Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Future of Gaming

Check out The Game Page IV. I've been writing some short, permanent reviews of The Big Three in the gaming world. No, it isn't about 4e or Pathfinder or even GURPS. This is The Big Three names in gaming that have preserved various aspects of the old school spirit and whose futures look exceptionally bright. I've mentioned them before, but it never hurts to do so again
  • Castles & Crusades
  • Hackmaster
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG
Of the three I've only played C&C. But I've read them all several times and am rereading them again. They each have their persnickety issues, but no deal breakers in my opinion. Heck every iteration of the game has had issues. So, to quickly "get over" the fidgetty things I'll quickly mention them here and explain why they aren't really significant.

C&C uses the the Seige Engine mechanic, which bases almost all checks in the game on attributes. Really it's the concept's brilliance that can be a pitfall. It is so intuitive, light and flexible PCs and DMs can overly rely on it. The fix here is easy. Focus on what C&C does best -- roleplay. The game is very much oriented in the imaginative aspect of play, the actual roleplaying itself. You should default to roleplaying anything you want to do by explaining it. Talk it out. Don't just do a check. In fact the rule for find/remove/set traps for rogues explicitly states that the player _must_ describe what they are doing in order to make a check. I think this can be more broadly applied as well. The beauty of C&C is in the imagination. Just read through their Codex of Erde. I have never seen a setting portrayed in this way; and its sales numbers are proof enough of its popularity. I'm currently re-reading the After Winter's Dark release exactly because I love the mythic background so much. If someone were to ask me what to play now that D&D has gone the way of the ghost I would recommend C&C in a heartbeat. Retro clone devotees pardon me but C&C _is_ the D&D of today.

Hackmaster is in transition. Keep that in mind here. First I should say I loved Hackmaster 4e. Well, I never actually played it, but I love the rules. They make me feel like I'm a kid again just finding AD&D for the first time. I also love the depth of the game rules-wise. Like AD&D few would be able to play with all this crunch in mind, but it's there to be used. HM 4e is two things at once. A min-maxers dream (not quite like GURPS, but close) and a brutal DMs playground. This game has enshrined DM vs Player, and you know how I feel about that. Sadly, HM4e is no more. But Kenzerco aren't dummies. They have begun building a potentially even more awesome game. Though the present rules set, HM Basic, is billed as an intro to Advanced Hackmaster, I wonder if HMb couldn't be looked at as an extended playtest. Things are still developing for AHM and the KCo forums are active with rules discussions on the new version. I foresee some changes that may address some of the snarly problems of HMb. But truthfully the persnickety thing here is also rooted in one of the games most admirable strengths. HM is deadly. And HM5e has been made even moreso. Combat is the bugaboo here, but KCo does smooth realistic combat well. Just check out Aces and 8's. The initiative count up is ingenious and much more indicative of how combat would actually play out. Lots less abstract than previous games, but not so detailed as to slow to a crawl. And surprise can eat your freaking lunch if you roll badly or aren't a thief. I foresee a bit of a change there in AHM. And ranged combat is complicated but _very_ realistic. Admittedly more organized rule presentation could make ranged fighting a bit easier to handle; but going abstract with ranged combat really strains verisimilitude. Just remember that HM is about deadly combats with more of a degree of realism than you may be used to. And keep an eye out for Advanced Hackmaster to see how things really shake down. Hackmaster is probably closer to my heart as a DM than any game out there, but I'm still holding out for the Advanced GMs Guide and PHB before I dedicate myself to a wholesale switch over. If the new Hacklopedia of Beasts is any indication we are in for a real treat. I'll be honest though, HM scares the poop out of most players I know. For me it's been hard to find players willing to take the plunge.

DCC RPG has fulfilled a dream of mine. For some time now I have been delving more deeply into Appendix N in the DMG. At first I was just looking for good reading. I have always enjoyed Lovecraft and Howard, but I was looking for things more connected to the early roots of gaming. Well, little did I know Joseph Goodman was doing the same thing. Only his purposes were more grand. He asked the question: "What if Gary and Dave had access to modern improvements in rules mechanics when they designed the game?" But he really goes deeper than that. What Joseph really sets out to do is to take a modern approach to rules lite gaming and create a game designed to emulate Appendix N style play. He goes back to the source and starts from scratch--almost. What we have here is very much like 0e/B/X concepts in a simplified d20 model placed in a setting that simply kicks rawkin butt! Joseph has built a beautiful weird fantasy RPG. If you believed that D&D was designed and inspired by Apendix N, as Gary claims, then read DCC RPG. Put simply it grips you by the gut and won't let go. In fact it twists. Now, DCC RPG is in open playtest right now, and the actual rules won't be released until November. So the little bugaboos will very likely be addressed in that release. The PC Funnel concept has turned some people off, and I'll admit there's some problems with 0 lvl nobodies upping to first level just like that (without any background); but it's a minor problem unless you are playing a demihuman. Since race is class, you all of a sudden gain racial abilities at 1st lvl you didn't have at 0 lvl. Small beans really, but it hangs some people up. Overall this game whets my dark side. I love the way magic is done, especially spell duels. I have already pre-ordered my November release copy and can't wait to try a game.

So why are these games the future of gaming? Well, put simply the majority hardcore gamers are in one of two camps right now. Either they are playing originals/retro clones and doing their own thing, or they are waiting to get their hobby back. It looks like WoTC is playing catch up now with their pretalk about 5e. And the direction they are heading these games have already been down, cleared a path and set up castles along the way. They are waaaay ahead of the design curve. And they are doing so in the real spirit of the game. They are giving gamers what they want, keeping what works and innovating where needed. Put simply the real innovation in design is coming from companies like Troll Lords, KenzerCo and Goodman Games. Yes, I left out Paizo. Paizo chose a path for themselves and they are doing pretty well. But they also limited themselves. In choosing to replicate 3.5 they are bottlenecked. They have to innovate. The last time they did so was with Adventure Paths and supplement subscriptions.

I mean let's face it. No matter what Grognards like me may say there have been a few things learned in the past 37 years or so. To not implement that wisdom is well ... just unwise. The trick is to do so without losing the spirit of the game. 4e failed to do that. These Big Three are in my opinion what the future of gaming looks like. And right now, the future's so bright I gotta wear shades.
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