Thursday, 11 October 2012

Dungeon Design vs Aliens

Much has been made, elsewhere, of the difference between the "OSR" style dungeon and "New" style dungeons. In the older style a dungeon was often a sprawling complex where the objective is not the room at the end of a series of rooms, but just one room among many. In the newer style there may be some wiggle left or right, but dungeons exist as a series of planned encounters that lead to the final chamber.

These philosophies are very evident in the new version of the computer game XCom versus the older X-Com, and are especially present in the "boss fight" base assaults, where you take the fight to the alien facilities.

In the old game the "HQ" was somewhere in the complex. Probably nowhere close to the door, but you could could trace several routes to the HQ and the alien commander's location. In XCom the alien bases are a series of rooms, a chain of encounters designed to test your resources and skills before presenting you with the final encounter.

The connection between table-top adventure design and computer game design has never appeared so clearly to me.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Revisting Character Mortality.

Pendragon can be a very dangerous game. On one hand, it's supposed to be a generational game, where the loss of a character means you move down the family tree and start playing the next one. On the other hand, it is unlikely that a beginning character will produce a 21 year old heir any time in the first twenty-five years, given the rules on childbirth and infant mortality.

It is also a game where healing from sustained injuries can take a long time. In a game where characters have 24-32 hit points on average most characters heal 2-3 hit points a week (every Sunday morning). Long convalescences are rare in fantasy RPGs, but they're certainly part of the "tropes" of an Arthurian game.

In a recent adventure one of the characters, Sir Carwyn, was struck by a giant. Where giants normally do about 9d6 damage, this was a critical success, effectively 18d6 damage, minus about 16 points for armour and shield.

Although not technically "instantly dead" the character was beyond saving, and would perish that evening.

What was remarkable was the bonhomie the player approached the situation with. The quest the players' character were on was his -- rescuing Sir Carwyn's sister from the giant. But he accepted it, and immediately engaged in the process of making a new character.

In this day and age I find that this attitude is perfect for the "OSR" movement. To paraphrase the Gospel of Odie, the player was content to gamble with his character's fortune, even when the result ended in that character's fatality.

Monday, 20 August 2012

My first legitimate d30 and d24 rolls.

In order to support my purchase of Dungeon Crawl Classics I bought some d30s and d24s. I haven't used them yet -- until yesterday's Pathfinder session.

A random spell book was indicated as treasure. 6 spells, levels 1-5. A d10 was drafted for the levels -- and it was a nice 2 1st, 2 2nd, 1 3rd, 1 4th stack that almost seemed like a reasonable distribution. However Pathfinder spells are listed in a very discouraging format for randomization, long lists of spells by individual schools (Abjuration, etc). Luckily my 1st edition AD&D Players Handbook was at hand. And there are 30 1st lvl spells, and 24 2nd - 4th lvl spells!

d30s and d24s to the rescue! Rename Wizard Lock to Arcane Lock, and scratch the Leomund's off of the Tiny Hut and spell selection was complete.  Thanks to the hundreds of spells in Pathfinder, five of the six of those old classics were spells our Wizard didn't have in his spell-books!

Friday, 27 July 2012

Always loved Vikings

From Runequest: Viking, Rolemaster/HERO: Viking, to GURPS Viking, I have them all. And I know the difference between Scandinavians and actual vikings, but let's face it, the latter term is nigh-ubiquitous. And Glorantha's "land-bound Scandinavians", the Orlanthi Sartarites? Love them too.

One of our most memorable games is known as "the Viking game" -- although it had more to do with the Sartarites than actual Scandinavians. Still, there were boats, and raids, and acts both glorious and foul. It was a fun game.

So upon viewing it, the teaser from Cubicle 7's upcoming Yggdrasill has my "Viking gland" acting up again. I don't really know much about the game, character sheets are available but I haven't had much time to research it. Time to make some time!

Monday, 16 July 2012

Twenty Four Sessions, Twenty Four Years

This weekend we completed the twenty-fourth session of our Kingmaker game. We've just started the third chapter of the six chapter adventure path, and everything seems to be going strong. It is also the longest D&D+ game I've played since the mid eighties.

Once upon a time, long campaigns were our bread and butter, but over the last couple decades short concise stories or games that just sort of wither on the game-vine have been the rule. Part of this is our ages and stations in life. Our average age is in the mid-thirties (and that's with one of the players being the eighteen year old son of another player), there are jobs, there are two very young children being dependant and whatnot -- the days of playing from dusk until dawn the next day are decades behind us.

Some of the most memorable moments in my gaming past have come from long games, not just from "story" moments but from situations that arose organically. I'd say it's about an even mix, and even though I'm busy exploring things OSR, I can't forget that some of the stories we bring up when we've had a couple refreshments and are discussing gaming in the past occurred because they were narrative bits put in place by the GM, me.

I met the kernel of my modern gaming group at University about twenty-four years ago. If it wasn't for J___ I never would have met C___ and the rest of them. And although C___ hasn't been in all of my games, he's in Kingmaker now.

Twenty-four years ago the game was Rolemaster. Man, I loved RM. Frequently held up for ridicule because of all the charts, it actually played pretty quickly (as long as each player had a copy of the relevant charts). Where Rolemaster breaks down for me is in the character administration. Levelling up? Spending points, recalculating skills. There was a lot about RM that I loved, and a couple things that I wistfully look back at, and a few parts that make me wish I still played it. Character administration brings it all crashing right back down on me.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Focus & Versatility

If there are similarities between the new and the old schools of gaming, there are differences too. One of the biggest is in their approaches to genre simulation.

In order to emulate a genre in the old school one frequently takes a set of rules and alters the skills and equipment. FGU's Bushido and Daredevil take the same central mechanic to very different places. Likewise, RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, and SuperWorld are each about as different from each other as imaginable, yet the core system remains.

This approach works, and it hasn't gone away. FFG's Rogue Trader, Dark Heresy, and Only War are each slices of GW's grimdark 40K world, but the system heralds back over two decades to Warhammer FRPG.

In the new school, in order to emulate a genre one tends to focus on what the genre does, and designing mechanics specifically around that. Skill and equipment lists may still exist, but the entire game focuses on the goal of play. Unlike the older games, the narrower the focus of the play style the more able the designer is to craft mechanics to support it. The games, seen from an old school perspective, tend to lose versatility.

Not that new school games can't be re-skinned and re-purposed. Apocalypse World gives us Dungeon World and Monster Hearts, for instance.

I think the crux of the great divide between the two approaches lies in there, somewhere. To people used to the older style, new school games seem so narrowly focused. It's not a Western, or a Supernatural Western, it's a game where you play wandering agents of the religious authority, dealing with problems of the Faithful on the Frontier. The task system deals with faith, with belief, not with how many miles an hour one can ride a horse. There may not even be any rules for horses, horses aren't central to the theme and play style of the game. To someone steeped in old school games this seems a glaring oversight on any game set int he old West.

The reverse is true as well. To someone used to new school games, the rules of the old school games often seem vague and directionless. What do the rules tell you about the presumed style of play? How does the texture match the flavour? Why does the game need twenty-seven kinds of straight one-handed swords?

There is new vs old, but underlying that is focus against versatility.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Lethality and Bonus Points.

Our Kingmaker game should have been pretty deadly.

I'm running a wiki for my game, Heirs of the Stolen Lands (link visible at the right) and when considering what to do about "player buy-in" a number of sources suggested "fate points" -- a mechanism to re-roll or to escape death.

Almost (but not) every player has used one of these points to save their character at the brink of death. Some of the players have used multiple points. However although the goal was to encourage player participation in the blog, it wasn't supposed to become a haves vs have nots mechanic.

We're all busy. We have jobs, and families, and in two of my players' cases, a new child. Two of my players have maintained interest and involvement in the wiki. That's fantastic. C____ has created twenty-two in character "journal entries" -- one every week. J____ has edited the party loot log and done a lot of work with me on the kingdom building process. Other players have made less frequent, but still entertaining and important, contributions. Some players have not. They come out to my game, and they do a great job, but after the game they have other pressures on their time. Contribution to the wiki was never a precondition.

However with almost two dozen sessions under our belts two players have had several opportunities to spend fate points to alter rolls or save their lives. I cap the maximum available at three, but that ends up encouraging "maxed out" players to spend one or two on skill checks. I have no problem with the mechanic, however after several months of play the mechanic has become unbalanced. Two characters can *afford* to throw themselves into mortal danger. It was time for that mechanic to end.

Since we have started the third chapter, the Varnhold Vanishing, I informed the players that fate points were now finit. And I explained why. Sure enough, one of the characters who had a stock-pile of fate points was killed by a Wandering Encounter.

Death, however, is no longer the barrier it was. Although they can't quite cast it, yet, the group is in a situation where they can afford Raise Dead. So with Gentle Repose protecting the corpse of their dear companion, the Cavalier mounted up and raced for the home-castle to grab appropriate treasure, then off to Restov to get the character raised.

I hope the players continue their contributions to the wiki. But the time for bonus points had come to an end. Now the escape from the final curtain will cost the characters as a group, and not even they can sneeze at 5,000 gp, and 2,000 more for Restoration, couched not as the price of a diamonds, but as the massive contributions to the Temple of Abadar required for a spell of this magnitude.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Disconnects & Dragons

I am caught between two worlds, the OSR and the new school, and I frequently find myself at odds with both.

Recently I got in a rather polite conversation about Cosmic Patrol with a member of the OSR community. In their favour were many valid points (that isn't sarcasm -- they were right on the money on several criticisms), but I did get a bit of a bone caught in my throat over narrativism and railroading.

I have said, and I still believe, that when it comes to things like player agency there is a similarity, a congruence if you will, between a lot of "new school" RPGs and the OSR. One of the central features of both games is that the GM is not trying to tell a story. In many of the OSR games the style of play is a Sandbox. The GM puts things in play, but in the end it is the players' characters who decide where to go and what to do.  In some of the "new school" games the GM is expressly prevented from creating their own narrative.

This is not an absolute value. There are older games where many GMs tell stories. That style of play did not spring wholly formed from the heads of Weis and Hickman. And there are no doubt many games in the 'new school" where a rigid narrative traps the players by design or GM empowerment and limits their choices -- even if I can't actually think of any. Certainly the play-style can be emulated in some of them.

But one of the advantages of the "new school" is that people have really thought about gaming, about the hows and whys of the hobby, and applied this ideal to the very mechanics themselves. Some of the results are a bit baroque, some have implications I don't enjoy, but there are a number that really work for me.

As to his other criticism, that games in the new school (my phrasing, not his) often allow the players to step back from the characters and take the role of collaborative screen-writers instead? On any game that turns the narrative control over to the players, pretty much guilty as charged. If that's a deal-breaker for him, well, taste is subjective and there's nothing we can do about that. Except -- how is a game that turns narrative control over to each player in any way railroaded?

There's lots of room in the hobby for different tastes, but I think we all can learn a bit about "the other guys" here, and maybe learn a trick or two from them.

Getting Our Motors Running

Recently playing a forgettable computer game that featured some post-apocalyptic car-racing.

It brought me back to Car Wars, that classic Steve Jackson game of, you guessed it, post-apocalyptic car-racing. There have been numerable attempts to create this in an RPG. GURPS Autoduel and Atomic Highway spring to mind.

But I've never found these sorts of RPGs entertaining in anything other than very small groups. Something about the environment and the size of the vehicles -- part of it is a pack of four to six player-character-driven vehicles forms such a formidable swarm, and part of it is the excitement in high-octane highway duels is the "one on one" or "on vs the horde" angle, where it's just you and your skill (and your car) between survival and death.

Why is dungeoneering, for instance, any different? Why is skirmish combat with a small band of heroes versus an enraged Ogre, or a pack of murderous bandits more enjoyable than a pack of cars hunting down a heavily armed pump-truck full of raiders?

I still want to run a "Car Wars" style game of Mother, Jugs & Speed -- the full-contact Gold Cross ambulance crew -- one day.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Vancian Magic gone Mad!

With the long weekend disrupting the RPG campaign, we defaulted to board/card-games. Amazing syncronicity, since it would have taken about two weeks for those of us still interested in doing Kingmaker's "Kingdom Turns" to run through about 14 months of turns, as the little Barony develops into a small Duchy. As far as Domain level games go, Kingmaker's is sparse and abstract, even with the addition of the 3rd Party "Book of the River Nations" to flesh things out.

The first game was Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards: Duel at Mount Skullzfyre. With art somewhat like EC Comics Vault of Horror on acid, the game is very over-the top. But relevant to the blog, each player crafts "pseudo-Vancian" spells.

"Midnight Merlin's Devilicious Death Wish" or "Scorchia's Disco-Mirrored Brain Suck" -- both possible results -- almost demand being statted up in some RPG system. I'll put it on the back burner. As the spell titles may suggest, the game is light-hearted, chaotic, destructive fun.

I don't know if it's a reliable source for spell-names, rather I find it interesting that spell-names have been turned into a game.

The second game was Lords of Waterdeep. Most WoTC board-games tend to imitate dungeoneering (Castle Ravenloft), or are wargames (Conquest of Nerath). This worker-placement game, set in the greatest city in the Forgotten Realms, doesn't try to imitate the mechanisms of D&D, rather it uses the setting to support it's goal-completion based play.

Unlike Epic Spell Wars, Lords of Waterdeep offers a lot of world-flavour to a GM, and many of the Quest cards are useful adventure seeds. The game doesn't cover the same detail as the old Waterdeep boxed set, but it is useful for more than just it's very enjoyable play. WoTC should make more games like this, compared to their "dungeoneering board game" they label D&D Adventure System Co-operative Play.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Mouse Tales

We began a game of Mouse Guard tonight.

One of the interesting things about Mouse Guard is that the GM gets a "turn" and then the players each get a number of turns -- at least one, but possibly more based on events in the GM's turn.

Some of the players' turns may be soaked up on Recovery rolls. For instance, my Mouse, Willem the Healer, fell into a stream we were crossing. Willem pulled himself out, however apart from being soaked, he picked up the Tired condition. One of my actions was to use a Resources roll to try to get rid of the condition.

We tried to complete our voyage on our turns (we failed) and collect some spearmint (we succeeded), and I tried to teach another mouse about Herb lore (I failed).

Player Agency is hard-coded right into the rules. This isn't a rules set that would deal well with a protracted narrative arc. The players are free to have their characters do almost anything they want on their turns, the GM doesnt' have the right to veto a Player action (although "whole group approval" is a tool that the game uses frequently -- useful for genre, theme, and character enforcement). 

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Swords against Terror

On the Legend of the Flame Princess forum there is an ongoing discussion about a post-renaissance setting for a game which may or may not be like LotFP. Alternate names have been proposed -- I like False Dawn, as the Dawn of the Age of Reason hasn't really occurred as far too many learned men still muddle in the arcane and unknowable.

The funny thing is, judging by most of the art, I always presumed that this was the default setting for LotFP. There's a lot of "musketeer" art, with bulky matchlocks and lace collars, and the rest. When reading it I frequently refer to Backswords and Bucklers, an Elizabethan game using the OSR, as a comparison.

I have always liked the era. Lace & Steel, Flashing Blades, and the more modern Witch Hunter RPG grace my shelves, they all work in and around the era, although only the last is normally a game of supernatural terrors.

More to the point of the post. A series of eighteen LofTP crowd-sourced adventures are going to be proposed this July. the adventure titles and descriptions are up already. If you were looking for a couple bullet point outlines to inspire your own adventures, you could do far worse than look here. There are a couple that really caught my eye.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

When Dice Turn Bad

Mild spoilers for players in the Kingmaker Adventure path -- mild, because we're pretty far off the rails at this point.

In today's Kingmaker game the group faced a battle versus a small army of trolls, then an opportunity to root the bad guy out of his lair. The battle system laid out in the AP, and expanded on in the 3rd party "Book of the River Nations" -- a very useful supplement for those involved in this AP -- is very simple, units have stats, and battle is conducted in a series of contested rolls. The difference in results in applied as abstract damage to the units.

Out brave heroes have a force of their kobold vassals, their "best" unit, bow and axe wielding Streltsy, and their new and barely trained second unit, which formed their reserve.

And the players stopped rolling well. Again and again they rolled low, the only saving grace being the troll forces rolled low as well, not achieving the required target number.

The "encounter" was fairly well balanced, however in the end both of the human regiments were shattered, and the kobolds surrendered the field to the trolls.

The dice results created a palpable depression of mood. The characters had worked with, fought with, and achieved many victories alongside their first regiment, which was now gutted. It was as if a treasured NPC had passed away. It was a memorable moment. And I didn't arrange it, plan it, it wasn't part of "my narrative" or the story-arc. Instead it was all the dice. More importantly, it was the players' dice.

Dice turn bad? Not a bad thing.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

The Big Black Book

An enforced seven day absence from the internet has developed into a three week absence here. Time to mend that.

Yesterday my "deluxe" copy of Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, or DCC RPG, arrived. At about 500 pages of thick paper, this monster is a little thinner than the old "family shelf bible" but is a stunning tome, and with it's sinister "gold leaf" cover art it will certainly make everyone think you're reading the Necronomicon.

That I cackle as I read amusing bits in the rules, thus simulating a slide into madness, can't hurt this impression.

Where some of the "Retro" games just work on recreating  an earlier set of "that game" -- Labyrinth Lord and others come to mind here -- and games like ACKS start with an earlier rules set of "that game" and work forward, with things like Domain and Trade rules -- DCC RPG is a mix of the older versions and the newer versions.

And then DCC RPG takes a 90 degree turn and heads into new territory. No one looking at a character sheet should be too surprised. The six traits have been renamed, but there are hit points and AC and nothing should really leap out as unfamiliar. Saves resemble

However in play things tend to work a bit differently. Wizard and Cleric spells? Be prepared to come at these from scratch. Wizards make skill rolls to cast spells, each spell has it's own one page entry. GMs and Players may want a pdf so they can print copies of the spells for the spell-casting players. Clerics, on the other hand, have an increasing chance to annoy and anger their patron deity. Both Wizards and Clerics can interact directly with their otherworldly patrons. This has a really "swords and sorcery" feel to it, magic is not just a talent or skill.

In R Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing there is a quote I'll borrow: "Priests speak with the voice of the gods, wizards steal their words." Not directly true in DCC RPG, but never have I seen a system that better emulated this.

There are a couple things about DCC RPG that bother me. It really seems they went out of their way to introduce odd dice. d7s, d14s, d16s, d24s, and d30s all enter play alongside more common dice. Although translating a +/-4 modifier into a larger or smaller die size is an interesting mechanic who really has a collection of d16s and d24s? In practice this strikes me as clumsy.

Still, there is a lot to like in DCC RPG, I look forward to taking it for a spin.

Monday, 28 May 2012

And a toy to go with it.

Buckler / 7gp / +0 AC

A buckler is too small to be used as an effective shield. However anyone who has Fighting Style Two Weapons may equip a buckler even if they may not normally equip a shield, and gain a +1 AC bonus instead of a +1 to attack throws. Fighting Style Weapon and Shield works as printed, making bucklers effective for them as well.

**Essentially a buckler counts as an off-hand parrying weapon, instead of an offensive weapon.

A simple custom ACKS class

The Players Companion for Adventurer, Conqueror, King offers the opportunity to create custom classes, and breaks down the published classes, which all follow the same rules.

This isn't the first game to do this. But if anyone remembers, for example, the the old AD&D rules didn't allow you to create the actual original classes -- the "penalty" for trying to build your own.

The following class isn't fully fleshed out -- level names and a couple bits are needed to bring it in line, but the important bits are in place. It also assumes a different technological level than default ACKS, which tends to be late/post-Roman. Here we have a character more fitting to The Borgias or  Backswords & Bucklers

The Bravo

Prime Requisite: DEX
Requirements: None
Hit Dice: 1d6
Max Level: 14

Bravos are urban warriors, from strutting peacocks to shadowy rakes. Although they are a martial class, they learn their skills in duelling schools, and forgo the chaos of the battlefield, being more comfortable in the ballroom, the salon, or the occasional alley.

Some Bravos are brave agents of the crown, officers of regiments which will rarely serve on battlefields. Others are little more than assassins, using cutting words and cunning to manoeuvre their target into a duel they will surely win. All of them understand the value of a dark cloak, a well-scouted rose-trellis, and soft-soled boots.

Bravos are well trained combatants with a narrow range of weapons. At first level they hit an unarmoured opponent with an attack throw of 10+. They advance in attack throws every two levels of experience. They gain a +1 on damage rolls, this increases at 3rd, 6th, 9th, and 12th level. Because they prefer free movement and flexibility, they cannot wear armour heavier than leather, and do not use shields*. They may use one-handed bladed weapons, any sort of one-handed club, baton, sap, or cudgel. Masters of the urban environment, they do not use ranged weapons. They may wield weapons in both hands.

Bravos have Cat-like Reflexes, they gain +1 on Surprise and Initiative rolls. The Dance of Life and Death gives them a +1 bonus to Armor Class if wearing leather armour or less and able to move freely. At level 7, the AC bonus increases to +2, and at level 13 the AC bonus increases to +3. Finally, as Masters of the Blade they can instantly draw their rapier (a specialized short sword) and add their DEX bonus to their attack throws ), this counts as Weapon Finesse and does not stack with it.

If wearing leather armour or less, and dark clothes or a dark cloak, they can hide in shadows; if wearing soft shoes or barefoot they can move silently; and if wearing leather armour or less they can climb walls, all as a thief of the same level.

They make all saves as thieves of the same level.

At 9th lvl (Blademaster) a Bravo can open a Fencing School, and 2d6 1st lvl Bravos will come seeking instruction. Food and lodging must be covered, however they do not need to be paid.

Exp/Title/Lvl/Hit Dice/Damage Bonus
0 / Bravo / 1 / 1d6 / +1
1700/ Tough / 2 / 2d6 / +1
3400/ Rake / 3 / 3d6 / +2
6800/ Antagonist / 4 / 4d6 / +2
14000/ Blade / 5 / 5d6 / +2
28000/ Duellist / 6 / 6d6 / +3
55000/Swashbuckler/ 7 / 7d6 / +3
110000/Protagonist/ 8 / 8d6 / +3
230000/Blademaster/ 9 / 9d6 / +4
350000/Blademaster/ 10 / 9d6+2 / +4
470000/Blademaster/ 11 / 9d6+4 / +4
590000/Blademaster/ 12 / 9d6+6 / +5
710000/Blademaster/ 13 / 9d6+8 / +5
830000/ Blademaster/ 14 / 9d6+10 / +5

Acrobatics, Alertness, Ambushing, Arcane Dabbling, Blind Fighting, Bribery, Cat Burglary, Combat Reflexes, Combat Trickery (Force Back, Disarm, Incapacitate, Trip), Command, Diplomacy, Eavesdropping, Fighting Style, Gambling, Intimidation, Leadership, Lip Reading, Riding, Running, Sea-faring, Seduction, Skirmishing, Skulking, Swashbuckling, Weapon Focus

And the breakdown:

Hit Point Value 1
Fighter Value 2, Reduced Armour to Narrow, Reduced Weapons to Narrow, Reduced Styles to 2.
Thief Value 1
Arcane & Divine Value 0.

2 Customs to choose Thief saves instead of Fighter saves.
1 Custom for Animal Reflexes, 1 for Bladedancing, 1 for Weapon Finesse (Rapiers only)

Sunday, 27 May 2012

The Weis-Hickman Event

Years ago Grognardia discussed Dragonlance, and its effects. I'm not going to go over the same ground. I am going to call it an Event. The W-H Event.

One of the players in my group, K, is a player who loves nothing more than to really get into character, and while in character explore exactly what being that character means. K has great role-playing chops, and like a lot of us has been at it for over twenty years. Having K in a game that has is going to focus on role-playing is a boon, and K loves a good story.

There is no coincidence that K began gaming after the Event.

The Event eventually spelled the death of a lot of the OSR style of play. But was that a bad thing?

Somewhere between the Caves of Chaos and the Tomb of Horrors something went wrong. The Caves of Chaos could be dangerous, we all have stories of the 1st lvl characters we lost there. My friends and I remember far too many DMs who viewed Tomb of Horrors as a tutorial. They made dungeons that killed parties dead.

Maybe it's a bad stat based on small sample size. Or maybe not. And it certainly is anecdotal. But it sure is my experience.

One thing the W-H Event did? It trained a generation of DMs that the point wasn't to kill the characters. Maybe it was to tell a story. Maybe not. And people could die in the story, or not. But the dying wasn't the goal of the game.

As I re-explore the new games built from the old games, like ACKS and DCC RPG, part of that process is not actually seeking a return to those roots. That lethality can remain, character mortality can exist, but it should never have become the point.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Sweeping Character changes, or "respec".

In older games, where you rolled statistic dice in order (and I'd have to include BRP games like Call of Cthulhu, the chart-filled Rolemaster, and all the early D&D games here), and made a character suitable to what you were given, there wasn't much use in rebuilding things from scratch. And the "game" nature of the game would make something like that seem almost like cheating, anyway.

Thus, in the old days if your only high Stat was Strength, you were probably headed for a Fighter.

(I'm sure out there there is at least one proud player who is fondly regarding their framed thirty year old character sheet with an Int 11 Str 18 Mage).

However in newer games you often build the character you want, either by re-arranging rolls or by purchasing your statistics with a pool of points. One of the strengths I see in these systems is the ability to alter the mechanics of the character while keeping the same character.

In R's excellent Margreve Forest Pathfinder game my character, Sasha, was built as a Verdant Sorcerer. But it became clear that I was playing a Druid. So, somewhere around lvl 3 we "re-skinned" Sasha, and he was a Druid for ever more. This is a good thing, my character met the concept better, blended into the game better, given the chance to do the same all over again I still would have changed to Druid.

But what about that time he cast that arcane spell? Doesn't matter. It's magic, who knows how it works?

In my current Kingmaker game one of the players who is playing an Alchemist may re-skin to a Sorcerer. I'm all for it. Not for the reasons the rest of the players may be -- their characters have been on the end of Alchemical splash damage a time or two too many, and Alchemists are phenomenally "selfish" casters, most of their spells having persona effects only. But neither problem really concerns me.

Rather, I want the player to be happy with what they're playing. If the player would prefer a Paladin or a Dwarven Rogue then the current character could retire. But if we keep the trappings and effects of alchemy, potions, and so forth I'm more than happy to allow the player a chance to re-do the character.

And if after a couple sessions it doesn't work out and he wants to go back? That's okay with me too.

It is in places like this that the divide between games of the older styles and newer styles begin to yawn wide beneath my feet.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Technical Party Kill

Yesterday's big Sunday Game was our 19th session of Pathfinder. An enjoyable session spent exploring the southern reaches of a forest, it was the hex-crawl nature of the Kingmaker adventure path that eventually led me to exploring the OSR.

However there was a moment where everyone failed a Will Save against an enchantment effect. Technically? Technically I could have killed them all right there, bit by bit, as the creature really didn't have a ton of offensive ability. If I had killed them it would have been "as the curtains close on our heroes who are never heard from again" rather than making them sit through the damage.

 I didn't kill them (although in the ensuing fight I came pretty close to an actual TPK, with the Cavalier and Ranger both down), instead arranging opportunities for them to make an additional save. We ended up with a thrilling, tense fight with certain characters out of the fight for a round here or a round there, and everyone throwing all their available offensive might.

Rather than a Save vs Death, this was a situation where character mortality was on the table where the players had a chance to fight against it, win or lose. I don't think I gave them the opportunity for The Story. I think I gave them the opportunity because it made a better Game.

Semantics? I don't know. But I have never much enjoyed the Save vs Death that is a factor in early D&D.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

9th Lvl Farmers

Back in the old D&D days Adventurers stood out in the crowd. "Normal" people, content to live their lives without ever worrying about how many torches, 50 foot sections of rope, and iron rations they should include in their equipment, were all happily 0-Lvl. Famous pianists, aging farmers, and mercenaries all fit there.

Of course, things were different in skill-systems. In Traveller, for instance, skills were always a function of age (and number of terms of service). In Rolemaster the common city guard was a 3rd level Fighter -- strange that they'd hire that band of 1st level "kids" to go explore the ruined tower.

With the advent of skill systems in D&D we end up with "NPC Classes." That famous pianist? A 5th lvl Expert. The farmer? A 9th level Commoner. The mercenary? A 3rd level warrior. That pianist has two attacks per round!

I'm not opposed to NPC classes. Far from it. The Adept class is great for making non-adventuring priests or wizards, the Aristocrat class makes socially able nobles who still are no challenge for the PCs in power. And unlike PC classes, the NPC classes get no bells and whistles as they increase levels. In a game like Pathfinder, where almost ever PC level has a tangible benefit, there is a world of difference between an 8th lvl Fighter (PC) and an 8th lvl Warrior (NPC) even if they had matching stats and gear.

The Adventurer, Conqueror, King System uses Proficiencies as a mixture of skill and feat. So there are Proficiencies like "Combat Reflexes" which give a mechanical benefit, however there are also "skill-based" profs like Perform, Labor, or Craft. When taken multiple times these profs increase the chance of success.

0 Lvl characters get four (plus additional profs for high Int) , but they can't stack just yet. The older the NPC is, the more profs they get. Thus our aging farmer may have Proficiencies like this:

Animal Husbandry x2
Farmer x3

Although bent and grey from decades of hard work, this NPC's Proficiencies reflect a highly skilled farmer.  The requirement for a 9th lvl Farmer with two-dozen hit points and multiple attacks is neatly avoided.

Friday, 18 May 2012

The walls look pixilated, the ground is clearly texture tiles.

There is one advantage to video games these days -- there are some great visuals.

The latest installation of Diablo is a good example. Foggy battlefields, and the subterranean levels of the church have a nice gothic feel, without it actually being a gothic game. It's given me a lot of food for thought. Hand-outs and still-shots can be used to great effect, but what else can I di to increase the sense of immersion with

In my current Pathfinder game the Kingmakers face about half their threats via verbal description, and half on a battle-map delineated by coloured white-board markers. How often have I spent time describing visuals, reinforcing mood and theme?

A team of video game designers at my beck-and-call? Nice if it happens, but I'm not holding my breath.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

DIY Gaming

One of the key points of the current OSR movement is its strong do-it-yourself attitude. Although some decry multiple retro-clones of the Grand Auld Game, in this age of print-on-demand and pdf -- if you have a vision on how you would do things, why not?

Thirty years ago even page-setting was a complex process involving wax/glue and physical cutting and pasting onto sheets which could be sent to the printer. Hell, it's how we did it at my University newspaper just twenty years ago. Today most homes posses all the tools they require to self-publish tied into a single computer.

Yet until recently that DIY spirit seemed to fade. Oh, there were blogs and wikis and forums and a hundred other electronic mediums, but actual print copies were essentially out of reach. I don't think that's at all true anymore.

I recently subscribed to Loviatar, a 'zine published in California. Although earlier issues had a more multi-article approach, recently each issue has been dedicated to detailing one hex, a sort of "hex-crawl" guide that makes every hex blend together thematically, yet adds interesting details -- this is not the "hex AA: 20 kobolds" style guides we would have received decades ago. Each of them has an elements of their own story, their rationale if you will, woven into it. Not to guide, or to limit player choices, but to give them options, backgrounds, and perhaps motivations if they desire. In short, it's a blending of the Old and New styles of gaming, and that is one of the things I enjoy most about the current retro phenomena.

Monday, 14 May 2012

After years of Coffee, why Kool-Aid?

I left the original D&D and AD&D behind years ago, before either was actually discontinued. The reasons were many. So -- why return?
To me the Old School Renaissance is not about playing a particular set
of rules in a particular way, the dungeon crawl. It is about going back
to the roots of our hobby and seeing what we could do differently. 
- Author, Bat in the Attic
This sums it up a lot of it. As games built on successful commercial models give us more and more, it's interesting to turn back the clock to a time when the hobby was a hobby. But instead of a purely nostalgic experience I have thirty years of gaming experience to bring to my re-examination.

One of the things I am enjoying about Adventurer, Conqueror, King is that it is not just a retro-clone, it's a game that starts as a clone but adds a simple proficiency system, and a complete domain  system, becoming much more than a reprint of BD&D+.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Rangers and Rangers

Goodman Games produced Expanded Spell-less Ranger, for Pathfinder. Aragorn, it cites, didn't cast spells. In the place of spells are more abilities, focused on stealth, movement, and healing, and Ranger talents, which are customisable options very similar to Rogue talents. A couple archetypes are offered, along with feats and talents.

I like the options presented, this looks like a great supplement, and a way to round out the "semi-Spell User" as a pure martial class. Since our group's ranger really isn't connected to the divine in any real way, I think I'll pitch this to her to see if she's like to give it a try. At 5th lvl the changes won't be too dramatic, and if she doesn't like it she can switch back before 6th lvl without irrevocably snapping anyone's suspenders of disbelief.

And now for something very different.

Talking to R. at the cafe, who is working on a Wasteland game using Keys from Lady Blackbird, and possibly Dogs in the Vineyard -- although the overall mechanic wasn't clear in the conversation. Some of his keys for a Vault Dweller really hit the nail on the head between evocative and 

Keys are a fascinating tool for a game. here's an example from John Ryan's Lady Blackbird hack:
 Key of the Loving Father You love your kids, Maddi Sue and Connor, more than anything else. Hit your key whenever you act to find, protect, or help your kids. Buyoff: Let Linda Leigh keep the kids.
Every time you hit your key you get a reward, normally dice in your pool or XP. Get tired of your Key, or want to resolve it? Go for the buy-off.

R. and I approach one problem from two very different directions. But while you'd figure that a "sandbox" game like Wasteland would be perfectly suited for an OSR style game, R. has come up with a "village by village" setting that doesn't require, or even allow, the GM to start trowelling on plot -- the story is coming from the players, the GM has relatively little input into it. And it seems to suit the Wasteland model very well.

The Fly in My OSR Kool-Aid

I suppose that like most of us, I'm a product of my gaming upbringing. I started with OD&D and through the years moved from this system to that one. Along the way I'd come back to the current iteration of D&D, I may not have been a pro but I was certainly current. Decades later that hasn't really changed.

With my introduction to the OSR I've begun to embrace a lot of things I left behind. But there is one thing that I am not sure I miss. The multi-level dungeon.

I know there are fans of the multi-level/mega-dungeon out there. I admit it is strictly a matter of taste -- but for me a big part of RPGs is interacting with NPCs. And you may find a friendly Ogre or a peaceful tribe of rat people on your voyages, but if most of your sessions are spent probing floors, lighting torches, and so forth? I just find that I get weary of running them, and weary of playing them. For me it's the interaction that lies at the heart of a successful and entertaining game.

Now certainly there is no necessity to run massive-dungeons. But as I re-explore gold-for-exp, there certainly has to be concentrations of wealth out there, available for exploitation. It will remain an issue for me to tackle.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Agency and Illusionism

In the previous entry I confessed that I have been prone to Illusionism, Let's describe that briefly.
Illusionism can be defined as the manipulation of in-game probability and description to channel the PCs toward predetermined outcomes.
 The "Quantum Ogre" (and that series of articles says everything I'm trying to say, but better)  -- no matter which patch of forest you explore, the Ogre will be there ... is Illusionism. The minute "the story" is the most important thing in the game, you are well and truly down that path.

Is that a bad thing? I don't know. Consider that game that many of my friends and I regard as our finest endeavour, the Tale of the Tiger Clan, in L5R, was nothing more than an Illusionism-rampant story-telling experience that I ran. Outcomes were, for the most part, completely predetermined. Not really before I ran the campaign, I admit I had no idea where we were going for the first year of play, but certainly session by session. By the time we were into our second year of play the "end game" had pretty much solidified in my head. All I had to do was get them there. And I did.

Despite the Quantum Ogre lurking in either Woods A , B, or C we had fun. Heck, we had a lot of fun.

As I begin to explore Player Agency and how to increase it in my game I look back and wonder how things would have worked out differently. I doubt our epic conclusion would have been as epic, although who knows what other fascinating things might have happened?

In our Kingmaker game we are using a published source. I have added bits, and removed bits, altered things as I saw fit. For the most part the players' characters are free to go where they want in the little sandbox -- but the expectation is still that they'll go everywhere. How much is that sandbox, the thing that got me started on this whole OSR kick in the first place, really just -- an Illusion of Player Agency?

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Drinking the OSR Kool-Aid

I started the Kingmaker Adventure Path with our Pathfinder game in January. And it was my re-introduction to a hex-exploration game that has really increased my interest in Old School Renaissance gaming.

 For years I would have described myself as a "story" gamer. Not as hardcore as some, to be sure, I have always preferred games that gave you a framework to do your thing in over games that were about a very narrowly focused (often very well designed) thing. I've read lots of the latter, and played a few, and enjoyed them. 

Illusionism, where the GM takes the players' choices and flows with them, all the while telling his own story? I've done it.

Recently I've spent a lot of time reading about and discussing Player Agency, defined as:
"...the feeling of empowerment that comes from being able to take actions in the [virtual] world whose effects relate to the player’s intention...” - Michael Mateas
...and how it impacts RPGs. Although it is a topic that many of the new game authors discuss and incorporate, I was finding that many of the places where I wanted to increase player agency married up nicely with gaming in the late 70's and early 80's.

Now? Now I think that the first decade of gaming has a lot more to offer than we gave it credit for. I spent two and a half decades running away from those days, to find myself back there again. Of course it isn't as simple as just uncrating my old red box and being happy.  There are a lot of thing about those old days that I'm not too fond of.

There are a number of retro-clones and OSR games out there right now, but my current favourite is the Adventurer, Conqueror, King System, or ACKS. Starting with the old Basic edition it adds a lot, most notably trade and domain rules. I'll talk more about ACKS soon.