Thursday, 23 January 2020

Troika! review/overview

As an avowed Advanced Fighting Fantasy fan, I've been a big fan of Daniel Sell's Troika!, even though I've STILL not got it to the table. It's a really terrific 2d6 fantasy game built on the Fighting Fantasy chassis but very much doing its own thing. There are tons of reviews out there, but I'd like to point YOU (if I was to trust the visitor data, the YOU these days is mainly adult webcammers) in the direction of a nice little review by Jakob Schmidt HERE.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

A Sensational Atlas

I was thinking about the bullet point format that has been (was? I'm well out of the loop these days)  discussed in OSR circles for a while now - basically digesting the sort of information found in the much maligned 'boxed text' (which I think is incredibly useful for new/rusty/tired GMs, but that's another post) and text for the GM's down into a series of bullet points. Sometimes these are presented as nested bullet points, so that the GM can see at a glance how one piece of information leads to another. Perhaps the extra information is revealed with time, by player questions, or through character action. I think this is an excellent format. [I can't find the original posts that got me thinking about this, but I'll add links if anyone points me in their direction]

This is done at the level of a dungeon 'room' or 'encounter location'. But years ago, running a WFRP game, I reflected on the 'placelessness' of my GMing. By this I mean that each inn, each city, each forest, each river etc. were almost utterly interchangeable. Except for 'plot elements', so to speak. Now, I'd like to think that I'm doing myself down, but I don't think I'm missing the mark by too much. And you could say that the 'plot elements' are what is important and that too much 'colour commentary' will mislead the players and take their focus off the important stuff. Perhaps. Nevertheless...

Nevertheless I want the players to get a sense of place, and movement, of travel when we play. To remember a place as more than just "where we did x or y". I am reminded here of a post from Monsters and Manuals - which again, I cannot find - in which he talked about the descriptions of travel and the countryside in LotR. I don't think a GM should try to ape this, but a GM can produce a pale, but effective simulation of the effect. To do this at the table, when I begin my next game I am going to assemble a 'sensational atlas'. This will be incomplete and ever changing, but in essence it will consist of a deliberate effort to identify a stack of descriptive words and phrases that can be used *without a great deal of thought* to evoke a particular location. Nothing else to get in the way. Just an index card for each location with smells, sounds, sights, even tastes and more tactile sensations when appropriate. 

So a jungle might have:

Emerald shadow of the canopy
Smell of rotting leaf litter
Thorny vines catching on your tunic
Constant hum of insects
Sweat dripping into your eyes
Trunks as broad as a cottars hut holding up the green
Vivid reds and yellows of sickly smelling flowers
Hooting, echoing calls and replies from the heights of the trees.
Thick undergrowth pulling at your boots
Sprawling ridge-like roots
Swarms of tiny flies crawling into your nose
Sucking mud of a boggy hollow
Crumbling, fallen log crawling with fat squirming larvae

and more more more, but no fat, nothing that isn't descriptive or, by my own low standards, evocative. 

And so on, and so on. I'm no poet, but that doesn't matter at the table. A different card for each town, for each environment, and even, when possible, between different iterations of each environment. And these would build up during play, of course, as new descriptive details are added at the table.  I bet *you* already do this. But I need to formalise this process to ensure better GMing practice.But at the table, I could do with this kind of aide memoire, this kind of prompt sheet, to keep the game *in the world*.   

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Uncaring Cosmos

I will soon - hopefully - be getting a B/X D&D (or at the players' end, Labyrinth Lord as the pdfs are free) game up and running, playing via voice chat on Discord. I'll admit to some nervousness, as while I've run games online for people I already knew, I'm only been a player in online games with people I know only through their online personas. As a face-to-face GM, I rely so much on watching the players - are they excited, are they paying attention, as they exchanging glances. But that's a post for another day.

This post is simply to direct your attention to the cool "British Old School" blog Uncaring Cosmos, which not only covers some of my favourite games, it also looks cool. Check it out.

Friday, 9 August 2019

Look, Robot: Stanislavski Vs Brecht In Tabletop Roleplaying

I was looking for Greg Costikyan's Bestial Acts, his sketch of a 'Brechtian' RPG, but instead came across this interesting essay by Grant Howitt, Stanislavski Vs Brecht In Tabletop Roleplaying. I especially like the fact that it begins, "This is going to get pretty wanky, here, so brace yourselves", before thinking seriously about what we are doing, and what we should be trying to do, when we play our PCs. This includes section titles such as "Play your PC like an NPC" and "Don’t compromise your character’s motivations, but do get them into trouble". I certainly don't agree with everything, and find the closing passage to be inimical to 'old school' style play. 
"Remember that time you had fought your way down to the bottom of the dungeon, and you were low on healing potions and all injured and you saw a dragon in front of you, laying on its hoard, eyes glinting through the thick darkness? And collectively, even though your characters and tired and beaten up and abused and could easily go home, hire an army, come back and kill this thing with minimum risk, you say – “Fuck it, let’s do this. Imagine the stories.”"
I mean, in my book, that's a TPK right there. And a deserved TPK, in which the players have made decisions aware of the risks (and potential rewards), rather than something sprung on the players and their PCs by a poor GM. Trusting a GM to fudge in order to make a good story is corrosive to the 'game'. There are, I presume, systems which would facilitate and reward these kind of decisions, but for me, the important point is that it is the contract of the game and its procedures that does this work. And, why can't trying to recruit an army willing to venture into the depths of a terrible dungeon be an adventure in itself?

Nevertheless, the essay is an interesting read for a Friday afternoon.     

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Social Status in AFF

Okay, you've assigned points to SKILL, STAMINA, and LUCK (and MAGIC)[1]. You've assigned your Special Skill points and selected your Talent. If you are that way inclined you have selected your Spells or Miracles[2]. You've thought up a name, a description, and you've done the most boring bit of any character creation process - you've gone shopping. Your Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2e Hero has the expertise and equipment and is ready to Dungeoneer!

But wait. What's this? Social Status?

Heroes start with a Social Status of between 0-6 (chosen as per character concept), with 7 and 8 available to starting Heroes who take the appropriate Talents.

What's this for? Do the GOBLINS in the Forest of Doom care whether or not my Adventurer is a dirt farmer from Hick Town or the son of King Salamon himself? Well, actually, they just might. But yes, I'll concede, as far as the rules go, Social Status isn't of any great importance.  In fact, the only place I can find a mention of using it is on p51, in the Social Actions - Reactions[3] section, which reads:
"Social class should also be taken into account if the difference between the two parties is more than 3 or so. A beggar talking to a Lord may well get an unfavourable reaction, but a Lord talking to a beggar will be very different!"
So all a bit loose and freeform. And "3 or so" seems like a rather large gap to begin with; the difference in social rank between a 'senior priest' and a 'master craftsman' ought have some effect in most pseudo-Medieval settings, even if the difference in Social Status is only 2.

But it *could* be used by enterprising Directors to add an impression of depth to their campaigns. First, and most obviously, Social Status could be used as a modifier in social situations. So you're asking your Heroes to test their Leadership, their Etiquette, their Bargain, their Con[4] Special Skill? Surely all of these could be influenced by a PCs Social Status? I wouldn't recommend rolling against Social Status, unless you want failure to be the norm - and perhaps that's right, that leveraging your Social Status is something that can only be reliably done by people of the knightly classes and above. But as the rules suggest, the power of social rank to affect a situation is relative: a Sir Therfax can reliably browbeat a peasant, but a king can impress his will upon the Sir Therfax. It is also not simply one directional. Horgun the dockworker has a much better chance of making useful contacts in the Block & Tackle Inn than does Sir Therfax.

So the rules are right, difference in Social Status matters, and should be applied on a case-by-case basis to 'social' Special Skill tests. Sometimes the Heroes Social Status will be being measured against that of an NPC[5]. Sometimes the bar will be set by the setting - a Director can assign different 'Social Status' scores to different parts of a city (or even different parts of a Castle, a Palace, or a Temple). So a knightly hero (Social Status 7) might have +3 modifier when attempting to impress their will upon a the town clerk (Social Status 4). But such a character roleplayed as leaning on the little people might also might suffer a -4 modifier when attempting to make friends with a sergeant of the town watch. A few points on the dice can be a way to reinforce the colour of the setting. There is no reason why Social Status cannot be used to add more fun (yes, fun!) to the Hireling, Mass Combat, and Holdings rules in the Heroes Companion. It is up to the Players, through their choices, statements of intent, and description of their Heroes' actions[6] to determine quite how their Social Status would effect the game world, and for the Director to make a judgement

[1] I've written before (and I'm not the first to say so), that AFF, being such a simple, robust system, is well suited to the addition of extra 'stats', or the replacement of the existing stats (usually MAGIC, but I could imagine replacing LUCK too). Stellar Adventures does this, adding TECH for Robot characters (which interestingly replaces LUCK) and PSIONICS for Space Monks and other Psychics (replacing MAGIC). Other examples from the solo gamebooks would be FEAR (House of Hell), HONOUR (Sword of the Samurai), WILLPOWER (Beneath Nightmare Castle), EVIL (Dead of Night), though I'm pretty sure that there's others scattered through the books. Add whatever is thematically appropriate for your setting and campaign. CORRUPTION? Go ahead. SANITY? Sure, and get all 1920s pulp hero investigating what needs be done by renaming SKILL 'COMPETENCE' and STAMINA 'GRIT' too.

[2] Actually, the magical abilities granted through worship of the gods of Titan are described as 'powers' in a section entitled 'Priestly Abilities', but I like 'Miracles' so that's what they are in my game!

[3] AFF2e has no set mechanism for 'Reactions'. I use something very like the 2d6 Reaction Roll of Classic D&D, adjusted by whether the NPC/Monster disposition is Friendly, Neutral, Unfriendly, or Hostile - the categories given to us in Out of the Pit. I tacked it onto the end of my Viscera! supplement.

[4] And why are there no Persuade or Orate Special Skills? Want your Hero to have one - write it in! There is, please note, a Silvertongued Talent which adds a whopping +3 (on a 2d6 curve, that's a LOT) to these kind of social skill tests. 

[5] Note that I advise that Directors do not listen to the AFF2e rulebook here. Way back in 2015 I wrote:
"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." 
[6] i.e. Roleplaying, but so many take that to mean more speaking in a funny voice than making choices on behalf of your character. You don't have to put on a posh voice to have your adventuring prince bully the town guard, you just need to say that that is what he intends to do and describe how he will do so. And then we might roll the dice.  

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Speaking of Random Tables

The other day I mentioned the importance of random tables in generating a dynamic world in which the GM can feel like they are also playing the game. 

Well, popping up one my 'reading list' is Konsumterra of Elfmaids & Octopi with "d100 Horrible Dungeon Decor". And some of the entries really are fantastically horrible - in a good way (I guess) - that will really make your 'underworld' a little more than a narrow stone corridor that is handily the dimensions you've assigned to the squared paper that you are using.

This is not quite the sort of random table that produces a 'living world' - that's more the domain of tables designed to be used in play, at the table. But it (along with the vast quantities of other tables that Konsumterra produces) are a great way to kickstart your old, idea-free GM head.   

Friday, 5 July 2019

The GM is a player too...

There is always a steady trickle of people landing on this blog via my 'Pathetic Aesthetic' post. I sometimes check and see if someone new is misinterpreting it as a manifesto to be a 'dick GM', if someone new is reading the title (and the title alone) as if I hate 'Old School' games, if someone new can't spot the (what I thought was) obvious self-deprecation and exaggerated partiality, etc. Sometimes it takes me back to old discussions that I had forgotten, such as this one on the now defunct Porky's Expanse. In there, I noticed that I'd make a contribution to the comment section, which I think is worth repeating here:

"We often forget though that the GM is a player too..." I agree. And funnily enough I'd make a case that games that don't shy away from the PCs 'enjoying' pathetic fates are best for reminding us about this. NOT because these pathetic fates are the result of 'dick GMing' determining pathetic fates by GM fiat. But because, by making the fate of the PCs a result of the interaction between the mechanics, the setting, and player choice, the GM can enjoy the unfolding play without worrying about trying to rescue the PCs or put them back on track to the correct solution.

And as for 'awesome'. I've got nothing against the word. I want *some* things in my games to be awesome. And when the PCs come across these things, take part in them, or even are them, I want there to be some sense of awe."

I think that stuff like random tables, wandering 'monsters', rules for 'getting lost', reaction rolls, morale rules etc. all make the game dynamic for all the participants. In fact, I'd say that a key task for any GM engaging in world building is putting together the random tables - of encounters, events, NPCs, reactions etc. that will make the game a living thing in play.