Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Empires & Federations (Without Number)

From the Stars Without Number rulebook we get this quote: 

Above all, Stars Without Number is your game now. There is no one “correct” way to play it. There is only your way to play it, and you should feel free to make it the game you want to play.

Let's take this great OSR space game and turn it into a quick OSR Star Wars or Star Trek style game. Yes, I know there are official licensed games for both of these, and they are great, but back in my day when all we have was Basic and Expert D&D, we hacked that game to play whatever we wanted to play. If the numbers and systems were "close enough" and "like the movies" then that was mission complete.

Note: None of this is official material, Stars Without Number and all content is property of Sine Nomine Publishing, and Star Trek and Star Wars are properties of their respective license holders. This is presented for free as fan material for simulating genres "like" the ones mentioned. The names of weapons and defenses from the Stars Without Number game are NOT presented in their entirety, but only as names for possible conversion notes between genres, and are not official.

Generic Genres

Because we don't want to step all over licensed products, we will be using generic genre names for our new universes, such as "Star Federation" for a genre like Star Trek, and "Space Empire" for a genre like Star Wars. This way the genres are a bit more generic and we can use the standard names for what they call things here, like "blaster" or "phaser" since those are generic sci-fi terms but some more closely associated with one genre than another.

Also note, while those two properties are used as examples, there are plenty of other movies, books, anime, and games in those genres you could be simulating. Never get stuck on the names given in the book, and if you want to change them - this is your game and do so!

Remember, what we are trying to do here is OSR-ify the genres and make them play like an OSR game. We are not looking to create a game that plays like a licensed game, or create anything super complex and detailed. All we want is an "OSR hack" for each genre, and only making minimal changes and fixes to make things work.

When it comes down to it, being able to quickly spin up an OSR space hero and jump into an iconic starship and start having adventures is what the goal is with this project.

Rename Everything!

So, what is the strategy? Well, since I don't want to be creating huge lists of items and equipment lists for each new genre, I am just going to change the names of what we have in the main rulebook to make what we have - and what is tested and well-balanced - into the things we need for each genre.

For example, we need a hand-blaster for out Space Empire setting. I would use the laser pistol, and the laser rifle for a larger blaster rifle. What about the hand phasers of Star Federation? We have those too in the thermal pistol and the rifle-like plasma projector for our "phaser rifle."

Is this cheating? Heck yes it is cheating. But when you look at it, calling a Vortex Tunnel Inductor a "Heavy Ion Cannon" in the Space Empire setting or a "Heavy Disruptor" in our Star Federation setting makes sense from a movie perspective. The main, heavy energy gun in each setting if used in a movie would produce approximately the same dramatic effect. Also, since the source material, the VTI weapon in the main game, was play-tested, our balance in play is guaranteed.

And this is quick-and-easy, we don't want to get bogged down in creating huge lists and conversions, and we are done.

Limit Genre Equipment

The Stars Without Number has a lot of cool personal and starship equipment, such as the perfect for our use "teleportation pads." We need to limit equipment availability by each genre and this is just asking the question, "Does this item work in this universe?" For teleportation pads, yes for Star Federation and no for Space Empire. Cold sleep pods? Have not really seen them used in either setting that much unless they were medical stasis pods, so limit them for that use only. 

Most items are dual use in either genre, such as cargo space or luxury cabins, so just use them as-is. If you need something genre-specific, such as a holo-deck, use the closest approximation, such as an advanced lab or workshop - whatever feels closest in terns of function and technology, rename it and use that. Write it in like "holo-deck (advanced lab)" and you are good.

Again, convert something already there that is close enough and get playing.


One issue that may come up is shields, which are prevalent in both genres. I say, these are included with the ship's AC and hit points. There will be some inconsistencies with things said in the movies like, "max power to shields" or even "shields full forward" but when you get right down to it that all could be just letting the audience know the ship has shields and a dramatic device. If the ship's AC is ever lowered by a crisis, that means the shields are down.

As an option add a "Full Power to Shields" combat action for 2 CP under Engineering Actions and make it work exactly like Evasive Maneuvers, adding the engineer's Fix skill level to the ship's AC, usable once per round. Note this may affect balance if stacked with evasive maneuvers, so if you find is it causing issues only allow one or the other (or better yet, the higher of the two) to be used in a round.

So, a list of suggestions? Sure, let's do that, and your may vary but here is a start that I could come up with:

SWN Defense Star Federation Space Empire
Ablative Hull Components Enhanced Shields Enhanced Shields
Augmented Plating Armor Plating Armor Plating
Boarding Countermeasures same same
Burst ECM Generator Electronic Countermeasures Jammers
Foxer Drones Decoy Decoy
Grav Eddy Displacer Angled Shielding Deflector Screens
Hardened Polyceramic Array Super Dense Hull Hardened Armor
Planetary Defense Array NA NA
Point Defense Lasers Point Defense Phasers Point Defense Lasers

You could use the planetary defense array as an anti-orbital bombardment screen, a large solid force field projector, or a sort of energy projector that can stop fission reactions, so this is still useful as a plot device or "large defensive thing" replacement.

Starship Weapons

Given all the crazy things they did in the movies, you could come up with really any reason for something to "work" and fit in the genre. For example, point defense lasers as anti-starfighter weapons are pretty apparent in the Space Empire genre. In a Space Federation genre they would be anti-torpedo weapons, and while not really seen too much in films, it is possible they exist so use them if you want to in this genre or don't - it is up to how you see the genre working.

Some ships in Space Empire have these "forward mounted turbolasers" so that is like a spinal mount. Could a Star Federation ship possibly have a single large phaser mounted forward? It could, though we haven't see this too much, it could be done.

Also in Star Federation you see a difference between the accurate "phaser" style ship weapons versus the more destructive and clumsy "disruptor" style weapons. In Space Empire these are Ion Cannons.

Also, some weapons are listed as NA since they don't have a great match in each genre. This doesn't prevent you from using them, or you may know of some obscure weapon that was used in a TV show, movie, or book that fits into that space, so just fill it in yourself. So let's do my suggested list of replacements for each genre, and yours may vary:

SWN Weapon Star Federation Space Empire
Multifocal Laser Phaser (small craft) Laser Cannons (starfighter)
Reaper Battery Disruptor Beam (small craft) Ion Cannon (starfighter)
Fractal Impact Charge Photon Torpedo (small craft) Proton Torpedo (starfighter)
Polyspectral MES Beam NA NA
Sandthrower NA NA
Flak Emitter Battery Point Defense Phasers Point Defense Lasers
Torpedo Launcher Photon Torpedo Launcher Proton Torpedo Launcher
Charged Particle Caster Disruptor Cannon Ion Cannon
Plasma Beam NA NA
Mag Spike Array NA NA
Nuclear Missiles Atomic Mines Orbital Bombardment Bays
Spinal Beam Cannon Phaser Cannon Turbolaser Cannon
Smart Cloud NA NA
Grav Cannon NA NA
Spike Inversion Projector Phaser Battery Turbolaser Battery
Vortex Tunnel Inductor Heavy Disruptor Heavy Ion Cannon
Mass Cannon Heavy Photon Torpedo Heavy Proton Torpedo
Lightning Charge Mantle NA NA
Singularity Gun Anti-planetary PhaserAnti-planetary Laser

Sandthrowers and mag spike arrays make good "gauss weapon" replacements for universes that use those. The Polyspectral MES beam could be seen as a high-tech phaser or laser variant that is highly armor piercing. The plasma beam seems like an ion cannon or disruptor variant that sacrifices power for aim, so if you had a "light" version this would be a good fit. Smart cloud is like a laser armed drone cloud and that was used in at least one modern Star Federation movie. A grav cannon is like a weaponized tractor beam, so again, use it if you need it. The lightning charge mantle is an energy field weapon, good for an alien force field weapon.

Again, we are not trying to be sci-fi nerds here and asking the question, "Is a phaser battery better than a turbolaser battery?" In movie effects these are similar enough to a "large energy weapon for a large ship" that we just handwave away the differences and call them functionally equivalent. The weapon names are deliberately generic, since through the source material of these genres they do change frequently.

Federation versus Empire

This is where the fun begins. Now that you have a common set of rules and conversion notes, you could run a campaign where the Star Federation takes on the Space Empire. You know all those memes where the universes get crossed up and the what-ifs start flying around? Those are all yours now, and the OSR nature of the game provides the common framework for everything to work together.

The characters can all interact, the ships can fight each other, and given a little care on converting personal equipment, everything just works and you can even play a sandbox campaign where the two sides fight for control of various worlds, work together, or get caught in situations on neutral worlds where they are forced to interact.

Want a battle between a Space Destroyer and Federation Cruiser? You got it. Want a transhuman science officer facing off against a dark space knight? You got it. The OSR has you covered as a compatibility layer between the genres.

This is one of the great things about hacking the game to simulate the genres, in general no two licensed games will every be cross-compatible with each other (unless they are the same publisher). Here, because we modded the base game and renamed a few things to say "X is really Y" we can have a system that handles either or both in the same setting and with the same rules. You cold play OSR Star Federation one night, and OSR Space Empires the next with the same rules. You could do the "versus" campaign. You could further refine and modify the weapons and equipment to better fit an era with in the genre, or just use it all as-is.

As the book says, there is no "one" correct way to play the game.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Sci-Fi: What I am Playing

I am currently playing Starfinder, and while it is that good-ole d20 fun, I find the need to use the Starbuilder computer program to manage my characters taxing. I know, the program makes it easy, and I do highly recommend this one if you are bought into Starfinder (with a subscription) like I am.

I miss the days of DIY, sheet-of-paper no computers needed character sheets, so I am giving Stars Without Number another look. The OSR seems universally against character building apps, and the games are so simple they rarely need them.

There are times I feel the model Paizo, Wizards, and a lot of other companies are using by using system complexity as lock in makes me tired. I love the complexity, and who am I to complain having a complete collection of Pathfinder 1e and 2e books, but there are times when I feel all that complexity gets in the way and is 99% of the time fluff, unneeded minutia, and gets in the way of stories and playing.

Ultimately the fun in some of these big-box complex systems "is" navigating the rules and figuring out the puzzle. Pathfinder 2E has this appeal of building a valid character and seeing how they work as a part of a team. I am feeling the same thing in Starfinder, it is fun building your character and working through the adventures the team wrote for you to have fun with. It is a sort of "turn on the steaming movie and watch" sort of fun for me, where you build your team, make theories and plans on your group, and play through and see what happens.

What worked? What didn't? What could we do better next time? What is our next step? What gear do we need? What do we do when we level up?

On a lower mechanical level it is fun, and the tinkerer and builder part of my brain loves this stuff.

But I do like systems that step out of the way and focus on story. Stars Without Number can even be used "with" Starfinder as the "space generation game" part of an exploration game. However, when I started reading deeper into the rules, which are only about the first 25% of the book and under 100 pages, the system started to grab me. The starship combat system especially, being a d20-style space combat system that I am feeling I prefer to Starfinder's system.

To be fair, I also have the excellent Traveller system, and also the fan favorite classic, Star Frontiers. While I love Star Frontiers I feel the system needs a revision, especially in the area of unarmed combat. I played the first Volturnus module and having a group of unarmed, unskilled in melee adventurers pound on space pirates with their fists and do 2 points of damage a turn to 45 STA with a 23% chance to-hit (knockouts on 01-02, and every tens rolls, 10 and 20 in this case) was pretty painful.

I know, grab a club, but having a group with the martial artist getting the space pirate in a hold while three other characters beat on the poor idiot turn after turn felt sloppy and not the fun, pulp-adventure sci-fi that I crave. At that point I may just swap out the older rules and use Savage Worlds instead. I love the universe and the aliens of Star Frontiers, but the rules I am not so tied to. I am currently playing in this universe with the Starfinder system and it is different, but fun.

Traveller I have a good set of books with, but I have not played as much lately. The system feels deeply tied to the 3rd Imperium, and while I am fond of the setting, I have not found it compelling enough to start a game in yet and explore. The layout and organization could be better, and I find myself struggling to find things and wishing someone would do an Old School Essentials style reorganization of the rules and split the system from the setting.

I know, heresy, but I like the split between rules and setting since it makes everything ten times easier to find during play, and the setting book becomes very useful and rich by not having to sacrifice page-count for basic rules concepts.

Stars Without Number seems like it holds a lot of promise, and with a little work I could reskin this to cover either Star Trek or Star Wars - or both. Or not, and just play it as-is. There is something to be said for generic sci-fi adventures with a simple-to-play system, and this game seems like a great fit. I know there is a licensed Star Trek game out there and it has good reviews, but I remember the days where people hacked Basic D&D to play Star Trek style games and it worked just as well, without the need to use computer programs or an hour's worth of work to generate a character.

Or buy a new book, though I like doing that too.

Again, the DIY sort of "play a Space Federation" style Star Trek game with an OSR rules set appeals to me, and I just may do that with this game for fun. And also, an OSR Star Trek style game would take the focus of the game off of "getting cash" - which the other three games discussed here all focus on, to a more adventure and mission based game that is not so focused on profits and space cash.

If there is one flaw in a lot of sci-fi games, and Starfinder has a really strange way of dealing with this (keep pocket cash poor and give ship upgrades for free), it is the constant focus on wealth equals power. Admittedly Star Frontiers in a Star Law style campaign can also sidestep this (and you could do this in other games), but still, having the cash to load up on the best weapons and defenses is still the path to victory. Traveller is very "space capital" focused and you often start the game in debt and struggling to make mortgage payments on your ship.

Is that fun? For some, but I don't feel it is a reason to get out and explore the stars since it is just a numbers game.

Yes, fantasy games have this "cash equals power" problem too. It is part of the genre, honestly, and there is that Diablo-style fun to equipping your character and powering up.

I like the stories, and I like the OSR style space games that I can mod into anything I like. For this reason I am giving Stars Without Number another look since it checks a lot of boxes and can sim most anything I want to play in a fast and easy way, a lot like Savage Worlds but this game has a structured d20 style ship combat system that I find interesting.

More soon as I hack, mod, and play.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

My Go-To Games

Of the two B/X games I keep coming back to it would have to be Old School Essentials: Advanced and Labyrinth Lord. OSE at this point has become something of a D&D-like cultural phenomenon and is becoming the de-facto OSR rules set, and deservedly so because of its organization, clarity, art, and quality. OSE is very B/X, and even with the "advanced" style additions to this version it still feels like a new game to me, a B/X "what if" AD&D never happened and the ideas logically flowed into the original B/X rules and there was never a brand split.

The new additions to the game are balanced and "fit" well within a B/X world and design philosophy. There are some great additional classes that just beg to be played, like the bard and paladin, and they have been reworked to fit within the overall class balance of the game. OSE is also very approachable for those coming from 5E and other games and can replace 5E in many situations for that old-school experience you can't get with a more "play experience" engineered game like 5E.

Not to say that this is a fault with 5E, it is just very slick and does things to enhance the fun much like a videogame, MMO, or casino slot machine does. For example, death is hard because the game is designed to keep you engaged. Quitting or changing games is very hard if your story does not end. Your character can be an extension of your identity, and that is a further design choice to increase your emotional investment and keep you engaged in the game. Again, not bad things, but game designers know how to manipulate your feelings through an experience and they naturally want to keep you involved.

I still like Labyrinth Lord as my AD&D replacement (I know about OSRIC, I need to check that out). There are grumblings here and there about there not being any new developments for the game, how people wish it was as cleanly presented as OSE, and how it feels like it is getting on in years and needs a revision. I would like to see a cleaner and better organized edition, yes, but to me part of the charm of the game is "it is what it is." AD&D was by no means cleanly laid out, and if you can print out a few "quick reference sheets" you will have most of what you need. By the book reference will always be easier in OSE, but once you do it enough you know the book by heart.

If you grew up with AD&D, Labyrinth Lord feels more like that type of experience than OSE. I like it almost like I would an "AD&D emulator" where OSE feels like a "B/X emulator with reimagined AD&D content," they are not the same thing nor do I want them to be. There are things Labyrinth Lord does by keeping some of the class and build imbalances that I like, and once you start adding in variant classes from third parties that are not as cleanly balanced things feel right to me for an AD&D style experience. Pathfinder 1E to me is like this, there is plenty broken and unbalanced in that game and that is why I love it, even with Pathfinder 2E on my shelf.

When I want something balanced, the players may be new to this, and where every choice is great: OSE (either basic or advanced) and Pathfinder 2E are my top picks. And yes, OSE: Basic is still a great game, and not "less of one" now that OSE Advanced is out. I feel OSE: Basic is the more focused, classic and compatible game, where advanced is an evolution of that into an entirely new experience.

When I want something with the classic imbalances and an almost "modded Skyrim" level of customization with third party material: Labyrinth Lord and Pathfinder 1E are my top picks.

I don't feel I have to replace Labyrinth Lord for OSE, both can coexist and they are mostly cross-compatible.

When I want to play "what everyone else is playing?" Well, 5E, no question and no problem. I still appreciate the original version of that game, but we never really got into it, which I regret some. There is a new version coming anyways, so time to wait and put it aside to see what they do. And I have plenty to do while I wait with all these great games.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Rise of POD

So I tried getting my hands on a copy of Against the Darkmaster, a Kickstarter open-system clone of the Rolemaster/MERP game, and the book sounded great - 600+ pages, premium printing, and I did manage to get the PDF, but...

Out of stock.

And I checked a few other premium printings of games, Old School Essentials Advanced Fantasy? Out of stock. And I feel the great supply chain disruption of 2021 starts hitting the pen-and-paper gaming community pretty hard. Note this is all "at the time of this writing" so by the time you read this the problems could be resolved.

Note, any of these sites could be "in stock" at any time so my experience may or may not be a reflection of reality, this is just one attempt to get several games at one specific point of time in a supply chain crisis that is affecting everything from car production to supermarket shelves.

This isn't PS5 or XBox Series X bad since we can get the PDFs of these games, so they are not 100% unavailable, but it feels like the "premium printing" the community has been moving towards is starting to get bit by printing, shipping and supply chain woes. Larger games by bigger publishers? Fine, I can get D&D 5, Runequest, Traveller, Shadowrun, and Pathfinder 2 books all day. Even mid-tier games such as Zweihander, Mythras, or Forbidden Lands you can get hardcovers for on Amazon pretty easily.

But the premium games by the smaller publishers and also the smaller Kickstarter games seem hit pretty hard, and you may find yourself checking the sites daily to see when copies are in stock. This hurts for games like OSE Advanced Fantasy - this is a great game and I always want to see these books available for people to enjoy the physical copies for the game.

POD games from smaller publishers? In stock but with delays, and I am still getting these in the mail, which I am thankful for. If the supply chain problems get worse I would love to see some of the premium publishers put out "POD versions" of the games to help alleviate supply issues, but I have no idea how bad things are or if this is a situation that is going to last a while. POD at this time does have a huge advantage in that books can be endlessly created via mass-production from digital files without special custom printing, books with ribbons, fancy bindings, and other premium features (that I do love, but these things take special manufacturing and limited print runs to pull off).

If you have hardcovers for some of these games you may want to hold onto them, as I have the OSE Advanced Fantasy books and I treasure those. As I said, PDF is always an option, but I like being able to flip through a book and enjoy that experience.

I hope people someday can look back at this article as a historical note for 2021 and things get better soon, and this "dark ages of gaming" is a footnote.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Leaving Azeroth: Project Overview

There was a time when my brother and I would roleplay in Azeroth, the World of Warcraft world. Those were fun games, and the lore and story constantly changed and was a great living campaign with many twists and turns, and lots of memorable characters.

And then, times change.

Azeroth and World of Warcraft no longer feels compelling. The weight of misbehavior in their parent company and the cash-grab nature of the game makes the world no longer feel compelling. I loved to lore and those who live in this world, but get the feeling it is time to move on.

So, what now? Go back to my traditional fantasy tropes and forget such a place ever existed?

Or do what all great writers do, borrow and become inspired?

As D&D halflings are to Tolkien's hobbits, there is a way forward while honoring the feel and heritage of these fantasy races in a setting neutral way. Perhaps, like the beforementioned halflings, there are "sister races" out there in the cosmos enough alike in the mirror of reality, but not tied to Azeroth in any shape, way, or form. Like humans in another sci-fi or fantasy world that are not from Earth, there could be some out there enough alike the version presented in the game I used to love that I can somehow take the good memories with me and leave the bad ones behind.

So how do we do this?

Simple enough, I hold up a mirror and start imagining what could be.

The Moon Elves

What feels like the most wasted potential in story and consequence on that one world could be just one version of the infinite tribes of Elves of the Moon. Now, Moon Elves were once seen in the Faerun setting, but nothing like their counterparts seen elsewhere. Blue hued with colorful hair, tall, graceful, with eyes which glow of moonlight, this race of elves could inhabit the deepest and darkest forests where they climb the highest trees at night to celebrate the Elven Gods of the Moon - and there may be one, or many, who knows?

If I did these in Mystara I would not challenge the existing Elves, but sprout a giant tree and forest on an Island, like Safari Island in Irendi, and let them rule it and have tribes all over the island kingdoms.

The Sun Elves

Graceful counterparts who worship the Elven Sun Goddess, we could find the Moon Elves sister race living in places of the sun, deserts and bright, cheery forests where the sun shines and they follow the dictates of the light from above. I would change their eyes to glow with sunlight instead of arcane energy to help them match their Moon Elf kin, but leave them the seekers of pleasure, civilization, and fine arts - much like a high elf in normal D&D style lore. If it were me, I would put them in the desert and make them a magically advanced society of art and culture, allowing them to worship the sun all day and build trading routes across vast seas of sand.

If I were doing these in the Mystara setting I would drop them in that desert area, perhaps on a coastal oasis island, and let them gradually expand inland.

The Taurus

Why not have a minotaur race named after the astrological sign? This is an easy one, and most of the native lore could be used, or you could go in a different direction with them that does not borrow so much from Native American tradition. Like their namesake astrological beast, the minotaur race could fit in a Greek style civilization with a maze motif, to a more high-plains tribe of nomads with camp cities as they move about the land, never really settling down but following the migrations of the beasts they hunt and live from the land with - never exploiting but always keeping the sacred balance of nature to ever sustain them.

If I did these in Mystara I am sure the far north would have the space for them to roam and follow the Great Hunt.

The Trolls

One could continue the voodoo and witchcraft culture of the Azerothian trolls, but I would drop the Jamaican accents and Aztec motifs. I feel you could do so much more with them once you cut those stereotypes free. Give them an allied race of frog people and lizardmen near the jungles and swamps they love. You could make their temples more reptilian with giant snake heads, log forts, and temples filled with jungle gold. I would make them more a sort of interesting lost civilization with great jungle cities and temples that the hangers-on to an Orc alliance they feel to be in other worlds.

Yes, break up the homogeneous Horde and give each  civilization its own place to shine. In Mystara there is a huge swamp that would suite them fine.

The Orcs

They looked like Warhammer Orcs but are far more Shakespearean and militaristic. D&D's orcs always bugged me with that one hit die and never felt as epic as the Azerothian or even Warhammer variety of Orc. This one feels tougher since there are a heck of lot of built-in bias against Orcs in D&D settings. They are one thing and supposed to be that one hit die level one encounter list filler before we move on to bugbears and zombies.

I could do these as an evolutionary turn for the orcs, have them wipe out and send older tribes on the run, and these new civilized, magic-using, organized military and brutally diplomatic breed grew out of some pact with darker forces granting them great intelligence, cunning, strong tribal bonds, and ability to use magic. If I were doing these in the Mystara setting I would drop them in Thar and put them at war with the other tribes, only to eventually take it all over.

Humans and Dwarves

Humans and Dwarves are easy. Just make them however you want and put them anywhere. Mystara has plenty of theme park human and dwarf areas, take your pick and go. Just make them stocky and give them that Azeroth look and manner, and you are set.

Goblins and Gnomes

The goblins and gnomes, I would like these types of races honestly in a Steampunk setting so I may save them for that. If you did a lot of flying ships in the setting, let them have those and ally them with other flying races above the clouds. Maybe their home city is a huge floating island you can never really say where it is. This feels the easiest way to integrate them and get those fun flying ships that are sort of Spelljammerish into the setting while giving the crafty goblins and gnomes a home that is unique. Properly framed as sky-bound civilizations, they work a lot better and are easier to integrate.

The Undead

I never liked playing a zombie corpse, but I do see the fun in playing vampyrs and semi-undead. You could make a "dead area" somewhere in the world and open up cool vampire-like races that were sophisticated and cool. I could see even adding ghost-people as a race option, and open up the spirits for play. On their own with some cool idea work, like an alliance between vampires, ghosts, Spirit Elves, and Frankenstien like reanimated you could have something cool that is not a Horde vassal.

Spirit Elves? Now they sound cool and could give you that banshee-like option as a character race within the Undead alliance. Perhaps they make their home on forests that are between the realm of the living and the dead, and they could be moody, brooding, and ultra-cool to play as PCs.


There are more races than that in the game, but this hits most of the majors and gives me a good start to keep the feeling and meaning these races had in that world, but get them the heck out of it and off on their own stories and paths through a fictional world I create. I could have all sorts of fun with a werewolf race, feline races, and some of the other standards roaming around here and there. Just give them a proper home, give them allies that support their central concept, and let them flourish and bloom on their own without sticking them on one side or the other.

Perhaps Orcs and Moon Elves could find a place in the world the cooperate against demons? The stories should be your guide, not a game that honestly you may wish to leave behind - and take the best parts from for inspiration.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Savage Worlds: Classic Mystara

So another possible setting for Savage Pathfinder (or Fantasy) is a pretty cool one, the classic Mystara setting for the original B/X D&D games. I just picked up a set of the original PDFs (plus the PODs you can buy, please make more of them available) on DriveThruRPG, and this is a strong contender to take my #1 spot - just because I have a long history with these lands and they were the home of the first adventures I ran as a DM.

Everything is here, the world, a cool setting I have a history with, that familiar feeling, and plenty of places to explore and visit again. I could use this for classic B/X as well, just grab Labyrinth Lord and we are good to go for years of fun, no conversions, no waiting for the Savage Pathfinder books to come (I have the PDFs but books are so much easier), and I have everything I need to make it work.

So the question becomes, B/X or Savage Worlds?

B/X vs. SWADE: Goals

This comes down to if you are a fan of the "gamey games" that Savage Worlds implements as a part of the system, such as chases, initiative, bennies, raises, social interaction, and the other systems that Savage Worlds ships with that B/X does away with. Me? I am a fan, and while playing solo it is fun to navigate some of these systems and play through them. Also, initiative in Savage Worlds I feel is way easier than d20 style systems and it does away with a lot of math and sorting of up to a dozen combatants when a combat begins.

I like Savage Worlds combat as well, there is a lot more play and options in a modern system such as this, and you can make a lot of choices and switch up tactics from turn to turn, work together, and use edges or skills to manipulate the flow of the action.

One thing about B/X is you don't need to convert, and you have everything right there. You do lose things in the conversion, and things get mechanically soft (or you forget a monster ability). If you like rules-as-written and want things clear, do not convert. If you are shooting for more of a story and the type of action Savage Worlds simulates well, then convert.

For this playthrough I want more story and pulp action, problem solving and NPC interaction, and I am not as concerned with an old-school simulation. I love B/X and the old-school ethos, it is just for this game I want to play more with the characters and setting than the dungeons and the monsters. Some settings to me beg to be played as a grand drama, where others are a darker crawl into the dungeons and the nature of greed and power.

Focus on Quality, not Quantity

Old school modules are notorious for using quantity as quality, to make a fight challenging they will throw 13 rats in a room and expect you to handle hit points, initiative, and attacks per rat, and they will give you a hit point list for all of them individually (1,1,1,2,2,2,2,3,3,3,4,4,4). In Savage Worlds, that's one swarm. But if you are playing an old-school module in SW, adjust the monsters in quantity and shoot for quality encounters rather than the adventure-as-written.

Similarly, if you have a room with 10 goblins, think about knocking that down to a wild card goblin leader and four extras - and maybe give a few special weapons and attacks/defenses (bow with poison arrows, burning pitch, caltrops, or an entangle weapon). You just took a "bulk fight 10 goblins" sort of old-school hit point grind and turned it into a fight with some interesting options and challenges. Less combatants but more quality that leverages the special parts of the Savage Worlds rules is better than a boring bulk creature fight.

Similarly, consider non-combat options to resolving encounters such as stealth, skill rolls, negotiation, role play, and using powers or gear. Again this is obvious when you are playing Savage Worlds, but if you are in a certain old-school mindset you may get locked into the "if there are 15 orcs in the mess hall, you gotta defeat 15 orcs to get through the room" and all other options disappear from your mind. This happens to me on conversions, and I have to take a step back and wonder, could a food fight be started? Can you wait out dinner? Where would they go to afterwards? Is the time of day even right for a meal to be served? Could the food be spiced to be extra spicy (for laughs or other reasons)? Could an illusion be used to make the food less appetizing? What happens if a large rat or insect runs through the room?

Are there other ways of dealing with this encounter than the obvious?

Again, instead of a "fight quantity of X" sort of encounter, you are creating something that can be roleplayed through, skills used, or other inventive uses of the rules and leveraging the options and powers the system gives you. The resolution to the problem the room presents can be solved with more than just combat, so your quality is being reflected by a wide variety of resolution options supported in the rules and character abilities.

In B/X the referee ruling on player experimentation is the core of problem resolution, with a default focus on combat as the final resolution. You don't need special rules or abilities, maybe perhaps a save or ability check if there is a question of success chances. Nothing says you can't do any of the above in B/X either, you can be just as inventive and have a good referee play off that.

In Savage Worlds you have systems, edges, player abilities, skills, and the minigames built into the rules that help you resolve problems. These need to be considered when you think about how an encounter can be resolved. For a solo play experience, I find the structure here to be of great assistance when I make rulings and try to have characters influence the story through skills and abilities.

My Second Go Around

When we played this in our years-long campaign the stories started personal and NPC-based, and then naturally shifted into "superhero save the world" plots. When that happens I feel you lose the personal and dramatic stories that are lower-level and a lot more meaningful. By the time our campaign ended the only  reason to go anywhere in the world was because of a world-ending plot, and frankly, it got tiring. We were young and did not know any better, but what else can you do when you lack hindsight and experience?

I tire of superhero movies these days for the same reason. Plots where you start out invested in a few characters and their struggles always turn out to be an "end of the world" plot and you lose that connection to their personal stories. And honestly, in many cases the world never ends or can change much because the next movie needs a normal world to setup the next end of the world. The story becomes "too big" and we lose the intimate feel that drew us in.

I would run these on a lower-level and make all the plots driven by NPCs and stories instead of extra-worldly threats. You can change the world, things evolve, towns can rise or fall, and the world is a living world where making a difference in an area matters and continues on in the campaign.

Classic Modules

One thing about out campaign was that Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms did not exist in our minds. All the classic AD&D modules took place here. The Slave Lords, B-series, S-series, Tomb of Horrors, and everything else is scattered around the world here on the map. We have a world, just put the dungeon somewhere and let's play! We were kids, so we kit-bashed everything, played using D&D rules and tossed in AD&D as we needed it (like the classic Labyrinth Lord setup), and all the best modules and adventures were in this world.

Would I keep that? I probably would. If this is the D&D homage playthrough, this will be it. Everything is on the table here. I may change a couple things, add characters, change up the stories a little, but if I feel the need to pull these adventures in, they are there and they could fit in if I needed them.

And I can get the PDFs, so that is cool.

Fantasy Companion or Savage Pathfinder?

Classic Mystara can stand beside Pathfinder's Golarion and be an equal. The settings are comparable, and Mystara has the benefit of me knowing and playing in this world since I was a kid. Now, Mystara does not have all the things Golarion has, two I can think of off-hand are a Cheliax-like evil kingdom and a ruined starship fantasy-tech place. I could fit places like that in if I really needed them, and I could take a huge isolated area and crash Barrier Peaks S-series style starships into the planet and have my tech-fantasy area with that classic twist. A evil kingdom of demons (or just a city) could pop up somewhere as a story drama to play through.

I am leaning towards the Savage Pathfinder rules, with a scattering for the Fantasy Companion mixed in (like the magic item generator). I hope the printed books come quick, or I may be ordering some print outs from somewhere of the PDFs I have or printing out a few sections for reference.

More when this game gets going, since I have a couple things in the way of playing. I am now focusing on teaching another player how to play Savage Worlds, and she should be getting up to speed and happily having adventures soon.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Into the Borderlands: Play Report

The Goodman Game's versions of B1 and B2 is a really cool book, huge is one way to put it, with a full reprint of the basic module plus a 5E update of the same. You get all the maps, plus the 5E versions of the adventures are expanded and statted for that rules set.

And I played it as a part of a Pathfinder 1e game recently. I used the old-school module and converted up to Pathfinder, and skipped the 5E version.

Let's say, my experience was definitely old school, but not the type of old school I like. Going into the kobold lair, killing the guards, having a swarm of rats attack, and then holding off a hallway where charge after charge from the kobold's living area fell in piles in the hall felt wrong.

Not heroic. It felt like invading a tribe's home and killing them all because they have loot. We ended up a bit shell-shocked after the battle, and it felt really scummy for all involved. Like the party did something wrong, and my players felt that as well.

Wait, aren't we supposed to be the good guys here?

The Kobold Insurgency

We had a random event I rolled for later, and I ruled because the kobolds were attacked this way, the local tribes banded together and formed a "kobold insurgency" in the area and a general war broke out. It didn't make the party feel any better, and they knew they caused it, but it kind of put a bookend on a really ugly feeling encounter we had there.

But ugly encounters happen, and not every fight can feel heroic. I know and so do my players. This is the hardships of being an adventurer, sometimes bad things happen and you deal.

And this reinforces the idea of consequences outside the published module in the game world. You tip the cosmic balance and there is a possibility of a reaction happening. And here, one did.

And it was fun bringing up the insurgency every now and then as the kingdom battled it, the checkpoints, the fires in the hills, the soldiers marching out to the mountains, passing burned out farms, the town criers announcing wins and losses in the campaign - it became a fun backdrop to the game and the players enjoyed knowing the mess they made had a larger impact - although one where if it never happened none of this would have ever began.

But perhaps it was destined to all along.

And no, they did not tell anyone of their involvement. It became a sort of open secret to the party, and with each random event tied to the insurgency they knew they would have to go out there and end what they started.

But, what was wrong with us?

Times Change

Back when we were kids, yeah, they are all evil, here is a room full of them! Yeah! Blast them like a hall full of creatures out of the Gauntlet video game and grab their loot! The modules of those days were simple, room X filled with monster Y sorts of places, and just having a map with keyed rooms was cool and saved us a lot of work.

And I am not dumping on this module, the Keep on the Borderlands, my brother and I loved this place and had our first campaign here with characters that lasted for 40 years. This is where it all began for us, and I still have the home-made maps we made with graph paper and coloring pencils.

But I guess my tastes changed. I like stories, plots, and adventures now. I don't want to go in a hole in the ground "just because treasure" and kill everything down there for XP and GP.

Yes, the kobolds are technically "evil" in this module, it is assumed, but with no support or trappings like demon statues and the like, it felt wrong. I helped rectify that by making the united tribes evil and despicable during the game, so it sort of balanced out.

It would have helped if the original module eliminated the non-combatants and painted the tribe as evil raiders with loot gathered from raids on innocent villages, then the raid would have felt justified. Perhaps this was an oversight on my part, but I was running the module as-written to give them that experience, so this I felt was an interesting topic to write about.

To Be Fair...

The 5E material was excellent, and pointed out some of the problems of the original adventure. The criticism of B2 being a "monster hotel" was correct and a fun admission of the original material's shortcomings. They did try to fix a lot of the issues in the adventure, provided better descriptions and updated encounters, and I wished I would had started with the 5E side of the adventure before I put it aside for the original version.

The 5E material also mentioned when the group would surrender, and clearly laid out non-combatants (and did not stat them), so a more modern sensibility and adventure designer made some great tone choices here. I never likes the classic modules giving hit points for younger non-combatant monsters (or even mention their presence), it just felt wrong to put players in that position where they could accidentally injure younger members of the tribe with a misplaced oil flask or fireball. Let those on the map be combatants and leave those there as the ones responsible for evil occurrences.

There is also a reasoning why the monsters are all here, something to do with the chaos altar present here that draws the monsters to this area despite their antagonism and differences. It is a weak reasoning to hand-wave and say 'because magic' but it is something I could have worked with if I had wanted to. There is a difference between running the old adventure as-is, versus having the kobolds aware of a mind-altering presence in the area of "evil magic" and having that affect their actions.

The party could see a group of kobolds not attack a bugbear because some dark magic willed them to, and that would have aroused suspicion and played into that overall story arc of this place. Once the altar of evil is destroyed, the Caves of Chaos would be as well, and the party could have a sense of accomplishment within a larger narrative and the monsters could go back to being monsters.

I give the 5E section props (and one which I wish I would have read a little more before I ran this), and the tone change between expectations then and now is one thing to be aware of when running older modules. I know, it should be apparent, right? Not all the time, and in this case I stepped on that rake and it hit me in the face.

Turning it Around

By the end of the game, the insurgency did come home to roost and they got drawn into the fight and helped end it. It did sort of put an end to what the party started, and they felt they had corrected a mistake - that wasn't really a mistake because the module was written in a different time and expected a different type of player - one more interested in math and loot than story or plot.

It was a strange situation where and old-school module met modern sensibilities and a desire to play more plot-based games, and I refereed it as having a real consequence that became a backdrop and end to the game. They had fun and we talked about our feeling afterwards, and everyone agreed the insurgency was a fun way to take what felt like a morally-dark old-school slaughter into a larger story and they thanked me for turning what was an ugly situation into something they didn't like having to fix, but they did anyways because they felt responsible.

I pointed out that the situation was likely a powder keg likely to go off not maybe by this, but something else, and they understood and agreed. It was turning lemons into lemonade, but it made sense of something that felt wrong in the beginning and provided closure for the group.

Next Time?

I would make this an adventure location with a reason for coming here, not just to clean the place out, but a kidnapped merchant and a rescue mission, or some other plot based reason to be here, get in, and get out. This would go from a "clear out rooms 1 to 100" sort of game to a adventure setting that serves as a background for a larger story. Not a place to clean out, but as a set where larger plots and stories happen.

Then again, is it a great setting for that sort of story, or is this just fan service? Again, I am struggling. No, realistically, you would not have so many tribes - some hostile to each other - within walking distance of each other. They would not walk out of their caves every morning, punch their timeclocks, and say "hello Bob" and go off to raiding and looting only to come back here later to live in a small, easily accessible, openly known about hole in the ground when they have a whole wilderness map to go make a camp or fortress in.

And when you think about it, the larger and stronger tribes would have wiped out the smaller ones years ago and taken their stuff, perhaps collapsed their caves, and left to go find somewhere more secure, private, and defendable.

And next time, yes, I will be smarter and start with the 5E version with the tone fixes and updated content. I can still swap monsters to whatever system I am playing, but it helps having the fixes and additions to consider.

The Forbidden Caverns of Archaia

Yes, I know B2 is a classic and near and dear to the hearts of many, but I need to mention the Labyrinth Lord module of The Forbidden Caverns of Archaia. This is a way larger experience, but conceptually the same, and a bit better constructed. If I have a "goblin lair" or a "kobold lair" map that out as a standalone, and put it on a larger "adventure area" map (or let the DM place it somewhere), and then you can have a "Caves of Chaos" style area without having it feel too cramped or connected.

The bonus to this type of approach is you can create a classic experience, such as a kobold lair in the ruins of an ancient serpent cult temple, and have the room to create secret ways in, story and plot hooks, and even lost areas where remnants of the old serpent cult may still be around.

I prefer this style of setup to B2's, and this feels much more sandbox and open to me as a referee. The tribes of monsters have room to fight, skirmish, patrol, grab territory and resources, and retreat back to their defended camps and homes to plot another way to rule the lost valley where ancient power lies. Outside tribes could be called in as the war escalates. The players could pick a side, or their actions weakening one side or another could tip the balance of power and cause unforeseen consequences.

And you can ignore or move things around if you want to focus on one group of bad guys. You are not limited by the classic map's tight layout and structure. I would have liked the 5E adventure to space things out a little more with a larger adventure area and sites farther apart, but it is what it is. Messing with a classic that much would have been likely controversial.

In this sort of a "area map plus locations" setup there is more room for player agency and choice. If the story goal is a kidnapped merchant by one of the tribes, getting in, doing the rescue, and escaping are clear goals and you aren't "clearing a map" and you are not forced into areas that have nothing to do with the story.

A Great Book

Despite our strange play experience, I love the book and the work they put into this, and I am planning on getting the others in the series (and I hope they do the Slave Lords "A" series someday). It is clearly a labor of love with interviews, expanded material, a 5E conversion, and plenty to do. Highly recommended, but make note of some of the old school expectations and assumptions and feel free to wrap this into a larger story of yours that changes things up and makes "clearing the map" not the primary goal of the story or mission.

Then again, if you are just going for the old school feel with a modern rules set, dive in and have fun.