A Brief Digression: PrinceCon 3

PrinceCon 3 Handbook, Or, I Don’t Care What Howard Says

In The Old Days, They Handed Out Entire Variant Rules Systems At Cons

How Cool Is That?

My Arduin articles are evidently quite popular, possibly drawing up to a half-dozen views a month… a sixfold increase over my usual rate! As a consequence, someone decided to link me to a scan of a handout from PrinceCon 3. I’d never heard of PrinceCon, or this handbook, before.

It is, basically, a collection of variant rules for D&D, with a ton of new material interwoven with stuff more-or-less copied wholesale, and this being 1977, that meant someone typed this all up by hand. I got a 96 page booklet of Burgess Shale era RPG material that I not only hadn’t seen before, but that I never even knew existed to be seen! That’s worth more than all my advertising revenue from this site so far. Literally, I think I’ve made 0.75 cents in the past eight or nine years. BTW, my Paypal address is lizard@mrlizard.com. Just wanted to put that out there.

Unlike the Arduin stuff, I don’t have any personal experience with this to draw on… but it’s from “my time”, the time I started gaming, and it reflects and embodies so much of the nascent culture of the era, good, bad, awesome, and not-so-awesome. Let’s explore it together, shall we?

(This is all coming from a PDF scan. If anyone happens to have access to scans of, or even dead tree copies of, the books from the first two PrinceCons, I’d love to see them.)

What’s All This, Then?

From what I can gather from reading the text, when you showed up at PrinceCon 3, you got this book, and a character to go with it, for use at the con. That is just plain awesome. All I ever get at GenCon is a bag of dubious advertising material and some coupons for every booth I don’t go to. Why don’t they do things like this anymore? Just because there’s about 56,000 people going to each GenCon? Why should that stop anyone?

People in the 1970s thought D&D was satanic. Whatever gave them that idea?

People in the 1970s thought D&D was satanic. Whatever gave them that idea?

I’ve flipped (metaphorically, it’s a PDF, after all) through the book a bit, and it falls into an interesting place in my ongoing critique of Old School Revisionism. On the one hand, it’s a lot less gonzo than Arduin or Booty And The Beasts — no centaur psychics with insomnia, no galactic dragons. OTOH, it is full of new and variant rules, offering complexity and depth to the original D&D’s fairly spartan systems, many of which directly reference “Men&Magic”, the first of the three LBBs, in the context of “What’s wrong with them and how we’re going to fix them”. I point this out because of the more pernicious myths of Old School Revisionism is that people worshiped simple, elegant, design, and didn’t clutter their games up with lots of “systems” and “rules”. Bull-frackin-shit. The first thing just about everyone did was notice that D&D was a world-changing concept shackled to some pretty dubious mechanics, and set about fixing them, and this little pamphlet of wonders is proof. Sure, a lot of the mechanics are incredibly baroque… I am guessing the authors were majoring in math or science, not Literary Criticism (and thus went on to have good jobs, which might be why I haven’t heard of any of them in the gaming field… that’s where losers with English degrees, like me, end up)… but they’re typical of the time. I call this the Burgess Shale era of gaming because it was a time of great experimentation, of adaptive radiation, of endless possibilities because no one knew what work and what wouldn’t and there was no body of history and precedent to draw on. Much like the first few years of the comic book industry, or the earliest pulp days of science fiction, the tropes had yet to be codified.

What these are to evolution, so early gaming materials are to modern RPGs.

So let’s explore! (PS: If you’re not familiar with the art of Roy Troll, why not? What’s wrong with you?)

Oh, here’s how it worked:How it worked

Got all that? Good. Shades of KODT, with their ‘registered GMs’ and paid character transfers!

Your character was rolled up on a PDP-11, using the Cribbs system, and…

PDP-11. It was a kind of computer.

No, it didn’t run Windows.

Do try to pay attention, would you?

Cribbs system? Well, it was a system, invented by Mark Cribbs. One of the things you’ll note about a lot of the stuff from this era is that it was very personal — mechanics and rules were referred to by the person who created them.

Much like C&S, Cribbs wanted you to roll on a table to see if you could be non-human. That was a trope that (mostly) died pretty soon, as it was another form of “balance by rarity”, which lasted longer in gaming than it really should have.

I'm sure this makes sense on the fourth re-read.

I’m sure this makes sense on the fourth re-read.

They did address the problem of level caps… “pinning”… for non humans.

BTW, what your people call “attributes”, they called “requisites”. This can be pretty confusing when reading. They also noticed that the effect of attributes on gameplay was pretty limited, and rather than (as the Revisionists would have it) saying “Good, you should TELL the DM how you’re picking the lock, and not worry if you have 18 Dex or 3 Dex!”, they said, “Screw that!” and added in a lot of rules and charts to make virtually every number on the 3-18 scale matter.

What's Char Eff, You Ask? Foolish Mortal!

What’s Char Eff, You Ask? Foolish Mortal!

Char Eff is “Charisma Efficiency”, and it was used to determine your base chance of “Charismaing” someone into doing something. (Hmm, I could use that mechanic for all the Arduin stuff that gave you “+5 Charisma when lying”, and what-not.)

Next up, we have combat, which used a highly variant %age system where your chance to hit was expressed in formulae such as 100-5 x AC -4 x L. Actually, it makes sense, and the math works, but I’m 1000 words into this thing and barely on page 4 of the book, so either I start using less detail or this momentary digression will consume many weeks of my limited writing time.

I Don’t Care What Howard Says!

But I do need to share this excerpt, a small part of the several pages of combat rules:

Howard can just bite me!Indeed. I dearly wish “I don’t care what Howard says, —” to become a major meme in the RPG community. It’s only 38 years past its origin date. Why not?

Oh, and if you thought D&D 3.x/PF grappling rules were a little… odd…

This Is For You, Howard.

Wow, a use for a D12!

Then follows the “Mahler Wandering Monster Tables”. 50% chance of encountering an Alma.

The tables include an “Argus Sphere”, which I’m guessing is how Princetonians said “Beholder”.

In addition to being a leading composer of the early 20th century, Mahler also invented a point-based magic system, which is described herein. It actually made it a bit tougher to be a magic user, as spells typically took a full round to cast and then went off the next round, with rules for being damaged while casting and losing the spell in progress, based on the ratio of damage taken to your current hit points (meaning, you needed to recalculate each time you were hit, as the threshold would change), and the number of spell points you got back each day (after 12 hours of sleep — none of this wimpy eight hours crap!) was based on your intelligence and how much you’d used… so you if you shot your wad completely, you wouldn’t be fully recharged by the next day. A very ahead of its time system, frankly.

Next follows a list of spells, mostly verbatim from Greyhawk, with a few additions like “Snowball” (like Fireball, but it destroyed potions, not scrolls.)  Then, we get an extensive list of modification to spells, such as “Sleep now HAS a saving throw”, Pyrotechnics is non-magical and must be created from non-magical fire (but does it still cost spell point?), and “on page 17, cross out ‘machine gun’ and write in ‘pizza oven'”.

Haste &Slow are noted as “get[ting] a saving throw based on Strength”. I do not know what that means.

Contact Higher Planes is notable for the hand-written correction from “waisting spell points” to “wasting spell points”. Still higher editing standards than a lot of modern companies.

“Hide Intent” allows you to avoid the effects of “Detect Alignment”, et al, though I’d prefer “Hide In Tent”, which causes any wandering monsters to chew on your companions in camp, instead of you.

Spell Targeting. Tee Ay Arr Gee…

Hey, They Can’t All Be Good

What Do You Mean, “Can Even Some Of Them Be Good? For A Change?”

We then encounter the “Tihor Spell Targeting System”, which

Then, divide by the cube root of the targets height...

Then, divide by the cube root of the targets height…

Please remember your rules of operator precedence. “Plus after times, except when it rhymes.”

And the usual page or so of modifiers and special cases.

Here we have a grand battle between mages of all sorts. I like the evil dude with the skull staff fighting with the cleric over the poor shmuck on the ground.

Wizard War

Mahler also created a clerical magical system, presumably in-between symphonies. (Have I beaten that joke to death yet? Probably. Will I stop? Probably not.) It uses “prayer points”, and likewise has a few new spells and  lot of house-ruled old spells. A few highlights:

Bless: There are multiple levels of Bless, each with a roman numeral (Bless I, Bless II, etc.) and each adds a variable %age to melee ‘to hit’ scores and a value to melee damage.

De-Were: Turns “W level of werewolves”, where “W” is spell level x 2+1, unless married but filing separately, or in Alaska or Oregon.

Convert Sword: This does not turn your sword into a ploughshare… seriously, what the hell were you thinking? This is D&D, man! It does turn a good sword evil or an evil sword good, unless it’s one of the really cool swords.. you know, the kind you’d want to use this on. Then it doesn’t work.

The Tihor Saving Throw System

For When You’re Attacked By A Wild Tihor

These Headings Just Keep Getting Worse, Don’t They?

So, stop me if you’ve heard this one… all saves a reduced to three types, with a class-based bonus depending on your level. Yup, 23 years early, “Tihor” invented the 3.0 save system, more-or-less. There were “Bodily”, “Mental”, and “Spiritual” saves, using a roll-under percentile system.

Then follows some alternate thief tables, which supplement the percentile-based rules in Greyhawk with some additional rules based on rolling less than a given number on a D6. This is a good example of the other extreme of homebrew rules, very simple systems with a bare handful of modifiers. Of course, it’s then followed by a bunch of new rules for thieves backstabbing people while invisible. (Highly arbitrary levels of detail were another common feature of the era, esp. in a book like this, which collected systems written by various active creators with highly idiosyncratic ideas about what mattered. Hmm. Kind of like any given open source project, where the amount of attention and detail given to an area depends on what someone thinks is fun/interesting/challenging… so you get very robust APIs and well-tested code in one bit, and completely missing functionality in another, with documentation that ranges from “OCD to the max” to “This function does stuff”.

(The article on the “Samurai” class in an early issue of “The Dragon” had a word count almost equal to the entirety of Men&Magic.)

Curse You, Robert West!

(Whoever You Are)

Now, we proceed to the curse tables. 1-2 Damn, 3-4 Shit, 5-6 Fuck… no, sorry. These are curses put on your character, leading to curses by you towards the DM. The introduction merrily informs that Robert West’s mind is “so perverse” you don’t need to design your own curse system. My opinion? Pretty good, but not quite as over-the-top as I’d expect from an intro like that. Let’s take a gander, providing the farmer fails his spot check. And while our goose is cooking, we can look at the table.

  • Monsters from tables 1-12 (Roll a D12) attack by surprise. OK, that’s a nasty one… it means an even chance of a very high level monster appearing. It also gives another use for the poor, lonely, D12.
  • “Roll a D9+15 to get type of arena duel”. Huh? I read this one a few times, then it clicked: It’s a recursive table! Wanna bet Robert West was a CS major? The D9+15 is then read on the table as a roll of 16 to 24, which determines what kind of thing you fight in the arena!
  • When you cast spells from a scroll of spells, they backfire — if they’re not damage spells, take 6 HP/spell level. Owie.
  • “All cures on victims will become causes.” Great, now I want to save the flumphs, support kobold rights, and ban alchemical dumping in Blackmoor.
  • Luck become 3, -15% to saving throws. “Give other appropriate duds.” Like, what? Torn robes and faded capes?
  • Teleport 5,000 feet above ground; take 24d6 damage. Actually, in a prior Pathfinder game, one of the players teleported straight up as far as he could to get out of a dungeon. That was the last session of that particular game, though, so we never got to see him go splat.
  • Teleport to Mars. Fortunately, OD&D included Barsoom encounter tables.
  • Curse
  • Fighter have their sword change alignment; MUs lose their highest level spell; Clerics have cures become causes and vice-versa, except if they try to compensate for it, in which case, they don’t, and thieves lose a thief ability.
  • Character acquires a malodorous disease. I love the word malodorous. Don’t you?
  • “Normal Mahler poison, no saving throw.” Presumably, delivered via a Viennese pastry. (See, I told you I wasn’t going to let that joke drop.)
  • Character becomes the “monster” summoned by a random party (via monster summoning) to fight a battle. This was something that happened in a D&D game to one of the PCs a few years ago… not the result of this table, mind you, just an ingeniously sadistic DM.

This is a good place to stop, as the rules per se end here… the rest of the book is a huge list of magic items, mostly reprinting the D&D lists of the time, but with many new and interesting additions that deserve their own commentary, and don’t deserve the lame jokes I’m undoubtedly going to try to squeeze out of them. Hardly anything deserves my attempts at humor, come to think of it.

 

3 thoughts on “A Brief Digression: PrinceCon 3

  1. Pingback: A Brief Digression: PrinceCon 3, Part II | Lizard's Gaming and Geekery Site

  2. JB

    Mr. Lizard:

    Just found your blog this morning, and have been wasting my entire day reading it. Thanks (asshole).
    ; )

    You are a funny, funny human…I say that about anyone who makes me laugh out loud while reading their blog. But funny as it is, this is really great stuff…and fantastic that you’ve taken the time to post it. I have more to say, but I don’t want to write it all on this single comment…plus I’ve got a lot more of your archives to catch up on.

    But I *did* want to say this PrinceCon stuff is fascinating, and not only for the personal sniping taking place in the hand-typed Con rules (this stupid system is for YOU, Howard…). In all honesty, it makes me want to organize some sort of event like this…though that’s probably just romanticizing the wild and wooly past to an insufferable degree.

    Thanks…very enjoyable reading, very important history lessons for pretentious “Old School” types.
    : )

    Reply
    1. Lizard Post author

      Always happy to do my part to destroy productivity. Feel free to pass the blessing of wasted time along to your friends. 🙂

      Reply

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