Thursday, June 27, 2019

"This is a Fight! ... Isn't it?" (a deconstruction of combat - design post)

It's a declared goal of this blog to post at least once a month. Well, I tried. However, I'm not just barging in right now to arbitrarily cast "Wall of Text" and be gone again. No. Main reason for me sitting down only now, at the last days of June, was research. Believe it or not. I'm working on a combat system for that dystopian rpg I'm currently almost-finished-writing, and here's how I went at it.

RPG combat is too structured ...

... and that's a bad thing. And a good thing. Sometimes it's ugly. Let me tell you why. First of all, it's just not called into question that much why fights have to be structured. You hit, the orc hits, some have protection, some get hurt, some get lucky, some die. All in order, maybe with some tactics, sometimes with light rules, sometimes heavy on the fighting rules.

Don't get me wrong, it's mainly a good thing, imo. However, this war-game based understanding of what a skirmish is fits well in most role-playing games, for that's the stories you want to tell. In D&D the characters go into combat ready for it (at least on the character sheet, right?). The game is more or less build around a war-game engine and the trappings changed, even grew over time, but so did the board game aspects that are in the DNA of that first game.

H. G. Wells in action ... those roots are deep [source]
What it also does is telling a specific set of stories. And that's the limitation. It's where combat in a game can turn ugly or even bad. I've talked in other posts about how detailed power curves in rpgs practically force specific power structures on the worlds they emulate. If you can play a level 36 half-god, able to kill some old dragon in a fair one-on-one, the world around that character needs to be layered like that.

A king just can't (shouldn't?) be level 1 or a level 10 character could just force his will into the story, maybe killing that king for shits and giggles. There are consequences on stories for detailed rules like that, and to a degree those rules will dictate the rhythm of the game. This will mostly be felt on higher levels, though. It's probably the reason why many regard D&D levels 1 to 8 as the "sweet spot" as far as range goes (might vary a bit between editions).

Anyway, I digress ... Rules give rhythm to a game. If it's heavy on the combat rules, it's what will have lots of table-time over a course of a campaign. More so on higher levels, and badly if those consequences aren't taken into account for high-level games. Not only a problem D&D has, btw, look no further than WoD for problems with high level characters. I'm sure there's more.

Of course there's ways to solve those problems. The D&D Rules Cyclopedia, for instance, (the gold standard, if you ask me), shifts gears from adventurer to noble to legend to god, all playing out differently. I'd argue that's good design, because it takes into consideration the power curve of the game. The stories told in the D&D RC (if you go the distance) change as the rhythm of the system changes. This is because of the combat system (and to equal part because of magic, I should add, which is mostly written around combat, so ...).

That basic war-game structure echoes through almost all role-playing games. When there's a call for initiative, everyone knows the jig is up. If that's not the kind of story you want to tell, if you want to, say, copy patterns we know from action movies, if you want chaos and arbitrariness and tension, you have to change that rhythm significantly.

The boardgame-kind of abstraction [source]
What stories? (patterns, not structures)

The first step towards this would be to stop seeing combat as an isolated incident, as something that needs to be fenced in a specific set of rules or a separate ritual with a specific set of terms attached to it.

The next step would be to integrate it into the system in a way that allows for enough detail to honor the implications and enough abstraction to make it manifest naturally in every possible narrative scenario the game on hand has. It needs to appear as part of the story as it would in a noir novel or a thriller.

This is about direct consequences. If characters are prepared and capable, the outcome of the confrontation should not only be just that, it should enhance and celebrate that. If they are in over their heads, it's that what the game should enhance.

We are talking the bar scene in Inglorious Basterds here or the first 40 minutes of Sicario. It's also when the hero fights his way through some extras in no time, only to face a tough one at the end. Both scenes need equal spotlights as well as feel different without having the system bog it all down too much or shift tone in a way that it doesn't feel cohesive anymore.

There is a flow in good action movies that constantly builds and releases in patterns that relate to the story, not to a template (although those exist as well). People are less keen on stories that get too formulaic. Of course, that's a bit different in games. When having an active roll in a story that includes random results, the average outcome of several rolls is what lets a character's abilities make manifest*. That needs to be considered and addressed (which can be done with the level of abstraction, but more on that later).

Before I came up with anything myself, I checked out what other games did in that regard (special shout-out to the mewe-group for their suggestions!)

Random Kung Fu pic ... [source]
What's out there (just examples, not a list)

The idea is to look for as long at games as it takes to get an idea what I will need for the game I'm writing. Took me longer than I expected and I found more games that I like enough to regret never playing them.

One more caveat, though. Lots and lots of games offer nuance to the same old formula. No initiative, group initiative, one roll for attack and damage ... variations like that. When all is said and done, though, they really don't stray far from it. It's merely house-rules to the established. Nothing wrong with that, but also not relevant for this.

There's also a huge array of skill-heavy role playing games (CoC and the like) that either tend towards either D&D or oWoD, so I consider them covered as described below. If you know any game that strays from anything I describe here, please give it a shout-out in the comments. I'd love to check it out ...

Okay, let's have a look at some staples and some exotics:
DUNGEONS & DRAGONS (all editions and clones) - We've talked about that above already. Strong templates, war-game roots, very specific rhythm. The only thing to add would be that newer editions try to expand the "sweet spot" described above and force the game into a ever more complex variant of the original formula on higher levels. While making the lower level a computer game like experience and short-term fun (like a boardgame would), it's not very successful to encourage long-term or campaign play.

Old WORLD OF DARKNESS - Didn't check out what happened with the newer editions. The oWoD games where the first popular example of having a higher level of abstraction opening a system successfully towards the stories the game wants to tell. While combat still followed established structures, it offered different patterns to get to results and stayed vague (as well as consistent) enough with its terminology and how it all connected, that allowed an easy transfer between system and drama. In other words, it was easier to do a character's individual choices to solve conflict compared to older games.

UPWIND RPG (cards) - The GM (mostly) offers "plays" if something is at stake, same is true for combat. It can be resolved in broad strokes or very detailed, just as the narrative manifests and the involved parties see fit. Plays will mostly involve 1 player and the GM (pretty sure the others can chime in, but not to great effect, as I read it), and it should be possible to have a detailed skirmish that way, even with several players having several plays. However, it would burn through cards quick and since card decks are "set" in a way rolling the dice aren't, players might end up less welcome cards if they want to or not. This encourages less detailed play, I'd say, as players like to plan with the cards they have to get things done ... Interesting system, just not what I'm looking for.

AMBER Diceless - Combat here is about finding out if your enemy is superior or inferior to you and how to go about it. Combat is a narrative and has no strict scheme like rounds or even initiative. In a sense, players are observing, analyzing and reacting as the narrative manifests. Characters can only die if they are in over their heads and usually get an opportunity to avoid a fate like that or even chose it. Not what I'm looking for, but it most certainly works. It's basically the other extreme to using structures as described above. The story is the thing here, not so much the game.

TUNNELS & TROLLS - T&T is notable for its very abstract and light combat system. It was designed in direct contrast to D&D and its war-gaming roots (quite early as well). In short, both sides roll and the losing side gets the difference to the winning side's result as damage. Since the hit points a monster has defines the dice it can use to attack, monsters will get weaker as they get hit. There are rules for armor and "spite damage" (where the winning side gets damage as well), but that's about as concrete as it gets. No movement and just a little maneuvering, the rest is played as it makes sense. It all evolved a bit from earlier editions, but mostly by adding detail to the existing system. A good example what can be done by thinking out of the box.
Let's leave it at that. There is obviously way more games out there than that, but there also isn't that much variety. Most of that might be due to the fact that it works. You can scale the level of detail somewhat, it's intuitive and it allows for tinkering as per taste. Some games do away with combat as much as possible, because they tell different stories (you could argue that they just shift the focus in the system from combat to something else).

What I haven't seen a lot is attempts to change the rhythm in a way that it cohesively allows an established tension to erupt brutally and as the story dictates, while considering that this needs to work within improvisation. That is, it needs to work unplanned and as the result of the system interacting with the players and the narrative ... Okay, okay. Wait a minute. You've read so far. Here, have a funny pic before we move on:
He had it coming ... [source]
Crazy talk, you say? Hold my beer ...

The greatest and most memorable fight scenes are all about drama, not about the action, is what they tell screenwriters (a very interesting and inspiring article about screenwriting). I like that a lot. Those meaningful escalations are build over time and when they bloom, it is recognized. Normally something like this is arguably in the realm of a good DMs narrative power (or writer or director). It doesn't need a system, if the participants are able to produce that kind of tension as they manifest the narrative and interpret the dice results.

However (you probably guessed), I think a system should be able to build that kind of tension and allow the abstract room to apply it to whatever interpretation the players and the DM can come up with.

Here is the thing: we intuitively know the patterns necessary to evoke certain reactions. The Big Guy in the crowd with the scars and the Big Gun everyone else is shying away from? That's a clear set-up for a tougher opponent. If the characters recognize him from somewhere or he shouts at them something he did to them, for instance, like "I was the one that killed your wife! Hahahahah!!" or if he's about to do something that might escalate the situation further (like killing innocents or destroying something or ...), you'll load that scene further. Every bit helps to make it more intense.

For a system to offer that kind of output, you need to go away from seeing non-player characters as single entities, but as part of a potential instead (a bit like Tunnels & Trolls does, actually). How this potential is build up is totally individual as the story manifests. The system sets the markers, like "something is stolen" or "someone threatens the neighborhood" and keeps track of it, like "you get accused as the thief" or "people get beat up and there is corruption".

All that can be done randomly, and if done on a level abstract enough, it can be applied to every situation within the stories a game might want to tell. Actually, it'll influence those stories towards specific outcomes an occurrences you'd expect for a genre or setting by giving directions, not results. Oracles, if you will (if you've been reading this blog for any amount of time, you will have heard some of those ideas already).

There you have it, then, patterns and opportunities for escalation and hinting and interpretation, randomly created and with natural "hot spots" where the stakes are somewhat established, but also offer room for surprises as the story shifts from narrative encounter to narrative encounter and the reactions to that.

That's not all, but then we are done

It needs one more dimension to make it work properly, though, and that would be a bigger disconnect between player and character. An abstraction not only how hurt a character is, but (in this case) if the character actually is in the mood to fight or even pumped and eager for some of that ultra-violence.

Think about it. We monitor characters all the time for how damaged they are or how well equipped and there are some more or less established systems around for seeing if a character is hungry or thirsty or if it's too hot or cold. We already take those things into account when we decide how to play the character. Same is true for the never changing, but still relevant ability scores. If your character isn't strong, you will try to avoid things that involve using that ability score. It comes natural.

So a logical step would be to install a system that can have a character being very angry as well as not in the mood. Having characters getting frustrated or stressed will have players react to that and it all becomes part of the story just out of pure necessity. That's the beauty of having output like that come through the system: it will give impulses otherwise easily forgotten or neglected. Giving them importance is giving them power over the narrative and that is a great source of tension.

And that's where I'm at. It would be a post just as long as this one to go into detail how this will be done in that game I'm writing, but I can say that we gave the beta a test-run and it is promising. I'll have to write more about this soon, but I hope I was able to illustrate the distinctions I saw and how I addressed the problems thereof.

As always, thoughts and impressions on the ideas formulated above are very welcome here or wherever I share this.

In other news, the first draft for my next publication is almost done, we are already working on a layout and art is on its way ... You know what? Have a tease of some interior art by Daniel Petri (who can be found here):

Copyright by Daniel Petri [hompage]

* Incidentally this is the weakest point of light systems with very few rolls allowing for a limited assortment of results: success conditions have a probability of occurring, but there is a number of rolls necessary to reflect said probability in a way that it is recognizable as good or bad probability. So limiting rolls and success conditions will have less controllable outcomes and discourage long term play.


Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Wigurd's Tragic Fall (LSotN Play Report, updated)

Third post in April. BAMMM! There is a twist in the rules for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs where characters, true to the classic inspiration, can meet "an end far worse than death" instead of dying. It's when the norns get really nasty and the dice betray a character in a way most DMs would shy away from. I know there's folks out there eager to get an idea how Lost Songs plays out at the table. Here's an exemplary play report of our last session to give you all an idea where the game's at. This is a session in which all the boxes got ticked ...

The campaign so far

I'll keep this short, but you should know a bit of what had happened so far to see how it all ties together. Lost Songs of the Nibelungs is a game of Dark Fantasy in a time right after the decline of the Roman Empire. The setting had been established some time ago. However, time has past since that last foray and this is a new start (different set of play-tests, different things to test, all that jazz).

It is idyllic like that [source]
This (for now) is the tale of Wigurd the Entertainer and Sylis "Beastsmell", two young men eager to become full members of their tribe with the coming easter festival. However, the gods play their first evil trick at them when the tribe's holy man announces that there are bad omens if the two of them were to stay with the tribe the coming winter. 

The chief decides with a heavy heart that they have to be sent away. However, not without support and as the tribe held council about the issue, a traveling merchant visiting the tribe for business offers a quest for the young men: he owns a cottage in the woods, a couple of days north, just behind the holy mountain. A place used for charcoal burning. Some evil befell it and the family living there had to flee because of it. If our two young boys were able to free the place of said evil, they could use the cottage to stay the winter.

The chief and the holy man liked the idea and add that if they succeed to prove their meddle, they could return to the tribe as men. Wigurd the Entertainer held a great speech that day, convincing the tribe to support them even more by throwing in some horses and equipment.

They left the tribe the next day. A nice day in September to travel an old Roman road leading North. They started their journey in good spirits as well as accompanied by good omens. And their luck held up, although it really got tested: they escaped ghosts luring them into doom (twice), got beaten half to death while attempting to revenge a killed cousin, but got rescued and cleared of any charge held against them for the murder they did.

Then, their quest got taken away from them as a political decision from another tribe up North, but not without acknowledging the importance it had for the travelers and a promise of reparation after they had healed their wounds. Time passes and they proof capable guests to their new hosts up North. Capable enough to get a new chance to gain a safe haven for the coming winter and proof themselves as adult members of their tribe. The village elder that hosts them welcomed two mysterious hunters that brought not only an opportunity for our heroes to stay as honored guests, the elder would also provide witnesses of their deeds to their tribe if they decided to help and succeeded.

Two mysterious hunters arrive. [source]
So a deal was made. A couple of slaves had fled their master and were crafty enough to avoid their hunters so far, even came as far as seeking shelter down south. Unfortunately, with some of the character's clansmen, so the whole thing ended up having a political dimension and they couldn't just force it, fearing it would ruffle some feathers. In come the characters: if they can extract the slaves for the village elder and his mysterious visitors, they'd have earned their stay and their witness.

It was October by then, the first snow had fallen early this year, but it wasn't winter just yet. All the Omens had been good, so they took the offer and after a small feast in their honor they saddled their horses to travel south again.

A long and arduous road

They weren't lucky that first day, or rather lucky enough to stay alive, but not lucky enough to stay unscathed. Before they reached shelter, they ended up in snow storm. Wigurd managed to reach the homestead they'd been told to look for, but Sylis got disoriented in the snow storm and was left behind. Wigurd realized only then that he's lost his friend and headed straight back into the storm, hero that he was. Nearly died with the attempt, too, and had to head back empty handed fearing he'd die of exposure himself.

Both survived the night as their dice turned lucky in the end, but a heavy toll was payed and they really didn't have the time to heal it all at once. They'd already seen ill omens for their next encounter and were wary of it. They had a couple of days to heal, but then misfortune hit the family that gave them shelter: their son had been kidnapped by goblins.

Snow and the Holy Mountain in the distance [source]
The bad omens they'd received hanging heavily on them, they nonetheless agreed without hesitation to accompany a rescue party composed of the father, the oldest son and a couple of neighbors. The goblins met them in a fair fight and had been overcome easily, saving the lost child in the process. The father and the oldest son, however, did not survive the encounter.

It was with a heavy heart and two corpses that they came back to the homestead. Funeral preparations were in order and the characters were asked to watch over the dead bodies barred on pyres stacked on a holy hill until the Valkyires got hold of them. So they stood guard with their backs to the corpses and were warned to under no circumstances turn around during their watch.

The cold and the luring temptation to turn around to the melodious voices behind them offering them peace took its toll as well, but they weathered that and lived the night to see the procession come up the hill with the dawning sun to burn the pyres as the sunlight touched them.

They dared not taking more than another night's rest before traveling onward, injured or not. After all, they only had time until the next full moon to solve their quest.

Their first day travel after leaving the homestead went almost without problems. The weather had been nice for a change and they made good progress. It was the gods smiling on them that they realized that someone was following them. From what they could glean, it was another group of goblins circling in on their position. They made a run for it and got away clean, but it was a close call.

When deciding whether to push forward or seek secure shelter, they opted for the second and found a nice little spot with a good view over the white forest below them and only two points of entry. The weather was on their side again that night, as snowfall set in so heavy, they got isolated by a wall of rustling snowflakes illuminated in the warm orange of their fire. They kept watch, but it ended up being a quiet night without incident.

The next day started nice again, good traveling weather and they had hopes to reach their clan territory that day. However, their route took them around their holy mountain and bad weather was bound to get caught on the snowy peaks, as the dice would tell me later. It was around midday that they become aware of a storm brewing up north and closing in. Losing another day wouldn't do them any good and they were pretty sure that their followers from yesterday were still around, so they decided to push their luck and their horses to keep ahead of the storm.

Another snow storm ... [source]
It ended up being another close call. Sylis - again - just wasn't fast enough and they got caught in the outliers of the storm. They even saw the silhouettes of their hunters close by, but they managed to pull through, with the goblins left behind in the storm.

Which is where we left it before that last session.

Wigurd's Tragic Fall

They got away from the storm and managed to make some way as well, although their horses definitely felt that one. Anyway, they knew of a nearby homestead and made it there just before the sun had vanished behind the snow-covered firs. At that point they hadn't been sure if they should play it straight and make themselves known or if they kept it incognito.

They knew some of the residents from fairs and Things and such, this already being border territory to their tribe's land, and Wigurd was a famous entertainer within the tribe. A true natural and a real wunderkind, so it stood to reason that someone would at least recognize him. That, and their exile from the tribe was quite the story, sure to be known by the locals.

But they didn't get recognized, probably because they'd changed quite a lot since they'd left their home. New clothes, new scars, longer hair, and the farmer was a known drunk, never sober when Wigurd  was to perform, so who was to say why they didn't get recognized ... Either way, they decided to keep it that way.

It was only when Wigurd sat down with the farmer and offered his name, that they learned why they didn't get recognized immediately: the farmer tells them that his name is good fortune, as they only recently had another guest going by this name, and a famous entertainer at that. They shared a roof for a couple of days and it was something the farmer remembered fondly, so he took it as a good sign that another Wigurd came to visit so shortly after.

However, the revelation shook Wigurd to the core as the dice betrayed him for the first time that session. Not quite a botch, but he had already received severe permanent damage when he had tried to rescue Sylis in that snow storm a week ago and he had rolled bad enough to get to a point where any further damage would result in his demise.

Not right then and there, though. They kept to themselves after that and made it an early night, telling their hosts that their journey here had been quite strenuous. Early next morning they bid their farewell and were on the road again. They knew this area already and if they made good way, they could reach their home town the next day. The story of the imposter had been troubling, though, and they mused about making a detour to hunt the fucker and that troupe down who so shamelessly made a living from their renown.

At least they'd inquire at their next stop, a family of devote Christians living a somewhat isolated life out here. If that would turn up anything, they'd follow up on it, or so they planned.

And while they were heading further south, following an old Roman road leading from the abandoned mines in the mountains now to their left, a weary wanderer crossed their path. An old man, with a staff and a beard and lots of little pouches on his belt. They stop for a chat.

I described him to look like Moondog [source]
He introduced himself as a wandering scholar, fallen into disgrace among his fellow disciples for a wrong-doing long past. He was well versed in the art of herbalism, among other, more mystical arts. Or so he told them. However, now he wandered from homestead to homestead, soothing sick cows.

He was reading the bones this morning and deduced from them that he'd meet some friendly travelers down this road that might be able to help him with his troubles. Something that might help him repairing his reputation.

It was just a short little thing, wouldn't bother them at all.

A side-quest! they thought, and asked for details. There was a legend in this region, he told them, about a man made of stone with a magical crystal in his chest animating his evil deeds. It took a circle of holy women to bind the stoneman into an earthen prison, stopping him from terrorizing the area. As the old man traveled from farm to farm, he had pieced the whole story together and even found out where that grave is.

However, the place is protected by wind and earth magic and his old body wasn't able to overcome the resistance. A task the heroes young bodies should be easily able to withstand, on the other hand. Now, if they where to enter the place and retrieve the magical crystal, they'd be well compensated for it. The place was a little down the hill, hidden in a depression just out of sight.

They agreed to the short detour and left the road toward the magical place, not questioning the old man any further. It really wasn't far away. The entrance to the enclosed hollow was marked by two small obelisks that showed traces of strange runes. The old man explained that those are magical runes, binding earth and wind to the place. Then he sat down and told them that this is as far as he dared to go.

Wigurd, on the other hand, stepped forward without hesitation. A strong unnatural wind rose from the hollow and twisted his mantle, but he prevailed and pushed forward. Sylis tried to follow, but the dice decided that the magic was too strong for him. The character had been struggling with his sanity ever since he had fallen for the seduction of a ghost only to be confronted with her mummified corpse early in the campaign. He decided that this was not for him and backed away.

Wigurd, however, was already approaching the obelisks, but stopped as he saw movement below the snow covering the path down the hollow. A strange creature made from roots lifted itself from the path and warned him that if he wanted to enter this place, he had to overcome it.

Something like this, really [source]
They engaged in melee and it looked for some time as if Wigurd might be able to overwhelm the beast. However, he fought alone and fate can be fickle in situations like this. He had dealt the creature a fatal blow, but it withstood the damage and kept fighting.

The battle really was on a blades edge, as Wigurd's Wyrd was still hurt pretty badly. There were no favors to be expected from the gods. If not his wounds would kill him, he might meet a fate worse than death. He was just one roll of the dice away from that ending ... and he failed it. He had nothing to defend against a quite effective attack by the guardian.

But it wasn't his wounds that ended him. You might remember me mentioning this in the beginning: there is a rule in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, a homage, really, to the classic tale of Siegfried's betrayal, by which damage that would end up being permanent will be channeled into Wyrd instead (another attribute). Ideally, this means a character will avoid harm while at the same time risking to offend the gods. However, if a character ends up receiving enough damage to reduce his Wyrd permanently to zero, he'd be finished all the same. Just differently.

So there he was, deadly wounded yet still alive. With his Wyrd already severely hurt, the damage he received from that last blow goes straight through the remaining points and beyond. There's no way out and the table realizes: this is final.

As Wigurd falls to his knees, the creature moves forward to engulf him, whispering in a voice only he can hear about how the gods abandoned him and what eternal torture awaits him when the meat rots from his bones. Although fallen in combat, he will never see Valhalla. The terror overwhelming him makes him going down screaming until the earth swallowed him whole.

And that was the tragic end of Wigurd the Entertainer. His soul will never find rest.
[source]
ADDENDUM: We began our next session with Sylis seeing his friend die as described above. The screams, the horror of it ... it had to force some dice rolling to see if the character is affected. This was a delicate situation, as the character struggled to keep it together already. One bad roll and he'd be gone as well. I offered him two chances to get out of this: a Stress save to see if he could just shrug it now to digest it later and if that failed, if he was to confront this face on, he'd get one last save to keep his fragile Sanity intact.

It was intense. My girlfriend stopped working on her master thesis to witness the potential end of a campaign.

The first save was difficult. Sylis' Stress value was 8, target was 25, the roll came up with an 11 ... a miss. Nothing tragic and it was a difficult roll. Now all depended on that last roll. A genuine Save or Die moment. The group discussed how to proceed, if a dice cup was to be used and which die to use. Players are a superstitious lot. They decided to use the dice cup, something the player hadn't done for the entirety of the campaign.

That second save was a Sanity value of 12 with a -3 from the damage he had received facing the magic protecting the hollow. Target was a 20. He had a good chance pulling that one off. He shook the cup, everyone was looking in anticipation when the die hit the table, still hidden by the leathery shaker. He lifted it and revealed ... a 1!!! I kid you not. A roll as crucial as it gets and it turns up the worst possible result.

Damn, we play for moments like this, don't we?

Witnessing the horrifying death of his best friend was too much for poor Sylis' mind. He went insane right there on the spot. He rushed forward and tried to claw his way to his friend until his fingers ended up torn bloody. He was denied. After hours of howling, clawing and hysterical laughter, he vanished into the forest ...

Aftermath: this had dire consequences for the tribe. Winter came and both characters where within clan territory, so the bad omens had to come true. An avalanche destroyed most of the village built at the bottom of the mountain, killing almost all denizens and all of the tribes winter stock. The remaining tribesmen and -women had to seek shelter with their neighbors. Many more died. With the end of winter, the tribe was no more.

The End

Analysis

There weren't many compromises possible after those last rolls. Nothing short of deciding against doing the damage or ignoring those last saves, all of which would have rung false, I think. However, that's the game we play and although it was a great campaign with a nicely developing narrative gathering around the characters, it's also a memorable end, underlining the hard truth that we might not end up realizing our full potential. That's a good end to have and true to the Dark Fantasy aspect of the game.

I'm really, completely content with that part of the rules right now. The stories we are able to weave out of the interplay between the sandbox, the narrative generator and the system-feedback from the character's interaction with their surroundings, have a nice epic and magical tone to them without even trying that hard and although it's all random.

Nothing of this had been prepared or planned, it all happened organically from what the game provided and our interaction with that. I hope some of it shines through in my retelling of the parts above. So much more had happened.

What I need to implement with more rigor, though, is the more detailed weather rules I wrote for the game, but actually neglected using, which actually led to characters experiencing two snow storms in short order. I mean, that is why we are play-testing the game and it wasn't that far fetched, but weather carries lots of meaning in the game and should be taken more seriously. It is, after all, nuance that gives a narrative depth. Seasons and Magic need to be done, too.

We had only 3 fights over the course of 12 sessions, yet the game never lacked tension. I'm not sure how much of an audience Lost Songs of the Nibelungs will be able to gather once I get it out there, but I can say in confidence that it'll offer an unique experience to those who'll give it a shot. It's approach is not so much cinematic as it is literary, it's more about immersion and exploration of the human condition as it is about make-believe. It's also as intense, complex and challenging as it is rewarding.

Well, there's still some ways to go before I can call it done. But I'm getting there, ever so slowly. Thanks for reading.

[source]

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Flow of Time in LSotN Part 1: Basics (campaign design post)

The second "second" post in April (sorry, just realized my mistake ... not that anyone cared). Maybe you can tell, I have time on my hands right now. And things to do long overdue. For instance: the campaign frame for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs. The seasons, how time is split between mundane living and questing and what the game does when the characters don't do much. It's been years since I last wrote about that. However, the little play-test campaign we got running is at a point right now where I need something to test. I haven't done a post like this in a long time (that is: long and meandering). Here we go.

Necessary Research I: What's already established?

I'd say I had 3 solid approaches at the topic so far. The first one was how the living conditions of a people will shape their culture (here). If nothing else, it's a reminder how the seasons will have an impact on a culture just like anything else would, but I get a little bit more concrete in 2015 when I actually talk about using seasons in role playing games and what I aim to so for Lost Songs, although on very vague terms (here). And finally I wrote one concrete set of rules that illustrates one major aspect of our perception of time and seasons, the weather (here).

The Wild Hunt [source]
Some things established over time, but didn't find much use yet in that regard. There's a working system for Status including, for instance (but not limited to) followers and henchmen and all kinds of implementations that I need to consider when talking intermissions. Especially higher level characters should indeed be very busy when not adventuring.

What else, what else ... Permanent damage has a chance of healing somewhat when characters are not questing. I had established 1 point per month (with the fiat that scars like that never heal completely and at least 1 point per scar has to remain). This was supposed to be connected to the way of life characters chose between adventures and should include marriage and politics and religion and research (magical or otherwise) and all that nice stuff.

There's also the idea of advancing a group's tribe in times like this or bringing their host honor by assisting in raids, open war, aiding defense or diplomacy (which is somewhat related to politics named above, but different in as far as I think I'll need/want a system where the game creates short spotlights where direct play becomes necessary or desirable). It's for those reasons that I want to add the Narrative Generator for story twists and the rune oracle I'm working on, as both are reliable tools so far to tell the stories Lost Songs needs to tell. They bring that kind of conflict.

Other than that there's bits and pieces all over the place when I talk about how to set the mood for a game like this or divine magic or how to pay respect to leaders or how magic changes with the seasons because other energies are available ... But it is all over the place, so not of much use, actually, for anything but being a document that I had this on my mind for a long, long time now.

That's about it. Time to look what else is around.

Necessary Research II: What's out there?

Pendragon is one great inspiration here, as is King of Dragon Pass. Both give a pretty good impression of where I want to end up as far as evocative intermissions go: the scope widens to the troubles that surround the community the characters chose to spend some time with. A little magic, some intrigue, little stories that resolve over a longer time. Not so much the rules, but the scope and feel.

Dungeon World comes to mind as well. Although I do not care much about the rules themselves, I think where the game really shines is with it's DM tools. There is a clear sense of distinction between what the designers thought deserves focus at the table and what could be glossed over, while taking the time to include little systems to make those intermissions relevant, if a bit detached. The divide is crucial and rules for situations different to actual play need to be distinct. I dig their approach but lean towards a little more complexity.

A big problem that kept recurring while doing research for that is the lack of advice on the timing needed to manifest spaces for intermissions during and between adventures. It's a tough one, isn't it, as it needs to manifest organically from play.

Situations need to play out and while you for sure don't need to play out how characters do some shopping or carousing or what have you, I at least have a hard time to skip from one mode to the other, so I'd really have appreciated advice on that. Alas, it is hard to find in role playing books other than in very general terms (I could be wrong, but I really haven't seen much of this for as long as I've been looking).

You don't need to play it all out in detail ... [source]
It begs the question, of course, how much of a game needs to be ritualized to a point where the transition between modes of play is accounted for. And consequently, how it will impact the story that manifests at the table. My games derive a great deal of tension from the fact that those cut scenes aren't coming easily. Playing scenes out helps evoking depth in a game that equals a more literary experience, while working in cut scenes makes for a more cinematic experience ...

Dammit, I think I just realized something. Anyway, I think we are done here for now. Other than the sources I named, I couldn't summon more than problems and questions by looking for other help. Onward. 

Necessary Research III: Any historical hints?

Now, that's a big one. As always with Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, I'm faced with a plethora of choices, which is just as bad as having none at all. I can't really be arsed to write up calendars for every culture that was around at 550 AD. For one, no one will ever use more than small fragments of it, but far more problematic is the fact that I'd end up having all those little sub-systems for every iteration to do all the intricacies justice.

[source]
I had that problem with magic and I'm telling you: it can't be done. Or rather, shouldn't be. Of course I could start with something basic you could use in the game right away and plan on doing little supplement for all the variations. Our little hobby has enough money grabbing like that, and I'm not going to participate. Won't do it.

It's also a shitload of work with almost no benefit. I really don't have time for that.

With magic I decided to go as abstract as possible to give room to individual interpretations of what magic in that time could have been. It's a far better approach, in my opinion, and way more satisfying for players and DM.

That said, I will need a general frame to go with. Not as much a calendar with fixed dates (maybe) but more something like distinct phases within a year that add circumstantial necessities to the game proper. Because abstraction only goes that far, we also want to evoke a sense of how those people back then could have seen and explained the world around them.

Therefore, we have to look at common denominators across cultures: premonitions, weather and gods. People have a way to go about their year because its changes dictate so many necessary behavioral adjustments to ensure survival. People also have a way to explain what they can't understand through gods. Both translate to traditions and oracles that might vary from tribe to tribe, but will also always serve the same principles as described above.

Easy. So I just have to look for this and make it work.

However, as I started to dive deep into this topic, I found it to be a mess. There's almost no reliable data on how the Germanic tribes did any of that and of course you'd have a unholy mess of names or dates or holidays as a result of the Roman occupation and good old Christianisation. Clever Christians, of course, went as far as just assimilating what was already there (Baldr's birthday became Christmas, churches had been build on holy places ... that's just two examples among a huge list of assimilations like that).

There's also a shitload of neo-pagan pseudo-historical humbug, full with half-truths about how our ancestors went about all this. It's so weird and complex and unclear that ... well, that no one will care for any of it in a game, historical or not. It's all very frustrating and reminded me why I avoided doing this for so long (want an example: early translations often were, well, heavy-handed interpretations). There are reasons why they call it a Dark Age. Harrumph.

Well, not all is lost. If nothing else, it'll result in some freedom of interpretation. I need it done and it can be done. Onward.

Synthesis

Now we have all the pieces in place. Somewhat. At least to a degree where we can answer some serious design questions. I'm almost tempted to make this a two-parter and call it a day (okay, yeah, it's going to happen). I shouldn't stop here, though, as I'll lose the momentum this should have gotten by now.

Alright, let's push this a little further. A little note to all the historians reading this (you know who you are): if you haven't already gathered this, I won't (can't) go for historical accuracy here, therefore it will be a hot mess of everything I deem fit. Sorry.

Anyway, we have the Julian calendar we all know as a good base line and we know the very onomatopoeic Old High German, Dutch and West Frisian equivalents. We also know some of the holidays and festivals people most likely held.

Furthermore we know that the year had only two seasons: winter and summer (summer started with Easter as the victory over winter). Their calendar was lunisolar and months began with a full moon and they had an extra month between the seventh and eighth month if there was a new moon to be seen in the 12 days after Yule (Midwinternight). So here's what we got to work with (one wiki-source, I'll translate where appropriate):

JANUARY = After Yule/Second Yule (Old English), Winter Month/Hartung (Old High German), Tanning Month (Dutch)
Holiday: Lesser Blessing of Thor
FEBRUARY = Mud Month (Old English, either because of the shitty weather or the brown cakes that got sacrifced that month), Hornung (Old High German), Month of Gathering (Dutch), Filthy/Unclean Month (West Frisian, they are funny like that)
Holidays: early Valentine's Day (Feast of Vali) and a week long festival where all tribes come together in a great Thing
MARCH = Month of Wildness (Old English), Spring Month/Lenz Month (Old High German)

APRIL = Easter Month (Old English), Easter Moon (Old High German), Grass Month (Dutch)
Holiday: Easter, the beginning of summer and the victory over the giants of winter
MAY =  Month of Three Milkings (Old English), Bliss Moon/Pasture Month (Old High German), Month of Joy/Flower Month (Dutch)
Holiday: a celebration of those who have died in battle and are brought to Valhalla (Einherjar)
Walhalla [source]
JUNE = Before Midsummer/First Summer (Old English), Brachet/Fallow Month (Old High German), Weed Month (Dutch)
Holiday: Midsummer
JULY= After Midsummer/Second Summer (Old English), Heuert/Hay Month (Old High German)

LEAP Month = Third Midsummer (Old English), Twimoon (Old High German)

AUGUST =  Plant Month (Old English), Harvest Month (Old High German), Flee Month (West Frisian)
Holiday: celebration of the harvest
SEPTEMBER = Holy Month (Old English), Wood Month (Old High German), Oats Month (Dutch)

OKTOBER = Winter Full Moon (Old English, because Winter began on the full moon of this month), Gilbhart (Yellowing)/Vine Month (Old High German), Sowing Month (Dutch)
Holiday: "Halloween" festival to celebrate the beginning of winter
NOVEMBER = Blood Month/ Month of Sacrifice (Old English), Autumn Month (Old High German) Fog Month/Slaughter Month (Dutch)

DECEMBER = Before Yule/First Yule (Old English), Holy Month (Old High German), Wolves' Month (Dutch)
Holiday: Yuletide/Yule
And that's that. At least on the surface. We can already see how real world necessities helped forming those words and using it as-is will create a very specific atmosphere from the get-go. That's a good base to go from.

There's also lots of room for individual holidays that might be different from tribe to tribe (I skipped the ones in the source, but there are precedents). Let's keep that in mind as well.

Days and other designations

Normal years have 360 days, with 30 days a month (390 in Leap Years, one moon cycle more). Days start with the dawn of the day and Sunday is the first day of the week. Germanic people adapted the Roman system for days early on (wiki-source), but gave it their own spin. We use traces of this transition to this day. I would, however, keep it closer to the original usage to give it some authenticity:
  • Day of the Sun/Sun's Day (Sunday, Roman: Dies Solis)
  • Day of the Moon/Moon's Day (Monday Roman: Dies Lunae)
  • Day of Tyr/Tyr's Day (Tuesday, Roman: Dies Martis/Day of Mars)
  • Day of Woden/Woden's Day (Wednesday, Roman: Dies Mercurii/Day of Mercury)
  • Day of Thor/Thor's Day (Thursday, Roman: Dies Iovis/Day of Jupiter)
  • Day of Freya/Freya's Day (Friday, Roman: Dies Veneris/Day of Venus)
  • Day of Saturn/Saturn's Day (Saturday, Roman: Dies Saturni), also Washing Day and Sunday Eve, a day of rest (traditionally so instead of Sunday)
Tacitus had something to say about this as well (source):
"They assemble, except in the case of a sudden emergency, on certain fixed days, either at new or at full moon; for this they consider the most auspicious season for the transaction of business. Instead of reckoning by days as we do, they reckon by nights, and in this manner fix both their ordinary and their legal appointments. Night they regard as bringing on day."
Stuff like that is fascinating to me. So they'd say "We met three nights ago." instead of days and, very much like language, customs change in a more fluid way, something ripe to randomize, I'd say. And all those little details will obviously enhance the narrative at the table.

What's left?

Next we should talk about how they knew which day was which. Did they use rune calendars? Was it the holy men or women doing all the book keeping? I'll have to tackle that next.

But we should leave it at that for now. This is long enough as it is, to be honest. It's really all in place: all the names and holidays, some logic behind it, some room for individual touches. What's left to do now is devising a system around all that. A system that allows an inclusion of all those nice little differences to how we perceive the world today in way that makes it all come alive in the game. Arguably, the harder part of the whole endeavor.
So, stay tuned as I will get to it in the next couple of weeks (as I said, I have to have something presentable for our campaign right now, so I need to get there soon, dammit).

If you guys feel like commenting, I'd ask you to tell me a bit how you use that kind of stuff in your games. Do you have elaborate systems? Do you o by the books (if you use official material)? Or are you not feeling it and think it's too much effort to get involved in? Your thoughts are, as always, appreciated.

[source]


 

Thursday, April 18, 2019

How to play dumb characters well (Advice Post, could be a thing)

I'm more often than not fighting to find topics for the blog these days. It's not that I lack ideas, but lots of energy is going into writing on other projects and the rest is just fatigue, I guess. This was never a blog for just producing noise to keep people entertained, so it might come to a point where there is nothing more to write. That said, there's still some ways to go, so let's get into it.

Disclaimer, because I feel it needs saying: this is talking elf-games, folks, I know there is people out there who have to handle such disadvantages in real life and I surely don't diminish any of that. If anything, I'd encourage others to walk some miles in the shoes of others and get an understanding. Role playing games can do that for you.

EDIT: It was brought to my attention that Olde House Rules over at Pits Perilous had his own take on the subject published only last year. He goes a bit in a different direstion, but it's definitely worth checking out. Please do so here.

What are we talking about?

It's with some role playing games that it's either beneficial or unavoidable to end up with characters that either are very inexperienced or have the system-equivalent of a very low intelligence.

The argument I'm attempting doesn't apply to all games or situations. Therefore, it doesn't concern as much games in which all characters are children, for instance, but might if one player ends up with a child in company of older characters. There's furthermore the distinction to be made between "dumb" and "inexperienced" or "immature", as they allow for different approaches and strategies.

However, we are talking here about games that allow for results in character generation so extreme that it might seem as a disadvantage to play such a character even compared to an average result*. In other words, games that don't assume that characters are just individual expressions of the same average (like point buy systems, for instance). Randomness has a say in those games and it can be (somewhat) cruel. Why is that, though?

3D6 in a row will do that to you ...

... but are you willing to do it to yourself? It's with most role playing games, I think, that people are willing to accept an average rating in their intelligence attribute than a really low one. You gotta have some Intelligence!, they'd say., or Never go full retard!! People would rather be ugly than dumb, is the impression I got, and they will go to lengths in avoiding ending up with a dumb character while happily depleting Charisma (or what have you) for some extra points.
It's good advice ... [source]
I mean, I get it. Having a dumb character has a Geschm├Ąckle, as they say in Swabia. It's like people fear it rubs off on them and most people don't like to be associated with a deficit like that. There's a social stigma attached to it that is worse than being ugly.

That said, people will have fun with a dumb or immature character for a short time. The usual shenanigans and jokes will occur in such cases and everyone will be a good sport about it as long as it is understood that the character is the dumb or immature one, not the player. Keeping it that meta isn't entertaining for long, though. I've seen it happen, people just don't see merit in playing a character like that or just see the bad sides of it in the long run.

To be totally fair, a DM will use this against you in a way that really makes the character less playable than characters with other disadvantages. A DM could force a (automatically somewhat difficult) intelligence check on a player with the argument, that the character wouldn't be able to come up with the "complex" idea the player just had. Same if it is assumed that a character couldn't have experienced somthing like that or how that could be problematic in some situations.

That's quite tricky, actually, as it doesn't affect the in-game reactions to a character as much as the player interaction with the game. Player are restricted in applying their own intelligence and experience to the gaming environment. It's a severe disadvantage, for sure, and definitely not as much fun. You'll also never get similar problems with characters of average intelligence, appropriate or not.

I initially wrote that only "bad" DMs did something like that. However, I had to reconsider the approach, because as long as it is reduced to a roll with a fair difficulty, it's actually what we do with all ability checks. And regarding the maturity, it can (should) be a vantage point for potential drama. It's a thin line, though, and should be handled with care on the DM-side of things.

And here's one final sin: I've had players acting dumb (and dying as a consequence) with the argument that their character couldn't know any better. That's the worst, in my opinion. It's also the closest to the solution of this conundrum.

Embrace the dumb, I say

Alright, what can a player do to make it work if the character generation results in something as undesirable as described above. The first thing is: you don't have to be the character. I know there are players out there who enjoy playing it like that and it is still something that can be done. However, as with all characters, no one wants this all the time. It isn't possible to be "in character" all the time, in my opinion, and as true for a dumb character as for a brilliant one, for that matter. You have to step out at one point and no one is able to fully represent extremes. It's what you do the rest of the time that counts.

So the first thing players should think about is how their character compensates for the lack. How can they play around the disadvantage, what can they do to make work what they intent to do. Just like you would with a wizard when the going gets tough and you are out of spells or with any other situation where a character has a comparable disadvantage: you find ways to somehow compensate said disadvantage.

You could call this the Forrest Gump Defense, but there's usually other ability scores that allow workarounds, like Wisdom, for instance. So if the DM argues that your character couldn't come up with a solution like this, you might most of the time be able to argue that your character's Wisdom is not at a severe disadvantage as its Intelligence and the character might very well have seen someone dealing with something like the situation at hand and had a reaction pattern attached to it that the character would be able to copy ("My ma used to say ...").

Which is exactly how people work, by the way. We copy more than we innovate. But that's not what this is about (or at least you shouldn't have to start arguing psychology). What I'm trying to say is that even a dumb character will have workarounds at hand to keep functioning in society. Something caring people gave them, something they can fall back on.

[source]
If a player describes her characters actions that way, like, if she preemptively gives answers to the question "how could your character know that?", DMs will be way more likely to decide favorable to begin with. I sure would. It means playing the character skillfully and, yes, with intelligence, while adding the disadvantage  with ease to the narrative. It's a win-win.

But there's more. Most (if not all) role playing games allow for supporting rolls, so if a intelligence check comes up and chances are low, ask another character for help. It's not even far-fetched, to be honest, that a character like that would seek and trust the advice others can offer on a regular basis. Actually, also ask non player characters for advice, like wise men or women or sages or priests ... folks that have been asked for advice regarding problems to abstract to tackle for a poor, single mind for as long as humans exist (true for all kinds of intellects, one might add).

This applies as well for immature or inexperienced characters: make them seek advice. It makes your DM happy that you interact with your environment and always gives you an angle to say the character follows the advice of [insert figure of authority here].

What else? Well, players should realize what a limitation like this means beyond "he'll never be a wizard" and how they could participate in the game without playing their character. Because, if you think about it, how many situations could come up in the game that directly apply to a character's intelligence? Not that many.

Solving riddles, for instance, would be group or even player effort. Everything else can be communicated or solved as described above and if that weakness is targeted directly (which should only, if at all, happen in moderation anyway), it's still not without a chance and, done right, enriching the gaming experience.

It doesn't hurt to talk with your DM up front about what a disadvantage like that would mean in their game, just to be on the same page. And one more solution might be to ask the DM if it is possible to play an additional character (which might add another interesting dynamic, but depends heavily on how crunchy a game is to make it work).

When all is said and done, it comes down to embracing it as a challenge and making it work, an attitude that'll get you far everywhere. That and realizing the chances such a disadvantage might bring.

Too obvious?

As I wrote above, I have experienced this as a DM far too often, as those results can come up in OD&D and the game I'm working on: Lost Songs of the Nibelungs. Especially Lost Songs needs players to embrace disadvantages and make them work because the characters are very young tribes men (or women) going on their first adventures, and they can get severely scarred by their experiences, for instance by losing their Wits (the equivalent of Intelligence in LSotN).

If a game includes design choices that allow extremes, it also needs to offer the room to make it work and even if that is accounted for in the rules, it is also very necessary to communicate all that somewhere. Especially when considering that not all games do this and when a player (or DM) comes with the wrong expectations to a new game, they won't see the potential the game offers if that extreme occurs. Hence, the post.

I hope you find some use for the advice here and if you know of other ways to play such characters effectively, please feel free to share your experience with us. As always, I'd be happy to hear about it.

Had to share, sorry [source]

*Which is, interestingly enough, something modern games seem to avoid more often from the start. Often in an attempt to please buyer demands. Like with computer games, it is a short-sighted compromise to follow up on unreflected customer demands to a degree where the resulting gaming experience is reduced to the equivalent of a short sugar rush, followed by regret and a lack of satisfaction ... Anyway, not what we are talking about. Or are we?

Sunday, March 31, 2019

6 things D&D 1e can do for you (and you didn't know)

There is an excellent post over at Marlinka's Musings you should read, as it inspired this post to some extent. Daniel writes at some point in his post that D&D is about killing things and taking their stuff. The game is good at that, but if you want something else in it, you maybe should look into other games for inspiration (he names FATE and Nobilis as examples). It illustrates his point well and works for the argument he's making. But it got me thinking: is it true? Are we actually needing those other games to have aspects like narrative flow or philosophical musings in D&D 1e/BECMI as written?

More a Development of Insight than an Evolution

I'll start with a heresy: most of what is sold to us as new evolutions in game design is merely a designer exploring something that is already existing in the original games and giving it a different form*. This hobby of ours is not even half a century old and I think in a way we are still trying to find the words to explain what happened in 1973 and why it mattered.

Yeah, one of those posts ...
 Simple proof of this is that we (as in: humanity as a whole) have always been telling stories and always will be. Same goes for playing games (another abstract form of telling stories, if you think about it). We learn abstract thinking by listening and telling stories, which in turn helps us understanding the world. Preparing us to handle it, as it were. We have the science/philosophy/art to proof this for a long time now.

I've long been saying that roleplaying games are not doing much more than offering various tools to expand language to a degree that the output of an exchange gets a specific flavor mixed with a good dose of uncertainty of outcome, while keeping within the rules of suspension of disbelieve. Those tools manipulate the narrative with specific terms and outcomes and developments that are deemed favorable for the intent of the individual game. However, the collective narrative is the thing and we really know how to tell stories.

There's also lots of science about how language works and why, so I could go and rest my case right there (or at least that's the thesis): if roleplaying games are understood as tools that expand language to form a narrative in a playfull and uncertain way and if that is the innovative part of that original design, then most of what comes afterwards cannot be more then just variations and expansions of what the original games already formulated.

Oracles: expanding language with external tools for thousands of years now [source]
Or to put another spin on this: my theory is that if those rules of yore are read with our more modern interpretations of what a role playing game is or can be, we will find that those ideas are already in there to some extent or at least came up pretty fast.

However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so I'll try to do the title of this post justice, name 6 modern game design trends and show how they'd already been part of the first editions (I'll draw from OD&D and BECMI/D&D RC for this, if I need to):

1. The System Shapes the Long-Term Narrative

The classic 5 saves in D&D had been a great way to guarantee different class reactions to the narrative environment between classes as well as with character advancement. Players are relatively autonomous to do as they please, so no character will feel alike, even if it's the same class. Campaigns will also differ from DM to DM, so the rules for advancement are the only somewhat reliable constant in all of this. Now, Saves are a character's passive reaction to the environment, not player controlled and only to some extent within a DMs control, which means, a characters reaction to the environment is something every player will experience THE SAME over the course of each characters career. It's one key aspect why fighters feel hardy, thieves feels dextrous and wizards feel well versed in the magic arts: they react that way to the challenges the environment throws them (system-wise).  This is true for all first editions of D&D.

2. Players Decide the Difficulties of their Actions

You will often hear that in the olden days DMs would set you a difficulty and you either make it or not. Sometimes people will add that you could argue some bonusses because the situation (or a rule) allows for it. Modern games will often allow rolls with nuanced results, like, say, partial successes. However, there has always been something like the "play without the dice" and even if not everyone had realized this in the beginning of the hobby (which I doubt, actually, since the early versions had been pretty rules light, negotiation must have been the main mode of gaming), it's common sense today for players to explore and use the environment to their best knowledge to gain an advantage before the first dice fall. So the difficulty of a roll was never the DM fiat many would make it to be, it was the end of a negotiation and if the players did play it right, that roll (if  necessary at all) would be an easy one.

3. Character-Driven Narratives instead of Murder-Hobos

It certainly didn't start that way, but BASIC already introduced the idea that monsters could just be "overcome" with wits instead of combat and Moldvay also offers experience points for playing your character and class well (as well as for great ideas and heroic play). Later in the BECMI series clerics will get xp for helping others of their alignment, domain play offers xp, as do jousts and leading an army into war will also garner a character xp. So it's not just "kill and loot" and it is interesting at this point to note that on higher levels (up to level 36 with the BECMI series) there wouldn't be enough monsters or treasure in the world for a group to gain enough xp just with killing and looting (which is why late in the development of 1e you potentially gain more xp for playing your character than for anythiung else ... read here for details). Also: there wasn't that heavy an emphasis on high ability scores and lots of freedom for coming up with who your level 1 character is ...

Diplomacy can be fun, too! [source]
4. Scope

Epic, year-spanning campaigns or one-shots, fantasy or steampunk or science fiction, as many classes as you can come up with (want an example how, have one), highly customizable toolbox of rules (from very low to very high complexity), lots of original material (still in print!), highly compatible with newer versions of D&D (and other games, for that matter), just as easy to house-rule and over 40 years of fan-made material freely accessible on the internet (another example), with all the experience and advice you could need to last several life times of gaming ... that's D&D 1e in a nut-shell. Few games can do that much, most won't even come close.

5. It's not Randomness, it's Controlled Variation

Random Encounter Tables, Random Encounter Reaction Tables, Random Treasure Table, Morale ... Going by the rules, the DM gets to decide very deep in the manifestation process how things shape up. This is by design and it has a very simple reaon: it (1) reminds the DM that there are more possible outcomes to a situation than he could come up with on the spot and it (2) also illustrates that you can still have some controll within that randomness by chosing the selection of possibilities a random table offers to begin with. Lots of games try (and achieve) some of the same effects with story circles or shared narratives to produce recognizable yet unexpected variation, but D&D made this work right from the start in it's own way.

6. The Cheat is in the Game

Many modern games claim that one distinctive new element to older roleplaying games would be that modern games enable players to influence play from a meta-perspective with concepts like story points, for instance. It's always some sort of meta-currency that could help getting characters out of tight spots. The thing is, that's not a new  or "modern" idea at all. I'd say that it was part of those first editions from the beginning in form of magic items, spells like Wish and wonders like Ressurection, you just had to play long enough to earn them. In modern gaming terms you had to "unlock" them, so to say, as they'd only be accessible to higher level characters. In a way it is part of learning the game to reach that point (it's like that famous G. Gygax quote that character background is what comes with the first 6 levels ...). Experienced players (or so is the theory) will have all the meta-currency they need to keep their characters afloat for as long as possible (even later characters, one could argue).
 

And that's that ...

I was aiming for 10, but that might stretch it a little. The result of this little exercise (for me at least) would be that, well, "there's nothing new under the sun" doesn't quite cut it. Of course there is beautiful and great and creative modern games out there and there's definitely room for more.

However, the closer I look at those first editions (D&D RC is one of my favorite things in the world, as you might be aware), the more I come to the conclusion that it was more the inability to completely express what they had in hands when they published it. They had been quick to adjust, for sure, and many of the first alternative rulesets published were arguably nothing more than what the game intended to begin with: variations of the original game (even when not published by TSR).

Furthermore, and I'll close with this, I hope I helped to show that many of the now popular facettes we have in newer games were also arguably already part of those first games. I mean, sure, you could argue that there might be some better ways to use the dice (or something else entirtely, like cards) and there's still lots to explore. But damn, they did a lot right from the start and even where they weren't entirely on target, it ended up being strong enough to become part of popular (gaming) culture on more than one level.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on the subject. I know, lots of this comes down to taste, and I'm not as much interested in hearing subjective claims about what new game is superiour. Instead I'd love to hear about games that are truly innovative in their approach and why.

Either way, thanks for reading!

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 * Conversely it's the discovery and enhancement of those ideas that made games like Vampire: The Mascerade so popular, so there definitely is merit to the process.