Let’s Read Influential Aricles: Believe It or Not, Fantasy Has Reality

The second time I read an article in a gaming magazine that change how I viewed RPGs it was about the reality of fantasy. While it might seem odd today (or maybe not) in the first decade of D&D realism was a large concern. This isn’t surprising in context as board wargaming had a huge realism fetish in the years just prior and D&D culture was still largely part of wargaming culture. Realism was the driving thought behind a lot of games at the time. It was a heated topic in the letters column of The Dragon. Even Gygax wrote columns on the issue.

Into this mix came an article in The Dragon #40 by Douglas Bachmann entitled “Believe It or Not, Fantasy Has Reality”. However, in contrast to most of the realism articles which dealt with sword weights, the problems of the cube-square law for giants (a multiple issue letter war believe it or not), and similar concerns Bachmann addressed a different kind of reality. He advanced adherence to mythic realism instead of the reality of contemporary fantasy novels or pulp greats like Howard. He was more interested in those who inspired Tolkien and the works of Joseph Campbell. In fact, the article was the reason at the tender age of thirteen I tracked down The Hero with a Thousand Faces and tried to read it.

Brief Outline

The article is in ten parts: Introduction, Home Areas & Wyrd Areas, Game Objectives, Honor, Character, Oaths & Vows, Legends & Dooms, The World Pattern, Adapting for AD&D and Concluding Remarks. The introduction stakes out Bachmann’s claim in contrast to Gygax’s recent remark that he did not believe in the “stuff of farie”. He contrasted it to Tolkien’s remarks about fantasy as an objective excessive realtiy. He then moves on to introduce Campbell’s theory of the Hero’s Quest as the pattern for understanding the reality of fantasy. In a brief outline of the steps in the quest he makes a remark which seems prescient of both the second edition’s path and the OSR’s reaction to two decades of it:

It is my contention that we need to incorporate the Quest Pattern into our game playing in order to enrich our games by relating game activity to the objective reality of Faerie. Without the Quest Pattern, we are playing “sword & sorcery” games, with it we may achieve “High Fantasy.” Very briefly restated, the pattern is as follows: 1) The hero leaves his everyday world, 2) successfully encounters a guardian at the crossing into the World of the Dark, 3) journeys through a strange land and has strange encounters or tests, 4) undergoes a supreme ordeal, 5) wins a reward, 6) journeys back to the everyday world, 7) recrosses the threshold, and 8) brings a boon which restores the world. The object of this Quest Pattern is twofold. The first object is the transformation of character in the hero, and the second is the restoration of life in the hero’s world

The emphasis is in the original. The path the rest of article took, however, is much more a path not taken by later games than a forecast of more quest oriented D&D.

Home areas and wyrd areas is about the division of the world into the everyday world and the strange world of adventure. It is the cornerstone of the first and last parts of the quest pattern. He argues for a clear division both of the areas and of the kinds of games played them. The former is a land of governments, law and order, crops, and other mundane items. He argues it is essentially the place for a historical style game. The later is the land of mystery and wonder. It is the site of a magical quest game. The last paragraph provides rules for only gaining experience while leaving the wyrd and provides a short chart on possible loss of earned experience based on being on horseback, having an escort, being in flight, and plan old luck.

Game Objectives is about exactly what it says. It contrasts the objective of the quest game, the transition of a youth into a hero and the fulfillment of epic destinies. To this effect he provides three goals: gaining power, popular acclaim, and transformation. He then provides uses for experience: gaining powering in the form of levels, gaining popular acclaim in the form of honor, and gaining inner transformation in the form of character. He briefly touches on the usage of experience in Chivalry & Sorcery to gain each pointing out the uses are mutually exclusive.

Honor and Character provide more details on the gaining (and losing) of each (leaving levels to the game system). Honor represents the ability to resolve problems in home areas non-violently through leadership. It provides a simple, fairy tale like class structure for birth and methods for advancing into the Lesser Nobility which consists of the normal forms of Barons, Dukes, and Kings. A key point is the non-feudal structure because, Bachmann aruges, “nor is the essence of Faerie feudal”. Nobility is something earned not gained by birth. Character, by contrast affects inner characteristics and provides for experience modifiers, encounter modifiers, and the possibility of a destiny. It also aids in the ability to enter the Great Nobility of “the Brave”, “the Faithful”, “the Just”, and so on. Interestingly, disposition of treasure as charity enhances Character but dings Honor in a 1 to 6 ratio.

Oaths and Vows provides a system obligations for characters. It ties relief of the penalties to completing Quests and Geas. The difference in Oaths and Vows is Lesser Oaths affect honor while Greater Oaths and the fulfillment of Vows affect character.

Legends & Dooms are a system of backgrounds and hooks. Legends describe stories told in the world that are believed to be true. They are meant to guide player actions and choices. The story behind that sword driven through an anvil into a stone would be a legend. Dooms are things people are waiting to happen such as the appearance of a King to restore the land. Based on the character stat a character might become attached to a Doom with modifies for moving towards it (positive) or away from it (negative). Finally, a doomed character may only have a quest spell cast on him that matches his doom.

To reflect the attachment of the characters and their action to the world, The World Pattern is introduced. It’s a track of order in the world which, if upset, causes comets, bad weather, famile, and so on. Character actions such as war, spells, theft, and others can move the world to disorder. It naturally moves towards order.

Adapting for AD&D is what it says on the tin. The rules in the article are meant for C&S and this section suggests versions for AD&D. One amusing comment at thirty years distance is “AD&D has a very different feel as one plays, and seems to be amuch tighter, more rigid game system.”

The concluding remarks begin with a restatement of the thesis. Bachmann also points out the honor, character, and world pattern systems can be adjusted to reflect different perceptions of morality. The goal is not to prohibit any action but to create consequences for actions taken.

Fantasy Has Reality Today

As I said, this changed how I thought about gaming. For much of the 80s I tried to implement the ideas in the article with little success. First, I really didn’t get them at the time although I was excited by them. Second, I didn’t have players who would have enjoyed them as a high school and college student. After dropping out of college and joining the Navy I tended to see more traditional realism in the likes of GURPS.

However, this was still the first article I read when I got my CD-ROMs of The Dragon and even today it carries weight. While some games have covered much of the same ground, most notability Pendragon five years later, it hasn’t gotten much attention. The quest focus second edition was more mundane for the most part and provided mostly for the gain of power and to a small degree honor but nothing on character. It also didn’t make them choices so that Rurik the fighter would wind up choosing to become Duke Rurik while his friend Otto the cleric became Otto the Wise and their friend Timon the magic-user become Timon the Enchanter would have experienced the same adventures but gotten different results by choosing honor, character, and power.

Recently when thinking about a set of ideas I’ve called “Fantasy Nouveau” this article kept coming to mind. Fantasy Nouveau is a campaign idea for OD&D centered around late Victorian and Edwardian literature and art such as Lang’s Fairy books, Pyle’s books of Arthur, and Pre-Raphealite painting. I think those inspirations almost demand the inclusion of Bachmann’s ideas or a close relative. I think they could be added to OD&D (in the pure, supplemented, or cloned form) to create a recognizable but still unique game. Based on its sources, I might consider the recently released Seven Voyages of Zylarthen might be a good starting point.

Also, other ideas could be adapted. The later Gloranthian trend to “all myths are true, even contradictory ones” could be added. What if the world pattern and honor systems of a pseudo-historical Europe of 1100 and Middle East of 1100 both worked in their respective areas? Imagine a crusader game where much of the Islam world is wyrd for the crusaders while the kingdoms of Outremer were wyrd for Muslims. Perhaps Outremer would be wyrd for both with the founding of the Kingdoms being conversion from wyrd to home areas (which Bachmann discusses). Missionary success could move the current ruling side’s word pattern negatively and the other’s positively with conversion of the area occurring when they cross.

I think this article is worth tracking down and reading today. Maybe it won’t change your game but it will given many people new ideas on the directions they can go instead of just following what the RPG mainstream is doing.

A is for Ability Generation

My favorite method of ability generation has traditionally been the one that Len Lekofka described in “Starting From Scratch” in Dragon #40 (interesting the first issue without “The” in the title on the cover). It will create decent AD&D characters without being too much of a gimmie system. You had good odds of qualifying for one non-core class but weren’t assured a specific one. It was also fairly simple:

  1. Role 4d6 and total the three highest seven times.
  2. Swap any two values.
  3. Drop any one value.
  4. The remaining six are your scores in PHB order (strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, charisma although I often defaulted back to Holmes order with dexterity and constitution reversed).

An example:

  • Starting roles: 14, 16, 10, 9, 9, 10, 12
  • Fighter: swap the 14 and the second 10 then drop the now leading 10 for 16, 10, 9, 9, 14, 12 for a good strength bonus and some constitution bonus.
  • Cleric: swap the 16 and the first 10 then drop either 9 for 14, 10, 16, 9, 10, 12 for a four bonus spells (two first and two second level) and a strength bonus when functioning as a backup fighter. A first level cleric with three cure light wounds or two cures and a light is a great asset.
  • Assassin: the old special class this character can meet the qualifications by swapping the 12 with either 9 and dropping the other 9 for 14, 16, 10, 9, 10, 12.

You could also do the other two core classes or different builds for the two given. There are no other special classes builds, however.

In A Fistful of Coppers I’m going to adapt this system to OD&D/S&W as follows:

  1. Role 3d6 and total them seven times.
  2. Swap any two values.
  3. These are your scores in S&W order (strength, intelligence, wisdom, constitution, dexterity, charisma) plus your starting gold.

I think some interesting choices of “good class stat” versus “good starting money” may come up.