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. 

 


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Running a game of Fate - Tianxia

Having played a few sessions of Fate, and having seen how much it's been talked about, I took the plunge and ran a game myself. The publisher of Tianxia has a great blog post about running demo games of Tianxia. I stole his setup whole cloth, and it worked great!

I've found there are some things I really like with Fate. My favourite above all is how easy it is to create the opposition. You just need to think up the main thing the character is about, that's their High Concept, and add their top three skills in the pyramid and you're ready to go.

I guess that is precisely the thing that makes class based systems work so well. For me those have never been categories that sparked my imagination, though. Being able to use Drunk Brute or Snarky Magistrate  just runs straight into what makes me go "wow" and get ideas about what that character can do that would be cool to put in a scene with the PCs.

This might be the "killer feature" I unconsciously have been missing in so many other games. It makes me think that there might have been a reason I so often have relied on stock NPC templates from the GM chapters of the rules of whatever game I'm running. Interesting that it took so long to figure that out!

Monday, September 15, 2014

How many clones do you need?


Today I listened to a Swedish gaming podcast, Viskningar från kryptan [Whispers from the Crypt], about a new old school game Svärd och Svartkonst [Sword and Sorcery]. Incidentally, this coincides with a new release of Delving Deeper being talked about. It's interesting, because I felt roughly the same level of interest in both of them. Let's begin by considering the older one.

As some of you might know, that latter game was once part of the train wreck that is Brave Halfling Publishing. But, after having been published by BHP, others have kept developing it, and now have a new version available.

When I heard about that, my first impulse was to groan and turn away. Buy that game? Again? But wait a minute. Haven't I done that before, and cheered my fortune almost every time?

Naturally, Delving Deeper has had a troubled road to walk to get to my door, but I don't think this apprehension about a new version of the game has that much to do with the troubles with the delivery of the last one. The fact that SoS didn't make me look forward that much to its release might be a clue to a general state of disinterest for new old school games, for me.

I have pdf copies of OD&D, LotFP first boxed set, Delving Deeper boxed set from BHP, Swords & Wizardry White Box Edition, Swords & Wizardry standard edition, Dragons At Dawn, Ambition & Avarice, Dark Dungeons, B/X and BECMI, AD&D1 and also multiple editions of T&T and other non-D&D old school games. Guess how many of those I have played? Why should I play them all? Are they all interesting enough on their own? I think most people have probably done like me, but mostly play or or two of them that best suit their taste and personality.

While this might be old news to most of my readers, I have not really had these thoughts sink in before. I've read a blog post about someone who really found one of the games mentioned above really great. I rushed out to buy it, and might have browsed it a bit before putting it on the shelf among the rest. Now suddenly I find myself with doubts. Why do I not at once become enthusiastic for these new game releases? I think I might have reached the point where I say I really don't need any more clones, or retro inspired games.

Since it feels like I have lost some enthusiasm, I'm planning on taking them out one by one and post my thoughts about it. If nothing else it might tell me what it was I found to enticing, and that I no longer can grasp.

Then again, I might already have Delving Deeper, but SoS? Maybe I should just buy, one more, and then call it quits...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Waking up, smelling the coffee and thinking ahead

Excuse me if I wax a bit poetic in my post titles. Sometimes I get a bit influenced by Samuel R. Delaney and created titles that sound pretentious and grand. Considering I lag behind him English style, it might sometimes become a bit comical. You'll get those laughs for free.

Since I have woken up this blog, here are my intentions going forward.

I have been thinking a bit about D&D again in the hubbub about the 5th ed. and I have been playing mostly Fate recently, so I will write about those things.

Fate for me is a very strange experience. It's a game that liberates, and at the same traps me in crunch and game mechanics. D&D at the same times feels very much more like a sounding board, a reference, than a living game for me. Maybe 5th ed. will change that. I will at least make an attempt in that direction.

Let's go. First out is a post about my thoughts relating to an old school D&D release.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Waking up, slowly

If you have followed this blog for a long time, you know I used to post pretty often. I faded out of it all, loosing interest. Now I have once again started to feel the stirrings of blog posts, so even though the pace might be fairly slow I will start posting again.

Enjoy.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

How to have a moving combat

A while ago we had a game session in our irregular D&D game, and it made me realize that as mechanics went, it was a very clunky game session. I wondered at the time if there was a better way to model what was happening in the fiction, and how the rules might steer you away from something that makes sense in the fiction, but would not be fun or work well in the game mechanics you're using.

We were travelling in a boat, with one PC rowing like crazy since his STR is way better than the rest of the characters. The rest were tasked with protecting a NPC also in the boat, and we were all trying to reach the middle of this lake as fast as possible. That was the easy part. Don't let that fool you, it became a stumbling block for game mechanics as well. More on that later. Now for the dramatic part.

As we sat in that boat, a hundred or so of tiny red dragons circled ahead, and they started to swoop down and attack us. Picture this in your mind.

Picture now in your mind a battle mat, minis on the table for the characters. Now you have to place, and move, all those critters attacking us. Yes. Picture that.

So how on earth do you handle the fact that the boat and its passengers are moving constantly and thus leave the flying creatures behind and new ones come swooping in and you have to keep track of which one is which, and who has gotten 4 hits, 2 hits or maybe is under the influence of a Slow spell? Our DM was kind enough to limit our attackers to just 20, but it was still quite a circus. Also, it was slow moving and it felt quite clunky.

Of course, you could decide that the error here was to bring out the minis and the battle mat in the first place. But, would you do better by trying to just describe all that in vague terms? It would probably be even harder to remember which dragon was hit, and for how much. Maybe the relative movement could have been easier that way, but I'm not sure.

I guess you can tell that 3rd ed D&D was not a great match for this. If I had been the DM, I probably would have tried to figure out a way to change the narrative instead of the rules. But, the setting were set up and I liked the fact that the cool part of what was happening in the setting did happen, regardless of the rules. Thinking about it, I wondered what kind of rules set would handle this.

I pondered some rules I know, and some which people usually grasp for to model wild and woolly action scenes with. Doing a chase in Savage Worlds sounds like it could work quite nice, especially with the new chase rules in SW Deluxe. But, having used those rules I feel they are only slightly less painful than the alternative, not pleasant. Picking another favourite in the gaming scene online, Fate, don't solve it either. You could use Zones and maybe abstractly make the movement easier to handle that way, but the damage tracking would still be there. Frankly I'm not sure the chase would not have been a bit bland in Fate, really. I have not checked the Toolkit book for any rules about chases, though. BRP would probably be just as cumbersome as D&D.

So no great and simple solution readily available, eh?

What was it I wrote about the rowing? Yeah, you know what? There are no numbers in the book about how fast you move in a boat. Seriously? No data? Sailing? Rowing? Nothing. You have to make it up, and guess if that turned into a show stopper as well... While I felt the DM handled the scene as well as could be expected when the action finally started, I really wanted to scream when people slowly and politely discussed how fast beasts and boat should be able to move.

The session left me with the question of how to better model this, and I've still to find the answer.
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