The Three Laws of RPG Rules

We’ve all heard of Asimov’s three laws of robotics, right?

Well, in the same vein, I offer “Mornard’s Three Laws of RPG Rules.”
1)  The rules cannot fix stupid.

2)  The rules cannot fix asshole.

3)  Anything that happened when you, or the referee, were 14, does not constitute a need to change the rules.

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Sometimes a “Tank” is NOT a guy in heavy armor

A sample chapter about a surprising root of the game of D&D.

UNSTATED ASSUMPTIONS – D&D AND TRACTICS

Another one of the games we played a lot was TRACICS, a WW2 miniatures wargame. Wargamers being wargamers, WW2 wargames means tanks. And much like CHAINMAIL influenced D&D and how we played it, TRACTICS also influenced how we played D&D.

If you do any research at all on armored combat, one thing you find out very quickly is how limited visibility is inside a tank. From the first World War One experiments right up until today, observation has been extremely important to tanks. It’s not surprising that wargames based on tanks would have rules about observation. Virtually every WW2 game I’ve ever played uses some sort of observation rule, whether it’s dummy markers, or dice rolls to spot, or a variety of other methods. What TRACTICS uses is an “observation path.”

In TRACTICS, a single vehicle can observe a path 4” wide, from the center of the vehicle to the edge of the board. Anything in that path is seen, unless it is behind trees, behind a hill, or similarly concealed. This may sound like a lot. We played TRACTICS on a 5 by 8 foot table, though. Go measure out a 5 by 8 foot area, pick a random spot, and measure a 4” path. You’ll see that a LOT of area is NOT being observed.

You can only shoot at what you see, and the other side can only shoot at you if they see you. It doesn’t take much to figure out how vital observation is in this sort of game, and that is exactly the case; learning where to look to anticipate enemy units, how to look with various units to maximize coverage, and how to take advantage of concealment, were major portions of the play of the game.

This carried over into D&D in a couple of ways. First, we were used to being very careful about where we were looking, and specifying it exactly. Even though we weren’t limited to a 4” wide path, we assumed that observation was important. Possibly the most famous instance of this is Terry Kuntz, who, every time he stepped through an opening, would announce “I look up and down and all around.” Opening a door and then saying “We look around before we enter” was second nature. If you just went blundering in, you deserved whatever happened to you. (Note that this is not the same as the referee saying “You didn’t say that you were looking specifically for a black dragon on top of a pile of gold, so you didn’t see it and it kills you.” The technical term for that is “the referee is an asshole.”)

The other major effect that TRACTICS had on us was that “you can’t anticipate everything.” When you only have a 4” wide path to observe on a 40 square foot board, there WILL be areas that are not under observation. Sometimes, the first clue you would have that there were enemy forces around is when your lead tank blew up. Not only that, but unless one of the surviving units was observing the right place, you had no guarantee of seeing the enemy even after they opened fire. Nothing like spending two or three turns of frantic scrambling as your tanks are getting picked off, trying to figure out where the HELL the enemy is!

Also, one thing you learn about tank combat is that armor does not make you invulnerable. It increases the difficulty of the enemy destroying a unit, but no matter what vehicle you have – yes, even a Tiger II or Jagdtiger – if the enemy wants it destroyed badly enough, they will destroy it. So when we were down in the dungeon, the notion that, for instance, poison could kill you no matter what didn’t seem out of line to us. Nothing was certain; everything carried some modicum of risk.

This meant that in D&D we had a certain bit of fatalism in our attitude. There were precautions you could take, and nobody wanted to die by being a dolt – like Goose says in “Top Gun,” “The Department of Defense regrets to inform you that your sons have been killed because they were stupid.” But ultimately we knew that, no matter how careful we were, no matter what precautions we took, there was always a chance that the first clue we would have that there was something dangerous would be the referee’s words of “Roll a saving throw.”

Sometimes, you don’t know the enemy is there until the lead unit dies.

 

Beer, out.

GARYCON VI MARCH, 2014 – PART 3

Saturday was my brother Chip’s birthday and I met him and his wife for breakfast. Chip played in Greyhawk for a while too, and Gary used to call him “the Bugbear.” (You’ll have to get my book when it comes out to find out why…)

As most people know, Gary worked for a time as a cobbler while he developed D&D. He had the contract to provide sandals for a monastery on the south shore of the Lake, and sold them to other folks as well. My brother and I both bought a pair. Well, while at breakfast, Chip hauls out this sandal he’d found in a box. The other one had rotted away decades ago, but this one somehow survived. He gave it to me to “show Gary’s kids, they might get a kick out of seeing their dad’s work.”

 For the afternoon, though, I was scheduled for the “Sturmgeschutz & Sorcery” game as co-referee with Terry Kuntz. After a few hours Terry had things under control, so I went back to the Lodge to find the Gygax clan.

I did indeed show them the sandal… probably the last extant example of Gary’s shoemaking art… and they were indeed pleased to see it. Of course, the question was, then what? Well, there was a charity auction Saturday night for Ernie Gygax’s and Jim Ward’s medical expenses. I suggested throwing that sandal into the charity auction; it was a good cause, after all, and I figured “what the heck, we might get thirty or forty bucks for it.” The family was supportive of the idea, so into the auction it went.

Tim Kask auctioned off “the most unusual piece of Gary Gygax memorabilia I’ve ever dealt with,” as he said. When the dust settled and the (virtual) auctioneer’s hammer came down, that single sandal sold in auction for $300. I was dazzled and amazed and gratified that I could help out the auction that much, and my brother’s reaction was the same.

To make it even better, the gentleman who had the winning bid paid his bid and then gave the sandal back to Luke Gygax, saying “Auction it off again next year.” Truly a class act!

One other gaming incident happened that tickled me. Last year at Garycon I ran Ram’s Horn dungeon, and Mike* from the Twin Cities played a 1st level magic user who refused to be useless just because he’d used his spell. *(Sorry, man, I know I wrote your last name down but damn if I can find it.) Well, Paul Stormberg ran multiple sessions using Gary’s original 1st level of Greyhawk. One session included Jon Peterson, author of Playing at the World, who was also playing a 1st level magic user. I told him about Mike’s exploits of last year and reminded him, “Remember, a first level magic user who’s used his spell is still a guy with a lot of maneuverability and a knife.”

Well, when they ran into an ogre later that night, not only did Jon get behind it to shank it in the kidneys, but he ended up being the only player to actually hit the ogre. So, yeah, a first level magic user stabbed an ogre to death with a dagger.

I have no sympathy for people who bitch that “it’s no fun to play a first level magic user.” There are no bad character classes, there are only bad players.

Saturday evening was spent socializing again. It’s nice to game, but it’s also nice to have some social time. I can’t count everybody I talked to, including a nice long chat with Derek “Geekpreacher” White and Wendy Lord. Alas, Sunday afternoon came all too soon, and time to head back to the Twin Cities by way of Bill Hoyt’s house in Wisconsin. I made it safely back to Minneapolis and back to Huron the next day.

GaryCon VI was absolutely excellent. This is the second year in a row I’ve attended and I’m sorry I didn’t make it earlier. This is an “old school” gaming convention; no rigid distinctions between board games, miniatures, or RPGs… just people there to play. I can’t recommend it highly enough.  I’m already making plans for GaryCon VII.

 Beer, out.

GARYCON VI MARCH, 2014 – PART 2

Thursday morning and afternoon passed fairly uneventfully. Oh, hell, I slept till noon, okay? Victor Raymond, my convention roomie and old gaming buddy, and I caught a late breakfast and noodled around a bit until it was time for me to head over to Gary’s house for “Battle on the Ice,” a historical miniatures game using the CHAINMAIL rules.

 I’m really glad Paul set up the sandtable in Gary’s basement, and the owners of the house were beyond wonderful, but having the gaming at a separate location was really quite a pain in the tonker. Paul and his crew needed two more people and another vehicle, honestly. But there was no way to know this in advance and I have nothing but admiration for what Paul did.

 This is the second year in a row that I’ve run “Battle on the Ice” at GaryCon. Last year I had a bunch of inexperienced players. This year I had a bunch of experienced players, especially on the Russian side.

 The Russians got annihilated.

 Setting up a scenario always involves some judgement on the part of the referee, and the scenario often needs to be tweaked. This one needs tweaking a lot. The Russians played quite well, but the Teutonic Knights heavy cavalry simply could not be stopped.

 I will be writing up a full battle report/article for Gygax magazine on last year’s game and this year’s, in which I will go into greater detail. However, the major reason for the imbalance in the scenario is that I used the 1:20 rules, and in my years of playing CHAINMAIL in Lake Geneva, we virtually always used the Man to Man rules. So, for instance, in Man to Man, a heavy knight with lance charging Light Foot (Leather and Shield) – “roll 2 dice, 5+ kills.” Pretty good odds. But on the 1:20 system, it’s “roll 4 dice PER MAN, 5 or 6 kills.” So where in Man to Man, 10 charging knights will (on average) kill 8 light foot, under 1:20 they will on average kill 13.

 Long story short, the 1:20 combat system is MUCH deadlier for light troops. So, next year I’m going to have to get ten sets of different-colored d6 so we can use the man to man table, but still finish the game in reasonable time.

 After the game we went back to the resort for dinner, more conversation, and beer. Especially beer. Thursday night marked the second night in a row where I didn’t get to bed until 2 AM.

 Friday arrived and I eventually levered my sorry carcass out of bed.

 As usual, things I was interested in were scheduled opposite each other. I had to miss Rob Kuntz’ seminar on game design in order to get into Mike Carr’s “Don’t Give Up The Ship” game (DGUTS). Fortunately I was able to chat with Rob a couple of times separately and game design did come up. He has some really interesting ideas; I hope I can hear one of his discussions sometime.

 DGUTS was a whale of a lot of fun. It’s a good game in the first place, Mike Carr had set up a great scenario, and the players on both sides were quite good. Bill Hoyt was also playing, as well as Dave Wesley (of “Braunstien” fame). I remarked it was rather like Old Home Week, with the four of us playing DGUTS for the first time in decades.

 I was commanding a British 44 frigate. DGUTS is a plotted move game, and since I happen to be really, really good at estimating distances by eye, I did quite well. In fact, Mike Carr complimented me on doing the best job of captaining a ship in the game. The British ships of the line got rather badly mauled by the Frenchies, but the British frigates did quite well on the outskirts of the action. We shot up a couple of French frigates, and in the very last turn of the game dismasted one of them, whereupon the brave French captain struck his colors, no longer being able to move.

 The French frigate captain was awesome, by the way. British 44s are pretty big, tough frigates, and the French player had a 24 and a 32, and he got away with one of them. In fact, if we hadn’t dismasted his 24 in the last turn he would have gotten close enough to his men-of-war that we would have had to let him go. After the game I congratulated him on leading us a merry chase, commenting that “it’s no fun playing against somebody who isn’t any good!” I hate to think what would have happened if he hadn’t been severely outgunned.

 After DGUTS we had just enough time to grab some food (thank you, Geneva Ridge Resort, for having a table set up for gamers to get a quick burger!) and get back to Gary’s place for a TRACTICS battle. Mike Reese, scheduled referee and co-author of TRACTICS, couldn’t make it, so Terry Kuntz agreed to step in.

 I love TRACTICS, and I hadn’t seen Terry in a dog’s age, so I was looking forward to this. As it turned out, only Victor and I showed up. (What the hell is wrong with all you folks at GaryCon anyway? You should be going to more historical miniatures games!)

TRACTICS was a lot of fun, especially since I taught Victor to play lo these 35 years and more ago! He was the Russian attacker tasked with capturing a German supply depot. He was very cautious, saying at one point “I just KNOW he’s got something nasty prepared.” He didn’t seem much reassured by my reply of “Don’t you see the big banner there saying Come on in, nothing bad here at all, you can trust us, honest hastily covering the sign that says ACHTUNG MINEN?” Strangely, he didn’t buy it.

TRACTICS went on almost until 1:30 AM. It would have gone longer but I was getting more and more tired, so I sprung my ambush earlier than the optimum moment, but had done my job well enough to drive the Russians away from my supply depot.

 Interesting note: At one point as a critical hit disabled a Russian tank, I let out a loud “YES!” … which echoed through the entire house! No wonder Mary Gygax, Gary’s wife, used to complain about the gamers keeping the kids up all night!

Once again, it was 2 AM before I collapsed into my bunk. I’ll finish up GaryCon VI next time.

 Beer, out.

GARYCON VI MARCH, 2014 — PART 1

GaryCon is an absolutely awesome convention, and it captures the spirit of the 1970s GenCon the way nothing else has for me since. It’s not just that it’s a small gaming convention, but that the same judge will run D&D and a historical miniatures battle at different times during the convention. In fact, most of the gaming I’ve done at GaryCon has been historical miniatures.

 I wanted to get to GaryCon Wednesday, so I left Huron, SD on Tuesday and stayed in the Twin Cities. Wednesday I headed down with my friend Todd, who I met through his Star Wars d20 game a few years back. On the way through Wisconsin we stopped and picked up Bill Hoyt. Bill was one of Dave Arneson’s original BLACKMOOR players, one of Prof. M.A.R. (Phil) Barkers’ original “Empire of the Petal Throne” players, and a long-time historical wargamer on the Twin Cities scene. I hadn’t seen Bill in a dog’s age, and it was great to have the several-hour drive to Lake Geneva to catch up.

 It also allowed me to double check something I suspected but was not sure of: There was NO “Raise Dead” or “Resurrection” in BLACKMOOR. If your character died, they were DEAD.

 Hard-ass core!

 We got in a bit before six into Lake Geneva and checked in. The resort is a nice place, the staff is friendly, and the gaming spaces are great. Also, this year the resort added some salads to the menu, for which I was EXTREMELY grateful. The resort does a wonderful job of serving gamers… they even come to your game table and take food and drink orders, and deliver them while you play! That made the salads doubly welcome; I’m as fond of greezy meat* as the next gamer, but at my age, after three or four days I’d kill for some roughage.

 *a Larry Elmore-ism from his “Snarfquest” comic

 I met a ton of people I’d only met online, caught up with people I hadn’t seen in too long, and in general had a whale of a good time socializing when I wasn’t gaming. And after a year of telling people “I’ll let you buy me a beer at GaryCon” they all caught up to me on Wednesday night. I lost count at six pints, but I know I had more. (REAL pints, that is, not those silly 16 ounce things used in America.)

 My first scheduled event was reffing “Battle on the Ice,” a historical CHAINMAIL battle. I’ll discuss that more later, but right now it’s the venue I want to talk about.

 Somehow, Paul Stormberg arranged to have miniatures gaming at a sand table at Gary’s old house in Lake Geneva. I got there early just to look around. Now, by the time I met Gary, he’d started doing shoe repair, and the sand table was moved out of his basement and into Don Kaye’s garage.

 Paul let me in by the outside basement entrance, labeled “Wargamer’s Room” in Gary’s handwriting. I’d never come in that way before. Once I stepped in, though, the sense of déjà vu, combined with the fact that I hadn’t remembered things 100% accurately, almost knocked me over. I’d never seen the sand table down there but Paul’s got a nice one… and the shelves full of figures reminded me so much of Don’s garage it hurt.

 Then we wandered upstairs into the kitchen… and across the kitchen, past the dining room doorway to this little spare bedroom… the same room, 40 years ago, that Gary used as his “office.” THAT was a heavy emotional hit. I could see the room exactly as it was; there were the shelves on the wall, the day bed was over to the right, there was a chair by the window… Gary’s desk was right there, with the filing cabinets next to it.

I’m not ashamed to say that being there after all this time brought tears to my eyes. I can’t thank Paul enough for arranging all this, and I especially can’t thank the current owners of the house enough for letting us in… and for being AMAZINGLY hospitable! We weren’t just allowed in, we were treated like honored guests.

Next time, we’ll get into the actual games of GaryCon VI.

 

Beer, out.