For Gold and Glory!

Branzoll Castle in N. Italy; the ‘real life’ Castle Blackmoor

(map below courtesy of Zenopus Archives)

Way back in the 1970s, before Gary Gygax had written down the rules to what later became Dungeons & Dragons, there were, as I understand it, a bunch of guys in the Twin Cities who were friends with Dave Arneson and who played war games together.  I think they used to gather regularly in the Arneson family basement and used little lead soldiers or model ships to re-fight various historical battles.

Apparently, Arneson was a bit burned out on the whole Napoleonics/historical battles thing.  He wrote that he spent a few days reading Conan novels, eating popcorn and watching monster movies and came up with the idea of a fantasy campaign with wizards, fighters, etc., where everyone controlled just one guy rather than an army. This was apparently inspired by David Wesley’s famous ‘Braunstein’ game. I think they used Gygax & Keogh’s “Chainmail” rules as the basics and expanded from there.

Arneson told his players to pretend that they were all castle guards who had been ‘volunteered’ by their ruler to go into the dungeons of the castle and find a renegade wizard. Unfortunately for them, the dungeons were vast and unexplored, so they had to go carefully, with torches out and sword drawn, exploring as they went.  Arneson had various inventive methods of resolving different issues.  At one point, when wind blew out the guard’s torches while an enemy attacked from the cover of darkness, Arneson switched off the lights, told the players they were under attack and they should try to get into the position they wanted their character to be in and then switched back on the light to see who was standing where after they had all gotten done stumbling over one another in the dark.  By the end of the night the wizard and his pet demon had killed off most of the players with only one survivor who returned to sell the magic sword he had found to the king for the fabulous sum of 100 gold coins.  Arneson’s experiment was a success and the players clamored for more.

Assuming what I read in things like ‘The First Fantasy Campaign’ (Judges Guild) is accurate,  Arneson developed more and more of the rules as he went along. One player, inspired by the Dark Shadows TV show, wanted to play a vampire, so Arneson made up rules for vampires. Other players wanted to beat dragons into submission and force them to serve them; again, Arneson (or his fellow players) invented rules.  As they invented the rules, they wrote them down. Arneson claims that this eventually became the skeleton that was fleshed out to become Dungeons & Dragons; Gygax tells a different story.  Because of a court case and settlement, we may never know the truth (and I question if it matters).

One of Arneson’s original maps from the First Fantasy Campaign book.

Arneson and his friends also ran ‘fantasy’ game versions of the battles they had played in Napoleonics, substituting orcs, elves, dragons and wizards for artillery, cavalry and grenadiers. In this domain level game, the rules were expanded to include allowing players who raise armies and attack the castles of other players.  In order to build castles and hire armies, the players needed money.  One way of getting money was to ‘improve’ your kingdom. Arneson had guidelines that a road cost x number of gold per mile, and inn cost y, etc.  If you built roads and inns and canals and towns, you could attract traders and craftsmen and villagers who could be taxed and allow you (the player) to gather taxes and raise an army, build castles, etc. It was like a computer game like ‘Stronghold,’ but played exclusively with pencil, paper, maps, words, dice and minis rather than the computer. The in-game accumulation of gold, then, was a means of allowing players to move from being adventurers scrapping around in dungeons to being generals and conquerors (which may have led to the idea that ‘gold’ should equate experience points — in the FFC, Arneson says he gave XP for gold spent in various fashions rather than just accumulated; players could trade XP for gold by spending it on “wine, women and song,” or on expensive hobbies like collecting art or exotic animals).

None of what I am writing here is ‘news.’ People with even a passing familiarity with role playing games will know all this as a matter of course (and will probably be able to offer a lot of details and corrections). But I find the concept of the original Blackmoor game fascinating, especially since it involves players engaging in both the one player = one player character style of dungeon and wilderness exploration AND the larger scale campaign/resource management game; a duality of scale concept that I find fascinating.

Major David Weasley (on Braunstein): “The key thing was letting them (the players) do whatever they wanted to do and not worry about who won or lost the game.

I’ve wondered if this “Strangler of Castle Blackmoor” movie has anything to do with inspiration for Arneson’s original Castle Blackmoor game.

The ‘Dominion’ Level Game

I’ve always had this fantasy of running a D&D campaign (or Labyrinth Lord or whatever) with player characters having their own little dramas AND a continental level wargame with country A, B and C going to war with each other, being invaded, plagues wiping out half the population and other mishaps. To the players on the player level game, these incidents might or might not have an effect on the player’s lives (much like news and current events in the real world), but, unlike the relatively static fantasy world that most RPGs take place in (or the world where all world events are orchestrated by the DM), there would always be something going on in the wider world… and even the DM (or referee) might not necessarily know what the map would like like later in the campaign. When/if player characters manage to take control of armies or perform deeds of derring do that grab national or international attention, the players may become ‘active forces’ in the world game rather than just players on an individual level. So what happens on a ‘national’ level isn’t just decided by GM fiat — it could be played out as a wargame.

Part of the inspiration for this idea comes from the original ‘Chainmail’ by Gary Gygax and Tom Keogh.  (NOTE: If you are reading this blog, it is 90% likely you can skip the rest of this paragraph…) ‘Chainmail’ is probably pretty familiar to blog readers; it’s a book of rules for ‘miniature war games’ published by Gary Gygax back in the 1970s.  Gygax and Tom Keogh were original ‘sand table’ gamers who would set up miniature armies of Crusaders & Saracens or refighting the battle of Agincourt or similar medieval period conflicts and ‘Chainmail’ was their rule set for deciding who won the battle. Later editions of ‘Chainmail’ included a ‘Fantasy Supplement’ that included rules for goblins, dragons, etc. According to grognard lore, Arneson was inspired by ‘Chainmail’ and some other games being run and talked about in the wargamer circles at the time (check out “Braunstein“) to run some games where each player controlled a single guy instead of an army. From these ideas, so the story goes, Dungeons & Dragons was born.

(NOTE: If you are a ‘grognard’ who is not an actual veteran of the wars of Napoleon, it is 75% likely that you can skip this next paragraph)The First Fantasy Campaign” was published in the 1970s by Judge’s Guild. It’s a collection of Dave Arneson’s notes and some maps, incomplete in many areas and full of typos. The rough presentation, however, does not stop me from considering it a very interesting booklet.  In it, Arneson describes the ‘Blackmoor’ campaign that he ran for years when he was living in Minnesota and it was this book that made me want to consider the idea of a micro/macro campaign where play might switch back and forth between ‘campaign level’ play (where armies clash on the battlefield and borders get re-drawn) and ‘player level play’ (where each player might control just one character). Back in Armeson’s day, if I am understanding the book correctly, the players often took control of the different forces and battled it out. Blackmoor Castle itself apparently changed hands sveral times. The First Fantasy Campaign also had very vaguely stated rules for allowing players to build roads in their kingdoms, build inns and canals, etc. Plus it has one of the most kick-ass maps of a fantasy campaign that I think has ever been published.

My Campaign Map, circa 1980 something

Unfortunately, despite the best intentions, I’ve never gotten the critical mass of interested players involved… and the huge time issue to carry out such a campaign probably makes it a pipe-dream in any case. I’ve played a few ‘skirmishes’ on the tabletop, but not every player enjoys the miniature-war-game-combat aspect and then there is the fact that my regualr gaming group suffers from what I think could politely be called ‘Attention Deficit Disorder.’ Everyone is always thinking the grass would be greener if only we were playing a slightly different (or much different) game — getting them to commit to such an endeavor would be like trying to herd 100 cats through a thunderstorm. Never gonna happen.

npc class: Doctors

“Now watch me destroy the sun with this stick!”

I’m considering possible NPC classes for campaigns that will include astrologers/fortune tellers, healers/doctors and possibly scholars (although how they would function in the campaign is still something I am thinking about).

Astrologers and scholars could be sources of possible information, but adjudicating how the astrologer ‘predicts the future’ becomes difficult if, as DM, you don’t really know what the players will do next.  Perhaps astrologers could provide answers to certain types of questions, i.e.: if the players ask, “What will happen if we enter Garagur’s cavern?” and the DM knows that Garagur’s Cavern is full of really dangerous monsters that are far beyond the player’s current level of ability, the astrologer, if accurate in his or her prediction, might reply that chances of returning alive are slim.  Questions like, “What will happen to me tomorrow?” however, are unlikely to work simply because the astrologer won’t have anything to work with unless the player character adds a provisional statement like, “… if I do X?”  Nothing of interest might occur if players just hang around their room in the inn… and even charlatans and incompetent fortunetellers could make predictions based on hunches and common knowledge and still be right at least some of the time.

On a side note, in Arneson’s original First Fantasy Campaign, Dave Arneson used random cards for rumors and the pronouncements of fortunetellers and soothsayers.  Some of which described future events (like a surprise invasion of an enemy army he might have had planned), others might have been just mystical sounding gobbledygook… which inevitably leads me to think that if a player character goes to a fortuneteller and the fortune teller says some profound sounding shit like, “A dark shadow hangs over you!” and that character is subsequently eaten by a vampire, the rest of the players are going to say, “By gods, the fortuneteller was right!”

I’m suspecting that I can handle astrologers with a simple chart that cross-references the ability of the astrologer with the difficulty of the question… and the astrologer might have a chance of returning good, bad or no information (although ethically challenged astrologers might make something interesting up even if they failed to determine anything during their “research” simply because, well, who is going to pay an astrologer if he responds, “Hell if I know” to a lot of the player’s questions?) A percentage of astrologers/fortunetellers could be frauds (no useful information is ever returned, although they will gladly relieve player characters of excess gold).

“I can answer that question for 3d10 gold!”

Scholars would probably function a lot like astrologers/fortune tellers, except they would use libraries or conduct research.  Again, there would be a dice roll on a chart that would cross reference the relative skill of the researcher and the facilities available with the difficulty of the question. Scholars might be good ones to consult on questions of history, lore about obscure cults, etc. Like astrologers, some scholars could be frauds or crackpots (again, no useful information is ever returned — or perhaps on rare occasions the crackpot or fraud could be right for the wrong reasons). 

Medieval doctor ready for the plague.

The most difficult NPC for me to envision would be the doctor/healer simply because so much of that role is already performed by the cleric.  Perhaps at lower levels, a doctor could be hired when players are attempting to recoup lost hit points and don’t yet have access to oodles of healing spells. Perhaps while resting under a doctor’s care, a patient would have a chance of healing at a faster rate from his injuries. ‘Cure disease’ spells might be out of the price range of many lower level players; perhaps ‘doctors’ could provide more affordable (but less foolproof) alternative nostrums.  Doctors, apothecaries and alchemists might also be able to analyze and identify magic potions and similar substances — again, a chart cross referencing the difficulty of the cure against the skill of the doctor might get the job done. The biggest problem here is redundancy; who is going to go to a doctor when clerics can cast cure light wounds or resurrection?  Atheists and the poor and desperate, I guess.

My real goal here is to get these different NPC types described on one page, like one of the pages from the Judge’s Guild Ready Ref Sheets, so that I wouldn’t need to describe each doctor, scholar or astrologer in detail before the game.  If the players consult one of these medieval “knowledge workers’ in game, I could just make one roll for the relative skill of the service provider and another for the consultation and then tell the players the result.  If a particular visit rendered bad information or failed to effect a cure, once couldn’t say for absolute certain that the service provider was at fault (although it might be fun to speculate on the competence of NPCs).  This is preferable to me because I’ve often felt like the DM can succumb to the temptation of using NPCs to control the players actions too much… consulting an NPC can often be the part of the game where the DM tells the players what they have to do next. If, on the other hand, the players can gain bits of intelligence of unknown value, they can decide for themselves which leads they wish to follow.

More is better; Who Cares and What is the proper response?

Cut and Paste me!

More is better: First things first — I no longer feel obligated to post on every Old School Renaissance event or outrage, but in my web wanderings I frequently come across people expressing the sentiment that when hobbyist gamers sit down to write their ‘own’ rule book, they should write something new and different from what has come before. “Don’t give us another cut-and-paste job!” the masses scream en masse from the internets with the same rage that others reserve for dolphin killers and child molesters.

I think that’s dumb advice.  I think if someone sits down to write their own rule book, they should write it exactly the way they want to write it.  If that means that the only difference between your new ‘Towers & Trolls‘  and the original game written by Gygax & Arneson is the name and just enough of the text to stave off a cease and desist letter from Wizards of the Coast, then so be it.  In the scheme of things, who cares if ‘Towers & Trolls’ sells only 3 copies and never gets played? I’m under the impression most people in the OSR do this for fun and love rather than money… and, for most of us, if we make enough $$$ to buy a pizza and a sixer we can consider it a job well done.  Like collecting stamps or building ships inside bottles, rewriting games is a niche hobby.

I realize that producing yet another clone is probably not the winning strategy if your goal is to support yourself by selling games, so the true entrepreneurs who are out to sell books and games in order to make big money might want to avoid tossing yet another undifferentiated clone onto the heap of available games… but the few OSR-ers I’ve met via the internet who are doing this for money already seem to have figured that out, anyway.

One of the reasons why I think this is so cool is I have been reading these posts on A-Plus’s “Outland” game and think it is just the shiznit.  I wish I was in his group.

Who Cares?: Paul Jaquays is now a woman named Jannelle Allyn Jaquays (sp?).  If you follow that link and read the responses, you will find out that the fact that he is now a she makes some people mad — which is really fucking weird.  What are the angry people angry about?  I imagine them saying things like, “I played ‘Dark Tower’ back in 1982 and loved it… and Paul Jaquays wrote ‘Dark Tower’ so now I feel like my world has been rocked… how could he betray us by becoming a woman!?!” 

One poster wrote something like, “This cannot be true because I know he is a conservative.”  I didn’t know there was a single specific conservative viewpoint on gender reassignment.  Is there?

I’m reasonably certain Jannelle Allyn Jaquays will not read this, but, if you do, I hope all this works out for you.

If you are one of the people who is made mad by Paul Jaquays becoming Janelle Allyn Jaquays, please post why in comments. I want to know why someone else changing their gender harms you.

What is the proper response?:  A few days ago I posted something stupid about new years resolutions and old fruit cakes selling for big money at auction and how I ought to invest in fruit cakes since I could either sell or eat them if worse came to worse. One person responded to tell me something along the lines of, “For your new year’s resolution you could try being less of a douche bag,” or something like that. I deleted the response.  In your opinion, what is the proper etiquette in this case?


This is a quote from some message board that has been cited in an internets conversation that is making the rounds of my inbox:

The first thing our DM told us when we sat down was that we would not be keeping track of our own health. This sounded strange at first but he asked us to trust him and now I’m sold on the idea. The way it works is when a monster hits you the DM describes the hit, “it was a glancing blow.” or “The blade bites deep into your arm and your vision swims.” but never tells you how much damage you took. instead he keeps track of that on his side of the screen. He gives you general ideas sort of like a terrorist threat level. You are winded, bloodied, injured or teetering on death for example.

The person introducing this quote to my inbox is the DM of the current 3.5 e game (a heavily house ruled 3.5e game, I might add) that I am involved in. The idea that the DM ‘keeps track’ of the players hitpoints is an idea I remember hearing about time and time again, but, like the baby in the microwave oven, it is not one of those things that I (nor anyone of my immeadiate acquaintence) has had any direct experience of. Everyone seems to know someone who knows someone who once talked to someone who might have sat at a table in Dave Arneson’s basement when they did it that way, but no one I have met has actually done it that way themselves.

I’d be interested in seeing how it worked out. It does seem odd that the player character knows that information when he / she is trading blows with a troglodyte in a dungeon tunnel. “Oh dear, that troglodyte just clawed me for 3 hitpoints and I only have five, so if he hits me again I am in trouble…” Sometimes suspension of belief just buckles.

On the other hand, D&D is a ‘game’ and knowing your character’s current hitpoints and other vital info can affect your decision making process. Although it is a game where ‘playing’ rather than ‘winning’ is the point, taking that information away from the player will handicap the player’s decision making process and makes the player more dependant upon the dungeon master, which is an aspect that kind of rubs me the wrong way. I really hate it when the DM controls too much of the lives of the PCs; I feel that character decisions, for good or ill (and suspension of belief notwithstanding) should be made by the players, not the DM. By taking away exact knowledge of the player character’s resources (like ‘how many hit points do I have left?’), the player becomes more dependant upon the DM.

I also worry about the amount of number crunching that this requires. It becomes one more thing the DM needs to keep track of, meaning that the DM turns more of their attention to record keeping and less to the players, which may cause the game to lose focus.


Blackmoor: Return to the Origins

One of my art teachers used to like to say, “The essence of originality is a return to origins.” At the time, I think he was trying to tell us something like, “All ideas come from somewhere, so if you like the way a given artist uses leaf shapes or animal shapes, etc., then, instead of imitating that artist, go look at leaves or animals.”

It is in this spirit that I have dug out my old copy of the medieval miniatures game, “Chainmail” and my copy of Dave Arneson’s “First Fantasy Campaign.” I’ve been thinking about running a continuing campaign with fantasy armies battling for supremacy in a fantasy continent reminiscent of Tony Bath’s “Hyboria” campaign for a long time. A few years ago I tried to jump start interest in a D&D campaign that switched back and forth between players RPGing adventurers going on adventures and generals running armies with mixed success by surprising the players with a war game one night. I don’t think the players liked it that much.

Instead of trying to sell others on the idea, I have begun to think about just doing a ‘minis’ campaign for my own amusement, and fighting pitched battles where I can play the part of both generals and allow fate (or the dice) to decide the course of empire.

I already have a fairly substantial collection of minis, including lots of orcs, goblins, humans, etc. I have some scenery (including scratch built buildings) although the terrain in my photos (link above) is long gone. I originally wanted to do this with my own fantasy maps, but recently I came across my copy of “The First Fantasy Campaign” and think I will just use that.
The rules will be Chainmail, with certain modifications (I think Chainmail’s morale system is impossibly complex and want something simpler).

My basic idea is to set up the fantasy kingdom as it is described in “The First Fantasy Campaign” at the start and establish each kingdom (Blackmoor, Egg of Coot, Duchy of Tehn, etc.) with a baseline of resources, including armies, monsters, etc. Then I would like to write the general motivations for each kingdom/power. The Egg of Coot, for example, wants to conquer all others on the map and convert them to his/her/it’s territories. Then I need to come up with random event cards (there are about 50-60 already in the First Fantasy Campaign) which randomly indicate viking attacks, diesease or plagues, storms, invading orcs, etc.

Hopefully, when I am done, like a ‘low tech’ game of the “Civilization” computer game. I can set events in motion and see how they develop. If Egg of Coot conquers or destroys one of Blackmoor’s villages, then Blackmoor is less able to regenerate/replace troops or supplies.

Although given everything else on my plate, I need another project like a hole in my head… but I’ve wanted to do this for a long time and have always delayed because “the time was not right” or I couldn’t find others interested. Enough. I’ll try to keep the general public informed and maybe even set up a blog/site with battle reports once I get going.

Changes afoot with Swords and Wizardy

In case you haven’t heard, Mythmere Games (makers of Swords & Wizardry) has now partnered up with Frog God Games (an offshoot of the company formerly known as Necromancer Games). Earlier today there was a bit of a brou-ha-ha over the wording of an annoucement with comments that vary from critical of to supportive of the promises of new “professionalism” in production values that Frog God Games has sworn to deliver.

In case you don’t know (and I can’t imagine you don’t), Swords & Wizardry is orginally the brain child of Matt Finch, a fan of the older editions of D&D who used the “Open Game License” and “System Reference Document” issued by Wizards of the Coast during the 3e and 3.5e heyday to make a game that plays so much like the original D&D (with just product identity and copyrighted names and terms stripped away) that one could barely notice the difference between the two games. Read more about it here.

As is usual with the OSR community, this latest announcement has stirred up some controversy. I’ll let you follow the links above and figure it out for yourself.

The thing that I find regrettable is that apparently they have decided to reissue the Swords & Wizardry rule book with some new content and a new cover. The original cover, by Peter Mullen, is above at left. You have your group of crazy adventurers, dressed in outlandish armor, hoisting the halfling up into the lap of a dead giant’s skeleton so he can steal the gem from the pommel of the giant’s sword. Not only is it a great, evocative illustration, but it also has a unique character and ‘look’ that hearkens back to TSR artists like Dave Trampier and Erol Otus without slavishly copying them. As an artist myself, I love Mullen’s work.

According to their press release
, Frog God Games is going to release a new copy of the rules with a new cover (see at right). I’m not sure who the new artist is (Rick Sardinha?), but I find the decision disappointing. I know that the new cover looks more ‘current’ and ‘contemporary’ — more like the cover of a mass market paperback than Mullens’ weird, indie-looking picture, but, despite the great technique and cool, computer generated painted look, the new cover doesn’t scream “pick me up and play me” like Mullen’s cover does. Mullen’s cover recalls the spirit of the art on the Dave Trampier AD&D players handbook that featured a group of adventurers in a temple with a pot-bellied demon statue where two adventurers were prying a gem as big as a human head out of the eye socket — at least for me. The new cover? It looks professional — but also looks a little bland — like this cover could be on just about any 4e era or 3.5e era WOTC product. The new cover is technically and artistically very accomplished… and is much better than anything I could ever do. But since I think the main strength of a game like ‘Swords & Wizardry’ is that the D&D player who last played 30 years ago will be perfectly at home with this rules set, making this “retro clone” game look more like another post-Gary Gygax/Dave Arneson modern RPG game is, in my opinion, a step in the wrong direction.

I don’t pretend to know dick about how you successfully market a game. But I know what I like. Peter Mullen’s cover rocks. I wish I had a ton of money so I could buy the original artwork from it and hang it in my house.