Sunday, May 10, 2009

Of Wombats and Zipper Arms

Three decades after the fact, I find myself often looking back with dismay at some of the…shall we say “gonzo”…stuff that I devised for my (A)D&D games of yore. Sure many of us used the AD&D hard covers, but the electricity in the air was still the anything goes feel of the original three volumes. In hindsight it might have been Dave Hargrave’s Arduin that kept that link alive during the long night of AD&D for my particular gaming generation. We were often a house divided; Gygaxian devotees and guys who appreciated Hargrave and such other non-TSR things as the supplements by Fantasy Art Enterprises (Erol Otus and friends). I suppose you could simply say the Realists and the Dreamers. I never began playing this game in an effort to pursue realism. In those days, D&D was a way for me to explore the fantastic, not to quibble about such perceived non sequiturs as Dungeon Ecology. As I’ve written in other forums, the notion of ecology in a multi-level subterranean construction is akin to explaining exactly how Bugs could’ve possibly taken a wrong turn in Albuquerque; to fret about such details is entirely missing the point. It’s Fantasy. The free play of creative imagination, so extreme as to challenge belief.

It was many gaming sessions later that one of my players asked that fateful question, “What do these Monsters eat down here?”. The simple answer was obvious, “Why, YOU, of course!”, but I understood the line of thinking. It was a subject I had already encountered in an issue of The Dragon, a notion which at the time I found to be the antithesis of what I had come to expect from D&D. This is not to say that my dungeons at the time were simply an endless series of rooms with random monsters waiting patiently for the adventurers to open their locked or stuck doors, no. I don’t rightly think I ever designed such a dungeon, even in the earliest days. Nonetheless, the concept of Dungeon Ecology to this day rubs me the wrong way. It’s like Jumbo Shrimp.

All of this said, I did indeed fall into the Dungeon Ecology trap as my games and campaigns progressed through the years. Careful consideration was given to such things as food, air and light. Worst of all, the dreaded notion of Reason was beginning to guide my hand. During this long period, most of the more outlandish things I had hand written and gleefully unleashed upon my players in prior years began to gather dust in my gaming closet. Things were becoming, dare I say, decidedly sensible. I was still able to be imaginative and push the envelope in limitless directions, but in the end I think my adventures became less inspired and more restricted by the laws of logic. Reason was taking root, and diminishing the free flow of boundless creativity.

2008 was the year I folded up my tent and returned to the Dreamers camp, that of Unreason. Now, for whatever reasons, I remember why 30 years ago I never liked that Let There Be a Method to your Madness article in The Dragon. Logic, Reason and Dungeon Ecology had elbowed their way into my games, bringing perhaps a bit too much realism to the fantastic. I suppose you could say I’ve evolved, as do all old hands at Dungeon Mastering. These days I restrict the truly fantastic to the Underworld, while things in the Light of Day on the surface remain somewhat logical. The Wilderness is that grey area betwixt the Underworld and the Light of Day where little bits of Night’s Chaos might still be encountered without warning. So here I find myself now, having come nearly full cycle in my gaming sensibilities.

But what of those aforementioned teenage creations I had written so fervently all those years ago, the ones which I slowly expunged from my later games? I’ve already shared quite a bit in regard to what I did with Hargrave’s Whimsey idea. I still shudder when I read most of that. Would such things entertain my gaming group as it now stands? A few nostalgic laughs at best, methinks. I speak of the other off the wall creations that are slowly fading alongside those Whimsey Tables in my gaming closet. Things like Wombats as a playable race, and the infamous Zipper Arm that each and every player was willing to risk his character’s life for. Here’s a smattering of the possible classes which a character could pursue in those campaigns:

Celestial Crusader
Knight of Liberty
Mystic Knight
Death Dealer
Dimension Dancer
Corzan Warrior
Nesdeon Mage
Knight of Radiant Glory
Dies Iraen Gladiaor
Mar-Vexian Mage
Mar-Vexian Super Soldier
Witch Doctor
Rhythm Walker
Pit Fighter

That’s two dozen, and there were more. Someone, at sometime, played each and every class I devised along the way. Some were created from suggestions by players. I embraced the entire notion that in D&D, the players can be whatever they want to be. One such player wanted to run a multi-classed Phraint Ninja/Engineer which we subsequently dubbed the Ninjaneer. As ludicrous as it might seem now, these are some of the idiosyncrasies which I remember best. Being the nebbish that I was, I was compelled to write up a full description for each such class. There are stories of older D&D games from other DM's in which players were allowed to run anything, but these are mostly in regard to controlling a Monster. We never did that, except with a few notable exceptions in which participants attempted to thwart the other players while incognito, normally as part of the unfolding campaign flow. The above is a list of 24 examples of how I let the players play whatever they wanted to in my early games. I read these homemade classes in the same way I now read my Whimsey Tables; with what I’m afraid might be a jaded eye.

Whatever I think of these reams of notes NOW they certainly worked back THEN. I’m just not sure if what worked was the creations, the way I ran my games, or the chemistry of the assembled gaming crew and our anything goes mentality. No one told us how to play, only showed us possibilities. We were determined to explore the concept to its fullest extent.

One of these days I’ll tell you about Floid the Mongoloyd, Kaledron Kaleidoscope, and the now infamous Zipper Arms; a story which involves the Dark Side of the Moon, Hans the Uber Nazi, an army of Daemon Ducks, and the Seven Lords of Time. Gonzo nothing. More like Double Live Gonzo.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee


Timeshadows said...

Whew! I wasn't the only one, then?!

* Syn the Math Mage, who, for reasons which escape me now, had a single arm that had originally belonged to the bear that claimed his arm. NPC

* Boots, a mystical white raven with eponymous boots who generally acted as the foil to naive PCs. NPC

* The Celt, a half-Pict, half-Roman, time-lost mercenary who first appeared in FGU's MERC game in the Rhodesian Wars, and later showed up in Dead Lands. My PC.

The people paid for their tickets; we put on the show.

Ragnorakk said...

Well, since you've offered, I'd like to multi-class Stonebinder/Rythm Walker. My giant list of classes grew to titanic proportions after dame Reason had established herself pretty firmly in my 'how-to-game' concepts - so my list is
really practical, methodical and mundane. I like yours better - sounds like you had some very inventive players!

Scott said...

Syn the Math Mage was asserting his right to bear arms.


Anyway, when I lived in Australia, one of my campaigns had "Womble" as a playable race. I believe the kid who played a Womble played him as a Norse warrior-type named "Oslo" or something, and had the whole Hammer of Thunderbolts package (Girdle/Gauntlets/Hammer).

shimrod said...

Hey Sham!

A more general question/comment: I drool over The Dim Expanse. I’ve been gradually trying to gently introduce the idea of playing OD&D or one of the other early sets (like Labyrinth Lord) to my group, and if you ever published any version of your setting, I would allow them no excuse. Do you have any plans as far as how much and how soon you’ll post and/or publish more?

Sham aka Dave said...

Timeshadows: Nope, apparently not! :-) Lots of extra time and a vivid imagination can sure lead to some wacky games of D&D.

Ragnorakk: I foisted plenty of far out stuff on the poor souls along the way, but the campaigns themselves belonged to all of us, including the strange homebrew results.

Scott: When I returned to the USA at the age of 9 after three years in England I really missed those darned Wombles.

Shimrod: I'm glad you like my ramblings. I do have plans for such things, including the Dim Expanse and the Dismal Depths, among other projects. Finding the time to transition these notes from projects to actual products (either as PDF or POD) is my only issue right now. In regard to rules, they should work well with pretty much any older version or retro rules light one (or maybe even my own rules hack, but that's yet another project on the back burner).

Timeshadows said...

@ Scott: 'Syn the Math Mage was asserting his right to bear arms.

Sorry.' -- lol/groan

@ Sham: Definitely. :D

This has been a lot of fun to read.