Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Multiple-Choice Dungeon Room Contents

I was almost out of junior high school when, while hanging out with some neighborhood kids, I watched them play Basic Dungeons & Dragons with module B2 The Keep on the Borderlands; it inspired me to create my own game along a similar vein (what eventually became Creatures & Caverns) before immersing myself into the officially published roleplaying game hobby. In the inaugural dungeon crawl for Creatures & Caverns I designed for the game I included several rooms with multiple possible contents. One sentence seemed to suffice for most entries. But a few descriptions looked something like this:
19) This room contains several cots, a table, and a bench.
a) The two Amazons here draw their swords and attack!
b) No sentries are present to guard a trunk sitting in the corner:
     1) The trunk is filled with 500 gold pieces.
     2) Six animated skeletons leap out and attack.*
* I have, of course, revised these somewhat so I don’t show off my extremely mediocre composition and spelling of the time.

The gamemaster could choose between given options, sometimes to reward or challenge players, or just to change the room contents from the last time they ventured into the dungeon.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Grinder Characters & Heroes

In exploring some solitaire B/X Dungeons & Dragons gaming recently I’ve realized yet another distinction in my preferred play style. Some “old school” games like D&D or other retro-clones in the Old School Renaissance movement (OSR) exemplify a “grinder” mentality, where new characters, rolled up in large crowds, are funneled through deadly dungeons and meet horrible deaths, with only the most worthy surviving to rise through the levels (a kind of “survival of the fittest” mentality devised by some roleplaying game Darwin). Yet I’ve spent much of my life enjoying games that treat characters as heroes in a greater saga, ones with mechanics to reinforce that concept while still imbuing the setting with a degree of risk and suspense. While I’m currently enjoying my exploration of my B/X D&D roots with a resurgence of excellent OSR supplements, I can’t help but question the grinder mentality and seek ways to ensure my characters survive more as heroes than ground meat.

Two elements stand out for me in the balance between grinder and heroic play: the literary origins of fantasy roleplaying, which emphasize a central hero who grows and faces risks but ultimately triumphs; and the mechanics of early class-and-level games which emphasize chance and, in doing so, deal mercilessly with beginning characters. While the literature (and to some degree other media) influencing the development and early popularity of D&D offers rich setting inspiration, the form requires a linear plot and protagonists readers care about who survive through much of the story. Literary influences play such a large role in D&D that both the Dungeon Masters Guide and versions of the basic rules include references, the infamous “Appendix N” in the DMG and the Moldvay Basic D&D rulebook’s “Inspirational Source Material” page. As a kid I was invested heavily in similar influences, particularly in tales of myths and legends, Tolkein’s Middle-earth, epic Ray Harryhausen films, and Star Wars. The literary tradition focuses on the central hero overcoming obstacles; this isn’t always conducive to the kind of experience games offer. Roleplaying games merge elements of heroic literature and other media with the uncertainties generated by game mechanics. Randomness plays a major role in many game elements, from creating a character to determining who succeeds in combat and other critical tasks. As I’ve written before, the random nature of conflict resolution in games, despite one’s best effort to hedge their bets with modifiers and bonuses, can lead to some intense frustration at dice that keep rolling poorly.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Classic RPG Books as Gaming History

The task of each generation is to interpret accumulated experience and to adapt it to new conditions. The past and the present are useless to us unless they enable us to see boldly into the future”

Major Alexander De Seversky, military aviation advocate (1894–1974)

Now and then I try expanding my horizons gaming-wise, whether trying new games (successfully or otherwise), reading more “academic” game books, or stepping back to look more closely at how newcomers (especially children) approach games. I’m a firm believer in examining history to see where we’ve been and how we might approach the future. Looking back has certainly changed the face of the roleplaying game hobby; the success of the Old School Renaissance movement (OSR) is only one example. I recently perused a few of my oldest game books from my first forays into the adventure gaming hobby during my high school years. They stir nostalgic feelings and resurrect faint memories of characters and games long gone. Yet they occasionally strike a more analytical chord with me, making me consider how publishers used to approach game issues and how we might learn from their successes and mistakes.

Years ago I maintained a short list of classic, out-of-print game resources I sought to acquire. Some of these I’d seen while immersing myself in gaming in high school, others I’d just heard about. Part of this came out of nostalgia; I wanted books I’d seen or heard of in my early years in my collection. Part came from an urge to see how publishers produced product, imparted core mechanics, and graphically presented their games; perhaps by examining them I could learn which techniques worked, which ones didn’t, and how they compared to current approaches.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A Bounty of Holiday Gaming Gifts

Throughout my life the December holidays have always provided a host of gaming gifts. Even as a child, before discovering the rich potential of the adventure gaming hobby, we always received some board game or other (as I was reminded by the piles of old game boxes my parents cleaned out of their attic and brought during a recent visit). This year my family was very generous and creative in making it a game-filled holiday.

This year's bounty of holiday gaming goodness.
I fondly recall several holiday presents in my gaming collection from Christmas past. The first year I was into Dungeons & Dragons my brother went down to our local gaming store, the long lost Branchville Hobby, and bought me a Grenadier Wizards Room miniatures boxed set and module A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords (even though I only had A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity and A2 Secret of the Slavers Stockade...). A great aunt got me Avalon Hill’s Kingmaker (no doubt with some guidance from my parents) to set me on my path toward wargames. More recently my well-advised in-laws sent me the Star Trek: Attack Wing miniatures game and some extra ships. The holidays also brought game-related materials to fuel my efforts, including reference books, fantasy and sci-fi novels, and inspiring movie soundtracks.