Monday, October 23, 2017

Much Maligned Alignments I: Breakin' the the Law(ful)

In the numerous discussions I have been privy to regarding roleplaying games, no small number of them have been about the nature of alignments. In fact, I would go so far as to state that some of the most heated arguments revolve around this surprisingly sensitive topic.

 In this series, I will pontificate on each aspect of the nine alignment system. In part one, I will explore a core component of the nine alignment system; Law and what it means to be Lawful in the context of the game (my POV stems mainly from AD&D 1E/2E). 

So fill your flagon, sharpen your axe, and hold on to your toe-hairs! This might be a tricky one.

What is Law? Is it meant to be actual legislation of the realm? Some people seem to think so. Or is it a personal philosophy that governs a character's individual decisions and habits? I certainly think so. Might it also be a literal cosmic force? Maybe. Personally, I believe that it is a combination of these three things.

A Lawful person is likely to obey laws that have been written by the governing body of the land he finds himself in. However, lawful should not be confused with law-abiding in every case. An individual might also have his own personal set of morals that supersede the law of the land. There may be societal laws that he finds horribly opposed to his morals. What is to be done in a case such as this? Should the character betray his personal beliefs to follow laws that he finds detestable? Which law should he follow? Which law should he break? Can he find any middle ground that does not compromise his alignment? Now we begin to see the complexities of the matter.

Does breaking a disagreeable law mean that the character in question is suddenly chaotic? I don't think so. In my view, being lawful means the character subscribes to the philosophy that order is more desirable than chaos. Discipline is preferable to disorganization. This does not mean that he will blindly follow just any method for bringing law and order to the world. 

The concept of Law as a force has its roots mostly in the works of Poul Anderson, and by adoption, Michael Moorcock. It is the work of Moorcock, in fact, that is most commonly associated with this cosmic struggle between the forces of Law and Chaos. This idea of Law as a cosmic force is not necessarily synonymous with positivity, however. In Moorcock's "To Rescue Tanelorn", for example, a plane of pure Law is described as a barren wasteland, containing nothing. Taken to its logical extreme, Law becomes as destructive as Chaos. Considering this, it is certainly plausible that a character could be Lawful in alignment, yet scorn mundane"laws" as meaningless in the face of bringing pure order to the world. 

When asking ourselves and each other about the nature of Law, there are numerous correct answers, it seems. Much of this is subjective. The accuracy of one view does not preclude the accuracy of another. 

I would encourage everyone to explore the beginnings of Law as a force or alignment in games, by all means, but most especially the literary origins that laid the foundation for its inclusion in the first place. I feel that there is much to be added to one's understanding of alignments and therefore one's game by doing so.

So good luck, good reading, and more to the point, good gaming!

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Do You Like It Rough?

Virgil Finlay
Virgil Finlay
Recently, I was browsing some rulebooks at a local shop and I picked up a copy of the 5E Players Handbook. Much like many newer editions of D&D, it was a slick product with high-quality art, printed on high-quality paper. Everything about it was glossy and polished. The cover art was excellent, the interior art was excellent, with colors galore throughout the book. Even the page layouts were detailed and colorful. But I wondered: was it too much?

How much production value can be put into something before a line is crossed into it being over done? As nice and as shiny as the newer books are, I can't help but feel that I prefer my old first edition volumes. Just pick any example from one of the books and compare the old presentation to the new. The art in my old books was rough and sketchy and it was obvious that a living creature would look much different than the illustrations found therein. The new art, in contrast, shows vibrant depictions of all manner of monsters you can meet in the game. But the old sketchy pictures left something for me to fill in on my own. I painted my own mental picture. I don't really get to do that with the new material.

Imagination has always been one of the staples of this hobby. Not just to imagine that you are someone else, but to imagine what things, places, and people look like. Hearing the descriptions from the DM, and forming your own images has, for me, always been one of the things I enjoyed most. And conversely, as a DM, to see the lights go on in the eyes of my players when they have done the same from my own monologues.

Also, there is no small amount of nostalgia to be experienced by gamers of a certain age, cough, cough, continuing to use not only the older material but much of the new OSR material created in the spirit of the olden days of gaming. So it raises a question for me: are there others out there that prefer the OSR aesthetic? Are you like me? Do you like it rough?

This is, surely, a wondrous time to be a gamer of any sort. The RPG industry has grown into something that can be overwhelming at times. The amount of content out there has never been more bountiful. Books, dice, and miniatures are easy to come by and you don't even have to assemble and paint all of the miniatures anymore. Computer games and RPG computer tools can immerse you in masterfully rendered fictional worlds on levels we never dreamed of before.

But we were still dreaming in those days.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Is It Bad To Be Good?

Howard Pyle - Mounted Knight
Howard Pyle
Lately it seems I've been seeing a lot of hate for traditional good guys in games, comics, and movies. In the role playing arena, the Paladin, in particular, seems to be the target of much ire from more than a few players. I don't know if this is a generational thing or not, but it puzzles me. I hear from some people that Paladins are self righteous. Well, not if they are doing it right, they aren't! When played correctly, the Paladin is the paragon of heroism. The Paladin should be looked to for leadership and protection by the common people of the land. His or her reputation should be considered sterling by the very merits of being qualified to be a Paladin.

Well, yeah, you might be thinking, but what about the people who play Paladins like jerks and try to boss the party around or detect evil on absolutely every rat and frog they encounter? I mean, how irritating can you get? Seems to me that this sort of behavior is more of a player problem than a character class problem. Also, if a player is running their Paladin inappropriately, it's up to DM to reel them in. Following the rules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, it's not easy to even qualify for Paladin-hood. The stat requirements are stiff. The code of behavior is strict. Paladins are expected to behave a certain way and uphold certain principles. It is a challenging class to play and portray well. Paladins that don't follow their codes or who commit acts that violate their alignment should fall from grace. There should be consequences. But is that really the root of the problem? Bad players? Bad DMs? A little of both? I don't know.

Of course there is also the always refreshing subject of how alignments are too simplistic. Life consists of myriad shades of grey, so why should there only be nine alignments to box people in? Well, I don't know about you, dear reader, but I get a belly full of Life and its myriad shades of grey all day long every day. It's nice to be able to pick a definitive side and know where you stand and who stands against you in a game, I think. Why make the game as complex as the life we are escaping by playing it?

Sometimes, as an older gamer, I get the feeling that the things I fell in love with in gaming, comics, literature, and film have now come to be seen as out of date, or corny, or cheesy. Or worse, oppressive. Perhaps society now has an inherit distrust or even hatred for any source of perceived authority and that is now being projected onto Paladins. Or any other presumably good character.

I see so many instances of players who strive to be edgy, or dark, or mysterious, or just down right evil! And that's totally fine if that's the game you want to play (I have done so many times), but it still doesn't explain this revulsion for the light. Where is this coming from? Why all the hatred for good, Lawful Good, and especially Paladins? What gives?

Doesn't anyone want to be the good guy anymore?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Why Kill, When You can Maim?

N.C. Wyeth Treasure Island Blind Pew
N.C. Wyeth
We've all been there, behind the screen, mediating a pitched battle between the forces of good versus evil, or at the very least, PCs versus NPCs, when invariably the dice go horribly against one or more of the players and they go down hard. What's a savvy DM to do? Let the character slip the mortal coil and go on to his or her final reward, or do you cut them some slack?

Well who says you have to do either? If there is no risk to the character, it cheapens the struggle, yadda, yadda, yadda. But as we also know, the death of a beloved PC can rock the table in ways that few other scenarios can. Why not land somewhere in the middle and let the character live on, but not unscathed? In cases like this, you could opt to rule that the PC has gotten extremely lucky (or unlucky depending on how you look at it) and has managed to survive the ordeal. But survival has come at a price.

Let's say the character has sustained enough damage to spell certain death. Have the player roll a saving throw versus death (or whatever), and if they make the roll, then they have somehow avoided flat out dying in a puddle of their own goo. Now comes the fun part. Give the PC something to remember the glorious near death experience. Roll on a handy random table to determine what kind of souvenir the character has just acquired.

In this example, we'll use a 1D10. You can certainly create your own! And don't forget to apply the appropriate penalty for your game to reflect the character's new state of being.

  1. One eye lost. Player's choice. 
  2. One ear lost. Player's choice. 
  3. Character blinded.
  4. 1D4 fingers lost. Player chooses hand.
  5. 1D4 toes lost. Player chooses foot.
  6. Left arm severed.
  7. Right arm severed.
  8. Left leg severed.
  9. Right leg severed.
  10. 2D10 teeth lost.

There are, of course, a myriad of other things that can happen to a character as a result of a debilitating permanent injury. Let your imagination run wild with it.

This sort of thing can add some, well, character to a character. There can be numerous plot hook opportunities that might involve the character searching for a way to reverse the damage or at least offset it somehow. High level priests can be paid to restore body parts, or enterprising Gnomish wizards could be found that could create magical replacement limbs. 

Violence should always certainly have dire consequences, but it's ultimately in the power of the DM to decide just how dire they should be. Death will always be a possibility, but it never hurts to consider ways grant the players one last chance (slim though it may be) to survive the ordeal in new and interesting ways.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Lore Lord Record Sheets

Lore Lord Games Player Character Record Sheets by Keith V. Thompson
During one of my many internet forays, I have stumbled across what might be some of the finest record sheets I have ever seen.

Keith V. Thompson, of Lore Lord Games, has published some excellent supplements that I highly recommend.

 I would have liked to link to a website for Lore Lord Games, but could not find one out there anywhere. If anyone is aware of their web presence, please let me know.

Player Character Record Sheets has forms for nearly any character class/race combination, complete with sheets for backpacks, spell books, and anything else you need.

Mount & Pack Animals offers a detailed and organized format in regards to the configuration of horses, mules, dogs, or just about any other mounts and animals your character makes use of.

There are also supplements called General Equipment Lists and Extended Equipment Records if you need more room or more detail.

Lastly, there is Misc. Record Sheets, which contain hex, graph, and sketch sheets to cover your mapping and art needs.

The sheets from each supplement are formatted such that organization and reference are relatively easy. The only thing I can think of that could be an improvement on these fine products is if they were editable PDFs. Be that as it may, they are worth downloading, printing out, and utilizing for any AD&D, OSRIC, or similar campaign out there.

"But Todd, where can I procure these digital treasures???" I'm glad you asked, my friend. Just look over to your left and you will see links for downloading them.

And did I mention that the best part of all this is that these supplements are absolutely FREE??? You can't beat that with at +3 Mace of Beating!


Monday, June 6, 2016

What Is Old School Role Playing?

In a recent conversation, someone posed a very good question: What is old school role playing?

When considering this question, I can only speak for myself and how I feel about how the game is run. For me, it's a nostalgic trip back to a time in my youth when I got excited about the shared creativity of the group and the discoveries we made together.

Does it mean rules light, by design? Not really. 
Painting from The Black Arrow by N.C. Wyeth
N.C. Wyeth
Compared to some newer games, the campaigns I took part in did have less in the way of specific rules for every conceivable situation. Combat was certainly more simple. And I must confess, as a grizzled old grognard, that I find some of the rules in the later editions of Dungeons & Dragons to be superfluous or even down right confusing to me. In the old days there were no feats, no attacks of opportunity and spell casting seemed more intuitive. On the other hand, there have always been plenty of rules to govern the game. I would hazard a guess that even when using newer systems, most groups probably pare the rules down to their taste. That's always been one of the greatest things about table top role playing games. You take as much as you need or want and leave the rest in the book. So are old school games rules light by nature? I have to say no, not any more so than any other type of game if you get right down to it.

If there are new OSR games being created today, are they also old school? Maybe. 

Old school role playing is as much a style of play as it is the set of rules you choose to use. For me, it's a creative outlet to share my vision for a character, a story, or maybe even an entire world. Old school is as much about what you, as a player or a Dungeon Master, bring to the table as individuals regardless of the chosen rules system or the setting. It's the suspension of reality and a point of view steeped in classic literature and weird fiction. In my mind it is to take seriously that which is not serious, and to find personal meaning within that which holds no meaning in and of itself.

Is old school role playing a design philosophy? I have to say yes.

For me, old school role playing is absolutely about keeping the game basic yet expandable. I like it very much when the party begins play with little knowledge of the world around them and instead of playing the most fantastic races from the get-go, they explore the world together to discover and interact with these beings. We begin as mere mortals but become or at least brush up against the fantastic, the immortal, or the vastly powerful. From humble beginnings, we work to become powers in the world and maybe beyond the world. If I begin play as a divine or fantastic creature myself, for instance, what wonders will I find in the game to compare to what I already am?

So what makes a game old school? Is it a gaming system and style relegated to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, OSRIC, and any of the other OSR games out there? Yes, it is. But old school is also relative to the individual. What is old school for you may not be old school for me. What some might call outdated and antiquated, I might call RPG perfection.

Old school is a feeling. Old school is a window to the old days when the hobby was new and obscure and maybe even a little rebellious. And in the face of what might be considered the mainstream of gaming today, maybe it is again.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Greetings, Fellow Grognards!

Howard Pyle - Sir Kay breaketh his sword at ye Tournament
Howard Pyle
In my younger days, I spent many hours with my nose in game books of various kinds, creating characters, planning games, and sketching maps. I derived no small amount of joy from the creative processes involved when participating in table top role playing games. Through this activity, I could assume the role of a hero on par with characters from beloved boyhood legends, such as King Arthur, Robin Hood, Merlin, Gandalf, Bilbo, Frodo, Aragorn, Conan, Elric, and so many others. Or, even more enticingly, I could take on a role that allowed me to share my creative vision almost in the way my favorite authors shared theirs with me.

I could be the Dungeon Master!

When computer gaming became more sophisticated, it seemed that our beloved old hobby of gathering around the table to chuck dice at each other was in mortal danger. Instead of sitting face-to-face, it seemed that logging on to join expansive MMOs was the future of role playing. I was glad to be one of the people to jump into this new way to game, but something was always missing. There were things the computer just could not provide, even when connected to hundreds of other players online. There were always places I could not go and things I could not interact with. The games just felt too restrictive to me.

And so I am very happy to find that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is living on with a strong online fan base dedicated to running, playing, and providing new content for Old School Roleplaying campaigns. I've become intrigued by the vast wealth of material out there from various websites, blogs, and Facebook groups. I run a group myself called Masters of the Games where Game Masters can exchange ideas about running campaigns, writing modules, and building worlds for their players to explore. While any game is welcome in my group, I tend to concentrate mostly on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and OSRIC for my part. Also, I am a member of several game-oriented groups that have been instrumental in reviving my love of table top role playing games, especially in the AD&D and OSR/OSRIC vein. I have begun piecing many of my old characters, settings, and other ideas into a new campaign, complete with an entire world called Hyraeth. I intend to share these concoctions with any and all who care to partake of them.

So with this first entry, allow me to welcome you, fellow fantasy aficionado, to my little realm on the web! Together we shall endeavor to explore bright shining kingdoms, dark brooding lands, and forgotten lore.

"Let me tell you of the days of HIGH ADVENTURE!"