Friday, August 19, 2011

Knights of the Dinner Table 177 "You Rawk Jolly!"

Issue 177 finally came in!! I say finally, but it really wasn't that late. Especially considering that GenCon was this month and the guys were all over there. And as normal it totally kicked butt. First of all the cover was a throwback to the Holmes boxed set with Dave as the knight and Brian as the wizard (of course) which just set my old school spidey senses all a tingle. I won't allude to what the title means, but let's just say the Knights are in a deep pile of ogre-doo. You'll just have to pick up a copy for yourself to get the full story, but the development is beautiful. I can't wait to see how it plays out in future issues. And we still get more Lost Strips, which I personally love. There have been a few letters asking to cut down on the Lost Strips, but I say keep 'em coming! I mean I think the reason we are getting to see them is that Jolly has stacks of them that we might not otherwise see. I know that they aren't directly connected to the main storylines at present, but the background, color, stories and depth they give to some of the characters is well worth the reading.

And Jolly's Strongbox of Doom in this month's GameMaster's Workbench is awesome! I mean how in the heck did he come up with that! The closest I got to something like that was designing a book tote for all my 1e books way back in the day. But it never got made. The Strongbox is not only so kewl it reeks of geeky goodness, it looks immanently useful as well. That is definitely something I'll be building soon. We also get a cool interview on Hawk the Slayer--a movie every gamer worth his salt has seen at least once. Some new Hackmaster tidbits that make me eager to see the new PHB. I haven't been able to get that in the budget yet, but I want to get a look at the PDF before the official release, so I'll be buying asap. Some good coverage on Maptools as well, which I am trying to familiarize myself with so I can run a Skype game. So that was very timely.

But what gets my real attention this issue is Jolly's editorial in Cries From The Attic. Oh man, I wish I could reproduce the entire article!. All I can say is that I agree completely and wholeheartedly. Basically Jolly writes about those who complain to him that KODT's portrayal of the adversarial attitude of GM vs Players is "bad" for RPGs. He then explains that for many, many gamers this "adversarial attitude is exactly why we game. We like that and thrive on it. I know I certainly do. It's what keeps me coming back to gaming and to KODT time and time again. And the more I take a detailed look at the games on the market today the better Hackmaster looks exactly for this reason. Of course if you have read my blog with regularity, you know how I feel about this issue. The game was designed to be competitive. You don't have to play it that way, but in my opinion it was designed to be played that way. And as Jolly makes clear, this type of gaming is reflected in KODT. I want to publicly thank Jolly and his little quickling helpers for putting the rag together for us each month. Out here where my gaming comes in seasons and I sometime go months without a fix during the summer, KODT is my lifeline. It is like manna from gaming heaven. And as for some critics saying they would never game at their table ... Well, all I can say is that THE MODEL for my ideal gaming group is exactly like the Kinghts of the Dinner Table. I am in fact going to start a game a once a month at my FLGS and am trying to put up a notice that will attract my own KODT-like crew. I think I'm gonna call us The Paper Paladins, but I'm not sure. Anyway, here's my totally loyal shoutout to Jolly for this excellent and timely editorial. I love it, and agree with it from the depths of my gaming heart. 

And Jolly makes another great point I wanted to hilight: the GM in such a game is not really "out to kill" the players. That would be entirely too easy. He has total power after all. No, the GM is out to create and fairly run a challenging fantasy world. He represents all the forces that the players pit themselves against. This is a competition of sorts, and the players will be doing everything they can both ingame and out of game to prepare for, outwit and defeat those challenges represented by the GM. Nor the players to "cheat" to get over on the GM. Cheating is anathema in Hackmaster, it is one of the things that will get you kicked out of the Hackmaster Association as a player or a GM. Jolly is much more eloquent than I, and he makes a wonderful analogy by referring to the Rocky movie to make this point, so please read it. In fact his editorial is so good I wish they would make it available for public download so I could link to it, and refer all those whiners out there who criticize Jolly's, Dave Kenzer's, KODT, Hackmaster and my style of play to go read it.

'Course the whiners don't really matter I suppose. Gamers who can't see the joy, excitement and satisfaction of playing this way will probably never get it. That's okay. There are plenty of other games and ways for them to play. I can game and let game. But, let's make it clear, I play KODT style. I always have and likely always will no matter what game I play. If I can't play a game that way I won't play it. And lots of others play KODT style too. And truthfully, I'm really pretty lenient at my table. You can burp at my table, cuss within reason, fart out loud, spill your Dr. Pepper, touch my dice by mistake (once), throw your own dice all over the room in frustration, even admit you like DnD 4e. And none of that will get you kicked out. But whatever you do, please, don't do that at my table. Go to your own table to play that way. Only real gamers play here. ... Okay that last remark was sarcastic. ... slightly.

"Roll for initiative monkey boy!!!" -- Bob Herzog

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Combat Should be Deadly

Way back in the day Gary warned us we might all die. And we pretty much obliged him over and over again. At least I did; or more properly my characters did. 0e was a deadly game and AD&D wasn't anything to sneeze at if you played it RAW. 'Course there were always power gamers and Monty Haul DMs too, but D&D as a game was designed to be pretty dangerous. Just think about your average 10th level fighter: around 48 hit points. Cleric = 38. Mage = 20. And the party thief was doing alright if he had around 30. But think about who these guys were fighting! Pit Fiends, Fire and Frost Giants, Liches, Ancient Red Dragons. Any of these nasties can deal out on average 15 points of damage per hit, some of them get two or more attacks per round, most have as much or more spell use as the party does and they have between 44 and 88 hit points. The point is combat was dangerous.

But even so, I always felt like it should be a little more so. Call me a sadist, but I like my fantasy served cold, dark, gritty and hard. D&D HP has always been abstract and I could live with that most of the time. But some things bothered me. The relatively quick heal times, the fact that you could get "hit" several times and really not be badly cut, bruised or bleeding. I always preferred and used criticals and fumbles, the more ornate and hideously deforming the better. I like hit location rules, played with parry rules and active defenses, but never really settled on a single system that seemed to offer everything in one package.

The problem with detailed combat rules is that they can begin to bog down the game. They need to be intuitive and make sense. And many was the time that I considered the need to change D&D combat at its core. But I certainly didn't feel up to the task. So I deferred technical excellence for colorful description. Which was great as far as it went, but it certainly didn't make the combat feel anymore realistic, just more dramatic.

I suppose deadly combat in RPGs is a matter of personal taste. Some people really don't like playing in a game where the threat of death is an ever-present danger. Some games cater to cinematic action, where the hero might get knocked down, even bloodied, but is seldom in danger of actually dying. These kinds of games pay a considerable amount of attention to game balance, constructing fair encounters and building in mechanics to keep characters alive as long as possible. This action movie type of game may be satisfying to some who want to play at being movie heroes, but I've never quite understood this myself. Perhaps because I take my fantasy with a healthy dose of reality.

Allow me to explain; let's say we are positing a fantasy world. This world is usually medieval in type. Life for many is hard and short. Disease is common and families struggle to make a living off of the land under a feudal system of usually stiff taxes. But magic works. Eldritch power is somewhat uncommon, and certainly powerful magic is very rare. Few are those who can master it at high levels of ability. Strange creatures prowl the night and fae beings hold their unearthly courts at the edges of civilization. The bloodthirsty demihuman races put our modern gangs to shame as they prowl ever closer to village boundaries and city walls. Skulking the night shadows hunting the stray farm animal, or unaccompanied child for an easy meal and more evil purposes. Men who would as soon cut your throat as shake your hand are as common as the peasants who work the fields. And in short the world is a very dangerous and deadly place. The average man stays close to home and hearth, surrounded by friends, family and the protection of the hamlet's fold. But occasionally a man thirsts for adventure, learns some skill at arms, or apprentices himself to the local wizard, takes the vows of the local Gods or earns his living the hard way by pilfering what he can. The greater glory promised in raiding an abandoned mine or perhaps collecting a bounty on goblin heads is just appealing enough to send the brave soul out into the world to meet that danger. They aren't Conan, they aren't Bruce Willis, or Val Kilmer. They're average joes looking for some adventure and maybe seeking a higher purpose in life. They have a few skills but that's about it.

The first battle they enter is likely to be a fierce, short, scary as hell experience. A sound and fury that will leave their loins weak, their stomach filled with sour bile, and their chest heaving in panic as much as exertion. The first sword that bites into their flesh, the first spear that pierces thigh, the first explosion of atomic fireball generated heat washing over their sizzling flesh and boiling blood will likely leave them on the ground in shock, bleeding and helpless likely screaming in pain. And if their comrades still standing don't think quick and protect him, some foul goblin, or furry scaled kobold will scurry up to bury its rust encrusted dagger into his ribs. And with a twist will finish his short life of adventure before it even began.

Ask a cop, or a soldier or any old timer from out west that still recalls the days when everyone still carried a six shooter on his hip. There are still a few of those around where I live. They'll all tell you. Battle is a scary, ugly and often brutally short for far too many. I personally have practiced martial arts, fencing, sword fighting (mostly Sigmund Ringneck Sword & Buckler) and know that most fights are very short. It is simply put very easy to get killed. And this fantasy world we imagine doesn't come with an automatic power boost for all the humans around. Are we to expect that all of a sudden everyone is a massively muscled, genius warrior with the agility of an olympic gymnast? Uh, nope. I think not. And even if you look to the elite forces of today's armed services you would find men of average strength, average dexterity above average intelligence and constitution and good leadership capability. They will look more like cross country runners than bodybuilders. And they can die as easy as any other soldier in combat. They are heroes because they have practiced what they do and they have a savvy about their approach to strategy. They fight smart not just hard.

Why should our fantasy world be any different? I suppose if you want to play a superhero game that's okay if it's what you like. But me? I like the thrill of danger to be ever present in my games. The thrill of possibly dying, of not knowing what's coming next, of having to carefully weigh your decisions makes the game more exciting. It also makes you work for being a hero. What's a hero that has no fear of dying? Superman a hero? Only when he's facing kryptonite. A hero requires danger, he feeds off of it, it brings out the best in him. And the best in his team. A group that expects to make it anywhere in such a world will have to work together; go it solo and you die--plain and simple.

So give me a game where the blood is blood and death is constantly perched on the bare tree on the horizon, waiting, just waiting. When I strap on my sword, pull on my helm and take up my shield I know I am walking into the valley of death. I will have to utilize every ounce of my energy and wits and luck to make through to the other side. And if I do I will have some small amount of gold, perhaps a slice of glory and if the fates smile upon me, some may even call me hero.

Castles & Crusades by Troll Lord Games

Castles & Crusades
Troll Lord Games

Stephen Chenault was a good friend of Gary Gygax. He had grown up playing Gary's games; and when he decided to write Castles & Crusades he wanted to build a tribute not only to the spirit of the original, but to Gary the man. Castles & Crusades is without a doubt the heir to D&D today. It is not a retro clone, it would be better classified as a retro-variant. But C&C is something much more special than just that. Stephen Chenault and his crew must have some bottled magic in the hills of Arkansas, the location of Troll Lord Games. The writing of this crew never ceases to amaze me, and frankly comes closer to High Gygaxian than any other game I have read but the original itself. Stephen is cut of the same cloth from which Gary and Dave sprang. His Rings of Brass, After Winter's Dark Campaign is one of the most magical and well presented worlds I have experienced for some time. The epic and deeply legendary style of his writing inspires me like few works are able to do without going to the source literature itself. In fact it inspires me just as much as the source literature. And this is just something Stephen and his crew do naturally. Not just in their most recent works. The skill and enchantment they bring to their writing was evident to me as far back as 2001 in a little known d20 adventure they put out entitled The Malady of Kings . In the title page of that work Stephen writes, "We humbly lay this parchment at the feet of the giants: Tolkien, Moorcock, Burroughs, and that Shadow of a Dream, Robert E. Howard." Stephen has done these giants proud, and I am certain his offering was deemed acceptable. If someone asked me to reccomend a game this would be first on my list.

Hackmaster Preliminary Review


Some time ago I ran across a comic strip in the back of a Dragon Magazine. Knights of the Dinner Table it was called. And at the time, though definitely worth a chuckle, I kind of dismissed the strip as a small but funny add on to a much greater endeavor. Little did I know. Fast forward about twenty years or so when I rediscover KODT through their comic book. The serendipity of my rediscovery could only have been divinely inspired. For at the time I was searching for and wide fora stronger connection to the gaming of my past. The more I read KODT the more I longed for a game just like theirs. Sounds a little silly really. Wanting to game like a bunch of comic books gamers. But they embodied something deeper than simple entertainment. And so, I would soon come to find out, did the game they played. I did a search for Hackmaster, not really thinking it would still be alive and kicking. And lo and behold it was!! But, to my chagrin they were dropping HM4 and releasing a new and improved HM line starting with what they were calling HM Basic.

I was a bit disillusioned, but decided to wait for the HMb release which came a few months later. I of course scarfed up a copy as soon as I could and read it voraciously. Mind you, at the time I had no HM4 books to compare it to. My only touchstone in that regard was what I knew from KODT. The introduction to the book was music to my ears. Gary Jackson's words echoed with a tone that had been lost to so much of gaming today. It was clear that KCos intention was to keep the spirit of true old school gaming alive. And though the game mechanics were different, they were visionary in their execution. Different from much of what had been done before. And I began to see that here was a develoment team that was intent on making combat intense and deadly. Life in a Hackmaster world enshrined the true brutal nature of life as a wannabe fantasy hero. I loved it.

Later I acquired the HM4e library and began also to read the older Kingdom of Kalamar setting materials that would be the default setting for HM. Again I was blown away. HM4 was brilliant. The full presentation of what KCo could do, admittedly building on the framework of 1e, was awe inspiring. The only thing that might be better was if they could do this same thing with their new game system previewed in HMb. I began to hint around on the KCo forums to this effect and was told I could rest assured Advanced Hackmaster was going to be all that and more. I was also very impressed with the KoK setting. I believe largely the original brainchild of Dave Kenzer Kingdoms was a highly realistic and detailed fantasy setting. Rife with detailed politics and religious machinations this setting provides not only the possibility of high and gritty adventure, but also mystery, intrigue, plots within plots and behind the scene madness that would fill even the most ambitious GM with creative delight. And when I say "realistic", I mean the geography, the political landscape, the civilization and the like are all very detailed and believable. Sure there's magic and Gawds and horrible beasties filling Kalamar's expansive borders, but it is all very much rooted in how things really might be if these things existed. Well done indeed KCo.

Now, I must say, I was reluctant to go ahead and write this review because HM is still in construction as it were. And I have begun to think I won't make an extended effort to run a HM campaign until AHM comes out. But that's a purely personal call. I like the whole enchilada as it were. All the glory from the get go. And to date KCo has released one very exceptional AHM book, and several high quality adventures. I have run a few games with HMb rules, and I'll admit I didn't incorporate all the rules right away. HM takes some getting used to, because it is not straight D&D. It's mechanics are a bit different now. But they're good, solid mechanics. HM also has always enforced character role play and development through a number of ingenious mechanics. Factors like quirks, flaws, honor, fame and the like sort of require that you think about this pc you play as an actual person. A real person. Not a cookie cutter class mogul. Some players balk at that. And in my opinion it takes a good GM to encourage such play based on these mechanics. New areas of alignment and character development can be explored and mined for play ideas and extension if played in the right hands.

Hackmaster is not a game for the feint of heart. Either in terms of adventures that take place there or in terms of mastery requried to play and especially run the game. This is advanced roleplaying from the start. Expect to be challenged as a GM, as a player and as an adventurer who desires to be a hero. For this reason HM is very close to my heart. It seems to have captured the "feel" of what it was like to game when I was just starting out. And moreso, just like those early AD&D books were at the time, HM is always just above my head. It continues to challenge me as a GM to play this game to it's fullest extent. HMb has just enough of this to give you a taste. I personally can't wait until AHM comes out.