Sunday, July 12, 2015

Hackmaster Combat A Review

Overall Impressions
So I'm using a four star system from * (1) to **** (4) Stars to rate the combat system where one star is the lowest rating and four stars is the highest. I broke my analysis into a total of 5 areas. My opinions for ratings were as follows:
Ease of Play: ***
Speed of Play: ***
Realism: ****
Fun: ****
Old School Sensibility: ****

Please keep in mind, I'm just rating my first impression of combat, not the game overall. I love Hackmaster overall and would likely have to give it five out of four stars overall.


So we playtested a short Hackmaster combat scenario tonight for game night. We used the pregens from the Hackmaster Basic, which you can download for free from their site. I had planned on a short combat with four kobolds. The party would have chased them into their lair, after which the kobolds turn and attack them straightaway, nothing fancy. However, I wasn't sure if we would have more time or not, so I tacked this encounter onto The Training Dungeon to create a more complete scenario and throw in some work for skills and such in addition to a little combat.

Summary of Play

Two Clerics, one Thief, One Mage and a Dwarven Fighter were selected from the pre-gens for play. We started as the characters rushed into the kobolds' lair and the kobolds turned to face them, cornered and slavering for a fight to the death. We rolled d12 initiative all around, except for the thief who rolled a d10. (I made a mistake here, as the thief doesn't get an improved initiative die until 2nd level and higher.)  The count up went well, but I also forgot that characters can move each round, so we had to rewind once and speed up engagement. With the per second move engagement doesn't take very long. The dual attack defense roll was cool actually. I wondered how that would feel, but it adds a dimension to combat that increases excitement, unpredictability and realism that I didn't expect. I did make a mistake with my short sword wielding kobolds as I was rolling 1d6p instead of 2d6p so I wasn't doing much damage the first few hits--thankfully the party thief reminded me--bless his soul. One spell was cast by the party mage--scorch, which TOP'ed the kobolds, but also did so to the Thief caught in the blast radius. The Mage chose to up the spell power since this was a one off encounter which increased the damage considerably. One Cleric and the Mage finished off the TOP'ed kobolds, while the Dwarf took out the third kobold with a well placed and penetrating battleaxe hit. The last Cleric had taken about seven hit points total, and was eventually rescued by the first Cleric who came to back her up and took out the last kobold with a penetrating sword blow. Thus ending the combat. Total elapsed time was roughly 48 minutes. Not bad considering we had to look up some rules and rewind once or twice.

Rules Questions

As we played several questions arose, which we tabled. We made a quick ruling, wrote them down and would look them up after the game. The questions we weren't sure about, the off the cuff rulings we made on them and the by the book answers are as follows:

1. Do shields absorb even on hits, or only on misses?

Ruling: I explained that misses within 10 were still shield hits. The question came up as to whether shields always absorb hits? We ruled they do, and went on.

Rule: I was wrong. But it worked in favor of the players with shields most of the time, as my monsters didn't have shields. Shields allow you better than d20p-4 defense roll but if the defense roll minus the attacker's roll < 10 then it is a shield hit. Shield hits take half damage dice plus modifiers, with the shield absorbing its DR value. Successful attack rolls (rolls that beat the defender's roll) bypass shields, do normal damage and do not apply shield DR, only armor et al DR (pp 224-225 PHB).

2. When entering to engage an already engaged foe, you attack immediately upon engaging--does the
defender always get an immediate counter attack, or response?

Ruling: Yes, except when from rear or rear flank.

Rule: I was wrong. Only the new attacker gets the initial attack. The previously engaged defender "forfeits his initial attack against his attacker because he's still dealing with the attacks and feints of his current enemy" (pp 223-224 PHB).

3. And if the above is the case does combat facing make a difference? In other words does a defender get an automatic attack response if they are attacked from a flank or behind?

Ruling: No response attacks were allowed when from rear flank or behind.

Rule: based on the above this was correct, but it should have applied in all cases with a previously engaged foe. Note though, as we did when I looked this up that rear flanks and behind use d12p and d8p for defense rolls (p 230 PHB).

4.  When attacking a helpless foe do you still use weapon speed?

Ruling: no weapon speed applied to attacking helpless opponents

Rule: I was close. Use half weapon speed rounded up when attacking a helpless opponent (p 236 PHB).

5. We found out that penetration can be awesome and it can be very deadly. Is there any limit to penetration?

Ruling: This was a casual question, to which I quickly replied no. However, I then questioned myself and not being sure I filed it to look up later.

Rule: There is no limit to how many times penetration dice are rolled as long as the maximum value keep coming up on the die. The record for the session was four times I believe on a 2d6p roll. We did however make the mistake of not subtracting one from the value when we added them (p 8 PHB).

Summary of Indicators

So, overall we got a good taste of the rules applicable to combat, and those we didn't know exactly we sort of rolled with; which caused very little in the way of interference and no insolvable dilemmas. As for the ratings I issued above my take is as follows:

Ease of Play: Hackmaster is not rules light, however, there are other games that are more complex and crunchy. I would rate it as challenging for newbies to GM, but moderate for players who haven;t played before. I worried myself to death over it actually, as I really wanted to run it "as written" but it turned out being quite easy and intuitive to GM. My players complimented me on keeping track of the initiative count up, which I simply did in my head fairly easily. But I made a couple of mistakes which were quickly resolved. However, I am an experienced GM, so that made it a bit more comfortable for me, and the fellow players at my table were almost all experienced players as well--that undoubtedly helped. And while it isn't as easy as Original or Classic D&D, it is certainly not any more difficult than AD&D and actually more consistent and well written. So I gave it a solid 3 stars for Ease of Play.

Speed of Play: We were about 40 minutes for our combat. And keep in mind this was our first combat in which we had to struggle through a bit of book flipping to clarify rules. We started around 4:45 or so. Game start time was 4:30, but we got there late (I forgot the address :-) and got the table set up, PC's chosen and rolled initiative around 4:50. We stopped at 5:28. Not bad really. Once we know the rules, I would imagine it runs roughly comparable to AD&D RAW combat. Now, D&D combat can go quicker at lower levels especially, but I would rate the two similar. Not lightning fast, but pretty quick. And the pace itself is lightning fast, due to the by second action and initiative count up. Seeing as I would rate 4e at around one to one and a half stars for speed of combat, and Basic D&D at a four, HM comes in at a solid three.

Realism: For realism, HM knocks it out of the park. I mean it isn't totally simulationist, but compared to what I am used to, you have a pretty gritty and scary feel of how dangerous combat is. You cringe when somebody hits you--even when you know you still like 25 HP. ToP, armor reduction, shields, active defense rolls all lend a certain level of realism without getting in the way of play much at all. It makes combat much less abstract than AD&D without slowing play to a slo-mo ballet. It is one of the most realistic combat in a fantasy game I have ever played. Granted I never played Rolemaster, but those I know who did didn't seem to like it too much. I enjoyed HM combat. Can;t but give it complete four stars on this one!

Fun: Oh heck, can I give it five stars? No, I'll stay within my own system and fill these four stars to overfilling. I have had fun combats before, but this was the first time that the rules of combat made a game fun to play. All that is happening, the suspense and intensity was not like anything I had experienced before as a GM. I've always struggled in more free form games to make sure a combat is challenging, but not too deadly and end up just sort of getting a feel for it, and winging it. Nothing wrong with this of course, But the bodies that littered my dungeon floors always carried with them the slight stink of doubt. I wondered, had I been too rough, too hard, too many, etc. etc. HM combat is engineered in such a streamlined way as to reflect , to my mind anyway, the actual danger of combat. I don't have to reach too far out of the way. The dice fall where they may in the context of the system and consequences result; and those results are not just hit or miss, they are surprising, scary, thrilling and well--just plain fun. I loved it.

Old School Sensibility: Okay, I struggled with this one. HM is old school. It takes as it's inspiration AD&D from the 80's to about '00. But the designers dug deep into what they loved about old school and write a rule set that highlighted those aspects of play. Lots of things which were introduced into the late '80s and through to today in terms of character customization, options, combat focus, high starting hit points, tweaking ability scores and all that without losing the extreme deadly feel that pervaded old school gaming. This, of course, began in HM 4 (the first version), but was done in a classic sort of "broken" style. Advanced HM is something else entirely. I mean it has enough to satisfy the most character focused players (those that have flocked to 4e, Pathfinder and now 5e) to customize, tailor and optimize your character to your heart's content. But it has done so in a way that is directly applicable to realistic game play. One of the conversations that came up after our session was by the player who had played the Mage. He had chosen to cast a scorch spell that incapacitated two of the kobolds (but also happened to traumatize the party's thief). Since both were out of commission he then was not engaged and so stepped up to the first fallen kobold to attack it while it lay there helplessly writhing in pain and desperately trying to put out it's burning loincloth. He hit it once, ineffectively, but then smashed it into lizard-dog pate' the next second with his second blow. He thought his luck seemed a little excessive, like he did too much during the fight where one or two others were locked in a back and forth melee. As we talked though, we thought that a lot of HM is understanding the reality of combat and using strategy both in weapon, armor, spell selection and the like in addition to your action choices in combat. (Of course it turned out that I had ruled incorrectly on weapon speed with helpless opponents and he should have waited like 5 seconds (his weapon speed) before attacking the fallen kobold a second time). But this very fact--that making and customizing your character with an eye not towards becoming some sort of superman, but of becoming a better more efficient more deadly fighter, a more effective and strategic mage, a more useful and sneaky thief--in short of dealing with the real world in a real way. It has an amazing appeal to me that few other games have ever captured. It in fact is what I have wanted from so many rules light games, but had to enforce simply by dint of DM fiat. "It's hard because I say it is!" Instead of a ruleset that captures the world I want to play in within it's own ruleset. For these reasons, I give Hackmaster a full four stars here as well. I didn't really expect to, truth to tell. I mean there are old school games with more crunch than say OD&D. So rules alone doesn't make or break old school. It's really int he way they play. I expected the apparent complexity of the rules to get in the way of me achieving the style of play I like. I was beginning to think that old school might only be rules light for me. I am so glad my group agreed to test HM out. It was something I always "felt" playing the game, but really wanted to experience before I judged. The experience made a convert of me. And better yet, I always wanted a game where the rules themselves enforced the feel and the tone, not just my "preferences" which could be taken by anyone who chose to as "biased". With HM it's not just "my way of playing" it's the way the game is played. Old School? Yes! Full Bore! My kind of old school in a way I never could have hoped for.


I recall reading once, in a forum online, as a HM advocate was trying to explain HM combat to an interested third party. The querent was concerned that the combat seemed bulky and too crunchy, maybe it would run too slow. After testifying that these weren't really valid concerns, because x, y and etc. The advocate finally said, you'd just have to try it to understand what I mean. I have a lot of sympathy for both of these gamers. I too had concerns of exactly the same nature. I suppose those who have a high degree of game design mindset can see how a rule will play within a game, most of the rest of us actually have to get down into it and roll some dice and playtest the thing. That's what it ultimately took for me. It even scares me that I almost bowed out of trying HM at all with my new group because I was worried about those very issues. Fortunately the gamers in my group are good people and open minded. It didn't hurt either that they had quite a bit of interest, had downloaded the free rules, read the 4e rules and really wanted to give it a go. What it took for me, a convert in every way but reality, to truly become impressed with HM completely and totally. This review was about  HM combat, but that was as much for me as for any other reason. I just hope now that I put this out there, others who might have similar concerns can read this and have some of their fears assuaged. Download the basic rules and give HM a test drive--you will not be displeased. On the contrary, you will find just about every gamer nerve in your system very well pleased.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Game Night!

So, amidst all of my philosophical blatherings I thought I would take a minute and let you know what else I am up to. It's summer of course, which means I am not at school fulfilling my adventurous role as vice principal. I have one college class this summer, and am 3 credits and my thesis away from finishing my masters. That will be nice to have out of the way! I work as a biological field technician during the summer for a mosquito control district, but that's actually quite a nice break from the normal school year for me. I was contacted by a gamer new to the area who was interested in getting a game going. So, I figured my schedule was good enough now to at least allow me a game night every other week, This is our second meeting, but our GM is unavailable tonight due to some things that came up at work.

We decided last week after some deliberation to let our newest addition GM. He is most comfortable with Pathfinder, and was more than willing to give it a go. So we decided we would start with PF as the quickest route to move ahead. My schedule is still not free enough to allow me to do justice to running a campaign right now, but my masters program is almost over and that will free me up considerably. We are finalizing our PF characters and going to run through the Curse of the Crimson Throne. After that we may shift gears to another more preferred system.

There is some interest in Hackmaster among several us, but we are all a tad intimidated by it. So since our regular GM is out tonight, we are planning on running a HM playtest session. I'll GM the Training Dungeon, which is a free download from the Kenzerco which we'll play with the HM PreGens that come with the Basic Download. Personally I want to get a feel for HM combat and see if it is something I am comfortable with. But I am also interested to playtest a 5e / D&D Next session, as my brother is playing it and feels like it has some old school feel to it. We'll see. The plus for both of these, in fact PF too is that the basic system or SRD is available online. Not to digress too much back into my running essay on "my" game--that's a big plus for any game you're going to regularly play.

So we'll see how HM and maybe 5e shakes out. But I'm sort of thinking as far as my DMing goes, I'm going to settle into a system (as referenced in my recent posts) and start creating my own campaign and writing my adventures for that system. And if I DM I will choose to run that before anything else. Of course, gaming is gaming and gaming friends and the stories we tell make the fun. I have had fun with just about every system I've played in, yes even 4e for quite some time. But we all have our druthers, our gaming "home" if you will and that is what my other posts have been about. My children are also involved in a sporadic game I GM when their cousins come over. We play generally Castles & Crusades in that game, as it is easy to grasp and comfortable for me. We have run a modified C&C adventure called Dark Journey which I have modified to include a Chronomancer. We which led to the DCC adventure Doom of the Savage Kings. We play that about the equivalent of once a month--the next session of which should run mid August.

So, yeah :-) Gaming continues! I am very excited to have a regular group which I can commit to now. I sure have appreciated their patience with me and my crazy schedule! I'll post a review of our experience with Hackmaster combat maybe tomorrow after I finish homework. So that's what this Hobbit Magic User has been up to of late. Hope your gaming is going well too.

Old School Sensibility

Sensibility: the kinds of feelings that you have when you hear, see, read, or think about something (Merriam Webster)

Old School Sensibility: the kinds of feelings that you have when you hear, see, read, or think about old school role playing

To continue the train of thought in my last post, I want a light, fast and flexible game that has the old school sensibility that I prefer. Though I may be in love with a particular ethos, theme or tone expressed in a game, that doesn't necessarily mean that it allows me to play in the story oriented, rules light way I am used to and particularly enjoy. That was sort of where I left off with my last entry. 

In the past couple of entries, as I've been through this journey of reflection, I have walked through the fact, that though I loved AD&D, I never really played it like 1e was written. The more I looked at it the more I realized I played it sort of like a modified Original/Classic Version of D&D. As a bit of an aside, the versions of D&D that are of interest to me are sort of considered as:

"Original" Dungeons & Dragons = The 3 little brown books
"Classic" Dungeons & Dragons = Holmes / Moldvay / Cook
"Advanced" Dungeons & Dragons circa '77

But there was a middle ground between Original and Classic that approached Advanced, but wasn't exactly the revised Advanced that Gary re-wrote and began publishing in 1977 or so. The Original version included the supplements Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldritch Wizardry, Gods Demi-Gods & Heroes, and Swords & Spells. The very supplements that would supply the bulk of the expansion that would become Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. But long before that they were played in the Original manner. 

Dr.  Holmes would write the "Basic" set as a streamlining of the original rules, so that those who wished could continue to play the Original rules--but these, though written more cohesively, were limited in scope and would not include the supplemental material in any significant sense. Later, Moldvay & Cook would expand Holmes' offerings slightly, retaining the spirit of the three little brown books, but still not much of the supplemental material.

Advanced D&D would be a notable departure from much of the Original Edition, with the addition of numerous rules that defined a version of the game similar to, but developed from the Original Rules plus the supplements. It is a game vast in scope, and deeply rooted in the worlds of Greyhawk and to a lesser extent Blackmoor. This would also be a departure from the spirit of the Original three in the sense that Gary, Dave and the other early contributors were encouraging players and DMs to do their own designing. The point was to take the outline of the rules and run with them in your own direction. Advanced D&D, of course, retained the idea--but had been heavily influenced by the home campaigns of Arneson and Gygax. Spell names, magic items and the like not only flavored the Advanced game but influenced the development of the ruleset to some degree. This was not entirely new, of course, as the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements had already begun to do so as a separate option to the Original rules. But Advanced D&D was not to be seen so much as a suggested beginning for play, but as the definitive set of rules to be used without significant deviation.

So, what do I recall playing? Well, that's an interesting question actually. I never really thought of it before; but to explain my theory fully I have to go back to the beginning of my introduction to gaming.

As I explain in previous posts, I was introduced to gaming in 1981 at my first Boy Scout meeting at my local church. The guys who were playing were about a year and a half older than me. They were almost 14, I had just turned twelve. The books they were using were AD&D books. Those were the books we used to develop characters. They never let me look at the Monster Manual or Dungeon Master's Guide; those were off limits and I would have to wait until I bought them for myself before I accessed that hidden knowledge. However, it didn't matter much as they were a resource at best--only referred to casually when we needed to know a modifier or some such. Our play was highly improvisational, and story driven. We mostly played at Scouts, or on camp outs, but occasionally at guys' houses. I distinctly recall being at one fellow's house and seeing his collection of gaming books. There on his shelf was a small beige box labelled Dungeons and Dragons. I recall asking about it, to which he replied, that taking the box off the shelf, that these were the the first rules of the game put out a long time ago (a long time ago relative to our ages--this was 1981 or 2). He showed me the original books and one or two supplement books (I can't recall which) and explained with reverence that this was the way it was originally played, the way he was taught to play by guys at the high school; but, he continued matter of factly putting the books back, we used the advanced version now. His tone was obviously one betraying the clear superiority of the large hard back books we used. 

That's the memory. And I never thought much about it, but as I consider the way I was taught to play the game, the way I taught others to play the game I believe it has significant relevance. It is my belief now that those early gaming mentors were playing a version of the Original Game with some advanced supplemental material. We used race as separate from class, advanced hit die, saves, alignment, weapon damage and the like but the game itself was a very simple approach to play. It was that very free form creative space between the Original Game and the Advanced Game that could for all intents and purposes be called Edition "Zero Point Five" (0.5).  Not quite Advanced D&D "by the book" as it were, but a definite extension of the Original Edition incorporating much of the supplemental material. 

The significance of this, of course, is that it answers so many questions I have been asking myself for so long. Why can't I find the game I used to play? Why are so many newer games, or retros of past games dissatisfying to me? I'm not just looking for fast and light and flexible--lots of games provide that. I'm looking for that classic sweet spot between two editions. I am tempted to say that the edition I'm looking for doesn't exist as it replicates play similar to the Original Edition with the Advanced Books as a reference. It's not quite Original and it's not quite Advanced. 

However, I think some very viable options do exist. Games which were created to sit exactly in that sweet spot. And there is also another matter entirely that needs addressed; each of which I will take in turn in subsequent posts.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Tenkar Rules! The One True Edition

Over at Tenkar's Tavern he brought up a drunken gem, or drunkenly brought up a gem, that we gamers always love, or in many cases hate, to endlessly debate ...

The One Ring!

Or rather ...

The One Game!

Any way you debate it, the comparison is quite apt, as the prophecy says ...

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

Could just as easily be transformed to read ...

Three Games for New Wave-Gamers under the hobby shop lights,
Seven for the Strategy-Gamers before tables of minis,
Nine for Old School Grognards doomed to roll the die,
One for the Melancholy Nostalgist on his lonely throne
In the Land of the Past where the Memories lie.
One Game to rule them all, One Game to find them,
One Game to bring them all and in the FLGS bind them
In the Land of the Past where the Memories lie.

I am not foolish enough to think that there is one game for all the gamers out there these days. The very reason so many games dot the market today is because there are so many types of gamers. Talented gamers with a vision to share. Some out of necessity, some out of artistic desire, some out of nostalgia, some out of various what if scenarios and they are all marvels to behold. But it can make it harder than ever for a group to decide on what they want to play. If there is any one game, it would be for the gamer herself. What game do you prefer to play above all others. What is your go-to game?

As I consider the matter for myself, I would offer a brief retrospective of my own gaming life:

April 1981 -- I start with AD&D 1e and feel like it is the only and definitive game; but I never play the game as written--a very streamlined version with minimal attention paid to rules.

December 1981 -- I get the Basic & Expert Set for completion sake, thinking I should have read them before beginning AD&D. Only, I realize that they are very different, seem limited and I never actually play by these rules. I do use Basic and Expert modules however, with my AD&D games.

1982 -- In the Jr. High gaming club I realize there are different ways of playing the game. Neat, I think, but somehow wrong.

1983 -- Mt first Dragon Magazine subscription shows me a lot of the "weird" alternatives out there are actually alternatively sanctioned rules! I hesitantly allow some of it in my games.

1983 to 1985 or so -- It is clear there are lots other games out there. I play some Gamma World, Some Call of Cthulhu, Star Frontiers but by and large stick with AD&D. I also realize there are lots of AD&D supplements--Arduin's Grimoire, Judges Guild and the like. I use some of their stuff, but always in the context of my version of AD&D.

1987 -- I enter the Army and realize there are vastly different ways to play the game. Wow, maybe I was near sighted in my gaming.

1990 -- 1994 or so I see the first second edition stuff. At first I rebel. Then (in secret) I realize that some of it is pretty cool, even if THAC0 sucks. I pick up up some 2e stuff, but never run a strict "2e" game as it were--still playing my own streamlined version of 1e. My only "other" game is Call of Cthulhu at this point, but I play it rarely.

Here I would like to point out that I find it humorous I was such a purist about AD&D, but really I was playing a very "light" and "rules free" version of the game. We resorted to the books only when we were stumped on how to resolve a technicality.

1995 -- I drop out of the gaming scene, miss the rise of 3e and then 3.5. I travel, serve a mission for my church, get married, start my teaching career etc.

2004 to 2006 -- I am begged and ultimately, convinced to start the gaming club at the school where I teach. The kids are all playing 3.5. I buy all the 3.5 books, well not all, but lots. We play 3.5 at the start of the game club, reluctantly so for me, but I am convinced by others that this is the "better" game. I am convinced of the d20 concept as an improvement, though reluctant to admit it. 

2006 to 2007 -- I find out they are releasing 4e. Argh! I just bought all the 3.5e books! But I am psyched up by the WoTC adverts and also convinced that it has "fixed" all the problems. Problems I really didn't even comprehend. I mean 3.5 was different from AD&D, so maybge 4e would "fix" that?

2007 to 2008 -- I convince everyone to make the switch to 4e. We play an enthusiastic game for about a year. I start the blog! And I also discover the OSR movement online, which influences the title of my blog "Classic" RPG Realms--even though we are playing 4e.

2008 to 2009 -- I become seduced by the OSR. But not necessarily unwillingly. It is still hard for me to parse out how much the OSR caused my dissatisfaction with 4e, and how much was legitimate on my part. We were having lots of fun playing the Keep on the Shadowfell and though I kind of disliked the heavy use of minis, I was cruising along.  Then over time, but 2010 for sure I am dissatisfied with 4e. The focus on my blog shows this as well. I rediscover KODT and am excited about maybe playing Hackmaster 4e. Only to discover they are reinventing the game in 2009. I also hear about DCC RPG and think it might be my savior. 

2010 to 2012 -- We switch to OSRIC and play a two year OSRIC campaign. I become somewhat disillusioned with the differences between OSRIC and AD&D and fool myself that maybe I ever played AD&D by the book. We run into some angst over demi-human level limits. I am reading tons of other rules systems trying to decide what to play. There is no way for everyone to really play 1e without buying all the books used. I find out that 

2012 to 2013 -- I buy Castles & Crusades books for the club and we try that for a short time. I like the idea of the Siege mechanic, but it feels different in play. A group of Pathfinder players convinces us to play Pathfinder. It is successful for about a year or so, but I become disillusioned with the endless character options and optimization. I also am playing several one offs and short campaigns outside of the gaming club. I try various systems in these, but often default to C&C.

2014 plus -- By now I have read and bought most clones and retro variants on the market. They are all good in their way, but I see problems with all of them in one way or another. I had actually played:
  • AD&D 1e
  • AD&D 2e (mixed with 1e)
  • 3.5
  • 4e
  • Pathfinder
  • Labyrinth Lord + AEC
  • Castles & Crusades
2014 plus continued -- 5e comes out. I played it twice during the play test. I was not overwhelmed with awesomeness, but it plays relatively quick and light. Classes seem a bit overpowered. The actual release of the rules confirm that classes are more powerful at baseline than I am comfortable with, but the rules look okay.

Now, as I have mentioned recently, the fact is I never played AD&D with the "rules" so to speak. It was great, but I think I might be in love more with the memory of the time--with the nostalgia I feel about it--than the actual game. The game has become a symbol for me, a metaphor for something bigger than the rules contained in its pages.

The problem is that I am judging all other games by that standard. Only the standard I have before me is not the rules contained in AD&D, which have little to do with what I experienced back then. The other portion of that standard is the nostalgia I feel, that contains enough saudade within it that it will never actually be regained. Saudade, for those of you who don;t know, is a Portuguese word which means something like a deep inner longing for something that you know can never be regained. No game can ever give me that, because it can;t work as a time machine. However, a game can give me the light, fast, flexible old school sensibility to allow me to play like I prefer and to build new memories. 

That would be my One Ring. And I'm not sure it would even be one game, but maybe several that play like that. I have several ideas already that I'll write about next.

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.