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Zargon is OSR & the Hard-to-Come-By Art of Old School DMing

A recent G+ post got me thinking about why this guy is so iconic.

In the 80's we called the DM god quite literally in the campaigns we played. Somehow it seems to have entered the collective consciousness of gamers that ultimate power is categorically bad and that you need proper systems, edited text, and clarifications to avoid the pitfalls of AD&D.

No, no, no. All you need is friendship and trust.

"Hey Anthony, R U a brony?"

No. But I do live in a maelstrom of shit where I cast about daily for any maudlin throwback to kindness and civility as a way of reassuring myself the human species doesn't deserve a direct asteroid hit. But I digress.

We can sum up the rest of this post and stop here by saying four things:

  1. Robert De Niro could have been the best Dungeon Master of all time

  2. If he had been, then there's no problem with Sleep or any other spell

  3. Zargon is the poster boy for OSR

  4. Lawful Altruistic is the best way to keep a campaign running for years.

There. Done. If you agree, read no further because my points have been made.

What? You want me to explain myself?

Excellent. Let's begin.

As you know by now, I try to abide by the AD&D rule books because the systems they afford, even if quirky, provide a predictable foundation and baseline through which players can gauge the world. AFFORDANCES are critical to games in general as they allow players to speculate on probable outcomes and thereby plan tactical approaches to dungeons, wilderness and urban landscapes.

I do NOT screw with the rules, tinker with the established system or futz endlessly with balance "problems", nor do I worry myself with discussions or arguments that go like this:


Sleep is broken. Modules don't hurl Sleep spells at 1st level adventurers cuz it's auto-kill blah-blah meow-meow. What magic-user doesn't have Sleep? Therefore Sleep needs to be fixed.


My response to this AND any other complaint that sounds like it is that the complainer isn't actually thinking about game design. They are thinking about what might make sense in an actual world where Sleep (and spells like it) are widely available. Furthermore, they are creating problems through speculation that don't actually exist. If they've witnessed such a travesty first hand (Where a DM repeatedly Sleeps the entire first-level party and then auto-TPKs them while shrugging sheepishly as if the event were out of his control) well, it means the pleasure of sitting before a master referee was not theirs that day.

Let me put this another way.

Video games like Left for Dead will ramp up the enemies when you're loaded for bear and give you a breather when you're spent.

In a number of video games (of which I have first hand knowledge) the code running in the background cheats.

One example of this, which occurs in a number of shooters, is that when the player is reduced to zero health, the code actually preserves them and leaves them with 1 final HP instead of dead.

This invisible rule is not applied to the monsters that the player is shooting.

The reason that game developers use tricks like this is that it is much more dramatic, heart-pounding really, when you escape the fire fight and realize you have 1 HP remaining. You feel bad-ass. You feel like you cheated death. Well, guess what? You did cheat. But the designers knew that this would happen and they were OK with it. They designed it this way because they wanted you to have fun.

The Sleep spell, as written, is FOR players. It is FOR players because AD&D modules throw 10 orcs at the party, sometimes even when the party is weak. The DM is the code that is running the game. And the good DM is like the algorithm in Left For Dead. His finger is on the pulse of the party. HE IS ON THE PLAYER'S SIDE EVEN WHEN HE IS NOT.

Bob De Niro would make a great DM because he is going to scare the living shit out of you at the table by making you think he's not on your side. Tough guy. Stoic. Cold. The ultimate impartial look of justice. But underneath? Melty-goodness.

Oh Bob's going to kill your characters. Of course he is. And the great part of his persona is that when he does, you're gonna to be like, "Saw that coming." After all, his demeanor prepared you for the worst. But what you don't see is the hidden cheat that's running in the background. The melty-goodness. Bob's going to occasionally kill you with Disintegration, or a Death Spell if you're careless. All the broken mechanics of the game are at his fingertips if he needs them to bring down even high-level blowhards. Bob's never going to have to cheat to destroy you. And he doesn't actually WANT to. Cuz down where you can't see it, Bob cares.

Sleep and a million other things are only broken if you're not playing with Bob.

When you hire 10 first-level fighters to accompany you to the dungeon, Bob will unleash Sleep, roll the dice for number affected and let the chips fall. Or maybe not. It's hard to know what Bob will do because he plays it close to the vest, which is what makes the game so damn fun.

You have to surrender to the expert DM and his or her system if you ever plan on reaching that sublime point where you realize, "This is a great campaign." And sometimes you have to ignore the idiosyncrasies of a system (because NO system is perfect) in order to enjoy greater pleasures.

Sometimes the idiosyncrasies that you think are flaws are actually high-utility.

I will make comparison here to Magic the Gathering.

In the old-old days, you had broke-ass jank. Lotus, Mox, Land, Channel, Fireball. I sold all my cards, including the power nine, some six years ago but I have fond memories of combo-death. The funny thing is that WotC went through a period where they'd made so many cards that broken combos became a "problem" they tried to solve with edits, restrictions or banning. Who can forget Necropotence and the black summer?

And then, just around the time I quit playing, they did something that I thought was smart. They threw their hands in the air, embraced the chaos of the cards and embraced full-combo madness.

There were broken combos up the wazoo when I left and it made me smile because that's the way you design properly. When there's ONE mechanic that rules the game, it's very very bad.

But when there are too many OP mechanics to keep track of, what you really wind up with is rock, paper, scissors; an arena of high-drama uncertainty of who can do what first; and are now back in a "fair" environment.

AD&D is not MTG. But games share important truths. AD&D is a fearsome system because death can come from so many directions. Who can do what first is very much a part of the AD&D combat round and if you lose initiative as a player, you start to sweat.

Point is, that OP mechanics are the one true way of ensuring the game remains drama-filled and dangerous all the way from first level to fifteenth and beyond. But as long as you are playing with know that those dangers are going to be telegraphed, that you will have a chance, that things are not going to be abused...because Bob's on your side.

Quick Anecdote: Not quite a year ago I ran a game where the party levels ranged from 12th to 14th level. While on the Ethereal Plane, the party of 6 ran into three mind flayers. Due to overlapping psionic blasts upon the non-psionic party the bard was feeble minded, which then made her incredibly fragile. A second blast and failed save resulted in percentile dice that came up 01 per DMG p. 78. Her ethereal corpse was left behind to dissolve slowly into fog.

High-level PC gone in an instant with legitimate rolls conducted in the open. No one is safe in AD&D...even when Bob's your DM.

My thesis is that the AD&D system is like a vorpal sword and if your DM is Lawful Good, you're golden. But if he's any other alignment, you probably need to look out.

This brings us to the last two parts of the post and the admission that this will be my last post, probably for a while.

The pressure to continue making content even when you have nothing particularly noteworthy to say has produced an endless flow of mediocrity from creatives who are now simply brand names.

As such, I won't be blogging again until I'm prodded either externally by someone with a great question or by my own desire to extrapolate on something AD&D-related that I haven't yet talked about. After all, I'd rather be authoring adventures for my group than making blog posts for the 20 people that read this nonsense.

So I don't much like rules hacks and alt-systems and additional methods of determining outcomes. It's just more stuff for me to keep track of during an already complicated game. But then what do I LIKE about the OSR? What is OSR to me if there's no new content?

Enter Zargon, the poster boy.

Having learned his trade, the DM sets out on his own. The rules do not change but the variety of vistas and experiences is limitless. When you read the Dark Tower from Judges Guild, something like Manahath the Chosen leaps out at you. When you delved S4 in your youth, the dracolisk terrified you. And in the Lost City, on page 23, Zargon riveted your gaze. What is that thing!?

OSR for me is not outside the rules but Out Side the Rulebooks. Any adventure written by Robert Kuntz is going showcase a host of one-off monsters, traps, curses and items...things not found anywhere else.

There are trolls in the Lost City. And then there is Zargon, with seven attacks per round. In the Hyqueous Vaults, which is an excellent adventure, there are prime rods and spectral candles.

A quick flip through El Raja Key's Arcane Treasury will leave you spinning, head filled with wonderful ideas.

Recapturing the magic of adolescent play with these books isn't hard. All you have to do is remember the excitement of riffling through the newest Dragon Magazine when you were 14. Make a new spell instead of a new monster or magic item. Make something devious. Make something double-edged. Make something powerful. Make something with implications. Make something that NPCs will be jealous of. Make something weird. And then make it with your player's sense of trepidation and fun in mind.

The last advice I will give to DMs wishing to try a BTB 1st Ed AD&D long-term campaign experience is this.

And if you are one of those that buy into Gordon Gecko's mantra that greed is good and selfishness is not a bad thing I excuse you to go see your guru, re-examine the world and enjoy your journey. The rest of this blog post is not for you.

That is because even though I assume that 1 GP = 1 XP and therefore the search for treasure is the focus of my campaign, such loot is lifted from the hands of horrible creatures and dumped into castles, towns and empires by PCs who are trying to stamp out the forces of chay-os and bring justice and goodness to the world.

As with any political campaign, such endeavors require monies and the piles of wealth accumulated by the PCs are routinely drained as they balance personal training and research costs with those of kingdom building and management.

This is big picture stuff that resides mostly in downtime threads between the actual adventures that happen during sessions but it frames up the campaign in an understandable and sustainable way.

Occasionally the players get to play villains (NPCs) for a session or two as a way of spicing things up and scratching that itch. But on the whole, my campaign has a very standard trope of cooperating PCs working toward the greater good. 

I don't run one-offs.  I run an ongoing sandbox with a continuous history where even the cameos are of consequence and the party choices add up over time and dead characters are often remembered. A many-year campaign founded on questionable or vile deeds is not something I relish.

Rather, the founding principals of cooperation and shared victory in benign aims is the vanilla substructure on which we sprinkle blue berries some games, sour patch kids the next, chocolate shavings thereafter and so on.

I'm completely comfortable with adult themes and don't misunderstand me by assuming I'm arguing in favor of censoring or cleaning up your dungeon, painted 50 shades of gray if you like.

All I'm saying is that I require a frame work of over-arching goals that are GOOD in order for me and the people I associate with to be able to comfortably rejoice TOGETHER in the party's success. Even if they occasionally play villains, it is to this over-arching principal that our group always returns. 

"Why is that so important to you, Anthony?"

My answer is based on the fallacy that my personal experience extrapolates the same for everyone. I don't really think it does, but my decades of DMing have led to the conclusion that when the DM and players are both rooting for the same outcome, the game takes on a legitimacy that is otherwise difficult to achieve.

If you are not comfortable with GOOD/EVIL let's phrase it as Lawful Altruistic vs Chaotic Selfish.

In the selfish (less-cooperative) framework, animosity, suspicion and fear generally occupy more noetic space and lead to second-guessing everyone and everything. If you've played Dead of Winter, you know what I mean.

But in a board game, the rules and the cards enforce a normalcy to the setting and the "FUN" is that the betrayal is a shift FROM the norm and that it only lasts for an hour or two.

In an ongoing RPG (not composed of one-offs) that spans years, such tension is unsupportable and grating.

I go so far as to apply alignments to many magic items and one-off boons from deities or saints (and yes, from diabolical sources too). This allows me to equip the bad guys with gear that is useless to the good guys in some cases and thereby allot useful magic items and treasure to more interesting locations than the bodies of the dead.

Alignment has been a useful tool in managing my games with a simple axis of selfish vs altruistic. I make sure to modify the spell lists of clerics so that the available spells match the deity and the alignment. I actively attempt to seduce the party individually and as a whole through emissaries and communications from the villains. And I enforce rules such as Paladins cannot travel with non-good characters.

When the magic-user in the group finally slipped to chaotic-neutral after many, many questionable acts I replaced his pseudo-dragon with a quasit. At first he was elated. He regenerated from damage! And was able to commune with the lower planes in order to ask for guidance. "This is great!" he said.

But I continually baited him with this new familiar, offering knowledge of where a powerful magical coat was located if only he would kill that white cat hanging around the pub.

When he did kill the cat, the little girl that owned it saw the event and came out sobbing. Down the spiral he began.

Meanwhile, the powerful boots he wore were removed from his feet by the god that had made them and put on the feet of another party member who better represented that god's ideals.

In the end, the magic-user began to make persistent efforts to change his ways and after many sessions of noteworthy bravery and altruism, I allowed his alignment to shift back with the culmination of a large donation to various city charities.

I have willfully steered him back to a more team-focused style of play through small penalties and incentives because when I am your DM, the game is not about you or your power fantasies. It is about us. All of us. For the long haul.

And that may be maudlin and boring and not everyone's cup of tea. But it's how we roll.

Good luck in your AD&D adventures, if you seek to dig out those old books and embrace them all the way down to their crooked bones. I have loved most minutes they have given me from 4th grade until now.

If you have any requests for additional AD&D-related topics or questions in general, let me know.

Until then, happy gaming!

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