Friday, May 27, 2016

Rules Cyclopedia Oddities Part 4: Race as Class

I know, I know, other posts have been promised (about combat in The Grind and the RC light character sheet variant) and I assure you, they will happen very soon. But this one has been long coming: me entering the fray about the decades old discussion if "race as class" is a good concept or not. It is not really a phenomenon solely associated with the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, but AD&D was long done with the idea when the D&D RC set the exclamation mark for 1e. So let's talk about that for a second or two ...

Race as Class?

See, I never got the argument that Race as Class is restricting, because the whole idea that humans are more diverse than the other races never was the main focus to begin with. It's rather about giving a DM a vanilla assortment of choices and the fiat to make his own campaign out of it. So if anything, by not seeing the possibilities you'd not only end up restricting yourself, you'd also missed the point of making the game your own.

The flood of material back then, with all the variant classes and what not could have given you a hint or two and one argument that comes up very regular (justifiably so) is that you could just as easy exchange halfling with, I don't know, pygmy or mushroom people, getting a new option for your game just like that and just as your campaign needs it. It's a nice exercise if you haven't done it yet, rename all the classes and change from default to, I don't know, weird.

Or why not make it a Blinkling? [source]
Or go one further and experiment with the advantages. So the halfling gets a great advantage hiding in natural environments and I'd keep that for the mushroom folks. Maybe the indoor advantage, too, because they are as small. But I'd make Constitution and Wisdom the main ability scores and give them a +1 for saves versus magic instead of that attack bonus (and keep the bonus to AC and initiative. It's little things, but they make a difference.

For the next stage after that you will need some experience with the system or at least some major play testing. But it is possible to make that dwarven cleric or a elven barbarian as class options and at it's base not that different to taking the bonus a class gets and relabeling it (like with the bonus to saves versus magic above), only now you take a close look at what other classes do and extrapolate it towards what you want.

You'd have to test a bit with the xp range here to keep it balanced, but you'll usually find out fast enough if it works or not. D&D can take a lot as a system and as nice as it is to have it all balanced, I'd always prefer to tinker with it and re-calibrate if it doesn't work.

But you don't actually need to do that if you are reading this right now, because there is a guy out there who did all the heavy lifting, broke all the classes into little pieces and made a huge LEGO kit for you to build your own stuff with. That guy is +Erin Smale and you'll not only find all you need for

on his blog Breeyark!, he also went ahead and revised his (perfectly working) concept recently with the post Building A More Perfect Class, at least streamlining it a bit and working on some of the problem he saw with the original (which I've used for years without any problems, so YMMV). Seriously good stuff. Guy needs to get an Arneson Award for that, or something. Genius.

It illustrates two major points for the Race as Class concept rather well, in my opinion:

1. It's not about what you play ...

... it is (and this is really important) about how many xp you need to get to the next level (and how many levels there are). It's a part of D&D that really got the boot from D&D 3e onward, but I think it's a brilliant design choice. Capable characters don't just need more xp to achieve their next level, they need experienced players, too, if it was to work at all.

See, this is crucial. At least in our campaign it was. You sure could play an elf or a barbarian with all their special abilities and what-not, but you really should be up to the task. Conversely, if a very able player chose to play something like, say, a thief, he'd get very powerful very fast (if you award player skill as per pages 127 to 129  of the RC, that is*), as they gather xp for role playing and exceptional actions with ease and help gathering more gold and kills on average while needing less to advance further ...

So the xp-range of a class gave, to some extent, the level of player skill needed to play a class effectively, getting more difficult the higher it was and made it easier on the other side for inexperienced players the lower it got. I think that's brilliant. In the end we had some very low entry classes that proofed too easy on experienced players and just about right for newbies (the Noble, the Pilgrim and the Goblin Soldier) and some very high end classes (not as high as the classic D&D elf, though) like the Barbarian, The Dwarven Elite or the Prince Charming (who is at the end of this post) and they worked very well for the experienced players at the table.

But level limits are another important aspect. This is not about finding reasons to make them work in a game, it's about math. With a lower level range (or in other words: other classes being able to get higher in level) the average xp needed for the next level will also be lower, because the class is actually weaker than others.

So it is very well possible to have human character classes with level caps. The Noble, for instance, would travel the world until he reaches name level to assume his title and the Pilgrim would end his pilgrimage at name level (which an option to become a saint, but that's another story).

But back to the original point. Level limits allowed players to have characters with lots of powerful abilities (those saves alone!) with acceptable xp ranges by limiting the level range. I honestly admire that design. And it's one argument less against Race as Class.

Think about it! [source]
2. It's also about customizing your campaign

I have to thank +Edward Ortiz at this point for pushing me in the right direction here (he's also doing a tremendous job in world building over at his blog Dungeons and Dutch Ovens ... highly recommended). Race as Class, or really all the vanilla options you get as basics in the D&D RC, are just options to expand upon.

You got the first prestige class with the Druid, there is a Mystic to loot for abilities and a complete bestiary of humanoids to loot for ideas, with guidelines how to give them magic and what the'd be able to cast. And that's just going by the book. Add Mystara or Hollow World options or whatever the  (still striving, btw) fan base came up with and you'll have hundreds of options.

But do it yourself and the sky is the limit, really. You customize your campaign from the very beginning, just like described above, and you'll have the very individual voice of the game supported by the system you use.

You could say now that you'd be just as able to do that with later editions (or other games, for that matter). And I agree. But, as always with the generic versus the specific, if anything goes, you'll have to limit options to get a specific result and that's never popular (also thousands of splat books from AD&D on would try so nonetheless, often by allowing way too powerful options to make it appealing**).

Seeing race as another LEGO piece, on the other hand, just opens up lots and lots of options. You add instead of limiting and you add within the terms you set. We had a gimmick of "unlocking" classes in our game. One day the group managed to befriend a tribe of goblins and goblin warriors where willing to join the group from then on, so the Goblin Warrior class was unlocked.

You make it as you go along in the campaign and the result will always be more personalized than anything you could have bought. Your players will thank you for it.

So: Race as Class? Yes, please!

It seems like an odd thing to have in a game and I'm pretty sure there aren't many games out there doing that the way they did it here. Actually, it got changed because it wasn't popular, not because it was bad design and I think it's, to this day, one of the most underrated and misunderstood system choices in early D&D.

The more I get exposed to this version of D&D, the more I appreciate the thought that was put into the designs here. I know, all of this is a matter of taste and some of it a matter of debate. But you'll have a hard time arguing that this isn't good design.

If you liked this post, you might want to check out the other oddities in this series. Comments are, as always, very welcome. Especially if they praise the Rules Cyclopedia :)


* Player skill would have a capable player score far more often than not multiple times per session in all categories. Here is another oddity for you: a character will earn 1/20 of the complete sum he needs to reach the next level every time he scores in those categories. So a great player should be able to achieve another level with ease within, say, three sessions (maybe faster), even without gold as xp and killing monsters. Furthermore (and this is where it really gets interesting) having the value they earn not as a fixed rate but depending on the level a character is on, shifts the game on higher level dramatically from killing and looting to, I kid you not, role playing. How about that ...

[Edit:] Another thought supporting this theory just occurred to me: You can't earn more xp than you need to gain your next level and that's a great benefit to a skilled player going for a huge xp range. In other words, the huge amounts of xp a skilled group could gather is no use to those playing with a lower xp range, since they'd have advanced just as easy with less ... And if you look at the numbers, you can see what Gygax meant when he said the character gets a soul (or some such thing) beyond level 6, because that's around the time where playing the character will net you more xp than killing and looting!

** Damn, this fits very well into the whole frame of mind that is commercializing the hobby: rather break the game to make another splat book than to actually think about a proper design. I think it explains a lot.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

D&D Rules Cyclopedia light - for one-shots and/or new players

I agreed this year to participate as a DM for the Free RPG Day in Leipzig. The idea was to introduce newbies to role playing games. I was free to chose whatever I like to DM and I should aim for an hour and a half of play per session. It had been an interesting task to tackle and here is what I did.

1. Cooking down the Rules Cyclopedia

I somewhat know my way around the D&D RC and offering D&D was a no-brainer, being a big fan of the OSR and all. It also has all you need (and more) in one book, so that's helpful. With only one hour and a half of genuine play time per session, I'd have to ask myself what I really need at the table to give new players a hint of what D&D is about.

I wanted character creation in there, especially the 3d6 in order and there isn't a way around using ability scores, so that's the first thing to have. Next roll would be hit points and in an ideal world we'd be done with the rolling after that. But if you think about hit points, you'd have to think about classes and to be honest, using them was way too much effort. So the first thing that got cut was classes. It's 1d6 hp (+ Con-bonus, if there is any) and you are good to go.

By default the characters are citizens with some militia training, so they got saves and to-hit matrix of level one fighters, altered by bonuses, if they got them. And that's it. Ability scores with bonuses, the classic 5 saves, hit points and armor class. That's all I took from the RC.

2. House ruling the rest

I've DMed the Rules Cyclopedia for some time and tinkered with it quite a bit. One of the first changes I introduced was changing Charisma to Luck (like DCC does). Damn, this goes way back on the blog, so here you have my reasoning and some of the fire I got for it. Anyway, here Luck is just one of the attributes. If you think about it, every situation you used Charisma in could in its result just as well be explained as being lucky. It's a matter of perspective and I like that one more.

The second big change is another house rule I've presented in 2011 here on the blog: a variant of an Arduin Table concerning Character Aspects. Here's the complete thing (and here is the original post):

 Character Aspects (1d20)

1-2    Thin (-1 to Strength)
3-4    Choleric (-1 to Wisdom, +1 to Constitution)
5-6    Melancholic (+1 to Intelligence)
7-8    Nimble (+1 to Dexterity)
9-12   Normal
13-14  Serene (+1 to Wisdom)
15-16  Vivid (+1 to Luck/Charisma)
17-18  Brawny (+1 to Strength)
19-20  Fat (+1 Constitution, -1 Dexterity)

So right now it's:
  • 3d6 in order, re-roll one, switch two stats if you want
  • roll on the character aspects table
  • note all that down, note bonuses and saves
  • roll 1d6 hp (+ Con bonus, if you have it) and note it down, a 1 may be re-rolled
  • note base AC of 10

All it needed after that was some flavor, so everyone got to choose one occupation and one special ability the character has. Add name and what he looks like and you got a character. Even with a table full of newbies, 15 Minutes character creation, tops.

They were totally free to choose that special ability and whatever they choose was subject to a roll of sorts, so it might not work, but they should choose things that'd give them an advantage others normally wouldn't have. Worked like a charm. When testing for it I'd let them roll d20 + ability score + level versus 20 ...

... which brings me to another house rule of mine: high results are always good, low results are always bad. So tasks are always ability score + d20 (+ skills, if you have them) vs. a difficulty, saves are always target number or higher and attacks are always d20 + bonuses (if you have them) vs. enemy ac. Easy to explain, easy to handle.

Everything you could use as armor reduces your AC by 1 to 3 when you wear it. Could be a pot, could be a shield or some very heavy boots, even a wide cloak might give you some protection (obscuring the body and all that). Normal weapons do 1d6 (+ appropriate bonus, if you have it), small weapons do 2d6, taking the lower result, big weapons do 2d6, taking the higher result.

And now you are ready to play ...

I made an A6 character sheet for the players to use. It is in German, but you should be able to figure it out. As a matter of fact, if I've done this right, the visual presentation of the thing alone should be self explanatory. See for yourselves:

All you need to know with some room for notes on sweet little A6*
3. An argument for the original 5 saves and other commentary

Man, I do love those original 5 saves so much. Cooked down like that their purpose becomes quite obvious, I think. You have active rolls as tasks and they are descriptive with the ability scores. It's basically what you use to get it done. Then you have your passive rolls as the saves and they are descriptive about what you save against. They are what's happening to you.

Tell me what you want, but this totally makes sense to me. I wouldn't change a thing.

So what did I use as a scenario? It came down to that good old "You wake up in the dungeon"-schtick. No equipment to speak of (I allowed Luck rolls if they thought they might have something with them) and they only knew that they got drugged during a towns fair and brought ... somewhere underground.

They know each other and they have roughly an hour real time to get out of there before someone realizes they got out and it's Game Over. 25 Minutes and I got a game going with 5 new and fleshed out characters and a back story to play along with. The rest is player decisions, random encounters and reaction rolls.

As a map I found a big and somewhat complex dungeon, assigned 12 locations in it and rolled a d12 just before I described where they woke up (used this great map by Dyson Logos). I had the Rules Cyclopedia for the heavy lifting and the Dungeon Alphabet as a back up, a blank map to draw on and some miniatures.

In the end I mainly used what I had on my DM screen, the RC for the monsters and the board with the miniatures to illustrate what was going on. The rest was improvised and as random as possible. Didn't know where they'd wake up, didn't know what they'd encounter or the best way to get out there and great fun was had.

I pulled no punches and made clear that it's all very random and that the decisions they'll make might come with dire consequences. It's about player skill. The thing is, even with weak characters, if you make clear that the challenges presented are as much for the players as for the characters, people are good with. They see the character as an extension of themselves and not as a special snowflake.

Well, it was D&D in all it's glory. One more thing, by the way, since the D&D Rules Cyclopedia is a little bit out of print right now, I suggested Labyrinth Lord as a substitute. I'm actually willing to argue my case here, but either way, with what little I used from the RC it really doesn't make a difference.

How did it go?

Three most likely died and two were left with very slim chances of survival. Everyone had lots of fun, going by the laughter. And we ended up playing almost three hours before I called it a day, because when we first got to a point where I could have ended it, no one was there to replace the group and we kept going instead.

All of the players had played role playing games before, but none of them had played D&D in any version yet. So at least it held some novelty for them. But I'd really loved to have a complete newbie at the table or two. Just wasn't to be.

Anyway, another thing I took away from that session is that tension is everything with short games and/or one shots. Pick a player, give him something to think, go to the next one and when you come full circle, that first player better had an idea what he wants to do ... or it gets worse and he gets a bit more time to think. Keep them engaged, react to their input and spin it forward. Make their decisions count somehow.

And you will always have group dynamics. If you play with people you don't know and that don't know each other, you'll ideally have them on the edge of their seats the whole time, as people under pressure (even in a game) are really grateful for the help of others and if it's other players instead of the DM, you'll have a positive group dynamic even among strangers ...

I go on and on. Sorry about that. Point here is, D&D can be cooked down to it's bare bones and still work pretty well. I'd have done a little more for a longer game, but not much. A campaign wouldn't start much different, actually. If I'd have a group of people completely new to the hobby, I'd start right there. System mastery is key, nurture player skill and team work, go from there.

Should I do an English version of that character sheet? Maybe with some rules on the back?

The post about combat in The Grind, for those interested, should be the next after this one ...

* I used inkscape for the composition. The pictures all have public domain origins. The elements are isolated and changed (at least vectorized and cleaned). Not 100 % happy with sword and shield there, but it's what I could do in the time I had.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Devolution of Combat in D&D (a prelude)

Started writing a post about combat in The Grind (maybe I get that one finished the next few days, too) and this issue popped up when I started thinking about the reasons behind writing new designs for combats in role playing games. Paused, came to the conclusion that it's worth a post of its own and here we are ...

This is about many things

Devolution can mean several things, depending on the context. It could mean giving away power when talking about governments/institutions and it could mean a form of degeneration or even regression of sorts when talking about, say, a neighborhood that changes from thriving to drug-ridden (I go with the Merriam-Webster definition here).

I'd argue that both (all?) dimensions of the word apply to D&D combat. Most of us are aware that D&D combat started out quite easy:
Roll d20 to beat the armor class of your enemy and deal damage, repeat until combat is decided. Type of armor and ability to hit others (in form of bonuses) may be factored in, attack order may be randomized and the use of miniatures is optional.
End of story.

At least that is what you will find in those first D&D books. But the truth is, that's only half the story. I've just yesterday read the great article A History of D&D: Made by Fans by Paul Mason about how the fans of D&D had to  bring innovation to the game and those who somehow succeeded to monetize their designs would be called game developers from then on. But they all started as fans.

That article is worth reading for several more reasons than I'll discuss here, so you should definitely check it out.

There are three aspects in this piece, though, that really resonated with me: (1) the movement started within another hobby that had been at its peak at the time (war gaming) and full with creative people who must have been very able to improvise rules, (2) OD&D was never considered to be a complete game and (3) it must have been quite expensive for the demographic it appealed to.

The mixture of those three aspects made D&D spread like a wild fire, with just as many uncontrollable excesses. People started to fill the gaps they found themselves or recreated the rules from hearsay. No game of D&D, as the story goes, was alike. Then the codifying started, again first at the fan base. But TSR would soon go and fill those gaps themselves, which led, of course, to splinter groups. And those led to new games like Metamorphosis Alpha or Runequest. Innovation, diversification ... evolution.

So in a way, as this line of thought shows, it's the evolution of the hobby that started the devolution of D&D or, specifically as we are talking about this, the combat in D&D. How is that?

1. Codifying means taking control (away)

So in the beginning of D&D, everything had been D&D. Whatever you did it had been as intended by the rules. Need proof for this? Here is an excerpt of this first tome of role playing games, written by the man himself:
"SCOPE: With the various equippage listed in the following section DUNGEONS and DRAGONS will provide a basically complete, nearly endless campaign of all levels of fantastic-medieval wargame play. Actually, the scope need not be restricted to the medieval; it can stretch from the prehistoric to the imagined future, but such expansion is recommended only at such time as the possibilities in the medieval aspect have been thoroughly explored." (D&D Vol. 1: Men & Magic, p. 5, written by Gary Gygax)
D&D was, in its original intent, a guide to do it yourself. But maybe the game grew to fast or the call for guidance grew stronger as the game spread outside those war gaming circles that had been so used to the idea of tinkering that the need never occurred to anyone until it did. If you read the introduction to Men & Magic you will see that they assumed that you'll only have to invest into those three booklets. Little did they know ...

That famous first edition, in a museum [source]
Anyway, the game grew and got codified because the need for guidance became an issue (let's say for several reasons). More levels, campaign settings, adventure locations, they basically just expanded on what was there and it actually took quite a while before they started tinkering with combat. When they did, it came with huge changes.

This happened for the first time during the transition between D&D and AD&D*. At that time we already had several other, quite popular role playing games out there that did the same but with different rules. Lighter, streamlined variants, like Tunnels & Trolls or crunchier variants with hit locations and endurance rules, like Runequest, to name only two. So making combat more complex was, in a way, just a reaction to what was demanded by what had been perceived as a market by then.

In a way it's a logical consequence to what Gygax formulated in that excerpt above: the rules will get more complex as you keep playing. It's just not the DM who's doing the expanding, it's a company. And that's where you take away the control over the game. Fun fact: there are anecdotes about Gygax playing a very different D&D to the one he published**.

True or not, I think it's only natural to house rules a role playing game and to write something for publication will always come with different considerations (you know, like what is popular with the kids, what have other rpgs done ...) than just sharing how you love to play it yourself. But with the need to make the game a "brand" and with the decisions you make to keep it that way, you take the game away from the gamers.

So instead of giving the players a bare bones system they can use to build their own game, you tell them what to do. This has actually no other considerations than commercial ones. Check the history of D&D for proof, if you want. AD&D 1E was a response to what other publishers did, AD&D 2E was a response to kicking Gygax from the team, D&D 3E was a response to Wizards of the Coast buying the brand, 4E a logical consequence of the idea to milk the WoW crowd too and 5E is the flimsy (?) attempt to get the very productive old gamers back into the warm embrace of the corporation***.

So you see, it's never about making the game "better", it's about taking control away from those who play it, those who made it before and those who do something different. You play the game long enough, you'll start seeing it. Wait for the 6E marketing campaign to start in a couple of years. You'll see.

Anyway, knowing what D&D intended to do and where it ended up, you understand now that allowing others to tell you how to play it and you actually doing it (defending it, even), well, that's devolution for you.

2. Expanding without changing is also devolution ...

And yet, there is another aspect to the whole thing and, honestly, the reason for me to write the whole post. It's about that other dimension of the word: degeneration. We have the same starting point here and the same developments are the source of the problem, but the perspective is very different. Instead of looking at the whole affair from the control angle, I'd like to look at it from a system angle now. The questions here are, how is the game played and why?

So in the beginning we had a bare bones system as described at the very top of this post in italics and the advice to make it your own (as discussed in that article linked to above). That means players will have expanded on this as needed.

It's not about what is already there,
it's about what you add! [source]
Interesting story there, the combat system for Runequest (as one of the games that became a very popular alternative to D&D) was written by guys who game from a LARPing background, not from a war gaming background****, so their ideas of man to man combat had been very different from what D&D described. Hence Endurance and hit locations and so forth. It completely changes the focus of a combat on the system side of things, so there is that.

But you also have the "freedom" of winging it instead. Less rules will mean more wiggle room for players and DM. This can be a good thing, a great possibility to open combat up to the narrative and away from the strict adherence to movement rates and boards abstracting environments. Theater of the mind instead of all the war gaming trappings that are still pretty present in that fifth edition of D&D.

That lack of rules back then brought options and options had been explored. Check out this timeline of the hobby and you'll get a glimpse of what happened at tables all over the country (and beyond, but to a lesser extent and way later). 1976 already saw 10 publications very different from D&D, Empire of the Petal Throne, Bunnies & Burrows, Tunnels & Trolls and Metamorphosis Alpha among them. The Arduin Grimoire, published in 1977, is another famous example and maybe a better one, at that, because it could be seen as exactly the kind of expansion to D&D I'm talking about here: completion with house rules.

But making my point with publications is just showing the tip of the iceberg and way before something like market saturation would have been achieved. Meaning: this happened everywhere. There are still bloggers around that will tell you how different their campaign had been compared to the original game. Without something like the internet to connect and interact with others, it's only natural to get isolated developments like that.

The kicker here is, that's just background noise. It's important to see those connections and that there's a long DIY tradition in our hobby, but I'm aiming at something different here. It's before that very background that the people working on the next generation of D&D had to decide where to go with the rules. Very well aware that they couldn't change the core of what made D&D and always with one eye towards making a buck or two with expansions, they decided to expand the frame without actually adding to it.

Compare that initial premise for combat as I formulated it above with D&D today and you will see what I mean. It's all still there, down to the use of miniatures. Parameters may have changed over the years (ascending vs. descending AC, more hit points for beginning characters and so on) but that basic formula is still very present, 42 years after that first edition saw the light of day.

That's not a bad thing, mind you, and it more describes a state of stagnation than devolution. So where is the problem, you might ask. Well, the thing is that an incomplete system (a frame, to be precise), meant to be interpreted, completed and expanded upon individually, was made the default game mode. This got canonized so hard that people to this day argue that it was complete to begin with and that every iteration of this, every change of it, is sacrilege.

You'll read every now and then in the blog-o-sphere or on forums that D&D combat, played by the book, is static. It's something my players also told me repeatedly and the main reason for them to play anything but D&D was exactly that.

This is my conclusion: every combat option, feat, prestige class or whatever you'll have in D&D, did expand on an incomplete frame and not only without solving the initial problem, but also obstructing the original intend to a point where changing it would mean writing a new game. And that process of obstruction can be described as devolution.

So that was just a prelude?!

Yes, it was. The Grind will feature a new combat system. The train of thought you just saw crashing above describes my reasons to not necessarily avoid the D&D combat system, but to take that initial premise and develop it into other directions. In a way it's all still D&D for me or at least that old school mindset running so strong in our DIY community and was the original intention of that famous first set role playing books.

Innovation is what brings our hobby forward and to achieve that we'll have to think outside the borders corporations artificially build to limit us down to being nothing more than consumers or (at best) contributors.

What I'm not saying here is that D&D is a bad system or that it doesn't work. I've had lots of fun with several editions in my life and I believe I will have some more before I'm done. But when I DM it and especially when it's about combat, I will house rule the hell out of it. So, again: this post is about why I go and work on completely new takes on combat (and why I think that most big corporate game designs suck dice).

At least I try and trying is half the fun ;-)

* [Edit because +Tag Schatten  is right and AD&D did happen way earlier than the RC. Thanks for pointing this out, man] AD&D 1E and the D&D Rules Cyclopedia did not happened at the same time, but this is about what started in the end of the first edition and got started in the second ... the D&D RC in this case with its (optional) weapon mastery rules or AD&D with weapon speed and whatnot. But it's save to say it happened at this specific point in time.

** And it needs to stay anecdotal as I can't find where I read this ... maybe someone helps out in the comments?

*** Not even talking OSR here (although that's a big part of it, too), but HackMaster, as a revised 2nd Edition became popular enough to get killed because it threatened 3E and Pathfinder as a revived version of 3E is still earning a lot of money and was the main reason for the failure that is 4E ...

**** The history of Runequest is an interesting topic all on its own. The information I use here is from this entry. Enjoy that specific rabbit hole, if you dare :)

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Review: Wolf-packs and Winter Snow (Ice Age-Themed Retro-Clone)

Second review this month. Sorry, but I couldn't help it ... This is another case of someone getting a game out there that people should be very interested in (for reasons) and nothing happens. So how's that for a pitch: play heroes during the Ice Age, with raw magic, wild beasts and alien horrors, using good old D&D with some spicy doses of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, ACK and Beyond the Wall for good measure and all that as PWYW. Interested?

Alternate cover? [source]
Getting the system out of the way fast ...

It is D&D of the OSR variety. A retro-clone. It has a orientation guide in the back and some original ideas here and there. But it is what you'd expect and that's a good thing. Adaptation is fast, as you'd  also expect.

This is actually a prime example of what the OSR can do: take a working system engine, change the body work as you like and give it some individual character without loosing sight of the original. So you got a classes/race-as-class thing going, spells are of the Vancian variety, but with a few nice twists (I'll say something about that further below), there is a nice little domain game in there to build and maintain your own tribe and as many random tables as you can think of.

Survival is a big thing in the rules, of course. Lots of wilderness and cave exploration. I won't talk much more about this and only say that you'll find what you'd need on those 156 pages you get here. This is a solid job and as far as I can tell you won't need any major outside sources to run this game. The book seems to have it all. But the big star here is ...

The Setting!

I got to be honest, I read about that game (h/t to +Jackson Malloy for the shout out at his blog Sword and Scoundrel)  and I immediately had ideas what I'd like to run with it. The pre-historic Ice Age is a fascinating setting, as anyone will tell you who played Far Cry Primal or looked at one of the videos*.

Open in new tab to bask in the glory that is Far Cry Primal [source]
Hunting Mammoths, fighting saber-tooth tigers and exploring an untamed and beautiful nature, hiding its dark secrets, freeing even more as the sun melts the glaciers away? Sounds like a hell of a time to me. And the light rules are just right for this. It might even have a bit too many options for my tastes, but that's fine as you can make the game you want out of this with ease.

I don't know if I need to say anything more here. It's a strong setting, well established in the rules and tons of material online to fuel a campaign with, plus Everything D&D to loot from as a bonus. That is a lot.

Minor quibbles ...

Yay, looks like I'll keep it short today! There where some things I didn't like that much. Minor problems and the thing is DIY and PWYW, so I could just as well leave it at that. But still, if I write my impressions, I'll write all of it. So here it is.

The presentation is only average and the pdf could need some polishing. Nothing out of the ordinary and still functional (table of contents, a glossary and a list of all the tables are all present, which is good), but working with vector based graphics would have solved a lot of problems like diffused lines and frame shadows of pictures.

Artwork is mostly silhouettes and mostly they do what they should, sometimes they don't. But getting artwork for something you do yourself and without a budget is impossible. Nothing of this rubbed me really the wrong way, so it's not a big problem.

The layout is functional and sports the traditional two column spread. The frame reminded me of old World of Darkness Werewolf stuff, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Why the magic user class was named "magician" instead of (maybe?) shaman is beyond me and the game has, as I already mentioned above, many, many options. More than I found necessary for magic (mainly for magic, for the rests it's good to have them). But you don't use what you don't need, right?


This is a solid entry into the OSR retro-clone scene and worth checking out. I'd actually DM this and the whole setting is quite alluring so I'm pretty sure I'll find a chance to get this played. A one shot, maybe. It'll have a special place on my hard drive (and yes, such a thing exists). I think the idea to create and keep a tribe is very nice and something that could easily inspire a whole campaign on it's own.

But this is also ripe with ideas to loot. It has one of the best explanations I have read for the Vancian magic system and it really fits the whole theme (So I'd keep it here instead of kicking it like I generally do). Magic is also quite experimental and dangerous, with wild side effects, as you'd expect from spells cast and memorized from wall paintings ... Some ideas for primal magic items are also nice to have.

Thinking about it now, I'd be tempted to jump-start a fantasy campaign with a pre-historic session or two, laying the grounds for the main campaign thousands of years later. So many (good) options. 

It's almost a cliche by now to say, but it's also worth it for all the random tables in it.

I'm not aware of any other D&D clone that does what Wolf-packs and Winter Snow does and it's a welcome addition. Go and check it out. If you like it, you'd might want to keep an eye on the blog Dying Stylishly for updates and additional material.

* Or anyone who read a book about the subject, saw a documentary ... you know what I mean.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

For what it's worth ... (yes, I'm doing this)

It's fascinating. You look away for a few days, get back and everything is in ruins. Monkeys flinging feces, soldiers building trenches. I counted 3 (!) (minor) flame wars in our little corner of the internet since I went back online yesterday. Way to go, people, way to go. Anyway, I actually got an opinion on one of those issues (here's patient zero***) and I'd like to share my thoughts on the matter. I'm not doing this often, so I hope you can forgive me for letting the monkey on my back roam free for a second or two (not for throwing feces, though).

Please, ignore this rant if the topic isn't for you.

1. I really don't like economics ...

... but I'm forced to know my way around it. One of the first things you'll learn when dealing with this kind of stuff, is the following truth:


You might not believe me, but in that case I really don't care very much, because I'm not the one to believe here, nor has it anything to do with believing, it's a simple fact (there will be examples a plenty further below, but you could also check out TTIP or how financial interests ruined Greek or the panama papers or about geo-political strategies in war zones to rig the oil prices and look up fracking while you are at it ...). How markets work when they are free (as in "not regulated") is really scary to behold*, so please don't use that argument when talking about elfgames. It's wrong.

Same goes for the homo oeconomicus (basically a human being that is totally aware of the market and able to make the "best" decisions because of it) and very much for the same reasons. They all are very simplified tools to make calculations in economics easy and that simplification is the fatal flaw of the whole thing. You can't think in absolute terms about those things, because they are very, very complex.

So if someone tells me something along the lines of "people are just cheap and don't realize what it costs to make a role playing book", my first impulse would be to say "no, you really don't understand the economics of your market". There are, for instance, phenomena called wage gaps, predatory lending or student debts, to name only a few from the top of my head ... the point being, most people are really bled dry and have to look how they spend their money. And we are talking rich countries here. Add children, a car, a house and the fact that we will grow problematically old or get sick and most of us will most likely die in debt ...

Okay, slow down, we are talking 60 bucks for a book here, that's not really that much in the grand scheme of things, you might think. And you would be right. Somewhat. But the original point had been that people are free to decide what they buy and what not. Knowing that 70 % percent of all American students will end up in debt after their degree or all the other countless methods to end up in a bad place just for living, should give you some pause, though. And we are talking your customer base here (students) and in countries where living ain't actually that bad. Well, it's about perspective.

Take Germany, to give another example: around 20 % percent of the people living here earn less money than 60 % of the median household income here. It's one definition of being poor and it means that those people won't have the money to eat properly or go to the cinema or send their children on vacation or participate in any other meaningful way in social life. And yes, that includes 60 bucks for a book ...

But I'm only talking highlights here. I've seen guys in my circles ask for money or selling their collections because they are short or just having a streak of bad luck in general. It happens. And more often than not it happens when you are pursuing creative endeavors.

Add price dumping, sweat shops, children mining minerals in Africa to make that mobile of yours so much cheaper, a lack of education (in some cases) and you'll get an understanding how people are driven to believe that everything can be cheap. Or has to be, anyway.

2. No free market and people act irrational

Alright, this seems to be all over the place, so a little summary shouldn't hurt. Markets are not free, they are regulated. What regulates a market and who benefits from it might differ a very great deal, but there is always some sort of regulation and in most cases it isn't the customer because customers are irrational. People will play the lottery loosing money while hoping to get way more, people will keep smoking, knowing it'll kill them in the long run.

Same goes for sugar or oil or whatever. People are irrational and that is why they are (and can be) regulated about what they have to do and why. Simple as that. Sometimes it's the state, but more often than not it's those having the money, aiming to get more.

Another example is food waste. The amount of food we throw away is sickeningly high (checking this for numbers, you'll find anything ranging between 30 and 70 %). But that's not even the point. Do you really believe that the customer has anything to say about the prices of food by deciding to not buy anything and something else instead? The sad truth is that the difference is just thrown away and the rest is price rigging.

So even if people keep telling that the free market would be fair and prices would be what they should be, you will never find this realized in history. Never worked, never will work. A price is what you can get away with.

Quality? How many artists do we know that never got famous while they'd been alive? Edgar Allen Poe, Phillip K. Dick, H.P. Lovecraft, Franz Kafka, Van Gogh ... the list goes on and on (you just might add Gary Gygax here, right?). How many successful tv shows do you know that deserved a second season or continuation and never got it because it didn't bring enough money, quality or not (Firefly, Rome, Deadwood ... and so on).

How many patents for really great ideas got killed from the very beginning? Or how many really shitty movies earned millions and millions for no other reason than a highly competent marketing department? How does all of that happen and we still keep telling ourselves that quality changes anything? So don't give me this "quality will succeed"-bullshit, either.

Here is another sad truth: people will tell you what's good and what's not good, just not because of the quality of a thing (because that's very subjective to begin with) but because they think it's somehow beneficial for them. Doesn't have to be about money either, could be just to feel important enough or to get some sort of recognition or because you are a friend or colleague ... you name it.

I'm a book seller by trade and here is another telling observation: people will buy and support books they don't understand (or even don't want) just because a book is popular (or they think it's popular, for that matter). And they will be totally save talking about it with others, because it's so easy to find others that also didn't understand it and/or don't want it (or are just as able to quote the general opinions they read somewhere). Usually they'll keep praising it, too, spreading it even further.

What does this tell us? People are irrational in their choices and their decisions. They will believe a lot and buy even more. And if you are lucky, you get to sell something, because luck is the market entry in most cases and nothing more.

Intermissions ... and just because I thought it's funny [source]
3. Web 2.0 and the DIY movement at large

The incident that spurned a lot of discussion on the internet in the last few days is not about the big players of the industry, it's about small businesses trying to make a living from selling role playing books. It is a collectors market, at best. Only a very small percentage of those sold books is actually read or even used for any bigger amount of time for it's purpose. The rest is collecting dust and dreams.

I mean, that's the main problem of the whole industry of rpg publishers, right? The answers to the questions how many role playing games a consumer really needs and how many they could sell him anyway ... Revisions, Editions, only parts of a game (levels 1 to 3, for instance) and collector values like special editions, famous artists ... you name it, they've tried it.

But the real secret here is that you sell a complete or perfect game (if such a thing could exist**) only once per customer and if it's really, really good, he won't need anything else like that ever again. So role playing games need to be faulty and incomplete or worth collecting if they are to work as a product ... right?

Right. You want your adventures to work with your system, so it's incomplete. You don't give a DM the tools he needs to do it himself, so it is incomplete. The rules are for the use with miniatures, so it's incomplete ... the list of tricks goes on and on and it has nothing to do with the game. Same goes for the aspects that make it worth collecting. It's all about the product.

And this is finally where things get interesting. The internet changed a lot about how we communicate and produce role playing games and is still changing as I write this. Publishers unable to react to those changes will be left behind and others will get a chance to make something out of it. And that's a good thing.

4. And yet there is hope?

The whole DIY movement manages on a regular basis to put a lot of "professional" products to shame. Check out the Threshold zine, for example. This is free. There are many, many other examples like it (check here for more examples and anywhere else before that). Kickstarters produce huge amounts of material right now, showing that asking the customer beforehand has merit (if they deliver to fulfill that demand and only as market entry ... product might still be bad, though). And all the finest OSR/Indie products to buy are also worth collecting (I own several LotFP books like that).

But it's not only about new market strategies, like offering a pdf as PWYW and earn with the print product or having a kickstarter or whatever (which are all necessary, by the way), it's more about getting the hobby directly where it should have been to begin with: to those playing it. People often don't believe the amount of free and complete games available nowadays. If you'd want to, you could play your whole life without ever paying more than the regional internet fee.

Imagine the dimension of that! There'd never been a lower entry point into our beloved hobby. Here's a pdf, go and be happy. Just like that. It's not a product anymore. Of course that makes a lot of people nervous right now. But honestly, there never was much to earn with publishing to begin with, especially with role playing games. And if you are not able to adapt, well, whining about it won't help either ...


Okay. Again a long one and I know it might ruffle some feathers. Please hold your horses. I'm able to argue and substantiate every claim I make here. That being said, I'm aware that some of it is opinion. There are no bad feelings from my side if we aren't on the same page here. But many of the arguments about this issue felt very, well, wrong, inconsequential or incomplete and I thought I might be able to add some perspective to all of that.

We are at the spear tip of some very new developments here. Most of that is about getting value beyond economic principles and marketing strategies: creating and sharing and talking about it. At least that is how I like to see it and why I'm very skeptical when someone tries to sell me something I could get just as well for free.

Maybe that's the thing here. Not the neo-liberal myths of how everything worth doing is worth getting paid for and the delusions that come with that, nor the idea that the "market" (see how the word alone excludes the individual?) somehow magically does what is "right". No, we have something good here with our hobby, but to get anywhere near to a complete understanding of what the first developers started only four decades ago, we need to stop thinking about earning money every step of the way (there are places for that, too, though ... see above).

And if you think about all the pioneers in arts or science or whatever, you will find one common trait in all of them: a need to explore that goes beyond the safety of economic thinking. There. This is what it's worth. Put a price on that.

One last thing: I totally forgot about how the arts need support to be possible. Support like, for instance, the fixed book price agreement we have here in Germany (among other countries). There are ways to finance even role playing games if they are recognized as an art form and a cultural gain instead of a product ... Just some food for thought.

Next I'll write about funny elfgames again. I promise.

* I'll use the excellent Last Week Tonight with John Oliver show to illustrate some of my points (they really do their home work). They are very focused on the USA, but it gives some good examples how things work and other places aren't that much better. If you haven't seen the show yet, have fun seeing all of it now :)

** If I were to name one such product, it'd be the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. One book to rule them all ... (sorry)

*** +Timothy Brannan wrote a (IMO) very good piece about it here and links to all other entries but the one by the Trollsmyth here.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

A look into the old school module The Dreams of Ruin (sort of a review)

This is not a review, since I didn't read the whole thing yet and play-testing it would take years. But I've seen a lot. More than enough to justify a review, actually. So here are my impressions and thoughts about the opulent PWYW Labyrinth Lord/Mutant Future (horror) end-game module The Dreams of Ruin (pdf-variant) by Geoffrey C. Grabowski.

What do we have here?

Here's what's on the tin:
The Dreams of Ruin 
They come from the abyss between the worlds;from the foul darkness of the planes of evil. 
A twisted enchanted forest that consumes whole worlds;an ancient, endless curse that yearns unceasingly for expression. 
The Dreams of Ruin are a unique element of dimensional terror for Labyrinth LordMutant Future and other Old School-style games. 
Designed to remedy the lack of "end game" content for Old School-style gaming, The Dreams of Ruin is a setting-neutral adventure supplement aimed at characters of level 12 to 16. The material can be used with groups from level 8 to max level (and beyond, if the system supports ascent to divinity for high-level character).  
Capable of challenging even the most experienced players and most powerful characters, The Dreams of Ruin are an unforgettable addition to any high-level campaign.  
But beware! The dreams are mighty and can overwhelm even fearsome warlords and powerful wizard-kings. One touch of them, and your campaign world will never be the same. 
Mazes and Mutants Supplement! The Dreams of Ruin works best with Labyrinth Lord and Mutant Future, but can be used with any Old School gaming system with minimal modification.

That's already a lot to digest, I'd say. And something you don't see often nowadays, even (strangely enough) in our little corner of the internet: an end game module. The main pdf clocks in at 261 pages, but it comes with 10 additional pdfs (with an average of 10 pages) for player handouts and other materials.

First Impressions

Let's start with the buzz for this thing: there is none. There'd been some words about it for the kickstarter early in 2015, but no one seemed to care that much anymore after it's release in July 2015. It's a bit strange, I think, because from a first glance it seems to have all the right ingredients to make lots of OSR folks very happy. 

Sure, some things are missed or just not successful, but to get entirely ignored (and seeing the effort that went into this thing, you'd have to ignore it, really) seems to be a third option. Hulks & Horrors comes to mind, so does For Gold & Glory. I'm sure there are more just like it. Anyway, I stumbled across this by accident (don't know how anymore, maybe someone mentioned it in passing or I just saw it on drivethru ...), was interested enough to download it and kept reading after the first page, because ...

... the pdf layout is well done. Pages fit easily on the screen without loosing readability, which is really necessary with two columns text spread per page (it annoys me if I have to scroll down and back up again to read a pdf ... why are people still doing this, btw?!). It's easy to look at, too, and transports a certain atmosphere without leaning to heavy on it. The text is free on the page (no watermarks in the background), which is always a plus. And ... 

... the writing is really good (as you could expect, given that this isn't Grabowski's first rodeo by a long shot). It starts with some prose at the first pages and I always found that kind of annoying. Didn't read it in Vampire: tM or any other game that did something like that and I wouldn't start here. Or at least that's what I thought. But it's only done once in the whole book and the first thing you'll learn after that, is that it really is part of the whole thing and one of the more important texts to give to the players. So I had to read it after all and lived to write about it :) But it's not only the style ...

... it's well structured, too. And reflective. Grabowski takes the reader by the hand and leads him into the topics, the problems that could (and will) arise, points out difficulties and does a great job in showing how you could just use parts of the thing and what an end game in Labyrinth Lord can (or should) look like. Which leads to the last point ...

... because if you want to write about the end game of a role playing game, you need to know the game you are using really, really well. My first impression is, that The Dreams of Ruin is not only very well researched, but also very conscious about how LL works on a high level scale. It's impressive that way.

Is this "old school"?

So we get a White Wolf guy writing an old school module. Some might wonder how much "storytelling" is in it and if it's still "OSR" ... There is so much wrong with that last sentence that I honestly hesitated to write it at all. But as much as it is wrong, it is almost necessary nowadays to address those issues.

I'll give an indirect answer, though. I just read an excellent post over at the Pits & Perilous blog about how minimalist games don't really exist. The basic idea of it was (as I understood it) that the complexity when using light-rules-systems shifts from the rules to the DM-player interaction, making the point that we are more flexible when using light rules, but the decision making process within the narrative comes with a higher complexity and responsibility.

Now, I would put Labyrinth Lord and Mutant Future into the "light rules"camp. It comes with the territory that such games will have developed very individually as they reach higher levels. A campaign world is established, some house rules and (usually) a huge DM binder full of the stuff that needed specifying along the way.

With the complexity derived from the narrative instead of the rules, we get a natural bridge between the storyteller and the old school approaches in role playing games, in my opinion. Furthermore (and for those very reasons) it's almost impossible to write a module aiming for the end game, like Dreams does, from anything else but the storyteller side of things.

Because when all is said and done, that's exactly what a DM will do when the domain level game starts getting stale: he'll think of a story that will challenge some very rich and powerful characters. At this level, you're not dealing with monsters as written in the books, but with organisations. You are not dealing with NPCs as much as with kingdoms or even other worlds and dimensions.

In other words, the light rules you use will have to form clusters to become challenges and it needs a solid understanding of the fabrics that make a game's reality (as every high level wizard will tell you). Stories are the glue for those clusters. They need to be consistent if a DM is about to threaten them and the characters start to research behind the curtain, so to say.

This is where The Dreams of Ruin sets in. It is a setting agnostic story that starts when things settle down in a campaign. It is very well grounded and consistent working within the systems it supports. And it needs to be, as characters will have to do a lot of research about an infestation that spreads on the astral plane, feeds on negative energy like a tumor and affects reality as an apocalypse. They'll have to develop new spells and artifacts and get an understanding of how magic works. They'll have to muster millions and millions of gold pieces, mobilize armies, move populations, make new and very powerful allies and face some gods ... 

It's exactly the end game you'd want to have in early D&D and very "old school" in that regard alone. If you add Labyrinth Lord and Mutant Future compatibility, a good dose of weird and the fact that it was published last year (and why wouldn't you add all that?), it's exactly what the OSR does, digs and spreads.

What else is left to say?

There's no denying that the whole thing is very challenging for DM and players alike, because that's what a campaign will be like in the end. But the logistics are all done here. Everything you might need to make this work is there and has a price. There'll be lots of additional work to make it click with an individual (and old) campaign, but even here you'll find some advice what you might need and what not (base of operations, allies, items and so on).

There's also lots of good advice how to use only parts of it or how to structure the end game part of a D&D/LL/MF campaign in general, like how to establish side quests with lower level characters, how to reserve play for the interesting bits and how to organize the research parts of it between games. So even if you'll never use this as it is, you'll get a very good idea how to do it yourself.

You'll also find some additional house rules in the module. Nothing fancy and all of it optional. Still, nice to have in cases where you don't have already established a solution.

Now about the "mature audiences" part. There is a mention or two that this is a horror themed module and there are some pretty nasty things happening. But all I've seen was pretty vague and only showing some possibilities. It's more like a platform for all kinds of horrors and not very explicit at that.

Among the inspirations for this module are the anime Nausicaä and the 2010 film Monsters and if you like those, you won't be disappointed here, I think. But you might as well add the Marvel's Avengers series, because the impression I got from reading the Dreams, was that the D&D end game is just like those over the top superhero blockbusters in terms of scope and story structure (realizing this, I want to DM a complete D&D campaign so much more right now!).

How many attack rolls do you see ... [source]
I have some minor quibbles with it, too. The Dreams being PWYW makes it almost irrelevant to talk about this and I'll just mention them here at the end to give my complete opinion. Here we go:

  • There is a script font used in the product and it doesn't fit. I've read somewhere that you don't use script for full text and especially not for presenting text that is read on a monitor. Here's a good example why this is true. Doesn't happen often and it is a nice script, underlining the atmosphere and all that. But it's kind of style over substance and it bugged me a bit.
  • I don't like the illustrations that much. They are functional and you get an impression what things look like. But all in all I didn't care that much for them. Just a matter of taste, of course. They are rare and unobtrusive, so not really a problem.
  • Totally the last point: there are black pages with white lettering in this thing, usually to concentrate some information in. Random tables and some charts, short monster descriptions, the complete Random Encounters section. Totally black pages. That's so counter-intuitive, it's almost cruel, because those are the pages you'd most likely want to print. Not sure what they were thinking there ...

And that's it. As I said above, minor quibbles.


What is left to say? You don't get that much quality as PWYW. You just don't. There is a lot to like, a lot to take and a lot to learn in this thing. It's really amazing. There are reasonable print options for the module, too, and I'm really considering to get one of them for the collection (it's on my list now ...).

If you ever considered running a D&D end game or are about to plan your campaign or asked yourself how it could be done or just need some inspiration for high level challenges, then this is for you*. So go and check it out!

Some Nausicaä eye candy  in the end. I love that movie ... [source]

* There is a mature content warning, so if that's something that bothers you, you should leave it alone. I didn't see anything justifying the label, but I don't care that much.