Saturday, April 25, 2009

Successful game reflections

So I finally got my weekend game together. I used a level I've been wanting to run, stocked with some appropriate nasties for new PCs. Things went well, and the game was enjoyable, with my pretty average number of 1 PC death in an evening. (Lets you know you're doing it right.)

Some observations:

1. I used Points of Light for the setting, specifically the Wildlands. This paid off richly, as I had decided the dungeon level we were using would be beneath the ruins of Gervonium. I love any setting where I'm able to basically plug in the idea of "this was an old Roman camp city." A group of goblins guarding one of the dungeon entrances turned out to be pretty interesting in itself.

2. The rules were Labyrinth Lord. I enjoyed that a lot, although I think I'd prefer to stay away from thieves – by doing without them we kept the exploration pretty focused. The rules are not perfectly organized, but being more systematic than OD&D helped a lot, as did the fact that one of the players had the LL rules in a binder. (This made for more copies of the rules at the table than players: one on my laptop, one in a player's binder, one I had printed at FedEx Kinko's with a nice coil bind to lay flat, and one official Lulu printing, with two players and me, the GM.)

2a. However, I'm still the GM, or the referee, or even the DM. I don't think of myself as the Labyrinth Lord, and object to titles other than "referee," "game master," "game moderator" or "dungeon master".

3. One of the things I love about old school sensibility is the sense of freedom. I like sketching things and then letting player interaction, with a healthy dollop of common sense, determine some details – like an acid bath full of gold coins, which the players managed to scour for a drain that worked. Since it was a perfectly good solution, it functioned – they still had to seek out a way to get the rest of the acid off the coins, which led to one PC burning his fingers to the point where he couldn't accurately wield weapons the rest of the day.

4. We got pretty quickly to my favorite bit in the level. The PCs fell for a teleport trap that took away the ability to quickly enter and leave the dungeon for a significant chunk of the evening.

5. Jeff Rients's chart for reaching zero HP, from Fight On! #3, has cemented its status as my favorite bit of chart to come out of the old school renaissance.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Direction of Old School Gaming

This post said a lot that I have been wanting to say for a while. I've read Alarums & Excursions from as far back as they go, and people were...using Greyhawk, modding the living crap out of the rules, and doing things that they keep on doing down to this day. People wanted different levels of crunch and detail, and they improvised as necessary. Tunnels & Trolls and Chivalry & Sorcery – that's about as yin and yang as you can get - both came out before AD&D.

At the heart of what I think is the problem is that the old school movement has, for a while, been trying to adjust expectations in a certain direction, one embodied in the slogan "rulings, not rules." It's not about the objective quality of rules, it's meant to break people out of the assumption that you really need a 3e-style single, unified mechanic and rules for every occasion (one roll to rule them all...).

And it works. The old school style is a success. Combats in OD&D go lightning fast, because there's nothing to worry about in terms of complicating factors. It's a matter of imagining it and having the rules match quickly. Dungeon delving is more fun when it's about problem-solving and trial and error instead of every trap and trick being a roll-off between the thief and the DM. Ability scores barely matter, and determine a couple of key factors.

For some people, that's enough. The core of the game holds together for them just fine, and they enjoy playing with it as is. That's great. But other people don't have the same enchantment with the bare basics. For me, what has really hampered things is the relative limits of creature design you have in by the book OD&D. There isn't much you can do for different creatures' attacks; a bonus is a pretty big thing, not dished out lightly. Two dice even moreso. I don't think it's an accident that D&D never went back to "everything is a d6" – monster diversity just works better with the minor complications that ensue. And the thing is, very few gamers really played like that. Gygax didn't. Don't know about Arneson. But the reality is, people wanting simpler combat mechanics at the time were more likely to go to Tunnels & Trolls, where the whole thing is two big die rolls. It's a great little game, which I like a lot for the solo adventure concept, but not what I'd want for my day to day. That takes nothing away from it.

This is the kind of thing that I think old-school gamers have started to hit up against. For some, the extreme varieties of "rules light" was just a step in getting to a further path. For others, it was the end of the journey. It leaves a much bigger problem: where do we go from here?

Well, by way of answering, I think there's a little more clear view of what could be published. Probably the easiest thing to do is lots of dungeon modules. These are something we know how to do fairly well, how to craft and publish and use a printed module. And that's going to be part of what our next step is. But then there's the whole rest of the story: creating material that works for people regardless of what step of their own crazy journey they're on. Stuff that works if you're doing OD&D, B/X D&D, AD&D, RC D&D, S&W, BFRPG, LL, microlite74, OSRIC or some combination up to and including "all of the above."

Personally, I think our biggest successes thus far have pointed in the right direction. Fight On! has had a ton of "drop this in your game" type of articles which are awesome, and Green Devil Face is an idea whose time is gladly here. Monsters of Myth, another collaborative effort, is another highlight of the Old School Renaissance so far. And I think there's ample room for another kind of project, which I've talked about before: the old school miscellany. Thing is, I'm not sure I want to come up with enough material to put something out on my own. It's going to wind up being filler, at least in part, and I don't want to put out something I can't be proud of. So I'm going to open this idea up for discussion: who else would be interested in contributing to such a project? I'm not talking about a fanzine, but a book of stuff that is usable to drop into your games or reference when you need a chart, or some flavor, or some variants to get things going. Would anyone be willing to commit some contribution to such an effort?

Buy Green Devil Face #1 and #2

Green Devil Face #1 and #2 are available.

You should buy them. It's an idea whose time has come: a magazine full of trap ideas. One of them (in issue #2) is submitted by yours truly, so of course you ought to buy it. I'll think up – and use! – something by the next issue, but in the mean time make sure you pick this up.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Dave Arneson, 1947-2009

Dave Arneson died yesterday. He was with his loved ones.

It was Dave's wild creativity that led to the very concept of D&D, of the dungeon and the role-playing game. Sadly, he left much less on the printed page than Gygax did, but his contributions are felt throughout our hobby. And I think, in a real way, Arneson remained ever a hobbyist. He was very much one of ours, and he loved his game. We all owe him a deep debt of gratitude.

Every game we play is a tribute to Dave's legacy and his contributions.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


As chgowiz noted, Dave Arneson is fortunately still with us, but in hospice care. I'm glad he has a bit more time in this world, and I wish him all the very best.