Thursday, August 6, 2015

End of an Age

The time has come for me to seriously consider retiring Classic RPG Realms. I started the blog initially as a gaming club blog and as a vehicle for OSR exploration. The bulk of my entries have been about me philosophizing about gaming, theorizing about gaming styles, and figuring out what is and is not old school and, perhaps more importantly, what my personal gaming is all about.

Now I feel as if I'm in a different era of my gaming life. I'v learned a few things about gaming, my own preferences and styles, and people in general. Allow me to summarize some of what I fell now ...

  • I am less "purist" about my gaming than I thought I was. What matters most is that you are gaming and that you are having fun.
  • Old School is relative to the person discussing it. I have come to realize that style and preferences are more relevant to what you like to play than fixed categories.
  • Gaming is the most awesome hobby in the world. Admittedly a personal view, but if I have learned anything since I started gaming back in 1981 it is that gaming in no small part has made me who I am, has shaped my life and my personality, has given me so much more than I could ever count, has lifted me up, challenged me, tore me down, made me think harder-deeper-more creatively, introduced me to thousands of incredible people, given my imagination a home, given me a place to truly be me, allowed me to live my dreams, and in short saved me from existential oblivion more than once. There are many people in the world, and they each have their hobbies, their past times, their passions, their meaning, their purpose. For me it has been gaming. 
  • I love gaming in general, and there aren't many games I would simply refuse to play.
  • That said, I have rather rarefied tastes. Luckily for me my "strange brew" intoxicates a growing minority of gamers out there. I am into the weird, the unusual, the outre', supernatural horror, the macabre and the fantastique. The growing group of gamers includes devotees of Dungeon Crawl Classics, Crypts & Things, Into the Odd, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Bloody Basic, and the like. I read HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Jules Verne, Poe, Lewis Carrol, RE Howard August Derleth, Steven Brust, Lord Dunsany, George MacDonald, Arthur Machen, Clive Barker, HG Wells, Jack Vance, M.R. James, Laird Barron, JL Borges, Frtiz Leiber, Manly Wade Wellman, Bram Stoker, Shelley, Lord Byron, Ray Bradbury, John Keats, WB Yeats, Abraham Meritt, Michael Moorcock and the list could go on, but you get some idea. But these authors are not your "typical" authors of speculative fiction. This, in turn, flavors my preferences to games as much as the games themselves. I have appreciated retro clones, variants and straight clones for their presentation of gritty "old school" style art that embodies many of the fantasy strains cultivated by the authors mentioned above. 
  • I am also incredibly nostalgic about my gaming past. There is simply something about those older editions--which for me encompasses Original, Classic & Advanced editions of Dungeons & Dragons (along with Gamma World 1st edition, Arduin Grimoire ('77-'78), Call of Cthulhu 1st to 3rd editions, Classic Traveller, et al) that evokes a powerful imaginative affinity within me. Those games and I are one, we are cut of the same cloth. I am uncertain if it is mechanics, art, tone, organization, writing style, or the gestalt, but some magic they contain will always make me preferential and deferential to them. Ask me which games are "best" and one of them will likely come to the fore. 
  • Rules lite is as much an ethos as it is a rules set. We can safely say games like GURPS and Rolemaster are not exactly Rules Lite. However, a game like AD&D, is not as light as say a bare bones d20 game or even Castles & Crusades. But games that are not so "light" can play by an ethos that encourages DM fiat, flexibility, creative rule making, and a "make it possible" mindset that seems faster and freer than some games that are "streamlined" but stricter in their ruleset. A lot of how light and fast a game is depends on the style of the GM and the social contract between GM and players.
  • I like being scared. I mean who "likes" being scared, right? The whole point of terror is that you do not like it. But fear is an element of adventure. We cannot have adventure without danger, the unknown, death and damnation. Their has to be something "at stake". When I am afraid that my character may die it lends a reality to the game unattainable by other means. I thus believe my job as a good GM is to scare you. You should feel the heart pounding, hair raising, goose fleshing fear that comes with facing nearly insurmountable odds. It may seem like this is an adversarial type of play, but ultimately it is required at the heart of good adventure (for me anyway). 
  • Friends are more important than the game. Who you play with becomes more than a partner on your adventures, or someone who enjoys your portrayal of the world. They become comrades in this life as well. You will share triumphs and defeats with them in game and out. They will come to mean more to you than the paper their character is written on, much more--and this is as important a part of gaming as gaming itself. Of course, true friends share things in common with us, and for gamers this means the game is often the most important thing. If you can understand this paradox, you "get it".
  • The current state of a gaming is an outgrowth of Gary Gygax's vision expressed in his book Role Playing Mastery.  He foresaw that there would be those who, as a part of "mastering the game" and role playing games in general, would begin to create their own gaming material and eventually their own games. Today we are inundated with games, settings, adventures and supplements of all types. The vibrant age that was initiated with the Original's versions' injunction "don't let us all do all the imagining for you" is upon us. It's a glorious age, and one we should all revel in.
  • Lastly, I have spent too much time now debating systems and editions and old school and new. I have felt for some time a need to move on to sharing some of what I create, and less to opining about what is or isn't gaming. I also see so much in the gaming world to celebrate as of late. And by "late" I mean in the past 10 years. I want to start doing just that.
Thus I come to a point where I consider whether maintaining my current blog is a help or a hindrance to my new efforts. I could keep the blog as is and simply do a retro-fit. I could shift my design and emphasis to something new. This would perhaps cause the least disruption to my readers and be the "easiest". However, it does cause me some angst to think of trying to fit new wine in old bottles as it were. Perhaps my new creative endeavors would be better served in a new platform, with a fresh start? I am not certain as of yet but would love to hear any input you have.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Hackmaster Combat A Review

Overall Impressions
So I'm using a four star system from * (1) to **** (4) Stars to rate the combat system where one star is the lowest rating and four stars is the highest. I broke my analysis into a total of 5 areas. My opinions for ratings were as follows:
Ease of Play: ***
Speed of Play: ***
Realism: ****
Fun: ****
Old School Sensibility: ****

Please keep in mind, I'm just rating my first impression of combat, not the game overall. I love Hackmaster overall and would likely have to give it five out of four stars overall.


So we playtested a short Hackmaster combat scenario tonight for game night. We used the pregens from the Hackmaster Basic, which you can download for free from their site. I had planned on a short combat with four kobolds. The party would have chased them into their lair, after which the kobolds turn and attack them straightaway, nothing fancy. However, I wasn't sure if we would have more time or not, so I tacked this encounter onto The Training Dungeon to create a more complete scenario and throw in some work for skills and such in addition to a little combat.

Summary of Play

Two Clerics, one Thief, One Mage and a Dwarven Fighter were selected from the pre-gens for play. We started as the characters rushed into the kobolds' lair and the kobolds turned to face them, cornered and slavering for a fight to the death. We rolled d12 initiative all around, except for the thief who rolled a d10. (I made a mistake here, as the thief doesn't get an improved initiative die until 2nd level and higher.)  The count up went well, but I also forgot that characters can move each round, so we had to rewind once and speed up engagement. With the per second move engagement doesn't take very long. The dual attack defense roll was cool actually. I wondered how that would feel, but it adds a dimension to combat that increases excitement, unpredictability and realism that I didn't expect. I did make a mistake with my short sword wielding kobolds as I was rolling 1d6p instead of 2d6p so I wasn't doing much damage the first few hits--thankfully the party thief reminded me--bless his soul. One spell was cast by the party mage--scorch, which TOP'ed the kobolds, but also did so to the Thief caught in the blast radius. The Mage chose to up the spell power since this was a one off encounter which increased the damage considerably. One Cleric and the Mage finished off the TOP'ed kobolds, while the Dwarf took out the third kobold with a well placed and penetrating battleaxe hit. The last Cleric had taken about seven hit points total, and was eventually rescued by the first Cleric who came to back her up and took out the last kobold with a penetrating sword blow. Thus ending the combat. Total elapsed time was roughly 48 minutes. Not bad considering we had to look up some rules and rewind once or twice.

Rules Questions

As we played several questions arose, which we tabled. We made a quick ruling, wrote them down and would look them up after the game. The questions we weren't sure about, the off the cuff rulings we made on them and the by the book answers are as follows:

1. Do shields absorb even on hits, or only on misses?

Ruling: I explained that misses within 10 were still shield hits. The question came up as to whether shields always absorb hits? We ruled they do, and went on.

Rule: I was wrong. But it worked in favor of the players with shields most of the time, as my monsters didn't have shields. Shields allow you better than d20p-4 defense roll but if the defense roll minus the attacker's roll < 10 then it is a shield hit. Shield hits take half damage dice plus modifiers, with the shield absorbing its DR value. Successful attack rolls (rolls that beat the defender's roll) bypass shields, do normal damage and do not apply shield DR, only armor et al DR (pp 224-225 PHB).

2. When entering to engage an already engaged foe, you attack immediately upon engaging--does the
defender always get an immediate counter attack, or response?

Ruling: Yes, except when from rear or rear flank.

Rule: I was wrong. Only the new attacker gets the initial attack. The previously engaged defender "forfeits his initial attack against his attacker because he's still dealing with the attacks and feints of his current enemy" (pp 223-224 PHB).

3. And if the above is the case does combat facing make a difference? In other words does a defender get an automatic attack response if they are attacked from a flank or behind?

Ruling: No response attacks were allowed when from rear flank or behind.

Rule: based on the above this was correct, but it should have applied in all cases with a previously engaged foe. Note though, as we did when I looked this up that rear flanks and behind use d12p and d8p for defense rolls (p 230 PHB).

4.  When attacking a helpless foe do you still use weapon speed?

Ruling: no weapon speed applied to attacking helpless opponents

Rule: I was close. Use half weapon speed rounded up when attacking a helpless opponent (p 236 PHB).

5. We found out that penetration can be awesome and it can be very deadly. Is there any limit to penetration?

Ruling: This was a casual question, to which I quickly replied no. However, I then questioned myself and not being sure I filed it to look up later.

Rule: There is no limit to how many times penetration dice are rolled as long as the maximum value keep coming up on the die. The record for the session was four times I believe on a 2d6p roll. We did however make the mistake of not subtracting one from the value when we added them (p 8 PHB).

Summary of Indicators

So, overall we got a good taste of the rules applicable to combat, and those we didn't know exactly we sort of rolled with; which caused very little in the way of interference and no insolvable dilemmas. As for the ratings I issued above my take is as follows:

Ease of Play: Hackmaster is not rules light, however, there are other games that are more complex and crunchy. I would rate it as challenging for newbies to GM, but moderate for players who haven;t played before. I worried myself to death over it actually, as I really wanted to run it "as written" but it turned out being quite easy and intuitive to GM. My players complimented me on keeping track of the initiative count up, which I simply did in my head fairly easily. But I made a couple of mistakes which were quickly resolved. However, I am an experienced GM, so that made it a bit more comfortable for me, and the fellow players at my table were almost all experienced players as well--that undoubtedly helped. And while it isn't as easy as Original or Classic D&D, it is certainly not any more difficult than AD&D and actually more consistent and well written. So I gave it a solid 3 stars for Ease of Play.

Speed of Play: We were about 40 minutes for our combat. And keep in mind this was our first combat in which we had to struggle through a bit of book flipping to clarify rules. We started around 4:45 or so. Game start time was 4:30, but we got there late (I forgot the address :-) and got the table set up, PC's chosen and rolled initiative around 4:50. We stopped at 5:28. Not bad really. Once we know the rules, I would imagine it runs roughly comparable to AD&D RAW combat. Now, D&D combat can go quicker at lower levels especially, but I would rate the two similar. Not lightning fast, but pretty quick. And the pace itself is lightning fast, due to the by second action and initiative count up. Seeing as I would rate 4e at around one to one and a half stars for speed of combat, and Basic D&D at a four, HM comes in at a solid three.

Realism: For realism, HM knocks it out of the park. I mean it isn't totally simulationist, but compared to what I am used to, you have a pretty gritty and scary feel of how dangerous combat is. You cringe when somebody hits you--even when you know you still like 25 HP. ToP, armor reduction, shields, active defense rolls all lend a certain level of realism without getting in the way of play much at all. It makes combat much less abstract than AD&D without slowing play to a slo-mo ballet. It is one of the most realistic combat in a fantasy game I have ever played. Granted I never played Rolemaster, but those I know who did didn't seem to like it too much. I enjoyed HM combat. Can;t but give it complete four stars on this one!

Fun: Oh heck, can I give it five stars? No, I'll stay within my own system and fill these four stars to overfilling. I have had fun combats before, but this was the first time that the rules of combat made a game fun to play. All that is happening, the suspense and intensity was not like anything I had experienced before as a GM. I've always struggled in more free form games to make sure a combat is challenging, but not too deadly and end up just sort of getting a feel for it, and winging it. Nothing wrong with this of course, But the bodies that littered my dungeon floors always carried with them the slight stink of doubt. I wondered, had I been too rough, too hard, too many, etc. etc. HM combat is engineered in such a streamlined way as to reflect , to my mind anyway, the actual danger of combat. I don't have to reach too far out of the way. The dice fall where they may in the context of the system and consequences result; and those results are not just hit or miss, they are surprising, scary, thrilling and well--just plain fun. I loved it.

Old School Sensibility: Okay, I struggled with this one. HM is old school. It takes as it's inspiration AD&D from the 80's to about '00. But the designers dug deep into what they loved about old school and write a rule set that highlighted those aspects of play. Lots of things which were introduced into the late '80s and through to today in terms of character customization, options, combat focus, high starting hit points, tweaking ability scores and all that without losing the extreme deadly feel that pervaded old school gaming. This, of course, began in HM 4 (the first version), but was done in a classic sort of "broken" style. Advanced HM is something else entirely. I mean it has enough to satisfy the most character focused players (those that have flocked to 4e, Pathfinder and now 5e) to customize, tailor and optimize your character to your heart's content. But it has done so in a way that is directly applicable to realistic game play. One of the conversations that came up after our session was by the player who had played the Mage. He had chosen to cast a scorch spell that incapacitated two of the kobolds (but also happened to traumatize the party's thief). Since both were out of commission he then was not engaged and so stepped up to the first fallen kobold to attack it while it lay there helplessly writhing in pain and desperately trying to put out it's burning loincloth. He hit it once, ineffectively, but then smashed it into lizard-dog pate' the next second with his second blow. He thought his luck seemed a little excessive, like he did too much during the fight where one or two others were locked in a back and forth melee. As we talked though, we thought that a lot of HM is understanding the reality of combat and using strategy both in weapon, armor, spell selection and the like in addition to your action choices in combat. (Of course it turned out that I had ruled incorrectly on weapon speed with helpless opponents and he should have waited like 5 seconds (his weapon speed) before attacking the fallen kobold a second time). But this very fact--that making and customizing your character with an eye not towards becoming some sort of superman, but of becoming a better more efficient more deadly fighter, a more effective and strategic mage, a more useful and sneaky thief--in short of dealing with the real world in a real way. It has an amazing appeal to me that few other games have ever captured. It in fact is what I have wanted from so many rules light games, but had to enforce simply by dint of DM fiat. "It's hard because I say it is!" Instead of a ruleset that captures the world I want to play in within it's own ruleset. For these reasons, I give Hackmaster a full four stars here as well. I didn't really expect to, truth to tell. I mean there are old school games with more crunch than say OD&D. So rules alone doesn't make or break old school. It's really int he way they play. I expected the apparent complexity of the rules to get in the way of me achieving the style of play I like. I was beginning to think that old school might only be rules light for me. I am so glad my group agreed to test HM out. It was something I always "felt" playing the game, but really wanted to experience before I judged. The experience made a convert of me. And better yet, I always wanted a game where the rules themselves enforced the feel and the tone, not just my "preferences" which could be taken by anyone who chose to as "biased". With HM it's not just "my way of playing" it's the way the game is played. Old School? Yes! Full Bore! My kind of old school in a way I never could have hoped for.


I recall reading once, in a forum online, as a HM advocate was trying to explain HM combat to an interested third party. The querent was concerned that the combat seemed bulky and too crunchy, maybe it would run too slow. After testifying that these weren't really valid concerns, because x, y and etc. The advocate finally said, you'd just have to try it to understand what I mean. I have a lot of sympathy for both of these gamers. I too had concerns of exactly the same nature. I suppose those who have a high degree of game design mindset can see how a rule will play within a game, most of the rest of us actually have to get down into it and roll some dice and playtest the thing. That's what it ultimately took for me. It even scares me that I almost bowed out of trying HM at all with my new group because I was worried about those very issues. Fortunately the gamers in my group are good people and open minded. It didn't hurt either that they had quite a bit of interest, had downloaded the free rules, read the 4e rules and really wanted to give it a go. What it took for me, a convert in every way but reality, to truly become impressed with HM completely and totally. This review was about  HM combat, but that was as much for me as for any other reason. I just hope now that I put this out there, others who might have similar concerns can read this and have some of their fears assuaged. Download the basic rules and give HM a test drive--you will not be displeased. On the contrary, you will find just about every gamer nerve in your system very well pleased.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Game Night!

So, amidst all of my philosophical blatherings I thought I would take a minute and let you know what else I am up to. It's summer of course, which means I am not at school fulfilling my adventurous role as vice principal. I have one college class this summer, and am 3 credits and my thesis away from finishing my masters. That will be nice to have out of the way! I work as a biological field technician during the summer for a mosquito control district, but that's actually quite a nice break from the normal school year for me. I was contacted by a gamer new to the area who was interested in getting a game going. So, I figured my schedule was good enough now to at least allow me a game night every other week, This is our second meeting, but our GM is unavailable tonight due to some things that came up at work.

We decided last week after some deliberation to let our newest addition GM. He is most comfortable with Pathfinder, and was more than willing to give it a go. So we decided we would start with PF as the quickest route to move ahead. My schedule is still not free enough to allow me to do justice to running a campaign right now, but my masters program is almost over and that will free me up considerably. We are finalizing our PF characters and going to run through the Curse of the Crimson Throne. After that we may shift gears to another more preferred system.

There is some interest in Hackmaster among several us, but we are all a tad intimidated by it. So since our regular GM is out tonight, we are planning on running a HM playtest session. I'll GM the Training Dungeon, which is a free download from the Kenzerco which we'll play with the HM PreGens that come with the Basic Download. Personally I want to get a feel for HM combat and see if it is something I am comfortable with. But I am also interested to playtest a 5e / D&D Next session, as my brother is playing it and feels like it has some old school feel to it. We'll see. The plus for both of these, in fact PF too is that the basic system or SRD is available online. Not to digress too much back into my running essay on "my" game--that's a big plus for any game you're going to regularly play.

So we'll see how HM and maybe 5e shakes out. But I'm sort of thinking as far as my DMing goes, I'm going to settle into a system (as referenced in my recent posts) and start creating my own campaign and writing my adventures for that system. And if I DM I will choose to run that before anything else. Of course, gaming is gaming and gaming friends and the stories we tell make the fun. I have had fun with just about every system I've played in, yes even 4e for quite some time. But we all have our druthers, our gaming "home" if you will and that is what my other posts have been about. My children are also involved in a sporadic game I GM when their cousins come over. We play generally Castles & Crusades in that game, as it is easy to grasp and comfortable for me. We have run a modified C&C adventure called Dark Journey which I have modified to include a Chronomancer. We which led to the DCC adventure Doom of the Savage Kings. We play that about the equivalent of once a month--the next session of which should run mid August.

So, yeah :-) Gaming continues! I am very excited to have a regular group which I can commit to now. I sure have appreciated their patience with me and my crazy schedule! I'll post a review of our experience with Hackmaster combat maybe tomorrow after I finish homework. So that's what this Hobbit Magic User has been up to of late. Hope your gaming is going well too.

Old School Sensibility

Sensibility: the kinds of feelings that you have when you hear, see, read, or think about something (Merriam Webster)

Old School Sensibility: the kinds of feelings that you have when you hear, see, read, or think about old school role playing

To continue the train of thought in my last post, I want a light, fast and flexible game that has the old school sensibility that I prefer. Though I may be in love with a particular ethos, theme or tone expressed in a game, that doesn't necessarily mean that it allows me to play in the story oriented, rules light way I am used to and particularly enjoy. That was sort of where I left off with my last entry. 

In the past couple of entries, as I've been through this journey of reflection, I have walked through the fact, that though I loved AD&D, I never really played it like 1e was written. The more I looked at it the more I realized I played it sort of like a modified Original/Classic Version of D&D. As a bit of an aside, the versions of D&D that are of interest to me are sort of considered as:

"Original" Dungeons & Dragons = The 3 little brown books
"Classic" Dungeons & Dragons = Holmes / Moldvay / Cook
"Advanced" Dungeons & Dragons circa '77

But there was a middle ground between Original and Classic that approached Advanced, but wasn't exactly the revised Advanced that Gary re-wrote and began publishing in 1977 or so. The Original version included the supplements Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldritch Wizardry, Gods Demi-Gods & Heroes, and Swords & Spells. The very supplements that would supply the bulk of the expansion that would become Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. But long before that they were played in the Original manner. 

Dr.  Holmes would write the "Basic" set as a streamlining of the original rules, so that those who wished could continue to play the Original rules--but these, though written more cohesively, were limited in scope and would not include the supplemental material in any significant sense. Later, Moldvay & Cook would expand Holmes' offerings slightly, retaining the spirit of the three little brown books, but still not much of the supplemental material.

Advanced D&D would be a notable departure from much of the Original Edition, with the addition of numerous rules that defined a version of the game similar to, but developed from the Original Rules plus the supplements. It is a game vast in scope, and deeply rooted in the worlds of Greyhawk and to a lesser extent Blackmoor. This would also be a departure from the spirit of the Original three in the sense that Gary, Dave and the other early contributors were encouraging players and DMs to do their own designing. The point was to take the outline of the rules and run with them in your own direction. Advanced D&D, of course, retained the idea--but had been heavily influenced by the home campaigns of Arneson and Gygax. Spell names, magic items and the like not only flavored the Advanced game but influenced the development of the ruleset to some degree. This was not entirely new, of course, as the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements had already begun to do so as a separate option to the Original rules. But Advanced D&D was not to be seen so much as a suggested beginning for play, but as the definitive set of rules to be used without significant deviation.

So, what do I recall playing? Well, that's an interesting question actually. I never really thought of it before; but to explain my theory fully I have to go back to the beginning of my introduction to gaming.

As I explain in previous posts, I was introduced to gaming in 1981 at my first Boy Scout meeting at my local church. The guys who were playing were about a year and a half older than me. They were almost 14, I had just turned twelve. The books they were using were AD&D books. Those were the books we used to develop characters. They never let me look at the Monster Manual or Dungeon Master's Guide; those were off limits and I would have to wait until I bought them for myself before I accessed that hidden knowledge. However, it didn't matter much as they were a resource at best--only referred to casually when we needed to know a modifier or some such. Our play was highly improvisational, and story driven. We mostly played at Scouts, or on camp outs, but occasionally at guys' houses. I distinctly recall being at one fellow's house and seeing his collection of gaming books. There on his shelf was a small beige box labelled Dungeons and Dragons. I recall asking about it, to which he replied, that taking the box off the shelf, that these were the the first rules of the game put out a long time ago (a long time ago relative to our ages--this was 1981 or 2). He showed me the original books and one or two supplement books (I can't recall which) and explained with reverence that this was the way it was originally played, the way he was taught to play by guys at the high school; but, he continued matter of factly putting the books back, we used the advanced version now. His tone was obviously one betraying the clear superiority of the large hard back books we used. 

That's the memory. And I never thought much about it, but as I consider the way I was taught to play the game, the way I taught others to play the game I believe it has significant relevance. It is my belief now that those early gaming mentors were playing a version of the Original Game with some advanced supplemental material. We used race as separate from class, advanced hit die, saves, alignment, weapon damage and the like but the game itself was a very simple approach to play. It was that very free form creative space between the Original Game and the Advanced Game that could for all intents and purposes be called Edition "Zero Point Five" (0.5).  Not quite Advanced D&D "by the book" as it were, but a definite extension of the Original Edition incorporating much of the supplemental material. 

The significance of this, of course, is that it answers so many questions I have been asking myself for so long. Why can't I find the game I used to play? Why are so many newer games, or retros of past games dissatisfying to me? I'm not just looking for fast and light and flexible--lots of games provide that. I'm looking for that classic sweet spot between two editions. I am tempted to say that the edition I'm looking for doesn't exist as it replicates play similar to the Original Edition with the Advanced Books as a reference. It's not quite Original and it's not quite Advanced. 

However, I think some very viable options do exist. Games which were created to sit exactly in that sweet spot. And there is also another matter entirely that needs addressed; each of which I will take in turn in subsequent posts.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Tenkar Rules! The One True Edition

Over at Tenkar's Tavern he brought up a drunken gem, or drunkenly brought up a gem, that we gamers always love, or in many cases hate, to endlessly debate ...

The One Ring!

Or rather ...

The One Game!

Any way you debate it, the comparison is quite apt, as the prophecy says ...

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

Could just as easily be transformed to read ...

Three Games for New Wave-Gamers under the hobby shop lights,
Seven for the Strategy-Gamers before tables of minis,
Nine for Old School Grognards doomed to roll the die,
One for the Melancholy Nostalgist on his lonely throne
In the Land of the Past where the Memories lie.
One Game to rule them all, One Game to find them,
One Game to bring them all and in the FLGS bind them
In the Land of the Past where the Memories lie.

I am not foolish enough to think that there is one game for all the gamers out there these days. The very reason so many games dot the market today is because there are so many types of gamers. Talented gamers with a vision to share. Some out of necessity, some out of artistic desire, some out of nostalgia, some out of various what if scenarios and they are all marvels to behold. But it can make it harder than ever for a group to decide on what they want to play. If there is any one game, it would be for the gamer herself. What game do you prefer to play above all others. What is your go-to game?

As I consider the matter for myself, I would offer a brief retrospective of my own gaming life:

April 1981 -- I start with AD&D 1e and feel like it is the only and definitive game; but I never play the game as written--a very streamlined version with minimal attention paid to rules.

December 1981 -- I get the Basic & Expert Set for completion sake, thinking I should have read them before beginning AD&D. Only, I realize that they are very different, seem limited and I never actually play by these rules. I do use Basic and Expert modules however, with my AD&D games.

1982 -- In the Jr. High gaming club I realize there are different ways of playing the game. Neat, I think, but somehow wrong.

1983 -- Mt first Dragon Magazine subscription shows me a lot of the "weird" alternatives out there are actually alternatively sanctioned rules! I hesitantly allow some of it in my games.

1983 to 1985 or so -- It is clear there are lots other games out there. I play some Gamma World, Some Call of Cthulhu, Star Frontiers but by and large stick with AD&D. I also realize there are lots of AD&D supplements--Arduin's Grimoire, Judges Guild and the like. I use some of their stuff, but always in the context of my version of AD&D.

1987 -- I enter the Army and realize there are vastly different ways to play the game. Wow, maybe I was near sighted in my gaming.

1990 -- 1994 or so I see the first second edition stuff. At first I rebel. Then (in secret) I realize that some of it is pretty cool, even if THAC0 sucks. I pick up up some 2e stuff, but never run a strict "2e" game as it were--still playing my own streamlined version of 1e. My only "other" game is Call of Cthulhu at this point, but I play it rarely.

Here I would like to point out that I find it humorous I was such a purist about AD&D, but really I was playing a very "light" and "rules free" version of the game. We resorted to the books only when we were stumped on how to resolve a technicality.

1995 -- I drop out of the gaming scene, miss the rise of 3e and then 3.5. I travel, serve a mission for my church, get married, start my teaching career etc.

2004 to 2006 -- I am begged and ultimately, convinced to start the gaming club at the school where I teach. The kids are all playing 3.5. I buy all the 3.5 books, well not all, but lots. We play 3.5 at the start of the game club, reluctantly so for me, but I am convinced by others that this is the "better" game. I am convinced of the d20 concept as an improvement, though reluctant to admit it. 

2006 to 2007 -- I find out they are releasing 4e. Argh! I just bought all the 3.5e books! But I am psyched up by the WoTC adverts and also convinced that it has "fixed" all the problems. Problems I really didn't even comprehend. I mean 3.5 was different from AD&D, so maybge 4e would "fix" that?

2007 to 2008 -- I convince everyone to make the switch to 4e. We play an enthusiastic game for about a year. I start the blog! And I also discover the OSR movement online, which influences the title of my blog "Classic" RPG Realms--even though we are playing 4e.

2008 to 2009 -- I become seduced by the OSR. But not necessarily unwillingly. It is still hard for me to parse out how much the OSR caused my dissatisfaction with 4e, and how much was legitimate on my part. We were having lots of fun playing the Keep on the Shadowfell and though I kind of disliked the heavy use of minis, I was cruising along.  Then over time, but 2010 for sure I am dissatisfied with 4e. The focus on my blog shows this as well. I rediscover KODT and am excited about maybe playing Hackmaster 4e. Only to discover they are reinventing the game in 2009. I also hear about DCC RPG and think it might be my savior. 

2010 to 2012 -- We switch to OSRIC and play a two year OSRIC campaign. I become somewhat disillusioned with the differences between OSRIC and AD&D and fool myself that maybe I ever played AD&D by the book. We run into some angst over demi-human level limits. I am reading tons of other rules systems trying to decide what to play. There is no way for everyone to really play 1e without buying all the books used. I find out that 

2012 to 2013 -- I buy Castles & Crusades books for the club and we try that for a short time. I like the idea of the Siege mechanic, but it feels different in play. A group of Pathfinder players convinces us to play Pathfinder. It is successful for about a year or so, but I become disillusioned with the endless character options and optimization. I also am playing several one offs and short campaigns outside of the gaming club. I try various systems in these, but often default to C&C.

2014 plus -- By now I have read and bought most clones and retro variants on the market. They are all good in their way, but I see problems with all of them in one way or another. I had actually played:
  • AD&D 1e
  • AD&D 2e (mixed with 1e)
  • 3.5
  • 4e
  • Pathfinder
  • Labyrinth Lord + AEC
  • Castles & Crusades
2014 plus continued -- 5e comes out. I played it twice during the play test. I was not overwhelmed with awesomeness, but it plays relatively quick and light. Classes seem a bit overpowered. The actual release of the rules confirm that classes are more powerful at baseline than I am comfortable with, but the rules look okay.

Now, as I have mentioned recently, the fact is I never played AD&D with the "rules" so to speak. It was great, but I think I might be in love more with the memory of the time--with the nostalgia I feel about it--than the actual game. The game has become a symbol for me, a metaphor for something bigger than the rules contained in its pages.

The problem is that I am judging all other games by that standard. Only the standard I have before me is not the rules contained in AD&D, which have little to do with what I experienced back then. The other portion of that standard is the nostalgia I feel, that contains enough saudade within it that it will never actually be regained. Saudade, for those of you who don;t know, is a Portuguese word which means something like a deep inner longing for something that you know can never be regained. No game can ever give me that, because it can;t work as a time machine. However, a game can give me the light, fast, flexible old school sensibility to allow me to play like I prefer and to build new memories. 

That would be my One Ring. And I'm not sure it would even be one game, but maybe several that play like that. I have several ideas already that I'll write about next.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Let's Tell a Story Together ... Not Argue Over Rules

"Sometimes when you get the mechanics of the game out of the way -- rolling the dice, keeping track of what your carrying--it's almost like your there." He lifted his head and smiled. "And that's something. How often do you think I'm going to get the chance to, rescue a princess or slay a dragon?" -- Karl Cullinane in The Sleeping Dragon by Joel Rosenberg

As I've reconsidered what I recently wrote in regards to why I game and what I want from my gaming sessions, something has repeatedly come to mind: the story. The narrative that unfolds as DM and players interact within the game world is what keeps me coming back again and again to the table. Story is, I believe, the heart of what makes gaming so satisfying and positively absorbing. As Joel Rosenberg makes Karl say in the book above--the idea is to have the mechanics recede into the background and to actually be there in the game.

Games that prohibit my ability to achieve that are games with which I quickly grow disillusioned. Though I didn't know it until I had been made to stop and think about it, that was the real reason I became disillusioned with 4e and Pathfinder--the excessive intrusion of the rules and mechanics into the game. Which is not just about combat alone, but also the plethora of rules governing character ability, power and development.

Recently in a gaming discussion I was reminded of something I had felt long ago, and have even written about here on this blog. That the multiplication of rules comes from three main sources:

  • Characters desiring to avoid death and danger
  • Characters wanting to be able to "do more"
  • DMs trying to address this apparent dichotomy
Occasionally realism is also posited as a source of rules extrapolation and this too has to be carefully managed. Gary Gygax himself mentioned this in the 1e DMs guide and his work Mastery of the Game. He warned that combat could devolve into an endless tedium if consideration was overly given to realism at the expense of maintaining the high action of fantasy adventure--the reason we game int he first place: adventure! Those who all desire such realism, should be all means seek it out. It has much in common with strategy games and the D&D's wargaming roots--but that is not why I game.

Which leaves the idea that we should avoid danger or death, and or "be more powerful" either for self aggrandizement, the desire to avoid death, or the desire to play a superhuman. If you do desire to play a superhuman, play a Supers game. Supers games have very different purposes than fantasy campaigns, but I suppose it is possible to blend the two. And I must say that a group desiring to play a supers fantasy campaign can do so without any argument from me--it's just that I don't play for that purpose. The desire to "do more" to play a more powerful character, a super-like character, then is a certain valid approach that may lead to rules proliferation. Nothing inherently wrong with this mind you; and it isn't even required as there exist all number of high power, rules light games out there. But this is a "valid" reason--just not one I am interested in. So I set this one aside.

The other reason, desiring to avoid death, is not valid. Allow me to explain. Rules exponentiation that comes from desiring to avoid death can come from two sources: death-dealing DMs and stupidity of players. Both of which should be avoided. The first of the two was more common in my day. The innate power of the DM in a roleplaying game is a temptation to the egotistical to simply lord over and control the other players. This should obviously be avoided as well. Leave such games post haste, as such people are dangerous for more than just your character.

Most players learn that certain actions are bad and should be avoided--most, but not all. If you player is dying repeatedly in a game, ask yourself: Am I doing something stupid? Am I forgetting to check for traps, rushing in where even fools dare to tread? Trying to carry too much of the party weight? Not working as a team with my party? Trying to take on powerful monsters too soon, or adventuring where they live? Not playing my character's class like it is supposed to be played (i.e. a thief trying to lead in combat, a magic user going toe to toe with monsters, etc)? If you are not sure, watch other players whose characters are not dying all the time. Take their advice and look for input when your character takes actions. Things should improve over time.

However, if everyone in your party is dying all the time; if the causes of your deaths seem unfair or imbalanced a lot of the time; if you find yourself continually in no win situations; if every effort your character makes is thwarted by exactly the right kind of challenge--these may key you in on the fact that your DM is being unfair. If this appears to be the case, it should be a topic for after game discussion with your fellow players and possibly with your DM. Don't assume your DM is a killer DM. She may not even know that she is being unfair or biased--it happens. Sometimes all it takes is bringing it up. She might be able to adjust play some to make the play more fair and balanced. It also gives her the chance to defend some of her decisions and reasoning. Or, perhaps someone else needs a go at DMing. If however, your DM gets very defensive, offended or is reluctant or refuses to give up the reigns for awhile, that too could be another sign that they may be too comfortable with the over-use of the power they wield over the players. Find a new game in such situations. The game should be fun--otherwise your not doing it right.

Now, this second scenario can happen in any game--regardless of the rules. However, some rules have arisen to attempt to spell out each situation that might arise as a conflict or challenge a character might face in an attempt to take the adjudicating power away from the DM. The rules assume the DM can't handle this power and will misuse it, and that the other players need that safety net to keep from them from DM unfairness. In a sense some rules are designed to preempt in unfairness in the game. But this takes away an innate quality of the game that comes with DM flexibility--creativity. Hem a DM in too much and they can lose the element of creativity and improvisation that contribute to the story in amazingly powerful ways. The DM was required to be fair as a pat of her role--the very reason they were also originally referred to as judges. 

Now, I'm not saying rules proliferation itself is bad--although I truly wonder sometimes. What I am saying is that an unnecessary multiplication of the rules that can slow down play and interfere with the story being experienced by all players--the DM included. 

To conclude today I consider a quote by Gary Gygax himself:

"The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don't need any rules."

Gary was big on secrets. It is one of the things that probably made him such a great DM. But why should DMs never know this? Well, apart from being melodramatic, I think it's an allusion to the commercial needs of TSR, Several times in the early versions of the game it was repeated again and again that they--the game designers--shouldn't do too much of the imagining for you. The game was designed to open the doors to your imagination--not constrain it with rules or content. We are, however, a lazy species, and gamers were no exception. We'd much rather wait for Gary or Dave or other writers to entertain us with their imaginings instead of create our own. But if they let that be their business model they couldn't make more money! They needed to produce modules, more expansions, more classes, more campaigns, more rules, rules and more rules! Not it wasn't that simple--and they obviously knew the real power of the game because they mentioned the need for participant creativity as an essential element of the game. By doing it for you they were taking something away from the game. But practicalities precluded the continued embracing of such a model and it became the inner "secret" we could never let out of the bag. But by that time, they also knew that regardless of this being the "secret" most of us, would remain little chicks hungrily squawking in the gaming nest for the next creative morsel the designers would regurgitate into out awaiting beaks. So many of us never broke out of the brainwashed masses to do our own thing. Well, I know I didn't, and I know a lot of others in the early 80's who didn't. Some few of the original players of Original and Classic D&D stayed true, because that was the only way they knew to play: that the original rules were a rough toolbox of what could be--not what had been decided from upon gaming high. The original rules were a rough outline of a way to tell a story together and experience it in a way seldom before experienced. By the 90's that vision had been by and large traded in the rules they let us have. When, all along the secret was we didn't need any rules at all--at least very minimal ones. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Is AD&D Combat Any Easier?

After trying to wrap my brain around the Hackmaster combat system, I can;t help but wonder if the AD&D combat system is any better. Of course the way I remember it, it was way better. But the way I remember it was not the way AD&D combat was actually played by me, my friends or those I knew.

Back in the day we held combat something like this:

  • Your party ...
    • Opens the dungeon door ...
    • Turn a bend in the trail ...
    • Is startled awake to see ...
    • Comes upon ..,
  • A group of "baddies"
    • Surprise was intuitive. If somebody got the drop on you they got to act first before you rolled initiative.
  • Everybody roll initiative!
    • We used individual d6s for a long time, until 2e when we started using d10s because we misunderstood the AD&D time keeping system. We thought there were 10 seconds in a combat round and your number on the die was the segment / second you acted in. Not as recommended in the book, but it seemed "more fair" to us.
    • We also used Dex modifiers to initiative until we found out that wasn't quite right
  • Highest went first, ties went simultaneously.
  • Roll to hit VS AC and apply damage as necessary
  • When everyone was finished with one initiative round we rolled for initiative again and ...
  •  ... rinsed and repeated until one side or the other was dead, ran away or surrendered. 
That is not AD&D combat. 

I could outline it here, but if you are interested, and it is quite interesting check out the following excellent documents:
Now, some would say that this is a moot point. The way I played AD&D back in the day, was a perfectly acceptable way to play AD&D. Why muck it up with all these "rules". Well ... because I'm an adult. The last time I played AD&D, well actually OSRIC, was when I advised the Junior High Role Playing Game Club. We played for about a year, until I realized we were "missing" a lot of the rules. This realization came about as I found discrepancies between the OSRIC document and my First Edition books. This led me into deeper rules exploration, actually taking the time to read the books and understand where we were not doing things right. We eventually abandoned OSRIC, admittedly due in no small part to my confusion and frustration, and went to Pathfinder. It wasn't any better than 3.5--very rule heavy.

So, yeah. I am an adult. I actually read rulebooks now. Much to my own detriment and that of my players. I'm sort of like that. Something also make me sort of "itch" when I know we are playing a game without really following the "rules" of that game. But I also know that the more rules heavy a game gets, the more frustrated I become--cite 3.5, 4e and Pathfinder as cases in point.

So this all made me conflicted. Here I was, loving the tone and feel of the Hackmaster dialogue and rhetoric, absolutely love it mind you. And recalling the glory days of yore spent playing AD&D sort of "made up as we went along" and realizing I can't play either one with a very clear conscience in the way I like to play--without so many freaking rules! I even spent 6 hours last night creating two, count 'em TWO Hackmaster characters! Alright, I was half watching back to back movies with my kids, but still! That too, I find somewhat frustrating. I mean we used to take hours creating characters back in the day, but lots of those hours were spent drawing character portraits, writing backstory, creating his coat of arms, drawing his armor, creating genealogies, etc. etc. We didn't need that much time to roll up a character! All it took was:

  • roll 4d6 drop the lowest in order
  • Choose a race--apply modifiers, record racial abilities
  • Choose a class--write down any special class abilities
  • Choose alignment
  • Roll HP
  • May need to pick spells
  • Roll for Gold
  • Equip character
  • Name her and add details if you desire

Sure, I'm certain as I get used to character creation it will go faster, but will it really go any faster than Pathfinder or 4e did? Blargh. I could create a PC in less than 5 minutes back in the day, and it usually took 15. 

What all this is doing is making me realize why I chose Castles & Crusades several years ago to play with my own kids, and why I so often default to it when I play. Rosetta stone of gaming or not, it is fast, light, flexible and story-oriented. And I am assuming it is the same reason I find 5e (D&D Next) so intriguing. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Advanced Hackmaster Combat

Probably the part of Hackmaster that gives me greatest pause is the combat. It's new and different and I want it to go smoothly if I should ever GM. This post is more a help to myself to outline the critical rhythm of HM combat and the flow of actions I should keep in mind as I adjudicate combat at the table. Hopefully you interested in HM combat will also find it useful ...

Hackmaster Combat Resources

I do not propose to re-invent the wheel here. There are numerous gamers more ambitious, intelligent and organized than I who have contributed greatly to the growing pool of HM resources. I have drawn heavily from the following resources:
Flow of Hackmaster Combat

So will consider the general situation in which my PCs are going to be coming up on some baddies. The situations can vary widely, but generally remember to:
  1. Have each side make observation and listening checks once it is possible they might notice each other.
    1. If no one notices each other then as soon as they are in sight roll initiative
  2. If it's an ambush--follow ambush protocols
  3. Roll initiative based on circumstances d4 to d12 generally
  4. Initiative proceeds on a count up basis 1 to end of combat
  5. Surprise is nice in Hackmaster, as it results from initiative rolls
    1. Characters & Monsters are surprised until their initiative count up starts
    2. Surprise can be mitigated by certain actions
  6. Encounter Distance is determined by distance at which both parties notice each other
  7. Movement and Time are important in Hackmaster, and are adjudicated as per movement, count up and actions in combat rules
  8. Ranged Combat follows base rate of fire chart for speed
    1. Range and Size modifiers can alter rolls
    2. Generally defenders get d20p for defense if moving, d12 if standing still
    3. Defenders with shields block missile attacks if the defender is using their shield and rolls greater than or equal to their shield cover value
  9. Once enemies are within 5' of each other plus their weapon reach they are engaged
    1. The attacking opponent with the longer reach attacks first generally rolling a d20p plus modifiers
    2. The defending opponent rolls a d20p-4 unless they have a shield in which case it is d20p
    3. The defending opponent with the shorter reach attacks the next second
    4. Subsequent attacks follow weapon speed for each opponent, adding their speed to their initiative count up
    5. Damage is administered by rolling weapon damage plus modifiers and deducted by any damage reduction due to shields, armor or other factors
    6. Shields give defense bonus, damage reduction, and missile cover
    7. Defending rolls of less than ten greater than the attacking rolls are shield hits and take 1/2 damage plus full modifiers
      1. This may cause shield failure as per shield damage chart
    8. Weapons and equipment can break, though most average and better quality only on fumbles
    9. Armor reduces damage by its DR value and certain situations like penetrations and criticals can cause 1 armor HP loss
      1. 10 Armor HP = 1 DR reduction in armor value
    10. Fighting Styles might modify attack and defense rolls and initiative
    11. Damage taken of 5 points per size category may result in a knockback as per knockback rules
    12. Fighting multiple opponents can reduce defense rolls
    13. Damage greater than Threshold of Pain level requires a trauma check
    14. Helpless opponents get 1d8p defense rolls
    15. You may coup de grace according to coup de grace rules
    16. Attack rolls of 20 always hit
    17. Defense rolls of 20 always cause a miss
    18. Ties of 20 goes to the character with the greater modifier
    19. Critical hits roll on critical hit table in GMG
    20. Near Perfect Defense = 19
    21. Perfect Defense = 20
    22. Attack roll of 1 and is less than defenders roll is a fumble, roll on fumble chart in GMG
    23. Defense roll of 1 the attacker receives an automatic free attack the next second
    24. Death and Dying
      1. 0 HP = near death but stable
        1. d20p + Wisdom save vs d20p + 11 to stay conscious
      2. Negative HP = dying
        1. Every 10 seconds make con save d20p + Constitution + current hit point total vs. d20p + 11
          1. Fail = lose 1 HP
          2. Success = no HP loss 
        2. Every 10 seconds make wis save d20p + Wisdom save vs d20p + 11 to stay conscious
      3. Negative HP > 1/2 Constitution = death
    25. Spellcasting in combat
      1. d4p seconds to ready components
      2. If attacked during casting mages lose spell and spell points, clerics must restart spell next second
      3. Spell caster rolls spell attack roll d20p + level + modifiers (incl spell points)
      4. Defenders roll d20p + level + ability modifiers
      5. Defender must roll greater than attacker
      6. Generally spell damage ignores armor
      7. Spell fatigues is 5 seconds plus casting time of spell during which time spell fatigue effects are in place
    26. Clerics may choose to turn or command undead as per turning rules
    27. Players may spend Honor in combat to affect rolls
    28. Morale Checks may be called for in certain situations as per morale check table
    29. Advanced/optional rules cover
      1. Shooting into melee
      2. Special combat moves
      3. Max number of opponents
      4. Fatigue
      5. Called shots
      6. Unarmed combat
Writing it out this way helps me immensely in grasping the "flow" of Hackmaster combat. Wrapping your brain around the general back and forth is much easier than trying to modify your existing notions of D&D style combat. Generally speaking most HM rules are based on common sense. What you think would happen is likely what does happen, and understanding the rules reinforces this
conception. I find the Combat Reference Sheet made by Dave Nielson a great summary of the rules and a go-to for GMs without having to flip through rulebooks. I don't have a HM GM screen, but I can see already some of the tables I would want easily at hand when one is created. 
I have also heard of various combat trackers, initiative trackers, combat wheels, and combat rose card holders and trackers that could be useful. I think I'll hold off on commenting on those for now, as I've not used them, but might as I get more familiar with the system and start to incorporate more tools into my GMing. I also want to put up a separate post about HM and minis later. I am a soft mini user--more for effect and color than strategic use. I have some ideas how I could incorporate more mini use and not make it a battle-grid wargame style of game. I have also gotten into making my own dungeon terrain tiles a bit and can see how it would be fun to have that in some sessions. Any-who, I would love to have feedback from experienced Hack-players on anything I've missed or mis-represented and on people unfamiliar with Hackmaster about if my list helps at all. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Which Game Has the "Magic"?

In case you haven't read my last post I have been wondering what game I should recommend that my new gaming group play. I mean it isn't all my decision, but when we meet for the first time and discuss what to play, what should I recommend. It has been an enlightening process for me to reflect on this issue as my last post relates.

Now, given that I have pondered why I game and things I can't abide in a game I can take the games into consideration that I mentioned and reflect on them for me personally. It is very important for me to make clear here that these are my personal feelings on these games as it relates to what is important to me. This reflection is not to be taken in any way as an actual review of these games--I think all of these games are very well written, awesome games. Games I hate simply would not have made the list.

Games I Would Choose to Play First

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition

This is my game. It was the game I grew up on, the one I know the best. It is also the game I played which, given the way I played it, allowed me to accomplish all of those things I mentioned in my previous post. on the negative side, people often balk at playing AD&D because it is "old" or they never played it before--I've run into far more 2e and 3.5 players in the last 15 years than I have 1e players. Those who know the game, or experience for the time often balk at rules like racial ability and level limits, class restrictions, alignment restrictions, and the like. And, once you really get into the 1e rules you begin to realize that they can get persnickety and just a bit crunchy and seemingly counterintuitive at times. Having played with these rules for years, there are actually very good reasons to do most the rules the way they did--but they are not intuitive, that I'll grant. So for me AD&D is a natural fit, but it often requires the most "convincing" to other players.

Adventures Dark & Deep

ADD is a game I love for several reasons. One, it is a natural and elegant inheritance of the AD&D tradition. Two, it adds and "fixes" several things that Gary himself mentioned needing adjustment. Neither of these come as a surprise, however, because Joe Bloch, the game's creator, set out to do both of those things. The game is a a result of a "what if" experiment. What if Gary Gygax had been allowed to rewrite the first edition of the game as he wanted to? What would we have had instead of 2e as it came out with--Gary largely sidelined by that time. Which brings me to the third reason I love this game: I personally tried this very project about the same time as Joseph started. Admittedly I was inspired by his initial blog posts on the idea--but suffice it to say I made it nearly -- nowhere :-(. Joseph showed both better design, initiative, and willpower to complete a project of this magnitude with the excellence and artistry he has managed to do. It was more than I could have ever wanted. So I adopted his curious volume to my own 1e playing, which can be done extant--or the game can be played for it's own right. Because it is, essentially, 2e as Gary would have written it; it has the same pros and cons as 1e itself.

Classic Dungeons & Dragons

Over the years I have come to appreciate the elegance and flexibility of the "Basic", or I say "Classic" D&D line up to and including the Rules Compendium. It is essentially the original rules light RPG and rightful heir of the Original 0e Dungeons & Dragons game contained in the 3 little brown books. I never played it much back in the day, being a 1e man myself, but since have come to realize it's openness allows for a creativity and freedom not possessed in even 1e. I have essentially created most of my homebrew campaigns under this framework over the last ten years. This version allows a degree of freedom that enables me to present my own creations in unparalleled ways. Unfortunately this very freedom can cause some to balk, as can rules like race as class. If people were really willing to roll in a game of my own creation they would probably be playing some version of this game. It retains a lot of what I like in a game--the reasons why I game--but ultimately depends on the nature of the game you decide to run with these rules. Admittedly by the time you get to RC the rules have become much more fixed and less flexible--more along the lines of 1e.

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG

I waited so long for this game to come out! And it is a masterpiece, for me personally :-) Aside from ADD and LotFP it is the clone/variant for me. I've sung it's praises elsewhere, but basically it has built a system based loosely on a Classic D&D frame. It allows me to do almost everything I love about gaming, perhaps a little "too well". The flavor of DCC is classic swords and sorcery roleplaying where death and evil are common occurrences--exactly what I love. It is a little dark, but not so much so as LotFP which is perhaps mitigated by it's potential for dark humor as much as seriousness. However, DCC scares people! They either "get it" or they don't. In my experience most people love running one-offs in DCC, but seldom want to return game after game for long term campaigns. I personally would love giving it a go long term as I think it has amazing promise to offer a fascinating long term experience, but convincing others is not so easy. This game, though I would love it play it whole hog, will likely be a garden of weird delights I frequently harvest from for my games run with other systems.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess

I keep returning to this game like Gollum does the One Ring. My preciousssss ... I love the flavor of this game. But I have a taste for dark fantasy--more properly weird fantasy. But though the game itself is simply a beautifully written and streamlined -- if you can believe it -- version of Classic D&D, the actual tone of the game can be so dark that even I hesitate to offer it totally to players. As I said with DCC RPG you have to "get it" or you don't. And like DCC as well, I heavily harvest body parts of LotFP and sew them on to my own game. The nature of LotFP touches a certain vein of fantasy I find very appealing, one that is not suitable for everyone. LotFP is one of those dark pleasures that I seldom dare to share with others for fear they will judge me deviant or twisted. Well, maybe I am slightly--but shhhh ... no one mussst knowww of myssss dark and ssssspecial pressssscioussssnessssssss ......

Hackmaster "4th" edition

My coming to HM was no different from the very creation of the game. The game was "built" as readers of the Knights of Dinner Table comic strip-book began asking Jolly Blackburn and the D-Team and KCo of the game the characters in the comic played was real. Well, it wasn't, but they had so much interest expressed in the game that KCo decided to oblige it's fans and write the most awesome version of D&D ever! Building on the AD&D 1e base, they incorporated lots of 2e options, and many house rules and other awesome stuff from the comics to build what they called Hackmaster. Though billed as a parody, the game sold magnificently well and proved itself a solid, expansive and simply put, awesome, system. Well, I came to KODT late--around issue 140 or so. And I loved the comic so much, so thoroughly, that I too had to know if HM was still in print. This was around 2007, however, and no sooner than I found HM 4e I also discovered that they were dropping the license with WoTC for rights to AD&D and designing their own version of the game. ARGH! I've written about this elsewhere on my blog, but suffice it to say, if you made me choose between 5e and 4e I would choose 4e. However ... that might be ill-advised. HM 4e is designed to, yes, give me everything I love in a game--tough, gritty, bloody, deadly fantasy gaming. However, the game is also designed to allow min-maxers to play around and come up with some real doozies. I have found most people who come to HM want to play in that playground before they really begin working the system as a strong playable game. This is frustrating to me and makes me usually default them to the better designed 5e. But for sheer "flavor" that suits me to a T HM 4e can't be beat. And though I might complain about the potential for min-maxers and power gamers to be a min-maxer or power gamer in HM as very significant consequences. And the type of min-maxing and power gaming the system allows is not super-hero like, but rather trading a curse for a boon type. Getting past these issues with players new to HM 4e is tough, but would be worth it I feel. But then, there is the very real problem that 4e is simply out of print, and not likely to be reproduced due to licensing restrictions--so 5e is it for most new gamers.

Advanced Hackmaster "5e"

Which brings me to the next iteration of Hackmaster. For me two things mitigate against HM. I know, I don't usually start with the negatives--but there are really only two ... everything else is so perfect about Hackmaster that it's hard not to simply choose it out of the gate. First, it's not HM 4e. I mean it retained much if not all of the flavor of 4e. It is more "serious" and, the second reason, is more technical in terms of playability. 4e could be played pretty much as you played AD&D without a lot of the technical crunch that certainly existed in the game. But to play 5e that way, you wouldn't really be playing 5e. It's a new system. It changes some fundamental things about the way AD&D was played. I don't think these changes were bad necessarily--just different. For instance the way proficiency is done is different from what I'm used to, as is initiative via the count up system and there is no hit to AC, but opposing rolls for hit and defense. And these are all influenced by many modifiers. I've heard it said that initially you can just use a real simply count up and opposing rolls to hit and defend without worrying about the details--but I can't seem to be okay with this. I want to use the system as it is written, but it is a bit complex. I understand it, I'm just really afraid I'm going to forget things as a GM that could hurt or penalize my players, I also worry that the flow of combat may not be that quick but bog down too much. They say that AHM does not have to be played with minis and maps, but it seems like it would be easier to do so--and I never really liked playing this way. I'm much more free-form. All this would seem to cancel HM as an option for me, but I can;t seem to leave the game alone. It is very close to the flavor of gaming I like, the tone is ideal without the heavy weird or dark elements which DCC and LotFP builds in and it's in print now and supported.

So of the above, I would have to say that I drop out Classic D&D as it ends up being re-designed by me personally when I homebrew campaign and they end up very personalized anyway. If I was going to play AD&D I would use Joe Bloch's Curious Volume to tweak my game, so would be unlikely to play straight ADD. DCC and LotFP are garden's of delight for me and while I would borrow heavily from them, I wouldn't play a game solely in their style--not just for my players sake, but probably for my own. HM 4e is out of print, and a bit unwieldy. Which leaves a modified AD&D or Hackmaster. But before I leave off the discussion I would/should consider, in light of my last post if any of those game I like "less" are still deemed as being unable to offer what I want, or should I reconsider? Thus more briefly, I will consider them in turn as well:

Games I Would Be Willing To Play

2e AD&D: If I was going to choose AD&D it would be 1e, unless others simply disagreed and wanted 2e--I wouldn't not play, but it isn't my first choice. Largely due to flavor--it's a touch too "soft" for my tastes.
D&D Next 5e: This one requires some consideration. I have played this twice--two sessions--during the playtest. Actually GM'ed it. It plays a lot like Classic D&D, fast and flexible. However, the underlying design is a bit more "gamist". By that I mean the design comes out in play a little too much for my taste. The universality of rules causes me some angst. I have the same issue with C&C and even LotfP d6 resolution mechanic. It's just a little to "simple" and used so often that it becomes a little too clear that we are playing a game. Aadvantage/Disadvantage and ability check systems make me feel this way with 5e. But these are not deal breakers. 5e doesn't seem to suffer, for me, from the vanilla factor of C&C--to retains it's distinction. I dislike the bounded accuracy affect on the rules, but I can't say I say I hate the concept. It keeps the game somewhat more deadly and "iffy"--but it's different enough to cause me some unease. I have some cramps over the way they have defined classes, especially the rogue and the fighter, who seem to have no real distinction apart from their initial starting proficiency bonuses, another gamist element (a lot like PF BAB), and where they choose to put their ability scores. But these are all really paltry, and no more "problematic" than HM 5e's crunch and gamist elements. 5e has the intellectual property rights to the D&D empire which feels familiar, comfortable and a lot like "home". I don't like the default, starting HP or the 4d6 ability roll system or racial modifiers--all the characters start more powerful than in the past in that sense-- but it isn't over the top. They do "gain abilities" as you go up in level and have ability increases, something I have never been overly fond of. But overall we are not talking uber like PF. 5e does feel like a compromise between old school tone and feel and new school player oriented "feel good" rules. But I can't count 5e completely.
Crypts & Things: Beautifully written swords and sorcery game built on a Classic D&D chassis. Just a little limited in scope. Feels very campaign specific. I would love to play C&T, but would feel limited after a time.
Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea: Same as C&T. Would love to add it to an existing campaign though.
OSRIC: Why play OSRIC when I can play AD&D and it's back in print? Though I love it  to create AD&D compatible material and played it with my gaming group for over a year. The only frustrations were the slight differences in some rules from AD&D I wasn't used to.
Labyrinth Lord: Love the flavor of this game in it's approach to art! But like OSRIC, why play a clone when you can play the real thing? And I prefer OSRIC to LL + AEC.
Dark Dungeons: Never tried this, but it's an intriguing presentation of the RC, but would suffer from the same issue as the clones above.
Adventurer Conqueror King: This little gem is almost more of a variant than a clone, and catches my eye a bit more than straight clones. I would be willing to give this a try, and love it's mass combat rules, and high adventurer level play. That alone is worthy to steal and add to an existing game. I like the way they outline this in ways that RC and AD&D never did. It doesn;t quite rise to level of top pick for me, but I could deal with playing ACK, but if given the choice would pick AD&D over ACK and add in elements from ACK to my game.
Swords & Wizardry: Like LL, I love the flavor of this game. The art is stupendous and it's tone is a notch above OSRIC. However, I see it more as a statement of what "Classic" D&D should be, and not a system I would choose to use in play over actually using D&D itself. However, like OSRIC is for AD&D, S&W would be my system of choice for creating material for Classic D&D.
Basic Fantasy Role Playing Game: The strength of BFRPG is it's totally open source nature. I like the Classic feel of the system and it's clear separation of race and class, the way I, and most players I know, generally prefer to play. I have been tempted to simply embrace this system to be a part of it's open source culture--where S&W, LL and OSRIC have more of an intention of commercial applications. But it would be for creative purposes, not as a primary system of play.

Games I Would Prefer Not To Play

Pathfinder: simply too easily uber and super power oriented for my tastes.
3.5 D&D: same as Pathfinder.

 Thus my short list of recommendations for a group I am going to play in would be:

  • AD&D (with additions from LotfP, DCC, ADD, HM 4e et al)
  • Hackmaster 5e

Of course keep in mind, that I would be willing to play any game mentioned on this page and probably others more obscure. Or if we were to change genres to horror, or science fiction the list would even be longer. Generally though these are the common games I run into and would "recommend" to a group I am going to play in. Now that I consider the whole thing, I am not surprised. My blog is ostensibly an AD&D blog heavily laced, especially recently, with Hackmaster content. AD&D is tried and true with me, I know it gives me what I want and minimizes what I don't. Hackmaster would be an experiment for me that I would love to try, but remain open to the possibility that I may not like it over the long term. I would be glad to DM or play in either game.

Want to give a special shout out to my brother for helping inspire me to go through this process and for others being patient with me as I talk through my analysis with them. And as always to Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, the TSR crew and I suppose in this case to Dave Kenzer, Jolly Blackburn and the KCo team.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Why I Play (And Don't Play) Table-top Roleplaying Games

So in preparation for the starting of a new regularly playing gaming group :-) YAY! I have been pondering what I would "suggest" we play. Everyone in our group seems fairly open minded about the issue; but, as normal, I have been fretting overly much. As also typical of my thinking process, I over-analyze everything. I was discussing the issue with my brother and fellow gamer in a dedicated 5e group my dilemma based thought process:

The Dilemma As I Experience It

I have certain games I really like:
  • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (first edition)
  • Adventures Dark & Deep (as my preferred 1e clone/variant)
  • Classic Dungeons & Dragons (Rules Compendium)
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics
  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess
  • Hackmaster 4th Edition
  • Advanced Hackmaster "5th Edition"
However, I worry that in "convincing" people to play one of my preferred systems above they might just be doing it to appease me. I don't want that. I want everyone to really be into playing what we are playing--to really get into the spirit of it and play it like it's the best system since sliced bread. I do not like having to constantly defend a system from the attacks of haters, least of all if they are at my table playing with me. The last thing I would want to experience is casting my gaming pearls before swine. I take it personally when these systems are criticized--I mean I know they have issues, right? But they are special to me for very personal reasons and if I'm going to play them with friends I want that feeling to not only be genuinely respected, but hopefully shared.

And then there are several other systems I have played and don't think are too bad. In other words, I won't refuse to play them but they are not my favorite:
  • Pathfinder
  • 3.5 D&D
  • Straight 2e AD&D
  • D&D "Next" 5e
  • Crypts & Things
  • Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea
  • Castles & Crusades
  • Labyrinth Lord
  • Dark Dungeons
  • Adventurer Conqueror King
  • Swords & Wizardry
  • Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game
The problem of course is that when I agree to play these I start to deconstruct the game, and I become the critical one--looking for problems, reasons I don't like the system or the play. Most other people don't seem to be bothered by this process, as I don't make an absolute pain of myself, but it certainly starts to bother me and my enjoyment of the game. I don't want to be the stick in the mud however, that holds up play simply because a system is not my favorite. You would think it doesn't matter all that much--but it does to me for some reason. 

So there I was talking to my brother about this very first world problem and he gave me some advice that seemed pretty good. He first asked me what I thought made the most sense for everyone to play. After sifting through all the variables what simply made the most sense? Well, to me this was fairly obvious. The logical choice would be Pathfinder. Everyone knows how to play and everyone has the books. Simple right? Even though it didn't make me too happy.

Then he asked me a follow up question: No laying all that aside, what do you really want to play? What's your preference?

... pause ... 

I couldn't answer. I really didn't know what game I would choose.

As I thought about this, I realized that the dilemma wasn't which game so much as it was the environment. It was what I wrote above: I want everyone to be really into the game--including me. It's become obvious to me that gaming is, for me, incredibly nostalgia laden. It is a holistic experience that transcends the ruleset we are using. I am looking to capture that "magic". And for me certain rulesets do that better than others. 

As I explained this to my brother, or tried to fumbling over my worlds and heretofore unexpressed feelings, he gave me one more challenge. Take some time, he said, and write down the five or so reasons you love to game. Why do you do it? What is most important to you? Then, when you are done with that--try to write down what you can't stand in a game, what are complete fun killers for you when you game. It may not give you the answer you are looking for, he cautioned, but it should give you some insight. 

Wow. You would think as much as I egocentrically blog I would have already figured out that reflective practice. I suppose I may have to some extent here or there, but never had I written it down in one place before. So, here I go, in as few words as I can manage ...

Why I Game
  1. To escape into a world of my imagination, most commonly a fantasy world with mystery, wonder and just enough magic to keep things, well, magical.
  2. Inside that world to be surprised with a sense of wonder with the things others say and do that are totally unexpected, as much as the things and places we encounter therein. And to experience a story live and "in person".
  3. To see and feel that this world is, while filled with wonder and occasionally miraculous magics, that it can feel as normal and real as the here and now and that the characters we play therein could just as well be me and my friends--not uber-powered alien-like superbeings I have no hope of ever understanding, let alone empathizing with--but "believable" if you will. Verisimilitude is important.
  4. To journey, to quest, to adventure as a part of my escape, whether as a player or, even more preferably, as dungeon master watching a group quest and journey through dangers almost insurmountable, experiencing profound challenge, danger, thrills and occasionally even death to eventually become heroes! Not undefeatable superbeings, but men and women who through courage and wit have accomplished great things.
  5. The above point is so important that it bears further elucidation. I believe that there should exist a healthy tension between players and GM and even at times between players exactly because the game is adversarial as well as cooperative. The challenge level should be high, but manageable by wise and savvy players who play the game with an eye to the reality of the dangers such a world presents. To a certain degree we do not cater to players, we present them with a very real and very dangerous world in which to adventure and face the challenges which eventually bring fame and the status of legend.
  6. To share in the real world camaraderie around these experiences with fellow players who become more than friends bound by our experiences and common reference of not only the game we play but a deep and imaginatively real experience within the world described above. And that this friendship transcends the bounds of the game, just as the experience of it does. And to with these people share thoughts, interests, dreams, challenges and accomplishments in the real world as well.
  7. I game to be adventure focused. I don't get off on endless jaunts through markets, negotiating to have your ideal armor built, wed bar wenches, or otherwise be silly or compensate for something you haven't been able to accomplish something that could have just as easily been done in the real world. These things inevitably happen in a campaign and can at times be fun, or even important to the ongoing nature of your character and the world they live in--but I am adventure oriented. Delving dungeons, exploring enchanted forests, recovering lost magic items, fulfilling quests, waging wars, investigating haunted ruins--these are the things we cannot do in our world--the very reason I play the game.
Not Why I Game
  1. To just "play a game". The best way to describe what this feels like is that I might as well be playing a hyped up game of chess, or that I could just as well be playing any other game and it wouldn't make a difference. I have to feel like if we didn't play this game the above reasons Why I Game couldn't be achieved. Tabletop roleplaying games are not they same thing as CCGs, board games or video games to me--not to be overly dramatic, but they mean something much more to me.
  2. To cater to over the compensation mechanism than often afflicts uber-gamers and power gamers; to create a PC so, video-gamized, so super-heroed, so powerful that no challenge can stand before him. I found no thrill and or challenge in this style of gaming. I do not game to min-max or power game. Customizing a PC is very different however, and something I am all in favor of. 
  3. Something else that greatly disturbs verisimilitude for me and becomes a different kind of game than I am interested in playing is when the characters themselves possess so many innate powers and abilities that I have no hope of ever identifying with them as real or connected to me in any way. Flinging powers left and right and executing super hero like maneuvers is for a Champions or GURPS Supers game, not for my kind of fantasy tabletop gaming. Now this kind of gaming does not have to be "power-gaming" per se--although such options are often worked into the system. This style of gaming can present similarly "powered-up" foes--but it is just not what I dream about when I dream of a fantasy world. Such types of super-magical combat should occur very, very rarely if at all in my type of fantasy world--think Gandalf in LotR--barely every cast a spell.
  4. While it's a fine line, because I innately believe in the importance of presenting serious challenges to players in games, I do not game to cater to my own ego or the ego of others. Of course there will exist a certain tension between DM and players and a level of competition even at times between players, that I wholly embrace and feel is appropriate--I am not into cocky, self absorbed know-it-alls or bullies. Which, unfortunately can exist in any sort of game regardless of rule-sets. I find that sometimes there are "jocks" and "thugs" that game that carry that attitude into their gaming. I have little use for these types--and they are often the ones that ones that conduct an elitist sort of gaming environment and exclude others simply because they look "too geeky". I have no use for that or catering to that.
  5. I do not game to "feel good". Which of course requires some explanation. Gaming is not a time to get together and get all warm and fuzzy with each other, rubbing each others backs, and giving people things to make them feel good about themselves. This is not all warm milk and pretty roses. Sure there will be those occasionally along the way--just like in real life. But also as in real life, those things are few and far between and usually come after much toil, struggle and strife. This kind of "Monty Hall" gaming was common in my youth among some players I never really expected where DMs just wanted people to like them, and so handed out +10 Holy Avengers like they were candy, artifacts like they grew on trees and god-like powers were for the asking. Character death was never permanent and anything really "bad" was just a dream. If you want to "feel good" go watch a Saturday afternoon special, don't crowd my gaming table--you're just gonna get yourself or others killed.

Is this sufficient? Probably so. What does it say about my preferred game? I'm not sure. I'll have to give it some more thought. As Pooh so often says ...