Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Internal Mechanics vs. External

I watched a Youtube video about switching from 5E to the OSR games and the differences between the philosophy between the two systems. It struck me how D&D 3 through 5 have moved dramatically away from internal mechanics, and leaned heavily on external mechanics. What am I talking about? Well, pull up a chair and let's think this through.

Mechanics = Game Mechanics

Obviously, when we talk about mechanics in the terms of games we are talking about game mechanics. The rules, how things work, what to roll and when to roll it, and how the rules shape the choices you make. We all know what these are so I am not going to explain the obvious. Next section!

Internal Mechanics

Take a game like Monopoly, one of the quintessential board game experiences and a game that has a lot in common with OSR. The board can be seen as a dungeon, and while you don't roll for movement in the OSR, you do "land" on situations that require you to use internal mechanics to solve.

I land on a property. Do I buy or do we start an auction? Do I have enough resources and money? Am I saving for something a few spaces away that I really want? How would buying this help or hurt other players? Can I block a set by buying this? Is it useful for a trade?

You go through a lot of thoughts in your head when the game puts you in a chance situation, and while your success at your action is not guaranteed, you are heavily weighting risk versus reward against a pool of limited resources in your head for the entire game.

You are playing the game with internal mechanics - and while some choices may be influenced by game rules, the majority of them are not written down and you judging risk versus reward. Your game piece may have some special abilities as the game goes on, in Monopoly it is your cash and properties, in the OSR is is your cash and class. Everyone starts roughly equal, weak and powerless. Your power builds as you play the game. You can be put in an unwinnable position early, and come back out of nowhere if you keep playing.

External Mechanics

Imagine a version of Monopoly with these rules (and I bet it exists or it has been house-ruled somewhere): the car rolls 3d6 for movement. The boot can kick a player off by 1d6 spaces when they land on them. The thimble pays half in taxes and fees. The hat gets $300 at "go" and so on.

Let's add feats and special ability cards the players can purchase for themselves when they land on the fictional "university" space. Let's give each game piece a list of powers they can have when they "level up." Let's give each property level and special powers when you invest in it! We need a 300 page rulebook for the Monopoly RPG now!

Okay, stop - it is fun to think of this as a thing and like anything Monopoly I bet it would sell well. But stop and think about your mental process when you would play this game, are the choices you are making when it is your turn mostly inside your head managing resources, or are they mostly navigating the rules and how you would get an advantage within them?

When a situation is presented to you, while resources management may play a factor in your decisions, a huge part of your decisions are now in a space inside the rulebook. You are not thinking internally but externally.

To be fair, the OSR has external mechanics in the ways things work, but like Monopoly, the mechanics are kept to a minimum and the classes are deliberately designed as "playing pieces." Your resources (hit points, spells, gear, and gold) are what you are managing and the primary driving force behind your decisions. In newer games, you are wondering if you should position your figure flanking to gain advantage, your character build, and all sorts of other "rules in the book" considerations before you are thinking about resources.

Are External Mechanics Bad?

Not really, if you enjoy navigating your way through rules and working up combos like a chart of fighters and combos in Street Fighter, hey, I am not one to say your fun is bad. There is a skill to working through the complexity and masses of rules, and designers sometimes put in less than optimal choices in order to create optimal ones. Your job is to figure out the puzzle and optimize.

My issue is when everyone knows the optimal path and one class build is all people play with when playing that class. Every character feels the same (until the next expansion), and the same powers and abilities are repeated at the table, over and over. You see a ranger come to your table, know their power rotations, and like clockwork, the player flips a switch and runs a script in combat. A, B, C, and D with you sometimes messing them up with an unexpected event.

This is just game design, and some games do it well, while others fail. Now games can fail for some and not for others, just like some movies are universally panned but become cult classics for a devoted fanbase. This is all personal preference, and what you enjoy is probably not the same as what I enjoy. But we are all gamers so it is good.

The Notion of a Game

We are getting deeper into psychology here and understanding the notion and concept of a game. A pretend activity where there are winners or losers. A set of rules, equally applied, and everyone is roughly equal to start. The power (or positions) of players change during the game. There are random factors introduced to simulate chaos - just like in life. The players' skills are important factors in success, but they do not solely determine who wins or loses (what the randomness is for, honestly).

Skilled players can deal with chaos better than unskilled ones, though at times unskilled ones may get lucky and succeed against a more skilled player.

OSR keeps to that core game design concept strongly, and there is a lot of resource management. Instead of picking up a "double shot ability" at 3rd level, you are thinking about how much weight your archer is carrying, how much they can haul out without getting weighted down, how many arrows they have left, and lots of other internal resource management factors that determine success.

Your resource management choices are the same ones everyone else follows, and these choices are the ones that help you mitigate chaos the best. The rules do not help you or protect you from chaos. They are merely there to lay out how your resources work, your gold, your hit points, and how your spell pool works if you have one. The external mechanics are mostly for resource management.

For me, resource management and playing that internal mind game is what I enjoy about gaming. Again, you may be different, and you know what - you probably are. I also found that the resource management skills these games taught me helped me greatly later in life. I am not gaming the system to get ahead. I work hard and I don't spend a lot of money. I can find pleasure in simple things, reading, writing, and making art, and don't need to feed myself a diet of expensive entertainment.

Gaming has made me a better and more successful person.

But back to games. A lot of your thinking with internal mechanics is done internally, what you have, what could happen, and how you are going to best deal with the possible situations that come up. In this way, the OSR is a lot like Monopoly, and in a way, also a lot like real life situations where we are trying to live life, spend our money wisely, pursue our goals and reams, and find comfort and security in a dangerous and chaotic world.

Thursday, December 24, 2020


I see a lot of talk on Youtube about Pathfinder 2 having "rotations" for maximum character damage output, where characters repeat the same sequence of powers over and over again.

Wait, is D&D 4 still a thing in 2020?

I kid, and I do not play Pathfinder 2, but I have some experiences to share on the subject. We had that same "power rotation" issue in D&D 4 but at least in that game, positioning and the map mattered a huge deal in damage output. There was also a "passive healing" in the careful use of controllers to stop or hinder enemy attacks - reducing the damage output of the other side.

Without a map and just powers? We played D&D 4 like that too, and it got tiring for some players to be shouting the same power names over and over again like they were some Pokemon where the only word they knew was their own name. Green flame blade! Green flame blade!

People would walk by our game room and stare at us like we were all insane.

D&D 4, of course, broke apart terribly as the levels went higher and the expansions ruined the game, with Wizards even revising the entire game and Monster Manual in the Essentials line - and still requiring the original books. Such is the legacy of MMO-like designs, they are easily calculated, exploited, fragile, and get boring and repetitive as time goes on. This is why MMOs completely change classes on a rotation, nerfing and buffing to drive interest, and repeating an "evergreen" cycle of changes as the game goes on.

You can't do that with a book. And if you do, you are doomed to follow the D&D 4 route of continually releasing expansion books to keep the game changing and interesting. And doing what they do these days with "temporary power" systems that are only good for one campaign book, such as a Desert Adventures book introducing campaign-only tweaks and powers for all the classes that change the balance and feel - for that campaign only. They do this in MMOs all the time with "potency" or "azurite energy" or some other silly grindable number like some sort of Zynga-Facebook daily stamina game of the 2010 era.

Yes, mechanical interest is a part of game design. It breaks apart some when Internet forum figures out your best-path map and everyone is expected to play one way. And then the job of the referee goes from managing the world to "tricks to stop power rotations to keep things interesting." This is what happened in D&D 4 for us as well, I started to develop encounters with the sole purpose of breaking up power rotations - and they do this in MMOs too. Nope, you are all on a raft of flaming barrels going down the rapids! Dodge the logs!

We went from playing the game to fighting it.

It was worse on the referee's side, because after a while players figured out I was trying to screw with them by breaking up their best rotations, and then they started to find ways not to get into these encounters and fight enemies on neutral ground where the rotations could come into play.

We went from fighting the game to trying to outwit each other's encounter setups.

All in service of some fake concept like game mechanics. It got tiring, like some Cold War game of cat and mouse between submarine commanders, with the rules being the battleground. Our campaign ended up with us trying to develop a simpler set of rules that did the same thing, but that never worked out. We bought into the power-rotation and battle-chess system, and it burned us out.

Mind you, this is D&D 4 and not Pathfinder 2, but the story feels similar enough for the thoughts to come up again. Maybe they can manage the beast this time, and I need to read in further - but my Pathfinder 1 books prevent me from buying into another edition. Also D&D 5 is good enough for many, and I have that.

Also, if I am doing fantasy, I have a wonderful choice of B/X systems where I can sidestep the entire power rotation concept and focus on the story, characters, and action. I am a bit skeptical these days of MMO-style RPG designs that are too tightly designed and easily min-maxed, and prefer the simple - and me and my players will fill in the rest.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Subclasses as Primary Classes

As the bards, rangers, illusionists, druids, assassins, and paladins begin adventuring through our B/X games - I wonder if somehow they belong. Not as in get rid of them, but as in, "Were they ever implemented correctly?" I am thinking of this as in adding them in a way that doesn't take away from the central four classes in the game. I know historically these have been staples of fantasy gaming since AD&D, the moment when the basic four classes were all there was and the huge change began at "race as class."

And the door was opened to expanding the game beyond the core four classes.

So the question becomes, why play one of the original classes? A ranger does more than a fighter, flavorfully the ranger is more cool, and all the fighter really has is "better numbers" or "different attack options." When you introduce subclasses into the game, you make the original classes less interesting to play, and all of a sudden you are backporting cool into the original four when they were fine to start with.

Skill Rolls for Subclass Abilities

The old saying "a ranger is a fighter with a bow" comes up. Robin Hood did not have spells or dual-wielding abilities. You could simulate a ranger as a fighter in a game like Basic Fantasy by letting the player make nature-style skill rolls that a ranger would have as a background option and keep the game simple and maintain the strength and role protection of the fighter class.

Basic Fantasy also has that built-in leveled "skill roll" mechanic that makes this easy.

Same with bards, a thief with a musical background - or a mage-bard if your bards are mages. All of a sudden I have two music flavored classes by using bard as a background option instead of creating a standalone bard class that competes with the others. What about music? Let them "do what music does" through skill rolls, charm a crowd, soothe the savage beast, and so on through skill rolls - those don't need to be spells. In the case of the magic bard, well, they are spells and that is how they cast them. The magic bard's music background skill could also be used for any other music related check, and you are done.

Illusionist? That skill roll could be used to create minor illusions, manipulate the ones they create, and see through others. You could do some mechanical stuff within magic user to give them double daily use of illusion spells in a spell slot, and forbid them from scrying and informational style spells. Whatever you want to do in magic user is fine, but keep it in the original class with as few changes as possible. Same thing with ranger, adjust the allowed weapons and armor, and give them a +1 to-hit with ranged weapons and forbid them from wearing metallic armor.

Paladin? I would make paladin a background option of cleric, finally let them use edged weapons, and limit them in another interesting way. Perhaps forbid them from harming like-alignment foes, tithing, and getting constantly sent on missions against evil (or good if anti-paladin). You don't have to weaken or change cleric much in this case, and the base cleric is still a core of the game, while paladin is just a cleric flavor (and retains access to the full spell list). The one thing I never liked about AD&D paladins was that weak spell list. Here? A special type of cleric with some benefits, and some limitations to trade them off.

Let the base classes use their "class skill" for interesting uses too, fighters could identify foes, or know the origin of weapons and armor; thieves have a lot of cool skill rolls just on their own; clerics know rites and religions; and mages know history, spells, and other magic knowledge. Your background determines what your class skill roll covers. A mage-bard would know more about music than general wizard magic, but still know some things.

Parties of Subclasses?

And I am still sticking to the basic four classes, and the core party and play balance is not upset, but I have the options and flavor I always wanted. You get into these groups where you have a bard, ranger, druid, and illusionist and all of a sudden some core abilities the game's balance depends on are missing. Maybe no access to the heals the game expects you to have, or the bard's thief skills are sub-par. Do the additional abilities make up for it or is there a problem here? In AD&D I might say I felt there was a problem of parties of subclasses and things never felt right, or I had to fudge rolls to keep the play balance feeling correct.

I Still Like Them, but I Wonder...

Yes, there is a case to be made for nostalgia and unique class mechanics. Design wise I find those interesting too. But we should not feel beholden to the past or what came before, or feel if a game doesn't have a class and a player wants to play something similar, that we should limit them. With a little hacking and creativity, we can come up with custom class-mods to the original four (or how many ever your game has), and create something unique that the player could have a hand in creating with you.

I just wonder at times how really needed dozens of classes really are. I mean, it is nice to have options, but once you have dozens of almost-similar classes and variants in the game where you are doing numerical trade-offs to keep them feeling different you have lost me. The B/X style classes in Old School Essentials are really cool, and they are an example of what I would say "true" feeling subclasses would have been. The ones in AD&D never really impressed me, they felt like blends with weaker versions of powers other classes already possessed.

But if someone wanted to craft a custom B/X class at my table, I would jump at the opportunity to be creative with them. Rule zero applies to how your group interprets the game and how they design characters. You can change anything, even before you pick up the dice.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Basic Fantasy: Monopoly Style Rules

Flipping through my wonderful spiral-bound copy of Basic Fantasy (a format I honestly wish more publishers would use) it struck me how universal this set of rules has become. One could say that about all of B/X, or at least the B/X core rules, as many games have went off in a million different directions as of now. But this set of rules sticks to the most basic of basic 4+4 setups: cleric, fighter, mage, thief and human, elf, dwarf, halfling. Nothing else, no race-as-class options, no paladins or rangers, no 9th level spells, and no AD&D options thrown in there just because - the rules set feels to me like the best of what you need to have fun, and nothing extra.

Now, I like my extras, but there is a point where you put so much on a hamburger it becomes a salad on a bun with an inconsequential piece of protein lost in there. More is not better, and as B/X matures I feel we are entering this "more is more" phase where retro content is mined for an ever-expanding product line for each game. Pathfinder 1st Edition became that for us, two shelves full of books that I feel these days are honestly only good for mining for OGR content. The game got too big, with too many options, and it felt like it collapsed under its own weight (along with one of our shelves holding it).

Basic Fantasy sticks to the basics, and it throws out everything that isn't needed. All of the options around "this or that" such as ascending vs descending AC are tossed out. It feels like the original set of Monopoly board game rules to me. It isn't 100% B/X, but it is B/X enough with modern mechanics that all the confusion has been removed and just the best parts retained.

Also, I feel no pressure to include classes and spells from expansions outside the basic book. These days I buy a game from a big publisher and I know a year or two from now the game will change entirely, players with the new book will want to play that, and as a referee I will feel bad about not supporting "official" content. And other players will want the book too, and the entire experience as a referee will suffer.

The business model for games written by big companies are 100% dependent on the number of referees in the community, and it gets harder and harder to manage the larger the game becomes. It is like shipping a video game console and having a controller shortage that gets worse over time. Somehow I feel the timing of a release for a new edition of the game is an entry point likely determined by a graph somewhere tracking the number of referees left in the game. I assume a longer-term graph instead of one at launch, as all games tend to follow a decrease in interest curve.

The Advanced Content

Old School Advanced Fantasy feels like that to me, a set of rules in a different universe where the D&D and AD&D split never happened. We have B/X Bards and Paladins. We have most everything from the Monster Manual. More is more, and while I love all the new options and content, the core experience feels slightly lost in the bun. I look at the Old School Essentials Basic Fantasy book and see a simpler game. I have both, so it is a choice now, but the difference exists.

I would still play the Basic version of OSE, just to keep the experience focused and having that classic feel.

I suppose when it comes down to it, Old School Essentials feels more like a traditional role-playing game, where Basic Fantasy feels like a set of rules for a board game. I could break out the original Dungeon! board game and play that with Basic Fantasy. If I want to tell a story, give a group a plethora of options within B/X, develop a colorful world and setting, and have lots of different factions and pieces to play with I will definitely go with Old School Essentials. Labyrinth Lord always sits there in the darkness calling though, and it is a solid option too if you really love that "D&D is evil" heavy metal vibe going on with that game.

Thinking back, I seem to recall that AD&D was created by TSR to create a new game from the original rules and there was something about royalties and creators - so it was messy. A lot was added and changed, there were rules tweaks everywhere, and the systems were made different to a point where the two games were not compatible. If there was no pressure from the business side, I wonder how many of the AD&D changes would have made it into D&D if the two had stayed one game.

Historical note, Wizards did buy the rights from both sides and D&D 3.0 unified the game back into one system, and brought us the OGL - which is a historical and brave moment that helped build the world we see today.

As creators build new games from the shadow of the additional content introduced by later products, I feel there is a valid question here about crafting a product that is unified and does something well versus a more kitchen sink approach.

Some B/X games are more boxes of Lego bricks that can be crafted into anything, while others do a specific setting well. Some building block sets come with a few blocks, while others come with many. One game can't be everything to everybody (but some do come close). I really am a fan of many B/X games, and there are times I am in the mood for one and not the other.

And since they are all B/X, I only have to keep a few differences in the way they work in my head. Or not. It all just works well and is similar enough if you cross-pollinate rules and concepts nothing will be broken.

The Board Game

One thing I love about Basic Fantasy is it is printed (from what I know) at-cost, so there is no commercial need to keep new books coming out. They are there if you want hard copies, and this is done as a convenience. No salaries or advertising budgets need to be payed, next year's books don't have to be planned, and the rules just stay what they are. No expansions are planned - other than the ones you make yourself or download from other people.

That is a simple, user-focused community that I love, like a group of Unix users all contributing programs, scripts, and utilities to help each other out for free. While I love my art-filled, stitch-bound, beautiful professional quality books that other games bring to the table - there is a side of me that craves the simple, user-focused, open-source style community of Basic Fantasy and the no-extras and no-nonsense base set that everyone begins with. It is like the Raspberry Pi in a way, you build a community around a common piece of "hardware" that works well and is well-supported, and all of a sudden a lot of cool things start happening.

No, it doesn't have all the cool things my other games have, but what it does have is a strong and vibrant community without the motive to produce more and better content. The game is free from commercial pressure, and that, along with this beautiful spiral bound edition, are key features the game ships with.

Even in these days of the incredible offerings out there (and on my shelf), I feel there is still a place for a simple set of rules like this in my gaming world. These are my Monopoly-style rules, perfect for hacking or just messing around with.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Modern and Spy Games: Classes

One of the more interesting things about Top Secret were its three "character classes": investigator, confiscator, and assassin. There was no concept of a "James Bond" style class in this system, and I remember one of the Dragon Magazines actually writing up a "superspy" class for that reason - and all of a sudden all my game's players felt massively uncool.

Ah, TSR, stop creating classes to fix problems or chase the cool. To be honest, the game was destroyed by the official 007 RPG, so they were probably throwing poison darts at the wall and hoping people would stay if they tried to fix things.

Mission Impossible

One of the problems is the game was more Mission Impossible than it was James Bond, and I feel that made a better model for "party based play." You look at 007 - and that guy is a loner. He works alone, does things alone, and is a one-spy army. How well does that translate into group-based play? I don't think too well, because really, are we going to send 001 through 005 on one mission all the time? It weakens the premise, makes the concept of a superspy seem ineffective, and runs counter to the mystique of the gentleman or suave female superspy.

The older Mission Impossible model, where every mission needs a "team of specialized experts" fits the party play model much better. As long as everyone has something to do and the game just isn't combat. Yes, in this game it was fun to sneak into bases and cause trouble, talk to contacts, and play the supercool spy - but combat was fun just like combat was fun in D&D. You could stat-build, gun design, toss grenades, and martial arts your way into a night of modern dungeon crawling constant gunfire fun. I know that is not Mission Impossible but that is what we did.

One of the problems with Top Secret were the classes really didn't do much else than provide an XP chart for leveling. They gave a $25 mission bonus for certain mission if you were the right type of character, but not anything else. You could earn XP doing other agent's mission types. Your XP went into raising ability scores, and that was really the few bonuses of leveling (except for fate/fortune points).

My B/X Spies Game

If I were making a B/X spy game with classes, the classes would do things, give me some thief-like percentage abilities to do cool stuff and cause trouble. I would rethink the class trinity too, as assassin was way too fun, investigator got to shuffle through file cabinets, and confiscator only showed up to work the forklift and drive the truck away. If you were doing more single-person superspy I would go classless and let players develop the spy of their dreams through character advancement.

If you were doing team of experts I would go more along the types of characters in the older team-based shows: mastermind, muscle, gadgets, face, thief, and doctor. No assassins and no soldiers! Too much fun, and honestly, why have a class that is essentially a fun magnet? Spread combat responsibilities out to everyone, and give their classes special combat abilities. You need to push back on the special forces commando classes too, since once you get the military involved you lose the "average citizens doing cool things" mystique of the game.

Everyone gets the same combat modifiers as they level up, just what they do in combat is influenced by their classes. Masterminds fight smart, muscles twist you into pretzels, thieves are sneaky, and so on.

This game is a fantasy of the everybody being able to walk out of the office and normal lives, and into international intrigue. Not walk out of the office and join Seal Team 6. Frankly that sort of "commando not spy" thing has put a shadow on 007 in many of the films in my feeling, as what 007 does shooting up military bases and playing Top Gun is just...no, it doesn't feel right to me. The fantasy is broken and that is a superhero with guns and explosions like Arnold or Stallone.

Plus, with those five classes, I would have a hard time deciding what to play - which is a cool thing. Doctor would need some interesting powers to knock people out, give buffs and immunities, target weak spots, administer mind-altering substances, and other cool medical and science powers, psychology and hypnosis, because they feel the weakest.

I would play that. It supports party play, gives role protection, and lets everyone participate in combat and gives their class unique abilities to use. No one is left out. The game keeps a "combat is fun" feel while keeping out-of-combat options open and powerful.


Yes, I am bringing up MSPE, the game often forgotten in the Top Secret vs. 007 battle. This game gets a lot of the solitary movie hero tropes right for a classless system. You level up, and work on skills to specialize. You can do teams or solo heroes, and it supports solo play a lot better than either of the games. Combat is not as fun because it is deadly, so you are going to get a lot of interactions, sneaky stuff, skill use, and social encounters - which fits the genre of movies from 1930-1980 a lot better in my feeling.

Sam Spade isn't walking into every bar with twin 0.45 pistols and blasting his way in and out to talk to a contact. You could do that in this game, but really? Okay, do that if it is fun for you.

Also, the way this game treats skills is way better than either 007 or Top Secret. Skills gain XP through every use, track XP per skill, and level independently of the character's level. You can't be a shooty combat-oriented Sam Spade, gain a level, and improve investigation skills you have never used. If you want a high-level non-combat skill - you have to use it. This encourages roleplaying, sneaky stuff, non-combat stuff, social encounters, and skill use in general.

This also modifies adventure design, as referees need to put in non-combat skill opportunities into the adventure rather than just lining up combat encounters to fill the night's session time. What is involved in completing a mission? What tasks need to be done? What skills will be needed? Can players make their own approaches, change things up, apply their skills effectively, and come up with creative solutions on their own? 

Are the varieties of challenges varied, or should they be given the situation and group's play preferences? You may want a combat-focused game, and that is fine. You may want a social-oriented game, and that is cool too. The game supports this, and the characters develop along the play style and adventures the group goes through. You may want a balance, or a mix of two or three styles of play.

The questions of single superspy and "team of experts" is solved as well, since the game supports both. This is less done "in the rules" as the B/X and TSR model enforces, and more goes into the "build as you play" classless design in games like Skyrim - you develop your character as you go instead of making an initial class choice and getting better in a limited set of abilities. If you want a James Bond, pick and level up the skills that would make a character like that. If you want a Mission Impossible team, that can be done too by specializing the character designs.

Also, unlike 007 and the original Top Secret (I know about the updated Kickstarted edition), this game has survived the years in its original old-school form. You can still buy it, buy adventures for it, and experience the game as it was played back in the day.

Classes in a Modern Era?

I prefer classless systems for modern and sci-fi games. People change, their roles change, and once you get into the game world you can feel your class doesn't have much of a use based on your play style. If you are the only player playing a charismatic face class, and the other five players at the table are all combat freaks - yeah, you are waiting for the gun smoke to clear to smile and charm the people still left alive. You could feel like you aren't contributing anything to the team, your class makes you weak at the primary group focus, and you are pigeon-holed into being the "expert the group drags around."

Plus, classless and build-as-you-go lets your game and players change. If Sam Spade picks up piloting and wants to be a South Seas smuggler and airborne two-fisted adventurer like Indiana Jones - run with it! They will have that PI background, but their new skills will support the fun the campaign morphed into. No new characters need to be created, and characters will pick up the skills they need.

Another point with systems that force you into a role, is that I feel there are times they limit your choices as a player, and as a referee for that player. If a class is a sneaky-thief type, you need to put in sneaky-thief parts or the player will feel like the choice they made was bad. The group may make choices that limit sneaky-thief opportunities.

If a player in a classless system acquires sneaky-thief skills - no matter what they do - those are now an option used to solve problems for that player instead of a requirement. The skills you choose will be influenced by your play style, and you will assemble a tool-box of unique abilities to handle the situations the referee comes up with. To me, in a modern setting where things change rapidly and characters need to be jack-of-all-trades, this is a much better choice for player agency and freedom that a system that enforces strict classes.

But again, all of the above is modified by player and group preference. It may be that you like strictly defined classes in modern settings because those give you direction and the special powers you like. More power to you! But as a referee, I need to understand that with special classes I need to provide opportunities for them to shine and feel like they are contributing. Also, as a player, I need to be aware that the group's choice may be sidelining some of my fellow players. This is unavoidable in some situations, but if it happens all the time the group needs to be aware this is happening and work to make it better for everybody.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Tunnels and Trolls: Solo Play

This is probably as legacy of Tunnels and Trolls' solo adventure legacy, but everything for solo play is just easier here. With combat there is no positioning, deciding which monster does what and attacks who, no special monster abilities, no special character combat options, and nothing to decide on either side of the die roll. Just what you are doing (melee, ranged, magic, saving rolls, or fleeing) and the dice matter.

With exploration, there is no "are you standing in front of the statue" positional GM traps, nothing hidden by the referee, and if you need to adjudicate a situation - finding a trap, dodging a rolling boulder, seeing if you are lucky enough for fortune to happen, sneaking past enemies, climbing a wall, knowing an arcane piece of lore, surviving poison, running away, or anything at all - the saving roll is your answer. Come up with a test, determine what happens on pass or fail, and roll.

No referee is needed, no solo play system is needed, and this is how the game is designed.

Tests and Saving Rolls

Flying Buffalo back in the day made its name on selling solo adventures by mail, and T&T was the system you used to play them. They found a niche in the early days of the hobby and went for it, and the rest is history. D&D went down a different path - they needed a dungeon master, and their entire game was designed to rely upon hidden information a dungeon master.

"Are you standing in the doorway when you pull the lever?"

"Are you searching the room?"

"Who is first in marching order?"

You get this wonderful puzzle-element going on with great dungeons, where the players are unsure of their actions. Truly great dungeons and referees key players into danger subtly, with little things here and there in descriptions that clue the attentive in on certain doom.

"There is an oily smell to the room."

"While the rest of the dungeon was dirty, this room is perfectly clean."

"You see a number of indentations in the wall ahead of you on the right side."

Wait. Stop. This could be something or it could be nothing. This could be nothing, and in our investigation we will find the real threat -something else entirely - with further questioning. I love this style of play, and it captures the intense feeling of danger and threat that a great dungeon is supposed to provide.

This is also a part of my problem when I tried running the first Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure as a solo experience. There are many traps in that which rely on character placement, so I found myself house-ruling ability score checks to "see if they know" the obvious things I knew. It is important because player eliminations depend on these gotcha-moments like a shark in the water, so I have to roll what are essentially stupidity checks for my zero-level characters. I kid, but in a way this is how I feel - they are less heroes than they are balls in a pachinko machine.

It is a lot less fun than poking and prodding around in the Tomb of Horrors against a live referee, so I can see why in solo T&T adventures they either trip the trap on you and roll to avoid, give you a chance to detect (and have it be a directional stop), make a luck roll to completely avoid, or just deal with the trap up front without hiding anything. The next challenge is an atomic pass/fail event, and it never is something unknown.

The saving roll mechanic in T&T does this well, and it supports every ability score so you can roll heavy boulders out of the way with strength, avoid jets of flame with speed, figure out ancient runes with IQ, survive poison mushroom spores with constitution, walk right through a minefield with luck, or charm a cranky old wizard with charisma. And the ability rolls scale with level, have a chance of always failing, and cover every out-of-combat situation elegantly.

Luck is the Referee

Having a luck score helps too, it is a catch-all for solo play for so many answers. This was the case in Gangbusters too where they had a luck score, and a detective character could roll luck to see if a criminal left a clue in a room, or someone who knew the suspect was in a speakeasy at the same time the investigator started poking around there. Did a character survive certain death, like those car crash scenes at the end of 1930's black and white serials? Is there a land-line phone nearby in a world without cell phones? Is there a taxi waiting on the curb to, "follow that car?" Did the killer leave a matchbook with the name of a bar on it? Luck was the X factor in a modern urban environment, and let you trip your "Film Noir Tropes" with style and ease.

Coming out of D&D it helped us a lot to have luck answer questions, and it took a lot of pain away from the referee. Take the taxi and "follow that car!" If this was a luck roll, things were fair. If a referee denied this because he or she felt there were no taxis present, the player could feel the referee were being punitive, or there was some sort of other railroaded answer around there the players had to take.

Luck enables creativity in solving problems by enabling the player's approach with a random roll.

Same thing in T&T, this score answers a lot of the questions a referee would have to answer. Is a needed item available at a shop? Did making that noise awake a sleeping dragon? Is there a change of shifts with the tower guards happening right now? Did the rope break? Is there anything in that box? Did the key you pilfered fit the lock? Did you happen to bump into the right person at the right time? Did you walk right by that arrow trap without setting it off? Is there a ship at the port waiting for passengers to take you where you need to go? Did the thief you are chasing get stopped by the guards? Is the weather for the mountain trek good or bad? While traveling did we bump into someone helpful, find berries along the side of the road, or somehow gain an important resource?

A luck score does a lot of the work that a referee would have done, and gives a solo player quick and easy answers to all sorts of in-play questions as a "missing referee ability score."

When in doubt, roll luck and get an answer.

Solo Design

The notion of always having a referee finds its way into many of the rules of B/X, even in obscure and roundabout ways. This is sort of like operating system design, where personal computers have the notion of needing a "system administrator" account to manage the machine, versus a phone where there is an "owner" but no notion of an "administrator" in the personal computer sense. Thus when you are to install a program, bang, admin rights needed, and then on a phone or tablet - it just installs.

Because T&T had to support no-referee play, every rule has to support that concept. Though you can play it with a referee, I get the feeling the game's primary mode of play, and its primary design goal is as a solo play game.

There are a lot of hidden places in many pen-and-paper games where the rules assume, "The referee with handle this part." You will be reading through a spell and, "the referee will determine..." You go to a shop and, "the referee will determine prices and selection." You are in combat and, "the referee controls the monsters..." I love B/X, but the amount of times I have to stop and roll for "phantom referee interaction" gets tiring and slows the game down. Add to that rolling for stupidity for my characters and while yes I am playing B/X, I begin to miss a referee and wonder if the mechanics alone are enough to keep me.

Coming Home

So I keep coming back to T&T for my solo play sessions and enjoying the elegant simplicity of letting the dice handle all the referee-required wargaming and rulings in combat. Does it devolve into "a bucket of dice versus another?" Well, the same could be said about B/X, it would just mean there are more types of dice and a slower bucket procedure with all sorts of rules interspersed.

Could a B/X solo-focused game be designed? Most likely and I have not found one yet, because applying the solo-play design theory to a game is a complete rework of the rules - and a lot of B/X assumptions and structures have the DNA of a referee built into them. I feel you would be slaughtering a lot of sacred cows if you attempted such a thing, and rethinking huge systems.

So with T&T and even MSPE, I have a lot of my solo-play options covered for both fantasy and modern games. I still like B/X and my other collection of strange and unique systems, but for everyday play where I sit down to have fun, there work very well and I have a fond remembrance for them as a part of my gaming history. There was a point in time that we ran this seriously for years, and I was the referee, so I am used to the system and how it works. It does a good job and I love the game, which checks my boxes and gets me playing.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Diving In: Dungeon Crawl Classics

Here is a fun one. I have not dived into Dungeon Crawl Classics because the book is so huge. Well, now I don't have a reason not to. And I know, I probably should have checked for this earlier:

DCC Free Quick Start Rules

I watched some video reviews of DCC, and one thing that seems the be a common thread through them is, "I picked this game up, recoiled at its apparent complexity, put it on the shelf for a long time, and then when I picked it back up it is my favorite game." They then follow that up with, "Once I ran it everything was a breeze to run." In short, it is sort of like B/X with some special rules around magic, crit charts, and tons of random charts shoved in every place a random chart could go.

That intimidation factor, where the size of the game itself feels like a barrier to entry, is an interesting thing that I felt too. I thought, oh, cool book, great art, but a shelf filler instead of one I play and enjoy.

That huge chasm and imposing stone door on the cover are apt metaphors for the game. But once you get in there, the fun begins.

Now, a problem I have is that running this solo is tough - which is why I stick with other B/X games. DCC has this funnel thing going on where every player gets 2-3 zero-level characters, and those that survive a deadly gauntlet become level one characters. The starting adventure in this setup is for 15-20 characters, which is a lot for one person to manage. This reminds me of the "clones" mechanic in Paranoia, where character death in silly and tragic fashion is a part of the fun.

I get the feeling this is a game built for small to medium groups, but I can roll up some characters and give it a shot. I wonder if there are any solo adventures for DCC out there, perhaps with a smaller group size, like 6-8 level zero starting characters. Still, that is a lot.

Someone should come out with 3x5 character cards with complete characters and art, and give me about 60 of them in a premade deck - just so I can pick as many as I need and run these sample cannon fodder through a dungeon. Or let me create new ones on a blank template card and add them to the deck. That way, I would always have a cast of characters to randomly pull from and run - by myself or with others.

That said, I have this printed out and want to give it a go, even if I have to roll up a small army to get started. This is why I have a lot of dice. More soon.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Hacking Games

Yesterday's discussion of "hacking games" put the thought in my mind. Simple games? They invite hacking and experimentation. Back in the day, we had the basic Car Wars for the longest time, and sheet after sheet of typed additions to the game that we invented. Star Frontiers, Top Secret, and many other classic games were so simple we built entire expansions for them using our homebrewed content - and it was fun. The games were almost designed for expansion and experimentation, and while you could play them as they were - coming up with all sorts of new things yourself was a part of the hobby.

Now by hacking, I am thinking of larger changes and systems - more that just a new monster or magic item. You can do small changes in most any game, and one of the fun parts about D&D 4 was its generic monster creation system that let you come up with anything, mutant mushrooms, flying monkeys, robots, or any other creature imaginable and put it in the game. Our base three book experience with D&D 4 was an incredible run, and the more we bought for that game the worse it got because our imaginations were slowly crowded out.

Complete Games

With newer games, especially ones we invested heavily into (Pathfinder and D&D 3 and 4, FFG Star Wars), we never really hacked those games. We had some non-publisher material for some of them, but we never really took those games and made them our own like we did the older games. Perhaps we had that consumerist expectation where we expected everything was going to be done for us, and that the publishers would keep their new books balanced and equal options to everything which came before.

I feel there is a point where a game gets so big and complex you give up hacking it. Any hacks you make end up breaking the game, ruining some class balance somewhere, or affecting a part of the rule you either don't know about yet or never use that will come up later when you play with others. This is also true of games where the dicing system feels "tight" - if you touch too much, add modifiers, or come up with combat options or maneuvers outside of the game the system will start breaking.

Basic Fantasy hits a sweet spot for me because the base game's options are so limited hacking is almost required to customize the game to your liking. I can drop in crit charts, skill systems, hit locations, new magic or power systems, modern weapons, sci-fi elements, ability scores, class tweaks, and just about anything into this game and modify it to my liking quickly.

For the most part, all of B/X is like this, and the basic framework of the rules is very hackable and extendable. Certain B/X games come "pre-hacked" to capture a certain flavor, such as Labyrinth Lord's hack of the AD&D material into the system and Dungeon Crawl Classic's retro-gonzo emulation. All of them are cool, and demonstrate how well B/X works as a base for any game you can imagine - from fantasy to sci-fi it just works with a couple tweaks here and there to capture falvor, genre, and the danger level desired.

Old School Essentials is modular and designed to be very hackable, so it deserves special mention here too. You can just buy the Core Rules booklet and get none of the others - no spells, no classes, no genre rules, no treasures, and just the core rules module and hack an entire system off of that core. If you want to put in the work, this is your ultimate hacking option. An SRD is out for this too, along with many other B/X games, so you can hack for free.

Basic Fantasy focuses on fantasy basics and gets the "system plus standard parts" down to the metal, which is where I like to start. The game has the standard four-plus-four race-class combos (Elf, Dwarf, Halfling, Human) and (Fighter, Mage, Thief, Cleric) so there is a lot of room for my own interpretations of variant classes and new races. There are also no race-as-class options - just the basic formula which is easy to build upon. It is not as modular as OSE, but the resources and format of this game work for me well when I am experimenting.

And this is B/X porting is super simple, so where you choose to start is honestly preference.

Room to Breathe

I feel a game needs to leave parts for you to play with. I feel some designers get this very completist feeling, so the rules just keep going on and on covering every possibility. The game feels complete. I put it down. I rarely return to it. There isn't a part inviting me to tinker or experiment. There is no room for my creativity. All of the page has been colored by crayons. There is no room left for me.

I have done that with games, and I don't know if it is just me, a bad habit, or if anyone else feels this way. Games that are complete are less interesting than games that invite me to take part in their design. I guess I love the modding community of games like Skyrim, and love to see what players come up with - and even myself. The game has lots of open places. The rules are up to interpretation. There is plenty of room conceptually to add new systems and new ideas.

Same thing with pen-and-paper games these days. I am moving away from the "complete experiences" and gravitating towards the simple games I grew up with, and finding myself spending more time with the ones I can modify and experiment in with new rules and subsystems.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Basic Fantasy: Hacking Subclasses

Is more better?

I found myself doing a rules development test with Basic Fantasy the other day, and I created a couple character for the test - based off of character we had run in several campaigns in other games. Well, Basic Fantasy only has the base four classes: fighter, mage, cleric, and thief.

The characters were from systems with dozens of character classes. So I found myself asking the question, is this character more a mage or a rogue? A bard? This bard? Well, this one is more a mage and that one more a rogue. How about this ranger? Well, a fighter with a bow would work. This paladin? Hmm, more like a cleric. They played more or less how I wanted them to, and all was well. I didn't need all of the expansion character classes to get the job done.

We have had that "more is better" thing going on since D&D was first written, and a part of me likes a world where things are simple and four classes cover it all. I know you can download some pretty nice expansion classes for Basic Fantasy and I would use them too, but in doing this I see how over the years games started creating all sorts of variant-flavor classes that really exist because a synonym existed for the base class. Is a knight...a fighter? Do we need a cavalier class? A squire class?

Or they invent abilities to make things fit, like giving the ranger class spells. I don't remember Robin Hood knowing magic, nor many magic-using rangers in sort of the pre-D&D fiction. They had good wilderness skills, but were still essentially - fighters. And then when you are combining skills and classes, you get creations like, well, we need a bard with wilderness skills and druid spells, so let's invent a forest-singer class. And the cleric spell version would be the nature-lyricist.

The splat-book buying side of me says, great, more options, take my money!

The side of me that avoids rules bloat sits there and says, you are pulling random crayons out of a box of abilities and inventing a class for them. What are you doing? I don't need any more options!

I get the feeling most subclasses can be done in Basic Fantasy base classes with a few house rules, a handful (like three) of special abilities added to a class, and increasing the XP to level by 10%. A bard is a thief (or a mage) with some songs or music powers. A ranger is a fighter with some special wilderness skills, and maybe a +1 to-hit with ranged weapons. A druid is a cleric who doesn't wear metal armor or weapons, and has a couple cool nature powers.

Maybe give each subclass a special limitation, rangers wear lighter armor, bards must use a musical instrument, druids do not wear metal armor, paladins must abide by a strict code, and other limits that make playing the class difficult but interesting. This way, yes, you can say the 10% XP increase could be easy to overcome, but you need to play by special rules to be special.

You could even make the "ranger subclass" an add-on class for any class, make it a package deal of powers and skills, and open it up to any class so you would have fighter-rangers, mage-rangers, cleric-rangers, and thief-rangers. Same with assassin, bard, druid, or any other class that flavors another class but is close enough to it to not really feel like a standalone.

If I were playing Basic Fantasy and a player came in wanting to be a special class, and we didn't have the Basic Fantasy website to reference, and we needed to house-rule a custom class - this is what I would do. Three cool abilities, a limitation, and +10% XP on top of the four base classes.

Done. Let's see how it works. If we like it, we keep it. If we want to tweak it, we can do that. If we hate it, well, stick with it, and we will say your character was the only one.

Time to play.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Mail Room: Stars Without Number

Here comes a fun one, and also one I forgot was coming in the mail. The excellent old-school sci-fi game Stars Without Number (revised edition). This game was always a hard sell for my group, as we were years down the road with Star Frontiers, Space Opera, and even Star Wars and we did not have room for another sci-fi game in the mix. Now that I am alone, I am looking at  this game with more time and a fresh set of eyes.

325 pages of sci-fi amazing content. Random charts everywhere. A simple base system. No wonder I always see this game on the top of the best-seller lists at Drive-Thru RPG, this is the sci-fi OSR game to get these days and the revised edition sings a song of pure bliss among the stars. I dare say the game has more appeal to me than the incredibly hard sci-fi GURPS Space, just because I can grasp characters easy and the stuff I have to learn I can focus on.

So many sci-fi games have dies for my group at character creation, you want me to learn what now?

I have the full-color hardcover, so the book smells like ink and is just impressive on every page. I would have loved a glossy paper of a slightly heavier weight and a bookmark, but this is still great.

The game's default setting (one that is easy to replace with your own) has always interested me, and more so than Starfinder and other similar "galactic space reset" games. Here, there was some sort of hyperspace storm that cut off all planets in the galaxy from each other, and now things are opening back up slowly. This setting just seems so fun, and I could see playing a first contact game like a hex-crawl in space visiting worlds, establishing outposts, meeting world leaders, and watching how factions and alliances develop over the course of the game.

You could play a post-first contact game in an already settled area and have all the galactic side developed and fighting for control. You could play a mix, fighting the evil space empire, doing trading on the side, and then going out to the unexplored sector and do some hex-crawling if you want. You can make the galactic storm come and go at random, stranding travelers on planets for weeks or months before it lifts and life tries to return to normal again.

Mechs? Got em. Starship combat kind of like the FTL videogame? Got it. Psionics? Got them. AI characters? Check. Random systems and planets and random everything else? All here. You got a galaxy of random charts, rules, and content in this book and it is clearly one of the high-value grabs for sci-fi gaming, no matter what system you roll with.

And the game's flavor is really anything you want it to be. More like [your favorite sci-fi movie or TV show] - yes, it can do that, but it keeps with the generic "kitchen sink sci-fi" premise that D&D does well and really few games have done for sci-fi since the original Space Opera game, but on a lower level than Space Opera that is more focused on adventure and characters. A huge plus.

I had an loved the 2010 version, and this looks like more to love. I am seriously impressed, and this is going to be a fun one to explore. More soon.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Basic Fantasy: Format is a Feature

So I needed a quick game to test some ideas in B/X last night, and what did I reach for? 

Basic Fantasy.

It is an interesting choice, given that I have the incredible Old School Essentials (Classic and Advanced) right here at hand. Given that OSE is a more modular system, why did I go with the equally great Basic Fantasy?

One, my OSE books are the all-in-ones, as the broken-apart modular books were sold out when I bought - so if I use OSE as a base reference system, I am pulling in the whole book and having to keep that open as I flip through and make tweaks to things in my game development. I know, just print out the OSE basic rules sections and go, unencumbered by the rest. I didn't have time to print and staple, plus I had one thing at hand that made using Basic Fantasy really quick and easy.

The spiral-bound book of Basic Fantasy from Lulu.

Oh yes, lay flat, open, and stay right there where I put you. The game doesn't need to support both ascending AC and descending, so the monster stat blocks are dirt simple. Add to that, the D&D 3.5 style ascending target number roll over is the norm and the entire system is unified and going in one direction. OSE is a reorganization of B/X rules and must retain some cruft to maintain compatibility, while Basic Fantasy is more of a stripped-down game built-from the ground up to emulate the old-school experience using modern mechanics.

There are also some incredible rules summaries for BFRPG you can download and print, and have 90% of the core game in a tight, 20-page booklet. This helps hacking greatly, and I am not flipping through books to find what I need.

I was also looking around and spotted this over on the BFRPG blog:
In the 2E era of the “world’s most popular role-playing game,” one of the things that began to appear in great numbers were so-called splatbooks: rulebooks containing supplementary classes, races, items, spells, and so on, put out by the same publisher who created the original rules.  The 3E and later eras of that game continued this tradition.  Players would buy these splatbooks because they appealed to them, naturally, and then they would show up at a game session and tell the GM “I want to play THIS.”  If the race or class didn’t fit well with the GM’s world, he or she was naturally permitted by the application of Rule Zero to say “No, sorry, I’m not allowing that in my world.”  But just because the GM could do so did not mean that he or she would… the player might say, “But, but, this is official!” and the GM would feel pressured into allowing it.  3E and later books had, if anything, even more power over the GM, since that game sharply curtailed Rule Zero.
Now, to be fair OSE Classic and Advanced are "finite rules sets" like Basic Fantasy, but with Basic Fantasy the concept of limiting choice is built-in as a game feature. None of the expanded material on the website will be added to an advanced version or published as an official add-on book. The base book "is the game."

The entire game-design episode highlighted some interesting points behind why I like and play each game. Old School Essentials? That is my SNES/NES, a complete retro game system that plays all my favorite games, and it has all the classic feel, looks, art, and the essential experience of the classic games built in. Everything is here, the controllers, the cartridges, the cords connecting the controllers to the console that we trip over, the reset button, the push buttons, levers, and doors on the consoles, and lots of cool stuff that isn't really important to playing the game but it is important that it be there because it is a part of the core experience of the NES/SNES and yes, even B/X emulation.

Basic Fantasy? My Unix shell script, command line, bust out Emacs and Vi to hack together a nightly running process core stripped-down experience that gets me a roleplaying game without anything else in the way. Some operating systems have all sorts of cool usability features built-in, file previews, message centers, and lots of cool extras designed to create an ideal experience of using a computer - as envisioned by teams of usability experience engineers.

Basic Fantasy has the look and feel of the classic B/X experience, but many parts that do not need to be there, or would complicate the core idea, have been tossed out. Compatibility options, like ascending and descending AC both supported? Gone. The feeling we have to support everything added in AD&D? Gone. Extra spells, races, and classes? Gone. Again, Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy is a lot like this experience, and tightly presented - but it is still emulation rather than a stripped down "on the metal" game.

Oh and I still love my NES and SNES mind you, just like I love Old School Essentials. This is never about "what game is best?" Everyone should make up their mind for themselves and never be pressured. This is an examination of using games as tools for hacking and development, and just one choice that one person made and the factors that played into that decision. Having downloadable rules summaries, and oddly enough, a spiral-bound book were key factors in me choosing what game to pick up and begin developing with.

It is not really about nice stitch-bound books with bookmarks - and I love those dearly. Here, it is more "can I have the rules in a format that is the easiest for me to use?" Also, can I download and print resources that reformat the rules into very usable summaries?

This is, in essence, a format requirement driving ease of development.

Which makes me sorely regret missing out on the split volume books for Old School Essentials.

So if I am hacking and testing new game systems, I will reach for my spiral bound copy of Basic Fantasy and start building systems and scribbling notes all over my print outs. If I want to take these scripts and make them compatible with other systems, I can port them in and add all the options these games expect us to have, along with supporting the unique mechanics and quirks of each game.

And oh yeah, my game design blew up horribly, because great design is really hard. Just because you can roll dice to see what happens next, doesn't mean you always should. More on this later, but be wary of letting the dice rule your narrative. For the atomic tests, such as, "do I hit?" Yes, use the dice. But for more story-like concepts? Be careful trying to make a set of polyhedral dice your masters, and trying to "program" an experience off random dice rolls.

Imagination always comes first.