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A Collection of Links by Justin Alexander
Over the course of several conversations spread across the past few weeks, I've been reminded of something that is rather easy to forget: Not everyone knows what I know. This has nothing to do with me being smarter than anybody else. It's just the result of a slow accumulation of random information and experience over the course of 20+ years of gaming. (Somehow I only just now realized that this means that there is significantly more time between when I started gaming and now, than there is between when I started gaming and the publication of OD&D in 1974. Crap, I'm old.)
Towards that end, I've decided to start accumulating a variety of gaming lore. Some of this stuff consists of essays I've written for the Alexandrian. A lot of it will be links to other people talking about stuff that (a) I find fascinating and (b) take for granted that everybody else knows about.
A Nomenclature of D&D Editions: A complete summary of all the various editions of D&D from 1974 until the present day.
The First Dungeon Adventure: Over Christmas Break in 1970, Dave Arneson's gaming group met in a basement in Minneapolis, MN. Instead of their regular Napoleonics wargame, Arneson set up the dungeons of Castle Blackmoor on a ping-pong table. That was the first D&D-style adventure. And this is a recounting of it, written by one of the guys who was there to play it. (Other tales from Arneson's Blackmoor campaign can be found here and here.)
Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign started using the Chainmail miniature wargame rules, created by Jeff Perren and Gary Gygax, for resolving combat. Arneson and Gygax had previously collaborated on Don't Give Up the Ship! (a set of rules for Napoleonic-era naval warfare). In 1971, Arneson played the game with Gygax at GenCon. Gygax promptly started up the Greyhawk campaign in Lake Geneva, WI.
GENERAL GAME THEORY
The Many Types of Balance: A lot of confusion surrounds the discussion of "balance" because people mean radically different things when they use the term. In general, there are three types of balance in roleplaying games: Concept balance maintains that all character conceptss should hbe equally viable. Naturalistic balance tries to accurately model the balance of the game world (whether it's "fair" or not). Spotlight balance tries to ensure that everyone gets an equal share of featured playing time. Each type of balance has its advantages and its disadvantages.
Three Clue Rule: For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues. This is the bedrock principle for building rigorous and flexible adventure scenarios. Plan multiple paths to success. Encourage player ingenuity. Give yourself a failsafe.
Dissociated Mechanics: Mechanics can be broadly broken down into two types -- associated mechanics and dissociated mechanics. Dissociated mechanics are those for which the characters have no functional explanation. Thus, the use of a dissociated mechanic inherently means making decisions which have no analog to the character's decision-making. Dissociated mechanics are inherently inimical to roleplaying (since their use requires you to stop playing your role), although when properly designed they can enhance shared storytelling. The term "dissociated", it should be noted, is not synonymous with the term "unrealistic". In addition, it should be noted that all game mechanics are -- to varying degrees -- abstracted and metagamed. (For example, the destructive power of a fireball spell in D&D is defined by the number of d6's you roll for damage and the number of d6's you roll is determined by the caster level of the wizard casting the spell. If you asked a character about d6's of damage or caster levels, they'd have no idea what you're talking about. But they could tell you what a fireball is and they could tell you that casters of greater skill can create more intense flames during the casting of the spell. Thus, the mechanics of a fireball spell are abstracted and exist only as part of the metagame, but they are nonetheless associated with the game world.)
D&D DESIGN THEORY
D&D: Calibrating Your Expectations: There are several common disconnects between what people expect from D&D and what D&D was actually designed to deliver. The problem with having false expectations about what “Strength 20” or “15th level” really means is that it creates a dissonance between what the rules allow characters to do and what you think characters should be able to do. For example, if you think that Conan should be modeled as a 25th level character, then you’re going to be constantly frustrated when the system treats him as a demigod and allows him to do all sorts of insanely powerful things that the literary Conan was never capable of. From there it’s a pretty short step to making pronouncements like “D&D can’t do Conan” (or Lankhmar or Elric or whatever). If, on the other hand, you properly calibrate your expectations then you're empowering yourself to (a) make the most of the game and (b) tweak it to your own tastes.
Death of the Wandering Monster: Wherein we discuss the fallacy of the 15-minute adventuring day, and explicate the reasons why this supposedly systemic flaw is, in fact, an error in the technique of the Dungeon Master. (Mostly.)
Fetishizing Balance: What's wrong with balance? Nothing. However, if you fetishize the pursuit of balance in a way that needlessly limits your flexibility, then you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Having an arbitrary baseline is necessary in order to balance the game -- but there's no need to shackle yourself to that baseline as if it were some sort of mandatory standard.
Revisiting Encounter Design: The fetishization of balance, combined with a rather inexplicable misreading of the core rulebooks, led to an extremely narrow-minded approach to designing encounters in the 3rd Edition era. This approach was not consistent with previous editions of the game; was explicitly contradicted by the rulebooks; exacerbated the problems of the 15-minute adventuring day; and greatly reduced flexibility in running and designing adventures.
Save-or-Die Effects: Save-or-die abilities bypass the time-tested ablative system of D&D combat. This is problematic. WotC's solution? Get rid of the abilities. My solution? Keep the abilities, fix the mechanics.
Gygaxian Naturalism (James Maliszewski): "[Gygaxian naturalism] refers to a tendency, present in the OD&D rules and reaching its fullest flower in AD&D, to go beyond describing monsters purely as opponents/obstacles for the player characters by giving game mechanics that serve little purpose other than to ground those monsters in the campaign world."
TIPS AND TRICKS
Treasure Tells a Story (Ben Robbins)
Old School Dungeon Design Guidelines (James Maliszewski)
The Dungeon Alphabet (Michael Curtis)
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