Monday, November 30, 2020

Mail Room: MSPE Hardcover

It is seriously scary these days how short of a time between wanting something, and having it come to your door. Well, two days after learning about this, it is here, and I am seriously impressed with this book. This is not a POD hardcover, this is a professional job, the paper-stock is really heavy - almost stiff - and there is a built in bookmark. Good binding from what I can tell. All the additional content from different editions of the game is included. The book was even shrink-wrapped in plastic, and in pristine quality with no bent corners or damage.

I did pay a little more than list price, but in my feeling, worth it. I will get way more use out of this than a similarly priced video game, and it will last me a lot longer. If you love this game it is highly recommended. If you are curious, please go for the PDF.

Will this just sit on a shelf? I get this feeling I will say that now, but end up flipping through and enjoying this one much more than other books I have picked up recently. To me, when the creator goes out of their way to create a better-than-POD book, it elevates the game to a level where I enjoy it more. This is not to say I am not thankful for my POD books, it is just in this era we have publishers going the extra mile on crafting a lasting, quality experience, and that shows a love and respect for their players that I really appreciate. 

Nicely done here.

Will I Use It?

There is something about the alternate universe of T&T and MSPE that appeals to me. T&T is a "handful of dice" game that tosses away chapters full of rules for a bucket of dice, dark humor, and some timeless solo adventures. MSPE to me is simple at its core, and it has that "roll 3d6 for your scores and go" feeling where I could pick an old movie, create some characters for the stars of the show, and play through the film my way.

Both of them are not B/X, but retro in the same way, and simple and incredibly easy to get going. A few games still sing to me these days, and this is one. It is hard to put my finger on it, but for years this game felt somehow different and special, even though our main campaign never used these rules - this system still felt like a treasure to me. It has a timeless quality like a movie made a long time ago that never really gets old, and while games today come and go, this one I can keep coming back to again and again.

It still captures my imagination.

It is funny, since games like D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder 1, D&D 4, and many others I feel had times that came and gone. I can still play them today, but what made them fun for me at the time were the other people playing them. You were a part of the crowd. People were talking about them. They were part of the shared excitement and culture.

With MSPE I bet many playing today have never heard of it, and I remember buying this a long time ago when I was a kid. We never really used it that much, but it felt special then like it feels special now. And it transcended decades of gaming to still feel relevant and interesting, despite its relative obscurity today.

But Why?

As a set of rules, it is short and a less heroic subset of T&T with some add-ons for modern gear. There is a skill system. Leveling is the old chart-based method. The scores never blow out beyond human normal. This is a simple 3d6 system, with a 2d task resolution system. Combat is incredibly deadly (and there is a lot of missed shots). So what makes it feel special?

The art is a huge part of this game. That cover nails it for me and ushers in the golden age of Hollywood in all its spectacle and glory. This is the "movie game" for most all of film from 1920 to 1990. And it does it all with a simple 3d6 system like D&D but not D&D.

With a B/X game, the B/X elements would take over the feeling. You would roll those stats, pick a class, and the first thought in my head would be, "Where is the dungeon?" It is hard for me to escape that feeling with B/X since it feels embedded into the DNA of the rules.

With MSPE, this is a 3d6 system, but T&T is the dungeon game and that works on an entirely different scale than the modern rules. You can't really "dungeon" here, and the focus becomes the story. Not buckets of dice, please avoid combat, and let your skills and abilities be how you do things. The rules almost "aren't there" and they melt away as a backdrop. You are supposed to roleplay here, and figure your way through a complex plot with in-depth characters and NPCs.

The rules are secondary, but they are there to keep this a game. If you know how saving rolls work that is 80-90% of what you need to know to play and referee. The combat chart in essence is just a saving roll guideline table, so even that can be eliminated if you understand how ranged combat should work. Determine a challenge and pass/fail results, pick an ability, determine a saving roll level, modify, and have the player roll. That is most of the game.

The Feeling is the Game

One could say MSPE is a feeling embedded in the game's DNA like B/X's feeling is embedded. With B/X, light a torch, descend into the depth, fight monsters, and grab the loot. With MSPE, you merely need to think of your favorite classic movie and crack open the book.

If T&T's home world was Trollworld, a world run by monsters and savagery; MSPE's home world in my mind is Filmworld, a world where every movie in the gold and silver age of cinema plays over and over again, all starting the same way, but the outcomes are a million butterflies scattered to the wind. Those outcomes are determined by those who play.

To me, if B/X is the quintessential kitchen-sink fantasy game, then MSPE is the quintessential "every movie without a licensing deal" kitchen-sink film roleplaying game. Casablanca, Seven Days of the Condor, Easy Rider, any Sam Spade film, any Kubrick film, classic TV like The Untouchables, Gunsmoke, and the list goes on and on - this game covers them all in spirit and feeling.

Could I use another generic system, such as GURPS? True, but that would take hours of startup and getting everything setup and ready. GURPS is this realistic "sim" style game in my feeling, great for some things, but for games where your initial investment of time and thought should be on the level of "roll 3d6 for your stats and play" MSPE feels like the better choice. If we are going to play Sam Spade adventures tonight I don't want players pouring over books full of advantages, disadvantages, point-buy skills, and hours of character optimization (or questions from new players).

For a sim, yes, definitely a detail-oriented game works. For something intended to be lightweight, one-night, and possibly throw-away? Give me a simple 3d6 and go game like MSPE. Could I just use B/X and save myself even more time? I could, but the "why aren't we in a dungeon" feeling creeps up on me again. For me, MSPE is removed enough from dungeon-ing that it feels distinct and to the task, and there is always T&T sitting there in the basement with a bucketful of six-sided dice should the catacombs call.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

But the Rules Handle Roleplay

I was watching some Youtube discussion of OSR games versus more modern story-based games and one topic came up regarding games with "social combat" rules.

In a more modern game, a player would be told to, "roll your diplomacy skill to..." or they may have a "social combat" system.

In an OSR or game without social interaction rules, the player would have to roleplay the interaction with the referee.

The social interactions as skill or ability rolls began I would say back in the days of the Charisma ability score modifier. Why have it unless you were going to roll it? If I were back in the day helping design D&D and could look into the future, I might suggest Charisma does not get an ability score modifier because the Charisma score is only there as a guideline for the player and referee.

Should Charisma never be rolled?

I hear the argument that, "Well a character may have a high STR but the player does not, so having a CHR score protects a player who may be shy or reserved in roleplay situations." Well, however a player roleplays that interaction, the referee needs to take into account that CHR score, regardless of the player's roleplaying ability.

If a shy player with a character with CHR 18 walks into the throne room and says, "Um, hello everyone." The room may erupt in applause. I am not going to force someone out of their comfort zone as a referee, and hopefully the player will ease into the high charisma however they feel it should be done. A player could be like Johnny Depp, be a total oddball, socially awkward, and have a CHR 18 and anything they do is loved regardless.

Referee Bias Possible

Otherwise my bias as a referee comes into play, with CHR 18 do I expect the player to talk like Hamlet with flowery language and thees and thous? Um, no, I can't put my expectation of what a high CHR acts like on the player and use that to judge their roleplaying. I feel Charisma is better as a guideline for both the player and the referee. However the player wants to roleplay is their natural charisma, and their ability score modifies how the interaction is ruled by the referee.

Letting the player be themselves and using the ability score to rule the result - without dice rolls - is honestly how I ran games back in the day. If you need a reaction roll because you have no clue of how the encounter is going to begin, that is a possible use of a CHR modifier, but for roleplay reactions I never rolled it.

Rolling a social interaction forces my hand as a referee. If the roleplay was awkward and the character had a high CHR could produce a different result than flowery roleplay and a high CHR. Same thing for low CHR, but I may rule more favorably if the player sweetened up the deal with extra offers. Middling CHR, middling results. If there is something I am unsure of in the interaction I may throw a die to pick among responses or outcomes, but I would still modify the result.

"But you are forcing people to roleplay!"

Um, yeah. That is the game we are playing here and the appeal of taking on a role. But seriously, if you want to play this as a wargame, go right ahead. I was a fan of the early 4th Edition D&D rules for the battle chess elements, so I get the thrill of tabletop play and love that part of the hobby.

But I am forcing them to roleplay however they are comfortable to. Big difference between that and setting an expectation of how a high CHR should act.

High CHR Failures?

Can a high CHR character ever fail at a social interaction? With rolling for them, yes. With interpreting them without a roll it gets fuzzy. As a referee I would say they can fail, someone is just not going to "make me the king" if I ask them. With a high CHR they may laugh. With a low CHR I may be thrown in the dungeon.

With a high CHR a player will feel a bigger sense of disappointment on failed rolls, where if we don't roll and I rule failure - it is on me the referee - and I now need to make some adjustment to the ruling to take some sting off the failure I ruled. With a dice roll, yes, you can do that, but many times the failed roll stops the roleplay and the characters are looking for the next skill they can roll to get what they want.

"Try subtlety! Try deception! Try administration skill!"

A Trust Thing

I suppose as an experienced referee I don't need to roll and I established that trust with my players. With people you don't know, I can see rolling Charisma because it "protects everybody" and ensures games in official situations - like sanctioned play - are handled by the dice. In solo play too, where the outcome needs to be a little more deterministic, I could see rolling CHR as well.

But a part of me feels an important part of roleplaying involves getting you out of that safe zone and exposing yourself to others, and getting to know other players and referees. Even if I started off rolling CHR, as the group got to know each other I may try to do away with the CHR rolls and roleplay it all. But again, just don't do this all of a sudden - talk to your players and align expectations.

I don't always roll CHR, but I default to letting the roleplay speak for itself, and love it when my players are their own quirky selves. The score will modify my ruling, and if a player feels uncomfortable I will let them roll. I won't punish them if they do. But I like it better when there is that connection, when players are out of their comfort zones, and the playing of roles means role playing.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Game Shopping: MSPE Hardcover

Wow, here is an interesting one:

The Kickstarter ended a while ago, but there are hardcovers of this game for sale in the wild. Also, they updated the rules with errata and fixes. This one is a buy for me since T&T is one of my all time favorite games and I love the Noir and 50's era of movies and adventure.

Amazon has the hardcover here, but the price currently is above the $55 asking price:

Would I pay $25 above the asking price for this? I would say yes since this is one of those books that feels like if you don't get it while you can, getting it new later would be a challenge. I know. But considering the T&T 8th hardcovers are reportedly in short supply I am going to grab a copy as a collectors item.

On DriveThru RPG, if you purchased MSPE, you will find the above revised 2019 hardcover in your account as "MSPE_drive_thru_edition_2019.pdf" - with all of the new material and revisions. At the time of this writing you can pick this game up (in PDF) on sale for just under $9 US - which is a great price.

I will play from the PDFs, honestly, but this will be beautiful and stand on my top-shelf with pride. It is strange having the hardcovers but playing from PDFs. The books almost feel like trophies or something. But in case I want to pick it up and read something real, I have it if the power is out and there is nothing else to do.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Old School Essentials: Advanced PDFs

Here is something to be thankful for today! The Old School Essentials Advanced Players and Referee's tome PDFs were available for download (for preorders) this week, and I got mine last night. I want to do a deeper dive on these, but they are impressive pieces of work.

You do not need the OSE Classic rules to play - Advanced and Classic are two separate products that use the same underlying rules framework. You can have the classic books and just play with those, or you can have these books and play with these. It seems all of the Classic material is reprinted in Advanced, so this is a sort of superset game to that one.

vs. Labyrinth Lord?

OSE Advanced  (OSE-A) is on-par with Labyrinth Lord's hybrid D&D/AD&D blend of rules, monsters, and treasures now and that is a good thing. There is a clear difference however, Labyrinth Lord is now the game that is closer to the D&D/AD&D original game mix than OSE-A. OSE-A has wonderful implementations of B/X of classes Labyrinth Lord does not include: acrobat, barbarian, bard, knight, and B/X style race as class implementations for drow, duergar, and svirfneblin (though Labyrinth Lord still is the only game with the monk class). The classes are wonderfully B/X feeling and really match the design aesthetics of the original game nicely - well done.

Monks were always a bit of a strange add in the original AD&D, and they are clearly a more Eastern influence on the game. Keeping them out seems right, since once you add monk people will want ninjas and samurai, and all of a sudden you are way outside of the original experience. Best to do those right in an expansion book.

OSE-A is a sort of fork in the D&D/AD&D hybrid throwback games now, and this game is almost an "alternate reality" type game in a universe where AD&D never came out and the ideas were instead added to the basic D&D set and the entire game expanded upon and revised into a "one true ring" type whole. Labyrinth Lord is the "bolted together" throwback and more true to the source material because it does not expand upon the basic material (much). OSE-A feel almost like an entirely new game from that alternate universe where the brand was never split and the game remained as one experience - and then expanded upon from there.

"Versus" is a bit of a false comparison also, since in B/X it isn't really one game against another. Both games are great, and really what you play is personal preference.

No Demons and Devils

Demons and devils are not present (outside of a demonic knight monster) in OSE-A. This was one thing I wanted, but I can live without now that my thinking on this is evolving. Demons and devils are controversial, so leave them for an entirely optional expansion book and keep the core game clean and appealing to most everybody. Also, if one would have jammed demons and devil into the game as "just more monsters" I don't think they would have been done justice as the diabolical foes they deserve to be.

Looking back at how infernal monsters were shoved into the original Monster Manual and I get this feeling they demons and devils not done much justice in AD&D. They were "just another monster" and many of the other creatures in the book were truly more terrifying than them. That, and since most of them were psionic with loads of special attacks and defenses they seemed to break the game, were too complex to run as a DM, and felt like they were fearful because they broke the game in ways outside of how it was designed.

And a lot of the AD&D demons and devils seemed very "comic book" to me. I would like ones more pulled from the original sources, fully statted out as individuals, and with a large supporting cast of henchmen, lesser demon lords serving them, infernal monsters, background information, and even art and illustrations like something out of Dante's Inferno. I would even say give me a setting that covers the layers of Hell and all of a sudden you haven't just emulated AD&D but improved on it greatly and done these creatures justice by making them fearsome and terrifying foes.

So I am in the market for a B/X book like this, or I will just write one myself.

Speaking of psionics there are none in OSE-A or Labyrinth Lord outside of special powers for certain magic items (and some spells).


The art in these books is stunning - and it floors me again and again with the quality and pieces chosen. Some are repeated from OSE-C but since these are the same games really I do not mind. The book is full-color throughout and a real work of art in both presentation and organization.

I have not gotten the physical books yet, so I will check in later when those arrive. Already I am eagerly looking forward to them given the PDFs.

Will I Use It?

So the question is, does this game completely replace Labyrinth Lord for me? The unified B/X classes and races are very compelling, and this game has something like 80-90% of LL's content outside of a few things here and there. The organization is incredible. The art is stunning. The ease-of-use is the best in the B/X world. This one hurts but I may say yes, this replaces Labyrinth Lord for me. Labyrinth Lord is still my support material for Mutant Future and it will still be used for fantasy-mutant hybrid creatures in that game, and I still love the game and it is a solid choice for anyone into B/X.

But Old School Essentials Advanced? This game for me is a complete replacement for AD&D. I could restart my old Greyhawk and 4E campaigns and be completely happy with it. If I lost my original AD&D or D&D 4E books I would not feel a sense of loss other than the sentimental value, because I have this instead.

I see OSE-A as a viable D&D 5E alternative - and it is clearly on that level of quality and presentation. It is not the same game, nor is it for the same type of player, but for those who love B/X, this feels like a giant that stands alongside the other greats in the B/X world. This is a game with a warm smile, familiar home, and inviting demeanor to those interested in B/X and these simpler times and rules. In my feeling, the quality level here meets or exceeds what Wizards and Paizo puts out.

Highest recommendation when the print versions finally go on sale.


To me, it feels like going to the home of a legendary dungeon master in some mountain forest retreat; and seeing his game room, with a giant ornate deeply scratched 600-year old table that actual knights sat at, plush easy chairs around the table, buckets of dice lying around, and a lavish assortment of games and history all over the walls. Add a warm, inviting fireplace, all the refreshments you could hope for, and the smells of something baking in the upstairs oven for afterwards and you get the feeling that Old School Essentials Advanced gives me.

It feels like home.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

T&T: Trollworld

Trollworld is an interesting setting, and one I feel is highly underrated. This setting has been the home for all the Tunnels and Trolls solo adventures and has spanned the entire history of the game.

Now, as a preface, this is how I see the world. You may see it differently. You may have not considered the setting in depth, or you may have played there for years and done something entirely different. One of the beautiful things about pen-and-paper gaming is how we see the world, or a world, begins a great epic inside our minds and those of others into creating a unique setting and experience. We may all start in the same place, but where we end up is a beautiful journey.

Part of my change in thinking about this world involved the following concepts:

Dark Humor

This is very much a setting that hits pop-culture references from the 1900s to the 2000s is a dark humor sort of way. One could say this makes the world a more lightweight comedic affair, but I see this differently. The Warcraft universe does a lot of pop-culture references and no one bats an eye. You can see them too in the Warhammer universe, and people are like, fine.

In my view, pop-culture references have been in this world for tens of thousands of years because wizards have been visiting Earth (and many other worlds) for all of that time. Not just one Earth, but tens of thousands of alternate Earths and realities - over and over again. They may have destroyed hundreds of these Earths, enslaved some of them, and half-destroyed hundreds more and then forgot about them. Wizards visiting them may have left for them or gotten killed and nobody knew better.

Not just Earth, but potentially tens of thousands of different worlds, timelines, and realities - even on alien worlds. Expand your idea of 'pop culture' to include a million different realities and worlds, and get outside of the televised group of realities. Include fiction too, since this is magic and magic makes the impossible happen. A wizard could find Alice in Wonderland and zap a deadly version of it into reality. Then forget it ever existed for a thousand years as the place is overrun by monsters, twists into a frightening new form of nightmares, and comes back and consumes its creator.

Also, Trollworld is the home of monsters. And monsters are known on many worlds. Thus, the connection will never go away and it influenced the world as monsters have influenced Earth. Say a new monster is imagined on Earth, then that could be created here. The rulebook says:
Arrange a pirating raid against a settlement of Vartae, or have an evil wizard cast the characters into the future of the Wild West, or further yet into the space-faring world of Buck Rogers or Captain Kirk where technology works and magic doesn’t—or perhaps it does anyway!

Any scenario, any piece of fiction or nonfiction can be mined for inspiration, from Sherlock Holmes to Kipling’s Mowgli, from classical Greece to the African veldt. Anything can be adapted with a little work and imagination on your part. Don’t stop at the tunnels! There are countless worlds beyond the dungeon.
The door has been opened, but realize this...

Countless doors to countless worlds into countless futures and pasts have been opened for the last 60,000 years. This is not a setting that is damaged by cultural references to Earth (and likely many other worlds), that stuff has been floating around as a part of this world's history.

Some Earth figures from history might just be walking around here...

Not Human Centric

So many fantasy worlds are written to mirror Earth's history, you know, the one where humans were the only intelligent life on a world. Or the game's creators write the world's history as if the inhabitants on it were humans and act the same. On Trollworld, humans are not the dominant species. They may have came here 45,000 years ago and built great cities and civilizations in the past, they are not the dominant force in the world anymore. 

After all, the trolls were here first, and after that elves and dragons. Trollworld, these days, belongs to the monsters. Check your human bias and privilege at the door, lunch-meat.

Well, your empires are gone and human cities are few and far-between. There are many places where humans are hunted, and only a few where they walk among monsters freely (but watch your back). You are not going to be a softie, civilized cosmopolitan type in a royal carriage with a poofy hat and pantaloons looking down your nose and pooh-poohing those wretched creatures as you trade with them. You are going to be a barbarian king type saying take my trade deal or I will sign it myself with your blood. In fantasy gaming, it is too easy to fall into the Arthurian tropes of chivalry and proper social behavior. This world is much more savage and brutal than that.

Human kingdoms might take land nobody else wants, and fight tooth and nail to scratch out an existence between the borders of large monster kingdoms. Approaches to human cities may be channeled up narrow gorges and chasms with thousands of ambush points and fortifications before one reaches the massive city gates. The city itself may be cut out of the canyon walls, or the ancient ruins of an old serpent empire among the cliffs with old temples and halls repurposed for human inhabitation.

T&T cities aren't reflections of modern times; nor are they clean, ordered, and boring analogies of today's metropolis centers. They are a savage reflection of a world inhabited by monsters, broken, twisted, shattered, and rebuilt a thousand times by the next group of inhabitants. And they are definitely not entirely human, as humans are transplants to this world.

This is why the contents look like monsters. Some may say this is silly, but to the monsters, this is a brutal reflection of vanity and their disregard for those who live here. The world is supposed to feel alien to humankind.


Power means using it. There is a reason characters in this world have ability scores above 100.

They need to be able to walk up to a dragon and punch it in the nose - and have it stay down. This is why characters start as D&D first level nothings and end up with ability scores way above 100. Just like in the Epic of Gilgamesh you will be able to throw a bull for a mile, cut down many trees with one swipe of an axe, or reject the advances of the gods themselves because you are so damn good looking. This is one of the key advantages of the game, D&D ability scores, for the most part, never change (or change very slightly), all the way up to maximum level. T&T ability scores ARE your character level. Yes, you are supposed to be that strong and that smart. You are a legend.

Also, this is an 7th and 8th Edition rule where your highest prime attribute divided by 10 is your character level. Earlier editions got into XP charts and other methods, and I prefer this new way of determining level since it gives the player the freedom to decide when they level up, and gets rid of the level chart entirely.

A Savage World

I don't really want to say "this is Conan" because it is not. That is too easy, and it is also too limiting. The savage barbarian king trope completely applies here, the world feels like that and that model of character can be played with great ease here. Some of what the Conan style brings to the table applies, but the world is much more than that.

We don't want to limit ourselves to just humans and the human experience in fantasy. Think if a monster, say a troll, wrote the Conan novels from a troll perspective, and your mind will start to wander down the correct pathways. My son was born, so I started a war against all the other troll tribes we were at peace with so my son could see what victory looked like! My son rode on my shoulders as he watched me slay a thousand trolls! 

It makes no sense. This is not how a human world works. It feels alien to our experience.

Similarly, magic. Yes, a human may have been the most powerful wizard in the world, but there are equally powerful non-human wizards, such as elves, fairies, monsters, and many other races all practicing the greatest magics. This is why the spell names are so simplified, such as "take that you fiend!" The real spell names are probably unpronounceable grunts, growls, clicks, scratches, and other sounds from beyond the nether.

We tend to think of magic in the D&D sense. You have wizards colleges, magic shops, mage towers, men with long white beards and pointy hats, gaggles of magic students, democratized magic, and this notion of magic being a cosmopolitan force that betters humanity. There are acceptable uses for magic, and others that are frowned upon. Oh no! Do not upset my pseudo-Victorian moralities, nor violate my the limits of our game's precious balance!

I half-joke, but you get the point here. A lot of fiction and gaming tends to use magic as a metaphor for the Internet, technology, communication, or progress. It almost always leaves the world a better place. It is a force aligned with good, change, and exciting gameplay options. Magic is a part of our character builds, and explains all the fantastical powers and options at our disposal! Also, magic is balanced, part of every class feature, and doesn't break our game.

Magic is a convenience of the modern age.

T&T's magic comes from an earlier time. It will break those chains holding you back or seriously mess up your day. It will flood a valley full of innocent villages, summon a demon, crack the earth in half, set a town on fire, or blast a 20-foot tall troll in half with a blast of lightning. Magic is power. Just like our barbarian can cleave a boulder in two clean halves with his great-sword my mage and point a finger at it and vaporize the stone into dust.

Magic is savage, brutal, unbalanced, world-changing, game-breaking, and a force to be feared and reckoned with. You do not want it used against you, and you certainly want to use it against those you don't like. It is also non-human, alien, and something even those who mastered it don't fully understand.

The Rules Make the World

I am a big fan of letting the rules make the world. If a game reflects a certain reality, then I run with it. Yes, you can use T&T to simulated a King Arthur game or Robin Hood - and it works well. However, if I have a goal in mind to simulate the savage, unhinged, brutal and dangerous settings found in some of the solo adventures - and mesh that with what I read in the Trollworld atlas - I let the rules guide my creativity and let the game help forge the world.

Magic is alien, wild, powerful, and unpredictable. A 110-pound STR 5 weakling serf can become a muscle-bound barbarian king. Rogues can vanish into thin air and balance on the head of a pin. The world is not entirely human. This place has been lived in by multiple civilizations before ours, and the move-outs left a mess. We don't belong here. The non-human perspective is the dominant one. Monsters rule this world. Gates to other realties have been opened throughout our history. Not everyone here...comes from here.

You take those statements and start world-building.

You start thinking.

And what seemed like a simple setting in the back of the book becomes something much more compelling and interesting. This is not like any of the other "fantasy theme park" settings that are typically out there.

It is a place in our imaginations called Trollworld, and it is what we make of it.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Game Shopping: Lion & Dragon

This looks like a fun one. Lion and Dragon is sort of a pseudo-historical recreation  of medieval times using the OSR rules. I saw this one and it grabbed my interest instantly since I am a history buff and love when rules are written to enhance the setting.

I have a shelf full of generic RPGs from FATE, GURPS, Genesys, and a lot of "kitchen sink fantasy" D&D clones along with D&D itself. There is a weakness to kitchen sink fantasy like a modded version of Skyrim with too many lore breaking mods. Oh, here are goblins and all sorts of fantasy monsters added to the game! Are they anywhere in the lore of the world? No, but they are cool to have! Pretty soon the world just feels like a lore-less, same-everywhere freeway for a billion unconnected ideas. Everything is here, but nothing has any history together nor any place in the world.

This is why I play Aftermath! over a post-apoc GURPS game. Is GURPS a more-modern, supported, and workable rules set? Certainly, and it can do tons more. Is Aftermath! written to create an iconic, focused experience? Yes, and even though it fails in many areas, it still is the game I go-to and the one remember the most. Same here, this is a setting and rules inspired by a historical setting, and I would be hard-pressed to find something similar (other than buying a history book and slotting in B/X, but that work is done here for me).

Play it Your Way

The game also makes allowances for deviating from the historical norm for inclusion's sake, and it does not specifically bar any race or sex from any social position or profession. It mentions "things were this way" and then leaves it up to you to decide "how they really are" in your game. That is a plus.

I would never be a crappy GM and use the game and history against a player just because they wanted to be something outside the envelope, but the discussion would be started with the players and we could play this as everyday or as extraordinary as the group wanted it to be. I feel that is a fear some have of historical games like this, that they will get into a game and see the book rolled up into a cudgel and used against them. I honestly feel this is more a problem with refereeing and the players than it is with a game or the rules in the book.

Once you buy the book it is yours to play how you want. Your group also needs to talk to each other and be clear about expectations. Some may be okay with playing in a historically accurate setting, and others may want a couple tweaks. How ruthless and brutal are the royals? Is challenging them allowed? How historically accurate are we going to be in regards to topics X, Y, and Z? Ironing these things out rather than using them as gotchas is going to be key for a game where everyone knows what to expect and have fun.

I am used to playing in a Paranoia game, so I am used to a world that isn't always inviting and accepting. I do not see limitations and reflections of period-accurate setting guidelines as limitations. These are things to work within or fight against. The royals may just be the bad guys in a game, should my players choose to be rebellious. If that happens, there is going to be a lot of backstabbing, drama, and the supposed "limitations" of the setting will turn into incredible fodder for villainy and the plot of the game. What is Star Wars without the Empire?

But also, this is a game with the fantastic - dragons, fae, trolls, and elves. If a player wanted to be something outside the realm of this era and historical experience I would embrace it and make it happen for them.

Other Books

Also worth noting are the older OSR setting book for Dark Albion: The Rose war, and a book on evil cults. Both of these look to be excellent resources for the game (even though the setting book was written previously and is more OSR than Lion and Dragon). I am going to pick these up as well to enjoy them. Looking forward to diving into this as a hard copy, and enjoying the PDF. More soon!

Sunday, November 8, 2020

FGU's Aftermath! Buyers Guide

I never knew this post would be that popular:

But it has, and I am so happy people love my semi-joking take on what this game was like for us. Coming from D&D and early-80s RPGs, Aftermath! was gonzo, crazy, high-powered military weaponry versus characters raw survival. It started with flint-tipped spears and caveperson clothes fighting over the last scrap of rat-meat, and ended in something out of Space Opera with power armored knights and robots fighting each other with 20mm autocannons, laser cannons, tanks, VTOLs, and missile launchers.

This was like our version of the game Civilization VI, but instead of a wargame spanning a planet and thousands of years from cavepeople to the space age, it was one group of characters in a single pen-and-paper campaign.

I have a 40-year relationship with this game, went through a nasty divorce with it, and we hooked up later in life only to discover what we felt at the start was true love. I am also brutally funny about it all, which helps. None of what I say regarding Aftermath! should be taken seriously, since we are like one of those couples who can brutally joke about each other's shortcomings and failings in life, laugh, and still love each other. The game, from me at a very young age and through life, helped define who I am, and it framed a lot of what I seen in life in the Aftermath! view of life.

Since then, others have discovered what fun this game is to play. It is brutally complex and demanding without requiring a huge page count in rules to understand. Book One, Basic Rules, which is basically a characters and combat book, is only 58 pages long. That is "rules light" these days compared to other games. The game also introduces flowcharting on how to handle combat, which is really a first, and this ensures that "you are playing it right" considering you can grasp all the situational rules that come into play.

Book Two, Survivors of the Aftermath, which is the heart of the game describes skills, guns, gear, survival, and vehicles for a total of 82 pages. This book only requires you to dip into the part you need, like the gun rules, understand how it works, and then you go back to suffering and surviving. It also has the cannibalism rules, which again, is a first for any pen-and-paper RPG. Take that B/X. Again, compared to a lot of new RPGs, this is a short section. Dense and gamy like mutant elk meat, but edible in small bites.

Book Three, World of the Aftermath, is where it all falls apart for the characters. This is the referee's book and it covers, environments, foraging, encounters, hazards, monsters, NPCs, technology, mass combat (wow), mutations, reputation, and ends with the gun list. This is 84 pages, and the total game is about 224 pages long - and compares to the 1,000+ page three-book mainstays of today, is quite a tight and concise game in total. This book sets the stage for all the referee's evil, and is a cookbook of post-apocalyptic mayhem. In Aftermath! treasure is defined as new ways to kill each other with or ways to avoid being killed.

So the question arises, to play the game by the way we experienced it, what other books are resources do you need?

Operation Morpheus

This book is a must have. To understand my jokes about robots and technology trying to kill you, just reading through this book is enough to get you in the mood for what underground government installations should be like in a great Aftermath! world. Armored warbots roaming the halls with M-60 machineguns with underslung 40mm grenade launchers? Check. Turrets with security cameras and attached megawatt laser rifles? Check. Wall mounted flamethrowers? Check. Robots too unconcerned about collateral damage they hop into tanks to fire at intruders in underground garages? Check. After the players survive an armed VTOL with Maverick missiles and 20mm Vulcans hovers up and vaporizes them and their loot? Check.

Before the collapse, the government's sole purpose is to hide trillions of dollars of defense spending underground, and protect it with sadistic glee and robotic manslaughter.

To understand this part of the game, this is the "high level play" as it exists in D&D. Only in D&D it is "going to war with the gods" again. In Aftermath! we are having a lot more fun because this is basically like a D&D dungeon, but instead of melee combat and magic taking up the combat round, it is World War III in every room and hallway. Do not feel like you are being a bad referee for having a robot fire a quad-mount 0.50 caliber AA machinegun at the players, instead, your players will thank you for getting Aftermath! high-level play right.

Because someone should have head-shotted that robot between the eyes with their 0.44 Automag loaded with AP incendiary bullets before the robot's action ever came up.

Why go so deadly? Well, this gives the players something to work towards. When they are out there fighting diseased marauder cannibals with pointed sticks over a can of beans, they are going to look at the "hidden government installation" and drool. They know there is no way they could ever bust in there and get all of that sweet weaponry, armor, and gear - but they know someday they just possibly could. Maybe someone repairs a high-powered hunting rifle and they could blast a wandering robot's head off. Maybe that robot has some worthwhile gear to loot, and electronics parts to sell to the local (either fascist, marauder, or communist) survivor communities. Maybe they repair a vehicle of their own and get mobile, and find an old World War II recoilless rifle to mount on it.

Slowly the pieces fall into place, and that Mount Weather of Doom (or a part of it) can be cracked upon like a delicious oyster to be looted for all sorts of goods. For us, just the basic books and this module were all we had, and frankly all we needed for 20 years of this being our go-to system.

Once you defeat the gods in Aftermath! what do you do? It is obvious, find a way into space where you can die instantly and the loot is a hundred times better. Or...into another dimension...

Aftermath Technology & Magic

Newer books came out that added a lot of new material to the game. While these were not a part of our experience, since 90% of our fun came from the basic books plus Morpheus, if you want a post-1990's ruined world the newer guides are a must have. The first of these is Aftermath technology, which despite the name has more than just new gear and guns in the book.

We have fantasy races, aliens, cybernetics, space travel, netrunning, new gear, vehicles, and robots. I would have liked the fantasy elements to have been in the other book Aftermath magic, but they are here and these two books are kind of a brother-sister pair of expansions for the game. The magic book adds spells and fantasy monsters, and is not really as useful as Technology if you are running a non-fantasy post-ruin game. If you are doing a more fantasy-inspired game, both of these books are a must have.

Added into Aftermath, this creates a strange, messy, post-ruin world where elves, halflings, orcs, tiger-men, dwarves, and demons walk alongside humanity in a brave fight after the bomb. Perhaps nuclear warfare merged two realities into a frightening whole, and the other world - angered by having their destroyed - takes out vengeance on the world of technology that shattered these parallel worlds. Perhaps the fantasy elements exist in a parallel dimension opened during the alien invasion. Perhaps nobody knows how or why the world ended and all of a sudden dragons are flying around, aliens are shooting blasters at humans, zombies roam the night, vampires stalk prey, demons crawl up from Hell, ape-men run around enslaving everyone, and evil robots and an orbital computer system try to wipe out humanity.

Aftermath! is as close to D&D's kitchen sink fantasy as you can get for a post-ruin game without owning a shelf full of GURPS books, and it does the job in a lot less pages. You have the freedom here to pick-and choose. Aliens only? Got it. 200-years after fantasy game? Coming up. Nuclear war? No problem. Asteroid impact? Coming in. Plague? Just set your calendar to 2020 and open the books. The game can do as little or as much as you want, and it can get as gonzo or as serious as you prefer.

Aftermath Survival Guide

This is another interesting book since it gets you into the survivalist mindset. It is a good primer for survival and different end-world scenarios, and it accurately reflects the "prepper" frame of mind. If you are doing a campaign set at "year zero" and the world goes from normal to destroyed during the game, this book is invaluable.

If you fear nuclear war, stay away from this book. It goes in-depth on the effects of these weapons and also potential targets. It is sobering and makes you want to support arms-control treaties, sister cities, peace agreements, and cultural outreach programs fervently. Why did we ever make these weapons? Please, give peace a chance and end the use and production of these weapons. That said, if you are doing a straight after-the-bomb game, this book is indispensable.

For some reason dinosaurs are added to the creatures lists and now this book is a must-have for my gonzo campaign. You thought the homicidal bears were bad, wait until you get a load of these guys. We also get vampires and werewolves, and a part of me desperately wants the material in the add-on books to be cleaned up and organized - but this is Aftermath! so leave it ne and enjoy the mess everywhere.

Campaign Pack 2: Sydney

For us, this book is optional, and worth it only if you are setting your game down-under or you are wondering what all the references are in Operation Morpheus. It is good as a sample campaign structure of civilized settlements, and provides some interesting artwork and ideas for structuring a larger, more survivor-focused game with various warring factions.

My advice is to pick an area, have an idea who the warring factions are and what they are fighting over, and let players pick a side, stay on their own, or do what they want. Assume neutral cities, if there are any, have all been subjugated or destroyed. Add in a fear of outsiders and an evil occupying army draining the local resources for extra tension. Throw in some unexplained and unknown. Keep it simple and let the players carve a path through your world, and then slowly expand out as things are resolved or just fled from to find greener (radioactive) pastures.

Also, what's cool is you can pick up all the above PDFs for just under $40 on drivethrurpg, which is a huge haul for less than the price of a new game. Sure, it is dated, but super cool and retro and it is all great stuff.

More Soon

I will write up more on this game soon, since my experience seems to have struck a nerve in the pen-and-paper community, and helped rekindle interest in the genre and game. I am happy it has, since this game provided endless hours, if not years, of enjoyment for me and my small group of players. I will write up more experiences and thoughts on these books soon, and also some more humorous stories of how we played this as a group of crazy kids and a gonzo gang of post-ruin survivors.

Would I like to see a revised, new edition of the game? That is a huge maybe. Keep the rules the same. Clean up errors or inconsistencies. Improve presentation. Add compelling artwork. Organize the content better. Modernize the gear and technology. Simplify just a little. Keep the toolkit approach. And do not succumb into "changing the entire system" for some dice pool mechanic or other major change.

Aftermath! is what it is. This is the game you saw advertised in the back of Dragon magazine in the 80s that you always wondered about, thought it was some crazy survivalist prepper handbook, and then smiled after it came in the mail and you realized what doors were just opened and all the fun you could have with a toolbox and sandbox system second to none in the post-apoc genre. Gamma World this wasn't, and the game put you in the moment where "the world changes forever" like no other.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Labyrinth Lord and Old School Essentials

In the B/X world, the answer to the question, "Which game is the best?" is almost always, "yes." There is another joke along the lines of every referee having their own handwritten and house-ruled B/X game and nobody is playing the same one, so the answer of which B/X game is the best becomes, "Of course, mine."

That said, I don't feel there are "edition wars" in B/X, this is more of a Linux/Unix crowd where most all distributions of the game-slash-operating system can mostly live in peace beside each other, and all the programs people use either work or can be quickly recompiled from source to be compatible. You use a distribution or play a game because of personal preference, and you can quickly switch to another because there isn't all that much to relearn.

I had this article tilted "versus" but I changed it to "and" instead, because I feel the word versus would be click-bait and I feel incompatible with the spirit of the B/X community. Why be fighting when we could be playing? Or writing your own version of the B/X and playing that?

That said, we are close to Old School Essentials: Advanced Fantasy coming out and I can not wait for that to arrive. I am getting a feeling a lot of what is in Labyrinth Lord will be added, and from some of the early releases there is also a good amount of new content in the B/X world (druids, paladins, bards, assassins, and more) that is not (or very different) in Labyrinth Lord so the experiences are diverging.

This is an exciting time for these two rules sets since I feel the future directions of each game are being forged.

Still a Place for LL?

Is there still a place for Labyrinth Lord? There is a part of me that likes this game as a classic heavy metal album from the 1980's. The presence of demons and devils adds to that feeling, and I am eager to see if OSE includes them or does a take on the infernal side of the monster population. This was a huge issue when we transitioned from AD&D to AD&D 2nd Edition back in the day, the demons and devils were gone because of a media-fueled panic. A tribe of vile orcs went from being wicked demon-worshipers to the more politically-correct "followers of an evil god."

And I feel this sort of sterilization has stuck with the the versions of D&D as the years passed by. Of course, the evil gods of D&D were "product identity" and thus they needed to be elevated in status over the more generic demons and devils, because copyrighted content and these unique characters became a way to sell the game. After a while D&D's evil gods and forces felt like comic-book characters and they felt hard to take seriously. Yes, rules wise they were very difficult to defeat, but Tiamat coming back again and again felt played out. By the end of 4th Edition we were tired of the D&D cosmology of evil.

Labyrinth Lord embraces the evil, especially the generic type espoused by demons and devils, and places the force of darkness on a pedestal and dares players to topple it over - which they often do. That is fun. That is "metal" and I love that feeling where the game comes with everything, even the bad parts, and turns the forces of good loose like paladins riding armored holy bulls in a china shop of evil.

OSE is a beautiful, tight, streamlined game - and yes I could just port the demons and other evil creatures into that and have it all. But I am looking forward to seeing OSE's take on the infernal forces. Because OS Essentials is strictly B/X without the AD&D influence, the evil side the latter brought to the game table is sorely missing. Considering how important demons and devils are to the history and perception of the game, allowing players to literally fight the forces of Hell, I feel having these monsters as bad guys is critical to getting the feeling of the B/X retro-gaming right.

This is my perception, mind you, I lived through these times and remember screaming at the TV show Donahue when they equated the AD&D Dungeon Master's guide to a satanic bible. "It is not that way! TV is so stupid! God, Mom, why are they so stupid!"

Of course the first copy of D&D we ever bought was being sold from a Christian book store. We bought both Basic and Expert there and loved the game, along with the shop's owners. I guess they used the game to teach values, and they were kind of ex-hippies anyways so it was all cool.

Is OSE too Concise?

Now as a point of comparison, here is the Labyrinth Lord description of the Lizard Folk:

These scaly humanoids resemble humans but have the heads and tails of lizards. They delight in feasting upon the flesh of other humanoids. They employ any kind of weapon, but prefer spears, tridents, and clubs. Their immense strength grants them a +1 bonus to damage. They often venture into labyrinths, especially if there is an aquatic entrance. They are otherwise found to dwell in marshes and along the banks of bodies of water.

And the Old School Essentials description of the same monster:

Semi-intelligent, tribal, aquatic humanoids with reptilian heads and tails. Often encountered in swamps and dungeons, or along rivers and coastlines.

The Labyrinth Lord Hobgoblin:

Hobgoblins are larger cousins of goblins. Hobgoblins’ hair color ranges from dark reddish-brown to dark gray. They have dark orange or red-orange skin. Hobgoblins’ eyes are yellowish or dark brown, while their teeth are yellow. Their garments tend to be brightly colored, often blood red with black-dyed leather. Their weaponry is kept polished and in good repair. Hobgoblins tend to reside below ground, but often live or venture to the surface, and suffer no penalties to daylight like their smaller cousins.

A hobgoblin king is an exceptional hobgoblin, with 22 hp and he attacks like a monster of 5 HD. All damage dealt receives a bonus of +2. A hobgoblin king is always accompanied by a loyal bodyguard, totaling 1d4 individuals. The bodyguards each have 3d6 hit points, and attack as monsters with 4 HD. All hobgoblins in the presence of the hobgoblin king have a morale score of 10.

And the Old School Essentials Hobgoblin:

Larger and nastier relatives of goblins. Dwell underground, but commonly seek prey above ground.

Now the computer coder in me loves OSE's tight, clean formats. The book is a superior reference guide. But there are other times I like the color and flavor text in Labyrinth Lord, and I can see new players coming into the game being helped by some of the longer, more colorful descriptions of things in the game than a tighter and more concise presentation.

Granted, a lot of the Labyrinth Lord text is fluff and it could be cleaned up to say more with less. The hobgoblin king is a bit over the top. There are some things we really don't need to know. But some of the notes, like the weapon preference for lizard folk, that is good information. If the players come upon the site of an ambush and find spears and tridents? And they are near the water? Yeah, that is some really useful detail, and that sort of information makes the game easier to play and a lot more interesting - especially for new players.

The OSE books can at times feel like one of those "Pocket C++ Reference" guides I have lying around the house. I feel the art does a lot of the talking in OSE to provide flavor and inspiration, but there are other times I just want to read, slow down, and be inspired by longer passages which excite my imagination. This is my only real reservation about recommending OSE to new players, that it may be a better resource for veterans who are used to the material and it speeds through a lot of the detail that makes the world come alive (for me, at least).

For experienced players who have seen enough fluff in tabletop RPGs to last several lifetimes? Yes, even I love how tight the Old School Essentials books are put together. When I read them I get a gut reaction like, "Thank you for not wasting my time!" I can find what I need in seconds.

But I do like to read and be inspired by the words. Will Old School Advanced Fantasy's demons and devils (when they are in the game) live up to the hype with abbreviated monster descriptions? Without other books will they be useful and playable on their own?

Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, as OSE is more of a reference work. But it is being played like a game, so noting the flavor text is lacking I feel is a fair point if you are saying, "Pick one and not the other" or to recommend to new players. But remember, this is B/X, have both, read the flavor text you want, and use the stats from the the book you prefer using.

Use Both!

The obvious answer is use the best of both. There are some things I am really loving about OS Advanced, like the new classes. I love the clean presentation of OS Basic. There is a lot I like about Labyrinth Lord, the flavor text and unique mix of all the classic sources.

So the obvious answer is honestly to use both. Pick a "reference" system, like tell your group Old School Essentials (Classic or Advanced) will be the way things work in this game. Then, as a referee pull out everything you like from all of the B/X sources you collected over the years. Labyrinth Lord's demons and monster lists? Fine, they work with just a few changes (and not every orc or goblin is the same in every world or every part of the world so even minor stat changes between games are okay).

This way you have a fast core game and whatever flavor you want pulled in from the sources you have grown to love. Again, the more you treat B/X like Unix/Linux the better off you are because the best of everything becomes an option.

Or use more than two systems! Most any B/X game works together well. It is a fun world to play in because it is very hard to make a bad choice when buying something. This is a huge problem with games like D&D and Pathfinder, previous versions are incompatible with the newest one, and they do that honestly to sell books. My three shelves of Pathfinder 1e books these days have more worth as reference for the OGL content contained within them so I can convert that to B/X rules. D&D post 4E is more difficult with B/X due to the abundance of non-OGL content, product identity, and the shifting licenses used.

Which game is best? The one you love. It is just in B/X it is way easier to make the games you love work together better.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Simplicity Encourages Imagination

I found a good video today by a fun channel. At 5:36 Sebastian says:
I feel the minimalistic nature of the old basic D&D rules nurtures creativity in both the players and the GM.
He goes on to elaborate not having character classes and races for every possible option, and not having rules for everything. The reference time for simplistic rules is reduced and making a die roll and ruling from ability scores is the way things are done. Watch the video and subscribe!

This statement brings up some thoughts.

In some games, your mage sees an ancient rune from a long lost empire of mages. The GM goes into quiz mode, "Does your character have the correct ancient cultures lore skill?" The answer is usually no. The players then feel they weren't told the information they needed during character creation, so they get blindsided.

In an OSR game, the question goes from, "Did the player screw up their 4-hour character design session?" to, "How should we handle this using what we have?' Let's use our imagination. Could the character know this? Well, if the character was a magic user, possibly yes. If the character came from a region once conquered by this empire, possibly yes again. We are using our imagination to make a ruling! Then, we do the same sort of thing to determine difficulty, pick an ability score, in this case INT, and d20 roll equal or under, modified, degree of success determines the information given.

Maybe the information given is colored by the experiences of the characters. The mage may get more cold, historical information, while the character with the once-subjugated culture may have information colored by the brutality of the regime.

We didn't need a book telling us this. We did not need to reference dozens of books, such as an Ultimate Backgrounds style book to see if we had the "recall specific historical details" feat. I kid with this example, but once you start down the ultra-detailed game design road, there is no stopping with how specific and minute in detail you can go while holding the book up and selling it as "even more options!"

In that case, more options really means more reference time, more limitations, and guaranteeing the player who bought Ultimate Backgrounds at my game table will use it to argue with another player at my table who didn't buy the book and wants his character to remember a specific historical detail without the feat. We will stop the game for 30 minutes to reference the book, try and please both sides, and come up with a ruling that makes nobody happy.

Back to B/X with another type of check. Does the party fall into raging rapids and need to make swimming checks to avoid being pulled under? STR check modified by the armor worn and weight of gear carried. Seems reasonable. Want to ditch the armor in the rapids? DEX check modified by how tough the armor is to remove. Need to keep treading water for a long time, or survive in cold water? CON check, modified by the same.

Done. We used our imagination to make those rulings, often the GM came up with the rule out in the open and the players agreed with the ruling - a communal ruling that involves players - and the ability score, modifiers, and consequences were agreed upon by all before the dice were rolled.

Perhaps a player came up with a better way to handle the check or ruling, and everyone agrees. Maybe one player comes up with a cool helpful suggestion for another player to get a bonus to a roll with a clever course of action. Maybe another says, ""But if you fail there should be a chance of this happening..."

The game becomes less about the GM and the game's designers, and more about the players and the group's shared interpretation of how to handle a situation. The rules, and making the rulings, are a part of playing the game, and constantly change depending on the group, adventure, players, and situation.

The rules and how different events should be handled should be made up on the spot for most situations in the game using creativity and the group coming up with a  fair ruling. In OSR, these creativity-based non-rules are the rules. It is a form of negative space game design that purposely leaves a lot up to the group, and thus the group is encouraged to use their imagination and fill the rest of the story - and even the rules - in themselves.