Well, it’s a been a while.
Was just peering at some spurious content about the need for Chainmail to understand original D&D, along with comments about a letter Arneson wrote to WOTC being another reason that it would be impossible for Arneson to be the inventor of RPGs.
Old arguments I've been debating for years and it is all so tiresome.
I had to go delete my online arguing and let people think what they want - I have more important things to do right now like writing this blog post!
Here is what I think:
No, all this reverse engineering on historical fact is just wrong. Almost no one had Chainmail as a supplementary rule set in order to understand D&D back then.
Arneson invented the methods that all RPGs use for verbal play. He is the one who took the game completely off the map. Too much evidence supports this statement. We’re working on a new book, The Blackmoor Gazetteer. We will be publishing some never seen maps and writings which reveal to an even greater extent what Arneson was doing before he even shared his invention with Gygax.
And this is not to say Gygax didn't do anything at all as co-author and editor for D&D. Without the combined efforts of both Arneson and Gygax, and also Don Kaye, we wouldn’t be playing RPGs today.
You may want to get on our mailing list via the link on this website so you can get the announcement for The Blackmoor Gazetteer as well as Arnecon 2.
What did happen in ye olden times is that every referee would create their own systems for how to better run a game.
There are many techniques that older game referees develop for running games. I often overlook how useful some of my own techniques could be for newer referees. I had been considering adding a section onto Spiral Keep in order to help players run that dungeon in a truly immersive manner. Perhaps it’s worth throwing it out there now since it will be a few more months before Spiral Keep gets published.
So let’s talk about Combat Diagrams as well as Push Back.
We may need to talk about player organization too.
First off, the Referee is responsible for tracking only their own side of a situation. An experienced gamer group will have a Party Leader who takes on the role of managing the party and their characters.
The Party Leader should be an easy going and not controlling person because they are the group manager, but not the group dictator.
Old School, which is really also New School because Arneson's game is designed to keep re-inventing itself, is all about Team Play. The players need each other and also need to work together as a cohesive unit.
Players who are into Me Play will sabotage an adventure and risk harming the entire party - I've seen it happen many times.
Party Movement Order
The first thing a Party Leader does on game night is to announce something like so, “We need a party movement order. We’ll advance two by two, but if we get into a combat situation one of the second rank armored PCs can step up to form a three fighter wall.”
Players all work together to determine where in the party movement order everyone is located. This is the best thing to do because an evil DM who is not shown a written party movement order will begin to roll dice and determine randomly who is up front and who is in back when something bad happens to the party.
Every Player Character should have an ID number. Thus when making a party movement order sheet. The Leader can write down numbers rather than whole names. In my games I run big parties. Players have up to three PCs they control along with several NPCs they control.
Which brings up this question:
Is it possible to run an adventure for a group of players, who are running a total of 12 PCs + 12 NPCs = 24 characters, deep into a dungeon?
Yes, it's easy if you follow my advice here - just keep reading.
It also helps me as referee if they use number ID because sometimes I may simply roll to see who is being affected by a random event, and they can be anywhere in the party.
As the party moves through an adventure the referee can address the Party Leader as to what the group is doing. Yet, before that the Party Leader asks the party members for consensus.
PL - “What do you think we should do?”
Players - “It’s probably best if we take the left hand turn and keep going left, thus even if we lose our map we can easily find our way back out.”
PL - “That is a very sensible idea, does everyone agree?”
Then the Party Leader tells the DM, “We take the left hand passage and slowly advance. The thief is out front scouting and checking for traps. He has a rope tied to his waist so that if he triggers a trap door, he won’t fall to the bottom of a spiked pit. Fighters in the front are holding the end of the rope with just a little slack. At any sign of danger the thief will pull back behind the front rank.”
Do you see what is happening?
The Party Leader is establishing a standard operating procedure.
An experienced Party Leader enhances the game for everyone by helping to move the game along without too much non game chatter.
The Party Leader will also help the referee by saying things to other players such as, “Don’t forget to mark off the torch you just used...”
A good party Leader never tells other players what to do either. They merely help keep the group organized and focused on the task at hand.
Party Leader - “Ok, the party will enter the room advancing cautiously. Once we’re all in the door, since Rosa's elf is at the back, can she hold the door ajar and keep her eyes on the passage we came out of in case something comes wandering by?”
Rosa - "Yup, I got it. I am standing with sword drawn and keeping watch.”
Or, if combat is taking place.
Party Leader - “Ok, Chris's fighter is badly damaged, who can move to the front rank allowing him to withdraw from combat?”
The Leader suggests actions and also requests actions from players that are needed for the party members to survive.
This kind of play turns a party of adventurers into a smoothly operating military unit, which is what is most needed during a dungeon dive.
We may be playing medieval fantasy, but this is also a war game and running the team like a highly trained squad of WWII commandos leads to better play IMHO.
Now that we’ve reviewed organized party play we can move into the next part of this discussion.
The party has done me a favor as referee and they have created their movement order, which is really a party combat diagram which they will manage for me.
Now for my own combat diagram.
When a combat occurs I write down the critical components for the combat, Creature, Armor Class, and Hit Dice, on a piece of scratch paper.
Then I roll my hit dice and note what each creature's hit points are.
This is where I begin to use my combat diagram. Depending on the size and number of the creatures encountered I will write down hit points in rows. Standard old school combat is three critters a row if the combat occurs in a hallway or door.
Let’s side track briefly: Tactics in an immersive game played without minis.
I’d like to note that Dan Boggs put a little detail in his Champions of ZED rules stating that creatures attacking through a doorway can only do so two at a time vs. the defending side, which can have three characters attacking those coming through a door.
We also mentioned tactical play in another section of Tonisborg. Due to the stairwells being very narrow, if a party makes a tactical retreat up a stairwell and then surrounds the opening at the top, the monsters will be at a disadvantage if they try to attack up a stairwell. Only one, or two can attack out of the stair, while the party can place up to six people around the top.
Optional Rule: In OD&D it is not unreasonable for attackers on a lower level fighting up hill to receive a -2 on attack rolls and for those attacking down hill to be granted a +2.
This is very common in nearly every war game I’ve played.
These ideas are worth noting if you want to give players the option to exploit terrain advantages when in a dungeon.
I have my monster hit points diagrammed and now I can begin the combat. Assuming I am past the rolls for surprise and options taken to close range, or increase range by running away, all the rest just falls into place.
Player A attacks the monster on the right hand of my diagram. Player B hits the one in the middle. Player C hits the one on the left.
As monsters take damage I add hash marks. When they are dead I cross them out.
This creates a diagram that is sort of like a game of Tetris. Although a monster in the second rank has their hit points written below those in the first rank, if a first ranker gets killed the second ranker is considered to now be in the first rank on the next combat round.
Combat proceeds in a very simple fashion. Everyone does their attacks for a round and I note who is hurt and who is killed.
Wash Rinse Spin - Combat is now very easy to manage as a non miniatures battle. We roll for hits and do damage. The players decide if they want to keep fighting, shift fresh combatants into the front rank, risk shooting arrows from the second rank, and monsters get their end of combat round morale check.
Well, sometimes things get ‘Dicey.’
Let’s assume the players are in a larger space and they are at risk of flanking attacks.
Since I run my game without initiative except in the case of surprise, all actions happen at once. I also use my own rules for break through/ slashing damage where a good damage roll which exceeds a monsters hits will carry into the next critter. This slashing damage also works for monster attacks - Combat is deadly in my games.
Back to the Fight!
The combat begins as a three on three regardless of location in most instances. What if the critters or the players want to begin a flanking operation and spread out to the sides?
Well, the combat diagram allows me to do that. As referee I will say, “the orcs from the second rank move out to the sides to engage more of the party members.”
At this point I begin to use arrows to mark where the second rankers are going and now it is up to the party to assign the task of who will be engaging these flankers by drawing arrows on their own diagram.
As the referee I have a lot of information to track. By trusting my players to play fair, they can take care of party details for me.
I hope everything is fairly self explanatory up to this point.
Exploiting Tactical Advantages
Since I mentioned tactical play within an immersive game, there are times when a tactical attacking defense can withdraw, or a tactical push back and advance can be achieved.
At any point either the players, or the vermin, can pull back while conducting attacks. We are assuming the other side is willing to press the attack. Maybe they just let the other party withdraw for some reason?
Every combat round the front line of combat can shift by roughly 10 feet.
A withdrawal can always be achieved, but as in the case of fighting from a bad tactical situation such as being the attacker in a doorway, it may be possible to gain a push back and enter the room with the enemy thus bringing more forces to bear on the situation.
My rule is simple and goes like so:
The side which gets more hits in a single round may force the other side back by 10 feet. Thus players in a doorway can force their way through and try to break the enemy line.
Sometimes I will even go into more detail and the player who kills his opponent can step forward one rank. This creates a chaotic combat with the lines getting broken up and a bit blurry, but it sure makes things feel more realistic.
If a single monster is coming through a door, I simply use the most rational explanation and judge things right in the moment. Yes, that Balrog is huge - it can press forward vs. several human sized PCs at will and is likely to do so.
I hope these ideas help you manage your game sessions more effectively. If you teach your players to use a Party Leader along with some of the other tools I described it will really make the game more collaborative between referee and players. Ideally, we want to be playing with everyone at the table even when as referee, we’re doing our best to keep the game in the realm of high stakes action where death stalks the dungeon freely.
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