The Talk of the Town: RPG Edition

Saturday , 8, April 2017 11 Comments

I think a fair case could be made that the most significant thing about the advent of the internet is that it has greatly facilitated the discussion and development surrounding independent and amateur role-playing games. It’s a nonstop party out here… and if there was a time when I was sad that there just wasn’t anything along the lines of Dragon Magazine or The Space Gamer around anymore, today we have something far better.

What do I mean…?

Well as Save Versus All Wands notes, you can right now pick up a PDF copy of first edition Tunnels & Trolls for next to nothing. Myself, I never saw a copy of any edition of this game back in the day– thought I did have a legit copy of Buffalo Castle, the first solitaire adventure ever made. (I’d picked it up because the introduction of second edition GURPS assured me I could use nearly any gaming product out there with it. It didn’t work  for 14-year-old me. Still upset!) You absolutely need to see this game for yourself because not only is it fun, not only is it funny… but you can see first hand where the idea of “just let the attributes mean something and do the heavy rules lifting” design ethos came from. T&T is simultaneously an Old School D&D and Proto-GURPS! It is the first “everything you need in one book” game and it was specifically engineered to be comprehensible to people outside of the hardcore wargaming scene. Finally, for people that are still skeptical that authors besides Tolkien had much of an influence on the invention/discovery of D&D, read this book and you’ll notice that designer Ken St. Andre was was riffing on Jack Vance, Andre Norton, Robert E. Howard, and L. Sprague de Camp to the same extent that Gygax was.

Of course, not everyone is skeptical of the Appendix N thesis. Some people consider the case closed on that. Even better… they’re making game supplements that leverage these sorts of observations. One to look out for is Autarch’s Heroic Fantasy Handbook which I’m told includes a shoutout to my book in the introduction. There’s been a great deal of friction generated over the years that derives from people playing D&D under the assumption that it somehow ought to generate the same sorts of gameplay as what you see in the typical sprawling “Tolkienesque” mega-series that has defined the fantasy genre since the mid-eighties. I believe that leveraging the kind of shorter, pulpier stories that inspired the game in the first place can solve all manner of problems that emerge in actual play. This new game book will make it an order of magnitude easier for anyone to put the implications all this to work!

Meanwhile, rpg-Twitter has been on fire lately. People outside the old school game blog scene are routinely baffled by things that the grognards take for granted. A case in point for that Castalia House blog’s own PC Bushi who just can’t wrap his head around 18/00 strength. This makes no sense to people that came up on post-TSR D&D. Cirsova has a concise technical explanation for how things happened like they did… but in my view, this is an example of how original D&D was not designed. It simply emerged from a primordial ooze of countless gamers inventing their own hacks and solutions to whatever they saw needed a bit of tweaking. First edition AD&D codified a synthesis of these developments into a whole that has a great deal of influence on fantasy and role-playing to this day. And though it eventually found itself (as Lew Pulsipher would put it) held hostage to capitalism, when it was brand new… it was absolutely imperative that it be played exactly as Gygax insisted that you did.

I assure you, this is all just the tip of the iceberg. Digging into this stuff is the most fun you can possibly have short of going to a convention, setting up at a table, and then running an adventure for whoever happens to show up. If you haven’t started game blogging already, you really need to reconsider how you’re spending your free time!

11 Comments
  • Aaron B. says:

    That bit about AD&D is interesting; I didn’t know Gygax intended it to be that strict and comprehensive. I wonder if that had something to do with tournaments, which were kind of a thing at one time.

    I played original D&D, which came in 5 boxed sets, now often called BECMI (after the first initials of the sets), created by Gygax and Dave Arneson and revised by Frank Mentzer. I always saw it as a framework within which the DM created a game; but ultimately, everything was at the DM’s discretion. For instance, in the section on dice rolling, it says, “Experienced Dungeon Masters may select results instead of rolling dice,” and then gives an example where a brand new character with 3hp gets into his first fight and the DM rolls 5 damage for the monster’s first attack, so he quietly changes it to 2hp damage and the character runs away, having learned a lesson about charging in too quickly.

    • Jeffro says:

      AD&D is an interesting piece of work for a lot of reasons.

      Now… what would you do if you’d stumbled into this cultural phenomenon… and the vast majority of games being run were not actually D&D, but D&D + any a selection of a dozen or more variant rules. What if… on the ground… something like RuneQuest was amassing significant mindshare, threatening to displace D&D as the definitive rpg? And what if the weirdos were running wild, going so overboard with “girdles of sex change” and stuff, that the brand was liable to be so tarnished that it’d have to be abandoned?

      Original D&D was a loose framework and the houserules for it were prodigious compared to anything you were liable to see in the eighties. It was an epic amorphous blob of thrills and wonder. AD&D was TSR’s attempt to actually nail down an actual game from all that. They succeeded because it was the industry standard for a solid decade.

      And by the way… fudging the dice when death is on the line is a really bad idea. If the players know the risks, they need to be allowed to face the consequences of their choices. If the GM simply adjudicates the game rather than making those sorts of executive decisions, the burden for making sure the game stays fun shifts away from him and to the players. It’s actually a relief to be able to do that!

      • Man of the Atom says:

        I began playing D&D under the B/X red and blue books and had an unfettered blast. When AD&D Version 1 showed up, I took it as more of an add-on to the original rules — yes, stats and rules changed, but I kept playing freestyle like D&D.

        The Dragon #26 admonition by Gygax was a standout when it was published, and everyone of my gaming group regarded it as nothing but blovating on Gary’s part, and just laughed.

        TSR’s tagline at that time was “Products of Your Imagination”. That was the only direction I ever took from TSR, Gary, and the rest of the crew as to what constituted “proper gaming”. The gamers paid for the TSR product, and then used it as they saw fit in the game. Go pound sand, Mr Gygax.

        The RPGA thugs also hold no small amount or responsibility in the regimentation in thinking regarding proper play of TRPGs. Ergo, the damn players volunteered for the fascist state of gaming where imagination was gradually outlawed over the years.

        • Jeffro says:

          Yes, there are legions of people that played Basic D&D… and then used parts of AD&D as sort of a supplement for that. I know people that claim to comprehend weapon speeds, armor class adjustments by weapon, spellcasting segments, AD&D Psionics, and so forth… but a great many people didn’t. They in effect used AD&D Character Generation and spells and monsters and magic items with something closer to Basic D&D being what they actually played as the game engine.

          And then there’s people like Rick Stump that actually did play straight up AD&D and never quit. (!!)

        • Aaron B. says:

          Yeah, a friend of mine had the AD&D books, so I borrowed some monsters from the Monster Manual, and I think we used some of the more generous character creation rules. The original character creation was pretty harsh: roll 3d6 six times, and those are your scores — in order. You wanted to play a thief and you rolled a 5 dexterity? Sucks to be you.

          I was just looking at my Rules Cyclopedia (a gorgeous book that brings the B, E, C, and M boxed sets into one volume, one of the most treasured items on my shelf), and it has a section on converting between D&D and AD&D. It says there: “Since the AD&D game is so much more structured than the D&D game, it is used much more in convention tournaments, where consistent judging is most important.” Makes sense.

          I wonder how many new players ended up playing AD&D because they went into a store and saw them side by side and assumed the one with “Advanced” in the title was a new version that superseded the old, rather than an alternative with a different style.

          • Jeffro says:

            The stigma of BECMI being “kiddie” D&D on sale at Toys “R” Us?!

            That was a real killer, to be sure. I know GURPS was similarly attractive for a while for similar reason: “ah, I guess a hack and slash class and level game is okay if you’re new to rpgs… but at some point it’s time to put away childish things!”

            Let me tell you this was SRS BSNS!

          • Gaiseric says:

            I think there’s probably more to the story here than initially meets the eye. AD&D had to be marketed specifically as a DIFFERENT game to D&D, with a different focus and different feel… a DIFFERENT game. Not just because Gygax thought you ought to play that way… but also because to the degree that they could push that Narrative that AD&D was totally different from D&D, they could say that Arneson wasn’t a co-creator of it, and therefore wasn’t owed any royalties for sales of AD&D.

  • Re: “[Mentzer] then gives an example where a brand new character with 3hp gets into his first fight and the DM rolls 5 damage for the monster’s first attack, so he quietly changes it to 2hp damage and the character runs away, having learned a lesson about charging in too quickly.”

    That’s interesting. I’ve never met any DM (or, rather, any DM who is not an a**hole) who hasn’t NOT done something like this, at least once. On the other hand, actually saying it for publication (in an “official” TSR book) is not necessarily a good idea. It arguably sends the wrong message. What happens in the second fight?

    • Aaron B. says:

      Well, if the player won’t learn, he dies. I wouldn’t do it normally either, but I’ve been in the situation where brand new players don’t really understand the game, so they think they’re going to charge in like their movie heroes and just start slaying orcs left and right. So you have a choice as DM: 1) he dies and starts over completely rerolling a new character; 2) you tell him he died, but allow a mulligan; 3) you say, “The goblin nicks you for 2hp, and you’re almost dead. You can tell you’re overmatched, and he could have done much more damage. What do you think you should do next?” I’ve done all 3, but I think option #3 might break the immersion the least. It’s an exceptional situation, to be sure.

  • Gaiseric says:

    ” There’s been a great deal of friction generated over the years that derives from people playing D&D under the assumption that it somehow ought to generate the same sorts of gameplay as what you see in the typical sprawling “Tolkienesque” mega-series that has defined the fantasy genre since the mid-eighties. I believe that leveraging the kind of shorter, pulpier stories that inspired the game in the first place can solve all manner of problems that emerge in actual play.”

    Except for the most important problem—they WANT D&D to resemble the kinds of fiction that they’ve read. That’s the whole POINT, and the whole reason that playing D&D was attractive to them in the first place.

    I’ve seen this a lot from OSR type gamers in particular; the whole notion of: if you don’t like D&D, then just change your tastes! The game is perfectly fine the way it is!

    How about modify the game to match your tastes? And if it means something that’s even a pretty thorough reworking, like coming up with a whole new magic system, for instance, well, why not?

    It’s interesting that D&D evolved from the specific tastes that Gygax had, which were informed by the corpus of fantasy work that was common when he wrote it, but why should it have to be calcified and fossilized into that mode? Are people with different tastes just not supposed to play?

    I know, I know… I’m projecting a bit of a strawman that’s way beyond what you actually said. But I’ve actually seen that argument advanced, if not exactly in so many words, many, many times.

    As a person who always appreciated the freewheeling approach of OD&D and to the extent that it was continued down into Moldvay/Cook, AD&D itself was, in many ways, an abomination. Not necessarily because it was a bad game (although it was; it was terribly organized, it was rambly, etc,) but mostly because I really hated being told how I was supposed to play and what my game was supposed to look like. I was one of the few Prodigal Gaming Sons who was turned off of AD&D long before 2e came out. The whole concept of AD&D was, itself, the wrong approach to me.

    And the D&D (as opposed to AD&D) brand was consistently marginalized by TSR. First, it was pushed as the kids’ version of the game in how it was sold and distributed. Then, Mentzer changed the tone of the writing and made it condescending and even more marketed towards kids (even as the rules themselves didn’t necessarily change all that much, the presentation of them was completely different.) Etc., etc.

    • Aaron B. says:

      That’s a really interesting point. In theory, a D&D campaign could resemble an epic fantasy series, and I think something like that was always in the back of my mind as a goal; but in practice I’ve never had one get close to that, because no group has ever played together long enough. To start out as a plucky band of first-level adventurers and work your way up to the point where you’re commanding armies and saving the world, would take a very long time using the D&D method of gradual advancement. As you say, D&D might have to be reworked quite a bit to fit that.

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