DIY: Role-Playing Games' Oldest Secret

   This is the “career path” most of us “old” gamers followed in our first 5-6 years of gaming – and it is interesting to see a new generation of RPG fans following the same path thanks to the Cypher System:

1)      Medieval Fantasy
2)      Space Opera
3)      Far West
4)      Gothic Horror
5)      Superheroes
6)      Dystopia

   In between TSR’s and Monte Cook’s lineups there was also Palladium’s roster, and then GURPS, which allowed gamers to go through that list – from Medieval Fantasy to Dystopia – in alternate order and various iterations.

   There is a gazillion other things you can play, but you’re gonna have to write those yourself because no game company will publish anything that is too narrow or high concept – it won’t sell. That’s why you always see Medieval Fantasy, Space Opera, Gothic Horror, et cetera: it sells. Sure, you could write a beautiful game about the Congress of Vienna, which lasted from September 1814 to June 1815, with the PCs taking up the roles of Talleyrand’s personal chef and cooking staff, because the food was so very important at the Congress of Vienna – each ambassador trying to impress the other delegates with his extravagant dinner parties and hard to find ingredients, and most of the real negotiations taking place during meals. You could write that. You could even run that if your friends were history buffs and / or foodies. But do not attempt to publish it. Like they say. “Niche.”

   While you’re at it, why not write your own Medieval Fantasy and Space Opera too? Do we really need to buy everything that’s out there? It’s like hide-and-seek – you don’t have to buy the game: just play already!

   Why would I need Game Coins? You just write it down. Write “245 g.p.”, and that’s it. Game Coins are one more cluttering element on the table, along with iPhones, MP3 players, e-cigarettes, real cigarettes, lighters, ashtrays, coffee cups, bottles of beer, wallets, napkins, erasers, chips, pretzels, sandwiches, cheesecake, sunglasses and tentacle-shaped flash drives.

   Why so intent on turning everything into board game pieces? RPGs aren’t board games. Everything ain’t a board game. Are you gonna be able to have sex with your girlfriend without drawing a fucking encounter card?

   The RPG engine works fine and doesn’t need any newer versions; it’s not like an OS. Someone said: “Progress was a wonderful thing... just went on too long.” It applies to RPGs as well – they’ve been fucked over by Chaotic capitalism.

   Once the DM can set a difficulty on the spot and without looking at any chart, once he or she can say, “You need 30, go ahead, roll your 5d10”, then the RPG engine is perfect. It’s optimal. It’s as good as it gets.

   You could come up with the strangest setting idea, and still be able to run it. You can have Abu Bakr, Fatima, Bilal, Umar, Khalid and Ali – the first followers of the prophet Muhammad – they can be cool player characters. Just read one or two history books, jot down some notes, and go! Come on, Khalid, grab your dice – time to earn your “Sword of God” nickname. Hostile desert nomads ride towards Medina. What will you do?

   Nobody needs Game Coins or a d120 or any of that schlock. All you really need is a To Hit matrix, some sort of Saving Throw table, lots of index cards, graph paper, and some dice: d4, d6, d10, d20. Those d8 and d12 are not that useful. Dave Arneson only had a bunch of d6 and he ran a brilliant campaign that we still talk about 45 years later. However unusual / unexpected your setting, just boil it down to the basics. NPCs. Who’s there. Who isn’t. What’s the endgame. Trust me, you’ll have fun!

   Peter Adkison didn’t appreciate 1E’s level caps or 2E’s lack of Half-orcs / assassins. Well, I concur. But that’s not a valid reason to write an entire new line of books. Business people just need excuses to produce entire new lines. The DIY solution is much simpler: ignore the level caps – and whatever else you don’t like.

   In my current old-school AD&D campaign, I tweak stuff all the time. There are no resurrections, there are no wishes, there’s no percentage to STR 18, and I also got rid of the spell sleep – if magic-users want a free kill, they’ll have to get their hands on a scroll with power word kill.

   What I keep reading about 5E on social media is this: Dungeon Masters want to get rid of the first-level Instant Death rule, and they recommend more necrotic damage, or less necrotic damage, or more Hit Points (not just the average), and they realize that some of the “encounter math” is pretty confusing (i.e. Challenge Ratings). In other words, why not stick to 1E and just keep doing what we’ve always been doing – adjust, tweak and modify?

   What’s the use of newer editions if everyone keep tweaking the rules like it’s 1979?

   There’s even some people now who “convert” the classic modules to 5E. That’s quite complicated, isn’t it? Instead of rewriting Steading of the Hill Giant Chief for 5E, why not convert your cleric or ranger to 1E and be done with it? So much simpler.

   Arneson, Gygax, Kuntz and Barker ran their original campaigns without massive rulebooks, and they all had tons of fun. It’s basically a question of scope – is this a game just for you and your friends, or is it something for the public? If you’re writing something for the public at large, well, know that “the public” will undoubtedly ask many questions, and if you can’t provide all the appropriate answers, you’re gonna be seen as a fraud and a bad game designer. That’s business. But if you’re prepping something for your friends – and assuming your friends are chill, reasonable adults – you don’t have to provide all the appropriate answers up front: they’ll know you’re doing your very best and have already invested 35 hours in this game. If some player in the original Blackmoor or Greyhawk campaigns suddenly did something totally unexpected and awkward, and the rule didn’t exist for that kind of action already, they just said, “Well Dave (or Gary), what do you want me to roll?” And Dave or Gary answered: “Okay, lemme whip up a little table right here on this piece of paper. You’ll throw percentile dice. If you get less than 25% you fall off your horse, cannot fire any arrows, and take 2d6 damage. If you get between 26% and 50% you manage to fire one arrow and then fall off the horse and take 2d6 damage. Between 51% and 75% means you manage to fire two arrows before you fall off, taking only 2d4 damage. With a result from 76% to 91% you remain standing up on your horse and fire an arrow. And if you get 92% or more, your action is truly circus-worthy: you remain standing on your horse and effectively fire your two arrows! Go ahead now...”

   Managing a game with friends is easy. Nobody will protest or argue too much, unless they really have some personality problem. RPGs-the-little-pastime-between-friends and RPGs-the-big-business-for-a-wide-audience are two very different things. It’s like anything else, really. Managing the food supply inside your own home is easily done; you just ask Sasha not to finish what’s left of the milk tonight, because mom and dad want milk in their morning coffee. Boom. Done. But managing the world’s food supply, that’s something else, and a gigantic undertaking for sure – you need written regulations, quotas, permits, inspections, standards, commissioners, review boards, whistleblowers and audits. Same thing with RPGs (almost). Greyhawk started out as a Saturday event between friends... and then became a multi-million dollar business venture. That’s what happened. The switch from “DIY” to “Hasbro”.

   Arneson was the ultimate DIY DM, and Gygax – in a certain way – was the ultimate anti-DIY guy, because as soon as you endeavour to set down guidelines and rules for everyone everywhere, that’s the first nail in the DIY coffin. On the other hand, during the early years of D&D, Gygax was against the idea of published adventures. So he was also a DIY DM, and we certainly can’t resent Gygax for setting down those rules; he was both gamer and businessman: he worked hard to start his company.

   And yet, you can still choose that Saturday event between friends. Any one of us can decide to look at it as “RPGs-the-little-pastime-between-friends”. It’s still available.

   If you already know you won’t take part in any sort of organized play or attend cons, why would you need all the books? These books keep coming like junkies to that weird windowless white door down the alley. You’re going to drown in paper and PDFs.

   DMs are not under contract with Wizards of the Coast, Chaosium, or any game publisher, and the ten or twelve books now “needed” just to roll up a new character are not legally binding in any way. When players choose to sit down at a DM’s table, they must accept whatever books or house rules recognized by that particular DM. If he / she says, “We roll characters with one book and one book only,” then the eleven other books become purposeless.

   What is the very first sentence you read right there on the cover of the 1977 Monster Manual – the first of those three AD&D core books? “This is the source to be used by referees and players for creating imaginative situations while playing the AD&D game.

   Emphasis on the words “creating” and “imaginative”.

   You have a functioning grasp on the RPG engine and you usually run games just for your old friends? Well, that’s awesome! Think of it as time travel – let’s pretend we are Gygax, Arneson, Megarry, Kuntz and the others, and the year is 1973. There are no core books lying around. Let’s wing it, baby!

   Mike Mearls recently tweeted, “If you are a DM, what’s the one thing we could give you to make DMing easier and more fun?”

   Give us some breathing space. It’ll make DMing easier and more fun. There’s way too much stuff out there already...

   My very first game was played in a tent on the shore of a lake, and my DM didn’t have any gear – just a pad of graph paper, two pencils, plus a few quarters to use as “dice”. Yep, every action / Saving Throw / sword slash had to be a fifty-fifty thing. Damage was “rolled” by throwing all of those 5 or 6 quarters at the same time: heads scored 1 point of damage, while tails scored 2 (so I was basically dealing 5 to 10 points of damage per attack, which is excellent for a fighter with a longsword). First monster I encountered was a hobgoblin with an axe, and it also dealt 5-10 damage per hit. We each had 50% chance to hit, every round. I remember a few traps, and throwing my flask of oil and my torch at some ghoul...

   Not much of a game, right? But I was overwhelmed – hooked for life! My point is this: less gear / accessories doesn’t mean less fun. Absolutely not.

   RPGs-the-big-business is both very good and very bad. Original Dungeon Masters Guide is quite enlightening when you look at it a certain way: it is a rulebook for a game that millions of Dungeon Masters are already running. It is right there on the back cover: “There’s no need to guess the rules.” Gary even gets to be a little bitchy here and there when addressing the way players interpret what they read in the Players Handbook, like when he talks about thieves’ abilities. “Climbing Walls. This is probably the most abused thief function, although hiding in shadows vies for the distinction.

   The 1975-1978 explosion in popularity is a fascinating thing, since the Dungeon Masters Guide only came out in ’79. What it means is, this game didn’t need a solid, fixed set of rules in order to become a huge international success.

   We can actually read a lot in that short sentence: “There’s no need to guess the rules.” Yes, that is what millions of D&D and AD&D players were doing between ’75 and ’79: they just guessed the rules. And it worked.

   It worked well enough to trigger a worldwide hobby revolution.