Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Leveling Up: What Does It Feel Like?

Leveling up is a big deal for the players.  They roll up additional hit points by class and assume whatever powers and abilities are due to them.  Points are allocated and new spells added to the spellcaster's roster.  A good time for all.  But what does this feel like for the characters?  How do they experience this windfall of proficiency?    

Ok, so 30 years ago I was a meteorology student.  Synoptic forecasting was the worst because you had to hand-analyze the surface and upper air charts, identify and depict any important atmospheric features, and correlate them into a coherent picture of the current situation.  Only then were you ready to brief the instructor, who invariably knew more than I ever would for the next two decades.  It took me somewhere in the neighborhood of six frustrating hours to prepare the charts alone, plus another couple just to figure out what the hell it all meant.  And of course, I was wrong about a lot.  How could I not be?

Four years later, I'm forecasting in Korea (Camp Stanley).  There was a typhoon and the weather station was flooded.  I remember standing on a stool and taking calls from legions of concerned agencies.  Our Automated Weather Distribution System (AWDS) was down, forcing me to analyze data the old-fashioned way.  Only this time, I analyzed the charts in under 45 minutes, and after all that, they only confirmed what I already knew from the satellite imagery we were lucky enough to still have.  When the dust settled and I returned to the barracks, I realized that I'd come a long way in four years...

I'm sure everyone here has an equivalent story.  Through practice and exposure we gain experience and get better at what we do, often without realizing it until one day we're put to the test and we remember how difficult it used to be.  I imagine leveling up feels like this; steady improvement the character doesn't notice until one day they do.


Clerics and magic-users are a little different because they master discrete spells; high-profile abilities which come on suddenly.  But it's not all that different.  Clerics may experience a spiritual breakthrough.  A moment when their faith is validated and their relationship to their deity strengthened tenfold.  No doubt the real-world faithful experience something similar; and in a fantasy setting, the cleric can ask, and ultimately receive, more.  Magic-users learn from spell books (at least in the OSR).  They gradually grow in knowledge and understanding until at last those ancient, obscure spells start to make sense.

In short, characters aren't aware they've gone up in level.  Only that they've improved in some way and/or have become more comfortable in what they do.  Non-humans with level limits don't perceive any discrepancy between themselves and their human counterparts because they wouldn't.  Humans are physically larger than dwarves and elves and hungrier for power.  Demi-humans have their own concerns and special abilities humans lack, so level differences are usually written off as human ambition and (sometimes) folly.  

Now this makes sense in the OSR, where characters are already proficient in a class, a profession they've entered through some previous, off-screen apprenticeship.  Not so for the skill-based game; however, where a character may, presumably, learn blacksmithing mid-adventuring career.  Blacksmithing is a skilled trade which requires a lengthy commitment to master at even a basic level.  Here I ask the players to tell me what skills they plan on learning in advance and build the time into my game.  This gets the players thinking about their desired progression and goals, which is both realistic and helpful...

If Borg wants to become a blacksmith, they must locate a trainer and make the time to practice between adventures.  Once they take the skill, I'll assume they're absolute newbies and limit what they can do until they've gotten some time under their belt.  Smart players understand this; and when their characters are in town, they make a point of declaring their time spent at the forge.  No dice.  No mechanics.  They've just told me their character is practicing, which makes taking (and improving) a skill reasonable and justified.

Character advancement is a discrete event for the players.  But for the character, true proficiency sneaks up unnoticed.  Skill-based systems are a little different because the new talent is initiated and mastered well after play has already begun.  I'm fairly skeptical of busy adventurers taking on a complex trade (from scratch) in the middle of a campaign, but also understand that these are games.  As long as the players document their work in the gameplay narrative I'm good.  From here, time and practice makes perfect.

It just goes to show; narrative matters, and the important things that hold a campaign together are often the things that don't involve dice or rules.  People play the game, but their characters are the ones who experience it.  A little something to think about as your party takes on the world.  And that's all.  We'll see everyone after Halloween.  Enjoy now...   

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Did Sophistication Kill the Fun?

I remember my first dungeon (the first one I mapped, anyway).  It had laser turrets and a dimensional portal to a sci-fi universe.  This was an adventure that ended with dinosaurs and intelligent apes with rifles who had to be convinced not to invade the setting.  Yeah, that's pretty much the tone.  I dialed it back in later adventures, but the metaphorical die was cast and a fun-house atmosphere remained.  These were good times.

My games were dungeon-centric affairs.  The wilderness called for a wandering monster check along the way; but the dungeon was everything, and descending into that underworld marked the transition into a fantastic other world.  An exotic place filled with absurd and deadly things.  In short, Wonderland.  Now let's imagine a sorcerer lives in area 13, growing magical mushrooms with unexpected effects when eaten...      

But first, you have the hair salon with an exclusive clientele: a mummy (getting fresh wrappings) and a medusa (getting her snakes oiled).  It could be a bloodbath, or maybe the party gets their hair done instead.  And don't forget the giant talking head that delivers a terrible curse unless the party completes its dirty limerick.  Bottom line, the encounters were designed to entertain and give the players a wide variety of experiences.  

It wasn't all goofball.  Some were serious encounters, whether the domain of an orcish warlord or the owl bear nesting grounds.  You know, things that make sense in an underworld setting.  These got included because they were cool; but they were still punctuated with gonzo fare because that was also cool, and because magic in inherently absurd and requires a little whimsy.  In retrospect, it was an act of respect to the players...


That's right, respect.  Each encounter was designed to entertain and challenge them, unconstrained by things like internal consistency.  There was a greater variety of monsters to fight and traps to overcome.  Serious dungeons have a reason for being and a realistic ecology, which is cool.  But the characters are just "passing through", and the world largely responds to itself.  Not so for the gonzo dungeon, which is made for them.

Of course, it couldn't last.  I grew up and got sophisticated, and that meant world building, complete with complex cultures and realistic ecologies.  This was creatively challenging and fun to do, and for obvious reasons.  Serious isn't a dirty word, and realism brings its own rewards to the game.  But in the process, magic became a science and wonder went out the window.  Fairyland departed, replaced by a Darwinian consistency.

And I'll come clean.  I was briefly a nerdy douchebag who scoffed at the gonzo fare I'd previously (and enthusiastically) embraced, laughing at silly worlds of kobold cowboys and dwarven rock bands.  I was insufferable.  Luckily, I was only 14 and eventually got over myself, much to the delight of pretty much everyone.  But by then I was sampling a variety of adult pleasures, and it would take a few decades to fully appreciate gonzo.

Did sophistication kill the fun?  No.  Maybe.  Kinda.  Really, it all depends on personal preference.  I won't denigrate serious games because mine is 85% serious.  But the older I get (51 and counting), the more I appreciate the simple wonder of a fun-house dungeon stocked with the players in mind and built to provide them with a variety of challenging and absurd experiences.  Hey, magic could always use a little nonsense. 

Childhood's gone.  But with age I've rediscovered the gonzo dungeon; that underworld excavated by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses (thanks Gary) and built with the players in mind.  A realm where you can dine with demons and play chess with storm giants - and all in one place!  A love letter to the players because it was made just for them to explore with childlike glee and adult avarice.  A place where magic is, well, magic...

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

People Eating People: the "Problem" of Intelligent Animals In Fantasy Books and Games...

Intelligent animals show up in fantasy literature and games all the time, typically as an anomaly and occasionally populating entire worlds of talking things.  Think Watership Down or maybe the Redwall books; although in the latter, the animals are anthropomorphic and basically human.  And then there's Disney.  Bambi and The Lion King both imagine a setting where animals are more than animals.  The animals are people...  

And this raises all manner of moral questions, although it's not necessarily a problem, especially when the whole point of said story is to examine these things.

Let's look at The Lion King.  Here, the animals are intelligent.  All of them.  The predators, obviously, and their prey.  In other words, everyone is a person.  They think, feel, and suffer in decidedly human terms when preyed upon.  And yet, nature mandates this obviously unfair arrangement, which demolishes everything we think we know about human morality and how to treat one another because here, people feed upon other people...

But the lions can explain.  Sure, we eat our antelopes, and yeah, they're pretty clearly terrified and mourn their dead just like we do.  That sucks.  But when we die, we fertilize the grass and they can eat us back.  And there's a lovely ballad too.  Circle of Life, kiddies, everyone sing along!  The whole thing is treated as both beautiful and natural.


Well, it is natural.  But is it natural for humans to eat one another?  Or to enslave one another?  Or to hold some above others based on race?  No, but then we're humans, we'd say, not lower-order animals.  We have an obligation to our own kind.  But what happens when the animals are also people, possessing of the same intelligence and suffering in just the same way when targeted by others (i.e., their neighbors) for harm?

And it gets more complicated because the lions aren't big meanies who could eat grass instead.  They're obligate carnivores.  How can they possibly treat the antelopes fairly when they have no choice but to hunt them for survival?  Can they ever be fair and just in their predation, responsible stewards of the persons they devour, and would (or should) any such arrangement even fly with the antelopes?  This raises endless moral questions...

If you're a lion, do you die before you harm another person?  And if not, how do you justify the pain you bring to your dinner?  And their families?  Or do you even bother?  If an antelope, do you lie down and take it, or fight back?  You have obligations of your own; to yourself, obviously, and your kin.  So who are the good guys in this situation, and who are the story's ultimate villains?  And what gods (if any) rule over such a universe?
  
Humans have justified centuries of genocide and slavery against their fellow humans in the name of a so-called natural order.  But here, that natural order is an actual thing. 

Now it gets worse in fantasy games because players interact with one another and the imaginary "people" they sometimes eat as a matter of course.  And what does morality even mean in such a universe?  In our own Red of Tooth, we imagine that most predators are basically unintelligent, along with quite a few prey animals.  Rabbits have the Spark, but not mice and other tasty critters.  Weasels are intelligent, along with owls.  But both can spare intelligent creatures in favor of non-persons, although many choose not to.

There's natural danger, and plenty of opportunity for heroism and villainy as well.  But of course, this is only one way to do things.  Sword and sorcery lends itself to mindless monster slaying, but worlds of intelligent animals ask more of us; something to keep in mind when playing Bunnies & Burrows.  And that's a wrap, folks.  I suddenly want some meat...

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Shifting to Neutral (Cause' Most of Us Are)...

Many of us like to think of ourselves as good, the criminals among us as evil (or simply misguided), and all others as neutral and indifferent.  Good becomes the default setting for any stable, functioning society, with the rest mere aberrations...

But what if it ain't so?  What if most of us, even the good ones, are neutral?

Now I'm not saying this because most life is animal life; and animals, given their lack of sophisticated moral reasoning, are neutral by default.  I say this because it might just be that good and evil are moral extremes embraced by a select few.  Good is prized because it's laudable, not to mention rare.  Evil is reviled because it does harm and threatens all others regardless of their philosophical bent.  But neutrals predominate... 

GOOD characters aren't simply decent people.  They're philosophically committed to advancing good, fighting evil, and bringing justice to others.  Indeed, their attentions are for others, and they act with deep compassion and mercy for the downtrodden.  This is the questing white knight.  The one beloved by good folk and resented by the wicked.


Everyone wants to go to Heaven, but no one wants to do what it takes to get there, and herein lies the high regard champions are held in.  Few want the job!

EVIL persons are selfish and behave accordingly.  Their only real commitment is to themselves, and they actively seek advancement at the expense of others.  They don't care who gets hurt, and might just enjoy the suffering they inflict.  This is the ruthless warlord seeking domination by the sword.  The one feared by good and evil men alike.  

NEUTRAL adventurers care deeply (and genuinely) about their family, friends, and communities.  They really do.  But their commitment drops off sharply for those beyond their sphere of concern.  This is the viking warrior who prays for the safety of their home while happily raiding on distant shores.  Or the shopkeeper who never did anyone any harm, but never did any good either.  They aren't saints or sinners.  Just people.

Once again, good and evil are extremes.  Good characters are crusaders committed to bringing compassion to others while evil adventurers are villains devoted to their own gratification by whatever means.  Neutrals are pretty much everyone else; the vast majority of people primarily motivated to care for their own.  They'll stop short of making sacrifices for strangers, but take no pleasure in wanton cruelty either.  Charity starts at home...

Live and let live means minding your own business and returning the treatment you receive from others.  That's what a neutral might say, which makes them reasonable, not to mention flexible, companions.  Such characters often have deeply personal reasons for adventuring and may be persuaded to help once they've grown attached to a cause and/or its people.  But neutrals also have a price, and they know what that price is.

In short, neutrals are your friendly shopkeeper who puts their family first, but also that moneylender who thinks only of themselves but still draws the line at cold-blooded murder even when convenient.  The neutral is most of us, and maybe that's a good thing...

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Evil Orcs and Real-World Racism...

Now and again, I stumble upon an idea that percolates in my old man's brain until I can formulate a position.  This week's post is about one of those; namely, the idea that presenting certain monsters as inherently evil is somehow racist.  I'm talking about orcs and related humanoid baddies, the stock villains of the games we play and a convenient way to populate our dungeons with things to kill or possibly die at the bloody hands of...

Now, to be crystal clear, I understand the sentiment.  Dwarves, elves, and even orcs are intelligent and therefore effectively persons.  And the idea that orcs are inherently evil is one step away from deciding that Jews (for instance) are greedy or that native Americans are unwashed savages.  Offended?  You should be, because RACISM IS WRONG.  The very idea that some intelligent beings are, by virtue of genetics and nothing more, inherently evil (or inferior) lies at the misguided heart of racist ignorance.  

My great grandfather married a Jew and was disowned by his family.  Happily, they loved one another more than their German homeland and fled to the United States in 1903, roughly thirty years before a villain with a stiff arm and a tiny mustache came to power (and yes, my genes went through the gates of Auschwitz).  Even in my comfortable American existence, I've been shoved and called a filthy Jew by the children of parents who almost certainly would have approved.  Racism is nasty baggage we need to lose at the airport...


But in our zeal to do good, to be good, we maybe forget what fantasy is and lose something of its power and beauty.  Nothing less than the power of myth, in fact.

The power of myth is that abstract concepts are given material form.  Monsters haven't just chosen evil.  They are evil.  Literally, evil incarnate.  The power of myth (and fantasy in general) has always been to take ephemeral concepts and drag them into the light of human consciousness.  After all, evil is easier to pin down dressed in scaly hides... 

But worlds, especially game worlds, still require service to cause and effect and, especially, some notion of free will.  Not a problem.  The gods of evil don't value free will and prefer breeding slaves to siring loving (and willing) children.  Orcs were made evil by a Godhead who imbued them with only one perspective.  Dwarves and elves enjoy free will because their gods value it.  They want children who can love them back.  Not so for the selfish Lords of Darkness, who took from the worst parts of themselves and made a craven, wicked race (all the better to control through fear) reflecting their darkest natures.

In short, orcs might not be persons, per se, but merely physical extensions of the dark minds that made them, imitating human agency within the narrow boundaries of evil.*

But humans aren't automatons.  No way.  Moreover, the alleged "races" of humanity are nothing of the sort.  We're all just human beings.  Homo Sapiens.  Free agents who deserve to be treated by the content of our character and not the color of our skin (or any of the superficial differences between us).  This is self-evidently true.  Inherently evil orcs are only racist when we don't understand that humans (who really exist) aren't orcs.

Sure, we can give orcs free will.  This can be fun and interesting (the ones in my own campaign are nuanced), but we don't have to.  We only need to know the difference between fantasy and reality and to specify the conditions under which evil manifests in a universe operating under different rules (nowhere present in our own reality).  And really, most of us know the difference.  Fantasy orcs need say nothing about how actual humans should relate to one another.  In short, orcs aren't real.  People are, so let's be honorable ones...

*So kill away, you lawful murder hobos.  You're just smiting evil in one of its many guises!

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Blasphemy! Or Gaming's Other Makers...

Some of the hobby’s founding fathers are still with us, and we hope they stay.  Gygax and Arneson are sadly gone, but David Wesely (the first founder) is still with us, along with Mike Monard and others who were lucky enough to be a part of the early campaigns.  We owe these leading lights our sincerest gratitude for sure, and if we’re fortunate enough meet them at a convention somewhere we should shake their hands and tell them so.  Their efforts in the formation of our beloved pastime can’t be underestimated.  But in our rush to recognize these pioneers we forget to cite the other founders of the hobby… 

I’m talking about the innumerable folks (not just fathers; women were a part of it too) who bought and played these games in complete isolation from Lake Geneva.  People who would never attend GenCon or meet Gygax or Arneson even when they still could.  These players added and changed things and house ruled like crazy.  They crafted innovations to the hobby, superior innovations that made their way into future games, including the latest version of everyone’s favorite.  These people also made the hobby - and in a big way.

From the 1983 Menlo School Yearbook

I remember playing in my friend’s garage in 1979.  It was Saturday and some of us were planning to watch the new Buck Rogers when it premiered, although a few (in the grip of puberty no doubt) were secretly looking forward to Charlie’s Angels.  Kiss You All Over by Exile played on a nearby car radio, the music slipping in and out like the Doppler shift of a passing train.  It was the last gasp of summer; a muggy recollection of July with a crisp breeze straight out of the future.  A shape of things to come.  We had the rulebooks, garish little things with amateur art, mere doodles from fifth period Math class...

But the rules were just a guide.  Gary said so.  We played, solved problems, and worked together as a team.  We used what we liked and changed what we didn’t.  Make no mistake, we owed Gygax and Arneson big for the brilliant content they created.  Sleep was a cool spell, and one we didn't have to develop ourselves.  Ditto for mind flayers and the dreadful beholder.  And dragons.  You name it.  But most of what we did didn't require any rules at all, and we were more than happy to fill in the blanks with personal innovations.       

Multiply this a thousand times over and you'll realize just how many people (gamers who'd never met Gygax and weren't hinging on his every word) were involved in spreading the hobby and keeping it alive.  Gaming's lifeblood was never this pantheon of founding fathers proclaiming from the Olympus of Lake Geneva.  It was always in the hands of those who played the games and made the hobby all their own.  This might sound blasphemous (and ungrateful), but I don't mean it that way.  As a game designer I'd love to blow sunshine up my own ass, believe me; but there's nothing I do that others haven't done.

The founding fathers created the first games and, for a while, crafted new content for their little experiment.  This fact can't be discounted.  And the Mike Monards of the world are absolutely the experts on what happened in those formative sessions.  Pick their brains if you're lucky enough to know them.  But Dave and Mike are not experts on what happened in my friend's garage and they never claimed to be.  My expertise is similarly limited because there's lots of garages out there - and the garage is where our hobby truly exists.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The License to Slay and Lapsus Calami (or Look at What Folks Are Doing Now)...

Ok, so we like stuff; and people who like stuff are fortunate to be part of a small-press community that makes good stuff.  So get ready for a post where we gush about something awesome we've discovered, but also a post about how our corner of the world world is breaking boundaries and generally coloring outside the lines.  We're doing things, making stuff - and all for the good of the scene!  Yeah, this is a post about that...     

So first off, there's the License to Slay from the Bureau of Dragons and the good folks at Damn Elf Press (who also run a nice little blog).  We've all fantasized about slaying dragons in our favorite suit of mail.  All of us.  Happily, the Bureau has us covered with the Official License to Slayimpressively rendered and suitable for framing.

The License comes on a classic 8.5 x 11 parchment with gorgeous calligraphy and your name (or that of a lucky recipient) emblazoned thereupon.  And it's stamped for authenticity by the Bureau, so accept no substitutes!  Each comes individually numbered and with a wallet-sized card to boot.  It's a nice presentation and a unique gift for the dragon lover on your list.  Suitable for framing, the License is just $9.95 in time for the holidays.

And while you're applying for your License, be sure to check out the Case Files and Dispatches, which add a nice sense of lore to the whole thing.  It turns out dragons are real and in need of slaying.  But the only thing worse than getting on the business end of a genuine fire-breather is running afoul of the law, so make sure you're dressed in asbestos underwear and covered with a License.  Don't mess with Louis Baston...


Now the cool thing about this (aside from being cool) is that it transcends the usual downloadable PDF paradigm and does so with something original.  We anticipate t-shirts in the near future (Damn Elf wore 'em at at GenCon).  More importantly, as the means of production and distribution increasingly falls into the hands of mere mortals, perhaps we'll see miniatures and other so-called "professional" items from small-press creators.  

We know, Kickstarter is making things happen, but we anticipate a time when 3-D print on demand becomes a thing and we'll release an official line of P&P miniatures...

OK, so the next big thing is Lapsus Calami by Matt Jackson, already a well-known cartographer and blogger.  To know him is to love him - and to know him means knowing he loves the old-school with an admirable passion.  Well it turns out that Matt has started an excellent little zine called Lapsus Calami.  He's made this available on his Patreon page for free but also mailed out a few hard copies as well.  You know, snail mail and stuff. 

Matt's not the only one doing this, and we don't mean to slight our other friends in the community.  We love 'em all.  But getting that two-page, yellow card-stock zine took this old man (Robyn wasn't part of the 70s scene) back to a time when your favorite small-press publication just might be a couple of photocopied and barely legible pages...

Of course, Lapsus Calami is very legible owing to Matt's excellent maps and also quite readable thanks to his great writing and clever back stories.  But in a world where everything is available 24/7, it sure felt nice to read something in a simple and delightfully low-tech format.  It's small-press designers breaking the mold and finding new (old) ways of making things and delivering them to their audience.  If you can, support Matt's Patreon.  

At the turn of a new century, print-on-demand technology enabled a new generation of publishers to get their ideas out.  And the innovation hasn't stopped.  Those same publishers are finding new ways to do old things (or vice versa), stealing some of the big industry's thunder and taking our esteemed hobby back to a time when the small-press scene was the scene.  The chickens come home to roost - and that's a good thing for once! 

Well, that's a wrap.  We're finally going to a monthly format, so see you in September...

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Red of Tooth Is Here...

Today we released Red of Tooth, our game of rabbits and survival loosely based on Watership Down but also Bambi (a remarkably dark children's movie) and maybe Farthing Wood (for those of you from the other side of the pond).  It's a digital title right now, but coming in hardcover very soon.  Intelligent rabbits may not be your thing, but maybe you'll find its imagined universe to your liking and give the rules a try...

So first off, it's a rules-lite game; and those of you already familiar with our stuff should understand and even recognize our typical flourishes.  But for everyone else (and you, our dear regulars), here's what it's all about.  Yes, it's a rules-lite game, and also a d6-based system.  We love d6 stuff because it's so easy (check those kitchen drawers, chances are you'll find a pair) and because there's something special and definitively "pre-gaming as industry" about them, especially in a game where player choices matter more. 

Once again, the characters are intelligent rabbits possessing the Spark; that Prize of Understanding granted to their kind and a few others.  But intelligence aside, they still lack hands and opposable thumbs.  That means no armor, no weapons and no inventories, making most forms of resource management out of the question.  Moreover, despite their intellectual prowess, they are otherwise just rabbits.  Simple laporidae...  

  
And rabbits aren't exactly cutting a swath of destruction across the countryside.  No, your characters won't be killing the farmer's dog or mounting a retaliatory strike against the hunters who took out their friends.  This isn't a game where you kill for experience, but one where enemies are to be avoided because that dog will tear your rabbit to bloody rags in short order.  Intelligence aside, Red of Tooth strives for a sort of naturalistic realism, and the ferocity of predators (and humanity with its firearms) is pretty hard to ignore.

Combat, even among rabbits, is fast, furious, and often lethal, although the ability to flee hostilities (or avoid them through camouflage) is strongly emphasized.

But it's not all bad news.  Characters have a class (phylum), whether stealthy Foragers, brave Scouts, or prophetic Witch Hares.  And while it doesn't make sense to give them ability scores, they are nonetheless rated in their five senses, each one granting unique and life-saving abilities.  Rabbits, like many animals, enjoy superior hearing and smell, among other things, and rely on these in ways humans can't.  Useful stuff for sure, but still only as good as the choices and decisions of the players (which is the real value of intelligence)...

So it's game of survival against long odds; but one standout aspect of the rules is their emphasis on role-playing.  We've flirted with this before, with experience bonuses for superior role-play per Barons of Braunstein, Blood of Pangea, and Diceless Dungeons, among our favorites; and it's here as well.  But this rulebook goes one step further and allows the players to choose (or roll) two personality traits to guide their advancement, noting that much of the game's underlying tension comes from it's cast of all-too-human animals.  

If this sounds like your thing, Red of Tooth delivers.  And if your rabbits survive their adventures, they can establish their own warren and sire offspring who just might take their place when death inevitably comes.  Mortal heroes fought dragons and giants, but the rabbits, tiny heroes of the natural world, fight them for real.  Only now the rabbits are you...

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...   

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Olde House (1974-1979)...

So yesterday I found my old house on Google Maps*.  I lived there four and a half years, seemingly the totality of my childhood right up to my dawning adolescence, and it never left me even though I was forced to leave it behind (but then, children seldom have that much control over their early destinies).  I was reminded of how happy I was, and how badly time ravages even our most cherished memories.  But some things abide...

We were never especially wealthy, and sometimes outright poor.  Or homes were never the biggest or the best on any given street.  But to see the old place now in such ill repair detonates a nuclear bomb somewhere inside of me.  The roof is ugly patchwork seemingly incapable of enduring the hard southern rains, and it looks for all the world like no one's painted since we moved out in 1979.  Is it a meth house now?  Not a charitable thought, but the other houses on the street are just as pristine as they were decades ago.    

Of course, I can't expect others to care the way I did, and I have no knowledge of the current resident's circumstances.  It's really just me bemoaning my distant past...


I discovered I was a geek there - years before it was fashionable.  Star Wars was this new thing, and I think we were all scrambling to adjust.  And back then, most all of our geeky entertainments were home brew.  My brother and I drew weekly comic books for each other, ambitious affairs set in the fictional town of Creepville, Ohio.  These were loosely based on the Aurora Movie Monster kits we obsessively assembled through much of the decade, rendered in Pedigree colored pencil on notebook paper.  Amazingly, we kept it up for three years (an eternity for children) through numerous issues and several spin-offs...  

And one summer we published homemade horror magazines in the style of Famous Monsters of Filmland.  These were "professionally" published on our venerable Underwood typewriter, complete with photocopied stills from our favorite magazines, copied and re-copied by our indulgent mother and stapled along one side.  I swear it was easily the most formative creative experience of my life.  There's really something to be said for living before everything was available.  No cable, no internet.  We made our own fun, and things were better for it.  There's just no beating the purity or deep sense of ownership. 

Long story short, I discovered this thing called D&D, and it spoke to my home brew sensibilities.  Every one of them.  We moved eight months later, and by 1980 I was playing Holmes Basic in another house - in another town with other friends.  I grew up, met and married the love of my life, and discovered whole new ways to be fulfilled.  These days we publish small press games on the side, most in a manual type font.  We're Olde House Rules, and now you know where this all comes from - and what the "olde house" really is...

*Sorry, no picture.  People live there now, and we want to respect their privacy.