Friday, August 10, 2018

Tabletop Simulator

Tabletop Simulator. I gifted my friend this on Steam during last weekend's sale and we played around with this, and she enjoyed it a lot. I wanted to play traditional pen-and-paper games with her right away but we ended up playing with the physics sandbox a whole lot, and then we played a couple traditional games, and then we made up our own games with the pieces we had available.

I gave her spawn permissions and she had a blast. She crashed one game by spawning a couple dozen bowls into the game all at once but live and learn.

We are still playing this and her interest is shifting to pen-and-paper games, and I find that this sort of online play tool with a lot of other things and games to play is ideal for introducing new players to online play. While this isn't as full featured as a Roll20 or other dedicated virtual tabletops, there is a lot of "other stuff" to do to get someone interested in virtual gaming than other packages.

We can play chess, checkers, Chinese checkers, dominoes, poker, or any other board game she was familiar with. We got used to how online tabletop gaming worked with familiar games.

The downside is that we need to stick to simpler games, such as B/X style games, and that is also an upside as well. I can get complicated character sheets for "big book" games, but I would rather not. I would like to keep it simple and just use the note cards and a simple set of rules. I don't want to overwhelm players with complicated setups to start, though it is nice to have workshop content to cover these games.

This is an excellent introduction and sandbox for new players and we are both happy we set this up.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

In Stores: B/X Essentials Monsters (Hard Copy)

I put in my order for the B/X Essentials: Monsters book over on DriveThru RPG today and now I start the waiting. I have the PDF, I just love the feel and size of these digest style books, and having a hard copy takes me back to days gone by.

Plus the system is like no other, compact, concise, expandable, well organized, and just what you need to play any B/X style game. I cannot wait for the adventures book to be done, and then, another, and another...

A new collection starts and it feels good again.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Car Wars Classic Rules Free Online

This one is a couple years old, but it is a cool throwback freebie from the game's publisher, Steve Jackson Games. If you like to see what the pre-computer world of 1/10th of a second car combat sims was like, here is a good chance to turn back the clock and spend 4 hours simulating 20 seconds of car combat.

We loved this game so much it lasted 40 years of tabletop gaming, and even the setting was iconic throughout our gaming years.

"Where Do I Start...?"

I was talking to a friend about playing a traditional pen-and-paper RPG with her over Tabletop Simulator, Basic Fantasy in fact. I like Basic Fantasy for new players mainly because of the modern-style AC system, the AC of a monster is the target number, and that is what you have to roll higher than to-hit. No attack charts needed, and what you see is what you have to roll.

Now she has been out of pen-and-paper gaming for a while, and we talked about her feelings about playing. Her response was she was interested, but she had no idea where to start. I actually gave her a copy of the rules last time we met, and even a game I feel is easy to pick up as BF was still a bit much to digest for someone coming into the hobby. Yes, I asked her if I could share this, by the way, and I hope to teach her how things work very soon. A new player, I know, very exciting...

Another "hard to start" issue with pen-and-paper games is inherently their open-endedness. With a game like Monopoly, there is a set board, set pieces, and a set world in a box that a player can figure out. This makes me miss the old Dungeon board game from TSR that was sort of the same way, a set board, a set world, and an ever increasing cave of danger with keyed room colors and stacks of cards for each "level" of the dungeon.

I sit here as an experienced DM with over 40 years of experience and there is a part of me saying, "Of course it is open ended with no map! That is where the fun is!"

And then there is the new player part of me saying, "I can understand why the hesitance. I can see why someone would ask, what am I getting into?"

What Am I Getting Into?

There is no map. The rules leave a lot up to interpretation. The DM can kill my character for any reason, even a stupid mistake. The world is unforgiving, as I could wander into a dangerous part of the dungeon and it is game over. I could run out of supplies down there, or worse yet, get lost. I could roll bad and it is game over. How do I trust the DM is being fair? How do I know when the dungeon is over? What if I don't want to be a part of a story, and I just want to play combat? What if I hate combat and just want to play a story?

Halfway through that list of fears that I came up with...I started to want to play the game, because I realized no other game was like this. It is a strange thought that the bad parts that a "traditional family board gamer" can come up with are actually strong selling points of a pen-and-paper game.

But I need to work harder at this I feel, harder at "selling" that fairness part of being a DM. A lot of the hesitance I feel at getting new players excited is the inherent mistrust of the dungeon master. That a DM won't be fair. That a DM will make it up as the game goes on. That a DM will look for every chance to TPK the party. That the DM will change things secretly in the background to either make things harder or easier. That a DM has secrets and can't be trusted. That a DM will use the player's misfortune as a source of enjoyment.

Again, as a DM with over 40 years of experience I laugh at those statements, but with my friend I can see how those same fears can just make someone say, "I can't put that must trust in someone so I am going to walk away."

The Game is The DM

With traditional board games, the game board is the DM. They are inanimate objects and the interaction between the pawns on the board and the rules define the "world" and the interactions between them are physical and can be understood in a 1-to-1 relationship. Like the Dungeon board game, you have these passages and rooms, you roll dice to move, and to pull cards to see what monster is in a room and your character card gives you the information you need to succeed in that battle. If you win, you pull a treasure card.

The trust is there built into the game, except the trust is contained within the world the game's designer drew on the map and built into the interactions with the pawns and game board. I see all the game's pieces, therefore my trust is built by the interactions between them.

D&D 4 was like this for us. It was "battle chess" for our group. The game was played on dungeon tiles. You didn't really need a DM, as you could setup the scenario and go. You could round-robin the monster's turn among players and have the monsters act to the best of their abilities.

The Module is the DM

I have this feeling how I am going to solve this is hold up one of my modules and say, "we are playing this, my job is to tell you what happens depending on where you go." It sounds so simple and obvious that I wonder why I am even writing this article, because that is what you are supposed to do. It is simple, right?

But for my friend, it isn't. She has no concept of any of this. For us in the hobby, this is easy. For outsiders, it is not so easy. That is why I am writing this.

That published module becomes "the game board" in her eyes, the "story book" she will adventure through. I feel this would all be harder if I were to wing it and make things up, because, "what are we doing?" I love narrative games where the action goes wherever the players drive the story to through their actions, but another part of me loves the, "buy it and solve it" style of play with prepackaged adventures. Later on, if we ever meet people who played these adventures as well we can share stories.

This becomes an experience she can talk about to others, and they can have that same experience - and they know the game's name, the adventure, and that becomes something she can share more than, "That person played this game with me and was a really good DM and he made things up and I had fun. I don't know the name what we played but we had fun."

Winging it can come later, and more story-oriented play can come later. She may just have fun doing this and that is all we do. For now, I think I solved the problem, even if this solution was the way I was supposed to do it in the first place.

But thinking through this in a different way gives me the perspective from her viewpoint, and I find that very helpful for introducing the game to her and all it has to offer.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Retainers and Hirelings Through the Ages

The original B/X rules had rules for hirelings, specialists, mercenaries, and retainers; and also the books contained rules for buying ships and building castles. One could surmise that putting together a large expedition is a part of the game.
We go to the seaport and spend a thousand gold hiring a small force of laborers and mercenaries to excavate the ruined temple while guarding our work site from the tribal lizard-men who surround the site. Make sure to find a good captain to commend the men and an experienced crew boss to manage the workers. Oh, and we will need boats too to haul everything out - let's plan on a large haul.
You spend money to get money. You spend a thousand gold because you know there are tens of thousands of coins down there in that ancient temple to haul out with pack animals (you had to buy) down narrow mountain tracks while protecting your haul from the lizard-men who see that temple as a shrine to their ancient lizard god and will do everything to keep your almost-colonial ambitions for loot and wealth in check with a poisoned spear and ritualistic shaman magic.

The hirelings? In it for the money too - probably more than they will ever see in their lifetime, so they accept the risk of being eaten by a basilisk in exchange for making what would take years with sustenance agriculture, taxes, levies, droughts, family costs, and unplanned economies that eats a hole in the bottom of the money pouch for the average peasant.

People forget medieval economics these days.

The AD&D Era

By AD&D we started to see the shift towards the more traditional "adventuring party" style of adventure, and don't worry, enough bags of holding will keep your labor costs down to a minimum. You could teleport in and out with a small team and clean out almost any location with just five people.

There were some notable mentions of large groups of hirelings being needed for adventures such as The Tomb of Horrors and others, but I don't really remember any module requiring you to manage a large group of hirelings during the time we played AD&D.

To be fair, the rules for all types of hirelings are here, but the ramp up in character and magic item power moved our games from more of an expedition-based adventure model into a super-heroic one where a small party of adventurers could do anything. Given enough gates, teleports, bags of holding, floating discs, and other cash-hauling magics there was this work multiplier with convenience magic that allowed a small group of mid-to-high level adventurers to haul huge loads. This was one of those forms of power creep that entered the game at this time, "Here's a common problem, let's solve it with magic!"

You get these types of popular wishes of players and the magic naturally rushes in to fill the void, and I wonder at times if some decisions are better left as they are, and some core concepts left alone.

AD&D 2nd Edition I felt moved farther along the "party of heroes" model and retainers moved to the back in importance. Your characters adventured alongside the heroes from the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance - just like those characters - and who needs an army of unskilled labor weighing them down when adventure awaits! We kept the super-hero model of the iconic D&D party, based our adventures off the Tolkien-like book heroics, and never really fussed with hirelings in most cases.

D&D 3.x and Pathfinder

The concept of "character build as deck build" came into play with the 3rd edition of the rules and all of its subsequent variants, and I feel retainers and hirelings moved farther back in the entire scheme of things. This is my character build, and it can take on all comers! Who needs hirelings when my character sheet is the length of a moderately complicated tax form and I am ready for any special case rule thrown my way?

Pathfinder's adventure paths are also a great example of adventures built for characters of this generation of the rules, typically focused on the party of four or five heroes and built around a mathematical challenge rating system that ensures a slow-but-steady drip-drip of resources that will be used every encounter.

And the 15-minute adventure day was born because players tended to alpha-attack the first encounter with everything they had and then headed back to the inn to rest a day before they tackled the next challenge. This was also a way to mitigate resource management and bad luck, as a bad encounter ensured you needed to bug out and rest to recover your bad situation.

But retainers and hirelings? Really pushed to the back further I feel, and the concept of putting together an expedition of NPCs and random swords for hire seemed as alien to this generation of gaming.

World of D&D 4-Craft

By D&D 4 a character was essentially an MMO character, and I don't even remember hirelings being mentioned all that much in any D&D 4 book. I am pretty sure they were mentioned somewhere but we never used them in our "battle chess" type games of tight hallways and chambers, grid based movement, and some really fun encounters during the early days of the game that we enjoyed. We never had room for hirelings on the game board since all our play were those tight, one map, small corridor and room fights the game did so well before the books piled on and the game collapsed under its own weight of revisions and expansions.

We had fun with the game, but we felt hirelings were so far removed from the game - and characters were so powerful and cool - that we never bothered with them. It felt like a cool video-game on the tabletop and that is how we played it.

D&D 5

Hireling NPCs rarely become important during an adventure...
That quote is on page 94 of the 5e DMG, and a 2 gp a day cost for any type of skilled hireling in the PHB and that is mostly all I can find on the subject. Also, D&D 5 does not scale that well (from what I hear) with large numbers of low-level characters assisting in a battle due to the flatter dicing mechanics, so I can understand why you shouldn't really cheese your way through every fight with Robin Hood and his 20-man sheaf of merry archers in formation behind you vaporizing any enemy in the Monster Manual with vollies of longbow fire. We are still in the "party as the base heroic unit" model of adventure and game balance.

B/X Style Play

I like the focus on putting together a Tarzan-like expedition of no-name hirelings and specialists for an adventure. I like having to hire mercenaries to protect our camp and supplies, and buy (or pay) ships and crews to haul back the loot to civilization. I like worrying about our supply of pack animals and food, where we get water from, and being called away from the temple we are exploring to deal with an attack or threat to on the group we hired.

That is cool, literary stuff for me, and it feels good. I like developing interesting NPCs for these groups, mostly no-names but there may be an interesting few people in the mix to interact with and add flavor to the game. Plus this matches some of the old-time movies that I love where a brave expedition heads down to a lost jungle or Antarctica and braves all sorts of hardships and dangers while seeking the lost treasures of the ancients.

And in B/X games those extra tag-alongs are typically weak, unless they are expensive and skilled hirelings (which you can have a limited amount of). The rules are also simple enough where you could battle out most any action scene with hirelings and mercenaries thrown into the mix without spending hours running the combat.

I don't like the "magic-superhero" style of play where we loot a dungeon by opening up a gate between point A and B and shove the piles of gold through the magic portal with farm tractors. I don't like magic replacing the need for hauling tons of loot, like owning twenty bags of holding and shoving everything in them for a quick teleport home. I like difficult and limited magic in these situations, and limiting the number of "ease of use" magic items so large expeditions are still needed and the way to do things.

The heroes can still be heroes, and it does not change the cool story moments where a classic skilled five-person party is needed to get things done.

This is all interesting how things changed over the years towards more 'cinematic' and party-based play and away from the classic 'expedition to nowhere' novel-style party-plus-hirelings model of play. Tastes and styles of play change, but I find it interesting (and informative in choosing a game) to reflect back on the history of hirelings and expeditions in gaming and how everything changed over the years. It is also interesting that many B/X games faithfully keep the hireling, ship, specialist, and mercenary rules around so this era of play can survive.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Mail Room: Realms of Crawling Chaos

Imagine, if you will, a medieval 'fantasy' world where there are no mages and there are no clerics. Man does not have the power nor the mind to wield magic, nor do the gods listen to the prayers of the devout. There are no holy knights, no druids in secluded glades, and no elves nor dwarfs in the deep forests or the mountains yonder.

Just humans, be them thieves or soldiers. Weapons of iron and souls steeled to the nightmares from beyond.

And a world of horrors from beyond time and space who prey upon these souls in a manner so callous and uncaring it is as if our race were ants under the heel of these cosmic beings.

Realms of Crawling Chaos

This is another cool book from Goblinoid Games of Labyrinth Lord fame, completely compatible with the Goblin-verse of games including the fore-mentioned, Mutant Future, Starships and Spacemen, and even Apes Victorious. It is as if the world never moved on from the B/X ruleset, what we knew is what worked, and things like the TSR d100 systems never came to be and AD&D 2nd Edition never happened. Things just stayed kind of the same, and what we had was how the world worked.

This is a book that meshes a unique interpretation of the Lovecraftian myths with the B/X sensibilities of Labyrinth Lord and it works. It is as if that banned section of the original Deities and Demigods took on a life of its own, spawned a dark and twisted fantasy world, and all sorts of horror and beasts lurked in the darkness of fantasy worlds as black as night and as dark as the souls of the evil which lurks in mankind's hearts.

It is a book when I read it it feels as if I should not be reading it, and that is a cool feeling. It is very different than the more well-known Call of Cthulhu, with a B/X sensibility and a bunch of creatures unique to this interpretation of the mythos. That said, I am not sure I would want to mix these in with orcs and trolls as a monster manual expansion for the base game, though it would be fun for an adventure or two as a one-time-only diversion for a party that thought they have seen it all. Maybe they would never make it back from a place inhabited by creatures such as this.

The Dark Fantasy Campaign

I like the idea of the no player magic of the dark fantasy idea presented in this book - it feels entirely unfair and punishing, but a part of me thinks there are players out there up for such a challenge. No ultimate power 'I win button' magic spells and no 'pray to my god' party heals. Just iron and bone, flesh and sheer will, and the mastery of weapons smithed in the forge and the guile of rogues ready to stab evil in the back.

I did not see any insanity rules, though that in a way fits in with my feelings about B/X and the referee should run the game to make the players feel the fear and go insane when they argue among themselves if they should open that next door or not. Though if you wanted to, there are two or three easy ways around this:

  • Save versus Death for insta-kill situations
  • Save versus Paralyze/Petrify for fear or insanity effects
  • Save versus Spells for resisting curses and eldritch magic

Done. There, you have most of what you need for a sanity or fear system with the base game's saving throw system. Save versus petrify, roll random flight or freeze whenever a horror is encountered. Allow the character a Wisdom saving roll modifier on those fear saves (if you want) and you are all set.

Save versus death modifiers? Strength for crushing traps, dexterity for falling to your death, constitution for poisons, intelligence for things which would utterly destroy your mind, and so on. I am a fan of the flexible death save like this, and these should come often enough that if you go pokeing around in a bastion of alien power and infestation a couple insta-death books, snake filled pits, evil soul sucking mirrors, deadly traps, death magic doorknobs, look at the symbol and die, flying metal sigils with razor blazes, falling racks of nails, peer through a keyhole and a poniard thrusts out, and other scary horror-show traps of instant death lurking about that players should be very afraid of random and uncaring peril awaits around every corner, ready to strike.

As a referee, if I ran these death traps the less logical I mad them the better. Hurald the Brave brushes his bare arm against the black tapestry and he beings coughing violently, only to disintegrate into a ashen pile of dust. Jontik peers into the dark hallway, only to have his soul sucked out by the darkness beyond. Tranard tries to squeeze between the stones, but misunderstands the geometry of the space and is crushed to an infinite thinness between planar walls. Rejik suddenly collapses to the ground, and the high pitched whine only he can hear scrambles his consciousness as it leaks out his ears in purple ichor.

Curses too can be used, like a magic curse affecting a character that randomly blanks out a character's memory of what that character did when they were sent off alone in a certain room. Another magic curse that makes a character hear howling noises behind them, and just when they thought those were just noises...bam! A curse that makes a character stand there stone still instead of fight. A curse that makes a character afraid of the sun. A curse that turns a character against the townspeople, causing mistrust and anger towards them. You are but an ant in this world of alien cosmic power, you could not know nor understand the powers upon which you touch nor could you predict what they would do to your fragile mind. That.

Insanity too, if a character is unlucky enough to fail two fear saves in a roll, give them a temporary insanity. Critical fail or a failed save while temporarily insane? Permanent. Make up their affliction and have the player run with it.

Nothing has to make sense, it only has to be deadly and strange enough to give players the creeps. They may not want to play with you again because you are such a weird and creepy dungeon master, but they will be back for more.

Better With Simple Rules

I get the feeling if I ran this the body count on the player's side would be pretty high. At the beginning of the night there may be grumbling that we aren't playing this with  a more character-building friendly game such as Pathfinder. At the end of the night, they will understand why they will need to be able to spin up a new character in 5 minutes because their last four characters did not make it out of the strange hole in the ground alive. This is better as a horror game where your character starts off expendable, and if you ever manage to survive an infestation, you hold onto that second or third level hero with dear life. If we end up with an even mix of laughing and sheer terror with characters dropping like this was a crazy session of the game Paranoia I know I will have done a good job as referee.

Really, I like these retro clones because they are crazy, indie, creative remixes of what came before with a new spin on things - and they excite my imagination in ways other game's don't. I feel I don't have that freedom to invent strange insanities, deathtraps, and curses in normal Lovecraftian games - but because of the Tomb of Horrors make up whatever killer trap or deadly curse legacy of B/X games, I do feel a lot more free with this game to just say it and do it.

I don't need every scary effect vectored out with rules and character options to defend against them. Trust me, this is how dungeon masters back in the day ran things, and as long as we were fair, cool about things, and listened to players when things got too intense our group could handle and play anything. We could make up rules for lots of things and have fun. The game became ours in a way, with our own tweaks and mods, and we played it how we wanted to play it.

That is what I love about B/X style rules, they left a lot up to us and we loved the freedom.