Thursday, July 23, 2009

Tilting at Windmills

Here’s the thing…I realize some folks are going to think my efforts are patently ridiculous, and even many who do not think that will still wonder, “why even bother working on a B/X Companion? Moldvay and Cook did a great job, but so did Frank Mentzer (who incidentally is also listed in the credits for the original B/X books, so it’s not like was some shmuck hired off the street to do BECMI)." Why the hell bother?

After all, Gygax, Arneson, and Moldvay are all dead now anyway…and some might argue that D&D itself is dead, at least it’s original spirit. Who the hell am I trying to impress anyway?

Ron Edwards once wrote that most every RPG designer probably has one “fantasy heartbreaker” in him…an idea of how to re-do Dungeons and Dragons, but fix those quirks or flaws that we don’t like. The term fantasy heartbreaker references the fact that though you may get so far as to actually PUBLISH your game, few if any people are ever going to actually play it; not only are you competing with the name recognition of the original, you’re simply stacking yourself against a half dozen already existing editions of the Big Name Recognized RPG. That’s the heartbreak part…all that love and attention and effort (not to mention time and money) for a game system that MAYBE you’ll play with your own regular game group.

Meanwhile, everyone else will be marching to the beat of 4E or Paizo or AD&D or AD&D2 or BECMI or B/X or OD&D or any of their respective retro-clones.

(Heh…I just realized that Pathfinder is pretty much a retro-clone…ha!)

So is the B/X Companion my fantasy heartbreaker? I hope not…while I buy Ron’s idea, I was never interested in creating a fantasy RPG; there are already plenty out there that do exactly the things I want. Plus I think the early editions of D&D (pre-AD&D2) are plenty serviceable for most any “gritty, gamist, fantasy” I wanted to do (Ars Magica, Dying Earth, and Sorcerer and Sword meeting my other needs of highbrow fantasy). I mean, WFRP and TROS are plenty “down and dirty” but, now that I’ve got a better handle on just what D&D’s combat system models, I’m much more enamored of the original.

So no, while my B/X Companion might “break my heart,” it’s not going to be a complete game system, simply a set of supplemental rules.

Is it MY retro-clone version of the Mentzer Companion-Master rules? Mmmm…not really. It may borrow some things from them, but it is not re-treading the same water. Most of the monsters are getting thrown out and many of the spells; most of the magic items (at least the way they’re presented) and the BECMI restructuring of the classes will all be going away. Likewise, at this point I’m not planning on any weapon mastery or siege weapons, the dominion rules need an over-haul, and I fully intend to leave almost all of the planar travel stuff out.

Yeah…a real re-tooling in other words.

Look, here’s the point. Retro-clones are great and all for games that are out-of-print, but the supplement I’m building has never existed…let alone been out-of-print.

Of course, there HAVE been issuing of games and supplements that address high level play in D&D…the CMI part of BECMI, the Epic Handbook for 3.0…heck even Labyrinth Lord does B/X “up to 20+.” Well?!

But I don’t like ‘em.

I mean that must be the reason I’m doing it, right? ‘Cause if I was satisfied I’d leave well enough alone? So I guess this IS a fantasy heartbreaker of sorts, but instead of re-writing the game system, I’m only re-writing the supplement, huh?

Yeah…so it would appear.

I wasn’t around (at least, not as an adult) in 1981. I didn’t work for TSR and I was never privy to their R&D department conversation. For all I know, Mentzer’s version may be the one originally intended; he did work on B/X after all. Or it might have been worse…a simple bump up in levels and a “just go play AD&D” set of transition rules. Personally, I give a lot of respect to Gygax, but I’m not wearing blinders…he certainly may have upped the complexity of existing rules systems (as he did to AD&D) rather than building on the ones already laid out.

See, that’s kind of my goal, though I’m not sure the “old masters” would approve. I’ve played in “high level” games before and I know what they’re like. I don’t know how many folks playing the game can say that, so often I hear “oh D&D is only cool at low and mid levels.” Really? ‘Cause for me, HIGH level play is where it’s at.

Oh, I’ll play low level games and enjoy them if they’re well done…but how many different ways can you flay and fry a goblin? I mean, really…bugbears? Let’s see a purple worm or a death knight or how about a friggin’ dragon? Did any of you low-level, old school folks ever fight a red dragon? I mean, they’re kind of the signature monster of the game.

But of course, there’s more to the game than fighting monsters (sorry 4E) and there’s more to high level play than fighting BIG monsters. Or fighting BIG monsters on OTHER PLANES (sorry Frank). Yes, there is treasure at every level…but how many +3 swords do you need?

And in B/X D&D, you’re NOT going to be fighting that big of a monster anyway. Unless I want to start adding +5 whatitz to the magic-item list (and I’m not sure I’m going to), the best armor class a PC can have is about -8. That’s plate and shield +3, 18 dex and a ring of protection. You know, around the same maximum AC you see on Old School monsters.

The maximum hit points a PC can have in B/X is 153 (36th level fighter with max hit point rolls and an 18 Constitution); average hit points for a fighter the same level with a 13 Con would be 103; these are equal to a HD 34 or HD 23 monster, respectively. That’s chump change…an Expert set Dragon Turtle has 30 HD. Their steam breath would wipe out pretty much any “average 36th level character” that failed its saving throw.

You know what? You don’t need to keep upping the power level to “challenge” high level PCs. All you’ve got to do is cap ‘em and then the monster design doesn’t become an arms race of bigger, badder monsters. A little bigger, a little badder…and that’s about it. It’s not like they don’t still die when they fail a save versus poison.

A supplement for high level play is NOT JUST “dungeons in space” or something. It is exploration on the epic scale. Taking a couple pack mules and a few stout souls into “the Depths of the Earth” (module D1), following a half-assed map, looking for a thriving city of evil, underground folk? Challenging a deity (module Q1)?! Now THAT’s epic!

But again, that’s just the dungeon delve part. At low-levels, adventure finds you. At high levels YOU GO LOOKING FOR TROUBLE. That’s right…YOU are friggin’ Beowulf, and you start doing stuff like stripping off your armor to see if you can give the beatdown to Grendel bare-handed. Would this work in a 4E game? Not on your life…but in B/X, Grendle probably hits AC 2 the same as AC 9 so who cares?

What about court intrigue? Excalibur’s King Arthur is worried about maintaining his kindom’s morale, he’s worried about his missing Merlin, he’s worried about his buddy riding off with his wife, he’s worried about Mordred leading the Saxons to his door. What’s he going to do about it? Who knows! But that’s high level play.

How many of YOUR characters were worried about barbarians on his kindom’s doorstep? How many were caught in love triangles with other PCs? How many had their illegitimate child coming after him with an arrow of slaying? My old campaign had all that and more for our high level characters.

These were not "railroaded" plots put in place by DMs. These were not “spiritual objectives” or “kickers” taken by players. These were naturally evolving things that occurred in high level play.

Once you’re done with the dungeon, once you’ve explored the wilderness, what’s left for you? Nothing? You just start over again because “D&D plays best at low levels?” Might as well play another game; how many different ways can you flay a goblin, after all?

Maybe folks just don’t have the rules to PLAY high level games.

Anyway, that’s kind of the reason I’m doing it…and kind of as a tribute to the “old masters” that created the game in the first place…and kind of because I just love B/X and want to do something cool for IT…and kind of because (I’m hoping) I can.

Just in case you folks were wondering.


  1. Absoulutley, I want to build castles, hosts tourneys, and raid my neighbors. All the while I look after my own little domain. Sounds like you are on the right track to me!

  2. Sound Ideas. This definitely fits in with my conception of what high-level play can be about.

    Also, with my theory that all along the secret endgame at the heart of D&D is that the high level character becomes the paranoid overlord of his own dungeon, kitting it out with traps and filling it with monsters he's subdued and conquered.

  3. I'm interested in seeing "the secret endgame at the heart of D&D" made explicit! Although I'm not sure we need high level spells and more magic items to do it. I'm starting to think that maybe we'd need an Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, Part II instead.

  4. Just a nitpick: Your definition of the Heartbreaker is skewed.

    In the original definition of Ron Edwards the heartbreaking part is that the designer, in his attempt to "fix" D&D, still has so many D&Disms that the one really cool addition he made to the game (the fix itself) can't shine, and that the game would have been so much better if the designer had thrown all those -isms overboard and designed his game around his cool new rule.

  5. @astropia:Oh, I know what RE finds as the “silver lining” to the fantasy heartbreakers. It just didn’t seem pertinent to my post. I was just analyzing if my own project has “heartbreaker” aspects to it (emphasis on the HEARTBREAK not the silver lining); I wasn’t trying to disparage other FHs out there.

    But perhaps you are implying that my “heartbreaker of a supplement” may have a game mechanic or two that I should build a whole game around? ‘Cause I don’t really think it does…at least not at this point.

    @ the rest of y’all…I’ve got a post coming down the pike for you. “Secret endgames” – sheesh!