Saturday, April 30, 2022

Starfinder Thoughts

Starfinder was fun in a 3.5 way, but I found the leveling weapons way too strange and restrictive. I liked it better than Pathfinder 2 because the game was way more familiar to me coming from Pathfinder 1e, and it does not stray too far from that core experience. If I had a good character creator program on a desktop system (Hero Lab 2), I would probably still be playing this. Another benefit is most all the old Pathfinder 1e books are still useful, with this being a legacy 3.5-like system.

Would I convert this to GURPS?

No. You can't convert something this big would be the answer, and realistically all you could do is use the races, monsters, and pawns for GURPS: Space. Keep the look and races, return the elves and dwarves back in the game thank you very much, and make everything like a Heavy Metal movie and we are all set. So, no, I wouldn't. But I will use the Heavy Metal idea.

Starfinder's world always left me wanting more, which is why I played a Star Frontiers-Starfinder mix. I like a set universe and a melting pot of people living in close quarters and that have to get along. The Guardian of the Galaxy style "hyperspace to anywhere" random planet of the week feeling never really appealed to me.

I would rather play in my own universe of a series of destroyed worlds, all with factions eternally at war with each other, and the players have to pick sides and survive. The Starfinder society and all these structured governments and social order never really felt right to me either, to me, Starfinder is at its best in a chaotic, messy, kill-or-be-killed science-feudal world that is more like Heavy Metal: The Hexcrawl and less like Guardians of the Galaxy-Like: The RPG.

People living out of the wreckage of massive crashed starships, with villages built around them. A diverse mix of every race in the universe, kind of the like Star Wars cantina scene but just everywhere. Constant wars and battles everywhere. Ruins of lost civilizations, some 1-year-old others 1-million years old, are scattered around on these random hex-crawl worlds. Starships that are 15,000 years old are sitting abandoned in ancient temples. Monsters eating people everywhere. Techno fortress walls. Insane robots (overused, I know) wandering the wastelands killing things on sight.

The current structure of the Golarion star system, the great memory wipe, and all that structure and government just feel too restrictive and metaplot to me. Like there are "star cops" out there enforcing arbitrary laws, and huge space governments telling what you can and can't do.

Our old Star Frontiers game devolved into space politics and "can and can't do's" and I have this allergic reaction to game designers building structured sci-fi settings with rules, borders, and massive space fleets.

I get this feeling my problem with the game was rooted in the adventure paths and their constant use of governments, missions, space laws, and structure. If this was like any Pathfinder homebrew world and I could toss all that "Starfinder structured society cruft" out I would have liked this a lot more. Space Elves. A Drow empire that lives in asteroid caves. Dwarves that live in the molten cores of worlds.

Cool stuff. You have magic and fantasy races. USE THEM.

And billions of space citizens without homeworlds, governments, or places to call their own. Endless wars where you barely know who is who and what the heck they are fighting for this time. Take some of the monster pawns, even from Pathfinder 1e, and make them character races as well. Kingdoms of the lost trying to build their home out of the ruins of worlds that have never seen peace in a million years. In a world like this, characters can be kingmakers and heroes instead of pencil pushers and FedEx drivers.

And don't limit the weapons arbitrarily. This is like Heavy Metal, a level 1 space goblin can have a level 17 blaster and blow away the PCs with one pull of the trigger. That weapon is worth a lot of money, sure, so it is both useful and treasure to buy upgrades for everyone. If you can find a reputable buyer.

And add a killer rock soundtrack.

GURPS: Star Frontiers

Star Frontiers is one of those classic systems, and my first thought is, "Why would I ever play it with another set of rules?"

Well, this is probably going to sound like heresy, but I did a second playthrough of the Volturnus series, and I hated the melee combat in that first part of the adventure. Having 4-5 crew members doing 1-2 points of damage a turn and praying for knockout results was so unsatisfying I ended up having the only crew member that knew martial arts get the pirate into a hold, and the rest of the crew beat the poor idiot with their fists.

And it felt like one of those moments where another pirate would have filmed this with his cell phone and the video would have gone viral.

I know, use clubs at a minimum, but the chances to hit were so bad the entire fight felt like it would have never come out right or had any sort of satisfaction. Ranged combat and melee combat with weapons in Star Frontiers? Great stuff, pulp action, and fun! Bare fist combat without the martial arts skill? Ugly. Yes, I still love the system, and it is one of the all-time greats. But it needs some love and attention in a few areas.

Also, beyond random ability scores and broad skill categories, the characters felt the same. I did not really get the feeling my starting crew was really cool and different from each other. Star Frontiers always has a special place in my heart, but the game is sorely in need of a revision. Frontier Space by DWD Studios is a cool upgrade to the d100 engine and one I want to try after I run through my current experiments with a few different systems.

Yes, I am saving that for last since that is where I expect to end up.

The Starfinder Experiment

Well, I tried a Starfinder version of Star Frontiers, the D&D 3.5-ish sci-fi system with the leveled weapons, armor, and gear. It was a fun run but turned out to be way too crunchy and strange in terms of the ownership and upgrades of starships (they were free). I had this very strange situation after the first adventure where the characters were level 3-4, broke, and could not afford the upgrades they needed to make in order to play the level 3-4 content. It felt like a video game with leveled gear, and my first thought is they could not continue their adventure, they had to go somewhere and grind for upgrade money.

And I did not like the space goblins everywhere. Honestly, I am a bit tired of the Paizo goblins everywhere used as cheap toss-in enemies, and in every adventure, you could count on them being in there as filler combat fodder. My brother would have called them space herpes (when used in this context). But as bad guys, I feel they are overused punching bags (they do deserve more respect, they are a character race), and the entire universe feels weaker by having them be the idiots you walk around and callously kill for "combat fun."

See also, insane robot enemies, which I also feel are overused as combat filler. Starfinder has this strange problem where they take anything that could be a cool bad guy, like the obvious one, space undead, and make them a friendly allied faction (the Beginner Box adventure). Come on, zombie soldiers, space ghouls, space demons, cyber skeletons, and space vampires in starfighters are cool bad guys.

And telling the space elves and dwarves to "get to the back of the book" and mostly ignoring them was such an insult. Not cool. The goblins are there and a part of the universe, why the bias?

Combat was fun in that d20 way, but magic was way too overpowered. Most of the party were flinging 1d4 lasers every turn and feeling like they were never doing much, and the mage could cast 20 hit-point nukes and one-shot most anything, once on a crit. And then the adventure out leveled them, they had a starship and were broke, and those 3d4 laser pistols everyone needed were out of reach.

The only thing that worked was AoOs with that gas grill on a polearm thing, but even then swinging that thing around in close quarters meant setting people's blue hair on fire and causing third-degree facial burns to your friends.

GURPS: Star Frontiers?

I know this has been done by a few people and they say they like it. I wanted to do this but gave up until I had the latest GURPS Character Assistant software and became somewhat skilled in using it. Now, I feel I am ready to dive in.

For me, I would ditch everything about the Star Frontiers gear lists and just use the GURPS equipment and weapons, and keep the original setting and races. I would not try to convert every weapon, power clip, and tool kit. This would technically be GURPS: Space in the Frontier setting more than a 1-to-1 conversion of everything in the original rulebook. I want to be able to use GURPS Character Assistant and not be converting in gear, so if something has to go, it will be the old gear and equipment.

And another thing, treat all your characters as specialists. The most frustrating thing about designing a GURPS character is sorting through those skill lists, so it helps a lot to create a small history for your character and take them through the training and experiences they had in life. You will never make a jack-of-all-trades character in GURPS, nor do you want to.

And yes, your skill with GURPS starts with being able to sort and pick skills. Design a lot of different characters and it will come to you. Also, remind yourself you are designing a character that isn't going to be great in one thing, but okay in everything they experienced in their history so far.

Great comes later.

Know Your TL and Technology

Another helpful thing to grasp is what technology you are using. In my game, my pilot character will have the fast-starship piloting skill since he does not fly the slow space barges. He only needs hyperspace pilot and repair skills and not FTL, since there are no Star Trek FTL warp drives in this universe - just hyperspace. He knows how to fix a limited subset of stuff, like his explorer truck, basic starship engines, armor, electronics, a hyperspace drive, and a few other components. He needs a crew to do computer, sensor, communications, weapons, or medical systems repairs. He used to drive his explorer out to the woods on weekends as a teenager and go gil-jet flying.

If we set tech-level at 10, we are doing reactionless drives at 0.5 or 1G (std/hot per engine). This is about Star Frontiers level speeds, and you will be taking a few days to travel between planets. I don't really want to be doing the Traveller fuel thing with the large fuel tanks and the DeltaV calculations, but you can with GURPS Space and that is cool. The fact the system supports both and gives you all the math is amazing, and I would assign that task to the navigator player and have them do the work.

Though I could do the fuel tank and DeltaV thing, and I have that option. That would be a lower-technology Star Frontiers, more like some of the imagery in Knight Hawks but without the reactionless drives. The more I think about DeltaV the more I like the concept since this is how airliners work, they burn a lot of fuel just the get airborne, cruise for a long time, and then burn fuel to land. The entire high-fuel usage game has never really been done right in sci-fi games, even in Traveller where it is just hand-waved off as too complicated.

High fuel usage and slower ships put piloting and navigators at a premium and make them more important to the game. It does reduce the "hop in the space truck and go" style of gameplay (and even Traveller fell into this because it was so appealing). Your starships will be "orbit to orbit" models that carry spaceplanes for getting down to a planet's surface. There will be a lot of quiet time after initial acceleration as you coast through the void, and then the rumble of engines as you burn down to decelerate on that long-graceful arc through nothing to your destination.

Then you need to use your space planes to find fuel to bring back to the ship and refine if there is none there to use at a spaceport.

The "magic space van" is dead, and just crewing a floating tin can in an infinite nothing becomes the game. Your skills and teamwork inside that can become the game, almost like a WW2 submarine movie but in space. And when you get to a planet you tend to stay there a while, so you will need a ground game and be able to work on your feet, with your ship in orbit the "mothership" that still needs to be watched over and protected. Your spaceplane pilots too will be important and vital parts of the operation.

There are a lot of moving parts to this type of game, but it sounds cool and it is very unique.

Nostalgia, Not Always Great

I also made some assumptions about the universe like laser weapons are the most popular hand weapon, so he has an ablative anti-laser suit as his primary armor instead of the typical Star Frontiers ballistic skiensuit. He has a backup ballistic vest in case the lead starts flying, but it is heavy so it is in his combat loadout. Star Frontiers assumes more projectile weapons than beam, and I am flipping that to move the universe on a little. Laser pistols in GURPS Space have like 60+ shots to them (with a reload that weighs 0.5 pounds), so why not?

I am guessing projectile weapons are still out there, such as the rare needler, or gauss weapons in specialized military units. Projectile pistols that fire this cased ammo (brass, gunpowder, case, primer, and the machinery needed to put them together) would be rare since the universe has moved on and manufacturing them - compared to powering a laser pistol or making a metal slug for a gauss weapon - are not really necessary anymore.

This is a great example of changing rules and reexamining the assumptions game designers made about a game world back in the day. Back in the early 1980s, lasers were new and there was mistrust of them. We needed projectile weapons as backups. It could rain you know! And gyrojet weapons, which were a thing in the late 60s but never saw much use. These days, if you look at how technology relentlessly moves on and the old stuff is thrown away constantly, you can see a world where the standard sidearm became the laser since it is cheaper, easier to get ammo for anywhere (just recharge the power cell), and times move on.

Note, that these assumptions will also affect the world greatly, as we will see soon. The feeling and tone are going to change here, so if you want something more action-oriented and pulp, GURPS will not be your thing.

Now Hiring: Starship Crew, All Positions

He knows nothing about communications gear and security systems, and he only has basic knowledge of sensor operations and navigation. He can probably get between planets by himself, but he needs a skilled navigator for hyperjumps. He needs a ship's doctor. He needs a weapons repair specialist. He needs gunners. He needs a communications expert. He needs a computer person for operation and repair. If he were to crew a large ship, he is going to have to start earning and hiring.

In Star Frontiers, one person could probably do most of this stuff. In GURPS, forget it, you would be spending points all over and never be great at the things you want to be great at. Give yourself the few things you will eventually be great at, a background in a few other areas, and let the rest of your crew pick up the slack.

Hard Science Star Frontiers

If you ever thought Traveller was hard sci-fi, think again. I am loving this level of detail, and I actually feel like I am playing hard sci-fi. I am doing math and travel calculations, my crew has to worry about all sorts of crazy problems if the ship takes a laser to the midsection, travel times between worlds are days, systems can break down, and skills matter. Even just thinking about some of these campaigns gives me a lot to think about and consider. Part of the fun of sci-fi is that space survival game, where math, time, distance, and space matter. 

If some games fuel matters, along with time and distance.

If sci-fi is too easy with magic space vans taking you anywhere you want to go, then why not just play fantasy? You are at that point. Only this is an easier version of fantasy with instant communication, rapid transportation, and credit cards. Sci-fi has to be more than just a Guardians of the Galaxy me-too game with bullet sponge enemies and snarky humor.

I like it when things are not easy.

When your ship is the only one that can carry a life-saving vaccine to a world in a week's time, you blast off, and your sensors pick up a ship that will intercept you halfway there - and you don't have the fuel to outrun them.

You just have enough fuel to decelerate when you get to where you are going.

You just sit and watch for days as they draw closer. They don't respond to radio calls. You do not know what they want. You can't identify the ship by using your ship's telescope, but they are armed.

You wait. They start to decelerate to match your speed and vector. You are both locked in this fight, but you still have a day to wait before they are here.

And you know when the ship gets into weapons range all hell will break loose. You pray they don't hit the fuel tanks or the cargo bays.

And there is nothing you can do but wait.

A billion lives depend on you getting to that tiny sphere out your front window, and there is no way anyone can help you.

When the time comes, your crew says a prayer and gets in their spacesuits, the gunners get in their turrets, you depressurize the ship, trip the red alert, and those last few minutes pass silently...

That is great sci-fi.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Fantasy Games and Point Buy Systems

As a Pathfinder 1e alternative? It is complicated.

This is the thing. When you start roleplaying, you want things simple. You want everything done for you in systems that group complexity together and manage things for you. After a while, the game matures and you end up with this:

Hero Lab is great and I love it, but Pathfinder 1e's development is this constant stream of tack-on systems that are designed to isolate complexity into subsystems and then sell you books to detail those subsystems. Just looking at the base game there are subsystems for abilities, skills, feats, the corruption system, the occult system, social, city management, and magic; and you could also argue the character stats are also a subsystem that works differently than every other subsystem.

Figure out how all these systems work individually and how they work together, and you can play the game. With every new book, they usually add a new system or more options to the existing systems.

When you first open the book, it looks like B/X. A shelf full of books later, it looks different.

Point Buy Systems

GURPS, Dungeon Fantasy, and Champions are all traditional point-buy games. What this means is your character is extremely flat in complexity - every ability score, power, advantage, disadvantage, skill, superpower, spell, class ability, special modifier, or any other thing that makes up a character is in one unified "character creation system." Those pieces are grouped up in chapters explaining each and grouping the choices together, but they are all essentially the same thing and reside in that same system of "character options."

There isn't much difference between a skill and a spell in Dungeon Fantasy, spells have fatigue costs, but they are bought and leveled the same, and spells are essentially an object-oriented extension of a skill. Everything else for characters is bought on the same point-buy system.

In Pathfinder 1e if I want hell-bound corruption to give my character a pair of succubus wings, well, I have to have the book with those rules in it, figure out how they work, hope my character creation system supports that book (and in Hero Lab, buy the expansion), and then I get a limited number of choices that the book and the program support. And no, I find out I can't give my character succubus wings, a tail, glowing red eyes, or bone spikes; but I can give them hell-bound corruption, a few random powers, and some horns.

I guess I have to live with not everything I want, but hey, I am still playing Pathfinder, right?

It sure beats playing GURPS, just like many people on the Internet say.

Point-Buy is Superior

And in GURPS I can give my character those horns, the corruption, a fiendish appearance disadvantage, social stigma disadvantages, the wings, bone spikes, the tail, the glowing eyes (that have some power), armored skin, the demon voice (that has a power), flight, claws, a leap ability, demonic spellcasting ability plus spells, or any other thing I see on an anime or dream up in my head. I can do this through the powers in Supers or the Bio-Tech book and have even more options. If I were playing Champions I could do this too easily (but on a lower level).

Spend the points, and it is yours.

Pay for them with disadvantages and take on those RP and game rule costs.

I can do most of my character customization with the main book. If I want to go really wild with more point-buy options there are a few other books that I would recommend, like Supers and Bio-Tech. Dungeon Fantasy is a great focused base game option covering fantasy, and you can pull in options from the other games as well into that.

Yes, I could sit here and give my Dungeon Fantasy character superpowers and play essentially what 4E ended up as, a fantasy superhero game. I could use the Bio-Tech book and do the magical mutations of Dungeon Crawl Classics.

I don't need a special system, a new book with Hero Lab support, character creator support or paid modules, a new tab to manage, or any new systems to learn and keep inside my head as the ever-growing ball of complexity gets bigger and bigger until that point where they made the old game so huge and messy I pay them for a new edition to please solve this problem. This is how a lot of roleplaying game companies get you, under the golden arches of choice and expansion they bloat the old game so much it dies. The new edition is so much more streamlined and simple! And I guarantee you, 10 years from now when they need to see you more books, the new system will be just as complicated as the previous edition you replaced.

Core Books vs. Book Buying Habits

GURPS is a game where you buy a few books and you are really set for life. Yes, there are a lot of GURPS books to buy, but most of them are flavor books that tell you how to use what you have to simulate a certain genre and provide options in that area - mostly to save you time. I could forego all of the option books and just do it all with the base two books of the game and be 100% fine and have a fun game.

A lot of the newer games are designed to force you into book-buying habits, and they introduce "official" expansions to the rules which I feel pressured to take all-or-nothing. Sure, getting new options is nice and it saves me work, but there are times I feel a game goes down the completely wrong path and I am helpless as I watch it completely ruin itself.

This happened to us with D&D 4E, the base books were incredible! But as the game went on, they forced in all these strange races and classes and turned the entire game into D&D Super Planar Adventures: The RPG. The high-level balance, especially with monsters, went all to hell, to the point they revised all the monsters in the Essentials line to make them less annoying to fight. I could run an incredible world and story from level 1 to 30 with D&D 4E. Once we added books, the game started to die - and it did. We never really knew what was happening until it was too late to repair.

And then they wanted to sell us a new edition to fix it. We bought it, but we never really got a chance to play, and since we were huge on 4E we were still very let down to even give them a second chance.

Pathfinder 1e I am a fan of because it is a dead game and I know what is in there. These new games I am very hesitant to buy into them because I have this fear they will expand themselves into ruin and something I never wanted or expected. I look at the tail end of 5E and I have this strange feeling I am right again, and the mid-life point-five update is on the horizon, which means the next edition is really right around the corner and they are sneaking in another 2-year paid beta test on us (like they did with D&D 4E Essentials).

My Current Game

I was redesigning a few of my Aquilae game characters in Dungeon Fantasy using GURPS Character Assistant 5, and I was struck by how powerful point-buy was. Yes, in Dungeon Fantasy you build characters by templates and you are supposed to make all your skill and power choices by the guidelines - but you do not have to.

If I wanted to take my "far north arctic survival cleric" character and give her all sorts of survival skills, spells to keep her warm, parkas and survival gear, snowshoes, and other cool options I can. Pathfinder classes have "class skills" that can improve easier than others. Here, all skills cost the same to raise, and your base level in them depends on your ability scores. I can make her the ultimate Bear Grylls drop her onto pack ice and watch her row home in a canoe made out of seal skins master of survival, hunting, and brutal northlands combat. And she can pray to the gods for warmth, good weather, food & water, and heal herself. If I want her to use a bow, I give her a bow and the skills to use it.

With point-buy I can create that character exactly like she is in my head.

With Pathfinder 1e I am back in the same situation with creating the flesh-warped demon. I can kinda-sorta get the character I want as long as I lower my expectations some, do a lot of fiddling, fit square pegs into round holes, and tell myself well I don't have everything I want but I am still playing Pathfinder. I love Pathfinder, but I do make a lot of sacrifices to stay inside the lines of that system.

Is GURPS perfect? No. Neither is Pathfinder 1e. Can I tweak it to make it run the way I want and ignore rules that complicate my life? In both games, yes. GURPS has a stigma because people like to be negative, but the power under the hood makes it a game I always keep coming back to after other games let me down. Yes, it is complex and not for everyone, but when I can build the exact characters I want the exact way I see them in my head, guess what?

I am not wasting time in other games figuring out how to get what I want.

I just have it.

How AD&D 2E Ended for Us

We saw the same thing happen at the end of our AD&D 2E run. We had so many ideas and the system felt so constraining that we ended up converting everything to Champions 4E and running a Fantasy Hero game. Everything "just worked" in that system as well, but Champions/Fantasy Hero to me feels a lot more low level where you are doing a lot of power design for each spell and ability, such as a sweep attack that affects all targets 2-3 hexes away from a character in a 180-degree arc, 3d6 killing damage, fire effect, knockback, etc.

That stuff is great when you are kids and have a few people to sit around and dream up powers, but for me, at this stage in my life GURPS/Dungeon Fantasy does a lot of that work for me and I can focus on the story instead of mechanics.

I did check in on the 6th Edition Fantasy Hero Complete game (standalone), but they included skills like Combat Driving and Paramedic in the rules so I did not get a great feeling about the book. To me, if you are making a subset game of the main rules for fantasy, you need to remove modern references or at least rename these skills. I know for compatibility reasons with the main rules so they left the names the same to avoid confusion, but it does not feel right to me.

Dungeon Fantasy feels like the better-supported game with the larger community at the moment, so I went with that despite my experience with Hero.

Where I Am

It is just there comes a point when you play these games, actually play like I am doing and not sit around and theorize, and you begin to crave the power user features of point buy games. At this point you have three options:

  1. Stick with the game you are in, make sacrifices, and have fun.
  2. Go power-user and switch to a point-buy system.
  3. Switch to another game that feels great for your current idea, but has different drawbacks for others.
  4. Get disappointed and quit.

Right now I am really close to #2. I want to go power-user and design all the characters in my head without wasting time on figuring out how to make them work in games where you either have to handwave and say "this is so" or shoehorn your idea into one of the limited systems the game provides.

And if I can do my survival cleric and mage that turns into an infernal creature in the same game, using the same point-buy system, and the system does not get in my way?

Less time wasted on figuring out rules, less money spent on books, and more time playing.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Greyhawk: From the Ashes


Gary Gygax was forced out of his company. The ill-advised Greyhawk Wars products. Whatever you do next with the Greyhawk setting, there is no way to win here. So what do you do?

1992, just a few years before the bankruptcy of TSR, and one year away from Magic the Gathering's release. Games like Vampire the Masquerade and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay were taking over the tabletop space, a space that would not even last a few more years before MtG steamrollered everyone. I remember the hobby shops of the time converting to 100% MtG and putting the pen-and-paper games way in the back of the store.

AD&D 2nd Edition had the Forgotten Realms on one side, and the novels were bestsellers. Greyhawk was sort of in a mess. Enter, From the Ashes, an attempt to position Greyhawk to be more of a Warhammer Fantasy setting, and they even hired a great writer who worked on those products to take Gygax's setting and inject some life into the world by positioning more as "dark fantasy."

Us? We ignored this, and we picked Greyhawk back up in 3rd Edition D&D. We were in the Realms happily playing our pulp adventures and blissfully unaware of the mayhem coming from the fantasy novels, and the horrible modules that would soon come out. We also had Warhammer Fantasy and played Advanced Heroquest, so a revamped Greyhawk setting seemed like a weak "me too" sort of product that felt a bit desperate from a TSR trying to compete with Games Workshop.

Tearing It Down

Honestly, at this point, Greyhawk was kind of what it was, and with the Forgotten Realms being the darling of the company the writing was on the wall. But no darling setting lasts forever with this company, as the Realms would discover during its 4E run. One of the strange things about the creative types big companies hire is they constantly feel the need to tear down, ignore, denigrate, or reinterpret everything that came before to prove their stuff is better.

It is the scourge of feeling they will never live up to the good things which came before, and that feeling they will never make something that will ever last as long as a Greyhawk or even a Forgotten Realms. Then again, they are put in this position by nostalgia-drunk companies that never will hire visionaries or give their current teams the freedom to do something big, daring, and new. And I am not talking about a one-off book. Will these companies ever trust their team to build an entirely new setting and support it?

Will this generation ever have its own Forgotten Realms?

Or are we doomed to disposable one-off micro settings, unsupported by product lines and novels, that will fade into history?

I think part of the problem these days is a big company will point at the original thing that was popular, stand at a table full of newly-hired creators, tell them to make something like that, and what happens is the team realizes they can't (or the company won't let them create anything new), so they spend all their effort tearing down the old version and telling us why it was bad.

This is why I support small indie creators these days. They can think big and dream big without the pressure of pleasing shareholders.

Dark Greyhawk

None of this would matter anyway for Greyhawk, since Magic: The Armageddon was hitting the pen and paper gaming scene the next year. Everyone in our circles gave up pen-and-paper gaming. People said Magic was like D&D and you can play without a DM.

And it killed tabletop roleplaying in the 90s.

People are divided about this product. A lot of gamers love OG Greyhawk, the setting of all the classic modules, the high magic high fantasy mix, and the innocence of the setting that almost felt like a Mystara.

People that hated Greyhawk Wars hated this setting since it seemed like an unwelcome change from the long-running campaigns they had going, and it felt very "metaplot" to them. Some really liked how this shook up the setting and introduced many bad guys, ruins, and lands they had to free from evil. Some who started in 2nd Edition AD&D had some of their best and most memorable adventures here, and others liked having a setting free from the influence of the bestselling novels.

I do think Warhammer Fantasy is a better dark fantasy setting, and you can never remove some of that Greyhawk optimism and high-level-ness from the world. This place was the center of the universe, where it all started, and everything that came after would endlessly end up copying this setting again and again. Also, Greyhawk's 2e bad guys were not memorable at all. With Warhammer, you have Chaos and a lot of cool evil forces you can name right away. With Greyhawk's destruction, um, Iuz that guy? Orcs? The bad dragon? Some evil wizard? The undead punk-rock thing on the cover?

Looking back at the PDFs, and not the adventures for this setting, I can say this feels like an interesting start for a fresh take on Greyhawk, one that I could take in a lot of directions. The original Greyhawk feels almost like a copy of Baldur's Gate and hitting "new game," one where all the original modules get reset and everything is ready to be played for the first time again - for the hundredth playthrough.

From the Ashes feels like a fresh campaign start that takes a great setting and pushes it into an alternate timeline future with plenty of room to make things your own. Yes, a lot of fan-favorite kingdoms got destroyed, but this is where you step in to rebuild them, heroes.

Dark Greyhawk +30

So 1992, meet 2022, thirty years older and in our unhappy middle ages. If I ran a campaign here, I would set this 30 years after From the Ashes in the year CY 615. And here is where the heresy begins.

I would play this with Dungeon Fantasy using the variant GURPS rules. I know that isn't even AD&D. These rules are the furthest thing from AD&D you can possibly play in Greyhawk with. Well, the Grayhawk Wars changed the world like before WW2 and after. That old AD&D magic is gone, burned out, and changed fundamentally by that event. Some say the last remaining Council of Eight had something to do with the nature of how magic changed.

I need to break with AD&D since there is this thematic need to change the rules of the world and let people know things are never going back to how they used to be. It is too easy to play AD&D 1e or 2e and just say, come on, why not reset the Tomb of Horrors again? Why is your world so messed up? Just reset it to normal, please, someone hit New Game!

The pull of AD&D is too strong. And there need to be consequences for the company abandoning this world. The world in turn abandons them. A price is paid for freedom and a future. This is Greyhawk in its Micky Rourke older actor comeback phase. This setting is older, beaten, bruised, and has been through hell and back.

But we are never going back to the old ways. Things work now more like Dungeon Fantasy. The world is a different place. Legends of how things used to be still are floating about, but that is not how it is today. Yes, there is magic in the world, but things have grown up a little. Magic is not as easy. Life, overall, is not as simple or easy anymore.

And the next part of heresy completes the circle.

TL 4 begins in Greyhawk. The first armies begin using gunpowder. Adventurers can use these clumsy weapons too. And the world begins to change as the armies of evil to the north start facing the bang of cannons and the new world begins to develop. GURPS Low Tech also has some great companions dealing with low tech societies, warfare, and economies.

I know one of the natural laws of Greyhawk back in the day was "no gunpowder" and this feels like a complete heresy. Well, what can I say, the world has changed, the war happened, and things are way different today. Somehow, the rules are now broken. Learn to survive.

We aren't going back.

Part of why I wanted to use a GURPS-based system is the excellent support for the gunpowder era this game has. There is a huge wealth of information that even OGL gunpowder supplements can't touch, and this also opens up the opportunities for seamless time travel throughout infinite worlds - again, something that AD&D did with Gamma World and Boot Hill that rarely gets talked about today.

Greyhawk comes out of the dark ages and enters the Renaissance. Ancient evils from the long-lost places of legends, such as the Tomb of Horrors, are still out there, and other cosmic horrors lie underneath the surface of this now developing world - threatening to tear it all down and plunge the world, not into another world war, but this time the end of life on the world itself. Armageddon is what evil seeks to do this world, to take any chance it has to grow and become a free and prosperous gem in the stars.

All of the evil if this world seeks this same world-ending destruction. Like the chaos cults of Warhammer, evil knows that as technology advances their time here grows short. The only hope for evil now is to burn it all down, end the world, summon the great comet to smash the world into dust, and this is their destiny if they are not stopped. Since the knowledge of the past is now gone, new heroes must arise using what we know today to stop them. The impending Armageddon of all is a key feature of a dark fantasy world, and this checks the box. Hell shall come to Greyhawk, and it shall be evil who marches it in.

One last thing...

And the piece of Greyhawk that got ripped off to create 4E Nentir Vale would be returned. For some reason, the Valley of the Mage is gone, and in its place lies this strangely familiar place.

And the strange circle of life would be complete, my 4E experience would have an ending in a place it was taken from a long time ago, and new heroes could rise up and make this world their own. Something happened. Bahamut tried to escape this fate by creating a new reality somewhere, and it failed. He was forced to return, his plans in tatters, and his hopes crushed.

This is how I would play this world.

Tear it down.

Burn it down.

Change the rules.

Pay homage to the past.

But move it forward relentlessly.

Give the world its final act.

And instead of having this world be the "default unchangeable setting for classic modules" there would be a real fight for its future. And this future cannot be stopped. We are not playing around in the past anymore, but the past is always there to haunt us.

The world lost its innocence because of the Greyhawk Wars (and what TSR/Wizards did). Gunpowder is here. Technology is advancing.

The question is, how will your heroes shape the future of this world?

How will they play on the stage of a world's twilight?

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

The Nentir Vale (NSFW rant)


This hurt to read. And it is about this:

It seems like heresy, but what the Trans Dragon Goddess (TDG, she/her) is saying is the 4E base setting is a lazy bastardization of Greyhawk. A lot of the 4E modules reimagined the classic Greyhawk modules and those were sloppily placed around the world.

To top it all off, we never got a world book for the 4E world. One was planned, but it never came out. That was the one book we were waiting for too.

Now, my brother and I loved this valley and setting, and it felt like home to us in our 4E days. We wanted a break from the mess D&D 3E had become for us and this seemed new and fresh. We did have a lot of fun here, but ultimately the lack of world info led us to make up a lot, and it never really meshed well with the modules or other official content, and all of the releases started plane-hopping and this world got left behind and put on the back burner as a "home base."

We loved it, we tried to expand it, but every book they released undercut our efforts. The version floundered, they went Essentials, and we knew the game was dead.

But what TDG is saying is painfully right. She goes on to talk about the changes to Planescape and the worse wrecking ball of a job 4E did to the Forgotten Realms, collapsing the entire Underdark (FU Drizzt!), shoehorning in dragonkin and eladrin into the setting, and how these places can never really be the same. Some of the changes just felt spiteful and mean.

And yes, she is right.

And I get this feeling there is little respect for earlier works and new creators constantly wreck and try and reinvent them to chase fads, like 4E's courting of the World of Warcraft crowd. There is this revisionism each new edition, where the AD&D Greatest Hits get replayed through 5E, 6E, and so on. The entire modern dungeon-punk faux-anime aesthetic - that started in 4E and is amplified today - feels wrong for Greyhawk and the Realms.

As if they would ever do a setting book that large again, they seem averse to the entire idea. What I want to see is a "new" Tomb of Horrors type module from these creators. Where are the new classics? Where are the new and original dungeons and adventures? At least Paizo puts its stock in new experiences and new adventures and experiences like Rise of the Runelords and Kingmaker as this generation's "classic module experiences."

Otherwise, Wizards feels like a Hollywood nostalgia remake outfit.

Even the Forgotten Realms in a way was a "reinvention" of Gary Gygax's work with Greyhawk, and you can see a new group of creators coming in and trying to one-up everything he did in the original setting. We have Lolth and the classic GDQ series! Well, we have Drizzt. We have Mordenkainen! Well, we have the "more Gandalf like" Elminster. And then the GMNPCs from the books ended up being god-like problem solving un-killable characters who eliminated the need for the PCs at all.


It is like going to a restaurant all your life and loving it and then finding the better place they were trying to copy and realizing you can't eat at the old place anymore because everything they tried to do to change things made it worse.

Derivative changes to be hip and cool. The turkey dinner in the hip faddish place that sprinkles inedible, sour cranberries all over the dish because "it looks cool."

You aren't supposed to eat them!

What a waste.

And the place you like now sticks to the basics. Good, hot food. No waste. Completely edible. Local sourced, and they make note of it so you can help small family farms too. Tasty. They aren't doing anything faddish or fancy, but the food is solid, tastes great, and is nutritious without going overboard on fats and salt. Sensible portions. They give you nicely seasoned vegetables too. And you get a small dessert as a treat.

You walk out feeling fed.

The fad place overdoes it, you love the giant plate of food and it is full of fat and salt, but an hour later you feel sick.

There are parts of the Realms I love and would take home to my games, but other parts that just felt too much like metaplot to explain away edition changes and the entire setting felt corporate and like it was trying to "support the company's current products" instead of being a place of imagination and storytelling.

But the modules I love, the ones I keep coming back to, are never from the Forgotten Realms setting era. They are from the classic Greyhawk and Mystara eras of the game. The Giants series. The Tomb of Horrors. The B-series. All of them are greats that stand the test of time, and they are recreating those for 5E. I can't really name one series of modules from the Realms era that really stuck with me over the years and has had this cultural impact on my life.

But I know going back is just trying to relive those moments, and what I really need are new adventures that amaze me for the first time again. I found some of those in Paizo's adventures.

And yes, we were big on AD&D 2e, but we never played modules. This was all character-driven plots and pulp adventure, and we ignored the FR setting adventures for the most part. These days, even if I play in classic Realms, I know what is coming and it casts a shadow over that setting - even if I say it never happens there are those things in the back of my head like a poorly written sequel movie that ruins the charm of the original.

The Trans Dragon Goddess wrote a great article, thank you. My world feels a little upside-down today, but that is okay. When you start to realize the lies you have been fed all your life were a bit hollow and there are better things out there to spend your time with, it hurts a little, but you get over it.

The Nentir Vale still feels like home, but if I were ever to go back here and adventure again, I would bring this little piece of home back with me to Greyhawk, where it belongs.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Dungeon Fantasy: Delvers to Grow

First off, if you play Dungeon Fantasy, get this book. Just go, get it, right now like.

Got it? Great! What is it?

The one thing I always wanted from Dungeon Fantasy, is a way to NOT start with a 250-point juggernaut and just start out with a basic, level 1, B/X power level novice. The gamer offers three power levels to start a character at:

  • Novice (62 points)
  • Journeyman (125 points)
  • Master (187 points)

And we can assume Dungeon Fantasy's default 250-point templates are a "Hero" level. The best part about this book is it gives you quick build options for all three character archetypes:

  • Strong Delvers
  • Fast Delvers
  • Smart Delvers

And gives you a menu-style of modules where all you do is pick a couple and you can get going fast. A Novice Fast Delver gets a base set of ability scores, two disadvantage modules, a basic module, and an upgrade module. Then they give you a few points for skills and suggest skills for that build, such as 12 points for weapon skills.

Write down your stats, add every module's selections to your character sheet, pick those skills and you are done character creation. And they provide a number of quick-pick basic equipment packages so you don't have to sort through the equipment lists and ask the GM, "Does my character need this?" Also, the game gives basic starting spell lists for every power level.

If you are introducing players to Dungeon Fantasy and want to start them out with that basic 'level zero" experience, this is definitely the way to go. Your new players are not getting overwhelmed with writing down 250 points of skills and abilities. You are not sorting through lists of equipment and spells.

You make a few easy and guided module picks, and you are ready to go.

Best of all, these starting characters are simple in complexity, they only have a few advantages and disadvantages, so new players aren't sitting there blankly staring at a character sheet and asking if an advantage would help them or not, or glazed over and missing something they could have done or used.

The only issue I see is one that is a legacy problem with Dungeon Fantasy and that is selecting a race other than human. You have to start dropping modules and putting the excess points into slush funds. It is a minor quibble and one that comes with the point-design nature of Dungeon Fantasy. GURPS is at its core a point-buy superhero game, so everything that gives your character a bonus or penalty must be accounted for in your character point total.

Could you do this yourself? Yes, if you tweaked and did a heck of a lot of work building these standard module choices. Could you do it as nicely and cleanly as this? Maybe. But this book saves you a whole lot of work, and you can hand it to a new player and have them working on their character and ready within 15-30 minutes of sitting down.

The book is priceless for new players and even those just learning the system who want to create simple heroes to learn the rules with. There is a reason a lot of the D&D games start with level one heroes, the game is a lot easier to learn at that level of play. Dungeon Fantasy starts you off with a capable 250-point hero with a ton of options, and that can be like starting with a level 8 character in D&D - not everyone can start with that level of complexity and feel like they are learning much.

There is a point in everyone's minds where we see a certain level of complexity and we give up - and that is where I was with Dungeon Fantasy. I liked the game and thought it was cool, but the starting complexity felt way too high to dive in and learn easily.

Other than that, the art in this book is incredible and it feels like a modern-style game. It very much has that 5E feel to it with pictures of all sorts of non-standard races and professions. You can get this in print too, with a few add-on books with sample characters (not needed but nice to have).

An absolute must-buy for introducing the game to new players and those just getting started.

Monday, April 25, 2022

GURPS: My Strange Respect


When we were kids my brother and I remembered the beta test of GURPS. When the first rules came out and the paper and ink on the books came off on your hands. We had a few dodgy printings back then, and I don't know if it was the print run or that was more widespread. There is this quote from the legendary Steve Jackson at the beginning of the 4th edition book:

I think the best games are those that are simple, clear and easy to read, and I’ve tried hard to make GURPS “friendly.” One important influence was Hero Games’ Champions, for the flexibility of its character-creation system. Another was Flying Buffalo’s Tunnels & Trolls, for its appeal to solitaire gamers. Finally, M.A.R. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne remains noteworthy, even after decades of competition and imitation, for the detail and richness of its alien game world.

Of these, I know Champions and Tunnels and Trolls the best, and they remain two of my favorite games. I never knew that solitaire play was an inspiration for GURPS, and that seems slightly interesting to me. I have the computerized character creation tool, and I do a lot of solo play these days, so it should "click" and work for me, right?

We owned the base GURPS 3rd edition book and while it was an interesting idea, other games had our imagination and this was during our big AD&D 2e run.

I originally bought into this game due to solo play, but the game sat on the shelf for a few months as I tried out other games and GURPS 4th ended up in a box. Well, it is out again for reasons I am not entirely sure of.

Maybe I feel I want something more out of my Pathfinder Aquilae game. My first run with a cleric surviving in the cold winter north was amazing. But it did not feel 100% there. The skills felt good and the combat was just okay, sort of that whiff-whiff-hit back and forth typical d20 stuff. I felt like everything should feel great. My character design choices should matter.

I need more control.

I need a point-buy system that lets me dig in.

Dungeon Fantasy

And then there is Dungeon Fantasy, a "Powered by GURPS" game that strips down and focuses the GURPS game on dungeon crawling. The entire game and its resources are also GURPS resources, so they are all great source material for fantasy games. There is a ton of support for this over at Warehouse 23, a flood of extra content in PDF form all focused on this game and also GURPS compatible.

One of the things which kept me from getting into Dungeon Fantasy was the high-point builds, like 250 points to start and while the characters were capable, they felt a bit too complicated to learn the system with. I would have rather liked a 50-100 point build, and then start off with low-level heroes and work your way up, choosing powers and skills. For a solo game, I could handle a 250-point character, but I feel it would be a slower go than a lower power level start.

Also, if I were playing a party of characters, handling four 250-point characters myself would feel like a huge challenge to keep everything straight, and yes, this is from an experienced Pathfinder 1e player. Combat is very deadly and crunchy and has death spirals where if you take damage first, you are likely to keep taking damage, and down you go.

Another thing Dungeon Fantasy does is limit certain powers and abilities to certain classes. They want to keep you in your "class design" instead of picking powers from here and there, like picking up bloodlust or rage as a bard. If you play straight GURPS, pick what you want, do what you want, and some players prefer that to the "guided builds" here.

It is a great, focused game, with very templated builds, and less choice paralysis than the main game.


The GURPS sourcebooks are fun. They are just fun to read and collect, and there is this strange parallel universe where there is a GURPS Everything and any remotely action-oriented profession can be adventured in by a party of specialists. In this parallel world, anything that can have special rules and an adventure component is fair game, such as my fictional:

GURPS Forest Service has the players parachuting into hot zones to stop forest fires and stop bank robbers who crash-landed in the middle of a national park.

GURPS Street Sports has roleplaying rules for skateboarding, BMX biking, and rollerblading; and your team of street-smart heroes takes on missions for a secret organization trying to stop a gang of international computer hacking criminals.

GURPS Spelunkers has your team of cave-crawling specialists crawling through newly discovered ancient caves opening up under magical ley intersections all over the world and fighting the ancient lizard race awakening and trying to reclaim the world.

You get this strange "adventurer ready for action" feeling to a character that puts you right in "action mode" when you use GURPS to simulate a profession. International bank robbers could be the enemies of GURPS Dentistry, and your oral hygiene specialist could be called upon for a secret mission.

NOTE: If a sourcebook has templates, it is a good sourcebook, and creating characters appropriate to that setting will be a breeze. I consider the books with templates to be the "GURPS 4.5" over the main game where it is more just of a "pick from anything" style system. Dungeon Fantasy is one of those games and designed around that concept.

Not to mention any movie or TV series that could be GURPS: _____ and instantly just work.

The Mindset

This is GURPS. Does it make sense? No. Can you get all silly and cocky playing that team of macho and cool forest rangers as they dispatch the bad guy with the tagline, "Only you..."


Could you do this in Savage Worlds or any other slightly easier-to-use generic system? Yes. Would it be GURPS?


GURPS requires that normal suspension of disbelief when you play any role-playing game, but it has an extra secret layer to it. There is a second suspension of disbelief requiring you to believe playing GURPS is the coolest thing ever. Trust me, when we did that we had a stupid amount of fun.

Recalling an obscure rule or pulling up a random fact from two shelves full of GURPS sourcebooks is equivalent to a Rocky Horror Picture Show moment of singing along with the lyrics and knowing the next line before it comes up. My brother and I used to do that, and the act of playing GURPS became more fun than what was happening in the game itself.

And our characters had that same swagger we did.

Still Fun

I am sure a lot of people say this game is the worst thing ever, just like Palladium. I saw early reviews of this and the one that stuck with me was someone saying that they could make a science character and have them feel every bit as important and useful to the plot as a pure combat character. Back in the days when rolling a d20 meant your character was likely killing something, and your characters were rated on the "monster deaths per hour" scale, this was a huge thing.

You could build a skill-focused character, and have challenging skill-focused actions determine the outcome of an adventure? Yes. You flash forward to games like Star Wars d20, and the constant "if my character is non-combat my character is uninteresting" feeling that game had, and the constant hating on pilot, technical, and skill-based characters - and finding ways to shoehorn their abilities into combat, and you begin to see the legacy that D&D has on our hobby.

A game where combat is deadly and meant to be avoided? Sounds old-school to me. But with the added bonus the entire game is built around dozens of interesting non-combat skills and activities? With complete and detailed character design? Wow, this must be one of those cool new games on DriveThru that everyone is talking about!

No, it is GURPS, and it always has been. There were doing all this in the 80s and providing the skill-based alternative to D&D that used six-sided dice and, yeah, that ancient 40-year-old TI calculator I have lying around here that still works.

One of the best suggestions I can give is just to stick to the simple, basic combat system and the basic characters book. You don't need too much else, and instead of buying supplements and never using them, just make it all up yourself and have fun.

Either that or go with Dungeon Fantasy and ignore GURPS entirely.

And if you want, add complexity as you go.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

GURPS Character Assistant

It is not as easy to use or pretty as Hero Lab, but it does pack a punch.

This is the GURPS Character Assistant, and while it looks like a legacy Win32 app, there is a lot of power under the hood here to wrangle the complicated pile of GURPS rules and options when building a character.

When I first opened this program, I boxed up all my GURPS books and vowed never to return again. It is that easy to get absolutely overwhelmed by the options here. Seriously, a skill list with three melee weapon skills, one for the weapon, one for the art, and one for the sport - needs some serious paring down.

Yes, we need a skill for fighting with cloaks, but is there really a cloak fighting sport? Like, two people with capes trying to hit each other with them?

In GURPS, I guess there is.

At least you can create custom filters and get rid of the art/sport and wildcard! skills from the skill list, and you can even get rid of categories like magic if your game is not using that. Again, this program is not as easy to use, but there are options here hidden away that control complexity, and I recommend you use them.

The Strange World of GURPS

We have a skill for fire-eating. It is important. You need someone in the dungeon with this skill in case you have to quickly put out a torch. This is the strange world of GURPS where the esoteric becomes critically important at the strangest moment.

If a goblin walks up to you and challenges you to a finger wrestling match, who are you gonna call? There are ancient monasteries that teach that stuff. There is a housekeeping skill for cleaning messy pit traps. There is a game designer skill, in case the boss of the dungeon wants to play a game other than GURPS.

You think I am poking fun at the game, but no, I love this stuff. This is the strange world of GURPS, and I love how you can play this completely seriously, or slowly introduce characters with very specific, esoteric skills that are absolute masters at one strange thing or another, like an 18- housekeeping roll for one starship crewperson, and once every blue moon that skill plays a critical roll in a life or death situation.

In Pathfinder 1e, the odd and strange things feats and abilities give you are designed by other people and you pick from the ones given to you. In GURPS, you design it as a power, take it as a dis- or advantage, or make a skill for horseshoe throwing and make yourself the world-class expert. And then your character carries around a bunch of horseshoes and uses them as thrown weapons. And that horseshoe throwing expert would be right at home in a dungeon party as they would a starship crew member.

Or you can play this game completely seriously. Me? I like a serious base game, and then going campy when it would be more fun to be a little crazy and different. My brother and I developed this sort of silly superhero world around Car Wars and GURPS that was always a little crazy, completely campy and nerdy, silly at times, and yes, you could have a cloak-fighting MMA league and have people be big fans of it.

It was almost like a world from a 1970's Steve Martin or early-era SNL or SCTV comedy where people were completely serious about silly things. And it was cool.

The Program

This really is the way to play GURPS. You can design characters using templates, give them gear, and print character sheets from within the app. It is not as intuitive as Hero Lab, but it does the job. In some areas, it outshines Hero Lab, in that I can create a custom skill, advantage, piece of gear, parent type, perk, or even templates for quick character creation later. There really is a lot of power here under the hood once you dig in, and what you give up in ease of use you get back in a wealth of customizability.

And to play any genre, the price is a lot better than Hero Lab, but you are limited to GURPS.

NOTE: Also, this year, check your account - version 5 is out and has a lot more options. My screenshot above is version 4. If you bought it, you will have a legacy V4 installer and a V5 installer in there, and you do not need to buy it again, and they can be installed side-by-side.

The highest recommendation if you are into GURPS, otherwise I like Hero Lab for my other character management tasks. Worth checking out though, even if all you have are the basic books.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Pathfinder 1e: No Video Game Magic

One rule I am following with my solo Pathfinder 1e game in the Aquilae world is "no video game magic." Which means:

  • All spell requirements to cast required:
    • All components (and bought/tracked in inventory)
    • Casting time
  • All spell learning rules followed:
    • Wizards and spellbook lists enforced
    • New spells must be bought, found, and scribed into spellbooks.
    • Sorcerers, bards must study new songs/spells
    • Clerics are by the book (they know all), but I still require them to do theological study
  • When you level up, you are not assured of "getting free new spells."

Oh, this is a painful play though but highly entertaining. I know a LOT of people hate tracking spell components, and I do too, but when I follow the component rules and track them, magic feels more "magic" to me. It isn't some MMO with cool-down timers and free spells. Spells require specific components, and I even do the verbal incantation and movement (I make those up but they are fun).

For players who hate components, you are doing the Harry Potter wand thing as a spell-casting requirement. But you still need to track the cost of all those components (1gp if not listed), and your wand will have a maximum GP power reserve it can cast before it can be recharged (at the GP cost). And the higher power-pool wands that can cast 100, 1000, or even 10000 GP worth of magic will cost you dearly.

My Current Game

So I have a situation where I have a level 5 wizard with no level 2 and 3 spells, she just has her starting spellbook, and she has to visit the nearest mage academy 40 miles away - which she has never been to - in order to buy new spells of those levels and scribe them (by the rules).

She is broke.

She doesn't know anyone there since she is new to the area.

She has a huge hole in her knowledge and power.

She has to buy the scrolls, ink, and additional spellbooks (if needed, they fill up) and actually make the scribing skill roll to write them in her book.

And all of a sudden, her entire focus went from "oh, looking for the next adventure" to "I need cash, safe travel, I need people I can trust, I need to roleplay, and I need to get in the good graces with people that have the knowledge and may not trust me. I also need a shop that sells rare components and put myself in the good there as well."

So you want to know fireball, What are you going to use it for, if I may ask?

The magic feels magic again. Wizards seek knowledge, money, and a library of spells. One wizard could be more powerful than others just by his access to information. Wizards can share spells by writing scrolls and letting others scribe them. The game's magic system creates an underground economy of magic, power, trust, and who you know to get what you want.

And if you really want it, it is likely going to cost you.

A Little Work for a Lot of Payoffs

This feels like modded high-realism Skyrim, and I love it. She isn't in some MMO queue to run a "looking for group" as the wizard DPS character, she has a very real, very personal, and very relatable problem to solve. She has to negotiate and roleplay. She has to hustle and get some gold.

Instead of an un-modded "spell shop" in Skyrim where you can buy any spell in the game; this is a "spell quest" system where you have to find NPCs who sell scrolls, negotiate with them, build faction rep with them for the more powerful stuff, and even go on quests for them to get certain spells they may have lost. Or steal ones back they had stolen from them. Or have them direct you to other NPCs who specialize in a certain type of spells, like a real necromancer NPC having a selection of necromancy spells, but you may have to do me a few things first...

And the scrolls could be used as rewards or sold at a discount if your reputation with the NPC is good enough. That NPC may put you in contact with other spellcasters who may have what you want and be willing to trade. Or ones who could get jealous of your spells and become a rival or try to steal your spellbook collection. Not only did you find someone to sell you new spells, but you also found a little community of mages there as well. And they may have problems they need help dealing with too.

You replace a lazy "gimme" system of automatically giving players what they want; with a very deep, interesting, and roleplaying-driven system that immerses you in the world.

If this was a Skyrim mod it would shoot up to my "must-have for any playthrough" lists.

Getting There is the Fun

Back up, she needs to get there first! She needs NPCs to help her travel in case she gets ambushed along the way. She needs a horse or passage on a ship she trusts. Her strength is not that high, so all the weight allowance rules come into play. What is she taking along? Does she have to haul all that gold (she does not have yet) with her? How much of it will she have to spend to get there? Go alone in a cart and horse with a chest of future gold in the back, or take along a few (trusted and well-paid) hirelings to keep an eye on it for her?

What would you do if you were put in that position?

When she gets there I guarantee to introduce herself and get herself trusted by the academy (and she is lucky one is there on the map), and find a way to scribe these in her spellbook. Does she stay there a while and get to know people? Does she look for a house she can use as a home base there, and again, hire someone to look after the place?

Old school games, and thankfully D&D 3 and Pathfinder 1e, still have all the cool old-school systems in them to answer all these questions. With newer games, they tend to just give you battle-map rules to play the next module; and they ignore all the interesting problem-solving, travel, and force you to think about how you would live in a world without the Internet, credit cards, and cell phones.

Solo Play Shines

This is one area where solo play outshines party play. I can see a party sitting around the table staring at me the game master and their eyes glazed over. Why are you putting her through this? Can't we just assume she knows these spells already and start playing the module? Why do we all have to take time out of our next adventure to run a travel and fetch quest for her spells? We are broke, how is she supposed to afford spells?

Ugh. You suck as a DM. Geeze. Lighten up.

Some groups would love doing this and helping her out, and enjoy the chance to travel, world-build, and get to know the locals in the mage academy. Some would even be curious about what they could buy there as well. Some groups are great, and I have played with some great ones that get into it.

Who knows, perhaps the academy has problems for you to deal with so you can faction build with them, and that "looking for adventure" thing for the party solves itself. That is the sign of a great GM that takes something that seems pointless and turns it into a great adventure start.

Many others I have played with were not so great. They have that video-game mentality a lot of the newer games program into you, the "please take the old school out of our games please" sort of optimization they do to make pen-and-paper gaming appeal to the mass market. The players have been trained to handwave things away, complain until they get easy mode activated, and push for the options in the game that simplify the experience to "combat and magic" battle play.

But in solo play, I can really put the brakes on that "please get to the adventure" feeling and rediscover the game and how it was meant to be played. I took a hard stand, and said, "no free spells."

And by inflicting a little pain on my solo play game, by introducing that complexity, I discovered a lot that I loved about the old-school style that I loved.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Pathfinder 1e: Discovery and Solo Play

One of the things I absolutely love about using Hero Lab with Pathfinder 1e is all the options I have at my fingertips. I will be creating a character and notice a possible new synergy between powers, feats, and skills and say, "This character would make a good horse trainer." And boom, all of a sudden I have an interesting NPC with full stats and powers, and I can build them into a unique role for my world.

I don't get that in B/X, and this is also something I saw in Ninjas & Superspies. When I get a meaty and substantial character design system, I can make it sing. I end up loving the characters I build. It makes me want to play the game on an entirely different level. I love the simplicity and freedom of B/X systems, but when I find myself solo playing, I want a single character with extreme depth and rules support.

To me, my level 1 cleric in Pathfinder 1e is ten times more fascinating to play solo than a level 1 cleric in a B/X system. The challenges she faces are better covered by skills and powers, and she can build as she levels in order to better face them. In B/X I get a few hit points and a few more spells, some gold, maybe a better attack bonus. I feel B/X is a better system for group play, simple and accessible by all, fast and it frees players up to roleplay and be creative without rules shackles.

Complexity? Yes, Pathfinder 1e has an extreme depth of combat rules. But there are times I can handwave and simplify if none of it matters, and throttle down to a B/X style system. I am solo playing, the rules matter when I choose them to. But I have the option to scale up in complexity if I want crunch, with B/X I do not.

For solo play, I crave depth. I love character building. The more options the better. I want to get in there and fiddle. I want advantages, disadvantages, feats, and choices to make as I level. The amount of gold I get is not my entire character power, my choices matter - given the challenges I choose or don't choose to face.

Oddly enough, I find myself experimenting with GURPS again for the same reasons.

Pathfinder 1e: Ultimate Campaign Repeat Buildings

So here I was messing around with the kingdom management rules in Pathfinder Ultimate Campaign and noticed a horrid exploit for building more than one building. I was doing a story where a noble comes in and takes over an existing town to clean it up and get the place adequately managed.

I laid out the town from an existing town map, and it had something like 15 house blocks on it. You know those "fantasy town map" books you buy where the artist copy and pastes hundreds of houses to make the map look cool. Yeah, and here I figured if the rules say "250 people per city block" and a house takes one, then for every 25-50 houses, that is one "city block" of dwellings by the rules.

And 15 "city blocks" of houses by the rules reduce the city's unrest by -15.

Raise taxes and be a tyrant all you want, ain't nobody getting upset in this town.

So I put in a "diminishing returns" rule for cities that build duplicate structures:

  • If you build 1 structure, you get the bonus for one structure.
  • If you build 2-3, you get bonuses for two structures.
  • If you build 4-7, you get bonuses for three structures.
  • If you build 8-15, you get bonuses for four structures.
  • If you build 16, you get bonuses for five structures.
  • …and so on.

So my unrest modifier should be at a -4, and if I build another house, it goes to -5. And this feels right. This still lets you "double-up" a building and stack bonuses, but the waste starts here and worsens. If I were to build a town from scratch and want a lot of houses, I would build 4 blocks maximum, and 8 if I were pushing the issue.

In this current game, I may have my noble destroy house blocks, keep the best ones, and use the space a little more wisely. I may also do a "luxury upgrade" to all residential and commercial blocks (yeah, I sound like SimCity here), which costs a lot but raises loyalty by +1 per, and have some neighborhoods be the ultra-wealthy ones you would see in a travel magazine.

This gives me fewer blocks, but more upgrades for each that let me flavor each one. I may also create a "high density" upgrade for housing that raises the population for the city block to 1000 at a cost of +1 crime, +1 econ, and -1 unrest, but it lets me pack people into my downtown area efficiently, so they can all live close to the city center and jobs.

Because unlike SimCity I do not have the options for freeways, bus lines, and light rail in medieval times.

And high-density housing requires a sewer system in the town as a prerequisite. And yes, +1 econ on those high-density blocks because more people equals more jobs and commerce, just ask New York City. All of them follow the rules of diminishing returns.

And a structure like an inn or shop is assumed to have housing nearby (in the square), so not all houses are represented by the house city block. These are likely just "great neighborhoods" that are prestige areas of the city, while shops and every other city block on the map have that same 250 population living in apartments, rooms above stores, and other housing nearby.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

The Heirs to AD&D, Part 3: Castles & Crusades


Gary Gygax played this game with his friends, and this game was named after his gaming society. Before he passed away, he was creating a world and this was the game he was writing for.

End of the story then, stop, we found our heir!

Well, yes and no. C&C is a more modern design, like an entirely new game design under the hood powering an AD&D emulation engine. The game started in 2004 and integrated a lot of the concepts we see in later games, such as ability-based saves and class abilities gained as you level. It is more of a D&D 3.5-based variant game that went off in its own direction and has been happy and prosperous in its space ever since. The list of RPGs and video game systems that came and went, and this game is still going strong, is pretty interesting:

  • D&D 3.5
  • D&D 4
  • D&D 4: Essentials (a 4.5 version)
  • soon, D&D 5 (if you can assume the new evolution is a 5.5)
  • Pathfinder 1e
  • ...a bunch of others...
Video Game Consoles:
  • Nintendo DS, Wii, Wii U, 3DS
  • XBox 360, XBox One, XBox 1X
  • PS 3 and 4
  • PSP and PS Vita

The video game consoles have very little to do with this list, but they are fun for perspective. We are going on 18 years with C&C, and not much has changed with core mechanics and rules. OSRIC started in 2006, so C&C predates the beginning of the OSR by two years. So really, it isn't OSR, and it is kind of its own game.

And while D&D keeps going through versions, this game remains (relatively) the same. I suppose since D&D is such a cultural touchstone it needs to rapidly change with the times, and you see that even today when they are releasing a new version mainly to change matters related to tone, presentation, and wording than any rules issues. But it is nice to get a new version of D&D without major rules changes since the last few times we did this everything changed drastically.

I consider Castles & Crusades an AD&D heir more than a B/X style game because it has more of the AD&D DNA in the game. To me, when it plays, it feels like pulp adventure style of AD&D. Under the hood, it is an entirely different game.

It's Not AD&D, but Any D&D

This is an odd entry on this list because this isn't AD&D, yet it can easily run any AD&D, D&D, 2E, 3E, B/X, or any module with OSR-style monsters and adventure. It is extremely rules-light, with a core mechanic based around ability saves that handles everything from saving throws, skill checks, class abilities, and anything else you can throw at it. Some call it a Rosetta-stone style of game, and that feels about right.

It is more of an "emulator system" honestly.

The game can play epic fantasy, dungeon crawling, grim and gritty, heroic questing, story gaming, pulp adventure, anime adventure, or tactical combat. Or all of them. It feels right for any of the D&D settings, from Mystara to Spelljammer. I could do Greyhawk with this easy, and all of the classic modules. I could do Forgotten Realms simply. Dragonlance? Dark Sun? D&D 4's Nerrath? Pathfinder's Golarion? My own world?

Yes to all of the above.

And they would feel right.

Historical settings? Greece, Viking, Egyptian, and more? Yes. You can even play them as their own worlds and not have to theme park them into a campaign setting.

Can it mod? It can mod. A steampunk Eberron? Spelljammer? Planescape?  Black powder swashbuckling pirates? Weird West? Ancient horror?

Does it do optional skills and (feat-like) advantages? Yes.

Does it have sister games that cover pulp, modern, and sci-fi settings? Yes, mix and match.

This is a game that no matter how hard I try to make myself a fan of something else, always keeps coming back to me and inviting me in. It feels right. It is rules-light. It has all of the classes and powers I want. It does the adventure thing. The characters are index-card simple. The classes I like are there. The rules are open-ended and flexible.

But the Specifics?

This has the AD&D DNA. Magic resistance. The familiar monsters. The spells. The treasures. The exploration. The armor and weapon game. Saving throws. Spell components. Casting time. Multiclassing. Class selection. Hit die sizes. Simple characters that power up as they level.

What is it missing? Weapon damage versus sizes. Weapon speed. Weapon type and armor modifiers. Nonhuman level limits. The ability score charts. Fighter-specific ability bonuses. Exceptional strength. Product identity monsters (though porting in from 2e would not be difficult).

Demons and devils? In an expansion book.

All the best gods from the Deities and Demigods book? In the setting guides.

Powerful monsters on the level of AD&D 2e, and even more so. Some demon lords have a flat 85% magic resistance. Wake up the fighters, party balance is a must.

The stuff the game is missing is admittedly minor limits and charts, and some of it feels like the rules cruft they tossed out when unifying the system. All the good stuff is in here, the stuff that says "AD&D" to me. What is missing is not really missed.

Saving throws for different conditions have all been moved under ability score saves. I don't really mind that.

And there are improvements like combat maneuvers and a whole bunch of optional rules in the Castle Keeper's Guide. Play as a monster race. Make your own. Create spells. Expand the game. Port in whatever you want.

Almost everything else, the classes, the spells, leveling, treasure, monsters, dungeon strategies, the turn to turn tactical choices - feels the same. But the core task, action, and save resolution mechanics are different. No saving throw tables. No charts of thief abilities. If there was a chart for an ability or percentage chance, it was replaced by the core mechanic.

Why You Shouldn't Play This

Honestly? You are a fan of the low-level AD&D mechanics, don't play this. If you like those numbers, those charts, that crunch - then stay away. This is nothing like the low-level AD&D game, and it is nothing like it. The only thing similar is the hit point mechanics and ability scores, and everything other rule has been reworked and rebuilt for pulp adventure-style play.

If you like those ability score charts, they are gone. The weapon speed thing in 2e is gone. The product identity monsters are gone, but they are not hard to port in. The huge monster stat blocks are gone. Seriously, a lot of the stuff they ended up removing anyways in 5E was removed here as well.

If you min-max combat strategies based on the AD&D math and are a fan of the numbers you won't be happy here. Also, some people have problems with the "primary and secondary" attribute system, where your target number for saves and ability score rolls depending on your choices here. If you like straight d20 ability score checks this is not your game.

The primary and secondary attribute system is a core of game balance here, and it encapsulates a lot of concepts of skills and feats and abstracts them into your ability scores. Climbing? DEX. Lockpicking? DEX, and thieves add level since this is a class ability. Knowing magic runes? INT, and mages add level because this is something they would know. Fighters don't. Target number? Is your ability score primary or secondary? Do you add your level? What is the difficulty? Done. Roll.

For some, the saves and unified system may be too simplistic. At mid-level secondary scores can be hard to save against or make, but there is a level bonus to these checks if the roll does not step on another class ability (lockpicking, etc.). Just don't wipe this out all the time with the difficulty applied to the roll, "Oh, you are level 11, add 11 to your roll and beat an 18! I know that is like 7+ cool! Oh, wait, the difficulty is, umm, 11! Roll an 18 please!"

There are times I feel the target numbers here are a bit harsh, especially at low-level. With a straight 3d6 ability score character your will be trying to roll 18+ to make an ability check. That is just a 15% chance of success and that is a bit harsh. Adding your level to the roll makes things better as you increase in skill, but at low levels, the game can seem brutal.

Also, it seems strange that you would roll your ability scores, and need an extra primary/secondary system on top of that to say how REALLY good a score is. To me, I am still on the fence here. An 18 ability score should be an 18; not a secondary at 18 with a +3 mod or a primary at 12 with a +3 mod.

What you are really saying with a primary is "in the invisible skill system of this game I have a lot of skills in this area."

The rules in the first part of the book say difficulty starts at zero, so it only gets harder. But, in the back part of the Player's Manual in the CK section, they mention "negative" challenge levels, which means there can be bonuses added to the roll. Throw bonuses at your players and don't let those 18 target numbers ruin your game, especially at low levels. Before I knew this I was about ready to give up on C&C, it just felt too harsh compared to B/X.

The game also suggests keeping the "modified" target number a secret. They know they have a 12 or 18 base, but players never know the actual number they need to beat.

Put a curve on those saves and difficulty checks, and let the players' bonus be linear, and you will always keep them feeling like heroes, and having a slight chance of failure. Better yet, if they are so high level they would make all their saves and checks anyways, set a failure chance, like Palladium's 4 or less, and call that the floor for this dungeon. Or be like Index Card RPG and set a difficulty per room for everything in there, "This room is a 6! Don't care what is in there, locks, traps, perception rolls, charisma checks, it is a 6!"

That abstraction layer of the attribute system removes a lot of bookkeeping, entire skill lists, and tons of special rules for every potential action. If you like huge skill lists and modifiers to actions, you won't like this game.

IP Free, Original Inspirations

This has that "rules-light plus story-focused" feeling that 5E has, but it feels more like AD&D 1e and 2e than 5E's mix of D&D 3 thru 5's characters, cosmology, and world-building. There is a clear difference between the D&D Wizards built and the D&D Old-TSR built. The Wizards' version of D&D is heavily influenced by Magic: The Gathering, pop culture, anime, D&D IP, and Hollywood. The Old-TSR version is more rooted in Tolkien, Howard, Lovecraft, Leiber, the Bible, Mythology, and the greats of Appendix N.

The Wizards' version starts where the Old-TSR version left off, but you notice that more and more of the product identity and custom trademarked pantheons of Wizards' D&D take bigger roles in the world than the Appendix N inspirations. We noticed this shift in D&D 4 when the game became almost entirely about the conflicts between the major trademarked D&D IP powers that be, and the old game where your cleric could worship Zeus or Odin in some generic fantasy world went away. Even the major bad guys were all product identity monsters, such as beholders, mind flayers, and the other copyrighted IP of Wizards.

You can strip out all of the Wizards' IP in D&D 5, but it is a lot of work and you are changing a lot of the rules and character creation - which makes things hard for new players. We played D&D 4 and I feel this was the best time we had with that lore, and I am not really interested in going back to the Wizards' IP that much anymore these days, and having all of this newer material taking the spotlight.

I still like the Wizards' IP and world-building, and if I want to play it I will play 5E since it is so closely tied to that material. But if I want a game free from that, where I can return to the original inspirations and make my own lore, I will choose something else and not have to change things as much.

Why Play This Over AD&D 2e?

Maybe you want a simple game with unified mechanics. Maybe you are not a fan of the endless ability score charts with all sorts of modifiers here and there. Maybe you just want to focus on the story and adventure and not the rules.

This can be very story-focused, just like a 5E, since it has ability saves that do about anything. If you like the feeling of AD&D, but do not like all the endless rules for minutia, this is a great game. C&C does have this B/X level of simplicity to it, you have a core mechanic, and it handles almost everything. Combat is the familiar AC roll high of 3rd Edition plus. No THAC0.

There was a reason this game captured Gary Gygax's heart. Maybe as he got older he wanted something simple that felt familiar. Something with fewer rules where he could tell his stories. I can't speak for him, but I can see the influences and comfortable manners this game would have for him.

When we are young, we overcomplicate things. We want the charts and tables. We obsess over statistics. We believe that more detail makes a better game and story.

As we get older our tastes begin to change. We care less about the details and more about the stories and characters. We don't care how we get there, only that we do. We want to experience life, and we don't really care about the little things. We want to see the grand vistas, the mountain slopes, remote islands, beautiful beaches, grand works of architecture, meet someone famous, go somewhere we have never seen before, and check off another experience on our bucket lists.

We don't care about the little details anymore.

All those charts and lists of modifiers were cool back in the day, and they made us feel like we knew something and we were important. But not today. We don't need them or want them.

If a simple system works, we use it.

If it has the same feeling with ten times less frustration, that is great.

Just get me there and let me enjoy the moment.

If we already know how to use it, what our choices are, and how the world works - all the better. We are not relearning something as we get older. We are done fiddling with things. We just want it to work.

And this works.