Saturday, July 9, 2022

Jeffro's D&D

This is a post about the style of play being promulgated by the #BrOSR.

I first became aware of Jeffro Johnson and his particular method of D&D play about a year ago (circa July 2021).  Read through his blog, picked up his Appendix N book, had a little friendly back-and-forth with fellow BrO BDubs (on his blog). Meant to write a post or two about the whole thing MONTHS ago, but, well, time got away from me.

But then a couple days ago, I had the chance to watch Aaron the Pedantic's video interview of Jeffro and James Streissand and I found that I had a few thoughts to share, regarding this...rather interesting...version of old school D&D play.
  • RE Appendix N and retracing roots: I haven't finished Jeffro's book (it sits on my nightstand along with several others), but I've read large sections of it and skimmed others. In addition to providing general overviews of the Appendix N books I haven't read, there are some good insights into certain books impact on the D&D game. There are also (at times) some minor diatribes and obnoxiousness that I find grating, and some "points" that I find a bit wide of the mark. Still, just as I find the main value of the DMG to be in its insight into Gygax's mind (that is, his approach to the game...which one may or may not disagree with), I think going back and reviewing this literature can give one an understanding of how that mind (and, thus, the game) was formed. It's a starting point from which to evolve and build.
[hmm...I'm probably not explaining that right, and will receive a lot of complaints from all sides. However, that's not the point of this post. I guess I'd just say: I find it useful to understand the origins of things in order to contextualize certain ideas, even if those ideas were larger (and later) influenced more by the context of how they functioned as a matter of play. Understanding that context can determine how imperative or intrinsic they are to the overall concept/paradigm. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that these things are sacrosanct...and this point also applies to the next bullet]
  • RE the Value of playing AD&D RAW: I have almost zero quibbles with Jeffro's reasons for playing AD&D "by the book." I think the points he makes regarding this (in his interview with Aaron) are pretty spot-on. As I wrote myself (a couple weeks back): the more I play, the more I simply default to the book instruction. Even his explanations of why to use, for example, player grading with regard to training time makes sense: it encourages a particular style/method of play. THAT being said: I'll reiterate that I find SOME of these rules to be A) crutches that are unneeded when proper world building is applied, and B) detrimental to player autonomy that (again) are unnecessary in a richly developed world. Factional play based on alignment, for example, is a limiting and rather elementary approach to determining motivation. It's possible to have a deeper world than that (especially given an adult mindset). I think some of these things, played long enough, can naturally melt away. Still, similar to having an understanding of Appendix N, it's good to have an understanding of the original rules (hopefully based on actual play) BEFORE discarding/replacing them.
  • RE running your campaign with 1:1 time keeping ("JeffroGaxian Time Keeping"): First, I'll state the obvious: it is clear that Jeffro is running a wonderfully fun, kick-ass campaign that players are enjoying. He's excited, they're excited, everyone's feeling happy and fulfilled. That's wonderful...keep on keeping on, Bros. Now the less obvious: I think Jeffro is pretty clearly incorrect to state this is the fashion D&D is intended to be played in, or was played in during the 70s. He's made some gross misinterpretations of the AD&D text (and other, early wargaming sources) which are easily cleared up by checking them against the original text of OD&D (from which the bulk of AD&D rules are derived). The section on TIME is the last main portion of LBB3 (before the Afterword, pages 35&36) and states:
As the campaign goes into full swing it is probable that there will be various groups going every which way and all at different time periods. It is suggested that a record of each player be kept, the referee checking off each week as it is spent. Reconcile the passage of time thus:

Dungeon expedition = 1 week
Wilderness adventure = 1 move = 1 day
1 week of actual time = 1 week of game time

The time for dungeon adventures considers only preparations and a typical, one day descent into the pits.

The time for Wilderness expeditions would include days of rest and recuperation.

Actual time would not be counted off for players "out" on a Wilderness adventure, but it would for those sequestered in their dens, hidey-holes, keeps, castles, etc., as well as for those in the throes of some expedition in the underworld.

TIME in the D&D (and AD&D) game is, as has been pointed out by those from The Old Days is meant to be elastic.   When Frank Mentzer states he was in "training jail" for a couple weeks and had to play a different character in Gygax's campaign, I wouldn't see that as a literal need to wait two (real world) weeks for playing a particular character; rather, that's two (or three or four) game weeks that need to be waited out...weeks that could be passed in a hand wave of time during, for example, travel from one town to the next. To the player, of course, it would still seem like a penalty...if the rest of the group was getting to delve some dungeon during the time (in game weeks) that the character was out doing "down-time" activity. But the impetus here is on keeping careful records of character action within the campaign (in order to order/structure where folks are and account for any anomalies/ those outlined in the DMG). 
Using 1:1 time in ALL matters, makes the careful tracking of time UN-necessary; "Let's see it's July 8th and it you want to rest for two weeks and then train for three? Okay, we'll see that PC again on August 11th." Certainly that's easier than tracking individuals by day (as I interpret the DMG outlining as the correct procedure), and especially easier if your campaign has a large number of characters. But that's what we did back in the day, taking the HARDER road...and without the advantage of computer spreadsheets. It's what I still do (albeit with spreadsheets)...but fortunately the number of characters in our campaign is small (six at the moment) and they're still in the EARLY stages of their careers (thus adventuring together).
With regard to the "best to use 1 actual day = 1 game day when no play is happening" quote on DMG page 37, I've always interpreted "no play" as nothing going on: PCs aren't on adventures, they're not traveling, they're not doing anything "game related" (like training, spell research, hiring experts, etc.). The party's out of the dungeon, back at the village tavern, and our group doesn't meet/play for a couple weeks or a month...okay, then, a couple weeks (or a month) have passed in the campaign. But time spent on game stuff is game time and game time is elastic. Without elastic time, I would argue that Jeffro & Co. is neglecting a LARGE part of the AD&D game, namely the deeper delves that are possible (expeditions into the Underdark, massive castle/tomb structures, journeys to other planes of existence...or other planets/dimensions). I'm not saying what they're doing ain't fun...I'm just saying there's more fun to be had.

  • RE "Patron Play" (giving PCs high level NPCs to run):  When I started reading about Jeffro's experiments with (what he calls) "Patron Play," I didn't really grok what he was doing or how. After hearing him discuss it on the aforementioned video, I now have a better grasp of what he's talking about: basically, he's shortcutting what would be a normal part of the long-term (organically grown) AD&D campaign. On page 7 of the PHB, Gygax writes:

Players will add characters to their initial adventurer as the milieu expands so that each might actually have several characters, each involved in some separate and distinct adventure form, busily engaged in the game at the same moment of "Game Time". This allows participation by many players in games that are substantially different from game to game as dungeon, metropolitan, and outdoor settings are rotated from playing to playing. And perhaps a war between players will be going on (with battles actually fought out on the tabletop with miniature figures) one night, while on the next, characters of these two contending players are helping each other to survive somewhere in a wilderness.

What occurs organically in play...and what I experienced in the multi-year campaigns of my that player characters that achieve great success (i.e. achieve high level, build strongholds, acquire followers) become the faction leaders and 'patrons' of the campaign setting. This does not mean they are retired from play...far from it! Generally they become the movers-and-shakers, hatching their own plots, pursuing their own schemes/goals, raising their own armies of conquests...and, at the same time, starting new, young characters who would be adventuring in small delves, or acting as agents of these powerful scions of the realm. Most players in our old campaign had multiple characters: Jocelyn had half-a-dozen, Matt had five, Scott had (at least) five. One or two PCs of each player were powerful figures with all the trappings and ambitions of such...the rest were minor characters, started because someone wanted to play a Drow or illusionist or whatever. Minor players (i.e. players who didn't play regularly, like Crystal, Jason, and Rob) would only have one character, but some of these were still high enough level to be factions of their own (like Jason's thief guildmaster) or had dedicated henchmen (like Crystal's fighter, Tangina). 

While the presence of these power brokers didn't preclude "normal" adventuring (my co-DM and I still ran modules, including Tsojcanth, Ravenloft, and the Demonweb Pits), much of the campaign action was driven by these high level characters, their agendas and their rivalries. My own character...a high level bard with no stronghold...often acted a wandering monkey wrench / force of destruction (something like Elric in the Young Kingdoms, perhaps...but with more dying and resurrection)...and there were many times when some characters would stumble across the evidence of another (player) character's passing army or the remains of a crucified rival, or one group would plan to assassinate another character at his wedding. Things were happening all the time, at multiple levels/layers, all while being (semi-)coordinated between two teen Dungeon Masters. It IS a fun way to play...but it is also prone to a lot of inter-player conflict and PVP issues which, at this particular time (and for many reasons), I'm disinclined to allow in my campaign. 

Then again, my players haven't yet reached the "mover/shaker" levels of experience...that critical mass of self-sustaining campaigning, that I was trying to explain the other day. Jeffro doesn't have this issue: instead, he's distributed high level non-player characters of his setting amongst his players. Which way to get to the same place. I don't mind this approach (terribly), but right now I'm trying to train up young players in the art of AD&D. Different level ranges have different "feels" to them: a 5th level character doesn't sweat the same encounter as a 1st level character, and a 10th level character looks at 5th level challenge much the same.  Likewise, the goals and objectives of play change at the various tiers of play: a first level character isn't going to get as much out of the knocking over the Sultan's treasure vault, while such a score is EXACTLY what a 9th level fighter could use to fund her army and add a curtain wall to her stronghold. 12th level magic-users aren't (usually) going to find coveted 6th level spell scrolls lying around hobgoblin lairs.

Dungeons & Dragons absolutely works...and rocks!...on multiple levels of play simultaneously, just as Jeffro describes.  And it is a style of play that probably seems very foreign and alien sounding to folks who grew up with D&D post-DragonLance era (with a story centered on one small group of heroes), or the computer RPG era (limited by its medium to a single party), or post-WotC era D&D (where each "campaign" represents a single story arc to be played out prior to players creating new characters for the "next campaign"). My own D&D play started years prior to those eras and, over time, evolved into something very much like what Jeffro (or Arneson, in The First Fantasy Campaign) describes. However, done "organically" (i.e. without just handing our various NPC faction leaders as "patrons"), this evolution takes years of sustained, committed play to develop. Maybe that sounds like a long time...but remember that D&D is a game that can last your whole life; it's okay to put in the time to do it. In fact, I personally believe it makes for a richer campaign, as the participants have a greater depth of care and commitment to something they've grown and developed themselves.

All right, that's all my thoughts on what Jeffro and the BrOSR is doing as far as their game goes. As far as some of their other stuff (cultivating a particular brand of hostility), I won't say much more than I think it's detrimental...both to the hobby and to what they're trying to promote. But...well, that's all I'll say.

I am now officially back from vacation (pulled into the driveway last night). It was very enjoyable and restful, but I'm glad to be home.

: )


  1. I'm at 1:40.00 in and this is about the 10th time that these guys have started a sentence with, "Nobody in the last 40 years has done [blank]."

    Which is somewhat frustrating, because it forces me to keep raising my hand. Again and again.

    You're right, JB, about Gygax's perception of time. These fellows have found a system of time that works for them, but it's a gimmick. They keep ascribing their success to their time sequence, which is something like arguing that my burping keeps elephants from knocking on my door. But ... hey, if it works, fine. But it's definitely not "gygaxian," as you said above.

    I'm going to write a number of posts on this podcast.

  2. "cultivating a particular brand of hostility"...

    The meta is the point.

    1. Is it? I thought the point was evangelizing a particular style of play.

      For what it’s worth, Venge, I find your shtick far less hostile.

  3. I also contemplated a campaign premise, where the players start with a 10+ level semi-retired adventurer and a pair of lower level (1st and 4th maybe?) children continuing the family tradition. But as you said, nothing compares to organicly creating these high level patrons through play. Like: would a player relatively new to D&D have the slightest clue what a high level character is capable of? Especially the casters?

    1. Hmm. Your questions seem more rhetorical than inquisitive by I want to answer them anyway:

      Yes. And yes.

      With old edition D&D (anything pre-1988) the major game mechanics are pretty simple to explain. If you can explain to a new player how to run a 1st level character (of any class), you can CERTAINLY hand them a pre-gen 10th or 12th or 18th level character (even a magic-user) and be able to explain the thing. More hit points, more spells, better AC and saves...but it's all the same.

      [it was, I believe, 5th grade when I handed my buddy, Scott, an 18th level magic-user named "Ringlerun," created using my new PHB which featured said character on the cover. He played this character for a good long time, before starting over with a 1st level character]

      What the new player lacks is EXPERIENCE with the nuances of game the systems interact with each other. Strategy, tactics, depth of understanding game concepts...THOSE things come with time spent playing the game.

      ALSO: there's something to be said for building one's own character up from low level to high. Not only a sense of accomplishment and confidence, but a depth of commitment (and the other players, too, feel a responsibility for these 'long-time friends' that such characters become).

      RE: children of past generations (as PCs)

      I've had a campaign where all the characters were children of the prior campaign's PCs and major NPCs. It works marvelously, but MAINLY (I think) because of the shared legacy that exists in the minds of the players...the old characters were "legends of yesteryear" and the "kids" have a lot to live up to.
      ; )

  4. First off i totally agree with all your points.

    You know I never considered tracking pcs locations/time on a spreadsheet, I already track all the pcs on a spreadsheet anyway. Something I'll have to start doing.

    Thanks for making me feel like an idiot.

    1. Ha! Sometimes I feel like an idiot *because* I track most things on a spreadsheet (am I incapable of operating without a laptop?).

      However, I *prefer* to NOT have my computer open while playing. During actual adventures proper (i.e. in a dungeon) I track most stuff...including damage taken/inflicted, spot encumbrance, and turn tracking...on a piece of scratch paper. When a session ends, I transfer the pertinent data to Ye Old Computer. I want to have as few barriers between myself and the players as possible, and an open laptop is just another "GM Screen."