Sunday, July 31, 2022

Books for Games, The Middle Ages

One of the great things about playing roleplaying games with a strong historical context is you get to buy books outside the hobby to support your creativity. I got the above three books to support the Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS), and they are wonderful reference guides on how the era is supposed to look, feel, and act. While I am not playing in Middle Ages Europe for my game, the conflicts, people, and struggles of the time directly translate into in-game inspiration and background. I could flip to any page of these books and instantly have an adventure seed.

There are also conflicts baked into these books, like the Magic in the Middle Ages book discussing the history of magic, the church, and the early laws against witchcraft. If you have a civilization where the power lies solely with the church and not the state, this stuff is important. A monastery is established in a remote region, and the church moves settlers in. A town grows in the area, and the land begins to be tamed. And then mages move in, or magical artifacts are found.

If this were D&D, oh, that is another character class, someone hire an arcane caster, please? Character classes don't have reasons to mistrust each other! What is this? Somebody remind everyone of party unity please and play nice with each other. That "modern fantasy" feeling hits and people start behaving as the rules tell them to.

In a more grounded and historical game, the church may keep a close eye on mages and limit the practice of magic. They may ban it, or even hunt practitioners, depending on the faith. Of course, as characters get higher levels and begin to start their own kingdoms, they can set any rules they want. My reading of this book gives me ideas for the game outside the game's library of sources.

And of course, you get the novels and game worlds of the official game, and if you tried to bring in ideas from history into "a fantasy world" you may be called out for breaking what one book said, changing the lore of the world, or stepping on someone's expectations. You can't make druids distrusted! I play a druid! That would never happen in the Forgotten Realms! There are too many powerful mages in this world for that to happen!

The fact a lot of "in-game lore" and the rules themselves contradict history and have to be argued for is a very strange thing. It is as if somehow we worship this idolatry of a "generic fantasy world" so strongly that actual things that happened in history are somehow invalid ideas.

And this "generic fantasy world" becomes a Wonderland of silly rules and contradictions, things that can and cannot happen, words that can and cannot be said, codes of conduct and manners of dress, and concepts and injustices being brushed away and everyone being told to forget about them because they didn't happen.

Back in the Middle Ages, peasants and serfs were practically owned by the lord of the land and needed to be given permission to travel. There was no modern cosmopolitan society, no colleges, few organized guilds, no merchant class, no wealthy class, no intellectuals, no suburban life, and governments were weak compared to the almighty church. Families gave children to the church for blessings and benefits. This is the starting point, if players want to change this they are free to do so.

If I started with D&D, C&C, B/X, or any other game that feels more "modern fantasy" I am not getting these concepts. The books feel strange. A lot of what is in these books is out of place in the D&D cosmology or Pathfinder world, and parts of them are banned outright in the lore.

And I like collecting books. I do not have to rely on a game company's release schedule to find inspiration on my favorite topic or style of the game world. I have all of Amazon at my fingertips. I am not limited to one source, company, view, content guideline, or pigeonholed into the "fantasy world" box when I am shopping for my library. I am also not tied to web portals or having my library taken away by policy changes, business closings, or license invalidation.

The company can stop printing the game and I will still have near-infinite sources of content. This is one of the strengths of B/X and the OSR as well, none of my B/X purchases are invalidated by a new version of the game, switching from Labyrinth Lord to OSE, playing ACKS or C&C, doing LotFP or AD&D (or ADD&D), S&W or any other B/X game.

I have the freedom to choose.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Off the Shelf: Adventurer Conqueror King

I had the Adventurer Conqueror King System and the sourcebooks on a back shelf and forgot about it for a while. To me, it didn't do anything special, it was an AD&D-style mod of a game, and what it did could be done easier by a game like Castles & Crusades (C&C). ACKS totes around some of the legacy cruft, like saving throw tables, thief skills, and proficiencies - so it isn't too different than a B/X-style game. ACKS is also focused on end-game kingdom management, so there are changes in how some of the classes and many of the spells work, so I did not really feel it was worth the time learning all the differences and spending the time to really dive deep into this game and world.

So I put it away for a while. I had better things to read and play. C&C became my go-to B/X style game since it simplified the experience to a smooth and fast core mechanic. ACKS is a traditional AD&D-style game, a lot is left up to you. There is no "ability score roll" system, and the game has a proficiency system with "per skill" throws, modifiers, or other loose guidelines for how to use them.

So why come back?

C&C does it all, right? Or B/X, if that is your game.

Modern High Fantasy

There is very little difference between a high fantasy game published today and the modern world.

I get the feeling Pathfinder 2e and D&D 5 are way too modern for my tastes. One of the current adventure paths from Paizo has guns and robots everywhere, and D&D has coffee shops and colleges. We have robots, trains, airships, and anachronisms everywhere - even in social constructs.

Yes, you can pull this all out, but it is a lot of work. Part of why I like B/X is that it models the early era of roleplaying when I felt like I was entering another world and I had to learn how things worked and how the people of the time got things done.

I was immersed in a new world, not a fantasy-themed version of this one.

To enjoy fantasy is to enjoy escapism, which means putting yourself in an unfamiliar situation and world, in the shoes of another person entirely, and experiencing something new.

Not a repainted version of the familiar.

Middle Ages Fantasy

ACKS is a Middle Ages game that can dip into high fantasy with an optional book, but it stays grounded in a pre-Renaissance world. Why is this important?

The Renaissance is the birth of the modern era, and this is when a lot of the "bad things" began to take root, like colonialism, slavery, exploitative capital markets, industrialization, wars of the state, and the extreme divide between rich and poor. The world is explored and divided up by colonial powers. Native societies are being subdued and killed en masse to seed the birth of nations. Industrialization is blooming, with bodies being thrown into wars and the environment stripped of beauty and resources. This is why I love Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP) for this era since every one of these colonialist "heroes" participates in a corrupt society based on the suffering and exploitation of others, the only way to play Renaissance and get this puritanical "all sinners must die" sort of satisfaction is as a horror game.

A Middle Ages world is a lot like beginning a Civilization VI game. The old empire has fallen and ruins of the Imperial age are everywhere. The world is unexplored and forgotten. The land is being discovered and settled by those who live there. Tribes, families, and local cultures are stronger. Travel is dangerous, but those who can establish trade routes and commerce will find great wealth. Not everything is done, there are no large merchant classes, and the structure of society falls under a powerful church - and the church is more powerful than the state.

You may wonder about that point and not prefer to have the dominant church. But I say if your players want to change things and build their own "ideal society" you have a cleaner starting point here than in a Renaissance Era where you not only have to deal with empowered states, a wealthy class, often armed merchant classes, and so many other factions. This is why ACKS does an incredible job, it picks a starting point that gives players a clean slate for building a dynasty, and it opens the door for them to create the type of society they dream of.

And honestly, having the church be the default power gives you something to either fight against, work with, or shape the power of in your world. Freedoms are limited, and even serfdom puts every peasant in an area under the thumb of a lord. But this power structure is a very simple one and it is an ideal blank slate, to begin with.

Do you want a society that tolerates all gods, even evil ones? How about just good ones? One god of many? A few? How powerful is the church in your kingdom? Are there limits to divine power over society? How does your government enforce that? How does your kingdom treat native peoples? If you learn about another kingdom exploiting others, do you oppose them? Does your society ban forced servitude? Is your society inclusive and more modern, or more savage and tribal?

Since ACKS is a kingdom-building game, the choices of how you build the world are yours. None of the Renaissance baggage is loaded onto you, or "conveniently forgotten" to present a family-friendly fantasy. The Middle Ages is less technologically advanced, but still in that familiar realm of fantasy.

But all of the choices on how the world is built are up to the players.

In C&C, I am back in the Renaissance model. If I want to ignore the societal and political aspects of this era and just play Keep of the Borderlands, C&C or B/X does a great job of delivering a playable game without all the guilt and baggage. If I want the moral struggle and horror game, LotFP is my choice.

But if I want a fantasy game where "the players build the world" and their choices matter, like a game of Civilization VI with all the great 4X action - ACKS is the game that sets the bar in both design and the model of the world it presents.

Friday, July 29, 2022

The Red Dragon

Let's take the toughest ancient red dragon in every edition and compare them. One thing to keep in mind is that in every edition of the game, the basic longsword weapon does the same damage in all of these games, 1d8 + STR mod.

Not all of the stats will be repeated here, just enough to get an overall power level of each creature in the rules. This is important when playing a module with a set of rules it wasn't designed for, normally you should "roll back" to the same monster in the original game if you have it.


The AD&D red dragon felt really weak, and this is one of my problems with AD&D and B/X. Certain spells, if they hit, can wipe out an ancient red dragon in one hit. Magic and spell resistance here is standard, so dragons in AD&D are more vulnerable to spells and casters.

  • AC -1
  • 8 HD, hit points 88
  • Three attacks (d8,d8,3d10)
  • Breath weapon = current hp
  • Magic use (2 spells of levels 1 to 4)

AD&D 2e

AD&D 2 has 12 dragon age categories instead of 8, and it looks like the influence of Dragonlance making dragons "boss monsters" has had an impact here. The hit points are only slightly higher, but the attack damage - especially breath weapon - has gone way up. Breath weapons can be used every three rounds.

I do like the AD&D 2 monsters a little better than the AD&D 1e classics, just because they feel play-tested and rebalanced for a better party challenge. Also, older dragons were given magic resistance, which could cause any spell to fail instantly. While casters hated this, my melee players loved being needed again.

  • AC -11
  • 23 HD, hit points 104
  • Three attacks (d10,d10,3d10)
  • Breath weapon = 24d10+12
  • Magic use (caster level 9; wizard: 2 spells of levels 1 to 4, 1 level 5; priest: 2 level 1, 1 level 1)
  • Magic resistance 65%

D&D 3.5

D&D 3 and 3.5 introduced multi-attacks for martial classes as characters leveled, which slowed down play and caused the game to "scale" higher-level encounters on a steeper curve. While the low-level game isn't too much different than B/X, the high-level game has this

Pathfinder 1e's version of this dragon is similar, with slightly fewer hit points, but far more special abilities, special attacks, defenses, and spells. Multiple attacks at that cumulative -5 modifier make their debut here, and you have to factor that into average per-turn damage. Of all the dragons in the D&D 3 through 5 eras, Pathfinder 1e's dragon is my favorite just because of the detail and design. At times those monster stats feel too complicated and overboard, but I appreciate the thought and effort that went into them.

Spell resistance replaces magic resistance and it is 1d20 + caster level, which works out to about the same level of magic resistance as AD&D 2e, but is modified for caster level (and punishes lower level casters harder).

  • AC 41
  • 40 HD (d12), hit points 660
  • Attack modifier +49 / grapple +73 (avg. attacks 4d8, 4d6, or 2d8; +18 to all damage)
  • Breath weapon = 24d10
  • Magic use (caster level 19)
  • DR 20 (magic), SR 32

D&D 4

With D&D 4 we never really felt the higher-level monsters were play-tested all that much. They kept changing and rebalancing monsters as the game went on, and the first version of the red dragon was this massive pile of hit points and relatively low damage attacks. Also, the lack of spell use just feels like an oversight and makes the monster feel like it was rushed through development and tossed in a book to mark the "red dragon" checkbox.

If two of these dragons fight each other, their average per-turn damage will be 82/turn (2 claws and tail slap), which will take 17 hits to win, or at a 50% hit-rate 34 turns. I am eliminating fire damage for auras and breath weapons here because of resistance.

No wonder Pathfinder 1e felt better designed, the monsters just have more care and love put into them. D&D 4 was a fun game from levels 1-10. At higher levels, things felt incomplete, sloppy, and not much design and attention was put into them to make them feel like the classic D&D monsters of old. The answer was "bigger numbers" and that was it, and the numerous turn-denial attacks and conditions made this a boring rinse-repeat loop of "take away monster turn" and "whittle down hit points."

We loved this game, which made it hurt all the more when we left and realized how broken and thoughtless some of the design elements were.

  • AC 48
  • Hit points 1390
  • Fire resistance 40
  • Attack modifier +37 (two claws, bite 2d12+12, bites do an extra 6d6 fire damage)
  • Tail slap 4d10+12, reaction
  • Breath weapon = 4d12+10, ongoing 15 fire damage
  • No spells

D&D 5

I haven't played too much D&D 5, so I don't really have a good opinion on the red dragon here. It feels some care and balance went into the design, and the bounded accuracy feels like the numbers have been pulled way down. Hit points feel high like D&D 3.5, but I am feeling the damage scaling of the D&D 3.5 era is still around.

I do like this version of the ancient red dragon, but I feel the hit points are a bit high, like 3E due to damage scaling. Given the bounded accuracy of D&D 5 it feels like some care went into the design.

  • AC 22
  • 546 hit points
  • Bite = +17, 2d6 + 10
  • 2 Claws = +17, 2d6  +10
  • Tail = +17, 2d8 + 10
  • Breath weapon = 26d6 (91) damage
  • Magic use is a variant rule.
  • Legendary resistance, CR 17, 3/day

Castles & Crusades

C&C has a nice red dragon that feels like an AD&D 2e dragon, and one that has a higher damage output as well. The spell resistance is a 6 (on 1d20, 1-6 makes the spell fail), so while there is some magic resistance there isn't enough to make a majority fail.

While hit points are lower, you do not have the plethora of multi and special attacks you have in games after AD&D 2e. I like the original damage scale where a 1d8 longsword still means something.

The breath weapon is epic, and almost feels like too much damage, but it is something that should be feared. Of all the AD&D 1e, B/X, and 2e red dragons, this one is my favorite. I do feel the spells are a little on the lower side, but this could be house-ruled for dragons who may have studied magic and are more full casters.

  • AC 32
  • 34 HD, 156 hp
  • Full fire immunity
  • +34 to-hit
  • 2 claws (1d8+12), wing (1d10+12), tail (1d10+12), and bite (4d10+12)
  • Spell resistance 6
  • Breath weapon = 34d10
  • Twelve 1st level spells, three 2nd level spells

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Castles & Crusades: Initiative

Toss out the scrap paper.

No adding DEX mods or improved initiative bonuses. DEX is used to break ties.

We use d10s around here. Straight rolls.

Of course, you can use whatever dice you want. Got bucket-loads of multicolored d20s? Use those. Pick a unique die, roll it, and put it on your character sheet. The referee calls down from highest to lowest.

The only exceptions are for weapon length and creature size. If this happens, the larger or longer reach goes first, regardless of the initiative roll.

And we are done.

The Castles & Crusades (C&C) initiative system eliminates the "gaming" of initiative roll with special rules, ability modifiers, or bonuses. The combat rounds are unpredictable since you roll every game and shuffle the order. Combat is chaotic and dangerous, as it should be. You can't "front load" a turn with fast builds and action-denial attacks, and your party needs to be able to adjust and adapt as combat ebbs and flows. You could go a the end of one round and the beginning of another, so you could potentially double-attack in a short period - or an enemy could. Momentum is fluid and can change at any time.

Having played years of Pathfinder 1e, I love this system. Whenever my Pathfinder characters got into melee, I would have these pieces of scrap paper lying around with lists of numbers and turn orders. I began to hate combat since initiative tracking was a huge chore. Savage Worlds does a better job with cards as initiative order, but still, you have to pull every turn and shuffle every so often. C&C is just a handful of dice, and that is it, so it is simple and fast.

And there were some feats in 3.5/Pathfinder 1e that were so good you were required to take them. One of them in our games was improved initiative (casters more than melee, but still a good choice to the latter). When the "required feat" happens the entire feat system breaks down, and it isn't meaningful "options" anymore - the feat system should ideally be folded into class abilities and done away with.

And we ended up hating improved initiative too.

It Gets to the Fun

I love how C&C "gets to the fun" in many ways. Lots of complexity is removed. Where B/X games are tied to some strange historical artifacts of less-than-ideal game design, C&C removes all the grit and cruft from the B/X-style experience and gives you a pure, highly lubricated, smooth-moving system. And what the designers removed isn't missed; the Siege Engine does more with less.

While I love Savage Pathfinder, this game is consuming more of my playtime. There is no converting anything to Savage Worlds dice or stats. I am playing with the original AC, hit point, and damage values. I can play B/X and AD&D modules as-is.

I also love Pathfinder 1e, but C&C "powers down" characters to their original AD&D levels, removes all the extra Paizo powers of each class, and makes the game feel like the original again. I also like D&D 3.5 because the characters are more straightforward than Pathfinder 1e, but C&C goes back to AD&D and sits upon that original throne of Gygaxian balance and power level.

You are not super-powered like you get in Pathfinder 1e and D&D 3.5 as you level. Your damage stays at AD&D levels and does not "scale up" because of multi-attacks and other damage scaling mechanics they introduced for game-feeling and to break compatibility.

While learning the game, I had a few issues with C&C, and I felt they may have removed too much. With some time and reflection, I realized why they did, and everything worked incredibly well.

This is quickly becoming my favorite AD&D-style game.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Solo Game Master's Guide (Modiphius)

Do you know the difference between a book written by someone reciting things off a checklist versus someone who has actually done something and mastered the field?

This book is the latter.

This is partially a solo play system and more a theory book about how you solo play, what you should not get hung up on, and how you can get better at the art of solo RPG play. These skills easily transfer over to being a referee; being able to improvise, come up with stories, and exercise your imagination are critical parts of becoming a great game master.

This is an excellent book; I had some of the bad solo play habits warned about in this book. Endlessly rolling dice. Frustrating myself with tables that did not tell me anything. Feeling the story should go one way, but the system never allowed it to. The overuse of story assistants, or picking card after card and expecting everything to work. The burnout. Stalled stories.

I put unreasonable expectations on a solo system and did not trust the storyteller inside myself.

There is a lot on telling stories, arcs, and how to keep momentum. There is a bit of excellent advice on skipping character creation as your "first step," - and I have had so many solo games end at character creation I would have to agree.

A character is not a story.

A character is not a game.

A character does not guarantee momentum.

There is also a concept of every oracle roll being a danger to your story. I find it fascinating to realize what you are doing to your game with an oracle roll and save them for the most critical questions. Your game will get better the fewer oracle rolls you use.

If you ever find yourself rolling an oracle too much - STOP. Figure out a way to move forward without a roll. What you are doing is destructive behavior to your story and game. No amount of rolling will give you an answer, and it is better to come up with the most exciting way forward by yourself instead of overreliance on the oracle.

Sometimes, no matter how much you roll, you will never get an answer.

So just make yourself happy, sad, or whatever. Go with a feeling and move on.

There is also a lot of inspiration on "interpretive sources" where the oracle you use does not give you a hard "yes-no" answer. Still, you grab a few random things, flip through a book and find items of inspiration, or use a table of descriptive words and imagine "what happens next" from these "imagine what they mean" sources.

I am lost in this book, and it is making me rethink solo play.

Highest recommendation for solo players.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Gamma World Melee Damage

I love Gamma World, but...

The game using a 1d6 per point of constitution scale for hit points and keeping the original B/X level damages is a mess. With a laser pistol doing 5d6 damage, standard B/X style melee weapons were feeble. The STR adjustment to injury in the first and second editions was STR-15, or STR-6, for a negative modifier.

Vibro-daggers (10 hp damage) and vibro-blades (25) leveled the playing field, but still, there was very little threat from the primitive weapons. This pushes the "loot economy," where the first few rooms need a supply of high-tech armaments just to keep combat balance in check.

Part of me feels they did this to keep high-level AD&D parties viable. By the time an AD&D party is visiting Gamma World, you will need creatures with the 8-12 HD range to challenge the party. The artifacts feel suitable for that level of play too.

Mutant Future kept this hit-point scale for compatibility. It is still my favorite version of the Gamma World style game because of its interoperability with Labyrinth Lord. This game has that perfect mix of the low-tech world and the lost ruins of old that I love, and it is directly compatible with Gamma World, so all your favorites can return. It also has a strong encumbrance and gear system, and you get that low-level "feel" of adventure.

But still, the low-end damage problems with primitive melee weapons remain here as a legacy compatibility "feature" of the main game. You could argue that the world is so dangerous, "only the toughest survive," but I would still want melee weapons to do more damage. A dagger takes 14 successful hits to take out a CON 10 character with 35 hit points; with misses factored in, that is long combat. With 30-second combat turns and a 50% miss rate, that is a 15-minute battle and kind of boring.

There is a 10% chance per level of gaining one attack per round (Mutant Future), so that is a factor, but it still does not really fix the issue. Many D&D-style games try to balance high hit points and low weapon damage at high levels with multiple attacks, power moves, or other damage scaling tricks.

I would be sorely tempted to add a die of damage per +1 damage modifier and introduce a breakage rule on the low end of the 1+ damage modifier (modified by construction materials, which could be lowered to zero). So an 18 STR character is doing 4d8 damage with a longsword and has a breakage chance of 1-4 for a weapon made of ordinary materials. Now my Ookla the Brute character will pick up stop signs and break them over people's heads. With DEX, I would modify missile weapons that rolled dice for damage and leave fixed damage to high-tech guns alone.

Alternatively, I could award those extra hit dice on a per-adventure basis, start everyone off at 1 HD, and increase these up to CON HD at a rate of 1-3 HD per adventure as the characters get in fights, train, and "toughen up." Without messing with the base B/X damages the "bonus HD progression" seems like the best solution. keeps the original damage scaling, and would start most characters and noncombatants off at 1d6 hp.

Though instead of a hack, I wish the weapons and monsters were balanced for a more traditional zero-to-hero experience, where everyone started at 1 HD and leveled up normally. Then again...

Mutant Crawl Classics (MCC) gets the zero-to-hero right regarding damage and monster scaling. This is the standard B/X style progression, though the game does many of the Dungeon Crawl Classics standards, such as mutations being like DCC "spells" with charts and shamans who can access the ancient power of AI Patrons (like gods). This is much like Gamma World in terms of a high-tech destroyed world.

MCC's sister game Umerica also has the same B/X style damage scaling and exists on a lower-tech scale than MCC. Umerica also has a better gear section of weapons, armor, and other gear, so it feels like a more survivalist-oriented game, almost like an Aftermath or post-20th-Century ruin game, but still with the gonzo attitude.

All of these are great games, I would just like a few tweaks on the hit points and damage to the ones on the Gamma World side to get them in line with B/X and not have them make normal melee weapons so weak.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Mail Room: Solo Game Master's Guide (Modiphius)

Modiphius put out a Solo Game Master's Guide with the Geek Gamers Youtube channel, and this looks like an interesting system-neutral book on how to make solo gaming work. The production values, art, and advice in this book look top-notch, so I want to give this a read and cover it soon.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Star Crawl (DCC)

One of the best things about Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC) is the community of creators and how crazy and cool this whole scene is. You have this "fan-zine" mentality to many of the projects and products, and the art in these products is just as off the wall as the games themselves.

With many D&D 5 and 5E third-party products, I feel the professional publishers have moved in and taken over the space. You need a degree in InDesign, full-page bleed layouts, tens of thousands of dollars of art from professional artists, dozens of play-testers, and lots of money and influence just to enter the market. You get pushed out of any attention or feedback as a small fan creator.

You can look like a small-press fan publication in the DCC community and be taken seriously. Ensure your typos are taken care of, and the book is laid out well and organized. The art? I love the art in these books; it is very amateurish but lovingly so. For many pieces, you laugh and tell yourself, "this really is horrible," but then you laugh and get the joke.

The art isn't horrible; it is beautiful. This is something I could do. I can dream too.

And you see the art as inspiring.

It sets you free.

This is embracing the early days of the hobby when a kid in their garage would put out a typewritten newsletter and dream huge. And many of these products attract so much interest they can successfully Kickstarter later, pour quality art and layout into the game, and attract prominent OSR artists to help people see the dream. So when you support these fan products, you see them as they develop and get in early to watch them grow.

Star Crawl

From the intro:

Star Crawl is the result of my home DCC campaign and what follows grew from the incredible experiences I’ve had running games with the Tuesday Night Fiend Club. The game is geared towards wild, fun play and letting the players go nuts. What I’ve written is focused on providing a loose guide for play rather than rigid rules surrounding travel, encumbrance, and economy. I hope you have as much fun playing Star Crawl as I have had writing it.

This game is gonzo crazy cool. It is a "what if" DCC and Mutant Crawl Classics (MCC) characters ended up in a space society in the far future. Or what if they started there. Or what if they wander through a magical gate and decide to live here. It doesn't even care where your original class comes from, what game, or what world.

Star Crawl is designed to accommodate characters, classes, and races from any DCC or MCC games. The classes presented here are intended as star borne options to expand your universe a bit. There is no reason you couldn’t have a party consisting of a DCC Wizard, a MCC Rover, a SC Medic, and a Cyborg from Reid San Filippo’s Umerica. The original SC campaign party consisted of all DCC characters who ended up in space, with new SC characters added over time.


If your DCC campaign has an adventure where the characters investigate a crashed gonzo alien starship, and somehow the party manages to fly it away and end up in space? Star Crawl has you covered. You will fly from strange to strange worlds, fight evil, and have crazy adventures. Similarly, with an MCC or Umerica game characters, find a similar starship and head out into space.

And then your adventures come off as homages to campy and horrible sci-fi movies, played through the lens of DCC, and it is perfect. The game plays like an OSR classic, everything is deadly, and the random tables throw chaos into the game. You are also not taking everything so seriously, laughing, and having a good time.

The intro adventure in Star Crawl feels like a tip of the hat to the pirate attack on a luxury liner in The Fifth Element, with players doing a funnel as doomed passengers. You can do similar hilarious funnels based on the colony investigation of Aliens, a War of the Worlds style tripod walker attack, a scientific exploration into a pyramid of the ancients, a Star Trek away team disaster, a Flash Gordon style aerial battle, the final battle of Star Wars (but with a boarding party trying to blow the reactor by hand lol), or any other classic sci-fi scene where dozens of clueless idiots die their way through a hilarious first mission trying to achieve an impossible goal.

This game reminds me of the days when the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide told you how to port your games into Gamma World or Boot Hill, and the game's creators felt the game should be yours to have fun with. Nobody really cared if it made sense or if they feared breaking immersion, the writers of the game wanted you to have as much fun as they did.

I love this community and the company publishing these gems. They are some of the most creative and insane adventures and games out there, not caring how they look, but completely focused on fun and supporting your creativity and input.

The game is yours.

Play, referee, or participate as a creator, the choice is yours.

Saturday, July 23, 2022


Hostile is sort of like the "grown up" version of Cepheus Engine. The base Cepheus Engine rules are this generic, semi-campy romp through classic 2d6 sci-fi adventuring. I love the base game for modding and as the universal system from which all else comes. Hostile is the 1970s retro-future serious alternative to Cehpeus Engine, where everything is gritty, toned-down, and realism is emphasized over the lighthearted.

The technology base is sort of a 1970s retro-future welded-together mess of cool, and the game goes from there into an Earth-based 2d6 sci-fi campaign. There is a heavy Alien influence here, but it isn't everything this game has to offer, and frankly, you can play this game without the space monsters and have just as much fun. There are other great influences here as well, including Blade Runner, The Thing, Total Recall, Event Horizon, The Abyss, Outland, The Expanse, and Pitch Black. Even TV shows like Ice Road Truckers or Deadliest Catch are inspirations for this world and the adventures it can provide.

Ordinary space workers in an industrialized future. An incredibly dangerous universe. Plenty of alien monsters nobody understands. A retro-future filled with cynicism, conspiracies, hidden agendas, and quick death.

Again, you could say this is just an Alien wannabe game, but it really isn't and deserves a little more respect and attention. Alien is just one series in the genre, and this genre is bigger than one franchise. It is like saying all superheroes are Marvel or DC and full stop, and you miss out on roleplaying games like Champions or TV series like The Boys. This is "retro-fi" at its finest, and tries to strike a balance as a "generic retro-fi RPG" the same way D&D tries to be a "generic fantasy RPG." And at times I feel I want the genre to move beyond Alien and break free from that creative stagnation, no matter how cool the movies still are.

There are six main themes to the game:

  1. The heroes are everyday workers in space.
  2. The future is heavily industrialized.
  3. Everything is dangerous and every job is high-pressure.
  4. The universe is populated by humans and space monsters.
  5. The future is retro-future dirty, full of retro-tech, repaired, second-hand, and used.
  6. The outlook is cynicism. Conspiracies, manipulation, lies, and dirty secrets are everywhere.

The Alien RPG is cool, but where Hostile shines is it is a few levels more generic and allows for all sorts of non-Alien concepts and creatures to be introduced. I could mod in psionic rules to Hostile and it would work, whereas in Alien it would feel really strange. I could throw "1950s sci-fi movie monster of the week" style adventures at the characters, like a blob, giant ants, giant worms, parasites that attach to people and control minds, space vampires, silicate rock creatures, or the monster out of The Thing, and it all just works.

I would still use Alien for one-shots or to introduce people to horror RPGs, just because it is so recognizable and accessible. But the market for RPGs also seems to be flooded with RPGs based on TV and movie properties, and I can only play so many of these before I quit playing all of them and just want something simple that does more than one thing. For now, I am done buying licensed RPGs and want experiences that break free from the source material and give me room for my own creativity.

Could I play all of the above with Cepheus Engine or even Traveller? Yes, but Hostile oozes flavor and gives you tons of specific gear, ships, weapons, armor, and a complete setting that fits the theme. I have this game next to Battletech on my game shelf and ooh that sounds like a cool peanut-butter-and-chocolate combination.

Battletech with retro 70s tech and a true hard science and survival mentality? That is cool, and removes some of that gleaming and brand new sheen from the universe and puts it back on a more humanistic and realistic grounding that I love. When the future gets too clean and plastic it gets too sterile and uninteresting. Even the original Star Wars movies had that gritty and clunky retro-tech feeling, and after a while, you get designers who want to change the look and feel to a cleaner aesthetic and you lose not only the feeling of the universe but a huge part of the story and meaning.

Cepheus Engine is always my "source code" for modding and game creation, but Hostile is the best implementation of that 1970s sci-fi game, but it breaks free of the original movies in the genre and gives you the room to put your own spin and creativity into the universe.

Friday, July 22, 2022

D&D 4: The Fallcrest Campaign, Part 1

When we played D&D,  we only had the core material in the three core D&D 4 books - and this was the best time we had with the game. Every book we added we felt was excellent, but the power creep and changes just wrecked the game for us in the long run.

We hated the "level 10, leave for the planes" multiverse setup in D&D 4 and after. It marginalized every campaign world and made the tired "go anywhere, do anything" multiverse play the norm. To us, having a world scale from 1-30 was really cool, and it meant out there on this world, there were level 30 raid bosses lying in wait for those foolish enough to get near.

So for us, having the first three books and no "planar ejection seat" for high-level adventuring is when the game sang to us. It was cool. Paizo did a world like this with Golarion. They created this almost "sealed up" sandbox where all your fun, even the high-level stuff, was in one game world.

This was an epic place where epic creatures chose to live, and epic powers made their homes. There was a level 26 dragon in the mountains, with a dragon cult trying to become a considerable force in the world. Level 14 orc war bosses were serving as the leaders of temples of Orcus. The world felt like it had built-in challenges and a sense of scale.

No World Needed

We had the basic map and created the rest of the world ourselves. There were these "monster creation rules" in the DMG, which we used to develop foes, and we skipped many of the D&D standards. Need a level 5 brute and controller? Fine, just do some math and give them a few level 5 powers from a similar class, and you are done.

The D&D product identity monsters mainly were sidelined. We kept goblins as the lower-level humanoid monsters, while orcs exclusively started at level 5 - and they felt severe when they showed up, which we loved. We had this thing where orcs were never let out into the world until they trained until level 5, and most were followers of Orcus, so they were "bad dudes" whenever you saw them.

We let monsters take character class levels, leading to wild encounters. You never really knew if the encounter would go sideways when the monsters started pulling some of the same tricks the characters had, and the battles felt epic and unique.

It was a great place, full of adventure and nobody knew what was around the next corner.

More Books = Less Fun

The more books we collected, the less fun we had. The more official rulings told us we were playing the game wrong. The monster rebalances made us rely less on our imagination and more on the books. The new classes started repeating each other, shuffling powers or were so OP they became the hot thing and ruined the game for the original classes and characters.

We used the few bits of world info they provided and ignored the Greyhawk module transplants. The best stuff was the new and original content they produced for the D&D 4 world and that which captured our imagination.

And the constant focus on the planes lessened the fantastic world we had set up. Once you got to level 10, any one of the official campaign worlds felt like an MMO "starting player zone," and you left them to go flying around the multiverse. And it sucked. The incredible world we built felt like an aberration rather than an everyday thing.

Also, we saw the creep back towards the previous edition norms taking over. Orcs were a 1 HD creature, just like in AD&D! Please make things how they were! Run back into the cave allegory! We felt a little let down when we saw Essentials rolling things back to the older ways.

Our Way of Playing = More Fun

When I look back at this time, what was the most fun?

  • It wasn't the world; since we ended up making that up.
  • It wasn't product identity; we ignored it.
  • It wasn't the adventures; we made our own.
  • It wasn't the monsters; we made most of them ourselves.
  • It wasn't the support for the game; too much support killed the game.

Was it the D&D 4 game? The rules were fun because they were new, and the new races were fun, but I am sure we could have fun with any sort of rules this way. The powers and leveling were okay, which had many problems where we felt characters got weaker as they leveled.

The unknown was very fun, using that monster creation system to come up with all sorts of new monsters "never seen before in D&D!" The more monster manuals we bought, the less fun we had fighting monsters. The more class books we purchased, the less joy we had playing classes. The more world books we bought, the less we enjoyed exploring.

It felt almost as if our imagination was better than the game we were playing. The more tools the game gave us to express our ideas, the better things were. The more the game tried to fill things in, the less fun we had.

I suppose all of that should be obvious.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022


There are times I think nostalgia is cool, and other times I feel nostalgia is killing the hobby.

I go back to my old games and old campaigns, and I love those moments. I want to relive them. I restarted my old Mystara campaign with Castles & Crusades, and it feels great. I love all the classic monsters and settings. I go to a superhero movie and I feel the same feelings, how cool is it to see comic book heroes on the big screen?

And then it hits me.

What I am seeing is playing upon my original feelings, and those feelings are not new. Why I remember the original so fondly because it was something new for me.

This nostalgia?

Not new and never will be new again.

It will never create the same feeling in me, only attempt to bring it back in a weaker, diluted form.

One of the worst things big companies do to creative forces them to work on nostalgia IP. They often mess it up. And worse, those creatives are being robbed of the opportunity to create something new, that would give fans these original feelings again of "not seeing this before" and letting those creatives make history. The fans are robbed too because the copy will never live up to the original.

Criticize Strixhaven and Radiant Citadel from Wizards all you want, but these are new settings. Well, Strixhaven feels like a note-for-note Harry Porter bucket list adventure, but at least it isn't another classic adventure reboot. They are something new within the D&D pantheon - a new experience through the lens of D&D. They are not for me, but I applaud the company for taking a risk. This is far better than another Tomb of Horrors reboot, another Temple of the Elemental Evil, with more beholders, mind flayers, more drow, more displacer beasts, the D&D pantheon, Vecna again, and the same old product identity regurgitated to infinity and beyond.

But were mind flayers cool? Yes, when we first saw them. Now, 40 years down the road, they have been rehashed and rebooted so many times they are nothing special. No matter how many new artists you throw at them or tweak their combat stats, they will be nothing special. When you see them again, you are not surprised, you know what they do, they are nothing to fear but a mathematical challenge, and that moment where the players do not know what they are facing is taken away from them for a cheap nostalgia hit.

Tomb of Horrors was cool the first time through. Keep rebooting it and all you are doing is rob the creative people who work for you of the chance to create this generation's "Tomb of Horrors" and show people something entirely new and terrifying for the first time. What scares this generation of creative adventure designers? What monsters in their imaginations are terrifying to them? Let them show us.

Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, and Mystara are cool, but those feelings come from being the first to travel there. Could they be made cool again? I would have to tear things up and change them dramatically. At that point, the effort is probably better spent creating a new campaign world, rather than fighting an old one and changing what I loved about it.

If I take the classic Threshold city out of the Mystara world, one of the classic starting towns, and change it to make it interesting - let us say it is now ruled by an evil cult! Okay. Part of me hates the change because it feels petty like this is a "heel move" in wrestling purposefully done to make me angry. So right off, minus points for trying to manipulate my emotions. Second, I know what to expect here. I know the general layout, who the important NPCs were, and the history if I knew it.

Contrast that with creating a new evil town called Darkhaven, and putting it up north in the valley. Oh! We have never been there! What is it about? Why did it get built? What is it like? Who runs this place? The new town itself is far more interesting and intriguing than the old one changed.

The same logic can be applied to the region, the kingdom, and eventually the entire world. It is far more compelling to just make something from scratch than it is to try and reboot something familiar.

And I find myself gravitating back towards the never seen and unknown again.

I picked up the Sullenlands Adventure Omnibus, and DCC is a great game if you tire of nostalgia and want to always experience something new. From what I see, DCC modules do not reuse the tired old tropes, and they constantly invent new monsters, magic items, traps, locations, and crazy situations you feel you have never been in before. You don't know how to fight a monster because this is the first time you ever encountered it. There are no "we know what to expect" orcs, goblins, trolls, and other creatures here. Most everything is new and you are experiencing it for the first time.

And there is this in the Sullenlands forward:

But while the game was still fun (4th edition), something about it had changed from what I had remembered. The art had become slick and commercial. The game was more tactical now. Yes, the powers were cool, but the reliance on minis and maps pushed the theatre of the mind to the back burner. The game I remembered from long ago was just a little subversive and dangerous. We had felt like we were on the frontier of some strange country. I was still enjoying playing the game again, but it just wasn’t what it was before.

The game I had remembered from before had been looked upon with skepticism from adults, as if we kids were trifling with powers best left alone. There was something about it that had felt very underground, like an undiscovered secret. It captivated my thoughts and imagination. The game we had played back in the day made us feel like we were on the edge of a new, untamed frontier. Now, I just wondered if that same feeling was still out there… somewhere.

It took a few more years of playing before I discovered the Dungeon Crawl Classics rulebook. Before I’d finished the first chapter, that long-lost feeling had somehow found me again. It was everything that I had remembered about our first game in 1979. The art sometimes seemed crude and unrefined, but I kept coming back to the images and their elemental power: they inspired me in ways more polished or safe art never could. The ruleset was old-school, and packed with cool features, but the experience was easily accessible to my new players who by this point were familiar with the d20 system. We played it as written, and we never looked back.

Others feel this feeling.

That reboots and nostalgia aren't everything they are sold to be. These are not the experiences we are looking for. Our minds will never create new feelings or memories if we keep bringing back the past.

We crave the new and unseen.

And it was true back then. I get the feeling the best modules from the AD&D era were the ones that did not leverage the well-worn tropes. The Tomb of Horrors was not a combat slog, it forced you to think. The Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was a deadly romp through a destroyed sci-fi ship, and nobody knew what was around the next corner or what the next insane robot was going to do.

It seems at times even the original players and designers of D&D were sick of the tired old tropes.

And what do we do today?

Endlessly celebrate and reboot the tired old tropes they were trying to create to break free from that trap. We have to have our beholders, even though, yes, everyone knows what they do, their weaknesses, and how to fight them, and they are not scary or special anymore. At this point, I would leave them out of the next monster manual but please yes, oh yes, sell them as plushies.

I would retire them to a Hall of Fame.

Let a new generation make the next scary epic monsters. It is time. Keep the game young and on that edge. Let it be cool again.

Because product identity has become a prison mentality.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

The Mystara Campaign, Part 1

So I started my Mystara campaign last night and generated characters. The inspiration for this was pure nostalgia, going back to the world and characters I played with my brother as kids. We played in Mystara pre-gazetteer days, so having these come out later was a tremendous gift to our game, though by that time, roleplaying GI JOE (Aftermath rules) and Car Wars (Traveller rules) was the central focus of our gaming. At this time, Star Frontiers has fallen off with us as well, we got into that game early and modded it heavily, and there was not too much left to do in the Frontier.

Since Mystara was so well developed, we did not need much more than the first map to figure things out. This was the northerner area like the Norse, this was the desert Arabian Knights' place, this was the good kingdom, those were the elves, that place was orcs, and so on. The world has this strange "first campaign" feeling like it was designed by and for adults, and then eventually, TSR relegated it to the starting world for younger players.

Our world had demons and devils, straight from the AD&D Monster Manual. The official Mystara world had no real mention of them. Our Mystara world also had all the classic Greyhawk modules, like the GDQ series, Tomb of Horrors, and many more. This was the sort of world and game that Labyrinth Lord does so well, the mix of AD&D and D&D with the best of both mashed together in one crazy mess of rules hacks that works anyways. For us, this was also pre-Greyhawk, since we never picked up that boxed set until 1984, even though, yes, the Greyhawk setting existed far before that.

When TSR switched hands, they went full-bore Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms, and Mystara was the forgotten world.

Forgotten Realms in the 1990s

This was also pre-Forgotten Realms, which was 1987. We were poor, so we never had access to the original Greyhawk books, so Mystara was our world. We did play pretty heavily in the Realms later with AD&D 2e around 1995, and those were more character and story-focused games than dungeon adventures. There was a shift away from monsters and gold as XP in AD&D 2e, and the concept of story XP was introduced. This massive change got us back into fantasy gaming as something more than hack and slash, grab the loot. This world died for us when D&D 3 came out, Greyhawk became the official campaign world, and the game went back to hack and slash, grab the loot.

One of the best things the Forgotten Realms did for us was focus on characters and stories. Our NPCs never became god characters like many lamented; they were played by the rules with no "writer fiat" and could suffer the same fates as characters. This "stories plus characters" combo drove many of our roleplaying post-Realms, and this is one thing this world did right. I don't think we really went into dungeons in this world at all, and our world was much more cinematic and pulp-action driven than our dungeon-crawling Mystara game.

We never had traditional dungeons in our Forgotten Realms world, not one of them. We never found a great module with a classic Forgotten Realms dungeon crawl, and a lot of the modules of this era were the novel-inspired railroaded ones, so we skipped dungeon crawling and instead did character-focused stories. If we had an "evil temple," it was not about exploration; it was a backdrop for a fight, more like a movie set.

If I ever revisited the Forgotten Realms, it would likely be with the Savage Worlds Fantasy Companion. Our world was centered around characters and wasn't as rigidly structured as Savage Worlds Pathfinder. A ranger could pick up druid magic, and characters evolved naturally through their stories. Our game was not as focused on dungeons and monsters, so just a solid set of rules for characters - plus rare creatures - will do very nicely. We didn't even focus on leveling and powering up; the characters played at similar power levels through our games and only went from level 8 to 14 or so, so even the range of power felt identical among all of the characters we played.

Plus, with a cinematic game, some characters should feel like the Wild Cards, while others are the extras. With this world being so character-focused, that heroic feeling works perfectly. Fewer characters, more courageous, and stories that resemble dramatic arcs in novels.

Mystara Today is Castles & Crusades

I picked Castles & Crusades (C&C) for the rules for my Mystara game over a B/X such as Old School Essentials or even the cinematic Savage Worlds Fantasy or Pathfinder. C&C does away with every chart reference in an AD&D-style match, and you can play the game just from a character card. There are no saving throw charts, thief skill charts, class ability percentage calculations, massive skill systems, or anything you need to open the book for during play. My character's class abilities are listed on my character cards, and the chance of success is based on the SIEGE Engine and ability scores.

While Old School Essentials is my B/X game of choice just because of clarity and organization, C&C does not need that much ease of reference because there is not much to look up in the books. Looking up a chart or replicating it on a character sheet takes time, and multiply that by the hundreds of times you need to do it during a campaign, and that time adds up. I would rather have a universal save, skill, class feature, and ability score check system handling all of the game's inner workings than have everything work dozens of different ways based on class or what you are trying to do.

I can run dozens of characters in Castles & Crusades efficiently. I can't do that in many other games just because of the amount of legacy cruft they choose to maintain and support. Plus, I want every character to be on the same power level and footing; everyone is that AD&D iconic character, and there is no concept of a Wild Card with an extra "second chance" die to roll and more hits. And I want the characters to be compatible with the classic AD&D modules and monsters.

And that is my latest character card. Some saves are abbreviated, but you are good as long as you know ED is Energy Drain and P&P is Polymorph & Petrification (poly-petri). This hits all my wants, such as a primary column, a base to hit (BTH) space, and the top reading like a character bio "John, NG, Human (Male), Bard." Plus, whitespace makes the entire card easier to read. GAC is grapple AC, and TAC is touch AC.

I guess why I want C&C is for the easier-to-manage characters. I like that robust single-player heroic experience for some games, and I like a lot of detail in my sole character. For others, I almost want a wargame with a few dozen units at my command, which means a system that simplifies and reduces complexity. I could run 9-12 characters in C&C and never feel like I am bogged down in the details, ignoring a class, or missing the point due to my inability to dive into the needed level of complexity a class requires to play it correctly.

I need to open the book for very little. This is much like Index Card RPG, where you can mostly play without referencing the rules. But this game is very AD&D-like, which is just so cool.

Honestly, I am happy to be playing and trying to think of a plot to carry me through the campaign. I have a start, but not a story or theme.

More soon.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Dungeon Crawl Classics: The 5x8 Card

I tried making a 4x6 card for Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC) and I couldn't. I ended up going to a 5x8 size and this worked a lot better. On the downside, these no longer fit in my notebook journals. DCC puts a lot of extra info on a character sheet, just like B/X and 3.5, things you need in order to play quick and not reference the book, and this information is specific to each class.

The design roughly follows the official character sheet designs, and you will notice things roughly in the same place. AC and HP ended up near the combat info on the far right, but that works since all that info is typically used in combats. The top-center of the card follows the left-to-right fill-in-as-you-go method of the official sheet. DCC has one character sheet per character class, and while they are somewhat similar, they vary in information and structure, with some needing space for spells and other information.

I like games that do not put heavy record-keeping requirements on players, especially if I am playing four or more characters in a game. There are times when I will roll up a four-person party and play. There are games where I want to create several of those parties and run little stories for them.

It is impossible in any game that requires character printouts of 2+ pages of 8.5 x 11 paper. I end up with dozens of PDFs, or stacks of printouts I just do not want to maintain. Starfinder, Pathfinder 1e and 2e, and most newer games fall into this category.

Castles & Crusades remains my best work for a 4x6 card, and the game strips a lot out and makes a compact character card possible. I still need space on here for Base to Hit (oops), I want a space for race and sex, add a column for primary ability checkmarks, and I will probably shrink the save information lines to free up more space.

I also get a feeling while I can do Savage Worlds Pathfinder on a 4x6 card, the game will feel and play better with a 5x8 card for the character. Some games get too cramped on a 4x6 card, and many do not even fit on the 5x8 cards.

D&D 5 Players Talk OSR

I have watched a few discussions from groups that primarily play D&D 5 talk about the OSR on YouTube. The majority of them are fantastic, play the game you want, no edition wars sort of chats, so they are very nicely done. This is also not to say the discussions I watched apply to everyone, this was just a tiny sample size, but the thoughts I had after watching these are interesting.

How they reacted to some of the OSR standards revealed - not in anyone's personal attitudes or preferences, but in how Wizards developed the "secret sauce" of D&D 5.

Making the characters so powerful and impossible to kill negates the "bad dungeon master" or "deathtrap dungeon" syndrome.

As I watched these, those who loved the OSR's concepts, the focus on exploration, the decoupling of experience and combat, the rewarding clever play, and the multiple rewarding types of problem resolution - loved these aspects of the OSR. 

One in the discussions seemed shocked the OSR did not emphasize combat. There appeared to be a feeling the OSR did not reward or have any system of social interaction. They also lamented the lack of mechanical character customization. Pretty normal for OSR, so fair points.

What I felt they did not like the most was the feeling of horror, hopelessness, instant death, and powerlessness the OSR prefers. I got this feeling that few of them wanted to feel the "fear of the unknown" and the sheer terror of crawling around in a hole in the ground where avoiding combat was the way to go, and any character could die at any time in a combat encounter or because of carelessness.

Some even said, "Please tell us before you do this to our characters or incorporate these ideas into a game." Another said he loved the feeling of power in D&D 5, which ran counter to the discussion of needing to be careful in an OSR context. If someone has that much power, there is no need to be careful. I get it; pulling OSR concepts on a group of 5E players expecting the 5E experience is not nice. And this is a good point.

This was when the lightbulb turned on my head to the secret sauce of modern games. Combat is fun and gives a chance to show off. Wounds and lasting effects of any injury can be slept off in an hour. Resources instantly recharge like an MMO encounter. It is nearly impossible to die or even be taken out of a fight. The tabletop game is an action RPG video game you are meant to progress through and win.

All of this negates any fear of a "bad dungeon master" or a "killer adventure" and makes the game safe and approachable to play for the mainstream.

Either side is not wrong.

The OSR is excellent - and these are my games of choice.

D&D 5 is loved by millions - and is also excellent.

But why has the latter become massively popular? It is a good game, but in a sense, it always was, so what happened in this edition that changed everything so drastically?

People Were Afraid of D&D

But seeing those reactions to OSR concepts I just take for granted was eye-opening. I feel the reason why D&D was never really mainstream before D&D 5 was people were afraid of the game.

I even saw this back in the day when trying to recruit new players, "No, I don't want to play that."

They did not want to invest time, money, or interest in a hobby where a random group of people at a gaming table could "screw" them. Where anything they did got their character killed. Where they would never be "good" at the game since their character kept getting killed. The rules were too complex, and they felt "stupid," which often got their characters killed. A DM could hold a personal grudge against someone and kill their characters repeatedly. A DM could design a deathtrap dungeon with lethal traps and combat encounters and kill all the characters at the table.

Also, earlier versions of D&D were less focused on social interactions. It was really up to the group; you could either be hack-and-slash or go crazy in a social RP - with no rules - RP experience. The social interaction "rules" in the OSR are invisible and never written down because they are handled as the RP at the table and need no rules. Every group has its own way of doing it.

New games codify and create rules for social interactions to protect the players from "not knowing how" or "the DM with a grudge." Thus, any social interaction is "safe" because you can spec into social feats and abilities, and the "game rules say the RP is successful." Do you see the secret sauce there?

D&D 5's secret sauce is based 100% on removing the fear of playing the game with strangers and delivering a predictable experience.

This is like seeing a fast food or chain restaurant, not knowing the menu, but trusting you can walk into any of them and find something you would like to eat. You trust the company to train the chefs and employees to do the same job correctly and deliver a predictable experience. You do not need to "know the staff" to have a good experience there.

Delivering a predictable experience goes beyond just how the rules play; it extends into character builds, adventure design, monster challenges, how the party play model works, and every product shipped.

OSR Tends Towards Randomness

Also, you will see far more things in the OSR that break the "predictable experience" model. Lots of random charts and randomness in general, random corruption and mutation tables, insanity rules, panic rules that make you lose control of your character, random exploration, random or tiered spell effects, monsters that are mostly made up and unknown in each adventure, and lots of other chance-based events and consequences that take control out of your control and put your character's fate on a chart or a save-or-die roll.

Many great OSR experiences know how to leverage the unpredictable and use that to add enjoyment to the game. You see a lot of frustration in some video games with the "RNG" (random number generator) ruining an experience. This feeling plays into people's feelings towards the OSR and these types of games in general.

The OSR is a Trust-Based Game

With the OSR, the social contracts and connections with others need to be more robust - since you have players putting trust in each other and not "screw" each other with rulings or malicious refereeing. The love of the game and "doing it right" forms the bond of trust between the players and referee. The OSR relies on that currency of confidence and a shared love of the same to work. The most popular OSR games build this by building a love of the game in a community.

Differences are Cool

One type of design is not better, but the differences and design goals are fascinating. D&D 5 has a design goal of delivering a predictable experience, removing the fear of the game, and making the game easier to play with strangers. Character power in all of those goals needs to go up. Survivability needs to be high. Mistakes should be easy to recover from. Resources should replenish rapidly. Every fight should ideally start from the same level of power and resources to preserve balance. Randomness should be lessened. Retainers are discouraged.

The OSR is a resource management game. Combat should be avoided. Exploration and imaginative play are the keys to success. Resources do not recharge rapidly. An adventure wears down the party. Experience is often gold-based, so getting the treasure with the least risk and danger possible is ideal. Character power is lower to enhance the feeling of danger and increase the need to creatively problem-solve. Survivability is lower since the characters are simple. Randomness creates chaos, which plays against careful planning. And planning and hiring retainers are encouraged.

Yes, the OSR has some accessibility issues that D&D 5 solved, but I grew up playing the classics, so that is home to me. It is nice to live in a time where there are games that cater to everyone's tastes, and the communities are so cool with each other existing and sharing ideas.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

More 4x6 Printable Cards

My second go at a Castles & Crusades card came out pretty nice, and while yes, it does have that "tutorial text" taking up the center of the card, that is a good thing to have as you learn. If I did a "pro" version I would use that space for something better, maybe scoot the whole side block in and have the entire right side open for information. I omit things like race and sex, height and weight, those can be noted anywhere or shorthanded (HM for a human male, EF for an elf female, etc.).

The AC data went on one line, with the most used AC being its own space, and grapple and touch AC getting a split line. Everything else is tightened up, and there is a space for languages now. I also added lines to the bottom half just to keep things organized. The abilities area is both for race and class abilities. If you are not a caster, use the Spells & Magic area for anything you want, potions, consumables, magic items, or more gear.

My second try at a Savage Worlds Pathfinder 4x6 card tightened up considerably, with the addition of a PP line and a powers area to record those. There is a little less room for gear than I normally like, so I made the top line usable. The system has 20+ skills, and while most characters never have them all, they take up a quarter of the card space. 

I could move powers under skills, but I would need to give it three lines to equal the space, so I would need to push the section up and crowd ability scores, which I am trying to avoid because I like white space around attributes for clarity and impact.

This may also be a Savage Pathfinder thing since without the Class Features section I would have four more lines on the right side. Savage Pathfinder is by default a lot more structured in terms of characters and record sheets, so you pay a lot in space to split things apart how the game wants you to. With Fantasy Companion, you are using the simpler Savage Worlds character sheets, though I would keep Ancestry or combine it with Edges.

Skills are an interesting subject. A lot of games just go way too hard on skills and provide infinite choices that often drift into the obscure and unfocused, and that drags the game down. GURPS is a notable example, along with Rolemaster FRP. I like C&C because it gets rid of the notion of needing skills, while still providing a one or two random profession system just in case it fits a character concept. As a result, the character cards are much cleaner, and this would be true in a system with limited skills, such as Star Frontiers.

I find myself moving away from skill-heavy games and towards ones that use more inventive solutions than putting all that bookkeeping and reference on players. When you look at traditional RPG skill systems, they are primarily meant to force you to pick a narrow range of actions your character is capable of and discard 60-90% of the list. Yes, it is character customization, but in many cases, it feels like the designers are giving up and throwing choice paralysis at the players and referees.