Friday, April 27, 2012

Rethinking the Obvious

I have really appreciated the feedback lately--both positive and negative. It has come on my blog, in emails, in other blogs and in person. It makes me feel quite good to have such a willing community of hobbyists to whom I can go for counsel and advice. I have had a few days in which to consider it all, while I finished my Hackmaster post. And now I wanted to openly reflect on every one's input on my experiences, thoughts and feelings.
  • The most frequently expressed thought was by far that my gaming style did not match those of my players.
This I now readily admit. And I have come to some decisions in regards to the school gaming club I advise. In the past I have struggled with how to run the club. I belonged to a D&D club when I was in middle school, but it lasted 30 minutes in our homeroom hour and very little actual gaming was done. We mostly got together and talked, made and compared characters and the like. I had come close to starting one when I was in High School--but a rat tailed 20/20 piece on D&D caused the Principal to shoot us down. Then I had done some web research and ran into at least one club that gave the model under which it ran. Well, it has become apparent to me that I was putting the "club" ahead of the actual gaming experience of those involved. I was requiring uniformity and attempting to retain control--blame on being a classroom teacher of adolescents. Anywho, I have decided that next year I am going to run my game--the game I want--and allow anyone else who would like to run a different game or the same game differently is welcome to. I have made this decision in the past, but I always step in and rescue failing groups. I'm just going to have to allow them to fail. I am not going to take responsibility for every one's gaming fun. From here on out it will be more like "This is a place where you can start or join any game you want!" By doing this I can run a game the way I want, and those who may not like it can run in a different game. And I don't have to take these differences so personally. I think I was just biting off more than I could chew, and forcing it down everyone else's throat as well.

  • The next thought that impressed me was that Monty Haul gaming has been around since the beginning of the hobby.
This is oh so true. I'm not sure why it bothered me so much now, where it didn't then, until I really thought about it. I never liked it then either. But I was young, stupid and not so worried about offending Monty Haul gamers. Now, I'm an adult and hopefully a little wiser and kinder. I can't release my frustration by tirades out in the open as I did when I was a kid gamer myself. I hold it inside a lot and stew over it. That's not good either. At it's heart I think this goes back to playstyle mentioned above. If you want to play that way don't expect to do it in my game. But this thought has also got me to thinking about systems again too, and I'll go into that in another post.
  • The next matter has to do with railroading your party.
I think I already addressed this fairly well in my response to Aaron, but it too has given me pause to think about how and game and why I game the way I do. As I said I addressed this fairly well in my response--but it still didn't keep the incident from occurring, which then goes back to differences in playstyles. But beyond this I have begun to think about the game that best suits my playstyle; which I will get into when I address systems in my next post.

  • And last but not least was the oft repeated opinion that it wasn't Pathfinder's fault.
I don't disagree with that. Pathfinder had a lot to do with it however; but that was because I chose to GM Pathfinder and then tried to do so in a style that was distinctly against my tastes. My opinion was slanted to begin with. I'll own my own prejudices and biases against much of modern roleplaying. It's a weakness, I suppose, but it is what it is. I personally feel my playstyle is rooted in an older style of play. It may not be the only style of play, but it's the one I like. Aaron was right in as much that  shouldn't be shoehorning my young players into my style simply because it's what I like to play. I don't want to shift my style to a different ethos, and that's fine. It is also fine that players in my club prefer something different. Pathfinder was simply the vehicle of choice in which it was all experienced. However, I find it hard to admit that Pathfinder is an old school game. I tried it. Maybe if my players had agreed with my playstyle and caught on to the way I was trying to get them to play it may have been a different experience altogether. But as my past posts on Pathfinder show, there are numerous mechanics in PF I do not like and that I think encourage a player-powered game. Such rules and structure enforce a style of play that does not encourage creative problem solving as much as it could, encourages player to go for power wherever they find it, and focuses character development on powers abilities, classes, features an the like. Not on depth of roleplay.

Now, I'm not saying PF isn't a roleplaying game, nor am I saying a group couldn't play it differently. Just that I find it to be a heavy player option game that is designed for a certain type of play. This type of play was introduced in 3.5 and the massive power creep and rule multiplication chaos that entered the game are a perfect example of where such games inevitably lead. Not in every circumstance mind you, but that is the tendency of the game. Sorry for the 2e fans out there, but that is the same thing that happened in 2e--against, I might say, Gary Gygax's wishes.

Is such a thing bad? No, not at all. But it is what it is. And it's not what I want. Which, despite my last love-fest post of Hackmaster, keeps me hesitating still when it comes to deciding on which system I can embrace to foster my playstyle. Which is what I'll post on next time.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Hackmaster: A History

Check it out here: HackMaster: A History

There are numerous things I love about this retrospective on the development of the HackMaster Game. But first and foremost right now is the gaming ethos presented within its pages. Honestly I have loved the whole ethos of HM since it came out. Yes, its adversarial, yes, it promotes killer GM mentality, yes it promotes players desperately trying to outwit GMs; but here in the pages of "A History" is laid forth something even deeper. Something that I knew all along I wanted and believed in, but have never had adequately explained to me. Since it's said so much better in the article itself I'll take a few snippets to which I refer. I won;t be quoting wholesale--for that check out the article itself. But I will give you my feelings on certain select quotes.

In speaking of the HackMaster Basic game "While simpler and smoother-running than the other major games out on the market, HackMaster can seem daunting because of its free-form play (you needn’t ever wait for your ‘turn’ again, just like in Aces and Eights) and myriad of combat options and tactics (which mirror real-life situations and require true decision making and trade-offs in combat)."

The "trouble" with some earlier free form incarnations of D&D and it's subsequent simulacra is that the "free form" nature of those games can be a huge pit into which players and GMs alike can fall. Every rules lite game has to be carefully defined, or the inherent openness of the game can be as much of a detriment as a strength. HackMaster however has taken that open, free-form roleplay oriented action and enshrined it in the rules. This appeals to me. Granted the rules themselves and the structure of the game are what allows this. This change of "speed" can throw some people. Admittedly it throws me a bit. The New HackMaster is different from games I am used to playing. But at the same time it has a familiar feel.

"HackMaster Player’s Handbook ... covers all the rules necessary for play through 20th level ... your characters will always be unique, never cookie cutter. Every time you roll a new character, you’ll be in for a brand new gaming experience. We made sure that HackMaster would have enough replay value to last you the rest of your natural life."

I love the fact that HackMaster deepens play through deepening your character--not your class or your race--but with flavour and individuality. And it ensures longevity of variety by infinite variations. I'm a bit tired of endless splat books that introduce new classes, races and the like. I can't even keep up with them as a GM. Which is a whole different thing from a new skill, quirk, spell, background, or trait. I want depth, not just breadth. That being said, HM manages to achieve both at the same time.

The Player's Handbook Page

I can't quote the whole page--copyright prohibits--but this whole page should be read by anyone wanting to adventure in my games. This page alone more accurately captures my playstyle than just about any other document I have read. A few choice snippets:

"Problem solving underpins the play of any roleplaying game, regardless of genre."
"HackMaster includes another element overlooked by the other games – the journey to becoming a hero."

"In HackMaster, players begin running characters generally little better than the local commoner."

"The challenge of the game is to overcome difficult situations with a band of allies, none of whom are overly exceptional. To find a literary example of this type of story, one need not look far. Arguably (if not factually) the most popular fantasy story of all is such a tale. In Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the main character (as well as his dwarven companions) is a plain everyday person. One of the reasons we love this story is because we can identify with Bilbo; he’s just like us. We root for him as he overcomes the odds on his journey to becoming one of the most storied heroes of Middle Earth. The Hobbit is about the journey to becoming a hero. This is also the essence of HackMaster."
"True heroism comes from overcoming the odds and risking life and limb in a perilous situation not the faux valor that comes from defeating supervillains when the chance of failure is slim or none."

"If problem solving is the essence of roleplaying, then the journey to hero is the ultimate method of play."

See what I mean? Need I say more? Keep in mind, this is not the only way to play. There are many ways to play RPGs. KenzerCo is not saying their way is best. Even when they say their way might be the ultimate, they qualify it by saying that it may be true if problem solving is the essence of RPGs. And I for one thing it very well may be.

“The D-Team is writing a game that they want to play. There is no giant toy company looking over their shoulders while they write. HackMaster is a creative endeavor inspired by the fun of sitting around a table slinging dice with friends.”

But even more than that Hackmaster encapsulates what I hope to experience every time I sit down to game. Taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary. Allow me to share ...

When I was very young my mom read me stories from a series of fantasy stories about Robin Hood, King Arthur, The Arabian Nights, Fairy Tales, Norse Myths and the like. I wish I still had those books. There were about 11 or 12 ... no maybe ten. Anyway they were bound in deep blue cloth and each sported an NC Wyeth cover in vivid color. More graceful art adorned the inside, and even when my mom was done I would pore over the pictures, retelling the stories to myself. She also read every Winnie the Pooh story to me a hundred times. I would ask to hear them again and again. And say what you may, The Milne stories embedded within me a deep longing for and love of the "expotition". And moreover I identified with those books. So many of them were about small unassuming heroes that went out, braved hair raising terrors and somehow managed to save the day.

I suppose when I ran into Dungeons & Dragons about five or six years later, it was inevitable that a chord would be struck within me. But it was as if all my imagined fantasies had just come to life. Now I could actually take all those adventures I had dreamed about and listened to as a boy. And I'll tell you the truth, it was ME in those early adventures. It didn't matter if I was playing a Ranger or a Cleric or a Dwarf or Half Elf, it was really me on that character sheet. Yeah I died, and I died again, but that didn't deter me. My next PCs were no less precious and when they started actually living I can't describe the thrill to you. Well, I guess I don't need to for most of you--you felt it too.

A Human Ranger (I played Humans alot--big surprise) with a bow, 12 well fletched arrows, An extra string (never know when the thing might break) maybe 10 hit points, soft leather armor, a good hunting knife and a short sword. Rations in my pack, a bedroll with an extra blanket, tinder and steel, fishing line and hooks, three torches, bandages, and fifty feet of rope with 5 steel spikes and a simple hammer. Soft leather boots--the better to sneak through crunchy leaves--a leather belt with two pouches. Maybe about 10 gold and 20 or 30 silver and some odd copper. A deep green or grey light gray cloak with full hood. Undergarments of course (it was embarrassing when orcs made you strip and you had no undergarments), a light green tunic and brown pants.

Most of the time my stats were average but I loved getting that odd 12 on Strength or constitution; and Heavens bless a 14 Dexterity! I always liked being fast over strong. Dark brown hair, blue eyes, or maybe green if I was feeling a bit wild, around 5'10" and 185 pounds. I was a skinny kid and always wanted a bit more muscle on my frame. I imagined him from a small village, maybe a rural town. Father a working class man, mother a loving and supportive figure. He would accompany his father on jaunts into the wood to get firewood or maybe to hunt and he grew to love the outdoors. Had a way with animals, and was much more at home alone on a hike through the trails than with his village chums. He had a knack for archery, but was only passable with a blade. In fact man to man combat scared him a bit (just as it always had me).

He had been apprenticed to the local forester at the age of twelve to manage timbering permits for the Lord of the wood. And learned his job well. Moreover it allowed him to practice his others scouting skills. Tracking animals a bit, identifying plants and trail signs. He learned to make a shelter, build a fire, find food in the wild when the Foresters grub went short. After awhile he could guide others through the woods with a fair amount of skill and navigate by forest signs, maps and the heavens above.

See, to me this was all very possible. I did it myself as a Boy Scout from the age of 12 on. In fact I could and can still do every thing listed above. About the only thing different today is that I'm a better fencer than archer. But back then things were a bit different. See the thing was this Ranger I built was very believable for me--because he practically was me. Nothing about him was unbelievable. And if I myself were to be transported though a gateway into another world--the fantasy world of my dreams--then it WOULD be me!

What my early characters represented were ordinary people very much like me that were heading out to face the world. They may have possessed a few useful skills, but no great ability or magical power. I couldn't really identify with any of that anyway. It held little interest for me. Each of my gaming sessions was sort of like a practice session for my soon to come personal journey over to the other side.

No. It never actually came. But something else did. The characters we created and that actually lasted in my gaming group became very real to us. They could step out into our world and in many ways would fit right in. Because they weren't superhuman. They were real people, who had been through a lot of crap. They had scars, had suffered emotional trauma, had won through and fought the good fight. They were true grizzled veterans of a life spent in full adventure.

Even more so, such a focus on the "reality" of my fantasy did something else for me as well. I continued improving myself in ways that might represent an adventuring persona. I made it to assistant fencing instructor at my college, I studied mythology, magic, religion, witchcraft and shamanism, I practiced martial arts on and off for over twenty years. I became and amateur astronomer, a bird watcher, and learned to take plaster casts of animal tracks. I became an amateur cryptozoologist and paranormal investigator, went into US Army Intelligence, became an expert marksman, learned to flyfish, and I could go on for many more paragraphs if I wanted to.

Friends my fantasy was very real. It was intertwined with who I was. Now, I'm not saying someone else may not feel like that with their 100th level Demigod Half Dragon that farts fireballs. But for me ... well let's just say it stretches verisimilitude.

If you have taken the time to read through KenzerCo's products you will see a deep concern for the type of gaming I'm talking about. Not that crazy unimaginable stuff won't happen there occasionally. It's just not the rule. You may say that this is not fantasy--but I would take exception with you. Just as mentioned above--Bilbo was a pretty ordinary guy who went out and through bravery, luck and some good companions did some amazing things. In fact the gritty nature of early swords and sorcery fantasy is rooted in this same type of realism. Why is this the case with HackMaster simply because

"HackMaster is all about the journey to becoming a hero – rather than beginning play as a superhero of some skill, HackMaster characters begin play hardly better than peasants (although better equipped to some extent). It plays closer to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings than Superman. Here characters grow into their heroic feats and beat the odds despite their overwhelming nature, generally by using wit and teamwork rather than overpowering weaker opponents through superior firepower."
And I suppose some might say that there are a lot of games that can be played that way. And I wouldn't argue with that. But HackMaster is designed to be played that way. The rules, mechanics and structure of the game cater to that type of fantasy. And for me, as I consider the past, and look forward to the future I can't help but recall the signature line of Jolly Blackburn's profile at the KCo Forums:

"One foot firmly planted in Old School feel and tradition -- the other extended forward breaking bold new ground: That's how I like to think of HackMaster."

Not sure who said it, but for an old school gamer like myself in a new school world--that's darn appealing.