Sunday, September 27, 2020

Mail Room: Old School Essentials

The best way I can describe this book is, "This is 8-Bit B/X."

And I mean that in the most positive, excited, and incredible way. Those wonderful years of 8-Bit game consoles, and especially the NES - those are really cool memories. How they created new and cool experiences within the limited capabilities of that hardware and system and wowed us with the depth and creativity they had to squeeze out every drop of power and gameplay depth is a part of my childhood.

More with less.

Simpler times.

You don't need 16 bits of CPU or power, and in fact, having more is a distraction that leads you down a path of disappointment. Because the door is opened to distractions, like the SNES's limited 3d, sprite handling, and the chase for lifelike graphics. We need more storage space for music and graphics! We need full motion videos! We need music streamed from the CD-ROM! Now we need 32-bit consoles...64 bit...more 3d hardware...CD ROMs...DVDs...Blurays...hard drives...SSDs...faster load times...AI acceleration...sound streaming...

When you go down that road you lose something. You lose the simplicity. You lose the core experience of gaming. By keeping the game simple and focused on a core experience, you free up the imaginations of players and game masters alike.

Monsters and Spells are Highlights

The monsters are really well done. I have not seen monsters this well done in a long time in pen-and-paper games. Each monster has a condensed list of notes, special attacks, defenses, or special rules following the description. The special attacks and defenses leverage the saving throw system. Sometimes there are treasure notes, surprise chances, who the monsters dislike, and other bits of useful information in these bulleted lists of notes.

I am reminded of the HARP monsters book and how a medusa's special abilities take up paragraphs of rules and information in the monster description. Here, a couple bullet points on how a medusa's attacks and special rules work, and we are on our way. Every monster is like that, just the rules for what we need to make it work, and do not belabor or drag out the information.

Spells are similarly cleaned up and organized and are just as much as a highlight in the system. Clean, concise, and unambiguous spells are easier to use at the table because there are no questions on their use and referees can rule consistently at every game table. Any special circumstances where referee rules are needed are out of the norm and not due to spells being written ambiguously.

Again, that 8-bit design mentality shines. Boil the monster down into exactly what we need to play it, make it work, make it clear, and make it a threat in the game.

The Art is Glorious

The art is generous, with two-page panel spreads throughout, and original, a wide variety of styles, and just wonderful. You know those incredible instruction manuals in those 8-Bit games of yesterday, often with anime or other dramatic art and lots of wonderful illustrations to get your imagination going? This reminds me of those fun little booklets that take a simple concept, a game where you have to use your imagination, and it seeds those ideas in your head. The art is perfect, and it is a wonderful example of letting the game master and players imaginations take it from there.

You want to run a game more lighthearted? The art supports that feeling. You want realistic and serious? The art is there to get you started. Silly and dungeon-trope humor filled? The art has that feeling covered as well.

The art meets or beats the quality of what is coming out of the big fantasy gaming publishers, and shows a remarkable diversity of style and theme that I find refreshing. Since the game will be many things to many people, the art should not look "all the same" and this goes wild and shows an incredible range of styles and themes that just makes the book a pleasure to open and flip through.


The equipment list is a little short, as it focuses on essential items, but this can serve to reduce the chaff and unimportant pieces of junk players are forced to keep track of. The individual weight of equipment items seems like an omission, because it is not on the list, but later on in the rules it is assumed each of these items weights 80 coins, so equipment encumbrance is covered, though in a simplified way.

Magic User spells go up to 6th level, and cleric to 5th. For those of us used to having spell lists that go all the way to 9th and 7th this may seem like a limitation, but I am find with it since the spells and the levels given are the ones that have seen the most use at our tables. Not every world needs those super high level spells, and there is a point where some of them got repetitive just higher powered. One could always port in those spells from other OSR products too, if you really, really want them.

Compared to the wonderful everything in there junk drawer of Labyrinth Lord, yes, this game is simpler and smaller in scope in regards to choices, spells, monsters, classes, and selection. However, there are times when as a group of players and a world builder - I want a smaller focus. A more focused starting point. A simpler framework from which to start from.

Labyrinth Lord can feel like a gigantic central subway station with crowds of people, bad guys, things going on, noise, and bustle and that can be a distraction to a group just trying to share a story that is focused on one conflict.

Let's say we have a story where an evil Baron is using a tribe of hill trolls to control a marsh community. In OS Essentials, we can focus on just that conflict easily. There is less chaff and distraction. In Labyrinth Lord, the sandbox of demons, undead, beings from beyond, hundreds of classes, thousands of spells, and all sorts of other distractions can take the focus away from that simple story very easily.

If you like modding Skyrim with 500 mods to have it all, including small scale wars between twenty factions, dragons, and the undead? Labyrinth Lord is your game. If you prefer a classic and simple tale of adventure like Zelda, where you need to figure out solutions given a limited scope and set of rules? OS Essentials would likely appeal to you more (though yes, you can just expand OS Essentials anyways with all the LL stuff and go wild, but Link will be climbing over piles of dead monsters and soldiers).

Both can exist together. Both have a different feel and focus. Both can be played and enjoyed by the same group. OS Essentials is more of a starting point for a game you take your way, than it is an already filled out sandbox full of classic game pieces.

There is a freedom in starting simple. Looking forward to diving into this one, and more soon.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Mail Room: Advanced Labyrinth Lord

The Advanced Labyrinth Lord book came today, and it is a nice collection of everything in one place. All the monsters in one list, consolidated treasure tables, and one spell list. I got this book and instantly...

...I wanted a higher quality stitched binding, heavier stock paper, a bookmark, and a real "deluxe" edition with more artwork and content. More OSR art. Art for all the monsters. That sense of quality and drama. Celebrate the hobby and genre by going all out. I swear some of the newer really high-quality roleplaying books are spoiling me. You take one look at Alien, OS Essentials, or Zweihander and you instantly want that. Something to pass down. Something permanent, you know?

If there was another version of AL&L I would love it to be this "going all out" ultimate version and I would kickstart support this at a premium level.

LL: The Linux of OSR

Old School Essentials feels more like the Unix version of B/X, while Labyrinth Lord feels more like a user-experienced Linux release. The support among 3rd party products for Labyrinth Lord is good, and this delivers a version of the game that is a mash-up between D&D and AD&D that I remember when I started playing in the late 70's. Back then, we had our campaign, and every new book that came out - D&D or AD&D was mashed into our world.

I do like Old School Essentials as the lower-level compatibility layer for B/X, and both can co-exist. Labyrinth Lord is that distribution of Linux with the MP3 and video player, solitaire, games, a media center, Libre Office, all the browsers, the dev tools, and a web server built in. There is a lot in Labyrinth Lord and it can do a lot of stories and fantasy genres easily, even if you do not use it all. Demons? Devils? Cthulhu? Dragons? Undead? Vampires? Evil cults and gods? Orcs and goblins? Barbarians? Your campaign bad guys are all in the book (or one easy to find).

Keeps Me Coming Back

Labyrinth Lord is the game that keeps me coming back to OSR. Of all of the games I own, even Basic Fantasy and Dungeon Crawl Classics, Labyrinth Lord is the game I have on my desk. These days, it is "D&D" for me, the way I think of fantasy adventuring, and the framework I use for thinking about this type of dungeon gaming.

With a lot of modern games, they are over 1,000 pages to read and learn just to get started, optimized builds and combat strategies, and designed to take all of your mental effort to be a part of and absorb. Pathfinder eventually got too big for our group to play, and it was more fun to read and look at the art.

To "think" in OSR plus have a lot of options, plus compatibility with older adventures, and feeling like how I started with the game while keeping that simplicity, Labyrinth Lord hits a sweet spot.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Mail Room: Alien

Oh wow, seriously impressed by this one. The presentation of this one is sort of like one of those "movie companion" books, like those official guide to the movie sort of coffee table books for fans. There are pages full of art with one lonely box of rules in an offset center box, floating in the space of nothingness.


And they took out Alien: Resurrection from the timeline, and included Prometheus and Covenant. Well, that over the shoulder basketball shot in Resurrection is still in my timeline, thank you. There is no retconning pure awesome.

Not Your Typical Alien?

The book gives you license to change the alien, the monster, the abilities, and the threat. I suppose including Prometheus in the timeline is a good thing, since once that black goo DNA stuff gets loose and melds with any lifeform - you have no idea what it is going to do. I wouldn't go so far as to make it like The Thing, but if that goo gets on a dog, or a tiger, a cockroach, a centipede, a jellyfish, or a strange gel worm...who knows what it could mutate into? Even among the alien xenos themselves you could have a similar variance in abilities and powers, and the book says keep the players guessing.

What we saw in the movies could be only ONE of the life forms. Hollywood's infatuation with that one monster could be blinding us to the real horrors which lie in the dark void of the universe. Corporate profits over everything else? Sounds like Alien to me.

So the door is opened to all sorts of space horrors.

I feel this is a good thing, because you don't want the knowledge of the movies to define the game and to limit it in player's heads. If tonight's monster is a giant bone-and-flesh blob of bio-goo that melds and absorbs with any crewmember it eats, that is the monster. If it is a space cucumber that bores into people's heads and uses mind control on others, that is the monster.

Another thought, with a movie like The Thing, that DNA is very rapidly acting and it insta-transforms into a final form. I do not feel this is "good Alien form." In the Alien universe, the black goo sets into motion a series of evolutionary changes - and this is true for most of the movies - where something goes from one form into another in a series of staged evolutionary steps. Sometimes the form changes. Maybe it creates a cocoon. Maybe it turns into a larvae for a stage. Maybe it burrows into a host on one stage and pops out in another.

That series of horrifying, staged, unpredictable biological evolutionary steps I would keep as a centerpiece of the game. Any monster I build would share this trait, and I could probably dig through a book about insects and how they lay eggs, create cocoons, create hives, build nests and traps, parasite other insects and lifeforms, and turn into different forms through their lifespans for a bunch of great ideas.

You want players to feel their characters are like test subjects in a petri dish, with the next evolutionary step being more horrifying than the next, and the game green lights this.


Looking Forward to This

More when I dive in, and this already has a highest recommendation from me just from what I have heard and seen as I cracked the book open. And it is a high quality stitched book with very high production values. I am really happy with this one.

The only thing I wonder about is if the people playing this game will limit themselves to what they saw in the movies. I feel there is so much more here to explore if you pull in the horrible evolution of Prometheus, and realize the movies are not telling the whole story.

They are made by the corporations.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Mail Room: Savage Worlds (Adventure Edition)

I had forgotten about the simplicity of this game, like I had mentally blanked and there was a hole there in my experiences. Perhaps life over the past few years kept me too occupied to think about this system and I somehow pushed it back to the point of dismissal.

I am reading this game as if this is my first time with it again. There is the familiar, the rating of attributes and skills on the various polyhedral dice, and the simplified advantage/disadvantage system with edges and hinderances.

The basic rules of actions, roll a die equal to your skill or attribute, and a d6 wild die. Reroll and add the die if it rolls maximum (exploding dice). Beat a 4. One raise per 4 points you beat the target number. Any amount of raises on a damage roll add a 1d6 top the damage (that can also explode). Damage is less than toughness is no effect. Damage equal to or greater, character is shaken. For every raise on the damage roll, apply a wound. Extras take 1 wound, wild cards (like PCs) take 3. Spend a benny, make a soak roll on vigor to reduce the wounds taken from damage.

That...that is most of the game in a nutshell.

The auto-fire and RoF rules are kind of strange, but not too hard to get used to - and they are not like most RoF rules in other games. I think that was my biggest hang-up learning the game the first time. Keep your deluxe edition around for that extended combat example.

The Action Figure Game

To me, the best way to wrap my head around this game is calling it "the action figure game." If I use the word RPG it brings in a lot of baggage, so I avoid that - even though this is a RPG at heart. To me, this is a lot like a homebrew system (I know it is super popular) that a kid would invent to stat out his (or her) GI JOE 3 and 3/4" action figure collection, give them different ratings for ability scores with his D&D dice, write down some special skills for each figure, and give them all edges and hinderances based on personality.

Then, play different games with them all over the bedroom floor.

To me, this is the best way of conceptualizing this game. You aren't dong some complicated "4 page character sheet" thing with all sorts of exception-based rules play, complicated classes and ability trees, and a sort of a "life sim" sort of system. You are statting out your action figures with ratings in different things. Play should be quick. The results should be fast and decisive. Did we do it? Yes or no. Move on!

The answers to questions that come up should not take 20 rolls on 50 pages of charts. We are not going to worry about crit charts. We do not need ratings for potential ability scores. This game isn't an answer to AD&D or any other system. We are not trying to solve another game's problems, we are just trying to have fun.

This is just the simple, fast to play, action figure game and what is more important is setting up a challenge, determining success or failure, spending some bennies to modify the result, if needed, and moving on to the next big thing. If you did not defend the front door of the military base made out of empty cereal boxes, you fell back to the mess hall, defend the crazy science device they are trying to secure, and setup the next phase of the adventure. If you did defend, you forced them out onto the airfield and you can hop in your Skystrikers to shoot at the attacking Cobra tanks and jets.

This isn't to say the game doesn't have crunch and depth, or you can run long, meaningful campaigns with the system - you can and many do - I just like to create these mental models for the game to set my perception of them. Considering this game does support tabletop play with figures and has always kept that strong focus, I feel the model fits the game rather well.

Power Level is Relative

The power level? What you define it to be. If a d12 skill is a "level 120" World of Warcraft character, that is the incredible power of the character in this world. If that is on a more normal power level in a real-world setting, it is a master ninja best of all time and not equal to that super-heroic fantasy world. Power, and the dice, are relative.

You don't really want to go there with scaling side into d14s and d16s and d30s, and the really legendary characters should all be on a similar power level. You could scale the dice with Zochis to a huge range, but there is a point when it all blurs. The highest die is the highest power level in your world.

Looking Forward to This

This is oddly a game I am looking forward to just having fun with and running different scenarios. This is one of those games that is more fun to play than it is to learn, and it is a framework for fast adventures and what-ifs using a variety of iconic action-figure like heroes in crazy situations.

I am happy I rediscovered this one and gave it a second look.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Generic System: Alien

One of the things I love about the Alien RPG is the stress dice system. From the Youtube videos I watched of this being reviewed and played (I know, why aren't I on Youtube?), the game uses a "stress dice" mechanic to ratchet up tension and bad consequences as the game progresses.

A slow build that builds tension for the introduction. At 30 minutes we get our "huge shocking moment!" At the hour mark the PCs begin to learn how screwed they all are and the NPCs start dying. By hour two everyone is completely frantic and panicked as they rush to complete objectives, and the first PCs start to die. By hour three of the game the few players with still living PCs are screaming their character actions as insanity grips the table.

Great stuff, very "experience focused" and I am looking forward to reading this game. With any space monster, not just the iconic xenomorph, this works in any situation and any setting where you are trapped in a place where you slowly start to figure out the place is not the safe castle you thought it to once be. Your home is the monster's lair, and you are just guests. For dinner.

But let's play this game - and a scenario like this - using a generic system, just as a thought experiment.

Captain Maxwell Brave

Well, figuring this mind experiment is designing characters with "any generic system" and I have access to a full range of character design options, let's design our first character. Now, the game could be GURPS, Savage Worlds, FATE, or any system that allows character design choices.

My character, of course, is Captain Maxwell Brave, the captain of our Alien starship and right off, as a player, I buy the fearless and brave advantages. I do not want my space captain to feel the effects of fear, panic, stress, or any other hinderance from some two-bit space monster that happens to get on board HIS ship.

Let's buy levels of charisma and inspiration as well, in order to help protect his crew, give inspiring speeches, and immunize any crew on his ship from panic as well. Just having Captain Maxwell Brave on the starship means confidence! Any crew just knows if he is in the command chair, that nothing bad can happen to them.

He is also a retired professional pistol marksman who won thousands of competitions from around the galaxy, just because we need a quick reason to buy up that pistol skill to insane levels. I mean, the design system ALLOWS me to design any character I want, right? You wouldn't be a bad game master that nobody wants to play with and limit my choices?

Doctor Geldoc Smart

Next character! Due to a hideous lab accident that took away his hair, gave him a good amount of disadvantage points of unattractiveness, and an insane amount of acid resistance, Doctor Geldoc Smart joins the crew as chief scientist. What do we need attractiveness for anyways in an Alien scenario, we are not going to bars and looking for missions? Did I say acid resistance? Yes I did! His skin is highly resistant to acid, just I am not designing characters to cheat the situation! How dare you insinuate that? You must not want me as a friend! This game system said "create any character you want!"

He also has heightened senses, as a result of the accident. Um, why can't he? His exposure to acid affected his sense of touch, but all other senses are now heightened. Why, he bet he could just smell an alien around here somewhere...

So anyways, if we are playing this game as intended, our scientist is super smart, has access to a wide range of super-science devices, and can use science to defeat any alien creature he encounters. Why, his science is so powerful he can make mind-control helmets that he can use to control any alien's mind! Or anti-alien force fields! Or alien control rays! Or anti-acid grenades! Or teleportation wristbands for the crew!

There is no problem he can't solve with science!

Toolman Manny Jackson

Now, Toolman Manny Jackson builds robots. He can build robots for anything. Why, he doesn't need to go anywhere dangerous or do anything dangerous, he just builds a robot and sends the robot to do his job for him. That's right, Toolman is so smart and so resourceful, he could build a robot out of anything, even a kitchen appliance and some unused silverware. He can build robots to do all his fighting for him as well, making deadly weapons out of common household objects, like a deadly razor disc launcher out of a movie-player and stack of movie discs.

Manny can also fix darn well near anything, and work remotely using a robot and his VR glasses. Who needs to send a team down to the engine room to fix the overheating reactor when Manny can whip up a team of robots, arm them with weapons, and send the miniature army of bots down there to do the job for him?

Reactor overloading? Nope, not happening with Manny around. no need to escape to orbit, the reactor is fixed! He will expect a bonus from the company however for saving the facility.

Manny can also fabricate any type of weapon he needs, from plasma guns to flamethrowers, just with a couple common household objects. Did you know a DVD player could be turned into a heavy laser machinegun - just because it has a laser diode inside it to read the disc?

First Officer Sophia Blade

Renown martial artist and blade fighting specialist Sophia Blade joins our crew with the ability to turn anything into a deadly thrown weapon, her special transpera-steel acid-resistant fighting blade, and a dodge skill high enough to avoid any splash of blood (or acid) that comes from her precision strikes. Why? She doesn't like getting dirty! Don't question my character design choices I am not doing this to avoid acid splashes in melee! Are you accusing me of cheating? The rules say "any character you can imagine!"

I just have a great imagination is all.

And she grew a gladiatorial arena fighting aliens! Yep, that is her background. No wonder we can buy all these melee skills, she is hunted by every known xenomorph in the galaxy known to humankind because she um, killed so many of them in the arena. Any ship with her on it is bound to have three different xenomorph species on it at one time so many are hunting her, but it is no problem!

So anyways, Sophia Blade's chi powers allow her the remarkable abilities to wall run, survive for short periods in a complete vacuum, disappear like a ninja in a puff of smoke, move through areas undetected, stalk her enemies like a professional assassin, lay down deadly traps for enemies, and deliver killing blows in the first thrust in combat. Her character race is defined as "ninja" and she comes from a planet of ninjas.

Doctor Marcus Healman

Ex Special Forces doctor Marcus Healman joins the crew, with his uncanny ability to bring back the dead, heal any wound, and create any drug he needs with a minimum of materials and effort. Did you know common breakfast cereals contain so many minerals that they can be used as the base for most any generic drug? He can also create cybernetic limbs and bodies, just in case a crewmember gets too chewed up and needs a complete body replacement.

And since Doctor Healman served in the Colony Wars (tm) his combat skills are par excellence, and his skill at shipboard guerrilla warfare is second to none. Why, he could find a patch of mud to cover himself in and hide in in any ship, even the most spotless. He knows how to use most any heavy weapon and arms system produced today. He can fly military spacecraft, drive tanks, work automatic grenade launchers, and crew any weapons system in the galaxy.

Oh and he is hunted by every other faction in the universe, so not only will we have three extra xenomorphs on the ship, there are probably five squads of enemy soldiers hiding on the ship somewhere waiting to take him out. And no, none of them know about the others.

Why combine him with a soldier character? Because the game master wants us to design average working characters, that's why. I know this isn't a military mission! That is why he is "ex" special forces!

You Get the Point

I know you are enjoying these extra-silly writeups, and I will do more in the future since I love doing them. But they highlight a point. Some systems give you so many options players can immunize themselves from almost any problem thrown at them, and they sabotage the genre instead of support it. The Alien game thankfully (to the best of my knowledge) uses rules to support the experience, and while I could design the above characters in the system - they would not have the game breaking rules behind them to make them immune to the challenges the game throws at them.

Yes, I am cheesing generic systems. This isn't to say they are bad, just...there is a tendency to cheese them once the players know what they are getting into. You get into this "players versus the genre" fight that isn't necessarily "players versus game master" - though it could turn into that quickly during play. This is just a natural reaction of humans to survive, use the tools given to them, and optimize their chances of survive given the options presented and allowed to them.

This isn't really the fault of the players or the game master, and it is really more of a game design issue. Yes, you could find a more mature group that avoids the cheesy choices and designs realistic characters that fit into the genre, but you are asking players to make artificial choices at that point and limit themselves in an unnatural way.

Also, some generic games deal with this sort of cheese better than others. Some other games are so full of cheese and broken builds they have holes in the pages. Your mileage may vary, and a lot depends on your players.

The Alien game takes a different angle, from what I know, and puts players on a mostly even field. There aren't game-breaking choices available. The rules are written to enhance the experience, not to sabotage it. I like games written to deliver an experience, and I also like the freedom of generic systems.

But there is a conflict between generic systems and the ability of players to immunize themselves from specific experiences and genres. Given most any generic system, I can build characters that deal with horror scenarios pretty well. I know the rules that will be used against the players (fear, shock, stealth, etc), and I will use the design options available to defend against them, either subtly or overtly like the characters above. The above characters are way over the top I know, but to tell you the truth, every one of them has been played at my table over the last 40 years.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Game Shopping: Savage Worlds Adventure Edition

Oh nice, Savage Worlds is out with a new edition. For our group, this game was eclipsed by FATE and kind of stayed on the shelf - despite being an excellent system that could literally do anything. This is one I wanted to play, but events in my life and my group breaking up kind of put the entire jump to this system on hold in favor of keeping with FATE and D&D 4th/Pathfinder until that story ended.

Part of what got me posting again is I am looking for homes for a lot of my older books, and only keeping what I want. So I am unboxing everything, building some nice sets of shelves to sort through things with, and I am sharing my feelings about over 40 years in this hobby. When I can, I am updating the games I want to keep and looking at a few new ones to fill my time.

Savage Worlds = Super Popular

Some of my previous articles discussing using Savage Worlds to do World of Warcraft are still some of this blog's most popular articles, and the point still is a good one - simulate the flavor of the World of Warcraft experience, rather than converting in thousands of powers, monsters, items, and spells. Design your characters to closely match what you feel a WoW character should be, and given when you played the game this will likely be different depending on if you are still playing or the time you quit. That game changes and reinvents itself every year to keep things fresh, so yesterday's WoW is not tomorrow's.

As long as you are close and get the feeling right, you are fine. Play. Enjoy.

Solo Game?

As a solo game? This could work. It is a more simple framework than a GURPS, and many people prefer this to that game as well, so I could see running some one-offs for myself with the system. Admittedly, GURPS is more simulationist and old-school, but the games are similar enough with this one having a more pulp flavor I could see this one working for a lot of things I am looking at doing.

I wished our group would have adopted this game more, I can see it have solving a lot of the system wrestling we went through with several settings and rules systems. When D&D 4th fell through, we switched to Pathfinder for several campaigns, and moved over to the computer-aided design program for characters. The entire experiment was a bust as I look back, and no one was happy with the system. Pathfinder just wasn't two-fisted fun and exciting, there were so many "rules by interrupt and exception" that to run as many characters as we did, we spent more time tracking, building, and referencing than playing.

Something makes me wish we switched to Savage Worlds and never looked back. That would have solved so many issues. We could have had our actiony, two-fisted, action oriented heroes with as little rules chaff as possible. The less work you have to put in getting to a "place of fun" the better. I could completely see the group of 4th Edition larger than life fantasy superheroes we ran in Savage Worlds, kicking butt, and taking names.

Minor Changes

From what I read the game does not make too many changes from the older edition. They add five default skills for everyone, some skills are combined to reduce the list size and broaden the use of those, some slight changes to chases, and weird science being an arcane background. There are also some layout, art, and presentation changes to clean things up. I am looking forward to seeing this edition and diving in already.

Coming Soon

I am looking forward to getting my hands on the new hardcover soon, and will do an article on it when it arrives. Perhaps I will flip through some of these old 4th Edition characters and convert them over for an adventure or never know.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Game Shopping: Alien

I have read the reviews and watched Youtube videos - this one looks like a winner. The mechanics are a mix between boardgame and RPG, and I want to say it almost feels like a Eurogame in spirit, but a RPG in essence.

And from what I hear, the Xenomorphs are de-emphasized, and there is campaign play. You could play without having the iconic Alien in your game. You could play a one-shot cinematic game. You could make up your own space monsters with a little work and a 1d6 attack table. I could make this a Roger Corman RPG and come up with any silly space monster I want, like a red space turnip with tentacle arms.

I can't wait for this to come - looks incredibly fun, and the production values from what I hear are top notch. Will check this out soon.

Friday, September 18, 2020

GURPS: The Death Spiral

GURPS is a great game. Like B/X, this is a game that I can "think" in easily and play in my head - as long as combat follows the simplified model. The combats can get wildly complex with all sorts of modifiers and conditions, check out this site for some great examples of fights and how the concepts of "shock" and the classic GURPS "death spiral" of getting hit first and the "pile on" effect of damage and penalties give the first hit advantage to the one drawing first blood.

I have heard some criticize the "death spiral" where it is very hard to recover the advantage from damage taken in combat, but to me that is a more realistic portrayal of fighting. There are character options to negate this (the high pain threshold advantage and the berserk disadvantage), and if you were playing a typical D&D fighter-type, the high pain threshold would be a must-buy for me.

Got a Problem? Buy it Off!

That is always an interesting thing with GURPS, a lot of the criticism of the game feel more like a lack of knowledge of the rules or character design options. For a mage or thief who don't normally take damage, the shock rules work as intended and add an extra level of threat to taking damage. For fighter types, you need to spend points to avoid the death spiral since this is your job day in and day out, and if you attended a fighter school worth its salt, they toughened you up like a 2-dollar steak before graduation with the high pain threshold advantage.

The Rules Help Make the World

You thought today's hazing rituals were bad, just go back a couple hundred years and get roughhoused and beat on by your fighter school classmates each and every day. This is a good example of the rules creating a logical behavior in the game world. Does it make sense that the fighter academy give students the option to buy high pain threshold when they (survive) graduate? Yes it does, if you come out of this school, and you want to spend the points, you should be able to buy it for your character.

Well, what does that say about the school? There must be daily organized brawls, getting beat on by rock filled socks, taking wounds in training, and all sorts of roughhousing going on - and it being encouraged by those doing the training. I could imagine a school like this for medieval knights and the place has a bad reputation, has a casualty rate, but produces some of the toughest warriors in the land.

You come out with high pain threshold and you earned that advantage with bruises and scars as your receipt, and you can take some levels of disadvantages in appearance there to help cover the cost. It just works and it makes sense.

Contrast this with a traditional D&D style school where the need for allowing this advantage isn't there, and you have to assume this with the entire "fighters and their higher hit points" thing. You may gloss over the roughhousing and make this more of a family-friendly school of chivalrous knights that looks like a D&D novel book cover of perfect people smiling and posing with swords.

Death Spiral? Adds to the World

You could make an argument that "the death spiral" helps make the world too, and enforcing these rules adds to that gritty, realistic feeling. If you are a fighter, protect your squishy friends who faint at the sight of blood. Don't let them get into danger. Take the damage for them, if need be. You are the warrior, this is your role.

It is not like, well, the thief has 20 hits, he can afford to take a 8 point hit. Who cares? Why give up any of my 30 hits for him? Well, you may want to take the damage instead and have the healer take care of you. That thief may get his attack in and help you all win the fight. You don't want your friends to get into trouble if you can help it, so sacrifice your health if need be.

Like Call of Cthulhu and Insanity

A lot of these games have rules that shape the world. Call of Cthulhu's insanity system, Warhammer FRP and Zweihander's combat systems, Rolemastrer's crit charts, FATE's entire aspect and consequence system, and a bunch of other systems' specific rules and procedures. If you know the game, then the rules can influence the world and help shape it. It just take a couple minutes of thinking about how all this works, and coming up with "the reasons why" and adding some of these to the world before players enter it.

In Cthulhu, there should be some people "not quite right in the head" in the town before you start poking around. Everyone by default is not a sane blank slate and insanity is only now happening because the PCs arrived. Why are those not quite right people that way? Are they just odd with a screw loose, or did this happen for another reason...?

From Abstract to Concrete

The death spiral is one of those rules that creates the line between the melee characters and the non-melee ones, and it can be negated to a degree. In D&D the abstract concept of higher hit points for fighters covers this. In a more simulation style game like GURPS, this difference is built into character design and is a character creation option.

Then the question becomes, how can so many characters buy this advantage? That is a world building question, as a generic "do anything be anyone" world puts you in the fake place of equal choices. There are no equal choices. The world will define them, and as a referee and world builder, part of your job is to make character design options make sense and fit into the world. You could apply this logic to magic schools. Are they in the open, mainstream, and the accepted education of high society, or underground and full of demon worship and dark arts?

Your world building choices, and the backgrounds players want to create, will help shape that world and what skills and design options are available to characters.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Mail Room: HARP SF

Another from the mail room is HARP SF and the Extreme expansion, which came today. The Extreme book's first half contains the starship and vehicle rules, so it is pretty much essential. The other half of this book is dedicated to cyber-ware, AI characters, and robots.

The books are hard-cover, but like their HARP counterparts, the paper quality feels a little light to me. I would have liked a heavier grade paper for all of these books to be honest. This isn't going to get in the way of me enjoying these, but it is worth noting.


I am still looking for that answer in the books. I assume this is because Spacemaster existed, but I found no real good explanation for the game in the introduction. We loved Spacemaster back in the day, so I assume this is here because of that, but the focus of this game feels slightly nebulous to me.

HARP SF also seems tied to a pre-made campaign setting referenced throughout the rules. It seems an odd choice, I would have rather liked this to be a more generic sci-fi game like HARP Fantasy, but the setting is easily replaceable.

Monsters and Mysteries Wanted

If that is the case...I want some space monsters. I know, I am harping on HARP for not delivering the goods when it comes to monsters in both versions of the game. I like the strange and inventive space bugs, odd lifeforms, and other mysterious lifeforms to be out there. Otherwise, why do we need scientists? Similarly for technical and engineering challenges, I think the last sci-fi game to get a lot of this right was the classic Star Frontiers game, which had cool and varied space creatures, and lots of things for the non-combat classes to do.

Without space aliens, the game becomes a lot more interpersonal, and the science professions suffer. When it comes to sci-fi, I like a balanced approach and a lot of unexplained phenomena. Otherwise this becomes, "modern space!" Like westerns in space, swashbucklers in space, corporate greed in space, or gangsters in space. Without the unknown and unexplained, all this could be done in other games and genres without the sci-fi chrome, and truer to the source.

What Would I Do With This?

This is a good question. I can't think of a world or a game I would like to play with this, in all honesty. I would likely need to pull in additional resources to pull a game together. From the looks of the art and the read of the setting, it feels really The Fifth Element to me, minus the Moebius art. Everything from the evil space lizardmen, to the fluid notion of what a character is, to the grav cars and constant backstabbing of the factions just feels like that movie. Plus you have entertainer as a class profession. Any sci-fi game with entertainer in there, yeah, you are doing Fifth Element or something Cyberpunk.

There are a couple video-game influences here as well, such as Halo or Gears of War. The game and the setting is an odd one, like here is a huge city in space, now figure out what to do with it. I honestly felt the same way about Spacefinder and could not really find a compelling theme for that setting either, other than, what happened to our memories? Why did the game designers do this to us? At least here everyone has their minds about them, but I feel I need more to be compelling.

The "so what" test is useful in essays and writing where you are presenting a compelling argument, and I don't see this setting passing that test. Space Opera, GURPS Space, Star Frontiers, Traveller, FFG Star Wars, and many other sci-fi games do "big city in space" well - plus a whole lot more.

The setting feels a bit all encompassing, like a springboard for any idea taken from a movie. I either wish this was more focused on a single conflict and planet, or the entire setting removed entirely and this more presented as a generic handle-anything sci-fi game like a Traveller. To me, the legendary Star Frontiers did a good job in limited space laying out a sandbox universe that wasn't generic, wasn't "fill in the movie here," and that had conflicts and factions built-in and meshed well with the game.

GURPS Space, Traveller, and even Cepheus Engine do generic sci-fi well enough too . Especially GURPS Space, since that can do hard sci-fi to science fantasy really well, and allows a variety of balanced character builds that mesh with any potential setting well.

HARP Hard Sci-Fi

If they continue the line, I would love to see a book more devoted to hard sci-fi. To me, the notion of a Rolemaster like system where interesting combat crits and deadly weapons are the name of the game begs for a more realistic setting and take on the rules for space travel and technology.

Science Fantasy is easy, because you can always come up with a new psionic power or new alien species to get interest. This is what Star Trek did for years, there was always something unexplained and never before seen the "space humans" had to figure out for the benefit of the galaxy. I know, put that way Star Trek does seem rather "human saviors" coming in and solving the universe's problems, but that was that show, even up to modern times. In a sense, there is not much you can do about it because...well...humans are still the audience for this planet's escapist fantasy.

With hard sci-fi, things aren't so easy. You get a lot of character motivations coming into play, like the backstabbing in Aliens or the drug-pushers of Outland. You do slip a lot into the Wild West stereotypes and plots, since those were also plots and situations driven by people with motivations - good and bad - and the conflicts that ultimately resolve them.

Stick with Science Fantasy?

In a sense, keeping this more science fantasy probably works better for a game like this, but I would like to see a more generic, space-roaming Guardians of the Galaxy or Firefly type feel to this that is starship-centered and mission and planet of the week. Something that goes with the mirror universe of fantasy adventures nicely. Give me a random chart that kicks me off...

An ice world...a remote pirates...a distress call...a mining team that found a strange temple and didn't report back...

...and giant evil space hamsters.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Mail Room: HARP Hardcovers


My set of hardcovers for HARP came yesterday and I am looking forward to diving into this one. I can see the market for this game, those who like Rolemaster's detail, but those of us who don't have the time for its endless complexity and multiple layers of detail.

I feel the critical tables in Martial Law go a long way to restoring some of the detail loss when moving from Rolemaster to HARP, and there seems to be a lot of fans of the magic system here over Rolemaster as well, so I need to check that out.

The books normal quality, not professionally bound but they seem sturdy enough and the paper quality is a bit on the thin side for my taste. I would like a heavier stock, and maybe some of the nicer bindings are spoiling me. They are hardcovers as well, which is a huge plus since it saves me clear Contact paper to cover them. I have softcover books covered in clear Contact paper that have lasted 40 years, so if you want to keep your soft-covers nice, look into this and learn how to cover them nicely.

The Books

I have the base rules, plus the four expansion books: Folkways, College of Magics, Loot, and Martial Law. Martial Law seems the most important, followed by the magic book. Folkways seems more relevant for campaign support, which loot feels the least needed out of the three, and both of these last two books feel optional to me.

The main rule book is, of course, everything you need to play, but without those expanded crit charts I feel combat could get slightly repetitive unless GM leeway is used to avoid duplicate crit results. Then again, GM leeway could be needed even with the expanded charts if the same result happens twice in the same fight. I would modify a result like that, either bump it up or down one, or make up a similar result.


And if I have a request...a cleaned up Monsters book is sorely needed! If some work can be done with the layout of that one, or even an entirely new one created off the existing Rolemaster monster guides, that would go a long way to making this game complete. Either that or I will start creating a conversion system from Rolemaster to HARP for monsters and do this myself. And it would be great if some of the OGR standard monsters could be added to the mix, just to show people this game can do dungeoning well too.

I can play a monster-light game where the focus is just on kingdoms, factions, and people - but a big draw of the fantasy RPG genre is the fantastical beasts and diabolical villains. I don't like it when Rolemaster Classic feels like the more complete game, and I want this game to be able to stand on its own merits and be fully supported.

GM Book?

While I am at it, I would like to see a version of the Gamemaster Law book for HARP. I know, the RMFRP version of this book is pretty generic, but until we have a POD version for this, both, or the Rolemaster series games in general I feel this needs to be said.

Rolemaster Light

Overall? I am happy with these. If I end up putting Rolemaster Classic aside I will always have this system to fill that niche and give me those play experiences. At the end of the day, having played and experiencing the game is more important than the complexity level of the rules you learn. Yes, I am still going for learning and playing Rolemaster Classic, but having this as an option will keep me busy until then.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Old School Essentials

If you remember my reviews of B/X Essentials, Old School Essentials (OSE) is the same game, only they have taken things to another level with some very high quality books with stitched bindings. It is fun to see the move towards quality bindings and books that last in the indie RPG scene, this and Zweihander have me literally drooling over the lay flat, high quality bindings, and bookmark ribbons.

POD print quality is good and I will take what I can get for out-of-print titles, but to see some real love of the book-making process with these games means we will have books that can be passed down and used heavily without fear of losing them. Shout out to the companies doing this and I will support you.

I have a near complete collection of the original paperback B/X Essentials books (missing treasure), and these are some of the best laid out books in the indie genre, and many people have made this game their go-to system. These are so easy to reference with a lot of effort put into:

  • Bullet pointing lists.
  • Creating numbered lists to follow
  • Keeping concepts to one or two facing pages.
  • Consistent use of styles and bold section titles for clarity.
  • A logical progression of game concepts.
If you want a master class in how to lay out a RPG so it is clear and easy you really can't do much better than this. Not that every game has to copy this format, since being unique is cool, but a couple nods towards organization and clarity go a long way. I am reminded of the monster descriptions in the HARP monsters book where they would start halfway down a page and end halfway down the next page in the book, on the back side of the paper. Why? Why did you do that? Page breaks are your friends! Put some art in there to fill!

This game is the complete opposite. Information placed on pages or facing pages, and everything is clear and easy to find. I love this attention to detail and clarity.

...vs. Labyrinth Lord?

One thing I love about the OSR world is you can switch back and forth between games and you are not really participating in system wars. Everything is similar, and system preference is just to taste and what you like. Both of these games are very cool (and I will give a nod to Dungeon Crawl Classics and Basic Fantasy too for being some of the beloved fan favs), and there is no real versus here with any of them.

There are differences. This is more original B/X inspired with optional add-ons for advanced features, where Labyrinth Lord is like a B/X and AD&D mashup. Now, Labyrinth Lord is how my original D&D game went, with all sorts of silly stuff getting pulled into my original campaign, so I have a huge love and soft spot for that game since it mimics "how we played" back in the day.

I do like Labyrinth Lord's inclusion of monsters inspired by the AD&D Monster Manual. That for me is a key point to have the classic demons and devils present, because those are invaluable bad guys, boss monsters, and a sign that when they show up - something is seriously wrong and the high level characters are needed desperately because the end of the world is at stake here.

Like a Lego Set

OSE is very cool as a bin full of building blocks that you can play as-is, add onto, or generally do what you want with it. I love it too, and there is room for every type of game at the table. This is a more focused rules set with a tighter core of rules, and I appreciate an experience like that since the game gets to be like a classic Heroquest or Monopoly type experience. I love games where everything works together well, is clear, and you can play it from your head.

This? This I can play from my head. If I need to reference something it is a one or two page glance and I am back playing. This is very much like an iPhone experience in RPG form, while it is nice to have tons of features and extra functions - what is the core of what I need to have fun? But unlike the iPhone analogy, this is very much like Android in its ultimate expand-ability. But the design theory is there, keep it simple, clear, and on one or two pages.

This game is also easily expandable, though the community support versus Labyrinth Lord feels somewhat less due to this game being newer. That said, with a little work almost everything B/X is easily usable with a few tweaks here and there. You could base an entirely new game, science fantasy, modern, whatever, off the core rules and everything just works.

Building Tomorrow

It is great to see this game flourishing. The B/X Community is building a tomorrow based on the past that will always be around, work together, and support the creation of ideas and games that were only dreams from the players and game master of the world. I can't wait for my printed copy, and I have the PDF to pour over until that comes. an excellent set of rules and my highest recommendation.

When my printed copy comes we will do a full flip through and review. Until then, this is one I eagerly await.

Monday, September 14, 2020

d20 to Yuma

Wow, some of the ideas to come out of the B/X community are just pure fun. Let's do a game where the Wild West meets anime meets traditional B/X fantasy gaming? One where all sorts of silly Old West stereotypes bump shoulders with dragon men, elves intermixed with native tribes, furries, cowboys, and silly costumes and manners of speaking straight out of a Mel Brooks movie? I could have a hog-man named Oinker as the camp-chef for my wagon train, a wolf-girl school teacher, a wise lizardperson tribal shaman, a cowboy that talks like Slim Pickens, alongside a cast of crazy people ripped from anime and given cowboy hats and boots and told to ham it up?

Yes. One-thousand times yes.

This game is just fun.

Anime and Anthro Art? Love it!

The art is just too fun. It has this silly, anime quality to it that goes over the top in all sorts of hilarious and cool ways. Am I triggered by a sexy native style dress? No, because this is fantasy and it riffs on pop-culture, movies, and Wild West stereotypes in a way we can laugh at how silly they all are. We know in real life what is wrong and what is not, but in a game where we are making fun of pop-culture and skewering what we see in TV and in movies? As an anime where everything is so hilariously over the top we laugh at how wrong it all is?

That sort of fun is laughter and good for the soul. It also helps us deal with things in real life by letting us laugh and recognize them in a safe setting. But it doesn't mean we can't have fun and parody what Hollywood sells to us - they market the tropes and stereotypes to earn billions of dollars and somehow they are off-limits for us to poke fun at? Not happenen' here pardner. You come 'round these parts and you can get made fun of like all the rest, just like you can do to everyone else here.

And if you can laugh at yourself then it shows your heart is in the right place.

Also, Anthro?

Hey, I love the anthropomorphic and furry-style art in this game. There isn't  too much of it, but you get the point. You can play with it or without it, but I like the mix. The game is open for everyone, and if you want to play a sly fox-man gambler in a purple top hat and four aces hidden up your sleeve go right ahead. The world sees you as normal, just another settler in the Wild West, and you can interact and bump shoulders with humans, elves, cowboy dwarf miners, natives, dragon people, and anything your heart desires. This is inclusiveness that isn't forced, but open to your interpretation. I feel it also creates a silly, wild, fun, and dynamic world pulled from a Pixar movie like Zootopia meets Blazing Saddles meets Red Dead Redemption and I just love it.

This game is every bit as wacky and gonzo as Gamma World but set in the Wild West with play actin', movie quotes, and western catch phrases galore. What is not to love?

The Monster List is Inspired

Cactus dragons should tell you everything. The monsters are a mix of Old West lore, genre-specific content, tropes, slang-as-monsters, and a whole host of imaginative ideas of Wild West adventuring and goodness. The monsters are far out there and silly, but they fit that sort of Pixar animated Wild West movie feeling mixed with anime, talking anthro animals, and all sorts of wacky and crazy ideas. This isn't some standard B/X monster list with cowboy hats and spurs attached, these are setting and genre supporting critters that enhance the experience and feeling of the setting.

Similarly the spells and gear have been gone over and have that genre-supporting feel. Few games do this, where instead of just copy-pasting the designers here went over every spell and item and made sure it fit the world and larger experience they were delivering. I wish more games did this. If you were making a "dark and gritty" B/X game and did this to the content you supplied with the game, like adding weapon breakage rules and all sorts of other supporting redesigns and rules? That is good stuff, and it shows you that you can take B/X and change it a little to help support your world and the larger feeling of your game and rules.

Is it not B/X? Sort of, but it is still compatible with a little work. Are the changes worth it? Definitely.

A lot of B/X games could take some pointers from this game on aligning flavor with content delivery.

Cute and Fun - Plus Attitude

Overall, a fun game with a lot of spirit and fun. I like this game, it has a cute factor to the art that makes me think of manga and anime. The world feels alive, and everything is just so well mixed and blended together. This is not "D&D monsters invade the Old West" but more of everything we love about B/X style fantasy blended with Old West myths and tropes and crafted into a fun, unique setting will all sorts of cool possibilities. Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Labyrinth Lord: The XXL Game

So...part of the fun behind playing a OSR game is playing it, but another part is collecting books you can use in the game. A 2XL game means Xpansions and Xtra stuff to me. I need a few more parts to make things happen and some of the characters I want to play. I have a preference for printed books, especially hardcovers, but I will make a few exceptions for some really helpful resources. Let's take the base game of Labyrinth Lord and expand the heck out of it until we can't recognize it anymore, and try to build an interesting setting and world.

Class Compendium

First up is the excellent Class Compendium, which gets me an interesting mix of B/X classes. I get a nice version of the bard, an acrobat, a barbarian, fortune tellers, pirates, bounty hunters, knights, and gladiators. Some of these classes don't really fit in or I would do another way, so this wouldn't be a "take everything" sort of book. Just the best parts of the classes I need and want for a couple characters. One thing I like about these really specific classes is I can create a unique NPC such as a Investigator or Rune-Master and have that be an NPC unique to the world.

I would probably make all of these classes "by GM permission only" to start, with some being easier calls to allow players to use, such as the bard. Some, like the angel, familiar, or death knight would be NPC only. And a couple like the shootist and automation would be more steampunk and likely disallowed for a more fantasy setting. Some are also more setting specific, such as the samurai and gladiator. I would be careful and make sure they match the flavor of my setting.

Creature Compendium

Another must-have is the Creature Compendium, we need more monsters, and this book is densely packed in the same way the original AD&D Monster Manual was - and the creatures are terrifying, different, and at times just plain strange. Which is what you want in a Monster Manual, players, I haven't seen that in a previous edition, should we be running?

Realms of Crawling Chaos

How much Cthulhu do you want in your game? If none, skip this book. If you like the idea of monsters from the Eldritch Realm showing up and causing terror, dive right in. If anything, you can pick and choose here and avoid the overly Lovecraft style bits and still have serpent people, lamias, cave beasts, other monsters you can rename, and a psionic system you can use without summoning an old god.

Opening the door to Cthulhu does flip a huge "campaign bad guy" switch, and I can see entire groups of villains sighing and saying, "Not more Lovecraft please!" Demons throw up their hands and say, "Why be afraid of us?" Evil gods shrug their shoulders and ask, "Our cults are evil too!" Evil dragons let out long, disappointed growls and say, "Not more aliens, geeze, there isn't even a societal progress as evil force narrative going on here that is so early industrial era, they don't even make sense in fantasy since no one is afraid of magic!"

Evil GMs nod their head, make every faction a TPK force players should be afraid of, toss the Cthulhus on top like a side dish at a buffet, and smile.

Barrowmaze & FC of Archia

Every time I pick these books up they becomes harder not to use. While these aren't stuff books, either are a compelling start for an XXL version of Labyrinth Lord. They are region-based campaign settings, and you don't have to use the mega-dungeons within 100%. Little parts could be home bases for villain groups, plots, and stories. Wait, what? Don't use it all? Yes, please.

One doesn't need to clean the book, room-by-room, and and vacuum up every last copper piece off the floor, kill every monster, bleach every surface, put up warning signs on all hazards, and disarm every trap. Part of the problem of mega-dungeons are that "completest" mentality going into them, and what I find is a better approach is to use parts of them during the campaign as stories are told, and to weave them into the campaign's narrative.

Plus I would rather have the freedom to venture out to a bandit fort or lost temple every so often, something of my creation, rather than feel obligated to go to the last bookmark and check off some more rooms. Then why use a mega-dungeon? Well, hundreds or pre-created locations can be re-used in millions of ways, especially if they are easily accessible.

Petty Gods

A strange entry to this list would be the quirky choice of Petty Gods, a compendium of minor, oddball, strange, and forgotten deities in the world. I know, this begs the question, who are the main gods of the world you are building? We will get to that, but the wonderful thing this book adds to the mix is a whole catalog of gods once worshiped, but now forgotten. Ruined shrines and lost temples now can have meaning, strange puzzles on who may have been worshiped there, and the entire world's backstory takes on a different and interesting tone.

Who knows, perhaps one of these long-dormant gods could be reawakened? For trouble, or perhaps service giving our heroes missions in exchange for secrets and valuable knowledge of old.

d30 DM and Sandbox Companions

Downsides? There are no printed books, and you need a d30 for these. Otherwise, these are a solid set of tables for just about anything you would need, and especially when you do solo play. These are purely for filling in things you may not think of, and to add some color and spice to the game.

I am working on house-rules for this project as well. More on those as I get them done.

A Table Full of Options

Labyrinth Lord makes this easy. A lot of cool adventures and supplements are designed to use with the game, and while other games may have simple implementations or other unique mechanics, Labyrinth Lord brings a lot of third party support to the table. Over time this will likely change, but some of what is already out there are classic books with some really fun options and choices.

And a Setting...

So is OSR better with or without a setting? I would say start your sandbox small and worry about the larger world later. I want to stay away from traditional D&D settings or anything linked to a system. Maybe I will cover OSR settings in another post, since a deeper dive will be needed to examine the possibilities.

It is a needed choice, since setting will determine many things, such as gods, factions, and many other aspects. One problem of a lot of settings is that they throw too much at you, and all of a sudden all those gods, factions, conflicts, and other things going on in the world players should know about become the only things they worry about and they feel like world ambassadors having to take it all in and solve the load of it. Starting small, on a local level, puts blinders on you and keeps the players the most important force in the game.

For now, this is a good base set of sources and  tools I will need to get started.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Advanced Labyrinth Lord


So I heard about Advanced Labyrinth Lord, which is basically a "all the books in one" edition of the game. I love this game because it replicates my first encounter with D&D. Starting with the basic D&D set, adding the Expert set, mixing in AD&D parts as needed, and generally loving the dangerous mess until AD&D 2nd edition came along and sanitized the game for the mainstream market.

And I will call the game AL&L in this discussion, since I am getting a laugh out of saying Advanced Labyrinth and Lord out loud.

Yes, I picked up the Flossing Orcus cover for AL&L, since that is the coolest. The notion of Hell should always be hovering over an old-school game since in those days your parents forced you to go to church on Sunday, but the night before you and your friends were just in Hell fighting the forces of Satan. There is also the notion of "why Satan isn't listed as a monster" in these games, because honestly, that is the character the Dungeon Master plays.

That was a joke. But the metaphor fits perfectly.

That Cover Though

Yeah, that Orcus cover on AL&L is pure metal. You have sex, violence, and an elf who doesn't know what they are doing and firing off the page. There is also a sharp object pointed at Orcus' private parts. Seriously, since the fighter and the elf are looking away from Orcus, I get the feeling the wizard is summoning Orcus to help with this fight. Boss fight or summoning a greater demon to deal with a TPK, your choice, and just as metal each way.

There is another cover with a dragon head, but that to me looked like a party fighting a giant hand puppet so I opted for Orcus. A party fighting a giant hand puppet is also an apt metaphor for the game as well. The Orcus cover has that "evil" feel and also a mystery and open question hovering over it. It invites you in to see why, who, and how. The dragon head is a nice cover too, it just did not sing to me as much as this illustration of Orcus, which I feel is one of the iconic images for AL&L and Labyrinth Lord in general.

This is honestly a piece of art that elevates the game, even if the rules inside are 100% the same as the two-book edition. I love the two-tone tan and blue shading on the Orcus cover, along with the PCs who pop against that unholy blue fire. Excellent job here.

No Learning, More Room to Grow

Compared to some of the rules I have been working through, most notably Rolemaster Classic and Zweihander, there is nothing to learn here. There are no articles to write to decipher rules, no real way of getting a combat wrong, very little ways to create a character incorrectly, no complicated combat action system, no conditions, no crit charts, no complicated armor systems, no arcane magic systems, no game terms that leave me scratching my head, and interrupt based play is limited to holding actions after winning initiative.

The game is also free to grow with plenty of B/X supplements, and the rules framework simple enough I could write my own. If I wanted a sanity or corruption system for a dark fantasy game, write one myself or bolt it on from another game. I could take GURPS Horror's fear and sanity system and port that over with minimal effort, or even Call of Cthulhu's sanity system and add that as a d100 score and be all good to go. To explain that to players would be something like, "B/X with Call of Cthulhu's sanity system, let's play." 

Nothing to pour over, and nothing to learn.

I have add-on books with classes such as bards and hundreds of others made for this game. I have dungeons. I have books of monsters. I am ready now and let's just play.

Now, I do like reading and playing new things, and the B/X style of combat can feel a little dry at times. But there is a huge red line between dry and gets the job done, and complicated and you will rarely play it right. A lot of games are like that, I just have no hope of ever feeling I am playing it competently. There is too much to learn. They drag and drone on forever. At least in a simple game, I have the room to expand in the places I feel the game lacks detail. In a complicated game, you need to take everything or leave it.

Labyrinth Lord = Core B/X

I keep returning to Labyrinth Lord as the essence of the B/X experience. I have other games, such as the great Dungeon Crawl Classics, but again that game feels heavy with charts and add-on concepts (which I know people love), when all I want for B/X is the core experience. I need to get into DCC more to understand it, since that game has a huge amount of love in the community and I respect that. I kind of get the feeling DCC is the "most popular mod" to B/X that has captured the hearts of millions and enhances the core experience.

More on DCC soon as I have recently found my copy that was lying around here.

But for book-standard and simple B/X that runs like a well-oiled machine, I feel Labyrinth Lord captures the feel of those early days I experienced the best, and maintains compatibility with older material and is expandable in a million different ways. This game is like a metal part to a machine that fits well, works well, and never really breaks.

Friday, September 11, 2020

B/X Gangbusters

 Oh, here is a fun one. This one has a lot of heart to it. Read this intro:

This is the spirit of B/X. I love something and I want to make my own game. I am going to put the work in, despite the world working against me I am going to make this dream happen.

The "I can" is larger than the "I can't."

He even had to stop and wait. He went to conventions. He got feedback. And he has a game in print and for sale. And it happens to be a genre I love too. Hats off, amazing effort, and this to me goes beyond the simple dream of having a game, and using B/X to make a dream happen.

B/X? I Know This!

One of the beautiful things about a B/X rules set is you know how 90% of the game works before you open the book. There are probably one or two things unique to the implementation, but they are nothing that will take you months to read and figure out.

Yeah, I know, says the guy who is halfway through Rolemaster Classic and starting on Zweihander.

But B/X? I can take my gangster and have him fight a basilisk from another B/X game if I want. The AC works. The rules work. The damages are on the same scale. Things for the most part work together with very minimal effort. Needs some evil fish-people to walk out of the surf to attack a town in a moment inspired by Lovecraft? I am sure I got something in a B/X book around here that will work.

Campaign Choices

The game gives you the options of criminals, detectives, law enforcement, reporters, or strange mysteries as campaign types. It is suggested everyone play the same type of character at first, and not to have some characters play gangsters while others play beat cops. While we did that a lot in the original Gangbusters back in the day, it is easier for a group to have everyone working together and on the same team.

After a while our Gangbusters games became death-matches that rivaled Car Wars games in violence and complexity. Cops versus robbers with TNT, tommy-guns, and double-barreled gunfights leaving city blocks shattered and war zones behind them as the ultimate battle between good and evil manifested in a biblical Apocalypse of crime versus law and order.

Yeah, we were strange kids.

Class Choices

There are four classes in the B/X Gangbusters game: brutish, educated, connected, and street smart. Brutish are your tough guy "fighters" while educated are your specialist "egg heads" with skills like safecracking and accounting. We have "connected" that covers people who know people, and this seemed like a slightly odd class to me, since I feel this is more of a RP thing than a class thing. Finally "street smarts" are the rogues and thieves.

The hit dice are a little strange, I could see an educated having a d4 hit die and the street smarts having a d6. Yes, that breaks B/X and gives a thief a d6 hit points per level. I can see the argument against it, since you want "smarts" winning out over "combat," but for someone used to life on the streets I think a tougher cut is needed. Educated? Nah, they should fold like a house of cards.

Levels are limited to level 6, which is nice and caps the power level of the game and balances combat.

The choice of classes for Brutish and Street Smarts feel right, and I like Educated. I would have liked some more special powers from educated in those areas that level up, like a locksmith knowledge that levels up into safe cracking, key making and reproduction, and vault cracking. Similarly, accounting could start there, then graduate into cooking the books, check fraud, and other financial skills. Forgery could have a range of level-ups from documents to counterfeiting. Give me something to look forward to!

Connected seems like an odd choice for a class, but in a modern game I suppose having someone who knows someone is a huge advantage. They have some level-up bonuses and they can pull favors, which is cool. I would like some more level-up options here as well, instead of just giving a bonus, the levels mean you work your way up the influence ladder. At high levels, you are getting favors from the mayor and governor instead of the local ward alderman.

This system feels better than having dedicated "lawman", "reporter", and "criminal" classes, since the conflicts are between people who are essentially cut from the same cloth - just on different sides of the law.


Once you have a character, the rest of the book has specific rules for the campaign types, how to recruit a gang, run a business, be a lawman, handle an investigation, run combat, handle NPCs, and run adventures. We even have a section of B/X style "monsters" for the various NPCs in the world, and bonus points for including a certain type of close-minded and bigoted "hooded foe" in this list that can be used as the game's slow-witted orcs. Very brave choice and thank you for this bit of historical accuracy that would be endless fun to have them show up to be attacked and abused in so many ways. This is why we have TNT.

No One Can Hit a Sharp Dressed Man

There is an odd rule with the quality of clothes giving a higher AC. This felt a little artificial to me, almost like a cinematic rule where better and more expensive clothes give better AC? To be more B/X I feel just give normal clothes AC 9 and be done with it. Maybe AC 8 for heavy clothes and 7 for leather jackets - but that is pushing it and breaking the Noir narrative because this isn't the 1950's with biker gangs. Otherwise fine clothing, even a party dress, is going to be the game's plate mail. I get what they are going for, a more cinematic feel where a mafia don can walk through a hail of bullets unscathed, but it feels like it breaks B/X just a little.

If that is the case, then just give each level a +1 AC bonus and leave clothing as AC 9. Same cinematic effect, and it makes low level thugs more cannon fodder. Otherwise everyone is going to be wearing a suit and tails with a top hat, putting on the Ritz and blasting all the crooks.

This is B/X, and I can houserule. I get this feeling in more mainstream games if you houserule you somehow fall outside the mainstream. I paid a lot of money for this mainstream game! Please let's all play by the same rules! In B/X, the entire core of the game is built upon a houseruled framework and you can do anything you want - and it is encouraged since the changes we make introduce new rules and ideas (DNA) into the B/X system, and this sharing makes the game better and stronger in future iterations.

What Do I Want More Of?

I would like a few more weapons, with maybe pictures, such as bolt-action rifle, lever-action, and the like. I want pictures of the cars and vehicles, and maybe classify these on types for easier understanding, like a 2-door convertible sports coupe.

I want more of a description of that world and the eras and what may or may not be available in the 20's 30's and further on  till 1950 rolls around. Like when direct dialing started, police call boxes, one-way "calling all cars" vehicle radios versus two-way where the cars could call back, and when various laws and powers were available - like the crossing state lines thing to avoid being arrested and when that ended. Also the powers of the Prohibition Bureau and the Feds changed during this time dramatically, and those would be fun to cover.

Also some more flavor on transportation, when flights were common and how far they went, train and ship liner travel, and a table of typical travel times of major routes - like how long did it take to get from New York to London? London to Paris? San Francisco to Hong Kong? LA to New York? How much (roughly) did it cost? What were the options for passenger versus luxury travel?

What was nightlife like? Dining out? Clubs? What cities were hotspots and what was going on? How did the Great Depression affect things? What sorts of films, music, and entertainment were popular? Perhaps a simple timeline would be nice, but I know you can get that on the Internet and you risk bloating the game with too-much. But I could see this game going to a nicely-illustrated 120-page experience with more art and a lot to sink your teeth into easily. I love the era and the genre.

Oh, and add a bullwhip in the weapons lists and tell me when those certain "bad guys" start showing up. We need an endgame to this era, even though it is slightly out of scope. Perhaps not for investigation games where rival teams working for foreign powers start competing for the strange artifacts and phenomena the players find.

20's and 30's = Fantasy Genre

There is a part of me that feels the 1920s and 30s is moving into a realm where it can be considered a fantasy genre. We are so far removed from that world, it is so alien to us, and the culture and mannerisms are more of a mystery than something known by everyone. We get our information about this time from a few movies and some TV series long lost to the past.

So we have cars that rarely break 50 mph? No cell phones? The first car radios only go one way? Very little air travel? No jets? No Internet? You had to use an operator to make a phone call? There was no direct dial long distance? Police had call boxes? Criminals could flee over state, county, or international borders to avoid being arrested? The powers of the federal government in law enforcement were severely limited, and some agents were only allowed to carry guns for self defense? All radio programs were either live or someone playing a record, again, live and in a studio? No television? The newspaper is where you got the news? You could buy tommy-guns over the counter at hardware stores? Primitive fax machines existed? The telegraph was still a thing? You had to wait 6 months to get a divorce? Dinner clubs had nightly big bands that showed up to play live music?

You are kidding right? Who came up with this stuff?

Overall? B/X Gangster Time Fun

Overall I am happy with this one. There are some cinematic rules, but those are nothing that can't be easily houseruled. This is a cool sort of B/X game that creates an experience (and also has a nice list of source material) that is a labor of love to attempt to recreate that "gangster era" experience I loved. Very nicely done, and I would love to see this game continue on and expand.

B/X is cool.

It lets dreams come to life.