Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Retrospective: Ready Ref Sheets

There's a reason why I have such a soft spot for Judges Guild and it's not just because, even 30 years later, their best products favorably compare with anything that's been produced since. It's because they're a window into the hobby as it was played in the early days. There's remarkably little artifice to most JG products. What they contain they contain because the writer thought it was cool and, more than likely, because he'd used it (or something similar) in his home campaign. There's nary a whiff of an agenda or theory behind these books, to both their benefit and detriment.

A good case in point is 1978's Ready Ref Sheets. This is in fact the expanded second edition of the product, the original having come out a year earlier. 56 pages in length, the Ready Ref Sheets, as its name implies, is a miscellany of charts, tables, and optional rules for use by referees of Dungeons & Dragons. The majority of this miscellany comes the first six issues of Judges Guild's Guildmember subscription, supplemented by material from the Campaign Hexagon System booklet and other JG products. You'll note that this edition is listed as "Volume I," but, so far as I know, there was never a Volume II.

Many old school referees quite rightly swear by the Ready Ref Sheets. Within its pages is a collection of some of the interesting, useful, strange, whimsical, bizarre, and downright stupid ideas for D&D collected in one product. Here's a sampling of just a few of them:
  • City encounter tables, based on social class
  • Special encounter rules for women, including how to determine their bust and waist size based on their Charisma (no, I am not making this up)
  • Rules for adjudicating a court case
  • Rules for advertising for hirelings
  • An alternate coinage system that includes mithril and adamantite
  • Shock rules
  • A new system for initiative based on "weapon priority"
  • Tables for "startling statues" and what they do when examined
  • Extensive wilderness encounter charts
  • Rules for prospecting for ore
As you can see, it's a real mixed bag of ideas and I shudder to think of playing in a campaign that used all of these charts. Of course, I doubt anyone ever would. Instead, they're intended as spurs to the imagination, something to which a referee can turn in those moments when he doesn't quite know what happens next in his campaign.

It's here, I think, that a key bit of wisdom from the past reveals itself. Lots of contemporary gamers will make the claim that they lack either the time or confidence to run a proper sandbox-style campaign. Being able to think up encounters or details on the spot can be difficult, no question, but it's not as if the referees of the past were made of sterner stuff than are those of today. What they had, though, was recourse to dozens upon dozens of random tables for every occasion -- just look at the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide! Modern gamers frequently turn up their nose at this stuff, but they shouldn't, since it's these tables that allowed earlier referees to wing it with much greater ease.

I know I regularly used tables in the Ready Ref Sheets as aids to my imagination and am glad I did. I often think that the old school movement would be wise to produce a book much like this one, geared toward providing gamers with the tables and charts they need to help shoulder some of the burden of our preferred play style. Properly presented, such a book might even be of interest to gamers outside our little corner of the hobby and go some way toward clarifying just why we love randomness as much as we do.

31 comments:

  1. The ready ref sheets were gold in the days before wide spread use of word processing software.

    Trying to use a typewriter to type up random tables was a royal pain in the ***. Let alone summary sheets, crib sheets, etc.

    Of course some of us were masters of the photocopier in coming up with our own sheets but that only works for existing materials.

    My favorite sections was the demographics and the two page summary of all the monsters.

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  2. In the early 80's when I was running a campaign at college, I literally wore out a copy of this book. I still refer to my replacement copy when I'm running games today, though I've added Toolbox & Ultimate Toolbox (by AEG) to the pile of tables I refer to. They're all worth 10x their weight in gold.

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  3. Ready Ref Sheets were my key supplement for running OD&D back in the 1970s. I used to give a copy to players in my campaigns who started to DM regularly.

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  4. I don't know why any GM would hate randomness. Not only is it easier not to create everying from scratch, but with random tables, I get to explore and be surprised by my own campaign world, too! Why should only the other players get that kind of enjoyment?

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  5. I often think that the old school movement would be wise to produce a book much like this one, geared toward providing gamers with the tables and charts they need to help shoulder some of the burden of our preferred play style. Properly presented, such a book might even be of interest to gamers outside our little corner of the hobby and go some way toward clarifying just why we love randomness as much as we do.Surely kellri's CCD#4 - Encounter Reference (aka probably the best gaming product released in the last 20 years) fits this bill very well, no?

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  6. Give me enough random tables and I shall craft whole worlds!

    I may have only a little trouble explaining how that party of NPC merchants ended up in that sewer though. :)

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  7. I think the greater wisdom from the past is the use of randomness to resolve what happens next. Random tables are a preserved example of that approach, while determining the odds of something happening and then rolling is the living application in play that doesn't appear in the fossil record.

    Certainly the Ready Ref Sheets are a great inspiration to use both kinds of randomness. Kellri's CDD #4 is great but gets a lot less use 'cause I don't have it in print, and the Toolbox I've seen has a unified d20 basis that I find off-putting; it's often much easier for me to think of six possible outcomes. And I'm 100% with Will that the use of random factors turns the game into an experience of exploration and discovery for all participants, with the DM getting to enjoy being a partner in that journey rather than an all-knowing travel planner.

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  8. Man, I love this book, though I only have a PDF copy that I bought a couple years ago. In fact, the crazy (and sometimes useful) random tables got me to buy a number of JG products back in the late '80s and early '90s when I found them, even though I was playing MERP and Rolemaster. I'm with Tavis, part of the fun of using random tables when running a game is seeing what crazy logic you have to use to tie it all together.

    In fact, I am currently working on a 'vanilla' dungeon fantasy setting, and I've been using the random ruin tables from this book to add some spice to the map. So far I have some stone pots, sealed, that have been eroded over the years and are supposedly guarded by giants. I changed that to giant-size pots just ready to be found in the hills. I also have a totally functional road sign covered in cobwebs and guarded by a dragon. I'm having more trouble figuring out how to make that one work, but I'm sure I'll eventually come up with something; maybe the dragon is really just a topper to the sign post, and it looks real from a distance but isn't real?

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  9. One of my most precious possessions is an issue of the Judges Guide Journal* (I believe it was #6, but I'd have to check), because of it's wonderful set of random encounter tables (which occupied almost the entirety of the issue). And for some of the encounters, such as "merchant caravan," it gave quick methods of generating the information a gamemaster would need to quickly create on. Excellent, and well worth acquiring if you get the chance.

    [* The newspaper style magazine that predated the Dungeoneer.]

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  10. I have never heard of Ready Ref Sheets until I read your blog post, James. Thank you. I have now purchased a copy off eBay. Hopefully, I'll get it in time for next week's session when my party enters the capital city.

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  11. This thing has ready ruin tables?? I've got to get one - perfect for Gamma World!

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  12. Well, the ruin tables are a bit wonky, but if you are interested in ruined pots and signposts, in addition to castles and towers, then it may be up your alley!

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  13. I was going to mention Kellri's CDD #4 as well. Anyone who is remotely interested in old school gaming should download a copy. It's free.

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  14. Ultimate Toolbox. One of the most useful books for anyone who loves tables.

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  15. Some people might be interested in my collection tables:

    www.apolitical.info/webgame/tables

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  16. I agree wholeheartedly with the post, and own three print copies of this beauty (they come quite cheap, even so many years later). RRS not only contains a plethora of inspiring support material - among them the Ruins&Relics table - but an almost complete sampling of the OD&D core rules. To hit and saving throw matrices, a concise chart of all monster stats you would need and more.

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  17. By the way, I once read a claim to the effect that Bob Bledsaw authored many of the tables found in the 1e DMG's appendices. While I can't determine the veracity of the statement, Bob mentioned sending a lot of notes to Gary while he was working on AD&D, and there is an uncanny thematic similarity - including the slight incongruity between the "naturalist" outlook of the appendices and the oddness of many of the tables.

    Might be worth investigating.

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  18. Yeah, c'mon James. I've been begging for a review. Let's have it.

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  19. By the way, I once read a claim to the effect that Bob Bledsaw authored many of the tables found in the 1e DMG's appendices.Intriguing!

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  20. Yeah, c'mon James. I've been begging for a review. Let's have it.Thanks for reminding me of it, everyone. I keep a list of all the products I intend to review, in the order in which I received/purchased them, so that I don't forget any. Probably because Kellri's PDF is free, it never made it to the list. That's an error I'll soon correct, as it is an excellent resource and deserving of wider use.

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  21. maybe the dragon is really just a topper to the sign post, and it looks real from a distance but isn't real?The dragon was impaled on the sign by some unimaginably powerful force. Its gut is filled with ambergris, which seems like a "free" treasure, at first.

    I never liked to actually use random tables because I was never short of stuff-to-happen in adventures, and valued negative space too much (perhaps because my PC parties always needed a place to nurse their wounds). But I mined them for ideas and loved the fact that they were so often so peculiar. I always wanted something to suggest a bit of on-the-spot inspiration, but never wanted to be beholden to a roll for what happens net. Perhaps there's room for a DM's Tarot deck, or something like Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies.

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  22. I get regular use out of the urban and wilderness encounter tables in the ready ref sheets. Playing in the Wilderlands so it isn't a terrible stretch.,

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  23. Why should only the other players get that kind of enjoyment?

    I agree. One of the many reasons I like randomness is that it allows me, as referee, to be surprised almost as often as the players. I like that.

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  24. Might be worth investigating.

    Indeed -- but who would know the answer to this, with both Bob and Gary sadly no longer with us? I wonder if Bill Owen would have any insights or one of Bob's sons?

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  25. So a couple of people refer to something called "CCD#4 - Encounter Reference" and say it's free. But, nobody links to it!?

    BTW, Toolbox by AEG might be for D&D3, but it's one of the most amazing amount of random tables goodness I've ever seem. Don't let edition chauvinism keep you from checking it out.

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  27. I think the reason why people give random charts such a bad label is that they think the GM has to use whatever he rolled on the chart when in reality it should be simply be used as a guide to help generating ideas. If the GM rolled that the party is going to be attacked by Blink Dogs but the idea of using Wargs is better then he should use them instead.

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  28. I've always found random tables a wonderful spur to my creativity. The chart says "Merchants" in the sewers? Obviously men resorting to a risky smuggling scheme... The party encounters hostile blink dogs? Perhaps another group of adventurers has stolen the pack's pups in hopes of selling them... If I can't think of a good solution, I'll just roll again.

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  29. I finally got a chance to look through this. I'm alternately in admiration of how well-thought-out a lot of it is, and offended by how sexist a lot of it seems... I know it was a different time but I'm struck by it.

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