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.