Sunday, 30 May 2010

My World, Your World

I have recently been looking over some of the online material about the World of Greyhawk setting, inspired by Grendelwulf's compilation of the army lists for most of the eastern map, and contemplating bringing back to life the campaign system I used in high school to game out the Herzog's invasion of the Iron League.

But what struck me about the history of Greyhawk is how similar some of the issues are to the Legend of the Five Rings setting.

There is a tension in every setting between "My World" (the company's) and "Your World" (the customer's). Setting-neutral games like D&D, of course, avoid this to a large degree by letting gamemasters play god to the full extent and shape the continents, religions and kings of their own little realm. But for others, there's the attraction of letting someone else do all the grunt work of fleshing out a setting. What's more, if the setting becomes popular enough or derives from an already popular fictional world, you have the coolness factor of gaming in THE Middle-Earth, THE Star Wars Galaxy, THE Forgotten Realms.

Or is it really cool? I never really got the appeal of big franchise settings. There's nothing less interesting to me than gaming where the jobs of world savers and earth shakers have already been filled. OK, Frodo is taking the Ring to Mount Doom, but we're fighting wolves and investigating a haunted tower over here in west Eriador. Whoopee.

Setting the game in the past or the future of the fantasy world doesn't quite work, either. In the past, you're still conscious of continuity. You really need a setting where history is cheerfully rewritten and stability is the norm, so a campaign set in the past won't cause too many time-ripples. John Wick used this to good advantage in setting his L5R role playing game in a peaceful era before the events of the Big Storyline. Many gamemasters took this opportunity to present their own alternative versions of those great events, to keep the players guessing and maybe even able to alter history.

In a future campaign set after the big story events, the temptation is to replay the Apocalypse over and over again or risk anticlimax. Then even the Apocalypse becomes an anticlimax no matter how many times the stakes are raised, former enemies become allies, and so on. Legend of the Five Rings fans and Star Wars novel readers know this all too well.

See, what roleplayers need is a setting sufficiently fleshed out to spare the GM hard labor, but sufficiently skeletal to develop with a free hand. The original World of Greyhawk and even the 1983 reissue were perfect for this. Big blank expanses of minty green hexes, generic medieval backdrop with a wide range of realms and terrains, enough quirkiness to be memorable.

But inevitably sclerosis sets in. Game companies, like academics, must publish or perish. So in come the sourcebooks, splatbooks and supplements, filling in the blank expanses. Novels have to be sold, too. Someone decides that what this world needs is more drama, and an Apocalypse shows up. The iron weight of Canon is lowered, and your games are no longer free; they have to bend to the megaplot.

There are rumors that TSR unleashed the Greyhawk Wars to ruin Gygax's creation after he had left the company. While there may have been some spite to the proceedings, there was no such rupture with Ed Greenwood, and yet the Realms fell to much the same temptation.

It's a natural process brought on by the business model of the industry. L5R roleplayers continually grouse about the apocalyptic canon being forced on them, story arc after story arc of a collectible card game that advances its story through tournament results and, like the shark, will die without constant movement. They may complain, but the card game funds the role playing game, not the other way around. In fact, the latest edition of the roleplaying game has wisely gone back to being timeline-neutral, so that sourcebooks can still be sold without forcing the action to happen in the current era.

When all is said and done, in any given living room you, the GM, are sovereign. It's your responsibility to bring surprise to whatever the players do. If they want to play in Middle Earth, OK, but all bets are off. Build an alternate story where the Ring is a red herring, the shards of Anduril are the real McGuffin, and if the players screw up all of Middle-Earth goes to hell.

There are reasons why published material has to stick to canon. It's the long fingers of copyright lawyers and estate guardians, and the rabid hordes of Internet fan-sticklers. But they can't see into your living room. Use that freedom.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Spears are Special

Spears win the "most common weapon with the most special rules in gaming" prize. They can impale you and get stuck (Runequest); have some kind of an initiative or reach advantage due to their length (just about everyone); can be set against a charge for an insane amount of damage, which is only fair because a charge itself does an insane amount of damage (AD&D); can be used from the second rank (OD&D). I'm probably missing a couple more.

Starting with the spear, there's definitely a difference between the long and short spear. The short spear doesn't have reach but can be thrown. The long spear does have reach but needs two hands; balance that and the lesser damage of the spear, against the possibility of a tight formation (3' frontage) and whatever reach gives you. Simple enough.

Impaling is part of critical hits, which my system isn't doing.

Charging is one of those things really more relevant to mounted combat. You would only get a substantial bonus on the attack when moving very fast and seated with the lance couched. As for setting spears against a charge - again, only really deadly against mounted charges, and with more a deterrent effect than anything else. In a skirmish, a horseman or other charging creature who could see you holding the spear could usually veer off in time. Still a useful rule to have.

Three rules for the two-handed long spear, 7' or longer:

Long: You strike first against one opponent with a shorter weapon on the first round he moves into melee with you, if you're facing him.
Deep: You can attack from behind a friendly character, without the first strike bonus.
Set: If you are wielding a long spear, and you are involved in a charge at greater than 12" movement rate, you strike first and the spear has +2 to hit and 1d6 extra damage. This is true whether you are charging or being charged. If two spears clash in a charge, both strike simultaneously; this is one place where the "back and forth of combat" model doesn't apply.

One other thing to keep in mind for any pole weapon. Although it can be used in a narrow frontage, to turn and still use it will require room equal to its length, either to the side or overhead. This makes it a risky choice in a dungeon setting.

Where's Uikku?

For all of you wondering what John Wick is up to these days ...

He's been making rules-light game systems. Sweet!

They're for a couple of familiar story-heavy settings with the serial numbers filed off.

Still taps "Enter" a lot when writing, too.

We now return you to your scheduled icosahedron-based programming.

Weapon Control Means Using Two Hands

Swords, axes, and maces all come in two-handed versions that mean more power, longer weapon, longer swing and ultimately more damage. More damage can come as bigger dice, damage bonuses, roll twice keep high, or my current favorite, multipliers for strength damage bonuses (as in 3rd ed.).

If you allow +2 and +3 bonuses at very high ability scores, even a 1 1/2 x multiplier can double the damage a weapon puts out. That's a real advantage for high strength characters, and having lucky 18 STR high rollers running around doing twice the damage of a mere mortal on every hit might get in the way of the character-lightness of the game.

A tamer alternative might be to allow a flat higher rate of damage and say the +2 and +3 bonuses can only be fully obtained using a fully swung two-handed weapon. But by the same token so are the -2 and -3 penalties. (It makes sense, too, to say that small weapons, dagger for sure, and maybe others, have no strength bonus or penalty whatsoever.)

Two-handed weapons need some love because they are going to suffer from a no-shield drawback, plus the other drawback my formation-conscious house rules require: they need a wide swing frontage to use, 7 feet of space at least.

Combine with the basic sword, axe and mace principles and we get this:

All two-handed weapons:
  • cannot be used with a shield; 
  • apply the full +/-2 and +/-3 strength modifiers to damage , while normal sized weapons have a maximum damage modifier of +/-1 (to hit modifiers are the same); 
  • take up 7' of swing frontage, so only fit in a 10' corridor with someone else who is using a 3' weapon (spear, dagger, shortsword, longsword used as a shortsword).
Two-handed swords do 1d10 damage, and are versatile; so strike two-handed as a longsword with 5' frontage and as a shortsword with 3' (but not as a dagger in close combat). Thrusting with a two-handed sword was a legitimate technique. Extra damage bonuses only apply to the full 7' frontage though.

Two-handed axes do 1d10 damage, and punch through armor in the same manner as one-handed; +1 to hit for every 3 points of physical armor on the target.

Two handed maces and hammers do a base 1d8+1 damage, and have the same armor-class to hit bonuses as the one-handed variety; if a flanged mace or a hammer, the same as an axe; if a spiked mace, +1 damage vs. opponents with 2 points of armor or fewer.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Mace for your Face

The rest of the weapons posts will be less involved.

It's tempting to treat a one-handed mace or hammer as just an axe that doesn't chop. Its reason for existing, in historical warfare, is the same as the axe: to damage through armor, in this case more by concussion than by actual penetration.

The mace head is about the same weight as the axe head, but without a cutting edge. So, well, it doesn't chop. But it doesn't take that much skill to wield either. As long as you get a good swing you don't even have to worry about which way it's turned in your hand. The mace head can also come with attachments. You have your flanges, which are armor-piercing. You also have spikes, but come on, those skinny little things are going to break, blunt or bend if they hit anything hard, weakening the blow; or at least, they'll be stopped by the armor. This is true even if you are some renaissance fair dudes fooling around with a metal-shop mace. Spikes are more in the line of grapeshot; really nasty against unarmored flesh.
This is an argument for making it a strictly inferior weapon to an axe, but also available to less skilled warriors. Such as clerics. Oh wait, maces-for-clerics is a completely made up thing based on one image taken out of context.

To add insult to injury the mace is actually better than the sword in the common situation of fighting half-hit-die or less monsters. As a teenage AD&D player I noticed that the mace, at its classic 1d6+1 damage, was guaranteed to kill a 2 hit point critter while a longsword would fail to kill 1 time in 8! A morning star was even better for whomping rats, and actually even better than a longsword, with 2d4 doing on average half a point more than 1d8, and a 2 only being rolled every 1 in 16. For a while my fighter would tote sword and morningstar around, like a true min-maxer.

Stepping back and looking through the lens of rules philosophy, this is wack. An emergent property of the dice used for simulation, the "mace advantage" exists entirely on the game layer, and isn't even signalled for the player - you have to be a low-grade math nerd to figure it out. I think this is one of the rules abominations John over at the 9&30 Kingdoms is warning about with the evocative phrase "incestuous complexity." And you know what? It's not even that much of a deal. Using my experience as a high-grade math nerd to figure out how much advantage the mace gives you over the sword, on average it only gives a 6% greater chance of one-hit killing a 1d4 hit point creature.

On the other hand ... that flattened spread of damage is nice to simulate something that either hits you or it doesn't. If you get grazed by an axe, that bleeds; by a mace, that tickles.

So, have the flat damage, but tip players off. And add the quiddity.

Maces have a "flat" damage roll based on d6, plus a bonus. Because they do a minimum of 2 points of damage, they are slightly better than other weapons at reliably killing monsters with low hit points.

Crude mace: Iron ball or stone disc on a stick. Plain d6+1.

Flanged mace: d6+1, same bonus against armor as an axe (+1 to hit per 3 points). The difference is that maces are good against skeletons; axes are good against wood.

Spiked mace: d6+1, with 1 extra damage vs. an opponent with only 1 or 2 points of armor (AC 9/10 through 7/12). This will really bring it to those giant rats ...

Clubs based on only d6, spikes give +1 as above. It's not easy being cheap.

Monday, 24 May 2010

It's all in the game

Just remember: evolution does not imply progress...

Pretty cool - if necessarily incomplete and arguable in details - pedigree of social games through the ages, from Jon Radoff.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Sword and Axe: The Mythic

The mythic aspects of the sword and axe flow in part from their function. The rest is history and religion.

The sword is the weapon of killing, dedicated to nothing else. It is purity, oaths, knighthood, kingship. It is the blade of fine cutting, interpreted in the Tarot pack and Buddhism as intellect and discernment. Blind Justice wields it. It is an angelic weapon, by association with the flaming sword placed east of Eden to guard the Tree of Life.

It is magic to Iron Age cultures - because sword technology seemed magic in the Iron Age. Perhaps this is why magic swords are cooler, more prevalent, more interesting in D&D than any other kind of weapon. It is a ritual weapon of the magician and the priest. (Ritual, I emphasize.)

It is male, direct, patriarchal. It is shaped like the Cross. It is holy - at least until Michael Moorcock turned the idea on its head. Its use in execution is reserved for the nobility, in Europe and Japan alike.

A priest of the sword gains the right to carry this edged weapon but at a terrible price. He cannot heal; his curative spells become open, bleeding wounds, cast through the metal of the sword and deepening its strikes.

The axe is the weapon of the people, the earth, the Minoan mother-religion, the labyrinth, the bull-cult. It is moon, blood, wildness. The double-bitted axe is seldom seen on the battlefield, ceremonial, double-facing, double-speaking. It is female power.It is the armament of the Minotaur.

Single-bitted, the axe is a barbarian armament; it is thunder, force narrowly concentrated.

It is the tool used by the state to decapitate commoners. Bound in reeds, it is the Roman fasces - the power of the state bound by the will of the many. It is the tool used by the priest to sacrifice cattle. Dominion over the impure.

A priestess of the axe seeks out the deep places of the earth, but reserves her holy weapon for the object of her quest, the dark sacrifice. Healing and wounding are all the same to her. She may not summon light, but knows a charm for seeing in the dark.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Sword and Axe: Combat Naturalism

The web abounds with questions like "Would a knight beat a samurai?" "Could Batman take out Wolverine?" and our current line of inquiry, "One-handed longsword versus one-handed war axe?" The answers for this last question are no more clear than for the first two.

What's clear is that the longsword is more versatile and more likely to do damage on any one hit than the axe. It has two long striking edges and a point. A backstroke, thrust or a mid-weapon stroke with the axe ends up hitting its victim with a blunt instrument. The same hit with the sword cuts or stabs the opponent.

At the same time, the axe is spoken of favorably against both armor and shield. Its small cutting surface and heavy head puts a lot of force and bite into its stroke, so it was relied on in the late Middle Ages to pierce heavy armor when swords could not. A lot of combat tricks with the axe involve hooking a shield or striking down over it, speaking to its effectiveness in that department. In fact, the axe and similar weapons (mace, pick, lucerne hammer) became popular again in the late Middle Ages because armor had gotten too heavy to pierce with a sword. While these axes were most often two-handed, they were also more versatile than the old Viking axe, being armed with spikes on the top and back of the head for credible thrusting and backstroke damage.

D&D is not Runequest or The Riddle of Steel - a truth that the literature of the latter game in particular seems to take a great deal of pride in. D&D's combat system was scaled down from wargaming, not worked up from years of practice in reenactment combat. D&D is meant to be a game with abstract fighting, where the shortest interpretation of a combat round is a glacially slow six seconds (count it out while imagining someone coming at you with a sword...), cut down from a ridiculous one minute in many early editions.

(I mean, the main game purpose of a combat system broken up into turns is to let someone flee when they find they are outmatched. Would it take you sixty seconds to realize that the fight is too rich for your blood?)

No matter how many moves and feats got tacked on in later additions, individual tricks, strikes, parries, feints and footwork are not really part of the D&D combat system. It is a game with fighting, but the game is not of fighting.

This means that any flavor we put onto the sword and axe to give them a feel of their own can't be on the same level as Riddle of Steel. We are trying to keep the game mechanics-light, so extra dice rolls and tables are not allowed, and hit bonuses and penalties should be kept easy to remember. We are trying to keep the game character-light, so feats and options are not in it either.

One solution would be to give each weapon a bonus or penalty in hitting and in defense (armor class) to balance out differences in damage, reflecting their ease of handling and lethality. Another - probably the best thought-out aspect of AD&D's overly complex weapon rules - is to give the weapon different damage dice against large vs. small/medium creatures. This was a great way to get across the effects of long blades versus concentrated striking areas. Unfortunately, longswords got a ridiculous bonus against Large creatures (1d12 up from 1d8) making them hands-down the best one-handed weapon in the game, balanced only by their cost.

One design concept I'm very fond of is Quiddity. Nothing to do with Harry Potter, "quiddity" is a formation from the latin "quid" (what) and refers to the essence or distinguishing trait of a thing. Bowen Simmons, designer of The Guns of Gettysburg wargame, brings up this concept in explaining his innovative choice of a reinforcement and objective system.

Although there are many things that distinguish swords and axes, the quiddity of the sword is Versatility. The quiddity of the axe in all historical eras is Overcoming Defenses.

To make sense of Versatility, here are a few situational combat rules.

* Characters in close physical contact with their foe may only attack with daggers or bare hands. Closing to contact against an aware, armed opponent requires the attacker to give up his attack and to not be hit by that opponent. Leaving contact requires the same sequence.

* Characters in tight formation (3 to a 10' frontage) or in a tight passage (less than 5') may only use thrusting weapons in melee: spear, dagger or shortsword.

With these rules in mind: In close contact, a longsword or shortsword in hand can be used to cut like a dagger, doing that amount of damage (1d4). In tight quarters, a longsword can be used to stab like a shortsword, doing the shortsword's amount of damage (1d6).

What does the axe get? For every 3 points of opponent's physical armor class, not counting dexterity or magic bonuses, +1 to hit.

Using Swords and Wizardry as a base:  +1 against AC6 [13] and +2 against AC 3 [16]. A physical AC0 will almost never happen, when even dragons in that game are only AC2. Judging physical AC will require a little more ruling and common sense than usual; most monster writeups for old school games don't break down AC that way. This is something I started doing in Varlets & Vermin because it's absolutely essential information to have for doing combat rulings on the fly.

These are some subtle differences. They seem to give the axe a very nice advantage at first, until you consider the typical dungeon environment of an adventure. Creatures dropping on you all the time, running up, jumping out of treasure chests, brawling kobolds trying to take you down ... a good referee will provide plenty of opportunities for close contact. Even more so, narrow passages. And when you consider that you can stand with two instead of one spearwielders in a 10' corridor, the longsword seems like the better choice underground. But the axe comes into its own in a room fight, can hack through doors or beams if needed ... In fact, there's a good case for carrying both. Just watch your encumbrance ...

Here's a partial list of my online sources:

Hurstwic: Viking combat reenacters
The jam-packed pages of the ARMA
Anthropologist of war R. Brian Ferguson
A contrarian view: axes favored strength, swords dexterity?

The mythic sword and axe, next.

Sword and Axe: Social Naturalism

The following couple of posts on social and military naturalism are a compression of recurring observations from writers on the history and recreation of pre-gunpowder warfare. I'll give a few of my key references at the end.

Axes were cheaper. There is less metal in an axehead than in a longsword. Don't think of the ridiculously inflated weapons wielded in computer or miniatures games; battle axe blades were narrower than that, playing to their main strength of delivering compressed force, as we shall see. More importantly, a longsword blade that is resilient and not liable to break has to be forged according to arts that must have seemed almost magical, with repeated layering and folding of the blade by a master smith. An axe head just has to be hammered out of a block of metal and sharpened; you can even make an axe out of stone.

Axes were more common, too, in the social sense of the word. In Iron Age societies and other places and times where metal was rare, swords required so much expense and craft that they became prerogatives of the ruling class. Looked at another way, a sword has no use except in war and dueling, while most other weapons including the axe have a civilian use, either as tools or in hunting. So, an axe is a good investment for a yeoman soldier in peace and wartime, while a sword marks you out as a professional warrior. Even when swordcrafting became more widespread and almost industrialized, as happened eventually in Europe and Japan, aristocracies promoted their association with the sword, to the point of legislating it out of the hands of commoners.

If we stop here - roughly at the point of OD&D, where axes are equivalent to swords in damage but cost less - social and material reasons favor the cheaper axe over the more expensive sword. A campaign, though, may want to give the sword some of its social meaning back to compensate. So, wearing the more expensive sword may be a claim to aristocratic status, which adventurers can buy or loot their way to. For example, axe-wielding barbarians and woodcutters may not be welcome in a certain tavern or town, while sword-wearing folk are presumed to be gentility and allowed to pass.

If social class is used to distinguish players in the game, having to use more expensive things, like swords, may be a drawback of the greater resources available to upper-class characters. At the same time, upstarts wearing swords may draw the respect or fear of common folk, but the wrath of those who feel more properly entitled by birth to do so, and may even fall afoul of the law. All these options are suitable for a campaign that wants to keep its combat simple but its social world fairly rich. As long as the advantages and drawbacks are communicated to players beforehand, that's perfectly OK.

Real commitment to super-simple combat would stop here. But I also want differences between weapons to count in combat, even if expressed in only a couple of features. So, more next time.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Quick Interlude: Elegance Aphorisms

Short break from walls of text to collect a few thoughts on elegance in game design in an elegant literary style.

* Numbers: 1 through 5, adding and subtracting. Seriously question any bigger math.

* If an exception happens all the time, make it the rule.

* If players choose something all the time, make it the default if they need it, or weaker if they don't.

* Hold tryouts for the one special thing about what you're simulating - in a game, in a game element. Boil it down to that.

* Keep players engaged. If they're not playing, make the action damn fun to watch.

More may follow, and less elegant explanations to boot.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Balance is More than Just One in Each Hand

Putting what I've said recently a different way:

The goal of balance in an imaginative game with player-customized elements (someday soon I'll think of an elegant phrase for this) is to have players feel free to choose roughly the same range of options that exist in the shared vision of the game's setting.

The shared vision most usually comes from the fictional sources of gaming, or by now from gaming itself, the way it has incorporated and recycled its source material into DungeonWorld Standard. But it can also come from reality or from myth. Indeed, in writing my latest gaming work (the former Bag of Tricks that is quickly coming to cover a whole lot more than tricks), I switch back and forth between naturalistic and mythic perspectives. In doing this I hope to shake loose some of the fixed ideas of the adventure-game, and shake free a few ideas. So let's do that here.

Take the longsword versus battleaxe choice. Both are part of fictional fantasy archetypes. Dwarves, minotaurs and barbarians, for one, wouldn't be the same without their axes. Knights, rogues and just about everyone else live and die by flashing swords. You don't want people to feel dumb about taking an axe or a sword into a fantasy hackfest. That's the status quo of gaming, and it's easy to rest on that.

Now, both sword and axe were used historically, as well. But this might not mean that adventuring parties in your gritty, naturalistic world should freely sport axes and swords as they very well please...

Next post I'll examine the historical record. In the meantime - what was up with these guys? Which one was the min-maxer and which one was the scrub?

Indeed, there is no such thing as halfway crooks.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Power Gamers at the Gates

I should probably make clear in light of my last post that the kind of unbalanced game options I was referring to - demon bride, battle axe and whatnot - are typical of an imaginative game in the early stages of development. In this kind of game the player tends to just ignore the mechanics; he or she reaches across them and makes peace with the world being simulated. In that idyllic Golden Age, the lion lies down with the lamb; or at the very least, Cure Light Wounds lies down with Bless in perfect harmony. And then the power gamers arrive and start asking impertinent questions and tearing things up.

Alderac's Legend of the Five Rings CCG had its Golden Age roughly until the Spirit Wars expansion in 1999. The first three years of the game were an incredible high of story and world involvement for the players, culminating in the epic story-game fusion of the Day of Thunder tournament whose result determined the outcome of the storyline and the identity of the new Emperor. The temper of L5R fans was oppositional. Many saw themselves as refugees from the evil, money-grubbing power gamers who infested the much more popular CCG, Magic: The Gathering. Magic's own Golden Age of wonder, discovery, and gross imbalance in card design had been much more short-lived, and was definitely over by 1997.

In that year, the unthinkable happened: Wizards of the Coast, Magic's company, bought out the L5R property, retaining the Alderac team to handle design and story. The storyline was continued past the Day of Thunder (it had originally been scheduled to end then, with the company then focusing its efforts on a kindred Arabian Nights-style game, Legend of the Burning Sands). Wisely, Wizards chose to promote L5R as a more clubhouse, storyline game so as not to compete with the serious, high stakes Magic tournament scene, and the players went along for the most part.

1999 saw the release of the final Wizards expansion, Spirit Wars, followed by a long limbo as Alderac tried and eventually succeeded in buying back the game. In that year, too, the first signs of power gaming made their appearance. Day of Thunder champion Chris Bergstrom posted a card-by-card review of Spirit Wars, separating ruthlessly the sheep from the goats and exposing just how unbalanced and ad-hoc card design seemed to be. And the first teams based on competitive play instead of story concerns - Bad Player at first and later, The Dynasty - were coming into their own.

The rest, as they say, is history, and after a wild roller-coaster of varying power levels L5R now rests comfortably on a well-developed design template. Of course, in a game where over 500 new elements (cards) have to be released every year, absolute balance can never be achieved except by accident and even then only temporarily. The best a designer can hope for is the appearance of balance. Each option should have something to recommend it and a rough equality between drawbacks and advantages to the naked eye. Leave it to the power gamer to make the fine distinctions.

Even in a non-competitive game like role-playing - and I hope nobody out there is actually running role-playing tournaments - the options in a robustly designed game need to survive this eyeball test. Ask yourself: would you let a first-level cleric ever take Purify Food and Water instead of Cure Light Wounds into an unknown dungeon? Even if a table is full of fun-loving and setting-immersed souls, the system itself should be resistant to the power envy that comes about when you realize that your choice, as flavorful as it is, is flatly inferior to another player's choice, with no compensation.

Put another way: a power gamer is one who carefully weighs the game costs and benefits of each option on a scale, and picks only the best ratio. A regular gamer is just someone who wants to make sure there is something in each pan before picking. You can design for regular gamers without capitulating to the demands of power gamers. And you shouldn't capitulate - because you can never balance the game enough to confound them.

Back to weapons next.

Demon Bride Syndrome

Here's a story about how games with player-chosen elements - role-playing games, collectible card games, miniatures wargames - tend to evolve.

The first edition of the Legend of the Five Rings collectible card game, 15 years ago now, had a card in it called the Demon Bride of Fu Leng.

(Fu Leng, with its resonances of Rohmer and Lovecraft, was the name of the evil god in that Japanese-inspired epic fantasy world.)

The Demon Bride's stats were as follows:

Force 1, Chi 2 (very bad at combat, and not much better at dueling or resisting effects)
Honor Requirement -, Personal Honor 0 (outside the system of honor and politics entirely)
Her abilities were:
Limited: Bow the Bride to take control of and attach any one Shadowlands Follower in play.
Battle: Fear 4 (bow all Follower cards with 4 or less Force in a single opposing unit).

If you don't know the game, you'll have to take my word that these were very unimpressive abilities-particularly in the early days when Followers were seldom if ever played.

The Demon Bride's cost in the game? 12 Gold. By contrast, for half the cost you could usually get a Samurai with 3 or more Force and Chi, and a better ability, who was in your Clan (so could join you for 2 less Gold or gain you honor in the game).

What was going on with that design? For that matter (getting back to D&D) what was going on in those editions where the battle axe was clearly an inferior combat option to the longsword?

From the viewpoint of the player making choices to customize his or her game puppet (the play deck in L5R, the character in D&D), this is just unbalanced design. The Demon Bride and the battle axe form dead areas of choice. They are options never taken rationally, and in a world created by the decisions of gamers, they would not exist except as quickly discarded evolutionary dead ends.

Often, as game designs evolve, the designers become more conscious of this game layer and begin to take it into account. Both D&D and L5R over their editions have become games whose elements have consciously been maneuvered into some semblance of cost-benefit balance with each other. A card as underwhelming as the Demon Bride would not see print today - especially not as a valuable rare card.

There are, nonetheless, three answers sometimes seen in defense of a Demon Bride design.

First, they reflect that not every entity is equally balanced in life. Maybe the Demon Bride really is an inept and vain infernal consultant who charges three times her actual worth. And hey, maybe the battle axe really was a worse weapon than the longsword, and can be recommended only for its cheaper price - still more of a balancing factor than the Demon Bride's inflated cost.

Second, they cater to the flavor and roleplaying desires of the fans, so why care if they are perfectly balanced? If you want to build your Fu Leng theme deck, you will throw in the Demon Bride anyway. If you want your barbarian fighter to swing an axe, then by gum, so he will, even if he can have no shield and always strikes last. And who knows, maybe in a game you'll see one of those magic moments where a character or weapon everyone thought was worthless saves the day.

Third, the unbalanced design may revolve around factors that are not part of the game. The Demon Bride's Gold cost reflects her power and influence in the infernal hierarchy, not reflected in L5R's Honor-based  political model. The axe was great for punching through armor, especially in the late Middle Ages; but the basic D&D rule set doesn't take that into account.

As you might guess, I am not partial to any of these three excuses. But I'll leave it for next post to explain why.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Weapons Again: Rules from Rulings

I'm not entirely happy with the weapon rules I presented a while back. I want to step back and think in terms of the process I described last month, why and how rules are built up from rulings.

The main thing in deciding to write a ruling into a rule is fairness. Because weapons are important in combat and are taken into the adventure, this makes it particularly important to establish their relevant characteristics as rules.

First, the players need to know any rulings that will reliably be applied to the weapons they buy and use, in order to have a fair choice among them. If a character buys a two-handed sword, and the referee judges later on that it's useless in a five foot corridor - and the dungeon area is made up of such corridors - that's not fair. A fighter would have known that, and might have decided to take a back-up weapon like a spear or shortsword for tight situations.

Fairness also applies to the referee. Once they've caught the impromptu ruling bug, players can be very proactive in pointing out situations where they feel they should get an advantage because of the weapon they're using. They may be more reluctant to point out their disadvantages, or the advantages of an opponent. Having clear rules about these situations makes it easier for the referee to put fair limitations on the players. You don't have to wait for the chance to turn the ad hoc rulings that enabled their own anti-monster tactics back against them.

So weapons are important - but how much should they be distinguished from each other? I'm very aware  that simulationism can be a never-ending rabbit hole. Early D&D editions recommend themselves by their simplicity of combat resolution, their lightness of rules and stats. I don't want to throw that away. Hence my pledge to involve no extra dice rolls, and no looking up things beyond what can be easily written on a character card.

I've realized, though, that I do want to hold on to the article of faith that different size weapons do different damage. The argument that combat is so abstract that any weapon is an equal threat doesn't really hold water. If a dagger does as much average damage as a two-handed sword because it strikes more quickly, then the d20 combat system could have modeled that in pluses to hit, or (as in the roguelike game Angband and its variants) multiple attacks. I feel well supported in this by the expectations of generations of players and my own intuitive idea of what D&D is about.

Another judgment to take to a proposed rule: does it promote player skill and strategy, while not bogging combat down in minutiae of placement and timing? I think the kind of things I find important in weapons fit this bill. They are mostly about how the weapon interacts with a given situation, ensuring that players find it to their advantage to equip their fighting characters with more than just one weapon, and use these intelligently.

To end this post for now, I offer a set of ruling principles I use in my games, which in coming posts I'll expand into a set of weapon rules.
Disadvantages of Attack (hindering the free use of a weapon) give a -2 on a d20 chance to hit, and in opposed initiative, the disadvantaged person strikes after anyone else who is not at a disadvantage.
Great Disadvantages of Attack are also -2 to hit, but the attack happens only on the second round after engaging (at the normal initiative for that round), and every other round thereafter.
Advantages of Attack give +2 to hit and first strike. There aren't really any tactical situations that can give a Great Advantage of Attack as opposed to hindering the opponent in some way, though.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Defense in general combat are strictly applied to armor class, and are +/-2 for normal and +/-4 for Great dis/advantages - which way is which depends on how AC numbers run in your game.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Force apply to the momentum behind a weapon, and translate to +2 or -2 damage.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Text to Tabletop 5: Layers of Players

One more resurrection and recap of my old posts, adapted to roleplaying. In 1996 I wrote about the second-person narrative of the adventure game. Derived from the convention of a game master telling you what's going on, second-person leaves the question of who exactly you are open to three interpretations. I've rewritten these for the tabletop context. Just as the interface is different, so the interface between player and story protagonist is very different. In the roleplaying game, the interface character is a game puppet instead of the text adventure's game protagonist. If the game protagonist is built up of in-game motives and actions, the puppet adds a set of in-game characteristics to that mix.
The Player
This is you, the real human being sitting at the table playing the game. Your goal is to have fun. This means different things for different players. Adding on to your puppet, discovering new things, controlling a world full of risky surprises, gaining greater understanding of the meaning in the fictional world, and expressing yourself, are just some of the things you seek out. You are the basis for the other two characters; the game puppet's strategy is only as good as your smarts and knowledge, the story protagonist's actions are determined by your willingness to act in line with that story. And when you see a rust monster, you know that critter is going to damage your weapons, because you read about it in the Monster Manual.
The Game Puppet
This is you, a cipher of a figure with a class, race and level for a name. You are built up of stats, words and possessions on a sheet, embodied perhaps in 28mm of lead or plastic. You are limited, and this limits the player. You want to do something, but the rules or the GM's ruling won't let you. In spite of your limitations, you want to carry out the best strategy at all times, the one that will let you deal out more points, take less points, and collect more pieces and points. You know that critter is going to rust out your weapons ... never mind how, but you know you have to take a round to change weapons to your wooden club and hit it, even though the club only does 1d6 damage.
The Story Protagonist
This is you, Jhin-Dho, a half-elven sorcerer's apprentice who has an elaborate backstory involving the succession to a royal throne and a family intrigue and he also trained as a puma burglar and inherited this glassteel sword... Anyway, your goal is to stop the villains and find the true heir to the Kingdom of Regalia while staying alive. It's a bit odd that you keep listening at doors and tapping in front of you with a pole, but hey, being a seasoned adventurer is part of the story, right? And it's only because you have heard tales around the campfire of the wily rust monster that you put away your sword and reach for your shillelagh when you see the telltale tentacles and propeller tail.
I don't have much to say about these layers right now, but I present them as a vocabulary that might be useful in the future. Quite a lot of differences in the style of games can be traced to which of these layers takes precedence; but all three are always present and communicating with each other in some way.

Calling All Prognards

Aaaand Notes from Under the Kyak (kayak?) joins my blogroll on the strength of this opening sentence alone:

Some time ago I put together a fairly high level adventure based on the Kansas album The Point of Know Return.
Roleplaying isn't the only nerdy, imaginative, overly complicated art form from the 70's. Imagine a campaign where each adventure was a different prog rock album and each country was a different band ...

Weapons: Traits, not Systems

I'm a stone's throw away from ending the Text to Tabletop series with some discussion of player vs. character identification. But now the last couple of posts on JB's B/X Blackrazor blog have had my design thumbs twitching.

JB's gripe is the general lack of attention to balance among different melee weapons in D&D from the moment they were mechanically distinguished from each other, really right up until 3rd Edition. The focus is the battle axe as opposed to the longsword, a clearly unbalanced choice rules-wise in both B/X and AD&D. He eventually solves the problem by calling on the abstract nature of combat, proposing a system of damage by character class, modified only by the most general characteristics of weapons. I think this is fine, but I'm going to propose another way out.

One point of frustration that comes through in the posts is the clunkiness of systems that try to balance out weapons with a host of non-damage characteristics like speed factor, bonuses vs. specific AC, room needed to swing ... Why instead can't each weapon have a special trait or two, and maybe a special drawback, without every single weapon having to be rated on that trait?

A rough brainstorm, aided by borrowings and scrapings from old-school posts too numerous to recall, gives me this:

WeaponAverage DamageGood ThingsBad Things
Dagger-2Quick Draw, Throwable, Close, NarrowShort
Shortsword-1Quick Draw, NarrowShort, Expensive
Longsword+0Quick DrawExpensive
Two-handed sword+1+1 to hit ArmorWide, Expensive, Two-Handed
Mace/War Hammer+0+2 to hit ArmorWide, Unwieldy
Battle Axe+0+1 to hit ArmorWide
Two-Handed Mace/Hammer/Axe+1+2 to hit ArmorWide, Unwieldy, Two-Handed
Hand Axe/Hammer-1Throwable, NarrowShort
Staff-1Improves AC by 1 against facing opponentTwo-Handed, Unwieldy
Short Spear-1Throwable, NarrowUnwieldy
Long Spear-1Long, NarrowUnwieldy, Two-Handed
Pole Arm+0LongUnwieldy, Two-Handed

Armor Bonuses: Apply only to chain armor or better, or the monster AC equivalent, assuming this comes from armor/hide and not dexterity or magic bonuses
Close: Weapon has no penalty when used in grappling range; other weapons have -2 to hit and strike last
Expensive: Reflected in equipment tables
Long: Weapon strikes first against non-Long weapons (and unarmed monsters) unless in grappling range
Narrow: Weapon has no penalty in very tight quarters (3' passages or characters fighting 3 to a 10' passage); other weapons have -2 to hit and strike last
Quick Draw: Weapon can be readied and used in the same round, striking last; other weapons require a full round to ready.
Short: Weapon cannot attack a facing opponent wielding a Long weapon unless in grappling range
Throwable, Two-Handed: Self-explanatory
Unwieldy: Weapon cannot be used in grappling range
Wide: Weapon has -2 to hit and strikes last with even 5' frontage (needs 7' free to swing properly) and cannot be used with only 3'

Average Damage:
For example, with a d8 monster hit die basis, minuses refer to d6 and d4, and plus damage requires a d10.

(Closing to grappling range against an aware, facing opponent requires a full round without attacking, and without being hit by that opponent. Striking first and last overrides initiative determination, but opponents that strike at the same time by those rules still use initiative.)

These traits are easy to remember (for example, Unwieldy weapons are all blunt and pole weapons). They can even be implemented by the referee without the players knowing they exist, on a common-sense basis.

Another way to distinguish weapons is to note their different effectiveness against different materials and monsters. Blades are good for cutting ropes, cloth, and sheet-like monsters. Hammers and maces are good for smashing breakable things like jars and skeletons. Axes are all-around adventuring tools, good for hacking wood as well as limbs. Spears will puncture puffballs but harm little else.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Text to Tabletop 4: Clues

From the coda to my Crimes Against Mimesis essays, writing about computer games:
Consider four identical doors, one leading onwards, one concealing a lethal explosive. In the story that would result from solving this puzzle, it would be much more satisfying to the story reader and the game player if there was some way to tell which door hides the ticking bomb, rather than having success come only from a lucky guess. The clue may be difficult enough so that the player opts for the brute-force, save-restore-undo method (who would think to "listen to north door"?), but at least it is there to explain the story protagonist's actions in a fictionally satisfying way.
In a role-playing adventure game, there is no save-restore-undo (apart from overly generous referees), and this is well and good. Players have to know that their actions can have permanent and fatal consequences, and that their decisions are for keeps. All the same, the above advice holds in all adventure games for a different reason. The key word is "satisfying."

Satisfaction with the problem-solving process comes from the belief that you, the player, had - or could have had - something to do with it. This is what divides a random "trick" from a solvable problem. While a few completely random effects like the four-door problem are fine, and in fact almost mandated in old-school dungeon design, a little bit more thought applied to them can make the experience more memorable for players. It will seem like a fairer test of their problem-solving skills - and anyway, aren't combat and saving throws random enough?

Again we return to my mythed-up Wheel of Fortune from a previous post (near the bottom). As written, this trick is manifestly random and unfair. It comples Chaotic characters within 10 feet to spin it, with the usual die-roll results on a table malevolent and benign; Neutrals get a save and Lawfuls are only tempted by their player's curiosity. Here's one thing I would add:
Chaotic characters who gaze on the Wheel from a distance of more than ten feet feel a strange attraction to its idol all the same, as if approaching it is something they have wanted to do all their life, but they are not compelled to act on it until they approach within ten feet. Neutral characters must save to see if they feel and behave as Chaotic characters or not while in the room with the Wheel. 
That "strange attraction" should be a red flag to good players, warning them they may lose control of their character if they approach any closer. Once again, for player skill to count, there have to be some clues to work from.

One more observation regarding clues from my old essay:
If we see the game as more than a collection of puzzles, though, a game feature can have nothing to do with any puzzle and still contribute to the atmosphere or the storyline. "Smart red herrings" like the gargoyle and the chapel in Christminster strengthen the background of the game with additional information (even if the meaning of the initials on the gargoyle is somewhat, ahem, obscure). At the same time, they effectively rebut the creeping suspicion that all the features in the environment are dictated by one puzzle or another, and serve notice that the fictional milieu has a life outside of the mere game which is being played out inside it. Even the "shadowy figure" red herring in the original Adventure is eventually explained in terms of the game's rudimentary background (those vain dwarves!) Consequently, the player feels satisfied, rather than frustrated, when its true nature is revealed. To sum up, in the well-written IF game, every item and location should still serve some purpose; but the puzzle-game shouldn't be the only purpose.
In my design code, dungeon dressing should be informative, and even empty rooms usually will contain at least a "smart red herring" of some kind. Going with the scheme in my previous post in the series, this feature can contribute to an understanding of the history and workings of the place (naturalistic); can contribute to atmosphere and poetic meaning in the place (mythic); or can simply be amusing with a dark undertone (gonzo), like the clown murals scattered throughout Bloch's Castle of the Mad Archmage dungeons.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Blue Book Brief Encounter

To join in the reminiscences over the work of Dr. J. Eric Holmes: I learned AD&D as my first system and ran a campaign from the DMG "as written" in high school, taking very seriously everything about the holy standard rules, drawing dungeons that filled up a whole sheet of graph paper, packed with a dazzling variety of monsters, and meticulously detailed with randomly rolled dungeon dressing.

Between that and my strict application of the punitive advancement rules, my campaign did not go down well with my players and I was deposed. Sometime after that, I found that the local library had acquired a copy of the Holmes rules, and I picked it up, curious about this "primitive" form of D&D.

What really opened my mind was the improvisational advice to DMs and the Tower of Zenopus adventure. It was spacious, not packed. It was stocked with focal puzzles, tricks, and features, not useless atmosphere. Its encounters put well-known critters in interesting situations, showing that a good adventure could be had without digging into the Fiend Folio (maybe another reason for the overthrow of my campaign). Most of all, it was described concisely so a large variety of possible situations could be shown.

Just that one example improved my DM craft, and indirectly led to my favoring more improvised scenarios and systems in college - and of course, my fascination with the spirit of original D&D now. So that's my toast to the good Professor.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Varlets & Vermin Supplemental: Sack Custodian

In the previous post I mentioned the M. R. James ghost story "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas." The protagonist, Somerton, follows a trail of cryptic clues to a treasure of ten thousand gold pieces from an old manuscript and stained glass window, ending up in a ruined abbey. Everything that happens next - the assembling of equipment, checking for traps, hidden compartment finding - is straight out of the adventurer's manual. What he finds there, though, is straight out of the adversarial dungeon master's menagerie...

This creature rounds out the other two M. R. James-inspired monsters in my Varlets & Vermin compilation. I can't help but think that even a level 1 adventurer would have been made of sterner stuff than Somerton; would have put the toad to the sword, or at least come back in the daytime better-prepared. But maybe the toad was made of sterner stuff, too?


Armor Class: 7 [12]
Hit Dice: 2
Attacks: 4 tentacles, 1d2 each
Saving Throw: 16
Special: Tracking, surprise, attachment
Move: 6
Challenge Level/XP: 2/30
Treasures owned or hidden away by priests and wizards of doubtful morality are infrequently guarded by the loathesome sack custodian; although the ritual used to summon it is not part of common knowledge. The rounded back of this toad-like creature blends chameleon-like with the other sacks that form the treasure. It will manage to be the topmost and foremost in the trove, and gains automatic surprise if picked up. The custodian's underside conceals a squashed, squinting face, four stumpy legs, and a mass of sharp, slimy tentacles exuding a strong smell of mold. 

Its first attack, ignoring armor, is merely to latch on to the victim. Each round after it succeeds in this, four of the tentacles attack, ignoring any dexterity bonuses. It requires a strength test similar to opening a stuck door to pull the custodian off. If fled from, the custodian is an unerring tracker, moving only by night. It will persecute the disturbers of its trove until everything is put back the way it was. Rumor has it that not even killing the custodian will stop its pursuit, but what - if anything - can finally put it to rest, other than the return of its treasure, is unknown.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Text to Tabletop 3: Breaking Context

One theme I treated in my old Crimes Against Mimesis essays (see previous posts) was the clash between the elements of a puzzle and its context. I urged game designers to integrate game objects and puzzle situations more fully into their fictional worlds. A chainsaw shouldn't just be sitting there on a table for no reason; why not link it to a lumberjack that you've heard about in another scene? A cryptogram shouldn't just be there as a puzzle on a wall; maybe it's a way that the Red Hood Monks communicated to each other privately without breaking their vows of silence.

In the gonzo context, the player of the game is self-aware, and we see all sorts of random objects and puzzles, frame-breaking references to pop culture, genre intrusions, and other elements of gonzo.  What I was setting up as a standard in my Mimesis essays, though, was closer to James Maliszewksi's label of "Gygaxian naturalism" in D&D (though you could just as easily tag gonzo with the "Gygaxian" label). Naturalism applied to monsters leads to developing other characteristics than combat stats - to flesh out their feeding, reproduction, social structure, anatomy, and other mundane details. Naturalism in puzzles, likewise, makes sure each puzzle or problem has some meaning outside of the experience of the players trying to solve it. Naturalism creates more immersion in the world and strengthens the fictional frame rather than breaking it.

With the benefit of time and perspective, I would still recommend the designers of puzzles in role-playing scenarios to put them into context if they are going for a naturalistic feel. I think gonzo dungeons inflicted on a willing public are perfectly OK, the current belt-holder being Joe Bloch's Castle of the Mad Archmage, a sprawling reconstruction/homage to Castle Greyhawk. At the same time, there is something very satisfying about a puzzle or dungeon trick put into naturalistic context, and you have to respect the art and craft required to reconcile an artificial obstacle with a realistic world.

I've also realized there is a third option for puzzle context in roleplaying games, or for that matter, interactive fiction. There can be a mythic resonance to puzzles, monsters, dungeons, and other elements of an RPG.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Text to Tabletop 2: Return to the Scene of the Crimes

Crimes Against Mimesis is a series of web articles I wrote in 1996 about the representation of reality in text adventure games, or "interactive fiction". It's gotten a certain amount of fame, even cited in Wikipedia, despite my leaving the IF community shortly thereafter without really having done anything other than writing those articles. Ironically, the text adventure I had been preparing and left half-finished was more a collection of puzzles than anything literary. Its first puzzle, "Cube and Key," was actually an adaptation of an RPG puzzle room I'd come up with earlier on. So it's only full circle to bring these observations about puzzles back to the RPG context.

In-game puzzles and problem solving are one big way to answer the call for more player skill involvement in what's come to be called the Old School Renaissance of Dungeons & Dragons. Even running a system neck-deep in character skills, I doubt if there was ever a DM so bold as to create a riddle and then make the players roll dice against their character's Intelligence to see if they solved it. For all the huffing and puffing about dimwit characters "cheating" by solving puzzles with their players' true IQ, this is one area where the players have always refused to abdicate responsibility.

The big difference between programming a computer and running a live game? Many of the unrealistic aspects of puzzles I objected to in Crimes are irrelevant. The DM understands all the command words the player can use, has a mental model of the world that can tell the players how their attempts are working out, and if any area of the mental model is hazy the DM can consult the oracular dice. The items available with which to manipulate the world do not have to be pre-set and scattered around, but can be bought in town, manufactured, or improvised.

One wide-open area of the tabletop RPG, too, is the possibility for player solutions that surprise the DM. It's an even more gutsy move to put a problem in the way of the players that you don't know the solution to yourself. But really, any interactive problem takes a certain combination of faith in the players to solve it, and faith in the robustness of the game to survive the consequences of their possible failure to solve it.

You will notice here I said "problem" instead of "puzzle." Problems, as I see it, are tasks like "get across this chasm inhabited by hungry bats" or "get through this bolted and barred iron door." Puzzles are more constrained - "Speak 'eggs' as the answer to this riddle" or "Put a spear in the empty right hand of the statue." Problems are more amenable to being solved more quickly and easily than their setter would have liked, but both problems and puzzles hold out the possibility of player failure, so the GM had better be prepared to route around the damage. (There was, in fact, one memorable late night in our hometown campaign where Dave the DM, after the better part of two hours, pretty much had to feed us the answer to the puzzle "SHOATMMSPEIRO" to keep the linear scenario going.)

In Crimes one of my main pleas (in part 4 of the essay) was for text adventure puzzles to become more like real-life problems - goals that can be reached by several different means, or by combining several different objects in a way that makes sense. Even if implemented with real-world objects, a lock-and-key puzzle is still a lock and key. You need the broom to frighten away the cat so you can reach in the mousehole and get the flashlight. You can't frighten away the cat with the crowbar - so says the computer program, but a good GM (or for that matter a good programmer) will increase the realism of the world simulation so that you can.

Even with all these possibilities, many old-edition D&D adventure designers didn't (and don't) take full advantage of them. The game has a good system for combat, and improvised actions and environment effects can be taken into account using it. But there's less of a vocabulary, less of a system, less of a precedent for handling non-combat problem solving. We all know a good puzzle or a tricky problem when we see it; but how do you get there in the first place?

I'd like to know your thoughts before I write on...

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Visual Break: Text Maps

If you love the Grand City of Londra, or are just curious, do yourself a favo(u)r and check out this obsessively detailed handwritten satirical map by Stephen Walter, chock-a-block with dense historical and social allusions ...

Now ask yourself- how would this style work for an improvisational city map in adventure gaming? Where the streets, blocks and buildings are represented by evocative and ambiguous tags, representing not the past but the future history of the city as lived by your protagonists ... A palimpsest of White-out and black fine-line marker, as old challenges are wiped out and new ones scribbled in.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Text to Tabletop 1: Return to the Colossal Cave

The next few posts - with inevitable digressions - are going to be about links between old-school-style D&D and text adventure games.

It's been at least 10 years since I played a computer text adventure. I got into them big-time in the last few years of grad school and first year of my postdoc.  At the time I was pretty much as far from gaming mentally as any time I've been in my life. Yes, text adventures were gaming, but a lot of people were taking them as some form of postmodernist enterprise, and being literature, it was cool, so OK. (This is what living in Manhattan will do to a soul.)

Apparently text adventures were an early branching off from pre-1975 Dungeons and Dragons. Add puzzles, creatures and treasures from D&D to some real-world experience of spelunking, and a hit is born. You can read the whole story here on Rick Adams' excellent site about the very first text game, Colossal Cave Adventure. Or read this even more excellent article on spelunking the source code and source cave.

Adventure, Zork and their text adventure kin have a lot in common with the old-school approach to tabletop gaming. For example, both text adventures have a fair amount of humor and mild surrealism in their dungeon settings, mixed with scenes of horror and wonder. This matches well with the gonzo atmosphere from Castle Greyhawk that so many are trying to recapture these days.

What's really important, though, is the path of divergence in problem-solving these games took. Adventure and Zork could very well have taken up the wargame roots of D&D, incorporating hit points, damage, combat, and saving rolls. For various reasons this was left for other games to do - most memorably the seminal Wizardry.

Instead, text adventures were about verbal manipulation of the environment. You tried different things with the dungeon features and the items you picked up along the way - "pull rope," "cut rope with sword," "burn rope with torch." There wasn't a live DM, so you didn't always get an answer. Sometimes the program knew what you were doing didn't work. Sometimes it did work, and you could move on to the next part of the adventure.

If this sounds familiar to someone steeped in the old school renaissance, it should ...
John the Roguish: “I search the room.”
GM: “What are you checking?”
John the Roguish: “I eyeball the table and chairs to see if there’s anything unusual, then I run my hands over them to see if there’s anything weird.”
GM: “Nope.”
John the Roguish: “Are the moose’s eyes following me or anything?”
GM: “No.”
John the Roguish: “I check the moose head.”
GM: “How?”
John the Roguish: “I twist the horns, look in the mouth, see if it tips sideways …”
GM: “When you check to see if it tips sideways, it slides a little to the side.”
John the Roguish: “I slide it more.”
GM: “There’s a secret compartment behind it.”
The above example of diceless resolution from Matt Finch's Quick Primer for Old-School Gaming translates to this kind of text-adventure play - although the referee and the programmer have very different ways of interacting with the player:

> look table
You see nothing special.

> look chairs
You see nothing special.

> look moose
A stuffed moose head is on the wall. You might think its eyes are following you, but they're not.

> twist horns
I don't understand.

> look moose in mouth
A stuffed moose head is on the wall. You might think its eyes are following you, but they're not.

> push moose
You slide the moose head to the side, at first hesitantly. There is a secret compartment in the wall behind it.

The next few posts are going to explore some implications of the text adventure mentality for refereeing and playing old school games, leading to the next pdf download - something I've been working on called The Bottomless Bag of Tricks.

Anyone else feel like reminiscing on the old text adventure games? Drop a comment!

Varlets and Vermin 1.0

I've always felt the lack of lower level monsters in any setting; but especially the old school with its stripped-down lists.

Dungeon referees who want something a little spicier than rats, skeletons and kobolds should therefore consider my new pdf supplement, available to download here absolutely gratis: Varlets and Vermin. It's a collection of monsters and related ideas for challenge levels 1 and 2, written for Swords & Wizardry but easily adaptable to other systems.

Please let me know what you think and if you find it useful. Thanks!