Monday, April 17, 2017

Matt Finch's Elegance

Matt Finch, a star of the old school renaissance if there is such a thing, and co-author of OSRIC and author of Swords & Wizardry has shown his game design ability and his acumen in regards to old school gaming time and time again. Though I only know him by reputation, reading his opinions in interviews, his comments on social media and above all his products I have come to deeply respect him. Gary Gygax he is not, but nonetheless he is much, much more qualified and knowledgeable than I to opine on the differences between versions of the various flavors and expressions of D&D.

It is with this in mind, that I would like to "guest host" his work in the form a link to a blog post he made about a year ago. In this post he quotes a response he made to a review of S&W in a Facebook discussion. The salient point here is his explanation of the differences between what is old school D&D and B/X D&D. Now granted, he is talking about a clone of B/X, Labyrinth Lord --and a quite good one at that-- but the way in which he describes the difference,

"Labyrinth Lord, which is a clone of Moldvay Basic D&D, tries to reproduce an approach that was (at the time) quite the opposite of OD&D -- namely, an emphasis on a more elegant rule-system that was internally very complete. Still open-ended and designed on a concept of a high level of DM fiat, but without the need to house-rule any fundamental portions of the rules (such as initiative)."

sheds light on the recent thoughts I've been trying to work out for myself. It is true that B/X, even as early as Holmes, and certainly by the time of Moldvay/Cook we are beginning to see the codification and formalization of the rulesets. In point of fact all of the B/X lines had the express aim of making the game more approachable, easy to understand and a way of easy entry into the game. This required a ore formalized system. What Matt points out is that the clones have gone a step further and made the systems "elegant".

Now, this word, elegant, is a very apropos word to describe something simple and easy to understand. In fact, in mathematics a proof is considered elegant if there is no simpler or more clear way to state the truth of it. And this point, that the clones went in the opposite direction of the original rules is profound. For if you have followed my reasoning, and some of the rebuttals to my reasoning (Josh Dyal has been quite skilled at the debate) then the crux of the contention has come down to whether 0e or AD&D was the progenitor of the subsequent editions of D&D. My contention was that AD&D stood alone or apart from all editions in the codification of its rules. That this was the reason Gygax said it was "different" than all the others. For there was no real way in which it could have been. What Mr. Finch does in his response to the reviewer is point out that all subsequent editions have been an effort to formalize the rules--to state them more clearly, simply and elegantly.

In a response to one of my posts Josh said B/X D&D post Mentzer became "bloated" with the RC. He is right. This is the same thing that happened to AD&D, to 2e, and to all subsequent editions of the game. The "tightness" of the rule set continued to increase to the point of 4e, one of the tightest written version of D&D I have ever played. It was an incredibly elegant game, but it was not heir to 0e. And, if I'm not incorrect, this was at least part of Josh's point.

As I have worked through the argument in my mind, I think AD&D was a more codified approach, and a more formalized one. It was not, however, elegant. That was a part of its charm. Its quirkiness, its baroque compilation of components, growing vine-like into the dark corners of the fantasy genre. And just how much  Gary meant it when he pushed the idea that AD&D was either played right or wrong is hard to know. The quote in the Foreword mentioned earlier today alludes to the spirit of the game over the rules. I've written about this before, and honestly, I'm still not sure what it means. Gary also writes about this spirit in RolePlaying Mastery. But it seems that the spirit of AD&D can only be defined as "you know it when you see it" rather than some actually clear cut form.

My idea that playing the game with greater adherence to the rules unlocks the treasure chest to that spirit is something I'm still intrigued by however. I'm just less sure what it means than I was previously.

What I am more sure about is that WoTC D&D from 3.5 on has not followed the traditions of 0e. Matt has helped me to see that in his exposition of what that old school spirit truly was. What these later editions did was create ore and more elegant systems through which to express what they saw as what D&D should be. 5e is no exception. And though WoTC's designers went back tot he source as it were, what they came out of the dungeon with was a treasure of ideas on how to make an elegant system of what they feel encapsulated all D&D has been, with a few new twists. However, the level of its elegance and if it fits the bill for those who actually played those old games is something else entirely.

Which brings me to myself again, what the hell does all this mean for me? I never really played 0e, but I did play a 0e flavored version of AD&D. It was never RAW, and I'm not entirely sure if I played it that way it would feel like the game I played back in the day. This was what Steven Warble was saying when he reminded me, "As someone who has been playing since 1977 I disagree with you. Even while Mr Gygax preached AD&D orthodoxy from his TSR pulpit, the players around the world did the same as you - played AD&D mixed with house rules, D&D, home systems, etc... "One True Way" -ism was quickly defeated at the game table."

Maybe, you're right. Matt, Josh, Steven, and Mr. Kask, who Josh quoted, and Gary himself when he wrote that Foreword ... I must admit, I'm still confused. I mean Gary wrote that article in #26, and he said some rather unequivocal things. Just how much I can rely on those words, or any words as the final arbiter of what is or is not D&D or even AD&D is more in doubt than ever. And I suppose I should quit trying to do so. Perhaps my own confusion, so evident in the recent blog posts, is evidence enough of that.

And then there's this ...

So, I was reading through the Dungeon Master's Guide and came across this quote from the afterword on that page with the now famous and racy drawing of Darlene's succubus, literally the last word in the DMG,



Right there in all capitals, the final words of the book. How did I forget that? Why did I not consider it in light of recent discussions on my blog? I think it's time to do so ...

Friday, April 14, 2017

"Be an organized player;"

From the foreword of the AD&D PHB,

"1. Be an organized player; have the necessary information on your character readily at hand and available to the DM.
2. Cooperate with the DM and respect his decisions; if you disagree, present your viewpoint with deference to his position as game moderator. Be prepared to accept his decision as final and remember that not everything in the game will always go your way.
3. Cooperate with the other players and respect their right to participate. Encourage new and novice players making suggestion and allowing them to make decisions on courses of action rather than dictating their responses.
4. If you are unable to participate in an adventure, give the other players and the DM some concrete guidelines if your character is going to be included in the adventuring group; be prepared to accept the consequences, good or bad, in any case.
5. Get in the spirit of the game, and use your persona to play with a special personality all its own. Interact with the other player characters and non-player characters to give the game campaign a unique flavor and “life”. Above all, let yourself go, and enjoy!" (PHB 2)

The more things change the more the stay the same. And this is simply good advice no matter what game you are playing, or what version of D&D. However, a few deserve special note.

Being an organized player these days is much more complex than it was in the early days of D&D. In 0e PCs could be allegedly kept on a 3x5 card! I never saw anyone do that, but I can picture it based on the early rules. And, truth be told, we recorded our PCs pretty simply when I started. Front side of a piece of notebook paper:
An old style PC record like we did back in the day
However, I readily admit that AD&D could get complex, and depending on how you played it could take some book-keeping. We certainly didn't play with all the rules, and since we didn't our homemade PC sheets more than did the job most days. I say more, because we went heavy into background information more than mechanics including detailed histories, placed of origin, etc. that certainly went above and beyond what was in most character sheets. 

And, as a matter of fact, I always thought the official character sheets were a little silly. I mean we thought they looked cool, but we always sort of held up a certain amount of pride that we used out own character sheets, and only newbs would want or need a form fillable sheet to guide them through character creation. When in reality we were a little embarrassed ourselves when we actually did try and use them and suffered no small mystification as to what some of these blanks were even for! Denial usually held sway, and we quickly reverted to our supposedly "superior" method of notebook paper PC sheets. 
A sample of an official TSR AD&D PC Record Sheet
This is the first page of the PC sheet I recall first using. And you can see my point simply by comparing the hand-written example above and the spaces on the official sheet. And this is only the first sheet in the official PC file. The above example was usually two sheets, the ones in blue (I never had them) were 4! Was it wrong to not use those sheets? No, of course not. Although it was certainly recommended. Hackmaster has a nice spoof on this in their 4th edition rulebooks clearly stating that only inferior players would bring a hand-scribbled and coffee stained page torn out of a spiral notebook to the game table. Only official, authorized Hard Eight products should be used and all players worth their salt used fine, H8 produced, Hackmaster official Character Sheets! hey got the tone right.

I can't help but wonder then, if use of the official character sheets, reflecting all of the applicable rules of the game, would have helped a player and their DMs hew a little closer to the bone of the rules than winging it in the back of their school notebook? I think so, and think so with such a degree of conviction now, that in the future I will be creating and using high quality replicas, on the original blue by the way, for use in my AD&D games! I think it will help me and my games be better. And it will certainly help me and my players be more organized as we play.

Long live Mike Carr, and Long Live TSR!

AD&D 1e and 2e Different Games?

Okay, you're gonna wanna read this article first. And no, I'm not at it again. But the last line of that article inflammatorily states:

"There was far less difference between Original Edition D&D as expanded and AD&D 1e than between 1e and 2e."

Well, we are not talking about the quote of a gaming icon here, and this isn't even technically an "article", but a well written response to a query on the RPG Stack Exchange board. But nevertheless ... And he's really no more or less qualified than I am to opine on the same issues so I'm certainly not throwing stones. And by the way, I like his run down of various differences between 1e and 2e and generally agree with most of them. I don't know if I would have done any more thorough of a job than Aramis did. But I'm gonna re my but anyway ...

I agree with him.

There I said it. If you simply look at the mechanics of 0e complete rules (all the supplements and additions in Strategic Review and Dragon) AD&D essentially takes all of that and formalizes it. Now, here comes the but, yes, my big but. It is still different from 0e. 0e was a freer and looser game, and much of the supplements and suggestion in Dragon could or could not be used depending on the DM and his players. A DM could even make up his own, and was highly encouraged to do so. AD&D was designed to be more strict than that.  Yes, I know, we all know, most of us never played AD&D that strictly, but it was at least advertised and written that way. If you failed to include officially released rules, or did not use RAW, or added in crap that changed the RAW or added in things not in the alleged spirit of AD&D then Gary Gygax at least would have questioned whether you were playing AD&D at all (c.f. the article referred to previously in Dragon #26). I've covered this ground previously, but it bears repeating here--1e was different from 0e in this regard.

So then, did AD&D 2e preserve this difference? I would say that in the original rule-books it was more or less preserved. There were optional rules in the original 2e rulebooks (non-weapon proficiencies) but there were also optional rules in AD&D (Psionics and Monks). The difference is that 2e quickly left the strictiness concept behind and released many more "official" optional rules (Class Handbooks, Options, etc). The same dichotomy that existed in 1e--rules versus improvisation--still existed in 2e; but, from personal experience, the 2e games I knew about were always a tad "crazier" and more over the top than most 1e games with which I was familiar. But that was just my experience, and I shouldn't generalize it to everyone.

That being said, I would say that 2e kept some of the tone and spirit of 1e and was in many important ways the same game. But I'll admit something. And this again is personal experience, but it is relevant I think. I never converted to 2e. Why? Because of the rules differences. I disliked tHAC0, didn't like the new Bard--still don't--preferred using Psionics in my campaign, liked Monks, loved the diabolic and demonic forces represented in 1e, was frustrated in the countless little differences in spell descriptions, etc (I have the same problem with OSRIC, and those changes are even slighter). I will admit I did like the d10 for initiative. That's because we used a modified initiative system of 10 segment rounds six seconds each. And a combat turn for us was 1 minute as opposed to the traditional 1 minute combat round. I also liked specialists mages, but was torn on some things like the thief percentile point pool for skills and non-weapon proficiencies.

The point here is that the rules in 2e could be ported into 1e easily, but I was not comfortable with the other changes in 2e--it was too different. So, 1e and 2e were different games? Yeah, I'd agree with that. My weakness in being able to say that with 0e is I never played it and had to shift to 1e. We played a "weak" 1e style gradually adding in more and more official rules as we went. Before we ever made up a rule we always tried to find an answer in the RAW first.

And the Winner Is!!!

There are no winners and losers in this discussion, despite the fact that it may appear I am saying there is only one way to play the game I am not. I am pointing out that Gary said there was, at least in regards to 1e; but even he sent mixed signals about that. For me, I love AD&D 1e, It is the clear winner--for me. But I also really like a certain style of play and some rules additions and variants that Gary would not consider "proper" 1e either. The fun is in the discussion. Recently coming across this statement on Stack exchange, claiming that 0e and 1e were actually closer to each other than either were to 2e, was something I just couldn't pass up given the recent discussions here on my blog.

Game on!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Games Based on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

We've been talking a lot lately about 0e and the fact that most games that came after AD&D were based on a 0e foundation. Were there, however, any games based on AD&D? Why yes, yes there are ... Some designers loved the AD&D approach and paid tribute to it in the most flattering way possible--imitation. This would have never flown back in the day of TSR, as they were extremely vigilant about shutting such efforts down, but now that the threshold has been crossed and the SRD published, designers are more open about such things. Some of them were even so bold back in the day.

Published: 2006
Authors: Stuart Marshall & Matt Finch

I've often wondered if Stuart and Matt created their ancronym first and created the words to fit it. While OSRIC is a cool name Old School Reference Index Companion definitely is not. However, this is the watershed clone of AD&D. Created ostensibly for the publication of old school supplements OSRIC is a fairly close replica of AD&D with a few supplmentary additions, such as weapon specialization. OSRIC is also used by a number of OSAD&D gamers as the system of choice when playing 1st E. However, there are some differences, mostly for purpooses of not violatoing copyright and several things left out for the same reason--mostly for content realted items. Overal an incredibly important work that transformed much of the OSR. A new 2013 update had been released as well.

Published: 2001
Authors: Jolly Blackburn, Dave Kenzer, et al

Allow me to gush ... Hackmaster 4e is probably the most incredible work to come out of gaming since AD&D itself. I know, I know, but seriously, the massive labor of love, gaming wisdom and deep insight into what made AD&D what it is, how TSR was and worked that went into Hackmaster makes it my favorite game of all time. What? What's that you say? AD&D held that billing didn't it? Well, yes, and if it, Gary and TSR were still around and a going concern AD&D still would be. The thing about Hackmaster that makes it different is that, not only is it afithful to the original work, it also contains within it what I conisder the spirit of the original while embracing some of those most popular and most widely used supplements, variants and additions that were commonly used in the day. Things like Critical Hits, Fumbles, Increasing Ability scores, Build Points, and the like all find a place in a work that somehow still manages to be true to the Spirit of the game. What at times TSR or AD&D only mentioned in passing occasionally in articles and obscure rules references, Hackmaster enshirnes as the central core of the ethos of the game. In doing so it preserves much of what AD&D lost through silence and the steady pressure of softer gaming. Granted, much of what HM acheived it did so becuase of the brillinat background and history laid for it in the Knights of the Dinner Table Comic Book, but if anyone whats to really know what it was like back in the day, and what Gary and TSR were aiming for (good bad and ugly) have to look no furhter than the KODT magazine and the ongoing Hackmaster universe. It is, bar none, the best and truest tribute to old school gaming and AD&D and Master Gygax ever. Unfortunately it is out of print in its original form, but more on this below.

Published: 1990
Author: Kevin Siembieda

Some might take issue with the inclusion of Palladium's RIFTS RPG, but the fact is RIFTS and other Palladium games are essentially built off of an AD&D chassis. Granted they extend the game into regions unknown and unheard of. Oddly however, at least in my opinion, they avoid heading off into the stratosphere that 2e went by the end of the 90's. While AD&D sort of fell apart in space before the demise of TSR rules-wise, RIFTS managed to stay consolidated and true to what I would consider an earlier version of AD&D generally. It certainly deserves credit as continuing the AD&D legacy in new and original directions. It did not go back to a 0e mindset, but went in its own directions from a solid AD&D launchpad. And as an aside, I consider Kevin Siembieda one of the founding fathers of RPGs in this regards, along with people like Steve Jackson, Ken, St. Andre, Dave Hargrave, Marc Miller and others in the middle expanse.

Published: 2012
Author: Joseph Bloch

I've effusely praised this gem before, and it almost became the default game of choice in our school gaming club several years ago. I own the PDFs, and would love to pick up the hardbacks sometime. Mentioned in my last post as the heir to every note and reference Gary gygax ever made about what his second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons would have been if he had been able to create it, outside of OSRIC this is probably the most accurate in actual text and rules to AD&D. It is a magnificent effort on the part of Joseph Bloch, who others have widely praised as a master of the Greyhawk Campaign. I regularly keep up with his blogging and other projects, most notably a serious effort to lobby WoTC to either issue a reprint of Greyhawk for 5e or release the rights to play in that vineyard. Joseph would be a natural for that task. 

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2nd Edition)
Published: 1989
Author: Dave "Zeb" Cook et al

Well, we might as well include AD&D 2e. While some will take issue with me including this edition in a list of variants, clones and other games that were built on the AD&D foundation; after all isn't this Advanced Dungeons & Dragons itself? Well, not exactly, and anyone who has played it knows why. Having said that I prefer some approaches in this volume, d10 for initiative, and specialist mages just to name two. I personally hate the art worse than 1e, but that's a matter of taste. Generally I will admit this was a more user friendly version of AD&D, but largely defanged of its more swords and sorcery origins. It is decidedly more high fantasy than the gritty low fantasy of AD&D 1e. But, and please notice how big my but is ... this version played as is with the core books of PHB, DMG and Monstrous Compendium is a solid AD&D game. It did expand quickly and was much less shy about adding supplements and variant rules than 1e ever thought of being. I would say for several years it did quite well. I also like the additions of the Options books as codified sets of options that could be added or used in lieu of. I can't say I liked all the options, but if you are going to have them, the approach was nice. So, there you go, the first game built on the AD&D foundation after 1e. 

Published: 2015
Author: Justen Brown

And if we are going to include 2e and OSRIC, we have to include this beautiful piece of work by Justen Brown. I'll admit I'm not terribly familiar with it, but have been meaning to read through the PDF some time soon. I will also say I am a much bigger fan of most of the artwork in FG&G than 2e, and it certainly is truer to the high fantasy feel of the work. 2e always struck me as slightly Saturday morning. The rules generally seem faithful to the 2e ruleset and deserve a place among games that have sought to emulate the AD&D approach. 

Published: 2009 (Basic) 2012 (Advanced)
Author: Jolly Blackburn, Dave Kenzer, et al

Although, not officially called "advanced" in order to differentiate it from 4e, we'll abbreviate it AHM here. AHM is the legacy of 4e HackMaster and something more. Though essentially built on the foundation of AD&D, AHM is something else as well. KenzerCo created HM as the game dreamed of in KODT, but which never felt quite seamless as a product. The extensions of the game they had added onto AD&D in 4e, were worked up as a system in AH. In this way it probably can be said to diverge the most from AD&D of all on this page, but it has something else quite profound going for it. It has the KCo team and KODT. Arguably the thing that made AD&D what it was was the tone and mood behind the game. This is what KODT and the KCo team have done so well. While all the games on this page are more or less true to AD&D RAW, what they lack is the community behind it that supported the style of play enshrined in those rules. This is critical, I think, because as mentioned in my previous three posts what made AD&D different was the ethos behind it. KCo and HM has this going for it in spades.