Showing posts with label Old School Revival. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Old School Revival. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Rethinking Dungeons & Dragons: An Alternate "Original D&D" Combat System

As you might have noticed, I've been on a bit of a Dungeons & Dragons history and prehistory kick of late. My past two posts have discussed articles from the old British Miniature Soldier Society's Bulletin and the Society of Ancients Slingshot Magazine and how those relate to the early development of D&D. I'll be returning to that series of pre-D&D influences in the British gaming scene soon, but I recently read a very interesting conversation over on the OD&D discussion boards regarding the combat system for David Arneson's Blackmoor Campaign.

As most of you know, Dungeons & Dragons is over 40 years old and though the game has changed a lot over the decades one thing has remained the same. In every edition since the Little Brown Books first introduced the "Alternate Combat System" the basic mechanic of the game has been for players to roll a Twenty-sided die to determine success or failure when attacking in combat. That term "Alternate Combat System" has always intrigued me. While the original Little Brown Books recommend using Chainmail as the combat system for D&D play, it isn't evident that this was the system that either Arneson or Gygax were actually using in their pre-publication D&D games. Writers like Jason Vey, Jason Cone, and Daniel Boggs (as Alderron) have all examined how to run D&D using the Chainmail system. Jason Vey's Spellcraft & Swordplay Core Rulebook and Daniel Boggs' Champions of ZED: Zero Edition Dungeoneering have gone even further an attempted to create and play games that are similar in style to the game David Arneson may have played in the pre-publication days of D&D.

The recent conversation on the OD&D discussion boards was started by Daniel Boggs who was inquiring what David Arneson's post-Chainmail game sessions might look like. According to Boggs' post, Arneson's crew may have played using rules adapted from an Ironclads rule set Arneson had designed for American Civil War ship to ship combat. I initially confused Arneson's Ironclad rules with Tom Wham's Ironclad rules and some large sum of cash spent at Noble Knight Games later, I discovered that these were not the rule Boggs was referencing.

The discussion board conversation inspired me to play around with a "pre-D&D-esque" combat rules set of my own based on a system of rolling 2d6-2 for the combat rolls. If you read the Boggs' led conversation, you'll see that 1-10 rolls (or 0-10 rolls) might have been used by Arneson's team. My goal here is to open a conversation and get feedback before playtesting. I'm in the process of adapting the Chainmail rules outright, but this would be another alternative system.

The original Chainmail man-to-man combat system, as Boggs/Vey and others have pointed out Chainmail has at least 3 combat subsystems, uses a comparison of a person's weapon and an opponent's armor to determine the to hit roll. For example (looking at the table below), a person with a dagger would need to roll a 12 on 2d6 to hit a person wearing Plate Armor and Shield. Any blow struck kills the target, or deals 1d6 damage in D&D's adaptation of the rules.
This is a very workable system that has a lot of granularity and is one that I'm looking forward to playing with my regular game group, but it is also one that is more "fiddly" and combat table based than many modern gamers are used to in their games. If you look at the table above, you'll see that Chainmail used an ascending Armor Class much like the modern game. This was reversed in original D&D and Armor Class was rescaled so that lower Armor Classes were better and Plate Armor and Shield was given an AC of 2, while No Armor was given an AC of 10.

Under a d20 system, I have come to prefer ascending ACs as being more intuitive for players, but in the system I'm about to propose I'm going to recommend keeping the reversed ACs of the Original Little Brown Books.

What is my alternative system? It's fairly simple and is essentially what was discussed in the OD&D boards. I want to experiment with rolling 2d6-2 where the characters hit if they roll less than the AC of the defender. You can see a breakdown of the probability of success below. I've selected "less than" rather than "equal to or less than" because I want to have some potential for automatic failure.

You'll notice that this system makes it very difficult to hit opponents with a good armor class. A player would only have an 8.33% chance of hitting an opponent with an AC of 2 (Plate Mail) and only a 2.78% chance of hitting an opponent with an AC of 1 (Plate Mail and Shield). This won't be too big a deal if GMs ensure that such armors are expensive and doesn't give too many creatures an Armor Class that low. Such a strong defense should be limited to Dragons and the like.

Now that I've established the base to-hit numbers, I've got two D&D related questions to answer.
  1. How does level advancement affect to hit rolls for both monsters and character?
  2. How much damage is done on a hit?
Keeping the basic classes of the first three Little Brown Books (Fighting Men, Clerics, and Magic Users), I think that these classes improve in their ability to bypass armor as they increase in levels by having the ability to modify the Armor Class they are rolling against. In essence, higher level characters are more able to see and exploit the weaknesses in armor and thus can treat Armor Classes as a higher Armor Class as they gain levels. I would propose an advancement that looks like the one below. Fighting Men begin play with a slightly better chance to hit opponents than other classes and start with a bonus where other classes have to wait and have a lower total bonus at higher levels. Keep in mind that the Armor Class Adjustment is added to the Opponent's Armor Class and not to the die roll. Thus a 13th Level Fighting Man would attack Plate Mail and Shield (AC 1) as if it was Leather and Shield (AC 6) and would hit that 58% of the time. This may seem pretty radical, but keep in mind this is a very high level Fighting Man and that it is only a single hit.
The second question is what to do about damage. In Chainmail a single hit equals death, but "Heroes" and "Superheroes" are able to take multiple hits before dying. This is reflected in the Little Brown Books in two ways. The first is the "Hit Points" with which gamers are well familiar. The second is by counting characters as multiple "Men" as they progress. A high level Fighting Man might eventually fight with the ability of "8 Men" at the "Superhero" rank. Essentially, the ability to fight as multiple people is reflected in the Hit Points of the characters as they have a number of d6 Hit Dice that are essentially equal to the number of "Men" the character can fight as. Given that all weapons in the Little Brown Books do 1d6 damage, each successful attack does enough damage to kill a level 1 character (1 Hit Die of 1d6 vs. 1 attack of 1d6 damage), it doesn't really matter whether you want each attack to do 1 "Man" of Damage or 1d6 of damage. It's only when you add the rules for Magic, and this is D&D after all, that it becomes evident that the damage should be 1d6 per hit.

But how many "attacks" does a character get? Looking at the Fighting Capability, you can see the references to a number of "Men" for each class. That's what I would use to determine the number of attacks. Yes, this means that I'd have a high level fighter making 8 attacks against opponents. You might think that this affects game balance, except when you compare it to the damage that high level Magic Users are capable of dishing out I think it's more than warranted.

These are some preliminary thoughts on a Alternative to the "Alternative Combat System" that captures a bit of the miniature inspired play while being a bit more freeform than a strict adherence to Chainmail.

What are your thoughts?

Friday, January 22, 2016

Exciting News from the New TSR - The Publishers of Gygax Magazine

I recently received an email from the new TSR discussing their scheduled lineup of new products and it is a real doozy.

When I heard that a rag tag band of old school gamers and old school game company employees had acquired the trademark to the name TSR, I was a bit skeptical. This skepticism remained even after they announced the production of a new gaming magazine entitled Gygax Magazine. My skepticism was primarily rooted in the fear that the new company, which was clearly going to be an OSR (Old School Renaissance) inspired venture, would err too much on the side of D&D OSR and not be a celebration of the entirety of Old School Roleplaying games. My skepticism soon translated into enthusiasm when I received my first copy of Gygax Magazine. Where I had expected a magazine dedicated to various D&D clones, and would have enjoyed those articles as I am a fan of D&D retroclones, what I received was a magazine that included articles covering a wide variety of games and genre.

It was like reading Dragon Magazine during the period when Dragon was more than just a house organ. Gygax Magazine is more the Dragon that published "Crimefighters" than the magazine that dedicated itself to "all 2nd edition all the time." The magazine continued its strong mission of supporting multiple genres, even as the company has had to negotiate some legal obstacles and the loss of some key partners, but the end of the legal battles (and the loss of Luke an Ernie Gygax as partners) resulted in the company deciding to end future publication of Gygax Magazine.

These recent obstacles had me once again worried about the future of the company, but then I received an email about their projected lineup and my excitement has returned.

This year, TSR plans the release of three lines of products.

The first is a line of adventure modules designed for use with a variety of old school game systems. This line of adventures is called, fittingly for one which is supporting multiple systems, the Pantheon Series.

As you can see from the image, the Pantheon Series will include Fantasy (Multisystem), Science Fiction (Metamorphosis Alpha), Superheroes/WWII (Godlike), and Espionage (Top Secret).  The lineup of authors includes highly regarded designers from the early days of gaming and support for an interesting set of games. The first adventures in the series were originally published in Gygax Magazine, but future entries will be original to the series. I think that this is a bold move by the company and will test how much newer gamers are willing to support the more free wheeling support fostered in the early days of the hobby.

Next on the list of products is a more conservative, but equally anticipated, 5th edition D&D adventure series. The series opens with Trouble at IronGarde Watch by Frank Mentzer and James Carpio. Mentzer was the editor of the classic BECMI edition of Dungeons and Dragons and has a wonderful sense of what makes a great fantasy adventure.

TSR's next offering demonstrates their willingness to fully commit to being an rpg publisher. Code Name: ACRID HERALD is a brand new Espionage role playing game designed by Merle Rasmussen, the designer of the classic first edition of Top Secret for the original TSR. The game is in its early stages, and the title is only an internal playtesting title, but I look forward to seeing what wonders lie in store. When Top Secret was first published, role playing games were young and Espionage wasn't a widely accepted game setting. Modern gamers, and game play styles that are more story oriented, provide a richer environment for Espionage games. The current spy game market has some excellent entries, but there is room for a new player if the game hits the right sweet spots. I'm looking forward to what Rasmussen has in store.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

#RPGaDAY #7 Most "Intellectual" RPG Owned -- My Answer Might Just Surprise You

For the seventh entry in his #RPGaDAY project Dave Chapman (aka +Autocratik aka @autocratik) asked the members of the gaming community to answer what the most "intellectual" RPG we owned were. Dave's own answer set the tone when his response was non-ironic. He wanted us to share the game that we legitimately thought was most intellectual -- though some people still answered the game ironically with responses like "Marvel as it has the most super geniuses." In the non-ironic responses there were references to Nobilis (Dave's own choice), Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth, Mage: The Ascension, and other games from the "avant-garde" or "artiste" era of role playing game design.

In many ways, I think that the listed choices does a disservice to the many games that preceded the games of this era, not to mention many games that came after these admittedly intellectual games. When I think of intellectual, I tend to think of it in two categories. The first is "thought provoking" in the philosophic sense and the second is "well researched" akin to a dissertation or research paper. All of those above qualify by both standards, but so do many others.

One cannot deny that Chivalry and Sorcery by Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus wasn't a well researched role playing game, or AD&D for that matter.  

Steve Perrin and Ray Turney's Runequest is a mythopoeic marvel - especially in its use of Greg Stafford's Glorantha setting - that provide interesting intellectual fodder regarding the origins of faith.

Tom Moldvay's Lords of Creation touches on many of the issues that the later "artiste" games cover. Being a "Lord of Creation" in that game is to be a game master who makes new worlds.

There are many others of the classic era of gaming - I didn't touch upon Empire of the Petal Throne for example - but there are also more recent games like LacunaMy Life with Master, or the controversial Vampires by Victor Gijsbers. Vampires is an attempt at a deconstructionist roleplaying game, but requires an explanatory essay. The essay and the conversation around the game are thought provoking though and all three of the games mentioned are story telling games of the post-modern school.

I own all of the games mentioned above, but not one of them is the game that I believe to be the most intellectual game that I own. That game - a game that combines scholarship, mechanical innovations, and is thought provoking - is Joseph Goodman's Dungeon Crawl Classics. The game was inspired, and is informed, by the author's intellectual desire to understand the literary inspirations that influenced Dungeons & Dragons. Goodman read the entirety of Appendix N for the purpose of learning about D&D and this led him to desire to create his own RPG. Given the length and breadth of Appendix N, that's a pretty scholarly effort in my opinion and worthy of praise. His game balances mechanical innovations and nostalgia. It also fosters discussion as to what exactly the purpose of role playing is.

Friday, August 15, 2014

#RPGaDAY #5 Most Old School RPG Owned: Did you even have to ask?

The fifth topic of @autocratik's (aka +Autocratik ) #RPGaDAY list is the Most "Old School" RPG owned. Like most of the prompts in the #RPGaDAY list, this one got me thinking about what Dave Chapman meant by "old school." Did he mean Old School in the sense of the Old School Renaissance movement which used the OGL to create games that evoked play that echoed the way games used to be played, or did he mean the games themselves? It could mean either as sometimes when one refers to "old school" one is only talking about the metacognitve content that is referring to an older age and not to that older age itself. The material from that older age might be called "classic" while the modern material that evokes that feel might be called "old school."

I know that this may be a bit too pedantic, but since I am writing full blog posts rather than merely providing a one sentence reply, I reserve the ancient right of industrious pedantry. Michael J. Finch - author of Swords & Wizardry which happens to be an "old school" game for which I own the "white box" edition - writes in his "A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming" that for an old school game like Swords & Wizardry "just printing the rules an starting to play as you normally do will produce a completely pathetic gaming session -- you'll decide that 0e is just missing all kinds of important rules. What makes 0e different from other games isn't the rules themselves, it's how they're used."

To phrase it in a cruder and less flattering light, "Old School Games are games that are missing rules, but are cool enough to inspire you to make your own." That's not exactly what Michael is saying, but it's kind of what I think the Old School Games actually were. Original D&D was so vague in its mechanics that it lead to the creation of a host of other role playing games -- starting with Ken St. Andre's innovative Tunnels & Trolls (which I blogged about here). The game that best captures this "missing rules but great inspiration" is Superhero 2044. The game is incomplete as it is, but it influenced so many later games like Champions and Superworld as I discussed in this earlier post.

By this "missing rules but great inspiration" criterion, most of the successful OSR movement games qualify. Those that don't qualify lack the inspiration component of the equation, though there are a couple of OSR games that are more "Middle Age" School than Old  School and have more complete rules as the games of the 2nd age of RPGs tended to. Among the most successful of these OSR games - and these are all games I own - I'd list Swords & Wizardry, Adventurer Conqueror King, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

Having said that these games qualify as Old School Games, I'm going to revert to the easiest answer to the initial question and combine it with the new definition. I'll be answering what game from the 1st generation of RPGs I own is the "Most Old School" or best exemplifies the "missing rules, but great inspiration" mentality. I thought about Superhero 2044, but have decided against it.

I own a copy of the White Box Collector's Edition of Dungeons & Dragons - as well as all of the supplements - and I certainly think that it is in the competition. The core 3 "little brown books" do not contain enough clarification on the combat system to make a completely playable game, add to that a lack of mechanics for a host of other situations, and it falls firmly in the "missing rules camp." The supplements like Blackmoor, Greyhawk, and Eldritch Wizardry added a rich inspirational flare - as did Gygax's prose - all of which make it a strong contender for the title.

But Game Designer's Workshop's En Garde! is a strong competitor. It is filled with tidbits of background and inspiration and yet is lacking in a number of mechanical areas. I say lacking, but let's face it a part of the OSR movement happened due to the fact that a lot of rules may not actually be necessary. I love En Garde!'s dueling mechanic, and I love that it is "dedicated" to Danny Kaye - among others. 

Fletcher Pratt's Naval Game isn't a role playing game, but since his Harold Shea novels (co-written with Sprague De Camp) and this game influenced the creation of D&D, I thought I'd list it hear as in the running. The game requires you to own Jane's Fighting Ships or similar book to properly play. 

Then there's the Fantasy Heartbreaker entry. The Complete Warlock is a product of the Southern California gaming scene and is an attempt to fill in some of those areas that were missing in the D&D rules set. There is a lot to like in Warlock and it is clear that it influenced J. Eric Holmes' writing on the Basic Set of D&D. It has critical hit charts, percentile based combat charts (by weapon), a spell point system, level based abilities for Thieves akin to 4e, Elves as a class, and a cornucopia of alternate ways to "play D&D." I'm desperately tempted to call this glorious book the "most old school RPG" I own.

In the end though, Original D&D wins out. I'm still not sure how to play this game. Have you checked out that initiative system in Eldritch Wizardry? Do you use it?

Special Self-Promotion Section

As a reminder, I am in the middle of a Kickstarter for a second series of Cthulhu Claus Holiday Cards. You can back it by clicking the link in the side bar. A picture of the first series is below.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Is a "True" Dungeon Master a "Fire in Which Players are Consumed?"

Wednesday's Penny Arcade comic completed their "Conflux" storyline in which Tycho convinces Gabe to run a Pathfinder game for a group of 4th Edition D&D players. A theme of the storyline has presented a "Pathfinder is hardcore like older editions of D&D" narrative, one that ends with Gabe now knowing the horrors of edition wars and why they happen. We as players have preferences. We like what we are used to, and changes are sometimes hard to adapt to.

I have always found it interesting that most players I know are willing -- if not even tremendously eager -- to try new game systems, but will react in horror when their favorite role playing game is released in a new edition. With the exception of Call of Cthulhu, it seems that if a game has a new edition it has a schism within its player base. It has happened several times for D&D. It happened with Traveller, Hero System, Vampire/World of Darkness...and on and on.

In the case of D&D, some of those who disparage the newest edition of the game often wax nostalgic for an era in which the players and the DM were almost akin to foes. For these players, the past was an era where players died cruelly at the whims of a harsh Dungeon Master. It was the challenge of succeeding in spite of such DMs, or failing spectacularly because of them, that was what made the Old School Games so great. You can find such nostalgic tales throughout the OSR sphere. You can also find tales of how great it was when the game assumed that the players would backstab each other and betray each other at any given moment. It is this point of view that is expressed by Tycho in the Conflux storyline. To quote Tycho in the storyline's finale, "A True Dungeon Master is a Fire in Which Players are Consumed!"

This was certainly the attitude the first person who I ever had as a DM had. He didn't hesitate to transform my Wizard into an Axe-beak -- a bizarre combination of Ostrich and mythic beast. I felt humiliated. The character wasn't my own, my friend Sean had rolled the character up. He had named the character Gandalf, I had high hopes for the young mage. In all honesty, after this first gaming experience -- which I have blogged about before -- it is really a miracle that I play these games to this day.

But that adversarial DM was just playing the game the way it was intended to be played, right? Old School D&D is cutthroat and the DM is your enemy, right?

What do the old rule books actually say is the role of the DM?
One almost finds a quote supporting this position on page 9 of the first edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide. On that page, when discussing how to use "wandering monsters," Gary Gygax uses the phrase "if a party deserves to have these beasties inflicted upon them..." which seems to imply a cruel whimsy underlying the job of DM. But taking that phrase out of context leaves out his advocacy of making the game fun. To quote, "if your work as a DM has been sufficient, the players will have all they can handle upon arrival, so let them get there, give them a chance. The game is the thing, and certain rules can be distorted or disregarded altogether in favor of play."
It seems here that Gary Gygax is arguing that the DM's job is to make the game fun for the players...including by bending the rules in their favor. To quote page 110:
Now and then a player will die through no fault of his own. He or she will have done everything correctly, taken every reasonable precaution, but still the freakish roll of the dice will kill the character. In the long run you should let such things pass as the players will kill more than one opponent with their own freakish rolls at some later time. Yet you do have the right to arbitrate the situation. You can rule that the player, instead of dying, is knocked unconscious, loses a limb, is blinded in one eye or invoke an reasonably severe penalty that still takes into account what the monster has done. It is very demoralizing to the players to lose a cared-for-player character when they have played well.

Here Gygax argues to not let dice get in the way of a player's enjoyment. Though I find the use of player and character to be clumsy in the above paragraph. It is no wonder some people thought that D&D was about "real" magic, when you write that "a player will die through no fault of his own." Player?! Holy!
Okay, so the AD&D DMG has some comments on making sure the focus is on fun and not competition between the DM and players, but what about the other old school books?

The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures (Original D&D)
(p.6) The fear of "death," its risk each time is one of the most stimulating parts of the game.  It therefore behooves the campaign referee to include as many mystifying and dangerous areas as is consistant (sic) with a reasonable chance for survival ...For example, there is no question that a player's character could easily be killed by falling into a pit thirty feet deep or into a shallow pit filled with poisoned spikes, and this is quite undersirable in most instances.
Even in the advice scarce Original D&D rulebook, Gygax goes out of his way to point out how traps with guaranteed lethality are "undesirable" in most instances.

Holmes Basic
(p.22) In setting up his dungeon, the Dungeon Master should be guided that the adventurers have a reasonable chance of survival. (p.40) Traps should not be of the "Zap! You're dead!" variety...
It appears as if Dr. Holmes agrees with Gary that the adventures should be challenging, but not adversarial through his use of language.

Moldvay Basic
(p.B60) It is important that the DM be fair, judging everything without favoring one side or another.  The DM is there to see that the adventure is interesting and that everyone enjoys the game.  D&D is not a contest between the DM and the players! The DM should do his or her best to act impartially when taking the part of monsters or handling disputes between characters.
 Unlike earlier quotes, the bold and italicized emphasis in the Moldvay quote are straight from the book.  It's as if he is reacting to what he saw as a trend in the DM-ing styles he was seeing in the day. 

I don't believe that the rules of D&D ever advocated an adversarial relationship between DM and players.  I think they always viewed the DM as the arbiter of the rules and the facilitator of fun.  In my opinion, it was individual egos, and the natural desire to win sometimes, that created the killer DMs who believe as Tycho shouts.

My own credo is that a great DM has to be a great loser.  Yes, there are times when the monsters will win, but the DM is required to make it exciting for the players when the monsters are losing as well as when the monsters are winning.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Legends & Labyrinths Are In My Future

As always the Gen Con festival will mark the release of several exciting new role playing games. Among those set to be released this year is a little game called Legends and Labyrinths that will be published by a group of upstart whippersnappers who plan on setting the role playing game world on fire!

The game combines the wonder, excitement, and flexibility of Old School style games with some of the narrative design elements that are coming to the forefront of modern RPG design. It's Old School play without the rules interpretation arguments. George Strayton, the man behind the project, has incorporated some very innovative rules and infused the project with a level of excitement rarely seen outside the Savage Worlds game boards.

At first glance, you might be thinking this is just another player entering the Old School Renaissance game market -- an already flooded market that already has its high production value products -- but you would be wrong.

Trust me when I say that the release of L&L will be bigger than you imagine.

Monday, May 10, 2010

RIP: J. Eric Holmes (1930 - 2010)

I read the news that J. Eric Holmes passed away on March 20, 2010 due to complications from a stroke on James Maliszewski's Grognardia blog yesterday. For players of role playing games of a certain generation, this is very sad news indeed. His passing is all the sadder because there are so many who don't know how much he contributed to the role playing game hobby. Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax created and promoted new hobby through their Dungeons and Dragons role playing game, but it was J. Eric Holmes who made that game intelligible to the world at large. His efforts, and those of Tom Moldvay and Dave Cook, are major contributions to the growth of the hobby as a whole.

J. Eric Holmes wrote the first "Basic" edition for the Dungeons and Dragons game, he describes how he -- a Professor in the Department of Neurology at USC at the time (Fight On!) -- came to write the product in his informative book Fantasy Role Playing Games (Hippocrene Books 1981) as follows:

In 1974 I persuaded Gygax that the original D&D rules needed revision and that I was the person to rewrite them. He readily conceded that there was a need for a beginners' book and "if you want to try it, go ahead..." I edited a slim (48 pages) handbook for beginners in roleplaying, published by TSR in 1977...

Without that Basic set, the role playing game hobby may have aged out with the older generation who were the majority of the audience playing the game prior to the publication of Holmes' work. Gary Gygax wrote of the importance of the Holmes Basic set to the hobby as a whole in Dragon #22:

If millions take to the fantasy world of J.R.R. Tolkien, and nearly as many follow the heroic feats of Conan, the market potential of a game system which provides participants with a pastime which creates play resembling these adventuresome worlds and their inhabitants is bounded only by its accessibility. Access has two prominent aspects; availability is the first; that is, are potential players informed of the fact that the game exists, and are they able to physically obtain it; and difficulty is the second, for if once obtained the game is so abstruse as to be able to be played only by persons with intelligence far above the norm, or if the game demands a volume of preliminary work which is prohibitive for the normal individual, this will be recognized and the offering shunned even if it is available. D&D failed on both counts, and still it grew. Today we are putting D&D onto the track where it is envisioned it will have both maximum availability and minimum difficulty. This is best illustrated in the "Basic Set."

Well over two years ago we recognized that there was a need for an introductory form of the game. In 1977, the colorfully boxed "Basic Set" was published. It contained simplified, more clearly written rules, dungeon geomorphs, selections of monsters and treasures to place in these dungeons, and a set of polyhedra dice -- in short all that a group of beginning players need to start play with relative ease.

Without the "Basic Set," D&D would have grown due to the size of the interested market, but it would not have had explosive growth. Gygax is right that the original rules failed on both the above counts, he is also right that the "Basic Set" succeeded on both. This is evident is that the "Basic Set" increased sales exponentially as it provided a pathway to the other products -- a well lit and easy to follow pathway. In the article quoted above, Gygax states that between January 1974 to December 1975 (two years of sales) 4,000 sets of the original rules were sold. Comparably, at the time the article was written (February 1979) the "Basic Set" was selling 4,000 copies per month, "and the sales graph is upward."

Holmes articulated the underlying difficulty of the original rules as follows:

When Tactical Studies Rules published the first DUNGEONS & DRAGONS rule sets, the three little books in brown covers, they were intended to guide people who were already playing the game. As a guide to learning the game, they were incomprehensible. There was no description of the use of the combat table. Magic spells were listed, but there was no mention of what we all now know is a vital aspect of the rules: that as the magic user says his spell, the words and gestures for it fade from his memory and he cannot say it again.

Holmes understood that gaming companies needed to write products that could introduce people to the hobby. They needed to promote their products to broader demographics if they wanted to survive as a viable industry. Roleplaying games tend to get more and more complex the longer the rules set remains in play, and thus become more difficult for the neophyte player. One response to the "rules bloat" has been to reboot with new editions, but this can alienate your existing player base who enjoy the complexity the game has to offer. The other solution is to offer an introductory version of the game. The hard core current players will not, as a block, purchase the product, but it is a great way to introduce new players into the hobby.

Hasbro is attempting to apply this lesson with product offerings that are coming out later this year -- among them a new Dungeons & Dragons Introductory Set.

John Eric Holmes was a great advocate for the role playing game hobby, a gaming enthusiast, and the game designer responsible for making D&D rule accessible. He was also an active member of Edgar Rice Burroughs fandom. He is definitely someone I would have loved to meet.

From one Trojan gamer to another, all I can say is Fight On!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Responding to Things We Think About Games:When is a Game Actually Considered "Dead"?

In yesterday's blog post, I mentioned a couple of older games that had game mechanics that simulated or encouraged mundane activities in games devoted to heroic activities. These activities ranged from the item creation and crafting rules in Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition and DC Heroes post-character creation Gadgeteering rules to the Karma rules of Marvel Super Heroes and the kingdom governing rules of D&D's Birthright Setting. Looking back at that list, I realize that quite a few of those games are what can be considered "dead" properties. This got me to thinking about an entry in Will Hindmarch & Jeff Tidball's book Things We Think About Games:

A game that is no longer supported is called "dead."

But that's business jargon. Don't let the state of a game line's release schedule determine whether or not you play it. Play it because it is fun.

Gamers who are active in the "Old School Renaissance" community are definitely followers of this maxim. Since the creation of the Open Gaming License, which put the mechanics of the 3rd edition of D&D into the Open community, the "Old School Renaissance" has been actively promoting the play of older role playing games. Some of the games that have benefited from this community's efforts include Dungeons and Dragons (Original, Advanced, and Basic editions -- I'm still waiting for the OSR 2nd Edition and the storm of controversy that will cause in the community), Gamma World, TSR's Conan RPG, and Marvel Super Heroes. Every one of these games has had an OSR reboot designed to introduce new players, or rekindle the imaginations of old school players, to the joys of those early systems.

These homage editions vary between efforts that retro-fit the rules set made open by the OGL and efforts that are designed under the assumption that the specific wording of rules can be copyrighted but not the underlying mechanics. Regardless of how technically correct those who design games under the second assumption may or may not be, they have all made a concerted effort to avoid use of undeniable product identity. Zefrs and 4C fall into this category and demonstrate how one can make an engaging rpg while stripping out the underlying trademarked source material.

I carefully couched my words in the above paragraph for a couple of reasons. The first is that I don't actually agree with the premise that the underlying mechanics aren't copyrighted with the other parts of the intellectual property. I would argue that those mechanics constitute the actual intellectual property and not the particular phrasing of those mechanics. Second, I think that these creators are doing us a great service. These products have been completely abandoned by their creators, with regard to the underlying mechanics, and a copyright system that doesn't take into consideration the concept of "abandonware" is in need of revision. Third, the Old School Renaissance community I was very active in during the late-nineties and early aughts took a very different approach to the issue -- and even that approach has some interesting complications.

I was a very active member of the DC Heroes online community, a community so active in the support of its game system that some of its members licensed the right to produce another game based on that system in order to keep it alive. That game, Blood of Heroes wasn't the most professional looking product with regard to illustrations, but it contained a meticulously playtested version of the underlying mechanics of the game. What is interesting is that even though Pulsar Games, a company made up of fans of the DC Heroes' MEGs system, licensed the use of the rules, they still may not have been perfectly within the law.

According to Ray Winninger
, the author of the 2nd edition of the game and of a derivative work called Undergroung:

As for DC HEROES itself:

1) Our contract with DC specified that DC Comics holds the copyright on every product we released. If you check the indices, you'll note they all say "Copyright (C) DC Comics Inc." The contracts didn't specify anything like "Mayfair owns the copyright to the actual game rules, while DC retains the rights to its IP" or anything similar, just "all DCH products are copyright DC Comics-period." This would suggest that DC actually owns DC HEROES. I know for certain that DC *believes* they own all rights to the game and everything produced for it and I suspect they're probably right.

2) Greg Gorden believes that his contract specified that he retained ownership of the DCH game system once DCH was out of print. When I was at Mayfair I looked for this agreement and couldn't find it-but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. One potential problem is that it's unclear that Mayfair could have made such an arrangement with Greg in the first place. Remember, the DC licensing agreement specified that DC would retain full and perpetual copyright over everything we released.

3) Pulsar licensed DCH from Mayfair but it's not 100% clear that Mayfair ever had the necessary rights to grant such a license in the first place (#1 and #2 above). I believe that Pulsar later made a separate arrangement with Greg.

4) UNDERGROUND uses a variant of the DCH system-none of its specific text, tables or charts. The copyright to UNDERGROUND is not tied to the rights to DCH in any way. Mayfair no longer owns the rights to UNDERGROUND.

What is technically legal with regard to underlying rules hasn't been truly tested in a court of law, even though the Copyright Office has articulated that it is only the "form" of the rules that is currently protected -- tbone has some discussion why this should disturb the freelance game designer here. Personally, I favor greater protections for the game rules than the law currently holds, but I also am a huge advocate of greater creator rights and a diminishing of the dreaded "work for hire" that pervades the industry. There is no reason that Wolfgang Baur shouldn't have some ownership, in the form of residuals at minimum, if Hasbro decides to make derivative product from Dark*Matter except that the system of work for hire is broken.

On the positive side, the Wild West nature of the protections given to underlying mechanics do mean that we don't have to wait for a company to officially declare that something is abandonware before we start producing products using a reworking of the underlying mechanics for a neglected fan base -- and that's what we are really talking about here.

In a world where roleplaying game products can be stored on servers, at close to zero cost, for fans to purchase at any future time there is no excuse for a company letting a game "die." A company's bottom line with regard to a product doesn't determine the life span of play. It does determine the "product life span," but not the play life span. It is fans, and creators working after a product has "died," who determine whether a game is truly dead. And the internet has ensured that so many games aren't actually dead.

I still receive daily digests from the DC Heroes Yahoo Group. Every day someone is reworking the rules and converting characters. Savage Worlds would likely never have gained the audience it has today were it not for digital distribution and devoted fans writing for digital fanzines. The OSR is reviving games that I actually thought were genuinely dead. I was surprised to learn that people still play White Box D&D. I think it is awesome, but I was surprised.

In a post-internet world, when is a game truly dead? Does it require distributed support, even fan support to be counted as alive or does it merely need players?

What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Ah, the Madness and Confusion of the OD&D 6th Printing (OCE) Edition

Apparently, this printing lacks a nice little quote on the bottom of page 19 referring to the damage of weapons, "All attacks which score hits do 1-6 points damage unless otherwise noted."

No wonder I couldn't figure out how much damage weapons do in the alternate combat system.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The "Old School Revival" Makes Me Want to Go "Really Old School"

Over the past decade, in the shadow of WotC's Open Gaming License, there has been an explosion of DIY game design devoted to making new role playing game products inspired by and/or compatible with early editions of the Dungeons and Dragons game. Some of the games are merely trying to capture the "feel" of the old games and recapture some of the game playing nostalgia of the author's youth, others are attempts to fuse new design techniques with the simple ability to inspire the old games possessed.

This "movement" in itself is reminiscent of the nascent days of the role playing game industry when people were writing rpgs out of their basements, garages, and living rooms and didn't worry about getting enough revenue (either venture capital or revenue based on money received as compensation for selling a successful game company to a larger game company) to publish a "slick" product. Companies like Judge's Guild were in the marketplace selling creative, if not sufficiently edited, products that built on the excitement of a new hobby -- a hobby were game creation was "fun" and not so market driven.

It's fun reading the various Old School Revolution blogs like Greyhawk Grognard and Grognardia, or visiting the Dragonsfoot website. I've been so caught up by the OSR fever, that I purchased on of the Swords and Wizardry White Box boxed sets.

I manage to balance my RPG "news/study" time between keeping up with what's going on in the "Indie Narrative Gaming Verse," the OSR, and the modern industry fairly well. In fact, I'm proud of my ability to navigate through these three -- often very different -- waters. I am a proponent of the OSR, the narrative indie, and the ultra-corporate game. I will evangelize the wonders of My Life with Master at the same time as expounding the virtues of the 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons.

I was reading one of the OSR websites the other day and read the a statement similar to the following. "Why are we writing 'updates' or 'nostagia' versions rather than playing the actual old rules sets?" I don't remember where I read that, and the wording was different, but it got me thinking. I think there are a couple of answers.

First, those who think that "unsupported is dead" is nonsense, are delusional. Unsupported is certainly dead from a retailers point of view, they can't sell a product that isn't supported beyond a certain terminal limit. Unsupported is also dead from a consumer point of view. How many people are still running their first D&D campaign using only the Chainmail rules and the Little Brown Books? Not many. You can only read these books a certain number of times before you have memorized them. You can certainly expand on these books with house rules, and the games don't "require" more than these books to play, but gaming is a social endeavor. As such, gamers like to hear other gamers' ideas -- even if they don't/won't use them. Role playing games are about dialog. Dialog between the DM and Players, dialog between DM and manufacturer, and between DMs and other DMs. Some of this dialog breaks down when a game is no longer supported in its existing form. Thankfully, the internet -- and the Open Gaming License -- allows almost anyone to become the "manufacturer" (within the limits of the OGL). This is where the OSR shines, it restores the interaction between manufacturer and DM/Gamer. Dialog feeds creativity, silence starves it. When a publisher supports a game with printed material, they are participating in the dialog. When they stop the dialog has traditionally narrowed, but the OGL allows for a continuation of the game dialog that didn't exist before.

But and expansion of "manufacturers" means an expansion of published ideas of what the game is at its core. This requires new editions/rules sets. Which leads to my second point. The new creators are creative and want to leave their mark on the hobby, this is a good thing -- but it takes us away from the original rules.

Lastly, the Chainmail rule book and original Little Brown Books of D&D are not very clear when it comes to explaining the game and how to play it. I cut my role playing gamer teeth on the Moldvay Basic and Cook/Marsh Expert editions of the D&D role playing game. These sets had artwork by Jeff Dee, Erol Otis, and Bill Willingham that was the perfect combination of cartoony and fantastic to inspire my young imagination. They also had clearly written and easy to understand descriptions of how to play the game. If I didn't have the mental structure created by years of playing these, and later editions, of D&D -- and a good deal of Warhammer -- I would not be able to play D&D based on the "first four" books without doing some significant design work on my own. When one reads the original books, it becomes readily apparent why Ken St. Andre quickly drafted his own rpg Tunnels and Trolls as a response. Original D&D is difficult to understand, and newer rulebooks written more clearly -- like the Moldvay/Cook edition or the Holmes edition -- are still a much needed commodity. This is true even if your intention is to play Original D&D, especially true of you want to bring new gamers into the hobby.

This rant/ramble has inspired me to do something. It has been a while since I read Chainmail and the Little Brown Books. I think I want to see if I can read them, "understand" them, and present them in a clearer format. Over the next few months, I will be attempting to create a Beginner's version of the first role playing game. I don't think I'll publish it online or anything, though I'll likely share it if I am satisfied with it. I will try to create the game as it is "described" and not as I "now know" how it is played. I'll start with Chainmail and then work my way up.

I think I'll call the series, "How to play..."

Oh, and don't worry, I will get back to Northwest Smith later this week.