Saturday, October 30, 2010

What Are the Attributes of an Old-school Game?

Yeah, okay, I went there. I'm not sure I want to, but as this OSR thing keeps rolling on, it's going to become a bigger and bigger question. Clearly, D&D, Traveler, Rune Quest, early versions of GURPS, Star Frontiers, and similar games are all old-school. Are there games from the '70s and early '80s that are not old-school? Are their new and original games that are? Exactly how far can Raggi go with his alterations to the basic D&D chassis and still be able to call his games old-school?

I ask this because I think the OSR is about to turn a corner. Most of what we've seen up until now has been attempts at faithful re-creation of the old games. There have been notable exceptions, including X-plorers, Mazes & Minotaurs, and possibly Mutant Future. But I think we're about to start seeing a number of games that are not so faithful to the mechanics of the games of yesteryear. I think we're about to start seeing games that try to capture the spirit of old-school while striking out much further afield in terms of mechanics.

The OSR is getting very playful. For instance, there are things like Zak's map of an inn run by a medusa and Raggi's excellent character sheets and encumbrance system. We are seeing a lot more tweaking of rules to support emergent play from long-term gaming, especially in terms of reward systems and balance issues. And there is, as always, just the usual playing with the aesthetics, especially with things like magic systems.

And I'm seeing a lot of stuff around the edges of the OSR that looks like brand new games with inventive new mechanics, things like the work of the Evil DM, Barbarians of Lemuria, Warriors of the Red Planet, The Metal Earth, and others. Even WotC is clearly trying to get its old-school on with its random character generation and frequent deaths in the new Gamma World game.

now I could just launch into what I think an OSR game is, and I kinda sorta almost did that I when attempted to define neo-classical gaming, but let's be honest here: any definition from me is going to be heavily influenced by the Silver Age and my love of verisimilitude. And I'm pretty certain that's far too limiting. The OSR so far has easily bridged the Gold and Silver Ages, and maybe even a bit of the Bronze as well.

So I toss this out to you: what are the bare minimum attributes of an old-school game? I'm tempted to say any true answer cannot be as specific as, "it must include random character generation." I think that gets too specific. I think the true answer has more to do with goals and attitudes than techniques and tools. But maybe that is too slippery. So what do you think?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

D&D's Gorgon Found!

So that's where they came from!

Like most, I was confused by D&D's reptilian bull gorgon, since the gorgons of Greek myth were three sisters, one of which was Medusa. But, via the quite fun Monster Brains blog comes this Life magazine article from 1951 which includes mention of Libyan gorgon more in keeping with what's presented in D&D.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

15 Games in a Distracted Troll's Chest! Yo-ho-ho...

Ok, hoppin’ on the meme. I believe it’s something like the 15 most meaningful games, scribbled out in a quick 15 minutes:

  1.  D&D ‘cause, yeah…
  2. Dark Tower: I still want to build an RPG campaign off that game board.
  3. Joust: more for what I thought it should be than what it was.
  4. Warhammer 40k: more for what it wanted to be than what it was.
  5. Shadowrun: elves and cyberpunk and the end of the world as we know it
  6. Star Frontiers: H. Beam Piper, the RPG!
  7. Revolt on Antares: so many cool little pieces.
  8. Trust and Betrayal: the Legacy of Siboot: rock, scissors, paper for world domination!
  9. Blue Rose: never played, but the fever-dreams it inspired still get to me.
  10. StarSiege
  11. LotFP: elegance and focus. Maybe I can do that too!
  12. Ultima series: World-building is about culture, not just where the orcs live.
  13. Space Rogue: Elite with focus.
  14. Elite: huge universe, small ship.
  15. M.U.L.E.: Unfairness can be a feature, games can be different, and people play for different reasons.

These are not in any real order. So why these games? Because they fired off my imagination and led it in interesting directions. I mean, Settlers of Catan is a fun game and all, but it does make me go, “ooo, ooo, what about a world in which sorcerers can transform bricks into sheep?!?”

Joust is the most interesting one to my mind. My first encounter with the game is seeing classmates in 5th grade draw pictures of it. They just reproduced what was on the screen, but my mind invented a game in which noble aerial knights rescued and safeguarded eggs from ravening bandits. My conception of the game was a lot more fun than the real game turned out to be.

Games like Dark Tower and Revolt on Antares had similar effects, even though I did play them. These games were vague and handwavey in their details, with just enough art and detail to ignite sparks I could nurture into full-blown daydreams. Who were those named mercenaries at Anatares? What exactly did those keys open in the frontiers of the Dark Tower map? Cool banners and futuristic wargear still simmer in my imagination.

Art by Bob Pepper.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Death is Boring

New Fish in an Old School asks, “To Kill or Not toKill?” and comes down on the traditional (and, I think, fairly common) compromise of not to kill much, with an emphasis on letting the dice fall where they will. (Frankly, I think that’s the actual Old School preference. Yes, the dungeon is designed to be deadly, but it’s also beatable. That’s often what Old Schoolers mean when they talk about putting “game” before “role playing.”)

That’s an attitude I have a lot of sympathy with, and it’s been my default mode for decades. Lately, however, I’ve been drifting away from it. You can see that in my Table of Death & Dismemberment; sure, there are broken bones and lopped-off limbs, but the most likely results are knock-outs.

Why is that? It’s not because death is inconvenient. I do not base my campaigns around any one character (PC or NPC), so simply killing or dying won’t derail things. Likewise, with the opportunity to hire henchmen, it’s fairly easy for the PCs to fill out the ranks of the party if there are holes in their team.

No, the real problem with death is that it’s, well, boring. You roll up a new character, the other players weave in a bit of grief and angst into their play, and you move on. And that just feels rather “meh” to me.

(Let me make an important distinction here, however; while death itself may be boring, the threat of death is not. Though this can highlight the problem even more, as the death of a character can feel horribly anticlimactic, after the threat of it has been ramping up.)

So, what other than death? Maiming, broken bones, and unconsciousness. If only one or two PCs are incapacitated this way, now the others need to figure out what to do with them. They certainly don’t want to abandon their comrades to capture or being eaten. Now the tension of the fight rises. The players of downed characters are still riveted to the game. Will the others be able to drag them away to safety? How much will those still standing risk to safeguard the fallen? This is a lot more thrilling than rolling up a new character.

This means, of course, that I have to be a bit more on top of things ahead of time. What does it mean when the bugbears capture the party? Do they have a history of ransoming captives? Do they keep slaves? Or do they have a relationship with some other race, deeper in the dungeon? Will the PCs be kept in cells until they are to be eaten or sacrificed to their dark god? And if that’s the case, what are the cells like? How or when are the PCs fed? How long will they be kept before they are sacrificed? What are the opportunities for escape?

It also means TPKs are far more likely. Defeat to unintelligent monsters probably means some, if not all, of the party gets eaten. (And though they were intelligent, that always makes me think of Bilbo and the dwarves, strung up by the spiders, kept poisoned and weak until it was time to feast.) Who gets eaten first? What happens to those “saved” for later?

Luckily, I love answering those questions, and usually I find examples in real-world animal behavior or the fantastic cultures I’ve created for my game. And heck, if I do get a TPK, the way my campaigns are usually put together, that means an adventure in the realms of the Afterlife.

Art by Charles-Gustave Housez and Edmund Blair Leighton.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Mice in a Box

Via the Hopeless Gamer blog, comes word of a new boxed set, this one for the Mouse Guard RPG.  For those not in the know, Mouse Guard is comic of anthropomorphic mice in the wilderness of medieval Europe.  It's all about loyalty and intrigues, legends and betrayals, and courage and death.  Heady stuff, and ripe for RPGing.  The game itself is a variant of Luke Crane's Burning Wheel game.

I'm not sure how much crossover potential there is here, and I doubt we'll see this box in places where we don't already expect to see RPGs (comic book stores and FLGS).  Still, it promises to be a lovely box with unusual goodies in it.  And, I must admit, I'm still buzzing from how the boxed set has gone so quickly from the pariah of gaming accessories to the must-have new product of the decade.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Great Purge

In the future, I'm thinking it would be appropriate to wait until May Day to commit such atrocities...  ;)

I've gone through and cleaned up my RPG links along the right side of the blog.  It's been long overdue.  I was sad to see so many blogs had gone dormant (many, for some reason, last saw action in July '09).  Still, I've been adding new ones, and the old ones were making it impossible to find them.  I'd especially like to draw your attention to Henchman AbuseGaming All Over the Place, and New Fish in an Old School.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bigger, Better, and Quite Insane

So if you've been following along in the RPG pundit-sphere, you know that there's been some thought that RPGs will go the way of wargames and model railroading. That is, as the niche shrinks, more and more products will become very high-quality collector's treasures, and will be priced accordingly.

There's a push-me-pull-me effect right now. In addition to WotC's very cheap new Red Box, there are lots of projects with a strong do-it-yourself vibe, like Fight On! and now Paizo's talking about an intro set to their Pathfinder game.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have things like Raggi's boxed set and the latest version of the Warhammer RPG. I'd thought that things like that, and the Ptolus mega-book, would be what premium RPG products of the future would look like.

That was, until Raggi linked to this today. Ye gods...

I'm a little torn when I see something like that. On the one hand, yeah, very cool. I'd love to be involved in a product that looked like that. On the other, I have to wonder at the utility of most of it. CoC has long been a game associated with props: photographs, coffee-stained letters, edlritch inscriptions and rubbings, and other such. Creating the proper mood and atmosphere is vital to the game, and the props help.

That said, some of this looks cool, but extraneous. The box, for instance, is awesome, but would it really help to set the proper mood? Ditto for the flag. I suppose we could mount it on the wall, crank the AC down to 30, bundle up in our sweaters and turtlenecks, and try to recreate the feeling of being at the bottom of the world, but...

Still, if you shoot for the moon and miss, you're likely to land among the stars. You certainly can't fault the French here for a lack of audacity. If nothing else, they've created a piece of gaming history.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

MZB Takes JB to School

Hey, remember me waxing enthusiastic about books targeted at gals? JB over at B/X Blackrazor has a fascinating post up today, inspired by his recent reading of some of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels. Here’s a teaser to whet your appetite:
In some ways, she’s RE-teaching me things I already knew but forgot. For example, fantasy/sci-fi adventure doesn’t have to include combat to be powerful, dangerous, dramatic, or life-and-death.


I remember reading a comment on someone’s blog (maybe even mine), that fantasy role-playing games require some sort of combat system because, for a game to BE a fantasy adventure RPG, COMBAT needs to be involved. I know this echoes a sentiment expressed by my brother in a discussion we had awhile back (when talking about RPG design) that people EXPECT some sort of combat/fighting action to take place in any role-playing game.

Bullshit. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.
All I’ll say on that front is that it’s been literally over a month of real time, with weekly playing, in the game Oddysey is playing in, since we last rolled for to-hit. And that was in a game of skill, not combat. And we’re having a blast! Though she does accuse me at times of playing not-D&D with her. ;)

As for JB's discussion of motivations, this is also great stuff. Speaking of Paizo, one of the things I appreciate about their Pathfinder adventures is the option for personal motivations and quests for the PCs. I do think they work better if they come from the players and the intersections of their interests and the themes of the setting, but having a goal beyond just completing the grand quest (or amassing great wealth, as is the default in traditional sandbox play) just makes the game richer to my mind. So it’s not something I push on players; if that sort of thing interests them at all, there’s more than enough time after the game begins to develop goals, rivals, and conflicts a-plenty.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010


There are so many good blogs out there! I might almost say too many; I'm having a devil of a time keeping up with all the good stuff going right now. Case in point: nearly a month ago, Navdi posted about his desire to use Pathfinder materials to run a more sandboxy, Old School game. I just discovered this last night. It struck a chord with me because 3e in all its incarnations leaves me cold, but I love Paizo's design style, artwork, and just the look-and-feel they give their stuff. So, how to infuse a more Old School feel into a game that is based on Paizo's rules and Pathfinder adventures?

I offered some suggestions in his comments, and this is expanding on what I wrote there. Generally, what the players want from 3e and its ilk is a sense of story and verisimilitude to their adventures; they don't want to just whack random monsters for random amounts of treasure. What DMs pining for a more Old School game often want is a more open-ended story and a more proactive approach from players towards tackling challenges; they don't want the players twiddling their fingers while they wait for the DM to deliver the adventure on a silver platter. With a creative and flexible DM, those goals are absolutely compatible. (Where you'll run into trouble is the conflict between the players' desire for mechanical customization of their characters and the DM's desire for simplicity. If you find a good way to harmonize those discordant themes, please let me know.)

I don't know any of Paizo's adventure paths well enough to say, but the ones I have read at least make nods towards player choice (and their latest, Kingmaker, promises to do more than that), and as Navdi points out in the comments of his blog, Paizo does a great job of establishing settings that are larger than the mere adventure path and its dungeons. With all that in mind, here are my suggestions to Old School-ify your existing collection of Pathfinder adventure paths:

1) start the players off with a clear, obvious, but open-ended problem. My favorite is a shipwreck (players need to gather supplies and find their way to civilization), but you can also use a natural disaster or alone in the wake of a military defeat for their side.

This works great because the players are presented with concrete, obvious problems to solve, but while there's no dungeon in sight, they're immediately put into the proper, creative, open-ended problem-solving mode that is the backbone of Old School play.

2) Once they've reached civilization, shift the focus to an urban environment. Everyone knows that Old School play and city adventures are incompatible, right? (We just won't mention Aerie of the Slave Lords and Vault of the Drow. Or the Random Harlot table. ;) ) Give them something concrete to do as soon as they get into the city, or better yet, have it be something they need to do that they discovered while solving the issues of the start of the campaign. During the course of this first urban adventure, start planting the seeds of conflict that will inspire the players to make choices: let them hear rumors, find treasure maps, or make enemies that will guide them to your adventure locations. Let them choose sides in local conflicts, and make those choices matter. Most importantly of all, make it clear to them as early as is reasonably possible that their choices have a direct and powerful impact on the setting. If they're not utterly bizarre, they'll love it. And again, that puts them in the proper headspace for Old School play.

3) Use more than one Pathfinder series. Since you're giving the players choices about what challenges to tackle, you'll likely need more adventures than one Pathfinder series can provide. So feel free to seed your CotCT adventures with some cherrypicked from Rise of the Runelords or Legacy of Fire. If they don't know much about the OSR, you might be able to squeeze in a Raggi adventure or something from Fight On!

4) By the time the PCs reach 4th or so level, most of the work should be done; they'll be interacting with the world as a place, rather than looking for the markers pointing them towards the next adventure. Don't be surprised if it takes that long, however. Even when the players are all on-board for that sort of thing, it can take some time before they know enough about the setting and the NPCs to really start being proactive and taking their destinies in their own hands.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Fabulous Wealth

This grew out of a number of conversations (some online) about the massive amounts of wealth old school characters (who earn most of their EXP through treasure) tend to acquire. Carousing rules work great, but if you don't want to use those for some reason, the PCs are going to end up with giant piles of treasure. Here's what I've done in the past to allow the players to fritter that great wealth away:

Potions and Magic - I've usually had a very small local market (usually one hedgewitch or the like) selling potions and a few magic spells. The potions are usually utilitarian things, like healing potions and waterbreathing potions, and sell for 100s of gp per use. Even first-level spells should probably sell for no less than 500 gp. Nothing above 2nd level is available, and little of that.

I also allow the PCs to pay sages and such for identifying magic items plundered from the dungeon. This also tends to be expensive, usually costing 50 gp or so to identify a potion and 300 gp for weapons and armour.

Fates Worse Than Death - catch a nasty disease from the giant rats? Or get cursed by the witch? Getting that sort of thing undone can cost some serious coin. The typical price I've seen for having a spell cast for you is 100 gp per level of the spell, making cure disease and remove curse cost 300 gp for each casting.

Transportation - Do the PCs need to travel by sea to get somewhere? There won't be regular cruise-ship traffic to the Isle of Dread, so they may need to buy their own war galley (60,000 gp) and crew it with rowers (300 at 2gp per month), sailors (30 at 10 gp per month), and a captain (250 gp per month). If the trip requires they sail out of sight of land, they'll want a navigator too (150 gp per month). Some marines (up to 75 at 4 gp per month for hazard pay) might be nice in case they run into pirates or sea monsters as well. And all these people will need potable water and provisions to consume on the voyage.

Throwing Money at Problems - Allow the players to solve some problems with money. Let them hire and outfit henchmen to accompany them on their adventures. A sage (2,000 gp per month) might be able to learn more about the dungeon or the evil duke who is threatening the region, while a spy (500+ gp per mission) might be able to ferret out the Duke's vile plans. Maybe the orc tribe will take a bribe to go pillage elsewhere, or could be hired to help take on the hobgoblins next door. Maybe the dragon won't eat you if it let it eat your horses.

Making Friends and Influencing People - Being known as philanthropists and high-rollers can result in beneficial modifiers to local reaction check rolls. This can include things like sacrifices at the local temple of a patron deity, weregeld paid to the families of henchmen who died on the last adventure, or rebuilding the orphanage burned down by the goblin lackeys of the evil duke. My college crew celebrated important milestones and achieving long-term goals with wild parties, in which they invited many of the important NPCs from past adventures. These were fun to RP, and allowed me to sow the seeds of future adventures. And, of course, they required the spending of lots of coin on food, entertainment, and clothes.

Bling - Every girl's crazy 'bout a sharp dressed man. Allow them bonuses to reaction rolls when they dress to the nines (after spending money on it, of course). Maybe a high-plumed helm or banner gives a morale bonus to their henchmen in battle. You're more likely to get an audience with the Lord Sheriff if you're dressed like someone who ought to be given an audience with the Lord Sheriff. A few bribes and a fancy gift might make things go smoother, too. If you really want to look the part, you'll need servants and a carriage and all of that as well.

And if you're knighted after rescuing the count's daughter, you'll owe him a certain amount of military service every year. To avoid having dull patrols and sentry duty interfering with far more profitable dungeoneering, pay enough scutage to his lordship so he can hire mercenaries instead.

Property - There's no need to wait until reaching "name level" before allowing the PCs to start spending money on lands and property. A small house in town can serve as a start, with a few servants and guards to protect it while they are away on adventure.

The nice thing about most of these suggestions is that they don't make the PCs feel like they are being punished for their success. Taxes and theft only make the players suspicious and angry. They can be used, but only with moderation. Instead, let the players use that money to make the lives of their PCs more fun and comfortable. Once you get the ball rolling, the players are likely to make suggestions of their own. Whenever possible, let them get what they want; "no" just shuts things down, but "yes, and..." creates new adventures and new fun.

Art by Joseph Mallord William Turner, Jean Limbourg, and Hans Makart .