Thursday, October 13, 2016

Some Thoughts on The Sad GM

This post is a reflection on the recent post by Jens D regarding "The Sad GM".

An interesting post indeed. One that strikes directly at the heart of what is "wrong" with the hobby, I think. But it doesn't really delve into the rich and fertile domain of "root causes". So I think I'll venture there briefly to give that side of the thing some airing as well.

First, these are just my opinions, only my opinions, and nothing but my opinions. I do not intend to present these thoughts as "the truth", but rather merely as my personal observations and speculations. They are based purely on my own personal anecdotal experiences as a GM for over 30 years.

The hobby was originally grounded in War Games, and at that time those that used miniatures. This was Chainmail, and from it spawned the early version of D&D, edition 1, and probably of all of the editions still my favorite because it was relatively simple (compared with the later editions). Yes, it was flawed as well. But the virtue of simplicity easily outweighed the flaws as the GM was enabled by the rules to over-rule them at any time for any reason. This later became known, in certain circles, as "GM Fiat", or "Rule Zero". The GM as Referee is at the root of the RPG concept. So much so that in D&D e1 the term "Gamemaster" or "Dungeon Master" had not yet been invented, and was called simply "Referee".

In those days players had few expectations about rules systems, GM style, genre, content and so on. Mostly the game (circa 1974) was played as a War Game with supplemental fantasy rules. There were, most of the time but not always, miniatures involved and a game board that was constructed on a large table and held the kind of terrain that one might see in a museum diorama. Something like the image on the right might have been considered common in those days.

The point is that the game was at first something that appealed to a very small number of people who were interested in War Games, and in particular Miniatures based War Games. This is what we might think of as the Gygaxian style.

And then, almost instantly, there was a divergence.  David Arneson, the co-collaborator on D&D with Gygax, introduced and championed the idea, basically, of D&D as a 'Story Game'. I don't think he called it that, but the essential idea was there. The RPG was a kind of semi-perfect system for telling interactive stories that involved characters and setting. For this style of game, which we might call the Arneson style, the story became equal to, or more important than the game mechanics. Yes, the mechanics were still important as no one wanted to play "Let's pretend" with the RPGs. So rules were necessary, but the most important thing in the Arneson style game is that the story-world, and the characters in it, be interesting. Interesting enough to bring the players into a sense of what was called immersion.

My first experience with D&D of any kind was in Eric Tannen's world in 1978. He played an Arneson style game, and frankly he had made up his own rules at that time, as did every other GM in our town, and I didn't know what his rules actually were exactly. So story, from my point of view as a player was paramount. I was intrigued by Eric's world. I was intrigued by my ability to play characters that go and (attempt to) do anything. It was a fascinating experience, and the combination of a rich and interesting world and what we now call "Player Agency" (at the time the only meaning of that phrase could be construed as "the player can decide what their character may attempt to do") kept me coming back for more. Within a month of my first game I was already working on the Elthos Rules system. It was the habit, if not the rule, among our GMs to create their own rules. We were a strictly "Anti-Gygaxian" crew, and while we could use D&D e1 as a basis for our systems, every GM created their own. Sometimes from scratch. Sometimes as a derivation of D&D e1. Either way, the players rarely knew what the GM's rules actually were.

Yes, I'm getting around to my points. But this historical context is necessary when trying to dig into the root causes of "The Sad GM". Bare with me please.

As I was saying, we all had our own rules, and player expectations were kept to a bare minimum. The only expectation players might have in those days was to have fun being immersed (hopefully) in a GM's amazing world. For this, of course, GM's had to have amazing worlds. That is not as easy as it sounds. And this was were the first player bust ups came in. Some GMs had worlds that were boring. You'd get there, roll a character, and it felt like nothing was really there in the world. Some stock generic NPCs would get trotted out to "provide information", but had no individual personalities (or they all had the same one). The World had no discernible history. There might be a town and a dungeon, but who knew why or what for? There was nothing unique in those worlds. Perhaps just rehashes of scenes from popular fantasy books or movies. So our first encounter with broken expectations came early with Arneson style games. Some GMs were apparently not quite cut out for the job. Not enough imagination.

That would have been enough to create some problems for the nascent hobby, but it didn't stop there. We then suffered wave after wave of New Rules from TSR, and other companies. The idea of one game for 50 years was kind of broken at that point. And this time it was the GM expectation of continuity that was broken. At least from my point of view looking at the thing from afar it seemed that way to me. In fact it was our prescient decision to create our own rules systems that allowed most of us 1st generation GMs to avoid that particular catastrophe. I recall my conversation with Eric in 1978 about the future of RPGs and we agreed that creating our own rules was the ideal solution to several problems. 1) we wouldn't have to suffer "rules lawyers" (already prevalent in those early days), 2) we could "fix" the problems we found with the original rules to our heart's content, and 3) we would not have to suffer dealing with major rules changes that could destroy our world's historical context every time TSR decided they wanted to make more money with a new Rules edition. Made sense to me, and so I had my own rules, and wasn't effected by D&D e2 (AD&D) and beyond. I happily played Elthos and so my GM expectations were never quite dashed by the introduction of new editions. I heard the screams and groans from a distance, huddled in my cozy hobbit hole and played on.

However, unknown to me, the world outside was changing. A lot. The biggest change, I think, was the introduction of the Independent Press Revolution that came as a result of technological advances in the printing industry. All of a sudden anyone could publish their rules as books and sell them without too great an up front cost (in dollars, not time). When the Revolution began it seems to have centered around The Forge, which purported to be, if I have this right, a kind of RPG philosophic center that encouraged RPG Publishers to do new things with the game so that they could distinguish their products from those of other publishers, and in particular Wizards of the Coast (which by this time I believe had bought out TSR, which went down in flaming ruins due to internal mismanagement and multiple errors of judgement along the way).

Now what happened next was a shift, a major shift, in player expectations. Again, remember I was in my hobbit hole with Elthos at this time, and had very little interest in following what was going on in the industry at this point, so my viewpoint is personal and partial, but this is what I think happened...

This shift was fostered by the marketing messages that were coming out of the IPR, and principally, afaik, from the major IPR Publishers of the "new style" of RPG. The Revolution was posed as one against the old traditional Gygaxian style game, and championed the Arneson style. It experimented a great deal with rules configurations, and seemed to focus on the idea (right or wrong who knows) that the rules should support the genre of play. There's probably a lot of reasons why this concept was fostered in the IPR, and maybe the main reason was that it created a kind of organizational coherency to the IPR. So if you came to an IPR workshop at a local convention they had a focus and could ask you "the Power 19" questions that would reveal whether or not you successfully embodied their principals of game design.

Across the divide over yonder there were some woeful reactions to the "Indie Revolution" as traditional GMs got pelted by accusations of "Tyranny" from a new breed of converted players. These players now expected an expanded set of Player Agency capabilities, such as co-creating the World. This is probably the one that sticks in the craw of most traditional GMs the most. And there's good reason for it, but that's a topic for a different post.

The upshot is that many firestorms were started between the two communities of RPGers. On the one side we had the 'Ancien Regime' of traditionalist GMs who preferred to keep things the way they were, and on the other side the 'Revolutionaries' who seemed to style themselves as something of an insurgent guerrilla army intent on overturning the traditionalists at any cost with a new breed of games. The rhetoric on both sides got quite heated. From my point of view, by the time I poked my head out from my hole to take a peek around the war was in full flaming glory. Since I had spent most of my time tinkering with a computer application to run my rules system and allow GMs to share their worlds with each other, I'd spent precious little time looking at anyone else's rules. So I was pretty clueless about the difference between the IPR and what later became, if I have this right, the OSR (Old School Renaissance). Once I did step outside my door and made my first foray into the greater world of RPGs by attending a local gaming convention around 2010, I was immediately blasted as "a spy" by the OSR when I mentioned on theRPGSite my recent experience with Luke Crane's Burning Wheel at the convention. I was denounced, and flogged, by the people of the OSR, and it took quite a bit of effort to explain that I wasn't on either side of the war - strictly an independent soul working on Elthos, and just curious about what was going on out there. It was fascinating.

Now you'd think that this might have given me a bad attitude about the OSR. Not really. At that point actually, I had a previous experience with the "Indie Revolution" that had already put me on guard to the marketing invectives streaming out of that community and their destructive power. I had been running very happily and successfully a nice little Yahoo Group for the Literary RPG Society, and it' had been going strong since about 2006 and we had a lot of great posts and local meetings and all was going well. Our goal was to collaborate on ways for GMs to enhance the story aspect of their Worlds through a variety of techniques, and it was mostly a discussion and brainstorming society. It was great. Until one day an Indie Revolution 'Stealth Evangelist' arrived. He single handedly turned every thread in the forum, every single one, into an argument about why you should stop playing traditional style RPGs and convert over to the Young Hip & New Indie Revolution style. It got to the point where posters would write me emails on the side saying they no longer can tolerate it and were leaving the group because of this person. I tried my best to get this person to cool it, and he would for a few days, but then come back again with the same thread-jacking and in the end everyone stopped posting completely. I tried about a year later to post again to the group to hope for a revival, but within minutes of my post our old Indie Revolution friend immediately chimed in with - yes - another thread-jacking. And so my once beloved group is in ruins on Yahoo Groups. You can find it, and see for yourself how things went down, so long as Yahoo still exists, by going here and taking a look:

That experience made me a Sad GM. *sob* ... But I moved on, and got over it. I decided life in my hobbit hole was a nicer place than I expected, and pretty much retreated back to work on Elthos and the Mythos Machine while the war rages overhead. So for the most part I've pretty much tried to stay out of the fray. What's the point of it? I don't disagree that there's a good number of Indie Revolution games that I might like, but the marketing invective and the stealth evangelism that came out of the Revolution were from my point of view totally destructive. I lost all interest in so-called "Indie Revolution" games after that. Whether they were good or not, I simply didn't want to get near them. I suppose ti's a natural enough reaction. My attitude now is that they may be fine games, and I'm not against them per se as games, but I will growl under my breath if I hear phrases like "BadWrongFun" or see someone doing ye old stealth evangelism around me.  It is these things, and their deleterious effect on player expectations that has made me, to whatever degree I might be, a Sad GM. It just grates on my nerves, that's all. I hope people will understand and not be too offended at my being too offended.

Ok, to wrap this up I will conclude by saying that I feel that a lot of what has caused the problems in the RPG community that Jens D is referring to, and the consequent Sad GM experience, have to do with the innate nature of the hobby as it evolved, and the history of negativity that is a product of changing and expanding expectations of players and GMs over time. I think it boils down to this - at some point the domain of expectations based on an ever expanding multiplicity of options becomes so great that it fractures into a myriad of expectation-shards. Some players want this piece of that, and that piece of this, and some GMs want this much of that system, and that much of this system - every RPGer for themselves, and damn the torpedoes! The loss of coherency in the World of RPGs has created a good deal of difficulty for GMs. And the reason for that is as Jens D suggests in his post - GMs put in a great deal of effort into their worlds based on some system. When encountering players with a huge diversity of expectations as to game style, modalities and rules, it becomes a serious problem for GMs. And that is likely to make GMs Sad once in a while. I can't say I disagree with that. Fortunately for me, I have my own system, and my players happen to like it. So I'm pretty safe in my cozy little hobbit hole. So for the most part I haven't had to deal with these problems as a GM. When my players show up I tell them this is the Elthos RPG, here's the rules book, and leave your previous expectations at the door, thank you. Thank goodness.

And that is where I think we're at in terms of "root causes". Frankly this is a light treatment, and a seriously biased one, and there's a good chance my viewpoint is factually flawed due to my limited exposure to the Great RPG War as it was waged. But still, I think I have it more or less right, and I could go on and probably write an entire book on this topic and still not exhaust all that could be said on it by all sides involved. At any rate, that's my understanding to date, and I hope it helps to put things into perspective, at least somewhat. At least from my point of view this is what the "root causes" seem to be. If you disagree with my viewpoint, have anything to add, or correct, please feel free. My attitudes are rarely set in stone, and I'm always curious what others think.

Are there any solutions to the problems Jens D has raised in his post? We will have to wait to see. He will be posting on the topic again in his promised Parts II and III. I look forward to reading them as well. I have a few ideas of my own, but will refrain from commenting on that until after I read what Jens D has to say. Looking forward to it.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

On Marketing and Politics in the World of RPGs

Just a few thoughts from a recent spat of threads that I thought were interesting, possibly true, and maybe worth talking a bit about.

Today's journey starts here with a post by Jens D.:

Which coincidentally was followed a few minutes later by my stumbling across this post by Quinn Moerike:

Here are the highlights from both threads:

Vb Wyrde:
I also have the impression that a lot of people are using this term ["player agency"] to mean different things. Just as for many terms in the world of RPGs there is no official definition ... mostly because there is no universally recognized authority that has defined them. So we are often chasing our tails in arguments over what things mean and there's been a great deal of politicking along the way. That's where people try to co-opt or conflate terms with the intention of proving that their viewpoint is more valid than another's. It's a pity but without an authority we have little choice but to muddle through as best we can.

The problem with player agency is that some people who want to undermine the traditional role of the GM on the grounds of "tyranny" are conflating player agency with mythopoeia as though the two are synonymous. But they're not. All players already have agency in traditional RPGs. What they don't have is mythopoeic authority which is reserved to the GM. So many of the arguments presented are spurious. Oh well. Muddling along. Muddling along.

Jens D.:
Yes! Exactly that! No academic discourse, only capitalist interest ... Not what Gygax had in mind, I'd venture. But that's the reality of it and incidentally connected to that other endeavor of yours: the PGS. Incidentally i had n encounter in a FLGS the other day. Told me he doesn't sell that stuff, because there's no money in it. What he mainly sold? Magic and Warhammer ... Damn, we are in a very desolate state. It's bothering me for a while now.

Vb Wyrde:
That's not great news but I can understand it. Once people settle on an RPG system they are often good for the next few decades. Why would there be money in RPG rules books? It's why we find that most indie RPG publishers consider 200 sales "a success story".

Jens D.:
Yeah, right, I know :( But what really bothered me, is that the beauty of it all isn't communicated anymore. Get rpgs recognized like chess or Monopoly and you'll have a totally different thing going. Money should be a side effect and not a reason to let it die a slow death ... Work this in public, organize, teach it ... all those things could earn a guy money. But instead it's greed and petty tribalism (with a good dose of elitism for the toxic mix to be complete).

Vb Wyrde:
Yup. According to some commentators this is due to the malignant marketing practices of a handful of RPG publishers. Apparently in their zeal to promote their own games they felt the (gr)need to denigrate the traditional style of play. This action created a war of words within the ranks of the enthusiasts and probably hamstrung the hobby's natural growth for at least a decade. After all, who wants to join a hobby where huge flame wars lay waste to the mythic lands? ... Muddle, muddle.

Well that's a bit jumbled but does roughly cover the scope of the points I want to make. Namely, that

1. The RPG Hobby is saturated with RPGs and there's no reason to think that anyone should be able to make a living off of selling RPG Rules Books because most people in fact only need one RPG rules system to be perfectly happy for several decades at a time.

2. There's been a lot of rancorous debate about terminology in the RPG Hobby due to the fact that definitions were created without universal acceptance, and then used for political and marketing purposes to "prove" that someone's viewpoint is more valid than someone else's.

3. That rancorous debate, it seems, has been fueled by a faction of RPG marketers who felt the need to denigrate other styles of play in an effort to "prove" that their own style is better, and therefore people should Buy Into the "new and revolutionary" style. They started a Revolution inside the hobby.

4. This has probably dampened the natural growth of the hobby by alienating new comers who might otherwise have thought "Gosh this sounds like a fun hobby" instead of "OMG - these people are at each other's throats for some reason... I think I'll just back away slowly..."

Just some thoughts. I'm sure plenty of people will take umbrage and disagree. Understood and accepted. But that's my take on things at this point. And to be honest, I'm only covering a slice of the territory as one could also tie in the entire debate about Social Justice, and how that relates to the above points, for better or worse.

To conclude:

Jens D:
You, know, Mark, I was looking for words to describe what happened and when and I think you hit it on the head. Must have been around the time D&D went corporate. That language in D&D 3e is outright manipulative. The whole set up is, really. Get everyone to own the game but if they own it, they need rights, too. So a guy can sit down at the table and say "I bought supplement xy and it says yx, so I'm entitled to this or that ...". The next new thing is the best and all else before is worthless. Enough people drank the cool aid, too. And as it's the way of the Borg big corporations, they just keep assimilating (hey look, over there, those indie guys actually have fun ... let's buy them and incorporate their ides into our game, too). It's not been about advancing the hobby in the long, long time ... now I feel bad.

Vb Wyrde:
Don't worry. This muddle is all part of the natural process of evolution. In fact if you take the high ground and look around you'll notice a lot of great gaming being done out there.

Does that mean that I think you can make a living selling RPG Rules Books. Nope. But does it mean that those rules are not going to be enjoyed by anyone? Nope. They may even make it into "the canon" some day.

The other thing to notice is that Settings is a never ending horn of cornucopia for creators. The only problem now is that when you create a Setting you kind of need to make it useful for any number of RPG systems (with stats) and then we run into the problem of translations between systems. I do think there is a solution to that somewhere nearby, though. Anyway, regardless, in my opinion Settings can never be depleted as people always need more. Rules systems though? Not so much. If I have three that's way more than enough, and at least for me, my own homebrew has been completely wonderful for 30+ years now. No need to buy another rules system.

Settings. We need more of those. Hope is on the way, my brother.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Elthosian Armor Mechanic

In my long standing (1978) rules system of Elthos RPG ( I have it that there's two factors to take into account in relation to combat. One is the skill of the person striking with the weapon. And the other is the Armor of the defender. Now someone wearing platemail is going to be slower than someone without it due to the bulk of the armor. Therefore the armor impedes the wearer's Dexterity. It also impedes their Movement (how far they can run per melee). On the other hand it also makes it hard for an opponent to hit them (directly, as in hit their skin). And if there is a direct hit that armor also absorbs some of the damage from the blow, even if it hits. So there's trade offs with wearing heavy armor. It makes it hard to be hit, and absorbs damage. Those are good. On the other hand by being bulky and heavy it makes the wearer's Dexterity less effective and so their own Attack Level goes down, and it also makes them run slower. These trade offs don't quite balance out to make it even ... there is a distinct advantage overall to wearing armor. And if the armor wearer is very strong their Strength bonus can help to mitigate the Dexterity modifier, so that very strong characters can wear platemail with less restriction on their Dexterity.

Consequently, the selection of armor for Characters in the Elthos RPG is one of the more interesting choices that players get to make while outfitting for adventures.  I like the give and take of the options.  And of course, Gamemasters are free to construct any kinds of armors that they think may fit into their worlds. I have some cases where light armors nevertheless absorb a good deal of damage, but those, of course, are quite rare and valuable.  I have other armors that are burdensome and don't do such a great job absorbing damage.  Their inventors were likely drawn and quartered by the Lords to whom their armors were sold, but the armors persist because ... well, just because.  So part of the fun of the game for me is in designing the weapons and armors to have specific effects.  And of course, on occasion I toss in magical armors with "impossible" configurations, for good or evil as the case may be.  Yup.  Fun fun.

In practice, which is to say in my bi-weekly games, we have found that light armors are perfect for some characters who prefer to remain quick and agile, while heavy armor is better suited for others. In either case the Armors as such and the options and variables involved make for a fun tactical combat game. We've been enjoying it this way for some time now at any rate.

I did a little video on the technical aspects of Armor Class usage a while back. Here it is for your interest.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

A Little Realization About Tolkien's Mythopoeia

I've had this wonderful book, The Tolkien Reader for years and years. I bought it originally to read the utterly charming story of "Farmer Giles of Ham" and "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil". I never bothered to read "the boring stuff". What a pity!

As it happens I ran into a post the other day mentioning that an essay by Tolkien named "On Fairy Stories" was well worth a read, and when I went to find it on the INtArWeBz for whatever reason I was unable to find a copy of it that wouldn't have cost me two legs and an ear. I despaired of finding it easily or cheaply.  I decided just now to try again and located a free PDF of On Fairy Stories on my first try - I have no idea what happened months ago when I searched for it the first time. Be that as it may, when I first tried to find it several months ago I couldn't find a copy for less than $55 and I had despaired of reading the essay any time in the foreseeable future.

However, a month or so later an unrelated thread mentioned something interesting about Tom Bombadil which brought me back to my copy of "The Tolkien Reader" and as I was browsing through the book I noticed the heading of some of the pages which read "On Fairy Stories".  I never took notice of it before. In this edition "On Fairy Stories" happens to not be listed in the table of contents, and so I completely missed that it is in there at all, and I should probably say that I don't think I would have much cared even if I had noticed it.  When I bought the book originally I was looking for inspiration for Characters, and was entirely focused on Farmer Giles and Tom Bombadil, and not on some stuffy essay, even if it was by Tolkien himself. And yet, to my delight there it is. How lovely! How many years this book sat on my shelf with this fabulous essay in it waiting for me I can not say. Many many.

Of course I started reading it immediately. Now, while the essay itself is fascinating to be sure, I'm really only two pages in at this moment, but the thing that really sent my mind whirling, and the cause of this blog post, was to be found in Tolkien's 'Introductory Notes' of the essay, in which he wrote:

"They ['The Tree and Leaf' and 'On Fairy Stories'] were also written in the same period (1938-39) when 'The Lord of the Rings' was beginning to unroll itself and to unfold prospects of labor and exploration in yet unknown country as daunting to me as to the hobbits. At about that time we had reached Bree, and I had no more notion than they had of what had become of Gandalf or who Strider was; I had begun to despair of surviving to find out."

What is this?! Why, I had always been under the impression that Middle Earth had been completely created in Tolkien's mind in the full glory of the Silmarillion by the time he'd started writing the Lord of the Rings. I imagined that it sprung from his mind like Athena from the head of Zeus, fully grown, clothed and armored! Of course I had no basis for that belief I realize now. I guess it was an assumption based simply on my recollection of the entirety of the story fitting so well together like a hand in a glove. It seemed to me that he must of written it after all of the facts of Arda were well known to him. And yet, here we are in 1938-9 during his first writing of the adventures of Frodo and his friends having just reached Bree, and at this point Tolkien doesn't even know who Strider was or where Gandalf had gone off to! Well, well, well. That's a huge and happy surprise to me.

For those who might like a wee bit of a refresher on the sequence of Frodo's Adventure* thus far it is as follows (just for fun):

4/12: Gandalf arrives at Bag End.
4/13: Frodo learns he has the One Ring and decides to leave the Shire.
9/22: Frodo turns 50.
9/23: Frodo leaves Bag End.
9/24: Frodo is nearly caught twice by one of the Nazgul and meets Gildor in the Woody End.
9/25: Frodo learns of his friends' intention to accompany him.
9/26: Frodo and his companions travel through the Old Forest and come to the House of Tom Bombadil.
9/28: The Hobbits are trapped by a Barrow-wight. Frodo resists putting on the Ring.
9/29: Frodo meets Aragorn in Bree.

None of which is germane to my realization in particular, by the way, so I will veer back to my point before I get lost in the details of Frodo's journey, or worse, the grand sweep of the history of Middle Earth itself.

What I find so interesting, actually, is the realization that while Tolkien was writing, he considered himself to be a fellow traveler within his own world, exploring and discovering it at the same rate and pace as his main characters. Really? Why, that's much the same way I have been discovering and exploring my own World of Elthos all these years! I had no idea! In fact, I thought all along for these many years that I was doing it quite wrong, and that should good old Tolkien find himself gazing over my shoulder from his lofty perch in the heavens, he would have frowned with furrowed eyebrows at my sloppy and faulty method of Mythopoeia (what I commonly refer to as World Weaving).  Instead, I know now that he would have been beaming brightly, as we share a common methodology for World Weaving after all.  I follow along with my players as they explore my world, too, and sometimes we all discover certain things about it at the same moment.  Which of course is quite a bit of the fun of the thing.

On the other hand, I have to say that a lot of Elthos is already structurally there in my notes or in my mind.  But there are vast areas that remain unknown to me, waiting to be explored.  In fact, it was because I was curious about the region north of Glendale, a trickly little place named Hobbington, of which I knew only a scant few facts, that the campaign began back in 2009.  And we've discovered quite a lot about it since then, I can say.  And it's been a great deal of fun.

One of the things that I like about this method of Mythopoeia is that I have often found wonderful bits of what have felt like mystical serendipity while World Weaving along side the players.  It's always rather exciting with "Aha!" and "Oh my goodness, wow!", although I will be the first to admit, it is also rather risky in its own way. There is, after all, the ever-lurking problem of Story-Errors that I may accidentally introduce as I go along.  What if should I forget some important connection that I thought of while driving to shop for dinner three days earlier (yes, that happened while playing my last game session)?  Or perhaps I might inadvertently create a conflicting set of facts at some point without realizing it? This can happen when you approach your world as a living breathing thing that you are co-discovering with your players while you play the game.  Unlike dear Tolkien who could go back and re-write back in what he forgot, we must make due as best we can with the error as it happens. Perhaps the story heads off on an entirely unexpected direction (it often does). Or perhaps we can mend things with a little bit of story-glue to patch over the error (which is what I did that last time).  The risk is that we must edit the thing live during play.  Revisions are difficult and fraught with problems. The greatest of which is that our players might get the idea that we don't really know what's going on - heaven forbid!

Either way, what is so great and grand and lovely about all of this, for me, is that idea that my Mythopoeia is actually quite a bit more like Tolkien's than I ever imagined.  I always had this notion in the back of my mind that the entire world should be fully fleshed out well in advance, with all the histories of the Gods and Races well rehearsed in the GMs mind before the players ever step foot on the World.  Well, I thought, if you want to do it "right", anyway - the way Tolkien did.  How much comfort it gives me to know I was wrong about that!

So for GM's who are embarked on the quest of Mythopoeia I want to let you know that the Grand Master and founder of the art, J.R. Tolkien himself, went about it as an exploration and discovery while following along side his main characters during the course of their adventures. And it turned out gloriously in the end, didn't it? So take heart, and forge ahead! Grand things await if you are patient, not too hard on yourself, and keep your eyes peeled for those wonderful serendipities that come along now and then. Carry on my fellow travelers, carry on!

* - A Timeline of Frodo's Journey

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Dragon God's Head

A recent drawing I have completed for the Elthos RPG Core Rules Book. Came out pretty nice, so I thought I'd share it here. :)

Friday, September 23, 2016

Notes on OD&D - Part 29

So, where were we? OMG... it's been how long since my last post?! WOW! Time is absolutely ZOOMING! Ok Ok. Well, nothing to do now but carry on where we left off last time. Here we go. On to the next and final batch of 6th Level Spells!

Men & Magic
  • p31 - Explanation of Spells - 6th Level

Death Spell: An incantation which kills from 2-16 creatures with fewer than seven hit dice. The creatures must be within the area of 6" (180') x 6" to come under the spell. Range: 24" (720').

Short and sweet. I think it is safe to say that this is the Ultimate Weapon for MUs in the Original D&D arsenal. So lets look under the hood at the tiny but powerful engine there. Under 7 hit dice, eh? What's that give us? Let's take a look*:

Less than 1 HD
Bat, Normal
Bee, Giant
Centipede, Giant, Black
Centipede, Giant, Pink
Rat, Normal
Rat, Giant
Skeleton, Animal, Small
Snake, Viper

1 HD
Deer, Red
Dog, Hunting
Dog, Wild
Man, Bandit
Skeleton, Animal, Medium
Snake, Cobra

1+ HD
Beetle, Giant, Fire
Ferret, Giant
Man, Wild Berserker

2 HD
Bat, Giant
Deer, Reindeer
Dog, War
Green Slime
Horse, Donkey, Mule, or Pony
Horse, Riding or Wild
Mustard Mold
Oon (2nd level)
Orc, Lieutenant
Snake, Asp
Snake, Rattlesnake
Spider, Giant Crab

2+ HD
Ape-Man (2nd level)
Beetle, Giant, Bombardier
Camel, Bactrian
Camel, Dromedary
Camel, Leaper
Horse, Light Warhorse

3 HD
Crab, Giant
Frog, Giant
Fungus, Shrieker
Fungus, Violet
Horse, Draught
Hyaena, Common
Lion, Mountain
Lycanthrope, Wererat
Man, Bandit, Lieutenant
Musk Ox
Oon (3rd level)
Orc, Captain
Skeleton, Large
Snake, Python
Snake, Giant Water
Spider, Giant Black Widow
Spider, Giant Ogre-Faced
Tick, Giant

3+ HD
Ape-Man (3rd level)
Ape-Man Alpha
Bear, Black
Cave-Man, Sub-Chief
Grey Ooze
Horse, Heavy Warhorse
Man, Wild Berserker, Sub-Chief
Snake-Man (2nd level)
Spider, Giant Trapdoor
Toad, Giant

4 HD
Ant, Giant
Ape, Albino
Blink Dog
Deer, Giant Elk
Gelatinous Cube
Lycanthrope, Werewolf
Oon (4th level)
Scorpion, Giant
Spider, Giant Wolf

4+ HD
Ape, Mountain
Ape-Man (4th level)
Eagle, Giant
Fish-Man, Sub-Chief
Gibbering Mouther
Hyaena-Man, Leader
Lizard, Giant Draco
Lizard-Man, Sub-Chief
Snake-Man (3rd level)
Snowman, Abominable
Weasel, Giant
Wolf, Dire
Wolverine, Giant

5 HD
Ape, Carnivorous
Eel, Electric
Hell Hound
Hyaena, Giant
Hydra, Aqua-Hydra (5 heads)
Hydra, Pyro-Hydra (5 heads)
Leech, Giant
Lizard, Giant Chameleon
Man, Bandit, Captain
Man of Leng
Ochre Jelly
Oon (5th level)
Orc, Chieftain
Owl Bear
Rust Monster
Skeleton, Animal, Large
Slithering Slime
Snake, Giant Python
Tentacular Horror
Troglodyte, Chieftain

5+ HD
Ape-Man (5th level)
Bear, Brown
Cave-Man, Chieftain
Man, Wild Berserker, Chieftain
Snake-Man (4th level)
Spider, Giant Phase

6 HD
Beetle, Giant, Stag
Lizard, Giant Tuatara
Lotus Woman
Lycanthrope, Werewolf, Superior
Oon (6th level)
Shark, Great White
Skeleton, Giant
Snake, Giant Asp
Whale, Killer
Wolf, Winter

6+ HD
Ape-Man (6th level)
Daemon, Succubus
Elder Thing
Gorgon, Greater
Lizard-Man, Chieftain
Snake-Man (5th level)
Snowman, Abominable, Alpha


But to be complete, lets take a look at what that doesn't cover as well. Here we go:

7 HD
Ghost, Banshee
Hydra, Aqua-Hydra (7 heads)
Hydra, Pyro-Hydra (7 heads)
Lizard, Giant Komodo Dragon
Oon (7th level)

7+ HD
Ape-Man (7th level)
Bear, Polar
Fish-Man, Chieftain
Snake-Man (6th level)

8 HD

Ape, Albino, Superior
Daemon, Class I
Daemon, Class V
Elemental, Air, Class I
Elemental, Earth, Class I
Elemental, Fire, Class I
Elemental, Water, Class I
Invisible Stalker
Octopus, Giant
Oon (8th level)
Salamander, Fire
Snake, Giant Cobra
Tiger, Sabre-Tooth
Tree-Man, Adult

8+ HD
Ape-Man (8th level)
Bear, Cave
Snake-Man (7th level)

9 HD
Daemon, Class II
Daemon, Swine
Hydra, Aqua-Hydra (9 heads)
Hydra, Pyro-Hydra (9 heads)
Oon (9th level)
Salamander, Ice
Whale, Narwhale

9+ HD
Ape-Man (9th level)
Automaton, Flesh
Snake-Man (8th level)

10 HD
Black Pudding
Colour Out of Space
Daemon, Class III
Fomorian, Chieftain
Giant, Frost
Great Race
Oon (10th level)
Rhinoceros, Woolly
Shambling Mound
Thew Wagon
Tiger, Sabre-Tooth, Superior

10+ HD
Ape-Man (10th level)
Minotaur, Superior
Snake-Man (9th level)

11 HD
Daemon, Class IV
Giant, Fire
Oon (11th level)

11+ HD
Ape-Man (11th level)
Automaton, Clay
Snake-Man (10th level)

12 HD
Aerial Minion
Crocodile, Giant
Elemental, Air, Class II
Elemental, Earth, Class II
Elemental, Fire, Class II
Elemental, Water, Class II
Mammoth, Woolly
Oon (12th level)
Sloth, Ground
Slug, Giant
Squid, Giant
Tree-Man, Old

12+ HD
Ape-Man (12th level)
Snake-Man (11th level)

13 HD
Daemon, Class VI

14 HD
Giant, Frost, Jarl
Purple Worm

14+ HD
Automaton, Stone

15 HD
Crab, Monstrous
Giant, Fire, Jarl

16 HD
Elemental, Air, Class III
Elemental, Earth, Class III
Elemental, Fire, Class III
Elemental, Water, Class III
Mammoth, Woolly, Superior
Sea Serpent
Tree-Man, Ancient

16+ HD
Automaton, Iron

18 HD
Squid, Colossal
Whale, Blue

... um wait. Uh. That's a shiton of monsters that the very Best of the MU class can't touch with this. I mean that's A LOT OF MONSTERS the World Famous MU with the Shaznitz Death Spell can't even scratch with the thing. Better not bring him along for those Epic Level adventures, then cause, well, he's going to be pretty embarrassed, don't you think?

Ok kidding aside, this is a solid and lethal offensive spell that will crush 2d8 trolls in a flash. We can't sccoff. That's baddass to be sure. That it won't scratch a Monstrous Crab or a Fire Giant, or even a Griffin is perhaps a frustration on those higher level adventures to be sure, but should we really balk at that? I'm not sure. I would imagine that combinations of other MU spells can handle pretty much anything the system can throw at our hapless party. Or so I would expect. But maybe not. After all, what do you do when you're on the high seas and you encounter a 18 HD colossal squid? There you are, sea sick next to the fore mast watching the tentacles from the sea scooping up men 4 at a time and dragging them to the briny depths. You look forlornly at the party MU, and he looks forlornly back. There you both are... seasick, helpless and then the colossus crushes the hull for good measure. Maybe you have a Beowulf with you and he leaps into the sea to do battle with the great beast of the deep. If not, well, I dunno how you deal with it. Well, of course that's not really the case. The MU casts Lightning Bolt which does as many dice damage as the MU's level. So if the MU is 18th Level then hell with it - that thing is not going to want to mess with our ship for long. And if that doesn't do the trick he can then cast FireBall of the equivalent damage. And if that doesn't seem to do the trick, why not use the old Hold Monster trick? There you go. And if all else fails, our friendly neighborhood MU can fly away. Hey, at least someone gets to survive and tell the tale. But as far as Death Spell goes... well, for higher level monsters it's a wash, but lethal and a half for the entire lower level monster set. I'm good with that, frankly.

I rate this spell 5 Stars out of 5 for lethal effectiveness. Yup. I take this spell fo shizzle!


Geas: A spell which forces the recipient to perform some task (as directed by the Magic User casting the Geas). Any attempt to deviate from the performance of the task will result in weakness, and ignoring the Geas entirely brings death. The referee must carefully adjudicate the casting and subsequent performance of the geased individual when the spell is used. Duration; Until the task is completed. Range: 3" (90').

Mmmm... that is pretty nasty. It's not a charm where the person has no control over their own actions, but if you don't obey, you die. Nice. The Range is a bit short so you better get that Geas off before the recipient can reach you, I suppose, or you might wind up with a sword in yer gizzard, wizard. But still, lets assume that Geases are given to those who are somewhat willing to accept them. In mythology it was pretty much something that old withered hags handed out that put Kings and Heroes in an awkward position. Things like "You may never eat dog meat". And meanwhile there might be a general taboo against refusing hospitality as a guest in someone's home. This is pretty much what happened to CĂș Chulainn, and it didn't go well for him. So in the sense of tradition this spell is something used by the subtle and the wise to thwart the ambitions of the proud and the powerful... or something along those lines. Anyway, for the blunt and the ruthless there is always Charm, which kind of works a little more succinctly, in my opinion. And then there's Hold Person as well. I'm not sure why I would rather choose Geas over Charm, actually. But heck, it's kind of cool in an old worldish sort of way. I'm down with it. But it doesn't seem that essential. Take it if you want to be more classically in tune with the mystical woah and travail of it all, I suppose.

I rate this spell 3 Stars for usefulness.


Disintegrate: This spell will cause material of any kind - other than that of a magical nature - to Disintegrate(!!!). It will blast a tree, dragon (if it fails to make its saving through against magic), wall section, or whatever. Range 6" (180')

Woah! Ok, Colossal Squid, that's it - you are toast! Or not toast. You're un-toast! Ok, you get the idea. Now THIS is the ultimate weapon of the Magic User against all things Higher Level than 7 HD. Of course you have to get past that pesky Saving Throw. Let's check that out, shall we? So let's posit our 18th Level MU. He's a total badass with Disintegrate. Here comes the colossal squid. So how do we determine what the saving throw for our colossal squid vs Disintegrate is? We don't. It's not specified in the rules. Later editions and commentaries however come to the rescue. An article of the Strategic Review, 1975, explains that:
Saving throws for monsters are the same as for the appropriate type and level of man, i.e. a balrog would gain the saving throw of either a 10th level fighter or a 12th level magic-user (the latter based upon the balrog’s magic resistance), whichever score is the more favorable for the balrog. A troll would be equal to a 7th level fighter as it has 6 dice +3, virtually seven dice.**
So there we have it. 18th Level Fighter Saving Throw vs Magic = 8 or better on a 20 sided die = 60% chance to make the save. ***

On the other hand, in the same thread it states that in Chainmail, which is mechanically fused to OD&D, the rule for saving throws was that monsters get no saving throws vs magic unless specified in their descriptions. So in this case our Colossal Squid ... is not described per se in the OD&D books, nor in Chainmail. So we should probably conclude that it goes under the heading of Sea Monsters, and these do not get a specific Saving Throw in the rules book.

Whww. So yeah. Good bye Mr. Squid. You are UN-TOAST.

I rate this spell 5 Stars for effectiveness. Take it! You can't go wrong.


Move Earth: When above ground the Magic User may utilize this spell to move prominences such as hills or ridges. The spell takes one turn to go into effect. The terrain affected will move at the rate of 6" (180') per turn. Duration: 6 turns. Range 24" (720').

Ok. Yes. That's hefty. When you need to remove a wall from yonder fortification during your honorable King's next war... this is your spell, bro. I'm sure the ingenuity of our Magic Users knows no bounds when it comes to this spell. I see nothing wrong with it, and it probably comes in quite handy at times.

I rate this spell 5 Stars for usefulness.

Next (and last)!

Control Weather: The Magic User can perform any one of the following weather control operations with this spell: Rain, Stop Rain, Cold Wave, Heat Wave, Tornado, Stop Tornado, Deep Clouds, Clear Sky.

Hey, any Magic User worth his salt should be able to control the weather, right? And heck it comes with Tornado! The only question is ... what does Tornado DO, exactly? Not defined. So that leaves it up to the GM to decide. But really, no matter what, a Tornado is a hell of a thing to throw at your opponents. And besides, being able to make it rain... that's a life saver for many peoples in the world. I'd say this is worth taking in order to firmly establish your street cred as a Magic User of no-small import in the world. Go for it.

I rate this spell 4 Stars for usefulness.

And that concludes my coverage and commentary on the Spells of OD&D.  Next up: Clerical Spells!


* - Monster list ruthlessly pilfered from

** - Quote obtained from:

*** - Saving Throws:

The Elthos Project

Well, it feels like only a few days have passed, but in fact it's been months of hard work. The Elthos Project is a vast and sprawling concept that includes not only the lovely Elthos RPG Core Rules Book (PDF), but also the Mythos Machine web application. The two of them together comprise the heart of the project. And yet there's more to it than that. The project also embodies the concept of Professional Gamesmastering, as well as the Literary Role Playing Games, for which I have founded two Societies. The two are related in that Professional GMs will probably want to include the Literary RPG skills in their tool set, but not all GMs who desire those skills will necessarily wish to go Pro with them. So I have kept the two concept separated, despite the additional complexity in terms of organization.

The Elthos Project is a broad and expensive idea that seeks to cover a lot of territory. In order to pull this off I have a broad front strategy by which I seek to make incremental progress one step at a time on all four fronts. The purpose, overall, is to help the hobby to grow and mature into something that is not only fun for geeks and people who like funny dice, but for everyone who likes a good story. And that's a much wider audience. But how to get from here to there? Well, my plan has four parts.

The first is to create a simplified traditional rules system that is flexible, and generic enough to support as many kinds of Worlds and Genres as possible. To the degree possible I want to do so without losing the foundations of the game, which is, for those who don't know, the old fashioned tactical wargame from which D&D emerged in the late 1960's and early 70's, of which Chainmail by Gygax and Arneson is the primary and best known example. My goal for the Elthos RPG is to fuse the best elements of traditional wargaming with those of story based gaming.   Hence it is focused on fast action game play, and a rich yet simple Character generation system.

The second part of the plan is to provide with that rules system a unified GM prep utility in the form of the Mythos Machine. It has as it's foundation the Elthos RPG rules system, and allows GMs to both create and maintain their Worlds, Adventures and Characters in a centralized location online. It also allows players to create their Characters there, and provides them with all of the Character related tools they need to maintain their character's equipment, skills, powers, histories and perspectives. Thus the Mythos Machine provides comprehensive support for the Elthos RPG.

What the Mythos Machine does not try to do at this point is what other online services are doing in terms of providing play interfaces, such as Roll20. It leaves the battle mapping to others who are providing those services. That said, lately I have been experimenting with Tabletop Simulator and it looks very promising for allowing me to build feature rich 3D interface functionality between it and the Mythos Machine and I'm evaluating doing so at this time. So stay tuned for those developments as I think that this may well be the future direction we take.

Thirdly on my plan is the Literary RPG Society which has a focus on exploring methods for enhanced story telling via RPGs. No, I do not mean so-called "Story Games" which has taken on a hugely political taint in the world of RPGs. Instead what I mean is that traditional RPGs can, despite accusations of the opposite, provide rich story telling and our goal is to demonstrate how, and why. What makes RPGs different than their Wargame cousins, in fact, is the story aspect of the game. This dates back to the division between Gygax and Arneson at the foundations of the hobby, and has been a bone of contention between two factions of the community ever since. What the LRPGS hopes to accomplish is to reunite the two disparate points of view with the claim that, yes, you can have the best of both worlds. And we are in the business of seeking ways of doing so. I believe I've had some wonderful successes in this endeavor and so it is my firm belief that it is not only possible, but hugely beneficial to the enjoyment of the hobby. Is the story aspect necessary for RPGs? No, not at all, and that's a proven fact. But can it enhance the enjoyment of RPGs? Yes, I certainly believe so. And the point of this is that by expanding into this domain, wisely and without political rancor, we can improve the hobby and expand it to a wider audience. Examples of this are abounding at this point, as we can see a new modality of play is emerging on the scene in the form of Live Streaming of games. What makes these compelling, when they are compelling, is the story aspect and character interplay in these productions. I think there's a huge amount of potential in this category and the LRPGS hopes to help people realise it.

Lastly is the most controversial of my project plans. The Professional GM Society. None of the other aspects will raise as many eyebrows as this one, I suspect, once it gets going. Right now we have a community of almost 200 GMs who are all in various ways endeavoring to bring themselves up to the professional level of Gamemastering and charging for their services. A lot of players out there will probably be alarmed by this development. On that I have two things to say: 1) the GM typically puts in a huge amount of work into their world that you enjoy the fruits of and should probably help to contribute to if you want to see higher quality games at your table. 2) the PGMS is specifically shying away from the proposition that we should try to convert existing players over to for-pay clients of our games. Nope. We realize that is a losing proposition and our conclusion has been that we won't be attempting it. So players who are playing for free now should expect to remain safely ensconced for a long time to come. However, to argue that GMs should never get paid for their services is not something we GMs of the PGMS can agree to. For one thing every other art form has professionals who provide top quality way-above-average services for a fee. And some make quite good money at it. And they all started at one time as hobbies. Music? Painting? Poetry? Literature? Film? Yup, all started once upon a time as hobbies. We see no difference between this and GMing, except that GMing is newer than the rest of them. And we feel that now is the time to step up and professionalize our skill such that for-pay RPGing becomes a thing. At least for some GMs who are willing to put in the effort and take the risk.

Perhaps you can see how all four of these aspects form one comprehensive whole which is the Elthos Project. I hope you will help me in bringing this to life by giving the Elthos RPG a chance and checking out the Mythos Machine.

The current status is that we are almost finished with the Core Rules Book and will be selling it on DriveThruRPG, and possibly on Lulu and Amazon (TBD). I don't expect it to cost a lot, but we wont be giving it away for PWYW either. We need money to make the Elthos Project come to life, and the Core Rules book is intended to help subsidize the project, and we're hoping that people will be willing to chip in by paying the modest price for the Rules Book. Conversely, if you find yourself wondering how you can make a bigger contribution (you might actually think this entire concept is worth supporting) then please take note of the handy "Sponsor" section on the right panel of this blog and feel free to contribute whatever you feel like.

The Mythos Machine is currently in Open Beta and you are very welcome to come by and check it out. It will be the central hub around which all other activities will orbit going forward. Right now it has the core system of the Elthos RPG programmed and is somewhere around 95% finished. We need feedback on it to find out where the bottlenecks are, locate any code errors, and learn from the users what it will take for it to serve the needs of Elthos GMs more completely. That said, at this point it is highly functional, feature rich, and extremely useful in terms of saving GMs time on Prep for their games. I know because I use it myself and it saves me countless hours of prep time. It also keeps all of my world's history and information online which means I can access it from anywhere. So at a coffee shop and come up with another great adventure hook for my latest campaign? No problem. The Mythos Machine is there for me. And I hope it will be there for you, too. I'd also like to note here that you can use the Mythos Machine's World Weaver Studio for other systems if you wish, to create your own worlds simply by bypassing the Elthos RPG related aspects in the Gamemaster's Toolbox. How you use the utility is up to you, but I would recommend trying it with the Elthos RPG aspects as well... it is a pretty good system for fast play and rich character generation. And the Mythos Machine allows you a great number of configuration options to shape your world the way you want. Everything from how many dice for character generation to creating your own weapons, armors, skills and pretty much everything else for your world. Anyway, please take a look if you're at all interested. You may like what you see. And if you do - please provide feedback! Thanks. :)

In addition, via the Professional GM Society I will be working towards creating a venue for Elthos on the Tabletop Simulator platform that can be used by myself and other GMs to run both professional and hobby games. Hobby first, I should imagine. I think the potential there is high and we're working on developing the necessary tools to allow GMs to quickly and easily create 3D RPG worlds there and integrate the Elthos RPG into the game play with direct feeds of Character data to the TTS system. Again this requires time, and time, as Einstein once proved, equals money with his little known yet all-pervasive equation T = $.

I will also be hoping to create workshops for GMs via the Literary RPG Society for enhancing GM skills in relation to story and character development and providing other useful services via this organization. This aspect is one that has been on the stove for a long time simmering quietly in the background. I plan to focus on this in the years to come, and eventually I see this as a greater part of the Elthos Project. But this one will take lots of time to develop and won't happen immediately, although if you are interested you are more than welcome to join in and promote the concept with your ideas, observations, and advice to other GMs on the topic.

Ok, that's my statement for September 2016 on the Elthos Project. Thanks for reading this far. :)

Lastly I want to thank all of the Open Beta testers for all of your excellent feedback thus far! Every bit of feedback is very helpful! Thank you!


Elthos RPG Mythos Machine website:

PGMS Website:

LRPGS Community on G+: