Monday, May 16, 2016

"Imagine the Hell Out of It!"

"No. Giant Ants are diurnal."

I hope I don't embarrass Matt Finch by calling him one of the "fathers" of the old school gaming movement. He created Swords & Wizardry and I called Swords & Wizardry White Box (co-authored by Marvin Breig) the "gold standard" of OD&D clones. But if he's only remembered in the community for one thing, I propose it should be a slogan:
Imagine the hell out of it!
What could better express the OSR, and thus the original promise of paper and pencil adventure games, in a sentence?

The idea is that minimalism in rules presentation and design has a purpose (beyond just saving the author and reader time). If paper and pencil fantasy adventure games are about anything, they're about imagination. But too much descriptive prose, or even too many fussy mechanics can often kill imagination or at least suppress it. Here is a great passage from White Box that makes this point:
There’s not a lot of detail given about the monsters, because the more detail given, the more your own mental image of the fantasy world is going to be locked into a single track. We’re not going to say that giant ants are red, nocturnal, three feet long, and fond of eating Elves. Because in your mind, they might be blue, diurnal, five feet long, and eat only plants unless they’re attacked. Details about monsters toss roadblocks in front of your imagination. Yes, details can also inspire the imagination, but we’re making the assumption that if you’re interested in fantasy gaming in the first place, you’ve got a good imagination that doesn’t need details about the size of a giant ant.
In my view, this is the key to the brilliance of the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the "three little brown books," published in 1974. For example, for each of the monsters in Monsters & Treasure, their actual appearance is rarely described, and when they are described they are never described in much detail beyond the general. Goblins are merely "small monsters," Wights are "nasty critters" and so on. There are a few exceptions, whose rarity, as Finch might agree, in and of itself stimulates the imagination--"Thin and rubbery, loathsome Trolls" being one of the best examples.

Interestingly, much of the implicit description comes in the form of rules mechanics. For example, Goblins, "when they are subjected to full daylight they subtract -1 from their attack and morale dice." In play, this penalty is negligible, costing Goblins a mere 5% on their to-hit probabilities. But what the mechanic is in fact doing is telling you that Goblins don't like sunlight.

Each edition of Dungeons & Dragons introduced progressively more description, which is one of the reasons for the progressively expanding rules bloat. So, for example, the Monster Manual (1977) not only greatly increased the number of monsters, but also expanded each of their descriptions by (I would guess) a factor of ten. And of course most of them also had illustrations.

Now this is not a criticism per se. I like the minimalism of the three little brown books, but there's no question that the original Monster Manual was a brilliant and now iconic product. My point is that a perfectly reasonable sounding desire--why shouldn't we know a bit more about these monsters and have pictures of them?--can in the end, especially by the time you get to even later editions, have unintended consequences. Consequences that are bad.

But there were other, not so innocent reasons why imagination was gradually leeched out of things. One of them was the tendency to increasingly treat the reader as if she were a stupid child. Consider these two explanations of Fighters from 0e and 2e D&D:
0e (1974):
Fighting-Men: All magical weaponry is usable by fighters, and this in itself is a big advantage. In addition, they gain the advantage of more "hit dice" (the score of which determines how many points of damage can be taken before a character is killed). They can use only a very limited number of magical items of the non weaponry variety, however, and they can use no spells. Top-level fighters (Lords and above) who build castles are considered "Barons", and as such they may invest in their holdings in order to increase their income (see the INVESTMENTS section of Volume III). Base income for a Baron is a tax rate of 10 Gold Pieces/ inhabitant of the barony/game year. 
2e AD&D (1989): 
There are many famous fighters from legend: Hercules, Perseus, Hiawatha, Beowulf, Siegfried, Cuchulain, Little John, Tristan, and Sinbad. History is crowded with great generals and warriors: El Cid, Hannibal, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Spartacus, Richard the Lionheart, and Belisarius. Your fighter could be modeled after any of these, or he could be unique. A visit to your local library can uncover many heroic fighters.
(By the way, the 1989 segment on Fighters is eight times longer than the 1974 segment. The above is just a partial excerpt.)

The 1974 version has no description at all, though the thing about baronies sets a certain tone.

The 1989 version, while on its face encourages a sort of imaginative diversity, almost implies that the person reading the rules has little familiarity with the standard archetypes, or at least needs to be reminded of them.

But if that were the case, why would they be reading the rules or playing the game in the first place?

As should be obvious, I find the whole trend annoying. And it's one of the reasons I wrote the quasi-minimalist clone, Seven Voyages of Zylarthen. It's a game intended in part for children, but I like to think it treats them as adults.

And yes, Zylarthen does itself have a kind of tone, just as OD&D has a kind of tone. And yes, there are pictures--pretty good ones, if I may say. But I would like to think that the tone is not oppressive. The goal is to spark your imagination but also to give it room, so to speak.

From a design point of view, the goal is to be minimalist without being bland--partly because bland is boring, but also because blandness itself can be a kind of imaginative straightjacket.

Finding the right "balance" (if that is even the right word) is not easy. But who ever said it would be?


Follow Save Versus All Wands on Twitter at the Twitter home of its author: @OakesSpalding


  1. "The 1989 version, while on its face encourages a sort of imaginative diversity, almost implies that the person reading the rules has little familiarity with the standard archetypes, or at least needs to be reminded of them."

    "But if that were the case, why would they be reading the rules or playing the game in the first place?"

    And I wonder, why not? I mean, how a familiarity with these heroic figures goes against playing the game?

    Besides, the mention of such not-just-pulp characters and mythic and real world references is just enriching. I actually miss this in the new editions.

    1. My fault. I get it now; somehow I misunderstood the part on fighters: it doesn't go against playing but instead seems to be saying that playing D&D already assumes a familiarity with these heroes, so it would be redundant to mention them.

      On the other hand, I believe it doesn't apply the same nowadays because the fading out of such references, but that doesn't relates to your point here.

  2. And yes, Zylarthen does itself have a kind of tone, just as OD&D has a kind of tone. And yes, there are pictures--pretty good ones, if I may say. But I would like to think that the tone is not oppressive. The goal is to spark your imagination but also to give it room, so to speak.

    I think that last bit is the secret.

    Even fifth edition, which has the least tone of any WOTC edition still defines the game as "D&D Fantasy" which is a crossbreed of Gygax's later naturalism and half-read Tolkien (or fully read Terry Brooks). There is nothing wrong with that per se. I am one of the few people I know willing to say Brooks is a fun read, in some ways more fun than Tolkien (although I wouldn't buy a ten volume history of Shannara and toy with language creation as a hobby after reading it).

    That, however, is not the only thing you could take out of OD&D. T&T, which you've been having a blast with, is another take on the input which make OD&D (and I think Ken remembered more than he sometimes lets on...3D6 in order on six stats in the same order with only one changed is a big coincidence).

    S&W Whitebox is another take is is Zylarthen. Originally the different takes were to be supplements and the first two very much fit that vein until people decided instead of using one or the other you had to use both. In that Carcosa, while a bit presumptuous in labeling itself Supplement V, is very much in the intended spirit of the original game as are the Conan and Barsoom supplements floating around the web with covers in D&D trade dress.

    1. Yes, I enjoyed those last two. I haven't read Carcosa, but I know I should. I assume you've seen Jeffro Johnson's Appendix N? I'm reading it now and loving it. It's not as much a straight literary analysis as I had assumed (although, that's a big part of it), but also looks at the influences on the OD&D mechanics and vibe. A few of those influences are part of accepted lore - "Vancian magic," but there are many other influences and links that have gone pretty much unremarked or uncommented on - until Johnson's Appendix N. I highly recommend it.