Once upon a time, I wondered Whither the Rogue?  Today I’d like to talk about the rogue’s more fighterey-wildernessey brother, the ranger. 
Like the rogue, the ranger has been around since before D&D was D&D (first appearing in Strategic Review, which in gaming terms is like saying it appeared in the Upanishads). My own experience with the ranger didn’t come until AD&D, in which they were a slightly-more-interesting fighter with 2d8 hp at first level for no apparent reason, got bonuses to fight all “giant class” humanoids (which, for some peculiar reason, basically meant all humanoids including kobolds), and had vague talk of an animal companion who would wander around somewhere in the general vicinity of the party and maybe kill some monsters for you by accident.
But from the beginning, rangers have had a strange place in the game. Are they Aragorn? Are they Robin Hood? Grizzly Adams? What the heck is a bear doing wandering around the Tomb of Horrors, anyway???
For rangers to work thematically, you have to have a campaign in which tromping around the wilderness is a thing. For them to work mechanically, you have to have a campaign in which whatever the ranger’s enemy-of-choice is a thing. And that opens a whole other can of worms. D&D has always had a very uncomfortable “racial enemies” thing going on, where dwarves are better at killing orcs because reasons, that kind of thing. The ranger makes that into a whole feature of a person’s profession. Originally it was simply a matter of experience: if you’re defending the frontiers of human civilization, the reasoning goes, you will fight a lot of goblins/orcs/kobolds/giants, and thus know how it’s done. Later, in an effort to deal with the “your campaign might be at sea or underground instead of the forest” problem, your choices were expanded. These days, rangers are just randomly better at killing… something. You pick.
(This is one of those rare occasions where 4E actually did something better than other editions. 4E rangers mark a target, and everyone in the fight has a chance to “cash in” on that. In other words, your “favored enemy” is whichever one you’re focusing on right now– usually the biggest and baddest thing in the room. Not that 4E rangers didn’t have other problems. Everything in 4E had problems. :P)
But this weird space that rangers inhabit in the context of D&D has made them suffer a never-ending stream of tweaks, revisions, and re-imaginings, because while everyone has a vague idea of what rangers should be like (Crocodile Dundee is totally a ranger, for instance), nailing down the specifics gets really tricky.
Do rangers have spells? Aragorn was famously a healer, but that was because Middle-earth has a divine-right monarchy thing going on. None of the other Dunedain could do that, so it hardly seems a “class feature,” and Robin Hood never so much as said “bippity boppity boo.” Crocodile Dundee can hypnotize kangaroos and has preternatural senses, does that count?
Oh, and what about fighting methods? Aragorn used a greatsword and eventually rode into battle in heavy armor. Robin was the greatest archer in England. Where did the two weapons thing come from? Legolas wielded a pair of long knives in melee, but was he a ranger, a fighter, or a rogue? Is two-weapon fighting just there to make Drizzt work?
Oh yeah, Drizzt. There’s another another can of worms. For those who don’t know (and I’m only barely aware of him myself), Drizzt is a rare (for sufficient values of rare) good drow ranger, who appeared in Forgotten Realms novels in the late ’80s and became a breakout character in the ’90s when Gothy Angst was at its height. Mechanically he was a 2E ranger who wielded two scimitars thanks to a fighter splatbook ability. Which was fine, except that with his crazy popularity, suddenly the Drizzt tail began to wag the ranger dog. In every edition since, the first thing that devs seemed to look at when making the ranger was “Does it look like Drizzt?”
Finally, we come to 5E, in which ranger wins the award for “Most Dysfunctional Right Out the Gate” from the start hands down. And really the 5E ranger is not that bad, it’s just… lackluster. And stuck in the past, in that it doesn’t model “what rangers should do,” so much as “what rangers looked like in earlier editions of D&D.” You get a smattering of fighter stuff, a smaller smattering of rogue stuff, and you’re back to trying to guess what is the right “favored terrain” and “favored enemy” for the campaign (or alternatively, forcing the DM to put whatever you’ve favored in). If you take on an animal companion, you have to use your own bonus action to make it do anything as part of the “action economy” (i.e., so that you don’t effectively get two turns per round for everyone else’s one turn). If you forego the animal companion and choose the “hunter” archetype, you essentially get to choose from a random set of combat feats.
Honestly, for almost everything that rangers are supposed to do? In 5E there’s probably a better way of doing it. Do you want to be a mobile archer, running around the field peppering your foes with arrows? Take two levels of rogue (for Cunning Action) with Survival as one of your expertise choices, and then Champion fighter with the archery style forever. Do you want to be a mystical protector of the wild? A Totem Warrior barbarian, Oath of the Ancient paladin, or any flavor of druid is probably closer to the mark. The only thing the 5E ranger can do that the other classes can’t, really, is have a pet, and they’re not real good at that.
This situation has led to WotC floating multiple fixes via its Unearthed Arcana articles, and they are better…ish, but they’re mostly patches to buff math holes rather than the serious rethink that the class really needs, and worse they still are focused on “How do we keep the companion from breaking the action economy?” and “Does it look like Drizzt?” more than “Does this look, feel, and act like a ranger should, while sticking to the ease of play and flexibility that 5E excels at?” (To which I would say the answer is “Not really.”)
So, yeah. Sorry rangers, back to the wilds for you.
 In the time since then, Tribality has posted an in-depth series tracking the rogue’s development from proto-D&D days (Supplement I: Greyhawk, baby!) through 5E, which you can read here:
 You guessed it, Tribality did a series of articles about them too, and its a doozy. Vis.:
(To the tune of “We Didn’t Start the Fire…” by Billy Joel)
Arshan’s always kinda mad
I haven’t played you for a while
Obsidian kills her foes with style
Maedhroc gives his foes the boot
Elsa’s tough but awfully cute
1E rules are dumb and hard
but they made my super-bard
Referees don’t get to play much
We get all excited, tho we try to hide it
Referees don’t get to play much
But there’ll be no game, if I’m not DM
Playing Lachwen was a blast
but MMO fun doesn’t last
I don’t wanna spend the cash right now
to play my panda monk in WoW
But oh on tabletop to play again
Or just once for my paladin
The 3E rules were quite a cage
for Theran, my poor fighter-mage
My halfling ranger doesn’t have a name
I’d love to play him all the same
My human ranger had a plot device
but tough luck I suck at rolling dice
Natural 1’s all day!
No foes I’ll slay!
What else do I have to say?
Referees don’t get to play much
We get all excited, tho we try to hide it
Referees don’t get to play much
But there’ll be no game
If I am not
The recent Keep On the Borderlands game I’ve been talking about so much has been taken up largely for the purpose of showing the ropes to a new player who wants to eventually be a GM and asked me to give them a working example. Get me, being all mentorey!
In any case, as I’ve been examining gamemastery from the ground up as part of this whole rope-showing exercise, I decided that now would be a propitious time to re-examine my Gamemastering Credo.
This was a concept I first heard from The Angry GM.  As the name implies, a Gamemastering Credo is simply an explicit list of underlying principles that guide you as you create, plan, and run games. I had a whack at it near the beginning of my last campaign, but we’re two years on now and both the group and the venue have morphed, as have my priorities. Time for another round!
- Specific trumps general.
- The rules provide a framework for interacting with the game world. The “book” (whatever book that may be) is the baseline, and any variations from that baseline (i.e., “house rules”) will be made clear before a player is required to make a decision.
- I will use game systems that use the minimum possible complexity for the desired effect.
- As referee, my job is to understand the rules, and to interpret them when there is ambiguity. Rulings at the table will be treated as house rules going forward.
- When I present a game to the group, it is a proposal, not a dictum. I will do my best to run the game the players want to play. Also: I am one of the players.
- The world is “my character.”
- I will not take away players’ freedom of choice without their consent.
- I will not create “guessing game” situations.
- I don’t know how any given scenario will end, and I have at best an educated guess about how the middle will go.
- I will not allow players to wander into deadly peril without warning.
- I will present multiple hooks that are reasonably easy to find. Player characters can always say “no.”
- Some players “build” a character; some “discover” the character through play. Therefore, I will not require back-stories, disadvantages, or similar character flags to begin the game.
- It’s okay to take the game seriously.
- “Spotlight Time” is the real currency of any game.
- I am running for the group, not for any individual player.
- The players and the characters are reflections through a clouded mirror.
- However: NPCs are speaking for themselves; they are not the GM wearing a mask.
- I will roll dice in the open.
- If there is a choice between the players rolling dice, or NPCs/monsters rolling dice, the players will roll the dice.
- I will not show you things you can’t have, although it may require effort to acquire it.
- If it takes more than three sentences to describe your surroundings, I need to simplify.
- I will override the game system if I feel there’s a compelling reason to do so.
- I will allow group override.
For instance, if we are playing a game where your party are members of an organization and given assignments, that supersedes the usual principles of providing multiple hooks.
A game system that cannot easily be played without computer assistance (or at most a pocket calculator), is an undesirable game system. I didn’t realize just how sick I was of 3.x/PF until I started messing with 5E.
House rules are always subject to evaluation and debate between sessions. During a session, if we can’t come to an agreement within a few minutes, I’ll pick a ruling and go on, subject to debate later.
This used to be multiple items on the list, but really it should all be in one bucket. Until we’ve all agreed to a campaign premise and its attendant house rules, it’s up for modification or veto. There’s no point in trying to run a game we don’t all want to play. If as time goes on, the campaign evolves, or the players would like to take it in another direction, that’s fine, as long as we’re all on the same page about it. Of course, you have to let me know what that is! I am occasionally shocked to find out there’s something that’s been bugging someone for ages and I had no idea. The whole point of the item above is that we should all be expecting more or less the same thing out of a game. Also, keep in mind that as the GM, I’m one of the players too. I can’t run a game I hate!
(Lifted from the Angry GM, but a good corollary to the above.) I create the world and I control it. I often invite input from others, but ultimately, I have to run the world and therefore, it has to be a world I want to run. Nothing becomes a part of the world without my say so. Just as one player couldn’t tell another that his elf has to speak in rhymes because obviously all elves do that, a player couldn’t tell me that there are Pokémon down in my dungeons if I don’t want there to be.
Player Choices and Scenario Structure
This one was kind of “baked in” to my last draft, but really deserves its own heading. In a good game, player choices are what drives the narrative. Although I can make educated guesses about the players’ likely course of action, if I have a set outcome in mind already, I might as well be writing a book.
There are specific temporary exceptions to this. A character who’s been dominated by a vampire has very little freedom of choice, for example. But even then, when possible, I will present the player with: “You have been compelled to achieve goal X. How do you wish to go about it?”
This is a corollary to the above item. It doesn’t mean that I’ll telegraph the result of relatively minor choices (“turn right or left at the end of the hall”); what this does mean is that you will always either have the information you need to make an important choice, or knowing that you lack information, you’ll be able to get it, even if that’s by asking me directly. (Of course, if asked directly, I may answer with, “Perhaps you should look for clues.” That’s part of gaming, after all!) If you ever feel like a life-or-death decision might as well be the flip of a coin, I’ve done something wrong.
This is another corollary. I will create scenarios, not scenes. Scripted events (“if player kills cult leader while he’s chanting, summoned monster will go berserk”) may occur, but I will not force their appearance (“no matter how long it takes the players to get to the summoning chamber, the priest will be just about to finish his chant”). A scripted in medias res moment might be used to kickstart a campaign or a session, as appropriate for the campaign, but those will not be done in a way that takes away the players’ freedom of choice, as described earlier.
If players choose to put themselves in deadly peril, I will not shield them from it, either. Note that going to an adventure site (however that may be defined for the game at hand) is by default “being in deadly peril” unless you have reason to believe otherwise. In a combat situation, the opposition will be playing to win.
Hooks are there to provide some kind of structure beyond “You are here, and here’s a map, what do you do?” They are designed to help avoid “decision paralysis” and give you something to work with. They are not there to proclaim, “There’s the plot, go get it!” and then punish you if you don’t.
The issue of multiple hooks is also a matter of player choice: if you are completely free to do anything you want (as long it’s follow the only hook presented), you aren’t really free, are you? The consequences of following/not following one hook over another might be more or less desirable to your character– that’s just the way the world works. Deciding not to take the Ring to Mordor might suck for the world, but it’s still the players’ choice to make. But I have failed in my role as an impartial referee if there is a “right” or “wrong” answer to the question of “What do you do?”
It’s important to note, not all campaigns work this way. Joining a campaign in which you are given a mission at the start of each adventure means that you have already agreed to accept and attempt to perform said missions from the start– or at the very least, refusing a given mission would represent a major event within the campaign framework. Thus freedom of choice is maintained.
(Names are still necessary for all characters, however. You are not playing chess pawns.) Be aware that this may leave your character seriously “underpowered” if the game system selected for a campaign builds such things into character creation (e.g., Savage Worlds). If all else fails, you could always use the 5E method and roll dice to pick something!
For those players who enjoy it, I will do my best to provide opportunities for your characters to pursue their own goals, tie their back-stories into the broader campaign, and so forth.
Again, this assumes that you let me know what those are. This is my favorite part of roleplaying games, so obviously for me the more the better; but it’s not everybody’s thing, and I don’t want it to be a requirement for participation the game.
Considerations At the Table
It’s also okay to not take the game seriously. The important thing is knowing when to do which. I will always try to create a coherent world that operates by a recognizable set of rules, but those rules will vary from world to world. The spooks in Ghostbusters are going to have a different level of “seriousness” from a cursed wraith in Dungeons & Dragons.
The real currency of the game is not gold pieces or experience points, it’s each player’s “moment to shine” at the table, and that must be distributed equitably. What that moment is, will vary from player to player. Some players love to chat up NPCs. Some players want to kick butt in combat. Some players want to make the other players laugh at their corny jokes. As long as any given player’s desires don’t invalidate anyone else’s, there’s no reason not to try to make it happen. However…
If this means saying, “Okay, that character goes off on their own adventure, please create a new character who will work with the group,” so be it. I will not start a session until the group has established a reason why the team exists and will work together. This can be as simple as “We are friends and want to go exploring” or “I own a ship and hired these guys to be my crew.”
(Also lifted from The Angry GM.) The characters are not direct reflections of the players. They do not have to say exactly the same things as each other. A character’s words and actions should be the players choices filtered through the lens of the world. But the characters and the players are reflections of each other at heart. If the players have stopped taking actions and are standing around talking, so are the characters. The characters may be saying different words and different characters may be contributing differently than the players are, but the characters and the players are having the same type of conversation about the same topic at the same time.
This will vary depending on circumstances, of course. I don’t mind inter-player “coaching” as long as it’s reasonable, so even if your character is unconscious or dead, it’s perfectly okay to suggest another player use ability X on creature Y or whatever. “Shut up, you’re unconscious!” is not my thing.
Like most humans, most NPCs are relatively honest, but there’s always the chance they may be wrong, they may be lying, or they may simply be making noise. But I’m not going to use NPCs to send you messages. As the GM, it’s my job to play “the rest of the world” based on what those people would do. If the barbarian hireling says “I’m bored, let’s go kill something,” it’s because the barbarian hireling is bored, not because I want to goad you into a fight scene.
I used to be a big ol’ fudger; I have since come to the conclusion that far from “making the game more fun,” this actually hurts the game in the long run, because the players can never know if they overcame a challenge on their own merits, or because the referee was “home cooking.” This in turn leads to the assumption that the PCs will win or lose due to GM predestination, which puts me right back in the role of having “written” the story before the players ever get to the table.
This may give the players metagame knowledge their characters could not reasonably have; I will trust the players not to abuse this.
For example, in a situation where the party is being tracked by a foe who intends to ambush them, rather than rolling the monster’s Stealth against the players’ passive Perception, I would instead say something like: “An owlbear has been stalking your party through the forest for an hour, and is closing in for the kill. Everyone make a Perception check against its Stealth to avoid surprise.” If the owlbear rolls really well and the players all roll badly the net result might be the same, but it will at least make the players active participants instead of simply receiving a bucket of damage out of the blue.
Note that this doesn’t mean I never roll dice. I’m not going to have players “roll their AC against the monster’s attack” for instance.
An artifact of the 3.x/PF system and its “magic economy” was that there were shops full of super-wifty magic items, that you could never be able to afford. The idea was supposed to be that you’d be inspired to go out and find treasure to get these things (and to restrict access to them until such time as they wouldn’t completely unbalance the game), but due to the “wealth-by-level guidelines,” the likelihood of finding the piles of money you’d need in any given adventure was vanishingly low.
That sucks, and I don’t want it happening in my games. However, as some of my players want the option of being able to take their bulging sacks of treasure back to town and buy cool new toys, the 5E assumption of “no magic shops” also doesn’t solve the problem. To that end, I will include opportunities for these “candy store” moments, but not include things you just can’t have on the shopping list.
This same principle holds true for other genres: if a player in a Star Wars game wants to get ahold of Boba Fett-style armor, I will find a way to make it available to them, and so forth. With the recognition that some players always just want MOAR BETTER STUFF, and that they may not always be the best judges of how it will impact a game, this may require metagame discussions to make sure the player’s wishes don’t interfere with the rest of the group’s or throw the campaign into disarray, etc. See also “I will try to run the game the players want to play” and “I’m running for the group, not any one player.”
Honestly, this is a note to myself. I tend to go purple in my room descriptions when I’m at the computer, and then regret it at the table when I find myself reading walls o’ text out loud.
If you’re in a fight with something that has a giant bag of hit points but that cannot possibly escape its doom, I’ll just say, “Fine, four rounds later it’s dead,” rather than make you sit there rolling dice. If we’ve had a long, grueling session and we all just want to call it a night, I’m not going to mess with random encounters as you trudge back to town.
Similar to the point above, if everybody agrees that something sucks, I will allow it to be altered. If everybody agrees that something would be awesome, I will let it happen. Note that “everybody” includes me.
I think that’s everything? As always, I’d love to hear everyone’s questions, comments, or suggestions.
 One of the most useful gaming blogs out there, along with Gnome Stew and a few others. His style is abrasive, which may or may not float your boat, but the content is rock solid.
Since I’m running a 5E adaptation of The Keep On the Borderlands, I was tempted to go EVEN MOAR OLDSCHOOL by following it up with a 5E adaptation of Dungeon of the Bear, the one really complete module (as opposed to solo adventure) released for Tunnels and Trolls. I’ve had this on my shelf for over 30 years, complete with my hand-scribbled notes in the margins from running Lee and Jamie through it in T&T a babillion years ago.
Like everything for Tunnels & Trolls, DotB not only embraces the abstract strangeness of dungeon delving, but revels in it. The dungeon is like an evil funhouse, where each room is its own strange thing that has little to do with the next room over– goblins here, vampires there, and a random trap that locks you in, floods the room, and fills it with piranha in the next.
But then, and this where it gets weird, DotB layers a backstory on top of that (written by Michael Stackpole back before he was the Michael Stackpole) and tries to pretend it makes sense. In days of yore, the backstory goes, in order to keep monsters from coming up out of the infamous Dungeon of the Bear and rampaging the countryside, a lord and his lady (who was a prodigious wizard) sealed it shut and built a castle over the entrance. But then, when they noticed that no more adventurers came down into the dungeon to get eaten, the monsters swarmed up and wiped out almost all the castle’s inhabitants. The only survivor was the wizard, who blasted them to bits and forced a retreat, then summoned demons to guard the various entrances, buried the dead (including her late lord), and left, never to return. So the first “level” of the dungeon is actually exploring the ruins of the castle and trying to figure out how to get into the Dungeon of the Bear proper.
Which, admittedly, sounds cool, and I wish I’d thought of that when running my original “Castle Strongstone” megadungeon back in the day. But when you then look at how the actual dungeon works… the story doesn’t make sense.
First of all, like I say, there’s no coherence to the monsters in the dungeon, especially on the upper levels. It’s a bunch of random traps and rooms that basically stand in stasis waiting for adventurers to arrive and be sprung. While there are larger and more organized groups of monsters in the lower levels who might go on the type of raid described in the backstory, there’s no way they could get to the dungeon entrance without setting off half the traps themselves!
Seriously, there is only one way to get up to the 1st level from the 2nd level, and it requires going through a room on a pivot that turns 90° when someone enters and releases a pack of hungry lions. (This might lead one to wonder, “How does a pack of lions survive in a 20′ x 30′ room for the hours/days/weeks/years between room pivotings?” The answer seems to be, “It’s just a dungeon, you should really just relax.”) So for the army of orcs down in the lower levels to swarm up into the keep, they have to pass through this damn swivel-room trap in small groups and deal with the lions, then work their way through the various catacombs without setting off any of the traps or getting attacked by vampires and so forth.
The only way it works as a narrative, short of assuming the entire dungeon is some mad god’s fever dream (which, admittedly, could be a good way to approach it), is to assume that the orcs are actually maintaining these traps… feeding the lions just enough to keep them alive, cleaning and oiling all the pivoting wall mechanisms and loaded crossbows hidden behind secret panels, and so on. But even that only just barely makes sense. If orcs only care about murder and plunder, what strange obsession is leading them to create these Rube Goldberg environments in the hopes that some adventurers will finally show up one day rather than, say, digging out another hole and raiding the countryside?
The answer, of course, is that Tunnels & Trolls is Heroic Fantasy by way of Saturday Morning Cartoon and trying to make sense of it is Doing It Wrong. But at the end of the day, this is another aspect of why the old school got old. If you’re going to expect players to use their wits to engage in the world in a way that makes sense, then the world itself has to make sense in return! The dungeon-as-a-boardgame model where each room is the next bit and the map of the location might as well be a flowchart of which puzzle comes next instead of depicting an actual place is fun for a while, but in my case at least leaves me wanting more.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved Tunnels & Trolls when I was 14 and I do think compared to the wild flights of fancy it led to that there is a certain blandness (and lack of story innovation) to much of what’s floating around the RPG scene currently. But somewhere we’ve got to find a happy medium between “throw everything at the wall to see what schticks” and “repackaging TSR’s greatest hits– again.”
During my preparations to run The Keep On the Borderlands I happened to remember that in my early days of gaming there was a game I’d see advertised in Dragon magazine that always intrigued me, but that I never heard of anyone actually playing, but I couldn’t remember what it was called.
It turns out the game was Avalon Hill’s Powers & Perils, and the reason I never heard of anyone actually playing it was that it wasn’t a very good game. “Feels as if it was written at gunpoint” is the most entertaining comment I found about it.
But the quest to remember the title led me to an online cache of PDFs of the first 15+ years of Dragon magazine, starting before I had really connected to the gaming community, and lasting well into the years in which I was a HERO System snob and would sniff disdainfully at the notion of playing so “mindless” a game as D&D.
Ugh. There are so many things I would like to slap Young Gneech for. 😛 But that’s not what this post is about.
The neat thing of it was, for me, watching the history of gaming unfold like time-lapse photography. Reading the early issues for the first time provided a lot of context I wish I’d had in the early days– but I never even saw an issue of Dragon until 1983 or so. Seeing defensive rants by Gary Gygax about what is “really” D&D or whether or not Tolkien should actually be considered an influence for the game was entertaining, but also helped me understand why gaming in general had the reputation it did. The letters in the magazine had the exact same psychology as your average internet comments section today, if at least with a profanity filter on, just in slow motion as arguments played out over months instead of hours.
And the game mechanics. Oh lord, the game mechanics. For all the OSR grognards praise “simplicity” and “light” rulesets? The actual old school had no such thing. There are articles with tables for rolling to see how many inches of rain your setting got that day. There are articles spanning two issues with very-slightly-different game stats for 25 different breeds of dogs.
Of course, gaming in those days was a boys’ club, and pretty much a white boys’ club at that. It wasn’t deliberately exclusionary, so much as just existing in a bubble formed by pop culture and socioeconomic circumstances. To be in the circles where RPGs were a thing you pretty much had to have a lot of free time, a certain amount of disposable wealth, and a particular type of eduction. Like the writer in Hollywood Shuffle who “learned about blacks from TV,” your average ’70s and ’80s gamer nerd wasn’t hostile to women, people of color, etc., so much as living in a world where anyone who wasn’t also a nerdy white male was viewed as a creature from another planet, strange and curious beings to be cataloged and categorized.
This led to things like the recurring proposals that “females” in any game should have reduced physical characteristics but enhanced social or appearance stats; or Oriental Adventures, an entire sub-line of D&D products that mashed together all of Japanese, Chinese, and Tibetan history and culture into one tiny space and reduced them into “Shogun Meets Kung Fu Action Theater.” Again, usually not done with malice, just… myopia. 
There were things to love about the era, don’t get me wrong. I found myself repeatedly grinning in nostalgic glee when I ran into something I remembered fondly, such as the first advertisement for the Ghostbusters RPG, or a review of Sam and Max Hit the Road complaining about the fact that it couldn’t use the native speakers in a PC to at least make beeps and buzzes.
But I could clearly see, as time went on, the “Gygaxian” aesthetic (for lack of a better term) of D&D-as-mental-puzzle fading and the “Greenwoodian/Hickmanian” aesthetic (again for lack of a better term) of D&D-as-storytelling-vehicle rising in its place, and it was also clear to see why this was happening. If you didn’t share that very specific slide-rule-and-sneer mindset, the “old school” got old. How many times can you fight the same orcs before you’re sick of it? How many thieves can be disintegrated by pulling the wrong lever before the novelty wears off? The late ’80s and the ’90s brought the proliferation of the Universal RPG (GURPs, HERO), the storytelling game (Vampire: The Masquerade) and new campaign worlds to the slow-moving juggernaut of the industry, D&D, precisely because gamers were looking to take the hobby in new directions.
- Ravenloft– “D&D meets Universal Horror!”
- Dragonlance “D&D as literary simulator!”
- Darksun– “D&D goes post-apocalypse!”
- Spelljammer– “D&D… in spaaaaaace!”
Honestly, I don’t think any but the cultiest of the OSR cult actually want the return of the “old school” days, so much as going through life with nostalgia-colored glasses and/or reacting to specific issues that have hit the hobby over the past decade or so. Because there’s a reason the old school got old! But that doesn’t mean we can’t pull out what was best about it and bring that forward. There wouldn’t be the awesomely fun hobby we have now, if there hadn’t been those table-cross-referencing ubernerds back then.
 When you consider that women had roughly equal chances of showing up as “witch,” “coquettish damsel,” “vampy sex demon,” “nude tied to a pole,” or “competent adventurer,” it can be hard to tell where myopia ends and malice begins. Certainly only having a one-in-six chance of not sucking is not a great place for female characters to be, but consider that most villains and just about every monster or dumb thug was male. The real problem wasn’t so much that women were badly portrayed, as just plain rare, and especially rare in a way that didn’t treat women as basically vehicles for their own breasts.
ME: “You open the door and see– 200 orcs!”
JAMIE: “I shut the door!”–D&D session, c. 1983-1984
Working on my 5E Keep On the Borderlands conversion last night, I put in a room that’s CR 13. That is to say, it’s “a good fight” for a party of 13th level characters. Just, y’know, sitting there, where a first level party could easily just waltz into it. And this is an introductory module! Y’know, for people who’ve never played the game before.
Now I see why this module has so many tales of TPKs associated with it! If you blunder into the Caves of Chaos “room by room” style, you’re gonna get killed. But of course, that’s how ol’ Gary liked it. Master Gygax had very exacting standards of what constituted “good play” or “bad play,” and his view was that player characters, especially at low levels, were disposable, like lives in a video game. Bob the First (level one fighter) gets killed? You roll up the next one and try again. The fact that Bob the Second instinctively knows that the bugbears have placed a deadfall trap behind the door to their cave doesn’t matter. Besides, Bob was smart enough to hire NPCs (doubtless wearing red shirts) to bring along and go first, right?
So yeah, there’s a CR 13 room just sitting in the Caves of Chaos, minding its own business. The thing of it is, you’re not intended to wade into the room, any more than Bilbo pulled out his sword and assaulted Goblin Town. The Caves are not a series of set piece encounters to be “beaten,” they’re a dangerous environment in which the PCs become wild cards in the ongoing situation.
Basically, Keep On the Borderlands is Yojimbo, with orcs. A lot of Gary Gygax’s adventures particularly are like this, the most famous example being The Temple of Elemental Evil, where the monsters are powerful and numerous but broken into factions, and crafty players can use that to their advantage.
But the adventure doesn’t tell you this other than a throwaway paragraph buried in some establishing text, and certainly doesn’t tell the newbie players who have just strapped on their swords and learned their first magic missile and are eager to smite the badguys. There are no guardrails, and nothing like the modern concepts of “encounter balance” to provide a safety net. The Caves of Chaos are dangerous, and it is assumed that not everyone will be coming home.
I wonder how many modern gamers, reared on strings of perfectly-balanced-encounters, walk into this module and just get creamed. “The DM wouldn’t put something down here we weren’t intended to fight” definitely does not apply to 1E modules. Which honestly? I kinda like– but it’s a dangerous way to run the game. Lots of players don’t want to take “no” for an answer, and lots of players don’t seem to be able to sense when they’re in over their heads… and lots of players get really bummed when their character dies. And honestly, as the DM I get bummed too. I’ve killed my share of player characters over the years and I’m usually very reluctant to do so, but you just can’t always pull their fat out of the fire. (I’m looking at you, Jamie.)
The thing of it is, within the context of Keep On the Borderlands, this CR 13 room is there for a perfectly good reason, balance be damned. I’m not an OSR grognard who wants those damn ’90s kids to get off my lawn, but I will say that the 1E mindset was a lot more flexible in this regard. “Why are there 40 orcs in this cave?” “Because communal living makes sense for cave-based nomads.” “But an encounter like that will slaughter six PCs!” “So be it. Maybe the PCs shouldn’t go in there.”
A more modern adventure might still have those 40 orcs, but they’d be in eight rooms with five orcs each instead of all in one giant pit. (Well, no, now I think of it, modern design would consider that monotonous. There’d be 16 orcs in four rooms with four orcs each plus a boss with a fire drake. But I digress.) That one relatively minor shift in scenario design philosophy makes a big difference, tho! Small clusters of enemies, you can take on in bunches at your own pace, are easy pickings for players with a modicum of tactical sense. 40 orcs, all on alert that surface invaders are in their caves? You might want to run. Or at least wait until you can come back with a fireball or two at your disposal.
I can’t honestly say how I would have run this adventure “back in the day,” I never tried. I was nine when I first read Keep On the Borderlands and its subtexts and design ramifications were lost on me, but it did inform my own “Castle Strongstone” dungeon design, including Jamie’s infamous 200 orcs encounter. Running this as an adult with more sophisticated sensibilities, the dungeon looks like a very different place to me. But in a strangely Campbellian way, it’s kind of neat to have come back around to it.