Monday, June 15, 2009

Another Glimpse into the Islands of Eime

Still working on s&w game world I mentioned a few months back. While still a work in progress, I am planning on having the campaign open with the various PCs making a perilous ocean voyage while chasing the promise of fortune and glory in the new "goldrush" that is just breaking out on a recently discovered chain of islands. Knowing little about the chosen destination before they left home, each PC will receive on arrival (in exchange for registering their names with the local town officials) a simple, handrawn copy of the only map known to exist of the new island that waits to be explored...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Improvisation and the Art of the Good DM, Rule 1


When you watch or listen to good group improvisers with an eye or ear aimed toward discerning rules and order out of what is apparently chaos and pure spontaneity, one the first things that leaps out at you is the readily repeated pattern of "yes...and-ing".  That is, when a group member first introduces a new name, object, objective, phrase or whatever into the shared collective "frame" of the group, the implicit rule obeyed by successful improvisers is to always take in or accept the new element being introduced, as well as the changes to the collective frame it brings with it, and then immediately add to or begin to build off of this new change.  This is what "yes...and-ing" means:  good improvisers always take what they are given by their group mates, and spin it into gold, so to speak.  The only rule is that you cannot refuse a cue or a direction or a decision made by a partner.  

The "...and-ing" is just as important as the "yes-ing".  Taking the groundwork that others have laid and doing with it what you will, making it your own in the process is a way of acknowledging or recognizing your improv partners and their contributions to what is essentially a collaborative activity.  This is why refusing to follow this convention makes for both bad improvisation and often leaves your partners to improv feeling disrespected.  More on this below.  

But "and-ing" is just as important, for it is a way of "showing off your chops" as a player of the game.  Anyone who understands the rules of improv can take part in the game, but it takes real talent to be able to add something interesting, intriguing, or poignant since the material you have to work with is partially contributed by others.  Above all, through creative "...and-ing," talented and the well-prepared performers distinguish themselves by making their contributions count, creating interesting hooks and setups for the next performer.

It is not surprising, then, that when asked to describe their craft and the kinds of skills they use to perform it well, improvisers themselves often resort to metaphors and images of balance and self-composition; of being in a "groove" with their partners that allows them to take risks and venture successful anticipations.  And, above all, the metaphors improvisers use to describe their craft is of finding a way to maintain the right kind of poise. 

This is why group improvisation is often described (by folks like Henry Louis Gates and Ralph Ellison) as all about drawing out bits and pieces of who you are, thus taking significant risks, and making gold out of the hay you've been handed.  "...and-ing" is how the best performers show what they can do and (at the same time) a little bit of who they are.  Being denied the chance to yourself deny how another person changes the terms of the game at any given time is a lot like gradually spinning out of control on a slick, icy surface.  You can struggle against the pull of the spin, but experience tells us that that just makes things worse.  Rather, one of the chief skills of the improviser is the ability to maintain the appropriate balance on the icy surface.  This requires quick thinking, good anticipation, and a "feel" for when to turn into the slide and when to turn away.  And, above all, a knack for remaining always in control.  It's no surprise that world-class improvisers are some of the most attentive and sharp-witted individuals, a la Stephen Colbert (a self-identified d&d player, BTW). 

Now d&d is obviously more than just group improvisation.  This is even true of the older, more "free form" editions.  But it is partially about improvisation.  DM's clearly are not equals with players when it comes to the ability to add to or change their "shared" fantasy world, that is true.  The DM, of course, remains entirely responsible for almost all of the explicit world-building and for running every aspect of the game outside of the PCs themselves.  But there are few DM's who run such a tight ship as is technically within their rights.  Existing along a spectrum, most good DM's allow a good to the contribution of the player, from ideas about histories to cultures and economies, and so much more.  While they are not equals, good DMs and players practice "yes...and-ing" all the time, with the result being the "thickly" described, shared world that we've all experienced when the game's played at its best.     

Above all, you notice the rule "yes...and-ing" when it isn't being followed.  You find beginning improvisers are most prone to mistakes in this regard.  What the rule aims to prevent is the denial of some contribution of a fellow group member just doesn't fit with the direction that another player has decided the improvisation is to take.  This is precisely the admittedly exaggerated weakness of rookie improvisers such as "The Office"'s Michael Scott, who is repeatedly banned from his group improv class, because he cannot seem to NOT dominate what is supposed to be a truly collaborative exercise.  Michael Scott was famous for twisting and turning (and sometimes telling others that their contributions to the improv were just plain wrong) in order to make every improvised scene into a gun battle in which he alone always emerges victorious.

Such behavior brings attempts at group improvisation to a screeching halt.  But, more than that, it is also experienced as a kind of disrespect by fellow improvisers, and not simply as just a failure in performance.  This is because, as mentioned above, the act of improvisation itself seduces you into opening yourself up to others in a potentially risky way.  And so every "No" you receive is magnified in a very real sense.

Unfortunately the kind of failures in "yes...and-ing" that experienced players and DM's encounter are rarely as obvious as this.  But even when they are more subtle, they are are often still just failures to abide this relatively straightforward rule.  For example, Boris, a PC dwarven fighter who, at a crucial moment in an encounter "reveals" that he is actually the long, lost nephew of the crypt keeper and that he, therefore, "knows best" how to negotiate with his kin is doing more than grinding the collaborative action to a halt; he is tacitly insulting his companions by challenging the DM to explicitly stop the flow of the game and break Rule 1.

DM's, too, can make mistakes related to the rule of "yes...and-ing" besides the obvious.  For example, when a DM allows players the freedom to explore and fully develop backstories for ancillary parts of their PC - such as a familiar - it is of the utmost importance that the DM respect that story and its details.  Any failures on the DM's part to remember important details contributed by the player are likely to be experienced as doubly injurious on the part of the player precisely because it is experienced as a kind of disrespect - a violation of the implicit agreement to abide by Rule 1.  

Even a well-meaning DM can run afoul of this if she tries to incorporate elements of the a PC backstory into the events of the campaign (not necessarily a bad idea by itself), yet resorts to tactics that effectively strong arm the PC into a particular course of action as a result (e.g., A mysterious letter arrives from someone who is - and not just claims to be - a long-lost son).  Or, the DM who attempts to build off the contributed backstory of a familiar, but who completely mischaracterizes, say, the basic nature of the relationship as originally described by the player.  

These are simple and relatively easy errors and certainly forgivable.  But they're instructive for what they confirm about the importance of "yes...and-ing" to successful improvisational performances.  Good DM's and players intuitively know this and try to keep sharp and observant and look for creative ways to keep the game going and "setup" up their partners. 

Improvisation and the Art of the Good DM: Introduction


I've always had more than a passing interest in what might be called the ethnography of group improvisation, be it in music (i.e., jazz) or in improv comedy troupes.  That is to say, I've always been interested in the sort of implicit rules that seem to govern the dynamics of a "good" improvisational performance; rules that talented performers just seem to know and that they continue to develop and refine and test in practice.

I've decided to combine this interest of mine in improvisation with my deeply-held belief that there is a real skill or objective form to the art we call being a "DM" or a "referee" in a role-playing game.  Now, given the sort of blanket subjectivism that seems popular in the rpg blogosphere, I'm not sure that many will find my musings enlightening in the least.  However, for the few who aren't ready just yet to concede that all artistic taste is purely arbitrary, I plan on offering a series of posts in an attempt to define or at least make more explicit one aspect of the art of the good (notice the normative!) DM - as an improvisational performer.  

In my view, although the art form we call DMing or refereeing is complex and multifaceted, it remains a kind of techne that, because it can be learned and taught, is just as "objective" as the art of shipbuilding or gardening.

Why be interested in improvisation if you're a DM or even just interested in our hobby?  After all, improvisation is just "making it up" - so by definition there can be no rules to uncover, and, hence, nothing to talk about or learn from studying it, right?  And anyone can just make stuff up just as well as anyone else, right?

Anyone with more than passing experience with rpg's in general - and Oe d&d specifically - knows that there is much more complexity to improvisational performances that these naiive questions suggest.  What it is that a DM and his players are doing it is definitely not just "making stuff up" or at least not just making it up willy nilly.  Even more, it's pretty hard to deny the reality that, despite the apparent paradox, some folks do indeed seem to be better at "making it up" more than others.

What I hope to explore in this series is my suspicion that good DM's and referees know both these things really really well, whether or not they know that they know it.

The reason I'll offer a series of posts rather than just one quick summary of the "Art of the Good DM" is that the rules that tend to govern good improv are mostly implicit rather than explicit.  So, we have to act as anthropologists of sorts and examine both how those good at what they do in fact do what they do, as well as draw some inferences about what they take themselves to be doing in the process of doing it.  This, at least, is how I understand an ethnography.  And, consequently, a bit more time is necessary to uncover these rules than can be accommodated in a single post.

The implicit rules of good group improvisation are rarely stated directly by skilled improvisers (many even seem to follow them without really knowing it).  Nor are these to be considered "rules" in the sense of universally binding on all participants equally.  What rules there are to improvisation are strange in that they are neither sacrosanct nor inviolable, with even the most skilled performers often twisting or tweaking or even occasionally breaking them with outstanding effect.  As we will see, these rules guide and inform the craft of improvisation rather than determine it's every outcome. 

Granted there are certainly many sides to the question of what makes for a good DM.  But, as I've said, I'm going to focus this series on the special improvisational skills and techniques that are necessary.  If it is generally true that referees and DM's are all improvisers of sorts, then it is even more the case when it comes to the "old school" DM who deals largely in what Matt Finch has appropriately called "free-form" role-playing.  Such a DM lives and dies by her wits, as they say.

I think we DM's and players can learn a good deal about what kinds of improvisational techniques and skills make for a good "old school" DM performance by considering the implicit norms and rules that govern good group improvisation more generally.  That is the assumption of my next few posts, at any rate. 

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Gygax on Combat

Consider the following statement by Gary Gygax concerning how much detail and complexity should be accounted for by D and D’s combat mechanic:

“If, in fact, D&D were a game of simulation of hand-to-hand combat utilizing miniature figurines, such detail would be highly desirable. The game is one of
adventure, though, and combats of protected [protracted, sic] nature (several hours
minimum of six or more player characters are considered involved
against one or more opponents each) are undesirable, as the majority
of participants are most definitely not miniature battle game enthusiasts.” (The Dragon, April 1979)

This precisely captures a huge part of my disenchantment with the 3.5 rules. Combats simply take way too long and depend upon an unnecessary level of complexity. The result feels more like a “miniature battle game” as opposed to an RPG. I offer this quote, not because I feel that Gygax’s statements should be treated as some sort of holy writ that express the “truth” of what D and D is supposed to be, but rather as an insight into just how prescient he could be about the future of the game he created.

Admittedly, Gygax is mostly talking about and rejecting complicated combat systems that make extensive use of hit locations and such, not the elaborate array of feats used in 3.5. But the point is that, several times in this article, he stresses that D and D is not primarily about combat, but rather the development of an imaginary persona. Combat is only a means to this end. Later versions of the game, while often paying lip service to this idea, seem to have increasingly lost sight of it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

House Rules for Turning Undead

As written, the SW Core rules state that, if a Cleric rolls the requisite number on the Turning Undead Table, he or she turns "all undead of the targetted type." Isn't this a bit powerful?

All? In what context? By this logic a first level cleric could turn 100 skeletons if she rolled a 10 or better (50% chance). I'm thinking of allowing the cleric to turn 1d6 per level of undead of the targetted type.

The next question is how many times should the cleric be allowed to do so? Maybe I'm just missing it, but I can find no answer to this question in the rules.

My inclination is to allow 1 turning attempt per hour.

Any thoughts?

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Sandbox Again: Gygax on Plot

In an earlier post, I expressed concern with the term “sand-box” play to define the dominant style of how D and D was played in the old days. Not to rehash that post too much, my main concern was that “sand-box,” as it is conventionally used, typically signifies the opposite of “story.”

First, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with DMs using implied narrative elements in their campaigns as long as those narratives are not absolutely pre-scripted and as long as the characters are free to interact with said story elements as they see fit. Fetishizing this idea of “sandbox” can easily lead one to assume that the best way to play is for the DM to simply create an environment that the characters just kind of wander about I while looking for things to do. Any hint of narrative arc must be eschewed

Second, I don’t think that this is how earlier versions of D and D were typically played. In the previous post, I offered as example the strong narrative elements present in the classic and iconic G and D series of modules. Just for more food for thought, consider the following statement by Gary Gygax made in the February 1979 issue of Dragon Magazine:

“each Dungeon Master uses the rules to become a playwright (hopefully of Shakespearean proportions), scripting only plot outlines however, and the players become the Thespians” (29).

This statement, which appears in an article entitled “Dungeons and Dragons: What it is and Where it’s Going,” certainly suggests that in 1979, the height of D and D’s golden age, Gygax had most definitely not rejected the idea of plot. Clearly, Gygax is not advocating the use of pre-scripted plots. Nevertheless, the idea of plot outline seems to be perfectly acceptable.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A New World Begins to Take Shape...

In several months I'll be starting a new s&w campaign, and I've just begun playing around with general cosmological details and other fun stuff.  And while I like this kind of big picture world building, I generally tend to prefer beginning from the small and only expanding to the "big questions" as necessary.

So I've started building my first maps for this new campaign world - a return to and reworking of a campaign world I started on a few years ago.  And, in my way, I've started with only the smallest piece of the world, a distant and legendary archipelago.

While it will likely be some time before my next substantive posts on my progress and preparation, here is a small taste of the first maps of the island chain of Eime....

Sunday, April 12, 2009

dm tools: wikidpad

There are certainly as many ways to organize your campaign and world-building notes as there are worlds waiting to be created.  Especially for those who insist on using digital technology in addition to good old pen and paper at the game table, there are an enormous number of different organizational program options that could do the job equally well.

Speaking for myself only, I've grown tired of the mountains of paper notes and scraps that have already started to accumulate just during the last two years.  Also, I hate hate hate when several notebooks have to be flipped open in order to find that one entry....So I've gone almost exclusively digital with an eye toward speed and ease of use.  And, even more than this, I want a one-stop-shop.  That is, I want a single software program to serve ALL my needs, such as:

1.  Serve as word processor / database for all world-building, dungeon, npc, monster states and notes.
2.  Serve as an easy to use database for any house rules that I may be running.
3.  Above all, I want all of the above cross-listed and in easy-to-use hypertext.
4.  I want any particular monster stat, room or trap description, treasure or piece of local gossip to be accessible in no more than 2-3 clicks.

For my purposes, which also includes not wanting to have to learn HTML, I've found WikidPad to be the absolute best.  

It is fast, easy to use, and provides everything I could need in a personal wiki.  On the downside, you cannot import maps or images into your wiki entries.  But this seems a minor complaint for old school gamers, and I can attest that personal wikis that do allow images (such as TiddlyWiki) are far far more complicated and less elegant.

Other than pen and paper, other personal information management programs that you find useful for both planning a campaign and dming at the table?    

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Ability Checks in Swords and Wizardry

Here’s an interesting system for determining the outcome of ability based checks that I’m thinking about using in Swords and Wizardry. This comes courtesy of Wesley D. Ives and was published in the very first issue of Dragon Magazine way back in June of 1976. Pretty old school, eh? At first, the system seems a little baroque, but I must say that I have become intrigued by it and am interested to hear the opinions of others. Here’s how it works:

Step One: Basically, when a character wants to perform a task, the DM first determines which ability score (character attribute) would be most relevant (moving a boulder = strength, convincing someone to join you = charisma, etc).

Step Two: Next, the DM rolls d100, adds the character’s ability score to the result, and consults the following table to determine which die to roll in step three:

1-20 d4
21-40 d6
41-60 d8
61-80 d10
81-100 d12

Step Three: the DM (or player) rolls the die type indicated in step two and multiplies the result by relevant character ability score. The result of this calculation is the percentage chance that the character can perform the skill.

The DM can of course modify the result as he or she sees fit.

For example, suppose Baldo the Baldheaded wants to perform a task that requires strength. Let’s say his strength is 16. The DM rolls a 29 and adds 16 for strength resulting in a 45. This indicates that we should roll a d8 next. The result of this roll is 6 which we multiply by 16 (Baldo’s strength score) resulting in a 96% chance of success.

I’m not sure what the concrete advantages of this system are exactly, but it appeals to me. It definitely overcomplicates things. Mostly, I think I like it because it comes from the first issue of the Dragon. This is a purely romantic sentiment, I know, one rooted exclusively in nostalgia.

But I also like the fact that it really randomizes a character’s chance of success. Under this system, even a character with a high ability score could wind up with a very low chance of success, though that chance could never be lower than the ability score itself. Over the long haul though, a character with a high ability score would make out alright. Just for fun, I ran Baldo through 15 strength checks using his strength score of 16. Below are the results, the percentage chances that he will be successful.

96, 80, 16, 48, 80, 16, 96, 96, 16, 100,
96, 100, 32, 100, 80

As you can see, the results range from a low of 16% to a high of 100%. The average result would be 70% for Baldo, not bad and what we might expect of a guy with a strength score of 16.
[Note: I’m not a statistician so if I have made an error with these calculations, please let me know]

I suppose the draw back here is that this method involves a lot of dice rolling and math before the ability check is actually made. A calculator might even be necessary. I used one to multiply 16x6. While I could not prove this conclusively (or even inconclusively), I suspect that that back in 1976 part of the appeal of this rule lay in the simple fact that it got almost all of the polyhedral dice involved.

On a somewhat unrelated note, Ives also says something very interesting and potentially relevant to those of us interested in old school gaming. In addition to laying out this system, he offers guidelines for determining which types of skills and tasks should be associated with which attributes. According to him Intelligence checks would be called for in situations in which characters are:

“discovering [the] proper method of operating all mechanical devices, including magical devices, discerning patterns, deducing cause and effect, recognizing types of lairs . . . etc”

This suggestion seems to contradict much conventional belief that old school gaming always favored role-playing over roll-playing and tended to test the player rather the character. Admittedly, Ives is hardly one of the most influential people in the history of our hobby and his ideas can hardly be taken as characteristic of the hobby’s early days. I don’t mean to suggest that they are. I also don’t mean to suggest that I intend to adopt roll-playing over role-playing in my upcoming SW game. I call attention to this historical curiosity only to provide what I hope is a useful reminder that people’s attitudes in the early days of the game were not nearly as unified or as monolithic as they sometimes might seem from our own historical vantage point. Also, we may want to further discuss the implications of this.

Isn’t interesting that the much reviled modern tendency to substitute skill check mechanics for player ability actually existed in a nascent form almost in the very beginning?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Critical Hits and Misses

There was a really cool post today at the RPG Dumping Ground concerning some pretty nifty tables for determining the results of critical hits and critical fumbles. I really like this sort of thing. I think it adds a great amount of drama and tension to the combat. My only concern is that these rules seem a little, well, harsh. I mean a critical hit or fumble is going to happen 5% of the time. It seems a little bit of a stretch that a professional fighter, even a novice one, will screw up this badly one out of every twenty attacks. Maybe this is one of those instances in which verisimilitude should be sacrificed to more fun and free wheeling game play. Maybe not.

The author of RPG Dumping Ground claims that his gaming groups loved these rules over the years and I’m willing to take him at his word. Still . . . I’m not sure. While I love this set of tables and the attendant results, I’m concerned that going to the table 5% of the time will result in too much gritty realism. What of the rules they use in 3.5 that require one to roll and confirm the critical hit or miss?

Any thoughts? Am I being too concerned? I guess there’s no way to know for sure without playing it out, but I would love to hear some ideas before putting it into practice. Does anyone know of any other good systems for adding new possibilities to critical hits and misses?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sex & the Hamlet?

I'm doing some thinking and research for a later post about sex and gender in d&d.  I'd especially appreciate any ideas or reflections from gamers on a set of related questions.

First, a little background information so that I don't give the wrong impression.  I was introduced to the hobby back in 1981/82 through the proverbial "older boys next door" and continued playing without serious break in a variety of "older" groups through 1988.   Thinking back on it now it seems that each of those groups played a variant of the whole game that was fairly common at the time: borrowing liberally and freely from the all the available editions (Basic and Expert sets, 1ed ad&d, at least), treating the primary source books as a near seamless whole fabric.  During this time we played a wide range of non-d&d RPGs as well, including some dabbling in Boot Hill, Top Secret, and even some early Rifts and Cyberpunk.  

But in each of these various groups d&d was, almost as a rule, the central game and the only one we returned to time and again.  And almost as a rule, these first gaming groups of mine were exclusively male.

I left the game rather abruptly in 1988 and with one or two exceptions didn't play or pick up a source book until nearly 20 years later.  Like many who have recently returned from the d&d diaspora of our generation, my return to the game came via nearly two years of 3.5ed.  And during this time I have grown progressively disenchanted with a number of this edition's features; problems which I have come to consider systemic.

But say what you will about the many problems of the d2o system or the "superheros" that PCs have become, it cannot be denied that during the move to 3ed a deliberate attempt was made to show examples of women PCs of a variety of classes and races as active members of an adventuring party.  This may have been the result of nothing more than WotC marketing strategy, but since no edition of d&d that I am aware of has ever placed ability penalties or other restrictions on women-PCs, it is a bit odd that that so few strong women PCs are depicted in earlier editions, no?

My admittedly anecdotal sense during this period of time was that an increasing number of women had entered the hobby of role playing games, at least compared to when I had originally left it back in 1988.  These new women gamers may not have all been playing d&d, but all one has to do is quickly scan the most prominent and popular RPG websites and forums and gamer podcasts and the increased presence of women in the hobby is easy to see.      

Now in the last year or so I have begun avidly following the very lively (and very friendly) discussions in the "Old School" blogging and forum community.  There is so much creativity and cross-fertilization currently going, especially via fanzines such as Fight On! and Knockspell, that I was quickly swept up into the fervor of this exciting "Old School Renaissance".  

And yet given the easy inclusivity practiced by most OSR bloggers, it remains striking that there are remarkably few women who actively seem to participate in this growing online community.

I understand that my judgement here is also based on my admittedly anecdotal experiences.  That is precisely why I wanted to throw the following questions out to the OSR community.  And given the anonymous nature of the Internet, I suppose I could be mistaken.   But, among other things, the widespread exclusive use of the masculine pronoun (both in singular and possessive tenses) even in retro-clone source books strongly suggests to me that I am not.

So, here are my questions:      

1.  Are women coming to the OSR at the same rate as women typically came to RPGs in general (and d&d in particular) over the last twenty years?  Please share any experiences with your gaming group - has it been easier/more difficult/about the same difficulty getting women to play an "old school" game and system?

2.  Why are women less visible as active members of the OSR online community compared to other RPG online communities?  Is this just a mistaken perception?

3.  Is there something about the OS format that discourages women's participation?  (Speaking just for me I find this highly unlikely, but I'd love to hear from those who might disagree)

Ultimately I am most interested in these questions because, like many of you, I now have a young daughter that I would like to introduce to the hobby in the coming years.  I know that many of you are at various stages of introducing your little girl to d&d, and I'd love any observations, analysis and tips.  

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Character Back-Stories and Portraits

I’m getting ready to start a new campaign, and among other things, I find myself thinking about the question of character back-stories. In addition to sharing my own thoughts on his matter, I’m especially interested in how other gamers handle this issue.

By “back-story,” I mean information about a given character’s background, history, place of origin etc. Conventional wisdom holds that, the more detailed this information is, the richer the role playing experience becomes. I pretty much concur with conventional wisdom on this account.

The question that I’m trying think through here is: is it better to encourage players to work up their back-stories by using great amounts detail and by using techniques similar to those associated with fiction writing? I will call this the “creative writing approach.” Or is it better to go with something looser, a rough sketch of an idea or an outline that simply gives the player something to work with, something to play off of at the table? Let’s call this the “basic outline approach.”

Obviously this is a complex question, one for which there is no final or correct answer. Ones answer to this question will largely be a matter of personal taste and what each individual wants to get out of a role playing game. But that said, I still cannot help but wonder if one approach or another might tend to produce a more enjoyable experience at the gaming table than the other. What are the relative merits and weaknesses of each approach?

I currently play in a campaign that promotes the creative writing approach. Participants in my game are encouraged to post character back-stories on a blog that we maintain mostly for this purpose. Players begin by posting background info on their characters’ history. As the game progresses, players reveal more detail about their characters, typically by creating further stories about their characters’ personal histories and by offering up fictional vignettes that situate their characters in the “present” reality of the game world and describe those characters’ thoughts about recent events. Characters’ internal psychic landscapes are revealed in short story form for all to see. In order to encourage this sort of thing, characters receive a small bonus in xp for each post, but can only receive the bonus for one post per level.

This system is a lot of fun and adds a tremendous amount of depth to the characters. It infuses the game with great deal of psychological realism, which is I think for many people one of the primary pleasures in playing RPGs. There are some potential problems with this approach, however.

(1) It often turns into a kind of creative writing workshop in which other players offer advice and feedback regarding the aesthetic merit and intellectual content of each others work.

So why is this a problem? It’s not in and of itself, but with the creative writing method, some players will eventually begin to write back-stories and character portraits primarily to hone their craft as writers or to provoke interesting discussion with their fellow gamers, rather than to contribute directly to the game. When this happens, players’ writings and the subsequent discussion tend to take on a life of their own, independent of the game itself. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but while these writings have a tremendous amount of intrinsic value, I’m not sure they ultimately help to develop the campaign very much.

For instance, one of my fellow gamers is very sharp fellow who plays a wizard. When he posts a character portrait to the blog, he will often use the character’s persona as a platform from which to philosophize about how elements in the game world can be thought of in relation to similar elements in our “real” world. These posts, in the guise of excerpts from the character’s fictional journal, read like really witty, insightful, mini-philosophical treatises. One of my favorites drew a complex and nuanced analogy between how the alignment system works in the D and D world and our own. The analogy was not overt of course, but drawn by way of clever innuendo and subtle allusions. I love reading stuff like this. But this sort of philosophy or social commentary can be difficult to import into the game. Practically speaking, my friend has two characters, the one who is a social critic and philosopher on the blog and the one he plays when we all sit around the table. Don’t get me wrong—I love them both. But there are two of them.

Let me be clear. I don't think this is bad in itself. I’m just trying to think of ways to use character back-stories to help enrich the “at the table” experience, to better integrate the highly personal world of a player’s imagination with the collective experience of the group..

(2) The creative writing approach can also create problems for a DM who wants to maintain an internally coherent world and a consistent style of presentation of that world. Inevitably, circumstances will arise in which players write stories that contain factually incorrect information about the campaign world or in which a player introduces elements inconsistent with the world’s style or tone. In these cases, the DM is in an awkward position. Should he or she correct the player and potentially invalidate something that the character has put a great deal of time and effort into? If the player just has some rough ideas in his or her mind or sketched out on a piece of note paper, such a correction is easy to make.

It’s much harder to say, “I’m sorry but that short story you just wrote and published on our game blog, the one you spent a week on, is entirely based on things that simply don’t exist in this campaign world.” A typical response to such a concern might likely be to simply say: “who cares? Why not just go with it? If those elements did not exist before in your world, they do now.” According to this position, the players are allowed to share in the overall creative process; they are helping to create the world. While this is a good idea in theory, it does not always work in practice. When you have several people collaborating on something like this without a clearly defined and shared sense of how the game world works or what it is supposed to feel like, you can easily wind up with an incoherent mess.

Suppose for instance, I’m DMing a campaign heavily modeled on ancient Hellenistic society. I have a player in my game who really loves pirates, pirates modeled on the popularized Hollywood version of the historical pirate of the eighteenth century. Now suppose that every character portrait that this player writes and publishes to the blog is filled with references to ships of the line, tri cornered hats, knee high cuffed leather boots, people who say “matey” a lot, and all sorts of things that don’t quite “fit” in my campaign world. Would I be out of line were I to say, “You know that kind of ship doesn’t really exist in this world. Why don’t you make it a trireme?” Maybe I would be.

What happens when everyone begins to introduce their own stylistic twist on things in this manner? Each new post, each new story introduces another jarring dissonance into the ontology of the campaign world, threatening to reduce it to a cacophony of mismatched cultural referents and contexts. In one player’s posts, the world is Pirates of the Caribbean, in another’s it’s the world of the ancient Norse, in another perhaps the Byzantines or Harry Potter.

Moreover, once a player’s individual stylistic take on the game world has been written and published for all to see, it assumes a level of reality, of concreteness, that it would not otherwise have. It doesn’t really matter if a player in my Hellenistic campaign wants to envision his character as an eighteenth century pirate as long as I’m not fully aware that this is what’s going on inside his head. Heck, every one’s probably a pirate in there. But when his idiosyncratic interpretation of the game world is codified in the form of a published document, it becomes much more difficult to ignore. Its permanence endows it with a certain reality status that a simple verbal utterance lacks. It therefore alters the game world. Ironically, the creative writing approach’s greatest strength, its capacity to encourage a greater level of inter-subjectivity, actually may work against the DM’s efforts to create a believable and internally consistent world. Of course, this is only problematic if creating a coherent and believable world is high on one’s agenda. Each DM and each group has its own preferred style of play.

In the final assessment, both approaches (the creative writing and rough outline method) have their strengths and weaknesses. Having used the former for a while, I am inclined to encourage the latter in the campaign I am about to begin. I think I will suggest that players jot down basic points about their character’s identity and origin, but rather than use the external mechanism of a game blog to develop these points, I will encourage them to do so “in game.” Obviously, I’m very interested in hearing the opinions of other gamers regarding these issues. Are there other methods to encourage characters to develop their back-stories that I have not considered here?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Sandbox Revisited

While the notion of “sandbox” style play has become widely accepted as one of the most salient aspects of old school gaming, I must confess I’m not entirely comfortable with the way the term is often used. Before I go further, however, I want to make it clear that, generally speaking, I agree with the larger set of ideas that the term “sandbox” typically designates. That said, I believe that there are several conceptual problems inherent in the idea of sandbox play as it is conventionally understood.

Let us begin with a definition. As I understand it, “sandbox” play refers to a style of gaming in which events are not pre-scripted or pre-determined. Players are free, and even encouraged, to interact with the game world as if it were a real world, to be able go where they wish and do what they want in any given situation. As such, a sandbox campaign is often contrasted with the so-called “story-driven” campaign, a campaign in which characters are expected to follow a predetermined sequence of events leading up to some final, predetermined ending or climax. It is in this contradistinction to “story” that my problem with the idea of sandbox play lies.

The problem is that “story” is seldom clearly defined in this schema. I think too often many DMs feel that, in order to run an old school (sandbox) style game, they must completely eschew anything that even remotely smacks of a narrative arc or sequential telos in their campaigns. Any element that suggests that the DM may have anticipated or even planned where the action might go is to be rejected or, at least, regarded with real skepticism. All too often, this leads to a situation in which the players just kind of wander around in the game world, looking for things to do, while the DM hesitates to give them something to do, because “giving” implies a purpose, and purpose implies that some future outcome is anticipated, and in this we have the beginnings of a story. In sandbox play, the story must emerge retrospectively; it can’t be planned in advance. But in my experience (I started gaming in 1978) D and D adventures even those from, back in the day, were often very mission-oriented. They assumed that the PCs would be likely to follow some sort of anticipated pathway as part of the adventure. After all, does not a mission imply a potential story?

Consider for example the case of Gary Gygax’s classic D series of modules for TSR. These are often held up as quintessential example of old school, golden age style game play and adventuring (a claim that is in my opinion entirely accurate by the way). But these modules, D1-3, most definitely do have an implied story arc to them. The modules presume that the PCs, having defeated the Giants on the surface, are planning to on track down the ultimate source of the threat, the drow, in order to learn about them and perhaps visit them with some measure of retribution. My point is that a strong sense of narrative is suggested at the very outset of the adventure. Gygax, in other words, did not just give us an environment filled with lots of cool stuff and say “OK just let the PCs wander around in this underworld and make their own adventure.” No, the whole thing begins with a very a very clearly delineated sense of purpose and direction, a mission. My guess is that most people who played this module pretty much followed this implied narrative trajectory, at least the first time through.

But here’s the rub. What makes these modules old school is not the presence or absence of story elements in and of themselves, but the fact that the PCs don’t have to follow the story if they don’t want to. The module allows for the possibility that the PCs might just decide to wander around and explore, or that they might interact with the story in any way they see fit. Heck, they might even decide to try and cut a deal with the drow. But this is not to say that the modules don’t have strong story elements built into them. The conceptual problem with most definitions of sandbox play is that, we typically have to completely reject the idea of story in order to define what we mean by “sandbox.” I don’t think there is anything wrong having strong story elements in a game as long as the story is not pre-scripted and the players are not forced to do anything they don’t want to do. The idea of sandbox play too often is taken to mean that the players must drive all of the action and that the DM should react entirely to them, having as little influence on the sequence of events that comprise the game as possible. I don’t think this approach necessarily leads to better gaming, nor do I think, as I hope my earlier example illustrates, it reflects the style of play characteristic of D and D’s golden age. Moreover, this conception of sandbox gaming is apt to impose a prescriptive limitation on the DM’s imagination.

It makes more sense to me to define the problem, not in terms of the type of world that the characters inhabit (ie. sandbox), but from the characters’ perspective itself. Several years ago, the writer of the Burning Void (now Errant Dreams) Blog offered up an excellent series of essays on the concept of “free will” in role playing games as opposed to the idea of “railroading.” I believe that, even though she is not speaking specifically of old school gaming, her essays offer a more fruitful and useful way of conceiving this style of play than that suggested by the “sandbox.” According to her, what really matters is whether or not the players are free to choose their own responses to what the DM gives them. In this schema, the DM doesn’t have to worry about whether he or she is including too much narrative, actual or implied, in the game. The question becomes are the characters free to do as they see fit and is the DM prepared to go in different directions (OK, that’s two questions). By the same token, DMs who don’t want to include any implied story elements in the game are free to not do so.

Reconceived in this way, the idea of the sandbox feels less prescriptive. It’s less about “though shall not have story” and more about “hey, do whatever you want, just make sure your players can too.”

Monday, March 30, 2009

Sword & Wizardry "House Rules" of the Web: Akrasia's "Sword & Sorcery" House Rules

While continuing my troll for especially noteworthy house rules for 0d&d and s&w, Akrasia's really nifty s&w rules for "sword & sorcery" type game over on the s&w forums jumps out as well worth highlighting and discussing at some length.  Regardless of whether or not I use any of it, I think many of his changes and additions are almost perfect for the genre.  I hope he follows his own suggestion and puts together a KNOCKSPELL article out of this.

(Incidently, I remember how much you appreciate "trade-offs" a la Cthulu, so I thought you might like to see this as well, Ironbeard.  Read on, but I must be honest.  I don't think I've ever really cared for the cleric and this makes me think I wouldn't miss him much were he gone).

Take a look at the original post for all the details, but I'm most interested in what he does to magic.  (Although his modifications of Damage/Hit Point is equally interesting).  Here are the highlights:  

(1)  There is no division between 'cleric' and 'magic-user' spells - all spells can be learned by magicians following the Vancian system.

(2)  No Spells above 6th level.

(3)  Spells are grouped according to three different "schools":  White, Grey, and Black Magic.  Akrasia breaks it down even further:
Spells are divided into the following seven groups:
1.Animism (‘white’ magic – promotes life and is ‘in tune’ with nature)
2.Telekinesis (‘white’ magic – involves moving and manipulating objects by magic)
3.Mentalism (‘grey’ magic – involves mental control of others)
4.Illusionism (‘grey’ magic – involves the creation and control of illusions)
5.Sorcerery (‘black’ magic – involves unleashing destructive powers on others)
6.Necromancy (‘black’ magic – involves the creation and control of undead)
7.Demonology (‘black’ magic – involves contacting, summoning, and controlling extra-planar creatures)

White Magic, Grey Magic, Black Magic, and Corruption
-Magicians can cast ‘white’ magic (animist and telekinetic spells) just as the core magic-user casts normal magic-user spells.
-When magicians cast ‘grey’ magic (mentalist and illusion spells) they suffer exhaustion damage equal to twice the level of the spell cast (so a magician who casts a third level mentalist spell would suffer six points of damage)
-When magicians cast ‘black’ magic (sorcery, necromancy, or demonology spells), they suffer exhaustion identical to that caused by ‘grey’ magic spells (twice the spell level). 
In addition, magicians casting ‘black’ magic must make a saving throw (the magician adds his/her level to the roll, and subtracts twice the spell level to the roll) in order to avoid ‘corruption.’ If this saving roll is failed, the magician is corrupted slightly and suffers a loss of one temporary point of Wisdom. Lost points of Wisdom can be recovered at a rate of one point per complete day of rest and meditation (no other action possible). 

If a magician loses a temporary point of Wisdom, there is a chance that this loss will be permanent. The chance is a percentage probability equal to five times the spell level (thus there would be a 20% likelihood that a magician who cast a fourth-level necromantic spell, and failed his/he saving throw, would lose a point of wisdom permanently).

A magician whose permanent wisdom score is lowered to 2 becomes insane (or possibly the thrall of an extra-planar demonic force). He/she henceforth is an NPC.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

"Old School" Initiative?

As I start thinking about which initiative resolution mechanic is most consonant with an "old school" flavor, I wanted to throw out the general question of what systems have been used in Swords & Wizardry and in the other "official" d&d versions.  Also, house rule alternative systems are also of great interest to me.  

Four points seem most salient in discussing Swords & Wizardry Initiative mechanic:

(1) Initiative is d6 governed
(2) Initiative is decided by two opposing rolls (one for monster(s) vs one for PCs)
(3) Initiative is rerolled each new combat round
(4) Ties in initiative roll do not necessarily have to be resolved.  Simultaneous action is possible.

Here are my initial thoughts on the suitability of this basic mechanic for our purposes.

First, I like the d6, which seems very old school and very s&w.  But I fear it will have to go if we tinker with (2) as I am tempted to do.  You see, I don't really like making a single PC roll being determinant of all PCs, since it still leaves unresolved the order of action of the PCs themselves.  I understand that this could be determined via on-the-spot improvisation, but given (3) you'd be winging the ordering of PCs actions all the time.  Why not allow individual PCs to roll for initiative each round and allow for some strange ordering patterns and associated challenges that will follow? (e.g., Blaine the Thief reached 0 hit points the previous round and Johann the Cleric decides he wants to try to make it over to the thief and cast a Cure wounds during the next round.  This relatively straightforward action could be complicated by a poor initiative roll on the part of Johann...etc.)

One problem, though, with changing (2) and allowing individual PC initiative rolls (at least in any game s&w game we run in the near future) is that the number of PCs is likely to reach or exceed 8 at the minimum.  8 opposing d6 rolls is going to produce ties and time and time again.  Consequently, I wonder if we adopt individual rolls, shouldn't we change (1) to some other die?  Thus even a little tinkering in this way leads us further from the obvious "old school" trappings such as the ubiquity of the d6.
I'll offer some more thoughts in the comments as they come to me.  I do find it very interesting that the LBB and Greyhawk supplement don't seem to have any initiative mechanic to speak of.  Perhaps its the notorious lack of organization, but I don't seem to find anything on the subject.

What are the mechanics in the subsequent editions that are worth mentioning?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Thoughts on House Rules Regarding Combat Movement

I’m interested in discussing possible house rules regarding movement in combat. The SW rules are, by design I believe, deliberately vague here to allow individual DMs to interpret them as they see fit. Here are the issues that strike me as most pertinent:

(1) The core rules state that a “character may both move and attack in the same round” (16).

Does a character’s attack have to come at the beginning or end of his or her movement, or can a character attack in the middle of his or her movement?

(2) Under what circumstances should a free attack be allowed? The core rules state that a character’s base movement rate “may be interpreted as the distance a character can move in combat without suffering free attacks from enemies or consequences a retreating character may incur” (14). Elsewhere, the rules state, “[m]ost referees allow the enemy a free attack if the character (or monster) moves away by more than its ‘combat’ movement of base movement rate in feet” (20).

This seems to imply that a character can move freely around and among enemy combatants as long as he or she does not exceed his or her combat movement rate or pass through the 3’ of space that an enemy occupies. Do we want to go with this?

(3) The rules also state that “[i]t’s only possible to make melee attacks when the two combatants are within 10’ of each other” (19).

This rule strikes me as a little odd, given that the core rules also suggest “[b]ecause most movement and combat increments are divisible by three, it is easiest to assume that a character ‘occupies’ an area about 3’ across for the purposes of marching and fighting” (20). Should not the maximum distance at which opponents can attack also be divisible by three?

Before offering my opinions about which house rule to use regarding these issues, I add the caveat that I have little experience actually playing SW. My ideas here are thus almost entirely theoretical. I therefore wholeheartedly welcome all suggestions and input from gamers with more practical experience.

I like a little tactical nuance, so my initially inclination was to allow characters to attack during their move. Thus, a character with combat movement rate of 9’ per round could move 6’, attack, and then move another 3’. In order to make things fair, opponents get a free attack if any character or monster moves out of an area that they threaten. The range at with characters can attack in melee should be reduced to 3’. After looking at this closely, I was struck by its similarity to 3.5. My instincts tell me that there might be all sorts of problems with this that might not reveal themselves except through game play.

Another option would be to rule that a character can either move and attack or attack and move. Free attacks are only allowed if a character or monster exceeds his or her combat movement rate or attempts to move through a space occupied by an opponent. This approach appeals to me because it seems more in keeping with the generally tactically light spirit of play implied by SW and old school gaming in general. While I have absolutely no qualms about taking liberties, even generous ones, with such implied assumptions, I am hesitant to do so without having first played the SW rules “straight.” In other words, I’m hesitant to get too fancy until I’m comfortable with the basics.

I’m not sure at this point. I always liked some of the tactical aspects of 3.5, but I’m hesitant to import them into SW where they just seem out of place.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Swords & Wizardry Core Rules Question: XP Distribution Schemes

Okay, here I have a question and a thought for you on old school experience points:

(1)  I've read through both s&w core rules and Men & Magic and I can't seem to find any hint about how to distribute experience points across multiple PCs.  In both the sections on gaining experience confine themselves to talking about a single PC.  Also, I don't seem to find much discussion of this topic on the relevant forums, so I suspect I must be missing something obvious.

I do know that ad&d's rigid system isn't for me, but what is "common practice" in XP distribution across the entire party in old school games?  Equal division of the grand total of XP's acquired such as in 3.5?  Or some other scheme?

(2)  I read (somewhere?) that the original Blackmoor campaign ran with the requirement that PCs only received XP's for treasure spent.  I think I like this quite a bit, since it obviously encourages players to be avarious.  But I am still quite confused about how treasure and XP's are related in most people's games.  

For example, if one follows the old Blackmoor rule, does that mean that PCs divide treasure amongst themselves first and then each individual PC only gains experience when s/he spends the coin or finds a buyer for the jewels/gems/items?  Thus it becomes at least theoretically possible that some players gain more experience than others if they fail to find a buyer or fail to spend all their loot.

But if this is so, what to do in the case of XP's for monsters?  Divide equally?  Okay, but then when?  After each encounter?  At some other time?  See, its getting overly complicated fairly quickly, with each PC having to effectively keep track of two different pools of XP's.

I'm still thinking about it...

Thursday, March 26, 2009

On the Virtues of Descending Armor Class

Here are my thoughts on the question of whether to use ascending or descending AC in Swords and Wizardry. To some, this probably seems like a silly question. After all, what difference can it possibly make? Both options are, as far as I can tell, mechanically identical. A 1st level fighter still needs to roll a 15 to hit an opponent clad in chainmail whether the opponent's AC is 5 (descending) or 14 (ascending). That said, however, I argue that the fact that the designers of SW decided to allow for this choice in the game rules suggests that that there must be something at stake in opting for one version as opposed to the other, even if the ultimate significance is minor. If ones choice really made absolutely no difference, then it wouldn’t make sense to offer a choice at all.

I am inclined to use the descending version of armor class rules because they are more consonant with the original rules of D and D as they existed in all the earlier editions of the game prior to version 3. As such, they seem to be more in keeping with the broadly defined “spirit” of old school play. It seems to me that much of old school play aims to recreate and recapture the feel of what it was like to play D and D in its heyday. Much of this “feel” derives, not simply from game mechanics, but from the details and peripheral material, the accoutrements, of older versions of D and D. These elements include things like the style of art work, the specific wording or phrasing of game terms, and the specific arrangement of details. I feel that the more of these original details that one includes, the easier it is to invoke the flavor of the original game.

Of course, some of these details, like descending armor class, are idiosyncratic and counter intuitive, and we might thus be tempted to reject them. I remember once reading a justification for the 3.0 rules that argued this very point, that the descending armor class system was counter intuitive. Higher numbers just feel better after all; a greater number should suggest a greater and more desirable value. Moreover, the argument went, the descending armor class system is inconsistent with the rest of the rules which more often than not associate higher numerical values with greater power or advantage. If a higher number of hit dice equals greater strength, shouldn’t a higher number armor class rating suggest more effective armor? This is a legitimate complaint. The descending armor class system is a little counter intuitive and stands as a potentially annoying inconsistency.

But this is precisely what makes the descending armor class system preferable to its alternative. Why? Paradoxically, the very oddity gives rise to its charm. This system, used in Oe D and D, was peculiar and weird from the outset, but then again, so was D and D. Simply put, throughout the history of its earlier editions, part of D and D’s flavor lay in the fact that some of its rules were a little quirky and arbitrary. While many later generations of gamers have come to regard these quirks as flaws, I see them as essential ingredients in the crazy mélange that is D and D. Early generations of gamers accepted these quirks, and as time went by, came to enjoy them. Sometimes people come to love a thing precisely because it doesn’t work the way one initially expects it to.

To illustrate by way of a non gaming example, let us take the case of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick. That novel departs in many significant ways from how conventional wisdom dictates that a novel should work. Melville’s story telling is inconsistent; Ishmael is the main character in the beginning, but by the second half inexplicably dissolves into the text to become a virtual third person narrator. Strange chapters on cetology break up the flow of the narrative and really offer little to advance the plot. This is why abridged versions typically omit these sections. I don’t believe Melville deliberately broke with tradition in the name of artistic experimentation. I believe he just got a little sloppy and let his vision and his genius outstrip his literary technique and craftsmanship. But are these elements flaws? In one sense, yes they are. But these idiosyncrasies cannot ultimately be separated from the total experience of reading Moby Dick, a novel of undeniable depth and complexity. Over time, scholars have actually come to view these idiosyncrasies as part of this complexity. These “flaws,” in fact, are part of what makes Moby Dick such a memorable and unique work of art. As generations have gone by, Melville fans and scholars have actually come to love these aspects of the novel, because without them, it’s just not Moby Dick.

In a similar sense, the peculiar elements and inconsistencies of original D and D also made the game memorable and unique. I argue, in fact, that their very quirkiness actually helped to make them more memorable. The more of these elements that I include in my game, the more likely I am to recreate the vibe associated with the original game. When I first started playing D and D as a boy in the late Seventies, I too sensed something odd about the descending armor class system. But over time, this element, along with dozens of others came to characterize the D and D experience. It helped contribute to the gestalt of D and D for me.

In the final assessment, it probably doesn’t matter all that much whether I choose the descending version of the rule over its alternative. It’s just a minor detail. But I believe that good gaming results from the careful consideration and assemblage of such details. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

House Rules Question: Descending vs Ascending AC

To start the discussion off right, how about your current thinking on descending vs ascending AC in Swords&Wizardry.

Which are you currently thinking of using?  Benefits and drawbacks of each?

Standard Hirelings: The Grand Opening

Post House Rules, Classes, Races, Rules Questions, New Spells, Monsters, Interesting Links, and, above all else, musings on Swords & Wizardry and Oe d&d.