Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The “Always On” Campaign

One year ago, I broke the news that “one real day = one game day” was the key to understanding real old school D&D. Today I am here to tell you that the implications of this rule go much deeper than we originally imagined.

Now, the first thing you notice is that the AD&D game world of your campaign ceases to be static. As is explained on pages 104-105 with EXTENSIVE EXAMPLES, any monster lair or dungeon location that the players fail to finish off in the context of a single session will typically have about a week to prepare for the players’ return visit. The spirit of these rules is going to come up in most “old school” circles, often times in the context of discussing Keep on the Borderlands, say. However the conventional “stop time” approach to the game will simply not grapple with these time-related issues on near the same frequency as a 1:1 campaign. In real D&D, the notorious “15 minute work day” just isn’t an issue at all.

Note that real D&D gameplay is fundamentally at odds with the assumptions of most modules. Dwimmermount– which until last year had produced the best set of game sessions I had ever experienced– is conceived of as a set of rooms that the players can wander into at any time and then experience a gradually unfolding sense of a weird D&D campaign world. Yes, interesting things should emerge as the players explore, but the setup assumes a more static dungeon environment than I think the rules imply. In any case, there is a world of difference between the dungeons of Dave Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign and the sort of neo-classical take on the mid-eighties style of adventure module. A decade ago, adapting the OD&D mega-dungeon concept to contemporary understandings of module design was one of the signature challenges of old school game design. But what if there was some other lost axiom of old school gaming that had such a drastic impact on gameplay that this turned out to be solving the wrong problem?

Maybe we didn’t need to adapt seventies style rpg lore to eighties style module conventions. Maybe we needed to adapt ourselves to even more seventies era rpg lore! 1:1 timekeeping with multiple independent domain-level actors is the fundamental axiom we have been missing. Here is what you get by implementing this one neat trick:

  • Every monster lair you hand over to a real player will necessarily generate personalized and idiosyncratic encounter locations. Details on how patrols are set up, even the names and personalities of sergeants and captains. Random table “content generator” supplements take for granted that running the game is a one man show. D&D as it was intended to be played puts players to work helping to flesh out the campaign world.
  • When player characters need to interact with a domain level player, the DM does not need to improvise something to fit the type of adventure he is trying to run. Instead, the person running the relevant domain merely needs to play his role. Bonus: the domain level players will not pull their punches but will instead play their parts FAR BETTER than what a DM will be able to do. They are not limited by the players’ feelings being wounded by a game mastering decision.
  • There will be so much domain-level information being generated and no way to create fair or useful session reports that you will have no choice but to set up a news feed for your campaign comparable to the old Traveller News Service from the pages of the Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society. And for this one, I confess to not being the sort of person that is creative enough to come up with the ponderous world-building blah blah that comprise most articles and supplements about rpgs. However, with an actual war game running behind the scenes IT IS TRIVIAL to convert game events into hints and rumors about what all is going on.
  • Similarly, your campaign will immediately begin spontaneously generating SECRETS as soon as you turn it on. I always dreamed of someday running a campaign as legendary as the one implied by GDW’s old Secret of the Ancients adventure module. Heck, even something like the nature of elves and dwarves gradually emerging over time in Dwimmermount would be cool. But no, y’all. I’m telling you today that the secrets your ridiculous AD&D campaign will generate JUST AS A SIDE EFFECT OF BEING PLAYED will be more hilarious, more ingenious, and more fun than anything you’ve read about anywhere else. ADVENTURE DESIGNERS CANNOT COMPETE WITH THIS.

Looking back at my 30 game sessions in the Trollopulous campaign last year, as wild as the game was it was still relatively static. The players would merely walk away from many adventure situations only to return a couple months later. At that point I would arbitrarily rule how much things had changed. And yes, this did create a living backdrop. But it was still just a backdrop. Adding the domain-level patron players creates tremendous game elements that cease to behave like set dressing and matte paintings.

Best of all, the game is ALWAYS ON. Players can plot and scheme with each other even when I am not in contact with them. They can act as de facto Dungeon Masters for individual player characters that are running their downtime actions within their domain locations. And they can find a use for many, many old rules that never seem to get applied in more conventional rpgs.

The reason that accounts of Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign are so baffling today is because he had assumptions about D&D that are 100% foreign to practically everyone playing the game today or even that were playing it in 1985. Judging by the magazine articles and remarks I have received from angry boomers, nobody really understood this in 1975. And the amazing thing is… Gygax’s definitive treatment of the subject of Dungeon Mastering ASSUMED THAT YOU WILL BE RUNNING A GAME THAT IS MORE OR LESS LIKE WHAT I AM DESCRIBING HERE: ie, 1:1 timekeeping, multiple characters per player, player-run domains, and NO DISCERNABLE SPOTLIGHT ON ANY GIVEN GROUP OF ADVENTURERS.

D&D is a framework for creating a game THAT IS NOT LIMITED BY WHAT YOU CAN ACCOMPLISH WITHIN AN INDIVIDUAL GAME SESSION OR EVEN A SERIES OF INDIVIDUAL GAME SESSIONS. And when you run it as intended, you get far better results than what people have decided roleplaying games can be. The reason for this is that D&D as Gygax intended creates a MODEL FANTASY WORLD WITH REAL POWERS & PRINCIPALITIES AND WHICH DEVELOPS OVER TIME IN TANDEM WITH THE REAL WORLD.

It really is amazing. If you have never experienced this, you really ought to try it. My friends Chanticleer and Bdubs1776 have experimented with using these techniques to enhance their ELITE LEVEL rpg sessions, folding in patrons and downtime actions with player character adventuring. I have pushed as hard as I could toward the game’s wargaming roots to produce downtime play that is so compelling in its own right you need not ever run an rpg session with it at all in order to play D&D.

Somewhere in this range of gaming styles, you can surely find SOMETHING to take your campaign to an entirely different level. I look forward to hearing from the people that do.

Independent Patron/Player-character Interactions in Real Time

I have to tell you, the thing about real AD&D that is so astonishing is that once you get it, you end up having to beat players off with a stick. The “real time” campaign combined with player run domains/patrons actually makes this work. There’s something compelling about an authentic old school campaign that just plain captivates people.

Before we move on to what I wanted to tell you, let me point out that there is a legitimate reason for why you see this weird jargon in all of my tweets and posts. It’s because the BrOSR has uncovered a way to play rpgs that is unlike anything anyone has done over the past 40 years. We honestly need new terminology such as “Jeffrogaxian timekeeping” and “Chantisonian patrons” in order to talk about it. Words fail to get the sense of what this new gameplay feels like because everything about it runs counter to rpg conventional wisdom. NO FOOLING, YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE TO DO THIS IF YOU ARE GOING TO UNDERSTAND IT.

Now, we have already described how real AD&D does not need Dungeon Masters that carefully accommodate each conceivable player type. In the first place, initiative by side forces the players cooperate and act as a team. Total autonomy for the players in a wide open campaign means they must form a consensus of even what type of adventure they want to have. Further, party composition changes significantly from week to week in real AD&D. The players will have to figure out which adventure options best suit the party they have, causing them to explore many more approaches to the game. Finally, AD&D is comprised of many different modes of play– dungeon delving, large miniatures battles, wilderness travel, urban adventures, freeform scenarios, and so on. Gygax’s rules create a game where every group can eventually find the precise sweet spot for them. AD&D produces long-running campaigns because it is the most anti-fragile form of role-playing ever conceived.

So, the conventional method of running rpgs which caused countless theorists to have to juggle and break down and analyze various player types? It’s all bunk. It’s all a product of trying to prop up what is clearly D&D played wrong. All these guys have been barking up the wrong tree for decades.

But it gets worse.

The AD&D domain game which hardly anyone talks bout… yes it is a sort of grand strategic wargame played by the graduates of hilariously successful adventuring careers. But it is also something more than that.

Hand over a patron or a domain to somebody and I don’t think their first reflex is going to be to wreck everyone else in the game. There are games you can do that in, sure. And yeah, there are sharks out their that would maybe run the table. But AD&D is different. People come into this wanting to play a world. And the funny thing is, you don’t have to twist their arm to get them to flesh out the game world for you. IT JUST HAPPENS.

One more reason why adventure modules and game supplements are a complete waste! The stuff your players do is better. (Besides, the domain-level players don’t need a module per the BECMI line. Those guys play against each other in a game that’s on an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT LEVEL.)

But here’s the kicker. I haven’t even officially turned the campaign on and players are hassling me to get in the game. One of them wanted to take his half-elf fighter/cleric to visit the cave men because he knew the guy running them. I let it go after checking for wilderness encounters as he made the journey there. The interactions from then on were all 100% handled between the patron player and the player-character player. (Spoiler: the guy died.)

So not only does “1:1” time create a campaign that is always on. But player run patrons and domains create players that blur the lines between dungeon master and player. That last bit is something that rpg theorists and story gamers have tinkered with mightily without a whole lot to show for it. But I’m here to tell you that AD&D not only has always done that, but AD&D has always done it better.

Suck it, egg heads.

Real Time Trollopulous Domain Play

I am starting up the Trollopulous campaign again on July 1. (And note that the months of February to June will have passed with no significant player or campaign events. The players’ big successes were evidently awesome enough that they took a bit of a vacation!)

After observing my friend Chanticleer running player-run NPC patrons in his fifth edition “real time” campaign, it hit me that this was the key to playing the AD&D domain game. Other guys in the BrOSR are experimenting with enhancing the player-facing side of the game with player run patrons. My question was… what would happen if you cut the usual adventure party groups out of the picture entirely? And what if this was the real point of D&D, way more important than the usual dungeon crawl scenario?

I aim to find out! I can already tell you that the most obvious difference with this type of play is that everything in the rule book gets used at once– and everything you have ever thought about adding to your campaign gets put into play simultaneously and in parallel. And instead of being limited to exploring what a single group of player characters encounter, the whole world is in play at once with things happening all over the place. Finally! Free from the spotlight!

I have ten major domains, groups, patrons, and/or high level characters here that are almost all drawn directly from the original campaign I developed last year running AD&D rules-as-written:

Note that working up a domain/patron like these takes about as much time as making an original one page dungeon. With these fleshed out like they are now, we now have a campaign where the overworld has finally received as much attention as the underworld. But rather than just being a bunch of unplayable “blah blah” like the old Gazetteer series, everything prepped is 100% useful for setting up an old style basement-grade miniatures campaign. Unlike my one page dungeon prep, all of this stuff gets used and played with the moment we turn the game on. (This doesn’t mean much to unflappable DMs like Bdubs, but it sure means a lot to me!)

Somebody asked me how this will work and I think that we’ll get everyone’s orders in before the month begins. During the month, every thing is plotted out in real time. Detachments will be sent around the map and encounters may result.

When I first thought this up I realized that the gameplay would be a LOT like Diplomacy. I wasn’t sure if everything would devolve into total chaos with a massive amounts of player elimination (a la Car Wars arena dueling) or if everyone would reflexively turtle up and cause nothing to happen. My hope is that 1:1 time will cause things to happen slowly enough that it is all manageable, but that nevertheless enough conflict happens that things don’t get boring.

Note that 70s style D&D campaigns are in many respects self-balancing. Players with boring domains can be given a second domain on the other side of the map if everything is too static. (The board game 7 Ages works this way.) This is what playing 9-point alignment is intended to help manage, after all. Alternately, a group of adventurers can find out what it is like to adventure in an authentic D&D campaign setting where the major factions are run by real players– and then interact with THEM instead of just having the referee handwave their behaviors in order to fit whatever he happens to want to make happen.

Really, no idea if this will work! But I can tell you that the players strike me as being unusually excited about these “patrons” that we developed for this. There is a lot of stuff here that people dream of doing but then somehow never get around to. The more I contemplate this, the more I think that something about this is supremely important to how D&D was meant to be played.

But again… we won’t know what this is like until we do it. (Oh, and to the dweebs out there that will pretend they tried this once but didn’t care for it and that naturally run their homebrewed B/X in stop time because that’s how they like it: shut up and go to the gym already!)

One thing that I assume to be totally different from the way other people do this: to me it is fine if the players talk amongst themselves to plan and plot and scheme as much as they like. My rationale for doing it that way stems from the accounts of the original Braunstein. A side effect of this is that the game is always on, always in play, and any player can interact with any other player whenever they think of something. Which naturally leads to maximum gaming surface area for minimal development effort. (70s wargamers needed good solutions to real problems, not something that could be easily packaged and sold.)

Fifty Years of Fantasy Gaming and You Still Don’t Get It

Fifty years ago the first fantasy campaign was announced thusly:

“There will be a medieval ‘Braunstein’ April 17, 1971 at the home of Dave Arneson from 1300 hrs to 2400 hrs with refreshments being available on the usual basis….”

Verily, this is a VERY SPECIAL date in gaming history and Dave Arneson would in a few short years go own to co-create with Gary Gygax one of the most remarkable games ever conceived. On this anniverary of what was the dawn of the fantasy adventure gaming hobby, it is altogether fitting and proper to reflect on just how far we’ve come since then. Or rather, how far we have fallen and how little we appreciate what men like Arneson actually accomplished.

Let me explain.

In the back of the third rules booklet for the original D&D game is a page that is frequently cited by gaming critics and commentators. This is the place where the designers give their parting advice for the revolutionary game they had put together. Rather than write to them with rules questions about how things should work, they suggest instead that “the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way.” After all, they asked, “why have us do any more of your imagining for you?” Several decades later the vast majority of people within the D&D hobby act as if this were the ONLY significant rule within the entirety of those small booklets.

On that same page is something little remarked upon:

As the campaign goes into full swing it is probable that there will be various groups going every which way and all at different time periods. It is suggested that a record of each player be kept, the referee checking off each week as it is spent. Recon the passage of time thus:

Dungeon expedition– 1 week
Wilderness adventure– 1 move = 1 day
1 Week of actual time– 1 week of game time

The time for dungeon adventures considers only preparations and a typical, one day descent into the pits. The time for Wilderness expeditions would include days of rest and recuperation. Actual time would not be counted off for players “out” on a Wilderness adventure, but it would for those newed in their dens, hideholes, keeps, castles, etc., as well as for those in the throes of some expedition in the underworld.

Why this rule is there exactly is not immediately obvious. If you experimented with it at all, you would understand that this simple and strange sounding idea is one of the best ideas in gaming history BAR NONE. If you were also familiar with just what precisely Dave Arneson did with Blackmoor, you would realize that this rule was the key that allowed him to manage as massive and complex of a campaign as he in fact did.

But this story does not end there. This strange rule did not evaporate with the Blackmoor campaign and it did not remain as little more than a bizarre footnote to the amateurish looking original edition of D&D. In 1978, when Gary Gygax published his phenomenal Player Handbook for AD&D, the type of gameplay that results from this rule is presented as being synonymous with AD&D and a fundamental element of the AD&D game. Behold:

As with most other role playing games, this one is not just a single experience contest. It is an ongoing campaign, with each playing session related to the next by results and participant characters who go from episode to episode. As players build the experience level of their characters and go forth seeking ever greater challenges, they must face stronger monsters and more difficult problems of other sorts (and here the Dungeon Master must likewise increase his or her ability and inventiveness). While initial adventuring usually takes place in an underworld dungeon setting, play gradually expands to encompass other such dungeons, town and city activities, wilderness explorations, and journeys into other dimensions, planes, times, worlds, and so forth. Players will add characters to their initial adventurer as the milieu expands so that each might actually have several characters, each involved in some separate and distinct adventure form, busily engaged in the game at the same moment of “Game Time”. This allows participation by many players in games which are substantially different from game to game as dungeon, metropolitan, and outdoor settings are rotated from playing to playing. And perhaps a war between players will be going on (with battles actually fought out on the tabletop with minature figures) one night, while on the next, characters of these two contending players are helping each other to survive somewhere in a wilderness.

Again, this brief description of how AD&D works is not tucked away in some obscure appendix. It’s right up front just after the introduction in a section that is entitled as “The Game.”

On this, the fiftieth anniversary of the Blackmoor campaign, I am telling you that this is what D&D really is. Further, it is clear from everyone’s comments on this rule that you really have no idea how this sort of game works. You’re just plain clueless. The questions you ask about this are so stupid, it is obvious you haven’t the faintest notion of how to play the sort of game that Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax created.

Even worse than that are the nasty and very ugly people that bend over backwards to trumpet the most flimsy and spurious reasons for why this isn’t actually significant or relevant to understanding the D&D game. These are without a doubt some of the sorriest people I have ever had the misfortune to encounter.

But, hey. Happy “Blackmoor” day, anyway.

Maybe some of you will even play this game called “Dungeons & Dragons” some day.

I hope you do.

Diluting Appendix N

So there is a new Appendix N book out. Which makes sense, I suppose. After all, who can get enough of the authors that Gary Gygax so famously listed in what was once an obscure corner of the 1979 Dungeon Masters Guide?

Mind-bendingly stellar authors like A. Merritt, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leigh Brackett, Roger Zelazny, L. Sprague de Camp, and Fletcher Pratt– authors who not only had a direct impact on the development of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons but who defined fantasy for ALL of the game designers creating the first big wave of role-playing games. And I have to say, it is nice to have a big bunch of Appendix N packed within the pages of spiffy paperback. Or it least it would be, anway. As none of the INCREDIBLY INFLUENTIAL YET CRIMINALLY OVERLOOKED authors I just mentioned appear within these pages. 

In their place are three authors that are “sorta kinda almost” Appendix N authors due to their appearance in the anthology Gygax gave a nod to, Swords Against Darkness III.Omissions are one thing and borderline inclusions are another. And I suppose it would be fine if that were the end of it. But for some reason, stuff that doesn’t even have a tenuous connection to Gygax’s list shows up in here.

I don’t get it.

Why are C. L. Moore and Clark Ashton Smith present in a volume that purports to be a compendium of Appendix N stories? The Appendix N list is the compelling time capsule that it is precisely because of its idiosyncrasies. There are no valid grounds for embellishing it– unless the book isn’t really about Appendix N as it is, but rather Appendix N as someone would like it to be. Appropriating the title and subtitle of my PHENOMENALLY SUCCESSFUL book would seem to argue for the former, but the sleight of hand here of casually introducing new literary landmarks as if they had always been present is another thing entirely. Bebergal wants it both ways. I doubt he bothered to read my book before co-opting its title to his purpose.

Anyone who had read it would know why the hatchetmen associated with traditional publishing are INCAPABLE of shedding any light on this topic at all. They are, after all, the ones responsible for suppressing the fantasy canon in the first place!