I ended up talking about Westerns with some buddies of mine the other day. More specifically, we spent a great deal of time talking about Jack Schaefer's classic novel Shane, and the 1953 film of the same name.
If you've never read it or seen it, I highly encourage you to do so. It's a story that deals with themes of courage, manhood, the morality of killing, and the struggle against an untamed wilderness.
It's not just a classic tale of the American West. It's arguably the classic tale of the American West.
In fact, scholar and critic Will Wright made that same point in his landmark survey of the Western film, Six Guns and Society. Wright argued there were four basic plots to the Western: the Classical Plot, the Revenge Plot, the Transitional Plot, and the Professional Plot, each one differentiated by how "society" (usually represented by the frontier town) deals with the presence of the gunfighter.
And while he admits that Shane isn't the first story to use the Classical Plot, he convincingly argues that it's the definitive example of one. Simply put, Shane is nearly the Platonic ideal of everything the Classical Western should be.
Which is why it should definitely go on your viewing/reading list if you're planning a Dungeons and Dragons game.
Yes, I'm serious. Fact is, Westerns make up a big part of the missing DNA of D&D, at least the way most people play it today.
And sure, plenty of folks fancy themselves "Old School" players. Maybe they've even read a good chunk of Gary Gygax's Appendix N for inspiration. They can quote Vance's The Dying Earth chapter and verse. They've ripped off Leiber's Nehwon as a ready-made campaign world. They've even turned the people and places from Leigh Brackett's Mars stories into weird, exotic locales.
That's fine. But they should be probably be turning to Leigh Brackett's Rio Bravo, instead.
The missing bit of DNA I'm talking about is the Domain Game, the higher-level game where player characters clear a chunk of wilderness, build a fortress or tower, and set about running a a safe-haven against the forces of Chaos running rampant in the world.
Rules for that state of play were clearly baked into the oldest editions of D&D, with the ability to build castles and attract followers being treated as a level perk for 9th level and above in AD&D. OD&D didn't even have a rule stating the characters needed to be a certain level to begin. All they needed was a pile of gold, a plan, and ambition.
Of course, this state of play heavily implies a world with vast sections of untamed wilderness in need of settling, with all the attendant problems that creates: steady supplies, a struggle against nature, and keeping law & order against the violent hooligans.
In other words, it's implying a setting with the exact same problems, factions, and conflicts you'd find in any story set in the American West.
This is no accident.
Even a casual glance at Appendix N—or at the recommended reading lists in B/X and OD&D—reveals a heavy presence of Golden Age writers inspired by the Great Westward Expansion. That whole setting and era was very much a part of our American Myth at the time, and it was only natural to see parts of that Myth play out on the sands of Barsoom or the primeval forests of the Hyborean Age.
Of course, most modern players don't take their inspiration from American pulp writers like Burroughs and Howard. They follow the school of fantasy descended from Tolkien: extensive world-building, in minute detail, with plenty of lore about the cultures, races, and regions found on the map.
What they're missing is that in its earliest incarnations, D&D was a game about filling in that map. It was about adventurers exploring a hostile land, looking for gold, and eventually carving out a tiny slice of civilization there.
That's a Western, folks. No matter how many Tharks, Picts, or Orcs you try to cover it with.
If you want to create a truly unforgettable game for your players, don't bother trying to create a vibrant, overstuffed campaign world for them to explore. Give them an empty map on the edge of the world, a hostile wilderness full of ancient ruins and unimaginable treasures... but only for the daring.
Give them the opportunity to expand it.
And if you have no idea how you'd even run a game like that, I suggest you put down the SFF reading for a couple of weeks. Sit in for a movie-marathon of classic Westerns. Grab a stack of pulp Western paperbacks while you're at it.
Either way, I'd suggest starting with Shane.
One of my old martial arts instructors—a man specializing in knife fighting—used to have what he called the "5-Minute Knife Fighting Lesson."
It's a useful thought experiment, but one that needs a little explaining.
Basically, the instructor took an imaginary student. The imaginary student had no prior knowledge of martial arts, no fighting experience, and a minimal amount of athletic ability. In this scenario, the student approaches the instructor in a panic, saying he has to be in a knife fight in 5 minutes. He can't avoid it.
What does the instructor teach him? What tool does he give the student in 5 minutes that gives him the best chance to succeed?
He settled on a simple defensive move, one that forced the enemy to come to the student. He showed the student how to stand, how to hold the knife, and how to retreat. "Just cut anything that comes in reach, and keep cutting."
That instructor's thought experiment is something I've circled back to more than once over the years. It's an incredibly useful way to identify crucial parts of a complex system, and put them at the forefront in a practical way.
Not to say that the entire system needs to be thrown out. You can—and often should—still practice the larger and more complex system. Especially when it comes to something as deadly serious as martial arts. But it does give you a good idea of which principles are most important, and which things you should be focusing on as you hone and perfect the larger system.
Anyway, I'm rambling a bit, and I still want to tie this point to the subject of today's post:
A discussion thread popped up in my Twitter feed yesterday. In it, the self-styled "Evil High Priestess" of the OSR cavegirl talked about how Alignment-as-written is is poorly fleshed out, usually leads to bad experiences, and most DMs cut it entirely.
You can read her entire thread by following this link. You can also just read the following screen caps of my buddy Cirsova's posts. They copy cavegirl's posts word-for-word, but they add photos of oiled-up bodybuilders and vintage Charles Atlas ads to the bottom of each one:
Admittedly, the Cirsova posts are a bit of a piss-take. Mostly because our mutual buddy Meffrius—who was unfairly dog-piled not too long ago over his "#EliteLevel powergaming" schitck—said the same thing about Alignments as cosmic factions months ago.
Incidentally, you should follow Meffridus on Twitter. You should also buy Cirsova.
But I digress.
Cavegirl is right, of course. Alignment should be a form of cosmic faction play. In fact, with Gary Gygax's inclusion of Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions and Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion books on Appendix N, it's difficult to see how it was ever intended otherwise.
Anderson, in particular, gives a fantastic "5-Minute Knife Fight" version of Alignment-as-cosmic faction play. The following excerpt comes from Chapter 3 of Three Hearts Three Lions.
But the fact is, not many of the responses below cavegirl's post indicate people are familiar with the reading material. As John McGlynn, co-host of Geek Gab points out, the concept of Alignment-as-personality-test is at least as old as Moldovay, making the Appendix N interpretation the exception rather than the rule.
Which honestly has me thinking. Not too many people have read Appendix N as deeply as Jeffro Johnson or Joseph Goodman. I'm a dabbler compared to those two, and there are plenty in the OSR scene who have read much deeper than me.
But I'd assumed more—if not most—people in the OSR were at least passingly familiar with the more famous works on Appendix N. At least the ones responsible for the quirkiest bits of D&D's ruleset.
For a long while, I'd been thinking about what I'd put on an "Abridged Appendix N," the three or four books I'd hand someone who wanted to give their D&D game an entirely different feel than the standard "D&D brand" setting and flavor. I'm still mulling that one over, because I think it will skew heavily to science fantasy.
But I think after reading cavegirl's post, I have what I'd call my "5-Minute Knife Fight" version of Appendix N: pre-supposing a brand new player—one who has no prior knowledge or experience of D&D, fantasy, or roleplaying games—what three books would I give him to teach him about D&D's underlying concepts to help him understand and run a game quickly?
Again, this is by no means exhaustive. I'd still urge people who are interested in D&D to read the other authors on Appendix N, or the other works by these authors. Lovecraft and Howard spring readily to mind, as to Burroughs and Brackett. Plus there's the rest of Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, the rest of Vance's work, and the rest of Anderson's.
Any or all of them would be worth reading on their own merits, and any of them would undoubtedly enrich and inspire your game. So would countless other fantasy writers.
But in terms of my old instructor's "5 Minute Knife Fight" concept, those three titles are probably the three most crucial books on Appendix N. Those books are the "standing, holding the knife, and retreating," of the world implied by D&D's basic ruleset.
Read those three books, and you have a basic grasp on Vancian Magic, Alignment, Thieves' Guilds, how humans and Demi-humans do (or don't) get along, magic items and artifacts, certain monsters, how to run a series of connected adventures (via Anderson and Leiber's examples), the politics of a big city, wilderness and sea travel, and some example ruins/NPCs you can liberally steal from.
As an added bonus, most modern fantasy fans haven't read them, so they'll think you're being original.
It's also important to note that each of these books clocks in at around a hundred fifty pages or so. All together, they equal approximately one Harry Potter book. I'm a naturally slow reader. But I'd guess most people can probably read all three in about a week and a half of their spare time.
Add to that the time needed to figure out the chosen ruleset—not long, if you picked a 0e or B/X retro clone—and you're probably looking at about two weeks from complete novice to Dungeon Master.
So, there you have it. D&D's very own "5-Minute Knife Fighting Lesson."
Take it, build a foundation, and keep the crucial parts in mind as you hone and perfect your game.
Last week, I talked a little about the corporate same-y-ness that overtook later editions of D&D, and how it differed from the kitchen sink, anything goes weirdness of 1st Edition AD&D.
That post was written largely in response to a recent episode of Geek Gab, in which guests P. Alexander and Jeffro Johnson discuss some of the stranger, more overlooked aspects of the game. Once again, I recommend checking it out. The discussion is fascinating, lively, and in-depth.
One of the meatier subjects they breach is the idea that AD&D's implied setting is inherently post apocalyptic.
I had to spend a little time chewing that over, largely because I'm fairly new to the 1st Edition ruleset. I never had much exposure to it as a teen, aside from one group I played with after High School. Even then, it was just a handful of optional rules cribbed from Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures, bolted onto a 2nd Edition chassis.
In a nutshell, the argument is that—independent of campaign setting—the rules of AD&D imply the game takes place in the wake of some unspecified, civilization-ending cataclysm.
For what it's worth, classic sword and sorcery fiction tends to make this same assumption. Conan's Hyborian Age is perhaps the most famous, taking place thousands of years after "the oceans drank Atlantis." Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique tales are more properly classified as Dying Earth stories, but the effect is the same: the last vestiges of humanity cling to superstition and sorcery on the Earth's last remaining continent. Not to mention The Dying Earth itself, where technology and magic are both remnants of long dead empires, and are completely indistinguishable from one another.
Simply put, without the collapse of some ancient civilization (or several), the landscape wouldn't be littered with ruins for the characters to go dungeon-diving in. But that assumption can hardly be called unique to AD&D. Later editions still feature plenty of ruined temples, lost cities, and dungeon delves, even if they are significantly less lethal than the old school variety.
So what was unique to AD&D that made it inherently apocalyptic? What was missing from the later editions that pointed to a post-cataclysmic world?
According to Geek Gab host Daddy Warpig, the answer is domain level play.
For those of you weaned on newer editions, a quick definition: "Domain" was a word that had nothing to do with the Cleric class back in the day. Rather, it referred to the fact that at 9th level or so, characters would begin to attract loyal followers and build a base of operations.
Furthermore, these weren't just optional rules, buried in an Appendix of the Dungeon Master's Guide. These were class features, listed in the Player's Handbook under each character class' description.
At first glance, that might not seem too apocalyptic. But the rules for Territory Development by Player Characters (found on page 93 of the DMG) are written assuming a vast, sparsely-populated wilderness as the default setting. A wilderness controlled by monsters, and littered with the ruins of countless, long-dead civilizations.
According to these rules, characters building a fortress go through considerable time and expense, selecting a construction site, clearing the area, paying and staffing a garrison, and conducting regular patrols to sweep for monsters. Once construction is complete, these strongholds attract settlers looking for safety and security.
In Warpig's opinion, this doesn't just represent a post apocalyptic style of play. It represents a specific kind of post apocalyptic play. The AD&D apocalypse isn't Mad Max, Warpig says, with humanity dropping into savagery and barbarism. Rather, it's at the point where humanity is climbing out of savagery, retaking and reestablishing civilization in a monster-infested wilderness.
Interestingly enough, I made a nearly identical point a few weeks back in my review of Rutger Hauer's The Blood of Heroes. In fact, a new DM trying to figure out domain play could do much worse than to look at that movie as a blueprint. The sparsely populated desert wastelands. The clumps of agrarian survivors gathered in Dog Towns. The powerful, governing elite clustered in the Nine Cities, demanding tribute and loyalty. The Juggers traveling around, engaging in ritual combat, and scouting new recruits.
Add some roving monsters and some dungeon-diving, and you've got a pretty good representation of what the world looks like according to domain play rules.
Domain play was still around in 2nd Edition, though I vaguely remember the rules for it being a bit more generic and simplified. I can't speak for 3rd, 3.X, or 4th Editions, having never played them. But in 5th Edition, it's entirely gone. Which means in terms of game mechanics, a 9th level character doesn't have any more responsibilities to his community than a 1st level one.
In that sense, it's easy to see Warpig's point. 5th Edition doesn't presume the characters need to establish safe areas, because it assumes there are already enough safe areas. Whatever near-extinction event caused all those ruins the PCs are exploring, 5th Edition's rules imply it's far enough in the past that humanity's overall survival is no longer in question.
But the argument for an "apocalyptic AD&D" doesn't stop there. The Geek Gab folks also spend a good amount of time on Vancian magic.
I've written about the subject before, so I won't repeat myself here. Suffice to say, the Vancian Magic system might be the single strongest argument for an apocalyptic D&D setting. But not in the sense of "fire and forget" spells.
In AD&D, the only way for a Magic-user to learn more spells is to find them, typically by recovering old scrolls or spell books from dungeons. Even then, there's a chance the character will completely fail to understand any spells they do manage to find.
In other words, AD&D Magic-users are a cargo cult, parroting scraps of mostly forgotten spells they barely comprehend, and risking life and limb in the ruins of lost civilizations to find more.
Granted, the "classic" Magic-user still exists in 5th Edition, as the Wizard class. But it exists alongside Warlocks and Sorcerers. And therein lies the difference.
Vancian Magic implies a lot about the setting, but only if it's used in isolation. If an accident of birth or a demon sugar-daddy can grant the same powers as those lost scraps of magic, how lost were they? How fantastical and rare are they now?
In the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, Gary Gygax spends several paragraphs stressing the the scarcity of magic spells, and how difficult it is for the Magic-user to obtain them. NPC spell casters should be reluctant to divulge their secrets, demanding exorbitant fees, rare magic items, and quests in exchange. It's advice that makes sense, but only if magic is a forgotten art from a lost golden age.
And that's the thing.
That lost and forgotten nature was a base assumption about magic in 1st Edition. Taken along with domain play, the sparsely populated wilderness, and the sheer number of ruins players were expected to encounter, it's obvious the core rules had an apocalyptic setting in mind.
It's interesting reading through the AD&D rulebooks now. Like I mentioned last week, I don't have any personal nostalgia for this edition. So it's not like I'm viewing it though rose-colored glasses. Even so, it's hard not to come away with a feeling that something incredibly cool was lost in the transition to the slicker, more polished game I grew up on.
Thank God for reprints and second hand stores...
As I mentioned a few weeks back, I've been drafted to run a D&D game for a group of new players. We're getting close to running our zero session, probably by the end of this week. I have two players interested in elves, and a third that apparently likes to play healing classes whenever he plays MMO's. I'll lay out all the options and see if that changes come game day, but for now I'm going to run with the assumption that this will be the makeup of the party.
If so, it throws a small hiccup into my plan of using Lamentations of the Flame Princess as my base.
In LotFP, only Fighters get an increase to their attack bonus as they level up. I actually think this is one of James Raggi's more inspired decisions. It clearly blocks off combat as a the sole specialty of the Fighter, which then encourages the group to work together. After all, you're going to need at least one character to get better at hitting things as the game progresses. Otherwise, your band of adventurers is going to have a very short career.
That said, as much as I admire Raggi's design choice, I'm not about to force a first-time player into a class they don't want. But one of the wonderful things about OSR games is the ability to mix and match them until you arrive at just the right combination.
So, my options:
However I do it, I'm still planning to use the LotFP encumbrance system, as well as swapping out the Specialist class for the Thief. I also plan to keep the D6-based skill check system.
Anyway, I'm rambling a bit here. The main thrust of this post is about a weird feature of Old-school D&D, and just how I'm planning to introduce it to a bunch of new players.
That's right. I'm talking about Vancian Magic.
I'll admit, I absolutely hated Vancian magic back in the day. I could never wrap my head around the "fire and forget" nature of the spells. How could a character spend hours studying a spell each day, only to forget it once it was cast?
It never made sense to me, and when I ran my games I used a house-ruled "mana" system instead. Granted, now that I've actually read some Jack Vance, my opinion on the matter has changed. And as in so many things, context is everything.
Part of the problem is that none of the more experienced guys in my old D&D group ever ran magic as anything other than a character's superpower. In every campaign, spells were widely known. You got access to spells automatically at new levels (no studying or finding a mentor), and there were mid-to-high level mages operating public shops in every jerkwater little village. Before every adventure, we could buy magic items, potions, and scrolls to our heart's content. I distinctly recall abandoning +1 Magic Swords when we found them on certain adventures, because they weren't even worth the effort of bringing them back to town to sell.
Compare that to this passage from Vance's The Dying Earth:
"At one time a thousand or more runes, spells, incantations, curses, and sorceries had been known. The reach of Grand Motholam—Ascolais, the Ide of Kauchique, Almery to the South, the Land of the Falling Wall to the East—swarmed with sorcerers of every description, of whom the chief was the Arch-Necromancer Phandaal. A hundred spells Phandaal personally had formulated—though rumor said that demons whispered at his ear when he wrought magic. Ponticella the Pious, then ruler of Grand Motholam, put Phandaal to torment, and after a terrible night, he killed Phandaal and outlawed sorcery throughout the land. The wizards of Grand Motholam fled like beetles under strong light; the lore was dispersed and forgotten, until now, at this dim time, with the sun dark, wilderness obscuring Ascolais, and the white city Kaiin half in ruins, only a few more than a hundred spells remained to the knowledge of man. Of these, Mazirian had access to seventy-three, and gradually, by stratagem and negotiation, was securing the others.
"Mazirian made a selection from his books and with great effort, forced five spells upon his brain: Phandaal's Gyrator, Felojun's Second Hypnotic Spell, The Excellent Prismatic Spray, The Charm of Untiring Nourishment, and the Spell of the Omnipresent Sphere. This accomplished, Mazirian drank wine and retired to his couch."
In Vance's work, magic is mysterious, ancient, and virtually forgotten. Less than a tenth of the spells once known to humanity are left. Powerful wizards hoard them in hopes of getting one up on their rivals. Magic is the currency of power in this world, and great effort is spent to seek it out.
Furthermore, the spells themselves aren't passive. Mazirian has to force them into his brain. Once there, the syllables and symbols struggle to escape his consciousness. Casting a spell in these stories isn't so much a matter of reciting words as it is releasing a chaotic force, one the magician is just barely holding in check.
In this context, D&D's default "fire and forget" magic system makes sense. And while I can see why alternative spell systems are popular (like Sorcerers from the 3.X and later editions), there's a kind of pulpy weirdness to the Vancian method I really like.
As for introducing it to the players, I'm probably going to kill two birds with one stone here, once again taking some inspiration from Vance. I'm thinking about giving the party a mid-level Mage as their patron/employer. He'll pay them on a freelance basis for recovering bits of magic for him. He's looking for anything at all: half-torn scrolls, pages from spell books, items he can research. In his quest to re-discover lost spells, he's spent decades tracking down minuscule scraps of them to re-assemble like a jigsaw puzzle.
This also gives the PCs a specific reason to go dungeon delving, as well as reinforcing the overall mystery and rarity of magic. Plus it allows any magic-using PCs to have easy access to a mentor/teacher when it comes time to learn new spells.
Sure, the set up has the potential to be a little railroad-y. But also I think it can give the PC's a little bit of forward momentum, provided I let the adventures themselves evolve organically.
Hmm... I just might have to roll up a paranoid, power-hungry Wizard NPC along with the rest of the campaign splat.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.