It’s time to kick it Old School
1: Analyze the Source Material
After starting this blog I found James Maliszewski’s blog Grognardia, dedicated to Old School Roleplaying (OSR). OSR eschews a planned story in favor emergent narrative, mixed with “Gygaxian Naturalism”: i.e. in a reasonably well-designed world any sequence of actions by PCs usually produces an enjoyable play session. OSR gleefully ignores modern genre boundaries, drawing instead on pulp traditions where fantasy and SF weren’t just kissing cousins but incestuous lovers with a passel of kids: ancient astronauts leave behind robots, world- jumping wizards carry six guns, modern people find lost worlds aplenty and everything and the kitchen sink is tossed into the mix. While Old School RPGs uses the pulps it doesn’t emulate them: it is sui generis, drawing its wargaming roots, the pulps and thousands of hours of the gaming at the rosy fingered dawn of the hobby to make something unique.
That uniqueness is hard to see today given how strong D&D’s had on the fantasy that came after it. Grognardia postulates that recent D&D editions are swallowing their own tails, being too influenced by modern films, video games and novels that had D&D as their primary influence. The OSR tries to reverse that.
You might think that since the games I’ve presented so far are highly genre driven and significantly plotted that I wouldn’t care for OSR, but you’d be wrong. OSR is promoting a play style that is just as valuable as any other and doing yeoman’s work in re-rooting D&D with its past. For this I not only salute them but will spend this month on my own humble contribution. Since I’m running for young gamers I want to spend some time in this style, not just because of its historical import but because based on their play in the Hobbit I think they’d like it Therefore I’m dusting off my Moldovay-edited Basic D&D, (BD&D), making some changes and building a megadungeon.
Before going any further I’ll direct you to: http://grognardia.blogspot.com/2008/10/picaro-and-story-of-d.html which should help in the genre analysis. More genre analysis comes from what the creators of the game saw as influences, and how they played (anyone familiar with Tekumel’s game history knows there’s a world of difference in how a game creator runs their game and what they write as rules for public consumption!) when they sat around the table.
For the former Gygax left a clear statement in his Appendix N of the DMG. There we find a lot of pulp fantasy of the Burroughs, Howard and Leiber style (echoes from his intro to the LBBs) and plenty of tales of contemporary men finding ‘lost’ worlds of various sorts. These strike me as particularly important given one of the old school tenets identified by the OSR: that the game should challenge the player and not the character. I’m going to touch on this more later in game design, but for right now I’m playing with the idea that the players (and by extension the PCs) are the heroes of such lost world tales: contemporary people thrust into fantastic environments which they have to decipher. Possessed of special skills (prowess or magic) they become powerful individuals in this world, if they live long enough.
Since the characters are natives of this world (there is no D&D class for ‘contemporary man’) it makes little sense for them to have to struggle to gain this knowledge; the game handles this by making the starting PCs people of little rank, worldliness or learning and then placing them in another fantastic environ, the dungeon. More specifically a megadungeon: a dungeon so big that it can never be cleared out but constructed on an internal logic that the players can identify and exploit. (This differs from site dungeons, which are small enough to finish, or ‘funhouse’ dungeons where each room has a new problem with no logical linkage between them – both were asides in regular play.) Megadungeons were ‘tent poles’ that held up the rest of the campaign world, the central point that supported all of game play – David Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign never extended more than 50 or so miles from the dungeon!
In time the dungeon provides the PC with enough experience so that when they were out of the dungeon they were powerful enough to be seen as more than demobbed veterans or ivory tower mediums; at the same time the players will have learned enough about the world’s logic (in addition to dungeon logic) to pursue larger destinies without GM interjections of ‘known’ data. (Again Tekumel, with its default of PCs as foreigners seeking jobs from patrons, and those jobs usually being entering vast underground complexes, is educational as an example.)
So if I were to pick a literary genre which most influenced D&D I’d go with the Lost World story, with the caveat that it is the player more than the character who is learning the new world. D&D is essentially a game of exploration.
As for how actual play occurred the OSR has been interviewing people who were at the original Blackmoor & Greyhawk games and locating published accounts of play. They consistently find emergent narratives: stores formed ex post facto from the alchemy of GM ideas, random elements and player choices. This can give them weight even as it divorces them traditional ‘narrative’ structures, but it also make them deadly dull at times. We’re reading a history rather than a story.
The descriptions of those emerging narratives, to me, most resembles is a sitcom; not in the attempted humor (though there was a lot of humor) but in structure. Sitcoms take a set of broadly drawn characters, place them in an essentially static situation and mine relations between the characters and situation for comedy. Once the easy veins of the static situation have been mined (how do characters X and Y react to common situation Z? is it funny?) the characters have been well defined enough to suggest ideas and the setting is understood enough to be made less static, both of which open up new veins for comedy.
Swap Adventure for Comedy you’ve got a dungeon crawl. The setting is static, the dungeon, and early levels present common situations in motifs that are repeated throughout. The characters flesh themselves out over the first few adventures (albeit with more fatalities than your average sitcom) and once things are established the static environment starts to change.
Finally, genres have narrative rules which are doubly important in RPGs so the players know what they’re meant to be doing. See Mr. Maliszewski comments on Trampier’s PHB cover art http://grognardia.blogspot.com/2008/06/best-cover-ever.html to start. The goal of the game is to have your PC become powerful enough to enter a life of ‘ease’ in the form of ruling a territory, founding a temple, forming your own guild or researching more advanced magic. Doing so means reaching 9th or higher level. Leveling up is done via experience points, earned by defeating (via magic, wits or combat) enemies and accumulating gold. The gold you secure in an adventure is a proxy for is success: PCs earn 80% of their experience from gold and 20% from defeated adversaries. (In ‘kill things and take their money’, the money is more important!) The easiest route experience in the first third of the PCs career is exploring a dangerous environment. After that the PCs are more likely to roam further afield.
This might sound obvious but to me it requires unlearning some ideas about prepared narrative that worked into TSR’s published products after 1982 and were made canon in 2nd edition. Players have to internalize that there are no imposed ‘story goals’ and success is based mostly on recovered GP: They should battle evil when they find it, but do so in a way that maximizes profit and minimize risks. They should set objectives and marshal their resources to meet them. They should not expect me as DM to tell them what their goals are (aside from the 9th level thing). Various NPCs might try to hire their services but they should be free to turn those down and try other things.
Within the structures I discussed in December of 2012 an OSR game is a Player-Directed game where the GM sets the initial objective and, via the game rules, the preferred strategies. After that it is in the hands of the players, and the GM should exert minimal influence. Maybe the players will fail to find anything of interest for a few hours; maybe they get in over their head and suffer serious losses. So be it.
Old School D&D requires a high degree of GM to player trust and that there be enough clear options that being stymied in one place does not leave the players with no actions. The dungeon is the natural starting environment for this as its layout by design limits and therefore clarifies options. Can’t solve the riddles in one direction? Head in another; monsters to the west look too tough? try going south; if all else fails fall back, heal, pick new spells and hire some help before tacking things again. Failing to advance in a particular direction doesn’t end the game because no plot depends on them doing so in a timely manner. There may be negative consequences but they are not game ending.
PCs survival is not assured. First because there are no required narrative hooks on any one character, and second because the Players high control over their options should have higher consequences. Combats are (in my experience, echoed by others) more exciting when there is a higher chance of fatality, but since combat is a second order experience generator players have reason to minimize it. Killing is riskier than taking stuff.
That BD&D has inheritance rules makes it clear that survival, especially at low level, was iffy; coupled with no skill system and standardized weapon damages to differentiate characters, this strongly hints that PCs very much ‘design in play’ with a focus on personality. Since the DM advice indicates that monsters levels should be +/-2 of the dungeon level it’s only at 3rd level where the PCs have maximal flexibility to fall back to weaker opponents combined with the Hit Points to have enough time to reliably decide to fall back. Combined, this means it’s not until after level 3 that PCs have fleshed out in both mechanics and personality. Conveniently that’s when the BD&D rules expand outside the dungeon, and when the character becomes potent enough to be taken seriously by the world.
So what does this mean in terms world design? First off is the emergent world – if game revolves around the dungeon it has to start more defined than the outside world. The PCs only need a town in which to regroup & plan and a city to secure more expensive help. This gives the DM time to plan the players input on the larger world as well – since little is nailed down at the start players can easily influence parts of what emerge later. The PCs are not the only things that are Design in Play.
For the dungeon to stay engaging for levels 1-9 it has to operate on an internal logic. It doesn’t have to be real world logic, nor does it have to be 100% consistent, but there have to be logical threads that the PCs can suss out and exploit. A PC map should suggest secret chambers based on blank spots or patterns. An ecology should exist, and the dungeon denizens should interact with each other, not just the PCs. If there are wandering monsters of a certain type they should lair somewhere. If there are traps someone must have set (or reset them).
The dungeon also has to be ‘alive’ – it has to change not just from the PCs actions but when the PCs aren’t there. Monsters will move into empty rooms, restock and resupply, and perhaps fight each other when the PCs actions create power imbalances. Monsters will move through the halls in unexpected ways, and wise PCs will learn to avoid them (they likely don’t have much money on them, which makes them a poor XP risk).
The contents of the dungeon can draw on any sort of inspiration, but Gygax calls Burroughs, Howard, Leiber, DeCamp & Pratt in the LBB introduction, so we should expect to find not just giant animals, bandit chiefs, sorcerers, nigh invulnerable demons & scantily-clad slaves but alien wizards with variable numbers of eyes, subterranean realms and portals to other worlds where people carry radum rifles. It is assumed the dungeon holds things like this. Castle Greyhawk held a portal to a demi-plane containing an ersatz Skull Island with giant monsters and a ruling gorilla. Gygax’s players visited it once or twice, decided the cost/benefit ratio was too low and never went back. That decision was theirs, and is a good example of an Old School play: PCs encounter something pulpy and cool that, while odd for a dungeon, has an internal logic; they poke around then move on to other areas. Will the island of the ape accurately model King Kong? No, but it steals from it in a way the players will recognize and enjoy, which is all we need.
I’ve run a little long for today. More on Wednesday.