Friday, May 5, 2017

The "Formula RPG" and the Open Philosophy

Rob Kuntz recently released a book called Dave Arneson's True Genius. It's a frustrating book, because it's written in specialized language of systems thought and references to a further as-yet-unfinished book. While I can't read the next book yet and don't agree with the systems theory parts, there is an assertion core to the first of its three essays that I want to comment on.

The essay, called "From Vision to Vicissitude: The Rise and Reversal of Dave Arneson's RPG Concept," follows what Kuntz sees as the change from 1974 original D&D with its "Why have us do any more of your imagining for you?" ethos to Gygax's 1978 Dragon Magazine editorials that say "Those who insist on altering the framework should design their own game."

Rob summarizes what he sees as the crucial change (emphasis in original):
Moreover, and in summary, this systemic change moved the previous concept (Arneson's, 1971; and as reiterated by Gygax/Arneson in print, 1974) of DMs as absolute and omniscient creators of content for their individualized systems to a demoted position akin to an administrator of TSR's system-and-premade-adventure interface. The reader should be able to parse the two philosophical extremes by way of comparison alone.

In due course the design tenets/philosophy from the original game, now ignored, faded against an immense and growing foreground of TSR doing the imagining and creating of pre-determined/pre-structured scenarios for the consumer. The sustained promulgation of this disposable and repeatable model caused all but scattered remains of the original RPG philosophy as it was then forming to be lost. This 180 degree reversal abruptly issued in the Formula RPG experience that persists to this very day as a strictly closed form expression; and this was (and still is) a direct, and glaring, contradiction to the genius of its original manifestations: First Fantasy Campaign and the commercially successful Classic Dungeons & Dragons.
To try and unpack this, Kuntz is arguing that the philosophical shift between OD&D (which he labels as "classic" D&D) and AD&D is a philosophical shift from an "open form" to a "closed form" system, where in the former there are endless creative possibilities and in the latter there are only rules and prescriptions for what the referee is to do.

Kuntz isn't the first person to make this point. Matt Finch's influential A Quick Primer for Old-School Gaming makes a lot of similar points between an open, discursive style of play, and a closed, rule-bound approach. In practice, though, the idea that there was a "great transition" from an open to a closed game system is a hunt that has no real end. Even a definition as strict as Kuntz's could be improved on; OD&D, after all, is an attempt to systematize the open-ended game that Arneson was running.

But more importantly, what we've seen is that just about any RPG can be run with an open/DIY philosophy. Look at the game Microlite20 – that took the system-bound and rules-heavy 3rd edition of D&D and turned it into an elegant, rules-light game for referees who like the basic mechanic but don't want to be bound by thousands of pages of rules bloat. If that can be done in 3.x D&D, it can certainly be done in first edition AD&D.

Short of converting the game into a board game like the Milton Bradley HeroQuest, I don't honestly think that an RPG can truly be "closed form." The players in B2 Keep on the Borderlands can always kill the monsters in the Caves of Chaos, but they can avoid the Caves and sack the Keep instead, or they can wander off down the road, outside the established map, and the DM is then obliged to answer the question - "What now?"

This is the philosophy that animated the Braunstein games, and the Blackmoor campaign, and that made Dungeons & Dragons such a phenomenon. It allowed "What now?" to be the question, the imperative, and opened up the floodgates of imagination. And it's always been the dirty secret of RPGs that you don't need the book at all. A skilled referee can wing more or less anything if they choose to; the books are there to save you work.

It's particularly ironic that Kuntz chooses first edition AD&D as the incarnation of "Formula RPG", because the grognards who have been running AD&D forever (the "orthodox Gygaxians" if you will) have long been the biggest devotees of the GM as the "absolute and omniscient creators of content" for their individual games. In a sense, Rob is saying here that the Pope was insufficiently Catholic.

When Kuntz presents the idea of the "formula RPG" as a betrayal of the basic RPG idea, he disrespects the long tradition of kitbashing in gaming as a hobby. Indeed, the true genius of Dave Arneson was as a kitbasher, taking ideas that had been present in games like Wesley's Braunstein and the Gygax/Perren Chainmail, and creating in them a synthesis that opened up a much richer type of experience than, I expect, anybody thought would be present at the time. And if you read The First Fantasy Campaign, you will find a surprisingly large amount of matter about the fairly "conventional" wargame campaign that Blackmoor became over time.

Once someone understands the open philosophy - which, rather than a creation of Dave Arneson, I would say is present in at least the 1870s free Kriegsspiel - there is no such thing as a truly "closed" system. The referee simply needs to open it up and ask the players, "What do you do next?" Even a game like HeroQuest could be used in a radically new way, as I'm sure it has been. (If you don't know what a free Kriegsspiel is, I'd suggest reading Playing at the World.)

The truth is that dungeon modules are often treated as parts to be kitbashed. You can take them and use parts that you like in your own dungeon, or take the map and restock it, or reskin the whole thing as a completely different affair. Gus L at Dungeon of Signs frequently looks at ways to use modules outside of their original purpose, and if you spend enough time around the OSR you'll find that this is a normal thing. If you look at the great OSR books that I've pushed over the years, like Carcosa or Red and Pleasant Land or Yoon-Suin or Veins of the Earth, most of them contain a lot of ideas and tools (particularly charts and generators) that can be ripped out and used elsewhere.

Of course, there is gaming that is rote and bland. It is not accidental that I am not an enthusiast for Pathfinder or adventure path type gaming in general. But this is not preordained from the system or the existence of modules; it's just a way that people play. Some people just like dungeon bashing, and there is nothing wrong with that. I have a coworker who loves Pathfinder gaming, and carefully planning his PC, and then setting that up against a mission from a module. It's not my fun, but he clearly enjoys it.

But - the open philosophy that animated the Blackmoor campaign is not "lost" in "all but scattered remains." It is a rich idea that continues to animate games.down to this day. The OSR has done a lot for "sandbox" and open world types of games, and I think Kuntz, long distant from the RPG scene, is simply ignorant of the realities of the games people are playing, because open philosophy in gaming is in no way lost and scattered.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Hacking Through the Tunnels

You can now buy the fifth edition of Tunnels & Trolls on DriveThruRPG from Flying Buffalo. T&T is Ken St. Andre's response to original D&D, and in many ways represents a complete and immediate reaction to things that people didn't like about D&D.

Oakes Spalding is doing an in-depth review of the original edition of T&T over at Save Versus All Wands (nb: the blog header contains the topless amazon picture from OD&D). It's quite in depth, and goes to lengths that I'm not going to bother with. But it's a good review, both in terms of discussing how T&T works, and in comparing and contrasting it with OD&D. In fact, the review is credited as an inspiration for releasing 5e in the T&T blog announcing that the 5th edition is available for download.

The first five editions of Tunnels & Trolls came out in rapid succession, and basically were minor expansions of the original. 5e was the pinnacle of this development and sat as the edition of T&T supported by Flying Buffalo for decades; it's the one I've used for all my solo T&T gaming. It was also the version that was properly typeset and looks nice. Deluxe T&T (a Kickstarter that took years to come out) is a nice book if you want to kill a bug, but it's just not necessary. It changes and adds things and tries to fix a game that just worked.

T&T came out of the idea that OD&D, as presented, is an overly complicated game. Ken St. Andre chose to simplify from it, getting rid of things like Vancian magic, armor class as to-hit numbers, and twenty-sided dice. It's an ironic thought given that OD&D is often praised for its simplicity and flexibility relative to AD&D and later editions of the D&D game. But when the games are compared, it becomes clear that Tunnels & Trolls is simpler, but by no means simplistic. In many ways it's a rich game.

For instance, Tunnels & Trolls combat reduces monsters down to a single number, a Monster Rating (MR). (There is a more in-depth method presented making them similar to characters.) But what makes this interesting is that a monster's MR is not necessarily the same from encounter to encounter. You could decide that a particular orc is scrawny with a measly 30 MR, or a tough guy with 60 MR or better. More importantly this method makes it dead simple to improvise monsters, or change them to suit your needs.

Combat is likewise simple without being simplistic. Because it winds up with a death spiral as monster dice and adds (the number added to the die roll) decrease, or player adds fall away with damage, it makes avoiding combat or running away an important point. Armor is also much more significant, as it reduces damage when you're on the losing side. So if you prefer ablative armor, here's your game. Also, there's a reason to wear a helmet, which reduces damage taken; no D&D edition has ever made it so simple.

I also can't pass without mentioning saving rolls (SRs). Originally all SRs were based on the Luck stat, which can be increased (all stats can). You roll 2d6 against a target number based on the level of the Saving Roll; so a first level Luck SR is 2d6 vs 20-Luck. But for characters with low Luck scores, the rule is "doubles add and roll over." This is weird mathematically but creates a decent shot for anyone to make a SR even when it seems impossible.

Liz Danforth's art sets the tone for T&T. It is well executed, has a sense of humor about itself, and is deeply DIY. The sense that RPGs are not all VRY SRS BSNS was snuffed out of gaming by the early 1980s and has never really made a full comeback; certainly every version of D&D after the AD&D books got the gold spine covers is stripped clean of any sense that this may be a piss take.

That doesn't mean that it can't be played quite seriously; the adventures are definitely dangerous, and the system will work for an intense game, as Ron Edwards has noted. But there is even playfulness in the spell list and entries like "Take That You Fiend" or "Curses Foiled." (A few are unfortunate, like "Yassa Massa" which should be renamed.) No game introduced by Grimtooth can be all glum.

T&T also has a really interesting system for getting Adventure Points (APs). Characters get APs for going out on an adventure, based on dungeon level; they get the Monster Rating of any monsters slain as APs; they get points for every Saving Roll attempted (successful or not), and for casting spells. It explicitly avoids GP-for-XP, but makes up for it by explicitly rewarding characters going out and getting into the dungeons.

Advancement is a way to increase ability scores. That's pretty much what it does.So when you reach 2nd level, you can choose to add 2x the level number to Luck - that's 4 Luck points. Ability scores are not capped at 18, so this could bring a PC as high as 22 Luck (although it's not likely). That translates straight into Personal Adds. Other stats help with wielding weapons (ST and DEX), casting spells (IQ), taking damage (CON), and relating with NPCs (CHR). This works out because of the importance stats have in the game.

T&T is, above all, a very open game. It embraces a strong referee with a creative vision, although ironically the game is very well known for solo modules. (You'll want to start with Buffalo Castle.) If nothing else, giving a run through a few solos will change how you think about old school gaming, and it's one of the few experiences that any RPG gamer can have "out of the box" even in 2017.

Tunnels & Trolls 5th Edition: Recommended.