Friday, October 23, 2020


If you play enough MMOs you learn a couple things about character builds:

They are never really balanced.

They typically ship broken.

They get stale.

Successful MMOs follow an evergreen model for character builds, and things constantly change to maintain interest, and the changes create interest in playing the game. The style of play typically remains the same, this is the tank, this is the healer, this is the damage person, but the "of the moment" style of play and the power rotations (tailored for specific encounter types) never really stays the same.

Now, in B/X games, you typically only have one "build" - which is the class, which is why these things get play tested and worked over, and B/X tends to stick with what worked before and the character class is a tried and true thing that remains similar no matter what game you play: Old School Essentials, Basic Fantasy, Labyrinth Lord, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and so on.

B/X builds are classes.

In the games derived from the D&D 3, 4, and 5 lineage, including Pathfinder, you start to notice some of the MMO character build tropes work their way into the game. You pick a class - but you are not done. You pick feats and special class features. You make choices every level to tweak your class. You get more feats. Your powers morph and change, and you are expected to know which choice is the best. Well, you could go to the Internet and copy someone else's build to min-max, and that is what happens in many cases too. The "best build" in many cases becomes a community choice, spread through online forums, and to be a good player you are expected to make the same choices and conform.

Why would you pick less-optimal choices?

Well, yes, roleplaying considerations, but don't you want to be a good player and the best at what you do? You see this in MMOs, you pick a class and power set that the current player base thinks "sucks" and good luck convincing anyone that you should be in their group. The world of pen-and-paper is a lot different, but there are times in my games I saw players walk into the game with a printout in hand and copied a forum build choice for choice and pretend they came up with the magic combination.

Trouble is, I read the same forums and pointed that broken build right out. Some players are fans of a game because they know how it is broken and can exploit the imbalance, I can't blame them - they want to do good and look good in front of others - but somehow I feel using the rules to your advantage isn't the way. We all use the rules to our advantage, that is life; but if that is the main reason you play a game, I feel something is missing.

There are times I want the rules out of the way and the players and story to shine through.

Many games ship in a broken state, and pen-and-paper games are no exception. I remember our run closely following D&D 4, and then getting errata for each of the dozens of books in that game weeks after the books release, having the online tools updated, and the book quickly became worthless except to record the broken state the game shipped in. You could still just play "by the book" but the game thrived on overwhelming you with choices, and the best and most broken choice was always quickly found by the community, abused in store play, and quickly nerfed in the errata.

Pathfinder did a better job by playtesting the heck out of their rules, which is why I was a fan of that game. Still, they had issues, and the D&D 3 model combined with the dozens of books approach made the game unwieldy and unplayable for us. They were fun to collect, but not to play.

The stale feeling is also interesting, because one could say that B/X never changes so is thus the most stale. At least with a new edition of a D&D or Pathfinder, things change up and the evergreen model applies. There are new things to learn. There is excitement. This is true, and this also appeals to a certain type of player. But there is also something to sticking with what works and focusing on the story, and not the character build and mechanics. Part of me loves B/X because really, anything I buy is mostly compatible with each other, every game plays the same with a couple small tweaks, and I can be a part of B/X communities and online discussion by really talking about any of the games.

B/X is like the Unix of RPGs. Boring, not slick and glamorous, provides basic functionality, but it pretty much well powers everything and runs the world. It is also extendible like crazy, and custom distributions of Linux and other variants can provide that excitement and rush of something new. Players of commercial RPGs look forward to new editions of the game that change everything. Players of B/X get the same game presented in different ways, with new ideas bolted on to a framework that is already working and proven.

The excitement in B/X is when someone takes the same thing and presents it in a compelling way that opens our eyes and excites us to the new possibilities.

With Old School Essentials, do I have to box up all my old Labyrinth Lord books, expansions, and adventures? No, I don't. They all pretty much well work the same and the adventures are mostly compatible. I could play Barrowmaze with Dungeon Crawl Classics if I wanted to. I could convert Mutant Future over to play with Old School Essentials.

No, I am not interested in the evergreen model anymore outside of MMOs, and I feel a new edition of D&D coming soon since it feels like D&D 5 is in the "experimental expansions" phase where they break the game and try new things before tossing it all out and printing new books. Beyond the first three books we never really bought into D&D 5, and we didn't even buy Pathfinder 2 - but no shade thrown on those who love those games. They just weren't for us, and they are good games.

I just have a full shelf of Pathfinder 1st Edition books I will never use again and I am looking to sell off, and same with D&D 4. This is the legacy of an evergreen game, you get into this consumerist mentality where you need to keep buying books and then throwing them all away. To keep an evergreen game going, they constantly need to be throwing out the past. And oh yeah, you are going to need new adventures with that shiny new edition too, because, you know, everything has changed again.

With B/X it is the complete opposite. Everything I buy I can use for the most part with whatever cool new version of B/X that comes out next. Also, what works is what we know and understand. There isn't the excitement of chasing builds and new rules, but a settling into the story and world that B/X players tend to enjoy more than the mechanics of the current version of the game.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Player Narrative Control vs. Rules Complexity

It seems to me the more complicated the rules, the less control over the narrative a player possesses.

It is an interesting theory, and some in some games you don't have to look far to find examples of this. In the Pathfinder supplement Ultimate Intrigue, you needed a feat to call a truce during a combat. That feels like something a crafty player should be able to come up with, make an offer, and have the referee call for a CHR roll or ruling on the spot given NPC motivations and the adventure.

We throw down a bag of treasure and look at the attacking kobolds. We got a deal? We can make this mutually beneficial to both sides. Work with us and there could be...more...

In B/X, make a CHR roll if the referee thinks this has a chance of working, maybe raise the difficulty based on the offer. And then we are on our way. No social combat system needed. Those ability scores are good for something, after all.

But in general, the more rules players are beholden to, the less control they have over the world in general. Because there will always be a rule sitting out there somewhere saying you can't do something, when it should be up to improvisation and your skills and ability scores. Even a skill layer takes away options. Star Frontiers used a lot of base ability score checks for climbing, swimming, weight lifting, dodging, spotting hidden items, and other physical actions closely tied to ability scores - and there were no companion skills to punish the unskilled. This was pulp sci-fi, if your doctor was strong they could lift a heavy log off someone and play continued. Make a STR roll and let's keep playing!

The new edition of Traveller and the athletics skill comes to mind, which bothers me slightly. It essentially modifies what should be ability score rolls. To me, a skill is a specialty outside of an ability score - not a skill for using an ability score. Skills need education, training, and practice. Ability scores should be what comes naturally and need no skills to use. If I have a high STR, well, of course I can lift weights. There is a level of detail there I feel is not needed.

This is why games with long lists of skills feel like they destroy the usefulness of ability scores to me. What is your STR, just a modifier to STR skills or does it have any practical use on its own? Why even have a STR score if it does nothing without an attached skill? Games like this devalue the base ability score set and slow up play by forcing reference for every action attempted during play.

What is the skill for that?

A system like B/X, and especially one like Old School Essentials where B/X ability score checks are ruled into the game, and skills are not used in the system (or are optional) make that set of ability scores even more powerful. You have a high DEX? Well, that obviously includes some DEX skills like balance, knife throwing, jumping, and a bunch of other cool DEX things you learned through life. An ability score in a system without skills automatically comes with built in skills.

And you don't need to keep a huge list of them, calculate percentages, level them up, and use your ability scores as modifiers. Now, in B/X some activities (like thief skills) are special cases because they require special training, and that is understood when you begin play. But for everything else, a referee ruling and a creative player plan is all that is needed.

If the game had more rules to control every possible action? More reference, more flipping through the book, slower play, and the less things your character can do without making some choice to be good at one thing while not being good at others. There are times I like the complexity. There are others that say, I rolled a high DEX, let me do all these fun DEX things without punishing me with choosing which DEX things I want to do good versus not-so-good.

Let my high scores mean more, please, and save the skills for really specialized trainings, and not the everyday heroic things pulp heroes do.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Retrospective: Autoduel Champions

I seriously don't know if many people remember this one. I need to set this one up historically.

Champions was still in the multiple softcover books, pre 3rd Edition as I remember (I could be wrong, my Champions knowledge that far back is sketchy). So this was the superhero game of the time.

Car Wars was still the three plastic pocket boxes of Car Wars, Sunday Drivers, and Truck Stop. Deluxe Car Wars has not been released.

Abd the year was 1983. Thriller. The US invasion of Grenada. SDI. Return of the Jedi. McNuggets. Minivans. The release of the Famicom/NES in Japan (US was 1985). The last big year for the Atari 2600.

So the two companies making Champions and Car Wars get together and produce a book that does three things:
  1. Add Car Wars to Champions
  2. Add Helicopter Rules to Car Wars
  3. Add Superpowers to Car Wars
I know...what do helicopters have to do with this? I guess if superheroes fly, then Car Wars needs to fly. Let us break down each rules section and how it worked, and how we used it in our games. Strap yourself in.

Champions: Car Wars

This section created rules for Car Wars cars and combat inside the Champions game. All the movement was done on hex grids, the damage scales adjusted, and the weapon stats converted over to the Champions scale. This was our first look at Hero system, and a lot of this was so alien and strange to us we ignored it until we started playing Champions years later.

One notable change from Car Wars in this section was the use of non-ablative armor on the cars, versus Car Wars' ablative armor. This concept would later show up in the Car Wars supplement Deathtrack as the metal armor rules.

These rules were surprisingly Max Max meets 007, and I could see a lot of Champions players scream with delight at being able to finally have armed and armored cars in their games. This must have been a huge thing for Champions players at the time, I mean, those still not playing Car Wars all weekend at the hobby store. Everyone played Car Wars in our neighborhood. We played D&D and the number one question during the game was, "When are we playing Car Wars?"

Car Wars: Helicopters

This section introduced totally broken helicopters into Car Wars, and these were later cleaned up in Deluxe Car Wars. The weight allowances on these flying beasts was so high you could stack hundreds of points of armor on them, and your only option for fighting these flying takes was to shoot the flimsy rotors off and watch the armored flying safes fall to the ground, take hundreds of points of damage in a collision with the ground, and watch the passengers crawl out unscathed because the damage from plummeting thousands of feet from the sky did not penetrate the insides.

We never really designed out choppers that way. We could, but they weren't fun. We stuck to faster, lighter armored and armed choppers that mirrored car designs - which we in fact a lot more deadly because of their acceleration and mobility on the battlefield. A chopper that can fly and has double or triple the acceleration of a ground vehicle gives you a whole lot more options when fighting in an urban environment. I am just going to hover low over this tall building where you can't see me, wait until you take a course of action, and circle around to your weak spot at my leisure.

Very few arena cars had decent top armor when this came out, and even fewer could shoot straight up (or a map with a slant range long enough) so it made chopper versus car battles like turkey shoots unless you custom designed cars to fight choppers.

Still, we thought these rules enough were cool to use in our games, and we had a lot of fun with these massive sky behemoths. When Deluxe Car Wars came out, our massive week-long 100 car arena and helicopter battles were all but over, so we never really got to enjoy the revised helicopter rules in DCW.

Car Wars: Superpowers

Now I owe an article on this one, but we used the original Traveller RPG as our rules for our Car Wars RPG. The skill ratings were extremely similar. Both systems were 2d6 roll-high. The format for characters means we could quickly roll them up, spend the 30 starting skill points in Car Wars, and have a character quick - or hundreds of them.

This superpowers system in Autoduel Champions was our superpower system for years, at least until Marvel Super Heroes came out. This worked very well, scaled nicely with the Car Wars rules, and gave us these cool Traveller superpowers that worked very well with our houseruled system. You could rate various superheroes easily, give them armor that defended against the types of weapons they could buy flight, energy blasts, super speed, running, stretchy limbs, and other powers with a quick and easy system that fit well within our Car Wars and Traveller framework.

When Marvel Super Heroes came along, Car Wars and Traveller fell by the wayside, and the superheroes (sadly) took over our games. At least in Car Wars with superheroes, there are equalizers against the massive powers of superheroes and villains. Your combat car could even the odds, and the average person could fight a superhero. Heck, they could be a superhero with a car like that and great skills.

The End of an Era

And then that era was over as the Marvel and DC pen-and-paper games came in, blew out the power level of our games with cosmic energies, and all of a sudden the average person was a nobody again.

There was no great equalizer.

Superheroes were again, the "chosen ones."

Of all the things I don't like about the modern superhero movie and myth, it is this denial of the power of the average person in comparison to the hero on the screen. We wait for superheroes and strong figures to come and save us from ourselves. Back when I went to college, we were taught the power of collective action. If a manufacturer was selling weapons to oppressive regimes, and this company also made consumer goods - like refrigerators - than our community agreed to not buy those consumer goods. We recycled because we knew if millions of us did, it would make an impact. We divested in countries with horrible human rights abuses. If enough of us did together and all as one, we would make a difference.

We were all superheroes back then.

Today, I feel we have been trained well by Hollywood to simply wait for the next savior. Let's not individually make a difference in anything, we can just have some "figurehead leader" do it for us. If someone is worried about carbon footprint, for example, do they shop that way? Do they demand Amazon give them information on a product's carbon footprint and shop for lower alternatives? Do they live that way and make informed choices? Do they make a small difference in their lives and urge others to do the same?

Nah, let's just wait for someone or some slogan that makes us feel good about ourselves. Even if the plan does not work or the person will never accomplish the goal let's fight for it like it is the end of the world. The superhero. In essence, I feel the superhero myth has become mass-market collectivism, a false corporatized feeling of doing good sold to us like junk food. You see this in the Marvel and DC movies, those heroes never inspire the people of those worlds to help save themselves, nor could the people of those worlds ever hope to.

Champions Allows Talented Normals

This is likely due to Champions allowing normal people some chance against superheroes. There is this model in the Hero System where everyone uses the same character generation rules, so theoretically a highly-trained super agent could equal the power of a superhero. They wouldn't have all the damage resistances, powers, and immunities - but at least those points could be put to work in some way that could best a hero's powers with skills, abilities, and training.

And Autoduel Champions leveled the playing field further. Combat cars out of Car Wars could help even the odds against those with extraordinary powers. With the Marvel Super Heroes and DC Heroes games, I get the feeling normal people and even highly trained agents are still inferior to heroes with powers. This power level only seems to get worse as time goes on and the superheroes get stronger and stronger.

There is an article waiting here, as in Champions feels more grounded in power level, character design, and scope. This game also does not have the power of brand names, so your heroes are the most important in the world instead of the trademarked ones.

Blinded by the Marquee Lights

Looking back and seeing the organic system we came up with, and how equal that made each side, versus the later official games, makes me wonder if we didn't make a mistake in abandoning what we had back then. Both the Marvel Super Heroes and DC Heroes games felt like they intentionally weakened the balance between the average person and superheroes. If you played an average person, or even your own creation, you were a nobody compared to Batman or Wolverine.

And our Car Wars superhero game became more of a super-heroic soap opera past that point as we switched to those systems, and the grim and gritty life on the street, and the average person along with it, faded from importance. The balance was gone. There was no equal to these modern gods.

And after that we gave up on our characters and played with the copyrighted IP characters of Marvel and DC. The superheroes each year only got more and more powerful, both in powers and in our imaginations. Like a Lovecraftian monster, our humanity and ability to affect change was crushed by the people in the spandex tights.

Looking back at this game, as broken and as of an era as it was, makes me wonder what we lost when we fell in love with the hype. I get this feeling our game, our campaign, and the world in a larger sense.

Some interesting feelings today for a book very few likely remember.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Retrospective: Gangbusters 3rd Edition

Gangbusters is one of my favorite systems that I rarely played as a kid. I love the era, the genre, the cops and robbers theme, the private eyes, the violent Noir setting, and the artwork. We rediscovered this game and it still shined through with its ease of play, simplicity, and pure pick-up-and-play value.

No cell phones. No TV. No computers. No Internet. You wanted to do a records search? Have your secretary go down to city hall, the newspaper office, or the library. You read the newspaper and listened to the radio, and no, there wasn't 24-7 news either. Air travel? Very, very limited and not commercialized. You took a boat to Europe or Asia.

The 1920s and 1930s Noir era is as close as we will get to a fantasy setting for the modern gaming. This is still all about your name, who you are, and your reputation with others. Legends, like Elliot Ness, can still exist. A city can live in fear of a criminal gang, and it will take a crack team of a few incorruptible G-Men to save the day. This is a fantasy setting with guns and cars.

When we did revisit this later and play the game, it was still as wild and violent as we left it. This almost played out like a Batman movie with the criminals getting more and more outrageous with their plots and schemes, and the good guys of law enforcement fighting a daily war against pure criminal anarchy. And our love of radio shows came through in these games, with some players adopting the shadowy identities of masked vigilantes to fight the rising tide of lawlessness. Players mimicked The Shadow, the Green Hornet, and other crime fighters, modified their Packard Sedans to become armed crime fighting vehicles, and waged shadowy wars on the streets as the gangsters increasingly became frustrated with their shipments of alcohol getting blown up by the good guys.

Booze is the Vice

And booze was the vice of this game, so it was a more innocent time and you had this "screw the rich" theme going on. This wasn't crack cocaine or human smuggling or some dark crime in the corner of the Internet with a tragic human and societal cost. This was a sort of innocent vice being cooked up and smuggled in to feed the excesses of the rich who ignored the law, and the poor who had to suffer and live by different rules.

The gangsters were working as violent proxies for the rich flouting the law, and the good guys were the average working folk trying to enforce the law equally for all. So the more booze you busted, the more the rich suffered, and you chalked up another victory for the working class and equal treatment for all. There still was this notion of "right is right" based on working-class principles and the common person in this genre.

Criminals were either tools of the rich serving a need for contraband, or using death and violence to get rich and join that club. When corrupt, law enforcement was a tool used to protect the rich. At its ideal and most chivalrous state, law enforcement was the guardian of the working class and its "what is fair is fair" values - and in essence anti-wealth. The press played into this as well, exposing corruption and taking down the scions of power and influence through public outrage.

Contrast that above paragraph with today's world. If you go into this game with "today's assumptions" about wealth and power you may not see some of the core conflicts in the game. I feel you do have to go back to your traditional fantasy tropes about good and evil, fairness and wealth, and frame the conflicts in this game against a simpler time.

Figures like Al Capone were the "dark wizard" corrupting all which they touch and the rising tide of darkness threatened to overturn a just and fair kingdom of light.

Make the Era Yours

That said, the era was one of massive racial and gender inequality, but you could make this pretty color and gender-blind and let everyone live out their fantasies in this era. Again, this is fantasy, and if players were uncomfortable with an exact historical recreation of the time, just ignore history and make the game your own. Any game set in in the pre 2000's modern era is going to have this issue, and how I deal with this is to know my players and deliver the fantasy they want to experience.

We are here to have fun.

I know it is in vogue today to say a game is a reflection of a past we should forget, but in our young minds at the time, that past never existed. The game, as written, is mostly color and gender-blind with fun and opportunity for all. If you did a modern version of this? Tweak the art, add some iconic female characters, and say this is how things are in the game and this world. Warhammer FRP did this with the art direction of the new game and I feel this is a good way to include more players in the fun.

I can't sit at a table and tell a player she can't be a female Elliot Ness, Sam Spade, or Al Capone, or a player with a skin tone that wasn't reflected in the time they couldn't be that either. Are you serious? I would be a dick GM to pull that crap. To me, those character archetypes sound incredibly fun and I want them at my table.

Otherwise what you are doing is transposing the biases on the past onto the players of today. If your group is okay with a period-accurate world and wants to experience the time, sure, explore that, but the core of this game is pulp, fast action, cops and robbers gangster shootouts and deep-shadowed Noir fun. Everyone should be able to see themselves in that world and enjoy being a part of the fun.

Fast Characters

The TSR d100 systems were incredibly fast to create characters for, and Gangbusters is no exception. These games simplified play by having most of the common checks covered by ability scores.

Muscle, Agility, and Observation were the game's three primary ability scores, rolled on a weighted d100 scale. These were checked directly for combat and all actions, and Agility covered gun combat and melee to-hits. We always ruled it was Muscle for melee to-hits as a houserule to keep agility from being so important, and to keep the "muscle is for feats of strength" theme going.

Presence was a charisma like score rolled on a weighted d10. For all intents and purposes, this was just like a d100 score divided by ten, and the unique range was more of a reaction-roll thing to keep this score unique and apart from the others.

Luck was a d100 roll divided by two. This was an innovative score and it answered a lot of questions in the narrative simply and easily. Did the nearby farm have a working phone? Luck check. Was there a an empty taxi waiting outside the newspaper office? Luck check. Did the killer leave an important clue at the scene of a crime? Luck check. Did the warehouse have guards posted tonight? Luck check. This score did more work during our games for narrative fill-in moments than I can ever count. Top Secret and Star Frontiers were jealous of this ability score, and it just sped up play and defined options incredibly.

Hit Points, Driving, and Punching were derived scores - and Driving was the only derived score that was checked against.

There were skills in the game, but they were more like generic "areas of expertise" like fingerprinting or art forgery. The rules for creating a character could fit on one page of the book, but they use two here to provide examples. Even if you had those "skills" you would use your ability scores to make rolls in them. Spot an art forgery? Have the skill and roll Observation. What mattered were ability scores, not formulas, and not skill levels and tertiary chances of success. Contrast this with Rolemaster's pages long lists of skills and formulas for calculating the success chance of each one. How much easier could that game be if a skill was a simple "unlock" for performing tasks and your ability scores (and possibly a level) controlled chance of success?

Story > Character

A lot of games today state that, "Our rules are more important than your character." When you give a character simple stats and leave the rest up to the player you empower the player a great deal. The "game" isn't figuring out the complicated puzzle the game designers left for you in "optimizing your build" and "min-maxing" for the highest chance of success and damage output. Honestly, this is what Pathfinder and D&D 3.5x felt like for us, figuring out the best build in the complicated mess the game designers created. And the rules needed to be long-winded and complicated to conceal the best strategies.

With a B/X style of character creation, where as little of the game is as hidden as possible, you get a more solid player to gamemaster contract. I am not some "keeper of the secret tome" of "the best way of playing" - I am here as the storyteller, and the players are here as participants. The rules are the same for everybody. Your ability scores do most of the work for you. The game is more about your decisions in the story than your decisions in the rules.

Do I like diving through complicated rules systems and figuring out how they work? Yes, a part of me has been doing that for 40 years playing these games. I enjoy depth, but I also enjoy the game getting out of the way of the story. But a huge failure of games promising depth is they always end up broken and needing a new edition to fix things all over again. Until the next edition.

When a game goes out of print and unsupported, then the profit cycle stops. The community can come in and clone it and make it a timeless classic. This is where we are with B/X. I really hope the TSR d100 games follow suite, since there are some timeless classics here.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Game Shopping: OSE Advanced Fantasy

Some news, the pre-order page is up for those who missed out on the OSE Advanced Fantasy Kickstarter.

I ordered the Advanced Fantasy book set (players guide and referee's book), along with a GM screen. For those new to OSE, the OSE Classic version is more the B/X style ""red box" style of game, while the newer OSE Advanced is more the "1st Edition Advanced" style of game.

So what do I expect? Well, for one, everything that made the 1e Advanced rules so cool, the wide variety of monsters, spells, and magic items, the classes (some of which we already saw with the companions), higher level play, and just the "more more more" feeling of the old 1e Advanced hardcovers.

It will be interesting to see how the ultra-organized OSE authors handle the mass of information, if the organizational style can deal with the metric ton of options and choices and still be approachable and usable. I applaud splitting the books into player and referee, this seems like the first step in making the huge volume of information coming at us approachable and better organized.

I also look forward to the world crafting they are planning, along with art direction. The 1e Advanced rules introduced a whole rogue's gallery of campaign bad guys to the fantasy continuity, from the dragons, demons, devils, psionic creatures, dark elves, giants, and many other factions laid out in the old 1e Advanced monster book. I am looking forward to the art and interpretations of these factions to see how they fit into the world. I am not sure we are getting psionic rules, to be fair, and that seems like an obvious optional addition to this rules set (unless psionics are being handled as one-off special attacks and not available to players).

I am really liking OSE Classic, the organization and artwork are blowing me away the more I read this and I feel Labyrinth Lord's hold on my imagination slip just a little. I don't fault Labyrinth Lord, and it still is a great choice for those diving into B/X, and from what I see there aren't any "system wars" in the B/X community. Maybe I am on the wrong forum, but from what I see in reviews and discussions, the B/X community is refreshingly chill and accepting of what your choice of game is, from Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy, Old School Essentials, and even Dungeon Crawl Classics - the B/X community is just a wonderful place to be and very open and accepting.

These games are for everybody, the world, and to bring us together at the game table.

Well, when this comes it will come, and now I can't wait. I guess more reading of OSE Classic is in store, and still, this is a wonderful game that is the essence of B/X. I still like Labyrinth Lord for the junk drawer trip down memory lane it is for me, but OSE Classic (and the soon to be released Advanced) and wonderful, modern implementations of a rules system that is itself becoming a timeless fairy tale.

Snow White or Cinderella are stories passed down to successive generations, maybe retold, maybe given a pretty gold-foil book and elaborated upon each time, but the essence remains the same. A warning, because some companies do try to "own" the legacy, but I like to think the world is a bit smarter than to let that happen. B/X is becoming just like these fables, but to the roleplaying world. Maybe one game or the other dopes things differently, maybe one family or person likes this version of the tale or that for different reasons, but that shared legacy of storytelling unites us. To see new writers and creators picking up the torch makes me feel this legacy, and these stories, are in good hands.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Retrospective: Top Secret

TSR's original Top Secret game was the game that started our adventures in modern-era roleplaying. This game powered our first spy adventures, started our GI JOE campaign, and kept serving us well until Aftermath took over as our preferred modern roleplaying system. Aftermath did vehicle combat and heavy weapons a lot better than Top Secret, and did not have as much of a problem with very high ability scores.

Very Fiddly and Chart Based

We ignored the melee combat system in this game for a straight "blow for blow" one because the system was just too fiddly and left or right side attack-based - almost like a boxing simulation better suited to a "king of the ring" RPG than a secret agent game. A lot of the weapons too had miniscule range modifier differences that made each one special and unique, but in practice didn't really impact your overall chance to hit - you either had an okay chance or you were hoping for a critical hit. There was lots of percentile math in this game for very little good reason other than to give our pocket calculators a workout.

High Ability Score Breakage

We have characters with strength scores of 120% and more, there wasn't a cap on how high your score could go, so beside heavy negative modifiers we had characters who were broken and could do it all in most tasks. Ranged combat though took everyone down to size quickly, recoil, situational, and range penalties were very high, from -100 to -300% just for long range alone, so no matter how good you got that 5% hit chance was all you were getting.

Strong Theming

One of the strongest points of the system were the very strong theming. You felt like you were supposed to be playing a spy when you opened the book. On any page you flipped to, you felt like this was "spy stuff" and it got you excited to be roaming around a foreign port, sneaking into an enemy factory, lockpicking, disarming sensors and traps, avoiding guards, stealing the mission target or rescuing the hostage, and speeding out in your rubber raft to the waiting submarine while your combat guy fired his Uzi SMG at perusing enemy agents in speedboats.

Few other games give me this feeling. Weapon choice mattered, from draw speed to concealability, or raw firepower. Shotguns were viable choices, just as much as SMGs or assault rifles. You could get away with bringing a pistol too. Grenades were powerful. Combat was deadly.

You needed specialists too, from your technical specialist, to your medic, to your gun person, to perhaps your martial artist. They needed other skills too, such as fine arts, piloting, bookkeeping, and other skills to decipher items found along the way or at the mission site. Gadgets mattered too, like safecracking devices, night vision, and other cool gadgets.

The enemies could employ hostile animals too, like killer guard parrots - which is why you brought the shotgun to turn Polly into a cloud of feathers. Or had the martial artist strike the parrot in the beak when it lunges and kill the parrot in one swift and silent blow.

The 007 Game

For many, the licensed 007 RPG replaced Top Secret and took over the genre until Top Secret SI came out and both games sort of faded into history. We never really switched to the 007 RPG, since Aftermath still did everything we needed it to. That game is very iconic, strongly themed, and I may talk about it here soon.

The 007 Game was heavier, with way more skills and percentages thrown around, and a task resolution system that required you to compare a roll against divided percentages. This sort of "level of success" worked its way into the color-coded charts of Gamma World and Marvel Super Heroes in a more easy-to-use, but still cumbersome form.

Sandbox Dungeon Crawls

One of the modules we loved for this game was the old Rapidstrike module, which was basically a huge dungeon crawl with spy gear, modern guns, and plenty of room to wreck havoc on a enemy island. A lot of people liked the modules that followed this that had the really in-depth plot lines and detailed NPCs, but being kids, we loved the spy gun-play and two-fisted action more than the drama and careful talkie parts. You could do a fun dungeon crawl with Top Secret more than 007, and you could play this to walk in the front door and deceive, sneak around at night with stealth, or go in blasting with guns - or any mixture of the three.

OSR B/X Spy Game?

Like the recently discussed B/X Gangbusters, I would love to find a B/X spy game that gave me the same feeling. I have a hunch it is out there waiting to be found, and me not looking for it is why I haven't discussed it yet.

Back when this came out, we wondered why it didn't use the D&D rules. This was the first game that solidified "percentile is modern gaming" in our heads, and that continued on to this day. It would have been cool to have this compatible, as around this time Dragon Magazine released a "modern guns" article for D&D that was fascinating and horribly unbalanced.

The TSR Percentile System

This game was also one of the first that used the TSR d100 percentile system, which was similar to games like Gangbusters (which simplified the system greatly, and added a fun Luck score), and finally Star Frontiers. We kept using Star Frontiers for quite a while and liked the d100 system, despite its flaws and difficulty to play at higher ability score levels. The d100 system played better at lower "levels" and eventually broke itself as you got experience and raised scores.

Style Matters

For us, Aftermath did a lot more. These days, there are better options for modern role playing, but back then we didn't know much (we were kids), and having a system that did melee combat to vehicle combat was a very cool thing, and that game replaced Top Secret for us as our home system.

That said, Top Secret always had style. When you opened the book, you felt like a secret agent. Your imagination was fired up in ways a generic game could not even touch. I can't see being as excited to play secret agents with GURPS or even Savage Worlds as I would be with the Top Secret book and a pair of crayoned-in percentile dice.

More on this game soon, and it is fun reminiscing about one of our old friends.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Let's Play Shows

I just have this feeling that the slickly-produced "Youtube way" of roleplaying, like shows like Critical Role, is going to end with D&D missing out, or some sort of merger or buyout with a big tech company. I watch these recorded play shows and have nothing against them, other than people coming into the hobby should temper their expectations that the professional acting and slick presentation isn't what they will get at the average pen-and-paper session.

Until, that is, a tech company with huge plans and a Fortnite style dream of recreating that "shared storytelling" with "enhanced multimedia presentation" experience comes in and takes the entire audience of these shows and gives them what they want.

Wizards has never been a technology or services company, and I just have this feeling we are on the edge of a technological shift in how people "expect to" play pen-and-paper games, much like the change between AD&D 2nd Edition and when Magic the Gathering came in and took over the narrative. People watch shows like Critical Role and expect their game to be just like that. They get to the average table and it is not.

Old-time role-players like myself say, "Adjust your expectations and have fun!"

A big tech company sees this same situation and says, "Clear opportunity to deliver services."

And I get this feeling that big tech always wins, and tell myself, oh it is coming all right. Everything we wanted as dungeon masters, 3d models, soundtracks, tools to create multimedia presentations, a Twitch-like paying audience brought in, subscription models, and everything we ever wanted to recreate that rich and enhanced "let's play" experience is coming.

They will build it. Like the cell phone becoming a desktop PC, it will happen.

D&D? At first it will be optional, big tech is just providing a better way to play! And then big tech will realize the rules don't matter and there is more profit in making your own and selling expansions, so the new, better, feature-rich game system better suited for "let's play" will be rolled out to much fanfare. Fans of the "let's play" system and content delivery steam will switch to it, and Wizards will go the way TSR did when Magic the Gathering took over the hobby store. Either that, or the billion dollar tech company will just buy D&D and Wizards and fundamentally change the game to be a live service.

As much as I hate it, everything these days seems to become a live service.

That said, I like these shows - and also the ones where they aren't slickly produced. But I see stories of people getting into pen and paper because of these shows and walking away because the experience "wasn't like their favorite show" and I can hear the wheels turning in some tech company's mind somewhere.

What if we could deliver that experience?

If this fictional company could do it well, heck yes I would be on board. I love bringing people together. If they were pro-player and generous with their content and services, even better. If they could make that dream a reality, yes, I would be 100% on board.

As much as I love the old way of doing things, I am not so stuck in them I don't see a better way. I am skeptical today's tech companies could pull this off, because, you know, raw greed always wins.

I guess this is why "who is in charge" of these efforts matters. You get your typical "AAA game" company and console game management team in there and it is a guaranteed disaster. You get someone with a dream and a vision, who is a player and DM advocate, and it could happen.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Traveller: Specialty Skills

A negative point I feel to the new edition of Traveller for me is the specialty skills. In Cepheus Engine they call them Cascading Skills. In Cepheus Light they do not exist. How specialty skills work is like this:

You get a level of Engineer, and it starts at +0. Great! You can do every engineering task without the unskilled penalty. Now, you go through your career path and get a further +1 to your Engineer skill. Great, you have Engineer + 1, right?

No. Engineer has a number of specialty skills, and you have to take that level and assign it to one specialized field of study under the Engineer skill, such as Engineer (jump drives) + 1 or Engineer (maneuver drives) + 1. The rest of your engineer skills stay at +0, and from here forward you can only raise specialty skills in Engineering. Engineer skill itself will never go to Engineer +1.

Character Sheet Needed

The problem is, on the career charts, there is no indication of what results are specialty skills. I would have at least put an asterisk by the entries that required specialty skill picks, just to let you know. So, having a printed character sheet with a skill list with the specialty skills noted is a must. If you create a character sheet yourself, you are going to be checking a real character sheet or flipping through the book to check each skill. As a new player, this tripped me up, and I expected the original non-specialty skills in the original Traveller.

Some Professions = Specialty Heavy

Another part of me feels that the system hurts certain types of professions, or allows min-maxing within specialty skills. An engineer or scientist? They need to know everything, so spreading points around to cover specialties is a must. A pilot? Why fly anything else other than the main ship? I don't need biplane piloting. A soldier? Focus on my main weapon and a few alternatives (because you know referees love to take favored weapons away). Medics? One skill, plenty rolls left to use elsewhere. Electronics or sensor operators? Specialties, spread them out. Admin and diplomats? Single skills, more rolls for fun elsewhere.

I know these are generated randomly, but where this hurts is character improvement - either through study (basic rules), or the experience system presented in the companion. I suppose it is more realistic to have your engineer off for long periods of time in college learning new things, but some players may feel the reward just isn't there for these skills. Others will say, leave engineering to NPCs.

A couple sci-fi games have this problem, by increasing depth in non-action or "fun play" areas, some character types really don't have much to do or add during the typical adventure. I need to dig out my d20 version of Star Wars because I seem to recall this issue coming up. Pilots, medics, and engineers? Character types dependent on a vehicle or a situation (something getting damaged or someone getting hurt), and outside of that not useful or very fun in normal pulp sci-fi adventures with lots of action.

An argument could be made for the medic due to the frequency of combat, but as character increase in power and their defenses increase, the medic becomes less and less needed. It is better than playing a pilot and being weak at almost everything until the pre-determined "ship combat" part of the adventure comes up, if it comes up.

Also, this assumes you are doing a more traditional "dungeon style" combat heavy type of roleplaying with sci-fi, and not something like Star Trek (TV series) where professions matter to resolving larger problems. But the combat-heavy dungeon style sci-fi is popular and a lot of what we played.

Skills as Ability Scores?

I don't need multiple specializes of Athletics skill, like Athletics skill covering the subskills of Strength (weight lifting), Endurance (running and swimming), and Dexterity (climbing and jumping). Some of these feel like "skills for ability scores" - because if my character is strong, um, the character can lift weights. If my character has a high endurance, he or she can run long distances. High dexterity? You can jump around!

So, Space Marine Brutus Strongus, make an ability roll to lift that heave piece of machinery pinning the ship's doctor? Oh wait, you don't have weightlifting skill, unskilled roll please.

Climbing and swimming? Clearly skills, and important for underwater operations or climbing mountains. Those need to be skills, but they are hidden in a framework that really does not feel like it should exist. The need for running and weightlifting skills does not feel justified in the skill bloat or complexity this adds. Some games, like Star Frontiers, don't even have skills for climbing and swimming, and just use ability scores to cover these actions, and the game works fine.

I Understand Why

The skill system is usable and I can get by with it, but it isn't my first choice on how I like Traveller style skills to work. It isn't a deal-breaker, but it does feel clunky and slightly over complex for what should be a simple system that gets out of the way of the action instead of defining and limiting the action.

I get a feeling the basic Traveller skills were too few and too powerful, you get a +4 in your primary specialty and you are well on the way to being the best at what you do. Part of this is the 2d6 dice mechanic. You also need ways to slow down character advancement and progression, and make things to improve on during the course of a campaign.

But I have seen sci-fi games with about dozen skills get it right and not need any more than that, and not need to use specialization to increase depth. Star Frontiers does a wonderful job keeping its skill list tight and adventure focused. And if I want long lists of skills with much more detailed and nuanced character design, there is always GURPS.

As it is, the skill system feels usable, but it isn't really my favorite part of the system.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Mail Room: Gamma World (3rd Edition)


Chernobyl. The space shuttle Challenger. Iran-Contra.

Top Gun. Aliens. The second year of the Nintendo Entertainment System.

We were still crayoning the dice.

Gamma World 3rd Edition.

I got this one in the mail recently, and my preference for the pre-Wizards editions is 2nd, 1st, 3rd, then 4th. That said, this is a very complete version of the game (with errata) and recommended, and it keeps a good balance between mutations and gear. The artwork is often stunning.

A big addition is the action table - used for every roll in the game and a precursor to the simpler one used in Marvel Superheroes. A lot of the game feels shoehorned into using this table, and the rules bloat as a result - the damage section goes nearly six pages and gets into all sorts of detailed Aftermath style conditions and effects - burns, infections, radiation, system shock, stuns, sunburn, steam, frostbite, electrical damage, rotting, and all sorts of other effects where my mind shuts down and begs for a simple hit point damage system.

In the PDF there is a rules and errata supplement we never got, and this features the cryptic alliances missing from the book (years later I get these I know) - and some major clarifications for the action table's results. Plant mutations are given. We get a price list. A large vehicle and equipment list. Complete is an understatement here.

I like this version of the game, we played it, but this is where it started to decline for us. Again, our group was still big on Aftermath, and even that game felt more streamlined than this one with its d20 roll-under mechanic. Having to go to the d100 chart for every roll in the game felt cumbersome for us, it worked for a while but we grew tired of it quickly. The chart did provide for a lot of special results and levels of success, but Marvel Superheroes (MSH) did this soon after with a much more simplified table and mechanics. This (along with the Indiana Jones game) felt like the beta-test for the more unified and simpler tables later on.

That said, I wish the mutations could have been handled like MSH powers - they would have been much more powerful and usable, and honestly, mutations should be the superpowers that equalize the balance between the old age and the new. I like the fantasy elements, but the beginning of worshipping on the altar of the ancients begins here, and our losing interest because the conflict becomes a scavenging arms race.

All that said, this is probably the best reference guide on classic Gamma World out there, if you can forgive the bloat in the rules and the errata adding critical parts of the game that were left out. It does feel like some of the 4th Edition's "gear worship" is sneaking in here, as you look at what is highlighted in the art and theme of the game. Gear are the game's magic items, and those are your primary route to power and influence.

I wish they would have kept this to the D&D rules, which again is why Mutant Future is so appealing to me these days. I don't want to learn (or re-learn) a new set of rules to play this, and honestly, Gamma World is better off the similar it is to the current version of D&D on the shelf - just because this is a niche genre, and having rules that match what everyone plays makes it easier to find players. This is why OGR versions appeal to me so much these days, I am not asking five or six people to spend money, read hundreds of pages, and learn an entirely new game for a night of fun. There is the retro kitsch factor to this game, but for my tastes being able to play with a larger pool of potential players (and compatible material) is a huge plus.

Even back in the day I feel this would have been a better plan for the game. Make it an alternative experience, one rooted in and supported by the current version of the game, but keep the rules people know. I feel recently, Starfinder made a mistake like this in changing things too much, and you were forced to learn a new set of rules to play. Alternate games, especially from companies with hit games, should pull from standardized or current shipping sets of rules. More potential players is a good thing.

More on this one soon, and it is fun to have a printed copy in my hands again.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Game Shopping: They Came from Beneath the Sea

This? This looks fun! I am a huge fan of B-movies, horror films, retro kitsch, and 1950's sci-fi, so this looks like something I would really enjoy. Ordered and cannot wait for this one to come!

Monday, October 5, 2020

Mail Room: Gamma World (1st Edition)

When we first got the original Boxed set of Gamma World, it felt like a strange, new game. This version lacked the fantasy elements of the 2nd Edition and beyond, there were no elf, fairy, gnoll, or dragon equivalents, but it remained this strange offshoot of AD&D for us that felt like an entirely new experience and world.

Admittedly, the game did not really take off for us until 2nd Edition Gamma World, as the fantasy elements were familiar enough to create some interesting differences between "new world" and "old world" ways. This version felt strangely like the box cover, strange explorers in some strange technicolor land of danger and sinister mutants. There was this feeling of human descendants coning out of vaults and exploring the world, much like a precursor to Fallout by many years for us, and that pitted the new world versus the old and began that conflict in our Gamma World games.

The fantasy elements in 2nd Edition did solidify that conflict, and give the "new world" a familiar fantasy-style face. The fae-like lils were troublemakers, there were elf-like grens, talking animals, and many more of the fantasy tropes present creating a rich and interesting contrast between new worlds and old. The new world was a messed up fantasy world pulled into the ruins of the old civilization. The old world were thinking computers, humans, robots, and the way of living in the past.

Also worth mentioning is the first module Legion of Gold, which includes rules for conventional firearms, has some cool pieces of interior art, and features a campaign setting and a collection of adventures and locations. Including "normal" guns dials back the settings futuristic feeling just a tad, and I prefer the more sci-fi version where you can't find M-16 rifles and M1911A1 pistols lying around. By the time we get to Gamma World 4th Edition, we have nearly every Call of Duty style weapon represented, and I feel that game loses the feeling of "wrecked future society" once you put in Uzi SMGs and all sorts of other weapons. I mean seriously Gamma World 4th, why do they still have tasers when stun ray pistol and rifles are on the same list?

Wrecked future society! Please give up the modern weapons and simplify the gear lists! It is way too easy to fall into an Aftermath or Mad Max style feeling and play with these 1970-2020 weapons lying around.

Back to 1st Edition, and I hope Wizards puts out a 2nd Edition reprint soon, since that version is close to GW 1st while introducing the fantasy elements. No idea what is holding this up, but I am keeping my hopes up. As it is, I have the Fantasy elements in 3rd and 4th well enough, but I like 2nd Edition and that was the version that took off for us and captured our imagination. 3rd Edition is where it went downhill for us, and that felt replaced by Marvel Superheroes.

All that said, I would probably just play Mutant Future with the Gamma World creatures and special gear items pulled in. Nothing beats the basic, OSR feel and simplicity of that basic rules set. It works like most everything I know, and I am not sitting here trying to read and comprehend a set of rules that changed with every version of the game.

In my feeling, Gamma World should have kept close in rules to the current version of D&D - always. It felt like they chased unique mechanics to make the game fun, instead of putting that work into making the game fun. The setting as well, you cannot have a great game without a setting with a clear conflict, characters, and an overarching metaplot to drive interest.

If I were to pull in fantasy elements, I would probably use the Labyrinth Lord collection of creatures as my base, strip the magic off them, add mutations, and make the mutations and origin a random type with the start of every campaign. The fairies? Based off plants in one game, mutants in another, robots in another, cyborgs, psi-creatures, or any other origin I roll for the origin chart with powers rolled and tweaked to match. The psi-fairies would have a lot of standard mental powers, probably be incorporeal glowing purple things, and fly around at night.

And every game would be different, yet share the same fantasy-style elements with an unpredictable factor. The new world? A fantasy world come to life through the "new power" brought to the world. There are some things in Gamma World that feel like classics, but to tell you the truth, I could probably clone them, improve them, and make better versions inside of Mutant Future. Again, you want to be careful to not overshadow the new versus old fight, and balance those additions with that power struggle.

Part of the problem with turning Gamma World into a fantasy "paint by numbers" game is you lose the unpredictability that is a core attraction of the game. What is that fish and why is it swimming above the water? It can talk? Uhhh...I know the game and every monster in the book but I don't know this! And then, the inevitable "run back into the cave" statement with the fantasy Gamma World always comes up, "Why aren't we just playing fantasy?"

This is what randomizing the fantasy monsters powers, origins, intelligence levels, and other aspects brings to the game. The game is not supposed to be predictable. Players are supposed to poke, prod, observe, and try things. They are supposed to figure things out. Is that monster a possible friend or is it trying to eat us? Even the technology to a degree should be mazing and unpredictable. Why does this laser turn things different colors based on a color wheel on top and do no damage? What is that good for? That type of device? In my players' hands? Probably cause more damage than a Mk VII blaster. Players love this stuff.

Perhaps I need to create a book for my ideas and publish it. That is the beauty of OSR, to take what came before, and make it your own. And you are not forced to learn rules that kept changing, getting bigger and more complicated, and took away the focus from story to mechanics.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Mail Room: Gamma World (4th Edition)

So my printed copy of Gamma World 4th Edition came (with the Judge Dredd looking cover), and I can see the seeds of the "Wild and Wahoo" mood of the next (D&D 4th) version of the game. This version still gives you a serious play option, which is nice.

I also see a lot of gear, and so much when you toss in the Treasures of the Ancients book the gear almost feels like it takes over the game. We have page after page of gear in perfect working order, and while needed, it makes me feel that the pre-ruin world is more important than the one which came after. I feel this is a huge problem, I get this feeling that the player who creates a cool "dandelion person" mutant plant is going to see the power and usefulness of their mutations pale in comparison to having the best power armor, a Mk VII blaster, and a legion of death-bots following them around.

In my feeling, there has to be a conflict between the old world and the new one. The old world is civilization, technology, and ancient artifacts and weapons. The new world are mutations, new lifeforms, psionics, and powers that can meet or exceed the devices the ancients came up with. Here? It feels very old-world biased, like the only way to get better is to grab better loot, and thus - the ancients were right and your new world - mutations, intelligent plants and animals, and psionics alike - kind of suck.

I need mutations that can be developed and equal the power of those Mk VII blasters and micro-missile launchers. I need cyborgs trying to mix old and new worlds to disasters results. I need psionics that eliminate the need for old-tech, or beat it at its own game.

The game has artwork from previous editions, like the 3rd and missing 2nd, so it does have value if you wanted to convert these to Mutant Future or use it as a sourcebook. If I were using it as a sourcebook I would be very careful not to let "all this cool gear" overshadow how the new world is now, and take over the game by making it a loot collection game.

You risk solving the inherent conflict of these future-apocalypse worlds by saying, "everyone had it good before all this, scavenge junk until you rebuild that."

Also, the book is very, very dense. We have long two column solid text blocks for page after page, with some repetitive header art on the top of every page that is nice - but it gets old and it feels lazy to have the same image, page after page, when I would have loved this header mixed up. Maybe a robot-themed one, a mutation themed one, and some different headers to help visually separate the sections of the book. As it is, there is an eyeball with weeds on the top of every page, and it feels like 90's desktop publishing.

It is nice to have this book, it is nice to have this information preserved and collected, but I feel there are some problems here that need further discussion in regards to previous editions, and also the retro-clones of today - especially in direction and theme. More soon.