Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Weird Pete Makes Me Want to Play Hackmaster

Weird Pete, Owner & Proprietor of the Games Pit
And Grognard Extraordinaire

 And to a certain degree Crazy Eddie does too ...

Eddie's the one behind the counter

In case you haven't yet figured it out, I'm referring to the best comic book of all time, Knights of the Dinner Table. Specifically the most recent issue, number 278. Without giving away too much I want to share two sections of dialogue. Admittedly the dialogue alone doesn't do it justice, you really have to go and buy the zine, but you'll get the idea once I share Pete's rant. 

So Pete runs the friendly local game shop in Muncie Indiana, although some might argue with the label of "friendly" where Pete is concerned. I personally love Pete's shop because it reminds me so much of my hole in the wall FLGS growing up Austin Books, Comics & Games. And the guy who was behind the counter could have passed as a double for Pete, short, chubby, bearded and always yelling at me and my friends to quit pawing product if we weren't going to buy it. Anyway, as issue 278 opens Pete is in the shop when a millennial type comes up wanting to purchase a new game. Pete tries to warn him off it as an inferior game, "At the end of the day it's still a turd son." But the kid isn't having it, this is his game and he wants Pete to ring him up. That's when the fun begins...

Pete: Ho'kay -- you're money. But hey -- If ya ever find you're ready for the training wheels to come off ... come back and see me. I also sell real games, like Hackmaster -- Haar.

At the mention of Hackmaster the kid turns up his nose and scoffs. Nitro Ferguson, hard rolling HM GM, asks the kid why, to which the kid responds:

Millennial: My friends and I actually like playing when we sit down at the table. And having fun. Not dying all the time. And not spending entire sessions rolling up new characters--which can take two hours!

Pete: Oooooh ... I see. Well, I apologize junior. My bad -- I mistook you for an actual gamer. You know -- one who appreciates real risk and a challenge when it comes to high fantasy, but hey you have a nice day! Enjoy your connect the dots gaming experience.

Millennial: "Connect the dots" ... What's that supposed to mean? My adventures are full of risk and challenge.

Pete: Are they really tho ... ? I mean come on ... Where's the risk in a game where death is so frickin hard to come by ... ? I mean geezus -- you really gotta try hard. I sat in a demo once -- I kept trying to suicide my character. It couldn't be done. The GM dispensed healing like bar nuts at a bikini bar. In the end -- I told 'im I had to take a leak. Left the table and never came back.

At this point Nitro knows Pete is getting up head of steam up for a rant and gently tries to warn him off a bit, but there's no stopping Pete now, and his grognard momentum is full steam ahead.

Pete: Oh...? tell me I’m wrong, Victor! (Victor is Nitro's real name) The problem with all these new fangled ass games and rules systems...? They love to coddle the players. It’s like they took fantasy role play ... and put a bicycle helmet on it. Gawd forbid anyone should have to think, be challenged or have any virtual skin in the game. Or, “BOO HOO” — have to roll up a new character. Cry me a river! I tell ya — it really grinds my gears. to see what’s happening to our hobby. And don’t think  Hackmaster is immune. No sir. I see this mamby pamby “kinder gentler” pablum of mediocrity worming its way in!! Ya know — there was actually an article in the latest issue of Hack Journal that was entitled... “Finding Solutions Without Resorting to Combat” I kid you not!!! I’m tellin’ ya — the whiners and complainers really annoy me ... claiming the “old style” of play was somehow wrong or inferior. Heh — we played hard by gawd — coz most anything could kill ya. We’re talkin’ edge of your seat adventures — tappin’ the floors with a ten foot pole ...lookin’ up — lookin’ down. Never knowing what was gonna do you in! And if you died? - you choked back the tears, pulled out a new sheet!! And went at it again. Now that was roleplayin’ Gawdammit!! It took us a dozen runs at the Temple of Unspeakable Evil. We lost 36 player characters. and we didn’t quit, whine or complain about it either. Death meant something. Coz without it — there aren’t any heroes. Somebody fired an arrow at yer buddy — you took it for him. Coz that’s just how ... hey — where’d the kid go?

By this time the millennial has left (with good reason obviously) and Nitro and Patty (another Hackmaster GM) has come in an realized Pete is ranting on without anyone there to rant at. 

Oh my gosh when I read those first few panels I was dying laughing and eating it up at the same time. I mean, look, I know KODT is about satire, and in a way they are satirizing players like me. I mean how much of Pete's complaints have been topics of my very recent posts!? This is as real as it gets. But we shouldn't be surprised, because KODT has had their satirical finger on the pulse of gaming reality for over three decades now. Pete was able to more effectively say what I've been saying in my long winded diatribes and more humorously too. We love you Pete. 

So, a little further in we find out that Crazy Eddie used to be called The Thrasher -- Butcher of PCs!! Back in the crew's Junior High days he had the highest TPK percentage of all GMs in their circle. They called him "dick-GM" -- "behind his back of course" HAHAHAHA! You just can't make this stuff up! Because even though the KODT writers are making it up, it is based almost totally on reality! I so identified with Eddie at that moment I about wet myself laughing! I started playing AD&D in Junior High School, and and a DM I killed so many characters, it's amazing my friends still wanted to play with me--just like Eddie evidently. Eddie does not GM in the Knights, just plays and he is so meek and mild you just would never figure him on being a killer GM, and I won't give nay more spoilers about how this fits into the storyline. I mellowed of course, but I also learned the game better, and began to understand the role of adversary as a GM, not assassinator. Truthfully I never set out to kill NPCs like Eddie evidently might have, but I've written on this very forum about those days and how death was a baptism almost all early players and GMs passed through multiple times. And I'm not the only one, as the comment made recently by Dave that he was on Sparrowhark the XXIII before he ever reached second level. 

Anyway, these portions of issue 278 truly warmed my heart and fired me up. And truthfully made me want to play Hackmaster more than ever. Way to go Jolly and the the KCo team. Love the work you are doing.

A Tribute to GURPS

 NOTE: This post was written some time ago during my "search for the perfect game" period. I found it recently, re-read it and realized it reveals several truths about my search and I believe search for the old school generally. So, even though some of it doesn't apply today, I offer you a walk down my memory lane and what amounts to a personal tribute to GURPS.

After a prolonged period of self reflection and gaming analysis, brought on by a particularly bad gaming year and the advent of the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, I may have found my new game of choice: Steve Jackson's infamous RPG, GURPS. I'm sure some of my readers will no doubt wonder why, or at least be curious as to my reasoning. And even if you aren't, I feel it necessary to defend my choice, given all that I have written over the lifetime of my blog.

Steve Jackson Games is one of the longest running role playing game companies in existence. Next to Chaosium (RuneQuest, and Call of Cthulhu), Palladium ((Rifts) and Flying Buffalo Games (Tunnels and Trolls) SJG has shown a dedication to the ideals of gaming beyond about any other company I can think of. I am so tired of being let down by companies trading hands, going out of business and discontinuing lines that support my gaming. Yes, I could continue playing them even if the company or line was sold or discontinued. But as I have made clear in numerous previous posts—I want an actively supported line, by a reliably supportive company of GAMERS.

SJG has stayed true to their flagship RPG. Though GURPS has grown immensely over the years, with the biggest changes being their 3rd edition line, and their biggest consolidation 4th, GURPS itself has remained basically unchanged. I don't expect SJG to radically change the game in the future either. Will their be a 5th edition? Undoubtedly—but it will still be GURPS, not some unrecognizable simulacra thereof.

I have learned that I prefer a game that allows for unlimited flexibility and creativity. This has been discovered in my love for systems like the original Dungeons & Dragons game, Swords & Wizardry, Castles & Crusades and the like. GURPS is the ultimate creators toolkit.

But I have also realized that I love a level of detail and crunch in a system through games like Hackmaster, Rifts and even the good times I had in 3.5 and 4e. The problem of course is that such games can become restrictive and can feel too confining. However GURPS allows the best of both worlds. I can create anything and have the mechanics it back it up.

And I have to admit, I like a dangerous world in which death is a constant presence. I don't like having games where the fantasy is carried to such an extreme that death is rarely possible. Unless of course that is a basic assumption of the game such as in supers. GURPS can accomplish both ends of these extremes, but it's core game is one where death is a realistic presence. In other words you don't generally have much HP in GURPS. Combat must be entered into with caution and strategy in mind.

Which leads me to my sixth reason—realism. The main reason I participate in role playing games is for communal escape. A fantastic based escape into the worlds of imagination. Especially those that allow for adventure beyond what we normally encounter in our everyday lives. However, I am also of a very rational mind—even though my imagination often carries my thoughts into Ultima Thule and beyond, my logical mind expects a level of reason and reality to my fantasy. The realistic foundation upon which GURPS is based appeals to my desires for a “realistic” fantasy. I have often dreamed of what it would be like if I passed through a magical gateway into the fantasy realms I dream of. Would I survive? What would it be like? GURPS is based on real world physics in this sense.

My appeal for Hackmaster is, I realize, partially generated by the gaming camaraderie of the Knights of the Dinner Table. But it is also preserved by the level of what I call the old school ethos within the game. This ethos is partially captured by the GM vs player mentality so prevalent in the comic and to a lesser degree in the game's rules themselves. But the structure of the game does this via a number of very real mechanics. First is the player optimization potential within the game. Via point buy options, ability manipulation, advantages, disadvantages, quirks, perks, skills, powers and the like-- players are free to engage in free wheeling optimization and character creation potential thus creating the best PC possible with which to face the GM's challenges. But the structure of the system is also very realistic and deadly, incorporating criticals, hit location, and the like thus making challenges significant regardless of the players efforts at optimization. The whole effect is very much like Hackmaster in a completely unexpected way.

But this similarity is, upon further reflection quite logical. Hackmaster is a syncretic parody of two game systems—Dungeons & Dragons and GURPS. Even the fictional head of Hard Eight Enterprises Gary Jackson—attests to the fact that the two huge names in gaming at that time, Gary Gygax and Steve Jackson are preserved in his moniker. Essentially communicating that Hackmaster was preserving the ethos of a period of gaming when GURPS and D&D held sway over the gaming world.

And the personal connection here becomes even stronger. I grew up gaming in Austin, Texas. Without giving my home address let's just say that the HQ of Steve Jackson games was about 4 blocks from my childhood home. Just behind my Elementary School. I understand that SJG has now moved, but as a part of my youth SJG figured very prominently. In central Texas there really were only two systems at the time: D&D and GURPS. There were other fly by nighters, but those were the mainstays. I did play Car Wars and OGRE and admired Steve Jackson and his company highly, even if my main game was AD&D. I even had a friend in my church who was a game designer for them for a few years.

So when we talk old school, what are we really talking about? The old school ethos preserved in Hackmaster has it's roots in two gaming systems. Some might say that HM was really trying to preserve AD&D2e, with its proliferation of character options and game expansion. But much of the character and campaign options of 2e were rooted in other game systems. Especially those systems that had pursued a model of skill based PCs instead of the class based PCs upon which D&D was based for so long. It was an effort to bring these methods to players of D&D, likely with the idea of keeping all gamers within its fold. But this concept was pioneered by companies like SJG who sought to make a more realistic skill based game as an alternative to the predominant class based systems of the time.

Above and beyond considerations of my past, there is something else I've realized. My early gaming showed efforts to bring in other games & genres to my gaming group but that these efforts met with minimal or limited success. I have always had a penchant for science fiction, but it has been an itch I have rarely been able to scratch with an RPG. Lovecraftian horror has been my longest foray into other fields of gaming—but that is a love often enjoyed in private; but what little non D&D gaming I've done has been Call of Cthulhu.

The RPGS I've bought and or tried over the years: AD&D 1e, Gamma World, RuneQuest, Star Frontiers, GURPS, Top Secret, Traveler, Space Opera, Champions, Marvel Superheroes, HERO, AD&D 2e, Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun, D&D 3.5, D&D 4e, OSRIC, Hackmaster Basic, Pathfinder, Labyrinth Lord AEC

But of those only 1e, 4e, OSRIC & Pathfinder experienced play of any significant length. My reason for mentioning this here is to show that I have desires to play other games, experience other genres, especially science fiction and have been unable to fulfill that wish. Often the greatest barrier to playing a different genre is that it requires changing systems, learning an entirely new way to play. GURPS circumvents this by offering a single system for any genre you would wish to play.

All this being said there are of course issues with GURPS. I'm not fooling myself that GURPS is some kind of perfect game. In fact as I've discussed this with my brother, who has been very helpful btw. He has jokingly called this my search for the perfect game. In a way I suppose there's truth to that. But not in the sense that I think a perfect game exists. GURPS, has it's issues mechanically and stylistically. As does every game on the market. It is also a skill based PC creation system not a class based one—this will require adjustment on my part.

I've been immersed in D&D style gaming since my entry into the hobby. It's sort of in my gaming DNA as it were. I think my opinion of gaming has been colored to such a degree that I can no longer see clearly when it comes to RPGs. I tend to judge everything in terms of D&D. In part this is just because that is where my experience lies, but I can;t help but believe that it is also to make sure I don't lose what has gone before. Nothing but D&D will do, right? Well, to be short I feel it is time to get out of my D&D jeans as it were. Try on some new duds.

I also realize that given the nature of the variability of my gaming analyses, and opinions I am committed to sticking with the same system for at least two years. I would say one year, but my gaming cycle tends to  run in yearly intervals. And I do tend to change systems at more or less yearly intervals anyway. So I wanted to break my usual pattern and initiate a new era for me. My indecision tends to cause me to vacillate from system to system trying this and trying that in an effort to regain something that was lost.

Now, I've written numerous entries about the loss of an era in gaming. When TSR was sold an age changed. For the past 3 or 4 years I've been tooling around the OSR, sometimes at the edges, sometimes deep within it's search for the past. I've sampled the new, modern age as well; playing the latest iterations of the D&D legacy. The fact is I've been unable to find the world that was lost—but that may be because I've been locked into a D&D only mindset for so long I cannot see the forest for the trees. It may also be that what is the past is the past, and can never truly be regained. That it is time to look forwards in my gaming—not back.

Deciding to switch out of this mindset is really the only way out of the rut I've been in for some time now. Seeing this has helped me open my eyes to the fact that there has been an old school that I've been unable to see or at least to acknowledge as a possibility. As soon as I saw this I began to see GURPS and the gaming industry in a whole new light. Hence my points made at the start of this little essay.

And call it personal angst or grudge, but I couldn't help but feel like the D&D world has misplaced themselves due to the fact that the company has changed, the D&D world has changed and I resent that more than a little. It made me envious of those fans of gaming systems that still had their parent companies intact and were still producing their games. So I took a bit of a look around and realized that several lifetime companies (by that I mean in my gaming lifetime) are still up and running, doing their thing much to the happiness of their fans and supporters.

Flying Buffalo Games preserves Tunnels & Trolls, which is evidently a great fantasy simulacra of early D&D (not quite but close). And tho' rich in tradition has never attracted me. Chaosium is probably the next oldest, and has put out a number of highly rated games. Unfortunately only Call of Cthulhu remains largely unchanged. Tho' Chaosium has synthesized their game systems into the BRP release. It is new, and remains to be seen if it has any staying power. But I gave Chaosium much thought as it does have a strong universal system, and creates probably my second most favorite game CoC. Palladium, like Flying Buffalo, inherits the D&D legacy through their Rifts line, largely built on the 1e framework. Though Kevin Siembieda has taken it far beyond what could still be called 1e. I am attracted to Rifts in strange and inexplicable ways. By all accounts it is a clunky, broken, overpowered system—but it still attracts me. However, it is a somewhat narrower system than GURPS in scope and still very close to the D&D Matrix. I need to unhook from the Matrix and see reality for what it really is.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

What is a Game?

 I made some bold assumptions in my last post. Namely that Fifth Edition might not be a game. That assertion certainly requires a further elucidation. So, if you'll allow me ... 

Generally game is defined as: "a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck."

In this sense, fifth edition might be considered a game even though the competitive element has been downplayed to a significant degree.

Game as a concept, however, is much more nuanced. Wittgenstein, the first to really philosophically take a crack at defining the idea, pointed out that the elements of most games, including play, competition and structure (or rules) are insufficient to capture the concept of "game", and indeed that the term cannot be so much defined as categorized by family resemblances. 

Wikipedia tell us that the philosopher Roger Callois took a crack at it nonetheless by defining the elements of a game as being,

    "fun: the activity is chosen for its light-hearted character

    separate: it is circumscribed in time and place

    uncertain: the outcome of the activity is unforeseeable

    non-productive: participation does not accomplish anything useful

    governed by rules: the activity has rules that are different from everyday life

    fictitious: it is accompanied by the awareness of a different reality"

Upon which account 5e could be said to possibly satisfy most of these elements fairly strongly except for the uncertainty. The uncertainty is there, to be sure, simply because players do not know the outcome of the story. But don't they? They know they'll almost assuredly make it through to the end, and ideally they will be the heroes once again. This ties directly into the whole death conversation of earlier, but I do suppose one could take out death as a possibility and retain some uncertainty. 

Game designer Chris Crawford (again the almighty Wikipedia) went into a little more depth and highlighted the idea of playing "against" someone. While he admits that having someone you play against is a conflict (or whom can interfere with you as a competition) he underlines the problem in considering algorithmic artificial intelligences "someone". Is such an entity an active participant working against you? For if not, then it is a puzzle, not a game. And given the uncertainty with whether D&D played in the default style of 5e satisfies Callois' idea of uncertainty this interference could be considered algorithmic in quality. If a player is "playing right" and the DM is "playing by the rules" then D&D is just a puzzle you figure out so that the story can come to its conclusion. Crawford's final definition of a game is an "interactive, goal-oriented activity ... with active agents to play against, in which players (including active agents) can interfere with each other." So, given that the only active agent for the players to play against is the DM then it is understood that D&D is players vs DM. At the least this brings into question the way many RPGs today are played being called games.

Clearly the topic is a deep one, as most things philosophers fret about are. And some contend that a clear definition still eludes us. This, later philosophers took issue with, and in fact have developed somewhat of a consensus around Bernard Suits' definition in Grasshopper, Games, Life and Utopia when he said games are, “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” I personally like that very much and tend to join in the consensus. I will not summarize the arguments here, but suffice it to say that Suits and those who commented upon his work have sufficiently analyzed this definition to adequately stand the philosophical test of durability. 

So, to answer the question of this blog post, "What is a Game?" 

A game is "the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles."

So, is 5e a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles. Well, in true philosopher fashion. I suppose that all depends on how you define obstacle. No, I won't go there. But I will offer a few questions for consideration. Are the obstacles in your game really obstacles? Is their defeat or their solution to them a forgone conclusion? Is the entire game a farce? And if we are going to say that it really doesn't matter. An obstacle is an obstacle. It doesn't stop being an obstacle just because I defeat it easily. It is an obstruction placed in the way of the story being completed. The fact that I will inevitably overcome it doesn't not make it an obstacle. 

Very well. I will concede that. We could argue all day about whether an obstacle easily overcome is an obstacle at all, let's just say it is an obstacle. Does overcoming such an obstacle really satisfy? If the forgone conclusion is that it really doesn't challenge you, it just slows you down ... Well, friends all I can say to that is I have better things to do with my time. Better games to play.