Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Little John for AFF

I recently finished watching series 2 of the 1980s TV series Robin of Sherwood. I was overjoyed when I found that all the episodes were available on ITV Encore, and pretty dejected when, after finishing series 2 which I had downloaded, I found that none of the series were currently available. So no Jason Connery.

Watching the first two series did remind me of just how much of my imagination of the ‘fantastical’ has been shaped by Robin of Sherwood. In fact, I’d say that the lingering mid-1980s influences on my imagination are Robin of Sherwood, Fighting Fantasy, and 2000AD. I won’t be able to shake these, ever.

So, Fighting Fantasy and Robin of Sherwood? Why not? I know that Dragon Warriors is often described as evoking that Robin of Sherwood feel, and dates to the right period of UK gaming. Indeed Legend is a fantastic pseudo-historical medieval game world. But Dragon Warriors is a class-based system, and worse (for our purposes here) its classes are not generic ‘roles’ but are fairly specifically fixed in the fiction, if that makes any sense. In Basic D&D, for example, Fighter can be anything from a knight, to an outlaw, to a barbarian, to a samurai, etc. Fighter, to some degree, represents an area of expertise, not a particular profession or social role. Knight and Barbarian, the Dragon Warriors ‘fighting’ classes, however, are much more specific, the theme built into them from the start. Yes, I know that the Player’s Guide includes new classes, specifically Hunter, Knave, and Priest, which would fill out Robin’s Merry Men very well, but I am still unsure as to how I feel about the additions in that book – I worry that it will be for me what Unearthed Arcana is for AD&D grognards.

Anyhow, how would be build Robin’s Merry Men in AFF2e? Let’s start with a simple one. No, not Much! Little John (as played by Clive Mantle).

When ‘modelling’ a character in AFF2e it is best to work backwards. Forget SKILL, STAMINA, and LUCK for a moment, and start by considering what this characters Talent(s) will be. What will make them unique: a Hero rather than an NPC who needs only SKILL and STAMINA as their mechanical presence.

Of course, Little John would have ‘Strongarm’.

With regard to Special Skills, I’m going to (more or less) build these characters as if they are starting Heroes. Beginning Heroes in AFF2e are powerful characters, certainly on a par with an PC from an Expert Set D&D campaign. So Little John’s Special Skills would look like this:

Bows 1, Brawling 2, Staves 2, Strength 2, Swords 1
Climb 1
Awareness 2
English 4, Forest Lore 1, Hunting 1, Religion 1, Secret Signs 1, World Lore 1

It occurred to me as I assigned the points to these starting Special Skills that, were I do develop my pseudo-historical AFF game properly I would need ‘packages’ of skills representing social class, culture, or profession. Or maybe two of these, layered on top. What a peasant knows (and knows how to do) is very different from what a noble knows. While this can be done by players taking care over their Special Skill choices, this involves spending more time on character creation, involves asking players to understand the system a little, and the setting. Better, I feel, to present them with packages, as Daniel Sell has done in Troika!

The same is true for the ‘racial’ stat ‘bonuses’ – in AFF2e these each race is given, effectively, an extra point in their basic stats according to whether a Hero is Human, Dwarf, or Elf. In an all-human game, adding an extra point to every Hero’s LUCK seems pretty pointless. Where that extra ‘point’ is assigned ought be either a decision for the player, or enforced by a thematic ‘package’. This extra point could even be an extra Talent in some cases – after all, the ‘demi-humans’ get a free ‘Dark Seeing’ Talent.

So, I’ve given Little John the Dwarf’s +2 to STAMINA, giving him a character sheet which looks as so:

Hero: Little John (Player: Clive Mantle)



Talent: Strongarm

Special Skills
Bows 1, Brawling 2, Staves 2, Strength 2, Swords 1
Climb 1
Awareness 2
English 4, Forest Lore 1, Hunting 1, Religion 1, Secret Signs 1, World Lore 1

Treasure: 2d6 silver pennies

Provisions: 2

1 Quarterstaff
2 Sword
3 Dagger
4 Long Bow
5 Quiver w. 20 Arrows
6 Furs+Leathers (treat as ‘Leather Cuirass’)

You will see that I have simply assigned him appropriate equipment, and if we did play we would be using the ‘silver standard’. While we’re on the subject of equipment, I am thinking of adopting the neat little encumbrance and item retrieval system from Troika! But more on that another time.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

AFF: The Three Stats, and the Role of the Fourth

A brief discussion on G+ got me thinking; what would I have to do to use the Advanced Fighting Fantasy ‘engine’ for genres other than the high-ish fantasy of Titan. Obviously, the gamebooks covered lots of ground here, with sci-fi, post-apocalypse, superheroes, and horror, as well as slightly different takes on the fantasy of Titan. Sometimes these played straight with the Fighting Fantasy system, but on other occasions they added in a new mechanic; FEAR, EVIL, FAITH, HONOUR etc. were all added to provide a mechanic that stressed a particular theme.

As I thought about it, I felt that a lot could be done simply by renaming the traditional three statistics. So, for a pulpy game, rather than SKILL, STAMINA, and LUCK, you could have COMPETENCE, GRIT, and FORTUNE. Of course, you wouldn’t have to rename *any* of these, but by renaming them you send a particular set of messages to the players (and you remind yourself) as to the genre expectations.

COMPETENCE I like as it captures what SKILL really means when it comes to PC Heroes, and disassociates it from Special Skills. It is easier (for me) to think of COMPETENCE as being something similar to ‘Level’, with Special Skills representing particular areas of training. It would also make it easier for me to explain that someone with a Special Skill rating of 4 is much better trained than someone with a Special Skill rating of 1, but that when it comes down to testing those skills when under fire from a Nazi agent wielding a tommy gun, well, then COMPETENCE matters.

I like GRIT, not only as it seems genre appropriate, but because it is easier to narrate the loss of GRIT when being shot at (but not struck), when missing sleep, or hungry, or when psychologically harmed.

FORTUNE? Well, FORTUNE is only in there as I thought I’d best change all three, as LUCK seems perfectly fine for a pulp game. However, as I mused over the possible alternative names for LUCK, I did find the perfect name for it in a ‘Dark Ages’ themed game: WYRD.

And then there is the fourth stat – the default of which is MAGIC – which is acts to add mechanical weight to the genre’s themes. A fourth stat isn’t strictly needed. AFF runs just fine with warrior/rogue type Heroes with not a point in MAGIC, but the presence of a fourth stat does allow a bit more variation in point distribution when making PC Heroes. But more than that, having a fourth box labelled MAGIC, FAITH, SPIRIT, EVIL, CORRUPTION, HONOR, SANITY, PSYCHIC POWER, etc., produces expectations of a particular type of game – that in this setting, in this campaign, these are important enough to be removed from being governed by SKILL, STAMINA, LUCK, Special Skills, and Director fiat. Rather, these are a source of a power, or weakness, and will figure in the adventures of these Heroes.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Tasting Systems, and Taste In Systems

Wherein I think, again, about what I look for in a game:

With a little idle time, I figured that I’d roll up a Dark Heresy 1e character and play through the introductory adventure, solo, as some kind of ‘proof of principle’. And perhaps a ‘rehearsal’ for trying out the game with my group. As a taster.

And it taught me that my prejudice [1] matched the reality; *for me*, Dark Heresy is simply too fiddly, it would not work for my players, and I can no longer imagine having the ‘headspace’ required by this game to do the kind of worldbuilding on the fly necessary for allowing proper player/character freedom. Also, the introductory adventure sucks. Well, I didn't play right through it, but the introduction to the introductory adventure sucks.

Why does it suck? The same reasonthe WFRP2e introductory adventure sucks, and why Caravan, one of the RQ6 introductory adventuresucks. And that is; introducing an RPG with a series of scenes in which the players make no real choices, and make dice rolls that have no consequences is a demonstration of literally the opposite of the exciting and unique features of RPGs: freedom and consequence! 

As I played the introductory adventure, in the admittedly slightly absurd situation of my GM-self narrating scenes to my Player-self with his rolled up Cleric ‘Wolfe Nihilius’, I got very bored. And annoyed. Annoyed because a skill based game ought not ask for skill tests that are not consequential; it is terrible ‘training’ for a GM. 

But this got me thinking. If I couldn't see myself running Dark Heresy, why was that? What do I run? Why do I run those games? What did this bad taste in my mouth tell me about my palette, the tastes that I have acquired over years of gaming. This not to denigrate Dark Heresy, but ask; what do I look for in an RPG? So, here, in order, as I drank a cup of tea looking at the front cover of Dark Heresy, is what I came up with:
  1. Fast character creation – players should be able to get into playing pretty quickly. This is usually coupled with pretty straightforward character sheets – if it can fix on an index card, all the better. This allows replacement PCs to be created quickly, new players to join, and suggests a system in which system mastery is not required. Plus, if I have people coming round to play and RPG, then we want to play that night, not next week. So definitely no ‘session 1 = character creation’!
  2. Fast ‘world’ creation – it should be fairly straightforward to ‘eyeball’ the necessary stats and mechanics for an NPC, a monster, or an environmental hazard. If this is possible, a GM can offer all kinds of choices to the players and their characters. 
  3. Simple, straightforward systems to resolve action, or, even better, a system that ‘permits’ ad hoc resolutions. I know that no game can ‘refuse’, but if it is in the ‘spirit’ of the game to simply roll a d6, eyeball a percentage chance, or test an attribute, etc. as and when necessary, this facilitates fast, intuitive play. As with points 1 and 2, this suggests a system in which the game is in player interaction with the world, not with the system.
  4. Relatively flat character progression – for two reasons: 1/ I want things that are threatening, powerful, etc. at the start of a game to remain relevant once the campaign is established, and 2/ I want to be able to replace PCs which die or 'leave the story', accommodate irregular players, and add new players to the game without too much ‘fudging’.
  5.  A game in which setbacks are possible, even expected, as well as advancement; in other words, in which PCs deteriorate as well as improve. Examples of this would be games with a wound system, games with sanity or corruption systems, and games in which the expected ‘rhythm’ of adventures means that aging etc. comes into play. This also includes systems in which it is in keeping with the spirit of the game for the PCs to (preferably as a consequence of their own decisions) to lose everything, their magic items, their wealth, their space ship, etc.
  6.  A game that eschews fiddly book-keeping. With my group, this is not much fun, just work. But I do want the resources that matter to matter mechanically. I am increasingly drawn to abstract resource management systems, so that such considerations are still part of the game, still part of player decision-making,  but that it is not a case of tracking every arrow, torch, coin, and ration.
  7. A system that presents the tools for sandbox play. For me, these tools come in two forms: 1/ Procedures for handling player/character-driven (off plot, so to speak) adventuring. Encounter tables, reaction rolls, and treasure tables are all useful here. 2/ Procedures that allowing the characters to properly interact with the world and - importantly - become more powerful outside of the personal mechanics of levels, magic items, hit points etc. Here I’m thinking about faction rules, trading rules, rules for holdings and dominions, etc.  

Apologies for all this thinking aloud, reminding myself of what works for me and what, despite temptation, I ought steer clear.

[1]Why, if these are my prejudices, do I own Dark Heresy? Hell, I don’t just own Dark Heresy, but the core books for all the games in the 40k RPG line! Because I would like to run a game in a crumbling Gothic science-fantasy space empire. Just not with these systems.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain for AFF2e

This is not a review. It wouldn’t be fair to review an adventure that I have not run. This is a very short piece to note that, by the evidence of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the graphic design standards of Arion’s AFF2e line have come on in leaps and bounds.

One criticism that has been levelled at AFF2e, and particularly the core rulebook, is that the design and layout is not up to standard. That there were entirely blank pages in a couple of places was a particularly egregious example. See,for an example, Dyson Logo’s mini-review. But note what he has to say that is positive about the game as a game, and remember, I wouldn’t have, in recent years, run more AFF2e than any other system if I didn’t tremendously enjoy it.

An aside: In part, this post is inspired by the arrival, just this morning, of Arion’s republishing of Titan and Out of the Pit. I hadn’t bought these yet because I already own copies of the originals published by Puffin. Of course I did. Importantly, I own Titan in the original larger format, and can confirm that the Arion publication has a layout that is almost identical to that of the original. Some of the art has ‘faded’, and a couple of items of ‘page furniture’ have shrunk, but otherwise it is a faithful reproduction. I suspect the same is the case for Out of the Pit, but I only have a very battered / well-loved paperback sized version so can’t compare. This is just to say that the ‘boring’ two column layout is a legacy of the original books.

Here is a comparison of pages from the Puffin and Arion publications of Titan:

But this post isn’t about those books, but The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. I confess that I bought this ages ago. While I have run the Crown of Kings adventures, I’ve never done more than read The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. But what did strike me, from when it first arrived, is the way in which the graphic design has improved immensely, while keeping with the general style. Have a look at a few pages from the book to see what I mean.

The art from the book is mostly well-reproduced, the ‘page furniture’ is well done, there are some fantastic page borders, a new map of the Pagan Plains, and the character portraits for the pre-gens perfectly in keeping with the Fighting Fantasy aesthetic. I’m not a big fan of the computer-produced dungeon maps, but that's a personal preference, and they are certainly serviceable.

Congratulations to Graham Bottley, and especially to Brett Schofield, for ‘translating’ the gamebook into AFF2e and providing some good quality art that fits in nicely alongside Russ Nicholson’s original illustrations.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Gaming in 2017 starts with a... meh!

Bank Holiday Monday, I gave my wife some quiet time and headed up to my Mum's with a stack of boardgames (and the girls, who were happy with Matilda on DVD).

Why did I choose Zombies!!!?

From this stack we choose - as my Mum and sister have been binging on series one, two, and three of The Walking Dead - to play Zombies!!! To no great satisfaction. Unlike so many contemporary games, Zombies!!! has the potential to drag on, and on, and on. Perhaps this is an accurate simulation of a zombie apocalypse, as the initial excitement fades into the routine of survival. Or not. In order that no player is eliminated from the game (unlike, say Monopoly, which not only drags, but also leaves so many players spectators as the end game runs on forever), in Zombies!!! a player whose 'shotgun guy' dies simply respawns at the starting point. Which, again, simulates good zombie apocalypse strategies - increasingly distant 'patrols', returning to base when short of resources or needing a rest. Not tremendously fun, though.

Now, I have played in pretty fun games of Zombies!!!, but this isn't the first time that the game has played out in this fashion. So much of Zombies!!! depends on the way in which the map tiles are drawn, and laid out. In this game, quite by accident, we ended up with an almost entirely linear map, meaning that any feeling of exploration was lost, replaced by something that felt more like zombie snakes and ladders. This is made worse as all the buildings containing special items we down one long 'zombie highway', meaning that the weapons and other items that tip the balance in favour of the 'shotgun guys' were very difficult to get, and keep.

Oh, and we also rolled terribly, more than once players lost their 'shotgun guy' from a pretty good, well resourced position after rolling a series of 1s and 2s.

Given that the game ended with all of us barely interested, and quite relieved when my brother announced he was off to the pub to watch West Ham v Man U, well, on this play alone I could only give Zombies!!! one braaaaain out of five.