Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The (Optional) Afterlife...

Resurrection is a useful ability, and one sometimes invoked by powerful clerics.  But is it really all that easy?  And shouldn't the gods have the final say?  And what about the soul's final disposition at death?  The following (always optional) rules are intended for Pits & Perils (P&P), but easily convertible for use in more traditional OSR systems...

Obviously, deities may not wish to part with souls and have full power to keep this from happening!  For game purposes, assume that lawful or neutral types leave this to the individual, and evil ones always seek to prevent it.  Either way, saving dice may be required for any successful resurrection.

Feasting forever?  Who would want to leave? 

Lawful (good) characters might find themselves in a blissful afterlife, in the presence of their gods and/or ancestors, and who would want to leave that behind?  Accordingly, resurrection may require saving dice, subject to the following modifiers as befits their unique circumstances at death:  

       CHARACTER                                   MODIFIER*      
       Raised by cleric of own faith                  +3 
       Raised by cleric of other (lawful) faith       +2
       Has unfinished business on Earth               +1

       *Assumes P&P; implies divine will at times  

Note: The point here is not to make resurrection impossible, but definitely less certain, although the above conditions should weigh heavily when making these determinations.

Optionally, lawful characters who fail with an unmodified 1 are declared saints, provided they died in service to good, assuming a special place within campaign lore. 

Neutral characters can take it or leave it, so their resurrection might only be subject to their deities' willingness.

And would Hell ever be willing to give up its dead?

Chaotic (evil) characters will usually find themselves burning in the pit of Hell, and who wouldn't want to leave!  However, the infernal powers are interested in building a cadre of followers, and seduce them with powers or even just sparing them the worst that damnation has to offer!  This depends upon their level at the time of death and thus, their usefulness...

Again, saving dice apply:   

       LEVEL            DISPOSITION               MODIFIER*      
        1-3        Roasting in the pit               +3 
        4-6        Lesser/devilish minions           -1
        7-9        Sergeants/lieutenants             -2
        10+        Offered demon/devil status        -3

       *Again, assumes P&P; evil hates to lose!  

Note here that demons and evil deities are far less likely to willingly part with their charges.  On the other hand, wicked types can enter into a pact, being allowed to return to Earth provided they carry out some (suitably evil) task or act as special agents as determined by the referee.  Note that this ALWAYS requires they remain "evil" and ABSOLUTELY PRECLUDES future resurrection, since perdition will be less willing to part with them!

On a final note, evil characters, having sampled the torments awaiting the damned, might experience a change of heart and revert to a good (or at least neutral) side.  This is left up to the player, although there is a chance (1 in 1d6) or an agent appearing and offering some enticement (a standard Faustian contract), its terms consistent with overall game balance.

The above (optional) rules offer some spice and implied cosmology when resurrecting fallen comrades - hey, it's your afterlife!    

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Gaming Psych 101 (Give 'Em What They Need)

As referees, we want engaging and challenging scenarios.  So we craft unique adventures with interesting NPCs because, well, after all, these are important.  But we should never forget that the players (not to mention their characters) are people too, and fully motivated by human needs and desires.

Note before reading on: This post refers to campaign play, and not to games like Paranoia or Call of Cthulhu, where part of the enjoyment is dying swiftly... 

Abraham Maslow proposed a Hierarchy of Needs, being not only a listing of things humans require, but suggesting that higher needs can only be met once the lower ones are secured.  For instance, worries about personal fulfillment will always take a back seat when faced with starvation or certain death, etc.

These needs include: physiological (called here, survival), safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization:

From bottom up, these are the things 
people, and players in fantasy RPGs, require...

These are important because they tell a referee what things to provide in their adventures, but also serve as a warning that some can only be had when base needs are fulfilled.

SURVIVAL: This means immediate survival.  No one is bored or distracted when fighting for their very lives, and most RPGs have this aspect nailed.  However, good referees will pace this out, otherwise, players may become exhausted, and there's little time to progress beyond just staying alive...

Remember: If all the characters have to look forward to is the dubious "privilege" of not being dead for another few minutes, you really aren't getting the most out of your game.   

SAFETY: At this point, characters aren't fighting for their very existence, so they have time to worry about long-term planning, like finding a safe place to camp underground.  These things also help keep the players both engaged and interested, but only if there are actual rewards for doing so!  Or penalties for not.

Of course, you can't get here until basic survival is seen to, and good referees will keep this fact in mind...

BELONGING: Obviously, having friends and gaming together does provide a sense of real-world belonging.  But characters can also seek and attain membership in exclusive guilds or other honors denoting some singular achievement and fraternity with a very select group, including honorary titles, etc.  The key here is to make these meaningful and useful to the players, like being able to get help from others within their particular group.

In one session, the players were named "Knights of Nirvella" for their part in saving the eponymous village.  Chests puffed out and at least one character used it for all it was worth, so never underestimate the power of this.  Who doesn't want their name spoken in awe - this is stuff adventurers crave!

Sure, we do it for the experience points, but the
best and most memorable experiences are ones that make you
feel like a living legend... 

ESTEEM: No one likes to be a failure, and while the players must still earn their success, hard work should be always be acknowledged because, ultimately, victory is the best reward of all.

When every adventure is a humiliating kick in the codpiece, players might stop showing up.  Really...     

Again, this very important juncture is only possible when the characters are (1) alive, (2) reasonably sure of staying that way, and (3) somewhat accepted in the world. 

SELF-ACTUALIZATION: This is the ultimate prize.  Here players are free to seek out the really big goals and be the best they can possibly be; building a stronghold, running a guild, or crushing the armies of the Demon-lord, etc.  From here on, players are pretty much initiating their own goals and plans, and this is never, ever boring for anyone.  It's our own fate, after all...

Observant readers will notice that this progression mirrors level advancement as shown below: 

Low level - survival (being weaker, death is ever-present) 
Mid level - belonging/self-esteem (now a matter of surviving well)
High level - self-actualization (greater goals and purpose)

Even so, players might easily progress through all five levels within the span of a single session, going from combat (survival) to making camp (safety) in the room just cleared, forming alliances with the nearby goblin tribe (belonging), slaying the wicked dragon on level 10 (esteem), and ultimately, being immortalized in song when doing so (true self-actualization)...     

Interesting scenarios that are challenging and attainable are definitely part of keeping players engaged.  But so is appealing to their human need to survive, thrive, and achieve their wildest dreams, and the Hierarchy of Needs is a nice way to address these within your own (and all-too-human) fantasy campaigns!  

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Elven Mind Stones

This blogger absolutely loves Hawk the Slayer (1981) as the quintessential "old-school" movie.  Despite the cheesy dialogue and limited effects, there's something special about it, perhaps its earnestness and unapologetic innocence.  

And it's not like there weren't good ideas there; the elven mind stones being one of these.  If you haven't seen the movie and don't know what this is, stop reading and see this film.  Now.  Then return and use this week's blog to add them to your own campaigns, whether OD&D/AD&D or Pits & Perils.

Elven mind stones appear as small, egg-shaped stones of varying color as described below.  These are made of a special material that readily bonds with living minds for special power.
       
A mind stone (+1) in action, glowing green
with awesome magical power!

Stones are subject to the following:

(1) The user must focus on the stone for at least one turn to establish a psychic connection.  This creates an unassailable link for one game day, but must be repeated over subsequent days for continuing benefit of its rare effects.

(2) By itself, the stone is merely an interesting trinket, being mentally controlled to dance and move (but never at speeds sufficient to cause harm) on command in a 30' radius.  This is the key to its real, intended function.

(3) When set into the hilt of a sword (or the shaft of an axe or similar weapon) it enables a mental connection that allows the wielder to mentally recover the weapon when lost (through disarming or similar action) within its (30') range/radius.

(4) Likewise, given the psychic link with its user, the weapon 
performs at a bonus by color, moving as a real extension of their bodies; literal thought into action:

                        COLOR  BONUS   VALUE*
                        Green   +1   3,000 GP
                        Yellow  +2   4,000 GP
                        Blue    +3   5,000 GP 
                          
                        *Reflects Pits & perils

Each type is, of course, correspondingly rare...

(5) In Pits & Perils, this reduces the critical threshold for maneuvers, including Parry, Smash, or Thrust; 11 or better instead of the usual 12.  This can be attributed to the link.

(6) The weapon does not otherwise count as magical, however, being psychic and not sorcery.  In Pits & Perils, the following rules apply to elves and the optional savant:

Being elven mind stones, all elves can use them and get the Parry maneuver free when doing so.

Savants, being powerfully psychic, need only reestablish a connection once per week, and not at all after 9th level, making these especially prized by members of that class.  Otherwise, captured mind stones can be re-calibrated for use by any character trained to employ the appropriate weaponry.  

Hawk the Slayer is great fun, and so are elven mind stones!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Side Treks II: The Village (A Review)

This time we're reviewing Side Treks II: The Village, by Matt Jackson of Chubby Monster Games.  Matt's maps are famous in the OSR community and with very good reason (check it out).  His maps are both gorgeous and evocative; not merely utilitarian things, but actual pictures, and here he proves that every picture really does tell a story.  While not exclusively for Pits & Perils, it can certainly be used, and we like it...

Someplace you should definitely visit, the sooner the better!

Side Treks is basically a small (16-page) collection of village locations for use in old-school games.  The physical production is notable both for its typesetting (an old Underwood) and its excellent, two-toned mapping, each one evoking a moody and very magical atmosphere dripping with old-school style and sensibilities that recall the trippy 70s well.        

Each location is treated an an encounter unto itself, for they potentially are, and special care is taken to establish the proper atmosphere, whether dark and ominous rumblings over one strange emporium or drinks with a certain beardless dwarf.  Players will no doubt find themselves drawn into this world, but always choosing their own adventures by their actions.

And that's the really neat thing about this product; while it presents a fully realized locale, it nonetheless manages to leave much to the referee, truly inspiring them, but never imposing anything more than what they want or need to use.  And the players can't help but tinker with all the interesting and, occasionally, exotic things to be found.     

In all, Side Treks includes Skellerdeed's Brewery, where the characters might sample magical ales(!), Miechaloob's Fae Emporium, that deals in what it says, The Broken Gnome, a tavern with a diverse clientele, The Forge, where you can get more than the rank and file gear, and Molyndix Stables, a place where you can buy a genuine jackalope.  Need we say anything more?

Side Treks: The Village is system-neutral, although necessity dictates reference to some common mechanics (damage and/or general bonuses) found in a variety of systems.  This not only makes it accessible to a wider audience, but gives the referee great freedom to adjust for the size and strength of their group.

The referee might, of course, import the whole village into an existing campaign with complete ease and find it a nicely interconnected community, having within all the services of a proper settlement.  But they can just as easily take what they wish and leave the rest; whatever they want!  Some adjustment may be necessary, depending on the system and campaign, but such changes can be made on-the-spot and quite easily.

On a final note, this is a digital download, and you get two versions of the product; high and low-resolution.  A final bit of choice for those with varying storage needs or for use on small devices at the table.  This is flexible stuff!  

Verdict: Side Treks II: The Village presents several fascinating locales that strike an inspiring balance between its prepared setting and referee freedom.  The result is one of the best products of this sort we've ever come across; recommended for fans of the renaissance and our own Pits & Perils.  Also suggested for the harried referee or novices who deisre to kick start their own campaign and needing just a push.  Available as a pdf download!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Old-School and The Spells of Sokurah

The gaming hobby has been around for over forty years and has steadily become a mainstream phenomenon.  Over this time, the genre has evolved its own conventions, separate and apart from its original inspirations.  This means that modern games are based on, you guessed it, other games!  Not so back in 1974, when inspiration came from a small pool of contemporary stuff.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, from 1958, would have been among these earliest influences.  In addition to being a great story, it features the wonderful stop-motion animation of Mr. Ray Harryhausen himself.  But rather than dwell on the story, we focus on its depictions of magic through its villain, the evil magician Sokurah, who provides a glimpse into old-school ideas about magic and sorcery and how it might work on adventures...

Sokurah is quite a powerful magician, even if he isn't lobbing
fireballs at every turn.  Read on...

Sokurah's first real act of magic is transforming a serving girl into a serpentine dancer (presaging the excellent Medusa that would come years later).  This feat involved pouring chemicals into a large urn, although the latter part may have been a creative flourish to entertain the Caliph.  The whole thing takes roughly under a minute to do, making it quite useful.

His second spell involves shrinking the princess to 1/10th her original size while she sleeps.  This appears to require firelight, whether candle or torch, although the effect is permanent until reversed (a driving force of the plot).  This spell might be cast on the sidelines while protected by others in a party, so again, a useful and effective bit of magic.

The third Spell of Sokurah is restoring the princess.  Here we see more components, and the girl is placed in what looks like a sarcophagus, making it more of a ritual.  Even so, the girl isn't really complaining - this is proper magic at work...

Finally, the sorcerer brings a skeleton to life to attack Sinbad, apparently using only his natural willpower.  This takes just under one minute to do, and the skeleton proves surprisingly able, rewarding viewers with some great special effects and combat as originally conceived in the hobby's infancy.

The film features some great monsters courtesy of Ray Harryhausen
that hold up well by today's standards - perhaps better!

Here we have magicians using some impressive spells, but with limited uses.  Sokurah isn't throwing lightning bolts at every turn, but this hardly matters considering how rare magic is, and the simple fact that no one else can do this.  Overpowered sorcerers have taken the wonder out of magic and made it just another weapon among many, which is too bad...

We also see material components and the ritual aspect of spell-casting in general.  In 1958, the biggest source of inspiration was historical ideas about magic and monsters, and potions were an important part of the narrative.  Obviously, this had a big impact on the first RPG designers as well - a great one!

Magic items also figure prominently.  To begin with, Sokurah commands the genie of the lamp to create a magical barrier between himself and the cyclops.  Later, he's seen using a crystal ball, tracking Sinbad's progress towards his lair which, by the way, is guarded by a fire-breathing dragon, demonstrating the importance of minions to an evil magician (something great referees have known from the start, old-school or otherwise)...

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a great story and a special effects extravaganza, even by modern standards.  But it was also an important influence on the first generation of game designers, and presents the old-school mindset in every way, where cleverness overrides dependence on special powers, and magic is quite powerful, although rare and difficult to use.  A must-see movie!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Powers That Be (A Review)

This time around, we're looking at The Powers That Be, another supplement under the Pits & Perils (P&P) OSL, published and written by Bryan Steward of Black Paperclip Games; the same folks who delivered us The Uncanny Abode and Final Resting Place.  Only now, it's the very gods themselves on offer...


The Powers That Be presents a cosmology in just 10-pages
and does so with surprising results!  A must for those who like their
games laced with some old-school fun....

At just 10-pages long, don't expect Deities & Demigods.  However, this short, smart book provides some interesting ideas and insights for referees, whether running P&P or something else entirely, so it's well worth a little read.

First, we discover that the cosmos is quite literally ruled by transcendent forces of Law, Chaos, and Neutrality.  The P&P game uses this basic alignment system (called side), but the book presents these things as palpable forces in the universe, a nod to Moorcock, but far more literally...

Among other things, we learn that the fearsome and powerful deities men worship are just "Lesser" Gods, themselves beholden to the transcendent Greater Gods described herein!  

Of course, we also have the terrifying forces of Chaos; a very Lovecraftian flourish that manages to avoid the cliches' and conventions of that genre in modern gaming.  We've absolutely nothing against that, mind you, but it's nice to see this handled in refreshingly new terms!   

The Lesser Gods are listed by name, sphere of influence, and personal (holy) symbol.  This might not seem like much to players accustomed to more, but P&P already has complete rules for the manifestation of deities in physical form, making this redundant and unnecessary.  More importantly, it speaks to a fundamental truth about religion in most old-school games:

For all their importance, it's the followers of the gods, player or non-player alike, who matter most!

Give clerics a deity to serve, a holy symbol, and a sphere of influence, and they have everything they need to be an interesting persona in a campaign.  The Powers That Be delivers a quick and convenient cosmology, complete with deities, demigods, and heroes to pluck, quickly and easily, as gods to worship or even just for name-dropping and lore-building in general.

We also discover that each god has a signature magic item they sometimes allow to "fall" into the hands of worshipers in times of need, subject to the referee.  These are statted for P&P, but certainly customizable for others systems.  Steward's customary dark humor is present at times, but only until you realize this stuff will kill you!  You've been warned...

One final point of interest is that spell-casters, and not just priests, are interested in the gods, for they tap the very power of creation to ply their trade.  In other words, this supplement provides a basic physic for magic as well, something overlooked in many other (and longer) treatments on the subject.  Accordingly, there are rules for tapping into the powers of chaos to extend one's spell-power, although this is very risky! 

VERDICT: The Powers That Be presents a cosmology, complete with gods, demigods, heroes, and mysterious artifacts that can be quickly and easily inserted into things, all backed by a philosophy for referees who just want to get on with the game.  At just 10-pages, there's some really neat stuff here for those who appreciate a universe that's occasionally humorous and always old-school, being in the tradition of Judge's Guild and Flying Buffalo.

We suggest getting this with The Uncanny Abode, also by Black Paperclip Games, as some of its gods are mentioned, being derived as it is from the same venerable campaign and serving to flesh out adventures in the Ravensreach area.  In both digital and softcover!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

High Spirits: Magic in Braunstein!

Modern gaming has promoted the idea of magic as some impersonal force, like electricity, that can be harnessed and controlled for a variety of useful purposes.  However, actual history differs considerably here, seeing magic and witchcraft as summoning and binding spirits to service.  Braunstein! is a historical adventure game, so it assumes the latter case...

The Witch of Endor, Kassandra, and Propspero all worked magic by conjuring and commanding spirits.      

To keep things simple, spell-casters roll 1d6 to summon spirits, being anything from ghosts to demons (Christian) or animistic and elemental (pagan) entities.  This also represents the amount of personal LUCK the character uses, but likewise, the duration in rounds that such spirits actually linger.

Oh yeah, and spirits perform at twice normal human capacity for feats of strength and intellect, etc.

Is this limited as compared to traditional systems?  Certainly, given that most games feature overtly powerful effects of an almost divine nature at times.  But commanding spirits, in all its simplicity, still produces a wide variety of powerful and useful effects in demand by most adventurers...   

Spirits may be commanded to do any of the following and much more, on behalf of the summoner:

(1) Answer obscure questions.  This is divination in its simplest form, and because spirits operate at twice human ability, they actually possess quite a bit of this and travel through realms most humans never glimpse.  So enough said here...

(2) Carry the magician (and their equipment) across a 50' wide ravine or similar obstacle.  They are spirits, after all, levitating and having the physical strength to carry perhaps even two such characters with quickness and ease.

(3) Smash open a locked door or, possibly, move through walls to open a door barred from the other side.  One can imagine a sorcerer being employed in a castle siege or similar event.

(4) Strike with great accuracy, automatically scoring 1 hit of damage per round against a single target within range; representing sorcery and witchcraft in the classic sense.

Obviously, there are many more possible...

Historically, magicians conjured and commanded 
powerful spirits to work magic, and Brausntein! takes this approach...

Such power has its risks, however, as players might roll more duration and/or LUCK cost than ever needed.  Sure, you open that heavy iron door, but now you're drained and vulnerable.  This applies to combat as well, where murdering enemies comes at a hefty personal price.  These are the dark arts, after all!

Of course, Braunstein! allows players to spend LUCK improving various die rolls, expanding both the duration and killing power of magical attacks where needed, however, this is even more draining and requires some very hard choices...

This approach is distinctly historical, as this is how magic was conceived.  But it also speaks to that age old question of how anyone could capture, much less contain and roast at the steak, genuine witches and warlocks!  Obviously, these sorcerers, although magically gifted, were nonetheless still limited and probably couldn't regenerate LUCK under constant torture.

Braunstein! is a historical game with an optional magic system, historically sound and suitably understated.  As a literal footnote on the last page of its slim (18-page) rulebook, it nonetheless provides the framework for a surprisingly varied system...   

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Crown of Qthuken (A Review)

This time around, we're talking about the Crown of Qthuken, an adventure from Grumblefist Old School RPG Jams and Sean Wills, who, interestingly enough, was involved in what is possibly the first Pits & Perils campaign outside of our own, and the first outside of the continental United States; a double distinction, and so we're delighted to see him write under the OSL!


At 16-pages, this scenario packs a punch
that goes far beyond the scripted/stocked adventure alone... 

Note: Crown of Qthuken is designed specifically for Pits & Perils and requires its supplement to fully use. 

By way of explanation, this adventure setting imagines an aging empire (Tiberia, being an inspired mix of medieval Italy and imperial Spaniards of a later era) struggling to hold on to its colonies on a new continent.  The historical parallel helps create an authentic feeling to an otherwise fantastic setting, and this fact works to its general advantage.  

Additionally, the small town of Port Saint Willem is provided, chartered by a foreign guild and the King of Ausland, who hopes to reap his own riches from this new world.

Now here's the good part; the locals aren't especially keen on domination, and their deity, Qthuken, has united them in opposition to the Empire's plans.  To make matters worse, all this unrest endangers Port Saint Willem and its profits, forcing them to seek capable adventurers to investigate! 

Rival interests?  Check.  Restless locals?  You bet!  Angry indigenous gods bet of vengeance?  In spades!  There's a lot going on in Vinland, all of it adventure fodder...               

The Crown of Qthuken is a self-described "adventure toolkit" for old-school games, and it absolutely delivers on its promise, presenting both a specific adventure to play and a rich setting with abundant materials to sustain a continuing campaign, having many fully detailed materials for the game.

Port Saint Willem (home base) is presented with a clever mix of images and words that helps to tell the story without going overboard or robbing the referee of their own creativity.  Its many people, places, and things are fully statted for P&P and derived from both the basic rulebook and supplement, so you get combat maneuvers, an important detail as there are many fighters present in the port town who might later become enemies.

Oh, and there are secrets.  Lots of secrets hidden away in people's homes and in their hearts and minds, which is fertile stuff for campaigning and interesting side-treks. 

Some adventures achieve simplicity by leaving things out, which effectively leaves the referee holding the bag (and scratching their heads) wondering what to do next.  Still others do the opposite, piling on so much detail that little is left for the referee to do on their own; this time, an overstuffed bag.

The Crown of Qthuken strikes the right balance, presenting a richly detailed setting using a clever mixture of images, words, and perhaps most importantly, the reader's own imagination.  No small accomplishment, and this nails it...

The nearby Tiberian Camp is also detailed, giving the potential referee some idea of the Empire's values and interests, plus being fully stated for use when, inevitably, things happen.

Branching out, the surrounding wilderness is given or, more properly, wilderness encounters.  The forests are a deadly realm, and this adventure takes advantage of P&P's great simplicity to introduce original creatures, like thunderbirds, complete with their own magical powers drawn from the rules.  Needless to say, many surprises await those brave enough to explore!

As an aside, it's worth pointing out that while the adventure is designed for character levels 4-6th (and you'd best be before trying the great ziggurat), the referee has plenty of raw materials upon which to base other adventures, perhaps shipping in a new party from overseas and letting them work up.

The great central ziggurat (a Mesopotamian pyramid) is the goal, here residing Qthuken and his faithful.  This is multi-leveled and interesting to navigate (having a cross-sectional map), with numerous enemies and sneaky tricks for the unwary.  Expect a fight, and several deadly traps - oh, and an original spell cleverly inserted, adding to the scenario's value.

The ultimate prize is survival, for both the Tiberians and the colony of Saint Willem.  But there's also riches, and one fabulous prize that holds both value and risk.  

You've been warned...

VERDICT: Crown of Qthuken is a true adventure toolkit, but one providing a detailed and ready-to-play scenario.  Highly recommended for those serious about P&P and ready for something different, complete, and lots of fun.  Get this in softcover and eBook now!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Race as Class? Not So Fast!

In many old-school games, race is class; at least for non-human characters.  Dwarf is a class.  Ditto for elves.  It's simpler that way, and many people like it for that very reason, although some object on grounds of realism, noting that dwarves and elves surely must have clerics and thieves of their own... 

And you know what?  They're BOTH right!

Pits & Perils likes simplicity (quite a bit, actually) and so, ostensibly, race is class in the traditional way.  But there's a lot more going on than just that, and the game acknowledges the flexibility that all races, and not just humans, would reasonably possess while holding on to that old-school spirit.

So, going class by class:

CLERICS: Yes! 

Dwarves and elves have clerics that only interact with their own kind; which is convenient, but consider that non-humans also have smaller, more homogeneous societies with no competition among their deities for worshipers.  This stands in stark contrast to humanity, with their many gods all jockeying for supremacy, and this lack of evangelical zeal makes a difference.

But non-humans CAN be clerics.  

FIGHTERS: Absolutely!

Dwarves and elves are all de facto fighters, wearing armor and fighting with any weapon, and while they lack the +1 bonus of their human counterparts, their choice of weaponry alone makes a huge difference.  There's really nothing more to say.  Whatever else a character might be, they're also fighters...


This dwarf has a lot more going than meets the
eye, perhaps being a stay-at-home priest of even a cunning thief!

MAGICIANS: For elves, at least...

Dwarves are simply incapable of using magic, so this is largely excusable.  Elves, on the other hand, are naturally magical and work as magicians in addition to fighting abilities, so they CAN be spell-casters, albeit with limitations.

THIEVES: For the agile, yes!

Lastly, dwarves and elves with the dexterity ability can forego armor and operate as thieves for all intents and purposes, climbing walls, hiding, sneaking, and stealing small objects.  They can't disarm traps and/or pick locks, but this can be easily justified by the fact that non-human societies are different, and criminal behaviors less common.  Of course, the referee could easily house rule the latter, perhaps at some sort of penalty.

But stealing things?  That's thievery...

In defense of class restrictions, non-humans are mentally and physically different.  For instance, the dwarven inability to work magic of any kind can be very easily defended on racial grounds alone, because their brains operate differently.  Remember, these races enjoy many special abilities.  And so do humans, although mainly in the form of greater flexibility...   

Old-school simplicity is charming, and easier to work with, especially at the time of character creation.  Pits & perils tries to have it both ways, and this may apply to other games if the referee (DM/GM) is willing to view class as a collection of abilities that often overlap, especially if they're OK with granting stealth to non-thieves when dexterity so permits.

Class as race?  Sort of.  But it's so much more than that!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Braunstein!

Olde House Rules (that's us) has a shiny new product out; a variation of an old theme, to be sure, but cast in an entirely new light - Braunstein!, Rules for 1:1 scale historical adventures, inspired by the very first games of it's kind!  Even so, you can expect some very modern ideas as well...

First, a little history lesson.  In 1967, Napoleonic war-gamer Dave Wesely tried something different.  Instead of having his players command an army, he placed his game between battles in the little town of Brausntein and had each assume the role of an important towns-person, like the mayor, each with their own goals and personal agenda.  Modern role-playing was born!

For awhile, these games came to be known as a "Braunstein", an evolutionary step between war-game and RPG.  The eponymously named Braunstein! aims to capture the experience of these games, but employing entirely different rules:

First, these games emphasized personal interactions, where individual decisions had consequence and were often the deciding factor in critical situations.

Next, the rules were minimal and simpler, because they were being invented on the spot, and for reasons already stated.

Finally, they were historical because, well, they evolved from historical war-games, although the fantasy stuff came soon enough and changed everything.  Yeah, forever.

Braunstein! tries to capture the above ethos, being suited for adventures between the 4-15th centuries, although expandable to the following two centuries as well...  

A thousand years is a long time, so this slim (18-page) rule set doesn't even bother to address this.  Judges are asked to find whatever books they like on the period they wish to use and create their own chronicle (campaign) from that.


Braunstein comes as a digital download from the Drive-Thru network
for only $1.49, if you're interested...

Characters are simply "adventurers", knowing how to fight and perform any actions available to an able-bodies adult, although the choice of armor, shield, and weaponry matters, as does their literacy, with advantages either way.  Social class also matters, with great implications for character development. 

While this might seem to diminish characters; background, history, and story line are never boring, and while fantasy games are wonderful (we love 'em), they can sometimes obscure the idea of characters as humans running on their wits... 

Braunstein! would bring this back.

One interesting feature of the game is each character's written description.  Using 25 words or less, players describe their adventurer's background and personal history, which might indicate other skills and abilities, like being a blacksmith or a former clergyman, etc.  Who needs class or skill points!

The rest of the rules are simple and straightforward, but also designed so a judge (GM) can create things "on-the-fly" and go the impromptu route seamlessly and uninterrupted.

Oh, and in the back there's simple rules for real magic and witchcraft, being centered around calling and commanding spirits to do just about anything and at double human capacity.  This is a uniquely historical take on how magic works, and it opens the way for understated fantasy games.

More than anything, Braunstein! tries to bring back a time when gaming was really just people sitting around a table talking to each other and only rolling dice for the truly unpredictable things, including combat.  We hope you find it to your liking...     

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Uncanny Abode and Final Resting Place of the Mysterious Mervin H. Floyd (A Review)

Olde House Rules has released an Open Supplement License to publish supplementary materials for the Pits & Perils game, subject to a few simple rules (you can check it out here)...

All formalities aside, the following is a review of the first commercially available adventure for Pits & perils, and the very first ever under the Open License:  

The Uncanny Abode and Final Resting Place of the Mysterious Mervin H. Floyd, by Bryan Steward of Black Paperclip Games!

The Uncanny Abode is recommended for characters of at least 6th level
and is available in digital and softcover format...

By way of introduction, the Uncanny Abode is set in the final resting place of a dead adventurer who knew that his tomb would be plundered - and probably looked forward to it!  But instead of warning the party off, he invites them in to stay awhile.  Sure, steal my riches, but first, a few simple tests...

Production is solid old-school, and the artwork, in particular, captures the spirit of things nicely.  For some reason, it reminds us of early Dragon Magazine, which not only speaks for its old-school pedigree, but to its general tone and style.  The whole thing feels like a cross between 70s Judges Guild and Tunnels & Trolls, doing so in a way that feels completely genuine.   

Note: This adventure is made for characters of at least 6th level, so the party may need to work up...

The module begins with an "adventurer-friendly" city called, appropriately, Ravensreach, from the author's original (and long-standing) campaign.  Rather than focus on small details, it emphasizes those services, like the Temple of Datronus, that the party will really need.  This adventure knows where it's going, and that's straight to the Uncanny Abode!  

Accordingly, there's a section devoted to getting there, with several possible (and deadly) options.  Each campaign is different, and the referee can pick which one suits their game.  

The dungeon, itself, is a mixture of deadly monsters, clever puzzles, and terrible traps, and the writing is conversational and fun even as it describes the wicked, and sometimes darkly funny, things that might befall a hapless party.  This speaks to an essential old-school element: a little humor balanced with the seriousness of solving puzzles and fighting for your life (which is never boring).  The Uncanny Abode does this well.

Its puzzles are challenging because you don't always know when they're happening, and players may find themselves tested on their normal responses to little things.  Blessings become curses and curses have a silver lining - but only if the characters are willing to experiment.  An entire session might be spent tinkering with a certain magical pool, which is as it should be!

Sometimes it feels as if the departed Mervin is chuckling from beyond the grave, and his ambitious burial is just his way of living on and having a good laugh...   

A few notes about the presentation:  

Instead of giving stats for the individual monsters, the dungeon cites its page in the appropriate rulebook.  Pits & Perils is simple enough that this is actually doable.  Moreover, this speaks to something not advertised: The Uncanny Abode can be tweaked for any old-school system, making it a flexible product.

And in addition to the usual map in the back of the book, each section is reproduced on the relevant pages, so the referee can see what each area looks like without having to flip around, which is convenient in the heat of play.

Verdict: The Uncanny Abode made this blogger recall some of the excitement of being an 11-year old first experiencing the hobby back in the late 1970s, and while the referee might need to prepare certain things, like enemy statistics, doing so is relatively easy, and they're rewarded with a fun read and a challenging adventure once play finally begins.  Worth getting!

Recommended for P&P players and old-school aficionados alike, published in digital and softcover, the latter being saddle stitched and really looking like a booklet from some bygone era!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Combat in Pits & Perils (Part I)

In Pits & Perils, attacks require 9 or better on 2d6, which is difficult to achieve and may seem to slow combat.  Furthermore, hit probabilities don't improve with level (except for enemies), and some have wondered why.  The latter is easy enough; combat is difficult and enemies dangerous and/or terrifying under the best of circumstances, the way it should be, we think!

The rest is dealt with in this post, keeping in mind that P&P was always conceived as a miniatures game:       

(1) Access to armor and weaponry is a genuine measure of battle prowess, something we often forget.  The ability to employ a bow at range or use a large weapon for extra damage is an enormous help, especially for those, like magicians, who can't!

(2) Movement matters.  Not only can fast fighters outrun their enemies, they can also maneuver across the battlefield to provide timely assistance to their friends as shown:

Zen can move 50' per round, so she can 
easily outrun these heavily armored orcs and rush to the aid 
of her friend (Sir Rupert) in his distress....

Using miniatures can really make a difference here...

(3) P&P also rewards good strategy with a few easy modifiers to attack dice, like adding +1 when outflanking an opponent, and since rolling 2d6 yields an 11 point spread, this grants a substantial advantage and, equally important, players need to think about where they position themselves, making combat an authentically tactical experience, as shown in the example below:    

Otto and Rupert (left) have smartly isolated this orc, 
so they each get the outflanking/outnumbering 
bonus (+1), and since Rupert is a true fighter, he attacks 
at +2!  Zen (right) is bravely holding off the other 
orcs, a fine tactical choice since she can fight ambidextrously against both of her terrible foes!  

Of course, this applies to enemies as well, so players must be especially vigilant!  By the way, this is probably much closer to real-life combat than more "advanced" systems...

(4) Finally, the acquisition of magical weapons is a huge boon, especially given the aforementioned 11-point spread, so hit probabilities will improve over time, and magical items are a deliberate and expected part of any character's advancement, even when combat otherwise remains very difficult! 

At its very heart, Pits & Perils is a war-game, albeit one that emphasizes role-play extensively, and using miniatures is the ideal way to tap its strategic elements.  But even when they are not employed (their use is completely optional), these rules provide several ways to keep things fast, furious, and lethal! 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Elven Magic in Pits & Perils

In Pits & Perils, elves cast spells like a 1st level magician, meaning knowledge of 3 spells and 2 spell points.  But unlike their human counterparts, they don't gain additional spell points with level or improve their utility (duration/effect) when higher levels are finally attained.  This is a matter of balance, as elves can wear armor and fight with any weapon, including the magical variety, and would easily outshine (human) magicians if these restrictions weren't otherwise put in place.

In short, these limits balance elves without arbitrary level restrictions for the class, something other systems have struggled with given the greater power of most magic.

All elves are naturally magical regardless of profession or lot in life...

However, elves are seen as being innately magical, and may even detect the presence of magic in a way that human's can't.  So how do the rules reconcile this with the stated limits of elven spell casting?  Simple answer: That's up to the referee!  However, the referee might consider the following:

Elves are naturally magical, so their power (spell points) comes from within and is, therefore, limited by a body's capacity to store the tremendous energy even a single point represents.

Humans, on the other hand, are not naturally magical and must wrestle the same energy from the surrounding world, which is nearly unlimited, although still very hard to do.

Thus, an elf's greater magical utility is also their greatest limitation.  But consider this: Every elf is an accomplished spell caster, while very few humans can ever master these mysteries, although any who do can become powerful indeed.

So why can't elves do this?  Simply put, elves seek harmony with nature and refuse to impose their will upon it, and what humans see as a convenient source of power, the elves see as careless and foolish meddling with the universe itself, which can be a good way to frame racial relationships within a game.

Still, the immortal elves are powerful in their own right, and this might be reflected through the following:

OPTIONAL RULE #1: POWER MINING

Elves can spend 3 hits in place of 1 spell point, but only in desperate circumstances.  These might be allowed to function at the elf's full level for duration/effect.

OPTIONAL RULE #2: SPECIALIZATION

Elven magicians (not fighters) can choose to specialize in their initial spell selection.  Instead of learning new spells with level, their existing ones improve as a human magician. 

Elves have a special relationship with magic, and the rules described above can help capture this without unbalancing the game or marginalizing human spell-casters.  Being virtually immortal, elves can see first-hand the danger of tampering with the cosmic balance, and this can be used to describe a campaign's unique cosmology, framing the relationship between mortal, power-seeking humans and the immortal elven race to the benefit of all! 

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Way We Were...

Once upon a time, fantasy fiction was neither mainstream nor popular.  If anything, it got lumped in with the science fiction at the local book store (there were no separate isles then), hidden among the books with rocket ships on their covers or the cool, trippy artwork from our collective 60's hangover.  Fantasy buffs represented a subculture that didn't always identify itself as such, since there was little creative output to coalesce around beyond knowing that they liked it when they saw it. 

The man on the street had no idea who Conan was, and thought of elves as "those little guys who made toys for Santa."  What popular fantasy did exist took the form of translated fairy tales, which were, after all the original fantasy fiction, including the excellent films of Ray Harryhausen and various sword-and-sandal movies loosely based on the Greek Mythology taught in school because someone thought it was educational.

Popular conceptions of dwarves were more like this...sorry Gimli!

But there were no fine lines drawn.  Those who loved Conan also liked science fiction and probably enjoyed them in the same monthly periodicals.  They also liked those Hammer Horror films that dealt with the same fantastical themes.  In short, fantasy buffs took it where they could get it, and science fiction remained the dominant and most easily recognized genre within the fantastic, such that anything besides Tolkien was a sub-genre at best.      

When the first fantasy role-playing game(s) emerged, they weren't based so much on a coherent genre as they were on a mishmash of varied fantastic influences.  Thus, you had games based on the historical Middle Ages that depicted dwarves and elves as wearing pointy caps with curly-toed shoes because that's how they were shown in storybooks from the 19th century.  You had overt references to horror movies and unabashed sci-fi elements intermingled because it was cool, and the referee had just watched 2001!

These weren't devotees of any pure genre.  They were friends converting the medieval war-games they were playing into something fun, and medieval myth seemed a good starting point.  From there, they bolted on anything they could get their hands on, and there was a silly, beer-and-pretzels atmosphere that began to fade as gaming became more mainstream and sophisticated.

The hobby caught on, and people found out they were more properly classified as fantasy fans and/or gamers, and gaming itself became a recognized genre that began to influence mass media.  Forty years later, fantasy is a mainstream phenomenon with well-established conventions, but it's always nice to remember when it was still new, and we didn't have a name for what we were and what we loved!