Wednesday, June 21, 2017

"Break Out Your Wallet and Buy About 30 Games"

This snippet is originally from a comment I was going to make on this post by Alexis; I excised it because it started to get a bit long for a comment. Still, it perfectly sums up my feelings towards the current "market".
Even worse, there's this almost universal fixation on the current, inaccurately-numbered "edition" over virtually anything else; I keep telling my sympathetic friends that what the hobby really needs is gamers who can sit still for five minutes without chasing after the nearest shiny object. These same players, rather than using things that are quite visible within the books they already own (and that see little use as is - gnomes, anyone?) feel compelled to buy the latest expensive hardcover that is literally a repackaging of something that came out 20 or 30 years ago.
A lot to unpack here. Recently, the tabletop club at the university of which I am an alumnus was all abuzz about the live stream of Wizards of the Coast's presentations at some industry convention or other. Much excitement about this stuff that brought back some character or other from 2nd Edition.

Me? I realized several years ago that it's not necessary to keep buying things for a game in order to continue playing it. At least, that's how a game should be designed. From what I understand, this is still largely true with 5th Edition; after buying the Player's Handbook, and then the Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual if you're a DM, you're good to go. (The original intent was to have this also be true of the free Basic Rules PDFs, but evidently those are less useful to DMs than they should be.)

And yet, the other club people were SO FREAKING EXCITED that they might get an official gunslinger class. As I've repeatedly stated to several friends, why is there a need for a separate gunslinger class? If the DM is one to include firearms in their campaign (for the record, I'm not), then why not just have the gunslinger be a ranger and have the character buy a gun? Or, in 2e, even a plain old fighter - who could take advantage of weapon specialization to have a further bonus to hit with their gunshots?

Even worse than this was one 5e game I played in where, apparently, fighters didn't exist... but gunslingers did. Because a cast piece of steel with moving mechanical parts and explosive powder is more common than a stick. (I really need to write a full post on this yahoo's game soon.)

One GM whose Pathfinder game I played in for a while was in the habit of bringing their rulebooks with them in a milk crate. And apparently Paizo has rewritten part of the dictionary and included it in one of those tomes, since the very definition of "core" has apparently changed in Pathfinder. Core classes are not just the ones included in the Core Rulebook, no ma'am; core classes also include the ones from the Advanced Class Guide, Advanced Player's Guide, Occult Adventures, et cetera. It baffles me that anyone would voluntarily subject themselves - and worse, their players - to this level of rules bloat.

If the original D&D rules were released today, they would be seen as mysteriously backwards. Not only with how primitive some of the mechanics are, or the poor art, or the laughable lack of organization. I can imagine a modern "conspicuous consumer" type gamer looking at it:

"You mean that's it? Just three booklets in a box, and you don't have to buy anything else? How are you supposed to keep your players' interest, if you're not constantly adding new shiny books and buying more elaborate dice?"

Someone else would then step in and try to explain the value of, you know, running a game that people actually want to keep coming back to because they're having fun, but without a literal sales pitch hawking TSR's reheated leftovers, the CC gamer would quickly lose interest.

There is enough stuff here already. There are more RPGs on the market, past and present, than any one person or group would ever be able to play. I read an interview with Bob Dylan where he said something similar about music, and I tend to agree. RPGs are an even more special case; a huge portion of the product is pre-written modules and settings, which back in the old days were not as widely used. Instead, the DM would actually write their own material.

Now, the simple fact of a DM creating their own campaign from scratch - rather than just reading boxed text out of a hardcover book with boring artwork* - is bizarre to people like those that make up my gaming club. They refer to such strangeness as "homebrew". They spent over one hundred dollars on tools allowing them to make their own games, and rather than do so, they continue to pay other people $50 at a time to make the games for them. And not just once or twice, so they can see how such a thing might be done; they have to invent a label to "other" those weirdos who actually sit down, pay attention, and put in the necessary work to make something of their own.

It's depressing, really.

*The artwork for most of the 5e books is not bad from a technical perspective, but it's so boring. Curse of Strahd and Tales from the Yawning Portal both just have a person sitting or standing there, Dungeonology (yeah, not technically a rulebook, but a lot of people in the club have bought it) shows a picture of a monster that most characters will not meet until much later in the game, and all of the core books except for the Monster Manual fail to give an impression of what actually happens in the game. Compare them to the original Players Handbook (or even the Rules Cyclopedia) and you'll see what I mean.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Boons and Banes of House Rules

As I obliquely hinted at in my previous post, part of my search for "the perfect game" - not the one rules set that will be perfect for everyone all the time (because there isn't one), but the one that best fits my needs and the needs of the players in this particular campaign - is finding a game that requires the least house-ruling. If I was so desperate to attract new players that I ran 5th edition, but told them "no dragonborn or tieflings, and no sorcerers or warlocks", and altered the rules for the amount of space taken up by creatures on the battlefield... why not just run 3rd edition?

My general policy with new rules systems has always been to try them 100% Rules As Written - at least for the first session or two. If there's something that proves problematic in play, then I'll make a note of it and bring a solution to the next running (either from a different iteration of D&D, from the Web, or from my own rapidly-decaying positronic brain). When I ran Drunk D&D, I made sure to stick to RAW as closely as humanly possible, and I ultimately succeeded without any of the PCs dying.

I doubt that anyone under the age of 50 (besides me) will laugh at this.
This also allows me to easily introduce new players to the game. "Here are the rules," I say, showing them a book with a (hopefully) cool illustration of intrepid adventurers on the front cover. As their eyes grow to a size usually reserved for tennis balls, I chuckle a bit. "Don't worry - you don't have to know all of them at the start. That's my job; you'll be able to learn as you go."

(You might notice that my above description specifically excludes certain iterations of the game; if you've read my past posts, you'll know which ones they are without my having to name them here.)

Referring to the rulebook in all but the most fringe cases also gives an important impression to new players: this is a game. Games have rules, and it's sticking to them that gives a game its challenge. When I was a kid, I made liberal use of cheat codes and external devices in my video games, but as I grew up I understood that I never really beat those games - I had cheated my way through the game, and by doing so I cheated myself of some rich experiences. (I have no regrets about a few of those, though; to steal a line from El Santo, Super Mario Land sucks so hard it has an event horizon.)

One particularly glaring issue came up for me recently in AD&D 2nd Edition, thanks to some experiences in both the game world and the "real" world... but that's a topic for another post. Probably the next one (if my own laziness doesn't catch up with me), so stay tuned!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Converting the Campaign Yet Again?

As my campaign has gone on (yet another) unintended hiatus, there are a few things I've been wondering about the structure and style of it. I've tried to do a sandbox campaign, but the players are so used to "story" campaigns that I have had to throw in a few more linear settings for them to explore. I've tried asking the players what they want to do, and gotten no useful response, forcing me to assume what they might want to do, and whipping something up to fill that space. Then, come game time, one or two of the players all but refuse to do the thing that I prepared for them to do.

I shouldn't be surprised, but I am frustrated by it. First, they refuse to tell me what they want to do; second, they say "no" to every option that I have spent time preparing (in some cases, several hours of time). As for what one player in particular actually wanted to do, I still have no idea; and now, the point is moot, as the player in question has dropped out of all of my campaigns due to this unsolvable conflict between DMing style and playing style.

(I should elaborate on this in a later post - and I probably will - as this is getting way off topic.)

Anyway, another issue that has cropped up is that my DM skills - as far as rules mastery are concerned - have grown rusty due to disuse. In the last abortive session of my 2e campaign, I had to stop several times to look up pretty common rules. Were I to have more interested players, I would simply delegate some such duties to them. Unless I can get back into a situation where I'm running 2e every other week (if not more often), I cannot keep up my usual "flow" without the players meeting me halfway. Some of them are mild powergamers, so I just need to convince them to brush up on the rules in between sessions - or even during sessions, as this would be a far more productive task than simply watching magical-girl anime or playing Heroes of the Storm while I'm trying to run a game. Heck, this is the exact reason that I gave one of my closest friends - who was also, at one point, one of my most loyal and consistent players - a copy of the Player's Handbook for her birthday.

I realize that some may be reading this and scoffing at my lack of skill. AD&D 2nd Edition, if run without most of the optional fiddly rules (as it is at my table), is not that complicated. Certainly not as complicated as 3.5 or - Gods help you - Pathfinder. And indeed, as I hinted above, when I'm at the top of my game I can wrangle it rather effectively. But in the face of player disinterest, lack of preparation time (mostly my own fault), and frequent interruptions, I can't stay afloat.

I've been preparing a contingency plan for both possible outcomes to this situation. If I can gain the commitment of enough players - players who are willing to help me, and each other, keep the game moving efficiently - then I'll stick with 2e. But if not... well, that's where it comes down to a tough decision.

There are three basic options I'm looking at. B/X (my perennial favorite iteration of D&D) has a lot of advantages: character creation is fast, combat is fast, and its deadliness belies its newbie-friendly nature. In fact, I recently ran a second round of "Drunk D&D" for three players: one who has played in a few sessions of my campaign; one who has previously played in a D&D Fast Play Game (run by me); and one who was both completely new to RPGs, and had completely failed to understand the concept of pen-and-paper RPGs. This third player was also the most drunk out of the three.

On the spur of the moment, I retrieved my "trusty" laptop, bought some cheap six-siders on a grocery run, and helped everyone roll up their characters and write down their information on blank printer paper. Running them through a Fast Play module, they played fairly smart, the drunk newbie (playing a cleric) got to use his Turn Undead ability, and they narrowly escaped with their lives before they got to the boss. Little experience or treasure was gained (although the fighter managed to sell an ancient dagger she grabbed from the skeletons for 5 gold pieces), but a grand time was had by all. I was especially proud of them because I did not fudge in their favor, except by invoking my table rule of one re-roll per player per game, and extending it to the DM as well (this resulted in the thief being injured in a pit trap, rather than immediately killed).

This, to me, illustrates why I love B/X. It's simple enough for complete neophytes to pick up in a single short session, yet challenging and deep enough to keep veterans on the edges of their seats. The downsides are the extreme lethality and the limited selection of classes; this is one reason I've been wringing my metaphorical hands over it, as one of my players (and closest friends) has a druid character that she's very attached to.

The second option available to me is Basic Fantasy. I like it, always have; it's based on B/X and has most of its simplicity, while having many optional supplements to add things (like druids). But the supplements present another problem: supplement bloat. If I allow the Druids supplement, why not the Gnomes supplement? Or the Half-Humans supplement, or the Necromancers supplement, or, or, or...

(And it doesn't hurt that every single one of the four or five variants on the bard class for Basic Fantasy sucks... although the jester class, which swaps out inspiring songs for demoralizing taunts, is something I've been wanting to try out in its place.)

The third option is original D&D. This one has the issue of supplement bloat as well, and I've looked for a compilation of all of its Supplements into one book that didn't have to modify things for the sake of the OGL. Fortunately, Mothshade of 3d6, Traps and Thieves recently came out with something that solved that problem right away, and I realized some things I hadn't before - like the fact that half-elf druids in oD&D are technically allowed without houseruling. The problem with oD&D is that the rules are pretty vague and incomplete, which would require me to either have a binder full of houserules or mix-and-match from other editions.

So, if I convert the campaign, I'll still have to do a lot of work. But at least B/X is small enough that it's okay for the entire burden of knowing the rules to fall on the DM; after all, it's a lot less headache to flip through 128 pages over two books than 500+ pages over three books.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

 (Warning in advance: this brief post has strong language, and probably won't make any sense to anyone who isn't either me or an obsessive scourer of my previous posts.)

Fuck it; Duemerans aren't Anglo-Saxon any more, they're Mediterranean. There don't need to be two subraces of white humans; I've already got German dwarves, Irish halflings, and elves who speak Greek with a Received Pronunciation accent.

From this point forward, in my campaign, the default "Imperial" human ethnicity is one closer to ethnic Greeks and/or Italians in the "real world". This makes sense, since it was the Greeks and then the Romans who had major empires, only followed centuries later by the English - and the stereotype of Romans speaking with a "British" accent is 100% an artifact of the English idea that they were the successors of the Romans, much like the Romans (and the Byzantines, but that's a whole other kettle of fish) thought of themselves as the successors of the Greeks.

(Case in point: one of the free steampunk RPGs I downloaded years ago was titled Pax Britannica.)

There will probably be some artifacts of Anglo-Saxon stuff in the Duemerans. They will still speak English (as I am only fluent in English... although I might convert the elves to being French if my aptitude in the language increases sufficiently), and they'll probably have a Dark Ages tolerance of homosexuality, particularly with the pansexual polyamorous high elves and wood elves running around. Unless, of course, the aromantic asexual grey elves get their way.

Rambling now. Woke up too early after 4 days with no sugar (and therefore, no caffeine). It's 3:03am local time as I'm typing this, but I wanted to get it down in writing before I forgot.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Brief update on the Fuzz

So, it has been almost two months since my last post. There are several reasons for this, but they all stem from university life; dealing with finals, as well as trying to keep the tabletop gaming club from imploding, have left little time for running or playing games, let alone blogging about them. Fortunately, I now have good news on both fronts: I should be graduating with a B. A. in English, and the club's first major transition of power went well enough that some of the new executives bought me The Complete Wizard's Handbook for 2e as a graduation present!

In other gaming-related news, here's a brief summary of my gaming activities over the past two months.
  • One of my friends has been running a regular Pokémon game using the Pokémon Tabletop United ruleset. It is, to use the favorite expression of one of my fellow players, a shitshow.
  • I finally got a chance to run Halberd. Character creation was indeed fast, and play was similarly fast; the downside is that the rules are so loosely written and sparse (to the point of lacking equipment prices aside from weapons and armor) that I had to make a lot up on the spot. Way too much for my comfort. Sadly, I will probably not be running this one again, though I'm glad I gave it a shot.
  • I bought Underground, a fairly obscure 1993 pseudo-cyberpunk/pseudo-superhero game by Ray Winninger. The art and the setting are amazing, but the system will take some figuring out; worst case scenario, I might end up chucking the system and running the setting using Savage Worlds. The PDF is available at DriveThruRPG (at full cover price, though it's currently discounted to $12.50) for anyone who's interested.
  • On a related note, I was dismayed to find that there was no PDF of the character sheet available online. I sent a request in to the DTRPG people, and they soon provided one and made it publicly available - a huge "thank you" to Steve W. for doing so!
  • I finally got to run AD&D 2nd Edition again after having zero opportunities to do so during the semester. Even better, this was a long session, lasting from around 7:00pm to 2:00am, though we hung out and talked until well past 4:30am. One of my best friends - who was unable to attend any other games this semester, due to an especially harrowing calculus class - was even able to attend, and I got one of my friends who had previously sworn off the system (as well as most fantasy games) to agree to play. Fun was had by all, although...
  • I used Alexis' XP system once again, as I had done with my original "comeback" session detailed here. The issue that cropped up was one of balance; the players breezed through enemies that had previously given most of them a great deal of trouble (and resulted in one TPK). They also played smart, which meant that the elven thief with 19 Dexterity was up on the roof shooting two arrows per round, and went from 2nd to 3rd level in a single session. Meanwhile, my friend who I convinced to rejoin - playing a fighter with 18 Dexterity and good armor - had rotten luck with the dice, meaning that he could neither deal nor receive damage in most of the fights, and therefore got very little experience. As much as I like Alexis' XP system, my players demand a more balanced awarding of XP, so I will probably go with the individual class-based awards in the 2nd Edition Dungeon Master Guide.
  • This will also be necessary because I might soon be running a group of my two best friends and some of their LGBTQ+ friends - a veritable "Queer D&D" as they call it - and they plan to focus more on exploration and social stuff. Since a common complaint in my games is that it takes forever to level up (an issue of monster balance; either they breeze through and get very little XP, or they struggle and nearly get wiped out), I'll have to keep XP from non-combat-related achievements in mind. I also bought a very nice, discontinued Chessex vinyl mat to use as a wilderness map as they explore.
  • Finally, I managed to get my gray-market PDF of the HackMaster 4th Edition Player's Handbook printed and bound at a local copy shop. I realize that actually running this would require my violating part of the Player Code of Conduct (no distributing scanned or photocopied HM books), but since 4e is no longer legally available new in any form, I don't feel bad about it.
Now that I'm done with school for several years, and will only be working a part-time job (if any), I should have more time for gaming - and for blogging about such.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Thoughts on Chainmail

A lot of ink has been spilled, and pixels inverted, on just how exactly the Chainmail miniature rules are meant to be used with the original Dungeons & Dragons rules. I've decided that I want to give them a try, if for no other reason than the presence of some cool-looking jousting rules.

Here are my thoughts, in no particular order. Keep in mind that I'm using the 3rd Edition of Chainmail, as that's the only PDF I've been able to find (and the only one that's available for sale right now). I would normally attempt to use the earliest iteration of something possible, but this was published back in the days when "edition" meant "an error-correcting and possible expansion of the work", instead of "a completely new thing with a similar name". I will also be frequently referring to Jason Vey's Supplement VI: Forbidden Lore, and the multi-authored, Aldarron-edited "Using Chainmail to Resolve OD&D Combats".
  1. According to Vey's interpretation of the Man to Man combat system, the pluses of a character's Fighting Capability score would refer to extra attacks, so a 1st-level Fighting Man would get 2 attacks per exchange of blows. This not only provides a boost to characters of all classes (although Magic-Users and Clerics obviously progress more slowly), but would make combat run much faster in general against humanoid opponents. It would be pretty easy to assume that, for instance, all orcs would be wearing leather armor and wielding clubs; I could just as easily change the entries for "No Armor", "Leather or Padded Armor", etc. to the corresponding AC values as detailed in Greyhawk.
  2. The Troop Type system seems pretty impractical unless actual mass combat is taking place, so I probably wouldn't be using it for a while yet.
  3. The fact that a combatant can't even attack on the Fantasy Combat Table (against dragons, giants, etc.) unless their Fighting Capability is equal to a Hero - or at least Hero -1 for some of the weaker opponents - is another good reason for me to consider starting characters off at 3rd or 4th level. This would at least allow fighters to use this system. Then again, I might as well just use the Alternative Combat System from D&D.
  4. Jousts seem pretty integral to D&D from the way they're described in The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, and as I develop the wilderness of my planned game, I'm making sure to take jousting into account. (This leads to some interesting complications, given that one of the possibilities for the guards of a Superhero is a group of Heroes riding on rocs; one of my wilderness castle-dwellers is particularly fond of aerial jousts...)
  5. Hobbits are still present in the PDF that I have of Chainmail, as are ents and balrogs. I have no qualms about keeping these as their names in the campaign itself. If I had ten bucks for every time this conversation happened, I'd be rich:

    Me: "You can play as a human, or a dwarf, elf, or halfling."
    New Player: "What's a halfling?"
    Me: "A hobbit."
        
  6. I need to get together with one of my friends and try out some of the Chainmail systems on their own, just to figure out how they work in play, so that I could better present them to my players.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Spell Scrolls By Way of 10Rogue

So, continuing on from my previous post, here's my examination of how scrolls work in 10Rogue, and how I've been applying it to my various D&D games.

In the original game, the player can find scrolls with magic words written on them. Similarly to D&D, each can be used only once (no multiple-spell scrolls here). When initially found, the scroll is only distinguishable from other scrolls by the particular nonsense words written on each: there appears to be no pattern or hint. The only way to figure out what a scroll does initially is to read it aloud, which still doesn't always reveal its effects initially. For instance, after reading aloud a scroll, the player might receive the message "You hear a high-pitched humming noise", and is given the option to name the effect to be able to distinguish it again later.

The only way to identify scrolls with certainty (unless the effect is immediately obvious, such as a scroll of sleep) is to use a scroll of identify; this is also the only way to figure out what a scroll, implement, or potion is without reading, zapping, or quaffing it. But the primary difference between 10Rogue and old-school D&D is that past experience is a reliable guide to the future, whereas D&D encourages DMs to vary the appearance of their magic items in order to yank their players' figurative chains.

I think that initially there shouldn't be clues, so as to encourage experimentation, but after that there should be some amount of consistency and repeatable results. The two exceptions to this are poisons and cursed items, which by their nature should be designed to fool the unwary. After all, if the players just shotgun every blue potion they see - without bothering to check the consistency, scent, opacity, etc. - it would just be natural for their cavalier approach to give bad results once in a blue moon. "Nope, upon closer inspection, the potion does not smell like peppermint; it smells like garlic. It's also thick and chalky, instead of thin."

Anyone have any feedback as to whether this would have good, bad, or sideways results in a long-running campaign?