A Gamer struggling to answer the question "Is this a game?"

A Gamer struggling to answer the question "Is this a game?"
Herein lives an attempt to grapple with issues of game design, play and comparison, focusing on table-top role-playing games. Subjective criteria include 16 years professional practice as a lawyer, a somewhat contrary personality (I have been told) and a healthy measure of cynicism towards dogmatic positions.

"... For a book, once it is printed and published, becomes individual. It is by its publication as decisively severed from its author as in parturition a child is cut off from its parent. The book 'means' thereafter, perforce,—both grammatically and actually,—whatever meaning this or that reader gets out of it." — James Branch Cabell

Friday, 7 June 2013

Dungeon Crawl Classics

While my group and I have been concentrating on the D&D Next Playtest, we could hardly ignore the interweb hype about Goodman Games' addition to the old new school rpg movement. I will not comment on the presentation, artwork and game materials of this excellent game. Much has been said by many other commentators about the book, almost all overwhelmingly positive. The net is full of glowing accounts of how it looks and how it reads. I have the deluxe black and gold version of the book that shipped with an additional free adventure, and it is certainly a great piece of gaming literature. Everything about it is very good. But role-playing games are ultimately  judged on how they play, not how they look. Before getting the book I did several web searches for play experiences to hear from players and referees how the game worked in practice. Weirdly enough, there weren't that many. Sure, there were some excellent videos. I recommend Wintersome's excellent two part video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOjJMuUo7BY. But the reports of actual play were few and far between.

We have now played the game. I have run three funnel sessions of Sailors on the Starless Sea. As promised it was carnage. The players have enjoyed it. Let me say at the outset that DCC plays smoothly and easily. The learning curve for experienced gamers was almost non-existent. Overall we have had a very positive experience of the game, but I have two points to make. I have to raise them in the interests of balance because its difficult to find any negative comments about the game.

The first has to do with the game's tone. The author is very clear. This is for people who like "Appendix N" fantasy literature. OK, that's me. I am target market group. The game makes use of randomness to make the experience wild, weird and often out of control for the characters. This is also very cool because it takes the game in unexpected directions. But while tables (and the game abounds with them) are cool for throwing up interesting stuff, they also have another effect. Results of character actions become hard coded to the thematic material contained in the tables. What I mean is that in-game outcomes (which are often derived from table results) all follow the same fantasy theme of wild, out of control events, often with, extra-planar or otherworldly entities behind them. Is this "Appendix N"? In my opinion, No. Its Michael Moorcock, with possible hints of Zelazny and Vance. I appreciate fully the gratitude expressed by JG to all the authors he lists and also the influences of those authors on his own views of literature, many of which I probably share, but I don't think DCC is a game that allows the creation of stories across the gamut of Appendix N. The main reason for this are the spell tables, which form a large portion of the book, and which contain much of the game's thematic material. These, together with the mercurial magic, corruption tables and the alignment system, give the game its flavour. And yes, you can house rule your own flavour, but that's a bit like rewriting the book. Don't get me wrong, I love the flavour. I love Elric and Hawkmoon, but IMHO it would be difficult to run a Tolkien-type game using the DCC rules.

The second point relates to the 0-Level character generation system. For those unfamiliar with the system, you generate a few 0-level characters very quickly and run many of them through a start-up adventure called a "funnel" which kills most of them, but something strange happens to the few that survive. They develop a shared game story, they gain a lot of wealth through attrition and they reach the elusive first level where they choose a character class and become fully-fledged adventurers. This is a good system but it feels somewhat reactionary to me. By this I mean it is pitched as an admonition to min/maxers. More charitably it is an explanation to gamers who came up through D&D 3e and 3.5, that, contrary to what they may have learned from those games, their character's abilities are irrelevant. DCC does this by making players grow to like the poor hapless sods they play and appreciating all their heroics as exactly that, heroic. It also uses a very flat bonus/penalty to Ability Score ratio (flatter than D&D) which gives mechanical assistance to the idea.

What's wrong with this lesson? Nothing unless it doesn't need to be learned. My group is middle-aged. They are going to hate me for saying it; and they have played many games. Most of them are experienced players who don't optimise. They play all sorts of characters good and bad and most role-play the hell out of it. So maybe, the character gen system is a little patronising.

OK, that's the best I could do to come up with negative comments about DCC. Its an excellent game that reminds me of the first games of AD&D I played, but with a smoother interface, a fantastic spell system which I cannot believe has not been implemented before and all the interesting randomness to send the characters to hell and back. In other words Two-thumbs up. Is it perfect? No. It is, in my view, thematically limited, but the theme it does exceptionally is one that I love and I know many other gamers the world over love it too.

Monday, 29 April 2013

The Turning of the Worm - Where are we with RPGs?

I am currently runnning a game of D&D Next and reading the Dungeon Crawl Classics Rules. Reading the Dungeon Crawl Classics Rules and thinking about D&D and my group's last session has rendered me philosophical about the culture of role-playing games and the way it haschanged over the years. I am interested in assessing where this "new" breed of game comes from and where it is headed.
 
The trouble with being close to something or someone is that you often dont notice changes that occur in them or it. It is only when you haven't seen someone for a few years and you bump into them that you are struck by how changed they are. Its been a bit like that for me with D&D. The progression from 1e to 2e to 3.0 to 3.5, to 4e with a whole lot of other games thrown in for seasoning has happened without me really noticing what I now believe to be a fundamental change in the philosophy of the game. Well, the philosophy is really still to have fun, but what has changed is the way the game delivers the fun. Fifth Edition or D&D Next (call it what you will) has come about in the midst of a new/old gaming movement called the Old School Renaissance (OSR). Started by older gamers, calling themselves Grognards (history buffs will get the reference) who wanted to play role-playing games again, but had been away and were not happy with the changes they saw in the new versions of the game, they began re-writing old versions of the D&D game. These rewrites are referred to as retro-clones and some of them even became succesful commercial products eg. OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord. Each one stressed slightly different aspects represented by the various early iterations of the D&D game. Why the OSR has become so popular is a matter of some conjecture and may have to do with various social factors and changes in (dare I say it) the Zeitgeist.

 D&D Next and DCC are attempts to bring "old school" gaming to a modern world. As someone who played "old-school" many years ago, and having now played the one and read the other I reckon they are doing it right. But what really is the difference? I think the difference lies in what equates to success in the game. It seems to me that in the old games success meant Survival, whereas in the newer version of D&D Success meant Accumulation.

A comparative analysis of the versions of D&D over the years shown very clear trends. The game became less dangerous for the characters. This is reflected in the rules for death and dying. With each iteration it became harder for characters to die. Also eroded, slowly at first, but then in great jumps were the so-called "save or die" effects. Character death came to be seen by the game's writers and publishers as something that would turn players off the game, and therefore a bad thing. Of course, character death also interrupted the other stream, which was gaining momentum through the versions, the character's ability to accumulate. Accumulation refers not only to material goods, the number of which are available to a character has also grown steadily. It also refers to the accumulation of skills, powers, ability score buffs, feats, gold and magical enhancements. A character's effectiveness came to be measured by the number of options available to him, through the accumulation of all these things. Characters have become commoditized. There may be many different sociological and psychological reasons for this, but there is also an obvious commercial reason. Commoditizing the game provides an almost unlimited opportunity for sales (or so it would seem). The more "options" there are the more books are needed to contain those options. This can be seen in the almost countless versions of additional books available for the D&D and Pathfinder games and the proliferation of so-called "Splat Books". One of the problems caused by this proliferation is that it perpetuates a falsity about the game itself. The untruth is that unless something is contained in a book or a rule somewhere, your character cannot do it. This is fundamentally wrong and bad for the hobby. This false representation will be particularly damaging to a new player picking up a role-playing game for the first time, but it is negative effects are not limited to novices. I am an experienced gamer and I am just as guilty of falling for it. Perhaps more guilty because I have proselytized the changes to newer and more commoditized versions of the game within my own gaming group.

 The commoditizing of the game is like the branches of a tree, breeding greater option complexity all the time. This also increases the potential for combinations that the game's producers did not consider and unforeseen synergies between distant option commodities. This process reached its height with D&D 3.5 and continues strongly in Pathfinder. Thus were born a breed of gamers known as the "min/maxers" who studied these things for uber powerful combos and broken options to exploit. This became so bad that the game's creator decided there was a problem. But they misidentified the problem either because they had lost track of the essence of the game or because they knew they were too far along a path of commoditization from which there was not turning back. The problem, they opined, was a lack of Balance. The game would be protected from the assaults of the hordes of the min/maxing munchkins if balance could be achieved. This meant that no single option could be more powerful than another. This great balancing exercise resulted in 4e. Unfortunately the effect was simply to make the vast commodity options more bland and similar to each other.

Another harmful effect of commoditizing player options has been rules bloat. Players gained vast lists of abilities, many of which needed rules to support them. One of the worst effects has been a power shift from the DM to the players. The rules have gradually neutered the DM, leaving him boxed in by text and unable to express himself and to create the type of fantasy adventure story that the game was intended for in the first place. Players too have not been immune, while their power to control the outcomes of events had increased, the rules have hampered them too. Their creative abilities to effect the collaborative adventure story have also been caged by rules and options.

Why I personally went along with this process is a bit of a mystery to me. Maybe I too was just another victim of a gradual shift in perceptions in modern society, or maybe I'm just a sucker for a box of shiny sweets. Anyway, the charm spell that I was under has been lifted, and I see with new eyes. (This metaphor seems to have been grafted unconsciously onto my current campaign in which eyes and blindness have become a very prominent theme)

D&D Next takes away more than ninety percent of the commodities. If that is perpetuated in the game that actually gets sold it is a very brave move for a company that earns profits from the game. There remains an apparent hangover fascination with balancing the character classes, but this is not front and centre. The game is more deadly and characters have fewer codified options. The weird irony of the game means that this results in more options not less. Play style has to change. Our most recent session of 5e was, in my mind, a result of a habitual approach to gaming brought about by previous versions of D&D. A party of characters playing D&D in 1980 would asses every creature they came across in order to determine whether they could survive an encounter with it. They would carefully consider the other options available to them outside of a straight-up fight and would very often take one of those options. The changes mentioned above have led to my players (controlling characters of second and thirs level) taking the attack option as a default. In a recent encounter with the purple worm very little thought was given to any option other than to attack it until it became clear (with three characters in its belly) that it was beyond the abilities of the party to kill. D&D is about survival again and I think it makes the game more fun.

Dungeon Crawl Classics takes a more aggressive approach to those who read the rules and want to play. Not having any sentimental or commercial ties to the later D&D version before 5e, it makes no attempt to promote their validity. The game forces players into an "old-school" mindset my impressing on them immediately that survival is the victory. Each player begins with two to four 0-level "mooks "on their first adventure, ominously referred to as a "funnel". In a funnel mortality rates are massive, and as the characters have almost no skills or abilities and less than 5 hit points they die in their droves. But the game does a clever thing it makes players root for one or more of their hapless goons, with terrible Ability scores. Also, to overcome challenges the players have to use more than the commodities available to the characters. They have to use ingenuity, role-playing and team work, mixed with a healthy dose of luck. Sounds like D&D to me. And what happens to the few who survive the funnel? Well, they come out with a few commodities scavenged from the corpses of their fallen comrades, a scar or two and tales of adventure, daring and excitement. They also have something else, a bond with the player controlling them who then selects their class and all the trappings normally associated with a first level character. Clever.

 DCC also stresses survival in the way it awards experience. Characters gain between two and five experience points for each encounter they survive. Any encounter, whether it be a social encounter, a battle or just a trap. I think thats clever. The game has other old-school elements but thats for another time.

Both games are, in my view, a breath of fresh air, or rather old air that has a familiar and well-loved odour. I am really enjoying playing 5e as I believe it gets back to what these sorts of games should be about.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Detours are Always Better


For over a year now, since my interest was piqued in the history of roleplaying games, in addition to trying to write a book on the subject, I have also been trying to bolster my collection of old D&D books. I consider my throwing out of my 1st and 2nd AD&D materials some years ago before I realised the value (nostalgic and commercial) the old stuff would acquire, to be one of my most miserable errors. So I am often on the lookout for old D&D stuff, but over the holidays I discovered that some of the coolest D&D moments occur at times and in places where you least expect them.

 

The family took a road trip this holiday to a part of the country known as the Eastern Cape. The quickest and straightest route back to Cape Town where we live follows almost exclusively a national road known as the N2 highway. This year however, massive bush fires aided by soaring temperatures and fanned by high winds forced the closure of the N2 on the day we were to return. An alternative route was needed. We decided on a new way home along a scenic road known as the R62. The route takes the traveller through an area of scrubland and mountains known as the “Little Karoo”. Its not as good a road as the N2 but the scenery is often breath-taking and desolate and punctuated by small interesting towns and villages offering coffee shops, curios and wine tasting to weary drivers and passengers.

 

After several hours of driving we chose a town with a population of less than ten thousand people, and a random coffee shop (The Blue Cow, if you’re ever in Barrydale) and stopped for a rest and a bite to eat. Not only was the food and drink excellent, the hospitality was warm as the sun that beat down on the veranda on which we sat overlooking the khoi pond. The owner informed us that there was a used book seller next door and so I took the opportunity to wander off and browse.

 

The bookshop was a wooden hut in which loose fitting, colourful clothes and incense were also for sale. When it came to books it was well stocked, both inside and out, with the works neatly and, with the exception of one book, accurately categorised. As I walked past the “Esoterica” section my eye fell immediately upon an almost pristine copy of the Second Edition AD&D Player’s Handbook. I know it’s not the Brown Box or an orange version of the Palace of the Silver Princess, but it’s one of the books I owned and threw away and I had to have it. I did the transaction as quickly as I could all the while attempting not to alert the alternatively dressed lady who ran the shop to the ridiculously low price for which it was on offer.

 

She asked me whether I was aware of what was in the book and I politely said that I had once owned it and was glad to find another copy. She was very friendly but seemed to be waiting to talk to me as I looked through the other sections with my new acquisition clutched firmly under one arm. Once the three other customers in the shop had left she sidled over to me. Placing one hand on my arm and looking me straight in the eye she whispered furtively “I must warn you, not all of the spells work”. I was at a loss for words and could only respond that I knew that and that it didn’t change my mind. Then she went on with her business obviously assured in her own mind that she was not guilty of any significant misrepresentation. I couldn’t stop chuckling as I made my way back to table where I drank a magnificent cappuchino while paging through the familiar pages of black text and blue artwork.

 

It amazing to me that so many events out of my control, conspired to place a copy of the book in my hands. Detours are a wonderful thing. I sincerely suggest you take them whenever you get a chance. We had a great holiday but the trip back and the saga of the PHB were a highlight, a silver piece that will remain in the belt pouch of my memory for a very long time.

 

We had almost made it home before it struck me that I had missed the most golden of opportunities. Maybe one day I will pack my 2e PHB, travel that road again, stop in that small town, go to the same coffee shop and ask the nice lady with the crystal around her neck to mark ,in my copy, the spells that actually do work.
 
When I told the story to a friend and fellow D&D player he thought about my account and then said confidently “Magic Missile……. Definitely Magic Missile ”. He’s probably right.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

D&D Next and an Unexpected Outcome

I have been taking part in the D&D Next Playtest with great interest and growing excitement. I have been running a game for my regular group and devouring the new playtest materials as they get amended and released. As a game geek I have to remind myself not to become carried away with the big box of sweets (as I did when 4e was released), but to be a good playtester and actually test. I find with any rpg products there are two decent criteria: 1) Does it make playing the game easier and more fun? 2) Does it stimulate my imagination, and add something I hadn't thought of.

I  was bored and decided to try an expreiment. I had the latest D&D Next materials and decided to create a character randomly. Not random stat generation, that was a set array, but random character choices. Firstly, race and class. Dwarven Cleric! For those who know me, it will come as no surprise that I almost stopped then and there. In the twenty-five odd years I have been playing RPGs I have probably played one dwarf. I just dont want to play them. I like Gimli (Tolkien's as well as John Rhys-Davies') as much as the next person. I just dont have any desire to play one. When it comes to Clerics, I've never played one. I've run many games where Clerics have featured and had a great time doing it, but, for some reason, I never want to play one. So, the gods of fate thrusting a bearded spell/mace guy in my face was disappointing. But I have always had an otherwise streak to I decided to spit in the face of destiny and, resisting the urge to fudge towards more appealing archetypes like Wizard and Rogue, I trudged ahead.

The next random choice was Hill Dwarf (as opposed to Mountain Dwarf). Whatever. Then things started to get interesting. Next random selection was deity choice...The Trickster. In my mind the deity that floats to the top is the Norse god of Mischief, so I chose Loki. With the trickster came some intersting additional weapon choices and the Sneak Skill, Spells: Sanctuary and Minor Illusion (Wizard) and the ability to become invisible. Things were getting interesting.

Background Choice was also random and I got "Guild Thief", together with skills: Balance, Disable Device and Search.  He now knew Thieves Cant and possessed a set of thieves tools in a pair of breeches with a secret pocket. I was starting to get a mental picture. This dwarf had an umipressive beard, shaved head and wore a badly stained brown leather skullcap.

Next up ....Specialty, randomly selected, was.....Ambush Specialist (too good to be true!) This came with the Improved Initiative Feat, perfect for a guy with 10 Dex.

I went with a handaxe wielder (throwing and striking) to optimse the Dwarven Weapon ability. More imaginative input. He wore a sprig of Holly on the front of his tunic (Loki's Holy Symbol) He had a habit of continually scratching under his skull cap. His name is Ulli Stonecradle.

When he was finished I realised what had happened. I had made a dwarf, but not a Tolkien dwarf as I always imagined the race in a D&D game, but a dwarf from the world of C.S. Lewis or the Brothers Grimm, a dark character, difficult to pin down and equally difficult to be friends with. I had never even considered playing this kind of dwarf in a game of D&D. I am not even a big fan of the second dwarf trope in fiction, but I know one thing, I cant wait to play Ulli Stonecradle.

I haven't played him yet, but, in this instance, (and in a rather surprising way) the D&D Playtest rules passed both of the tests I set for them. The character creation process was smooth, relatively easy and effective. But it also took me down a path I had not considered and opened up a new gaming avenue for me that I had not considered until I delved into the material.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Level 1: The Man with The Briefcase full of Pamphlets


 

 

 

The dark dangerous forest is still there, my friends. Beyond the space of the astronauts and the astronomers, beyond the dark, tangled regions of Freudian and Jungian psychiatry, beyond the dubious psi-realms of Dr. Rhine, beyond the areas policed by the commissars and priests and motivations-research men, far, far beyond the mad, beat, half-hysterical laughter... the utterly unknown still is and the eerie and ghostly lurk, as much wrapped in mystery as ever.

                                                                                           Fritz Lieber

 
Of all the influences on the younger inhabitants of the United States during the 1960s, one that gets less attention than it deserves is the dramatic rise in popularity of fantasy and science fiction literature. Young people living at that time were not only giving vent to the zeitgeist by what they listened to, inhaled or ate, but also by the types of books they consumed. Tolkien was suddenly mainstream, and a common reference in expressions of popular culture. The notion that a coherent and complex work of fiction could be accomplished purely by the exercise of the imagination was as revolutionary as the idea that human consciousness could be altered at will, in order to achieve a different point of view. Writers who didn’t fit the mainstream mould were writing, as if imbued by divine spark, as if channelling some wild unbridled spirit that cleaved to no literary convention, but the imaginative. Their subject was the dark and dangerous undiscovered forest where only the imagination had consequence.

 

While the sixties saw a burgeoning of new writing talent in the realms of fantasy such as the anarchistic Michael Moorcock (in many different guises), the intricate melancholy of Ursula K. LeGuin, and Anne McCaffrey and the gritty panache of Fritz Lieber, it was also to the old fantasy staples that the young American readers and authors turned. They turned to Tolkien, a man who had created a world so concrete, and so multi-layered that it presented itself as an entirely plausible alternative mythology. They turned to Robert E. Howard, a man who chose gunshot suicide at the age of thirty and who never left the town of Cross Plains, Texas. Yet, Howard had written the pulp treasure trove of stories about Conan the Cimmerian, so vast in its scope and so untethered to the world Howard himself inhabited, that cynics still attribute his collection of works more to schizophrenia than to imaginative genius. Whatever its pathology, the readers in the sixties did not doubt its genius. They turned to double entendre of the allegory of C.S. Lewis, the dark, unapologetic gothic of Mervyn Peake and psychological horror of H.P. Lovecraft. Even when it came to these established authors, the sixties readers were reading with a new appreciation for the imaginative and for the sudden legitimacy that the imaginative seemed to have achieved.

 

Science Fiction (if it is possible to distinguish it from fantasy writing) also saw an explosion in its readership during the sixties. This “new wave” movement had its own impetus brought by the birth of the idea that technology, was not a taboo field of exercise for the human imagination, as well as the radical political views of many of its writers. Writers like Moorcock, Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlen were consumed by avid fans, and clubs and appreciation societies began to spring up, many at institutions of higher learning. But these modern sci-fi writers shared the limelight with the post-war work of authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack Vance and Ray Bradbury.

 

While there may have been subtle differences in the influences that brought them to the fore in the mind of the consumers of “escapist” literature, it must be remembered that fantasy and sci-fi, started to enjoy a popularity fuelled by the same passions on the part of the readers of both types of story. The distinction between the two genres was a later development, in the minds of readers and in the meeting schedules of publishing company directors. In 1965 most “fantasy” readers consumed as much Asimov as they did Tolkien. Indeed, writers in the sixties, like Moorcock moved without a second thought between what would later be known as the twin branches of fantasy and sci-fi, in their writing.

 

With the rise in popularity of the genre, it began to have cross-appeal in various other areas of society. Fantasy literature fans were spreading out, and their ideas on the role of the imagination, were beginning to permeate different social spheres. Much of this cross-pollination was seamless and natural, but in certain serendipitous cases it resulted in polarisation between members of different social cliques. In some extreme cases, the combination of the fantasy literature genre with another eclectic interest group would have entirely unforeseen creative results. Some of these results could possibly have been predicted, but still others were entirely unforeseeable, despite attempts by various individuals in later years, to claim that they had not only predicted, but planned them.

 

The social interest group and hobby that were about to collide with the rise of imaginative literature, was the rather closed, stuffy, pseudo-academic world of miniature wargaming. The unexpected by-product of this alchemical commixing would be the first example of an entirely new form of pastime, the role-playing game. Its name would be Dungeons & Dragons. While the game’s history is solidly rooted in the world of wargaming, no investigation of the roots and history of the game, can ignore the over-arching influence of the new passion for fantasy and science fiction writing that was sweeping the United States in the mid to late sixties. It was the rennaissance of fantasy literature that provided the fertile soil in which the seeds of an brand new idea would germinate.


The Avalon Game Company was a small entity that began manufacturing boardgames in 1954, with the release of a game called “Tactics”. The company was the brainchild of Charles S. Roberts. It had a rocky financial history and went through several name changes eventually calling itself Avalon Hill until 1998 when it was purchased by Hasbro games. The company tried to put out a new boardgame every year during the sixties and seventies. Avalon Hill produced many games, but its first real off-the-shelf success was “Gettysburg”, a tactical board game which simulated the famous battle of the American Civil War. It was the first board-based wargame premised on a historical battle. The effect of the game’s release was to expose young consumers of fairly simple family board games,  to new world of military simulations. It was by no means an easy game to pick up and play, but compared to the complex rules for the more traditional wargames that existed at the time, its sixteen page rule book, was a model of simplicity. Unfortunately “clarity” was never a tag that could be attached to the Gettysburg rules.

 

It is in all likelihood anecdotal, but the number of pioneers of the D&D game who cite Gettysburg as the game which started their interest in wargaming, is so significant one wonders whether Avalon Hill should not feature more centrally as a credited influence in the creation of what would, fifteen years later emerge as the first role-playing game.

 

When Gettysburg was released, wargames were not unheard of. They had existed for years, and had been written about by no less than H.G. Wells who had created a whimsical set of game rules in his “Little Wars” published in 1913. There was “Stratego”, the modern form of a French game called “L’attaque” which appeared and was sold in France as early 1910. And of course wargaming was common practice in military forces around the world, going back centuries. In the years following World War II, battles of that era were not considered a fitting topic for a family game. By the sixties, younger enthusiasts, who had not experienced the horrors of the war first hand, had begun to take an interest in the battles of that war and other wars, as the subject of games. Prior to this, American table-top wargamers were generally history scholars whose endeavours were aimed at recapturing famous military conquests, for purposes of re-enactment and study. Gettysburg went straight to the growing more prosaic general audience accustomed to simpler boardgames such as Monopoly and Risk, and showed them that complexity and greater level of strategic planning didn’t kill boardgames. On the contrary, they could make them more fun.

 

After Gettysburg several other military boardgames were created, several by Avalon Hill. Boardgames needed game pieces, and when it came to historical wargming, the pieces would become a hobby in themselves. In 1955 Jack Scruby began making moulds in his shop in California, casting and selling metal figurines for use in tabletop gaming. Scruby perceived the growing interest in wargames as a pastime and in the collection of metal soldiers that could be used to play those games. In 1957 he convened the first wargming convention in California and began publishing a quarterly periodical catering for the needs of military miniature gamers, called “War Game Digest”. The growth of Scruby’s sales and the reach of his periodicals reflected the steady growth of the industry as military wargaming adopted its new audience. No longer the sole domain of historians and military officers, wargaming began to attract gamers of all ages, but it was in schools and, in particular universities, that the hobby began to catch hold. By 1960 most U.S. universities had wargaming societies and clubs, that were well attended and well-organised.

 

Across the United States wargamers would face each other across makeshift battlefields, with piles of books representing higher ground, strips of cloth as rivers, and various coloured pieces of paper, material or scrap to signify different types of terrain. More ambitious and artistically inclined gamers made lifelike models of their own, including detailed towns and fortifications. The games they played were often recreations of famous battles from human history, but the fun lay in the fact that now, Custer could win, Acre may not fall to the Turks and the plains of Megiddo may resound to the ringing of a different victory trumpet. It was a history of which a whole lot of questions could be asked, and it peaked the imagination. But there had to be a winner. While it was fun, imaginative and interesting, it was also a contest.

 

There were a few commercial ventures in the area of wargaming but the hobby suffered from a serious drawback (or, from the point of view of Dungeons and Dragons, an advantage) in that its rules were not codified. The main categories of game were: Ancients, Napoleonic, American Civil War and World War II. Each of these genres required different rules systems to run effectively, and a set of rules that worked for one might be hopelessly inefficient for another. To make matters more fractured, certain clubs and societies specialised in game play from a certain era. The result was an extremely haphazard system where new rules were constantly being tried, exchanged, plagiarised and adapted by gamers across the country. With companies like Avalon Hill producing only a game a year, gamers had to take the laws of the game into their own hands. They began to innovate. They modified, borrowed, and improvised rules, and in some cases, created their own. Military wargamers were improvisers par excellence.

 

In 1962 a book was released by Joseph Morschauser entitled “How to Play Wargames in Miniature”. It claimed to be a guide for the would-be wargamer and included advice on game play as well as collecting and painting miniatures. The need to continually strive for a “more realistic” set of rules to cover a particular genre of gaming, also lead to much debate and discussion within specific groups, and between groups themselves.

 

In a time before cellular phones and the internet, this meant groups getting in touch with each other by post. It also meant that gamers needed to physically get together with each other in order to share ideas and rule sets. Thus, Scruby and others had seen the need to organise such gatherings.

 

In 1964, when the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” hit number one on the U.S. music charts, and the Gemini Space Probe was launched, David Wesely was nineteen years old and already a fan of wargaming. He was born on 15 March 1945. His first experience of wargaming had come when he played “Gettysburg” at the age of 13. That year he joined a small group that was centered in Twin Cities area of Minnesota (encompassing the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul). It was called the Midwest Military Simulation Association (MMSA) and had been founded by Ray Allard, a well-known amateur historian and historical re-enactor, on 18 April 1964. The first meeting was attended by Allard, then 54, Dr. William Musing, Loren Johnson, Ron Lauraunt, Winston Sandeen, all in their thirties, and Allard’s son, Ray Jnr, and Wesely who were teenagers. The membership of the group grew by word of mouth, and new members such as Don Nicholson joined.  The group soon included several students because, in addition to advertising for members in “The General” and “Strategy & Tactics” magazines, they also ran welcome tables at the Universities of Minnesota and St. Paul. There was some degree of polarisation between the older members who enjoyed collecting, modelling and painting on the one hand, and the younger members who preferred the gaming itself.

 

The group began to get together in that year and would grow to membership of around thirty by 1968. Wesely was an improviser who, together with other members of the group, was constantly trying to write a better set of rules to regulate their historical battles that would grow continually more complex and ambitious. In 1966 Nicholson discovered a book in the library of the University of Minnesota entitled “Strategos, the American Game of War” by Lieutenant C.A.L. Totten. Totten is pictured here.

 

Published in 1880, it was a thick three hundred and forty-two page tome which sought to present itself as the training manual for wargaming for the U.S. Army. When Nicholson revealed this book to the group, it greatly increased the level of complexity that Wesely and others added to their games, even though they realised that this complexity was so unwieldy that they could never incorporate all the rules it suggested. Still, Wesely and his fellow table-top generals attempted to do it. But, as many game designers would find in the years that followed, the uncertainty caused by home-grown and varied rules systems, led to disputes and complicated debates which would often stop the game in its tracks or cause it to proceed so slowly that it may as well have stopped.

 

One of Wesely’s gaming friends, and part of his inner circle, was a young Dave Arneson. He was still at school when he joined the MMSA. Arneson was extremely well-read particularly when it came to fantasy and science-fiction. He became an active member and produced a newsletter containing the battle reports of the group’s Napoleonic games and games of the board game, “Diplomacy”. David Lance Arneson was born in Hennepin County, Minnesota on 1 October 1947. Arneson was eighteen years old when he joined Wesely’s group. He had been playing wargames since 1958.  His first, it should no longer be a surprise to find out, was Avalon Hill’s Gettysburg. Arneson was a plump young man who wore glasses. He had a quiet manner and an infectious laugh. He was also an avid gamer who, like Wesely did not mind the idea that the rules for wargames should be as realistic as possible, even if that involved high levels of complexity.

 

Arnseon had a keen interest in history and in particular, the history of human conflict. He compiled incredibly detailed notes, from a historical perspective, of the costs of military equipment throughout various periods in history. Arneson was known amongst his friends for being able to determine the cost of building a troop ship, or any other ship for that matter, in 1887, and to provide the amount in pounds sterling.

 

While reading Totten’s book Wesely noticed that in addition to the standard six-sided dice that was used in most wargames, the author also called for the used of a twelve sided “tee-to-tum”. Wesely had no idea what this was but guessed it was an object that had twelve sides and incorrectly assumed that it resembled one of the five regular polyhedra that he had learned about in science class when he was at school and which had been discovered by the Pythagorean School of Alexandria. So Wesely ordered a set from Edmund Scientific’s school supplies catalogue, for the whopping sum of $ 6.00, well beyond the budget of most young gamers. The set he received included plastic polyhedra with four, six, eight, twelve and twenty facets respectively, each facet numbered. Of these Wesely used the twelve sided shape as a dice, to use with Totten’s probability tables. He also found the twenty-sided polyhedra useful for generating percentages. The four, six and eight sided shapes Wesely opined to be useless. The main dice used in his wargames continued to be the six-sided standard, available at local stores for a far more reasonable 5 cents.

 

Wesely’s group attracted the attention of the local press in 1966. The Minneapolis Tribune ran an article on the growing hobby of miniatures collecting and wargaming in the area of the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, complete with a photo of Wesely’s gaming group playing wargames in his parents’ home. Wesely himself is in the left foreground with the crew cut. Also in the photograph is Dave Arneson (at the back in green with his elbows on the table.

 

By 1966 Wesely and other members of the group had begun to become concerned with the amount of bickering, disagreement and unhappiness that a lack of clear rules was beginning to cause during a night’s gaming which was supposed, after all, to be an evening of fun. In his book Totten had suggested that a referee be used, preferably of a superior officer, to regulate the wargame, resolve disputes and make decisions which would be binding on the players and would keep the game flowing.

 

This idea struck a chord with Wesely, Arneson and others in the group and they began to experiment with referees during their games. Initially there was some confusion as to the referee’s function. Some group members, of the argumentative type, were not happy to have referees because they felt they were biased and at the same time did not want to be the referee because this meant they would not be able to play the game. A few players left the group rather than submit to the whims of a referee.

 

When it came to the role of the referee Totten once again came to the aid of Wesely’s gaming group. He had suggested in his book that the referee, in addition to being an impartial arbitrator to settle disputes between the players and assist them in the massively complicated calculations that were part and parcel of Totten’s system, could take on another, far more interesting role. He would also be responsible for supplying the players with intelligence received by their armies from civilians and providing random, chance events that would take place during the game (of which the players were not initially aware). The referee could create and plan the scenario that would be the context for the battle, rather than have the players simply recreate a historical scenario. Unlike in other games the referee would have “knowledge” of the scenario that the players did not have. He would keep this knowledge secret and divulge it to the players once their actions were such that their commanders would become privy to that knowledge. So, if a field seemed perfectly crossable on foot by infantry, it may be that the referee would keep a note to himself, which stated that the field was in fact marshy and difficult to cross. A wily commander might receive the more accurate intelligence when he resolved to question some of the local farmers whereas a less astute general might find it out for the first time when his light infantry division attempted to charge across the field and capture the gun emplacement on the other side.

 

So, Totten’s referee could add a level of interest and fun to the battle. Although referees were commonly used, this extended role was not the norm in wargaming during the sixties. If the advice in this 1880’s tract were to be followed the imaginative powers of the referee would become a telling factor in a wargame. Wesely and members of his group also had the foresight to see just how much fun this could be. As they began to take it in turns to act as referee, in this sense, they began to find that the fun elements that Totten’s rules added, offset the frustration of not being able to play as one of the combatants. A smaller more imaginatively inclined group of four, which included Wesely himself, found that they enjoyed the imaginative elements enough that they preferred to referee rather than to play. Another member of the four was a Dave Arneson.

 

By 1967 Arneson was refereeing full-time within the MMSA group. Many of the younger members would collect at Arneson’s house for evenings of pure wargaming. What is more, he had created what was described as a “campaign”. This was a linked series of battles and interposed events over which he presided as referee, in the Totten sense. A campaign, with the help of the referee, allowed for diplomatic engagement between players and, in addition, allowed for more than two players to take part in the game. The referee could therefore present the players with strategic questions that went far broader than the battlefield decisions they would make in a single battle scenario.

 

Another game option that both Wesley and Arneson began exploring was the idea of multiple player games where each player had a different set of objectives and some of these were not mutually exclusive.

 

In one such example the group played a campaign, referreed by Arneson, reflecting the entire Napoleonic grand theatre, with each player representing a different European state. They were all given budgets based on the cost calculations sourced by Arneson, with which to construct armies and navies. Then the negotiation started. This process led the gamers to a realisation concerning the nature of historical events that had not struck them before. The process taught them that many of the great decisions made by leaders were made based on the personal relationships between those leaders, more than simply on factors of political and military expediency. However, a game of this nature had a drawback that Arneson soon discovered. The more the game went on the larger the amounts of information that he would receive from players on an almost daily basis. The game began to take up all of Arneson’s time. The realisation dawned on him that he had become a full-time referee.

 

Wesely too continued to push the limits of gaming. In 1967 he refereed a game representing the battle of Bladensburg for Washington D.C. in 1814 between the British forces and the local American coalition forces. In an effort to reflect that difficulties that has beset the American forces, and possibly led to their defeat, Wesely allowed fourteen players into the game, some of them playing a single character such as a specific commanding officer, who could effectively countermand the orders of some of the other American commanders. Twelve people ran the American coalition forces and only two the British forces. The game was a fun experiment and Wesely felt that it had worked well. His next experiment was even more ambitious.

 

Faced with a larger group than usual that were due to arrive at his parents’ house for their regular gaming session, Wesely decided to try something that he had wanted to do for a while to further investigate the idea of multiple players with multiple military objectives. He called it “Braunstein”. It was a German town commanding a strategic position at a bridge over the Braunwasser River. He set up a twelve by six foot tabletop with models, terrain and buildings and waited for people to arrive. The table that he used is pictured in the magazine photo above. As people began arriving he briefed them each individually as to their roles during the upcoming game. The first guest was told that he was a captain in the French Lancers and that he had been sent to the town in disguise without his unit, to reconnoitre the area.  The next guest was told he was the head of the Prussian Jaegers unit that would be sent to reinforce the town of Braunstein, but that he had arrived before the troops. The next player was the mayor of Braunstein and he was told that there had been a student riot the night before, which had been harshly put down by the chief of police. The tavern owners were demanding compensation or the head of the police chief. The chancellor of the university was demanding the release of the arrested students. And so it went on. More and more players were given civilian roles, including the Baron of Braunstein and the chief banker. Wesely also did something deliberately provocative. He gave roles that would naturally involve the highest level of cooperation to people whom he knew did not get on well, and he made sure that the players who were the most friendly with each other received roles that had mutually exclusive agendas.

 

Wesely fully expected that the civilian interaction would continue up until a point and then the players would go back to “pushing lead around the table”. He also had in mind an intricate scoring system for the nine or so roles for which he had planned. He decided to run the game entirely from another room where he had a map of the battlefield. The idea was that each player would come into the room and communicate their next move to him. This turned out to be a very na├»ve and impractical method for trying to run the game. To make matters worse, he had been expecting and had arranged roles for about nine people. Cracks began to show when twenty-two people arrived at the house. He began improvising roles to meet the player demand, and the mayhem began.

 

The players ignored the request to take turns to give their instructions to the referee. They began coming in to the room where Wesely was sitting, out of turn. A colonel of the Jaegers and the captain of the university fencing team arrived and informed Wesely that they wished to fight a duel. They demanded a rule system which would enable them to do so. Wesely improvised a fighting system allowing the student to roll 2d6 and the soldier 3d6. Unsurprisingly the student fencing champion was carried out on a slab.

 

When Wesely went back into the main room he was amazed to find that all the players were fully, and vocally interacting with each other in ways he had never contemplated, without giving their instructions through him as the referee. The university chancellor was busy sabotaging the old cannon that stood at the entrance to the university. Wesely had completely lost control of the game, and he saw it as a disaster. At about two o’clock in the morning Wesely called the players together and apologised for the fact that the game had become completely out of hand and that he, as referee, had failed in that he had no idea who had won the game. The reaction of the players surprised him deeply. They were not upset or angry. They all claimed to have enjoyed the game. Wesely didn’t realise it but he had stumbled upon an entirely new form of game, a game where victory or defeat was not the object nor was it essential to enjoyment. The old adage was indeed true in this type of game, it was not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game that mattered.

 

Wesely had run the Braunstein game during the holidays because he was then attending graduate school. After the game he went back to school. When he returned home he was met with requests as to when the next Braunstein game would be played. When he returned to school he began planning Braunstein 2. He decided that this time he would not lose control. None of the players would take even the smallest step without going through him. He created a list of actions available to the players which they were going to have to stick to. This game would not result in chaos, he told himself, and he would, at the end of the game, be able to work out who had won. Four people played the game. It was dreadful. He made some slight changes and tried Braunstein 3 with some friends. It too was terrible. Wesely went away and analysed the games he had run. He came to a fairly startling revelation. “The key thing was to let them do what they wanted to do. Never mind who wins.”

 

By 1969 much of Wesely’s time was taken up by graduate school. Arneson had become a student and history major at the University of Minnesota, majoring in the subject that was his passion, Napoleonic History. As a student he had begun to run regular games from his home. He was an active participant in roleplaying exercises in his history classes and became the bane of certain lecturers by insisting on altering historical events, during roleplay, in an effort to add interesting and sometimes bizarre alterations of history. He was coming to the realisation that he enjoyed acting, and story telling. These two attributes were never more vividly demonstrated than during the next game run by David Wesely.

 

On a holiday break Wesely decided to run another Braunstein-type game for his friends. This one was set in a mythical latin American dictatorship on the brink of revolution, and would be called “Banana Republic”. All the players would be participants in a struggle for control and had the freedom to influence what the ultimate outcome would be. Once again, certain players would not have any military units under their control. They would represent only a single individual. One such player was Dave Arneson. He had been given the role of a provocateur whose job it was to distribute pro-revolutionary pamphlets. Wesely had worked out a balanced scoring system to enable each player to earn points. Arneson’s character would receive points for every leaflet he handed out. When Arneson arrived for the game, he was already ahead of it. He had dressed up. He carried a real briefcase containing real pamphlets. What is more he had created a replica set of C.I.A credentials, indicating that his character was actually an undercover agent. Then he set to work. He acted, he cajoled, he spoke in character, flashing his Agency credentials whenever he got into a tight spot. He became the star of the game, eventually convincing the Minister of the Treasury to pay him a million dollars, and arranging for a helicopter to airlift him out of the city just before the first shots rang out. When he was reminded that he received points only for every leaflet he distributed Arneson announced that he was opening his briefcase out of the window of the chopper and letting the downdraft of the rotors do the rest.

 

Points or no points, everyone agreed. Arneson had “won”. Of course he had not won, but he had stuck his neck out as a roleplayer, and showed his fellow players just how much fun it could be.

 

Banana Republic was the last game of its type that Wesely designed and refereed. Thereafter it was Arneson who took up the mantle. He ran his own versions of the Banana Republic/Braunstein game. One of the youngest of the players who had by then gravitated to Arneson’s group in 1969 was Mike Carr. Carr was from St. Paul and still a schoolboy, but was fascinated by strategy wargames when he met Arneson. In 1966 he had seen the movie “The Blue Max”, about fighter pilots during World War I, and it had piqued his interest in that era of warfare. The first historical wargame that he played was Avalon Hill’s “U-Boat”. Carr had also begun putting together a boardgame to simulate the aerial combat so dramatically depicted in The Blue Max, which he called “Fight in the Sky”.

 

In Arneson’s Banana Republic game Carr was given the role of Chief of the Airforce in the small South American dictatorship in which the game was set. The lofty position meant he had under his command a single helicopter.

 

After his own version of Banana Republic Arneson ran another game, with the anglicised title “Brownstone”. This time the setting was a Wild Western Town during the gold rush, with players representing, the railway barons, the disaffected sheriff, the native Indians and many others. Carr himself was given the role of a retired gunslinger who had found the good book and started a small church in the town of Brownstone. Carr enjoyed both Braunstein games run by Arneson, and marvelled at the student’s remarkable ability to add colour and drama in the way he used his imagination to referee the games.

 

Carr also played World War II simulations run by Arneson. For these they used a set of rules called “Modern War in Miniature” by Michael F. Korns. This book was published in 1966. It proposed rules for running World War II era battles. It was interesting because it proposed the use of a referee, in the same mould as recommended by Totten, but also included rules for single soldier combat. In these rules players each controlled a single combatant, and gave instructions to the referee as to what that combatant was doing from one moment to the next.

 

What impressed Carr the most about Arneson was his capacity to deal with intimidating volumes of information. This was nowhere more evident than in the Napoleonic campaign that Arneson ran, and in which Carr got to play an active role. Over twenty players took part in the campaign. Each controlled a major political interest in Europe during the time of Napoleon. Each player was charged with the full gamut of diplomacy and political grand strategy for their faction. All play resolved through the referee Arneson who received messages from each player and effected their orders on maps and detailed notes that he kept. When the interactions invariably resulted in military engagements, on land or at sea, they were run as wargames on Arneson’s table at home, using a variety of rules systems, some borrowed, and some invented. It was a massive and daunting undertaking. Arneson’s intellectual abilities and vast knowledge of Napoleonic history were the only things that made it possible.

 

Carr was the leader of the Barbary Pirates and also took a role as a commander of a portion of the French navy. He loved the game, which went on for years, and marvelled at the referee’s ability to keep control of the participants, their own commands and their interpretations of the historical events that underpinned the military engagements of the age.

 

During the 1960’s David Wesely had wandered untrod paths in a dark metaphorical forest, and come to a undiscovered clearing. He had enjoyed its strange beauty for a while but found it unsettling, and walked back to the parts of the wood he knew better. Wesely was called up to active military duty in 1970, and began a long and successful career as a military man, eventually attaining the rank of Major. But when he left the strange part of the wood, he had left Dave Arneson there. Arneson had stayed, fascinated by its beauty and its potential to birth something new. In the years to come Wesely would occasionally return and check in on his friend. On several occasions in the early 1970’s Wesely would play in games run by Arneson, but the undiscovered part of the woods had become Dave’s kingdom and the game they played would be something new.

 

In Dave Arneson there had emerged a creative spark which gave him the dual talents of acting and story telling. But he was soon to meet and ignite a firebrand.

 

 

Friday, 9 March 2012

D&D Next and the thorny issue of Class

I have beenspending some time over the last month or so, particpating in the debate on the WOTC sites as to what should be in the next version of D&D. I have also been scouring the web for details (scant as they are) regarding the limited playtest that was conducted at The D&D Expereince.

Every time a new version of the game comes out the issues around class benefits often boil down to the question "Are classes necessary?" On the assumption that classes will be deemed to be necessary (and this is a fair assumption considering the desire to draw in older gamers back to the hobby), WOTC will need to work our what the essence of each class is. They want to give each class an ability or two that defines the class, and which will not be available to other classes either directly or indirectly (such as through a feat or skill choice combination). This is particularly true if they implement the proposed system that makes skills a modular optionl rule set, and allows basic play using Ability scores only.

My view is that for some classes this is easy, while for others its really difficult. What do you think are the defining characteristics for the classes set out below? You can be general or specific and please say if you think a particular class, lacks any defining ability, because then it probably shouldn't be a class at all. I have put my views in blue, do feel free to add you own in a different colour.


Cleric - Healing, Turning Undead, Limited weapon choice

Fighter - Most weapons and armour, better chance to hit and more damage

Rogue - Backstab, More access to better skills

Wizard - Pre-pared spells every day from a spell book


Sorcerer - Spells without a spell book, Spells change the sorcerer over the levels

Warlock - Pact with powerful entity grants power (could probably be a sub-class of sorcerer)

Bard - Enchantment spells and Jack of all trades

Barbarian - Rage and damage reduction, penalty for armour

Ranger - Favoured enemy, woodskills (Always worried me that the ranger kinds doesn't inhabit it own space outised of "Like Aragorn")

Paladin - Good aligned, warrior, lay on hands

Druid - Cleric with nature spells, turns into animal

Assassin - Sneaky skills allow more dangerous crits

Monk - Weaponless combat, high saves, no armour


Avenger - No really defining feature

Psion - Uses mind power instead of magic

Warlord - Fighter with organisational abilities

Sunday, 22 January 2012

The Journey of D&D - My Experience

With yet another version of D&D in the wind, Chatty, at Critical Hits is doing a regular piece on his experience of the various versions, and how that expereince differed, and asking others to provide theirs. This was the response I posted at Critical Hits. I plan to post another for each of the versions of the game that I have played.

AD&D (or 1st Edition)

For me it was like this:

Age Range when played : 12-18
Nostalgia Factor: Very High
Rules Mastery: Moderate

Living in South Africa, in the early eighties meant isolation (with no web and economic sanctions). I got word of this game called Dungeons and Dragons through movies and in particular reading the novel written from the screenplay of the movie E.T. (Anyone remember the D&D references in that? I’m not sure they were very clear in the opening scene of the film itself).

Then a kid from the States made the mistake of coming to high school and made the further dreadful mistake of mentioning to me that he had played D&D back home. For the whole of 1983 I hounded him, armed with a note book, and tried to wring every piece of information about the game out of him. In retrospect, he was very obliging, and showed no more than the slightest signs of irritation. The game sounded so fascinating, that it captivated me, before I read any of the books. By the second half of ’83 I had drawn about 50 dungeon maps on graph paper and had created my own version of D&D, which was essentially the Lord of the Rings, represented in the form of a table (actually about 60 tables). Merely trying to explain my tables to anyone was a labour that required extreme effort on the part of the unlucky listener. Needless to say, I never got to play my game, and by the end of the year I had become frustrated and slighly despondent.

This ended abruptly when I came across the AD&D PHB on the bottom shelf of the hobbies section in a local book store. It seems the gods had smiled on me, and I instantly began behaving irrationally and begging a family member to buy it for me, offering all manner of bizarre repayment terms, while beseaching her to buy it before anyone else entered the shop. Even the cashier tried to discourage me, by saying she had no idea of what the book was, and didn’t I want to buy somthing else. I knew what was, and I wasn’t going to let it go.

When I went back to boarding school at the beginning of 1984, the world was different. I had spent the Christmas break reading the book form cover to cover. What I loved most about it was how arcane it seemed. As I read I felt I was being let in to some hugely important secret. Now converting people was easy. I merely had to show them the book and they would become absorbed. A group of about six of us had already begun planning our first game when we came across the DMG in a local toy store. We all clubbed in and bought it and our first dungeon crawl started a few days later.

Sam, a friend of mine agreed to be DM. He had a map on graph paper and great imagination. He also understood how to create tension, and how to deliver a story. I played a Half-Elven assassin. Several amazing things happened in the game, including a 3/3 split between the party members which he ran in two separate groups. He then contrived to have the two groups meet up at precisly the place in the underground caverns where the adventure became an underground river trip, and where there was only one boat. Suddenly we were facing a PvP fight in our very first game. It was simply amazing to me that these things could happen in this wonderful game. My side lost and I, the only survivor, was taken captive. What speaks most for that game, and for Sam’s natural talent at DMing, was that the two players whose characters had been killed came to every subsequent game session, just to watch. Unfortunately the rowing boat was later attacked, and capsized, and being tied up hand and foot, I went into the water and drowned. There were no dice rolled. Sam just said “Well, your feet and hands are soundly tied, naturally you are going to go rown”. He then described the feeling of sinking steadily deeper into this dark subterranean river, as the light above got fainter and fainter. I accepted this, because it just made sense.

I too then became a spectator and watched the rest of the game. As you can probably tell it was one of the most memorable I have ever played in. Possibly the most memorable.

I played AD&D until 1989 and throughout that period was DM and played games run by several different DMs. What struck me the most was that the game experience in those days varied from average, to mind-blowing based entirely on the skill and personality of the DM. While the later systems ushered in more logic and certainty to the rules system, I feel they also started to muzzle some of the DM’s on the upper end of that spectrum. I have enjoyed all the versions since, but have never seen DM’s, like Sam, who, given creative freedom and a sense that they were truly not wedded to the rules system, could really create magic.