Saturday, January 22, 2022

Lamentations, the 17th Century, and Fantasy Worldbuilding

Shout out to RaRa-Rasputin and his Youtube channel. Go subscribe and support his work. He had a great interview with James Raggi, the author of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, has this wonderful discussion about why he set his game in the 17th Century. Around the 15-minute mark we get this:

When people play medieval fantasy, they are not playing like medieval. There's so many modern assumptions still in there, and the 17th Century is when those things are starting to exist, so they make sense as far as how people play anyway.

This is a fascinating quote, and there are many in here, and one about Middle Ages settings that make me feel that a true Middle Age game is so far away from our "modern" experience that it would almost seem like playing in a sci-fi setting than anything we associate with traditional "medieval fantasy" as we know it in tabletop gaming.

You take the concept of serfs and peasants, and how they belonged to the land, could not leave or move to a new town, and were more considered property of the local lord. That isn't anything we know in traditional fantasy gaming, it is borderline controversial to even mention these days, and framed as science-fiction we are more ready to accept this as a concept. Seriously, if you did a big-budget sci-fi movie where evil Earth corporations enslaved an alien race and used them for labor, that would be something you could mentally frame and accept easier than accepting the fact we used to do this to each other on this planet.

This one statement sends me down the rabbit hole of reading history. An ACKS game, played right in a true Middle Ages setting, is not at all like a Lamentations game in the 17th Century. ACKS would feel like playing sci-fi, and I dare say the farther back you go, the more sci-fi things become.

The modern experience is a very small window in time. It is the one we are the most familiar with, and it is the framing we use to look at other people and other times with.

Modern Fantasy

When you consider the "modern fantasy" generic world, and this world is this almost "all ages sort of generic Tolkien meets MMO" world. It is built off safe fantasy art, sterilized by corporate sensitivity reviewers, double checked so it won't anger Twitter or the stockholders, and it becomes this self-sustaining force that permeates every fantasy game.

Generic fantasy has become this manner of speaking, dress, world building, and a look and style that I feel is  decidedly like a "modern world dress up" with some fantasy architecture thrown in there. Harry Potter is the great example of modern-relatable characters, very modern in outlook and manners, living in a fantasy world. All of the TV tropes in Xena and Hercules, those direct-to-video fantasy movies, animation, and those sort of modern people in fancy dress living in a world with fantasy replacements for modern conveniences.

I feel this world mixed with a set of rules even enforces a manner of acting, such as someone who behaves like they are playing a set of rules instead of playing a character in a real world. The world takes on this manner of acting, and people in the world act like they are playing one version of a fantasy game instead of acting like real people in a realistic world.

D&D 4th Edition felt like it had this problem in an acute manner. It did not feel like a real world, at least not to us, it felt like the world of a video game MMO following a specific set of rules. There was this layer of the artificial put on top of everything, how people in the world behaved, the governments, wars, conflicts, exploration, rural life, city life, and every other facet of that reality. The fact the planes are integrated into the world and a part of normal life. The gods are real and "end bosses" for the world.

My Fantasy, My Perspective

With the current edition of D&D we have a huge Magic the Gathering influence, and this high-technology magic feeling where magic can do anything for zero cost. For fans, it is great to see those worlds come alive. But it does bring in a culture, sort of nebulous reality that can be anything to anyone, and it changes the fantasy reality to a "be anything and do anything" sort of world with multiple dimensions, modern influences, and a lot of - I don't want to say baggage - but assumptions that can mean anything to anyone is the better word. It does feel more nebulous and that "the world exists from my perspective" is a modern thing and also a powerful force of marketing the game.

I feel modern fantasy is evolving from the "generic MMO fantasy setting" to more of the world is "your perception of fantasy, and every perception is valid" sort of experience. There is also this feeling of empowerment delivered with the game, almost like a Power Rangers sort of thing, but tailored for a mass audience. Because I play a powerful wizard in game I somehow have more power in the real world sort of sales pitch.

They blur fantasy with reality, which in previous editions of the game was a no-no because of the effect it had on some people's perception of reality.

Also, the zero-cost magic thing is also troubling to me, as our current world is dealing with resource shortages, pollution, worker suffrage, and great imbalances of trade from this "infinite consumerism" mentality. Infinite magic is the one-click anything goes mentality, and I can see why big companies don't want you questioning it. More on this later, but infinite magic I feel enables the "my reality, my fantasy" experience these companies are shipping today.

Fantasy Conveniences

I need my cell phone. I need my mass transit. I need my freedom of speech, freedom of association, and other human rights. I need my airline travel. I need my Internet. I need my speedy travel. I need my public education, schools, and universities. I need my on-call law enforcement with detectives and judicial resolution. I need my familiar governmental authorities and government programs. I need my modern outlook and assumptions. I don't want people of different heritages fighting or coming into conflict. The world must be cosmopolitan with dragon-folk, demon-bloods, and other fantastic races walking around without any differences, bad blood, mistreatment, or suspicion.

Very few of these things are in the historical record. They get Harry Pottered into a lot of these settings. The farther you go back, the more alien the world becomes in all of these regards.

The modernization of modern fantasy RPGs is this commercial force in making a product more acceptable to a mass audience. Some call it a Disney-ification of rules systems once they go mainstream, and you see that in some of the newer movie and series reboots as well.

I feel when companies add these fantasy conveniences where they create "magic parallel technology" for what are things we are used to in the modern world, something is lost. We aren't immersing ourselves in a unique world or time anymore. We don't have to be curious and figure things out. We don't have to learn the lands, peoples, and cultures. We have our traditional Western and current-day assumptions and biases preloaded into the setting and everything feels comfortable. The setting is pre-colonized with our biases and we don't need to learn to adjust to a different time and place.

We are still stuck in the modern world, the one just around us in our daily life, and never escaping it.

The OSR = Room to Explore

I feel this is why I am gravitating more towards the OSR. There is room for experiences outside of that generic fantasy core that has been overdone and I feel become a stereotype of the Western and Internet-centric experience.

How can we ever learn to understand and respect other cultures if we are constantly transposing our own reality onto everything we experience?

The OSR has a lot of room to explore, grow, and find niches that spur me to read history and understand a time outside my own. Also, to understand things from a non-Western perspective. ACKS got me deeply enthralled with the Middle Ages experience of faith, lordship, the pitiful worker experience, and the entire forging kingdoms through blood and conquest. Are there bad-controversial things in the game by today's standards such as forced-servitude? Yes. But as a player, I am free to fight them and correct that wrong, if I choose. The game doesn't erase things it doesn't want me to see.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess got me deeply into horror fiction and also the parallel horror of colonialism. Are there bad-controversial things this game? Yes, it is a horror game. But we need the terrible in here so we can confront our own fears and feelings about how Western society (and to be honest, a lot of non-Western societies) was built off the backs and blood of others. The game does not hide that truth that is integral to the horror experience.

ACKS and Lamentations have me buying and reading history. My real-world life and experience are growing, and I am educating myself as a life-long learner. Modern fantasy feels like a frozen TV dinner in comparison. It doesn't nourish me mentally, challenge me to rethink what I am told on the Internet, and give me that depth of knowledge that makes me an interesting person.

Lion & Dragon can also be mentioned here, but I am still reading that game and it looks like a fun one.

Are there less-heavy options in the OSR? We got Old School Essentials, Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy, and Castles & Crusades that can fill the need. They can easily do "modern fantasy" if that is your thing, or they can do a lot of other things. The games aren't really written to enforce one world or style of play. If I want a game that doesn't challenge assumptions and delivers the modern feeling, they are all here.

We have Dungeon Crawl Classics out here too for a more Heavy Metal fantasy experience of gonzo anything goes play. And there are many others, from a Conan-style game to sci-fi, hexcrawls, gangsters, and many other options.

But most importantly, I have that choice, and I can play these grim and gritty and with any assumption I want. And I am not having modernity forced on my game because the rules include it as a requirement to make the game comfortable to a mainstream audience.

Also, the room I am finding to explore in the OSR is not only in the games I have to read and enjoy, but the room inside myself I have to grow as a person in my experience and knowledge.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Pathfinder 2

One of the hardest things I did recently was box up my Pathfinder 2 books. I was sold on the promise. I loved the detailed character builds. I loved the options and rules. I loved the variations within the classes and the different ways you could customize. I was even subscribed to the books. The art and presentation are excellent. The community is great.

But the game wasn't for me.

Playing alone, solo, trying to run four characters by myself?

I just could not do it. The complexity of characters and interlocking rules was too much for me. The book read and played like a C++ Programming book for advanced programmers. Every time I wanted to do an action I was opening the book and searching for the detailed, specific rule that covers the action. The character sheets are pages long and I know some tax forms that are easier to work through.

I like the game a lot, but given my time and life learning and playing this alone would be a lot of work for the same level of enjoyment I could get a lot easier playing simpler games.

Better With Groups

My brain melted and I quit. I do feel bad because this one was a game I really wanted to immerse myself in. This game feels like one that would be better in a group, with people there to teach you, manage their own character builds, and specialize in different areas of the game and all help each other learn and play.

Some games are complex because it takes a hive-mind to decipher them, and part of playing is everyone sharing and learning together. Mastery is likely very enjoyable for all involved, and they can teach others as they enter the hobby. The language of this game is deep and complex, and with such a powerful tool you can probably make a lot of cool characters with the rules and have them work in interesting ways.

And to be honest, part of the fun in these types of complex games is socializing through that shared learning process. You help others, learn together, and get to know each other as a result. That is a fun thing to get involved with. Right now, I don't have the time for a game like that or being in a community like that.

Maybe with time something will come up, or my life will ease up and allow me to make room.


It almost feels like the rules complexity of Pathfinder 1e was simplified and moved entirely into the character builds, which have increased in complexity exponentially. Where in Pathfinder 1e I could create a character and being playing the game with an almost OSR level of simplicity, the Pathfinder 2 characters became massively complex and detailed.

I can't just roll up a few characters, write down the first-level abilities, and go.

Admittedly, once you get your Pathfinder 2 character running (almost like a complex software install to get each one going) the complexity curve is likely flatter than Pathfinder 1e, where the characters ramp up in complexity as they level (but they still feel like OSR classes conceptually).

Still Hoping

I still hope to learn this some day, so all is not lost. Just now, my time is very limited and I am sticking with the style of games I grew up with and know. I won't get into them in this article because I don't want to get into system wars and "X is better than Y" silly click-bait content. All games are great. People love and play Pathfinder 2. Some would probably say it is not as hard as it looks, and my hesitancy is just part of a learning curve.

All great points.

I will dive in some day. I will likely regret waiting, but I don't have the time now so I shouldn't regret putting something aside to avoid getting frustrated with it and letting that affect my opinion. I need to be fair, but I have to have the time to do so. I did shelve Dungeon Crawl Classics for a while and I regret that. That is a fun game and it was not as complex as I first assumed.

But each game is different.

And each person's situation is also different.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Rose-Colored Renaissance

I feel this idealized version of the Renaissance era so common in fantasy these days is becoming a bit overused. You know the trope, this quasi-theme park, everyone dressed in fancy period clothes, sort of happy and clean, everyone gets along sort of Disney Fantasyland fairy tale romanticized reality.

It works for game art, where things need to be this generic, family-friendly, happy reality of adventure and companionship. It also sells well. It is a very safe and manufactured reality designed to cause as little controversy as possible, multicultural and advertiser friendly, much like movies and art made for censorship-laden closed and repressive societies (or Western audiences).

It is "safe" in the best corporate sense, as in, no one is getting fired for shipping art, adventures, and game worlds like this.

But, History...

Contrast this with the real Renaissance? One of the largest wealth transfers in the history of the world as empires were built and other cultures around the world looted, used for slaves, made sub-servant parts of the globe-spanning conquest, natural resources taken, banking started, and the religions of Europe spread through religious conversion and missions? And all this ended in the Industrial Revolution.

Is that your happy, family-friendly fantasy model of reality? I feel it was a lie with happiness, good times, and that "ideal world" created by wealth stolen by world colonization and conquest. This was also a dark time for those under the heels of empires. Modern corporations of course idealize the conquerors and only show the smiling, happy face of the era.

Nothing is challenged, all they as is you accept that fa├žade as reality.

And it sure wasn't a Renaissance to the conquered and subjugated peoples of the world.

The fashionable fantasy clothing you see in the art of these pictures was likely made from stolen textiles, dyes, labor, and resources from less fortunate cultures, often at the barrel of a gun or cannon.

Some fantasy worlds assume "everybody wins" and show every culture as this idealized, ideal place. The truth is having a true Renaissance comes off the backs of the oppressed. Wealth is a zero-sum game and it all comes from somewhere and someone less fortunate. For more there are a lot of courses, but I am reading this one currently:

So where is this going?

Lamentations of the Flame Princess

So I picked the LotFP game without the art and sort of dismissed the entire game. It was "just another" B/X game, and I had plenty of those so it did not catch my interest. It had some changes I felt broke compatibility, so I put it aside.

This was before I knew ACKS and some of the other great focused-design B/X games out there, and my opinion and world did a complete 180. Now, I love these B/X games that are designed to do one thing very well, and the generic ones are my second (but still solid) choices. My tastes are changing towards things that excite my interests, and that is cool.

With the art? The tone and feeling of LotFP changes. This is very much a B/X horror movie game, with a lot of changes made to the game to make the game less safe and a lot more tension filled. Like ACKS, the designers felt free to sacrifice sacred cows of the core B/X design, limit healing, and twist the powers and experience to match the feeling of dark horror. This is like the difference between reading the summary of a horror movie on Wikipedia versus watching it and having the experience yourself.

I feel LotFP does a much better job at horror than games like Warhammer FPRG or Zweihander, which have the grim and gritty rules and art, but don't dive into the darker psychological parts of the game. Many games can be grim and gritty, GURPS and Aftermath come to mind, but they don't communicate that on first look and they can be played in a less-deadly way by omitting a few rules.

LotFP is a unique perspective and look into a dark-horror Renaissance world.

My Interpretations Only

It is worth noting a lot of what I say here are my feelings, and what excites me to play LotFP. You may have a different inspiration, such as Lovecraftian horror or more gonzo strangeness.

For me, the idea of a decadent and self-righteous consumer society with a superiority complex trying to conquer and settle new lands - finding they are but tiny specks of nothing in a horrible universe excites me. It does have some Lovecraftian elements, but there is that Puritanical sense of cosmic retribution and horror present here. The Old World came to loot and subjugate a place they tragically misunderstood and will never, ever be able to survive in.

Yet they keep coming, and they keep trying, to horrible results. The New World is a place no one should have ever step foot upon.

One need only read the story of Roanoke Colony to understand what I am seeing.

The Blood-Spattered Renaissance

You know how in horror movies there is this Puritanical streak running through them, where "those who sin" suffer the most and die in the worst ways possible? Lamentations of the Flame Princess is that type of horror movie but for the colonial powers, their attitudes, their haughty self-important manners,  their self-righteousness, their pious slaughter-the-heathen religions, and their beliefs that they are the masters of a world and the conquerors of the same.

In short, they learn quick that the world is not what they think it is, and it takes this horrid, almost death-metal turn and one by one they fall. And in the end, no one believes they are so superior.

And often, there isn't an answer why everyone just died in the worst ways possible. The "New World" just hates you. Or even the Old World is sick of you and the dead walk again. Who knows?

Judgment is coming.

Too often I see this game played up as a "shock value" game for adults only. When you realize the tone, how they keep the basic characters and rules as close as possible to B/X, but with enough tweaks to take away that comfortable safety net of the traditional D&D style experience, and how the basic rules seem tame and lame - and then you dive into some of the classic adventures for the system and you are absolutely shocked?

Then you know, the basic rules set you up, and the adventures are your blood-curdling fall. Just like in the start of a horror movie, everything seems normal here...

And the John Carpenter's The Thing happens and your world turns into a nightmare.

Mork Borg (another great game) goes for more nihilism, the world ends when this adventure does. LotFP goes for puritanical judgement, and nails it squarely like a spike through the forehead of someone who "just stepped out of the room a moment ago."

I can't think of a game that contrasts the modern faux-corporate pre-colonial sensibilities of the romanticized rose-colored Renaissance any better than this one.

B/X Compatible

The game is B/X compatible, so it works with everything. Like ACKS redesigning the base game for conquering and kingdom management, LotFP redesigns the base game to accomplish a specific design goal, to tweak B/X for supernatural and psychological horror.

Other B/X games are more generic, such as Old School Essentials or Labyrinth Lord, though I could say the latter is more redesigned to present a mixed D&D and AD&D experience than OSE's complete rewrite of B/X as a unified game system. All of them, even some unmentioned, are great choices.

But take your LotFP characters through Barrowmaze or The Keep on the Borderlands? Perfectly doable. AC is Basic Fantasy style "roll higher" and pretty easy to convert from descending. Though here Base AC starts at 12 and goes to 18 (plate), instead of OSE base AC being 10 and going to 16 (plate). Fighters at level 1 start with a +2 attack bonus in LotFP, so it evens out for that class (and gives them a considerable buff to start). Other classes get an attack bonus of +1, and that does NOT go up.

Fighting is for fighters.

They probably made the AC changes to make fighters more attractive to play if you fight, and give the other classes another reason to avoid combat unless it is really necessary. Again, the design changes made to the game help reinforce the horror theme. Like a horror movie, there is a certain clarity to the character roles and they are the best at what they do. The doctor is a doctor. The police officer is the police officer. The science teacher is the science teacher. The classes that should not get better at combat as they level don't, but they do improve in other asymmetric ways.

This will throw balance issues into traditional B/X adventures, so hire retainers or take lots of fighters.

The Referee Book

If you are running the game, the older-version currently free referee book is worth reading for LotFP:

There are some design notes in here worth keeping in mind, like avoiding the use of standardized monsters or magic items. There are notes on how to create worlds and how to maintain the suspense and horror. There are also suggestions on how to play horror, dealing with player preferences, and how to create mysteries and suspense.

There are also B/X conversion notes in here, and those help a great deal.

After I read this I felt the game seemed more like a generic horror game, like a Call of Cthulhu. I would really like the tone of this book to match the newer material in feeling and design, but that does not take away from the already great advice presented here.

If you have a strong feeling of how the game should be, and that inspires you, don't lose that if a module or the referee's book says otherwise. Or if this article says otherwise, for that matter. It is so easy to read supplemental material and lose that spark of inspiration that honestly makes the game yours and excites you to play and explore.

Also, the base no-art version of the game is free as well, so you can pick them both up and play for zero cost:

B/X with a Design Goal

This game is a lot like ACKS, in that is it less a general-purpose B/X clone, but it can be used as one. Where the game really shines is in the design tweaks made to enhance the horror genre. Healing is limited. The roles are clarified. The base game is simple and B/X compatible.

Not all B/X games are made the same. Some are more generic systems (OSE). Others specialize in certain areas they want to focus more on (ACKS and LotFP). Some are built to emulate a feeling of a certain point in the hobby (Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry). Some start with B/X and build a new experience (Dungeon Crawl Classics and Castles & Crusades).

All of them are B/X-like systems. You may prefer one to the other, but all of them are cool.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Our Car Wars RPG

Back when we played Car Wars - and this was pre-GURPS, we wanted to play this as a role playing game. We wanted to keep the original Car Wars combat system intact, the damage scale, the 3 DP people, the 2d6 to-hits based on weapon type, the phased turns, and the +0 to +6 skill system.

There was no better fit than the original Traveller.

This worked incredibly well, and we did the UDPs for our characters, kept the DRM and applied those as modifiers to rolls to the Car Wars to-hits, and even used the Traveller skill system (modified using the Car Wars skills). If you had a high END DRM, that added to your character's DP. STR DRM added to personal melee damage. Handgunner skill plus DEX DRM was your to-hit modifier. Ability scores were straight 2d6, place in the attribute of your choosing. Social Standing got converted to Charisma.

It was simple, easy, converted right over to the original rules, and it worked incredibly well. Characters translated perfectly over to tabletop play using the phased turn system and counters. You could play verbally without a map. We added in some of the cool Traveller skills like Communications, Computer, and others.

We used an XP system taken from Autoduel Champions where you got 1-3xp per adventure, it cost 10 xp times the new skill level to raise a skill (10 for level 0), and 10 x the new ability score to raise an ability. This worked perfectly and gave us character advancement.

We used a universal DRM table of:

  • 1 = -3
  • 2-3 = -2
  • 4-5 = -1
  • 6-8 = +0
  • 9-10 = +1
  • 11-12 = +2
  • +1 per 2 every points higher

And those were all our changes.

How Did it Work?

This was our first non D&D RPG. Our very first session was my brother's character sitting in a bar (the Mondo Bar in Midville), and our first "encounter" was the sounds of a car combat driving by outside. I was the referee.

He heard that, he didn't know what to do, I didn't know what to do, and the cars drove by blazing away and barreled around the corner in a screech of tires and hail of gunfire. His character wasn't even involved, wasn't targeted, and didn't get shot at or hurt. His character stood on the sidewalk as the sounds of battle echoed off in the distance.

My brother looked at me and blinked. "Wow. What do you do when that happens?"

I shrugged. "I guess that happens in Car Wars all the time. Do whatever you want."

Coming from pre-scripted D&D modules, this was our first "sandbox" moment, and our eyes were opened. We never knew who those two cars were or why they were fighting, nor did he seek to find out. He got busy earning money and taking transportation missions on his armored bus, and the world was this cool, dynamic, interesting, sometimes random, and crazy place where real people tried to make a living and find their way through a hellish, post apocalyptic landscape of the Rust Belt in 2050.

No other RPG came close to this experience, even GURPS Autoduel. Having a system that worked with the game's original tabletop wargame rules was a perfect fit, and this campaign lasted for many, many years with those rules.

That basic Traveller book was the key, and I can't think of two better games that worked so well together - yet were so different. And that original Traveller set of rules is so flexible and fun it can practically do any genre.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Index Card RPG: Equipment Tags

One of the things removed from the Master Edition of Index Card RPG from the 2nd Edition are the equipment tags. Part of me thought they were cool, and another part of me thought they were a lot of record keeping for little benefit. You get a piece of gear and all of a sudden you are responsible for writing down 3-4 tags along with it?

In a way it added a lot of tracking and tedium.

I mean, I could see this is all your gear was printed on cards, then that extra detail and information had a home and it was easily used and referenced. As a game played off of character sheets? I am feeling it got to be a chore so the system was scrapped. The judgment of the referee is a better tool. Want to fire a rifle in a confined space? That is a simple ruling, make it a hard roll. Does a piece of equipment make a task easier?

Just like in the OSR, leave it up to the referee to grant that and the player to possibly suggest.

If a player felt strongly about his dagger being an ideal tool to cut himself free from a mess of sticky webs and something that would make the job easier, the player could suggest that this tool is ideal, and the task should be easy. There is no rule for this. It is common sense and the referee listening, understanding the player's point of view, considering the situation, and saying yes or no. The task may be a step more difficult due to being caught in a stick mass of webs, but that dagger may lower the difficulty from hard (using a sword) to normal.

The OSR = How Life Works

The OSR is how real life works. You have strong feelings and argue a case. Someone else listens and says yes, no, or maybe. They make their case. You make yours. You come to an agreement that makes sense.

And you keep arguments out of the game because it hurts everyone else. Both sides may have strong feelings, but in the end it is a game and one bad ruling in one place doesn't ruin the game because we love the game more than we love a single ruling on a situation. It all works out because I bet there are many more decisions in the game that give the players the benefit of the doubt due to their heroism and epic coolness.

In comparison, games with more rules feel like they force the players and referee apart on the issues they should be discussing and coming up with common sense rulings on. I feel you risk losing touch with reality with these heavily-ruled games because the internal physics of the game become more important than just talking it out and coming up with a decision that works for the story and situation.

Equipment Tags in B/X?

I had an example recently about a character breaking down a door in a White Box B/X game (where weapons all do a d6 damage), and then ruling a battle axe would be a better tool for the job than a dagger. In the above example, a dagger is a better tool for cutting yourself free from webs than a sword, or even the battle axe.

I am still in a way using the equipment tag system in my head to make these rulings, but I don't need the tags to do it. I have a situation, the player presents a solution using a tool, and I make a ruling on how well that would work given the situation, actions taken, and tools.

Someone in a game with more rules may sit there and argue since the weapons do the same damage and there is no "rule" saying one is better than the other for a given task, then both should have the same chance of breaking down a door. This is where a lot of games start falling apart and becoming more about "the rules as reality" instead of "common sense is reality."

Invisible Tags

B/X weapons and gear do have "equipment tags" built into them, they just are not written down. I would still use this same logic with the Master Edition of Index Card RPG, but one could argue this is just the rule, "Having a tool that makes a task easy gives you the bonus." This also applies in the reverse though with tools unsuited to the job, which I haven't found written down (yet, my book is still MIA in the mail somewhere), but it should be obvious.

Equipment tags in a sense are there for us to use and apply in our rulings. Got a bucket of water? Automatic success at dousing a small fire. I can rule no roll needed and we move on. In a dramatic movie sense it works. Put a roll on there and have it fail three times before the fourth douses the fire and you risk using dice rolls to enforce tedium, needless repetition, and punishing the player. What are you doing? Did a rulebook say you needed to roll for that? Is this even important?

Want to knock a patrolling goblin guard unconscious? A sap or blackjack makes the task easy, a club or staff is normal, and most other things are hard or even impossible (a whip or flail).

So while the written-down concept of an equipment tag may be tedium, the mental concept of applying  these "invisible tags" based on common sense and how the item functions can actually be a useful tool in an OSR referee's toolbox.

The best tool for the job makes it an easier task.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

The OSR: The Freedom Theory

Watching Youtube videos about the OSR last night, a thought came to my head about why the OSR is so wonderful, eye-opening to role players, and allows for the greatest freedom of expression in tabletop gaming. I said out loud:

You don't need complexity, and you never will.

Now, I used the word "it" instead of complexity, and to make it more clear I changed the line for this context to be more clear. This complexity could be the form of actual rules, like the ones that handle combat and actions in the game. This complexity could be in character depth. The complexity could be in narrative rules systems that tell you how you should roll the dice and what happens to the story as a result. The complexity could be in detailed rules for "social combat" or some other artificial system of interaction.

You don't need any of it to have fun.

In fact, adding complexity to these areas takes away choice, freedom of thought, and clarity of action more than it does add anything to any of those areas.

The more rules you add, the more you lose.

The Decision

Let's take a single decision in an OSR game. It starts with the gamemaster. And a question comes up about an action with an uncertain result.

We have a locked door. The character wants to bash the door down.

Most games would stop you before this point and require either a skill or ability roll to determine success.

Stop. A typical OSR set of rules doesn't really require anything. The referee is free to make a ruling that the character bashes the door down, no roll needed. The referee considers the circumstances and makes a ruling. No rules get in the way, are needed, or needed to be looked up and referenced. You can't get this wrong.

Say the character is a dwarf and understands construction. Maybe the character has a 2-handed battle axe and and just bash the door down with ease. Maybe the character is so strange the door just gives. Maybe the character is so encumbered and heavy just running at the door at full speed will allow them to crash right through it at the expense of taking damage like being hit by a club.

Maybe they can't bash the door down with a short sword or a club. Maybe the character's strength is too low. Maybe the door is just too well built for anything to work, or it needs magic to open. In a white box game where all weapons do a d6 damage, and you need to know the difference between a battle axe and a dagger? Here is your chance. That axe will make short work of a door while that dagger will just create wood shavings for a tinderbox.

The Roll

Perhaps the referee may rule the character has a chance, and it needs to be rolled for. This isn't to "be fair" by some rule in the book telling you so, this is just wat it is for this particular door in this moment in this situation. Roll a d20 and roll equal to or under your ability score. You can put a positive or negative modifier on that, if you would like, or just leave it be.

Door Combat?

Maybe the door is treated like a creature and heeds to be "hit" with an AC number and broken down with 20 hit points of damage. Not every door is the same. Not every situation is the same. If the characters are trapped in a room with rising water and they all want to hack at the door, start a small combat and see how far the water rises and if they break through.

The next door they come to will likely be a different story. We don't really need detailed door AC & hp rules, unless that is your thing, and then you can make some or find some and use those.

The Something Else?

Maybe to open to door it requires a saving roll. A random chance on a d6. Pick a card and play higher or lower. A 50-50 chance. Lockpicking. Roll higher than the referee on a die. Special lore knowledge. Problem solving with leverage on a nearby pillar and that sturdy pole you found in the other room. I once have had a party escorting a freed lizard man dig under the door.

Whatever decision the referee makes, if it is no decision at all, or automatic success or failure, is the right one.

The Modern Game

Whenever you run into one of these situations you are always playing the game wrong. You are missing a rule, ignoring an obvious skill check, missing a character ability, ignoring the rules section on doors, denying the players a chance to use a character ability, messing up the ability check system in some way, and to get this one situation right it takes 30 minutes out of the game to stop, open the book, find the rules, and read through them while 5-6 people wait.

Do that enough times and you can finally play the game the "right" way.

And then you are onto the next rule you inevitably get wrong.

This is why a lot of players who only played modern games get into an OSR game, and all of a sudden their minds open up and they often say, "You can do that?" Yes, if you say it, the referee says yes, no, or do a special something, and you either do it or you don't. You are completely free to try anything.

These players are too used to being told, "No, you can't do that." Or, "Is it an ability on your character sheet?" Or told to look up a rule they have no ideas covers an action and justify what they just tried to do within their character build. The rest of everyone else's fun at the table depends on that player's ability to "play the game right."

Players on the Defensive

Players of more modern games, especially new ones, are often put on the defensive way too much about justifying what their characters can do and the actions they take. Before a player acts, their mind stops them and asks the question, "Is this a legal rules action?"

Because if they get it wrong and their character "cheats" and does something cool without the rules saying they can do that, the character builds and fun of every other player at the table is negatively impacted.

Now granted, many groups are not like this. They can tolerate a new player and the mistakes everyone makes when learning a game. Players of tabletop games are a lot more tolerant than say, your average online competitive 3d shooter.

Sidestep the Complexity

But with the OSR everything is sidestepped. For the most part, you don't need to justify an action with the rules. If an ability falls within your class, say thieves and lockpicking, that percentage roll on that table is just a suggestion, and can be modified up or down depending on the circumstances. Want to lockpick as a fighter? Well, does it make sense? If not, no. If it does, like a thief who is tied up trying to explain how to pick the lock to a fighter on the other side of the door, let them roleplay it, put huge penalties on the rolls, and have a hilarious time with the entire situation.

Or handle it another way, this is the OSR.

Some actions will fall within your class, and some won't. You may have automatic success with them (I have ruled automatic success/failure at lockpicking many times for thieves when the chart says to roll, just because of the lock and situation), or you may not. Some may need a roll. Some may require logic and puzzle solving. Some may require random luck, or a game of chance.

Whatever the referee rules is fine.

D&D 3.0: The Gathering

The huge blow to referee and player freedom came when D&D 3.0 arrived, and this game intended to take power out of the referee's hands and put it into the rules. The game player like a game of Magic the Gathering, with class builds, optimal build strategies, and a loss of freedom and an exponential increase in rules complexity.

The freedom to say a character did or didn't do something was lost in volumes of rules that really did not add to much, and added a layer of "no, you can't because" upon every action and interaction between players and the referee.

Where is the fun in the referee being the one who tells the players, "No, you can't because of this rule," to every action? D&D 3.0 was the moment game and dungeon masters became sports referees. The more rules the game has, the less fun it is to referee, and the less freedom and improvisation the players have at the table.

Though I feel the ultimate goal of modern D&D is to remove the need for referees, since the game's growth is limited by the number of trained and experienced gamemasters. Magic the Gathering's exponential growth came from the fact for a lot of players could play this game without a referee.

You see a clear step back from this goal with D&D 5, and the game is more popular and feels like it is getting back to the basics. With D&D 3.5 and 4, the game played like a tactical wargame with powers, power cards, special combat and positioning rules, and you could play this without a referee as just a one-on-one wargame or battle simulator.

Still, I feel the modern rules sit in this confused state where players expect complicated rules, class builds, and cool powers like a Magic the Gathering deck build, but the game's success and appeal lies in the power of what great referees bring to the table. The success of Youtube role playing shows these days lies in the shared storytelling elements, players, and the referee - and the rules could change and the show would still be as fun to watch.

You Don't Need It...

...and you never will.

Modern games try to trick you with the theory, "The more rules, the better the game." I have four shelves full of Pathfinder 1e books that give me rules for everything, but do nothing. One OSR book and I have everything I need, forever.

If I get another OSR book?

If I want, I can make that book work with my first one and have a Frankenstein game. It's cool. It is all OSR. No two monsters should ever be the same. It all works.

I find the investments I make in OSR games, even if they are completely different rules sets, like Old School Essentials and Labyrinth Lord - those books can be used with each other. I haven't wasted my money. If I want a Labyrinth Lord demon in my OSE game, I just adjust a few numbers and make it fit. Want that demon in Stars Without Number to terrorize a space station crew?

You got it.

I can't do this easily with Pathfinder 1 or 2, Starfinder, and D&D 5.

So all my OSR games sit on a shelf and are ready to use, and all my modern games are boxed up, and I feel like a happier person. Every choice on that shelf is the right one. Any choice I make in the future with an OSR game will also be correct. No purchase I make will ever go to waste or be unusable. I can pick any game on that shelf and it will work with the others.

Most importantly, the referee just rules what happens when any action is taken. The story keeps moving. Only the most dangerous and dramatic events matter. The game isn't preoccupied with the mundane. Player choice matters, and encompasses a majority of the power at the table. The referee has less power than the players in the OSR, when you look at it logically, because the players are the ones with agency and creativity.

Social combat, roleplaying rules, and narrative systems? They take power from the players and referee, and put that in the book. Complicated combat and feat systems? They take away from exciting, dynamic, creative combat and put the power in the book. The book ends up having more power at the table over the game's fun than does the story, referee, or players.

All power should all begin with the players. This is the OSR.

The referee is just there to present the setting and make fair rulings as a neutral party.

The rules should stay out of the way as much as possible for both sides. They are just there to provide a little structure.

The thing that frees my mind in regards to games that try to "rule" their way into fun is the statement that, I don't need all that complexity, and I never will.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Traveller: Jump, Acceleration, and Sizes


Through the years the sizes and jump capabilities of Traveller ships have changed, and I feel a lot was lost or just ignored along the way in pursuit of universal design systems that were more percentage and math based than design based.

Classic Traveller

With just Book 2 Starships , the largest jump-6 and 6G ship was 2,000 tons. At 3,000 tons the best you could do is jump-4 and 4G. At 4,000 tons, jump-3 and 3G. At 5,000 tons we can only manage jump-2 and 2G. And this is putting the largest engine possible in the ship. And there were no ships above 5,000 tons.

That is how we started playing the game, and that is all we thought existed in the universe. No ships were larger than 5,000 tons. If a planet went to war, it had to be close to send in larger 5,000 ton battleships, or they made due with a number of lighter ships in a task force.

This was different than Star Wars or Star Trek (it was the early 80's at the time), and frankly, it was cool. We never knew about High Guard, so yeah, we were in for a huge surprise. This was a universe built around the physics that smaller ships mattered, and that was it. It felt sort of like the wooden sailing ships of old, there is a point where they can only get so big before they either get too heavy to sail, or structural issues with wood start appearing and the ship is too heavy to hold itself together. Here, the limits of technology can only do so much and an entire galaxy has to deal with building and exploring with vessels under 5,000 tons.

To go fast, you went small. Large cargo ships were these jump-2 haulers that needed to carry 2,000 tons of fuel and engines and could at best haul about 2,000 tons of cargo for only 2 parsecs. A military ship of that size could only do jump-2 and 2G, so you did not see them everywhere.

Small ships were where it is at. And the players' ship had a chance.

When High Guard came in, 50,000 ton battleships could do jump-6 and 6G acceleration. The formulas were math based, and there were no limits built into the game. We lost interest in the game and went to Star Frontiers, which did have that "larger ships are slower" assumption.

Also, the first edition of the open gaming Cephus Engine has the classic Traveller 5,000 ton jump-2 and 2G limit built in as well.

Mongoose Traveller 1E

The maximum ship size has dropped to 2,000 tons with jump-4 and 4G being the limit of the game's ships. This is actually a bit of a downgrade from classic Traveller in both size and performance. The ships have gotten lighter and a little slower. The engine table still exists, and performance is tied to those standard engines. The M1E version of High Guard goes percentage and allows maximum performance for all ships, so you can have the 50,000 ton 6G jump-6 hotrods (and have little space for other stuff, but it is possible).

Mongoose Traveller 2E

This gets rid of the performance limits based on size and goes to a straight percentage to a limit of 2,000 tons. With High Guard this tonnage limit can go into the hundreds of thousands. All ships can do jump-6 and 6G, provided they pay the tonnage and fuel costs.

The newer Cephus Deluxe also does away with the table of engines and drives, and goes straight percentage for everything as well.

The old size and engine limits are gone, and this was a huge part of the attraction of the original Traveller game for us. Even though High Guard existed it could be ignored, and that base game felt like how we remembered it. With everything so math- and percentage-based, designing ships doesn't feel like working inside tight size and speed limitations anymore, and everything becomes possible. When everything is possible, nothing is interesting.

There Were Physics Here...

The concept of there is some sort of hard-science limit to how heavy a ship could move and jump based on tonnage in the older editions, and without High Guard. There was a sweet spot for ship size and performance based on role in the middle. Not all ships needed jump drives, if a system had a lot of planets you could have a militia with ships without jump drives defending the world and performing space patrol duties in-system only.

But there was a size limit in the original game, basic game only, that sort of continued into later editions before it was dropped. Without High Guard, Traveller was a different game. It was a game we liked better because the ships were not so open-ended. Smaller ships meant something. Often times, they were all a system had to get the job done.

Knight Hawks & Star Frontiers

Only Star Frontiers' Knight Hawks brought this back with G-acceleration of larger ships being slower, and that was fun for us. Small ships meant something again. You could not outrun star fighters in a freighter, they were going to catch you depending on the time, fuel, and distance between the sides. The slow-lumbering capital ships could be out flew and outrun, but they were dangerous up close. Swarms of faster fighters could weaken a larger ship, but it was very dangerous and they had to get close. Assault scouts were the ultimate adventure ships, and could become the subjects of legends. The on-map hex combat game was very fun.

Most importantly, that feeling of space physics was back, not in jumps but at least on the combat map. We would have loved the jump-game to be factored in, but we made up our own rules for that. As a result, we stuck with that game for decades and enjoyed the ride, and Traveller was kind of left in the dust between the stars.