Monday, August 1, 2011

Dave Arneson's Gypsy Sayings

“Procrasti-tasking” from reworking the random events charts for Borderlands this morning, I reread one of my favorite quirky passages from Dave Arneson's First Fantasy Campaign: “Gypsy Sayings & Chance Cards.”

Although it suffers pretty hard from the lack of editorial backbone that haunts the rest of FFC (can we stop pretending that is a virtue, please?) --the second Legends section is near nigh and sadly incomprehensible—Arneson's wit and skill as a gamemaster shines through and present some interesting options for handling random events in a campaign.

From the first paragraph in the section, we learn that Arneson used a deck of chance cards, a regular feature of old school historical miniatures campaigns, to generate random events in Blackmoor on a monthly basis. (He notes though the cards were only used after the third year of the campaign, and only to govern events in the Outdoor Survival section of the campaign, the southern lands where the players were governing baronies.)

Interestingly, he drew the events a game year in advance “to allow for a logical progression of events.” With some kind of vague timeline in the works he could draw in the players with carrot and stick peeks behind the veil.

Take this for example:
“Unlike many other forms of advance warnings about upcoming events the infamous Gypsy Sayings merely state what might happen, and allow the players a chance to get out of the steamrollers way. Gypsy Sayings are also obscure, generally, and subject to numerous interpretations about their meaning.”

The meat is in the sometimes quite funny, 14-point example chart, one can almost just see players squirming bafflement and over-thinking streaming through.

A few choice bits, parenthetical comments are Arneson's:
“1. When the six vultures alight on the six hills, Doom will come in six turns. (The vultures are a giant variety that live above Wolf's Head pass. There were only four hills on the playing board, but the player's forgot about two towers in the area. Doom, referred to Wizard's Darkness and should have read “gloom.”)

“3. When three rule the land the Dark Lord will come. (Referring to the committee set up by three of the players to rule Blackmoor. Such a political mishmash would certainly cause the baddies to attack thinking the opposition was too divided to resist.”)

“12. The mists at noon foretell far reaching Doom. (If there is fog everywhere then the baddies are probably sneaking up on the walls. Or perhaps Doom just means Gloom. Gypsy accents are terrible.)

Love it. It just hits a good nerve for me, unpredictable gamey elements mixing and making for emergent story; the sheer goofy fun of that kind of subsystem.

Look for the “Oracular Sayings” tribute section in Borderlands. 


  1. "unpredictable gamey elements mixing and making for emergent story; the sheer goofy fun of that kind of subsystem"

    I feel the same way. The card being drawn a year in advance seems a very powerful thing. There's time to play things out in the mind, manoeuvre elements and get inspirations that might not come when generating a result and having to weave it in immediately.

  2. This is a wonderful idea. Thanks for bringing it back to light.

  3. @Porky
    Interestingly, Arneson states in the section that some of the big ticket events that occurred in Blackmoor--the great peasants revolt and raids--came out of the chance card deck.

  4. I have a paizo Harrow Deck. I'll have to write some cool stuff like this for the cards. I tried using the tarot-like system that came with the deck, but found it lacking.