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Category Archives: Old School D&D

Amazon Women, Pulp Fantasy, and Old School Game Mastering Advice in The Fantasy Trip

The year was 1980 and Steve Jackson’s first complete role-playing game design hit the market. A pivotal time in gaming to be sure!

Sign of the times: there are no amateurish drawings of naked women in the pages of this module. But take heart! This game nevertheless has its foot firmly planted in the staggeringly awesome days of gaming’s primordial past. A scantily clad Amazon chick not only appears on the cover but also as an explicit option for unironic play:

AMAZON: The beautiful, dangerous female warrior. She probably has high DX and wears little armor. Talents
include Sex Appeal, Unarmed Combat, Bow, and Thrown Weapons — plus several other weapon talents.

Nice!

If you shelled out big bucks for the recent monster-sized Kickstarter edition of this game, don’t bother to look for this. This was evidently expurgated for being way too spicy for the high strung pearl-clutching gamers of today. (Fortunately for us pulp fantasy fans, Tarzan remains in the archetype list for the Woodsman “class”– though the name was character type was updated to “Ranger”.)

One surprising bit that was left 100% intact, however, is this choice bit from the game’s background setting of Cidri:

This enormous polyglot world was chosen as a background for two very good and totally opposite reasons. The first is variety. Cidri is big enough to hold thousands of Earths; it has room for the world of every Game Master who’ll ever put pencil to hex-paper. There’s room here for every sort of fantasy adventure to coexist — in a logical manner. And it provides a workable rationale for the weird melange of legend, historical fact, prehistory, science fiction, and sheer wild imagination that characterizes the work of the best fantasy gamers.

What an astonishing line there!

Granted, anyone that is familiar with role-playing games of the 1970’s could see why Steve Jackson would say such a thing. And Cidri is truly a bizarre game setting. It’s like Philip José Farmer’s World of Tiers series mashed up with Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber. It’s like a weird inversion of the default setting of the much later Steve Jackon  release of GURPS Fourth Edition– instead of “Infinite Worlds” it’s Infinite World!

Rough sketch for the cover of the Melee MicroGame? A stray illustration from the 1980 edition of In the Labyrinth? No on both counts! It’s a picture of Dejah Thoris by Frank Frazetta!

But look at that sentence again. It is very much like how I have (on many occasions) attempted to describe the best work of A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Leigh Brackett to a generation that is almost entirely unfamiliar with the pulp era. And here Steve Jackson in 1980 casually declares the work of the best fantasy gamers to be JUST LIKE THAT. He had no idea that there was about to be a sea change in how people even conceived fantasy to even work!

Incredible. The intrinsically weird/pulpy foundations of fantasy gaming confirmed!

But wait, there’s more treasures to unearth in this old game!

In Steve Perrin’s review of it from the April/May 1980 issue of Different Worlds, he says this: “Perhaps the best part of the book is a column by publisher Howard Thompson, describing the story-telling requirements of being a GM. Truer words were never spoken.” Story-telling? Sounds potentially heretical to me! Too bad purchasers of the new edition will not have the benefit of this awesomely TRUE gaming wisdom from the dawn of the hobby. Steve Jackson deleted it for some reason!

But don’t worry. I have the text right here:

NOTES ON SUCCESSFUL GAME-MASTERING

Most of you will eventually want to design your own labyrinths and take a turn at being Game Master. A fantasy role playing game is certainly more enjoyable when you can provide fun and adventure for your friends. In our experience, there is one philosophy of game-mastering that consistently leads to success. That is this: A GM is a solo entertainer of an unusual new variety. He is a writer, performer, and group facilitator rolled into one. Players participate in an adventure campaign for entertainment — not to let the GM be a petty god and manipulate their characters at will. It takes practice, attention, and sensitivity to lead a group through an adventure and leave them feeling good (win or lose) when it’s over. Thinking of yourself as a semi-professional entertainer like a bard or other
small-group yarn-spinner will help.

Don’t try to control the action or predetermine specific outcomes for everything. Your labyrinth and its supporting environment must be flexible enough to evolve as a result of the players’ actions, be they successes or failures. There must be room for players to build, destroy, live and die as they choose. This doesn’t mean that things should be easy. Player characters will get killed — fairly regularly, for the careless or headstrong. As a GM, you must be firm – but not so attached to your creation that it doesn’t also become something of the players’.

You needn’t bully your players or allow them to intimidate you. There will be points of disagreement during play, of course – but the best way to handle them is to postpone any
real discussion until a “critique” period after the game session. Players should feel free to ask questions or make comments about the GM’s actions, but it shouldn’t go farther than a few brief comments while play is going on. If you goof, and a player catches it immediately, you ought to fix it then and there IF you can do it without breaking the “feel” of the adventure. The ability to do this is a mark of the experienced GM. Real disagreements should always be discussed AFTER an adventure, in preparation for the next. You can stand by your actions and refuse to discuss them — but to the detriment of your campaign.

Remember – you are an entertainer. The adventure unfolding is your “act.” Nurture the story, let it build, involve players in the action. Within the framework you’ve constructed, let events happen as they will. What you and your players will create is a spontaneous experience that can be a rewarding entertainment “high.”

— Howard Thompson

This is solid, straight ahead advice. If all you had were a bunch of fantasy game materials from the seventies you’d probably hit on this eventually. The Hickman Revolution was a not even a glimmer in anyone’s eye at this point, of course. And Steve Jackson’s own particular brand of role-playing philosophy (which would fully flower in the mid-eighties with GURPS) was not yet in evidence in any of The Fantasy Trip’s material.

Of course the approach to role-playing that would become dominant in this century in the aftermath of TSR’s demise was even further off. Which is intriguing. One thing that sets The Fantasy Trip apart from original D&D that it has in common with D&D 3.5 is the hyper-regulated combat and movement system.

Here is Steve Jackson’s own rationale for why he developed it from his designer’s notes in The Space Gamer 29, July 1980:

It started in early 1977. I had just found out, much to my surprise, that I could design games… people were buying Ogre, But the game that I was playing a lot of myself was Dungeons & Dragons. And like everyone else who tried an early version of D&D, I wanted to make some changes. The polyhedral dice were irritating– but the biggest problem was combat. The D&D combat rules were confusing and unsatisfying. No tactics, no real movement– you just rolled dice and died. T&T was the same way. Monsters! Monsters! was more detailed in some ways, but still allowed no tactics. So I did something about it.

Amazons from the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons and 4th Edition Tunnels & Trolls. If your game doesn’t have them, it sucks!

Indeed he did. Steve Jackson would end up making two of the greatest microgames in history, which is pretty cool given that he’d already created the definitive microgame with his debut game design.

Steve Jackson is far from being the only person that could look at the first two role-playing games and declare the combat system to be completely broken. Of course at the time he wrote that, we were decades away from anyone being able to provide a cogent argument for why the nature of those early systems were a feature, not a bug. But given everything we’ve seen in five decades of role-playing at the tabletop, we have to ask. Is a hyper-regulated combat system intrinsically bad for rpgs? Is that the root cause that made D&D 3.5’s completely linear “everybody wins nobody dies” adventures the gaming travesty that it is…?

It’s a reasonable question, really. After all, the Melee/Wizard adventure “The Lost Lair” published in The Dungeoneer 11 in 1979 did not embody the design principles outlined in Jaquaying the Dungeon even though it was created by the person whose name would become synonymous with the idea.

The seeds of destruction really are there, perhaps. But given Howard Thompson’s spot on game mastering advice included in the original edition of In the Labyrinth, I have to say…. It doesn’t have to be that way!

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The Wisdom of Tunnels & Trolls

One of the big changes in the new edition of The Fantasy Trip is that Steve Jackson has recanted on the old rule that IQ provided a harsh upper limit on the total number of spells and/or talents a character could have. The reason is… under the old advancement system there comes a point where attributes get ridiculously and pointlessly high. So Steve’s solution is to have players buy attributes early on in their adventuring careers… and then at some point switch over to buying more talents and spells when the usual method of advancement becomes cost prohibitive.

I like the idea, mostly because I’ve long been hung up on the old first edition AD&D Fighter/Magic-user multi-class ever since I saw it. A great idea, but a clunky implementation to be sure. The idea of slower advancement is preserved here under the new rules here for The Fantasy Trip: non-wizard characters are going to pay triple the experience points for each new spell they acquire!

But of course, Steve isn’t channeling the more baroque elements of the biggest fantasy gaming franchise on the planet. No, he’s merely rolling back to a key element of The Fantasy Trip’s predecessor, Tunnels & Trolls!

See, the justifiably infamous Ken St. Andre had this hilariously brilliant “Rogue” class. This one was not like any of the Rogues in more ubiquitous games of today. It was an offbeat first-class treatment of the fighter/magic-user hybrid. Rogues didn’t have double armor ability of the warriors, though they could still use any weapon that they had the strength attribute for. (Shades of GURPS and The Fantasy Trip!) They could cast spells like a wizard, but didn’t get the strength cost break that wizards got from magic staffs and from casting spells at lower spell levels than their character levels.

And note again… because Tunnels & Trolls had Constitution be a distinct stat from Strength when determined the energy reserve, T&T avoided the “Conan the Wizard” problem that The Fantasy Trip accrued to itself due to its overly elegant design framework! Problem solved way before GURPS even came close to being on the drawing board!

The real genius of Tunnels & Trolls lies not just in its development of the ultimate fighter/magic-user combo. It’s that additional spells were doled out in that game in exchange for gold, not experience points. Wizards pay a flat rate to the guild, of course. But Rogues have to learn from other player character wizards. And they have to pay whatever amount those players are asking!

This is awesome. Not only does it inject a healthy amount of old school “XP for Gold” into T&T’s gameplay, but it also keeps the wizard players out in front of the rogues when it comes to spells. Not only are rogues limited to selecting from the spells the wizards have already purchased, but wizards can also relieve the rogues of all their spare cash… and then turn it over to the guild for even more spells!

This is particularly brilliant because the stupid stuff players do to min/max character generation and advancement is always inferior to the hi-jinx that ensures when the players start playing off of each other.

Score another one for Ken St. Andre, y’all!

A Key Line of Influence in the Development of Roleplaying Games

One of the ways that it becomes clear that Appendix N is more than just a list of books is that there are clear lines of influence running through it, chains of authors that inspire each other in succession. Everyone has been reminded by now that Leigh Brackett’s entire career was predicated on her reading and emulating an Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter novel. Fewer have marked the fact that there would have been no Conan were it not for Tarzan, but it’s true all the same. Jack Vance, Philip Jose Farmer, and Michael Moorcock each wrote books that even if they were not outright pastiche nevertheless hewed closely to Burroughs’s template.

But there’s more to it than just Burroughs being the real author of the century. Science fiction legend Jack Williamson set his sights on imitating the Lord of Fantasy A. Merritt. August Derleth and Margaret St. Clair each continued on in the same vein Lovecraft mined. And Lovecraft’s career in fiction was in turn directly inspired by the work of Lord Dunsany.

There’s a story there, a sprawling conversation that spanned decades. There are lights there that shined so brightly, voices so powerful that they defined how even the idea of fantasy could even work.

Another such conversation played out in the mid-seventies as the foundations of the roleplaying game hobby were laid down.

Some of the lines of influence are pretty obvious, of course. Traveller in its original incarnation was released as a set of three “little black books”– a very careful adaption of original D&D’s “little brown books” to a science fiction theme.

The core rules to GURPS have been called a “Basic Set” from its initial release because it was originally patterned after the phenomenally influential Basic D&D sets created by Holmes, Moldvay & Cook, and then Mentzer.

Looking at the precursor to GURPS, Steve Jackson’s The Fantasy Trip… it’s hard to imagine such a tightly engineered masterpiece of design could have been produced when TSR was in the process of developing the nigh incoherent early D&D rules to the ponderous and outright unplayable AD&D system.

The man that set the stage for this incredible little game was none other than Ken St. Andre, the creator the second role-playing game system Tunnels & Trolls. That game system did much more than blaze the trail for solitaire gaming modules which would inspire Steve Jackson from his earliest Fantasy Trip and Car Wars supplements. It would remain a cornerstone component of his vision even in his magnum opus of GURPS.

But look back into the offbeat T&T variant Monsters! Monsters!– which was published by MetaGaming and edited by a very snarky Steve Jackson– and you’ll find key innovations that were very quickly embraced and refined by Steve:

  • One of the six core attributes– constitution– is used for hit points instead of having a separate hit point stat. In The Fantasy Trip, Steve Jackson would trim things even further, folding the idea of both constitution and hit points into the strength attribute!
  • Instead of having a weird set of off the wall saving throw stats that are a function of class and level, Ken St. Andre used a more generalized “saving roll” against the luck stat. Again, Steve Jackson generalize things even further by making nearly every roll in his system be against one of his very few core attributes.
  • D&D has an elaborate tradition for statting up monsters and foes that is entirely distinct from the one used to generate player characters. With Monsters! Monsters!, Ken St. Andre showed how to make monsters a first class element of the game system, giving them all the same attributes and means of advancing. Steve Jackson would maintain this approach within The Fantasy Trip.
  • Weapon choice (and thus damage output) in Tunnels & Trolls is a function of the strength attribute. This concept is carried forward into The Fantasy Trip.
  • Magic staffs are used to reduce the cost of spells cast in Tunnels & Trolls. In The Fantasy Trip, staffs are used as mana repositories.
  • The primary benefit of being able to level up in Monsters! Monsters! is that you may increase your attributes, which define the lion-share of the character’s capabilities. In The Fantasy Trip this is taken even further and the concept of class and level is (finally) removed altogether.

There’s more. And its well worth your time to pick up copies of both Tunnels & Trolls and The Fantasy Trip to go delve into every nugget of all this.

Another thing you’ll see in Monsters! Monsters!, though, is a great number of references to what would later become known as the books of Appendix N. Balrogs from Lord of the Rings, of course… but also Living Skeletons from Fritz Leiber’s works, Lovecraft’s, Shoggoths, the demon from De Camp’s The Fallible Fiend, and a full page illustration of Roger Zelazny’s Shadow Jack. (Hilariously, in a footnote, Steve Jackson corrects Ken St. Andre on the proper way to stat up The Grey Mouser in the Tunnels & Trolls system!!)

Gary Gygax and Ken St. Andre might have had their disagreements when it came to roleplaying game design, but one thing’s sure: they had an almost identical conception of  what the best works of fantasy were.

Session Report: West of Keep on the Borderlands

So I ran with my notes I worked up from a couple of Lovecraft and Howard stories. Here’s what went down:

The players took the survivor from the bandit attack and decided to take him to the city of Ib. The players go to the temple which looks like the parthenon. But there’s this green statue in the likeness of Bokrug inside it… of course with gigantic gemstones for eyes. Easily worth enough gold to level up the party!

The dwarf with charisma 17 brashly calls for a healer. Ten ugly green guys with flabby lips come out with daggers drawn. The dwarf just leaves. The players ponder trying to do something weird with flaming oil, but think better of it. They find an inn and refuse to eat the green gruel that the survivor slurps up. They stay the night and leave the guy there with a few gold pieces.

(All of this takes a long time to play out because the players are insanely careful describing their actions and deciding what to do.)

The party elects to go back to where they found the survivor and then leave the road, travelling a half day to the north… then making for the keep from there.

I roll a bunch of wandering monster checks and nothing comes up. The players find the skinned man that is staked to the ground. The players bury him and then attempt to make it look like he escaped.

The thief is painstakingly scouting ahead and then reporting back. A harpy comes and attacks him. He runs back to the party, but is grabbed and carried into the sky. The dwarf shoots the harpy twice with his crossbow and fails to kill it. The thief is murdered and carried away.

From there the players travel on to the keep without incident.

Total playing time was about two and half hours– a fair game session for people that still have lives. Three distinct adventure hooks were added to the campaign situation that time. No idea if the players will abandom them all to go grind on the Caves of Chaos instead!

West of the Keep on the Borderlands

I enjoy running Keep on the Borderlands with new players, however I find myself wanting to embellish the area map more and more the more I play it. I believe it is well known at this point that old pulp stories provide a better resource for stocking a wilderness map than either fantasy novels from after 1980 or rpg supplements. For those that are still not convinced, I offer this example.

Rather than start the classic module at the keep where the players can buy equipment and collect rumors, I want to play out part of the travelling that happens before they get there.

On the road to the keep, the players encounter a bedraggled survivor of a caravan that was destined for the keep. He tells of veritable army of bandits that emerged from the forest, ransacking and plundering the goods, killing the troops that were meant to relieve the forces of the keep, and kidnapping the merchants and artisans. And the Sabeans fell upon them, and took them away; yea, they have slain the warriors with the edge of the sword; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

The players have to decide whether to continue on the road and risk being waylaid by a superior force… or perhaps go around.

Now… to the north of the road, there is a random encounter table loaded up with mostly cannibals. (Give a 1-6 chance for a bear, spider, or wolf– otherwise it’s cannibals!) If the players strike off into the forest they will stumble across this grisly scene:

In a wide clearing, on a rather bold incline stood a grim stake, and to this stake was bound a thing that had once been a man. Kane had rowed, chained to the bench of a Turkish galley, and he had toiled in Barbary vineyards; he had battled red Indians in the New Lands and had languished in the dungeons of Spain’s Inquisition. He knew much of the fiendishness of man’s inhumanity, but now he shuddered and grew sick. Yet it was not so much the ghastliness of the mutilations, horrible as they were, that shook Kane’s soul, but the knowledge that the wretch still lived.

For as he drew near, the gory head that lolled on the butchered breast lifted and tossed from side to side, spattering blood from the stumps of ears, while a bestial, rattling whimper drooled from the shredded lips.

Kane spoke to the ghastly thing and it screamed unbearably, writhing in incredible contortions, while its head jerked up and down with the jerking of mangled nerves, and the empty, gaping eye-sockets seemed striving to see from their emptiness. And moaning low and brain-shatteringly it huddled its outraged self against the stake where it was bound and lifted its head in a grisly attitude of listening, as if it expected something out of the skies.

If the players want to follow this up, they will find the village “Bogonda, ruled by Kuroba the chief and Goru the priest.” They’ll be attacked by harpies on the way there, of course. And have to figure out what to do with a village penned in with harpies exacting an awful tribute on one side and merciless cannibals hemming them in on the other.

Meanwhile, to the southwest lies city of Ib. This is the closest thing to civilization that the players could reasonably get to if they would like to look for reinforcements.

It is told that in the immemorial years when the world was young, before ever the men of Sarnath came to the land of Mnar, another city stood beside the lake; the grey stone city of Ib, which was old as the lake itself, and peopled with beings not pleasing to behold. Very odd and ugly were these beings, as indeed are most beings of a world yet inchoate and rudely fashioned. It is written on the brick cylinders of Kadatheron that the beings of Ib were in hue as green as the lake and the mists that rise above it; that they had bulging eyes, pouting, flabby lips, and curious ears, and were without voice. It is also written that they descended one night from the moon in a mist; they and the vast still lake and grey stone city Ib.

To the south there is a strange mausoleum:

And so they passed through the jungle until they came to a strange clearing among the giant trees—strange because nothing grew there. The trees ringed it in a disquieting symmetrical manner, and no lichen or moss grew on the earth, which seemed to have been blasted and blighted in a strange fashion. And in the midst of the glade stood the mausoleum.

A great brooding mass of stone it was, pregnant with ancient evil. Dead with the dead of a hundred centuries it seemed, yet Kane was aware that the air pulsed about it, as with the slow, unhuman breathing of some gigantic, invisible monster.

To the southeast the players will eventually stumble across the bandit’s camp. The players could attempt to infiltrate it and rescue captives or else try some other insane scheme.

How much should you prep for this scenario…? Eh, D&D is not that complicated. Make something up! You don’t know which way the players will go or if they will bypass most of this altogether. The point is to throw all this at them as the need for it arises and then see what they are most into playing. Read the three pulp stories referenced here before the game. Be prepared to wing it. Do additional prep if any of this strikes a note with the players.

It’s okay if the players ignore all of this and instead make for the keep as quick as they can manage. There’s nothing wrong with looting the Caves of Chaos instead! Of course, if they want to sell certain offbeat magic items, the City of Ib is going to be their best bet. And getting additional gear at the keep is going to be tough until those bandits are dealt with!