Saturday, September 14, 2013

Not-So-Obscure Games: Traveller5

There are now 7 official editions of Traveller, plus at least one apparently unofficial published version (and a wide variety of unpublished or electronic-only versions). They are, in order, Classic Traveller (CT), MegaTraveller (MT), Traveller: The New Era (TNE), Marc Miller's Traveller (T4), GURPS Traveller (GT), Mongoose Traveller (MgT), and the latest entry, Traveller5 (T5), plus the apparently unofficial D20 version of Traveller (T20). All of these except for T20 are listed at the beginning of T5.

T5 was funded by a Kickstarter campaign last year. It succeeded wildly, generating nearly 300 thousand dollars (at the time, the record for tabletop roleplaying games), and, like many such oversuccessful campaigns it delivered the rewards much later than the initial estimate (in fact, there are still a few parts of the rewards that have not yet been delivered, but communication by Mr. Miller keeps confidence high that they will be delivered soon).

It is a huge, hardcover book, weighing in at nearly five pounds, and consisting of 656 pages, the last 16 of which are color plates, mostly showing rendered computer-graphic depictions of starships from the Imperial setting that is so closely tied to Traveller historically. The inside covers have useful information, too, the front inside having a photocopiable character card, the back with a simple map of the whole of known space in the Imperial setting. The interior of the book is high-quality, with a heavy-bond paper in actual stitched signatures.

The type is of a reasonable size, and the pictures are functional more than decorative. In many ways it is reminiscent of The Traveller Book, which is from me high praise. The cover design is the classic, and in my opinion perfect, design made famous with the original boxed sets of CT (and used also for GT and MgT): a black background with the name of the game in red with a red line coming from the left side over to the last character of the name, and some descriptive words in white (in this case, "Core Rules" above the red line and "Science-Fiction Adventures in the Far Future" below the name). So, it is a wonderful artifact from the perspective of appearance. The appearance is only marred by the unfortunately frequent occurrence of typographical and layout errors. These errors are not as frequent as in some previous editions (T4 being notable, though MT had its share). But no one is going to buy the game on its appearance alone. What matters is the content.

T5 continues the design that was present in T4. The basic system is one which generates a target number by adding an attribute and a skill level. Once this is done, and modified for circumstances, a number of dice based on the difficulty are rolled, with a roll of equal to or less than the target number indicating success. Most rolls are on 2 or 3 dice (average or difficult), but can range from 1 to 8 (or even 10 on very hasty attempts). All dice in Traveller are six-sided. There is an interesting rule that makes skill important, rather than relying entirely on native talent, which says that if the difficulty is greater than the skill, then an extra die of difficulty is added. This is basically the same system as in T4, except that T5 removes the clumsy half-dice of the earlier edition.

The rest of the book includes everything from character creation (there are now 13 possible professions to choose from, ranging from civilian ones to military and criminal professions) to starship design, psionics and merchant activities to wilderness and alien animals, just as in every other version. Added are sections on clones, robots, biological androids and synthetics, genetically engineered creatures, sections on vehicle, weapon, and armor design (which should make the people who hate vehicle design systems pretty happy, actually, being much simplified from the old Striker, MT, TNE, and T4 methods). Weapons and Armor are made by picking a basic type and adding adjectives describing its specific configuration. Anime fans will be happy to see the Oversized and Titan adjectives, which can, among other things, result in 4- or 6-meter tall battlesuits (mecha!) Vehicles are a little more complex, but much simplified from those older methods of laying out every element of the vehicle. In addition to all of that, there is the ThingMaker system, which allows a Referee to estimate the physical characteristics of any science-fictional gadget she can imagine, based on a system of organizing common sense, basically.

Probably the niftiest thing added is the QREBS system, which is a rating for an item's Quality, Reliability, Ease-of-use, Burden, and Safety. This allows specific items that are variations of a basic item.

Technology is now described from Tech Level 0 (stone age and such) on up through 15 (the Imperial TL in the default background) all the way up to 33, which is now treated as the technological limit of species that have not transcended existence. There is a method of figuring out the technological path of an alien species, including its path toward the Singularity above TL21, which is unstable and will quickly, within just a fairly short time (though still on the scale of generations) result in extinction, transcendence, or a voluntary or involuntary reduction to a sustainable level of technology (back down to TL21 or less).

There is a system for designing alien species. This is really quite good, but it does result in the annoying section of the book dedicated to senses. This is a full 13 pages, and is very technical. Worse, it is rarely used - in fact, there is an admonition to use it "only as really necessary" (an admonition that is fairly frequent in the book, actually, forming the basis of the MOARN "Map Only As Really Necessary" acronym, for example).

The single most annoying change, though, is the change of characteristics. Before, they were referred to by their name or an abbreviation. So, there was Strength, which could be Str or S, Dexterity (Dex or D), and so on. Now characteristics are called C1 through C6. Aliens may have slightly varying characteristics (Agility instead of Dexterity and such), which retain the characteristic number, but have slightly different effects in the game. Instead of rolling Dex, you would roll C2, which could be Dexterity, Agility, or Grace, depending on the alien species. Blah.

So, here's the thing. There is a lot, a lot, of useful stuff in there. Every Traveller Referee should probably have a copy for inspiration at least. I am especially happy with the new systems designed to help a Referee develop a setting (so that the game continues to be useful for more than just the Imperium setting). However, I am not very happy with the post-TNE system of rolling under a target, and even less with the many-dice system of T4 and T5. As I have said many times, to me MT is the ideal edition to date, and MgT approaches that one in quality (though GT includes some really useful subsystems for background design, such as the trade routes system in GT:Far Trader or the expanded world design in GT:First In). T5 just doesn't match that one, continuing down a path forged by T4 (and ignited by TNE). There is just so much in T5, though, that is worth adapting to other editions. I don't know if it's worth $75 to any but the most ardent Traveller fan, but at least it is available for considerably less on CD-ROM (at $35 it should be a good value to any Traveller Referee). I don't see the Jump Drive flash drives on the Far Futures website, unfortunately, but those are pretty neat.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Post-Apocalypse Gaming

This is your new tabletop.
Not what you're thinking.

Sometimes, I speculate about counterfactual things. For instance, on occasion I think about what I would do for gaming if there were a societal collapse scenario. If, say, there were a massive plague that resulted in 90% of the population dying off and I happened to survive (though that isn't essential, this is speculating about what a random gamer who survived such an event might do, really), or a zombie apocalypse, or whatever. What would I do for gaming, supposing that I found a group to play games with afterward.

These super-complicated games that are being sold these days don't seem like they'd be really useful in such a situation. If I need a thick hardcover book full of charts and lists of feats and whatnot, that's something I have to lug around that weighs a lot and doesn't contribute much to my survival (though it would contribute to my life). What happens if I lose it? As an aside, wargames with fiddly sets of counters or plastic miniatures aren't much use. We need wargames that can be put together without much more difficulty than chess or shogi. That bears thinking about, too, but it's beside the point for this post.

Let's assume that I can have a d6 or three and a d20. From there, it's easy to put together an OD&D variant based on, say, Original Edition Delta, LotFP, and S&W:Whitebox. Classes are easy: fighters start at 2000xp for 2nd level, magic-users 2500xp, clerics (if you have them) 1500xp, thieves 1200 or 1250xp. Then double that amount at each level gain. Hit dice are in d6, each level for fighters, 2 for 3 levels for clerics, 1 for 2 levels for magic-users and thieves. Fighters get a bonus hit point at first level, other classes get a bonus hit point at levels they don't get hit dice (the bonus point goes away at the next level that gains a hit die). Combat is simple: a d20 plus the attacker's hit dice and plus the defender's armor class for 20+ to hit, 1d6 for damage (1d6-1 or roll 2d6 and take the low for light weapons like daggers, 1d6+1 or 2d6 and take the high for two-handed weapons). Saves are d20 plus level plus 4 (plus 5 for fighters) for 20+. Each class except fighters get a bonus of 2 in a single save category (spells for magic-users, thieves for devices such as traps or wands, clerics for poison or paralyzation). Thieves get 4 skill points at first level and 2 skill points at each further level, which they can use to add to any of the skills. Everyone gets all skills at 1 chance in 6 (meaning 6 on a d6, or 1 on a d6, or x1 damage for sneak attacking). The skills are: Climbing, Searching, Find Traps, Hunting/Foraging, Languages, Sleight of Hand, Sneak Attack, Stealth, Tinkering. Foraging and Hunting are affected by the terrain, from base 0 in 6 in desert, 1 in 6 in mountain or swamp, 2 in 6 in plains, or 3 in 6 in forest or jungle, each skill point increasing the chance by 1 in 6. In the desert, water can only be found on 1 chance in 12 (roll 2 d6, the first as even = 0/odd = 6, or low = 0/high = 6, the second as a regular d6), each skill point adding 1. Fighters get to attack once for each level if the opponents are 1HD.

The difficult part is remembering the details of spells. I still need to think about a good way to do those.

Anyway, experience points are 1 for each gold piece (or silver piece) recovered. Also 100 experience points for each HD of defeated enemies (or a more complicated way of doing it that goes from 5xp for a <1HD up to 1000xp for a 16HD creature or whatever, but this is probably too much effort). Special abilities add 1HD for this purpose each.

Stats are equally simple. Each one is 3d6, with a 13+ giving a bonus of +1, and a 8 or less giving a -1 penalty. If the characteristic for the class is 13+ (Str for fighters, Int for magic-users, Wis for clerics, Dex for thieves), gain +5% experience earned, plus the same bonus for Wisdom of 13+ (clerics count this twice), and again for Charisma of 13+. Charisma also has a number of followers equal to a base of 4, +1 at 13-15, +2 at 16-17, +3 at 18, -1 from 6-8, -2 from 4-5, -3 at 3. What the stats bonuses are used for varies by DM (except Charisma is always used for reaction and loyalty/morale checks). Reaction rolls are made on 2d6: 2-5 negative, 6-8 uncertain (will follow others if there is a plurality or majority), 9-12 positive.

Personally, I'd dump clerics (too much to remember two spell lists and two spell progressions). I don't know about thieves. The LotFP method is fairly simple, if there could be an easier way to remember their nine skills.

Encumbrance should probably be in some version of stone encumbrance (where each stone is 10-15 pounds of weight), so that a weapon carried so it can be easily used is 1 stone, light armor (AC7) is 1 stone, medium armor (AC5) is 2 stone, and heavy armor (AC3) is 4 stone. A shield (1 point bonus to AC) is 1 stone. 5000 coins is 1 stone. There are also bundles, 5 to the stone. A weapon carried packed away is 1 bundle, or 2 bundles for two-handed weapons. A character can carry Strength in stone at 3" move, half (round up) that at 9", halfway (round up) between the two at 6", and up to a quarter (round up) of Strength at 12". So, at Strength 10, a character could carry 3 stone at 12" move, 5 stone at 9", 8 stone at 6", or up to 10 stone at a rate of 3". Of course, someone could change the AC to ascending, but whatever.

So, here we are, coming toward a bare bones approach to roleplaying, using D&D as the basic framework. I can think of other, even simpler, approaches, but this one is a pretty damned good one, I think. If only I could find a good way to handle magic-user spells and spell progression. Maybe it would be better to take a page from The Arcanum and allow a magic-user to cast a number of spells equal to level plus one per day, limited to a spell level of the character's level divided by 2, rounded up. Still need to have the spell lists somehow, but that might be the best way to go.

Maybe later on, if I see any interest in the idea, I'll talk about some other simple roleplaying games that we could play in the post-apocalypse. Risus is an example, and there's a version of EABA designed specifically for playing while hiking, but I could talk about my own Trait System too. If you have any ideas or interest in the subject, please comment!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

World Of Hearth - The City-State Of Logreb

Last time, I talked about how I am working on the world of Hearth (pronounced "hurth", by the way), and how I am scaling down my initial setup ideas. So, here is some discussion about the specific area and situation that the players will start in. It is a small, backwater city-state known as Logreb which lies at the edge of the Paynim Empire, subject to the Grand Imperial City of Payn. This is just an overview, mind you, and the players will be offered any number of ways to go from here, in addition to the hints that are mentioned below.

I really need to get a better camera. These are
five mile hexes. Logreb is the large dot roughly
in the center of the map.
Logreb is a fairly small city, as these things go, having only around 13,000 citizens dwelling within its walls. Still, it is larger than any city that the players have ever seen. Logreb stands at a ford (now bridged, of course) on the southern bank of a meandering river called the Vandin that flows from the Ablashian lands to the north down south toward the central part of the Paynim Empire. Logreb is surrounded by fairly fertile fields feeding 12 market towns, ranging in size from about 1300 people up to around 4200, as well as many smaller villages. To the south of Logreb lie the Stavral Highlands, a stretch of hilly country that hides bandits and fiercely independent hill tribesmen (who may be the same thing, actually). To the north lies the Greenwood Forest, which is also filled with unfriendly tribesmen, as well as fairy creatures (according to local rumor). The majority of Logreb's farming villages are concentrated on a band between these two rough areas.

Logreb is ruled by a sorcerer-king named Traskal Devin (MU17), who is not particularly despotic. Lord Devin simply asks that the taxes are paid according to a reasonable schedule, and will only bring out his iron fist to combat activities that interfere with commerce, such as bandits or excessive graft. Murder is frowned upon, but only indifferently prosecuted (unless it is of one of the wealthier citizens). As a result, Logreb runs riot with a variety of decadent pleasures unavailable in the northern lands. The city's numerous thieves have developed a certain level of organization, modeling their structures on the more legitimate crafts guilds. There are some who say that nearly one out of every six people in the city is involved in these thieves' guilds, but surely they can't be that common. In any case, there seem to be several competing thieves' guilds in Logreb. If there are any assassins in Logreb, they are not publicly known.

Less than fifteen miles to the south of Logreb stands a lonely ruin just within the hills of the Stavral Highlands. It is ancient, so old that no one knows how long it has been there. The locals call it the Pile. It is said that there are tunnels and cellars below the ruin that contain vast treasures, as well as terrifying monsters. Certainly, it seems to be the center of raids by orcs, gnolls, ogres, and such. Perhaps those humanoid creatures have made a home in the tunnels underneath the ruin. The villagers nearby have taken to building wooden walls around their villages to keep out the raiders, but the fields still lie endangered, causing Lord Devin to send companies of soldiers to fend off the raiders. Unfortunately, he cannot spare too many for the purpose, as there are still problems with Ablashian glory-seeking warbands and forest tribesmen of the Greenwood to contend with to the north. Lord Devlin is trying to encourage his sorcerer-knights in the castles nearby to take a more active hand in combating the humanoid raiders, but they find themselves already busy with the hill bandits and tribesmen of the Highlands.

The PCs are all travelers from the Ablashian lands (Ablashian society is a lot more like American society than any others on Hearth, being structured more or less like the towns of the Old West, so it will be easiest for new players to assume those roles) who know each other from childhood (or who met weeks ago on the road). They have recently left their home counties and come to Logreb because it is the closest city that offers the possibility of a better, or at least more interesting, life with the potential for greater advancement than their home. Perhaps they will eventually want to travel further into the Paynim lands, or maybe back north to the Ablashian lands (or even further into the lands of the barbarian Kurai), but right now they have spent nearly all they have to get this far, and have little more than the clothes (and armor) on their backs and the weapons at their belts. What bright future awaits them?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Setting Notes - Organizing My Thoughts On The World Of Hearth

I've been making maps and writing descriptions toward a fantasy setting to use for AD&D1E (yeah, I know, I keep talking about doing this and then never actually get to the part where I run it - I'm just really particular about my "vision", which makes me a pretentious twit, I realize), to be called Hearth, in keeping with the long tradition of giving worlds names that are similar to Earth. The problem I'm having is that I am really unfocused. I know the things I want, but when I write it, they aren't coming together. So, here's where I'm going to start trying to hammer out exactly what I am wanting to do.

First, there are some things I don't want to see in the world. This isn't going to be the sixguns & sorcery setting I also want to run, so guns are a thing I don't want to see. I don't want player nonhuman races - there may be elves and such, but not as playable races. Hardly as "races" in the sense of intelligent animals. More like spirits with bodies, maybe. Fey races with fey motivations. Goblins with fairer forms. Not to mention the goblins. I don't want clerics, or any proof of divinity in the world. All divine action should be "explainable" in terms of magic or such. Which doesn't mean that there won't be reasons to sacrifice at a roadside shrine, or to join the organized churches. Just that the sort of living saint that is embodied by clerics (or paladins, or druids) won't be in the setting. This also means no healing magic. Speaking of which, alignments will be discarded as the nonsense that they are, in favor of the "For King and Country" system found in an issue of Dragon magazine (so, with clerics and cleric spells gone, the only reference to alignment really left is the M-U's "Protection from Evil" spell, which will be redefined as "Protection from Spirit Beings", meaning anything native to other planes of existence).

OK, on to things that I do want. I want a group of barbarians who live like my understanding of the pre-Christian Irish or pre-Roman Gauls (or maybe a little like Orlanthi from Glorantha), but I want them on the fringes of the setting. I want the PCs to come from a relatively barbaric area I call "Ablashia", which is inspired by some concepts from an obscure game called Legendary Lives by Joe and Kathleen Williams. They will be coming to an empire of sorcerer-kings called the Paynim Empire, to one of the cities on the fringe of the empire. The Paynim include some periphery states with vampire- and pirate-kings (the latter very much like Pirates of the Caribbean, but without guns and cannon - the ideas there are inspired by the volume of Thieves' Guild dedicated to pirates) 
instead, and one of the sorcerer-kings is a lich necromancer who actually does have his people's best interests at heart, using undead to free his people from servitude. I want to draw some concepts from bad sword & sorcery films like The Warrior and the Sorceress, and include an order of fighting monks (not Monks, more like Paladins who are redesigned to better fit the cosmology of the setting; maybe I'll even call them Homeracs) whose religion was crushed and scattered, so they wander the world, dispensing justice according to their code and helping the weak against the strong who want to exploit them. I want a people who have made alliance with dragons, worshiping them and fighting at their side, and even from their backs. I want demon cults, but I want it so that not all demons are inimical to humanity. I want werewolf warbands in the deep woods and assassin cults on distant mountaintops. I want steppe nomads whose elite warriors ride into battle on the backs of bulls, and who make alliance with wandering bands of Minotaurs. I want Elves who are sadly watching the ancient forests fading away, and who are fading with them (their leaders being something like Arafel from The Dreamstone and The Tree of Swords and Jewels, almost gods themselves). I want Dwarves who monomaniacally maintain the world-machine in secret tunnels at the heart of the mountains. I want Goblins who are fairy creatures that steal children and hold terrible markets in the middle of the night.

So, the nonhuman, non-fairy/giant, non-undead, intelligent races. I want Minotaurs, obviously. I also want Githyanki and Githzerai, Mind Flayers, Kzaddich and Tsalakians, Lew Pulsipher's Timelords (Dragon 65), Artificers of Yothri and their Amphorons, the array of non-goblin humanoids (Orcs, Kobolds, Gnolls, Flinds, Ogres, Ogrillons, mainly), Kuo-toa, Locathah, Sahuagin, Beholders, Centaurs, Tabaxi, Aarakocra, Grimlocks, Lizardmen, Bullywugs, Yuan Ti, Galeb Duhr, Treants, Aboleths, Doppelgangers, Harpies, Merfolk, Neo-Otyughs and Otyughs, Ropers, Su-monsters, Troglodytes, Tritons, Neogi and Umber Hulks, Mi-go, Trolls, Thugtoads and Todawan Masters, Glurm (Zen Frogs), Crabmen, Dertesha, Draug, Formians, Ratlings, Mogura-jin, and Maun-Ge. This, as I said, does not include fairy and giant races, the undead, or entities native to other planes of existence (although, perhaps some come from other worlds). This is going to be the hardest to deal with, since as natural creatures they have to exist in places on the world, and I have to work out how they fit with the human nations. Some of them (Githyanki and Githzerai, Kzaddich and Tsalakians, Artificers of Yothri, Mi-go) live in other planes of existence, even though they do not originate there, or on other worlds, so those considerations are not so important. Similarly, a number of these races live under the sea or under the surface of the world, so they just need to be placed generally. But the humanoids, the Draug, and others have their own nations that need to be considered.

Religion is going to be twofold. That is, there are two types of religion: the Churches and the pagan gods (which include demons). The Churches will have a hierarchy that the PCs could get involved in. Those ideas will be similar to the way religion is handled in Flashing Blades. There might also be incidents of divine intervention in rare instances. The pagan gods will have shrines where they can receive sacrifices. They will be individual, powerful beings existing in a particular place. That is, there might be a "Zeus" (Zeus will probably not actually be one of the pagan gods in the setting) who lives at the shrine in Highgate, while another "Zeus" lives at the temple in Payn. The two, Zeus of Highgate and Zeus of Payn, are not the same entity, and don't share knowledge between each incarnation, though a person who has spent a lot of time learning about the "Zeus type" would have an advantage in knowing how to approach a new Zeus encountered at a different temple/shrine. There might, additionally, be slight differences between the two incarnations. The only real difference between the pagan gods and the demons is that demons only exist in one place at a time - there is only one Demogorgon in all the world, who will only be able to show up to one summoner at a time (well, also most of the demons do not necessarily have humanity's best interests at heart). In this sense, the Titans (for instance) are a type of demon. The same could be said for any number of other powerful entities (Bahamut and Tiamat, for example).

There are several competing Churches in the setting. I've written some versions of them on this blog before. There is the Tetradic Church which worships the four Elemental Gods, whose influence is transmitted from the Celestial World to the mundane world through the mediation of the twelve Zodiacal Beasts (the Church is firm that there is no truth to the heretical claims of a secret thirteenth Zodiacal Beast), each of whom has three Decanic Solars. Each Solar has seven Planetars through which the elemental forces are transmitted to the world. This one will be organized mostly like medieval Christianity, with a few significant differences. I'm thinking that they should have an equivalent to the cultus of Saints, but I'm not sure yet how I want to handle that.

Next up is the Fatalist Church, who worship the Lady of Fate, the Weaving Goddess. They have a fairly rigid code of justice which governs them. I base them loosely on medieval Islam, though, so they aren't fundamentalist about things.

There is the Path of the Veil, which is a Church whose holy orders are composed of Monks and Illusionists. They believe that the world is a veil of illusion pulled over the eyes of the inhabitants, who are themselves illusions. This will be a lot like Buddhism in organization. I may have it comprise several independent Churches, similar to the way that Buddhism has everything from Tibetan to Zen forms.

I'm not sure if there will be a Church of the One and the Prime, which would be worshipers of the Modrons. If I do, it will be the most rigid and fundamentalist of the Churches. A place for everyone and everyone in their place.

I don't yet know what the religion of the Homeracs (or whatever I end up calling the reskinned Paladins) will be like yet.

I started out making a huge map of the whole continent - a large affair nearly 5000 miles across and over 3000 north to south. Then I realized: I don't need that much space to start. Canning that large map will actually make the placement of the nonhumans a lot easier, since I can just add area when I get around to them. I still think that I should have a general idea of the layout of the continent, but it will be easier to make a rough map that is penciled in (subject to changes) than to set things down in stone (or ink) right now. That kinda makes me a little sad, since I'd like to have the detail of the World of Greyhawk right off the bat, with the populations and troop dispositions roughed out, but I can live with the more immediate necessities.

If you've gotten this far, I am impressed! Thank you for reading, and I would love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Did You Miss Me?

Two and a half months since I've posted anything here, and for some reason I think that there will still be people reading it. Maybe I'm crazy. Anyway, I've got a couple of things that I wanted to mention, gaming-wise, and so I'm going to post about them now.

First off, I looked in my mail today, and found a neat little packet from Tim Shorts of Gothridge Manor and GM Games. It was an envelope containing the spiffy adventure (originally a one-page dungeon) called "Where is Margesh Blackblood?". It's available in PDF form at RPGNow for "pay what you want", so you could run right over there right now and get it for free, or for a buck or two, or for a hundred dollars if you wanted to pay that much for it. It's a quick little bounty hunt for a wayward bandit. I love Tim's adventures, even the simple ones like this one. Well, simpler than some. There are some neat twists here that will probably have the players questioning their characters' motivations. Or not.

I am still thinking about how best to really review Traveller5. For a quick one-liner, though, I am sad to say that I am not entirely happy with it. Still, it's got some really good stuff in there.

I was recently nudged back toward working on my Top Secret retroclone. I opened the file, but didn't really get anything done. We'll see how that goes. Most of my other projects, such as the WRG Ancients-based RPG, have pretty much been abandoned. A major exception is the MegaTraveller retroclone idea, which I have modified into a version of that edition adapted to my own SF starfaring setting.

People who have been paying attention to that Goodreads widget down there toward the bottom of the right sidebar will have noticed that I have been reading Stephen King's "Dark Tower" series of books. This is my first time reading them. When I finish the one I am on, I am going to go ahead and read the eighth one (The Wind Through the Keyhole) rather than going on to the fifth one. I am told that this is the intended order, and that King only wrote the fifth-seventh ones first because he wanted to finish the story before he dies (the car accident that almost killed him kinda kicked him in the ass to do it quickly). I'm a little bit surprised that I have never seen a gaming version of Mid-World. I like it, though it is substantially different than my own "sixguns & sorcery" setting.

Speaking of my own settings, Tim Brannan over at The Other Side has given us his own version of Appendix N. I think that's a neat exercise, so I've done up my own, as it would currently be. Like Tim's, mine will also include particularly interesting movies (I'll list them after the books, though). I make no apologies for the fact that I include a couple of westerns, and even an SF title or two. I am, however, going to avoid non-fiction and gaming books for now:


  • Asprin, Robert L.: "Thieves' World" series (editor)
  • Burroughs, Edgar Rice: "Barsoom" series
  • Cherryh, C.J.: THE DREAMSTONE and THE TREE OF SWORDS AND JEWELS (particularly as published together and slightly revised under the title THE DREAMING TREE; can also be found together, unrevised, as ARAFEL'S SAGA)
  • Herbert, Frank: DUNE
  • Holdstock, Robert: "Mythago" series
  • Howard, Robert E.: "Conan" stories
  • Lee, Tanith: "Flat Earth" series, THE BIRTHGRAVE, et al.
  • Leiber, Fritz: "Fafhrd & Grey Mouser" series
  • Lovecraft, H.P.: "Dreamlands" stories
  • Martin, George R.R.: "A Song of Ice and Fire" series
  • Powers, Tim: ON STRANGER TIDES, et al.
  • Sabatini, Rafael: CAPTAIN BLOOD, THE SEA HAWK, et al.
  • Smith, Clark Ashton: "Zothique" stories, "Averoigne" stories, et al.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R.: THE HOBBIT, "Lord of the Rings" trilogy
  • Tremayne, Peter: "Sister Fidelma" series


  • Cat People (the original, though the remake is not terrible) and Curse of the Cat People
  • Conan the Barbarian (it is not Howard, but Milius's magnum opus is still an intriguing fantasy film)
  • The Dark Crystal
  • Dead Man
  • Dragonslayer
  • Excalibur
  • Eyes of Fire (sometimes called Cry Blue Sky)
  • Fire & Ice
  • The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and the other two "Man With No Name" films
  • Heavy Metal (the Taarna sequence)
  • John Carter (like Conan, above, it is not the original, but it is still a good science-fantasy film)
  • Krull
  • Labyrinth
  • Legend
  • Lord of the Rings trilogy
  • Pale Rider
  • Pirates of the Caribbean series
  • The Princess Bride
  • Princess Mononoke
  • The Secret of Roan Inish
  • Spirited Away
  • Star Wars (the original, now called "Episode IV", is an excellent fantasy adventure story with coming-of-age themes)
  • Unforgiven
  • The Warrior and the Sorceress
  • The Wicker Man

There you go. I don't know if I'm back in the sense of regular posting, but I hope to at least post a little more often than I have been.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

What The OSR Means To Me

Pardon the public wanking, but I don't have anything else to write right now. Also, I forgot to get something finished for the Obscure Games Appreciation Day, but I still want to write up my suggested changes to Fantasy Wargaming.

Over at The Mule Abides, James Nostack has written a screed claiming the end of the OSR (and this is not the first such claim I've heard – it's pretty much like "Death of Hippie" or "Punk Is Dead" it happens so often), now that a person using the moniker Skidoo has composed a complete flowchart of AD&D 1E combat, from surprise rolls to psionics and unarmed combat. Nostack's argument, as I understand it, is that because this ends any need for further analysis of the core engine that makes up AD&D, there is no further need for an OSR to exist. It seems as though his assumption is that such "rabbinical" (in his words) focus on understanding a particular form of the rules for D&D is the raison d'être of the OSR.

I wrote in response to that, saying that for me, "the OSR is about a rejection of the primacy of story that ultimately led to the Forge and the concept of 'story games' or 'story now' play styles (and I was once very interested in Forge-style gaming – it was when I discovered that I wasn't having much fun playing that way that I looked around and found the OSR). It is about emphasizing actions over the alleged meanings of those actions. It includes a return to the wargaming roots of the hobby, and regains for logistics and strategic thinking a place in play that informs player choices rather than being abstracted away as supposedly 'un-fun'."

That's really why I am interested in all of this early play-style discussion and practice. I look at it like this: back in the early days of motion pictures, they approached their subject like documenting a play or adapting fictional writing directly. It was when filmmakers began paying attention to the particular strengths of the actual medium, rather than adapting the methods of other media, that motion picture became a meaningful artform in itself. Similarly, if roleplaying games are limited to reproducing fictional writing or motion pictures in an interactive format, they will never get anywhere. It is only when roleplaying games take advantage of the unique strengths of the format that they will become a serious and meaningful addition to the arts. That's why I am not really interested any longer in rules that duplicate the requirements of traditional storytelling, such as "hero points" and the like (unless they are fully integrated into the setting, as was done with TORG, such that they become something that the characters could possibly discuss in a meaningful way). I realize that these sorts of rules showed up at an early stage (for instance, there is a crude "hero point" rule in Top Secret), but they seem unnecessary and intrusive from the perspective of roleplaying as a game.

To me, roleplaying is about playing "let's pretend", not about making stories. That is, I want to be able to express my heroic, dinosaur-tripping self, not write a story about a guy who is heroic and trips dinosaurs, if you see what I mean. If I am not heroic, then my character in the game should not be. I can write a hero, I can write a story about tripping dinosaurs, those things are easy. What I want from a roleplaying game is to be able to be a hero, even if it is only at the table. To be a hero, I have to have the possibility of not being a hero in front of me. If I fail, then I fail, and failure can be fun, too, through pathos. Plus, there's always the next character, the next situation.

I dunno, what do you think? Am I merely wanking here? Or is this line of thinking actually something that might inform real play at the table in a positive way? Or, more chillingly, is thinking about this sort of thing destructive to actual play, and my predilection for it part of the reason that I haven't actually played an actual game for months?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Nothing To Say

I confess that I've hit something of a dry spell of stuff to write about related to gaming. This is probably because I am not doing any lately. I want to get a solo GURPS Voodoo-based (but with 4E rules) thing going using Mythic Game Master Emulator, but I am balking at the logistics involved. I have a couple of electronic tools that should help, but I am seriously a Luddite when it comes to roleplaying games. If it isn't on paper, I have a hard time using it.

I am thinking about running a MegaTraveller game using my own setting. But I am also still interested in running a D&D-type game (maybe AD&D). I have a bunch of stuff that I've written toward the latter, but it isn't ready for prime time yet. This is something that I should avoid, though. I should just run it, and let the design work be done at the table. (This is me talking myself into it.)

I'm still writing something for the Obscure Games blog fest, or carnival, or whatever it's called. I'm going to write up some of my suggested changes for Fantasy Wargaming, after all. Wait, I have less than a week to go on that? AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!

Also, I wasted my 200th post on this?

Friday, May 10, 2013

Ray Harryhausen, 29 June 1920 -- 7 May 2013

I wanted to do something nice for today's Ray Harryhausen Appreciation Day, but I couldn't think of anything. My creative juices just don't seem to be flowing at the moment. Maybe it's the heat.

That said, Ray Harryhausen is a man to whom we all, especially gamers, owe a great debt of gratitude. He will be missed.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Another Appreciation Day!

Over at Mesmerized By Sirens, Catacomb librarian is sponsoring an Obscure Fantasy Games Appreciation Day on May 30, dedicated to fantasy games from 1975-1989 that aren't D&D. He plans to make it an annual thing, too, so that's pretty awesome. I will be participating, of course. Hopefully, I'll come up with something different than just another entry into my Obscure Games series!

Maybe I'll write up some of my suggested alterations for Fantasy Wargaming. Or maybe I'll write up a location for Lords of Creation (I dunno, is fantasy plus science fantasy plus crossing genres "fantasy"? I'll have to ask). Perhaps I'll do something else. We'll see!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

[Obscure Games]Swords & Wizardry

Well, here it is, the first Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day. Perhaps this will be the only one, or perhaps there will be more. Certainly, a number of the people involved are making posts all week! I'm just doing the one, though, because I am a lazy blogger.

Of all the retroclones, Swords & Wizardry was the most interesting to me from the start. Where Labyrinth Lord and OSRIC presented the rules very closely to the source, S&W chose to make a couple of significant changes that streamlined play (and also moved the rule sets further from the possibility of the current D&D copyright holder choosing to engage in legal shenanigans to try and suppress the game). It turned out that the legal worries were not very important but, as often happens when constraints are placed on creativity, it resulted in some really interesting design choices that further illuminate what we mean when we talk about "D&D", and even roleplaying in general. For that alone this is an important set of rules. However, it is also an elegant and fluid set of rules that works well at the table.

Swords & Wizardry comes in three basic "flavors": Whitebox, Core, and Complete. Each of these represents a version of the original D&D rules set, with varying amounts of influence from the four supplementary booklets that were published for use with it. S&W:Whitebox sticks almost entirely to the original three booklets that came in a white box. S&W:Core adds material from the first supplement, Greyhawk. S&W:Complete adds more material from the supplements, and furthermore continues on to some of the early options presented in The Strategic Review and the first few issues of The Dragon magazine (before it lost its "The"). In addition to these basic "flavors", other people have put together versions that emulate the Holmes "Blue Book" edition of Basic D&D, that reskin the whole thing for Japanese-style fantasy adventures (Ruins & Ronin), and so on. In addition, there are a few supplements that alter the basics to better fit specific settings (my own favorite is Savage Swords of Athanor). The Whitebox and Core versions are published as POD products on by Mythmere Games, while the Complete version is published in print by Frog God Games. Over there on my blog's sidebar, there is a link to the online SRD for S&W:Complete, though. Also, Mythmere provides free versions in PDF and even .rtf format for those who want to use the text to write their own version.

S&W:Whitebox strips the game almost to its barest essentials. There are only three character classes: Cleric, Fighter, and Magic-User. The stats have very minimal effect on characters, generally giving only a ±1 to rolls affected by them, though experience bonuses are the real benefit. Each character class starts very similarly in hit points, with Clerics and Magic-Users getting a single d6 hit die at first level, while Fighters get a d6+1. These quickly change as the classes go up in level, with the Magic-User rising only to 3d6 at fifth level, while the Cleric has 4d6 and the Fighter 5d6 at the same level. Every character has a saving throw determined by level, with the Cleric and Magic-User starting at 15 and the Fighter at 14, each improving by 1 point per increased level. This roll is used for any instance where a saving throw is called for, though certain specific situations may have modifiers (dwarves, for instance, get a +4 to saving throws versus magic). There is an option to use a saving throw grid derived from the original game, for those who are unable to function without save categories. Characters are given experience charts up to tenth level, with anything higher presumed to be according to however the Referee wants to handle it. Magic-Users do have an expanded chart indicating their spell use at higher levels, since sixth level Magic-User spells aren't available until a character reaches twelfth level.

Damage of all weapons, as in the original edition (and the Holmes Blue Book), is always a single d6, though a modifier of ±1 is given for heavy or light weapons. Armor Class, in a particularly interesting move, is given in both the traditional descending form and also in the innovative ascending form of the WotC editions of D&D. So, an Armor Class might be listed as 5[14], with the number in brackets being the ascending form. The license to use the rules does require that this format is always used for Armor Class, so derivative games need to do so. This ensures that the players and Referee will be able to choose which they prefer at the table.

Other than lists of equipment, spells, and monsters, and a system for placing treasure, that is it. A completely simple set of rules that avoids the sometimes odd emergent behavior and occasional outright missteps of later editions of D&D.

The somewhat longer S&W:Core adds a number of things from later supplements for the original D&D, such as an optional Thief class, variable weapon damage by weapon type, variable hit dice per class, and expanded spell listings up to seventh level for Clerics and ninth level for Magic-Users. There are a few spells that I'd use the Core versions over the Whitebox ones (Contact Other Plane, I'm looking at you), in part because they are actually closer to the original writeups in the three original booklets, and in no small part because they work better than the Whitebox versions.

In addition, Core explores hirelings in more detail, adds a rudimentary mass combat system, more monsters, and more treasures (especially increasing the number of magic items).

S&W:Complete finishes this by adding all of the fundamental classes that most of us got used to in AD&D, such as Rangers, Paladins, Druids, Monks, and Assassins.

For myself, I am especially attracted to the stripped-down, house-rule-ready version that is Swords & Wizardry: Whitebox. I am particularly attracted to stripping out (arguable) mistakes like the Thief class, as well as questionable "improvements" like variable hit dice and variable weapon damage. A house rule that gives secondary skills to characters whose "class" is simply a description of whether or not they use magic spells, such as the skills system in Savage Swords of Athanor, seems like a good way to avoid the need for a large number of character classes while also separating character class from the idea of a character's profession. Merging that with, for instance, the secondary skills system that is in Adventures Dark and Deep might be a fruitful way to go, actually.

Another useful item from Mythmere Games is the Swords & Wizardry Monster Book, which includes (according to the back cover) 265 monsters from the original books (0e-2e), 3 monsters from the third edition, 9 monsters from Monsters of Myth, and 186 monsters never before seen in print. Some of the entries are dull (it's difficult to make a wolf interesting, but it is something that needs to be statted out), some are interesting (the Wandering Hole!), and some are spectacular (such as, for me, the Tsalakians and Kzaddich, the Artificers of Yothri and their Amphorons, and the various Toad monsters such as the Yurmp and the Todawan Masters, among others).

Most of the books from Mythmere Games are available for free in electronic version, and none of the books is very expensive in print. The Frog God Games version is available online (again, the link is over there to the right), and is not too expensive in print either.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day Sales

Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day, which is going on as you read this (my entry will go live in a few hours), includes a few sales which will last only one day. Here is information about two of them:

From Frog God Games:

Frog God Games has discounted their entire line of Swords & Wizardry products for 1 day only in celebration of Swords & Wizardry appreciation day (April 17th 2013). The discount is good for 25% off S&W Products but you must use coupon* code SWApprDay on April 17th 2013 at check out. 

*The coupon excludes items less than $1, S&W Cards, Pre-Orders, and Subscriptions.

From the S&W online SRD:

Here is the coupon code for the Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day sale [17 April 2013]!


It applies to everything listed here:

Happy S&W Appreciation Day!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Adventures Dark and Deep

I wrote the basics of this review as a comment over at Mr. Bloch's excellent blog, but I figured that I'd bring it here and expand on it. You can go to his blog for a link to purchase the book.

The idea of Adventures Dark and Deep is a speculative one. If Gary Gygax had not been forced out of TSR and had been allowed to develop AD&D in the ways that he wanted, what would the game's second edition have looked like? To build this, Mr. Bloch researched every word that Gary ever wrote on the subject, and compared those to work that he did in later games such as Dangerous Journeys: Mythus or Lejendary Adventures. Of course it is not exactly what Gary would have written, but it does look a lot like what he was moving toward.

I support this idea enough to have funded it through Kickstarter, at a level that would get me the hardcover of the Players Manual (there will be two more volumes, one for Gamemasters and one with monster descriptions; this is obviously the basic format of every edition of AD&D, as well as the WotC editions of D&D). My hardcover showed up on Saturday, and I am very pleased with the physical quality. It's not perfect (it uses, as usual for a POD product, glued rather than stitched signatures, for example), but it is at least as good as most products. The ink is clear and doesn't smear, the paper is smooth and has a good feel, and so on.

The text, as well, is high-quality (even if it does retain some things from Unearthed Arcana that I would have liked to see developed further - notably, the Chromatic Orb spell, which has always just been removed from my games), and I am very, very pleased with the work that Mr. Bloch did on this. I am considering using this ruleset in place of 1E in the future. I am especially happy that he chose to include the weapon vs. armor type table, even if he did relegate it to an appendix as an optional rule. On the other hand, he also rationalized it by separating the armor types from armor classes.

For those considering it, if the idea strikes you as a good one, then the product is well worth the $30 price tag for the hardcover.

(I also received my copy of Traveller5 on Saturday, but that is over 600 pages, so it will be a little while before I can say anything about it. Finally, sorry about the radio silence for the last couple of weeks. I hope that will be over now.)

Friday, March 29, 2013

Tell Ya What I'm Gonna Do

There's a little appreciation day coming up, focused on Swords & Wizardry. I've decided to participate in it.

Now, I've been quiet for the last week for a really good reason: my local cable company is making the first two seasons of Game of Thrones available for free for the week, so I've been (re-)watching like heck, and not doing a whole lot else.

I haven't finished any, but I've given some thought and a bit of writing to the next couple of Obscure Games entries.

I hope that you are doing well.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Goth of the Week

Demi Doom

This is the last time that Goth of the Week will be regularly published here. I may occasionally do this in the future, but I won't hunt for photos and schedule posts on a regular basis anymore.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Turning The Gatekeeper Test Back On

I'm getting tired of dealing with spam comments. Captchas back on. I apologize to everyone.

Do spammers actually think that anyone is going to respond? Don't answer that, I know the rationale. It's just annoyed me too much today.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Goth of the Week

Luka, from Croatia. Deathrock styles are awesome, and show the connection between goth and punk more clearly.

Oh, and yesterday (the 14th) was my birthday. I'm older.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Brass six-sider prototypes! The actual
dice will be laser-etched, they say.
A couple of people have mentioned it, and I want to add my voice because it looks pretty nifty, and I like nifty things. There's this Kickstarter which is set up to manufacture a bunch of metal dice, precision engineered. I mean, who wouldn't want steel dice? Or frickin' magnesium dice! I mean, that is pretty damned spiffy. The people who play Victorian adventure games that don't want brass dice? I don't want to meet anyone that lame. You can get them by the set of seven (d4, d6, d8, d10, d10 tens digit, d12, d20), by sets of d6, or by sets of d10. The aluminum dice are the least expensive, at $70 for a set of seven, but they go down to $40 for a set of 6d6 in aluminum (or even less for a single d20 in any of a variety of metals, if you get in pretty soon).

Think about having a set of titanium dice. Those would last for-frickin'-ever. Of course, they'd also run a chunk of change ($160), but they're precision machined and you'd never need to buy them again.

So, they're like Zocchi dice, but without the flash and they're made of metal so they'll never chip or crack (and no bubbles inside to throw them off). Stainless steel dice, copper dice, bronze, brass, magnesium, aluminum, titanium. Man, I wish I were rich, so I could get those titanium dice. Those would be sweet. I'll probably get the brass six-siders, for use with Space 1889.

\m/ METAL! \m/

Monday, March 11, 2013

Character Occupations

People throughout the land have to make money somehow.

One of the things that I think about is what the player might want to do in the game, and how to accommodate those desires. Most games provide a system for fighting, so that's easily covered, but the reasons for fighting aren't usually discussed. Of course, the main reason is usually money, either directly or indirectly. However, the way that the character intends to make that money is highly variable. We can call these different ways of making a living "occupations", and there are only a finite number of them. They are also not the same thing as "character classes" or "archetypes" or other ways of designing a character's abilities. Anyone with any set of abilities can engage in any particular occupation, though perhaps some ability sets are more suited to particular occupations than others. Occupations, as I see them, are more like the basic assumptions of a game, and the more that are available in the game, the wider the opportunities the players will have. Here are the ones I can think of offhand that have adventuring possibilities, and what game systems need to be in place to make them viable.

Baron - this is a general term for those characters who are in charge of administrating a domain. However, see Homesteader. Needs a system of domain administration and probably a mass combat system.

Bounty Hunter - characters that take money to find and bring back other characters, whether dead or alive depends on the contract. Needs a system of investigation in order to find the target characters.

Cunning Person/Alchemist - characters that make magic items, such as potions or charms. Needs a system of magic item creation. See also Priest/Magician.

Explorer/Ruin Robber - the prototypical adventuring occupation. Needs a way to explore ruins or wildernesses. Traditionally, this is by hidden map.

Homesteader - characters who travel to uninhabited (or at least unclaimed by any civilized people) area and plant a homestead or colony. This usually leads to becoming a Baron. In addition to the requirements for a Baron, also needs a system of building up an area with buildings and other infrastructure and for discovering what forces might try to destroy, raid, or conquer the homestead. Those elements might also be useful for a Baron, but are not necessarily essential.

Mercenary/Guard - characters who go where they are told and perform violence when needed. Can't think of any special requirements.

Merchant/Pirate/Bandit - in this occupation, characters buy low and sell high. If they're lucky. Needs a system for generating and pricing trade goods. Pirates and Bandits are just like Merchants, but they are willing to incorporate violence into their process of buying low (and sometimes of selling high).

Priest/Magician - providing spiritual or magical services to other characters. The exact nature of these services depends on the particular game system and setting. Frequently this includes varieties of healing or attending to matters of a character's spiritual state (aka "piety"), or otherwise assisting an individual or community. This occupation also includes character magicians who cast spells for money, as well as both mendicant and temple/professional priests.

Spy/Assassin/Thief/Ambassador - a variety of related occupations that involve deception and deceit in various ways. Requires a system to allow various types of deception, such as disguise, lying, stealthy movement, and so on. Oh, and poisons.

What other player occupations might there be?

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Kill Your Television

And your movies and books, while you're at it. Roleplaying games might take inspiration and worldbuilding cues from movies, TV shows, and books, but it should not attempt to slavishly simulate them. This is because roleplaying is an entirely different medium, even though it looks slightly similar.

This came up in a search for "boring
(A quick warning: this is all going to be boring theory. Feel free to skip this one.)

In a traditional fiction, the narrative is linear - this is true even when the story is told in "cut-up" order, or flashbacks, or whatever. The few exceptions (Naked Lunch) simply prove the rule. A traditional fiction is told from beginning to end, even though that beginning and that end and the parts in between might not be chronologically sequential. That is, you read the book, watch the movie/TV show, examine the comic from the starting point, following along through the medium as it leads you, then finish when it no longer continues.

There is a sole exception to this, and that is the genre of "choosable path fiction", such as the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. But, you see, now we have entered the realm of those things that are traditionally called "roleplaying games". These are fictions which interact with the audience in meaningful ways, in which the audience makes a choice that is then reflected in the continuation of the narrative. Some Computer Role Playing Games (CRPGs) such as Fable and Darklands fit this criteria, though many seem to have no meaningful choices, only scenes where the player fights, then is moved on by the linear narrative scenes into the next fight.

So we have the situation where a character in a linear narrative has to have certain events occur (and others not occur) in order for the ending scene to occur as necessary to the satisfactory resolution of the narrative. This means that the character will exhibit strange distortions of statistical likelihood. He will not be hit by any bullets that could kill him, she won't fall off the cliff as she climbs up the side, he will always find the critical clue that finalizes the villain's guilt, she will be able to dig herself out of the grave in which she's been buried alive. These happen in traditional fiction because they have to happen in order for the final resolution to occur.

In a roleplaying game, this sort of "lust for result" is not inherent to the form. A roleplaying game doesn't have a predetermined character who will achieve a predetermined outcome (rescuing the princess, killing Bill, whatever). Instead, a roleplaying game is more like a puzzle, in which there is a situation that exists (and it may be a situation that changes in response to player actions or a timetable), and it is up to the players to "solve" that puzzle in such a manner as fits their own conception of success.

Some games, though, have given players a resource (points, a special character talent, or some other metagame method) which allows them to modify the character's world in ways that simulate the distortions of statistical likelihood inherent in a linear fiction. When I was younger, I grudgingly accepted this as a way to "simulate" (as I thought) such linear fictions. I called this "cinematic play" at the time. I have since come to dislike the idea, and prefer to consider "cinematic" as a general descriptor of particular physical assumptions that vary somewhat from those in the real world.

A roleplaying game should avoid lust for result. That is, it should not start with a conception of how it will end. The ending (such as it is) of a roleplaying game should develop from the imperfectly-understood choices of the players in relation to the scenario and the rulings and play of the Referee. And even that is a bad way to formulate the situation, because unlike a linear fiction, a roleplaying game does not (have to) have a defined ending at all. A long campaign, if it ends at all without the deaths of the people playing it, is more likely to just peter out. If it bears any resemblance to a linear fiction in this way, it would be to an ongoing series, such as comic books or some types of adventure novel series (The Destroyer, Perry Rhodan, whatever).

In avoiding lust for result, Referees are freed of the temptation to control the players' characters. They are freed of the need to alter dice rolls. They are freed of their quantum ogres. This allows everyone, even the Referee, to be surprised by events in the game, to experience the fiction entirely new, because the fiction didn't come into existence until the communication of the players (including the Referee) and the universe's weighted random number generator as revealed in the dice and the game's rules.

(OK, yeah, I realize that all of this is old hat, but I'm starting to see that people new-come to the ideas in "old-school" style gaming are not really understanding what's going on, so I thought it would be worthwhile to make a new formulation of the concepts.)

Friday, March 8, 2013

Goth of the Week

I do not know who the model is, but I found this here.

Edit to add: The model is Corinna Cassani. Thank you to Mild Colonial Boy, Esq. for finding it!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Gameable Fiction

I've been spending most of my reading time these days with George R.R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" series. I was introduced to the setting through the excellent HBO adaptation, but quickly decided to read the books as I was sure that there was deeper content, and more of it. I was not disappointed.

Of course, we all know that the series has been adapted as a roleplaying game (though to be sure, I don't know very much about the game and how well it adapts the material; it seems to me that HârnMaster would go a long way toward developing the feel of the setting, with some work adapting the terrible and exotic magics of Martin's fantasy). There are a few other literary settings that have been adapted by specific roleplaying games: Tolkien's Middle-Earth, Vance's Dying Earth, Moorcock's Melnibone and some other Eternal Champion material, Lovecraft's Cthulhu stories, Niven's Known Space, Fleming's James Bond (though perhaps that was more an adaptation of the movies), Constantine's Wraeththu, Herbert's Dune (twice, though only once officially), Butcher's Dresden Files, Zelazny's Amber, along with a very few others. This doesn't include those settings that were mere supplements for other games, such as Thieves' World, Wild Cards, or Adams's Horseclans. There are even a few, such as Howard's Conan, that have been adapted more than once. In addition to those, there are some movie and television settings that have seen adaptations, like Star Wars (three times so far!), Star Trek (more than three times, depending on how you count it!), Firefly, Babylon 5, and so on.

However, there are some settings of fiction that have not been adapted to roleplaying games, and I am not sure why that is. Eddings's Belgariad, Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, Butcher's Codex Alera, Burroughs's Barsoom (well, it sort of has, but not really), Lee's Flat Earth or Birthgrave, Donaldson's Thomas Covenant, Brooks's Shannara, and so on. Some of them, I can understand if the rights have issues or are otherwise difficult to secure, but the popularity of such as Malazan or Shannara would seem to have caused someone to go through the effort.

What settings do you most want to see turned into freestanding roleplaying games? Which would be better off as a supplement for an existing game like D&D/Pathfinder, GURPS, BRP, or whatever?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

[Obscure Games]Hârnmaster

Before we get started, there's a song that has been going through my head a lot today, so I'm going to share it with you now ("What becomes a legend most? The love and lives of men. And machines."):

OK, now that you've listened to that (you have listened to it, right? It's totally worth the less than three minutes it takes) let's get on with the overview!

The Hârn setting has always been about making a fantasy world that has a resemblance to actual early medieval European society, without actually being medieval Europe. To this end, it includes very detailed information about everything from farming and herbal remedies to castles and the uncivilized tribes of the island known as Hârn. The island is about the size of Madagascar, though oriented East-West instead of North-South, and contains several sovereign nations from three main ethnic groups. Well, two main ethnic groups, and one subjugated one. Plus dwarves. And elves. And gargûn, which are the setting's version of orcs and goblins. It's not really simple, actually.

But we're not here to talk about that. We're here to discuss the roleplaying system that was developed to showcase the setting. Although the setting can be used with any fantasy system (and many of the supplements describing Hârn's world have come with stats for D20 in recent years), HârnMaster was specifically designed with the setting's assumptions in mind. For example, we find in the character creation a discussion of how the astrological science of the setting affects a character, making the actual birthdate of the character an important matter.

Character creation is pretty old-school, with dice rolls for pretty much everything (though, of course, the Referee can override anything, such as making all the characters come from the same background, deciding whether or not particular races are allowed for the PCs instead of randomly rolling for race, and so on). Roll for race (with an 8% chance of being a gargûn!), roll for sex, roll for birthdate, roll for parent occupation (which also determines starting social class), roll for sibling rank and "estrangement" (how much your relatives like you), roll for "medical" issues (which range from poxmarks and scars to being a drug addict, an epileptic, or even a lycanthrope!), roll for height, weight, complexion, hair color, eye color, comeliness, and so on. Then you get to the actual stats!

There are five physical stats, plus four senses, the quality of the character's voice, three mental stats, and "Morality", which last is a rating of the character's views on moral issues (ranging from Diabolical on the low end to Exemplary at the higher ratings). A player is allowed to choose the character's Morality, or can roll it on 3d6. All of the other stats are rolled on 3d6, then modified for race and other factors. Next comes the Psyche chart. Roll on that to find out if the character has mental problems (phobias, manias, paranoia, violent temper, hypochondria, and so on) - 40.1% of characters won't have any, but the other 59.9% are neurotic or worse. Pick a deity, then roll 5d6 for starting Piety (which is a pool of points used to ask the divine beings for miraculous interventions).

Whew! That's a lot to do. These characters aren't going to be throwaway types that you can fling at a dungeon and hope they survive the funnel. You're going to want to keep this character alive. Worse yet, we aren't even done! There's the "Pregame", where several years are played out with a few decisions, including which occupation(s) the character pursues. Occupations add skill points to the base levels. This part is a lot like RuneQuest (the Avalon Hill version, mostly, but not too different from the Chaosium edition). Oh, and roll to see if the character has any psionic talents. These are low-level wild talent magics that the character can do, like astral projection, hexing, or even minor pyrokinesis.

Skills are based on a formula that averages three stats (sometimes, the same stat is used twice, making it an average of a stat, the stat again, and another stat), then modified for astrological sign. Basically, the character's astrology modifies his talent with various skills. Pretty cool way to do it, especially after seeing the weird stat modifiers in Fantasy Wargaming. Then the character gets some money and the player chooses what to spend it on, and we're finally done. Unless the character is a Shek-Pvar (wizard) or a holy person. But we don't have all day, so just figure that you've got more to do in those cases.

Action resolution is based on rolling a d100 against the skill. If the skill or under is rolled, the action is a success. If not, it is a failure. There's always a 5% chance to fail (roll 96-00), and a 5% chance to succeed (though only with a skill that is actually possessed by the character). Any roll that ends in 0 or 5 is a critical. If the roll is a success with a 0 or 5, then it is a critical success, a failure with a 0 or 5 is a critical failure. So, if the character has a 49 chance, a roll of 45 would be a critical success, while a 60 would be a critical failure. There are a bunch of other things involving skills, such as Skill Index, but those are details that aren't necessary to know in an overview like this one (which is going to be long enough).

An important modifier to skills is the Physical Penalty. This is a combination of encumbrance, injury, and fatigue that affects most of the skills. Each of the skills is given a pretty detailed workup of normal uses. There's nearly a half page on listening for noise, for instance (on the other hand, the whole writeup for Dancing is: "A character's ability to perform various types of dance. Specialties such as folk or erotic dancing are viable if desired. Cultural background has a lot to do with repertoire.") Mostly, these stick to things that characters actually do that have an effect on the game.

At this point, it is likely that your character is illiterate, knows a few weapons, and has a few other talents. With luck, he has a psionic talent that can be used for a minor advantage at the cost of a few fatigue points (remember Physical Penalty?)

Combat is pretty straightforward, but detailed and therefore somewhat complex. Characters attack by rolling against the appropriate combat skill, and defend in the same way. There's a detachable page of charts that show what happens when a particular defense is used against a particular attack with the various success levels for each. For instance, a Melee Attack that gains normal success against a Block that has a normal fail results in "A*1". That is a result of "Attacker Strike*1". The number represents the number of d6 to roll for Impact of the hit, which is added to the weapon's Impact. Impact is modified by the armor on the hit location struck (roll for hit location, by the way), and the total Impact is compared to a chart that is broken down by hit location, type of attack (is it Blunt, Edge, or Puncture? or other, more exotic types like Squeeze, Fire, Frost, or Tear - which last covers bites and claws, mainly), and amount of Impact. Cross-indexing these gives a result that shows a color (yellow for minor, orange for serious, red for grievous) and usually a letter/number code such as "E3". The color indicates how serious the wound is, and so what dice to roll for Injury Points (Physical Penalty again). The letter/number code indicates special effects of the wound. An "E" is a Shock Roll, and the number indicates how many dice to roll against the wounded character's Endurance stat. A "B" code is for Bleeding, and the number indicates how many Injury Points worth of bleeding will happen every round of 10 seconds. The most dramatic letter codes are "A" (for Amputation) and "K" (for instant Kill). An "A" result at the neck is also an automatic "K". Those results also have an additional "E" check implied, should the character survive. So, the annoying thing is that a wound takes up a lot of table time, what with the roll to hit, the roll for Impact, the roll for location, and the various rolls for the actual wound, but this is forgivable in the sense that a wound, like in real life, is a big deal. Getting seriously wounded pretty much usually means that you are out of the fight, but it is difficult to be seriously wounded if the character is reasonably skilled and wearing decent armor.

Healing takes these wounds and (usually) rates them with an "H" code, for Healing Rate, based on the treatment that the wound receives. It is important for characters to carry first aid tools, like bandages, splints, and cold compresses, even suturing needles, or to have some way to improvise them. Although, to be fair, an untreated wound is better off (usually) than a critical failure when treating it. The killer, though, is when a wound becomes Infected. A normal wound will likely heal in a few days or weeks, but an infected wound is serious business. Just like in real life.

This isn't the only system that uses wounds as the injury metric instead of hit points, but it is one of only a few that do so. I'll be talking about a couple of the others in later installments of Obscure Games. Also, some of the games that ostensibly use hit points actually seem to use a version of wounds (like RuneQuest for instance, where each wound heals independently of the others - though there is also a total hit point value for the character).

Next come the sections on religion and magic. These are pretty straightforward. You get Piety by participating in religious rituals, and spend it to try to get divine intervention. Magic is learned, and spells cost fatigue to cast. The spells typically have very flavorful names and descriptions ("Ordeal of Frida", "Nurture of Isla"), which make it all have a vaguely Vancian feel, though it doesn't use Vancian methods.

After that are the campaign notes. Costs of various items and equipment, how to be a Mercantyler, how to run a game, monsters and creatures of Hârn, and an excellent random treasure generation system. None of this is particularly unusual, though.

I left out a lot, trying to make this not be like the Fantasy Wargaming series. There's information on how a character can craft items (and make them more valuable), the languages of Kèthîra (the world of Hârn), and a lot more. The details of the religion and magic systems are also fairly involved, so I left those out for the most part. The upshot of all this is that the game is really good for the thing it does, but I imagine that not many people really want the thing it does, which is to adjudicate a highly realistic and detailed setting in a highly realistic manner. This means that a lot of things that other systems do well, such as heroic high adventure, are not well-suited to HârnMaster. Adventures run in the system are likely to resemble Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" series rather than, say, Conan or Tolkien. That is, characters are likely to die or be permanently disfigured if they engage in fighting, which might mean that a lot more social interaction between characters and with NPCs would occur. Maybe. Players are a weird bunch. Anyway, I don't think that I'd run this at a table, myself, but I like the ideas a lot in theory, and intend to steal be influenced by a bunch of them for the Computer RPG I intend to write.

Also, the specific version I have discussed here is the 1st edition, which was published back in the ancient days of 1986. Since then, the game has split into two different development tracks: HârnMaster Gold and HârnMaster Third Edition. These have taken different paths of design decisions, with Gold continuing the high-detail, high-realism track, while Third Edition (and the previous version known as HârnMaster Core) preferred to simplify and speed up play.

As a side note, I have a few more Goth of the Week posts in the queue, but I may allow the series to end. It seems to be fairly popular, but I am spending a lot more time looking for decent pictures these days, and I'm ending up with more alt-models than everyday goths. If there's a huge outcry in its favor, I'll keep it going, but otherwise it's just got a few more weeks.