Zubby Newsletter #37: Off The Cuff

It’s the Dungeon Master’s World – We’re Just Trying to Survive It

In my previous newsletter I mentioned that in 2024 I’ll be at a pair of tabletop gaming events in Wisconsin celebrating 50 years of Dungeons & Dragons. I’m looking to run some old school games at those shows so, with that in mind, I pulled together an impromptu Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st edition character roll-up and game session with a few friends to refresh my brain on the old rules and gameplay.

There were D&D books before these ones, but for many
first edition gamers this is where the journey began.

(Three and a half years ago, I dug back into the original D&D B/X box sets while co-writing the Stranger Things and Dungeons & Dragons mini-series with Jody Houser and that stirred up a ton of gaming nostalgia from my youth, but I didn’t actually get a chance to re-run the game at the time.)

This quick session was a lot of fun, as expected, but it also reminded me of a crucial part of the original TTRPG experience-

Dungeon Master Fiat Is Everything in 1st Edition D&D

In books and fanzines there was always talk of the DM being “god” at the table, and I’d honestly forgotten how much that was actually the case. The old rules are specific about certain stats or limitations (the level limits for race-class character combinations, for example, or the percentage chance a character can bend the iron bars of a prison cell), but there is very little in terms of using character abilities, skill checks, or specific combat maneuvers as we think of them in modern gaming. Almost all old school dungeon delving is an off the cuff Player VS DM negotiation made in the moment.

“Can I talk these goblins out of a fight?” Maybe. Tell me what you say to them – how you try to bribe or intimidate them. I’ll decide if they’re convinced or make an arbitrary roll behind the DM screen and tell you what happens.

“Can I step in front of the Magic-User to keep them from getting hit by the goblins?” Yes. You’re an armored Cleric with a shield and they’re close by, so that makes sense.

“There was livestock in the equipment shopping list, so I bought a goat. Is that okay?” It’s your starting gold. Spend it however you want.

“Can my pet goat bite a goblin?” Why not? Make an attack roll and we’ll see what happens.

Seeing it all again through the old school lens, I was reminded just how much of the game hung completely on the Dungeon Master saying ‘yes’‘no’ or ‘roll this die and let’s see’ instead of absolutely codified combat or social skill checks that try to cover every eventuality.

I know technically that holds true for every edition of every tabletop RPG (groups can make or break any rule at the table they like), but the “we’re just making this up as we go along” quality feels really laid bare in the original rules, even more than I remembered.

Now that it’s all come flooding back, I need to figure out how much of that old school freeform DNA I want in this playtest game and these convention sessions – where I feel the dials should be tuned between ‘then’ and ‘now’. Wish me luck!

Speaking of D&D – Stacy, Andrew, and I spoke to James Grebey at Fatherly all about the Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guides series and how they engage kids and other new players to help them create their own characters and tell fun interactive stories in a group setting.

The Young Adventurer’s Guides also made Polygon’s list of “Best Gift Ideas for D&D Newcomers’.

Thrice Marked For Death, Twice Marked For Print

One day after release, Titan went back to press on CONAN THE BARBARIAN #5!

Retailer orders are due by December 4th and it will be in stores on December 27th. Liam Sharp‘s killer variant cover is in black & white for the 2nd printing.

This kind of release day rush sellout is unusual for a first issue and on an issue #5 it’s practically unheard of. I know I sound like a broken record on these reprint announcements but, seriously – Thank you so, so much.

I don’t think I’ve ever received so many messages or reviews for the fifth issue of a comic I’ve written before. We’re doing all we can to prove worthy of your support, enthusiasm, and that cover price, month after month.

Bound in Black Stone, Bound in Book Form

Conan the Barbarian Vol. 1: Bound in Black Stone arrives in collected trade paperback in February. If my constant chatter about it here didn’t convince you to get on board the single issues, now you can read issues #1-4 (and our prequel issue #0) in one sitting and see what all the excitement has been about.

If you’ve been collecting the issues every month, this will sit nicely on your bookshelf, or act as a perfect way to hook friends and family on our new era of Hyborian High Adventure.

All this to say – now is a great time to pre-order!

Links and Other Things

  • Animator Marc Hendry has a stellar video all about clean final line work in 2D animation that goes through the process using digital tools. The techniques here are solid gold. I have not seen a video that lays it out so clearly before, let alone one free online. If you’re an animator or animation fan, definitely check it out.
  • Back in January David Hines posited some interesting theories around a secondary character in John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian movie, and I recently saw the thread pop up on social media again. It’s a neat bit of analysis about characterization that exists beyond what we see on camera in the film.
  • I keep linking Matt Colville videos here on my newsletter because his topics are cogent and timely. His latest, a rundown of various editions of D&D that is part history, part advice, is bang-on and feels even more appropriate after running AD&D this week.


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