I’ve Been Writing About Games Every Day…

….just not here.

After a while of being a semi-employed freelance writer, I lucked out and got a job writing for an online video games magazine. On staff. Full time.

On the one hand this has been great for me. A full time writing job is a dream come true and a big step towards some major long term life goals.

Unfortunately it also means that I get pretty burned out after a full-time work week in typing in front of the screen, and I’ve been neglecting the blogs I used to update more regularly.

I’ve still got a ton of ideas I want to get down on here, it’s just a matter of setting aside the time to make them into good posts.

In the meantime I’d encourage fans of my writing to check out my day job. Mainly if zou’re into CRPGs or video games in general, but just in case you’re not, here a few things I wrote about tabletop gaming when I could get away with it:

The Secret Obsession of Your Favorite Celebrities: D&D

Video Game Mechanics You Didn’t Know Came From ‘Dungeons and Dragons’

Top Fighting Fantasy Books That We’d Like to See As Games After ‘The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’

Check them out, let me know what you think.

 

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The Unspeakable Cults

For the next series here on Power Word Kill, I’m going to get stuck in to what was undoubtably one of the most fascinating aspects of the game once I got my hands on the Monster Manual – the Demons and Devils. They were the most ‘fantasy’ element of the game and from their entries in the MM as well as some others one could piece together images from the planar cosmology of the D&D’s ‘implied setting’. The early books, by way of these monsters, fleshed out the lower plans and the fate of the damned in D&D considerably more than the upper or neutral planes.

demons

1E AD&D’s treatment of demons and devils is one of the stand-out things about the edition that keeps me coming back to it. The rules and lore surrounding their amulets, their hierarchies and dwelling places all give the game great flavour, and a mysterious, ‘authentic’ feel. Their old simple B&W illustrations are reminiscent of medieval images of demons in art and even their descriptions echo what one would find in an Ars Goetia style occult text. This kind of dark evocative detail delighted my nerdy-goth-metal-punk teenage mind. The whole ‘satanic panic’ reaction against D&D was before my time, but funnily enough, I borrowed some occult books from my DM as a teen, which caused a minor spat with my mother when discovered. Good thing the DM was a family friend. Anyway, the religious fundamentalist reaction against D&D led to the purging of demons and devils (not to mention my beloved half-orcs) from the game in its revision for 2nd Edition, and I think they haven’t really recovered since. Sure, Planescape did nice work with the lower planes and brought back the fiends without using the ‘d-words’, but they lost some of their mystery and dread by becoming powerful races of monsters with magic powers in a setting filled with such. Post-AD&D versions of the game seem to have a depressing trend of presenting demons and related fiends as simply powerful monsters for battles, a far cry from the 1E MM where the descriptions go on at length on ways to bind or treat with these beings via amulets, circles, etc. James M over at grognardia nails this shift in his analysis of the visual history of Orcus.

I want my demons and devils to be more than just combat encounters, I want them to have a presence in the world. Even at low level play, the Demon Lords and Arch-Devils’ influence should be felt. A leering visage on a cracked church fresco, their many names written with a trembling hand in ancient chronicles or tomes of forgotten lore. In curses, fetishes, cultural taboos and weird superstitions. In the ravings of the wide-eyed apocalyptic fanatic on the street corner and the macabre rhymes sung by children to frighten each other. This way when PCs encounter a demon or devil in the ‘flesh’ they’ll know they’re face to face with a whole other level of danger.

paladin-in-hell1

To this end, I’m preparing a new blog series ‘Unspeakable Cults’ to develop these demons and devils in 1E along these lines. As well as some additional lore, there’ll be game material about legends, cults, rituals, superstitions, locations and items associated with each fiend or type thereof. I’ll be tackling each demon and devil in order of appearance from the 1E MM, FF and MM2, and if I can keep steam going take on some of the other similar beings in the books (Daemons, Slaad, Elemental Princes etc), even I think as the number of these monsters increase, they become somewhat less inspired or inspiring and more fiend-by-numbers, there should be a few choice ones here and there. This should hopefully provide some useful fodder for your old school games, despite your divine set-up or metaphysical cosmology. There may be no universal pantheon of gods across D&D worlds, but given their deep roots in the game, Demogorgon and Asmodeus probably have a hand in more game worlds than Ra, Vishnu or Odin taken together. Coming up first are the demons, (two-) headed by the big D himself.

Orctober part 2 – half orc half biscuit

It became clear in time that undoubted Men could under the domination of Morgoth or his agents in a few generations be reduced almost to the Orc-level of mind and habits; and then they would or could be made to mate with Orcs, producing new breeds, often larger and more cunning. There is no doubt that long afterwards, in the Third Age, Saruman rediscovered this, or learned of it in lore, and in his lust for mastery committed this, his wickedest deed: the interbreeding of Orcs and Men, producing both Men-orcs large and cunning, and Orc-men treacherous and vile.” (Myths Transformed, Morgoth’s Ring)

Liz's Danforth's MERP half-orc

Liz Danforth’s MERP half-orc, better than any of their example illustrations in AD&D

Yuck. From the beginning of the orcs in fiction, the half-orc came with them. Weirdly, men-orcs and orc-men are apparently different strains. Their origins in Middle-Earth somewhat occluded and mysterious, as is typical for orcish lore, but apparently some kind of sorcerous eugenics program. Interestingly, men first had to be corrupted to a certain level before being made to mate with orcs, it doesn’t seem like the orcs themselves had any inclination towards this before Morgoth ‘discovered’ the process.

LoTR and D&D core rulebooks both say almost nothing about female orcs’ side of things, but they differ in important respects. In our previous post, we look at the almost unique aspect of sexual threat attributed to orcs in the MM, markedly different from LoTR’s magic breeding program. It certain marks out the orcs as more sinister. Goblins and kobolds will kill you, but orcs are an existential threat to your race. They’ll assimilate and corrupt humanity, turning us into a badass multi-classable warrior race with infravision, higher STR and CON but a pathetic clerical level limit and no arcane magic. Sounds like there might be a few upsides? Damn right, half-orcs are awesome, and fun to play, even if the text itself appears to want to beat you up for wanting to play one sometimes, saddling you with harsh ability maximum in WIS (so cleric multis would usually be pretty weak), the only demi-human to have limited levels in thief and unlimited in assassin. Clearly there was some pressure to embrace your evil heritage and dedicate yourself to promoting the ‘antithesis of weal’ by being a Fighter/Assassin. There’s also the implication that all your tendencies to bad behaviour came from your orcish genes, and your good behaviour from your human parent.

Damnit, Gygax

Damnit, Gygax, I’m my own person, demi-human, humanoid, or whatever.

My first ever D&D character was a half-orc, and while I can fantasise about rolling up the perfect fighter/cleric/assassin and going maximum half-orc on the world, it was mainly because I wanted to be able to use miniatures from my Warhammer Fantasy Battle Orc and Goblin army.

Warhammer half-orcs from before my time.

Warhammer half-orcs from before my time.

I didn’t know much about how the rules worked but made a fighter/thief so he could use ALL THE WEAPONS and CLIMB ALL THE WALLS! Half-orcs get really low starting age ranges and he ended up being 15 or 16 yrs old, just a little older than myself in real life. This was exciting, but adolescent me thought he seemed a little immature, so I made up a background for him where he was the adopted son of my half-elf druid (who was around 4o years old with 15 WIS so seemed plenty mature to me). My older self can ponder the interesting roleplaying possibilities given this kind of relationship between these two mixed race characters, one from each side of half-human possibility, but in the end it may be a good thing I didn’t invest too much in it, as Morglum the half-orc met an untimely death by way of dragon-fire when he was still in his teens, somewhere around the 5th level. Still, in his short life, I managed to squeeze some nice RP juice out of him, just by way of his age, race and choice of associates. A youngster raised in the druidic religion away from his original parents by a mixed race foster parent, Morglum was naive, good natured and believed in balance. The violence and sneakiness of his classes were part of nature, but he didn’t ‘get’ a lot of the racial conflict in D&D. Our early level adventuring took us through plenty of humanoid areas, and when about to meet orcs for the first times in his life, Morglum regretted that he had to end up killing a lot of them to safeguard his friends, and that so few of them were willing to listen to reason (he got burned early on by desperate humanoids trying to exploit his naivety). Still where orcs where concerned I had him negotiate and communicate whenever possible, including attempting to temporarily recruit defeated orcs (especially after our men-at-arms all died). A couple of times his ability to read and speak orcish turned up handy information, and he was would discourage unncessary slaughter of humanoids in favour of focusing on the main objective. This led to a fair few conflicts with the group’s main warrior, an elven ranger with exceptional strength, a damage bonus vs humanoids, and an itchy sword hand every time he had a chance to use it. Having a half-orc in the party definitely had a meaningful impact on gameplay, and although Morglum was never destined for name-level greatness, I’ve had a penchant for playing half-orcs ever since.

No prince charming, but he’ll get the job done.

Before Drizzt and playable drow, the half-orc would be my pick for the badass anti-hero kind of character, the self-reliant type who kicks-ass while working through his or her often literally teenage angst. Strong, tough, cunning, distrusted by communities or humans and orcs alike, it seems like they’re a perfect fit for the gritty adventuring life, which would provide them with the riches, comradeship, validation and power that they couldn’t get through normal channels. They mature quickly and have a short lifespan, no wonder the live-fast die-young dungeon raiding lifestyle would appeal. They’re the intersection between monster and man, the character that can lift the veil over the all-too-convenient tidy set up of good playable pretty races versus bad ugly monsters and mess things around. Plenty of  murderhobos of other races have, at some point in their career, realised that there might not be much to separate them in behaviour from the humanoids in the dungeon. The half-orc knows this right from the start.

While they share some bad-boy rebel appeal with the drow, half-orcs are less glamorous. Orcs have a much gritter, barbaric, even working-class vibe to them that’s at odds with the suave dark elves. Half-orcs even stir things up in the real world. Half-orcs (and their signature assassin class) were omitted from 2nd Edition AD&D in an effort to purge the game of controversial content. They were eventually restored in the Complete Book of Humanoids supplement, and regained their rightful place in the core race set in 3e. Sadly, the 3e half-orc was something like a hulk-like bruiser with an INT penalty as well as the CHA, similar in appearance to the WoW orc but a very poor choice in 3e character building system, especially since the lack of INT meant they had less skill points for thief or assassin- like roles. I always imagined them as more lean and wiry. Certainly stronger than your average human but not the juiced-up ‘roid monster a lot of newer half-orc character art puts forward.  In 4th and 5th editions, they are better choices, presented as natural beserkers, with their orcish blood acting as a kind of curse egging them on to violent rages. 5e fluff does take a more nuanced and realistic approach to human-orc relations along the lines of my suggestion in the last post.

5e half-orc paladin. Continues with the trend of making them much beefier and more inhuman looking, but I like 5e’s treatment of half-orcs in general.

I’ll stick with my AD&D style half-orc for my old school games, though some good race-as-class variants have been offered up for B/X in the OSR blogosphere, with some emphasising the sneaky side of the race and other pushing the more modern beserker take. How do people feel about the half-orc out there? Are there still those out there think it’s inappropriate? For you 5e players, how does the modern iteration fare in play?

Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks and my first campaign.

Dungeons and Dragons wasn’t my first roleplaying game. My introduction to RPG actually came from The Warlock of Firetop Mountain first of the Fighting Fantasy books, a choose-your own-adventure-style series. This book, discovered lumped in with random titles on a year 5 classroom shelf, had many elements of old school D&D play. Underground exploration, funhouse-style assortment of monsters, mazes, magic items, sudden death, grim humour, etc. all featured. I was hooked and hunted around libraries and second hand shops for more titles and ended up with an impressive, but no means incomplete collection. The series are mostly fantasy-based, with you playing an adventuring fighter in the ‘campaign world’ of Titan, but there were plenty of titles with different kinds of protagonist (wizard, thief, spy, assassin, samurai, assassin, superhero) different settings, including sci-fi, post-apocalypse and alternative fantasy world. As much fun as I had with these, their potential exploded when I got my hands on two books gathering dust on a shelf in a used furniture shop. These were The Riddling Reaver, an RPG adventure module to be played with a GM running the scenarios for a group of players, and Out of the Pit, a ‘monster manual’ compendium of many of the creatures found in the books and quite a few more powerful ones clearly intended for group play. The latter included maps of two of Titan’s continents.

These two books together spring-boarded my first fantasy RPG campaign. Initially, it was very simple. FF uses a d6 based system with just three stats. Skill (used in combat and feats of strength or dexterity), Stamina (hit points) and Luck (effectively used in situations that would warrant a saving throw in D&D). This simplicity gave me an unparalleled ability to spin adventures on the fly that I miss sometimes when playing more complex games. At the same time the limitations of the system became clear in the lack of character variety and progression. Many of the monsters were woefully weak, the 2d6 range used for combat and skill tests meant that any adjustment of more than 2 was either crippling or overpowered.

Shortly after I started running this game I was inducted as a player into AD&D and began to introduce greater complexity into my FF campaign, both borrowed from D&D and from the various single player books that contained rules variants or special characters, monsters and equipment. My friends’ gang of leather-armoured sword swingers expanded to include wizards, samurai, rangers, paladins, clerics, thieves, assassins, elves, dwarves, lizardmen, death knights, barbarians, vampires, chaos warriors etc. I built a feat system, made spells, new rules from armour and weapon variants, all bolted on to the FF chassis. Once I managed to get my hands on some 1e AD&D books from ebay, I left this homebrew system behind but I still regard it as invaluable experience in DMing, and because of it I still see a lot of merit in rules-light, easily moddable game systems. And a lot of appreciation for the Brit-fantasy weirdness and atmosphere of the Titan game world. The early campaign also taught me that, even in a system with relatively little to distinguish characters mechanically, imaginative players will find a way to make them unique, to the point where I still remember them this day.

Fighting Fantasy also featured plenty of Russ Nicholson illustrations, which also happen to be one of the redeeming features of AD&Ds Fiend Folio

I’d still recommend the FF series for old school D&D players looking to mine some inspiration for their locales, monsters, and items. Here are some of my favourites from early in the series, plus some D&D-able content I converted from them for use in more grown-up elfgames.

 

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain: The daddy and probably the most generic of the lot. Classic dungeon crawl with an interesting amoral hero who invades the titular warlock’s lair with the intention of claiming his treasure, and can end with the hero claiming the magical power of the warlock as his own and ruling the dungeon as his successor. Combat is on the easy side (there’s an easy to find powerful magic sword and even the dragon can go down in 6 hits) but the location is good funhouse fare with varied monsters and traps.

D&D-able: Firetop Mountain is a good setting to adapt to a wizard lair a la White Plume Mountain. Here’s an encounter/item I like to use in my games.

The Eye of the Cyclops

A fist-size ruby that pulses with an eerie red light, this powerful gem is fixed in the face of the Iron Cyclops, a unique Iron Golem. The Iron Cyclops has no gas atteck, but instead projects a 30 foot range, 90 degree wide arc cone of anti-magic from its eye. This will prevent spellcasting and negate the properties of magic items in the area of effect, including weapons and armour. If the golem is defeated, the gem may be taken and used by other creatures. As a magic item, The Eye of the Cyclops may be used to detect magic 15′ at will. Its anti-magic cone may be activated at will for 5 rounds, once per day.

dat ass tho

Citadel of Chaos: This and Riddling Reaver contain a complete magic system if you want to play group FF with a wizard class. Riddling Reaver balances the wizard with other classes by penalising the spellcaster’s SKILL and STAMINA.

D&D-able: Not much in the spell-list is useful for D&D, though some of the weirder monsters might appeal to some. My main take from this was the name of the villain, Balthus Dire, which I stole for use as my go-to moniker for my magic user characters. If you really want to freak out your players with silly/dangerous monsters, I recommend the Wheelies.

Wheelie

No Appearing: 2-5, AC: 6, MV: 16″, HD: 2, AT: 1, DMG/AT: d4, Special: spin and throw 2 daggers per round at +2 to hit, Average Intelligence, Medium Size, Chaotic Evil. Each carries a brace of 6 throwing daggers with a spare for melee. These can come from any bizarro plane, but something about their aspect suggests corrupted Modron to me.

 

 

The Forest of Doom: Forest-crawl (duh) and one of the more non-linear of the books. Overall not one of the best but has a singularly inspiring way to fail the game by being transformed into the demon overlord of a fungus farm.

 

D&D-able:

The Crown of the Taskmaster

A cave leads to an small network of underground caves where large mushrooms are cultivated by mute humanoid clones. The mushroom growers quickly fall in combat, but they are guarded by patrols of fighting clones (as zombies). In the last cave is a throne where dwells a fire demon (basically a Balor, down to flaming whip and sword etc) which wears a golden crown. Once the demon is defeated, should the crown be donned by any mortal, he or she will be transformed into a fire demon/Balor and gain telepathic command of the clone walkers and warriors. The crown wearer is effectively removed from play, as it will desire only to maintain it’s mushroom farm on the prime material, the produce of which is considered a delicacy by a notable Demon Lord. The new demon will fight its former comrades to drive them from the farm, but is bound to its duty and will not pursue them outside the cave complex.

meet the new boss, same as the old boss

City of Thieves: Easily one of the best. Port Blacksand as a location is one of the gems of the series, and this adventure is chock full of interesting urban encounters in this chaotic and corrupt wretched hive of scum and villainy.

D&D-able: Totally. This one really deserves to be read through and mined for city adventure ideas. Confidence tricks, corruption, danger and just plain strangeness lurk round every corner. Hassle your players with corrupt guards, some of which are sarcastic trolls. Practise home invasion and encounter depressed Ogres, a wrecked house with squabbling hags dressed as little girls. Get some embarrassingly tasteless but magically protective tattoos. Present your players with a glass ball filled with swirling gas. Gas in D&D is generally feared as poisonous, but smash this thing on the ground and find that it dissipates harmlessly to reveal a useful magic item.

The Serpent Queen

In a sumptuous house, concealed behind silk curtains, dwells the Serpent Queen, a beautiful young woman with the head of a snake. The overlord of the city keeps her maintained in luxury and often sends her lavish gifts. It is said that he will reward handsomely anyone who can find a way to restore her to fully human form. If disturbed, she will defend herself with a deadly poison bite. I would make her a rogue Yuan-Ti abomination who never held true human form, but nonetheless holds onto hope that she can achieve one.

nice lashes

 

Deathtrap Dungeon: Baron Sukumvit of Fang creates this megadungeon as a sadistic contest to promote his dinky town, where the winner who beats the dungeon by collecting a series of gems and stepping out alive wins a fantastic cash prize. Straight-up dungeon crawl with some interesting encounters, especially from the Baron’s agents, who can cripple or empower your character depending on choices you make. One of the more gruesome and brutal entries in the series.

D&D-able. The dungeon and encounters a ok but what I would take from this is the setting. Want a contrived funhouse megadungeon? Set up the Baron’s contest in your campaign world. You can make it for competing teams if player co-operation is a concern or keep it for one winner for a brutal one-off adventure that would see the players team up for survival while awaiting the best opportunity to dispose of their rivals. I would actually say that the silliest thing about the dungeon is how it is treated as some kind of gladistorial entertainment when the crowd in the arena at the end has no way to see what’s going on. Fix some kind of giant scrying device or spell for the poor punters so that they can have some fun watching the carnage and derring-do.

the contenders

Island of the Lizard King: Combat-heavy jungle adventure with some really tough (but cool) antagonists and a compelling story. The island works well as a D&D setting, possibly fusing its elements with TSR module I2 for ultimate Royal Lizardy goodness.

D&D-able: The whole adventure would work well for a D&D party, but something more unique to be taken from the module is the Gonchong, a strange spider-like head parasite that both dominates and bestows great power on its host, in this case the titular Lizard King. I also take cues from this book when fleshing out Lizard Men tribes in D&D, boosting them with mutants, two-headed types, Styracosaurus riders.

Gongchong

AC: 5, MV: 6″, HD: 2, AT: 1, DMG/AT: d4, Small Size, Genius Intelligence, Lawful Evil, Special Defenses: +1 or better weapon to hit, 25% magic resistance, Special attacks: +2 to hit as it leaps onto a humanoid’s head. Upon a successful hit against an opponent, the Gonchong will implant itself onto the creatures head and make it its host. If the opponent wears a helm or protective headgear, the Gongchong must make another successful attack the next round to dislodge the headgear and implant itself. The host of a Gongchong loses his or her free will but gains the following benefits: strength 18.00, immunity to non-magical weapons, bonus hit points equal to the parasite’s hit points, 25% magic resistance, immunity to disease. Psionic or mind affecting attacks affect the parasite rather than the host. The Gongchong is cruel, domineering and paranoid, and will use its host to gather guards and slaves and establish a power base.

the big kahuna with big cat and Gonchong

the big kahuna with big cat and Gonchong

There are some other monsters/items/encounters that have made it from these books to my D&D campaigns, but that’s to be continued in a future post.

Dragon Engrish

Just back from a trip to Central Asia, which has provided some nice writing fodder, although not so much good for D&D, except the following:

 

Every time I go hiking, it’s a reminder that I really need to get tougher on encumbrance, rationing and fatigue rules to make trekking through the desert/mountains/badlands feel more dangerous and exciting than a stroll through the meadow or journey through the relatively resource-rich woodlands.

Scaling windy sand dunes is really fucked up and confusing and sand is flying in your eyes all the time and it would make for a frantic, tense combat encounter, especially against native monsters unimpeded by the environment.

 

Also I found this:

 

Tired of your dragons walking in unrealistic ways? Boy have I got good news for you.

Tired of your dragons walking in unrealistic ways? Boy have I got good news for you.

 

fried fish powrd

fried fish powrd

 

I don’t use minis but if I did, this would make it to the table and awe my hapless players with its authentic style and realistic walk.

Why Old School? Part 2- Feel

I devote a lot of thought to how to replicate the old school ‘feel’ that so captivated me during my early experiences with D&D. I wondered if it was all just in my head, that just because the books and games had lit up my mind at certain way, it didn’t follow that I could inspire others the same way. When I came across the OSR blogosphere, I was particularly heartened to find that I wasn’t alone in feeling the way I did, that there was something particular about early D&D that could inspire people in ways that more modern incarnations could not. Even more encouraging is feedback from my own players, most of whom also play in other game groups which run later D&D editions. One of my worries as a DM is that something I’m picturing in my head as cool, atmospheric and exciting just isn’t being transmitted that way into the minds of the players. Of course, every campaign looks different in the minds eye of each participant, and this is part of the beauty of it, but it’s my job as the DM to provide the connective structure so that the players exist in the same world and have a shared experience. At the heart of it, my  goal is to provide to my players the same feeling I had when I first started playing while also indulging my creativity with regards to creating the game world. When a player of mine praised the ‘dark and chaotic’ feel of my campaign, contrasted to the other games he has experienced, I knew that I was doing something right.  There’s been a lot of electric ink spilled over what makes a game ‘old school’ or not and it’s difficult to define precisely. The essence of the game is like cake, or pizza. We all know it when we see it, and many ingredients and flavours can be swapped out to taste, while essentially still being the same food.

Maybe D&D doesn’t have to be dark and chaotic all the time but the assumed setting points that way. The world is strewn with ruins and horrible monsters that can kill a normal man with one claw swipe (or even by literally looking at one). First level adventurers strike out into the unknown with sticks, sacks, cheap weapons and single digit hit points for the money and power that will secure their legacy and let them make a difference in this crapsack world. Civilisation is sparse and society hangs on by a thread, with most inhabited areas held down by rival bands of men at arms led by warlords, fanatical high priests, bandit lords and sorcerers who may be your patrons while you are useful and your deadly rivals once you’ve survived long enough to be a threat. Sure, you can find elves and unicorns and nymphs and the court of the Platinum Dragon in the sky, but even these supposedly benevolent beings are fucked with at your own peril. The powers of Good are distant and vague, and my help their agents by providing some buffs and healing and keeping away the undead. The powers of Evil are many, detailed, venerated by the majority of sentient humanoid species on the planet and frequently take horrible, magic-resistant physical form to blast your mind with madness and tear your face off. A D&D world is a terrible place to live but for adventurers who survive long enough, it offers more than enough freedom to remake it in their own image.

The world described above is true enough for middle of the road vanilla D&D and is usually the base I work from to keep an old school feel. There’s nothing quite like the feel of playing old school D&D ‘blind’ and coming to grips with this environment for the first time, when you are only dimly aware of the kind of foes and situations await. It’s more of a challenge to instil this feeling of darkness and chaos inside experienced players, which is why when I have a group of veterans, I prefer to change milieu flavour to something weirder and more off-book. Conversely, with players that haven’t played early D&D I like to ground them in the base game by throwing as much of the fantasy kitchen sink of them as I can, including my favourite bits from the old TSR modules that I played through myself as a young gamer.

Another player of mine, speaking about 4e, the system which he was most familiar with, defended it as ‘player empowerment vs DM empowerment’, as opposed to the old school  style, which was the reverse thereof. I’m not so hot on 4e but from second hand reading it seems to me like an engine designed around a linear series of carefully balanced combat encounters, with players having a set power or ability for every occasion. I’m sure it doesn’t necessarily have to be run that way, and this player certainly knows more than a thing or two about good games, but to me it sounds like someone tried to suck as much fun out of D&D as possible. The implication of old school D&D being the opposite of that, well, I don’t know. Throughout all the editions, characters improve with level through adventuring. Characters in my game empower themselves plenty through acquisition of power, magic, treasure, and dominion. Sure, I have plenty of power, but I use it to provide opportunities for the players to empower themselves.  But it is the same as player empowerment through character builds and options? It’s a different kind of power. Maybe I limit choices in character builds but they have complete freedom in the game world, including the power to get in over their heads and use whatever they can find in the world via exploration and roleplaying rather than picking powers from a list or guessing what skills to invest in.

Turning over these two comments in my head, I’ll put forward the elements I use in my games to keep that old school feel.

Player vulnerability. This is key to keeping the game away from wish-fulfilment fantasy, and adds verisimilitude to PCs. When they start out, they’re not much hotter than Joey Man-at-Arms or Ulgor the 1hd Orc. Maybe they have a handful of spells that need to be carefully chosen and conserved and timed. But their main weapons are their wits. They get a feel, at the beginning, of what it feels like to be an actual person in this world. It helps their sense of scale. If low level PCs all have quasi magical powers and abilities from the get go it diminishes the darkness and magic of their initial foray into the dungeon. They’re already superheros before they’ve faced a single test of mettle. The restrictive specialisations of the classes means that everybody knows their area of expertise and encourages co-operative gameplay, it also means can focus on building their character through interaction with the world. Through the acquisition of distinctive items, forging alliances, winning fame through mighty deeds. I’ve played in 3.5 games and seen broken builds that make characters able to dominate in every aspect of the game, or players make the wrong move in the meta-game of character build, locking them out of things they wanted later in the game. And I’ve spent my fair share of time dozing off doing ‘homework’ for my character build when I’d rather just be developing him through game action. Not that I can’t have fun playing that way, but I have much more fun when I spend my energy in game with a more streamlined system like B/X or AD&D.

uh-oh…

Player skill, not character skills. Related to the last point. I feel that too much quantification of character skills can become a crutch on the players, restricting their imagination on what they can and cannot do and encouraging meta gaming to bring their best numbers to bear. Once these things become a game mechanic it also restricts character development to what points can be spent at what level, and what skills might come up more often to be mechanically useful in play, rather than what works with the concept of the character. In my games, if a characters class, background or life experience can be brought to bear in a situation I never have a problem refereeing it, and it encourages clever plays to investigate and learn more about the game world in search of non-class related advantages.

Location, location, location. I mean a few things by this. One is location based play over the railroad. Give your players a land to explore, plenty of of adventure sites and things that can happen, but nothing that MUST happen for the game to progress. Let them poke their nose into local conflicts, dig up the graves of the cursed dead and shine torchlight on things Man Was Not Meant to Know. If they survive and they want to fuck around with your land and can get away with it, let ’em. They’ve pried that right from the jaws of death. The second point is that adventuring locales, especially at low levels, are exciting hazards for the players in themselves. In the dungeon, darkness, confusing architecture and unfamiliar and restrictive layout can combine to land a part in deadly peril if they’re not careful. The primeval forests disorientate a wandering party and abound with creatures which move at ease in nature and resent interlopers from ‘civilisations’. Rich pickings can lie unclaimed for centuries in frozen tundra and arid deserts, their surroundings strewn with the bones of those unlucky adventures who never even reaching the dungeon entrances in such hostile environments. Planar travel is this, but bigger and badder and pushing against your very existence as an invading virus. Finally, adventure locales should inspire a sense of wonder. In a game that emphasises exploration, give the players something worthwhile to explore.  Even after players pillage an adventure locale, they should remember not just monsters fought and treasure found, but the distinctive features of the location itself. Maybe they would even seek to take over a dungeon or castle or make a location part of their domain. Our own world abounds with breaktaking and dangerous natural scenery and ruins, in D&D we can take that and turn it up to 11. A mirror sea of shiny glass traversed by skate ships, aquatic humanoids on dragon turtle villages, a city carved into a petrified giant, the fungus-lit, spider crawling, debauched dark fairyland of the Drow.

gusss

Experience points for Gold! Or at least, experience for something other than combat which doesn’t meet some arbitrary story or roleplaying demand. I still like XP for gold according to Crazy Uncle Gary. It gives the party a motivation to all work to a common goal, and a realistic one for their characters, since to make a difference in a world as fucked up as D&Dville you need a lot of money and power. The players are rewarded for adventuring anywhere where there’s treasure and sets the tone for scrappy, roguish adventure. It also encourages clever play and conservation of resources. D&D is a violent game, but in a system where the lions share of XP comes from treasure smart PCs will pick and choose their battles carefully rather than engage in combat for it’s own sake. This keeps it an adventure game rather than a series of arena battles. This makes sense from a roleplaying perspective – characters get into adventuring for fortune and glory, not for the sheer thrill of getting their head kicked in. It’s also fairer on the PCs, they know more or less what treasure is worth and can weigh risk and reward, use magic and negotiation to find out where it is. With arbitrary bonuses awarded for roleplaying or story XP, this is less clear and more subject to DM fiat.

have a feeling a fight over this prize is about to break out

have a feeling a fight over this prize is about to break out

Randomness. I love random tables and the unexpected. One main reason is because as much as I like to build the world to small detail, when it comes to events in play it’s always nice to be surprised. The players always have the thrill of not knowing what’s going to happen or what’s behind the door. Sometimes I like not knowing too. For example, on a no-man’s-land dungeon level claimed by several factions, I like to establish a range of possibilities for wandering monsters picking through the rooms at the same time the players are moving through the area, likewise with another random table for any loot, prisoners or items they have picked up so far. This makes the dungeon seem more alive and keeps the world in motion. Also, old D&D is full of items with random effects or contents (Deck of Many Things, Wand of Wonder, Bag of Beans, Iron Flask). Players have a healthy respect for magic that they cannot fully control, and get excited about using it in a way that just doesn’t really happen with the sword + 2 or Staff of Curing.  This is related to player vulnerability, but also to fairness. In these cases, it takes some control out of the DM’s hands so that if they player meets a sticky end, it’s just bad luck or bad judgement, not the DM out to get you.

deckof

Every. Damn. Time. I’ve given my players the Deck someone has drawn this fucker.

Black humour. There’s a lot of silliness and humour in D&D – Gygax’s penchant for Saturday morning cartoon wackiness is not for everyone can easily be adjusted to taste per campaign, but I would never do away with it entirely. Items with random effects are indicative of the rather dark spin on this sense of humour – they provide a lot of entertaining ways to die. Even at it’s most farcical, D&D humour is somewhat grim and ultraviolent. Sure, that monster looks ridiculous but who knows what kind of fucked up things it can do to you? Your wand of wonder shrunk you to 6 inches in height, put on your best squeaky voice and try not to get stepped on! The mimic is stupid but it punches you in the face. How many suggestion spells is the succubus working into her dirty jokes? How many characters die hilarous, slapstick deaths as opposed to heroic last stands. Humour provides welcome moments of fun and tension relief at the table, but fits right into that dark and chaotic feel.

better-work-254

sometimes the players are more than willing to bring the funny on their own initiative

Why Old School? Part 1- Familiarity

In which our Hero is initiated into 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons at the turn of the Millennium.

I’m not one of the older OSR people who can claim Grognard pedigree harking back to the Gygaxian era. My first Dungeons and Dragons game was run by Trevor, a friend of my parents. I was in my early teens and met him through dinner parties hosted by my parents, and we bonded over a shared appreciation of Warhammer Fantasy Battle and various historical/fantasy/sci-fi interests. My fledgling Orc and Goblin Waaagh, mainly cobbled together from 2nd hand purchases ad supplemented by some of Trevor’s Warhammer Quest Orc Boyz to make up the numbers, clashed against his immaculately painted Dark Elves. From a nearby shelf on the other side of the warp, similarly resplendent pre-Grimdark 2nd Ed 40K Orks brandished their kombi-weapons and watched, to the best of my recollection, their clumsily painted primitive cousins give a good accounting of themselves.

After battles Trevor would show me his other games, books and stuff. Squad Leader, Warhammer 40k, Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, old issues of White Dwarf. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I rolled attributes for a couple of characters before I knew anything about how the game worked. Dice rolling was 3d6 in order but I got to roll four sets and pick two. My best set had 15 in WIS and CHA so I made Hengist the half-elven Druid. The other, as far as I recall, had most stats in the 9-14 range and ended up as the adolescent half-orc fighter-thief Morglum. Along with some schoolfriends that I pulled in based on their appreciation of Warhammer and The Baldur’s Gate CRPG, I took my first tentative steps into AD&D. Our minds boggled at the huge Forgotten Realms maps, with no idea what to do with all that space. Our first encounter was with a necromancer in a graveyard, represented by a luridly painted lead lady with bared breasts and a wicked curved dagger. With a typical teenage nerd boy assertiveness with women, we bumbled until a horde of undead had risen from their graves and surrounded us before a lucky turn attempt got us out of the jam. We found a mace +1 in the crypts and were overjoyed with our precious treasure. We bought a mule and hired a small force of men at arms who all died in their first expedition (Stirge attacks in the Palace of the Silver Princess). We were lazy with mapping and got lost in dungeons, fleeing from the sound of monsters we couldn’t see and barricading ourselves inside empty rooms with iron spikes and furniture, furtively munching our iron rations and desperate to rest. We thrust a 10 foot pole into the Green Face trap from Tomb of Horrors. Our first encounter with a dragon roasted half our party (including my poor half-orc) in its first breath. We ascended the Ghost Tower of Inverness. We spent some time captured by djinni and forced to serve as gladiators in the Elemental Plane of Air. We put to rest the undead Lizard King and escaped the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan. After a long career, Hengist, Initiate of the 9th Circle, had seen all of his earlier companions come to terrible ends in the pursuit of gold and glory, and retired to dedicate himself to spiritual pursuits. But what a ride it had been!

But it wasn’t enough to enjoy the ride, I wanted to take it apart and see how it worked. I was already a DM of sorts, running a home brewed game based on Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, and once I was playing D&D I started incorporating what I experienced into this game, cargo-cult style. I borrowed books from my DM and gradually put together a more complete picture of D&D and managed to score my own DMG and Monster Manuals I and II from ebay. The PHB was painstakingly photocopied and stored in a ring binder.

Around this time I met some kids around my age who played 3rd Edition D&D, but just trying to peruse the new books left me cold. It didn’t inspire me in my world-building the way Gygax’s vision had. Nowadays I’ve played a bit of later D&D editions but none of them have impressed me enough to become my go-to to run a game. My own AD&D game has become more personalised with house rules, tweaks, incorporation of B/X or OSR material, and other experimentation. But I keep playing AD&D, its programming deeply ingrained in my thought processes. My familiarity with both what is it and what it’s meant to be lets me make swift, effective rulings and run a tight game. Its flexible and modular nature gives me the freedom to hack and splice without breaking the game, all the while the elegance of the core structure means I can do this on the fly without myself or my players losing sight of what game we’re playing. However modded it might get, however many notes and addendums I scribble, the soul of my game always rests somewhere in that messy, Efreeti-fronted tome.

The dominant visual in my first D&D games

The dominant visual in my first D&D games, and one of the most definite images of its elements of play that I’ve seen to date.