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Category Archives: Old School D&D

Unfrozen Gaming Caveman Speaks: The Truth About Today’s D&D

 

Seriously, just read it:

I used to be an avid gamer. From the moment I first saw people playing D&D in junior high school (1976 or so) to the early 1980s when my life turned into a Hunter Thompson/William S Burroughs mashup, RPGs were my main avocation.

In the years between then and now I’ve played on the rare occasions that a game has been available, but between getting married and raising children and learning to hold down a job and becoming an internationally unknown least-selling New Wave writer, I really haven’t taken the time to seek out a gaming group.

Over the last few years I have been reading and commenting on OSR blogs, mostly from following people who have interesting comments on other blogs (+Jeffro Johnson was my OSR gateway drug) but I haven’t really been exposed to what might be called the mainstream of RPG writing over the last few decades.

Even when my eldest daughter started playing D&D I didn’t pay a lot of attention. A few things she said about her games struck me as odd, but I shrugged it off with paternal indulgence.

Recently, though, I have been following links and reading articles written (allegedly) by gamers for gamers.

And what the actual fuck, people?

This is not like going back to my hometown and seeing that they tore down the old mall and widened the highway and put a McMansion Estates where the old high school stood. This is more like going back to what I thought was my old hometown and ending up in the Silent City of The Dessicated Dead on the lost Plateau of Leng.

What the people I am reading now are talking about is not the game that I used to play. It’s not even the type of game that I used to play–or the category of activity that I used to play. The difference isn’t like Chess and Checkers, or Golf and Bowling.

It’s like the difference between cooking chili in a crockpot and blindfolded bicycle racing. The points of similarity are so rare and so irrelevant that I can’t say it’s the same thing at all, despite using many of the same names and much of the same specialized vocabulary.

I mean, I thought that the OSR gang was exaggerating the differences between Old School gaming and the modern… whatever for effect. I figured that they were just getting hung up on a few rule changes as a kind of group shibboleth–if you use these rules from this edition then you’re not one of us.

Not so much. If anything, what I’ve read from the OSR has been understating the case.

What I used to do that I called playing RPGs was having fun playing make believe Heroes vs Monsters and rolling dice to see who killed who first.

What people are doing that they call playing RPGs today seems to be using writing fanfic as a group therapy session.

Misha Burnett is spot on here.

What little I know of contemporary incarnations of D&D is via the “nobody dies everybody wins” tables that are inevitably next to mine at the conventions. It wasn’t until some of the people that switched to Moldvay Basic D&D as a result of my posts over at Castalia House Blog that I found out what was really going on. Seriously, the first hand accounts of what people actually did in these 5th edition sessions made my jaw drop. Horrible!

David Burge summed it all up thusly: “1. Identify a respected institution. 2. kill it. 3. gut it. 4. wear its carcass as a skin suit, while demanding respect.”

The few people that stumble their way towards something almost resembling what gaming used to be like find themselves having to reinvent not only things like morale checks, but even non-linear dungeons where the players have control of how far down they delve, whereby they would be handed the capability to select the difficultly level that gives the the sort of gaming they are looking for!

Truly, a dark age of gaming is upon us!

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“It’s pretty much Avatar before Avatar.”

Xavier L. writes in:

I think you got everything wrong. “A Conquest of two worlds” is literally an anti-colonial story. It’s pretty much Avatar before Avatar.

I wouldn’t describe D&D feudalism as window-dressing though, it’s pretty much essential. The people who work for you are called peasants, not natives, and the tax, if you are a cleric, was the tithe, right?

He’s absolutely right here.

The “colonialism” depicted in “A Conquest of Two Worlds” is an over the top caricature. The earthmen are only in it for the resources. The aliens totally didn’t do anything.

And yes! It is absolutely an “Avatar” type story. One character despises the obvious injustice, “goes native”, and then fights both with and for them against the earthman exploiters.

But here’s the difference: unlike in Avatar, the colonialists here cannot be stopped. They are awesomely unbeatable, an exaggerated variant of Sauron’s armies or the Persians from 300. And the aliens have less fight and prowess than even a bunch of ridiculous hobbits could summon.

And the ending that you end up with in consequence of that particular premise…? If Avatar had been written that way, the aliens would have fought to their last remaining outpost only to nuke themselves and their Spirit Tree into oblivion.

It really is a weird story.

He’s also correct about the AD&D clerics. Here’s the relevant rule:

Upon reaching 9th level (High Priest or High Priestess), the cleric has the option of constructing a religious stronghold. This fortified place must contain a large temple, cathedral, or church of not less than 2500 square feet on the ground floor. It can be a castle, a monastery, an abbey, or the like. It must be dedicated to the cleric’s deity (or deities). The cost of construction will be only one-half the usual for such a place because of religious help. If the cleric then clears the surrounding territory and humans dwell in the area, there will be a monthly revenue of 9 silver pieces per inhabitant from trade, taxation, and tithes.

Note that there is an analogue to renegade characters like Edmond Hamilton’s Halkett and James Cameron’s Jake Sully in The Keep on the Borderlands. It’s the Evil Priest, maintainer of the Temple of Evil Chaos in the Caves of Chaos. He has agents and sympathizers in the Keep on the Borderlands, so beware!

Pulp Era Colonialism is Intrinsic to Dungeons & Dragons

From Edmond Hamilton’s short story “A Conquest of Two Worlds”, published in 1932 in Hugo Gernsback’s Wonder Stories magazine:

“I don’t know why we should be going back there to kill those poor furry devils… after all, they’re fighting for their world.”

“We wouldn’t hurt them if they’d be reasonable and not attack us, would we?” Crane demanded. “We’re only trying to make Mars something besides a great useless desert.”

“But the Martians seem to be satisfied with it as a desert,” Halkett persisted. “What right have we, really, to change it or exploit its resources against their wishes?”

“Halk, if you talk like that people’ll think you’re pro-Martian,” said Crane worriedly. “Don’t you know that the Martians will never use those chemical and metal deposits until the end of time, and that earth needs them badly?”

“Not to speak of the fact that we’ll give the Martians a better government than they ever had before,” Burnham said, “They’ve always been fighting among themselves and the Council will stop that.”

Later:

Within another year Weathering could send word back to the Council that the plan had succeeded and that except for a few remote wastes near the snow-caps, Mars was entirely subjugated. In that year approximately three-fourths of the Martian race had perished, for in almost every case their forces had resisted to the last. Those who remained could constitute no danger to the earthmen’s system of forts. The Council flashed Weathering congratulations and gave Crane command of the expedition then fitting out on earth for the exploration of Jupiter.

Needless to say, a movie like Avatar would have had a completely different ending back in the thirties! And as brazen as this story might seem to the average millennial of today, it is nevertheless something that that is hardwired in the nature of the much more recent Dungeons & Dragons game.

Consider this from the first edition AD&D Players Handbook:

When a fighter attains 9th level (Lord), he or she may opt to establish a freehold. This is done by building some type of castle and clearing the area in a radius of 20 to 50 miles around the stronghold, making it free from all sorts of hostile creatures.

Sure, there is a bit of feudalism baked into the old game merely as a sort of window dressing. But there this talk of “clearing” and subjugating wilderness hexes is very much in line with the spirit of Hamilton’s scandalously retrograde science fiction tale. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the overall posture and attitude outlined there is the very definition of what Lawful means in the context of the grandaddy of all role-playing games– something that would be readily apparent to anyone that’s taken the time to go back and read Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions.

A cursory survey of D&D comments on Twitter reveals people’s inability to even imagine thinking this way is a big part of why they have no idea how to play the game.

Schrodinger’s Game

D&D didn’t really exist in the seventies.

Or rather, a lot of people were playing it– a close approximation at any rate. Or maybe a Frankenstein’s monster pieced together from a nearly random assortment of supplements and bootlegs.

If only someone could have stepped into this swirl of confusion and chaos, this period in which everyone would simply do what was right in their own eyes– someone with authority, an apostle that could settle once and for all what D&D truly was.

Was Dr. John Eric Holmes that man…? Or did the world need to wait for the arrival of the true prophet of D&D…?

Let’s see….

-No STR bonuses. Yes, that’s right, OD&D and Holmes did not have Strength bonuses. STR was purely a “roll under” stat.

-Magic Users will have their spellbooks with all 1st level spells, some of which they’ll know, others they will not.

-Dex-based paired initiatives.

-No Variable Weapon Damage

-Variable Weapon Speed

Well… how weird can it be, really…?!

The MU character class chapter blatantly contradicts the chapter on magic and how spell learning works.

Magic Missile requires a To Hit roll.

There’s no explanation for how Elves level up other than that the XP is divided between both classes.

It’s not called that, but Monster XP is supposed to calculated according to Challenge Rating.

Number of Monsters Appearing should be based on/adjusted for the number and level of PCs.

The mysterious +3 Magic War Hammer that only Dwarves can use.

On second thought, you know what…? D&D did not exist until 1981. It was invented out of whole cloth by a guy named Tom Moldvay. That’s the only conceivable takeaway here!

Guys…? GUYS!!!!

Today in Bad Dungeon Mastering Advice

This guy is responding to a self-described 22, Taurus, Ravenclaw, INFP asking for advice for their first time dungeon mastering:

Yeah, people sure will play that not knowing each other thing to the hilt if you let them, won’t they? It makes everything that happens that much more tedious, so yeah… you definitely want to deal with that up front. However… you don’t need individual character backgrounds to do that.

Here’s the old way of handling this:

  • You are a bunch of rando asshats with no background and a moderate amount of potential.
  • There is a hole in the ground a few hours walk from town and people came back from it with gold and magic scrolls a few months ago.
  • You can get stinking rich by venturing there yourself… but all of you face an almost sure chance of death by doing so.
  • However, if you are cunning and work together extremely well… you can flip the script on this and turn certain death into a fairly good shot at glory, riches, honor, and legend.
  • Okay, maybe not honor considering how scruffy you guys are, but definitely glory and riches!

There you have it.

The thing is, tt’s the challenge that motivates the characters, not some sort of “just so” relationship summoned up from stuff that people made up before any game sessions were actually played. Honestly, though, there’s way more fun to be had in gaming out the consequences of your group casting Charm Person on half a dozen kobolds than there is in find a cure for Zardoz the one hit point thief’s niece who is currently afflicted with chronic halitosis.

But as a new dungeon master you are going to be tempted to undercut the challenge in order to make everything turn out okay. Don’t give in! Because if the challenge is really what’s holding the game together, then the players need to experience a certain amount of failure and player character death. Heck, just the shame of returning to town with zero treasure is pretty powerful in and of itself once things get rolling. If that’s what happens, you need to go with that and not pull any punches or otherwise manipulate things so as to soften the blow.

Because the game doesn’t really start until the players pull together, make a better plan, and get serious about leaving their mark on your game world. Make success too easy or even– as is often the case these days– automatic, and there’s really no reason for people to even sit at your table.