Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Minimalist Gaming Doesn't Exist!

Every so often, the topic of minimalist gaming arises, and we've concluded that it doesn't exist!  Now this might seem strange coming from the creators of Barons of Braunstein and Blood of Pangea, two games that put the light in rules-lite gaming...

But we can explain ourselves!

Yes, there's such a thing as minimalist RULES.  We've been writing them for several years now and playing them for much longer.

But we do this to INCREASE COMPLEXITY, not diminish it.

Again, let us explain.  Complex systems almost invariably offer mechanics for any number of skills and abilities, often to the point that a good percentage of what players do is governed by what's written on their character sheets instead of what they think to do and/or try in the course of an adventure.

At PretzCon 2013, we ran a demo of Pits & Perils for an ambitious group of young people.  I'm pretty sure none of them were older than maybe 17 tops, and over half were girls, which was cool because it brought a different perspective...

So at one point, the group defeated some orcs and subdued their panther (which had clearly been abused).  The elf had a Calm spell and the players decided to adopt it and keep it as a pet!

They even went as far as to put together special armor from the slaughtered orcs to protect the big cat.  Now in more complex games, this would only be possible with animal handling skills or charm enchantments.  And the armor could only be made by someone with the armorer skill or something along those lines.

I made the decision that since the elf DID initially use a Calm spell and the cat WAS abused that adoption WAS possible, and I went on to reason that anyone could strap on pieces of metal from a butchered enemy with little effort.  In this way, the players were rewarded for their ingenuity and enjoyed a unique experience without invoking complex rulesets that do strategy for them.  

It's not anything goes.  Some things I'd flatly deny them on the grounds of sheer impossibility.  But in this case, I decided it was in the realm of the doable and let it happen!

But what REALLY happened here?

Complexity was SHIFTED from the RULES to the actual PLAYERS!   

Think of all the richly detailed backstories, settings, and supporting characters present in YOUR campaign.  How much of this gets its depth from the narrative and NOT from any particular ruleset?  And you players out there, try to recall your favorite adventure and what you did in it.  Chances are, your finest choices had less to do with rules and more with decision-making.

Minimalist games aren't really minimalist.  They merely shift complexity to the players and result in potentially more complicated gameplay situations.  Characters have potentially MORE options, while GMS become more than just the guy (or gal) who rolls dice for the monsters, which makes the game infinitely more complex and enjoyable for them as well.  And their world(s) are better for it...

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Undoing Gender Limits in AD&D

AD&D, that oldie-but-goodie, is still widely played, by ourselves included.  It's a classic and lots of fun.  But it was written in an older time when the hobby itself was still mostly sort of a boy's club, and entrenched beliefs about gender persisted...

Now, a word on realism: Yes, men are generally stronger than women, we freely admit that (and Robyn does for sure).  But when we're talking about a game where ELVES shoot lightning bolts out of their FINGERTIPS, we've waved bye-bye to reality.

And in truth, there's considerable overlap, and AD&D overstates physical strength as a factor, especially in combat, where agility weighs heavily.  Anyway, a physically fit female with the right training can land a blow and deal substantial damage despite their maximum dead-lifting ability!

How important is it to impose upper limits on female performance in the name of realism when it only serves to discriminate against a sizable component of the hobby?  Especially when these limitations disadvantage them in a game that's supposed to be FUN.

And especially in a game that ignores other realities and with relative and careless abandon!    

In AD&D, human female fighters are limited to an 18/50 strength, which, admittedly, lies within the uppermost percentile.  So what's the harm here?  The vast majority of female characters won't even suffer from this limitation, and most probably won't roll 18 for any of their other attributes or abilities.

But imagine a female player who (understandably) wants a female character and rolls an 18/00 strength.  Now this is pure luck.  But isn't everyone entitled to the full benefit of their good fortune, especially in a GAME?  But having to scale back because you (and by proxy your female character) have the wrong gender?

That would suck and feel unfair...

And this, in a game where you can play an elf shooting magical lightning from your fingertips.  In a hobby where we cherry pick the realities we wish to impose or ignore totally, is this REALLY what players should insist upon enforcing as hard truth?

Furthermore, since 18/51+ DOES represent the absolute upper percentile of scores, it comes across as bending over backwards to maintain the status quo and make damned sure that male fighters remain ultimately stronger...   

And when you look at what an 18/51-00 strength really does, you observe substantial extra advantages.  Males immediately see something on the order of +5-15% to attacks and damage, with greater ability to carry weight, bend bars, and lift gates.  

These things translate into survival and advancement, and while characters might have scores all over the place and some will doubtless be better than others, the fact remains that a player can see their lucky high rolls LOST by their gender in a game where reality is otherwise mutable and changing.

So even back in the day, I ignored these rules and went with the following with respect to abilities:

(1) Non-humans retain their ability score modifiers, whether positive (bonuses) or negative.  Most are physically smaller than humans and have different psychologies to boot.

(2) Within each race, however, there's no separate maximum strength for males and females along these lines.

(3) In general, ability scores are seen as a RELATIVE measure and subjective beyond a certain point.  This is enough.   

Finally, and in keeping with (3), above, strength is really a measure of FEROCITY as much as sheer physical power, especially as this relates to close (melee) combat.    

Obviously, times have changed, but it's worth noting that some of us were doing this back in the day in the name of more FUN. 

Ultimately, all players will be human, and non-human characters enjoy special abilities to offset weaknesses.  But among these human participants, there should be an equal opportunity (if not equal results rolling dice) to achieve the highest levels of power in the game, and this in NO WAY upsets game balance or impacts play...

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Best Game We Never Played...

In 1982, D&D ruled the role-playing world, and gamers were absolutely hungry for more.  So when Jame's Galloway's The Highest Level of All Fantasy Wargaming was released, many of us eagerly picked up this nice (and most worthwhile) book...

A hardcover release, this was well-produced and very nicely illustrated in the chapter headings and on a few pages throughout; just enough to set the mood, but leaving enough to the reader's imagination, which we heartily approve of!

But unlike other "rulebooks", there was quite a bit of space dedicated to the philosophy of the game and how the rules came to exist, which was also interesting.  Indeed, the first chapters covered the author's personal inspirations and offered some good fantasy to check out (although I despise Gor). 

This book is still available, so we'll drop the past tense here, although we aren't sure who might actually be playing it and remain doubtful on this count.  Even so, it's worth picking up for its extensive content and the quality of the ideas presented, and not just for the essays on fantasy.      

Galloway very quickly goes on to recommend the actual medieval 
period as a good place to set a campaign, and the following chapters expound greatly upon this premise.  At its best, this works as a survey of medieval life and serves as a quick reference for anyone wishing to adventure within this period... 

(1) The switch from paganism to Christianity (or any equivalent situation in a fantasy world) and its impact on magic and religion is covered in detail.  The book offers a solid cosmology that consolidates everything around the concept of "mana".

(2) How medieval society was really set up, and how guilds, in particular, really operated.  This is several books on the subject consolidated into a single easy reference.

(3) Astrology, and how it totally dominated medieval thought, and how medieval men and women figured into the cosmos.

In short, the book is a quick, but concise, overview of the real medieval world, not only as it was, but as people thought it to be, which is the very essence of historical fantasy!  

As for the rules themselves, well, not so much.  It's not that they're so bad.  There's some really good stuff to be found in its pages, although mainly when applied to better systems.  But the mechanics presented suffer on several counts and are far too complex and poorly explained to be practical...

(1) Character creation is limiting.  Female characters suffer penalties, ostensibly, to reflect medieval misogyny, that only serve to put off potential players (and pretty badly).

Yes, they actually advise against playing female characters, which gives new meaning to the term "sausage party", and we can only wonder why this was thought so important. 

(2) Player agency is very severely limited (a clear nod to its historical war-gaming roots).  And by way of example, players must defer to the character with the highest Social Standing score, transforming everyone else into mere spectators!

Yes, historical war-games imposed certain restrictions on unit behavior and tactics to reflect historical reality.  But the author here doesn't seem to understand how (and why) role-playing games differ and why people are attracted to them to begin with.

The real value of this book is as
reference material, but that's enough!

(3) The rules, in general, are clunky and use lengthy math to execute (a definite foul from our point of view, although we freely admit that this is a personal call).  Who wants to jump through hoops to execute gameplay?  Zodiac signs weigh heavily here, and we like the idea and have used it ourselves, but prefer that this modifies play in a simpler and more intuitive way.

But there's cool stuff to like too...

(1) Rules for astrology and how the stars rule everything in the medieval universe.  The reference value, alone, makes it worth picking it up, and the fact that this extends into enchantment and general spell casting makes it all the better.

(2) Decent rules for piety and the fate of a character's eternal soul at death; Heaven, Hell, or Valhalla!

(3) The introduction of an actual medieval mindset applied to everything from combat to magic, etc.  Readers are quickly divested of the notion that magic is a purely neutral energy without real consequences.  How many clerics cheerily adventure alongside known sorcerers who conjure up demons to work their magic?

The Highest Level of All Fantasy Wargaming is still available at Amazon, and we recommend getting it.  Just don't expect a playable system even after extensive modification.  On the other hand, do look forward to an interesting peek at the designer's inspirations and advice on how to make your own campaigns look and feel more genuinely medieval, even in an incredible world of your own making!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Return to The Keep on the Borderlands...

OK, I'm surprised it took this long, but this time around, I'm writing a love letter to my favorite packaged scenario; the fabulous and always useful Keep on the Borderlands!  If you're any kind of seasoned grognard, or even just a fan of classic D&D, what's not to love about this marvelous bit of gaming history?

Now, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that there's some nostalgia happening here.  Keep on the Borderlands was the module that shipped with my Holmes Basic Set in Christmas, 1980.

Hell yeah, there's nostalgia!  Nostalgia means that some things actually meant something to me and left their mark.  So sue me for having a happy childhood, but it's really more than that.   

I suppose I could have gotten In Search of the Unknown or the various geomorphs, but I got the Seventh Printing (1979) with both the Keep and those cardboard chits.  And I used those chits, all sorted into Styrofoam cups labelled d4, d6, etc.  I had also gotten Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials that Christmas, and my very first dungeon sported mounted laser guns!

And while the basic rulebook (and its implied world) was pretty clearly the main event by a long shot, Keep on the Borderlands sweetened the pot and provided something vitally important to new hobbyists just getting started.  So, in no real order:

(1) A complete SETTING: The Keep (fully mapped, fully stocked, and fully inhabited) with well-developed NPCs.

(2) The surrounding LANDS, including the fens, hints at a larger lizard-man settlement, and some great local characters (Mad Hermit, we're talking about you here)...

(3) And finally, the sprawling CAVES OF CHAOS, also stocked in generous detail and suggesting a deeper campaign arc to be imagined by the DM once they got their feet wet and gained skill.

In short, the Keep provided not only a ready-to-play scenario with literally all the trimmings, but likewise, a very instructive example of HOW to develop a campaign and what things to consider when doing so.  A fully playable how-to... 

Basically, everything from non-player motivations to the local economy, trade relations, terrain, and the creation of challenging dungeons made difficult by giving monsters both the smarts and organization they would logically have in a settlement and treating the dungeon as both a community AND a true ecosystem!

Plus, I have lots of memories running it.  My family, rather indulgently, played with me, and I can't express how life-changing gameplay is with your mother's Great Flirt, a female magic-user, alongside your brother's Dildo the Cleric (no, his ambitious character illustration doesn't bear repeating here).  This very fine module clocked in at 28 pages, a decent chunk of the rulebook, and for me, it shall remain the SECOND HALF of Holmes Basic D&D...