Friday, April 30, 2010

Free Comic Book Day is TOMORROW!

So don't miss it!

I'll be headed to my friendly neighborhood Tribe to enjoy the festivities. The store seems to be going strong and they have a great collection of the usual books, lots of indie titles, and, of course, gaming stuff as well. And I'll probably swing by Half Price afterwards to see what goodies I can find there. Last time, I snagged a copy of "Best of White Dwarf Articles III" from 1986. Never know what you might find there.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Ok, That's Just Spooky...

I am a d10

You are a d10: You are analytical, rational, and logical. You see the world around you as a succession of problems that can only be navigated via insightful and elegant solutions. You insist on precision are often forced to waste valuable time correcting others. Your attention to detail is extraordinary, and will sometimes focus all your attention on details that others consider unimportant. You are not so interested in doing the right thing, as you are in finding the best way to do it. In other words, you're a complete nerd.
Thanks to Jeff for pointing this out. Troll-vault, indeed...

Take the quiz at

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Cry Havoc, Trollsmyth-style

OdRook asks, “In your own campaign(s), what rules do you use for two-handed weapons and two-weapon fighting (assuming you allow this one)?”

I’m going to take advantage of OdRook’s question to post a quick overview of my combat rules. One-handed weapons do 1d6 damage. Two-handed weapons do 2d4 damage. Fighting with a weapon in each hand (or using a quarterstaff) does the best roll of two six-sided dice. So if you’re fighting with sword and hand-axe, you’d roll a pair of six-siders (say you rolled a 2 and a 5) and you’d do the damage indicated on the higher roll (in this case the 5). You still roll only a single d20 for to-hit, however.

I also use individual initiative, but don’t roll for it. Instead, it’s dictated by your choice of weapons:

Bastard sword
2d4 when wielded two-handed
Battle axe
Hand axe
Double damage on charge.
Pole arm
Short sword
Double damage when set to receive charge
Highest of 2d6
+ 1d4 burning damage
Two-handed sword
War hammer

This is where things get a bit complicated. Highest number goes first, and you do add your DEX modifier to the number. This makes spear-and-shield a pretty good combination, with high initiative and the additional protection of a splinterable shield. And you’ll want to wear a helmet as well, just in case you end up rolling on the Table of Death & Dismemberment.

That’s the how and here are the whys: 1d6/2d4 damage is quick and easy. Players remember which die they need to roll. It also means that magic-users don’t need to be limited to daggers so much; I even allow them to use quarterstaves, but still no shields, two-handed weapons (other than the staff) or weapon in each hand. (Granted, that still leaves things open for magic-users getting their hands on magic swords. I’m less worried about that, honestly, since they’re extremely rare in my games.)

Not rolling for initiative means one less roll needed in combat, which speeds things along. Dice-rolling is my least favorite activity in RPGing, so I try to minimize it as much as I can anyway. (Yeah, I know that’s blasphemy. ;) ) It also means a real difference between swords and spears and daggers in spite of them all rolling the same d6 for damage. Spears, quite frankly, are an incredibly flexible weapon for adventurers. They can be set to receive charges, held in one hand for stabbing, thrown, or even used as prods and levers when exploring.

The Table of Death & Dismemberment means heroes are less likely to die without sacrificing much in the way of tension, makes helmets important, and serves as something of a critical-hits table. In spite of the example I give, I do not allow the CON bonus to affect rolls on this table. It just wasn’t necessary. I think in a year of play we’ve rolled six times on this table, with one death, two lost hands, and the rest were stunned-for-one-round. My players are crafty and sly, and try to avoid “fair” fights whenever possible, for which I heartily commend them.

Art by Eugene Delacroix and Constantin Hansen.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Playing with the Sword-and-Board Fighter

Ian over at the Swashbuckler's Hideout has a neat new variation on the "shields shall be splintered" house rule. It's considerably more attention-intensive than mine, but he also has very different goals:

My goal for this rule was to make defending with a shield an active, rather than a passive, ability and to create a large difference in play styles between the sword & board and two-handed combatants.

I'm really looking forward to hearing what his goals are for his game. Everybody plays the game differently because everyone gets their fun in different ways. So what follows should absolutely not be seen as a criticism of Ian or his rules. That's not my goal here at all; I'm really looking forward to seeing what he has in mind and why he's doing things the way he's doing them.

That said, I see in Ian's rule a tendency I see in myself and most other designers. If we want one choice to "play differently" from another, we give them new dice rolls. I see two issues with this. First, modern game design loves its central mechanics. The whole point of the central mechanic is to make every procedural dice roll similar in execution. This makes the game a lot easier to master. Learn the central mechanic, and you've pretty much learned the whole game. Of course, this means that relying on dice rolls to make classes play differently doesn't work very well. If you're using a central mechanic, all your dice rolls are going to be extremely similar. Ian’s starting with an older version of D&D I believe, so this isn't as big an issue for him as it is for some of us, but it's something to keep in mind.

The other issue is something I've been harping on lately: when you're rolling the dice, you're not playing the game. Dice rolls are what happens when the game stops and we wait to see what sort of curveball randomness is going to throw us. People think dice rolls are the game because that's mostly what we see in the books. But games are about making choices, not rolling dice; the game of craps is in the betting; rolling of the dice only tells you who won.

So as an exercise in what-if, let's take a look at Ian's goal of making the sword-and-board warrior play differently from the two-hander. In the faux old-school game Mazes and Minotaurs, there is a rule that gives warriors in a shield wall bonuses in combat, specifically giving them a +2 defensive bonus.

If we import this rule, or one very much like it, we can see that it will encourage the sword-and-board warrior to fight with other sword-and-board warriors, shoulder-to-shoulder in a shield wall. One way to do this would be to have other fighters in the party also fight sword-and-board. That would work well for a large party, but what if the party's very small or the other players don't want to play sword-and-board fighters? It might be best for our sword-and-board warrior to instead rely on retainers, hirelings, or henchmen to fill out a shield wall. This gives us a very different sort of warrior. Now we've got a character for whom Charisma is not a dump stat. He needs that high morale bonus to keep his guys in the shield wall. He is also a lot more worried about logistics. He's got a crew to feed and transport and arm. The other warriors in the shield wall need arms, equipment, food and their own share of the loot. Our sword-and-board warrior is now more commander and leader and less of a lone-wolf like his two-hander swinging counterpart.

So now we have a sword-and-board warrior who plays very differently inside and outside of combat. The interests and concerns of the player are noticeably changed from those of a generic fighter. And we did this without adding a single dice roll, just a simple rule that modifies certain already-existing combat rolls. I suspect this doesn't do Ian much good; this is probably not the direction he wants to take his game at all. This is just a fun little exercise in thinking outside the box. Often our first instincts are spot on, but it's useful to poke around and see if they are other and better ways to accomplish our ends.

Art by Walter Crane.

Monday, April 12, 2010

New Look!

The new header is by Ravenconspiracy of Drawings & Dragons. There's a lot of excellent work there, and I believe Ravenconspiracy is still available for commissions. The cost was more than fair and you can see the quality for yourself.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

More Neoclassical Social RPG: Mass Effect Musings

Josh of recently asked about making a Mass Effect pen and paper RPG. Gamefiend responded as follows:

First thing you need to define is what makes ME compelling in the first place. I thought it (and Dragon Age) were compelling in it forced you build relationships between characters and to make hard decisions. Everything else, from the combat to aesthetics, could be interchangeable with something else. But the relationships and difficult decisions really are what I would seek to emulate more than anything else.

What followed was a fairly traditional implementation of social mechanics in modern RPGs. What I'd like to do is take a look at how a neoclassical game might handle similar challenges. (Do keep in mind I have never played Mass Effect. So the ideas I'm proposing here might not work for a game that is modeled on it.)

First, the neoclassical mantra: the rules reinforce the theme obliquely. That is, a game about exploration (like D&D) has rules that reward exploration, but not directly. So in our science-fiction game based on relationships of hard decisions, are rules are going to play off these themes without touching on them directly. We're not going to have mechanics that quantify relationships or play off those numbers.

Instead, what we'll craft is a series of mechanics that promote the building and maintenance of relationships. So our combat rules are going to give bonuses for having a lots of people helping out. Things like cover fire rules, overwatch mechanics, or air support and orbital bombardment which encourage players to build the sorts of relationships that allow them to call in all sorts of resources. Our more generic resource rules, things like gold pieces in D&D, are going to be based on your ability to call in help from various organizations. Your relationship with other law enforcement agencies, or even underworld types, give you access to people, information, and equipment you might not get otherwise. Finally, our basic mechanics for adjudicating uncertainty will give lots of really big bonuses for cooperation. Expert advice, hands-on assistance, and maybe even inexpert aid or even just the well wishes of others will give large bonuses to success.

But we won’t have any hard numbers to measure your relationship with others. That is up to you and the GM. It will probably be fairly binary; if you have a good relationship with these folks then they will help you. If not, you're out of luck. Of course, this leaves a lot to the discretion of the GM, but that's a fairly standard hallmark of the neoclassical style. It also gives players and GMs a lot of leeway in defining how relationships work, who you can have a relationship with, and how strong those relationships are. What we're interested in as crafters of the system is the utility of these relationships, not so much the relationships themselves. Some things are fun just as they are and don't need the extra help.

Hard decisions are like that. Again, we’ll leave a lot in the hands of the GM. The hard decisions come from the adventures and the situations that the PCs find themselves in. In a well-networked social space, these will invariably lead the PCs to choose sides. In making these choices they will almost certainly annoy some of the factions from whom they could get resources. Hopefully, the same choice will reinforce the relationship with another group. But that's not necessarily the case. Sometimes, doing the right thing angers everybody. Whether or not some recognize the virtue of these sorts of difficult choices is entirely up to the GM. But if you're simply moving back and forth on a sliding scale of being liked by group A or being liked by group B, that's not really a hard choice. Eventually, the players will decide that one side or the other can serve him better, and just max out their "faction" with that particular side. Really tough choices involved sacrificing something in return for doing the right thing, even when the right thing is not likely to win you points with anybody.

And our neoclassical sci-fi cop game handles this very well. Burning bridges means fewer resources. Fewer resources raise the difficulty of achieving your ends. We don't need to add anything in the mechanics to make certain choices difficult. We may offer some guidelines for the GM on how to handle such situations, but the mechanics handle their end of things pretty well all by themselves. This is the beauty of neoclassical game design. We don't have a whole lot of rules to memorize or look up in the middle of the game, but the ones that we do have reinforce our themes.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010


In the Doom & Tea Parties game one of the PCs recently had a conversation with an NPC about freedom, or the lack thereof. They discussed how choices are made for them by society (like parents, superiors in their organizations, and just social custom), and how choices were curtailed by past choices. This may seem unusual for an old-school campaign. After all, the whole point of sandbox play is ultimate freedom for the players: freedom from railroads, freedom from plots and storytelling, freedom to explore wherever and whenever they want.

Life, however, doesn't always cooperate. As players explore the sandbox, and the players and DM together fill in the blanks, roadblocks begin to appear before the players. Mostly these are social. Sometimes they are physical, like mountains, oceans, or other impassable or nearly impassable terrain. Specifically right now, however, I’m talking about social constraints. As the players rescue prisoners, fence the loot, and complete little jobs or big jobs for the Powers That Be, they began to entangle themselves in the social network of the setting. As they acquire power the Powers That Be will take notice of them and may in fact act to entangle them in the social network of the setting. This only makes sense after all, since they want the PCs, especially as they grow in power, to be on their side.

However it happens, the PCs will find that certain actions come at a cost. Allies become important, enemies seek to block their actions, and the PCs more and more have to weigh their own goals against the social costs of their actions. Do note, however, that the players are not forced to take actions or follow a plot. There is still leeway in their still choices. However, unlike at the beginning of sandbox campaign where the players can do pretty much anything and there are no real consequences for them, now their choices begin to cost them. The operative word here is "cost." They still can choose to do the socially expensive thing if that is their wish. Freedom is still there. It's just that now there are consequences for the things that they do, consequences they understand and, if everyone's been working together to build the setting and to tie the PCs into the setting, consequences which they understand and which are meaningful to them.

This, in my opinion, is when a campaign really starts to sing. At this point the world is real to the players. The players know where their characters fit into the world, and how the world interacts with the characters. The DM's job becomes a lot easier as well. Finding motivation for the players is nearly no longer an issue. The players will create their own motivations based on that social network. They want their friends and allies to be stronger and safer. They want to thwart the goals of their enemies. In fact, the primary job of the DM at this point is to keep the ball rolling so that the players are always scrambling to keep up with their own plots, their own goals, and missions that they create themselves.

Things might be different in a West Marches style sandbox. I haven't played one of those yet, but it seems to me that if you have a wide diversity in the people who show up from game to game, there's going to be less of this buy-in into the setting. Also, West Marches games tend to deemphasize time spent in the city, which makes it harder for the characters to get entangled in the social web of civilization. That said, they are very likely to get entangled in the social networks out in the wilderness or in the dungeons. Alliances with humanoids, relationships with certain powerful monsters, and attempts, much later in the game usually, to clear the wilderness and settle it, will create something like these same networks of social interactions and social entanglement, but outside of the city, and out in the wilderness or in the dungeons. Again however, if the group is different people every time, this is less likely to happen. This sort of play really requires frequent play by a consistent group of players. As the players learn the world and who the movers and shakers are, and develop relationships with them, they began to build their own networks and find their places in this world. Players who don't put in the time or the effort to learn how the world works socially are not going to have this sort of involvement or investment in the campaign. Instead, they are much more likely to just skim across the surface and focus primarily on the assumed things like killing monsters, exploring the wilderness, and collecting loot.

Which works best for you and your group, of course, really depends on you what you’re after. I myself love this kind of play, and as I said, really think campaigns take off at this point. Other people see it as distraction, or disruptive, especially since it means certain players may start to dominate the game, leaving the rest to twiddle their thumbs while the more socially aware and interested converse about the NPC’s families or recent gossip or things like that. If you're going to allow this sort of thing to happen in your campaign, or even to encourage it, all the players need to be on board or at least be willing to tolerate the sort of interactions with NPCs that may take time away from dungeon-delving, monster-murdering, and loot-gathering.

Art by Giulio Rosati and Konstantin Makovsky.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Having Fun

What’s up with the recent rise in interest in the OSR?

There certainly seems to be a lot of it. That’s a good thing for us and for the gaming blogosphere in general I think. Doesn’t answer the why though, but I think if you spend some time comparing OSR blogs and more general gaming blogs, it’s not too hard to find a likely answer.

A lot of the general gaming blogs out there appear to specialize on advice for GMs. This advice is largely about handling problems that are assumed to be wide-spread in gaming. (Even if the problem isn’t necessarily wide-spread, it behooves the blog writing about it to imply that it is, for obvious reasons.) So you get a lot of talk about all the troubles cast in the path of the erstwhile GM: problem players, getting a group to meet regularly, integrating newly published material into an ongoing campaign, 4+ hours of gaming and prep for 30 minutes of fun, and, after all that, GM burnout.

You don’t see much of that in the OSR. There’s a lot more “hey, we just played and you won’t believe what they did this time” and “look at this new thing I made” or books and stories from the age of pulp you might have missed but should really read or wacky things to do with old monsters or brand new spells and stuff like that.

In short, the folks blogging about the OSR sound like they’re having fun.

Ebullient enthusiasm plus cool toys is pretty much the backbone of Games Workshop’s marketing juggernaut. The new minis are always “wicked cool” or whatever the phrase is this week, and the games are always great fun. The tournaments are always jammed with massive crowds of folks having fun and enthusiastic about this or that army, the forums are always brimming with eagerness to see the new toys and arguing about which are the best in the heat of tabletop battle.

I’m getting something of the same vibe from the OSR. Folks just like you are making adventures and settings the likes of which nobody has really seen before. Folks just like you have pooled their skills and enthusiasm to make new games or new magazines or new companies to showcase their skill. Or your skill, since the DIY attitude invites you to join in.

Watching other people having fun is enticing. Being invited to join in on the fun is only more so, and when there’s actually fun to be had, it’s addictive.

It’s not all sunshine and free pony rides, of course. We have our stumbles as well, and our occasional little flame war. But the majority of OSR stuff I’m reading is upbeat, optimistic, and having fun. We don’t say, “Damn, wouldn’t it be great if they made box sets like they used to?” We say, “Hey, who wants to see this awesome boxed set I’m making?” So long as that can-do spirit continues, the OSR will have a bright future.

Art by Jean Charles Meissonier.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

A Theoretical Framework for the OSR

The Old School Renaissance has been getting some notice just lately (more on why I think that is later, no, really, I promise) and that means new readers to our little cluster of blogs.  Unfortunately, this means we find ourselves having to repeat ourselves; questions that we chewed on and answered to our satisfaction two years ago are coming back up as new readers and new ideas enter the discussion.  Which is awesome, but necessitates the writing of this post.

We haven’t needed this before because it wasn’t really a priority; we’re more about playing than theory in the OSR, so more practical tools like the primer, the retro-clones, the adventures, the houserules, and the magazines have been more useful and a bigger priority for us.  In many ways, the OSR is a play-now-and-figure-out-what-it-is-we’re-doing-later movement.

“Later” is apparently today.  Here’s a brief outline of what I see as the central theoretical principles that underlie the OSR.  (And I welcome comment and disagreement; it’s not like I’m the OSR pope or anything. ;) )

D&D is Always Right
And speaking of “damn it, I’m not the Pope of the OSR” this one comes from Mr. Maliszewski and started as a tool for analysis of the old games.  By this, he meant to take the games in their own terms.  Rather than come at them assuming he knew what they were about, he studied them under the assumption that the designers did, in fact, know what they were doing and succeeding in producing the games they meant to write:
The "D&D is always right" principle means that many times you're left wrestling with things that simply don't make sense or at least whose meaning is obscure. There are two ways to resolve the confusion. The simplest one is simply to assume that the original text must be "wrong," which is to say, that the author had no idea what he was talking about and that you can safely substitute your own preference in their place. The more difficult approach is to step back and assume the author actually intended something and that, simply because that something isn't immediately obvious, it isn't any less real.
And this has lead to all sorts of interesting discoveries.  Like if you actually inspect how EXP works in the pre-2e editions of D&D you realize that the original versions of the game were not about tactical combat (which was risky, dangerous, and offered piddly rewards) but about strategic exploration (which minimized risk while offering the greatest opportunity for finding the unguarded hoards which were the real key to leveling up, especially at lower levels).  And this leads to all sorts of fascinating discoveries, like the role of rust monsters in an adventure and how to maximize the strategic possibilities of your mega-dungeon.

(Addendum: This is not about saying that any version of D&D is the perfect game, or that Gygax, Arneson, etc. were infallible gods of gaming or anything like that.  Heck, it's not even really about D&D.  It's about leaving your assumptions at the door and investigating the rules on their own terms, to see what they actually do and how they perform at the table, without prejudice or prejudgement.  As Mr. Maliszewski adds in the comments here:

FWIW, my point was simply this: don't start pulling at loose strands in the tapestry until you've spent the time figuring out which ones really are loose and which ones only look that way and that, if pulled, will unravel the whole thing.

It's most emphatically not about treating D&D as a holy text or viewing Gygax or Arneson as infallible. Rather, it's about rejecting the notion that just because a rule looks "broken" to you, it really is. )
And all of this reinforces the point that…

System Matters
In spite of arguments to the contrary, 4e and 1e are very different games.  In many ways 3e and 4e were attempts to “fix” the fact that the original versions of D&D were not about the tactical combat (“killing things and taking their stuff”) that everyone has always assumed the game was about.  This isn’t to say that 3e and 4e can’t be fun, but it is to say that they favor very different experiences from BECMI or 1e.

The Old School Renaissance is a classic Reformation movement.  For most of us, RPGs stopped being as much fun as they’d been.  Wondering why, we jumped back to when they were fun in an attempt to find out what happened.  Some of us didn’t have to go back as far as others, but in almost every case, it’s been an exploration of how style and rules work together to create the experience of play.  We’ve gone back to the way things were to explore paths not taken, opportunities we passed on, to try other ways of doing things.  Once you understand how the games actually work (insight which comes from adopting the “D&D is always right” attitude) and you also understand what sorts of activities you actually enjoy, you can meld the two into a more perfect experience for you and your friends.  Which then leads to…

Because, really, we’re here to play games, not just think about them.  And once you know what you want, you can build a game and a campaign to make it happen.  Honestly, my love for Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord derives in large part from them being so easy to tinker with.

So if you hate XP for treasure, that’s easy to fix, and now you know what sort of effect that will have on your game (hint: you may want to take a good, long look at what 4e has done to tackle the challenges that creates).  Some of us want more saumurai and ninja in our games.  Others want rayguns.  Others want to really freak people out.  Yeah, there are a few around here looking for that “pure” Old School experience, but most of us are about the wahoo-fun of tossing in everything cool from our favorite Saturday-morning cartoons to musings about the historically significant cultural meanings behind the monsters we use in our games.

If you are new to the OSR, this is an easy place to jump in.  There are lots of projects underway even now to create new versions of these old games.  We’ve already beaten out a number of different OGL versions of those old games, whether your preference is for 0e or 1e or one of the many others now out of print.  The challenge now is to see just how far these games can be pushed.  Feel free to join in the fun; play some games and offer to test out some new tweaks to the rules.  Make your own rules or a dungeon and get it published in Fight On! or Knockspell.  Start your own project.  There’s more than enough room for your vision in our crazy little corner of the intrawebs.

UPDATE: Mr. Benedicto weighs in over at Eiglophian Press. And The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms drills a little deeper.

And tavisallison at "The Mule Abides" gets it, and demonstrates by an example of "D&D 4e is Always Right."

If you're still confused, you might see what Herb has to offer, which includes a very amusing baseball analogy.

UPDATE the SECOND: Greetings, visitors from the Lands of Ara! Yeah, I know, there's a lot of links in this post, but if you're new to the OSR, they'll make good compliments to Mr. Soles' lists.