Thursday, July 28, 2011
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Monday, July 25, 2011
When it comes to the perfect role model for the impartial ref, I need look no further than my experiences with Dave Arneson. As some of the comments of the linked article would indicate, impartiality can be associated with a "ref vs. players" mentality. I probably made similar associations myself in the past, but gaming with Dave dispelled the notion.
Being, for the first time, in a game run by Dave was a bit disorienting. When your character interacted with Dave's world, he became very animated, as if pouring every bit of his personality into making the game come alive. In between those parts, though, he seemed aloof, even detached. To clarify that a bit - if you happened to be talking to one of the elven guards watching the causeway to Castle Blackmoor, he was completely in character, and you could almost smell the salt spray from the bay behind the castle. However, if the players were discussing how best to proceed across Loch Gloomen amongst themselves, you could expect absolutely no reaction from Dave whatsoever. He would sit, stonefaced, not reacting to anything anyone was saying. If a question was put to him as DM rather than as an NPC, he would simply shrug and look bored.
If you've ever watched a court trial on TV (a real trial, not a show), you've seen this same behavior - from the judge.
"Judge" would actually be a better description of how Dave ran his games than "Referee". The difference being one of rules vs. rulings. Dave was firmly in the rulings camp. If you ever got a chance to sit in one of his convention games, he would pull out a pile of pregen characters - a hodgepodge of sheets from different editions and versions of editions. At one session, I received an 8th level D&D 3.0 Cleric, and the fellow next to me had what I am pretty sure was some sort of OD&D ranger. When one of the players, obviously confused, asked him what edition we were going to be playing, Dave grinned at him, held out his hand for a shake, and said "Hi, I'm Dave Arneson."
That particular session would have been in 2002, I believe, and just a couple of years into the rules-intensive environment of d20 gaming. It was interesting to watch players who were very much into rules-mastery and character-builds interact with a DM who could really give a shit about an opposed grapple check or what a particular monster supposedly could or could not do. Dave had exactly two ways of resolving dilemmas or challenges. 1) Make an absolutely impartial ruling, or 2) if an absolutely impartial ruling was impossible, roll the dice.
He would go so far, sometimes, as letting the players roll the dice for both sides of a conflict. Once, when the party's boat was a attacked by a horde of lizardmen, he told us how many there were, their armor class, their hit points, what they needed to hit us, and so on. They were stupid, he explained, and fanatic, and would fight to the death, so we should be able to take care of that ourselves, and he was going to go get a coke and he'd be back in a few minutes to check on us. Half of the players grinned at his audacity (me included), while the other half looked around for the hidden cameras or waited for the punch line.
To say that Dave was completely impartial with regards to the game was not to say that Dave was completely impartial with regards to players, often with hilarious results. Once, while the party was being attacked by some sort of flying machines over the swamps near the Temple, a player whinged a bit that, since he had been paralyzed, he had nothing to do while everyone else got to fight the machines, and how unfair that was. Dave regarded him quietly for a moment, then handed him a d6, and said "here, roll that every round." The player, confused, asked why. "That," Dave said, "is how much damage you take every round. That should keep you busy." I don't believe anyone else complained about anything for the rest of the session.
It didn't take long in one of Dave's games for the players to realize that we were on our own, completely. There would be no hints, subtle or otherwise, no clues dropped in our paths when we happened to go off-track. No mercy when we stumbled into overwhelming odds. No poison types fudged when we failed our saving throws. It was up to us to search, scout, research, prepare, plot, and react with some sort of competence. If not, characters died, or we as players would simply be informed that we had completely failed in our mission and that the session was over, better luck next time. Victory or defeat was our responsibility, never, respectively, a hand-out or a punishment. It was never ref vs. players, nor was it ref working for players. Dave was there to bring the world alive for us to explore, and to make sure we were engaged, entertained, and, most importantly, challenged. He did this magnificently, and when we won, we were actually proud of ourselves.
Impartiality of this magnitude was something I pretty much forgot about for years after that. For one thing, I moved away from Dave's neighborhood. For another, I got into a long-running 3x campaign, and didn't much concern myself with the "old ways" for a long time. Lately though, as I run older editions and their clones bi-weekly, I've been spending a little more time going over my memories of how things were done by one of the game's creators, and trying, admittedly against my own soft-hearted nature, to capture a bit of that magic myself.
Thursday, July 21, 2011
Probably the only tough thing about running my bi-monthly Omegea campaign (unless you count trying to stand upright after a growler of Ommegang Abbey) is my commitment to remaining 100% impartial.
Now, this is not the "mostly impartial" school of refereeing that seems to be most common in RPGs. I've certainly been guilty of it myself over the years, allowing godly intervention to "reboot" a tpk, fudging a roll now and then for the sake of the "story", even simple DM fiat just to nudge things in the "right direction".
No, I'm talking about complete, merciless, let-the-dice-fall-where-they-may impartiality. No breaks, no fudging, no second chances. Brutal impartiality.
This is especially tough in a game like mine, I think, because we have so many novice players. Out of a revolving corral of 8 or so players, only a couple are what I would call "veteran" gamers, and the rest are all artists and writers. These folks bring an awful lot of creativity to the table, which I love, but not a whole lot of dungeoneering experience, which is where the whole impartiality thing gets particularly... challenging.
Imagine biting your tongue as as a cleric throws (expensive) holy water on a Gelatinous Cube. Or the party stumbling into the same 10' pit for a second time (!) because they still haven't figured out what that optional 10' pole I offer with the standard starting equipment package is useful for. All to often these missteps can result in swift and spectacular deaths. I cringe as PC after PC blow themselves up, stick their faces into holes to have them chewed off by centipedes, and so on. Impartiality means watching them walk past secret doors without saying a word. Its watching them leave an "empty" room, which happens to have the most valuable treasure in the dungeon concealed under a loose floorboard, and not even blinking an eye. Its trying not to chuckle while they get ripped off by merchant after merchant because they haven't really tried to haggle much.
When we ended last session, the players had all decided to stuff their packs with 10lbs of oil flasks each. So that's how they'll be headed back into the dungeon next time. With 10lbs of combustible fluids on each of their backs. Did I mention blowing themselves up?
Now, as I mentioned in a previous post, everyone seems to have a real hoot as character after character dies, but I still worry about players getting discouraged. It hasn't happened yet though, and hopefully never will.
As tough as it is to maintain my "DM Face" (there are some who call it a "poker face"), I'm beginning to realize this no holds barred approach to impartiality is becoming one of the things that keeps me on the edge of my seat session after session. And, by the time these guys are running 4th or 5th level characters, they're going to be DAMN TOUGH! Because they learned it all the hard way.
What's your opinion of, or experience with, impartiality?
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
There's been a lot of discussion on the old-school blogs about D&D's implied "End Game", or what high level characters do when they're too big and powerful and important to go sneaking around robbing graves anymore. Typically this "retirement" means building a castle, clearing the wilderness around it - rendering it monster-free, and slowly entering the political power games of the region.
If you're using the Melnibonean books as campaign inspiration, however, they offer a drastically different End Game.
(I suppose I should warn you away from ***SPOILERS!!!*** if you haven't read the books yet and are planning to do so)
Moorcock's anti-hero was, of course, doomed from the beginning. We know early on that he is quite literally damned, his soul bargained away (as with most Melnibonean royalty) to the lords of Chaos, specifically Arioch in this case, in exchange for power. Adding to this doom is Elric's dependence on the dark sword Stormbringer, self-described as "a thousand times more evil" than Elric. As the series winds ever closer to its finale, Elric finds himself, often against his own will, acting as both an agent for and a foil against Chaos. Over and over, he saves his friends and loved ones from danger, only to watch helplessly as his own dark sword eats their souls. The conflict between Law and Chaos eventually heightens to the point where the entire world is consumed by their conflict.
Against all the odds, Elric proves to be a greater servant of Fate than of Chaos, and he manages to plant the seeds of the recreation of his world. There is no living happily ever after - Stormbringer inevitably claims its last and greatest victim, Elric himself.
What this all offers to the inspiration-seeking GM is a completely different set of possibilities for the big "End Game". Why not start planning the PC's demise from the very beginning - foreshadow it here and there, drop hints, insert tragedies, play up every curse and omen of doom.
Another possibility is the end of the campaign world itself. Plenty of adventure stories and games feature heroes attempting to avert the end of all things - how about making that end inevitable, but letting the player's have a hand in what comes after?
Food for thought.
Friday, July 15, 2011
Thursday, July 14, 2011
We're off to outer space
We're leaving Mother Earth
To save the human race
Our Star Blazers
Searching for a distant star
Heading off to Iscandar
Leaving all we love behind
Who knows what danger we'll find?
We must be strong and brave
Our home we've got to save
If we don't in just one year
Mother Earth will disappear
Fighting with the Gamilons
We won't stop until we've won
Then we'll return and when we arrive
The Earth will survive
With our Star Blazers
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
While the original "little" book, Gods, Demigods, and Heroes (1976) was technically the first official D&D product to include statistics for Elric, it was really the 1980 hardcover, Deities and Demigods, that would become the most notorious reference containing the albino anti-hero. Notorious because, by the time the third printing was released, two of the more popular pantheons had disappeared from the book: that of HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, and that of Moorcock's Melnibone.
Finding a copy of the rare first two printings became a sort of quest for the holy grail - it was pretty good gamer-geek cred to own one, and be able to reference Pyaray or Shoggoths when needed.
The story behind the disappearance of the two pantheons is an interesting one. For many years I assumed, apparently along with many other people (who would frequently state this), that the reason was that TSR had been busted for copyright infringement and been forced to remove the offending pantheons. The truth of course, was much stranger.
In fact, Cthulhu was already, by this time, public domain (though the contemporary publisher Arkham House would sell licensing rights), and TSR was pretty much free, within reason, to reference the material as they wished. The Melnibonean material was very much not in the public domain, but TSR contacted Moorcock directly, and he graciously gave them his permission to publish the material. So, legally, everything was fine.
Except in the eyes of a competitor of TSR's: Chaosium.
It just so happened that RPGs based on the Cthulhu and Melnibonean stories were this company's bread and butter, so they made kind of a stink when TSR released a book containing stats for what they look at as being their "territory". Not an unfair opinion, considering they were actually paying licensing fees for both properties. After some negotiation, Chaosium agreed to let the matter lie, provided TSR agreed to print a small "thank you" to Chaosium in the credits of the book. Not a bad deal, really, getting some advertising in your chief competitor's book. So that's what appeared in the second printing of Deities and Demigods.
However, by the time a third printing was due, TSR decided it was not worth advertising for a competitor, and the pantheons were yanked altogether.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
One of the most compelling parts of the Elric stories, to me, was the world Moorcock created for his tragic albino anti-hero. Elric is the 428th (and last) emperor of Melnibone, an empire which once dominated the entire known world. Conquest and rule was the natural order of things for the alien Melniboneans; the pacts they had made with the lords of Chaos, as well as their command of dragons and sorcery, made them far more powerful than the mud-grubbing "normal" humans of the world.
But their 10,000-year rule eventually led to complacency and indolence. The dragons tired, retreating to their caves for ever-longer periods of hibernation. The Melniboneans were content to indulge in the pleasures the wealth of their empire provided. Slaves, drugs, and horrific arts became their world, and their capitol of Immryr became known as the Dreaming City.
When the mud-grubbing humans of the outside world began to form empires of their own - slowly chipping away at the edges of Melnibone - it was too late for the debauched dragon lords to do anything about it; their race had sunk too far into decline. The so-called Young Kingdoms were rising, and Melnibone was becoming a relic of the past.
Of all his people, only Elric was able to truly see this. While his mad cousin Yrkoon would envision Melnibone somehow rising from its torpor to subdue the world once more, Elric would instead see the futility of this, and act to hasten the Dreaming City's demise.
To the north of Melnibone lay an isle which was unique among the Young Kingdoms for, rather than reviling it, seeking to emulate the decadent empire: Pan Tang. From their city of screaming statues, Hwamgaarl, the dark sorcerers of Pan Tang had a dream of their own: to replace Melnibone as the heart of a world dominating empire, a dream they would take extraordinary and tragic steps to attempt. The island would also produce one of Elric's chief nemeses: the sorcerer Theleb K'aarna.
Monday, July 11, 2011
Just as it would be true, in many ways, to say that LotR led me to gaming, it would also be true to say that gaming led me to Michael Moorcock's doomed hero, Elric. The albino emperor of the debauched Melniboneans, as well as his black, soul-stealing sword Stormbringer, were often brought up at game tables, but at first, I admit, I was a little leery of the character. For one thing, Elric was often spoken of with the same evil grin and "hail satan!" irreverance as the big, dark metal groups of the time, like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden.
Lets just say that, at age 10, I was more of a Yes and David Bowie kid than a Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden kid. And that, to me, to the ultimate hero was Aragorn son of Arathorn, returning from the Wilderness to save his kingdom from the dark lord with a reforged sword from ancient days, and eventually marry the hottest elven babe around.
Elric was not exactly cut from the same mold.
Yet, slowly, I became more and more intrigued by this guy everyone kept talking about. And his sword, too, the one that not only cut enemies to pieces, it fed upon their souls! And, well, it was mentioned in the DMG's Appendix N, so it can't have been all bad, right? So eventually I borrowed a book from one of my gaming buddies, a slim volume titled "Sailor on the Seas of Fate". It wasn't the first book of the series, but as it turns out, it was an excellent introduction to the character and the world he wandered.
What a journey.
Many of the books in the infamous Appendix N were influential in our gaming, but I'm not sure any set the tone of the game so closely. The dark, edgy quality of the Elric books was like a constant storm brewing on the edges of our campaign worlds, reminding us that tragedy and pathos were just as likely to befall a fantasy setting and its characters as victory or apotheosis. The books added a whole new dimension to our games - it was no longer unthinkable that an entire world could go down in flames, after all. A certain sword in the depths of White Plume Mountain became a sought after relic, leading us to replay the module again and again, at least once a campaign.
Over the next few weeks, I'm going to devote a little space on BtBG to the exploration of this character and his world.
And I'm going to listen to some Black Sabbath while I do so.
Friday, July 8, 2011
It sometimes seems like an emphasis on lower-level play is prevalent in the OSR, or old-school play in general. Now, I don't recall a whole lot of extremely high level campaigns back in the 70-80's (which is not to say I don't remember any, there were certainly a couple), but I do seem to remember lots of wishes being thrown around.
Wishes popping up in generally lower level campaigns makes me think this must have been the result of one of two things: monty-haulism, or frequent random treasure generation. Their apparent absence, nowadays, from many of the contemporary campaigns I play in or read about, I'm guessing is caused by one of two things: not-so-frequent random treasure generation, or an infection of the 3x-era ethic of "balance". I could be wrong, these are just my best guesses.
Now, back in "ye awld days" of gaming, wishes served a lot of purposes. They were an excellent way to get your character some sort of "power up", for one thing. A wish could mean an ability score bump, a sweet magic item, a level for your capped-out demi-human PC, an immunity, a special ability, or any number of other "power ups" not readily available through dungeon crawling or the RAW.
Wishes could also be used as the ultimate utility spell when adventuring. Heal the entire party all at once. Teleport everyone to safety all at once. Bring back the dead/diseased/petrified/etc/etc. I mean, they're wishes, so you can do pretty much anything with one, right?
Not necessarily. Wishes came with a pretty heavy risk factor back then. You had to be extremely careful how you worded a wish. I don't remember if it was implied in the rules, or just some sort of mass-DM-consciousness thing, but it seems like DMs were actually encouraged to try and corrupt a wish into something tragic if at all possible.
I am reminded of a time, after losing all of his extremely awesome magical loot, one of our players wished for "all my shit back".
I don't recall whether we actually dug his body out of the pile for revivification or not.
No, when wishes were stumbled across, and typically, if I recall correctly, these came in the form of a ring, wish-granting monster, or a deck of many things, everything stopped. Right then and there. It was time to take a break while everyone very carefully wrote out specifically how they would word their wish! So the DM couldn't screw us. He'd still find a way to, sometimes, though.
Despite all the havoc, I kind of miss all those wishes. I think I'll be dropping a couple of them in my players' laps at next week's session. Just to see what they'll do with them. I'll let you know what happens.
Got some cool wish stories of your own to share?