Monday, February 22, 2010

HOUSE RULE: Mighty Thews

Traditionally, heroic progress has been the domain of levels and experience points, with each level bringing steady improvement to overshadow low initial ability scores and further differentiate the novice from the veteran.  This has always been a halfway compromise, however, and few players are particularly happy when they roll up a Fighting Man with a 7 for Strength.  The loophole around this, introduced in Basic Dungeons & Dragons (1981), allowed players to "buy up" prime abilities by lowering others.  I've never been fully comfortable with this for several reasons, however.  Take the Fighter ca. 1981, for instance.  First, it made sure there was never a Fighter that started his career as a weakling.  Second, it almost assured all Fighters looked the same (high Strength, low everything else) by creating "dump stats" like Intelligence and Wisdom.  Third, it just felt like it undermined the random ability generation that otherwise made D&D, well... D&D.

The heroes of pulp fantasy, however, often improve in purely corporal ways.  Take the young Conan, for instance, who goes from skinny whelp to brawny slayer in the course of his career.  Similar stories can be found regarding wizards who go from bumbling assistants to world dominating masterminds.  The following is represent this, and to resolve the aforementioned problems with low prime abilities versus "buying up," I offer the following house rule for your OD&D games:

Mighty Thews
Upon reaching a new level, a Fighting Man, Magic User or Cleric may re-roll their Strength, Intelligence or Charisma, respectively.  If the new roll is greater than the previous, increase the ability to the new amount.  Demi-humans and other classes gain no benefit from this rule, because they are not main characters.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

On the Origin of Species

The trend to account for the species of the game world may be traced back to its origins in Gygaxian "Naturalism".  Monster ecology was arguably more a feature of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and later games than the three booklets of the original game.  The Monster Manual, for example, puts forth a thorough description of Orc biology, economy and society.  In comparison, Original Dungeons & Dragons makes only scant and incomplete depictions of its monsters, often referring back to Chainmail which in turn merely draws upon Tolkien and classic fantasy.  When Volume 2 does describe a monster, the portrayal is noticeably at odds with what would become the D&D canon.  Consider Gnolls, who are initially described as a "cross between Gnomes and Trolls", are then related to Lord Dunsany's "gnoles" in The Book of Wonder (1912) and are finally illustrated to be some gibbering, hunched over, pointy-eared humanoid.  Whether this apparent lack of homogeneity should be written off as accidental or deliberate, it is clear these three, disparate images create a sort of cognitive space for the Gnoll to develop in those early homebrewed D&D worlds.  I believe this space of cognitive dissonance is critical to the legacy of the original Dungeons & Dragons, evidence of the spontaneous creativity and malleability that game encouraged.

Since then, despite the canonical presentation of monsters presented by TSR, the original spirit of the game has persisted, giving rise to countless personal interpretations with referees cleaving their own territory from both surrealism and naturalism.  While creating a monstrous cosmology is a great deal of the fun of forging a new world, it often proceeds on a merely intuitive level as a compromise of what seems "cool" and what seems convincing.  This balance between the surreal and the natural belies a deeper function of monster-making.  We often forget that monsters are one of the core pillars of our fantasy imagination: much more than cohabitants for the world that the heroes will explore, they are made of the stuff of magic, meant to convey the Otherness deeply rooted in fantasy settings.

To this end, I much prefer a monster mythology to a cosmology.  Whereas the latter concerns itself with how monsters are, a mythology is ambivalent to the "Truth" about its subject, instead sufficing to (very deliberately) pursue the narrative impact of the monster.  To credit an excellent example of this, I would refer to Ken Hite's genius portrayal of the Cthulhu Mythos in Trail of Cthulhu.  In that roleplaying game, the alien deities, blasphemous powers and otherworldly creatures are not presented with a fixed biography (whether surrealistic or naturalistic), but are rather offered through manifold different descriptions, each varying wildly in content and form.  Instead of giving the referee a clear picture of how to use the monster, he or she is confronted with a bewildering arrangement of myths.  The point here is not to offer several options and have the referee choose whether a particular "outer god" is either mindless cosmic radiation seeping in from another dimension or an actual alien creature trapped in the natural tunnels underneath Chicago.  Rather, the decontextualization creates a level of confusion that naturally plays off fundamental imaginings at the sedimentary level of our creative consciousness.  Instead of constructing elaborate cosmologies on top of our primitive dreams, myth breaks down our structured and categorical approach to subduing the world and looses the root fantasy extant from when humankind first looked into the deep, dark wilderness of the forest from the safety of civilization.

In a way, original Dungeons & Dragons invokes this primitive state, especially when viewed through novice and unsophisticated eyes.  Unfortunately, it may be hard the jaded modern to scrub his or her imagination of the now canonical monsters that inundate the discourse.  A return to the original fantasy is recommended here, with a keen eye for the fairy tales and short stories read in one's youth.  Only by peeling back the stale orthodoxy of modern fantasy, ironically polluted by gaming influences, and being especially cognizant of monsters as literary devices, can we reclaim a world that is entirely Other, yet speaks more deeply to our ancient, inalienable mythic awareness.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Yggsburgh: The Ur-Setting

"What if Greyhawk looked differently?"  It's a good question.  From very early on, Greyhawk accumulated a very specific feel.  The first official appearance of the setting came indirectly through the Greyhawk supplement for Original Dungeons & Dragons.  Although Supplement I was little more than a collection of new rules derived from Gary's home campaign, Greyhawk added equal parts of grit and weird to the white box, with more detailed characters and combat and a new range of bizarre monsters that changed the atmosphere of the game.

Notably, the distinction between Hero and Anti-Hero made in Chainmail began to blur with the addition of Thieves in Greyhawk, while the presence of Paladins effectively dethroned the previous depiction of the knightly Fighting Man, transforming the latter into the obscure mercenary of later editions.  The presence of both of these new classes asked new questions about the nature of questing.  At the same time, Supplement I began to change the mechanical dynamics of the adventure.  Instead of re-rolling Hit Dice every level (and thus assuring all heroes had plenty of hits by high level), a new system was introduced where a Hit Die was merely added to the previous rolls every level.  To make things even more lethal, damage from monsters and weapons was increased across the board.  The seemingly rapid rate of heroic character advancement was also severely curbed, with early foes being worth a tenth the experience that they were previously, and combat experience being much more explicitly tied to "slaying" the monsters, instead of merely defeating them.

Compared to the more traditional fare of monsters in the original three booklets (largely a mix of Tolkien and European mythology), Supplement I added a slew of outrĂ© creatures.  Monsters like the Beholder, Rust Monster, Carrion Crawler and Gelatinous Cube not only gave the setting a very specific ambience, but mechanically changed how the game world was imagined - turning the game into a survival horror where the knight in shining armour no longer had the advantage.

As TSR sought to shore up an official setting to capitalize on the early success of Dungeons & Dragons, the Advanced game would see Greyhawk's world greatly expanded and fleshed out.  We are all familiar with that history, I think, so I would like to turn instead to a Greyhawk that perhaps once was, even if for only the briefest period: a lingering aesthetic of which is still evident on the cover of the World of Greyhawk boxed set.  Ironically, this process involves peeling back Gary's own accumulated motifs to try and uncover what the Lake Geneva campaign may have looked like in the very beginning, before the effects of play made it more of a conceptually inhabited world.  This ur-setting, I would argue, made a little known resurgence in Gary's final codex, the Yggsburgh Campaign Setting, which was a real attempt to start the clock again and see where we would go this time.

Published by Troll Lord Games for the abortive Castle Zagyg series, Gary's Yggsburgh setting was pointedly different than his other post-TSR world, Lejendary Earth.  Within the 256 page hardback of Volume 1: Yggsburgh was really nothing new, at least at first glance.  The Free Town of Yggsburgh and the East Mark are described as a fairly conventional early-Renaissance backdrop, complete with a lightweight but reasonable history, economy and (human dominant) culture.  Within the city, there are many colorful characters and a fair amount of intrigue and politics, but generally this framework is very light and flexible, as if to leave plenty of space for the referee and players.

Outside the city walls is the East Mark, a relatively small territory that is otherwise not established in any specific world.  The environs around Yggsburgh have been often noted as the quintessential sandbox, and the map hexes are well stocked with five dozen geographic locales and countless adventure hooks.  Importantly, many of the encounters the heroes will come across while wandering the map are straight from the pages of classic Arthurian fantasy.  Not to give too much away, but there are trolls under bridges, damsels in distress, giants stealing cows, armoured knights, witches' curses, bandits, rebellions and war.

This is not to say that Yggsburgh doesn't have its spots of weird, but in general these do not impose themselves on a setting that is otherwise steeped in chivalry and knight errantry.  Similarly, the setting itself, thanks to Gary's light and playful presentation as well as the intuitiveness of classic fantasy, does not foist itself upon and burden the players or referee.  Instead, Yggsburgh becomes the ideal backdrop for the readers own imagination, with only the most primal diegesis at the ground level of our fantasy imaginations.

In the end, everyone's Greyhawk is different.  Yet, to achieve the sundry interpretations of Greyhawk, all referees start from a shared foundation, a foundation which, from very early on in Greyhawk's history, started to accumulate more and more direction.  I think Yggsburgh was an effort in part to undo this, to free up our originary fantasy imaginations with a light, classic Arthurian world of romantic European mythology and literature - something at the sedimentary level of the Western poetic.  My only defense against the charge of promoting "vanilla fantasy" is this provocation: Try it.  There is something deeply satisfying and liberating about working from the loose tapestry of a group's collective consciousness of fantasy literature.

Friday, February 5, 2010

OD&D Pacing

Despite my recent attempts to argue the contrary (and thanks again for the nod, Patrick), the traditional depiction of "old-school" dungeon delving campaigns remains that of the hard-slog: a statistically impossibly difficult adventure that few heroes will survive, where getting to the mythical endgame takes years of playing and is never assured (let alone getting to "level 2").

On the contrary, I see the "three little booklets" of Original Dungeons & Dragons presenting a very different picture.  I see that old White Box as a complete game, much like boardgames contain a whole game in one box.  There is a beginning, a middle and an end, and you are expected to play from start to finish almost every time.  The secret to why this never seems to happen in later games, I believe, is twofold: there is the problem of statistical lethality and the problem of pacing.

Let me be explicit: the dungeon delve as exceedingly dangerous to the heroes is part and parcel of the old school experience.  Not only is the dungeon itself "inimical to men", but the quest for treasure all but guarantees flashing swords with treacherous and unspeakable monsters that are far more powerful than the heroes.  Indeed, the sudden reversal of fate or noble sacrifice, the loss of a brave hero, is an essential part of the story.

But there is a difference between a sudden upset and statistically impossible survival: there is nothing heroic about a bunch of low level characters in leather armour getting killed.  It's neither surprising, interesting nor the fuel for a good story.

I believe OD&D has one rule that is quite often overlooked.  It is true, the White Box introduced the "d20" attack roll which has become the flagship of every edition of the game since, but in reality this was merely a provisional rule, a stopgap measure since the game actually required the Chainmail rules.  It is quite possible, in fact, that the d20 attack chart was quickly thrown together to smooth over the fact that the original game was shipping as an incomplete game, requiring expansions right from the start.

I will give a more complete treatment of the venerable tabletop wargame Chainmail in the future, but it's worth looking at the Man-To-Man melee and missile rules that were intended for OD&D.  A foe with a spear has more than seven times higher chance to hit a fully armoured combatant with the d20 system than with the Chainmail system (where he only strikes on a roll of 12 with two six-sided dice).  The common shortbow produces identical numbers.  With plate armour and a shield being easily affordable, a Veteran (1st level Fighting-Man) can expect to survive an average 72 attacks before succumbing to a fatal wound.  This is not to say a lucky shot cannot end his career much earlier, of course, but the thrill of the battle should be that the arrow to the heart is possible, and thus tragic and momentous, but not taken for granted.

Additionally, while the three little booklets make many references to Morale checks, Original Dungeons & Dragons leaves enemy morale rules to Chainmail.  It is worth noting that, with these rules, many low-level foes will flee after taking a small amount of casualties (usually one third losses).  This is important because only in later editions of the game did a concept of "killing for experience" develop, where you only earned reward for foes that were slain.  As a wargame, total victory in Chainmail is most often marked by routing your enemy, meaning that this should also be considered a complete victory in OD&D and thus worth the total experience reward for every foe so vanquished.

What particularly stands out with the original game's experience system is that experience gained from combat is about ten times faster than AD&D at earlier levels and actually slower at later levels.  With the average 1 hit die foe worth 100xp (and even fleeing foes worth full experience, as suggested above), the heroes will attain second level after only a few harrowing battles.  Much more significant discussions of the wisdom behind this system have been levied before, of course, so I want to focus on experienced earned from treasure.

Like many early editions of the game, Original Dungeons & Dragons awards experience for fighting off foes and unearthing treasure.  While there is no explicit guidelines for treasure, referees will often settle on the AD&D standard of 1xp per coin (although Gary himself considered 5xp per gold piece in his last manuscript, Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works).  Unlike later editions of the game, fighting combat and digging up treasure are always separate events in OD&D.  Monsters do not have pocket change (later editions would give many humanoids "lunch money"), but rather hide their fortunes away in lairs (I would go so far as to say that money found otherwise is not worth experience).  This is important because negotiations are more weaved into the fabric of OD&D than in any later edition, meaning treasure (and experience) was potentially much easier to obtain.  Not only do the rules imply that most monsters can be bribed, but the game actually assumes the heroes will sooner or later have a full retinue of monsters and mercenaries at their command.

The biggest argument for faster paced treasure experience is the implicit endgame in Original Dungeons & Dragons.  Wherever you turn, you come across the assumption that heroes will gain fame and fortune and build a fortress, which can easily cost around 100,000 gold coins.  Often, referees are far too stingy with treasure, but OD&D has a very different economy than later games.  If a hero is to have enough money to construct a castle by level 9, and each coin earns a point of experience, then easily half the experience for each level should be in treasure.  This means for a Veteran to become a Warrior, he should ideally have personally defeated 10 Orcs and retrieved 1,000 gold coins.

This conclusion is merely drawn from the game implicit in those original little brown booklets.  How often have you actually played any edition of old-school D&D where you started with the best armour, had a 3% chance of suffering harm, were able to withstand two wounds on average, fought off 10 Orcs, successfully bribed your way past other foes and exhumed 1,000 gold pieces for your effort?  If you answered "not often," this is most likely a result of our forgetfulness of the implicit endgame in Dungeon & Dragons.  I always argue that the earliest examples of roleplaying games are more boardgames than anything (freewheeling and off the cuff, to be sure): they are meant to be played through to the end.  It is only the incidental inclusion of a polyhedral combat system that turned heroic exploits into essentially a medieval horror game (a legitimate conceit in its own right, to which we owe much of the compatibility with Cthulhu themes).  When tied to its wargaming roots, we uncover a play style that is much more evocative of early Greyhawk, with its knights in shining armour, damsels in distress and fiery dragons (which all but disappear from gaming tables with the death of the endgame).


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