Friday, July 31, 2015

Pen-and-Paper Videogaming

Somehow, this all started when we were talking about XP charts.

When you have a unified XP chart, you are saying, "all class' power levels are roughly equivalent!" A level 5 thief should be as powerful as a level 5 fighter or level 5 mage.

Back in the original D&D, the designers knew about the power imbalance of mages and fighters (2,500 and 2,000 xp base), and put them above clerics and thieves (1,500 and 1,200 xp base). The charts were never a linear scale, just because a mage needed 2,500 xp for level two did not mean they advanced twice as slow as a thief all the way up, the difference between thieves and mages was never really more than a level or so of lag behind for the mage (a 14th level thief and a 12th level mage had around the same total xp).

Still, there was a difference.

In 3rd edition, we got the unified XP chart for all classes (and the CR system), and every class advanced at the same rate. Not surprisingly, those pesky power level differences came up, and this triggered an endless balance and rebalance cycle for all editions of the game since. You even see this in Pathfinder Unchained, where they redo three of the classes to make them compare better with the entire set of classes in the game.

"Mages are still the most powerful class in the game!"
"Rogues are weak."
"Why class X why you get all that plus a better to-hit with class Y?"

You hear a lot of this because naturally, a player expects a level five class X should be an equal and balanced choice with a level five class Y. You end up having to do the power and math shuffle on every class, again and again, like D&D 4th Edition's endless and painful errata and changes to classes and items.

If there was a problem with relative power level balance in the old "per class" XP chart system the issue could be easily addressed by just adjusting the charts. Mages still too powerful? Push them out by a thousand points here or there. So a level 9 thief is equivalent in raw power level to a what, a level 6 mage? Okay, that's where the charts should go.

We don't need to balance the class, we just adjust the charts.

The CR System Solution

Power levels were 'evened out' because of the CR system, really, and also to simplify things to avoid having a lot of charts. But note that in old school D&D, you did not all need to be the same level to adventure together, and conceivably, that level 6 mage in a party full of level 9 characters could and will contribute. This "the party needs to be within one level of each other, two max" sort of thing feels like it comes from MMOs and computer games, where it is important to balance things with math to make sure "everyone has a good time."

In the original D&D game, how did you determine CR? Here's how you did it:

"Last time our party of level one characters fought an ogre we got out butts kicked. Let's not do that."

You learned the game. There weren't thousands of creatures so you could weigh difficulty for them all relative to classes and powers. You failed, failed some more, died a lot, and then discovered what worked. You got lucky, and knew how far you could push your luck given what level you were and who was in the party. You had to think.

Try-fail-adjust-learn-succeed? That sounds like what you do in any game when you learn it.

The problem I have with CR encounter balancing is it assumes the dungeon master is a computer that balances content to entertain the players. The DM is there to "entertain" people like a DVD player, put in the disc, do the math, balance the game, and run the script. Press play.

Saying, "nobody likes getting killed," in D&D is like saying "nobody likes losing in Monopoly," and coming up with rules so one loses. Or even behind on money or properties every turn because every player needs to feel relative balance with each other. Yes, Monopoly is a competitive game, and D&D is cooperative, but if you take the learning curve out you take out the part of the game where becoming an experienced player is knowing what a monster does what and how you can fight them at what power level.

Pen-and-Paper as Videogames

Somehow I feel this is part of the progression of D&D towards an entirely story-based game instead of a board game. CR does what? Balances encounters so you can get through them all as a party so you can complete a story at the end of the night. Without CR, you run around the ogre's room in the center of the dungeon defeating rats and spiders while looting what you can, and maybe you never fight the ogre - and you decided if you 'won' based on survival. If there was a goal, it had nothing to do with 'story award xp bonuses' or a series of balanced encounters leading up towards it. If you got the chalice, you got it, and you earned the king's trust - xp and balancing had nothing to do with it.

Then again, the king's trust is a very nice thing to have, and you don't need to put an xp reward on that either.

Healing surges, regenerating resources, encounter powers, and anything that resets the party's power is another step towards a story based game (and also an admission of the inability to balance a resource depletion game, like the classic D&D model of play). You have to "reset" the party for the next "encounter" because you can't balance things in the overall scheme, when really, what resources the player have and want to spend should be up to them. It feels fake, like an MMO where health and mana regenerate before you get to the next room, and the entire game is designed to be low-risk entertainment rather than a challenge of how to spend limited resources dwindling all the time.

Don't get me started on this "go back to town" sort of "one encounter per day" cliche either, That comes from videogames and it assumes the world never changes between visits to the dungeon. The pen-and-paper game as videogame mentality breeds this unrealistic way of thinking.

Less is More is Fun

Sometimes we like games to be smaller in focus with a limited set of content, such as Pathfinder Basic Set, where we can get the feeling of how monster X relates to class Y and power Z. Part of why we love Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy are because these rules are complete, done, and what's in the game is what is it. You can learn them. You know a level X thief is about as powerful as a level Y mage. You know how to defeat an owlbear, and how much power and resources that will take.

When you have thousands never-ending of monsters, feats, spells, classes, and powers, you never get a feeling of system mastery. You are always being hit with a new something, reacting, and never knowing how your power relates to the others before it is replaced and you move onto the next one. In Basic D&D, the fireball is what it is, and it is a unique AoE spell that fits a unique role. We don't have or need seventy variations of the spell. It is a unique puzzle piece to be pulled out when you need a...fireball.

And it becomes a unique resource we can spend, that does not recharge between fights.

That "how many resources it will take" is key. This is what the original D&D was about in the macro for the entire play session, not the micro between encounters. You should be able to run out of resources and 'fail' to achieve your goal, due to luck, normal use, or carelessness. You should decide if you will come back another day, if that is possible, and the next time the dungeon should change (tougher, better defenses, less loot, the chalice is lost, or they clear out) when the party gets back.

Know Your Game

There is a distinct game design here when you realize what is going on, and how every piece works together. Imposing systems like CR and auto-regen resources on what was a limited-resource game throws everything out of whack, and D&D becomes a totally different game. We are seeing a shift from resource management to story based gaming, while still thinking we are managing resources.

If you want a videogame style RPG, that is cool. Know what these look like. If you want a resource-based RPG, know what those look like. If you want to make a pen-and-paper game play more like a videogame, it is helpful to know what you need to do to get that result. If your love is resource-based play, know what rules enhance that experience and play that way.

We live in a time where every publisher tries to make every game appeal to everybody, and it all blurs together. The influence of MMOs and computer games in pen-and-paper gaming is strong, you see a lot of these videogame-inspired concepts in today's games, and they often conflict with how the original game was designed.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Design Room: FGU's Aftermath

"What's that, a cast iron kettle? Great, put it on your head and duct tape it on, you need the armor."
Let's dive into the ruins of civilization with FGU's Aftermath game. Oh yes, you can STILL buy this one along with FGU's other products in their online store, and we have shopped there as well. Just use the link.

This one has the notorious reputation of being one of the only games in the late 70's and early 80's of rivaling AD&D for complexity. It doesn't just rival it, it severs AD&D's arm and beats it over AD&D's head, getting a further sever critical and knocking AD&D's head around a hex map clumsily superimposed over a square room.

And then Aftermath keeps AD&D's arm because it is such a cool weapon and also useful as food later.

I'm not joking. This game takes a -1 on a d20 off for every wall within a meter of you. I'm getting a -2 just writing this review, and a further -1 distraction just for using a second monitor. The complexity is brutal, with hardcore math and division being overlaid on top of a segmented combat countdown type turn with interlaced actions. You may take 4 segments to complete an action, in which a faster enemy (or a slower on who's turn has come up) getting a chance to act and lopping your head off.

Violent? This game has it in spades. In addition to all of the loss of limbs, this game had detailed weapon special effects charts for crushing, shooting, blow through, and other weapon special effects. These weren't as complex as say, Rolemaster, but they were simple and gruesome enough to insta-kill you 5% of the time when you were hit.

Before Fallout and the Walking Dead, there was this. And this was even more brutal than the offspring of both of those franchises. You could literally walk through an irradiated area with poisonous chemicals and diseases and not know it until your character starts disintegrating before your eyes. And that's just because you went scavenging for radioactive cans of beans. And an intelligent mutated rat gave you a nasty infection from a knife wound. And then the building collapsed on you.

And no, this isn't Gamma World, so the mutations from being irradiated were not fun.

If you were lucky, a homicidal walking robot would come along and sanitize your remains with lasers and flamethrowers.

We had a joke that the game's cover was in yellow and black as a warning label to players against referee sadism.

Character Creation

As long as you did not use the character creation rules out of Operation Morpheus, you were pretty well much okay. As your character got older, they tended to turn into massive skill lists with strange skills such as "Aircraft Maintenance 6%". It was also very much possible to play a primitive in this game without the "tech use" skill that lets you operate can openers efficiently. What you didn't know you could learn though, and skill books and trainers were at a premium.

It was the only game that made me see teachers and knowledge in a whole new light - these are absolutely necessary to society and survival. Teachers are to Aftermath what seat belts are to Car Wars.

With the Operation Morpheus rules, they introduced the concept of "smart people" who were frozen in cryosleep. They often woke up naked in cryosleep chambers underground next to Australian copies of Playboy. These smart people had something like five times the skill points, and they sucked as characters because they were so complex. They were good survivors, but just making one was a real pain since you could fill up half a sheet of paper with that many skills. Supposedly, they were trained and chosen for this mission, but we found them bloated and unwieldy (since you could already spin up pre-ruin older people with great skills).

It is probably a good thing the cryosleep chambers were underground and guarded by robots that would kill anything going in or coming out. You think you could sleep through this and have it good? Try fighting an armored combat robot with an M-60 machinegun while naked and wielding a rolled-up magazine.

Gear, Guns, and Loot

A modern assault rifle and ammo? That is your +5 Holy Avenger. Modern Kevlar armor? +5 Platemail. A resurrection scroll? A fully-stocked medical kit, and a doctor to use it. 100,000 gold pieces? Enough food and water to last the week.

You got to get your priorities straight.

You start out with no guns, and you are lucky to find pieces of rusty metal to grind into spears. Rocks are your friends and your ammunition. The armor you find is a mix between crafted medieval pieces of gear, riot gear, and sporting goods. A normal melee weapon, such as a sharp knife, is a real find. A gun that works? A treasure worth dying for. And the guns you do find are typically crap, like wooden single shot 0.22 plinkers that are rotted through and in desperate need of repair. But even a gun like power. It is your magic item, your Excalibur.

Or you could loot all the good stuff off of enemies trying to kill you with it. This isn't like some D&D game where you roll the +1 sword and +1 chain on the treasure table after you defeat the bandit and you wonder why he didn't use it against you. No, in Aftermath, the term "treasure table" is replaced by "list of things they try to kill you with."

And if you see a pristine rifle lying there in a room untouched? Oh yeah, that thing is actually broken and booby-trapped by a grenade. Or the floor will fall into a pit of rusty spikes. Or there is someone watching with a poison tipped crossbow nearby. You get the picture. Loot is used to draw stupid people in, and it works both ways - for PCs and NPCs. That can of beans could be used to eat for a day, or it could be used as bait to lure some unwitting sucker in to get his stuff.

"Aftermath Guy" - Artist's Rendition

The World

The world ended in 1980. I know, that is 35 years ago, so this is kind of like a Fallout for the Miami Vice crowd, but trust me, the world ending in 1980 is pretty cool. There are no cell phone towers. Computers use giant tape reels, and the personal computer is something so primitive it has like 4K of RAM and no disk drive. You don't need to worry about computers. HAM radio and CB radios are how you communicate, if you had power and radio gear. Batteries suck in radios and flashlights, like an hour of power. There are no high-tech LEDs, just light bulbs. Televisions still used analog waves and tuning dials. Cable TV was high tech, and the Internet was some government computer system nobody used.

I know, this is very much like how Canada is today.

Okay apologies, but seriously, like parts of the idealized Great North, you know, those back woods cabins and lodges where there is no technology, they still have pay phones, and it always seems to be snowing outside? That. And if you were a grizzled unshaven mountain man with a hunting rifle, snowshoes, a 0.44 revolver, a machete, sticks of TNT and cans of beans strapped to your vest, and metal strapped to your parka you were boss.

It is very much Unshaven Survival and the game loves it. If you are a high-level character in this game you are ugly, hairy, smelly, and a beast of a monster with more scars and wounds than a map of the history of Europe. You carry a straight razor taped to your arm. You keep a scoped target pistol with hollow points in your boot. You own a club for beating squirrels. You keep a grenade handy should you need to blow yourself up.

Cigarettes are chocolate and your gold pieces. Food and water are how long you live. Everyone you meet is trying to steal your food and ammo, or they are trying to eat you. Survival groups are either neo-Nazis, paranoid socialist utopias, bloodthirsty bandits, or crazy survivalists who want to enslave you and put you into slave labor camps. Civilization after the ruin is a sick and cruel joke. Sometimes you are better off alone.

Technology is scary and its sole purpose is to try to kill you. Robotic soldiers, remote security cameras with guns and lasers, metal security doors that lock you in a bunker in the dark to starve to death, invisible IR beams and pressure plates that trigger deadly traps, rooms filled with gas, and genocidal computers wanting to destroy what's left of the world lie under the ruins of irradiated buildings.Technology hates you with a passion, and it is almost as if it senses and hates the fact that you are alive.

The best way to run this game is to take everything that is supposed to help you in our modern world and use it as a weapon against the players. Civilization, social order, technology, civilized behavior, law and order, medicine, computers, transportation, people, chemicals, and everything else that makes our life better is a danger to your survival. Things that hurt you in the modern world, such as hazardous weather, animals, temperature, exposure, and the basics of survival such as food and water? Even more lethal.

You have no friends, and you must learn to deal without.

"Robot Attack" - Artist's Rendition


They had every monster in this game except the walking dead, although  making biological zombies would be a snap (and make life even worse). The only zombies they had were the irradiated horde, and the game covered a lot of ground with all types of animals, robots, and mutated rats. Due to the proliferation of city zoos, lions, sharks, rhinoceroses, elephants, bears, snakes, and all sorts of wildlife roamed the ruins of society to take out nature's extinction agenda on humanity. Like the I am Legend movie, actually. Oh yes, revenge was the name of the game when a tiger kills half your party and you escape by jumping into a flooded basement infested by plague-bearing piranhas.

And the animals have custom hit location charts, because that bear is going to be so pissed off when you shoot his tail clean off.

Robots? Yes, there are all sorts of robots in this game waiting to kill you, from metal humanoid can bots to Westworld-inspired replicants. They all seem to hate humanity as much as the wildlife does, so there is no Asimov inspired "serve humanity" BS going on here. I think all the robots in this game collectively decided that since humanity destroyed the world, humanity is unworthy of surviving. This even applies to robots such as ATMs or factory machines, which try to kill characters with alarming regularity.

Others mentioned but not spun up include aliens, three-legged walker death machines, and monsters from fantasy. There are vampires too if you know where to look. As if your life weren't difficult enough.


Basically survival. Scrounging for supplies. Hunting. Exploring. Looking for good stuff. Raiding other survivor's caches. Avoiding bandits. Judging the random people you encounter in the wilds and wondering when they will try to kill you or if you can trust them. Spotting people and animals from a distance and hunting them. Scoping out settlements and seeing if they are safe to go into. Getting your weapons confiscated at a gate to a settlement and wondering if you'll ever get them back.

Trust. Building relationships. Who you could trust, and how far that trust could be pushed in a bad situation was your currency. Good roleplayers could get away with a lot, and making friends when the chips were down you could go back to their camp and sleep off a bunch of wounds and a disease or two. Having those people you risked your life for help you, watch you when you slept, and kept an eye out on the camp. Don't think this game was all referee gotcha instakill, if played right, there was a remarkable human element of trust and uplifting and redeeming survival to it as well.

But  many times this game was about getting into a terrible situation where you are wounded, the temperature is dropping, rabid wolves are hunting you, and the house you took shelter in is ready to collapse. If you aren't barely alive, you're not living.

If your referee is cool, Road Warrior stuff. These types of games typically make resources more available, but gas becomes the thing you need, and you are scrounging again for car parts, tires, and oil.

The game does include some great scrounging tables, and the good modules typically have even more tables for loot. The entire game really is about scrounging, and sifting through piles of rubble while making sure no one is sneaking up behind you is the name of the game.

"Bear Attack" - Artist's Rendition

Our Experience

As disturbed as this may sound, Aftermath was our first generic game. That should tell you something about us when we were kids. We played science fiction with this game, GI JOE, fantasy, Car Wars, and all sorts of other genres. We simplified the turn structure and combat rules and things worked almost like any other d20 game does today, which should say something about the complexity of d20 games today, and nothing about our game design and simplification skills.

As you can imagine, science fiction was the most fun with characters flying out of holes punched through starship hulls with high-powered lasers and the character then exploding from decompression. Starship boarding actions were brutal and lethal, with grenades in starship halls causing more chaos than talking about Pathfinder in a D&D 5 forum. Blasters blowing apart bodies, lasers slicing off limbs, and flamethrowers torching the rest of the zero-g meat purees.

Modern spy games or GI JOE style military RPGs? File these under "fun with vehicle weapons against player characters." Your character learned a new level of hate for your enemies when the bad guys showed up in fighter jets to a fistfight. You ran, you dodged, and you put as much concrete between you and the bad guys as you could. It was pure action-movie bliss living on the edge of one lucky hit vaporizing your character.

It also made the CR system look like it was designed by a bunch of pussies. No, it wasn't fair. It was like a rage game in RPG form...but when you survived?

Absolutely heroic. A rush.

You were the man.

And you had to be an absolute genius and devious SOB to avoid fights and put the screw to the bad guys. You had to be good too. Not just "my to-hit is great and my character is optimized" but no, you had to have a spiritual guardian angel rolling your d20, know the rules, know where to shoot the enemy fighter jet with a pistol based on its make and model, and keep shooting until you got lucky. Your character had to train before they even got to the fight, spending hours on the practice range shooting everything from slingshots to bazookas. You had to lift weights and train every day, and your stats and skills mattered, even above 100% skill level.

You had to be the Arnold Schwarzenegger that Arnold Schwarzenegger would look up to.

Battletech with these rules was absolutely metal. It required a lot of conversion work, but it was cool, and gave you a new appreciation for man-carried SRM-2 rocket launchers. In the Battletech rules, SRM-2 launchers are near worthless. In Aftermath, they are an efficient way to end a bar fight.

Aftermath as our house system lasted for a while with us, and eventually we gave in and it was Star Frontiers that did us in. We realized that sometimes simple rules got the job done, didn't require huge character sheets and record keeping, and the game played just as well without all that detail. After that, the dominoes began to fall, and we went back to D&D for fantasy, and we started playing games to enjoy the design of their rules and systems. Star Wars d6 captured our imagination, and games like Vampire and Shadowrun showed us new ways of doing things while merging the experience with the rules.

And then our Aftermath books saw little use after that.

"Grenade Fishing with Bears" - Artist's Rendition

What Did We Lose?

Well, we gained an appreciation for the simple rules, the concise, and the cleanly presented experience. Every game couldn't be Aftermath, and in fact, many games were enhanced by the rules they used. We gained an appreciation for a game's rules to shape the experience of the players, instead of every world feeling like the same death-match meat grinder. Some games were lighter in spirit and made to play a certain way to enhance the fun, and we saw that when we converted back.

We gained an appreciation for how the rules shape the experience.

Some games, such as D&D 3.0 and 3.5 were inspired by non-RPGs, such as Magic the Gathering. To us, D&D changed at the 3rd edition, taking on a "rules interrupt" complexity of layered exceptions and special cases that felt more like MtG and less like D&D. The original beer and pretzels experience of D&D was gone, and the feeling that the original game's Monopoly-like rules and play experience was gone and it never really came back.

We saw D&D lose it's feeling when we converted it to a more complex system, and we saw it return when we converted the game back to its original rules from Aftermath. When D&D went 3.0, we saw it lose its charm and how it played. The OGR games nowadays that play like the original appeal to us more because that feeling is familiar. D&D doesn't need "story rules" or "balanced challenge ratings" for it to feel and play like D&D to us, it needs what it had, simple rules and dungeons where the fights weren't fair and you had to use your wits to survive.

The Game is Still Supported and in Print!

Aftermath really is a game that refuses to die. You can still buy this game and they produce new material for it to this day over on the FGU website. There is a survival guide that looks fun, and a much-needed modern arms guide. They even have a fantasy supplement with spells and monsters. That sounds fun, because I always wanted unicorns to impale ruins explorers with, and a dragon with a minigun and grenade launcher strapped to its head.

Surviving Aftermath

This game is strangely enough a huge part of our gaming history. We played it in its complicated original form, and then a simplified house system for many games. When we left it, we gained a great appreciation for how games played, and why certain rules systems were designed the way they were designed. We understood feeling and complexity, and saw how changing rules systems to something more complex affected players around the table.

I still hold a candle for this system, and I am happy to still see it being sold today. My players are happy these days are over with, like the Cold War that inspired this atomic-age relic. But still, a classic game and one that has been forgotten in today's world of...

...The Walking Dead.

..The Hunger Games.


...The Road Warrior.

...Fallout 4.

How little we remember where our hobby came from, and I still feel this game was one of the greats, alongside AD&D back in the day.

Oh, and here's your arm back.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Simulation at the Level of Detail

There's a section in Frank Chadwick's classic WW2 miniatures game where he recounts using a squad-level WW2 war game to simulate a massive Eastern Front battle. Squad by squad they played out the gigantic battle, and the by the end they realized the outcome did not reflect reality at all. The battle never came out that way, the squad level individual fights played out, and the entire game kind of fell apart under the weight of improbability.

You can imagine a game of this size, a massive amount of gaming tables, maps covering Poland and Russia, and literally thousands of counters or miniatures tracking every vehicle crew, LMG, engineer squad, field car, tank, and supply unit all being moved in hours-long turns in painstaking detail. Every battle for a farmhouse - simulated. Every meeting engagement on a road - simulated. Each battle for a forest or hedgerow - simulated. Every tank battle - simulated down to each shell fired.

Why didn't it come out just like reality? I mean, it should have, since each man-to-man engagement was handled in painstaking detail, and a result like the one that happened in history should have been the outcome, right?

Part of the outcome of this battle led Mr. Chadwick and his designers to simulate these battles in a larger scale, with larger company and corps level units. They realized that simulating large systems down to the smallest detail does not always provide the best reflection of reality. They found if the smallest unit was a tank company or section, they could get a better overall large scale simulation than if they worried about every gun's ammunition, every broken track, and every individual squad. They could write rules that handled larger groups and simulate the historical real-world happenings of these classic WW2 battles, so thus Command Decision was born.

Of course, we do all this by computer nowadays, so why are WW2 miniatures war game rules important? What does this have to do with tabletop roleplaying?

Because today's pen-and-paper designers still make the same mistakes.

Shouldn't a detailed sectional hit points system with hit locations, rules for slicing tendons, and medical trauma charts more realistically simulate medieval combat? Shouldn't an almost slow-motion martial-arts inspired combat system with half-second turns and action points laid out for every move of the arm, swing of a blade, and pull of the bowstring more accurately simulate personal combat?

If we can simulate that level of detail on a man-to-man scale, then we should be able to put twenty people on each side and get a near picture-perfect simulation of medieval combat, right? Especially with miniatures, where we can second-by-second track line-of-sight, force field-like attacks-of-opportunity, and arrow-by-arrow ammo counts. Spells have interlaced count-down casting times. Weapons have speeds and reaches. It should be perfect!

It often isn't, and again, the too micro level of detail breaks down, and you more feel like you are playing a miniatures gaming rules simulator than you anything remotely realistic. The game doesn't know if it wants to be battle chess, a simulation or reality, or a miniatures combat game. Many games try to be everything and fail at everything. Some adopt a "way of thinking" almost like a war-gaming ideology and shoehorn that mantra-like system onto every action, even if it doesn't fit or should be handled by the referee as a one-off without the rules.

You have to be careful with games that dive into too low level of detail, or that try to simulate reality at too granular a level. There will be tons of individual rules simulating how a dagger cuts through leather armor and how that wound affects movement based on hit location and it will look cool and feel great when it happens in game. It is the same thing as the small Russian squad on the Eastern Front holed up in a snow-locked farmhouse holding off an entire onslaught of German attacks, tanks, and aircraft, becoming the heroes of the Eastern Front. Those are cool moments in isolation (and the latter is a great small scale scenario), but in the context of a larger system, they take up too much time and attention from what should be a balanced and even attention of time and focus upon the large system being simulated.

If the game is about a story adventure, yes, a wounded leg may play into that, but are the rules around getting that wounded leg so heavy they take away from the larger story-based experience the designer wanted to focus on for the game? Are all the characters in the story walking around with wounded legs, hands, eyes, clavicles, sprains, pulled muscles, and bandages covering cuts so they won't bleed to death, and the king and queen of Storyville are sitting there wondering why this group isn't in the hospital because they are in no shape to find out who stole the king's crown? If the game is about intrigue, make it about intrigue, and there is a laudable design goal to de-emphasizing things in the rules that may take away from that experience.

You can't put everything in a game and expect it does everything well. Imagine Monopoly with tax forms, IRS requirements, local zoning ordinances specific to each color group, investment income, random events like hotel fires, slumps and building booms, random economic events, a stock market, union protests, a global economy, industrial development charts, WW2 breaking out, populist elections, political wheeling and dealing, and so many layers of detail that yes - this is how a real real estate economy works, and it should all be in there, right?

After all, a game without this level of detail that focused just on buying, selling, building would be seen as too simplistic and not worthy of a true real estate game, right?

No, that stuff doesn't belong, and the job of a good game designer often lies in saying "this is what my game is about" and cutting the cruft and "cool features" that worm their way in during design. "Too many cooks" is a real problem in game design, as is "the cook doesn't know what he wants" or "the cook is trying to copy the best features of several dishes."

It's a taco with Kung Pao chicken, refried beans, pizza sauce, wrapped in a hamburger, and wrapped in a spicy gordita with cheese melted on top.

You get games that are like that, and you get things like that at taco place. It looks great on the menu, but it is typically something you eat only once if you are crazy enough to buy in. Or you're so embarrassed you bought one you start defending it and selling it to your friends.

But seriously, there is such a thing as focus in game design, and games that know what they are trying to do and focusing every rule - from character design, combat, skill use, exploration, and interaction one that one activity and making the parts that matter...matter. They also eliminate the cruft, pointless small simulation, and unneeded detail, and focus on delivering the core experience in the best way possible. If this game is about dungeoning, then let's focus on dungeoning. If this is a storytelling game, let's deliver the best storytelling rules possible and cut out the rest.

Again, we go back to design. This is what makes great products, from cell phones to role playing games.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Kickstarter: Blue Rose, Romantic Roleplaying Pen-and-Paper - Last 12 Hours!

It's the last 12 hours for the Blue Rose RPG over on Kickstarter, and they are looking to push the goal over the 90K level, if you are interested, please show your support! It is a great project from one of the great companies in the business, so let's help them out.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Playtest #2: Adventures Under the Laughing Moon

It did not go as smoothly as we expected. Our second round of play testing Adventures Under the Laughing Moon - Role-playing Game (Volume 1) had a lot of stop-and-start moments as we got used to the game, learned the rules, and became fluent with the game's systems. Here is a snapshot of the issues we ran into:

The game isn't clear how weapon skills are purchased, and there are broad and narrow categories of weapons. The game mentions buying "Swords" but it isn't said if this is the broad "Swords" category covering any sword-like weapon (including daggers), or the specific sword subcategories (which would exclude daggers). Furthermore, there isn't a description of what you buy, percentage points (which most skills are), or d20 points (which we later figured out was the right choice, since in combat, you add the base level of a weapon to your roll).

There aren't any pre-gen characters in the book either, which would help us get a feel for characters are designed, what an average starting character looks like, and other "am I doing this right?" sort of questions. It took a while to design characters, and for a group, pre-gens and a starting adventure would help greatly.

The game has a lot of "roll under and roll over" swaps where low is good (ability rolls and skill checks), and high is good (to-hits and damage). I normally don't mind roll-under for skill checks with damage being roll-high, but I do mind of weapon to-hits (which are basically skill checks) changing the paradigm.

We couldn't find the unskilled skill use rule.

High amounts of actions per turn and winning initiative rules the roost in combat. Most of our combats ended in the first turn with a flurry of blows landing, especially from dual-wielders. I don't know if we were playing this completely correct, but this is our experience. High weapon skills also are indispensable, even at the expense of not knowing much else character-wise.

Landing a blow is a bit tedious, with hit locations, tracking damage per location, and then rinse repeat for the next successful hit. The game slowed down during wounding for us, and we found ourselves missing a more aggregated hit point and straightforward armor system. This is a lot like Runequest/Legend's damage system, but we had less slowdown problems with the latter.

There isn't a charisma-type ability score, as all social interactions are handled through skills. We are used to having some type of social ability score to cover any basic interaction, and we are at a loss at how to deal with non-skilled social situations. Also, bluff is a 3 skill point (per 5%) skill, and persuasion is a 1 skill point (per 5%) skill that feel like they do the same thing. Similarly, all of the stealth skills (3 points per specific skill of a collection of about 8 sub-skills) had to be raised separately, with hide in shadows and move silently being separate skills one had to raise independently. To us, it is just "stealth."

Advancement ran counter to the use of Bandu (fate points), where using fate points during a game took away from the skill points earned at the end of the adventure. Nobody used Bandu during our game, because they wanted skill points.

The game still did hold our attention though, and it is fighting off our attempts to begin the Dragon Age play test. What interested us? It's a different world, not D&D, and there is a lot of new stuff to explore. The characters we designed were interesting. The little story suggestions given as sample adventures were very interesting, and we are enjoying turning those into missions and adventures. Magic use can get you into trouble, and the world story behind that (with mage hunters) is interesting.

We wanted more on the world! Yes, I know, read the books, but some world info (and possibly a list of the novels) would have given us some needed background.

The world is a darker, gritter world. Heroism is the exception and not the rule, and this allows players to take on heroic roles without feeling they are sidelined by more powerful forces and NPCs. Players don't know what to expect, compared to D&D, where things tend to be pulled from the same Monster Manual edition after edition. It is also a more interpersonal world, which I loved in our Monster Manual free D&D 5 playtest of Faerun - where there were no monsters, just the races of the world. This was a fun throwback to that game, which is still a classic experience in my mind.

Take away the funny shaped monsters, and you are left with the worst monsters of all - us.

So this is still holding our interest despite the rough spots, and I look forward to trying some more in it soon. All in all, an interesting game with a focus on combat and interaction, and it is a fun and interesting experience.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Fantasy Age vs. Dragon Age

Green Ronin is also putting out a Fantasy AGE basic rule book in addition to the Dragon Age game. They want to separate the core system from the Dragon Age game and create a universal rules set for several games around this brand. It is an interesting move, and then the question begs, what is the difference between the two systems?

Both games use a class system that is based off play-style preference, which is an interesting choice. The game asks you what type of player you are and then gives you a choice of three classes based on that preference, do you like to wade into combat, sneak around and cause mayhem, or fling magic?

It is an interesting system (used in both Dragon Age and Fantasy Age), because this is based off of the preference of a play style rather than it is giving a player a bunch of classes and expecting a new player to know what does what. If you like to fight, pick warrior, and at later levels you specialize into the type of warrior you would like to play. If you like magic, pick mage and then as you level you will make choices to customize your mage. If you are the sneaky or a shooty guy, pick rogue and then specialize in shooty or sneaky later (but you get a little of each to start).

Fantasy Age also makes some rules optimizations I agree with. They split some of the ability scores to force player choices and balance monsters. They give a good example in the blog post. In Dragon Age, an ogre would have one stat that handles melee to-hit and damage (Strength). In Fantasy Age, the designers split that into melee to-hit (Fighting) and damage (Strength) meaning the ogre isn't going to always hit because his strength is so high. They made similar splits to magic (dumping the Magic stat and using Intelligence as casting ability and Willpower as magic power), and also rogues (Accuracy covers to-hit for missile and light melee, and Dexterity covers defense). There aren't any "super stats" anymore that are auto-dump stats for increases, and the players need to make decisions and trade-offs on how they want their character to play.

Dragon Age is positioned to be the game that is more introductory with one stat covering all magic, one covering all fighting, and one covering most all rogue abilities. This is also an interesting design choice, because it lets new players focus on "the one stat that makes my guy better" rather than having to understand the trade offs between a pair of ability scores that affect their class and having to make choices for that every level up. Fantasy Age is the AD&D to Dragon Age's D&D.

That said, I feel Fantasy Age needs some source books covering magic items, character options, and monsters. The basic game looks fun, but naturally, I want more. the game also does not appear to have an open license, so to be fair, it needs one so the community can pick up the slack and provide add-on content.

As a starting game? It looks like a fun package. As something that can compete with the big players like Pathfinder or D&D? Here's where we get into the "what ifs"?

If I am playing with a casual group that doesn't know the rules of any of these games? Fantasy Age wins. Pathfinder is simply too heavy for a new group to grasp and play (without blowing a whole session on design and having six people pour over the same book). D&D is a close second, but still in our experiences this is either a new player who doesn't know the rules, or they are D&D veteran stuck on a previous version and a lot of differences still need to be explained.

It they are all D&D or Pathfinder fans, go with what they know and the version they love. Seriously.

But we ran a group of players new to D&D 4 through those rules, and it was a painful experience. A lot needed to be learned, sessions were wasted on character generation, and enough "how things worked before" things came up that the veterans were all of a sudden uncomfortable new players. Even D&D 5 has some of these "version change" problems where I feel it is easier to play Labyrinth Lord or Basic Fantasy with a group of old timers than it is to relearn everything.

For new players, I like the beer and pretzel experiences where the focus of the game is less in a book and more on the action happening around the table. I don't want new players pouring over combat options, feats, design decisions, or spell lists hundreds of pages long. These things suck the life out of the game and take the focus off the action.

"Is this the right decision?"
"Am I playing this right?"
"What spell do I choose?"
"Is this stat good?"

Before you know it your first four-hour session is gone and you are trying to get the same group to show up next week for when the adventure actually begins. It's harder to do than you think, especially in our age of constant distraction.

Dragon Age's free PDF quickstart set has a lot of good stuff, 12 pages of rules (I know, how did they do that), an adventure, a map, and five pregen characters. It's free. You can print out 12-page rules booklets and hand them out. There's no time wasted in character creation. In the first 15 minutes?

You are playing.

Even at the loss of character options and customization, for a group of casual or new players, I feel having a simple system with choices that are streamlined and built into the game is a better choice. I want pregen characters that rock and have everything the player needs to know printed on the sheet right there for them to study and think about between turns.

I don't want players to have to own a book to play. And if they do, it is only going to be ONE book or PDF. One. Asking six players to buy books, or hauling my set down to the game each week? Non-starter. Revise your game. I've had less-affluent players balk at the price of the D&D 4 books, and D&D 5's and Pathfinder's real-book prices are still too high for many players.

To be fair, Pathfinder's base game PDF is only ten bucks, and Fantasy Age PDF is slightly higher. Those are good options for players who can't afford to spend thirty to fifty dollars per book on a game they may only play a couple times and drop out of the group.

And I certainly don't want to need to slog through a computer program to design a character.

Compared to Pathfinder or D&D 5, both of these feel like a better game to me to kick around with a group of new players. Dragon Age feels like a better basic game focusing on players familiar to Bioware games and those type of experiences. Fantasy Age appeals to the same group, but it is more for longer-running games where more experienced players all of a sudden want character design choices and more options than what the video game world has to offer and also expect the generic "high fantasy" experience and worlds.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Dragon Age Quickstart Rules

Until the Dragon Age hardcover comes, I downloaded the Dragon Age Quickstart Rules and have been looking them over. This looks like a solid introduction package, and after our Laughing Moon play test I want to give this a try.

I have seen some concerns this is a rules-light and customization-light system, and I want to see if those hold up in our testing. I like rules-light games, but they need to provide several methods of character customization. We shall see when the full book gets here.

I don't mind rules-light, and in fact, I like elegance and a nod towards simplicity in my role playing games. I don't like big, complex affairs where the intimate knowledge of hundreds of pages determines your success in the game. I believe gaming should be about character choices, and character builds are tools to determine how you approach those choices. Do you prefer to solve problems with an axe or do you solve them with magic?

That said, the quickstart rules are free, so it doesn't get any better than this. I am really interested in comparing our experience with this set of quickstart rules with the 5th Edition D&D Starter Set which we playtested last year.

I'm feeling a reluctance to play this RPG from some because it is based on a video game, as if that somehow makes this game a less-than fantasy game. Or that it isn't somehow Pathfinder or D&D, and that makes it less worthy of attention. Let me ask you this, would you play the following if they were pen-and-paper RPGs:

  • Mass Effect
  • Grand Theft Auto 5
  • The Witcher 3
  • Skyrim
  • Fallout 4

I would play those in a heartbeat, any one of them or all of them. I can enjoy and immerse myself in non-d20 fantasy worlds, and I look forward to diving into this and seeing a new world that I only experienced through a computer screen. I can't wait to see how players reacy and where they choose to go in the vast and interesting world within this game.

So on the docket is more Laughing Moon playtesting, and hopefully by next week we can give this a run and let you know how it goes.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Dragon Age RPG Preorder

This is one I am excited about. Green Ronin is releasing a combined book for their Dragon Age RPG this month, and it looks like a fun one. I like the crossover products from video games to the RPG world, since it is an inviting path for new players into the hobby, and it leverages an existing world and lore that many are immediately familiar with.

If you pre-order now, you get the PDF for $5, and that is a great deal for a full-color PDF and what looks like an incredible book. Best of both worlds, PDF and a hardcover, good stuff.

The mechanics of this game look super easy as well, a straight 3d6 roll (2 normal dice, one dragon die) and an addition/beat a number mechanic with special rules for doubles. Something not d20 for a change? Count me in.

And we get Youtube videos previewing play?

There is a sequel to this video as well, and it looks like a fun beer-and-pretzels RPG with simple "on the dice" mechanics. I know I shouldn't be this excited about a game, but it looks fun and the production values are out of the roof, on par or better than even 5th Edition D&D.

We live in an interesting time where non-d20 games are more and more compelling to me. I mean, we've been with 3rd Edition in one way or another for 15 years, D&D for over twice that, and the competing market is getting interesting. And yes, the retro-clones are always cool and go-to options. Mind you, this still isn't an open game with an OGL license, but if I am going to play and enjoy a closed-source system, it might as well offer something new and interesting to grab my attention.

I think this is as close as we are going to get to a Skyrim style dark fantasy pen-and-paper RPG, so I'm in.

Also, if you are interested, the Blue Rose Romantic Fantasy RPG 2.0 is in its last days of it's Kickstarter campaign. This game uses the same rules as the above Dragon Age RPG and there is only three days left to get in on the fun. I am a proud backer, because I like the concept of a relationship-based and less hack-and-slash game with interpersonal mechanics.

They both are the same system after all, and maybe the two worlds shall meet for a strange dark fantasy versus romance world? Sounds fun, I'm in.

Design Room: Star Frontiers

It was one of the best half-a-games of the early 1980's. I say half-a-games because this is a science-fiction roleplaying game that was released without starship rules. We ended up cribbing starships from Space Opera and Traveller for our games until the Knight Hawks rule set came out, and by that time the damage was done and we were left wit ha mess of a shared universe experience.

This was one of the great d00 TSR roleplaying games back in the day, and it overshadowed everything else in the TSR d00 library, like Top Secret, Gangbusters, and others. It was also one of the industry's first real conscious breaks from the Star Wars behemoth, with a believable and complete sci-fi world that had nothing to do with Star Wars at all. Star Frontiers is science-fiction gaming's Greyhawk, an original universe that let characters explore and have fun without having an Empire or Jedis breath down their necks at every turn.

It was refreshing in a way, as you spun up a cool space explorer, grabbed a laser pistol, and began blasting aliens. You got to play with computers, robots, and technology, so it was a break from +1 swords and magic wands for a while. What's not to love about good, simple fun? Let's break this game down and look at it's design today and see where it hit, missed, and stood out from other sci-fi games of the era.

The Game System

The d00 game system of Star Frontiers was clean, fast, and it worked. Characters were almost dirt simple, a collection of eight ability scores (rolled in pairs) and a couple starting skills, a race, and some gear - and that was it, you were ready to go. Compared to some of today's college-textbook level character design systems this was great, and part of me still wonders why roleplaying games in this day and age have to be so damn complicated when it comes to character design. Yes, you want to provide options to players to design the character they want to play, and that can be done simply. But when you build these towers of point-design babel where you are worrying if you should put one point into basket weaving, and how many points you want to put into underwater endurance just takes a point design way to darn far.

Sometimes I did wish for a little better character customization in this game. We ended up adding 80 or so skills to make up for that, as the base game only allowed characters to excel at ability scores or skills. If you were charismatic, you had a high personality score and that's it. Same thing for leadership, intuition, and any of the other scores - those were your design and customization choices.

The game, like many other d00 games, started to break down once you had scores that started moving towards 100 and higher (with a +10% per skill level up to skill level 6). There was a -80 difficulty modifier, which technically supported scores above 100, but after a while, rolling against a 130% STR score became a futile effort of mostly auto-success skill rolls, and the system started to break down. It was fun with scores in the 40-80 range, and outside of that the dicing system started to break.

Mind you, this is a roll-under game too, as rolling high for skill checks was bad. Despite some designer's negative feelings to roll-under games these days, I still like roll-under games and it is not terribly hard to shift your perspective so you can see low rolls (for skills and tasks) as good, and high rolls (for damage) as good.

Overall, this was a fun game system, and it held up and was fast and furious action at the tabletop. Not a lot of game systems can say that nowadays, when they send you spiraling in a rules reference nose dive through a 600 page rule book to find out the difference between a "stunned" and "dazed" condition is because some game designer never asked the question "do we have too many conditions?"

You see this "fear of speaking up" in so many game designs nowadays, where game designers work in committees, and nobody wants to upset anybody else and get their cool rules sub-system cut because the game needs to be streamlined. Good game design means saying "no" to 90% of the crap that creeps into a game, and keeping things simple. Star Frontiers is a good example of a design that had a strong core concept, and a designer who valued keeping it streamlined and straightforward.

The Game World

While we liked the base Star Frontiers setting and the classic Zebulon modules, one of the huge pieces that was missing was a universe guide. They gave you names of worlds and a simple map, and that's it. I would have loved to have a star system generator, or even a random sector generator like Traveller had, but the game provided little in the way of creating new adventure locals and starmaps. You were supposed to make everything up as you went, but I wanted more referee support for designing worlds and places in space to explore.

Our game first became stagnant on the base map, and then it blew up and over expanded with all of our add on starmaps. We never really achieved a great balance to new worlds and making things interesting, and this remains one of my great "do over" wishes in my gaming career. We expanded early too, so we were using the spaceship rules from other games to explore the universe, so our star system maps went from 2d to full Space Opera 3d with 100s of LY of XYZ 3d distance, and then back down to 2d XY when we realized we didn't want all that math and complexity. By then, the damage was done, and our established star map was a mess.

Part of the problem was not having starships at the game's launch. Another part of this is that we were expecting Star Wars type adventure and exploration ships, and when Knight Hawks finally launched, they delivered ships that were closer to 2001 and NASA than TIE fighters and the Millennium Falcon. We couldn't escape the gravitational pull of Star Wars on what starships should be, so the more primitive starships with outboard engines (aka Star Trek) and no artificial gravity felt like a shock to us, and also we had been using other game's starships, so we completely ignored the Knight Hawks aesthetics and kept with our original borrowed designs.


Space Opera was our AD&D to the D&D game world of Star Frontiers for us. We borrowed so much from Space Opera, weapons, tech, sensors, hand computers, vehicles, heavy weapons, and so much more we were really playing a Star Frontiers rules version of Space Opera. We were kids, so we didn't know better, and everything was good. It was just more cool stuff to play with, so we dove in and had fun. Some ships from Traveller showed up and those were cool too.

You discount that as you get older and become a purist and a lore snob. When you think about it, kids don't care if you have light sabers in Minecraft, those are cool and they want them there. Does it matter that light sabers have no place or role or history in the so-called "world" of Minecraft?  No, not to a young mind, and that's how we were.

Later, yes, we did become purists and rules snobs, but we left our old choices in our game and lived with them. There is something to be said for tradition too.

That said, there is a lot of cool tech and gear in Star Frontiers to play with, and even a Car Wars inspired vehicle combat system that was fun, They had this strange hang up where they kept calling "lasers" as "blasters" or lasers and tried to make the same thing be both. Or perhaps it was the pull of Star Wars again and people wanted blasters, and the designer wanted "lasers". Why not just call them "blasters" and be done with it? You can see the hard sci-fi versus fantasy sci-fi conflict in this game, and it is a strange mix of genres.

The game wants to be "hard sci fi" (more so than Traveller, especially when Knight Hawks was introduced), but the players don't really care and want to have fun, at least in our experience. This leads to fantasy elements creeping in, like sci-fi melee weapons, flying monkeys, and alien worms with hypnosis. The game and designers could never make up in their minds, and it remains as a strange mix between fantasy and hard sci-fi. It is in a way sort of like AD&D being a mix between gritty and high fantasy, this was trying to be a catch-all sci-fi game.

In my feeling, Star Frontiers never got to a fantasy sci-fi level, and it remained as a Traveller+ sort of game. With our Space Opera modifications, it got there and it played how we wanted it to play. It was sort of a quandary with us where Space Opera had the better gear and starships, and Star Frontiers had the better rules.


Beyond the Volturnus series, the game just had a standard "bug eyed aliens" metaplot that worked better for security and war types of games. The Volturnus series was an incredible joy ride, and it remains a classic sci-fi planetary exploration and survival sandbox to this day. The game never (in our experience) got beyond that series of modules, while there were some interesting one-offs later, those felt too tied to Knight Hawks style technology for us to enjoy as much as we did the first Volturnus modules. I can remember counting the days until the next one of these modules were released, and improvising adventures on the small planetary map for all the trapped sci-fi explorers until it came out.

For us, when Volturnus was over, the game took on a military turn, and we never got back that cool "planetary explorer" vibe and feeling. You couldn't strand your adventurers on a new planet every time, and the game was waning by then and there we no new sources of fun, so we moved on to Car Wars and then Battletech. It was still our go-to sci-fi game, and chasing the Sathars became to focus of later games.

If the game were just Volturnus and you couldn't "go back home" and had to make your home there I'm feeling this would have been a stronger game. As it is, for us, when the characters went back home the game felt done and over with, pirates and aliens became enemies. There is something to be said about having a great start and basing the game from that point - if you had to explore the systems around the planet and make your home among the stars from there that would have been very compelling for us, and felt like a "fresh start" rather than saying goodbye to the world, leaving it to the mega-corporations, and wondering why no other planet in the universe was that 'fun' to explore.


Speaking of mega-corporations, one of the lamest expansions to this game (for us) was the Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space supplement, where TSR forced the "color bar" chart of Marvel Superheroes onto the game, changed all the rules, drew weapons with the worst Apple IIe or Commodore 64 art I have ever seen, and ripped up the game's story for some sort of Shadowrun inspired "corporate wars" plot after a galaxy wide "blue plague" apocalyptic event. The game became too much about what the game's mega-corporations were doing, and it felt like every time you discovered a new world, not far behind you were multi-national mining and development interests ready to make any of your discoveries or small mining outposts irrelevant with mass development - and worse, they would come in and start some proxy war over the new system with mercenaries and sabotage.

It felt like you couldn't compete anymore on the small scale, and you had to join or own a mega-corporation to compete. We didn't incorporate these changes, but the pressures were still there. The days of setting up a small mining operation and pulling molybdenum a couple hundred kilograms at a time from an asteroid and netting 50,000 credits were over, and any sense of small scale adventure were gobbled up by multinational corporations, banks, and shady armies of mercenaries.

It's like these space people had no ethics, and Star Law would never bust a space mega-corp CEO for running a mercenary army of space pirates in a far-off system. It became the norm in the game, and we felt Shadowrun's influence have too strong of a pull on a game that was supposed to be about space explorers and blasting things with laser pistols.

At that point, the last heroes left in the game for us were the military, and the space explorers part of the game waned as a backdrop. So our game shifted into the "protect civilization" mode of fighting off the "bug eyed aliens" and "space pirates" and an occasional "deal with corruption" plots. Yes, it became like the interplanetary political and military drama of Star Wars and there it stayed.

Character Types and Skills

One thing we loved about the game were the strong support for all types of character skills and "adventure time" - as every skill was important. You could play a medic and be needed on an adventure, along with being a scientist character or even a psio-sociologist. Really? You can play a space psychiatrist and contribute to the group's success? Yes, everyone was involved. The game also smashed the "space mechanics have no fun" trope that even the later Star Wars RPG from West End fell into, as a technician, your skills were needed, and you drove the vehicles and fixed the team's laser rifles and the party was good.

Of course, everyone had a couple military skills so they could shoot guns and hit things with electro swords, and those were cheap enough that even the medic could by a couple levels of beam weapons and get in on the alien-blasting fun.

Part of the success of the Star Frontiers skill system were all the detailed subskills laid out in the rules, and all the cool stuff you could do with them. In Traveller, so what you have Medic+1, you can't do anything cool with it beyond sit in the medbay. In Star Frontiers, you can treat poisons, heal wounds, do surgery, deal with alien diseases, and all sorts of cool subskills that referees could use to design challenges for adventures. This is a great example of the rules helping shape the challenges in the game world, and it remains a great part of the original game's design.

We made the mistake of adding dead-head and single-use skills that did nothing special (art skill, motorcycle skill), and that watered the game's focus down. The original skills are nice and tightly-focused, and they are detailed enough that the cover 90% of what you need.

Except crime skill and law skill, which we added to support our Star Law campaign, and we added subskills for those that did forensics, lock picking, forgery, and other cool stuff. Some of the skills we added were good, and a lot of the others were filler.

You Can Still Play This

There is a site out there,, where you can download PDF copies of the rules, and it is in a sort of fan-supported version of the game. This was done with the blessing with TSR and it still continues today, as far as I know this understanding continues.

The Future?

Star Frontiers was a product of its time, where television shows such as Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica filled the airwaves, and that sort of heroic and noble space adventurer was the ideal. Today, things seem like a darker world mood, and our Dark Knight and the moral ambiguity of Game of Thrones makes the freewheeling space adventure game seem a little quaint and old fashioned. Of course in a game like this you can have bug-eyed evil space aliens, but in today's sensibilities you need to understand what the evil space aliens are angry about and send space ambassadors to endlessly discuss treaties and letters of understanding.

Sathar = Orc, got it?


That said, I'm not sure they could do another space game like this nowadays without writing a 600 page rulebook and making the game so expansive and rules heavy we would need a shelf of rules encyclopedias to sort it out. The tone would change too, to something darker and more nefarious like genetic manipulation and mega-corps, and the original charm would be lost.

Sometimes yes, I like my games simple and fun, and that spirit of adventure built into the game with no moral ambiguity or shades of gray. These are the heroes, here are some blasters, let's hop on our spaceship and get out there and save the universe, one planet at a time.

That, to me, is Star Frontiers.

Pathfinder World Design: Realms of Proteus

Check this out:

I am doing an interesting world design this summer in another blog for Pathfinder, a sort of Hunger Games meets Matrix style dystopic future where players of the "fantasy game" are trapped in a virtual world/fantasy game until they can reach level 20 and escape - with perma-death and no logging out. Think of this as a world gone mad that is using a virtual reality game to select the world's leaders and you are close to what I envision it to be.

I am doing a post every other day describing the world, and it is a cool design which breaks apart all of Pathfinder's books and expansions and gives each one a place in the world. You can play with as little books or as many of your collection as you want, everything has a place, and there are some strange goings on inside the world as well that open up possibilities for intrigue and dark conflicts.

It is really a game? I love the "sinister forces" angle to this project where the players of a virtual fantasy MMO can't get out and have to deal with demons and other sinister forces that are possibly real.

I am enjoying writing this, and I am doing the entire blog as if I were a survivor of the game giving new players hints on what to expect, so there is a fun fiction angle to the blog as well that I love doing. You have to read it from the start though, since it is a complete story, so make sure you catch up on the posts if you are interested.


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Free and Open Means Community

Being a creator, it is difficult to be creative in games which do not have open licenses for third-party content. This was a problem I had with 4th Edition D&D, and it is currently a problem with 5th Edition D&D (though OGL was spoke of by the team, to be fair).

If I build something, naturally I want to share it, for profit or not. I remember TSR AD&D and 2E with the silliness third party publishers (and even individuals) had to go through to make compatible content, and that is a time that is 15 years ago and thankfully over with, for the most part.

And then by some miracle we got the OGL and SRD, and it was mostly a good thing (save for electronic and game publishing). It was great, and the Open Gaming license today survives and thrives with many game, a lot having nothing to do with d20 or D&D. It was a gift that kept giving, and it continues to give today.

I seriously think 5th Edition could have been put out with full OGL and SRD support, just like 3rd Edition and they would have seen the same or even greater success. D&D is what it is, there's no taking that away, and being open and compatible from the start would have just won over many and led the industry again.

I like Legend, and I love the thought at being able to use that system to build an entirely new game from - that is cool. I like Pathfinder and the OGL/SRD, and I can share my ideas and even sell them if people become fans and want to support the idea.

I like the OGL/SRD retro-clones, those are exciting and cool as well.

I love all the games with open licensing, like Traveller and others - these are great developments and gifts to the gaming world.

I want to be someone who does more than buys and plays a game, I want games that I can share my creativity with the world. I'm finding myself drawn to those and playing those more than I do my collection of "play only" games. When you buy an open-license game, you are becoming a part of a community of creators and players - and not just players. I find more and more the community matters, and fostering a large and vibrant creative community is where I like to spend my gaming time.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Playtest #1: Adventures Under the Laughing Moon

We picked up Adventures Under the Laughing Moon - Role-playing Game (Volume 1) at our last comic-con (Las Vegas) and got this one signed by the creator - which is pretty cool. This is our current RPG play test, and we are working through some of the character design rules and how the game works. Design-wise, it is an interesting game.

This is sort of a D&D type game, and the basic set does a good job of laying out the 'basic set' of the first few spells, monsters, and options for building characters. This is a skill-based system without levels, and it also uses sectional hit points and wounding, along with an over-riding stamina system designed to subdue you before your character's limbs are hacked off. Wounds take off body part hits, but all wounds do stamina damage and reduce your character's effectiveness and consciousness.

The big difference with this game is that special combat moves are bought into with skill points, such as sweep, head butt, block, and parry. You have to level up all your tricks, and all combat actions are used with a randomly rolled number of combat "action points" each character determines each turn.

Where some games abstract combat, this one dives into details and reminds me of some ways of the Runequest or Legend systems. The difference between this and those other two is this has a combat-stunt focus, where Legend has more of an abstract and free-form stunting system where the player invents moves (using their skill as the base) and the referee gives it a difficulty. This is point-buy character build melee stunting, and it is interesting from a building characters sort of point of view.

Character generation is straightforward, and there are some omissions that we would like cleared up, but we haven't gotten hung up. We wish there were a few more points to spend during character creation, as we are finding we are ignoring all the neat options that you can buy for just being able to hit or cast magic at a basic (more than 5%) level. It feels tough to get the character you are feeling you want, at least for us, so maybe we are doing something wrong (or characters really are very inexperienced to start).

We wanted a few more world details as well, and yes, we haven't read the books this was based on, so this will be an interesting play test. That said, we wanted some background detail about the world to get us started, like a really cool  starting town with some lore or something along those lines.

Also, pregens! What we would give for some pre-generated characters for use with new players. I can see this game taking 4+ hours to explain to a new group and go through character creations page-by-page, this was our experience with 4th Edition D&D, and this one with a edetailed point-buy system feels like it will be harder for new players to grasp what's important and what they need to perform well with the idea they have in mind.

This looks interesting, and it is a beautiful game - full color throughout. We expect to be having fun with this one and reporting back soon, so stay tuned.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Old-School Gaming is our Minecraft

"Take a look at this," the computer sales clerk says, "Dual SLI cards, the latest Intel 8-core, 64 GB of RAM, and..."
"But does it play Minecraft?"
Minecraft is a cultural phenomenon, and it is also one of the dominant forces in gaming today. It "gets it" by being so simple. It isn't complicated, it doesn't need RPG stats, and it doesn't need the latest game engine - it just is what it is, simple and infinitely expandable. It is also fun.

I am reminded of old-school gaming in this regard. Go into the dungeon, steal the loot, get XP, and avoid monsters. Combat isn't supposed to be exciting or well-balanced, this is a dangerous world and you have limited resources, so cheating the system is a part of the game. Fighting sucks, and it is an overall loss if you have to go in with spells flying and spells slinging.

I think that is a huge difference between true old-school gaming and the old-school clones (and I feel D&D 5 is an old-school clone as well) - there is this notion of a balanced, fun combat experience. This started with the magic-card-if-ication of D&D with 3E, where yes, tactical combat is a big draw of the game, and of course "modern" game designs have to make every aspect of the game fun and enjoyable. With 4E, we went back to the tabletop, and everything was 'balanced and fun tactical combat'. With 5E, we still keep the 3E balancing, but 2E's scripted story-gaming comes back with players having parts written in for them during character generation, and builds and combat are designed to be satisfying.

All choices are good, right?

Not really. Combat isn't supposed to be enjoyable or balanced in true old-school gaming. The rules aren't designed to protect you from bad choices, lousy rolls, or stupidity. You are a lucky hit away from a kobold killing your cleric, a poison dart killing your thief, a fireball killing your fighter, or an accidental step into a pit full of green slime away from melting your expendable magic user. Avoiding combat is what makes the game fun, tricking monsters, sneaking through the dungeon and disarming the traps, and putting the royal golden corkscrew to the dungeon master's well-thought out design.

Old school gaming is closer to a puzzle game or a text-adventure game than it is Diablo 3. You listen, you think, and you act carefully. You avoid combat if you can. You beat the dungeon master's diabolical designs. You sneak out with the golden chalice and the princess, and laugh as the dragon wonders "what just happened?"

With Minecraft, yes, combat is enjoyable, but it is also something that doesn't net profit (other than xp and an occasional item). Some combats are less enjoyable, and should be avoided (creepers). The zombies will show up, and you need to defend your fort. The game is not all about "enjoyable combats" though, since building and exploring are the game's main focus. There is a theme in Minecraft of "make your own fun" and I feel this is closer to an old-school game's philosophy than the more modern balanced/fun videogame-inspired designs.

In an old-school game, you were given a bunch of pieces and told to "make your own fun". With newer games (starting at 2E), you were given "stories" to "play through" and (with 3E) "balanced combat systems" to enjoy "building characters" with (4E and 5E). In an old school game, a 9 hit die green dragon could come stomping into town, and players were left to figure out how to deal with it through wits or clever roleplaying. Fighting it? Out of the question.

In newer games, we get the concept of "CR" or challenge rating tool to build encounters with, and a dungeon master who pulled the green dragon plot on a group would be frowned upon for not "balancing the encounter". It is really an alien concept pulled from self-balancing videogames, and one I feel that has no place in old-school gaming. If a party of level one characters wanted to go out and lure an owlbear into a pit and steal the beast's loot while it tried to climb out - so be it. That owlbear could probably clock them all in two rounds, but the risk and danger is what made the game fun.

The dungeon master didn't 'balance' things, the dungeon master created the world, and the players judged risks and were free to explore and adventure wherever they chose, and against whatever level of challenge they thought they could get away with. Sound familiar? Yes, that's Minecraft. A dangerous world where you could do anything you want, and there are no 'stories' or 'balanced fights' - you make your path through the world, you cheat death, and you deal with the challenges by working with what you find.

You are free to make your own adventures, and you are free to take as big of a risk as you can find out there in the world. The more you explore, loot, and exploit - the better off you are. And if you can do it all while avoiding unnecessary fights? Genius. In a way, it is philosophically the same game.