Monday 16 April 2012

OSR Contradiction 2: Player Skill vs. Minimal Dungeons

Does OSR mean an Old School Regurgitation of everything that was played, printed and xeroxed in the olden days of the adventure gaming hobby? Or an Old School Refinement, taking the best products and learning from them, and looking past the rules as written to mine the reminiscences of the founding roleplayers and see exactly how they had fun?

Geomorph by Fighting Fantasist
Certainly, if you look at almost all old school modules you'll see two things that had rules associated with them: pits and secret doors. Especially in the early days, these rules were rough and ready, betraying the miniatures origins of the game: roll a d6 and fall in on a 1 or 2, roll a d6 and detect the door on a 1. Because there were rules, and character features that improved the odds, it was seen as necessary to include pits and secret doors in any dungeon worth its salt. Leaving them out would be like leaving sand traps and water hazards off a gold course.

Many, many games were played with this mechanistic, 8-bit digital method. Many more would be played using the more sophisticated rules that interacted with character skills and eventually turned into Spot checks. What almost nobody was doing was the "player skill" method that's seized the Old School mantle. Next to no space in Dragon magazine was dedicated to elaborate analog mechanical trap descriptions in the manner of Courtney's Hack & Slash blog. What you saw instead was rules, charts, tables.

So does your Old School Reenactment involve tooling around a graph paper funhouse just rolling for pits and doors? And if your Old School Rejuvenation involves tapping ahead with a pole, what effect does that have? Is the pit lid heavy or light? Might it tip open or echo with a tap? These are questions that need analog solutions, immediately bypassing the "roll 1 or 2" crudity of the Old School Rules.

Tomb of the Iron God is the dungeon we have been playing in since January. It's by Matt Finch, who also authored the 95 Theses of player skill, the Quick Primer. By the Primer, using player skill for pits and secret doors requires analog descriptions of their mechanisms. But in the module, recreating the more usual form of Old School play (or perhaps just out of reflex), you have oodles of un-detailed pit traps and secret doors. Bam! Contradiction. Yes, the module notes tell you to ad-lib ... and ad-lib I did. But I would have appreciated being tossed at least a bone or two for such frequent, important, and eventually unexplained features of the catacombs.

Next time ... my solutions and the players', an in-play review.


  1. I don't see it as a contradiction. A 1 on a "secret door check" means the PC sees a seam or something "off" about the wall. If they are using the Quick Primer, then give them a bonus and they will find the door on a 1-5. Or just not do the roll and pretend to roll and say, "Through careful study, you see something off and strange about the wall."

    At least, that is what I do.

  2. I get what you're saying. In-described pits and secret doors imply the dice method. If using player skill to figure out putting a torch in the sconce and twisting pops open the secret door, you'd think a module writer might actually tell you that (thus enabling the player skill solution).

  3. Dude! I will dig up the ad I saw in an early Dragon for book of dozens of real traps explained in copious detail for the ardent simulationist, which is the path you are heading down. I will post this on my blog.

    Simulation is not my cup of tea, but if your players like, then dinner is prepared.

  4. Ultimately, the problem here is that the Quick Primer is not based on actual play: It's theory wanking at its finest.

    More generally, the entire edifice of the Quick Primer is constructed on the premise that rules are fundamentally incompatible with rulings. The opposite is actually true: Good rules facilitate and enable meaningful rulings. (Dragolite's comment, above, is a good example of this in practice. And although he thinks that supports the Quick Primer, it's actually complete repudiation of what the Quick Primer claims.)

    1. I've been talking quite a bit about how a decision made outside of play, in the way you 'build' your character negatively impacts your actions during play.

      I also have been talking quite a bit about how the examples of the primer can be decided through discussion as a group with verisimilitude as a metric is the determining factor of resolution -- not DM Fiat.

      I'd make the points again, but they are made at length on my blog.

      The idea that it's theory wanking is foreign to me. , when I'm posting actual in play logs and writing articles that describe exactly how that type of play works.

  5. Joe, I think you're looking for Grimtooth's Traps.

    Roger, part of the fun of running old school games is that no one expects to be thrown a bone, and if you don't like a rule, don't use it when you don't feel like it. Complaining that there's no advice or the rules contradict one another is what new schoolers do.

  6. Yeah, modules are better when they include specific details on how secret doors and traps look and operate. Tomb of the Iron God suffers a little bit as a result of that lack of information.

    (Shameless plug: F1 and F3 intentionally include the better amount of secret door & trap details.)

    Study of the early versions of the rules (OD&D, Holmes, AD&D, Moldvay) yields a number of orthogonal insights on how secret doors are handled. The examples of play and the descriptions of the knock spell are particularly telling. The DMG has some relevant words on page 97.

    On the one hand, there's a more boardgame type of solution, where rolling is all you need to do, but it takes a turn to make a roll, and for some styles that's a sufficient trade-off in and of itself. On the other hand, there's the descriptive/manipulative type of solution, which is better for when you want immersion.

    1. On the one hand, there's a more boardgame type of solution, where rolling is all you need to do, but it takes a turn to make a roll, and for some styles that's a sufficient trade-off in and of itself. On the other hand, there's the descriptive/manipulative type of solution, which is better for when you want immersion.

      This is a really good way of putting it. I would also say that the two are not incompatible. As Courtney writes, find traps can be considered a saving throw.

  7. As the banner carrier of this movement, I would say that the way "many people" played the game, was perhaps not the way it was approached by Gygax et. al.

    The DMG "Play example" gives the proof of which I speak.

  8. I'm looking forward to reading your solution to this contradiction, because this is something I have noticed as well. What I have settled on is that if there are no specific triggers described (loose brick, pressure plate, pull down the sconce, whatever) then I take that to mean that the mechanism is not very complicated or well concealed and any detailed examination of the area indicated will discover the feature. Specific description is usually easy to improvise, but notes must be taken to remember the details later. For example, if a module says only "secret door in the fireplace," then any direct examination of the fireplace will reveal the secret door.

  9. @Joe: There's a subtle difference of emphasis in the Grimtooth books, the latter-day column in Knights of the Dinner Table and so on. It's in the mechanical and sadistic details of the trap itself, rather than the minutiae of how it is detected and jammed. I get the sense those books were also crying in a wilderness, read more for fun than for use, and meshed poorly with straight dumb "disbable traps" skill checks.

    @Vulmea, Brendan: I hope today's post and the following will convince you I can summon all the Old School player skill gumption there is in a foot-long beard when needed!

    @Dragolite, Guy: Upcoming also is discussion of how to mingle analog and digital play.

    @-C: I love that example, perfect instance of analog play - but like the trap books, why didn't it stick in actual play and future D&D design? Perhaps we took the rules too seriously and were waiting for the sign to say "This is OK."

  10. Well, Roger, and I think this is key.

    These were wargamers who invented these games and scenarios out of whole cloth. They invented D&D.

    It never occured to them that people wouldn't play that way

    They never thought about instructing people to not use 'skills' and focus on description -- those secret door rolls were just like saving throws, used when people walked past a door without searching. They just assumed everyone would be creative enough to approach the problem descriptively.

    There are numerous text examples in the early materials, the apocryphal "Why let us do any more of your imagining for you".

    I will continue to post examples of how this is working in play, which is well. ("I'm more excited about this game then any I've ever been in before in my life" <-- Actual quote from player)

    I am looking forward to the continuation of this series.

  11. straight dumb "disbable traps" skill checks.

    Never a more accurate description was made.

  12. Some more thoughts on secret doors, partially prompted by this post, here:

  13. As DM, I've taken to the hybrid system where I make secret rolls behind the screens for characters to notice the secret door. If the characters are successful at noticing the door, I'll give the players a real strong clue about it - something along the lines of 'Kragemor the Destroyer' notices footprints that end at a brick wall'. Then it's up the players to suss out what that means.

    If the players are deliberately searching the brick wall, for whatever reason, then I'll give them clues that let them know they are on the right track.

    1. @Warren,

      This sounds like mind reading. If they are deliberately searching the brick wall where there is a secret door, then what do they actually have to do to find it? Are they forced into playing "He's giving us hints something is here, and now we have to guess the right thing to say?"

      I am genuinely curious. My own approach is for them to detect any secret door that they explicitly search for without necessarily telling them how to open it. This way they can engage the environment within the game as a puzzle, instead of engaging _me_ who is inscrutable and prone to devious whims.

  14. @-C: That's it exactly. If there's a secret door right where they are searching, I'll tell them there's a secret door there. Not necessarily in so many words, mind you. There's a spectrum between, "You find a secret door and open it," and, "You notice something odd about the wall of the corridor here." I tend to fall closer to the latter than the former.

    Think of it this way. Within D&D there are a number of sub-games. "Find the location of the secret door" is one of those games. You can 'win' it by seraching every ten feet of wall space, through the use of a 1 in 6 'always on' ability, through following people who already know the secret, or any one of a dozen methods.

    Once the players win that game, we shift to the "Find the secret to open the door" game. There's no die roll to win this game. The players have to suss out the means of opening the door through experience, observation, cleverness, and a whole lot of trial and error.

    The same thing applies to traps in my games, too. Everyone can find and disable traps through explicit investigation, but the thief has the advantage of the ability to 'find traps' is always on, but the die rolls can be trumped by clever play. Ditto on 'disable traps', although with that sub-game the die roll works more like a saving throw to negate the effects of a botched disable attempt through investigation. Non-thieves don't get that.

    1. Warren, I'm curious which rule set you are starting with. I don't remember 1 in 6 searching being "always on," except maybe in Second Edition D&D. Maybe AD&D too; I'm not very familiar with that. Most of the rule sets that I have looked at recently (retro-clones that mostly derive from OD&D and B/X) require explicit search attempts.

  15. Brendan, Honestly, I don't know. I'm ostensibly using the Rules Cyclopedia. It could be I'm inadvertently using house rules on this one - I'd have to go back and double check to see if I'm using the rules as written or am hand-waving away the requirements for explicit searches for the sake of expediting game play. (I favor a hybrid somewhere between the old school '10 minutes to move 30 feet' and new school 'smash and grab' dungeoneering.)

    Either way, the more I think about it the more I realize that I actually apply the rules to each secret door on a case-by-case basis. For example, the last secret door I detailed is a normal door set into a recessed alcove in a natural cavern, and the alcove itself is hidden by a permanent illusion to look like natural rock wall. Dwarves have a chance to spot the flaws in the illusion, so their chance of noticing this is 'always on', but everyone else would have to explicitly state that they are searching in that area. Then they'll find the secrent door, but in this case, the only way to open the door is to disbelieve the illusion, and that's going to need somebody to roll that 1 in 6. (Again, a dwarf knows enough about stone not to be fooled, so once he knows its an illusion, he'll be able to walk right through it thus allowing the party to get at the treasure it holds.)

    Does that help?