Saturday, October 18, 2014

A horror classic reborn!

Some of you have probably heard about this already, but I'm mentioning it again, just in case.

It's that classic horror rpg, Chill, that is crowdfunding a third edition!

The publisher have run programs like this before, and the scope is reasonable. I've had much fun with 1st edition Chill and even though this aiming at continuing the 2nd ed I still think this is a worthy cause. There was an attempt a few years back, but that one was not run by anyone able to deliver. It looks far better this time than the previous try.

Since I've already pledged, I've downloaded the quickstart and there are some interesting mechanical tweaks I think could work very well.

There are few games doing non-mythos horror, so go forth and pludge, S.A.V.E. needs your support against the Unknown!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Using Plot Triads for the win

Last night we played Tianxia again. My life is in a very hectic phase, but I have managed to get a 2-3 hour session in now for two weeks in a row. Naturally, when you have limited time you have to use your game prep wisely.

The setup for the episode last time was that the Iron Monkey Escort Company had gotten the prestigious contract to move the Jade Buddha from the Green Heaven Temple to the governor's mansion in the city of Bao Jiang. Since running yet another ambush in the woods felt repetitive, I decided to focus instead on what happened at the end and the beginning of the journey. So, it was to be intrigue and showdown in the temple before they get out the door with the jade statuette.

Having decided that I wrote up a few antagonists. I had a young woman, with a troubled past. Since one PC is a "paladin in training" I knew I could entangle him there. I had an arrogant noble sword fighter who would rankle one of the other PCs, and to make things interesting I followed the advice in the Tianxia book and made a plot triad.The plot triad is a simple but smart idea about always having three way interplays between plot elements. So, the arrogant noble knew about the troubled past, but was honour bound to protect her because of that.

I took that same plot triad idea to the jade buddha statuette. Young woman want buddha, scheming corrupt bureaucrat want the buddha and the PCs are hired to take it from point A to point B without those two getting it.

It turned out this was a great way to get the players to interact with the world, and the characters within it. Thinking about it, just interacting with one character that have a "thing" and you want it, is pretty limiting. Either you get it, or not. The triad turned out to twist that into something that felt complex, and manageable at the same time.It was easy on prep, with just jotted down notes on who where present and who wanted what from whom. All in all, just a sentence on each character. Having limited time for prep, this was perfect. I can really recommend this tool!

What happened was the young woman charmed one PC to let her out of jail after her attempt on the statuette, the the magistrate made his grab for it, and the players got to fight a whole squad of soldiers in the abbot's quarters. They whacked the magistrate, scattered the soldiers and ride off with the buddha, escort company banner fluttering in the wind. Up on the hills were bandits and out there was the young woman, and the mysterious swords man. Very cinematic.

Next time I will just fast forward to the governer's mansion, and set up some new triads. Almost instant drama. It worked wonders for a busy gamer!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Old D&D editions and clones - Swords & Wizardry Core Edition

Back when this whole cloning D&D business started, people felt we needed to have a game like the original. We ended up at least three.

I own the Brave Halfling S&W White Box, Brave Halfling Delving Deeper, S&W Core Edition. I have also put in money for the Champions of ZED crowdfunding about which I have totally given up hope. Curiously enough Delving Deeper from BHP was also a total mess, taking forever to be shipped out. Is there a curse of OD&D clones?

I now took time out to re-read S&W Core, and it was a pleasant read. Matt Finch is repeatedly telling you where there are just some chalk lines on the pavement, and you get to decide if there should be a hole there, or something built up along those lines. It comes across very much as a tool box, and it gave me the same sense of possibilities - that really is the best word - that GURPS always gives me. While GURPS makes me start to wonder where I could plug in that little rule or procedure, S&W is more about laying down groundwork. I do like how Matt suggests things like critical hits and mentions explicitly what common house rules are.

There are some things I really didn't like, and not all of them was things I expected. I have never had any emotional investment in the great AC debate, for example. The AD&D way with negative AC always struck me as typical messy and quirky gygaxism, but nothing I felt that strongly about. Now, on the other hand, it really made me cringe! I looked at it and wondered why on earth they included that, and didn't just stay with the rules in the original three booklets.

The other thing I did find needlessly included, maybe even without being questioned, was the inclusion of so much of the magic items from Supplement I Grayhawk. After almost 40 years those magic items are anything but magical, and feel very cookie cutter. Frankly, they have been for a long time. I own a quirky volume by Rob Kuntz called El Raja Key's Arcane Treasury, and reading that I know there are more to draw from that well. Some of what's in that book really show magical qualities. Magic should be unique.

Anyway, back to S&W Core. There are lot of curious corners of this rules set, like a neat mass battles system! There are discussions about how to design dungeons, and how to reward player characters. All advice is well thought out and since it's all so sensible, and tweakable I almost at once wants to do just that. There's really nothing much in this game that reaches out and grabs you by the throught, but as a basic guideline for OD&D style gaming it's really well written, and engaging. I want to play it, and use it with my own special tweak. This one definitely stands up!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Old D&D editions and clones - Ambition & Avarice

I remember when I first heard of Castles & Crusades, and how the creators talked about how it fused the best of older editions with new. I was never that convinced by C&C, but if any game has managed to fuse the best of old and new, that game is Ambition & Avarice.

The first thing I noticed when I opened this game is how good it looks. The layout it clean and readable and the illustrations opening each chapter is adorable. I mean, the illustration to Introduction is of a ruined structure, the proverbial hole in the ground you go to have adventures. It's where everything start, and the focus of it all, which is what the text say when it lays down the design goals. Everything in this game feels well thought out.

It's fun to see new classes, and new races. Some of them are what you would normally call evil or barbaric, and I like how this game never labels them as evil or NPC only.

Some innovations feels very good, like the saves as inherent to the race, while the classes is more about what you're trained to do. Having some things each class is good at, some things they can identify and some kind of companions are strokes of genius! This makes the class cover so much more, be flexible and the companions makes the game tie the murder hobos to the world. Very good new design, in a very old and traditional way. I also like the way the system of Dungeon Rolls gives you that kind of light weight "skill system" that LotfP has. Since there are lots of class based abilities and the races have lot of different qualities it feels like there so many interesting ways to make your character special, while it's still very easy to generate one and the archetypes you in a class based system are still present. It doesn't get much better than that. The author, Greg Christopher, even manages to sell me on a save system that aligns more with the traditional ones than my preferred 3rd ed. style saves.

What are my reactions to this game then? I guess you have noted that already. This is a game that is a joy to read, and thus it makes you want to play it. There are interesting innovations while keeping a lot of the stuff that is familiar. This is a honed game, and finely cut gem that has taken lots of stuff and really focused on player driven play, within the boundaries of old school gaming, but with lots of possibilities to play just the character you want.

There are a few things that really makes me want to run this game. One of them is the lack of a list of standard magic items. One of the things that so often make the fantastic mundane is the thoughtless reuse of the pieces of wonder Gary and Rob invented for the Greyhawk campaign. In this game both monsters and magic is allowed to be unique and fantastic again.

If more games were as well written as this one, we'd all be better off.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Old D&D editions and clones - B/X edition D&D

In my series going back through old editions and clones I've reached the edition of D&D called B/X, for the "Basic" and "eXpert" books of the D&D rules. I'm thinking of taking a closer look at some other old school games as well, but for now it's the Thing itself, D&D.

First impression is good. This is clear about what it's all about, and how to use the book. This introduction is very clear, and this is what you feel about the rest of this book, very clear.

How do you organize a game book anyway? Many books have been organized like this one, and for a good reason, it is clear and makes a lot of sense. You learn about a how to make a character, his or her powers and then about things you might happen upon in an adventure and how to handle them. Even in the section about encounters the author lists things you might want to do when you encounter a creature, and then in the same order they are listed there's a section on how to handle that eventuality.

The only thing I really find curious about these books, Basic and Expert alike, is how they mention monsters. In the first book they say there's more stuff in the next book, like monsters! Then in the next book they once more mention the next book (never published) containing more stuff, like monsters. It's also mentioned on the back of the books that there are "new spells, magic items and over 100 new monsters". Why not mention how many magic items are in there?

It was fun to see that Dave Arneson's rules about magic swords show up again. I kind of missed them when they were not in the first book. I wonder how different the history of D&D would be if all swords had been that special?

Generally when I read this book I feel "this is a game I could see myself playing". You feel that since it's so complete. There are procedures for stocking dungeons, what to do if they players want to speak to monsters or who will act first when they are surprised. It feels like whatever happens, you're covered. This almost makes me feel like I'm reading 3rd edition, which is usually being slammed for trying to cover it all, with a rule for everything. Maybe it's a matter of how you present it? For me it reads very comforting. I am tempted to run a game just because I know with these rules I could handle anything.

Apart from that, there's very few pieces of really inspiring bits for me. The prose is very dry, and not enticing me into adventure, and the rules have no really quirky and bizarre subsystems you long to try out. Oddly enough, if there's one word for this feeling it must be - dull!

Considering this is the favourite edition for many D&D fans, I guess I just cussed in church! But, I don't consider this a bad game. Frankly, this probably is my favourite edition of D&D. For some reason it really lack some pizzazz, though. It wont make me go "I really want to play this game", but like I wrote earlier I could really see myself doing it, because I find no faults at all with it. Come to think of it, this was the last edition I used to run a D&D game, before it fizzled out and we started playing that newfangled thing, called 4th ed.

There is one thing that mystifies me, though, why do a clone of this game? There's nothing to fix, and there's no fault in its presentation and it's easy to find for sale cheap. Well, not being silly I guess the problem would be it's not in print.

But, My two copies of both Basic and Expert have actually kept me from getting Labyrinth Lord. I never felt the need.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

How to write rules for old school games - does it have to be bad?

As I wrote my little piece on Dragons At Dawn, I realized a thing about how to write rules text. There's a trap to look out for when writing retro clones or other games with an old school feel.

Back in the dawn of the hobby, there were lot of things taken for granted that never ended up in the rules. To some people reading those rules 35 years later or so, that leaves room for their own creativity. I think that is the wrong way to see it, if you are writing new rules in particular.

I do not think that there is a development from worse to better, so that newer rules are by definition better than the old. Something that really riles me up is when someone looks down on an older set of rules as inferior because it's older.

But, I do believe we can improve the craft of writing rules. One of the things I think we can do better now than in the olden days, is to write all our assumptions into the rules. I mean, you should strive to make the rules cover all that it is set out to cover. You do not need a rule for everything, but I think those times you don't cover something it is intentional and the base design ideas will make it less of a guesswork to fill in those gaps by your own creativity.

Naturally I can understand and sympathize with those who wants "rulings, not rules". My leanings are for the Old Ways after all. But, there are things worth imitating, and not to.

Dragons At Dawn is a peculiar game. It's trying to faithfully reproduce something where the original sources in many cases are lost. The author even makes it clear that this is a game that demands house rules. So, I will not point out that game as a bad case, but it did make me realize there is a trap out there to avoid. Remember when Goodman Games started publishing the Dragon Crawl Classics? They tried to imitate the look and feel of the old TSR modules, and other have followed. More than one reviewer thought it was cute, but also wondered if not doing something new and you own was the favoured path to tread. I kind of agree.

So, lay down the groundwork and intentions of your rules in the text. Make all assumptions and unwritten rules explicit and then I am confident it will be easier to write, easier to read, and will leave better room for rulings and not rules.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Old D&D editions and clones - D@D


The second of the old D&D editions and clones is Dragons At Dawn. I find gaming archaeology to be a fascinating subject, and the very dawn of the RPG hobby is that Final Frontier before we go into the Great Beyond. Naturally a game that tries to reimagine how Dave Arneson's game looked like in the years before D&D would pike my interest. Does it hold up?

My first thought is, who in their right mind would lay out a book all in a non serif typeface?

Anyway.

The book starts with classes, traits and XP tables for the different classes. It's kind of the way you expect it to be done, with the focus being on how to get a character ready for adventure and then you get into rules systems and how to set up a game. Interestingly enough, this game that has as its express intent to model the early game of Dave Arneson before D&D, is sometimes just as quirky and jumbled as OD&D is sometimes accused of being. You would think it should be presented in a more ordered fashion, or modern if you like. If you wonder what I mean by that, I might give as example that the XP tables doesn't mention that you reset XP after each level. That is mentioned much later in the book, in the section about how you get experience. Why is that much later in the book anyway?

This book is by intent trying to be faithful to a source that in many is no longer around, so it's maybe natural that it sometimes feel disjointed. The author actually say it demands to be house ruled. But, I still wonder a bit about the presentation.

The second half of the book, after characters, lists equipment, monsters and how to run a campaign. There are some interesting ideas in here, with random events for the campaign year and magic spell preparations that takes months! Just like OD&D the bigger picture is part of the game.

How does it feel having read it once more? Well, I like the quirky character classes with their unusual abilities. I like the magic system which is based on physical components, more like alchemy, and also the spell point system. But, here is also where one of Dave Arneson's stupidest ideas really makes me cringe. You see, magic is always touched by the alignment of the creator, and if you touch a magic item of a different alignment than your own you will suffer some bad effects. If all magic is powders, potions and "technomagic" gear in the style of Tekumel how can it have an alignment? If it's some other planar energy it is easier to grasp, but since this kind of magic is kind of like misunderstood technology, how can it have an alignment? I mean, a laser pistol? I guess the defenders of the alignment curse will figure out some explanation...

Do I want to play this game? Yes, I want to. The combat rules where the characters feels more like toy soldiers than any other role playing game and might run away if you fail a morale check, does it work? Yes, I like it. The saving roll system where you on the spot and depending on the situation rolls against a stat, does it work? Yes, I like it!

This game is so different from any other D&D game I at once become intrigued. Also, the combat system makes more sense that D&D ever did, and I really like some things like the negative AC of an undead being matched to the amount of bonus you need on your weapon to hit. Stocking dungeons and other adventures using Protection Points, which you then "buy" up as HD when stocking and restocking is cool. Having to spend your hard earned treaure to get XP for it is also a fabulous idea. There are some really elegant design gems in there.

Even though the idea of more retro games made me sigh, reading Dragons At Dawn once more makes me perk up and want to run a game, like it's 1971 once more...

Monday, September 22, 2014

Old D&D editions and clones - OD&D

I posted the question a while ago "how many clones do you need" when I realized I really didn't feel like buying two new old school games. This is my series of taking down those things off the shelf and reconsidering them. First out, OD&D.

I have pdf copies of this game, since it always costs far more than I think it is worth for a hard copy. Browsing through it, the first things that strikes me is that compared to AD&D, it's not terribly organized! When you read closer you will find odd things missing, and terms and procedures undefined, but it's sorted out in a way that makes sense. Somewhat.

My first impressions is that this is a game you could probably pick up and play. I do find the class list a bit limiting, and I would probably take out the cleric and put in some sort of rouge since the MU is played defensively and the Fighting Man offensively. Something in between and maybe with just a smattering of magic feels better than the odd Hammer Horror Cleric. Perceptive readers may note this sounds a lot like T&T...

I actually like the weird mix of the table top miniatures campaign and the focus on individuals trekking around underground. The game feels more wide open than later editions, which kind of bog down into the dungeon. But, I must say the rules for aerial combat and naval combat reads a bit less than smoothly for me. I wonder why this game was not including more stuff from Chainmail? There are so much references to Chainmail that it's clear it was intended to be used together. Why not package it as 4  books, or include more of that in the 3 booklets?

Do it make me feel like running a game? Yes and no. It's written in a way that feels quite a lot like "this is how we do it", which is I guess the precursor to all those games which state "change that which not suits you". Still, it's not trying to sell me on the idea, and for me there's something lacking.

Would I ever run something like this game, I would probably run it with multiple groups and baronies and stuff. It is a bit enticing looking at it from that viewpoint, as a larger game than just a dungeon slog.

In summary, it is the first and maybe its biggest impact on me now is how little there is in there.

Let's see how the next game fares, what my impressions are and if it makes me want to run a game of that.

Friday, September 19, 2014

100 things you have to do to play like the Old Days, or less...

I guess you have seen those books, or websites with lists like "100 movies to see before you die!"?

This is the XX things to do before you have fully tasted the Old Ways of Gaming. Maybe not all deadly serious

  1. play stable style
  2. had mass battle
  3. encounter green slime
  4. play the strategic game - both small and large scale
  5. play a Braunstein
  6. play Diplomacy
  7. design your own magic item
  8. design a monster of your own
  9. use a house hold item as a prop
  10. stabbed a fellow player character in the back
  11. had a solo run
  12. house ruled magic and combat
  13. encountered hi tech in a lo tech world
  14. played a game of multiple sides amongst the players
  15. had a player character die from a critical hit
  16. painted a lead figure of your player character
  17. figured out how to randomly roll, with even distribution, results from a table like this even there are more entries than sides on your die
...

Feel free to fill in with more.

For the real deal about playing like they did back in the days in the mid west, check out Jeff Berry's blog.



Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Campaign design in Tianxia

By now you have probably picked up on what's my favourite Fate setting, the wuxia game Tianxia from Vigilance Press. I have ran a few sessions, and decided to wrote some words on how setting development and campaign design have worked for me.

First off I might say I consider a campaign to be a GM and his or her ongoing game, not a storyline. That being said, I have not really thought much about where this game will be heading. My main focus was to have a set up that would enable people to come and go, and always have a reason so slot in the game for a night.

The gathering point, I decided, would be one of the security and escort companies that litter the setting of Jiangzhou. Having a central repository of "missions" and clients would help tie the characters to existing conflicts and also to powerful individuals that could make life interesting for them.

If you have ever played Call of Cthulhu, you are probably well familiar with the question of not only "why are we doing this again?", but also "why am I hanging out with these nut cases again?". For me that is a very relevant question, not only in CoC. By having the escort company, I get to offer some kind of fall back to those questions for the PCs. For those tired nights when everyone feel less than inspired, that can be a great help. This is what I wrote for the central organization for my campaign.
The Iron Monkey Security Company
It Will Be Delivered On Time
Discretion Above All
It's like a family
Great Contacts +4
Good Resources +3
Fair Lore +3
I really like the way you stat things up like this. I gives you some game mechanics to hang on to. If I'm out of ideas I can always use those traits as a problem and off we go.

For me it has often been a source of problem to tie the PCs to the actions in the setting. I've been a CoC fan for ages, and the idea of Delta Green as a solution to that age old problem for CoC is not exactly new to me. Maybe I had to read it in a book to feel I got the blessing of the game designer to use it somewhere else, I don't know.

I decided the company is run by "Old Monkey Li" one of the disciples of The Flashing Sword Song. Another of Song's disciples, Madame Wu, is running The Golden Flower Company which will be a possible source of conflicts.

I think the next time I start up a "D&D game", broadly interpreted, I will also start with an centring organization like this. It strikes me as I write this that The Harpers in the Realms probably started out with a similar function. Well, it would not be the first time I was a late guest to the party...

This is what I had when I started the first session. Every night would be another mission, or some intermezzo created by the last one. Regardless who showed up, the company would have representatives present as everyone was a brother or sister in the company. I decided to start the off on their way home from a mission, and naturally there was an ambush in the woods. Original, yeah right. But, it has worked before, have it not? At least it were no kobolds involved. Let's just say it's a classic.

From this start we put things in motion, and I'll write more about the highs and lows of what happened later. 

 


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