Two good friends and I are doing occasional Sunday evening sessions of original Dungeons and Dragons (OD&D) over skype. I reported the first session here, and haven’t reported the subsequent four because … well, because there’s nothing to hang onto. Our second session ended with a TPK, but I think I didn’t report it, and since then we decided to move on to a different module, B1: In Search of the Unknown, which we have been slowly unpicking over three more sessions. We are following a pretty specific plan, which is to play the rules as they are written with no deviations. Basically, if it’s not in the Rules Cyclopaedia we don’t use it. So far we have tried two adventures, the one that came with the 1983 Mentzer Red Box, and B1. We have, to say the least, been underwhelmed, and at the end of the last session we stopped and had a solid discussion about what is wrong with the game and the system. Basically, we concluded that we’re really enjoying hanging out together (we live in different countries and regular skyping is fun) and the game is a good vehicle for that, and we’re having a lot of fun but mostly this fun has increasingly turned to taking the piss out of the game as we play it. This post is an attempt to summarize our complaints about Basic Dungeons and Dragons so far, and perhaps also a brief discussion of what it means that there is a whole movement (the OSR) that is evangelical about how good this stuff is.

So first, the problems we’ve encountered so far.

The PCs are all the same

Even with the Rules Cyclopaedia’s rudimentary skill rules, the PCs are all the same. If you’re not a Fighter, your attributes are basically only meaningful as an XP bonus – for example, intelligence doesn’t improve a wizard’s spellcasting at all, and dexterity makes no difference to a thief’s skills (which are, in any case, absolutely useless). So far our most entertaining characters have been the wizard with 1 hit point (because his death was so assured) and Lefto the Halfling, who managed to get enough hit points to survive a full power blow from a longsword (but still died because my wizard was conserving his sleep spell for when we really needed it). When you’re distinguishing PCs on the basis of their hit points you know you’re plumbing the bottom of the barrel. What reason do we have to keep any of these people alive? Why are they here? Why are we here? More diversity in PC choices and more effort in making them identifiably different at first level would make the game so much more interesting. I’ve heard the argument that in D&D you don’t invest your character with any special meaning at first level because you know it’s going to die, and you wait for its personality to emerge if it survives, but I don’t think the allegedly easy deaths are the reason (especially for fighters and dwarves, who don’t die); the reason is that the PCs simply have nothing to hook onto when you first make them.

The adventures are absolutely terrible

The two modules we have played so far have been, to put it frankly, terrible. The first, the adventure that comes with the Mentzer red box, is an absolute disaster that starts and ends with a TPK. The carrion crawler at the gates is such a stupid idea, it’s beyond ridiculous, but there is another TPK buried at the back of the first level of the dungeon, where your FIRST level characters can break into a room that holds two harpies. You get no warning about these beasts anywhere in the adventure, and for first level characters they are absolutely fatal. Even if your entire party doesn’t get caught by their siren song, their attack is way more than a first level party can handle. Now you could argue that this is just life as an adventurer, but this is meant to be the very first introductory adventure for people who have never played this game before and it is absolutely punishing. It is a prime example of what in Japan we call power harassment, in which the GM simply uses his power to bully the PCs brutally, and nothing they can do can escape it. I’m confident that a great many young people dropped out of this hobby after their first experience of it, simply because of this adventure.

In contrast, the next module we played, In Search of the Unknown, is tedious and stupid and not at all challenging. It famously comes unstocked, with a list of monsters and treasures that the GM is supposed to place at his or her whim throughout the dungeon, but the dungeon is huge and the treasures and monsters list small, so it ends up incredibly dry and boring – the classic endless series of dusty empty rooms. I bulked up the monster and treasure list and it’s still tedious. Furthermore, the dungeon setting is embarrassingly written in so many ways. The dungeon is the lair of two famous adventures, one of whom is called Zelligar the Unknown (even though we have all heard of him), and these two adventurers are incredibly arrogant and insecure – their rooms are full of murals of themselves, and statues to their own prowess, like cheap dictators. The rooms are terribly described, so that for example we learn in some rooms that the walls are carved in intricate detail, yet we are told nothing of what this detail is, while in another room we are given intricately detailed information about some random book (it was meant to be returned to the library!) or other object, ofttimes detail that is impossible for the adventurers to know. I’m told that the hand axe in room 34 has a split handle but I’m told the walls in room 33 have been carved in intricate detail that isn’t explained at all – this isn’t how GMing is supposed to work. This adventure is probably the first adventure that GMs will use to learn how to do this stuff, and it’s a contradictory mess of consistently bad lessons.

It’s boring for another reason too – D&D movement and combat is just not much fun.

The movement rules suck balls

Of course our fighters and clerics are wearing full plate – otherwise fighting would be randomly fatal rather than randomly easy, see below – so our whole party moves at 60′ per turn. That is, 60′ in 10 minutes. As I said, we’re following the rules, so we’re tracking oil flasks and movement and wandering monsters, which is relatively easy because we’re doing this over skype so we have a google doc. We don’t have a “caller” and a “mapper” because as soon as we saw that idea we laughed and decided to use roll20, so now we unveil sections of the map consistent with the lantern range, and avoid mapping. If we were mapping B1 we would be spending most of our sessions arguing about the mistakes in the map, because the dungeon is incredibly complex and hard to map based on a GM’s description, which is what we would be doing back in the 1980s when this game was released – another example of terrible module design, for the first independent module to be designed to be too hard for beginning (or even experienced!) players to map easily.

So we’re spending our time documenting these movements that take 10 minutes to move 60′, and trying to understand why. In a complex dungeon this means that you spend an hour retracing your tracks to explore a room that is literally just around the corner, and you have to go back to town because you’re out of oil. Of course this doesn’t really matter since this game is designed so that you go home as soon as your wizard has used his Sleep spell, but it hangs over us like this oppressive bit of pointless stupidity. Why did it take us 10 minutes to go around the corner, and why did we use an appreciable amount of oil exploring that room? This is even worse if you follow the original rules 100% precisely, which require one turn to explore a 10′ square. Module B1’s most famous room would take about 5 hours to explore, and would take two sessions since the PCs would have to return to town twice to get oil, if you followed those rules.

Speaking of which, Module B1’s most famous room – the one with the pools – is stupid. One of our players immediately thought of using the fish from the pond with fish to test all the other ponds, rendering all the stupid save-or-die traps immediately harmless, and turning the whole thing into an academic exercise.

Level-gaining is random and easy

If you read around the traps, you’ll find this general opinion presented that in original D&D you gained levels slowly after much struggle, and D&D is a low-experience, slow-reward game. Were this true it would be the textbook definition of bullying, since you have been given a completely cookie-cutter character with limited survival chance and been told that he has to go through a large number of near-death experiences at the hands of a save-or-die fickle GM in order to get that one more level that might possibly make him vaguely able to make it on his own efforts.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Because XP is gained from treasure and treasure generation is random, it’s actually really easy to gain a level by blind luck. We’re three four-hour sessions into B1 and we’ve hit second level, because we found a 1500 Gp dragon hide, a 1000Gp treasure horde, and a 5000 GP statue (actually the rules say at least 5000). And we were unlucky. We found a Green Slime, which has treasure type B – with a 25% chance of 1d6 items of jewellery, each of which has a 90% chance of being worth 2000Gp or more (incidentally, the Rules Cyclopaedia estimates of treasure average values are clearly wrong). This reliance on treasure for XP makes leveling up a completely arbitrary process, which either happens randomly and suddenly according to rolls on treasure tables, or is completely determined by GM caprice (but role-playing XP is a bad idea!)

Combat is boring and randomly fatal

Combat is heavily dependent on the position of the fighters when it starts and the initiative roll, which is completely random. If the party wins the initiative the fighters attack with a THAC0 of 15 (because of high strength and weapon mastery). If anything is left after they have done their job it attacks, usually with THAC0 19, unless it’s a TPK machine like a carrion crawler. Typically the enemy is AC 5-7 but we are AC 2-4, so the odds are stacked against the enemy. Occasionally an enemy gets a lucky hit and one of us dies, unless it’s Lefto the halfling who went through multiple attacks and who we left to die rather than waste our sleep spell because he was a henchman and we were going to get more xp if he died but if I cast sleep we would all go home with less.

This is not fun combat. Especially at early levels where everyone literally has one option – attack and roll damage – so combat is just a short series of hit/damage rolls with the outcome primarily determined by initiative. There is no choice of magic items or special abilities that would make your character have some unique contribution, nothing outside of the environment at all to distinguish between the vast majority of characters – at first level literally only wizards and elves have any unique abilities and they can’t use them more than once a day so they hold them back. And even then there is no wizard whose unique ability is ever anything except sleep (held in reserve for when a group of enemies appears) and no elf who hasn’t learnt charm person (because for some stupid incomprehensible reason they’re not allowed to learn sleep).

It’s also telling that the only time we bothered to not use combat as a solution to our problems was when we had an elf with charm person learned. There are no social skills, and all our enemies are evil, so why would we bother?

Important rules are completely missing

There are a lot of rules for basic things missing in D&D. The absence of these rules gives you pause to think, “Hmmm, we’ve learnt a lot in 30 years”. This absence of rules isn’t restricted to the rulebooks but also applies to the modules. For example, B1 is full of secret doors but doesn’t give any information about how they work or how PCs should find them or how GMs should manage them. Similarly, B1 has a couple of obvious huge treasure hauls but no information on how to treat them. The most egregious example is the dragonhide in room 26, which you are told is “immense” and has “brassy scales”. There are no brass dragons in Basic D&D, but the module gives you no information on what this hide might be worth. This same room contains a stuffed cockatrice and some dragon paws, but no idea of their value (consistent with my complaint above, other rooms give details about the monetary value of mouldy cloaks and component parts of beds). So I had to make this up (for those who googled “D&D value dragonhide” I went with 50Gp per hp of the original dragon multiplied by a third, and rolled hps for a large red dragon – the third represented the fact that the hide was incomplete). Why would you give the monetary value of a mouldy cloak but not a dragonhide? Ridiculous.

The most obvious example of this lack of rules is the problem of magic items. There are no rules on how to sell magic items, something that I have also seen presented as a plus about original D&D (who would sell a magic item!?) but this is something that makes no sense once you’ve played five minutes of the game. As soon as you get a magic item you don’t need that someone else obviously wants, you are going to want to sell it, but there is nothing about the obvious market that would result from adventurers surviving modules (except the introductory module, which is inevitably fatal because we want people to enjoy our game so we loaded it with TPKs as an advertising mechanism). Of course you could use the rules on the amount it costs to make magic items as a guide but – shock! – these rules are stupid. The amount of money required to make a magic item is completely out of context to its value. It’s as if there is no connection between the rules for magic items and how they are actually available and used in play.

Say it isn’t so.

Conclusion: This game is not an exemplar of its kind

I hate the Beatles, or rather, I hate the hype about the Beatles. This is the band that wrote Obladioblada, they aren’t good. But people mistake them for good because they were first. There is no song the Beatles ever made that compares with Stairway to Heaven or Child in Time (the video for which is a splendid piece of early musical beauty), and there is no sense in which the Beatles are as connected to the fundamental traditions of the English language as later metal bands are. But the Beatles get the attention because they were there first. I feel that Basic D&D has been treated the same, and just as there is a certain group of “connoisseurs” who have managed to convince themselves that bands like the Beatles were good, rather than just the first, there is a network of revivalists (the OSR) who have convinced themselves that D&D was somehow revolutionary for its content rather than for its timing, as the first. In reality subsequent generations of games are far, far better, and have added so much more to gaming than D&D. They have improved the rules (even AD&D did this) and added new elements of story, character development and GM skill and training to the gaming world. The truth is that gamers don’t want this mechanical dungeon crawl dice rolling stuff, they want story and character development and engrossing adventures with themes and purpose. That kind of stuff doesn’t emerge from crawling around empty, dusty chambers in the dark. It’s a purposive thing, that needs good rules and engaged GMing that is about more than setting up a bunch of rooms for hollow shell-people to die in.

I’ll keep doing my D&D skype thing with my friends, because they’re great and killing kobolds with them is fun. But exploring this game that was at the roots of our gaming experience has shown me that we have all grown since we started, as has the hobby, and we should respect original D&D for its originality and its explosive potential, at the same time as we should accept it for the stunted and narrow game that it was.

… and immediately turn into a nerd vs. arsehole flamewar. At the Guardian there’s a relatively fluffy piece describing the D&D edition wars for non-gamers, in the context of the D&DNext announcement. It’s nice to see D&D getting a bit of mainstream attention, even if it is from the standpoint of an incomprehensible nerd conflict. However, within moments the comments degenerate into some arsehole telling gamers they’re a cancer on society:

This, and World of Warcraft, and everything else that attracts people who desire to actually live in Middle Earth, and wear cloaks and swords, and chase wizards and dragons around, is a social cancer. Its only purpose should be to identify such people to facilitate their incarceration in a secure unit. The average cocaine addict is a more productive and useful member of society, and much more fun down the pub. I hate the lot of them, every single one

Remarkably lucid for a comments thread of a major newspaper, but nasty despite that rare moment of English ability. The immediate response serves to put this idiot in his place though:

Looks like someone was kicked out of their guild.

Someone else offers us a list of famous D&D players:

Confirmed Players include Graham Linner, Vin Diesel, Dame Judy Dench, Mike Myers, Robin Williams, Kevin Smith, Joss Whedon, Ewan Mcgregor, Wil Wheaton, Stephen Colbert.

That’s a pretty cool list: imagine a gaming group consisting of Vin Diesel, Judy Dench, Robin Williams and Ewan McGregor, with Colbert as GM. That would be pretty entertaining. What characters would they play?

The author pops up in the thread, which is an awesomely rare event on Guardian “blogs,” and in addition to actually engaging with the audience, manages to explain the LARP game they’ve been running, that is surely too cool to be true:

We run a sort of bespoke, portable zombie apocalpyse with NERF guns. Basically, you get three games starting as a human survivor, and one as a zombie. The human players have to complete a pretty basic mission in order to open the doors/summon the helicopter/kill the massive super-zombie etc. Generally survival rate runs at about 10% if I’m doing my job properly.

We were running it as a day-long event at an abandoned shopping mall in Reading, but sadly we can’t get the venue for the next few months so are looking into an abandoned school and a derelict embassy building instead.

That’s cool!

I think this may be the coolest thread on a culture-related thing that I’ve ever seen at the Guardian. And yet, apparently, gamers are a cancer on society…

Power-creep, OSR-style

While preparing yesterday’s post I stumbled on a discussion of house rules and hit points at Grognardia, where James the Grognard describes his planned house rules for Swords and Wizardry. It’s old and I don’t know whether he ended up using them, but I noticed that his hit points rules induce a very strange, and in my opinion definitely not old-school, distribution of hit points. His proposed house rule is:

Hit Dice are re-rolled upon gaining a new level, but maximum hit points never decrease as a result of a re-roll, although they may not increase.

Example: Brother Candor of Tyche is a 3rd-level cleric; he has 15 hit points. Upon gaining 4th level, he rolls 4D6+4 for hit points. If the result is below 15 hit points, he gains no new hit points this level.

and one of the explanations given in comments is:

One of the goals of this campaign is to keep things as “middling” as possible. I think D&D works best when characters are fairly mediocre mechanically and the hit dice house rule is part of the plan to encourage that.

Now in fact, the hit dice house rule doesn’t do that at all – it does quite the opposite. It’s a fun[1] example of how a little bit of house-rule fiddling with dice can produce a result that is counter-intuitive and/or goes strongly against the original intention of the house-rule. In other parts of his post James makes it pretty clear that he is aware of the basic debate about the way hit points are defined (see e.g. comment 1) and shows an admirable commitment to the concept of abstracted rounds (see e.g. his rules for dual wielding). However, the hit dice design goes against the principles he espouses, and the way that it does this won’t be clear until his PCs reach higher levels. His hit dice rule essentially serves as a hit point boost for early edition characters, and is remarkably generous in the context of those rules. Here I will explain how. This isn’t a criticism of James’s rule,  or of the principles underlying his house rules, just an example of how fiddling with distributions isn’t always a good idea.

Basically, James’s hit dice rule is equivalent to granting all the players the chance to reroll all hit dice that fell below maximum every level. There is still, in theory, a chance of getting minimum hit points but this chance is so vanishingly small at higher levels that it is essentially zero. If you roll for HPs at level 6, you keep your previous roll unless the new roll is higher; but you did the same thing at level 5, and the same at level 4, and so on. This means, essentially, that at level k your hit points are the maximum of (k-1)dX and kdX. But at level 2 your HPs are max(dX,2dX). By induction it’s clear: your hit points at level k are:

  •  max(dX,2dX,…,kdX)

This does not have a central distribution: it reduces the probability of getting small numbers rapidly, and drives the weight of the probability distribution towards the maximum. By the time one reaches very high levels, the most likely roll will be kX+1dX, with a roughly uniform distribution within the maximum range.This is essentially equivalent to giving the players a chance to reroll their level 1 hit point roll k-1 times, their level 2 roll k-2 times, and so on. The chance of a 6 on a d6 is 1/6; if you give a 9th level cleric 8 rerolls of their first level hit dice, they are going to have a very very low chance of getting anything but a 6. This is going to push HP values to the right.

An example distribution is shown at the top of this page: the black line is the empirical distribution for 12d4 rolled classically, while the red line is for James’s version of 12d4. The minimum observed value in 100,000 simulations for 12d4 is 15; for James’s distribution, it’s 21. That’s the equivalent of nearly 3 hit dice for a wizard. The kind of effect this induces is visible even at low levels: Figure 1 shows how James’s system for 2d10 shifts all the probability weight for the fighter from the lower end of the distribution to the middle, with small increases in the probability of higher values. Note particularly that values of 2 or 3 are much less likely just at 2nd level.

Figure 2: Empirical Distribution for 2d10 using two systems (100,000 simulations, kernel density smoother with optimal bandwidth selection)

This power-creep grows with levels. Figure 3 shows how by 9d10 this weight is shifting to the right of the distribution, i.e. increasing the chance of very high values. Of course the effect stops at level 9, but by this time it’s powerful: the minimum value observed in 100,000 rolls is 15 under the classic distribution, and 31 under James’s distribution – the weight is seriously moving towards the right, to the tune of just over 3 hit dice for a fighter[2]. Probabilities of observing values over 60 are significantly higher in James’s distribution, and the most likely values are also shifted to the right compared to the classic distribution.

Figure 3: HP distributions for 9d10 hit dice

I think that the distributions shown here are not what James had in mind when he talked about “middling” values – the method he has proposed creates skewed distributions and shifts the entire distribution to the right, rather than narrowing the distribution and placing it in the middle. The best way to create middling values is to use large numbers of d4s: make Wizard hit dice 3d4/3, and fighters 3d4. Fiddling with maxima and exploding dice is not a good way to create a family-friendly distribution. I’m no OSR expert but giving players a chance to reroll all their hit points every level seems fundamentally at odds with the basic principles of old school play, and thus this house-rule is out of step with its intentions. I guess James was thinking that his method gives a high chance of HPs not increasing at any given level (due to the risk of rolling below your previous HPs) but this is only true if you’ve got average or above-average values to start with. Quite the opposite happens if you started with poor hit points. I think it’s one of those examples where the intuition about dice rolls and the effects are quite different.

On this note, I should point out that although the OSR likes this idea of pushing people into “average” values, the fundamental mechanic of AD&D – the d20 roll – is completely inconsistent with this. It forces high probability into the tails of the distribution, as do the uniform distributions of most damage rolls. It’s also inconsistent with the natural world – almost any experimental system you care to think of has normally distributed experimental error, not uniform distributed. If one is concerned with a “natural” approach to conflict resolution and encouraging middling results, one’s very first act should be to swap d20 for 2d10. It’s surprising that the d20 system has persisted through all the incarnations of D&D given its fundamentally unnatural and abhorrent distribution.

Finally, I’d be interested to find out if James is still using this hit dice rule, or whether he dropped it ages ago when he realized what it was doing.

Methods Note: the empirical distributions shown here were generated in R using 100,000 simulations. All charts are kernel density smooths, using R’s default kernel and optimal bandwidth calculation. Histograms are for losers.

fn1: for statistician-based definitions of “fun”

fn2: I don’t know exactly what the hit dice rules are for S&W – it could be fighters are also d6, but because all dice have a uniform distribution the effect is consistent – it’s only the exact magnitude of the power creep that changes.

Noisms at Monsters and Manuals has written a comparison of gaming systems with political theories, dichotomized into “top-down” games (D&D 3rd Edition) and thinkers (Marx) and “bottom-up” games (OD&D) and thinkers (Hayek). Noisms makes it clear what side he falls on (he’s a “bottom-upper,” oo-er), which he characterizes as “the right” (vs. “the wrong”), but even if you swap sides or dispute the particular product placement (I don’t believe Orwell is a bottom-upper, and others dispute Marx in the top-down category), the idea is interesting and has some bearing on a few common topics in the role-playing world. Noisms isn’t clear in the post about what this top-down vs. bottom-up distinction means, but in comments he adds:

The phrase “bottom-up” as I use it here doesn’t refer to the position of the agents of change on the social scale. It refers to the nature of the social change (i.e. not planned, emergent, incremental, intuitive)

which seems like a reasonable way of simplifying the political theories and the games.

I think in his post though, Noisms is ignoring the importance of structure and planning for achieving emergent or bottom-up change. I think this applies equally well to game systems, and I think a bit of new left anarchist debate (genuine bottom-upping, not the crypto-statism of libertarians like Hayek) can help to inform what I mean.

In essence, “emergent” social change that occurs genuinely without structure or within a limited set of rules leads to a type of tyranny; an unstructured and intuitive game system, without a reasonable extent of rules and systems, leads to a type of tyranny as well.

The Tyranny of Structurelessness

Back in the 1970s the feminist Jo Freeman wrote a little pamphlet called The Tyranny of Structurelessness, in which she described the problems anarchist and left-wing feminist groups faced in trying to do organized political activism from a framework of having no organization or rules. The key phrase in that pamphlet that critiques both the political theory of unplanned emergent change, and (implicitly) the gamer’s ideal of unplanned and intuitive play, is this:

A ‘laissez-faire’ group is about as realistic as a ‘laissez-faire’ society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can easily be established because the idea of ‘structurelessness’ does not prevent the formation of informal structures, but only formal ones. Similarly, ‘laissez-faire’ philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so.

In political systems we temper these effects by putting strict rules on how much can be achieved through individual contracts. You can’t sell yourself into slavery, there are strict rules about inheriting debts, etc. We further, in the modern world, introduce laws about manufacturing and employment processes – such as clean air laws and equal opportunity laws – because it is very very obvious (from long and painful experience) that without these kinds of structures, the powerful ride roughshod over the weak. Without these systems in place, society goes to the rich, the socially connected and the nastiest people, rather than to those who strive. This is the essence of most rational critiques of laissez-faire capitalism and systems of dispute based entirely on property rights and contract law. Creating a blank space for “intuitive” change opens up the social space to being captured, not by the most intuitive in society, but by those with the most power to act on whatever intuitions they do have.

In game terms this difference is summarized by Barking Alien in comments at the original post:

you get games in which the designers/creators try to govern play as much as they possibly can by coming up with a system that can cover many eventualities, and games in which the designers do not do so in favour of devolving the power to arbitrate, as much as possible, to individual DMs/game groups

What this means in practice is that in-game, the power and benefits accrue to the PCs whose players have most sway over the GM. And, given the fractured and socially backward nature of nerd social interactions, this generally means the most socially manipulative, or those with the loudest voices. It does not mean the most creative people, though it may mean this in a well-run group with a judicious and skilled GM. Even then, though, it rewards a particular creative impulse – the desire to express your clear plans in a way that influences the world. But there’s another type of creative impulse common amongst gamers, which is to enjoy the unfolding of the world through your actions even though you are not yourself capable of expressing your aims well. This type of person is stymied by an unstructured system of arbitration.They may be very good at describing what happens to their PC after the event, but not good at suggesting what they do before the event.

In short, this type of gaming rewards the expressive, not the creative. And it is especially vulnerable to exploitation by manipulative and bullying players, who are actually very common.

A good summary might be that, under one system the player suggests an action and then bargains the cost with the GM and/or players. Under the other system, the player suggests an action and then bargains the cost with the GM through reference to a well-structured system of action resolution. The former system rewards[1] good negotiators, while the latter rewards good ideas – or even, just rewards participation, which is what we want from a game.

The main way that this structure is reflected in practice is through the skill system and the magic system. An extensive, well-designed and well-described skill system gives the GM an excellent framework within which to handle novel tasks, to set the difficulty and to distinguish PC roles. And in terms of game enjoyment, the main thing this system prevents is a situation in which a single player gets to do everything, because they’re good at arbitrating with the GM over every single task. In open, purely “bottom-up” systems, the socially confident player is able to seize many fields of action for themself, such as trap-finding, diplomacy, fighting, information gathering, etc. while the shyer or less expressive players stand by and wait for the only time when they can fit their actions to a structure – combat. But once you throw a skill structure onto the PCs, suddenly the player loses the power to do some of these things well, and other players pick it up. Those other players may not express their actions so well, but they get to be a part of the group.

This is particularly noticeable in OD&D, which is one of the few old school games not to have a skill system of any kind. It seems to me that the OSR is full of comments and posts by people who exalt this ability to express actions and negotiate them with the GM over the desire to be involved effectively in a group (in the sense that I mean it above), and I don’t think this is a coincidence.

Essentially in these kinds of games, social ability is like temporal power in the real world, and the lack of structure in the game rewards social ability just as it rewards temporal power in real life. But this social ability doesn’t make you a better person, just a louder one, and shy or ineloquent people should be able to enjoy these games too. I think it was in response to those peoples’ lack of enjoyment of the game that the later systems incorporated much more extensive structure.

The Tyranny of Tyranny

The classic response to Jo Freeman’s article was the pamphlet The Tyranny of Tyranny, by Cathy Levine, that reads like a bit of a gender-essentialist screed (oh, radical feminism, how you have failed women…) and argues, essentially, that structurelessness is a cultural alternative to existing ways of thinking, and that small groups coming together in voluntary association without a movement behind them can both protect themselves from exploitation and generate new (revolutionary) social change. The key quote relevant to gaming would be this:

What we definitely don’t need is more structures and rules, providing us with easy answers, pre-fab alternatives and no room in which to create our own way of life. What is threatening the female Left and the other branches even more, is the ‘tyranny of tyranny’, which has prevented us from relating to individuals, or from creating organisations in ways that do not obliterate individuality with prescribed roles, or from liberating us from capitalist structure

Dropping all the politically specific language here, we find a claim that less rules governing interaction will give more freedom to individuals to create new social organizations and new ideas.

In game terms we see this with the common complaints about D&D 3rd edition, with its extensive feats and skills and every situation covered by a rule, in which people stop thinking about what they want to do and start worrying about what they can do. There is also a strong risk of gaming the rules when they’re at this level, and also of a type of regulatory capture – that if you can get the ear of the GM you can bend the rules in ways that others haven’t, and this will leave you significantly more powerful or capable than everyone else. I think in fact every GM in a system like Rolemaster or D&D 3rd edition has seen this happen – it happened to me in 2nd edition AD&D, for sure. Also, gaming under these rules systems includes a lot of “red tape” in the form of rules checking, character development, etc. that can be seen as a hidden cost or regulatory burden stifling creativity. This regulatory capture and red tape is exactly a common complaint libertarians make against organized social structures, which brings us full circle to Noisms’ synthesis of Hayek and OD&D.

The Balanced Approach: Social Democracy of Gaming

Of course, the most effective model we have for social organization in the western world is social democracy, which protects people from the worst excesses of laissez-faire society while protecting peoples’ freedom of action. Such systems are commonly misconstrued by libertarians as “central planning” or “socialism” (see e.g. Glenn Beck on healthcare), but they’re so far from such a scheme that the comparison is silly. In game terms I think the analogy is with rules-light skill systems, flexible combat and magic systems, and an immediate reward system for creative self-expression (stunting) that isn’t essential for game satisfaction. This rewards all the different social types at the table and guards against excessive effects of bullying and social manipulation without falling victim to regulatory capture or high costs.

In my view the games that best fit this model of a social democracy of gaming are probably the three versions of Warhammer (but especially the third), Exalted, the Japanese game Double Cross 3, my version of the d20 system (or in fact any version that isn’t loaded down with D&D’s heritage), and maybe (? I can’t recall clearly ?) Shadowrun. Original D&D is too unstructured to fit this description, and D&D 3rd edition has piled a huge edifice onto an otherwise quite functional system, so that it carries a high cost in-game and is vulnerable to rules manipulation. I think Rolemaster can meet my conditions for “social democratic gaming” if it’s run by a good GM with a lot of experience, but usually it’s the ultimate communist game – a good idea in theory but it doesn’t work in practice[2].

I think a lot of people who laud earlier versions of D&D are ignoring the often quite toxic social dynamics that sprang up in early gaming groups, and don’t care about the game being available to the shy or the socially inexpressive. I think that just as good GMing has to take into account the social dynamics at the table, good game design has to take into account the many ways the game design can reward or discourage certain types of personality type from playing. Being a good social democrat, I’m all in favour of equality, and I think the game should be available to as many different types of personality as possible, so I think we should eschew strong ideological brands like Marxism or libertarianism, and instead focus on practical, simple systems for enabling everyone to get along…

fn1: by “rewards” here we mean, “provides a chance to act and have your actions resolved in a way that you can have faith in,” not “gets to succeed at the action”

fn: I don’t actually believe this about communism, but I think it’s an excellent phrase.

During my otaku bonenkai party, Mr. Shuto opened one of his many storage cabinets and revealed a huge haul of old school gaming products, almost all Japanese translations of originals, that he had collected from Yahoo Auction over the years. Most were in near-mint condition, some he had never played, and some of them I haven’t seen since I was 12 or 13. Apparently they’re cheaper to collect in Japanese than English (less demand, maybe, or more books in good condition). We were all flabbergasted by his collection, and I thought it might interest English language viewers to see some of them here. Taking photos in the low light of his apartment was a challenge (especially after a few beers) so apologies for the glare and the blur.

Firstly, the Basic-Companion-Master-Expert sets:

Ancient Treasures

The red box in this picture is the first RPG I ever owned, and I had forgotten its contents. Unlike the D&D Rules Cyclopaedia, the red box has the same internal art (which I had forgotten):

Knock-kneed, like every Japanese girl ...

I remember how the pictures in this book opened up my mind to a whole new world of fantasy and adventure – I’d never read an adult fantasy novel before I somehow stumbled onto this box, and though I never got to play it properly (I moved on to AD&D early), it holds a special place in my heart… Mr. Shuto has never played this system, but it didn’t stop him from collecting a lot of modules:

Verisimillitude, in Japanese

Mr. Shuto’s collection didn’t end at D&D though. He also had an extensive collection of Cthulhu-related material (which he has played) and other boxed sets, some of which he arranged for us on his study floor:

Madness in Mie

Mr. Shuto’s boxed sets included some early Runequest, which I think he may have had a chance to play, and which I’ve always wanted to try. I think this is a very early edition, judging by the art:

Undiscovered country for me...

This boxed set included a book of secrets, I think, and elder lore:

Dark secrets in dark languages

My god, that artwork is bad. But such early Runequest! I don’t know how easy it will be to understand the rules, but I’m tempted to try and cadge them off Mr. Shuto and run a session sometime. Running early Runequest in Japanese has to be a rare experience…

Mr. Shuto also collected early Traveller, starting with the boxed set:

Remember this...?

I’ve played a lot of Traveller and I really don’t like the system, but the game itself is so romantic and such a classic representation of the joys of space opera that I will always remember it fondly. The great thing about these Japanese books is that they retain their western form, so looking on a Traveller rulebook for the first time in years could bring back all those thoughts and images from my early games even though only the title was in English:

So simple, yet so much within...

Exploring this boxed set was quite entertaining. Here, for example, is something I could never have imagined I would ever see when I first began playing – a star system map entirely in Japanese:

Find your way through this, intrepid scouts!

The interested reader will note that these games all follow a similar translation process, in which the English language components are often retained and the Japanese translation even subordinated to them. This is the translation style of the main importing company, Hobby Japan, which leaves a lot of the key English words in the translated edition for reference. This pattern has been retained in, for example, the Pathfinder Japanese wiki, which makes it easier for Japanese players to understand what words have been translated how, and also easier for me to read the trickier language. It also means that people who don’t read Japanese can understand what they’re looking at without having to rely on the artwork. This process is particularly important for games like Runequest and Warhammer, because the translation has attempted to incorporate the greater romanticism and historicism of the original works and sometimes includes generating new words in Japanese. They may have deviated from this a bit in early Runequest, and made it a more Japanese-only feel, like the D&D rules cyclopedia, which would make it even denser and more difficult to run an adventure with.

I have a bit of an interest in finding out whether there is a Japanese grognard movement and if so what its principles are. I’m pretty sure that Mr. 123 is a grognard and I’ve previously proposed interviewing him about his philosophy, because I think the Japanese approach will be more inclusive and less movement-ish than it is in the West. I think also the Japanese have largely rejected 4th Edition D&D, from my impression, and are diverting heavily into Pathfinder, partly because the cost of all those splat books is prohibitive but Pathfinder is free in its basic form. I detect zero interest in 4th Edition and in the 6 – 8 conventions I’ve attended never seen it being run. So I wonder if they’re essentially more amenable to some form of grognarding in any case. There’s also usually a very old school Japanese game being run at any convention I go to. Western games seem to be priced very high compared to Japanese ones (which can be very cheap) so it could also be that Japanese gamers reject new editions of games that they like – I’ve seen no later editions of Shadowrun since I came here either. So I do want to explore Japanese grognarding in more detail.

Who would have thought that, having come to rural Japan, I am suddenly exposed to the opportunity to play almost any of the key OSR games that I might want to? A fascinating coincidence of location, here in steamy Beppu… and one I may take avantage of when I have a little more time…

I mentioned previously that I think I have stumbled upon a Japanese Grognard, who I shall call Mr. 123, and it occurred to me recently that I could try and ask him some questions about his attitude towards gaming, his opinion of old school, etc. I’ve noticed that the people I play with here, though generally willing to try new games, are completely uninterested in D&D 4e, though some have made a major divergence into Pathfinder. Mr. 123 recently ran a game using the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, and is a big fan of Warhammer 2nd Edition (which is pretty old school, I think). So he probably has opinions on games and gaming connected with the period of the games. He’s playing WFRP 3rd edition with me, but this could just be because he’s willing to tolerate new rules in order to play Warhammer rather than GM it.

If I give Mr. 123 an interview, the basic questions I would ask would be:

  • The usual demographics
  • His gaming history
  • What sort of games he likes and dislikes
  • Whether he prefers games from a particular generation and, if so, whether this applies to Japanese as well as Western games
  • If he knows anything about the OSR, and if there is an equivalent thing in Japanese games

But I would like to find out if any OSR gamers reading this might be interested in asking additional questions, and if so what sorts of stuff they would like to know. Please let me know in comments!

In a related note, there is usually a Pathfinder adventure at my local monthly gaming convention, run by a Mr. S. This local gaming convention has been running for 25 years, and the most recent event was the 60th meeting (in earlier years it was much less regular than now). I discovered recently that Mr. S has been running this convention continuously for the last 25 years! Beppu has a population of 123000, so I think this is a pretty good achievement – let alone that it’s run by just one person. I wonder if Mr. S is also a grognard, despite his Pathfinder-y-ness? And I wonder if a survey of the local convention gamers might be a good idea…?

Is what happened today, at my monthly convention. I turned up at 9:30 with Ms. Uma, on time, carrying a huge bag of rice balls, and thus well placed to hear the introductions to the various games that were being played today. One of the choices, by Mr. 123, was a session of old school D&D, based on the Japanese D&D Rules Cyclopaedia, which you can see examples of here. Now, Mr. 123 ran a Warhammer 2nd edition adventure, in which I participated, two conventions ago, and now he’s running an OD&D adventure. Which makes me think: he is a Japanese Grognard. I think I will have to interview him about this.

I didn’t play in this session, because another DM was running a session of Double Cross 3, which I’ve been presenting piecewise on this blog, and which I couldn’t turn down a chance to join in (and it was worth the effort). However, during the breaks I managed to have a look at Mr. 123’s presentation style and it was the same for this OD&D session as it was for his warhammer session – a heavy focus on set-piece scenes and talking (as opposed to combat). My Japanese ain’t up to that style of play, especially in a small and crowded room, so I made the right decision (though I sorely wanted to do Japanese OD&D). However, I think it’s interesting if we can identify the presence of cross-cultural grognards. The Grognard scene certainly gives the impression of being transnational, but the possibility that it had hit East Asia hadn’t occurred to me before today. I now need to find out if Mr. 123 shares Mr. Maliszewski’s views on Conan, art, movies and Appendix D… stay tuned, gentle reader…

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