D&D OD&D Tabletop RPGs

Agreement, rough edges, and combat as sport vs. war

This post is a round-up of three things that crossed my path and grabbed my attention, all RPG-related.

Gygax on agreement

I found this fascinating 1975 Gary Gygax quote over on The Acaeum:

Dave and I disagree on how to handle any number of things, and both of our campaigns differ from the “rules” found in DandD. If the time ever comes when all aspects of fantasy are covered and the vast majority of its players agree on how the game should be played, DandD will have become staid and boring indeed. Sorry, but I don’t believe that there is anything desirable in having various campaigns playing similarly to one another. DandD is supposed to offer a challenge to the imagination and to do so in many ways. Perhaps the most important is in regard to what the probabilities of a given situation are. If players know what all of the monster parameters are, what can be expected in a given situation, exactly what will happen to them if they perform thus and so, most of the charm of the game is gone. Frankly, the reason I enjoy playing in Dave Arneson’s campaign is that I do not know his treatments of monsters and suchlike, so I must keep thinking and reasoning in order to “survive”. Now, for example, if I made a proclamation from on high which suited Mr. Johnstone, it would certainly be quite unacceptable to hundreds or even thousands of other players. My answer is, and has always been, if you don’t like the way I do it, change the bloody rules to suit yourself and your players. DandD enthusiasts are far too individualistic and imaginative a bunch to be in agreement, and I certainly refuse to play god for them — except as a referee in my own campaign where they jolly well better toe the mark.

Looking at the last 40-plus years, at all of what’s come after that quote D&D-wise, this quote is mindblowing. So many things that have become commonplace assumptions in many RPGs are gleefully and confidently disregarded in this paragraph. I love it.

1975 was still salad days for D&D — the era of OD&D, and of this quote (also Gygax) from the afterword to The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures (emphasis mine):

We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you?

I love that ethos as a GM and as a player. It’s directly at odds with the existence of supplements (and many other aspects of the RPG industry, including some of the books I publish) and other books I enjoy, though, so I’m also always torn about how it applies in practical terms. But as a foundation and a navigational aid, it’s one of the principles I like most about old-school RPGs and gaming in general.

Maliszewski on rough edges

I’ve spent quite a bit of time mulling over this excellent GROGNARDIA post. Back when I first read it, it didn’t sound like what I wanted out of gaming. Nowadays, I couldn’t agree more.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want every session of my D&D campaign to come with guaranteed fun. That may seem odd, but it’s not. Most of us, I think, if we’re honest, understand that we like rough edges — we need rough edges. Something that’s too smooth, too formulaic, especially in the pursuit of entertainment, will wind up producing its antithesis.“

Looking back on my best gaming experiences, they often had rough edges — and maybe those were integral to making the overall experience richer. To get the alchemy that makes gaming so exciting, you have to accept that sometimes lead just stays lead, and not everything has to be perfect.

Combat as sport vs. combat as war

I remember seeing this thread about combat in different editions of D&D going around (and around) a while back and never clicking on it. But a year or so ago, when I finally read it, it changed my understanding of D&D. It articulates things I’d previously thought about in a nebulous way, but could never have put into words this clearly.

Here’s a few excerpts from the original post by Daztur:

Without quite realizing it, people are having the exact same debate that constantly flares up on MMORPG blogs about PvP: should combat resemble sport (as in World of Tanks PvP or arena combat in any game) or should it resemble war (as in Eve PvP or open world combat in any game). […]

I think that these same differences hold true in D&D, let me give you an example of a specific situation to illustrate the differences: the PCs want to kill some giant bees and take their honey because magic bee honey is worth a lot of money. Different groups approach the problem in different ways.

Combat as Sport: the PCs approach the bees and engage them in combat using the terrain to their advantage, using their abilities intelligently and having good teamwork. The fighter chooses the right position to be able to cleave into the bees while staying outside the radius of the wizard’s area effect spell, the cleric keeps the wizard from going down to bee venom and the rogue sneaks up and kills the bee queen. These good tactics lead to the PCs prevailing against the bees and getting the honey. The DM congratulates them on a well-fought fight.

Combat as War: the PCs approach the bees but there’s BEES EVERYWHERE! GIANT BEES! With nasty poison saves! The PCs run for their lives since they don’t stand a chance against the bees in a fair fight. But the bees are too fast! So the party Wizard uses magic to set part of the forest on fire in order to provide enough smoke (bees hate smoke, right?) to cover their escape. Then the PCs regroup and swear bloody vengeance against the damn bees. They think about just burning everything as usual, but decide that that might destroy the value of the honey. So they make a plan: the bulk of the party will hide out in trees at the edge of the bee’s territory and set up piles of oil soaked brush to light if the bees some after them and some buckets of mud. Meanwhile, the party monk will put on a couple layers of clothing, go to the owl bear den and throw rocks at it until it chases him. He’ll then run, owl bear chasing him, back to where the party is waiting where they’ll dump fresh mud on him (thick mud on thick clothes keeps bees off, right?) and the cleric will cast an anti-poison spell on him. As soon as the owl bear engages the bees (bears love honey right?) the monk will run like hell out of the area. Hopefully the owl bear and the bees will kill each other or the owl bear will flee and lead the bees away from their nest, leaving the PCs able to easily mop up any remaining bees, take the honey and get the hell out of there. They declare that nothing could possibly go wrong as the DM grins ghoulishly.

So much of what I enjoy about older editions of D&D and dislike about 3.x and 4e, and what I enjoy about sandboxes, is neatly encapsulated in the sport vs. war analogy. I’ve returned to it many times over the past few months, and I wanted to make sure it was archived here on Yore for future reference.

Old school Tabletop RPGs Zines

Zine roundup: The Excellent Travelling Volume, issues 1-4

The Excellent Travelling Volume is a print-only Tékumel fanzine by James Maliszewski, offering up a host of content for Empire of the Petal Throne (paid link).

James’ work tends to be polished and thoughtfully considered, and that’s a big part of what I like about it. I wanted to see how that translated into a zine, and I’m always curious about Empire of the Petal Throne, so I took the plunge.[1] What’s between each issue’s covers is polished, thoughtfully considered support material for Empire of the Petal Throne.


TETV is a licensed Tékumel product, and James is clearly a fan of M.A.R. Barker and his work — plus, he’s running an EPT campaign as he produces this zine. All of that comes together to make a nifty resource.

Here’s my favorite thing from each issue:

  • Issue 1: This issue lays the foundation for what’s to come, much like the first issue of Wormskin, so it’s full of stuff a new EPT GM might need — often accompanied by observations about EPT and Tékumel. My favorite is Magical Devices, a regular column full of new magic items. The accompanying note points out that magic items in EPT are meant to be unique (with rare exceptions), and once discovered shouldn’t be available for future random treasure rolls. Cue the ongoing need for more magic items, like the six on offer here. The Aeonian Donjon of Nrashkéme imprisons anyone who touches it just so in another dimension, while the Mace of Vanquishing the Less-Than-Men has a chance to disintegrate nonhumans when it strikes them. I love flavorful magic items, and these are great.
  • Issue 2: By default, EPT assumes new PCs are strangers in a strange land (abrogating the need for players to learn the setting material, and preserving the joy of exploration), and they need someplace to start out, The city of Sokátis (beautifully mapped below) is just the ticket. This piece covers its factions, just enough backstory to be interesting, a chunk of its underworld, and a list of notable locations. It’s plenty to get things rolling, and later issues include more.
  • Issue 3: I love monsters and devil’s choices, so when the two combine my ears perk up. One of the demons in Demons of Ksárul and Grugáru, the Llyanmákchi (shown below), does just that: Make her an offering of childrens’ hands and feet, and she can be summoned to perform tasks — like teaching a PC skills or spells, or forming up a mob of lesser demons for sinister purposes. Sweet.
  • Issue 4: Another regular column, Patrons, provides more — and more fully fleshed-out — patrons for starting Tékumel PCs. These NPCs want things, they have means of rewarding PCs who help them, and they have connections to the setting. On top of that, each one includes four ways to use them, making them easy to fold into a game. I like pregenerated NPCs like this (obviously!), and like everything in TETV they also meet a specific EPT need.

If you’re reading this and wondering how much TETV material might be useful in your non-EPT game, I’d say 60%-75% of each issue is broadly compatible with all flavors of old-school D&D. But where 100% of it will shine is in an EPT campaign.

Fantastic artwork

James’ writing is accompanied by some truly stellar artwork. TETV is lighter on artwork than most of the other zines I’ve looked at recently, but it uses its art budget well.

(Jason Sholtis)

(Victor Raymond)

(I can’t figure out who did this one)

The Excellent Travelling Volume is a neat zine, different in tone than any of the others I’ve been reading. It further piques my interest in running an EPT game, something I’ve been meaning to do for years, and I like knowing that practical, immediately useful support material from James’ ongoing campaign is readily available.

If you’re in the market for a different sort of OSR zine, or of course if you’re running an EPT campaign, take a peek at The Excellent Travelling Volume.

[1] As I write this, issue 5 has just come out. I could have waited for it before writing this post, but that way lies madness!