Monthly Archives: May 2013

How leaving the dungeon left a big void in role-playing games

Nowadays, designers of role-playing focus their game’s design around an answer to a central question: “What will characters in the game do?” Modern RPGs focus on some core activity and optimizing the system so players have as much fun as possible engaging in that activity. For example, fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons focused on characters that show off flashy stunts and powers in dynamic combat encounters. The system reworks the non-combat pillars of the game into an activity that, as much as possible, plays like combat. For more, see my post, “The skill challenge: good intentions, half baked.”

While the first role-playing games did not optimize their rules to support a style of play—at least not intentionally, see “The brilliance of unrealistic hit points,” the first role-playing games all recreated the dungeon-crawl experience of D&D. Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) devoted rules to the underworld, and explained dungeons as buildings and civilizations lost to the “Time of Darkness.” Tunnels & Trolls (1975) recreated the D&D experience with simpler rules. Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) moved the dungeon into space in the form of the drifting starship Warden.

Levels of the Starship Warden from Metamorphosis Alpha

Levels of the Starship Warden from Metamorphosis Alpha

By 1977, designers began to see the potential of role-playing games. By then, if you asked an RPG designer what characters in his game will do, he would probably answer, “Anything.” Part of what made RPGs so exciting was that characters could do anything. Rather than focusing on a core activity, designers of the newer games strove to model game worlds as thoroughly as possible. This led to a game like Chivalry & Sorcery (1977), “the most complete rule booklet ever published,” with rules for everything from mass combat, to courtly love, to the One Ring. C&S offered a game so open ended that a table of players with randomly generated characters might fail to find any common activities that their characters could do together. In “Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun,” I had some fun at the expense of C&S, while showing how the game downplayed the dungeon crawl, but struggled to find a fun, group activity to serve as a replacement.

Traveller also arrived in 1977, and grew to become the hobby’s most successful science fiction RPG. (If you’re interested in Traveller, see this outstanding look at the game’s roots in written science fiction.) Perhaps the game owes some success to the way it pioneered role-playing’s most common adventure hook:

One specific, recurring goal for adventurers is to find a patron who will assist them in the pursuit of fortune and power. Such patrons will, if they hire a band of adventurers, specify a task or deed to be performed, and then finance reasonable expenses for the pursuit of that task. Some tasks may be ordinary in nature, such as hired guards or escorts; other tasks may be for the location and procurement of items of great value.” (Book 3 Worlds and Adventures, p.20)

This notion of characters seeking patrons for jobs hardly matches the high concept of the dungeon crawl, but it became the dominant adventure hook in just about every RPG, including D&D.

But once hooked, what will the characters do? Traveller offered a single paragraph of guidance: “Once the patron and the adventurers have met, the responsibility falls on the referee to determine the nature of the task the patron desires, the details of the situation (perhaps a map or some amount of information), and to establish the limits of the patron’s resources in the pursuit of the task.

Traveller’s patrons provided an enduring and now pervasive hook for adventures. The actual adventures opened the door for anything, anywhere in the universe, but nothing in particular.

In 1977, I ordered that original Traveller box from Game Designer’s Workshop, and then devoured the rules. As a young, unsophisticated gamer in a new hobby, the game proved so open-ended that I struggled to create adventures for my players. Of course, I was just a kid. Surely sophisticated professionals could do better.

Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society No.1 Annic Nova

Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society No.1 Annic Nova

In 1979, when the first issue of the Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society brought the Annic Nova adventure, I hoped to see a model for adventures. Annic Nova was an abandoned ship drifting through space, ready for the players to explore. At last, I thought, it’s like a dungeon in space. But it wasn’t at all. Unlike, say Metamorphosis Alpha’s starship Warden, Annic Nova held no monstrous mutants or aliens, no automated defense systems, just an abandoned ship drifting. Annic Nova provided only an adventuring location and gave little help to me.

With an entire universe to play with, the professional designers went on to create more starship deck plans, which they then used as dungeons…in space. GDW and Judges Guild followed up Annic Nova with the following adventuress:

  • Adventure 1: The Kinunir (1979) presents a 1200 ton battle cruiser as a location for adventure.
  • Dra'k'ne Station

    Dra’k’ne Station

    Dra’k’ne Station (1979) is “a vast alien research station hollowed out of an asteroid…still protected by its automated defense systems and one surviving alien.”

  • Darthanon Queen (1980) consists of deck plans for a 600 ton merchant ship along with a crew and a passenger roster. The adventure suggests a few scenarios to stage on the ship, including one cribbed from Alien.
  • Adventure 2: Research Station Gamma (1980) describes an arctic laboratory that players must infiltrate.
  • Adventure 3: Twilight’s Peak (1980) takes characters to a location with “many of the elements of a haunted house,” and then to an alien base complex.

When Traveller debuted, the hobby was just three years old. The general public still struggled to understand games that you could not win. The only experienced game masters were the guys named on the box cover. Leaving the long shadow of the dungeon took time. Traveller enthusiasts rank the last adventure on my list, Twilight’s Peak, as a classic. While largely location based, this module provides a fully-realized adventure that stands with modern designs.

Eventually, we all learned. Now, an experienced game master would mix the Annic Nova with an untrustworthy patron, a second team of lawless rivals, and some other wild cards to brew up an adventure.

Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun?

Back in “What does D&D have to do with ironclad ships,” I wrote about how, in the wake of Dungeons & Dragons release, a mania for realism consumed role-playing game design. In Dragon issue 16 from 1978, Gary Gygax wrote “‘Realism’ has become a bugaboo in the hobby, and all too many of the publishers—TSR included—make offerings to this god too frequently.” At his cranky best, Gary rails against the champions of realism for another  3,800 words.

In 1977, Chivalry & Sorcery tried to top other system’s more realistic combat systems, and the more authentic magic systems, with a REALISTIC FEUDAL SOCIETY.

A page from first edition Chivalry & Sorcery

A page from first edition Chivalry & Sorcery

You can tell that C&S is as serious as a legal contract because it’s written in the same, punishing 6-point courier as a contract’s fine print. I imagine the published text was typewritten and then reduced to half size. C&S needed the micro-text to reach the goal of offering “the most complete rule booklet ever published.”

C&S feels like half role-playing game, and half broadside against the decadent practices of some other game, which I won’t name but which has the initials D and D. I presume most of the passages in the original C&S draft began, “Actually, in a real feudal society…,” but that the editors cut for space. To be fair, the game features a cherry-picked version of feudal realism that dwells on historical customs drawn from the Society for Creative Anachronism. You have fair ladies, honorable knights, church-bound clerics, and boot-licking peasants. Plus, you have a fanciful notion of chivalry—something more than the church’s public service campaign aimed at getting a ruling class of murderous, mounted thugs and warlords to behave.

To a young D&D fan, circa 1978, C&S seemed like a systematic attempt to drain everything fun from D&D and replace it with an educational exercise.

This might seem fun But actually…
Dungeons Because of the constant escalation in the numbers and the power of ‘magical’ spells, the dungeon expedition has become a form of walking nightmare to player and dungeon master alike.” (p.64)
The mere fact that a ‘dungeon complex’ exists within a larger world means that there is a natural limit to what it can and will contain. A large concentration of ‘evil’ will attract the Church and might bring down a ‘Crusade’ against it. A large concentration of loot will attract the King, a personage always in need of money. Nor is it possible to keep such a dungeon complex secret for long. Myths and legends about such a place and what is to be found in it soon become common knowledge.” (p.105)
So dungeons won’t exist, because the church or king will get them. And that’s a good thing, because they become a kind of walking nightmare, and not the fun kind.
Dragons The first rule when dealing with Dragons is to do everything possible to avoid them.” (p.115)
Wizardry Far too many players who have Magick Users assume a blithe complacency about the subject. To most, it is a type of ‘weapons technology,’ a quick and really easy method of burning, blasting, and otherwise crushing opponents which they cannot destroy by mere wit and superior tactics. When in doubt, use ‘over-kill!’ What these ego-trippers and uninformed players do not understand is that it is not in the nature of magicians to risk their skins unless some great treasure is to be had.
What real ‘experience’ is to be had in a dark, damp dungeon? The Arcane Arts are essentially contemplative in nature, the actual practices being done only after long preparation and research. The magical effects are too difficult and are often too dangerous to achieve to permit any Magick User, however highly placed, the luxury of blazing away with spell after spell, or of taking time off from important work to go down into a dungeon!
These quotes only sample the screed on page 64, explaining that if your Magick User does anything but study, you’re doing it wrong!
Magic items Chivalry & Sorcery has deliberately avoided the tendency in some games to publish extensive lists of miraculous and highly predictable magical devices. It is our feeling that each device is unique and must be designed as one of a kind by the Player-Referee. Thus Magick will be somewhat scanty because no player in his right mind will consent to spending weeks of time merely writing of the characteristics of hundreds of magical items.” (p.106)
The game includes no lists of magic items, leaving the dungeon master the tedium of creating them. But that’s for your own good.
Freedom and adventure When the society demands that a man occupy a definite place in the rank order of things and conduct himself accordingly, anyone who proves to be a ‘maverick’ counts for little.” (p.1)
Most characters who do not have a ‘living’ from a holding will have to take service with some Master or great lord. Usually, such service provides food, shelter, and a limited amount of money in the form of wages. Characters will probably have to settle for such positions simply to stay alive…” (p.13)
Sword wielding One of the features of social class that dominates Chivalry & Sorcery is the rather great distinction made in the matter bearing arms. Knights have the prerogative of bearing weapons that are forbidden to the lesser classes of society.” (p.1)
Some weapons are reserved for the use of noble or near-noble ranks. Historically, permission was occasionally granted to those normally prohibited to bear such arms, but that right was considered a high honor.” (p.13)
Playing a character you like Random rolls determine every aspect of your character. If you wish to play a non-human, you still have an 80% chance of being required to play a human. The random determination of social class stands as the game’s most oppressive feature. Sure, you could roll a king, but you stand a much higher chance of rolling a peasant. Given the game world’s rigid social structure, your character’s social standing locks you in. Imagine a modern-day game where your random chance of being a spy or vampire hunter stood realistically infinitesimal, dwarfed by your change of working in a cubicle.
The introduction hints that a group might just agree to play knights and noblemen, but I keep getting the feeling that the authors will pop up and scold me for such pleasure seeking. (Maybe that’s just me. I also expect my father to appear and scold me whenever I touch my house’s thermostat.)
Joining an adventuring party What you do in the game varies widely depending on your job and status. If you’re lucky enough to roll a Knight, then you can fight, woo the ladies, and enter tournaments. As an administrator, you can run the royal bureaucracy and build influence. (Hint for bureaucrats: See page 11 for the section “Temporarily Increasing One’s BIF,” that’s Basic Influence Factor to those new to the game. Page 12 lists the sixty-some stations in the royal bureaucracy.) If you’re a Magician, you research and study. If you’re a peasant, you scratch out a meager living until the pox takes you.
The game offers few opportunities for players to join together in play.
alry & Sorcery first edition

Chivalry & Sorcery first edition

I do not mean to declare that C&S cannot be fun. Obviously, some folks found it fun, but then I just saw a TV commercial where a woman claims to find doing taxes fun. I see the target audience of C&S as the sort of Society for Creative Anachronism enthusiast, who lambastes poser members for the hidden zippers in their costumes.

For the rest of us, not every aspect of C&S is less fun than D&D. Personally, I’m always uncomfortable role-playing the act of flirting with a beautiful maiden as played by a chubby bearded guy. I know that I need to free my mind from those hang-ups. Luckily, C&C brings a wargamer’s eye to romance by providing formulas for a Knight’s Courtly Romance Factor (KCRF) and a Lady’s Courtly Romance Factor (LCRF). “Check out the LCRF on that saucy maiden!” Page 22 and 23 include typically dense rules for turning courtly love into a percentage chance of gaining her ‘favour,’ Wink wink nudge nudge.

I have a copy of first edition C&S from 1977, old enough that you can play a Hobbit.® Take that, Tolkien estate! In Dragon issue 95, Gary Gygax wrote about the minimal influence of Tolkien on D&D. “The seeming parallels and inspirations [from Tolkien] are actually the results of a studied effort to capitalize on the then-current craze for Tolkien’s literature.” Gary drew from authors like Poul Anderson and Fritz Leiber, and then added some Tolkien as a sop to his fans. Beyond feudal history, C&S draws almost entirely on Tolkien, and then adds bits from D&D to appease its fans. In a much fairer review of C&S than the one you’re reading, Robert Dushay writes, “While many of the D&D creatures could be inserted into a feudal Europe as dangers unknown to the common folk, the Tolkien elements are harder to explain and C&S didn’t even try. There was no discussion of the social status of non-humans, whether the proud elves and dwarves respected human feudal customs, or the particularly thorny question of non-human relations with the militant Catholic Church of the day.”
The extent of C&S’s Tolkien lore nearly matches its feudal lore. Page 84 describes this necromantic spell: “The Ring of Great Command: A spell which the Necromancer places in an enchanted Ring of Power. The Ring binds the possessors of lesser Rings also fashioned by the Necromancer: 9 for mortal men; 7 for Dwarf Lords; and 3 for the Elven Kings. Upon completion of the Ring, which takes 1 year to fashion, the Necromancer places much of his Power in it. The Ring gives him the power to assume the form of a Nazgul for a period up to his Time Factor once per day.” The rules for Sauron go on from there.

Beyond the passion for social realism, C&S features a 1970s wargamer’s passion for pervasive abbreviations. Just about everything in the game has a factor! Just like math! With a quick flip though the text, I spy Military Ability Factor (MAF), Personal Combat Factor (PCF), Personal Magick Factor (PMF), and Magick’s Level (MKL, but presumably corrected to MKLF in the second printing). MILF must be in there somewhere. How hardcore wargamers like Dave and Gary avoided this mania, I’ll never know, but I thank them for it. If you think the white box was inaccessible, imagine it filled with more factors than a math text book.

Chivalry & Sorcery leads me to a thought experiment that increases my appreciation of Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax’s original creation. We tend to think of role-playing as D&D’s biggest invention. For the first time, a game let you play a character, who has traits and abilities modeled by the game, in an open-ended world. In my thought experiment, I wonder if D&D would have ever succeeded if it had played more like C&S. What if instead of winning treasure and powerful magic, players gained influence and loyalty? What if wizards only indulged in research and study? What if instead of braving mysterious dungeons to face terrifying monsters, players took more mundane roles in realistic, feudal kingdoms? In short, what if Dave and Gary had lacked such a gift for finding the fun?

Would we have seen D&D’s explosive growth in the eighties? Would we have Ultima, Zork, or World of Warcraft? Would Gary Gygax have appeared on 60 Minutes or Futurama? How many of us would even be playing this game? I suspect that a “realistic” version of D&D would have remained a tiny hobby appreciated by a few enthusiasts, unknown to the wider world. We would never have seen an game scene grow enough to the accommodate folks who do enjoy playing Chivalry & Sorcery for its nuanced, sober attention to medieval lore, and the folks who enjoy killing monsters and taking their stuff.

Little-known D&D classics: Escape from Astigar’s Lair

In 1980, Judges Guild published Escape from Astigar’s Lair, a slim module that sold for just $2. The adventure so charmed me that after I ran it, I created a similar challenge of my own to unleash on players.

Escape From Astigar's LairAstigar’s Lair originally served as a tournament module at Michicon ’80.  Instead of accommodating a table full of players for several hours, two players tackle the lair in just sixty minutes. In this era of 2-hour combat encounters, imagine finishing a fun, fast-paced, 22-room dungeon in under an hour!

As with many competition modules from the era, the module includes a scoring system. Players gain points for surmounting challenges while losing points for blunders. Unlike other similar modules, Astigar’s Lair sometimes awards points for decisions based on the characters’ personality quirks.

The action starts when the wizard Egad dons a cursed helm and becomes possessed by the evil spirit of the mighty Astigar. Players take the roles of the druid Danier and the ranger Therain, who begin shackled to a wall in Astigar’s dungeon complex. The escape encourages shrewd problem solving. How can you cross a chamber swarming with flying lizards as voracious as piranha? How can you force Egad to remove the cursed helm? The obstacles in the lair inspired challenges that I would add to my own game.

By necessity, the module’s authors anticipate certain solutions for the dungeon’s obstacles. For instance, the characters have only one way to escape from the shackles in that first scene. However, the judge’s introduction writes, “Points are awarded for creativity (one player in play testing threw paint at the rhinoceros beetle, blinding the beetle and allowing it to be more easily defeated).” Sure enough, the scoring now awards 10 points for throwing paint in the beetle’s eyes. I like this approach, because as a Dungeon Master, the real joy of confounding players comes not from when players repeat the solution I anticipate, but from when they surprise me with something new. (See “Player skill without player frustration,” for more.)

As a young player, I remember reading the druid’s class description in Eldritch Wizardry, and wondering why anyone would choose a character who changed into weak, mundane animals, and who cast spells like Warp Wood that seemed nearly useless. In Astigar’s Lair, the druid Danier only knows quirky spells like Heat Metal and Shillelagh, but the adventure invites clever solutions using all those spells.

I loved how Escape from Astigar’s Lair showed that combining oddball powers with some imagination could prove more fun than blasting away.