Friday, July 3, 2015

Let's Tell a Story Together ... Not Argue Over Rules

"Sometimes when you get the mechanics of the game out of the way -- rolling the dice, keeping track of what your carrying--it's almost like your there." He lifted his head and smiled. "And that's something. How often do you think I'm going to get the chance to, rescue a princess or slay a dragon?" -- Karl Cullinane in The Sleeping Dragon by Joel Rosenberg


As I've reconsidered what I recently wrote in regards to why I game and what I want from my gaming sessions, something has repeatedly come to mind: the story. The narrative that unfolds as DM and players interact within the game world is what keeps me coming back again and again to the table. Story is, I believe, the heart of what makes gaming so satisfying and positively absorbing. As Joel Rosenberg makes Karl say in the book above--the idea is to have the mechanics recede into the background and to actually be there in the game.

Games that prohibit my ability to achieve that are games with which I quickly grow disillusioned. Though I didn't know it until I had been made to stop and think about it, that was the real reason I became disillusioned with 4e and Pathfinder--the excessive intrusion of the rules and mechanics into the game. Which is not just about combat alone, but also the plethora of rules governing character ability, power and development.

Recently in a gaming discussion I was reminded of something I had felt long ago, and have even written about here on this blog. That the multiplication of rules comes from three main sources:

  • Characters desiring to avoid death and danger
  • Characters wanting to be able to "do more"
  • DMs trying to address this apparent dichotomy
Occasionally realism is also posited as a source of rules extrapolation and this too has to be carefully managed. Gary Gygax himself mentioned this in the 1e DMs guide and his work Mastery of the Game. He warned that combat could devolve into an endless tedium if consideration was overly given to realism at the expense of maintaining the high action of fantasy adventure--the reason we game int he first place: adventure! Those who all desire such realism, should be all means seek it out. It has much in common with strategy games and the D&D's wargaming roots--but that is not why I game.

Which leaves the idea that we should avoid danger or death, and or "be more powerful" either for self aggrandizement, the desire to avoid death, or the desire to play a superhuman. If you do desire to play a superhuman, play a Supers game. Supers games have very different purposes than fantasy campaigns, but I suppose it is possible to blend the two. And I must say that a group desiring to play a supers fantasy campaign can do so without any argument from me--it's just that I don't play for that purpose. The desire to "do more" to play a more powerful character, a super-like character, then is a certain valid approach that may lead to rules proliferation. Nothing inherently wrong with this mind you; and it isn't even required as there exist all number of high power, rules light games out there. But this is a "valid" reason--just not one I am interested in. So I set this one aside.

The other reason, desiring to avoid death, is not valid. Allow me to explain. Rules exponentiation that comes from desiring to avoid death can come from two sources: death-dealing DMs and stupidity of players. Both of which should be avoided. The first of the two was more common in my day. The innate power of the DM in a roleplaying game is a temptation to the egotistical to simply lord over and control the other players. This should obviously be avoided as well. Leave such games post haste, as such people are dangerous for more than just your character.

Most players learn that certain actions are bad and should be avoided--most, but not all. If you player is dying repeatedly in a game, ask yourself: Am I doing something stupid? Am I forgetting to check for traps, rushing in where even fools dare to tread? Trying to carry too much of the party weight? Not working as a team with my party? Trying to take on powerful monsters too soon, or adventuring where they live? Not playing my character's class like it is supposed to be played (i.e. a thief trying to lead in combat, a magic user going toe to toe with monsters, etc)? If you are not sure, watch other players whose characters are not dying all the time. Take their advice and look for input when your character takes actions. Things should improve over time.

However, if everyone in your party is dying all the time; if the causes of your deaths seem unfair or imbalanced a lot of the time; if you find yourself continually in no win situations; if every effort your character makes is thwarted by exactly the right kind of challenge--these may key you in on the fact that your DM is being unfair. If this appears to be the case, it should be a topic for after game discussion with your fellow players and possibly with your DM. Don't assume your DM is a killer DM. She may not even know that she is being unfair or biased--it happens. Sometimes all it takes is bringing it up. She might be able to adjust play some to make the play more fair and balanced. It also gives her the chance to defend some of her decisions and reasoning. Or, perhaps someone else needs a go at DMing. If however, your DM gets very defensive, offended or is reluctant or refuses to give up the reigns for awhile, that too could be another sign that they may be too comfortable with the over-use of the power they wield over the players. Find a new game in such situations. The game should be fun--otherwise your not doing it right.

Now, this second scenario can happen in any game--regardless of the rules. However, some rules have arisen to attempt to spell out each situation that might arise as a conflict or challenge a character might face in an attempt to take the adjudicating power away from the DM. The rules assume the DM can't handle this power and will misuse it, and that the other players need that safety net to keep from them from DM unfairness. In a sense some rules are designed to preempt in unfairness in the game. But this takes away an innate quality of the game that comes with DM flexibility--creativity. Hem a DM in too much and they can lose the element of creativity and improvisation that contribute to the story in amazingly powerful ways. The DM was required to be fair as a pat of her role--the very reason they were also originally referred to as judges. 

Now, I'm not saying rules proliferation itself is bad--although I truly wonder sometimes. What I am saying is that an unnecessary multiplication of the rules that can slow down play and interfere with the story being experienced by all players--the DM included. 

To conclude today I consider a quote by Gary Gygax himself:

"The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don't need any rules."

Gary was big on secrets. It is one of the things that probably made him such a great DM. But why should DMs never know this? Well, apart from being melodramatic, I think it's an allusion to the commercial needs of TSR, Several times in the early versions of the game it was repeated again and again that they--the game designers--shouldn't do too much of the imagining for you. The game was designed to open the doors to your imagination--not constrain it with rules or content. We are, however, a lazy species, and gamers were no exception. We'd much rather wait for Gary or Dave or other writers to entertain us with their imaginings instead of create our own. But if they let that be their business model they couldn't make more money! They needed to produce modules, more expansions, more classes, more campaigns, more rules, rules and more rules! Not it wasn't that simple--and they obviously knew the real power of the game because they mentioned the need for participant creativity as an essential element of the game. By doing it for you they were taking something away from the game. But practicalities precluded the continued embracing of such a model and it became the inner "secret" we could never let out of the bag. But by that time, they also knew that regardless of this being the "secret" most of us, would remain little chicks hungrily squawking in the gaming nest for the next creative morsel the designers would regurgitate into out awaiting beaks. So many of us never broke out of the brainwashed masses to do our own thing. Well, I know I didn't, and I know a lot of others in the early 80's who didn't. Some few of the original players of Original and Classic D&D stayed true, because that was the only way they knew to play: that the original rules were a rough toolbox of what could be--not what had been decided from upon gaming high. The original rules were a rough outline of a way to tell a story together and experience it in a way seldom before experienced. By the 90's that vision had been by and large traded in the rules they let us have. When, all along the secret was we didn't need any rules at all--at least very minimal ones. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Is AD&D Combat Any Easier?

After trying to wrap my brain around the Hackmaster combat system, I can;t help but wonder if the AD&D combat system is any better. Of course the way I remember it, it was way better. But the way I remember it was not the way AD&D combat was actually played by me, my friends or those I knew.

Back in the day we held combat something like this:

  • Your party ...
    • Opens the dungeon door ...
    • Turn a bend in the trail ...
    • Is startled awake to see ...
    • Comes upon ..,
  • A group of "baddies"
    • Surprise was intuitive. If somebody got the drop on you they got to act first before you rolled initiative.
  • Everybody roll initiative!
    • We used individual d6s for a long time, until 2e when we started using d10s because we misunderstood the AD&D time keeping system. We thought there were 10 seconds in a combat round and your number on the die was the segment / second you acted in. Not as recommended in the book, but it seemed "more fair" to us.
    • We also used Dex modifiers to initiative until we found out that wasn't quite right
  • Highest went first, ties went simultaneously.
  • Roll to hit VS AC and apply damage as necessary
  • When everyone was finished with one initiative round we rolled for initiative again and ...
  •  ... rinsed and repeated until one side or the other was dead, ran away or surrendered. 
That is not AD&D combat. 

I could outline it here, but if you are interested, and it is quite interesting check out the following excellent documents:
Now, some would say that this is a moot point. The way I played AD&D back in the day, was a perfectly acceptable way to play AD&D. Why muck it up with all these "rules". Well ... because I'm an adult. The last time I played AD&D, well actually OSRIC, was when I advised the Junior High Role Playing Game Club. We played for about a year, until I realized we were "missing" a lot of the rules. This realization came about as I found discrepancies between the OSRIC document and my First Edition books. This led me into deeper rules exploration, actually taking the time to read the books and understand where we were not doing things right. We eventually abandoned OSRIC, admittedly due in no small part to my confusion and frustration, and went to Pathfinder. It wasn't any better than 3.5--very rule heavy.

So, yeah. I am an adult. I actually read rulebooks now. Much to my own detriment and that of my players. I'm sort of like that. Something also make me sort of "itch" when I know we are playing a game without really following the "rules" of that game. But I also know that the more rules heavy a game gets, the more frustrated I become--cite 3.5, 4e and Pathfinder as cases in point.

So this all made me conflicted. Here I was, loving the tone and feel of the Hackmaster dialogue and rhetoric, absolutely love it mind you. And recalling the glory days of yore spent playing AD&D sort of "made up as we went along" and realizing I can't play either one with a very clear conscience in the way I like to play--without so many freaking rules! I even spent 6 hours last night creating two, count 'em TWO Hackmaster characters! Alright, I was half watching back to back movies with my kids, but still! That too, I find somewhat frustrating. I mean we used to take hours creating characters back in the day, but lots of those hours were spent drawing character portraits, writing backstory, creating his coat of arms, drawing his armor, creating genealogies, etc. etc. We didn't need that much time to roll up a character! All it took was:

  • roll 4d6 drop the lowest in order
  • Choose a race--apply modifiers, record racial abilities
  • Choose a class--write down any special class abilities
  • Choose alignment
  • Roll HP
  • May need to pick spells
  • Roll for Gold
  • Equip character
  • Name her and add details if you desire
Adventure!

Sure, I'm certain as I get used to character creation it will go faster, but will it really go any faster than Pathfinder or 4e did? Blargh. I could create a PC in less than 5 minutes back in the day, and it usually took 15. 

What all this is doing is making me realize why I chose Castles & Crusades several years ago to play with my own kids, and why I so often default to it when I play. Rosetta stone of gaming or not, it is fast, light, flexible and story-oriented. And I am assuming it is the same reason I find 5e (D&D Next) so intriguing. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Advanced Hackmaster Combat


Probably the part of Hackmaster that gives me greatest pause is the combat. It's new and different and I want it to go smoothly if I should ever GM. This post is more a help to myself to outline the critical rhythm of HM combat and the flow of actions I should keep in mind as I adjudicate combat at the table. Hopefully you interested in HM combat will also find it useful ...

Hackmaster Combat Resources

I do not propose to re-invent the wheel here. There are numerous gamers more ambitious, intelligent and organized than I who have contributed greatly to the growing pool of HM resources. I have drawn heavily from the following resources:
Flow of Hackmaster Combat

So will consider the general situation in which my PCs are going to be coming up on some baddies. The situations can vary widely, but generally remember to:
  1. Have each side make observation and listening checks once it is possible they might notice each other.
    1. If no one notices each other then as soon as they are in sight roll initiative
  2. If it's an ambush--follow ambush protocols
  3. Roll initiative based on circumstances d4 to d12 generally
  4. Initiative proceeds on a count up basis 1 to end of combat
  5. Surprise is nice in Hackmaster, as it results from initiative rolls
    1. Characters & Monsters are surprised until their initiative count up starts
    2. Surprise can be mitigated by certain actions
  6. Encounter Distance is determined by distance at which both parties notice each other
  7. Movement and Time are important in Hackmaster, and are adjudicated as per movement, count up and actions in combat rules
  8. Ranged Combat follows base rate of fire chart for speed
    1. Range and Size modifiers can alter rolls
    2. Generally defenders get d20p for defense if moving, d12 if standing still
    3. Defenders with shields block missile attacks if the defender is using their shield and rolls greater than or equal to their shield cover value
  9. Once enemies are within 5' of each other plus their weapon reach they are engaged
    1. The attacking opponent with the longer reach attacks first generally rolling a d20p plus modifiers
    2. The defending opponent rolls a d20p-4 unless they have a shield in which case it is d20p
    3. The defending opponent with the shorter reach attacks the next second
    4. Subsequent attacks follow weapon speed for each opponent, adding their speed to their initiative count up
    5. Damage is administered by rolling weapon damage plus modifiers and deducted by any damage reduction due to shields, armor or other factors
    6. Shields give defense bonus, damage reduction, and missile cover
    7. Defending rolls of less than ten greater than the attacking rolls are shield hits and take 1/2 damage plus full modifiers
      1. This may cause shield failure as per shield damage chart
    8. Weapons and equipment can break, though most average and better quality only on fumbles
    9. Armor reduces damage by its DR value and certain situations like penetrations and criticals can cause 1 armor HP loss
      1. 10 Armor HP = 1 DR reduction in armor value
    10. Fighting Styles might modify attack and defense rolls and initiative
    11. Damage taken of 5 points per size category may result in a knockback as per knockback rules
    12. Fighting multiple opponents can reduce defense rolls
    13. Damage greater than Threshold of Pain level requires a trauma check
    14. Helpless opponents get 1d8p defense rolls
    15. You may coup de grace according to coup de grace rules
    16. Attack rolls of 20 always hit
    17. Defense rolls of 20 always cause a miss
    18. Ties of 20 goes to the character with the greater modifier
    19. Critical hits roll on critical hit table in GMG
    20. Near Perfect Defense = 19
    21. Perfect Defense = 20
    22. Attack roll of 1 and is less than defenders roll is a fumble, roll on fumble chart in GMG
    23. Defense roll of 1 the attacker receives an automatic free attack the next second
    24. Death and Dying
      1. 0 HP = near death but stable
        1. d20p + Wisdom save vs d20p + 11 to stay conscious
      2. Negative HP = dying
        1. Every 10 seconds make con save d20p + Constitution + current hit point total vs. d20p + 11
          1. Fail = lose 1 HP
          2. Success = no HP loss 
        2. Every 10 seconds make wis save d20p + Wisdom save vs d20p + 11 to stay conscious
      3. Negative HP > 1/2 Constitution = death
    25. Spellcasting in combat
      1. d4p seconds to ready components
      2. If attacked during casting mages lose spell and spell points, clerics must restart spell next second
      3. Spell caster rolls spell attack roll d20p + level + modifiers (incl spell points)
      4. Defenders roll d20p + level + ability modifiers
      5. Defender must roll greater than attacker
      6. Generally spell damage ignores armor
      7. Spell fatigues is 5 seconds plus casting time of spell during which time spell fatigue effects are in place
    26. Clerics may choose to turn or command undead as per turning rules
    27. Players may spend Honor in combat to affect rolls
    28. Morale Checks may be called for in certain situations as per morale check table
    29. Advanced/optional rules cover
      1. Shooting into melee
      2. Special combat moves
      3. Max number of opponents
      4. Fatigue
      5. Called shots
      6. Unarmed combat
Writing it out this way helps me immensely in grasping the "flow" of Hackmaster combat. Wrapping your brain around the general back and forth is much easier than trying to modify your existing notions of D&D style combat. Generally speaking most HM rules are based on common sense. What you think would happen is likely what does happen, and understanding the rules reinforces this
conception. I find the Combat Reference Sheet made by Dave Nielson a great summary of the rules and a go-to for GMs without having to flip through rulebooks. I don't have a HM GM screen, but I can see already some of the tables I would want easily at hand when one is created. 
I have also heard of various combat trackers, initiative trackers, combat wheels, and combat rose card holders and trackers that could be useful. I think I'll hold off on commenting on those for now, as I've not used them, but might as I get more familiar with the system and start to incorporate more tools into my GMing. I also want to put up a separate post about HM and minis later. I am a soft mini user--more for effect and color than strategic use. I have some ideas how I could incorporate more mini use and not make it a battle-grid wargame style of game. I have also gotten into making my own dungeon terrain tiles a bit and can see how it would be fun to have that in some sessions. Any-who, I would love to have feedback from experienced Hack-players on anything I've missed or mis-represented and on people unfamiliar with Hackmaster about if my list helps at all. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Which Game Has the "Magic"?

In case you haven't read my last post I have been wondering what game I should recommend that my new gaming group play. I mean it isn't all my decision, but when we meet for the first time and discuss what to play, what should I recommend. It has been an enlightening process for me to reflect on this issue as my last post relates.

Now, given that I have pondered why I game and things I can't abide in a game I can take the games into consideration that I mentioned and reflect on them for me personally. It is very important for me to make clear here that these are my personal feelings on these games as it relates to what is important to me. This reflection is not to be taken in any way as an actual review of these games--I think all of these games are very well written, awesome games. Games I hate simply would not have made the list.

Games I Would Choose to Play First

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition

This is my game. It was the game I grew up on, the one I know the best. It is also the game I played which, given the way I played it, allowed me to accomplish all of those things I mentioned in my previous post. on the negative side, people often balk at playing AD&D because it is "old" or they never played it before--I've run into far more 2e and 3.5 players in the last 15 years than I have 1e players. Those who know the game, or experience for the time often balk at rules like racial ability and level limits, class restrictions, alignment restrictions, and the like. And, once you really get into the 1e rules you begin to realize that they can get persnickety and just a bit crunchy and seemingly counterintuitive at times. Having played with these rules for years, there are actually very good reasons to do most the rules the way they did--but they are not intuitive, that I'll grant. So for me AD&D is a natural fit, but it often requires the most "convincing" to other players.

Adventures Dark & Deep

ADD is a game I love for several reasons. One, it is a natural and elegant inheritance of the AD&D tradition. Two, it adds and "fixes" several things that Gary himself mentioned needing adjustment. Neither of these come as a surprise, however, because Joe Bloch, the game's creator, set out to do both of those things. The game is a a result of a "what if" experiment. What if Gary Gygax had been allowed to rewrite the first edition of the game as he wanted to? What would we have had instead of 2e as it came out with--Gary largely sidelined by that time. Which brings me to the third reason I love this game: I personally tried this very project about the same time as Joseph started. Admittedly I was inspired by his initial blog posts on the idea--but suffice it to say I made it nearly -- nowhere :-(. Joseph showed both better design, initiative, and willpower to complete a project of this magnitude with the excellence and artistry he has managed to do. It was more than I could have ever wanted. So I adopted his curious volume to my own 1e playing, which can be done extant--or the game can be played for it's own right. Because it is, essentially, 2e as Gary would have written it; it has the same pros and cons as 1e itself.

Classic Dungeons & Dragons

Over the years I have come to appreciate the elegance and flexibility of the "Basic", or I say "Classic" D&D line up to and including the Rules Compendium. It is essentially the original rules light RPG and rightful heir of the Original 0e Dungeons & Dragons game contained in the 3 little brown books. I never played it much back in the day, being a 1e man myself, but since have come to realize it's openness allows for a creativity and freedom not possessed in even 1e. I have essentially created most of my homebrew campaigns under this framework over the last ten years. This version allows a degree of freedom that enables me to present my own creations in unparalleled ways. Unfortunately this very freedom can cause some to balk, as can rules like race as class. If people were really willing to roll in a game of my own creation they would probably be playing some version of this game. It retains a lot of what I like in a game--the reasons why I game--but ultimately depends on the nature of the game you decide to run with these rules. Admittedly by the time you get to RC the rules have become much more fixed and less flexible--more along the lines of 1e.

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG

I waited so long for this game to come out! And it is a masterpiece, for me personally :-) Aside from ADD and LotFP it is the clone/variant for me. I've sung it's praises elsewhere, but basically it has built a system based loosely on a Classic D&D frame. It allows me to do almost everything I love about gaming, perhaps a little "too well". The flavor of DCC is classic swords and sorcery roleplaying where death and evil are common occurrences--exactly what I love. It is a little dark, but not so much so as LotFP which is perhaps mitigated by it's potential for dark humor as much as seriousness. However, DCC scares people! They either "get it" or they don't. In my experience most people love running one-offs in DCC, but seldom want to return game after game for long term campaigns. I personally would love giving it a go long term as I think it has amazing promise to offer a fascinating long term experience, but convincing others is not so easy. This game, though I would love it play it whole hog, will likely be a garden of weird delights I frequently harvest from for my games run with other systems.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess

I keep returning to this game like Gollum does the One Ring. My preciousssss ... I love the flavor of this game. But I have a taste for dark fantasy--more properly weird fantasy. But though the game itself is simply a beautifully written and streamlined -- if you can believe it -- version of Classic D&D, the actual tone of the game can be so dark that even I hesitate to offer it totally to players. As I said with DCC RPG you have to "get it" or you don't. And like DCC as well, I heavily harvest body parts of LotFP and sew them on to my own game. The nature of LotFP touches a certain vein of fantasy I find very appealing, one that is not suitable for everyone. LotFP is one of those dark pleasures that I seldom dare to share with others for fear they will judge me deviant or twisted. Well, maybe I am slightly--but shhhh ... no one mussst knowww of myssss dark and ssssspecial pressssscioussssnessssssss ......

Hackmaster "4th" edition

My coming to HM was no different from the very creation of the game. The game was "built" as readers of the Knights of Dinner Table comic strip-book began asking Jolly Blackburn and the D-Team and KCo of the game the characters in the comic played was real. Well, it wasn't, but they had so much interest expressed in the game that KCo decided to oblige it's fans and write the most awesome version of D&D ever! Building on the AD&D 1e base, they incorporated lots of 2e options, and many house rules and other awesome stuff from the comics to build what they called Hackmaster. Though billed as a parody, the game sold magnificently well and proved itself a solid, expansive and simply put, awesome, system. Well, I came to KODT late--around issue 140 or so. And I loved the comic so much, so thoroughly, that I too had to know if HM was still in print. This was around 2007, however, and no sooner than I found HM 4e I also discovered that they were dropping the license with WoTC for rights to AD&D and designing their own version of the game. ARGH! I've written about this elsewhere on my blog, but suffice it to say, if you made me choose between 5e and 4e I would choose 4e. However ... that might be ill-advised. HM 4e is designed to, yes, give me everything I love in a game--tough, gritty, bloody, deadly fantasy gaming. However, the game is also designed to allow min-maxers to play around and come up with some real doozies. I have found most people who come to HM want to play in that playground before they really begin working the system as a strong playable game. This is frustrating to me and makes me usually default them to the better designed 5e. But for sheer "flavor" that suits me to a T HM 4e can't be beat. And though I might complain about the potential for min-maxers and power gamers to be a min-maxer or power gamer in HM as very significant consequences. And the type of min-maxing and power gaming the system allows is not super-hero like, but rather trading a curse for a boon type. Getting past these issues with players new to HM 4e is tough, but would be worth it I feel. But then, there is the very real problem that 4e is simply out of print, and not likely to be reproduced due to licensing restrictions--so 5e is it for most new gamers.

Advanced Hackmaster "5e"

Which brings me to the next iteration of Hackmaster. For me two things mitigate against HM. I know, I don't usually start with the negatives--but there are really only two ... everything else is so perfect about Hackmaster that it's hard not to simply choose it out of the gate. First, it's not HM 4e. I mean it retained much if not all of the flavor of 4e. It is more "serious" and, the second reason, is more technical in terms of playability. 4e could be played pretty much as you played AD&D without a lot of the technical crunch that certainly existed in the game. But to play 5e that way, you wouldn't really be playing 5e. It's a new system. It changes some fundamental things about the way AD&D was played. I don't think these changes were bad necessarily--just different. For instance the way proficiency is done is different from what I'm used to, as is initiative via the count up system and there is no hit to AC, but opposing rolls for hit and defense. And these are all influenced by many modifiers. I've heard it said that initially you can just use a real simply count up and opposing rolls to hit and defend without worrying about the details--but I can't seem to be okay with this. I want to use the system as it is written, but it is a bit complex. I understand it, I'm just really afraid I'm going to forget things as a GM that could hurt or penalize my players, I also worry that the flow of combat may not be that quick but bog down too much. They say that AHM does not have to be played with minis and maps, but it seems like it would be easier to do so--and I never really liked playing this way. I'm much more free-form. All this would seem to cancel HM as an option for me, but I can;t seem to leave the game alone. It is very close to the flavor of gaming I like, the tone is ideal without the heavy weird or dark elements which DCC and LotFP builds in and it's in print now and supported.

So of the above, I would have to say that I drop out Classic D&D as it ends up being re-designed by me personally when I homebrew campaign and they end up very personalized anyway. If I was going to play AD&D I would use Joe Bloch's Curious Volume to tweak my game, so would be unlikely to play straight ADD. DCC and LotFP are garden's of delight for me and while I would borrow heavily from them, I wouldn't play a game solely in their style--not just for my players sake, but probably for my own. HM 4e is out of print, and a bit unwieldy. Which leaves a modified AD&D or Hackmaster. But before I leave off the discussion I would/should consider, in light of my last post if any of those game I like "less" are still deemed as being unable to offer what I want, or should I reconsider? Thus more briefly, I will consider them in turn as well:

Games I Would Be Willing To Play

2e AD&D: If I was going to choose AD&D it would be 1e, unless others simply disagreed and wanted 2e--I wouldn't not play, but it isn't my first choice. Largely due to flavor--it's a touch too "soft" for my tastes.
D&D Next 5e: This one requires some consideration. I have played this twice--two sessions--during the playtest. Actually GM'ed it. It plays a lot like Classic D&D, fast and flexible. However, the underlying design is a bit more "gamist". By that I mean the design comes out in play a little too much for my taste. The universality of rules causes me some angst. I have the same issue with C&C and even LotfP d6 resolution mechanic. It's just a little to "simple" and used so often that it becomes a little too clear that we are playing a game. Aadvantage/Disadvantage and ability check systems make me feel this way with 5e. But these are not deal breakers. 5e doesn't seem to suffer, for me, from the vanilla factor of C&C--to retains it's distinction. I dislike the bounded accuracy affect on the rules, but I can't say I say I hate the concept. It keeps the game somewhat more deadly and "iffy"--but it's different enough to cause me some unease. I have some cramps over the way they have defined classes, especially the rogue and the fighter, who seem to have no real distinction apart from their initial starting proficiency bonuses, another gamist element (a lot like PF BAB), and where they choose to put their ability scores. But these are all really paltry, and no more "problematic" than HM 5e's crunch and gamist elements. 5e has the intellectual property rights to the D&D empire which feels familiar, comfortable and a lot like "home". I don't like the default, starting HP or the 4d6 ability roll system or racial modifiers--all the characters start more powerful than in the past in that sense-- but it isn't over the top. They do "gain abilities" as you go up in level and have ability increases, something I have never been overly fond of. But overall we are not talking uber like PF. 5e does feel like a compromise between old school tone and feel and new school player oriented "feel good" rules. But I can't count 5e completely.
Crypts & Things: Beautifully written swords and sorcery game built on a Classic D&D chassis. Just a little limited in scope. Feels very campaign specific. I would love to play C&T, but would feel limited after a time.
Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea: Same as C&T. Would love to add it to an existing campaign though.
OSRIC: Why play OSRIC when I can play AD&D and it's back in print? Though I love it  to create AD&D compatible material and played it with my gaming group for over a year. The only frustrations were the slight differences in some rules from AD&D I wasn't used to.
Labyrinth Lord: Love the flavor of this game in it's approach to art! But like OSRIC, why play a clone when you can play the real thing? And I prefer OSRIC to LL + AEC.
Dark Dungeons: Never tried this, but it's an intriguing presentation of the RC, but would suffer from the same issue as the clones above.
Adventurer Conqueror King: This little gem is almost more of a variant than a clone, and catches my eye a bit more than straight clones. I would be willing to give this a try, and love it's mass combat rules, and high adventurer level play. That alone is worthy to steal and add to an existing game. I like the way they outline this in ways that RC and AD&D never did. It doesn;t quite rise to level of top pick for me, but I could deal with playing ACK, but if given the choice would pick AD&D over ACK and add in elements from ACK to my game.
Swords & Wizardry: Like LL, I love the flavor of this game. The art is stupendous and it's tone is a notch above OSRIC. However, I see it more as a statement of what "Classic" D&D should be, and not a system I would choose to use in play over actually using D&D itself. However, like OSRIC is for AD&D, S&W would be my system of choice for creating material for Classic D&D.
Basic Fantasy Role Playing Game: The strength of BFRPG is it's totally open source nature. I like the Classic feel of the system and it's clear separation of race and class, the way I, and most players I know, generally prefer to play. I have been tempted to simply embrace this system to be a part of it's open source culture--where S&W, LL and OSRIC have more of an intention of commercial applications. But it would be for creative purposes, not as a primary system of play.

Games I Would Prefer Not To Play

Pathfinder: simply too easily uber and super power oriented for my tastes.
3.5 D&D: same as Pathfinder.

 Thus my short list of recommendations for a group I am going to play in would be:

  • AD&D (with additions from LotfP, DCC, ADD, HM 4e et al)
  • Hackmaster 5e

Of course keep in mind, that I would be willing to play any game mentioned on this page and probably others more obscure. Or if we were to change genres to horror, or science fiction the list would even be longer. Generally though these are the common games I run into and would "recommend" to a group I am going to play in. Now that I consider the whole thing, I am not surprised. My blog is ostensibly an AD&D blog heavily laced, especially recently, with Hackmaster content. AD&D is tried and true with me, I know it gives me what I want and minimizes what I don't. Hackmaster would be an experiment for me that I would love to try, but remain open to the possibility that I may not like it over the long term. I would be glad to DM or play in either game.

Want to give a special shout out to my brother for helping inspire me to go through this process and for others being patient with me as I talk through my analysis with them. And as always to Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, the TSR crew and I suppose in this case to Dave Kenzer, Jolly Blackburn and the KCo team.



Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Why I Play (And Don't Play) Table-top Roleplaying Games

So in preparation for the starting of a new regularly playing gaming group :-) YAY! I have been pondering what I would "suggest" we play. Everyone in our group seems fairly open minded about the issue; but, as normal, I have been fretting overly much. As also typical of my thinking process, I over-analyze everything. I was discussing the issue with my brother and fellow gamer in a dedicated 5e group my dilemma based thought process:

The Dilemma As I Experience It

I have certain games I really like:
  • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (first edition)
  • Adventures Dark & Deep (as my preferred 1e clone/variant)
  • Classic Dungeons & Dragons (Rules Compendium)
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics
  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess
  • Hackmaster 4th Edition
  • Advanced Hackmaster "5th Edition"
However, I worry that in "convincing" people to play one of my preferred systems above they might just be doing it to appease me. I don't want that. I want everyone to really be into playing what we are playing--to really get into the spirit of it and play it like it's the best system since sliced bread. I do not like having to constantly defend a system from the attacks of haters, least of all if they are at my table playing with me. The last thing I would want to experience is casting my gaming pearls before swine. I take it personally when these systems are criticized--I mean I know they have issues, right? But they are special to me for very personal reasons and if I'm going to play them with friends I want that feeling to not only be genuinely respected, but hopefully shared.

And then there are several other systems I have played and don't think are too bad. In other words, I won't refuse to play them but they are not my favorite:
  • Pathfinder
  • 3.5 D&D
  • Straight 2e AD&D
  • D&D "Next" 5e
  • Crypts & Things
  • Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea
  • Castles & Crusades
  • OSRIC
  • Labyrinth Lord
  • Dark Dungeons
  • Adventurer Conqueror King
  • Swords & Wizardry
  • Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game
The problem of course is that when I agree to play these I start to deconstruct the game, and I become the critical one--looking for problems, reasons I don't like the system or the play. Most other people don't seem to be bothered by this process, as I don't make an absolute pain of myself, but it certainly starts to bother me and my enjoyment of the game. I don't want to be the stick in the mud however, that holds up play simply because a system is not my favorite. You would think it doesn't matter all that much--but it does to me for some reason. 

So there I was talking to my brother about this very first world problem and he gave me some advice that seemed pretty good. He first asked me what I thought made the most sense for everyone to play. After sifting through all the variables what simply made the most sense? Well, to me this was fairly obvious. The logical choice would be Pathfinder. Everyone knows how to play and everyone has the books. Simple right? Even though it didn't make me too happy.

Then he asked me a follow up question: No laying all that aside, what do you really want to play? What's your preference?

... pause ... 

I couldn't answer. I really didn't know what game I would choose.

As I thought about this, I realized that the dilemma wasn't which game so much as it was the environment. It was what I wrote above: I want everyone to be really into the game--including me. It's become obvious to me that gaming is, for me, incredibly nostalgia laden. It is a holistic experience that transcends the ruleset we are using. I am looking to capture that "magic". And for me certain rulesets do that better than others. 

As I explained this to my brother, or tried to fumbling over my worlds and heretofore unexpressed feelings, he gave me one more challenge. Take some time, he said, and write down the five or so reasons you love to game. Why do you do it? What is most important to you? Then, when you are done with that--try to write down what you can't stand in a game, what are complete fun killers for you when you game. It may not give you the answer you are looking for, he cautioned, but it should give you some insight. 

Wow. You would think as much as I egocentrically blog I would have already figured out that reflective practice. I suppose I may have to some extent here or there, but never had I written it down in one place before. So, here I go, in as few words as I can manage ...

Why I Game
  1. To escape into a world of my imagination, most commonly a fantasy world with mystery, wonder and just enough magic to keep things, well, magical.
  2. Inside that world to be surprised with a sense of wonder with the things others say and do that are totally unexpected, as much as the things and places we encounter therein. And to experience a story live and "in person".
  3. To see and feel that this world is, while filled with wonder and occasionally miraculous magics, that it can feel as normal and real as the here and now and that the characters we play therein could just as well be me and my friends--not uber-powered alien-like superbeings I have no hope of ever understanding, let alone empathizing with--but "believable" if you will. Verisimilitude is important.
  4. To journey, to quest, to adventure as a part of my escape, whether as a player or, even more preferably, as dungeon master watching a group quest and journey through dangers almost insurmountable, experiencing profound challenge, danger, thrills and occasionally even death to eventually become heroes! Not undefeatable superbeings, but men and women who through courage and wit have accomplished great things.
  5. The above point is so important that it bears further elucidation. I believe that there should exist a healthy tension between players and GM and even at times between players exactly because the game is adversarial as well as cooperative. The challenge level should be high, but manageable by wise and savvy players who play the game with an eye to the reality of the dangers such a world presents. To a certain degree we do not cater to players, we present them with a very real and very dangerous world in which to adventure and face the challenges which eventually bring fame and the status of legend.
  6. To share in the real world camaraderie around these experiences with fellow players who become more than friends bound by our experiences and common reference of not only the game we play but a deep and imaginatively real experience within the world described above. And that this friendship transcends the bounds of the game, just as the experience of it does. And to with these people share thoughts, interests, dreams, challenges and accomplishments in the real world as well.
  7. I game to be adventure focused. I don't get off on endless jaunts through markets, negotiating to have your ideal armor built, wed bar wenches, or otherwise be silly or compensate for something you haven't been able to accomplish something that could have just as easily been done in the real world. These things inevitably happen in a campaign and can at times be fun, or even important to the ongoing nature of your character and the world they live in--but I am adventure oriented. Delving dungeons, exploring enchanted forests, recovering lost magic items, fulfilling quests, waging wars, investigating haunted ruins--these are the things we cannot do in our world--the very reason I play the game.
Not Why I Game
  1. To just "play a game". The best way to describe what this feels like is that I might as well be playing a hyped up game of chess, or that I could just as well be playing any other game and it wouldn't make a difference. I have to feel like if we didn't play this game the above reasons Why I Game couldn't be achieved. Tabletop roleplaying games are not they same thing as CCGs, board games or video games to me--not to be overly dramatic, but they mean something much more to me.
  2. To cater to over the compensation mechanism than often afflicts uber-gamers and power gamers; to create a PC so, video-gamized, so super-heroed, so powerful that no challenge can stand before him. I found no thrill and or challenge in this style of gaming. I do not game to min-max or power game. Customizing a PC is very different however, and something I am all in favor of. 
  3. Something else that greatly disturbs verisimilitude for me and becomes a different kind of game than I am interested in playing is when the characters themselves possess so many innate powers and abilities that I have no hope of ever identifying with them as real or connected to me in any way. Flinging powers left and right and executing super hero like maneuvers is for a Champions or GURPS Supers game, not for my kind of fantasy tabletop gaming. Now this kind of gaming does not have to be "power-gaming" per se--although such options are often worked into the system. This style of gaming can present similarly "powered-up" foes--but it is just not what I dream about when I dream of a fantasy world. Such types of super-magical combat should occur very, very rarely if at all in my type of fantasy world--think Gandalf in LotR--barely every cast a spell.
  4. While it's a fine line, because I innately believe in the importance of presenting serious challenges to players in games, I do not game to cater to my own ego or the ego of others. Of course there will exist a certain tension between DM and players and a level of competition even at times between players, that I wholly embrace and feel is appropriate--I am not into cocky, self absorbed know-it-alls or bullies. Which, unfortunately can exist in any sort of game regardless of rule-sets. I find that sometimes there are "jocks" and "thugs" that game that carry that attitude into their gaming. I have little use for these types--and they are often the ones that ones that conduct an elitist sort of gaming environment and exclude others simply because they look "too geeky". I have no use for that or catering to that.
  5. I do not game to "feel good". Which of course requires some explanation. Gaming is not a time to get together and get all warm and fuzzy with each other, rubbing each others backs, and giving people things to make them feel good about themselves. This is not all warm milk and pretty roses. Sure there will be those occasionally along the way--just like in real life. But also as in real life, those things are few and far between and usually come after much toil, struggle and strife. This kind of "Monty Hall" gaming was common in my youth among some players I never really expected where DMs just wanted people to like them, and so handed out +10 Holy Avengers like they were candy, artifacts like they grew on trees and god-like powers were for the asking. Character death was never permanent and anything really "bad" was just a dream. If you want to "feel good" go watch a Saturday afternoon special, don't crowd my gaming table--you're just gonna get yourself or others killed.
...

Is this sufficient? Probably so. What does it say about my preferred game? I'm not sure. I'll have to give it some more thought. As Pooh so often says ...