Saturday, August 27, 2011

Do we Need More Than Four Classes?

Of course the ready answer for many old school devotees is of course not. But I've thought this out for some time now and keep coming to several impasses. If you'd like to take the time to read my thoughts I would love to get some feedback to maybe come to a more complete understanding on this issue.

Point 1: Classes are not realistic

We all know that classes are a construct that facilitates archetypal roleplay. Drawn almost exclusively from literature, they are storytelling devices. The reason that such metaphors are so powerful is that they appeal universally to certain motivating forces within the human psyche. And humans, being what they are, prefer things categorized and simplified. Thus archetypes are limited in number. This is also a result of the power of the archetypes themselves. They have a tendency to subsume variations on themes into themselves. For this reason we see, John Carter of Mars, Conan, Aragorn, Luke Skywalker, King Arthur, Miyamoto Musashi as variations on the warrior archetype. I suppose this might be said to be realistic in a subtle psychological sense. But not mechanically. By this I mean if we were to more closely mirror the way the mundane world works we would utilize a skill system such as that used in Runequest or GURPS.

This point is important exactly because classes are archetypal. They have power because they represent universal forces. The spirit of the warrior, wizard, priest and trickster. They are not designed to be realistic they are designed to be fantastic. They are meant to engage us on a mythic level. For this reason as well, the fewer classes the better. Fine distinctions to do not automatically assume different archetypes. For instance a sort of paladin-like character that devotes himself to capturing evil npcs instead of killing them, is simply a warrior or a cleric that fulfils his duties and role with unique flavor. He doesn't require a separate class like Inquisitor to be played properly.

However, can't it be said that there exists a Paladin archetype? A Ranger? The Assassin? The Monk? The Bard? And indeed an Inquisitor? Aren't they also worthy of experience and emulation? The argument that such subclasses are archetypes in and of themselves cannot be easily ignored. We can say they are simply variations on a theme, but are we missing something in doing so? After all a warrior or thief that plays a ranger-like character is still a warrior or a thief. A rose by any other name and all that. Is it right to deny a player's desire to identify with a more specific sub-archetype?

Point 2: Variations on a theme

Taking the last point home, several RPGs have chosen to create just such variations in their class structure. Taking their cues from D&D 2e all expression of a class are simply stylized variations on the warrior, mage, priest, rogue class structure. Via proficiency selection a player can customize their character to their liking. Using a base class as foundation they craft their ideal by choosing certain weapons, skills and the like. Other RPGs such as Dragon Age allow level advancement to differentiate PCs. As a character develops over time they are allowed to specialize or customize into various class-paths. Old Dragon, a South American fantasy RPG does something very similar based on alignment choices.

The idea being that four classes are plenty if we allow customization. For instance say someone wants to play a ranger type. So they roll up a thief, but use their hide in shadows as conceal in brush, set and disarm traps only for outdoor type traps such as deadfalls, pit traps, and snares. Move silently becomes a wilderness pass without trace and the like. The PC chooses a short sword and dagger dual wielded and a short bow. Viola! Instant Ranger. But we all can see he is not exactly a Ranger. And he won't be able to fight as well as any fighter. Fair trade? Why not just create a more explicit class and call it a ranger? The same can be said for many other situations. Do four sizes really fit all? But if we take customization too far we end up with an endless list of classes and customizability. And we're back at 3.5 again.

Point 3: Roleplay it.

0e and to an extent B/X solved this dilemma by simply encouraging roleplay. If you must play a monk type then roll up a cleric and write a backstory that creates the PC you desire. For instance, "My cleric was adopted by a reclusive hermit that was a high level priest long ago. This guru of mine became disenfranchised with the idea of worshipping an endlessly quarrelling pantheon of deities. He saw their immature antics as a bad example for humankind and thus cloistered himself to ponder the matter. He developed a method of prayer very similar to meditation where instead of communing with the gods he communed with the multiverse itself. He tapped into the very nature of good and law and devoted himself to perfecting his mind and body in accord with these universal forces. My cleric does the same, worshipping no gods but the ground of ultimate being itself. His spells are gained by meditation and manifest as power from the discipline he develops by adherence to the universal code of conduct my master discovered. He wields no weapons and fights only barehanded using a unique style of martial combat developed by the guru from his enlightened meditations."

Such an approach can even inspire DMs to create campaign touchstones, history and references that support such characters. Possibly even giving them special powers and abilities over time. But then again, are we not starting to develop what amounts to another class? Why not cut away the chafe and stop calling such PCs clerics any longer, since they really aren't and call them what they really are--monks. And there we are again back at the development of more classes.

Summary:

It seems to me that any road you take circles you back to creating a number of classes to suit different tastes and desires. Is this an inevitable development in game design or am I missing something? I mean wasn't there a reason there were only a limited number of classes at the start? Or was it as simple as they hadn't gotten around to creating all the others yet. I mean at first we have Fighting Man, Cleric and Magic User. Thief is quickly added and then Assassin. Ranger is soon to follow and we're off to the races. By the time AD&D is around Gary has brought us up to like nine classes. And Dragon magazine is pumping out new classes to the tune of about one every other month or so. Same thing with races, but that's for another post.

Since Gary took it that way, does it make sense somehow? He must have seen the advantage of such a proliferation of classes. Was it just money? I really don't think so, but there is no way to be sure. UA brought us up to 11 official classes, but some were never very popular. 2e reigned us in some, but we can't say that was Gary's doing. He actually wanted to see several new classes added and some others changed. 2e spins the idea of classes into customization that exploded in 3e.

And yet there sits the very popular B/X play. So very popular while still being so minimalist. Do we really need all those other roles? Is this just a matter personal taste or is there some reason to keep it down to the "classic four"? I tell you, I really am uncertain on this myself. And reason keeps taking me away from the rather intuitive feeling that four is all we need. Ideas?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Let's Talk OSRIC

When I first found OSRIC I thought my dreams had come true. I had been looking for some way to continue playing 1e without having to direct all my new players (on average 8 to 15 a year) to where they could hunt up new copies of the oop rules for original AD&D. OSRIC was free, and it was very 1e. So we started playing, everyone else using OSRIC 2.0 and me using my 1e books.

The first trouble started coming up with attribute bonuses. They were slightly different than the original books. Then came the spell differences. The wording was just different enough to cause interpretation problems between me and my players. They felt like a spell worked one way, and I understood it another. Then came experience points. They were different on just about every level for every class. Then came magic items and differences in description there as well. This began to be such a source of frustration for me that I made a DM executive decision and told my players that OSRIC was fine as a rough approximation of the rules, but where there was a difference my core books trumped any differences in OSRIC rules.

That didn't last long, as my players were the ones that were frustrated. It became quickly apparent that if we were going to play OSRIC we were going to have to all use OSRIC books. And the whole reason I had wanted to use OSRIC in the first place was that it allowed me to use all my original books. Now I felt like I was playing with a cheap imitation of the original that I knew so well. In fact I players would ask me something about a rule, spell or mechanics and I would answer with a 1e answer without even looking it up. I knew it by heart. They would then disagree with me, or quote OSRIC to the contrary. I really couldn't argue with it, because they were right about the rule or question under consideration was written differently in OSRIC. So I began to make a list of differences between the two systems and stopped when I reached a page and a half without even getting past page 50. This had just verified to me that the game could not really be played side by side with 1e books. But it went deeper than that.

What I began to see in how the rules were presented in OSRIC was different in spirit than the game I was used to. I don't want to say that it was without a doubt different in spirit than Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but ti was definitely different than how I had played. There was a subtle undercurrent in the presentation of the rules that made it clear that this was one person or group's interpretation of what D&D was. That it had lost something very Gygaxian in translation.

James from The Underdark Gazette made a good point in his comment on my last entry,

"V2 is a complete game, but OSRIC is missing is all the little tidbits of Gygaxian wisdom and rules, spread throughout the DMG, here and there. It's a loss that is acutely felt by DM's, but not necessarily by players, who've never read the DMG."

Which made me want to clarify. I was really judging OSRIC unfairly. I came at it looking for a verbatim replacement for 1e. It really can't be that. No retro-clone legally can. And what I was missing was Gary's spirit in the game. OSRIC really hadn't replicated that for me and I missed it. I should have judged OSRIC with new eyes on it's own merits. It is a game a its own right. A complete game. Different from the original but close. I have judged other clones more on their own merits and perhaps have been slighting OSRIC some. It didn't measure up as a replacement for 1e because, as I now know, no clone can replace the original game. Which I think is what Matt Finch was saying here. At first I took this a little personally. I mean I'm looking for a game to make my default game, my goto system, my game of choice. And also a system to publish my own stuff within. And he seems to be telling me that the only reason his clone even exists is to get people to play from the original books. It's just an intro.

Now I can see that this was really a misunderstanding on my part. Matt was trying to point out no clone can ever replace the originals. For one they are created by different people and won't and indeed can't contain their spirit, the spirit they breathed into the game. That spirit has to come through in translation. And that's a tough thing to do. In my opinion Matt Finch has created a masterpiece. The thing he didn;t anticipate, nor did Sutart Marshall with OSRIC, was that these clones would become the games of choice for thousands of gamers. It was never their intention to replace the originals--in fact Matt thus admits he can't replace the original. But Matt has created a game that has its own spirit, in the tradition of the original 0e game. I love the weird dark stuff that is coming out from S&W. Stuff like that was not really available for 0e. It is different, and in some ways better. In this case the creation has exceeded the master's intention. And Matt is truly a master. He's just evidently humble enough to give the real credit and magic to the inspiration in the original games. And that's cool too.

I would in fact encourage people to do exactly what Matt is encouraging them not to do. Play S&W as your game of choice. See it as a creative tool for your game. Sure get the originals eventually and use them as fodder for inspiration but play the game that is out there now. S&W. Lots of people are actually doing that now, and doing some really cool stuff.

The fact is I haven't judged OSRIC by the same yardstick, but that was my own hang-up not OSRIC's. Stuart did exactly what Matt has done, and the new First Edition label and the Advanced Adventures stuff is a tribute to that effect. If I were to play OSRIC now I would approach it with open eyes and as a game in its own right. Not as another copy of 1e. With that in mind I might give the game more of a fair shake. There are things I like more about other games, and some rules in OSRIC that Stuart listed as optional that I would remove altogether (but I guess that's why they're optional huh?). But I could say that about any of the clones and truthfully about the originals as well.

So, all said I apologize for unfairly judging OSRIC. Consider it back in play as I take the time to judge the game on its own merits. I must say however, that there are those more grognardly than myself who look to OSRIC with the same tone which Matt approached S&W. That OSRIC is not to be played as a standalone game but as a publishing tool. I think these folks are worried OSRIC might wipe 1e off the map, and that they can see and feel the differences between the two. But as in the case of Matt's S&W Stu's OSRIC has exceeded his wildest imaginations as the game to play if you want to get into 1e gaming.

I say kudos to them both and that their success is to be lauded, even if they are too humble to admit their impact in the OSR world and the gaming universe. Thanks guys!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Retro Clones I Would Play

Okay, I'd play anything once or twice and maybe more with the right group. But I'm talking about the handful of retros I would consider making my predominant play choice. I never thought such a decision was so political in some small enclaves of the old school community, but it evidently is. So let me be up front right now, as I have been in the past. I think that if we are going to really preserve the old school style of play we really have to begin embracing the clones and variants themselves instead of the actual oop originals. Yeah, I know, blashpemy. Nobody yet has really managed to quite recapture what Gary and his cohort did, though a few have come pretty close. I would love nothing more than to have those games in print once again so everyone could get their hands on them and play like back in the day. But that aint reality now. And it aint gonna be until about 2073 when the 99 year copyrights on the originals begin to expire. Since I plan on living to a ripe and healthy old age of 104 I might be around for that. But I got a few years to wait. When it happens tho' I'll have 10 glorious years of oop gaming once it hits.

No, for now I recommend people support old school games in print. And they have lots to recommend them. And here I refer to retro clones and variants available for free download from the Internet that I might consider making my game of choice. This of course knocks out any game not available for free for download on the Internet. Not that I wouldn't play commercial games. C&C, HM, DCC RPG, Secret Fire and others are great games and I would definitely consider them at the top of my list. But right now I'm talking about games you can download for free. Now most of these games also allow you to buy an actual print copy from Lulu and other sources, which is fine and preferable actually. But I'm limiting my choices here to those that would be available in some form for free from the i-net.

Let me also be clear that this is not intended to include all options. This is a very personal list, not one designed to imply I have read and carefully assessed each and every clone or variant out there. Most of these systems are ones that felt "right" to me on first glance. Others simply felt "wrong". And I stress they felt that way for me. I am not saying any system is inherently bad or good, but rather good relative to my preferences. For instance you will notice the paucity of basic and 0e derived clones. Even though my favorite clone in tone is probably Swords & Wizardry. At any rate such basic and 0e based clones and variants are not really the way I like to play. I am not fond of race as class, I like the 9 alignment system, and generally prefer the "advanced" approach to other rules in the system. My one exception to this general rule is Dark Dungeons which I describe below.

So without further ado, here they are:

Adventures Dark & Deep: I've reviewed this system before, and is likely the one closest to my preferred play style. It has almost all of the advanced rules I'm used to and a pretty consolidated advanced combat system. Good stuff this one, it feels alot like home, just a lovingly remodeled one.

Labyrinth Lord AEC+: Labyrinth Lord advanced companion has a couple of things going for it. Though it is a kind of basic take on advanced rules I really like the presentation of the game. Art, vignettes, and game prose sort of give it a cave dripping, dark, torch flickering dungeon crawl feel. I like this and it is a close second in presentation to S&W in this regard. Though Goblinoid Games touts the AEC as the way most of actually played advanced rules, this is not the case for me. I played alot more like ADD or OSRIC, but I can live with the basic tone of LL AEC largely because of presentation, company support and some really cool supplements, namely Labyrinth Lord Empires & Engines and Labyrinth Lord Mutant Futures. With the three of these games together you really have a multiverse of possibilities for gaming within a unified system. I was really hoping Starships & Spacemen and Time Lord would be based on LL rules, but I don't think they are, and they aren't free for download. However they are all under the umbrella of Goblinoid Games. I really like what GG is shaping up to be too. All of this together makes LL a good overall choice. Makes me feel a little like TSR back in the day.

Dark Dungeons: This is my one "basic" exception. Based on the Rules Cyclopedia Dark Dungeons is such a complete and expansive system that it almost begs to be played. I'm not crazy about some of the "basic" assumptions, but I could get into the scope of this game from first adventure forays to kingship, herodom, to godhood. Just seems like a kewl way to do D&D if the basic oriented rules don't get in my way.

OSRIC: OSRIC almost didn't make the list. The more I look at OSRIC the more skeletal it seems. Which is fine as far as it goes, but in my estimation clones should really aim to be a game in their own right, not a simple exposition of previous rule structures. OSRIC never really aimed to be a game in its own right, but a tool for publishers of 1e resources. And it works great as that. But OSRIC is a little to spare for me. If I wanted a 1e game I might use OSRIC, and I have before. But the reason to use a clone is because you think its better than the originals in some way. I don't think OSRIC is. Its a good framework reproduction, but for me that's about it.

Clones and variants as becoming as common as apple trees. They aren't quite growing wild, but there's a lot of them being cultivated out there. So I keep my eyes and mind open. A few other possibilities right now are Crypts & Things and Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea. I like the premise of both these games, but am not even sure if they are going to be available for free download. So I'm reserving judgment. They are kind of narrowly focused on swords and sorcery type play, and so I really prefer the more open ended fantasy style of the games mentioned above. But I like the dark tone and the connection to weird fiction. For now however, neither one makes the list.

So I've previously mentioend some commercial games that make the cut for me. Hackmaster and Castles & Crusades being the primary two. While DCC RPG and Secret Fire have me intrigued. Lots of people have mentioned Dragon Age and that seems cool, but I've never even looked at the rules. Based on the downloadable previews at the Dragon Age site I would definitely put it in the maybe list for commercial games. And now I've shared my preferred retro clones list. Picking one to make my core game is a little easier now, but still a close running decision. Truthfully though such a decision, while somewhat agonizing, is fun. It's also a blessing having so many high quality games to choose from.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Why is Choosing a Game System so Hard?

Well, for me anyway. See, I have to choose a system that becomes the default system for the club. The system most of us play in most of the time. We've tried bouncing around and that just frustrates everyone else even more than it does me. The club always goes better if we choose one system to stick with. And truthfully I suppose this says more about me than it does the systems themselves. But I have to be happy with the system as I end up running 90% of the games that the club plays. And if the GMs not happy noone is happy.

The system has to be a currently supported system. Not necesarily commercially, but at least that the core rules are easily avalable either for download or purchase. This allows the playuers to get their hands on teh rules easily. But for me DnD 4e is pretty much out, as is Pathfinder. They have excellent commercial support, but they are simply not games that I enjoy running ov er the long haul. The more I game them the more I realize that I don't really like the system and start wanting to game something else. However, the reason I hesitate to throw those out is that many who come into the club are most familiar with those two systems, as they are the ones available at retail outlets. They also have shiny covers, video game, splash page art that catches the young eye. So the 14 to 16 year olds that are the bulk of our club membership is often highly attracted to such games. Getting them to try something else is often an effort. But it can be done, and we have done so in the past.

Common sense tells me to go with retro-clones or free download variants. These games are often very user friendly, easy to pick up and play and they're free! Picking one version is often difficult and to tell the truth I'm all over the map with the clone/variant crowd. OSRIC is well known in the club and has some adherents. But I prefer somethign closer to actual AD&D. Which has made me seriously consider Adventures Dark & Deep which is an excellent 1.5 variant. Swords & Wizardry is probably my favorite retro-clone in presentation and creative potential. I love what people are doing with the system and it's focus on dark wierd and swords and sorcery fiction. But I worry that it's perhaps too loose to work for young players.

Druthers pushes me strongly towards Hackmaster as its mechanics actually enshrines lots of principles I prefer like honor, quirks & flaws, excellent crit rules, threshold of pain, realistic combat rules and the like. But I know that some club members are scared of HM exactly for these reasons and approach it with great trepidation if at all. Castles & Crusades is a well put together easy flowing system that beginners can pick up and run with from the get go. But it seems to be missing elements that I like added in. Do I go to the trouble to add them in and risk rebellion that I'm tweaking the rules too much? Dungeon Crawl Classics is very intriguing to me, but it won't be out in official release until November. And if they are scared of HM they are likely to be terrified by horror of DCC crit tables and magic corruption.

The democratic side of me tells me to just allow a vote. Talk about all the systems, be open about what I think about them, let others make their pitches for their preferred system and then hold a silent vote. And then all of us, me included are bound by the club vote. I could even make it easier and include a checklist on the club sign-up forms. They could make their first, second and third choice or even "no preference". That allows me to rank the systems and still tweak the choice if I feel the need to. Of course both these options means I might be running 4e. Drats!! Unless I take it out of the choice selection altogether, but that would be too obvious. As a club we have lots of 4e resources, lots of Pathfinder resources, several copies of OSRIC, S&W, and we have one set of Castles and Crusades rules. And all of the returning members know this. Excluding one of these from the choices would be too conspicuous. It would be obvious I'm predetermining the choices.

Well, I've got to do something. We start passing out club sign-ups tomorrow. Any advice out there in blogland?

Monday, August 22, 2011

This Year's Club Structure

As many of you know I run the school based RPG club at the school where I teach. Organizing such a club is a chaotic endeavor at best. But I have learned that just like any good game session and gaming group, more structure allows for better than gaming than an infinitely flexible one. Too much flexibility and gaming goes by the wayside and all that gets done is visiting and chatting, or arguing and in-fighting. To tell you truth as a GM I'd rather deal with the latter. But as a gamer looking for friends the first isn't too bad. As a public school club adviser, however, friendships are a bit restricted. First of all these kiddos are a third of my age, and there are some formal guidelines for how staff and students fraternize anyway.

So structure is critical. I have taken the open, democratic let's vote about it approach a few times, and it always flops. Last year was a perfect example of why lack of structure kills. We started the year with 30+ gamers and ended with about 8 regulars. I won't go into everything we did wrong, but suffice it to say I'll be enforcing a greater degree of structure this year.

We'll be taking sign ups the last half of this week and next week. Sign ups will include grade 8 through 12 and we always pick up a few 6th and 7th graders too. On the sign-up sheet, a kewl little brochure we hand out all over town, students have to indicate their previous gaming experience by game and whether they were a GM or player. They also indicate if they would like to be, and can truly commit to being, a GM. I also put a place where they can list friends they will have in the club and if they would prefer to game with them. If they desire to be a GM I also ask them if they have players already picked out or they need players assigned to their game. I don't list default games or even a list of games we have materials for in the club. That will be more forced than voluntary.

I then take all the brochures turned in and correlate the information. Student GMs have to have at least one year of verifiable GM experience. And by that I usually mean they have GMed in the club before and I have witnessed their success. If GMs fit this bill and have players for their game I will assign them a day to GM and put players in their group (max of 4 for student GM, with few exceptions). We usually only have one or maybe two volunteer GMs. I then sort players who are friends into groups with me as GM. After friends are lumped together I then set up the rest of the players into groups based on what I consider strengths and weaknesses at the time. These groups are usually 8 or smaller. I usually anticipate 24 sign-ups or regulars. This gives us 4 groups 3 of which are about 6 strong and have me as GM. The remainders are in student run groups. This also gives the inevitable drop ins some space to enter an ongoing game. If the groups get too big we create another group and reshuffle everyone to have about six players in each group again.

It is my experience that student run games are short lived, and GMs burn out easily. Rotating those GMs can work if you have a student everyone is willing to support as GM and that has decent experience GMing. I have always hoped that the club would work as a vehicle to train GMs and to improve their skills. But this has rarely worked in practice except with good friends and lots of patience. Kids come to the club to play and have a good experience. There is nothing that will run them off quicker than lame or unfair GMs. I have also tried to monitor such situations and intervene when necessary. But this too has proved a pipe dream near impossible to achieve.

So, GMs that really want to GM, and that have a proven track record of running at least one decent adventure that others seemed to enjoy can have a go at running a club game. This may seem harsh, but I owe it to the club members that they can expect to come and game a decent game when they show up at club. Not show up ready to game only to discover their GM cancelled, or their GM is woefully unprepared, or have to suffer through yet another crappy session. If club players were all very experienced it might be different. I could put experienced players willing to help and be patient with a less experienced GM, but that's not a luxury we have.

Game, version and edition is another sticking point for some. And was a major problem last year. Honestly I can't say I helped this much as I allowed people to move around, switch games and tried to facilitate everyone's whims as much as possible. This resulted out of the club experience of two years ago, when several vocal members continually complained that they didn't like this or that version or game. I put up with this for a year, but refused to change. We had a much more successful year that year tho', as opposed to last year when I allowed just about any change requested. People became so fed up with the changes we lost two thirds of the club. So this year we are offering two options. If you want to play in Mr. Jones' groups you will play the version I choose. If you would like to run your own game/edition/version, you can start your own session and I will accommodate it. But I will not assign players to such a game. The GM will need to find players who want to play in that game. Otherwise players stay where they are.

I am also planning on gaming on our first club meeting. I will let GMs know ahead of time that they need to come prepared to start gaming that day. And of course I will be ready for the first groups session. Most sessions run 2 hours after school, one group per day. I have a large table that can seat about 13 in the center of my room so most sessions are held there. If I could find a way to set up downloads I would post my club brochure, bylaws, constitution etc. for your perusal and use if you choose to run such a club. Anyway, here goes another year of fast and furious gaming at Vernal Junior High!