Thursday, December 18, 2014

A solution to echoing empty rooms in a dungeon

Some people might remember that I have written before about the empty dungeon. For some people that is not a problem. They like the exploration of the dungeon environment to be a resource management challenge. Personally I like the idea of the challenge, but I have been thinking of "compressing" the experience a bit. If nothing else, it's variation. Right?

Ken St. Andre posted this on his blog a while ago. I had opened it in a tab on my browser and did not get around to reading it for real until now. That is a neat idea on how to do the "compressing" of your dungeon.

For those who want the executive summary, the idea is to make each room a index card, shuffle and deal a matrix of cards and those are the levels of your dungeon. Nice idea.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Old D&D editions and clones - Brave Halfling's Delving Deeper

As some of you might be aware, the delivery of the Brave Halfling boxed set edition of Delving Deeper was a long and miserable story. But, it arrived in the end and it was not a disappointment.

Now, there are nothing here to really excite me. I must admit that first of all. The game is not like LotfP or Ambition & Avarice. But, it does not try to be. Delving Deeper is trying to be faithful to the OD&D edition, and does a decent job of it. I guess you can split hairs and list all the differences, but let us not forget they have to differ from the original game for legal reasons! If OD&D is your kind of flavour, this is not a bad clone to pick up. When I compare it to the original it feels quite close actually. In some cases more close than e.g. Swords & Wizardry Whitebox (which I will write about at a later date).

The first thing that strike me is the pretty box. The front illustration is excellent, and filed with action. Nasty monsters fighting dungeon delvers, it's right there on the tin, so to speak. I really like Mark Allen's artwork and I like the uniformity it gives the game. One nice thing is the amount of illustrations in the monster book.

Having mentioned the books I guess I have to mention that this edition is not three small booklets. It's five books, but in the books "Volume I", "Volume II" and "Volume III" are mentioned, which looks confusing. I like that there's a book for players and one for referees. I'm less thrilled with a whole book of treasures. So often those books are just rehashes of "classic D&D items", i.e. boring retreads of Gary's campaign. A booklet with random tables for generating new content for both monsters and treasure would be my choice. I did say something about this not being intended to be what LotfP is, right? Maybe I should appreciate this for what it is.

The rules for naval combat, aerial exploration and wilderness exploration are compact but looks usable. Probably the only rules for building fortifications I'd ever use would have to be short! That is the feeling about almost everything in this game. It's to the point, solid and usable. I might actually go for this game for the same reason I go for my BRP book, it's simple and workmanlike, even though it lacks bennies, card based initiative and new exciting mechanics. It almost wins me over by not even trying to be selling itself.

One little sweet thing included in the box (did I say I love the box?), is the Blackmarsh setting by Robert Conley. Very classic, with a lot of the feel you get from looking at a map of Blackmoor. It guess that is not a coincidence. It became available before the game arrived at my doorstep, so I got it and for a while entertained the idea of playing Heroes and Other Worlds in that setting. That never came to be, but it is a good canvas for adventure. I'm not sure I'm all done with the sandbox settings of Robert Conley yet! Delving Deeper is not a bad rules set for exploring something like that. It's basic, but that's the point.

Now where do I have my graph paper, pencils and hex paper?

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Bethorm - making the first character

What a better way to get to know a rules set, and to get a feel for the book than to make a character! I took the dive, and Biyúnu hiViridáme was the result. Here are some thoughts that arose through the process.

There are eight different sections in chapter three, character generation.
  1. Clan
  2. Personal Info
  3. Religion
  4. Attributes
  5. Personal Traits
  6. Skills 
  7. Defence Values
  8. Contacts
I find it interesting that stats or attributes come first on the fourth step. So, first it starts with your clan. Anyone who knows even a little about Tekumel knows that its social structure is not like your pseudo medieval fantasy at all. The individual is not the central social unit, but the clan. Here is the first step wherein you have to start looking ahead in the book, and then go back again. You have a attribute called Prestige, and it's a sum of your clan influence, and your professional influence. But, you wont know the latter until much later in the procedure. To be fair, this is actually noted in the rules, that you will have to go back and forth a bit.

The step where you note down your personal information is where the prudes and close minded people who raged about D&D5 and its gender and race inclusiveness gets to go bananas. If you like you can roll on tables to get to know not only the biological sex, but also the gender identity and gender expression of your character. I'm almost disappointed the dice gave me such a middle of the road result.

Naturally the step about Religion will matter. Tekumel is, like Glorantha, not only a game where the gods are real, but religion affect all social interplay and interaction. This is my first stumbling block. To me, the gods of stability varies from staid and bland to slightly attractive and convincing in their outlook. Nothing really sticks out, and it feels like classic rpg pantheons. Then there's the gods of change, which varies from the grotesque to the repulsive. I have something of a hard time understanding why anyone would worship them. But, it's part of what makes Tekumel attractive, to make sense of its very different social mores. I also note that the author of Bethorm suggest most people are not all that ideologically engaged in their religion. Might make sense.

When we finally come to the stats it turns out there are not that many of them. Traits and Skills are also very unsurprising. It's a classic Advantage/Disadvantage system, and skills strongly based on their dependent stat. I did find the list of the former fewer than expected, and the latter more numerous than expected. By not focusing too strongly I managed to buy 7 skills.

Since Defences are bases on your skill rankings, it makes sense you calculate them after you have bought skills. But, I have a hard time figuring out exactly how it's supposed to work. Are your Melee Defense based on the lowest of those skills listen? An average? The highest? Dependant on what you use in a particular situation? This section could have been clearer.

Finally we have the most involved section, Contacts. Remember how I mentioned Prestige was something you had to go back and forth to calculate? Now you get to do it again, for every contact you buy and stat out. Sure, you can skip on the stat out part for them, but you need to figure out their clan, if they belong to a certain lineage and go all the way to the end of the book to find the listing of professional ranks. I think I managed to get the costs right on my three contacts. This probably is where a newcomer to Tekumel will stumble a bit. What kind of character do you want as a contact? Many different clans? All walks of life, or people who can help you professionally. The GM will have to guide their players a bit there I think.

After all that, Biyúnu hiViridáme the arrogant and hot headed merchant negotiator novice and worshipper of Hrü'ü was finished!

There are a few things in the character generation process I find interesting. The first thing you encounter is the clan. Before you even know a thing about your character you will decide what clan she belongs to. Then there's the Advantages/Disadvantages. I'm not sure I like them any more. Back when me and my friends generated characters for Ars Magica 2nd ed. we all thought it was great fun. One legged dwarfs, colourblind and with deadly enemies as well as humongous skill ratings gained from those odd ball flaws. Good times. But, there are some good hooks for role playing in there.

Finally, though, there are the contacts. It's interesting that those are not a Advantage you buy, but something everyone has. It kind of squares the circle doesn't it? You start with the social context, and end with the social context. If there's one thing character generation does, it is pointing the players in the direction for the playing of the game. This way it's emphasized that a lonely individual in Tekumel is an anomaly. If there's one thing I'm missing, that would be the "Fate fractal", where everything can be thought of as a character, with Aspects and Skills. Since that idea took root in my brain, any kind of social role playing makes me want to add stats and skills to organizations. Maybe it can be done within the confines of Bethorm, I have actually not thought that through until the end.

It was fun making a character! To exercise the system I will probably try to make a spell casting priest as well. But, that's all for now.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Bethorm - first impressions of the rules

Today I had a day off from work, and unusual for me, I managed to plow through a lot of the rules, and made my first character. Here are some impressions.

After my first positive post about the weird creatures finally being illustrated, it's natural to start off with the visuals. The book is set in two columns, a constant flow of text and the font is sans serif. I'm really not friends with that choice. But, what is worse is the fact that the sections flow into each other. Section 3 is Character Generation, but after all the 3.1 and 3.1.1 and 3.1.2 sections which sometimes feel very cluttered and chopped up, you will find yourself in 4 and 4.1 and 4.1.1 etc without noticing! Add to this the fact that some things are referenced out of order and I find the organization to be less friendly that it should be. Some page breaks would have been nice.

Here it's worth diving into a few facts about how the book is organized. Before you get as far as character generation, you will have read sections on how to set up a typical campaign and a time line of the world. Then you come to making your character, which starts with clan and lineage before you get to anything else. Here you not only get the to the point step by step procedure, you also get an explanation of what a clan is, how the work and interact. This is interesting.

It's clear that Jeff has focused on making the setting become clear and understandable by integrating it into the teaching of the rules. I think this is a very good idea for a setting like Tekumel. It really works. Reading through it, you get a good idea of lot of Tekumel concepts and how they relate to a thing you can grasp, the character. It might make the book be a bit wordy when referencing, but as a starter game for Tekumel this is the way to go. Good thinking! I really like that.

So, the rules and procedures then. Here I found Bethorm to be a bit puzzling. Actually, it made me think a bit of Palladium. Now, I know Palladium Books has got a reputation, but I do not make the comparison with the intention of doing that connection. It's just that the wall of text, interspersed with line art, feels very much like a book from Palladium. Also, there are abilities, calculated abilities which generate points, long list of skills which seems to be a bit odd in its focus and lots of modifiers and fiddly bits. Basically, it feels very old school, and not in the rules lite variety that has become the flavour of choice in OSR circles.

You will do some calculations, and thumbing back and forth in the rules while doing your character, and running a grapple or a called shot will make you break out the rules and do some thinking before you move on. That's how these rules come across. In theory it looks easy, just roll low on 2d10 and doubles are good/bad crits. Simple, if it weren't for all the details. The proof of the pudding will be trying it at the table, I guess.

Next I'll post my thoughts on the character generation, how it works and what it emphasize.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Bethorm has arrived!

Yesterday I got to open a package I have been waiting for. Once again there's a Tekumel game in print! Jeff Dee's Bethorm has arrived at my door.

Tekumel is one of those games everyone knows about as "that weird game you need a degree in tekumelian studies to run". It's often that way with the games that step outside the box. There's nothing so simple as a horse, everything has multiple limbs and are named weirdly. For some of us, that's a siren call of the Strange and the Fantastic not always found the realms of fantasy and science fiction, strangely enough.

So how is the game? Well, I just got it and I almost never read a game from cover to cover, and when I do it takes me multiple weeks. But, I can give some initial impressions.

One of the things that always throws me into a sense of dislocation when I read about Tekumel is the weird creatures. I have found multiple hacks online adapting this or that game system to model Tekumel. Sadly, most of them lack one thing really vital to "get" a strange setting and that is illustrations. How convenient Jeff is a visual artist! Guess what? Bethorm contains illustrations of all those weird creatures. This alone is worth a lot to make this game one you'll want to get if you're curious about Tekumel. Finally you can put your copy of Man of Gold aside when a creature is mentioned, look it up in Bethorm and then go back to the novel with a picture in your mind of what's in the story. Really useful.

Something else useful is that before getting into details like how you make a character or how the game system works, you get a section on how to GM a game in Tekumel. It makes me wonder why not more games start with a section on the "core activities" and a few campaign frames.

All in all this looks, from a very cursory inspection, to be an interesting addition to the different rules sets that have been available for Tekumel. My only puzzlement from a visual standpoint is why on earth the text is set in a non serif type?

More impressions will follow as I read on.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Do you as the GM have obligations?

Not too long ago we talked on our podcast with Swedish rpg luminary Anders Björkelid. He and his friends in the rpg club NisseNytt toured conventions with massive well researched scenarios, and published their fanzine where they pontificated upon our hobby. Anders summarized their attitude to scenario design, and their modus operandi as (paraphrased) "every player deserves an experience and a story, regardless of what they do". This I remembered when I read LotFP last week. James Raggi mentioned something similar, but with the opposite intention. He claims the GM have no obligations to the players. If they complain about being bored you ought to say "Yeah, so what are you going to do about it?"

So, do you have an obligation to the players, or not?

I find the idea quite compelling if I go to a con and sign up and pay for a game to be guaranteed a story. If I am proactive and engage I will have fun, but even if I sit back and have a day when I just want to hang out and see what happens, something still happens!

On the other hand, I know that a game where the players are engaged will be more fun, and it will be easier to run for me if the players are there as co-creators. Maybe we even share narrative control, and it will be more of a interactive storytelling.

Interactive storytelling is actually one of the key words for what NisseNytt was all about. So how does this tie together?

I think you as a GM do have an obligation to the players. But, I also think as a player you have an obligation to engage in the game.  Middle of the road, wishy washy conclusion, eh?

Have you, dear reader, read any of the Play Dirty GM advice by John Wick? If you have not, I suggest you do. John is sometimes very polarizing, but he is seldom boring. His way of GMing is all about bringing stuff to the players. But, it's not at all holding hands and telling a story. No, he suggest you hurt the PCs as much as you can, and kick them while they are down. "They will love you for it", he claims. I guess you could say John Wick argues you have an obligation to make life tough for the player characters, so to sweeten the final victory.

Obviously, there are more than one way to skin this particular cat.

Maybe this in one of the reasons role playing games are such a powerful tool too express yourself through. It's adaptable to multiple approaches, and none are wrong. I have played in a NisseNytt scenario where I knew there was a story going on, and for me the big thing was to follow along to participate through the viewpoint of my character. I've also played with James Raggi, where he sat back and watched us squirm after presenting us with a extremely messy situation we as players had to sort out as our PCs. Finally, I've also played a session of Dogs in the Vineyard where the game master put me, the player, under more and more pressure to act with my PC as the situation we had become part of spiralled out of control as it began to emotionally engage us as players just as much as our PCs. I was down, and the kicks kept coming.

I loved all of those situations. So, ask yourself this the next time you sit down behind the GM screen. Do you have an obligation to the players this time?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Old D&D editions and clones - Lamentation of the Flame Princess

A few years back everyone was publishing games in boxes. Brave Halfling announced a boxed set of Swords&Wizardry, and a crazy American living in Finland announced he was publishing his own game, in a box. I took down my copy of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess box, and re-read it. I love boxed games!

It's interesting to think about what the intended audience is for a game. It used to be standard procedure to include a short section in the beginning of the rules about "What is a role playing game". Considering how common it seems to be to learn to play from someone else, the uselessness of those sections have of course been debated. LotfP consists of not only two books of rules, one book of GM advice and two adventures, it also includes a booklet called "Tutorial". Four years later I wonder how many read that booklet and learned something from it? I do applaud James Raggi for trying to grow the hobby, but I wonder if that booklet was of any use to anyone?

The game is clearly based on D&D. There are classes and armor class, and there are spells per level. Very much D&D. There are some nice tweaks to the D&D baseline, like the Specialist class. I have never really understood the big fuzz about the Thief class, but the Specialist feels like a nice take on it. It's customizable and can be the basis for many fantasy tropes and roles. Another invention is a simple and usable encumbrance system. I like that Intelligence is used for spell saves, and not only giving additional languages. I never found all those languages very useful. After someone invented "common" all that bathwater followed after the baby out the window. Maybe it was the other way around. Whatever.

Then there's the fiddly bits. Lots of fiddly bits. You'll find rules for different combat actions, different AC if you're in melee or in ranged combat and rules for investments and the very old school saving throw system of nonsensical categories from the early seventies in the American mid west. No condition is passed by unmentioned and there are rules for excavating, foraging and lots more. My lasting impression is a little bit like when I read Dark Dungeons or the complete Mentzer sets of D&D. Everything is covered. A more modern comparison would be the revised 3rd ed. D&D. In a way I guess it would make excellent sense if this is a game for a newbie. Whatever you want to know is in there. You're covered, calm down and get on with the game!

When I get to the Referee book, this impression is kind of reinforced. I think most of the advice is very good. Solid and functional suggestions for how to create encounters, adventures and campaigns. There is one thing that stand out, though. James puts a lot of emphasize on how important it is with NPCs. This I find interesting. Clearly James is very old school in his approach to GM when he suggests extreme detachment and fair adjudication of situations. In alignment with the Story Now moniker, his style is very much Story After. It's a post-modern Story, laid on the events in hindsight. It's taking the game part and simulation part very seriously, but putting an emphasis on the NPC I have not seen in many other old school games. I have played the game only once, with the designer himself as Referee. That scenario was all about interacting with the world and the NPCs. When I compare that to some of his other published scenarios they feel very different, being mostly empty places or mysteries placed in your way to explore and trigger like a bomb.

My way of running a game is very much by the seat of my pants. I grab a setting book, a couple of pre-made adventures and modify on the fly very much dependent on Story Now or "wouldn't it be cool to throw this in now, given the context?". I find the approach to the game in the rules and in the advice leave me with awe and admiration. But, it does not make my wheels spin.

This is not a bad game, and some parts are excellent. But having read it, I don't feel engaged. I think my unplanned chaos way of refereeing could use some of the cold analytic approach in the Referee book. Apart from that, I will put this game back on the shelf without any further play. Should the opportunity arise to play with James again, I'd grab that seat in an instant, though!

...and the box is a beauty!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Old D&D editions and clones - AD&D

Way back in the days, I got to take a peek at the game books used by the older brother of one of my class mates and gaming buddy. It was a hardcover volume, and I still remember to this very day that the illustrations struck me as very silly and amateurish. That book was the 1st ed AD&D Players Handbook.

Many years later and I talk to a guy who once he got that game started up a game, and the game is still running, even though the game sessions now are a year or so apart, was started in those early days. That coincided with WotC releasing 3rd ed. D&D and I felt inspired, and bought the game. So I guess AD&D has been a game that has influenced me, pushed me toward other games and coloured my perception of things.

Still, I have never played the game.

I tried to gather some players some years back when I scrounged up a bunch of Rob Kuntz modules, but never managed to get enough for a whole party. It stayed the un-played edition.

I took down one of my two copies of the PHB and perused it. Yeah, I have two copies of a game I've never played. I have three copies of the 2nd ed. DragonQuest and I haven't played that either. Why are you looking at me like that? Anyway. I took down my copy of the PHB, and decided to check it out. Fiddly bits. Dozens of fiddly bits. You come to the section on how to make a character, and it starts with how to roll up your stats. Is this power gaming or what? You are told you need superior stats, and oh do you need them. Multiple bizarre little things are calculated off those stats, like how good you are at lifting gates. Some stats are even rolled with both d6 and a percentile score. Involved is the word.

The thing is, much of this first saw the light of day in the OD&D Supplement I - Greyhawk, and you understand that Gary and Rob must have loved fiddly bits. In their campaign there were so many subsystems and extra house rules added on top of OD&D that the game beneath was barely visible. This is a game for people who love a game, not a tool for creating stories in secondary worlds.

I actually don't have a problem with lot of rules. I have played MERP, and own more than one edition of Rolemaster. I have both Burning Wheel and Burning Empires, and would even consider running them. But, then there are rules. Let's take a look at Surprise. That section of the rules begin by telling you what surprise is, and then suggests you roll a d6, or a d8 explains that then there's a 1 in 8 or a 1 in 6 chance. Then there's a nice table to show how many time increments difference there is in rolling difference sets of results on those dice. It's both simple and extremely convoluted at the same time. Say whatever you will about Rolemaster or Burning Empires, but they are far more consistent and thus handle the weight of those rules quite differently.

Sometimes I catch the wonder, the fantasy and the strange beneath the over- and under-explained rules. I see why some of this caught the imagination. There was arcane mysteries to be unlocked in this mysterious tome, and since I love Call of Cthulhu you can guess why that speaks to me. But, I still don't want to run this game. Playing D&D as a game - as a challenge for the players, not their characters -  would be a different challenge. Maybe one day, but I would probably chuck much of that Gygaxian cruft. It's just not my style.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Running a game for kids

Tonight I ran a game for our daughter, two of her friends and our son. My wife also played, so give the kids some kind of help when floundering. It was interesting to say the least.

The game, Morwhayle, is a game from the same guys who created the newest Mutant game, that will be published by Modiphius in the UK. It's based on the novels and comics by Peter Bergting. It's designed with new players in mind, and I think it's an interesting game in of itself.

First off I think the idea of using dice pools, adding dice for Abilities, Gear and Hindrances (rated from d4 to d12) and so on is a very good way to visualize the world for the players. With newbies, that is a great way to get them to pick up on the rules faster. It felt like Aspects in Fate, but with less jargon and with more dice to choose from. Also, I liked how the game took hints from Apocalypse World (the most talked about game I have not yet played) and let character creation be done wholly by just picking stuff of the sheet. Slick and modern game design.

Most importantly, how did it go? Well, they seemed to like it and when I talked with our daughter after the game, she mentioned how she was going to test another archetype next game. Hooked!

What most amazed me was that the youngest player was the one who quickest grasped the idea of playing a role, and talking in character!

But, being a GM for kids, isn't it hard? Well, it's different that running a game for adults, I tell you that! For starters, kids have a much harder time sitting still around a table for multiple hours. I strongly recommend you include a break or two, with snacks. They also took the game much more into the real world than adults do. I mean, how often do your players crawl under the game table when their characters are hiding from zombies? But, I think there are benefits for you as a GM as well. You have to keep it moving and if you don't give every player something to do, they will just leave the table! I thought I ran a pretty simple story, but be prepared to face extreme cases of the truth of the Three Clue Rule. There should be lots of hints, and lot of options for how to proceed.

All in all, I think the session was not only fun for us adults, to be able to hang out and play a game with our kids. But also a learning experience about what it takes to make a game session run well. Adults may be more used to take control of their situation, but they can be just as paralyzed in the face of decision and you should always be ready for that.

Best thing in the end is I think we will do this again, and I look forward to it.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Some impressions of Mutant: Year Zero

I guess you have heard that Modiphius is going to publish the Swedish post-apocalyptic game Mutant? If you have not, go forth and click that link and read some about it. I'll stay here until you get back?

You're back? Good. Let's move on. I have read the Swedish edition of the game and I'm going to talk a bit about my impressions. It is a game with some peculiarities and own takes on things. Please note that as far as I know, the edition Modiphius is publishing is just like it. But, I have no inside information.

First off let me say this is an interesting game. I have yet to try it, but reading it makes me really pumped up about the idea of running and playing it. There are some things that stand out.

The first thing is how the game have a communal part, and an individual part. You all belong to a community of mutants, an Ark. This Ark you all develop together, deciding how it's supposed to be developing, putting efforts into defenses or developing culture. This works as a framing device for your individual goals and also drives you into the Zone, to gather resources. I really like how this gives you all a reason to band together, and something to do.

Then there's the characters. All characters have one NPC they hate, one they want to protect and then they have their one big dream. It's the classic stick and carrot. While this is neat, I think where the system has the potential to really shine is in the mixing. You have a "council session" first at every game session where you plan the strategic game, then you get to play your characters and their hates and cares pull them in different directions.

Now, this is when I find it all becomes quite interesting. You have 10 Type Events for the Ark and 10 Events for the Zone. Roll the dice or pick one of those events, like One NPC Is In Trouble or Fight About An Item and combine that with the strategic goal for the Ark and the different characters the PCs care or hate and you will have something happening. I think this has potential! When things have really gelled in my Tianxia game is when I have managed to match a place with characters in conflict. This feels like it could work like that.

Actually, this makes me think of how I used to read Ars Magica and feel that game sounded great, and then really fall flat in play. This promises some of the same things. Maybe it will all come together better this time. I feel this way the characters are beings hooked into the Ark more than the Ars Magica characters ever where. In the Ark there's a desperate need for food and clean water, and necessity will drive the PCs and NPCs into conflict, and into the Zone. With the Type Events, you are sure to have something happen that will topple any kind of balance achieved.  

This all comes together to drive story. Note to my old school friends, this is not Story Before! This is very much a story that develop out of play. This naturally relates a lot to my previous Fate experience. There are still lessons to be learned from that. I will re-read chapter 9 of my Fate Core rule book and think upon the Mutant way a bit more, and I expect the fallout to at least be interesting. Yeah, fallout. The future is post-apocalyptic and brutal.
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