Friday 3 July 2015

On romantic fantasy and OSR D&D

When most people think of the older editions of D&D, 'romantic fantasy' is not the first genre that comes to mind. OSR D&D tends to get used to run games which are either about grim, violent, sword-and-sorcery fantasy-horror, or borderline-absurdist kitchen-sink science-fantasy weirdness. Sometimes both at once.

But I think it's a good fit. And I'm going to explain a bit about why.

* * *

Here is the default plotline of most heroic fantasy narratives:

'One day, the Forces of Darkness found a big stick. They used the stick to beat everyone up! It was terrible! So the Forces of Light had to go on an Epic Quest to find an even bigger stick, which they used to beat the Forces of Darkness back down again. Then everyone lived happily ever after, except the Forces of Darkness, who had all been beaten to death. The end.'

Might makes right. The good guys don't win because they're good; they win because they are able to attain a greater capacity for acts of spectacular mass violence than their enemies. The world remains shackled to a treadmill of violence. Viewed with even the slightest cynicism, the whole narrative starts to look deeply suspect, the kind of story that victorious empires always tell about their origins: 'Of course we're the good guys! We won, didn't we?' This is probably one reason why world-weary amorality is so common in OSR fantasy games; strip away the genre conventions and it's easy to see the Forces of Light and the Forces of Darkness as little more than two interchangeable warbands, flailing away at one another with whatever physical and rhetorical weaponry happens to come to hand.

Romantic fantasy narratives, by contrast, are usually built around defeating evil by means other than overwhelming lethal force. Consider a story like Ghibli's Spirited Away. Chihiro is thrown into a supernatural world dominated by cruelty and injustice, but she doesn't defeat it by hoarding magical power-ups until she's strong enough to punch Yubaba in the face. She wins because she's brave and clever and empathic enough to make friends and build alliances, and at the end of the day her courage and emotional intelligence prove to be more than a match for Yubaba's evil sorcery. By the end, when she leaves Yubaba's realm, everyone is cheering for her - even the frog- and slug-people who have been making her life a misery since she arrived. She has changed her world for the better. She didn't even have to beat anyone to death along the way.

Mission accomplished!

Now, you don't have to like those kinds of stories. You might even think they're 'unrealistic'. (It's certainly true that, in reality, love and courage don't always win out - but then, in the real world, overwhelming violence doesn't usually do much real good either, does it?) But if that is a style of story-telling you're interested in... why would you use OSR D&D to run it?

1: The reaction System

If you're using the old B/X reaction roll system, there is only a one-in-thirty-six chance that any given monster encounter goes straight to violence. Anything else gives you some room to manoeuvre: to talk, bluff, make a bargain, offer a bribe, whatever. If you want a fight you can have one, but you almost never actually have to fight. (And hell, even if they do attack, you can always just run away.) This is very different to later editions of D&D, which assumed that monsters would always attack on sight and usually fight to the death.

If you use the reaction system, then instead of the dungeon becoming a series of tactical combat challenges, it becomes a network of social challenges. What does each group want? What does it need? What can you offer them, and what can they offer you? With a bit of quick thinking and a lot of heart, you can talk your way through a dungeon much more effectively than you could ever fight your way through it.

2: The morale System

Even if a fight breaks out, the B/X morale system ensures that only crazy fanatics and mindless undead are actually likely to fight to the last man: everyone else is much more likely to try to run or surrender once you start killing their friends right in front of them. As a result, violence tends to be limited: bullets fly, bodies drop, the balance of power changes, and then you go back to negotiation again. You can kill 'em all if that's what you really want to do; but if you don't want that, if you'd actually quite like to find a better solution, then the morale rules give you a way to end fights while there's still someone left to make peace with. 

3: The combat system

As the saying goes, if you've got a big enough hammer, then everything starts looking like a nail. If you've spent hours building your character from half-a-dozen sourcebooks, and you have a giant heap of hit points and a list of combat abilities as long as your arm (as can easily happen in certain other editions of D&D), then why wouldn't you want to solve problems with violence? By allowing players to create characters who fight like action heroes, later editions also encourage them to think like action heroes - and action heroes solve all their problems by killing people. Usually lots of people.

OSR D&D isn't like that. At first level you probably have about four hit points. Even at third or fourth level you can still be killed outright by a couple of lucky hits. Getting into anything resembling a fair fight is a terrible idea.

For the 'amoral sword and sorcery' style of OSR game, that acts as an incentive to seek out unfair fights: poison them, ambush them, stab them in the back. That's great. But it can also work to incentivise less violent solutions. Like Chihiro, PCs don't have the option of simply brute-forcing their way through situations. They need to find other, better ways to succeed.

4: The retainers system

I love hirelings and retainers. Again, if you're playing grubby amoral OSR murderhobos - and you can! There's nothing wrong with that! I've done it myself! - then your hirelings and retainers are luckless saps who you bring along to do your dying for you. But they can do other things, as well.

Later editions of D&D, with their higher-powered protagonists, encourage PCs to rely on no-one but each other. The model is the superteam or the spec ops squad: a small group of badasses who are so much tougher than ordinary people that anyone else would just get in the way. OSR D&D, with its squishier PCs, isn't like that. Every other person you have with you - even ordinary, 0-level people - can make a real difference to your survivability. You can't just wander off on your own: you'll die out there. You need other people. 

OSR PCs build communities. Each PC has their own hirelings and retainers; a party of six PCs could easily have another twelve or fifteen people tagging along with them. This ensures that each PC is enmeshed in a whole network of relationships with other people, people who they rely upon - and who rely upon them - in life-or-death situations. Rather than just an atomised individual, caring about nothing except his +3 sword and his bag of loot, the PC has to become a leader, a friend, a companion-in-arms - because if they don't, hireling morale will plummet, and they'll desert you when you need them most. 

* * *

The cumulative impact of these four systems is to create situations which heavily favour relationship-building and non-violent forms of conflict resolution. Of course there will still be fights; of course the PCs will occasionally just say 'fuck it' and shoot a bunch of guys in the head. Of course there are going to be some people who just need killing. But mass violence isn't the default solution, and it usually isn't the best solution. The best solution is talking: treating your potential enemies like people, negotiating, finding common ground. With a bit of work, you can turn them into allies instead of enemies, leaving the encounter stronger than you were when you came in.

And if that doesn't work, and they really won't listen, then you can always circle back later, wait until they're sleeping, and murder them in their beds. Romantics can be pragmatists, too!


  1. Woah, I'm going to comment on this one... Sorry for being messing up in an old post!

    I really love this approach to fantasy, games and OSR D&D in particular. I always tried (sometimes with really bad results) a similar approach that I call 'plausible fantasy': You'll never make a 'realistic' fantasy (it's... Well, it's imposible) but you can make some fantasy that seems realistic, that is plausible. Some games try this approach, some games deny it and some other games can be played in both ways. You are doing a great job making D&D plausible, romantically plausible, and that's very cool.

    Good post and better blog!

  2. Do you have an Appendix N or similar list of recommended romantic fiction?

    1. My top picks for the kind of thing I'm calling 'romantic fantasy' here would be movies, actually. 'Spirited Away', 'Labyrinth', and 'Song of the Sea' are all really good examples; they all show characters getting thrown into threatening magical worlds, and navigating their way through them via relationship-building and emotional problem-solving rather than violence.

      If you actually mean romance proper, then the ur-texts are 'Pride and Prejudice' and 'Jane Eyre', the latter of which draws heavily on the kind of Gothic fiction which fed into D&D - except that it treats the Gothic hero-villain as someone to be healed through love, rather than purged through righteous violence. Jane Eyre even has psychic powers!

      Good question, though. I'll have to think about putting together a proper list...

    2. I'd certainly be interested to see it if you did!
      Those are three of my favorite movies, actually. What really got me started on reading your blog was the idea that you could run a game that felt like a Miyazaki movie and still sounded like a fun thing to play. I'd also had D&D romance/Romance on the brain since I was asked to run an introductory game for a friend, who requested "something about travel that feels like a really good telenovela," so your work has been very helpful.

      I've never read 'Jane Eyre' and haven't revisited 'Pride and Prejudice' since high school, I'll have to make time for them. Henryk Sienkiewicz's 'With Fire And Sword' is outstanding (especially the W.S. Kuniczak translation if you, like me, don't read Polish).

  3. I am a big fan of this style of fantasy, but it's always difficult to come up with examples that could give other people an idea what all the talk is about.
    Could you perhaps make a post about introducing people to this style with a list of example works?

  4. I once ran a campaign after having watched the fighting styles in Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Sanjuro - basically most of the combatants watching the buffest/craziest fighters, not wanting to get hurt if they can possibly avoid it without totally losing face. The orcs were great for switching sides if it looked like one side was dominating. The campaign became one of gathering more orc vassals with each victory... fun stuff.

  5. I've been struggling with group size, as I've got three players and not all can make it every Sunday. Avoiding a TPK each session has been hard.

    The solution has been on the social side. Most of our first few adventures introduced a new NPC adventurer to round out the party, partly to increase their strength and partly to cover for skills they didn't have; a party without a thief, or a cleric, or both is in serious trouble. These NPCs return on and off, often serving as a spur that day's session.

    They're not high enough level yet, but as we're playing AD&D I plan of using the hireling/henchman rules extensively. They look like a godsend to me.

  6. Great post. That's why I like B/X D&D and its retroclones. I also add reaction rolls and morale rules to my fifth edition games. My favorite kind of fantasy in games and literature is sword&sorcery, but playing romantic fantasy as explained by you can be extremely rewarding.

  7. I just was redirected to this post by a link on a forum-- apologies for resurrecting the dead, it may be happening on a few of your posts today.

    Annnnnyway: Spirited Away is 100% my favorite Ghibli film and I really dig your take on it as an inspiration for OD&D play, and your Very Sensible reasoning about why the rules support this style of play!

    I can only add (on the extremely off-chance you haven't already thought of it yet) that it has always seemed to me that Spirited Away and The Wizard of Oz (especially the novel version) are amazing d&d stories, *and also* essentially the same story arc: little girl, lost in a strange land where the normal rules don't apply, far from home, beset by witchery and intrigue, who manages to triumph by being kinder and braver and better at making friends than everyone else involved, then is finally reunited with her family and returned to The Normal.
    Again, thanks for the fun thoughts to chew on!

    1. 'The Wizard of Oz' certainly fits, and indeed it was probably one of the inspirations for 'Spirited Away'. Girls' adventure stories in general tend to fit this pattern, all the way back to ur-texts like 'Alice in Wonderland' or 'The Mysteries of Udolpho'. Fighting is off the table, so you have to talk and think instead. Stories for boys tend to fast-forward to the 'and then he got super-powers and killed everyone' stage, which I've always found rather dull in comparison.

  8. Ooooohhhhh, I'd never heard of the 'Mysteries of Udolpho' before - looks like fun! Thanks for the (perhaps unintentional) heads up!

    1. It *is* fun, but in a very slow, repetitive, 1790s, there's-nothing-to-do-except-read-so-the-longer-our-novels-are-the-better sort of way. Skimming huge sections of it is nothing to be ashamed of!

  9. I quite like the idea of alternate source materials for OSR inspiration.

    Another good example of this kind of story, and one which was used as a plot point in, of all things, "Better Call Saul", is "The Adventures of Mable".

  10. I just want to say that this one post is what made me want to try out old-school and B/X D&D. I had missed how 1,2 and 4 went missing in newer versions, and how the game wasn't always as combat focused.

    From what i can find, 2nd ed AD&D made "XP for GP" into a very small optional rule. 2nd ed revised removed even that.

    1. Sorry to be late in replying to this, Alicia - I'm very glad to hear that you found the post useful, and I hope that your adventures in B/X have proven rewarding for you!

      The AD&D2 XP rules were a mess. The main emphasis was on XP for killing things, but the numbers were all out of whack: an orc was basically a match for a level 1 fighter in a duel, but the fighter would somehow have to kill *fifty-eight* orcs to go up to level 2. So you *had* to use some variant of the 'optional' XP rules or no-one would ever level up. When I ran it as a teenager I rapidly slid into just awarding arbitrary XP awards for each scenario completed.

  11. I like powerful characters, but this article makes a good case for restraining them from high-level powers. Some of these OSR features are things I'd want to ignore, like arbitrary random stats and potentially starting with 1 HP while the player next to you has 6. But that stuff can be ditched while still keeping systems like reactions and morale that I feel add something more to the game. A lot of the Pathfinder material just assumes people fight to the death and that avoiding combat isn't even an option.

    I'd also like to try playing with your "On not having a skill system" rules. Lately I've been looking at the Sine Nomine games like "Stars Without Number", which to some extent tell you not to roll if basic professional competence would let you do something.

  12. There are some elements of this in the Dolmenwood setting... or at least I think so. It does list Princess Mononoke and Labyrinth in its Appendix N.