Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Alpha and Omega of Old-School...

So when does old-school gaming begin?  And when does it end?  This might seem like a trivial (or pointless) question, but either the designation means something or it means nothing.  And a relative, subjective definition is little better than none at all.  But first, some context to get started.  I recently spoke to a younger gamer who defined "old-school" as those old World of Darkness games he played in the 90s!  Clearly, this was his introduction to the hobby, so it probably seems downright primordial to him.  But if this is how we're gonna define things, then everything is old-school, which means nothing is.

Now, I argue that old-school refers to the first ten years of the commercial hobby, and this bears some explanation.  Wesely and Arneson were doing their thing as early as 1967 (earlier, actually), but their fabulous creations weren't available beyond a relatively small group of insiders.  Think about it.  The imaginary childhood games we all made up with our siblings are no different, and no one seriously suggests they should amount to a cultural movement.  But with the release of the first D&D rulebooks in 1974, the game was (at least theoretically) available to everyone.  Now that's a movement.  That's a bona fide thing, and it rightly forms an objective starting point for the hobby.  The birth of old-school.

From here, I say the next decade.  The first decade of the hobby.  Why?  Well, because ten is a nice, rounded figure.  I mean, why else would the gods give us ten fingers?  But it's more than that.  This first decade represented a certain state of the hobby.  Sure, the games were commercially available, but they were still largely an underground phenomenon.  Gaming represented a distinct subculture largely unnoticed by the world at large.  Now this changed as the decade wore on, but it holds for most of the period.  The Satanic Panic of the 80s could only begin once parents knew the games existed, and this didn't start to happen until the B/X set (more clearly aimed at younger readers) hit Toys R' Us.

Yeah, all old-school gaming groups looked like this...

But it's more than just an underground pedigree, and like I said, the hobby became progressively more mainstream as the decade rolled on.  Being an underground thing meant less money to invest in production, which resulted in an amateur look and feel.  RPG rulebooks weren't yet the slick products they would later become.  I don't mean to sound like a snobby purist.  Games are guidelines at best, and the real action takes place in the participant's heads.  But there's something about gaming-as-cottage industry that really speaks to its origins in the basements and rec-rooms of the early 1970s...  

Amateur production creates a sort of punk ethos.  Gaming as punk with all its purity.  But getting back to marketing, the hobby's first decade ended in a very different place from where it began.  D&D started as a sort of wargame (and never mind my previous postings to the contrary on this blog).  The rules referenced armor and weapons with an emphasis on historical accuracy and a wargamer's general sensibility, and one need only read the earliest issues of The Dragon to see that wargaming still featured often enough, or that so many readers were (still) interested in military simulation.  Indeed, remnants of this would show in 1985's Unearthed Arcana, where Gygax regaled us with his love of pole arms.  I can only wonder about this particular obsession, but then, who am I to judge?

So there you have it.  1974-84.  The hobby was an amateur, underground phenomenon with production values to match that retained strong ties to its wargaming roots...

But the scene would change.  And how.  Things would become mainstream enough for parents to panic about it, and with mainstream notice came money (and with money came better production).  At the same time, the games were increasingly appealing to non-wargamers more interested in the role-playing and storytelling aspect.  You see a noticeable shift to younger readers with the He-Man art of the BECMI set.  Indeed, Elmore's artwork became ubiquitous across the entire spectrum of TSR's growing catalog.  There was a D&D cartoon (I won't alienate friends by weighing in on that), AD&D action figures, stickers, and activity books.  I can only imagine D&D toothpaste and other (mainstream) marketing fiascos, but I don't have to.  It was clear that the hobby had turned a corner.  Not a bad one.  You can't stay young and hungry forever.  But it was no longer old-school as I knew it.  What do you think?  Did we get it wrong?  Share your ideas!  What's your old-school timeline?

ADDENDUM: To avoid any appearance of gatekeeping, anyone who plays and enjoys old-school games is an old-school gamer in our eyes no matter their age!  Game on... 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

On the "Neutering" of Ability Scores...

I remember what it was like to make a D&D character back in '78 (or '80, for that matter; we were still rubbing the 70s out of our eyes).  You rolled 3d6 in order and knocked on wood, praying for an 18 somewhere, preferably in a prime requisite.  Now this could be fun because you never knew what you were going to get.  But it could also be a bummer if you wanted Conan and got Steve Urkel.  This wouldn't stand, especially as non-wargamers entered the hobby, attracted to the idea of roleplaying and storytelling.  Inevitably, such players came equipped with a character concept, and Mr. Gygax, always good at divining the zeitgeist, was quick to address this in the Dungeon Master's Guide...  

The rule of the day (well, option is more like it) was to roll 4d6 and pick the highest three, arranging to taste.  This wasn't the only option on offer, but it quickly became the most popular.  It was certainly the most popular at my table and for the inevitable pickup games at conventions (back in my young and single days, you'd meet people and end up playing upstairs and completely off the schedule).  And as an idea it really holds up.

But like so many things in life, the other shoe always drops eventually...


And a side effect of this (very good) idea was neutered (and inflated) abilities.

Obviously, you gotta take the good with the bad, and this method also served to address the problem of hopeless characters.  Don't get me wrong, I love D&D (and strongly prefer its original iteration to its later incarnations).  But when you can actually fail at character creation by rolling a hopeless character, something's broken in the machinery.  The optional rules certainly helped here because you were generally assured a workable result.  But it also lead to a sort of "stats inflation" and, in general, less varied characters.  The fighter always had their highest score in Strength (given a choice, you'd be out of your mind not to prioritize this way) and the magic user in Intelligence, etc.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Sure, you could always assign scores to have a fighter who's more intelligent or wise than physically strong, but again, why?  Especially when the AD&D Player's Handbook placed such a premium on good prime prerequisites.  Your viability (and survivability) depended on it!  

If you wanted to get the most from your magic user (for instance), you needed a high Intelligence or you'd be shut out of spells you aspired to eventually cast.  D&D was always a speculative venture (although maybe less so now).  You built your character on what they could do right now, but also on what you hoped to be able to do in a few levels...


Okay, so you got characters who were predictably gifted.  But you also got many scores clustered around the average (or slightly above).  On the one hand, this was more realistic than Borg with the 3 Intelligence.  Mind you, that's a 30 IQ if Gary's to be believed!  If my tenure in the Army taught me anything, it's that going even 10 miles with a 30-pound pack is extremely difficult.  The stereotypical weak magic user wouldn't stand a chance.  And the fighter doesn't get off much easier, for while the dumb barbarian is ubiquitous in the popular imagination, Conan was anything but, and fighting requires a keen intellect.  Characters probably shouldn't be too deficient.  But when most of your scores are clustered around an average (with a few predictably placed outliers), small differences become meaningless, even with roll-under mechanics.  And ability scores feel increasingly "neutered"...      

Note: With roll-under mechanics, each point of attribute works out to a 5% difference, so having a 12 dexterity instead of 11 matters.  I get this.  Each point is like a +1 magic sword by way of analogy.  Still, variety comes from having a few lower scores and, possibly, an exceptional ability or two, although this comes with its own baggage.     

And so back in 2002, as I was scouring my memories for how my old-school games ultimately felt to me, I opted to treat characters as basically average across the board with one or two superior attributes.  No scores, no rolls.  Just pick (or roll for) the ability you imagine your character excelling at and go from there.  And abilities were more like perks than anything else (preserving randomness for those who wanted it).  Moreover, there were no prime requisites.  Your fighter could be wise above all else, with no one rewarded (or penalized) for anything but the quality of their play (in as much as possible).  The result was Pits & Perils, not a retro-clone, but a spiritual one for sure.  One born from years of play spent reflecting on how D&D tried to manage what it was becoming.  Let us know what you think about all this.  House rules?  Modifiers?  How did you keep your ability scores virile?         

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Ghosts In the Game (or Unfinished Business)...

So, your character dies in the middle of an adventure.  It happens.  But with all that unfinished business, maybe they aren't ready to move on.  And in situations like this, maybe it makes more sense to hang around as a ghost.  Yes, this can be a viable option if done properly, and that's the theme of this week's frightfully haunted post...

So first off, the doomed character needs to die in the course of an adventure and leave some unfinished business to be tidied up before going to their final reward.  The referee can be liberal on this point, being free to imagine any conditions.  And the unfinished business need not relate to the current adventure, either.  Maybe it's back home.


Either way, the character rises as a non-corporeal ghost that otherwise resembles its former self, perhaps down to their armor and equipment, although these are non-functional.  The real items are left on the person of the deceased (assuming their friends don't shamelessly help themselves).  This ghost moves as per the applicable rules, being ethereal and capable of passing through solid walls and the like.  This makes them a useful spy, although they may not otherwise attack or affect the physical world (by any means) while in this state, the one exception being any spells already prepared.  Ghosts don't sleep, after all, and are therefore unable to recover or otherwise prepare new ones.  This applies to clerics as well, although given their ties to an actual deity, their ghostly state might be related to some holy work with miracles granted on a case-by-case basis.  There's no wrong answer here...

Finally, while the ghost can't be physically engaged, they can still be harmed with spells and magical weapons, where applicable, or by anyone going in ethereal form.   

Once the task is complete, the temporary spectre passes on, although the referee can be flexible here as well.  For instance, a successful resurrection may restore the character to life assuming the body is more or less in one piece.  And even if reduced to ash (or whatever, I've sliced, diced, and squashed 'em), they might be allowed to return minus an eye or limb or (better still) one or more levels!  Alternately, specialized dwarven smiths might be able to fashion a magical golem form, with details left to the referee.  These will perform as a regular character but cannot heal normally, requiring repairs.  Of course, the ghostly state might relate to some curse that must be broken.  This is chain-rattling adventure fodder...

And that's it.  Ghosts in the game.  Of course, the referee will have to do the heavy lifting here, but this shouldn't be too difficult, and there's lots of gaming potential.  Boooooo! 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Weapon Specialization (Pits & Perils)...

So after months of work on Stalkers of the Elder Dark, we're hankering for a world where cosmic abominations aren't seeking our doom, and Pits & Perils fits the bill nicely!  So here's
a little something for your fighters (and elven fighters)...

It's a new combat maneuver called specialization, and it works like this:


SPECIALIZATION can only be taken at 6th level (and beyond), once the character has developed their fighting skills.  This grants an attack bonus of +1 with any specific weapon chosen by the player in coordination with the referee, noting that this applies to a specific variety; i.e., hand axes instead of just axes as per the following:  

Axe (hand), bow (long), bow (short), mace, spear, sword (long), sword (short)

Note also that certain two-handed melee weapons and/or polearms are excluded, for these benefit from distance and momentum instead of finesse, although the referee can make exceptions as they so wish.  This reflects the greater skill that comes with practice, especially after six levels of battling monsters!  An optional addition to the maneuvers.     


And here it is.  If you'd like to see your characters (the combatants, at least) improve their fighting ability with level, this option makes it all possible.  Specialization puts a party on parity against their enemies, who will improve, although magical weapons obviously remain an important part of their advancement.  Now hit those pits and master those perils...