Of Material Simplicity

I don’t own any minis. My preferred method is to set a large wipe board down on a table and let players draw on it with me during battles. I use music and a computer in my game, but I’m feeling iffier and iffier about the tunes during play. I know that I want to get all my vital .pdfs in hardback so I won’t have to use the damned Mac. It distracts me from my players. I am a big fan of material simplicity in my games.

Mind you, I have nothing but admiration for the guys (and gals) with 50 large boxes of minis that they have been hand-painting since 1974. I dig it when other people can generate a huge mess on the table with all of their gear and maps and hand-drawn character sheets and whatnot. I tend to feel that a huge mess of stuff is somehow a mark of creativity, of involvement and vitality, especially when it’s a useful mess, a mess that gets added to and taken from and evolves—like a marketplace of the spirit, always trading with itself.

But not for me. My messes are never satisfying. And anything that I consider useless, I find messy. Right now I have my players rolling 3-5d6 ability checks for certain tasks. It’s a good system, and it works. But it means that my players have 5d6 sitting off to one side, waiting, and splattering all over the tiny table we game on when they are in use. So it feels like an encumbrance.

Is there a value in material simplicity? For me, the drive to reduce the ‘necessary materials’ for the game is a drive to find simple and elegant processes through which to enable a great many possibilities. As Rikyu, the great Japanese tea sage once said, ‘If you have one pot, and you can make tea in it, that will do quite well’. And there is that great line quoted elsewhere in the OSR about perfection being reached when there is nothing left to take away. But aside from my own instincts and inclinations, is there a value to simplicity in itself?

Not to be facile, but it often seems that the virtue of an approach is found in its appropriateness to a situation. The issue of method cannot be dealt with separately from the quality of the game that the method enabled. You would probably be wiser to ask, ‘What does my game need?’ rather than ‘Upon what principles shall my game be founded?’ I wouldn’t mention this except for the feeling I get that we can get too tied up on matters of theory and approach when instead we should focus on the experience, the game-in-play. The game is the point, and everything else is a tool, a technique. But as many have discovered, if you were to take away all but what you deemed most essential to the game, perhaps you would find that the game itself has grown larger in your mind as a result.

But 40 hand-painted minis on an enormous tabletop landscape is a thing to behold.

Untimate Quiz

Here are my answers for Brendan's quiz. At the moment I'm having a hard time distinguishing between what I want from my Swords & Wizardry game and what I want from my (still to come) homebrew experimental game. But these are the standard rules that I use for S&W, barring sudden flashes of DM insight.

Ability scores generation method? 4d6, arrange to taste.
How are death and dying handled? Dead at zero HP. But I have considered using a Death and Dismemberment Chart.
What about raising the dead? An expensive cash service at major temples or a powerful (and hard-to-find) magic item.
How are replacement PCs handled? Meh. Not much of a concern. When you lose a character, draw up a new one a find an appropriate moment to stumble in. I tend to like a West Marches-style approach, so there is always a possibility to meet new PCs in town.
Initiative: individual, group, or something else? Individual d6 + Dex.
Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work? Natural 20s do full damage. Critical fails open to my discretion of terrible.
Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet? I have considered giving a +1 to AC, but thus far haven’t really tried it.
Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly? Only on a critical fail.
Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything? Ha Ha No. Running away is always an acceptable strategy.
Level-draining monsters: yes or no? Yes at higher levels, but rare.
Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death? Not immediately. I don’t much care for the ‘save-or-die’ dynamic.
How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked? Roughly. I do call encumbrance on people, but I don’t keep track of it in detail.
What's required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time? One at a time! I let PCs level up as they acquire experience. As for M-U and Cleric PCs, I let players make a random roll on the White Box spell lists to determine new spells every level (2 per level). Otherwise, spell scrolls and expensive magical research.
What do I get experience for? Monsters, treasure, and DM fiat based on player cleverness. In a wilderness adventure game, discovery also grants XP (a hidden temple, a major landmark, etc.).
How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination? I suck at traps. Description is my preferred method for discovery however.
Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work? Retainers are always available. Morale checks are based around contested CHA rolls when attempting to force retainers to act against their better instincts.
How do I identify magic items? Description and player intuition. Potions must be tasted, or the player must have some knowledge of alchemy (via Token Proficiencies).
Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions? Potions are available, but in general magic items are pretty hard to come by.
Can I create magic items? When and how? Upper levels. Not there yet in any of my games. I admire the ACKS method, though.
What about splitting the party? Always use the Battle Buddy System (BBS). Never go anywhere on your own. Stupidity and death are the inevitable result. If you must split up, always at least in twos. Never leave your battle buddy!

New Monster: The Piscapede

Use the stats for a shark from the 1e monster manual (or wherever).

These creatures resemble enormous eels with hundreds of centipede-like legs. They dwell in pools of stagnant water that it makes opaque via chemical secretions. The resulting water color is often quite vivid and unnatural. Two adult Piscapedes will dwell in a pond at least 15’ x 15’ with 2d4 legless young. The amphibious adults will crawl out of the water and attempt to bite an intruder. A successful bite attack forces the PC to roll a saving throw (vs. Poison); failure causes the PC to lose the capacity to breathe air and grow gills. The PC must then submerge his gills in water within (1d4+CON modifier) rounds or faint from lack of air and begin losing HP. Once underwater, the opacity of the fluid grants the young near-invisibility (-3 to hit). The venom will lose its effect in some 20 minutes, and a clever adventurer can extract the poison sacs of the adults to create a potion of water breathing. 

These creatures are most often found underground, and can be considered dangerous pests in some extensive sewer systems.  

Is Gaming In Danger?

I wrote a letter to a friend of mine recently which I have decided to excerpt (in a slightly altered form) below. Enjoy.

‘Just saw THAC0, and it was very entertaining. At some point, I encourage you to check out the Midnight movie I told you about (I think it’s still on instant play) as well as the film The Wild Hunt. I cannot say that the latter is a terribly insightful film (I think it has some pretty deep problems, in fact) but it is a very satisfying film as far as mood and visuals go. Very professional looking. I like that in THAC0 they are playing 1e D&D rather than some later variant. BTW, I’m DM’ing the next series of 4e Encounters down at Roll of the Die. I’m pretty excited, all things considered. You asked me a while ago whether I thought that the RPG hobby was in danger of falling by the wayside; your apt metaphor was the model train hobby. I’ll tell you what I really think—I think that we actually have it all backwards. Watching the THAC0 film has led me to believe that perhaps the era in which D&D (and all other RPGs) was in most danger is past.

‘…it seems that the hobby always attracts those who have a mincing, mediocre interest in the experience of the fantastic and an overwhelming interest in tactics and mechanical manipulation. I do not mean players like ----, who is a good and honest player as a Gamist, and perhaps more honest than many Narrativists and Simulationists I’ve played with. I mean that there are always plenty of people who are more willing to embrace gaming as a means to satisfy their egos than their sense of fun with a community. This is what 4e is designed for—how people who don’t know how to play the game can play with people like these. That is why folks like ---- consider it to be a tremendous success, since they are self-aware enough to recognize that there are those that suffer at their hands. But what the OSR really means in the long run, I believe, is that gaming is being taken back by people who embrace experiences rather than rules.

‘But I shall not limit this to the OSR. I feel the stirrings of this elsewhere, a renewed interest in what made other games worth playing in the era before the search for the Grand Unifying System that fractured and defeated us all. Microscope has been mentioned by many, as has Dread and some others. I think that, while the OSR has an expiration date, the spirit of the Revolution will triumph in the end. 3e gave fuel to the fire of people who made this hobby a niche interest—people who are uncomfortable outside of their niche. 4e turned its financial interest to n00bs, the unimaginative, and those who play MMORPGs (not that these things are consonant). In doing so, they alienated older players and presented a conundrum: why do we play the games we play? What do we want from them? Why not take up a system that is more ‘evolved’, more ‘accessible’, or just ‘new’? It was a paradox, actually, with no clear answer. If we wanted ‘balance’ or a ‘user-friendly’ system, this was it. But…we apparently didn’t. The truth was, 4e was not built for us. So we had to find ourselves elsewhere.

‘Please excuse my colloquial use of ‘we’. But I think that this is a more transformative era for us gamers than we realize. It is the period where we set down the fears and attitudes of the past that forced us to account for the malcontent and the miscreant at our gaming table, and decided instead that this was a social game, a game of give and take, where not everyone would be satisfied but all would be welcome. Where we let the dice fall where they may, and let no two games be alike—since we realized finally that they could not be.'

Classes/Races of Varth

So I ran the OD&D game (really a S&W homebrew, but I prefer not to split hairs) the other night and it went off quite well. I got kind of bored with the ‘how to build a world' series, so I put it on hold. Besides, I doubt that anyone really needs my insights on the matter anytime soon.

Instead, I thought I'd give you a rundown of the classes and races I used/invented for the game.

The classes I allowed were: Magic-User, Fighter, Cleric (for humans), Beast-man, Elf and Halfling. The Beast-man class wasn’t taken by anyone, so I won’t discuss it at present.

Elves on the Doomed World of Varth are psionic characters. They have the powers of Charm Person, Daze and Telepathy, as well as a Laser Sword (…yep). The Laser Sword does 1d6 damage and can be manifested for free, and the other abilities can be activated via Psionic Power Points which they receive equal to their level plus their Charisma modifier. They can read thoughts for free as well, at a 25% chance plus 5% per level. They can wear leather armor, and wield light one-handed weapons.

Those were all of the rules we needed for this session. Elves on Varth are space aliens who landed in their enormous black ships some 500 years ago and might have precipitated the disaster that catapulted Varth into a pocket dimension (much like Tekumel). They are haughty and traditionally atheistic. 

Halflings are one of the more prominent races on Varth, having existed as slaves, scouts and thieves from time immemorial. They are perhaps the most numerous race, but do to their clannish sensibilities are far too fractious to think of themselves as one people. Halflings are especially prone to mutation. When a halfling character is created, roll a 30% chance for mutation, then flip a coin to decide physical or mental. Check d% on the Mutant Future charts to determine the end result. Halflings can wield any light, one-handed weapon and wear leather armor.

Instead of alignment, I had characters decide whether or not to choose a god from one of the charts I made up for Varth. I had a d30 ‘Evil’ god chart and d20 charts for ‘Good’ and ‘Neutral’ faiths. I might post those up here at some point. They consisted of gods drawn from a multitude of sources, ad I left it up to the PCs what their relationship was to their particular deity.

So we wound up with a party consisting of: Drak the (none-too-clever) Fighter, a Cleric follower of the Prophecies of Kalistrade with a drinking problem, a halfling with the power of Teleportation (who worshiped He Who Waits Between the Stars), Clea the Elven Warrior Maiden and a Magic-User looking for a way to be turned back into a unicorn. All in all, a good party.

With a party largely made up of new-to-D&D people, I think alignment is a bit more of a chore than it's worth. The mechanics are hard enough without trying to throw in an arbitrary morality simulator. With that said, the party acted about as amorally as one could expect, mostly in the vein of abusing henchmen to no end (but paradoxically knocking on every door in the Dungeon...err, Vault, as I called them). The Cleric kept hypothesizing that the bloody sacrifice of his hireling might unlock some kind of hidden power in every room. Out loud. Next session, they better keep watch as they sleep that night. The Former-Unicorn M-U apparently had no qualms about the destruction of servants in her quest to return to the cast of My Little Pony. But despite the inherent sociopathy of our adventurers, they had a pretty good time. They fought some mutant halflings who were crawling on the ceiling and discovered that the mountain over the Vault was in fact a pyramid at one point in time. But there is plenty more to find, so I hope they'll have the opportunity to adventure again next week.

Dark Wilderlands of Forgotten Greyhawk (The Final Fantasy Campaign)

or, World Building Part 1

            I’m running (hopefully) a game of OD&D for some friends of mine next weekend, most of whom have never played D&D before. Now I was going to take this as an opportunity to dust off an abandoned OD&D setting project I’d worked on before which I called Varth (Zarth, Oerth, Vanth…the pattern goes on and on). The intention was to create an explicitly D&D setting, and a fairly traditional one at that, for sandbox play. I usually create settings and then play D&D in them, rather than attempting to derive the setting itself from common elements. I usually dislike most published D&D settings since they usually take the ‘kitchen sink’ approach and I like things a bit more streamlined. Nevertheless, after reading Vornheim I was all jazzed to do some kind of crazy setting where everywhere you went there was some group of pseudo-humanoids hanging out like its no big deal, the ‘Cantina Effect’ as I call it.
            So I sat down and thought of all the races I wanted to run around and cause trouble in my new world and all of the ones I wanted to lay back and look sinister and bizarre and I almost immediately realized that I wasn’t doing what I intended to in the first place, which was to have a world that unfolded naturally from the first adventure. But I am a natural cataloguer, and while many people have gone through and classified and historicized all of the critters in the Cantina, that scene didn’t start out with Lucas sitting around thinking, ‘OK, in this galaxy we have humanoids and non-humanoids, the latter being divided into five further subcategories…’
            But the attempts to reconcile the two impulses in my brain (one towards randomness, the other toward divergence from common principles)(OH MY GOD I thought I was done writing philosophy papers) led me to some interesting thoughts regarding settings. I am a compulsive setting-builder; it’s something of an addictive habit for me (since settings are easier to control than real life). I have read many good articles about world-building from multiple perspectives, and there are whole books devoted to understanding how different versions of mythic worlds (Tolkien, Howard, Moorcock, real Earth cultures) are the results of different kinds of psychological projections blah blah blah etc. I won’t attempt to do one better. But I want to talk about D&D settings, in general, as being a combination of the mythic and the weird.
            Mythic settings are akin to the mythologies of Northern European cultures in this context. Strictly speaking, all indigenous mythologies are mythic, but many of the world’s mythologies can come off as weird to us living in the good ole USA since we don’t necessarily have the same network of associations (or at least the context is underdeveloped). So I beg you to excuse my cultural simplicity for a moment. In the Northern European (Tolkienesque, to many) mythologies, many of the monsters that predominate echo concepts of time, natural elements and anthropomorphism. Hence, Giants are associated with things like snow, are impossibly ancient and look like big people. Elves are also old, hang out in forests and look like pretty people. Varieties of other humanoids have exaggerated human characteristics and natural associations and are usually associated with elements (and on occasion human things like occupations or even articles of clothing). Now, if you look carefully at genuine Norse or Celtic mythologies the weird starts to become more apparent (the Nuckelavee for instance), but the generalized form (again, often best represented by Tolkien) has a universe which blends the human experience of nature with the human experience of itself.
            The weird, on the other hand, deals with the different. While well-presented mythic settings often drive home just how different the perspective is of a giant who has sat so long in the same place that he resembles a part of the mountain itself, the differentness of the weird deals with that which is incomprehensible or unapproachable. If you could live as long as a giant, and if you could be as tall, you could maybe understand where that giant was coming from. But an ooze resembles nothing in your experience, and offers precious little to orient you. I find there are usually two distinctions of the weird: the weird/alien and the weird/primal. The weird/alien is something that is designed to be other to your experience, with no real correlation so much as a kind of overall contrariness with the familiar. Such is the Lovecraftian horror, which could be said to function as a kind of anti-life (anti-comprehension?). The weird/primal is an element of experience divorced from all human connection; an ooze is hunger, and maybe the ‘memory’ of being an amoeba, but we have nothing in common with either of those things in this distilled form.
            Now there are many overlaps, and obviously I could talk all day (and nearly have already) about the differences between these two poles; but this simple distinction is enough for my purposes. We must at least mention the obvious conflation: creating your own unique mythology, and letting your PCs figure it out. What shall I do? Hmmm... 

I’ll take a break here and talk about urban vs. rural next time.