Thursday, July 31, 2008

Reminiscing with my Inner Grognard

There are two uses of the term "grognard" in use in the gaming community today. The first is an old-time wargamer, used to playing either with miniatures (I did Napoleonics in college) or with hex-and-counter wargames. The second is a more general term for people who've been playing RPG's for a very long time (which varies, but generally traces back to at least the 1980's). Fortunately, I use the term without reservation, as I fall into both categories.

Before I came into RPGing (in fact, before I even knew what an RPG was) and long thereafter, I was an avid wargamer. The late lamented Avalon Hill and SPI game companies produced hundreds of excellent games in every period imaginable. World War II, World War III (in countless different variations), ancients, medieval, science fiction, fantasy; if it had an army on either side, there was probably a hex-and-counter wargame covering the conflict.

The first wargame I ever played was Tactics II. I discovered it at a friend's house when I was about 7 or 8 years old, and she and I tried to play. It was pathetic; rolling dice to move the counters like it was Monopoly or something. Finally her older brother took mercy on us and said "you're playing that wrong." I promptly borrowed the game, and proceeded to teach myself how to play properly one rule at a time. It was exhausting for someone with no real concept of the genre, especially whose most recent exposure to games was "Don't Break the Ice", but I persevered and eventually the world of wargames was laid open to me. I still hold a fondness for the stark simplicity of the rules for Tactics II. It (and the related Tactics and Blitzkreig) really laid the foundations for all the hex-and-counter wargames that followed (even if it did use squares rather than hexes). Zones of control, movement points, supply lines, and that ubiquitous Avalon Hill combat chart that conveniently converted combat strengths into manageable ratios for you. Everything was there. And, I might add, it was ripe for the creation of optional rules, which I produced in force. Some worked, some didn't. But it was all great fun.

I bought many wargames once I realized a) that they existed and b) I lived within driving distance of the Compleat Strategist in New York City (wheedling my parents to take me into Manhattan almost every weekend to visit that mecca of gaming, as well as Polk's Hobbies just around the corner, with its unlimited supply of Atlantic historical miniatures). But Avalon Hill's Afrika Corps got more of a workout than most. It shared the same sort of simple tactical/operational level rules as Tactics II, but the historical context gave it a depth that the other couldn't match, and the fact that the opposing forces were unequal, and were constantly changing based on an asymmetrical reinforcement schedule, made it a step up in challenge, forcing me to contend with such things for the first time. Rule of thumb; if the Germans don't win before the huge Allied reinforcements come in around 1943, they never will.

Invasion: America was the first SPI wargame I ever bought (on one of those trips into New York City, along with my best friend Tom, who bought World War 3 at the same time). Here was something a little different; a lot more special rules, much more complex scenarios, and once again my wee brain seemed to simply leap at the challenge. Here were the beginnings of randomized-strength units (the US militia units, which would usually get placed along the landing zones on the coast; what fun when some of them turned out to have a combat strength of zero) and, perhaps most importantly, multi-player capability. You could have up to four players; three of them (the Pan Asiatic League, European Socialist Union, and South American Union) ganging up on the good ol' USA and Canada. I was especially taken by the designer's notes; here, finally, was an insight into the mind of the folks who were actually creating these games I loved so much. A subscription to the SPI magazine (and game-of-the-month) Strategy and Tactics soon followed, as did a ton of SPI titles like Next War, Prestags, Sinai, Revolt in the East, and...

War in Europe. The quintessential monster-game that set the stage for all the rest. It was actually a combination of two monster-games in their own right; War in the West and (predictably) War in the East. They eventually came out with an expansion/companion game that covered World War I. This thing was indeed immense. A map of Europe that measured maybe 6' x 6'. Units were usually divisions, but some Russian corps and other regiments and brigades were represented as well. Rail movement, production (with those wonderfully psychedelic production spiral charts), an abstract air war both tactical and strategic, special rules for all sorts of units, really involved supply rules, political effects (one of the things Germany would always do is overrun a few extra small countries to bring Spain and Turkey into the war), having to juggle a vast array of forces on multiple fronts... This was not a game to either learn or play in an afternoon. My friend Tom dismantled his electric train set so we could set the map up in his basement and play over the course of a couple of months. I would alternately have it set up for months on end in my (really large) bedroom, or set it up on the wall and keep the counters up using blu-tac (which worked remarkably well until the day the map fell down and my floor was covered with German divisions). We played this all the time, not only the campaign but also the smaller scenarios (most of which centered on the Eastern Front, unsurprisingly). A true classic of the genre.

I could go on for hours about these sorts of games, and there are literally dozens of favorites I haven't mentioned here. Avalon Hill's Dune is still probably the best-balanced game I've ever played, given that the forces are all completely asymmetrical in abilities. Diplomacy goes without saying, and Kingmaker also saw its fair share of play late into the night. Among the hundreds that graced my shelf were Fulda Gap, Next War, Mechwar, Squad Leader, Starfleet Battles (and, in my mind, the far superior offering from FASA; their Starship Tactical Combat Simulator-- those miniatures were amazing!), OGRE/GEV (which I still play to this day, both counters and minis), and the truly fun Creature that Ate Sheboygan.

Unfortunately, most of the games in my once-vast collection are no more, lost to various moves and the various vicissitudes of time. Every once in a while, as I scan through eBay, I see one of my old favorites and put in a lowball bid, hoping to catch a bargain. Once in a while it works, and I get to revel in a little bit more of my childhood, and reminisce about battles long since past.

Implied Society in AD&D

For years I've felt that there are some societal structures hard-coded into the AD&D rules, in particular the class system. While it is certainly possible to bend and twist things around to create a campaign world that bucks these otherwise built-in strictures (Dark Sun comes to mind), it's very difficult to do without either scrapping and/or adding classes from the standard mix. I think it is because of this that so many of the published campaign worlds (Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms) seem somewhat of a similar mold, and it should be pointed out that one of the most successful to buck that trend, Dragonlance, does so by precisely taking out classes (clerics) and shuffling around some of the powers of those that they retain.

Take, for example, druids. We are told exactly how many druids there are, the details of their heirarchy, the process for selecting their leaders, and so forth. They are deemed a sub-class of clerics, but are clearly practitioners of a different faith than the standard cleric, with spells not only having a different emphasis but a different origin as well. You can certainly make a world in which druids function differently, but they would most likely not be the same druids.

Thieves and assassins are in a somewhat similar boat; campaign worlds are simply expected to have Thieve's Guilds, a Grandfather of Assassins, etc. Take them out (or change them) and the classes becomes either weakened (if there are no guilds; no support structure to counterbalance the forces of the local law) or at the very least changed. A "standard" AD&D campaign should have provision for druidic circles, assassin's guilds, bardic colleges, etc.

The "typical" cleric is another case in point. Many others have written about the quandry of having priests of different deities having almost precisely the same powers. A cleric of Thor is pretty much the same as a cleric of Osiris, who is the same as a cleric of Lolth, down to weapons restrictions and spell selection. This is a function of the origin of the cleric class in D&D coming from the tales of Roland and so forth, and is somewhat mitigated by affording clerics of certain deities some bonuses or other changes (clerics of Trithereon being able to use a spear, for example) or custom spells.

But when it comes down to it, the cleric class as presented implies a generic version of the medieval Christian church. Holy water, holy symbols (which were, iirc, explicitly crosses in the original D&D booklets), the very spells themselves (with their clear inspiration from both Biblical sources as well as miracles ascribed to Christian saints) all bespeak of a watered-down Christianity in a somewhat medieval mold. By rights, a cleric of Lolth should look absolutely nothing like a cleric of Blibdoolpoolp, and yet there they are, each with mace in hand casting cure light wounds.

Later editions attempted to get around this problem, but ineffectively, at least to my mind. (Second Edition's class kits were possibly the best attempt, but they have their own idiosyncracies.) The bottom line is that there are certain things implicit in the design of the cleric that point to all clerics sharing the same faith, and point to at least how that faith should "feel". A "standard" AD&D campaign should, by implication, have but a single faith for clerics to belong to (which does not necessarily mean a single unified church; a campaign could certainly have its versions of the Protestants and Catholics).

Personally, I think the answer is to come up with unique classes for priests of each faith, but that could turn into an enormous undertaking (although in my own Greyhawk campaign, I have been giving some thought to how an "imam" class would work for the Baklunish lands as a substitute for Suel/Oeridian/Flan clerics).

These assumptions could well have sprung from the original Greyhawk campaign, or were incorporated into the campaign after they had been written down as rules; I am unsure of which came first. But someone wanting to put together a "standard" campaign needs to take these implications into account, or they will run into problems as your high-statted fighter who multi-classed to thief starts wondering where to find the local bardic colleagues, and when your monk gets high enough in level to start looking for the Grand Master of Flowers for a one-on-one...