Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Articles of Dragon: "History of a Game That Failed"

Issue #99 of Dragon (July 1985) featured an article by David F. Godwin entitled "History of a Game That Failed." I don't ever recall reading it, though I'm sure I must have, when I first got the issue in the mail if not at some time later. Re-reading it in preparation for this post was an enlightening experience, both for what the article might have said about gaming culture at the time of its publication and how I react to its contents now.

The article contains Godwin's reflections on being "soft-hearted enough to want to see the PCs survive and do well" to the point that he "was no longer playing the AD&D game. [He] was shooting fish in a barrel." I must confess that I was very surprised to see an article like this appear in an issue of Dragon published in 1985, since my recollection of that time was of an era when being "soft-hearted enough to want to see the PCs survive and do well" was not just increasingly commonplace but de rigeur.

Intriguingly, the first "tip" Godwin passes along as a result of his past failure is "Feel free to fudge." Though he introduces this tip with a story of how he pretended to roll low on an attack that would have killed a PC, he is quick to point out that fudging rolls "doesn't have to be in favor of the players." He adds that it is the referee who is the final arbiter of what is and is not true in his own campaign. Never let an errant dice roll or players quoting chapter and verse from a rulebook lead you to think otherwise.

Tip two is "Just because it's in a module doesn't mean it's so." In particular, he's talking about the strength of opponents and the amount of treasure and magic items. I must admit I find this tip odd, because, even in my worst letter-of-the-law days of gaming, I never felt that the contents of a module was sacrosanct. However, Godwin claims that he did think they were and it took him some time to realize that it was acceptable to alter what was written in adventure to suit his own campaign.

Tip three is "Be exceedingly stingy in handing out magic items." This tip is apparently near and dear to Godwin's heart, because he discusses it at length, providing lots of examples of magic items he feels are exceedingly powerful, or at least problematic if the referee is not careful. To be fair, he's not opposed to placing powerful magic items in the hands of PCs; he simply thinks the referee needs to conscious of the potential for mischief such items bring with them. This is a fair point and many an inexperienced referee commits this mistake.

Tip four is "Don't let your players have a continuous commune spell." By this he means that the players should be kept in the dark as often as possible, since knowledge is what gives the referee his edge -- including the properties of magic items. Godwin stresses the limits even of spells like identify and encourages the referee to take full advantage of it.

Tip five is "Do not allow a character to become more powerful than a chugging locomotive." Here he's talking specifically about ability score inflation, both through magic items and spells.

Tip six is "If they wish for the moon, don't let them have it." I'm actually surprised that, in 1985, there was still a need to talk about all the delightful ways wishes can be used to turn the tables on the players, but apparently there was.

Tip seven is "No, you can polymorph your henchman into Odin." You know, I had no idea until very recently that polymorph was apparently such a troublesome spell for a lot of D&D gamers. I honestly don't recall a single time it's ever given me grief as a referee, since the spell description I remember is pretty clear about its limitations.

Tip eight is "Be careful playing with fireballs." Sure.

Tip nine is "Be reasonable in awarding experience points." Godwin here encourages referees to use the "equivalent hit dice" system from the Dungeon Masters Guide, which is an oft-forgotten element of AD&D. It basically compares the value of the characters' levels against the hit dice of the monsters they defeat and then adjusts the value of the XP gained up or down accordingly. The system is intended, like its rough equivalent in OD&D, to put the breaks on gaining easy experience points through killing much weaker foes in large numbers. Again, this has never been a problem for me personally, but I fully support slowing the rate of character advancement.

Tip ten is "Go easy on the poor deities." That this needed to be said at all is sad.

Tip eleven is "Beware the many-headed hydra." Here Godwin is discouraging allowing one player to play more than one character in an adventure at the same time. That's just common sense.

Tip twelve is "Avoid an adversary relationship with your players." Godwin notes that it's inevitable that referees and players will be at odds, since players are always trying to pull fast ones on their referees:
It would be a wonderful world if players were so conscientious and so willing to risk their characters for the sake of a good time that they never looked at the Dungeon Masters Guide, the modules, or even "Dungeon Master advice" articles (such as this one) in magazines. It would even be nicer if they did not look up monsters in the Monster Manual, FIEND FOLIO Tome, and Monster Manual II whenever they confronted them. Maybe you can forbid this sort of activity during the playing of an adventure, but you can't control what players do on their own time. And never underestimate the ingenuity of players. I once had a player justify looking in the Monster Manual during play by saying that his character carried around a bestiary in his backpack!
Despite this, try and make it clear to your players that your iron-fisted rule is all in the name of fun, to ensure that the game remains challenging for all.

That's a lot to digest, but I think it provides a fascinating snapshot into at least one slice of the hobby back in 1985. Some of it comports well with my own recollections, while other parts of it feel like the author is describing a game in an alternate reality. I suspect this reaction will be true for a lot of my readers as well.


  1. When I first read this I couldn't believe people played like that, people I played with never did. Another part of me wonders if this article actually encouraged the bad behavior, or colored the perceptions of new players that this was cool. The stigma of god-slaying, monty-hauling, stat-rack of 25, and an army of 100 red dragons ridden by enslaved Valkyries still remains my perception of this type of over-the-top 'failed' game - though I never saw it myself, I only read about it in articles like this.

  2. I don't see this as surprising for 1985. Gygax and his crew had been gone from the company for awhile and the forces of chaos at TSR were pretty much all over the place.  Even Gygax had initiated the AD&D power bloat with Unearthed Arcana before 2nd edition had settled in. There must have been quite a number of campaigns swelling at the seams with good intentioned candy-coated versions of AD&D that hoped to retain player interest by cramming them full of sickeningly sweet, magic rich, overpowered adventures that protected characters from ever facing real challenges or possible character death.

    A lot of this would also have been great advice back in '74, '75 and '76. Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes had been released by '76 and bloated Monty Hall campaigns were taking down various pantheons like sword-fodder.

  3. Never seen a problem playing more then one PC. Sure,  a player  shouldn't be  running ten, but two is acceptable with three being the cut off. Besides ,if your only playing with a few people it only makes sense to have  them play additional characters incase one of them dies at a point in the session were there's no way another PC can be introduced.

  4. I wonder if the relative obviousness of the tips was because this was aimed more at those who came into the hobby via the boxed sets of 1981 and 1983?

  5. When perusing this kind of historical material I often think of them as internet flamewars in slow motion.  Tone ain't that different of what some modern day echo chambers produce. You are playing it wrong, and the very idea that there are people out there playing it wrong is so repulsive I have to write to Dragon Magazine/BBS/forum about it.

  6. That seems to me a useful understanding. Action and reaction, going ever on. We love to puff up, mark out territory and set laws, rattle round in the circle of our own perceptual spaces.

    But echo chambers? Surely we don't have those. I think you must have a particular trap type in mind.

  7. Peter V. Dell'OrtoApril 24, 2012 at 8:36 AM

    I'm actually surprised that, in 1985, there was still a need to talk
    about all the delightful ways wishes can be used to turn the tables on
    the players, but apparently there was.

    Well, of course there was. For some people, this was their very first issue of Dragon. For others, it wasn't, but even so not everyone had a collection (and experience) stretching back to OD&D.

    Good advice, and it wasn't out of place in 1985 nor would it have been earlier or later. I think this article had a lot that stuck with me, too, because I remember it well. I didn't have a runaway game then, but I had a game where you could find an artifact-level magic weapon in a goblins hoard because the dice told me that's what happened once before . . .

  8. This article reads like a play by play for most of the campaigns in which I participated.  I was a junior high and high school kid through most of the 80's and what seems common sense to the adult me today would have been considered "no fun" during that time.

    The video game generation sometimes gets blamed for the proliferation of instant gratification but I think it's pretty obvious that the folly of youth is a constant.  We were kids... of course we all wanted Vorpal Swords and our feet on the heads Asmodeus.  

  9. Peter V. Dell'OrtoApril 24, 2012 at 8:40 AM

     We allowed multiple PCs - and even letting the GM play one - with small groups. Canonically I think you're supposed to hire hirelings and henchmen, but we preferred to just let each of two players have two guys and play both.

    I can see why the author of the article would clamp down on it in a game gone bad, but it's not inherently bad.

  10. Tip 4 ["If you are not cheating you are not trying hard enough."]:  I actually loved the use of this sort of magic by the players, as it allows the players to plan ahead.  Such planning should be done in cooperation with the gamemaster, of course, who should be as helpful as possible to the characters (within the limits of what the characters can find out).  There have been time after a well thought-out plan that I've simply said "OK, it works."

    If you have vital plot elements that rely on secrecy (such as the identity of the Big Bad), then in a magical universe they are going to take precautions against their plans being discovered by a magic 8-ball.  Not to mention that magic works both ways (this is best shown in a sandbox world with multiple players, so that the gamemaster can remain scrupulously neutral).

    Tip 7 [Lessons in Form Control]: Our problem was that as soon as a magic-user learned polymorph they started a detailed list of the creatures they had seen.  However since we didn't limit spell knowledge (just spell use), this was easily fixed by making each polymorph a separate spell (eg: polymorph other to rat, polymorph other to frog, etc.) which worked quite well.  So well that we used the same technique with the Monster Summoning Spells in AD&D (with the random table being used to determine what the spell was in someone's spell book).

    Tip 6:  I always felt the standard D&D wish malevolence was broken, unless that wish came from some supernatural entity being forced into service.  Then, the combination of it being hostile and lazy meant that you had to lawyer-speak your wish.  Otherwise I do think it's much more fun to let them have what they wish for.  Of course, a spell or a ring of wishes doesn't respond to legalese at all, but rather intent.  Let the player describe their intent (and make sure that they know the spell works by intent), and they'll stop trying to "game "the wish.

    [Although the temptation to make someone the ruler of all they survey a yardstick is nigh irresistable.]

  11. Yeah, I've played two charcters at once before.  I wouldn't want to do more than that tho.  Way too much to keep up with.  I'd be interested to hear someone talk about playing four or five characters at once- especially if there were three or four other players at the table.

  12. I'm of two minds when it comes to the die-fudging. I fudge or re-roll lots of times when I'm stocking a dungeon, for example, but when it comes to  the actual game, I prefer to let the dice fall where they may. For the first few dungeons I didn't play the enemies as ruthlessly as I could have, but now that the PCs are in the wider world, I'm more inclined to let them feel the consequences for their actions.

  13. @James (or others) precisely where are you getting these articles? From a personal hardcopy archive? A soft copy archive? If there's a soft copy, is it available for purchase?

  14.  Some years back, there was a CD-ROM collection of the Dragon that included the full run of The Strategic Review and Dragon #1-250 plus a few extras. Sadly, this is no longer available.

  15. There certainly are situations where multiple PCs work ok. I think it depends on the nature of the campaign, and on the game system in use. Simpler game systems make running multiple PCs easier. Campaign styles that allow for serial play of multiple PCs can also work (back when I first started playing at the MIT Strategic Games Society, players had stables of PCs. They would decide which one to play based on the group of players at hand, and the scenario offered, usually having PCs at a range of levels).

  16. I used to always play one or more GMPCs....

    I think some game systems I would still do this, but these days, I am interested in exploring how to have an enjoyable game without my running a GMPC.

    I think part of why GMPCs became so important to me was a combination of not really playing much (more because I found it frustrating to play in other games than because of time constraints or unwillingness of others to take up the GM reins), and game systems starting to offer such interesting possibilities for the players while the GM just lined up foes that would be dispensed with in a matter of minutes (and perhaps the GM "story railroad" was in part another reaction to this).

  17. I suppose my thought is: "Why is this campaign a failure?  Did you and your players not have fun?"

  18. I find it fascinating that so much of what this article warns against are things that have become hard-coded INTO most RPGs since the late '90s. Much of that, I suspect, is because game designers decided they were fighting a losing battle against power bloat, and it would be better to allow it and control it rather than keep ineffectually discouraging it. Sort of like legalized marijuana.

  19. Nicholas BergquistApril 24, 2012 at 3:31 PM

    I remember this article, and it felt a bit disconnected to me even back then, although at the time I was gravitating away from AD&D and to other RPGs. It's reminiscent of my first semester in college when I was back to running AD&D with 2nd edition, when I met another gamer who proceeded to tell me all about his level 47 paladin with 3 copies of mjolnir on his belt that he took from Thor, and about his great adventures slaying Satan. It was then that I realized that there was a very good chance that even if we were all playing AD&D, no one was actually playing the same game, apparently. Or even on the same level of reality...!

  20. I was terrible about running multiple PCs in one game.  Often I played one-on-one, so there was a real issue of "how to get enough good guys in the fight," but it made it too easy to coordinate strategy.  Especially when you have a PC who's "willing" to "search" for traps by just walking down the corridor and let his "friends" see what happens to him.  That was when my friend said, "No, you get one PC."  And created an adventure appropriate for one PC.
    As DM today, I let players have multiple PCs, but they can only play one at any particular.  If by chance, twos PCs of the same player end up in the same place, they are overwhelmed with irritation and loathing for the other.
    And I solve the "I don't have enough real-world friends" problem by letting PCs meet and develop henchman-- who are "almost" like multiple PCs, but who do sometimes "do their own thing" and may even leave a PC.  Maybe most importantly, if a PC dies, all of his or her henchman scatter to the winds rather than being promoted to PC.

  21. I find it interesting that most of the things this article warns against have been hardwired INTO many 21st Century RPGs. Maybe game designers decided that it would be better to embrace and control power bloat rather than to keep fighting it ineffectually. Sort of like legalizing marijuana. 

  22. "
     to put the breaks on gaining easy experience points through killing much weaker foes in large numbers. "

    not quite.  The rule was there to put the breaks on gaining easy experience from gold much weaker foes were guarding.  A small but important distinction.  The goal is not to kill large numbers of creatures, but to steal their gold.

  23. 1) There's nothing wrong with an overpowered, Monty Haul game if that's what the players want.  It's all about fun.

    2) I almost always played multiple PCs because of too few players.  DMs preferred I run the extra fighter or two instead of them having to run a bunch of NPCs.  It's easy to do.  I had a main character that I controlled, and while I rolled for the other(s) it was mostly a group decision about what they did and what treasure they got.  (This was never a problem until 4E--where making all those decisions for multiple characters really got confusing and slowed the game down alot.)

    3) Fudging is useful for drama, but never ever let me know about it!  As a player, I want to know that when I roll the dice it is between my decision-making and the variables of the dice.  I absolutely hate the DM intervening, even to save my character. 

  24. Why don't you like promoting henchmen to PCs? That seems like one of the most useful functions of a henchman, because it allows the player to stay in the game and start (potentially) higher than first level without ever creating a higher level character that has not earned the experience. And, since henchmen only get 1/2 a share of XP, they will likely be lower level, though on average only about one level lower due to the pseudo-exponential nature of the XP progression.

  25. Only noticed this post just now, I have to ad this sort of trap to my game.