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.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

More is Worse?

There is this trick the big publishers pull on us and I feel we (as consumers and game buyers) tend to fall for it every time.

More is better!

By the end of D&D 4th Edition there were literally thousands of feats and powers, dozens of class choices, a near infinite variety of equipment (each piece only being good for a few builds), and so much choice you felt like you had it all. I get this feeling Pathfinder 1st Edition is in the same place, and when you add in all the web content for D&D 5th Edition you are getting back to that point of a massive amount of choice- though I could be wrong since I haven't been keeping up on 5th Edition since my player base has dried up recently. I do like they limit D&D 5 to the basic three books, but I don't feel this can be kept up forever and we will someday see choice creep come in as the pressure to sell new things (and the demand for it) increases.

Even if everything is great, there is a point where the sheer quantity of it all makes the entirety of it less great. If there is a mix of good, great, and average, I get this feeling it is all average.

I feel the original AD&D was built from the 'more is better' sort of feeling, where the more options you had the better the game became. But more, really, is it better?

Characters as Deck Builds

By the time you get to D&D 3.x you get the concept of a Magic the Gathering style of 'deck building' as character design, and the game became polluted with 'bad choices' to create less-optimal paths for the game design concept of system mastery to be a thing. The double-ended two-handed weapons as I remember were put into the game expressly for this purpose, and a game already heavy with great, good, and okay choices now becomes cluttered with bad and worse choices everywhere to sort through.

Magic cards are one thing, you can put the ones you don't want in a box somewhere and you are left with a deck of your best stuff. You can control complexity by physical exclusion. Your deck is 'just the stuff you play with.' With role playing games, what options do I have to control complexity? Rip the pages out of the book? Permanent marker? I feel this is the biggest failing of the 'deck building' style of pen and paper RPG character creation games, you have to physically carry around every 'magic card' and rule with you in order to play the game (or you need programs like Hero Lab to sort through them all).

Printing a character sheet helps players keep everything together, but as a referee? I need to know this all or be able to reference it quickly should it come up, and there isn't an easy way for a GM to limit the rules they need to know. We need to know everything, be able to find a rule or feat in a collection of dozens of books out of thousands of entries, and it only gets worse the longer a game is around since expansions endlessly add complexity.

By D&D 4 this sort of data overload for referees was even worse, even though we liked that game at the time. Not so much now. D&D 5 thankfully rolled back the madness, but it is still AD&D-ish in the amount of choice and complexity in my feelings. I wish I had more experience with D&D 5 though, so I probably have more work and reading to do (along with finding opportunities to play) so I can have valid thoughts on that subject and be fair to the game.

And I feel when I read most of these modern post 3.x games, 'too much.' I get choice paralysis and walk away to play other games. Computer games do all this better. I simply don't have the time these days to wade through all of this, read through a thousand pages of game, and figure all this out.

B/X by Comparison

OSR and B/X games by comparison feel like a 'best of' compilation of the traditional dungeon game experience. Labyrinth Lord for me hits that AD&D level of complexity and choice while still keeping the B/X simple game feeling, so right now that is my game of choice. I don't want characters that are these two or three hour design session enshrined masterpiece of math and story background.

Roll 3d6 for three ability scores, pick a race and class, and let's get you to the shop to buy some gear. This character may not live that long so name them only if you want to. Pick something silly. Have fun. I could run this myself!

I get this feeling as I have less times to play games, the ones I get the most out of are the simple ones. The more a game has, the more it asks for me, and the more I just can't find the time to play it no matter how fun having all of those options are for players who have the time to master the system. I am just not one of them anymore. System mastery is ultimately an exclusive force, along with being a lock-in tactic for publishers.

Story Mode

Another aspect of modern post D&D 4 games is the mixing in of narrative mechanics into the character design mix. Mostly I feel this is borrowed from FATE, the master of the narrative-based action game and I hold that game in very high regard for being a 'so what happens next' sort of story game that pushes aside complicated character design and math (as story) to building characters out of 'story tags' and letting the mayhem go from there. D&D 5 has this sort of a system (I feel) bolted on through a background and inspiration mechanic which I feel doesn't really go far enough for the narrative-as-action mechanic. I read it and wanted more, but another part of me wanted less.

I am conflicted about this, as if I want narrative to influence the action through mechanics, I will play FATE or even Savage Worlds. Toss those huge spell and feat lists away, we are just letting the narrative and mad-lib action rule the game and not worshiping on the altar of d20. In my experience, games built around narrative play do the best job of creating that 'story as game' experience.

Narrative mechanics add complexity, going into the more is more area, and I feel the more modern narrative-focused games do a far better job at this than a system bolted on to what should be a more simple B/X affair - where the story is, "do you open that door?"

Strip out all narrative systems and put the fear of what's behind the door in the player's hearts - not is some artificial storytelling system. That is B/X to me. But I still love my pure storytelling systems as well, I am not so convinced they need to be in dungeon games because I love that one to one player to referee relationship of 'what do you do next?' Risk. Reward. Puzzle solving. Danger. Pushing your limits. Going that extra room and possibly losing it all. That, to me, is the story of a great dungeon game. Again, we go back to that playing piece Monopoly feeling of the thrill of doing well in the game more than having to write a backstory for the car, dog, and the thimble.

So...personal stories. Extra detail? Yes. Interesting? Possibly. The focus of the game? I am not so sure. For the overall dungeon, yes, I feel there should be a story there. For characters? If they want, yes and I can play along, but I would never force a story on a player if all they wanted to do was hack and slash. My feeling, personal stories are optional and interesting, and those should be up to the players.

But an extra layer of complexity if codified into the rules, so it is worth asking are narrative rules really needed for a fun game.

B/X Essentials

B/X Essentials, especially when compared with Labyrinth Lord, is a fascinating thought process for me. You could call B/X Essentials a "subset game" in comparison to many other B/X inspired games, as the core of the rules work and you can pull in as much as you want from other B/X games and have everything work.

But more so, you can play B/X Essentials straight and have a 'best of' experience since all of the unneeded fluff and extra options are stripped out. I get this chess-like feeling when I read the game, that everything has been boiled down into a molecular purity of thought and decision. This is that missing dungeon style game box set I would buy at Target and have everything I need for years of play, and no distractions in the game weighing it down. It gives me that Monopoly feeling where the best is all that remains, and the distractions have been cleaned out.

A reset, if you will, and a fresh start.

I Want to Control What's 'More'

Bringing this all back around to the original thought, I want to control the 'what's more' in my games. Too often, and this is especially true with Pathfinder, you will get a lot of junk with the few things you want. We are back to the magic card deck again, and having that ability to throw away the cards we don't want. In this thinking, having a game like B/X Essentials gives me just a base set of cards I can expand upon in any way. If I want to play a Arthurian fantasy game with some Robin Hood mixed in, I can do that easily, have a Knight class, a Robber class, a Sheriff class, maybe a Friar, and we are good to go. I don't need to worry about Druids or Halflings running around Sherwood Forest mucking things up. If I want them, they are there, but I have that choice.

If I want a narrative rules set for story-based play I can add it in, and I don't have to use it for every game I play. I can have a different narrative rules add-on for another game if it makes sense to change things, and I have that freedom with a modular system.

And more so, going forward, I want to be able to control complexity and add-ons, and not have to take everything. While I love the Class Compendium for Labyrinth Lord, there are parts I won't use and don't need. I can pick and choose, but I would love for things to be more modular without me having to create lists of what is being used versus what is not. I can envision a time when I collect so much stuff for Labyrinth Lord that I am at the same point as I was with Pathfinder, although the starting point will be B/X and I will be in an ultimately less complex and better place, my problems of 'too much' will return.

Again, it is why I like B/X Essentials so much, because it gives me a plan to escape this mess. This feels like a set of the old 'little black books' that I loved about the old Traveller game, but for dungeon adventures, yet better thought out and ready for expansion without breaking under the weight of the inevitable. There is even a 'reset' option for complexity. I could even throw out all of the expansions I added in, go back to the base rules, and start again if I so desired, something impossible with games like D&D or Pathfinder (without needing an entirely new edition).

Computer languages evolve like this, and they go from these very-low level and monolithic Towers of Babel to more modern, smaller, cleaner and more expressive designs that let you do more...

...with less.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Mail Room: Class Compendium

Another box from the mail room is opened today, and look at what we have!

This is a cool one from over at Barrel Rider Games, the Class Compendium which was designed for Labyrinth Lord but can be used for any B/X game really. I got mine over at RPG Now, and opted for the PDF and hardcover printed book combo. I like hardcover books, but I  like PDFs for my phone when I am somewhere outside and want something more intelligent to absorb than a mobile game.

Want to turn Labyrinth Lord or any B/X game into something more like Pathfinder, but still keep the tried-and-true B/X sensibilities? This is your book. It adds 52 new classes, some profession-based and others are the traditional race-based, and I love reading through these and seeing a B/X take on some of the traditional expansion classes (Bard, Barbarian, Acrobat) and getting some really fun new classes (Pirate, Friar, Explorer).

We also get some fun race-classes, such as dragons, angels, treants, and goblins. We also get race-specific classes for dwarves, elves, and halflings like the elven greensinger or the halfling burglar. You can even play as a familiar and I find that enchanting and sounding like a blast for some of the players we had the joy to play with over the years.

Balance

I feel a lot of work was put in balancing the classes against a lower-powered B/X framework, and I get a good feeling on my first look on a lot of these. My first impression is "these are a bit sparse and low powered" but remember, each one of these has to compete and be balanced against a B/X fighter, cleric, thief, or magic user. Going overboard means the expansion classes will be great power-creep choices, so I like the limited feel and lower power level of a lot of these designs.

The Bard is Cool

I really like the non-magical bard here, and this class fits my vision of a singing and on-the-side thief who has a good basic singing power and can stand alongside a party of other B/X heroes and not outshine them. I have had other games where the bard class clearly outshined the party's thief, and we got this feeling the bard did everything better as a superior thief+ class. More on the bard later, because I would love to do a comparison of different B/X bards in different books and how they were designed. This one, while basic, feels the best to me and I am still collecting data for that bards in B/X article.

Expanded in Many Directions

A feeling I get from this book is that the classes aren't really expanded in any one direction, they go all over the place. This is essentially a collection of classes that were once individually published, and that is a great value in itself. But if you are looking for something that has a singular focus on presenting something where the classes all augment and fit together each other you may feel a little confused about this book and adding it to your game. The book starts with a Lovecraftian alienist class that seems something out of an insane version of Cthulhu in Wonderland than it does traditional B/X, and then the book goes in so many directions it gets confusing and a bit wanderlust at times.

In my mind, I was trying to think of a game world where all of these classes can exist together, and it came off in my mind as a fantasy version of the Mos Eisley cantina where anything goes and random bar patrons can step up and meet their doom in places like Barrowmaze, including the wanderer in the back corner, the town's watchman by the door, the mad scientist alienist who gets them all killed, the fortune teller, and the lost boy who follows the group around like Short Round out of The Temple of Doom.

This is a good thing and a bad thing. Good if you like fruitcake mixed parties where anyone and anything can join in and participate, but bad if you are more the serious type who likes things to make sense and have an overarching and meaningful theme to the group of heroes sitting around your table. Pathfinder got this way by the end of its first-edition run, you could make an anything class being an anybody and sit at the table and join in the fun. I get that vibe here as well with Class Compendium, and this is the first book I can say I would add to my Labyrinth Lord expanded collection to make the whole game feel more like Pathfinder without the problem of dragging the system down into endless complexity and back-breaking amounts of reference.

You can add a lot of options without a lot of complexity, although this feels a bit random I can deal with it. Plus, I am one of those rare people who love fruitcake and those off-the-wall adventuring parties where someone literally plays a house cat. And you can do that here.

Choice vs. Focus

I get this feeling you can have too much choice in a game and things are ruined by being a mile wide and an inch deep. In a normal B/X game when you encounter an NPC they can really only be one of the few chess pieces available. Solving problems doesn't mean choosing the right class for the problem, but using what you have in intelligent ways. If you have a mystery-style adventure, you don't need an 'investigator' style class to solve it - everyone can play Sherlock Holmes and figure things out. You get a purpose-built class for one type of problem and all of a sudden the rest of the party feels minimized.

You also run the risk of watering down a party's core competencies in the standards, like fighting, thieving, spell-casting, and healing with classes like these. If everyone is playing a specialist, you can get parties that are more like a Las Vegas buffet of random tastes than you have a focused and complete meal or team that works together. By the end of Pathfinder's first edition run that's the feeling I got from the parties we encountered, they were more ensembles of strange 'I wanna be a' classes than they were traditional fighter-mage-thief parties.

Ultimately it comes down to taste, but if every player is picking a specialist then I suspect that the referee will need to make adjustments to the adventure for balance, play-ability, and also supporting the classes and making things interesting. If one player picks an investigator class and the dungeon is a straight up combat grind, you are going to have that player feeling their special abilities won't be used. Yes, this is ultimately the player's fault for picking an oddball class which may run against the theme of the adventure and/or campaign, but good referees can adjust and throw in some mysteries every now and then to compensate.

Then again, without these classes you don't have these problems of specialists. Again, it really is about choice versus focus, what your group prefers, and how the referee likes to run things. I like a lot of choice by default since it creates a richer world, but I know the problems this can cause so I am better prepared for the times when the entire table picks strange classes and expects the game to be able to hanlde that.

Of course, this is OSR we are talking about so if everyone picks a housecat and wanders into the Tomb of Death it is going to be a housecat slaughter, so it is ultimately easier to deal with players that want to be strange classes. But then again, who am I to take away that chance of the housecats actually pulling it off and becoming feline legends? To each their own and it is good to have options I say.

More Soon

More on this book soon as I crack it open and start reading it from cover to cover, but this is one I feel is a keeper and a worthwhile addition to my now expanding collection of Labyrinth Lord OSR goodness.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

B/X Essentials: Core Rules


Let's do a deeper dive on each of the B/X Essentials books, starting the the B/X Essentials Core Rules book. This is a 34-page saddle-stitched 6" x 9" book, so it isn't all that big but it is dense and packed full of the core rules needed to play most any B/X game. This is halfway between a published game and a scholarly reference, and if you are comparing differences between B/X games this is a handy book to have since it gives you a starting point to work from.

As time goes on I feel that 'API reference' is important because there really aren't any rules on what is the final ruling on a rule or aspect of a B/X rules set - nor really, should there be. This is helpful since it attempts to lay out a rule and its implementation in a published source, and then attempts to work through discrepancies and differences. I feel it would be kind of silly to say 'this is the official source' when it would be better to say 'this is a well-researched source and other games differ by X and Y' on a rule or aspect of B/X games.

It is all a little soft on rulings and definitions since B/X itself is an emulation of a style of rules and era of play and really, there can't be an official source at all - but there can be well researched and useful ones.

I say most any because there is always going to be special rules needed to cover rules specific to situations that will come up in certain games, for example there aren't rules for shotguns, grenade-like weapons, or automatic fire in this book. This is just the basics for fantasy-style games, and I feel, that is as it should be - because this is where it all begins.

Ability Scores

We start with a short forward, and then two pages of rules for ability scores. We do not get how to create a character, just how the ability scores work and a page of tables describing what the ability scores at different ranges and what those do. The mentions of things like hit points or other concepts are kept to a minimum, as this just focuses on ability scores and their uses.

Why put in character classes when they could be different in every game you play? I like this approach since you don't have to ignore anything or rip out parts of the game you aren't using, if I am playing a Roman gladiator type game, my classes will be gladiator, soldier, politician, bandit, or whatever else I want my game to be focused on.

This eliminates waste and repetition, and it also sets a good base down for any game you want to create with these rules. I hate building a game on top of another, and then having the base game sitting there offering options to players that I don't want them even thinking about, using, or aware of - please stay focused on the game as it was crafted. Here? Just ability scores and no classes, and just how these scores interact with the rest of the rules.

Basic. Simple. Clean. I like it.

Sequence of Play

After that, we get a page laying out the three sequences of play in a B/X game: dungeon turns, encounters, and wilderness days. I like this emphasis on structure from the first pages, since I feel it helps codify the game as a structured play experience instead of something more narrative and soft. There should be this Dungeon the Board Game vibe to older-school games in my feelings, and at least that is how I like playing them. When you play soft, you invite a lot of fudge and player disagreements...
"It hasn't been that long, my light spell should still be up." 
"Another torch, oh come on!" 
"We aren't making that much noise." 
"We brought enough food didn't we, who wouldn't?"
I hate assuming and I hate gimmes. If the party is doomed because someone forgot to buy a flint and tinderbox, so be it. Laugh off your lack of shopping skills and let this stand as a hilarious moment of party ineptitude. The dungeon and wilderness sections remind the referee to pay close attention to these things, such as rest, light sources, rations, and spell durations which are critical concepts to track in B/X style games - especially when resource usage is combined with a tight control of time.

B/X games often have a tight focus on resources, and that is for a good reason. Preparedness keeps you alive, and you try and go camping without food, shelter, warmth, or water - it sucks. Also, your gear is what allows you to pull off all sorts of cool stunts and tricks when it comes time for the referee to determine is a silly plan works.

I like this slightly more strict tracking of time and resources, and to me, that is a part of the 'play' of an old-school game - thinking ahead, planning, and preparing. It also trains players to be careful and write everything down - but that sort of stuff matters in old school games and is a part of the fun. If someone bought a mirror (and it isn't broken), then they get to use it for all sorts of cool more-than-a-medusa tricks, such as peering around a corner, signaling others from a distance, grooming, looking behind a chest or shelf without getting too close, reflecting a shaft of light to somewhere dark, or all sorts of other cool uses creative players would have for such an item.

I feel if you "let them have a mirror because they would have one" because you want to reduce bookkeeping and you are throwing away an important part of the game. Gear (and carrying capacity) matters, so make it your life.

Adventuring Rules

Next up is a long section of adventuring rules, and while I know they are all technically 'adventure rules' I would have liked to see these split up into subsections such as travel, survival, and other topics. That is the game designer in me speaking though, not the reference-minded referee. The section is actually an A to Z sorted on every adventuring rule from air travel to water travel, and I can see why in a more reference-minded work it was done this way. This is a reference book, and it you are looking for healing rules you can find it quickly in the H section - which now that I think about it feels right for a book feeling more like a reference work.

I think that is one of the more important points to consider when using B/X Essentials as a set of for-play rules, the books are more designed as reference works, so things may not be organized in the way you expect, but once you know you are playing out of a A to Z fantasy RPG reference encyclopedia, things makes sense and I can actually find things faster. For new players (or players expecting a traditional 1234... teaching style game) though this may trip them up, so it is worth noting.

That said, I like the gritty and survival-minded adventuring rules presented here. Way back in the days when I used to read Dragon magazine as a kid I always thought the letters saying 'wilderness encounters ruin the adventure' were sort of silly, as I thought wilderness encounters getting to the dungeon were just as much as a part of the game as wandering monsters. Yes, you could die or get completely lost on the way to the adventure, but that was a part of the danger of living in the world.

You need to worry about supplies, mounts and making camp. You need to decide on a schedule of keeping watch. You need to worry about maps and navigation. You need to have a plan should things go wrong. You need to know how to be able to deal with all of the things you may encounter out there on the way to a dark and dangerous place.

You may need to hire retainers, a ship or two, a team of pack animals, buy a month's worth of supplies for 50 people, and a group of workers for this treasure-hunting expedition to the middle of nowhere. Never assume this is one of those '5 person party in a fantasy novel' sort of experiences, as you may need to put together a large expedition for money up front if you are hunting that 50,000 gold-piece haul you heard rumors and legends about on the Isle of Nowhere, especially if that treasure hoard is protected by a dragon.

But as a referee, you need to be fair. You don't need to treat every wandering monster encounter as an instant video-game ambush combat encounter. So you encounter a griffin, does it need to be instantly in your face, ready to fight? Could it be you see it flying by, heading back to its nest, hunting, or just sitting in a river cooling off? Is that group of orcs off in the distance marching towards a hamlet, camped on a hill that you spot nearby, engaged in a battle with a troll, or is the entire group of orcs dead after being blasted by dragon fire?

As a referee, did you use the reaction chart to determine what the reaction is if the encounter meets the party? Perhaps the orcs are just passing through and a bit wary, but willing to trade for supplies. You never know and you should never assume, there are evil and possibly orc-aligned humans in these fantasy worlds so there could be chances to interact with wilderness encounters a more narrow-minded referee would see as 'just monsters.'

Never assume an encounter means combat, and always have that high CHR character out front for parlay (look at the monster reaction chart and realize that even a +1 reaction modifier and a little care can disarm a lot of situations). And never get stuck in the rut of thinking like you are in a limited video-game or simplistic party-based fantasy adventure novel, there are a lot more ways to approach problems in classic B/X style games when you hire specialists, retainers, and use the resources and factions of the game world in creative ways.

Basic Combat Procedure

Two pages of combat rules. Nice. I have this rule that if a role-playing game's combat rules are longer than the rest of the other rules sections of the book the game is unnecessarily over-complicated and some sort of war-game pretending to be a pen-and-paper RPG. You know the feeling, these games with endlessly complicated combat rules, forty or fifty special conditions, page after page of rules covering special situations, and typically full of combat character build options (with 1 out of 10 options actually being worth taking).

Not here. Two pages and we are done and can move on.

I get this feeling pen-and-paper games always have this magnetic pull back towards their complicated war-gaming roots and we can never escape that. There are many, many times I don't really care about build options and combat complexity and I want it all aggregated away. Like, in story-based games. Or old-school games where the decisions of the player in the dungeon (in the moment) outweigh the decisions made during character design (before play). There are some games I feel where once you make a great set of character design choices you don't really need to play because the results are almost predetermined by your build, or the same abilities are used over and over (aka D&D 4) and what promised a lot of flexibility ends up being a script played over and over again.

There's an interesting two-handed weapon rule that states all characters using two-handed weapons go last during a turn, as if they had lost initiative. When you get to the Classes and Equipment book and realize that all missile weapons are listed as two-handed weapons this rule takes on a new realization - most traditional missile fire cannot win initiative and always goes last (except for one-handed missile weapons like slings or thrown weapons).

Though I miss the rules for grenade-like weapons and those oft-reprinted miss charts that used squares and a d8 for direction and some other roll for distance. Those rules may have came later but their omission is noted since I am so used to seeing them changed and over-explained down to war-gaming detail in almost every pen-and-paper game from the era.

If you use the "all weapons do a d6 damage" option it makes two-handed melee weapons pretty pointless as well, but since we like our funny dice shapes and huge damage rolls this strange side-effect isn't probably seen that much. But a part of me likes the "all weapons do a d6" option because, you know, a sword, an arrow, and a dagger do the same "movie damage" anyways in more cinematic settings and we don't need to go in that much detail. I like the option but I feel in practice would rarely use it.

What happens when all participants are using two handed weapons? Is that simultaneous initiative (as if everyone had lost) or does it go on the rolled order (but after all the one-handies)? My preference is the latter.

Other Combat Issues

More combat rules! I know, I was hoping for too much, but this is only two more extra pages for really special cases such as cover, attacking from behind, or unarmed attacks. Morale is also handled here, and I feel this is another part of old-school games that gets hand-waved away in more modern games. Old school fights typically end in a rout by the survivors, and this becomes the most dangerous part of the fight.

If the rout is on the players' side, it is running for their lives.

If the rout is on the monster's side, they need to be stopped before they trigger a second encounter - either by the monsters fleeing to another keyed room or attracting the attention of wandering monsters. Chances are, you are already owed a wandering monster roll just from the noise of the fight, so chances are something may be coming to investigate, add to that a group of screaming goblins running for their lives and you have just upped the odds for trouble.

I feel some pen-and-paper games fall into this video-game mentality, where each room must be handled as a separate battle-chess like encounter or the game's CR or balancing system breaks and the whole game falls into "not fun stop being unfair land" or something. Old-school dungeons are more organic than that. There is a chance if you allow one of the front cave's goblin sentries to get away he runs screaming into the common room full of 20 goblins and you have a real mess on your hands.

That is what fireballs are for.

Then again, noise like that is alerting the whole darn lair. The goblin chief's guards will probably block off the passage, hide the treasure, and ready shortbows. Spells will be prepared by the tribe's shaman. The dire wolves will be set loose in the lower halls. All hell breaks loose.

Good times.

Again, this is when you start pulling out cheats and using up your game-breaking, but one-use, spells. Sleep. Lightning bolt. Fireball. Start burning those expensive scrolls. Your spells aren't balanced for a single-room encounter because you are going to find yourself at times needing something with a bit more power than that. Some things are meant to be unbalanced because life isn't fair, and henceforth, neither should you.

Standard Combat Charts

The base game's fighter-mage-thief and racial classes sneak into the book in the next section in the combat and saving throw charts. I suppose there is no good way to aggregate this, though I could just rename and re-purpose the charts into "combat classes," "semi-combatants," and "non-combatants" if I wanted to re-use them for a new set of classes - and same thing for the saving throw charts.

Ont thing I have always been a fan of is re-purposing saving throws to include more types of hazards. In my games, paralysis saves make good fear saves. Breath weapon saves can serve as dodge rolls. Spell saves make good mental attack saves. Death saves? Of course, instant death, system shock, or any other sort of save or die mechanic. Wands? Wands are odd since you would expect those to fall under spells, but wands are easier to save against than spells and they fall between death and fear saves - so I typically make these a health (ward versus disease) save since dwarves, elves, clerics and fighters all excel at these. At 10th level a dwarf isn't going to get sick, save versus wands at a 3+ please.

Magic

Finally, magic. Not lists of magic items, but rules for memorizing spells, casting spells, spell effects, spell books, and magic items come into play here. We also get rules for magic item types, such as potions and rings, and how many of each can be worn or used during a turn. We also get magical research and then the book closes with the OGL and an index of tables.

There aren't any lists of magic items, which I like because again, the basic rule book isn't tying me to one setting and its list of magic items. Just the types that may or may not be in the world and how they are used is covered, and that is it.

It Is Easy to Get Excited About This...

That is my feeling about B/X Essentials, especially after reading the Core Rules. I haven't felt this way about a game since Traveller's little black books. I love multi-genre B/X style games that use the rules for an entirely new experience, such as Labyrinth Lord and all of its spin-off games such as Mutant Future and other games in that multi-verse.

But with B/X Essentials, I see the holy grail of a generic universal B/X based system right here in front of my eyes. A B/X style Traveller, where you start out a level 1 pilot with 1d6 pitiful hit points and explore the vast hex-grid galaxy star by star? Maybe your starting 10 meter long scout ship is a piece of junk with only 10 vehicle hit points, AC 9, and is armed with a single 1d4 damage light laser? That is possible here.

A spy game in the genre of Top Secret, or a gangster game like the classic Gangbusters? Those are possible too, like as if TSR never used a d100 system for those games and stuck to what everybody knew, loved, and worked. A Gamma World style game that didn't drastically change the starting hit point scale and instead had that familiar B/X style progression? All possible here.

The possibilities are endless because the starting point is so clean and well-presented. Like a painting that leaves a lot of white space to let your imagination fill in the details, this book leaves out the genre-specific content and invites you to fill in the blanks with your own creations.

A Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers style campy space romp? A horror-style Cthulhu game? A cavemen and dinosaurs game? A Wild West style gunslinger game? Post-apocalyptic survival? Pirates? Zombies? Ninjas? Commandos? Space opera? 1970's detectives?

A vast new world of B/X gaming starts here and that has me excited about all the cool and wonderful things people can build from a basic and expandable basic set of rules like this.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

B/X Essentials: Ability Score Checks

From the B/X Essentials Core Rulebook:
The player rolls 1d20 and, if the result is less than or equal to the ability, the check succeeds. If the roll is greater than the ability, the check fails. 
Bonuses or penalties to the roll may be applied, with a modifier of -4 being a relatively easy ability check and +4 being very difficult.
Done. Simple. No hundreds of pages of skills, arbitrary Challenge Rating charts listing actions and skill-specific difficulties, open-ended target numbers that go up to 40 and more, and general "you need a skill for that" actions in many D&D 3.x style and newer games.

Complication. It isn't depth it is cruft. I like the old-style "make an ability score check" sort of ruling when a situation comes up at the gaming table that needs a pass or fail atomic result determination based on a character's ability scores.

You rolled a 16 for Strength? That is good. Expect to be doing all of the "strength stuff" for the part during adventures. What number do you need to roll? Don't open the book, don't look for a skill list, and don't search the Internet for an action to CR table.

You roll a 16 or under, modified for difficulty.

Done.

And please don't say 'I get confused because I roll X or higher in combat and saves and now I have to roll low?' If you can figure out how a d4 works this shouldn't be a problem. I swear that whole unify the directionality of dicing school of game design sometimes just makes things more complicated and you end up with something even more complex and unwieldy.

A Legacy of Huge Skill Lists

I get this feeling long lists of skills have always been with the hobby and they are some game design addiction we can't get away from. What really bugs me are skills in a class-based system that a class should know as part of being their class - yet you still have to buy them. A rogue in D&D 3.x style rules needs to manually buy - with skill points earned every level based off INT - the stealth, climb, lockpick, disguise, balance, and other thief-like skills with skill points every level.

Low INT? Out of luck, you will suck as a rogue. As a bard. As a fighter. As anything because there are combat and adventure related skills that you need to keep up on with those skill points. B/X is a world different than that. You can play a low INT fighter in B/X and still have all the skills you need to do well.

Skills (not based on INT, but by effort) work for a classless Skyrim style game for sure. Level up what you use and create a character from what you choose to know. But for systems with classes? I feel giant skill lists are a bit redundant and weaken the overall class system in the game by laying on a lot of complexity and error-prone choices.

When is a thief not a thief? When the player forgets to buy a class skill their thief needs every level.

In a B/X style game? Use the thief percentage chart for thief skills. Or, if your class should be able to do something, such as knowing mage lore for a wizard class? Intelligence ability check, maybe with a bonus to the roll. Maybe you know it? Apply a difficulty modifier. You don't or shouldn't know it? Disallow the check.

Mages with magic, fighters with weapons, rogues with value, clerics with holy relics - your skill is your class. Make a sensible ruling and keep playing.

Done.

But...Customization!

But what if I want to play a thief who can't climb? Well, at what cost total customization? How much do you need to complicate the game to support every single character build and customization, especially in a class-based game where the whole point of playing it is to have meaningful classes that gather together a set of abilities in a package that most members of this class in the game world would know? We say "X is a rogue" and then take away the utility and usefulness of a class system by forcing players to buy the abilities every level in some manual and "oops I made a bad choice but I love the customization" system of skill purchases.

If you want a thief who can't climb, give that character a disadvantage saying "cannot climb" and balance that with some sort of advantage, like "smooth talker" and give them a -4 bonus on social interaction rolls.

Done.

Now every other player in the game doesn't need to deal with a record-keeping heavy and mistake prone skill system every level. You can achieve meaningful character customization without over-complicating the game for everybody, just through an optional advantage and disadvantage system. Want more customization? Take a second advantage/disadvantage pair.

You can ignore it if you want your character to be an average rogue or don't want that complexity, and you aren't forcing a heavy skill system on every player in the game. One thing I love about the B/X Essentials design model is I can add a rule like this into the game easily and the modular design encourages creating new stuff. I am not playing a house-ruled version of Labyrinth Lord with an advantage and disadvantage system, this is a new game based off the core system with some new rules for this flavor of game.

It's cool. Call this a new dungeon game with some crazy name, like Creeping Catacombs and let's play dude! Oh, it is just B/X Essentials with some special rules, it all works the same and you don't need to know much more than what you already do to play.

Done and I am not out $90 for three 3.5-era D&D style game books and hours of reading and study for a new game. Again, B/X as a Linux style base for roleplaying comes up and the comparison is a strong one. A specific game is a distribution, there are a couple things different (for good reasons), but most of what you need to know remains the same.

Modding is Cool

Part of why we have system wars I feel is that too often the games we play do not encourage the game designer in all of us, and they force us to be slaves to 'official rulings' and looking up rules in books. We want all of our questions answered for us, when really, the best answers are the ones you and your group come up with. The best game to play is one you design yourself, because you can pour your enthusiasm and creativity into the design and experience the hobby as it was when it started out, with homebrew systems, people coming up with new ways of doing things, and that spirit of 'let's play this our way.'

Everything is right because we are all game designers at heart.