Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Critical Hits: Live Scarred or Die Pretty...

Conan did a lot of fighting.  A lot.  And it strains credibility to think he wasn't cut open a few times.  You know, deep gashes and blood everywhere.  But if he was, it certainly didn't show beyond the occasional, strategically displayed battle scar.  Ditto for Red Sonya who, much like her Cimmerian friend, displayed quite a bit of flesh (because let's face it, they were both mostly naked half the time).  By all rights each should have been a horrific mass of scar tissue.  Not the stuff of sexy, sensual fantasy, but realistic nonetheless... 

So how did two barely dressed warriors, seasoned fighters who put themselves in harm's way with careless abandon, avoid unsightly harm?  Heroism!     

If Conan were a D&D character, he'd be that one guy who somehow avoided death and serious disfigurement through twenty levels.  Sure, historical warriors have gone to their old-age ends with all their parts intact.  But never under so much exposure.  Assuming all of Conan's adventures (comics and otherwise) are canon, Howard's barbarian has seen more combat than a WW II veteran!  And through it all he stayed, well, mostly unscathed.    

So there's a decision to make.  Is your game gonna be the heroic variety where the characters keep their good looks if they manage not to die?  Or is it gonna be a grindhouse affair where there's a 5% chance per battle of looking like a reject from a bloody Quentin Tarantino movie?  Either approach is fine; but it's also important because it gets to the heart of how the experience ultimately feels.  Each has its pros and cons...


Ultra-violent affairs with homemade critical damage tables can be fun.  I mean, there's a visceral excitement to losing an ear because someone somewhere rolled a natural 20.  But it also detracts, considerably might I add, from any sense of heroic, abiding characters and doesn't always map to the sort of fantasy a lot of us like to read and enjoy playing.  I've heard men scream minus body parts.  Only a privileged sadist finds it entertaining.

Oh, and it can be tedious.  One roll in twenty you're stopping combat to hit the tables, stifling momentum.  Yeah, maybe it's kind of exciting the first few times.  But critical injury on a natural 20 happens more often than you'd think -  and it gets old quick.  Frequent grievous injury can also start to feel unrealistic.  Now this can be remedied with sub-tables where disfigurement is only one of several possibilities.  You can do this, but beware if you aren't one of those people (I'm talking me) who isn't keen on breaking play to consult endless charts and tables.  During adventure prep, sure, but it's not for everyone... 

Now the heroic stuff lets you feel like a bad ass just for not dying.  And it's not without its narrative justifications.  I've long held that clerical healing and potions (clerical at a minimum) actually mend visible wounds.  Scars heal, deep cuts vanish.  The works.  And it's simpler because you aren't constantly checking tables.  Even so, it's possible for combat to lose its sense of danger, which isn't necessarily a good idea.  Battle should be scary. 

Again, either choice is fine.  And it can vary from campaign to campaign.  But for the undecided there's always the mixed approach.  It's simple.  Grievous injury is only possible with certain enemies or from certain traps, with effects appropriate to the situation, be it corrosive attacks or sweeping blades that lop off feet.  Moreover, you can offer disfigurement as an alternative to death.  Sure you can live - but now you've lost an eye and suffer -1 to missile dice.  Clerical healing can eventually set things to right; but in the meantime, players give certain enemies (and situations) the respect they surely deserve.

Keep these rare enough to make them a big deal when they happen.  Oh, and when Zarlathan the Lame comes hobbling up on his staff, you can be sure he earned his moniker through something truly heroic.  That demon lord was almost impossible to defeat, but sacrifices were made and the world saved.  Now that's an abiding and heroic character fit for the sagas.  And really, that's part of why we play.  Of course, Robyn and I don't wish this suffering on anyone in real life, so be safe and try to stay in one piece everyone!

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Old-School Gaming As Punk...

Nothing too big this week.  The real world, with its myriad stresses and delights, has occupied a disproportionate (albeit appropriate) chunk of my time.  Nevertheless, I've had time to reflect upon the hobby and its place in my life.  Call it a bit of mental accounting, spiritual reflection, or whatever.  The fact is, I've always preferred a certain approach to our hobby, and whenever I deviate too far from that center I lose interest.  That's not to say alternative approaches are bad, mind you, only that my love of gaming is securely bound to my personal experiences and preferences - as it should be for everyone... 

The gaming I love recalls what it's like to be an eleven year old in the late 1970s who discovered this new thing called D&D.  It wasn't some slick, mass-market thing at the time, understand, but something positively garish and amateur to behold.  

There were no home computers (well, not enough to make any real impression) and no internet or social media.  If you knew someone who had a typewriter or early word processor it was a big deal, and the whole thing felt accessible because none of it was beyond the capabilities of the people actually playing the games.  It was homemade fun...

Even when you were playing D&D it was homemade fun because you were free to add or change anything through the social contract.  Anyone remember that?  

Some modern games seem bent on taking all the decision-making power away from the participants, mechanizing any and all possible choices and offering them back to the player as part of some optimal character build.  No social contract.  No negotiations.  Face the monsters and hope you achieved the optimal build.  Fine.  But it seems like all the effort is on the wrong side of the equation.  Most of the work should be done during play.

   
I call this Champions Syndrome.  You spend a week achieving the perfect build only to get bored shitless after a single session because the best work is behind you. 

While class and race were ostensibly central to the games I played, it was really the players, with their strategies and problem-solving, that ruled the day.  Whether you were a fragile magician with a single spell or a stout fighter with the intelligence of a clam, everyone was an actual person capable of making decisions and offering up a winning solution.

In one game our party distracted a hungry reptilian horror by catapulting the corpses of slain orcs (it's a long story) into the courtyard of an old castle, sneaking safely across while the monster enjoyed its unexpected feast.  Not one rule was invoked.  Not one.  Sure, the referee could have been an asshole.  But everyone understood that we were there to have fun and that the solution was a clever and reasonable one.  That's the good stuff...  

Your class?  Your spells?  That's just a foundation.  Your choices and clever strategies are what makes the game happen.  And you'll get none of this from any rulebook.

I'm not telling anyone to get off my lawn.  It's a big neighborhood and people can prune their bushes how they like.  But it seems to me that at least some so-called "modern" gaming externalizes the experience of play, and that's just not entertaining to me.

So give me clever small-press rules with no aspirations beyond being just a guide for the referee to follow.  Homemade fun with a homemade look and feel I can match with additions and changes of my own making.  And give me systems that put player choice and strategy ahead of mechanical solutions to everything.  Why bother playing if all you're gonna do is roll spot checks?  At that rate just skip the adventure, roll to see who died, and work up riches enough for the survivors to bicker over.  Me?  I'll be in my basement making my own fun the old-fashioned way.  Call me a relic (guilty as charged), but it's kind of subversive...   

It's that punk thing: This is a rule.  This is another.  This is a third.  Now make a game! 

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Achilles, the Industry, and the End...

Gaming is fun.  Yeah, we totally get that.  As far as hobbies go, this one puts the "P" in participation and gets everyone involved in a way stamp collecting can't touch.  GMs build their own adventures, run their own campaigns, and devise new content.  It's a timeless refrain: the GM can add or change anything.  The rules are just a guide offering tools for the creative workbench.  And the players have their own creative options...  

So yeah, gaming is an all-hands-on-deck sort of affair.  And while this is the hobby's greatest strength, it's also the industry's Achilles heel and self-limiting.

Remember, the typical RPG is a set of written rules where the GM is free to add or change anything, going as far as creating original content and house rules to turn the source material on its head.  And all in the name of fun.  You can't do this with Monopoly any more than you can buy a Coke and turn it into a Mountain Dew.  Gaming is unique in this way; miniatures be damned, the action takes place inside the participant's collective heads.

Now gamers are a creative, intelligent lot, so they eat this stuff up and ask for seconds, preferably, served with a side of d20.  People are lining up to buy new stuff, and Drive-Thru RPG does a brisk business.  But the industry has a "competitor" in its own customers, although not in any mean-spirited or adversarial way.  Simply put, creative people quickly figure out how to develop their own rules, and since they're already happy to imagine whole worlds (if not entire universes), many inevitably drift to game design... 

And with self-publishing and print-on-demand options, it can surely happen.

Now, this is wonderful news for a hobby which, in my opinion, thrives on creative and enthusiastic amateurs making their own fun.  A nice rulebook is a wonder to behold, don't get me wrong.  But the action, indeed the adventures, take place inside the player's heads and ultimately wanders from the rulebook.  Attractive, professional production is essential for creating atmosphere, communicating information, and just makes it easier to read and absorb the rules.  But we don't live or play in the rulebook.  We play in our imagination...

And sooner or later, it's the players, not the product, doing all the heavy lifting!


The concept of the game is the game.  One player provides the setting and supporting characters and everyone else runs a character.  It's all decision making, exploration, and role-playing, as we're fond of saying.  Rules don't matter at this point, and when we eventually decide we need them, it can be as easy as saying "roll 7 or better on 2d6" with modifiers for difficulty.  And we can have all of this (and more) free of charge. 

Of course, people can devise awesome rules based on great ideas and wrap them up in a gorgeous package for sale.  Nothing wrong with that.  But when the most creative enthusiasts can make and share their own stuff in the social media universe, you realize that buying anything is a nicety and very often non-essential to enjoying the hobby.  Tabletop gaming as an industry is therefore self-limiting.  And long may it be.  It's really better this way.  

How far can the industry go?  It has a ceiling.  I went three years buying nothing more than paper, pencil, and the occasional replacement dice.  And Robyn and I spent close to a decade playing a game we sort of worked out around some simple mechanics and the social contract.  Social contracts are free, and P&P's content came from various adventures I judged over that time.  And God knows, we absolutely appreciate the folks who've bought and played our little ruleset.  We appreciate it because we know you really don't have to buy anything at all.  And we mean that in the most literal way possible.  Thank you...

The demand for games is out there.  But some will inevitably satisfy their urge to play and create by whipping up their own materials while the small-press industry absorbs many others.  Indeed, the two go hand in hand.  Remember, play happens outside the rulebook, and I've never seen a game that played better because it came in a slick package, even though I've certainly enjoyed these products and like having something physically nice for the bookshelf or the gaming table.  And when you can can tailor a favorite system to whatever purpose, there's absolutely an upper limit to the industry's maximum possible growth.     

Put another way, the gaming industry grows sideways more than it grows upward.  How many are living off game design?  Really?  But that's good, because the people in it tend to be those who love it, and this is reflected in their products.  We have a ceiling too, dear reader, because we make rules-lite games.  Blood of Pangea (plus its two supplements) covers everything from the ancient world to the far future, and its narrative emphasis pretty much ensures that you'll never need anything else to get what you want from it.  

We've sort of written ourselves out of the equation, and we know that at some point we'll have said everything we want (and need) to say.  Probably sooner than later.  And then, dear reader, the ball will be in your hands.  The industry may be inherently self-limiting as a rule, but the hobby (very happily) is a genie that won't let itself get put back into the bottle...

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Debbie's Screwing the Ankheg from the Mailroom (or Gaming's Only Sorta Like Storytelling)...

So you woke up to rain hammering your window like a million tiny castanets in time to an invisible (and doubtless sadistic) Spanish dancer.  You wanted to sleep in, but since you like being employed better you sucked it up, put down some coffee, and hit the road with the enthusiasm of a condemned prisoner making The Long Walk...

Some asshole in a Prius cut you off, and all the good parking spaces were taken; so you ran under your briefcase from across that toilet of a parking lot and bolted for the double doors with all the grace of a staggering drunk.  Someone yelled at you and you flipped them off in the privacy of your mind - and you hadn't even made it to your desk yet! 


You spent the morning reading the new Privacy Policy while trying to ignore Brad and Deborah yucking it up two cubicles down and then went to a staff meeting where everyone competed for who had the brownest nose.  You didn't win.  Lunch was a pointless and relatively tasteless affair, but things picked up at three when you found out Deborah slept with the new mail room guy.  No biggie, except that Debbie's married to your next-door neighbor and you don't know how (or if) you can possibly face him and keep this awful secret to yourself.  Your bad day couldn't end fast enough, to be honest...

Luckily, home and your spouse await and things get better.  He or she asks you about your day and you tell the tale.  That's right, the tale.  You tell the story of your day.   

So here's a truism about gaming.  That encounter with the ankheg was just a random happening.  Something the DM rolled up while your party took its shortcut through Farmer Jacob's field and stole corn to supplement rations.  It's no different from the Prius or the Privacy Policy read over a stale bagel.  Just a series of events, maybe not even connected in any coherent way.  But by the end of the adventure it becomes the story of your day, complete with all the dramatic arcs.  And maybe it takes time to unfold.  Debbie's screwing the mail guy, but the whole sad, sick story doesn't play out until a month later when her husband finds out and tosses her stuff on the lawn for all to see...

Ditto for gaming.  Individual events are just events in a simulation.  But taken in retrospect, they become the story of your character's day (or adventure, as the case may be) that contributes to a narrative arc no one could anticipate in advance, which to say: Gaming isn't storytelling.  It's story making, and happily, everyone at the table gets to participate!