Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Blast From the Distant Past: Ready Ref Sheets

After quite some time of intending to but completely forgetting about it, I finally got over to DriveThruRPG to buy the PDF of Judges Guild's 1978 landmark work, Ready Ref Sheets. This work from the dawn of RPGs, a mere four years after the publication of the original D&D and two years after the white box I learned the game from, has been called the first GM aid. And it is, if not the first, then at least one of the earliest works aimed at GMs but wasn't an adventure or location description (those being heavily overlapping categories at the time). I remembered it fondly from years and years and years ago as a fascinating source of gaming-related riches. On the other hand, I haven't really looked at a D&D volume in the past decade, haven't played in two, and haven't played this particular archaic version since before leaving high school, and for my own gaming needs, there would seem to be very little going for it beyond nostalgia.

So how does it hold up?
Yeah, that's the table of contents

From one point of view, badly. Very badly. The PDF is taken from a scan of the original booklet. The physical book was somewhat worn, the original text was weirdly typeset, and the scan isn't the highest quality. In terms of appearance and formatting, I produce higher quality first drafts for my publisher just by using a template and a word processor.

Then there's the content. The organization...well, isn't. It meanders from one topic to another. And then you get to the actual words. It's clear when this was written and who wrote it. The first page of content contains a random encounter table divided into social circles. There are different columns for dealing with, for example, the nobility, merchants, the military, and so on. Each lists professions or positions: magistrate, apprentice, sergeant, etc. Fine so far. But one of the columns out of six has entries which are, literally, "woman."

This goes back a long way in gaming

There's a rather peculiar woman sub-table to roll on at that point (on a 6, you encounter a woman who may be any number of things ranging from barmaid to goddess; what?), and without going into further details, suffice it to say that a fuller treatment of "Women" (pp. 5-6) doesn't really improve matters.

What does hold up, though, is a feeling of hidden depths. The book consists almost entirely of tables and charts: poisons and their effects, reasons for someone to attack the PCs, building costs and times, long lists of monster stats. It's detail upon detail upon detail, but it's devoid of any context. I happen to find that irresistible. It is, in its own way, like an ancient encyclopedia. It's a huge, disorganized jumble of facts and ideas which you know derive from a much larger whole, but they're not being held together in any kind of organizational framework. All of these tables imply a vast universe, but don't damage the illusion by explaining it.

And that, ultimately, has become what I want out of my gaming world. The implication of detailed histories and complex relationship carries with it a charm not matched by clear exposition. It gives me a world where there's always something new. There's potentially a different adventure around every corner, with a never-ending abundance of wonders to unearth, gaps to fill, and novel experiences to have.

So would I use it in a game I used these days? Maybe. Significant parts of it are useless to me. I'd probably take the basic ideas and radically expand them. But even if it's not the book I'd use now, it's the grandparent of GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 8: Treasure Tables and parts of GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Treasures 1: Glittering Prizes, and in many ways it's still the book that made me the gamer I am today.