Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Random encounter tables

I didn't use this specific piece.  But this is the exact kind of public
domain art that I did use, and I have other pieces from this same artist.
I've spent a little time on my FANTASY HACK m20, which is what I'm calling my "My Perfect D&D version" conversion.  Actually, I finished it, more or less, without much in the way of difficulty.  I bulked up the text from the CULT OF UNDEATH rules just a little bit; made a few updates, added a few details; mostly added some examples of use making the whole thing much friendlier to potential new players.  It came to 34 pages once a few illustrations were stuck in too.  One of those pages is the cover page, one is the table of contents, one is the character sheet (I had to make it from scratch, because porting into Google Docs so I could use it on any of my computers made a hash of the formatting—I opted for one that's meant to be printed out and written on by hand; an old-school type of sheet, if you will) and one is the OGL, so that puts it at 30 pages of actual document.  Roughly 2-3 pages worth of that is taken up by illustrations—all public domain old fashioned art like Gustav Dore and Howard Pyle and Alphonse de Neuville type stuff; fun artwork from a happier day.  Another 2-3 pages is taken up by examples, and another 2 or so pages is the Author's Note and Introduction.  This is still very much a small, rules-light version of the game.

Starting on page 35, I get going on the Appendices.  The first one I'm creating pretty much from scratch, and I admit that it will probably undergo various revisions.  My first draft is, admittedly, a bit rambly and covers all kinds of topics from GM style advice; a distillation and exegesis of everything I've read in the past that actually worked in practice, to advice on how to handle wilderness travel, to random encounter tables (which are themselves heavily modeled after the ones in the Cook/Marsh Expert set.)  All in all, I'm not super happy with the Appendix I; I think it needs to be better organized, and maybe just significantly rewritten altogether.  It ends up being a little bit GMing rules/mechanics material, a little bit philosophical treatment on how I prefer to run the game, and a little bit of a few other things too, which makes the whole thing a little bit uncomfortably random.  But, I've got a first draft done, and that's usually the hardest part anyway.  And maybe the format isn't really a problem, especially as it's an Appendix and therefore optional by default.  Still trying to decide exactly what I want my random encounters tables to look like as the major open issue.

The Appendix II, which includes new races, new classes, and the race and class builders that I've already developed for DARK•HERITAGE and elsewhere was easy; after all, I'd already developed it.  The Appendices in general were largely modeled after Part 8 the Cook/Marsh Expert book, and like that book's own sample Grand Duchy of Karameikos, I wanted to have a sample hex map with setting.  I was surprised, I admit, at how sparse the material was that they presented in the Expert book, though.  In only three pages (two of which are maps/images) they give us everything that we get.  I had forgotten that; I guess I expected a much more robust key.  I'm still working on my Appendix III; I've got a map already, and if I key it the way the Expert set did, I could go to "press" with half an hour or so more work.  I'm not sure I want to be quite that Spartan; I might add several pages of hex key detail.

So between needing to polish and work on Appendix I and figure out exactly how much work I want to put into Appendix III; I'm done.  I'll have ended up being a little short on my page-count estimate.  Even if I go the super-short route for describing Timischburg, my sample setting, I'll probably end up somewhere closer to 50 pages than the 35-40 that I had estimated.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

D&D Mine

One curious artifact of the current DIY OSR and OGL inspired era of gaming is the fact that rather than printing up traditional "Fantasy Heartbreakers" folks are simply making D&D their own.  In some cases, these guys will attempt to sell their product; usually as PDF, sometimes via a Kickstarter or GoFundMe or somesuch, but many times, it's just put out there as a free PDF for anyone to use, peruse and pilfer as desired.  There may never have been—even in the dawn of the hobby—such a wide proliferation of "what do you want your own personal D&D game to look like?" being answered with substance, with detail, and with customization and personalization.  Given that I've been blogging quite a bit lately about various versions of D&D, it's fair to ask what I've actually got going on here.  And keep in mind that by "D&D" I mean "any game system that's meant to emulate a D&D-like 'generic' fantasy setting" so Pathfinder is a D&D; Microlite74 is a D&D, Delving Deeper is a D&D, etc.  It should also be apparent given my patterns, that my D&D is going to be some derivation of m20.  However, most of the m20 games that I've actually tinkered with myself have not been developed to emulate a D&D-like generic fantasy setting.  There is, however, one exception: the Cult of Undeath.

I went back and re-read that, made a few minor adjustments to the system, and thought of a few "holes" that probably should be filled.  I've decided to create this as an actual system; an actual game; not just a "mostly complete" game that is available as a wiki of sorts specifically designed to work with a small setting.  No, it's going to be a "Real Thing™."

What Needs to be Done?


The good news is: not much.  My system as an emulator of sorts of D&D is well over 90% complete.  I need to copy and paste the stuff I already have into a document that I can PDF up, including with a public domain illustration or two to pretty it up (maybe I'll use the image here; I like it a lot already), add a little bit of introductory text and very slightly more robust descriptions of the races, classes, spells, monsters, etc., and I'm good to go.  What I should also do, however, is bulk up the monster (and maybe the spell list) a little bit, and then add a couple of appendices.

The first appendix would be designed specifically to discuss a few GMing skills.  I would create some wandering monster tables, random tavern and NPC name tables, etc.—useful stuff that isn't really part of the game per se but which is useful to have.  Some magical items would be nice too, as my rule-set currently doesn't include any at all, other than various blasphemous tomes.  The second appendix would be optional rules.  I'd have the race and class builder rules, as articulated in my DARK•HERITAGE m20 rules as well as a few sample completed ones, mostly.  And then maybe I'd include a third appendix that's a sample hex map and hex key.  For this, I will use my Cult of Undeath material, which will also be nice, because I never really finished putting that together for Cult of Undeath.  I can kill two birds with one stone!

And that's it.  My roughly 20 pages of game as it stands right now would balloon all the way up to... 35-40 or so pages, I estimate?  Most of it based on material that I already have.  It will more be a task of organizing rather than actually creating much.  Oh, and I guess I need a name.  I called it before Cult of Undeath, because that was the campaign that I was proposing to use that system for.  Something more generic.  I dunno; FANTASY HACK m20, or something.

What makes your "D&D Mine" different from "D&D Someone Else"?

  • It's based on m20, so it's extremely rules-lite, including a drastic reduction of the stats, the skills, and elimination of saving throws.  It starts with only four basic classes and 5-6 races.  Tons of spells and monsters don't appear.  It's a very slim, stripped down version of d20, but it's so slim and stripped down that it doesn't really run anything like d20; it feels more like a smooth, consistent, rational version of OD&D in terms of how it plays.  This is, however, common to all m20 games, and is not specific to my m20 game.
  • Magic is not Vancian, it's Lovecraftian.  There's no magic-user (or wizard, or sorcerer, or cleric, etc.) class; anyone can learn any spell, providing he finds access to it.  There's no fire and forget.  Spells damage you to cast, representative of the physically taxing nature of casting magic.  They also threaten your sanity, and if you really botch something up, extradimensional predators might come for you (hounds of Tindalos.)  That said, it's not meant to be overly punishing to cast magic, although it certainly is a bit more risky.  It's just got a very different kind of pulp root than D&D does, and it has a very different feel.
  • The monster list is also skewed towards the Lovecraftian.  Although I'll probably go back in and add a few more classic, mythological type monsters and whatnot, I don't have tons of them right now; but I do have things like byakhees, gugs, shoggoths, etc.
  • When you add in the extra, optional rules of what will become Appendix 2, it essentially jettisons completely the notion that you need pre-fab classes or races, because you can build anything you want with them.  This may seem anathema to some old school D&Ders who think the archetype protection of the character class is an ironclad requirement, but classes in this game (and races too, for that matter) really only offer a modest benefit; some flavor for role-playing, rather than something that's constrictive and prescriptive.
  • While the game as it stands now doesn't make much in the way of assumptions about what kind of game you'll be running, once the appendices are out, it will better support wilderness exploration and urban gaming much more than dungeoneering.  Literally nothing about the rules for the classes, the races, or anything specific about task resolution, or anything else, will assume a dungeon.  While the system is certainly flexible enough to be used that way, if you so desire, what it's meant to be good at is fast and loose swashbuckling action story, like a fantasy version of Sabatini or Dumas, or something out of Burroughs, Howard or Leiber.
Anyway, this is a terrible distraction from the AD ASTRA stuff that I was supposed to be working on, but what can I say?  Sometimes my muse is fickle and has ADD, and because this is just a fun hobby, I don't intend to apply strict discipline to her.  I'm an overly indulgent parent to my muse, I suppose.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Top Ten (and then another Ten) Troll Questions

This is an older blog fad that passed through a few years ago.  Naturally, I just discovered it, and naturally, I don't care how old it is, I'm going to answer them anyway.  This is, perhaps, an interesting Rorschach test for gaming tastes and preferences overall.

The First Set

1). Race (Elf, Dwarf, Halfling) as a class? Yes or no?  I don't really care.  I tend to prefer no, but it's not a strong preference.  Part of this was Gary Gygax's own inability to come to terms with the idea that players might want to play anything other than human.  As I've aged, or my tastes have evolved, or whatever you want to call it, I've come more into sympathy with this perspective.  So I don't have any problem with what earlier seemed like bizarrely arbitrary rules like the race as class stuff (and #4 below too.)

2). Do demi-humans have souls? I have never once attempted to answer this question.  I know it's a permutation of the raise dead spell and some fluff around it, but I've never given it any thought.  I prefer that there be no raise dead spell at all, personally, and if there is, I prefer not to think through the metaphysical questions that it begs anyway.

3). Ascending or descending armor class? Ascending.  Descending is a bizarre artifact of older games.  And I never played enough D&D to ever really memorize the THAC0 table.  But again; not something that I care a lot about as a player.  As a GM, my preference is more strongly towards ascending.

4). Demi-human level limits? Sure, why not.  Honestly, moot point.  My own personal preference is for campaign level limits that are below the lowest of the demi-human level limits anyway.

5). Should thief be a class? Yes, absolutely.  It's one of my favorite classes to play.

6). Do characters get non-weapon skills? Yes, absolutely.  I strongly disagree with the received OSR wisdom that skills "ruined" the "I can do anything I want" paradigm of the game prior to their existence.  That's only true for profoundly stupid players—or at least players and GMs that lacked initiative and didn't believe in rulings.

7). Are magic-users more powerful than fighters (and, if yes, what level do they take the lead)? I have no preference.  I will point out that in the sword & sorcery literature, magic-users tend to be played as if they are really powerful.  That said, fighters (like Conan, for instance) seem to routinely be able to deal with them.  Conan is, of course, exceptional.  But then, so are all PCs, right?

8). Do you use alignment languages? No.  I don't even use alignments.

9). XP for gold, or XP for objectives (thieves disarming traps, etc...)? Get rid of XP altogether.  Advancement to a new level is the purview of GM ruling.  This actually is a rule that I think would have been better off unstated and left in the GM's hands.  It's curious that OSRians complain so bitterly about skill systems taking rulings out of the hands of GMs (which isn't actually true) but they are often extraordinarily strict about how they think XP should be deployed.  I dislike XP altogether and prefer to toss the whole system.

10). Which is the best edition; ODD, Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer, Rules Cyclopedia, 1E ADD, 2E ADD, 3E DD, 4E DD, Next ?  I'd play Moldvay for quite a while.  Eventually I'd get annoyed with its idiosyncrasies, but it'd take a while.  I'd play 3e, but only if it were contained within a fairly narrow window (I think the system is absolutely atrocious for the top two thirds of the levels presented.)  And curiously, even though it was designed to be foolproof from a DMing perspective, I think it requires more than most other systems a really good DM to be fun to play.  Either that or I just don't think the designers are good DMs and I disagree with them fundamentally on the nature of how to DM.  And finally, I'd play 5e just to try it out, I suppose, if someone else were to offer to run it.  That doesn't make it in the running for the "best" edition, but in reality, those are the only three that I'd even be willing to play at all.

Bonus Question: Unified XP level tables or individual XP level tables for each class? Don't have a strong opinion either way.  Don't care.  Surprising to me that I actually don't care a lot about more of these questions than I thought; but in most of them, even though I didn't care very much, I at least had a weak preference.  In this one, I honestly have no preference whatsoever.

The Second Set

1). Should energy drain take away one level of experience points from the character? Yes or No? If no, what should level drain do?  No, that's complicated to do, and kinda finicky and metagamey anyway.  I'd prefer to do away with energy drain entirely and replace it with CON drain everywhere where it appears.

2). Should the oil used in lanterns do significant damage (more than 1 hp in damage) if thrown on an opponent and set on fire? Yes or No? If yes, how much damage should it do?  Depends.  Is the assumption that it's difficult to put out the fire, or that it clings, or whatever?  If a character so attacked can immediately "stop, drop and roll" (reflex save once hit?) I'd rule that no, it doesn't do significant damage really—although it'd sure screw you up tactically for a round or two.  Otherwise, sure—being set on fire sucks.  That's why being burned at the stake was a fatal sentence, after all.  1d6 per round until put out or character dies.

3). Should poison give a save or die roll, with a fail rolled indicating instant death? Yes or No? If no, how should game mechanics relating to poison work? Depends on the poison.  I don't have a problem with that in general.  I don't think that applies to every poison.  Plenty of poisons are not immediately fatal.  Plenty of poisons aren't fatal at all.  I like the d20 use of poison, actually.  It made a lot of sense to me. although I don't like long lists of poisons.  I like "Schrödinger's poison" with effects that you make up on the fly.  CON damage, or become violently ill, or whatever.

4). Do characters die when they reach 0 hit points? Yes or No? If no, then at what point is a character dead? I tend to go to negative CON, but I don't feel strongly about it, and I'm coming around more and more to 0 = dead.  Right now, I'm settling on a 0 = make a saving throw or die immediately.  Make this throw every round until character is either stabilized, healed, or dies.  I guess that kinda splits the difference, right?

5). Does the primary spell mechanic for a magic user consist of a "memorize and forget system" (aka Vancian)? Yes or No? If no, what alternative do you use? I use m20, which uses a "casting spells causes HP damage" mechanic.  I like it, especially when coupled with a lightweight sanity system which is also damaged by casting spells.  Instead of Vancian, I prefer to call this system "Lovecraftian."

6). Should all weapons do 1d6 damage or should different weapons have varying dice (1d4, 1d8, etc...) for damage? I prefer various weapon damages, but I think that the standard array of weapon damages that is common to D&D and D&D derived games probably leaves a lot to be desired.  I've never bothered trying to change it significantly, though.

7). Should a character that has a high ability score in their prime requisite receive an experience point bonus? Yes or No? No, but see above.  Get rid of XP.  That was a poorly conceived idea from the get-go anyway.

8). Should a character with an constitution of 18 get a +3 bonus to hit points, or a +2 bonus to hit points, or a +1 bonus to hit points or no bonus to hit points? And should other ability scores grant similar bonuses to other game mechanics?  No to all.  Having a high ability score is a good enough benefit in its own right.

9). Should a character have 1 unified saving throw number, or 3 saving throw types based on ability scores (reflex, fortitude, will), or 5 types based on potential game effects (magic wand, poison attacks)? or something else? I like how m20 has folded saving throws into the skill system (such as it is.)  Saving throws themselves are an odd mechanic that stands out oddly.  I also think it strange that saving throws correspond to an ability so closely; in that case, why not just use an ability check in place of the saving throw (I know, I know; because we want to scale saving throws with level.  Or at least the designers did.)  I'm actually not a fan of the saving throw mechanic at all, honestly.  Especially not in earlier games where they were bizarre and arbitrary; save against breath weapon, save against poison, etc. Third edition made saving throws more logical, but they also, ironically, made them superfluous.

To some degree that edition did the same to ability scores, but that's a whole 'nother question.

10). Should a cleric get (A) 1 spell at 1st level  (B) no spells at 1st level (C) more than 1 spell at 1st level?  The cleric class should be removed from the game entirely.  The Thief archetype has much more standing, especially as based on the source literature, than the cleric does.

The Thief

In our continued refinement (occasionally to the point of absurdity) of defining the term "old school" with relation to D&D we're continually pushing the "old school" envelope back.  I'm not quite sure where the end point of this is, but it's already absurdly far as it is, in my opinion.

While there is absolutely a style difference between D&D of the late 70s and AD&D as it developed, I still think that the notion that AD&D is the anti-"old school" and that old school has to, by definition, pre-date AD&D is kinda ridiculous (especially given that the OSR was specifically kicked off when the first retro-clone, OSRIC, managed to pass legal hurdles and become a reality—OSRIC, of course, being a retro-clone of AD&D, not OD&D.  The later focus on OD&D was just that—a later focus, and largely a rediscovery of that style of play.  But saying that only OD&D is old school, while AD&D is post-old school still seems like a quixotic splitting of hairs to me.

But this is nothing.  The other day Jeffro made the argument that the Thief class was the end of old school—and in old school discussions, that's hardly a unique position.  [NOTE: Since typing that, Jeffro has taken exception somewhat to my characterization of his position, so take that for what it's worth.  Personally, I still don't know how else to read that post other than, paraphrasing, "The Thief class introduced a number of elements that were the roots of the New School changes to D&D, which is why Old Schoolers are always trying to 'fix' it."  But although I don't know how else to read it, Jeffro has claimed that he does not believe that and he doesn't know where I got that conclusion, so... there you have it.  Follow the link and read it for yourself and make your own conclusions.  For purposes of this post, I'm going to talk about that argument whether or not Jeffro specifically made it, because whether he did or not, it's still a position that is held by some in the OSR.]  While one can say that the way the Thief class was implemented may have had an unintended cascading effect that changed the tone of the game over time, that's not really the issue.  The Thief class was being extensively used (pre-publication) at the very first Gencon that post-dated the publication of D&D—mere months after it was published.  Greyhawk, the supplement that included the thief officially, was in print a mere year after the first printing of D&D.  To suggest or even imply that the only old school game predates the thief, as can reasonably be inferred from both Jeffro and Maliszewski's posts (and many of the comments that follow) means that old school becomes a vanishingly small window of gaming, and begs the question; why not suggest that the publication of D&D in the first place was the end of old school!  Gygax and Arneson really sold out when they printed the game up, man!

I disagree with the notion that the Thief class caused a cascading effect of limitations, though—or at least that if it did, it was the fault of stupid players, not the mechanics themselves.  The argument goes a little something like this, and if I'm not making it with sufficient force and attention to detail, you'll have to forgive me, because I don't take it very seriously anyway: before the thief class, any character could do anything.  After the thief class, it became common to believe that only thieves could listen at doors or pick locks or climb walls, etc.  Also; it was the prototype for what later became skill systems, which even further eliminated the ability of any character to do anything.  Before skill systems, there were no rules at all, and if a character tried to do something, the GM just told him how likely it would be based on common sense, his experience, his whim, etc.  Most likely he rolled under his ability on 3d6, or was given a percent chance that he had to beat on a percentile roll (although that may have been an idea that started with the thief abilities anyway.)

This argument is of course absurd, because if a character could do it before without any rules for it, he could still do it without any rules for it.  The GM could make the same ruling that he always made.  Skills gave the GMs a framework whereby any character could attempt anything and he didn't have to make an arbitrary roll for it.  Those who say skill systems stifle GM creativity are on a slippery slope to "why have any rules at all; they all stifle GM creativity."  As I said, I have little sympathy for this argument.  It can also be a reducto ad absurdum; if thieves are the only ones who can do those things, then why is every other class besides fighter (or fighting man) capable of fighting?  Or why can only magic-users and clerics cast spells (Oh, whoops, that's a different can of worms.)

I've seen some players (Maliszewszki's post above, and the comments therein make this argument) that there's no problem with skill systems, but that skills and classes are fundamentally at odds and a game should either be a skill-based game or a class based game.  I also think this is a reducto ad absurdum and actually requires the notion that each class is a straight-jacket and that only members of the class that are specifically designed to be the only one that can do stuff.  I understand academically the concept of using classes to make easily digestible archetypes, but I disagree with the idea that that's important.  I don't think that it's too complicated to understand the idea that people can dabble in a variety of different skills.  They can have one profession, yet pursue other hobbies.  They can excel by natural inclination at certain tasks and struggle with others, in spite of some grand designers attempt to couple both tasks together.  After all, that's exactly how real life works.

Rather, I think that the Thief exposes a problem with D&D itself at a very fundamental level; that of the dungeon.  The archetypes on which the Thief class is based (Bilbo, the Gray Mouser, Cugel, various picaresque-type characters) are not ones that appear in a dungeoneering environment.  In fact, the dungeoneering environment is so unique, unprecedented (and monotonous) as to have literally no connection to anything that any normal person can understand.  So yes, while there are very limited examples of it in the literature (Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in the Thieves' Guild, the Fellowship in Moria, John Carter or Tarzan breaking out of various prisons, etc.) those are very limited examples, that are over with quickly.  Primarily because if they dragged out any longer than they did in the stories in which they appear, they'd very quickly become extremely tedious and boring.

Almost every complaint I hear from OSRians about the Thief class have to do with its interaction with the dungeoneering environment, or how it (purportedly) changes other characters interaction with the dungeoneering environment—at least in the perception of many of the players.  But what if this isn't a problem with the class itself, but rather one with the constant dungeoneering assumption of play?

For what its worth, this isn't unique to the thief.  What's the ranger without wilderness travel, anyway?  The ranger is another of my favorite archetypes (that I also rarely like the interpretation of) which always struggles because so seldom to D&D players actually spend any meaningful game-time in the wilderness.  For me, since not only the archetypes that the thief (and ranger) model are among my favorites from the source material literature and because I find the dungeoneering paradigm tedious and ridiculous, naturally, I don't have problems with including them in the game per se.  That doesn't mean that I don't have a lot of issues with many of the specific iterations of them that have appeared over the years.

Speaking of which, another curious curiosity with regard to the thief class is that as non-weapon proficiencies and their descendant, skill systems, spread through the game, the designers, in trying to protect the role of the Thief and give it a chance to shine, focused more and more on the backstab ability, which evolved into the Sneak Attack ability.  This had the added side effect of transforming the Thief into an Assassin; even though the terminology never caught up.  So this begs another question to; exactly what is the role of the Thief archetype in the game?  What is it supposed to look like and how should it be modeled?  Of course, there are various equally valid opinions on this question, depending on what kind of game you like to play and what you expect the character to actually do, which is one of the reason why these two classes in particular tend to get more customized, more house-ruled, and more "fixed" by amateur designers than most other classes.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

More exploration of Old School

I recently looked through my big list of Microlite Games and realized that although B/X is my favorite actually old version of D&D, I don't have Microlite81, which is the conversion of B/X into Microlite.  It was easy to track down copies on DrivethruRPG of the various versions of Microlite81, so I picked them all up.  Because I was pretty interested in Microlite74, I expected to be pretty happy with Microlite81; to find it even more interesting, honestly, than Microlite74 was.

One thing immediately comes to mind.  The author, Randall Stukey uses the same text that he used in Microlite74 to describe what this all is: "a trimmed-down, sub-miniature version of the Primary Fantasy SRD rules [...] that has been designed to be quick and easy to play."  However, those adjectives are belied by the length of the documents.  The "basic" m81 document is 46 pages long.  The "Complete" m81 adds a great deal of examples of play, more complete descriptions of monsters and spells, etc. and clocks in at 128 pages (comparable, I suppose, to the B/X sets combined both in page-count and in content.)  "Extended" is 60 pages long, and although it lacks the longer prose and descriptions, it includes a fair bit more "system" including long-running "author house-rules" that were also in the longer versions of m74, for that matter.  A number of these rules are optional rules that replace some of the original systems.

Finally, the "Advanced" version of the game is basically the system of m81—i.e., m20 converted to work like B/X, but with a whole ton of detail from 1e thrown in with regards to monsters, spells, etc.  It's 206 pages long, and maybe it more closely resembles how many of us played, where our systems were kinda hybrids of D&D and AD&D.

I have to admit, though—as much as I find the concepts of m74 and m81 interesting; fascinating, truthfully, I also have to admit that I'm not quite sure I see the point except as an academic curiosity.  Nobody can, with a straight face, call a 206 page rulebook a "trimmed down, sub-miniature" game in any objective sense.  Taking the admittedly "trimmed down, sub-miniature" basic rule-set of m20 and adding back in everything that B/X had to make them play like B/X, read like B/X, in many ways look like B/X, and be exactly as long, complicated and detailed as B/X, or as the case may be, a more derived RC-like version of the rules, or a D&D/AD&D hybrid with all kinds of stuff from all over the place—if you're going to that much trouble, what's the point of starting with a trimmed down, sub-miniature chassis in the first place?  The point of Microlite originally was to condense them 3e rules down to their "purest essence" (hence the name of that particular compilation of the rules); a complete game that was less than 20 pages long, and could have modular add-ons as desired, but didn't really need any.  When reading Purest Essence, it feels a lot like 3e; just without all of the rules.  If you're going to be using Microlite to make the game feel like B/X, shouldn't it do so while still maintaining the conceit of doing so with a small rule-set?

Now, granted—I like the m20 chassis.  A lot.  And I like D&D well enough, but I'm using m20 a little bit further afield than D&D when it comes to some basic constructions which inform the implicit setting.  But I'm a little curious; if I were to create what I thought was the ideal m20 version of D&D, how would I do it?  I'm honestly thinking that it'd be less like 3e and maybe more like B/X in some ways.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Skills in m20

Many old school gamers seem to break out in hives at the thought of skills.  I understand this perspective—somewhat—but I also strongly disagree with it.  OSRians, or at least many of them, say that skill systems stifle creativity by creating a list of things you can do.  I say skill systems encourage creativity, by giving GMs a framework whereby they can adjudicate whatever crazy action a character comes up with that isn't totally arbitrary.  It also encourages creativity, because it gives you a options to customize your character, and even develop him during chargen (and beyond) giving him personality that you might not have thought of if you didn't have a skill system to play around with.  OSRians might actually have an issue with this as well, if they're part of the "PCs are disposable game pieces and pawns, not characters" mentality, although honestly, I think that particularly mentality wasn't ever really that common, even back in the 70s and 80s.  But whether it is or not, I'm not one of those disposable pawns playstyle kinda guys.  I'm not a member of the "My Precious PC" club either, but I have always approached the game with more of an author's eye than a gamer's eye, and characters who are interesting, memorable, and maybe even unique, is an important aspect of the game to me.

One of the things that's really interesting about the m20 skill system (vs. say, the d20 skill system) is that not only is it very light (4-5 or so skills, depending on the specific m20 iteration, vs. what... 25-30 or so depending on the d20 iteration) meaning that it's not nearly as granular.  This makes it not terribly unlike how we used to do it before skills were added to D&D, i.e. the good old-fashioned ability check.  However, unlike with an ability check, your character can have a little bit more definition as a character than one without skills, in some ways.  Instead of just have a DEX score that determines everything that has to do with your hand-eye coordination, speed, etc. you have a DEX score, but you can also combine it with the various skills to have a more robust portrait of what your character is; but without the detail, time spent, and straight-jacket feel that many players had with the d20 skill list.

Another is that since all skill checks are a combination of a skill and an attribute, you actually have a lot of flexibility to be creative.  The simple act of climbing a wall, for example, isn't just a Climb check; it depends on how you do it.  If you just haul yourself up the cliff, it's probably a STR + Physical; the most like a regular climb check.  But what if you're trying to get up their faster than the Fighter?  What if you're trying to be flashy?  Why not a DEX + Physical for characters who are specifically attempting to do it that way?  What about a character who spends a few moments studying the cliff first, searching for the best route and easiest hand and foot-holds, to create a detailed plan for how to get up the cliff before climbing it?  A MND + Physical?  Sure, why not.

And the best part of it is, the GM can simply adjudicate what to do based on how the player describes what he's doing.  So players have the complete freedom and flexibility that many OSRians feel is missing from more modern versions of the game, while GMs actually have a more robust framework than, "uh... roll under your STR" or whatever to determine how it works out for the players.  There may even be plenty of times when a player suggests actions by coming up with creative solutions that are specifically designed to maximize the abilities that they have.  Whereas the fighter may simply move a fallen tree from the road by huffing and puffing and trusting in his strength to just pick it up to allow his carriage to pass, the wily, intelligent expert or sage might come up with a plan to use levers, pulleys, ropes, and leverage to do the same thing, bringing to bear his MND skill, which is probably better.

Rather than stifling creativity, it gives both players and GMs tools to encourage creativity.

But I always used the skill system in d20 the same way.  I always decided what (as a player) I wanted to do first, and then expected the GM to tell me what skill applied (if it wasn't immediately obvious) and what DC made sense.

But a lot of this is "frame;" i.e., how do you approach the game has a lot to do with how you were brought into the game and the habits you set early on.  I always played with the D&D vs. the AD&D paradigm, or as Tim Kask and some other guys suggest, my habits and approach is more old school even than AD&D.  It's rulings, not rules, it's DIY, it's keep the game moving, etc.  No matter what the system is actually built as, that's how I'm always going to run the game.  I still don't completely understand why, if a GM wants that kind of game, he doesn't just run it that way.  But I guess I do understand why having a system that actively supports and in fact demands that kind of game might be preferred to one built with some other assumptive play style.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

D&D series

The AD&D game essentially "out-competed"—or was heavily pushed by TSR, as the successor to the OD&D game.  To a great degree the market agreed, and while there was a a dichotomous split in the D&D brand all the way through the end of TSR's corporate life, AD&D was clearly the face of the company, and the "other" D&D line was one that often lacked in direction, consistency and focus.  This lack of focus and direction means that it's often treated as if it were a series; in reality, that's an artifact of chronology rather than of intent.

Even at the Acaeum they split D&D products into three big chunks; OD&D, D&D and AD&D.  This split is not entirely justified.  Some of the D&D line was specifically meant to follow in the footsteps of OD&D, and should be seen as part of a series with that, in terms of intent, presentation, and actual content.  Some of it represents what Gary Gygax himself said, in the famous Sorcerer's Scroll column in The Dragon June 1979, or elsewhere.  Sometimes EGG wasn't himself consistent.

The Holmes book, sometimes called BD&D (because it was the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, ergo BD&D—Basic D&D) was deliberately meant to be an introduction to AD&D for those who would otherwise be overwhelmed by it.  (It says so, right there on page 6.)  It was also meant to be a clean-up of what OD&D had become, and it was meant for a less sophisticated, and potentially younger audience.  Because of this, it's a little hard to see this as belonging to any series at all; it really is a weird kind of stand-alone product that sits oddly and uncomfortably between OD&D and AD&D.  Some reasonable speculation that's impossible to corroborate at this point suggests that it was really meant to be a clean-up and reorganization of OD&D, and that the "gateway to AD&D" aspect was mostly grafted on after the first draft was prepared, leading to a game that does the former much better than it does the latter.

The Moldvay Basic (paired with the Zeb Cook Expert to form the B/X version of the game) replaced the Holmes Basic, and was a much more substantial revision to the rules themselves  Eschewing the idea of being a gateway into AD&D, it instead stood out as a line in the sand against the tournament trend of AD&D; it deliberately was a modification and update of the tone, feel and concepts of D&D, without much direct reference to AD&D at all, or to the Holmes book either one.  It's no surprise that this is my favorite version of D&D to come out of this entire era; it's the vibe and feel of OD&D with better rules. (It needed to be revised one more time, honestly, with even better rules.  One could argue that maybe Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game is this edition.)  Because when paired with the Expert set, the Basic set allowed for play into a relatively high level, this is in every sense a complete game that stands apart from the direction in which AD&D was drifting.  It's a mistake to think that, even though EGG said so numerous times in print, they were mechanically really all that different, though.  Most people I knew didn't really understand (or necessarily care) about the differences between the various versions of D&D, and their games in actual practices were chimerical in nature, freely borrowing elements from any as it suited their tastes, preferences and needs.  This was also partially due to the fact that AD&D failed pretty spectacularly in its stated goal of eliminating diversity and rules questions; largely because it was so poorly written and organized that it actually probably created more confusion rather than less, and players would often default to a D&D paradigm if the AD&D one wasn't clear or readily to be found, or too much work to implement.

The B/X series was supposed to have had a third manual, a Companion, that would have extended the levels even further, and added more material to accommodate that higher level play.  This ended up being a ghost product that never appeared, but it would have been pretty cool to have seen B/X evolve into BXC.  Of course, I'm personally unsure of the necessity—or even the advisability—of higher level play than B/X already accommodates, but the B/X game was headed towards a kind of Conan-esque approach, rather than the AD&D save the world from bad gods approach, or the BECMI approach of apotheosis.  So although I still probably wouldn't have used it much, it'd have been nice to have, and it would have also completely and totally enshrined the D&D approach (as opposed to the AD&D approach) as a completely viable alternative.

One could say that BECMI, the Mentzer boxed sets that replaced the Moldvay/Cook/Marsh B/X approach was that, but I think it in many respects, clearly was not.  Although it did replace the B/X with it's own B and E, and added to them with C,M and I, the tone had completely changed.  Whereas the B/X sets had a sword & sorcery feel, with dangerous characters, and were marketed towards adults (said so right on the cover) with the Mentzer sets, they were deliberately "dumbing down" D&D for a younger audience, no doubt part of their plan to continue to make AD&D the real flagship product.

Although details of it aren't public, of course, I've often suspected that due to the acrimonious partings between Gygax and Arneson and later between TSR and Gygax himself, included a lot of provisions that had the company producing products that it didn't really want to produce.  I think the entire strategy of the split between D&D and AD&D was meant to keep D&D in print because they legally had to, while also maximizing sales of AD&D, which was oversold as a "totally different game", and therefore one in which Arneson was owed no royalties.  Although I don't know what primary source she's quoting from, when you go to buy the Basic set as pdf, you get this historical context: "Mentzer claimed that the main reason behind this new edition of Basic D&D was that previous versions 'were not '“revised',” merely '“reorganized.”'' He clearly wasn't talking about the mechanics, which demonstrably had been revised in Moldvay's version of Basic D&D, but instead how the game and its rules were structured. Mentzer's version of Basic D&D thus made some large changes to how the game was taught and presented.  Menzter's first two goals for the new Basic D&D were to make the game approachable by beginners and to make it learnable from the rules. Mentzer's Basic Set is thus laid out almost as a tutorial, with new rules and concepts being introduced to players very carefully; the rules about GMing are then introduced only after all of the basic player concepts have been discussed."

I'm not very personally familiar with the Mentzer rules, but what I hear of it was that it was more a difference in presentation than in system.  It was deliberately dumbed down, as I said earlier, almost to the point of condescension.  It was deliberately aimed at a younger audience.  The tone changed from one more informed by the literature to one that resembled "Extruded Fantasy Product."  It did have the Product Finishing department, so the garage-band feel of the earlier books was somewhat replaced with a more slick, professional-looking product (for better and for worse.)  And it did add some complications such as skills and weapon mastery.  But the rules changed relatively little from B/X to BECMI—at least if you stop after the first two boxes.

The Rules Compendium, or RC, was basically another repackaging of the BECMI boxed sets into a single book.  Although it made a few minor changes, dropped a few rules, and picked up a few that came from sources other than the BECMI boxes themselves, the rules are highly compatible.  In fact, the compatibility between B/X, BECMI and the RC are generally assumed to be among the highest for any versions of D&D; what changed following B/X was the tone, the implicit setting to some degree, and the "feel" of the game.  This is, of course, less important than some make it out to be, because the feel of the actual game as played is much more informed by the players and GM than by the rules, especially if the rules are essentially the same.

It does strike me as a bit unusual that by the time the C, M, and I were added the BECMI (and were later reorganized as RC) you've actually got a fairly complicated game, comparable in many ways to AD&D—although with some major differences, of course.  It also strikes me as unusual to think that by this time, you've basically turned D&D itself into a "fantasy heartbreaker", which seems to be a complete reversion of expectation.  But since AD&D became the flagship and D&D itself became the often neglected game, it lost its developmental focus, it lost its clear ties to what was later called OD&D, and it became, in a way, a pale shadow of what AD&D was.  Sadly, if the direction of the B/X game had been maintained; if the Companion had come out, and if the game had remained on that plane for some time, we would have really seen something unusual and potentially very, very interesting.

Quite honestly, I'd have been playing that game instead of AD&D back in the 80s.  I like the spirit and feel of OD&D the best of all of the versions of D&D, but I don't particularly like the rules.  The Holmes set reorganized this stuff so that it was more comprehensible, but then strangely cut a huge chunk of the material out so that you had to graduate to another rule-set to keep playing (the game itself touted AD&D, which was on the verge of being released, but since it hadn't actually been released yet, and wouldn't be completely released for a couple of years, it probably shunted some people into the OD&D game instead.  B/X rejected the spirit of AD&D and went back to the original D&D paradigm, and updated and revised the rules.  Still not as much as I'd like, but as I've said many times, this was the closest D&D got to getting it right in terms of what I wanted from the game, at least.

Later, with BECMI and RC, D&D lost that spirit and feel (even as it retained, mostly, the same mechanics) and eventually became essentially a poor imitation of AD&D itself.  Given that that's my perspective, it's not hard to see why I became disillusioned with D&D altogether and eventually wandered away.  Third Edition, where the AD&D and D&D brands were finally brought back together, enchanted me for a time until after many, many hours of play it became obvious that it really was more about the feel and tone of AD&D than it was D&D and I wandered away again.  I still had plenty of fun with that system, and given the gaming group that I have now, I probably will again, but it's never going to be a system that I recommend anymore.  If anything, my tastes have evolved into being even more free-wheeling, rules light, GM interpretation than even OD&D did, although built on a more stable, robust chassis of mechanics that are consistent and easy to use (curiously, a really stripped down version of 3e, which is what m20 essentially is.)  It took a long time for me to arrive where I am, and there were both changes in me and my own tastes as well as substantial changes in the game itself to get me here.

UPDATE: Another guy posted somewhere, long ago, and I found it and read it and wonder how much it's true, that as BECMI matured, it started getting all kinds of rules; rules for splitting pirate loot, rules for running a merchant marine, rules for everything!  If this is true (maybe I should buy the RC pdf; it's on sale for only $10—then I'll know first-hand) then D&D evolved near the end of its life-cycle into one of the ultimate simulationist systems of its age.  This truly does bring D&D and AD&D together in spirit—and leaves the original paradigm completely unrepresented.  No wonder the OSR thrived so much when it first started!  It wasn't so much about nostalgia as I always thought, but also catered to a lot of pent-up demand for a system that was specifically designed to work best with a specific play style—which also happened to be the original playstyle.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Death of Old School

This is an eye-popping article by Tim Kask, one of the "original" roleplayers from Gygax's inner circle, and literally the first hired employee of TSR.

http://kaskoid.blogspot.com/2016/02/how-i-helped-to-pull-rope-that-tolled.html

A few interesting points.  While maybe the OSR has recognized this, I had not—to me, old school most definitely included AD&D; in fact, the very first retroclone was OSRIC, which specifically cloned AD&D, and Dragonsfoot, the redoubt of Old School before the OSR (which is still rumbling along as near as I can tell) was heavily focused on AD&D.  But according to Tim Kask, Old School (or OS as he calls it) died with the publication of AD&D.  AD&D was the specific rejection of OS and what it meant; largely for commercial reasons (supplements sold.  They were cash cows.  So were tournaments.)

For old timey gamers like me who weren't quite old timey enough to have played much before the publication of AD&D, BD&D or even B/X quite frankly(*)—although I did play one game with the LBBs, I was too young (as was the GM) to have made it a meaningful experience for either of us—this is pretty eye-opening, because it shows a real rift in intent that was harder to perceive for guys like me.  Sure; I knew that there was a big difference in tone between the B/X sets and the AD&D books, but it was a long time before I really knew much about the background that led to that.  Finding out as it happens that B/X was, in some respects, Moldvay's attempt to subvert the purpose of the Basic game to make it more like the OS ethos is hardly surprising.

Anyway; a few salient points:
TSR came to the conclusion that it was time to actually codify D&D; thus was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons born, and the death knell of the loosey-goosey, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants OS style of play. There were so many things we did not see coming, the most reprehensible of which is the rules-lawyer. 
I have told the story elsewhere: Gary and I spent a week in his office at the end of which the general outline of Basic D&D and AD&D had been laid down. Basic was toned down for younger players and made simpler to understand for easing them into it. AD&D was a tarted-up, codified version of OD&D that would now compel everyone to play the same. Worse, it was now a whole hell of a lot less engaging to the imagination; everything could be found on a chart or table. OS, or OD&D if you will, is more mentally engaging and more challenging than all the subsequent editions, not less. It is also tons simpler to play. 
The sequencing of the releases of those first three hardbounds was a masterpiece of marketing. We knew everyone would have to have the whole set and released them in an order sure to sell them all well, and it did. And it killed the OS style of play for a great portion of then-current players; new players only saw AD&D. 
So why do I continue to play OD&D when I mid-wifed AD&D? Because it is all the things 1st Edition AD&D (1E) is not. It is not slaved to charts and tables, although it has some. It is not arguable; it works that way on my world because I say so. It is about gathering information, not relying on Skills and Abilities to do the work for you. It is about playing well, having fun and living to fight another day.
That was how I always wanted the game to be.  Because I came in through a hybrid of B/X and AD&D, I thought the D&D game simply didn't do what I wanted it to, and I spent years looking for the Holy Grail system that did what I wanted in the way I wanted it to.  If I had stuck more specifically with B/X, or better yet, been introduced during the heyday of OD&D, I might have come to a different conclusion.  Maybe not, but then again, I might have.

I wonder if the OSR hasn't already figured this out, though.  It doesn't escape my notice that the biggest name in the OSR doesn't seem to be OSRIC, it seems to be Swords & Wizardry which is a retroclone of OD&D.  At least from my perspective.

* Just to be clear on notification; the following are common abbreviations with regards to various versions of D&D.

  • OD&D—Original D&D; the Little Brown Books (LBBs) and the supplements that added to it.
  • BD&D—the Holmes Basic book.
  • B/X—Basic/Expert; the Moldvay Basic set combined with the Zeb Cook Expert set.  If I were to go back to an old version of D&D (I won't; I'm quite happy with m20) this is the game I'd probably go back to.
  • BECMI—the Mentzer modifications to Basic and Expert, plus the three additions that followed.
  • AD&D—Advanced D&D; the Gygax authored triple book sets that started in the late 70s.  Technically this includes both 1st Edition and the much later 2nd Edition, but for the most part, when someone says AD&D, they mean 1e.  Sometimes abbreviated also as 1e to separate it from 2e.