Sunday, February 20, 2011

Goodman Games and the Genius of Gygax

Planning the next adventure at the Shady Dragon...

I noticed a week or so ago that the second designer's blog for the Dungeon Crawl Classics game got posted.  This one focused on Joseph's deep dive into the Appendix N material and his efforts to try and build a game that cleaves closer to the Sword & Sorcery inspirations.  By way of reminder, a fair statement of the DCC manifesto seems  to be:

It is a version of what D&D could have been, if the early pioneers had access to an existing, robust rules engine to which to adapt their Appendix N inspirations.

This new post has lots of things to me make smile - a discussion of the source material, mention of such characters as Skafloc and Valgard and Holger Danske, figures I recently encountered in my own reading .   I've learned the new game will have race-as-class.  It sounds like the designers are still figuring out what to do with divine characters and clerics.  The focus of the game will be on grand adventures - does that mean out of the multi-leveled dungeon?  This is an intriguing project; I'm sure most of us would love to see an old-school style game make it big again and get back into wide spread distribution.  It's still mostly hype while we wait for the betas.

One thing I wonder about with this focus on Appendix N… is literary emulation actually a good thing?

D&D is a self-referential genre of fantasy.  Our D&D campaigns are filled with "D&Disms" that have now crept into popular culture, modern fantasy novels, and the world of computer gaming.  They've become institutionalized.

Let me throw out some examples.  Raise Dead.  Buying and selling magic items.  The social status of the adventurer.  Classes and levels.  I would define a D&Dism like this: If the game concept presents problems when you're adapting your campaign to emulate specific literature or a historical period, it might be a D&Dism.  The related problem is that D&D is a kitchen sink pastiche, borrowing from everything, so we have an additional issue - not every D&D element fits into every campaign world.

Let's look at Raise Dead.  The DMG provides explicit costs for going into a town or city and buying Raise Dead for a fallen character.  There's not much discussion of religion, deities, limitations or exclusions; the implied setting Gary Gygax is presenting would make Raise Dead an available resource for the right price.  One of the most common campaign nuances I see are DM's placing limitations or exclusions on raise dead.  (I'm guilty).

Magic items have prices in the DMG.  A long campaign will see a fighter get progressively better magic weapons.  What to do with that 'now crappy' sword +1?  The implied answer is sell it, but many genre emulators will limit magic or otherwise ignore the magic item price tables.  Conan never went to the bazaar to get some chainmail +1, after all.

Our games are often influenced by historical periods that lacked the social mobility to support armed adventurers rolling into town, swaggering up to the bar at the nearest tavern, and leaning over to the barkeep, "So - I hear y'all got an Orc problem 'round these parts, partner.  We're here to clean up the mess."  Pardon the bad gunslinger dialogue, but Gygax actually compares adventurers to Wild West gunslingers in the DMG, and the metaphor has stuck with me - that's how we play!

The implied D&D world has a level of social mobility that lets freemen or sons of nobles head out onto the road and seek adventure in a way that just wasn't possible in many of the eras we emulate.  I confess - I love the idea of historical settings with a veneer of magic smeared on top, whether it's ancient Greece, dark ages Germany, or the Viking Age.  But it's hard to reconcile these D&Disms in a world without inns, taverns, cities, shops, or even much trade.  Where do wandering adventurers stay, or buy and sell their items, in such a world?  When I've done those types of games, it's always involved  a patron sending retainers on choice missions - the Greek king of the city state, the Thane or Jarl, the Frankish Count.  It provides the structured home base necessary to support adventurers, but it's not a great match for the free-style sandbox, go-anywhere-you-want style of adventure I prefer nowadays.  I want the Wild West in our fantasy games.

The commonness of adventurers in the implied setting goes further in the DMG.  Take training and advancement.  The DMG implies that there are commercial trainers available to improve your ability to adventure, or teach new spells to magic users.  Training costs are practically a mandate in the DMG.  I don't know that the 1E DMG ever explicitly calls out the existence of Adventurer's Guilds, but it's a logical evolution - where else do adventurers find the trainers?  And how often did our old  games start in the tavern, "I'm going out to the old monastery to seek my fortune, and I need a cleric, a wizard and a thief.  Who's with me?"  And thus the adventuring party was formed.

It would be interesting to list out these implied setting elements of D&D and AD&D and create a checklist.  When designing a campaign, the checklist would be the types of things that would need adjusting if you're adapting it to emulate a historical or literary setting.   A few are rules related, but most would be social.

As I read sections of the 1E DMG and take in Gary's campaign advice (these days, with a fresh eye!) I continue to be impressed by how many of these conventions are explicitly laid out in his suggestions on running a world with adventurers.  30+ years later and his ideas are still on point.

I'm sure some smarter folks than me have already generated a list of D&D tropes out there - I'll do some digging and see what I turn up.

How about you - do you emulate other genres in your D&D games, cutting out the things that don't fit, or do your worlds incorporate most of the elements of the implied setting?

As the guys over at Goodman Games develop their "fresh take on the Appendix N literature", it makes me wonder how they'll provide alternates to many common D&D tropes and problems.  Stay tuned - should be interesting.


  1. I have always love the Wild West feel of games I have played in.

  2. My current project is to take D&D (well, Labyrinth Lord and the AEC) and extrapolate a world around the 'physics.' It's something I've never really tried.

    When playing D&D 4e, I built a campaign world around their concept of 'points of light.' Actually, the 4e DMG is very good about giving you tips on how to create carbon copy cookie cutter worlds. It's kind of nauseating, actually, but it works.

    But before then, I would build universes - either based on literary (Conan) or historical (Minoan/Mycenaean) or just gonzo (land of where every bit of fauna has six legs - except humans) and try to hammer and chisel the game around it. It's hard, because concepts like raise dead can be incredibly far reaching and bust apart the feel of a campaign.

    - Ark

  3. I have a, I'm sure like most, have a Frankenstein Monster approach, take bits and pieces from here and there and mend them together as you can.

    I had a chance to playtest Goodman's new game and it is interesting, but there are some things in it I am sure I won't use. But there are a few things I am interested to see how it works like spells having a variety of effects.

    I'm not sure what the love affair is with appendix N, but there is a lot of it. I get inspired by several mediums and genres, but I don't want the game to fit the inspiration, the inspiration has to fit into the game.

  4. I've been enjoying reading the Appendix N type stuff for inspiration and filling out some holes in my education - there's some great stuff I missed.

    Ark - I'm interested in seeing how your project goes.

    I remember 4E had good advice for making a standard fantasy world - I may break it out and see how it matches up to the tropes of the older game.

  5. I think a reading of the corpus to mine for "implied setting" tidbits is a great idea.

  6. Dwarves, elves, halflings, clerics and good wizards are all non-sword and sorcery, so I'm not sure whether it's really going to be 'going back to the roots', as opposed to 'D&D with some sword and sorcery rules added'.

  7. PS From my limited knowledge of sword and sorcery.