Play worlds, not rules: Juggling ideas for stone age rpg sessions

… and I don’t mean The Flintstones here. What really is driving my interest these days (in terms of roleplaying games) is to go as far back as possible with the rules. And since it’s been established by amazing researchers in the field that Original D&D was not the first rpg (not by a long shot even), I’m slowly (hex) crawling my way to The Origin of Our Hobby (TOOH, ha!, I like that).

We know that Dave Arneson didn’t have a single “true system”, but he changed and switched and tried and created on the fly, before and after his sessions. We know that Dave Wesely did the same with his Braunsteins, a game with no “official” rules that were available for the players. We also know that Phil Barker, eternally renowned for the beauty that is Tekumel, used a very freeform set of rules that didn’t care about the typical D&D-isms like hit points and stats or saves, but ruled them on the fly.

It’s also a given that neither Dave Arneson, nor Gary Gygax, nor Phil Barker used the rules they published (except Prof. Barker when it came to military simulation). Jeff Berry (also known as Chirine baKal), one of the old-time grognards who played with Arneson, Gygax, and Wesely, and was a regular, trusted member of Phil Barker’s rpg group has this to say about the rules the founding fathers of roleplaying games used at their private tables:

  • “Doing it by the book” was impossible; the book – and the game rules – hadn’t been written yet. (1)
  • “I mentioned that I’ve never really ‘played D&D’; I’ve played “something called Blackmoor with Dave, something called Greyhawk with Gary, and something called Tekumel with Phil” (2)
  • “And we didn’t have much worry about our roots in what’s now called ‘wargaming’; we moved from one to the other seamlessly, with games being ‘sized’ as needed by the events as they unfolded.” (3)
  • regarding the “you roll-I roll-higher roll wins-close rolls negotiate” system they used: “Since this is a mostly D&D-oriented crowd (note: Chirine played a demo game at the Free RPG Day at The Source Comics and Games shop in Roseville, MN), I used Dave and Gary’s 3d6 to make folks feel more at home. All I had to do was run the variant probability curves in my head on the fly, which is something I find pretty easy to do. The players caught on very quickly, and were able to evaluate their own dice roll in real time in about a half-hour of play. (4)
  • (regarding hit points): “I don’t know; the players might have put something down on their sheets, but I didn’t see it. If they got hit and took damage, I’d tell them, and they’d have to role-play the results of getting a spear through the guts.” (5)
  • “I think that the biggest difference between our ‘pre-school’ gaming and today’s hobby is the shift in reading habits I’ve seen in gamers. People don’t read books; they read games. Now, this does sell a lot of game books, and does keep game stores in business, but the ‘books’ section of my FLGS is noted for what I’d call ‘a lack of turnover’ in the stock.” (6)
  • “(…) the players for a game session would pick the world-setting, and I’ then run the game in my usual Arnesonian / Gygaxian / Barkerian style. No modules, no adventure paths, no safety net; this was Chirine and his imagination, in the purest form of ‘Free Kriegspiel’ / ‘Open Sandbox Play'” (7)
  • “Now, I can hear you all ask “How do they have characters, if they haven’t got a set of rules?” Well, we did have rules – Phil’s ‘Perfected RPG rules‘ – and I had the players take notes; so, when somebody rolled to see what happened, this became their ‘stats’ as needed. I’m sure that some would call this – to quote – “too handwavy, too loosy-goosy”, which may be true; but, the players all had fun, and so did I.” (8)
  • “Back in the day, we didn’t have much of a sharp dividing line between what seems to be considered ‘role-playing’ these days and what I think is meant by ‘wargames’; we floated back and forth between modes of play” (10)
  • “We were not ‘rules heavy’; quite the opposite, in fact. We just moved the troops as needed, and didn’t worry too much about ‘accuracy’ and ‘realism’; if it looked good, and was fun, we did it – there was lots of swashbuckling and derring-do in our miniatures games.” (11)
  • “We played using whatever tools we needed at that point in the campaign – RPGs, Braunsteins, miniatures, boardgames, poker, you name it.” (12)
  • “I ran a Star Wars campaign, for example, long before there were any rules for such a thing. I ‘winged’ it…” (13)
  • “What we looked for in both Phil’s and my game groups were people who were interested in the world-setting, and not so much in the rules mechanics. Phil’s original group, which kept going as the Monday night group after we split up, tended to be much more interested in the ‘game aspects’ and less in the ‘cultural aspects’ of Phil’s world. This is very well documented in Fine’s book, “Shared Fantasy”; we’re ‘the geek group’. We wanted to explore Tekumel, and have adventures along the way. I did the same thing in my two Tekumel campaigns, and ‘screened’ players for this attitude / viewpoint.” (14)
  • “There’s a lot of nonsense about the way Dave played and organized Blackmoor floating about; a lot of people are assuming that he was working to A Great Master Plan when he wasn’t. He loved to simply play, and he whipped up the game mechanics and ‘history’ / ‘timeline’ to suit the game in progress. I guess that the best way to ‘play like Dave’ is to not over-think the thing – don’t worry about how it all has to make sense somehow. Add in The Great Feud, with the very nasty and very rude people on both sides of the debate, and you get kind of a toxic situation. From my point of view, this feud has really come to obscure what Dave and Gary did in their games. There’s a perception that Dave played the rules all the time; he didn’t, in my experience, and was a master of ‘faking it’ on the game table. Yes, Dave was good at game mechanics – we all were, at that time – but he never let them get in the way of a good game.” (15)
  • Question for Robert the Bald, a character of one of Dave’s Blackmoor players: “What is the sourcebook or rules that give us the best snapshot of Blackmore,?, I am more interest in the setting and not the rules. I am tryiing to figure out which is the one to get”.
    Answer: “Blackmoor is a different philosophy from any of the games with rulebooks. When David started the game, and for some years afterwards, David (Arneson) did not share the rules with us as we adventured in his new world. The idea was that rules are too restrictive, and he wanted us to play as if we were actually in his world. We just did whatever we wanted to do, and David would tell us the results of our actions. Rare was the time that he told us we could not do anything we tried; we learned what would work, and what was a very bad idea.
    What I am trying to tell you is that the rules are not as important as the gamemaster, and the way he runs games.” (17)
  • “Back in the day, we didn’t play rules sets; we played worlds, and game scenarios set in those worlds. We did this both for what has become the ‘RPG genre’ and the ‘wargaming genre’, as all of us being so young and inexperienced (I have also been called ‘unsophisticated’, about this now vital and very important difference in genres) we simply did know any better some forty years ago.” (19)

Phil Barker, the man himself, about rules:

  • “After a while, I began using the simplest possible system with my own gaming groups. As my old friend, Dave Arneson, and I agreed, one simple die roll is all that one needs: failure or success. The players don’t really care, as long as the roll is honest. Who cares if I hit with the flat of my shield, with the edge of my shield, or whatever? The story’s the thing! A low score on a D100 roll denotes success; a high score signifies failure. A middling score results in no effect, or an event that is inconclusive. Thus, an 01 denotes the best possible result for the character, with perhaps more goodies than he/she bargained for: the foe goes down with one blow, the spell hits the exact target, the character easily swings up onto the mountain ledge. A 100 (i.e. 00), is a total, horrible flop, perhaps death or destruction: e.g. the opponent cuts our hero down, the poison works, the climber falls screaming off the cliff. A 45-65 = a natural result; the fight continues, the struggle to climb the peak goes on, and the like. A sliding scale from 01 to 100 gives all sorts of interesting ranges of success/failure.” (9)

Let’s hear Tekumel Foundation’s treasurer Bob Alberti’s opinion:

  • “What You Need: 1) a game map 2) two ten sided dice 3) the novels 4) any sort of game book – from Adventures in Tékumel to the original Sourcebooks – in order to get lists of the Temples and their spells, and maybe the names of some of the most important people just in case you need to rescue them from certain doom. 5) a lick of common sense.  All the other crap – character stats, encumbrances, combat rules, etc., are the tools of the rules-lawyer, and not worth the attention of dignified persons. You have dice to resolve any questions (01-10 good, 90-00 bad, use common sense).” (16)

Bob Meyer, one of Dave Arneson’s longtime players and traditional referee of the Annual Blackmoor Game:

  • Rhetorical question: “What set of rules do you use for Braunstein?” – “What set of rules do you use for life?” (18)

13 years ago, W.D. Robertson wrote “Fast, Easy D100Narrative Adventures for Empire of the Petal Throne“. Check this pdf out, it’s worth it.

All of this makes it really easy to come up with ideas for a (as Chirine ba kal called it) “pre-school” (as opposed to “old school”) session:

  1. Read books instead of roleplaying rulebooks.
  2. Pick a setting you like and write down stuff for it. It’s even easier if you happen to have an e-book: simply copy and paste things into your setting file.
  3. Do yourself a favor and use miniatures. Because it’s really fun.
  4. Give military conflict simulation rules a try. For free and simple rulesets, allow me to point you in this direction: Toy Wargames.  Or maybe you have a veteran in your group who could assist you in playing free kriegsspiel. Of course, nobody is stopping you from tackling heavyweight rules.
  5. Grab some dice, establish simple ground rules (“low is good, high is bad”, or turn this on its head), create characters (either taking clues/advice/hints from an rpg book or a real book), and start playing. Wing it, and you’ll see rulings emerging. If you’re so inclined, you can write them down and use them as rules. Allow me to point you in Phil Barker’s direction for his rules: Perfected RPG rules
  6. You don’t need professional modules, adventures and stuff. Come up with an interesting situation, introduce a twist or two, get players, minis and dice (and snacks and alcohol), and have a very good time.
  7. Again, because it’s so important: Play worlds, not rules.
Play worlds, not rules, part 1: Juggling ideas for stone-age rpg sessions
Play worlds, not rules, part 2: Experience levels
Play worlds, not rules, part 3: Playing around with dice
Play worlds, not rules, part 4: Short example of true Blackmoor gaming
Play worlds, not rules, part 5: How we roll



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