Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

A Classy, Old-School Debate...

Character classes.  Some love 'em, others hate 'em.  But most, I suspect, are willing to go either way with the understanding that each has something to offer.  I fall into the latter category.  Classes, where used, create a sense of mutual interdependence and contribute to a game's implied setting.  How's this a problem?  Skill-based systems, on the other hand, enable near-total customization, which is undeniably cool.  There's nothing not to love about this approach so go ahead, make that armor-wearing battlemage...

But when it comes to classes, is it possible that less is actually more?  I mean, how many character classes becomes too much?  I'm a little torn.

On the one hand, if I come across a really nice class with a good skill set and progression options, I'm definitely all in.  It's really, really hard to hate something that's cool on the fantastical face of it.  And who can blame me?  But the problem with some class-based systems is that the only way to add a new skill set is to introduce a new class; and let's face it, some new classes come across as bloated, redundant, and unnecessary...


Barbarians?  As a class?*  They're just fighters from a primitive, probably northern culture, complete with loincloths and outdoor survival skills.  Can't we just roll up a fighter and embellish the backstory?  Gygax, for all I loved Unearthed Arcana, built an overwrought class around his apparently fawning love of Conan.  Of course, I have a fawning love of rules-lite games, so others may disagree.  But do we really need to build a whole new class around the ability to take natural cover or climb trees? Seriously, do we? 

Or a class built around the lance (cavaliers) or acrobatics (the thief-acrobat)?

All of the above feel more like backstories to me.  Barbarians and cavaliers can exploit Unearthed Arcana's weapon specialization rules and leave the rest to the player and their negotiated character concept.  Can Borg climb that tree?  Why not?  He grew up in the Northern Wood, after all.  Just roll under dexterity to make it happen.  Ditto for cavaliers and lances.  Or charging on horseback, for that matter.  And really, how did thieves perform acrobatically before 1985?  Hint: they were quite acrobatic since 1975!

Feel free to disagree.  Trust me, I see both sides of the coin.  Barbarians and cavaliers behave differently in the game's implied setting.  But is something lost when there's increasingly less opportunity to proceed from a character's backstory?  And does a game suffer when each new class is just an excuse to introduce a few new skills when said system already got along fine without them?  It's definitely a "classy" debate for the ages...

*Yeah, yeah, Pits & Perils has a barbarian class, and I still have reservations!

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Game Reviews as Matchmaker...

Ok, so our friend over at the Necropraxis blogspot posted about game reviews; specifically, what constitutes a good (and useful) one.  This is well worth reading.  Potential buyers depend on reviews to make informed decisions, and while we all have opinions, reviewers just might have a responsibility to help their readers along.  And so in the interest of full disclosure, we offer the following (not at all surprising) admission... 

We haven't always written "pure" reviews.  Often, we're just gushing about something we personally enjoyed.  But to our credit, we've always tried, at a minimum, to explain what the product is (and what it isn't) and to identify precisely who might be interested.  This goes without saying, but if we're going on about how "rules-lite" a system is, then it might not be to your liking if you don't like rules-lite games!  Anyway, we've always felt like we had some obligation to those who might put their money down on our recommendation. 

So read the Necropraxis post.  We'll take it's advice on board for future reviews because we want to help (and not confuse or mislead) others.  But we want to add something to the discussion; namely, that "good" and "bad" are sometimes subjective.


I'm sure everyone understands this.  Yes, it's possible for a game to be broken beyond the point or repair in it's present form; but some so-called failures are only failures to certain people based on personal preferences.  And to provide a couple examples... 

(a) The monsters are rote and derivative.  That's bad, unless the reader wants something more traditional or something "blank" they can put their own stamp on.*

(b) Magic requires too much book keeping.  A no-no in my book, but quite a few people actually get off on this, and telling readers I was turned off isn't the same as saying rules-lite gamers may be turned off, but fans of crunchier systems might be interested.    

As Necropraxis said, take the time to explain the what of a game minus any snark or personal broadsides that might detract from a review's usefulness.  But if I'm posting this for any reason, it's to offer a single addendum: in our reviews, we should try to identify who a particular product is likely to appeal to, and who it isn't.  On more than one occasion, I've bought (and enjoyed) a poorly-reviewed product because its supposed failures were actually strengths in my biased eyes.  I'm not sure the reviewers meant it that way...

Which is really just a fancy way of reminding would-be reviewers that one man's trash is another man's treasure.  Good reviews inform and (in extreme cases) serve as a warning to others.  But when so much comes down to personal preference, the goal of any review should also be to get the right games into the hands of the right people.  Our preferences can't possibly be the standard.  At best, we're more like old-time matchmakers!  

*And really, how do we objectively define this?  Remember, one man's trash/treasure...

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Playing Dumb in a Game for Brains...

Gaming is 100% mental.  I mean, we aren't really swinging our swords, and rolling dice or reaching for a drink is probably as physical as it gets.  This means that the best way to participate is either through role play or strategy and tactics.  Now good role play is a must, and I can't emphasize enough the joys of using funny voices and making stunningly bad decisions in deference to a low wisdom (I have stories).

Strategy and problem solving is another.  Gaming is dangerous for the characters, although maybe not so much for the players (I did get a cramp in my dice hand once, and there's always the Onion Dip Incident of which we never speak).  Good strategy is what keeps our characters alive and lets us be a badass Conan style; and while we sometimes have to depend upon the cleverness of others, it's nice to be the hero sometimes. 

Sure, we can get there by rolling a natural 20, but that's mere luck, not heroics, and actual participation demands that we think and act.  And so here's the rub...

How do we contribute solutions when our character has a 3 intelligence?  I mean, this is an accident of birth that unfairly shuts folks out of full participation.  Sure, we can spend the session doing Lennie Small from Of Mice and Men, all the while hoping that the dice manage to make us look good - but that's not enough.  And I'm not sure it could ever be.

     
Now one reader suggested that we could treat it as acting.  A low intelligence means we withhold ideas even if we have them because our character is slow (OD&D suggests this in the core rulebooks).  And by contrast, having a brilliant character when we're otherwise decidedly average entitles us to a roll, with success delivering just the right strategy on a silver platter. I won't go that far, but my friend was still on to something...

So the best answer is to rethink intelligence.  Someone (I think Gygax in an early issue of Dragon) suggested that INTx10 =IQ, meaning a 3 intelligence is an IQ of 30!  And just to be clear, a 30 IQ is severely mentally disabled and incapable of even basic self care, which makes adventuring out of the question.  And the Monster Manual II says an intelligence of 3-4 counts as semi-intelligent (probably below dogs).  Sorry, no way.

Instead, imagine character (and humanoid) intelligence on a scale as follows:

3-7 (Slow).  The character is dim-witted or maybe just an incurious person.  They're capable of self care and understand how the world works enough to get by, although maybe not without some misadventures.  And while they won't contribute brilliant or complex strategies, they're more than capable of simple, direct solutions, especially when all the required information is right there in front of them.  This is superior to just "playing dumb" because it calls for a fusion of thoughtful role play with due deference to the numbers.


Think of this character as a Forrest Gump.  Maybe not the brightest bulb, but capable of understanding simple things extremely well.  Combined with a low wisdom, the character is impulsive and id-driven or maybe naive and easily taken by scams.  There are plenty of foibles.  But paired with a higher wisdom, they possess a clear, simple insight.    

8-14 (Average).  This is us.  And most characters, really.  Nothing to add.

15-18 (Brilliant).  This character knows a lot.  But maybe they lack common sense (low wisdom) or simply lack the practical experience to make good decisions in a given situation, especially if outside of their experience.  An 18-intelligence magic user should always be outclassed by a 7-intelligence fighter in combat situations.  Really, don't think for one minute that a high intelligence is a golden ticket to all the best strategies.  No, the real value of a higher score is languages and spells known.  And rolling under for knowledge...

Does your character know something about the campaign setting?  Maybe.  If their background allows, and if they roll under their intelligence on a d20 in true B/X style, which makes having a higher score meaningful while (appropriately) penalizing those who lack intellectual prowess.  And it does so by granting clues, which must still be interpreted by the player (no free lunch here, not even for geniuses).  This is quite reasonable. 

So Dorn the Dim (of the 5 intelligence) will never exploit the temporal flow of dimensional energies to disrupt an evil wizard's trap.  But he can think to ignite the oil at their feet, meaning that the challenge of "playing dumb" isn't withholding solutions, but devising simple and effective answers consistent with a simple and direct personality.  And while Bran the Brilliant very well could exploit their knowledge of extra-dimensional physics and maybe think to ignite the oil, they'll still have to think it up themselves.  It's the smart thing to do...

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Levels and the Old-School Brain...

Level matters in role-playing games.  It speaks to how powerful a character is, how much damage they can suffer, and how many spells they may cast.  Ditto for monsters.  If you want a side-by-side power ranking, level gets you where you need to go and helps the GM build challenging but fair adventures and assign rewards appropriately...

And yet the first (and arguably the best) games might not have been all that concerned with level even when they otherwise embraced the concept.

Now I'm talking about OD&D here because for all it might have gotten wrong (errors of omission more than anything else), its approach to characters and levels was pretty much spot on - even if it wasn't expressly highlighted in the rules.  Level, for all its undeniable importance, was always secondary to what old-school enthusiasts often frame as player skill vs. character skill.  And its implications go far beyond simple gameplay...  

More than anything, OD&D saw characters as a mind capable of asking questions, solving problems, and working together as part of a team.  Class, with all its necessary power, seasoned the soup and gave everyone both the practical skills to survive and a specialty to further distinguish themselves.  But ultimately, it was the cleverness and strategy of the players that overcame the odds and led their characters to victory.

When a 5th-level character died, a 1st-level hero took their place.  A neophyte walking alongside more powerful companions.  A novice character among seasoned professionals going up against objectively more powerful adversaries.  How on earth was this even supposed to work?  Or be fair?  Or survivable for that matter?  The answer lies in the fact that the party was never expected to fight everything, and when they did enter into hostilities, clever strategy was just as important as high marks in the level department.


Superior parties always tried to set the conditions of battle.  And they never, ever took on a fair fight.  Hell, if they could get riches without fighting, they'd do it.

None of this had much to do with level.  At best, in encouraged strategy, especially when working around limited power.  The earliest games took this as a given.  As long as you had a mind capable of solving problems and contributing ideas, you had at least half of what you needed to succeed.  Level was just another resource in the party's toolkit... 

And, of course, there were hirelings.  Even an oaf with a 3 charisma got one, making the typical party more of an expedition complete with porters and men-at-arms.  This approach put lower-level adventurers in charge of a fighting force, which was in keeping with the hobby's early self-identification as wargaming.  And think of the power a low-level character had with even one armed fighter under their command.  Seriously.

Note: OD&D made men-at-arms expensive to find but cheaper to maintain.  By way of example, a heavy footman could be had for 100-ish GP and maintained for a mere 3 GP per month in upkeep.  But in a game where the rules are just a guide, locating one might be simpler and less expensive.  At any rate, a relative inheriting their kin's wealth could easily afford to take on some hired help depending on the circumstances involved.

Oh, and relatives inheriting equipment and/or magic items already enjoyed substantial advantages from the go, greatly improving their chances of survival.

Relatively low-powered (and interdependent) characters leading an expeditionary force underground, avoiding danger, and setting the conditions for battle?  Sounds like old-school gaming to me - and sounds like challenging fun!  The earliest games assumed a mode of play that allowed anyone to get involved.  Bring your brains and your hirelings.  Challenging adventures await those willing to put cleverness and strategy ahead of level alone...