Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Low Fantasy Gaming

A few games today have the playstyle of 5E, but they go way beyond the game and create their own look and feel. Functionally, there is very little difference between 5E and Low Fantasy Gaming (LFG), but in how the game plays and the tone it sets - it is entirely different.

You have the same concepts at play here, rolls with advantage and disadvantage, long and short rests, and all the same sorts of "5E pieces," but they are engineered to work in a completely different way and support the theme and tone the game. These are like the "heavily modded Skyrim" versions of 5E, based on the OGL, and they are true gems to behold.

LFG is the low fantasy version of 5E with less fantastical elements, more human-centric, less magic, lower power level, more lethal, and no magic as technology. It is 5E with the OSR feel. 5E players can drop right in and go. OSR players can get in too. It hits a sweet spot between OSR and 5E that feels very nice, like how Basic Fantasy bridged the 3E and OSR gap; this bridges the 5E and OSR gap.

Less Magic, More Grit

Less magic does not mean less fun. I feel modern D&D has morphed into "Magic: The Gathering: The Roleplaying Game," and magic is way too ordinary, not unique, and is used as a deus ex machina to handwave in modern technology. We need our cellphones, Uber Eats, lattes, convenient long-range travel, social media, and Roombas, so we will just invent "magic versions" of them and not force anyone to live like a primitive.

There are times I feel Pathfinder 2 ventures into this territory too with their heavy steampunk focus, and then there are times I think Pathfinder 2 does not know what it wants to be, so the game kitchen sinks in anything cool and hopes people like them for that. Pathfinder 1e was a kitchen sink game (with steampunk), but it focused more on the classic fantasy aspect of things, and you could easily ignore the high-tech stand-in aspects.

Tone-wise, once low fantasy genre-breaking elements of the game are introduced, it is hard to tell a player no, you can't play a cat folk or a goblin. I had had players who would purposefully pick silly or comedic options when we played dark fantasy, and while it was fun for a while, it felt like a denial of the game's genre or coping mechanism with the darkness. When the dice said "the funny person dies," the game usually ended, or someone got massively upset because their expectations were way off base from the start (and, as I suspect, they didn't want to play dark fantasy but did not want to say anything).

I know the player issue is challenging even bringing it up, but it does happen. This was decades ago, and we have since resolved this and understand each other these days. All is good.

They had this expectation because they were the funny, amorous, unique, crazy, different than the others, or unique ones traveling with the party, they would be immune to bad things that would happen. This is why I love Dungeon Crawl Classics; all those assumptions get tossed into the bin on your first zero-level funnel. Still, you can't force dark fantasy on players, and you need to play with people that love the genre.

Clear Focus

The game sets a maximum of 12 to keep some monsters legendary and brutal. The spells are completely entirely renamed. The classes are new and different. Magic is rare, mysterious, and dangerous. Resting does not instantly heal you. Wounds are dangerous. Death is easy.

The game feels like a reaction many 5E players have with the game being too easy and magic too ordinary and mundane. Seeing a party of players who can't die simply steamroll over every 50-dollar adventure is not fun. It is fun for the players in an empowerment sort of way, but for players who enjoy Elden Ring or Dark Souls style challenges and mysteries, an "easy mode" playstyle is not much fun.

And for dungeon masters, too, it gets boring to constantly see the players wipe out everything, and no one feels danger or any suspense. While I have not run 5E, I have watched quite a bit, and I have played games precisely like this, so I know how it is. Your players expect that they are all but invincible, and if you have a PC death, they naturally feel this is "obviously" DM bias against a player. I prefer games with a built-in higher level of danger and risk and ones that protect a DM where they can point to the genre and say, "dangerous world, in the rules, people die here."

Just Play OSR?

I know. Yeah, the obvious answer is to just play something like Old School Essentials or Dungeon Crawl Classics or any other great new classic B/X RPGs today. Labyrinth Lord. Swords & Wizardry. One of the tremendous AD&D clones. Why play an OSR 5E-like game?

Seeing a 5E game go in a different direction is very cool. The OSR style of play translates across the great game preference divide, and it isn't just an OSR thing. The style of OSR play is more a universal genre to be embraced by everyone, no matter what base set of rules you prefer and are used to.

This game is familiar, and it tweaks what people are used to and creates something cool and new.

Toolkit Options, You Decide

One of the absolute best things about the game is every third level, you get to create a unique feature for your class and character combo with your DM and from your imagination. They give examples, and while some are more rules-based (shield master/maiden giving a +2 AC with shields instead of +1), what you come up with is entirely up to you. The game invites you to tinker and play with the design as your character level and opens up the player's imagination and game designer skills. It could be something simple that means a lot to a player, such as "all horses love me" or "I have awesome tattoos that give me a bonus in reactions to others with body art."

It could be something more high fantasy if that is how your game rolls. The D&D 4's warlock teleportation movement power gets your fancy? Do the group and GM agree to include it? You got it. Poof!

Cool. Whatever. It is all good. Have fun.

This is your game. I would still roll for corruption for a magic-based power like that, though, just for fun, to give the ability a cost, be fair to everyone, and be consistent with the genre.

I love that open invitation to players to be game designers and have the power to customize their play experience.

Similarly, a "corruption" system for magic increases with every spell cast (or magic item used). The corruption effects, by default, all last for some time before they fade away, recede, or disappear. Only a terrible roll will make one permanent. But the corruption effects - by the rules - are all up to the GM. If you wanted to give a player cat ears or a demon tail, you could. If you wish to make them permanent by default, you could. If you want a new effect, you can just make it up. You could if you wanted a second corruption roll to make an effect permanent instead of adding a new one.

Some players feel magical corruption rules are the game designer "designing in" harsh GM punishments into the rules. This strikes a good middle ground, in that by default, most of the time, corruption is not permanent but something to live with for a few months before it fades. There is always a chance it doesn't, but that is rare, and ultimately it is up to the group to decide what they are comfortable with.

Rules Tweaks

The game replaces saving throws with a diminishing (but recoverable) luck attribute. Willpower and perception replace wisdom. Skills give a bonus and use a level-based reroll pool that mitigates the d20's fickleness. All ability scores are rolled equal or under for checks. They have an "exploit" system for heroics (minor, major, and rescues), so a player can try to disarm or know down an opponent when a blow lands. They have degrees of success for all dice rolls. They have "retreat and chase" rules to free up having to make every encounter balanced - you are expected to run at times, and it is smart. You don't know if a character is dead until after the fight when aid is given, and the body is checked.

Luck matters and can also be used as an oracle (with no luck reduction) to see if an old lantern has oil or an old tossed aside backpack has good supplies. Luck can also (with a reduction) be used to tweak unexpected results, like choosing a summoned monster instead of rolling it randomly or finding the same NPC you need in a town. Luck returns slowly, at 1 point per long rest, so it is steadily going down even during an expedition.

The game does a lot of pulp-heroic stuff and makes rulings on many OSR-style conventions to make handling them easy and straightforward. What you lose in "common magic" you more than gain in heroics and the cool stuff you can do during a turn. And it takes an entirely open position on specific combat actions, which in Pathfinder 2 are strictly controlled by tags and conditions. Here they are part of the "exploit system" where you can try to knock an enemy prone, shatter their weapon, stick the beholder in the eye, or do anything you can imagine and not have to check pages of conditions or tags on class features.

If you hit, you can do an "extra thing" - how big that thing is will determine if the heroic action is major (luck) or a minor (ability) check. If a mage falls off the cliff and someone is close, you have a "rescue exploit" that lets you make a DEX check to see if you jump over and grab their hand as a reaction. This even works for insta-death lightning bolts being flung at wounded characters to "push them out of harm's way."

Excellent stuff, and in many other games - not allowed.

The game has the "batteries included" sort of Savage Worlds pulp-adventure coolness built into the rules. And it probably comes from years of 5E play where the players were sitting there and saying, "wouldn't it be cool if...?"

Yes, it would be "cool if," so let's write a game that does that.

The Power is Yours

Part of me feels a party of Low Fantasy Gaming characters - even though they have less magic and lower hit points - is somehow more capable than a party of high-magic 5E contemporaries. Where in 5E, your rogue may hit with a dagger, and you are happy with the 4 hit points of damage, and you feel your turn is done; in LFG, you can attempt to also cut an armor strap with that attack and reduce the enemy's AC for the other players to take advantage of. This sort of "screwing with the enemy" is built into the rules and, as a player, makes me excited to play an LFG character way more than an OSR or 5E character.

Yes, in OSR, you can rule the same thing, but not every GM or player knows how the OSR magic works. Here, it is written into the rules. It is clear as day. Everyone can attempt this. If you are smart and play your turns right, you can actually get away with a lot more than a high magic system, and your characters will end up more empowered than in games that hang magic baubles on you and load you up with "now you can do something cool" feats at certain levels.

Characters here can do way more with less.

And they can do it practically for free.

The powers aren't locked behind a secret "yes, you can play it this way" or a restrictive tag system - it is just there, powered by imagination. You don't need a "magically interrupt and save another magic shield" that costs 50,000gp - every character comes with that ability built-in. Or a luck amulet costing 150,000gp. Or a sword of disarming that costs 35,000gp. Or a class option. Or a feat. Or a unique advantage. Or something locked behind a class power.

The more class options, build choices, powers, spells, and magic items you have, the LESS freedom you have after sorting through them all.

Low Magic = High Freedom

Low magic? Um, yes, if you want to call it that. I look at this game and see all the abilities restrictive game designers tried to hide behind magic items that come as built-in things characters can do. By going low magic, this game tells you, "You have all that built-in, no need for silly magic items."

Low magic here means high freedom.

What is the actual cost? You need to be engaged with the action, pay attention, and use your imagination creatively and inventively. There is always that GM-agreement thing for the action to avoid silliness, but a great GM will know how much fun a system like this encourages and play along with the creative coolness players come up with.

And if your group house rules that martial exploits can also be applied to spellcasting, you get even more options. Use that magic missile (lash of unerring pain in this game); a spellcaster can shoot weapons out of an enemy's hand with a spell. Oops. Things just got more fantastic.

Where other games would have you sorting through the rulebook and saying, "you can't do that," or "it doesn't say you can do that," this one gives you the rules for how it all works.

A Strange Game, but Cool

Yes, the game is low fantasy, but this is a fantastic pulp adventure if played right. Yes, it is low magic, but you can do more with your tools. Yes, the world is dark, but I feel you have more power to fight back against the darkness than in many other games.

And it mentions D&D 4E's "points of light" as an inspiration.

You don't need tons of magic items or tagged unique ability unlocks to be robust and have fun. In fact, having all of that can trick you into relying on "your rules" or "your gear" and take away from the fun you could be having without it. You can have all the magic spells, abilities, and items in the world and still feel relatively powerless. On the flip side, you can be invincible and bored.

Where is the sweet spot, and how do you get there?

By empowering the players' imaginations.

Monday, May 30, 2022

Mail Room: Cypher System

This generic RPG is appearing on a lot of people's "desert island" RPG lists. Checking this out soon.

Personally, I would put Savage Worlds on that list, because then I would also have a deck of playing cards on that desert island.

More soon.

Pathfinder 2: Beginner Box Experience, part 1

Red d20 that can't roll above a 6, you are hereby banned from my game.

So I played the "solo adventure" at the beginning of the player's book for the Beginner Box, and now I know why we shifted away from any d20 system for combat and task resolution. The combat against the wolf felt like whack-a-mole, attack, attack at a -5, and hide in a bush.

The first five turns were miss-miss-bush.

Whenever the wolf attacked I made a high-pitched "arf" just to entertain myself. Most of the arfs would never land because I was bushing, and again, the red d20 was cursed.

I switched to one of my marbled ivory plastic Koplow d20s and the game got 100% better. I could hit again. But still, the whiffs and zero tactical options of straight d20 combat make me cringe hard. I know, we have a few things going on here:

  • This is a scenario meant to teach you the rules.
  • In Pathfinder 2, party synergies get a lot better later on.
  • Solo play in most d20 games sucks.

I seriously feel if I want to solo play I am playing Dungeon Fantasy and GURPS, as that game runs one character with a lot of depth and interesting options for personal combat. Not only can I build a melee master, but the options I have on any turn are also varied and interesting.

Later on, in the skeleton fight, I hit on my first two blows and killed the boss of the dungeon in two hits. Strangely enough, that should have been super satisfying, but I felt that extremely swingy d20 style coming back and going the other way hard. Instead of feeling "yay!" I felt more "what?"

If I built Amiri or Valeros in Dungeon Fantasy they would be complete killers. Even in Savage Worlds Pathfinder at a basic level, they feel way more capable and pulp adventure fun, and you have a wild die there to push that heroic feeling.

I do get this feeling of why we abandoned d20 games coming back to me, and while I enjoy Pathfinder 1e just because of the choices, the more I play d20 games the less satisfied I am with all of them. I know this game is supposed to be more like the "battle chess" we enjoyed in D&D 4, but I have yet to see it happen. I know it is early with just this solo adventure, but my experience felt like eating day-old dried-out pizza. I will withhold judgment for now, and that one experience should not take away from the full game.

Still, the whiffing with zero tactical options feels like I am being forced to play "on rails." I know this gets better in the full game, but I don't like my feelings about why we walked away from d20 coming back. There is a deeper philosophical "why I play games" thing going on here, and it is for action, adventure, and discovery. Being tied to an attack script and a d20 is not why I play games.

Maybe I am just a person who prefers either ultra-realistic or pulp-action games, like GURPS or Savage Worlds, respectively. The games that go more down the middle of the road don't engage me.

I am on to the main adventure now, and I hope this goes better than the introduction.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Wargame RPGs

The Battletech: Time of War (BT: ToW) tabletop RPG was made back in 2010, and it has this very difficult to sort through character creation system where you have a total of 5,000 XP "to spend" and every ability and skill levels up with an individual XP total and skill level. Also, skills are rated on a different XP chart than attributes, and skills have three charts based on the "fast," normal," or "slow learner" traits, and from the book:

...so a character with 525 XPs assigned to his STR Attribute is considered to have a STR score of 5 in game play, with 25 XPs left over (or stored toward later advancement to STR 6). Likewise, a character with 232 XPs in the Small Arms Skill—and who does not possess either the Fast Learner or Slow Learner Traits—is said to have a Skill Level of 6 in Small Arms.

It feels like a massively complicated system with dozens of large and separately tracked numbers on a record sheet, and by the time you get to the equipment chapter and realize every piece of gear is rated on three eras for legality and availability, with an added technology level added into a code for every piece of gear and your brain explodes. And some of the data just feels arbitrary, like spears needing industrial era technology to produce (sorry Neanderthal peoples), and in the Clan Era their legality goes to "controlled" meaning there are spear registration laws or something.

And there are differing legality levels for different types of handguns and small arms. In a 700-year war where 30-meter tall mechs are crushing people under their feet. Maybe if this was a Shadowrun or Cyberpunk game, yes, I could say the legality and availability of gear and weapons (with 95% of it worthless against a mech), and the legality of esoteric weapons like nunchakus is really way too much detail for the RPG companion game to a wargame.

Honestly, if I wanted a point-buy system for skills and abilities GURPS is the king. BT: ToW has the advantage of having the XP levels "unlocked" once play starts, and if you get 10 XP in pistol skill, hey, add that and check a chart to see if your skill increases. You don't have to worry about how much that next level costs and if you have points to buy the next one like you do in GURPS. Honestly, this entire system reminds me of the old Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes system where you had a "skill leveling" mechanic as well.

I can see how the system appeals to those wanting the official Battletech experience and a "level as you go" record of character progression. Every character feels like a mech, with little subsystems, xp levels, and calculations. But there are times when I do not want to read and learn a heavy system just to have more detail to my characters.

Why Not Something Simple?

We played Car Wars in the pre-GURPS days and we wanted a simple RPG to track characters. We saw a similar 2d6 system in Traveller, and that became "The Car Wars" RPG for us. Frankly, the basic Traveller RPG system could be used for any type of 2d6 style game, and as the "wargame RPG" for just about anything. But these days we do have something way better for simple, OGL 2d6 roleplaying:

And yes, that is the incredible Cepheus Deluxe engine that is now powering everything from fantasy, modern, and sci-fi games with simple and blazing-fast character creation and combat system. The skill levels range from +0 to +5, and that about matches Battletech's skill levels, so the characters work right on the board. Since Battletech lowers the target number by skill level (piloting starts at 5 and gunnery at 4) and puts a hard limit at a target number of zero, I would stick to those limits and say the extra skill levels do not apply.

Use Cepheus Engine for person-to-person interactions, and the Battletech engine for mech combats, and you are 99% there for a simple RPG system to use with the wargame. And in character generation, simply replace "grav vehicles" with "mech pilot" and you have a character creation system all set to go.

The weapons are also remarkably similar to Battletech's selection of guns, and frankly, none of them work all that well against mechs except for the ones noted in the infantry equipment of the main Battletech game being: ballistic rifles, energy rifles, machine guns, SRMs, LRMs, and flamers - your heavy support weapons can be considered as the 20th Century models: rocket launchers are SRMs, guided missiles are LRMs, and so on.

I could use this as a drop-in system for Battletech and I would not notice the difference, and I would gain blazing fast character creation and personal combat rules. There are 12 pages of charts in the back of the Battletech RPG, and one simple table of target numbers in Cepheus - along with an advantage/disadvantage roll system familiar to 5E players. Skill level bloat is even controlled in Cepheus by limiting skill ups to one level per year of adventuring, so while your character could improve during play, you will need a longer career to reach the higher skill levels. There is a trait system that utilizes the advantage/disadvantage system very cleverly.

And the social standing score works extremely well in Battletech if you consider the nobility and heredity aspects of the universe that play so strongly in the lore. Even in the Clans social standing works as a measure of warrior status, and it leads to interesting situations like a warrior of high status who really lacks the skills to have earned it - thus creating a bit of tension and intrigue.

And the system lets you decide on matters of availability and legality. Got a core world unaffected by war? Assume Earth-like gun laws are still in place. On the front line world with active invasions going on? Yeah, citizens will be walking around with assault rifles and SRMs like this was Ukraine. In a high-tech industrial world with good manufacturing? Yes, energy weapons can be purchased. In a back world with only machine shops? They could fabricate bolt-action rifles and knives. It is up to the referee, as it should be.

Cepheus Engine: The USB Stick RPG

And the Cepheus Engine still works as the "USB stick" roleplaying game for any wargame, from Car Wars, to World War II or III (with the incredible Modern War game), Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Federation & Empire, and any other system where you do not want to change the wargame system you love, but you want a little more detail to the characters with a simple and clean system. You can adapt movies to this system and have a quick and dirty movie RPG in a half-hour.

The system is there to use and does not take a huge amount of record-keeping or mental space. You could put a character on the front of a small 3x5 card, and still have room for skills, gear, and notes.

The character creation rules and skill lists are completely hackable. If I wanted special tables for different character types all it would take is a skill list revision for my setting and one page of charts for a character type with a few skill tables and that is it. For some games, like Car Wars or Mechwarrior, the character types and creation systems they give you work very well, and all you need to do is substitute a few skills instead of the starship ones.

For Car Wars or Battletech, or even a game like Star Fleet Battles or Federation & Empire, a simple 2d6 system that meshes well with the main rules is all I need or want. Don't give me a giant alternate set of tabletop rules to understand and play, the wargame is still the star of the show and I don't want anything that plays differently. I want a fast and clean system that gives me that extra optional level of detail for characters, handles personal combat, and does task and skill resolution in a clean way.

The system is being used for an amazing number of interesting games, from historical to sci-fi. We have Cepheus Engine, Modern War, 1520 HRE, Sword of Cepheus, Hostile, Zaibatsu, and a ton of other interesting games that all use the same system and can plug into almost any concept or game to flavor the experience.


And it works with the six-sided dice found in almost any wargame.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Mail Room: Low Fantasy Gaming

What do you get when you cross the following:

  • D&D 5E
  • Conan
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics
  • A Classic "Points of Light" D&D 4E World (wow!)
  • Classic Warhammer FRP
  • The OGR & OGL
  • Middle Earth, Westeros, Lankhmar, and Primeval Thule?

This awesome game. More on this soon, but wow.

If you ever got tired of the high fantasy settings that mimic modern tropes and technologies but don't really want to stray far from that 5E meets OGL feeling, get this game. If you want grim and gritty, but don't want slow and complex, get this game.

Just, get it.

Battletech: Beginners Box

I would love to see a HeroForge online 3d printing service for battle mechs. One where you can pick a mech, customize it with loadouts, pick weapons options, decorate the base, pose it, paint it, and order the final figure either painted or unpainted (or the 3d printing file).

And Catalyst has made a lot of smart choices with Battletech; I do love this game. I like they cater to both eras of players, the Succession and Clan eras, though I wish the figure support for Succession was more robust (and that is where the HeroForge on-demand 3d printing site would step in to keep figures always in supply). I would also like more cardboard pawns for mechs and auxiliary units and structures, just to fill out battles where a figure is unavailable, but the action still needs a stand-in.

The beginner box simplifies the rules (and gives you a unique figure), so it is worth learning the rules and getting the gameplay model in your head. Certain things like heat and internal damage are not present here, so this is a more accessible game to learn than the complete set. On the plus side, you get two plastic miniatures, paper pawns, counters, and maps that all work fine with the whole game, so the components can be reused with the complete rules.

I find it funny that people say you have to play D&D 5 these days; there is plenty to do and fun communities to join. Maybe on the few big virtual tabletop sites, there are a lot of D&D 5 games, but there are so many other things to play that are interesting and cool. I like to branch out and explore since D&D 5 is approaching Atari 2600 levels of popularity, and I feel we are heading for a significant drop in interest and players "here to be with the crowd" when the bubble bursts.

Nothing this famous ever stays this popular forever; just ask World of Warcraft, Stranger Things, Rick & Morty, Pokemon cards, or any other cultural phenomena that got insanely popular, and then mainstream interest evaporated. This is not to say it will disappear; I am just being realistic and feel we will have a decline of interest among those here for the cultural fad. The hardcore and those who genuinely love and cherish the game (myself included, though I don't play) will always be around.

So I like branching out and creating interest in other games, which is good for everyone and the tabletop community. Battletech is one of those great and long-running communities that is a perfect place to start, or in my case, come back to and experience again.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Battletech: Clan Invasion

One of the bad parts about getting into Battletech Classic today is the original "classic" plastic miniatures sets are out of print. Today, you can only get the Clan Invasion miniatures in any quantity and availability (and as I write this, one of the Com Star packs is out of supply until the new year, but I managed to find one). So if you want to play with miniatures, you need to find a source of them elsewhere, 3d printing, or pick up metal ones. They say the original plastic classic miniatures were of lower quality and detail, so while it would be nice having these, I can live with playing Clan for now.

I know, as much as I don't prefer the Clan Era if it is a choice between no minis and Clan Era minis, the products I can buy win the battle, and I will play that. Otherwise, I am stuck with the eight minis in the base set plus two in the beginner's - while they are nice, I like miniatures.

I wish they did paper pawns like Paizo does nicely, like those in the starter and beginner box sets. I would buy these to have them, and I know you can find some online, but I don't feel like investing in a heavy cardstock printer to make my own - though honestly, with how much I do tabletop these days (and how many 3d resources I have to create them) it would probably pay for itself.

I hear they reduced the ER PPC damage, and that interests me. Did they balance Clan versus Inner Sphere play? I am a bit wary because I remember the original experience and how everything seemed to fall apart for the older mechs we loved.

Playing "as" the Clans will feel strange, especially since today, the map of the Inner Sphere resembles the battle map for Ukraine, and I can't really shake the "evil invaders" feeling. Ugh! This is not the same! Even though, yes, we did play the Clans as evil invaders back in the day. We had ongoing stories inside the Inner Sphere with those characters and factions, so naturally, the outsiders who ruined our stories were cast as the bad guys.

I am playing alone these days, so if I wanted an alternate universe where the Clans were the good guys, I could experience that. Still, I would not make it easy and handicap any Clan battle against them to account for the better gear. The Inner Sphere forces should have the advantage of massive amounts of infantry, paper-thin tanks, older mechs, artillery, aircraft, cheap flimsy units, and defensive terrain on home turf. If the Clan forces stayed around too long, they would get swarmed.

These days, I have the perspective of time, and while my feelings back then were what they were, I can play the game again and try to see it in a new way. One could argue that one side or the other are the bad guys of the setting, and seeing how the original five warring factions caused untold billions of lives of casualties in the civil war, they are all the bad guys, I can sort of see both sides.

This will be fun and a break from fantasy for a while.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Mail Room: Battletech

When we played Battletech back in the 80s and 90s the thing that killed the game for us was the Clan Invasion. We lost interest after that game since it just seemed to be, "Battletech: More Numbers Edition!" The incredibly high damages and ranges took this from a dinner-table tactical wargame to one where you needed two 3x6 folding tables shoved together.

In the original game where a hit by an LRM 5 mattered (1 to 5 damage), we saw dual-wielding ER PPCs (up to 30 damage) as the game-changing weapon of choice (that Clan ER PPC damage may have since changed, as I hear). The record sheets became huge masses of bubbles for armor, record-keeping became tedious, and we felt the original game we loved was gone. The same thing happened at the end of the Car Wars game, as the armors got more complicated and heavier, the weapon damage scaled up considerably to make convention play faster.

More numbers and more damage do not make a game more fun.

And the Inner Sphere factions just weren't worth playing, since they were set at a lower technology level. All our investment in the factions and conflicts dried up when the "Space Nazis from Beyond" showed up in their cool and better toys. I kid, they aren't Nazis, but to wage a massive, coordinated, multi-front, war of conquest all at the same time seems pretty "space fazcist" to me. That is how our original campaign ended, with our campaign transitioning into fighting the evil Clans who in the end went scorched earth and almost became like the alien invaders in a 50's sci-fi movie.

Since Inner Sphere mechs were junk to the Clans, we saw the unified armies of the Inner Sphere switch to tanks, jets, helicopters, infantry, and combined arms tactics on a massive scale. The Clans lost this fight since a tank with a diesel engine was cheap, disposable, and could be massed in greater numbers than complicated mechs. Helicopters with missiles could stay out of range, watch, and then make coordinated passes with many getting rear hits. Yes, the losses were high, but the Inner Sphere could afford to lose much more than the Clans.

And the era of the mech died with the Clans in our game.

But it was fun in a WW2 army vs. Kaiju sort of fight, kind of like the Ogre board game.

What else could we do? We despised them for ruining our original and long-running campaign. We had all the classic NPCs in there too (from the novels and videogames) and the tension ran high with missions and games mattering in the original faction balance. Now, like the game's numbers, there were way too many factions and sub-factions, and the stories just became muddied and confusing. Our game never recovered from this, and we felt it was the end of the story.

The only thing about the Clan Era that was cool was the mech models - but not the stats or gear.

We felt the game became a stand-off game, much like a Harpoon where long-range firepower ruled the giant play tables. Gone were the days of light mechs using speed and jump jets to race in close and deliver a critical and game-changing blow with just small lasers or machine guns at close range. The super-heavy mechs, complicated and slow, were the stars of the show. In the old days keeping a force of light, medium, and heavy mechs in your company was viable. In the Clan Era, we felt like this was everyone rolling in with M1 Battle Tanks and playing battleship blast-a-thons.

Fun? For a short time, yes, but the original game's charm and balance between light, medium, and heavy units was totally gone for us. When a Clan Mech could vaporize a Locust in one shot we quit. Granted, this could happen in the old game, but it was way more difficult and the Locust was more dangerous to a heavy mech when played right.

It is good to see the original game back, with the original balance and viable company deployments. I am getting into this game again, and I want to put this on an alternate timeline where the Clans never existed.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Mail Room: Prime Directive (GURPS)

As long as Paramount lets Amarillo Design Bureau do their thing with the Star Fleet (note the SPACE, it is NOT Starfleet, so please respect the license) Universe I will always support Star Trek. The goodwill Paramount has towards the wargame and RPG community by letting this alternate universe exist without harassment and thrive is a good thing to see. I reciprocate by my purchases of Paramount DVDs and streaming service subscriptions, which I would recommend to all.

The license for this game was done back in the 70's by Rodenberry and the game's creators, as I read it, and it lasts in perpetuity. I suppose there could be legal harassment from current owners of Trek, but I have not read of any - and honestly, I feel this is a good thing and good for everyone. The game is very well done and very respectful to the source material, and pulls in interest for the universe.

Star Fleet Battles have always been a cool alt-universe offshoot of the main Trek lore, it starts with the original TV series and stops in 1979. From there the licenses go two dramatically different ways.

Where the Paramount license went on with the awesome original Star Trek movies, Wrath of Khan, and TNG through to today, the Star Fleet universe went off in a different direction. They stayed firmly rooted in wargaming, sort of like a Battletech-style universe, and the games sent from Star Fleet Battles, to our favorite Federation & Empire, and to today's Federation Commander (a simplified and streamlined SFB).

Like Battletech, the Star Fleet Universe is at war constantly, and for the tabletop games, that is a great thing. You don't get a lot of the plots based on interpersonal conflicts and societal struggles like there is in the official timeline, but you do have a lot of reasons for these cool ships to blast away at each other like this was a massive Star Wars space battle. Personally, I think it is a good thing for the brand as a whole to have the wargame around since it has that cool "wargame" appeal for the brand like a Battletech or even a Star Wars-style wargame.

It keeps Trek compelling and cool on the tabletop. Speaking of which...

Yes, it would be remiss not to mention the 2d20 RPG here, officially licensed as well, but set in any of the official universes. Why not just play Star Trek Adventures?

You could, but I like the Star Fleet's strange wargame alternate universe. I also really like GURPS. Combining the two is pure awesome. Where the official timeline is the classic and cool conflicts we see on the TV or movies, the wargame universe is the pure madness of total war. It is way less subtle, it feels at times like Saving Private Ryan, and any sense of "oh we better not do this because we would cause a huge intergalactic incident" is thrown right out the airlock.

There is no hesitation here. The prime directive could just have one word on a piece of paper:


That is cool. In the official universe, if you had a mission that took you to a world controlled by the Klingon Empire, you would carefully fly in, perhaps using stealth, try to get the mission done with a minimum of violence, and negotiate if you are found.

In the Star Fleet Universe, you put together a small fleet of ships and roll in like this was a World War II battleship engagement - load the photon torpedoes and prepare to broadside! For people expecting the social commentary and logical reasoning of the TV show, you better be prepared for a shock. But then again, it is that D&D-style freedom where it is okay to go in attacking the bad guys and ask questions later. That gives this universe accessibility that time I feel is missing from official Trek.

Klingon ship in a Federation system? You can run combat and have fun with the ships and technology without that feeling, "Should we have talked first?" In that sense, the Star Fleet Universe is NOT really Trek, but more like the Battletech version.

Roleplaying in the Star Fleet Universe is a completely different thing, and the races as well took off in an entirely new and cool direction. You have tiger-people, raccoon people, dolphin people, insect aliens, and really all sorts of wild and cool alien races that give you that "big universe" feeling. It is also heavily wargame-influenced, so you have that same freedom of action in ground engagements. If an enemy faction beams down, you could talk it over, but you likely won't get punished if you just start firing phasers.

Every side sees the other as "the evil space orcs" and that is cool.

And in my experience, if you have a more war-focused universe, the roleplaying gets a lot better since players will be trying to figure out ways around using violence since that is the smart thing to do. But there will be times it is unavoidable, and that "battle readiness 10" button is going to be pressed, and it is hex-combat time again.

That said, I play both Star Trek Adventures and the Star Fleet games because more Trek is always better. I love the interpersonal and thinking-based adventures of the official RPG, and I love the Battletech-style tactical battles (and wargame universe) of Star Fleet.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Classic Adventures: B1-9 In Search of Adventure

The classic D&D adventures are a part of my childhood, and I still love these tales of adventure. It is a shame with all that Wizards does these days; they are not making "the new classics" in any way or form. These days, the best we have in classic adventures and stories come from Paizo with the adventure path, Goodman Games with Dungeon Crawl Classics, the Old School Essentials books, or the larger B/X community over on Drive Thru RPG with all sorts of classic throwback adventures.

We will never see a new Tomb of Horrors or Ravenloft-style experience, but we will repeatedly see endless recreations and reboots of the same adventure. It is the corporate recycling machine, often with the "it's a classic" reboots; frankly, if I want the original, I will just go get it. Or I already have it.

I get the feeling as time goes on that Wizards equals Disney, and they are becoming a machine only designed to reboot franchises. It is sad because I want them to be a platform for today's storytellers to create new classic stories and adventures. Paizo still does that, and putting money and releasing schedules on new stories and creators is extremely brave and cool, so I support them.

Also, minor spoiler alerts for B2, Caves of Chaos coming up...

Flaws are Many

One thing uniquely strange about most classic modules is how poorly they translate into modern rules systems and how much tweaking you need to do with them. We tried to play with these with some of the newer editions of D&D. They came out as disasters, as the older editions rely on this "Gauntlet the videogame" style of play where a crowd of foes descends on the party. You are struggling to reduce their numbers before you start taking damage from lucky hits and need to burn heals.

Later modules got better as designers got experience with the system, and we got stories, puzzles, devious traps, and experience to let writers design real combat challenges. There are moments where you see the "massive overpull" designed to eat the party's fireball spell in many modules.

The rules are simple, and that is why we love B/X. But this also creates strange issues with module design where you have this quantity over quality design philosophy in some of the older adventures. One room in the Caves of Chaos module with 40 kobolds (with 8 noncombatants) jammed into it. The first guard room has six. And in the same area, there are 18 giant rats in a nearby room. Eight kobolds wait outside the entrance.

In the first six rooms, there are nearly 80 monsters.

Move out, kobolds! Start a village somewhere on the map! Maybe do some farming and raise sheep! Leave! You can find better for yourselves elsewhere! Take the rats with you and raise them too!

This is funny since this is the first room we entered as D&D players back in the day, and I recently replayed this with Pathfinder 1e, and it turned into this strange hallway slaughter between areas 1 and 6 that just dragged on. If I played this in D&D 5E, the bounded accuracy thing would kick in, and they would be killing level 10 characters through lucky hits and that "massed fire" thing. With D&D 4E, level 10 heroes could literally sleep in the room, and the kobolds would not be able to hit them. I kid, but the to-hits were bad once levels got four or higher than the enemies' level.

Logic and Tone

The tone of some of these adventures only makes sense on a "hack and slash" videogame level of logic. Every time I play this, I feel more and more sorry for the kobolds. And it makes me feel worse and worse about the supposed heroes who trounce in here to kill families of kobolds in their homes just to grab their loot. Who are the bad guys again?

And if I were to play this with a hyper-realistic set of rules such as Dungeon Fantasy, it would be even worse. The combat slog with dozens of repetitive creatures would feel pointless after a while, and I would be sitting there wondering, "Where is the story?"

It works better as a backdrop where you have to go in and negotiate with the tribe as part of a story. But then again, I would put half of them in a small makeshift village out front of the cave and then do the same for the other tribes, and then what would happen next is they would fight each other for control of the valley and the orcs would probably win and use the others as servants.

Just put an orc encampment in the middle of the valley and leave the caves as storerooms, sealed-off tombs, or abandoned areas. The less you think about it, and the more you treat this as a videogame, the better it works.

Deadly Realism

The more I think about using hyper-realistic rules for this, the worse it gets. But then again, the worse it gets, the more I like it.

I bet some adventurers would go happy tossing flasks of oil into the giant rats in the room filled with trash and start a massive trash fire in area 2 that would fill the entire complex with smoke and carbon monoxide and kill all the kobolds in some sort of mine disaster.

Even oil flasks (or fire spells) tossed into area 6, the living quarters would have the same deadly effect. These are kobolds, and nothing in a shared room living area is made out of modern fire-retardant materials, with no fire marshals or safety standards, so they are probably sleeping on hay and bundles of flammable wool. In D&D, especially when we were kids, we were really stupid about this stuff. A flask of oil (Moldvay Basic) does 1d8 area damage and goes out in 2 turns, right? Cool!

And smoke would be pouring out of this place, and the other monsters would be standing on the hillside watching the tragedy, wondering, "Hey, what caused the huge fire in Area A?"

But this sort of logic is very OSR. Think before you act. Sure, the rules say, "thrown flasks of oil work this way!" And this is what players expect, a little videogame animation of a circle of fire going out and damaging enemies, and then it is over. Right? Players who play more modern games that train that "videogame mentality" may be shocked when that massive trash fire erupts. What?! That can't happen! You are being unfair! How could you rule that when it is nowhere in the rules?

This is the danger of too many rules. D&D 4E had it, and I feel Pathfinder 2E could suffer from the same sort of logical disconnect, but we will see. GURPS may have a lot of rules, but it is still an old-school game that gives the referee 100% leeway in handling situations.

The D&D Reality Distortion Field

I love these adventures, but replaying them with rules other than D&D highlights some strange reality-bending with D&D, valid for every edition of the game. With D&D or AD&D, this plays more like a videogame.

With D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder 1e, this takes on a Saving Private Ryan sort of massive battle feeling as you mow down hordes of charging kobolds. With 4E, these are mostly all 1 hit-point minions and die quickly. With 5E, this turns deadly again as massed attacks by low-level creatures change things some.

It is challenging to play with any system beyond AD&D since combats are typically slower and more focused on conditions and cool moves and combat options built into the classes.

And in hyper-realism systems, and I use Dungeon Fantasy, but you could quickly put Runequest, Rolemaster, or any other favorite here; this gets more over the top and crazy. There are so many kobolds the systems begin to show strain and breaking, and the GM needs to pull out story fiat and summarize, or the game bogs down. This is honestly when I feel when you begin shortcutting and just telling the players what happened instead of playing it out.

Savage Worlds ...Works?

Savage Worlds could do this a little easier since you would split kobolds into groups of extras and throw a couple wounds on each to simulate the group's ability to take damage (I would probably throw 2-3 wounds for groups of 6-10 on there for half hit-die kobolds). One initiative card and action per group per turn, and you are all set and handling this efficiently. It is a pulp adventure and not a simulation; things are different here, like in a movie.

And it is extraordinary Savage Worlds is the only game I regularly play that handles this module that easily.

Then again, Savage Worlds has a lot of "design tricks" in its bag of toys, and the game feels like it was designed by many long-term role players, and they know those moments where they say, "Oh, no, not this again." Easy systems handle chases, confusing initiative orders, mass battles, groups of extras, and lots more. Once you learn them and fit them in your head, doing anything in Savage Worlds becomes simple - even complicated stuff that would break many other systems.

Savage Worlds is one of those "thought zeitgeist" games like an Index Card RPG that will change how you play tabletop games. Also, Index Card RPG would handle this module quite nicely, so a shout out to another one of my favorite games.

The Future is in the Indies

Yes, I like the classic modules. But I feel that the only people who will carry on their legacy are the indie creators, companies like Goodman Games, and the OSR. I want storytellers and designers who understand why we loved these classic adventures. I want new experiences in the traditional style.

As much as I love the Goodman Game's classic reprints of the classic AD&D modules (Slave Lords and GDQ would be amazing), I want the PDFs, and those are not happening likely due to Wizards and contractual issues. It does make me happy to see new directions for this line like this:


Modules not from TSR getting this treatment, and full DCC and 5E versions available in print and PDF. Finally. I will be supporting the DCC version of this project, and it is great to see them doing adventures where they can finally support their own incredible game - and release PDFs as well.

Since I never played this adventure it is new to me and they support DCC, and this is the best of both worlds.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Dungeon Fantasy vs. GURPS Dungeon Fantasy

I know, what?

This article is mostly about how you play Dungeon Fantasy and use GURPS Character Assistant 5 (GCA5). Do you use the base "Dungeon Fantasy" rules and GCA5 setup? Or do you use the GURPS Basic set plus the GURPS Dungeon Fantasy books? Now Dungeon Fantasy has a lot of the GURPS stuff stripped out of the game and focuses on Dungeon Crawling, where if you play with GURPS Basic as your "root sourcebook," your options change, and even more if you add GURPS Magic to the mix. So to summarize:

  • Dungeon Fantasy (DF) = Everything in the game box.
  • GURPS Dungeon Fantasy (GDF) = The GDF Warehouse 23 supplements, plus GURPS Basic Set, GURPS Fantasy, and GURPS Magic.

Note that DF is everything in the box, whereas GDF does not require the box. Here is my current GCA 5 setup for GURPS Dungeon Fantasy (GDF):

I stripped down the sourcebooks to remove duplicate options and hand-edited the "Remove Unnecessary Traits" script to add all the classic GURPS advantages and disadvantages, which are helpful for powers (flight) and some of the classics like enemies and other fun RP choices. Some of the scripts for technological advantages (digital mind) I kept in there to remove those options since I want to reduce clutter. This lets me add books that need the base GURPS advantages, such as Bio-Tech, or use the powers to create fantastic fantasy races, such as nagas, succubus, mermaids, or others.

GURPS Magic also has hand-edits to remove some power modifiers that put tons of useless repeat spells into my lists. My files are backed up, too, just in case of updates.

And here is the basic Dungeon Fantasy boxed-game setup with the optional Delvers to Grow book (DF):

Knowing what you are doing with plain Dungeon Fantasy gets a lot easier. Those Warehouse 23 sourcebooks are nice, but they are designed for GDF instead of plain DF, which means they NEED the GURPS Basic book to work and are meant for the hybrid style GDF style of play. Clerics in DF are all cleric-types, while clerics in my GDF setup are either holy or unholy. It gives you an exciting distribution of spells, with unholy clerics having a lot of ruin and despoiling powers, whereas holy clerics are more restorative and heal-y. The GDF Clerics supplement adds cleric domains, which I feel adds too many repeat spells to the list, so I do not load it. You also have many more spells in GDF, and my setup with things like flight and other advantages is helpful for different character types (angels, succubus, etc.).

It took a lot of tweaking and failed characters to get both of these setups and the skills needed to create characters for templates that validate and throw zero errors. They both make similar character types (and yes, you CAN copy and paste between characters to copy things like quirks and equipment lists, excellent). When you get good enough, you can mix and match characters - designed either way - into the same campaign. Just make sure to save characters created with a DF setup with unique code in the filename, so you know, like "Bjorn - DF" versus "Bjorn - GDF."

There are subtle differences in the setups, such as the clerics being different and the GDF having many more spells. But if you want an unholy cleric as a character in DF, this is the way to go.

DF is B/X & GDF is AD&D

Why not just play with GDF and not DF? DF has a few changes and notable changes to character design that if you just wanted to stick with the basic DF books, you are probably better off with the DF character setup. And Delvers to Grow only works with DF, an excellent book. I see the base DF box as a B/X-style game, and the GDF set up as an AD&D-type campaign.

What is AD&D? On a technical definition, B/X plus more stuff - including wacky, unbalanced, power-level breaking spells and abilities. In DF, you have a curated, balanced, fun set of powers, classes, and spells. In GDF, you have mages summoning dinosaurs to clear the Caves of Chaos and bards buying berserk and multiple levels of extra attack. If that is your style of game, totally go GDF. If you want a sensibly curated and focused game, play DF.

The cool thing is the characters work together well, and there really isn't much of a power-level difference between them, unlike B/X and AD&D (fighter hit dice, etc.). There will be spell differences, and some spells in a DF context will be unbalancing to the dungeon-crawling genre, so just be aware of that if you are aiming for a balanced game.

The DF setup in GCA5 also is easier to set up and use. In contrast, when you do the GDF setup, you are getting lots of repeat things added from GURPS Magic (unless you hand-edit the GCA5 files) and adding modules and realizing they put way too much junk in the lists and then banning them from your game. If you want an easier time, go base DF and the DF setup in GCA5, and you will be happy. There is plenty enough in the base DF game (and the expansion booklets) to keep you busy for a lifetime of fun.

But suppose you like hacking and want more freedom to design classic GURPS characters or characters that use magic or character systems from other books (Thaumatology, time-traveling aliens, GURPS Furries, or anything else you can imagine). In that case, the GDF setup is handy to have around for those exceptional cases. When you dive into GDF, you unleash the full breadth of GURPS characters and design systems, which can be incredible. It can also be time-consuming and confusing at times, so DF is better for new players and those wanting less basic set insanity creeping into their games.

For me? I am sticking with the basic Dungeon Fantasy box and DF GCA setup.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Games I Keep Coming Home To

After 40 years of roleplaying, I keep coming back to a particular set of games that feel true to me. Versions of D&D come and go,; you get high-concept licensed games based on movies or classic games that come on strong and have zero support, and classics that never change but desperately need updates and streamlining.

Some games I love because they are classics, like Star Frontiers or Tunnels and Trolls, but I don't consider them my "home games" since I don't play them as much these days. If you forced me to keep only a few games out of my library, less than five, they would not be on the list.

I put games in boxes all the time and store them. A few I am forced to pull out again, and they make their way back to my main shelves. They just do everything better, and I often have characters in solo games for these who call to me for adventures. These are those games that I just can't live without.

Old School Essentials

You got to have a copy of B/X on any list like this, and mine is the two-volume set of Old School Essentials Advanced. This is a game I could play and rely on to stay the same for 40 more years and then see D&D go through another four major revisions of the game (and likely a few corporate ownership changes). And I do not have to learn anything to play this, I started with B/X, grew up with B/X, and part of my DNA follows B/X rules.

That said, I still pull in monsters and adventures from Labyrinth Lord; the once and the former king still has a lot of great classics to offer. But this is B/X, a world of fun where everything mainly works seamlessly together. Also, a nod needs to be given to the excellent Index Card RPG for changing how I referee games like this, and I would easily include that book in my OSE collection.

I do have quite a few AD&D-style games, but none of them really feel as strong, complete, and as simple as this. If I had to keep one game out of them all, this would be the one. Castles & Crusades is an excellent game in the AD&D mold, as is Adventures Dark and Deep. I like the refinements AD&D introduced to limit caster power, but the characters also started collecting dozens of strange minor modifiers from various tables that felt like game design lint.

OSE is high quality and has the best-in-the-world organization and presentation. For me, I prefer this over D&D 5. There are fewer books, better organized, old-school, great additions to the B/X core, and all the best classic experiences in two beautiful books.

Great things last the test of time.


One of my biggest regrets was my brother and me never GURPS the respect the game deserved. We played Aftermath and held that game in higher regard than GURPS, which is a true classic, and this will always be a classic and great game. We grew up playing Car Wars and enjoyed our simpler Traveller version of that game to GURPS, and then our "advanced" game was Aftermath until that game fell apart on us, and we were switching games again and again.

And again through the 1990s, when we ended up back with D&D 2nd edition, and that fell apart when Wizards came in. The third edition came, and we went out own way, tried Pathfinder 1e (which I liked more than my brother), and we settled on D&D 4 for a while until that game fell apart spectacularly. It was hard to watch the designers of D&D 4 long for games like B/X, and begin to design back in B/X class features into D&D 4 Essentials, and then throw away the entire edition for 5E.

I come back to GURPS and see a modular design that scales in complexity as much as you want it to. This is what GURPS haters hold up as a flaw when it is actually the best feature of the game. That complexity dial starts at 0 and goes to 11. If someone complains about GURPS being too hard, I feel they don't understand the game's design philosophy, and they played with too many features and optional combat rules.

I can do so much with this game easily; it is my new instant favorite. And it gives me detail and depth other games lack. I would not use this for pulp-cinematic games, but for games where I want to carefully sculpt a character into a masterpiece of vision and design, GURPS has no equal. And I say sculpting because that is what you are doing in GURPS; you aren't designing, generating, or building a character - this is an art as character design, and every point matters.

I find myself asking, "do I need that skill?" What happens when I increase my primary weapon skill by a level and make some trade-offs elsewhere? Could I offset this with a disadvantage? Would it fit the character? Can I make a few better choices to get that advantage I really want? Like Pathfinder 1e, 2e, and Starfinder, character creation is highly recommended to use electronic tools.

And the beautiful thing is that every choice you make during character sculpting matters when you play the game. You will see the outcomes of your options in every combat. There will be things you wish you had and saving up points to buy. You will need to work with others to fill the gaps.

Gear and load-outs matter.

Sure, you can create the best swordsman on paper ever. But when he dies of exposure walking to the dungeon in a sudden cold rainstorm, you realize your next character will be better balanced and fit a background and theme. For every horrible thing a referee can do to you in B/X on a saving throw, there is a skill that lets you deal with it quickly in GURPS. Or do it to others and force them to make the save. GURPS gives you the skills to avoid pain and deal it out to others.

The Dungeon Fantasy game also deserves special mention, though I am at times torn if this game is even needed. It is still GURPS and 99% compatible, and everything in here, from monsters to magic items, can be used with GURPS, but I use GURPS for more than just fantasy, so my tastes run all over the genres the main game supports. For those wanting a focused fantasy game, this is perfect. This game and Savage Pathfinder share a lot in common; they are 99% the original game, just with options moved around and a few things changed to support the genre better.

These days I see the genius in the system. I really love it. I put this system away in the closet, pulled it out, and re-shelved everything twice. It does gritty, realistic fantasy that beats Aftermath in realism and fun and does so cleanly, simply, and elegantly. It does anything and everything. You can - and should - scale complexity to meet your group's tastes. The sourcebooks are amazing.

This isn't B/X, but nothing beats it for character design and how deeply you can customize, mod, reskin, and scale this game. It is the Skyrim of roleplaying games, a game that is also a platform for hacking and creativity.

If we had given GURPS the respect it deserved, we could have skipped D&D three through five and saved a few thousand dollars on books - and had a better-feeling game that would have lasted for 20+ years. These were the rules and the game we were looking for, and we never knew we had it.

Savage Worlds

This is another one I keep putting away on my "less-used game" shelves, and it keeps moving back onto my most-played shelves. If you want a generic game that uses toys like playing cards, polyhedral dice, and excellent mechanics - this is your game. I blame the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game for bringing me home to this one; I love the idea in the card game of the dice-based ability scores, and a 100% no-steampunk fantasy 3.5 feeling world, and the Savage Pathfinder sister game to this completely fills the niche for me, and it like the Dungeon Fantasy type game for the primary set of rules.

It has abstract systems for wounding and many parts of the rules that take some head-space to wrap around, but once you do, you begin to realize the means to the end. Cinematic pulp adventure is the game's name here, and the game is built like a well-oiled machine to deliver the experience. The initiative system is genius and makes me feel traditional d20 + modifier-based systems are dinosaur relics.

This has the character design thing I love from GURPS but in a streamlined format. You have fewer options in terms of skills, powers, and fine details, but being able to design a character instantly in a few minutes to your liking is a massive win for usability. Like B/X, you don't need electronic tools to build characters, so any good list will have a mix of games with complex and simple generations.

You are not getting the save-or-die simplicity of B/X or the epic realism and character-crafting of GURPS. Still, you are getting a finely-tuned abstract pulp-adventure cinematic universal system that handles anything and everything you throw at it with zero prep and character creation that takes a few minutes. Fantasy, sci-fi, horror, movies, TV shows, modern-day, historical, wild west, novels, streaming shows, cartoons, superheroes, anything in your head is an instant Savage Worlds game.

Any game, genre, instant-on, fast character creation, and universal rules? Savage Worlds is like my X-Box, Gamepass, and the SSD drive inside.

Do you want fun now? You got it.

Pathfinder 1e

If I ever want a full-bore 3.5 experience, nothing beats this game. I have it on my back shelves for now since I am learning the steampunk sequel to this game, Pathfinder 2. And I do get the Paizo going all-in on steampunk is part of why the sequel isn't as popular as the original. With Pathfinder 1e, the technology is easily ignored, and it felt like D&D 3.5 Extreme Edition. It looks fantastic, it still has a fantasy feel, and it doesn't go overboard with the technology.

With Pathfinder 2, there is no way in hell you are avoiding the steampunk cosplay crowd, especially in Lost Omens. It feels strange because steampunk has always been a niche interest, while the fantasy genre is king, and they push the steampunk elements so hard that Pathfinder 2 feels like a steampunk game. My answer is to go all-in on that game and make it a fight between magic and technology, like a cyberpunk style theme but set in a steampunk world.

I hope magic wins because I miss that generic fantasy game we had with Pathfinder 1e. Honestly, it does feel like Pathfinder 2 lost some of its product vision and seems all over the place in terms of genre, judging, and theme. It feels like medieval Starfinder when I want it to feel more like B/X or AD&D. The gameplay in 2E is said to be better, and I want to put that to the test.

I do have Starfinder on my most-played shelves, and that is sort of a 3.5-style game. I could put Starfinder and Pathfinder 1e in the same collection bucket and say they are the same game since the play mechanics are nearly identical.

The first edition has a lot of flaws, but the run of books made for this game and the third-party support borders on the incredible. I have two shelves of Pathfinder 1e books, but I feel I have a collection of infinite worlds and fantasy settings in that space. It is quite a library, but a library of endless adventures.

The Fifth Game?

This is one I keep looking for. One of the things I look for in a game is a robust support system, GURPS has a fantastic selection of PDFs at Warehouse 23, and DriveThruRPG is amazing for B/X, Savage Worlds, and Pathfinder 1e. These are not dead games, except Pathfinder 1e, but the volume of books made for that system blows me away and will keep me interested for years. Being an open game where the community can produce things is a plus, and while GURPS does not have that, I really have everything I need with the books I have.

If I had to pick a fifth today, it would be Dungeon Crawl Classics and its sister game Mutant Crawl Classics. This is the true expression of Appendix N and the most AD&D game I have. I love this game because it breaks the B/X mold and does something new and extraordinary. Many B/X games exist as retro-edition emulators, this takes the entire genre and does something cool and fresh with the rules, and it is one I feel challenges the industry to do better and start doing new things. I can also depend on them to keep releasing fun adventures for these games, which is always a plus.

There are times when I feel simulating AD&D is a worthy goal, but also, there are times when I think at a certain point, you are chasing nostalgia, and it is better to do your own thing - something new. This does something utterly new while keeping that AD&D feeling of "wow," and no other game does that.

If I played a game like Traveller or Battletech, this would also be a good spot for the game. I feel these are games a lot like D&D 4E. You play more for mechanics than the world, and the central concept is strong enough to carry the game. Since I am currently exploring Starfinder, a sci-fi game may go good here, like a Cyberpunk style game, but both GURPS and Savage worlds do cyberpunk nicely. For that matter, GURPS does a pretty nice RPG for either Battletech or Traveller.

My Current Playlist

This is my current list, and it will likely change. One of the things about playing solo and alone is the tendency to float between games where the grass is always greener. I am happier if I stick to a few games and enjoy those. Some of these games are pretty deep and involved, GURPS can take quite a bit of time in character design, but the advantage of that is you get excited to play, you have an investment in the character (not a throwaway), and you start that "design" thing in your head as you play and take on challenges. Same with Pathfinder 1e, and I hope 2e lives up to the hype and does not simplify away too much.

Some of my games are quick-play classics, like OSE or Savage Worlds. You can probably put Dungeon Crawl Classics on my quick playlist too.

I have a few games stored away on my less-played shelves, and I put them there (and boxed up) to keep myself from getting overwhelmed. If I focus on a few games I enjoy them much more.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Video: GURPS solo play through BFRPG module

I found a really cool video the other day by "EasyGURPS na" doing a solo run through of a Basic Fantasy RPG module with low-power GURPS characters, this is really worth checking out because it gives you an overview of a "fast and loose" playstyle, and also some great conversion notes between BFRPG and GURPS in video #1 in the comments, to summarize:

  • HP = HD x 10
  • Attack Skill, Parry = 10 + Attack Bonus
  • Dodge = 6 to 10, estimate
  • Damage = As listed, plus special effects as needed
  • DR = estimate based on armor

The videos go on for quite a number of them and are entertaining, check them out! It is fun to see a group of almost 0-level characters out of Dungeon Crawl Classics funnels using GURPS rules and the system just working incredibly smoothly and easily for a party of eight of them.

The HP calculation does seem a little high, but this is for a party of characters and likely needs things like damage multipliers applied. I could see 5 + (HD x 5) working as well if you want lower total hit points, but the creator of the video says his system feels right so I may go with his recommendations. With higher DR values, you may want to adjust hit points down to compensate.

What is really cool here is being able to take any BFRPG monster and convert it on the fly to GURPS or Dungeon Fantasy - that is hugely helpful.

Savage Pathfinder & The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game

The Savage Worlds Pathfinder game is a really impressive swords & sorcery adventure set. It has a specific focus on simulating the 3.5-isms of Pathfinder, so they added edges, moved edges around, and created a new category of class edges. They updated the powers, added new ones, and tweaked weapons and combat. This is not a direct conversion, but more of a spiritual one that takes a Pathfinder-feeling world and rules which converts this over to a Savage Worlds setting.

It feels very similar to the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game's "dice for stats" system and these two games feel like distant cousins to one another. Where the card game uses your "hand" for gear, powers, allies, and hit points, Savage is more your traditional "character sheet" style of game that removes the need for cards, decks, and hands. If you really like the feeling and simplicity of the adventure card game and wish you had "Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: The RPG" check out Savage Pathfinder and you may find exactly what you are looking for.

Quinn, from the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game

Both games use "dice for stats" in that the card game has characters with a die rating in each ability score, like STR, INT, WIS, and so on. Savage Pathfinder sticks to the Savage Worlds ability scores, but rates them similarly, but also adds a skill system which the card game does as a flat modifier to an ability score. Where in the card game "experience" are you adding marks to abilities, starting deck cards, and hand size; Savage Pathfinder is a more traditional RPG with an advance awarded at the end of a session used to raise attributes and skills, gain edges, buy off hindrances, and so on.

Lem, in Savage Pathfinder

Savage is more the traditional RPG, less so that "card cinema" based gameplay a card game throws at you with the unpredictable draw and you have no idea what you are starting with, and what is coming up next in your hand. It could be you draw your armor last and you go without it for most of the adventure. The card game does have the concept of a "favored card" meaning you draw a starting hand until you have at least one of those items in your first hand, such as a weapon card.

With the RPG, your gear is your gear, and you can lose it and buy new things normally. I do burn a lot of gear in my regular games, and players need to be prepared to lose their stuff. Such is the cost of being an adventurer.

One thing I always loved about Savage Pathfinder is that 1-for-1 character sheet. Got a d4 in strength and a d8 in agility? Wow, that agility die is larger, you must be really good at that! Remember to roll your wild die with that and beat a 4 on either die! Skills are the same way and the list of edges and abilities can be played straight from the character sheet without any book reference. With new players I always go for Savage Worlds first, and they pick everything up nearly instantly no matter their previous experience. The rules do not need you to "be in the tabletop RPG mindset" at all, and the game can be played almost like a Monopoly-style set of rules.

Wanna hit something with your ax? Roll this. Wanna kick down the door? Roll that. Once most players make two rolls they understand almost everything about how 80% of the game works.

Resource Burndown

The card game does make you "burn down" your resources faster than the RPG, as you may sacrifice an ally, spell, or unneeded weapon when you are forced to discard cards in your hand. So it is inherently like action or spy movies where most of your gear and resources are used a few times or sacrificed regularly, like a spy laser watch being only good for one scene in the movie before it is discarded and is no longer used or seen again. Or maybe the soldier ally takes a wound and is sacrificed so your mission can continue. Maybe you lose your concealable pistol in a fight, you didn't want to, but it is better than taking a wound.

Burndown of gear in the RPG is typically done with critical failures (a roll of 1 on both the skill and wild dice), and instead of an external bad thing happening the GM rules an item is lost. I also include mook allies as the bad things that can be affected by the critical failure results.

I also (when it is appropriate) allow a "push it to the limit" rule in my Savage games where if you sacrifice the gear you are using for the task, you can reroll a failed check. Climbing a fortress wall with a rope and failing the climbing roll? Want to "push it" and try again? If so, roll again, and lose the rope either way. I do this for all rolls EXCEPT combat rolls, just to put extra value on standard gear and create the burn-down economy where you go through an adventure and lose things regularly and have to deal with the outcome of your choices.

If you are doing "fail forward" you can simply ignore the reroll mechanic, assume success, and sacrifice the gear. There are times, especially when the adventure stops to a dead halt if they fail, I will ignore push it and just fail forward. There are other times I want to put the decision in the player's hands and treat the loss of a gear item as a bennie for that task. It depends, is there another way in and the players don't want to lose the rope? Then I leave it up to them.

Special Gear

The card game does have a fun concept of special cards that give you a bonus to certain actions, but this can also be simulated in the RPG by directly linking task difficulty to the available equipment. In both games, you can say "fancy clothes" give you a bonus to interactions in social situations. In the card game, it would be a flat bonus, such as a +2. In Savage, you would base the difficulty on the situation, and modify it for having the proper gear. Wearing plate mail that smells like sweat and oil to a high-society function? Yeah, prepare for a +4 difficulty modifier to any social skill rolls there. Got "fancy clothes?" Then your checks are at the base target level of 4.

Equipment in both games can be flat bonuses or allow rerolls. I prefer flat bonuses since it is less dice rolling and enhances the "push it" and "fail forward" mechanics in a direct way.

Similar Games, One Minus Cards

If you love the Pathfinder Adventure Card game but always shied away from the core Pathfinder (1e or 2e) game, give Savage Pathfinder a try! The concepts are incredibly similar and the games share the same design language. The RPG frees you from deck management and setup and opens up the situations for random play, hex-crawls, published adventures, or GM-guided scenarios. Also, the range of the things you can do is not limited by cards or lengthy scenario setup and multiple guided deck building and positioning of locations.

You just kind of grab a character sheet, some funny dice, listen to the GM, and play.