Labyrinth Lord (Games and Game Design, 4/11/14)

This is a bit belated, as it relates to last Friday’s class (but I thought I should write it up before I leave to teach this Friday’s class).

Josh has already put together a nice write-up of basically what this class is on about. But he’d asked me to write up our particular experience from last week, in which I facilitated a game of Labyrinth Lord (LL). For those of you not hip to the OSR (that’s the “old school revival” for those of you not hip to it), LL is a “retro-clone” – a fan-made version of an older edition of Dungeons and Dragons made possible by the fact that you can only copyright the particular expression of a game and some proper names of things (so no beholders), but not the rules of the game. For anyone reading who is entirely unfamiliar with role-playing games (RPGs), I’m not going to try to explain them here, but you might want to check out the wikipedia entry, or Epidaiah Ravachol’s excellent micro-game, What is a Roleplaying Game?

These older editions of D&D are long out of print, but there’s a significant constituency of players for them, motivated by some combination of nostalgia and the fact that the earlier games supported a simpler, more player-skill-focused (that is, it matters more whether you, the player, think to describe your character as twisting that strange carving gently or casually than what number is next to her “find traps” skill on her character sheet), and harder (in the sense of “your character is more likely to die”) experience than some of the newer editions.

Anyway, for us, we wanted to use LL as a way to segue out of abstract and board games into more story-focused games (there’s a whole long argument about the line between games like D&D or LL and “story games” that, if you are likely to be at all interested, you surely already know about, but whatever). RPGs have some of their roots in wargames (like Diplomacy, which we’d already had them play), and the natural thought that it might be cool to, say, act out what that imaginary fleet commander trying to take Sevastopol is thinking about, rather than just treat it like an abstract token on the board. We decided to start with LL both because it shows its roots in these wargames relatively clearly, it’s pretty complex for folks used to simple board games but pretty simple compared to some of its RPG brethren and sistren, and it’s a clone of the version of D&D most folks of my/Josh’s generation discovered RPGs through back in the 1980s.

The session was a bit chaotic. We had thirteen students show up. And, since they’ve run into some difficulties with playing unfamiliar games on their own during the “study halls” without an instructor present, we’ve decided to use class time to walk at least partially through games rather than just leave them to figure it out. And after all, very few of us who played RPGs learned our first one by sitting down with the massive rule-book. I know for me, I played D&D in the back of Tom Lopez’ van many times before I ever had the books on my own, and most other folks I know have similar stories of being introduced by older siblings, friends of the family, etc.

The plan was for me to run the beginning of Dyson Logo’s fun little Goblin Gully adventure, doubling the number of creatures so that there’d be some threat to a party of thirteen characters, and with Josh acting as “caller” to try to corral everyone into having a coherent party decision. It didn’t quite work out.

After the boring preliminaries (what do all these numbers on the sheet mean?), we went with tradition and started them in a tavern. This led into the traditional questions of “why would we go investigate this maybe monster-infested slave pit on the outskirts of town instead of continuing to drink in the tavern?” and “why is this so dumb?” So, I threw them the “there’s maybe a magic axe”rumor, and that was enough to convince most folks that they should head to the gully.

We got about as far as the tree with the goblin guards. Under the guidance of a guy who’d played D&D before, they decided to have the thieves try to sneak up – but level 1 thieves are really pretty crummy at sneaking, so they were soon facing a bunch of arrows from goblins in the tree. One thief was immediately cut down, and the other started to run away.

Interestingly, this caused a bit of a split in the group. Some of the guys wanted to regroup and start shooting things at whatever was in the tree shooting at them. A few decided to run away and look for another way in. One guy declared that he was going to throw his spear at the thief who was running, declaring that he was a coward, and shouldn’t have run away.

This last was the most interesting to me – as it led to a bit of a conversation about the social contract. On the one hand, “I kill that guy” is probably pretty familiar to a lot of people who played these games when they were tweens or teenagers. It’s a pretty natural response, when you’re told that in this game you can do anything you want (that is within the reasonable fictional powers of your character), to try to push the boundaries a bit – my early D&D games were full of stupidity like “I steal from Lydia’s character,” “I kill the bartender,” and “I moon the dragon.” But the man playing the halfling who threw his spear was a bit more sophisticated than that in his motivations – he wasn’t just trolling, and he tried to make the case to the rest of the group that killing one of their mercenary band who showed cowardice in that way was the appropriate thing to do.

I’m underselling the chaos of this session more than a bit here to pull out the interesting bit (to me) at the end, and I wouldn’t run a thirteen-player game of LL again anytime soon. It also drove home that while, historically, games like this were many current players’ introductions to the genre, they’re not maybe the easiest access point. Play did stop a few times over things like, “so, it says Paralysis/Petrification 16, and I’m a Magic-User, does that mean I can paralyze people?” But I’m hoping to, next time, use the friendly-fire demise of Mr. Hoppe’s cowardly (or perhaps merely reasonable!) thief to start conversations about social contract issues, genre expectations,  and kinds of fun – after all, if everyone knew we were playing a game about a hard-bitten mercenary band that brooks no cowardice, that could be a cool game.


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