Monday, 24 August 2015

The Rise and Fall of a Hero

I've been reading more Tom Holland history - Persian Fire. Tom Holland's books are always great gaming inspiration, and I ended up on Google Plus I was asking about Bronze Age-inspired (or at least Antiquity-inspired) OSR games/supplements. By way of a few recommendations, that led on to me asking for opinions on Barbarians of Lemuria (which has a mythic Greece supplement, Heroes of Hellas), which prompted Alex Schroeder to say:

“Ah, the magic system was another thing I didn't like too much. It's too freeform for my taste. I like well defined spells because these are part of the ever changing nature of a long campaign. We know that eventually we'll fly, be invisible, walk the planes, speak with the dead, and all that. We don't do that right away, and it doesn't depend on referee fiat. It's a "promise" that is made by the rules themselves. Free form games just don't offer that.”

Alex has written about this before on his blog. He has a point. It is important for long term campaigns – for my tastes anyway – that the game itself offers the mechanics for different sorts of gameplay. Which was why one of my questions was does Barbarians of Lemuria handle Conan the King as well as Conan the Adventurer...


But changing gameplay over time is almost always imagined as ever increasing power. What about the decline of the hero? The decline of the hero is a venerable feature of fantasy and legend – the once unsurpassed hero is challenged by upcoming warriors, or must face one last quest with fading capabilities. And then there is the other trope – the once proud champion grown fat, lazy, or drunk.

Cohen the Barbarian

D&D is bad at representing this. A 9th level Fighter is still a 9th level Fighter, even if you use aging rules to knock a few points off her Strength. I presume it is even worse in later D&Ds, in which Strength etc. increase as PCs level up. A BRP-based game should do better, as with things such as Damage Bonus and Hit Points being directly derived from a PC’s Attributes, these will dwindle even as her Skill percentages remain high. WFRP, in which Skills are binary (you have them or you don’t) with success governed by Attributes should do even better, though I’ve never seen any ageing rules for 1e or 2e, even if a collection of old wounds might do the trick for most PCs.

So my question is this; which game is best able to handle the decline of a PC as well as they do the rise?

Monday, 17 August 2015

America and D&D

I've been busy. I've been away this summer in the USA. The first trip was to Phoenix, the second to South Florida. And I can honestly say that I now 'get' D&D just a little more. 

I was amused by the old Games Workshop/Citadel ads in Dragon, which used to tell the Americans that they ought to buy their games from people with 'real' history. It chimed with my own prejudices. I still chuckle with a sense of wrongheaded superiority at the fact that the terraced house that I lived in (until this summer, a housemove has also put a dent on my blogging) was about 130 years old. Which isn't that old for a house in the UK, and certainly every other house in the area was about that old, yet in parts of the USA it'd probably have a plaque from the local historical society. And my taste in game worlds does tend to be very European. Very British, even. Legend, the Warhammer World, (even Titan to some degree), all seem to capture a greater sense of historical 'place' than the Forgotten Realms, say.

But it doesn't matter. Unless we're playing a pseudo-historical game, in which of course, it does. But D&D isn't always pseudo-historical, and is (I think) at its best when it is not, despite the pretensions of the AD&D1e DMG. It is an American game.  

Yes, yes. I have long been aware of the 'borderlands' theme of American history. A history of explorers, of pioneers, of the 'civilizing' mission (winning the West) which was conducted peicemeal as much as imperial. And, of course, the American West provides us with some archetypal examples of murder-hobos. So, yes, a ripe historical analogue for D&D PCs, if we can get past the racism and genocide. But hey, just chuck in Orcs and we can all sleep easily, no?

But I didn't fly over Arizona and find myself struck by the history. No. At least not directly. No, I flew over the desert and found myself struck by the quite awe-inspiring scale that pervades the USA. The USA - and the Americas in general - has a scale about it that is quite unlike that of Europe, and Britain especially. I don't just mean its continental vastness, nor the buildings, people, or even the military-industrial-prison complex. As I flew into Phoenix I passed over canyon-laced desert that resembled, to European eyes, the landscape of an alien planet. I didn't need to know much history to immediately wonder what the first Europeans had thought as they crossed this landscape with their pack-mules laden with equipment, accompanied by their hirelings. And the heat! The heat! It was so hot that I remarked that if it is ever that hot in Wales then your house is on fire.

In Florida there was a different kind of heat. A wet, swampy, (once) malarial heat, in a flat marshy landscape prowled by man-eating alligators. To get some breeze you get to the coast, and escape down a chain of islands a hundred miles long tipped by a wrecker 'city' - the richest per capita in the USA at one point - precariously clinging to an island made up of the skeletons of weird sea creatures, just waiting to be swept away by hurricanes (or pirates).

And I've never seen the Great Plains, the Rockies, the forested, often frozen north, the Great Lakes, etc. 

Something twigged in my brain on these trips, as this wasn't a medieval England of innumerable villages, each a day's walk from the other, a landscape tamed and human-ized, however ancient. This is a landscape of awe-inspiring scale, and to a European, strangeness. A landscape of isolated settlements, both those of Native Americans and European Pioneers. A land of radical heterogeneity - of religion and ethnicity, as well as environment and economy -  with adventurers building quasi-states in the borderlands. I imagined the amount of planning and calculated risk taking required to explore this new world. Wilderness expeditions, full of strange landscapes, a hostile environment, and encounters with peoples and animals that could roll either way, depending on their Reaction.

Yeah, I've only been playing D&D for about 30 years. I spend about three weeks in the Americas and now I get it a bit more.   

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

1e Big News!

Well, I have to say that I didn't expect that. An e-mail arrived literally minutes ago announcing that the AD&D1e Players Handbook is now available at DriveThru RPG. I thought there was some (incomprehensible) corporate strategy going on with regard to the unavailability of the AD&D rulebooks, but I have to say I have been impressed by WotC/Hasbro's commitment to making TSR D&D/s available.

We are living in a Golden Age!

Friday, 26 June 2015

AFF2e: The Virtues of Asymmetry

I haven't written about Advanced Fighting Fantasy, or even the world of Titan, for quite some time.

A long time ago I had planned to write a post about embracing the 'asymmetry' of Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2e. About when I was writing posts rationalising the meaning of SKILL in AFF, I spotted that Jonathan Becker (JB of B/X Blackrazor) has written this:

"a monster's profile is just plain different from a player characters (this is not the case with 3E/Pathfinder where monsters have ability scores, feats, skills,etc.). If monsters exist as challenges to be overcome (however one chooses todo that) then why the hell do they need to be all statted up? A ridiculous excess, in my opinion."

And then I did nothing with it. But it gets to the workable, easy solution to the seeming problem that in AFF2e SKILL is inextricably linked with combat, but for PCs non-combat tasks are resolved by a system involving SKILL and Special Skill ratings. This gets people trapped in the question of how they should represent NPCs with significant non-combat expertise. And the answer: remember, these are not PCs, and do not need a PC stat line.

For a PC, SKILL is something best conceptualized as equivalent to Level, with 7-8 being Adventurer, 9-10 being Hero, 11-12 being Legend, or something along those lines. So as PCs increase in SKILL, they increase in everything in which they are 'skilled'. For an NPC, however, SKILL is just a measure of that NPC's combat challenge. They do not have 'Special Skills' - NPCs simply do not need to exist in that level of granularity. 

How do you 'build' the NPC master merchant who couldn't fight his way out of a wet paper bag? Do you give him SKILL 4 and Bargain 6? That still 'only' gives him an effective SKILL of 10, hardly enough to be the best negotiator in Allansia. Give him SKILL 6 and Bargain 6 and introduce special modifiers to represent his lack of combat ability? Why the complication? What would SKILL mean then anyway? 

AFF is the inheritor of this little gem, not GURPS after all!

No, AFF is meant to be a simple game. The master merchant should have SKILL 4 STAMINA 5, which adequately represents him as a combatant, and on the same index card you scrawl 'PCs attempting to bargain with Marco Columbo suffer a -4 penalty to their effective SKILL'. Instead of opposed tests - which require NPCs to be statted out as if they were PCs - non-combat 'contests' are then conducted as unopposed tests based only on the PC's SKILL and Special Skills, plus or minus modifiers, with the capability of the NPC to frustrate the aims of the PC being expressed as a simple modifier. The NPCs are treated just like any other feature of the world of Titan that might affect the PC's chances of achieving their goals. 

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

More on the Reaction Roll

I've been clear that the Reaction Roll is one of most valuable bits of Classic D&D. I'm not that fussed about how you resolve combat, tasks, character advancement etc., but I do think that having a simple means of freeing the DM from determining NPC reactions is something that every game could benefit from.

While browsing the other day I found this post, from late last year, by Alex Chalk of To Distant Lands, in which he breaks down the procedure for determining reactions into the Reaction Roll, a consideration of Interests, and modifiers for Disposition.

I need to get myself my own header. Well, in fact, my blogs need a total design overhaul.

Rather than repeat his work, you should check it out HERE. It is very likely to make it onto my GM summary sheets.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

My Reaction to Petty Gods

I rolled a 6 and a... 5. A overwhelmingly positive reaction. Depending on whether you are playing Basic D&D or Labyrinth Lord, which inverts the table.

+2 to Reaction Rolls based on the pretty sweet 'AD&D' cover...

I liked the 'original' release of Petty Gods that Greg Gorgonmilk put together. And the new one, which is Revised and Expanded (given the extra input of Richard LeBlanc of New Big Dragon Games) is simply fantastic. But my favourite part of the book - the bit that makes it immediately and inspiringly gameable - is the use of and commentary on the use of Reaction Tables. The Reaction Roll (and its 2d6 cousin, the Morale Roll) is an underused mechanic in D&D - most RPGs either take it further (too far?) and comprehensively mechanise social interactions, or leave everything to the GM. Since returning to old school D&D gaming I have used Reaction Rolls in order to generate NPC attitudes in a variety of situations, with the range not - as per the book - from 'Immediately Friendly' to 'Immediately Attack' but from 'As Hostile as Possible (Given the Circumstances)' to 'As Positive as Possible (Given the Circumstances)'. So, is that trader going to try to cheat the PCs, or will he be impressed by their bearing and be especially helpful? Roll 2d6 (apply modifiers) and consult the bones, just as you would when the party bumble into a raiding party of Goblins. The dice roll is the same, it is the interpretation of the results that is different.

As you might remember, I tried to incorporate the Reaction Roll mechanics into my Goblin Encounters, as one of my bugbears with early D&D (and later D&D, of course) is the fact that adventure writers seemingly ignored the existence of the Reaction Roll and scripted monster and NPC reactions.

If only early D&D products had incorporated advice to the (novice?) DM on using the Reaction Roll, rather than scripting encounter reactions. If this had been the case I think that the idea that D&D was only a crude a 'kick in the door and kill everything' game would have been dispelled. As would avoiding pre-scripting the in-combat behaviour of opponents (or leaving it to the DM, who would often have monsters fight to the death, unless it serves the 'story' - or helps avoids a looming TPK - to have them flee) and allowing the Morale Roll to do its job (and more). The subtlety of D&D's simple mechanics would have been more widely seen. But that's another story.

Petty Gods: Revised and Expanded not only has Reaction Roll tables for each God[ling], whic transforms a stat block into an encounter, but also includes an article on different kinds of Reaction Roll tables - one each for Melancholic, Choleric, Sanguine, and Phlegmatic. The Hippocratic Humours are as good a system as any of producing differentiated Reaction Roll tables - for one they could easily fit on a GM screen (or reference sheet, if you don't like erecting barriers). Reading this impresses in your imagination the way that D&D's simple mechanics can produce a dynamic game experience for both the players, and, importantly, the DM.

Plus, you have to love Courtney Campbell's Petty God, the Quantum Ogre. (Note: Campbell's take on the use of Reaction Rolls has been influential on the way I've used the mechanic in games. His On the Non-Player Character really got me thinking about the way that D&D-ist games can do what games with more 'modern' takes on social interactions purport to do, and to arguably do it better. Simpler, for certain, which is a major virtue in an RPG.)

Extra: Talysman has been writing about using the Reaction Roll in a variety of circumstances, for example to to allow unclassed NPCs to call on divine intervention.

Petty Gods: Revised and Expanded is also available in print at Lulu.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Freedom in an Owned World

For some unknown reason I decided to start a new blog - Freedom in an Owned World. This new blog will focus on Warhammer gaming, primarily WFRP1e/2e, but also, perhaps, the W40K RPGs, hopefully some Oldhammering too. There might be some Blood Bowl, and almost certainly some Warhammer boardgames.

This blog will continue, mind... just as intermittently as before.