Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Blanket Thrown Over the Gears...

Role-playing has two elements.  First, the mechanical and/or quantitative aspects expressed through numerical simulation and manipulation.  But also more qualitative fare, like who, what, where, and when in a living world.  Who wants to inhabit a place of numbers when they can actually do things in a world of cause and effect - and do so in true, fantasy novel fashion?

Simulation gets us there.  But only if we understand gameplay mechanics as machinery over which we throw a clever disguise, much like a colorful blanket of imagination.  Gaming, from the very beginning, exploited this model, and in the capable hands of clever and creative players, the possibilities are endless...   

OK, so let's turn OD&D into a historical game.  Easy.  Make all characters either fighters or thieves.  No magic or non-human races, just humans.  Religion and magic use are social constructs, and magicians, in particular, are either deluded or (rather more likely) conscious charlatans.  The details will otherwise correspond to whatever historical period is ultimately chosen.

And we can prod this forward in time, treating firearms as various bows for damage purposes and assigning ammunition as befits the weaponry in question.  This covers anything from the Victorian era to the early twentieth century to contemporary times, noting that computers and modern vehicles are peripheral elements requiring few, if any, additional rules or new mechanics.

See, all we're really doing here is changing the blanket!

Mechanics make things go, but
without a mask, it's a pretty dull affair...

This enables everything from gangsters to the world wars (and you can take your pick).  But we can also roll back our prohibitions on magic to get something truly Lovecraftian if we want it...

Those having intelligence or wisdom greater than 13 may attempt to read scrolls or spell books, but must save vs. insanity or suffer gradual (and progressive) mental injury culminating in a full-blown malady per the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide (page 83).

All such magic is ritual unless sworn to the service of some supernatural entity, whereas they become functional clerics having access to whatever clerical and magic-user spells the DM judges suitable.  Magic items may or may not be available, but will likely be dangerous and require saving dice against insanity as per the above rules, being ancient and of inhuman origin.

Obviously, demons, the undead, and any number of other monsters; whether extra-dimensional or otherwise, can be used.  Perhaps mind flayers and githyanki re-purposed and renamed to reflect a more nihilistic bent.  And those lucky souls having access to the first printing of Deities & Demigods can involve Cthulhu and company along with the assorted demon lords.  The stats aren't hard to find.

We're not saying you shouldn't buy Call of Cthulhu (we highly encourage it).  But we ARE suggesting that it isn't necessary if you have the requisite ambition.  Blankets are fun to make...

Pay no attention to the man behind
the curtain.  The action is really all up front...

Of course, truly ambitious DMs can push the campaign ever farther ahead in time for a futuristic experience.  Non-humans become extraterrestrials, with clerics and magic users being re-imagined as psionic beings with access to suitable spell effects (this can be challenging, but fun).  Perhaps dwarves are a burrowing race hailing from a sun-blasted world and forced to dig underground...

Guns (again) are bows for damage purposes, armor is advanced polymer comparable to its medieval equivalent, and spacecraft are no different from ships and similar vessels in your standard D&D game, subject to whatever additional rules you wish to add!

In many respects, rules are simply a mechanical frame over which colorful skins can be thrown.  Arrows to bullets to blazing plasma thrown from an alien blaster rifle - it's just damage and range mechanically speaking.  But the campaign; the adventures so created are many and varied, and firing blasters at squid-like aliens in some abandoned space station is FAR different from lobbing arrows at the King's Guard in the Halls of Lord Thoth! 

Face it.  This versatility is what made OD&D so exciting in the beginning and goes a long way towards explaining why D&D (through its latest iteration) remains the most popular game today.  Our hobby attracts clever, creative people who'll jump at the chance to throw that blanket over the gears!  And with so many systems now available; each with their own mechanics ripe for the changing, the fun is likely to continue for as long as the gears whirl...

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Games We Play #1 (Mount & Blade Warband)...

In the interest of full disclosure, we probably design more games than we actually play, and we haven't been doing much of that lately, although we have some ideas in mind.  However, we DO enjoy computer games and probably spend more time with them because they're generally easier and fun to play, especially when you just want to relax at the computer on a cold Nebraska day.  

So in the first of what we suppose will end up being a series, albeit a broken one, here's the first in our survey of computer-type entertainments.  Now Robyn prefers traditional role-playing with customizable characters (Dragon Age, etc.) and is currently rocking Fallout 4 with such ferocious skill that it's scary (I wanna take her to the range and see how she does)...    

But THIS time we're talking about MY favorite: Mount & Blade, or its great stand-alone update: Mount & Blade Warband!   

Oh, and with the holiday weekend coming up, it's probably a good time to tell you we're taking the rest of the month off and probably going to a bi-weekly format.  But enough logistics.  Let's visit storied Calradia, a land torn by incessant warfare and badly in need of unity and a king to make it happen.  Could that be YOU?       

Warband puts you into the action
instead of above it for total immersion...

This underappreciated gem is a role-playing war-game.  You get to design your own character, right down to a very detailed face generator, and explore the open world of Calradia with its various and constantly warring factions.  You can move across the map, visiting cities and recruiting a band of warriors while fighting bandits on the map or undertaking quests for the local Guild Master or village elder, and do so in first or third person.

Oh, and you can be male or female too, ladies!

But you can also visit the arenas and fight for cash or bet on yourself in tournaments, which is awesome fun.  In time, you'll want to sell yourself (and your company) as a mercenary or distinguish yourself and receive an offer of vassalage from one of the many lords, joining one of five factions (kingdoms) and receiving lands and revenue in exchange for your service.  

And it's here that things start to get interesting, because who hasn't dreamed of conquering a kingdom and bring peace or hear your name spoken in awe.  This is definitely the game to do that!

You can customize your character's
appearance and make an original warlord...

You can manage your castles, towns, and/or villages (each is a separate category), working to make your subjects like you because this generates more revenue in the form of taxes.  Much needed revenue, in fact, because you have to pay your warband and whatever garrisons you have in your castles and towns.  Indeed, staying in the black can be tough because good troops DO cost money.

All the while, you'll be fighting enemy armies and laying siege to their fortresses while defending your own.  And all of this is experienced in first/third person instead of the usual, and boring, isometric view of other games.  You can ride into battle on your steed, arrange your forces, and participate in the fight, going at your enemies alongside your troops.  Indeed, one really exciting feature of the game is the ability to issue commands to your various units; stationing archers on the hill, holding cavalry in reserve, and charging with your infantry.  It's serious fun...

Throughout it all, you'll have a chance to gather companions (NPC henchmen complete with unique personalities and a tendency to squabble with each other) and interact with friendly and rival lords both on and off the battlefield, making friends and, frequently, enemies in true role-playing fashion.  Oh, and you can ransom your defeated foes, making a little extra coin in the process!

Walk the towns peacefully 
or battle street-to-street in sieges...

Now, if all of this sounds like role-playing, that's because it definitely is.  Your character (and your companions) will even gain experience and rise in level, assigning points to various combat skills and becoming better combatants.  And the skill system rivals that of many pen-and paper games, which is awesome...

But there's also a strong element of resource management and overarching strategy.  This has been done before, but I really think Mount & Blade succeeds where others fail because of the decidedly personal (role-playing) aspects.  This isn't just some hero fighting for victory.  This is YOU, the player, at work.  

One interesting feature of the game is that characters, and the various lords, cannot be killed.  Instead, your character is taken prisoner, loses their troops (and some money), and eventually escapes to go it alone (at great risk) until they reach a castle or city and builds a new warband to go forth and exact revenge!

Ultimately, your faction may (or may not) win.  But there's always the option of rebelling against your liege and establishing your own kingdom in a rousing final war.  It's your choice, and I've tried both approaches.  Hey, it really is good to be king...

The upcoming Bannerlord sequel
adds much and looks quite promising...
Computer gamers know that sometimes, especially with more linear titles, the replay value is sometimes lacking.  But Mount & Blade is literally a different game every time because you're approach will surely vary from game to game.  It feels like the goals and projects we undertake in real life, which makes it quite addictive!

I really can't say enough good about this little treasure, and recommend it to any like-minded gamers...  
  
Warning: This sweet gem will widow(er) your spouse or significant other, so proceed with caution!  And like many games, there's a Nexus page to download fan-created mods; some, like the Prophesy of Pendor module, amounting to a complete and total overhaul of the original (vanilla) version (each is a NEW game).

Mount & Blade Warband is available on Amazon or Steam, but it's worth noting that there's a sequel: M&B Bannerlord in the works and visible on Steam.  But until that comes out (I'm drooling on my keyboard), you'll definitely want to pick up the CURRENT version to whet your war-gaming appetite.  The graphics are slightly dated, although a few mods improve things considerably, and there isn't any voice acting.  But I think it rises above all that and RULES...     

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Mushy Middle Strikes Back!

Those who know Robyn and I personally know we aren't all that big into ideologies, but prefer to evaluate specific claims individually and on the basis of their merits.  And the fact that this blog has been attacked from BOTH sides of the ideological divide is a source of pride and a good indicator that we're succeeding.

At some point, we have to just be PEOPLE and respond to each other naturally as HUMAN BEINGS.  Forget ideology and forget buzzwords and politics.  We need to occupy the MUSHY MIDDLE!      

Now we get correspondence and feedback.  Much of it positive, but occasionally, we've been questioned, which is fair enough and actually a necessary GOOD.  We respect these folks, even if we don't otherwise agree, and others might wonder where we stand on topical issues since we don't do topical stuff very often...

So here's where we respond, en masse, to these questions:

One anonymous reader responded to an earlier post about Undoing Gender Limits in AD&D, suggesting that we were just trying to pick a fight SJW style, to which we reply...

Dear Anonymous: Is ANY attempt to be decent, fair, and/or kind to others "social justice warfare?"  And since when did excluding good 
people from a fun pastime somehow become sensible?

The old man gets on his soapbox...

Another took exception to our previous The Real "Problem" with Gaming post.  Specifically, they felt that I was being dismissive of the very real abuse too many women experience:    

Dear Worried: Look at our games and their credits.  Robyn (a bona fide female) is my COLLABORATOR.  I LOVE and RESPECT her as an absolute EQUAL.  And while I sometimes make stupid assumptions, I'm willing to admit my mistakes and LISTEN...

But I stand by my words.  Gamers ARE a subset of the general population, and any problems the hobby has (beyond those exclusive to gameplay mechanics) are IMPORTED from that group.

I don't recall saying this wasn't a problem, and any honest examination of the larger population makes it clear that the abuse of women happens all too often.  I don't think I can make it any clearer that I think this is TERRIBLE...

Oh, and attacking me and calling me an ASSHOLE while simultaneously declaring your moral superiority wasn't very convincing!

Look, I'm not perfect.  But I honestly don't want to hurt or otherwise exclude anyone unfairly.  I'll make mistakes and sometimes fall prey to my own embedded prejudices, but I'm willing to hear others out and CHANGE, and I'd rather be a warts-and-all HUMAN than some artificial and self-aggrandizing (read: insincere) poser.

Oh, and just to be clear, I didn't vote for Trump and don't condone his comments as REMOTELY in the realm of honest mistakes...

Another sexist and non-inclusive
session of Pits & Perils at KantCon 2015! 

Finally, someone (presumably a censor) took exception to our Memorial Day post on Stupid Gor and Foolish Censors.  They claimed that denying someone a platform for their speech was somehow an exercise in free speech!  This was DISTURBING:

Dear Censor: You're just WRONG.  Freedom of speech is utterly meaningless unless it's given to EVERYONE.  Freedom of YOUR speech to the exclusion of all others is selfish TYRANNY... 

Instead of silencing others, try creating YOUR OWN platform and participate in the marketplace of ideas.  Participate in the debate and work to change minds.  Otherwise, be prepared to explain how defending YOUR freedom by censoring others ISN'T selfish.

I think I referred to it as the perfection of narcissism, and your position quite possibly bears this out...

The truth is, we come up against both extremes in the gaming community and have our own thoughts.  On the one hand, you have the guys who predictably come unhinged whenever someone suggests that racism and/or sexism is real and reflexively froth at the mouth when female bloggers call for inclusion.   

On the other side you have the "virtue signalers" who make a grotesque spectacle of their ideology, often by censoring those who disagree with them!  Both are living STEREOTYPES, and we suspect reality favors those of us in the so-called MUSHY MIDDLE! 

That's it for mail call!  We appreciate everyone's comments and feedback and truly respect those who disagree with us.  Gaming has problems because HUMANS have problems.  But we can solve many of them by treating others as we'd like to be treated and acting on our best moral instincts to live (and role-play) well with others...

Monday, November 7, 2016

RPGs Weren't Originally War-Games...

Last week, we talked about combat tables in D&D and wondered why things didn't start out simple and gradually evolve into the greater complexity that really appears to have characterized the earliest editions of the game.  But we also acknowledged that systems tend to become more streamlined over time, implying that the earliest state of the hobby looked more like its middle period MIGHT have; simple at first, clunky in the middle, and more streamlined at the end.  

This time, we'll delve a little deeper...

Now, many readers (rightly) pointed out that the combat and other tables were derived from the original war-games from which our hobby was born.  This is accurate, sort of.  Anyone introduced to the pastime in 1978 couldn't easily escape this fact and probably learned from people who still played historical simulations and had a table in their garage or basement complete with rolling hills and model terrain.  Indeed, an eleven-year-old me remembers playing in a friend's garage on a Saturday night in August of that year.  "Kiss You All Over" by Exile was booming on someone's car radio, and we debated the wisdom of missing our 70s television lineup.  But this game, which already seemed to have a long and storied history (an impressive four years on the market), had us hooked!

War-gaming was always an important part of D&D's development.  So much so, in fact, that it might come as a surprise that role-playing DIDN'T ACTUALLY BEGIN AS A CONVERTED WAR-GAME...

No, role-playing sprang from David Wesley's original Braunstein game(s), which were every bit as free-form and simple as I argued the first RPGs SHOULD have been.  For the uninitiated, and because we like the story, here goes:  Back in 1969, Wesley took a break from his usual Napoleonic games and prepared something a little different.  The game was set in the eponymous German town of Braunstein (Brown Stone), and the table was set out with model buildings and railroad parts in typical war-gaming fashion, although here's where the similarity ends.  Each player was given a prepared character, perhaps the town mayor or a student radical, complete with their own motivations and conditions of "victory" in a game that emphasized role-playing and personal interaction over combat and the formal imposition of history on their choices.  Indeed, there were no charts (beyond the notes Wesley prepared for the session) or personal statistics.  The characters were described QUALITATIVELY, and their abilities and aptitude for certain tasks were derived from THIS as a judgment call.

At what point did gaming become
a technically complex and convoluted mess?

Knowing Wesley as a friend has yielded sweet fruit, as he's a great person and a veritable font of gaming wisdom that's always fun to hear.  So we'll quote HIM on this matter:        

"I would resolve most doubtful questions by letting the player roll dice: The banker jumps into the river to escape the angry student mob:  I say “roll 2d6: being a fat old man, you need a high number”.  He rolls 7, and I say “Do you drop the bag of gold?” and he says “Oh yes” and I say “Roll again” he rolls 12 and I say “you grab a floating body and it keeps you from drowning while you drift downstream away from the falls.  You lucky devil” or he rolls a 5 and I say, “Too bad you didn’t drop it before you dove in.  Your body will be found in a few days.”

Now, this left much to the referee's rulings, but these were DEFENSIBLE rulings because they cited the qualitative facts of the character.  Of course a fat old banker isn't going to swim as well as an athletic young student, especially when weighed down with gold!  This is standard fare, in fact...

But there are TWO important points here.  First, this was an ORIGINAL concept almost completely divorced from traditional war-gaming with all its charts and tables.  At the same time, even the SIMPLEST attempt to formalize its mechanics would have resulted in the kind of ultra-simple system we advocated for!  

Our rhetorical question has already been answered.  Gaming DID start out simple.  Super-simple, in fact!

Our attempt at a basic timeline
totally open to revision, dear readers!

So how did war-games, with all their complexity (and we mean charts and tables here), come to predominate in the early hobby?  Once again, there are good reasons for this:

(1) WESLEY JOINED THE ARMY because Vietnam was still a thing, and he was called to serve, leaving his regular Braunstein games to his friend, Dave Arneson.  And boy did he run with it!  

(2) ARNESON'S BLACKMOOR was a "medieval" Braunstein that introduced fantastic elements to the game and was also, incidentally, a play on its naming convention (Brown Stone, Black Moor), which you may or may not have noticed.  And yes, Grey Hawk follows in its footsteps!  Out of sheer necessity, special powers and abilities were introduced, both for monsters and the player-characters, and more effort was made, in general, to distinguish the characters from one another.  Inevitably, this led to greater complexity.  How do you simulate these things?  Luckily, traditional war-games already had the necessary architecture, and this was happily incorporated into an exciting new concept.

(3) GYGAX'S CHAINMAIL offered a separate attempt to create a medieval war-game and introduce fantastical elements.  Indeed, many of D&D's trademark flourishes are found here, making this required reading for anyone interested in the history of everyone's favorite role-playing game!

(4)  WHEN GYGAX AND ARNESON got together to develop a commercial product, they (inevitably) drew elements from both sides, and since each had a war-gaming background, charts, tables, and the general complexity of that hobby weighed heavily.  The minimalist game that MIGHT have been, sadly, never ended up happening...

Although, to be honest, we're tried like hell with our own products, including a Licensed Braunstein RPG! 

Of course, that was then, and the trend towards simpler, more streamlined systems is evident, especially in the latest iteration of the game, which continues to strive for the optimal balance between complexity (always needed to support mechanics which, in turn, support the many powers and abilities present in a fantasy world) and ease of play.  After all, it's HUMANS pretending to be elves and wizards, and sometimes, the BEST complexity really does come from their personal interactions!  See you next week...