Sunday, February 28, 2010

Back at’cha, scottsz

No worries, and no hard feelings. As my friends and past significant others will tell you, I have an annoying habit of answering rhetorical questions. And, since I was the one who pointed you to the link, I felt the ball was in my court.

I can certainly respect your decision, especially since I once contemplated turning Trollsmyth into a clearing house for interesting links about all pen-and-paper RPGs.

Yeah, that insanity lasted all of five minutes. ;p

I suppose I’m more inured to corporate dog-&-pony show, having been on both sides of it, and part of the freelancer madness; freelancers never pass up an opportunity to make a pitch. You just never know where your next meal is coming from.

For myself, I keep a weather eye on 4e and Paizo and the rest because every now and then they do something that overlaps with an interest I have. I don’t buy much from them, though. Right now, you and Maliszewski and Raggi and the rest of the OSR are the core of my hobby. Those other guys? Yeah, they’re out there on the horizon, and I enjoy watching what they do, though often with bemusement and sometimes annoyance. (The first draft of that post had a ranty tangent about the RPG Superstar contest that echoed Scott Kurtz’s “we are artists, not contestants” battlecry. But it was a tangent and not worth raining on someone else’s parade over.)

So, no offense intended or assumed. You’ve become daily reading for me, which is a big ouch to my schedules because you always link to too much good stuff. No matter what is true for the industry, the RPG hobby is clearly alive and well, since I know you’re just scratching the surface of our niche-of-a-niche. God help my productivity... ;D

The Neoclassical and the Baroque

Neoclassical generally implies a certain cleanness to the lines, a sharpness of edge. Things tend towards the austere, certainly, but they don't eschew a certain decorative edge, a bit of colorand drape. What is most important is clarity born from a certain simplicity of vision and a desire to make that vision manifest. I'm a huge fan of the neoclassical.

But sometimes, there's just no substitution for wallowing in the baroque.

There was a time when I was a big fan of the Unearthed Arcana book. Today I find it a bit unwieldy and a bit too strongly tied to a certain vision of what D&D is that doesn't always click with mine. But there was a time when I certainly believed that more was more (and you could easily argue that I still believe that, I'm just more eager to make certain that the more is mine). I'll probably never play it, but I'm still very eager to see what Emprise! looks like. Best of luck to the Greyhawk Grognard. :D

Aeneas' Flight From Troy by Federico Barocci.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Answers for scottsz

Because he doesn’t have comments turned on. Not that I can blame him.

Yes, the story I’ve heard is that the Powers That Were at TSR felt the maps were the principle object of value in the modules, and so were printed blue to prevent photocopying. I imagine the modern digital world would have caused cardiac arrest in the folks who made that decision if they could have glimpsed the future.

D&D in libraries – You see that a lot here in Austin, but of course that’s Austin and, again, of course, the flavor on tap is 4e. Many also host dance lessons (salsa and other latin forms) because, according to the librarians, the places are crawling with kids but it’s getting hard to draw adults. Yeah, I wouldn’t have guessed that, either.

Erik Mona – I did watch the whole thing, and what fascinated me was how different his experience was from mine. I’ve very, very rarely encountered anything like organized play. Nearly his entire experience with RPGs has been centered around organized play, from the library club to the Living Greyhawk thing, and into his current work with Pathfinder. This implies a very top-down attitude towards gaming. The purpose of an RPG company, from this point of view, is to craft an experience for the participants. Mona is clearly a bibliophile, but yeah, books, not solutions, because solutions implies far more active agency on the part of the play group than I think the top-down model can embrace.

This should come as no surprise to anyone. Pathfinder is, after all, built on the idea of gorgeous, intricate, epic railroads. While they allow for, and even encourage lots of scenic loops and tangents, there’s an absolute path to be followed from one adventure to the next. I love the look of their books and a lot of their ideas, but when you get down to it, Pathfinder is the anti-OSR. Fight On! is a jumbled mess because the assumption is nobody can guess what’s coming next in your game. You might need a classic dungeon level, or you might need a penguin PC race, or you might need stats for purple death rays.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m still happy to flip through the stuff Paizo puts out, and even steal some of it for my own games. It’s just not predicated on a model that fits the way I actually play. I’ll create my own experience, thank you very much. Or, to be more accurate, my group will create our own experience. My job, as I see it, is to supply mystery, verisimilitude, stability, and impetus. The players bring curiosity, energy, and action. We toss that in a pot with creativity and some setting elements, with rules and assumptions to keep it nice and gelled, and we have magic.

Adventure paths provide the mystery, verisimilitude, and impetus, and only rely on the DM to present what’s given to the players. The DM is, of course, free to elaborate, embellish, and alter the material given (though only to a point; change or add too much and you fall off the path) but they don’t need to. For a certain style of gaming and for certain groups, I’m sure that’s magic as well.

I don’t think it’s worth getting annoyed at Mr. Mona for what he said in the lecture. Most of the first half-hour was about what he saw at TSR and WotC, some of which served as object lessons for how things shouldn’t be done. It was also a talk about the industry, and so it focused primarily on the concerns of the industry. (Though, again, seeing how much organized play was a factor in his gaming, the line between industry and hobby may not be as clear to him as it is to others.) So I’d only caution about throwing out any babies with that bathwater.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Mona on Tech and RPGs

NeonCon has posted a lecture by Erik Mona titled "RPGs in the 21st Century." It's interesting, especially from the publisher-side view of things. He does spend some time slapping around the computer RPG strawman, but not as much as you'd think. He's far more interested in the possibilities of tech.

Paizo is probably among the best out there at building connections with their audience and making their customers feel like Paizo is their company. What I find interesting is how a similar dynamic is developing in the OSR. I feel invested in the success of folks like Mr. Raggi and Grubman. Mr. Mona's got quite a bit to say about that, including its use as a deterant to piracy and how important social media is to that mix.

What I expect to be really fascinating is the intersection of tech with the "old ways." For instance, it's a lot easier to include a CD in a boxed set than it is in a book. I don't think RPG publishers are ready to start including specialized handheld devices in their boxes, but software is certainly an option, as are collections of clip art, tile sets, and icons for use on message boards and gaming software like MapTool. I've also been contemplating the use of audio files; if the audience is, in fact, greying, that means most of a company's customers may now spend 30 minutes to an hour each weekday commuting. They can't read a gaming book during that time, but they could listen to one. Only, numbers and crunch don't work as well in an audio format, so you'd want to focus on style, setting, and flavor for your audio additions. If the boxed set revolution continues to gain traction, I'd be very surprised if some sort of digital additions didn't make their way into the box sooner or later.

UPDATE: Zak S. makes a strong (and completely different from mine) argument for raising the profile of audio media in our hobby.

Photo by wili hybrid.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Honey Cakes for Cerberus

I think I’ve skirted around the edges of out-and-out saying that when you roll the dice, you’re not playing, and when you’re playing, you’re probably not rolling the dice. Games are about making choices; dice are about random chance. You might be making a choice that affects how the dice are rolled, or making choices based on what the dice have dictated. But, as in craps, the playing part comes before and after the dice do their thing. Sailing, after all, isn’t windspeed and waves; it’s what you do with the sails and rudder.

And, as Oddysey enjoys pointing out, I really like playing with social aspects and confrontations in my games. Whenever the PCs are back in town, or when they encounter an especially dangerous monster, there are usually opportunities for conversation, making deals, and learning more about the world around them. Most modern games have mechanics to handle this sort of thing, either via social combat or influence rolls or the like. I play neo-classical games like Labyrinth Lord, so I don’t have those mechanics…

Well, actually, I do. Those old games came with some very simple reaction tables that could be used to dictate how creatures encountered reacted to the PCs. It’s fairly simple stuff, but most folks I knew way back when ignored them, just like they ignored the morale rules. They’re probably too basic for most folks who enjoy that sort of thing, but combined with the morale rules and a multi-racial dungeon like the Caves of Chaos, they can create a lot of interesting situations to play with.

But again, those sorts of things leave me cold, and I think that’s due to how I build my NPCs. My battlecry after college was “situations, not plot” but what I think I was really getting at was the central importance of conflict to my style of play.
In a nutshell, all my NPCs are in conflict with someone or something. They all have something they want and obstacles that prevent the satisfaction of their desires. This can be something as simple as finding their next meal or as complex as winning passage of a new piece of legislation. The best NPCs, of course, have multiple (and sometimes competing or contradictory) goals. Regardless of their goals, the best way to win a NPCs heart (or, at least, their cooperation) is through their self-interest.

Deciding what my NPCs want is usually fairly straightforward. Some are simply functions of who and what they are: the merchant wants to make a sale, the thief is looking for the big score, the knight wishes to win renown and cover himself in glory, the suitor wishes to win the hand and heart of his intended. Some characters can get more complex. Is the slave’s duty to his master stronger than his desire for revenge against those who reduced him to such a state? Is the goblin’s greed stronger than her loyalty to her tribe? I use my themes to answer those questions. Chatty would probably invoke the “Rule of Cool” while Raggi might decide based on the mood he’s trying to create.

The real fun, however, comes in trying to learn what will motivate an NPC. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is warned in advance how to handle Circe. Sometimes my PCs are that lucky, and they can find someone who will tell them. Sometimes, they have to learn through observing the NPC or learning obliquely of their desires through their habits, past actions, or allies and enemies.

And that’s how our adventures grow: the players need to get past Verdinashet, the Dragon of the Forest. They can’t hope to defeat her in combat (not at 2nd level, anyway). The old campaigner at the Oarsman’s Rest can tell them about her love for beautiful musical instruments. The elven glassblower in town can make them a crystal harp, but he’ll need certain rare elements to make the strings, and they may not have the coin on hand to commission the harp yet. But he’s pining in love for a priestess at Uban’s temple…

Art by Adolphe Alexandre Lesrel.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


This was what I was stumbling around for a few years ago.

Congrats to scottsz for putting it together, along with the time to read enough of the OSR to pull it off. May you rant and rave for years to come.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Savage Worlds Review

When people of the future look back at RPGs at the turn of the century, I think Savage Worlds is going to be the game they hold up as the example of popular design choices for the time. The most surprising thing about the game (and I’m going to be talking about surprise a lot here) is how unsurprising it is. You’ve seen a lot of what’s in Savage Worlds before, and come to expect it from modern RPG design: the unified mechanic, the point-buy and skill-based character creation, the roll-plus-mods-versus-target-number. Considering the praise this game garners, I suppose I expected a bit more than was reasonable. Or maybe I shouldn’t be surprised at all; it is what people seem to want and expect in an RPG these days. I fully suspect that if you plopped someone down at a table with a pad of paper and pencil and told them to write a basic outline for a rules set in an hour’s time, most folks would come up with something that looks an awful lot like Savage Worlds.

Just so we’re clear, I’m reviewing the Explorer’s Edition based solely on a read-through here. I haven’t played the game so there are likely to be issues and benefits I’m overlooking or glossing that folks who’ve actually clocked some hours with the rules will be a lot more familiar with than me.

Right off the bat, however, Savage Worlds impresses as a gorgeous game. The paperback is done up like a journal from a pulp adventure, complete with a frayed paper graphic all along the edges of each page that make it feel like a prop from an Indiana Jones RPG. It’s printed on heavy, glossy paper in full color, and the art ranges from ok to exceptional. The beauty is more than skin deep; the layout is clean, easy to navigate and read, complete with table-of-contents and an index, plus an overview at the end of most chapters that includes a brief description of roll-modifying rules you’re likely to use frequently. The book is only 160 pages long, measures 6.5 by 9 inches, and will fit easily in a briefcase, satchel, or most purses. The fact that it retails for a measly $10 is just icing on the cake. It almost begs you to pluck it off the shelf due to its simple physical portability.

The rules themselves do have a few intriguing wrinkles. First, your stats are not numbers or even modifiers, as in most games, but dice, ranging from the lowly d4 up to the d12. If you want your character to catch a falling Ming vase and the character’s Agility is d8, you’d roll a d8, add any appropriate modifiers, and try to beat a target number. The default target number is 4. (And because your character is heroic, you also get to roll a d6, and you can take the better of the d8 or the d6.) In most situations, these dice explode, which is to say, if you roll the max roll, you roll again, adding the new die roll to the previous, and repeating if you again roll the max possible on the die. This creates some pretty odd probabilities. For instance, while the d4 is clearly limited in its range, it’s also the most likely to explode. This can actually create (admittedly rare) situations where your chances of success are higher with smaller dice.

The game also uses playing cards for initiative. This is a nice little twist that solves the perennial “whose turn is it?” problem. With everyone having their initiative card face up in front of them, anyone can tell at a glance who is up and who is next.

So far, so good, but when a game has to keep telling me that it’s “fast, furious, and fun” (they even repeat it on the spine for goodness’ sake) I start to doubt it. Especially when it does things which, in the past, have made games anything but fast and furious.

For instance, the game assumes the use of miniatures. Yes, you can play without them, but the book strongly suggests that you use them. (This was a bit of a shock for me, having gamed through the ‘90s with the White Wolfies harping constantly about how D&D is more wargame than RPG and you can tell by the emphasis on using minis.) Now I can certainly understand why. The game does not assume the PCs will be acting alone, but will often be with a group of allied NPCs fighting alongside them. This is certainly part of the pulpy tradition the game is trying to emulate (just think of the final battle of nearly any Bond flick). Minis and battlemats are a great way to keep track of where everyone is and who can do what to whom.

But with nearly all the folks I’ve played with, breaking out the minis puts everyone into wargaming mode and play really starts to drag. Folks whip out their rulers to start comparing different tactical options, and Savage Worlds lists ranges and movement rates in inches to facilitate just this sort of thing. Throw in a dice mechanic that makes figuring the probabilities of most actions extremely difficult, and you’ve got a recipe for hour-long combats. (And then, as counterpoint, you have the mini-free mass combat system. While I appreciate that they included one, I’m not too crazy about the way it reduces such struggles to a simple dice-off. Too far one way and then too far the other, in the same game!)

With all that, though, the game just oozes pulp flavor. If you want a game about two-fisted heroes from the pages of a Louis L’Amour western, Ian Fleming spy yarn, Dashiell Hammett detective story, or Sgt. Rock comic, you could do far worse than reach for Savage Worlds. I think it cares a bit too much about counting bullets and the differences between a 9 mm and a .45 to really fit with the modern genre of over-the-top action flicks, but if the movie stared Bogart or Errol Flynn, it ought to be a good match. And I like its vehicle rules enough that I'd probably use it for a Car Wars or other vehicle-heavy setting.

Otherwise, I’m rather mixed on it. On the one hand, I love me some pulpy action. On the other, I do nearly all my playing online these days, which makes the use of cards and miniatures a bit more of a hassle than I generally want to bother with. I fear the game, while intriguing in a number of respects, is likely to join Earthdawn, Alternity, and Shadowrun as books I keep for inspiration and ideas, but not the sort of thing I’m likely to play often.

Photos by wwarby and Marcin Wichary.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Review of Starsiege: Event Horizon

ConDFW was a lot of fun, in spite of some last-minute cancellations due to the “Snowpocalypse” of ’10. (Yeah, Oddysey, I can hear you snickering all the way across the Appalachians. ;p ) One of the highlights for me was the presence of Troll Lord Games. The con is primarily a literary event, and gaming, while usually represented, was a bit anemic this year. I took advantage of that to sit in on some impromptu Castles & Crusades gaming. The game is fun; take out skills and relegate feats to class-based special abilities and you go pretty far to returning a lot of the 1e flavor back into the game. Throwing together some 10th level characters was a snap, and the brief combat we played went fairly quickly. It’s not enough to drag me away from Labyrinth Lord, but it would certainly be contender if I wanted that 1e experience and despaired of acquiring enough of the original books for my gaming group.

They were also selling Starsiege box sets. Yep, before everyone else was jumping on the boxed set bandwagon, Troll Lord was already there. The box itself is attractive, with a very blue, Babylon 5 space-scape and orange lettering. I’m not crazy about the art. It certainly doesn’t make me go, “Ooo! I wanna be on that starship!” But it makes it pretty clear what you can expect to find inside.

What you will find inside is a copy of the GM booklet, called an Operations Manual, four copies of the player booklet, called a Field Manual, a setting booklet (“Victory: 2442”), two nice little d20s, a double-sided character sheet on card stock (clearly for taking to your neighborhood copy shop for reproduction), and some card-stock reference sheets (vehicle record, planet record, and a “trappings cheat sheet”). In short, everything an entire group needs to play the game, short of pencils and paper. I love the fact that they’ve included multiple copies of the player’s booklet for the game, and it seems a great way to load a boxed set.

The booklets themselves are SHORT! The GM book is 44 pages long and the players’ book is 28 pages long, making them even shorter than my beloved Moldvay/Cook D&D books. This is due in part, I’m certain, to the dearth of art. There is some art, but not a lot, and entire pages have nothing but the three columns of text with a few drop boxes. Starsiege isn’t about to win any beauty contests in terms of layout and design. The books work, but that’s about it.

Of slightly greater importance is the complete lack of a table-of-contents or index in any of the books. I can understand the impulse; the books are so short and the rules so simple that referencing them in the middle of play is unlikely and simple to do. Still, I’m gratified to see that the author, Josh Chewning, has posted tables-of-contents on his website.

Before I decided to buy the game, I went online to find some reviews, and one of the first that came up was naturally Dr. Rotwang’s rather glowing description, and I have to echo just about everything he said. Starsiege really is a sci-fi construction set. There are even suggestions for making the game more or less deadly, more or less gritty, more or less wahoo-out-there-superhero-comics. The rules for radiation, for example, are vague enough that they can be tied to pretty much any atmospheric pollutant, and can either result in simple, long-term damage to your character, or wacky, old-school Gamma World mutations, with a built-in mechanism to give you a broad spectrum of results.

My reflex here is to compare it to GURPS, but that’s not really fair to either game. Starsiege is simple, light, broad, and vague. If you’re all about modeling the differences between the Barrett .50, the Sharps Big 50, and the Spencer Carbine (yes, Savage Worlds, I’m looking at you), Starsiege is not your game.


And the caveat is there because of the awesome little trappings system the game includes. It basically gives you quick-and-dirty points-buy system to create just about any little tool, mutant power, gun, starship, ringworld, multi-dimensional planet-eating monster or what-have-you. (Can you say, “Apocalypse Box?”) While the default is to paint with broad strokes, there’s no reason you couldn’t drill down to more detail, though I’m not quite sure yet how much granularity the game will support. But what you can do with it is basically recreate whatever you need to emulate the genre you’re after, whether it’s Death Stars and lightsabers or Klingons and tricorders or datajacks and wired reflexes. The system doesn’t care if your ship is powered by dilithium crystals and has a warp drive or relies on a steam boiler power plant and is propelled by aether screws. It’s a completely effects-based system: how far can it go, how fast can it get there, how many people can it transport, and can it blow things up once it gets there.

And if that’s not enough, it’s got a rather sweet little planetary conflict system, where you can stat out your planets (or interstellar empires or megacorps or spy agencies or war fleets or…) and then have them duke it out for domination of the galaxy.

As a toolkit, it’s shockingly complete for such a little game. It’s not the easiest thing to use (in part thanks to the painfully obvious lack of an editor) and I suspect if you poke it hard enough, it’ll break in lots of places. Likewise, its obsequious genuflections to BALANCE are a bit over-the-top; do I really need to break down every piece of gear to its component abilities and chart out its stats? Certainly not, but it does give me a good place to start, helps me answer questions like “how much should this cost” and will be a great boon to setting-builders who suffer fits of stark terror when confronted with a blank page. There are so many little options, tweaks, and suggestions for other ways to handle things that it’s incredibly flexible. While I was reading it, I couldn’t help but imagine the sorts of campaigns I could create with this, which is a huge improvement over my reaction to Savage Worlds, where I couldn’t stop thinking about how I’d build my own rules.

But it is a toolkit. It’s not everything you need to play in one box. The example setting provided is only 24 pages long and includes no maps. It does have a nice collection of weapons, starships, and alien races to play with, but not much more than that. Before you can start rolling dice in earnest, you (or you and your players) will need to sit down and build your campaign. Frankly, that sounds like a heck of a lot of fun to me. I think I’ve found my go-to game for space opera sci-fi.

Friday, February 12, 2010


I will be here part of this weekend.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

When You Can Snatch the Pebble From My Hand, Grasshoppa...

Wyatt here suffers from DM crises. Not a single crisis, but an ongoing cascade of self-doubt and second-guessing. Yeah, not fun.

I’m going to buck the trend here and say that your players having fun is not the end-all, be-all of good DMing. That’s adequate DMing. You’ve managed to entertain your friends for a few hours. Hurrah! Not bad, but have you given them anything they couldn’t have gotten going bowling or watching a movie or thwacking each other with paintballs over that same span of time? Why RPGs instead of something, anything, else?

To be a good DM, you have to give them that something extra that only RPGs can deliver. That means you need to know what your game is about. I do this with themes, but you can do it with genres or proverbs or whatever floats your boat.

Why is this important? It does two things: first, it puts everyone in a similar headspace so you’re all grooving to the same tune, even if not everyone knows the words. Second, it answers Wyatt’s Spartacus question. Sure, if your game is Gritty Gladiator Grindhouse, Spartacus should get stomped. But if it’s Anime Action Hour, Crixus will mop the floor with Spartacus until the cute sidekick shouts, “I believe in you, Spartacus!” Then Spartacus will find an unexpected reservoir of power deep inside his heart, and he’ll splatter Crixus across the landscape. In the Strong, Silent, Macho Dudes RPG, Spartacus gets pounded into the sand, but he and Crixus find a surprising respect for each other and bond as brothers in the crucible of pure, raw, mano-a-mano combat. And in the Quentin Tarantino RPG, whether or not Spartacus wins or loses isn’t nearly as important as drawing out the tension before the brutal disfigurement we know he’s going to endure at the hands of Crixus.

Once you know what your game is about, your questions answer themselves. Should the goblins charge forth and attempt to swarm the PCs, dying to the last man? Sure, if you’re playing a game about tactical maneuver and logistics. Should they leap out in waves, each wielding bizarre and vaguely humorous weapons that inflict freakish handicaps and transformations on the PCs? Absolutely, if you’re going for a fairytale/looking-glass/labyrinth sort of experience. Maybe they should scuttle behind the walls, like rats, only occasionally revealing their red, beady eyes when in the peripheral vision of the heroes? That certainly works for a more disturbing, psychological horror game.

I suspect Wyatt already has some idea of what his game is about. He’s thinking about this issue, if somewhat tangentially, in his choices of soundtrack. Other things to consider are your choice of game. Do the rules support or impede the sort of play you want? The great thing about most flavors of D&D is that they are flexible enough to support a wide range of styles with just a bit of tweaking. Are the assumptions, characters, and interests of your players compatible with what your game is about? Not every player is a good match for every game. You may need to rework things to accommodate a player, or let that player find a more suitable game.

This is important because, once you’ve mastered running a game with a thematic core, you’ll want to move on to the next challenge: helping your players realize their vision of their characters.

Well, maybe you will. Honestly, at this point, we’re talking the bleeding edge of the best of the best. Most DMs never give a second thought to anything like the themes of their game, and wallow in a vague set of pseudo-Tolkeinish assumptions implied, but never really nailed down, by the rulebooks. Simply being aware of such issues raises you above the pack and delivers a superior play experience more consistently for the entire group.

Helping your players realize their visions of their characters is a whole level beyond that. Quite frankly, it requires a level of social acumen I’m fairly sure I don’t possess, which makes it a monumental struggle for me. Others may find that part of it easier, but that’s not the end of the challenges.

First, it assumes your players have some idea of who or what they want their characters to be. Most do, even if it’s just using a particular collection of powers to dominate certain mechanical aspects of the game. What they may not have is a clear and consistent vision. No vision of any PC I’ve ever created has survived the first session of play. Some things simply don’t work the way I expect them to, or circumstances force me to accentuate certain aspects over others. In all honesty, the guy who wants to be a bad-ass monster-mauler with his spiked chain and carefully selected array of combat feats is much easier to deal with than the budding thespian who vacillates like Hamlet over whether love or vengeance is central to their character concept.

Once you and your players think you have something fairly solid, then you have to help them cultivate it. No, this doesn’t mean flopping down like a welcome mat while your players engage in self-indulgent, overly verbose monologues. (Usually. At this point, we’re deep into some very subjective territory. Proceed with caution!) As most writers can tell you, characters blossom brightest when subjected to adversity. It isn’t the moment of sweet snuggling with the holder of his heart that makes a lover, it’s the struggle he goes through to get there, and it’s the romantic tension that’s the fun part as he grapples with the myriad obstacles that seek to thwart him. It’s not how he pounds the bad guys that makes John McClane such a cool action hero. It’s that he’s barefoot , body and soul abused and bruised and bleeding, passing through a hideous gauntlet of physical and emotional abuse while he does so.

It’s a bit like polishing diamonds. You have to know where to cut, how to hurt the characters so that the aspects that are important to the player come shining through. And the player’s ideas might be changing over time. And you’ve got a whole group of players to do this for. So yeah, not easy.

But, if you can pull it off, you’ll have given your players an experience no other media, not movies or books or computer games, can give them.

Art by Jean-Leon Gerome and John William Waterhouse.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Assumptions, Balance, and Death

There’s also been some talk of death around the intrawebs lately. This is partly my fault; last Wednesday night, the Table of Death & Dismemberment claimed its first mortal victim. Context, of course, is everything. This was the second part of a running battle between our heroes and a trio of red slaadi.

Our heroes, by the way, were a collection of 2nd and 1st level characters.
Yeah, I can hear the gasps now, and it’s worse than you think because there was also a vampire sshian not far away who nearly got involved in the fight as well.
So what was I thinking, putting the party in a position where they ended up fighting three slaadi and nearly a vampire as well? What sort of sick, sadistic killer-DM monster am I?

Hey, don’t point the finger at me; none of this was my idea. The players are the ones who chose to go vampire-hunting. In an ancient sewer-system where they knew they could possibly run into slaadi. This was entirely their choice.

(What were they thinking? They knew if they could slay the vamp themselves, they’d reap rich rewards for their success. If they got help in killing it, or passed the responsibility entirely to others, there were certain consequences which they were not eager to face. It wasn’t a bad choice, it was just a gamble that went poorly for them.)

It’s this choice that really gets to the heart of Old School and Neo-classical play. There are few dungeons less linear than the good old Caves of Chaos, the complex of tunnels that provide the heart of the adventuring experience in B2: Keep on the Borderlands. Players can study the caves, scout them out, hunt for clues or ask for rumors at the Keep, and then decide which challenges they want to face. Nothing forces them to pick one cave over another. It is entirely possible for them to get in over their heads if they’re not careful, and even if they are. But for the most part, the challenges they face are entirely of their own choosing.

Somewhere along the line, however, the assumptions changed. It became less the DM asking the players what they wanted to do this time, and more the players trying to “find” or “guess” what adventure the DM had planned. It’s amusing the note the bizarre, passive-aggressive mode this often took. As if unconsciously recognizing the bizarreness of the assumption, the DM wasn’t really supposed to tell the players what the planned adventure was, and the players weren’t supposed to ask. Instead, the DM was supposed to signal the “entrance” to the planned adventure and players were expected to recognize these signals and to dutifully follow where they led.
Ostensibly, this was supposed to make things easier of the DM. Since the DM knew in advance what was going to happen, the DM could focus on the content players would actually encounter. In truth, however, this dumped on the DM a whole mess of responsibilities that 3e and 4e were designed, in part, to make easier. Chief among these was the creation of “properly balanced” encounters.

Since the DM got to decide exactly what encounters and challenges the party would face, it became solely the DM’s responsibility to ensure that every fight was properly calibrated to the abilities of the party. 3e and 4e both have mechanisms for calculating this sort of thing. Such things are rife with unintended consequences, however.

For instance, in order to know what sort of challenges are in the proper range of a group of PCs, they must always be at roughly the same level of power. This means the rules, and not the DM, largely decide what treasure and magic items the PCs get, in addition to which monsters they face. This also makes the death of one or a few of the PCs mechanically intolerable. Either you kill none of the PCs or you kill all of them. Or you start new PCs at roughly the same level of ability as the rest of the group, making death a reasonable choice for a player who’s decided they want to play a different character or decides they wanted their character to go in a different direction somewhere along the line.

And this leads to players phoning it in. After all, if the rules are designed in such a way that they should be able to outfight every foe they meet, why should they do anything else? And since the DM has set them on the rails of the chosen adventure, the players have no choice in strategic decisions, and little reason to bother with tactical ones. In fact, the game actively discourages such cleverness, since it forces players to endure tedious battles that were decided, thanks to their clever thinking, before any dice are rolled.

Obviously, most games don’t devolve to this level of tedium. The inexactness of the encounter creation guidelines mean the players must at least be aware and prepared for the outriders that throw a wrench in their assumptions, while better DMs learn how to gauge encounters against the abilities of their players more than the strengths of the characters. Still, the hobbling assumptions remain, robbing players of making choices, and as has been discussed before, choices are what games are all about.

Art by John Mulcaster Carrick and Felix Louis Leullier.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Would You Say I Have a Plethora of Classes?

There’s been some neat discussion around and about over new character classes for various versions of D&D. In spite of my numerous additions to the field (My LL game currently includes six new classes: rogues, gnomes, pixies, nixies, half-ogres, and witches) I remain rather loyal to the notion that what most folks want to play can be a variation on the primary themes of the original character classes. So while I enjoy adding classes, and it is pretty easy, I try not to go crazy about it. And while I admit there’s a heavy dose of Rientsian “if it’s fun, wallow in it” in my choices, I do try to make certain that my classes fit at least one, if not both of the following criteria.

If I’m going to create a new class, it has to fit my campaign setting. Sure, one of the joys of LL is how generic it is within the realms of fantasy, but I’m not making these for addition to the LL core book. These are for my game primarily, and I share them with you because I think they’re cool and some of you might get something good out of them. But my witch class, for instance, is built around concepts that are pretty specific to my campaign. Most folks don’t want to touch gender with a 10’ pole, and I can certainly understand that. It’s one of my favorite themes to play with, and so I have the witch class.

Mostly, however, I’m trying to do things that the basic classes don’t touch. My gnomes exist to highlight the hireling rules. Witches bring in the 1e druid spells. Rogues let me do funky things with the to-hit tables and offer a magic-dabbler class. Half-ogres offer a powerful bruiser to the players and let me play with my weapon damage rules.

The odd ducks in the list are the pixie and nixie classes. The pixie was a request from a new player (who hasn’t been able to start yet, though the character is done, I think) while the need for a nixie class grew out of a transformation that happened in the game. Because both classes have interesting powers and challenges, I couldn’t simply use elves and say that was close enough, but the elf class was the model for both of them. That said, both fit my fluff and crunch criteria, the pixie being a tiny flier and the nixie having a handful of Aquaman’s abilities.

However, I don’t have a courtier class, or a raconteur calls because I don’t want the dice to do those sorts of things. That sort of thing is for playing out. Just like I don’t want any “social combat” rules, I really don’t want any classes predicated on that sort of thing, either.

Art by Howard Pyle.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Making More From Less

OD&D keeps characters simple. They don't have loads of spells, abilities, or magic items. The monsters are built in a similar way. An orc swings its sword or fires its bow at you, and that's about it. Critters like beholders and dragons are a little more complex, but they're the exception, not the norm. There are no skills to roll, just descriptions of what a character tries to do.

When you pull those things back, you're left with only one option for making a dungeon or adventure interesting: Compelling locations, mysteries, puzzles, weird phenomena, *stuff* that the PCs can poke, prod, and inspect. These are all the things that make D&D compelling. They show off the spontaneity, immersion, and creativity that arise in the exchange among players and DM.

Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

4e DM-free

When I was paging through the original 4e core books, I couldn't help but think how there was a strong possibility that you could play the game with some well-crafted random charts and no DM. Oddysey recently pointed out to me that there's a section about that very thing in the back of the DMG.

And apparently WotC is seriously pursuing that idea.

If you follow the Amazon link, the cover they show bills it as a "board game" and not an adventure for 4e, so it my be an extremely watered-down version of the core rules, simplified into a Hero Quest type configurable board game. And it looks like the "interlocking dungeon tiles" are flat, so not the 3-D pre-painted terrain I'm predicting will herald the final vanishing of the virtual tabletop.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

What is Neo-classical Gaming?

Jonathan followed up his post on WotC’s D&D Encounters with a tongue-in-cheek post about all the comments the announcement has spurred. As a footnote, he comments:

I should footnote this post and point out that it is purely hyperbole and for the sake of humor. Except the part about neo-classical games; I still don't know what hell that is supposed to be other than some sort of bourgeois intellectualism about RPGs

Damn! I wish I was bourgeois. Frankly, I’m not even measuring up to proletariat these days!

But seriously, I’m also getting hits from folks entering the phrase “neo-classical gaming” into search engines. As one of the proponents of the term, I suppose I ought to promote it and explain it every now and then.

The term was coined by Stuart Robertson (or, at least, that’s where I saw it first). But my favorite explanation comes from Rob Conley of Bat in the Attic:

To me the Old School Renaissance is not about playing a particular set of rules in a particular way, the dungeon crawl. It about going back to the roots of our hobby and see what we could do differently. What avenues were not explored because of the commercial and personal interests of the game designers of the time.

We’re not going to play those games today the way we did then. I wouldn’t want to even if I could. After earning a college degree in history and exploring a wider range of literature, I’ve got all sorts of new and neat ideas to toss into the mix that I didn’t have before. It’s not so much the old games the old way, but the old games a new way. It’s about taking those games, seeing what made them work, as well as casting a cold, critical eye on what didn’t work, and repurposing them for what we want out of RPGs today.

It’s also very much an exercise in social archeology, primarily based on James Maliszewski’s Grognardia. While he may be more willing than most to assume that “D&D is always right,” his eagerness to understand why things were done that way at the birth of the hobby gives us all insights into how games are made, how they are played, and what the assumptions were that created the very first RPGs.

Beyond that, it becomes a difference with too many distinctions, ranging from my own “Silver Age” attempts at building a living, breathing world to Jeff Rients Retro Stupid play to JB’s writing a Companion book to the Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert sets. The unifying concept is only an attempt to retrieve what worked best from the early days of the hobby, and bring it into the sort of gaming we want to do today.

Art by Frederic Edwin Church.