The most critical element of role-playing game design is the reduction of friction. If it is not addressed sufficiently, the game will not be played. Now, this is not an issue quite so much for people that treat rpg’s as a new form of literature or for whom the primary design goal is to sell a lot of books. Chalk it up to the games industry being prisoners of capitalism if you want, but there’s a clear conflict of interests between the hobbyist and the publishers here. And while it’s the novices that will be most stymied by the presence of friction, even experienced game masters can get worn down by it to the point where playing practically anything else will start to look like a good way to go.
Here are some examples of what I mean by friction:
Now, all role-playing games are going to have friction points and they’re often going to have dedicated fans that deal with it, route around it, or else simply ignore whichever parts get in their way. That’s fine. But your collection of unplayed role-playing games are going to consist predominantly of stuff that suffers from multiple types of friction that reduce them to being little more than picture books containing occasional bits of inspiration that can be plundered for games that will actually hit the table. First Edition Oriental Adventures is one of those games! I’m going to show you how Appendix N can be used to create a setting that can actually support ongoing play rather than apply drag to it– more or less in line with Gygax’s advice from the original Dungeon Masters Guide.
Now, for me, the monster “gazetteer” approach that has been done with everything from TSR’s Known World, to Traveller’s “Official” Universe, and on even to GURPS Banestorm really leaves me cold. The unending series of supplements for things like Forgotten Realms and Palladium just boggle my mind. Where does the friction come from precisely? Well… I’m going to use that stuff I feel like I’m responsible for conveying the gist of it all faithfully to the players. I fret over which particular subsetting is the best one to start the players in. I worry that a player might know more about the setting than me and then call me out on the liberties I take. Mainly, though, these overwrought supplements create a design problem for me. I have to both master the material and translate it into something relevant and playable. If the setting material is overlayed on a challenging or wonky rule set– or worse, if the rules and the setting are in conflict with each other– then I’ve just loaded myself down with a tremendous headache.
The answer to this problem became clear to me when I ran Dwimmermount in a series of marathon sessions. When I would come back from game night, I would know which dungeon levels, magic items, and monster entries I would need to study before the players came back the next afternoon. There was always a gap between how things were “supposed” to be run and how much of that was in my head. Now don’t get me wrong, it was great fun… but when GURPS designer Peter Dell’Orto pointed out to me how he did not have to freak out nearly as much as I did, I knew he had a point. You see… he’d built his own mega-dungeon himself from the ground up and had complete mastery of his creation. He knew why everything was set up the way it was and he needed a much smaller volume of notes to keep himself on track. His campaign had one less friction point than mine did, and it was such a significant one, he was strolling down Game Master easy street while I was running around like some kind of headless Game Master chicken!
Honestly, forty odd hours of ACKS Dwimmermount was worth the “hassle” for me. But the friction levels involved with getting a first edition AD&D Oriental Adventures game off the ground is so high, rolling my own stuff starts to look like a far better investment of my time. Here then is what I would look to pilfer from the Appendix N books in order to get a playable game going that I could actually look forward to.
Start with Robert E. Howard’s “Xuthal of the Dusk”. It’s just fantastic, really. There’s so much gaming inspiration packed into this one story, it’s nuts:
For the first below-ground level, I would take a page from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Gods of Mars. Not only are there set piece encounters that could be run very nearly as is, but there is also a great excuse to have all kinds of monsters down there. For the even deeper dungeon levels, I would transition to something akin to Lovecraft’s “The Mound”. The important thing is to have not just the difficulty level go up the further down you go, but to also have radically different themes as well. (A mere mortal like myself could actually handle these transitions, but coherent ten level megadungeons are going to be much harder to construct. Being able to create whatever you think is awesome eliminates friction from probably the most critical point of all.)
From movies like Iron Monkey and Jackie Chan’s stuff, I would *not* take the urban setting with the mind-numbing bureaucracies. And I certainly would not impose that tone onto the Eastern equivalent to Elfland. (That is another critical failure on the part of Oriental Adventures there!) What I would take is the off the wall combat moves like “Flying Sleeves” and the “Drunken Master” shtick. If you’re going to play this sort of game, then now is the time to wrap your head around Matt Finch’s Ming vase principle. Put in umbrellas and bicycles and twenty foot tall posts that are on fire and just go to town with it!
From Big Trouble in Little China I’d take Lo Pan and his minions. I’d also take the non-Vancian approach to magic-users presented there, possibly with low level mages being able to brew potions. We’re still kind of light on oriental-themed inspirations here, though. I might go looking for more, with Otis Adelbert Kline’s Maza on the Moon being at the top of the pile, but certainly A. Merrit’s “Dragon Glass” will be here somewhere. Another potential source for an evil Eastern empire would come from Changeling Earth, but the sort of mortal threat he represents is unneeded in the early stages of the game. (We do not need a “boss monster” when there is no explicit end game for the campaign.)
Now, my first thought with Oriental Adventures was to have use the bits from Lord Dunsany, Poul Anderson, and C. L. Moore where the advent of Christianity is destroying the world of myth. I was thinking that the Eastern lands would have more active spirit activity due to the absence of any missionaries and then perhaps have everything be out of whack there as various gods and creatures flee there seeking refuge. This is not consistent with the off the wall adventuring environment I have outlined above! What premise from Appendix N would actually fit with it…? I think one of the alternate realities from the Carnelian Cube provides a better start. This would make the players sane interlopers from something closer to the “real” world encountering offbeat satirical cultures. (Rather than ape Tolkien for the overall approach to world building, de Camp and Pratt is the model here– at least for the primary culture sitting on top of the mega-dungeon.)
This pretty well nails down the game’s structure, tone, and style. What’s left to deal with? Easy: the random bits of the D&D ouevre that I never really had a handle on but which Appendix N has speaks directly to:
Okay, that’s plenty to get a fantasy role-playing game started there. Running something like this would be far, far easier for me than attempting to dig something out of a pile of mid-eighties TSR splat books. Heck, it’d be less work for me to create a game off of this than it would be go use very nearly any other product off the game store shelf. Not only is this this setting is something I’m already intimately familiar with, but I have not not one iota of anxiety at the thought of having to improvise something related to it in a game session. And being a heterogeneous “kitchen sink” style environment, I can feel free to add on practically any setting, creature, or adventure concept that strikes me as being fun to play. This is the sort of thing that you never have to worry about whether or not you’ve done it right!
That is not only one less friction point I have to deal with, but the hum-dinger of a show-stopper that has killed more campaigns than any other in my gaming career as well! Granted, my setting outline might have any number of friction points for you. If you want to use different set of inspirations to go in a completely different direction, that is obviously a really good idea. Of course, that is the very spirit that these games were given to us with in the first place.