Friday, April 3, 2009

The Purpose of Dwimmermount

In thinking about and commenting on other blog posts, I realized that I might never have adequately explained why I'm running Dwimmermount the way that I am: minimal rules and megadungeon-focused. Dwimmermount is explicitly an experiment in seeing how both rules and campaigns develop organically through play. One of my contentions is that the history of D&D is not one of natural evolution at all but of forced evolution, starting with AD&D and continuing down to the present day.

Dwimmermount starts with an approximation of OD&D -- Swords & Wizardry -- that uses minimal material from the supplements. I've purposefully avoided creating lots of new rules for use with the game, because I want new rules to evolve from a pressing need in the game rather than by "designer fiat." For example, we're using straight D6 for all weapon damage. We decided, though, that wielders of two-handed weapon roll 2D6 and take the highest result. When Iriadessa joined the campaign, she started using darts to throw at enemies. What damage should they do? On the fly, I decided she'd roll 2D6 and take the lowest result, because they were small weapons. It was a nice, simple, straightforward solution to a real need in play.

We've made a bunch of other little rules changes here and there, but almost none of them were decided by me in advance of actual play. Dwimmermount is thus partially about seeing how Swords & Wizardry will naturally evolve as a result of the situations that occur in weekly gaming sessions. Already, our game is diverging from the rules as written, but those divergences are not based on theory but on practice. We are in the process of creating our own game, unique from everyone else who plays, and it's the embrace of this process that I see as at the heart of the old school. We don't play in tournaments and so see no need to deform the rules on an a priori basis to accommodate convention play. Neither do we care if gamers outside our group do things differently in their own sessions. Uniformity of rules is not an ideal I hold.

Dwimmermount is focused on the dungeon because the dungeon is a good "training ground" for a new campaign -- it's geographically constrained and able to be developed in manageable chunks. I don't think dungeons are the be-all and end-all of old school play but they are certainly one of the pillars on which old school play is based. I treat the world outside the dungeon much as I treat rules: it develops through play in response to a pressing need. I've done the world building thing many times before and, while I love it, I see no need to build more than I need for each session. That often means making stuff up on the fly when the players go somewhere unexpected or ask questions for which I have no pat answers. But that's what players are supposed to do and being able to come up with answers is what referees are supposed to do.

I leave lots of clues and pointers and tidbits for the players to take up, but I don't push them to do so. If they're uninterested or more focused on other matters, so be it. That's their prerogative, after all. That's what sandbox play means: make of the setting what you will. Again, it's organic, not forced. The key is to be able to think on your toes when suddenly a player wants to journey "off the map" into somewhere you've given no thought to or when he wants to learn more about a hireling who'd previously just been a generic spear-carrier from Central Casting. The setting, like the rules, are living things and they grow best in response to stimulus, not by being force fed.

So that's what Dwimmermount is all about. It's an ongoing experiment and, so far, a very successful one. It's where I put my theories into practice and see if I have any idea what I'm talking about or if, as some have opined, I'm "full of it."It's not intended as a blueprint for anyone else's campaign nor do I think the approach I've taken should be deemed normative. That said, I do think it's valuable for gamers of all stripes to understand there are many paths D&D could have taken in its development and the ones it did take had more to do with business plans than with campaign plans. I'm done being forced to adapt to someone else's vision of how D&D should develop and am embracing my own vision without apology. If that's at all controversial, it sure says a lot about the current state of this hobby.

27 comments:

  1. I think it's a neat experiment.

    I don't know if it would actually say anything specific or useful about the Dwimmermount campaign, but it would be an interesting piece of information if the word or page count of the rules could be compared from the beginning with just the S&W rules to the end with the new rules and adjustments that were included along the way.

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  2. That 2D6 solution is great! If you have any more gems like that, please share them. I wonder how well that would fit into the 12 degrees system?

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  3. Yeah, I guess even if you had a long-running campaign in the 90's, you'd still be doing it this way now. I all honesty, if I lived in your area I would be beating down your door for a taste of the old days.

    James, as you are a focal point for a lot of old school guys who are blogging (I would not have taken a hand at it if I was not inspired by Grognardia), and write so much about old school, it is appropriate (almost necessary) that you be gaming right now in an old school style.

    Having said that - have bandits attack that hirelings wedding, dammit!

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  4. Hey James,

    When I wrote you a month ago, wishing there were more posts based in Actual Play in the Old School blog communities, this is what I was talkin' about. Rock on.

    I think the key to your game's success is how many times you use the world -we-. You and your players are creating this stuff together and that is powerful mojo.

    Great post.

    - Judd

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  5. Do you in this post distinguish between the idiosyncrasies, interests and houserules of a DM and "how D&D should develop"? I don't think you do.

    How a DM wants his campaign to run and his houserules to evolve is a different concept to "the many paths down which D&D could have developed". Its not clear what you mean at all in your final paragraph.

    Rather than talk about the shadowy "business plans" of presumably AD&D (you've said before that AD&D was the beginning of the end) perhaps you could set your stall out more openly and present clear arguments FOR Swords and Wizardry and AGAINST AD&D. At least you could present specific points that can be refuted by someone who sees no conflict between Old School principles and AD&D.

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  6. it would be an interesting piece of information if the word or page count of the rules could be compared from the beginning with just the S&W rules to the end with the new rules and adjustments that were included along the way.

    An interesting thought! One of the things I like about S&W is that it's available as a free MS-Word document, so doing just this would be comparatively easy.

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  7. I think the key to your game's success is how many times you use the world -we-. You and your players are creating this stuff together and that is powerful mojo.

    I think you're right. I'm definitely not an adversarial type of referee and I encourage my players to contribute both rules ideas and elements of the overall setting, because the more they do that, the more invested they are in the end result, which means better gaming for us all.

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  8. Do you in this post distinguish between the idiosyncrasies, interests and houserules of a DM and "how D&D should develop"? I don't think you do.

    No, because that wasn't the purpose of the post.

    How a DM wants his campaign to run and his houserules to evolve is a different concept to "the many paths down which D&D could have developed". Its not clear what you mean at all in your final paragraph.

    What I meant is that D&D, as a game, could have developed differently than it did under first TSR and then WotC. Looking at the game as it was in, say, 1976, when the "last" OD&D supplement was released, it certainly wasn't clear that there'd be an AD&D and in fact plenty of evidence to suggest there wouldn't be.

    Rather than talk about the shadowy "business plans" of presumably AD&D (you've said before that AD&D was the beginning of the end) perhaps you could set your stall out more openly and present clear arguments FOR Swords and Wizardry and AGAINST AD&D.

    Why would I do that? My campaign isn't intended to be an argument in favor of any particular rules set. S&W is what I use and I've explained why I chose it, but that choice wasn't meant to be taken as normative and I've never implied otherwise.

    At least you could present specific points that can be refuted by someone who sees no conflict between Old School principles and AD&D.

    Again, why? My beef with AD&D is not with it as a game. I happen to love AD&D and have said so on many occasions on this blog. I happen to think it is an old school game without much in the way of qualification. However, the process by which the game was conceived, written, and created laid the groundwork for a very consumerist approach to the hobby that I don't find congenial and wish had not taken off the way it did.

    That's pretty much the extent of my criticisms of AD&D. I'm not sure why you'd think there was more to it than that, because I've been very clear I like the game a great deal and wouldn't hesitate to consider it old school.

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  9. Here's the one million gold piece question. You wrote:

    "So that's what Dwimmermount is all about. It's an ongoing experiment and, so far, a very successful one. It's where I put my theories into practice and see if I have any idea what I'm talking about or if, as some have opined, I'm "full of it."It's not intended as a blueprint for anyone else's campaign nor do I think the approach I've taken should be deemed normative."

    Without a blueprint for successful campaigns, without the ability to take your successful techniques and apply them at other tables, how does the hobby grow?

    I know that the hobby in general isn't what this post was about but I am curious if you have any ideas.

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  10. Without a blueprint for successful campaigns, without the ability to take your successful techniques and apply them at other tables, how does the hobby grow?

    One of the reasons I spend so much time talking about general principles and "philosophizing" is because I think, ultimately, the growth of the hobby depends on two things. First -- and most importantly -- it depends on people having fun with these games and sharing that fun with other people. If even a few people hear about a RPG session and say, "That sounds cool! I want to do that." the hobby will grow. Second, the hobby grows if the games it produces are presented in a way that makes it easy for people to learn them and make them their own. The second bit is important, because, without players who feel comfortable enough with a game to use as they wish, I don't think it'll grow at all.

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  11. No, because that wasn't the purpose of the post.

    I was hinting you had merged the two concepts by suggesting Dwimmermount might show another path D&D could have taken when I think it will just demonstrate good DM-craft.

    D&D, as a game, could have developed differently than it did

    Are you not expressing a preference for a game that might develop from OD&D (and so is not OD&D) that is different to AD&D? If so it is reasonable to ask what are the differences you would prefer (whether in S&W or any other).

    You have repeatedly said you love AD&D but just as often you make incomprehensibly vague negative remarks about it like,

    the process by which the game was conceived, written, and created laid the groundwork for a very consumerist approach to the hobby that I don't find congenial and wish had not taken off the way it did

    guilt by association with what came much later?

    I'm done being forced to adapt to someone else's vision of how D&D should develop

    What does the history of D&D have to do with what a DM does on any given day?

    the history of D&D is not one of natural evolution at all but of forced evolution, starting with AD&D

    An evolution written by Gygax is "forced" but the scattered day to day DM craft of some bloggers or Fight On! contributers is a "natural" evolution of D&D.

    Statements like these would be better for some evidence now and again to illustrate your ideas. The community admires what you are doing judging by the comments you receive but you are now hearing a chorus of cheers no matter what you write.

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  12. I was hinting you had merged the two concepts by suggesting Dwimmermount might show another path D&D could have taken when I think it will just demonstrate good DM-craft.

    That's a judgment I can only make after the campaign has run for a lot longer than it is. As I stated, my purpose behind starting the campaign was to see if my theories have any standing in reality.

    Are you not expressing a preference for a game that might develop from OD&D (and so is not OD&D) that is different to AD&D? If so it is reasonable to ask what are the differences you would prefer (whether in S&W or any other).

    I am expressing the hope that the game that develops might be more congenial to my preferences than is AD&D as written and, more importantly, as promoted during its existence.

    You have repeatedly said you love AD&D but just as often you make incomprehensibly vague negative remarks about it like,

    the process by which the game was conceived, written, and created laid the groundwork for a very consumerist approach to the hobby that I don't find congenial and wish had not taken off the way it did

    guilt by association with what came much later?


    I've talked at length about my problems with AD&D before. I'm sorry if I can't recapitulate every argument I've made in the last year in each post where I touch on the subject. In brief: AD&D arose, at least in part, to establish mechanical uniformity -- an "official" answer to many rules questions. It's an explicit rejection of the hobbyist approach of OD&D, as Gary himself admitted in the pages of The Dragon. That I and many old schoolers don't think this was wise is pretty well established.

    What does the history of D&D have to do with what a DM does on any given day?

    I think that depends on the DM, doesn't it?

    An evolution written by Gygax is "forced" but the scattered day to day DM craft of some bloggers or Fight On! contributers is a "natural" evolution of D&D.

    I don't believe I ever said that. What I have said is that there was no pressing need for AD&D and, at the time that OD&D's last supplement was published in July 1976, it was stated that "we've [TSR] told you everything we can" and not to "wait with baited breath for another supplement after this one." No less a person than Tim Kask, who was there when Gary began work on AD&D has said that the whole project was a mistake that led to more problems than it solved. Obviously, I agree with his assessment.

    Statements like these would be better for some evidence now and again to illustrate your ideas. The community admires what you are doing judging by the comments you receive but you are now hearing a chorus of cheers no matter what you write

    Again, I'm sorry that every post I make doesn't recapitulate the months' worth of back and forth discussions and arguments in which I've engaged with people, but the illustrations of my points are there in my archives if you are interested in finding them. As for my commenters, I think they can speak for themselves, but I think you've sorely misjudged them if you believe that they're so complaisant that they laud everything I write without qualification.

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  13. You are always thorough in your responses to comments and you don't take offense, for both of which you deserve credit.

    In the last few months I have studied the OD&D books and read your archives, Philotomy, M. Finch and others on how to interpret those books and I wholly admire the philosophy and mechanics but still feel they do not achieve the greatness of the three AD&D books.

    I don't expect you to regurgitate old arguments (which I have read) but there is a genuine problem if argument is considered closed on some topic because you've dealt with it already (as if it was mathematically proven). In fact in the past wrt AD&D your arguments tend to be meta-arguments or journalistic with no examples from the books themselves.

    I may raise a similar point in the future if I think it's relevant but won't be offended if you ignore the comment!

    With regard to other commenters I simply prefer an environment with some civilised dissent. It brings the best out of a writer.

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  14. >but I think you've sorely misjudged them if you believe that they're so complaisant that they laud everything I write without qualification<

    Yeah, I see plenty of people who find issues with James M's ideas, especially in the larger threads. But we are generally talking history AND Philosophy. When philosophy is involved, things are even more open to interpretation. As long as we are tackling these things with an open mind, we are headed in the right direction -agree or disagree. James inspired a lot of people to blog, but I don't often see a lot of ass-kissing. Mostly appreciating of ideas. I used to try to philosophize with my players about gaming in general post or pre-game, but it didn't always interest them. Not everybody wants to sit and talk about the games outside the games. That's why I'm grateful for a lot of these great discussions.



    I think besides having his own strong feelings about what he likes in general, James is also pretty open minded. Case in point - in my blog today I made comments that on first impression might seem like "James bashing." It wasn't, and James even commented on my post in one of his own blogs today.

    I of course do not agree with all his ideas, but I find it very cool that I can actually inspire (for whatever reason)a blog post from the guy whose blogs inspired me to do some blogging, and even get a nod from him when my words aren't especially flattering.

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  15. We are in the process of creating our own game, unique from everyone else who plays, and it's the embrace of this process that I see as at the heart of the old school.

    Is this really an old school thing though? I don't think this is a quality that can be labeled specifically as 'old school'.

    It could be said that it is a general characteristic of the 'old school' style of gaming(rulings not rules) but I don't think that it started nor ended there.

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  16. James
    Your blog is really interesting. Informative too. Now i became a daily reader of your blog. Thanks for sharing ideas.
    regards
    Cartography
    CAD vectorization

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  17. James, I like your thoughts about the seeing how the rules develop in play for your specific game. That complements my some of my own philosophies (e.g. actual play being a significant part of the dungeon design process), but I hadn't considered "rules development" in those terms (although that's exactly what I'm doing, too).

    I recently put up a new "musing" on my site covering making the game your own. Now, I may need to go back and revise it, because I think the concept of rules development during play is worth emphasizing!

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  18. Now, I may need to go back and revise it, because I think the concept of rules development during play is worth emphasizing!

    It absolutely is. I find the primary value in taking a game system like OD&D's in making the game your own through play.

    If you modify a game system in a vacuum, without actually playing it, you'd have no other input than what you'd already learned from years playing the hobby, and thus would only recreate what's already been done one way or another.

    With most games that isn't a problem at all, but if you feel you want something different through D&D in particular than its evolution into AD&D forwards, then you really need to play it and take the game play itself as a primary inspiration.

    Even then, it's very easy (maybe unavoidable, actually) to fall back on previous designs in some way or another, UNLESS you are a complete newbie to role-playing games and just "get them" from the start.

    Yup, in this case, ignorance truly is bliss.

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  19. I am more and more interested in your blog. I am also impressed how close the indie game movement and many parts of the retro game movement are about the same sort of thing.. gamers taking control of the rules and building a game that suits their needs.

    As to the 'natural' or 'forced' evolution of D&D may ignore the fact that roleplaying did evolve, into various other games and systems.

    RuneQuest, Tunnels and Trolls, Chivalry and Sorcery, Swordbearer and many others are obvious examples.. but within the APAzines such as 'Alarums and Excursions' propagated many a variant and hybrid.

    This dynamic between 'pro' and 'amateur' has tilted with the 'Net.. there is a much less separation between a self published rpg on lulu or drivethru and a book published by 'a publisher'..

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  20. It could be said that it is a general characteristic of the 'old school' style of gaming(rulings not rules) but I don't think that it started nor ended there.

    I think the distinction is that old school games are designed on the assumption that they can't be played out of the box without active engagement from players and referee. "Rules as written" isn't even a possibility.

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  21. Are you forgetting Tramp?

    Not at all. Trampier is my favorite D&D artist by far, but I can't recall any of his work in which the undead were portrayed as terrifyingly as this one by Otus.

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  22. I think the distinction is that old school games are designed on the assumption that they can't be played out of the box without active engagement from players and referee. "Rules as written" isn't even a possibility.

    Maybe with 0e, but if 1e is considered old school then I disagree. From 1e there has been a more standardized approach to the rules.

    Tabletop rpgs in general requires the same active engagement and often times there still aren't rules as written and for the majority of DMs rules are made to be broken regardless of the rules sets assumptions.

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  23. From 1e there has been a more standardized approach to the rules.

    I agree. 1e is the thin end of the wedge.

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  24. So, there are folks who like games to have holes, so they can use their techniques to fill them in. Techniques over Mechanics.

    And there are folks who like their mechanics to aid them with their techniques, so they can concentrate on other stuff. Techniques with Mechanics.

    There's overlap in the Venn Diagram of the two.

    I just don't want to see your blog, James, get caught in thinking that takes other people's gaming preferences and demonizes them.

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  25. I just don't want to see your blog, James, get caught in thinking that takes other people's gaming preferences and demonizes them.

    I can't bring myself to demonize Brian Blume, Tracy Hickman, Ed Greenwood, or Larry Elmore. What are the odds I'm going to be able to muster the zeal to do that to someone who likes their rules heavier than I do?

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  26. Surely 1e is where Gygax starts to tell you how to do it, and therefore your Golden Age is over?

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  27. "I just don't want to see your blog, James, get caught in thinking that takes other people's gaming preferences and demonizes them."

    This would be the "fundamentalism" that has been a hot topic of late, but to be honest I haven't seen much of it. Either here or elsewhere on the old school radar. Sure, hints and bits and pieces here and there, but certainly nothing to get all worked up about.

    Stating a preference for one game over another or one style over another is a different thing entirely. That's not "demonizing." Particularly when you explain the specific reasons you prefer one over the other (which we see a lot of here) rather than just "you're doing it wrong."

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