Sunday, June 28, 2020

Medieval Fantasy and Dungeons & Dragons

This is my next post in a series of posts that looks at the subtitle of Dungeons & Dragons in order more readily to launch our own hobby campaigning from the original publication.

Last post, I wrote about "Wargames." In this post I will talk about the phrase, "Fantastic Medieval," in the subtitle, or, as we would say it now, "Medieval Fantasy." "Fantastic Medieval" sounds like something medieval that we thing is just awesome: that is fantastic! But that is not what the phrase meant at the time of its publication. For contemporary ears to hear the subtitle, correctly, it should be changed to something like "Rules for Medieval Fantasy Wargames Campaigns."

Medieval Fantasy

Wargaming was and is a hobby for folks that dig the study of history. History includes the middle ages and ancient civilizations. So another area of interest that quickly developed for wargamers was medieval and ancient wargaming. It would not be long before wargamers were willing to move beyond the walls of the historical and engage the literature of fantasy.

At the time that Jeff Perren and Gary Gygax published Chainmail as a set of rules for resolving medieval wargames, Gary Gygax had already developed an interest not only in the historical western middle ages, but also medieval fantasy literature. Gygax added a fantasy supplement, to the end of the Chainmail rules for folks that were interested in adding to their wargaming hobby medieval fantasy troops like elves and hobbits, dwarves and gnomes, orcs and goblins, and monsters like giants, dragons and the like.

Gygax added to what was already the base rules of a fairly realistic historical medieval wargame, ways of resolving the possibility of a dragon showing up at one of those battles. He did this for the same reason that historical wargamers would play-out battles that already existed. Just as the historical wargamer would study actual battles from history in order to understand how to set up rules and judge games as a referee so too if you were interested in medieval fantasy literature, you might want to completely redo a battle from one of your favorite pieces of medieval fantasy literature.

The Chainmail Fantasy Supplement list, for example, the Battle of the Five Armies at the conclusion of The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien. So Gygax suggests that if you take the Chainmail set of rules and add to it this supplement for medieval fantasy, you can engage an actual fantasy battle as described in the relevant authoritative literature. When you feel like you'd developed enough knowledge of how fantastical battles worked out you might then try your hand at your own hypothetical medieval fantasy war game battles.

Fidelity to the literature

Just as historical wargamers worked to make sure their game was as faithful to what might have happened on an historic battlefield, so too, fidelity to medieval fantasy literature in general and Sword and Sorcery in particular, formed a significant part of this new aspect of the wargaming hobby that Dungeons & Dragons introduced.

A referee would know how to judge whether something was possible, in this medieval fantasy world because they were so familiar with the medieval fantasy literature they were gaming. A key part of Dungeons & Dragons is the love of becoming an amateur expert in medieval fantasy literature. High fantasy, low fantasy, especially sword and sorcery, urban legend, classical mythology, Arthurian legend, Carolinian cycles, Nordic sagas, all form part of the expertise needed to set up and play in a medieval fantasy role playing game.

But, in the main, the particular style of medieval fantasy literature that influenced Dungeons & Dragons was what Fritz Leiber named "Sword and Sorcery." This is important to know because Dungeons & Dragons is built better to play in this kind of fantasy world than in others. Later editions of games called "Dungeons & Dragons," have shifted from this original base towards more heroic and high fantasy. So sometimes the original game is confusing to folks coming from newer RPGs. Learning about Sword & Sorcery and reading some of its core texts helps in understanding Dungeons & Dragons and helps the amateur hobbyists to build his or her own campaign.

"The general line-up”

What I've written about so far helps us to understand certain aspects of the game. For example, the taking of sides, or what would come to be called "alignment."

When you are playing a wargame, you need to know the sides of your battle and that's exactly what's going on in the Chainmail fantasy supplement with its “General Line-up.” This gets reiterated in Dungeons & Dragons’ Men and Magic. You have the alignment table to give you sides. The big battle is between law and chaos. Some creatures are on the law side and some creatures are on the chaos side and some can go either way. Then there are some creatures that just opt out of it altogether. They're not on the side of law or chaos, they're just for themselves and these because they don't really want to wage the war between law and chaos are called neutral, like Switzerland and its diplomatic neutrality. So if you're setting up a war game table, one side is chaos and one side is law, in this medieval fantasy war game context.

These categories are derived from medieval fantasy. For example, they are implied in Tolkien's Middle Earth around the War of the Ring. But these terms, "law," and "chaos," are explicit in Sword and Sorcery literature, especially that of Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock. So, again, we have a fidelity to the literature they were trying to game.


Finally, briefly, we can understand where the use of the term "race," came from. Race was a term already used in medieval fantasy literature to distinguish human characters from other intelligent beings that were not gods or spirits. Especially there would be the fay races, such as elves and dwarves, and the fell races such as orcs, goblins and trolls.

This is not how we use the term "race" in contemporary parlance, so it can throw people off. This is not about supposed differences in human groups. If the fantasy rules were put together today, someone might have chosen "species." Although, even that is misleading in a fantasy context, where a word like "species" would sound to empirical and scientific. So this terminology has stuck and is a part of the shape of medieval fantasy wargame campaigning.

Next in the series: "Rules," free kriegspiel and refereeing.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Wargames and Dungeons & Dragons

This is my first post in what will become a series of posts that I hope will be helpful for folks trying to understand Dungeons & Dragons as a hobby and especially the original published rules that empowered hobbyists to launch their own campaigns.

Introduction to the series

The subtitle of a published work is always the real title. Studying a subtitle, when provided, will often tell you more about what the author understands the work to be about than the main title.

The original subtitle for the first published edition of Dungeons & Dragons is:
Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns.

The real title, therefore, is "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns." A lot of the misunderstandings or confusions about Dungeons and Dragons* comes from not understanding what the publication really is. In order to understand what the first "little brown books," or, LLBS were really offering, one needs to know what a wargame is, and, better, have some contact our hours of actual play. One needs to know what a wargames campaign is, which means one needs to understand war enough to understand that it is a campaign comprising a series of battles, not one battle. One needs to understand what was considered "fantastic medieval" at the time of its publication. Finally, one needs to understand how hobby wargammers understood "rules" to work and what they meant and how they used them.

Once these things fall into place, Dungeons and Dragons suddenly starts to make a lot more sense and to become much more accessible as the launch point for one's own hobby. So let's start with the central word of the true title, the word that all the others build-off of or modify, the word "wargames."


At the time that Dungeons & Dragons first appeared, the hobby called wargaming had gained fair popularity. The hobby consisted of casting or collecting miniature figures of soldiers of different military eras, painting miniatures, preparing large tables with scenery and terrain, etc. You would then conduct a wargame where you would, perhaps, relive an historical battle or maybe even perform a hypothetical battle, a battle that could have taken place but that actually did not.

So what is a wargame? Well, it is first of all, a game. Like most games, you have players, you have goals and victory conditions, you have pieces, you have a setup, and you have rules to the game. Wargaming is about war. So it's a game that's particularly focused on trying to play-out, to varying degrees, combat or warfare of an historical period.

Wargaming as History hobby

One of the things that wargamers really love is history. To be a good wargamer you had to know war, and the history of war. To know the history of war meant you had to research and study. One of the major parts of the hobby of wargaming is historical research. It is the research of historical facts, knowledge, information, that is part of what's fun about the hobby to historical wargamers.

Hypothetical possiblities

Now, in some historical wargaming, what you're really trying to do is set up all the conditions of an historical battle that actually happened and that you knew existed. Then a group might decide, "Well, what if other battles were fought that were never recorded in history? Or what if we just made up a battle that would be fun to pitch and see what that was like? We're going to use the same soldiers, the same groupings of soldiers and the same statistics matched to dice rolling. We'll play out what would happen in this hypothetical situation."

For example, one particular historical period that a lot of wargamers like to focus on, among many, is the Napoleonic era of warfare. There's something very attractive about Napoleonic warfare for various reasons. One is that the troop structure was quite organized. It was one of the first set of wars where lots of records still exist that were kept meticulously and mathematically. Someone can do mathematical analysis on Napoleonic battles and learn the probabilities of one army defeating another army.

Dice Mechanics

This meticulous information is really fantastic for wargamers, because what wargamers figured out pretty early on in the hobby was that the chances and vagaries of warfare could roughly be emulated by rolling dice. A single die will turn up random chances. But when you start rolling combinations of dice they roll up in probability curves. If you can find a probability curve in a combat situation, you can find a matching way of rolling dice to simulate that probability. So with all of the data that existed from Napoleonic warfare, wargames hobbyists can, fairly well, emulate the outcomes of an actual battle.

What we have discussed so far can already help us to understand some of the terminology and approaches of Dungeons & Dragons.

Alignment Table

Having some understanding of Dungeons & Dragons wargaming context helps make sense of some of the presentation of the rules that might otherwise seem confusing. For example, I used to wonder why there was an alignment table in Men and Magic separate from the monster table and stats in Monsters and Treasure. If you're playing Napoleonic wargame, you need to know which side of the table to place Napoleon and which side to place Wellington and then set-up those armies. If you're doing a map campaign, you need to know where is France and the central cities that grant resources to the French army and where is England and where are the central cities that grant resources to the English army and navy.

You need to know the sides of your battle and that's exactly what's going on in the Chainmail fantasy supplement with its “General Line-up.” This gets reiterated in Dungeons and Dragons’ Men and Magic. You have the alignment table to give you sides. The big battle is between law and chaos. Some creatures are on the law side and some creatures are on the chaos side and some can go either way. Then there are some creatures that just opt out of it altogether, like Switzerland. If you're setting up a wargame table, one side is chaos and one side is law, in this medieval fantasy war game context. So right up front, in the first book, you've got a list of the sides and who might not take a side.


Dungeons & Dragons has fairly strictly defined classes for characters because Gygax and Arneson applied this notion of classes of troop-types from their hobby of historical war gaming.

Let's look at Napoleonic warfare again. You're going to have classes of troops, types of troops, so in the classical Napoleonic context you are going to have infantry, cavalry and artillery. If you want to make it even more complex level of detail in order to try to snatch a little added realism, then you're also going to have dragoons, light infantry, heavy infantry, light cavalry, and heavy cavalry, heavy artillery, and light artillery for a greater level of scale of detail. But each of these types of troops are different classes. You know exactly what artillery can and can't do, you know exactly what infantry can and can't do, you know exactly what cavalry can and can't do. You know what their attacks are like, you know what their defenses are like, and you know what their movement rates and capacities are like. This enables you to develop your strategy by having clearly defined classes on your battle table.

Gygax and Arneson were used to this approach to things. They developed the fighting-man, the magic-user, and eventually the cleric. And these became character classes. As in Napoleonic game you would have artillery, cavalry and infantry where each of those classes of troops have clearly defined the capacities of movement, attack, and defense, so too then the fighting-man, the magic-user, and the cleric have different capacities, abilities and liabilities that define the way that they will be played and will influence the way in which they can come together as an adventuring party to be successful together.

Wargaming didn't have to just be Napoleonic, for hobbyists interested in war history. So wargamers would also try to set up situations where they could emulate, historical or hypothetical, increasingly more modern warfare like World War I or World War II era warfare. Eventually, wargamers would get interested in ancient and medieval warfare. And from there, to "fantastic medieval" warfare!

Next in the series: "Fantastic Medieval"

Fight on!

*A note about "Dungeons & Dragons": There have been many products professionally published bearing the name “Dungeons and Dragons.” At the time of the release of this post, we have what Wizards of the  Coast call the Fifth Edition. In this blog series, I will not refer to an edition number when I say, “Dungeons & Dragons.” Rather, when I say, “Dungeons & Dragons,” I will be talking about Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s rules for how to put together medieval fantasy wargames campaigns that were first published in 1974 by TSR. This is what some people call the original rules. Sometimes these rules are referred to as, “Original Edition Dungeons & Dragons,” "Original Dungeons & Dragons," or, "OD&D." Sometimes people will abbreviate it as, "Oe", meaning, "Original Edition." Or even "Zero-e," meaning, "Zero Edition."

Bibliographical Note: Much of this post and any posts I share about the history and historical context of D&D is based upon the book Playing at the World by Jon Peterson.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Mike's Dungeons, a brief review

Brief Review:
Mike's Dungeons
Geoffrey McKinney

I ran this module twice for Table Top Events Convention of Champions. The players covered most of the first level and some of the second level. So please keep this limited exposure to running this module in mind as per this review.

This is a perfect dungeon module in terms of format. Each map is on one page and almost all the key fits on exactly one page opposite the map so that it can lay open on the table for the referee. Perfect. The room descriptions are short, curt, concise, and to the point, empowering straightforward fast-paced play.

It is important to note, however, that NPCs are referred to by level title, so, if you do not have level titles memorized, you will have to look up what level that NPC is. And no monsters have any stats or special descriptions. The module assumes grounded knowledge in the standard D&D monsters and that you have easy, ready access to monster descriptions in rule books.

I did not enjoy having to look up some levels based upon titles for NPCs. It seems to me easy enough to say, "2 Warriors (FM2)," or something like that. But I had no problem with missing stats. It cleaned up the key and enabled it to all fit on one page. I have refereed for some time, I have many standard monster stats memorized, or nearly so, and I can, in general, run most encounters on-the-fly with little to no look-ups. So this absence of presentation did not slow me down, much. Others may find this annoying, so, in order to run the module smoothly, you many need to write in monster stats, say, for three levels ahead of the players, before each session, to make sure you feel like you can keep things running at a good pace.

As McKinney urges, this is a module to be played, not studied, and I can confirm this from my own experience. What content there is, is rock solid. This is a "funhouse" style dungeon in the sense that there are very few rooms entirely empty of content and most of the content has no concern for so-called "ecology." This is, for me, a bonus to be commended. But if you like "ecology," be forewarned.

In the main what we have is monsters, some with treasure. There is very little treasure unguarded by monsters that might otherwise be hidden or trapped. There are no descriptions of motivations, little indication of how monsters will react to the characters (but some) and no description of the relationship between monsters. This is not a problem for me. In fact, I welcome this sparseness. I enjoy making those things up for myself. But, again, if you like "factions," and those kinds of things, you are going to have to make them up for yourself.

What I will say, however, is that, for me, I had to add content to make this feel right and provide a full "old school" session. There are virtually no tricks (wonderful things that require interaction and problem solving) or traps at the initial entry levels, and the treasure is very sparse. I have not studied beyond the ninth level (hey, it is for playing, not for studying, remember?), but this is the case for me through the ninth level. I added a pit or deadfall trap in a corridor per level. I added hidden and trapped treasures, especially in dead-ends. I added false doors, teleportation points, etc., also in dead-ends. I elaborated certain decoratively described rooms in order to turn them into tricks or wonders that gave players something to interact with and solve. I added clues to these traps and tricks. I added clues to the monsters and treasures that were already there. I elaborated on description. Etc.

Now, I loved doing this extra work. This is exactly the kind of module I love, because it leaves much room for me to fit it into my campaign setting and add my own creativity. It gives me boundaries within which to work, and empowers my own imagination. This extra work, however, may not be everyone's cup of tea, so just be aware that, for many, this module will need some work in order for it to play like the kind of old school dungeons we usually enjoy.

I had fun running this and I recommend it.

Fight on!

Sunday, June 7, 2020


Okay, here is my first pass at some rules around wishes for my Perilous Realms campaign. These are inspired by the Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets.


First, note level of granter:

  1. Object
  2. Well/Fountain
  3. Rainbow
  4. Moon, full, midnight
  5. Star, first seen
  6. Spirit
  7. Djinn/Efreet
  8. Power
  9. Spell
  10. Item
Objects include but are not limited to:
  • Wishstone
  • Wishbone
  • Found single copper piece
  • White horse, first sight
  • Talisman
  • Statue
Major gems are special objects with their own granter value.


Well/fountain, in general, any given character gets one wish per instance.

Spirits are elemental and otherwise neutral powers, especially, e.g., elementals themselves, and also sometimes sylvan beings of the classical variety, such as dryads or centaurs, or of the gothic variety such as pixies and unicorns.

Powers are cosmic spirits of either lawful or chaotic alignment such as gods and goddesses, angels, demons, and the like.

The Wish spell is a 7th level arcane spell that can only be found through research.

Items are magic items with wishes like rings and swords.

Next, discern level of intent:

2 Trivial
3 Selfless
4 Altruistic
5 Mutual
6 Greedy
8 Selfish
9 Malicious
10 Give/take life

Trivial indicates that no one directly benefits and there is no possible harm.

Selfless indicates the wisher benefits from the wish in no way.

Altruistic indicates that one or more parties benefit from the wish but the wisher benefit only indirectly.

Mutual indicates mutually beneficial to wisher and one or more other parties.

Greedy indicates the wish is only for material gain, and / or that there may be one or more other parties that benefit, but only indirectly.

Selfish indicates that the wish is only beneficial to the wisher.

Malicious indicates harmful intent.

Give/take life indicates wishes to kill or restore life, including restoration from flesh turned to stone.

Next, determine likelihood of granting, together with likelihood of repercussion upon wisher and splash on any beneficiaries. Divide Granter by Intent for percent chance granted. Subtract percent chance granted from 100 for percent chance of repercussion for the wish. Roll for repercussion whether wish is granted or not. If granted, halve the chance for repercussion for percent chance of splash on others who benefit from the wish, if any.


Roll d100 for repercussion. Roll d50 for splash back. For both repercussion and splash, add 10 for malicious or murderous intent, subtract 10 for selfless or life-granting intent. Less than zero indicates no repercussion or splash.

Charm indicates wisher or beneficiary charmed by person place or thing related to the context of the wish and/or the situation of the granting. Referee determines.

Fight on!