Saturday, February 25, 2017

Forward Looking versus Retro Arcanum

In my post one-of-four shelf collapse Armageddon culling of pen-and-paper RPG books, I carved out a shelf for retro-clone old-school games, and now proudly display Basic Fantasy, Mutant Future, Labyrinth Lord, Starships and Spacemen, Stars Without Number, and a number of other new-school old-school classics. I am omitting other classics such as Castles and Crusades and Swords and Wizardry because I have not had the time to invest in them as I would have liked, and I want to focus on fewer games rather than spreading myself too thin.
And then I began reading about Basic Fantasy and the community ever since I last checked in with them, and I am impressed. They are like a large-community open-source project and way different than a role-playing game made for profit. They are trying to be the Linux of pen-and-paper gaming, and while the rules are more simple and retro-focused, the entire creation is surprisingly modern and forward-looking. Support and the community over there has grown, and it looks like a great, accepting, and creative place to participate - and that is a huge strength.
Compare this with Labyrinth Lord, which aims for backwards compatibility (with one style of mixed system play) and purposefully adopts some of the more difficult aspects of old-school games (descending AC and to-hit charts). In this respect, Labyrinth Lord is backwards looking, like an operating system that focuses on maintaining compatibility with DOS, older CRTs, tape drives, floppy disks, and dot-matrix printers because that is the experience fans are looking for in this game. When you go all-in with Labyrinth Lord, you want to experience the strange and arcane pain points of the older games because those are a part of the package.

It is like those kids sitting around the table in Netflix's Stranger Things playing and wanting to have to decipher the concepts of descending AC and some of those fiddly bits in order to be a part of the 'cool kids club.' The strange and backwards parts of the game are a part of the game's arcane and strange way the world works - and they are a part of the initiation process of knowing how this world works. Of course you roll to-hit off a chart! If it were too easy anyone could play this.

Basic Fantasy adopts the 3.5-style roll-high ascending AC system, and then goes towards a backwards feel from there. it is like an OS that recognizes modern developments, like USB drives and high resolution monitors, and then presents those advancements with a retro-feeling and style. It discards parts that don't make sense and goes for the simple, intuitive way things should work. Discard the strange arcane hand-gestures and let's just play something that is easy to grasp for everyone.

It is an interesting thought and comparison and I feel there are good reasons for each. Sometimes you want that complete retro-feeling and experience, complete with the strange jumps in logic and "latch key" portals of understanding that you must get through in order to enter this strange world. There are other times when you want to be more forward-looking, and you care more for simplicity of experience and the unification of methodology to appeal to players used to the more modern concepts.

In the case of Basic Fantasy, the system is not compatible with older modules, nor is it important. New adventures inspired by the old materials are out there and ready to be played. To be fair, there is a lot of new content out there for Labyrinth Lord as well, but all the old content works as well. Both are great games, but I find understanding the "why" of each helps me play them better and discuss them with others.

Myself? Leaning towards the simplicity and unified base of Basic Fantasy while still appreciating the strange and flavorful mix and arcane craftsmanship of Labyrinth Lord. If I were refereeing? Basic Fantasy wins, just because I have to explain less and the concepts are more straightforward. The game I would love to explore all the dark nooks and crannies of? Labyrinth Lord, of course, given the right group that appreciates the somewhat arcane nature of the rules and appreciates the backwards elements as a part of the retro-themed experience.
And then there there is this amazing pile of Basic Fantasy goodness (sans dice) I picked up for less than $30 on Amazon that is just waiting to be explored, and this collection is now sitting on that coveted spot on one of my three remaining book shelves.

Either way you go, there is a lot of adventure to be found, and both are great choices.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Design Room: Mutant Future

You can't really talk about Mutant Future without being familiar the early 1980's post-apocalyptic games such as Gamma World and Aftermath. Even TV shows such as Thundarr the Barbarian and movies such as Planet of the Apes or The Road Warrior apply here, and one could throw in the original WestworldThe Omega ManTHX 1138 and even Rollerball or Sleeper in this category.

And then there is the Fallout universe, a lot of which applies here, but I am careful about saying "this is like Fallout" because Fallout is almost too familiar to everybody. Fallout is also a lot less gonzo and wacky as the Mutant Future game, so there is a bit of superhero gaming mixed in with this genre, along with concepts familiar to readers of comic books like the old X-Men comics of the 1970's.

The premise is, "Let us think about that the future could be like, and then let's destroy it and create a new world out of that." We are two steps removed from "today" in these games, one in that we have little idea of the alternate future that was destroyed, and we have even less of an idea of the world that comes after that.

I love this genre because it is totally mind twisting, and you are constantly asking yourself if a place you are encountering is part of the unknown future-past or the maniacally twisted now. I get the "now" part a little better, since survival and the medieval-like state most of the world has devolved into you know from traditional fantasy gaming. A sword is a sword and a village is a village, people ride horses and the blacksmith bangs out horseshoes and other metal objects.

Then things get different. Bits of old technology are passed around, books, magazines, and small household items re-purposed in novel and different ways. You see a mix of the familiar in the everyday use, a record turntable used as a potting wheel, forks and knives, a necklace made of bottle caps, an old wind-up watch, horse carts with automotive tires, and bits of today and a possible tomorrow in everyday medieval life.

And instead of elves and dwarves; we have mutants, talking animals and plants, and even androids and robots living in these places. They live simply off the land, and the society is your typical fantasy medieval world - but the inhabitants are all over the place. A talking lion with bat wings and telepathy. A half-human cyborg. A six-foot dandelion man. And while there are normal humans to ground things, the weird and wacky live here, but yet the "high fantasy" world model mostly applies. Different kingdoms rules the land. Savage tribes live like primitives in forgotten places. Wars and conflicts between feudal kingdoms go on when resources are scarce. Bandits raid settlements. Treaties are made and primitive life, colored a little by strange changes, goes on.

The fun twist is the magic isn't magic, it is the remains of super-technology we do not understand. Also, the forces which destroyed the world mutate and change creatures and even the fabric of reality itself in strange and deadly ways. Swarms of man-eating ladybugs can plague the land. A giant mutated potato plant can lurk under the ground and feast on unwary travelers. A bat with radioactive eyes that eats metal can terrorize travelers. A psychic badger can sit by the side of the road and force people to leave their food on the ground and walk away. A crazed building-sized farming robot could treat all life as pests to be eradicated. Anti-gravity warbots, still fighting the war that destroyed the world, could be flying around out there, somewhere.

And the ruins of civilization are dangerous places that should not be traveled to. The weathered, radiation-blasted, overgrown, nature-reclaimed wastes of giant cities stretch on for hundreds of miles of destroyed land, with mountains of rubble overgrown by forests, giant fissures and canyons blasted through the earth, and changes so drastic they turn the familiar into something that was once organized and civil into a hellish and broken wasteland of civilization tossed in a garbage dump, turned over on itself by terra-forming bulldozers, and turned into a deadly jungle of the broken remains of civilization where deadly creatures live, radiation storms blast, and machines wander the wastes in varying states of disrepair. You should not be wandering around on a map of New York City with a couple spacy looking buildings, this place underwent a tectonic upheaval a couple thousand years into an alternate future from today - you wouldn't recognize the place before it got destroyed, and afterwards you should be worrying about the tectonic plate that created a mountain range, jungle, and ocean through the heart of the city.

Welcome to Mutant Future

This is Mutant Future, and this is also the same gaming genre as (to an extent) Gamma World. The one thing I like about Mutant Future is that it keeps the original WTF feeling of crazy science fantasy, where the later editions of Gamma World were more high-fantasy influenced with mutant replacements for dragons, fairies, elves, gnolls, and other fantasy tropes. If I want fantasy elements in Mutant Future I can always put them in, but if I want to keep things less D&D I can without having to say "kodo dragons and the fairy-like lils do not exist." Even for players familiar with Gamma World, Mutant Future is a lot more unfamiliar and unpredictable, and I feel that is actually a strength when playing in the genre.

Though this game is 100% compatible with Labyrinth Lord and the Advanced Edition Companion, so if you want extra fantasy based creatures - there they are. Roll some mutations on them and you are good to go. Or just take a normal animal or plant, give it an AC and hit dice, and roll some mutations and you are good to go.

Need an example? Let's take a giant green jellyfish, give it 5 HD and an AC of 7, make it float through the air, and let's roll some mutations - density alteration (self), psionic flight, poison susceptibility, and temperature control (freezing). So these things float through the air in large forms, freeze their food with psionic powers, and they can shrink down and become dense rocks when threatened - and they are also susceptible to different toxins. There, a new monster nobody has ever encountered before, and something completely unique and original.

The same thing goes for robots, technology, hazards, monsters, and everything else in the world. Remember this point, since this will come up later.

Sometimes I feel the unique and iconic D&D monsters (mind flayers, beholders, drow, etc) have gotten so tired and overused the appeal of having them wears off (sometimes, I still think they are classics, but there are other times I want something new). The familiarity may attract players since it is always preferable to play a game you are familiar with, and against monsters you know how to deal with. But those strange floating jellyfish that freeze-dry their food? If I saw those as a character I would have no idea what they can do until the temperature started dropping around my character and they started shrinking down into dense, tiny rocks that sat on the ground like a psionic refrigerator turret. And I wouldn't know what else they could do, or even what their weaknesses were.

I love these moments at the gaming table, where the group of players is sitting there slack-jawed and wondering if a floating green jellyfish is something completely innocent or the beginning of a total party kill. The smart players will find a way far away, while the not so smart ones will start poking and prodding the floating abnormality.

Anything is Right

The fantasy-game compatibility is a huge strength here, since it gives you more to pull from. Mix fantasy and magic in there and enjoy a strange Rifts like mix of everything. Maybe a sci-fi world collided with a fantasy world and all hell broke loose. Replace magic with technology and mutations, or re-color the existing fantasy creatures with mutations and technology. A medusa with robotic, laser-eyed and stunner-eyed snake tentacles for hair? Fine, do it. It is your game.

The only way I feel you can go wrong is by basing this more on grim and gritty realism, and move more towards The Road Warrior and The Walking Dead sort of realistic worlds. I feel when you de-emphasize the strange and fantastical, you lose a lot of the wonder and charm of the game. When you take out the "whatever goes" feeling, it becomes something any modern rules system can do, and you lose that wonder and danger of the unknown. You don't want to make this predictable. You want the ruined world to come alive through that "anything can happen" feeling.

I would avoid traditional high-fantasy magic though when mixing (unless this is a collision of worlds type game), and keep the fantastical powers more mutation and technology based. You want one source of power, and I feel you don't want to all of a sudden throw "magic powers" into the mix as an extra power source that makes everything easy. You want the source to "fantastic power" to be the same for everyone (mutant powers and tech), and avoid giving players the traditional "high fantasy easy out" where fireball, teleport, and magic missile take over the game.

Two Worlds in One

Save the "normal" feeling for the settlements though, since you still want that fantasy medieval model to apply to the character's home bases and the feudal civilization around them. I find this game's focus on medieval construction, travel, and commerce a perfect fit for this genre, since I can create a miniature "feudal world" that coexists alongside the "places of ancient ruin" and have those two worlds collide and compete. I love having little "kingdoms" and "tribes" fight for scarce resources and farming land while the dangerous ruins of ancient cities loom over them. I love having players worry about "that is the red eye kingdom's soldiers, stay away from them" sorts of things. I love having the drama of the survivors play out and influence the adventures of the players - and even have these dramas become adventures themselves.

For example, if you have a blue kingdom run by a benevolent robot king, you could make his battery running out and the kingdom going to hell a constant worry for them. You could have a totalitarian red kingdom run by a mutated houseplant who thinks he is Napoleon that is well-run but brutal and confiscates any form of technology from subjects or travelers. The conflicts between these kingdoms becomes the backstory and focus of the game, and the "strange world around it" becomes the source of power for the characters (and also unexpected new sources of conflict).

I like the "two world" setup for these games, and I have had many post-apocalyptic games break down because the entire focus of the game was on "go into the city and get loot." There was no other story there, and when the characters found the ultimate weapon and armor upgrade and could beat all the enemies, the game was over. With another story happening that players can invest in, there is a reason to gain character power to influence the outcome of the world's stories and factions.

Keep the cities dangerous though, so dangerous the kingdoms have given up on these places as hellish, forbidden, ancient places where no one should go. I feel you don't really want organized bands of scavengers in these areas, since you want the focus of the conflicts between the factions to center on the scarce resources outside of the cities and the competition for them. Those areas should be so dangerous if a large group moved in to strip it clean, the monsters, hazards, and robots that are there should wipe them all out. You want to keep that "forbidden place" myth strong in both the character's minds and also the inhabitants of the world.

The Shadow of Gamma World

One thing that keeps this game difficult for me is we were big Gamma World fans, so the shadow of that game always looms large over our thoughts. One of the easiest ways to deal with this, I feel, is to say, "Gamma World is dead." If you want to pull in elements from that world into your games that cross the dimensional barrier, do so, and keep it strictly to mystery and lore of 'another world that may have been.' Maybe survivors from that world crossed the dimensional barrier. Maybe their spirits float in the nether and all of a sudden, some of the familiar pops up in the new world.

But celebrate the new like this was a new game. Everything you loved about that world, sans some of the pieces of gear and monsters, is here in one form or another - plus more. In fact, I think this game is better because it is more "anything goes" than Gamma World, which was moving towards a D&D like "iconic monsters and items" sort of marketed and pre-made high fantasy experience.

But in another way, I feel it is a bit unfair to just compare this to Gamma World, since this game is more than that. Where Gamma World was more of a set experience with a defined list of iconic monsters and technology, this is more of an old-school science fantasy post-apocalyptic toolbox where your ideas are more important and celebrated than what the game's designers give you. I feel that is the difference here. Gamma World was more of a World of Warcraft type experience where you played for the lore and iconic features - and I say was because the game has spanned multiple incompatible versions and it is out of print (to the best of my knowledge). It is tough for us to let the game go, but let it go we must.

Your games need to be more than what's in the old books. You need to take what you loved about the old game, and expand and improve on those elements. Love the old Gamma World death machines? Make a better one in the new game. Make two. Call it something else. Don't copy - improve. Make something new. Do something different. Put your creativity into the game. Into this game.

This is more of a game where your creations should shine, your creativity is the reason to play, and your imagination is more important than all the pre-made stuff. This game is in print. This game has a free no-art version available for download. If we support this game, it supports a game in print plus all the future players who may discover it. I feel it is more socially responsible plus forward thinking to support the new and in-print games.

It is tough letting a piece of your gaming history go, but I feel it is ultimately for the better. The original spirit of our first gonzo post-apoc adventures can live on in our games (along with some of the things we love, pick and choose), but this just feels like a better place to be.

A Brand New End of the World

I like Mutant Future. I feel this is one of those new-era old-school forgotten classics. It is an open sandbox you can drop infinite ideas into. It pulls in the fantasy elements directly from Labyrinth Lord, and is 100% compatible with that game. Also, this game starts with a more based and low-level fantasy world than does other games - this game starts in medieval fantasy and then goes into science fantasy. The rules here start with that 'medieval world' assumption with castles, horses, carts, rafts, primitive commerce, and men-at-arms fighting battles. The default world and how it works (in my mind) is the same as Labyrinth Lord, with a couple differences. A feudal society living in the ruins of a more advanced ancient world - and be it magic or technology, this is the same story told by fantasy authors a million times before.

That is the strength of this game, but with the added bonus of being able to put your own imagination in the game through the strange and wonderful creatures, robots, technology, hazards, and places you create. It starts in a familiar place, and then it goes anywhere your imagination can take you.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Politics of Boxing Up Games

Well, with our broken shelf, we are down to just three shelves to store gaming books instead of four. Instead of buying a new shelf, we took the easy route and got a set of cardboard 'bankers' boxes to store games we rarely use, and those are going into storage. We are cutting down on the number of gaming books we have out at one time and just sticking to what we like to play.

It is a strange exercise, because in gaming culture your 'display' feels like your 'street cred' - and who doesn't want a large collection on display at one time? Now, each book is being judged on it's 'fun value' and 'usefulness' and either staying out or going in the closet (or sold if it really is of no use).

You have a pile of books on the floor and you are asking yourself that question about each one of them. It really does get your gaming priorities straight, and I am finding it to be a refreshing exercise in dealing with my tendency to hoard and collect books.

D&D 4? We still use some of this material from time to time, but not all of it - so I will probably keep the basic three books plus some of the planar guides out just for reference. The rest of the pointless, already errata'ed and now useless power card collection books are going in the closet. It is funny, after the game's online systems and errata downloads go away someday, all we will be left with are the books, so what was printed will outlast the errata.

D&D 5? We sadly don't play it enough to justify keeping it out. There is nothing really different about for us, these are the same monsters and the same worlds we have in D&D 3.5 and other versions of the game, just MMO-ized (in my feeling with those infinite-use cantrips) and with the rules streamlined. Now note I said "for us" and this doesn't mean others are having a lot of fun with the game, and they should. We kind of missed the boat on this game, and we had long-standing campaigns based on the D&D 3.5, Pathfinder, and D&D 4 material still going strong, so there was no need to switch mid-stream (and it would have been disruptive, a lot of change just for the set of rules, and we went through that in the D&D 2 to D&D 3 shift).

Pathfinder? Here is where it gets interesting. Do I keep out just the basic three books? The world guide is staying out, just for reference. I am not seeing a great value to some of the class add-on books, and I have this sneaking suspicion we may have more fun with the game the less we have out for it. I can still pull an oddball book out if I need it, like a monster book, but if the world were just 'the basic three' would we play it more? There is an argument that the books past the first three are what makes the world unique and special, but it will be interesting to see if the first three books can sustain the game (for us) or will those just sit there like orphans wanting the rest of their shelf-mates.

This will be the test, I suppose, for Pathfinder for our group. If not, I am feeling the basic three books will go in the box and we will just keep the world guide out. At that point, we will be looking for a new set of rules to play in that world. There mechanically is some fun to the rules, the question is for us, are we that interested in all that fiddly mechanical character build stuff to sustain interest? With less books, there are less build and less reasons, so there may be a benefit to identifying the core supporting books and keeping those out. We shall see.

The retro-clones such as Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy? Of course those are staying out, even if we don't use them all the time. There is very little cost to keeping a single 'all in one' book out on the shelf, and these books are actually inspiring and fun packages of gaming goodness. For us, 'big system games' are a tough sell, even if it is just the 'traditional three' books of the player's guide, monster book, and referee's guide. For us, something that is just a hundred or so pages and contains everything needed to play will beat out three-volume sets that clock in at around a thousand total pages.

There is a value with less is more, and would I play a D&D 5 type game that was more of a one-book solution of around 100-200 pages? Yes. I doubt they could do that since the game really feels like it evolved into a big box affair where more is more, more spells, more monsters, more magic items, and more of everything is more - even referee's advice and art. More is more is fun and gives value, but there is a point when my shelf collapses and the game becomes too big to play. Even at three books with near a thousand pages, I am feeling a smaller one-book game still has more play value.

But then again Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy fill that niche of the single-book, compact and fun game - but I would like to see the big publishers try. They would probably have to fundamentally change the structure of the game and not do a 'cut down levels 1-5 only with 20% content' sort of thing, but make a complete game within that limitation. They tried with D&D 4's Essentials line, but I feel that fell short since those were not self-contained books - and you still needed the original books for a lot of stuff.

It is the "tablet versus PC" thing I feel, and the big-box games (at least for us) feel bloated and heavy - especially when you start adding books. Something small, single-book, less than 200 pages, and all-in-one feels more playable than a three volume collection of 800-1000 pages where everything is handled and everything is given in maximum detail. At least for us - and for some groups that love the complexity do better with the big-box games (since there is more to enjoy). Again "tablet versus PC" comes up, for hardcore gamers - PC all the way with upgrades and swappable parts. For casual users, less is more, and a tablet will do the job for most computing tasks. Right now I am feeling less is more for our group, and we would actually play more if we focused on lighter-weight games.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Retro Clones: They Keep Coming Back (For Me)

Something keeps me coming back to the simple retro-clones like Labyrinth Lord or Basic Fantasy. They have an incredibly low barrier to entry, cover what you need for old-school, and have that Monopoly-like appeal of being a gamer's game rather than a large computer operating system-like set of rules with rules and options for everything. I can get a group started with them for free or little cost.

What kills me about Pathfinder is I have this feeling I bought the system into un-playability. Too many books. My gaming bookcase just collapsed, literally, under the weight of the system. One night we were playing a game of 7 Days to Die and we heard in the other room, bang, bang, bang.

The shelf holding Pathfinder had collapsed. The books are completely fine and no one got hurt, but now my books are on the floor and I am sitting here wondering why I need so many rules and books to have fun. I wonder if I haven't falling into the trap of hoarding and collecting books, and buying something because more is better. Then I end up loving it to death and smothering the system with so many options and books it becomes un-fun.

I am seriously considering boxing up everything I have except for the base gazetteer for Golarion, just for reading and inspiration, and calling my open shelf in my gaming room for the game done. I don't have the play time for something this complex, and the books just sit there on the shelf like some sort of gamer-cred display case. I end up looking at them and feeling bad I don't have the time, so why have them out?

Kudos to the D&D 5 people for keeping their system to the base three books, but I don't play enough D&D 5 to warrant buying the add-on modules for that either, and I fear the end result would be the same if I were into the game as much as I would have liked.

But again, the simple calls to me. The retro-clones feel like what I started with so long ago. They don't require learning curves or hundreds of pages of spells or character options. You are not chasing the next book or rules addition. I know I love the art and direction of both Paizo and Wizards, and yes I know sales of new stuff keep great and creative people employed at both companies, but I feel a system can only get so big before, well, my shelf collapses.

I know this sounds like, "Well, not everybody's shelves are so cheap, dude. Buy a better shelf." I would agree with that if it were someone else saying this and I loved the game and played it all the time. This is not a system wars thing, just a reflection that I have a shelf full of books for a game I infrequently play.

The bigger question is, what do I need? You know, it is like going out and buying a pickup truck and all you use a car for is going to the store and work and back. You literally never put anything in the back bed of the truck, and it just collects dust and leaves. And now that you have a truck, the payments and upkeep cost prevents you from having the car that you may want and need. You may be a hybrid person in a city and find one of those fits your life perfectly. You may love the thrill of a sportscar. You may be better suited with an off-road 4x4.

I have this suspicion owning two or three dozen Pathfinder hardcovers is actually keeping me from playing the game. You know the feeling? And I also get the feeling this mass of books is keeping me from playing fantasy medieval RPGs at all because using all that material seems intimidating. What is your hang up, right? Dive in and play! Well, maybe I am not a fan of all those options and what I want is something simple. And having a shelf full of books out means it is better than a single-book game, right?

So the retro-clones get ignored. You have Pathfinder and D&D 5, play those. Yes, I can drive the pickup and it takes me where I need to go. But there is that always hard to express question, "Is this what I want?" You have a massive 17" gaming laptop, what use would you have with a ultra-thin 13" lightweight notebook? The gaming laptop can do it all! But I can't take it anywhere. I need a backpack to take it out. It doesn't go to the coffee shop or library, and I feel tied to the behemoth. That sort of feeling.

You can love a game for what it is not, and because it fits into your gaming lifestyle better. There is something to be said for games that do a lot with a little.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Great Article: A new recipe for the roleplaying game formula

Check this out:, this is literally worth days of thought and discussion around here. Some great points about CRPG design that also apply to pen-and-paper games, check out his thoughts on skill trees.

I love it when the old-school designers, either computer or pen-and-paper, pop up and share science with us.

Good stuff.