Monday, July 9, 2012

Dave Arneson's Blackmooor (Part 2)

Despite a cough, I'm feeling much better today. Thanks.

All right, let's pick up where we left off yesterday, i.e. reviewing D&D in its basest, primeval form.

Oh, is that what we're doing? Well, kind of. I mentioned "deconstructing" Dungeons & Dragons which I meant in the same fashion that the term is used on the Bravo reality show Top Chef (a guilty pleasure). When a master chef (which I am not, just by the way...I make a burritos using canned chili, okay?)...ahem...when a master chef deconstructs a dish, the guy (or gal) takes the base components of the entree, disassembled, analyzes them for how they go together to evoke a particular flavor combination, than reconstructs the dish in a way that bears no semblance to the original dish but still evokes the essence of the dish such that it is immediately recognizable in its most enjoyable pieces.

That's kind of what I aim to do. But before I can reconstruct D&D, I really need to get down into the nitty-gritty of the base design. And stuff like that quote from Mr. Arneson is immensely helpful to that objective.

[and in case anyone wants to ask, 'why the hell bother?' ...well, I could do what I've done before, what everyone seems content to do: tweak and edit and house-rule and twist until the game resembles something "acceptable" OR I can tear it down and do a complete rebuild. Which, by the way, may not be entirely possible (at least to mine or anyone else's complete satisfaction)...but there's always the possibility the rebuild will turn out to be more satisfying (or, at least, have less unsatisfactory parts) than the usual hot mess most of us play with]

Okay, on with the show.

I think it's safe to give credit to Dave Arneson as the guy who invented the base CONCEPT of Dungeons & Dragons. That in no way is meant to diminish the importance of Gary Gygax to the overall project. In astrology there are three qualities of astrological signs: Cardinal, Fixed, and Mutable. Cardinal signs are the creators and originators, Fixed signs are the organizers and controllers, and Mutable signs are the communicators and moderators. In business, you often see Cardinal signs in the position of the entrepreneur/idea guy...but without a Fixed sign to act as an organizer or CEO-type, they can lack "staying power." The Fixed sign may never have the original idea, but without their power the Cardinal sign may flare out.

Arneson, as a Libra, is a Cardinal sign. Gygax, a Leo, is a Fixed sign.

But, whatever...I know many of my readers don't give a hoot about astrology, so I'll try not to mix too much of that in with my premise. As I said, I believe it's fair to credit Arneson with the creating the concept of D&D: a role-playing game (where players are individual heroes as opposed to squads or armies), guided by a neutral referee, through a monster-infested dungeon, seeking treasure/loot. Gygax's Chainmail game (designed for table-top mass warfare) was the earliest set of rules used with the basic design concept, and then this got changed and refined both Arneson and Gygax.

Just to jump forward a bit for a quick sec: this is understandable, jah? Every edition of D&D that has come out since the first published Little Brown Books has been an attempt to refine the game, to perfect it and make it better...even if by "better" one simply means "more understandable" or "more logical" or "more consistent" or even just "more fun."

AD&D - is Gygax's attempt to "flesh out" the game.
Holmes Basic - Dr. Holmes's attempt to make D&D accessible to the novice.
B/X - Moldvay's (and others) effort to streamline and refine OD&D.
BECMI - Mentzer's attempt to extend B/X with consistent scaling.
AD&D2 - Zeb's attempt to refine AD&D and make it a viable, consistent engine.
D&D3 - WotC's attempt to bring D&D into the future with serious design considerations and attention to consistency and coherence.
D&D3.5 - WotC's attempt to refine D&D3, work out the kinks, make the game more "balanced"
D&D4 - Hasbro's attempt to make the game even more "fun" and "balanced" while adding recognizable tropes of other 21st century entertainment types (i.e. video games).
D&D Next - Hasbro's attempt to save the cash cow by reconciling the disapproving (earlier edition) fan base with those new fans turned on by D&D4.

Does that about sum it up? Hopefully, none of it sounds too biased...if one leaves out the (*shudder*) capitalist notion of making more money for one's business by putting out new editions, one can easily see how every new edition has been created with the best of intentions. That is to say, each new version of D&D (even those I personally dislike) have been created with the idea of IMPROVING the product in order to provide a BETTER GAME to those who play it (and hopefully, helping to grow the hobby by producing a better system for new, happy customers).

Now let's return to the past, i.e. to the days of Blackmoor, or what we might call pre-D&D. We have the basic concept, provided by Arneson. But let's look at some of the specific specifics, which I shall infer from his preface to the D20 campaign setting quoted earlier:

- DA (Dave Arneson) was NOT a proponent of "sandbox play" (he set the game in a dungeon specifically to "keep the players from running all over the place"). That he bothered to create a town and country around the dungeon speaks more to Arneson the college history major and his interest in historical wargaming and (even more so) his interest in alternative history or "what if" scenarios (he liked the fluff).

- DA was NOT interested in any kind of "tight plot" (i.e. linear adventure, adventure path, railroad, etc.)...he wanted players to have a loose environment for exploration but the freedom to do "just about anything...for better or for worse."

- The original dungeon consisted of six levels infested with monsters. Characters were searching for treasure (loot) and magic items. Major combat (see below) consisted of rolling a pair of dice to determine victory. If this sounds familiar to some folks, it's because it perfectly describes the game and game play of the 1975 board game Dungeon! I have a whole 'nother post planned for Dungeon! (again, with regard to deconstructing D&D); at this time, suffice is to say it was designed by David Megarry who is listed in the DA's Blackmoor credits as one of the original players of the Blackmoor campaign.

- DA writes, "Major combat changed from rolling a pair of dice that resulted in victory or death to one where the hero could fight beyond the first swing just like in the movies!" There are two interesting parts to that sentence. The first is the term "Major combat;" how exactly would that be defined? Or better yet, what would constitute minor combat, since we might infer (from the statement) that minor combats did NOT change (i.e. not every battle needed the detailed battle of attrition that became the mainstay norm...and clunky slow-ness...of all future D&D editions). The second interesting part has to do with how the statement relates to the NEXT sentence in DA's preface:

- DA writes, "Killing critters in one blow was fine but not when it meant getting your character killed." There are two different ways I can interpret this statement (in conjunction with the prior one) in explaining how early Blackmoor combat worked. Chainmail (which, as noted, was first used as a base rule set for Blackmoor) provided a semi-complex man-to-man (i.e. one-on-one or individual) combat system in which one character would strike a blow and, if failing to kill his opponent, would receive a blow in return. In Chainmail, your attack either kills your opponent or it does not, and there are many tables provided that show the chance needed to down your foe based on the combatants armor, weapon, mount, etc. For the fantasy monsters of Chainmail (ghouls, giants, ogres, wizards, dragons, etc.) a simple 2D6 roll is cross-referenced against the chance to kill such a beast. For example a Hero needs to throw an 11 to kill a giant, but only a 9 to kill an ogre. However, against lesser foes (orcs, goblins, bandits, etc.) a character uses the weapon vs. armor table (so a character with a mace needs a 9+ against leather and shield or a 7+ against plate armor...oh yes, folks, your choice of weapon in OD&D really DOES matter if you use the standard Chainmail combat instead of the "alternative combat rules" that later become the norm of the game). So keep these Chainmail rules in mind, while considering Mr. Arneson's recollection.

As I said, there are two ways I can interpret DA's statements here: #1 He used the Chainmail system (with some restructuring: the average Joe is neither a "Hero" nor a "Wizard" and thus has NO chance to single-handedly kill a great monster) giving one character a first strike (i.e. chance to kill) and thus risking a return blow (and auto-kill). This, in turn, led to the development of hit points due to players lack of enjoyment at being "one-shotted." #2 DA had a modified version of Chainmail that featured a SINGLE ROLL of 2d6 that would either result in "victory or death." #2 would actually be a literal (if radical!) interpretation of the statements and I think unlikely (as it's unclear how that would lead to the development of hit points, nor be used in conjunction with armor class, which DA reports to have adapted to his game from an earlier naval warfare game system he designed).

However, if I use interpretation #1, then I have to ask: WHY did you insist on using the SAME SYSTEM for both players and monsters? Dave writes "Killing critters in one blow was fine;" okay, so why change that? Because it wouldn't be fair to the monsters that they can be one-shotted when players can't be? What do the monsters care?!

See, to me, this is a major design over-sight. Sorry, Dave, it is. And the rest of us (those who have played any of the upteen iterations of D&D post-Blackmoor) have been paying for it ever since. There's no law that says the combat rules have to go the same both ways (the rules for monsters aren't the same as for players anyway...I mean, they don't get experience and advance in level for killing adventurers do they?). I've already worked out a way to reconcile this is my own D&D Mine (about three-four weeks ago), but to do so I had to go back to the Chainmail method of combat using D6s and kick the D20 to the curb...something that will no doubt cause people to say, "your game does NOT resemble D&D." To which I'll reply: it resembles the EARLIEST version of D&D before the "alternative combat tables" became standard.

- *ahem* Moving on...according to DA, the goal of his game was the acquisition of treasure. Not saving the world or killing monsters (in order to acquire XP and raise in level). Nope, the goal was to acquire wealth and "cool magic items." From this standpoint, the XP for treasure found continues to be the only sensible way of measuring an adventurer's proficiency. As it always has.

- And with regard to XP and leveling up, DA writes (towards the end of his preface), "Within the first month the players were getting quite attached to their characters. Then came the next big question...'Shouldn't we be getting better at killing stuff like our experienced troops on our Napoleonic campaign?' Okay, let's work something out." Wow, to all those who feel some sort of reward or advancement system needs to be inherent in the process of designing an RPG, even one that facilitates a gamist agenda (as D&D does), this little tidbit is a big "F-- you!" That the idea of experience points and levels were afterthoughts (and only brought up after a month of solid gameplay!) should be an eye-opener to folks who've simply come to expect "that kind of thing."

I mean, certainly counting points (experience or otherwise) and earning advancement (in levels or otherwise) are things that have great merits, design-wise. Putting them into the game was one of the smartest things that could have been done as far as keeping folks interested via constant struggle for achievement. There's a reason why so many RPGs contain reward mechanics! However, that struggle to achieve was NOT the original goal or intention behind Arneson's concept (see the bit about gold). According to DA's statements, the chronological order of development was:

#1) Objective/Goal Created: Acquire Wealth
#2) Players play, become attached to their characters
[note, #2 has nothing to do with achievement/status/power-gaming]
#3) Players ask if their characters should be getting better, more experienced
#4) Advancement mechanics implemented in response

That's fairly frigging mind-blowing to me, folks. In my game designs I almost always use some sort of level/experience advancement scheme and it occupies a helluva' lot o y attention: how XP is awarded, how much XP to level, rate of advancement, benefits of advancement, etc. In many ways, this is the CORE of most gamist RPGs: #1 What behavior is rewarded, and #2 How does that reward increase a character's in-game effectiveness.

But THAT wasn't the point of pre-D&D Blackmoor! It was never, "how does my peon become a 'roid-raging Conan somewhere down the line?" Conan doesn't "advance" in Howard's stories (Arneson's inspiration for Blackmoor)...Conan simply goes on adventures and kicks ass. Period!

All right, all right...that's enough for you folks to chew over for now (I know I'VE been chewing it over the last couple days). We'll do some more "deconstruction" in the next few posts.
: )


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. EDIT: part of the comment disappeared for some reason. Reposted.

    Very interesting. But I would object to your statement that --Conan doesn't "advance" in Howard's stories-- It seems clear to me from the descriptions in the tales that he becomes wiser, more skilled, more proficient in general; for example, acquiring notable linguistic skills, or learning to cast spells. Now, you might say that you don't need an XP system to handle this "progression" but even on logical and realistic grounds, you can't assume that someone doesn't change in the course of life. The Conan in "Tower of the Elephant" is a completely different person than the Conan in "Hour of the Dragon." Whether you can model this in-game (and how) is another matter entirely.

  3. I remember Gygax commenting on how he didn't like critical hits because monsters would have to be able to do them and most of the critical hits would en up being against the PCs (a criticism I've been hearing for years since). I find this odd since AD&D is full of NPC whose class combinations and ability scores are simply impossible with the rules the PCs have to follow. So apparently PCs and NPCs don't have the same rules its just the PCs are the ones getting screwed.

  4. THERE IS SOMETHING IN THE LAKE!!! Cause dang, we really are drinking the same water. Same exact thoughts just implemented is a way different way. I have been doing the deconstruct to reconstruct thing for a bit also... I have been in a no-love/hate relationship with levels and advancement for some time. Monster rules vs player rules for attacking is not new to me but I have never considered the idea of complete and separate mechanics for the two... Cardinal, Fixed and Mutable seem to correspond to Gladwells ideas of Maven, Connector, and Salesman.

  5. @ Antonio: I've written before (on this blog and elsewhere) about the difference between character development and "leveling up." I agree that there is development in the Conan character; however, Howard's stories were not told in chronological order, so a mature Conan in one story might be followed by a younger, immature Conan...NOT the D&D model at all (nor indeed, the usual RPG model!).

    (oh, and I received your first post, too...I don't know why blogger eats comments sometimes)

    @ Hedge: Exactly my point on all counts.

    @ Steamtunnel: Not familiar with Gladwell, but I believe there may be similar psychological archetypes in Jungian psychology (that's a wild stab, though...I know Jung borrowed quite a bit of theory from astrology and esoteric study).

  6. Well the "out of order" thing was more a literary artifact. Howardian scholarship resorts to sorting the Conan tales in chronological order as much as is possible to have a better idea of character and setting development. The information is there, it's just a matter of presentation. I don't think why one should be forced to follow a non-chronological order (besides, at least one game I know of allows this: Sorcerer with the Sorcerer & Sword supplement.)

    Obviously development need not be tied to levels, but IMO levels can be used to abstract the whole process.

  7. Enjoyed this very much. Thank you. Some of my own thoughts in here, along with some crunchy tidbits for me to consider at my leisure. A nice trail mix, overall. As a big fan of DA and Blackmoor (over EGG and Greyhawk - no disrespect intended), I was naturally drawn to this entry and was not disappointed. Thanks again.