Thursday, June 1, 2023

Off the Shelf: Zweihander

I still like this game. The setting-agnostic, unhinged, OSR Warhammer-like game is free from the Games Workshop Old World setting. It isn't Warhammer, and the 4th Edition of Warhammer is a beautiful game - if you are playing in the official world.

This game has mature concepts, so it is only for some. It delves deeper into horror concepts like a 1980s movie, making magic more difficult and wounds more deadly. It does not seem as clean as the new Warhammer version, designed to not upset a general audience. Yes, you can put whatever you want in your game, but I am an adult and not triggered by much.

I don't want to be sanitized in Grimdark, just like I don't want to watch sanitized in a horror movie. I get the game is a little upsetting to general audiences, and I hear this is being addressed in future releases. I don't hold this against them, this was an artistic choice when the book was made. Was this a good choice? Probably not in today's sensitive climate and the demands of retailing. But I give them credit for sticking to their dream, and then adjusting course later.

Change isn't easy, and we all need to recognize that and be accepting.

Also, I have played in the Warhammer world for decades and am tired of it. It is a beautiful and tragic place, but there isn't a spot in that world my group hasn't been to. The new version of WHFRP trades highly on nostalgia, and it is time for me to make my own interpretation of that world. It is a beautiful and incredibly high-production value game, but I have seen it for years, and the entire collection seems enormous. This feels like a set of books I would collect and never play.

I also have a few problems with the 4th Edition Warhammer FRP art. Most of it is excellent, but the characters sometimes have this smug, happy, and relatively modern 'too cool with attitude' facial expression. That smirk is cancer on fantasy art these days, especially for a "grim and perilous" fantasy game like Warhammer. We see it all the time in 5E and many other games.

Nobody should be happy to be in a grimdark world. I sound like a spoilsport or petty, but it makes a big difference that some professions look like a Planar 5E character dropped into the game. This is that messy Western modern fantasy style, and I like games that break from those safe conventions. Yes, some pieces do something different (some are humorous), but they all do something different, and the consistency and gritty feeling are lost.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Zweihander does a better job with a generic setting and darker world mood. Crafting a horror series is much like creating great horror movies. I want everything to feel connected. I like the book to follow a common thread and theme. I want an eerily familiar human-centric world where magic is superstition, the unfamiliar is the norm, nothing is cute, no easy magic, and everything seems grimly normal.

Sometimes, if I play Warhammer, everything feels known and expected. I can make new things up in a more generic system, omit large parts of the book, or run a game against a chaos monster like John Carpenter's The Thing without anyone screaming about Warhammer canon.

I also love to house-rule, and Zweihander supports that much better.

That said, Warhammer FRP is still a fantastic game. Art-wise, it is all over the place for a game that needs a consistent presentation. Everything else is an A+ game and presentation. I just need more freedom, a single book, and no default setting.

I want the freedom to craft horror and not play to nostalgia or the familiar.

Everything looks normal.

And then things start to go sideways.

The suspicion and paranoia are high.

Like classic horror movies, pure evil's twisted and brutal nature shows its face, warps, and twists ordinary people into madness and hideous creatures of darkness.

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The Great Unhappening

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Drow, chromatic dragons, and so many other concepts are being weeded out of the Pathfinder 2E revision and, as I suspect, many other games.

Wizards and D&D used to have this "soft lock" on expectations of what constitutes a fantasy world and setting. Therefore, anytime a game repeated the "familiar old things," it was an admission that "D&D would always be the best representation." The "kiss on the king's ring" and a soft admission of loyalty cemented D&D as the mindshare leader. It kept people from making their own video games and online experiences, as they were still determining ownership, yet they were okay to use in printed games.

Kiss the ring.

The drow and chromatic dragons are Creative Commons now - but, as I suspect, Paizo wants to break free from that and plant the seeds of a new license. This means doing away with the legacy concepts in the CC 5E SRD so they have a "clean base" to build upon. They do not want to include the CC content, so it is all being purged. I do see a fork between the CC games (Swords & Wizardry) and the ORC games, and this is likely one of the most significant splits in the community to have ever happened.

This was the ultimate "soft lock" on a mental IP - fantasy gaming - ever. The most critical virtual mind-space would be fantasy gaming and superheroes. Control those mental concepts, and control billions.

Now that everyone is rewriting their games, the D&D mindshare is being tossed into the bin.

This will be the most significant impact of the OGL disaster and one Wizards could have never predicted.

The lore they let everyone use was the lore that kept them the market leader.

Now, all that is gone. People are making their own stuff. The idea of what fantasy "is" will be many different things. The language and concepts will be different. The "open source" monsters and "dark elves" will diverge from "the Wizards versions." These new things will be open, which will be used more and eventually replace the closed source versions.

Don't get mad or depressed; they did this to themselves. It does prove why the current crowd there aren't the best stewards of the game. They lost what is arguably the most crucial jewel in that crown.

The one that made them a king.

Monday, May 29, 2023

Your Anger Will Do Nothing

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

At this point, if you complain about being put over a barrel by price increases on books from games by billion-dollar Wall Street toy companies and other predatory corporations, your complaints are worthless; they will never be heard, and going on social media to complain will get you nowhere.

Years of price gouging by miniature wargaming companies and card game companies have never made prices go down. Sitting on Twitter complaining about the prices of collectors market RPG books will have the same result.

I get the feeling many of those complaining just want to complain. They will never leave the game. Complaining is the last thing they must hold on to and the last sinew binding the frayed community together.

You can choose other games.

But, let's be honest, many just won't.

The desire to be part of an angry community is greater than the fun they have for the game. This is one of the "signs of the apocalypse" for any hobby or community, where more fun is had complaining than enjoying the game. And people will buy the next book, never use it, just to have the "right" to be angry and still be seen as having a "valid" opinion. I have seen this happen with many games; these are the doldrums, the waiting period before the "next huge fad" comes along, and the old hobby is forgotten.

This happened in the waning days of 2E and 3E, when the games were dying off, and people were abandoning ship for card games. You had people that liked to complain more than play and would take any mistreatment by the company as a reason to continue the abusive relationship.

You only have a short time in this world.

Even less can be spent on a hobby.

Why waste it?

Stop complaining; just play.

And if you are unhappy, leave and find something new.

And say, "The old game is dead to me."

I did, and I could not be happier. You have to, or you will just keep getting sucked back into the lure of the hate posters, angry people, and never-ending arguments. The curse of the garbage hot take.

The imaginary fear of "not finding a group or game" is perpetuated by those who cling to the deck chairs and, worse, by those who never play. Platforms like Roll20 and others lock you into a system due to the availability of choice and feature development. Then again, many games don't need all these 'ease of use' tools built into VTTs, and the game should be designed better and not need all this special coding, modules, and extra work.

If I wanted to play any game, even games decades out of print, I could quickly find a community, put something together, announce it, and have a game. There are communities on Facebook for games I have never heard of, and if I announced a game there, one could be set up for the following weekend quickly. I could do this on any platform; even Tabletop Simulator is fine.

With people that love the game and community. Those smaller communities are often better crowds of faithful fans. I would find a new group of incredible people to hang out with in a snap.

It takes a little more effort but would be well worth it.

Or invest in a 5E clone or alternative. Tales of the Valiant, Level Up, Low Fantasy Gaming, Shadowdark, and many alternatives are out there, and the communities would be thrilled to have you. If you like the 5E framework, you don't have to go that far and will be familiar with all the rules. Plenty of OSR games would love to have you, too; C&C, OSE, Knave, and many others are outstanding games with active communities. There are free games too. Pathfinder is doing incredibly well. Outside of that, Cypher System is an excellent game with a great community.

I just don't buy the anger about the book prices anymore.

Yes, you bought books from a lousy company; you can be mad about them lying to you. That is the price of dealing with Wall Street; you will get screwed. There is no other end than that.

But you have choices.

And some companies care about you and want your business.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Grimdark and Pop Culture Jokes

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

When I try and find a great grimdark RPG, I stay away from the sophomoric ones that constantly riff on pop culture. Only a few are purist grimdark fantasy horrors, like Zweihander or Shadow of the Demon Lord. Still, many of the d20 OSR ones just get too silly, full of pop-culture jokes, and it feels like the writers fear the material and need to sugar-coat it in silly jokes and pop-culture references.

I don't want riffs on movies or anime. Dated political jokes. Star Trek references. Willy Wonka. Disco music. Spaceships. Those have their place in gonzo settings, but I don't want them in my grimdark. And gonzo-style themes are the trend most d20 grimdark games take, toss in the anime influence in there, and suddenly we are playing 5E.

My problem with anime-style games is they encourage too much player protection and emotional investment, which counter the goals of pure horror. People get upset when "terrible things happen" to their anime characters because it triggers an emotional response on the level that hurting innocents would have.

Anime characters look too much like cute animals or children to be taken seriously in horror roleplaying. Yes, there are great horror animes, but they are very disturbing to many for that exact reason. You play anime-style games, and that "make the game too easy" player protection follows shortly after. I don't know what it is; perhaps the type of players the game attracts?

And the JRPG tropes of the supersized weapons and 'rule of cool' art are an extension of the anime tropes. Suppose a barbarian is wielding a sword more sizable than himself. In that case, you have already stepped away from reality on a level that anything horrible that happens really can't be taken seriously. I will just hit it with my room-sized sword! My lightning bolt can crack a castle tower in half! I am too cool to be afraid of anything!

You are superheroes now. That much player power is incompatible with horror. I don't know; some unwritten code about anime and the rule of cool games equates that look and style now with player protection and excessive character empowerment. It adds complexity, and those generous "player attractive" design goals are incompatible with horror games.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

I like horror games where the characters are grim and gritty and have that initial disposable feeling. You watch a movie like Event Horizon, and you meet the crew. When you first see them, they are average nobodies; who cares? And then you start to care when you get to know them and see their struggles and fears. They make you laugh, and you learn things about them. And then you invest, and the loss of one means something. It begins to hurt.

Gonzo is a different genre. Gonzo is crazy, like Gamma World. Gonzo can get silly because the whole genre is admittedly unrealistic. Gonzo-style horror is difficult to do well; only games like Dungeon Crawl Classics pull it off - mostly with lots and lots of the unknown.

But even in gonzo-style games, I like to limit my pop-culture references. Gonzo-style means that feeling of venturing into the unknown. Having evil versions of the Muppets running around a dungeon may sound hilarious, but I find those gags silly at first and groan-inducing the next time. That sort of thing is more satire, and if a game says satire and starts there, then I am comfortable (since I know what I am buying into).

In a game like classic Paranoia, sure thing, bring on the pop-culture reference and insanity, and that game is a classic mix of grimdark, satire, and gonzo themes. I expect that there. But suppose a game starts with a severe tone and says horror, and the adventures and world go into total Paranoia satire. In that case, there is a disconnect where the game's "adventure culture" takes off in one direction, and something is missing in the original book.

I hate sounding like a spoil-sport, but I am choosy about games with pop culture and silliness. If the game embraces the genre, like Paranoia, I am all in! If a game wants to be grimdark, and I get Star Trek cameos, I feel like I have been misled. Yes, what goes in a game is ultimately up to me, but consistency in theme and feeling is very nice.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Mail Room: Cepheus Deluxe Enhanced Edition

The art is a bit meh, and the layout is an explosion of colors - but I still love this 'best of 2d6' science fiction set of rules. The game is coming into its own, abandoning the random character generation, cleaning up the rules, and focusing on providing that OSR 2d6 science fiction experience.

Why not Traveller?

It is too tied to the Imperium setting, and the system is getting too big. When I think of Traveller, I go back to the original books. I don't want a slick presentation, nor do I want endless shelves full of expansions. The rules should be in one book - which they are if you just stick to the core Traveller book - but the ships and feeling of Traveller are too Imperium for me. I can't see an X-Boat or scout courier and not think of the setting, and they are so closely tied to it that it is like using TIE Fighters outside of Star Wars and expecting people to not think of that franchise.

And the more books you add to Traveller, the more you buy into the official setting. Three books in, and you are not playing anywhere else.

If I want my own universe and a one-book system for 2d6 roleplaying, this is my game. If I want to hex-crawl in space and figure out what is over there in the next star, this will do it without loading a heap of guilt on me that I am not using the official setting.

The hardcover's colors aren't as crazy as the PDF due to printing, which is good. There is also a B&W version now, which I am also considering getting. Are there things that could be improved? I want more alien archetypes or design rules for aliens; more ship designs would be excellent. I would love a plain, B&W, no-art version. But all of these are nice-to-haves and things I can do myself, which is the OSR at heart.

A flawed classic but far better than a lot of the alternatives. The fun-to-play factor outweighs any complaints about art or layout.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Swords & Wizardry Revised Edition

Hail to the king, baby.

My Kickstarter survey came in today, and I got my hands on the PDF for the Swords & Wizardry Revised rulebook. This is a new generation of S&W based on the Creative Commons material, but the game's numbers and "look and feel" are more closely aligned with the original source material.

The beauty of this edition is there is no legal question on "Is this game allowed" or "The rights will be taken away someday." They won't, they can't, and this is a new beginning.

And there are some improvements over even OSE and other games, with the super-handy addition of a mid-book index only for spells (p52-53), listed alphabetically with page numbers - and every entry in this index is hyperlinked (spell and page)! This is a fantastic addition to the PDF and makes finding a spell description the easiest in any digital rulebook I have ever used.

With magic resistance and the classic "advanced" monsters, this feels like the best retro-clone of 1e that is out there today, future-proof, with beautiful retro art, and amazingly laid out and organized.

And the OGL is finally dead.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Cypher System: The Universal Task Mechanic

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

There are a lot of incredible rules in the Cypher System, but none more universal than how monsters are created.

You set the level.

You multiply the level by 3 for hits.

That is the average monster of anything in the game. Now, you can tweak the numbers so everything isn't so uniform, like making a goblin a level 2 creature with 6 hits but making the little guy vicious and force level 3 defense rolls (doing 3 damage) on the characters - now the goblin is weak to taking damage but can put out more damage than an average level 2 critter. Monsters can have many other special abilities and rules, including special attacks and defenses and anything else you could find in a d20 game.

Minus a heck of a lot of rules.

However, what if you wanted to rate a complicated, multipart task where progress is tracked?

Simply make it a monster.

Set the task level, and multiply by 3 to calculate the "hits" of the task. Make rolls against the task as usual, like standard combat. But how much "damage" do you do on a successful roll? That depends on the effort, and you can rate that as a light (2 points, eases), medium (4 points), or heavy weapon (6 points, inability). The player chooses the level of effort (2, 4, or 6) and modifies difficulty according to the situation, assets, skills, and rolls.

Reduce the task's hits (or total effort needed) on a success. On a failure, no effort is gained. On failed rolls, you could reduce a character's ability score pool by the task level if the task is physically or mentally exerting. You could even use that as damage (such as untangling a panicked animal from a thorny briar).

Bonus effects on the rolls (like bonus damage) can be used to reduce the task's hits/total effort.

The atomic pass/fail rolls are still the standard way of doing most everything in the game. Still, this system lets you use the combat mechanics for complex tasks, such as safecracking, where a series of rolls may be needed to open the safe, and the character could mentally exert themselves on a string of failures.

The rules of this game are so easy to hack, and this is one of the best d20 systems out there.