Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
It's always interesting to play with pre-gens. You never know what you're getting, and you'll have to make the best of it. This time I got to be a journalist who wanted adventure. I must confess I don't understand why he went to a god forsaken piece of Scotland to find it! Anyhow, it was fun and interesting to try to fit into the strongly class based society, where how you're approached has everything to do with name and who you know. Damn is it annoying to be treated like dirt just because you're not an upper class snob! Historical role playing can be an eye opener sometimes.
I wonder if most of us don't let our players off the hook to easy in our fantasy games. In Judges Guild's Wilderlands, you had a value for social class. Maybe it could be used to good effect in more settings?
Sunday, September 27, 2009
When I was younger, and was first introduced to this wonderful hobby of ours, everyone read all the rules. One boxed set with one or two booklets was the norm. But, in contrast with, say, D&D it wasn't clearly labelled for the Player and for the GM. I haven't asked anybody else about it, but I think most people did like we did, and bought the box if you played the game. That usually meant that in each group you had maybe half as many copies of the rules as there were players. It also meant that almost everyone had read everything in there, including the rules for casting and learning spells, the chance to catch gangrene or what modifier you'd get for trying to use your Listen skill in thick fog. I never saw a problem with that.
When I first actually opened a rule book for D&D, it was the 2nd ed era. Not only were there two books, they also had the weirdest layout with the same section in the two books saying slightly different and (in theory) complementary things. I was thoroughly confused. For some reason there were things which you got the impression you should hide from the players! With my background that seemed preposterous. What was there to hide?!
Now today I realized that this way of splitting up information have shaped me more than I've imagined. The idea of having a standard list of magic items which sooner or later everyone knew about, or a list of standard monsters, is just an alien concept where I'm coming from. Now, many years later I have kind of adapted and know that the way things are, can be different in different places. But, to put this in perspective I think a game were everyone knows how to play the game, but where magic and monsters are all unique creations by your GM/DM is really a more interesting way to play the game. The mystery and wonder of fantasy sure is easier to maintain that way, and for those interesting in the history of the hobby it is the way to experience how it was when Ken and the Phoenix circle, Dave and the Twin Cities players, and Gary with his Lake Geneva group played. Nothing was yet codified, and every piece of magic was new, and wonderful. Imagine that.
Friday, September 25, 2009
After this comes something interesting. T&T have since the early days been a game where you can play a "monster". Any kind of race, or kindred, is defined by attribute multipliers. You basically have a table with a multiplier for STR, DEX etc. for all races. This is fun, and an easier way than calculating effective level, level limits or any such scheme. A dwarf with x2 STR just is stronger than a human. Learn to live with it. In my games we had a crazy assortment of kindreds and it was fun. Basically I see no reason to hestiate to bring in a new funky race, since many players will bring in new interesting problems or adventure seeds that way.
There is one thing I find annoying with this table though. Some creatures obviously have special abilities, and some are even hinted at in other parts of the book. But, none of them are described anyway. Of course, some of this data comes from the older Ken St Andre game, Monsters! Monsters!, but since it's not in print it is hard to refer to it. It do make some beings kind of oddly "amputated" though. What is just terrible unprofessionalism, though, is the fact that FDP managed to print 7th ed with a note saying that all Leprechauns have the spell Wink-Wing as an inherent ability, but they forgot to put it in the book! Even if the oversight was Ken's fault, it's just terrible to let such a thing slip by. Did they even read the book they published? In 7.5 ed. they did include it, but in a additional spell book, and not in the list of standard spells in the main rule book. Palm, meet forehead.
In this part of the book we have some real goodies, but the most interesting part of characters like AP, Level and Talents, I'll cover in my next post.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
This was his suggestion:
What if Warriors get to choose three attributes for combat adds.
Rogues get one attribute plus Luck for combat adds.
Wizards Luck alone for combat adds.
I really like this suggestion! In many fantasy rpgs the fighting man fades into obscurity as the mighty spell slingers aproach godhood. In 3rd ed D&D it's a common complaint that the Fighter is the less interesting combat character to play. That problem is usually solved with more feats and just more stuff. With T&T my canine friend have solved that problem far more elegant. I can see even now how much role playing potential there are in those attributes choosen by the players. Imagine the difference between a Rogue with LK & DX and LK & CHA.
Yes, I'm an old schooler that belives in role playing, like Ed Greenwood, not just moving pieces around on a board. Live with it.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Back when I started with these funny games where you pretend to be an elf, you could find ads for the fun hobby of using cast and mold to make your own miniature soldiers. Since the one of my friends had a father who worked in printing, we happened to get hold of a bunch of "lead" of some kind, and did try to make some minis. They looked terrible.
A few years later Warhammer 40 000 arrived, and that same friend actually bought it, and played the first scenario in the book, using paper chits. It was a very strange game, which talked about the armies of the future, but had rules for minute details of your own characters. It felt like a weird rpg. Soon newer editions were published and we bought figures and played it a bit. Somewhow I still felt that the weird first edition hinted at something much cooler to be done with this setting.
What goes around, comes around. Right? Anyhow, I finally encountered historical miniature wargaming. My present "home" game club had an enormous stack of figures, since some members used painting of tin soldiers as a way to wind down from work, and gladly let us others play with them. That way I found out how fun it was to play ancient battles with 15 mm figures, with DBA. DBA is a very slim set of rules, but with very subtle effects. It's a little bit like the OD&D, in that serious exegesis can be needed to figure out all the implications of a rule. Almost a game in itself. I have an army of visigoths, which also can be used as franks. Quite fun.
Now, since the people at my game club are fond of their minis, almost any excuse in a rpg session to break out some minis is cause for celebration. Or at least a lengthy search in the boxes for "that figure" which will be just right to represent a PC. I used to hate that part.
So, now I'm back at the beginning. By my side as I type this is Warhammer 40 000 Rogue Trader, and I'm planning to use it as a setting for a roleplaying session. Not only that, I'm also going to be very much prepared for when my players break out the minis. Am I then returning to the roots of the hobby, with table top wargame miniatures turned into a rpg?
It's no wonder it took so long for any official rpg for the setting to arrive, and that they decided to write three games. It's very hard to capture the setting in just one game.I've decided to isolate my players on a hive world, just recently the target of a major invasion of the Empire of Man. Nothing should scream WH40k as much as a warzone, right? Now I'm just going to print out a bunch of character sheets and let the war begin.
Bless your weapons and go! For the Emperor!
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Those of you who have been me a while know that I once played the computer game Daggerfall. As an example of world building I found it amazing. Not only where the game so big it truly felt like you explored a whole world, the fact that your actions generated a reputation for you in the local area made it feel real. Your actions did have an impact on the world, without you being in the centre of the world all the time. Now I just learned that this game is available for free! If you visit the web home for the game series, you can try it out. While it might look a bit rough by the standards of today, I still think it could teach us something about world building for any roleplaying game.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
I have been thinking about what makes a game fun. One game in particular, which I played when I was younger, have stuck in my memory as fun. This I will concentrate on, in comparison to a game that I've played lately without enjoying as much. So, what made Wastelands so much fun? I'm going to start with the fact that it's a game about lack of resources, and a game where everything was randomly generated.
For those of you who don't recognize it, Wastelands is a Swedish post-apocalyptic rpg. Yes, it was actually called that in Swedish! The alien byrr invaded and humans who haven't become their workers and allies are living in a wilderness where food, ammunition and artifacts of the elder days are sought after treasures.
Playing the game we spent much time keeping tabs on tins of dog food, used shells for guns (of different calibres) and some of those treasures. The fact that they were scarce made them valuable, and fun to have and track. It reminds me how the previews for D&D4 considered that kind of play "not fun". I clearly remember how something that I was annoyed that I couldn't get was very sweet once traded for, or gotten as a result of smart play. The question I wonder about is when this is "fun" and "not fun"? Clearly the designers of D&D4 felt the fiddly bits were not fun, and instead the managing of resources is the domain of the "powers" you have. For me the latter was dead boring, so clearly something is different, though.
Something else which was very special for us when playing Wastelands, was that we randomized everything except the character name! Yes, everything. In our party we had a nearly two meter tall woman who stuttered and had as life goal to get friends. Yes, you rolled physical and mental quirks as well as sex. Not only did you have to survive in a deadly future, you had to portray believably something totally different from yourself. This makes me think that maybe one thing that makes this "fun" different from D&D4 is that the whole game was focused on making the best of what you'd got. There was never any talk about "build paths" or how you wanted to design or develop your character to maximize this or that side of it. You rolled with the punches.
So, what makes a game fun then? Well, after comparing the two games above my hypothesis will be that scarcity of some kind is a good thing. There must be something to aim for, to strive for but never all together be able to reach. Probably it also helps if you have less than total control of where you are heading. This also seem to be a point of contention. Why this is so much fun for some people is still a mystery to me. I not only suck at making "optimal builds". It bores me to tears! As you can see, this is not a theory of fun, or even thoughts thought through to the end. I have encountered something which struck me as odd when I remembered Wastelands, and it got me thinking. So, do you think make a game fun?
Friday, September 18, 2009
Who said it was slow on Fridays in the blogosphere!? Here I am again, reading T&T from cover to cover. This week I'll look at Character Generation.
After the introduction we get a nice little summary of how to play a rpg, including the very nice suggestion for game masters to not prosaically deliver the adventure, but actually get in character and why not goof off? Ken starts off the section on generating a character by telling us how to roll dice and generate stats. For some reason the stats are listed, but no detailed description is available on these pages, even though one is promised to show up later. After that, and the import rule of "TARO" (Tripples Add and Roll Over), the listing of classes and their ability fill the rest of the pages until p.20. I'll stop at TARO for a second
While our rule designer tells us we can roll in order or distribute the stats according to taste (he rolls in order), he also tells us something of the thinking behind the TARO rule. "Trollworld is full of heroes, freaks, and monsters -- not a bunch of averages." I find this interesting, as it gives us a glimpse of the mind of the designer not missing a fact, but actually designing around that fact. More than once I have read rules and wondered if the designer didn't see that it was broken. One effect this rule has, which the "balance police" will complain about, is that it will probably cause one PC in every second party to be seriously powerful. So, what if one PC has a STR of 65? He will strengthen the party and help you survive longer and get up to that STR yourself! Also, it will take ages for such a PC to get higher STR. No big risk of him building upon that and leave you in the dust. The experience ruled will handle that. Calm down!
Then we have the list of classes. In T&T the classes are called Types, and we have Citizens, Rogues, Warriors, Wizards, Specialists and Paragons. Warriors fight, Wizards cast spells, Rogues do a little of both badly and the Paragon do a little of both well. As you can see they all have their niche in a fantasy adventure. Specialists are basically doing one kind of fighting or spell casting and then some. Even though Ken St. Andre tells us we need the Citizen for NPCs like farmers and fishermen, I can't see the point of this Type. Sure, in a class based system like T&T, you will ask the question "what class is the owner of the inn". But, I think it is a question wrongly asked, and answered wrong as well. The owner of the inn is either a source for for resources, or an opportunity for the GM to act out funny voices and chat with his players in character. Who cares what Type he is! He needs to use a spell or an ability? GM fiat is the right answer, not a new Type.
The rest of the Types are all interesting, with the Warrior being able to get double value of armor, the Wizard being able to know all first level spells. The Specialist deserve a special mention. They all use the same concept, of having one specific talent triggered by a Saving Roll and the prerequisite being rolling triples of one specific stat when those where generated. From the ones mentioned (Leader, Ranger, etc), it's very easy to see how to expand this system to build other Specialists based on this mechanic. The rules show very clearly how they can be used in a toolbox manner. Very neat and modular.
Now, after this and a descriptions of the concept of race or Kindred, the stats are finally explained! Why not before the mentioning of Kindred, and the long descriptions of Types? This is where the editing of this rulebook show neglect. I don't mind the designer writing it that way, but why was it left that way when edited? You think I harp upon something trivial? After the stats we revisit the subjects of kindred again, and the first mention is not enough to choose a kindred for your PC or tell you what it means. It needs reshuffling.
Next up: Generating characters II
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[edited for clarity]
The entirety of this monster is hereby designated as Open Game Content via the Open Game Licence.
The Chaos TurkeyThis benign overseer of the farm yard, is a feathered beast resembling the common turkey. This unique creature walks around among the other animals, sometimes suddenly snacking on some of the smaller animals like rats and rodents. Equipped with a peculiar sense of humour, animals with long ears (say, like a donkey) will sometimes find themselves the butt of the cruel jokes of the Chaos Turkey. Those poor animals will have their long ears pulled by the fowl-like beast which then jumps away gleefully with a shrill sound like laughter.
The most astonishing ability of the Chaos Turkey, though, is its ability of telekinesis. When larger animals like horses and cows fall over, like they are prone to do, this beast show a gentler side. It will use its psychic power to carefully help the quadrupeds to get up on their feet again.
When attacked, the fowl will use its telekinetic powers to throw attackers aside, and otherwise hinder their advance.
Swords & Wizardry stats: One random attacker will be telekinetically disengaged from action, or dropped from high altitude with a roll of 1-2 on a d6. Chaos Turkey: HD 3+1; AC 5; Atk 1 beak (2d4); Move 12; Save 14; CL/XP 3/120; Special: Telekinesis, 33% chance.
End of Open Game Content
Tunnels & Trolls stats: MR: 65 Special Ability:2/Fly Me - attackers will be telekinetically moved out of combat, and might be tossed aside and be damaged. Tunnels & Trolls is trademarked by Flying Buffalo Inc and used with permission.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Having just read, and chuckled a bit about, the latest post on Grognardia about silly names, I think back on my attitude towards my own characters. How do you approach the creation of a new being in the imaginary worlds? Do you toss some dice and tack on a jokey name and then rush head first unto glory and death? An experience with one of the CD based products from the late TSR illustrates my attitude well.
Our local game club had started regular gatherings, and someone had just purchased some kind of introductory set of D&D. He wanted to test it on us who were familiar with the hobby before using it to introduce others to the hobby. This was back in those days during the nineties when TSR experimented wildly with new package formats and loosing money on all of them. The idea with a CD with examples of player interaction and sound effects to play when entering specific rooms is an intriguing one. Done well it could show how a typical session sound like, and add an extra element to build atmosphere around the table. Starting our test run of this product we listened through the initial explanations of our character cards and the the set up of the game. That part was ok but the next part was where it broke down. In the example session the voice actors were sounding like total dorks, which was unfortunately but something which we could endure. What we couldn't endure without giggling, or even breaking out the big guffaw, was that these people were referring to the other players by their role in the party! Hearing someone without any acting ability yell "Thief, help me out over here!" just sounded too silly to us.
Silly, yes. That's the connection to James post I mentioned in the beginning. Anything that makes you and your fellow players take the game seriously, i.e. a serious intent to have fun an no one else's expense, works fine. But, something that signals to everyone else around the table that they don't care and might as well be playing a video game or watch tv, that's not fine. Hearing people talk about their character as a game piece, "Fighter, you have a higher STR score than my hobbit. Help us lift this thing!", grates in my ears. Among most players I've met, talking in the first person and referring to your character as "me" and the other characters by their name, is the way to roleplay. Once there was a poll on one of the forums where old schoolers lurk, and it became clear the most of the crowd there didn't play the game that way. I have no idea of why the majority of gamers in Sweden, where I grew up and learned to play, seem to do the immersion thing. Is it more common among gamers in North America to not do the immersion method of roleplaying? Is it just old school or is that just the habit of generally conservative gamers? I don't know.
In the end we decided that the introductory box of D&D was not to be recommended. We felt it taught bad habits and wasn't all that great as a tutorial anyway. Now, many years later I realize that I think that even though I like it better when the player make some effort to name their character "seriously", the deal breaker for me is if they treat the character as a real person. If they try to make those numbers come alive by at least refer to them as "me" when doing actions, I can live with some silliness.
I'll end with a personal memory of a silly name, and a hint. One time when we where playing WHFRP, our game master had to invent a name on the fly for a bouncer. He became Bruno (he might have based it on a relative or picked it off a list, for all I know). This is not a silly name as such, but his way of portraying this brute was nothing but. After that, every time we encountered a bouncer or a city guard, we asked "Is it a Bruno"? Needless to say, that name was never used for anything serious in that group again. The hint? When running a game, always have a list of names beside you. If you can rattle of a name without hesitating, and without resorting to blurting out something less than inspired, your players might treat that NPC as someone real. Having a name does a lot to make that encounter feel like you meet someone real.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Game Design Have you wondered why some game seem to be so dull, and them sometimes just light up and be awesome? This post might give some hints. Maybe the game lacks a "cruise control"? Like I wrote in the comments, I think T&T is the gold standard here. It is so easy to play as just a game where you collect AP, gold and roll dice. It's also a game with a slick generic resolution mechanic which can fade into the background and let you do story gaming and acting out without encumbered by needless crunch.
Rules expansion Have you been running a game, just like me ignoring encumbrance because there was no way or the painful way? This might be the way to do it. Common sense and a set penalty. I'm stealing that for my next game!
Saturday, September 12, 2009
Last Thursday I got back with one of my former gaming groups. The game master is a world builder and a tinkerer, so his games always have a very personal touch. He had been taken by the format of the Buffy and Angel games, and the idea of the game as a tv show, which is something I've thought a bit about.
I played a short season of Primetime Adventures earlier this year. That game is designed to give the feel of a tv show. You have a "screentime" stat for each episode, and you have game mechanics to enforce a kind of game that give that feel. I didn't like it. It felt very much like a tv show, but I realized that all those personal interaction my friends talk about when their favourite show is the topic of the day, that is not my thing. The soap opera element, if you can call it that, is not very enjoyable to me. Sure, interacting with NPCs is fun, especially if you don't only do if to gain a favour or service of some kind. But, to have the game focus on my inner struggles and my relations to my friends doesn't sound like the kind of "adventure" and thrill I seek at the table.
Now, is our game it wasn't too bad, since my friends have already set a lot of wheels in motion and I got to enjoy that by watch and participate in weird things happening. There's also a lot of exploration of the unknown in the setting, so I think I'll enjoy it. I was thinking, in light of the railroading discussion, that if you have a tv show style of game, then the game master probably have a season script and a plan for what will happen. It will be interesting to see if I will perceive that, and be annoyed by it. If it will be rails, and I'm supposed to be doing "exploring my relations" game, then I'll tire quickly. I wonder if I've ever thought so much about a campaign before as a player?
Friday, September 11, 2009
Let's start this walk through slowly. In the introduction, Troll Talk, Ken St. Andre tells how this edition came to happen, and also tells us how to use it. It's interesting to see that Fiery Dragon Publishing apparently wanted to do something on their own, and as a side effect of that Ken's latest ideas happened to be included as well. For those who have the tin box edition, AKA The 30th Anniversary Edition, it's clear that the so called "Revised" T&T booklet from that set is what's referred to here. Personally I felt it was a very weak and useless attempt to make T&T more like D&D3. After thumbing through it once or twice I never opened it again. Interesting is also, at least for me personally, that Ken mentions that he got a few suggestions from FDP how to add to this latest release by including a treasure generator. I actually contacted Ken about that, since I had been playing the tin box edition with old solos that often asked you to generate the treasure with the random treasure tables from 5th ed. Ken replied "We'll see what we can do." So I guess it was a good idea.
Then Ken mentions something interesting, and the most important thing is this post. He writes:
If you only remember one thing about Tunnels & Trolls, remember the line from Pirates of the Carribean - they aren't rules, more like guidelines really. ... Do what works for you and your gamers. If you haven't messed with the printed rules and made at least a couple of changes, you aren't really playing Tunnels & Trolls.I find that last piece interesting. Many games have told you that you have the power to adapt the rules, but I haven't ever seen a designer who explicitly tells you that you're not playing the game in question if you play just the way it's written. That's old school to me.
Next up: Generating characters
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Watch out for those throwing axes!
Since it was first released in 1987, Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader have tempted many gamers with the idea of a rpg in the far future, of only war. When Dark Heresy was announced I was thinking that it might be just what I have been hoping to achieve myself with rules tinkering without end. The fact it was fairly costly, and sold out so quickly I never got to see it made me change my mind.
Now I'm in the planning stages for running a one shot, using Savage Worlds as a rules set. As always when adapting a generic system, you'll have to get the gist of the setting and the feel it should have. So, what's crucial for a WH40K rpg? It has to be gritty and deadly, ok? It has to show the brutal and never ending war against all the universe, ok? It has to have cults of chaos, ok? It has to have an element of satire and dark humour, right? The problematic thing is that none of that is very well captured by rules. Especially not generic ones. So, how do you do adaptations like this anyway? I'm thinking iconic images, and themes will have to do and then rolling with the punches and just say "yes" a lot. Imagine doing that in GURPS or any such crunchy system! I think I've realized that doing things like this, I really need rules light systems!
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
After my exasperated outburst about people not knowing about Ron Edwards I started thinking. Jeff Rients, always with his eye on the pulse of gamerdom, asked a very relevant question. Maybe the contributions by the "Forgeites" are not really impacting the hobby very far? Maybe rpg theory is largely ignored by most gamers? Even if that it true (and I hope it's not), it still leaves me with the question of who you should know about?
Earlier this year, a friend was giving me a ride home after a gaming session. I was kind of tired, and as I usually do in that state I was blathering on about whatever my mind had gotten stuck on. Amazed (and bored?) my friend asked me "How do you know all these biographical details about all these game designers!?" after I had talked about when someone started this or that game company. I am interested in the history of our hobby, and some things sticks in my mind. The ups and downs of the business end of the hobby seem to be one such thing. So, is this something everyone should know about? Quick! When did Greg Stafford start The Chaosium? Who else was involved? What? You don't care?
So who do you think everyone should know about in gaming? I guess the most famous people probably are Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Being there from the start counts a lot. How about Rick Loomis, who in 1970 started the oldest game company still around doing the same kind of business? How about Mark Rein*Hagen who helped create the phenomenon that is White Wolf? How about Matthew Sprange who runs one of the most successful game companies today? How about Ed Simbalist? Frankly, I'm not sure I know who everyone should know about. I have many times found that the one-game-gamers who only know of Gygax and D&D to me seem like they have deprived themselves of some of the sublime heights possible in the hobby which so succinctly combines game elements, storytelling and performance art. And some really cool game mechanics and worlds, to boot! Just look at two very distinctly different games like Dogs in the Vineyard by Vincent Baker, and Tunnels & Trolls by Ken St Andre. Both opened vistas in my head I didn't even suspected existed!
So, hell know who is important enough in the big scheme of things. I just hope everyone out there treats the whole field of the hobby is one big dungeon, filled with treasure. Who don't want to explore some more, and get just a little bit more loot home? Happy delving!
Monday, September 7, 2009
Saturday, September 5, 2009
Just a couple of days ago I found my copy of the 5th ed T&T again. Having used 7.5 for my regular gaming needs, it is very interesting to see how this celebrated edition compare. While the editing it far better than the shoddy job Fiery Dragon did, it still has its quirks. Like missing page numbers!
I did find this one gem I wanted to share, about the making of a dungeon (2.5 How to be a GM):
There is also the consideration of a motivating character, a proprietor -- the mastermind who created the complex within the logic of the fantasy world itself (this is frequently an alter-ego of the person who created the dungeon on paper). This alter-ego may provide a "reason" for the presence of the dungeon, and may or may not take any kind of participation in occurrences within the dungeon itself. My own dungeon Gristlegrim is run by an incredibly ancient and learned wizard of the same name; he rarely puts on personal appearances. On the other hand, Liz Danforth has a devilish little fellow who "built" her dungeon as a lure to entice the unwary into situations where they are willing to bargain for their souls; his personal offices can be found in the lowest levels.
I find this very interesting. Somehow the idea has gotten foothold that once in the early days of the hobby it was all wild merriment without rhyme and reason, and then came dungeon ecology and story; chaos had been conquered and now it all Made Sense. In this quote we see that in the Phoenix Circle they had a driving force behind their dungeons, and a reason for them to exist. The history of the early hobby is different from how it is often told.
I expect there will be more of these kind of hidden glimpses of a bygone age as I continue to peruse this volume. For historians of our hobby is this a goldmine. You all know that Flying Buffalo Inc. still sells this edition, right?
But, I think it has value in a more practical sense as well. My dungeon was the Dungeon of Voorand. My players knew him to be the slightly nutty "god" of the goblins, and he had a very real presence by the gaming table, where any kind of oddness could be blamed on "that crazy goblin". My personal stamp was all over the place, and the play on my name made it even more obvious than the fact that I of course was the one who had drawn the dungeon. Do you want to make up a theme for a dungeon? Think about the proprietor and I bet there will be ideas to use at once.
Friday, September 4, 2009
Some of you might have followed along in the discussion on Grognardia's retrospective on Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. The question arose if it has to be the case that investigative roleplaying with a "trail of breadcrumbs" leads the players along a railroad. Since I have just posted about my experiences of Beyond the Mountain of Madness, and accused that campaign of being a railroad, I felt it could be an interesting theme to continue and comment on. I decided to take out some of the CoC greats from my shelves and do some case studies.
First out is a golden oldie, Trail of Tsathogghua by Keith Herber. It was published in 1984, roughly the same era as Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. It's a collection of two loosely tied scenarios and one unrelated. The first one. The Trail of Tsathogghua is an expedition to icy lands, where an artifact has been found. It looks a lot like Mountains with the expedition leaders being NPCs and there is a timeline with things that will happen regardless of player actions. Also, at certain points interactions with authorities will happen, and they all happen "off stage". Roll some dice and the Keeper reads you the next clue your expedition member have uncovered. Should you fail, then there are NPCs around to tell you what you need. While the list of NPCs looks like it could be great fun to interact with some of them, it's still a good example of a very railroaded adventure. The second part The Curse of Tsathogghua is tied to some of the facts that became unearthed in the first part, and that one survivor from that expedition acted upon those facts and now the investigators follow his, incidentally, tracks. The idea of having a NPC with this special role who must survive, is just bad adventure writing. Having an adventure hinge upon something to happen is bad. The last and final part is totally detached from the first two. Interestingly enough, this last adventure The Haunted House is very different in style. It describes the background of a big mansion and why it is haunted. The the adventure is just a description of the adventure site, with appropriate hauntings described in different rooms. Go where you like, experience what you like. A good example of an investigative adventure that's wide open.
The second piece I wanted to look closer at is another adventure written by Keith Herber. This time it's his The Sanatorium in the Chaosium volume Mansions of Madness. It happen to be considered his best adventure, so it's extra interesting as a comparison. In this adventure there is a site (a closed environment), and a bunch of NPCs. There's also a menace. Compared to Trail this is very different. Something have happened, and you will have to get the information from the NPCs at the site before the menace kills you. Both adventures present a situation and a "story" that you will piece together. That's the common thread in both, as investigative roleplaying. But, while what happens in one is only at the players initiative, in the other it's always at the instigation of an NPC. There are no things that will happen, only factions with intentions and private goals. If the players wont interact with the NPCs, they wont find the clues to stop the menace, but they have all the power in the world to decide what happens. No NPC will push the story forward without you as a player pushing him or her first.
Worth noting is that one of these adventures is site based, and the other is based on a journey. The Haunted House is also site based, and is more open in style. The campaign that started the discussion Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, is also based on a lot of travelling. The other classic I have on my shelf, The Fungi from Yoggoth, is also a campaign where you travel a lot. I guess there's a strong temptation to hide one clue at each location and make them depend upon each other in a linear fashion. The sin here is, in my view, to make that the "story" that's supposed to happen. Do it have to be that way, though? Thinking on the format, you would imagine that it would be possible to avoid the worst sin by removing the linear dependencies to some degree and write the campaign so that visiting a site is not dependant on a string of former events. I know DGP worked on that kind of "plotting", with their nugget system for the Traveller material they published.
To make a parallel to T&T and D&D, where the dungeon is the backbone of the "story", we have many good pieces of analysis written in the OSR about multiple entrances, and interconnectivity between levels. I think this is a way of thinking that could be used while designing for investigative roleplaying as well.
So, in order to wrap this up I think the golden oldies tend to fall into a tendency of railroading when a lot of travel is involved. My hypothesis is that it makes it too easy to confuse all that travelling with "story" and thus needlessly limiting the players. Investigative roleplaying is not this by default, but it sure has happened more than once. Should I win the lottery I will take a closer look at the other classic as well, since it's supposed to do it just right.