Saturday, April 28, 2018

Mail Room: Barrowmaze Complete

Ever find a product that just rekindles your love of old school gaming? This is it, The book was a bit on the expensive side but for a high-quality 261-page book with great old-school art on almost every page? A cover by the immortal D&DG legend Erol Otus? A PDF you can keep on your phone or tablet and read through and feel the inspiration come back when you pick a page and flip through its deviously-crafted pages? And did I mention it has a promo cartoon?
It's campy. It's deadly. It's thoroughly old-school. It's crazy with flashes of black humor and the madness of its creator and I love it. I have only just began to dive into the pages of this one and I already feel the excitement. This one so masterfully captures what old-school gaming is all about in both flavor and style, and most importantly - the combination of rules and play. Let me lead you down into the darkness of this one and explain a little, if only you would gather around before you hastily dash off into the night...

What This Is

At its core, Barrowmaze Complete is a combination product covering Barrowmaze I and II, so you do not need the II book to have everything - it is all here. This is essentially an old-school mega-dungeon, but without all the mega-dungeon problems. The layout of the mega-dungeon are the tombs and catacombs under a huge area of ground, the burial mounds of an ancient civilization lying underneath a foggy moor. There are hundreds of mounds to break into and explore, all for the loot this civilization buried with its ancestors, so you can be sure the grave robbers and other ne'er-do-wells are lurking about busting into these forbidden places, getting themselves killed, or killing the others who loot the tombs and head back to town with sacks of loot over their shoulders.

And the marsh itself is deadly and dangerous, especially at night, and it is far enough away from town that you have to conserve daylight to be able to excavate the ruins of these tombs and get out before the night falls and the certain doom of twilight descends upon your party.

What I love about this is it marries lore and a real understanding of grave-robbing mechanics to an old-school experience. You need to physically dig up these places. Many are hidden. You need to bust through mortared-up walls with sledgehammers to get at the good stuff - and all that work makes a lot of noise. Any noise invites wandering monster checks. This sort of risk versus reward feeling extends through the overland plus the expansive underground, the more noise you make, the less chance you have of getting out of there alive.

And then there is the question of time. You may have a great run in the underground spaces only to find out you miscalculated and it's night outside. Torches matter. Light matters. Nightvision matters. Being able to find traps matters. Supplies matter. Resource management is critical to survival. All the low-level "manage or die" stuff that makes old-school gaming so fun matters and this adventure was built to support smart play through realizing you can't rest out here, you need to get in and get out, and there is no way to come out ahead without willfully walking into a place that will most likely get your character killed. This is the perfect tour-de-force of old school sensibilities and gaming and a hallmark example of an adventure written to bring out the best of why we love this genre of gaming.

Old School Death Metal Dungeoning

One thought I kept having was this adventure was like finding an old death-metal record by some band that no longer exists. And when you put the vinyl record on the turntable you are both terrified by the noises coming out of your stereo speakers but amazed by the genius of what this band was able to do with both what they had and the time this was made in.

One of the things I love is the unholy marriage between old-school mechanics and story. This place is infested by the undead, so you would think bringing a cleric or paladin along would activate easy mode, right? Well, it turns out an artifact, the holy grail of evil itself, is lying underneath the boggy fens and foggy moors of this place and it makes turning dead harder - sort of a home-field advantage for the undead team should you choose to venture forth in their domain. It is a small special rule, but this adds so much flavor to the place my heart sings along with the chorus of evil-dungeon master glee.

The excavation rules, the numerous bricked up walls and sealed off tombs, the ever-present "make a noise and we all die" sort of feeling where the noise of one encounter's combat could trigger the roll for another just gives this place an atmosphere leagues better than many of the "places of the dead" adventures I have ever read. The tombs force you to break through walls to explore and find the good stuff, and in doing so you could possibly seal your fate by the noise you make.

And there are optional insanity rules tool that turn this wonderfully crafted gem of player apprehension and terror into a Call of Cthulhu masterpiece where the halfling rogue you depend on for that backstab damage goes insane at just the wrong moment and runs away, only to fall into a bottomless pit to be gone forever, no save allowed. And in that moment you realize your party is doomed because you ventured too far in this time, the halfling was carrying all of your oil for the lanterns, and you won't have enough light to make it out of here without stumbling into more monsters or other traps.

It is like the beginning mission in the movie Aliens where the squad of space soldiers gets in way over their head and all hell breaks loose. Only here, this is old-school unforgiving rules like some insane rage-quit game and you laugh at the incredible stupidity of it the gory demise of the characters around the table and realize what you got into was all you and your group's fault.

Puritanical Sensibilities on the Tabletop

You know that feeling? Your greed put your characters here and they all paid for it.

There is that puritanical "you shall be judged for your sins" sort of feeling that runs through old-school games like the sermons of the 1980's equated tabletop-gaming with evil worship, and I love the morality play here. While gaming is not evil worship, this adventure paints a rather harsh and unforgiving lesson that greed knows no good end that actually meshes quite well with those fundamentalist teachings of yesteryear. To pursue greed is to pursue evil itself, as your character makes a selfish decision to save their own skin and run while leaving your friends behind as a terrifying horde of skeletons busts out of a sealed up wall and engulfs them all. Playing old-school games really gets you 'close to the metal' of morality and sacrifice, and it brings out that "what would you do" moral choices (good or bad) that I assume those preachers did not want young parishioners to make for themselves.

Moral choices. What would you do? Is gold and power worth a part of your soul?

It was funny because back in the day we bought our first copy of Dungeons and Dragons from a religious Christian bookstore. They likely sold it as a sort of a game that taught morals, good versus evil, and the hippie-like holy-rollers that ran the store were cool and probably used it as a teaching game to kids on how to make the right choices in life.

Do you kill a helpless goblin? Do you steal? Do you do what is right, or something that benefits only you? Do you abandon your friends in a time of need? I love that sort of feeling in B/X games, like the game allows you to make good and bad choices and you live with the results of your choices.

And the game doesn't tell you what choice to make.

You bring that to the table. Your faith and beliefs. Part of your character or not. And you live with the outcome. You can choose to live by your beliefs, or not, and see what happens in a safe environment of make believe.

I love those choices, because to see the faces of people that you thought you knew when push comes to shove and they shove the elf covered by green slime into the nearest pit of fire because they have no way of fighting the green slime once it devours the elf and then comes for them is priceless. And then the player who was playing the elf and the look on that person's face? Yes, priceless. Dude, I thought you were my friend! And you don't get those moments if the character design system creates characters too painful to lose, too enshrined as heroic icons, and a rules system that promises fairness and balanced play.

If I ran a Pathfinder game this way? I would get players who would never play with me again because some feel there is some unwritten contract of challenge level written into the rules they would point to and say I wasn't DM-ing the game right. I have seen this happen, and I see this "GM as DVD player" sort of design decision written into almost every modern pen-and-paper game that puts balanced story-based play ahead of a more harsh sandbox and brutal survival style of play that I love. To each their own, and if you have fun with a game please keep doing so - but hard player choices are what I love seeing in old-school games.

At what cost power? At what cost fame and fortune? How do you deal with limited resources, an ever-present dangerous world, and a ticking clock of death? I don't feel today's video-game inspired "story type games" get it, where layers of character protection, hours of iconic hero character-generation, and some assumed hidden contract of GM fairness can even tell a story like this. The new games really can't, and I feel old-school shines when you want this sort of experience. It is why some people love to read horror novels, and some people can't and won't.

To me, old-school gaming is the fantasy equivalent of Call of Cthulhu, but you don't need artificial insanity and horror rules for characters to give the game its sense of terror. If you run the game right, the players are the ones in terror and going insane with every door they open or wall they have to bust through. No game, besides Paranoia, comes close.

If at the end you can all laugh and say you had a good time, like walking out of a theater playing an intensely scary horror movie, the experience was all worth it and you all had fun. Maybe you stood with your friends. Maybe you stabbed them in the back. The game gave you that freedom, and since your characters were a bit more disposable and easy to create you could laugh about it and not feel three hours of character design time and backstory authoring were wasted.

That is why I play old-school games and B/X.

Devious Dungeon Design

I admit, I saw the words mega-dungeon and my stomach did a complete one-eighty. But this isn't your typical mega-dungeon, this is more a cross between B1 Keep on the Borderlands and the S1 Tomb of Horrors. It is a huge area with many small mounds and mini-dungeons that you can map and explore over an entire campaign. The secret is, without giving too much away, the mega-dungeon lies underneath this place and you could break into it at any time. There are entrances everywhere. You may not even know you are, in fact, since there are many smaller tombs (completely mapped) that can fool you into thinking "this is it."

There could be a mound you dig up that provides and unwitting entrance into a connected part of this evil place. You could find an entrance inside one of the mini-dungeons. A pit descending straight down into the earth could link to a part of this place. You could explore a part of the mega dungeon and think it was an unconnected mini-dungeon without even finding the secret door leading deeper in. You could stumble upon a collapsed entrance that with you magic and powers now never be able to dig through, but later at a higher level...

The ability to go in and out, map, explore, and get back to town without having to traverse through seventy previous conquered levels is the great strength to this dungeon. The farther you go overland towards the source of evil, the tougher the wandering monsters get, so the risk/reward and danger of taking the overland route is still very high - even for higher-level characters.

Also, there is a system in the appendices for creating random tombs of any size, large or small, deadly or empty, so the possibility of expansion is very high. A referee could drop his own version of the Tomb of Horrors right into this place as an add-on dungeon and players would never know better. A level underneath the Barrowmaze perhaps more deadly? A deep catacomb with insta-death traps right and left? A giant additional complex with its own story, yet connected to the overall theme? This is all possible, and the adventure as a framework for further sandbox-style fun is very high, which increases my love for this adventure even more.

Oh, and there are rules for restocking cleared rooms with new traps, monsters, and encounters over time. This is less a "burn through it" module than it is a complete campaign sandbox with a near-infinite level of re-use. Who knows, maybe the characters lost on a previous expedition show up as guest zombies and undead fiends on future runs. There is an organic level of re-use and a living dungeon feeling here that I love in a setting.

Campaign Support

We also get three towns and a campaign map with this adventure. Normally, this falls to the level of, "nice to have" but I feel there is something really important here. This is set in the fantasy campaign world of an area like Detroit is in our world. A run-down, hopeless, poor, broken down, forgotten place of end-of-the-Earth lost hopes and shattered dreams. The towns are infested by opportunists, grave-robbers, and thieves. The people that come to these fetid hovels are interested only in one thing - either stealing from graves of a lost civilization or getting rich off the fools who do so.

We have towns, maps, characters, portraits, and little backstories for all of them that tie them to this place. There are those you think you can trust, and those you shouldn't but have to. Watch your words, because that shop-keep you shared your plans with just may try to make a coin or two selling your plans out to the local bandits who prey on people like you and your merry band. You may stumble out into the fading light with that bag of 50 looted gold pieces and that bag full of potions into an ambush by eight good-old-boy local bandits with crossbows in their hands, greed in their eyes, and murder in their hearts.

There are factions lurking about, both connected to the town and also some of the denizens of the maze to worry about. There are secrets everybody holds. There are cults and cutthroats wandering the streets at night. There are hushed conversations happening when your merry band enters the tavern. Other parties of fools and grave-robbers wander about, doing the same exact thing you are doing. You may wander upon a camp excavating a tomb with workers led by happy-faced dwarfs and elves only to later go by this same camp and find them all dead or missing. Or worse, the entire lot of them turned into flesh-hungry ravenous zombies and they now wander the bog looking for living flesh upon which to feast.

If you subject the players to NPCs that seem perfectly normally busy, competent, and focused on one task and then end up as mincemeat for the unseen Blair Witch style evil that lurks out here you are doing a good job as a referee of this adventure. The farmer they buy cheap food from many times goes missing. The friendly group of nightwatchmen that guard the gate and always fight off the monsters chasing the party all end up dead one night. A shopkeeper who gives the party great prices and information suddenly refuses to deal with the party out of some fear. A mad traveling priest starts shouting at the players one night, saying they are going to get the town killed, and then he disappears without a trace.

Set up reliable NPCs and expectations early on, and then suddenly and slowly start taking them all away to instill a sense of terror and hopelessness in the players. This is not some static town you would find in a video-game to go restock supplies at and rest at the inn, the town and its people are an integral part of the horror and dread, and the actions players take have consequences. Raid the were-rat lair and get away? One night the were-rats show up and raid the town, NPCs are killed, and buildings are burned down (and stay down for the rest of the campaign).

What do you do?

Did you cause this with your actions?

There is enough room here for the referee to make their own factions, plots, and stories, and have them wander through the area. Some may interact with the players, some may not, or some may have what they did found later and the players wondering why or how did this happen?

Another group of "adventurers" may open up a tomb with something that shouldn't have been disturbed, getting themselves all killed and now a rot-mummy covered by deadly poisonous gas-spewing mushrooms wanders an area of the bog. You may not know what others did and wander into their stupidity. Others may trail you into the bog for nefarious reasons. They may get eaten alive, or survive long enough to turn on you when you wander out of a tomb battered and bruised. You may choose to be the bandits yourselves and enact some revenge upon them, only to incur the wraith of others.

Remember when I asked, "what would you do?" Yeah, that moral question comes up big time in the campaign aspect of this adventure when you deal with the town and the oft self-serving people that live here. Played right there is a whole lot of intrigue and backstabbing going on outside the dungeon, and that adds another layer of fun to this adventure and its surroundings.


This is expensive, even $30 for the PDF, but I chose for the book-plus PDF option and that is more than twice the price. There aren't many player maps, if those are important to you. This is really focused on the Labyrinth Lord system (and other B/X clones), so if you play other Pathfinder or D&D 5 type systems you will need to convert, and you may lose some of the danger and flavor.

You need to have players interested in old-school games, and because they can't read this adventure, they may not understand the excitement behind it (I admit the high cost here is a benefit because not many players would be willing to fork out this much to cheat). Again, you have to be good at communicating why they should play this over the more player-friendly and story-focused modern games, but you may be lucky and have a crowd of old-school fanatics ready and willing to be able to dive in and lose dozens of characters in an old-school romp.

To me, the creator of such a cool setting deserves to be rewarded, so I feel the cost is well worth it and contributes towards me supporting the hobby and those who create within it. I will get a lot more enjoyment out of this than a $70 AAA video-game, and I will have a physical book to read and enjoy for myself. If this inspires me I am happy to support it, and this does inspire me.

Other Stuff

There is an "illustration book" of S1-style pictures that can be printed and used as flavorful player handouts. There are also news spells and items in the book, plus an impressive collection of monsters - a 24-page mini-monster manual with pictures and statistics for each. You get pre-gen characters, plus a section covering rival adventuring parties. You also get a B/X and Labyrinth Lord 2-sided style character sheet that is absolutely to die for with beautiful art-filled borders and plenty of space to create your certainly doomed character with.

You get a complete random dungeon generator focused on creating these types of tombs, and a record and worksheet for each one you generate. The adventure encourages expansion with mini-dungeons of all sizes and levels, so the potential for supporting a wealth of unique user-generated content is very high. Make a low-level dungeon that stretches on for a dozen rooms. Make a mid-level deathtrap of secret rooms and deadly puzzles. Make a cultist headquarters. Make a bandit hideout overrun by were-rats. Make a high-level mini Tomb of Horrors style character killer dungeon with rewards and wealth worth chasing...but at what cost?

I Took a Chance on This...

...and I am happy I did. It rekindles my excitement for OSR games, and it gives me something that was written by fans for fans, and it shows an understanding of why we enjoy the games we do. No matter your flavor of OSR, be it B/X, Labyrinth Lord, or some other game, this one I feel is a keeper. This one is a keystone for me, something that makes me want to expand my OSR collection, buy books, and build a library of fun that I can enjoy and share with other players and fans.

More on this, hopefully soon, but I have a lot of reading and enjoyment myself diving into this book and discovering the contents inside. Don't ever discount that part of enjoyment, some of us just enjoy reading adventures for fun and imagining all of the possible dangers and stories within.

To get to play this some day? A dream for me, and I hope I can share my enthusiasm with the lucky group I get to run through this. That is what I feel drives our hobby, that love and enthusiasm for the games that we play, be it OSR or the more modern games. If you love it, play it and share it. I like the horror-movie feeling of OSR games, but I also appreciate the more movie-like experiences of the story-based modern ones as well. I have played a lot of modern games though, and to each their own, but discovering old-school games and adventures like this that appeal to that dark and dangerous horror-movie game side of our hobby?

That I get really excited about. This looks to be a lot of fun for months and months, and I can't wait to begin diving into it. Even if I can't I know I am going to enjoy reading this one and imagining all the possibilities.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Tunnels and Trolls: Missile Weapon Rules Revisited

I was rethinking my stance on the whole T&T 8.0 rules on missile weapon combat changes. What bothered me about the rule change was this, and here is the section of the rule-book covering the rule in question:
If the character aims for a particular target and makes the saving roll, then that damage will automatically take effect against the target when damage is assessed at the end of that combat round (even if the party loses the round). 
If your character misses the saving roll to hit, you still count the weapon damage toward the party’s overall HPT regardless of whether the PC party wins or loses overall. You were in the fight, and that number counts as part of the overall chaos of combat. However, the missile damage is simply rolled into the bigger number and does not automatically take effect if the character’s side loses the combat round. (If the party wins, the missile isn’t counted separately either.)
So if you miss, you still hit and do damage. I can see why they did this, because the spirit of the game is based in "the chaos of combat" and we don't need to-hit rolls for melee attacks, so why should we with missiles? Just total up the sides and fight. An arrow shot into a melee counts just as much as a sword.

But a "hit"? Guaranteed damage at the end of the round, even if you lose the round. This is critical, especially in fights where your party is outclassed. It allows your ranged attackers to do ANY damage in a fight where your party is outclassed, and hopefully your front ranks can absorb enough damage (and your healers can heal) and the monster's adds drop to a point where your party can start pushing things over the top.

A Kill on a Miss?

Looking back, this is a smart rule...but with one problem. One archer, one goblin, and a miss that "kills" the goblin. Let's not say kills, but defeats, and a thought I had recently may have a solution to this problem. Let's say the shot does "miss" and impacts the ground next to the goblin, but the goblin is still defeated in some way.

Let's say defeated up? This is actually a cool kind of ruling and one I may use in the future. The arrow could impact the ground right in front of the beast and it simply surrenders. If it was unintelligent or low intelligence, such as a wolf, the wolf could get scared and run away. This is still a "miss" but it better explains what is going on without breaking the dis-logic of fantasy reality and the rules.

You could easily combine this with another ruling, if the creature gives up or runs, there is no need to roll for the coup-de-grace with a second arrow that does the job and defeats the monster. It stands there or turns its back to bolt, and that is the opening you need to finish it off - still defeated, but another arrow is needed. But it is your choice, and the break in reality of the "kill on a miss" becomes kind of a cool house ruling that adds a lot of  flavor to the end of an encounter, and it is kind of like a "stunning damage" ruling.

Don't want it getting away? Well, you did miss, so you will need to use another round of ammo to finish the monster off. Hit better next time to save on ammo, but the choice is yours. If you have a one shot weapon, this was your last round of ammo, or you just want to walk up and clock the goblin that would be cool too, so the final blow could be a melee weapon if desired (and the referee doesn't rule a complete bolt). This feels good enough to add another cool house rule to our collection:

Missile Weapon "Miss but Kill"

On a missed missile weapon shot that still defeats a monster due to end-of-turn HPT, the character firing the shot has two choices:
  1. Let the monster surrender or escape as-is, before the damage is assessed.
  2. Finish off the monster in a coup-de-grace, but using another round of ammunition.
If no ammo is available or a shot is not taken and the referee rules the creature does not run, the final blow can be with a melee weapon or fist. Stunning damage is allowed in case a prisoner needs to be taken.
This is a cool rule because it does not change rules as written that much, explains away a hole in logic, and adds a really fun thematic story choice to whenever this occurs that I as a player, would look forward to. There is a cost too, in both the second round of ammo used or this being your last shot and the creature runs for it and gets away. You pay the price for missing either way.

Use freely and happy gaming!

Monday, April 23, 2018

Traveller Core Rulebook (2nd Edition Mongoose)

Having fully bought into the 1st Edition of Mongoose Traveller, never got a chance to play it, and seeing a new second edition out...

This is going to be a tough one. I hate buying games to collect and eventually box.

I hear they updated the technology level to a more modern level. I like the 1970's level of technology as a throwback gamer, but I know times change and that retro-view is being left behind. I also hear starship design rules are not included in the main rulebook. I am feeling a PDF is a better purchase here initially. If I buy in.

People, from the reviews, seem to like this edition a lot. I also like supporting Mongoose's efforts, since I like the setting and love hard sci-fi. They went to a difference licensing model (TAS instead of Open Game), so there is that to consider. Again, this is a tough one. I feel more in tune with Labyrinth Lord and the connected universes around the Goblinoid-verse these days than to take a hard sci-fi detour in my interests so maybe I will wait.

This one is on my radar, or ladar, or menson whatever detector these noted. I would say cautiously looking forward to this one and I need to do some more research before I dive in.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Character Design and Balance

Going back to Labyrinth Lord and it's simpler characters made me think about the supposed advancements in character design from D&D 3.0 and forward. This also includes  non D&D systems with detailed character design systems where the variance in character power (the min-max factor) varies widely based on design choices. Let's do some charts!
The above reflects B/X systems, Basic Fantasy, Labyrinth Lord, and most other pre D&D 3.0 designs. As your character goes up in levels, their power goes up on a predictable, fixed rate. A 5th level fighter is pretty similar in powers and fighting ability as most every other 5th level fighter in a B/X style system, given average hit point rolls (that and gear determine character power). As a result, the balance curve is tighter.

Note that this chart only compares characters of the same class, the differences in balance between classes, such as mage and fighter, is still wildly different and follows D&D's asymmetrical system of balancing the glass cannon spellcasters versus the front-line meat shield martial classes. So we are comparing fighters to fighters, and mages to mages here. Let's turn the clock forward to newer games and look at systems with a wider variety of character design choices:

The next chart is character design as we expect systems with a lot of character customization. You can pick feats to enhance your combat power, you can make all sorts of other tweaks and design decisions to favor a weapon or power, and there is a wide latitude in choices of character design. This chart also reflects games with a wide difference in choices where a great character design can blow out the game's difficulty curve. This is also what we by default expect as well - since we want our choices to matter, and we expect good choices to be rewarded well.

The yellow area reflects abilities, feats, class powers, and other abilities outside of the normal hit points, to-hit, and spells from B/X. Pathfinder and the D&D games 3.0 and up have this "extra added" group of abilities normally found in character creation and  bonus class abilities (like a Pathfinder mage's force missiles or D&D 5's infinite-use cantrips). In short, the yellow area covers all the possible customization and extra powers that differ from B/X characters.

Above the red line are optimal designs, while below it are less-optimal - and this definition can vary depending on the referee and how the group plays. If you play all combat, then good designs will focus on combat. If you play mostly social, then good designs will be social-focused. Balanced social/combat games will see balanced social/combat character designs push above the line.

There is also a baseline difficulty adjustment that should be mentioned as well, since a B/X level one character is the weakest, a D&D 3.5 level one is a little stronger, and so on up to Pathfinder - at least among the fantasy game versions I am used to. D&D 4 and D&D 5 are a little more difficult to compare since hit-points and damages are scaled up.

But this covers these games well and a high-level view of character design expectations. I say expect here because this is often how a game looks when you first play it. You see hundreds of options and your first assumption is they are all good. As you play, you naturally discover the good from the bad, the feats and characters design choices that make your character excel, and the chart shifts a little to the actual chart below:

Character designs have a tendency to min-max towards the greatest effectiveness. As a result, the game's balance trends towards that area in green, because everyone wants the game to be exciting and fun, with encounters that challenge well-designed characters. As a designer, you want to narrow the range for balancing content, because there will be less variance in monster strength and encounter design.

Balancing All This

If I am a game designer, I want that green area to be as tight as possible (while still feeling good). You don't want too much difference between an average character and an optimized one, because you don't want min-max'ed "best" character designs blowing out average encounters. You want them doing well and feeling good about their choices, but you don't want them pushing everything over with ease.

Less than optimized characters? I don't really care about them and they can fall off the balance curve if they are terribly designed. You want some of this "lots of terrible designs" thing going on so you can create that 'system mastery' feeling in your game where you try repeated designs and discover what works best and what gets you towards that red line of average expected competence and character power. I remember somewhere where the designers of D&D 3.0 said they included less-than optimal choices in character design just to fill out a range of good choices and bad choices, just like deck building in Magic the Gathering. The silly non-historical double-ended greatswords and warhammers come to mind...

Now, if every character design choice is equal? You are back to the B/X chart and none of this matters. I am sort of reminded of D&D 5's system, where if you want to be a certain type of fighter you pick the ability you are expected to take, such as the Fighting Styles and Class Archetypes in that system. The entire character design system in D&D 5 is a lot tighter than games like Pathfinder, with less choices but more focused in both balance and the abilities you are expected to take given how you want your character to perform. The envelope is tighter in D&D 5, but there are still bad choices given what you want to do (taking an archery fighting style as a fighter and never using a bow, for example).

Why This Matters

As a player? I want to design and min-max, and that is a big part of the fun for me. I also want the game to be balanced and have the fights not be too easy or too hard.

As a referee? I want to be able to predict player power to balance encounters and not have the game either be too easy or result in a total party wipe. I also do not want "design as distraction" where players experience choice paralysis or the entire design system takes over the game.

Both players and referees want balance and to avoid the extremes of too easy or too hard. I like the encounter balancing systems of the newer rules, but for me as a referee, I never really had a problem balancing a B/X experience either - although I know that opinion is outside the current view of things.

To me, in a B/X experience, balance was more of a player-focused concern - they knew what they could fight (based on experience), and they were the ones who had to judge if they should open that next door. My secret "good DM" promise to players was not to put any monsters on the current level that would wipe them all out in the blink of an eye (something again, I learned through experience and the simple and mostly predictable nature of B/X combats plus limited monster lists). No ancient red dragons above dungeon level 7, please. Keep hit dice equal to dungeon level and player level, and use quantity and encounter composition to match party strength. Got it.

If I screwed up encounter balance and things started to go very badly? GM fiat time. Make some monsters weaker, have some run away, give the players an out, or make the monsters hold back a little out of caution. Fudging rolls was usually a last resort for me, and if I did, it was usually on monster to-hits while the players made a hasty retreat to lick their wounds and regroup.

Player Skill versus Design Skill

There are times when I want to take character design skill out of a game and just have a system that rewards creative play and player ingenuity. If your level 5 fighter is just like every other, then how you play them will make a big difference in your success or failure. Of course, there is the factor of random chance, but part of playing an old-school B/X game also involves a bit of risk mitigation and understanding random chances and trying to control odds.

I have had games where the character designs felt like they took over the game, and the players were focused on getting a numerical advantage through character design. I have seen games where a character's design and numerical advantage acted as a disincentive to attempting actions outside of their area of expertise. It is like am archery-focused fighter way above the range-combat power curve hesitating to get into melee combat because their character is only average at melee fighting.

A good referee will force characters outside of their comfort zones, but I found game systems with heavily min-max'ed character design systems make doing that a lot harder. I have had players disengage rather than be forced to fight outside of their numerical comfort zones. I don't blame the players though, I blame the game for putting them in that mindset. Some games tend to punish you hard for that risk-taking and out-of-the-box play, such as D&D 4 and the amount of optimizing needed to keep up with the content's ever-increasing challenge level (at least when we played, it changed several times as new monster manuals and revisions came out).

System Forgiveness and Flexibility

D&D 5 for us tends to be a very forgiving system. There is a lot of healing, character death is more difficult, there are many options and infinite-use spells for casters, and the game feels more like D&D 4's sort of MMO-inspired experience that is more player-friendly and focused. Characters are also mechanically complex with a lot of design options given the type of character you want to play. The game is also more story-focused like a modern narrative game, and as a result tends to reward "story based play" rather than the old-school "slay and loot" style.

B/X systems, for us, are a lot simpler, the characters are fast to design and die often, and the entire system is a lot less forgiving of bad luck or mistakes. They can approach the difficulty level of today's "rage games" in some insta-death adventures, and I find my players are a lot more crafty when they have less options and character advantages to fall back on. With less mechanical abilities, my great players are always trying to come up with creative ways to manipulate the situation to their advantage despite not having the "rules tools" to do so.

I have also seen less experienced players in old-school games "freeze up" because they don't think they can do much outside of "cast the spell" or "roll an attack." This is one of the hardest skills to pick up in systems that ;eave a lot up to interpretation, knowing that you as a player are free to come up with anything you can imagine you could do, and also that you are the referee should encourage and support those crazy plans and actions through fair judgments using the dice and/or ability scores to determine the chances to succeed or fail.

D&D 5 moved back from the "cover everything" sort of rules design where there are detailed rules for every action and leaves a lot up to players and referees. B/X systems are already there and I feel as a whole that moving back to more interpretive systems where less is more is a good thing. I don't need rules for everything, just guidelines on general things and me and my group  can take it from there.

My Current Feelings

I like what they did in D&D 5 to tighten up that character design curve. I don't like the double-scale hit-points and complexity of characters, though I can see why they did that in regards to player-friendliness. As a player, I like the character design choices because they let me specialize (at the cost of complexity though).

I like B/X a lot, because the numerical and design model is simple and the choices stark and unforgiving. It is like a pure form of chess to me, where the danger level is high and the rules unforgiving and completely straightforward without a high degree of complexity. I like the glass-cannon and simple nature of B/X casters, and even their power level compared to martial characters. That asymmetrical balance, especially if you severely limit 15-minute adventuring days through good refereeing, and this really appeals to me.

I like B/X resource management a lot, with casters worrying about an ever-dwindling supply of magic, the party's resources being drained, and that whole elevation of risk as the dungeon crawl goes on. B/X does this for me, as a player I love the discussions among the players about "should we tackle the next room?" There is a very strong risk and reward cycle going on here for me, and there are no distractions with factoring in numerical superiority through character designs into that calculus of character life and death.

It is a strange sort of realization. When I play a game with less character design options, and less story options, what I find interests me comes out better. There are times when I crave a good story and a great mathematical min-max'ed character, but I don't need them all the time and actually enjoy the lower-level risk-based play B/X excels at - at least for me and my group. I enjoy all of these games for different reasons, and no one is better than the other, and some do things better than others.

My Ideal Dungeon Game

I really like B/X games like Labyrinth Lord though. There is something to that 7 hp level one fighter and his longsword in some spooky abandoned keep fighting spiders and rats that appeals to me - even without all of the character design options of newer games. I can almost play that game in my head. I could play a game like this solo with just a character sheet and an encounter table.

It is that simple yet focused feeling, almost like a dungeon-game version of solitaire. I can't wait for my fighter to get to level two, get a slightly better to-hit, some treasure in his backpack, and maybe he now has 13 hp now. With every level he can go deeper and deeper, and my character really doesn't get all that more complex as he levels up. When he is hurt, he drinks a healing potion (if he has one), or heads back to town. The dungeon may restock when he comes back, and random encounters are always present in the halls, so getting back to where he was will be tricky.

He is still that guy, with a sword, using the wits as me (the player) to keep him alive down there. I don't have any other character design choices to fall back on. That character's story is completely determined by my choices in that dungeon, not by the rules, not by character design, but by my risk-management skills and dealing with runs of good and bad luck.

With simple characters I could run a whole 4 character party myself one one sheet of  paper for record-keeping - no computer programs needed to design characters and level them up. My fighter has chainmail and a sword, my rogue a dagger and leather armor, my mage a magic missile spell and a staff, my cleric chainmail, a shield, a mace, and cure light wounds. Some ability scores and hit points, some saves and to-hit numbers - and we are done. I don't have to reference the class areas of a player's handbook to know what special powers and feats each one can use - it is all here on the sheet.

This is B/X - I know this.

As I have less time for reading through 1,000 of pages of rules and options spanning a library of books and character options, that B/X style simplicity of both play and design is a feature of pen-and-paper games that I feel has real value. Playing old-school simpler games means the difference between playing and not playing, at least to me.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Mail Room: Starships and Spacemen 2e

If there is one thing I love about the old-school revolution it is projects like this. A B/X style throwback game covering a "classic Federation inspired" sort of roleplaying game using the well-known "old school dungeon" style rules? Yep, we got it in Starships and Spacemen.

This is something I honestly would expect to find in some small-town hobby shop in the 1970's where a group of local game writers get together and print something "inspired by" but ultimately totally different and cool. In fact, I do have a game like that lying around here just like this, a Trek inspired Basic D&D clone from the 70's much like this printed and distributed from what I know from somewhere from a group of fans in Texas.

This one comes from Goblinoid Games, the creators of Labyrinth Lord, and the S&S system is fully compatible with the LL rules and monsters. There is a larger Goblinoid Universe lurking here between Labyrinth Lord, Mutant Future, Starships and Spacemen, and other games in the series and if you collect them all you get this "more is better" thing going on in terms of content and system support.

But it Ain't Trek!

Well, D&D isn't the Lord of the Rings either. Nor does it have to be, because different is cool. Honestly, I don't really care, and as D&D proves the best games in the genre aren't the official ones either, they are inspired by, create new ideas from, and combine a bunch of influences together to create something entirely new. Space Opera, Star Frontiers, and a bunch of other classic sci-fi games come to mind.

S&S does a bunch of new things, it uses a typical Asimov-style star-federation as its base, introduces a bunch of crazy aliens to the mix like talking frogs and others, re-thinks gear and abilities in terms of adventures, and focuses the action on a sort of lower-level mission structure that I find really quite cool. The ships are just UFO-shaped without the extra flange and structure, and I find that a cool divergence. There is also a greater focus on classic psionics in characters, which I find is a cool new thing the game brings to "space navy sci-fi" sorts of games.

S&S is Trek as Firefly is Star Wars, in a way. A lot of this is really older-school sci-fi in my feeling, sort of a hearkening back to the original sources where Trek drew inspiration from as well, the HG Wells or Asimov-style Foundation series of "space navy" generic sci-fi. There are some items from other sci-fi stories in the mix, such as laser swords, AI controlled tanks, flame guns, force fields, androids, and robotic animals, so it is not trying to be a carbon copy. I wish it had more of these classic sci-fi items but the door has been opened for my imagination to include whatever I want - especially if I include other books from the Goblinoid Universe.

There is enough here to make me comfortable playing this as something new and not a carbon copy, and in my feelings this is really more of a 1970's sci-fi TV Show retro throwback game than it is anything else. I could include tips of the hat and inspired by things like Buck Rogers, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Dune, Foundation, Federation, Logan's Run, Alien, The Thing, Six-Million Dollar Man, Body Snatchers, Planet of the Apes, and feel right at home as the giant UFO-like space navy ship sets down and characters go on all sorts of zany and semi-serious 70's sci-fi adventures.

Actually, the Better Traveller Setup

A part of my brain tell me this is the Traveller I always wanted. Small ships with limited-size crews going out on blank hex-maps, mapping star systems, meeting the crazy-alien locals, getting into all sorts of trouble, having spaceship combats, landing on planets and exploring dangerous "dungeons" of lost civilizations, and really giving the player characters a lot of agency to set star-federation policy in the sector without having to worry about "command" back home dictating what they should do and say.

The players are free to setup alliances with whoever they find, to establish star-federation bases on the planets of races they meet, figure out dangerous space anomalies, shoot up space pirates, embark on mysteries that span multiple star systems, and have that sort of free-roaming plus "settling the wild west' sort of campaign that I always dreamed about with Traveller. But I never got to run.

If the players need backup? Head on back to the star-federation base on the edge of the map and get some other star-federation ships to come along for an epic fleet battle. After the evil space mongol fleet is pushed back from that corner of the map, it is back to the single ship adventures we love without escalating the entire campaign into a World War II naval simulator.

There is an enthusiasm here and an innocence that I feel just makes it work. You get serious games and serious properties, like Lord of the Rings, and all of a sudden doing the small and random things in that universe doesn't seem to fit. You just can't go out in LotR or Star Wars and say, "let's find a dungeon!" and be taken seriously. In D&D and "inspired by" B/X games like S&S? You can do that stuff because these games are in-fact derivative and inspired-by and there is a playful level of fun there that invites exploration and pushing the boundaries of what came before.

Simple Old-School Rules

The game works really well with the simple OSR dungeon-game style rules, like in some alternate universe gaming decided to stick with the Basic D&D paradigm and everything was developed for and compatible with that style of gameplay. You get more hit points and become a tougher hero, but so what? Only really that last shot that takes you down matters anyways, so everything else is a graze or a minor wound - and failing a saving throw versus a terrible effect is always the big threat.

Another note, the pre D&D 3 lower-scale damage and hit-point range is wonderful here. Newer editions of D&D always seem to ramp up the hit points and damage past level one, and this scaling I feel ruins the higher level game in most D&D games past 3rd edition. With a ramp-up in hit points comes multi-attacks or scaled damage that you see in modern games, and they never seem to get that original feeling right.

Yes, if my 5th level fighter or space adventurer has 30 hit points he will be able to take quite a few blows and crossbow hits - he is a hero after all! Early OSR games still get this right, and they don't need to scale damage or introduce multiple attacks just to balance things, and inevitably newer games introduce more difficult death and more abundant healing and I feel what was special about tabletop gaming is lost.

Choices matter. Character death isn't a video game respawn. You don't have 'healing surges' to get your MMO character back to 100% health for the next fight. You don't need a level 10 laser pistol that does 8d8 damage just to balance the out of control hit points. You don't need three 1d8 sword attacks per turn to keep your DPS rating on keel with the mages. High-level monsters don't need 300 to 1200 hit points to be terrifying. What's terrifying is all that math and repetitive multi-attack dice rolls over a four-hour combat with pages of rules reference to whittle that tangled-yarn junk-drawer rules mass of hit-points down to zero.

What's worse, if your hit point scaling past level one is out of control, the original polyhedral dice don't really matter that much any more. A 1d8 versus a 1d6 weapon against a 12 hit point monster? That means something. The same two weapons versus a 120 hit point monster? Not that much of a difference anymore since in scaled systems damage modifiers over multi-attacks primarily determine DPS. Getting a +5 damage and four attacks a turn? My DPS is about the same with a 1d8 sword as it is a 1d4 dagger, since the average roll difference is only 2 points per attack (30 vs. 38 per turn, with most of the damage coming from the fixed portion).

I feel OSR and B/X systems with one attack per turn, limited spells, limited healing, harsh death, risky saving throws, and the original hit-point scale do away with more of the problems of modern high-level games being unfun and taking forever to play, because the original hit-point range and balance is left intact. The original designers of D&D found a balance there that I feel we have forgotten with today's games, especially post D&D 3 games that have been going back and forth with new revisions to make high level "scaled" play fun again ever since the concept was introduced. In my feeling, there is no beating the B/X style originals that Gary G and company designed that way on purpose.


If there was one thing I can say attracts me to this game is the feeling of simplistic innocence to it all. It is like if a bunch of kids got together in a basement and home-brewed their own Trek-plus whatever style adventures using the basic dungeon game rules they knew and loved, and had adventures all across the galaxy with something they came up with all by themselves. Maybe they had an android from Blade Runner join the crew at one point, or met a Wookie like creature in another adventure. Maybe they fought a race of space-orcs on another planet, or dealt with a a creature from The Blob movie attacking a space colony on another. What holds them together is a common feeling that this is "space navy adventures" but everything else is make it up as you go along, borrow it from other games and movies, and just have fun.

It Needs a No-Art PDF

The only flaw here is there is no no-art PDF for free download. There is a $7 PDF with artwork on the RPGNow/DrivethruRPG stores, so that is an option, but I would like a no-art PDF option as well.

The Goblinoid Universe

What gives this game value is the larger Goblinoid Universe, and then also the large scope of compatible pre D&D 3 products out there in the wild. I can pull in characters, gear, and monsters from Labyrinth Lord, Mutant Future, Realms of Crawling Chaos, and even Apes Victorious and have everything work together. I could take a party of Starships and Spacemen characters and run them through the old module B1 Keep on the Borderlands if I wished and have then have the players use their universal translator to work up a deal with the goblins to fight the orcs on level two. Everything will work with very little to no conversion.

Does that sound fun? You bet it does. And I don't have to learn a new rules set to do any of this, nor do I have to work out painful conversions or scale difficulty to a new rules system and number scale.

What I had works. What I have works. What I know is what I need to know. B/X compatible all the way.

Is it flashy or video game cool? No, and it doesn't need to be. It just needs to work, and then get out of the way for roleplaying and problem solving to take over. I want players to be focused on world and story challenges, not rules and character-build challenges. That to me is B/X OSR and why I love it.