Saturday, January 31, 2009

Getting Fantasy Literate

Alright, so here's a confession...

When it comes to the source material for old school D&D, I am quite illiterate. The thing that really drew me into D&D was the Dragonlance novel Time of the Twins, which I happened across randomly at the public library when I was in fifth grade. At the end of the book, an afterward by the authors mentioned AD&D, and it wasn't long before I was prowling the Adult Oversize Nonfiction section and taking home the AD&D1 Dungeon Master's Guide and Oriental Adventures.

I started reading Dragonlance novels as fast as I could. I read just about every damn one, no matter how spun-off from the original Chronicles and the Twins trilogy. I tried to read Forgotten Realms novels but just couldn't get into them. A friend in high school got me to read several Ravenloft novels. At any rate, aside from a couple of David Eddings novels and the first Lord of the Rings book, all the fantasy literature I read from grades 5-12 was AD&D fiction. My image of D&D fed into itself in sort of an awful little feedback loop, which is maybe why I walked away from the game circa 1995 and didn't return until 3rd edition was out. (I was still gaming, but as far away from high fantasy as I could get)I had really only seen D&D from one paradigm and I was totally burned out on it. (Yes, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, and Ravenloft were different settings, but a lot of the style of AD&D novels was pretty homogeneous after awhile.)

With my recent shift back to the gaming that I cut my teeth on, I've become quite interested in the source material that inspired it. Also, I haven't touched a sword-and-horse fantasy book since I was in high school. I'm interested in seeing the pulpy goodness that I missed all these years, and I also hope to gain a greater understanding for D&D.

For my primer, I have ordered a collection of Conan stories and a compilation of the Jack Vance Dying Earth novellas. (Courtesy of an unused Amazon gift certificate) After I finish the two library books I have checked out, it will be old school fantasy time. I am trying to rid myself of any preconceived notions, and I am also ready for the possibility that I might not like it at all. Hell, I'd have checked them out from the library, but this city seems to have nothing in the way of Vance and only one Howard book, but it's not Conan. It will be quite interesting to see how this turns out. (Well, for me anyway.)

Friday, January 30, 2009

Continued Thoughts From Yesterday

So, in my last entry I brought up two games in which the desires and goals of the character carry mechanical significance. In Wraith, this makes sense because it's a game about ghosts with unfinished business trying to move on. (Well, sometimes) It makes sense that those desires have some mechanical weight to them. Of course, many players I've known who don't enjoy Wraith point out the goal of Wraith is to make your character go away. Then again, even old school D&D recommended retiring characters once they reach a certain level, so maybe that's something that has been around in gaming from the beginning...but I digress.
In The Riddle of Steel, your character's desires and goals (Spiritual Attributes, they are called) give your otherwise fairly humble character a mechanical boost, so long as whatever action your character is undertaking directly advances his persuit of one of his Spiritual Attributes. For instance, if your character has an SA regarding his love for a fair maiden, you could argue for bonus dice in an duel to defend her honor, or maybe a roll to serenade her with an inspired ballad, or to jump across a chasm to rescue her from the bandits on the other side. Your character becomes more of a badass when in direct pursuit of the things he wants to do. My reactions to this system are mixed. On one hand, it encourages players to pursue their goals all the freaking time. I brought this up in yesterday's post because, unless the characters have identical or overlapping Spiritual Attributes, everyone is going to want to go off in their own direction, and the rest of the group will be playing second fiddle to the character who is getting dice bonuses on every damn thing he can justify. I can see the merit of the system because it produces driven characters, but the flipside is that it drives them in different directions.

Now, fair readers (the five of you that refers to), here's an informal poll: do you think that character motivations should be mechanically reinforced? Do you think this adds or subtracts from a game, and how so?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The I in Team

So recently, I've read a couple of blogs that discuss the teamwork aspect of role-playing games. It got me thinking...

D&D was the first role-playing game, and teamwork is definitely built into the game. The character classes are meant to segment party roles and contributions: the magic-user can do really nasty things but has low hp and no armor or combat ability. He relies on the fighter to protect him. Thieves and halflings were the sneaky characters, able to ambush and scout. (One they were added, that is) The assumed goal of the game was exploration, dungeon delving, and the objective in any module you might be running. These goals were for the entire party. The conceit of D&D was that the characters were in fact a party and did things as a party.

Since D&D, there have been untold numbers of rpgs published, and it seems to me that many published in the 90's and now are more heavily focused on individual character goals. I think White Wolf games are especially written this way. Perhaps the champion being old Wraith: the Oblivion, in which your character's desires and unfulfilled needs were stats with mechanical significance on the game play. Another example would be The Riddle of Steel, a (now apparently defunct) indie fantasy game where you get bonus dice if you are acting according to your characters Passion, Destiny, etc. In addition, since most games now seem to be genres other than swords and sorcery, the adventuring party concept is a bit obsolete, and most game books seem to just advise the GM to find some way to rope the characters into getting and staying together. Hell, some game books actually have to devote sections to how to do just that. There are obviously exceptions to this, (most superhero rpgs assume an adventuring party of sorts, modeled after super teams like the X-Men or the Avengers or the Justice League or whatnot) but the underlying assumption in many games I've played in the past decade is "you design the exact character you want and let the GM worry about keeping you together."
I'm sure many of us have played in or run campaigns where the only reason the characters are staying together are because the players are all playing the same game. In some cases, the game setting actually enforces this: if you've got it, take a look at Mage: the Ascension 2nd edition. There are nine magical traditions the characters can belong to (well, more than that if the ST wants to break the default campaign mode, but let's not split hairs) and none of them fucking like each other. If you read through each group, it dislikes, distrusts, totally hates, or barely tolerates each of the other groups. Ditto for Vampire the Masquerade. Now, in your classless system, you can design characters that don't need each other, plus the core book says they don't like each other.
The result? Most White Wolf games I've been in, with one or two exceptions, have crumbled as the party splintered into factions or just outright refuse to work with one another. I realize that any element of the setting can be rewritten or ignored at my option, but I think this setup does instill players with certain assumptions about how the game is played, especially if this kind of game is their first experience with gaming. (Tangent: I'd say Vampire is the second most common "first game" among gamers I've known, the most common being some incarnation of D&D.)
I think it's exacerbated by the fact that, by default, the characters sort of have to stay together because otherwise the GM is running two or three or more mini-campaigns at the same time, resulting in sections of the group sitting idle while the others get their turn interacting with the GM.

I've also found that, across a variety of gaming circles, this approach to gaming gets the players thinking that the campaign is a story about their character, with the other players' characters being supporting cast. When every player around a table gets thinking that way, that-sa no good for anyone involved. (And some games these days actively emulate the feel of a TV show or movie, which further encourages these assumptions.) Unless the group is specifically gunning for a competitive campaign where the characters are supposed to be opposing one another, the style of competing agendas is nobody's friend.

Now maybe it seems like I'm up on a soapbox, but that's not my intention. This entry isn't supposed to be me preaching Old School Forever or the One True Way or What's Wrong With the Hobby Today or Some Other Concept That Gets Wrongfully Capitalized. Rather, I'm just sharing my experiences in having played and run these games with a variety of players and GMs. If you want to play competitively, that's coo'. If you dig games that don't force the assumption of shared goals on the players a la dungeon delvin' D&D, gravy. I've just noticed that campaigns where the characters don't have a shared goal or mission, but are rather set upon a GM-created plot (or even a sandbox) with a laundry list of character-exclusive goals or competing agendas tends to 1.) not be very enjoyable after awhile, and 2.) tends to fall apart without any satisfactory closure. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Adventures in Playing With Strangers

Until recently, I was a pretty xenophobic gamer. I rarely allowed new players into the group, and then only after considerable vetting, and they were often not invited back after a few weeks or months. (Or one session in some cases) I have my reasons; mainly they had to do not with the way they played but with the players themselves. I'm sorry if I'm coming off as a snobby bastard, but I don't like to sit in someone's B.O. cloud for four hours every Saturday night and I don't like people who, in the first five minutes after meeting me, say shit like "most mundanes find me really scary." I don't like players who have to disagree with everyone over every tiny niggling thing, from choice in soft drink to what they thought about aliens being in the fourth Indiana Jones movie and everything has to turn into a fucking argument and...ugh. You get my point.

Reading over Lamentations of the Flame Princess, I decided I needed to make a saving throw vs. cowardice and get back on the find new players boat. I accepted the invitation to play old school D&D with a group I don't even know. I met them on Sunday and they were really nice guys who seem to have similar gaming tastes. They aren't people I would have probably met otherwise, and that's a good thing.
This Saturday, I'm going to a White Wolf meet-up group (that I have found myself co-organizer of, oddly) and I don't know anyone there, either. Will a game come of it? Time will tell, but at least I'm trying again, you know?

I think one of the factors involved in the periodic gaming burnout I suffer every few years is that I get too familiar with my old group.

Since we live in the era of the disclaimer, here's mine: I love all my regular players and I am in no way dissatisfied with them. However, new energy and new people are always good things...even if we meet someone we don't like, we at least take something away from the experience. Who knows...several of my dearest friends came into my life because I set out to game with new people. I can't let the setbacks or the horror stories influence me anymore. Besides, the horror stories make great drunken gaming story fodder...

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Musing on Basic D&D, et al

I met with my new group from 1 pm until 3 pm today...character creation took probably fifteen or twenty minutes, most of which was picking equipment. This is a stark contrast to pretty much all the games I've played in the past several years, where character creation can take an entire session. I also found that I enjoyed the mechanically simple process of rolling stats, hit points, gold, and good to go.

Kicking it Olde Schoole

Made my S&W character today. I'm playing a cleric, as Wisdom (and Con) are my only two good scores. The magic-user in the party has but a single hit point, so we must guard him carefully. Cedric the Pious is ready to rock out!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Time to play?

For a few weeks now, I've been contemplating an old school campaign using a modified version of OSRIC...actually, OSRIC with some more functional elements of HackMaster grafted on. Unfortunately, it became apparent to me that my group is tired of swords-n-sorcery fantasy.

Then, as if by magic, I was contacted by someone from a local gamer networking site who is getting ready to start up a game of old school D&D. He has the B and E of BECMI, the RC, and a hard copy of Labyrinth Lord, but he's leaning towards Swords & Wizardry. (What a coincidence I posted about S&W yesterday) Personally I'd prefer the RC, if only because it's the only one of those games I have as an actual hard copy, but none of them are deal breakers for me. If anything, it might persuade me to get a hard copy of LL or S&W.

Hot damn.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Attack of the...

Yeah, I can't bear to finish that post title.

So, being that I'm blogging about tabletop games and I read other blogs about the same, I am hip deep in retro-clonage.

Castles & Crusades is the first one I heard about, though it's not really a clone per se. Rather, it has the intentions that it's test tube brethren have, but without the insistence on reproduction. I was going to buy a copy, until I heard about OSRIC. From the OSRIC page, I heard about Labyrinth Lord, then Basic FRP, then Microlite 74 (which is also not technically a clone but you get the idea...)

I have downloaded every free retro clone that I have heard about. I won't lie to you; I haven't read them all, and none of them have I read in entirety except OSRIC 2.0. (Which actually inspired my earlier post on level limits) I juggled them half-heartedly, half-confused, wondering why I should even bother with any of this since I have a copy of the Rules Cyclopedia on my bookshelf. (Well, OSRIC would still be worth a look, as I don't have AD&D1e) People started tossing around names like Moldvay and Cook and Mentzer and Holmes. Holmes I recognized, having read his book on frpgs, but who where these other guys? What happened to Gary and Dave?! What the hell is BECMI?!
Time, Google, and several websites revealed all to me. As I read about these clones and which clone was aping which rule set, I started to wonder, in that paranoid way that I wonder, if the Rules Cyclopedia was "real" D&D, or if Weapon Mastery and the mystic and thieves checking for noise with percentile dice had really somehow corrupted the game. Hell, were thieves themselves inherently a corruption? Thief doesn't seem to have many friends in the grog-blogosphere lately.

When I came across Swords & Wizardry, I downloaded it and filed it away in that little folder on my desktop that is packed with free retro-clones. I wondered how different it would be from the others sitting on my hard drive. Perhaps a better way to say it would be, what does it have that all the others don't have? (Since they're all a little, or in some cases a lot, different from one another) Then I heard some talk of a "white box" version of Swords & Wizardy, which peeled the rules back even further.

My first reaction, honestly was "oh, for fuck's sake." I started reading through it. Using Strength as a bonus to hit and damage was an optional rule. Again, I thought, "what the fuck?" But as I read on, I kept noticing all these little side bars and suggestions. Critical Hits. Hybrid elf fighter/magic-users. Dexterity modifiers to missile combat and AC. Changing the basic assumptions of alignment. Elves were presented as being one of many origins decided by the DM, rather than the default Tolkien-esque stand-ins. I read further. Banshees were presented as fey or undead but not definitively either.

Dang. A light bulb went off.

In this Old School Renaissance, everyone is publishing his idea of old school D&D. Sometimes thieves hear noise with a d6, sometimes with percentile dice. Sometimes the thief isn't even a class at all. Elves switch between magic-user and fighter, or alternatively are both at once. Clerics get a spell at first level. Clerics don't get a spell at first level. To crit or not to crit, ditto with fumbles.
Swords & Wizardy White Box is the barest of the bare bones (as far as I know), but it provides bits you can "snap on" to flavor the game to your taste. Hell, there was even a suggestion for ascending armor class, which some grognards consider tantamount to heresy. S&WWB seems to somehow encompass everybody's D&D. I can't express how much I liked the "add on" feel of S&WWB. I feel like it really espouses what the Old School Renaissance is trying to do.
Of course, should I run it, I will be pasting in the thief, with percentile Hear Noise, right out of the Rules Cyclopedia. (I might use Weapon Mastery, nyah.)

In the end, I think it honestly doesn't matter what retro-clone you pick. Your D&D probably varied drastically from any of the retro-clones, each representing someone's idea of D&D from basement memories of yesteryear. Even the thief started off as a house rule. I guess that no version of D&D is "pure", unless someone manages to find Dave or Gary's moldering old notebook and publish a simulacrum of that, complete with coffee stains or whatnot. Some of the clones reproduce the rules, and some like Micro and Basic and C&C are chasing an intent rather than trying to resurrect the Rules As Written(or whatever version of the whole White Box/BECMI/Moldvay etc etc etc you consider to be the real deal) There is no "authentic" version of D&D, and there is no One True Way. Hell, the idea of there being no true path is one of the pillars that traditional gaming was founded on.

By the way, I have nothing but respect for the writers of every game I mentioned here, just so we're clear. This post was less of a "who produced the best clone" and more of a thought exercise where I free myself of the need to feel that I need to discover the holy grail of "authentic" OD&D, which I now believe does not really exist.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Hackmaster Question

Ah, Hackmaster.

In college, I knew some guys who were really into HackMaster; it seems like its all a lot of them played for something like two years. I did play with them from time to time in various campaigns started by various members of the group, and while we did have some fun it wasn't really my thing. At the time, I chalked it up to Hackmaster being essentially a work of parody, but in retrospect I think it was more the chemistry and gaming style of some elements in the group, rather than HM itself. Some of my earliest D&D book learnin' was the 1st edition AD&D DMG, and that actually had quite a bit of parody in it. (Or at least some particularly "zany" stuff) Of course, the humor in HM is a retrospective send-up of "old school gaming" rather than contemporary gaming humor...

...or is it? HackMaster is completely functional. The game mechanics have been revised with a degree of effort that goes far past just making jokes. The skill system isn't bad, and sort of fits with the way thief skills work (rather than all skills in the world working one way and all thief skills another like in the RC) The new classes, for the most part, work; Knight Errant is pretty parody-ridden, and all the new classes have a bit of silly written in, but they could easily have all the silly bits excised and then dropped into an AD&D1 or OSRIC-type rules hack. If the skill system had all the "joke skills" (Advanced Looting, Wuss Slap, etc) removed and/or renamed...there's a functional non-parody game waiting to be had that's sort of....well, I hesitate to call it a specific edition, perhaps AD&D(1+2), a sort of third edition that is a roll up of the previous two editions plus several notebook's worth of house rules.

About a year ago, I bid on the HackMaster Player's Handbook on Ebay. I'm not sure why I did it, but when it arrived I immediately shelved it, occasionally taking it out on random afternoons and reading bits and pieces, mentally removing the blatant parody or reworking it into something useful. I realize now that there is a part of me that wants to remove the useful/neat bits of HackMaster and graft it into AD&D/OSRIC. I would also like to get my hands on all the sub-classes they invented, but I'm not willing to drop coin on the fighter, thief, priest, and magic-user books. If nothing else, HM is a neat example of what you can do with your game when you tinker it to your tastes.

A parting thought on HackMaster...I do recall the times when I had fun playing, rather than being frustrated, were the times when it was being played as a straight-laced old school fantasy game and not a parody or as a just-for-laughs beer n' pretzels type game. Those guys who were into it...for some of them, it was their third edition, and I wish I'd had a better understanding of that at the time.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Another quick thought

Dice superstition irritates the living fuck out of me. The idea that some dice are lucky and some aren't, or that a player can "ruin" the luck of another player by touching or using their dice raises my hackles. They are bits of plastic (or metal or stone, if you want to get bling-blingy) with numbers on them. They are not magical. They are slaves to the same probability you are. I get bitchy when people get bitchy over their dice. I started a communal dice pool last summer, but it doesn't seem to have mitigated the problem at all.

I have no explanation for poor Jason in our gaming group and his inability to roll a d20 and have it come up higher than about an 8. I can only surmise that a bitter past DM must have somehow rigged all his dice... or maybe he only has those old fashioned d20's that have duplicate numbers from 0-9...

Yeah, I used to believe some of my dice were lucky, too...when I was ten.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

D&D with tears and retching

The first version of D&D I ever played was this boxed set, a present from my mom when I was about ten years old. It's something like the fourth revision of the basic rules and the fifteenth or sixteenth printing of said rules. It had little punch out paper minis, a map for the one adventure where the characters escape from slavery in the salt mines run by an evil wizard. (What a wizard is doing running a friggin' salt mine is beyond about bush league) I remember very little about the first play session (with me as the DM) except two notable things:

1. The evil wizard somehow got caught in a web spell, which must have been from a scroll picked up during the adventure (no 1st level PC could cast that spell) and that while stuck in the web, he was cloven in twain by the fighter and his trusty two handed sword.

2. The sole girl of our group, Evanne, announced that her character got violently ill after the battle was over and sat in the corner crying. We boys were totally bewildered....we just killed a whole bunch of monsters and got some treasure... that was awesome...right?


It's no surprise that Evanne would later leave our gaming group. She was the first of us to have characters with actual personalities. She introduced characters who had romances and motivations. Once we hit junior high, her characters actually had romantic relationships with PCs or NPCs in the game worlds. When we tried Gamma World, her character had an intricate back story while the rest of the party was pretty much content to blast robots and mutants and take their stuff. Right before high school, Evanne went off and found White Wolf (and was actually the reason I got started with WoD to begin with). These days, Evanne (who is one of my oldest and dearest friends) is involved in lots of LARP while I roll the funny dice all over the table. It's interesting to remember that formative event, when a charater reacted as though they had more to them than someone who kills monsters and collects loot with nary a second thought. We would probably collaborate on all kinds of crazy stuff if she didn't live in Florida.

Evanne's elf, if I recall, got over her revulsion and joined in the combats when she had to, but she was more interested in interacting with the fictional world in many ways, not just putting a sharp object into everything she came across. I also recall much consternation when she wanted to keep ornate jewelry and art the party found rather than just cash it in as soon as possible.

I suppose the moral of this story is to illustrate that the old school produces more than just mindless hacking...but I bet anyone remotely interested in reading this probably knows that already.

Evanne, should you happen to read this entry: Starlight forever, yo!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Another quick thought: Old school = random character gen?

Old games, and those that are meant to emulate them, have partially or totally random character generation. You might not get the character you were hoping for. Hell, at least D&D let you pick your starting class (well, from those that you qualified for)... Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay forced players to roll their starting career.

I like random character generation. I think random character generation forces people to step outside their comfort zone. Among the more modern games that allow for near or total customization of the character, many folks I've played with over the years have an unfortunate tendency to simply make the same type of character over and over again. Joe always plays a magic-user, or whatever is closest in the setting. (A huckster in Deadlands, a psychic in a sci-fi game, a Tremere in old Vampire, etc.) Bob always plays high strength melee characters with bottomed out social attributes, etc.

Some of the most fun my gaming group has had has been when we do a one-shot with pregenerated characters, and the GM either randomly passes out characters, or chooses a character that is nothing like the type that the player usually plays. We've done this for World of Darkness and for Little Fears. The guy who usually plays melee monsters ended up playing a pre-teen beauty pageant contestant with a southern accent. The guy who hates Harry Potter ended up playing a sixth grader obsessed with Harry Potter. Everyone absolutely *loved* it. Yet, some of these players balk at the notion of a character created with an element of randomness to them. Hmmm.

In a previous entry, I said that I was defining old school gaming as gaming without an agenda. I think that randomized character creation reinforces that idea; you are making a character to play the game, not an alter-ego or an idealized self or whatnot. When you make a D&D or WFRP or Traveller character, you never know what you're going to get, Forrest Gump style. With more modern games, you usually get a point distribution system of some sort and are generally allowed to pick whatever you want. In fact, many games published in the last two decades have the player come up with a concept as the beginning step in the creation process. The player then picks precisely what they want within the limits of the resources (character points or whatever) I'm not sure where non-random character creation started, but it is now the order of the day. I'm not sure I can think of a currently published game that has random character generation, aside from the retro-clones, but I don't really count them because they are specifically emulating the game design and philosophy of Ye Olden Days. D&D, in its current incarnation, has dispensed entirely with random rolls for attributes, gold, and hit points. (Everyone gets a fixed number) Of course, random character creation has been dying a slow death in D&D for some time now. (4d6-L, arrange to taste, scrap if total attribute modifiers are below X...that was, in the end, hardly worth the random element at all)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

"Hey, what about all those other games you like?!"

I'm not all old-school, all the time. Actually, most of the game books on my shelf are "modern," and most of the games I've run in the past decade have been more in the modern style. To me, there are some games that should be played old school and some that really wouldn't benefit from it. Vampire, or most White Wolf games, would be a little problematic to do as old school games methinks. In fact, I tend to want to run fantasy and sci-fi games in the old school fashion, but not games set in the modern day or some other milieu. (Yeah, "milieu", a word I know only because of AD&D.)

I don't think you have to be all one way or all the other. Some of my players dislike the old-school, as I learned in the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay "sandbox" campaign I ran for most of 2008. After all, you can like different types of video games or different genres of literature, right? Lately I have definitely been pining for some old school gaming action. I believe I might have to go outside my current group (*gasp*) if I really want to do that.

Now...above I mentioned that I don't run modern games old school. Now that I think about it, that isn't entirely true... ten years ago, I ran an In Nomine game very much in the sandbox fashion. I had a setting, with NPCs and what they were up to, and I dropped the players in with their own motivations. The really awesome thing is that some of the characters were divine and some were infernal, which meant that they were going to be opposing each other directly. (In fact, neither of the two factions enjoyed much internal harmony, for that matter) It was the biggest campaing I've ever run (nine or ten players by the end, if I recall.) It's still remembered fondly by those I'm still in contact with who played it, even though it ended in a fiery conflagration wherein the servants of the divine wiped out the servants of the infernal....yup, one half the group straight up killed the other half.

While that game was a smashing success, many of the other old school sandbox style campaigns I've run in the years since have sputtered and died due to lack of character motivation, except those games that were run with Cyclopedic D&D (and even that had a fairly short run.) I find that a lot of my players, when given the opportunity to do anything, find themselves not doing anything out of indecision. I suspect it might be because many of my players aren't used to sandbox gaming; they are used to tightly plotted campaigns and modules. Perhaps this is something I should have addressed more thoroughly at the beginning of the campaign. A lesson is here noted.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Fluff, Crunch, and Bullshit

First off, I hate the term "fluff" to refer to any aspect of a game which is not mechanically significant. I find that one of the most enjoyable parts of the game is the exploration of the setting. If I have to wade through three dozen new prestige classes or five new weapon tables, please give me something my imagination can chew on and not just mechanical minutiae. one of the things I find particularly maddening about the game I'm playing now is the total disconnect between descriptive and mechanical text. It is what it is, unless it isn't. Yeah, makes sense to me.

For an example of what I'm talking about: Fighters in the New Edition have a power that does damage and knocks an opponent prone. The power is described as a mighty sweeping blow. Ok, great. Now, one of my players wanted to use it on a gelatinous cube.
Ok, so how do you trip a gelatinous cube? It's a 10'10'10' cube of protoplasm with no appendages; it slides across the ground. Even if you were somehow able to knock it over, you'd just be changing which identical, symmetrical face of the thing is on the floor. However, because Simon Didn't Say (by which I mean, nowhere does it say specifically that gelatinous cubes are immune to being tripped or being prone), you can trip a gelatinous cube, and it suffers all the normal effects of being prone. Yes, the gelatinous cube must "get up", the same way as if you had tripped an orc or a dwarf- oh, wait, dwarves have a 55% chance to just not be tripped, because Simon Said. Ok, orcs or shadar-kai or ochre jellies. Yes, you can also trip the amorphous ochre jelly. You can also trip a wraith, which is both incorporeal and is usually depicted as hovering off the ground. (Depiction also means jack shit, apparently)
Enthusiasts of this version of the game tell me that the fighter has "disrupted" the cube or the ooze, which has to spend an action getting its shit together before it resumes combat. The justification for the wraith is that the fighter's impressive weapon display actually causes the wraith to hesitate instead of being tripped; to hesitate in a way that is also mechanically identical to being knocked on the ground. So...this ability is described as an attack that basically sweeps the opponent’s feet out from under them, but this technique also includes disrupting gooey monsters and scaring ghosts by waving around a weapon that passes right through them. That must be some bad ass waving. (Like from the Weapon Mastery rules)

I have several other examples of powers used in our game that have caused even the most rules lawyerish of us to stop and say "Now, wait just a damn minute..." However, I think the above example illustrates what I am getting at. We have a strict dichotomy between what is described and what is happening. The game mechanic, what is happening, is now the most important thing, and the description must follow suit.

The reason I don't jive with this school of philosophy or this style of play is because I always grew up thinking that the game was one of imagination supported by the mechanics. Now it seems that the mechanics dictate what must be imagined. This attack knocks shit over, unless said shit is specifically stated as being immune to being knocked over. It's up to you to explain how this happens, but that's that.

Incidentally, even the player who wanted to trip the cube ended up not doing so because he felt that it was just plain wrong.

...and dang, don't even get me started on the discussion about ongoing fire damage not being avoided by diving into the water because the stat block says that a saving throw ends the damage but water is not mentioned.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go drill a hole in my head to let the evil spirits out.

Just a quick thought

I don't know why some people treat THAC0 like it's quantum physics. Ditto the descending Armor Class scale. I understood and used these concepts when I was in the fifth grade. Even if THAC0 is beyond you, you can surely follow the old attack matricies, right?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Old School and Me

So... I have to admit that sometimes I feel like a kid trying to play poker with dad and his friends. I've been gaming for 17 years or so, only about half the length of time the hobby has been around. When I started, AD&D was already in it's 2nd edition (although relatively recently, only two years or so) and the boxed sets of yesteryear had been replaced by the Rules Cyclopedia. I missed out on the roots of the hobby, and learned about the classics (Gamma World, Traveller, Tunnels & Trolls, etc) only through research and a few hand-me-downs. Champions was already on a fourth edition when I jumped into the ring (summer after 8th grade). I seem to have just missed the second generation of gaming.

As such, I feel somewhat unqualified for being passionate about the way things "used to be," since I caught only a shadow of that. I have fond memories of checking out the AD&D 1st Edition DMG over and over again from the public library. I learned old school gaming second hand, from funny smelling books with yellowed pages. Still, I feel like I can never be a true "old guard" or "grognard" or anything else like that.

...and yet, I feel a strong urge to return to the fleeting glimpses of what I saw when I was a child, reading everything I could about this strange and fascinating hobby that has ended up consuming so much of my time since then. I tried to read Holmes' Fantasy Role-Playing Games when I was ten, for chrissakes. And here I am, so many years later, reading Grognardia and Lamentations of the Fire Princess and The Tao of D&D and so on and hoping that I can add something to the discussion. Maybe I wasn't there for the true Olden Days, but I do feel a connection to them, and to the days when I used painted and customized Lego men because I had no allowance and had no way of procuring miniatures, the days when I would just make shit up if I couldn't find it in the rule book without any worries about "balance" or something being "broken" (a term I hate with a fiery passion, by the by)

For the time being, I'll just keep reading and blogging and hopefully playing.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Level Limits

Ok, I understand the intent behind level limits. I don't know if they do what they are supposed to as well as they could. In my gaming experience, most campaigns, unless specifically started at a higher level, (which just seems wrong to me)don't last long enough for some of the level limits to become an issue. Half-orc clerics are probably going to max out, but a half-orc assassin probably doesn't have to worry about it. Hell, the way older games ran, your character was quite likely to die long before ever having to worry about level limits.

I was reading through OSRIC 2.0 recently, and noted that they recommend that level limits not be house ruled unless humans are given a corresponding advantage. I was racking my brains for a suitable advantage, something to make humans viable, when I realized something: back in high school, when 2nd edition AD&D was the order of the day, at least half of the PCs in any given party were human. Nobody every complained about humans not having any special abilities, and really...were the demi-human special abilities so earth-shaking that there had to be balance? Dwarves get an attack bonus against creatures that are likely to be challenging only at low levels. Infravision only worked without a light source around, which meant that if there was anyone in the party who didn't have it, it was unavailable most of the time, as the rest of the party had to use light sources in dark environments. I remember reading the 2nd edition DMG and finding a sidebar where it is suggested that demi-humans would rule the world if not for level limits. I say this is crap. I don't think the demi-human special abilities (+1 with thrown/slings for halflings, for instance) are so drastic that humans would just be totally outclassed. Also, the human ability to advance to any level doesn't seem to hold up when you also have to take into account that the game states that creatures with a class and level are exceedingly rare; I don't think there would be enough high level humans to make the difference should the implied struggle-for-domination scenario occur.

Another thing about level limits that bothers me is that many of them are difficult to justify. An elven magic-user can never reach the heights of power that a human mage could potentially aspire to, yet elves are supposed to be the race with the inherent talent for magic. In many older iterations of D&D or AD&D, elves had the potential to cast magic-user spells while in armor. My reading of D&D has always been that elves are supposed to be better at magic. (Hell, maybe my reading of it has been wrong all this time.) I thought to myself that perhaps elves simply knew that the higher levels of magic were dangerous to use and wisely avoided it.... but even that paltry rules justification doesn't hold up, because casting spells is mostly risk-free in D&D. Of course, you could counter that elves are better at magic because they can be multi-class mages and humans cannot, but humans can potentially dual-class and become mages out of nowhere and so on and so on and so on.

Okay, so a few of my proposed solutions:

1. Ignore them completely. I did with my old group

2. Give humans a little XP bonus, something between 2 and 5 percent maybe. That would refelct the human "ambition" so often touted in the old games, while allowing demihumans to achieve greatness in fields where they are supposed to achieve it. This would be cumulative for any xp bonus based on high prime requisites.

3. Allow demihumans to advance to their level limit normally, after which they must earn double experience per level to continue. This is pretty harsh, but less harsh than "You are sixth can learn nothing else." This could also be attributed to the longer lifespans and "longview" philosophies of the longer-lived demihumans. Humans burn short, hot, and bright, while the demihumans take their time before arriving at greatness long after their human allies have crumbled to dust.

4. Allow humans the choice of some other special ability, something along the lines of magic or poison resistance, a bonus to attack, etc. I actually like this option the least.

Finally, I am considering tooling around with the "Unlimited" levels... perhaps each race has a class that they have unlimited potential in. (Fighter for dwarf, magic-user for elf, thief for halfling, assassin for half-orc, etc.)

I might be persuaded to try a game with level limits, as admittedly I have never played a game where they became a factor. I'd be interested to hear what anyone else thinks about this, or how their games ahve worked out with or without level limits.

Part II

I believe I have reached a conclusion. Thinking back to all games I participated in that I or the DM would consider "old school," as well as games observed and heard about, I have arrived at this conclusion:

Old school gaming is gaming without any agenda beyond simply playing the game. This is not to say that it consists of meandering around the dungeon or wilderness; characters should have goals, but the game itself is not a "story" about the characters, nor is the goal to unravel some plot created by the DM.

Gaming with no agenda...I'm satisfied with that as a working definition of old-school style gaming for now.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Grognards, Retro Clones, and the Old School Movement, Part I

I'm not sure when exactly the retro gaming movement has been with us; I imagine there have been retro gamers since the Holmes edition, and I know Dragonsfoot has been around for quite some time; I remember stumbling across it several years ago. Still, it seems to me that the movement has gained quite a lot of momentum in the last year. I think a number of factors are involved: the death of E. Gary Gygax, the coming of 4th edition, the Pathfinder/3.75 split, etc. It seems to me that a gauntlet has been thrown down. The hobby is moving in a different direction (or at least D&D, which I think makes up most of our hobby's industry whether you like it or not) and some people have simply decided not to get on that train, but rather to stick with an iteration of the game that has a different design philosophy behind it. Hell, maybe it is just a coincidence and the old school movement owes more to PDF publishing and the OGL than to anything else.

Ah, but just what the hell is "old-school"? For that matter, who precisely can claim the mantle of grognard? Is old school a matter of chronological time since that iteration of the game was in print, or is it a philosophy/gaming style?

From talking to self-proclaimed grognards (let's get to that definition in a bit here), reading blogs about old-school gaming, reading modules that are themselves from older iterations of the game or meant to emulate them, I can already see a schism in what it means for a game/module to be old school. Here are some various definitions, some implied, others related to me by old school enthusiasts:

1. The simplest iteration of the game possible; a game that is highly open to DM/Referee interpretation and requires extensive house ruling. The "point" of the game, according to this definition, is to explore the DM's world, to really role-play your character, and to just sort of experience the game.

2. The simplest iteration of the game possible, but because everything else that came afterward was a pollution and an abomination and totally ruined the game. (Anything after '74) Some variations of this put the "cutoff" point at a later point of the game's development: some cut it off at the addition of the thief (the thief seems to be taking a beating in old school circles in general lately, but I digress), the switch from a d6 based Hear Noise check for a thief to percentiles, the inclusion of the Secondary Skill system, AD&D itself, Unearthed Arcana, etc. The very edge of the cutoff points seems to be AD&D 2nd edition's Skills and Powers....the next step after that is 3rd edition, which the old schoolers seem to uniformly consider the Antichrist's own handiwork.

3. The iteration is irrelevant, but the old-schoolness comes from a devotion to dungeon delving, particularly the killing of monsters. Death, maiming, and constant misfortune for the player characters are all celebrated hallmarks of the game, and the relationship between players and GM is viciously adversarial Most of the dungeon crawling is also non-sequitur; the dungeon is there because it's there, and whatever fucked up monsters, traps, and situations you discover are to be taken on without a second thought. Magic items have as good of a chance of screwing you as helping you. HackMaster might be seen as the first retro-clone built to emulate this particular vision of "old school." (And say what you will about HackMaster being a parody game; nobody I knew who ran or played HackMaster played it as a parody of old school gaming, but rather as the Bible of How It Should Be Done.) The characters live only to kill monsters and loot.

4. Similar to three, but the game is treated as an exhaustively detailed tactical/economical simulation. The relationship between players and DM is still adversarial, but play contains less gleefully bizarre elements like reverse gravity traps and Cthuloid monsters or tridents of yearning. A large number of these types of games that I've read about, heard about, and even played in end up with the characters owning a town or keep or some kind of land. (Of course, this was built into the rules of every edition of the game prior to 3.0)I'm sure that there are many other definitions, some that I could think of and some that could be contributed by others. The point is that old school gaming is just as varied in it's trappings and goals as the things that are out now. Do we segregate ourselves into xenophobic sub-communities? (In many cases it looks like this has happened already) Do we live and let live knowing that we are a community of "grass roots" gamers who will not live under the Iron Corporate Fist of Hasbro/the LCD factor of the d20 system/whatever we view as the antithesis of what we are doing? Shit, look how many retro clones are all chasing the same pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: Microlite '74 vs. Labyrinth Lord vs. the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game, all of which are emulating the same game. (Though BFRP has adopted more "modern" game concepts like ascending armor class...I guess you could divide the games between those that directly emulate via rules and those that try to capture the spirit like C&C but enough with the division already!) I suppose one could look at it this way: games of D&D were often heavily house ruled, so even if we all bought Labyrinth Lord or all managed to track down copies of the Mentzner sets, it is quite unlikely our games would exactly resemble each other.

I guess a less rosy way to look at it would be that everyone is chasing their own version of what "old school" is. I'm going to brush aside that cynicism and venture that old school gaming is, as described above, a set of philosophies/methodologies, and the rules set used to pursue them is largely irrelevant... or is it? Could you play an "old school" game with the current iteration of the game?

If anyone out there in blog world is listening, I invite you to weigh in. To be continued.

Friday, January 2, 2009

And we're off

Though it has taken me awhile to get with the times, I'm finally throwing my hat into the Stygian depths of the blogosphere, specifically to discuss my favorite hobby for the last seventeen years: tabletop roleplaying games.

I've been running a D&D 4th edition game since August. I admit, shamefully, that I had held on to the hope that a new edition might bring my favorite roleplaying game back on track.

Yeah, about that...

Fourth edition is a steaming pile of excrement. I can say this based on several months of playing and DMing it. It delivers absolutely nothing outside of hour long miniature-based combats and precisely balanced encounters, finding a specifically balanced amount of treasure before leveling after ten prescribed encounters so that you can get more Giant Dick Vin Diesel Powers. Want to do anything other than fight? You can engage in the nonsensical, inorganic skill challenge system whereby anything your characters do such as negotiation, fleeing from enemies or a trek through the wilderness is reduced to a list of skills you can roll against a static difficulty and luck quickly determines if you succeed or fail without all that faggoty roleplaying crap so you can get back to the hour long combats.

As a miniatures combat game, 4th edition does pretty well for itself....but WotC already publishes a miniatures combat game; in fact they publish several, one of which already carries the D&D name.

While I could go on with a laundry list of things that have disappointed or just plain enraged me about 4e, I think I'd rather turn my blogging to something more constructive: discussing what I do like about roleplaying games. I also hope that the people who might come to read this blog are "the choir" and aren't here to argue the merits of 4th edition, which in itself is pointless; if you like it, good for you...don't let my crankiness dissuade you from doing what you want. Likewise, you probably aren't going to convince me that I like 4th edition without lobotomizing me.