Saturday, July 30, 2011

There is no Honor Among HackMasters

Actually there is. Lots of it. So let's examine this interesting little mechanic from the KCo design team. Gary Jackson touts Hackmaster as being ahead of its time because, for one, it was the first RPG to create a mechanic for enforcing role play. Quite a novel idea Honor was a concept that I see born out of the somewhat satirical approach to GM-Player antagonism for which Hackmaster is famous. (Actually you'll find quite a lot of useful play mechanisms born out of that very productive forge--but more on that later).

On its surface Honor may be taken strictly in the chivalric or oriental sense as something for which players must constantly be striving to maintain and raise. And it is certainly that. This is called Personal Honor in Hackmaster and can certainly create some interesting roleplay situations. But that is only a small part of the Honor pie. It goes much deeper than that.

First consider alignment. Remember those alignment tracking charts that Gary included in the 1e PHB for AD&D? Yeah, the one hardly anybody used? Well the reason that we didn't was that because there was little game effect connected to alignment beyond a coat hanger upon which we can droop our character's ethics. In truth what happened in most games, and certainly what happened in most of mine was that we enforced alignment by saying something like "Hey! You can't do that! your Neutral Good!" I think in my whole time gaming I forced one or two actual alignment shifts as a GM and even then that was only on one axis.

But with the Hackmaster Honor mechanic we get something very different. Sure, have your player do what he or she will regardless of your alignment restrictions. It is not up to the GM to act as your conscience. But there is a very real consequence for such action. Yes, good GMs are very tuned in to such actions and can play them out in game. We're all pretty good at that. But even the best of us drop the ball. I assert that it is much harder to ignore in HM because of Honor. You see it is up to the GM to award honor to PCs after every session. GMs keep track of player actions that might increase or decrease honor. And just like XP, altho' in much smaller quantity, you get Honor points at the end of a session.

And just what good are Honor Points may you ask? You may. They're darn good for lots of things. First of all they directly affect reputation in game. What people think of you and how they treat you is largely a factor of your honor. Yeah, looks and charisma have something to do with it too, but we've all known good looking arseholes and born leaders that you can't trust as far as you can spit. (No, I'm not thinking about who you're thinking about, I'm thinking about someone different.) Honor has a lot of gravitas in a well played Hackmaster game. But that's not all it's good for. Honor can be used to buy pluses on important die rolls. When the chips are down and your willing to burn a bit of your rep you can get a plus to that potentially lifesaving roll you're about to make.

Not enough yet? Well how about a Full Monty? Yep! You can buy a full re-roll if things don't go your way. It hurts. You gotta dig deep into your virtue to pull one of 'em out, but you can do it. You can even do it twice if you got the shivatza to pull it off. Not needing something that drastic? How about a die tweak up or down one by a slight honor burn? Sound good? Sure does to me.

By now you may be thinking that it sounds okay, but really do we need to be giving out free re-rolls? I mean isn't XP enough?  Well, no. It aint. And the reasons are manifold. For one allow me to quote some of the reasons from the HM Basic rulebook itself,

"Spending Honor helps bring an element of cinematic drama into the game and allows characters to do truly larger than life feats. Honor can also prevent the premature death of a character in which you've invested a lot of time." (Hackmaster Basic pg. 27)

Did you catch that? It's a mechanic that allows you to roleplay cinematic action! We don't need scripted feats to tell us what to do. We dream big, burn some honor and watch the heavens applaud! So Honor invests the game with high drama and action-movie style panache limited only by our imagination. And it does so not as a daily staple, but a once in a game explosive burst of player wondermousness. Any fool that spends too much honor trying to save the day all the time is going to look like an idiotic glory hound and lose his standing not only among his fellows, but likely even among the beasties he's trying to one-up. You can just see it ... One goblin turns to another "Heh, willya lookit that fool Harry? He's jumpin' in front of the battle agin' Yellin he'll save 'em all." Harry grins and cranks his crossbow back to cock it, "Yeah, stoopid idgit. we'll see how he like's saving 'em when he's full o poisoned bolts." The rest is a but a sad footnote in history ... Honor gone and his life. Oops.

But allow me to continue with another salient quote from the venerable Hackmaster Basic rulebook,

"Finally, the Honor rules absolutely eliminate the need for anyone, be he player or, so help me gawds, Game Master, to fudge a roll. Fudging, also known as cheating, has no place in a game that already has a mechanic designed to eliminate freak occurrences. If a player cannot succeed with the rules as-written, it is simply a matter of pressing his luck too far, biting off more than his character could chew at the time or moment, or more likely, incompetence." (ibid)

Now that's what I'm talking about. I don't know how many discussions I've had where GMs defend fudging die rolls for the sake of the story, the character, their friend, their wife, fear, inadequacy, etc. etc. ad nauseam. And more sniggling than that blatant embarrassment is how many players cheat! I mean, maybe I shouldn't judge. It's been a long time since I was a player. I'm sure I fudged a few die rolls when I was rolling up PCs in my youth. Maybe I have forgotten the pressure. But my last group of players all had at least one 18 some had three, and there were no stats below 14. And if I have to tell one more player to not pick up the dice after they roll I'm gonna ... Well, now there's no excuse. Honor allows you tweak those rolls, even buy re-rolls. So there's no need to cheat. Well, okay, where there are players there will always be a need to cheat. But as the HM rules said so well above, if they feel like they need to cheat now--they screwed up somewhere along the way. Lesson learned. Move on.

Sound good? It was music to my ears when I first read it last year. And it has such potential in game. As there are several ways to earn honor you can see why it has such potential beyond the benefit to characters themselves. You get Honor for:
  • Adherence to Alignment
  • Adherence to Class
  • Defense of Personal Honor
  • General Roleplaying
All in one easy to use and beneficial mechanic. Those are GM dreams. If we could get characters to actually roleplay, and to act as their character would act we would enjoy our games so much more. We could extend our games so much more. And now we have an easy and useful way to enforce it. And it works for everybody. It's these kinds of things that make Hackmaster excel in my mind. All of the things I've learned and wished for as a GM over the years seem to keep coming together in Hackmaster. The rules are not just rules, they're deep principles that guide play. So as you can imagine, I just can't wait to see Advanced Hackmaster.

Where's the Trail Strider?

The trail through my blog that is. I've been cruising around trying to tidy things up a bit and feel a little discombobulated. I'll be reorganizing some things today. It sort of goes with the idea that you can only do what you do well. I've been trying to keep up with the retro clone/variant market but it's a challenge to say the least. I've spent more time surfing than I have blogging lately. There is literally so _much_ out there.

For instance, Drance just let me know about the very excellent looking Crypts and Things. By D101 Games. It actually looks like it is going to offer quite a few fixes to what people are complaining about with the DCC RPG. Keeping in mind of course that DCC is still in beta test. But I seriously doubt they will drop Elves, Dwarves and the like as standard fantasy races. But it is true that Swords & Sorcery rarely featured such tropes. And I doubt even more that they'll drop Clerics. But they may work in some black/white/grey magic what with all the comments about it on the forums. But these are all elements Crypts and Things is starting out with. And I also love their campaign concept of the exploring of a dying world. Great potential there. Brings Jack Vance to mind.

There are so many good games coming out now. And the fact is it would be a full time job to keep up with just the Swords & Sorcery variants let alone all the new games out there. News is news, but covering it all is just not something I can keep up with. So this realization has led me to reconsider my scope lately and think about narrowing it some. I have spent so much time debating game design and theory along with trying to get a handle on the development and evolution of the game industry that I seem to be missing the forest for the trees. Well, actually that's not an apt metaphor. I've been looking for a forest that isn't there. Oh heck, forget the metaphors. I've focused too much on the differences and not enough on the similarities.

Let's face it we all game because we are looking for a god adventure story. Just like there are all types of genres of fiction, even of fantasy fiction, there are all types of games. We all come to one game, or maybe a small handful of them, to the exclusion of others. We can spend lots of time reading other games or we can spend lots of time playing games and extending the imagination. And I suppose that there are those with enough time to do both. But me, I'm a part time blogger, full time Dad, Husband, Professional and any time gamer. Lately that any time has dwindled to no time.

So, I'm trying to get into a play by post Hackmaster game soon, and the owner of my FLGS called me and asked that I run a game once a month -- any game I want! -- on my schedule. And school is starting soon so the gaming club will be up and running in no time. I've got three schools to cover now, the High School, Junior High and Middle School for club membership. So out of the blue the gaming is falling like rain, blessed gaming rain! And it's really made me think about focusing my efforts some here. I don't think I'll try and spread myself all over the industry anyway. The gaming industry is what it is. I suppose I thought in some Don Quixote type of way I could tilt at their windmills and change them some. But a morning epiphany led me to understand that I don;t do this to change the industry. My crusade is really about keeping the flame alive. The gaming flame. And that my friends happens in our imaginations and at the gaming table.

So the forest appears out of the mist around me. A shaft of leaf-scintillated sunlight stabs the gloom and there ahead I can make out a trail. It's only a game trail, thin and covered over; but the tracks it bears are suspicious. And I am hungry enough for adventure to follow.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Castles & Crusades, Hackmaster Basic & Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG: A Quick Comparison

As some of you know, I've been spending lots of time on these three jewels lately. My developing reviews are still in progress, but I thought I would do a quick and dirty comparison of the three and why you might choose one over the others. Truthfully though I think all three of these works belong on every gamers bookshelf for a number of reasons.

Castles & Crusades: if you are looking for a rather faithful D&D experience I would strongly suggest C&C. In fact I would suggest it before any of the retro clones, and in some cases before the source material itself. Now, that's a seemingly irrational statement, but honestly finding original materials is a bit of a chore and unless you and all your players have the original works you are better off going with a currently supported system. For me, if you wanna play D&D then I would suggest C&C. I would also suggest C&C if you like fast and furious play where you can focus on the story instead of worrying about mechanics. C&C has all of the frequently played D&D type classes and races, and easily support expansion. The system is easy to learn and elegant. You can literally be up and running with a PC inside of 10 minutes. And if you're a GM in a hurry pretty much any AD&D compatible module will work, or C&C has plenty of excellent offerings to help you out. Abut the only thing that might hang older gamers up is the reliance on the d20 system and the attribute based Siege Engine. The system is very elegant and plays quickly and intuitively, but it is a bit different from the more complex methods of previous D&D incarnations.

Hackmaster Basic: I would recommend Hackmaster to experienced players who are looking for a challenge. Hackmaster stopped trying to replicate D&D when they dropped the WoTC licensing agreement. But what they have created instead is a combat system that begs even the most confident of players to watch your freakin' step! Combat in HM is deadly and more realistic than most RPGs. While still retaining a degree of its abstract nature, Hackmaster adds in a degree of deadliness that early D&D campaigns were famous for. And it does so with an elegance that transcends just upping the damage level and lowering hp level. You have to think in Hackmaster if you want to survive. Hackmaster is a gritty fantasy campaign where hero status must be hard earned. Hackmaster also drives character development more directly than many RPGs out there. In general RPGs leave the details of PC development alone, rarely enforce faithfullness to alignment, and ignore PC action in the campaign beyond numbers of monster deaths. Hackmaster, like no other game to date, requires characters to be as real as you or me. And that means in addition to all our foibles and weaknesses. We are who we are as much for them as for our strengths and talents. Hackmaster also has the honor mechanic that make characters answer for their actions in game. You can't just stab the beggar orphan or cuss out the barkeep without a comeuppance. And choose alignment carefully in Hackmaster because you will be expected to abide by your ethos. All of these things make Hackmaster an incredibly engaging and immersive game. I would recommend Hackmaster to any gamer that wants to step up their game and play a truly challenging and totally absorbing fantasy RPG. The setting and play of Hackmaster is so real, you'll be expecting goblins to meet you on your way to work the morning after last night's session, and leave you gutted behind the wheel.

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG: I'm still getting a handle on this game. But I really like what I see thus far. If you are looking for a very close simulation of the swords & sorcery genre this is the game for you. Ever wanted to step into a weird dark fantasy world? This is the game for you. It doesn't aim at realism as much as it aims at dangerous weirdness. The mechanics of the game are simple and streamlined, somewhat close to 0e play, but with some very interesting twists.  First you don't just memorize spells and shoot them off like your pulling a trigger. Magic in DCC is as dangerous and deadly as combat itself. If you expect any degree of power in DCC you must pay the price, and for magical power that means pacts with evil and insidious beings from the beyond. And the danger isn't just there for wizards. The whole game has a core mechanic related to criticals and fumbles that could spell death with a single swing, no matter how powerful you think you are. One thing you can count in in DCC RPG is that you'll run into spectacular effects. They just may not be in your favor. DCC is the perfect RPG for players looking for more than a twist of the fantastic and bizarre in their roleplaying. It is old school in play style: quick and fast and deadly. If you ever thought you could really step into a fantasy world think again, it's a lot stranger and deadlier than you ever imagined.

In summary these games are my top three and have been for some time now. No matter how much I read and peruse new clones, check up on WoTC's latest endeavors or bathe in the fond waters of nostalgia I always come back to these three games. They are, in my opinion the future of the gaming industry, as I've mentioned before. What they are doing they are doing with style and with quality. So which one do you play?

For classic high fantasy: Castles & Crusades

For gritty, low fantasy, (the kind I think about when contemplating what it would be like if I traveled to a fantasy world): Hackmaster

For fantastic, weird fantasy like the Swords & Sorcery of old: Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG 

And as you can see, all three games give a decidedly different flavour of play. They do what they do very well however. And for that reason I suggest having all three on your bookshelf. If you were to ask me which one would be my goto game it would be hard to choose. What that comes down to is the kind of game you like to play. And in case it hasn't been made clear before, for me that is Hackmaster. I am still holding my breath for Advanced Hackmaster to fix the few sniggly items that hang up play now and then in the basic version. But I know that KenzerCo won't let me down. Frankly most of the players I play with prefer High Fantasy, so C&C is popular with them. but given the choice I would run Hackmaster every time. Let me be quick to add all threesystems are on my bookshelves and I will buy any offering that each game presents.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Answer to the Edition Wars: The Big Model

Some time ago Ron Edwards came up with GNS theory to describe different focuses in game design and play. I've mentioned this before, but never has this game theory received a post all of its own. GNS theory is based on breaking game play, and design to some extent, into three camps. Gamist, Narrativist and Simulationist. Gamist gamers and designers focus on the mechanics of play, the rules and the fact that the reason for playing is to in fact play a game. Narrativists on the other hand see the storyline of the game as most important. Narrative is more important than mechanics, and indeed mechanics should support the telling of the desired type and kind of story. Simulationists on the third hand (snicker) are concerned about staying true and faithful to a particular genre. The genre can be a historical period or a novel (or series of novels like The Lord of The Rings), or a subtype of genre like say dark fantasy or supernatural horror, or the DC Superhero Universe.

It was fairly soon after the GNS model came out that quite a bit of furor over this simple categorization erupted. The model was seen as too limiting, too general, too specific, and on and on. Thus it was that Ron Edwards went back to the theoretical drawing board and came up with what he called The Big Model. It is to this last model that I wish to speak now. For in the inevitable edition wars that rage about gaming ad aeternam we seldom actually talk about what it is we are doing when we game. What are the elements of an RPG and how do they dynamically work together. I personally think The Big Model helpful in this regard (and still consider GNS theory to have its place). Helpful in that it aides us to see just what it is perhaps we are arguing about. And either to come to more useful conclusions or to realize our points of difference are really quite personal and perhaps not so far apart as we might think.

The Big Model is slightly more complex than GNS theory, so bear with me as I try and make it as accessible as possible. This is what the bog model proposes:

Gamers want to game with a specific purpose in mind. That purpose is actually encompassed in the GNS model. Gamers game for one of three purposes in varying degrees:
  • They want to dream up a certain type of world and participate within it
  • They want to play a game that challenges them, usually with elements of risk and danger
  • They want to take part in a well told adventure story
Gamers that have various agendas come together under a Social Contract. This Social Contract is often more implied that delineated, but at its most basic level it is an implied understanding that we are people coming together to play a game. It can go deeper than that on many levels, but the depth of extension of the Social Contract is founded this basic premise.

Within the Social Contract we agree that we are going to roleplay or Explore a setting with characters, involving colorful description, situations all within a given system. The Exploration factor of a game is really what defines the game. If someone were to ask you what a game is "like" you would likely describe the Exploration aspect of the game. Such description of a game serves several purposes. Not the least of which is that there are several issues here that need to be agreed upon for everyone's agendas to be met.

Next we have the Techniques used in the game to achieve our ends. This more than anything is related to game mechanics. For instance rolling a d20 and making its roll the basis for most action in the game is a technique of the d20 system. As are point buy and die roll systems used to create characters.

And then we can at last game; which gaming creates what Edwards calls Ephemera or player actions within the game. This includes most of what players do during the game in order to play the game. While such Ephemera constitute much of the game and really are at it's heart, they are incidental to all that comes before. This is what it looks like to play a game.

And if you aren't by now utterly confused Edwards fortunately created a diagram to show how these elements work together in an RPG.

 In this model you can see how the various elements interact and subordinate to each other. And how the Creative Agenda well described by GNS theory cuts across all levels of play. Now, there is no easy hierarchy of importance within such a model, all the elements are important and interdependent. But there is a hierarchy of occurrence. As with all systems based models The Big Model is dynamic and changeable. Truly no one element can be entirely removed from its dependence on the other factors within the system. But it's specificity is such that we can now begin to analyze edition, style and version debates from a more universal standpoint.

If such a system helps us understand these game we play better; and can reduce some of the emotional friction between players of different systems we will have been well served.

For instance 4e heavily slants game play to Gamist motives thus focusing the game's Creative Agenda on one aspect. Thus I feel 4e has broken the Social Contract under which I enter the game. It has also changed the Exploratory elements of the game by changing the default setting, making the color more video game like and cinematic. Situations are often engineered with tactical combat in mind which affects Techniques in that battle mats and minis are a required part of the game, leading to the Ephemera of the game or what it feels like to play 4e as more of a board based strategy game with players moving figures on maps, making the descriptive elements of the Ephemera much less pronounced.

Every aspect of the game has changed. Regardless of the fact that some might claim this is still the same game it most certainly is not. And in fact has narrowed it's focus so tightly as to appeal to the least number of gamers possible.

You can't argue with this logic as it abides within its own system. You can of course choose to take issue with Ron Edwards system as a whole. But there is a lot more work involved in dismantling a well worked up system than in dismantling the subjects it chooses to analyze. Such systems of systems analysis requires an alternate, better system under which to analyze the subjects in question.

Now, on the other hand take several old school systems that appear somewhat dissimilar. 0e, 1e, and B/X. You could just as easily take S&W, LL, and OSRIC. 0e and B/X games allow for narrativist and simulationist Creative Agendas but don't rule out gamist agendas completely. 1e/OSRIC increases all these possibilities, most significantly increasing the possibility of gamist play. Thus the Social Contract supports all sorts of gamers coming together. Exploration is most radically altered with the system of 1e/OSRIC. There are more delineated options within the game as well as restrictions. There are character variations as well, but color and setting are very similar. Now this does not mean 0e is less of a game for the system within 0e implies a focus on make it up as you go sort of play that makes for a different Exploratory feel from 1e. Techniques are very much focused on occasional die rolls which leads to Ephemera interspersed with lots of dialogue, roleplay and working out of game situations.

You see how these games have remained very consistent over time. And the same can be said for 2e, and many of the retro clones that are experiencing success today. The deviation appears with 3e and its 3.5 reboot. There has been much said about how 3.5 was a natural extension of 2e, but this does not hold under a Big Model analysis.

Now, this is not intended to bash these games or to say that they are bad games. But rather to explain and analyze how and perhaps why they are different from one another. In our desire to dissect the innards of various game systems we are often left with rather nebulous and personal opinions of why we don't "like" a game. We often question we are somehow behind the times or not up to par with the rest of the gaming world. Such value judgments don't get us far. Instead I would appeal to gamers at large to analyze and review games in terms of the Big Model. Thus a universal approach to understanding the games we play might help us in determining which games we like to play and why. It may also help us rise above the fray of blog debates where nitpicking arses like myself prattle on endlessly with little else to back us up but our own hot air.

Is D&D 4e old school? And how does it look for D&D 5e?

The real question here is can any game be played "old school style" based on the defining features we set up previously? Well, there's a problem we have to iron out first. Let's look at our definition.

Old School: In reference to table top gaming old school refers to games and their play from earlier eras, that can also apply to new games with features similar to those of earlier games.

Of course that led us to consider what "features" we are talking about. Because truly most of the games we play in the OSR are variants of one type or another. In that sense they are new games with features of older games. I then quoted Matt Finch as our defining master about what features should be considered old school. His features were:
  • Rulings, not Rules
  • Player Skill, not Character Abilities
  • Heroic, not Superhero
  • Forget Game Balance
But the problem with applying this definition too broadly is that Matt is aiming to replicate 0e play. Now, 0e play can be more or less rule heavy depending on which supplements you choose to use. It also can be more or less skill/ability driven or not depending on which supplements and classes you choose to incorporate. The thief is the typical class quoted that opened up the idea of PC skills. Matt does this himself in his S&W (which I like lots btw).

If we use this as a strict definition of old school then Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in the 1e or 2e variety is certainly not old school. And if you take games like GURPS that have been around since 1980, they can't be considered old school either. Add in RuneQuest (1978), Harn (1983), and Rolemaster (1980) and you get so rule intensive that these old games will never meet the definition of less rules not more. So really we become limited in our ability to define what old school is if we start adding features to our list of definitions.

I generally play 1e type games. I'm fond of 2e and I really like Hackmaster 4e because of its tone, style, and the depth of its rules. But I wasn't particularly fond of 3.5 or Pathfinder. Mainly because of what they did to the class based systems. I could have really gotten into it without feats and without the manipulation of classes, multiclassing, prestige classes and the like. But is it right for me to say that Pathfinder or 3.5 players of today are not playing old school? I think it would be wrong of me to say that. They fit the definition. They are playing a game of an earlier era or a new game with similar features to the old game.

And I might take offense if some devotee of 0e said I was not old school because I was playing 1e or OSRIC or Hackmaster. Sure they are crunchier by far that 0e or B/X but they are still old school after their own fashion. And compared to 3.5 they are rules light. See what we are beginning to get at here is that there is a spectrum of gaming structure regarding rules, characters skills, feats and abilities, character power and even game balance. All versions have had some notion of game balance. And as I tried to explain in my blog entry on the god-like Parlifin, even 1e, 0e and B/X players can become superheroic. 

It's really a matter of preference of play. Whether we call a rules-lite free-form style of play old school or whether we call a crunchy 2e style of play old school is really a moot point. The definition of old school isn't too helpful when talking about styles of play. What we are tallking about is more complex than that. Bringing different styles of play together, much less understanding these styles of play is a challenge in and of itself. Here I quote Mike Mearls wrestling with this very issue among his own customers and players,
"I imagine that most people would prefer a game with a complexity level that they can set themselves. Traditionally, D&D has featured that by making fighters relatively simple and wizards more complex."
Mike Mearls, "The Incredible Expanding Gamer Brain" Legends and Lore colum 3/15/11
But Mike is talking about changing that approach. Later in regards to combat he says,
"Let’s extend that in the other direction, too. I think D&D should also enable groups to focus on tactical combat, or dial down to simple, fast fights. At the end of the day, the gaming group, rather than the rules or a distant game designer, should determine the game’s focus. You can play a D&D campaign set in Kara-Tur, with the characters rallying the daimyo’s samurai to throw back a horde of oni. You can play a campaign of courtly intrigue punctuated with flashy duels, drawing from the works of Dumas. You might play a campaign based on Indiana Jones, with the characters dodging traps and exploring ancient ruins to claim forgotten treasures with the rare, quick fight."
and in conclusion of his article Mike makes a unique and hopeful leap,

"All of those games are supported by the imaginative structure of D&D. In my ideal world, the DM would create a campaign concept and then tune the rules to match the exact type of game that such a concept embraces, from intense tactical combat to quick, sharp duels resolved in a few rolls of the dice."
Mike Mearls, "Combat and Other Forms of Violence" Legend and Lore Column 5/31/11

Is such a game possible? Not long ago here on CRPGR JD Higgins pointed out that when WoTC R&D tries to hint at a change, perhaps to more of a rules-lite structure, the 4e fanboys come out in droves to shout him down. They don't want a "dumbed-down" version of D&D. In spite of the fact that 4e is much less rule intensive that 3.5. So you could essentially say 4e was dumbed down. But it's okay Mike--don't sweat it. Every currently supported system has its devotees that don't want to see the system changed. Mike has to deal with this sentiment among 4e players as these are WoTC's current customers. He can't openly offend them. But he also knows he has driven hordes of gamers away from the game by going rules-heavy/mini-required/tactical/hi-power with the game instead of rules-lite/mini-optional/free form/lo-power with the game. What Mike is trying to do is strike a balance between the two and make both crowds happy.

I think it is possible. I hope his R&D department tries to do so. We have an endless procession of games out there these days, and many of them are trying to reinvent the wheel by adding this rule change or that system tweak. Others are trying to present their games within a given milieu. So they essentially rewrite an existing game to be played in a particular genre of fantasy. LoTFP fits this mold. It's a beautiful game, but is essentially Basic D&D set in a dark fantasy mold. Do we really need a new game to do this? Or could this have been done as a setting/world release? Wouldn't it be interesting to see a game that can be played lite or heavy, slow or fast, in any milieu you choose? I honestly don't think we have anything like that out there. We have universal systems, but the mechanics are fixed and closed; it's the setting options that are open-ended. GURPS is one such system that is crunchy. Savage Worlds one such system that is lite. But no game has open mechanics and open genre options.

Whether it will solve the dillemma of a different game for every preference or not remains to be seen. I don't think it will personally. There will still be lots of preferences out there for all those different expressions of games we like to play. That's ultimately a good thing I suppose. Gaming seems to be heading in the direction of an art form that mimics fiction writing and away from proprietary mechanical systems. I'm not sure how I feel about this truthfully. Lately I've been reading lots more. And I find myself reading games more for the settings and stories they tell or could tell than to play them. Because when you get right down to it all we're looking for is a good story to be a part of.

So, no you can't play 4e like 0e. If that's what you mean by old school. But you can certainly play 4e with a grittier, deadlier, and darker style of play. It's hard to get away from some things in 4e though. The system is more superheroic than heroic, is heavily based on skill/power-oriented PC development and it is and always will be a very tactical game. Some people don't like that, some really do. Thus, asking whether you can play 4e old school is a little misinformed. First of all it is a current version, so by our definition it can't be old school. It certainly doesn't fit most of Matt's features of 0e play.

But let's assume Mr. Mearls manages to pull together his team and community and imagine a game like he describes. A game where the players and DM can dial up or dial down the complexity. Where essentially you could play the game at any stage of it's development from 0e to 4e. So 5e won't really be a game in it's own right, it will be a meta-system that encompasses all versions of the game. I see enormous potential in such a model. For one there wouldn't be any default setting per se. They could focus on offering various systems based on the level of play you preferred. That oughta give 'em enough production possibilities to keep the printers busy for years.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Define: Old School

Yeah, that's where I started. And I came up with:

Old School: Used, usually approvingly, to refer to someone or something that is old-fashioned or traditional. (

Old School: Anything that is from an earlier era and looked upon with high regard or respect. (Urban Dicitionary)

So, that's helpful. I kind of like the second one 'cause it makes it sound more cool. But we should probably go with the first as more generic and applicable in most people's eyes.

So what about old school gaming? Well, that would mean that old school gaming is gaming in an old fashioned or traditional manner. Using games from earlier eras. Now some might right away take issue with this definition because it implies you have to use antique games. Or the original games from earlier times. But I would say that any game that is designed very similarly to earlier games qualifies as old school.

The web has a little to say about this as well. First we get, from Wikipedia:

"Retrogaming, also known as old-school gaming, is the hobby of playing and collecting older computer, video, and arcade games. These games are played either on the original hardware, on modern hardware via emulation, or on modern hardware via ports or compilations. Participants in the hobby are sometimes known as retrogamers, in the United Kingdom, while the terms classic gamers, or old-school gamers are more prevalent in the United States. Similarly, the games are known as retrogames, classic games, or old-school games. Retrogaming is often linked to, although not the same as, indie gaming (the hobby of playing games that are not published by any conventional publisher). Additionally, the term old-school could apply to a newer game, but with features similar to those of older games, such as "old-school RPGs".

Now, granted this is from the computer gaming field, but I think it applies here. What we have is another admission that old school can "apply to a newer game, but with features similar to those of older games."

So what exactly are those features? Well, this is where I will defer to someone much wiser than me in game creation terms, and heck even in terms of life most likely. I'm not proud. Matt Finch. Matthew J. Finch to be exact. There is noone in my book that is more in tune with what old school means for tabletop RPGs than Matt. I say that because my favorite old school clone is Swords & Wizardry in any of its guises, and my favorite article on gaming period is Matt's "A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming". It has been to it that I refer when introducing anyone to old school gaming, especially newer gamers like flock to my student club each year where I teach. So if we want the features of old school gaming that any game needs to be considered old school we can find them from Matt. Matt first described them as the "Zen Moments". for that's what they were to him and to many others who finally "get" old school tabletop rpgs. They are in a nutshelled list:
  • Rulings, not Rules
  • Player Skill, not Character Abilities
  • Heroic, not Superhero
  • Forget Game Balance
Then Matt proceeds to give players and GMs a number of excellent tips to help them get into old school gaming and become true old school gamers. Now, this list has been a subject of much thought for me lately. And it has brought me to several conclusions that some people may not like at all. But to keep this blog entry from being another epic one, I want to cover these thoughts in smaller chunks. So in the next entry I'll talk about why not every game can be played old school style given these four truly old school features. In so doing I'll talk about each feature in a bit more detail, as if they weren't obvious enough, in order to justify my claims. And stay tuned for some shocking news.

Updates & Stuff: Me, Old School, & D&D 5e

Hey everyone, been quiet for a day or two. I've had some health concerns that I'm ironing out; my network got hijacked so I had to reinstall a bunch of stuff; but I did update Page IV with a Hackmaster blurb of sorts. I'm not entirely pleased with it so I'll probably change it. But I'm still trying to organize and complete all the pages. Not sure how they fit in exactly, so expect more than few changes there in the future. The central core of the blog will always, of course, be the blog though. And you can count on that.

Some entries I'm working on that should be done today are on, 1) the definition of Old School and 2) more 5e stuff. As to item #1, well I've done lots of reading on old school meta stuff and am still confused on what exactly constitutes old school. In fact as I finish my blurbs/reviews on HM, C&C and DCC RPG, I'm even more confused than ever. For it seems that these games are really more innovative than retro and my experimental title of variant clone is little troubling to me. Perhaps it's being persnickety about semantics, but old school is different in so many people's eyes. So I'll be finishing a post that looks at various people's definitions of "old school" and considering the idea of style of play in relation to game design theory as a whole. As to point 2, well I'm still intrigued about 5e. Not so much because it may convert me or anything, but because it may be a grand departure of the direction that WoTC took D&D since 2000. But the real question that arises. If I can get comfortable with a definition of old school then the natural question is: do certain games not allow certain styles of play? In other words can any game be played old school style?

Oh, and Mike Mearls still hasn't responded to my email letter. I have a feeling he's not going to because doing so would leak a 5e release before GenCon. Not only is he probably under contract to not do that, he likely doesn't know much himself. Either that or he read my follow up post and got ticked off. *shrug* So I suppose we'll have to wait and see what comes out at Gen Con. I'll do my best to keep you updated in that regard. But as always there will probably be those better than I at timely new coverage. What you can expect is my high quality (snicker) editorials on any news I find of relevance.

Until this pm when I get those posted: Game On!!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

D&D's Literary Connection

It has been said many times that what spawned the hobby of role playing games as we know them today was miniature wargaming of the late 60's. I've been thinking a lot about this lately, and I have begun to form the opinion that we don't give credit where credit is due in this regard. And truthfully the greater deal of the credit for D&D's inspiration was early speculative fiction.

By now many gamers are familiar with Appendix N in the first Dungeon Master's Guide. In case you haven't perused this short essay and suggested reading list, you can check it out here. I highly recommend it. But I'm not blogging about Appendix N today. I've already done that, as have many others. Rather I would prefer to make a larger and perhaps more important point. D&D's connection to literature is perhaps greater than we may realize. And this can more generally be said to be true of all RPGs.

First and foremost RPGs are about storytelling. The story may not be particularly brilliant or enthralling beyond the fact that we are vicariously participating in it. But it is a story nonetheless. And if we were asked to relate the happenings of a given gaming session we would tell it in story form. In this way we are participating in a very old art form: storytelling. The creation of D&D particularly came about because players desired to experience more directly the events that were until that time told only in literary form. The mechanics of early wargaming were but the necessary tools with which to experientially tell the tales we had been inspired by.

Gary, Dave and the other early wargamers, were avid readers of planetary romance, swords and sorcery, horror, weird fiction and science fiction. These tales lived in their hearts and minds and had inspired them with the milieu for their new conception. I would argue that while the development of the first RPG was a unique synthesis of literature and wargaming, the literature came first.

And in addition to early fictional literature Gary Gygax and his compatriots read heavily in mythology, legends and ancient, medieval, renaissance, and early modern history. The tales and stories of these genres also played a strong part in inspiring and fueling the imagination. Yes, the true muse of D&D was literature. And at times I wonder if we have lost sight of this, and if we haven't would urge that we keep our gaze firmly fixed. For true gaming greatness and inspiration comes from deep within the imagination. In that magical and poetic connection with the muses that have inspired authors for time out of mind. This connection is almost mystical in its workings and often takes archetypal form.

Joseph Campbell talked of the hero's journey:

Which could more than adequately describe about any adventure scenario we would wish to dream up. And Jung talked about archetypes of the collective unconscious which later gave us the archetypes of the Warrior, Magician, Priest and Trickster. Which seems an awful lot like the basic classes of most fantasy RPGs: The Fighting Man, The Magic User, The Cleric and the Thief. These universal motifs that we play with so casually in RPGS are of course rooted in deeply held mythic consciousness. They are all forces from the depths of our psyche that are most often dealt with in literature, myth and story. They are also the bread and butter of the modern RPG.

These elements don't have to be consciously recognized for what they are to enjoy and participate in RPGs any more than enjoying a good story requires one to be a critic. But when we take our gaming to the next level; when we are busy searching for ideas and inspiration and the next challenge to throw at our heroes. It might help us to acknowledge that out craft is closer to that of the author of tales, the storyteller around the campfire, the shaman leading a vision quest, than simply a game designer. I would urge and claim that focus on the art of what we do and less on the mechanics preserves the power and originality of our creative endeavor.

And truly such artistic pursuits edify and prepare us to better serve as the storytellers we are. Immersing ourselves in mythology, epics, legendary tales, and fantastic literature of all sorts we tune into the muses that inspired the first imaginative visionaries to which we are heir. Spurning our inheritance will only cut us off from the power which gave us life. Returnng to our roots will ensure that we like those that drink the draught of the Ents cotinue to grow to higher heights.