Friday, August 28, 2009

Friday Flashback

This week we indulge in the Dub stylin' of the late, great Mikey Dread.

Dub? You don't know what Dub is do ya?

Mikey is here to learn ya:

Have a Dub-ful weekend.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

Friday, August 21, 2009

Friday Flashback

Oh no he didn't!

Yes, The Pioneers and Time Hard, a song popularized in the great Brit Ska revival by one of my favorites of the time, The Selecter. I can't find a version of the studio classic Everyday (Time Hard) from The Selecter's Too Much Pressure LP, but here's a live clip of Pauline Black solo doing the Pioneers cover she once did with The Selecter nearly 30 years ago in 79-80.

But wait...there's more to the story! Time Hard is actually a cover of Buddy Holly's Everyday! Who knew? Or is it? I'm so confused.

Well, anyway, The Pioneers Time Hard is pure genious, and George Dekker, Desmond's half-brother, was a member of the band.

Have yourself a great damn weekend and "Hold your head up high"!

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

Friday, August 14, 2009

Friday Flashback

It's finally here...Friday!

I hope everyone has a great weekend. Here's a classic to kick the whole thing off with the right attitude:

The legendary Toots, with his Maytals. Words cannot describe the awesomeness that is 54 - 46 That's My Number (also known as 54 - 46 Was My Number):

Enjoy and stay outta the hoosegow.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Much Ado 'bout Ol' Schoo' part 3

9. The Great Unknown and The Great Unwashed: One of the early lessons I learned with D&D is, I think, still true to this day. There is a correlation between how good the game is, and how much unpleasantness one can stand. A pleasant, inviting and friendly DM might run a crappy game of D&D, but one will play in it week after week because of friendship, respect or just the social aspect and the rest of the players with which to mingle. At the other end of the spectrum is the altogether weird, antisocial mess of a DM who runs the most enthralling game of D&D ever. Games move back and forth between these two extremes, sometimes meeting at that sweet spot where you find a DM you might actually hang out with outside of the game who also happens to run the best games of D&D you've ever played in. Once that sweet spot is found, you'll probably have a gaming crew for many, many years. You might even chase off newcomers that you find seated at your table in order to protect the traditional balance of the group. In order to find the right balance, though, you need to experience as many different DM's styles and approaches as you can. Even if it means politely finishing a game when you would rather stick your pencil through your eye.

10. Writ by the Finger of God: I'm not sure this is true any longer, but at one time, early on, the entire collection of various groups I mingled with waited with baited breath for anything new offered by TSR. The Dragon was our regular fix, and the modules were our irregular binges of gaming goodness. By the time Monster Manual 2 came out, this feeling was waning. Before then, however, it felt like we were a wild-eyed, crazed pack of Gygax-addicted junkies. We'd arrive at the after-school club hoping we were the first ones to have this vital new information. Man was it cool to be the first to show up with Dragon 83 and tell the players that today they would be entering Roger Moore's The Dancing Hut. Yep, I did that. It was new, it was from TSR, and I had to limit the number of participants for fear that they might steamroll the adventure. At the time it seemed like it was impossible for TSR or anyone else to publish too much material. We were ripping through all of it and asking for more.

11. The Radiant Egg: By the time we graduated in 1984, things had turned quickly from TSR-worship to Gygax-bashing. I suppose we had devoured everything we could, and found ourselves wanting. There were some new, interesting non-D&D titles on the shelves that took the Gygax & Arneson concept, and offered fresh new themes and settings. Perhaps it was a time for change. I do think the TSR marketing at the time had a lot to do with this. D&D ads were in comic books, and there was a Saturday morning D&D cartoon that made us cringe. Only a year later Gary was actually gone from TSR. We turned upon TSR and ridiculed Gary and Greyhawk. We stopped accepting and playing everything from TSR. We started homebrewing a lot as we had done in the earliest days. I created an alien planet in my campaign called the Radiant Egg; a parody of Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits and the high fantasy of Gary's efforts, all ruled under the iron fist of a ruthless tyrant. We all had a good laugh for a number of years and settled in to a customized/kitchen sink hybrid one would loosely call D&D now. The years passed and people stopped talking about Gary. AD&D 2E was out, but by then we didn't even pay attention. Our regular games weren't quite as frequent. We had sealed ourselves off from the industry. To this day I look back and realize that the Radiant Egg was some sort of misguided pent up frustration stemming from our own reliance on TSR. Along the way we had learned enough about D&D and its concept to continue playing in perpetuity without any outside source of gaming material. In just six years we had seen it all, and come full circle back to taking pencil and paper and making the game our own. I miss Gary, I miss the old TSR, and the Radiant Egg will never be a part of any of my games in the future.

12. Winter of our Discontent: Not long after the heady days of twice a week play, after college saw many of us scatter and eventually reform, we found ourselves in something of a transformed state. Interestingly enough, our state of mind also coincided somewhat with the state of affairs at TSR. The great 80's fad of D&D was on a major downswing. Gary Gygax himself had been ousted from the company. None of us gave a damn about AD&D 2E. The guys were settling down; some engaged, others already entering the careers which they would still be in nearly 20 years later. I'm not sure if it was the gang getting older and facing real responsibilities, a loss of teenage gusto, or the game not being as fresh to us at is once was. I think it was a combination of all of these factors. We had separated and reunited after some very formative and influential years. Sure we gamed a lot during college as well, but it was never like the marathon Saturday games of the early 80's. Something happened, though. The games became more serious, more realistic, more grounded, more mundane. We had entered the long winter of our discontent, and slowly over the course of the following years the group drifted apart. Again, was this families, careers and kids, or a lack of interest in this more mature version of the game? Whatever the case may be, I have shed such unnecessary and burdensome concerns and returned to my roots; what matters now is the concept which once united us, best enjoyed in its undiluted form.

So what is old school? I'm just a Proto-New School Neo-Grognard, why the hell are you asking me? I know for a fact, based on the divergent styles I experienced in the first six years, that many readers who played during that era will offer entirely different memories and observations from the period of 1979-1985. The fact is that D&D exploded onto the scene in those years, and very soon after nearly went bankrupt. From the penthouse to the outhouse, as they say.

If hard pressed my only answer is that old school embodies the free form approach of the first decade of D&D. The one unifying element at the time was that there was no right or wrong way to play, and that everyone did so differently.

Thanks for reading, even if you only skimmed the initial summary in part one.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Much Ado 'bout Ol' Schoo' part 2

3. Wet Behind the Ears: Additionally there were already, in these early days, various divisions in the fan base. Not only did I experience the normal school boy underclassmen – upperclassmen prejudices, but there were D&D prejudices at every turn. These opinions had little to do with whether one was playing original, basic or advanced D&D. In fact, pretty much everyone was, by that time, playing AD&D. The Dungeon Master's Guide was the latest addition to AD&D, and by then it was basically old news. I owned all three volumes shortly after I joined the D&D Club. Few of the groups I played in, in retrospect, played the game in the manner envisioned by Gygax and TSR, but your street cred was established by using the AD&D books. Only a silly Freshman, like me, would show up with the basic D&D box. Most of the time us underclassmen had to make our own games, and they were, shall we say, probably what you might expect from a bunch of 14 and 15 year olds. I suppose you could say we were the Proto-New School of the time, and our games were somewhat unconventional. The only defining aspect of our Proto-New School was that we definitely ad-libbed and made rulings on the fly much more often than the older players, and we were all just fine with that.

4. A Spork in the Road: It wasn't long before us Proto-New Schoolers were the upperclassmen of the club. By then I had developed something of a reputation as one of the go-to DM's, and my regular group was expanding quickly. Soon it grew to include weekly gatherings on Saturdays at the Rec Center. So I was averaging 12 to 14 hours playing twice a week by then. I watched as the hobby grew. I witnessed the various media stories, and how preconceived notions of the game spun out of control. We were undaunted, and luckily our parents, with a few exceptions, had open minds. Especially my own, as I was consumed with the hobby. DM'ing that many hours a week meant I was spending a lot of free time in game prep. I watched as the non wargamers came onto the scene. Thesbians, Ren Fair folks, comic book guys, burn outs, the occasional jock or two, and the curious older siblings. None of which had any idea what they were getting into, and had never rolled dice except to move past Go and collect $200.00. The game was changing; the second revision of basic D&D was out. It was the first time that I felt uncomfortable with the way I saw the game being played, and was probably when I began running into Rules Lawyers more than ever before. Suddenly I was being told I was doing it wrong. The AD&D 1E Rules Lawyers caused us to become insular and selective, and from there we departed down a narrow path that would eventually seal us into an early 80's time capsule.

5. Because It's There: One of the things that many of us took great pleasure in accomplishing was a result of what was in print at the time. If Experience Tables went out to Level 29, so did we. Grandfather of Assassins? Check. Grand Master of Flowers? Check. Sword of Kas? Check. And so forth. I even recall one game that actually rubbed me the wrong way; I had a Dwarf who discovered all the pieces of the Rod of Seven Parts in the first game session. Now that's a really bad example of what I mean, the point is that we explored all the aspects of AD&D, including taking on various gods from the Deities & Demi-Gods hardcover. I mean come on, they had Hit Points. We had god-like PC's. Who says we shouldn't or couldn't? We did. And we talked about it for years afterwards. While my own campaigns ended up being of an extremely high power scale, the side effect was that I was forced to home brew a lot in order to keep things challenging. My players were crafty and shrewd. They were, and still are, meta-gamers. The game is a challenge, and they use every tool in their arsenal to persevere. After all, we were wargamers and we approach D&D with the same mentality; winning was more important than role-playing for us. If you print it we conquer it because it is there. Gamers will be Gamers.

6. Nebulous Stirrings: Obscure inspirations and unconventional themes always scored plenty of style points back in the day. At the time it was much easier to impress players than it is now, of course. There is very little new under the RPG Sun nearly 30 years later. Now we are often left with theorizing, philosophizing and waxing poetically about the old days. The concept is what was being explored. Mechanics and rules were secondary. Things worked, players understood the game, and the creative energy was spent on coming up with these unusual challenges or settings. Back then there was only one dungeon with aliens, mutants and robots. Yeah, that was old hat. You had to be much more original than that. The thing is that while the boundaries of the game were being pushed as far as themes and weird settings, no one, not a soul, even had the time nor inclination to worry about the rules themselves. The days of nebulous stirrings are long gone, and now it seems that mechanics and style are keeping everyone occupied. It was much more interesting when good ideas and interesting themes weren't simply rehashed ideas, and when the technical side took a backseat to the creative side.

7. Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble: The mindset of the average D&D enthusiast during that ascent to TSR's peak was one which was likely forged by the fellows at Lake Geneva themselves. AD&D 1E had been foisted upon the masses in what was a stroke of marketing genius. First of all it was “advanced”, and second of all those hardcover books were, for their time, glorious and overflowing with Gygax's gushing descriptions. We ate it up. The thing is, we had been trained, by TSR no less, to essentially pick and choose the bits we liked, and change or ignore the rest. This of course left plenty of room for throwing the veritable kitchen sink into our games. Not only did we have OD&D and its supplements, Holmes D&D, AD&D and The Dragon magazine, we also had tons of Judges Guild material, and oddball “unofficial” publications galore. You never knew what to expect from one DM to the next. The mechanics themselves were nearly always the same across the board, but the options were never limited to AD&D. If you pulled out the Critical Hit table from the Arduin Grimoire, nobody blinked twice. If you used some strange monsters from the White Dwarf magazine, you were outwitting the players. That was part and parcel in the wild and woolly games of the day; the cauldron was bubbling over with material from a seemingly unlimited amount of resources. Even if you never once took up pen and paper and designed custom monsters or magic items, the scene was bloated with offerings in print from countless sources; and they were never out of place in anyone's campaign.

8. Under the Big Top: While this may have been more or less a reflection of the scene at the time, I have never since witnessed it again. In both our D&D Club and our Rec Center games one would find players who arrived at the game table with one or more “traveling PC's”. I've shared a story of one such famous Paladin in our club who met his demise in the then infamous Tomb of Horrors. Traveling PC's were almost expected. Very rarely did someone simply create a high level PC in order to join into a game. In such a case the DM awarded the new player with an exisiting NPC, who for one or more sessions went from Henchman to Hero, or the new guy rolled up a 1st level character and hoped that the other players would have mercy on him and keep him safe until he could contribute. Short of those options the player would show the DM his traveling character, and after possible alterations said character would be introduced to the party. I had some fun with this too many times, to the point that my players would essentially tie up and interrogate all newcomers. I had hardened them through the long campaigns. What I took from this over the years was that there was a unique sense of community amongst all of us; we were sharing in this hobby and marveling at one another's accomplishments at the same time. Even if said traveling PC's bit the dust in one of my dungeons.

~Sham Quixotic Referee

Friday, August 7, 2009

Friday Flashback

A classic from 1969: Desmond Dekker and the Aces, The Israelites

And the 1980 Remix from Stiff Records:

Have a great weekend!

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

Much Ado 'bout Ol' Schoo' part I

A dozen observations from the front lines by a Proto-New School, Neo-Grognardian Dungeonista.

What follows is a collection of thoughts and observations that I recall from my own experiences in what many now call the old school era. Ranging from 1979 to 1985, these were my peak D&D playing years. All 6 of them, yet it feels like a landmark event in retrospect. Very little changed in fact after 1985; that is until 2007 when I embraced OD&D. But that is not the topic at hand.

My motivation for sitting down and collecting these memories is to tackle the oft asked question, what is old school? I'm part of something dubbed the Old School Renaissance. I'm not sure what the rest of the members of the OSR think old school is, or what they believe the OSR represents, so I cannot speak for anyone else other than to say that I support the OSR because I'm a fan of TSR era D&D. Plain and simple.

I was unaware until recently that many believe the OSR has a doctrine, or some unifying philosophy. As far as I'm concerned we're a collection of vastly different fans of D&D. In that regard I do not think anything has changed since 1985, when Gary Gygax left TSR.

In the effort of keeping this easy to digest, I have broken the post into three parts, and will offer up a summary that was initially going to be included at the end.

So what are the salient points for those not wishing to dredge through the sordid details of a 40-something's recollections? I will attempt to highlight them below and hope that they form some sort of understanding and not just the realization that I'm a crusty old stick-in-the-mud.

1. A wargames background that helped us form a game simulation approach to D&D, as opposed to some desire for or notion of realism.

2. There is no right or wrong way to play D&D, and each DM did it his or her way.

3. The only defining aspect of our Proto-New School was that we definitely ad-libbed and made rulings on the fly much more often than the older players.

4. The AD&D 1E Rules Lawyers caused us to become insular and selective, and from there we departed down a narrow path that would eventually seal us into an early 80's time capsule.

5. Winning was more important than role-playing for us. If you print it we conquer it because it is there.

6. It was much more interesting when good ideas and interesting themes weren't simply rehashed ideas, and when the technical side took a backseat to the creative side.

7. The scene was bloated with offerings in print from countless sources, and they were never out of place in anyone's campaign.

8. There was a unique sense of community amongst all of us; we were sharing in this hobby and marveling at one another's accomplishments at the same time.

9. In order to find the right balance you need to experience as many different DM's styles and approaches as you can.

10. At the time it seemed like it was impossible for TSR or anyone else to publish too much material. We were ripping through all of it and asking for more.

11. In just six years we had seen it all, and come full circle back to taking pencil and paper and making the game our own.

12. What matters now is the concept which once united us, best enjoyed in its undiluted form.

1. Gamers will be Gamers: I discovered D&D on my own in 1979. No one told me about it, nor taught me how to play. The thing was, though, back then, thanks to an older brother, I had already played numerous Avalon Hill and SPI table-top wargames. My older brother didn't like D&D, but he never gave it a chance. I suppose it was because his little brother had “discovered” it. None of his die-hard Diplomacy buddies knew anything about it. I grew tired of Diplomacy; it had swept away the other wargames I enjoyed before then, like Panzerblitz and Afrika Korps. I eventually discovered other D&D players. Like me, every one of them was also a fan of wargaming. Table top wargaming to be precise, miniature wargaming was still as foreign to them as it was to me at the time. We were arriving at D&D from a wargames background that helped us form a game simulation approach to D&D, as opposed to some desire for or notion of realism.

2. Unbridled Ambition: As my circle of fellow D&D enthusiasts grew beyond the first meager gatherings, I realized that this thing was bigger than I had ever imagined. By the time I was plunged into the Wargaming Club and the D&D Club in High School, there was a palpable feeling of excitement in the air. D&D was still expanding in popularity, and would continue to do so for years afterwards. Although we didn't know it, we were riding the waves of enthusiasm that were to herald in a new era in gaming and popular culture. I arrived on this scene thinking I knew all about both wargames and D&D. I was dead wrong. It was in this atmosphere that I discovered the many different approaches and playstyles popular amongst the various groups there. The gamers were exploring many different possibilities, not simply the Tolkienesque games I had experienced prior to High School. What I learned first and something I have never forgotten since; there is no right or wrong way to play D&D, and each DM did it his way.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Time in the Game

Yesterday's post, Too Much Time, was a stream of thoughts and notions likely too lengthy for most sphere dabblers to digest. Today I emphasize the end result of the treatment; the Time in the Game PDF linked under Sham's OD&D Stuff over on the right, listed as "Game Time".

But Why? I'm fairly convinced that most referees have no idea how tracking time in OD&D actually works. Time in the Game presents an organized method that replicates the orignal system while removing references to minutes, and pushes combat into an easy to fathom game turn which gives no regard to the oft ridiculed one minute D&D combat round.

Maybe I'm in the minority that finds great value in distilling such elements down to the game essentials, but I am presenting this with the assumption that it might "turn the light bulb on" for other fans of OD&D.

After all, I am the Dungeonista. I dig this sort of stuff.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Too Much Time

The biggest abstraction in D&D is Time. One of the first complaints leveled at 0e combat is the one-minute round. Many assume that the single Roll to Hit (RTH) and the single damage roll after a successful RTH are an abstraction representing how masterfully the combatant performed in that time, and that the hits dealt represent various attacks and blows in those 60 seconds. This depends upon how you interpret the guides. Look no further than the ruling used for magic shields which spells out the chance to block a single successful blow (attack). Others assume in that round that the combatant has exercised all of his experience and know-how in positioning, parrying, exchanging harmless blows, side-stepping, and generally Errol Flynn-ing it up in order to arrive at the single important RTH representative of that one meaningful attack. Maybe so. If you subscribe to that theory it's hard to justify tactical positional modifiers in your game. In reading the OD&D rules over and over, I've come to the conclusion that there was only ever one attempt to strike the opponent per round. Take into account Missile fire. In one minute a skilled Archer could loose half a dozen arrows quite effectively, and probably empty his entire quiver with non-stop launching. Again, I maintain that OD&D melee assumes but a single attack per round. I know this flies in the face of the standard oe acceptance of abstract combat. The issue is not truly one of combat, but rather the time associated with it.

For another example of the abstract treatment of the passage of time in D&D, look no further than Movement rates. The D&D Turn is defined as two moves in the Underworld. Characters take two moves per 10 minutes, ranging in distance from 60 to 120 feet. That's a rate of 120 to 240 feet in 10 minutes. Those rates may be doubled when the characters actually run in a panic situation. Hardly realistic at all.

Outdoors in the Wilderness (defined as unexplored areas, cities and castles; basically anything not in the Underworld itself) these numbers are tripled; a slightly more palatable 120 yards to 240 yards in 10 minutes. Not quite realistic either, although once in the light of day on the surface play normally becomes what is now known as hex-crawling; each Move constitutes one Turn which is equal to a single Day. But you get the idea. Don't let anyone tell you that glossing over Wilderness travel isn't old school. It was designed with the notion of rapid simulation in order to bring the player characters to their destination.

Take the rules for Surprise as another example of this abstraction of time. Surprise awards a free move segment or action, which can be taken to attack if the surprised foes are within range, and then a round of uncontested attack. If close enough the non-surprised combatant can use its free move segment to attack, followed by its free melee turn; that's two free attacks before melee proper begins. That's well over 60 seconds of attacks prior to a response by the surprised side.

Turns in 0e are so ingrained in the war gaming philosophy which gave birth to D&D that the original scheme was readily accepted, as it should continue to be. The fact is that time in D&D is all relative. It is based on Turns which begin at the high end outdoors in the Wilderness representing one Day, continue to the Underworld representing 10 minutes of movement or other non-combat activities, and end at the oft ridiculed one minute exchange of combat.

Does it really matter that a round (melee turn) is one minute long? Does it really matter that it takes 10 minutes to search a small 10 ft. section of dungeon wall? I think not. If you disagree feel free to adjust combat rounds to six seconds and Move Turns to two minutes, or whatever floats your boat. The simple Day-10 Minutes-Minute system is hard to resist for its ease of tracking. Yes the Move Turn could be changed to five minutes I suppose, but the abstract method first devised works very well if you employ it as written. When you keep it at 10 minute Turns, the characters are allowed five Turns before rest, thats 10 Moves followed by one Turn of rest, or one Hour. The Wandering Monster check is easy to track as well; in 0e it is made each Turn, or every 10 minutes.

The length of the melee turn is almost irrelevant. Whether an encounter takes 2 rounds or 8 rounds, referees will simply restart the clock post melee in most cases. So does it matter that 12 seconds or two minutes have passed? Downtime after the encounter normally rounds out the start of the next Move Turn. In my games combat normally represents 10 minutes. With 0e you almost get the feel that combat pauses the Underworld clock and moves to an abstract measurement of time in which sides simply take turns whacking at one another until the encounter is over and everyone has licked their wounds before restarting the clock once again. It's a fairly tight and simple system if you can accept the fact that it is nothing more than an abstraction and that the varied-duration game turns are all relative.

To recap, that's 10 Moves in 5 Turns, with 5 Wandering Monster checks, followed by one Turn of rest and a final Wandering Monster check. One Hour has passed. It is a simple and easy to remember system for tracking time in the Underworld. Each encounter will expend another Move Turn for every 10 exchanges of combat, or portion thereof. A typical Underworld expedition will embody up to 10 hours which includes all time spent underground and the return trek to the surface. Adventurers not resting as required, or surpassing the standard 10 hour allotment will become taxed or even exhausted.

Now we can stop talking even further about time with a few tweaks. Hours become Full Turns, and 10 Full Turns in the Underworld constitutes one Day. Other than the Day itself, all other references to time in the way of hours and minutes has been carefully removed. Suddenly we are returning to the table-top feel where time is all relative, or almost irrelevant. The true concern is using Turns wisely and effectively in the game Day.

To seal the deal consider this: All encounters which result in Combat expend one Move Turn; the first action being the melee itself, the second being rest and regrouping. Now Combat is merely the exchange of blows, each side taking turns until the outcome is determined.

I've whipped up a new PDF which considers the above information. It is now embedded in my OD&D links section to the right and is entitled Game Time.

EDIT: 3:00 PM EST: I made the changes necessary to the Time in the Game PDF. As a note, it does indeed replicate the OD&D rules with one exception; that all melee is considered to occur within the span of one Move (or roughtly five minutes for those keeping track).

I hope you find it of use. If nothing else it should help fellow fans gain a better understanding of the original system and its wargame underpinnings.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

Monday, August 3, 2009

On Deck at THM

Amityville Mike has officially announced that his long awaited Stonehell megadungeon has reached draft status. Chgowiz and I have had the copy in hand for a couple of days now, and we've both been reading it over. I cannot provide any spoilers, but what I have had the pleasure to read thus far has certainly exceeded my expectations. Like many of the entries in the One Page Dungeon Contest, Mike's Stonehell pushes the boundaries set forth and becomes its own unique vision of the minimalistic approach adopted by the author.

Stonehell was perhaps the unifying force of Three-Headed Monster Games when the idea for a gaming coop was taking shape behind the scenes at the web logs maintained by the two Mikes and myself. It was clear very early on that Mr. Curtis is blessed with remarkable devotion and creativity, and that good things lay ahead for Stonehell.

I'll withhold further praise for the megadungeon until the three heads have ushered the project along through the creative pipeline. Like many others who have followed the development of Stonehell, I have very high hopes for the finished product; which is to say that we'll be holding this publication to some lofty standards. I am convinced that the collaborative spirit of THM Games will see to it that no one is disappointed.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee