Thursday, November 25, 2010

Reading Dragons at Dawn Part IV

It's time to dive into the depth of, the Arnesonian combat system. Prepare for acceptance of new ideas!

So, it's time to cross swords and the first thing you do is check for morale. Yes, all of you, including the player characters. You base it off your Hit Dice, and the result is the morale condition you're in, and which will affect your performance in combat. If you are shaken, you will have halved effectiveness, for example. This feels a lot like a wargame. If you have been pushing cardboard chits around on a hex map or handled lead toy soldiers, you will feel at home at once. Initiative is no big thing and you usually have the players do one round of attacks and then the opponents have a go before it's a new round.

Hit Dice and modifiers
The meat of the combat system is how you calculate the combat odds using HD. They are your offensive strength, your defensive strength and also what you roll for damage. Interestingly enough, you also get the opportunity to save against your AC if hit. At least if you are a PC.

The modifiers for the attack is difference in dexterity, size and level. Double or half according to morale and then compare the total to the opponent's total on a chart and roll below the cross referenced number by 2d6-2. Roll your HD for damage if you hit. I said it looked a lot like a wargame, right?

Once again (am I beginning to sound like a broken record here, or what?) I feel these rules feel a lot like T&T. Roll your total and compare. But wait, I'm not only grasping for weak links to my favourite system, there are more similarities. Damage is dealt to the weakest character in the melee, and excess damage after a kill is spread to the next weakest. Imagine totalling the HD on one side, add and compare and it's beginning to look very familiar. Same, but different. I feel these two games could be combined in so many cool ways. I can totally see someone asking their DM to make a Save against a stat in the middle of a combat to try out a stunt. Said stund would double your attack strength or something. Sounds like Dave Arneson style to me, and exactly what I've been doing in my T&T games.

Armor and magic swords
Time to stop talking about T&T and get back to Dragons at Dawn? Sure, I will. Let's talk about Armor. Since it's good to have a high HD value, a high HPV and a high DEX, it makes sense to have a high value being the best kind of armor, right? Well, I know there are some religious feelings about this. Personally I feel armor on a scale from 1 to 8, with 8 being a suit of plate with shield making a lot of sense. Same with Dave, I guess.

What I like in this section is how the negative AC ratings are used for non corporeal and magic creatures. You will need to have magic which is at least as powerful as the AC to cancel it out, i.e. an AC of -2 mean you must have a weapon of at least +2 to hit and damage. Neat, I think. It's also very neat to have AC "roll over" after 10, so some really heavy duty kevlar armor will have AC 14 (i.e. -4) and withstand anything but +4 weapons. Bring your laser to town!

There's a lot of flexibility in the system, and you can have magical armor either subtract dice of damage, or have it add a bonus to your armor save.

General impressions
In general I think the combat system have a lot of interesting features. You can double, add and shift columns and modify it a lot but still keep the basic mechanic. Anyone who loves to have weapon quality, skill levels, magic bonuses or oddball materials can go wild, but in the end it's just defensive strength versus attacking strength on a table and roll 2d6-2. I like it, a lot.

There's also unarmed combat and some mention of criticals, but I wont go into all the details.

The next post will be about magic and campaign building, and it will wrap up this series on Dragons at Dawn.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Reading Dragons at Dawn Part III

So, time for another part in my series of post on Dragons at Dawn, the game that tries to salvage the rules used by Dave Arneson and friends during the earliest years of our hobby.

There are a few interesting differences here from D&D. Levels in the Basic game is limited, and in the Expanded game they go to 10. Hit Dice change per level as do Hit Points. No, they are not the same. I will talk more about them later when I come to combat. What is interesting is Hit Point Value, HPV, though. You get a set amount at each level! There are different charts for the progression for different kinds of classes but all have a set amount. Interesting. I can't say how happy I am to see level titles in the Basic game!

Those with good memories know I claim alignment only causes brain damage, but since nobody is perfect the founding father did use them.  Much have been said about how many you should use, and if they are guidelines for roleplaying or actual limitations on behaviour and functioning of in game powers. In D@D magic is aligned. This have been seen in D&D, in the Lankhmar campaign setting with white, black and red wizards. I still think it makes no sense what so ever and especially in D@D where much of the magic items are technological, and spells are always based on components. But, there you have it. The idea that you will get hurt if touching a powerful item of a different alignment than your own is interesting, though.

I saved this for last, since this is what I personally find most interesting. In 7th ed. T&T, there's this thing called Talents. They basically give you a bonus to your regular stat based saving rolls for the limited set of a trained skill. In D@D we see that once again T&T and it have evolved along similar lines, even though there have been no direct line of influence. Interesting.

Education are special areas of expertise, and you get a maximum of +5 however well trained you are. Very similar to the +1d6 of Talents. Just like in AD&D, you have to spend time and money to train in order to gain new ones. You don't just get new ones while levelling up. I think I'm liking the idea of making Talents work along those lines as well, i.e. you don't get them naturally, but you can train them and get a bigger bonus, from the starting +1.

Non-human characters
While there are the usual possibilities of playing a dwarf, elf or halfling there's also the possibility of playing a "monster race". There is a formula to calculate hits, HD and XP. It kind of makes sense, considering the original Blackmoor players actually played both sides, antagonists and protagonists. Naturally, this makes me think of how T&T have stood out as that game where you could play a monster. I got my copy of Monsters! Monsters! a few days back and have just read about how that was introduced way back. You do know you can buy it again, don't you?

More and more it feels like T&T and D@D would appeal to the same kind of gamer. I like sure them both!

Next up, Combat.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Reading Dragons at Dawn Part II

This time I'm going to talk about some of the basic building blocks of characters, and how they differ from your regular D&D game.

Classes and Traits
Like I posted last time, there are two different sets of classes. The Basic game only have Warriors and Wizards. This is something I find interesting, since it resembles Tunnels & Trolls. In that game there are more classes, but basically it's all Warriors or Wizards or a combination thereof. In sword and sorcery gaming that are the basic building blocks, right? The Expanded game in Dragons at Dawn have a bunch of more classes like Elf Mage, Merchant, Priest/Monk, Sage and Thief Assasin. The inclusion of Merchant and Sage is interesting, I think. One is capable of persuading and the other can curse his opponent!

The class everyone seem to have an opinion on is there, the thief. He has no more skill system than anyone else, and combines the feature of another class, the assassin. The latter and the monk both show up in the Blackmoor supplement to D&D. There have been some controversy about who wrote what in that supplement and at least the idea for the classes indeed seem to come from Minnesota.

The monk I find interesting. There are no indications that the monk had any of those kung fu powers he is equipped with in D&D. I sure wonder where that came from? I've never understood how they fitted in Blackmoor, which is as solidly in the mainstream of medieval fantasy as Greyhawk. Boggs notes that even though Priests were the first class invented (after the basic Warrior and Wizard, I gather) we have very little information on how those developed, more than the fact that "curates" did have spells. The information for Priests/Monks presented are based on inference from the Tekumel campaign and some later source of the class' ability. Considering M.A.R. Barker is still alive I can't help but wonder if someone asked him about it?

Stats, Traits or Abilities
These are the first things you generate in so many RPGs. Interestingly, in D@D you have six of them and you roll 2d6-2. Somebody with more skill at probability theory will have to chime in and tell me what kind of spread that will give you, and what the average is. Now, how you use those abilities is what really made me sit up and take notice.

Most things you do in D@D, you do by rolling 2d6-2 against your traits. This is the saving roll mechanic and the "skill system". Anyone who knows a thing or two of T&T will recognize that mechanic. Isn't it amazing that Dave used that mechanic with ability rolls, it never showing up in the published D&D and then Ken St Andre reads those rules and reinvent the mechanic? D@D feel like a interesting marriage for D&D and T&T sometimes. There are more of those quirks which I will make note of later on.

Next up is some more notes on characters, like my pet hate - alignment.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Reading Dragons at Dawn Part I

After a few weeks which have been far too hectic I'm going to steal some spare time and start to put down some thoughts and impressions from reading Dragons at Dawn. Dave Arneson and his Blackmoor campaign have fascinated me for a long time and I have used concepts from his campaign in a few of my own. Also, Ken St Andre and Dave Arneson are two of my main source of inspiration for starting this blog. I was very excited when I first heard that Dan Boggs was going to publish his recreation of the rules used during the very dawn of our hobby. Let's dive into it.

Look and feel
The first thing I noticed was the font. For some discernible reason Mr. Boggs decided to use a non serif font for the main text. For the life of me I can't understand why he choose that font and the one column layout. It's harder to read than necessary and the font also looks quite ugly.

Since I once found a very cool disclaimer once in a game (I think it was Chill) about any likeness to persons living dead or undead being coincidental, I these days read the small print on the first page closely.

"Authors are encouraged to create derivative works for use with this product" and "Any number of print or electronic copies of this product ... may be freely made by any purchaser of this product for their own use and for the temporary use of any players participating in a Dragons at Dawn game"

How about that? This Boggs fellow is apparently a man with the right attitude. Those two sentences alone made me very positive to this work. Even if the font was a bit harder to read than necessary.

Introduction and designer notes
In this section Boggs makes it clear that his intention with D@D is to present a piece of gaming archaeology. The intention is to capture Dave's original style of play, the rules behind the D&D rules so to speak. I think it is kind of essential for this kind of play to have a loose framework whereupon to base referee rulings. In this case it will be by necessity, since much of the lore have been lost. It's very interesting that a manuscript from the communications between Dave and Gary have been unearthed and have been used as a source for this game together with the Judges Guild First Fantasy Campaign product, and interviews with the players of Dave's campaign. This is as good a picture as we are ever going to get of the FFC. It makes me giddy just to think about.

Now, I do which some parts of that heritage had been handled better. The notes Arneson left are sketchy and the same must be said of most other sources. That makes it twice as interesting to know when the author of D@D have added some glue, and when the sources are coherent enough to be presented as is. In some places it's explicit, but I'd have liked to have had, say, notes in sidebars about how well this or that is covered in the source or had to be cobbled together. That being said, this is a gold mine and should have been published ages ago!

Points of divergence
Quite early in the book you understand that this is not your regular D&D game. Already on page 3, in the glossary section, you are told the regular unaided healing rate, one HPV per day. Those of us who remember reading the Basic D&D set and searching for rates of natural healing in vain will smile upon seeing that.

Since the game developed quite a bit as the Blackmoor campaign went on, there are actually two sets of rules in D@D. The first is the Basic Game where the levels are few and the classes even fewer (Warrior or Wizard, just like in T&T), and the Expanded Game with more classes. The magic is also different in the two rules.

In T&T 7th ed. the designer tells you that unless you have modified the game you have not really played T&T. In this game you have to. I imagine many readers will look at the Basic and Extended game and cherry pick parts they like the most. At the minimum you have to decide to just go with the Basics.

One thing I found very interesting was the notes on cooperative and competitive play. When the Blackmoor campaign started, some players were playing bad guys. Just like when you have a miniatures battle you have two sides. To put that up front makes you realize that this is a game where you must leave all preconceived notions of how the game works behind.

There's more to come
Since I don't like over long posts I'm going to break here. There will be more. Next up are the stats, six of them and they are not like D&D, and the classes. See you next time.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The point of NPCs, and styles of play

This morning I met an old friend whom I used to game with. We chatted a bit about life, work and family before delving deep into our gaming experiences since last time. Since I split from a game after inheriting this friend's character I talked a bit about why that game didn't appeal to me. This made me verbalize a few things which I've been thinking but never before put into words. I'll try to share some of that insight here.

I was playing in this game where we were young adults in a weird kind of post-apocalyptic fantasy world with religious overtones. It kind of made me think of the Alvin Maker series by Orson Scott Card. We all had some Gift, and our village felt like some kind of religious commune. Since everything around the village, out in the woods, is dangerous and strange we all had the roles of rangers in training. After having encountered some soldiers and had a big fight there erupted a thunderstorm and when our village elder visited the druids in the wood afterwards we learned that he had made a deal for us to stay for one year in the village, not trespassing into their realm.

So, here we were, sitting for a year in the village with a bunch of refugees from another village which had been invaded by the soldiers we'd fought. Note that this year was not to be glossed over. We were expected to play it out, in a fairly low pace. That is, we would spend the game chatting with ourselves and "getting involved" in the refugees and other NPCs in the village. Character based soap opera, in other words. I quit the game.

I realize I'm already a bit long winded, but will now get to the point.

What are the point of NPCs in your game? Sources of information? For you and the players (I'm writing this from the point of a referee here) to interact to find out more about that NPC's inner life or maybe develop the character you're playing?

Now when thinking of why a soap opera game was to contrary to all my wishes, I managed to narrow down what I like with roleplaying as the possibility to explore a secondary world. Using NPCs you can showcase how someone who knows this world acts and thinks. Basically, they are they way the secondary world shows itself to the players. The NPCs are a way to make that world look like it breathes and moves while your players are not looking.

Contrast that with NPCs who are there in order for your players to get to express their longings from drama class. In that case you are interested in the NPCs for their own sake, and in the player characters for their own sake. Not for their actions, which is very different.

I've come to the insight that the latter way, especially combined with ideas like "freeform" or "jeepform" bores me to death. I want to play a roleplaying game not act in an amateur theatre group. If I wanted that I would be better served by finding an amateur theatre group, I think. Add to that the pretentiousness of some of the people involved in that kind of "gaming" and I feel like throwing up.

How do you feel about styles of play, and the roles of NPCs? It might be different, and it's totally ok. But, if you differ very much from how I feel, I doubt we will enjoy the same game for long. Now I at least have something to show people when they want to know what kind of game I like.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Dungeons in new games

Zak wrote something interesting about dungeons the other day. He notes that newer RPG are often a bit more cinematic and also they usually don't feature dungeons. This made me think.

I have a few friends who have been playing role playing games since way back. They also have one thing in common in that they look and sound a lot less enthusiastic when you mention the word "dungeon".

For some people the fun part, and even the whole point of, playing a RPG is to interact with NPCs - to roleplay. What is interesting with dungeons though, is that like Zak writes anything, however mundane, is potentially interesting. Exploring the environment is what the game is about. Your role is not method acting, it's interacting with the other party members and acting out your role in the party. This doesn't necessarily mean you don't do roleplaying!

I still wonder how to make my friends more enthusiastic about this kind of roleplaying. We might like slightly different kinds of gaming, but you play with the gamers you've got and like to hang out with. Also, I like to think roleplaying can be a lot of different things, maybe even at the same time, for different people.

Maybe there is a way to make NPC interactions more common in a dungeon environment? Maybe there is a way to make the virtues of explorative play more common in the NPC crowded city based game? I'm not sure how, but I like to think it can be done.

If James Joyce does that in his exploration of Dublin, maybe I need to read it? I think that sometimes cityscapes have been less used as a canvas of the fantastic than they deserve. While going down a hole in the ground to dig out treasure have a certain resonance of the Hero's Journey, I guess the urban jungle can be just as wild and feel just as much like a game of exploration. How would it be to do a hexcrawl of a fantasy city?

It would be interesting if Zak Sabbath was the one who finally made me read James Joyce, because I wanted to read the dungeon crawl novel, Ulysses.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Distracting myself - kung fu fighting

Some gamers feel their fantasy works best without starships and rayguns, thank you very much. Other still think sf is best without space elves or psionics (yeah I know, the promised psionics project is moving forward very slowly, but it's not dead), thank you sir! Considering those purist tendencies, it's not surprising that oriental martial arts are not every gamer's cup of tea. For those who like it, read on.

On the commuter train this morning (my brain marinating in Wǔdāngquán, Ba gua, Wu Xing and my own practice of Chinese martial training and exercise), I suddenly wondered if it was possible to capture some of these ideas in gaming rules, and rolling dice. This is what I came up with.

Let's say we have a game where every school of martial arts provides your character with some techniques. Those all have an aspect of a certain movement or "element". You also have different pools of chi, likewise aspected (this is totally bogus of course, but makes for an interesting resource mechanic). Every time you want to use one of those techniques, you dice off. You always roll opposed, and you always have to have chi to fuel the action.

So, you grab your dice for the chi pool you have at hand and the dice for your technique. Roll and add your successes, and also add your total. Now, the limiting factor here is your technique. You can't utilize more power than your training allow, even if you are loaded up with chi. So, you roll all the dice but only keep as many as your technique rating, then do the counting of successes. But, if the "colour" of your chi pool matches the movement which generates the one of the technique used (according to the shēng cycle), you get to keep one extra die.

If, according to the cycle, the aspect of the technique used "defeats" the defending one, you get to keep the chi used to power the attack, otherwise it's lost. Same thing for the defender.

The amount of successes determine who won that exchange, and for every ten points you narrate one detail. Narrative power goes to the looser in the exchange.

There you go. I bet it's half broken and needlessly complicated. The thing is, I will probably never bother to beat those rules into shape, since don't see me have any chance to use them soon. Use them and abuse them, and feel free to tell me what works and not.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A few words from Ken

In case you had missed it, or thought he had come clean. Here's the latest words from Ken St Andre about James Shipman:

[ some parts removed ]

I've been in contact with Ken again, and the situation have changed a bit, so for now I have elected to take that notice down. The advice to do no business with James Shipman is still valid, but that's me talking, not Ken.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Slowdown of posts

This is a very hectic week for me. The Atlas experiment is doing huge reconstruction jobs, and tomorrow CERN expect to start a lead ion run.

Naturally when there's data taking, we have had things erupt left and right! RAID sets and file systems have crashed at the most inconvenient of times.

Since I have been scrambling to keep track of which pile of disks have been imploding, and what security breach have happened at the same time, I have not had time to think much about the series of posts on Dragons at Dawn I have promised. Maybe things cool down a bit next week while the lead is colliding. Bear with me.

Nice resource about the FASA Star Trek game

I found a very cool resource I'd like to share. This page have a listing of all the publications for the FASA Star Trek game. Quite useful when hitting eBay. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A nice crit mechanic

As a follow up to my last post, regarding critical hits. One thing that's neat with having to roll percentiles to hit is that you can have something cool happen when you get doubles, i.e. same number on both dice. Rolled over the target number and it's something no-so-cool and below something cool. At least in a roll low system. Almost worth considering even if you are using a d20. Just multiply by five and you can break out the percentiles. I first saw this in Top Secret/S.I. and I still love it.

Complicated combat rules - when it matters

I was reading issue #9 of Fight On! magazine on my way to work yesterday (is it just me, or are there more typos than usual in that issue?), and found something interesting in the review section. Well, there were two interesting things, one being the review of Dragons at Dawn, but I was going to talk about the other review I took note of.

The game being reviewed  was called Backswords & Bucklers. In this game you get grievous injuries when hitting zero hit points. It made me think of how to make combat more detailed when needed, while at the same time keeping it swift and fun. I once again started to think of how it works in 7th Sea, and how that gels with B&B.

In 7th Sea you have three classes of NPCs. There are Brutes (mooks), Henchmen, and Villains. I guess you can tell which are quickest to dispose in a fight? You have a similar thing in D&D 4th ed. with minions.

So, how about the idea of using crits, hit locations and called shots i.e. going all Rolemaster, but only do it after the "monster" reaches zero hits? You could do this in any game, like S&W, T&T, B/X or Labyrinth Lord.

For me it sounded like an interesting way to add that crunch, but only when it matters - when the Villain have been blooded and you both go that extra mile to finish each other off.

Nothing revolutionary, but it sounds neat to me.
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