Friday, April 1, 2022

The Brave Art of Running Away

In last night's game, on two separate occasions the player characters decided that discretion is often the better part of valor, and decided not to fight potential enemies. One was a group of Selenites occupying a mine - the PCs charmed one of them and got enough information to know they'd be outnumbered. The second was a giant badger, which they were simply able to outrun (it only has a move of 6 compared to the PCs' 12). This did land them in a different fight, but they avoided the badger.

Generally I think that this is encouraged by the design of old school D&D (or in this case, S&W). PCs don't have a lot of hit points at low levels, and often don't have a lot of resources to regain lost ones other than time. It's one of the things that defines the OSR mode of play as more in the dangerous-exploration vein and less high-heroic. The PCs who emulate Sir Robin instead of Sir Lancelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail are, frankly, more likely to survive. (Sir Robin doesn't do as well at the riddle part, another lesson for players.)

Mechanically, running away is one of the least complicated things in D&D. Movement rates are objective, and this has been true in pretty much every edition of the game you can go to. Whether it's described as 12" or 30 feet, PCs tend to move away at roughly the same speed, and monsters are either faster or slower. Encumbrance becomes important in this regard, of course, because if you are overloaded with treasure, you can't run as fast. This can set up a Sophie's Choice for the players: do you save your GP or your HP?

This is where the ethos of "free Kriegsspiel" or "rulings not rules" becomes important. For the most part, the difficulties of running away will be situational. Is it dark? Is there an obstacle or danger that the PCs can run into unawares? You may want to allow a saving throw or a d6 roll - old D&D's surprise mechanic might be a good guide to see whether the PCs land in something unexpected, or see a hazard before hitting it. Rulings may also let the PCs improvise a strategy to gain some distance, or make a mistake that allows the pursuer to catch up.

Likewise, when they flee is a good time to roll for a random encounter. With some luck, this could be a good or a bad thing. Maybe it's another hostile force (as with the bandits my players ran into); the combination of two of these may be interesting depending on your local factions. They could even get lucky and run into some relatively friendly person or creature that could help them in a pinch.

Of course, in a dungeon or wilderness, running away means taking the risk of getting lost. Almost any older D&D ruleset has rules for this in the wilderness, though you might have to improvise somewhat within the dungeon based on where the PCs are in the map. I wouldn't make this an automatic consequence, but there should be some chance of losing one's bearings, especially in unfamiliar terrain.

One factor that isn't in the rules that the referee should consider is: how long can the PCs run for? After a certain period of time, PCs should become exhausted; some kind of check, maybe a save or a Constitution roll, could be in order. As a cautionary note: one thing worth knowing about humans is that running over very long distances is a specialty of ours as a species. If the pursuer is non-human, and can't gain a decisive advantage, it will probably tire out before they do.

In itself, running away is hardly a heroic action. Players might say that they didn't sign up to play Sir Robin. But in an exploration game, picking the right time to run away is likely to be one of the things that keeps the PCs alive long enough to become the heroes.

Just be sure the minstrels don't write a ballad about that part.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Mythic Underworld: Ishtar and Ereshkigal

I've been reading a fascinating anthology, Myths from Mesopotamia, of stories translated from ancient Akkadian. Some of these are the well known myths of Gilgamesh and Atrahasis, which told a flood story that will be familiar to readers of the Hebrew Bible. Other stories, though, talk about the descent of deities into the mythic underworld – a long-standing interest of this blog.

There are a number of such descents. One story describes the goddess Ishtar (sometimes called Inanna) going down to the realm of her sister Ereshkigal. She threatens the gatekeeper (more on that later), and is allowed in - although only after she strips away all of her ornamentation. Then she is inflicted with a series of diseases and imprisoned. Since Ishtar is a fertility goddess, all sexual activity on earth ceases while she is trapped. Ea creates a man, called Good-Looks in the translation, to trick Ereshkigal into requesting a drink of water; this causes her to free Ishtar. The myth also involves the release (which in some other versions is only temporary) of Ishtar's lover Dumuzi.

The other stories involve the god Nergal. The myth is somewhat different in two versions, but the gist is that the gods are having a banquet, and Ereshkigal sends her vizier up to get her portion. Nergal is disrespectful to the vizier and must go down into the underworld as penitence. In one version he brings down an elaborate chair to allow him to escape, but Ereshkigal makes a threat (more later) and he has to return as her lover. In the other he is sent down as a penitent and seduced by promises of power from Ereshkigal.

So as not to bury the lede on these threats, which are roughly the same, let's go right to the source text, from the Descent of Ishtar.

Here, gatekeeper, open your gate for me,
Open your gate for me to come in!
If you do not open the gate for me to come in,
I shall smash the door and shatter the bolt,
I shall smash the doorpost and overturn the doors,
I shall raise up the dead and they shall eat the living:
The dead shall outnumber the living!

Reading this, I cannot help but be reminded of the modern trope of a zombie apocalypse. The seven gates of the underworld are what protects the earth from hordes of ravenous dead. And yet this threat is made both by Ishtar and Ereshkigal in quite a number of myths. In fact we first see it in this anthology with the Epic of Gilgamesh, where Ishtar makes the same threat if she is not given the Bull of Heaven (which is promptly dispatched by Gilgamesh and Enkidu in an anticlimactic fight that many referees will find too familiar.)

It's also interesting that Ishtar has to remove her clothing and protection to step through the gates in the first place. Nergal subverts this somewhat; in one version of his myth, he dispatches the doorkeepers rather than being let in conventionally. Certainly those are ideas that can be played with in creating a D&D underworld.

One detail I found fascinating was that the inhabitants of the underworld are described as clothed in feathers, eating dust and clay, and having no offspring. This might be an interesting tidbit for those who want to avoid the D&D tropes of "what do the monsters eat" and "do we kill baby orcs?" (or more generally the idea that the PCs are invading the realms of sentient cultures). The issue of drinking water seems particularly critical, which can be interesting either as a tool or a threat to pose to the player characters in the underworld.

The Babylonian myths feature various demons, such as the gallu shown tormenting poor Dumuzi above. They were known as the demons that hauled the dead to the underworld. One thing we will note is that there are in fact larger and smaller demons, with their leader wielding a mace. In the Sumerian version Dumuzi's hands and feet are turned into snake hands and feet so that he can escape from them. There are some adaptations of gallu to modern versions of D&D, but they seem like a flexible race: you can run them like anything in classic D&D from a goblin to an ogre, making the bigger ones more proper dangers. And of course they could wear increasingly bizarre feathered clothing.

The last thing that I think needs to be pulled out of this is the nature of the deities in question. Ishtar was of course a major goddess of love, but also war and conquest, infamous for the practice (which may have been spurious or exaggerated) of sacred prostitution. Ereshkigal herself seems to have been principally a queen of the underworld, though it's fascinating that she unleashes disease at Ishtar and makes threats of zombie hordes. Nergal was a bit more interesting, as he is a god of war and plague, and specifically had a role in drawing ghosts back into the realm of the dead.

So if you want to make your underworld more Babylonian, consider multiple gates with sacrifices or gatekeepers; big and small demons with clothing made of feathers; and don't forget the hordes of ravenous zombies.

Images in this post are from the public domain. Sources: goddess, demons.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

The Open Table and Massively Multiplayer D&D

This very interesting video came out from the YouTube channel Questing Beast:

I think that many of the points made here are pretty accurate: D&D was originally written to house a large group, where a player might have multiple characters, and a single referee was seen as running a world, not a storyline. This is certainly what we see playing out in the early days of Alarums & Excursions, when players would bring their characters into other referees' dungeons – and sometimes clashes of expectations resulted.

This is, of course, why time is so important as a resource in the game. The video is quite right in identifying and laying stress on this part of game management, and it makes sense of many of the fiddly time-related rules in AD&D that, in a standard heroic campaign, seem simply like a matter of tedious bookkeeping (and possibly to allow things like weather or dungeon repopulation to factor in).

And it's accurate to say that this style was somewhat submerged. I think that this was a result of the shift from play in large, open groups of high school or college students (as was often the case in places like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California), to small, closed groups of middle school students, in the explosive growth that D&D went through in the early 1980s. When these players, who learned RPGs from one of the Basic Set boxes, transitioned to AD&D, they lost the idea that the game was designed for large, open tables, and began to play out quests that would look more like modern D&D. And the modules changed to accomodate this – it's not a coincidence that Ravenloft and the Dragonlance modules happened around this point in time.

I think it's somewhat narrow in its view, though. In the early 2000s, the West Marches reinvented this style of play, recognizing that even though 3e D&D had a fundamentally un-Gygaxian attitude to its rules, the notion of a large open-table campaign was still part of the D&D rules. Even 5th edition, with its time-intensive downtime rules, still has some elements that fit into this style of play. Today, West Marches style games run in 5e are such a popular format that it has its own category in areas where people look for games.

A lot of the old school ethos applies directly to this kind of game. It's fundamentally about place and exploration – one of the "three pillars" of D&D play, according to 5e. It de-emphasizes the role of the player characters as world-shaking heroes, but gives them the opportunity to become significant political players by building strongholds. And it places a priority on strategic engagement from the players.

In terms of rules, this is where the D&D Rules Cyclopedia has probably the strongest support. BECMI D&D developed the idea of domain management into a fully fleshed-out system, which a lot of clones haven't bothered with. One will notice this, for instance, in a clone like Old School Essentials: there are tight procedures for dungeon and wilderness exploration, but as far as domain management goes, it simply features a few paragraphs about clearing the land and some prices for castle structures.

To be clear, this wasn't part of B/X and as such their non-inclusion isn't a fault of OSE – but the domain rules in the Rules Cyclopedia are only a few pages long and fill out the processes that have otherwise been left vague throughout D&D's history. This has been one of the consequences of the OSR generally following the lead of B/X D&D and not BECMI/RC D&D in its mechanisms of play. Of course, there are reasons for this: many players have the most fun running and playing D&D in the adventure parts of the game, and B/X is in many ways the cleanest approach. But it seems like there's possibility, in the large-scale game, to really embrace and extend things beyond the individual session.

I think that there's a lot of fertile ground to develop procedures and methods of play that are specifically geared toward large play groups. An old school equivalent of Izirion's Enchiridion of the West Marches (itself a useful resource for any referee) would be, I think, one part of reviving and supporting this style of play more broadly.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

GIving the Spear its Due

It's been a while, huh?

I haven't updated this blog in a while for ... well, a lot of reasons, I guess. I haven't really been running an OSR game, Google+ went away, I've had mixed feelings about the OSR as a whole.

But, I recently started a Swords & Wizardry game up on Discord, so I wanted to write on this blog again. Go figure.

Today I want to go into some of the ideas behind a particular house rule I have in my game. It relates to one core notion: the spear is not heavily used in D&D and its clones. But historically, the spear was probably the most common melee weapon carried.

Some of this is purely functional. It's a lot easier to make a small piece of metal and put it at the end of a stick, than to craft a long piece of metal like a sword. And most people have an instinctive idea of what to do with a spear - you stick the other guy with the pointy bit. So it's both economical and, if not idiot-proof, at least it's easy to hand to a peasant conscript.

But there is scientific proof that spears have an advantage over swords. Particularly, they're very useful when you're trying to stop someone from coming into range to hit you. I think this factor is something that is significant enough to want to add into combat.

The specific rule is: if you have a weapon that has a longer reach than your opponent, you get the first hit when they're closing in on you. This applies generally to spears and two-handed weapons versus one-handed weapons, and to longer weapons against daggers. The basic principle is the same: in order to close on someone who has a reach advantage against you, you need to expose yourself to a potential attack.

To implement this, the opponent doesn't get an extra attack; they simply get the first strike when closing to melee. And it doesn't apply to someone who is surprised, or attacked from behind, or already engaged in melee combat. It mostly factors in when they lose initiative or make a defensive stand.

I like this because it makes spears an interesting weapon. It not only gives you an advantage when closing to combat, it also prevents other enemies from having the same advantage against you. And it allows you to have a character take up a defensive role - for instance, a fighter could stand guard in front of the party's wizard and prevent monsters from closing on them.

It's also an interesting tradeoff because generally reach weapons in D&D and its clones don't have the top-end damage. A spear does a d6 compared to a sword's d8, but you may decide it's worth it to fend off enemies and keep them from getting a reach on you. Similarly with a d8 polearm against a d10 two-handed sword. Both options do seem to increase the spear and the polearm in terms of viability.

There's also a good reason to limit it to the first strike in combat: once in close quarters, a person with a shorter weapon can get attacks in with relative ease. It's only when you first close in that the spear or polearm would have that first chop.

At the same time it doesn't really make combat overly complicated. It's a simple thing to decide: when closing in, does a character have the first attack? Only if the reach is the same. Once engaged, combat follows normally.

An interesting point to note is that spears and polearms are much less convenient than swords. You pretty much have to be carrying them, or securely lashing something fairly long to your back. This can be a trade-off in a dungeon situation, where characters need to choose between having a hand free and having advantage if attacked.

This rule is hardly new; the computation of strike rank in Runequest back in 1978 used a more complex variant that also takes weapon length into consideration, and there's a system in the Ready Ref Sheets that uses weapon priority. But I think this is quite a bit simpler than either of those, and it works in a simple initiative system like the ones found in most OSR type games pretty seamlessly. It would even work in a Holmes-style Dexterity based initiative system.

And since the name of this blog came from the fact that my OD&D crew always seemed to roll a 1 for initiative, it only seemed fitting to use this to break the ice on coming back.