Thursday, February 25, 2021

A Little Distance is a Good Thing

One thing I remember about early editions of roleplaying games is they always warned you against "putting yourself in the game." They did this to avoid the panic around these games being a negative influence on youth, but also to insulate themselves in case someone did live their fantasy a bit too closely and go off and do something terrible in the real world.

No game company wanted the negative light and legal problems if something stupid happened and parents blamed the game because "it was too personal" or "the game preyed upon impressionable minds."

I remember the sections in the rules warning you "this is not you" and "terrible things may happen" to your character, so it is best to not put your own "self" in a game where bad things happen. There was a firewall there, a layer of insulation that protected people and kept games around the table from turning into fights when things got dangerous for characters and there was a chance of players taking it personally. "You hate my character, or did bad things to him or her, so therefore you hate me!"

I always played games this way, and kept that healthy separation between players and their characters - encouraging them to be and try things outside their experience.

It was smart back then, and these days I wonder where it went.

These days it seems every game is written to be a power fantasy that puts "you" in the game. A lot of players play this way, and you even see this in videogames where you can build avatars that look just like you - or at least a fantasy version of you. The practice has gone so far that it feels like companies are encouraging people to "live their fantasies" through the game like some sort of experience that takes "you" and puts you "in the dungeon!"

Dying is purposefully hard in a lot of today's games, and all sorts of "you-isms" are in these games to help build characters and identities around "you" the person at home instead of a fictional avatar you create to tell a story - like a character in a play that "isn't you." It sells well I suppose, catering to the fantasy of being someone that is a hero, but there are times I wonder how much impact this has inside people's minds - or if it does, no one does scientific studies of psychology anymore, or at least nobody covers them.

I remember those warnings from the games still sitting on my shelves and I wonder how healthy this all is.

I took psychology in college and we covered fantasies, and how they could be normal, healthy things. But there was always this part in the textbook that warned us that taking things too far could cause problems. That fantasies were only healthy and safe if they did not cross the line into reality. It was okay to have dreams and think of yourself "if you were Han Solo" or something like that, but never let that fantasy get too close to reality.

Perhaps the world just collectively forgot the science of psychology in the last 20 years. Either that or companies got greedy and don't care. I worry because if someone does take fantasies too far in the real world, confusing themself with their character, the game could get blamed, and I never want to see that happen.

Another negative aspect of too much fantasy, or confusing fantasy with reality, is that fantasies are very powerful things. They can take over your world. So much so you start to care less and less for the real world. Your health could suffer, you could care less about participating in civics and volunteer work, not voting or being into local issues, you can withdraw from social life, relationships can suffer, and you could care more about a fictional world than the real one. You can start to confuse concepts and themes in fantasy with real life ones, and your frame of reference in dealing with the real world becomes one where you only have fantasy experiences to draw from.

All that was in my psychology textbook, which I still have in a box around here somewhere, along with all my games that warn me against the same thing.

It is also a subject I don't see discussed much, because it probably cuts a little too close to home for some, having identified themselves inside a game as a hero that only exists in their mind. I am not attacking anyone, or anyone's idea of who they are, just bringing up what I know and how I experienced these games when I started, and echoing some of the warnings the people that originally created these games put into the books. If someone takes a warning like this personally, it may be time to reflect on why they feel that anger. Are they too close to that fantasy? Has the line blurred? Is everything okay in their life?

Touchy stuff, and hurtful, I know. I am sorry if bringing this up hurts a little to some. But really, it needs to be said and discussed. This is more a warning to be a little careful, and keep your perspective to the real world grounded in things that are outside your fantasy worlds every once and a while. And while you may be able to keep the worlds of fantasy and reality apart, there may be others in your group you see as a little too close and you worry about them.

This is also for the ones you love playing with, since not everyone can keep powerful fantasies and reality apart - especially if reality kinda sucks right now. It is easy to want to pull away and live somewhere cool, compared to what we have in the current year.

And yes, my textbook mentioned fantasies as an escape from bad situations too. That education is paid for, so sharing it gives back and keeps the investment doing positive things.

Enjoy your fantasies, but in a healthy and safe way that keeps a little distance and perspective between the real you - who needs health and friends and a community and to be you in the real world - and the hero in the dungeon who does great things.

There is a real world out there, I know it hasn't been easy to see these last couple years, but trust me, it is there and there are adventures to have out there too - as you.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Character Advancement as Story

The role of game designers? Obviously, to design a fun experience.

What happens when they fail? Obviously, a game that isn't fun anymore. We had this problem with D&D 4, and it shook our trust in games from big publishers. The game was great in some ways, but in others they let excess, bloat, and repetition ruin the game. And the bad parts outweighed the good. I flip through page after page of the same magic item, +1 to +6, one or two abilities each, a few of them the only good ones, and ask myself why?

D&D 4 was a card game printed in book format and it sucked. The tactical battle chess parts we loved.

I had this article this week where it felt too negative, so I kept rewriting it, but the problem wasn't one particular game or one feature, I felt it was more a systemic problem with the empowerment of those who play the game - versus the control the game designers exert over players. This isn't within the game as characters, but in a larger sense as players outside the game and our ability to change and improve the game.

With commercial games under closed licenses, you are stuck buying a new version of the books every couple years giving the game designers "another chance" to get it right this time. Or to simply "refresh mechanics." You are very much in a Mac/Windows situation, where the companies can drop support for hardware, force you to buy new hardware, change things at-will and invalidate characters, control the multi-player experience, and own exclusive access to the official rules.

Yes, third party publishers fill a lot of the gaps, but they are still dependent on the core game not breaking features for their products to still work correctly a few years down the road. Third-party products are also hard to sell at times to those unfamiliar, so I feel they are a patch to broken designs at best.

B/X is Linux

And Linux/Unix is great. Just ask your phone. Or iOS. Or cloud services. Or anything except Windows, but even they have made some great steps towards integrating, so props to their team for making things work together.

B/X is like the Unix/Linux world. You are free to switch distributions at any time. Anyone can come up with something. You are free to come up with your own system. You can make it as compatible or not with other B/X material, your choice. If a version of B/X goes "stale" (whatever that means) you can switch to another, but honestly, there is nothing stopping you from playing and enjoying something that isn't the "hot new!"

My Labyrinth Lord books are still good 20 years from now, just as fun, just as interesting, and they still work. Yes, Old School Essentials is the cool new kid on the block and I love that game, but there is room for everyone and honestly, no one really gets left out. I could take a character from either game and get them working in another in about 5 minutes, the monsters and magic items at 99% compatible, and the adventures just work as-is, with possibly a few very small tweaks here and there.

Mind you older versions of copyrighted games still work 20 years from now, but they will be forever locked in the same state. New content difficult to produce and acquire, updates and other creations near impossible, and remixes out of the question. As a matter of choice I prefer supporting open games with open publishing licenses when I have a choice, but there are some exceptions.

I feel B/X is a good thing for the hobby as a whole, even for the big commercial games, because it keeps people from dropping off the map and quitting pen-and-paper games entirely if they are not interested in the big publisher games. It sustains a lot of interest in the market interested in free and experimental gaming. A rising tide lifts all boats.

Big Box Classes

Here is where my thoughts take a huge swerve, and this is what I was having trouble with. Games, especially ones with "big box" character classes designed by the game design teams, run into a lot of post-launch issues. I remember the Pathfinder 1e rogue and the D&D 5 ranger being the "least exciting" classes to play, and those class getting entirely redesigned during the game's release cycle to "patch" them.

Supposedly, hundreds of thousands of people play-tested these games - and those classes - before release? That is what I see in the marketing material. Why weren't these issues caught, or were they late-game problems that were never really play-tested all that well? There is probably a thousand reasons why and this isn't a road I want to go down with my thinking, to be honest.

And also, play-testing the high-level games of any major commercial release - even in the MMO world - is never an easy or certain thing. If there is one thing about the playtesting the marketers tout, it is probably 90% done at the lower levels and very lightly where it matters most - the highest endgame levels.

And then I recently got this book:

This is the B/X Options book that lets you custom design character classes for all B/X style games. This is a great tool, and it even has a ton of classes designed with plenty of variants to keep a group interested for a good long time. I see this book as one of my essential books when playing Old School Essentials, either Basic or Advanced, since it gives me the tools to custom hack a class, give a player uninterested in the selection a few more options, or build a new class for an NPC just for fun.

I love the book, I love the toolbox it gives me, and this is going to be a keeper and highly recommended to anyone interested in B/X gaming. But this is also a book that got my interest in GURPS or Hero System 6th Edition rekindled.

I know, but you love this book, why switch?

I get this feeling where if I am finding myself having to design rigid character classes to fit my archetype characters, or changing my characters to fit a character class, something bigger is wrong here.

Point Buy Systems

Why design classes? With GURPS or Hero System, I get XP, and I directly spend those points on powers, abilities or skills as I level. I am not "pre designing" my experience as I level and running the risk my design sucks at level 20 and is unfun to play.

I know, these are closed systems for the most part, and I am still looking for that mythical point-buy creation and improvement open license game. I have not found it yet. So for now, GURPS and Hero System are good choices for me and have a lot of content to play with.

If my character starts out a rogue, sneaks into a wizard school and impersonates a student, learns magic, goes on a long boat trip, ends up shipwrecked on a desert island and has to be a survivor, ends up being a barbarian freedom fighter for local tribes after they learn their homeland was an evil empire, plays noble pirate for a while raising the evil empire's shipping, learns shamanistic spirit magic from the lizardfolk tribes, and returns to their home kingdom as an ambassador for the new world and negotiates a peace treaty as a diplomat...well, that is my character class when all is said and done.

That character is a mess, but they are a mess written by an interesting story, and they reflect their experiences in who they are. Their skills, powers, and abilities are all reflected by their background, and as I played them, that unique experience of "who they are" is directly reflected on that character sheet.

Does multiclassing do that well? Rogue 2/Wizard 3/Naturalist 3/Barbarian 2/Pirate 4/Shaman 3/ Diplomat 3? A level 20 character that could never negotiate with a pure level 20 Diplomat, or even a level 10 one. Then again, in a world that is changing and reflecting people's diverse backgrounds and cultures, why limit ourselves to "one set path in life" and tell ourselves "a game designer's intentions have decided who we are and what we will be before we explore the world and find ourselves?"

I wish B/X had point-buy character advancement.

Character Advancement as Story

I like it when a story shapes the character's development rather than the other way around. I feel if a class limits the character's story, we have a fundamental problem. At least in how I want to play solo games and sustain my interest in them. I do admit when I am playing with others, classes are a shortcut that directs people's roles around a table and brings some order to the chaos.

But when playing solo, part of the unknown for me lies in character advancement. I don't want to know what path they take, and I want that to change depending on the direction I take. As the fog of war of the character's future is revealed as I play, and I have no idea where they are going.

I don't get that in games with classes, B/X, Pathfinder, or D&D. For the most part, I know how their character is growing in skills, abilities, and powers. Multiclassing is my only option for change in the character's future, and that is a sub-optimal solution.

When I am in a game where something different happens, and my character has to buy new skills and powers to do well in this new situation, I never expected that. My road warrior needs to be a mechanic. My astronaut needs to be a medic. My ranger needs to be a wizard. Can they with their current ability scores? What do they need to do to make it happen? Is there a build that enhances what they already do?

I am surprised, my build is organic and fluid, and the story is reflected in the final character. I still like my B/X games with classes, and those are wonderful, tight, Monopoly-like designs and fun packages. For stories I tell solo, I like systems that give me complete control over my character's past, present, and future.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Shipping Soon: OSE Advanced Fantasy

I just got my Kickstarter email that my copies of Old School Essentials: Advanced Fantasy are shipping soon! I have been looking forward to these, having had the PDFs for a while, and I look forward to seeing these soon. I know I am in GURPS now, but seeing what I feel is the current standard-bearer of the B/X movement is something I look forward to like I would any new edition of D&D or other games.

I am a fan of many games, as my bookshelves would attest to.

That said, I hope many of you have your copies or are getting emails like this soon to confirm your shipping address! A fun time to be gaming indeed.

Returning to GURPS (for a while)

So I am setting up my gaming table to get back into GURPS after a while away. I know some dislike the system due to its crunchiness and complexity, but I am a sucker for rich, complex systems that give me a lot of freedom to design characters myself and build my own characters the way I want them.

I have a full set of GURPS books, but I am starting with GURPS Lite to get myself into the swing of things. Just something simple to get going, then the basic set to have fun with. We will talk about Dungeon Fantasy another day - but that is coming up.

GURPS to me, is what Aftermath was to us back in the day. A complex, do-everything, toolbox of a game that does everything. You learn one structure and one design system, and any genre and character is open to you.

Choices Made For You

The lack of build freedom is one of the reasons why I can't get too very deep into B/X, D&D, or even Pathfinder. In many of the d20 style games it feels like the designers make the bad choices for you, limit your options, tell you you can't wear this or wield that, and give you prepacked spells, abilities, and skills. In commercial games they splat-book and expand options as they go, ruining balance and the original feel, and then it is time for a new version. I feel B/X is partially a response to the ever-shifting splat-book economy of today's commercial games.

That said, GURPS has its problems. Combat is the traditional slow hex-by-hex model unless you cut out 90% of the options that make it interesting. That said, I feel GURPS combat is still more straightforward than the D&D 3.x interrupt-driven economy of combat and special rules layered everywhere and into every possible place a game can put rules. GURPS combat is still the same sort of Car Wars style "flowchart" model where there are set, established steps, standard modifiers for stuns and other special situations, and every combat follows the same structure.

I know this type of flow from both Car Wars and Aftermath, so the combat does not intimidate me.

Character Design

But the character design gets me. I spent a while in many B/X games looking for the perfect this or that. The best bard class, the best paladin, the best ranger, and so on. I started comparing B/X games based on the strength of their class designs and how mechanically interesting they were. This is how you begin down the road D&D 3.x and later. In these games, the designers do all the game design work for you and hand you "what is good."

In GURPS, my perfect bard or paladin, singy, magicy, smitey, swashbuckling, tanky, thiefy, holy, or whatever - is exactly what I want them to be. And the other bard or paladin across the room? Designed a little different, but their class is built by their idea of what the class is to them, and it conforms to their personality. Not everyone is cookie cutter. Not every build around a class concept is the same.

That bard is a different type of bard than my bard, and not because they had a couple of build choices. They had ALL of the build choices. Learn magic? Tank? Bow? Bow with music magic? Healing music? Buffing music? Combat music? Sonic blasts? Whatever.

And that is cool.

Expectations vs. Design Reality

And while the games usually start great for us, and it was this way in 4th Edition D&D, the designs begin to feel like they limit us more and more as we level up. The designers had one or two ideas on how a class should "play" at higher levels, and those rarely matched the ideas we had for them when we started. We ended up missing how the classes felt at low levels since those were more true to our ideas, and the high level play (when classes fall into their roles) diverged from what we were finding fun about the game.

Sure a ranger could tank at low levels...but as time went on, the ranger started sucking as a tank, the player felt they were being shoved to the back ranks, and the role protection of the tank classes became more and more clear. The player loved being the swashbuckling front line fighter with a bow, and that self-image of their role and powers gradually eroded and they became a ranged DPS back rank (or flanking) support class.

What was fun for him at low levels was gone. The designers wanted the ranger there, and that progression was designed into the game. You were supposed to "learn" your role, but ultimately the game fell flat for us as a couple dozen characters felt more and more constrained into preset roles chosen by a designer who didn't play in our group. And several of our players chose the sucky broken classes that later got changed or revised, so they we stuck with a bad choice that was never play tested all that well by the designers.

Why It Appeals to Me

GURPS? No classes, design your character the way you want to play. Done. You are the game designer. Cheese all you want, or design a balanced and toolbox character that does everything you want them to do. Your game change focus? Pick up those skills. You want to be a ranger-tank? It is possible, just mix and match abilities to your pleasure.

If you enjoy what you like, that is great! If you hate GURPS, I understand, and I haven't always been a huge fan of the game, but I appreciate the options and flexibility it gives me. At this time in my life, with the time I have, it is a great option for me to spend time with, and I find enjoyment here. That is what this hobby is all about, finding your space and what you like, and sharing with others. It is not the best fit for me personally, but it is the best for right now given other options.

Part of me likes seeing what other designers come up with, but another part of me is that part that gets let down by the divergence between my expectations and the designer's late-game concept of the class. Part of the problem is many designers get cute and hide the designs and late-game roles, intending you to discover them, and I want those to be clear up-front due to the time investment put into characters. Especially if your time is limited, I prefer to have the freedom to build character my way than constantly jump to new games looking for the perfect class I could design myself in GURPS.

But by all means, if you love this game, or another, be passionate about it and let people know why. Right now, that character design system in GURPS is very appealing to me, a box of infinite possibilities and options waiting for me to explore it and adventure through all the possible outcomes.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Mork Borg


The best description I have for this strange game is it is one of those "concept albums" from the 70's or 80's that the record company picks one hit single from and the world ignores the genius behind the rest of the creation.

This is not a "system replacement" game for anything, DCC, D&D 5, Old School Essentials, Labyrinth Lord or any of them. Really, it feels like an adventure module with its own rules and you read through it, and if you want, play through it as well and enjoy the ride. You are free to play other adventures if you wish, but the system itself is this very tight set of rules that cribs from the OSR but goes off in its own direction much like a severed head.

It is an experience meant to be read in physical form, played with friends, and enjoyed for what it is.

I respect they did not try to go the complete game system route with this game, it feels like a party game that you break out, spin a dark one-shot tale, and go about a strange journey down the dark and twisted paths of your imagination.

A lot is said about the art and layout, the pure chaos of it all. Is it needed? To shock people out of their system comfort and expectations, yes, I feel it is completely needed. We get so used to our facing-page layouts, neat organized rules, and bulleted summaries that there are times I feel we miss the raw force of imagination and the primal energy of fear and horror which resides within our consciousnesses.

The layout and presentation is welcome. For too long I have been held in comfort and almost coddled by what is easy to mentally ingest.

The game comes as a shock, and a needed one at that to a society too accustomed to safety and isolation.

It is a wake-up call of a game.

This is not for everyone, and many will dismiss this as a fad. I thought it was at first, how could something so simple and so outrageous be anything more than passing thing? This was the thing Youtubers talk about to get views, right? It isn't fair, honestly. Nor is it meant to be. It does feel like a game written to stand up to all the crap that would get hurled at it, in defiance of common wisdom.

If not for the simple fact that it brought out a near-universal rebellious feeling that so many have when they experience this. It is more than a game, it is a cultural milepost.

Do something different.

Like something new.

Do not let fear rule your life, and if need be, embrace fear and become it.

Conquer it.

Or laugh when you fail and chalk it up to what could have been.

Not every adventure is perfect. Not every hero is a perfect video-gamer avatar meant to represent us perfectly. Not every fight is fair. And there may be nothing you can do about the upcoming end of the world.

But will your toothless cretin of a haggard old man with a missing finger or two smile when he finally grabs that bag of gold before he is consumed by the Hellfire?

Will that moment have made all of the suffering worth it?

To win.

Yet lose.

But defiantly smile as your hero holds the bag up high through the flames and knows he has won.

For that experience alone, something our MMO-inspired player-protecting games of today can't fathom delivering, the price is worth it alone to be shocked to an awakened state. You may not like the album, you may wonder what you just heard when the needle reaches the end of the B-side of the vinyl record, but you will remember it and walk away thinking differently.

For or against.

Trash or genius - and take note, with notable things, like albums or musicians, there rarely is a middle ground.

But you will get an experience that is hard to replicate or even have elsewhere. Even the act of understanding is a part of the experience, and there are a lot of things hidden away to discover later. One read alone will not teach you the game, nor the world, it may take dozens of passes. And the things you discover may be things you discover about yourself. The darkness within. What scares you? What is darkness and horror in your own mind?

For that alone, it is a classic.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Investment, Focus, and Perspective

There was a Youtube video I watched recently where Traveller was discussed, and especially the feeling of "this being real" versus something that did not. I am still searching for that and will post it if I find it.

I found it interesting because they said they played Traveller before and it felt like a surface experience, where they were not really involved in the game. The parts looked cool, they could run through the rules and put together a game - but something was missing.

The person's favorite game was GURPS, so when they played GURPS Traveller, they all of a sudden felt like they were in the world - that this was real - and things took on an entirely new perspective. This could happen with any game, and I admit it happened to us when we started using Aftermath for a lot of our campaigns growing up, even D&D games. For different people this happens with different games, and in different ways.

It was fun listening to their description of being inside a Scout-Courier, like this was somehow all of a sudden a first-person perspective in a 3d game, like the world went from a 2d top down view of a triangle to a fully detailed starship cockpit in a 3d VR game. Can you do that same intimate feeling it Traveller? I suppose they could, but since they knew GURPS, and they felt that game was somehow more 'real' - the feeling transposed itself on the new setting and changed their view of it.

Granted, the GURPS Space rules are wonderful, even on their own, and make a great addition as a toolkit piece in any sci-fi game. I would even use the book creating planets and star systems in a B/X or Alien game, and they would fit in perfectly. It would change the nature of the system, all of a sudden the star systems would open up and become incredibly detailed, but that is a good thing if you are shooting for that realism. Even better if you are invested in GURPS and love that hyperrealism.

We also played Battletech using Aftermath rules and had that same feeling happen, like all of a sudden, the mechs got a whole lot more massive and cantankerous, and lower-level combat became more important and gritty. The mechs in a way became less important, which may be a bad thing, but the focus on characters grew to an incredible level and we had some great adventures in that universe using the Aftermath rules. Everything got bigger, more immediate, and more personal. It felt real.

To others they would probably play Aftermath with GURPS rules and say the same thing, that the base rules felt shallow while the system that they know and love expands the world for them and puts them in the universe in a way other games and experiences can't. So this is not a "one game fits all" thing, this is a very personal thing that deals with our upbringings, experiences, and view of the world in a more personal sense. Different people can see the same game and have a completely different view of it. Someone who played D&D all their life gets Traveller and sees it as the most realistic and detailed sci-fi game ever, and then someone else could take Traveller and use GURPS to play it and see it in an entirely different way.

It is an interesting experience with perspective and the investment it gives to you when playing, and also changes the focus of the game and how you see the pieces inside of it. It is a fascinating thing to see happening and it changes your perspective on games and worlds through a different light.

A perspective you are not used to, and one outside your experience.