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.