Ancient-school roleplaying: an exclusive Interview with grognard Bob Meyer

Bob Meyer is one of the original Twin Cities gamers. For many years, he („Robert the Bald“) played with Dave Arneson personally. And he keeps Dave‘s Blackmoor and his style of gaming alive.
AND: he’s one of the nicest people I know.

N: Bob, let‘s get right to it! Are you using hit points in your games?

B: No, at least not in the sense of D&D-like hit points. I simply determine a number of times a character can get hit before they‘re dead or dying. This depends on the setting. D&D captured the rules that Arneson invented, but it did not capture the style of play. The main thing was to make the game fun and challenging. David, not burdening the players with rules and tables, freed our imaginations to just do whatever we wanted to do.

N: D&D as it was published, contained quite a number of tables.

B: Yes, but it being published did not change our style of play, because David had already shown us how to play, and how to run games ourselves.

N: Do you use tables in your games? Just to get an idea: If yes, what kind of tables? Hit locations? Or experience points? Or movement? The reason I’m asking this is I still have the feeling that my system, as it is at the moment, is… too simple? And I’m wondering if introducing some tables, random or not, might help complicate (in a positive sense) matters.

B: Do not worry about any tables. My games (and rules) are much more free form. I find that adding rules and tables gives the players more distractions, and takes away from their immersion in the game. I tend to give players the benefit of the doubt. I tend towards a more favorable result to the players for anything that happens.

N: So you‘re playing „softer“?

B: No one has died yet, although there were a couple of times that a player really could have died. I just made them unconscious (with the help of a handy medical character or spell) for most of the rest of the adventure.

N: Are you using Dave‘s rules in your games?

B: I invented my own rules to give the same feeling to my games that we had with the original rules. The style of play is the same as in the pre-D&D days, but I changed some of the rules so that the players would not be “burdened” with the rules, just like in the old days.

N: I understand you have been using 2d6 in your games ever since you guys started playing and inventing roleplaying games. How do you use them? For instance, a character wants to jump across a chasm – do you use opposed rolls, or do you determine a number (secretly) the player has to roll on or over?

B: I use opposed die rolls for any actions that have serious consequences; whether it is an attack, or jumping over a chasm. This is just one way of adding randomness to actions, which more closely mirrors real life. There should always be doubt, and a chance of failure, for any action. The exact mechanisms, and way I determine results, I prefer to keep obscure by keeping them to myself. I often roll my dice at random times so that players do not know if they mean nothing, or will mean something, to the game.

N: Just yesterday, I refereed a session of a modern rpg. It has a crazy amount of special abilities and magic items and that kind of stuff – so many moving parts in fact that playing it was a mediocre experience, at best. What killed immersion in yesterday’s game was that my players looked at their character sheets whenever some sort of challenge appeared– because that game hands out „loot“ like candy. So my players looked at their sheets for answers, instead of looking into their character… interesting experience, but one I don’t want to make any time soon.

B: I understand your frustration. Many people like the structure of rules and assigned abilities. This takes away uncertainty and decision making that will be required in a game. I do not think this is bad; if they are having fun, then more power to them. But as you pointed out, this slows down and restricts the game.

N: How many special abilities, for instance, do characters in your games have?

B: Giving them a special ability, and a skill, and a profession (blacksmith, tanner, etc.) gives them plenty to work with. I take into account any experience they gain on adventures for actions they do. This gives benefits on die rolls and actions (more likely to succeed in combat, surprise, noticing important things, etc.). Players are free to keep track of everything themselves (found items, armor made from dragon skins, etc.). I expect them to remind me about anything I should know, which players tend to do anyway.

N: Do you offer the players lists of available skills and powers? How do they pick their characters‘ abilities?

B: I allow players to pick their own abilities, so that they will be involved in the process; and be more likely to remember and know what they can do without referring to a piece of paper.

N: What about magic?

B: I have never been a fan of magic, so this was a way to satisfy peoples desire for magic without having people depending on magic spells. I did relent later and allowed magic, and I had people pick the spells themselves for the same reasons as I gave for abilities. I did restrict magic in certain ways, so that it would not become predominate in the game. This seems to be working.

N: I also have mixed feelings about magic – I’m worried it unbalances the game, or at least makes it boring because it overpowers characters, so I tend to allow it, but it comes with inherent dangers. If a magic-user wants too much, it can seriously backfire on him. Do you have spell lists, or do you allow your players to come up with their own spells?

B: When I allow a person to use magic, I have them generate a list of spells themselves. I have not had to turn down any spells that a person wants. The players tend to self regulate when they are given responsibility. I restrict the number of spells they have, and require them to use some water from a well in Blackmoor castle as they use a spell. This limits the number of spells they cast.

N: Do you use character sheets?

B: I have not given the players character sheets or any indications of levels. Again, this gives them more of a sense of reality.

N: Bob, thank you so much for this interview!

B: Thank you, Norbert!

2 thoughts on “Ancient-school roleplaying: an exclusive Interview with grognard Bob Meyer

  1. It would be nice to see your basic rules that you use to DM, Bob, like you said opposed rolls for any action that has a serious consequence. What about easier actions like climbing a rope, do you pick a target number and roll over or under on 2d6? Would that be the extent of your rules?Would you give small +'s or -'s on the fly, to the rolls players would throw for certain actions, based on the situation?Do you tend to think all weapons do the same amount of damage? Or do you on the fly make decisions like, \”A sword versus platemail would take a -1 to the roll while sword vs. leather would take a +1 to the roll.Big monsters just require more hits to kill, no need to roll damage when a player hits them?What's interesting here is I am seeing a disconnect between the way Arneson \”supposedly played\” according to the rules in 3LBB's and First Fantasy Campaign, and the way Bob is hinting at in the above interview, where it seems more loosy goosy with no tables or charts. Does that also mean Bob doesn't use any tables for combat as well? Does he make weapon speed and type of armor worn adjustments on the fly?Did the original DM's start out playing with the tables and charts in OD&D and then keep backing off them until they found that they didn't need so many rules and arrived at the 2d6 system? Or was the other way around, 2d6 system, and then they kept on tacking on charts and tables. Were the rules in OD&D actually used by Arneson and Gygax at their gaming tables, or did they play more like the 2d6 method requiring decisions on the fly based on the situation on hand, making small + and – adjustments to the rolls?Maybe what I'm trying to figure out is, the DM is the engine which, based on the situation can add or subtract from the roll on the fly for any situation, vs., the DM has charts and tables to refer to and reference for most situations, including combat. The latter, the charts, tables, and rules are more the engine, the DM less so.Norbert, are you able to get a series of interviews with Bob, if that's possible? For posterity's sake, for Pre-D&D's sake!


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