Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Our Realms, Part 2

One of the worst parts of the Realms setting (given the information we used to play) is that it suffers from a D&D mentality. If we go by the monster manual and the encounter tables, this is a dangerous world filled with monsters, raiding tribes, dragons, wild beasts, dark elves, demons (in AD&D, not 2nd Edition), and undead. You are likely to encounter a monster a mile out of town.

Then, we will see maps of towns with no defenses, moats, or walls around them, like they were pastoral villages in ancient France. And we will have massive cities with no history of warfare, no enemies nearby, surrounded by multiple layers of walls. Massive navies and armies with no enemies.

The concentric walls and towers make excellent fantasy maps!

Or they don't? Did we need them? Are there monsters here or not? Do we have enemies?

D&D sometimes brings out all the tropes of fantasy worlds and leans hard on pageantry and flash, often not backed up by reality. We put walls around towns that never needed them because of needing walls on the map! Towers too! Giant high towers overlooking farms! Well, they look fantastic in the art? No, we never used them. But we need towers.

Nobody in the town knows why the towers or walls are there.

Small towns, 50 miles away from major cities, look like small New England towns strung out along roads. No defenses. No fort to run to should the city be attacked. Just houses and farms as usual. We don't see anything from the monster manual around here; why do you ask?

The danger level of the setting can't make up its mind. Sometimes, it contradicts the history (if you can find it). The boxed set above sheds a little light on the historical record, and the entries for cities rarely mention wars or military campaigns. Mind you, this was the only information we were playing with. No novels, no 3.5 guides, no modules - just the boxed set above.

Again, hindsight today gives us a lot more. But we never had it.

Not every village in ancient England had defenses, but we are in a swords & sorcery world. Dragons are real here. Armies of orcs that worship demons and raid civilization exist. The dead can walk the land. To be honest, this was a problem with our first B/X game back in 1978. We saw a few maps and went, hey, that's cool! A small town with a few farms around them!

The original boxed set never emphasized that the kingdoms in the world ever fought any wars or had natural enemies or alliances. Everything was just 'there,' which is how we took things. Mystara is a little like this, too, very sandboxed and peaceful (at least until the last modules with the war came out). I recall one of the authors of the FR setting saying Canada was what the world was modeled after, sort of a loose collection of places and peoples that mostly got along and lived in relative peace (until the next world-shaking event).

Truth be told, FR was more about the books than the world design. It is a good setting, just not compelling for us on a low level of danger and survival. And remember, all we had was the first boxed set. It would have been very different if this was our first world today.

Greyhawk wasn't like this and is arguably the better AD&D setting overall. This place had kingdoms with alignments, which was cool since you knew who hated who. A lawful good domain next to a lawful evil one was not getting along; the border was likely fortified, and the towns along the border were defended well. A chaotic evil kingdom had plenty of monsters wandering the countryside. Places in good kingdoms far away from evil areas would be lightly defended, but still, this is an AD&D world, and there would always be defenses.

Kingdom alignments are a must for world-building. I know; someone finally says this after every major game is eliminating alignment as a concept.

Without alignment, it is not D&D.

Greyhawk is still the gold standard of AD&D settings. In D&D 3.0, seeing it featured as the default setting was terrific. And 3.5 crept back into pulling in the Realms and other places. By 4E, everything was abandoned for a planar-focused nebulous setting (that we initially loved), and weak "kewl rad" sourcebooks came out to destroy every world (except Greyhawk, which was a blessing in disguise).

The shift towards novels and storytelling changed the entire course of D&D, and you see that shift towards "story gaming" to this day, even to the point where player protections are so extreme in 5E that no one can die.

The only thing FR had going for it were those novels and characters. They became pop culture icons and the hated GMNPCs of the world. The company went bankrupt, and that entire legacy was squandered when we could have had movies and films with that lore and those characters. Greyhawk was made for AD&D, and the Realms was created for novels.

Then again, without a Dragon magazine subscription, knowing Greyhawk's history was inaccessible before the boxed set's release at the end of the 1980s. By then, we had moved on. We did not have the Internet back then! What we could find in the Waldenbooks at the mall was what we had.

The 3.5 Forgotten Realms hardcover is better, but it only has six pages of history. Still, I need more than this. When this came out in the 2000s, we were far from anything D&D.

Ed Greenwood runs a Patreon for Realms fans - join that; I need to shout him out since he does amazing YouTube videos, too. He is a treasure, and we should enjoy him today and not regret this later.

Without history and conflict, the Realms as a campaign setting died for us. It was too peaceful and happy kumbaya, and the world lacked ancient mysteries and fallen empires. There weren't threats from monster hordes and dragons. If they were there, we never knew about them. Later, video games would change all this because who wants to play in a dull world?

Other worlds were more compelling. Warhammer FRP was fantastic; it was full of armies, chaos, hardened defenses of civilization, and conflicts.

The Realms ended for us as a destroyed 4E setting nobody ever visited. A bunch of GMNPCs lived there and stared at the massive hole in the ground that was the Underdark. The Dragonborn and Eladrin showed up inexplicably. Still, the default 4E assumption was that you started your planar adventures at level 10, so all 4E settings felt like glorified MMO "starting zones" where the tutorials happen.

The 'rule of cool' flashy, often nonsensical fantasy art that defined the 2010s destroyed the old school and most old school settings because they needed to adopt the fresh, hip, new style. Today, the whole 'rule of cool' art is problematic, so we are left with overly safe 'Scholastic fantasy art' that is bland, with most people looking bored or high as they stand alone on a page in a white void.

The Harry Potter books killed 1970s fantasy. Everything we see today comes from that sterile, sexless, cosmopolitan, overly magic, anti-religious, and war-free place.

Part of me wants to revisit the Realms using one of the new Open 5E systems or even GURPS, and then another part just doesn't care anymore because I know there isn't much there. I would have to drastically change the world to a more violent and conflict-ridden one, with the ruins of lost civilizations and empires. These worlds aren't even made for major wars or monster invasions, and the last time they did one, it wrecked the setting more (Greyhawk Wars, 1990s).

But if I am going to do that much work, I will just make my own world.

I go back to the reason I play GURPS. If I have to fight a setting or game to fix it, I will find one that lets me do what I want and build from there. And the changes that modern creators do to these worlds are more done out of spite than love. They see themselves as "fixing it" like some sort of repair expert, but they will never be a world creator. They will never be allowed to build worlds by their masters. So that hate gets transferred to the things they are told to work on, and they have to prove they are better than what a true creative mind built.

I keep asking myself, where are the worlds from this generation of creators? The answers are in the indies and never with the big IP holders. But I can't hold people at these big companies at fault for ruining these worlds; they are in a crappy situation - they fantasized about working for a 'dream creator' company, and when they are in, they find out it is the 'dream killer.'

I have been there. You resent every day. And you end up hating your dreams since they cause you pain.

It is easier and more satisfying to just create my own world myself.

Why would I play in a wrecked setting? Nostalgia isn't enough.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Star Trek Adventures, 2nd Edition

They announced a second edition of Star Trek Adventures, and I still need to start playing the original. The designer admitted parts of the game were rushed (on Facebook), so they are releasing a new version earlier to clean up those parts.

I am probably going to sell my STA books and take the loss. While I love the setting and the game is fun, I can't keep up.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Our Realms

We got the original Forgotten Realms set the year it came out, in 1987, before AD&D 2nd Edition ever came out. So, this was always an AD&D setting for us. By this time, we have had years of Grayhawk power gaming, and that entire setting felt plagued by "level 100 characters" and their "armies of djinn riding red dragons." It got so bad Grayhawk City was this lazy, entitled, high-level character hangout where there was a minimum level required to enter the city.

Was it realistic? No. Was it fun? Oh, hell yeah. We loved our high-level Grayhawk sandbox of unchecked power, like a world filled with superheroes gone out of control.

For us, the Forgotten Realms was a reset. A section in this book discusses "what the gods will allow" in the world, such as balancing characters that enter, removing illegal class levels, and preventing modern technology from working.

To us, the Realms was a very gated community.

It is along the lines of Dragonlance - where when you hit a certain level, the gods ask you to leave. This was mentioned in the above book, and it blew our minds. TSR could have just put a level cap on Dragonlance, but they didn't. In our version of the Realms, the gods feared the world becoming the out-of-control Grayhawk, so they kept a tight reign on play power and magic availability.

So Greyhawk and its level 100 power level served as an anti-example of a campaign world and justified the gods of the Realms to keep tighter control on magic and player power. I know, this is all alien talk to 5E players. Don't you dare limit my magic and power! I won't play! I need my magic items and spells!

Our Realms were a low magic setting, more akin to a Runequest or an early Warhammer feeling, with very few spellcasters, magical anomalies, and crazy things going on. The gods did not like open gates in or out of the world; you had to travel through astral space to get here. The gods also did not interfere much in the world, and there wasn't a lot of crazy stuff going on.

There was also no planar travel.

The gnolls, orcs, dragons, demons, golems, giants, drow, mind flayers, evil cults, serpentmen, slavers, raiders, and other monsters always provided the opponents, per AD&D standards and norms. Anything in the AD&D Monster Manual was fair game.

The world was this very "down" and low-fantasy and low-magic place where most people lived in a world with variable levels of danger, so you could have a fortress under siege in one place and relatively unwalled, pastoral villages in another. If a kingdom was isolated and kept monsters under control, people could live in cities without walls.

Rangers kept patrol of the roads, and scattered garrisons provided men to take care of trouble. There could be peaceful areas. Out beyond the frontier, things got dangerous and wild quick. Armed caravans were needed in lawless and wild areas. There were places on the map relegated to "failed kingdoms" and "the wilds" where very few dared to go.

Two years later, the setting died.

I hate you, AD&D 2nd Edition. TSR's overreacting to the Satanic Panic forced the company to sanitize AD&D and give the Forgotten Realms a lobotomy. Entire gods, such as Loviatar, the goddess of pain and torture, were retconned and removed from the setting. Their clerics had their powers taken away. Demons and devils were pulled from the game. All the brothels in this setting (there were hundreds) were closed quietly. Every assassin disappeared. And they had this "time of troubles" module series that went through and showed the aftermath like this was a "real thing that was happening."

One random encounter that burned into my mind was a cleric of Loviatar with her whip sitting in her leather outfit on the side of a street, crying that her goddess and powers had been taken away. Just to show players, "Hey! This has changed!"

Thanks, TSR.

Throwing sex workers and fetish goddesses under the bus since 1989.

And people think today's Wizards team sucks. This was at least a few orders of magnitude higher. This was 1,000 times worse than what Paizo did to the remaster. This was a combination of a lobotomy, censorship, and brainwashing of an entire campaign setting and game where you could not find anything remotely offensive.

How times change. It could never happen today. Right?

And we were kids; we didn't know you could "just say no" to a company that owned a game. So out went the demons, devils, slightly suggestive deities, suggestive content, slaves, brothels, assassins, topless succubus, and anything else remotely offensive vanished overnight.

And nothing changed about the people who hated the game and wanted it destroyed; D&D was Satanic, and getting some blood only proved them right. This only emboldened them further, and most edgy and mature role-players left for Vampire: the Masquerade. The rest left for Magic: the Gathering.

Ten years later, TSR was bankrupt.

The setting left a bad taste in our mouths, and guess what? It became the same: high-level GM NPC, high magic, high fantasy place every other campaign world was. We skipped the novels and modules and were no longer fans of the setting since it had lost its charm. We never played in any of the "signature" FR adventures - they didn't exist, and all of ours were homebrew.

We never had Waterdeep be so important - it was just another port city. Neverwinter was the same; no videogame happened there, and it never looked like a CGI abomination of a castle-shaped city on a 3d terrain. Baldur's Gate and Candlekeep? Places on a map we used as fantasy locations. The video games never happened.

Those first two years were the setting's golden age for us.

If I were to turn back time, I would have dropped D&D like a dead rat and switched to GURPS Fantasy (Dungeon Fantasy these days). The original Goddess of Magic (who never died) took a copy of the 1987 world and fled, refusing to change the precious gem she had created.

This also fits with what everyone was doing in the late '80s and early '90s timeframe. GURPS was the dominant game. Everyone was dumping D&D and quitting polyhedral gaming, primarily because of feeling betrayed by AD&D 2nd Edition. And GURPS did everything, plus so much more. You only needed to learn one set of rules for any game, movie, or TV show you wanted to play. And there were no silly classes or levels.

And my world would be mine again. The original Realms has a new history, one made by dreamers, and nothing that may have happened later ever did. The world was allowed to "be."

I bet somewhere out in the stars, she is sitting out there smiling at me with my dream of a low-magic and low-fantasy Realms, where life is hard, magic is exceptional, and heroes are forged in the deadly trials of battle. And she has that world I saw in my dreams, as it was, but maybe a few more years down the road, and just as much as a gated little world where the stories of the gods were told through the people that lived on this blue ball of wonder and life.

The assassins are still there, Loviatar punishes the unworthy, the brothels are doing good business, and the succubus' are free to dress however they want. Demons and devils plot to overthrow what's good. Nobody remembers a 'time of trouble' or things almost changing because they never did.

The only strangeness going on would be dungeons being hex-based. I will blame the six-sided Modrons that helped Mystra break free. They always liked GURPS better, too.

And D&D, and the seven versions down the road it went through elsewhere, were not even memories because they never happened. In my gaming career, this is one of the moments I wish I could go back and change.

Because someone realized we don't have to wreck the things we love just to please others.

Friday, February 23, 2024

Solo Motivation

Or, more specifically, a lack of motivation.

I have tried playing solo RPGs, but it is challenging to get them to work. The more charts a game has, the worse it gets for me. This doesn't bode well for many chart-heavy games, like Shadowdark or DCC, and in some games, I freeze up and quit playing because of chart paralysis.

It blows up whenever I go high concept with a pre-built group of 'fun' characters. Four characters are my party limit; everyone at spot five and up gets ignored.

I do better with single-character games. Survival. A focused experience on one person and their challenges. Games that are balanced for parties are tricky since they force me to play more characters or solo-friendly classes (cleric, paladin, etc.). I can feel the missing character classes in some games in my experience. No rogue in the party? Who is opening the door, then? I guess we are hosed when it comes to any situation needing stealth. No cleric? Who is going to heal us?

Add to that most modules are written for 4-6 characters. Designers will think nothing of tossing 8 orcs in a room; the CR is good; we are done here. In addition to being a dull encounter for a solo player who is a meat grinder - especially for classes without that sleep spell this encounter is supposed to mitigate. A lot of D&D's design is predicated on the spells the game gives you, and designers of the old tournament modules would give pre-gen characters resources and one spell that should be used in one room for maximum effectiveness. It was the same with a flask of oil, a rope, and iron spikes - all of it had a use somewhere to 'solve' a room like a puzzle.

For solo play, I am looking at an encounter of 12 giant rats and asking myself, how many should there be for a solo character? The answer is always one to three, and with oracle dice determining if some hang back or watch, to avoid a video game-like "rubbing the character out" like this were a game of Gauntlet.

I still love GURPS, especially Dungeon Fantasy. I had both on a storage shelf and recently pulled DF out and put it on one of my play shelves. I like the character designs, the detailed equipment for dropping backpacks of heavy gear on the ground, and the tactical combat. I love the point-buy characters with dozens of skills and traits. I love building custom advantages and disadvantages.

What trade-offs do you make? What limitations do you pick? How do you set up your gear? How do you fight? Do you fight? Are you more of a task or social character, or a mix? How are your survival skills? Does it make sense to have them? How much money do you have in types of coins? Where do you keep it? Do you have a set of nice clothes for social encounters? Where are you staying tonight? Can you cover the cost of a more comfortable place?

Every character is like a mini-game design.

The freedom is unparalleled.

Point-buy games are more compelling for me to play solo since I can build characters who do a little bit of everything. I can work on the skills I need. If my cleric in a GURPS game needs archery, I have something to spend character points on. If they need stealth, that skill is right there for my next skill purchase. Do they need survival skills? Buy them. Don't go looking for a ranger. The concept of certain classes being good at some things to the exclusion of others - sucks.

So you are telling me a nature domain cleric has no survival skills and will get lost and die in the woods? Are you telling me a follower of a thief god has no thieving skills? That a barbarian can't have magic shout powers or blood magic? I should multiclass if I want that. Why? Because your game is broken fundamentally and can't express certain character concepts?

And then the answer is that a new book is coming out for you to buy for those options.

If you want those skills in a party, you must create another character to have them. It is more paperwork for my solo game and another character to keep track of. I would rather have one ultra-detailed character than twelve simple ones.

Give me a world and system like Skyrim, where one character can be a master of many things. I can play Dungeon Fantasy with one character easily. They will be skilled in many areas of my choosing, and if they know a little magic, all the better - if I want it, I don't have to invest there and be very good in a few areas.

Is it 5E? Can I run a party of characters? Can I run a dozen? Do I have all these monster and treasure tables? Do I have hundreds of adventures at my fingertips? Are combats fast? Are the rules intuitive?

No, to all of the above.

However, GURPS isn't a game; it is a toolkit. The rules are designed in a way where you choose which sections to ignore. When you use a real-world toolbox to fix something in your house, like tightening a screw, do you need to use every tool in the box? No. I can run the hyper-realistic GURPS combat like D&D, roll to hit, and apply damage. Most advanced rules are there if you want them, but it's okay if you ignore them.

Most 5E groups have no idea how to play a game like that. But this is old-school and mirrors how we used to play AD&D back in the day. Rules were simply a collection of things we used to run a game - and these rules could come from multiple sources - the game itself, articles in Dragon magazine, house rules, supplemental games like Arms Law, and even other games like Aftermath. Most of the time, a group's rules were the group's game collection and hand-written notes.

People today "think" B/X was followed precisely by the book and need a reference guide to ensure they are "playing it right," but they are so lost. I am like the ancient Egyptian coming to the future telling you that you are reading all those hieroglyphics wrong, and you have no idea.

These days, most OSR games sell you the fallacy that buying the book will give you an authentic experience. That is so far from the truth it hurts.

I need to put a sister game in here, Savage Worlds since this is also a point-buy game. Anything I say about GURPS or Dungeon Fantasy character builds applies to Savage Worlds. This is also far easier than GURPS but more conceptual and abstract.

Most B/X damage dice and hit point ranges are acceptable for GURPS, and the combat skill can be 10+HD, modified up or down by a little to account for danger. AC can be figured out relatively using GURPS armors.

Grab the free Basic Fantasy PDF; you will have a ton of monsters and treasures to use directly with Dungeon Fantasy. Convert them to your heart's content, and don't worry about using a character sheet designer to get these designs to the point. It does not matter.

An orc from Basic Fantasy?

  • HP = 10  (10 x HD)
  • Attack Skill, Parry = 13 (10 + HD, I added 2 for a somewhat skilled fighter)
  • Dodge = 8 (estimated)
  • Damage = 1d6+1 (by weapon, use the GURPS charts; I added one for strength)
  • DR = 2 (heavy leather)

An ogre?

  • HP = 40  (10 x HD)
  • Attack Skill, Parry = 16 (10 + HD, I added 2)
  • Dodge = 6 (estimated)
  • Damage = 2d6 (I used B/X damage, this is powerful)
  • DR = 3 (one better than the orc)

My hits numbers are a rough calculation and possibly more suited for parties. Many "designed" monsters typically never have more than 20-30 hits, so 40 seems like an outlier. Then again, 40 hits will not be enough once modern firearms appear.

But why GURPS and Dungeon Fantasy?

For solo play, I lose interest if I play a too simple game. Take a dirt-simple game; you pick a class. Anything your class can do, you succeed on a 1-4 on a d6. Anything you can't? You have a 1 in 6 chance. For a character to survive a hit, it is 1-4 on a d6. For a monster, hit and survive is a 1-2 on a d6. My game is a variation of B/X d6 skills but applied to everything.

It needs a lot of tweaking and improvement and at least 300 pages of random tables to fill out the game. I also need to pay a lot of YouTubers to promote this as the next big thing. Ah, the grift is high in the hobby currently. But it is sorting out since we are in the "creators fighting with each other" phase, which means the grift is declining.

I am not playing more than 5 minutes, and certainly never playing that for an entire campaign. No matter how good the game gets, it has no depth and can't keep my interest.

In Dungeon Fantasy, I could run a maximum of three characters. One is ideal. Two is okay, but I need to start juggling a lot of variables. Three would be my absolute limit. But the one character, the hero, Buck Rogers, Conan, Flash Gordon - this is a story of a hero.

And the single hero who can do it all is the ideal. In party-based play, you need role protection to pull in multiple players. In solo play, I am better off with a point-based system that lets me improve in areas the campaign challenges me with. If my game turns out to be 90% social, I can focus on improvement there. In D&D, if that is the case and I am a fighter, I am out of luck, so campaign over or roll up a social tag along NPC to use as a roleplay puppet.

Most NPCs? GURPS Ultra-Lite. Even PC allies. Use this for enemies, spiders, rats, orcs, and goblins - all can be GURPS UL characters and mesh perfectly with the complete rules. NPCs and opponents do not need to be anything more than this.

If you know how to cut and fold paper, your GURPS NPCs can be zero work, and you will have a lot more fun playing the game. You can hack in advantages and disadvantages with a pick cost or extra pick.

I am a lot more motivated to play with heroic, single-player games that do not use character classes and role protection. Open advancement also appeals to me greatly since my character is a product of the campaign - and they do not drive it.

If I pick a fighter class in D&D, and my game turns out to be exploration or social-based - the game breaks. In DF or GURPS, I buy skills and abilities in those areas, and my character improves organically. And I am not 'forced' to 'create fights' in a campaign just because 'I have a fighter, and they should fight something.'

Part of the problem I had staying motivated was feeling forced into a role with no path forward if the campaign changed or a particular skill became essential to continue. A game's direction can change with one dice roll in solo play.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Shadowdark, What's Next?

As much as I like Shadowdark, there is only a little 3rd party support for this beyond a handful of choices. Admittedly, people have just started to get physical copies of the game, but I expected a little more support for a game that made such a huge splash.

I am on an expansion Kickstarter and looking forward to that.

I have found excellent, expanded character options, backgrounds, equipment, and many other options that take the game from a simple dungeon crawl experience simulator to a fully supported OSR 5E game.

We are in a doldrum here of support, and the game came strong out of the gate with its first release, so there is a lot to do when the books come. I would like more of the fun 'zines' that came with the game and want to see more 6x9" books.

Is it an OSR replacement? Is it a 5E replacement?

No, since OSR and 5E implementations tend to be heavier games. Shadowdark is rules-light, which puts it in that class of games. Rules-light games can be unique and fun, so it takes nothing away.

Does Shadowdark have staying power for campaigns?

I don't know. This game reminds me of a quick, zero-to-hero game - but since the level 1-10 run is 90% of 5E games, why can't it be a campaign game? It is 300 pages, complete, and with good support. Using Shadowdark for many games eliminates many of 5E's superpower magic messes and puts characters and stories first. This is an excellent option for many groups running low-magic games (which 5E does not support, and the low-magic concept disappears when characters reach level 6+).

Low-magic games are more challenging to create than high-magic ones, since removing magic and eliminating magic-using classes from being "the chosen ones" forces you to pay attention to martial play balance. How do you make a game fun without magic? Many designers can't do it, and certainly not those who work for Wizards.

Shadowdark presents classes with random progression paths, which forces players out of "the optimization box" and into problem-solving and roleplay. This is the perfect primer for old-school play since that 5E trap of relying on build optimization to solve problems leads into boring "math gaming" where DPS and insane power combos are all you need to solve any adventure - brains turned off, dice ready to roll.

Tales of Argosa (Low Fantasy Gaming 2) is the same genre, a low-fantasy, OSR-style game, and the sphere is getting competitive. This feels more like a traditional game in the breadth of character options and campaign structure. Where Shadowdark puts a magnifying glass on the dungeon crawling experience, ToA steps back a level and focuses on the campaign game. ToA also has traditional progression with a few choices up the level path, so there is no random progression here.

OSR fans are sitting here saying, our games do this already. I know! But the 5E OSR blends are popular and gateways into the hobby's traditional roots for many. Shadowdark goes a long way to "untraining" many 5E players who don't know the fun of thinking for themselves and solving problems creatively.

This is a good thing, no matter what side of gaming you are on.

But Low Fantasy Gaming (ToA's version 1.0 origin) is a fantastic game, and I still see this having legs even after ToA's release. LFG had many adventures released, and it does a lot of OSR stuff blended with 5E.

I like Shadowdark.

As a one-book "5E dungeon minigame," it is excellent with plenty of random table support (maybe too much). Other games do more, but there is an elegance to a minimalist set of rules that proves you don't need 1000+ pages to communicate a game to a group.

You wonder, with all the "crust" that D&D established as "part of 5E," - how much of it is really needed? How much of those rarely-used rules are needed to recreate the experience?

Shadowdark asks what is more critical, legacy rules people associate with the experience? Or the experience itself?

This is a good game; it has just been quiet, and I want more.

Cepheus Universal vs. Deluxe

Okay, color me slightly confused. There are two Cepheus games out there now. Cepheus Universal by Zoser Games, creators of Hostile and Modern Warfare. This is a new 400+ page book that Cepheus-izes the rules found in Modern Warfare and Hostile and presents it as a generic 2d6 sci-fi game.

This massive book covers every subject you can imagine in a sci-fi game, along with a lot of referee's advice. It cuts closer to the original 2d6 sci-fi game but keeps things on a more realistic and grounded scale. There are also plenty of excellent design systems here for all sorts of things, aliens, vehicles, capital ships, animals, and so much more.

The weapons and equipment lists are expansive. You get a lot of stuff here! The art here is also excellent. We get some absolute stunners and inspirational pieces. This sets the standard for indie 2d6 sci-fi gaming. The book is fun just to flip through and read, and every piece of art is a standout.

The book comes in a PDF now, with a tan and white background version in the download. If I bought a hardcover, I would go for the classic white background - if they offer one.

Universal uses a 6+ ability score roll and an 8+ skill roll as the base.

The other is Cepheus Deluxe, by Stellagama Publishing, which also makes Sword of Cepheus, a 2d6 fantasy game. This is the original I fell in love with, and this version has a trait system (like feats) that allows you to improve your characters with unique abilities. This is a short, more compact, 200+ page book. The art is okay at best, with a few standout pieces.

While smaller, the game is tighter and feels very beer-and-pretzels to me. The gear lists aren't as extensive, and there isn't as much stuff, but when I am developing my own setting and want to do most of the work myself, this book gives me the minimum and gives me room to develop the rest.

This version also has a more generous character development system, but you could always use this improvement and trait system with either game. I really love the trait system here, and I like the more generous and gamified advancement.

Deluxe has the better cargo and trading rules (a 12-page chapter versus Universal's half-page of rules). Again, if you like this system better, it can be used with either game with no effort. Do not discount Deluxe because it is not as slick or big; the designers knew the best parts of 2d6 sci-fi and went into depth where needed. Universal tends to be "more is more" and Deluxe is "tightly focused on fun parts."

If I were using this game to power a Car Wars RPG (which we did in 1980 with another 2d6 game), I would use Cepheus Deluxe since it is more of a simple framework, shorter, and easier to mod. If I want a complete, standalone 2d6 sci-fi game, I will go Universal (with Deluxe traits & advancement, trading, and other parts I prefer). Deluxe is a more straightforward game with a tighter core engine. There aren't as many design systems and charts here, and it is a better starting off point for heavily modded games.

Deluxe uses a flat 8+ roll for both skill and ability checks.

Deluxe offers a full-color hardcover book (which I do not like at all, my eyes!) and a more classic black-and-white version - which I love and is a pleasure to read.

Both books are great and worth indie 2d6 gaming options. Most of everything in either game works with the other too, so you are not wasting money if you have both. Part of me likes Universal since it is more comprehensive, beautiful, and covers everything. Another part of me likes Deluxe for its basic, no-frills, solid, core design in a smaller package.

Both do what Traveller doesn't - give you a 2d6 sci-fi framework for DIY sci-fi gaming. Modern Traveller leans hard into the Imperium setting, which is both good and bad. I have the new Traveller books, and I can't separate that game from the setting, which limits my ability to hex-crawl sector explore and explore strange new worlds.

There are times when I want the 2d6 sci-fi, but I don't want the weight of such a heavy, lore-complete setting that I have to wade through to make sense of. For quick, beer-and-pretzels sci-fi where you are rolling dice and creating new sectors on the fly, Cepheus has you covered.

Monday, February 19, 2024

The Not D&D Surge

There is an in-betweener audience out there of 5E refugees not going to OSR games but to 5E-like games. Many have gone to OSR clones, like Dungeon Crawl Classics and Shadowdark. Many have moved on to new rule systems, like Pathfinder 2, Savage Pathfinder, Dragonbane, and other games.

There is a lot of buzz in this in-betweener space, and you see the excitement in games like MCDM RPG, Tales of the Valiant, and even Level Up Advanced 5E. The latter two are interesting and cover an economic group I am in.

I have a lot of 3rd party 5E books. What do I do with them?

That is my feeling; I spent money on many great 3rd party books and would like to use them. What do I do if D&D leaves a terrible taste in my mouth? Sell them? I need something rules-compatible, so I am stuck. Sticking in a broken and exploited to Hades 2014 version and a cash-grab 2024 (still broken, Tasha's) edition is not an option.

The old D&D market was so huge that the "not D&D" subset market is now huge and looking for alternatives. This group of pioneers will also find the "next hot thing" that everyone else jumps on the bandwagon of. The 2024 version will be significant, but the string of critical failures Wizards rolled in 2023 will haunt them until the 2027 "best by" date for the 5.5 version. Another thing is a lot of the old-timers were pissed, and that is a considerable percentage of DM's in heavy-user influencers who are very vocal.

I have already moved on.

I have two games I can use my old 5E books with, and they are mostly compatible. Better yet, they were defined by teams with goals and likes similar to my own. A5E's support for the pillars of play is fantastic and a fresh take on 5E meets OSR, along with the tight math of the game. ToV streamlining the game, making it new player-friendly, and eliminating exploits intrigues me.

The OSR will keep being what it is, but two new markets are forming in the in-betweener space of the not D&D and Open 5E movements. When people decry "the market is fragmenting," they complain about profits on an economy of scale. It used to be that if you wanted to make money in tabletop gaming, you had to make a 5E book.

These days, the audience is fragmented. It does not hurt Wizards as it does 3rd party publishers, who now need to make versions of a book for several games and hedge their bets. What I like about the Open 5E movement is it keeps the current market status quo, and you can still make 5E books. Most people who play "5X Edition" can use it, be it 2014, 2024, ToV, or A5E.

Kobold Press feels like the standard bearer in the Open 5E market.