Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Tunnels and Trolls: Missile Weapon Rules Revisited


I was rethinking my stance on the whole T&T 8.0 rules on missile weapon combat changes. What bothered me about the rule change was this, and here is the section of the rule-book covering the rule in question:
If the character aims for a particular target and makes the saving roll, then that damage will automatically take effect against the target when damage is assessed at the end of that combat round (even if the party loses the round). 
If your character misses the saving roll to hit, you still count the weapon damage toward the party’s overall HPT regardless of whether the PC party wins or loses overall. You were in the fight, and that number counts as part of the overall chaos of combat. However, the missile damage is simply rolled into the bigger number and does not automatically take effect if the character’s side loses the combat round. (If the party wins, the missile isn’t counted separately either.)
So if you miss, you still hit and do damage. I can see why they did this, because the spirit of the game is based in "the chaos of combat" and we don't need to-hit rolls for melee attacks, so why should we with missiles? Just total up the sides and fight. An arrow shot into a melee counts just as much as a sword.

But a "hit"? Guaranteed damage at the end of the round, even if you lose the round. This is critical, especially in fights where your party is outclassed. It allows your ranged attackers to do ANY damage in a fight where your party is outclassed, and hopefully your front ranks can absorb enough damage (and your healers can heal) and the monster's adds drop to a point where your party can start pushing things over the top.

A Kill on a Miss?

Looking back, this is a smart rule...but with one problem. One archer, one goblin, and a miss that "kills" the goblin. Let's not say kills, but defeats, and a thought I had recently may have a solution to this problem. Let's say the shot does "miss" and impacts the ground next to the goblin, but the goblin is still defeated in some way.

Let's say defeated means...gives up? This is actually a cool kind of ruling and one I may use in the future. The arrow could impact the ground right in front of the beast and it simply surrenders. If it was unintelligent or low intelligence, such as a wolf, the wolf could get scared and run away. This is still a "miss" but it better explains what is going on without breaking the dis-logic of fantasy reality and the rules.

You could easily combine this with another ruling, if the creature gives up or runs, there is no need to roll for the coup-de-grace with a second arrow that does the job and defeats the monster. It stands there or turns its back to bolt, and that is the opening you need to finish it off - still defeated, but another arrow is needed. But it is your choice, and the break in reality of the "kill on a miss" becomes kind of a cool house ruling that adds a lot of  flavor to the end of an encounter, and it is kind of like a "stunning damage" ruling.

Don't want it getting away? Well, you did miss, so you will need to use another round of ammo to finish the monster off. Hit better next time to save on ammo, but the choice is yours. If you have a one shot weapon, this was your last round of ammo, or you just want to walk up and clock the goblin that would be cool too, so the final blow could be a melee weapon if desired (and the referee doesn't rule a complete bolt). This feels good enough to add another cool house rule to our collection:

Missile Weapon "Miss but Kill"

On a missed missile weapon shot that still defeats a monster due to end-of-turn HPT, the character firing the shot has two choices:
  1. Let the monster surrender or escape as-is, before the damage is assessed.
  2. Finish off the monster in a coup-de-grace, but using another round of ammunition.
If no ammo is available or a shot is not taken and the referee rules the creature does not run, the final blow can be with a melee weapon or fist. Stunning damage is allowed in case a prisoner needs to be taken.
This is a cool rule because it does not change rules as written that much, explains away a hole in logic, and adds a really fun thematic story choice to whenever this occurs that I as a player, would look forward to. There is a cost too, in both the second round of ammo used or this being your last shot and the creature runs for it and gets away. You pay the price for missing either way.

Use freely and happy gaming!

Monday, April 23, 2018

Traveller Core Rulebook (2nd Edition Mongoose)

Having fully bought into the 1st Edition of Mongoose Traveller, never got a chance to play it, and seeing a new second edition out...

This is going to be a tough one. I hate buying games to collect and eventually box.

I hear they updated the technology level to a more modern level. I like the 1970's level of technology as a throwback gamer, but I know times change and that retro-view is being left behind. I also hear starship design rules are not included in the main rulebook. I am feeling a PDF is a better purchase here initially. If I buy in.

People, from the reviews, seem to like this edition a lot. I also like supporting Mongoose's efforts, since I like the setting and love hard sci-fi. They went to a difference licensing model (TAS instead of Open Game), so there is that to consider. Again, this is a tough one. I feel more in tune with Labyrinth Lord and the connected universes around the Goblinoid-verse these days than to take a hard sci-fi detour in my interests so maybe I will wait.

This one is on my radar, or ladar, or menson whatever detector these days...so noted. I would say cautiously looking forward to this one and I need to do some more research before I dive in.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Character Design and Balance

Going back to Labyrinth Lord and it's simpler characters made me think about the supposed advancements in character design from D&D 3.0 and forward. This also includes  non D&D systems with detailed character design systems where the variance in character power (the min-max factor) varies widely based on design choices. Let's do some charts!
The above reflects B/X systems, Basic Fantasy, Labyrinth Lord, and most other pre D&D 3.0 designs. As your character goes up in levels, their power goes up on a predictable, fixed rate. A 5th level fighter is pretty similar in powers and fighting ability as most every other 5th level fighter in a B/X style system, given average hit point rolls (that and gear determine character power). As a result, the balance curve is tighter.

Note that this chart only compares characters of the same class, the differences in balance between classes, such as mage and fighter, is still wildly different and follows D&D's asymmetrical system of balancing the glass cannon spellcasters versus the front-line meat shield martial classes. So we are comparing fighters to fighters, and mages to mages here. Let's turn the clock forward to newer games and look at systems with a wider variety of character design choices:

The next chart is character design as we expect systems with a lot of character customization. You can pick feats to enhance your combat power, you can make all sorts of other tweaks and design decisions to favor a weapon or power, and there is a wide latitude in choices of character design. This chart also reflects games with a wide difference in choices where a great character design can blow out the game's difficulty curve. This is also what we by default expect as well - since we want our choices to matter, and we expect good choices to be rewarded well.

The yellow area reflects abilities, feats, class powers, and other abilities outside of the normal hit points, to-hit, and spells from B/X. Pathfinder and the D&D games 3.0 and up have this "extra added" group of abilities normally found in character creation and  bonus class abilities (like a Pathfinder mage's force missiles or D&D 5's infinite-use cantrips). In short, the yellow area covers all the possible customization and extra powers that differ from B/X characters.

Above the red line are optimal designs, while below it are less-optimal - and this definition can vary depending on the referee and how the group plays. If you play all combat, then good designs will focus on combat. If you play mostly social, then good designs will be social-focused. Balanced social/combat games will see balanced social/combat character designs push above the line.

There is also a baseline difficulty adjustment that should be mentioned as well, since a B/X level one character is the weakest, a D&D 3.5 level one is a little stronger, and so on up to Pathfinder - at least among the fantasy game versions I am used to. D&D 4 and D&D 5 are a little more difficult to compare since hit-points and damages are scaled up.

But this covers these games well and a high-level view of character design expectations. I say expect here because this is often how a game looks when you first play it. You see hundreds of options and your first assumption is they are all good. As you play, you naturally discover the good from the bad, the feats and characters design choices that make your character excel, and the chart shifts a little to the actual chart below:

Character designs have a tendency to min-max towards the greatest effectiveness. As a result, the game's balance trends towards that area in green, because everyone wants the game to be exciting and fun, with encounters that challenge well-designed characters. As a designer, you want to narrow the range for balancing content, because there will be less variance in monster strength and encounter design.

Balancing All This

If I am a game designer, I want that green area to be as tight as possible (while still feeling good). You don't want too much difference between an average character and an optimized one, because you don't want min-max'ed "best" character designs blowing out average encounters. You want them doing well and feeling good about their choices, but you don't want them pushing everything over with ease.

Less than optimized characters? I don't really care about them and they can fall off the balance curve if they are terribly designed. You want some of this "lots of terrible designs" thing going on so you can create that 'system mastery' feeling in your game where you try repeated designs and discover what works best and what gets you towards that red line of average expected competence and character power. I remember somewhere where the designers of D&D 3.0 said they included less-than optimal choices in character design just to fill out a range of good choices and bad choices, just like deck building in Magic the Gathering. The silly non-historical double-ended greatswords and warhammers come to mind...

Now, if every character design choice is equal? You are back to the B/X chart and none of this matters. I am sort of reminded of D&D 5's system, where if you want to be a certain type of fighter you pick the ability you are expected to take, such as the Fighting Styles and Class Archetypes in that system. The entire character design system in D&D 5 is a lot tighter than games like Pathfinder, with less choices but more focused in both balance and the abilities you are expected to take given how you want your character to perform. The envelope is tighter in D&D 5, but there are still bad choices given what you want to do (taking an archery fighting style as a fighter and never using a bow, for example).

Why This Matters

As a player? I want to design and min-max, and that is a big part of the fun for me. I also want the game to be balanced and have the fights not be too easy or too hard.

As a referee? I want to be able to predict player power to balance encounters and not have the game either be too easy or result in a total party wipe. I also do not want "design as distraction" where players experience choice paralysis or the entire design system takes over the game.

Both players and referees want balance and to avoid the extremes of too easy or too hard. I like the encounter balancing systems of the newer rules, but for me as a referee, I never really had a problem balancing a B/X experience either - although I know that opinion is outside the current view of things.

To me, in a B/X experience, balance was more of a player-focused concern - they knew what they could fight (based on experience), and they were the ones who had to judge if they should open that next door. My secret "good DM" promise to players was not to put any monsters on the current level that would wipe them all out in the blink of an eye (something again, I learned through experience and the simple and mostly predictable nature of B/X combats plus limited monster lists). No ancient red dragons above dungeon level 7, please. Keep hit dice equal to dungeon level and player level, and use quantity and encounter composition to match party strength. Got it.

If I screwed up encounter balance and things started to go very badly? GM fiat time. Make some monsters weaker, have some run away, give the players an out, or make the monsters hold back a little out of caution. Fudging rolls was usually a last resort for me, and if I did, it was usually on monster to-hits while the players made a hasty retreat to lick their wounds and regroup.


Player Skill versus Design Skill

There are times when I want to take character design skill out of a game and just have a system that rewards creative play and player ingenuity. If your level 5 fighter is just like every other, then how you play them will make a big difference in your success or failure. Of course, there is the factor of random chance, but part of playing an old-school B/X game also involves a bit of risk mitigation and understanding random chances and trying to control odds.

I have had games where the character designs felt like they took over the game, and the players were focused on getting a numerical advantage through character design. I have seen games where a character's design and numerical advantage acted as a disincentive to attempting actions outside of their area of expertise. It is like am archery-focused fighter way above the range-combat power curve hesitating to get into melee combat because their character is only average at melee fighting.

A good referee will force characters outside of their comfort zones, but I found game systems with heavily min-max'ed character design systems make doing that a lot harder. I have had players disengage rather than be forced to fight outside of their numerical comfort zones. I don't blame the players though, I blame the game for putting them in that mindset. Some games tend to punish you hard for that risk-taking and out-of-the-box play, such as D&D 4 and the amount of optimizing needed to keep up with the content's ever-increasing challenge level (at least when we played, it changed several times as new monster manuals and revisions came out).

System Forgiveness and Flexibility

D&D 5 for us tends to be a very forgiving system. There is a lot of healing, character death is more difficult, there are many options and infinite-use spells for casters, and the game feels more like D&D 4's sort of MMO-inspired experience that is more player-friendly and focused. Characters are also mechanically complex with a lot of design options given the type of character you want to play. The game is also more story-focused like a modern narrative game, and as a result tends to reward "story based play" rather than the old-school "slay and loot" style.

B/X systems, for us, are a lot simpler, the characters are fast to design and die often, and the entire system is a lot less forgiving of bad luck or mistakes. They can approach the difficulty level of today's "rage games" in some insta-death adventures, and I find my players are a lot more crafty when they have less options and character advantages to fall back on. With less mechanical abilities, my great players are always trying to come up with creative ways to manipulate the situation to their advantage despite not having the "rules tools" to do so.

I have also seen less experienced players in old-school games "freeze up" because they don't think they can do much outside of "cast the spell" or "roll an attack." This is one of the hardest skills to pick up in systems that ;eave a lot up to interpretation, knowing that you as a player are free to come up with anything you can imagine you could do, and also that you are the referee should encourage and support those crazy plans and actions through fair judgments using the dice and/or ability scores to determine the chances to succeed or fail.

D&D 5 moved back from the "cover everything" sort of rules design where there are detailed rules for every action and leaves a lot up to players and referees. B/X systems are already there and I feel as a whole that moving back to more interpretive systems where less is more is a good thing. I don't need rules for everything, just guidelines on general things and me and my group  can take it from there.

My Current Feelings

I like what they did in D&D 5 to tighten up that character design curve. I don't like the double-scale hit-points and complexity of characters, though I can see why they did that in regards to player-friendliness. As a player, I like the character design choices because they let me specialize (at the cost of complexity though).

I like B/X a lot, because the numerical and design model is simple and the choices stark and unforgiving. It is like a pure form of chess to me, where the danger level is high and the rules unforgiving and completely straightforward without a high degree of complexity. I like the glass-cannon and simple nature of B/X casters, and even their power level compared to martial characters. That asymmetrical balance, especially if you severely limit 15-minute adventuring days through good refereeing, and this really appeals to me.

I like B/X resource management a lot, with casters worrying about an ever-dwindling supply of magic, the party's resources being drained, and that whole elevation of risk as the dungeon crawl goes on. B/X does this for me, as a player I love the discussions among the players about "should we tackle the next room?" There is a very strong risk and reward cycle going on here for me, and there are no distractions with factoring in numerical superiority through character designs into that calculus of character life and death.

It is a strange sort of realization. When I play a game with less character design options, and less story options, what I find interests me comes out better. There are times when I crave a good story and a great mathematical min-max'ed character, but I don't need them all the time and actually enjoy the lower-level risk-based play B/X excels at - at least for me and my group. I enjoy all of these games for different reasons, and no one is better than the other, and some do things better than others.

My Ideal Dungeon Game

I really like B/X games like Labyrinth Lord though. There is something to that 7 hp level one fighter and his longsword in some spooky abandoned keep fighting spiders and rats that appeals to me - even without all of the character design options of newer games. I can almost play that game in my head. I could play a game like this solo with just a character sheet and an encounter table.

It is that simple yet focused feeling, almost like a dungeon-game version of solitaire. I can't wait for my fighter to get to level two, get a slightly better to-hit, some treasure in his backpack, and maybe he now has 13 hp now. With every level he can go deeper and deeper, and my character really doesn't get all that more complex as he levels up. When he is hurt, he drinks a healing potion (if he has one), or heads back to town. The dungeon may restock when he comes back, and random encounters are always present in the halls, so getting back to where he was will be tricky.

He is still that guy, with a sword, using the wits as me (the player) to keep him alive down there. I don't have any other character design choices to fall back on. That character's story is completely determined by my choices in that dungeon, not by the rules, not by character design, but by my risk-management skills and dealing with runs of good and bad luck.

With simple characters I could run a whole 4 character party myself one one sheet of  paper for record-keeping - no computer programs needed to design characters and level them up. My fighter has chainmail and a sword, my rogue a dagger and leather armor, my mage a magic missile spell and a staff, my cleric chainmail, a shield, a mace, and cure light wounds. Some ability scores and hit points, some saves and to-hit numbers - and we are done. I don't have to reference the class areas of a player's handbook to know what special powers and feats each one can use - it is all here on the sheet.

This is B/X - I know this.

As I have less time for reading through 1,000 of pages of rules and options spanning a library of books and character options, that B/X style simplicity of both play and design is a feature of pen-and-paper games that I feel has real value. Playing old-school simpler games means the difference between playing and not playing, at least to me.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Mail Room: Starships and Spacemen 2e

If there is one thing I love about the old-school revolution it is projects like this. A B/X style throwback game covering a "classic Federation inspired" sort of roleplaying game using the well-known "old school dungeon" style rules? Yep, we got it in Starships and Spacemen.

This is something I honestly would expect to find in some small-town hobby shop in the 1970's where a group of local game writers get together and print something "inspired by" but ultimately totally different and cool. In fact, I do have a game like that lying around here just like this, a Trek inspired Basic D&D clone from the 70's much like this printed and distributed from what I know from somewhere from a group of fans in Texas.

This one comes from Goblinoid Games, the creators of Labyrinth Lord, and the S&S system is fully compatible with the LL rules and monsters. There is a larger Goblinoid Universe lurking here between Labyrinth Lord, Mutant Future, Starships and Spacemen, and other games in the series and if you collect them all you get this "more is better" thing going on in terms of content and system support.

But it Ain't Trek!

Well, D&D isn't the Lord of the Rings either. Nor does it have to be, because different is cool. Honestly, I don't really care, and as D&D proves the best games in the genre aren't the official ones either, they are inspired by, create new ideas from, and combine a bunch of influences together to create something entirely new. Space Opera, Star Frontiers, and a bunch of other classic sci-fi games come to mind.

S&S does a bunch of new things, it uses a typical Asimov-style star-federation as its base, introduces a bunch of crazy aliens to the mix like talking frogs and others, re-thinks gear and abilities in terms of adventures, and focuses the action on a sort of lower-level mission structure that I find really quite cool. The ships are just UFO-shaped without the extra flange and structure, and I find that a cool divergence. There is also a greater focus on classic psionics in characters, which I find is a cool new thing the game brings to "space navy sci-fi" sorts of games.

S&S is Trek as Firefly is Star Wars, in a way. A lot of this is really older-school sci-fi in my feeling, sort of a hearkening back to the original sources where Trek drew inspiration from as well, the HG Wells or Asimov-style Foundation series of "space navy" generic sci-fi. There are some items from other sci-fi stories in the mix, such as laser swords, AI controlled tanks, flame guns, force fields, androids, and robotic animals, so it is not trying to be a carbon copy. I wish it had more of these classic sci-fi items but the door has been opened for my imagination to include whatever I want - especially if I include other books from the Goblinoid Universe.

There is enough here to make me comfortable playing this as something new and not a carbon copy, and in my feelings this is really more of a 1970's sci-fi TV Show retro throwback game than it is anything else. I could include tips of the hat and inspired by things like Buck Rogers, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Dune, Foundation, Federation, Logan's Run, Alien, The Thing, Six-Million Dollar Man, Body Snatchers, Planet of the Apes, and feel right at home as the giant UFO-like space navy ship sets down and characters go on all sorts of zany and semi-serious 70's sci-fi adventures.

Actually, the Better Traveller Setup

A part of my brain tell me this is the Traveller I always wanted. Small ships with limited-size crews going out on blank hex-maps, mapping star systems, meeting the crazy-alien locals, getting into all sorts of trouble, having spaceship combats, landing on planets and exploring dangerous "dungeons" of lost civilizations, and really giving the player characters a lot of agency to set star-federation policy in the sector without having to worry about "command" back home dictating what they should do and say.

The players are free to setup alliances with whoever they find, to establish star-federation bases on the planets of races they meet, figure out dangerous space anomalies, shoot up space pirates, embark on mysteries that span multiple star systems, and have that sort of free-roaming plus "settling the wild west' sort of campaign that I always dreamed about with Traveller. But I never got to run.

If the players need backup? Head on back to the star-federation base on the edge of the map and get some other star-federation ships to come along for an epic fleet battle. After the evil space mongol fleet is pushed back from that corner of the map, it is back to the single ship adventures we love without escalating the entire campaign into a World War II naval simulator.

There is an enthusiasm here and an innocence that I feel just makes it work. You get serious games and serious properties, like Lord of the Rings, and all of a sudden doing the small and random things in that universe doesn't seem to fit. You just can't go out in LotR or Star Wars and say, "let's find a dungeon!" and be taken seriously. In D&D and "inspired by" B/X games like S&S? You can do that stuff because these games are in-fact derivative and inspired-by and there is a playful level of fun there that invites exploration and pushing the boundaries of what came before.

Simple Old-School Rules

The game works really well with the simple OSR dungeon-game style rules, like in some alternate universe gaming decided to stick with the Basic D&D paradigm and everything was developed for and compatible with that style of gameplay. You get more hit points and become a tougher hero, but so what? Only really that last shot that takes you down matters anyways, so everything else is a graze or a minor wound - and failing a saving throw versus a terrible effect is always the big threat.

Another note, the pre D&D 3 lower-scale damage and hit-point range is wonderful here. Newer editions of D&D always seem to ramp up the hit points and damage past level one, and this scaling I feel ruins the higher level game in most D&D games past 3rd edition. With a ramp-up in hit points comes multi-attacks or scaled damage that you see in modern games, and they never seem to get that original feeling right.

Yes, if my 5th level fighter or space adventurer has 30 hit points he will be able to take quite a few blows and crossbow hits - he is a hero after all! Early OSR games still get this right, and they don't need to scale damage or introduce multiple attacks just to balance things, and inevitably newer games introduce more difficult death and more abundant healing and I feel what was special about tabletop gaming is lost.

Choices matter. Character death isn't a video game respawn. You don't have 'healing surges' to get your MMO character back to 100% health for the next fight. You don't need a level 10 laser pistol that does 8d8 damage just to balance the out of control hit points. You don't need three 1d8 sword attacks per turn to keep your DPS rating on keel with the mages. High-level monsters don't need 300 to 1200 hit points to be terrifying. What's terrifying is all that math and repetitive multi-attack dice rolls over a four-hour combat with pages of rules reference to whittle that tangled-yarn junk-drawer rules mass of hit-points down to zero.

What's worse, if your hit point scaling past level one is out of control, the original polyhedral dice don't really matter that much any more. A 1d8 versus a 1d6 weapon against a 12 hit point monster? That means something. The same two weapons versus a 120 hit point monster? Not that much of a difference anymore since in scaled systems damage modifiers over multi-attacks primarily determine DPS. Getting a +5 damage and four attacks a turn? My DPS is about the same with a 1d8 sword as it is a 1d4 dagger, since the average roll difference is only 2 points per attack (30 vs. 38 per turn, with most of the damage coming from the fixed portion).

I feel OSR and B/X systems with one attack per turn, limited spells, limited healing, harsh death, risky saving throws, and the original hit-point scale do away with more of the problems of modern high-level games being unfun and taking forever to play, because the original hit-point range and balance is left intact. The original designers of D&D found a balance there that I feel we have forgotten with today's games, especially post D&D 3 games that have been going back and forth with new revisions to make high level "scaled" play fun again ever since the concept was introduced. In my feeling, there is no beating the B/X style originals that Gary G and company designed that way on purpose.

Innocence

If there was one thing I can say attracts me to this game is the feeling of simplistic innocence to it all. It is like if a bunch of kids got together in a basement and home-brewed their own Trek-plus whatever style adventures using the basic dungeon game rules they knew and loved, and had adventures all across the galaxy with something they came up with all by themselves. Maybe they had an android from Blade Runner join the crew at one point, or met a Wookie like creature in another adventure. Maybe they fought a race of space-orcs on another planet, or dealt with a a creature from The Blob movie attacking a space colony on another. What holds them together is a common feeling that this is "space navy adventures" but everything else is make it up as you go along, borrow it from other games and movies, and just have fun.

It Needs a No-Art PDF

The only flaw here is there is no no-art PDF for free download. There is a $7 PDF with artwork on the RPGNow/DrivethruRPG stores, so that is an option, but I would like a no-art PDF option as well.

The Goblinoid Universe

What gives this game value is the larger Goblinoid Universe, and then also the large scope of compatible pre D&D 3 products out there in the wild. I can pull in characters, gear, and monsters from Labyrinth Lord, Mutant Future, Realms of Crawling Chaos, and even Apes Victorious and have everything work together. I could take a party of Starships and Spacemen characters and run them through the old module B1 Keep on the Borderlands if I wished and have then have the players use their universal translator to work up a deal with the goblins to fight the orcs on level two. Everything will work with very little to no conversion.

Does that sound fun? You bet it does. And I don't have to learn a new rules set to do any of this, nor do I have to work out painful conversions or scale difficulty to a new rules system and number scale.

What I had works. What I have works. What I know is what I need to know. B/X compatible all the way.

Is it flashy or video game cool? No, and it doesn't need to be. It just needs to work, and then get out of the way for roleplaying and problem solving to take over. I want players to be focused on world and story challenges, not rules and character-build challenges. That to me is B/X OSR and why I love it.