Sunday, July 3, 2022

Golarion

Golarion is the world I wanted Greyhawk to be.

It is exciting, full of iconic, interesting, different places, and a giant sandbox. Perhaps it is too much of a sandbox and amalgamation of fantasy tropes and cultures - but that is also its charm. It is the ultimate fantasy theme park world Mystara dreamed of many years ago.

Part of me feels the 2e world of Lost Omens lost a little in the translation to the 2e set of rules. It doesn't feel as high fantasy and feels more steampunk, sci-fi, and weird west. It feels much more populated and cosmopolitan. There are airships, guns, androids, walking carts, and steam-tech. It is still a cool place, but I sometimes feel like the world is the fantasy version of Starfinder.

What makes the original version of Golarion so extraordinary and remarkable is the massive amount of adventure paths woven through the lands and history of the world. The sheer amount of epic stories put the few Greyhawk adventures we have - even though they are world-class classics - to shame. There is a literal library of stories and experiences here, enough to repeatedly relive great moments and stories. I love those stories. I wish the AD&D modules were written that way and tied together with narratives and characters we could remember as a good book.

And while there is a high-tech ruin in this world, it is contained in one place and also ignorable. The world as a whole is still a low-tech fantasy setting.

It does make me happy the Savage Worlds fans are getting to see these adventures again for the first time, and I hope that project continues from the first one all the way to the last, with all the great books, bestiaries, spells, classes, expansions, and resources in between.

And I am hopeful I will get used to the 2e Lost Omens world. I just have to find my place in it. My subscriptions are current, and stuff is coming, so I am a supporter. I just don't feel they have what I want yet. My imagination is not here, not yet.

My hesitancy in running a classic Greyhawk campaign comes from the feeling my time is better spent with places currently in development and supported by teams and creators I trust and am a fan of. I had the urge recently to run the original Greyhawk modules using Castles & Crusades rules, and I still may do that for fun.

But the place I dream in and invent new adventures will likely be where a new generation of writers and creators are playing and dreaming.

Or a world of my own.

Saturday, July 2, 2022

Greyhawk

I do love Greyhawk. While we started in the Mystara setting, we revisited Greyhawk during the 3E era and rediscovered a wonderful and fantastic place.

Part of me wonders if a lot of the inspiration for the Forgotten Realms was to somehow "erase" Greyhawk after Gygax was forced out of the company. You see many of the same sorts of "but we do it better" things in the Realms and much more annoying godlike GMNPCs. And we still see the classic Greyhawk modules pushed hard as IP, with no love or recognition for the place from which they came.

All the great modules started here:

  • A1-A4
  • C1-C2
  • D1-D3
  • The incredible GDQ Series
  • The S series, including Tomb of Horrors
  • The T series, including Temple of Elemental Evil
  • ...and many more

And then we have the really sloppy "borrowing" of the classic Greyhawk adventures for the 4E non-setting, some "place floating out in space" valley map that was never really intended to matter beyond "level 1-10 MMO starting zone" before planar adventures began. There were 4E versions of the significant campaign settings, minus Greyhawk, which was one we wanted to see. Most of the 4E settings were not as great as the originals, and the Forgotten Realms one all but destroyed the world we loved.

It is frustrating and sad since these are the great IP settings of fantasy. Every bit as significant as Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, or Star Trek.

You look at the above list of adventures, which are as great as "the battle of the death star" or other iconic moments in cinema history but played out on people's kitchen tabletops. And the setting from which they came feels like it sits ignored.

I swear Wizards does not know what they own at times.

And I get the feeling that modern D&D is more about the planes, with the 4E cosmology still present and influential in the setting and all of the Magic the Gathering settings being used as substitutes for the great works of art that were the original campaign worlds. We also see micro-settings tied to a single adventure, which is okay, but I don't feel they compare to an entire world.

Those who revived Greyhawk for 3E knew how important a world was. Funny how a lot of those creators moved on and became Paizo, and created a strong world of their own which continues to this day.

I would love new novels and books for all of the classic D&D settings. I would love new takes and new heroes. I love new adventures in these worlds as good as the GDQ adventure series or the Tomb of Horrors. I would love to see "the new classics." I would love to see the original creators consulted and brought in, along with an A-list group of writers to craft new stories.

But I know better.

...

These settings are likely abandoned and shall live on cherished in our memories.

And it is for the better.

Friday, July 1, 2022

Magic Resistance

Castles & Crusades (C&C) system preserves the original magic resistance mechanic from AD&D, which is a much-needed check on caster power and a big buff for martial classes. Many games forget this or throw it out, but this feels like a critical balance, and quality of life improvement Gygax made with AD&D that not many games implement, want to admit exists, or even recognize.

Yes, it is a pain for your spell to fizzle, but some highly-magical monsters should be that way, so that fighter in your party has a vital role. But magic resistance was one of the first real advancements made to the D&D game when it went to AD&D, at least for us. And yes, we hated it when it happened too, but we realized why since unlimited magic all but destroyed our earlier campaigns.

Magic that always works and never fails does many terrible things. It blows out the game balance at high levels in favor of casters, making the game not fun for many classes and players. It creates an entitled caster syndrome where expectations on what spells can do get unchecked, and when enemies use these, it gets equally frustrating for enemies to do all and be-all. And it makes the game boring for martial classes as they sit in the back of the party and do nothing while the party's mages carry most of the burden, and you inevitably get the 15-minute adventuring day creeping back into the game.

We need to rest and recharge our spells!

And the fighter is sitting there with an unused bag of heal potions and wondering why.

And worst of all, magic that always works is not magic. It is a superpower. The mystery is gone. The uncertainty is gone. The nature of some things being "more magic" and resistant to this power is gone. While I love spell failure, unexpected failure results, and corruption systems - magic resistance is the other side of the coin.

And worst of all, unchecked magic marginalizes your boss monsters. Do you get a demon lord or Timiat showing up? If you are a caster, you will know not many of your spells will even work, and you get afraid. Even a ghost at lower levels is like that. Suddenly, you need that dwarf fighter with a magic sword and shield to hold the line, and you hope your next spell does not bounce off. Martial damage is always the great equalizer.

Many AD&D-like B/X games get this horribly wrong by using save mechanics or ignoring magic resistance entirely as "too much of a hassle." While Labyrinth Lord and Old School Essentials have that mixed AD&D and D&D feeling, I feel they miss the mark regarding the magic resistance game. A simple saving throw or save versus magic bonus is not enough. When a mage one-shot-kills the demon lord Orcus with a powerful spell or uses a wish to send him away - the referee will have to fudge why it doesn't work or allow it - and the game feels broken.

A game with magic resistance? The reason why that spell fails is written into the game. You accept that price for being a mage with near-unlimited power. Creatures "like you" with a high level of magic gain an innate resistance to your abilities. There is uncertainty here. This is why we have parties and martial characters. This is why you make friends. Does it feel bad for your epic, movie-climax, game-changing spell to fail? Yes. So bad many players move to other games where magic becomes never-fail superpowers.

And this is a problem I have with a lot of the newer D&D-style games, and it is a problem with D&D 4E. Magic is a superpower to give classes all sorts of remarkable abilities at zero cost. They just work. Everyone has magic superpowers. Spells always hit and deliver damage. Any attack can be enhanced by magic. Monsters have zero chance (beyond an average save in most games) to resist spell effects, and saves typically do not apply to magic-enhanced attack damage.

Everything feels like a superhero MMO after a while. The mystery is gone. The uncertainty is gone.  The danger is gone. Spellcasters become gods, and martial classes must be buffed to be viable. Your class build gets rated on damage per turn. At this point, just play a video game because there is little difference.

But for a game to be like AD&D, I feel you need that Gygaxian magic resistance mechanic and check on unlimited caster power. As a martial character, I need to know there will be a time when the casters need me when everything else fails.

Other games besides Castles & Crusades that recognize this are the great Adventures Dark & Deep (ADaD), OSRIC, Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS), and For Gold & Glory (FG&G). I like Castles & Crusades for being the easiest to play and most accessible out of this group, and the most like the generic AD&D experience I grew up with. ACKS feels tied to a specific type of world and campaign setting but is also a simpler alternative. FG&G is a 2nd edition retro-clone but has the magic resistance mechanic. OSRIC and ADaD are the full-complex 1e clones that give you that total hit.

Castles & Crusades keeps things simple like a B/X but preserves the great AD&D mechanics I like in a game delivering a classic experience. This is the game out of all of these, which requires the slightest reference, simplifies all the extra class features and skills away, and supports a core mechanic that works very well on the table for a wide variety of situations that come up during play. It also feels like 5E and has instant familiarity and a modern feel while staying true to retro roots and design mechanics.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Castles & Crusades: Mutliclassing

The multiclassing system is one of the best things about Castles & Crusades (C&C). Once you read this and understand the system, wow, this game is like very few others in the options and flexibility the game gives you. Not only in what you can combine but in the multiple ways you can combine them.

Many B/X games give you a class or a hybrid, and that is that. C&C gives you a box of types, treats them like Legos, and invites you to build the character you dream of playing. This isn't a GURPS-style point-buy system as we are still working with traditional classes, but being able to pick 2 or 3 and combine them in various ways gives me hundreds of ideas of unique characters I just can't get in other games quickly - or at all.

The Players' Handbook has 13 classes, while the Player Archive ups that number to 36, already an incredible number of standalone options, and this is more than a lot of B/X games deliver. And then the game turns around and invites you to combine them, allowing you to wonderfully simulate the hybrid martial-spellcaster classes of AD&D.

You can multi-class, which means you combine the XP-per-level (plus a little) of two to three classes and advance in them simultaneously. You can use class-and-a-half. Which gives you your primary class plus a half-level supporting class, perfect for the AD&D style paladins or rangers where they have a primary martial focus plus a slower-advancing supportive spellcasting class. The Player Archive adds more options, such as class-plus, dual-class, and reclassing.

Add this to a system that unifies all skills, feats, class ability, and saving throws under a unified ability-based system (SIEGE Engine). You have a more straightforward design than many B/X offerings, with less to write down and track on character sheets. I don't have to write down and reference arbitrary saving throws and attack matrixes. Everything is ability-based, which is instantly familiar to 5E players.

I had a few issues with the SIEGE Engine at first. Still, when I realized the system's class-ability and roleplaying uses, I started to appreciate the genius of what the designers did. Want to invent a new ranger class ability, such as Tree Ring Reading? Just develop an idea, talk it over with the GM, and tie it to an ability check based on your class level. You are freed from searching through and referencing endless lists of feats and skills, your powers are more situation-based, and the core system stays simple and clean.

This is a best-of-class OSR-style game that does a lot of what I love, keeps things simple like B/X, and invites you to get in and tweak to your heart's content.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Off the Shelf: Castles & Crusades

I had Castles & Crusades on one of my storage shelves and moved it to my main shelves. The SIEGE Engine felt inflexible in terms of what I wanted regarding character customization, like you made your choices at character creation, so I put it aside for a while.

Then I started reading other games and found out other games were a bit different. They only provided complicated layers of subsystems and incompatible mini-game mechanics that allowed flexibility as you improved your character.

They say they have choices and offer plenty, but as you advance, you slowly discover the game is balanced and designed for a minimal number of optimized builds. Even in Savage Worlds, a great game that offers infinite potential for customization, if you specialize in one of the game's focus areas, such as melee combat, you will discover you can optimize the system quickly.

And this choice to specialize happens when? During character creation.

Yes, I could force myself to broaden my character design choices, which is always good. But many dungeon games fall into this "hard optimization" lane and never get out of it. Either you are in the game's sweet spot for design and balance, ahead of the curve in the optimizer's area, or behind the curve in a place meant for jack-of-all-trades characters. In Savage Worlds, it is better to be the jack of all trades. In dungeon games, you are meant to optimize because the game's challenge curve is a part of the game.

This is why dungeon games have monster manuals and treasure tables; those are the points on a curve of the game's built-in challenge and progression system. You are not playing "a character." You are playing "the curve."

The SIEGE Engine is this "meta-choice" you make in the game that simulates all the time spent in other games buying feats, skills, abilities, and other powers in the areas you want your character to specialize in. In other games, you purchase diplomacy skills, negotiation, intimidation, seduction, smooth-talking, fast-talking, all sorts of social feats, and some social-focused class features - and then, after all that time and fiddling, you create a character that does well at most Charisma-based activities.

In the SIEGE Engine, you pick charisma as a primary, and you are done. All of the above is wrapped up into that one selection, and it also says, "as I level, I am going to keep making these character improvement choices focused on my charisma abilities." It puts character improvement on auto-pilot as you level. You don't miss out on a few Charisma-based activities because you were forced to make choices; you get them all.

In a game like Pathfinder 2, you read hundreds of carefully-designed options and pick the ones that match your playstyle and character concept. In C&C, you tell the game, "I make the best choices for Charisma," and then you decide what those are in roleplaying. Are you the smooth-talking halfling or the charismatic charmer? You decide. No sorting through lists and choices to optimize needed.

If you think of C&C as a version of a 3.5-based B/X that removes the clunky 3.5 skill, save, feat, and class ability system and replaces all those with a unified mechanic - you "get" the game.

This also means C&C is, by default, more party-based than other games since trying to solo means getting disappointed quickly. In GURPS, I can create a "lone survivor" easily. In C&C, you need a group with overlapping specialties, primaries, classes, and abilities to do well. Playing the curve in this game assumes party-based play.

Monday, June 27, 2022

Savage Pathfinder, Module Conversion

So one thing I wanted to do with the Savage Pathfinder system is play in the original Golarion setting, the official game world, but borrow classic AD&D modules and put them in the world. If I have the old modules, I am using them, so my world will be a strange mix of original edition content plus adventure paths.

I suspect this is what many people did when Wizards dumped 3.5 for D&D 4+; they kept playing their 3.5 worlds and adventures with the newer Pathfinder 1e rules and did not skip a beat. I also suspect many D&D 3.5 game worlds, including Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms, got converted over, and the campaigns continued.

Plus, there is a lot of room in this world for fun places like the GDQ series, the B-series, the S-series, and the A-series modules. Put the Isle of Dread in the ocean somewhere; it would work.

Now, excellent idea, but is it practical?


Converting is Worldbuilding

I would grab my World Builder and Game Master's Guide for this one since this is a beneficial resource when converting anything into the game.

I would be careful with scripted adventures and use their content as guidelines. The Slave Lords modules in the A-series are good examples. Would I convert every room description, ensure every area and monster were accounted for, do a 1-to-1 map conversion, and ensure my adventure followed the exact same encounter and key matrixes as the originals?

We did this thing before with other games, such as D&D to Aftermath, a gigantic task that is rarely worth all that effort. After a while, things break down and begin to not make sense. The entire game turns into this hours-long slog where you realize if you had converted everything over loosely and not worried about the details, you would have never spent days of work prepping a module conversion that came out horrible anyways.

Often, there is just way too much to deal with. The encounters are too big, made for a game that simplifies combat and heavily relies on sleep, fireball, and other area spells to clear rooms.


Very Real Tournament

The Slave Lords A-series are interesting to study because one thing they did was convert these from simpler tournament modules to fully stocked dungeons and adventures to "add more value" to them. You will find the first two adventures expanded from simple and straightforward tournament maps to massive dungeons with many encounters and expanded content.

I dare say the more straightforward tournament maps look better for Savage Worlds Pathfinder to play since they capture the essence and narrative of the adventure, keep the number of encounters down, and avoid confusion and needless bloat. In the first module's tournament version, A1, you get all the classic encounters, the best areas, and the essential experience of the module without too much sidetracking or artificially lengthening things in that typical AD&D way using quantity over quality.

On a downside, due to tournament play, the modules are often a single track of encounters with no bypassing. Some caution is advised, but as a roadmap of the best the module offers, start with the condensed tournament content first.


They Are Not Perfect!

A reminder, the old modules are not perfect. They have a lot of flaws. If you look at the differences between the A1 tournament and vs. A1 expanded, you will see a vast "mapping challenge" in the expanded version. Many groups don't even "map" these days the way they used to. The number of rooms and encounters in all modules is significantly expanded, leading to many long combats and grinds. There are rooms to soak area-of-effect spells and resources. Places to burn divination spells. Lots of save-or-die parts. Plenty of slow hallway crawls with 10-foot poles in the lead. 

Some of this stuff is great for a B/X game, but a Savage Worlds game is different.

There is also this "video game" mentality. They will respond if an operation, like a slave-trading group, is hit. They won't casually sit in the dungeon waiting for the characters to return after they rest up and recharge spells. They may clear out and move elsewhere. They may follow the characters to town with some of the forces they have left and hit the party back before they rest. We were kids when we played these modules and cleared rooms like stand-alone videogame encounters to "solve." We allowed infinite resting in the town, even if the last room was the boss battle and the entire dungeon around them cleared. 

We were really dumb, but hey, we were kids.

From a  pulp-storytelling point of view, having the organization active in the nearby cities and a good amount of fights and encounters outside this dungeon makes a lot of sense. You could go all Indiana Jones and have a vehicle chase with a slaver caravan for a good time. Do not let the modules and maps constrain you. These are more story seeds than monsters and mazes.

And as far as I am concerned, that "respond to multiple incursions and make it harder" applies to all modules, even the Tomb of Horrors. What if, on the second foray in, things changed? That is true horror and makes venturing in there repeatedly a perilous proposition. If the groups and boss monsters had the magic and creativity to build these places and call them home, then they would have the same interest in defending them and self-preservation, especially once they know what they are facing. And if the dungeon is high-level enough, the boss must have a few wish or limited-wish scrolls lying about.

That 15-minute adventuring day should come with a considerable cost, with failure being just the most apparent price.


Railroad Crossing

One word of warning the tournament modules are very railroaded, so I would use them as guides only, and if the players found a way to bypass them, or there was a way to in the expanded version, I would let them. The entire goal here is to figure out what the essential encounters are in the adventure, what ones are needed to tell the story and build the Savage Pathfinder experience around those.

Like the World Builder's Guide says, less is more.

I would use this "pick the top 9-12 encounters" in every module conversion, even Tomb of Horrors. There are those signature moments you are trying to simulate and those memorable encounters you want to experience again, so why throw in the fluff? If the designers wanted to fluff out a fort with 6 extra rooms of hobgoblins, why put them in if there are already one or two great fights with them here? Let those signature moments tell the story of the adventure, and get rid of the extra filler.

Also, do not be afraid to "change the module" dramatically. If my group has been through the Tomb of Horrors so many times, they can recite the room descriptions and point to every trap and secret door like they were reciting lines from their favorite movies; well, it is time to change things up. Rooms will be shuffled, secret doors moved, new traps and puzzles laid down, and new deadly save-or-die horror moments added everywhere. The essence of the module is supposed to be a horror movie where the party needs to pay attention and figure things out, so make it your own and have fun.

And if you can't think of good traps, head on over to the Goodman Games store and pick up this:

Your players will not love you if you mix up Tomb of Horrors with some of these classics, I guarantee it. Even some of the ideas in this book can be combined with the traps in Tomb of Horrors to make the assumed solutions quite deadly. But allow clever play to figure things out. If someone tosses sand across the pit trap and discovers the wall of force, magical push trap, pane of invisible steel, or the illusion of a hallway over there, let them be smart. The sand won't set off the spring-loaded plate that shoves them into the spiked ceiling on the other side.

Take the solution they know works, and make it kill the characters.

And the suffering doesn't need to end with death; if a character "dies" in this dungeon, they wake up remarkably healed in a particular deeper part without their gear. With more traps that will kill them this time, or if they can figure out how - escape. Just trip that revelation to the "supposedly dead" party after the last one falls or flees and keep the fun going.

A big part of the module conversions is to simplify things to fit the pulp-action style of Savage Worlds. You can use that to add fun and your own ideas, so go ahead and make these adventures your own.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Mail Room: Hostile Setting & Rules

The 2d6 system games continue to impress me. The Hostile setting and rules are better, more fleshed out, better "gamed," and better modeled hard sci-fi system than most anything I have ever seen. Yes, the "Alien" RPG is classic and great for those movie one-shots, but an extended campaign in that system feels like a stretch.

Cepheus Deluxe does a damn fine job of doing an open license 2d6 sci-fi system, and it is my top pick for a companion RPG for anything from Battletech to Car Wars. Cepheus does generic space opera the best with the Traveller style flair, and it can be dropped into any game, story, movie, universe and just work as a generic sci-fi ruleset. Because it does not have a galaxy, the game can be used anywhere for almost anything.

But let's say you wanted a more focused, thematic, and set near-future universe sci-fi experience. While Cepheus Deluxe works, Hostile does all that, plus more.

Hostile is every bit of an Earth-based near-future sci-fi setting, as I can imagine, and while yes, it does the entire "Alien" thing if you want it to, there is so much more here to play with. The whole 70's retro-tech vibe, the skepticism of the era, space adventure, mysteries of lost civilizations, space warfare, and experiences in the strange thing are handled perfectly in this game with lots of art, great layout, and a flair for that clunky tech and art that we love about this genre.

This is the sort of campaign and rules set up I wanted for Alien, a more sandbox style of game that scales from the personal survival experience to fleet battles. Alien feels unique, and it does not go outside of that; here, we have an entire universe that does not need xenomorphs to be exciting or even space monsters at all.

Note that you need both the rules and settings books for Hostile to play. I thought the setting book was optional, but it has player-focused content and personal gear.