torstai 9. tammikuuta 2020

If it has no in-game implications, it does not exist

A character defined solely by mechanical ability
will always remain that way. Pen a 1,000-page
backstory, and Mr. Groh is still little more than
“a third-level Fighter—now with a tie-in novel!
This post is a continuation from an earlier rant on backstories and their detachment from actual gaming. Assuming my ravings reached a sensible conclusion, it might be formulated as follows:

If it has no rules-related implications,
it does not exist.

This is, of course, a bit of a hyperbola –character name is an obvious exception to this “law”– and I do enjoy the loose approach taken by most old-school products. But even if a dungeon is “solved” without any die-rolling or spell-casting, the core frame of rules remains, presenting the basic ingredients of any true challenge: risk and reward. Not once in my life have I been in a legal trouble, but it would be foolish to claim the criminal law has not affected my decisions. Rules are just like that—their mere existence compels certain type of action, even if they are never actually enforced.

Story elements and character personality, then again, rarely have any rules-related implications. Alignment is an epitome of this. It is nothing but a single word of vague meaning, sometimes accompanied by a blurb of kitchen-sink psychology. Yet we are assured it is extremely important, and it is usually mentioned in the same sentence with genuinely important statistics such as character class and level of experience.

Save for the Alignment, the Dungeons & Dragons character creation is of extremely mechanical nature. The process generates plenty of numbers and technical jargon—story, not so much. Some versions of the game encourage backstories and character motivations, perhaps even containing guidelines for creating such. In the end, however, these are just a separate form of yarn-spinning. The backstory does not communicate with those numbers on the paper. It is the RPG equivalent of a video game manual explaining how you got marooned on a hostile planet, alone but with a backpack full of shotgun shells.

Many OSR enthusiasts enjoy traditional character classes precisely because they are so generic. I used to adhere to this school of thought. Being a “Fighter” or “Magic-User” describes one’s ability in very broad terms, leaving matters such as personality or background open to interpretation. A Magic-User can be anything from a sage wizard to a hook-nosed witch to an insane scientist.

There is certain elegancy to that approach, particularly so if the campaign is challenge-focused, and a character is essentially just a chess piece who may be developed into a proper personage should the player so desire. Describing such characters solely from the point of view of ability is perfectly sensible; everything else would be gratuitous.

In practice, though, most OSR campaigns have a clearly defined setting and focus. Even the original whitebox Dungeons & Dragons, while superficially generic, has an implied setting suggested by level names, equipment lists, monster descriptions, and spell catalogues. Cleric in particular strongly alludes to a faux-Christian milieu of the witch-hunting vintage.

Assuming an OSR product is not intended as setting-generic, I see no reason why its existing elements could not be tailored to not only imply a setting, but to generate backstories suitable for the world. This idea is standard fare in story-games, but is rarely employed in old-school gaming. Even very setting-specific (and generally well-crafted) games such as Warriors of the Red Planet and Lamentations of the Flame Princess are usually content with nudging the existing archetypes slightly, rather than tailoring the character generation to support the setting.

If the rules define characters as “Fighters” and “Magic-Users”, then these definitions will also be true in the game world. A character will not ask: “What is your background? What kind of fellow would you describe yourself as?” He or she will ask: “Are you a Fighter or a Magic-User?”

In fact, the B/X tradition with its racial classes partially supports this type of story-building. If all non-humans are rules-wise characterized only by their quality of being non-human, then this very effectively leads to settings where non-humans are viewed as the Other, an exception to the norm, whereas humans are understood as individuals set apart from each other by their profession.

Even chess pieces are named evocatively. If a piece looks like a horse and is called Knight, then a story of sorts will emerge when it leaves the whereabouts of the King and Queen in order to strike down a hostile Bishop. This story would not even exist if an “L-Jumper” defeated a “Diagonal Mover”.

In short: rules-related definitions and concepts will also become de facto schemas inside the game world. Everything else will be forgotten as dictated by convenience and attention span. Any ruleset should take note of this fact and tailor its terminology accordingly.

tiistai 7. tammikuuta 2020

“My player won’t pen a backstory!”

This is not a real backstory. This is fan fiction.
Dungeons & Dragons is no story game. It was not designed as such and it will never become such. Because of this, some have dismissed it as a relic that only has relevancy because of its fame. And even though I do not share this opinion, it must be admitted there is some truth to it.

Role-playing games are usually marketed as a blend of collective story-telling and wish-fulfilling escapism—you can be whoever you want and do whatever you want. There is nothing wrong with such games, but Dungeons & Dragons is not one of them. While their focus has never been explicitly elaborated in any official product, the rules of D&D produce a very specific favor of adventure fiction. It is a game about dangerous challenges and a bunch of greedy, murderous ne’er-do-wells who seek to overcome them for personal gain—and usually get killed because of poor calls and bad luck.

This is a feature, not a bug. The problem mainly arises from the unwillingness of players and designers alike to recognize these facts. The boardgame-like nature of Dungeons & Dragons should be either embraced or removed. Most often it is ignored instead, with random story-game (and tactical combat) elements bolted on top of the existing frame.

Nowhere does this tendency manifest itself more clearly than in the department of backstories. It is quite common to see Referees complain their players are not producing satisfying backstories, or do not follow what has been established therein.

Why should they? Gary Gygax famously declared that levels I through VI are the backstory. I do not necessarily agree, not the least because Dungeons & Dragons as a game starts to break down as soon as the characters get past those low levels. Regardless of the game, an interesting character does have some sort of personality and history to begin with. Otherwise it is but a board game.

The real problem is that backstory or personality are utterly detached from the game itself. This lends itself to a style where dungeons and other hazards are overcome with an optimal performance where the players essentially play themselves. Only during in-betweens they act as their characters, reflecting on the recent going-ons and making their inner desires manifest.

I have never had a problem with such an approach; regardless of the game and setting, any challenge-oriented campaign will naturally develop such a playstyle. Just the same, I do think it probably makes for a more interesting game if story elements are organically encouraged and produced by the rules.

In most iterations of the Dungeons & Dragons, the backstory is little more than a slip of paper the Referee pretends to regard as important. He or she might tailor the campaign to include some elements from the backstory, but this has nothing to do with the rules. Some games encourage the Referee to hand out “plot points” or experience for good role-playing, but this is mainly just a politically correct rephrasing of the old mantra: “Do as I say and I will reward you.”

I once played in a campaign which included a memory-devouring magical ring. Its user could feed memories to the ring, opting to forget a piece of his or her personal history in exchange for temporary boons. In a story-game, such a ring may be an interesting device indeed. In a challenge-oriented game, not so much. Luckily, the player whose character ended up owning the ring was less cynical than I am and abstained from abusing it.

If the ring had fallen into my hands, I sure would have developed a backstory—full of memorable but ultimately irrelevant twists of fate. Why not? Those memories would have been an abundant and free resource. They did not really exist in any meaningful way –not in the game-world, and certainly not in the real worldbut they could be exchanged for something that did.

That ring was symptomatic of the identity crisis of Dungeons & Dragons. But, inadvertently, it was also the solution. As soon as the backstory has concrete, rules-related implications, it actually becomes an integral part of the game. Of course, anything with a direct connection to the rules must be regulated somehow, but that is relatively trivial. What matters is that a backstory organically integrated to the rest of the statistics of a character begins to exist independently from the player. It is not merely an anecdote told before the actual play commences. It has a meaning.

To be continued...

tiistai 18. kesäkuuta 2019


This monster originates from ancient Persian mythology. There is no particular story behind this one, other than that I thought the vermin trick would make for a nasty OSR monster. It is also one of the critters I first encountered on the pages of Weird n’ Wild Creatures.

Azdahag (Zahhak, Azhi Dahaka)

● Hit Dice: 12 [52 Hit Points]
● Armor Class:
1 [18] or 9 [10]
● Damage:
1d10 × 3
● Saving Throw:
● Movement:
120 feet
● Morale:

An embodiment of all that is sinful, Azdahag is a gargantuan serpent with three monstrous heads. Along with its twin brother, Spitiyura, Azdahag is the sole of its kind. They might be able to assume the form of startlingly handsome youths, but possess no particular powers in this form, apart from extraordinary intellect and knowledge.

In its true form, Azdahag’s heads, back, and tail are protected by armor-like plates of bone; for this reason, it has two Armor Classes, the less favorable of which applies for its belly. To strike the soft spot, one must position between its elephantine legs, where it is possible to remain in relative safety.

Regrettably, Azdahag bleeds vermin—spiders, scorpions, parasites, and the like. Wider wounds bleed more abundantly. For example, if the monster was smitten for 8 points of damage, then everybody underneath Azdahag’s belly suffer 8 Hit Points worth of injuries unless a Saving Throw is made!

Azdahag can attack thrice per round. The monster regards humans as cattle and recognizes the need to maintain a healthy livestock. Accordingly, it intends to consume merely one in three foes and will not pursue the remainder, although it will defend itself from stubborn dragon-slayers.

maanantai 17. kesäkuuta 2019

Weird n’ Wild Creatures

Yesterday, I wrote about using authentic folklore as a basis for OSR monsters. Adhering to the firm principles established there, I feel an urge to present some homebrew material based on a source most venerable: Hirviöt (heer-vee-uut; ”Monsters”), which later saw an English-language run under the title Weird n’ Wild Creatures, by the Stockholm-based International Masters Publishers.

Unlike the knowledge cards that make up the W&W Critters –a terrific name for a retro-clone, by the way– the Scandinavian version comprised of hundreds of four-page booklets, each detailing a ”monster” real or imaginary. In addition to these, there was also collectible card game allowing kids to pit these beasts against each other. During the 90’s, it was a big thing in the small town where I grew up, but as I moved to a larger city I realized to my horror that no one had ever heard of it.

I won’t go into too much detail with an obscure Swedish children’s product, but I do think that the series in general was an awesome idea. This is exactly how you should teach biology and mythology to kids: by making it cool. The last page of each entry contained an illustrated story of how this particular monster may savage a human, or at least permanently ruin the wretch’s mental and physical well-being. I remember having been sufficiently afraid of the Mummy entry to have seriously considered burning it!

One must wonder whether the erudition presented therein was entirely accurate—the tidbits of information were quite often quite obscure, and sometimes in conflict with ”general facts known to all”. On the other hand, truth has the habit of contradicting common sense. I did some fact-cheking on Ghouls and Azhi Dahaka, and it seems that the W&W entries are actually pretty erudite. Go figure...

Were-Tiger (Monster)

Hit Dice: 8 [36 Hit Points]
Armor Class: 3 [16]
# of Attacks: 3
Damage: 1d10
Saving Throw: 8
Movement: 150 feet
Morale: 8

Some say were-tigers are feline spirits who have assumed a humanoid form; others say they are sinners who repented at their deathbed and were resurrected as predatory anthropophagi. Yet others claim evil men deliberately become were-tigers through acts of sympathetic magic and ritual cannibalism.

These monstrosities are human at day and bestial at night. In human form they resemble ordinary men and are relatively easy to slay, although they do retain their superhuman Hit Dice. In the animal shape these shape-shifters are identical to ordinary tigers, save for unnatural gigantism and the lack of tail. Whether in human or animal form, were-tigers have but a black scald where the tail ought to be.

In the animal form, were-tigers are voracious and lack human intelligence, although they retain the evil and rancor that dwells in all men. They are tremendously strong but are easily tricked or trapped because of their insatiable bloodlust.

Tigranthropy (Spell)

This spell is mostly known in the jungles of Southern Asia and Indochina, and is exceedingly rare in the regions boasting no tiger population. It is a wicked magic indeed, for both the ingredients needed and the effects sought after are wholly monstrous.

The magician must boil human entrails and drink the grotesque consommé while wrapped in tiger skins. At the time of sunset, he or she will transform into a Were-Tiger, employing stats provided above. Having no hands, Were-Tigers cannot wield weapons. Speaking is impossible, as is comprehending the speech of others. Special abilities of the class become unusable.

The Were-Tiger remains under player’s control, but must kill any living creature encountered; he or she is forbidden from retreating. If multiple potential victims are present, humans take preference over animals, and the innocent over the unjust.

At the moment of sunrise, the magician returns to his or her true form, losing the extra abilities bestowed by the spell. From now on, the tigranthrope will shape-shift each night until the feline spirits possessing him or her are banished with Remove Curse or Dispel Magic.

(Christ, look at those cards!)

sunnuntai 16. kesäkuuta 2019

Ghoul v al-Ghul: The Dawn of History

One thing I moderately dislike in the traditional Gygaxian Dungeons & Dragons and its modern iterations is the habit of adopting mythical monstrosities, only to rehash these venerable critters as something only vaguely reminiscent of the originals. Not that this is inherently bad — all great works of fiction take creative liberties with the source material.

Further, it is important that D&D monsters are not merely big, mean-spirited sacks of meat, individualized by nothing but the number of hit points and damage output. A worthy opponent always has a trick or two in its sleeves, be that a nasty way to deal some extra damage, or a surprising weakness in a Goliath seemingly invincible. Otherwise the combat will degenerate into a boring die-rolling contest, providing no challenge of player skill.

Nonetheless, the monsters of folklore have a tendency of losing their ancient, mythological flavor when re-intepreted as stat blocks and combat-related maneuvers. I feel particularly uneasy when, say, Arabian myths are clumsily absorbed into a wider fictional mythology that also incorporates cliches from other legends, each separated from the rest by thousands of miles and several millenia. This approach can work — AD&D still counts among the funkiest products on the market — but just as often the result is unintentional camp.

A major portion of the appeal of ancient literature and fairy tales stems from the fact they are not entirely logical and profess the notions and literary conventions of cultures long forgotten. This makes them surprising and dream-like, yet internally constistent.

Below is my take on ghouls, based on the descriptions given in Arabian folk tales and The One Thousand and One Nights. (By the way, ghouls rank among the most ancient monsters of myth, descending from the Sumerian gallu, a class of demons that hauled escapees back into the underworld.) Not that I am a specialist in ghoul-lore but — for better or worse — here it comes:

”Amine Discovered with the Goule.”

The one and only al-Ghul

Hit Dice: 3 [16 Hit Points]
Armor Class: 6 [13, leather + shield]
Damage: 2d6
Saving Throw: 13
Movement: 9"
Morale: 6

These demonesses assume many forms, that of a hyena being the most common. They haunt wastes, graveyards, and other desolate places and feed on human carrion.

Ghouls sometimes disguise as attractive damsels, tempting weary travelers to doom. Alternatively, they can assume the likeness of the person most recenly consumed. Sometimes a ghoul amuses itself with scary tricks, such as rotating its head 360 degrees. NPC’s witnessing a sight so gruesome must test Morale or run away in horror.

As cunning and mimetic they are, ghouls are betrayed by the ass’s hooves they have for feet. For some bizarre reason, one will not notice the aberration unless specifically inspecting the feet of the monster.

Ghouls have a habit of pilfering coins—a ghoul achieving Surprise will catch the purse of the nearest person and flee. A Saving Throw vs. Spells is required to notice this vicious act of appropriation, in which case one could attempt to go after the ghoul. If caught or pitted against overwhelming odds, ghouls prefer flight to fight.

A ghoul struck by a sword (any sword—not necessarily a magical one) will immediately fall to the ground, dead but not showing any physical marks of violence. If another blow lands on the corpse, no matter by what weapon, the ghoul rises again, restored to full strength.

If it has no in-game implications, it does not exist

A character defined solely by mechanical ability will always remain that way. Pen a 1,000-page backstory, and Mr. Groh is still little m...