Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Brand X Roleplaying: Preferred Over the Leading Brand?

From Wikipedia on the origins of TSR: 
"worried that other companies would be able to publish similar projects first, [Gygax and Kaye] convinced acquaintance Brian Blume to join TSR in 1974 as an equal one-third partner" 
If it is indeed true--not just Wiki-true--that Gygax was worried about competitors beating him to the punch, does anyone know who these competitors might have been?  To the best of my admittedly lacking knowledge of this part of history, Tunnels and Trolls was the next game out of the blocks but not only did it come out a year later, but it was clearly a response to D&D.  I'd be very interested to know who these feared competitors were and how their Brand X game would have differed from the game we've all grown to love to argue about.  Anyone got anything?

Monday, June 21, 2010


Recently I came across some new schoolers at Penny Arcade comparing old school D&D to the version they play; they called it 4E or Double D or something.  Hey, I'm just an unfrozen caveman, I don't understand these ascending armor classes or... well, that's pretty much all that I know about ND&D,* so I'll stop there.  Seriously, it does not ruffle my feathers at all that there's a new version out there that's completely different from and incompatible with the game I played before the ice age claimed me back in the late 80s.  Heck, I wanted to change that game too, can't blame TSR et. al. for doing the same thing and making money off of it.  If the kids are havin' fun, then Game On!

*ND&D=New D&D, commonly denoted by a numerical "e rating," the higher the e-rating, the newer the D&D.

But there is one piece of information that I'd like to impart to the younger generations, and it's this: THAC0 and descending Armor Class are NOT synonymous.

Despite what this guy seems to think, if you mention THAC0 to stick-in-the-mud old schoolers like me who never graduated from the Gygax-authored tomes, there is no reason to expect them to know what you're talking about.  Though the term Thac0 might have existed back in the day, it was not at all relevant to the game as it was played on the streets.  The term came about, according to this research I poached from Philotomy, because of a curious column of data in the monster listings (Appendix E) of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide that was labeled "To Hit AC 0."  However, there is no explanation of the significance of this this item and one is left to wonder why it was included with the other, more pertinent stats listed.  Indeed, there's no reason I can see why they chose to spend 19 pages rehashing info that was already available in the Monster Manual when the only real value this table offers is looking up the XP value of that Shedu your players just blasted into a heap of fur and feathers (1,950 + 14/hp).  No, when we old schoolers wanted to crush our foes we didn't call out our thac0s like a battle cry and have at it with our 20-siders; we turned to the combat tables on page 74-75 or eyeballed the DM's Screens that grew like stands of alder trees on gaming tables throughout the land.  Then we walked 14 miles to school through a blizzard, uphill each way.

Seeing as Unearthed Arcana (1985) was the last new TSR-published D&D product I bought--though I played on for a couple more years in isolation from the machinations of Lake Geneva--I'm not entirely sure when thac0 grew to predominance.  In fact, I wasn't aware that it had gained any traction until I read the Penny Arcade post referenced above.  I'm guessing that it became prevalent in the 2nd Edition of The Game as a means to replace the combat tables as the go-to source for 20-sided slaughter in AD&D, a move in which I can definitely see some value.  And presumably some game mechanics were changed somehow (I'm looking at you, repeating 20s) to make it more usable as a system.  I'm not here to preach about the superiority of any one combat system over another--though, as much as I like the descending AC aesthetic, the ascending AC system sure makes life easier--but kids, get your facts straight.

So, yeah, I lived most of my life without giving Thac0 any thought whatsoever until these meddling kids started confusing descending AC values with this eldritch acronym.  But now that my dander is up, why did they make it Thac0 and not Thac10?  AC 10 is the Absolute of descending ACs; like 0 degrees Kelvin, you could only go up from there.  And since no one needed a 20 to hit AC 10, you didn't need to worry where you stood on the ledge of repeating 20s.  It does rhyme with the name of a major college sports conference of the western U.S., but that will likely be changing soon anyway.  [Let's just say that Wazzoo won't be sandwiched between 2 filler helmets down at the bottom for much longer.  Though the Cougs are certainly likely to stay at the bottom.]

Some have argued about the zero providing balance whereas using 10 as the base seems arbitrary and provides opportunity for unlimited growth and, therefore, AC inflation.  I can sort of see what they're getting at; but unless you're in a game where there is a likelihood of finding suits of +12 plate mail or +24 rings of protection, there are probably de facto limits to AC inflation already in place. 

Go Beavers!


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Referees vs. Dungeon Masters: Wherein the Caveman gets bent out of shape over a trifle

As anyone who read my recent posts knows, I'm on a semantic binge lately.  Following in that vein, I've become curious as to why some folks in the OSR prefer the term "referee" over "Dungeon Master," "Game Master," or some other "master"-ful title.  The word referee is, in my mind, not adequate to describe the role of what the DM does.  A referee, as anyone who has ever spent their lunch period playing intramural flag football or competed in a spelling bee knows is the disinterested (hopefully) 3rd party who makes sure the rules are adhered to by all sides of the contest.

In roleplaying games, the term would be accurate in games where 2 teams of players work against each other, such as, I believe, was common practice in the wargames from which D&D sprang.  But the Dungeon Master in D&D et al. is so much more than just a referee, for the DM not only administers the rules of the game, but he/she also coaches the opposing team, designs the playing field, and decides when the rules need to be bent, broken, or entirely fabricated to meet the needs of the gaming session. I have yet to encounter a real world event where the referee enjoys this much responsibility.

So why are old schoolers eschewing the term DM (or similar) for the less holistic "referee"?  History usually offers an explanation to these sorts of things, and this case will be no exception.  A quick search of the original 1974 rulebooks (thank Blipdoolpoolp for searchable PDFs!) shows me that "referee" was indeed the preferred term for the person who runs the game.  In fact, the term "Dungeonmaster"--yes, it was originally all one word--makes its first official rules appearance in EGG's introduction to the Blackmoor supplement published in 1975; though "referee" is still used exclusively in the body of this book.  The Eldritch Wizardry supplement introduces the two word variant "Dungeon Master," as well as the acronym "DM," though the one word option and "referee" are still used interchangeably throughout the text.

I don't have a PDF of the Holmes book, but a cursory survey of the text reveals that  "Dungeon Master" and "D.M." are predominant.  And right there on the back cover of the Monster Manual, published in 1977, "[the Monster Manual] is an invaluable aid to players and dungeon masters alike!" (emphasis mine).  I don't believe that it was solely an attempt to jazz-up the terminology that drove the founding fathers to invent a new term for the role, though this probably weighed in the decision.  I believe that they came to realize that refereeing, ie. rules administration, was only one facet of the job and a grander term was needed to fully encompass everything expected of the DM nee referee.  And, outside of S&M clubs, I can think of few places where the term "master" is more apt than in gaming.

Back to the present: Swords & Wizardry, retracing, as it does, the footprints of the original D&D rules, uses the term "referee."  I will respect their attempts at historic reconstruction, even if I choose not to use the term when playing the game.  OSRIC uses the generic GameMaster or GM; bland, yes, but entirely acceptable.  Labyrinth Lords has crafted a new term: Labyrinth Lord!  It's a bit cumbersome and the acronym form would need immediately to be followed by "Cool J," which is actually pretty excellent.  Imagine this conversation:

Alex:  Game night's coming up, anyone got a dungeon to run?
Barb:  Not me, but Carl just bought FU2: Administration Building of Shame.
Alex:  Hey Carl, you wanna "Cool J" that new module you bought?

As a bonus, if the folks over at Labyrinth Lords get LL Cool J as their official spokesperson, it might encourage gamers to lay off the Doritos and maybe do a few hundred sit ups every now and then.

But I suspect that anyone playing any of these retro clones already has a preferred job title and will keep using it no matter which game they're playing.  I for one have always used the term "DM" whether I'm playing D&D, DragonQuest, or non-fantasy rpgs such as Gangbusters or Star Frontiers.  It's just the name for the job, in my mind, and there's no sense trying to change it at this juncture.  And for that reason, I obviously have to respect anyone who started playing the game with the original 1974 rules for sticking to their guns.  But all you Holmesian+ players who, after decades of playing D&D, started using "referee" only when 3.5 or 4e drove you into the comforting arms of OD&D, well, you sort of sound like that guy in high school who got really into the Sex Pistols or The Clash and affected a phony British accent.  Maybe for you it evokes some purity by returning to the roots of the game or maybe its generic-ness appeals to you.  To me it smacks of disingenuous erudition; but that, I suppose, is my problem.  Now I have to get off this difference engine and get some stuff done around the house.

PS.  If you take any one thing away from this here blog--and I realize that this is asking a lot--please let it be the "Cool J" thing.  Forget everything else I said.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Quit euhemerizing and get back to work.

euhemerism: the doctrine that polytheistic mythology arose from the deification of dead heroes; the system of mythological interpretation which regards myths as based on real people and events. 

euhemerize: to believe in or practice euhemerism

Just came across this word in the ol' dictionary; a huge plus of hard copy dictionaries over the online variety is the serendipitous vocab exercise one experiences by leafing through the pages.  Anyway, I wanted to write it down in hopes of retaining the meaning in me noggin.  Feel free to sprinkle it in your own conversation to spice things up a bit at the water cooler.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Wisdom for the wise: defining the ambiguous attribute

"Wisdom: the faculty of making the best use of knowledge, experience, understanding, etc.; good judgment; sagacity."--Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd Edition

In preparation for a future post on character generation systems from various vintage RPGs, I’ve been pondering ability/attribute scores a lot lately.  Virtually every game I’ve reviewed (~12 of ‘em, all published before 1985) have some sort of corollary to the abilities as first presented in D&D.  Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution, although often under different names, are pretty much universal, and many others have a rating for a character’s smarts and personality, covering the same ground as Intelligence and Charisma.  But Wisdom is an outlier; a term used by very few—if any—other games of the era, or any era since, I suspect.  Even TSR’s own Gamma World—the game that most closely mimics the D&D ability format—keeps all five of the other abilities intact but wisdom is replaced with a new, more concrete sounding name: Mental Strength.

While other games often do include abilities such as intuition, perception, and willpower—much more specific and tangible terms to describe potential game mechanics—they leave good judgment and sagacity out of the picture; these must, I believe, remain the purview of the player, not the character.  So why Wisdom?  What's its significance not just to clerics, but to game mechanics in general?  Which is to say, even if you can justify its usefulness to clerics, why should it be anything but a dump stat for the non-clerically inclined?  I intend to look into the history of the wisdom ability and what it's become.   

Going back to the earliest source, here’s what Gygax had to say about Wisdom in D&D Volume I: Men & Magic:

Wisdom is the prime requisite for Clerics… Wisdom rating will act much as does that for intelligence.

There you have it; no attempt to define the word or justify its singular importance to clerics other than to state that it is so.  Admittedly, he made little effort to define the other abilities either, presumably relying on his audience to be smart enough to figure out what "strength" means.  But unlike the other abilities, one gets the impression that this is exactly what Wisdom meant to the founding fathers: each class needed its own prime ability and wisdom was chosen, for lack of a better term, as the name of that ability for clerics.

Back in 1980-81, Holmes's blue book was my intro to D&D and it is, I think, telling that Eric Holmes, tasked with making the original D&D rules more palatable—or at least edible—to a younger crowd, expanded somewhat on the definitions of the other five abilities but did not lay a finger on wisdom:

Wisdom is the prime requisite for clerics.

This is exactly what wisdom meant to me throughout my playing days.  I never made any attempt to apply any other significance to the term; certainly not from the real world definition.  Not even after reading Gygax’s expanded definition in the AD&D Player’s Handbook

Wisdom is a composite term for the character’s enlightenment, judgement, wile, will power, and (to a certain extent) intuitiveness.

This definition is, in my opinion, too broad and vague to provide any traction for in-game functionality, although it does add willpower into the mix, which provides some potential relevance.  But he's also thrown in a character’s "wile" which would seemingly make wisdom much more important to con men than to clerics.  

The definition of wisdom, no doubt, has been amended further in the post-Gygaxian editions of D&D, but I am not aware of those definitions, so please pardon me for not discussing them here.   But within the old school community, new game re-designers keep pumping out their own versions of TSR’s old properties—God bless them, everyone.  Below is a sampling of wisdom definitions from the OSR movement:


A character’s wisdom score (“Wis”) indicates how “in tune” the character is with his or her surroundings. This translates not only to general awareness, but also to mystical attunement and the ability to understand peoples’ motives. It is, in many ways, a measure of the “sixth sense.” Wisdom is the most important attribute for clerics and druids.

Labyrinth Lords has this to say:

Wisdom (WIS) describes a character’s willpower, common sense, perception, and intuition. While Intelligence represents one’s ability to analyze information, Wisdom represents being in tune with and aware of one’s surroundings. Wisdom is the most important ability for clerics.

And Swords & Wizardry:

Wisdom determines a character’s insight, perception, and good judgment. Wisdom is the Prime Attribute for Clerics.

Perception, be it mystical or mundane, seems to be the common thread here, and I definitely think there's room for a perception ability in Old School style game rules.  I don't think wisdom is the right name for that ability nor do I understand why it would be particularly pertinent to succeeding at clerical actions.  OSRIC's 6th sense definition, I think, comes closest to an answer to the cleric problem, but only if some sort of 6th sense rules are included for non-clerics.

There is another option I’ve just become aware of: James Raggi’s forthcoming Lamentations of the Flame Princess provides the following definition:

Wisdom is the measure of a character’s connection to the greater universe, and the strength of the character’s spirit. Wisdom does not affect the character’s ability to make good decisions or judge situations or characters; it is the player’s own judgment which must be used in these situations. 

He takes a similar tone regarding Intelligence and Charisma, laying down a strong separation of church and state between character supplied abilities and player supplied abilities.  I heartily endorse such an approach.  Still, I'd like to see how this definition applies to game action in a way that would make wisdom anything but a dump stat for non-clerics.

And from the not quite OSR movement, Castles and Crusades has this to say:

Wisdom reflects depth of personal experience, the ability to make well-considered decisions or judgments, [fair enough] and represents a spiritual connection to a deity. [huh?]

This non-sequitur brings to mind The Simpsons episode where the U.S. Senate is debating a bill to save Springfield from an impending meteor strike and someone at the last second adds a rider that will allow taxpayer funding of pornographic art.  Needless to say, Springfield gets no federal aid to avert the cataclysm and the folks at Troll Lord Games, with this total cop-out of a definition, get no credit for clarifying the murky matter that is Wisdom.   On top of that, the way the ability is used in C&C makes sense only if characters start out with fairly low wisdom, making gains as they acquire experience.  
So, what do I propose as a solution?  Well, the definition I've been mulling over in my head lately has wisdom leaning back toward willpower, or, As I think of it, Strength of will.  While I don’t think Oxford or Webster will support me on this distinction, to me willpower is that which makes you refuse the easy, more tempting option—finishing a marathon, say, requires a lot of willpower.  Strength of Will is more like committing yourself to a cause based not on mere stubbornness, ignorance of other options, or a “refuse to lose” mentality, but because you’ve considered the cause and the tenets upon which it is based very carefully and believe it to be worth the trouble to align yourself with it.  A cause, in game terms could be a religion or the beliefs of a specific deity, but also a code of honor, one’s alignment, or even belief in the actions/words of a particular individual.  Which isn’t to say that a high wisdomed character will blindly follow such a leader to the Kool Aid pitcher; should this leader-type betray the tenets upon which the faith was based, the highly wisdomed will most likely choose this time to opt out.

All told, this, too, is a pretty froofy definition and I’ve belabored it long enough.  So what is one to do?  Most likely, one would go on not giving a crap about such a silly semantic distinction and continue with the tried and true "Wisdom = the prime attribute of clerics," and I certainly have no beef with that approach.  But it has struck me as peculiar that, in a community prone to debating things like this, I have seen no debate on the matter of defining Wisdom.  Or maybe I'm just missing something.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Up to Eleven!

Eleven followers!  I never intended to surpass James Maliszewski--the egghead laureate of the OSR--and his excellent Grognardia blog in popularity but watch out Jimmy, here I come!  Thanks to all of my devotees for opening yourself to public disgrace for being affiliated--even in such a tenuous, non-binding manner as the Google "Follow" function--with my halfhearted rantings.

PS.  I asked Google if they would change the title from "Followers" to "Sycophants."  They have not as yet responded.  Probably Larry and Sergey are mulling it over as we speak.