Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day 2017: Intoducing Old Norse Old School Roleplaying!

SWHere is my small contribution to Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day 2017: Old Norse Old School Roleplaying.

I suppose this project began last October when I designed a one-shot using the Yggdrasill system for Gamehole Con 2016. Before the con I playtested the game once and fretted that I still was not prepared for the event. It was one measure of relief, therefore, but also another measure of disappointment, when, at the time of my game, not a single person showed up.

I developed some theories about why no one came. These aren’t mutually exclusive theories, of course, and they’re listed here in no particular order:

  1. No one knows who I am. I know that when I joined games at that con they were being run by creators such as Jeff Talanian (for Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea) and Matt Finch (for Swords & Wizardry).
  2. No one knew what the event really was. Ultimately I titled the adventure “The Boon of Barrow-Isle,” but the quick pitch I sent to Gamehole Con was the pulpy-sounding “Island of Death.” Yggdrasill is a particular and esoteric system, a game designed by the French company Le 7eme Cercle and translated and republished by the English company Cubicle 7 (better known for its One Ring and Doctor Who properties). Yggdrasill emulates specifically an Old Norse milieu.
  3. No one cared about the system. Or they didn’t want to bother learning something new, particularly for a one shot. Now, many at cons might seek out new game experiences (I know I do), but I couldn’t help but notice that the D&D Adventurer’s League room was filled to bursting and that the overwhelming majority of smaller tables had running on them, if not a recent version of D&D, in most cases some earlier iteration of it.

GrendelAfter the con I decided that there was little I could do about the first theory. For the second, I resolved  to create a game based on a well-known (and publicly owned) piece of literature that people might be interested in “playing.” I settled on the Old English poem Beowulf. For the third, I determined that, though I would use my beloved Yggdrasill system to design my Beowulf game, I also would experiment with and offer a Swords & Wizardry version at the next con I attended.

This game wasn’t ready when Garycon 2017 came around. I was able to attend that con for only a single day, but the experience gave me a new perspective. Naturally, I already had a latent understanding that D&D (which we might as well refer to as any iteration of the d20 system) is dominant and well-known in the industry, but it wasn’t until I sat down at the very excellent Conan game called “A Gross Affair in Argos” that it really was driven home for me that D&D is a shared language, a lingua franca, a kind of social contract that not everyone might like so much but at least just about everybody understands. Before the game our GM said, “Is anybody here unfamiliar with a d20 system kind of game? You know, Dungeons & Dragons? Pathfinder? No? Good, then let me tell you about my house rules.”

For me it was an epiphany. This is exactly what I should do, I decided, with my Beowulf game.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t continue to experiment with Yggdrasill as the game’s fundamental chassis. But more and more I was drawn to the simplicity and the facility of Swords & Wizardry. I need not bring you “under the hood,” so to speak, and explain what quite wasn’t working with Yggdrasill, especially when I was trying to determine the power level and mechanical components of a being such as Grendel, but it seemed so much easier to drift it over to Swords & Wizardry. What level should the players be? Oh, that’s easy. At level 9 Fighters “Establish a Stronghold.” Since Beowulf becomes King of the Geats shortly after the events at Heorot, let’s make the PCs level 8. Oh, look! Grendel is a type of troll (without Regeneration), and a troll begins as a CL 6 creature. After you add all of Grendel’s supernatural abilities, he’s more of a CL 11, which seems suitably fatal for an adventure like this.

And you see how it unfolded for me.

At about this time, something else started to happen. By necessity, I began to experiment with ways to “northernize” the class options in Swords & Wizardry. Some Classes had to be tossed right out, such as the Monk and Paladin. Others were problematic: parts of a Class might make sense in a northern campaign, such as a Ranger, but without the Class’s magical abilities at later levels. Racial options, I decided, were not a possibility, but…

I found my “hack” of Swords & Wizardry progressing quite swiftly in part to the large number of Viking-themed roleplaying games and supplements, most importantly Yggdrasill, I had been collecting and reading, and many of these I have reviewed over at Blackgate. I’ve begun to list these resources at the end of my document. And I’m also considering adding inspirational reading.

YggdrasillI should warn anyone interested in this stuff that, at the time of this writing, none of this has been playtested. Right now I’m wrapping up a Star Wars campaign, which should take me till the beginning of May. But then, at that time, I’ll be able to run my Beowulf campaign, using ONOSR, during sessions held every two weeks. I expect that both documents should begin to change then, based on what I learn during play.

But this is Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day, and now that my introduction to my homebrewed content is made, I want to “appreciate” some things about the Swords & Wizardry property as a whole. I have described some of my experience — or lack thereof — with the world’s “most favorite roleplaying game” at Blackgate here and here. My experience with D&D 3.5 was underwhelming. My recent experience with Pathfinder (chronicled in this very blog) ended acerbically with my player characters at levels 10 or 11.

I think the best way to appreciate Swords & Wizardry is to explain what the game — and the OSR movement as a whole — has taught me. I am a person who never fully engaged with the D&D discourse at its inception or during its development during the 80s. I started with MERP (which perhaps shares some affinities with the OSR, as long as one’s definition about the OSR does not necessitate it being some iteration of D&D — this certainly also applies to a game like Tunnels & Trolls, and I know many regard even a different genre of game, such as Traveler, as OSR. Instead of D&D, I played West End Games’s d6 Star Wars, explored its TORG experiment when that launched, but probably, next to MERP, spent the most time and my happiest hours with Star Wars and Champions.

Almost invariably, I was GM of these games, and the play style I developed certainly arose from what interested me most about the stories I sought to emulate. These stories were character driven, full of conflict — usually physical conflict — and I’m sure that the rules systems I chose helped to reinforce these interests.

So the first thing that Swords & Wizardry and the OSR (I suppose I can lean heavily on Matt Finch’s “Old School Primer” here) taught me about role playing was that player character doesn’t matter. Now, don’t get me wrong: player characters still are cool, but they don’t require those elaborate backstories. Perhaps, in fact, they’re better without them. They can be little more than Guy 1, Guy 2, Guy 3, and notice that I’m suggesting players run three “guys” at once here (I do not intend to be sexist here; I’m evoking boyhood language, through which, beginning with action figures, we referred to any characters under one’s control as “guys”). One of the aspects of my style of roleplaying that emerged from many of those treatises frequently found in rpg manuals of the 90s, particularly, perhaps, in games such as West End’s Star Wars and TORG, was an emphasis on roleplaying. An aspect of roleplaying that seemed highlighted for me, and something that I readily wanted to invest my energy into (but never, now that I think of it, through which ever actually receiving the payoff that I expected, but more of that later), was this idea of fully embodying the character. The player and the player character were to be a one-to-one correspondence. The player at the table was to be the character in the game. Indeed, unless one were the GM, it seemed impossible for someone to be more than one character, just as it (apparently) is in “real life.” Playing more than one character seemed, to me, to be a bit of cheating and a cheapening of the roleplaying experience, since to do so stratified a player’s attention and diminished the risks of death and failure.

tome of adventure desingOSR style of play eschews both commitment to one character and backstory. This is because, as it has been so elegantly stated in areas not here, that play creates the backstory and that gravitas, depth and complexity of character emerges as one survives encounter after encounter from session into session. This is the idea behind the “funnel method” of “0-level” play forwarded by such games as Dungeon Crawl Classics. I would add to my above comment above about players running more than one character that in my early days and particularly in my late days I never got the level of immersion I desired in the goal of one-to-one correspondence of a highly detailed heroic character, but that, for most people I play with — the average sort with zero or no minimum expectations of becoming a “writer,” let’s say — that roleplaying remains a game with all of its tactical elements intact. In other words, most people I play with don’t feel any need to “embody” their characters, but simply want to tell me what their “guys” are doing. They want to “win” the game. And, what’s said in E.T. aside, in a role playing game “to win” is to survive from encounter to encounter while pillaging loot.

Which brings me to another thing the OSR has taught me: lethality. There is a tendency among those heroic styles of play to entice the GM into becoming a “fan” of the player characters, to “want” them to do well and to survive. Of course, there’s nothing truly wrong with this, and this attitude can be true of OSR styles of play as well. But I’ve learned that lethality is fun. If there are no true and lasting consequences for character actions and death, such as there are not in video games, the table top experience becomes less that of a game and more of shared storytelling.

Two things about modern games seem to dissuade GMs from truly lethal campaigns. 1. The immense amount of time and energy that players have had to invest in their character development and backstories make actual deaths of the characters seem like a supreme waste of time. 2. The systems themselves, perhaps as a means to minimize this danger for GMs, seem to empower the player characters to the point where it becomes actually difficult to kill the them (without recourse to outright GM fiat, of course). In this style of play the characters are heroes, and heroes, almost by definition, should not die, should, outside of extreme circumstances, survive through every adventure arc until the game atrophies and/or the players move to another series.

You see, in this style of play, the “game” becomes mere illusion. In fact, many systems encourage GMs to perpetuate this illusion. You know, this happens when GMs are encouraged to “fudge” die rolls or to make sure that encounters are properly “balanced” for various character party levels and abilities. As many proponents of the OSR argue, just when does roleplaying, in this form, stop being a game and become instead a session of let’s make believe? This is doubly confounding when the game mechanics of some modern rpg systems tend to become more and more complex. Why should players tinker with all this when one is encouraged to hand wave most of it away anyway?

The idea of lethality in OSR games leads me finally to its most visible component: the Dungeon. In my youth, I sneered at this device, probably because of the ecological improbability of all these things living in all these rooms, and all these wacky devices and mounds of treasure just sort of there for the taking. Now, I know some DMs go to great lengths to justify their “dungeon ecologies.” I myself don’t bother too much with this, focusing more on party entertainment while presuming that reasons for these improbable ecosystems will offer themselves during gameplay. Most players don’t try to puzzle this stuff out anyway. But then, on the other hand, sometimes they think something must be “up.” “Otherwise,” they ask, “how could all this stuff be alive down here?” In these cases I rely on myself to become inspired as a rationale presents itself.

MonstrositiesAnyway, I’m drifting off topic. In my youth I derided the Dungeon device even though I never had experienced it. That’s the arrogance of youth for you. And I am grateful that the OSR has brought this component of gameplay back around to my attention. Before I started exploring the OSR, all of my roleplaying games were character centric and focused on conflict versus NPCs. If a place or location was involved at all, it was more like a kind of backdrop to the action or character interaction. Sure, the characters might be fighting each other on some lava planet, and there probably was some degree of danger that the characters might fall off a cliff and into a pit of molten rock, but this was less of a “real” concern by dint that the characters were Heroes. I recently learned the term “character shield” — Force points, Hero points, Bennies, any resource that PCs could use to minimize threats to themselves — and my games had a lot of this sort of thing. Moreover, everyone kind of knew, in the same way that everyone knows while watching a movie, that the lava wasn’t going to be the “real” threat. Neither, perhaps, were the villainous NPCs. This is, of course, because Heroes in general are made to survive their episodes, are expected to move on to the next story arc.

But Dungeons in an OSR game change this experience by making environment more than just a backdrop and by centering on it as one of the main points of the game in the first place. It was not until I started exploring the OSR that I began to understand the possibilities for a real space. I mean, after I design a dungeon, I know every single thing — or most of them! — about that place. All I have to do is get my characters in there. In other words, I learned that I could entertain my players not through conflict alone but through cool spaces, cool descriptions, and cool discoveries. Finch was eye opening when he advised in Swords & Wizardry to leave about half of your rooms in a dungeon “empty” and that not all of them need be stocked with Monsters. In fact, this is a sure way to kill your characters! There are other ways to interest and intrigue your players outside of character interaction. These ways are through the use of Puzzles, Traps and the Just Plain Weird. Tying experience and level advancement to Treasure and not so much xp from killed Monsters was novel to me! You mean fighting doesn’t have to be the central point of the game? Yes, there are other ways to entertain!

To finish my appreciation, I want to gush about how great Matt Finch is as a writer and as a designer. Swords & Wizardry isn’t just a great rules set but a really well-written book! I love reading Finch’s rationale for his choices and his frequent comments on what he calls the “Original Game.” Frog God Games’s best tool absolutely is Finch’s Tome of Adventure Design. I love tables, and this book is full of them. I have used it not only to create a couple awesome dungeons for a quickly arrested homebrewed hex crawl, but I have found it also useful and inspirational for less gonzo games. What I’m saying is I also found use for it in designing the dungeon aspects of my Beowulf campaign.

Well, here’s to Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day 2017! Skoal!

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