A Dwarf’s Tale

Fiona is a dwarf fighter in our long running (3 years and counting) AD&D campaign. Fiona isn’t the strongest warrior in the gang but she’s definitely the toughest, with 19 CON and ungodly saves and HP. She’s Chaotic Neutral and possessed of a somewhat belligerent, beserker nature, prone to axe heads first and ask questions later. Fiona’s ferocity in battle is balanced somewhat by her artistic side when it comes to her appearance. Aside from making good use out of the precious jewellery liberated from dungeons, she carefully maintains her face with makeup, unguents and oils, and braids her hair with the colourful feathers of fell beasts which have fallen under her axe.

Fiona’s a fabulous fighter, but her sex on the character sheet doesn’t say ‘F’. It’s M, because Fiona is transgender. And she’s amazing, beloved by her comrades and feared by her enemies. She’s the first transgender PC I’ve ever had the pleasure of DMing, but it wasn’t in any way difficult to incorporate her into the game.

How often does the fact of her gender identity come into play? Not so much. In the smaller towns and villages where the party sometimes make their base, she turns a few heads with her flamboyant appearance, but the adventurers as a whole are a ragtag bunch of misfits, and is a dwarf with some feathers and makeup going to freak out more people than the half-orc as strong as an ogre who flies around in full plate, or the wizard in a robe of moving, staring eyes, with a tiny dragon on his shoulder? In fact, Fiona’s managed to bond with village women over hair and fashion tips. Beauty is her weakness in more ways than one, however, and she’s had unfortunate encounters with sexy vampire ladies and succubi which have resulted in loss of life levels. Nowadays she still reacts strongly to encounters with enchantingly beautiful monsters, but is more inclined to reach for her hammer than her lipstick.

Dwarf society in my game world has the Discworld element of strict conformity to one gender role for both sexes. Fiona’s chaotic nature and rejection of tradition may make her an outcast from the more isolated communities of her own kind, but out in the wide world she has no trouble being taken for who she is.

Fiona’s player is a lesbian and an activist for social justice and I point this out because the character has NEVER been used as a soapbox for any kind of political agenda in the game world. In fact, Fiona as a character is irreverent, occasionally vulgar, and as ‘un-PC’ as they come. Sexuality has its place in D&D, but her gender identity is important to her story but not a major focus in the game.

I write this because of the vitriol and hate I witnessed from a certain toxic element of RPG fandom with regard to the AD&D-based CRPG Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear, in which a minor NPC can mention to the protagonist that she was raised as a boy, sparking a massive reactionary backlash and mod spamming of bad reviews against a game that apparently ‘shoved SJW LGBT agenda and political correctness down the throats’ of some fragile, bitter souls. Despite as high an authority on Realms lore as Ed Greenwood defending the character’s inclusion, idiots continued to insist that trans characters had no place in the ‘medieval’ world (and D&D’s about as authentically medieval as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, not like was ever intended to be any more so, though), or that sex-changing magic made trans individuals obsolete (just how many girdles are there to go around, really?). These sad individuals look at all the possibilities of a game like D&D and insist that must conform to a particular kind of oppressive hierarchy found in the real world, or they feel threatened. What scares them so much that they try and police the fantastic?

I’m putting Fiona’s story out to demonstrate that I know from experience that anyone who claims that having trans characters in a game somehow spoils D&D is spewing bullshit. And because I’m sure that Fiona isn’t alone out there in many gaming worlds that populate tabletop roleplaying, old or new school, and I want to make queer D&D chars visible on the web for inspiration to anyone who is nervous about playing the character they want.

So that’s Fiona. She’s no one’s political token or fetish. She’s a fabulous fighter and hard-as-nails tank who dreams of find some magic sabatons that let her fight in high heels. Charmer of dusky maidens and slayer of demons. In our last session, she was hurled by a storm giantess onto a polar bear and managed to ride the enraged beast into a throng of enemies. Gods bless you Fiona, whether you find those heels or not, you’ve made your legend.

fifi

This isn’t mine, and I think is meant to represent Cheery Littlebottom from Discworld. Not as many transgender dwarf images online as you’d think.

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More LL combat tweaks

I got a lot of positive feedback on social media channels for my weapons rules, although a few commentators highlighted that polearms seemed too powerful. I’m ok with polearms being more effective that most other weapons in combat, but that should only be part of their value. Rather than reduce their combat stats, I’ve an eye to make their drawbacks apparent to players via their greater encumbrance, expense and vulnerability of the wooden haft as opposed to swords which will have better item saving throws.

Moving on from the weapons, what about the adventurers who will be using them?

beautiful-manuscript-image

Cleric chants from a safe distance. Smart.

I like a good scrap in an RPG as much as anyone, but I like D&D combat fast and deadly, so I’m inclined to use the default LL hit die (i.e. as in BX D&D, d4 for thieves, d6 for clerics, d8 for fighters) as it helps curb HP bloat at higher levels. Rather than using attack tables, I’ll also be using the target 20 algorithm a la Delta. I’m already doing this in my AD&D campaign and it does wonders for speeding up combat encounters, especially when there are a lot of agents.

d20+HD+AC ≥ 20

Monsters and fighters use their full HD or level. Thieves and Clerics add 1/2 their level (Clerics round up, thieves round down), magic users use 1/3 of their level (round down). Target 20 has proven very satisfactory so far for combat, but I’m not convinced about using it for saving throws or thief skills.

I’m also changing up multiple attacks for high level fighters. Fighters will get 2 attacks/round at level 10, 3/round at lvl 20. This eliminates the awkward phase of 3/2 rounds that players often seem to mentally trip over, and moves one of the big power gains of the fighter down to a level which is more likely to be achieved in play.

I’m not using proficiency points in general, but I’m toying with a weapon specialisation system for fighter classes only, along the lines of fighter get points equal to half their level to assign to weapons (max 3 pts), each point granting a +1 to hit with that weapon. This allows players to play out their character for a while and get a feel for the weapons they want before locking in on their favourites, and doesn’t unbalance or front-load fighters too much like the Unearthed Arcana rules do.

Under consideration: Fighter subclasses such as Ranger and Paladin. Not sure whether they should benefit from the 2 attacks or weapon spec. Maybe have the 2 attacks moved up to 15th level and limit them to just 2 points in any weapon (round down when calculating points).

Advancing Weapons for Labyrinth Lord

In my last post on the topic, I mentioned how I was keen on the Labyrinth Lord ruleset for a future campaign, but there were a few things about it that irked me. One of those was the rules for weapons. Weapons are a bit of a problem point (or edge, or flange) for D&D and related games in general. A lot of this has to do with where you land on abstraction vs simulationism. Simple, abstract rules such as ‘all weapons do the same damage’ or ‘weapon damage = class HD’ keep weapon choice largely cosmetic and don’t bog down combat with too many variables. Full-fat AD&D, with its Weapons vs Armor Class tables and speed factors for every weapon, succeeds in distinguishing weapons mechanically but slow-down and over-complicate combat with a lot of table lookups and number crunching.

In Dungeons and Dragons, different classes are allowed to use different weapons, with one of the privileges of the Fighter class being their unrestricted weapon access. Assuming this, whatever weapon rules are used will end up affecting the power balance between classes, likely that of Fighters most of all.

I like D&D combat to be fast, deadly and easy to understand. For a while, I was sure class-based damage was the way to go. Now I’m leaning more towards a more complex system. This is mainly for two reasons.

  1. Watching HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) channels on youtube and increased acquaintance with the size, shape and weight of medieval weaponry has ramped up my enthusiasm for detail regarding these weapons and their relative advantages and disadvantages in use.
  2. I want the class selection of weapons to be meaningful, and in the case of fighter-types, the choice of which weapons to equip themselves with to be a meaningful tactical choice and appreciable benefit of the class.
  3. I wanted players do be able to quickly add up their damage rolls + modifiers, and to streamline the mental arithmetic, I wanted just 1 dice for damage rolls (e.g. no 2d4 damage, no d6+1 damage).

 

poorsod

Working with these goals in mind, here’s what I came up with:

Swords

Generally the most popular weapon in D&D, swords come in wide variety of shapes and sizes, and generally excel at being all purpose damage dealers. The longsword was tweaked to let it be used one or two handed and made interchangable with bastard sword, as far as D&D terminology is concerned. 2H sword has the highest damage around to compensate for lack of shield use, and the fact that I don’t use AD&D’s damage vs large rules. Also it gives the d12 some exercise.

Short Sword – d6

Broad Sword/Scimitar/Falchion/Arming Sword – d8

Long or ‘bastard’ sword – d8/d10 if used 2 handed

2 handed Sword – d12

Axes

I used a watered down version of AD&D’s WvsAC rules to highlight the armour penetration factor of axes versus many of the less advanced armour types. This makes the axe a very desirable type of weapon versus a common D&D enemy- low hit dice humanoids. Also good against beasts with leathery or scaly skin. The tomahawk or frankish style hand axe can be hurled. Most medieval battle axes I’ve seen seem to be optimised for 2-handed use, but could probably also be used, albeit less effectively, in combination with a shield.

All axes gain +2 to hit vs light armour (up to chain mail)

Hand axe – d6, can be hurled (hurled weapons gain both Str and Dex bonuses)

Battle axe – d6/d8 if used 2 handed

Maces, Morning Stars and Warhammers

I feel that maces and warhammers effectively fulfil  the same role – they’re percussive weapons designed to take down heavily armoured opponents. Morning stars are effectively a spiky mace. Flails, I think, can also be subsumed into this group. To this end they have a bonus that makes them useful against elite enemy characters and things like chitinous monsters.

All maces and warhammers get +2 to hit against heavy armour (banded/splint/plate mail or better)

Mace, Morning Star or Warhammer – d6

2H version- d8

Spears

Spears were the ubiquitous military weapon of the middle ages. For low-level adventurers and their henchmen, getting in that first hit can be the difference between life and death. Javelins are primarily missile weapons, they can be used as a 1H d6 damage weapon but do not get the reach advantage of melee spear.

Reach – Spear wielder automatically strikes first in the first round of combat vs any single opponent, and deals double damage if the opponent was charging. This is negated vs another weapon of similar length.

Spear – d6/d8 if used 2H

Javelin – d6, can be hurled.

Daggers

The last ditch defence option for magic users and the archetypal weapon of thieves and assassins, the dagger is easily concealable and great for a sneak attack. It can be hurled in a pinch, but only specially made throwing weapons can be used effectively thus. Throwing daggers are not available to magic-users.

Dagger – d4, +2 to hit when used in backstab or assassination, can be hurled at -2 penalty.

Throwing daggers – d4

Polearms

Gary Gygax’s polearm is well-documented, but for our purposes polearms such as halberds, pollaxes, guisarmes, bec-de-corbins and the like are lumped together. The main strength of polearms are their reach and versatility – it pierces, it slashes, it bashes! Reach, high damage and armour penetration are enjoyed by the polearm wielder.

Reach as spear. Armour penetration as both axe and mace. 2H required.

Polearm – d10

Wooden Weapons

For the poor or desperate.

Club – d4

2H Quarterstaff – d6

Bows

Labyrinth Lord gives longbows a higher damage die, which I like. No changes to these except to note that I would allow two arrows/round if the user does not also move.

Short Bow – d6

Long Bow – d8

Crossbows

Crossbows user cannot move and fire, but they can pre-load a bolt to be loosed before initiative is rolled for the first round of combat. In addition, the crossbow can be fired straight ahead from a prone or crouching position.

Hand Crossbow – d4, extremely rare except for drow and assassins

Light Crossbow – d6

Heavy Crossbow – d8, +2 to hit vs metal armour.

Slings

Same as bows, can be fired twice/round if user doesn’t move. Handy for adventurers on long journeys away from civilisation, as they can collect rocks to re-stock their ammunition.

Sling – d4

Darts

Effectively smaller, lighter javelins. Portable and used as hurled weapons only. Longer range than throwing daggers.

Dart – d4

Weapon Restrictions

Fighter (and subclasses) – Any

Cleric – mace, morningstar, warhammer, sling, staff, club

Druid – short sword, spear, sling, staff, club, dagger (melee only)

Thief – short sword, 1H sword, dagger, club, staff, light crossbow, short bow, sling, hand axe

Assassin – any

Magic user (and subclasses) – staff, dagger (melee only)

I think these class restrictions combined with the weapon rules work to keep the fighter and assassin on top when it comes fighting power but still gives the other classes some options to choose from. (except for poor MUs but nevermind).

The warrior equipping himself will have to weigh up weapon advantages versus inventory space and what kind of foe he or she thinks the party will face.

My thief list is somewhat expanded because I see the ‘adventuring thief’ as not necessarily limited to urban gang weapons. The AD&D’s Druid’s scimitar was intended to be a sickle like device used to harvest plants, but I don’t see that as being optimised for combat in a way a scimitar would be, but I can see them having smaller blades for self defence, hence the short sword.

I’d love to hear opinions on this, especially from anyone with experience in HEMA or designing custom OSR weapon rules. So far in playtesting with an AD&D group it’s working out well. Does anyone think I’ve made any serious blunders in the weapon attributes?

Orctober part 4 – more orcs, more problems

So our last post was really about making standard AD&D orcs more dangerous in various thematic ways, This is fine for keeping the spotlight on orcs for higher level play instead of moving on to bugbears or whatever, but it’s really just adding spice to the meat and potatoes humanoid slay-fest. Since my homebrew AD&D campaign has long since passed the point where low HD humanoids can present a threat to the players, and since there are a few half-orc player characters on the roster (one of the main crew, plus a couple of henchmen and secondary characters), I’ve been cooking up scenarios where they can be involved in different ways.

orcto44

business as usual

Not that it means making orcs noble savage friends of the forest full of of facebook-style fake native american shaman wisdom. Orcs are defined by violence, danger, mystery, opposition and otherness. Take that away and you don’t have an orc or half-orc, you just have some tough guy. Just because your orcs aren’t evil-to-the-core demonspawn doesn’t mean that their story shouldn’t be about conflict. In the real world there are plenty of long running conflicts going on where people on each side of the ethnic/religious/national divide see the other as an evil to be exterminated. Developing humanoid antagonists like the orcs can help you explore this kind of story in your game, if that’s your bag. Since violence is to orcs what mining is for dwarves, magic for elves, pies for halfings, etc…I would say that orcs should never be far from real or implied violent conflict, but in a campaign world where it’s possible for orcs to have value to the cultures that the PCs come from, an adventure can encourage different ways of managing that conflict.

orcto43

So what kind of value would they have? Well, history is full of examples of a powerful civilisation exercising influence over a group which it considers less civilised, less cultured, more warlike, barbarous and violent. Sure there is conflict, but also trade and exploitation, especially incorporation into the military, perhaps as auxiliaries or irregulars. My model is ancient Rome and the Celtic and Germanic ‘barbarians’. Sure there was plenty of warfare between them but also trade, alliances, intermarriage, vassalage and the assimilation of barbarians into the Roman military, to the point where Rome relied very heavily on barbarian soldiers, and successful barbarian military leaders could hold the balance of power in the empire. In a D&D world, I can mainly see this kind of thing happening with orcs because of their similarity to humans in size, and the whole half-orc thing. Even in terms of religion, human followers of a norse-type mythos would see some things in common with orcs venerating Gruumsh’s family.

orcto48

With that in mind, here are a couple of orc-related shenanigans for your players to get stuck into:

  • PCs stumble into in orc lair and meet with a positive reaction from rather polite orc guards in shabby livery. They are invited to feast with the chief, who has served some time as a mercenary in human lands and was incredibly taken with human culture and now styles himself as a baron. He’s done his best to imitate it as best as he understands, but something’s always just a little off. The chief’s family and high-ranking warriors all dress in an approximation of courtly fashion,give themselves extravagant titles and use extensively formal and flowery vocabulary, peppered with glaring malapropisms. The chief fancies himself something of an intellectual and inaccurately quotes from human playwrights and philosophers. He also insists on reading out his own poetry. The savage and vicious state of rival humanoid tribes and races shall be bemoaned. He inquires as to the health and fortunes of local nobility, speaking of them as if they were distant cousins and requesting that the PCs deliver letters to them inviting them to his next grand ball. Despite this veneer of sophistication many of their manners at the feast remain typically orcish and there are certainly some around who go about this with some distaste and are itching to chop the PCs to bits just like the good old days. Nonetheless if the PCs can keep a straight face throughout the feast they can make an strong ally, particularly if they are or give the impression that they are of high social status. This tribe will eagerly buy silks, dinner sets, objets d’art and all sorts of wealth and status signifiers from the PCs. Particularly good relationships can be established if they compliment the chief on his erudition and taste, the warriors on their dashing charm and the ladies on their beauty and manners. There will be music and dancing, which will come off as a bizarre mix of human and orcish styles. The chief will make much of his sons and daughters and will try to play matchmaker between them and human PCs. For what it’s worth, they clean up pretty nice. If this notion is entertained, this tribe can become a source of hirelings and other aid. Things can get ugly quickly if the chief is mocked, disrespected or ridiculed. He can take advice in private but will not be made to look a fool in front of his subjects. Likewise if the PCs turn out to be boors or ruffians, or let slip that they are wanted by local authorities then the tribe will turn on them to take their loot and either kill them or turn them in to the law. If the PCs flash around wealth while appearing weak and of low social status, the temptation to simply attack and appropriate their cultural valuable treasure and equipment might be too much to resist.
rat a tooey

rat a tooey

  • In a world where the use of orcish mercenaries and bodyguards is an established tradition, a human-dominated empire maintains control over its dominions with an army which has become more orcish with every generation. Having proven themselves eager and effective soldiers, orcs integrate themselves to do some degree within the wider citizenship and gain various rights under the law of the land, immigrating and settling into human cities. The success of orcish military units in the provinces have led to some orcish commanders becoming popular public figures, influential in the borderlands and in the urban power centres. The troops are so loyal to their generals that civil elites are quick to placate these warlords, fearing a military coup. Among the military nobles, mixed marriages and half-orcs are common and fashionable. In fact, the success of orcs in the military has led to a widespread trend of ‘orcish chic’ in human society. Popular among rebellious youth or those with ties to the army, this entails speaking orcish slang, swearing by orcish gods, wearing orcish hairstyles and tribal markings, horned helmets, spiky armour, jagged blades and furs, even though these kind of clothes were abandoned by most city orcs over a generation ago while they tried to integrate themselves. Traditional human elders are appalled by this appropriation of barbarism, and likewise so is the elvish population, who are both nostalgic for the past when they were seen as the ones for humans to emulate and also worried about the general anti-elf tendencies of this new subculture. On the orcish side, most orcs are increasingly annoyed at seeing their neighbourhoods and bars invaded by privileged human hipsters who caricature their traditions, pretending they ‘get’ them. What started as a harmless fad veers into dangerous territory as a group of noble youths connected to an orc-cult disappear into the undercity to take part in ultimate ‘authentic’ orcish experience, an inter-tribal gladitorial competition  where a group of traditionally minded orcs and shamans intend to make sure the pretenders meet a gruesome end as sacrifices to Gruumsh. An underworld snitch tips off the PCs or their patron, and it’s up to them to find and rescue these young nobles while keeping the local orcish population sweet enough to not cause problems with the army.
Fighting Fantasy half-orc warrior ready to gut some hipsters

Fighting Fantasy half-orc warrior ready to gut some hipsters

  • Based on the idea of Chaotic and Neutral orcs from OD&D, the Chaotic Dark Lord of the month is a powerful and charismatic fellow and has gathered the Chaotic orc tribes into a fearsome horde. The closest bastion of civilisation has recently recovered from an internal conflict and cannot stand up to an invasion on its own. The PCs are recruited as emissaries to the Neutral tribes. These tribes, being orcs, are all fierce rivals and reluctant to co-operate or see the others profit at their expense. In fact, they may push the PCs to eliminate other Neutral tribes to gain their allegiance. Otherwise they will demand treasure, weapons, magic items, hostages, territory in formerly human lands or marriage alliances with important humans.  The PCs may be asked to clear out dungeon/cavern areas in tribal territory, remove dangerous monsters or tame them for the war effort. Perhaps they must prove themselves through torturous tribal initiations or feats of strength. Maybe they will demand bloody sacrifices of powerful creatures to their tribal gods in order to ensure a good omen. The PCs will have to sit and moderate war councils with different human and orcish elders. Tribes whom with which negotiations go badly may join the Chaotic side, particularly if they suffer heavy losses at the hands of PCs. If the PCs manage to recruit most of the Neutral tribes, then they will it will be sufficient to halt the advance of Chaos, giving the party a chance to go on the offensive against the BBEG. Then there’s seeing if all those deals hold up come ‘peace’-time.
reaction roll

reaction roll

That’s a wrap for Orctober 2015. Please also check out parts 1, 2 and 3 and let me know what you think in the comments, feel free to comment your own ideas and get in touch if you’d like me to write more on our humanoid friends.

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.