22 June, 2021

Gygax and Third-Level New PCs

Something that came up recently, as it does from time to time, was the claim that later in life Gygax started his players off at third level rather than first, specifically in the context of his own private OD&D games.

The implications of this vary, interestingly, as people read into it what they want.  That Gygax felt he had made a mistake back in the day and sought to correct it is the most common and most basic interpretation.  Some however take it further, using it as a cudgel against the school of thought arguing that such early-game lethality was the way D&D was meant to be played (as well as against the grimdark / misery-porn wing of the OSR that loves to focus on 1st-level PCs and their tendency to die to overly aggressive housecats).  If Gygax himself couldn't even be bothered to play out those levels, the argument goes, then how can anyone claim that this focus on low-level play and high lethality is anything approaching how things were "supposed to be"?

I'm not one that treats everything Gygax ever said or did as sacred canon; I suspect most people with their own OSR games have this attitude, since you have to be willing to tinker with canon to make such a game.  At the same time, I think you'd be foolish not to pay close attention to what the guy who literally (co)invented the game says, especially knowing that it comes backed with decades of play experience.  But beyond all this, what I found interesting is that no one was actually posting an original source, something that always sets off my historian alarms.

Pretty much every mention of this decision of Gary's goes back to the same page, a post on the Cyclopeatron blog from 2010.  That post in turn links to this (now archived) page from 2005 by Robert Fisher.  That in turn led to this Dragonsfoot thread, from the same author and also from 2005.  Unfortunately at that point the trail gets a bit colder, as it turns out that the information ultimately comes from somewhere in Gygax's 440-page ENWorld thread.  And for whatever reason, ENWorld does not allow you to download threads, even if you're a member.

Fortunately, some kind soul took the thread in its original 13-part form and upped it to the Internet Archive, enabling me to put all the PDFs together and search away.  And finally I found the post, from 2004.

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The "reports" referenced come from posts made by Gygax to the now-deleted Gygax Games Yahoo Group.  However, I have it archived, and the original post by Gygax on this was accurately copied to another forum.  It's pretty straightforward:

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So the original posts do confirm that Gary indeed was running new PCs at 3rd level.

At the same time, examining these posts, I think their ramifications may have been overstated.  He was running this particular starting group in 2004-2005 at third level.  However, there's no evidence that this was the result of a wider change of philosophy on Gary's part.  What context there is suggests the opposite: that he was generally following the traditional approach but giving these particular PCs a boost because

  1. Previous PC actions had made the 1st level of Castle Greyhawk no longer a 1st-level PC environment (Gary ran a living dungeon, where the actions of different groups had wider ramifications), and
  2. The rules as originally written assumed much larger party sizes (as I explored previously here)--Gary specifies eight PCs plus that many helper NPC bodies--while the actual party, as seen in the second post, is a mere five PCs.

In other words, rather than shifting in his old age to a more heroic or generous (however you prefer to term it) style of play, Gary was adjusting this particular campaign to this particular dungeon and group ("I made the group being 3rd level characters in hope that they would feel more confident in exploring lower levels").  He was a flexible enough DM to understand that the precise circumstances of the campaign called for a different approach: his player group was one-third the recommended size, and so he simply tripled their levels.  But somewhere along the line a game of Telephone began, and what seems to be a localized phenomenon became transmuted by the fanbase into something much more.

Focusing overmuch on this post misses this context, and even evolutions in Gygax's thinking.  For example, in a later post from October 2007, he said:

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Now "the usual" is using 2nd level as a start, not 3rd.

What is not clear is how universal these rules were.  The second post is again in the context of a con game.  As such, it's possible that rules such as these were Gygax's blanket tournament house rules (meaning used at all tournaments, but perhaps not ones used in campaign games).  He may have also used 3rd-level starts for tournaments and/or small-party games, and 2nd level for home games.  Unfortunately, beyond the idea that Gygax didn't treat the first-level start as sacrosanct, it's not clear.

I have to admit that I like the level adjustment in context, because my choice for my own game was to boost starting PCs to two hit dice and such, specifically because I was aiming for parties of 4-5 players and knew that old-school editions assumed much larger groups.  It's nice to see that Gygax reached a very similar conclusion for the same reason at the same party-size scale.

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As an appendix to all this, the Dungeon Craft Youtube channel had an episode on the original blog posts that set most of this off (either the 2005 Robert Fisher original or, more likely since that blog has been gone since 2013 or so, the 2010 Cyclopeatron post, which is still live).  That post has a lot more game-running detail than just PCs beginning at third level: numerous other house rules make an appearance.  Dungeon Craft doesn't credit the original source because they don't seem to know it or to have gone looking for it, instead mentioning that they got it from a follower on Facebook who in turn copied it down from some unnamed forum and lost the original source.

It turns out that Gygax posted them on the Troll Lord forum in August 2007.

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It's interesting that, despite being a "hurried" post, it has options not listed in his much more well-known post on the same subject from two months later (the death adjustment and the move silently bonus for high Dex). These rules were used for GenCon 40.  Again, whether or not these rules were tournament rules or universal house rules is not clear from his post.  Regardless, the Dungeon Craft episode claims that these were Gygax's "SECRET rules for D&D".  In the comments however is a post from Luke Gygax:

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As Luke's post says it's "all bogus", one might be tempted to say that includes the third-level start.  But Luke only specifically references other changes, not the third-level start (and the original Troll Lord post doesn't mention level changes, only stat-based ones).
 
What is interesting here is that we have clear evidence (multiple posts) that Gygax did perform some of these changes, making it odd that Luke wasn't aware of them.  There are a few possibilities:
 
  • the house rules may simply come from a point past which Luke was gaming with his father (we know Luke wasn't involved in at least one of the campaigns Gygax posted about above)
  • Gygax didn't retroactively apply these rules to established games, so that older campaigns (such as the ones Luke may have been playing in with established characters) wouldn't see them in use, while new ones did, or
  • again we may have a tourney game ruleset vs home game ruleset situation, so that only tourney players would see them while regular home players might be unaware they exist

In the end, I think the most important thing to understand is that Gygax's attitudes were not static.  They shifted while he was at TSR, and they shifted all over the place during the rest of his life.  No one post of his is going to encapsulate his one true secret opinion.


 

02 June, 2021

Simulacrum — Beta Release

EDIT: New drafts are uploaded in the first few days of the month (though sometimes I skip a month). A changelog for drafts is available at the bottom.

I've had a few requests to provide copies of my game, Simulacrum, and sometimes I've posted drafts in the comments section or to /osrg.   Overall though I've been reluctant to put it out in a main post.  In part that's because I wanted to continue to write about the process of development, and putting out a near-final release would seem to detract from charting its creation.  And I've not been in any hurry because this project has always been for myself, rather than based on any delusion that the world breathlessly awaits another OSR game.

But a lot of my reluctance has to do with wanting it to be the best that it can be before really releasing it to the wider world.  A year of playtesting saw my players hit 7th level, and I'm looking forward to their exploration of the game's higher levels and the inevitable tweaks that will produce.

Still, I think it's time.  So, without further ado, here's the beta for my humble game.  I'll be continuing to run my campaign, read blogs and other games, and take into account feedback, all of which will lead me to tweak things here and there, and eventually I'll put it up on DriveThru and make it "final", but it is tested and feature-complete and you should find it perfectly playable.

1 - Simulacrum Player's Manual - Beta 24-02

2 - Simulacrum GM's Manual - Beta 24-02

3 - Simulacrum Designer Notes - Beta 24-02

4 - Simulacrum Playing Aids - Beta 21-06

The Player's Manual is entirely self-contained, and should be everything a player needs.

The GM's Manual completes the game; it has some cross-referencing, in that it expands and comments on Player's Manual material, but is GM-only.

The Designer Notes are bonus material, made simply because I'm tired of downloading OSR games and having no idea what they did to depart from the TSR baseline, let alone why they did so.  Everything I've done has been for a reason, and I imagine at least a few of you reading a history/theory/game design blog are going to be interested in that kind of inside baseball, as I am.  By reading it, those on the fence can decide if a given change has a basis that makes sense for them.  Completely optional.

Lastly, the Playing Aids PDF consists of a few simple squares you can print and cut out to give to players so that they can announce their stances each round by throwing down their choice on the table, aiding the GM in running fights quicker.  They're not necessary at all: ever since I switched to Zoom I've been just handling that verbally, but in person I've found that it speeds things up.  The PDF also has a GM's sheet that I print off a copy of each session to track key session elements: time passing, treasure gained, and so on (the little dinosaurs in the time-tracking boxes are a reminder to make a wandering monster check).

The only thing that I feel is missing is a character sheet.  I created one for my own use, but it uses graphical elements I stole from other works and so wouldn't be right to share.  Characters are pretty simple, as they are in most OSR games, and so this shouldn't be a major hindrance.

Why Bother?

As I said above, most of this was about creating a game for myself: very few people play most OSR games.  What it does and why is thoroughly explored in the Design Notes document, and there's lots of changes.  However, in short, I do think this offers a few key things that other editions / clones don't:

A thorough design focus on 4-5 players.  As I've explored in other posts, old-school D&D assumes large parties: 6 PCs/NPCs at the very minimum, with 15-16 total towards the top end.  Old-school lethality is definitely a thing, but a lot of it comes from your modern group of 4 to 5 players rolling up to keeps in the borderlands without any retainers and getting mobbed by hordes of monsters placed to challenge player groups that were two to three times the size.  Simulacrum takes a combination of PC toughening and monster weakening throughout the game framework that brings things back to a more even keel in terms of party / enemy balance.  PCs aren't superheroes, but neither are they hopeless frails in the face of the enemy.  This isn't intended to make stronger heroes per se, but to level the playing field for smaller groups back to where things used to be, albeit in a non-traditional fashion.

Native hexcrawl support.  Using the system I've worked out in an earlier post, the game handles hexcrawling in a far cleaner fashion than the traditional D&D rules, making the wilderness portion of the game not just something paid lip service to, while at the same time not bogging things down with a mountain of tiresome Wilderness Survival Guide-type survivalist tedium.

Two modular core classes.  A tight two-page spread gives you all your core character creation, so that making new characters is quick and easy.  At the same time, a mix of modular add-ons and spell schools allows one to create a set of custom classes for their own campaign, or to have an extremely flexible structure that allows you to more readily capture a wider variety of archetypes and variations than normal, while at the same time not needing page after page of classes and subclasses or descending into the hell of "builds".  As such, you get brief rules and fast character creation, but also a decent amount of flexibility that should let you make a form of any standard D&D class as well as a few that never existed.

Streamlining without compromising core play.  I've tried to make things run more smoothly in terms of aspects of weapons, armour, saves, task resolution, classes (as above), and spells.  However, I tried to avoid the common phenomena of streamlining for its own sake, and to the point of removing what makes an OSR game actually OSR.  Things like encumbrance and the classic dungeoneering procedures are kept and even sometimes slightly clarified / expanded upon, and advice on how to use the engine in old-school games sown throughout, so that the game doesn't become a generic fantasy ruleset but remains focused on the classic dungeoncrawl and compatible with most any old-school module.  "Rules-light" is not an end unto itself, and my general approach has been "how I can make something work better for me" rather than "what can I cut".

(Reasonably) complete rules.  Many OSR games aim to be rules-light, but achieve that in large part by farming out core content to other books: spell lists, magic items, bestiaries, any procedures other than core task resolution.  I've attempted to include everything you need for typical play, without having to run to the DMG or PHB to actually run a proper game.

I would welcome any questions or comments.  I'd only note first that between the GM's Manual and the Designer Notes that a lot of the "why" as to what I did is covered.  Still, if I missed something or are not clear there, by all means let me know.

For those interested in a draft-by-draft changelog, I've started a simple text one here, tracking from Oct 2022 onwards:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1eu1RLu1nJdo80Uv-RODLmOkKp4kOU_6Q/view?usp=share_link

I hope this all is of some use to you out there, either as a full game or as a collection of elements for you to steal for your own OSR game, as is right and proper.  For those of you who commented on earlier drafts or run playtest games, thanks for your feedback over the years: it's been invaluable, and I'd be glad to hear more of it.  Happy adventuring.  Go forth and plunder!