I stopped actively participating in group RPGs in the mid-1980’s when I became a working musician. I kept the proverbial “hand in” by buying games which looked interesting (I bought literally everything released for Space:1889 even though I never had the chance to actually play it) up until the early 1990’s, but (aside from a brief flirtation with the various incarnations of Tekumel roleplaying from 1995-96) I pretty much walked away from RPGing until a couple of years ago. My old Villains & Vigilantes campaign was revitalized when I began gamemastering for my sons and their friend Danny, my son Sam runs occasional Star Wars (WEG’s d6 version) games, and my other son Cody has recently started gamemastering a really interesting Robotech campaign after he discovered a used copy of the core rules in the local game shop.

Since late 2008 I’ve started paying some attention to recent developments in superhero RPGs. I bought a copy of Mutants & Masterminds for $5 at a remaindered book outlet, paid a similar price for a closeout copy of Silver Age Sentinels, and bought all of the Marvel Universe game books at sale prices. I’ve purchased PDF copies of Icons and Supers!, and downloaded quite a few free superhero RPGs. I’ve also reacquainted myself with some superhero RPGs from my collection, including 1st Edition Champions, Superworld, Vindicators, 1st Edition DC Roleplaying, the old TSR Marvel Superheroes game, and several others which fail to spring to mind at the moment.

And over the last few weeks I’ve come to realize why, with this huge assortment of superhero RPGs in my collection, I keep coming back to Villains & Vigilantes again and again — it’s an “old school” game. But what does this mean exactly?

With the possible exception of Silver Age Sentinels, I don’t enjoy many of the superhero RPGs of recent years. I wasn’t sure why and that troubled me. But in the last few days I finally figured it out. The problem with newer superhero RPGs is that they’re too damn dice/math dependent. A short booklet, called A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming (by Matthew Finch and Mythmere Games) really drove the point home for me when I read it a couple of days ago. Go ahead and have a look — it’ll save me some typing — and then come back here after you’ve read it

I laughed out loud when I read the two examples for “The Pit Trap”. In present-day games, searching for traps in a room is a simple dice-rolling exercise: chuck a die, then modify the result by your stats and abilities to see if you beat the “target number” the GM has on his map key. **yawn** Back in the day, searching for traps was a battle of wits between the players and the gamemaster. You had to be very thorough and specific in your descriptions of your character’s actions, otherwise you’d fail in your action (at best) or get whacked (at worst). Present-day gamers cry like babies at the mere idea, but they miss the point: the need to think your way through the GM’s tricks and traps was exactly what made the games fun. These days it’s just “roll a d20 to see if you beat a number”. Today’s gamers say it’s “more fair”. I say it’s dull as dirt.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about (and this actually happened, by the way). Back in the early 1980’s I was a player in a 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons game; there were six or eight other players, as well as the Gamemaster. The GM had this door on the first level of his dungeon that drove us all crazy — we just could not get the damned thing open. We tried forcing it, we tried jimmying it, we tried setting it on fire. But no matter what we did, we just could not open that farging door. It drove us NUTS. We’d enter the dungeon and, on our way down to the third or fourth level, we’d try to force that stupid door. We’d fail of course, so we’d head down deeper into the dungeon. On the way back out, we’d try to break through that door again. No soap. We figured there was probably a magic key we’d find somewhere else in the dungeon as treasure or some other schmegeggie someplace that would open the door. We never found one.

Eventually the game petered out; we moved on to Universe or Gamma World or something (we’d “genre-jump” every three months or so). One night we were sitting around yakking as the game session was breaking up for the evening and I asked the GM, “Since we’re not playing that D&D campaign anymore, what was the deal with that door?”

The guy smirked and said, “It was a fake door.”

“WHAT???!!!???”

“Yeah, totally false.”

“Oh, bulls–t! We’d have been able to tell if it was false!”

“Probably. But you never said that.”

“Never said what??”

“That you were examining the door. You guys just kept trying to force it or break it or burn it or hack it down or blow it up. But you never, ever said you were examining it or giving it a close look.”

Damn! He was right, of course. I was seized with the simultaneous conflicting desires to punch him or buy him a beer. That fake door thing was really damned ingenious. And today, almost thirty years later, I still remember it. I was laughing about it with Cody and Sam this afternoon; they cracked up, said it sounded “really cool”, and asked if I’d run a game of original 1974 edition, three booklets in a woodgrain box, make most of it up as you go along D&D for them so that they could have that kind of RPG experience.

Compare that to the way a fake dungeon door would work in one of today’s RPGs.

“You come to a door. Make a perception roll.”

“Adding my special elf perception bonus to my d20 roll, I get a 26.”

“That beats the Difficulty Level of 24. You discover it’s a false door.”

“OK, everybody, let’s move along. Nothing to see here.”

Nothing to see, indeed.

Be honest now — which game would you rather play?

That’s the whole problem with present day RPGs. There’s a fricking chart or dice roll for everything. GMs can’t get especially creative because they’re trussed hand and foot by the 700+ pages of rules which tell him or her what he/she can and can’t do. And it’s allegedly done in the interest of “fairness” — you can’t hoodwink or mislead your players lest they cry “foul”.

I call “B.S.” on that. Screw all this egalitarian, politically correct, touchy-feelie crap. RPGs are supposed to be dangerous. The whole appeal of RPGs is the idea that you have to problem-solve and use your noodle, otherwise that character you’ve been playing, adventuring with, and growing attached to for many months is going to end up dead, dead, DEAD. The entire freaking appeal of RPGs can be summed up as “big risks, big rewards”, but in “old-school” RPGs you had to play smart. These days the games are simple dice-rolling exercises and all the goodies just get handed to you. That’s BORING, kids.

Sure, we had some bad, abusive GMs back in the day. And you know how we regulated that? If a GM was abusive, you quit playing in his campaigns — simple as that.

Here’s the difference between a good GM and a bad, abusive GM. Setting: AD&D game circa 1982.

Bad, abusive GM: OK, you ride to the desecrated chapel the peasants told you about. You open the door behind the altar, go thirty feet down a flight of stairs, and there’s a door in front of you.

Party leader: We listen at the door.

Bad, abusive GM: Nothing.

Party leader: OK, the two fighters break it down.

Bad, abusive GM: OK, there’s a red dragon inside and he fries you with his flame breath. You’re DEAD!!!!! HAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!

Party leader: Hey, saving throws–

Bad, abusive GM: Nope! You’re completely surprised since you didn’t hear the dragon, so you don’t get to save. Game over! I win! Wait’ll I tell the guys in school! WOOO-HOOOOO! [etc.]

OK, now compare that scenario to this similar one:

Good GM: You ride into town. Are you stopping at the tavern to ask for directions or information?

Party leader: Nah, it shouldn’t be too hard to find the desecrated chapel in this two-bit burg.

Good GM: You’re right. It’s easily found.

Party leader: We go in and look for the dungeon entrance.

Good GM: You open the door behind the altar, go thirty feet down a flight of stairs, and there’s a door in front of you.

Party leader: We listen at the door.

Good GM: Nothing.

Party leader: OK, the two fighters break it down.

Good GM: OK, there’s a red dragon inside. Roll initiative. [players and GM roll] OK, the dragon gets initiative. He fires with his flame breath. [rolls for hits and damage] Sorry, guys, you’re fried extra-crispy — you’re dead.

Party leader: Where the hell do you get off putting a red dragon on the first level of the dungeon???

Good GM: Nothing says I can’t. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but if you’d stopped at the tavern the scarred-up old guy at the bar would’ve told you about the dragon, as well as the other entrance to the dungeon, the one that had a stack of shields made from red dragon scales right in the first room — fireproof shields, right before you get to the hallway enchanted with a spell of silence — the hall that led right to the dragon’s lair so the dragon wouldn’t hear you coming…

I’d never play in any of that first bozo’s campaigns ever again (probably because I’d be forced to stuff him into a dumpster). The second guy? Hey, I might be pissed, but I’d be pissed at meI’m the dumbass who didn’t take the opportunity to gather info before rushing blindly into the dungeon.

Old-school games were/are cool. There was never anything else like the “do-it-yourself” feel of the original 1974 Dungeons and Dragons game. It was almost a rules outline rather than a full set of rules. Either way, it was infinitely tweakable, and the GM wasn’t a slave to the rulebook. Tired of having another bland group of ten animated skeletons guarding a room? Make it nine skeletons and a skeleton “champion”. What’s that? No rules for “skeleton champions?” Big deal — make something up: give the champion better armor, an extra hit die, and describe him as being a foot taller than any of the other skeletons; make him the “Conan” of skeletons. Of course, you’d also want to bump the treasure for that room up a bit, or make sure that a key clue or item necessary for successfully navigating a later dungeon danger would be found in the chest the skeletons are guarding.

You know — wing it.

That’s what I don’t like about the current crop of superhero roleplaying games: the lack of that “wingability” I’m talking about. They’re just too damned rigid. Even some of the more creative ones (like Supers!) are essentially dice-rolling contests: you roll your attack dice, the GM rolls the villain’s defense dice, biggest number wins. Ho-hum.

If a present-day player decides he’s interested in “old school” role-playing gaming he runs into two big problems: price and availability. A used copy of original D&D can cost over $1,000 (just for the three booklets — that doesn’t include the four supplement booklets). So what’s a player to do?

There are several sources for “retro-clone” games: present-day RPGs which are “based on” (read: “almost exact word-for-word copies of”) old 1970’s/1980’s RPGs. And, best of all, most of them are free downloads. Now there’s admittedly some expense involved (printer cartridges and paper), but even if you never play these games you can still get a real feel for what the “old school” games were like just by reading them. They’re going to seem “incomplete” to some people, but that was the charm: if there wasn’t a rule for something, you’d just make one up. No chart for falling damage? Just look up the damage for getting hit by a mace and figure that each 10 feet of the fall was equivalent to a mace hit. Thirty foot fall? Roll damage like you’d taken three simultaneous mace hits. Simple.

For players who want a taste of what original 1974 edition Dungeons and Dragons (which I still own, by the way) was like, your best bet is Swords & Wizardry. You can get the whole set of core rules as a PDF or, if you want a “lite” version of the game, you can download the “White Box” version.

And, if you want a really interesting (albeit a little goofy) take on the superhero genre, you can download two-thirds of Hideouts & Hoodlums for free. The third book, as well as the first supplementary volume, are available as PDFs for just $2 apiece. What is Hideouts & Hoodlums? Imagine that Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, when creating the world’s first role-playing game, had designed a superhero game set in comics’ “Golden Age” (1938-1950) instead of designing a sword & sorcery fantasy game — it would have been H&H. It’s a simple substitution, really — fighters are P.I.’s and Doc Savage types, magic-users are like Dr. Fate and Dr. Occult, while the clerics have been dropped and powered superheroes take their place. But Hideouts & Hoodlums is basically the same game as D&D: you raid the underground lairs of criminal masterminds and supervillains, kill or incapacitate their goons, and steal their treasure and their other cool stuff.

Goofy, but oddly appealing. Kick down door, take out the five zombies or seven skeletons or four gun-toting mobsters inside, and search the room for cash, jewels, magic wands, rayguns, etc. It sounds weird, but anything could happen in those old Golden Age comics, so it’s really not that absurd. Picture Nayland Smith crawling through Fu Manchu’s subterranean hideout in that really cool old 1930’s movie version (the one with Boris Karloff and a really smokin’ HOT Myrna Loy playing his daughter) and you get an idea of what Hideouts & Hoodlums is like. And it lends itself extremely well to solitaire play (especially if you crib additional bits from other RPGs, like 1st Edition AD&D’s classic random dungeon generation tables).

I downloaded the first two books of Hideouts & Hoodlums ages ago but never really looked at them until I stumbled across a reference to the game on another site. I liked what I saw in the first two books, so I sprang the $4 for the other two. Just reading the rules took me right back to my sophomore year of high school when I was learning D&D as my first roleplaying game when I was a fifteen year old Robert E. Howard fan. I’ve been chucking some dice to create characters, and the first scenario of my latest solo RPG effort has already begun…

Doug Davis stubbed out his cigarette and took another sip of his drink. He’d been cooped up in his office for three days waiting for the phone to ring and he was starting to get a little stir crazy — that’s no April Fool’s — so he decided to close up his detective agency for the afternoon and knock a couple back down here at Clancy’s. This morning’s early edition carried a banner headline about another tenement building catching fire under mysterious circumstances, and from the sound of the sirens this afternoon it’s likely that the evening edition will have a similar headline. Other than the string of possible arsons over the last week, things had been really quiet in town. Davis hadn’t seen hide nor hair of a paying client in nearly three weeks. Hell, even Clancy’s was crazy quiet for a Wednesday afternoon — it was just Davis, the bartender, and that drunk guy who was practically falling off his barstool.

“Whaddyou lookin’ at??” the drunk sneered.

‘Who, me?” Davis replied.

“You see any g-ddamnbody else in here?”

“Look, friend, I don’t–“

“I ain’tcher damn friend!” the drunk yelled as he lunged at Davis. The private investigator sidestepped the rummy and gave him a punch in the breadbasket as he went by. The drunk turned and landed a lucky hard right on Davis jaw. Even as his head snapped back, Davis could notice the strong odor of gasoline coming from his assailant. Davis popped the guy with a quick left and the drunk hit the floor. A roll of quarters fell from the drunk’s hand; no wonder he punched so hard, Davis thought. He’d been fighting with a loaded fist.

The bartender was at the far end of the bar and couldn’t see what was going on. Davis quickly searched the drunk’s pockets and found another $110 in addition to the roll of quarters. Business had been slow lately and, after all, the drunk had jumped him, so Davis didn’t feel badly about pocketing a cool hundred; he left a $10 bill and the quarter roll for the police to find. Davis also found a matchbook in the drunk’s pocket; it had an address scrawled inside the flap. Davis recognized the street name as part of a warehouse district on the outskirts of town. He pocketed the matchbook alongside the cash he’d lifted. He returned to his barstool (and his drink), patiently awaiting the arrival of John Law.

Davis recognized the cop as soon as he walked through the door, a young kid named Callahan; he’d been acquainted with the patrolman for some time, but they weren’t what you’d call close.

“Hoo-weeee!” Callahan said when he bent over the drunk’s inert form. “You’d think he’d been drinking some hi-test!”

“Yeah, about that…” Davis said. “You think he might maybe have something to do with those tenement fires?”

Callahan scratched his head. “Never thought of that…maybe.”

“You think you might give me a call if you find something out?”

Callahan shook his head. “Mind your own business, shamus; this is a job for us uniforms, not for a private dick.”

“Hey, no problem,” Davis laughed. “Let’s just say it’s professional curiosity.”

“Yeah, and you know what curiosity did to the cat. C’mon you,” the patrolman grunted as he lifted the drunk’s inert form. “Let’s drag your ass out to the wagon.”

I have a pretty good idea he’s our firebug, Davis thought. And it’s entirely possible that this address might lead me a little farther along. I think it’s time to call my friends in on this one. It looks like The Vindicators are back in business…

Davis smiled, tossed down the rest of his drink, and headed back to the office.

Yeah, this looks like the start of something fun. (And, by the way, all of that was the result of a single die roll on a “random crimes” chart in Hideouts & Hoodlums: chuck a 17 and get a “drunken brawl” as a situation seed).

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2010, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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