Monday, September 9, 2019

Arneson Enigmas

As time goes on, claims about how Dave Arneson ran his Blackmoor games seem to get more and more inexplicably confused. Last week, after the release of the Secrets of Blackmoor streaming movie and related press on Kotaku and other sites, tempers flared and several people associated with the film seem to have deleted their accounts on the ODD74 Discussion forums. This post isn't really about that, but some lines of communication got cut off mid-discussion, which is a bit frustrating.

So here's a recent confusing thing. A particular blog series by Norbert Matausch recently spawned a lot of interest, in that it claimed to present the system that Arneson used to run games pre-D&D. He writes:

So how did the roleplaying game that came before D&D really work?

In a nutshell:
  • write down a few things about your character
  • one special power that allows you to do things others can't
  • no stats
  • no hit points; but you have to screw up real bad to die 
  • saves: roll 2d6; high=good; middling=does not change the situation; low=bad
  • combat: we both roll 2d6; if I'm higher, I say what happens, if you're higher, you say what happens; if we're close, we negotiate

Now, I've seen several old-school guys seem to agree with this idea that Arneson hid all of the mechanics and stats from the players (or maybe there weren't really any at all). One original player agrees that even Gygax hid hit points from the players. Matausch helpfully replied to a comment of mine on his blog:

Bob Meyer, one of Dave's players who's now the official Blackmoor referee, told me that even he doesn't know what rules Dave used - back in the days, players were deliberately kept in the dark.

Okay. But on the other hand, we also have PC record sheets from Dave Megarry (thanks to DH Boggs), who also played in Arneson's Blackmoor games from the earliest. Supposedly the sheets below span some two years of play starting in 1971. Note that they're nothing but a giant list of 36 separate statistics! (Including separate skill stats for all of the Chainmail man-to-man melee weapons, in the exact same order as that book.) Also, "Health" is the 11th one down.


How on Earth are both of these things possible? "No stats" and also a warship-full of "nothing but stats"? I'm stumped.


26 comments:

  1. Answer your question with a question: what edition of the Blackmoor RPG were they playing? What was the rule book called?

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  2. That’s the rules from the yearly game of Blackmoor that Bob Meyer runs for the hoi polloi (like me) at the Source. Loads of fun, but Meyer never claimed these were the rules in 1971. Moreover, Meyer mentioned in his pre-game spiel before the game that when Dungeons and Dragons came out in 1974, he and the other players in the Saint Paul group were thrilled because now they could see the rules, implying those were close to what they were playing.

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    1. That's super useful to hear, thank you! :-D

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  3. It seems possible to me that the players not knowing the rules doesn't necessarily contradict Dave Megarry's character sheet.

    As a DM for by-the-book AD&D when I was younger, I had a few players who neither owned their own books nor were interested in learning all the rules, so they were fully dependent on me in that respect, but I still had them keep their own character records because it was just one less thing on my plate. So I could, for example, ask "What's your THAC0?" when they made an attack - and I made sure ahead of time that we had written down their adjusted THAC0 for each weapon they owned, including modifiers for strength, dexterity, magic, specialization, etc. so there was no on-the-fly calculation needed. It was entirely possible for someone to have all the stats written down, but not actually know how the game was run. It would have been doubly so if I had rolled all the dice for their actions instead of letting each person roll for his own PC.

    So I think it's very possible that Megarry knew his characters' stats, but absent the knowledge of how that translated into action resolution, it was really just a list of things that his characters were good, bad, or mediocre at. Also, my gut feeling is that the Health stat wasn't the same thing as hit points; you'll notice the "Hero" terminology borrowed from Chainmail for a few of the characters, but their Health scores are as low as 5, with none higher than a 10 rating. Whereas if CM heroes were being translated into hit points on a 1 Hit = 1d6 HP basis, then we'd expect to see values between 10 and 18 or thereabouts.

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    1. Here’s something to chew on. Based on the small sample i have consumed of transcripts of Arneson interviews and of firsthand accounts, Dave would have a lot of rules written down (even making rule notes as they went along) but play very loosey-goosey at the table.

      Is it possible that he was adjudicating things by making up mechanics as he went along - building through trial by fire - and had Megarry write stats down as they came up in play? Then if they became important over time they would be included in formal sheets later and if not they would be relegated to descriptive elements or discarded?

      Or something like that.

      It seems impossible that they were regularly using 32 stats or whatever it is

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    2. Well if you look at the sheet, about two-thirds them are specific weapon skills - of which I expect any given character would only regularly be using two or three, the ones with which they're the most skilled. Despite that, every character has a value listed for every one of them, just in case. I think it's perfectly believable if, at the beginning of a battle, Arneson would ask each player for their skill level with any weapons they were using, jotted those down on a piece of scrap paper, much as one would do with a modern RPG's individual initiative scores.

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    3. To Dan: But the primary claim by Mataush isn't unknown adjudication rules; it's very specifically "no stats".

      And also "write down a few things about your character", and "one special power that allows you to do things others can't", which are things you don't see on Megarry's records. It just can't be right.

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    4. To Scott: On of the things DH Boggs points out on his site is that this and a 2nd page apparently represent 2 years of gaming in the Blackmoor campaign. That is: For all the claimed loosey-goosiness, the mechanics/stats of Arneson's campaign had to be a lot more surprisingly stable than many us want to give credit for. I find it pretty unlikely that he could be making stats up on the fly from session to session and all the PCs have the same list from first to last. Moreover, the weapon stats are the same list and order from Chainmail, so him systematically saying "make skills for all those CM weapons" is a lot more likely than accidentally making them one at a time in the same order over an extended time.

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    5. I was taking for granted that everyone here knew that the rules in Matausch's article were just a modern interpretation going for the same feel as the old games. Heck, in his own comments section he seems to be admitting as much when you asked about it. Though it isn't impossible that character creation under Dave Arneson resembled that.

      Perhaps Arneson asked for some sort of minimal character information from the player, then rolled up a bunch of ability scores behind the screen - potentially with bonuses to certain ones based on the character description, since I notice some scores over 12 on Megarry's sheet, but far fewer than 3d6 would generate - and as he went, dictated the scores to the player to copy down on his record sheet. I agree that there's scant evidence of the "one special ability" part, though, that seems like a modern addition to spice up convention play by making characters different from one another off the bat, as opposed to old-school characters who started off very similar and only diverged over time.

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    6. Well put, I'd agree with 95% of that. Good observation about the over-12 scores; another possibility is that things got adjusted from magic or experience over time. E.g., In the obviously red/green ink part there's only one (top row), with an "8" scratched out and a "13" replacement. Likewise, in the 4th column there's an ink "3" replaced with a "4". The "14" for mace in the 2nd column might be pencil that got erased and rewritten?

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    7. yep - just two clarifications. Everybody had the same HP at the same level - that's why they aren't on the character sheets. Your character's hp was the average of your HD. So a Hero had 14 HP and a Super Hero had 28. This we know from Svenson's notes.

      Regarding the scores over 12 - note that the characters who have changed scores on Megarry's sheets always have 2 changed. I think that this was a leveling up or some similar kind of benefit - pick 2 scores and add x amount sort of thing.

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  4. Seems likely the Megarry sheet is representative of a small stage in the Blackmoor game. Arneson seems to have been consistent in stating they only used Chainmail briefly (FWIW, one his posts at ODD74 specifically states they used it 3 times). That said, PC’s having skills (from which would seem to flow stats, however loosely defined) is also something Arenson’s recollections are consistent about.

    It’s always fun to look back and see how much he was clearly *not* a fan of some of the things most often associated with him in early D&D, e.g., hit locations.

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    1. But again the DH Boggs site notes Megarry's recollection as his sheet covering 2 years of gaming, which would mean the stats and mechanics were a lot more stable than many want to credit.

      "Using Chainmail" or not using it could cover a lot of slippery ground. I could imagine, say, shifting from the CM man-to-man combat table to a new d20-based alternative, and mentally qualifying that as "not using Chainmail", even though that's only one page difference and you're still using movement, races, monsters, spells, etc. from that work.

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    2. You know, I just noticed your point at the end about him not being a fan of hit locations? Because I read FFC a few weeks back for the first time and was startled in the introduction at how he doubles down as being specifically in favor of hit locations (p. 3 has a whole paragraph about it; more for big monsters than PCs).

      Underlines the "enigma" part of this post, I suppose. :-)

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  5. Certainly some of the confusion can be chalked up to people remembering different iterations in the games development, yes? Like, some memories we're from chainmail man to man, some from a more free form proto game, and so on. That's certainly the sense I get from the few references I've seen to the controversy, thought perhaps a more complete read would rules that out.

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    1. That's definitely a possibility. But my top theory is that the top linked blog has simply gotten really confused about where these narrative-style ideas came from. (My friend who first forwarded it to said, "these sound surprisingly new-school!" as praise.) The "write down one special thing about your PC" is so new-school, and so unlike Arneson's wargame habits of lots of stats before or after, that I just can't believe it's an accurate representation of what he did.

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    2. I also think that some folks in the circle have kind of painfully poor reading/writing skills... like "he hid the mechanics" could be true, and they'll quickly read "no stats" and "no hit points" and agree with that as meaning the same thing, when they don't. Which confuses discussions a lot. :-/

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    3. I also wonder about the accuracy of any recollection (on either side of the debate )after 40+ years, especially when the subject has been so emotionally charged.
      As a side note, the small vocal camp in favor of super simple mechanics like rolling off as described above really baffle me. At some point you've got to realize you're basically just flipping a coin, right? Maybe we should bring back the old Italian improvised dramas, if they really want a free form story telling experience.

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    4. I agree that the system presented in the linked blog is super unappealing to me, for the same reason. I also support with the "not reading carefully" hypothesis, or if not that then perhaps some people are working off of a different definitions of "stats." Is there any possibility that certain old-timers only consider something a "stat" if it's a number that they can cross-reference with a chart or table? So an ordinal-valued skill list, lacking the knowledge of how that translated into success or failure in-game, wouldn't be "stats" to them.

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    5. Those all seem like strong possibilities. On the recollection issue: You've got to be right, which is why I side with Jon Peterson and trust the written documentation (like Megarry's PC record) at least an order of magnitude more than recollected (and 2nd or 3rd hand) history at this point.

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  6. I love that "Sex" was among the stats/skills listed. Robert E. Howard would be proud.

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  7. Super busy lately and I only just saw this post. I don't know a thing about Mr. Matausch, but the short answer is that he seems to mean well but he's simply uninformed about Arneson's mechanics and methods of play.

    It is true that Arneson was an immersionist, and didn't like to talk mechanics at the table, so a lot of his players didn't really know why they were rolling dice or how many HP they had left. However David Megarry's character stats were certainly typical. All the players would have had sheets like that. Indeed, if you look at Arneson & Sniders Adventures in Fantasy game from 1978, you will see much the same "saving throw" based system - and many of the same stats.

    What Mr. Matausch is describing isn't what Dave Arneson did, he's really describing what Bob Meyer does. Bob Meyer has his own, fairly simple rules, because it is his preference and because he wants people to experience the game like he experienced it, that is he wants the players to basically be in the dark regarding whats going on. That's all well and good, but anyone who has had a good read of the First Fantasy Campaign knows that Arneson had some pretty complex ways of handling his gaming. Time to put the kids to bed.... Will try to address some other questions later.

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    1. Thank you immensely for chiming in on that! This completely makes sense to me, and seems like a very keen way of describing the situation.

      I do think it's somewhat important to try to set the record straight when there's super loose "how the earliest game was run" claims flying around.

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