Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Category Archives: Old School D&D

Clerics, Demi-humans, and the Humanocentric Campaign

Complaints about the cleric class are par for the course with recent editions of D&D. Nobody wants to play them, presumably since changes in the game implemented as the game shifted away from the TSR editions. (Cleric trouble is not entirely a new thing, though: some people go so far as the remove the class from OD&D entirely.) Meanwhile demi-human level limits, race as class, and the mechanics of multi-classing have been hashed out endlessly over the years. There’s not really a consensus on these points beyond the fact that people can’t stop tinkering with them.

I think the underlying problem here are that the issues with Clerics and Demi-humans are linked– but they are generally considered in isolation of each other. This is another one of those instances where consulting Gary Gygax’s Dungeon Masters Guide is a good idea, so lets look at the section on “The Monster As Player Character” which I think speaks directly to this:

The game features humankind for a reason. It is the most logical basis in an illogical game. From a design aspect it provides the sound groundwork. From a standpoint of creating the campaign milieu it provides the most readily usable assumptions. From a participation approach it is the only method, for all players are, after all is said and done, human, and it allows them the role with which most are most desirous and capable of identifying with. From all views then it is enough fantasy to assume a swords & sorcery cosmos, with impossible professions and make-believe magic. To adventure amongst the weird is fantasy enough without becoming that too!

This stuff about people wanting to play outlandish character types…? Gygax is saying that they think they want that sort of thing. But they really don’t. I mean you can want to get into that sort of thing. But there are consequences. It might sound good… but you don’t actually want it. The essence of adventure is thrilling encounters with the weird. If your starting point is a ragtag group of weirdos… where exactly do you take that? There’s nowhere to go.

Consider also that each and every Dungeon Master worthy of that title is continually at work expanding his or her campaign milieu. The game is not merely a meaningless dungeon and an urban base around which is plopped the dreaded wilderness. Each of you must design a world, piece by piece, as if a jigsaw puzzle were being hand crafted, and each new section must fit perfectly the pattern of the other pieces. Faced with such a task all of us need all of the aid and assistance we can get. Without such help the sheer magnitude of the task would force most of us to throw up our hands in despair.

Gygaxian humanocentrism is, just as with “kitchen sink” fantasy, a premise that makes it that much easier for the novice Dungeon Master to develop their own game setting from scratch. And again, making your own is– just as with Traveller– something Gygax expects you to do if you’re at all serious about the game. Granted, TSR did not have any campaign settings to sell at the time. The slam here against the “meaningless dungeon” is telling, here. He’s shaming the people that have spent countless hours playing this game without doing all that much to develop a “serious” setting!

By having a basis to work from, and a well-developed body of work to draw upon, at least part of this task is handled for us. When history, folklore, myth, fable and fiction can be incorporated or used as reference for the campaign, the magnitude of the effort required is reduced by several degrees. Even actual sciences can be used – geography, chemistry, physics, and so forth. Alien viewpoints can be found, of course, but not in quantity (and often not in much quality either). Those works which do not feature mankind in a central role are uncommon. Those which do not deal with men at all are scarce indeed. To attempt to utilize any such bases as the central, let alone sole, theme for a campaign milieu is destined to be shallow, incomplete, and totally unsatisfying for all parties concerned unless the creator is a Renaissance Man and all-around universal genius with a decade or two to prepare the game and milieu. Even then, how can such an effort rival one which borrows from the talents of genius and imaginative thinking which come to us from literature?

Here’s another passage for the “Appendix N is just a list of Gygax’s personal favorites” crowd. The books really were central to his vision of the game. In fact, because he was so steeped in those books– and “history, folklore, myth, fable and fiction” as well– he had trouble imagining anything other than a humanocentric fantasy setting for the game. I mean after all, why would anyone repudiate all of those resources for building a game…?

Well… what if there were a generation that was (largely) unfamiliar with that stuff– a generation that had so much new fantasy available they had no need to read anything from before 1980 or anything much that was in direct conversation with the myth and folklore that pulp fantasy was built on…? That generation is going to look back at Gygax’s forcefulness with regard to humanocentrism and think the guy is just plain weird. I mean, if you were a fan of a dual-blade wielding drow elf fantasy superstar, that’d just be sense.

But what if– as Cirsova points out here— what if clerics could turn elves? And what about those dragon-born demon looking characters that are so popular nowadays…? What if clerics could turn them, too? Heck, what if all the other demi-human types were a little more of faerie and a little less Tolkienish? What if clerics could turn them, too…? And what if even low level clerics had protection spells that were proof against all demonic and spiritual forces…?

The problem with D&D is not that a generation of “not fantasy enough” gamers took it over during the eighties and later on. The problem is that it does not embrace a cosmology that supports the designer’s goals for the default milieu.

Old School and New School: Where Do You Draw The Line?

Okay, several comments have come in more or less on the same theme here.

Over at Dark Heritage, we have this nugget:

But this is nothing. The other day Jeffro made the argument that the Thief class was the end of old school—and in old school discussions, that’s hardly a unique position. While one can say that the way the Thief class was implemented may have had an unintended cascading effect that changed the tone of the game over time, that’s not really the issue. The Thief class was being extensively used (pre-publication) at the very first Gencon that post-dated the publication of D&D—mere months after it was published. Greyhawk, the supplement that included the thief officially, was in print a mere year after the first printing of D&D. To suggest or even imply that the only old school game predates the thief, as can reasonably be inferred from both Jeffro and Maliszewski’s posts (and many of the comments that follow) means that old school becomes a vanishingly small window of gaming, and begs the question; why not suggest that the publication of D&D in the first place was the end of old school! Gygax and Arneson really sold out when they printed the game up, man!

jddyalblog comments here saying that my whole “looking for it in the weeds” approach in this series of asking “is this very particular rule old school or not is probably a hopelessly quixotic endeavor.”

And over on Twitter, Lewis Pulsipher has this:

Finally, more than one person has struggled with the fact that “old school” means different things in different contexts. People which chips on their shoulders want to find a counterexample that cause my generalizations to fall apart. People that want me to be their cult leader want me to tell them that how they are playing right now is legitimately “old school” and totally not “new school.” And then there’s the people that are getting really nasty. But never mind them.

Lets just clear all this up right now.

Gaiseric over at Dark Heritage completely misread me. In fact, I’m not sure he even read me at all here. If anyone is going to conflate my position on anything with James Maliszewski… well that’s quite the compliment to me, but I don’t think that’s fair to him.

So no, the introduction of the Thief class is not where I draw the line. The cutoff being between TSR D&D and Wizards of the Coast D&D is going to be good enough for most people most of the time, but I have quite a few problems with post-Gygax AD&D. So I’m going to be drawing the line a little further back than most people.

Personally, I think that thinking of Old School and New School only in terms of D&D is a mistake. So lets look at a couple of other examples.

In Traveller, the introduction of the “Official Traveller Universe” a.k.a. The Third Imperium setting is where I draw the line. The style of Traveller campaign I’m most interested in exemplified by what Ken Pick called the Burgess Shale Period of the game.

In Car Wars, the relegation of the role-playing elements of the game over into the GURPS Autoduel line would be where I draw the line. The style of Car Wars campaign I’m most interested in is the original Amateur Night campaign that is outlined in the original pocket box or zip-loc baggie edition.

Of course Traveller’s breaking apart of the class system into a more generic approach that models the various career abilities through skills would generally be considered “new school” if you were looking at those types of game mechanics in a D&D-only context. And the typical combat-heavy Car Wars adventure is often going to have a linear format that is very similar to the typical 4th edition D&D game. That type of adventure design sets the ardent old school D&D fan’s teeth on edge!

The common denominator here is that the implied campaign and the implied setting of many vintage role-playing games is at odds with how the games were ultimately supported over time. The cognitive dissonance this creates was certainly confusing to me back when I was trying to figure out why the third edition Gamma World rules I had as a teenager looked like they were for an entirely different type of game than the module series that ended up coming out for it. I always thought that there was a similar gulf between the first edition Forgotten Realms material and the game system they were intended to be used with.

Now… maybe you aren’t interested in this aspect of role-playing and/or the history of game design. Maybe you don’t want to pick up a vintage game and then try to run it more or less as it was originally intended. And yep, even back in the day, everyone knew how to do it all better than even the designers. Good on them!

I am not outlining a game design methodology, though. And the design movement that these sorts of explorations tipped off already got off the ground years ago. Still, I gotta say… if you want to conflate this kind of investigation with an act of physical violence– or worse– ISIS and/or the Taliban… then I don’t know what to tell you. I mean I really don’t get that stuff.

But yeah, I use the terms “old school” and “new school” a little differently than most people. I even use them a little differently than the people that affiliate themselves with the OSR. Still, I don’t think this is near as complicated as most people want to make this out to be.

Revisiting Gygax’s Advice on How to Have a Great AD&D Campaign

In honor of OSRIC’s tenth anniversary, I cracked open the first edition AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide in order to see if– yet again– I could stumble on something useful or insightful that I had never come across before. I didn’t flip around much when I started reading the section entitled “The Ongoing Campaign.” Here it is:

While it might seem highly unlikely to those who have not been involved in fantasy adventure gaming for an extended period of time, after the flush of excitement wears off – perhaps a few months or a year, depending on the intensity of play – some participants will become bored and move to other gaming forms, returning to your campaign only occasionally. Shortly thereafter even your most dedicated players will occasionally find that dungeon levels and wilderness castles grow stale, regardless of subtle differences and unusual challenges. It is possible, however, for you to devise a campaign which will have a very minimal amount of participant attrition and enthusiast ennui, and it is not particularly difficult to do so.

One thing that sets Gary Gygax apart from a lot of later rpg writers is the rather large amounts of gaming experience he had. I read stuff from the second edition days and it drives me nuts because it’s written by people that have barely played at all. The game design necessarily suffers and the game mastering advice is downright execrable as a result.

One think I want to point out about the long campaigns he’s referring to here is that it’s original D&D he’s talking about here. A lot of quintessentially AD&D type rules did emerge in OD&D’s supplements, sure. But it was a different scene without an “official” Dungeon Master’s Guide to propel TSR’s flagship game into the eighties.

Another thing about this passage… he’s talking about something that is (to me) one of the most challenging things in gaming and he introducing it by declaring its solution to be “not particularly difficult.” Alright, Gary… I’m all ears, man. Lay it on me!

Continuing on:

Is has been mentioned already, the game must be neither too difficult to survive nor so easy as to offer little excitement or challenge There must always be something desirable to gain, something important to lose, and the chance of having either happen. Furthermore, there must be some purpose to it all. There must be some backdrop against which adventures are carried out, and no matter how tenuous the strands, some web which connects the evil and good, the opposing powers, the rival states and various peoples. This need not be evident at first, but as play continues, hints should be given to players, and their characters should become involved in the interaction and struggle between these vaster entities. Thus, characters begin as less than pawns, but as they progress in expertise, each eventually realizes that he or she is a meaningful, if lowly, piece in the cosmic game being conducted. When this occurs, players then have a dual purpose to their play, for not only will their player characters and henchmen gain levels of experience, but their actions have meaning above and beyond that of personal aggrandizement.

Okay, there’s plenty here to reflect on. My most successful campaign was with ACKS and Dwimmermount and I wrapped that one up when the players were solidly at the third level or so. I think of the opening stages of the game as sort of ten foot wall that forces the players to master the game and learn to cooperate. I did get player feedback saying there was too much death, but I also got a request to run another game that started at first level.

I think the design of Dwimmermount is designed to address these directives here… but the way the module is set up with lots of situations for the players to walk in on (ie, as basically most traditional modules are done), this “cosmic game” is established a little differently there than how Gygax might have done it himself at the time. Certainly, elements of both the domain level play of the game and also of the game’s wider cosmology should come into play at some point. When I did the Appendix N survey, I had my eye out for anything that could provide inspiration for handling this sort of thing as it’s long been something that I’ve struggled with. Maybe I missed it, but I don’t think there is a whole lot effort on the part of the old school scene in general to get into some of this. Many of us are quite happy focusing at length upon the ten foot pole and iron spike stage of D&D’s gameplay, sure. But maybe we overreacted against the “Hickman revolution” a little, too.

But if serious purpose is integral to a successfully ongoing campaign, there must be moments of relief as well. Such counterplots can be lesser and different themes within the whole, whether some side dungeon or quest, a minor altercation between petty nobles, or whatever. Occasional “pure fun” scenarios can be conducted also. That is, moments of silliness and humor help to contrast with the grinding seriousness of a titanic struggle and relieve participants at the same time. After all, ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is first and foremost a game, a pastime for fun and enjoyment. At times the fun aspect must be stressed. Thus, in my “Greyhawk Campaign” I included an “Alice In Wonderland” level, and while it is a deadly place, those who have adventured through it have uniformly proclaimed it as great fun because it is the antithesis of the campaign as a whole. Similarly, there are places where adventurers can journey to a land of pure Greek mythology, into the future where the island of King Kong awaits their pleasure, or through the multiverse to different planets, including Jack Vance’s “Planet of Adventure”, where they hunt sequins in the Carabas while Dirdir and Dirdirmen hunt them.

Okay, there is a great deal in this paragraph. I believe the old school scene of recent years has done a great deal to revive the “silliness and humor” that is referred to here. Certainly, the pages of Fight On! magazine is loaded with humourous material that is completely at odds with the overly serious, brooding model types that grace the pages of today’s fantasy novels. Another thing the old school has helped bring back is an understanding of the utility of dungeon sublevels and so forth. I think the lore surrounding much advice in mega-dungeon design is in tune with what Gygax is saying here.

I caught a lot of flak over what I’ve said about rpg settings over the past year or so, so I want you to take a look at what he’s saying about Greyhawk here. Note that when he says “Greyhawk Campaign” he doesn’t mean anything remotely like what most people mean when they talk about a “Forgotten Realms Campaign”. The thrust of what he’s talking about doesn’t sound anything like the 1983 boxed set that pretty well defined the game world for children of the eighties.

I’m sure there are gaming scholars that are much more familiar with the backstory on this, but when he says that his “Greyhawk Campaign” includes an “Alice In Wonderland” level, it sure sounds like the heart of his campaign setting was a very large– and occasionally nonsensical– dungeon. And that stuff with a Greek Mythology land, time travel, and King Kong…? You’re talking an anything goes, off the wall, kitchen sink campaign here.

Why would it be like that? Because, amateur Dungeon Masters in the old school scene do not produce professional style, coherent, and painstakingly detailed game settings when they engage in the “Do It Yourself” approach that typifies the OD&D era. When you tell people over and over that they need to have a serious, realistic setting to game in or else they’re totally el lame-o, they don’t start making awesomely coherent works of art. They start buying somebody else’s masterpiece because it’s takes a lot of work to develop that stuff.

Now a lot of people bemoan all this “gonzo” stuff that goes on in the old school scene of today. It just doesn’t set well with a lot of people. And that’s fine– I mean, different strokes and all that, right? But genre mashups and the characters drawn from anything that can be turned up in a Google image search and… well… basically anything that’s ever been done with Encounter Critical…? It serves a purpose beyond just being freaky and hilarious. It puts “Do It Yourself” campaign setting development back within the reach of the average Dungeon Master.

And take a look at what Gygax is doing with Jack Vance’s “Planet of Adventure” there. Oh yeah, it’s practically the same thing he did with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom stories in the pages of OD&D. That would be the other big secret to “Do It Yourself” style play. You can adapt old pulp novels to classic D&D with very little work. If megadungeons ever get boring, you can just turn the players loose in the world of nearly any classic science fiction and fantasy author.

So can people stop saying now that “Appendix N is ultimately a list of Gygax’s favorites”? I mean, I thought it was enough to show just how much was pulled from those books in the creation of AD&D. I would have thought that Tim Kask’s statement on what it was was enough to put an already asinine claim to bed. But just look it. Appendix N defines large stretches of Gygax’s personal campaign setting as it was actually played. And beyond that, he’s telling you that this is part of the secret to running a long-lasting campaign that will keep people coming back.

Of course, such areas represent a considerable investment in time and effort. Many of you will not have hours to spend creating these diversions, so it might seem that your campaign is doomed to eventual stagnation. Not so. The various prepared modules available commercially are ideal for use as sidelights to the whole of your game. In addition, there are many games which can be “plugged into” your AD&D campaign to serve as relief. After all is said and done, role playing is role playing and the setting is not of paramount importance. The trick is to adapt one system to the other so as to enable continuity of the characters from AD&D into the other setting. This allows not only a refreshing change, but it poses new problems to participants and adds new factors to your campaign – new abilities, new weapons, etc. TSR has many games and rules systems which can be used with this game to expand and invigorate your campaign. Space does not permit detailed explanations of how to do this with each and every possible system, but two readily lend themselves to both the spirit of AD&D and its systems: BOOT HILL and GAMMA WORLD.

And no, even with a kitchen sink style setting and a pile of Appendix N books, not everyone is going to want to roll their own. On the other hand, “the setting is not of paramount importance” to role-playing. Wow. Did you catch that…? The setting is not of paramount importance!

Really, though… if your kitchen sink is not doing it for you, then the only thing to do is kitchen sink even harder. You need six guns and random mutations in your AD&D game… and probably space ships and powered armor just to be sure. (Heck, it’s already got psionics and green slimes straight out of Heiro’s Journey, so why the heck not, right?)

Okay, I guess you don’t have to go that far in order to play AD&D correctly…. But one thing’s for sure. Pretty much everything people take for granted about how rpg settings are “supposed” to be done is antithetical to how AD&D was intended to be played.

Is Rules Bloat Integral to the Rpg Hobby?

One point that Lewis Pulsipher brought up recently deserves a little more comment:

We may be forgetting a most practical matter here, that is, “money talks”. RPGs are in a sense prisoners of capitalism. Simple RPGs, ones that are intended to stay simple, don’t make much money. People buy the simple rules, and there aren’t additional rule supplements. Complex RPGs keep providing income by increasing complexity. So we’re more or less “doomed” to commercial complexity in RPGs. Old/New School doesn’t come into it.

Lew is of course speaking from the perspective of the Industry Insider. Though I guess I have to clarify what I mean by that now as that is a term that no longer means what it used to mean. Lew is… well… I guess you could say that he is an old school Industry Insider. By that I mean that he’s created a top 100 classic board game, written countless articles for gaming magazines, has material that is incorporated into the “official” first edition AD&D rules, and so on. Nowadays the term “Industry Insider” can refer to indie tabletop publishers, indie LARP designers, event organizers, activists, critics, academics, and community managers. But that’s not what I mean at all when I talk about Lew’s frame of reference.

(I can almost hear Gandalf now…. “What a lot of things you do use old school for!” Indeed we do. It’s quite handy. If I say to my friends, “Lew Pulsipher is old school, y’all” that’s a pretty high accolade. It conveys a certain amount of verve and accomplishment. It implies that you’re talking about someone that made the grade back when standards were higher.)

Now… I come at this at a necessarily different perspective. In fact… you could quite reasonably say that I am an Industry Outsider. Like I’ve said before, my hobby is not about making sure that anyone stays in business. It is the difference between these two ways of looking at things that is the root cause of why Dr. Pulsipher and I end up butting heads when we dig into these sorts of topics. (That time we argued over what the definition of an rpg was is a good example of that.)

Now I don’t like disagreeing with Lew and I try not to do it unless I’m sure I think I know what I’m talking about. But in this case, I think “Old/New School” really does come into this. And rpgs is far from the only scene where this sort of thing plays out like this.

So here’s one more example for you:

UNIX is old school.

Microsoft is new school.

It’s very nearly the same sort of issues involved in that particular culture split as what we’re talking about here.

Old School and New School: Settings

One thing to keep in mind as we identify design philosophies that are “old school” is that, as Lewis Pulsipher will tell you, the Old School not only lost, they are hopelessly irrelevant. Video games dwarf tabletop role-playing games altogether. So when I’m talking about old school gaming, we are looking at tiny fraction of a tiny fraction of the scene in general. And the people carrying on about it…? Even River Tam has their number:

I’ve known a dozen like you. Skipped off home early, minor graft jobs here and there. Spent some time in the lockdown, I warrant, but less than you claim. Now you’re what, petty thief with delusions of standing? Sad little king of a sad little hill.

(Y’all think I’m joking, but it really does all go back to thieves.)

So why do people care? Because “old school” is synonymous with a great many things: superlative quality, foundational texts, deep insights…. It’s cool. And the hobbyists and game designers and authors in earshot of this sort of thing, they all want to be in the club. So that moment that I come out and say that this particular thing is Old School and this other contrasting thing is New School…? Man, it actually hurts.

Some of this is due to nerd hierarchy stuff. The guy that reads only Forgotten Realms novels is lower down than the guy digging up old pulp fantasy. A guy with a thirty year old first edition AD&D campaign beats anyone running 5th edition. Prolific authors and game designers outrank them all. It’s just how it is. I wouldn’t get hung up on it, though. We’re still talking about an incredibly small group of people that are very much the losers of the rpg culture wars.

But there’s another part of it, too. People outside of the old school are invested in having had just as much fun as anybody else. To some extent, they don’t want to feel like they’re missing out on anything. And so they’re both skeptical and defensive. I think that’s one reason why Matt Finch’s use of Zen Moments to explain some of this was so effective. It made a lot of people stop and think rather than just react.

Anyway, here’s a less emotionally charged one:

  • Little Brown (and/or Black) Books are old school.
  • One yard of hardback rpg books are new school.

Yeah, that one shouldn’t hurt any feelings. This one is about as obvious:

  • Rpgs that draw from a wide range of literary sources to produce a kind of kitchen sink “anything goes” setting that can provide referees with the raw materials with which to create their own settings…? Old school.
  • Games that are focused mainly on just one setting…? New school.
  • Canned campaign settings in general…? New school.

That would make Traveller’s Third Imperium setting new school. And Mystara. And Greyhawk, too, even. That rhetorical question posed in the closing volume of the OD&D core booklets: “why have us do any more of your imagining for you?” It doesn’t just apply to merely the interpretation of the rules. Just as with the first Traveller box sets, old school rpgs supply “a framework describing the barest of essentials for an infinite universe.” Referees were expected to complete the design process by fleshing out the world implied by the bare bones rules.

How were they expected to pull off this impossible chore…? That’s right there in the books, too:

One very interesting source of assistance for this task is the existing science-fiction literature. Virtually anything mentioned in a story or article can be transferred to the Traveller environment. Orbital cities, nuclear war, alien societies, puzzles, enigmas, absolutely anything can occur, with imagination being the only limit.

Gosh, there’s that “i” word again. Imagination.

And what’s fueling it? What’s inspiring it…? Well, with the kind of rules that were available during the earliest stages of the hobby, just about any paperback novel available at the time would have served as a de facto gaming supplement.

And there were no limits.

Does this mean that there was something wrong, say, with my beloved Kara Tur boxed set from back in the day…? Well, hey, of course not. But the point is that the people that made OD&D and Traveller… they could not imagine people needing something like that. That sort of thing was simply outside of the scope of how they expected people to use what they created.

At the very least, then, there is a certain amount of dissonance between the more or less classic style rpg rule sets that were on the market in the mid-eighties and a lot of the products that were being created to support them around that time. But what if there were more to it than that? What if people really did miss out on something by having game companies do their imagining for them…?