Thursday, 23 May 2019

AFF: Your Adventure Starts Here (Part One)

I picked up the Advanced Fighting Fantasy (AFF) 2e rulebook with a view to, as promised, write a 'review'. I could write a chapter by chapter description of the content, but that wouldn't be all that much help. And I realised that it is actually quite difficult it is to write a 'review' of a book with which you are intimately familiar, as surprise and novelty that highlights in your mind the distinctive features of the book have long faded. 

So let's start at the beginning. 'Fighting Fantasy' is the name of a series of gamebooks. You know this. But keep it in mind when thinking about the mechanics of Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2e. A Fighting Fantasy gamebook character sheet looks like this:

Just a handful of characteristics, SKILL, STAMINA, and LUCK, a space to write down your characters' equipment, their gold, and their Provisions. And that's enough for perfectly usable 'lite' multiplayer game, especially back in 1984 when 'Fighting Fantasy: the Introductory Role-playing Game' was released. As the gamesbooks had introduced a generation (in the UK and beyond) to fantasy gaming, chances were that anyone up for playing Fighting Fantasy as a tabletop RPG was already familiar with the rules and jargon. 

Advanced Fighting Fantasy adds to character complexity. Obviously. When I'm flipping through a rulebook in my friendly neighbourhood hobby shop one of the first things I do is find the example character sheet. I'm of the opinion that character sheets are a good proxy for complexity/crunch, especially the degree of complexity that is 'player facing'. I tend to play with players who don't have a background in RPGs, so this matters to me.

Let's begin this series proper - a review of everything AFF2e - with a discussion of character creation. What makes an Advanced Fighting Fantasy character? 12 pages; character creation takes up 12 pages of the AFF2e core rulebook. Character creation in AFF2e is a process of design, not random generation[1]. There is an alternative method offered in Chapter 11 - Optional Rules that involves rolling and allocating dice to generate the basic stat-line and the number of Special Skill points available. Given the granularity of each step up in SKILL (or SKILL+Special Skill) I would hesitate to recommend this optional rule.

Starting characters (Heroes in AFF lingo) have a SKILL of between 4 and 7, STAMINA between 8 and 16, LUCK between 8 and 11, and MAGIC between 0 and 7. What do each of these mean? Well, putting it in terms familiar to players of the original fantasy RPG, STAMINA are equivalent to Hit Points, LUCK is something like a (finite) Saving Throw resource, and SKILL and MAGIC are... 

...well, it is best to think of these two characteristics as fulfilling the same role as the concept of 'Level'. Especially SKILL. A Hero with SKILL 7 is just much better at everything than a Hero with SKILL 4 - on an unmodified test the former succeeds 60% of the time and the latter just 20%. This applies to almost everything risky that the Hero might do. This strikes some people as being quite odd, even as their Level 7 Wizard has more Hit Points, a greater chance to hit, and far better saving throws that the professional soldiers they might hire as retainers. SKILL is a game abstraction, a measure of overall adventuring competence, and in my opinion AFF2e works better when you 'lean into' this idea.

MAGIC can be understood as something skin to 'casting level', acting as a measure of a Hero's competence and, depending on the type of magic, determining the size of the Hero's reservoir of magical power in the form of Magic Points (MP). It can also be used in place of SKILL when the test is of a Hero's knowledge (p55). If, as a Director (the AFF term for GM) you have players with Heroes with MAGIC higher than SKILL, it is worth thinking very liberally about this, and expanding this to any tasks for which knowledge, intelligence, insight etc. play a role that is as, or more, significant than physical attributes.    

Abstraction. Abstraction. Abstraction. Have I said it enough? MAGIC isn't intelligence, or wisdom, or willpower. SKILL isn't strength, or agility, or reaction speed, or hand-eye co-ordination. MAGIC and SKILL are all of those but also none of those. These scores are not in themselves descriptions of anything precise or concrete about the Hero. They are numbers that allows the player and Director to use an impartial dice roll to determine the outcome of risky situations.  
And LUCK. LUCK is the what I think of as the Fighting Fantasy characteristic. Above I likened it to a Saving Throw, as it is the characteristic that a Hero must test - via the iconic Test of LUCK - to avoid terrible consequences. But unlike Saving Throws (or SKILL, for that matter) it is a diminishing resource, being reduced by one each time it is called upon, regardless of success or failure. Taking a Test of LUCK is a choice made by the player; they can opt to take the consequences rather than tempt the patience of Sindla, Goddess of Luck and Fate. But as a choice, it can also be called upon, to maximise or minimise damage in combat, or in place of SKILL when a player wants to give their Hero the chance of succeeding through 'dumb luck'. As a Director, I encourage clever and inventive uses of LUCK. It is a diminishing resource which, unlike STAMINA, cannot be restored simply with a good night's sleep and chewing on a mouthful of preserved meat[2], so if a player is willing to spend their LUCK, let them.

Remember that I said that SKILL applies to almost everything? We've already seen where the 'almost' is to be found; that in certain circumstances a Hero might rely on their MAGIC or LUCK characteristics. But even when it is SKILL that is being tested, that's not the be all and end all. Not all situations are equal - the book provides a whole series of example modifiers to different types of SKILL tests (I'll discuss these later) - and not all Heroes are equal either. Some are especially skilled at the use of swords, or bows, or sneaking, or bargaining, or have knowledge of law, or religion, or inhuman languages, or, or, or... These distinctions are made by way of Special Skills. Which I'll discuss in the next post.


[1] I'm going to try to avoid getting side-tracked by discussions of the first edition of AFF, which did involve dice rolling in the generation of SKILL, STAMINA and LUCK. While understanding what didn't work well in AFF1e (and this is one thing that didn't) might help us understand certain design choices in AFF2e, it doesn't much help explain why YOU should be playing AFF2e now, in 2019.

[2] Regaining LUCK is not particularly well codified in the rulebook - p48 advises that Directors allow Heroes to regain their LUCK at the end of an adventure, and provides a few examples of exceptional events that might prompt to Director to award a point of LUCK. I have thought about having restoring LUCK during an adventure be dependent on a Hero taking the consequences of a player defined 'flaw' or 'trouble', to take a little inspiration from the appropriately named Fate RPG.  

Monday, 20 May 2019

Advanced Fighting Fantasy: Turn to 1

I am a massive fan of Fighting Fantasy. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was my entry point into adventure gaming, Titan was the first 'world book' I ever read, and I could (and do) spend hours poring over the monsters in Out of the Pit. Fighting Fantasy: The Introductory Roleplaying Game *might* have been (probably was) the first RPG I ever ran, and I picked up the original version of Advanced Fighting Fantasy at the same time I was playing Mentzer D&D and getting into, among other things, WFRP. 

If you search this blog, you'll find all too many entries on Fighting Fantasy - playthroughs of the gamebooks, discussions of how Titan has inspired/coloured my gaming, house rules for AFF2e (including my little 'supplement' Viscera!), and pages and pages of actual play reports.

But AFF doesn't get enough love, as far as I can see, so consider this the beginning of an Advanced Fighting Fantasy love-in. I'm going spend the next few posts reviewing the Advanced Fighting Fantasy books - obviously from the perspective of a (critical) fan. *And* I will start running a new campaign of AFF soon, too.

May your STAMINA never fail, but if it does Test Your LUCK!

First up (probably in multiple parts, as this will involve discussion of and reflection on game mechanics): the AFF2e core rulebook.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Sources of Power

As part of my job - I'm a sociologist - I was thinking about 'power' the other day... and I filed a way a few thoughts as to how this relates to roleplaying games. 

What are those numbers on the character sheet? They are the numbers that determine you PCs capacity to interact with the game world. What is power? Thinking about it (very!) simply, it is the capacity to bring your will to bear on the world. So what a character sheet is, mechanically, is a inventory of the sources of power available to a PC. It really can be that simple. And once you start thinking like that, the sources of power to which you assign a numerical value (or whatever, depending on the resolution system/s of your game) can be, well, *anything*. Give a score to one PC in Strength to exert power in the game world. Give another PC a score in Persuasion, and give a third PC a score in Patriotism, and the way in which those PCs are able to shape the game world, solve problems, approach the situations that you, as a GM place in front of them changes in dramatic and interesting ways.

Which is to say I'm finally working out what many other people have long before me, and is attracting me to games such as PDQ, Heroquest, and Fate (and FUDGE, which has long imagined that different PCs will have different stat lines), and thinking also about the ways in which I can bring this to bear on more 'traditional' games. 'Light' games, naturally - these thoughts are very closely related to the fact that I can't see myself having the time and energy to run 'crunchy' games any time soon.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Products of Your Imagination


Imagine that I had £80-£100 to spend on RPG books. Imagine that Runequest: Glorantha was oh so tempting.

But imagine.

Imagine that I own Heroquest: Glorantha.

Imagine that I also already owned Runequest. Runequests! Runequest 2. Runequest 3. Mongoose Runequest II. Runequest 6.

Imagine that I haven't played any of these Runequests in ages, and that when I have played d100 fantasy in the past few years it has been using OpenQuest and Magic World.

Imagine that this is a symptom of my changing tastes when it comes to the kind of games that I run. That I want to run. That I can *imagine* successfully running.

Imagine if you could sum this developing taste up as 'relatively rules-lite, mostly traditional, but curious about games such as Heroquest, Fate, PDQ etc.' Imagine that my preferred campaign mode is some kind of sandbox play.

Now, imagine that you share these tastes. How you would spend this money - even just some of this money - on RPGs to avoid adding another Runequest to your shelves, and please let me know.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

The Procedural Adventure Game

I'd just like to direct you all to John B's post on what he means by the term Adventure Games, which captures a lot of what keeps drawing me back to classic D&D/OSR based games *even though* I'm not the greatest fan of some aspects of the mechanics. The procedures built into the game create a certain rhythm from which a story of adventure emerges *after the fact*. Of course, there is no reason why you can't 'proceduralise' other games which concentrate most of their mechanical energy not on 'the adventure' but on the regulating PC actions - as John B has done with Mythras. Anyway, here's a passage I particularly liked: 

"The "adventure" then is not the narrative the player-characters flow through towards an inevitable climax and resolution, but the procession of problems, challenges, etc. they face; the decisions and deliberations they make about what to do about each problem or challenge; and the procedures they enact as part of those decisions, and the consequences of all the above interacting with one another."

Monday, 25 March 2019

Lack of Play / Let's Play!

I'm playing in a very good game of Scum and Villainy online - we manage a session once every three weeks or so. But gaming at home has seriously stalled. I'm going to need to run something myself, soon. And I'll have to make the jump to running a game online.

I love GMing, but I have, until now, only run games for people who I already know. Running a game for a group of strangers is different. Running a game for a group of strangers who I'm not going to sit down at a physical table with and establish the rapport that will, hopefully, have them forgive my missteps, mistakes, the occasional bad session, etc. is another thing entirely.

But I should jump in to test the water, finally. I'll probably run Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2e, because PCs start competent and robust and so we'll not end with a session 1 TPK, and because it is so spectacularly straightforward to run we won't end up digging through books looking for the correct procedure. If in doubt, roll 2d6 and interpret the results!
Who would be up for this? In order for it to work for me it'd be best to play on Monday evenings, probably starting about 8:30pm [edit: GMT]. I'd plump for an 'Allansian sandbox' campaign, but happy to go for other flavours, perhaps Stellar Adventures, in fact. I know that's a pretty empty pitch, but just gauging interest - if there are takers we could start next week, or in a fortnight. 

Leo Hartas' lovely colour map of Allansia

[Addendum: Click on the Advanced Fighting Fantasy 'label' to see actual play reports from previous games as well as my thoughts on how to best GM games using the system, and other miscellanea.] 

Monday, 4 March 2019

How To Resolve Everything That Comes Up

The older I get, the less tolerance I have for crunch, even if I do sometimes have flashbacks to teenage fantasies of having a table at which a game in which weapon length, height, weight, incremental fatigue, etc. were all incorporated into a smooth running game. I want quick systems that arbitrate the move from player choice to consequences - which for me is the crux of the gaminess of role-playing games.

Anyway, I recently came across a post (from last November) on The Borderlands entitled How To Resolve Everything That Comes Up, and basically, "yes". In fact, I've said it before, I think, somewhere, in different words, that the 2d6 Reaction Roll system is THE lost universal D&D arbitration system. I wasn't the first, of course. 

So: the players have made a choice and it is not clear what the outcome must be? Let the dice decide. Decide what would be the worst possible outcome, the best possible outcome, roll 2d6, add or subtract 1, 2 or in extreme circumstances 3 for all the factors reckoning into the disposition of the situation, do the same for PC actions (default to Ability Score modifiers) and interpret the result. 

One of the great joys of returning to Classic D&D and its variants a few years ago was using tools such as the reaction roll, random encounter tables, and morale rules and feeling much more like I was also playing the game, not simply running a game for other people. Creative interpretation of the results of simple dice rolls is one of the key skills, and prime pleasures, of Old School games mastering. 

Oh. I've kind of spoiled Steve's post. Head there anyway, he has it laid out in a well presented table!

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Life Among the Ruins

As a result of my boundless vanity, I occasionally check out from where the few hits of my blog come from. This doesn't take too long. The other day I noticed a few hits coming from a really interesting post by Joseph Manola titled "OSR aesthetics of ruin". It is a few years old, but I really recommend that you read it. I was busy cutting quotes from it to post here, but found that what I would have ended up doing was repeating almost all of it back to you. So read it! 

So what I will add is that the comments Jean-Francois Lebreton recommends the paintings of life in the ruins of Rome by Hubert Robert and... wow! This stuff amazing - ripe for providing the visuals of a great FRPG setting. And, from this pointer, I found that there is a whole style of painting called Capriccio -  "architectural fantasy, placing together buildings, archaeological ruins and other architectural elements in fictional and often fantastical combinations". I could see an entire OSR-game (or other game in which exploration was a key game 'mode') built around Capriccio.

View of the Port of Rippeta in Rome - Hubert Robert

A Capriccio of the Roman Forum - Giovanni Paolo Panini

Arches in ruins and Hecuba’s vengeance over Polymestor - Viviano Codazzi

And more, and more, and more. 

Friday, 15 February 2019

Monday, 4 February 2019

Bedtime Stories - playing Fate with the kids

Did our bedtime stories game go well? Well, the girls (7 and 9) seemed to enjoy it? R played May, daughter of the Witch Queen (R later said that May rarely used her full name; May Corpse-Death), and J played Pearl, warrior princess of the Crystal Castle.

I plumped for Fate Accelerated as the system as, despite being unfamiliar with *actually running* Fate, I figured that it would be the one of the best way to create characters for people who are not going to get to grips with the mechanical bits and bobs of chargen, or the constraints involved into fitting a character concept into the boxes of archetypes, classes, or even good old fashioned skill lists. Asking a kid questions such as "Who are you?" "Why do you get into trouble?" and "Tell me one more important thing about your character", to generate Aspects, followed by, "How does your character solve problems?" to assign scores to Approaches is about as total newbie friendly as it can get.

One thing that both of them instinctively got was Compels - in fact, they were always looking for ways in which their Aspects could complicate their plans (and so get them another Fate point to pile in front of themselves). This, of course, is just an extension and formalisation of their usual make-believe (role) play; without the background in rules-based games in which the goal is to mitigate weaknesses and maximise chances of success, 'making the game more fun' by suggesting that the Witch Queen might show up, or that the fact that Pearl is hot-headed and always getting into fights simply seemed obvious.     

They also seemed far more open to approaches to problem-solving / encounter resolution that perhaps wouldn't occur to more experienced gamers. For example, they met Sir Percival at the ford across the Rainbow River, who challenged Pearl to a contest of arms. Pearl managed to get a "success with style", which we worked out as granting the Boost "knocked back into the shallows". Rather than follow this up with another physical attack, J decided that Pearl would brow-beat Percival with a "don't you know who my mother is" speech and invoked the Boost which took Sir Percival out of the fight.

I played a bit fast and loose with the rules - in part because I didn't really know what I was doing and in part because I was running a 'bedtime story'. One thing that I'll have to reconcile if I'm running Fate for adults is my 'old school' instinct to run a non-combat/non-physical peril encounter without calling for the dice, and to make use of what a game like Fate offers and play out these scenes making use of the Aspects, Fate Points etc. An example of this was when May bumped into her mother, the Witch Queen, in the Bone Orchard, and ended up in a very teenage "you're not the boss of me!" argument. R came up with some great "attacks", and it seemed entirely appropriate to run this is a "combat", especially as to not do so would be to privilege physical combat as *the* game. It's even more clear to me now that Fate (and a few other games with some 'familial resemblance') would be great for running games in which there is nothing recognisable as combat or even peril in traditional RPG terms. 

Perhaps more importantly, I need to work on getting the "opposition" right mechanically - both in terms of Aspects and ratings on paper and the way in which they are played at the table. How do I represent Sir Percival? The Witch Queen? Bardon's Bandits? But perhaps more importantly; When do they create advantage? When do they concede? When do they use Fate Points? Things were probably *mechanically* a little too easy. This will come with practice.

But it was FUN. My wife told me later that she'd be listening from the other room and had been really impressed with how engaged and excited the girls had been. We'll definitely be playing again - there is  Dragon to meet, after all.   

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Bedtime Stories

Rugby has been cancelled - frozen pitch (don't think any games in the Yorkshire leagues were on today), so I've had a fair few 'extra' hours today. So I promised to run Fate Accelerated as a bedtime story for the girls. This is as far as my prep has got - hoping to get an Adventure Time, MLP, Steven Universe type atmosphere from the game.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Having fun storming the castle. Or: "Stop describing deathtraps with popcorn in your mouth!"

I've been looking through my draft folder. This 'draft' was something that I'd left as just a title in 2013! Over 5 years ago. So I'm not sure what I was planning to write here, but it sounds like the gaming was good - we were in the middle of the Crown of Kings adventure for Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2e, so I'm guessing I was planning to write about the Heroes' exploration of the fortress of Mampang. 

It does, however, give me an excuse to recommend a couple of posts on adventure design and communicating information to players through the games master

The first is actually a series of posts by Courtney Campbell of Hack and Slash on 'Gygax Design'. Actually, it doesn't hurt to start with 'On Gygax Design IV' which discusses the concision of early modules and compares this to the increasingly wordy adventures that came after. I'll let Courtney speak for himself - go and read his blog:

As I was saying the other day, one of the things that the OSR has done well is recover the idea that the purpose of RPG books is that they are useful

The second post I'd like to recommend is on David McGrogan's Monsters and Manuals, and discusses the infodump, the fourth wall, and immersion in story and setting. It is related to Courtney's post, of course, in that it implies that as GMs (and, as adventure designers, even if only for ourselves) we need to think properly about the way in which we communicate. McGrogan is, of course, the creator of Yoon-Suin, an OSR setting which I think is a good example of a way in which information can be presented in a gameable way.

Monday, 28 January 2019

OSR: Other Systems Required

One of the things that got me so excited when I returned to playing RPGs was that there was - and still is - so much creativity in the OSR-space. What the OSR has been very good at is producing material that can be used directly at the table. That creativity spans adventures (for example, the Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventures, the Hill Cantons stuff), settings (the Midderlands, a Red and Pleasant Land, Yoon-Suin, etc.) and tools such as the Sine Nomine sandbox 'machinery'. And that last 'name-drop' is so important - the foregrounding of the player-directed exploration game - the sandbox - over the GM-directed plotted game is one of the strengths of the OSR, to my mind. Of course, the OSR isn't immune to Sturgeon's Law -  there is a lot of dross - but there is so much absolutely excellent stuff that made use of the *common language* of class, level, HP, AC, etc.

But that doesn't mean that OSR stuff need be played using a TSR-D&D inspired 'class and level' system, does it? Now, I am a MASSIVE fan of the TSR-D&D game engine, so why might I want to use a different system? Depends on the mood and circumstances. Perhaps I want a crunchier, grittier game - in my stable of RPGs that'd involve using a BRP-based game or WFRP. Perhaps I have fewer players and want a game that can sidestep the expectation that the adventuring unit is a party with a spread a classes - in which case, as well as the above, my shelves might suggest Advanced Fighting Fantasy or perhaps even Barbarians of Lemuria. Perhaps the nature of our gaming group means that the slow level progression of TSR-D&D, or conversely, issues of substantial power increases as PCs move through the levels means that we need something with a flatter 'power curve'. Or perhaps, as GM, I just want to try out some nifty game system that isn't particularly new, but is new to me - such as Fate, PDQ, or Heroquest.

But I want to have my cake and eat it, obviously.

Now, I've run TSR-D&D/OSR material with only light adaptation using BRP (Magic World, in particular) and AFF. I know that people run 'Expert' tier (levels 4-12) D&D modules using Barbarians of Lemuria. I know that there is an amazingly thorough adaptation of Night's Dark Terror to WFRP1e over at Awesome Lies. So I know using OSR material with other systems can be done successfully: I've done this with some success, I know that you've done it with some success. But I would love to hear what people have done in this vein - what systems have you used, how did this change the game at the table, what worked, what failed, and how successful have been your attempts to use systems that diverge from the 'trad' assumptions within which I have almost exclusively gamed?

Friday, 25 January 2019

The Grog Pod

Found in my 'Draft' folder - this is probably about two years old:

"For the past few months I've been 'commuting' by train or car between my new home in Yorkshire and Cardiff, where I work. Until next week, at least...

Anyway, the long drives have given me the opportunity to listen to a few podcasts, something that I hadn't really done before. One that I've found particularly fun has been The Grognard Files,"

And that is where I left it. At that comma. I obviously wanted to say something more, something about how much I have enjoyed listening to The Grognard Files. And the instinct is just as true now. In fact, it is more true - while early Grog Pods were a nostalgic exploration of the UK gaming scene of the 1980s, of late the Grogs have been exploring newer games, including some with quite different design philosophies to (A)D&D, Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, Traveller etc. from 'back in the day'. I really need to get round to listening to their take on Heroquest (the RPG rather than the MB/GW boardgame), as it is just the kind of more narrative-y (that's not exactly what *I* mean, but it is the best word I can come up with right now) game that I'd like to wrap my head around - alongside games such as Fate and PDQ - especially as I went out and bought myself Heroquest: Glorantha and the 2-part Red Cow campaign. Hearing old grogs like Dirk getting to grips with a system like Heroquest might help me, just a little bit.

So I recommend a listen. But you've probably all already subscribed - when I started the draft I've just found The Grognard Files was a few podcasts old. I might have known about something before you did! But now, with 26 episodes (assuming this doesn't linger in my 'Draft' folder for another year or two), a successful convention, a 'zine, they hardly need a boost from a slowly re-animating blog.

Nevertheless - I raise my hat in appreciation.   

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Roll for System Shock!

[A wizard did it]

In AD&D, you'd have to roll for 'System Shock' when resurrecting a character. I don't feel like I've lost a point of CON though...

This blog has been, if not dead, then very nearly dead for some time now. One measly post in 2018! And that was mostly to say you could watch me play rugby on live TV! 

Obviously I haven't been playing much. And, until recently, not all that much had changed since that post way back in spring 2018. Well, I am playing now - and as a player no less! - in an online game of Scum and Villainy. 

Playing in a game, rather than running a game, has allowed me to realise a few things. First is that any complaints that I might have about my players not learning the rules are a little hypocritical. I have the rulebook, I skim the pdf on my tablet, but without the responsibility for running the game looming on the horizon I have been able to get by thinking more about my character in the game world (Finn 'Vapour' Dyson, pilot of the Lazy Susan) than how the rules work. I wouldn't say that Scum and Villainy is a game that 'leans invisible', to borrow from S John Ross, but our GM Orlanth Rex has at the very least done the heavy lifting that allows me to concentrate my 'tactical play' on the decisions in the game world rather than on decisions in the game system

I other words, I have been allowed o enjoy roleplaying without the responsibility to do anything other than 'play well'. But scratching an itch rarely gets rid of the itch - often you just need to scratch more- and it has led me to wanting to jump back into DMing, GMing, Refereeing, Directing, whatever term you might prefer. So I think I'll have to start my own online game (or games), with people who have the patience for an out-of-practice games master with a preference for games from the lighter end of the crunch spectrum.  

So, consider me resurrected.