Treatment for Muster, the old school D&D primer

As you probably know, I’m crowdfunding an old school D&D primer. Putting up a detailed treatment on the book I’m planning seems like the thing to do, get you some sense of the vision.

Although not all writers work this way, outlining is part of my own technique toolbox. I would be writing something like this anyway as the first step towards developing the manuscript, so I like the synergy there: this article gets to pull double duty in telling you more about the book, and preparing me for starting to write chapters drafts (the next step in the book development).

Book concept

The concept is described pretty well in the crowdfunding pitch, so I’ll just stand on that. The important cornerstone ideas summarized:

  • The book’s an introductory overview treatise, which is different from a rpg rulebook: rulebooks are play tools while the primer is supposed to be a book you read about a hobby in preparation for trying it out. If the rpg rulebook is the tennis racket of roleplaying, then the primer is the “Joy of Tennis” lifestyle book; something you give to a person interested in tennis, to inspire and orient before and during the initial fumbling with a new hobby.
  • Muster is not a generic rpg primer, it’s an introduction to a very specific playstyle (that I’ll need to figure out a name for at some point). For newcomers to the hobby this makes little difference, but for experienced roleplayers the contrast between what they usually do and what Muster wants them to try is important.
  • RPG culture is big on commercially high profile premium products. Muster tries for a counterpoint: free, low threshold of understanding, ubiquitous access. The publishing strategy is long-term, with quality of the book making it a desirable thing to use as a, well, primer in teaching and learning this style of gaming.

Use cases and target audiences

The book is intended to be relevant reading for everybody looking to learn to play in the Muster style. The important demographic cases are formed on the one hand by newbie vs experienced gamers and on the other hand by pre-existing mentorship situations and independent cargo cults trying to start gaming without direct veteran gamer leadership. A generic primer like Muster should work for all of the four use cases defined by the combinations of these traits, like so:

Newbie + Cargo Cult

Bootstrapping a group happens when a person interested in gaming decides to approach the hobby by reading a book first. There is no reason why old school D&D couldn’t be a meaningful first introduction to the hobby, delivered by a mainstream-understandable text that encourages you to take the next step into either finding a group or starting up your own. There are some very carefully constructed historical texts for this purpose, with the Mentzer Basic (“red box” D&D) as perhaps the most thorough one. That one’s out of print, commercial product, comes coupled with a rules system (not necessarily a weakness) and directed at the ’80s understanding of a 12-year old reader, so it’s not like there isn’t anything further to bring to the field in that regard.

Note to self: do a literature review on prior newbie-targeted rpg texts. Steal any good pedagogy ideas.

The bootstrapping scenario requires Muster to start from the basics and describe the hobby clearly, in a way that helps the new reader empathize with the hobbyist perspective and yearn for experiencing the same. The book might have ended in the hands of the interested reader accidentally (perhaps from a blind stab at a web search), but more likely it was an off-hand suggestion by a hobbyist who themself is happy with Muster as an orientation text.

I’m not envisioning Muster by itself as an all-around answer to all kinds of rpg initiations, but it should help people towards finding their own style of gaming; in my experience, while old school D&D is one of the most newbie-friendly mature (non-experimental) schools of roleplaying, about 20% of newbies still bounce off due to disliking the stressful competition elements. Dedicating a chapter to recognizing your actual desires as a gamer and pointing out some specifically contrary resources for other kinds of gaming won’t go amiss.

One of the details I liked about Jim Raggi’s LotFP text is that he writes a pretty good practical entry-level guide; LotFP is maybe the best OSR era intro game text I’ve seen for old school D&D, and it’s because he addresses e.g. starting up a gaming group and the social conventions surrounding it in a real talk way — I’ll want to do the same here, Muster‘s intended for that even more than Jim’s stuff. I don’t really know you can truly pump up another person into starting their own group successfully via a text alone, and I don’t want to make it a whole cumbersome thing in Muster, but insofar as we can try to touch hearts via page on this, I want to try. In practice the cargo cult GM is basically at the mercies of their social network; you either have a bunch of pals to harass into playing with you or you don’t, and from what I’ve seen I don’t really have the heart to guilt those who’s gaming career has been stillborn for lack of friends to play with. But maybe we can make something that encourages one to at least check thoroughly before giving up.

Note to self: include “how to form a group” and “social conventions of hosting a game night”.

While “bootstrapping a group” is an important event for the hobby — I generally think that we should pay more attention that as a community of practitioners, which is something I’m sure you’ve never heard people in different hobbies saying — Muster can’t really do all the lifting in bringing a person from “hey, what’s this” to full acclimation. Fortunately it doesn’t have to do that in the information age, which is why I even seriously entertain this scenario; it simply doesn’t cost that much presentation overhead to make sure the book is inspiring and helpful to a person who’s picked up the text as a first intro to rpgs. Get them interested enough and they’ll dig up further information, maybe write me to ask about any open questions, whatever.

It’s still going to be more of an adult person’s introductory book. Somebody who missed out on the hobby in their teens (when most of us start, as per studies) only to encounter it anew as an adult. A child is probably going to be better off with a beginner-friendly game text (like the Mentzer red box, why not, even if its cultural markers are a bit dated today), but I believe that an in-depth doctrinal primer is eminently realistic for an adult. That’s what I read when I want to learn a new skill.

Experienced + Cargo Cult

Learning a new style is the use case where Muster has been picked up by an experienced gamer who wants to learn what this OSR thing they’ve heard about is like. I consider this the primary use case for Muster, it’s sort of what I encounter most often: people wanting me to explain how to play old D&D well. It’d be great if I could just push a carefully finished teaching text at them; the personal mentoring starts to get old at some point.

Note to self: I like “old D&D” as a reference term, maybe use that in the book. It’s less doctrinally loaded than “old school D&D”. While I am not fully comfortable claiming the label “old school” (maybe not everybody agrees that my D&D is that, for one reason or another), I’m actually pretty fucking confident that I’m playing “old D&D”.

I believe that the significant pedagogy for an experienced gamer learning a new style from a book consists of four basic elements:

Relatable touchpoints are concrete descriptions of play concerns that a person has experienced themself in practice. They are important for methodological teaching of difficult advanced concepts because it is so easy to misapply theoretical concepts when you don’t have a clear understanding of the concrete situation the theory is intended to address.

Positive principles are succinctly expressed aphorisms that are intended to stick to mind and form a cornerstone realization in constructing a mental model. “Rulings, not rules” is a famous OSR example. These are useful because a person learning in the abstract can test their understanding against the underlying principles as they go. They’re also useful because us people on the other side of the learning gap really love our succinct witticisms; it’s very satisfying when you manage to wrangle a complex idea into a simple epigraph.

Contrasting negatives are principles presented via negative expression: “doing this common thing is not part of this playstyle”. It’s not sufficient in itself for reaching a positive understanding, but I think that it’s generally so difficult for gamers to shift styles (it gets easier when you manage it once, but many, maybe most, gamers are basically uni-style as is) that it’s practically necessary to just set some hard boundaries for somebody wanting to undergo a paradigm shift: “You must let go of fudging the dice. You must, it is not part of the form here! What’s more, you have to let go of even wanting to; there is no need for you to have an opinion on what should happen in this encounter.”

Practical test cases are not used as much in rpg teaching texts, but I think there’s potential to it, and I want to try it a bit. Maybe not make it the whole definitive approach for Muster, but hygienic refereeing in particular might be useful to try to teach in a question-answer format: present a hypothetical scenario, ask the reader to judge it, then present the “right” answer with reasoning. Worth investigating.

At this sitting I think that this can all be written to be basically harmonious with the newbie audience, too, speaking to both at once. Insofar as it’s not, what primers in various fields do is separating the advanced material for later reading, and that’s applicable here as well if necessary. It’s definitely clear that this is the part of the book I really want to become reality, so it’s not like I’m going to leave it out for fear of it being too dense for a newbie.

(I’m really not that worried; I generally believe in non-gamers and their brains, an adult person can pick this stuff up if they actually want to. I myself often find it interesting to read about the internal high-level concerns of hobbies I don’t practice myself, anyway. Intellectual curiousity for the win.)

Newbie + Mentored

New to the group is the use scenario where a person new to gaming is being inducted to an existing gaming group. It’s probably obvious how a primer text isn’t mandatory for these cases, but I do think that it could be a nice-to-have. Specifically, gamer initiation is sometimes pretty concerned with giving a good first impression to a stranger trying out a gaming group. I don’t really have a high “axe murderer” factor in my own personal gaming life, but I read regularly about how gamers in various parts of the world really are concerned about meeting new people for gaming; what if they’re weird, what then?

So what I’m thinking is that a generally useful and friendly primer could be a simple, mundane tool to use in those first impression social situations. Meet up for the first session with a new person who wants to try out gaming. Maybe it’s just a social session (I jump directly to play, but I’ve seen a soft serve “have coffee with them first” approach recommended a lot), but whatever it is, you probably want to give the impression that what you’re doing is a normal hobby that people like them enjoy. Giving them a cheap overview book to read at home seems like great homework; before the first session it’s a polite “read up and let me know if you want to try it out”, and afterwards its got all those detail bits that the GM might forget to explain at the table. And it communicates a certain degree of overtness in the hobby when it actually has primer texts that local hobby community leaders (that’s you) like to use, don’t you think?

That’s why I want Muster to be free and cheap and easy to print, to be clear. I don’t really balk at the minor expense of outright buying a book for a new player (or an old one for that matter) if I come across something that would be useful for them, and they can borrow stuff from my library, but others are stingier, and the timing of such presents can be a bit awkward during the trial period of the relationship. Having a cheap pamphlet like thing that you just distribute as a matter of course to everybody even peripherally interested in your campaign, with your contact info and campaign details stapled or printed inside the front cover seems so much easier.

Obviously what you want from mentorship support literature is for the book to be clearly geared towards character players; setting clear expectations about what your tasks in the game are in a textual form is actually something I would consider an useful tool for my own style of mentorship, completely unironically; I tend to focus on the moment-to-moment “now do this” stuff at the actual gaming table, with opportunistic “let’s stop for a moment to consider what we just learned from this” teachable moments interleaved with actual play. This means that I never actually do give players a structured (and boring) overview of the theory of what they’re doing! It works, people do pick things up with experience, but I believe that many people coming in would be perfectly capable of supporting themselves with a good learning text on the side.

I’m thinking that for Muster to support this character player focus it needs to use the traditional “player chapter” + “GM chapter” structural model prominent in ’80s single-book rpgs. Not that Muster is a gaming rules text, but then that structure actually is intended for primer-like teaching purposes; the rules stuff is there more or less along with the ride, you could just as well provide that separately.

My expectation is that tackling the player side of the equation first should actually work pretty well for a methodological teaching text like this, as focusing on the player side of what we’re doing already presents plenty of pedagogical opportunity to discuss what the GM’s side of the game looks like to the players. It shouldn’t be a massive pain for prospective GMs if they read first about how to be a player, and only then about how to do the role on the other side of the table.

Similarly, audience members who are “only” players should actually benefit from having a book with a clear explanation of what it is that the GM does. It’s not a mysterious magical craft, you know, no matter what trad era GM cult materials like to pretend. I find that players who have a keen grasp of the referee tasks in old D&D outright play better along with you because they understand what you’re doing. Goes for other kinds of GMed tabletop rpgs too, incidentally.

And of course you don’t need to read the entire book, nobody’s forcing that.

Experienced + Mentored

Finally, supplementary reading is the use case of inducting an experienced roleplayer to your group playing Muster-style wargamey D&D. It’s not necessarily a very different case from inducting a newbie except for the important detail that instead of spending time teaching the basics you’ll be spending time unlearning old habits and assumptions to make room for new ones.

The primer serves best in this regard if it actually does align very closely with your campaign style. I don’t have a problem here obviously (my challengeful D&D substyle is very stable by now, Muster will probably serve me in introducing that for the rest of my life with mere minor editing), but you probably will, so it’s important to make the book available in an easily edited format to make it easier for you to make your own version and just fix it all around. Put your own cover on it, answer Jeff Rient’s “20 questions” in the back parts and there you have it, the perfect starter reference for the new player.

Note to self: I keep thinking about this and then forgetting, so let’s put it here. It might be a good idea to accompany Muster with a fillable campaign intro packet — basically, productize Jeff’s questions list a bit and add other basic stuff you’d like to have in the info packet, anything from rules notes to gaming schedule. Maybe put that at the end of the Muster pdf file so you can just fill it in on the computer and then print it as part of the same booklet, or make it a separate “our campaign intro” booklet that you can give to people alongside Muster.

Expressive strategy

I read a British miniatures wargame rulebook last summer, a game one of my gaming pals (actually, the very same Sipi I’m planning to use for Muster) has been painting armies for. The game’s pretty neat, but something about its presentation strategy also spoke to me. I won’t claim that Condottiere is the perfect specimen in this regard, but what I liked about its expressive strategy was how obviously it’s adult hobbyists talking to adult hobbyists, serious but with the appropriate ironic sense. Good grasp of its own creative agenda, too. And most importantly, the text bulk is, as is usual for minis wargame rulebooks, much less than is usual for rpg rules texts. Roleplaying game writers like to write reams of prose (or their editors like them to do that, either way), so something like this was a nice chance of pace.

So what I walked away with from that is the vision of trying to write and lay out Muster in a somewhat similar, easy to read style. This implies a fair amount of artwork to lighten up the page, but also things like savaging my usual writing style into lighter straight prose (I’ve done that for journalism and whatnot over the years, it’s not insurmountalbe) and relying on visual diagramming and infographics where feasible. A bit like magazine layout style if you will, and definitely the opposite of the traditional three-column text block of the rpg book.

This approach implies a highly structured text. In general we’re not here to pad word-count or give a really deep look into any particular topic. It’s not like I couldn’t wrote 10k words on the philosophy of hit points, but Muster isn’t the right platform for that; any given topic needs to be outlined in full with a few paragraphs and elaborated on over a page or at most two. I’m envisioning a manuscript max length of like ~50 sheets in total, doubled by layout. Hopefully half that, it’s really intended for the book as a whole to be more a snappy punch to the gut than something you study for six months. Weighty words, not weight by adding words.

Fluff theming and aesthetics

Although this is intended to be a practical instruction book and therefore not excessively dripping in fictional elements, the topic is fantasy gaming, so the book will need a consistent aesthetic thoroughline. My clever idea for that is to discuss D&D with a generally low fantasy, renaissance-historical setting flavour. To me that is a relatively neutral flavour, and I’m more sympatico with it than the “dungeon cheese” commercial D&D aesthetics.

Incidentally, Muster‘s light “wargame theming” was not inspired by Condottiere, above, the trend is of a longer-term origin. We’ve been playing what’s locally called “historical fantasy D&D” for the last decade — a bit like the 2e historical campaign sourcebooks, if you will, but really much closer to LotFP — so I figured that it’ll make for a slightly unique and reasonably neutral aesthetic chassis.

The core fictional conceit of the D&D game as described in Muster is about footloose adventurers trying to make it big in a cruel world reminiscent of (actually simply being) renaissance Europe. That’s really not that different from Greyhawk or such, mainly there’s just less emphasis on “playing a dwarf” which as far as I’m concerned is just fine.

The aesthetics aren’t really supposed to intersect with the text in Muster, the book’s topic is essentially setting-free. Mainly it’ll come up in the illustrations and teaching hypotheticals.

Substance in broad strokes

I’ve discussed this in some detail in the conceptual synopsis, but perhaps it’ll be useful to write as direct an artistic manifesto as I can. Start sharpening the expression for the book. This is the game I intend to capture in the book:

I think that the old D&D is a war game best understood as a commando skirmish operations simulation. The players are honing and showcasing their skills in conducting these wargame operations; the referee is there to set challenges and judge outcomes. Ideally play is fun, full of victory and defeat, and everybody learns, getting better at conflict resolution skills trained by the game. “Playing a role” is relevant as part of the scenario premise; if you want to show how your knight beats a dragon, you have to play a knight, otherwise you’re not answering the question.

Explaining why that is something you’d like to do is basically an unique lacuna in the prior art, it seems to me. Most sources just push “exciting adventuring” and “be the hero” as the selling point, which is I think theoretically misplaced; if that’s what you sell, you’re going to get middle school 2e era D&D, because that’s what you’re saying: you’re promising an exciting game of character immersion where you get to be a hero, not a merciless wargame that’ll kick you in the nuts until you get good at it. Pretty rude to promise that, like the Mentzer red box does, and then send that 1st level party to a dungeon, and have a carrion crawler hiding behind the literal first rock they turn around…

What causes much confusion with the simple truth expressed above is that the wider sandbox campaign scope of D&D switches back and forth between two game modes, the “operational mode” and the “downtime mode”. The practical game-play in the latter mode is actually much more laid back and consensual; the ref doesn’t really care, you can play dollhouse with your character in between adventures. The core concern at that point is “challenge discovery”, a consensual negotiation process between the GM and the adventurer party: under what terms of engagement will you pursue this new adventure? This means that the game actually has parts where the GM can “fudge” and “eyeball” and “give a break” without trampling on the challenge, as actually getting the game to the point where a challenge of wits and luck can be faced is the primary concern, not being a little bitch about the imaginary lives the adventurers live between heists. So getting that clear in your head, what you’re actually trying to creatively accomplish as the GM, that’s the key to stopping with the blind instinctual flailing.

The rest of it is essentially practical advice: how to start developing your wargaming skills as a character player, how to develop and present material as the GM, how to referee and resolve the scenarios that develop as play progresses. The D&D tradition has been really legalistic about this stuff historically, with texts trying to support GMs by pushing more and more rules. I believe this to be useless and at worst harmful to actually developing functional methods, so I want to try teaching the method directly, with mechanical rules as an afterthought.

And that’s basically the book, I guess?

Prior art

I’m not finished with my in-depth review of the prior art, but a quick look at relevant works in the field will still be useful. If I say something remotely critical about somebody’s heartfelt work here, it’s not to be mean; you just can’t get anywhere in the arts by being less than honest about your thinking, and here I am doing manuscript development in public, so I’m calling it as I see it.

Grognardia, James Maliszewski, 2008 — An expansive blog. It’s not a primer per se, but it’s relevant for the cultural history; I learned the basic scholarship on the early history of D&D from Grognardia. Gotta make Muster solid on that as well; I’m a big believer in history as an artistic discipline, it’s not a complete introduction to the topic if you can’t paint the big picture.

A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, Matt Finch, 2008 — 12 pages, hella strong. I disagree with some technical particulars, but the broad strokes are potent; it’s a good primer for experienced gamers. Muster will basically be a longer, more newbie-relevant take, with a bit less hostility towards formal rules mechanics. (It’s more of a matter of taste than doctrine for me.)

Philotomy’s Musings, Jason Cone, 2007 — 48 pages. More of an exegesis of the ’74 D&D rules, less of a primer, but still the first time I saw somebody explaining the game in an insightful way. (It doesn’t hurt that my personal investigations aren’t exactly disagreeing with Philotomy — I could play these rules!) I’m very capable of producing huge reams of similar technical exegesis, and some very basic stuff (e.g. explaining the whys and hows of HPs and saving throws and whatnot) might end up in Muster despite my general goal of mechanical neutrality. On the other hand, the Musings are exactly the kind of stuff I’ll want my Coup workbook partials to be: full of mechanical game design.

Principia Apocrypha, David Perry, 2018 — 31 pages. I don’t hate it, and the substantial doctrine is essentially similar to mine, but the apocalypseworldiness of the expression grates. (Nothing against AW, it’s very cool; I’m just not so hot on the style of rpg writing it has spawned.) The lack of a more specific high-order theory of what the thing they are describing is hurts a text this long, I think; there’s a lot of principles, but not much willingness to commit to a creative theory. I’ll want Muster to come off as more specific and therefore more of a clear manifesto.

A Player’s Handbook, Chris McDowall, 2018 — 1k words or so, blog post. A good example of a player-facing primer. Compact and generally just nice, that’s about what I teach new players. I’ll want Muster to go deeper and be somewhat more wordy if for no other reason then because it should inspire, and a succinct treatise is over before you’ve decided to like it.

The Roleplaying Game Primer and Old School Playbook, Chris Gonnerman, 2014 — 63 pages, commercial. Generally solid, but being so long and text-y (most of it’s text, with garage layout) dilutes the punch, and the text is all practical, with minimal creative or methodology overview, so it’s both long and plodding, and still doesn’t directly address the “why”. More of a DMG than a primer. Plus, has Rule Zero.

How to get started playing old school for free, Dungeons & Possums, 2019 — a web page, more of an index than a text. A primary source I’m actually using to make sure I don’t miss any major primers I should be reading here. Great stuff, but not directly relevant in itself except to prove how many great resources there already are out there. Still confident I can make Muster unique and useful, though.

So that’s a start on stuff to keep in mind. Needless to say, the goal is to stand on the shoulders of the giants after stealing all their best stuff; that’s progress.

If any relevant texts for my literary review occur to you, please do suggest additions. I have limited bandwidth and have already read the basics (if not necessarily recently), but suggestions won’t hurt any. Besides the above texts I’ll be reviewing Gygax’s primers (Roleplaying Mastery and Master of the Game) for the funsies (or I dunno, maybe they’re brilliant — I’ve just skimmed them before), and I’ll be reviewing some beginner-friendly actual rpg texts for extra insight.

Development mapping

Manuscript outline

This’ll surely require more thought later, but for now, something like this:

  • Introductory front matter (basic impression for newbies)
    • Description of what the hobby is like, best foot forward
    • A bit of personal background makes for a relatable perspective
    • Long-term goals, aspirations; how we develop and grow as gamers
    • A bit of history of old D&D
  • An overview of the game
    • What we’re trying to achieve creatively
    • The basic premise of the adventuring party and the dungeon
    • Discovering challenge inside the fiction.
    • Victory and loss.
    • The basic mechanical precepts.
    • Character tiers and campaign aspirations
  • Playing well
    • Relating to the party.
    • Taking on tasks and responsibilities, pushing play.
    • Useful player tasks (party caller, mapping, logistics, etc.)
    • Playing the fiction and the mechanics.
    • Basic overview of the usual strategic, operative, tactical issues you’ll encounter
    • Character stables
    • Dealing with loss in a sportsmanlike way.
  • Being the referee
    • Presenting the world, seeking challenges
    • Systems of rules and rulings
    • Decision-making filtering with dice
    • Chairmanship
    • Campaign pedagogy
  • Setting up the campaign
    • Setting development
    • Overarching strategic themes
    • Mapping, demographics, etc.
    • Placing and using adventure material
    • Creating your own adventures
    • Controlling complexity, maintaining data
  • Using game mechanics
    • What they’re for, where they’re appropriate
    • Applying task resolution thinking in general
    • Applying combat rules
    • Applying magic rules
    • Applying social rules (reaction rolls, CHA checks, etc.)
    • Applying character spec formalisms in resolution
  • Find out more
    • Picking up a rules text; appropriate features, prominent examples
    • A general intro to the online scene, where to go for resources, etc.


I’m thinking that I’ll start writing Muster in January, if the project funds on Indiegogo. Looking at the outline, the initial drafting will probably take about two months (three on the outside), after which we’ll see how further development goes; I’ll probably have most of the art and such in hand by then, and I’ll be doing the book design myself, so the external dependencies are minor. I’m thinking that due to the nature of the project it’s not very important when it gets “published”, being a free publication, but we could be looking at being finished in the spring. I’m generally looking at a pretty relaxed development timeline here; hopefully not procrastinating, but with enough flex to accommodate random life concerns.

As discussed in the crowdfunding campaign, I’m considering a year my absolute back limit on this; it’s money back to everybody with my apologies at that point if I’ve stuck some kind of writer’s block or whatever and haven’t finished the work. That part’s entirely non-negotiable, the crowdfunding failure states that crop up occasionally are unspeakably annoying — I want nothing to do with that kind of social behavior. A clean cancel is the worst case exit strategy.

Development dialogue

First, it seems to be considered a best practice in crowdfunding to write monthly updates on the progress of the project, so that’s going to be a thing here. Need to keep in touch with the backers to ensure I haven’t disappeared.

Aside from that, I’m envisioning the actual manuscript work here as relatively interactive among any interested co-conspirators. I have something of a history of dialogue-based rpg writing on forums and such anyway; I’ve done some of my best development work in that way, and I’m thinking that we’ll see more of that here: the developing text needs to go through many hands, and I’ll need to debate it with many people (some of whom I already have in mind, while others will show up later) to ensure it’s comprehensive and understandable.

My current thought on the practical workflow is that I’ll put the manuscript in Google Docs as it progresses. It’s proven a stable platform for reviewing, so I hope to get a fair amount of smart eyeballs on the first draft without too much of a hassle.

Alternate version editing

One of the backer benefits I’m offering in the crowdfunding campaign is having your own version of Muster parallel-developed alongside mine. It’s been a surprisingly popular option, so if we fund that’s something I’ll need to take into account in the development planning. It does imply a fair bit of work that is best undertaken during or immediately after manuscript drafting.

The big question will be about the kind of distinctive emphasis the Name Level backers are interested in; basically anything goes as long as it’s not altogether a different book. There are a number of interesting directions to go here, limited as we are mainly by imagination. An edition-specific version of Muster (like a “Swords & Wizardry Muster”) has been suggested several times, with details in accord with specific game mechanics, but I think we can do one better: personalize the entire book to specifically concern your own campaign, make it really compatible with everything you do your own way.

This part’s so dependent on our development talks that I’ll worry about it later.

8 thoughts on “Treatment for Muster, the old school D&D primer”

  1. This sounds very, very promising (and will also be useful in a few days time to draw in some people on the fence)!

    1. Thanks. I’m mildly negative on it as a piece of writing myself, as I explained at Patreon, but I’m totally willing to attribute that to being tired and too close to the project. For some reason the article seems a bit lackluster to me. (A perspective drift like that isn’t uncommon in creative work, that’s why studio critique is such a good idea. You tell me it’s good enough, I’ll believe it.)

      I guess what I’m seeing here is the contrast between the substantially interesting low-level content that the book consists of, and the relatively boring abstract book-making that this article discusses. I kept trying to force more concrete observations about the topic into the treatment, but it basically didn’t make much sense to make major forays into “how to use reaction checks correctly” in the middle of a book development piece.

      Fortunately this is unlikely to convince anyone on its lonesome that the book’s going to be boring. Most people probably are simply disinterested in having more accessible teaching material produced (a totally fine opinion to my mind, it’s not like there’s a critical lack of primer material out there even if I think I can improve on the presentation, organization and theory backing a bit), or they do appreciate the necessity for that, and this overview won’t really sway anybody either way.

  2. Hello,

    Are you familiar with Jon Peterson’s “Playing at the World”?

    (see here:

    I my opinion maybe the best book to get an idea of the richness of “old D&D” as played by Dave, Gary et al.

    1. I’ve been meaning to read it, yeah. Should definitely be useful for getting a better handle on the cultural history of the hobby.

  3. I am really interested in Muster. You seem to be articulating a mode of play that I intuited was possible when I entered the hobby around ’79, but never really got to experience.
    Some of TSR’s other games had scenarios that appealed to the game theoretical/conflict theory modules of my brain. The Wild West game Boot Hill had a scenario about a power struggle on a micro-scale: a struggle for power in a small Western town. There were factions trying to win an election. Compelling and convincing voters, and using violence judiciously, were part of this scenario. There were means for tracking which voters had committed to which candidates.

    I thought that one of TSR’s settings like Forgotten Realms or the world of the war game Divine Right might be a venue for doing that kind of campaign play on a large scale and in a fantastic setting. How to do that with characters starting as low-grade tomb robbers was never clear to me.

    Anyway, here is a link to the TSR module i am talking about. The documentation and presentation might be a useful reference point.–Bullets

    1. Thanks, that sounds interesting. I’m aware of the existence of Boot Hill, but I’ve never looked into it in detail. Could be an interesting game for all I know!

  4. First, I love what you are doing and I send my hearty thanks for your wish to make this free and available to all. We need more of this.
    Some ideas:
    May I strongly suggest that you use a different term than Cargo Cult? “Cargo cults” are real religions that a lot of people in the South Pacific practice. What about “Independent,” “Isolated,” “Unmentored,” “Uninitiated,” or “Wild” (as in surviving in the wilds outside of hobby circles)?
    For earlier newbie-oriented presentations, Moldvay Basic (before Mentzer Basic) worked well.
    On what to call the play-style: In my opinion, it was a huge error of this gaming movement to call it “old-school,” although the term provided a lot of surface clout and seemed cool. I say error because the name is both false (it being a fairly new movement) and misleading (as not representing more than a fraction of old play-styles). I’d suggest even avoiding “old D&D.” It’s not that I have something better to call it, because I don’t identify with “old-school” myself. But it’s a fact that this is a new D&D movement that originated around 2008. Calling it “old-school D&D” is like saying that a band in 2020 is doing “original punk rock.” Your case will be so much stronger if you don’t say anywhere that it’s “old.” (I distinguish sharply between the rhetoric and the style, the latter of which is valid and great to enjoy.)
    Also, while you may have adult readers in mind, the kids I know who are learning D&D now often want nothing to do with what their fathers or grandfathers played. I suggest thinking beyond the immediate reception of your ideas to the future gamers who may benefit from your sage advice in years to come. In other words, don’t write something that will seem dated in a few years by tying it to an evanescent OSR. If you are lucky, somebody will write a counter-playbook to your Muster to represent a different style, and it will establish a new genre.
    Heck, I’d be happy if everybody just changed the name from OSR to Muster. Give it a proper name of its own instead of a false origin myth. Enough OSR-adjacent people have broken up with OSR; maybe they will rally to your Muster.
    Editorial: If you do use “old-school” as an adjective, it should be hyphenated.
    Jon Peterson’s book Playing at the World was recommended above. Now I’d also add his new book, The Elusive Shift. That book should demonstrate to players who weren’t alive then that there was no specific “old” way to play.
    It is really good of you to air your ideas in advance and I admire your even-handed approach. I wish you success. Happy gaming!

    1. Thank you for the pointers; good stuff, and I agree with them in the main.

      We’ll be hashing out the terminology a fair bit I expect, but yeah, I don’t see a reason to call anything in particular OSR here. I’ll have to see what feels right terminologically, but I generally just try to describe things as they are, so probably some variant of “my own take on challengeful D&D” will be the order of the day.

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