Friday, August 9, 2019

Few have the inclination or patience to fight under rules they did not compile


. . . little attempt has been made in this book to lay down rules for specific periods of military history, assuming that the wargammer will have obtained or formulated rules for the type of warfare in which he is most interested. To this must be added the well-established and acknowledged fact that few wargamers have the inclination or patience to fight under rules that they did not compile themselves.
--Donald Featherstone, Solo Wargaming (emphasis mine)

This really incapsulates what differentiates the (original) Dungeons & Dragons category of play from the larger category, "old school," in which if falls.

Are you playing a wargames campaign that happens to be set in sword and sorcery? Or are you playing a role-playing game and following its published rules.

Fight on!

Friday, July 5, 2019

Setting-up a Medieval Fantasy Wargames Campaign


In a previous post, I made the point that Dungeons & Dragons (original) is an approach to setting up medieval fantasy wargames campaigns. Back in the day, folks within the miniature war-gaming hobby would share their rules for how to resolve individual combats. In addition to that, they would also sometimes share rules for how to string together a series of table sessions into a coherent war campaign. In these documents, they would not focus on rules for the wargames themselves -- they assumed they were writing to wargamers who already knew such rules and probably already had their own house rules as a local, hobby, gaming group. Instead, the focus was on how to make the games link to each other, reasonably, in order to game a "realistic" war campaign, and not just individual, disparate battles.

As I thought about these things while writing that post, I began to imagine what their pamphlets might have read like if Gygax and Arneson had written them in a more colloquial style that showed very clearly that they were talking to other wargamers about what had worked for them, what they had found to be fun. Because that was in fact what they were doing. It is just that it can be lost on many of us when we come backwards to the pamphlets from complete-rules-style RPG books rather than forward from their actual wargame hobby context. I offer my imaginings, below. The actual work would be a bit more detailed, but still short enough. I leave a lot that would be fleshed out as parenthetical summaries of what I imagine they would include in the actual text. Who knows, maybe someday I'll write this whole thought experiment up?

________

Dungeons & Dragons, or
How to Set-up a Medieval Fantasy Wargames Campaign

These booklets are a set of ideas for how to turn an ordinary wargames campaign into a Sword and Sorcery wargames campaign! As with any suggestions for setting up a wargames campaign, these brief booklets give some ideas and descriptions of what has worked for us in our own campaigns. Experiment with it and have fun. Always make it work for your local group.

As with any wargames campaign, you will need to assign sides. In simple fantasy, it is usually good enough just to have "good guys" and "bad guys." But, following Anderson and Moorcock, and hints at such in Tolkien, we have named our major sides "Law" and "Chaos." Monsters, fantasy figures and characters in general fall along such lines. Of course, brute beasts don't fall along any particular line and characters may choose to "opt out" and remain neutral. (Here would follow the list of fantasy creatures by line up, or what would come to be called "alignment.")

Choose rules for resolving combat and figure out a way to factor in the fantastic. We recommend Chainmail, especially with its fantasy supplement and man-to-man rules. We tried to make combat rules and fantasy creatures match up by having monsters and characters act equivalent to a certain number of figures in a typical wargame battle. We talk in terms of "hit dice," to make sense of this. Since we assume that you are already an experienced wargammer (since you are interested in reading pamphlets about setting up an entire campaign), we trust that you are familiar with this way of thinking of these things, so you get the point. But, real quick, here is an Alternative Combat resolution to consider (here they present the "Target-20" method they introduce by means of the "Alternative Combat" tables and the concept of "Armor Class" borrowed from naval wargaming).

Okay, now here is a fun new idea: what if players not only played as "generals" over armies, but actually played individual characters within the game-world? Characters can fall into different "classes," much like then different classes of troops in a typical wargame. Make sure they are different from each other, with clear cooperative properties, so that they can work well together as a Sword and Sorcery style adventuring party.

Here are some ideas for character classes: Start with the proverbial fighting-man. Next would be magic-users. Gygax doesn't much like the idea of magic-users being playing characters, since they are usually the bad-guy in Sword and Sorcery. However, some players may want to play chaos. And you could have "good" magic-users in your campaign. So you may want them to be a character class as well. Also, we had someone who wanted to play a "Van Helsing" type character, so we introduced the "cleric." They are kind of like a crusader. They can force undead to check morale (usually, as they are "undead," they would not check morale). We call this "turning." Clerics also have some of their own kind of spells that are a bit more religiously miraculous, like healing.

Don't forget standard fantasy races such as elves, dwarves and hobbits. Give them descriptions that match what you like from fantasy you have read and that you would like to incorporate into your campaign. Here is what we've done. (Here would follow race descriptions.)

Here is another cool idea: when you play as a general of armies, you usually start with a point-buy system for hiring your starting armies. Then, through play, you can gain more points to buy more troops, thus increasing your army, etc. Well, we thought of a cool way to make this work with players playing characters at a one-to-one scale. We call it "experience" and we measure it in "experience points." Just as armies have tactical goals, Sword and Sorcery characters have the goal of treasure extraction and "looting." So we have developed a way of matching the value of a treasure safely extracted by a character to a character's "experience points." Successful victories also grant some experience. These experience points then accumulate and grant the character advancement in the game-world. We use the term "level" to describe this game-world advancement. Each time a character gains a level they gain in the respective capacities and advantages of their particular class, just like armies growing more powerful in a regular wargames campaign. Here are some ideas. (Here would follow the tables for advancement, XP, HD, spells, etc.)

Now here are some ideas about how to incorporate magic-users and their spell-casting abilities into a wargame context that keeps things fair but still "wonderful." You will find your own way to work this stuff out for your campaign. (Here is where spell lists and descriptions would go.)

Oh, and to make sense of non-combat related eventualities, Arneson borrowed from Naval Wargaming the mechanic of "saving throws." Much like determining how much hull-damage a ship has taken from, say, an underwater mine, you can use saving throws for resolving how much damage a character takes from, say, falling down, drinking poison, or being hit by a magic-user's fireball! We have also found it useful for determining if a character or creature has been affected by a spell or not. As characters advance in level, eventually their chance to save increases as well.

Another thing that we discovered to be really fun is what came to be an emphasis on the more exploratory aspect of the game. Since we have allowed a 1:1 correspondence between player and in-game character, we can set up scenarios where characters explore an unknown, usually interior and often underworld environment. Think of this in terms of Stratego or Battleship, but even more complex and fascinating as the players will need to map a potentially elaborate underworld setting. This could be maze-like or labyrinthine. Or you could have secret spaces only discovered when they have circumnavigated it.

There are a lot of possibilities here. You can set up standard things from Sword and Sorcery that often fall outside the purview of standard wargames. For example, you can have tricks and traps and puzzles that the players can solve by means of their characters interacting with the environment. Really the sky is the limit here.

We have found that the combination of the 1:1 scale and an emphasis on underworld exploration has been absolutely amazing in giving our campaigns a real Sword and Sorcery feel!

Here are some ideas for monsters. We take advantage of the use of Hit Dice to represent relative fighting power and ferocity. Other natural and magical capacities can then be factored in. We describe below what we have developed for ourselves. Again, look at our examples and then work out what would work best for you in your campaign. (Here would follow the monster list and descriptions.)

Here are some ideas for treasure. Look to our examples and work out things for your campaign. (Here would be the tables for deterring treasure, magic items and their descriptions.)

Many wargames campaigns are "map campaigns," and that is what we suggest here. The scope of the game is infinite, but just for starting out we recommend a map of a local area with several opportunities for treasure hunting in dangerous and "underworld" environs, perhaps with one big dungeon nearby. This dungeon would comprise many subterranean levels that the players can easily begin exploring before branching out into the wider world.

Start with at least three levels to this main dungeon (in case they decide to go pretty deep from the start). As they explore, you can continue to add more levels to the dungeon and expand your map to include wider kingdoms and wildernesses -- even a whole fantasy world, eventually, if you want to.

Oh, and if you find your players suddenly want to strike out into the wilderness for an off-hand adventure, Arneson has found it really fun and easy to use the Outdoor Survival board (Avalon Hill). Here are some ideas for random encounters and what to do with some of the symbols on the board in order to render them a bit more like exploring in a medieval fantasy wilderness. (Here follows the suggestions for castles, random encounters, jousting, etc.)

Be sure to keep things fresh. This is fantasy so go crazy! For example, players might think that they have "cleared" an area only to see that a bunch of orcs or goblins have made their home there -- perhaps, very thankful for their newly cleared-out digs!

Most importantly, keep it fun and make it your own. Let us know what you come up with! We always improve as referees by hearing about what other referees are doing with their local clubs.

Fight on!
_________

If you have a medieval fantasy wargames campaign that sounds like something inspired by the above -- no matter what mechanics you are using for resolving encounters -- you are playing "original" Dungeons & Dragons. So, again, I will say:

Fight on!

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Understanding Original Dungeons & Dragons


I've seen some posts on reddit and other fora asking questions like: what counts as (original) D&D, how do we know that it isn't (original) D&D anymore? What are the advantages of D&D to later editions using that name? Etc.

Here is my answer: (original) D&D is an approach, not a set of rules. It is an approach to a hobby, called "wargaming." It is an approach to a particular interest of that hobby: the wargames campaign. It is an approach to giving that hobby-interest a "Sword and Sorcery" feel.

It is not a product designed to be consumed. Repeat: not a product made by experts to be consumed by an unprofessional public. It is a set of suggestions for fellow hobby-ists, who have a rich amateur knowledge and interest in their avocation. And those suggestions were sold at a price to make the effort worth it for the fellow-hobby-ists who did the work to put it out there for you.

So, don't get me wrong, obviously, in one sense, it was a product -- Gygax and Arneson did publish and sell it. But what we need to remember is that back in that day the market for such pamphlets was small and highly specialized and understood to be a way to get ideas out and shared with some minimum compensation -- no one got into publishing about miniature wargaming so that they could quit their day job! (This is something so easily do-able because of the internet and part of the DIY vibe of some of the best "OSR" stuff that is out there. We can share today in a way that the hobby-ists of 1974 couldn't have dreamed.)

Later "editions" move more and more towards "product identity" and changing the very semantics of the name "Dungeons & Dragons" from referring to three little pamphlets that suggested how to set up a medieval fantasy wargames campaign, itself intended for an audience of other wargamers, towards more of a product making money for a particular company from a non-expert set of consumers.

Thus these companies become increasingly concerned about their rights over this "product" -- and taking ownership for its development out of the hands of the consumers. This really changed the nature and vibe of things. Remember, for quite some time Gygax simply could not understand why any fellow-hobby-ist would want to by a "Dungeon Masters Kit," or "module." Why borrow someone else's creativity? The point is to have an outlet for your own! (Then he saw the cash available in it! I do not blame him for this. It was a smart, and, probably, the right business and even hobby-supporting move. I'm just giving this as an example for the subtle shift in things.)

Why do I keep putting "original" in parentheses? Just exactly because of the above. The three little brown books are not an edition. They are suggestions from hobby-ists, to fellow hobby-ists about a particular area of interest: wargames campaigning in a medieval fantasy setting. This is not an "edition," of a "game," with a unified mechanic and defined setting.

To many of us who play (original) Dungeons & Dragons, the other "editions" of Role Playing Game rules with the title "Dungeons & Dragons" look to us like many various house-rule variants of these suggestions for medieval wargames campaigns. (But, in this case, it often feels like someone else is telling us that their house rules are now the RULES, period.)

So AD&D is Gygax' tournament house rules made official.
3.5, 4, and 5 are Wizards of the Coasts house rules made official.
All the retro-clones are cool house rule variants, shared for the rest of us.

And good for them! In fact, thanks for sharing! They are all, also, D&D! But we don't have to use their house rules, we can make up our own. And we certainly don't have to view them as "official."

So, Dungeons & Dragons (original) is an approach to setting up medieval fantasy wargames campaigns. Back in the day, giants of the miniature war-gaming hobby would share their rules for how to resolve individual combats. But sometimes they would share rules for how to string together a series of combats into a coherent war campaign. In these documents, they would not focus on rules for the wargames themselves -- they assumed they were writing to wargamers who already knew such rules and probably already had their own house rules as a local, hobby, gaming group.

So, for example, they were in no way interested in a "unified mechanic." They wanted mechanics that made sense for the type of thing they were trying to resolve, at the appropriate level of scale. (Not everything scales up and down well, like, say, a fractal. More like the cube law, sometimes things need to change to work well.) This alone explains a lot of misconception about what the original little brown books were trying to do and to offer. Folks would do better, and understand original D&D far more, if they compared the three little brown books to other books on setting up wargames campaigns, rather than to later books that came to be called "role playing games."

Here are the three I would suggest anyone interested in understanding (original) Dungeons & Dragons:

Tony Bath's Ancient Wargaming including Setting Up a Wargames Campaign:



Donald Featherstone's Wargaming Campaings:



And, finally, Grant's Wargames Campaigns.

But I would especially emphasize Tony Bath's book.

Another big difference in the slow transformation from a small, wargames hobby to a large, consumer role-playing game product is the vibe of play, and what the goal of play is. And this is, in many ways, far more important for understanding the difference between "original" and later "editions" of D&D -- but that is for another post.

Before I write that post, my next post will be a kind of imaginary example of what D&D might have been worded like if it had more of the form of some of the above classical examples of wargames campaigns books.

To conclude this post, I will say, if you are involved, as a fellow hobby-ist, in a local medieval fantasy wargames campaign that, through play, has developed its own vibe, feel and corresponding house-rules, then you are playing Dungeons & Dragons, whatever other name you call it.

Fight on!

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Elves of the Perilous Realms


Born in the Golden Age, rulers of the Silver Age, the elves of the Perilous Realms, though diminishing, are nevertheless a force to be reckoned with. The elves were born under the gracious rule of the triumphant celestial Powers after their imprisonment of the chthonic Powers in the depths of the earth.

With the fall of the Golden Age, due to the broken watch of the Powers, the fell races rushed in, autochthonically, as part of the re-ascendence of the chthonic Powers. (From ever on the fell regenerate themselves through abiogenesis, but more on that later. We must know some of the fell to tell the tale of the elves.)

The elves experienced the loss of the safety of their Powerful rulers and fell into the disarray of fell attacks. Thus the elves organized themselves and in the name of the Powers they still loved and thus they fought off the fell and established rule throughout the Perilous Realms. This was the dawn of the Silver Age.

But they did not simply conquer the fell, they also enslaved them. Cultures, languages and bloodlines intermingled. It was at this time that men were born into the world. Just as the elves had basked in the rulership of the Powers, so now, in their youth, men rested in the benevolent rule of the elves. So long as they were their loyal subjects and grateful vassals, the elves enjoyed the company of men.

But the time came for the fall of the Silver Age as the elves fell into opulence and decadence. Thus we come to the second dark age. At this time the undead first appear and lycanthropy escapes from twisted alchemical laboratories. Men find themselves in an analogous position to their elven lords. Just as they lost the protection of the Powers, so too now men found themselves without the glorious Silver Age civilizations.

And, just as the elves had fought back and won their own empire, so too men formed the empires of the Bronze Age. As men increased, even the elves that did not retire to the uttermost West began to diminish in both magic and in number.

During this time, Some elves sided with the men as the only way to survive and the obvious heirs to their previous glory. Happy for the protection and friendship of the newly formed empires of men, these entered into loose alliances and maintained simple pastoral ways as deer herders dwelling in woodland villages high upon enchanted flets. These became known as the Wood Elves. The Wood Elves are on the side of the Law.

Most of the elves, however, fled into the wildernesses of the world into a forlorn life of hunting and gathering. As human hunter and gatherer societies usually consist of a few extended family groups meeting occasionally as entire tribes, elven hunter gatherers walk completely solitaire, meeting occasionally in small family groups. Their dwellings are stumps and ancient trees which only they know how to open and close. These became known as the Sylvan Elves. The Sylvan Elves take no sides any longer but their own. They are Neutral.

A few elves, however, resented the rise and ascendence of men. They refused to relinquish the former glory of the Silver Age, or even admit that it had ended. These elves dwell in enchanted castles and keeps, waylaying human travelers and imprisoning them. They try to continue to live lives of opulence and excess and to convince others of the same. These became known as the Gray Elves (either for their grave countenance upon meeting men, or perhaps due to their typical gray cloaks or, again, perhaps for the grayness of the stones of their castles -- when visible, whichever no one knows). The Gray Elves disdain human law and the ever increasing tide of human rule which they claim encroaches upon their rightful inheritance. They are therefore on the side of Chaos.

Now, with the Bronze Age Collapse, in this Age of Adventure, when parties explore the wilder lands of peril, they may be waylaid or may discover the hidden homes of any of these kinds of elves. But woe to those who fall into the traps of the Sylvan Elves, and even more so to the enchantments of the Gray Elves.

In terms of mechanics, the vast majority of the remaining elves within the Perilous Realms are the hidden and secretive Sylvan Elves. But just exactly because they are so well hidden, they are the least likely to be encountered. So, 1:6 chance that a random elven encounter in the wilderness is with one of these. If so, it means that the encounter happened at night.

The greatest minority of elves would be the Gray Elves. But just exactly because they are so militant against human rule, they are always the elves encountered when a stronghold or castle is elven. Or, if randomly encountered, 1:3 chance that it is a party of Gray Elves.

Finally, a significant minority of the remaining elves within the Perilous Realms are the friendly and lawful Wood Elves. Whenever discovering an elven village, it will be Wood Elves. And most of the time, 5:6, if there is a random elven encounter in woodland regions. Otherwise the chance of encountering a party of Wood Elves is 2:3.

In terms of playing-characters, the kind of elf you play would be based upon your choice of alignment. A backstory could quickly be spun about how you choose adventure and the company of men, etc.

This allows me to blend rather seamlessly Tolkien-style, Anderson-style and folklorish elven source material. I intend this to contribute to a rich, interesting, but still thoroughly vanilla fantasy setting -- one of the main goals of the Perilous Realms campaign!

Fight on!

Monday, April 22, 2019

Ages of the Perilous Realms


I am more a rules-imaginer than a setting-imaginer. But I'm getting more into exploring my campaign setting than ever before.

There are multiple overlapping ages of rise and collapse of mighty civilizations that define the Perilous Realms and the kinds of ruins, underworlds, treasures, magic items and artifacts that may be found. Here is the myth, or legend of the various apocalypses and dark ages that led to the current state of the Perilous Realms, my campaign setting.

The Diamond Aeon

In this age, the archetypal powers were young and playful children of the Most High.
They knew their place, and, although childishly mischievous at times, obeyed the will of their Father.
They reigned over the cosmos like living stars.
In the end, the archetypal powers come of age, and conflict ensues.
They rebel against their Father and are thrown into the chaos of war.

In terms of the way we think of things now, we are talking about billions of years ago. Thus this loosely corresponds to “big bang” through cooling down of the universe. In Tolkienesque terms, this is like the Valaquenta. The key to this fall narrative is REBELLION. So whenever we see rebellion in the campaign setting it links somehow to the Powers.

The Golden Age

Law and chaos draw their lines for the first time.
The Celestials seek to establish the joy of the Diamond Aeon through Law, and often fall into rigid legalism.
The Chthonic powers seek to empower the unbridled joy of the Diamond Aeon through following the passions of the underworld and often fall into the cruelty and whim.
Many powers opt out and hide as spirits of nature and life ("neutral" elemental powers).
The war shapes much of the terrain of the Perilous Realms.
Ultimately, the Celestials drive the Chthonics under earth and imprison them there, only to serve for fertility and virility.
The Celestials establish a Golden Era of light and genius upon the earth — with unparalleled cyclopean edifices and artifacts!
At this time, the fay races are born into the wonder of direct contact with their fascinated rulers.
But the Celestials become too confident in their victory, and their watches fall into indiscipline.
In the end, the earth cannot contain the chaos that errupts.
The final war leads to total apocalypse and a dark age ensues.
 
In terms of the way we think of things now, we are talking about millions of years ago. Thus this loosely corresponds to a kind of smashing together of the mesozoic and its great meteoric (heavenly) and volcanic (chthonic) apocalypse together with the monolithic stone age. This nicely gives us cavemen with dinosaurs! This era gives a chance to engage the Lovecraft Mythos. The key to this fall narrative is COMPLACENCY.

Interlude: The Age of Darkness

The fell races are born and run free but unorganized.

The Silver Age

Out of the shadows of the Age of Darkness, the Fay races form an alliance, consulting what Powers still remain in their weakness and sorrow.
With the advice of their cosmic elders, the fay together stem the tide of the spawning hoard.
The elves rise to power over all other fay.
They establish a Silver Era under the light of their matron, Mother Moon.
They enslave the fell races, especially the orcs, to do their bidding — and on their backs they build mighty cities, towers, and palaces unrivaled by any save the powers themselves.
But the orcs and their fellow fell never forget their enslavement.
At this time, Men arrive, the fay know not from where — nor do the men! They are in awe of the elves.
But the elves in their assumption of opulence grow fatuous, weak, superficial, degenerate — and their civilizations fall into decadence.
Thus they become easy targets for fell rebellion — if they are not dragged down by their own petty divisions and meaningless wars of trumped up honor.
The collapse of the elves is a slow and painful decline, leading, ultimately, to a second dark age.

In terms of how we think now, we are talking about several millennia ago. Thus this roughly corresponds to the great pre-historic civilizations of myth. This era allows me to smash together Tolkien's and Anderson's elves. The key to this fall narrative is DECADENCE.

Interlude: The Second Dark Age

Pacts with the chthonic power, Necros render the first Undead. Alchemical and medicinal warfare fabricate the disease of lycanthropy. Monsters proliferate.

The Bronze Age

The bronze age is the first age of Men.
In the memory of the elven empires of old, and in devotion to, and under the patronage of what remains of the mighty Powers, men erect fabulous temples. Around these temples, cities grow up — Ur, Babel, Byblos, Shangri-La, Hamunaptra, Aqaba, Thebes, Indus, Eddo, Techlan, Cyprus.
These temple-cities become the center of mighty and diverse empires in trade with one another of both goods and philosophies.
At some point, men cannot remember how or why these great empires all suddenly (with decades of one another) fell into complete collapse.
It is not likely that the collapse came about either because of internal disputes or because of external wars, although these played a part, but from the evidence it seems the “gods” (Powers) no longer favored them and removed their blessings of abundance.
This is the great Bronze Age Collapse.
The human population was decimated and the survivors fled to hills and mountains to survive.
The “Ancients” left behind powerful ruins, tombs, sepulchers and crypts — of frightful aspect to the fragile humans who remained.

In terms of how we think now this represents several centuries ago. Thus this is a fantasy version of the actual Bronze Age Collapse. This allows us to engage classical mythology and legend. The key to this fall narrative is divine ABANDONMENT.

Now: The Age of Adventure

Now is the age of adventure!
Now law and chaos reenter their struggle for vast civilizations of lawful glory or unbridled passions and dominion.
Now mighty fighting-men and Amazons rise up to pit their thews against the dying of the light!
Now over-confident users of magics seek their own through initiations into the mysteries of the arcane.
Now the church proclaims a gospel of universal order under a king of heaven and sends out crusaders (“clerics”) to establish Law: by word or by fist.
Now fearless — or foolish — adventurers commit to mighty peregrinations into forgotten wildernesses and yawning openings of the mythic underworld.

In terms of how we think now, this represents about the last millennium. The Perilous Realms campaign begins in an imaginary year 990. In a sense, this is a Third Dark Age. It roughly corresponds to a mash up of the Iron Age and both the Western and Eastern Middle Ages. This age engages Leiber's universe of Nehwon. The key narrative here, is, of course, WAR and ADVENTURE.

All of these previous beings remain: powers, fay, fell, lycanthropes, undead of the bronze age— each slightly weaker than before. Each remembers and grieves the loss of their once great status. But now they are lost in wildernesses and trapped in nightmares of the underworld.

Adventurers may stumble upon all of these different layers of civilization, languages and artifacts:
Powers: celestials, elementals, chthonicoi and their physical manifestation as giants and sylvan monsters
Fay: elves, dwarves, gnomes, and, after a fashion, even the hobbits
Fell: kobolds, goblins, orcs, hobgoblins, gnolls; and
Ancient men: Aegyptian, Anatolian, Levantine, Etruscan, Mycenean, Assyrian, Hittite, Wotan, Indus, Nod, Jomon, and more.
Their stories give clues to one another and nest within one another.

Fight on!