Tag Archives: Steve Perrin

Daggerheart vs. the MCDM RPG vs. D&D: A Playtest Comparison

If games to suit every play style and new games bringing fresh ideas makes a golden age, then the best time for gamers is now. In the past weeks, I’ve played preview releases of two upcoming games: the MCDM RPG championed by Matt Colville with lead designer James Introcaso, and the Daggerheart RPG championed by Matt Mercer with lead designer Spenser Starke. Both games play in the same genre and style as D&D, but each aims to prove more fun for certain styles of play. The MCDM RPG seeks to recreate some of the tactical play exemplified by fourth edition D&D in fast-paced, cinematic battles. Daggerheart targets a more narrative, rules-light style that fosters heroic moments and chances for players to reveal their characters.

Core mechanics

The core mechanics of these games target 3 common gripes about the core mechanic of D&D.

  • A lack of degrees of success or failure limits the potential outcomes of a check.
  • Players experience a feel-bad moment when they miss and lose their opportunity to do something interesting on their turn.
  • The swinginess of D&D’s d20 mechanic, which can make experts look inept and zeros look like heroes.

Degrees of success

In Daggerheart’s core mechanic, players roll a pair of 12-sided dice and add the numbers. If the total exceeds a target number, then the roll succeeds. Aside from the different dice, this resembles a d20 check, but Daggerheart adds a twist. One of the d12s is marked as the Hope die and the other the Fear die. The die that rolls higher adds Hope or Fear to the result. Whether or not a roll succeeds, a roll with Hope brings a boost in the form of a Hope token players can spend to benefit their character. A roll with Fear brings complications, potentially success at a price. The game master gains a fear token they can spend to make the character’s predicament more difficult. Hope and Fear create a range of heroic moments and setbacks that players and game masters can use to inspire storytelling.

Games with such success-with-complications, fail-forward mechanics weigh game masters with the extra creative burden of improvising complications to pair with success. For combat rolls though, Daggerheart gives GMs who gain Fear a menu of complications to select. The first complication is that players lose initiative, something this post will discuss later.

The MCDM RPG bakes degrees of success into the game’s power roll mechanic. The higher the sum of 2d6, the better the degree. They even have names for the degrees: tier 1, tier 2, and tier 3. Perhaps they considered reaching to older games like Marvel Super Heroes for tier names like good, excellent, and remarkable, but for one type of rolls tier 1 means a small success, and for another type, tier 1 means failure. The game features two types of power rolls: ability rolls, which correspond to D&D’s attack rolls, and tests, which correspond to D&D’s ability checks. Ability rolls don’t have a chance of failure, which leads to the second common gripe levelled at the D&D’s core d20 mechanic.

No missed attacks

The MCDM RPG tries to eliminate the down moments when a player misses an attack and wastes their turn. All ability rolls succeed, with an outcome that determines a degree of success and sets an amount of damage. Without damage rolls, the system plays faster. No one likes to lose a turn to a miss, but in play I found that the lack of failure in attack rolls made combat feel less compelling. The reason comes down to something psychologists call intermittent reinforcement where a behavior like rolling attacks earns inconsistent and unpredictable rewards. Intermittent reinforcement built the casinos along the Las Vegas Strip and it’s why no one would play a slot machine that returns exactly $0.97 every time you drop a dollar. To be fair, the version of the MCDM RPG I played used a different combat mechanic where players just rolled damage, so even the biggest roll on a formula like 2d6+6 yielded just 5 more points than average. The new mechanic allows bigger results for big rolls and undoubtedly plays better.

Swingy d20s

Both the MCDM RPG and Daggerheart adopt core mechanics that have players rolling two dice and summing the total. In the MCDM RPG it’s 2d6; in Daggerheart it’s 2d12. Both games have a good reason to avoid the single d20 roll in D&D. When you roll 2 dice and sum the results, numbers in the middle become much more common, creating a bell curve. When you roll just one 20-sided die, extreme results prove just as common as average results. That leads to the sort of wacky outcomes that frequently seen in D&D games where the mighty thewed barbarian slams into the door, rolls a 2, and bounces off. Next, the pencil-necked gnome wizard kicks the door, rolls an 18 and it crashes open. With a d20 roll, the roll swamps the influence of a character’s abilities. Some d20 games try to reward expert characters by giving them very high modifiers. A character with something a +15 skill bonus stands out from one with no bonus, but then to challenge that character, GMs need difficulty classes like 30, which become completely unreachable for most characters. So high-level adventures start including impossible obstacles for parties that lack the right sort of character. (See Why D&D’s d20 Tests Make Experts Look Inept and How to Make the Best of It.)

By adding two die rolls to get a bell curve of results, expert characters start to feel like experts who reliably succeed, and average characters need extraordinary luck to accomplish difficult tasks. All that happens without forcing the game to set difficulties that make tasks impossible for average characters.

Advantage and disadvantage.

Gamers love how fifth edition’s advantage and disadvantage mechanic streamlines all the fiddly +1 and +2 modifiers included in earlier editions of the game. The new edition also removes past rules for how these modifiers stack. Instead, advantage and disadvantage provide a simple, compelling alternative. It’s a blunt adjustment, but considering how swingy d20 rolls are anyway, the coarse mechanic hardly seems to matter in play.

To me, and apparently to the designers of the MCDM RPG and Daggerheart, the worst part of advantage and disadvantage stems from how it never stacks. If a character has a consistent way of gaining advantage, other decisions, tactics and character traits that grant advantage stop mattering. The game feels flat. This is why cover—an easy advantage to consistently gain—typically imposes a -2 penalty rather than imposing disadvantage on attackers.

In Daggerheart, advantage and disadvantage don’t entirely wash out. If a character has two sources of advantage and one source of disadvantage, they still gain one advantage die. Because of the 2d12 bell curve, small modifiers make bigger differences, so advantage means just rolling an extra d6 and adding the results.

In the MCDM RPG, the 2d6 rolls provide an even narrower range of numbers, so the design team settled on modifying the roll with up to two edges of + 1 or two banes of –1. That feels less exciting than rolling extra dice, but it worked best in testing.

Initiative

Both Daggerheart and the MCDM RPG attempt to improve on D&D’s cyclical initiative system.

In the MCDM RPG, characters can go in any order as decided by their players. The game master takes a turn after each of the character’s turns. In D&D, when a solo monster rolls a poor initiative, the entire party gets to unleash their best spells and attacks first, potentially turning an exciting fight into a quick execution. The MCDM RPG’s alternating initiative prevents such a letdown while providing a more consistent experience.

Daggerheart goes for a looser system that feels even more freewheeling and narrative. Players can take a turn whenever they like. One player can even take multiple turns in a row. I suspect the designers intend to enable heroic moments where characters can string actions into sequences that feel cinematic without the game’s turn order interrupting each moment with 10 minutes of everyone else’s turns.

This goal doesn’t always happen, because a roll with Fear gives the next turn to the GM, but with a bit of luck the game can unlock cinematic, heroic moments.

Naturally, some gamers worry that such a loose system will encourage players to hog the spotlight, and certainly that fear seems valid. I’ve played games where one player with the party’s best interests at heart tried to help us “win” by dominating the action like a superior basketball player might try to help the team by taking every shot.

Still, D&D became a better game when designers stopped trying to fix obnoxious players. Most players strive to share the spotlight. However, the real trouble is that both MCDM and Daggerheart’s systems threaten to slow the game’s pace during combat.

Before third edition, most D&D groups used side initiative, so the party and the DM each rolled a die and the side with the best roll went first. During a party’s initiative, they decided the characters’ turns to act. Most tables rolled initiative every round, and that added some exciting uncertainly, but all this added friction. Third edition’s lead designer Jonathan Tweet says, “It takes forever to go through the round because no one knows who’s next and people get dropped.”

The third-edition team decided to try a rule that originated in some West Coast D&D variants like the Warlock rules devised at Caltech and the Perrin Conventions created by future Runequest designer and D&D contributor Steve Perrin. That variant was cyclical initiative where everyone rolls to establish an order and the order stays the same throughout the fight. “It feels more like combat because it’s faster. By the end of the turn, by the end of the 5 hours playing D&D, you’ve had way more fun because things have gone faster.”

Fifth edition’s initiative system removes decision making to make play faster. Unlike in past editions, players can’t even delay their turns. The designers imposed this restriction to speed the pace of combat.

Designer Monte Cook says, “If you can look at something that happens 20, 30, 50 times during a game session, and eliminate that or decrease it hugely, you’re going to make the game run faster, more smoothly. That idea is now a big part of my game designer toolbox.”

Combat escalation

In D&D, major battles typically start with characters unleashing their most powerful spells and abilities, sometimes turning a climactic showdown into an anticlimactic beat down. But if the foes survive and the fight wears on, depleted characters start grinding with basic attacks. Instead of rising excitement, the game sputters. Both the MCDM RPG and Daggerheart give characters resources that can replenish or even increase during combat. In the MCDM RPG, various heroic resources like rage can increase; in Daggerheart Hope can increase. Especially in the MCDM RPG, this helps create a sense of escalating action in battles. Meanwhile, a growing stack of Fear tokens can lead to a growing sense of peril.

The MCDM RPG even adds a resource called victories that makes characters stronger as they press on during an adventuring day. Instead of encouraging a 5-minute adventuring day, the system encourages players to test their limits like real heroes.

Resolution transparency

When I played Daggerheart, my character Garrick included a feature that seemed intended to foster looser, more narrative play. His battle strategist feature made him especially good at combat maneuvers like shoves, grapples, and trips. However, the playtest lacks any rules for these sorts of maneuvers. Perhaps I’m shackled to an outdated mindset, but I feel more comfortable playing in a system where I understand how my character’s actions will be resolved. If every use of an ability means that the GM and I must improvise a fair way to resolve the action, then I’m inclined to skip delaying the game for that discussion.

Ability scores

Both Daggerheart and the MCDM RPG use ability scores that parallel the scores used in D&D. Both systems take advantage of their clean-sheet designs to replace some of the scores’ names with more suitable terms. For example, both systems replace Charisma with Presence, a term that removes the implication of comeliness, leaving just force of personality. Daggerheart makes another interesting revision. It replaces Dexterity with two scores: Agility and Finesse. In D&D, Dexterity proves too valuable, so players build quick characters and the PCs in play show less variety. By turning Dexterity into two scores, Daggerheart gives each score a more equal value in the game. Daggerheart drops another score that D&D makes too valuable: Constitution. Every D&D character is alike in boasting a stout Constitution, and that means the score does little to make characters distinct. Instead, in Daggerheart, a character’s hit points mainly depend on their class.

Death

D&D makes dropping to zero hit points easy but dying—except at first level—nearly impossible. This makes difficult battles into unintentionally comical scenes where characters keep flopping to the ground, presumably at death’s door, only to be repeatedly revived. The rules even inspire a counterintuitive strategy where a player might refuse to heal friends until they lay dying because damage below 0 heals for free. This robs any sense of peril from going near death. Players with a dying character worry more about losing a turn than losing a character. If no one bothers to pour a potion in your character’s mouth, then rolling a death save instead of taking an action provides D&D’s ultimate feel-bad moment.

When a D&D character defies the odds and really dies, the game tends to make the big moment into the anticlimactic result of a series of lost turns and bad death saves. We want characters to die in heroic blazes of glory that feel cinematic rather than by bleeding out into the dirt.

Both Daggerheart and the MCDM RPG introduce rules for death and dying that vastly improve on D&D by giving characters a shot at a heroic finale.

In the MCDM RPG, a character with 0 or less Health becomes unbalanced. They can still act but most actions cost them 5 more Health. If the negative Health value reaches half their Health maximum value, they die. This challenges players to decide how much they wish to press their luck. Should a character risk a blaze of glory or shrink back to safety? Characters die because they dared for glory.

Daggerheart gives characters with no hit points a choice of death moves:

  • They can take an action, gain an automatic critical success, and then die.
  • They can risk their lives on a die roll. If they roll Hope, they regain Hit Points; if the roll Fear, they die.
  • They can drop unconscious and “work with the GM to describe how the situation gets much worse.” This option risks permanently reducing your character’s capacity for Hope by one. New Characters can accumulate up to 5 Hope tokens. If that capacity ever drops to 0, the hopeless character must end their journey.

When designers create D&D’s sixth edition, they should look to Daggerheart and the MCDM RPG for inspiration, but until then these rules count as the best ideas to steal for your game.

Durable first level characters

In D&D, first level characters are a durable as soap bubbles, so new players typically enter the game at its most dangerous. New players who lose characters often have a bad play experience and decide D&D isn’t the game for them. They might be wrong, but they walk away anyway. Both the MCDM RPG and Daggerheart make new characters durable, a feature that D&D gained with fourth edition and lost with fifth. If you’re listening to me now, you might be a D&D enthusiast who lost characters in their first game and kept playing, so you might argue that I am making a problem out of nothing, but that’s survival bias that ignores all the potential fans who quit because their characters died during their first session. None of those folks are reading this post now.

As for my first games of the MCDM RPG and Daggerheart, both games left me ready for more.

5 Roleplaying Products That Shaped How I Play Dungeons & Dragons 1977–1978

Holmes Basic Set (1977)

The blue box of the 1977 Holmes Basic Set introduced me to D&D. To 99% of Dungeons & Dragons players, the edition that introduced them to the game stands as their most important. Why should I be different?

Dungeons & Dragons Basic SetPlayers who came later never saw how revolutionary the game and its brand of fantasy seemed in the 70s.

Then, games sold as toys and they were all terrible. They suffered from stupid, and random mechanics: Roll a die and move that many spaces. These games offered minimal choices. In them, the winner became obvious well before the end, yet they took forever to finish.

Before I saw D&D, I heard of the game in a 12-year-old’s lunch-room pitch. After school, I sat with a sheet of graph paper and tried to imagine how the game would play. I got nowhere. From my experience rolling a die and moving that many squares, I had no clue how a game could allow the things the kids claimed.

So in a mere 48 pages, the 1978 basic Dungeons & Dragons rule book edited by J. Eric Holmes shattered my notion of what a game could be.

As a kid in the 70s, All the fantasy I knew came from picture books. Stories where trolls lived under bridges and bugbears under beds. Nothing prepared me for a game inspired by Appendix N.

For more, see 4 Pop-Culture Assumptions That Dungeons & Dragons Destroyed.

City State of the Invincible Overlord (1977)

When I discovered D&D, TSR had yet to publish any setting information other than the hints published in the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements. For a break from dungeon adventures, the original rules suggested wandering the hex map boxed in Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival game and rolling encounters.

City State of the Invincible OverlordSo when the City State of the Invincible Overlord reached me, the scope of my game exploded. The $9 setting included a huge 34″ x 44″ map in four sections, and 11″ x 17″ map of the castle of the dwarven king backed with a sprawling dungeon map, three booklets detailing over 300 individual locations and the non-player characters who populate them, maps for ten more dungeon levels, plus players’ maps.

The package shows remarkable creative output. No locations in the sprawling city rate as too mundane for descriptions. Even with five bakers, the guide finds something interesting to say about each.

Instead of adopting the entire City State, I cherry picked stuff I liked. My 1977 copy of the city state still contains the pencil marks noting my favorite bits. The best inspiration came from the rumors seeding every location. Now we would call them adventure hooks. In an era when most players just wandered, these ideas suggested a way to steer the game from aimless looting to plot.

For more, see A Butcher, a Baker, and Naughty Nannies in D&D’s First Setting Book: City State of the Invincible Overlord.

Arduin (1977).

Inspired by the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements, Dave Hargrave printed his house rules, lore, and advice in 3 little, brown books named after his world, The pages of the Arduin Grimoire teemed with fresh ideas. When I discovered the books, I became enchanted. I haven’t found a game book that proved as enjoyable to read.

In an era when state-of-the-art setting design consisted of a map paired with encounter tables, Hargrave opened a world with detail that rivaled any setting that came later.

The Arduin TrilogyDave Hargrave’s campaign world of Arduin was not built; it was piled. To create Arduin, Hargrave took every fantastic element he dreamed up or fancied and piled them into one work of love. He preached bigger imaginary playgrounds. “The very essence of fantasy gaming is its total lack of limitation on the scope of play, both in its content and in its appeal to people of all ages, races, occupations or whatever,” He wrote. “So don’t limit the game by excluding aliens or any other type of character or monster. If they don’t fit what you feel is what the game is all about, don’t just say ‘NO!,’ whittle on them a bit until they do fit.” (Vol. II, p.99)

He tore up the D&D rules and offered wild changes. His specific rules hardly mattered. The message mattered: Hargrave encouraged me to own the rules and my games and to create a game that suited me and my players.

For more, see The Arduin Grimoire: The “Coolest RPG Book Ever,” also the Book Gygax Mocked As Costing Readers 1 Int and 2 Wis.

Melee (1977) and Wizard (1978)

Over my first years years of playing D&D, the fun of the game’s battles waned. My games drifted away from the fights, and toward exploration and problem solving.

Advertisment for Melee and WizardGame designer Steve Jackson understood the trouble. In Space Gamer issue 29, he wrote, “The D&D combat rules were confusing and unsatisfying. No tactics, no real movement—you just rolled dice and died.” Steve turned his desire for better battles into elegant rules.

In the late 70s, ads in Dragon magazine convinced me to spend $2.95 on Jackson’s combat game Melee and $3.95 on the magic addition Wizard. I half expected to be disappointed. Role playing games required hefty books, and Melee and Wizard were not even full role playing games, just tiny pamphlets with paper maps and cardboard counters. (Melee and Wizard would become The Fantasy Trip roleplaying game.)

I loved playing the games so much that they changed the way I played D&D.

The revelation came from the map and counters. You see, despite D&D’s billing as “Rules for Fantastic Miniature Wargames,” I had never seen miniatures used for more than establishing a marching order. From local game groups to the D&D Open tournaments at Gen Con, no combats used battle maps, miniatures, counters, or anything other than the theater of the mind. Miniatures struck me as a superfluous prop, hardly needed by sophisticated players. The idea of bringing a tape measure to the table to measure out ranges and inches of movement seemed ridiculous.

I failed to realize how much battle maps would transform the game. Without a map, players struggle to follow the action unless things stay simple. In virtually ever fight, players just opted for the front, swinging a weapon, or the back, making ranged attacks. Two options. If you were a thief, you could also try and circle around to backstab. As Steve Jackson wrote, “You just rolled dice and died.”

Melee and Wizard included hex maps and counters and simple rules for facing, movement, and engagement. After just one game, I felt excited by all the tactical richness that I had formerly snubbed.

For more, see Melee, Wizard, and learning to love the battle map.

Runequest (1978)

With Dungeons & Dragons, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax invented the role-playing game. With Runequest, Steve Perrin and Ray Turney showed how to design a role-playing game.

Runequest second edition

Steve Perrin first entered the hobby when he distributed his D&D house rules, The Perrin Conventions, at DunDraCon in 1976. This led to Runequest, a game that replaced every aspect of D&D with more flexible, realistic, and simpler alternative: Skills replaced the confining class system. Experience came from experience, not from taking treasure. Armor absorbed damage from blows that landed. Combat simulated an exchange of blows, dodges and parrys. Damage represented actual injuries. Rather than a hodge-podge of mechanics, Runequest introduced the idea of a core mechanic that provided a way to resolve every task. Rather than the game setting implied by all of Gary’s favorite fantasy tropes, Runequest supported Glorantha, a unique world built as a consistent, logical setting.

Suddenly, D&D’s rules seemed as dated as gas lights and buggy whips. I enjoyed an occasional D&D game, but I switched to electric lighting until D&D adopted much of the same technology for third edition.

Today, simulation seems less important than in 1978. I now see that rules that made D&D unrealistic also added fun by enabling the game’s combat-intensive dungeon raids. For more, see The Brilliance of Unrealistic Hit Points and The Fun and Realism of Unrealistically Awarding Experience Points for Gold.

However, elegance remains as important as ever. Aside from earlier D&D editions, D&D’s current design owes more to Runequest than any other game. Third-edition D&D’s lead designer Jonathan Tweet called Runequest the role-playing game that taught how to design RPGs. Actually, Runequest taught everyone how.

Jonathan Tweet credits Runequest with a long list of innovations that reached D&D.

  • prestige classes (rune lords, rune priests, and initiates)
  • unified skill-combat-saving-throw system
  • ability scores for monsters
  • 1 in 20 hits are crits
  • ability scores that scaled up linearly without artificial caps
  • a skill system that let anyone try just about anything
  • armor penalties for skill checks and spellcasting
  • creature templates
  • faction affiliations
  • hardness for objects
  • chance to be hit modified by Dexterity and size
  • iconic characters used in examples throughout the rule book
  • rules for PCs making magic items.

Next: 1978-2000

Meet the Woman Who by 1976 Was the Most Important Gamer in Roleplaying After Gary

In 1976, after Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax, the most important person in roleplaying games was a Los Angeles woman named Lee Gold. She still contributes to the hobby and still runs a campaign using her Lands of Adventure (1983) game.

Lee who? And what happened to Gary’s co-designer Dave Arneson? Although Dave and his circle of Minneapolis gamers deserves the most credit for inventing roleplaying games, Dave’s passion centered on sailing ships in the age of Napoleon. He never matched Gary’s fervor or written output. In 1976, Dave would work briefly for TSR, but little came of it. See Basic and Advanced—Dave Arneson takes a job at TSR.

Meanwhile, D&D’s popularity exploded. Nothing else like the revolutionary game existed and it proved irresistible to most wargamers and fantasy fans. See 4 Pop-Culture Assumptions That Dungeons & Dragons Destroyed.

In 1975, Hilda and Owen Hannifen told their friend Lee Gold of a wonderful new game called Dungeons & Dragons. “Hilda had made up a dungeon and she ran it for us. So you see our first experience was with a female game master. It was a lot of fun.” Lee’s friends gave her a photocopy of the rules, but not before they watched her post a check to TSR for an official copy. “I started making up a dungeon—and told our local friends that they could start coming over and participating in D&D games that I’d be game mastering.”

Alarums & Excursions issue 2

Even before Internet message boards and blogs, science fiction and fantasy fans liked sounding off. So they published fanzines, or just zines. To publish, fans typed their thoughts, printed copies on a mimeograph or an employer’s photocopier, and then mailed to friends. “A zine may include essays, comments on previous issues, poems or songs, a writeup of a gameplaying session, artwork, and just about anything imaginable,” writes Lee. For efficiency, zine publishers started collaborating in amateur press associations, or APAs. These associations bundled collections of zines under a single cover to save on postage and to create publications matching the substance of a magazine.

Excitement in the new D&D game fueled so much discussion that it started to overwhelm the pages of the APA-L from the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society. To meet surging interest, and to the let APA-L refocus on literature, Lee Gold started a new APA devoted to roleplaying games. She named it Alarums & Excursions after a phrase Shakespeare used to denote a confused uproar in stage directions. Plus, a name starting with ‘A’ would appear at the top of any list of APAs. Pronounce “Alarums” as alarms. The first issue debuted in June 1975 as the first periodical devoted entirely roleplaying games.

For a standard APA, an official collator collects fanzines and then mails the collections to the authors. “I didn’t want anything that minor,” Lee explains. “I also wanted subscribers, and the subscribers would support the contributors. It was something that had never been tried before. Therefore, I wanted to have something where there would be lots of subscribers and then contributors wouldn’t have to pay anything for postage. This was a whole new thing that had never been done before. It was my entirely new and brilliant, I hoped, idea.” This model allowed Alarums to reach a wider audience than a traditional APA. Hobby shops stocked issues of A&E alongside magazines. As A&E gained contributors, the page counts burgeoned from 30 to 150, when the limits of binding and shipping forced Lee to hold contributions for future issues.

The shabby state of D&D’s original rules inspired much discussion, and Lee’s Alarums & Excursions served as the hub of this network. “All the role players I know, when we looked a Gary Gygax’s game with its “% liar” and all its typos said, ‘this stuff needs tinkering.’ Ken St. Andre looked at it an wrote Tunnels & Trolls, and the people in Michigan wrote their thing, and the people at CalTech wrote their thing, and Steve Perrin wrote his thing. Everybody tinkered with D&D because it needed tinkering to be playable. The nice part about D&D was that it obviously needed player help. Well, obviously to all the players I knew.” (The people in Michigan likely refers to Kevin Siembieda and his Palladium Books the Metro Detroit Gamers, who published the original tournament versions of the TSR modules S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth and O1 The Gem and the Staff, and regularly ran conventions like Wintercon and Michicon. The thing from CalTech is the Warlock rules which came to influence D&D through J. Eric Holmes. For more on Warlock and Steve Perrin, see How D&D Got an Initiative System Rooted in California House Rules.)

The zines that Lee published in A&E became profoundly influential on the evolution of role playing games. Lee says, “I remember zines from Dave Hargrave giving tidbits of the Arduin Grimoire, Steve Perrin’s Perrin Conventions (which were the start of the system that later grew into Runequest), Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus’s discussion of Chivalry & Sorcery, John T. Sapienza, Jr.’s discussion of various game systems, and other professional and semi-professional writers. I remember Mark Swanson’s ‘character traits,’ a way of individuating characters with minor bonuses and minuses. I remember a number of people (including myself) getting tapped to write games professionally because RPG publishers read their A&E zines.“ Other contributors included D&D Expert Set author Steve Marsh, third-edition D&D lead designer Jonathan Tweet, Vampire: The Masquerade designer Mark Rein-Hagen, fourth-edition D&D lead designer Rob Heinsoo, Paranoia and Star Wars roleplaying game designer Greg Costikyan, and more. Plus, a fellow named Gary Gygax contributed to issues 2, 8, and 15.

Alarums & Excursions issue 1

Soon though, Gary came to hate APAs like A&E. Partly, he seemed to see APAs as ringleaders for thieves, and not just the sort who—in Gary’s estimation—stole a ride on his coattales. Remember that Lee Gold started with a photocopy of the D&D rules. Early on, copies of D&D, especially outside of TSR’s reach in the Midwest, proved scarce. The $10 price of the original box struck many gamers as outrageous. In the first issues of Alarums & Excursions, some contributors argued that TSR’s profiteering justified Xerox copies of the D&D rules. Gary wrote a rebuttal and Lee told readers that Gary deserved to gain from his work and investment. Surely though, he remained incensed.

Eventually, all the discussion of D&D’s flaws and all the redesigns of the game wore on Gary’s pride in his creation. In issue 16 of The Dragon, he wrote, “APAs are generally beneath contempt, for they typify the lowest form of vanity press. There one finds pages and pages of banal chatter and inept writing from persons incapable of creating anything which is publishable elsewhere. Therefore, they pay money to tout their sophomoric ideas, criticize those who are able to write and design, and generally make themselves obnoxious.” For a rebuttal of Gary’s criticism, refer back to A&E’s list of contributors.

Meanwhile, Lee published A&E and began writing games. Much of her work showed an interest in history and particularly Japan, where she lived 4 months during A&E’s first year. Land of the Rising Sun (1980) extended the Chivalry & Sorcery system to Japan. Her game Lands of Adventure (1983) aimed for roleplaying in historical settings. Her other credits include GURPS Japan (1988) and Vikings (1989) for Rolemaster.

Men dominated the gaming community of the 70s, but Lee felt insulated from that culture because she came from science fiction fandom. “The SF fan experience was largely male when I entered in 1967, but it wasn’t male-dominated. SF fandom of the late 1960s had only a few women, but they were highly charismatic women—including women like Bjo Trimble—and they were not dominated by men. I entered the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society as an editor and the leader of a sub-group that produced a fanzine, The Third Foundation.

“This pattern of female equality also held true for the D&D play and roleplaying that took place in SF fandom—and that’s where I did my roleplaying. Not at hobby stores but at the LASFS and at science fiction conventions, usually with old friends or with people I’d met through A&E. A&E started through people who already knew one another through APA-L or through science fiction fannish connections.”

Meanwhile, the men in gaming tended to suppose that only men contributed to the hobby. Lee remembers visiting the Origins convention and spotting shirts for sale that identified the wearer as a “wargaming widow.” Why else would a woman attend a gaming convention?

After Lee finished writing Land of the Rising Sun for Fantasy Games Unlimited, she met publisher Scott Bizar at a local convention to sign the contract. She recalls discussing the game’s credits.

“Do you want to say this game is written by yourself and your husband Barry?” Bizar asked.

“No,” I said. “Barry didn’t write any bit of it. He did the indexing, and I gave him full credit for that. I wrote all of the game. Just say the game is by Lee Gold.”

“Most female writers say they wrote a game with their husbands,” said Bizar.

“I don’t care what other people do,” I said. “Just say the game is by Lee Gold.” And so Land of the Rising Sun came out as written by Lee Gold.

Her one personal encounter with Gary Gygax revealed a similar bias. Early on, Lee sent copies of A&E to TSR. After a couple of months, she received a phone call, which she recounts.

“This is Gary Gygax,” said the voice, “and I’d like to speak to Lee Gold.”

“I’m Lee Gold,” I said. “I gather you got the copies of A&E I sent you.”

“You’re a woman!” he said.

“That’s right,” I said, and I told him how much we all loved playing D&D and how grateful we were to him for writing it.

“You’re a woman,” he said. “I wrote some bad things about women wargamers once.”

“You don’t need to feel embarrassed,” I said. “I haven’t read them.”

“You’re a woman,” he said.

We didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, so I told him goodbye and hung up.

Despite her design credits, Alarums & Excursions rates as Lee Gold’s most stunning achievement. Since 1975, she has sent the APA monthly with only two lapses: one during her stay in Japan and a second scheduled for health reasons. Today though, many subscribers take their copies through email.

The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods

Just a couple of years after its release, the original Deities & Demigods from 1980 became legend. The first copies included sections featuring the Melnibonéan mythos from the Elric stories by Michael Moorcock and the Cthulhu mythos from the tales of H.P. Lovecraft. Every Dungeons & Dragons fan knew the legend: TSR printed the sections without permission, got sued, and now the book was censored. The tale boasted a delicious mix of scandal, arrogance, and justice, and for those of us who owned one of those banned copies, a priceless collectable certain to fund our retirements. Too bad none of the legend was true.

Today, the book’s co-author, James M. Ward still works to spread the facts. “I absolutely hate it when ignorant people say TSR and I acted in copyright infringement.”

But how did the the Elric and Cthulhu content reach the book, and why did it disappear?

Deities & Demigods describes gods, mostly drawn from cultures around the world.

When James Ward started the book, he proposed a list of the pantheons he wanted to include. In addition to drawing from folklore, the list included gods created in fiction by three authors: Lovecraft, Moorcock, and Fritz Leiber. Each deeply influenced D&D co-creator Gary Gygax and the game. But to use the authors’ work, TSR needed permission.

Leiber had created the Nehwon mythos for his tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. After Leiber attended Gen Con X in 1977 as guest of honor, he had stayed a Gary’s house for a week. Gary called the author a friend. Surely, gaining Leiber’s authorization proved easy.

The chance of gaining authorization to use the work of Lovecraft and Moorcock seemed smaller.

Lovecraft’s key work suffers from a muddled copyright status. Up until 2019, any stories he published before 1923 qualified as public domain, but his most important stories, including “Call of Cthulhu” and “At the Mountains of Madness” reached print later. After the author’s death, two of Lovecraft’s protégés founded Arkham House Publishers to print collections of his work. Today, Arkham House claims Lovecraft’s copyrights. But did Lovecraft’s heirs ever actually transfer the rights to the publisher? Also, prior to 1978, copyright holders needed to renew copyrights to maintain ownership. Failure to renew landed the movie It’s a Wonderful Life in the public domain. Did a once, nearly-forgotten writer of pulp fiction get more mindful handling? Did anyone with legal standing ever file renewals? Decades have buried the answers. This year, Lovecraft’s remaining copyrights begin to expire, year by year, until the last expire in 2032. Until then, his tales may or may not be in public domain.

Nonetheless, Jim Ward wrote Arkham House asking to include Lovecraft’s material. He received a letter back granting permission. At about the same time, the game company Chaosium struck a similar deal. In design notes in Different Worlds magazine, editor Lynn Willis wrote, “I negotiated rights for the Cthulhu mythos from Arkham House.” Call of Cthulhu would not reach print until the summer of 1981, but work on the game started much earlier. “After many months delay, the manuscript of the game was unsatisfactory, and had to be turned down. It was originally was to be a 1980 release; now we were hoping for 1981.” In 1980, Sandy Petersen took over the project and delivered a classic role-playing game.

More than likely, someone at Arkham failed to realize how granting a permission to describe Lovecraft’s mythos in a game-related reference book conflicted with a license to publish a game. How could a game be a book? Granting permission to TSR probably just seemed like a good way to introduce Lovecraft to a wider audience.

In the popular conception of the time, games sold from toy stores for children. Gaming remained a tiny hobby that few even knew existed. No one outside the hobby considered existential horror tales from the 1920s a suitable topic for a game. Requests to use Cthulhu for a game of all things probably puzzled the administrative staff at Arkham. As this story keeps showing, few outside of gaming saw game rights to fiction as anything of value.

Jim Ward wrote Michael Moorcock requesting authorization to describe the mythos from the Elric stories. The author granted permission. In a 2009 interview, he explains his thinking. “It was in the spirit of the 60s/70s when it seemed to many of us that we were sharing in a common culture and the products of that culture.”

But Moorcock proved overly generous. Years earlier, Chaosium had bought the board-game rights to the Elric books. That license led to the Elric game in 1977. After the success of RuneQuest, Chaosium decided to adapt their roleplaying game rules to Moorcock’s fiction, so they returned to Moorcock’s agent and gained an RPG license.

Chaosium insider and RuneQuest designer Steve Perrin explains the source of the trouble. “Chaosium arranged for the Elric license through Moorcock’s agent. Jim went directly to Moorcock, who did not consult with his agent. He just sent back a note saying ‘Go for it.’ So the only person Chaosium could sue would be Moorcock, which is not a good practice between a licensor and licensee.”

Arioch from the 1st printing of Deities & Demigods

Moorcock never expected his tales of a doomed sorcerer and a soul-stealing sword to become valuable for gaming. “I hadn’t anticipated that some people would start turning all this stuff into commercial businesses and so it was a bit of a surprise when D&D and Chaosium, for instance, started fighting over who ‘owned’ the rights to the Elric ‘cosmology.’”

In 1980, Deities & Demigods reached gamers, complete with sections describing the Melnibonéan mythos and the Cthulhu mythos. Meanwhile, Chaosium prepared to publish their Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu role-playing games in 1981. They sent cease-and-desist letters to TSR. “I don’t blame them a bit,” Ward writes. However, Chaosium knew nothing about the two letters authorizing TSR to use the content.

The legal demand put TSR in a bind. Armed with their letters of permission, TSR could have fought. “The company wasn’t rich at that point,” Ward explains. Brian Blume, TSR’s head of operations, “didn’t want to go to California, get a California lawyer, and spend time and money winning the case.” TSR could have stopped selling Deities & Demigods, but it sold great. Pulling the book meant pulping copies on hand, reprinting, and paying new costs. Reprinting the book with fewer pages would take time. During the lapse, some customers would lose interest and TSR would lose sales.

So TSR sought an accommodation with Chaosium. Fortunately, both companies had something to give.

In addition to the licensed role-playing games Chaosium scheduled for 1981, the company planned Thieves’ World, a roleplaying supplement based on Robert Asprin’s shared-world series of books. In order to give the supplement maximum appeal, it would include game stats for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Adventures in Fantasy, Chivalry & Sorcery, DragonQuest, The Fantasy Trip, RuneQuest, Tunnels & Trolls, and even Traveller. But TSR zealously defended the trademarks to AD&D and D&D. If the supplement touted compatibility and named the games on the cover, Chaosium needed permission. In Designers & Dragons, game historian Shannon Appelcline writes, “Chaosium got the rights to use the TSR trademarks in Thieves’ World and in exchange TSR was allowed to continue using the [Melnibonéan and Cthulhu mythos in Deities & Demigods].” As part of the deal, TSR added a notice into the book’s second printing. “Special Thanks are also given to Chaosium, Inc. for permission to use the material found in the Cthulhu Mythos and the Melnibonéan Mythos.”

If TSR had kept the notice and the original content, the story would have ended quietly, with no bogus legends of plagiarism and banning. But for 1980’s third printing, TSR had time to drop the Lovecraft and Moorcock sections and reconfigure the book with fewer pages.

Why did Brian Blume choose to withdraw the content despite trading for permission to keep it? Appelcline cites a desire to soothe the same fears of Satanism that would lead TSR to retitle the book Legends & Lore in 1985. Presumably, existential horror and evil gods might worry parents, and that worried TSR. Other sources say Blume didn’t want a TSR book to fuel interest in Elric or Cthulhu because that would drive players to a competitor’s games.

As for a copy of Deities & Demigods funding a retirement, more copies of the first two printings exist than the legend suggests. According to the D&D collector’s site The Acaeum as many as 15,000 copies reached buyers. In auction, the book fetches more than other D&D hardcovers, but prices have fallen.

In an odd postscript, Fritz Leiber, the third author featured in Deities & Demigods, would land TSR and Chaosium in a second dispute over conflicting licenses. In 1983, Chaosium planned a follow up to Thieves’ World featuring Leiber’s city of Lankhmar. They already had a license agreement when TSR announced that they had a license from Leiber too. “It turned out that Leiber had indeed licensed both companies,” Appelcline writes. “Chaosium pointed out that their license was earlier, but TSR replied that if that was the case, they would sue Leiber.” Gary Gygax may have counted the author as a friend, but Brian Blume ran TSR. To protect Leiber from a suit, Chaosium dropped their claim. In an email, Chaosium founder Greg Stafford explained the decision. “Fritz was one of my literary heroes in those days, and also a terminal alcoholic, and I just imagined the havoc that would ensue for him, so I just dropped it.” In 1985, TSR published Lankhmar: City of Adventure.

5 role-playing products that shaped how I play Dungeons & Dragons 1977-1978

Holmes Basic Set (1977)

The blue box of the 1977 Holmes Basic Set introduced me to D&D. To ninty-nine percent of Dungeons & Dragons players, the edition that introduced them to the game stands as their most important. Why should I be different?

Dungeons & Dragons Basic SetPlayers who came later never saw how revolutionary the game and its brand of fantasy seemed in the 70s.

Then, games sold as toys and they were all terrible. They suffered from stupid, and random mechanics: Roll a die and move that many spaces. These games offered minimal choices. In them, the winner became obvious well before the end, yet they took forever to finish.

Before I saw D&D, I heard of the game in a 12-year-old’s lunch-room pitch. After school, I sat with a sheet of graph paper and tried to imagine how the game would play. I got nowhere. From my experience rolling a die and moving that many squares, I had no clue how a game could allow the things the kids claimed.

So in a mere 48 pages, the 1978 basic Dungeons & Dragons rule book edited by J. Eric Holmes shattered my notion of what a game could be.

As a kid in the 70s, All the fantasy I knew came from picture books. Stories where trolls lived under bridges and bugbears under beds. Nothing prepared me for a game inspired by Appendix N.

For more, see “4 popular beliefs Dungeons & Dragons defied in the 70s.”

City State of the Invincible Overlord (1977)

When I discovered D&D, TSR had yet to publish any setting information other than the hints published in the Grayhawk and Blackmoor supplements. For a break from dungeon adventures, the original rules suggested wandering the hex map packed in Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival game and rolling encounters.

City State of the Invincible OverlordSo when the City State of the Invincible Overlord reached me, the scope of my game exploded. The $9 setting included a huge 34″ x 44″ map in four sections, and 11″ x 17″ map of the castle of the dwarven king backed with a sprawling dungeon map, three booklets detailing over 300 individual locations and the non-player characters who populate them, maps for ten more dungeon levels, plus players’ maps.

The package shows remarkable creative output. No locations in the sprawling city rate as too mundane for descriptions. Even with five bakers, the guide finds something interesting to say about each.

Instead of adopting the entire City State, I cherry picked stuff I liked. My 1977 copy of the city state still contains the pencil marks noting my favorite bits. The best inspiration came from the rumors seeding every location. Now we would call them adventure hooks. In an era when most players just wandered, these ideas suggested a way to steer the game from aimless looting to plot.

For more, see “A butcher, a baker, and naughty nannies in the City State of the Invincible Overlord.”

Arduin (1977).

Inspired by the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements, Dave Hargrave printed his house rules, lore, and advice in 3 little, brown books named after his world, The pages of the Arduin Grimoire teemed with fresh ideas. When I discovered the books, I became enchanted. I haven’t found a game book that proved as enjoyable to read.

In an era when state-of-the-art setting design consisted of a map paired with encounter tables, Hargrave opened a world with detail that rivaled any setting that came later.

The Arduin TrilogyDave Hargrave’s campaign world of Arduin was not built; it was piled. To create Arduin, Hargrave took every fantastic element he dreamed up or fancied and piled them into one work of love. He preached bigger imaginary playgrounds. “The very essence of fantasy gaming is its total lack of limitation on the scope of play, both in its content and in its appeal to people of all ages, races, occupations or whatever,” He wrote. “So don’t limit the game by excluding aliens or any other type of character or monster. If they don’t fit what you feel is what the game is all about, don’t just say ‘NO!,’ whittle on them a bit until they do fit.” (Vol. II, p.99)

He tore up the D&D rules and offered wild changes. His specific rules hardly mattered. The message mattered: Hargrave encouraged me to own the rules and my games and to create a game that suited me and my players.

For more, see “Once subversive, the Arduin Grimoire’s influence reaches today’s games.”

Melee (1977) and Wizard (1978)

Over my first years years of playing D&D, the fun of the game’s battles waned. My games drifted away from the fights, and toward exploration and problem solving.

Advertisment for Melee and WizardGame designer Steve Jackson understood the trouble. In Space Gamer issue 29, he wrote, “The D&D combat rules were confusing and unsatisfying. No tactics, no real movement—you just rolled dice and died.” Steve turned his desire for better battles into elegant rules.

In the late 70s, ads in Dragon magazine convinced me to spend $2.95 on Jackson’s combat game Melee and $3.95 on the magic addition Wizard. I half expected to be disappointed. Role playing games required hefty books, and Melee and Wizard were not even full role playing games, just tiny pamphlets with paper maps and cardboard counters.

I loved playing the games so much that they changed the way I played D&D.

The revelation came from the map and counters. You see, despite D&D’s billing as “Rules for Fantastic Miniature Wargames,” I had never seen miniatures used for more than establishing a marching order. From local game groups to the D&D Open tournaments at Gen Con, no combats used battle maps, miniatures, counters, or anything other than the theater of the mind. Miniatures struck me as a superfluous prop, hardly needed by sophisticated players. The idea of bringing a tape measure to the table to measure out ranges and inches of movement seemed ridiculous.

I failed to realize how limited we were by theater of the mind. Without a map, nobody can really follow the action unless things stay very simple. In practice, you could be in front, swinging a weapon, or behind the fighters, making ranged attacks. Two options. If you were a thief, you could also try and circle around to backstab. As Steve Jackson wrote, “You just rolled dice and died.”

Melee and Wizard included hex maps and counters and simple rules for facing, movement, and engagement. After just one game, I felt excited by all the tactical richness that I had formerly snubbed.

For more, see “Melee, Wizard, and learning to love the battle map.”

Runequest (1978)

With Dungeons & Dragons, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax invented the role-playing game. With Runequest, Steve Perrin and Ray Turney showed how to design a role-playing game.

Runequest second edition

Steve Perrin first entered the hobby when he distributed his D&D house rules, “The Perrin Conventions,” at DunDraCon in 1976. This led to Runequest, a game that replaced every aspect of D&D with more flexible, realistic, and simpler alternative: Skills replaced the confining class system. Experience came from experience, not from taking treasure. Armor absorbed damage from blows that landed. Combat simulated an exchange of blows, dodges and parrys. Damage represented actual injuries. Rather than a hodge-podge of mechanics, Runequest introduced the idea of a core mechanic that provided a way to resolve every task. Rather than the game setting implied by all of Gary’s favorite fantasy tropes, Runequest supported Glorantha, a unique world built as a consistent, logical setting.

Suddenly, D&D’s rules seemed as dated as gas lights and buggy whips. I enjoyed an occasional D&D game, but I switched to electric lighting until D&D adopted much of the same technology for third edition.

Today, simulation seems less important than in 1978. I now see that rules that made D&D unrealistic also added fun by enabling the game’s combat-intensive dungeon raids. For more, see “The brilliance of unrealistic combat” and “The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold.”

However, elegance remains as important as ever. Aside from earlier editions, D&D’s current design owes more to Runequest than any other game. Third-edition D&D’s lead designer Jonathan Tweet called Runequest the role-playing game that taught how to design RPGs. Actually, Runequest taught everyone how.

Jonathan Tweet credits Runequest with a long list of innovations that reached D&D.

  • prestige classes (rune lords, rune priests, and initiates)
  • unified skill-combat-saving-throw system
  • ability scores for monsters
  • 1 in 20 hits are crits
  • ability scores that scaled up linearly without artificial caps
  • a skill system that let anyone try just about anything
  • armor penalties for skill checks and spellcasting
  • creature templates
  • faction affiliations
  • hardness for objects
  • chance to be hit modified by Dexterity and size
  • iconic characters used in examples throughout the rule book
  • rules for PCs making magic items.

Next: 1978-2000