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Howling Tower: Strategy

Sun Tzu

“All that matters is that today, few stood against many.”

—Conan the Barbarian (and John Milius)


Roleplaying games grew out of wargaming, and to those of us who followed the same vector, the pull of wargaming is still strong. But you don’t need to be an old-timer to feel the tug from strategy and tactics.

Wargaming has important lessons to teach DMs and players about building drama in games. That might surprise folk who don’t play wargames. Pacing, tension, and, above all, balance are major concerns for the wargame scenario designer.

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Howling Tower: The Tongue-Tied Bard

"Pericles's Funeral Oration" by Philipp von FoltzThe introduction of skills into D&D and its offshoots solved some important problems in the game, but those solutions came with costs of their own.

The earliest editions had rules for fighting and not much else. That’s not surprising, considering they were written by wargamers, for wargamers. No one yet understood what a roleplaying game really needed or how varied play could become. The first skill-based class, the thief, didn’t appear until the first expansion. Try playing the game for a while without a character who can pick locks or disarm traps and you’ll see why thieves were needed. (In some recent, nostalgic OD&D sessions, a common joke was when a character would muse dreamily about a far-off, mythical land called “Greyhawk” where there existed people known as “thieves” who could somehow open a lock without hacking it into ruin with an ax. It was even said that if they pressed an ear to a door, they could sometimes actually hear sounds on the other side!)

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Howling Tower: I’ll Take the Low Road

Taking the low road (Journey to the Center of the Earth illustrated by Édouard Riou)In an earlier column, I looked at ways to keep a road trip interesting. That article was about a standard walk in the sun. A different type of journey with problems and possibilities all its own occurs underground.

Any fantasy world worthy of the label is practically hollowed out by a network of caverns, tunnels, and subterranean grottoes that would make terrestrial cavers wet themselves. Regardless of what it’s called—Underdark, Khyber, Svartalfheim, or just “the underworld”—a journey through that landscape must be a different sort of undertaking from walking or riding between Riverdale and Midvale. Players should never be able to forget that their characters are moving through a dark, alien landscape.

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Howling Tower: Imagine a World…

Johannes de Armsshein, Ulm, 1482
Like the Scarecrow, I believe that one of the greatest rewards for having a human brain is the ability to think deep thoughts. To imagine the big picture. To envision a grand machine in your mind and then command its wheels to turn and its gears to mesh. It’s the joy of invention, of imagination, of pure creation.

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Howling Tower: Conan the Instructor

Sigurd as Conan; "Sigurd kills Fafnir" by Arthur Rackham, 1911
I’m no scholar of Robert E. Howard, just a fan of his storytelling and his best-known character, Conan the Barbarian. Conan first crossed my reading list when I discovered a shelf of dog-eared paperbacks at the local second-hand shop. I was still a relative newcomer to swords-&-sorcery fiction at the time, and Conan was unlike any hero I’d encountered in the welter of Tolkien clones at the library.

Being young and impressionable, I read the stories nonjudgmentally. I didn’t know what portions came from Howard, from Carter, or from de Camp. The word “pastiche” wasn’t in my vocabulary. All three names got credit for everything, good and bad.

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