas
Int + Wis = 36 or higher means all three areas are known
For random area determination roll 1d6.
1-2 The Un-living Realm
3-4 The Temporal Realm
5-6 The Planar Realm
(Re-roll duplicate rolls.)
Seekers always get a +10% to experience points while adventuring, not that it matters much in the long run.
Seekers live an ascetic existence in terms of personal property and treasure. Some are known to be hoarders of objects they find personally pleasing though these will be simple objects and not of great value. Often these objects are all similar and appear as collections of the same thing. i.e. when approaching the home of a seeker one might notice many hand made stick dolls hanging from the tree branches. Or, carefully arranged groups of pebbles.
Seekers are mystics. They spend a great deal of time pondering reality and even greater things of wonder. When meeting one the experience will be uncanny and disorienting. You are accosted by a street urchin who tells you that your presence is requested. No answers are given as you are led into a strange place in the forest. As you enter a small hut your eyes adjust to the darkness. A single crack in the ceiling allows a beam of light to shine down on the open eye of a person who stares back into the sunbeam without blinking. The figure sits in silence then utters your name before saying, “Unseen forces gather in darkness. You are the light. You are the chosen one.”
A seeker NPC gains Experience Points from treasure, but they tend to either give it away or simply misplace it. No material gain can help a Seeker overcome their own personal torment.
Because seekers use experience points to cast the more powerful spells, it is rare to find one of very high level. They simply cannot stay at a high level if they use their special spells because the really powerful abilities are so taxing they consume experience points and reduce their level.
Seekers do not have to go on adventures to gain in knowledge and experience. Time isolated and meditating will gain them 6d6 x 10 points of experience per week.
Seekers both shun and are shunned by society. If living in a town or city they will try to blend in by looking like a common beggar. Many malicious rumors abound regarding Seekers and thus they are often harassed and even attacked for who they are. It is said that their offspring are malformed or born with strange magical powers, if not both.
All seekers have some kind of power of divination as an intuitive extension of their natural ability. Some cast stones or bones, others will use runes, and some use decks of cards. Their ability always produces a correct reading, yet the result is often cryptic; the real truth lies in how their divination is understood by the subject. This may be in part why Seekers are so vilified as it is not uncommon for people to blame the messenger instead of the message.
Seekers have sensing ability that is so acute as to seem supernatural to the uninitiated. Yet, some of their ability comes from them always being hyper alert to everything around them. In normal everyday life this constant sensing can be detrimental and very draining to a seeker which is why they often live in remote places with few people, yet while adventuring they are excellent as guides.
In order to use these sensing abilities Seekers will often use simple implements such as carrying a candle and watching how the flame dances. Some will use a plumb bob or divining rods, or as in the movie Stalker, they can detect anomalies by tying old pieces of metal to rags and throwing them to see if they are being pulled or pushed by unseen forces.
Seekers can track with great accuracy in the wilderness. Assume a 25% chance + 5% per level for success if their quarry is not intentionally trying to mask their passage.
Like the other classes they sense secret doors and trap doors, but they can do it as they travel the underworld like elves and dwarves. With every 3 levels of experience they add a +1 to this ability of sensing. A trap does not necessarily have to be man made. A natural pitfall, or an impending rock fall may also be noticed. They also have ability with more complex traps such as trapped chests and other items.
Seekers can sense and search for hidden mechanical traps. Their ability is 50% +/- any difficulty rating that may apply. Knowing there is a trap gives the seeker the option to guide others in avoiding triggering a trap. Yet, in the case of a trapped chest or other such item, it does not mean they have diffused the trap.
Seekers are very hard to surprise during encounters, requiring a roll of two dice with both showing a surprise result for a seeker to be surprised. Roll to see if the party is surprised first then roll again to see if the seeker is surprised. The seeker can almost always get out of the way before serious trouble is upon them.
Additionally, the presence of an anomaly being caused by the presence of a pool of energy, a creature, or a rift from one of the other realms is often revealed by even the most benign of signs. In the presence of an anomaly a seeker may notice a clue on a 2 in 6 chance such a stack of pebbles that could not hold its form without some unseen otherworldly force, or a pattern in how the dust is blown on the ground that others would never take note of. It is up to the referee to invent these signs for the seeker to examine.
Seekers may have animal followers, but these will be very wild and will not approach visitors. Seekers do not generally have human followers or henchmen.
Due to a Seeker’s gifts they are highly visible to creatures from the other realms. Perhaps contact with the other realms stains them somehow. Some of these creatures may fly into a rage and attack a seeker without any regard for others who may be present.
Young Seekers are loners and outcasts. It is not uncommon for an older Seeker to recognize and mentor a young Seeker. Without a mentor it is entirely possible that a young Seeker will not be able to maintain their sanity due to their heightened sensing ability making them think they are going crazy.
Seekers also have magical powers that are like spells. Seekers do not consider what they do to be spell casting and sarcastically refer to it as part of their ‘gift’ as many seekers see their power as also being a curse.
Their spells are more like a kind of skill or aptitude, thus they do not use magic books and scrolls as magic users do. Instead they choose an ability when they gain a level.
When using their ability they will appear to go into a sort of trance and their eyes will focus out into the distance. With spells that require long periods of time any kind of disturbance could distract them and pull them out of their trance state causing the spell to fail. If your seeker is leading you, it is best to follow silently and trust in their gift.
What is more, their magical power drains them. They are the only magical class that loses experience points when they cast really powerful spells.
Spell Types by Level:
1st Level 2nd Level 3rd Level
Touch Sense Locate Anomaly Freeze Anomaly
Awareness Commune with Object Seek Object
Sense Motive Deactivate Trap Realm Shift
Detect Anomaly Analyze Potion Realm Speak
Track Realm Creature Reveal Path Projection
Hold Portal Knock Mask Presence
Speak with Animals Detect illusion Realm Shift
Brew Potion/Poison Detect Invisible Guardian Ward
Protection from Realm
Explanation of Spells
A seeker can touch an object or surface and gather information about the objects history or who or what has passed near the object. The information comes to them in a series of flashback images in their mind. ! full turn to cast.
This allows the seeker to enter a hyper aware state making it so they can perceive everything in their surroundings with 100% accuracy. All secret information about the location will be revealed to the Seeker: secret doors; traps; and nearby monsters. 1-2 turns of trance like meditation is required. The hidden elements should be described vaguely rather in specific language. There is an air current from over here. You sense a malevolence in this direction. Etc. The range is 120” but is blocked by barriers such as wells or other impassable features. A seeker could sense something down a passage and behind a door though.
A seeker can focus on a person they are interacting with and get a feeling about their true nature and intentions. Thus, they can detect if a person’s underlying agenda does not match up with how they are presenting themselves. The seeker will know if someone is lying but they may also have a much deeper understanding about the person and their goals. This ability is more than simple lie detection. It is not easy to trick a seeker.
The Seeker can sense if a lingering pool of realm matter, or a creature from a realm, or a rift is near. They sense the presence, but cannot precisely locate it. 120’ range 1 turn duration.
Track Realm Creature
A seeker may attempt to track a creature that comes from one of the realms. Treat it as normal tracking except the Seeker is able to do so in regard to otherworldly beings.
Same as M.u. spell.
Speak with Animals
Same as Clerical spell
The Seeker can brew potions for any spell they know at a cost of 1 week of work per dose times the level of the spell. There is no expense in gold as the Seeker uses plants and other materials they find in their surroundings to brew these potions. Additionally they can brew poisons as well as healing potions. A Seeker can make poison antidotes as well.
Protection from Realm
Works as a protection from evil spell except the affected creatures are those which come from the specific realm the seeker has knowledge in. In the case of a seeker knowing several realms they must declare which realm is affected when casting the spell.
Similar to Locate Object this allows the seeker to locate the nearest emanation of otherworldly energy.
Commune with Object
This is a more powerful version of Touch Sense. The seeker can converse with inanimate objects about anything that object could know.
A seeker can easily find traps, and should be allowed an either or attempt to deactivate a trap with a 50% chance of success. Yet with the use of this gift the seeker can do so with 100% success.
A seeker can open a flask and sniff the contents in order to know what a potion does. This includes being able to detect poisons.
This spell allows a Seeker to find a safe passage through an area such as a thick bramble, or marshy wetland. In the case of underworld settings it could be applied to finding a path through an area with an unsafe roof that is likely to collapse, or other similar obstacles.
Similar to the standard Knock spell.
The Seeker can tell if something is unreal or illusory. Once detected, the Seeker can attempt to dispel the illusion. 50% chance + 5% per additional level of experience.
Same as M.u. Spell.
A seeker can use this pell to temporarily deactivate any powers emanating from an anomaly. In the case of creatures the spell works like hold person. A large rift may require some kind of challenge roll created by the referee. Duration is 1-12 turns.
Similar to Locate Object with the one difference being that the object may or may not be located in one of the realms.
A seeker can briefly dip into another realm in order to bypass obstacles located in the mundane world such as walls or rivers. Duration is up to the Referee.
The Seeker can speak with a creature that is located in a realm. This is similar to an E.S.P. Spell except both parties are reading each other’s minds.
The Seeker can enter a trance and project their awareness out of their body and into a realm. They are able to sense everything within the realm as if they were there, but cannot touch or speak while there. As they explore there are certain creatures that can detect them and may be able to cause their projected self harm, or entrap them.
A seeker can become invisible, or make someone else invisible to creatures from a particular realm. Creatures of higher level than the Seeker are allowed a saving throw in this regard based on the difference in levels on the saving throw chart.
This spell creates an unseen barrier that blocks creatures from a particular realm. It can take any number of forms. A chalk line drawn around a door frame, or a candle that magically never burns out.
An intelligent creature can attempt to erase or remove the activating element via mundane or magical means. The same occurs if a normal being comes along and tampers with the ward.
Intentionally passing through thus shattering the ward by realm creatures will cause damage equivalent to the casting seeker’s level.
The seeker can dip their arm into one of the realms and bring back any object they can grasp in their hand. Of course this is also fraught with danger as something on the other side can grab them and pull them in. The seeker must enter a trance of from 1-12 turns. Casting the spell reduces a Seeker’s Experience Points by 10,000.
The Seeker can send another being into one of the realms. At the end of the spells duration, which is entirely subject to the Referee’s whims, the subject returns to reality whether alive or dead. Cost to cast 12,000 Experience Points.
This is the same as above, except it pertains to the Seeker themselves. Cost to cast 15,000 Experience Points.
The seeker can attempt to destroy any kind of anomaly related to the realms. Treat the spell as a fireball of equivalent damage to the caster. It is like an energy blast emanating from the Seeker. The Blast does no damage to mundane creatures. In terms of anomalous creatures the attack is against their hit points. Other anomalies and rifts should be assigned a hit point value for how much damage can be caused before it is entirely destroyed. Cost to cast 15,000 Experience Points.
This class is merely a template. It can be used to model a variety of sensitive personas. The spells they cast, or gifts, should be fairly flexible and a player can argue for choosing different unlisted spells, or even creating their own. (I'm struggling with adding in spells like telekinesis, yet I think that may be too powerful for this class.) The primary limitation being that they should not get too many active combat spells.
The Seeker’s power lies in their passivity and sensing ability.
Regarding adventures for seekers. Try to avoid creating the dull and over used BBEG scenario, particularly one where the Referee makes sure to give the Seeker powers that guarantee a wipe out for the BBEG in the final show down. Focus on creating possibility, but leave the solutions to the problems you create up to the players, or even allow for mission failure. The most important aspect of entering and exploring The Realms is that the in game immersive experience should be paramount and whether or not the players succeed should be irrelevant!
If you do create an adventure either to an area near a rift, or even into the realms, make sure to get weird. Things will not be normal here. Gravity may not work. Your vision may be distorted as if seeing through a prism. Adventures to realms should not in any way feel normal. Try to day dream when creating an adventure, or even take something from an actual dream you’ve had where reality is beyond real. How close can you get to making your players enter this dream reality?
In a sense, the inclusion of the Seeker Class into your adventures is also a challenge to you as a Referee. It will be up to you to produce a game experience that goes beyond anything you’ve ever created before in your fantasy campaign.
Please, let me know how this class works for you. Tell me of the changes and additions you try. And also tell me about the adventures you’ve created.
As always, you can still watch Secrets of Blackoor on Vimeo.
If you rent or buy on Vimeo, most of the fee goes directly to The Fellowship of the Thing.
Yet, if dealing with signing up for a new service is too much trouble, the film is again available on Amazon.
Regardless of where you choose to watch, please take the time to leave a review.
Thanks, Chris and Griff
Not long ago we received a letter from Ken Fletcher along with a scan of an old convention poster.
Our passion is the preservation of first hand accounts of the early days of RPG with as little alteration as possible. Ken's reflections on the old days of SF fandom, as well as the initial stages of Role Playing games, are invaluable to all of us who are studying the Twin Cities gamers and related social groups.
Ken's email to us about this artifact should be shared for other historians to copy and save along with the image. Ken has been very kind and given us permission to do so.
The poster now resides in our archive and we have tagged it with our website. Feel free to use this image, or excerpts of it, yet, please respect our web tag when doing so. Too many images are now on the web without any patrimony making them nearly useless to serious researchers.
Chris & Griff --
We are still working away on various projects.
Today we are going to be picking up the redone Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg books, which should make those of you who have waited much too long for these very excited.
We are also about to launch our first war game KickStarter of an old-stock game from the '70s.
The image above is a teaser of what you can expect to find on the KickStarter.
Well, once again I am on a tear over RPGs.
I was looking at posts about OSR gaming on Reddit and I came across the post in the above image. At first I left a snarky comment about replacing the word individual with narcissistic.
Then I came back and realized there was a linked blog post:
I must say I I found this comment on the blog to be very compelling:
"It is not about humans exploring a strange world anymore - it is about a group of strange people exploring, well... themselves? Or, most likely, they are exploring a world that has more internal coherence than the party. [For example, when playing Curse of Strahd, I've noticed that the PCs were some of the strangest beings around; the rest of the setting is what you'd expected from a "gothic horror valley"."
Something about that comment hit a nerve. I have been calling D&D 5e, The Narcissistic RPG for some time. Yet, I could not fully formulate my reasoning for feeling this way; it was just a gut feeling.
More and more I am becoming not just mildly adverse to D&D 5e, but truly critical of the entire product line. It has to do with the how and why of the design.
When D&D was first released, what us consumers purchased was a tool kit. Even if one only ever owned the three little books, that was enough to launch into years of creative play. Then they added the supplements and we got more stuff, but it was still a tool kit. You got your rules and you built your world. It was very individualistic. Each DM created their own game experience. The players worked as a team to solve problems.
A good example of the differences between early D&D and 5e can be seen if one compares the Holmes Basic D&D set with the 5e Starter Set. Holmes is clear and concise. Holmes is complete. It has everything you need to play your characters up to level 3. It also includes extensive info on creating your own dungeon. And of course, it has the classic Zenopus dungeon which was what I used for my very first DM experience. The 5e starter set is not only incomplete, I find reading the rulebook somewhat difficult. The prose is impenetrable to me. It does not follow any kind of reasonable order. You must buy more pre-made product to play. It's a beanie baby - collect them all!
Both versions are a product. Yet, the essence of the game has been subsumed by far darker motivations in D&D 5e. I feel it is so heavily slanted toward being an addictive product, that the designers have actually broken the game.
I doubt my little blog post is going to change the game industry, yet I do feel that those who still play their older editions are doing so out of an unconscious desire to keep their game true to it's original intent.
The original intent is simple. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson wanted to make a cool game that is fun to play, and possibly make some cash while doing so. The entire RPG industry evolved organically without huge market pressure in the early years.
I've blogged a lot about Traditional, or Retro RPG, you can read my older articles to find out more on that. Yet I believe 5e is something as sinister as social media. We don't really know all of its implications. Many who play 5e are not even aware that they are being manipulated by a large company with fairly opaque and questionable motives, especially younger players.
Please read the blog post I was responding to before reading my rant about 5e.
Well gee. When I first ran across this I seem to have missed the little link below the title. I was in speed snark mode and left a sarcastic comment.
To be fair, Shadow of the Demon Lord is a new system, so really what we are examining is 5e compared to just about every other RPG game ever designed.
I can't play 5e because the mechanisms for in-game player experience are too transparent to me. 5e is the Happy Meal of RPGs. Everyone gets a prize!
I call 5e the Player Narcissism RPG. Players get together and everyone is special and everyone is rewarded for participation. In fact, everyone is rewarded - always.
We are together playing, but really, everything is about me. But, I have learned to wait my turn about me and can share the about me with others. As you mentioned, the party concept is getting weaker and weaker, and that is just one component that is growing weaker.
RPGs can be a tool for learning life skills and lessons in a safe way, if... (this is the key aspect here) ...if actions in the game also have good and bad consequences. Ideally players learn to play better through their experiences, and can carry this practice play experience into their real life experience.
There is a ton of research on the 'Gold Star for Showing Up' generation that indicates they are conditioned to fear conflict and shy away from displaying individual will. Present them with a decision point and many will not even take an action out of fear of doing the wrong thing. They simply back away from adversity. Don't get angry at me for talking about this either, because I am not the one doing the science on this subject.
How 5e is designed indicates that it was heavily influenced by the computer game industry. Old computer games, I'm talking 70's to 80's, were hard. Interfaces were complex and there were no level saves. Die and you go back to step one. It required a bit of grit and tenacity to play the old games because addiction rewards were not intentionally built into the designs to the extent they are today. Many consumers did not have that strength of will to keep at it and thus it was harder to sell a lot of product. Well, over time, and as the cash flowed in, so did the research on how to make a game more rewarding for users.
5e is designed on the premise that what garners the most consumers is the most important aspect of the design. Good game design has nothing to do with it. It's all about tickling the consumer's happy feels while playing the game. It uses addiction reward methods to hand out feels so players keep coming back. Ever wonder why there are so many new splat books like, Tasha's Cauldron of Addiction? And of course, the last thing you want is for anyone to die in a game. Even the term Campaign has no meaning anymore. Now, Campaign means, completing the store bought module/world book. Everyone reaches level 20 together so that everyone can feel their ME being stroked as a group without having to feel guilty because someone else did not reach level 20.
Yup, group think is part of the design too. One needs to balance individual disappointment of being less than everyone else, with being the one who does so well they are no longer part of the group. Again, there are strange social behaviors being catered to here. No one wants to be out there on their own, either as the loser or the one who wins too much.
So while it is tempting to be nice and say things like, play what and how you want, the underlying mechanisms for how 5e is designed are no safer to consumers than many of the addictive elements one finds online with social media. Those gamers who only play 5e and never played anything else are literally incapable of enjoying a game that requires individual will to work as a group and overcome problems. They are there for the feedback loop in their pleasure receptors.
Unrelated perhaps, but consider that your RPG could be like Oreo cookies for rats:
The primary reason for this disturbing trend is that the driving force behind a large corporation is dollar signs. Things have changed from when the hobby was a cottage industry driven by game designers trying to make a fun game for their friends to play. What I call, gamers making games for gamers. This is no slam on capitalism, it has its place. But when your personal recreation time is now being designed as a product in the same manner as FB or Twitter, the end result is full of many very disturbing elements.
The consumer is being manipulated. The design is there to increase buy-in. And one can see it in how 5e players often are complete fanboy/girl fantasists. They do not cheer finding the solution to a problem, they cheer having their happy feels tickled. They aren't really gamers at all, they are consumers who have been convinced that Chevy is better than Ford and they are willing to die on their ampersand.
I personally feel that the design team that created 5e are soul-less corporate robots that have taken Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson's really inventive and beautiful concept and broken it in order to increase stock holder returns.
5e is D&D in trade name only. Wizards of the Coast thank you for your inability to control your addiction impulses.
Maybe I am a bit extreme in my analysis. I expect I will get the usual firestorm of criticism for my comments. I am in my house peering through my closed curtains and being watchful for WOTC ninjas as I write this. ;)
Some shots from Denver Book Binders of The Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg.
This year is special.
It has been 50 years since Dave Arneson created what is the first Fantasy Role Playing milieu and effectively the first D&D campaign.
You don't believe me? Read what Gary Gygax says about Arneson in the forward of the Blackmoor D&D supplement II.
We should be hollering about it all over the web and celebrating. And yet, there is a pervasive silence about this singular moment in time all over the web.
I personally have reached a point of burn out on the subject. I am going on a decade of concentrating on researching the subject of Role Playing. Chris and I released our Feature Documentary Film on the subject. There seems to be little interest in our movie project within the RPG community at large.
Many have asked about the sequel movie. I personally have mixed feelings on it. I would love to do one. We have tons of footage that is worth seeing and we want to interview more people as well. Yet, our company is in the hole from making the first film. To top it off, Amazon has removed all independent films from their site. Our sales went from reasonable traffic and sales on Amazon, to about 1 sale per day on Vimeo. We have decided to turn our energy toward game design, production, and distribution, instead.
Keep your eyes open for an upcoming War Game KickStarter.
It's been a year of dealing with Covid-19. It was really damaging to all of our planned projects. We've been set back a year on everything. The second movie was put on ice during this time since we could not shoot interviews, and even our Tonisborg Dungeon book got delayed.
When we call our friends in the Twin Cities they seem to be feeling it as well. The other day I spoke with David Megarry, and he had bad news for me about his chess playing partner, Edward Conway; a man I had hoped to meet and perhaps even play a casual game of chess with myself. Sadly, he succumbed to Covid - 19 last September.
You can see Ed playing chess with David in Secrets of Blackmoor. We feel honored to have captured him on video and preserved his joy for chess in the movie.
Please take a moment to reflect on a fellow gamer wherever he may be now.
Yes, the malaise is upon us. I have had little energy for blogging, or much of anything else. It can bring the worse out of people too. I want you to take a minute for yourself. Don't think - just do. Step away from the computer. Go for a walk. Step outside your front door and breath deeply until you can feel a change within yourself. Grab your phone and reach out to someone you haven't spoken to in a while. Get lost in the moment.
Despite my own slump, I was checking Reddit today. A gamer asked me some simple questions about using chainmail with D&D. Before I knew it I was SPARKED!
Yes! Yes, I love talking about RPGs and D&D and War Games. I began to explain my ideas. Before long I was on a bit of a rant. The rant became a volcanic spew of stream of consciousness babble. I likely spewed more than the person I was speaking to expected in our discussion. Before long I was lost to the moment.
My advice to all of you is simple: GET LOST!
Pssst: get lost in the moment.
What follows is an out of context rant about RPGs. I haven't really bothered to check for grammar and typos. I mostly need to update the blog which I have allowed to lay fallow for a bit.
Cutting fabric samples, I haven't had a haircut since before Covid began.
I really wish we had any concrete evidence of how Arneson ran his Blackmoor fighting mechanics. There may be something out there, but it is in some collectors cache thus hidden from researchers.
I will be honest, my knowledge is a bit limited to what documents we can find, which is very little. In the published First Fantasy Campaign, as well as some interviews, there is mention of the great Svenni fighting 50 orcs at once. Or, even targeting Svenni with fire balls because the orcs hated him and would surround him, thus it would hurt Svenni and kill all the low level orcs.
Design wise, what Arneson says and what Gygax says, leads me to think that they were somewhat at odds on design ideas. Arneson was designing past CM and creating lots of new systems, along with design ideas from players in his group. So his concepts exceed what one sees in OD&D. Gygax was fixated on CM and wanted the new game to reflect the CM influence, thus as editor, he was tossing CM based concepts back into the rules.
In retrospect, I think Gygax was wise to prune things and make D&D easier for most gamers to understand.
Dan Boggs uncovered the Snider Variation, a set of what looks like Pre-D&D rules. It is 6 pages of rules. It states that some of it is divergent from Arneson's house rules. That set of rules specifically states that there are two combat systems, one is for massed combat, the other for 1 to 1 combat. It states that anyone can be trained to use magic, it costs time and money. It has rules on how to generate wizard characters. It lists four levels of spells. It mentions life force, if I recall correctly, It mentions magic resistance. It lists colored dragons, which is a mixture of what Gygax produced in a fanzine around that time, but had no rules. It has spell points. you name it, and these simple rules contain it. and the ideas never make it to D&D. I was fascinated by the door opening mechanic, which bases door opening ability on character level. Concepts of gaining ability in non combat actions do not appear in D&D. The Snider Variant does have some minor CM influence, but also indicates a divergence from CM.
My personal focus is more with what happened before Gygax even knows what an FRP is, and within Arneson's group. I am told that they had CM, but they had their own system. I am inclined to believe this because of the Arneson Medieval Battle Notes which are likely from early 1970. This predates the CM rules being published. If Arneson had his own Medieval Rules then they were likely a hand written variant of the Strategos - A (ancients) variant he designed with Randy Hoffa which still exists. The A variant contains hit points as well. (Michael Wittig wrote a paper on this.)
Most D&D research runs afoul of the Gygax ad speak, mostly in the Dragon and after Arneson is ousted. Where Gygax tries to load up the argument that D&D comes from Chainmail. Even comparisons between the Chainmail Man to Man combat table and the Alternate Combat system in D&D run afoul of flawed conclusions. People look at the labels, which are irrelevant and easily altered, but do not look at the contents of the chart itself. Thus the combat system is attributed to Gygax based on a letter he wrote, yet the design smacks of Arneson. Arneson himself claims he created it. He states this often in many publications.
If you look at a lot of the design work coming out of Arneson's house group, and you have to carry over its lineage as being Wesely's house group; then you get a clear indication that their most prominent source is always Strategos by Totten. Wesely's reduced variant on Totten's morale system only has 5 states of order/disorder for troops. Arneson employs Wesely's Strategos system for use in Don't Give Up The Ship.
Rob kuntz says he reviewed Arneson's notes for Blackmoor that were sent to Gygax at the beginning of the Arneson + Gygax collaboration. He describes a design made up of linear equations and without charts. For me, that too smacks of the Twin Cites influence coming from Totten.
Perhaps the greatest difference in approach between myself and other researchers, is a chicken and egg perspective mixed with relational properties that come from anthropology.
I asked simple questions.
People often communicate to me about some source that reveals role playing earlier than the Twin Cities group. Yet, the missing element is the existence of a lineage of games. For example, recently I was shown a medieval Play Acting RPG source. This medieval game is interesting, but it literally dies out. Some people cite the Bronte sisters and their make believe yet we do not have a Bronte game that people play.
My issue with every instance of RPG discovery is fairly simple. I treat RPGs like a living organism. I want to know how it evolves and gathers different variants and traits over time. What gets handed down to whom? What are the genetics of these games? I ask, how is this connected to the greater body of work, or, is a particular instance merely a dead end organism?
Well, I doubt you expected this kind of response. Sorry if it is a bit long. I may be citing some obscure items as well.
I suppose my point is, if you want to simulate what D&D was as an early design, there are a lot of options. And perhaps what is most important are the results you are looking for. Thus what rules you decide to use is really up to you, because in the early stages there are a lot of rules and even methods being attempted.
<End of rant on RPGs>
As I mentioned up top, we're struggling to get the word out about Secrets of Blackmoor. We can't do it without your help. If you've seen the film and value your viewing experience; please send this link to a friend, or post it to your social media feed.
If you have not seen the film, do yourself and us a favor and click the link.
Ok, get out there and Get Lost!
Today is an important day for Role Players. Yet, after searching my news feed it also seems to be yet another secret history day. No one in the news media has bothered to do an article. Most gamers are just plain unaware of how significant today is, because Gary Gygax's and Dave Arneson's names are no longer on the game book covers.
Without that connection between the names and the game, the two creators of D&D are fading into obscurity despite all they have done for the hobby.
Today we really need to talk about Dave Arneson and his role in the invention of RPGs.
Allow me to explain.
The Blackmoor Bunch (1971) photo by Dave Arneson
50 years ago today, a group of gamers gathered in the basement of the Arneson home in St.Paul, Minnesota.
They were there for the monthly meeting of their war game club, the Midwest Military Simulation Association. For the gamers who played with Dave Arneson, this night would be similar to every other game night. No one could have known that this would be the beginning of Fantasy Gaming as a hobby industry worth billions of dollars.
It is easy to romanticize an event such as Arneson’s first foray as a fantasy game master. To the Blackmoor Bunch it was just another Braunstein role playing game which was already a very familiar play style to them.
They had also been given some idea that this game would be different from the historical wargaming they had been doing due to a tiny announcement in the previous issue of their fanzine, The Corner of the Table Top.
Excerpts of early Blackmoor notices from Corner of the Table Top (1971)
The announcement was an invitation to try something that did not even have a name and is best described as fantasy wargaming. But the methods being used would go far beyond a standard war game. It’s also likely the game set up on the table wasn’t much different than what it looked like every weekend that they gathered to play miniature war games. Dave Arneson’s ping pong table would have been covered with brown butcher paper that was marked with rivers and other important landmarks. Small HO scale buildings would be used where needed; we can only assume there was a plastic bridge placed somewhere on the table.
Little is remembered about this first Blackmoor game. While making our film we were careful to not mention details or names of events during the interviews. We did not want to poison our subject’s responses by loading questions with information. Thus our inquiry of early Blackmoor was vague. We would ask: Can you remember your first game session in Blackmoor?
Only one gamer from the Blackmoor Bunch can remember the card game under a troll bridge.
Blackmoor's dragon, Gertie. Hand made sculpture by Dave Arneson. (c.1971)
Bob Meyer describes the game as being frustrating because he had no references as to how strong he was in comparison with a troll. He then proceeded to attack a troll single handedly and got killed with one die roll because there weren’t any rules for hit points to give him a small chance of survival.
Perhaps most significant about this game is that Bob Meyer is the very first person to die in a Fantasy Role Playing Game. Yes, older gamers brag about how their characters died while fighting bravely against poor odds. Bob even says that he was so disappointed in the game that he refused to play Blackmoor for some time after. The excitement over Blackmoor from the other players would lure Bob back to Arneson’s imaginary Blackmoor world. He would end up becoming the first player in an RPG to reach 20th level as Blackmoor’s most powerful Wizard, Robert the Bald.
This is literally all that we know about this most significant of game events. We know what day it was scheduled and we know that Bob died.
Things will ramp up quickly in Arneson's games.
While doing research for Secrets of Blackmoor we found this little slip of paper. This alone is a huge discovery. Then D.H. Boggs made the astounding connection that at the April 22nd game session, Dan Nicholson was handed this very same piece of paper listing the Spanish Royal Family in a napoleonic era campaign. We can see that Arneson is already beginning to do something seen in every RPG today, as these personas all have character attributes.
The Spanish Royals Character Matrix. 1st example of Arneson's use of Character Attributes. (1971)
Almost every invention begins with tiny almost imperceptible little steps. Yet, to diminish or undermine the importance of this one experimental home brewed game that Arneson put together for his friends, is to misunderstand the significance of both Arneson’s inventiveness and his invention. Encouraged by his friends, Arneson would keep working on Blackmoor. He would invent new stories, and try different rules, as he sought to refine his adventure games.
His friends loved Blackmoor and the world setting became a collaborative creation with some players helping out by being some of the bad guys.
Eventually Arneson joined forces with Gary Gygax and his group of gamers in Lake Geneva Wisconsin. In 1974 a little boxed game called Dungeons & Dragons was published for the very first time. It would capture the imagination of a generation becoming a world wide phenomenon.
Original Dungeons & Dragons boxed sets. Early wood grain and later white box.
It is the way of all products. What begins as experiments in basements and garages, then becomes a corporate commodity. Arneson’s creation is different. It is best described as the Adventure Game. It doesn’t exist within any of the rules and it does not exist in descriptions of places, people, and creatures.
The only place one can find how the game is played is within the example of play that is included with every role playing game since Dungeons & Dragons.
In fact, after D&D is published anyone who understands how to play a role playing game can make their own adventure and even publish their own version of Arneson’s adventure game. Thus a year later, Tunnels and Trolls is published, and not long after, an entire genre of games is born.
This is the most important element one should consider as we celebrate 50 years of Blackmoor. All you need to play are the game methods created by a bunch of kids in Minnesota and your own imagination.
The Blackmoor world setting is still being explored to this day, It is the very first Fantasy RPG Campaign ever created and will be with us forever.
More reflections on Blackmoor's genesis can be found here on D. H. Bogg's, Hidden in Shadows blog:
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Secrets of Blackmoor is a Feature-length documentary about the birth of the “Mother of all Games;” Dungeons & Dragons.