Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Thoughts on boring systems...


Despite having a wealth new games to play (or never play, but admire, and the same old suspects are wheeled out again and again), I often find my thoughts turning to the world of Titan, and Fighting Fantasy in general. A couple of days I read an old blog post, which I cannot now find. In that post, nostalgia for FF gamebooks was tempered by the assertion that you couldn't get kids these days to play these books when they could be smashing things to bits in [Insert Current Game Title Here]*. And I think that assertion is, sadly, more or less true. But a fantasy adventure gamebook does things in a different way to a viscerally thrilling fantasy adventure video game. And in that difference there is a virtue that we should remember when playing roleplaying games. 

FF combat is boring. It is boring because there are no choices (most of the time). Roll dice until one side wins, with not even the possibility of retreat, is not uncommon. This means that the whole thing could be settled by a single dice roll, the probability of victory being fixed the moment the encounter begins. It'd lose some tension, sure, but the end result, mechanically speaking, would be the same.

So where is this virtue, eh? Well, mechanically boring combat is feature, not a bug. 

I play mostly with people who have not and will not read the rules. And so I am acutely aware that combat with lots of choices equals victory to those with system mastery. I find nothing more disheartening when I read roleplaying forums that are 'epic' accounts of encounters that concentrate on the 'synergies' that the players managed to set up between their powers or other clever exploitation of the system. In the games that I run, once combat is started I want the encounter settled quickly. I want it settled quickly because I want the consequences of that combat to result in further interesting choices for the PCs. Choices about the game world, not the game system. 

By having such boring combat and task resolution, FF gamebooks remind me of the things that roleplaying games can do better than video games. Roleplaying games can never match the complexity of micro-choices about the system that are the focus of many (not all) video games - ability to master the controller and the powers and abilities of the character. And if we use a system that wasn't put together by designers worrying about that, the actual play of a roleplaying game will by necessity focus on the choices being made in relation to the game world rather than the game system. And while a gamebook has the same 'dead' GM as a video game, in a tabletop RPG this perspective can be taken to the extremes, with truly open worlds existing in living imaginations rather than fixed on paper or in code. 

So thank you Fighting Fantasy - I glad that you were my introduction to fantasy adventure gaming and not [Insert Video Game Title Here]*.

*I am out of touch, but not that much. I could have named a video game - probably one that I have enjoyed tremendously - but I don't want to make this about that particular  video game. This isn't about denigrating video games. But simple systems force the play(choices) to be about the world, while a complex system allows the play(choices) to be about the system.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Contrary as usual


So, we all know by now that there is this new version of an old game out. By all accounts it is pretty good, combining the best parts of the older editions with some new thinking, before streamlining the whole thing to produce a game that plays much like the traditional editions while having the modern chrome required to attract new fans. And surely we also all know that while you can buy an expensive, well produced hardcopy version of the rules, there is also a free .pdf of the core of the rules - the basics, or essentials if you will, that put a perfectly playable version of the game in your hands.

Download the free pdf of RQ6 Essentials
And with this one, I don't think that anyone could moan about the cover art.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

I went into the shop to have a look at 5e...


... I turned the box over in my hands, read the blurb, looked at the art and... decided that there was no reason for me to buy *this* version of D&D. I am with Newt on this one; I have more than enough versions of D&D in my cupboards, on my bookshelves and on my harddrives to not really need another version, official or not. Indeed, if I was to buy another D&D, it'd likely be another OSR game, or a hardcopy of one of the games I only own as a .pdf. I am not saying that 5e is no good. Hell, I'm not even saying that it isn't a version that I would like. I've skimmed through the .pdf of the Basic Rules and there isn't anything that screams, "play me, and put away your TSR D&Ds, your clones, and your OSR games". In my first draft of this post that was a huge list of classic and OSR rulesets, but I figured that I'd only leave out some deserving clone or OSR game, such is the genuine renaissance of gaming based on the simplicities of HD, AC, Class and Level. Indeed, there is so wit, wisdom, vim, and vigour among the hobbyists producing D&Dish material that 'official D&D' is largely redundant to someone like me who doesn't, for example, engage in 'organised play'.

Honestly, if Kevin Crawford would just tone down the creativity a bit (next up; a sandbox 'Cthulhu' OSR horror game?!) and embrace vanilla fantasy we'd be sorted. If he'd rebuild the classic D&D classes (in pseudo-Medieval costume) using the SWN/SotD engine, importing all his campaign construction and management options - domains, mass combat, factions, trade, etc. - spread out across Red Tide/An Echo, Resounding and various SWN products, combing them all into one big 'rules cyclopedia', well then I would have my 'permanent D&D'.

So I ended up spending about half the money I'd earmarked for a boxed set of D&D on Dead Names: Lost Races and Forgotten Ruins and Scarlet Heroes instead. Kevin Crawford, a one-man-band of OSR awesomeness, epitomises the best of the OSR (whether he calls himself part of the OSR or not). There isn't a bad product in the entire Sine Nomine line, but they're not just setting books, or collections new classes, spells, monsters, and useful tables. Almost every product is the distillation of a particular gaming philosophy, one that emphasizes player choice and agency in the context of a long-running campaign in a living world (or worlds, for Stars Without Number). If you are at all interested in sandbox play, read something written by Kevin Crawford. Stars Without Number has a free edition. So yes, they're packed with tables for campaign construction and adventure design, yes, the setting ideas are interesting, and put new spins on D&Dish games (Spears of the Dawn has some great African-inspired magic using classes), and yes, they are all cleanly written with non-nonsense procedures that achieve in game what other games seem to require GMs maintain spreadsheets. But they are also motivated by an idea; an idea of what a roleplaying game should be, and why playing a roleplaying game has unique qualities that set it apart from other forms of gaming.

So, even if I do end up buying 5e - and you know that I will submit in the end - you can be sure that I'll still have a whole bunch of Kevin Crawford's books loaded on my tablet as a reminder of what this game is all about. 

And of how productive one man can be! I would struggle to believe that Kevin Crawford wasn't some kind of collective identity for a whole bunch of writers, if there wasn't a singular vision running through all his books.

[God, that's a bit gushing isn't it? Still, click 'Publish'...]

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Picturing D&D


I've kinda missed the boat here. A few weeks ago, for no reason at all that I could see, people started talking about D&D art. You know, what should be on the cover of boxed sets, Player's Handbooks, etc. Anyway, at the time I meant to say this:

This is one of my favourite D&D pictures, and should be on the D&D Basic Set[*1]:


FIRST, it shows a party of adventurers, rather than a lone hero. SECOND, they are posing for a... camera? In other words, this group of adventurers have anachronistic attitudes, like PCs played by late 20th/early 21st century Westerners. Third, there is a small treasure horde, because D&D adventures are about collecting wealth. THIRD, that Dragon is poxy. It is not all RAGHHHH! and AWESUM!, but nevertheless there is tremendous fun to be had in navigating a perilous world, surviving (perhaps) and growing as characters (in terms of personality and history, as well as in power). Playing D&D involves playing low-level characters - indeed it is likely that most D&D play is low-level - and so at least some of the art should reflect that[*2].

But I am a bit of a heretic anyway - I like 2nd Edition AD&D - it sits just behind Basic and ahead of 1st Edition AD&D in my official D&D rankings. I like quite a lot of the art. I like the structured, ordered presentation of rules and procedures. I even have a reasonable appreciation for 'kits'! I don't like the advice for Dungeon Masters (some in the Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide is truly awful), but I can live with that - that's advice, not rules of procedures.

[*1]Of course, not if you want to sell lots of copies. Just if you want to sell a copy to gits like me, who stubbornly reject heroism, glamour, etc. ;-)
[*2]Or you could make low-level D&D like mid-level D&D like high-level D&D, just with inflating numbers...

Thursday, 10 July 2014

On the nature of Chaos


"The traits which characterise the Chaos Powers are insanity, violence, ambition, greed, and others of a kind which are often felt to typify the worst of human nature. But this is not wholly the case, and Chaos Powers also exist which typify fellowship, charity, law, and other redeeming characteristics. Indeed, no Chaos Power is wholly one sided, for no human or other creature is wholly good or evil, and likewise neither are their shadow-selves. For example, along with violence and bloodshed Khorne has inherited a warrior's sense of  honour and moral virtue. Nurgle may typify decay and disease, but he also embodies the human hope and energy that defies the inevitable" (Realm of Chaos: The Lost and the Damned, (1990) p.7)


The idea that Nurgle does not just represent disease and decay, but is also the embodiment of hope, defiance, and stoicism is repeated through the book. The same is true for the other Powers. The Powers of Chaos, it makes clear, are the product of the combined energies of the shadow-selves of the dead, which retain their most powerful mental traits and flow together to create whirlpools in the Realm of Chaos, and these whirlpools are the Chaos Powers.   

"The four Great Powers of Chaos represent the four largest and most powerful of these many co-joined entities. They are so large that they have achieved a coherent consciousness and will, a mind formed from the collective emotions and beliefs of the countless myriads of shadow-selves that comprise it.

Other Chaos Powers sometimes achieve temporary consciousness, but their existence is less stable because they are smaller; they may be likened to slumbering gods whose dreams sometimes achieve a passing solidity and who will perhaps one day awake to full awareness."

This is much more interesting, to me, than the view of Chaos presented in WFRP2e's Tome of Corruption (2006), which answers the question of why people might worship Nurgle with the, 'Hopeless despair' - the very opposite of the human virtues that Nurgle is taken to embody in Realms of Chaos.

And consider this;

"At this time [the Great War against Chaos] many Chaos Champions took up arms alongside the daemonic forces of their Patron Powers, but others flocked to help the human defenders against the Chaos Hordes. Such is the nature of the Chaos Powers that such willful independence by Champions often amuses rather than angers them, and may even lead to a Power rewarding his Champion for providing good entertainment. In this way, Chaos Champions and their warbands fought on both sides in the Great War against Chaos, both for and against the human nations. Although the presence of Chaos Champions in their ranks may have caused the human defenders some trepidation and even mistrust, their aid was still welcomed at a time when survival hung momentarily in the balance" (Realm of Chaos: The Lost and the Damned, p. 9).

Interesting...  

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Worst. Module. Introduction. Ever.


I've been looking through some old adventures in my cupboard, particularly those that are poorly regarded, with a view seeing what I can 'rehabilite'. But when on page 4 of a book you find the following lines introducing an adventure... 

"[Adventure X] is a race against time - but the exact times and dates have actually been kept vague. Role-playing should always be about creating an exciting story: not just problem solving or beating the clock. [...] If the GM can impress on the players that there is no time to waste, and then create a persistent and mounting sense of urgency without actually keeping track of the exact number of days until the [climax], the adventure will stay exciting and tense. [...] Players may feel their characters are being 'railroaded'; forced from encounter to encounter with little choice in the matter; but you should make them feel that this is because Fate has forced them into this path, not the adventure writers of the GM's style of refereeing."

Obviously the title is hyperbole, but these lines epitomise what I really do dislike in many published adventures, even those who are not as explicit as this in their assumptions of what constitutes a role-playing *game*. I would argue that if you set the scenario up as a race against time, and then proceed to absolutely invalidate every single decision that the players take (and the actions taken by the PCs) vis-a-vis this 'race', the best part of the game is an illusion. 

With regard to a conversation I have been having elsewhere: I have no problem limiting player choices*. The game world naturally limits choice. And sometimes it is a useful GMing technique to present possible choices to the players, gamebook fashion. But I really hate invalidating player choices by rendering those choices meaningless. This doesn't mean that the world is fixed - if the players know nothing of the plans and plots of the villains of the world they can remain in an indeterminate state, waiting for the PCs to encounter them. But once the players and making decisions, and the PCs are taking action, with regard to these villainous plots, the *game* is having these choices and actions have consequences.

This module suggests that the vast majority of what the players choose to do over the weeks it would take to play this adventure ought to have no real consequence. Having played in these kind of games, even the merest suspicion that this is going on is an enthusiasm-killer. But when I have found myself employing techniques such as these as a GM I have felt that I have cheated myself. I don't want to 'tell a story', I want to play a game.

Anyway, guesses as to the year, the system, the adventure itself?

*Addendum - ten minutes after 'publishing' this post I realised that I'd forgotten to say that player choices are also limited by the social contract that ought to bind people when they are playing a 'fantasy adventure game' (or 'horror investigation game', etc.). YOU are playing an 'adventurer' (or 'investigator'), and the player choices you make should not be made to prevent adventuresome things from happening. Yes, your PC might want to settle down to a farm, but you as a player have a 'contract' with the GM and the other players to play a fantasy adventure game for three hours that evening. I've seen criticisms of (presumably hypothetical) sandbox games in which the (imagined) campaign devolves in non-adventuring. If this isn't what the group wants, it is a result of people breaking the social contract, and correcting this shouldn't necessitate introducing heavily-plotted railroads.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Oh, damn you Devlan Mud!


Enjoying painting at 15mm has improved my 25/28mm technique. As I chug my way through the Saxons, I've started reading the Oldhammer blogs a lot more regularly. And I can't escape the whispers of the old lead scattered all over the house, hidden in a box in bubblewrap here, in a storage case there, soaking in Dettol... where? So, beguiled by the faint cries of 'yo ho ho', 'avast!' and 'aaarh!', I cracked open a box and dragged out of shore-party of Long Drong's Pirate Slayers. Not sure what I'll use these for. Singly based minis for Songs of Blades and Heroes? A Warband/Shooter unit for HotTHammer? Anyway, this post isn't about that.

When, a few years ago, I painted my first miniature after a gap of umpteen years, my disposable income gave me access to a far wider range of paints than I ever did back in the day. And I could buy inks, and washes, and all kinds of other stuff. And proper brushes! But the washes were a great help to a [re-]learning painter. A good wash, typically of Devlan Mud, added depth, a bit of 'realistic' grime, and, at times, covered mistakes. But it has got to the point where I think that Devlan Mud, and my other favourite, Ogryn Flesh, are concealing, rather than enhancing my painting. What do you think?  

This is a Pirate Slayer I have nearly finished. I haven't used any washes on this guy.



This is the Slayer I finished the day before. While I like his polka dot bandana, the Ogryn Flesh wask on the skin, the red wash on the beard, and the Devlan Mud on the guns and scabbards and the rest have really flattened the miniature. Where, in the past, slapping a wash on was my final stage, looking at this guy I feel I have to set the brush to him again.



Or, of course, the problem could be that after staring at little Dwarf Pirates for a few hours you lose your sense of perspective... Which do you prefer, snazzy headscarf notwithstanding?