Monday, August 31, 2015

Dragon Age Pen-and-Paper: Playtest Report #1

We played the quick start rules adventure for the Dragon Age RPG, and we noticed a couple things about the game. Well first, we noticed one big thing about the sample adventure included with the quick start rules, it supposedly forces you to make a moral choice in the middle of the adventure which turned out to be an entirely morally reprehensible choice.

It is really a terrible situation to put fresh characters in, even as a supposedly moral choice it is on one hand horrid, and the other a terrible way to start a campaign with the local royal family hunting you down. It’s dark fantasy, I know, but I would never play a situation like the one in the module as lighthearted as the module designer attempted to do (I felt the consequences of 'go dark' were dealt with a bit hand-wavedly and flippant).

Even as “dark fantasy” it is just not what my players expected or liked. To be fair, this isn't the big book (as shown), this is just the older free starter adventure, and it left us a bit wanting.

Our Adventure: Inquisition Prolog

We ended up running through the first scenario of Dragon Age Inquisition as our sample adventure instead of the quick start adventure and found a couple more observations.

DarkgarX plays a ranged rogue in the videogame, and we noticed an immediate lack of damage output with ranged rogues in this game. Compared to the videogame, rogues with bows have it good, and they are a decent damage dealing class. In the pen and paper game ranged damage per second for rogues felt woefully inadequate. They addressed this concern in a forum post where a developer suggested letting rogue ranged attacks use the rogue melee talents, such as backstab and dirty tricks. They further corrected this with an even better solution in the sister game Fantasy Age.

We ran into a situation where our melee character in our playtest, the heroic warrior Cassandra from the videogame, where she out damaged the rogue using the bow with her sword. DarkgarX was playing the rogue, and his arrows struggled to get through the darkspawn’s armor. As if the darkspawn should have any armor, as I was using the sample darkspawn monsters out of the module. That was probably a mistake on my part, but I did not have any monster statistics on hand so I used those.

DarkgarX expected to be able to do decent ranged damage, but his bow only did one die plus five, where Cassandra’s longsword was doing two dice plus three. This was to five points of armor, and Cassandra’s blows were consistently cutting through and the bow was typically rolling 1 to 3 points of damage per hit. He got this feeling of “why bother, grab a sword” and we struggled to replicate the feeling of the videogame. It was a frustrating start, and we found ourselves wondering why a longbow would do a base of 1d6+3 damage to the longsword’s 2d6 base. I could see a shortbow doing 1d6+3 (which does 1d6+1) and the longbow 2d6, or possibly halving armor versus bow damage (and keeping the damagers the same), but as it is the bows feel weak in this game.

Mind you, there is little need for a shortbow at all, and the game doesn’t go into too much detail on why and when each was used. I wanted more detail in this area as well.

Fantasy Age makes a huge improvement with rogue bow DPS, allowing rogues to add 1d6 to one attack per turn if their DEX is greater than their opponent’s with a “pinpoint attack”. This solves a lot of problems, and I am sorely tempted to port in this rule to make rogue bow DPS feel on par with what we experienced in the videogame.

Hell, I am sorely tempted to port in the videogame’s power list and give the characters some cool pyrotechnics. I would love to have the videogame’s ‘explosive shot’ available as a rogue archer spell to charge up an arrow and let fly. The pen-and-paper game is decidedly “down” on powers, so the characters play more like real people than action game shoot-and-blast MMO characters. Still, the videogame powers are fun, and they are what the world is like for us now.

There is something to be said for reflecting the world as most people enjoy it, and I would love to have an Inquisition sourcebook listing all the powers, magic items, and other cool bits for use in the pen-and-paper game. Actually, I would pay good money for that, and I would love for the game's super cool stuff to make it into the pen-and-paper game somehow.

Maybe I will spend some time with the Inquisition hint book and do a full conversion. If my hint book would stop being back ordered and ship, that is....

I am hoping we get another session in, this looks like a fun game and I like how it plays. It’s just how it plays isn’t really matching up with how we expect, and that is our problem. Fantasy Age looks to have better, more cleaned up rules, but I don't want to feel I have to pull in rules from that game to compensate.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Escalating Hit Points and Damage

D&D 5 made an effort to reduce the range of to-hit modifiers in the game, from +20 at maximum level down to a +6. Now, this can be affected by other modifiers such as ability scores and magic items, but the range is down from D&D 3 and Pathfinder era modifiers that are in the +30 range down to a more reasonable and d20 range friendly +10-ish level, or about half-ish.

"Bounded accuracy" is why, the design team wanted to get the modifiers to dice rolls under control and back within a meaningful amount. Some players feel the difference between low and high level characters is too tight and it creates a feeling that to-hit progression has been taken out of the game, with level only really contributing a 4 point difference between level 1 and level 20.

It does eliminate a key difference between low and high-level characters. Players like to feel empowered, and they like the feeling their epic ranger can deal death left and right at will, hitting impossible shots. But, the whiff factor feels pretty static throughout the game. Yes, this does create the 'will I hit?' tension, but some feel that expertise and skill of higher-level characters has been reduced drastically.

This is a math discussion, so I forgive you if your eyes glaze over. But it does setup discussion for today's subject, escalating hit points and damage.

Damage Output at Level X

Now, hit points and damage output? Unchanged in the scheme of things, and D&D remains a game about the high-level haves and the low-level have-nots. Yes, a low-level character can hit and damage a high-level character, but it doesn't matter because of hit-points. The next turn, the high-level character can sneeze and obliterate the low-level character in one blow, so being able to hit matters less. Only in the game-breaking tactic of massed attacks do low-level character have a chance, and this applies to everyone in the game.

While the designers have addressed the die-roll ranges, not much was done about the ever-escalating power curve of hit points and damage output. In a sense, the only difference between high and low level characters is damage output, and that has been the design ever since D&D 3 came out. In AD&D 2nd Edition, higher level characters could do more damage, but not to the videogame-like extent of D&D 3 characters and that design.

In basic D&D, if a level 20 fighter "hit" you with a longsword, it was still one attack at 1d8 damage plus ability score modifiers. He could hit auto-you all day with one attack a turn, but that damage per turn was still on a flat curve. With D&D 3, multi-attacks and a whole host of feat-based damage modifiers were introduced, which slowed up play with fistfuls of d20s being rolled for melee attacks, and damage output soared and continued to rise with almost every edition released.

But still, overall with most all editions of D&D and also Pathfinder, escalating hit points and damage output tends to turn the game into a combat simulator heavily focused on numbers. There may be some winks and nods towards non-combat skills and problem-solving, but the game lives and breaths on its combat system, and most modules focus on 'good fights' and 'balanced encounters' with a combat focus. It feels at times the D&D based games want to be videogames and MMOs with that heavy focus on combat and escalating numbers.

Who cares about problem solving when your character has 200 hit points and that dagger does a d4 damage? Do you know my damage-per-turn rating? It's awesome.

Yes, a great referee can mitigate this with varied challenges, but when we played the D&D games, we always had one player at the table who focused on character builds and combat, and this infected many other players with the optimization bug and focusing on combat rather than roleplaying and problem solving. The game is focused along these lines so it feels like you are unfairly punishing the min-maxers by putting skill and roleplaying challenges in front of them.

The Game Becomes Combat?

If you compare D&D with a flatter power curve system, such as Savage Worlds, Legend, or even GURPS you notice a couple things. Non-combat skills in those games feel equally important as combat skills. D&D has always had this feeling of a Superman syndrome at higher levels, especially the later versions past 2nd Edition AD&D. Who cares about problem solving when you have this much raw combat power?

Yes, you can make players 'lose' a mission and feel bad they didn't rescue the princess, but in a way, it really doesn't affect them.

There is a danger in making every player Superman. The game becomes about bashing bigger and bigger things, and the little things don't matter anymore. You lose a sense of scale. Combat becomes the only important challenge. A good referee can make the game be about other things, but still, the 500 hit die gorilla in the room is still combat. It's so big, the players are so powerful, and the system is tuned around making characters combat gods that the primary way of viewing a class is by its combat potential.

The first version of rogues in Pathfinder were 'skill monkeys' and 'couldn't contribute meaningfully to combat?' We got balanced and high-damage output rogues in Unchained?

Two questions:
  1. Why do non-combat skills suck?
  2. Why are we playing a tabletop MMO?
I have this feeling it is not a problem with the adventures, but the entire endless escalating hit point and damage output system of games like D&D past the basic set, and also Pathfinder.

Basic Fantasy vs. Modern Games

I use Basic Fantasy here because it is the most 3.5-like old-school game we have, and it's free so you can check it out for comparison. In my version of Basic Fantasy, an ancient red dragon with 13 hit dice has about an average of 59 hit points. In Pathfinder, it has 362 hit points. In D&D 5, it has 546 hit points. In D&D 4, it has 1,390 hit points.

What the hell, game designers?

Rolling ten to twenty times the dice for damage isn't fun, it's pointless. In Basic Fantasy, my 1d8+2 successful longsword hit to that 60 hit-point beast means something. In all the other modern fantasy games, it means very little or nothing.

The new games make up for it by putting a videogame-like power curve in place. Multi-attacks. Huge fixed bonuses. Powers that scale with level. D&D 5 tries to keep the to-hit static while scaling damage up. D&D 4 puts a 50% chance in place relative to level and scales damage. Pathfinder goes the multi-attack and fixed bonus route. It all scales with level.

Basic Fantasy is based off the old way of doing things. Your to-hit gets better as you level. You can do your damage easier. Your "damage output" increases because you are hitting more often. That's it.

Modern games put in an artificial power curve that scales both damage outputs and monster hit points based as you level. When you take that out and go back to the simple way of doing things, nothing much changes. That dragon is still dangerous. You are doing less damage, but it is meaningful damage.

It feels like the current design de-jour mantra is to go back to the original rules and make things feel like the older games. Well, there are games out there that are exactly like the way things were, and they are still different. The videogame-inspired power curve is still in place in all the modern designs.

Power Curves vs. Problem Solving

I feel the bigger issue is when the power curve becomes the game. Roleplaying problems, social challenges, and non-combat skill checks typically aren't included on the power curve. When you do put these on the curve, the result become nonsensical, like the DC 50 locked door.

I tried to run Pathfinder this way with DarkgarX. I promised him "non-combat skills will matter in this campaign" but still, he had that feeling that some module or situation was going to screw him over because he didn't make the best choices to satisfy the power curve.

With Basic Fantasy, you level how you level, your to-hit goes up, and you don't have to satisfy the demands of the artificial power curve based on your character design decisions. Your character levels up. You get a new hit die, maybe some spells, and you get a little better. That ancient red dragon still has 59 hit points, so even a 1d6+1 damage magic missile matters. It is closer to a flat system than any of the games which came afterwards.

There is still a power curve in Basic Fantasy, yes, but the original dice, in both the d20 for to-hits and polyhedral dice for damage, still matter. It is funny how a game with such a simple damage and to-hit model maintains the heroic feeling without all those extra added power curve rules. There was a simplicity and genius in the Basic D&D rules that was lost somewhere.

More importantly in Basic Fantasy, the focus is taken off combat and power escalation and put back onto problem solving. Combat still matters, but other things do too. Room descriptions. Puzzles. Figuring out how to take that chest of 500 gold pieces without a fight. Talking your way out of an encounter. Avoiding fights. Disarming traps. Stuff back at town.

Combat is not the best answer in old-school games. It is in many times, a last resort.

Sounds like real life, huh?

Find the Games You Like

It feels like the power curves designed into today's games are taken from videogames and slot machines where constant feedback, player empowerment, and 'combat as the answer' are the design goals.

Sometimes, yes, I want to play a game like that on the tabletop, and that's fine. I would rather play a videogame that does all the work for me though, such as Diablo 3, so there is that too. But if you don't realize the design decisions behind games, you play them because you feel you should, and not because they fit your preferred way of playing. This entire argument is really about education, and becoming more aware of how games are designed, and using that criteria to find games that better fit how you like to play.

If you like the power curve, great, but understanding a game and how its curve works will better let you select one you like. If you don't like the power curve, you need to know how to look for them and judge for yourself how the game works and if that fits your expectations.

If you never knew about the power curve and the design decisions behind games, that is a problem. Game designers aren't perfect, and they make silly mistakes. They also follow trends and design decisions sometimes without questioning them that lead the entire industry down a path it never realized it was following, such as chasing the power curve design model.

Realizing this and understanding game design makes you a better-informed consumer.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Dragon Age Inquisition Playthrough: That Was a Long Intro

Yeah, I bet you know what part of the game we got to. It is shortly after you lose all that stuff when you started, and then the real game begins.

Yeah, wow, that is a long intro part. I am wondering if the story wouldn't have been better served by cutting out a majority of that introduction and getting right to the good part. You know, cutting to the chase, and starting in the middle of the good part?

Yes, there was a reason to set everything up, and to let you get your sea legs under you, but the problem is now it feels like a huge reset button was hit and now the real game begins. Some of the NPCs have new power trees, and our core party feels etched in stone anyways. There are really only three we like taking along, and the rest of the group feels like castle bench warmers.

I miss the Shining Force series again, where everyone meant something. I am also missing the "split the party" moments in Final Fantasy 3/VI where you had to keep every character active and current because you just did not know if they were going to be called on later. Something feels wrong here when the majority of your team is on the benches, either increase the party size or reduce the number of characters, because we can't stand ignoring them.

Yes, it is us ignoring them, but laziness wins here. There doesn't feel like a need to use anybody else but our favorites, and the ones that work best in 90% of the fights. We are going with two tanks, a mage, and an archer. Other parties felt like they had sever problems with survival, and having too many squishies in the party just got too many people knocked out. When in doubt, take big iron. There are no healers in this game, so make those potions count with steel.

We are hoping things pick up, and I am forcing myself to forget that long intro and get around to enjoying the game again. It felt (to me) that things were dragging a bit, and you were being forced down a path where choices did not matter, and the endpoint was the same no matter what you did. I am hoping things break out now and we get some real world-changing stuff.

The game does feel like it is picking up though, more is open, more is happening, and the main map is coming alive. I am hopeful, and hopefully things start to get interesting from this point forward.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Car War Basic: Reissued!

It continues to be an amazing year as Steve Jackson Game re-releases the original Car Wars Classic Board Game game!

This one appears to have die-cut counters instead of the old flimsy "sneeze and die" paper-cut ones. Nice touch. And four dice in the box too, very nice.

This is also the basic version of the game, before Deluxe Car Wars or the Car Wars Compendium added so much the game became unrecognizable. This is just the basic game with a couple cars, a couple weapons, and a lot of tactical fun.

This game is a lot of fun, and by the reviews on Amazon, a new generation is discovering this gem. It may not be the fastest game around, but it is solid and it brings back many Mad Max style memories and good times.

Thank you to a great company for reissuing this classic game, and please check it out for some very cool and fun tactical car combat. This is one of the greats, and it is great to see it back.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Mail Room: Basic Fantasy Collection (and the d4s, for fun)

All these books (minus the d4 sets) for about $30? All of them under five bucks each?

Super sweet deal.

606 pages of adventure that will last us months is an incredible value. Mind you, only about 100 pages of this are character creation material, 154 are monsters, so the remaining 400 or-so pages are mostly all adventures.

Do I care that it is not D&D 5 or Pathfinder?

Not in the least.


Unlike videogames, pen-and-paper roleplaying games never become obsolete. New games do not necessarily mean better. This is a modernized version of a classic game, and it takes a special set of skills to do well and survive in an old-school game. You can't sit back on a comfortable character build that you are used to or copied from a forum post, and you have little rules protection for your character at all. The strict limits are what makes this fun, because you need to rely on your wits rather than a bonus the rules gives you for a build.

This is old-school. You need to listen, be clever, think, and manage your resources carefully. You need to know your limits. You need to constantly struggle against bad luck. You need to pay attention to room descriptions. You need to use your imagination. You need that diabolical streak in you of how you are going to separate monster from treasure in the easiest way possible.

There are no 'search skills' or 'passive search rolls.' You need to say where your character looks, be specific, and just like that, the referee lets you know what you find - no roll needed. Of course, if you neglect to say 'I look under the drawer for anything stuck to the bottom' you may miss something important, but that is up to your cleverness to say and not your dice to decide.

There are no 'healing surges' and the to-hit modifiers are simple. +2 if attacking from behind (does not combine with thief sneak attack). Two range modifiers, +1 for short range and -2 for long. A -1 to -4 if the target has cover. A +2 to-hit and a -2 AC for a charge. A parting-shot (attack of opportunity like strike) for fleeing enemies at a +2 to-hit. And that's about it for how combat works.

Since this is Basic Fantasy, XP are given for story awards and monsters, so the reward system modern players are used to is in place. There is also an option for XP for GP as an optional rule so you can quicken advancement and get some of the old-school feeling back. That 500 GP ruby surrounded by lizard men? Yeah, that's my next level sitting there. Let's go for it.

I love the old school games. I don't need expensive books (nor do my players), nor do I need computer programs to create characters.

I am probably going to stitch all these together in a large shared world somehow and just play them all together like some huge old-school fantasy sandbox RPG. Morgansfort has a very nice overview map of a north fjords type area, and the rest can fit in wherever I want it to.

Overall, a great box full of fun today, and games we cannot wait to dive into.

Savage Worlds: Playtest Report #1

We sat down and played Savage Worlds Deluxe: Explorer's Edition last weekend. This was an interesting game for several reasons, and we wanted to give some first impressions of how things went.

First off, get the PDF copy should you order this. I spent some time with my duplex printer and heavy-duty stapler, and made booklets out of the chapters, and man did play go a lot smoother. Call me strange, but I do not like physical books during play, and I only found myself picking up the book when I needed to reference something in the index. Otherwise, I had a printed booklet for the game rules, character creation, gear, and other chapters that I could reference, toss to a player, and keep open to important pages during play.

Unlike a book, I could have multiple booklets open to different pages at the same time. I could take notes on my printed copies and not care. If they get damaged or torn I don't care, as I can always print another for cheap.

If you play the games and not collect them, go for PDF and print copies. Actually, if you collect them, use PDFs to play and store your book in a plastic bag somewhere. There are some games (Pathfinder, D&D 5) where it is hard to use PDF print copies, due to the lack of availability or the length of what you would have to print, so your mileage may vary. But games I play with people? I am finding my use of D&D/Pathfinder type "library-style" games fading, and my appreciation for compact, PDF style rules makes my life easy and my player's enjoyment of the game much greater.

Polyhedral Dice Lovers' Dream

If you love playing with polyhedral dice, play Savage Worlds instead of D&D style games, where polyhedral dice are really only used for damage. Savage Worlds makes full use of the dice range, and you will be rolling every shape during play. I enjoyed this part of the game's design, and different shapes were flying and being used throughout the session.

D&D games in recent years have been upping the damages, and really making the base set of polyhedral dice irrelevant. D&D 4 was a high water mark with huge damage rolls, but even Pathfinder and D&D 5 are on the higher side of damages and hit points when compared to something like Labyrinth Lord or Basic Fantasy. When your character or the monster you fight only has 6 hp, a d4 to d8 difference in weapon damage matters a lot. When a fighter has 20-30 hp to start (D&D 4) or even 10-20 hp (D&D 5), die choice matters less than fixed attribute modifiers do.

But yes, this game makes good use of all the shapes, and it is nice to see that for a change. The d20 is used for charts as a randomizer, and d100 isn't really used much at all (so you can do without the 00-90 "tens" die).

One possible issue is that high ability scores are still a bit random. Even with a d12 in an ability or skill, you can still quite often roll below a 4 with consistent regularity. The game does feel a bit slippery on rolls at times, at least in our experience. Since a d12 is the highest die in the game, there is a cap on how powerful characters and monsters can become. It is very much a human-centered game in terms of power and ability, but given its focus, that doesn't seem to be a problem.


The basic game of Savage Worlds is poorly organized. It took us a while to get proficient with the system, and we were wrestling with basic concepts all the way to the end of our first session. The Index helps in cases like this, but too many rules felt hidden all over the place, especially in skill descriptions. The system feels a little like a game that has been out a while, with all sorts of special cases cleared up and patches in random places to cover special cases.

That said, when we did understand what was going on, the rules system worked fairly well. We were able to make judgments on what roll needed to be made for what action, combat went quickly, and the system worked as we felt it should. It is a great pulp-action system for quick play, one-offs, playing "Pick a Movie or TV Show: The RPG" and groups more interested in playing a fast and fun game. It does what it does very well, and the generic quality to it reminds me of the old d6 System games where you could just pick a setting, roll characters, and play.

Skills and Attributes

The basic attribute die for an attribute NOT being used for an unskilled check threw us. No matter what your agility is, if you are unskilled, your chance of success is only d4-2 (exploding dice and also that wild die applies). You could have a d12 agility and try to throw something, and your chance of success is only d4-2.

This also led to a situation like this when determining if a particular roll was a skill check or an ability check:
  1. FOR (1 to MAX_SKILLS) DO:
    1. IF (skill[x] COVERS action attempted) THEN:
      1. ROLL SKILL CHECK (unskilled or skilled)
      2. RETURN result
  2. //NOTE: no skill applies!
  3. ROLL ATTRIBUTE CHECK (action attempted)
  4. RETURN result
I hope you can read code, but that procedure basically is iterating through the entire skill list in the game each time a test comes up, and determining if a skill would cover the action. If no skill covers it, then the test falls out and is covered by an attribute roll. This throws you a little, especially when it comes to acrobatics (not covered, ability roll), or climbing or swimming (covered, skill roll). Most all social interactions are skill rolls, so base spirit rolls are very rare (except for resisting fear, removing shaken results, or internal willpower tests). Smarts tests are common with common knowledge rolls. Vigor rolls are also semi-common with health and resistance rolls.

This makes skills like Notice, Persuade, Streetwise, and Stealth must-buy skills, since they are very common to see in play. Notice is especially powerful, because this is one of those "gateway" abilities that measures you character's ability to "see " the world. Fighting and Shooting are also other must-buys skills if your group is doing any sort of combat.

The social skills are interesting since Streetwise is used to get information from NPCs, Persuade is used to convince NPCs, Intimidate is used to coerce NPCs, and Taunt is used to get NPCs into disadvantageous situations. Charisma is very powerful, and our 'charmer' PCs greased the skids for any type of social interaction with NPCs. If you referee this game, make sure to apply negative interaction modifiers when NPCs are hostile, and don't be afraid to load these up to make charming your way out of everything a too easy option.

Exploding dice did make the game "critty" for us, as some players have reported. DarkgarX thought the d4 was especially critty, as it had a 1 in 4 chance of being rolled again and again. We did have a couple d4 chain explosions in our game, which raised a couple eyebrows on the 'lowly' d4 die when used for skill rolls. He would love me to write a computer program to explore the exploding d4 die and the effects on statistical probability versus d6/d6, but I told him I have better things to do. I would love to know myself, but it would take a while to test and collect data.

The Wild Die

PCs and important characters throw a d6 "wild die" in addition to their normal skill and attribute dice, and the highest of the two are used. Both are modified and can explode, but the highest of the  two final totals are used. We always used a different color 'pipped' die for the wild die, and normal numeric dice for skills and attributes to keep what die was what clear, because sometimes the rules would tell you a "1" result on the skill die was important for some actions - so we needed to keep things clear.

DarkgarX did not like the wild die mechanic as much as I did, saying he felt it was 'player protection' for lower skill levels, and made the d4 skill level matter less. I felt there is actually a bell curve out here that matters more and there is a difference between a d4/d6 roll versus a d6/d6 roll. I liked the wild die mechanic, and I felt it gave the game a heroic feel instead of a straight one-die system for rolling where a straight 'heroic' +2 to +3 modifier would be applied.

Cards Needed!

One note, you will need a deck of cards for this game for initiative. We felt the game did not go far enough in it integration of cards into the systems of the game, as there are some systems that use the cards well (chases) and others where they could be used more (social interaction and conflict).

The game is also soft on using the optional 'action cards' product for narrative events, as these are mentioned at several parts of the rules, yet are not really strongly supported.

We played the game as-is with the normal initiative cards, but we saw an opportunity to enhance narrative events through their use, so we created a system where these cards could be used during play to control the timing of roleplaying action and also add some fun randomness to story progression and random events. The system worked extremely well, and we would love to publish this for other groups to play with this and other games someday.

Damage and Combat

The damage and wounding system actually worked quite well for us. The game has a 'first hit' shaken result that is like a stun (that turns into wounds if you get stacking shaken results), and this worked well enough to simulate all sorts of battles. I was worried that having that 'first free hit' would be unrealistic, but it turned out to be realistic from a movie and TV-show simulation sort of feeling. It worked well, and combat overall was balanced and enjoyable.

The exploding dice, where you roll the highest number and your roll again and add the total up, no matter how high you go, made combat critty. We had a single stick of TNT vaporize an entire group of enemies with an exploding 27 damage total roll off a 3d6 roll. While yes, this could happen, those players who prefer a more simulation and structured approach to damage and effects may be shocked at some of the roll and damage outputs in this game. To me, it is a crit, and fate and the show's writers hated that group of bad guys and wanted the scene over with, so one stick did them all in with a single fait accompli.

You have to accept the "will of the crazy invisible pulp writer" when dealing with the dice in this game. Sometimes things will go really crazy, but really, pulp writers of the time were known to exaggerate and write in silly and unrealistic results, so let it be and live and let live with the crazy dice results and have fun. That's just me though, and that is just this game - if you want something more simulation-style and realistic, please play another game. It's important to understand what you expect in a game versus what a game delivers when you review and play it. Sometimes a game doesn't deliver what you prefer, but that doesn't make the game any less fun or valid for people that do like that style of play.

How It Plays

The game is a pretty standard 'rules light' system. Compared to Mongoose's Legend, this is a more 'pick up and play' system geared towards pulp and movie style adventures. Legend is a Runequest-y style system more for fans of medieval combat simulators, and not really a generic game. From the book, the game does a good job of providing the framework of a night's fun.

We found the sample adventures a bit on the simple side; at two printed pages, all they could do is lay out a couple combat encounters and background detail, so a lot had to me made up. With our hand-crafted adventure and situation cards, the system played a lot better, and filled in some of the missing details quite nicely.

I can see why people like this, it does a good job at being a simple 'anything' RPG. You could play in a standard D&D game world and reasonably simulate mages, fighters, thieves, and clerics and just hand wave the rest. It makes me think that the D&D tropes are just some part of a big circus tent of 'rules and spells and content you must accept' that you are forced to enjoy a high fantasy game. Here, you don't need any of that, and the Savage Worlds system just keeps happily tossing the polyhedral dice around and having fun like those other games don't exist.

I feel the pulp nature is what does this. Plenty of games try to be pulp adventure, but many just say they are and don't live up to the ideals. You could play a pulp adventure with Pathfinder, and in fact, a lot of the new classes and source material for Pathfinder are pulp-inspired, but it isn't the same thing. It's pulp adventure through the d20 AC/hit points/classes glasses of 3.5 D&D, and it is not rules light, and you are still playing lip service to pulp while worrying about the same-old attack bonus and CR d20 D&D magic and hit dice sort of thing. It is the same feeling of playing Steampunk with D&D. It's still D&D.

With a game system that is more malleable and setting-neutral, you don't have D&D or Pathfinder's character builds, Golarion, Faerun, or anything else hanging over your head. Yes, there is that whole thing "you don't have to learn a new system" thing but there is also that thing "the new system really ain't that hard to learn and it fits the feeling better" thing. In the past, D&D simulated generic high fantasy roleplaying. Today?

I feel D&D more simulates D&D, as Pathfinder is just starting to simulate the world of Pathfinder.

But with Savage Worlds, the game is designed to fit a pulp-action feeling. Now this feeling crosses genres and stories. You can find pulp-action in fantasy settings as well as you can Indiana Jones or Star WarsJurassic Park. The Road Warrior. Movies and television. You can find pulp-action everywhere, and a game devoted to a universal genre is a fascinating concept with a wide appeal. It does such a good job at doing everything (more so than say GURPS) because it is simulating a feeling rather than a specific genre.


Savage Worlds is a widely supported system, with many different worlds to play in, along with a remarkable amount of third-party support at places like RPG Now. It is nice to see a company support third-party development, and the game's publisher, Pinnacle, does a good job at keeping quality high while keeping the doors open for people to add options and worlds to the game. This feels like the D&D of the early 00's in terms of support and the worlds available to play, and that is a good thing.

Our Experience

The game has its quirks, but it is a good system. We played through the first two adventures with our cast of characters pulled from Scooby Doo, and things worked well. The investigations worked nicely, the narrative clicked, and players were able to contribute and take part in different parts of the adventure. Exploding dice rolls took out enemies with surprising regularity in both of these scenarios, and since our group wasn't as combat focused they had trouble with the combat encounters.

DarkgarX hated the constant d4 rolling, as having to pick those things up every turn got to be a pain. I swear the game industry needs to do more to redesign that particular platonic solid for ease of use, as the d4 is the Windows 8 of roleplaying.

The third scenario where the characters had to check out an abandoned spaceship never got off the ground for us, and that one did not click with our group. Yes, this is sort of an Alien and horror inspired design, but in the spirit of blasting space bugs, give me my laser pistols and cool sci-fi weapons and let my players blow off some steam. We did an spooky investigation in the first scenario, a survival game in the second, and my group was ready for a bit more action.

It is also a game good for beginners and new players, as it gets you up and running and it doesn't have a deep system complexity. There is such a thing as good system complexity versus bad, of course. With Mongoose's Legend, the complexity is rewarding to players that dive in, and we found ourselves ranking that game higher than this one in terms of how the game rewards you in terms of special rules and character advancement. This was a great 'pick up and play' system, while Legend was a great system for those who wanted to shine and take it to the bad guys at higher levels of play.

Would we keep playing this after the playtest? For one-off games, I don't see why not. I sense a hesitance from some of my players, as they are a more experienced group and appreciate a deeper system complexity that rewards progression and complexity of combat and tactics. As a universal 'house system?' Probably not for us. This is simple and no-fuss enough to do the job for many, and it works well, so many groups would probably need little else than the starting book.

I enjoyed this game, and I liked its simplicity and unified mechanics. It did everything I threw at it well, despite some bad choices by characters (in character design) for the adventures we had - they were able to contribute and survive. Not every player wants such a simple game, so your experience may vary. To me, I could enjoy playing this on a regular basis with friends, as it gamemasters well and it is expressive enough for worlds of adventure.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Cut-End d4's: Even Better than we Imagined

Guess what came today?

Set of Unique 4-sided Dice in Five Colors

I'm not kidding, these things are great!

They roll.

They roll!

They pick up easy.

They are fast to use.

The dread of using a d4 for anything is gone.

Yes, they are even better than we have ever imagined. Now I want to build polyhedral sets around these colors and permanently replace the d4s with the ones from this set.

If you are listening Chessex and Koplow, please, please offer these as options, single-buys in colors, whatever. Just get me some speckled or gemini swirls in those colors and I am a happy gamer.

They are so good I am giving them a permanent home on the sidebar there.

Life is good.

Dragon Age: Inquisition Playthrough - Tough Going Early On

The early part of Dragon Age: Inquisition is a tough one. We had one of those throw the controller down moments last night, and it wasn't because of a high difficulty. We got caught searching zones, running around the desert, exploring the coast, and generally wandering around an empty, boring, lifeless world.

The rest of the game can't be like this, can it?

We did the first forest zone, the swamp quest, the entire shoreline zone, the city thing with the Templars, and we are delving into the desert area and...and it feels hard to want to continue on. There is nothing going on, no threat, the quests we send advisers out on feel minor and petty, and there's no threat to anything.

The world, the Inquisition, rifts opening up and consuming the the world, the urgency of anything feels like it is out to lunch here in the beginning of the game.

We have one quest warning us if we support the Templars that's it for the mages, yet no option to do anything with the mages, so we are avoiding that quest in lieu of looking for an option.

And then we started searching the desert zone, and I just felt a strange sense of deja-vu, like I was wandering around this single-player MMO collecting herbs and mining rocks. Event the zone fights, once cleared, never came back, and we were wandering empty canyon after empty canyon doing collection quests. We had this feeling on the coastline, once all the fights were done, it was endless running around on foot doing make work.

Even the normally compelling dark fantasy elements in the game felt strangely removed (from the first two), like a team of politically correct writers redid Game of Thrones for a mass audience.

Where is the threat to my existence? Where is the world in danger? Where is the war between the Templars and the mages? Why do I even need a fort? For all our preparation and posturing, it feels like we are building an army to face nothing. I have not seen one Templar vs. mage fight for hours, and that storyline seems to have vaporized. I would at least be expecting towns and kingdoms at this point to be begging me for help against either side of this what appears to be a quite civil war.

It doesn't feel like a war, or even a rift invasion at this point, it just feels like a slow, sloppy, unfocused start.

I was reminded of the old games like Sega's Shining Force series, where you played a rag-tag group of rebels and warriors on a quest leading you into tactical battle after tactical battle. If you lost a battle, that was it, game over. But the consequences and stakes were huge. You were fighting for your life in every battle, and making allies mattered - you needed them for the next fight. Your backs were to the wall, and there was this sense of drama and urgency.

That is what I want to feel. I want to be gathering allies because we desperately need them. I want to fight battles that matter. I want to have our backs pressed to the wall. I want to be this world's last hope. I want the forces of chaos to be constantly pressing from all sides, destroying good lands, and the clock to be ticking down to doomsday. I want the war between the mages and Templars to matter, with battles happening on the map, and us watching (and possibly intervening) on the side of our choice for the common good.

I want a situation that forces me to be the hero of my choosing, or the best hero I can be at the moment.

We need to take a break for a while from this and play something else. I love the characters, world, and greater story, but the boredom and MMO-quests of this installment just got to be too much to take.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Basic Fantasy Podcast and Game Design

Check this one out:

Save or Die has a great podcast with the creator of Basic Fantasy, Chris Gonnerman. It is fascinating podcast as Chris talks about his design choices, and what makes a 'perfect' game for him. Four races and four classes, with no alignment, a simple spell list, and rules which are surprisingly different than the basic edition of the 'world's most popular' roleplaying game.

He talks a lot about the evolution of the game from first to third edition, and how things were added along the way that people wanted, and also about the things that weren't included. It is a great look into how a designer pares a game down to the essential pieces, and throws out the edge-cases and lone-wolf gotta haves that creep in and add cruft to a game.

I see the game in a different light now, like a search for the truth in 'what's fun' for him as a designer. It is easy to parrot the rules and feeling of a source game and create a retro-clone, but Chris in the podcast says that the Basic Fantasy game today has fallen out of the current definition of retro clone. The game has evolved, streamlined itself, adopted new rules in places where they were needed, and became a different game. It shares the same inspiration and concepts as earlier games, but it is evolving into something different and unique.

It is a cool listen, and also one that fascinates me on a game design and 'product vision' level. His goal is to write 'the perfect roleplaying game' and he uses this 'golden rule' as a yardstick to measure a rule's effectiveness, simplicity, appropriateness, and if it should be included in the game. There is a vision there, and it is more than just 'to make a better retro clone.' Because with retro-clone, you don't typically add rules, and you also mimic imperfections in the original design.

Here, the imperfections are being fixed in unique ways, and rules are being added that fit the vision and not necessarily the original game's feeling and design spirit. The rules are being crafted to fit a unique design goal, and where the retro-clone parts don't fit to that model, they are being changed and improved upon.

This is fascinating stuff, and a worthy podcast to listen to. Excellent job to the guys and gals over at Save or Die, and please go check this out.

Basic Fantasy: Seriously Impressive Value

Did you see these? Amazon has the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game 3rd Edition for $5.

Five dollars.

This is a complete game book for five bucks. Yes, it isn't 1980 anymore, this is 2015, and this is a seriously great value for such a great retro-clone old-school game.

Did you see the monster expansion for Basic Fantasy?

Oh yes, and this one is 180 monsters in the The Basic Fantasy Field Guide for under four dollars.

Seriously, what in the roleplaying world is going on? Four dollars?


For those of you in the know, Basic Fantasy is a retro-clone that keeps the best parts of D&D 3.5 and throws the rest of the complicated parts away. It uses a D&D 3.5 style rising AC and target number where the monster's AC is the to-hit target number, yet clones most of the original D&D spells, feeling, and flavor. It is a seriously cool game that gets back to the hobby's roots, is simple, and most importantly...

Look at those prices.

You can download the PDF of the main rules for free, so this game is great for groups that want to play something yet not invest a lot of money in expensive books. Does it bother me that this isn't D&D 5? Not in the least, and in fact, I welcome a return to the old days in spirit and feeling, where dungeoning was deadly, your ability to pry room descriptions out of the referee in real life gave you a better chance of survival, and you didn't need rules longer than an IRS tax form. I love the old-school rules and feeling of freedom in both refereeing and playing.

Your real-life wits mattered, not your character build.

Best of all, the old-school rules this was inspired by came before the influence of videogames and MMOs which tainted our hobby. It is purist, it is old-school cool, and it is cleaned up slightly with some sane compromises that old-school D&D should have had.

Think of it as a sort of classic-retro Monopoly sort of game where you are playing the game as it was meant to be and you'll get it, and can sell it better to players.

You know what's better?

I picked up six modules for under four bucks each in my order. Take a look at these:

Morgansfort, a starting base adventure module for under four bucks. This reminds me of the old "Keep on the Somewhere" style modules that gives a party of adventurers a home base with some intrigue, inns, shops, NPCs, and other necessities that allow the party to have a home when they aren't out dungeoning. Seventy pages too, which puts it just a little under the size of a Pathfinder adventure path installment.

The Chaotic Caves, a sandbox style starter module that mimics some of the old 'pack in' starter modules of the old D&D game. For under four bucks you get a starter module that gives you that 'just starting out' experience.

How about Adventure Anthology 1? Four dollars for fourteen short adventures? Or Fortress, Tomb, and Tower: The Glain Campaign a three-adventure campaign for under four dollars? Or Tales from the Laughing Dragon: A Dragonclaw Adventure, another three adventure complimation for under four dollars? Or even Monkey Isle, a savage-island style wilderness exploration adventure for under four dollars?

Eight books for about thirty dollars? Mind you, most of this is content for the game master in 352 pages of adventures and campaign locations, and there is a 170 page rulebook (with free PDFs) for the players. About 70 pages of the basic book are monsters (with the rules being about 100 pages long), plus an additional 84 in the monster expansion for about 154 pages of monsters. All this for a grand total of 606 pages of fun for the price of one D&D 5 or Pathfinder rulebook is a great deal.

Considering all the play time you will get out of these, it is like picking up a classic retro game collection on Steam and having months worth of material to play with. Yes, you need players that are interested, but sometimes a deluge of releases like this at these prices can attract an interest all their own.

This is what I like to see, the old-school community seriously stepping up and putting great stuff in stores like Amazon at prices that shock the customer. This is how old-school competes with the thirty-dollar (fifty retail) art-book games that continually try to redefine what the original editions got right in numbers, simplicity, and feeling the first time.

Who would have know that 2015 was going to give us some very cool old-school gaming surprises such as this? This is very cool stuff, and worth supporting and playing.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Somebody Finally made a Better d4

Did you see these?

Set of Unique 4-sided Dice in Five Colors

They look like...they look like...

You can actually pick them up!

Two sets ordered, because I know DarkgarX is going to try to steal my set.

These would actually make Savage Worlds playable again at low levels. I know part of that game is leveling past a d4 in the skills you actually need, but this actually makes a d4 skill...bearable.

It's taken 40 years, but someone has finally made something to improve the lives of roleplayers everywhere.

We live in remarkable times, my friends.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Dragon Age: Inquisition Playthrough

We hadn't got around to playing through the latest Dragon Age game, so DarkgarX and I decided to play through Inquisition to get us up to speed on the latest lore, and more importantly, the feel of the game.

I can feel this was worth it, because one comment DarkgarX had about the pen-and-paper game was that, "I want a game I can care about, that feels real to me and is serious."

Bioware does great work, and we have been playing their games a while and can spot some of the campy and somewhat 'Bioware' things they do in the games, such as the multi-cultural approach, some of the twisted fiction plot-lines, and they have their own unique 'take' on fantasy in general that is say different than, Game of Thrones. If you can imagine a Bioware-made Game of Thrones game you know what we mean, things wouldn't be 'Martin' they would take on a distinctively Bioware feeling and approach. It's not a bad thing, it is just different and sometime a mix of campy and serious.

Tyrion Lannister may be talking about his chest hair in the Bioware version, if you know what I mean. I love the tounge-in-cheek aspects of the Bioware games, and I also feel they have a more balanced approach when it comes to presenting a more-inclusive variety of fantasy that doesn't focus as much on angry white men as history and pop-culture has the past 2,000 years. Don't take that the wrong way, but you know what I mean, and I like things a little different in my entertainment and gaming.

I thought it would be fun to highlight the more campy, Bioware-y, and multi-cultural aspects of the videogame, but he felt otherwise, like he wanted a more serious and dramatic approach. Watch the video and you'll get what I mean. This was an interesting shift in what he wants from a game, and as a good game master, I picked up on that and will be running the game a little differently than I had planned.

We will get back to that later, but there is another facet to this discussion I wanted to bring in. Dungeons and Dragons is a lot like comic books and what I would like to call "tribute fiction." Tribute fiction works like this, if Hollywood comes out with a new Alien movie and it does a blockbuster summer, you can bet three months later comic books will have Alien-like creatures rampaging through them, roleplaying games will have xenomorphs in them, and video games that give you the Alien-like experience will start to appear. It isn't bad, it is just the normal echo of pop-culture through itself over and over again, and it is the reason D&D 4 warlocks were teleporting Nightcrawler-like heroes out of the X-Men. It isn't really original, it is just like a best-of remix of various pieces of pop-culture in fantasy and also cool things people like.

But really, all fiction is a form of tribute fiction, since everything borrows off the consciousness of what came before. Some fiction though, is more tribute than others.

It is like Dragon Age versus D&D. Dragon Age does borrow from pop-culture, and so does D&D, as they are both part of the fantasy pop-culture continuum. Dragon Age is a specific implementation of a fantasy idea, where D&D is more generic. Watch the trailer again, but this time think of it two ways:

  1. This is something that makes me want to play Dragon Age.
  2. This is something that makes me want to play D&D.

It works as a generic D&D trailer as well, in that you have medieval trappings, magic, dragons, castles, and "things you see in fantasy gaming." It works better as a Dragon Age trailer, because the trailer is tightly tied into the specific implementation of the Dragon Age idea. If Dragon Age is the Southwestern restaurant, D&D is the generic buffet where you can also get Mexican food. It is the reason why D&D pulls in a huge list of inspirations in the 5th Edition DMG, such as Game of Thrones and Middle Earth, and really any other fantasy source material. It is by its nature, more tribute fiction than is either of those specific implementations of the fantasy idea.

If I want to play Dragon Age or have a group of people who love Dragon Age, I will either play the pen-and-paper game or the videogames, because I will get the full experience.

If I have a group of people that want a more generic experience, I will play Pathfinder or D&D, because they do a lot more different and varied things. They are not the best at doing a specific thing, they just do a lot of things well enough that people can hook their idea of 'fantasy gaming' on the D&D train and ride along.

Now, D&D has specific settings in the form of Grayhawk, Faerun, Dark Sun, and other places. To those who read the Faerun novels in the 90's, that place is as much of a Dragon Age as Dragon Age is to people that are fans of that setting. It is unfortunate that D&D has gone under such seismic shifts in rules and setting lore, because there was a real feeling that Faerun and other settings could have broken out from D&D's shadow and 3rd through 5th Edition rules-turmoil and been stronger worlds with a more Middle Earth feeling to the lore than just as 'settings to play D&D in.'

Again, it is an interesting comparison with Dragon Age in focus, presentation, and feeling. With Dragon Age, it feels like the world comes first, and the rules are a secondary concern. With D&D, it feels like the rules come first, and the settings are secondary concerns.

It is a good thing to know as a game master, does my group like the lore of a specific world better, or are they fans of a specific set of rules? This is part of the appeal of Pathfinder admittedly as well. In any case, finding out what players want and focusing on that will get you a better sense of enjoyment and fun, and success for your gaming time.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

First Impressions: Dragon Age Rulebook

My Dragon Age Rulebook came in the mail yesterday, and wow, I am floored by this one. Full-color throughout, stunning drop dead gorgeous art, and over 400 thick paper stock pages make this one a true gem on my shelf. Green Ronin took out all the stops when putting this together, and I am seriously impressed and happy with the book.

The art deserves special mention, I feel it is on par with D&D 5's art clearly, and it keeps going on an on page after page. It truly is an amazing piece of work.

I feel I just stepped into a truly vast and amazing world. Yes, this is based on a videogame, but it is every bit as detailed and full of lore and history as any book I have seen. I feel this one does a much better job at setting a sense of place than Paizo's Golarion guide books just in the layers of background and history. It does not have as many pictures of cities and lands as that product, but it does a much better job at creating a nified world that works and feels like it belongs together than your typical theme park setting.

If only Wizards could present Faerun this way, and I don't mean a stand-alone worldbook. This is rules plus worldbook, and surprisingly, the rules only take up the first 150 pages of the game. Following that is 50 pages of world information, 150 pages of GM information, and about 100 pages of adventures in the back of the book. But throughout the book, the rules are mixed in with world information nicely, and you get a feeling for being in the world with every page. The core rules and mechanics of the game are really simple, taking only 12 pages of understanding to grasp.

But yes, I wish D&D could be presented like this, with a focused setting-specific worldbook and a complete game in one volume.  The world information is just gravy here, a treat to those who played the computer games, and it does a great job at setting that sense of place and tone. It is a different presentation than D&D to be honest, and it focuses on the world first and the rules as direct support for the world. I like this style for a 'world first' game.

That said, I wish other "world plus game" RPGs could be done like this, such as World of Warcraft, Everquest, Final Fantasy (pick your favorite), or others.

This game does have the potential to be every bit as 'player nuh-uh' problematic about lore as traditional settings, such as the fiction heavy Faerun, which may be a minus for some. The game does a great job walking that tightrope though, presenting a game-neutral setting that you could pull in lore from any of the three Dragon Age games, the books, or none of it at all and get playing. The rules do say 'it is your game and world' once you get the ball rolling, and they also say 'as much of the lore from what you want to pull in' is okay' so there is cover for having played little or none of the games and still have a game that is useful with a colorful setting.

I like that concept though, "use as little or as much as you like." They don't lay out the events of the computer games blow by blow, yet they still support that lore should you want to do that. It feels like a skillful way of handling lore and referees and players with differing experience levels in the game's huge volume of lore.

I could see playing this as a straight D&D replacement where you are adventuring and not paraphrasing the games with your every step. The game is strong enough and has plenty of non-game support that you could make this your own world without too much trouble or player complaints. I would just call it My Dragon Age: The RPG and begin some epic tale using all the Lego-like pieces in this box

You could play this by picking up your favorite hint book for your most-favorite entry to the series and play along with that for guidance, and I am sure this would please fans of the computer games. It is an odd feeling, but if you want to pull in places and characters from the game, you could use the computer game book as your guide and run from there, and I am sure you would please fans that love these elements quite easily, such as replaying Dragon Age: Inquisition as a pen-and-paper game with more freedom and options.

This actually feels very compelling for me and it would be something I would love to try GM-ing.

I am impressed, and it is going to take me a while to read through this massive tome, but I am looking forward to getting lost in this world. Does it bug me this is based off a videogame first? Not at all, really, Bioware built a real and compelling world first, and this is just as much of a fascinating place to explore as any of the old-standards we have in Pathfinder or D&D. Oh, and they do have a PDF available, bonus points for that inclusion.

First impressions? Mightily impressed, happy I purchased, and this one is going to steal some play time from our normal games. The world of pen-and-paper fantasy gaming is getting a little broader this summer, and rules-light but setting-heavy games are setting up their castles in the landscape of roleplaying. This is a good thing, and I welcome the options and excitement this game brings to the table for our little hobby.

Well done, and a full report very soon on this impressive game.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Design Room: GangBusters

Get ready for a true classic, and one of my absolute favorites of the TSR box game era, and yes, this includes Star Frontiers.


Where else can you play characters like Sam Spade, Al Capone, Little Caesar (aka Edward G Robinson), Dick Tracy, Elliot Ness, Nucky Thompson (Boardwalk Empire), James Cagney (aka White Heat), the Shadow, Phillip Marlowe, Nero Wolfe, Charles Foster Kane, Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and the classy dames and gents of the era?

What other pen-and-paper RPG lets you live the life of an Untouchable, or better yet, a gangster fighting his way to the top? Or a reporter uncovering corruption, or a private eye solving mysteries?

This game let you do it all, from two-fisted matinee crime busting to big name gangsters to the entirety of Noir to private eyes, and more like radio shows such as The Shadow or Rocky Jordan. This system was perfectly at home handling Indiana Jones if you were so inclined. This was one of the greats of the time, released as a TSR d00 game with much of the same rules as the other games of the time, such as Top Secret and Star Frontiers.

And this was published in 1982.

It was ahead of its time then, and it was never matched since in the 33 years since.


One of the great things about this game is it incentivized experience points. If you were a criminal, you got XP for earning illegal dough. Private eyes got XP solving cases. Cops got XP busting crooks. Reporters got XP breaking stories. This was actually the next evolution of D&D and AD&D's "XP for GP" mechanic, and it gave your character a clear day-zero motivation. You knew what you needed to do. The experience system motivated you to get out there in the world and make your own story, instead of waiting for the referee to run one for you.

You can imagine a D&D style game with this experience point system. Thieves get XP for stealing wealth. Paladins get XP for destroying evil. Clerics get XP for supporting and spreading their faith. Fighters get XP for killing things. Mages get XP for collecting magical knowledge and using magic. All of a sudden, your character motivations become crystal clear, and players are chomping at the bit to get out there and do what they were born to do.

Spiritually, the game was closer to Top Secret than Star Frontiers, but it was a lot simpler than the former. There were some derived stats, some stats on different number ranges, and also luck and presence scores. A dedicated driving ability score was used instead of a driving skill, which let everyone get in on the fun of car chases. Also, the ability scores were very well described, it was clear what each one was for, when you should make checks, how you make the checks, and when to make rolls. I don't think another game of the time had such a tight set of ability scores that were so useful (with no fluff), and also, these scores begged to be used.

Presence was a charisma-like stat based on a 1-10 score. It was off the 1-100 range because it was integral to the 2d10 NPC reaction chart, which saw a lot of use when interrogating suspects, asking questions to NPCs, roughing up someone for information, charming a pretty lady, threatening a ne'er-do-well, interviewing a witness, seeing if your boss was mad at you, or any other social interaction. If you were a great GangBusters referee, this chart saw a lot of use behind the scenes, and it was a great guide for for how you roleplayed NPCs in response to player actions.

Luck was a percentage statistic based on a 1-50% scale, and you rolled it whenever you wanted to determine if the winds of fortune blew a character's way. It had obvious combat uses like surviving death or seeing if there was a pillow truck down below to break your fall, but it also had great non-combat uses as well. Did the criminal leave a fingerprint? Was there lipstick on the glass? Did your character just miss the gangsters waiting for him at the train station? Was there a taxi nearby? Did your camera capture the killer's face? Did you win at last night's numbers game? If another ability score did not catch it, luck was used to clean up - and you were either lucky, or you weren't.

It didn't really matter if your luck was poor, as you could make jokes about your bad luck at the table. Similarly, you could work with low statistics pretty well, or accept the fact that maybe this mug's career wasn't going to be too bright and go down in a hail of gunfire. The characters were simple, potentially disposable (like original D&D), and you could always come up with a new one pretty quickly.

The skill system was also worth noting, as it let you spend earned XP on a number of specialty skills, such as safecracking, boxing, accounting, or forensics-style skills. You had to spend a lot to get good skills, and you started the game with one skill. A skill's starting level was rolled randomly on the ability score chart, which gave you a lot of variance on how good you were. You could be lousy at what you did, or a genius. Again, you rolled with the punches and played the hand you were dealt, so having a lousy roll didn't hurt you as much as you thought. You could still increase a skill by 5% every level, so it didn't sting too much, and new skills were rolled randomly, so there was always a chance you would find something later your character excelled at.

Like the original D&D, you toughed out low scores, or got your character killed so you could roll up a new one. Bad scores were not an issue, and characters had this disposable quality to them, again like the original D&D. Who cares if your gangster character got plugged on the last bank heist? Cry me a river and harden up, back in the day we didn't have this fancy thing called player entitlement. Grab your dice and roll up a new one, and have someone "know somebody" in the gang and have the new mug walk in the door. Maybe you'll get a great guy next time, who knows?


What other game within 32 pages of the table of contents tells your character how to setup a moonshine still and start brewing hooch, crack a safe, or run a racket?

The careers in this game had great sections describing requirements, what you did, and how you earned XP. You could play three types of law enforcer (fed, prohibition agent, and beat cop), a private eye, reporter, organized crime member, or independent criminal. I was always jealous of how cool this game's careers were, and it put a lot of generic games to shame on the detail and options provided within each career.

Sure, you could do this exact game with a generic game, such as GURPS or any other, but you miss out on all the tightly-designed cool things each class gets to do. This is a perfect example of how a focused design increases the experience at the table, yes there are limited design choice and options - but that is a strength of the GangBusters system. You aren't distracted by an open-ended character design system that lets you spin up a zeppelin pilot or a cowboy and expect the referee is going to have a role for you during the game. You were one of the seven classes in the sandbox, and everyone had a reason to bump into each other.

The game also let you play anything, even having a player play a cop on one side and another player play criminal on the other. You split the time and went at it. You could have a PI at the table along with a gangster and a reporter, and the referee went to each player in turn and asked what that player's character was doing today. If things needed to be broke down into hours or combat turns, so be it, and it happened right then and there. If two players came into conflict, it was played out.

Of course, you could always team up, but it felt silly to have a detective agency with four Sam Spades on the case. You could do a team of investigators, as Scooby Doo did for years, and it also begs to be said that GangBusters had some of the most fun and inventive mystery modules ever published for a roleplaying game. This game did private eye stuff well, incredibly well in fact, and no game since has come close to providing that gritty noir feel of being a private detective. Other games try, but the supporting material for criminals, reporters, and law enforcement make living in the world of a GangBusters private eye second to none, because the characters around you have motivation and clear reasons to be who they are.

You could spin up a private eye in a generic game, but your supporting cast becomes generic game NPCs, and not the cool and motivated classes that exist in this world. A gangster in d20 Modern is just that, a NPC with a couple skills and no real motivation other than, "what the referee says." Here, you know what that bad guy is up to, what he gets XP for, and the game takes on a competitive death-match type of feeling. A simpler system clears up motivations and puts a focus on the interactions between characters in this sandbox.


There must have been some directive at TSR after Car Wars was released where every role-playing game had to have a vehicle combat system, and GangBusters has a fun combat system for car chases and running gun battles with vehicles. I liked the inclusion of this system, and also giving every character a driving score, because it made cars and trucks matter. You just didn't use your driving score for combat maneuvers, you could tail a suspect's car, race down a twisting mountain road at night, dodge a runaway fruit cart barreling into the street, drive a long distance without a breakdown, and we found many uses for the skill other than combat.

Why have vehicles? Bootleggers of course. There is a fun, almost Dukes of Hazzard style bootlegging car combat game hidden in here, and it is a crazy and white-knuckle diversion with running road battles between rival bootleggers, rival mobs, and prohibition agents. Our games saw quite a junkyard full of wrecked and shot up cars pile up, and it was fun.


This was one of the first games we played that used a fixed damage system for wounding. Conceptually, there was little difference between GangBusters and Star Frontiers when it came to combat, you rolled 1d100 and rolled under to-hit. There were no gun skills in GangBusters, your to-hit was just straight agility.

Did we want skills you could level up, like in Star Frontiers? We didn't really feel the need, since it was possible to increase agility via XP if you wanted to, and also having a detailed character build system would have taken away some of the "random thugs and mugs" system the game thrived upon. Skills were special knowledge and not basic abilities in this game, there was this "every man hero" sort of feeling that if you spun up a character in the game, you could shoot guns, drive cars, interact with others, and do most everything in the game.

That said, combat was fast and furious, and also a bit on the simple side. We didn't mind, it just meant you could have more fist and gun fights in a session. It handled large and small battles quite well, and a good referee could improvise stunts and give hit and damage bonuses and penalties for all sorts of crazy tricks and wild actions like standing on top of a speeding truck and shooting a tommy gun.


If you wanted to be Sherlock Holmes, you needed to invest in skills like fingerprinting, ballistics, chemical analysis, art expertise, forgery, accounting, art expertise, and a bunch of other very Sherlock-y skills. I loved that the design team broke these skills out instead of lumping them under an umbrella "forensics" skill, as these investigation methods were new to crime fighting, and having them in separate skills let you train them up, know you can use them, and become an expert in one or more fields.

This game did a great job at the CSI stuff decades before CSI hit the air.

That said, these skills were useful to many character types. Criminals needed accountants and people able to forge and detect forgeries, reporters needed sleuthing skills, private eyes needed them all, and the cops needed skills like this to build evidence. We found ourselves building lists of what was said and what was found on cases, just like real detectives.

Snooping around was a huge part of the game, and remember, there were no cell-phones in this world, portable radios were of limited use, cameras were large and needed flash powder, and voice recorders were these typewriter-sized things with large tape reels. Technology was primitive, so you needed to be clever to get evidence, get statements, and work at building a case. This was cool, and it forced you to work how investigators did back in the day.

Even police radios in cars in the 20's were receive only (calling all cars!), and a peace officer needed to stop by a call box to call back to the station. By the 30's two-way car radios became possible, but still the call box lived on. Phones were switchboard operated, and the only communications technology were radio, primitive fax machines, and teletypes. The limits of technology were cool in this game, and I think even more cool nowadays. Living without a headset radio, cell phone, laptop, or pocket camera means you needed to be careful about communication, find phones, and also be able to interact with others and think on your feet.

No texting. No social media. No instant access to information or Wikipedia (you went to the library, public records, tax offices, etc). No instant communication. No Internet. No apps. No TV. You got the news from the papers or the radio. No cell phone cameras or pocket voice recorders. A game that forces you to think and solve crimes without a cell phone?


The Dark Side

There was a dark side to this game, especially on the law enforcement side. People in the government and peace officers could be corrupt. This is realistic, and it runs counter to the Film Board's rosy view of the era you get in movies. There was a lot of money going around with bootleggers and crime, and if you played an honest officer of  the law, you could run afoul of bad eggs on your side. The drama and tension of who you could trust was very compelling and it was a brave choice to put rules like this in the game. It would have been easier to whitewash things and present the sanitized view, but to put these rules in the game (especially with TSR's old code of conduct) was a very brave and commendable move for a historical pen-and-paper game.

Of course, on the criminal's side, they did not fare any better. You didn't have to wonder who was corrupt, because you were all crooks. But in our games, the double-crosses and the fights for power in criminal gangs reached epic proportions. Some players wanted to be Al Capone, and ruthlessly eliminated rivals (PCs and NPCs alike). Some players wanted to play both sides, and rat out the Al Capones to the cops. Others got burned by injustice, and we had at least one criminal player turn good-guy vigilante, like The Shadow, and work to thwart the other player's lives of crime outside of the law.

We had some incredible games with memories that last to this day.

The 1920's and 30's

I think the hardest part of selling GangBusters is selling people on the era. If you love the classic black and white films and radio shows of the era, there is no selling, because you just jump at the chance to play a game set in this era. Oh, and by the way, the Internet Archive's Old Time Radio collection is a great place to start enjoying these radio shows, for free, and please donate and support the project if you can.

Without that background, the game is a harder sell. You need to do a little research on how things worked, and while the game has some of that in the book, I would have loved to see a more complete treatment of the era and technology so people could get up to speed. It is almost like a fantasy world now, since we are coming up on nearly 100 years passing since this time in our history. I like to look at this gangsters and gun-molls world like a fantasy world, since you can't tie yourself too closely to history, and you have to let players feel that freedom.

The research for this era is fun and well worth the time you put into the task. I own a copy of the 1920's Montgomery Ward catalog with all sorts of household items and prices. I love looking at the classic cars of the era. Watching movies set in this time is always fun, and you get the look and feel of the time. The clothes, the manner of speech, and the slang all are classic and iconic parts of our history. There is also the struggle of immigrants, the undertones of racial divides, the role of women, how sin and vice are seen, to role of religion in society, and many other topics that continue to this day that wait to be added to games, if you wish.

This was one of those games that kindled my love of history when I was young, and there really isn't a game like it that I feel is this compelling in action and content and also accessible to a wide audience. That's how I was like when I was young, this game has cool action and history to get lost in? Sweet, I am in.

What Else?

I would love to see rules for ward bosses, mayors, and other politicians. That feels like a missing part of the game, but I know it would require a lot of source material for how big city politics worked. I would also like to see a vigilante class for crime fighters, sort of like our Shadow player, or maybe a 1920's version of Batman.

It would be fun to see a classic 'magic tricks' system, something that fits in with the time, like magic tricks, Eastern magic from India, and things like hypnosis - like the radio show Chandu the Magician or any of the other sort of magic and strange powers shows they had back then. This is purely an optional rule because I love the old time radio shows so much. And yes, I know real magic doesn't fit the genre at all, but there was a lot of mysticism back then, and this would purely be for fun.

For crimes, I wanted to see more on different types of gambling and horse racing, rules for running a speakeasy or nightclub, tax-free imports, murder for hire, and other types of crime as seen in the movies. Like any good HBO show, the game needs rules for prostitution and a generic 'dope' sort of drug for post-war games. I know, TSR would throw a fit should brothel ownership rules appear in the game, but I watch enough HBO to know better. The drug angle is interesting, because the game's focus could expand post-war into the late 40's and 50's with Godfather style drama. There were some noir films that got into bootleggers and how they reacted to moving dope versus booze, and that would be a fun conflict for criminals to wrestle with.

To balance all that, I would like to see more detail on law enforcement, with details like the car radios, procedure, DAs, evidence, grand juries, tax evasion, and other 'gotchas' the law used to take down big criminals. I like the details on how enforcement changed, how state lines used to work, and other changes brought about when the mob started to get cracked down on and went underground. There is a huge history of enforcement procedures I would love to see in a future version, along with possibly the comic-book side of fantasy enforcement with radio watches and decoder rings as seen in Dick Tracy and other serials.

I would love a 1945 to 1965 time frame in a New York like city as an alternate Noir-style setting, with the possible involvement of Las Vegas and LA as satellite settings. There is another fascinating shift in criminal activity during this historical period, along with a dramatic change in technology and law enforcement techniques and agencies. I would love to see this grim and gritty period covered and explored in an action-driven GangBusters style.


The game knew what it wanted to do, and every rule focused in on that fact. Some games, such as Traveller, provide you with a generic framework of rules to cover sci-fi adventures, but they fall short on giving you things to do. You end up with a game that does everything, but doesn't do anything. It's a great simulator, yes, but where are the parts of the game that call you to action? Do Traveller scouts get XPs for each new system discovered? Do mercenaries get points for successful contracts? Do navy officers get points for defeating enemy starships?

GangBusters is a game that limits your freedom, as you can't be everything. You can't be soldiers, boxers, movie stars, zeppelin pilots, or African explorers. But what you can be is so well done you don't care. Everything is there, ready for you to jump in and start playing, and your motivations and how you get ahead in the game as the class you pick is abundantly clear.

Contrast this with today's game's, which are character building games or games more focused on stories told by the dungeon master and finding hooks for your characters to be a part of them. Some games are simulators, and others are entirely story based. They want to do everything, be infinitely expandable, and take most of your time and resource to play and think about.

They are all-consuming, and they demand their fans to be as well.

Where are the toy-box games? The ones you pull off the shelf and have fun with for a night, and you don't need to learn a 600 page rulebook to play? They don't demand the system is the only thing you should learn or play, and they were built to have one sort of fun in mind. GangBusters is focused in a way the old Dungeon board game was compared to Basic D&D. This is a box full of fun pieces to play with, little gangsters and federal agents waiting to be pulled out and used, and private eyes and mystery men to criss-cross in the dark shadows of the next great mystery.

Also, this is one of the few games that openly put player versus player conflict as a center point of the game. West End's Paranoia would come later, but this was one of the first pen-and-paper games that openly embraced the idea that players would be in conflict with each other. Top Secret, D&D, Star Frontiers, and the other TSR games of the era? They all followed the "adventuring party" model of play with one group of players working towards a common goal.

Here, players could be working with or against each other, and there was this wonderful break from the party mentality where one player could be a private eye in one part of the city working on a case, and another a small-time thug working his way up through the ranks in another. It was a wonderfully non-linear and open model of play that followed each character on a story thread, let them meet, come into conflict, and even cooperate as players seen fit and fate thrust them together.

The Game Today

While you mugs are out there on the Internet, check out the original designer's blog, Rick Krebs, and show the guy some love, why don't you. It's not often you get to speak to a legend.

You see, the rights to the game reverted to Mr. Krebs, and he runs a little corner of the Internet devoted to the game he helped create. You can't buy or legally download the game in PDF, you have to hunt down a used copy somewhere and play.

It is my dream to see this published in PDF form somewhere and someday so countless generations can play this game. I akin this to the preservation of the films and radio shows of this era, and how better to keep the spirit of this time alive than to let people listen to the radio shows, see the movies, and play their own versions of these tales with about the best system ever written about this era.

I would love to see the boxed game come back. I would love to write a game covering this era as well, or possibly the 45 to 65 Noir post-war era. There is just so much here that is cool, even today in our modern and instantly connected world, and this game still speaks to me as a model of where we came from and how things have changed. It is, in its heart, a simple adventure game, but in another way it is more than that.

This is a game that took a conflict which brewed in society (crime, vice, immigrants, and law and order), and presented it in a fun and accessible form. It let us play out our 'cops and robbers' fantasies and it teached as well. It let us play Sam Spade, and for the first time in mass-market pen-and-paper gaming, it put down the +1 longsword and made us pick up a magnifying glass to look for clues. We had to roleplay, to think, to interact, and to judge character. It was very much like Vampire: The Masquerade in a way because it also dealt with factions and conflicts that needed to be roleplayed.

And it was, most importantly, fun. Let's raise a glass in your honor, GangBusters, for being one of the true pioneers in the pen-and-paper genre that set the stage for so many great games which followed.