Friday, November 20, 2015

Clones and Rules, Inside and Out

One of the interesting aspects of the OSR is the multiplicity of clones, and particularly the way that clones emulate the games that they are based on, and even more, what they choose not to emulate. Which is why I think the cases of two popular clones that I've run, Swords & Wizardry and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, are so interesting.

Swords & Wizardry is a clone of original D&D. Or at least that's how it's sold. It has close approximations of the ability scores, classes, races, equipment, spells and monsters from OD&D, and a general semblance of similar rules. (This is hard because OD&D has lacunae.) So far so good.

But if you look at the way treasure is built in S&W, it's radically different from OD&D. In OD&D, treasure in the dungeon isn't built from the Treasure Type tables in Monsters & Treasure. It's built from the tables in The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, which portion out treasure based on dungeon level to half of the monster rooms and one sixth of the empty rooms. Just reading Swords & Wizardry you'd never get that. S&W only ties treasures to monster Challenge Rating. It does tell you to leave some rooms empty, but not to put a significant portion of the treasure there.

This is an important difference. An OD&D dungeon designed according to its guidelines is going to have "unguarded" treasure. According to the book it should be hidden and/or trapped. But a S&W dungeon isn't going to have that, if the referee follows the guidelines in the S&W rule books. Over time the game is going to play differently, since the OD&D group is going to be looking for hidden treasure while the S&W group would be justified in looking for combat.

Indeed, if you follow OD&D's logic a bit further, treasure is based not on monster level but dungeon level, which is significant. Level 1 of an OD&D dungeon, following the monster tables, is likely to have gnolls, a 2 HD creature from the dungeon level 2 chart. But the gnolls should still be guarding a level 1 treasure. They only get level 2 treasures when they're found on dungeon level 2. This means that fighting gnolls on level 1 in OD&D is a losing proposition. But in S&W, gnolls should always be guarding CR-appropriate treasure, and therefore the reward is determined by monster level, not dungeon level. This pulls the game toward the modern "dungeon combat" genre.

All of this is fine if that's how you want to play. It clearly works for a lot of folks and they're having fun with the game. But Swords & Wizardry doesn't really talk about this anywhere, and I think that's a shame because adventure design is such a big part of how a game ultimately plays. Which brings me to another clone.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess bills itself as weird fantasy. But on a reading of the Rules & Magic book, novices typically ask the excellent question: how is this different from standard D&D? On the surface, it mostly looks like a minor variant on B/X Dungeons & Dragons, going a bit further afield than Labyrinth Lord but still very much in the same ballpark.

Except in LotFP, the adventure design aesthetic is distinctly different. Here, certain features of the typical D&D world – anthropomorphic gods, human-like monsters, cozy Tolkienesque worldbuilding – is explicitly rejected in favor of horror set in the early modern period of Earth's history.

There, as they say, is a distinction with a difference. Everything in LotFP is implicit in how B/X D&D is played. Characters are going into dark, dangerous places filled with monsters, hoping to come out alive and with arms full of gold. But it cranks up the nastiness of the threats to 11, and strips out elements antithetical to this approach. What's fascinating is that, in play, it winds up being more exploratory than Labyrinth Lord. For God's sake, you certainly don't want to be fighting!

And yet, this is 95% in the adventure design. You could run B2 Keep on the Borderlands with LotFP, and I wager that it'd go swimmingly once you converted ACs and switched GP to SP, as long as nobody casts Summon. In fact, it wouldn't be too different from running it with Swords & Wizardry. Both would have minor differences, but the underlying module would show through.

For me these differences in preparing the game show a lot of the underlying philosophy of a rule set. S&W has a lot of the exterior resemblance of OD&D, but if played as written it will have a natural tendency to drift in a direction more toward a "modern" game with a heavier emphasis on combat. Whereas LotFP, which totally upsets the apple cart of standard D&D, comes around and goes back toward exploration. It's a neat trick if you can pull it off.


  1. I think some of Swords & Wizardry's rules improve on OD&D (single-category saving throws and, yes, ascending AC) but I dislike the system for generating treasure. When stocking dungeons, I always reach for a couple of six-siders and my Moldvay book, partly for the reason you mention and also because it's so much faster without all the tedious mucking about with "trade-outs".

  2. One wonders how Death Frost Doom would play in B/X.

  3. I'm planning on running some old school TSR modules using LotFP. And yes, it'd all fun and games until someone casts Summon.

    1. I played in a LotFP campaign last year, which ended with a Summon spell. The mage summoned a tentacled monster, which could impregnate on a successful attack, or turn people to stone. The mage lost control, and it didn't want to be there so left, taking my cleric with it. My cleric was effectively hentai'd out of the campaign (and this quickly led to a TPK).

      I stress that that Summon was randomly rolled, but I'd be hesitant to ever see the Summon spell used again!


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