Beating THE dead horse again

I know, I’m writing about that again and again and again. I know I’m repeating that stuff so often, it might bore some of y’all to tears.

I know.

But playing like the earliest roleplayers did, BEFORE D&D was published, BEFORE RULES were the be-all and end-all of gaming: That’s right up my alley, that’s what I do. It’s what I love doing. Take my Landshut Rules: a love letter to “pre-school gaming”. And still, people keep asking me for specific rules, for specific situations. And I keep replying, “whatever works for you, dude”, and this is the truth. At my table, with my people, things work that might fail abysmally in other groups.

Just keep the game going. Drop the rules. Go with the flow. Fly with the moment, and make it as complex or as simple as you as a group want it. This is your game. Your friends. Your time. Your creativity. Rulebooks are always just a suggestion, giving you ideas or hints.

That said, I’m beating THE dead horse again today: I’m quoting a five year old forum post (not written by yours truly):

Your descriptions sound very similar to the sort of gaming I’ve “discovered/fallen into” in the last few years. I also have very little interest in a lot of new RPGs and find myself more and more distanced from the hobby as its represented online/in rpg forums. The focus on rules minutia holds little interest for me, as does the strict division of gaming styles. For years I GMed a very lose historical occult investigation style game, where I pretty much abandoned any rulebooks in favour of a very quick and intuitive framework of a system I stole from a game from the early 80s, and generally just made rulings on the fly as they fit the situation. 
I heavily experimented with different forms of play (one game took place on a submarine, and I ended up separating the players into different rooms with the lights off, only able to communicate via walkie-talkies), one game was nothing more than a dinner party where everyone remained “in-character” for the proceedings. But the breaking point for me was getting back into miniature wargames a few years back, wherein I rediscovered my love, not just of painting minis, but also building scenery and creating elaborate gameboards. 
As simple PvP wargames bored me quickly, I began coming up with more and more elaborate narrative scenarios, and elements of RPGs began bleeding in. I became fascinated with that gray area where wargames and rpgs meet, and the different manner games could be combined into an overall experience. I brought in elements from Diplomacy, constructed overarching campaign rules that dealt with things like resources and troop training/replenishment, and came across some great naval battle rules that led to several months of high seas adventures, switching between ship to ship combat and regular combat rules for boarding parties. 
As time goes on, the term “gaming” for me has started to become an all-encompassing creative thing that doesn’t really match any singular modern definitions of rpgs/larps/wargames etc. I for one would love to hear more about how the old Tekumel games were run, particularly more specifics on what you looked for in players and what it meant to “get” Tekumel, or more specifically, the style of gaming you’re describing. I find it hard these days to get new players who are on board with this sort of free-wheeling creative approach, especially those indoctrinated by the last 20 years of very specific ideas of what an RPG is and the “importance of rules”.

Tristram Evans, 06-18-2015

This. So much this.

Free Kriegsspiel: Bloodstone Redux

A while ago, I posted my “Bloodstone” rules. Today, I’m presenting the Bloodstone Redux rules. What are these? They are what’s left of the Bloodstone rules when we’re playing them. Bloodstone Redux is, in a way, the best practices of Bloodstone. Let’s start. Comments are in orange.

Character Creation, how we actually, really play it
  1. Title (name, career/class/race – either come up with that stuff by yourself, or use your favorite  game rules)
  2. Three-detail Description
  3. Five-detail Bio (personal details, alignment, god(s), etc.)
  4. Good Stuff: all the things that are advantageous to you (skills, stats, talents, special equipment)
  5. Bad Stuff: all the things that are disadvantageous to you
  6. Hit Points (also called “hits”; three strikes and you’re out, give or take a few if you’re exceptionally fragile or tough)(Monsters may be able to take anywhere between 1 and A LOT of hits; I’d recommend notable monsters to be about as durable as player characters – don’t worry about this point too much, there are still entire groups running their games without hit points, simply by using rough estimates or the Rule of Fun: “Is it fun for everyone at the table?”)
Procedures of Play
  1. Trying Something Risky (Skilled) : referee tells you what number (or more) to roll on 2d6, usually 7+
  2. Trying Something Risky (Unskilled) : referee tells you what number (or more) to roll on 2d6, usually 9+
  3. Saving Throwreferee tells you what number (or more) to roll on 2d6
  4. Luck Roll: d6, high = good, low = bad
  5. Using dice specified by the referee, Roll either equal to, lower or higher than a number the referee tells you, 
  6. OR try to roll as high or as low as possible (referee tells you).
Opponents roll 2d6 against each other. Add +1 to +3 for Good Things, and subtract 1 to 3 for Bad Things. For instance, an “agile” tax collector with “saber-fencing” skill would add +2 to the roll, while a “ridiculously weak” rat-catcher would subtract 2 points.

Simple mnemonic: you add or subtract as many points as the skill or attribute has words to describe it – so, “longsword” adds 1 point, “very quick” adds 2 points, “terrible constitution” subtracts 2 points, “fucking weak clown” subtracts 3, and so on.

The side with the higher sum hits. Ties mean both sides hit each other simultaneously. A combatant with zero Hit Points left dies.

Weapon damage is 1 for small, 2 or more for big weapons. If you roll doubles, damage doubles, as well.

Fights work exactly like other Procedures of Play, described above,
OR: roll dice against each other, higher result hits.

And this leaves us with exactly the way we’ve been freeforming/free kriegsspieling for years: Play worlds, not rules. Read all about our take on the earliest forms of roleplaying in the following posts:

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

Play worlds, not rules, part 5: How we roll

In part 1, I took a look into how people played roleplaying games before any “official rules set” was published.
In part 2, I shared how we handle experience at our table.
In part 3, I  wrote about the dice rulings I use at the table.
In part 4, we looked at a short example of how old grognards are playing Blackmoor.

Today, I’m sharing the method we use – the way we roll (quite literally).

Let’s say you’re playing the Gray Mouser, one of Fritz Leiber’s beloved heroes:
Small (about five feet), thief, very good swordfighter, former wizard’s apprentice with basic magic skills.

You’re rolling 2d6, just like the Blackmoor crowd did back in the days (and still does today). 

Let’s say you want to climb a wall. Roll 2d6. Roll below average (under 7), and your achievement is below average. Roll really low, and something happens you won’t like. Roll around average, and nothing really changes, your climb is still not finished. Roll above average, and you move the situation into territory that’s advantageous to you: You climb the wall successfully.
Oh, and because you’re so light, I’ll add +1 to your roll without telling you.

Let’s say you’re caught in the middle of a deadly silent horde of skeleton warriors that are attacking you. This is what modern games would call an “opposed roll” – my skeletons against your Mouser. Because there are so many skeletons, I add +3 to my roll. 
Because you are such a good sword fighter, I secretly add +2 to your roll.
Higher roll wins. If I want to have a longer fight, this means you defeat a few skeletons. If it’s something I want to be over quickly, that roll determines the outcome of the entire fight. If it’s completely unimportant, I simply determine the outcome, probably slightly in your favor.

Oh, and what about Hit Points. On most days, I can’t be bothered. If I can, I use the old rule “three hits and you’re out”, plus/minus a few for especially tough or fragile characters. Unimportant opponents die after one hit – this includes groups of unimportant monsters. 

There you have it. The system I’m using at the table. This is not the system in a nutshell – it’s the entire, complete system.

Play worlds, not rules, part 4: short example of true Blackmoor gaming

In part 1, I took a look into how people played roleplaying games before any “official rules set” was published.

In part 2, I shared how we handle experience at our table.

In part 3, I  wrote about the dice rulings I use at the table.

Today, I hope you’ll enjoy the following video clip. Bob Meyer (2nd from left) was one of Dave Arneson’s first players – he truly witnessed the birth of our great hobby. This is a short clip from this year’s Gary Con, where Bob refereed a Blackmoor game. What’s of special interest to me is the “game system” Bob uses: opposing forces roll 2d6. Compare numbers. Higher side gets their way. This is as pure as it gets. I love it.

Video URL:

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

Play worlds, not rules, part 2: Experience Levels

Yesterday, I wrote about the stone age of roleplaying games. Today, I’d like to share with you how I’m handling experience in my games.

A few days ago, I asked my fellow Google+ gamers: How do you level up in your game? And: why? A whopping 76 percent answered “XP”, while the rest said they used a milestone rule of some sort. I think this is interesting and telling at the same time. For the majority of players, Experience Points seem to be inextricably intertwined with roleplaying. But in the early days, XP didn’t exist.

How did Dave Arneson referee Blackmoor (at least, at one point in time)?

  • Here’s XP. If you survive an adventure, you gain a level. BAM. The world is strange, random and dangerous so power was there for those who dared, but so was death.” (1)
  • “Roleplaying was just that. You were judged based how well you played your role of elf, dwarf, cleric, mage, fighter or thief. It was like, we all know about Hamlet so show us your Hamlet interpretation. The goal was to work within the cliche.” (2)
  • “Dave gives out “roleplaying points” in game that you can trade in for re-rolls.” (3)

And Chirine ba Kal says:

  • (Question: Experience points… From your descriptions of game play you often talked your way out of situations. How was experience points determined then? The printed rule (Empire of the Petal Throne) specify looting and killing. Even so much as “the killing blow”. Was experience based on “value of service rendered” more often then just killing and looting?”): Answer: “I don’t know. We never really counted experience points in my time with Phil. We just got on with the job and got it done, and we’d get promotions and stuff like that. Sorry. We just didn’t play that way.” (4)
  • “We never paid much attention to ‘experience points’, as we played with some very tough and very clever GMs who rated us on simple survival more then anything else.” (5)

How I’m handling experience levels:

I was never good at giving out xp. Or maybe more correct, I never bothered. It always seemed not worth the effort, and so I pretty soon switched to giving out experience levels when it felt right to all of us. Then, in the early 90s, along came Theatrix, a fantastic diceless rpg that still makes my spine tingle. Theatrix favored a solution called “dramatical appropriateness”. When it was dramatically appropriate, characters gained a new experience level. This is how we’re handling experience to this day.

**addition: Other stone-age things I’m inlcuding:

  1. Dave’s “Roleplaying Points”. Play well, get points, use them for rerolls. Dirty, dirty, dirty narrative rpg trick, shame on you!
  2. The more clichéd my group plays their characters, the better. I don’t want Deep Drama™ and Real Acting™ in the precious few hours away from my family and job. I want cheap thrills, constant action, involved-but-not-super-complex plots, and cheesy but lovable characters. Because I love Bollywood and Hong Kong/Korean flicks a lot more than arthouse cinema.
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


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