Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Cauldron of Creativity, or the Early Days of RPGs: The Movies and Television

   The crew on my Discord have been asking me to talk about the culture of the early days of the RPG hobby. While I started relatively late (only began playing in '77 and didn't start DMing until '79) I am very much part of that First Wave and, as a Gen Xer, was definitely in the culture.

  This is going to be bounding around a little bit between TV, movies, movies on TV, the dawn of the VCR age, etc. but I will try to focus on '75 - '84.

  TV was rather different then and I find it hard to explain to my own children who grew up with cable and on-demand and are now in the age of streaming services. In general unless you had access to an independent station you got what everyone else got - I Love Lucy, Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island, Saturday morning cartoons, and so on. I was lucky enough to live within range of Channel 4 out of Indianapolis and had access to their indie shows like Science Fiction Theater, Horror Theater, and (of course) Sammy Terry! So before I got to RPGs I had seen all the classic Universal horror films, all the Godzilla movies of the day, and a ton of Hammer horror, to boot. This background stuff is more important than you think. For example, the description of a vampire's abilities obviously draws on Hammer horror films at least a little.

  The theater movies that were current or coming to TV at the time were certainly something that influenced the games I was part of or knew about. A memory that came to me as I was writing this was how I visualized the very first dungeon I went into as being like the ship in The Poseidon Adventure after it capsized; strange, threatening, and full of things that could kill you. The Omen and The Exorcist were certainly influential and I remember one of the first cleric PCs I saw, run by an adult, was named Father Karras.

  But the big names in the room of movies in that era were the blockbusters and the cult films. 1975 was the year Jaws came out, and that film is a horror film that taught a lot of young dungeon masters that less was more - keep that monster in the shadows, behind the trees, around that next corner, and let the players' own imaginations terrify them. 1975 was also The Rocky Horror Picture Show a cult film that starts as horror but turns out to be science fiction, shredding genre limits (and being goofy fun).1976 had King Kong, a big monster film and inspiration for at least one module, of course. But it also had In Search of Noah's Ark

  Yes, In Search of Noah's Ark. Never heard of it? It is based on a book theorizing about where Noah's Ark came to rest (no, really!) and, brace yourselves - It out earned The Missouri Breaks, Midway. Marathon Man, and Carrie. But stuff like that, Chariots of the Gods, films about Nostradamus, documentaries on Bigfoot, UFOs - they were all very popular so secret histories, conspiracy theories, alien invaders, and so on were certainly part of general culture and the bleed over into gaming was massive. 

    1977 was a big year with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind both being incredibly popular all over the world. But you also had Planet of the Dinosaurs, Damnation Alley, Island of Dr Moreau, The People that Time Forgot, and Wizards, all that same year! A ton of science fiction, and that really impacted gaming, especially since Traveller came out that year, too, perfectly timed to be the science fiction RPG of the old school. That was also the year of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, a great D&D movie if there ever was one.

  So you can see, just as the Monster Manual was hitting shelves and ushering in AD&D 1e the overall culture was neck-deep in science fiction, fantasy, and gonzo films and TV.  As AD&D was released slowly from 1977 through 1986 [yes - really] the initial RPG explosion that gave us everything from Traveller to Rolemaster to WEG Star Wars and so on we also had the VCR explosion that was essentially ubiquitous by 1982.

  Then the golden age of VCR films really began. Flash Gordon, Hawk the Slayer, the Archer, Dragon Slayer, Excalibur, Time Bandits, Ator the Fighting Eagle, Beastmaster, Conan the Barbarian, the Dark Crystal, and the Sword and the Sorceror, all top-shelf cheesy fantasy films, all part and parcel of the RPG mentality, were all released within 32 months of 1980 and 1982! The incredible volume of fantasy, science fiction, post-apocalyptic, and "what the Hell did I just watch?!" movies from 1977-1985 is probably beyond the ability of Man to count. and with VCRs all over and the glorious mom & pop video stores willing to put Italian Giallo movies on the shelf if soldiers, college kids, and band nerds were willing to rent them they were everywhere.

  The two movies I want to single out today will probably surprise you. Everyone who knows me know I am constantly promoting Hawk the Slayer, Beastmaster, and Deathstalker II as not just wonderfully entertaining but D&D adjacent, but! I think the best movies to illustrate the Old School RPG Attitude are - 

    The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension and Big Trouble in Little China. Both of them use genre as a descriptor, not a confinement. Both have a ton of details and throw information at the vuewer left and right.

  Look at the opening of Buckaroo Banzai: the movie cuts back and forth between a military test range and an operating room letting us know Buckaroo has been called in to assist as a neurosurgeon then (after recruiting a new member of his team) arrives to drive a rocket car. At about 8:30 into the movie it is casually mentioned that his jet car has broken the sound barrier and that's not the most interesting thing he does in the jet car before 10:30. 

  In BTiLC the motivations for the villain is casually mentioned in a bunch of fast-paced patter and the existence and powers of the Three Storms are just - there. Why are there rival martial arts gangs like a Shaw Brothers film and dueling wizards in contemporary San Francisco? The real question is "why not?" because they certainly never spell it out slowly for the viewer

  And let's pause to discuss the big fight in BTiLC: The leader (Wang Chi) and his pal Jack Burton get a wizard and a bunch of martial artists together then sneak through monster-haunted dungeons to break into the fortress of an evil wizard to save the prince-, uh, fiancĂ© and reporter. BTiLC is part western, part Wuxia, part heist film, and ALL Dungeons & Dragons. To old school RPGers the massive martial arts fight/wizard duel in a neon-lit room with an escalator was pure gold.

  As mentioned, both use genre as a reason to expand, not contract, and both let us know they have a solid, consistent internal logic that is shown on the screen not explained to the audience. They involve groups of people with various talents teaming up to defeat evil with a broad ensemble of skills and abilities.

  But most importantly both assume that the audience is intelligent. Each film is packed with references to the reality that exists within the cinematic universe of the particular film that imply a huge, sprawling world where you just know is full of other stories just as entertaining, fun, and excisting as the one you are watching.

  This attitude, where your AD&D 1e campaign could have a villain with a three-bladed rocket-propelled sword, you might run into a very odd mechanical monster deep under Mount Thunder, and everyone knew what a certain chant meant (bad news) was common in an explosively creative time for RPGs and unique, personal campaigns flourished. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't 'every campaign used everything from everywhere'! I firmly disallowed three-bladed swords, but did not have a problem with steam-powered 'muskets', for example. But the 'pop culture is a buffet for RPGs' was just an assumption for the majority of us. But, again, the most important element was that the RPGs also assumed that the gamemasters and players were intelligent - and creative. There was 'space' inside the best games for you to make it what you want, add and subtract what worked for your table.

  For as many times Gygax wrote 'there is ONE WAY to play AD&D!' in the DMG there are three things listed as 'optional, like six-guns, power armor, and dynamite. The artifacts and relics in the DMG include the computer from Altair IV, the steam organ of the Gods, and a giant mecha. This multi-genre, make it awesome but stay internally consistent ethos was the core of actual old school attitudes toward play.


Sunday, October 2, 2022

Massive Session Report: from West to East

       Hello, folks, it is time for a massive update! There were two sessions recently, both played on a weekend. In the first one we had

      Hans Shrek, World's Strongest Halfling and his henchmen

      Ingrid, Fighter and her henchmen

      Thorin, Fighter/Thief and his henchmen

      Starkiller, Cleric/Fighter/Magic-user, and his henchmen

     Graystar, Magic-user, and his henchman

Monday, September 5, 2022

Session Report: War in the Stone Hills!

   The most recent sessions took place in the Stone Hills west of Seaward.

The heroes were:

Carlton - 6th level paladin. The Hero of the Battle of Eagle Valley. Famed as a master of the lance.

Fiona - 4th/4th Fighter/Magic-user. Elf. Known as a tactician and for her keen senses.

The Sparrow - 8th level Thief. Through magic and cunning fights with a two-handed sword. One handed. Senior thief in the Company.

Akira - 7th level monk. The Man with the Eldritch Fists. 

Conrad - 6th/5th Fighter/Cleric. Dwarf. Champion of the Innocent, Defender of the Downtrodden, hammer of Foes.

Henchmen brought the party to a total of 11 members with levels. The Hills are rugged and empty so they brought a dozen mules loaded with provisions and gear, 2 drovers, a cook, and a camp guard to hep the henchmen.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Time After Time

   I am currently running about 12 players in my AD&D 1e campaign in roughly 3 three groups.. This means that I must keep STRICT TIME RECORDS as gary mentions.

  But why?

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Common Elements of Epic Adventures: Familiar Faces

   For those that don't know I had a serious health crisis early in the year. I didn't cheat Death, but I did win on the long odds. Three times. So blogging was light.

  Returning to my discussion of Epic Adventures let me address the first element I think they have in common: the characters are neither low nor very high level. 

  This doesn't mean 'start the PCs at 5th level so they can be epic!!'. This means that the PCs have to grow into their own as well as into the campaign. Among the concepts of my gaming philosophy [Psychotronic Gaming] is the ideas that PCs drive action and that status quo is the enemy. Combined with the rest this means that as PCs start, level up, grow, and develop they inevitably change the campaign and grow to be a part of it. Verisimilitude and resource management effectively forces the PCs to have their own individual, unique relationships with multiple NPCs ranging from hirelings and henchmen to mayors and sages. In the end after 2-4 Real World years of gaming the PCs are integrally part of the campaign such that what their actions and fates matter to the campaign as a whole.

  There are no shortcuts to this. This is something that is organic to the "process" of RPG campaigns. Like true inside jokes. in-group jargon, etc. it can only healthily develop and 'set' over time and with familiarity. Just making a mid-level character and slapping them into a contrived huge battle to save the world is going to have the elements of an epic adventure but won't be one.

  Many bad movies have the elements of a good movie: established, well-known actors; famous writers; famous directors; etc.; yet miss the mark and are, well - junk. Do people watch it? Sure. Might it be a cult film? Yes. But that is NOT because it is epic.

  Just like a lot of creative endeavors/art quality and expertise takes lots of time and practice and that includes with individual characters within an RPG campaign. Relationships between PCs and between PCs and NPCs alone take a lot of time! 

  This means the build up to a truly epic adventure is going to take years of Real World time. The good news is, those years will be full of great fun with friends.

Next time: why you can never plan an Epic Adventure.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Back in the Day: Playing The Never Used Rules

   As most everyone who finds this obscure blog knows I started playing OD&D in 1977 and switched to AD&D 1e in 1979 and have been playing 1e ever since. In August of 2022 my 1e campaign, still running, turns 43 years old.

  Online I see a lot of statements that are variations of, 'I am certain that no one ever used [AD&D rule X]', usually met with choruses of approval. So let me tell you the rules I used then and now!

Grappling, Pummeling, and Overbearing:  Always used them. As a matter of fact, overbearing was a critical element of the fight in Eagle Valley. The base numbers are super-simple to pre-calculate and if you understand the rules it is as fast as any other combat.

Encumbrance, Rations, Light Source Duration: Not only have I always used these rules, they are critical to the game!

Maximum Level of Spell Knowable, Maximum Spells Knowable per Level, Spell Components, Chance to Learn, etc.: These rules are very important to make magic-users work right and I have always used them.

Armor Type Adjustments, Weapon Speed, Area Needed by Weapon: Always used them as one of my players pointed out. If used it means more weapons than you think are great weapons.

Maintenance Costs, Training Costs, Training Time, and Modifying Training Time: I have always used them, although I did adjust maintenance and training costs for some classes, like monk.

Psionics: Always used them, although the tiny handful of PCs with psionics sometimes wish they didn't have them.

Reaction, Morale, and Loyalty Checks: Like Grappling, etc., the modifiers are easily pre-calculated and with practice the use of these rules is very fast and smooth.

Race and Sex based limits to Attributes, Classes, and Levels: Again, always used them, still use them with some modifications. For example, very recently a half-elven ranger in Seaward went to 7th level because the character had earned 5 times the normal amount of experience to go from 6th to 7th.

Initiative, Combat Sequence, and Segments: By 1982 I began experimenting with initiative rules and went through at least 5 major variations of initiative by 1988 until I settled on one that is very close to the rules in the book with a few exceptions. So I have played by the book, otherwise, and am now virtually by the book. I have always preferred segments and my players will tell you I 'count segments' as a way to manage and speed up combat.

I probably missed a few, so let me know what other rules you have questions about.

And I was never alone! I have many friends from then and now that used/use these rules!

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Psychotronic Gaming: Status Quo is the Enemy

   A key element of Psychotronic Gaming is that change must occur

  There is a tendency for campaign settings to remain static, especially mass-produced settings - the same king is King of Kingdom X; the same Cleric is Theocrat of Y; the same dragon menaces trade along the coast of Z; etc.

  This seems very close to how comic book continuity morphed from a tool to allow better storytelling into a straight-jacket that suffocates innovation. In Marvel Comics the Fantastic Four always got their powers about 17 years ago and in DC Superman made his debut as Superman about 10 years ago - forever.

  If you want your TTRPG campaign to last you CANNOT do this! Change is as critical as keeping strict time records!

  Here is an example from Seaward.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Common Elements of Epic Adventures

   Returning to more frequent blogging after a critical illness, I hope that you remember that I was just starting a series on Epic Adventures before I was taken ill. This is what is often called a 'setup post' - I am discussing what I will be discussing in future articles.

  In reviewing the common elements in the various epic adventures I have played in or run I have identified a few common elements they seem to share. To wit:

1) The player characters are neither new nor high-level. What I mean is it appears that the 'sweet spot' of the most epic adventures involves PCs of 4th to 8th level. Competent but nor overwhelming.

2) Treasure is not a primary motivation. While there is almost always a lot of sweet loot involved after the adventure is over, the motivation for the adventure is never primarily treasure.

3) They involve large numbers of characters and/or NPCs, usually enough combatants to make mass combat a necessary element of play. 

4) The stakes are high. 'Failure = guaranteed TPK' is usually the minimum threshold for an adventure to be epic.

5) The outcome is unpredictable. Even if the PCs do everything they can to stack the deck in their favor no one, including the DM, is sure who will win.

6) They involve NPCs familiar to the players. Not as universal as the others, this seems to make it easier for an adventure to be epic.

  Over the next few weeks I will be blogging nd podcasting about these individual elements.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Slowly Turns the Tide

   Back when I started this blog almost nine years ago (hard to believe!) I had never really combined the internet and RPGs. I hadn't ever gone to an RPG forum (and now post about once a year on HERO Games forums). I hadn't ever done much, if anything, on Facebook RPG groups. Heck, I had no idea what Dragonsfoot was until a month before I started this blog! I had made a Google+ account and found out that there were a ton of RPGers there, started this blog, and perused some of the internet's RPG resources.

  There were plenty of blogs and many of the good ones are still around, and have been joined by new good ones. G+ had a ton of good discussions. But I was disconnected from a ton of gaming at the time. I was clueless that the Forge was ever a thing and didn't know how weird people could be, although I learned fast - it is long deleted, but when I did a review of the free 5e PDF and concluded that the free PDF didn't include all the rules I received death threats in my comments. Not tongue in cheek, either.

  But 95% of my online RPG experience has been terrific, with 4% meh and 1% totally messed up. Nice ratio.

  But there is one odd thing to me. When I started writing here a lot of what I was writing about was seen as radical, weird, and impossible. Back in 21013 when I wrote about how I essentially require all players to have and use multiple characters each the G+ crowd concluded I was loopy. Same results from the same year when I discussed strict encumbrance as needed. And my discussion of the centrality of disease rules, parasite rules, strict time records, henchmen, hirelings, sages, and so on. Likewise, when I rejected RPGs being about storytelling and discussed 'emerging narratives' versus pre-planned there has always been a ton of push-back. My instance that alignment, encounter checks, and on and on and on all had a lot of dissent and few supporters. 

  This varies a bit. Why? Over time as I keep mentioning these things and explaining why they are important with examples more and more people have come to agree with me. And many of them spread these ideas on their own, convincing others. 

  Slowly, but seemingly constantly, the ideas and concepts I learned in the '70's and early '80's are spreading again. Convinging people to try the old ways again. It took 7 years but I finally convinced someone to play AD&D 1e ("it is unplayable!" they repeated told be for more than half a decade) and now they call AD&D 1e "how to really learn to play D&D".

  I see the future as less Restoration and more just Original.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

The WASP War, an Atlantaverse Update

 Strap in, folks, this is the summary of 8 years of roleplaying. Back in 2013 I started a new Champions campaign with my oldest sons and many of their friends. They players have changed and everyone followed my 'every players has multiple characters' rule, and we ended up with multiple games with multiple GMs in a shared universe, so there have been a LOT of PC heroes! The 8 years of real time have equaled about 8 years of game time, for various fun reasons involving session timing. Because of a statement made by a player in 2014 we started calling this sprawling shared shared campaign the Atlantaverse.

  When I started the campaign I made a new, unique setting of an Earth like ours that had minor history divergences in 1801 and 1908 and a major one in 1938. By the time the first game started in-universe in 2013 the Atlantaverse had superheroes, supervillains, mages, aliens, and trans-dimensional visitors. The United States in-universe is a parliamentary system with 3 major and 7 minor political parties. And so on. All told with the contributions of players and other GMs the Atlantaverse grew so big, so complex, and so interconnected that my licensed setting book will be released in 2022.

  But one of the antagonists in the Atlantaverse, the first villains they ever faced, is WASP. WASP is a mysterious international organization that combines organized crime, terrorism, radical ideology, and cybercrime. Their uniformed agents are about on par with the soldiers of standing armies but armed with bleeding-edge weapons, allowing them to go toe-to-toe with any conventional forces and win.  Their elite troops are bionically and genetically enhanced and have even better armor and weapons, making them equal to low-level supervillains. Divided into cells that make it virtually impossible to attack the organization as a while WASP has been a thorn in the side of the heroes from literally Day One of the campaign. Their secret origin is available to my patrons on my Patreon page (see the sidebar).

  So the players all agreed that their long-erm goal was to take down all of WASP. This weekend, they succeeded. This is a summary of what the in-universe press calls the WASP War.