Kyle Mecklem asked:

What should a game have to possess the “spirit” of old school Dungeons & Dragons?

Good question!

D&D-nature is about exploring some area (possibly a social graph, as seen in B6), call-response interaction with the Referee (see those early examples of play in OD&D and Holmes), and deadly results from bad luck or bad decision-making, with just enough rules to handle the common cases.

There are no fixed rules.

  • Six stats? Many games have 3 stats, or 7 or 8, and are still D&D-nature.
  • Group initiative? OD&D used Chainmail’s individual weapon-rank initiative system. Holmes basic used individual Dex-rank, rolls for ties.
  • Hit Points? Chainmail just had alive/dead results from combat, and it was the official combat system of OD&D. There are later games that have no HP and only survival rolls, which seems VERY D&D-nature.
  • Descending AC? Most retro-clones have ascending AC, and they seem to have D&D-nature.
  • XP? Metamorphosis Alpha has D&D-nature and no experience system.
  • Theatre of the mind combat? Well, mostly, but some people do run D&D-nature games with minis, tho I think that’s poor form.

In fact, I don’t see any rules that can’t be thrown out and still have D&D-nature, and for example Ken St. Andre, M.A.R. Barker, James Ward, Greg Stafford, Kevin Siembieda, and Dave Hargrave recognized that and made their own things which are still D&D-nature. Venger Satanis‘s Crimson Dragon Slayer is D&D-nature, even though it’s basically Over the Edge (I was going to say “with swords”, but there’s few guns on Al Amarja, so… it’s OTE)

Where it stops is when you’ve codified everything and forbidden people from screwing with the rules, or nerfed it so nobody can have a stupid death.

  • AD&D does not have D&D-nature, not so much because of the excessive rules as Gary’s rules-as-written edicts from convention games.
  • Obviously some forms of D20 have D&D-nature, even if 3.0, 3.5, and Pathfinder do not.
  • 4E did not, it’s arguably not even an RPG.
  • 5E kinda does, but it covers every surface in Nerf® and makes sure mommy will kiss your owies and give you back a hit die when you take a popsicle break. Has anyone ever died in a 5E game? Is a TPK possible?

Alpha Blue

A proper review of Alpha Blue & supplements is on my TODO list for this year, but the shortest possible version is:

Almost non-existently minimalist storygame system, great art (often but not always pornographic), great maps/deckplans, tons of weird random tables (often but not always pornographic), adventures are linear drug-trip nonsense (often but not always pornographic) but always have weird scenes and sleazy NPCs that could be thrown in front of a more self-directed party.

Since there’s almost no system, you can just restat everything for whatever system you actually use; use Alpha Blue content in Alpha Dawn, for instance.

D&D Cartoon Time

“That was Venger, the force of evil! I am Dungeon Master, your guide, in the world of Dungeons & Dragons!”

Classic, but note:

  • Ranger: Cheesemonkey munchkin Aryan creep. Basically everything I loathe most wrapped up in one guy, and he’s the “leader”, just because he talks loudest.
  • Cavalier (Eric): Whiny rich asshole with plate & shield but no sword. Should’ve been a Paladin so at least he’d have “good” to excuse his “stupid”. I kinda get a “Less Than Zero” vibe off Eric, like he might’ve ended up like Julian if he’d stayed on Earth. He’s the right age, demographic, and attitude.
  • Acrobat (Diana): Worst class ever, but the girl’s cute and fur bikinis are sexy. Monk or Assassin would’ve been better.
  • Thief (Sheila): Soulless ginger with a voice like fingernails on chalkboard. But she’s the only effective-at-class character.
  • Barbarian (Bobby) & Whiny Thing (Uni): Thief’s little brother sat in on a game, and got the only class more broken than Ranger. Never uses any of the dozen+ skills given in Dragon #63/Unearthed Arcana. Is Uni supposed to be the party healer? It never comes up that I know of.
  • Magic-User (Presto): Mediocre amateur does nothing except with magic items, which is a good levelling strategy for classic M-U. Unfortunately, he has no self-direction, casts only when he’s ordered to by others, and his “spells” are just begging for help with some “alla-kazam” chants. I’m pretty sure anytime someone calls him “Wizard” they’re being sarcastic, since that’s the 11th-level class title, and he’s 0-level.

Dungeon Master runs an annoying game, probably modeled on Ed Greenwood, where he appears in-game as his own talking head NPC to deliver quests and lame backstory (“until the dragons were driven away by good magic”).

Random encounter table in the quadruple-sun wastelands of Dungeodragonia:

  1. Tiamat
  2. Venger and/or Shadow Demon
  3. Flight of Shadow Dragons
  4. Giant Scorpion
  5. Fat Dragon
  6. Beholder

Party marching order is terrible, Rgr, Cav, Acro, M-U, Thf, Barb. Dumb. Should be: Acro (walks point), Barb (lead fighter), Cav, Rgr (ranged), M-U, Thief (trail rear); swap Acro & Thief situationally.

“Tell me, Ranger, what brings YOU here?”
“You know me?”
“He’s Merlin, he knows everyone!”

Asshole wearing green leathers with a bow and a smug look of someone with an extra hit die. It’s not magic to guess he’s a Ranger who’s so personality-less he only goes by “Ranger”.

Horrific nightmare fuel, a semi-invisible Hector the Halfling; this is why I don’t allow Hobbits:

Hector the Halfling

Hey, it’s KELEK™, Evil Sorcerer (Chaotic Sorcerer, 7th Level Magic-User), WARDUKE™, Evil Fighter (Chaotic Superhero, 8th Level Fighter), and STRONGHEART™, Good Paladin (Lawful Lord, 10th Level Fighter) as seen in XL1-Quest for the Heartstone and the D&D toy line. Kelek’s plan was bonkers but effective, except then Venger kicked his ass. Warduke captured Dungeon Master, that’s one bad-ass NPC.

In Strongheart’s XL1 stats he’s just a fighter, with an intelligent magic sword +2 (not a holy avenger!) that can detect evil & heal; that’s a neat end-run around Paladinhood. In “Servant of Evil”, he’s a useless follower with a cask of Santory 1855(!), and a magic golden hammer that makes force fields; very disappointing appearance.

The Orcs here are exactly how I envision them: Green-skinned & pig-snouted, cruel slavers at the Mines of Theramore (! later used in World of Warcraft as their super racist Human supremacist faction city). Lizard Men look far too human-with-lizard-heads. Bullywugs are overly competent, they remind me more of the Final Fantasy “Sahagin” more than either D&D Bullywugs or Sahuagin.

“Magic armor, shields, and weaponry
Barbarians detest magic and distrust those who use it. They will refuse to employ any sort of magic item if they recognize it as such. They will destroy magic items if they have their way. While a magic-user will be shunned by barbarians, clerical spells are not regarded as magic (except for the more powerful spells not typically usable by a tribal shaman or low-level cleric), so barbarians will associate with clerics on occasion.”
—Gary Gygax, “The Big, Bad Barbarian”, Dragon #63

So Bobby ignores this rule not just for the Magic-User (which, to be fair, everyone playing Barbarians ignored, just as Paladins ignored the obvious Assassins and other heretics in the party), and his club and the party’s items, but also a magic amulet handed directly to him by the Dungeon Master. I know he’s like 8 years old, but cheating little bastard.

“Magic works in “our world,” though with some limitations. Magic-users without spell books will, of course, be unable to regain cast spells. Clerics will be completely out of touch with their deities and their servants, and subsequently will not be able to regain spells above second level. There may be problems obtaining material components
for spells, and substitutions may result in interesting alterations of spell effects at the DM’s option. Some spells are affected by the location; see below for more information on spell alterations.”
—Robert Shroeck, “The City Beyond The Gate”, Dragon #100

The multiverse magic rules are inconsistent and wrong. In “Beauty and the Bogbeast” and “The Box”, the kids get back to Earth, they have to leave Uni behind, and their magic weapons don’t work on Earth; but also in “The Box”, Venger (a demon!) is able to reach Earth with his flying nightmare mount, and his magic works. There’s also “Modern Monsters” by Ed Greenwood (ack, spit) in Dragon #57, and “Sixguns & Sorcery” in the AD&D DMG, clearly stating these principles. The kids should be able to come back to Earth with their weapons and start a new dark age of magic and tyranny.

“PRESTO Spells Disaster” starts with the party being chased through a forest by a Stegosaur; it’s classic D&D to have dinosaurs running around, but it was a plains herbivore. Robert T. Bakker hadn’t published The Great Dinosaur Debate yet, but this was known from pre-80s research.

We finally get a name for the four-armed, membrane-winged, face-tentacled monster from the Prison of Agony, “Slimebeast”, which is weird since it isn’t slimy, and doubly weird since there’s never been official stats for it!