Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Archworld & Talisman: What Inspired Us...

What games inspired us?  Aside from the obvious.  We've all been inspired by something, and often, it's obscure stuff that never got much attention.  Last week, we talked about Holmes Basic and its impact on what we design and lean towards playing when not doing our own thing.  This time around, there's more...

First off, these were my first-hand inspirations.  But Robyn, who started gaming in 2002, readily concurred with the basic ideas inherent to them all.  If you're playing a tabletop game with actual people, she's reasoned more than once, then human decision-making and interaction should be pretty strongly emphasized.

So here goes.  More inspirations...   

ARCHWORLD (FGU 1977) - While (ostensibly) a war-game, Archworld expected that each player would have their own "personality figure" who probably represented a ruler or military commander.  Indeed, there were rules for building armies that roughly approximated the character creation process (in some ways, at least), which helped it feel like a RPG.  It didn't exploit this enough.

Archworld STRONGLY influenced our
own Pits & Perils in both style and approach!

But something that really stood out was the extremely simple mechanics (d6) that revolved around a few simple rolls modified by the choices of the players.  Magic was likewise very simple, but nonetheless had scope because of its power and all the varied human interactions it would doubtless impact.

Finally, its production was suitably amateur; manual type on a letter-sized sheet.  In the 70s, manual typewriters represented the apex of high-tech production for amateurs.  We all knew "that DM" who owned a typewriter and carefully documented his campaign stuff neatly and pseudo-professionally.  Need we say any more?

TALISMAN (GW 1983) - This board-game was extremely involved and emulated most of the details of a RPG.  You had individual classes, hit points, spells, and even an alignment system that actually mattered in the course of play.  And there's more...  

You also had a combat system that was fast and easy, yet employed armor and shield with a reasonable degree of plausibility.  You could win gold, spend money, and interact with supporting characters met on the board - and guess what?  The game was complex in that players had to make good decisions and manage their resources - and not because the rules were complex or intrusive.

Does your party rush in and close with the goblin longbowmen or scatter to the fallen rocks, take cover, and try to lure them out one by one in melee?  Much game time will be spent mulling these decisions, and none of them require complex rules beyond those that make these various choices relevant.  Purely interactive events, like bargaining with others, underscore this even more.

In the end, we have to decide.  Does the fun of a game come from personal (human) interactions or the manipulation of mechanics that automate these things as much a possible?  We argue for a middle ground that nonetheless puts the participants first, even when their decisions end in a total party kill.  It's the one theme that runs through all of these games and makes them great!

So what games have inspired YOU?  Don't hold back.  Tell us...

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Holmes (Credit Where Credit Is Due)...

OK, so I first played D&D in 1978 with a friend who had precious little to go on and mostly winged it.  Long story short, my family moved, we lost touch, and that was that, sadly.  But by 1980, an introductory D&D set was available at our local K-Mart.  I made it abundantly clear what I wanted for Christmas, and my mother obliged, changing my life forever and doubtless for the better.

That rulebook was HOLMES BASIC.  The one with the chits.  I was enthralled with its many possibilities and now, as a disabled adult who found love, (literal) war, and (a very happy) marriage, this continues to wield a strong influence that shows itself in the way we (Olde House Rules) design our products...   

The finer points of Holmes align with the stated goals of all our rulesets, and it's worth devoting a post to why.

Being an introductory game, Holmes was simple.  This made it accessible to novices, but had other benefits as well (intentional or otherwise), that mattered greatly:

1) Lacking endless pages of complex rules, the DM had to devise their own rulings, usually on the spot.  This made the very act of running a game more challenging and got them INTIMATELY involved beyond just rolling dice for the monsters...   

2) Without reams of special powers, players had to improvise and employ good strategy, which got THEM involved as well.

The cover says it all - while leaving
everything else to the imagination of the reader...

3) More importantly, simplicity made Holmes Basic a logical extension of the imaginative play we loved as children.  And since most of us started gaming in adolescence, it was a great way to translate this into an adult context.

But despite its simplicity, Holmes still had depth because it offered plenty of exciting content.  Indeed, monsters were offered beyond levels any 1-3rd level type could ever deal with:

1) Seeing these monsters lent the impression of a universe far beyond any present experience.  This filled out the implied setting and created a sense of danger and wonder.

2) But these foes COULD be engaged by a larger party with many henchmen provided the DM scaled them down to the lower end of what was possible given their hit dice (i.e., 1-4 HP per die).

3) Alternately, intelligent players found that killing isn't the only way to win the day.  Learn when to RUN!  Indeed, I can remember this one DM who introduced strong enemies, not to fight, but to cleverly avoid.  It was a lesson in the big picture.

Finally, Holmes Basic left out a lot (this was inevitable as an introductory set and doesn't constitute any failure).  For instance, there were fewer magic items listed.  But this was also a major advantage, by our reckoning, for the following:

1) Magic was rare and understated, making it even more coveted and, frankly, miraculous.  Nothing got cheap and boring.

2) What lay beyond was LITERALLY mysterious, because it came from the DM's own imagination!  This, too, lent a sort of wonder.        

3) Even the crappy production and artwork helped out, as this left readers to fill in the blanks for themselves...

Holmes basic was literally my introduction to the hobby as it pertained to writing adventures and running games.  It absolutely set the standard for the style of gaming I prefer and left an indelible impression on our personal efforts at game design, noting that Pits & Perils is an obvious homage to Holmes in style and approach (although not mechanics).  Its finer qualities were our stated goals, and I hope we did even half as well getting it across!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

A Real Live Castle...for You!

Robyn is an awesome photographer, and she's taken some great pictures over the years.  So, what does this have to do with gaming, and how can pictures enhance our games?

We're glad you asked!

Back in 2008, we were stationed in Germany and got to see some incredible sights right out of the games we play.  Now understand, for those of us living here in the States, the Middle Ages are a   simple abstraction; something from the history books and/or movies and television.  But for Europeans, there's an unbroken link to their past that's analogous to our own Civil War or perhaps the wild west, because, well, it's OUR past.  

But the Middle Ages was THEIRS.  Ever see a castle next to a McDonald's?  This juxtaposition of old and new is everywhere to be found in parts of Germany.  One such location was Burg Nanstein, notable for the (very) decisive use of artillery in a Medieval siege and ushering in a new era (goodbye Middle Ages)...

But it still has a story to tell, both the castle itself and the failed Knight's Revolt.  But the castle was built much earlier, and has a Medieval pedigree that should serve as inspiration.

So, let's take a look at these:

Walls present a formidable obstacle, and now you have a lot more respect for those thieves, don't you?

Now let's step inside...

Courtyards are the site of many a pitched battle, whether with humanoid nasties or evil wizards.  If miniatures and model terrain are used, this can easily become quite involved indeed!

Towers are equally treacherous, especially when ruined or occupied by evil sorcerers who resent your presence!

Most "real" dungeons were small, dark, and nasty.  This is no place to get caught unprepared.  But then, you already knew that!

While most games deal with the fantastic (except, maybe, our own Barons of Braunstein), there's a historical underpinning that matches anything our imaginations can conjure up.  If you ever grab the chance, see these fine locales in person, otherwise, learn the real history of the places where our fantasies happen and remind yourself why we love this stuff in the first place.  Game on, folks!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Hartha Kredd, a Villain for Blood of Pangea...

Hartha Kredd was promised to Set-Amon at birth, being most likely stolen and offered to the cult as a devotional sacrifice.  No doubt the priests (and the god himself) saw his magical potential and raised him as a champion of the underworld.  Now a mature man in his late forties, he positions himself as an envoy to Nemia's many neighbors, acting civilly and even offering genuine aid should it suit his purpose(s).  Even so, his loyalty is to the cult, and given his destiny, he allows none to stand in his way...

Judges can have the players encounter Hartha in some palace or similar location, perhaps serving as an emissary.  Rarely will he hire a party, however, unless doing so suits some hidden agenda related to the Nemian cult.  That being said, he will dispatch his many servants (mortal or otherwise) to spy on the characters if their presence conflicts with his plans.  To this end, he employs local mercenaries and, less often, summoned devils, to obtain knowledge such that he is seldom caught off guard and should always be prepared for a hostile group.

Being an important political figure, he has access to considerable wealth, which might have players interested in him!


Hartha is ideal for games that emphasize role-playing and negotiation, although direct confrontation is possible given the known habits of adventurers in Pangea!    

Although an accomplished sorcerer with some additional MIGHT to spend on spellcraft, Hartha will generally try to negotiate first, using magic to delay or distract his foes should negotiations otherwise fail.  Against clearly stronger enemies, he will summon a horned devil and then employ magic to escape.  Given his official position and political role, he is publicly quite unassailable without risking legal complications, as local rulers, desperate to secure Nemia's favor, will almost always side with him.

It should be stressed again that Hartha Kredd is highly competent and seldom engages enemies except under conditions (and/or in a setting) chosen by him.  If cornered, he may submit long enough to plot his escape or use his ring as a melee attack.  It has been rumored that Hartha has returned from the dead, perhaps in service to his god, and may do so again, although this is probably just a myth perpetuated by the ignorant and fearful (or maybe the sorcerer himself) and should never be clearly addressed with the players.    

Friday, January 1, 2016

When Is a Hit Really a Hit?

Every now and again, the topic of hits points comes up and, specifically, whether or not this vital metric represents physical toughness, skill, or a mixture of the two.  Admittedly, it's not exactly a heated debate (most, especially in old-school games, are willing to let this remain subjective).  Even so, managing this critical resource is very important to gameplay success and player satisfaction, since we all have cherished characters and take on numerous enemies.  This is our take on the matter:

(1) Check the rules first, as they may have something definitive to say on the matter.  Some do, others don't.

(2) Forget what the book says (unless the game has an extremely detailed mechanic that links hits to physical injuries) and decide what works best for your own game.  Practice makes perfect.

(3) Understand that if you can somehow circumvent Chuck Norris' considerable martial defenses, you can kill him with a paring knife if you stick it in the right spot.  And keep in mind that in most games, such weapons inflict MINIMAL damage...  

Now, assuming hits represent PHYSICAL TOUGHNESS ALONE, an 18 HP fighter is either NEVER HIT in the femoral artery or is IMPERVIOUS to such injury against all evidence to the contrary.

Ouch!  The tremendous ability of
characters to survive injury can't possibly
be ALL physical, now can it?

Of course, the final, killing blow COULD be to the femoral artery, but it takes a LONG time to get there - and probably not because the victim has accumulated too many nicks and scratches...

On the other hand, when we recognize that hit points represent a COMBINATION OF BOTH SKILL AND TOUGHNESS, this makes sense, and gives you some idea of where WE stand.

So, which hits are deftly avoided strikes and which are authentic physical blows?  We use the following:  

(1) Narrate combat and pull creative descriptions of hits and skillfully avoided misses out of your keister!

(2) Let players describe their attacks and make on-the-spot judgments about whether or not a "hit" is a true physical strike or cleverly dodged, etc.  This gets players involved and lets them assist you.  If they mention raising up their shield and the enemy hits them anyway, say the blow glanced off.  Over time, a fun narrative dynamic takes over, and the hard-and-fast rules governing combat will keep things objective... 

(3) Injury taken to the bottom ONE-THIRD of total hits is largely physical, and the FINAL KILLING BLOW IS ALWAYS SO!

Hit points are survival for any cherished character, and the relative strength of enemies is equally so, as physically tough foes are harder to kill and more likely to turn the tables.  That said, objectivity is important, and players are more likely to accept the death of Bjork the Bold when everyone understands the rules and accepts that they died "fair and square".  At the same time, combat can be heroic and exciting without invoking ANY rules.

Understanding hit points as a measure of SURVIVAL ABILITY that sometimes involves skill and luck helps.  So does narrating battles and letting players contribute to the fun through their in-game descriptions.  And don't worry.  By defaulting to the rules for hit resolution, things won't devolve into questionable territory!