Image from the upcoming Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg book
I wrote this last night before I went to bed. Then I thought maybe I am being too negative and sat on it a bit. Well, here goes anyway.
Since coming back to gaming I see something odd within the RPG gamer community.
People don't seem to trust their referee's, or DM's.
People are very critical of their referee's. They complain that their ref's aren't fair, or aren't creating the world setting they wanted.
There seems to be an attitude that the game can exist without a referee, or that the referee is merely there to be like an entertainment computer that runs the modules for them.
Another thing I find strange, despite all this demand for a certain type of referee, many will not be the referee despite making these demands. This is odd, how can you even know what a referee does and is worthy of criticism over if you've only been a player? I suppose it is easy to pass judgement if you've never done it.
There will be extremes, people who do not yet know how to DM well, or occasional bad calls, and yet RPG's exist because the referee concept was created. Being the DM is not something where you can say aloud: I am a great DM now. It is a life long journey and most of us are always looking to pick up new and old tricks from other ref's. Most of all, if your referee leaves - the game is over.
When I began playing many of our players had campaigns using different systems. I ran D&D. Elmore ran our T&T games and Traveller. Chad ran some Traveller too. Tracy ran TFT. We'd take turns and help each other be better by adding ideas to our group. Over time we all got better together. I doubt any of us were perfect, but we had fun.
I think those who DM are special. Sorry, it's just my feeling about it. They invest time and effort and also try to create something new through their games. I find it hard not to take it personally if someone attacks me for how I run my game.
Our games are like living books or plays. No one ever says: Gee, that Tolkien, the book was awesome except for that one thing, he should really rewrite it the way I want it.
Our referee's, or DM's, are the keepers of secrets and that only works if we trust and respect them.
Be kind to your referee's, they are in the hot seat and most likely they are doing the best they can because no one else will.
Feel free to discuss.
Also, check out this thoughtful Blog Post dealing with the very same issue:
e I went to bed. Then I thought maybe I am being to negative and sat on
Traditional Role Playing
Until you've played in the traditional way, your're playing RPG's as glorified war games. By this I mean that many people play RPG's like a board game or even a paper video game.
We've all seen the massive game set ups with miniatures depicting what is going on in the game. People enjoy knowing what is where and why, yet this tendency to depict the fantastical with the mundane detracts from the experience of an RPG.
As David Wesely creator of Braunstein stated in a recent online discussion about newer editions of D&D:
David understands these games very well, since he can claim to have invented them. And he is saying something important as it is the Free Kriegspiel aspects of RPG's that make them what they are. That in fact, it is the unknown that sparks the imagination thus creating a fantastical and enchanting game experience no matter what setting you choose to depict.
RPG's are a performed story that are designed to facilitate possibility. The less that players know about what the rules are the greater their investment in the experience. Thus detailed and complex rules which codify every action a player can choose and which players can purchase and learn reduce the scope of immersion.
My gamer group is a mix of experienced hands and novices. Some of them have never read the rules, they just play their characters as themselves and make reasonable decisions based on what they've learned by playing. That is the beauty of Original Dungeons & Dragons, a person could sit down and be guided through character creation in about 15 minutes and quickly enter an imaginary world.
I won't be the first to espouse this back to the origins attitude. Yet, I feel I can describe a game session I ran that will reveal the utility of no miniatures and hardly any rules.
Image from Cave Evil board game
I really like to use horror themes in my medieval fantasy game to scare the pants off my players. Horror movies have a basic structure that involves building tension. At first the evil thing is not understood and has no form which allows the viewer to imagine all kinds of things about it and scare themselves in the process. As the story progresses it manifests a clearer more substantial form and also becomes larger. A good example of this is the movie Jaws. In beginning scenes we don't see the shark and it seems to have supernatural and unknown power. By the end of the film it's just a dumb giant chomping water monster. Once it has a form it can be killed.
I decided to create a supernatural creature for my game. Imagine a creature that is made up of many tiny parts like a bee colony. What it needs to survive, or feeds on, is the mental energy produced by people who are experiencing feelings of terror. What is more, it has the ability to gather its tiny components together to manifest as any kind of nightmare creature it desires.
I will likely create some outrage by telling you that I have not even created stats for this collective being. I will just give it a name and decide how it affects the players. I call it a Tingle.
Bob Meyer's notebook during the annual Blackmoor game
A Special Monster Encounter the Tingle
Tingles live in remote barren places both underground and in the wilds. They hide underground during the day taking the forms of beetles and centipedes. They prey upon the humanoid races. They are known to kidnap victims and keep them in underground lairs for extended periods while also exposing the victim to unimaginable nightmare experiences that eventually cause their victims to lose their minds and even become weak and perish.
Sometimes they will release a victim and track him/her in the hopes that it will lead them to new prey. Other times they will even pose as a victim to lure players.
The Primary Motive for a Tingle is to frighten the puny humans. They aren't actually out to kill anyone even if it can happen during an encounter. Of course, players will know nothing of this.
As I said before a Tingle has no stats. The only thing they do is elicit fear through creating terrifying events for their victims. And the only way to explain how to run an encounter with a Tingle is by a demonstration of their powers of manipulation.
And these powers are extremely flexible, being entirely at the whim of the referee.
Some of you may be thinking, Griff's a cheating DM -- I am!
Consider that I know my system and can fake any encounter and my players will never know, that is also the mystique of being a referee.
The To Hit charts from OD&D Volume 1, Men and Magic
A Cheated Game Session
This is what I recall of the first game session where I used a Tingle against my players. Most of this was impromptu and very much ad hoc during the session.
My players were wandering through the wilderness. As night fall came they set up a camp, built a fire, and decided who would take what watch in pairs to avoid being surprised by wandering monsters.
The referee grabs a piece of scratch paper and makes the players mark where they sleep in relation to the fire.
Rule 1: Tingles always have surprise - they have rudimentary psychic powers.
Then the referee begins with:
All of you have settled in for the night. You've just eaten your dinner. Clouds have moved in to obscure the moon. A misty rain has begun to fall. I need everyone to give me roll on a d20.
Who rolled equal, or under their intelligence score? ok, make a little check mark next to your intelligence score.
Those of you who have succeeded in making the roll are now aware of a strange sensation. It's as if something is tickling the back of your mind. It's a tingling sensation in your brain.
It comes and goes and then fades out.
At this point those who understand the mechanics in the game will be aware that those with higher intelligence are being singled out for something and it's probably not a good thing either.
Image from Cave Evil board game
The First Watch
Everyone is tucked in to sleep except for those on watch, who are they?
About a half an hour into your watch you hear a voice out in the woods. Someone is screaming in the darkness. It's coming closer.
My players woke up the sleeping party members as they prepared for 'whatever it is' that was coming near.
The sound has stopped and everything is very still. In fact, it's too still, even the wildlife isn't making a sound.
Suddenly a figure appears out of the darkness and runs right into middle of the party next to the fire. He's human. His clothes are torn up and shredded to rags. He has scratches all over him. Most of all, he has a wild crazy look to his eyes.
He turns toward all of you: They're following me!
The referee pauses so players can ask a question, but the crazy man will ignore them and continue speaking.
They eat your mind. Can't you feel it? They get in your head and they eat you from the inside.
The man points to his head.
Ok, I need everyone to make another d20 roll on intelligence. If you've already failed your roll add a +1 to your die roll. Anyone failing a roll mark your character sheet.
Those of you who failed can sense a pronounced tingling in your head. It's a lot like when you have ringing in your ears, but it's in your brain.
The man is peering out into the darkness that surrounds your camp. He points - Over there!
He grabs the wizard by the shoulders: You've got to get them way from the fire.
Run while you can!
The crazy man begins to dissolve right before your eyes. Beginning at the top of his head, he falls apart as his body becomes a mass of beetles, centipedes, and other insects. All that is left is a pile of clothing on the ground that the insects quickly scurry out of as they disperse, many of them burrow right into the moist soil.
Those of you who were experiencing tingling will notice that it has abruptly stopped.
The forest is completely silent and still.
The misty rain keeps falling.
Everything is lit briefly by a lightning strike and a thunder clap.
Note: An NPC can say things to the players that they could not yet know. In this case the NPC is telling them there is something coming that can eat your brain. He's also advising the players to do something very bad, which is to run off into the darkness.
This information along with the actual Tingling in some of the players heads should also inform the players that the stakes have been raised and they are in for a lot of trouble.
Image from Cave Evil board game
The Second Watch
Regardless of what the party has chosen to do things pick up again during the second night watch.
I need everyone to make a roll vs. Intelligence. For every check mark against Intelligence you have to add +1 to your die roll. Try to roll under.
By now any magic users will be fighting against terrible odds and failing rolls because every failed roll means another +1 to the saving throw. If someone rolls a natural 20, they begin to hyperventilate, then panic and start to run into the woods. Other players should be allowed to stop them IF they try. Otherwise, those who run into the woods will be on their own. You can do their encounter solo later on over the phone. Regardless, anyone who failed a roll will feel very uneasy as priests and wizards will have a hard time concentrating while casting spells. Give them a 50% fail chance on spells just for fun.
The one person who rolled a natural 20. You are hyperventilating. As you look at everyone else in the party you can see by the fire light that all of them have bloody skulls for faces. The incessant tingling in your head has risen to a roar and you know the only safe place is somewhere away from here.
Let the players deal with this situation, yet perhaps interrupt them if they go too long. This whole encounter is a psyche job and you want to keep the players uneasy and do not want them to understand what is happening. Interrupting them in the middle of solving a problem helps break their attention and muddle things.
The referee rolls randomly, then points at player and says: You hear something rustling through the undergrowth. One of you notices a pair of eyes reflecting the fire light and then they close. Something just made a little barking sound off to the left, over there.
It seems like there may be some kind of creature, or several creatures, right outside of the ring of fire light. The cloud cover and mist have made the night too dark to see very far beyond this ring of safety.
Demanding details is how a referee makes players unsure. Most players know that details mean the referee may be about to do something to them, so I follow up with my next statement.
I need everyone to mark where they are standing in relation to the fire on this sheet of paper.
It was at this point my players threw everything flammable they could find in camp into the fire to make more light. They were already freaked out. If magic is used to create light, describe some kind of fur covered lanky animal slinking into the darkness, maybe it's big like a wolf but has a rat's tail.
Depending on the size of your party the next stage is designed to create a chaotic situation. And I unnerve the players even more through the use of deflection and flanking.
The Referee rolls a die and points at a player and says: Something that looks like a half rat half wolf comes leaping out of the darkness.
The referee rolls for an attack with the player not being able to counter attack. Giving the Tingle surpise automatically also serves to make the players feel helpless. As the other players naturally gravitate toward the combat their attention has been deflected and the next rat-wolf can appear.
The referee randomly chooses a character on the opposite side of the camp and says: A wolf like creature jumps out of the darkness from behind you knocking you to the ground.
It's up to each referee to decide how tough the rat-wolves are and how many should appear. My personal feeling is that 2-3 is plenty. With OD&D, or AD&D I'd make them maybe 1-2 HD with an AC of 7.
The combat should be played fast, as a referee you should demand quick responses from players about what they do. If someone thinks too hard start counting 5-4-3… If they still can't decide, just skip them and move to the next player.
Narrate the action: The creature lunges out of the darkness and bites your shoulder for 3 points of damage. You are bleeding heavily, what do you do?
Of course there are no bleednig rules in OD&D, but my players never know what I will pull on them; the introduction of the idea that they could bleed out is cause for alarm.
Combat is fast and deadly. The reason for not using miniatures is because moving figures takes time. This is a life or death encounter and not a chess game. I start at my left, and go player by player around the table. I actually put them on the spot by pointing and saying: You, what are you doing?
As each wolf is killed it crumbles and becomes a mass of insects, just as the old man did.
The Third Watch
By now the players know they are in for the long haul. This game is a defense scenario. They are trapped by the darkness and must stay near the fire and the enemy has all the mobility and decision making power.
If this encounter in any way reminds you of the Ring Wraiths stalking the group of hobbits it is because these elements for creating tension come directly from horror literature, which is what Tolkien used in his own books.
Once the players realize that they are not in control of things they begin to worry. This is the entire point of this kind of encounter. You want the players to experience fear of the unknown and you want them to feel out of control and helpless.
It's time to pile on some more Referee Tricks. This is really an ideal time to demand some detailed information and a make the players do a fake die roll.
Details: Where are you standing? What are you holding? Which way are you looking?
Ok, I need everyone to show me where they are sitting and how they are facing on this piece of paper.
Then you go player by player while looking at the diagram: Ok, you are facing this way, roll me a d20 and tell me what you got.
This is a fake roll. Players will anticipate some kind of result. No matter what they roll just look at the map and say: You do not seem to notice anything. Also, is anyone making sure the fire does not burn down?
Now the referee rolls a d6 to choose to what side of the fire the next creature appears from.
Before any of you can realize what is happening the ground next to the fire bursts open and a giant six legged bear comes leaping out attacking the nearest player.
Roll for the bear's attack. Let's make this a little tougher since we only have one, HD: 6 AC: 6.
Before the players can counter attack make them roll vs. Intelligence again. Anyone failing their roll will fail to the ground paralyzed by the Tingling Sensation in their brain. It now feels like something is literally burrowing into their skull and all they can do is roll around on the ground in agony.
The Fourth Watch
Late into the fourth watch the tingling begins anew. Everyone roll vs. Intelligence. If you fail your roll you fall down in agony. The rest of you hear what sounds like thousands of crickets singing in the Darkness. As you peer outward from the fire, you can see great forms rising out of the ground. As they rise up they take on the shape of giant shambling creatures with three arms and four legs and one large eye. They must be about 20 feet tall.
Let your players savor the fact that IT is now really big and dangerous and there are a lot of them. Hopefully they will be tryimg to come up with some kind of plan for dealing with this new level of abuse, and will likely have zero answers for how to get out alive.
This is when you notice a different sound - birds chirping.
You realize daylight is coming as the sky lightens.
The giant figures begin crumble and fall apart.
The Tingles have feasted on our player's fear, and hopefully no one will have died during the night's events. The players who took Mental Damage in the form of tick marks by their intelligence will recover their actual level by the end of the day and all will return to normal. The rules I used for this encounter were completely made up by me, OD&D does not have stat based saving throws, in fact unless there is a combat there are very few die rolls and play proceeds very quickly. As referee, I could make things up on the fly. In fact, I really didn't need rules for this entire event as it was all driven by narrative, but I find that having just a few die rolls with consequences sometimes adds to the tension of a situation.
I think my players really enjoyed this set of encounters with something unexplained. I had fun keeping them on the edge of their seats. Because we played in the traditional style I was free to do what a good referee does, which is: Be An Entertainer.
Nothing I was doing is revolutionary. A lot of people ran encounters like this in the old days. What I do hope is that those of you who are new to RPG's will consider trying one of the older gamers to see exactly how traditional play is a unique immersive experience as the play style is markedly different from newer editions. If it's not your cup of tea that's fine, yet having played in both the modern style and the traditional manner you can now claim to be a well rounded gamer.
Consider getting a PDF of the Holmes Blue Book, Basic Edition, and seeing just how different the rules are too. The book is tiny with only 48 pages, yet it contains an entire RPG!
Yes, I know, I often come off as a real snob about RPG's. It's a combination of being older and also having played with really sophisticated gamers. In order to illustrate why I am a game snob, I once again am climbing onto my High Hobby Horse of Gamer Wisdom to talk about a campaign I took part in beginning around 1978-1979, or so.
A bit of snobbery about AD&D.
By 1979 my group had outgrown D&D. I had all the AD&D books. Yet these newer D&D rules had all the same problems as OD&D. Our group wanted a deeper concept and better rules.
In those days Deep Concept meant one thing - Empire of the Petal Throne.
My good friend Tracy Harms and I both had copies of the game and we agreed that this was the ultimate setting and that we needed to play it. Yet it too is merely an OD&D game system, thus it is limited by the same kludgy mechanics as OD&D and AD&D.
Perhaps a month later Tracy showed up at my house and along with another friend, Curtiss a.k.a. Dirty Curt, we played an RPG set in Tekumel for the first time as we explored the ruins of an ancient palace. For the record, the game we played was incredibly deadly and trashed all of our characters. Curt got a bit brave and got his character killed while I was able to find some loot and escape with my lives.
Tracy had done what most of us did in those days and devised his own rules by using someone else's game. In this case it was The Fantasy Trip: Melee and Wizard. He grafted these two simple pocket sized games onto his own rules for adventuring.
He also began communicating and sharing his ideas with Steve Jackson the author of those games. Thus our group became a kind of play test group.
We played this adapted E.P.T. game in the Tekumel setting for about a year. When the rules for Melee and Wizard as an RPG came out we were somewhat awed to see that Tracy's name was the top credit in the list of play testers. I even underlined his name in my own copy of In the Labyrinth.
With the newly published TFT: ITL rules in hand Tracy moved our campaign to the ITL world setting, a ring world called Cidri.
Yet our campaign became an amalgamation of both E.P.T. and ITL.
The big -What If?- of the new campaign was simple.
What if a group of humans from Tekumel went to Cidri and created an enclave that blended traditional RPG fantasy, some weird science stuff, and Tekumel?
Thus in 1980 our semi by the book E.P.T. campaign ended and the Chasmflow Campaign began.
Tracy now had the freedom to create his own variant on E.P.T. that was just as complex as the original. We players received our own players handbook for the campaign which outlined all the background and political intrigue, a setting map, and a lot of new rules he had devised that do not appear in the published versions of either E.P.T. or ITL.
Many thanks to Tracy for his creation as we finally had the kind of game we really desired.
As citizens in a complex society much of what we did is best described as Spy Work, or even Commando Operations. We would be approached by a mysterious person who was seeking to do something. We were the hired swords, mages, and priests who would perform tasks for our patrons.
Along the way we discovered more of the rich history of this place we now lived in. We also developed an appreciation for the machiavellian complexity of local politics, as we had to pay fee's to cross between the borders of the various protectorates and depending on who we were working for, also had to watch out for agents from other competing factions.
To this day, the Chasmflow campaign has remained in my memory as a paragon in RPG gaming.
When I speak with younger, or new gamers, and they tell me me how until the present day people did not truly Role Play, and that our games were not very well developed back in those early days, I tend to get a bit miffed.
Our forays into Tekumel began just 4-5 years after the 1st publication of D&D (1974). While our rules may have been minimal, our stories were not. Even then we were pushing the envelope on depth of story and complexity of culture that does not exist in off-the-shelf products today.
We did it by drawing on the finest games we could find and also by self publishing our own campaigns for our friends to play in.
It is also a wonder to me that I have managed to save this collection of play notes that Tracy created for all this time, as it has been nearly 40 years since we played this game.
These images are just a selection of pages as I feel this variant belongs to Tracy and it includes several adaptations and variants for use with ITL that are his own inventions.
Yet I felt I could show the lore and the culture as an example of how we played and argue that: no we weren't a bunch of bozos back in the day. We actually may have been playing in a much more refined manner even then.
This is a nice trip back to The Fantasy Trip for me.
These pages were a launching point for at least a year's more gaming, if not longer. The campaign was a long evolution of ideas and rules that must have lasted a total of 4 years.
As the explorers of this fascinating yet dangerous place we worked hard to uncover old lore and secrets. With Tracy as Referee there were no free rolls to gain anything, it all had to be played out and negotiated via our own wits. We literally fought and died for the knowledge we attained.
We also forged a highly team based style of play that was tactical & cooperative. We planned strategy before simply attacking the monsters, which I would say is unlike the typical smash and grab I encounter these days.
Thanks for reading, Griff
Original Greyhawk Map for use in Medieval War Game Campaign
D&D is not a Living World
It's been some time since I began this series. Movie work and level 20 Slacker Class Power on my part has kept me away from continuing this series.
Although I wanted to discuss how Wizards get the the short end of the stick in later iterations of D&D, and how we get there, some essential ideas need to be considered before I continue on with game mechanics.
As always, I like to be a bit provocative. I am just going to say it now:
D&D does not create a living world and is merely a shadow of what Dave Arneson showed is possible.
Original Blackmoor Map Colorized to Show Details
REGURGITATIONS ON EARLY RPG PLAY
What many historians overlook when they examine old documents is that without the actual designer, or players there to contextualize the game it is very easy to misunderstand what any game is for. This is especially problematic when examining ANY game that utilizes RPG play.
Most of us who played D&D early on were primarily playing in dungeons.
Although a world setting Greyhawk was focused more on going into dungeons than anything else. I glean this from what is being reproduced of the old dungeons today. I do not hear of epic military invasions in Greyhawk, perhaps I haven't dug deep enough yet?
Blackmoor War Game Campaign Outline for Players
Blackmoor was different - It was a living world. As such it operated on several scales that were all interwoven. These scales follow war game concepts of Strategic, Tactical, and even smaller tactical Braunstein scale games of one person is playing one person.
It's important to remember that the concept of one person being one person already resides within each of these scales. The strategic game has each player acting as a ruling noble or powerful wizard in charge of their castle and domain. The tactical game has one player acting as a general leading an army into battle. The Braunstein scale game is one player as one person who is free to exist in real time.
The grand scale strategic game was a diplomatic socio economic simulation. Arneson had some players who would play this high level game as leaders of small countries and some were playing the bad guys. Their activities drove the Over Arching Plot Elements in the World of Blackmoor.
Just as in the Lord of the Rings there was a shadowy evil enemy. The Egg of Coot was just north west of Blackmoor across the sea. No one played the Egg of Coot as far as is known. The Egg always acted through lesser creatures that were played by some of the players themselves. It was the scheming by actual players that drove the Plot Events that would result in battles, or the tactical level game.
Thus the tactical battle game was an extension of the strategic game. John Snider describes how his first Blackmoor game was as one of the bad guys attacking the town of Blackmoor, as a minion of the Egg of Coot. These battles came to be known as the Annual Invasions in the campaign and Arneson writes about them in his Blackmoor Rumor Monger and Gazette.
Excerpt from Blackmoor Rumor Monger and Gazette
The Braunstein scale game began as a player vs. player story game within the town of Blackmoor. It is important to understand that Braunstein is different from how D&D is played. David Megarry describes his first Blackmoor town game as being much different in how the game is being referee'd. His personal impression is that it was already using the methods for play one finds in D&D right from the start. He cites the semantic element used by Arneson "What do you want to do?" as defining play for this game.
Over time the players would expand their exploration of this new world to the nearby wilderness areas as well as straight down into the dungeon and even the sewers of Blackmoor which appear in early David Megarry dungeon maps.
Something to Consider: To this day, it's likely that Arneson is the only game designer to use each facet of the RPG methodology in one game world setting.
I have heard of other games that some would claim are RPG's, yet since most historians hoard and hide their sources, I have no reference that would lead me to support what they say about these other games. Without access to complete documents their assertions seem like overly strong claims. None of those games lead to the invention of the Adventure RPG Game as Blackmoor did.
Blackmoor Town Map
D&D AS A PRODUCT
Between 1971 when Blackmoor comes into existence as more than a war game, what I call True Blackmoor, and 1974 when D&D is published, the focus of the game will change.
Yet this change in what will later become a product happened early on within Blackmoor. Arneson's desire, based on his writings, is that his campaign would remain a real world setting. He even made efforts to railroad his players out into the wilderness by banning them to Lock Gloomen. And again he would occasionally force them to play out big battles in the defense of Blackmoor town. The problem is that he created something much too appealing. His Dungeon invention was just too fascinating; most of his players just wanted to play the 10' - 20' - 30' with stairs leading down game and were less interested in his war game ideas.
As a side note: There are some historians who try to minimize Arneson's genius by claiming his loss of interest in his own campaign around 1972 is somehow an indication of his failings as a game designer. As the only referee of an RPG on the entire planet he was under constant demand. He was meeting with groups twice a week and getting phone calls and visits the rest of the time. His players simply burned him out. He was also still running what is likely the largest multi player paper based world scale war game in history; what Arneson called his Nappy Campaign Game - which stood for napoleonics.
Even though the published version of D&D does cover the living world setting concept of having domains and having armies and also adventuring, it suggests players wait until they are higher level to do so. Most of the design elements for campaigning in the wilderness come directly from Arneson's Blackmoor, yet in abbreviated from. Even the D&D economy, think to yourself Equipment Price List, can be traced to Arneson's military miniature campaign days likely beginning around 1967.
As consumers, we all read about going into the wilderness and perhaps building castles, armies, and navies, yet the majority of players are only playing dungeons. And what is more significant is how consumers do it. Players do not expand the scale of their games. Everything is being played on the Braunstein scale combined with Arneson's "What do you want to do?" play method.
What ends up in D&D is merely a fraction of what was originally envisioned by Arneson.
Dave Arneson Letter to Dan Nicholson Discussing Goings on in the Nappy Game
SNAPPING OFF PIECES OF BLACKMOOR
We are no longer in a living world. We are in a world that comes to life when the players interact with it. It is a static world. A referee can tell stories about there having been a battle and its implications, but the battle is the result of a fabrication unlike the living world concept where all the players gather to resolve big conflicts and the result is a real result.
D&D simply took one aspect of Arneson's vision and snapped it off. It's still Arneson's vision of game play, but it is only a fraction of the entire design and experience.
Without the constraints of Arneson's living world concept the rules are up for grabs as players demand even more freedom and power. This is how the game will lose its concepts of play balance and will hence forth become an ever expanding world of NERF; where the design is not predicated on simulation and balance, but rather on the fulfillment of User Experience.
NERF'ing comes from the harm free NERF balls sold to kids, and implies a game where the players are getting closer and closer to a game they can never lose.
Original printing Dungeons & Dragons books - Originally Owned by Fred Funk
Many of you are likely saying: But we love our game and we don't want limitations.
I agree, the game should be what is most appealing to most gamers...
*IF ALL YOU WANT IS A GREATER VOLUME IN SALES TO A GREATER MARKET OF CONSUMERS*
Yet my interest is firmly locked into exploring and understanding why OD&D was created as it was originally, and also how it began to morph into what it has become now.
In closing, I want to point you to the oft used term of play balance and where that came from. The place it has greatest utility is within a war game, thus with the removal of the head to head aspects of Arneon's Living world concept, it is no longer needed.
And where one see's the presence of play balance within D&D's design is in the Player vs. Monster conflict, as well as Class vs. Class conflict for the players.
With these ideas firmly in mind, now we can move onto discussing more on how Play is Nerf'ed in both OD&D and Greyhawk Supplement.
Rob Kuntz has published a book that describes what Dave Arneson's invention is.
"For the great day of their wrath has come -
Who is able to stand?
Who can escape the cage of time?
Who will unlock the chamber of dreams?"
(Ancient Dwarven Script Found on a Stairwell Wall in Tonisborg Dungeon.)
I had promised to run my variation on Tonisborg at a local gamer gathering on Tuesdays at Denver Distillery
Although i knew some of the gamers from last week, I ended up with a bunch of unexpected people jumping in too. Some were even playing for their very first time -- I love new gamers and really enjoy transporting them into the magical land Gary and Dave created for us.
One guy was hanging out at the bar. When I mentioned D&D, his eyes lit up and he abandoned his own group of friends to come play with us!
Someone made a phone call and another player showed up.
What I thought was a really sad turnout of about 4 gamers suddenly became 8 - GAME ON!
I run Tonisborg with a lot of hand-outs full of lore. It's my home brew addition to Tonisborg. When I run it, you get a weird mix of Greg Svenson as a young man in 1973, and Griff as a middle aged gamer in 2019.
I will have to post some of my story ideas to the Blackmoor hidden forum for Tonisborg DM's. https://blackmoor.mystara.net/forums/index.php
I often hear about gamers who can't find a group. You need friends to play these games. They are easy to find. Ask your library for some free space to run a club out of. As Drinks and Dragons: Philadelphia has shown, you can also find a local bar to run games at on an off night.
By the end of your first session you can't be strangers anymore. How can you be strangers after you worked together to escape from that Balrog that was looking for some guy named, Berlini the Great?
At the end of the night we were all shaking hands and clapping each other on the back.
Thank's to everyone who was at my Ref'ing session. All of you, Jaimie, Venessa, Roberto, Nate, Jess, Erik, Louis, are now my good friends - Griff
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Bonuses and Penalties Due to Abilities p.6 Basic D&D, TSR 1977
This is part 2 of a lengthy discussion about how OD&D works.
The previous section can be found here:
The last installment seemed too long, I have decided that I will attempt to limit myself to smaller bites and present something shorter. Let me know what you think.
Abilities, Penalties, and Bonuses
My last post was on the subject of Classes and Attributes.
I covered how there are at least 5 different methods for how stats, or attributes, impact other mechanics, from how many hit points you have, to how well you hit, and even for how many languages you can know.
The one missing application for attributes in OD&D is the use of die rolls for determining things like how well you spot something, or jumping over a pit. This is the Arneson mechanic from the Napoleonic character sheet. I also proposed putting that back into OD&D when needed, but using them as a non binary ruling which I called Grey Rolls.
Be careful on using Grey Rolls as for the most part, I feel that any rolls that take agency away from both players and Refs are a bad idea. If you are a ref you are there to make judgements that fall outside the rules but fully within the story. You should be making a lot of calls based on reasonable outcomes.
This is perhaps a primary difference between what OSR players prefer and what newer edition players are used to. Play went faster because there was less die rolling and a DM would simply assume that it was reasonable to either see something, or not see something based on a player's described action.
No need to attack me, as I am merely making an observation. I do invite people to come play with me some time, as having played many different systems I believe the experience is entirely different.
As with all my articles I want readers to take away an essential concept. Last time I highlighted player experience or expectation, and the concept of saving throws, but really I was playing a trick on you and the whole discussion was on attributes. or was it?
Matrix for Men Attacking p.19 OD&D, Tactical Studies Rules 1974
Combat in OD&D
The reason for confusion about how OD&D is designed is because the combat bonuses are what I call Back Loaded. If you consider the sequence of events for combat as a front to back, or beginning to end process, the bonuses are all on the back end of the sequence for combat.
Step by step OD&D combat:
1. ATTACK ROLL TO HIT -- This is based on experience level for players, and hit dice for monsters, and is compared to...
2. THE PRIMARY DEFENSIVE SAVING THROW -- This is the defender's AC, the fixed value of armor class for everything.
3. A ROLL TO INFLICT DAMAGE -- A successful roll to hit causes damage points in the form of a die roll for damage.
4. THE SECONDARY DEFENSIVE SAVING THROW -- Damage received is subtracted from Hit points; a pre- generated type of defensive die roll.
A player feels active during their own die roll phase, or steps 1 and 3, because they are literally rolling a die to affect combat. You roll to hit and maybe you also roll to do damage - YAY!
Consider that all of their real bonuses reside in their defense, when they are not rolling dice. Players do not feel active based on their armor class, or how many hit points they have. Both these values are determined before play actually happens. they feel like fixed values.
If you look at the chart from Basic D&D there are no attack bonuses except for missile weapons, and the juicy bonuses go to hit points, it was the same for OD&D.
Additionally, the mechanisms for player uniqueness and heightened ability are hidden in the experience points in OD&D. Stats are mostly having an impact on how slowly or quickly players move up in levels. A character having high stats advancing faster in experience is such an odd approach that a lot people who played, either discarded the rule once the supplements came out, or felt that their stats weren't really doing anything for them at all. Interestingly the rule for Prime Attributes is still used, although expanded, in the Basic D&D set from 1977 and on.
Do you feel any better knowing this as a player?
Probably not, back loading is kind of weird.
Most players were not aware that their special combat bonuses existed in terms of defense rather than offense. Additionally, the attacker side Attack Bonus only came about upon reaching 4th level! Woot, you get a 10% better chance of hitting things.
There's more, the entire concept of THAC0 could not work perfectly in OD&D because the combat chart skips from +10% per 3 levels to +15% between levels 7-9, and then back down to +10% per 3 levels, and then again back up to 15% in the last column. It's not like an equation of +10% every 3 levels for fighters, it's quirky.
So what is the magic word? Player experience and expectation. Ok, it's several words.
Players wanted to feel active during a game and feel like they could get bonuses on attack in order to be more special. It didn't take long for them to get rewarded in the form of a strength based chart for attack, damage, and even door opening ability.
Matrix for Monsters Attacking p.19 OD&D, Tactical Studies Rules 1974
Fairness in OD&D
Players also want fairness. OD&D although a brutal combat system with high mortality rates, is very fair.
Players back in the early days of RPG's were more often than not coming from a War Game background. Their expectations were much different for how an RPG should work and what they could expect as a green troopie, or cadet. They didn't expect to be able to do much as a novice wizard either. What they really wanted was an even playing field. Thus 1 man fighting 1 orc has a 50/50 chance of winning, or losing.
This is how the fairness is built into the brutal OD&D combat system. In OD&D everything gets a certain quantity of d6 as hit points; roughly 1d6 at each level. All weapons do 1d6 damage. In each combat round all things happen simultaneously. I know this because I made recordings of Bob Meyer running a Blackmoor game and I was watching closely to see if he used initiative, or parallel actions. Since Bob is trying to preserve Blackmoor, my hunch is that Bob is ref'ing in this way because he learned from Dave Arneson way back before D&D existed.
There is no initiative, or getting a killing blow in before the bad guy hits you. Both sides of a combat get to do their thing and then everything is resolved. Once again, this is a war game concept; each side gets to attack and do damage. In fact, just as in real combat, it is possible for two adversaries to kill each other in the same round!
I know, you're probably saying - What The Heck! This is a crappy game, where is my DX for initiative, where is my STR bonus for attack, where is my STR bonus for damage, where is my INT based skill for special attacks?
All I can say is that although Gygax and Arneson were fully aware of the player experience as a game outcome, they were also probably very much obsessed with the idea of a simulation.
I cannot speak to Gygax's game knowledge as I am not a Gygax historian.
Arneson was certainly very aware of player expectation because he had been designing games since the mid 60's. If one reads his First Fantasy Campaign book, he speaks about having defensive saving throws in his Blackmoor campaign as a way for players to avoid hits. He also says that these die rolls made combat last longer, so he stopped using them in order to speed up play. Consider that play speed is a really important factor in player enjoyment.
I hope you enjoyed these observations and learned something about OD&D.
Next time I will talk about how even OD&D is NERFed in favor of the players and how we eventually arrive at the major change in attributes, classes, weapons, and combat.
Or, -- How the Wizard gets the short end of the stick.
Thanks for reading, Griff
My little quickly written out thoughts about OSR have garnered a bit of attention.
My post was a vague commentary on some recent articles like this one:
Of course, my title was a bit over the top, so are these proclamations that OSR is dead.
One Blog Post out of millions says: Kill the OSR, OSR is dead, and people freak out. I even got banned on one group for my words as someone reported it as hate speech. Uhm, we're talking about Elf Games here. It's not real.
I'll post these screen grabs because I think being banned for having an opinion is hilarious.
And then Greyhawk Grognard also posted this response on the same group:
So I thought: well, if he can cite my blog post in his post I can repost mine there too right?
It seems citing me is one thing, posting me is another.
Banned 'til Monday.
But, my post is still cited within Greyhawk Grognard's post.
I am not in any way angry about this and I don't want to promote drama. I generally want to promote hilarity and to me this is hilarious!
Ok, back to OSR things.
I get it. Joe doesn't want to be weighed down with a term that means just one thing. He likes OSR. Fine with me. I don't need to argue with Joe because we are actually in agreement. We also are both focused on promoting the older games because they are fascinating to both of us.
So let me state that, no OSR is not dead. Yet it may be stagnant. The article about OSR being dead did have some salient points. It stated that there hadn't been as much activity on the subject of late.
The post argues that an absence of products is why:
Interestingly one person in an online discussions mentioned that OSR is actually a marketing term.
"It's a marketing term to sell RPGs to the older crowd who doesn't like the feel of more modern RPGs. It does serve a purpose for that reason alone. Kind of how "Alternative" music used to mean an alternative to the mainstream, and then it became mainstream so calling it by that name was kind of absurd, but it still served a marketing purpose even if dumb." - I won't post the author's name publicly for privacy reasons.
The comparison to Alternative Music as a term is dead on. what the hell does this mean once the product is a slice of a huge market?
I poked around the web and this popped up.
I still wonder what OSR means too. If a person is new to gaming the acronym means nothing. If you tell them it's Old School Game Rules, that sort of means nothing as well.
I talk to gamers all over the world and they usually surprise me. For instance, Poland is likely one of the great bastions for older edition RPG's. I recently met a gamer in Croatia and chatted about games. The entire tone of the conversation was about DIY and older editions, to which I responded: Oh, you must be the same age as I am. Well, I was wrong!
Age has nothing to do with it either.
There is nothing old about gamers who play earlier editions of games. It's like calling yourself an Old School RISK player because you own a board from the 70's; never mind when the game was originally published.
My focus is always on behaviors. What is it about OSR that is OSR:
1. People who are OSR play older editions of RPG's and not just D&D. Praise must be given to other early RPG's like Tunnels and Trolls, E.P.T., Rune Quest, and many others.
2. OSR players love the old Adventure Modules.
3. OSR players are DIY and play their own worlds and adventures (oh oh, what about behavior #2?)
I could probably make up a million other definitions. As you can see points #2 and #3 reveal the flaw in trying to define this beast. It means something different to everyone. And I will say that is why Greyhawk Grognard likes the term.
If OSR is dying, and I say IF, then it's the fault of those who play in the old ways failing to understand how to communicate what they do effectively.
Consider my experience of joining a Path Finder group several years ago. I rolled up a character, the party needed a wizard, and lo and behold my dice made an awesome one. Since I was the noob, I was told to take the Path Finder: Core Rulebook and just make up my character while the others played. My first experience with PF was sitting at a table for hours poring over a highly complex system in order to create my wizard as others played an adventure.
Being an old Grog, I play a very goal oriented style. You don't have to always kill the beastie. I played PF enough to realize that Obscuring Mist wis my friend and I could cast 2 in day. I used it to get our party past a room full of arrow slits and into the treasure room unmolested.
I mention this because I played PF in the old way that all of you who have experience are familiar with. For the most part, the game group was always doing hack and slash battles, because the rules heavily favor it. Yet it is possible to play a new game in a traditional style.
Consider a new player arriving at your session. I would assume you would explain a bit about what you are doing.
I can't tell you what and why you are playing your games, but it may be worth considering it yourself.
Why do I play the system I am playing over other newer games?
What is the intrinsic difference about the game I play that makes it different?
And also, is this concept I have defined for myself the essence of why I would define myself as an Old School Role-player?
RPG as a term has gotten bandied about as a way to market games for some time now. I personally do not consider a computer dungeon crawl to be an RPG, as I define it. And then I see the use of Old School as some way to define certain RPG's, yet there are a lot of old RPG's I would never play.
My reason for playing the old games is based on actual game mechanics. I play games where the game play is not limited by the rules. In fact, there are no rules for Role Playing. The Mechanic for the older, or traditional RPG is that the referee describes reality to the players and finishes by asking - What do you want to do?
The beauty of the original editions is that a person off the street can play this game, because we all know how to play make believe. A new player doesn't even need to know what the rules are at all.
David Wesely calls RPG's Collaborative Story Telling. His Braunstein game is the jumping off point for what has become D&D, and then every other RPG we play. it's a clear line of invention from him to Dave Arneson.
As far as we know, Dave Arneson created the play style that is used in RPG's. It is different from a Braunstein. The play style is somewhat watered down in a game such as Path Finder, becoming more like a war game with battle mats and minis for game play. And i use PF as an example and am not vilifying the game, if you like it play it!
I think it is important to be clear in how one describes these things. If OSR is old school rules, then everyone must be playing Braunstein games. Of course this isn't true. Yet it's worth thinking where exactly in the evolution of these games you are planning on existing.
You can call it what you want. If you play in the traditional manner as presented by all the early games from the 70's, then you are actually playing Dave Arneson's, Blackmoor Role Play Method. Well, BRPM doesn't serve to promote or explain what this is either.
Perhaps those who say OSR is dead are correct, as OSR is dead in terms of being a useful description for an era of RPG's.
I call what I do traditional role playing. If you ask me what that means, my answer is simple: come over and play a game with us and you'll know.
The only way to define these games is through in-game actual play experience. You can't convince a new gamer who plays D&D 5e that your game is different without a demonstration. And trying to qualify your game with words like, it's better, it's true to what Gary and Dave wanted, or it's a real RPG, aren't going to engender good will from other gamers either.
Yup, call it what you want as a rose is a rose is a rose by any other name.
Exactly how OSR are you?
Do you even recognize the image I've posted?
What is OSR?
I actually thought it stood for Old School Rules.
If it's a movement how come most people don't even know what it stands for?
How come everyone who does claim to be into OSR can't really define it for you either. The main point of it seems to be that they are OSR and you aren't!
Ås we researched Role Playing while making Secrets of Blackmoor it became apparent that we needed to invent a system for defining what is, and what isn't, a role playing game. We also noticed that there are a lot of types of RPG's.
We came up with definitions and terms that did not pigeon hole anything too rigidly, because RPG's are hard to define by nature. It reminds me of the old farmer who is talking about art and says: I can't draw water from a bucket, but I know art when I see it.
Consider that, the only way for someone to get a feel for how older games are different is to actually play in an actual game.
It seems pretty clear that some games have different degrees, or types, of role playing in them, so the arguments that erupt all over the internet about Role Playing are not very productive. If you've seen one of these online battles, you'll know what I mean. i.e. You aren't Doin' it Right, and I'm the only one on the planet who is doin' it right!
Michael Mornard has been known to post this during the middle of a flame war online -
"You're Arguing About Elf Games!"
Maybe it's time to dump the OSR label for good. It seems to have done the opposite of what it should be doing. It is somewhat elitist and it's a turn off for some people.
What do we really want?
The real purpose behind wanting to promote older style games is that they really do use different play methods. We certainly do not want to alienate anyone who plays a game with slightly different play in it. Going onto social media, or a gamer forum, and ranting is a jerk move. No one wants to be told: your game isn't an RPG and my game is, and you should only play the games I tell you you can play.
A more polite way to introduce the subject is to use a question, and use words that are not an imperative.
Try this out some time:
-Have you ever considered playing a game that uses traditional RPG play in it?
- I play the same system, but I have introduced Traditional Role Playing into it.
If the person bites and wants to know more, ask them to come play in a game sometime. It seems much more inviting to say: We play with X rules, and we use Traditional Role Playing while running it.
Lets get rid of OSR as a term and as a way of excluding people, and move forward with a much looser definition. Something will grab the attention of gamers as a new label. I would propose a term like Traditional Role Playing, and I would avoid turning it into an acronym. Acronyms are for corporations and people who want to be part of a special club that other people can't be part of. If you run games at conventions, start to put the term Traditional Role Playing in your game descriptions.
The Bards of Greyhawk have invited me to play some HackMaster this weekend. I expect I will be playing a game that uses Traditional Role Playing Methods in it, ;)
All righty, I got my flame suit on - I can take any criticism you can throw my way.
(Image Courtesy the Dave Arneson Collection)
When Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax worked on the drafts for Dungeons and Dragons in 1973, they were exchanging sections of the rules for commentary and play testing.
(Image from the Movie Secrets of Blackmoor
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