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<   No. 3235   2012-07-08   >

Comic #3235

1 {photo of the Fantasy cast}
1 Caption: Old School Roleplaying

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Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG
Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG.
I'm currently reading a big fat book. What's it about? Well, it's not a story. It's not a made-up tale of invented people, places, and events. Neither is it a tale of real people, places, or events. It doesn't tell about how the universe or the world works. It's a reference book, but not about anything real. It's a reference to things that are completely made up. The closest thing about the real world that it speaks to is perhaps a small circle of human culture.

I am reading a roleplaying game rule book. The game is called Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. It was published earlier this year. The book outlines a mystical, magical world, in which brave knights team up with arcane wizards, priests of strange and capricious gods, with sneaky thieves, elves, dwarves, and halflings, to explore ancient dungeons, slay monsters, and collect treasure. Despite being published this year, the book doesn't read like a modern roleplaying game book. It's one of a growing set of roleplaying publications that rejects the story and characterisation heavy maturation of the fantasy roleplaying hobby throughout the 1980s and '90s, and the combat-machine optimisations of the 2010s, replacing them with the wide-eyed simplicity of the 1970s.

To paraphrase the main selling point of the book, it proudly proclaims that this is a game in which players don't need to worry about interacting with pesky NPCs[1] who aren't meant to be killed, in which adventure means going into a dungeon and slaying the monsters within, in which it's all about collecting loot. This is the very thing that has often been criticised as overly clichéd and limited in scope, and which has driven the modern evolution of roleplaying games in other directions. So why return to these benighted times?

One answer is nostalgia. People who were kids or teenagers in the 1970s are now adults with disposable income. Many have drifted away from roleplaying and may now be looking back on it fondly. But these newfangled game systems have rules that frankly seem as arcane and opaque to them as the games of the '70s seemed to their parents. Where can I just get a copy of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook?[2][3][4] The rules I know and love? The gaming aesthetic I know and love? The old style black and white artwork I know and love?

The Hall of Dworin
Dungeon crawling.
The second answer, partly interwoven with the first, is that people who grew up with gaming in the '70s and '80s are now adults, with all that means in terms of responsibilities that eat up leisure time. It's the age-old problem that youth is wasted on the young. Now that you're grown up and earning a living and have money to spend on indulging a time-intensive hobby, you no longer have the time.

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG addresses both of these issues. The rules are comfortably familiar, with just enough evolution borrowed from modern game systems to remove clunkiness and make game play more streamlined, and no more. The supported premise of the game is exploring dungeons, killing monsters, and winning treasure. The artwork in the book is old style black and white; it's brand new artwork in many cases by the same artists who illustrated the Dungeons & Dragons books of thirty years ago! Jeff Easley, Jim Holloway, Jim Roslof, Erol Otus! How good is that?! And the rules and game scenarios are simple and fast enough to play that a responsible adult with a job and a family can squeeze in a game with friends without having to dedicate seven hours every Friday night plus prep time on weekends. Basically, it's nostalgic fun wrapped up in a win-win-win package.

Dungeons & Dragons introduced the concept of Armour Class (AC) to roleplaying games. This is a statistic that measures how easy it is for someone to hit you in combat. The other important thing about gauging success at this activity is the skill of the attacker, which is quantified by the level of the character, a statistic that tracks adventuring experience. In the first iterations of the game rules, these two numbers were cross-referenced on a large table to give a third value, known as the to-hit score. To hit in combat, you needed to roll this number or greater on a twenty-sided die. The problem was the cross-referencing and the necessity to have a printed table so you could do this task. The numbers bore a mathematical relationship to one another, but it was a complicated one involving subtractions, division, and some more or less arbitrary rounding off at certain stages, so the table was easier to use. (Also, the mathematical relationship was never explicitly given in the rules.)

Gold!!!
The goal of dungeon crawling.
Later editions of the game simplified things by mapping each character level to a statistic called THAC0, short for "to hit armour class 0", which would be recorded on the character sheet. This was the to-hit number required to hit opponents who, naturally enough, had armour class 0. To work out what to-hit number you needed to hit armour class 5, say, you subtracted 5 from your THAC0, giving a smaller number, making this creature easier to hit - which was correct since armour class 5 meant less armoured than armour class 0. This mechanic was an improvement, since now the table could be eliminated and replaced with a simple subtraction.

It didn't take too long for people to notice that the subtraction could be turned into something more familiar if only the armour classes increased as creatures gained more armour, which was actually more intuitive anyway. The biggest obstacle was tradition - armour classes had always decreased with better armour. For no particularly good reason, but it was now established and going the other way would feel weird to experienced gamers. But if the armour class increases with better armour, then you can map it so that for a particular character the opponent's armour class is their to-hit number! The more armour the opponent has, the higher the number, the harder to hit them. Simple. And to take into account increased adventuring experience, characters of higher levels simply get a bonus on their die roll, and they can record this bonus number on their character sheet. (Effectively, if you want to calculate the number you need to roll on the die, you subtract your to-hit bonus from the victim's armour class. But this sort of taking into account bonuses on die rolls is so common in games that the mental arithmetic involved here seems trivial, compared to flipping mental gears and subtracting an opponent's armour class from a THAC0 score. Most people find mentally accounting for additive dice bonuses easier to handle than THAC0 subtraction, so change won out in the end.)

Panic at the Bridge of Khazad-Doom
The inevitable result of dungeon crawling.
And this is the mechanic used in Dungeon Crawl Classics. You can miss the nostalgia of combat tables and cross-referencing character levels against armour classes that decrease with better armour, but once you see how much faster and easier the new system plays, you never want to go back. There are similar streamlined rules for other things as well, such as turning undead. What your characters are doing in the game feels like it's straight out of Dungeons & Dragons of the 1970s, but it flows so much better and you can do more of it in a shorter time.

The appeal of this nostalgic style of gaming is so broad that it has spawned a movement within the gaming community, called Old School Roleplaying (OSR). It has a website. OSR is a mixture of:

  1. simply playing old games,
  2. playing new games that are almost exact replicas of old games (called retro-clones), but are much easier to find than original copies of old games,
  3. playing new games that feel like the old games, but have streamlined rules borrowing from modern evolution of game design.
A new dungeon
A new way to live old adventures.
The movement has been around for a few years, and Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG is just a recent expression of number 3. The publishers also have a line of adventure modules - just like in the old days where you bought pre-written adventures instead of making up your own - that also echo the old-school dungeon crawling ethos. If you are interested in an expression of number 2 above, try Labyrinth Lord, which is almost exactly isomorphic to 1978's Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons, in an easily downloadable and copyright-respecting format.

I don't have anything particularly deep or inspired to say about all of this. It was just something I found that brought me so much delight that I had to share it. Maybe some of you reading this have looked back fondly on past years of roleplaying and wistfully reflected that those days are gone because of the difficulty of finding the time to "get back into" gaming. Maybe a few of you will look into the OSR movement and try one or two of the games.

That's reward enough and reason enough for me to dedicate today to this topic.


[1] For those not versed in the arcanities of roleplaying game lore, an NPC is a non-player character, one played by the Game Master as an ally, a neutrally disposed person, or a rival. Example NPCs might include the local captain of the city watch, the village blacksmith, or the crazy old hermit in the woods.

[2] Not "first edition". It's just the Players Handbook, in the same way that it was The Great War before World War II came along. And the same way it's just Star Trek, not "The Original Series", damnit! Get off my lawn!

[3] And yeah, eBay. That was a rhetorical question, you're not supposed to answer it.

[4] Actually, as it turns out, Wizards of the Coast (who acquired TSR in 1997) are publishing faithful reprints of the three core 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks, less than two weeks after this annotation was published. I did not know this at the time I wrote it! (I added this footnote afterwards.)

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