Friday, 28 September 2012

Playing it Wrong

At the moment, we’re playing Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP). And we’re doing it wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Why? Because we’re using the core mechanics of LotFP and playing classic D&D with it. That isn’t what James Raggi wanted, is it? But it is a compliment.

The core mechanics of LotFP are D&D made elegant. I love them. The combat rules (this is the game that converted me to ascending AC), the streamlining of weapon options, the d6 adventuring rules, the rules for spell research and the creation of magic items… and the Specialist! A classic D&D Thief that doesn’t suck! LotFP is the version of classic D&D that I want to play. But I want to play classic D&D with it. I want the tone of the Mentzer Basic/Expert sets mixed with some Brit-fantasy to darken the mood. But it’s laughable thinking that a dash of Titan, a pinch of Lone Wolf, and a sprinkling of Warhammer will ‘darken’ a game when LotFP provides the possibility of mis-casting a Summon spell and have a party compelled to genitally mutilate each other? Actually, the mis-casts of the Summon spell are BRILLIANT. But they’re not part of the game that I’m after at the moment.

I’ve got my Rules Cyclopedia on my table as we speak, and my BECM (never did get I) books sit in a box alongside my collection of Gazetteers, modules, and assorted classic D&D accessories. But RC/BECM (or Labyrinth Lord, which I use as a proxy to avoid having tea poured all over my precious, precious RC) it isn’t exactly the game I want to play either. It lacks the elegance of Raggi’s system, and it’s power scaling is all wrong. 36 levels?! Back when I began playing D&D I had the Basic and the Expert set, and that was the system. 

So my house rules try to use LotFP to play D&D. All classes increase in attack bonus (though much, much more slowly than the Fighter. Not every monster is a unique Cthulloid entity; we’ve got Kobolds and Goblins, Trolls and Treants. The spells are mix of LotFP (Raggi’s interpretations of the classic spells are often extremely well done) and classic D&D (well, actually, for ease of reference at the table, I’m relying on Labyrinth Lord quite a bit). And I’m using D&D Treasure Tables – a mechanised Experience Point system that runs on loot demands a mechanised loot allocation system. In other words, I’m doing Raggi a terrible insult, stripping away the deliberate and consistent tonal qualities of LotFP to leave myself with the skeleton of the rules.

I'm worried about tea? It looks like they'll fall apart of their own accord soon enough...

The thing is, I appreciate the tone that Raggi strove for when writing Lamentations of the Flame Princess. It’s something that I’d be happy playing as a player. Strangely, it’s a game that I'd probably be happier playing that running. But right now, we’re dungeon delving and monster bashing. And, when you end the first adventure with a character blinded by a SPITTING COBRA, and three characters (a serious head wound, two fingers severed, and a broken leg)  needing lengthy spells of recuperation thanks to some FIRE BEETLES (oh, and Chris Kutalik’s Death and Dismemberment table), you know that you’re not playing too light and breezy a game.     

Oh, and of course, the Rules and Magic books for LotFP are available free. They're art free, but if want some cutting edge art criticism, try HERE. God knows what I'll do with my FOUR Rules and Magic hardcovers when they arrive (thanks to the Indiegogo campaign), but I'm looking forward to the Ken Hite adventure. And Kelvin's.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Realistic Fantasy

Monsters and Manuals is back with a post about the quixotic quest for ‘realism’ in fantasy adventure games. Noisms makes the point that even convincing works of fantasy fiction are set in worlds that are only as ‘realistic’ as necessary for the suspension of disbelief. I think this is an important thing to consider when engaging in world building for fantasy gaming, but I think that a distinction must also be drawn between the veneers of 'historical credibility/accuracy' that work for fiction, and the veneers that work for a game, particularly a fantasy adventure game such as D&D.

A work of fiction can get by with very rare monsters, just one site of adventure, or even just one adventure - because the whole thing is a massive railroad. I've tried playing Lord of the Rings like a Fighting Fantasy gamebook, but I still haven’t got the bit where I can make a decision. A fantasy world made for fiction can have a more convincing veneer of ‘realism’ because most of the world can be filled with the mundane. Adventure doesn’t need to be everywhere, it doesn’t need to be in lots of places, it just needs to be in the one place the characters go.

They've taken the railroad to Isengard! To Isengard! To Isengard!

A game such as D&D needs adventure to be everywhere. It needs to be in enough places that the exercise of player character ‘freedom’ does not depend on quantum dungeons appearing wherever the players go, or years of in-game mundanity while the player characters traverse the world without coming across the Lair of the Spider Queen, or the Crypts of the Last Men, or… These travels might involve peril, even opportunities for interesting roleplay, but not for fantasy adventure.

In the end we are back to my post on Titan – and I promise to switch to another topic soon; we’ve been playing using the elegant mechanics of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but with the tone of the game taken from D&D read through Titan – which in summary, even if you don’t like adventurers as ‘rock stars’, is that a world for fantasy adventure needs to be a world packed with fantasy adventure. If accurately representing medieval demographics, economics, politics etc. gets in the way of this, then these have to be done away with. OR, the inconsistencies have to be glossed over – this is the cost of playing a fantasy adventure game in a pseudo-historical setting.     

Thursday, 13 September 2012

This used to be a place...

Chris Kutalik of Hill Cantons has written a couple of posts [here and here] ostensibly talking about Greyhawk’s population density, and comparing it to what we know of Medieval Europe. Shorter: Greyhawk is largely empty, at least given the demographics that Gygax proposed. Whatever Gygax’s intentions – and it seems to me that Greyhawk is intended to be much more populated, settled and civilized than the population densities imply – this produces a suitably post/near apocalyptic world, in which settled peoples are living on a knife edge, in which to play D&D style games.

Why is this world covered in ruins and packed with lost treasure? Why are all the lords 9th level fighters, all the archbishops 9th level clerics, in a world/system in which that degree of advancement can only be gained by a life of great danger? Why is there anything adventuresome at all for lowly 1st level characters to do? Well, as Edgar Johnson says in the comments, “this used to be a place once, but now it's not”, which is the best summary of what a D&Dish setting should be. Sure, for a game in which character advancement can be achieved by engaging in diplomatic plots, or subtle schemes, etc., a well settled, civilized place is fine. But if the game system describes a world in which personal (and political) power is derived (only) from adventuring, from risking great danger and looting the remains of dead societies, the world that accompanies such a system needs to be one of ‘howling emptiness’.

This is what is wrong with Mystara as a D&D setting (even as Mystara is lots of fun, and a perfectly decent setting for a system that doesn’t rely on the same method of character advancement) – so much civilization makes D&Dish adventuring implausible. Most fantasy settings are too settled, indeed, it is one of the mistakes I almost always make when engaging in world building (embryonic worlds that mutate and are reborn with each campaign re-setting TPK). That is why I wrote myself a Titanic Lesson Plan – with point 5 “Pay no attention to real medieval settlement patterns. Civilisation exists as pockets of light amid the fantastical peril. Culture can vary tremendously within a short distance - European inspired fantasy can sit alongside fantastical names inspired by a trip to Thailand”. I did this to remind myself that in order to remind myself that I’m not writing novels, I’m creating the locations for fantasy adventure gaming, and ‘game’ has different demands to ‘story’. The setting has to fit the game, and if the game is D&D…

Adventurer, Conqueror, Queen? They look like late 1980s, early 1990s D&D adventurers, don't they?